"The city of New Orleans it is beautiful is it not, Lawrence?" Prince Naveen said as he watched as they drew near to port. "More beautiful than all the others we visited, no?"
"Not in my opinion sire," Lawrence sniffed turning up his nose at the shrimp boats making their way back to harbor.
"Just listen to that music," Naveen said snapping his fingers, "I heard it's always playing, staring in the day and going all night long."
"Charming sire," Lawrence drawled. "And no different than all the other cities."
"But they do not have the jazz? Ah!" Naveen exclaimed, "it's the music that fills my soul!"
"Sire." Lawrence cut in, "Dare I remind you the purpose of this trip. You are cut off, their majesties made it perfectly clear. So unless you marry a rich girl or -"
But as usual Lawrence found himself talking to thin air as the prince vanished off the deck. The butler's face fell into disgruntled scowl as he watched as Naveen slid down the ramp parting sailors and reporters alike with his dramatic entrance. It was an ease that Lawrence both envied and disapproved of.
Plucking his ukulele, Naveen followed the music while giggling girls trailed after him disappearing into the streets of New Orleans, without a thought of what laid ahead. Or the voodoo doctor lying in wait to meet him.
Tiana spun around in the marketplace grinning at her mother. "Ain't it the most beautiful thing you ever heard?"
Eudora just smiled as they continued shopping. It was often she joined her daughter food shopping, but in the glow that surrounded in finally buying that old rundown mill, Eudora couldn't help but tag along.
"How many beignets did Miss Charlotte asked you to make for the little party of hers?" Eudora asked at the overwhelming bundle in her arms.
"Only about five hundred," Tiana said with a slight shrug, "maybe more, but who knows?" There was an uncommon squeal of happiness as she linked her arm in her mama's. "Oh Mama, I'm almost there!"
"Almost where child," Geneva asked as the swept out her shop's front. "Eudora, what's that daughter of yours talking about now?"
"She finally did it," Eudora replied as Tiana dash off to study a stack of spoons, "You know that old mill by the riverfront, it's right mess. But my little girl she finally gathered enough to buy that old thing from the Fenner brothers."
"That's some might fine news," Geneva acquiesced, "but Eudora," she paused glancing at Tiana who was deeply scrutinizing a series of kitchen utensils. "That sign been up there for a mighty long time. The Fenners might not be so keen to sell. Tiana might want to get her heart set on something else."
Eudora pursed her lips at the old busybody, hearing all what Geneva was saying and not saying. "My Tiana is just like James, she knows what she wants and won't let nobody stop her."
Eudora nodded curtly at Geneva and went towards her daughter who had forcibly removed herself from the cutlery.
Leaving the marketplace, mother and daughter walked in near silence amidst the afternoon crowd.
"Something wrong, what did Mrs. Brown say to you this time?"
Eudora looked at the happiness in her daughter's eyes and could bring herself to burst that bubble. "She was just telling me about the baby her daughter-in law just had."
"Mama," Tiana half laughed rolling her eyes.
"I'm not saying that you go run off with the first boy you see, but I just want to you settle down with a prince of your own and dance off into your happily ever after. And if there's a few grandkids along the way, all the better."
"Mama I don't have time for dancing. Not when I'm so close!"
"Just don't lose sight of everything else along the way, Tiana," Eudora replied, but her words might have been said to thin air as Tiana walked with purpose in the direction of the Garden District.
"James," Eudora whispered, both worried and anxious as her daughter disappeared from sight, "what am I'm going to do with this child?"
"A tip of the hat from Dr. Faclier."
Naveen looked up at lean dark skinned American with some interest. The look was rather eccentric, but was it not close to New Orleans' most beloved holiday?
"I believe I'm the company of visiting royalty. Let me personally extend the greetings on behalf on New Orleans. My card."
"Wishes," Naveen read as good doctor lead him down the streets, "reading, dreams made real. Achidanza! You can read my future?"
The doctor smiled, "Like a book, your highness."
"Lawrence, Lawrence," Naveen exclaimed spinning around to find the fat man who was panting after he his run to catch up to the prince. "If he can see into the future, he can help ease up all our troubles!"
The butler puffed himself up, "Sire, this looks to me like a charlatan out to-"
"Why would I be after your money when you're parents cut you off?" Dr. Facliler cut in. The Prince's eyes widened with surprised excitement, although Lawernce grew even more sketpcial.
Seeing this the Shadowman, drawing them in with a smile, "I only to here to help, I have visions of the future, futures I can help you get." He moved to prince show him an array of cards. "It's the green you need and in your future it's the green that I see." He held up a card showing riches and good time abound for the prince to take. "Say the word, and you'll see."
The prince distracted, Dr. Faclier slid over to the disapproving Lawrence. "You're been pushed all your life," he said holding a card showing a fool being ordered around by a prince, "But in your future, the you that I see," he turned the card over and revealed fortunes reversed with the princely figure now serving the fool, "is exactly the man that you always wanted to be."
He lowered his voice, as the voodoo doctor recognized which of the two he had to draw in. The prince was a pawn in plans, but there was too many logistics, too many uncontrollable elements to make him the puppet he needed. But Prince's butler, now there laid the perfect puppet, for the butler's strings could be moved at his every whim, for his strings were so easy to hold onto.
"Take my hand," he said as the prince stood a distance away marveling at the tarot cards. Dr. Faclier held out a long thin hand to Lawrence. "Take my hand, and won't you shake a poor sinner's hand?"
In a moment of greed, Lawrence shook it, willingly and eagerly. "What do I need to do?"
The shadow man turned his eyes to the riverfront. "Just follow my lead."
"Tia isn't it the most amazing thing!" Charlotte gushed as she spun around the bar stool giggling. Tiana, up to her elbows in flour couldn't help but smile captured by her friend's giddiness. "Just think I won't have to wait for Mardi Gras every year to be a princess. I'll be one every day! And your beignets are going to help me. How many have you got so far?"
Tiana looked around quickly, "You still want five hundred?"
"Ah goodness no, if you keep this up everyone will be too busying eating instead of dancing at the ball!"
"Even your prince," she replied with laugh, she paused looking thoughtful, "what is his name again?"
"Prince Naveen!" Charlotte squealed as if she hadn't squealed the name for the first six batches Tiana had made. "Are you sure you don't want to stay for the ball?"
Tiana looked up beyond her bubbly friend, to see the colored kitchen staff behind her quietly returning the kitchen risking their eardrums to finish their jobs.
"Honestly, Lotte, I don't think I'll get to do much dancin'"
"Not taht you dance at all," Charlotte pouted, "come on Tia it'll be fun." Although Charlotte pouted in a way that brought her father down to his knees bearing gifts of all sorts, Tiana was used to to this and merely continued with her task.
Charlotte sighed and picked up a freshly powdered beignet. "We'll once you get your restaurant, I'll make you go dancin. and that's a bonafide promise!"
Leaving a mountain of beignets in the kitchen, and stern warnings not to let Mr. La Bouff anywhere near them, Tiana left the Garden District with her friend's pleas to remain in her ear.
As much as she'd like to watch Charlotte finally meet and grab a hold of the prince of her dreams, it wasn't her place to hang around and watch anymore. They weren't little girls anymore, and things they could get away as a child couldn't happen anymore without stares and grumblings.
Noticing it was getting dark, Tiana headed decided to head back home but remembered her mother thought she was going to be at the Ball to monitor the beignets and survey the caterer's cooking. She had company over, a bunch of older women who either had their children married off or had a few grandchildren running around. Going back home was not an option, neither was going to Ball.
And since the manger at Cal's forbade her from showing up, she was left with one option.
The walk to the riverfront to her restaurant wasn't long.
Her restaurant. The words were enough to sweeten the fact that after working two jobs for nearly three years she had made it. She got her restaurant, she was almost-
Tiana paused, rooted in place at the sight in front of her. Silhouetted by the setting sun, she saw the Fenner brothers talked to a short, plump man, shaking his had vigorously.
The fat man disappeared around the corner, while the Fenner's brother talked amongst themselves as they climbed into the car.
"Mr. Fenner!" Taana called, running up to them. they started the car, but stopped when she ran in front of it. "Mr. Fenner," she panted, "Is there something wrong?"
"I'm afraid," the Mr. Fenner behind the wheel said, "you've been outbid."
"You said half was enough!"
"He offered the full payment," the other Mr. Fenner replied, "Unless you can give us the payment after Mardi Gras, the building goes to him."
"That's only seven days, it took me months to get have. you don't know how hard I saved-"
"Which is why," Mr Fenner replied shifting the car's gears. "It might be the best, for a little woman of your background."
Tiana stepped back as the car moved forward, the shock dulling numb sense of her anger.
She looked up at the old mill that was slipping away from her. Seven days, there was no way she could raise that much money in time. And even if she wasn't too she couldn't ask Charlotte for the money, she and Mr. La Bouff had already done so much her and her mama. She couldn't ask them to help her. This was her daddy's dream, and dream she was going to make sure it came true all on her own, and it looked like it wasn't going to happen.
She opened the door into the dark mill, not seeing the dazzling display, but the cobwebs and gloom that was before her. There wouldn't be kitchen here, there wouldn't be a maître d at the door greeting the guests. There wouldn't be chandelier shinning from the ceiling for all to see. None of it was going to happen.
"People would have come from everywhere," She whispered rubbing her arms, "I was almost there."
She sniffed willing herself not cry, when her eyes caught sight of shape that wasn't here earlier today.
She jumped nearly knocking over lopsided table.
"I did not want to interrupt," the strange shape said with an even odder accent that was hard to pin down, "But now that I have your attention, could you be of assistance?"
Tiana squinted in the near darkness and saw it was a man bound to a chair.
"What are you doing here?" She asked as she placed some distance between them.
"It is a long story that I cannot do justice at the moment. But do know I want to get away before they find me."
He didn't sound like someone in danger, and she wasn't about to get involved in more trouble than she needed.
"You got yourself the wrong person," Tiana replied, "I'm sorry for your troubles, but I'll just be going on my way."
"But, but," he called out, concern breaking into his voice. "If you help me, I can compensate you. Is there any you might want? A wish? A dream perhaps?"
She laughed bitterly, as her heart clenched. "What are you, a wealthy prince or something?"
"That is true," he said grinning broadly, "I am Prince Naveen of Maldonia." As Tiana started, his broad smile became cocky. "You have heard of me?"
"You were in the papers," she said slowly, "Lotte kept going on all day how her father invited you and was throwing a Masquerade ball and all. But what are you doing here, instead of the Garden district like ya supposed to be?"
"Well I met this doctor not long after-"
The door slammed open, cutting in to his words.
At once, Tiana slide behind a pillar. Her body tense as she listened to the sounds behind her. She heard rustling and a strangled yell, followed by footsteps that faded away.
A door slid shut, and Tiana relaxed a bit, although briefly she wondered what happened to the prince.
But before her thoughts could form, something grabbed her from behind pulling her into the center of the room.
She tried to fight her captor, but saw nothing around her binding her together, although it seemed on the ground her shadowed was ensnared by another.
"Well, well, look what he have here. Looks like we caught ourselves a spy!"
Tiana looked up in the near darkness in the tall man in front of her. "The Shadowman," she whispered.
"Enchanté," he said tipping his hat, as he blew powder her into face. "Take her too, boys."
Tiana slipped to the ground and only to find when she woke resting on cold metal.
She jumped up nearly bumping her head against something equally solid.
"I tried, believe me it does not work."
Tiana turned around to see Naveen sitting on the other side, in what she realized was a truck. His hands were tied in front of him, though he was trying to loosen them, picking bit by bit at the rope.
Instinctively she looked down at her hands, then at anything left in the back of the truck. Spying a tire iron, she marveled at the idiocy of whoever was kidnapping them.
"What are you doing?" the Prince asked as Tiana wrapped her hands around the bar, lifting it up slowly.
"Getting us out here," the grunted, before swinging it at the door. It took two strikes, but it worked as the door popped open to the bayou.
"You have a very strong arm," Naveen said in slight awe as he stood up.
Tiana ignored him as she placed the tire iron down. "Come on."
He laughed looking into the swamp. "You cannot expect me, a Prince to just-"
Tiana didn't let him finish as she shoved him out. Because his hands were still tied, instead of flaying he half rolled into the mud into relative safety. She hopped out the back of the truck and joined him in the bushes, slapping a hand over his mouth as he made noise.
"We can't let the drive see us," Tiana hissed, "he'll turn back and grab you again."
He must have some sense behind that pretty face of his, for he waited until the truck disappeared before he exploded. "What do you think you are doing. I am a Prince, common people do not go around shoving princes out of cars!"
"They do when the prince is stupid enough to mess with the shadow man!" Tiana snapped back.
"He was very charismatic!" Naveen retorted.
Tiana scoffed, "I'm sure he was. Most people are when are when they are trying to get something out of someone."
"Yes, yes, I sure," Naveen replied glancing around at the bayou, and the dirt road that wounded through it. "this was all very exciting, but we need to move from here. I don't think it would be fun to stay in the mud all night."
"We can from that direction," Tiana said gesturing, "If we just follow- where are you going?"
The Prince turned from his spot off the road.
"Do not be so foolish," the Prince said, somehow managing a suave stroll with his hands tied. "the voodoo man is back there, I don't want to get back under his gaze, even though it is such, how you say a wrench to the plan."
"That's called gettin' lost!" Tiana roared back at him, not sure why she was bothering saddling herself with him. "You don't even know where you are!"
"Neither do you, if you insist on staying on the road. This is a shortcut."
"There is no shortcut!" Tiana growled as she spun away from him about to storm off. "Some prince," she muttered. Let him get lost in the bayou. She could head back town, find some way to get her restaurant and put this whole episode behind her. But….
She paused, turning back to see him stumble a bit in the darkness.
It wouldn't be right at all to leave him here. Besides being a Prince from a place nobody heard of until he decided to go sightseeing, Lotte of all people was expecting him. She might not be able to achieve her dreams, but Lotte could. Although why anyone want to marry him was a question she'll never know the answer to.
Already walking back, distant sound of horse hooves caught her attention. Tiana's breath caught as memories rose up from her darkest nightmares. She darted back to the bushes, only to remember Naveen at the last moment.
He was startled as she dragged him, startled enough he kept quiet as the hoof beats increased in volume.
Tiana's fingers dug into her palm as white blurs rushed above speed down the road in great haste. She only relaxed them when the hoof beats died away.
"What was that," Naveen asked, "a parade?"
"No," she swallowing her panic, reminding herself not show any vulnerability toward the prince, "and it looks like we can't take the road. We don't want to run into them."
Naveen didn't say anything, before he shrugged, forgetting the incident. For a moment she envied him as he turned towards the bayou. "We will go my way then, we are bound to run into someone in here will we not?"
He didn't wait for her to answer as he moved purposely through.
The Prince irritating and rather useless, but given the alternative, she rather his company than being alone in the bayou at night.
"My prince is never comin!" Charlotte cried out in overblown despair, "I never get anything I wish for!"
"But Miss Charlotte," Travis replied as she blew her nose, "it's not too late, perhaps he'll still come. Or," he swallowing trying to bring up his courage, "maybe you could look beyond princes-"
"Presenting his royal highness, Prince Naveen!"
Charlotte stopped crying at once, drowning out the rest of the herald's words. "There he is!" She squealed as she nearly knocked Travis down the stairs as ran down them.
"Miss Charlotte you said-" Travis swallowed the last bit of his words, as Charlotte curtseyed towards the prince, her face nearly breaking in half with her smile. It was best to forget about that dance she promised. She only eyes for the prince.
Slowly he descended down the stairs watching as they waltzed.
Travis was well aware the suite he carried on was pointless as Miss Charlotte seemed to be, but it kindly, distracted by other things. But that was part of her charm and only one side of the sweet girl who he grew up next door too. Yet perhaps it was why he felt so odd watching her dance with the prince, a prince that he couldn't help but think there was something odd about. Was it the way he moved around with more show and flair as if putting on a show?
Travis's eyes fell on the red amulet gleaming around the prince's neck. Although it was large and impressive, it hardly looked like any priceless ruby.
Too busy scrutinizing the potential suitor for Charlotte's affections, Travis didn't notice the tall lean shape standing on the edge of the party holding an clown mask to his face. Nor did Travis hear the muttered that barely carried into the air as the man crumpled a note.
"This is why I work alone."