One of the most important skills a princess will develop is her ability to interact with other people of rank. These are her peers. These are the people with whom she will negotiate. These are the people she will befriend. Furthermore, it is out of this pool that her husband will be selected.
As Manners Tutor read the passage out loud, she lingered over the last sentence. She didn't punctuate her meaning with raised eyebrows, an elbow to Rapunzel's gut, or a jab at the text. She just slowed her reading rate so the words could really sink in.
Rapunzel flinched, but Manners Tutor didn't appear to notice.
"Now," she continued, snapping the book shut, "as you are no doubt aware, tomorrow the Palace will be flooded by nobility from our neighboring kingdoms."
"Right," Rapunzel interjected eagerly. Whenever she actually knew something in manners lessons, she always had to show it off. "To discuss the new trade legi—"
"If someone says he or she does not doubt your knowledge," Manners Tutor interrupted, "there is no need to display it."
"Oh. Right," Rapunzel sank in her seat. It seemed like there was always something for Manners Tutor to criticize. Sometimes she wondered if the only way to avoid criticism in these lessons was to not show up.
"Now," Manners Tutor continued, "among this nobility is a small number of princesses—"
"Princesses?" Rapunzel gasped, almost jumping from her seat.
"That is what I said," Manners Tutor replied. "Five princesses will be arriving with other various members of the nobility from their kingdoms. This will be one of your first opportunities to associate with women at your own level. Your progress has not been what I had hoped, but I believe you are up to the task. Do you think so?"
"The task?" Rapunzel asked. She made it sound like finally, finally meeting girls her own age would be a chore.
"You will host a tea," Manners Tutor announced.
It turned out there wasn't much to hosting a tea, not with Manners Tutor around. She took care of everything. She designed the table settings, she arranged the food, and she even found a harpist to play light music in the background. Rapunzel had tried to arrange the music, but Manners Tutor did not agree with her that Hookhand would be a perfect choice.
"She says this is all my responsibility," Rapunzel commented to Pascal, "but I'm pretty sure the only responsibility I have is to not mess anything up."
But that was responsibility enough. As Rapunzel, the next morning, watched the princesses arrive at the Palace, she began to wonder if there was the remotest possibility of her surviving the tea without making some blaring social gaffe.
"She's just so elegant!" Rapunzel sighed as Princess Adrienne strode around the Grand Hall. Adrienne walked with her back perfectly straight. She gave compact little curtseys, and her hands fluttered like ribbons blowing in the breeze. She was just so feminine and refined, right down to her long raven hair held back in a complicated system of knots. Rapunzel, on the other hand, was hunched over a potted plant on the mezzanine above, her freckled face jutting over the pot of dirt awkwardly. Pascal sat atop her head, colored brown for better camouflage.
"My daughter Rapunzel is around here somewhere," the Queen was telling the guests in the hall. Rapunzel couldn't see her mother from where she was; she could just hear her clear voice. The Queen never spoke loudly, but somehow her voice managed to travel further than the loudest bellowing. "No matter; you will meet her this afternoon, I am sure. Ah, here is Eugene Fitzherbert!"
Rapunzel couldn't see Eugene either, except for a flash of his hair as he bowed to the visitors. His greetings did not carry to the mezzanine above, so Rapunzel was unsure if he had managed to introduce himself to the nobility without some giant faux-pas. She hoped he had. Manners Tutor had never said anything overtly disparaging about Eugene, but she had, several times, suggested Rapunzel's resistance to the behavior of royalty was due to her habit of "gallivanting with the locals." She'd said that phrase five times before Rapunzel finally made the connection and realized she was talking about Eugene. Before that she thought she'd meant the pub thugs, which had seemed odd because Rapunzel visited them occasionally, but she certainly didn't "gallivant" with them.
It had been eight times before she realized she meant "locals" as an insult.
She wondered what would happen if Eugene made some gigantic etiquette mistake. Would he have to take lessons too? If he took lessons with her, that might not be such a bad thing, though she had to admit, it would probably slow her progress. In her lessons she missed enough information just by thinking about Eugene; imagine how much she would miss if he were actually there for her gaze at. Also, she doubted he would take kindly to being forced into etiquette lessons.
"…meeting at two o'clock. Denton will direct you to your rooms…" Rapunzel was pulled back into reality by the sound of footsteps on the marble staircase. They were coming up here—near her! She dove into the shadows and remained deathly still. She'd witnessed the entrances of five princesses, each more refined than the last. None of them, she was sure, hid behind potted plants or eavesdropped on conversations below.
Princess Adrienne's dress, a mass of fluffy, lemon chiffon fabric, nearly brushed against Rapunzel as she passed her hiding space. Fortunately, all the royalty had a habit of walking with their heads tilted up, and they didn't spot the Princess of Corona crouching in the shadows. Eugene loped behind them. Rapunzel had noticed Eugene had a habit of scanning each room as he entered it, taking in more information within that first glance than most people would have noticed after hours. If someone in the group noticed her, it would be Eugene. She held her breath and attempted to remain as still as possible. For a split second she'd thought she'd seen a flash in his brown eyes when he'd been looking in her general direction, but he just continued walking nonchalantly as if he hadn't seen anything, so maybe it had just been her imagination.
Shortly after everyone passed from her vision into a corridor, she heard Eugene's smooth voice. "Pardon me Your Highnesses, but I have something to attend to. Please excuse me."
Wow. Eugene talked like royalty! Except he'd ended the sentence with a preposition, which Manners Tutor said was sloppy. But other than that—
Eugene once again entered her field of vision. He wasn't looking at her, though. He walked in her direction and leaned on a nearby column, so she could see him in profile.
It wasn't often that Rapunzel had a chance to observe him unawares. Now she had nothing to do but to look at him, unless she just came out from behind the potted plant. Which she could do, she supposed, but it seemed weird to do that at this point, because it would be clear to him that she'd been behind there for a good deal of time. Plus…
Eugene had a wonderful nose. When she'd first seen it, she hadn't had many noses to compare it to, but now that she'd met so many people, she really appreciated its straight swoop. Strong but not square—it really was one of the nicest noses she'd seen. Certainly the nicest nose she'd seen on a man. And she liked the way his sweeps of hair almost hung over his eyes, but not quite. And his figure, tall but not gangly, muscular but not enormous, and he always walked, sat, and stood like he knew where he was and why he was there. Even if there had been some characteristic of his appearance she didn't like—which seemed difficult to imagine—his sheer confidence would have transformed it into something wonderful.
Eugene was so handsome. So, so handsome. She gazed at him with a similar yet completely different sense of admiration than the one that had possessed her when she'd looked at the princesses.
Pascal was restlessly shifting about on her head. Evidently he didn't find Eugene quite as riveting as she did which, all things considered, was probably a good thing. He turned a marbled green, the same pattern as the floor, and began to creep past Eugene.
"What's the matter Pascal? Tired of hiding behind the plant with Rapunzel?" Eugene asked, his gaze still fastened on the coat of arms across the room.
Oops. Rapunzel should have known not much got past Eugene Fitzherbert. She stepped out from behind the plant. His glance flitted towards her and returned to studying the coat of arms.
"Any particular reason you were hiding behind a plant?" he asked.
"I've been up here watching the princesses arrive," Rapunzel explained. She leaned against the railing and looked downwards to the deserted hall. And so recently it had been filled with new arrivals…
"Watching them?" Eugene asked, joining her over at the railing. "From up here? Is it proper etiquette for a princess to first observe her fellow princesses from afar?"
Rapunzel sighed. "But that's just it. They're not my fellow princesses. Did you see Princess Maxine?"
Eugene shook his head. "I've been out this morning. I only arrived in time to be introduced to our most recent band of royals."
Princess Maxine was blonde, a few shades darker than Rapunzel's old hair. It fell down to her waist in delicate waves. "And her skin," Rapunzel gushed, "it was as white as snow! I don't think she's ever seen a drop of sunlight in her life! And she had this melodic voice and—she went out to the garden after she arrived and a bird landed on her finger! She held out her pointer finger and a little blue bird landed on her finger!" Rapunzel mimed this action, and Pascal scurried up to her finger. It didn't have the same effect.
This talent was less impressive to Eugene, who probably had never once felt any desire to have wild animals land on him. "I'm sure that must be a crowd pleaser at parties."
"And Princess Renee can play the harp! I overheard some her conversation with my mother and my mother asked her if she would perform for us tonight. On the harp!" Rapunzel grabbed Eugene's forearm and used it for support as she jumped up and down a few times from the sheer excitement of the prospect of harp playing.
"So?" Eugene asked. "You play the guitar. Why's the harp so impressive?"
Rapunzel gaped at him as if he had two heads. "Because it's the harp, silly!" If he didn't understand why that was impressive, there was just no use explaining it to him.
"Okay, okay," Eugene waved his hands in defeat, "no one here is denying that the princesses are a lovely, talented bunch of girls capable of playing harps and…collecting birds. I just don't understand why you weren't down there introducing yourself."
How was it that someone so perceptive, so sharp as Eugene could be so clueless? Rapunzel shook her head pityingly. "Because," she tried to explain, "they can summon birds and play the harp and curtsy and did you see Princess Adrienne's shoes? They were tiny!" To punctuate this last point she swooshed her right foot high into the air.
Eugene rolled his eyes. "Rapunzel, let me give you a piece of advice: they're just girls. Maybe they're more educated than most girls; certainly they've got a larger collection of silver spoons in their mouths. But still, girls are girls. Show up with a nice looking face and a few compliments about how nice looking their faces are, and it's no problem."
Rapunzel suspected this advice had its source in the Flynn Rider part of Eugene…she also suspected this advice had been tested thoroughly.
"Your Highness! Your Highness! At that moment the stout figure of Manners Tutor bustled up to them. "Your Highness, all the princesses have arrived. Come, it is almost time for tea." She grabbed Rapunzel's hand and noticed Eugene. "Mr. Fitzherbert," she nodded to him coldly.
"Roseanne," Eugene nodded to her, but his voice was smooth and silky. He had learned her first name weeks ago and delighted in using it when addressing her, mostly because it annoyed her but gave her no recourse since they were, though she hated to admit it, social equals. Rapunzel barely got a glimpse of his self-satisfied smirk before she was whisked away by her tutor.
The princesses didn't clink their silver spoons against their tea cups. They also didn't place their silver spoons in their mouths, so Eugene had been wrong about that one. All of their movements were graceful and noiseless, and for a while the only sounds were the delicate plucking of the harp strings and the frequent clinks from Rapunzel's untrained fingers.
The five princesses all sat in the exact same way. Their backs didn't touch their chairs, but they weren't leaning forward. Their hair was at their backs; it never hung over and fell into their tea or food, a problem Rapunzel used to have with hers. At least her short crop had some advantages, though at the moment she couldn't help feeling that her short hair made her stand out; the hair of all of the other princesses went down to at least their shoulders. Rapunzel's hair just made it to her chin.
She wondered if they would have been impressed if they'd seen her old hair. She couldn't tell them about it, because Manners Tutor had informed her that it was best to remain on light, unemotional topics at teatime, and her past was many things, but unemotional was not one of them. Judging from the questions the princesses asked her—Have you ever traveled abroad? Have you ever met so-and-so attended the whatever-festival?—she suspected they had not been told she had spent the first 18 years of her life in a tower. Everyone knew she was the "lost" Princess, but very few knew how she had been lost and how she had been found.
It seemed like everything she wanted to talk about was off limits, but thankfully the other princesses could carry on conversations among themselves without too much trouble.
"And so Gustave recommended cucumber extract." That was Adrienne talking.
"I believe it works! I can really see the difference in sheen since the last time we met." That was Catherine.
"We last saw you at the Harvest Ball, correct?" Now Catherine's younger sister Emily was talking. The princesses frequently mentioned events that they had previously attended, which only made Rapunzel more at a loss for what to say. The only event she had attended had been the Lantern Festival which she probably shouldn't talk about because, of all of her days, that was quite possibly the most emotional one…except for maybe the day after it. She wished they would describe the balls, and she wondered if it would be appropriate if she asked them to describe them to her…but then they might wonder why she had never attended a ball and where she had been those 18 years and Manners Tutor, hanging by the musician in the background, would hardly approve.
"Was the Harvest Ball at your Palace?" Rapunzel ventured to ask Emily. Normally she had no problem chattering to people she had just met, but these princesses were different, even if they were, as Manners Tutor had informed her, "her peers." But Emily, with her round face and her mass of dark curls, looked a little less intimidating than the others.
Emily nodded. "It is a tradition in Morden," the northern kingdom Catherine and Emily came from, "to hold a Harvest Ball every autumn. We hope you will attend next year." She set her teacup down without making a sound. How did she do that?
Rapunzel set hers down as gingerly as she could. It sounded like she was smashing a china cabinet. "I would like that," Rapunzel replied. It seemed like the proper thing to say—was it? Maybe she'd sound ungrateful if she didn't accept right away, but she had no way of knowing if she could go, because she'd have to get her parents' permission and maybe they'd think it was too early for her to travel to another kingdom to attend a ball, and—
Emily just smiled, so Rapunzel probably hadn't done anything wrong. Unless she was just pretending not to notice—Rapunzel knew the princesses had overlooked some gaffes she had made. Like she had served Emily before she had served Catherine, even though Catherine was older. And Rapunzel kept on littering her speech with contractions and once she'd even split an infinitive. Every mistake she made, she could feel Manners Tutor tensing up across the room…but Manners Tutor hadn't tensed up that time, so she'd probably said what was correct.
Rapunzel spent so much time agonizing over her gaffes, real or imaginary, that she didn't realize she was spending so many long periods of time in complete silence…which was probably her biggest gaffe of all.
The only princess more silent than her was Renee who, apart from a few compliments about the music, had not ventured anything more than a "yes, please," a "no, thank you," and, when the two hours at last passed, a "thank you so much."
"That was very well done," Manners Tutor told Rapunzel after the room had emptied. "You need to work on those sentence diagrams some more, obviously. 'To soon meet'—really, Rapunzel. Other than that, however, it was very well done."
Well done? But it had been so unpleasant! She hadn't said one comment that was halfway interesting. She hadn't gotten to know the princesses at all, save that Renee did not like lemon in her tea, Adrienne was using cucumber extract in her hair, and Maxine thought the locals of Corona were "charming." When she'd met the pub thugs, she'd known their deepest dreams within five minutes, but after two hours she didn't know those princesses at all—and what must they think of her? Dull, loud, impolite, coarse, uneducated—by now Manners Tutor had left, and Rapunzel slumped in her chair, placing her elbows on the table's lace tablecloth. If the princesses did think all of that, maybe they were right.
She peered over the flowery teapot into the mirror across the room, studying her reflection. Sloppy, under-dressed, immature, clumsy—she jolted from her chair, the suddenness of her movement causing her teacup to fall onto the floor where it shattered into white-gray dust…
The trade meeting lasted longer than anticipated and the night's formal dinner was canceled as a result. At nine o'clock Eugene had stumbled out of the meeting to Rapunzel's sitting room, planning on sharing his complaints about the day's events. Rapunzel had a similar plan.
"It was awful!" she wailed. She lay on the floor, her current embroidery sampler covering her face for no particular reason.
"It was seven hours!" Eugene groaned. He lay on the chair—and lay is the correct word, with his back and his legs uncomfortably hanging over the armrests. The back of his head rested on the cool granite of an end table.
"Every time I set down my teacup it sounded like I was grinding it under my shoe."
"Seven hours of uninterrupted trade legislation discussion!"
"I told Princess Catherine that the tarts had apple in them, but they were actually lemon!"
"Why was I even there? Why did your father make me attend?"
"I split an infinitive! An infinitive!"
"At one point the baron sitting next to me was so still I thought he had died. Thankfully he started snoring…"
"What is a gavotte? They kept on mentioning a gavotte, but I have no idea what that means!"
"And then a fly landed on his forehead and it fell asleep!"
"When Princess Maxine found out I was a painter, she asked me what school of painting I followed. What's a school of painting?"
"There was a prince sitting on my other side. At the beginning he started knitting a scarf with his fingers! No needles—with his fingers. I was so bored after I while just stared at his progress. He gave me the scarf at the end of the meeting and it was long." He waved his hand at the quite lengthy scarf sprawled on a coffee table. Rapunzel, her face still covered by linen, didn't bother looking.
"No one laughed at any point. There wasn't even a giggle. Not even a fake giggle. Nothing!"
"I stared at those giant portraits hanging in that chamber, and after about five hours I thought one of them yawned. So either that meeting was so boring a painting was bored, or I was falling asleep—either case proves my point."
"I used so many contractions! Almost every other sentence I used a contraction! Why can't I stop using contractions?" At this last sentence she groaned again.
"It was a discussion about money. How can a discussion about money be that boring?" Eugene spoke in earnest confusion, as if nothing in the world made sense anymore.
"I think Princess Renee really doesn't like me. When I asked her about her music, she barely said anything. People probably ask her about her music all the time—why couldn't I have thought of something interesting to say?"
"And it's not even over! We didn't cover all the topics! We need to meet again tomorrow!"
"They all probably think I'm the dullest person in the world."
"Maybe they do," said Eugene, pulling himself up into a sitting position, "but it may interest you to know you made at least one conquest today."
This interested Rapunzel enough that she removed the sampler from her face.
"As I mentioned," Eugene continued, "there was a prince sitting next to me. Prince Philbert. And after a while I noticed he was staring at a certain portrait. A certain portrait of a certain Princess of Corona. And then he leaned over to me and asked me if that was the Princess Rapunzel. I, being the obliging, honest person that I am, told him it was."
"And?" Rapunzel asked, sitting up.
"He told me he thought you were very beautiful," Eugene answered, studying his fingers, "'Eyes as green as emeralds'—I think that was the phrase he used. And then when he understood that I was acquainted with this beautiful Princess, he asked me if I could tell him something that this Princess liked, so he could start up a conversation with you."
"What did you tell him I liked?"
"Me, of course."
He would say that. Rapunzel didn't even bother asking him if he was telling the truth. She could tell by his self-satisfied smirk that he was currently replaying the scene in his head. Oh yes, he had said that. Manners Tutor would not approve.
"He wasn't offended, was he?" she asked. Ugh! Another contraction. They slipped into her speech so easily.
"You worry too much about people being offended," Eugene waved her anxiety away. "Probably the influence of Roseanne. Philbert just laughed, said "I like you, Eugene," and slapped me on the back…which wasn't such a good thing because it caused his scarf to unravel and woke up the Baron…but—"
How did Eugene do that? Just disregard every rule of etiquette and not care? Moreover, no one else cared that he did it, no one but Manners Tutor.
Well, wasn't it obvious how Eugene did it? Confidence. He had confidence. He knew he was great enough that all he had to be was…himself. He said what he wanted and people...most people, anyway, liked him for it. Sometimes Rapunzel had confidence too, and then everything went so well. People thought she was charming and bright…but then other times she didn't have confidence. And that was when she sat in brain-aching silence.
It was hard to have confidence, though, when Manners Tutor was behind her waiting for her to make a mistake.
Meanwhile, Eugene yawned and rose from his chair. "It's late and we both need our rest. Tomorrow, after all, you're joining us for the exciting conclusion of the Trade Agreement—I can't believe seven hours wasn't enough! We haven't even brought up Morden!" He pulled Rapunzel up from the floor and pecked her on the cheek. "The next time you see those princesses, don't worry," he instructed her. "People notice the small stuff a lot less than you imagine. Look at me—you love me even though I'm constantly using contractions and dangling propositions."
"Not propositions—you mean prepositions."
A small, self-aware grin edged onto Eugene's lips. "If you don't want me to dangle any more propositions, rest assured I won't."
Another kiss and he'd left.
It was no use explaining grammar to Eugene. He just didn't understand it.
Tap, tap, tap.
Rapunzel and Pascal both started from their sleep.
Tap, tap, tap.
There it was again. Rapunzel rose from bed and Pascal jumped onto her shoulder. A couple of times she'd woken Eugene up late at night by going out to the garden and tossing pebbles at his balcony door. The current tapping sounded like the noise the pebbles made as they hit the glass.
Tap, tap, tap.
Maybe Eugene was tossing pebbles at her balcony doors.
She wrapped herself in a robe, put on some slippers, and pulled the curtains so she could look out onto her balcony.
Tap, tap, tap.
Nothing. There was nothing on her balcony. There were no pebbles. And now that she thought about it, if Eugene had wanted to get her attention, he could have just climbed up her balcony, considering his room was directly underneath hers…
Speaking of underneath…there were some noises coming from there. The click of some doors and then she heard the voice of an annoyed, sleepy Eugene.
"What? You're not Rapunzel. Who are you and why are you throwing pebbles at my door?"
"Who am I? Who are you? What are you doing in Rapunzel's room?"
"I'm in my own room, genius! Rapunzel's room is above mine! Go bother her and let me go to sleep!" This speech was followed by some grumbling and a slam.
"Sorry!" the other voice called.
Tap, tap, tap.
Now three pebbles lightly hit the glass in front of Rapunzel. She opened her doors and walked out into the crisp night air.
"Rapunzel! Rapunzel!" There was that same voice whispering. "Down here!"
Rapunzel walked up to the railing and looked down.
"Princess Emily?" Rapunzel whispered. "Is that you?"
It was. She was waving to Rapunzel, her smiling round face illuminated by the full moon. A sleepy…or possibly sleeping…Princess Renee was leaning against her.
"Sorry I had to wake you up this way," Emily apologized, "but there were guards outside your room and technically we're not supposed to be meeting tonight."
"You didn't think the only conversation we'd have would be at tea, did you? There's no use even trying to talk at tea with everyone always on their best behavior."
Wait a minute—Emily was using contractions! Manners Tutor said princesses never used contractions!
"Or that trade meeting tomorrow…" Renee yawned.
"So what do you say?" Emily asked, shivering a bit from the nippy night air. "We're all dying to get to know you, but that's sort of difficult to do with chaperones breathing down our necks. We were thinking we'd meet up tonight. Are you in?"
Dangling preposition! She was speaking with a dangling preposition!
"I'd love that!" she exclaimed, her mouth blossoming into a wide smile. "Where are we meeting?"
Emily shrugged, causing Renee to stagger. "You know this palace better than all of us. Where do you suggest?"
Rapunzel thought for a moment. "Come up to my room," she decided. "The guards will let you in if I say it's alright."
"Wow! You painted this?" Adrienne was staring open-mouthed at the murals which covered Rapunzel's walls. She'd spent her first week covering her room with her adventures, something her parents had strongly encouraged, believing it to be therapeutic. "This is amazing!"
Aside from Adrienne, who had been walking from wall to wall ever since her entrance, all of the other princesses were sitting in a circle, with Renee sitting behind Catherine as she brushed her hair. In the center of the circle was a pile of food, the desserts brought to each princess's bed chamber. Now they were eagerly swapping the leftovers—I'll trade you my strawberries for your chocolate—does anyone want my mousse? I can't eat another bite—they gave you honey? Mine!
Littering the outskirts of the circle was jewelry, brushes, makeup, and clothing—including the scarf Eugene had left in Rapunzel's sitting room, which Maxine had claimed as her own as soon as she'd discovered it was the handiwork of Prince Philbert.
"Did you spot any of the princes?" asked Emily. "It's too bad dinner was canceled, because I was really looking forward to seeing them."
"We'll get to see them tomorrow at the trade meeting," Renee pointed out, screwing up her face in concentration as she tried to work some of the snarls out of Catherine's hair. "Catherine, your hair is impossible."
"Just keep trying," Catherine said unconcernedly, popping a strawberry into her mouth. "The knots will come out eventually.
"Like we'll be able to talk to any of them at a trade meeting," Maxine said, glumly stroking her scarf. "You're so lucky, Rapunzel."
"Lucky? Why am I lucky?" Rapunzel asked as she licked the leftover mousse from her fingers.
Hey, she'd seen Catherine do it, so it couldn't be improper.
"Your beau lives in the palace with you," Maxine murmured, "you actually get to talk to him."
This elicited squeals from the other girls. Adrienne even dashed back to the circle.
"A beau? Rapunzel, you have a beau?"
"Why didn't you tell us you had a beau? What's his name?"
"Is he handsome?"
"That's a silly question, Emily. Of course he's handsome—just look at Rapunzel!"
"She's blushing! Rapunzel, your face is red, as red as Philbert's hair!"
"Relax, Maxine. I didn't say red hair was ugly."
"Who is he, Rapunzel? Who is he?"
Who could resist satisfying such eager interest? Certainly not Rapunzel, whose heart was soaring higher than—well, it was soaring higher than it soared during Eugene's kisses…some of Eugene's kisses. Not the really good ones…but certainly higher than it soared during the pecks. There were many reasons for her contentment, among them the mousse, Catherine telling her she thought her freckles were adorable, Adrienne marveling over her artwork, Renee laughing at all of her jokes, and the fact that every single one of these princesses had, at some point or another, used a contraction. And Maxine had even split an infinitive.
Pascal was also glowing with contentment, since every princess thought he was adorable. He was currently curled up on Emily's nightdress, emulating the striped pattern of the fabric.
"Come on Rapunzel, you have to tell us! Here—I'll tell you a secret: Prince Deming is going to propose to Renee!"
Renee dropped the hairbrush and turned a delicate shade of pink.
"How would you know, Adrienne?" asked Catherine skeptically.
"Because he's my cousin and he tells me everything. Including not to tell anyone…" Adrienne bit her lip nervously as she recalled that detail, "so no one mention I told you…"
Catherine rolled her eyes and turned to Renee. "You're not engaged yet," she pointed out, "so come on—my hair's still full of tangles."
A glowing Renee returned to her work, though she was so distracted that she tried to brush Catherine's ear.
"Okay Rapunzel," Adrienne returned to the other conversation, "now that I told you that secret, you have to tell us about your beau. And keep in mind that if you don't, Maxine will just go ahead and tell us everything she knows."
"No I won't," Maxine interjected. "And I don't know much, anyway. I just talked to Baron Bowes tonight and he happened to mention he'd met Princess Rapunzel's beau at the trade meeting and he was living in the palace. That's it." She paused and realized that she had, in fact, just told them everything she knew…but she knew so little, it didn't make a difference.
Besides, Rapunzel wasn't resistant to talking. No, quite the reverse. She was bursting to tell them everything. Finally she had an audience that was actually interested in her relationship with Eugene, and not that "concerned interest" she received from her parents or Manners Tutor. No, this was genuine disinterested interest.
It was exciting. Was this what having peers was like? Eating desserts late at night, trying on each other's jewelry, and talking to each other about their romances? This was wonderful!
"Well, Rapunzel started, "his name's Eugene—"
"—Eugene!" Adrienne squealed. "I met him! This morning when I arrived. Wow, Rapunzel." She plopped on the ground with the rest of the princesses and gazed at Rapunzel in awe. "He's handsome!"
This sent the other girls squealing. Princesses sure squealed a lot, Rapunzel had come to learn. Which was funny, because Manners Tutor said princesses were never overcome by their emotions. Maybe different rules applied after midnight, because almost every single one of Manners Tutor's rules about what princesses did do and didn't do had been broken at some point.
"What does he look like?" Renee asked, popping her head out from behind Catherine.
"He has a really nice nose," Rapunzel announced with a compact but very intense smile. "And he has brown hair and brown eyes and—well, I can't describe him. But I've painted him—there he is."
She pointed to the mural-Eugene closest to her, which happened to be fuming-in-the-Snuggly-Duckling-Eugene. Not his finest hour, but he still looked handsome.
The other princesses all huddled around the painting, except for Adrienne who, having seen the real Eugene, didn't feel such a keen interest in mural-Eugene.
"He is handsome."
"Do you think so? His nose is too big—"
"No, Emily!" Catherine corrected her sister. "That's not him! That's him!"
"Oh! Yeah, that makes more sense. Wow. He is handsome."
"Hold on—is that him too?" Maxine was pointing to Eugene-fighting-with-Maximus.
"And here he is again!" said Catherine, jabbing at Eugene-by-the-campfire.
"And here's the best one!" cried Renee as she spotted Eugene-in-the-boat.
By now Adrienne had wandered off to the mural near Rapunzel's bureau. "Rapunzel," she asked, staring at gray-Eugene, "what's going on here? He looks dead! And why are you in this painting here, but not in the others?"
"Yeah, Rapunzel," said Maxine curiously. "And who's this blonde girl with the really long hair in all of them? She looks sort of like," she leaned in closely to the Rapunzel-wielding-a-frying-pan, "you."
"Well," Rapunzel said, "it's sort of a long story…"
That was an understatement.
It was nine in the morning, and Rapunzel was tired. Bone tired. Yesterday had been draining enough, and staying up until 3:00 am telling her life's story to the princesses hadn't helped her exhaustion…though she couldn't say she regretted it. The princesses had gasped, laughed, and squealed in all the right places.
And when she'd gotten to the end, everyone but Catherine had been crying. And Rapunzel suspected Catherine had been crying too, because she hadn't complained about dust in her eyes before…
Rapunzel staggered through the hall, nodding to the bowing nobility. It was too early to curtsy…
"Rapunzel! Rapunzel!" she heard someone hiss her name and then Emily squeezed her way between a baron and a duke and latched onto Rapunzel's arm, pulling her into an alcove. "I have something to ask you but I didn't want to ask you last night in front of the other princesses," she whispered.
"What is it?" Rapunzel asked.
"Is Eugene's bedroom right below yours?" Emily asked.
"Oh. Well, then I sort of woke him up last night," Emily admitted, "when I was trying to wake you up. So the next time you see him, can you apologize for me?"
Rapunzel nodded. "Don't worry," she assured her. "Eugene will probably make up for lost sleep during the meeting today."
"Yeah," Emily whispered with a smile, "I think the same can be said for all of us. Oh, and one more thing," she said hurriedly, "last night when I woke him up by throwing pebbles at his balcony door, he thought I was you at first. So," her eyes sparkled mischievously, "that would imply that he and you have a history of clandestine, midnight rendezvous…"
Rapunzel turned bright red. "So," she said abruptly, "who's ready for some speeches about Morden's trading policies?" She moved to back into the crowd, Emily following her.
"Don't worry," Emily smirked, "I won't breathe a word. Oh!" she grabbed Rapunzel's arm again. "We're all sitting together! Can you sit with us? Or are you supposed to sit with your parents or…" another mischievous grin, "or a certain midnight—"
"I'd love to sit with you," Rapunzel interrupted, hastily shushing her. "Save a seat for me—I just need to find someone."
It didn't take long to locate Eugene, who was lingering at the back of the hall, almost falling asleep against a column.
"Tired?" Rapunzel asked as she approached him.
"Tired doesn't describe it," he replied, not even opening his eyes. "Was it just me, or was there squealing in your room last night? And a lot of it?"
Rapunzel nodded vigorously. "Princesses," she burst out as loudly as she dared burst out in a crowded hallway, "they like to squeal. Last night the princesses and I stayed up until 3:00 talking and I told them about all of our adventures and Renee brushed my hair and we traded desserts and it was wonderful! Girls," she concluded, "are a lot of fun!"
"You don't need to tell me twice." He straightened himself and laid a light kiss on her lips. "Want to sit with me and watch Prince Philbert knit? He says he's going to make me socks."
"Actually," Rapunzel bit her lip and shuffled her feet, "I was thinking maybe I'd sit with the princesses…?"
Eugene shrugged. "Fine by me. I'm probably just going to sleep for the entire thing anyway. Oh—by the way," he added, "'we like to squeal.'"
"Wait—what?" Rapunzel had never heard Eugene squeal.
"You said before 'Princesses, they like to squeal,' but you should have said, 'Princesses, we like to squeal.' After all, you're one of them, aren't you? And you definitely like to squeal."
"Yes," Rapunzel nodded, beaming. "I am one of them. I'm a princess."
She was a princess, contractions and all.
I hope you enjoyed it. Please review!