Maximus had taken to pacing in the garden outside Eugene's bedroom. Not so much pacing, really, as clopping. Big noisy clops. Clop-clop-clop. They would constantly sound from the outside, jerking Eugene from his sleep. Clop-clop—Augh! He couldn't take it any more! Clop-clop-shut up Maximus! Snort, head roll, slammed door. Clop-clop-clop.
Maximus had also taken to shoving Eugene when no one was looking. Not hard shoves—just enough to annoy Eugene, but not enough that anyone would notice. Cut it out Maximus! Snort, head roll, wait until no one was paying attention, and then another shove.
But mostly, Maximus had taken to a lot of snorts, head rolls, and narrowed eyes. A couple of months ago Eugene might have sat down with the horse and tried to get to the bottom of this behavior, but at the moment, he had other things to worry about. His wedding was rapidly approaching, and Eugene just didn't have time to deal with a moody horse. Besides, when he was prince, Maximus would have to treat him with some respect, right? Who ever heard of an imperial stallion shoving the Prince?
Well, for that matter who ever heard of an imperial stallion systematically annoying the Princess's fiancé? Maximus didn't always do what an imperial stallion was expected to do. But still, you just didn't go around shoving a prince. And in any case, things would have to improve a little bit. At the very least, Maximus couldn't continue interrupting Prince Eugene's sleep, because that would mean he would be interrupting Princess Rapunzel's sleep…since they would be sharing a bed.
Sharing a bed with Princess Rapunzel…yeah, Eugene had too much occupying his mind to pay much attention to Maximus. So even if the horse was causing him to lose some sleep, he just had to deal with it. Even if it made him very drowsy…
"Eugene? Are you listening to me?" Eugene wrenched his bleary eyes open and picked his head up from the table. A fabric sample, purple flowered silk, stuck to his forehead. Across the table, Rapunzel was looking annoyed.
"Yes Rapunzel," he yawned. "I'm listening."
"No you're not! You're falling asleep!" Rapunzel snatched the strip of fabric off him. "Why are you so tired these days? Do you honestly find wedding preparations that dull?" Eugene didn't answer, his head dropping to the table once more.
Mmm…fabric samples were nice and soft. He wasn't sure what they were samples for, but whatever it was, it would be nice and soft…He wondered what his and Rapunzel's bed would be like. Probably nice and soft. Certainly nice and soft—why would it be otherwise? He could imagine he was in it right now—
Pascal scuttled across the table and thwacked Eugene with his tail.
"I'm up! I'm up!" He jerked up in his seat, a thin string of drool snapping and pooling on a blue-bird-patterned silk. Ew. He wiped the remaining drool from his mouth.
Rapunzel leaned back in her chair, folding her arms across her chest and raising her eyebrows as she surveyed her drowsy fiancé. "Stand up," she ordered.
"You're obviously tired, but I need you to pay attention because I have one important thing to say. Then you can go and get some rest. For now, stand up so you don't fall asleep."
Eugene did so, his mind clearing a little bit as he moved his feet around. He never did think too well when he was sitting down for long periods of time. Unless there was a card game going on. Or at least something mentally stimulating…listening to Rapunzel inform him what decisions she and her mother had reached didn't exactly spark his interest the way planning a heist did.
"Are you paying attention?" Rapunzel asked.
"Really paying attention?"
He rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I'm paying attention."
"Are you sure you're—"
"—Rapunzel, at this moment I'm paying you so much attention you wouldn't believe it. Now what is it?"
"Yesterday I received Maxine's letter," Rapunzel fingered a piece of pink stationary on the table. Even though it was at the other side of the table and upside down, Eugene could tell it contained the epistolary equivalent of a lot of squealing. For one thing half a line seemed to be made of exclamation marks.
Ugh. Princesses and their pink stationary.
"She said she would love to be one of my bridesmaids," Rapunzel continued. "So that means I will have four of them. If you're planning on having more than four groomsmen, tell me now so I can find more—"
"I'm definitely not having more than four groomsmen," Eugene answered.
"Well," Rapunzel said, "that means you need to have four groomsmen exactly, then. Have you asked—"
Eugene shook his head.
"You haven't asked anyone?"
"I was sort of hoping," Eugene admitted, "we could go without the groomsmen." Seeing Rapunzel's frown, he hastily explained, "really, what's a groomsman good for? Holding the ring—I can do that myself. They're called pockets. And then groomsmen are supposed to stop me from getting cold feet and running out, but I can guarantee you that's not going to happen. And if it does, we have a palace full of guards and a horse who would happily chase me down. So you see, groomsmen aren't necessary in our case."
Rapunzel narrowed her eyes. "But who's supposed to dance with my bridesmaids?"
Eugene shrugged. "They're beautiful princesses. I think they can dig up some escorts."
"Oh no!" Rapunzel shook her head vigorously. "I couldn't ask them to do that! Prince Gregor would expect Adrienne to ask him, but she likes the Duke of Bomen but her parents don't approve of him, and Maxine would want to ask Philbert, but he's not interested in her and then—"
"Okay, they can't ask escorts!" Eugene held up his hands to cut this explanation short. Just one sentence on the romantic lives of the princesses was already making him want to lay his head on the fabric samples and start snoozing again.
"So you see," Rapunzel summarized, "you've got to have some groomsmen! Besides, the thugs would be so let down if you didn't—"
"Wait a minute—" Eugene cut her off again. "You think I'm going to ask the pub thugs to be my groomsmen?"
"Who else would you ask?" Rapunzel asked blankly.
"Rapunzel, the pub thugs aren't exactly—" But then the most amazing image formed in Eugene's mind. It involved Princess Maxine dancing with Atilla. And Princess Catherine dancing with Hookhand. And Princess Adrienne dancing with Ulf. And Princess Emily, that annoying girl who'd woken him up in the middle of the night—Princess Emily dancing with Shorty!
"You're right," Eugene said. "You're absolutely right. It would be a disservice to my good friends, the pub thugs, not to ask them to be with me on one of the most important days of my life. I'm going to ask them right now. Thank you for convincing me it's the right thing to do." He leaned across the table, pecked Rapunzel on the forehead, and swaggered out of the room.
Rapunzel exchanged a worried glance with Pascal. Somehow she suspected Eugene was being less than sincere…
"Listen up you creeps!" Eugene shouted from atop the Snuggly Duckling bar, quieting Hookhand mid-arpeggio...though his words didn't make an impression on anyone else. His last three calls for their attention had fallen on deaf ears—the pub was even more crowded than usual today. It was bursting with matted hair, chipped teeth, and…stench. If there was a better place to select his groomsmen, Eugene hadn't found it.
"Quiet!" Hookhand bellowed. "Rider has something to say!"
The entire pub immediately fell into silence. So they listened to Hookhand but wouldn't listen to him—well, maybe that would change when he was a prince. But he doubted it.
All eyes were on Eugene and for two seconds the pub was completely still. Okay—he had their attention. Now how to word his—
"How's the princess, Rider?" came from a figure slumped behind a tapped keg. This unleashed a torrent of shouts.
"Haven't seen her in a while!"
"How did scum like you ever get a girl like her again?"
"I'm scum! Where can I get myself a princess?" This was Shorty, sticking his head out from a barrel.
Oh, you'll get yourself a princess sooner than you think, Shorty…
Eugene exchanged glances with Hookhand.
"Quiet!" Hookhand repeated. "And you better stay quiet until the Princess's friend says what's on his mind!" How quaint: "the princess's friend." If it had been any other girl the thugs would have made dozens of obscene jokes about their relationship, but none of the thugs would have dreamed of even calling Eugene Rapunzel's lover. No, he was her "friend."
The pub again descended into silence. Eugene had their attention.
"As I'm sure you've heard," Eugene announced, "there's a wedding coming up. The Princess Rapunzel has at last succeeded in catching me."
His wording caused most of the pub dwellers to snort and roll their eyes.
Hey, he was a catch. No use denying it. Unlike everyone else in this room, he still had all his teeth. And he bathed daily. And he brushed his hair. With a brush, not a stick.
"And I'm not sure if any of you have ventured out of this pub long enough to attend a wedding," Eugene continued, "but at weddings it's common practice for the groom to have groomsmen. So," he smiled broadly and placed his hands on his hips, "who's up for it?"
The pub was still silent. The thugs stared up at him, processing this information. At last Vladimir spoke.
"You want us to be your groomsmen?"
Eugene shrugged. "Eh, to tell you the truth I'd rather not have any groomsmen. But Rapunzel says I have to have four, and you guys aren't the worst I could do, I guess."
And then he was yanked from the bar and held down by two arms. Oh God. Was he being attacked again? This was the last time he came to this bar. Not the nose!
His face was shoved into a goiter and he realized that no, he wasn't being attacked. Though he might have preferred that to the reality: Big Nose hugging him.
"I'm touched!" Big Nose shouted, squeezing Eugene so hard he could barely breathe. "And here I was thinking you didn't like us!"
"Yeah, well," Eugene gasped, "it was Rapunzel's suggestion—"
But then he was passed to Vladimir, who squeezed him and passed him to Bruiser. Who passed him to Ulf who passed him to—
Ungh. Man stench. Would he smell like this too if he rotted in the pub with these guys? It was hard to imagine a stench so foul coming from his attractive body. At one point he'd built up quite a tolerance to the smell, but after almost two years of palace life, his nose had definitely grown accustomed to flowers and soap and…non-belched air.
At last Eugene was slammed onto a stool, a stein of beer was pushed to his chest and the pub thugs ringed around him, shouting.
"The Princess already has me playing the piano, Rider," said Hookhand, "so I can't be one of your groomsmen. Unless you want to make me best man—I might be willing to—"
"—don't be stupid! Eugene's going to make me his best man!" That was Big Nose.
"Yeah? What makes you so sure?"
"Because I'm the only one who calls him by his correct name!"
"You're already married! Married people aren't supposed to be groomsmen!"
"I should be your best man, Ri—I mean, Eugene! I always liked you. I may never have shown it but I said one time that that Rider guy wasn't so bad. Didn't I, Gunther?"
Gunther shook his head.
"You should make me a groomsman!" Killer shouted. "If you need last minute clothing repairs, I'm your—"
"I should be a groomsman! A groomsman needs to dance, right? I can dance! Have you ever seen me dance?" Eugene didn't even know which thug was saying that, but he could guarantee he'd never once seen him dance.
Somewhere in the background, Ulf was frantically miming how well he could march down a wedding aisle and hand Eugene a ring.
Oh yes. Eugene had clearly made the best decision about where to look for his groomsmen.
As he deposited his horse in the stables, Eugene ran over his list of groomsmen again. Ulf, Vladimir, Killer, and for a best man, Shorty…who was really the best man in name only. There was no way Eugene was entrusting any of them with Rapunzel's ring. He just wanted some comedy on the dance floor, not a ruined wedding.
Eugene whistled a reel and turned to leave the stable when—he was shoved into a pile of hay.
"Oh, hey Max," he grinned up at the snorting horse. "You know, I'm in such a good mood you can't even spoil it. I just found myself my groomsmen."
Maximus froze mid snort and narrowed his eyes.
"Yeah," Eugene rose and casually brushed of the hay that clung to his doublet. "Ulf, Vladimir, Killer, and my best man is Shorty. It's going to be one amazing wedding."
Was it just him or was Maximus…growling. Yeesh. That was one angry horse. Oh well—not his problem.
"Anyway, it's probably dinner time, so I'd better head in," Eugene said. "Oh, and Max," he paused and smirked at the horse, "you can clop around in the garden all you want tonight, because I just know I'm going to sleep like a baby."
And he was shoved into another pile of hay.
"Eugene!" Rapunzel whispered as she and Eugene made their way from the dining hall. "I was trying to tell you the entire meal—didn't you see me gesturing?"
"Yeah—pointing to your head? What was that about?"
Rapunzel reached up and plucked a piece of hay from his hair. "This," she brandished the hay, "is what that was all about. What are you doing with hay in your hair?"
Eugene dashed to a mirror in the next hallway and checked his reflection. Good—that had been the last piece. "Our noble stead, Maximus, pushed me in the hay. Twice."
"What? That doesn't sound like Maximus!"
Eugene laughed. "Are we talking about the same horse here? Because that seems very much in keeping with the Maximus I've come to know."
"Oh Eugene," Rapunzel sighed, "you know as well as I do that Maximus likes you a lot, even if you didn't start off on the right foot…and I thought he seemed really fond of you lately."
They entered Rapunzel's sitting room and she sat down cross legged by her coffee table heaping with fabric samples, which she appeared to be sorting by color. Pascal scurried up to the table and started to help her.
"Oh, remember last month? He was always hovering around you and whenever you wanted a ride anywhere, he was so eager to take you. He was like your shadow."
"Yeah," Eugene admitted, thinking back to those days. "But that was last month, as in the past. This is the present. And presently, he is not, as you put it, 'fond of me.' In fact, if I suddenly disappear, you know which horse to call in for questioning."
"Really, Eugene," Rapunzel tsked and placed a chartreuse strip of fabric in the green pile.
"What are you doing with those things, anyway? I thought you and your mother had finished picking out all the dresses and decorations."
"We have," Rapunzel nodded. "These aren't for the wedding—well, they were for the wedding. But now that we're done with fabric samples, I decided it would be a waste to throw them out, so I'm making a mosaic."
"A mos…" Eugene stumbled over the word. "A what?"
"A mosaic," Rapunzel explained, "is a piece of art where a picture is made by arranging smaller materials—in this case fabric samples. I'll probably need to cut them up into smaller pieces though."
"And what is this…mosaic going to be of?"
"I haven't decided yet," Rapunzel replied. "Maybe, since Maximus is in such a bad mood, I should give it to him. I'm sure he doesn't have any artwork. What do you think he'd like a mosaic of?"
"Me in bodily pain, probably."
"Oh Eugene," Rapunzel tsked again and went back to sorting the fabric.
Even though Rapunzel had pretended to reject the idea, the mosaic ultimately ended up being Eugene smashed on the head with a frying pan, which Maximus loved. The day before the wedding, Rapunzel at last finished her project and hung it up in the stables. Eugene could hear Maximus's whinnying laugh from his bedroom.
Whatever. He was getting married tomorrow. He really didn't care if a horse found the idea of him being whacked over the head with a frying pan amusing.
The palace was a hive of activity. It was packed with royalty and nobility who'd travelled from kingdoms far and wide to witness the wedding of the Princess of Corona. Dukes, Barons, even several Kings and Queens. These days Rapunzel never went anywhere without a gaggle of princesses behind her…a gaggle who found the very sight of Eugene uproarious. A typical interaction between Eugene and Rapunzel went as follows:
Eugene would be walking from one end of a corridor. Rapunzel, followed by at least six other princesses, was walking from the other.
As soon as one of the princesses spotted him, she'd try to stealthily point him out to the others. At first there would be a great deal of whispering, then they'd fall into silence. Eugene would go up to Rapunzel and say whatever it was he needed to say. If he was in a bad mood he'd just nod to the other girls. If he was in a good mood, he might give one of the younger girls a charming, toothy, Flynn Rider grin. The young girl would just stare at him, awestruck at her good fortune because he'd smiled at her.
He'd continue on his way, Rapunzel would continue on her way. Then, as soon as he turned the corner and was no longer in their sight, he'd hear them explode in squeals and laughter.
As much as he resented the princesses for making alone time with Rapunzel an impossibility, it was hard not to feel flattered.
The men were less inclined to latch themselves onto Eugene, but that was just because they were, on the whole, less inclined to travel in packs. They liked Eugene fine, though. He'd spent more than a few nights playing Primero with a collection of princes, barons, and dukes—once the King had even joined them and proved himself an abysmal card player, but a wonderful loser.
"Is this your way of giving Eugene here your daughter's dowry?" Baron Gremm had asked him.
The King had just rumbled with laughter and asked the Baron how many dowries he had lost that evening. More dowries than he had daughters, it was discovered.
Really, this group wouldn't be so bad as his groomsmen, but he couldn't regret asking the pub thugs.
Or, at least, he didn't regret it until the day of his wedding. He woke up late that day, probably because, for once, Maximus wasn't clopping around in the garden and his body had taken that opportunity to earn back the sleep he'd lost. It was almost noon when he woke up to hushed whispering…or at least, what the pub thugs imagined was hushed whispering. It was actually quite loud yelling.
"I'm not gonna tell him!" Vladimir was shouting. "It's not my fault!"
"And I suppose it's my fault?" shot back Killer.
They erupted into more shouting. In his bed, Eugene groaned. Was it really only two people making all that noise?
No, he heard the distinctive bellowing of Hookhand too. "All I know is I'm not going to tell him!" he shouted. "Why should I? I'm not one of the groomsmen! I'm supposed to be with the musicians right now!"
"One of you," Eugene murmured, causing the thugs to flinch as they realized they'd woken up the groom, "had better tell me what you're doing in my bedroom." He opened his eyes lazily and pointed to the nearest thug…Vladimir. "You," he ordered, "what are you doing here and what don't you want to tell me?"
Whether it was because he wasn't wearing any horns, fur, or weapons, or because he looked absolutely apologetic, it was the least threatening Vladimir had ever appeared to Eugene. "Well," Vladimir explained, "the four of us—your groomsmen, and Hookhand too—"
"Don't get me involved in this," Hookhand snarled.
"We came here pretty early because…groomsmen are supposed to spend the day with the groom. But you were still asleep—"
"Out like a light!" interjected Killer.
"So we thought we'd let you sleep because how long does it take a groom to get ready? Even one as obsessed with his looks as you."
Eugene let that comment pass. "So you've been in my room for…hours?" Eugene asked. But that wasn't possible. Surely he'd have woken up before then—
"We decided to go around the town, get a few morning drinks in…"
Eugene rolled his eyes.
"And Shorty said he'd stay here, since he's your best man."
"Some best man," Hookhand murmured. Even his murmurs were loud.
"And when we got back—no Shorty."
"That's it?" Eugene asked. So there was no Shorty—so what! There were dozens of pub thugs to take his place.
"That's not it," Vladimir explained. "Shorty's missing, along with the wedding ring."
This got Eugene out of bed. He tripped over the covers and lunged over to the bureau where he'd placed the—
"Where's the ring?" he shouted, staring at the empty patch of wood. The empty patch of wood where his wedding ring was supposed to be. Except it wasn't his wedding ring. It was Rapunzel's wedding ring. If it had been his wedding ring, he wouldn't really have cared. But Rapunzel's— "What happened to the ring?" In his anxiety he grabbed Vladimir's collar and yanked him to him threateningly, completely forgetting Vladimir was three times his size.
"That's what we're trying to tell you—we don't know. Shorty was griping before about how he didn't get to hold the wedding ring, though, so we suspect he—"
"Oh no! This is bad—this is very bad!" Eugene sat down on his bed and ran his fingers through his hair. Think—think. What to do? "Where's Shorty?" he demanded.
"We don't know! Ulf went to look for him, but knowing Shorty he's probably passed out drunk in a ditch somewhere and he'll be hard to track down…"
He had to find Shorty—he had to find Shorty! But how?
"How many hours until the wedding starts?" he asked.
Two hours. They had two hours to look through the entire kingdom—who knew where Shorty would have wound up? Oh, this had been a bad idea. Why had he picked the thugs as his groomsmen? Groomsmen were supposed to be competent and reliable. They were supposed to be people he could trust with responsibility. Now what was he going to do? He was supposed to become a prince today and he couldn't even handle a simple groomsman appointment without messing it up. He'd thought he was so clever with his little joke but he was just, "stupid, stupid, stupid!" He pounded his head.
The thugs gazed at the self-admonishing groom warily.
"Rider," Killer said, "calm down. We'll find Shorty."
"How?" Eugene exclaimed. "Follow his stench of dirt and beer?"
Actually…that wasn't such a bad idea. Only he couldn't follow the stench. But he knew someone who could.
"Come on Maximus!" Eugene pleaded. "I'm on my knees!"
Maximus seemed unmoved by this fact.
"You're the only one who can track him down in time! Come on!"
Maximus just dipped his head into a nearby bucket and chewed more oats.
"Look Max," Eugene sighed, "we both know you're going to do this. Why? Because this isn't about me; it's about Rapunzel. And it's about you, because you're just too responsible to ruin Rapunzel's wedding."
This got Maximus. He stopped mid bite and looked at Eugene. Then he looked at the mosaic Rapunzel had hung on the wall. Then back at Eugene. Then back at the mosaic.
"I'm begging you, Maximus," Eugene exclaimed. He hung his head. "This is all my fault," he admitted, " I should never have asked Shorty to be my best man. What was I thinking?" He pounded his head again. "If you don't track down Shorty, the disaster will be my fault, my fault because I made a stupid joke instead of finding a responsible best man. If I had to do it over again I never would have—" then a spark of realization. "I should have picked you, Max. You're responsible, you're reliable…you're a horse, but you'd still have been the best best man."
Maximus rolled his eyes and shot him a look that clearly said: so you finally figured it out.
What was it Rapunzel had said? Maximus had been his shadow…so eager to ride him to anywhere he wanted...last month, shortly after the announcement of their engagement.
"You wanted to be my best man all along!" Eugene exclaimed. "And then when so much time went by and I didn't ask you, you became ang—"
But then he looked around and realized Maximus was already outside, sniffing the ground to pick up Shorty's scent.
Oh, right. They had a drunk to find. The touching moment could wait until later.
They found Shorty, as Vladimir had predicted, passed out drunk in a ditch. A ditch forty minutes from the palace, as it turned out. When Maximus charged into the Palace garden and Eugene barreled into his room to change, it was only twenty minutes before the ceremony would start. By now the three other groomsmen had returned to Eugene's room and they decided to let Shorty sleep off his stupor in the garden.
"He's in no condition for a wedding," Killer murmured. Behind him Ulf mimed falling down and belching.
Eugene was inclined to agree. As soon as he finished getting dressed…and brushing his hair and then tousling it to perfection, he pulled out the ring and walked out into the garden, where Maximus was sitting, snorting disdainfully and the slumbering Shorty. Eugene joined Maximus by Shorty.
"I don't think he's going to be recovered by the time the ceremony starts," Eugene announced, his eyes lingering on the drool hanging down his chin.
Maximus snorted and rolled his eyes.
"Well," Eugene continued and stuck the ring in one of Maximus' saddle bags, "I guess that means you, responsible, reliable stallion that you are, will just have to fill in. Come on best man," he said patting Maximus' mane.
Maximus moved towards Eugene and for a moment Eugene thought he was going to be shoved to the ground again—but it was a nudge. Not a shove. Just a nudge.
"Now if I get cold feet," Eugene instructed him as he, Maximus, and the three thugs made their way to the ceremony hall, "Max, you have my permission to grab me by your teeth and carry me to that altar."
Maximus rolled his eyes again.
When Eugene, ten minutes later, saw Rapunzel marching up to him, her veil not succeeding in obscuring her gigantic green eyes and her ear-to-ear smile, he thanked…everyone and everything that it had all turned out okay.
And hey, Maximus would look just as silly dancing with Princess Emily as Shorty would have.