Breakfast was anything but comfortable. Rapunzel fidgeted with the napkin in her lap and pushed the eggs around her plate with her fork, trying desperately not to look up and meet the dark, glittering gaze that had been fixed on her since she walked into the room. Even with Eugene's hand resting comfortingly on her thigh beneath the table, the princess was having trouble not shouting at the man across the table from her.
Her parents seemed not to notice. The Captain of the Guard had been invited to breakfast, as he had a tendency to do once every week at the King's request, and the three full-fledged adults were lost in their own conversations. Something about the Captain's daughter being sick with the flu – whatever that was. It didn't sound very pleasant.
The conversation suddenly turned to Eugene as the Queen started to ask what their plans for the day were.
"I was thinking I might steal your daughter away for the day and explore the city for a while. It's been a while since we've been down there, and I thought it might do Blondie some good to get some fresh air." The former thief smiled down at his princess as he spoke, doing his best to cheer her up a bit. If he were to be honest, the pair of ravenous eyes boring into his girlfriend was beginning to put him on edge. The prince looked a little too hungry for Eugene's taste. And the untouched plate of food before him spoke all too well of what the man was hungry for.
"That sounds like a wonderful idea. I think the two of you could use a break from your lessons for the day." The Queen opened her mouth to say more when a smooth voice cut her off.
"I wonder if I could join you on your little expedition. I would so love to see the rest of the city. I only got a small taste when I was riding in. And I imagine there isn't a better guide to be had than our resident former thief. You don't mind, do you, Fisshibby?" The glittering gaze slowly focused on Eugene's blazing brown eyes. The two sides of him – man and rogue – warred for control, but with his last scolding for a flippant tongue fresh in his mind, he managed to smile and nod, though his eyes continued to glare darkly at the invader.
"We'd be happy to show your highness around for part of the day. We wouldn't want to keep you from important business here in the castle, though. We'll be sure to return you here before you get too tired to do… whatever it is that you actually do." Flynn couldn't help putting just a little bit of his usual sarcastic tone into his reply. There was no way he was spending his day with Rapunzel showing this pompous ass around the city. No possible way.
Before the prince could respond – which, judging by his smug expression, he was sure to do – the Queen finally got a word in.
"Would you mind running a small errand for me while you're out? It won't take long." She simply smiled, but there was a slight, nearly imperceptible glint of mischief in her eyes that caught Eugene's attention.
"Of course, your Majesty. Shall I meet you in the courtyard after breakfast to discuss it?"
"If you'd like, Eugene. Take your time, though. There's no hurry. It's just a letter I'd like delivered to an old friend. I'd send a servant to do it, but since you're going there anyway…" She shrugged.
Dorian was back to staring at Rapunzel, but that didn't stop him from opening his mouth to make a remark. "Letters to peasants, your Majesty? I've always felt class separation to be so important. One wouldn't want to give the impression of favoritism, would we?"
Rapunzel's emerald eyes snapped up in reply, her tongue unable to be still. The insult to her and Eugene was perfectly clear. "Luckily for Corona, you're not in charge here. I'd remind you to keep your opinions to yourself, Dorian, before I'm forced to take your presence as an insult. I'd hate to regret letting you come along on our excursion; and I'm sure I wouldn't feel the need repeat the experience in any measure for the duration of your stay here." She flashed a tight smile to her parents and to Eugene, all of whom were attempting to keep their pleasure at her outburst somewhat contained, and excused herself to change clothes. As she stood from her chair, she gently kissed Eugene on the cheek and told him she'd meet him in the courtyard when she was ready.
The Captain of the Guard was grinning openly, knowing without a doubt that the young princess had found the right family. He didn't think the King or the Queen would have said it much differently.
Eugene, however, was perturbed. Not because he'd been insulted by a prince or defended by a princess – although in normal circumstances that would have been enough to get him to realize how incredibly surreal his position was – but because Prince Dorian, rather than even attempting to feign shock or humility, looked like he'd just gotten the best Christmas present he could hope for.
~ ҉ ~
Eugene met the Queen in one of the side corridors near the courtyard, hoping to avoid prying eyes. He had the sneaking suspicion that this wasn't entirely about a letter, and told the woman as much.
She laughed and shook her head. "I should have known I wouldn't be able to hide everything from you for long, but I thought I might have a little bit more time before I'd have to tell you."
All the response she received was a raised eyebrow.
"Just give me a few days to gather more information. I promise I'll tell you. Soon. And I'm going to need your help." Her face was bright and open, but her eyes were anything but lighthearted. "Give this to Kaya in the city. You should receive a reply by the end of your time out."
"The witchwoman?" Eugene was genuinely confused. No one took that woman seriously, and it only took one look at her to know why. She was completely nuts. The thief had seen her several times over the years, and never once had felt the need to get any closer.
"You know where to find her then?" It was clear there wasn't going to be any additional explanation. At this point in time, he was only the messenger. It was funny. Eugene had never really pegged the Queen as one to get involved with subterfuge – or to have contacts from the darker side of the tracks.
"Yes. I'll get it to her." Eugene looked across the courtyard to see Rapunzel, dressed in a simple wool dress in a deep violet color, marching down the stairs. A perturbed frog was sitting on her shoulder, tail wrapped around a slim, ponderous finger as a flustered imperial prince, who was still in his velvet finery, chased her down the stairs. "If you'll excuse me, your Majesty. I believe I may have a fight to break up."
The Queen nodded and slipped him a sealed envelope, which he concealed in a pocket before striding to meet his princess and her pursuer. "Something going on here?"
"She insists on taking that lizard with her in public," spat the prince.
"I don't see why it's any of your business what I take with me, let alone my oldest friend – who's a chameleon, by the way." Rapunzel didn't even look at the man. She simply kept walking towards the front gate and twirling her finger in Pascal's tail.
"It's completely improper! A dog, maybe. Or a cat! Even a monkey, if you really wanted to. Something exotic and expensive to show off your social status. But a lizard?"
"Frog." Eugene corrected instinctively.
"Chameleon." A green glare was shot at both of the offending men, one of which the princess was waiting for a reply from.
"Look, Dorian – "
"That's Prince Dorian, to you, Fuzzyhubbel."
"Fitzherbert," stuck in Rapunzel.
"The Princess can get away with calling me by my first name. But you are far below my station and will refer to me by my rank, at the very least." Flynn was getting close to starting a war right then and there.
Luckily, he managed to avoid physical violence. "Okay, look, your highness. Rapunzel is taking Pascal – lizard, frog, chameleon, whatever. If you don't like it, you can stay here. Either way, you're going to stop complaining about the frog."
"Nuance. You can go see the city without us – maybe the good Captain would be willing to take you. But I can assure you that if you antagonize the princess in any way one more time while we're out, you're trip is going to be over – prince or not. Got it?" Eugene wasn't entirely comfortable being this demanding of a prince – but Rapunzel was his girlfriend, and he'd be damned if he wasn't going to stick up for her.
"Oh, I've got it, oh daring thief." The man's sneer almost destroyed Eugene's confidence. Almost. "But you can be sure this won't be the end of this conversation." Without another word, he pushed past the pair and strode towards the gate to the city. Eugene still had trouble shaking the feeling that the prince had gotten just what he'd wanted.
~ ҉ ~
Prince Dorian waited outside as Eugene and Rapunzel entered the witchwoman's shop. As crazy as the old woman was, people still visited her occasionally – mostly for tonics and potions to rid themselves of unwanted illnesses or pregnancies. Eugene, himself, had managed to steer clear of the place altogether, until now. Seeing the interior didn't do much to alter his perspective. The walls were covered floor to ceiling with some strange sort of glowing moss. Tables were placed haphazardly around the room, all filled to overflowing with various nicknacks and junk. One looked like it was covered in a pile of bones – another in a pile of animal skins. At least, Eugene hoped they were animal skins. Shelves were arranged between some of the tables, all filled with bottles and of every color and shape – some empty, some filled. The whole place smelled of dirt and rot. Eugene was beginning to rethink bringing Rapunzel inside with him.
The princess stood wide eyed in the entrance way, holding tightly to Eugene's sleeve. She noticed everything around her at once and yet not at all. Part of her felt an extreme sense of belonging to this place – as if she'd been waiting her whole life to stand in this room. The other parts all were screaming at her to turn around and run away as fast as she could. Curiosity won out, however, as she slowly released the fabric she'd been clinging to and wandered further into the shop, searching for something she couldn't name.
"You won't find it here," announced a dry, raspy voice from one of the darker corners of the shop. Rapunzel turned dazedly to face the owner of that voice, and somehow wasn't surprised to take in the sight of a crumpled old woman sitting in a rocking chair. White, wispy hair sprouted from her scalp in patches. She was hunched over, and every inch of her body was covered in colorful rags. It looked as if she had gone around stealing pieces of people's curtains and bedspreads and simply draped them around herself. But the most shocking part of the woman's appearance was her eyes. They were completely black – as if her pupils had simply expanded one day to fill the iris and then the whites.
Eugene had never seen the hag's eyes before; she usually wore dark glasses when she was outside – presumably to avoid the kinds of reactions she was currently receiving from the thief. All of his instincts told him to grab Rapunzel and run back into the comforting sunlight of the afternoon, even if that meant returning to the haughty prince who was waiting for them.
Rapunzel simply didn't react. In spite of the woman's appearance, there was nothing that felt wrong about her. In fact, she almost seemed familiar. "Won't find what?"
"What you're looking for. Kaya once had it here, for a short time. But it has since moved on to become better things."
The girl smiled. "What was it?"
The hag smiled back – toothless and altogether creepy, to Eugene's opinion. Rapunzel, however, appeared to feel differently. "Your past."
Realization dawned on her. "The flower?"
"Clever girl," the hag grinned, not unkindly. She seemed to be genuinely pleased at her guest. "You can feel it." Rapunzel nodded. "Your father once brought it to Kaya. Kaya did not have enough of the gift to know what to do with it at the time, but everything seems to have worked out alright in any case. Its part to play is not yet done."
"But the magic is gone. I cut my hair and it went away." The girl wandered over to sit cross-legged on the floor before the witch. Eugene stayed rooted to the spot.
The woman only smiled and shook her head, mirth twinkling in the eternal depths of her inky eyes, before turning that dark gaze to the messenger. "You have something for Kaya." It was a statement, not a question. Eugene wondered if he would be able to keep anything from her if he'd wanted to.
"No, you wouldn't. But you can give Kaya the letter if you want," she laughed, a harsh, dry sound that set Eugene's teeth on edge. Rapunzel turned around and smiled at him, all trace of fear wiped from her face. If anything, that just made him worry more.
"Eugene needn't be concerned for his princess," she informed him as he slowly handed over the Queen's envelope. "The Sun and Kaya be old friends. There would be much for us to talk about, were there time." Her crippled hands worked the seal free of the parchment. "Ah, Christine. Kaya always be willing to help. There never be reason to ask…"
Rapunzel and Eugene waited silently for the witchwoman to read her letter – albeit with very different degrees of patience. The princess sat contentedly on the floor, looking as if she'd found a long lost grandmother and was waiting for a story. The thief couldn't keep himself from fidgeting.
Without a word, the witch heaved herself off of her chair and shuffled to one of the shelves on the other side of the room. Her head barely came up to Eugene's waist. When she returned, she had a small bag clutched tightly in her hand. "Christine wants a telling. A telling she shall have." Her fingers began tracing a symbol in the dust at her feet.
Despite the woman's lack of pupils or irises, there was no doubt that her eyes were fixed on Rapunzels as she poured the contents of the bag onto the ground. Stones – all different sizes and with unique carvings on each – tumbled onto the symbol the woman had drawn as the three of them watched the pattern they formed. Frowning, Kaya gathered up the stones, being careful not to disturb the symbol, muttering to herself. "One."
She threw the stones again, and Eugene could have sworn each of them landed in the exact same place they had before. His skin began to crawl. The woman's frown deepened as she took the stones back into her hand and rattled them together. "Two."
The stones fell from her hand again. The pattern they made was the same. She sighed deeply and shook her head. "Three."
Rapunzel gazed up at her curiously. "What is it?"
"The Emperor will be here in ten days time. He brings an army greater than any that has ever been known. Gavvyn invades."
Eugene's heart fell. Corona was doomed.