Life contains but two tragedies. One is not to get your heart's desire; the other is to get it.
It was a good couple of minutes before Tiana could stop herself from trembling with fear and actually attempt to move.
He was gone. The shadow man was gone and wouldn't bother her, or Naveen, or anyone again, but seeing him get dragged into… dragged into hell was far from comforting. In fact, it had the exact opposite effect on the frog; she stood staring at the tomb, her breathing ragged and irregular, unable to do anything but shake.
And then, finally, it began to dawn on her.
It's over. It's over. All that's left now is for Naveen to kiss a princess, and then everything will be back to normal—everything will be RIGHT…
Slowly at first, the sight of the shadow man's fate still etched firmly in her mind, but soon her hopping became more urgent, more focused, more sure, as she bounded out of the cemetery and back onto Bourbon Street, the Mardi Gras partiers still out and about, paying no notice to the frog on a mission in their midst. Tiana almost called out for Naveen and Lottie, but stopped herself just in time—no sense in scaring everyone with a talking frog, she knew firsthand how disconcerting that was—
Suddenly she tumbled forward, her landing that time less than graceful. A man wearing a mask turned and saw her, offering his hand to help her up.
"You alright, miss? And wow, that's quite the frog mask you've got on!"
"It's not a mask, it's—" But Tiana cut herself short when, after climbing to her feet with the help of the Mardi Gras partier, realized that she was at eye level with him. With a human.
She looked down at her hand and gasped. It was brown, not green. Five fingers, not four. She touched her face, discovering a jeweled mask covering most of it. Pulling it off, she found that it was, indeed, a frog mask.
"I… I'm human!" she gasped, touching her skin, her hair, the green flapper dress decorated with purple and yellow beads and feathers that had somehow appeared on her—
"Well, of course you're human!" said the man with a confused laugh. "I mean, your frog themed outfit is quite a sight, but—"
"If I'm human, then that means—NAVEEN! LOTTIE!" Tiana raced down the street on her own two human legs, running not hopping, without giving the confused man another thought.
He had done it. Naveen had kissed Charlotte before midnight and now they were both humans. And now, if what Ray said was true, Naveen wasn't going to marry Charlotte, the rich girl, the girl he had come to New Orleans to find and marry in the first place. He was going to marry her. Tiana. The grumpy waitress who had forced him to actually do something on his own for once in his life. And he was devil-may-care and irresponsible and arrogant and every single quality that she loathed in a man.
And yet, in this particular case, she loved the end result.
She turned a corner, nearly tripping and falling thanks to the ridiculous high heel shoes that had for some reason appeared on her body the moment she transformed, finding the St. Louis cathedral just in front of her, and—
"Tia Tia Tia Tia Tia!" A whirling flash of pink seized her and spun her around in excitement. "You'll never guess what just happened! Well, alright, maybe you would—what with you being a frog and all before this, but now you're human and Prince Naveen's human and he and I are gonna get married and you're gonna get your restaurant and our dreams are finally finally coming true!"
"Slow down, Lottie, I can't… what?" Tiana drew in her breath sharply as Charlotte's words suddenly sank in.
"I'm gonna be a princess!" Charlotte spun Tiana around again in ecstasy. "And you're getting your restaurant, all the money you need to buy it all in one go! And all thanks to Naveen here." Charlotte instantly let go of Tiana and pulled Naveen to her side, taking no notice of his less-than-beaming expression. "He agreed to marry me only if I'd help you get your restaurant, isn't he a darling! And he's all mine!"
"Yes… yes, I suppose he is," Tiana murmured, looking at Naveen and biting her lip, hoping that that would mask the heartbreak suddenly mounting in her heart.
The church bells chimed twelve o'clock.
Naveen looked back at Tiana, seemingly oblivious to Charlotte smoothing him with kisses and affection, and his own unmasked emotions showed so clearly on his face that Tiana had to bite her lip even harder to keep herself from crying.
He was so beautiful. Yes, when all the buzz that a handsome prince from a far-off land would be visiting New Orleans, Tiana couldn't avoid seeing his picture plastered on every newspaper and yes, she conceded, he was fairly handsome. And? That wasn't enough to get her heart racing at all. Besides, her first encounter with him in person, it was only after she had rolled her eyes and he had shrugged and walked away that she belatedly realized that the man who had just so completely and utterly failed to impress her was in fact Prince Naveen. She had smirked about that as she stepped back into the diner, feeling a bit of satisfaction at the fact that she had rolled her eyes at a prince, a prince she almost didn't recognize because, in person, he was far less spectacular than his photos made him out to be.
Now, however, she was thinking the exact opposite. Pictures didn't do this man justice. He was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Because now, mixed in with the handsomeness and his complete and utter knowledge of said handsomeness, she could also see his soul. And behind that cocky, aggravating ne'er-do-well personality that the whole world saw, Tiana had seen a tender, sincere, and even slightly awkward person begin to shine through. A person that she found herself caring for deeply. A person she found herself not only wanting to spend the rest of her life with, but finding the prospect of living without him inconceivably heartbreaking and empty.
She swallowed and held her chin up high. What a load of nonsense. She had gotten along just fine without him up till now, so there was no reason why she should completely fall apart when he left. Besides… if what he had said was true, she wasn't the first girl to feel this way about him. In fact, he probably gave that "I've dated thousands of girls but you're different" line to every single one of them. All the better to get her to be putty in his arms, right? What a fool she'd been… to actually believe that… that he was really a caring, vulnerable man… that he was actually capable of commitment… that he was really in love with her…
She turned her head away, because his facial expression was doing nothing to further convince her of his deceit. If anything, his sad, longing gaze at her was only further driving home the point that he had been sincere—a point that his current actions were completely contradicting—leave a string of broken hearts behind him indeed—
They both turned towards the familiar voice… as did Charlotte, who duly let out a scream of fright upon seeing the source of it.
"Sweet Jesus mercy it's an alligator!"
"Lottie, Lottie, it's alright, Louis is a friend," Tiana quickly said.
"What is it, Louis?" Naveen asked.
Louis looked just as shaken as Tiana was sure she did, but he still took a moment to look at his friends with a surprised expression. "Tiana? Naveen? Is that really you?"
Naveen shrugged and flashed a small, yet still charming and pearly-white, smile. "Like I said, we are not frogs… we are humans."
"Louis, what's the matter?" Tiana asked, noting the way his limbs were trembling… and how he seemed to be delicately carrying something in his hand.
Louis lowered his arms, revealing a tiny, dim light just barely glowing. "The shadow man laid Ray low…"
"Oh no," Tiana whispered, quickly making her way to peer into Louis's hands at the weakened, crushed firefly, Naveen close behind her.
Ray managed to turn his tiny head up towards Tiana. "'Dat you, cher?" he murmured weakly, although the smile that appeared on his face showed instant recognition of her human form anyway.
"Yes, Ray, it's me," said Tiana, reaching down and touching him as gently as she could with her now relatively huge human hands. "Naveen and I are human again."
"Miss Charlotte LaBouff kissed me and broke the spell," said Naveen, "and so I will marry her because… that was part of the deal… and then I will get Tiana her restaurant, because that is what I promised her…"
Ray's smile faded. "Well then… guess y'all are gettin' just what ya wanted…" He closed his eyes.
And then, with one last flicker, his light slowly diminished and went out.
Tiana drew in her breath. "No," she whispered, shaking her head. "No, no, no, no…"
She felt a hand touch her shoulder, both awkwardly and comfortingly. "It's alright, Tiana," Naveen said softly, "…well, no, it isn't alright, what I mean to say is…"
Tiana felt everything inside of her crumble down into little tiny pieces. The tears finally came gushing out.
"Oh, Naveen," she sobbed, her face so twisted up in pain and tears that it was actually hurting her to cry—and yet she couldn't hold them in any longer. Now she suddenly had a reason to cry that didn't need hiding or masking. "That poor, brave little bug… if it weren't for him I wouldn't have stopped the shadow man…Oh Naveen, he can't be gone, he was so sweet, so brave…" Tiana couldn't talk anymore; the tears were becoming too great, and Naveen's arms around her and one hand stroking her hair were both comforting her and creating a whole new set of tears to take the others' place.
"He can't be gone, he just can't," she murmured, burrowing her face into his shoulder.
There was silence for a few moments, and then Tiana heard Naveen say, in an awe-struck voice, "But he isn't…"
Tiana lifted her face from his shoulder and followed his gaze up towards the night sky. And there, shining right next to the evening star—Evangeline—was a new star. A new star seeming to reach out and touch Evangeline, gently, tenderly, lovingly—
Tiana's face broke into a tear-stained smile. "He's with his Evangeline," she breathed.
Naveen said nothing to that, simply clutching Tiana closer to him.
Charlotte took a timid step up to the two of them and Louis. "Tia, honey, I'm so sorry," she said, also putting her arm around her shoulders comfortingly. "I can tell how much that li'l bug meant to you. You gonna be alright?"
"I… I…" Tiana found that she couldn't answer, because she wasn't sure if she was going to be alright.
"You poor dear. These last couple of days must have been absolutely crazy for you. Come on." Charlotte gently took Tiana's hand and pulled her away from Naveen. "I'll take you home. BIG DADDY, WHERE ARE YOU? You look exhausted, like death warmed over! You can come back to my place with Naveen and me—your gator friend can come too, I suppose—"
"No, no, no, Lottie," Tiana suddenly said, pulling away from her, "I need to go back home to Mama. She must be worried sick about me."
"You sure?" Charlotte asked. "Because I can put you up at my place if you'd like…"
"Positive," Tiana muttered, looking down at the ground. "I just wanna go home."
"Alright," said Charlotte. "Daddy! There you are!" She immediately made her way towards him and started barking out demands, Big Daddy's face showing its usual mild bewilderment at his daughter's forcefulness. "I need you to take me and Prince Naveen—the real Prince Naveen—back home, but before that we've gotta drop off Tiana and her gator friend at her house. Then Naveen and I can start planning our wedding—oh, and one more thing!" She deftly snatched his wallet from his pocket and ran back to Tiana.
Big Daddy realized only too late what she'd done. "Not again," he moaned.
Charlotte pulled a wad of bills from the wallet and held them out to Tiana. "Here, should this be enough to get you your restaurant?"
Tiana recoiled slightly in both surprise and confusion. "It's—it's—no, Lottie, put that back. You know I don't accept free handouts."
"Tia," said Charlotte sternly, "I promised Prince Naveen that I'd get you the money. I made a deal and I'm gonna keep it. Besides, I want to help you."
Tiana shook her head, pushing Charlotte's hand away. "I can't accept that, Lottie, you know I can't. I want everything that I get to come from my own work."
"But it is," Naveen chimed in. "Don't you remember? You agreed to kiss me in exchange for money for your restaurant, and—"
"But that didn't work!" Tiana retaliated. "I didn't help you at all, so don't think you're obligated—"
"You did help me," Naveen insisted. "I promised you for a second time that I'd get you your restaurant if you helped me out of the swamp, and you did that. So… so please let me keep up my end of the bargain like you kept up yours." He sighed, almost helplessly. "I want to see your dream come true, and this is the only way."
Tiana wished he hadn't looked at her like that.
"Alright," she mumbled.
Charlotte placed the money in one of Tiana's hands, and held her other one gently. "Come on, Tia honey, let's get you home."
It took a lot of convincing Eudora that the reason Tiana had been missing for the past few days was because she was a frog trapped in a voodoo curse, but the presence of the Prince of Maldonia and a friendly alligator was enough to make her at least almost willing to believe it… for a second or two. However, unfortunately, it only took a second or two for Big Daddy to whisk Charlotte and Naveen back to his mansion, Charlotte only having just enough time to shout out, "Bye Tiana, I'll come over tomorrow sometime!" before they were gone.
When the rumble of the Packard finally faded into nothingness, Eudora finally took a good long look at Louis. "And where exactly are we going to keep an alligator?" she asked.
"Oh, you don't have to keep me," Louis said quickly. "In fact, I'll just go back to the swamp—"
"Louis, at least spend the night here," Tiana interrupted. "I can find some blankets for you to sleep on."
"He can't fit in the house!" Eudora exclaimed.
"That's alright, Mrs… uh…"
"Wilcox," Tiana prompted.
"Mrs. Wilcox," Louis finished. "I can sleep outside. That's what I always do!"
"Well… alright…" Eudora managed a smile. "Guess I don't have to worry about burglars tonight…"
"And I'm beat…" Louis yawned and stretched by the steps up to the porch, curling up into a rather large ball.
"You look beat too, honey," said Eudora to Tiana gently.
"I'm comin'…" Tiana finally felt a wave of exhaustion hit her body that was even stronger than her bewilderment and heartbreak. "But first… I wanna go talk to Daddy."
Eudora smiled in understanding. "Just don't be out too late."
Tiana nodded, walking away from the house and down the narrow street…
Louis opened his eyes, watching Tiana depart… watching only for a few moments before abruptly jumping up and following her.
"Where you goin'?" he asked her, easily catching up to her. "Ain't it a little late to be taking a stroll?"
"I ain't taking a stroll, Louis," Tiana snapped. "I'm goin' to…" She sighed. "I'm goin' to the graveyard just down the road. It's where my daddy and siblings are buried."
"Oh…" Louis's voice grew soft.
"Thanks for staying with me," said Tiana with a soft, sad smile. "I guess I could use a little companionship right now."
And then she stopped. The graveyard wasn't all that far away from her house, sitting just on the edge of her neighborhood, with small, simple tombstones poking out from the overgrown lawn.
"Which one is…?" Louis asked.
Tiana pointed to two markers right underneath a wilting tree. One was larger, a white tall rectangle with the words "JAMES WILCOX, US ARMY, 8 SEPTEMBER 1875-23 MARCH 1918" etched on the front. The other, smaller tombstone wasn't as polished or rounded, with the words "HARRIET, JAMES, FELICIA, ADA WILCOX" etched apparently with less care and detail than the other and not as deeply, with no dates to go along with them.
"Daddy was eager to go fight for his country," Tiana murmured to Louis. "He was always proud of how far he was able to come, despite all the hardships he faced. He used to tell me how amazing and forward thinking our country was, how fast change could come, how his father had been born a slave and now he was a free man and able to vote. He never let our struggles get him down. He just compared them to the past and saw how quickly we were moving forward and how much better things would get. Some people think of bein' black as a setback, but not Daddy… he always thought of it as an opportunity to dream even bigger, and succeed even bigger."
She and Louis gazed reverently at the tombstone for a few moments.
"What about them?" Louis finally asked, pointing at the other, smaller tombstone. "What were they like?"
"I don't know," admitted Tiana. "They died before I was even born. There was a measles epidemic that hit the neighborhood, and they just went one right after the other. Mama and Daddy could hardly even afford one tombstone, let alone pay for the writing on it… somehow they managed to scrape enough together to get the names on, at least."
Louis said nothing to that.
"I can't even imagine," Tiana murmured. "One day you have four children, and then four days later you don't have any at all. It… it almost got my mama too."
Tiana fell silent, too. It was a story she had heard many times before from her parents, how after the deaths of eight-year-old Harriet, six-year-old Jimmy, three-year-old Felicia, and little Ada who was barely even a year old, Eudora was on the brink of death herself. How somehow she had survived, despite the sickness coupled with the emotional blow of the deaths of all her children. "You're gonna be just fine, Mrs. Wilcox… and so is the baby," the doctor had said to her when she pulled through.
"The what?" Eudora had asked in shock.
Tiana wrapped her arms around her body, trying to keep in her body heat against the cold night air. She had been a surprise. A joyful surprise in the midst of all the pain and despair. She made it past her second birthday; her fourth; her seventh; her ninth; and with each passing year she felt the presence of the siblings she had never met weigh heavier and heavier upon her. The dreams her parents had cultivated and spread across four children were now all falling on her shoulders.
She often wondered how different things would have been had they been alive. Harriet would probably be married with two or three kids of her own by now, but still making time to warn her younger sisters to beware the wiles of men. Jimmy would be strong, protective, but gentle; the spitting image of his father and the man of the family. Felicia would be busy planning her wedding to her fiancé, a stalwart, hardworking man who worked on the docks, quite the opposite of her bubbly, flighty personality. Ada and Tiana, so close in age, would laugh about this, laugh about their parents, their friends, the men in their lives…
"Whenever I look at their grave," Tiana finally said to Louis, "all I can do is think about all that I've missed out on with them gone."
"Like what?" Louis asked.
"Just… having siblings in general," Tiana murmured. "Do you have siblings?"
"Hot dog," said Tiana in surprise. "I guess you do know what it's like then."
"There ain't nothing special 'bout having siblings," said Louis with a shrug. "Just a lot of people to fight with… but I am sorry that you never even got to know yours."
Tiana shrugged. "It's stupid of me to stand here and think about what I'm missing… I can't change the reality that they're dead. Kind of stupid of me to come here in the first place, actually." She abruptly turned around and started heading back towards the house.
"I don't think it's stupid," Louis said, awkwardly running to catch up with her. "It's alright to miss them."
"How can I miss them when I didn't even know them?" Tiana retorted. "Sure, I miss my daddy… but still, it's stupid to mope about the fact that he's gone. I need to make his dreams become a reality… and I'm about to." She pulled the money from Charlotte out of her cleavage (the only place she had found to keep the money, there being no pockets in her magically obtained Mardi Gras outfit) and made herself smile. "Tomorrow my dream's finally comin' true. I'm almost there. Tomorrow I will be there. So there's nothing to be sad about."
And yet, as soon as she said the words, her smile disappeared.
Why was it that she was so close to finally attaining everything she'd ever wanted, she still felt like crying?
These dreams go on when I close my eyes
Every second of the night I live another life
These dreams that sleep when it's cold outside
Every moment I'm awake
The further I'm away
-"These Dreams", Heart
The Fenner brothers suspiciously eyed the money Tiana threw on their table at their real estate office early the next morning.
"Just where did you come up with this, Miss Tiana?" the taller of the two Fenners asked.
"I did someone a favor. —No, not like that!" she shrieked when both Mr. Fenners' faces twisted into completely shocked and appalled expressions. "Look, it doesn't matter how I got it. I didn't get it illegally or anything like that, and it's more than enough to pay the full price of the sugar mill… so will you please let me sign the papers now?"
"Well, Tiana, I suppose you did… um, top the offer," the shorter Mr. Fenner began to say.
"—Yes, that you did, that you did!" the first Mr. Fenner interrupted quickly. "Which means that the building is yours!" He quickly reached out and snatched the money, tucking it away in a drawer in the desk and just as quickly producing a deed for Tiana to sign. "Just sign right there and you're officially the proud owner of an empty, abandoned sugar mill."
Tiana looked up suspiciously from her signature to the two Fenner brothers, both smiling unpleasantly. "It may be empty now, but once I fix it up it'll be the most bustling restaurant New Orleans has ever seen."
"Yes," smiled the first Mr. Fenner, "once you get the place fixed up, and the staff hired, and the food and décor and menus and utilities bought, and the taxes on the building paid… sure is a good thing you can get such large amounts of money for your, ahem, favors."
Tiana's breath caught in her throat for an instant before an angry snort forced it back out of her. "Just what are you—"
"Here you go!" The first Mr. Fenner cut her off by snatching the pen out of her hand and placing the key in it. "Signed on the dotted line and there's no going back."
"Good luck in getting that building in working order," smirked the second Mr. Fenner. "It would take a dedicated army months to get that place looking presentable."
"And who's going to want to eat at a less than presentable run-down building? Ah, but I'm sure you've already thought through all that, Tiana. Can't wait to see what you'll do with the place." The first Mr. Fenner smirked at her as well. "Congratulations on your purchase. Have a nice day."
Enraged, Tiana snatched up the deed and stormed out of their office without any sort of farewell. Even now, with her dream coming true, she still had naysayers… She stopped herself when she got outside, taking a deep breath to calm herself. Yes, she had naysayers, like she always had, and that was because she hadn't achieved her dream—yet. But she was on the right path, and had already gotten so much farther than anyone had ever thought she could. She was almost—well, halfway there, at the very least. And she certainly wasn't going to turn back now.
She climbed aboard the streetcar with grim determination, trying to cheer herself up by imagining the Fenner brothers' reactions to her restaurant once it finally was a success. There was no way now that she could let herself fail, because she didn't want to prove them right. They only saw all the strikes against her—she was a woman, and black, and young, and poor—but it was just like her daddy had believed; these weren't setbacks, they were just reasons to dream even bigger, and achieve even bigger. And she would.
Tiana examined the key in her hands, and looked at the deed with her signature gracing the bottom line. Who would have thought she would ever get even this far? Sure, so the building she now owned was empty and falling apart, but it was still hers. And given time and effort, it would be a restaurant to write home about. Getting the money to fix it up wouldn't be too hard. She still had her two jobs, after all. And compared to how much it had cost her to actually buy the building in the first place, paying for repairs and upkeep couldn't be any worse. She was more than halfway there, surely.
The trolley came to a stop at her neighborhood, and Tiana hopped off… wincing a little when she landed on her foot wrong. Louis was crammed somehow on the front porch of the Wilcox house, with just barely enough room to move, yet he was still doing a fine job making his trumpet sing. All the neighbors were gathered around, apparently all over the shock of having a friendly, trumpet-playing alligator in the neighborhood, and were enjoying the music immensely.
Tiana, however, just gave a slightly irritated sigh. "Louis? Is there any way for me to actually get in my house?"
Louis instantly stopped playing. "Oh! Sure thing, Tiana!" The huge alligator attempted to squeeze off the front porch, but got stuck as soon as he attempted to descend the small staircase flanked by narrow handrails. "Ugh! Uh, li'l help here?" he said apologetically.
"Sure thing, gator brother!" about five of the neighbors said, and about ten of them hopped onto Tiana's porch behind Louis. With a strong shove Louis popped out of the porch like a cork from a wine bottle.
"Much obliged!" said Louis gratefully. He turned to Tiana, seeing the paper held in her hand. "Ooh ooh ooh! Is that the deed to your restaurant?"
"Well, it ain't a restaurant yet—"
Tiana was interrupted by all the neighbors crowding around her, gawking and trying to get a look at the deed.
"You finally got your dream, girl!"
"Can't wait to be your first customer!"
"Now, now, hold on a minute!" Tiana laughed. "I just own the building, and it's just a building right now. I've still got a lot of work to do before it's a restaurant."
"But you've got the building! Way to go, girl!"
"This calls for a celebration!"
"No! No! No time for celebratin'!" Tiana cried. "Not now, at least. I work tonight and I need to get a nap in." And, without giving her neighbors any more time to gawk and congratulate, she quickly ascended the staircase and slammed the door behind her.
The neighbors and Louis all stared at the door for a moment.
It opened again, and Tiana poked her head out.
"Louis? Could you do me a favor and play your trumpet somewhere else today? I need to catch up on my sleep."
"Uh, sure thing, Tiana!" Louis agreed.
"Thanks a bunch." The door shut again.
Inside the house, Eudora had gotten up from her sewing machine and rushed towards Tiana with just as much excitement as the neighbors. "Let's see it, honey!"
Tiana flashed the key in one hand and the deed in the other. "A piece of paper and a li'l old stick of copper. Amazing."
"A piece of paper and a stick of copper that entitle you to that ol' sugar mill!" Eudora gave Tiana a hug. "I'm so proud of you, babycakes. And your daddy woulda been, too. We've gotta celebrate!"
Tiana sighed. Not her mama, too! "Mama, I can't. I work tonight. And I work all day tomorrow, too. I own the building, but I'm still gonna need more money to fix it up." She made her way to her bedroom. "I'm takin' a nap."
She closed the bedroom door behind her and collapsed onto her bed. Unlike last night, she felt that sleep might actually come easily to her right then. She found herself falling into a peaceful rest, her mind thankfully not racing and tripping over things over and over again like it had last night, sleep seemed to be within her reach…
And then she heard footsteps and voices outside her door.
She groaned into her pillow. "Mama… Louis…"
"Oooohhhh! Tia's got the papers now? It's really really official? She's gonna get her restaurant? Eeeee! I'm so happy for her!"
"Achidanza! She is finally getting her dream!"
Tiana groaned even louder. "Naveen… Lottie…" She looked upwards as if asking for guidance. "God…"
One second later, the door flew open and Naveen and Charlotte burst into her room, huge smiles on their faces. "Oh Tia Tia Tia!" Charlotte jumped about the room. "This is so amazing, I'm so happy for you—where's it at? Where's the—"
"On the dresser," Tiana mumbled, point in its direction and immediately flopping her head down on the pillow again.
"Tiana, how can you sleep at a time like this?" Naveen asked. "Your dream has finally come true!"
"Not yet it hasn't," Tiana mumbled into her pillow. "I still need to get the place fixed up. So would y'all please leave me alone? I've gotta work tonight, and—"
"Aw, Tia, you work too much!" said Charlotte. "Besides, didn't you get your sleep last night?"
"I had to get up early to get to the real estate office first thing," said Tiana. Plus there was the little fact that it had taken her hours to fall asleep because she kept thinking of Naveen. But neither of them needed to know that.
"It doesn't seem fair that… after all the work you've done, you still have to work even more," said Naveen.
"Life ain't fair, Naveen," Tiana muttered.
"But… but after all you've gone through, and you still have to…"
"He's right, Tia," said Charlotte sympathetically. "How much more will you need?"
Tiana looked up from her pillow in irritation. "Nothing, Lottie. You know I don't take handouts! I shouldn't have even taken your money last night. I'm going to do this myself! —Look, I mean… I appreciate what y'all have done for me, and I'm very grateful… but no more. Let me take care of myself." She flopped back down into her pillow. "And let me sleep," she added, inarticulately mumbling into her pillow.
Charlotte and Naveen exchanged worried glances.
"Tiana," Naveen finally said, sporting his most charming smile, "forgive me for saying so, but I think it would do wonders for your physical and mental well-being if, instead of sleeping, you had a little fun instead."
"Can't. No time." Tiana still didn't look up from her pillow.
Naveen suddenly sat down on her bed and playfully rolled her over, pulling her face away from the pillow. "Well, at least smile then. Surely you have time to smile?"
And Tiana did smile without even having to force herself to. Seeing Naveen smiling at her made her, for just a second but what a glorious second it was, forget about her troubles, despite the fact that he wasone of her troubles. It was impossible to frown when he was around. He made every sorrow in her lift…
But he wasn't hers.
Her smile faded.
"There's your smile," she said, turning away from him. "Now let me sleep!"
"Come on, Naveen," said Charlotte, pulling him up from the bed. "If she really is tired then she does need some sleep before headin' into work. Do you work tomorrow too, Tia?"
"Yep," said Tiana, still not looking at them.
"What about the next day?" Charlotte's voice was unusually soft. "Because Naveen and I are gonna be leavin' for Maldonia on Saturday, and—"
That got Tiana to turn back around. "Saturday? But—but that's only three days from now!"
"I know," said Charlotte. "There's a lot of planning to do for our royal wedding! But… oh, crickets, Tiana, I'm gonna miss you! And—and I wanna spend some time with you before I leave! Of course, it won't be goodbye forever, you'll be welcome to come visit us anytime—"
"Oh yes," Naveen agreed instantly, "you will be a guest of the highest honor, I assure you." His voice had also grown soft.
"And we'll come back to New Orleans to visit you, too!" Charlotte added. "I'm certainly gonna wanna eat at your restaurant once you get it open, and you will too, right Naveen?"
"Of course! Many times!"
"But, you know, bein' across an ocean and all…"
Tiana felt tears spring to her eyes, and she quickly turned back around before either Charlotte or Naveen could see them.
"Friday," she mumbled. "Be here at 10:00 in the morning or thereabouts. You'll have me all day."
"Oh, thank goodness!" Charlotte said with a smile. "I was hoping you'd have at least one day free before we left. We're gonna go shoppin', and don't you think for a moment that I ain't buyin' you pretty things, 'cuz I am, I'm gonna have to make up for all the time I'm gonna lose with you when I leave, and—"
"Lottie," Tiana groaned, "you can talk all about what you're gonna do with me on Friday when Friday gets here. Today's Wednesday. Let me sleep."
"She is not one to be argued with," said Naveen matter-of-factly.
"Ain't that the truth! Well, sleep tight, Tia. See you Friday! Come on, Naveen."
Tiana waited until she heard her bedroom door close before finally letting herself cry. So much for sleeping.
"I'm worried about Tiana," Charlotte said, putting her hands on her hips and staring at the closed door to her bedroom. Her voice was low to avoid disturbing her, but still peppered with its usual touch of emphasis and enthusiasm. Her expression was one of both worry and annoyance.
"So am I, but you know how she gets when she's in one of her moods," sighed Eudora, standing up from her sewing machine again. "Probably best just to let her sleep."
"How is she supposed to enjoy her dream finally comin' true by just sleeping and working all the time? That's all she did before!" Charlotte huffed in confusion. "What's even changed?"
"But she will be happy though," Naveen piped in, "eventually… after she's gotten a nap in… right?"
"She's had a very long and confusing week," smiled Eudora. "I'm sure after she's had a little bit of rest, she'll fully realize just how far she's come and how close she is to achieving her goals."
"As long as she is happy," Naveen murmured, also staring at the closed bedroom door.
Eudora smiled again, although this one was a bit more embarrassed and apologetic. "If I'd'a known that you'd be visiting my house of all places, Prince Naveen, I certainly woulda spent a month tidying this place up! Never thought I'd be entertaining royalty!"
"Oh no, the pleasure is all mine, Mrs. Wilcox," said Naveen, automatically flashing her a charming smile. "You have a… remarkable daughter." The smile grew softer.
"I know I do." Eudora joined Naveen in smiling at the closed door as if it were transparent and Tiana was visible to them.
Charlotte was still biting her lip and looking at the door quizzically, however. "Yeah, remarkably stubborn and bull-headed! If she ain't smiling by the time I see her on Friday I'm gonna tape the corners of her mouth up and make her smile!"
"She won't be smiling if she misses work no matter what you do," said Eudora. "You'd best let her sleep."
"Suppose so," said Charlotte with a sigh. "Besides, we can't hang around here too long either. There's so much left to do before leavin' for Maldonia!" She hurriedly took Naveen's arm and led him to the door. "Mrs. Wilcox, is there any way I could take you to the palace with me and have you be my official royal dressmaker? Can't imagine anyone else makin' my clothes!" She giggled. "While we're at it, we can move Tiana to Maldonia too and she can be the royal chef!"
Eudora smiled apologetically. "I'm afraid we're both too tied down where we're at, Charlotte."
"Nuts." Charlotte shrugged. "Oh well, it didn't hurt to ask! See you later, Mrs. Wilcox!" She quickly shot out of the house, dragging a startled Naveen behind her.
"Abinaza!" Naveen managed to say before being whisked away.
Eudora chuckled to herself. "Sure hope that prince is used to getting dragged away like that." She picked up a bundle of cloth and headed back to her sewing machine, but paused and looked back at Tiana's bedroom door thoughtfully.
"You have a… remarkable daughter."
Eudora still didn't have all the details of just what her daughter had been through during the past few days, but what she did know was that, somehow, she had become a frog and had to work together with the prince to find a way to undo the magic. Prince Naveen certainly would have had to put up with Tiana's determination and drive throughout the entire ordeal, and Eudora could only imagine how cranky Tiana must have been throughout the whole thing, being a frog and missing work and everything. But still… Naveen had sounded strangely affectionate when he spoke of her, as if something about her brittle exterior had charmed him. As if he had been one of the few people to see the fun, caring girl hiding underneath. Most people, Eudora thought sadly, didn't get close enough to Tiana to even attempt to dispel their (often negative) first impression of her. And that worried Eudora. The possibility that Tiana might live her last years completely and utterly alone was becoming more and more likely with each passing day. She had always been grateful for Charlotte's bubbly optimism and cheerfulness that balanced out Tiana, giving her a much-needed friend. Now it seemed Naveen could fulfill the same role… or could have fulfilled the same role.
Both Charlotte and Naveen were going to be gone in a scant few days. The only people in the world besides Tiana's parents that seemed to know her true self and care for it, appreciate it, love it. Care and appreciation and love that Tiana so desperately needed.
Eudora sat down with a weary sigh, unable to shake the feeling that what Tiana needed most in her life was about to walk right out of it.
Charlotte LaBouff, despite being from the complete opposite of the social class spectrum, was far from an unusual sight in Tiana's neighborhood. The neighbors had quickly accepted and taken in Louis, too, especially considering the short amount of time he had been there. But the rarity of a bonafide prince in their presence caused everyone to flock to the only slightly overwhelmed Naveen.
"Land sakes, Naveen," Charlotte exclaimed at the hoards of people that instantly congregated about him the minute they stepped foot outside. "How do you even breathe with so many people crowdin' around?"
Naveen shrugged. "I'm used to it." Suddenly his eyes flickered to his right, where Louis was lounging around, holding his trumpet and watching the commotion with interest. "Ah, Louis! Just the gator I was looking for!"
"Naveen, we don't have time to socialize!" Charlotte said, dragging him by the arm even more forcefully.
"Wait, Charlotte, wait!" Naveen pulled himself away for the briefest of moments. "Louis, how long do you plan on staying here?"
"Forever!" Louis replied instantly. "I love it here! I can play jazz and eat good food and be with people who love jazz and good food and—"
"Fantastic! Just what I wanted to hear! Erm… you don't have any plans for Friday, right?"
"Not really," shrugged Louis.
"Great! While Tiana and Charlotte have their girls' day out, you and I can have our guys' day out! Listen to all the street musicians, hit all the dance parlors, eat all the beignets we can eat… it will be fun, no?"
"Definitely!" said Louis enthusiastically. "Can't wait!"
"Achidanza! Excellent! I'll—"
"Come on, Naveen, we don't have all day!"
Naveen stumbled only a little from Charlotte's forceful tug on his arm. "I'll see you Friday then! Abinaza!"
"Later, alligator!" laughed Louis.
Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.
"How about that one?"
"Tia, ain't you got eyes? They're all gorgeous!"
Tiana sighed with exasperation at Charlotte's disapproval of her disapproval. "Yes, and they're also all huge and loud and gaudy."
Charlotte pointed again at the last necklace she had indicated, on the very edge of the display shelf at the uptown jeweler's they were shopping at. "But that's the smallest one here!"
"Come on, Tiana. You'd look pretty in this one. It ain't gaudy at all." Charlotte quickly made her way behind the shelf and barked out a command to the jeweler. "William, take that one out and try it on her. That slender one on the end there, with the emerald pendant."
William grumbled, but opened the drawer and unclasped the hook of the necklace, bringing it to Tiana's neck. Tiana could feel his irritation, an irritation to match her own uneasiness. She honestly wouldn't be all that surprised if she was the first black person to ever set foot in his shop. If she had been alone, or even with anyone else other than Charlotte, he certainly would have thrown her out by now. But no one ever argued with Big Daddy LaBouff's daughter, even before she got herself engaged to a prince, making her an official princess-to-be.
And since no one ever argued, Charlotte never even had the slightest notion that there was any problem. When it came to race she was completely colorblind, which was both a good and bad thing. Good in that she never made a distinction between blacks, whites, and any other race and just treated everyone as people rather than colors; bad in that it simply never occurred to her that others didn't share her views, that others wouldn't be as accepting of her taking Tiana to all the places she wanted to go. Tiana had been remarkably privileged to have Charlotte as a friend, getting to experience many of the white-upper-class society perks that she had. Strange to think that after today she wasn't going to have that privilege anymore.
Charlotte smiled, happily and innocently, when William fastened the necklace around Tiana's neck. "It suits you, Tia. Let me buy it for you, please! I ain't gonna get the chance to buy you pretty things for a long time now, and you simply must have this necklace! It was made for you!"
"Okay, fine," Tiana finally relented, examining herself in the small mirror perched on the display shelf. "But only this one. I don't need a thousand necklaces."
"Of course you don't!" laughed Charlotte, handing over a stack of bills to William without batting an eye. "Five hundred is a sensible amount for anyone. Let's go grab a bite to eat, I'm famished!" With a whirl, she pulled Tiana out of the shop, leaving no time for further arguments or discussions.
"Let's go to Maurice's," Charlotte was chirping excitedly, almost skipping down the street. "They've got the best po'boys you've ever tasted!"
Tiana smirked. "Even better than mine?"
"Well, not quite that good." Charlotte suddenly harrumphed crossly. "I still wish you could come to Maldonia with Naveen and me. You could be our chef! I'm sure you're better than any of the royal chefs there!"
Tiana forced out a laugh. "Even if that were true, I can't exactly just uproot my restaurant and move it across the ocean."
"I still am gonna miss your cooking though. Ooh! Do you think—" Charlotte reached into her purse and began to pull out more money.
"Lottie, for the last time, stop tryin' to give me money!"
"I ain't just givin' it to you! I know this is short notice, but if you could whip up a bunch of your beignets for me, I can pack them and take them to Maldonia with me! They won't last long, I'm sure, but at least it'll be somethin'. And I'll pay you for them, too."
Tiana finally felt herself smile a genuine smile. "Alright, when you put it that way. I could definitely use the money."
"I'm still buyin' your lunch today, though," said Charlotte.
Across town, at the French quarter, a certain prince and a certain alligator were getting odd stares too… but those stares were more of the pleased and delighted variety. No one could frown at the bouncy, lively jazz music the two friends were creating, lest of all Louis and Naveen themselves.
"Achidanza!" Naveen exclaimed, laughing with such merriment that he was unable to continue playing on his ukulele any longer. "That was one of the best songs I have ever heard!"
"What's it called, Your Highness?" an onlooker asked in awe.
Naveen shrugged good-naturedly. "How should I know? Louis and I only just now made it up! What do you think it's called, Louis?"
Louis pulled his trumpet away from his lips to laugh even more gleefully than Naveen had. "I think it's called 'I Can't Imagine a Better Time Than This'!"
"You can say that again!" Naveen strummed a finishing chord, which Louis immediately harmonized on his trumpet. "You have quite the ear!" Naveen said. "How on earth can you improvise so quickly?"
"It's the music in my soul, brother!"
"Good answer! And my soul has only just begun the melodies!"
"My soul needs a lunch break," Louis said apologetically, a huge rumble from his tummy accentuating his remark.
Naveen chuckled. "Very well. Where's the best place to grab a bite to eat?" he asked the crowd.
A man pointed down the street to a building caddy-corner from where they were at. "Duke's Diner's one of the best places in town."
"Excellent! Thank you, my good man." Naveen spun around and ambled his way to the restaurant, Louis lumbering behind him.
"Mm, I can't wait!" Louis said eagerly. "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse! Five horses! Ten horses!"
Naveen made a face of disgust. "Horses are eaten in New Orleans? Perhaps I should be glad I'm leaving so soon!"
"Just a figure of speech… although I have heard from other gators that they're quite tasty," Louis added thoughtfully.
Naveen pushed open the door with his usual dramatic flair. "Manidaza, everyone! Do you have room for two more?"
All the customers and employees stared at the newcomers in shock. It wasn't every day that a prince nor an alligator graced the restaurant, much less both at the exact same time.
Buford got over his shock first. "Uh-uh, I don't think so! No gators in my restaurant!"
Louis recoiled back in hurt shock. "But…"
Naveen, however, just shrugged. "Alright, very well. I won't eat here either, then. You turn away my friend, you turn away me… and I am sure that is the kind of image you want for your restaurant, turning away a prince such as myself…"
"Wait, wait, wait!" Buford quickly said. "I suppose… I can make an exception… just this once…"
"Thank you!" said Naveen, tipping his cap amiably and sitting down at the front countertop.
Louis whistled, impressed. "Man, I gotta hang out with you more often!"
Naveen opened up the menu sitting in front of him and glanced over it quickly. "Now what sounds good…" He made a motion with his hand to catch the attention of the waiter. "Pardon me, my good sir. What would you suggest?"
"Well, the beignets are a local favorite, Your Highness."
The man sitting to the right of Naveen gave a low chuckle. "Yeah, they good, alright, but you shoulda come here when Tiana Wilcox is workin'! She make the best beignets in the city!"
Naveen's eyes instantly lit up. "Tiana? This is where Tiana works? Achidanza! I certainly picked the right restaurant! It is a shame she's not working today—no wait, I take that back, she is spending time with Charlotte and she certainly deserves a day off—but still! If her beignets are even half as good as her gumbo they must be to die for!"
"Hold up a minute," said Buford, who had been listening in on the conversation. "First Tiana's always got her head in the clouds going on about that dream of hers that obviously is never gonna come true but always believed it would anyway, then she suddenly gets money almost just handed off to her, and to top it all off she cooked for a prince and he's sittin' in here right now singin' her praises? What lucky star was the gal born under, anyway?"
Naveen sighed dreamily and look upwards at the ceiling. "Evangeline, I would guess."
"So, will you be ordering the beignets then?" the waiter asked.
Quickly jolting back to reality, Naveen nodded, although a bit distractedly. "Yes, yes, the beignets will be fine, thank you."
"I'll just take your everything gumbo, with extra everything, please!" said Louis cheerfully.
"Right on that… sir," said the waiter awkwardly, apparently not being sure of how to properly address an alligator.
Naveen set the menu down, his smile gone. "Louis," he said slowly, "I was wondering if I might… ask a favor of you."
"Sure thing, Naveen! What is it?"
"Well… you did say that you are planning on staying with Tiana indefinitely, correct? You don't plan on going back to the bayou anytime soon?"
"Heck no!" laughed Louis. "It's so much greater here! I can play jazz all the time, and once Tiana opens her restaurant she told me I can play in it!"
"Good! Good!" Naveen leaned over closer to Louis so he could continue the conversation in a lower volume. "I am glad you'll be with Tiana. It's never good for anyone to be lonely. And that's why I want you to… take care of her. —Not that she needs anyone to take care of her, she is perfectly capable of taking care of herself, I am not insinuating that she's weak or anything! But whenever she's lonely or sad, just be there for her, as a friend, you know—"
Louis knowingly crossed his stubby arms and rested them on the countertop. "Why you marryin' Charlotte, anyway?"
Naveen flinched. As if he hadn't been asking himself that very same question these last few days… "I am marrying her because I need to marry a rich young woman, that's why. It makes perfect sense—"
"It don't when it's Tiana you're in love with."
Naveen sighed helplessly. "Is it that obvious?"
"Just a little."
Sighing again, Naveen pressed his fingers to his forehead and rubbed it bitterly. "But—but that is precisely why I have to marry Charlotte. I promised to marry her only if she would help Tiana get her restaurant. Which she did, and now I have to live up to my end of the bargain. It was the only way I could help Tiana, you see? If… if I married her, I couldn't have gotten her that restaurant in time. I'm still broke, and she needed the money for it the very next day, and…" He stopped kneading his forehead and simply pressed his face into his palms helplessly. "There was nothing else I could do. This was the only thing I could do to get her her dream. And more than anything else I want to see her dreams come true." He looked back at Louis, with a sad and pleading look that the gator had never seen on his face before. "So please, Louis, since I cannot be here with her to make sure her final steps towards her dream go smoothly, can you do that for me? Just make sure that she's happy?"
"Of… of course, yeah, I can do that." Louis gave Naveen a worried look. "But what about you?"
Naveen looked straight ahead, although his body was still slumped over helplessly. "I'll manage," he murmured.
Charlotte and Naveen had made plans to board the ship back to Maldonia early Saturday morning, but even then the dock was crowded with reporters and curious onlookers to get their last glimpses of the foreign prince and their own local sweetheart.
That "own local sweetheart", however, at the moment was zipping about between all the porters in a state of agitation and panic. "Be careful with that! My jewelry's in there, and—no, no, no! The ball gowns go there, the causal dresses go there! As if I'm gonna be wearing ball gowns on this cruise! And where are my lounge dresses? I can't be on an Atlantic cruise without my lounge dresses! They need to go in my cabin—my cabin's on the top deck, not down below! Honestly! And where are my hat boxes? We did bring them, didn't we? I know we packed them!"
In stark contrast to his fiancée's urgency, Naveen was simply lounging lazily on one of the boxes, his belongings already on the ship (granted, unlike Charlotte he wasn't too particular on exactly where his things went, so long as they were there), strumming his ukulele slowly. The tunes he was creating today didn't have quite the pizzazz they usually did. With a sigh, he looked up at the mismatched, small yet ornate buildings lining the streets of New Orleans.
The chord he strummed was a minor one. He looked at his ukulele in surprise. He rarely played in minor keys, and when he did it was always done on purpose. But this time, it had come out without his meaning to. Looking back at the city, he cocked his head to the side, still confused. How could looking at this amazing town move him to play a minor chord?
Because I'm leaving it, he thought sadly. Sighing, he placed his ukulele down next to him, not feeling it in his heart to play anymore.
It wasn't that he was dreading going back home. In fact, he actually missed his parents and his little brother and was looking forward to seeing them again. And there was certainly nothing dreadful in the least about his life there.
Except that Tiana's not there, he thought before he could stop himself. Groaning in irritation, he shook his head, trying to force the thought out of his head… with about as much success as he had had the past few days; that is, none at all. Alright, let's go through this again: it's GOOD that Tiana won't be there. She's staying here in New Orleans so she can finally make her dream come true. It's for the best and I've done everything I could for her, so I shouldn't be sad about it at all. I should be happy for her.
One problem, though: Naveen was selfish, and he knew it. And during these past few days, having to listen to Charlotte blabber on about their upcoming wedding and how she was going to be a real, bonafide princess and how absolutely perfect everything was working out, more than once it took Naveen literally biting his tongue from shouting at her, "I don't want to marry you, I want to marry Tiana." This was ridiculous—he had gotten Tiana the money she needed, and Charlotte couldn't very well take it back now that Tiana had already used it, so if he told her the truth and left her and went with Tiana instead…
Naveen sighed and rubbed his temples again. Oh yes, wouldn't that impress Tiana! She had taught him so much during the short time they had been together, including showing him how selfish he really was and teaching him how to do something for someone other than himself. And leaving Charlotte for Tiana, after he'd already promised Charlotte that he'd marry her… it didn't get much more selfish than that. As it was now, he was giving both Tiana and Charlotte all they'd ever wanted. Sure, he was going to be left unhappy, but if he followed what he wanted he would leave both of them unhappy. He sat up straighter with that thought, as if his resolve was returning. He was doing this to make Tiana happy. He had to take comfort in that. Because that really was all that he wanted, even more so than his being with her. If to make her happy he had to leave her, then… then he had to leave her. Simple as that.
"Naveen!" Charlotte shrieked, having blustered her way over to where he was sitting. "Don't just sit there, there's so much left to get loaded! Like that box you're sittin' on right now!"
Naveen shrugged, not looking at Charlotte. "I do not know where you want everything. I think I'd only get in your way."
"You're in my way right now!" Charlotte gave Naveen a shove in an attempt to push him off the crate. It really accomplished nothing, as Charlotte was quite a bit smaller than Naveen, but Naveen didn't really feel like getting into an argument with her, so he stood up and let the porters take his seat away, his ukulele still resting on top.
Charlotte was quickly distracted from berating Naveen any further, however. "Tiana!" She rushed over to where Tiana had appeared, wearing her overcoat, holding a large box, and looking as if she felt a bit out of place. "Thank goodness you made it in time! I was gettin' worried!"
Tiana gave Charlotte a small smile. "Wouldn't'a let you leave without your order, Lottie."
Charlotte smiled at Tiana, her lower lip trembling, for about three seconds before flinging herself into Tiana's arms as best she could, almost crushing the box full of beignets. "Oh, Tia, I'm gonna miss you!"
"I'm gonna miss you too, Lottie," said Tiana, struggling to keep the box from getting crushed by the hug. Naveen swiftly moved in and took the box from Tiana's hands. Tiana gave him a grateful smile before returning Charlotte's hug.
"I'll write to you," said Charlotte. "I'll write to you every day—well, every week at least. And you'll be gettin' a weddin' invitation from me, too! It'll hopefully be in a month, maybe two… the sooner the better… anyway, you're gonna be my maid of honor, of course, and don't worry, I'll pay for your ticket, I wouldn't let you miss my weddin' for the world! I just wish…"
Tiana pulled away from Charlotte. "You wish what?"
Charlotte bit her lip and, instead of saying anything, uncharacteristically remained silent and looked over her shoulder at the city.
Tiana stared at Charlotte in surprise. She doesn't want to leave.
Looking to her side, however, caused Charlotte to also catch a glimpse of Big Daddy. "Oh, Daddy!" she said tearfully, moving away to Tiana to say her goodbye to her father. Tiana continued to stare, feeling the sense of worry and despair that had been growing in her stomach all week increase tenfold.
"So, Tiana." Naveen's voice shook Tiana out of her worried glance, and she spun around to see him still holding the box of beignets with his normal playful, charming smile on his face. "What is in the box?"
"Beignets. Six dozen of 'em."
Naveen looked down at the box in awe. "Achidanza. You were quite busy last night! Let's see, six dozen, that makes seventy-two. Which should last me about… oh, one hour."
"Oh, no no no," said Tiana in mock chastisement. "Those are Lottie's beignets, not yours."
"You can't expect me to just completely ignore these delicious, scrumptious, tasty—"
"I don't expect you to. I just expect you to actually leave some for Lottie. She ordered them, after all."
"She had better keep an eye on them, that's all I'm saying." A porter walked by them with only a small suitcase in his hands, and Naveen got his attention by pushing the box of beignets into his free arm. "Pack this on the ship while you're at it."
"Where do you want it, Your Highness?"
Naveen shrugged. "Someplace I can find it."
Tiana laughed at the porter's confused shrug, apparently at a loss of what to do with this vague instruction after receiving dozens of exact orders from Charlotte. "And someplace Charlotte can find it too," she added.
With his hands now free, Naveen turned his attentions back to Tiana… or rather, her neck. "Hmm, what is this flash of gold I see?" he said, touching the chain of Tiana's necklace.
Tiana drew in her breath sharply. "My necklace… L-Lottie got it for me yesterday."
Naveen pulled down the collar of her jacket to get a better look at her new jewelry. "I like it," he said earnestly. "It is… delicate, but not too delicate." Holding the pendant in his hand, he raised his gaze back to Tiana's eyes. "You wear it well."
Tiana's heart thudded madly in her chest. Don't think this way, don't think this way, he doesn't love you, he doesn't love you, he's just doing this because he wants to get you in bed—but why would he bother with this when there's no TIME to get me in bed, he HAS to love me—but if he loves me then why is he leaving me—how can he be so irresistible, has EVERY one of his past conquests felt like I have?
Naveen continued to run his fingers up and down the pendant, holding it close enough to Tiana's neck that he was by extension stroking her as well. "Tiana… I just want to tell you… thank you. Thank you for everything you've done for me. You have—" He stopped, gazing into her eyes for a few moments, apparently having lost the thread of what he was trying to say. "Thank you," he finally said again, his fingers now stroking her neck much more than her necklace.
Tiana closed her eyes for a brief second, unable to concentrate on anything other than his touch. It's a lie, her common sense was still hissing in her ear, it's a lie that he loves you, and Tiana was still inclined to agree… but right now, it was a lie worth believing, and a lie that actually seemed to make a bit of sense.
Her eyes quickly flew open. "And thank you," she said, trying to keep her voice from shaking as much as her insides were, "for helping me get my restaurant. If it weren't for you and Lottie, I'd… well, I'd be back on square one right now."
Naveen smiled warmly at her. "Your restaurant is going to be amazing, because of how hard you've worked for it… But I want you to promise me something. Do not forget to have fun, alright? Take time to enjoy yourself, enjoy life, because… I know you will have an absolutely amazing one."
"As long as you promise me that you'll actually work once in a while and get off that lazy behind of yours," Tiana countered.
Naveen laughed. "No need to worry about that. You have taught me well, waitress."
The sound of the ship's horn blasted through the air, with the porters loading the last of the luggage on board. Tiana and Naveen glanced at the ship, at Charlotte still tearfully saying goodbye to Big Daddy, and back at each other.
Tiana forced herself to smile, praying that the tears that were starting to well up in her eyes would stay put, at least until the ship left. "Better get on board, Your Highness."
Naveen sighed, getting one last wistful look at New Orleans. "I suppose…" He let go of Tiana's necklace and brought his hand to her chin. "I will miss you," he murmured, kissing her forehead. "Abinaza."
He let go of her and reluctantly turned around to board the ship, Tiana struggling to continue standing upright, made difficult due to the shaking of her knees.
"Good… goodbye," she murmured.
Charlotte had finally moved away from Big Daddy also, wiping tears away from her eyes. "It won't be so bad, Daddy, I'll be seein' you in a month or so… never been away from you that long before though…" She sniffled and determinedly took her first step on the ramp. "So it ain't goodbye, it's see you later! See you later, Daddy! See you later, Tiana!"
Tiana brought up one hand to wave while the other wiped at her eyes. "See you later," she tried to call out, but the words got caught in her throat.
Charlotte and Naveen finished climbing up the ramp and looked down at the crowd, at the city, at everything they were leaving behind… and even though the cameras were going off left and right, both found that they were unable to smile for them.
Once upon a time I was falling in love
But now I'm only falling apart
Nothing I can do
A total eclipse of the heart…
-"Total Eclipse of the Heart", Bonnie Tyler
King Shakir of Maldonia looked at the scattered mess of papers lining his desk, all with lists of foreign dignitaries to meet, laws to pass (or veto), budgets to attend to… That made him wince more than anything else. Even after cutting Naveen off financially, the kingdom was still aching from the financial strain the irresponsible young prince had put upon them.
Shakir sighed and shook his head. He had perhaps been a bit too lenient on the boy up until now. After all, he had sown his share of wild oats as a young man too. But the boy was twenty-one now, no longer a boy really, and he had still shown no signs of improving when Queen Avani finally put her foot down. Shakir really had no choice but to agree with his wife. They simply couldn't put up with his immaturity any longer. If Naveen wanted to continue to lead the life he lived, he'd have to do it on his own.
Although… had sending him to the United States been such a good plan? Sure, so it was the country more than anywhere else in the world were one had to work to prove themselves no matter what their social rank, but it was also a melting pot of amusements and frivolities. No sooner had Shakir ordered Naveen be sent to the United States had Naveen hopped on a ship to New Orleans, grinning the entire time. With the prince's love of jazz, it was hardly surprising the Crescent City would be the one he chose. And they hadn't heard back from him since then. He had been gone nearly a month, and—
The minister of finance, Lord Mortier, burst into the king's office without any sort of formal protocol. "Sire—pardon the intrusion, but—Prince Naveen has just returned on a cruise line from the United States."
Shakir stood up in shock. "He has returned? Already? Does—well, does he have anything to show for his time spent there?"
Mortier gave Shakir a look that was both apologetic and annoyed. "Nothing but a wealthy fiancée, Sire."
Shakir pressed his face to his palm. "Faldi faldonza."
Since their arrival to Maldonia had been rather unexpected, Naveen and Charlotte had to take a cab to the palace rather than the usual royal carriage, although not that either one minded riding in cabs. Charlotte had ridden in cabs (albeit upscale ones) her whole life, and Naveen found them more comfortable than the stiff regality of royal carriages anyway. The royal palace was only a short drive away from the port of entry to Cruce Sagraldi, the capital city of Maldonia. When stepping off the cab and looking at the ornate, polished marble palace, both Naveen and Charlotte smiled some of their first genuine smiles of the whole week; Naveen happy to be home, Charlotte happy to see a real-life castle.
"This is amazing, Naveen," Charlotte breathed, taking it all in. "Even when I read all my fairy-tale books as a child I never imagined a palace to look so grand in person. And right on the seaside, too! It's so… magical." Charlotte let out a breathy sigh.
Naveen shrugged. "That is not such a good thing always, actually… squawking seagulls have been known to keep visitors up all night—"
The heavy slam of a palace door and quick, tiny, excited footsteps interrupted him. "Naveen!" a high-pitched, excited voice shouted out.
Naveen grinned. "Asher!" he cried happily.
A small boy dressed in royal regalia ran across the front lawn, his strides small but quick. Naveen quickly caught up to him and engulfed him in a huge hug, the little boy shrieking with happy laughter. They chattered in Maldonian, Charlotte not understanding a word of it, but still feeling her smile remain on her lips.
Asher took notice of Charlotte and gave a confused look. "Queno esí?" he asked.
Naveen smiled at him. "English, Asher, English so that she can understand us. This is Miss Charlotte LaBouff from New Orleans. Can you say hello and tell her your name?"
Asher flashed a grin at Charlotte, a grin that indicated that in a decade or so he was probably going to take after his older brother in more ways than one. "Hello, my name is Prince Asher!"
"Well, how do you do, Prince Asher!" said Charlotte, leaning down to shake his hand. "It's a pleasure to meet such a well-groomed li'l prince!"
"Why are you here?" Asher asked, getting straight to the point.
"She is going to be your sister-in-law," said Naveen.
Asher looked confused. "Mio qualta?"
"Well, you see, I am going to marry her. Then she'll be like your sister."
"It's always nice to be the first to hear when our son is getting married," a sarcastic voice cut in.
Naveen looked up and saw King Shakir and Queen Avani approaching, with small, stern smiles on their faces. He leapt up and engulfed both of them in a hug, perhaps a little too forcefully to seem one hundred percent genuine. "Madrina! Papeto! Telpi musha s'delgil—"
"Aren't you going to introduce us to your fiancée?" Avani interrupted in English.
"Oh!" Naveen quickly turned around and motioned to Charlotte, who still looked completely awestruck by the actual royal palace in front of her. "Madrina, Papeto, this is Miss Charlotte LaBouff from New Orleans. Charlotte, this is my father, King Shakir, and my mother, Queen Avani."
Charlotte remembered to curtsy in the most regal manner possible. "It's an honor, Your Highnesses!"
Shakir and Avani both smiled warmly. "It is indeed a pleasure, Miss LaBouff," said Avani. "We will have a servant along shortly to attend to your belongings and show you to your room." Her smile faded and she turned to Naveen. "Naveen, niedrilpa do falabri t'coves."
Naveen's face fell in worry at his mother's change in tone, matched by his father's stern glare. "Uh… clardio, Madrina."
"What did she say?" Charlotte whispered to Asher.
"She needs to have a word with him," Asher whispered back. He giggled. "Naveen's in trouble…"
"Oh dear," Charlotte murmured. "I certainly hope it's not because of me."
"What about Charlotte?" Naveen asked dryly, standing in front of the ornate desk in his father's office.
"You cannot marry her," Shakir said firmly. "We sent you to the United States to make something of yourself. You interpret that as 'marry into money'. I can tell by the way she's dressed that she's from America's upper-class. And the fact of the matter is, although she may be the American equivalent of a princess, she is not one. You are royalty and can only marry royalty."
"Did you even hear what your father said?" Avani demanded.
Naveen blinked suddenly, realizing that he had to show some sort of reaction to this ultimatum other than indifference. "But… but I promised her I'd marry her. I gave her my word."
"Did you fail to realize that she is not royalty?" Shakir asked angrily. "You can't marry just anyone!"
Naveen shrugged, now having to fake indifference rather than his true joy at being handed a free pass out of marrying Charlotte. "Very well, then, if you say so. I will not marry her."
Instead of seeming pleased, however, Shakir looked even more upset. "Why does this not surprise me?" he roared. "We tell you you need to work to repay your debt to our nation. Instead you grab the first rich girl you see and propose to her. And now that you're back in Maldonia and have our disapproval, you can discard her and go right back to your old ways!"
Naveen clenched his fists in quickly rising anger. "That's not true," he said.
"Well then, why do you want to marry her?" Avani asked, an understanding firmness to her voice. "Do you love her?"
"No, I—" Naveen looked away and fell silent.
"We can bend some rules, Naveen," Shakir said. "If you do truly love her, we could make an exception just this once. But your reactions right now are proving to me that you don't love her, you only intended on marrying her for money, and so in this case I cannot make an exception purely to satisfy your own selfish gain!"
"That's not true!" Naveen shouted, his anger finally getting the better of him. "I promised to marry her for money, yes, but not for me!"
"For whom, then?" Avani asked suspiciously.
Naveen sighed helplessly, his outburst of anger gone. He hadn't intended on saying anything to them… he didn't want to dwell on it, he didn't want his parents to think he was trying to show himself as a martyr to them, he just wanted to ignore and possibly forget the true reason why he had agreed to marry Charlotte. But now it looked like he had no other choice. "I met someone in New Orleans who had this dream. A dream of owning a restaurant. She… she believed in the dream so much, and it was the light inside of her that made her shine. I was going to help her get it. I was going to get a job and work, even if I had to work every hour of every day for years to get her what she wanted—but if she didn't have the money for it by the very next day she lost the building—her restaurant—her dream—forever. So I promised to marry Charlotte if and only if in return she gave Tiana all the money she needed to buy her restaurant." He flopped weakly into a chair against the wall, rubbing his temples. "That is why I am engaged to Charlotte."
Shakir and Avani looked at each other in surprise.
Naveen sighed, cutting the silence. "Tiana has her restaurant now," he said weakly. "So if it really is true that I can't marry Charlotte… I don't care. I've already helped Tiana, so nothing else matters anymore."
Shakir cleared his throat gruffly. "Naveen… I apologize for what I said earlier. Your actions have proven to me that you have learned humility and selflessness. And I am very proud of you for that."
"As am I," nodded Avani.
Naveen shook his head. "Selfless? No, I am still as selfish as I always have been. I'm just in love."
Avani stood up and gave her eldest son a hug. "Love is the great equalizer, Naveen. I think you'll make a great king."
"As for Charlotte…" Shakir smiled. "We'll have to monitor her to make sure she'll make a good queen, but as of right now I think we'll give her an unofficial okay. I certainly don't want to see you go back on your word to marry her."
Naveen looked up at his father and groaned. "Papeto! Is this the kind of reward I get for being selfless—getting tied down in marriage?"
Shakir laughed. "You gave her your word, right? I'm not one to crush her dreams, either. Besides, it's about time you settled down. You have finally learned some responsibility and I won't let you forget it so soon!"
A flutter of dust came down with the tarp that Tiana tore from the wall, collecting in her lungs and forcing out hoarse coughs. She sat down on an upside-down barrel, catching her breath and looking around the sugar mill—her future restaurant—and at all the work she'd done… a lot, but in comparison to what still needed to be done, hardly anything at all.
She groaned, tired of the negative thoughts that had constantly plagued her for the past month giving her no rest. Pulling down yet another tarp from the ceiling with an equal amount of dust sent flying through the air, she sighed, eyeing the broom and dustpan in the corner. As long as it was taking to clear the debris and junk from the building, it took just as long to clean up the messes left behind.
"Feels like I'm getting nowhere," Tiana muttered to herself, gathering both tarps and throwing them in a corner with other assorted trash. She hardly had any time to work on the building anyway, what with her two jobs tying her down.
Grabbing the broom and sweeping away the dust and assorted garbage from behind the wall the first tarp was covering, Tiana bit her lip in determination. This was ridiculous thinking, after all—she was still young, not even twenty years old yet, and two months ago she certainly wouldn't have imagined she'd be as far as she was now. It felt like she wasn't making any progress, but in a couple of years, maybe, she'd be ready. It was just a long-term goal, that's all. It always had been. She just had to keep reminding herself of that.
The front doors opened with a creak. "Tiana, you still here?"
"Back near where the stage is gonna be, Mama!" Tiana responded, leaning down and holding the dustpan steady.
Eudora sighed as she approached her. "Honey, do you even realize how late it is?"
"I only just got—" Tiana turned and looked out the window, surprised to see that it was completely dark outside. "—here," she finished with hesitation.
"It's nearly nine o'clock. You need to get back home."
"Not yet. Lemme clean this up first."
Eudora leaned down as best she could and held the dustpan steady while Tiana swept the debris into it. "Tiana, you're always either working your jobs or working here. You barely even sleep anymore. All this working ain't good for a person. You need to take a break."
"How can I take a break?" Tiana demanded. "The more time I rest, the longer it'll take for this restaurant to be a reality!"
Eudora stood up and took the broom out of Tiana's hands. "At this rate you're gonna work yourself to death. And how can you own a restaurant when you're dead?"
"Just lemme finish sweeping. That's it."
Eudora sighed again, reluctantly returning the broom to Tiana. "Well, at least, if the letter you got in the mail is what I think it is, you'll be gettin' a vacation here pretty soon."
Eudora smiled, reaching into her pocket and pulling out an ornately monogrammed envelope. "This letter. I've been waitin' all day for you to get home and open it so see what it is, and I couldn't wait any longer, so I brought it to you. Go on, open it!"
Tiana took it with hesitation, carefully opening the envelope and pulling out a beautiful, lacy invitation. She took a deep breath, it being just what both she and Eudora expected it was. "'Their Majesties King Shakir and Queen Avani of Maldonia, and Mr. Eli LaBouff of New Orleans, Louisiana, request your presence at the royal wedding of their children, Crown Prince Naveen of Maldonia and Miss Charlotte LaBouff, to be held at two o'clock on Saturday, June the fifth, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and twenty-six, at the royal cathedral in Cruce Sagraldi, Maldonia.'" Tiana reached into the envelope again, feeling something else. "And… there's a ticket for my passage for Maldonia on the ship The Majestic, leaving New Orleans May twenty-fifth. First class, too."
Eudora grinned at Tiana. "A Maldonian vacation sounds like just the thing you need."
Tiana turned her head away from her mother and closed her eyes, sliding the invitation and ticket back into the envelope. "I ain't going, Mama."
"Oh no. Don't you give me that," said Eudora sternly. "Charlotte's your best friend. You cannot miss your best friend's wedding."
"There's… there's too much work to be done here," said Tiana. "I'd be gone for a month, at least. I can't do that."
"There ain't any time limit on when you need to get this place finished!" Eudora exclaimed in disbelief. "You're going. There's no room for argument."
Tiana's eyes flashed back to Eudora in desperation. "I… I can't go across an ocean on a cruise, I'd get seasick, I just can't—"
"Tiana, your best friend just handed you a free first-class ticket to go halfway around the world to a beautiful island to share in the happiest day of her life! You cannot say no!"
Breaking down, Tiana hurled the broom against the far wall. "I love him, Mama!"
The broom clattered and fell to the floor, making only a small thud. Tiana took in a heavy, heaving breath; then another; then suddenly reached down the floor, grabbed the dustpan, and flung it against the wall too, creating another clang that sent everything she had swept up scattered back on the ground and in the air again.
Eudora stared at her daughter, unable to move from surprise.
Tiana pressed one hand against the wall, her other hand against her face. "I love him, Mama," she repeated helplessly. "I love him, and I thought he loved me too."
Eudora finally took a step forward and put her arms around her daughter's shoulders. "Oh, honey," she murmured softly.
"I thought I was different to him," Tiana murmured as her mother comfortingly patted her back. "He did so many things for me… when we were frogs… he actually made me dinner and was falling all over himself trying to impress me… and later that night he said he'd do anything for me… and I had the gall to believe him," she muttered harshly.
"Babycakes… from what I saw, he's done a lot for you, probably more than you realize. He's the reason you're the owner of this building in the first place."
"I have this rusty ol' building but I don't have him," Tiana said, her voice becoming bleary due to her sobs. "I wanted to marry him. I thought he wanted to marry me, too. I never thought I'd get married before then, but the idea of it… with him… and now I have to live without him, and it's something I've done before now and I know now that he was just saying those things to me to charm me like he's charmed every other girl he's ever met and he didn't really mean them, but still…" She sniffled. "I still want him. I need him. I…" She pulled away and looked at Eudora pleadingly. "Please don't make me watch him get married to someone else. I'd rather never see him again."
"Honey, that ain't an option for you," said Eudora gently. "He's marrying your best friend. You can't avoid either of them."
Tiana snapped her head around to stare at the floor bitterly. "I can't see them getting married. Please… I can't go. I can't watch that. If I have to see them, give me more time to get over him."
Eudora patted Tiana's arm tenderly. "I ain't gonna make you do anything, sweetheart. You do what you feel you need to do. Now come on, let's get you home. It's far too late to be out."
She gently led Tiana to the door, Tiana looking down at the ground in heartbreak and defeat. But suddenly she looked up at her mother. "Mama? Does the hurt ever go away?"
Eudora looked back at her and sighed sadly. "It eases up in time… but no, Tiana. The hurt never goes away."
First it was passion, then it became duty, and finally an intolerable burden.
Tiana looked up gratefully when she heard the door to Duke's Diner open and Maddy, the new young waitress Buford had just hired, step in. It had been a remarkably busy day and Tiana was relieved to have her shift being taken over.
"You look beat," Maddy said sympathetically. "Busy day?"
"And how," Tiana muttered. "You have fun."
"I'll do my best. You better go home and get some rest."
Tiana shook her head. "I need to get some work done on my restaurant before I work at Cal's tonight."
Maddy sighed. "Girl, if you don't take a break soon, you're gonna fall apart."
Tiana sighed too, untying her apron and hanging it on a hook near the kitchen door. "There's a lot of work to do, Maddy, and I'm only one person. Louis helped me move a lot of the heavy stuff out and knocked down some walls for me, but his arms a little too short and stubby to help me with the painting… and I'm about ready to start the painting, that is once I solidify the foundations and fix that hole in the roof—"
"That's way too much work for only one person. You need some help. From someone who ain't an alligator." Maddy took the apron from the hook and tied it around her waist, pulling out the notepad and pencil from the pocket and quickly making her way over to the customer who had just walked in. "How can I help you, sir?"
"Just a bowl of your chicken gumbo for me."
"Right away." Scribbling his order down, Maddy turned to Tiana. "And how can I help you?"
Tiana blinked. "What… what do you mean? You offerin' to help me with my restaurant?"
Maddy shrugged. "I ain't much for physical labor, but I think I'm decent with a brush, anyway. If you need help—and I know you do—just give me a holler."
Tiana smiled gratefully. "Well, alright, but I won't let you walk out for free. I'm gonna pay you. You'll be my hired hand."
Maddy laughed. "Ain't gonna argue there, I need the money! See you tomorrow, Tiana."
"See you, Maddy!" Tiana stepped out of the diner and to where the streetcar was just pulling up. Right on time. Tiana hopped on board just as another man was stepping off. In the seat he had been occupying, he left a newspaper behind.
"Sir," Tiana called out, "do you want your—"
But the man had already walked off. Shrugging, Tiana sat down in the seat he had previously occupied and picked up the paper.
That was a mistake.
Tiana hadn't forgotten what day it was—Saturday, June fifth. She hadn't forgotten what that meant, what was happening in Maldonia, it had been weighing on her mind the entire day. But she hadn't been expecting it to be front-page news in New Orleans.
LOCAL DEBUTANTE WEDS PRINCE TODAY!
Miss Charlotte LaBouff of New Orleans, the daughter of sugar baron Eli LaBouff, has for many years been our local celebrity, but today is the day that she officially becomes a princess, due to her marriage to Prince Naveen of Maldonia. Our own local daughter will by day's end be princess of the small island nation located in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Mr. LaBouff himself has been in Maldonia for the past few weeks, overseeing the hasty marriage preparations.
"Charlotte didn't want to wait a minute," he said. "All her life she's dreamt of becoming a princess."
Some writers of royalty magazines have already remarked with disfavor on the haste, the couple having only met less than four months earlier, when His Royal Highness visited our fair city during Mardi Gras. Many royal marriages in the past were arranged at birth or soon thereafter, but the more modern thinking of a prince choosing his bride on his own terms has become the norm in many a monarchy, including this one. The circumstances of the engagement, however, is what causes many to worry. Naveen and Charlotte had only known each other for a day before Naveen, recently cut-off financially, proposed to the wealthy debutante. A marriage of convenience seems hardly enough to curb the notoriously philandering prince, many worry, and gossip columns in the area have low predictions for the long-term prospects of the couple.
Miss LaBouff, soon to be Princess of Maldonia, however seems determined to live out her dream of being a princess. If she can keep her new husband in check we feel that the marriage will be a successful one.
Tiana snorted bitterly, setting the paper back down. No, that man-whore of a prince was going to keep screwing around and breaking more hearts, no matter what Charlotte did. Tiana really shouldn't be mad at Charlotte, she should be pitying her for the mess of a situation the poor girl was in. And yet at the same time she should be thanking her for saving her from a similar fate, because it wouldn't have been any different if she had married him, right?
She realized almost too late that the streetcar had already made it to her restaurant stop. The car was beginning to move on again as Tiana hurriedly jumped out and made her way to the old sugar mill, the newspaper rolled up underneath her arm.
Oh, and the paper was right about something else too. Charlotte was only marrying Naveen because he was one, a prince; two, close to her in age; three, handsome; and four, available. The only purpose that girl thought marriage served was a stepping stone to a higher social plane! As if being the daughter of the richest man in Louisiana wasn't good enough for her?
Tiana pushed open the door to the still vastly unfinished restaurant—a little too forcefully. The door clanged against the wall loudly, but the wall still stayed in place and no damage to it or the door seemed to be visible. Well. Always good to test these things.
No, no, no, it wasn't right to be angry at Charlotte. This was her lifelong dream, after all. It was just… a really ridiculous one, to make such a light deal of marriage like that. Especially someone like Charlotte, who was always babbling on about true love, reading over-the-top romance books, giggling madly every St. Valentine's Day… but no one could possibly think for a minute that she was marrying for love now. How could she? Tiana felt her face flush in anger. I know Naveen so much better than she does, and—and—
She angrily kicked a wrench lying on the floor, sending it skidding on the floor and crashing into a (thankfully empty) pail, knocking it over. No harm done. She was going to need to use the wrench over there anyway… eventually.
Oh yes, Tiana thought with anger, she knew Naveen much better than Charlotte did—knew him well enough to know that she had narrowly escaped a life of pure hell! Why would she want to marry him now knowing what she knew—that he was only leading her on, that he only intended on marrying for money, that his roving ways likely hadn't changed a bit, and wouldn't have even if he had married her? Tiana was being saved a lifetime of heartbreak and despair, the only possible life a marriage to Naveen would produce. And yet apparently the trade-off was to be bitter and miserable trying fruitlessly to make this huge building something that it wasn't with limited manpower and limited resources and all alone and her heart was aching because everywhere she turned something reminded her that the man she loved was marrying someone else?
SMASH! In her frustration, Tiana punched the crumbling inner wall that had blocked off who-knows-what in the old sugar mill. Letting out a cry of pain, she pulled her hand to her mouth and sucked on it, tears of both physical and emotional pain welling in her eyes, as she looked to see that her fist had actually made a good-sized hole in the wall. Oh well. That wall needed to go down anyway.
Still sucking on her sore fist, Tiana helplessly sat down on a railing and rocked forward, rocked back, rocked forward again, trying to will herself from crying.
"Shit," she murmured.
The curse fell from her lips and disintegrated into the dusty air, but Tiana still felt a bit better with letting it out. Rocking back and forth one more time, she swallowed the unshed tears and brought her hand away from her mouth, red from the impact but not bleeding.
What was wrong with her, anyway? She had never planned on getting married. It wasn't just a "I-can't-ever-see-myself-getting-married" deal, either. It was always a "I-DON'T-want-to-get-married-ever-because-there's-gonna-be-no-room-in-my-life-for-a-husband-and-God-forbid-kids" deal. (Although Eudora still didn't seem to have gotten Tiana's hints on that.) For a few brief moments as a frog, she had been caught up in the obvious lies of an obvious womanizer and had forgotten that resolve, that was all. She was back on track now; there were no ridiculous notions of love in her way now. It wasn't weak of her to have fallen; surely many other strong-willed women before her had fallen for his charms. Surely he had fed that line about doing anything to make the girl of the day's dreams come true to every single one of his prospects.
He faked being genuinely awkward well.
He faked being genuinely affectionate well.
He faked being genuinely fond of her well.
I'm not gonna think about him anymore, Tiana resolved, looking up at the hole in the ceiling of the building, where the chandelier would one day hang, she was sure, when she had her restaurant and everything she'd ever dreamt of and she'd finally feel complete and happy.
Her own words that she had spoken to the shadow man suddenly echoed through her mind.
My daddy never did get what he wanted… but he had what he NEEDED! He had love! He never lost sight of what was really important! And neither—will—I!
Tiana moaned in despair, bringing her sore fist to her mouth again and seeing not the future home of a chandelier but instead a gaping hole in the ceiling that would probably never get repaired. "What's wrong with me?" she whispered.
Nobody was there to answer.
Princess Charlotte of Maldonia sat at her desk in her royal bedroom late at night, the room thankfully being far enough away from the ball downstairs to not hear its music and laughter, holding her pen poised above the paper, trying to figure out where to start with the letter. "Dear Tiana"—that was obvious, that was how all the letters started, but what then? In the past three months since her marriage she had written about a dozen letters to her friend, all filled with what life in the palace was like, gleefully recounting the best parts and completely skipping over the worst parts, the worst parts that actually took up the majority of the time. Tiana had written back only twice, both letters short, with little to say other than she was still working, still working on the restaurant, missed Charlotte, sorry for not coming to the wedding.
Charlotte bit her lip, her eyes narrowing for a brief second. She was still a bit upset at Tiana for not being there—although it was a lie to say that she had been all that surprised at the equally short and apologetic letter Tiana had sent in the mail, saying that she couldn't get away from work that long. She could, she just didn't want to. That was the problem. Although, in hindsight, perhaps it was best that Tiana wasn't there—the whole day was a fiasco, such a mad rush that even now, not long afterwards, the day seemed like just a blur in her mind—and not a happy blur. It was a blur of demanding reporters, demanding tailors, demanding photographers, all wanting her to look perfect.
Perfection was the word that guided every critique of Maldonia's new princess. She had to be perfect in posture. Perfect in manners. Perfect in charity. Perfect in refined sense of humor. And yes she had to do all this while being at the same time a perfectly modern princess. Attend parliament meetings, support almost every charitable cause under the sun, be well-versed on foreign policy, attend meetings of state… while all the time fending off the Maldonian press, an incessantly nit-picking bunch who seemed eager to watch Princess Charlotte fail.
It was why Charlotte had actually been looking forward to the ball that evening. Finally she'd have a chance to wear a real princess dress, waltz with her prince and other nobility present, and generally spend the night dancing and feeling every bit like the princess she was…
…Not so. Reporters were there, too.
Charlotte rubbed her eyelids in frustration. Her excuse as to why she had left the ball early—a pounding headache—was actually not entirely a lie. "Dear Tiana, the press can go to hell," she muttered, looking at her blank page. Oh sure. That would go over well. No, it was best to continue writing to Tiana about how amazing it was being a princess. The more she wrote it, the sooner it might actually be true, right?
A timid knock on the half-open door interrupted her angry thoughts. "Charlotte? Are you alright?" It was Prince Asher.
Charlotte smiled warmly at her young brother-in-law. That was one thing she didn't have to lie about—she did like Asher, Shakir, and Avani immensely, and Naveen… well, she didn't dislike Naveen, anyway. "I'm just peachy, Ash. Why ain't you down at the ball?"
"It was getting noisy," Asher said. "I think I might have a headache like you do. Does yours hurt?"
"Not too bad, no. But you'd best be gettin' to bed if your head's poundin'. It's much past your bedtime, anyway!"
Asher smiled. "Madrina and Papeto said I could stay up for the ball if I was good."
"And have you been behaving yourself?" Charlotte asked with a smirk.
"Yes!" said Asher proudly. He peered over at Charlotte's desk. "What are you writing?"
"A letter to my friend Tiana. I'm gonna get her to come visit us if it's the last thing I do. Even if I have to go back to New Orleans and drag her on the boat myself! I might need your brother's help in persuading her, though. See if he can work his charm on her like he did on Princess Hessa earlier tonight."
"He was talking to Princess Selene when I left."
"That don't surprise me," Charlotte muttered. As much as the press liked to scrutinize Charlotte for every tiny mistake she made, it seemed to like to be slightly more forgiving to Naveen… or at least to his wandering eyes. And wandering everything else. Everyone tried to hide it from Charlotte, but she knew. She heard the twittering of the chambermaids, she heard the hushed tsk-tsking of the palace guards. She knew. And while, yes, part of her was angry, a strangely larger part of her… didn't really care. "Men will be men," she said aloud. She then looked at Asher and grinned. "And boys will be boys. And it's time for boys to go to bed!"
"No, no, I am going to stay up all night long!"
"No you ain't!" laughed Charlotte, swooping Asher up and carrying him up the stairs to his bedroom despite his playful protests. "You're getting in bed!"
Asher wasn't the only prince getting in bed that night.
Princess Selene collapsed onto the bed in the Saint Joseph's room, one of many bedrooms used to house dignitaries, her dress long since discarded on the floor, her arms wrapped against her body covering up the areas her brassiere, slip, and panties didn't, gasping with barely-contained anticipation and pleasure. "What… what about your wife?" she managed to ask.
Naveen lifted her arms to expose her flesh, kissing her abdomen hungrily. "What about her?" he murmured. "She left early, remember?"
"As did we," gasped Selene, arching her back to unhook her bra and slide it off her shoulders.
And how. Naveen had moved in on Selene like a hawk. He saw the way she watched him. The way nearly all women watched him. He was a man possessed. Swooping in and suggesting he take her on a tour of the palace with a suggestive wink, he had felt like his old self again. Halfway down the corridor, probably still too close to the throngs of people in the ballroom, their lips had met, not in love but in lust, and it was all he could do to steer her to the rarely-used room and push the door closed behind them, their clothes not coming off fast enough.
He pulled off her slip and panties, exposing her to him, and threw off the rest of his own clothing, still stroking her abdomen, her thighs, reaching between her legs and hearing her moan in pleasure…
…and immediately took note that, yet again, the rush he felt—oh, he still felt a rush alright, but something was… missing. The torturous pleasure that he had always felt during sex was now far more torturous than pleasurable. Charlotte hadn't given him the experience women in the past had. The maid Paula's repeat performance had been just like their previous encounter, it should have been just as marvelous, yet it still left Naveen feeling unsatisfied. As had Yvonne, as had Fatima, as had Loretta—
"What's the matter?" Selene asked when Naveen had stopped momentarily.
Picking right back up where he had left off, Naveen stroked Selene's clitoris again and automatically flashed her his bedroom eyes. "I am just taking in your beauty," he said.
Funny. Usually that didn't feel like that much of a lie.
Unsatisfied. Unsatisfied. Unsatisfied.
With an animal growl that Selene must have interpreted as pure lust rather than actual frustration, Naveen brought his mouth back to her stomach; her breasts; her neck; her mouth; and forced himself into her, Selene squealing underneath him with a noise that would have made the old Naveen even more passionate.
He moved against her. In and out. Out and in. Selene continued to moan, wrapping her legs around his waist, entwining her fingers in his hair.
Please, please, please be the one to make me feel whole again.
The more he silently begged her, the fiercer he moved against her, the more she moaned underneath him, the more he realized that she wouldn't be the one. Nobody in the world would be the one—except—
"Ti—" And he bit his tongue to keep from calling out the wrong name, instead remaining silent, giving only a shudder to accompany his orgasm, his strangely unfulfilling orgasm that had become the norm these past few months.
He laid on top of her for a few moments, catching his breath, allowing her to catch her breath, then rolling out and off of her to stare at the ceiling, still breathing heavily.
"I… I've heard you're good in bed, and they were right," Selene said, also with deep, heavy breaths.
"Glad you enjoyed it," Naveen murmured, not looking back at her, not wanting to see the human sack of disappointment in his bed, just like every other woman had been, none of them igniting the passion in him like they had before. It wasn't just sex, either… music was losing some of its luster, as was dancing, wine, food… in other words, everything he had ever lived for.
What's wrong with me? he thought helplessly to himself.
Once upon a time
Once when you were mine
I remember skies
Reflected in your eyes
I wonder if you care
I wonder if you think about me
Once upon a time
In your wildest dreams
-"Your Wildest Dreams", The Moody Blues
Tiana wasn't surprised to see Louis standing next to the kitchen window of her house when she returned from working on her restaurant one late September evening. Nor was she surprised to see Eudora leaning out of the window with a piece of meat in her hands, Louis snatching it in his mouth gratefully, Eudora not even flinching despite how seemingly close the gator was to taking her hand along with it. Tiana smiled. Eudora might have objected to the idea of having an alligator around before, but the two had become very close in the past few months.
Louis turned to greet her. "Hey, Tiana!"
"Hey, Louis. Hey, Mama." Tiana stepped inside the house and made her way to the kitchen, Eudora putting her hands on her hips but still smiling, Louis leaning his snout into the open window (although his head was far too large to fit all the way).
"You said you'd only spend a few hours at your restaurant today," said Eudora.
"I did! It's not even seven o'clock yet!"
"Six hours is not a 'few'," said Eudora, but was still smiling in acceptance. "What all did you get done today?"
Tiana grinned. "I think the building's finally up to code! All those old windows are out, the structure's sound… I can start installing new windowpanes and painting it soon. It's really looking swell, Mama."
"Glad to hear," smiled Eudora. "Supper should be ready soon."
"Mama, I'm the cook here," laughed Tiana.
"You mean you would be if you were here more often! Here, Louis, here's another hunk of the fatty part for you." Eudora held out another piece of meat to Louis, who gobbled it up instantly.
"Thanks, Eudora! Keep 'em coming!"
"While you're waiting," Eudora said to Tiana with a smile, "you can read the letter you got from Charlotte today."
Tiana's smile diminished a bit. "Read yet another account of how amazing it is being a princess?" But still, she picked up the letter sitting on the table and opened it. Charlotte's letters might have all been a bit on the irritating side, with constant gushing about how amazing the life of a princess was, but Tiana still appreciated hearing from her friend.
I know I just wrote to you a week ago, but things here in Maldonia are always happening and always happening fast! There was a royal ball tonight in honor of the king's birthday. The royal tailors made me such a pretty gown! I'm not sure if it quite compares to the gowns your mama made for me, but it's still absolutely gorgeous! It's gold with sequins all over the bodice, and the skirt isn't quite as poofy as I normally wear—it ain't a hoop skirt—but it twirls when I spin and makes me feel absolutely gorgeous! Naveen's birthday is in a month, and there'll be another royal ball and another chance for me to wear a pretty dress like this! And then my birthday's a month after that, and I get yet another new dress! I can't wait! I just wish you were here so you could try these dresses on too—I know you'd look gorgeous in them!
That actually brings me to the real reason why I'm writing you again so soon. Tia, you've GOT to come visit us. I ain't going to let you make any excuses this time! There's so much to see and do here and I know you'll love it here. Your restaurant ain't going anywhere. Just a few weeks here in Maldonia's all I'm asking! I was thinking maybe you could come by around Christmastime. It'd be wonderful to have you here and celebrate the holidays with us! And Naveen says that Christmases here in Maldonia are a huge celebration with lots of lights and music. You've just got to be here! Please write me back as soon as you get this and let me know when you can get away. I'm thinking maybe if we can get you tickets on a ship that leaves December 8 th you could get here around December 15 th , which would give us plenty of time to catch up on things!
I'll be talking to you soon! Can't wait to hear your voice again and see you at the palace in a few months!
And, written in a perfectly polished hand on the margin, there was an additional note:
If I were you, I would not brush off Charlotte's invitation so lightly! She is close to coming to New Orleans herself and dragging you on the next boat out of there. We both would very much love to see you again. And taste your delicious benyays!
Tiana smirked for a brief second at Naveen's misspelling of the word "beignets", before her face fell as she realized that there was probably no getting out of this one. "I'm in trouble," she moaned out loud.
"What's the matter?" Louis asked.
"Lottie's insistent that I come visit her," Tiana said, looking at the letter and biting her lip with worry. "She even got Naveen to pitch in with this letter." She pressed her palm against her forehead. "She's already got it figured to the day when the ship I'll be comin' on leaves New Orleans. Lord help me."
Eudora just chuckled, however. "About time that girl took some initiative. If that's what it takes to get you to Maldonia…"
Tiana groaned. "Mama, you can't be siding with them too!"
"Tiana, honey, you can't avoid them forever. After all, they're the two people you care about most in the world."
"I know they are," Tiana retorted, "and that's why I can't…" She didn't finish her sentence, however, instead merely biting her lip and looking at the letter again, or more specifically the short note in the margin in a different handwriting. That's the first time Naveen's written to me, even if it is short, she thought to herself, a sad smile creeping up on her lips.
"Aw, you gotta go see them!" Louis said. "You miss them, don't you?"
"More than anything," Tiana admitted before she could stop herself. She quickly looked back at both Eudora and Louis, who were both smiling expectedly at her, and finally Tiana let herself smile too, her resolve broken by their enthusiasm. "I guess there's no fightin' it. Lottie's gonna get me to Maldonia one way or another, so I might as well go willingly."
Eudora grinned. "Now that's the first sensible thing you've said in months!"
"How can it be sensible and completely foolish at the same time?" Tiana said, part of her instantly regretting giving in so easily. "Do you know how long I'm gonna be gone?"
"Your restaurant can wait—" Eudora began.
"I ain't worried about my restaurant as much as I am about Buford and Cal," said Tiana. "They ain't gonna like me being gone so long."
"Tiana, for the four years you've been working at both restaurants, you haven't missed a single day of work," said Eudora. "I think you're entitled to take a little vacation by now."
"And besides, even if you ain't," Louis added, "you have a prince and princess telling you you have to go! Nobody can argue with that!"
"I guess not," smiled Tiana. "Especially when the prince is as charming as Naveen and the princess is as insistent as Lottie."
Naveen awoke to a harsh ray of sunlight streaming through his window, prying open his eyes despite his inner curses and protests at the light. Yesterday had been an excruciating day for him. He had spent all day in Parliament meetings with his father. Now that he was actually married he was being expected to act, well, like a prince. To compensate for a day of responsibility, Naveen had spent all night downtown at the pubs. He hadn't been there since returning from New Orleans, having to keep up his new respectable persona… but quite frankly lately he really didn't care anymore. If anyone raised Cain about it he would just say that he was out winning the support of the common folk in order to be a better king one day, just like Prince Hal from Henry IV Part One. A Shakespearean reference in an excuse… he'd have to at least get points for that.
He squinted his eyes tightly, although that did little to keep the sunlight out of them. Turning over to face the other way, he sensed, and then opened his eyes and saw, that Charlotte had already awoken and left. Well, that wasn't too surprising. Judging by where the sun was in the sky, it had to be at least nine o'clock by now—
The doors to the bedroom burst open and Charlotte shot her way into the room, shrieking with excitement. "Naveen Naveen Naveen! Look what came in the mail today!" She pushed an envelope into his face, not seeming to notice or care that he wasn't quite fully awake yet. "It worked, it worked, it worked! Tiana's finally coming to visit us!"
"Charlotte, it is far too early to… Tiana?" Naveen instantly perked up and snatched the envelope from Charlotte's hands, pulling out the letter and unfolding it.
Dear Lottie and Naveen,
Alright, you win. Can't keep arguing with you two anymore, especially when both my mama and Louis are on your side, too!
Lottie, whenever you can get the tickets, just let me know so I can let Buford and Cal know when I'm going to be gone. No date really works the best for me, but if I have to go I have to go! December 8 th works as good as any other day. Once you get the ticket just mail it to me, although I'm sure I don't have to tell you that. Have you thought about return tickets yet? Are you going to send me my return ticket along with it, or will you just get it for me while I'm in Maldonia? I don't plan on staying much past New Year's.
The restaurant's looking great. I've finally gotten that hole in the ceiling patched up and strengthened the foundations. It should be up to code and actually safe to stand in now! Although there are still a few rotten floorboards I need to take out and get replaced. Hopefully I can begin painting and prettying it up soon.
Naveen, if you want any of my beignets while I'm there, you're going to have to be on your best behavior! I ain't just handing them out, you know!
You both know I don't want to be away from my jobs and my restaurant for so long, but I really am looking forward to coming and seeing you. I miss you both very much. See you in a few months!
"Achidanza!" Naveen exclaimed joyfully, hugging the letter to him. "She is finally coming!"
"That's what I just told ya, silly!" Charlotte laughed. "If only she was comin' sooner, she could help me with that food bank charity drive next month that I have to organize…" She shrugged, turning back towards the bedroom door. "Guess I'd better get started preparing for that now—that is, after I read to some schoolchildren this afternoon. Gotta do that Friday, too."
"In English, I hope," said Naveen, looking at Charlotte in surprise. Her initial efforts to learn Maldonian had not gone smoothly at all, causing Charlotte, in frustration, to give up on the language altogether. Thankfully many people, especially in the royal court, spoke English as well, but when interacting with the general populace Maldonia's princess often needed to haul along a translator with her.
"Of course! It's good for them to learn another language. Well, toodles!" Charlotte was gone in a flash, which was probably a good thing, since Naveen was rolling his eyes at her hypocrisy as far as learning new languages was concerned.
The room was quiet once again. With Charlotte gone, Naveen turned again to the letter, the smile back on his face. It was addressed to both of them. The few letters Tiana had sent before this had only Charlotte's name on them, but this one… this one she had written to him as well. And she missed them. She missed him! She missed HIM! And oh, if she missed him even a fraction as much as he missed her, then she missed him badly. Fervently. Undeniably.
And she had signed the letter "love". Dare he even hope…
"This is ridiculous," he chastised himself aloud. Signing a letter "love" was fairly standard, after all. It didn't mean that she actually… And besides, even if she did, that would just complicate things, him being married to someone else and all. And Tiana—with her restaurant dreams, she surely had no room in them for him. She was off-limits.
How cruelly ironic. The one woman he actually loved was the only one he couldn't allow himself to get close to.
He read the letter again, smiling at her sass at him, smiling at her enthusiastic update on her restaurant, smiling at the fact that she was coming, she was coming, he was going to see her again and maybe feel whole again. She seemed happy in her note, and by extension Naveen was happy too. Oh, it would take every ounce of self-control he had to stop himself from pulling her towards him and kissing her senseless when he first saw her. But that didn't matter. She was happy, and he was happy that she was happy, even though to keep that happiness he clearly had to remain as detached from her as possible.
She probably didn't really think of him much, anyway, if he was honest with himself. He hadn't really given her much reason to… certainly not as much as she had given him. Her thoughts of him were probably those of mild annoyance, actually, judging by her little note to him. That hadn't changed. The "missing-both-of-you" statement was probably just her being cordial…
But why had she addressed the letter to both of them, then, if she didn't…
Oh. Right. Because he had left her a note in Charlotte's latest letter to her. She was simply acknowledging that.
She probably doesn't think about me that much, Naveen thought sadly, setting the letter down on the nightstand. But as long as she's happy…
Tiana angrily turned over in her bed, her heart aching so much that she was completely unable to fall asleep.
This was not a new thing. This had become the norm, unfortunately; however exhausted Tiana was after her day, it still took her ages to finally fall asleep. It was impossible to sleep when all she could do at night was think about Naveen. Now, as the days to her departure for her Maldonian trip inched closer and closer, the thoughts only intensified, wounding her even more as they played their delightful torture over and over again. And this night, the night of December seventh, her trunk packed and ready to leave the very next day, her whole body ached with longing, as the tears she had kept inside of her mostly successfully up until now were leaking out of her eyes freely.
She wished she was still a frog.
Every day she, to her horror, had been closer and closer approaching that resolve, and finally tonight neither her mind nor her heart could fight it anymore. She wished Charlotte's kiss hadn't worked. She wished that she and Naveen had been stuck as frogs for the rest of their lives. So she wouldn't be able to open her restaurant—who cared? She would have had him, so what did it matter what else she had or didn't have? She would have had the most important thing in the world to her.
She wished the riverboat hadn't passed by the sugar mill, distracting her that night. She wished that she hadn't inadvertently interrupted Naveen when he was… when he was trying to propose to her, if what Ray had said was right. Pulling the covers of her bed to her face in despair, she winced with heartbreak. She had been so, so close to true happiness and she hadn't even realized it. That was what hurt more than anything else. That if she had been a little less dense, right now she could be completely and truly happy.
No no no no no no no! He was a womanizer, a philanderer, a complete and utter scumbag, and he was simply being charming and irresistible to her because he didn't know how to be otherwise, not because he actually genuinely felt that way for her. No. Yes. She touched her neck, remembering the way he had toyed with her necklace and looked into her eyes the last time they had seen each other. No. Yes. Maybe. What was WRONG with her.
She remembered when they had danced, as frogs. Something inside of Tiana had melted, something that she hadn't even realized had grown so cold. Even when working towards her dream, although it did often make her happy, there was still always a painful, stressed tug nagging her as well. But not that night. That tug vanished as they shot into the air, an exhilarating rush igniting her veins, and for the first time in her life she didn't feel anything else nagging in her mind. She felt completely happy. So completely happy that she had let out a laugh, a laugh of pure joy, completely unplanned because she didn't know how else to express it. They had landed on the lily pad and while the rush was gone, the joy remained. Naveen had wrapped his arms around her and smiled, a hesitant, surprised smile that she hadn't quite seen on his face before, and suddenly Tiana felt safe. She felt safe, she felt happy, and she felt nothing negative whatsoever.
Like her laughter, she hadn't intended on touching his face. Some way of thanking him, maybe. Or maybe something else. Maybe she didn't quite realize what was happening when he slowly pulled her closer to him, when their eyes closed, when their mouths were so close she could feel his breath. Or maybe she did.
But it still startled her. Startled her enough to suddenly push him away, and then try to come up with an excuse as to why—the fact that he was planning on marrying Charlotte was certainly a valid one, but one that took her a minute to find.
They hadn't kissed. She had kept her distance from her best friend's fiancé as best she could. And then her best friend had whisked him away from her and married him just like had been planned, a plan that Tiana herself had whole-heartedly supported before… before actually getting to know Naveen.
She flipped over in her bed again, now staring out the window. How could she spend even a day in Maldonia, with him, knowing fully well how close she had been to having him? How could that make her any less miserable than she was now, apart from him?
The evening stars shone through her window.
"Evangeline… Ray…" Tiana murmured to them, "please… please help me to be happy again. Please. I just want to be happy. Help me get over him. I don't want to be in love with him… I never did, but I can't stop thinking about him. He makes me happy and miserable all at the same time, and I can't take it any longer… please, just make me happy again…"
Absence diminishes mediocre passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and fans fires.
-Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Tiana's tickets had been first-class, of course, and she was treated to the finest comfort and dining she had ever experienced in her life during her six day voyage. However, having never even been any further than ten miles outside New Orleans before, let alone on a cruise across the Atlantic, Tiana spent most of the trip feeling seasick, anxious, and claustrophobic.
The ship had made remarkably good time across the ocean, arriving in Maldonia a day earlier than scheduled. Charlotte had said in her note that there would be a royal cab waiting for her when she arrived, but they were planning on her arriving tomorrow, not that day. Still, Tiana dragged her trunk off the boat almost as soon as it docked, not wanting to spend another second off of dry land.
However, there was now the little worry of finding her way around a foreign country where she didn't speak the language and didn't have the right currency and was scared and nervous as hell and had to drag along a trunk of clothes and…
She looked around on the dock, smiling a bit despite her worry. Small, quaint seaside shacks lined the shoreline, with tall, closely-packed cobblestone buildings sprouting behind them. It gave her the same feeling she got when she had looked at pictures of old-fashioned European buildings before—like stepping back in time. The air was warm, the Maldonian citizens were cheerfully bustling about their day, she was finally off that damn boat…
Turning her attention back to the people on the dock, she listened carefully for any sounds of English, hoping that someone here did speak it, and could direct her to a bank where she could exchange her American dollars for Maldonian… whatever the form of currency was in Maldonia.
"Excuse me," she said to a man who she thought had heard a "goodbye" from his lips before turning away from another man he had been speaking to. "Do you speak English?"
The man smiled at her. "Yes I do. Do you need help with anything?"
Tiana smiled gratefully. "Yes, yes, I need—can you direct me to the nearest bank? I need money for a cab, and I've only got American money…"
The man patted her arm comfortingly. "My dear, I will not have such a bright, sweet girl go about our country so alone in her first few minutes here," he said to her, his words carefully stated but still with an accent, much like Naveen's, Tiana noted—and then quickly pushed the thought out of her mind.
"I appreciate that," she said quickly, still smiling, "but really all I need is a cab to the—to where I'm staying, and then I'll be fine." She wasn't too sure if people would believe her if she said she was going to the palace.
"Of course, and that is where you shall go! I will pay for your cab myself."
"You… you will? Oh, no, that's not necessary—"
"Please. I insist."
"Well… thank you. Thank you very much!" said Tiana, grinning. She already felt much better. People here seemed to be very friendly.
The man flagged down a taxi and helped Tiana move her trunk into the back. He and the cab driver spoke in Maldonian for a few moments while Tiana listened on, trying in vain to catch at least a word or two she understood. Turning back to Tiana, the man said in English, "Where is it that you need to go?"
"Uh… well, the palace, actually," said Tiana, blushing a bit and reaching into her pocket for Charlotte's letter to prove it. "I'm a friend of Lot—of Princess Charlotte."
"Ah! A royal guest! You will have the utmost respect then." He opened the cab door for her.
Tiana laughed. "I've already been gettin' it! Thank you so much for all your help."
"My pleasure, miss."
Twenty minutes later, Tiana stood with her trunk outside the palace, unable to move from her spot, so awed by the size and beauty of the place. There were so many towers, so many windows, so many entrances, that she honestly didn't know which way to proceed.
Finally, dragging her trunk a bit awkwardly behind her, she made her way to the door nearest to where the cab driver had let her out. Upon reaching it, she timidly raised her hand to knock, and—
—two palace guards suddenly grabbed her by the arms and started shouting at her in Maldonian.
"Wait, wait, please!" Tiana cried, struggling to reach for the invitation in her pocket. "I'm Tiana Wilcox—I'm a friend of Princess Charlotte—I was supposed to get in tomorrow but the ship got in a day early, and—"
One of the guards still kept his grip on her arm, but the other one instantly let go. "Oh, so you are Miss Wilcox!" he said to her. "That's a, how do you say in English, a different colored horse, yes?"
Tiana smiled shakily. "Horse of a different color."
"Yes, that's right!" The guard gave a stern look to the other guard, who was still grasping Tiana's arm. "Let her go, Lysander. She is expected."
Lysander begrudgingly released his grip. Tiana rubbed her arm, wincing a bit.
"My apologies," said the first guard. "Lysander was on a personal two week vacation, otherwise he would have known you were coming too. It is all both Princess Charlotte and Prince Naveen speak of."
"Is that so?" Tiana asked, trying to keep her voice level. She wasn't surprised to hear that Charlotte had been preoccupied with her arrival, but Naveen too? Her heart fluttered alarmingly.
"I have never seen either of them so eager. And that is saying a lot!" The guard opened the door for her, while Lysander moved to pick up her trunk.
Tiana drew in her breath as she stepped into the foyer. Ornately carved chairs and tables were against the just as ornate walls, the wood paneling reaching all the way up to the golden ceiling, which had to be at least thirty feet high.
"Wait here, please. We'll announce you at once," the first guard said. He and Lysander departed down a far corridor.
Left in silence, Tiana sighed in an effort to let some of her stress out of her, flopping down to sit on her trunk. She felt both exhausted and completely on edge at the same time, and the mix of the two emotions was making her tremble a little bit in honest confusion.
The silence didn't last long.
Rapidly approaching the foyer, a very familiar voice was snipping, in barely-suppressed irritation, "No. Non. I ain't got time for any interviews today! Don't any of y'all speak English? You always put words in my mouth anyway, so why are you even bothering to pretend to care about what I say?"
The doors on the other side of the room, opposite from where the guards had just left, flew open, and Charlotte pushed a group of about five reporters towards the main door without giving them a chance to defend themselves. "Why don't you go bother Parliament for a few days?" She slammed the door behind them, pressing her forehead to the door in annoyance. "Ugh!"
"Tough day, huh Lottie?" Tiana asked with a smirk.
Charlotte shrieked so loudly the chandeliers rattled. "Tiana! What are you doing here—oh my goodness, Tiana!"
The two friends flung themselves into each other's arms, laughing and hugging each other tightly. "Land sakes, Tia, you weren't supposed to be here until tomorrow!"
"The ship made great time—got in a day earlier than planned—"
"How exciting!" Charlotte squeezed Tiana even tighter. "Now we get another day to—oh no, but your room ain't ready yet, and I've got the whole day booked, and I wasn't expecting you—"
"That's fine, Lottie," laughed Tiana. "I'll sleep on the floor if I have to. I just didn't want to spend another minute on that ship! I needed to step on some actual soil!"
"And there's plenty of it here!" Charlotte quickly glanced over at the grandfather clock and sighed impatiently. "Fiddlesticks, I'm late to the art show as it is… I'll get someone to show you to your room, you're gonna love it, Tia, it's the Yellow Room and it's, well, yellow…"
"The guards who let me in here said they were gonna announce me at once," said Tiana.
"You might just meet more palace staff then… don't know what Naveen and the king and queen are up to today, but hopefully you'll catch a glimpse of them before the day's out…" Charlotte's eyes flickered back to the clock again. "Oh, Tia, I'd really love to chat with you for hours, but…"
"You're busy, you're busy," smiled Tiana. "I understand. I'm the one who got here early. Don't worry about it. We can talk later."
"We sure can!" Charlotte gave Tiana another hug before making her way to the door she had only just recently pushed the reporters out of. "I'm so glad you're here!" she said, still grinning widely. "And we got so much to talk about—I'll see you tonight at dinner, alright? We'll set an extra place for you!"
"Sounds swell, Lottie," said Tiana with a laugh. "Now you go off and do your princess thing!"
"I sure will!" Charlotte spun around in ecstasy before finally stepping outside. "Wheeeee! Today's gonna be a great day!"
Today's going to be an awful day, Naveen thought with dread as he stood in his father's office, trying to interpret the stern, stony glare Shakir was sending his way. Parliament wasn't meeting that day and Naveen had had no particular plans… still, being called to his father's office was not how he had expected to spend his free day. In fact, Shakir's facial expression looked disturbingly similar to the one he had sported when he had cut Naveen off nearly a year ago.
"What did you wish to see me for, Papeto?" Naveen asked, bowing respectfully, a slight dip in the waist, but head and eyes upward—
"Housekeeping," Shakir replied bluntly.
"…Housekeeping?" Naveen repeated, confused.
"Yes. Housekeeping." Shakir stood up and moved to the front of his desk, pacing back and forth in front of it with his hands clasped behind his back. "After dinner the other night you seemed to have disappeared. You had promised to help Asher with his French lessons, remember?"
"I had? —Oh, oh yes, well, you see—"
"The last person I can find who saw you that night was Yves, the butler, who saw you and Cassia heading down the southern corridor, in the direction of, say, the Falstaff chamber?"
Oh. That night. "Well, yes, of course, I was merely escorting the young maid to—"
"And when maids went to clean the room today they found the bed sheets rumpled!" Shakir shouted, banging a fist against the desk.
"She—she was tired! She slept there!"
"You know perfectly well where the staff sleeps, Naveen! I daresay you've been there yourself quite a few times!" Shakir glared at Naveen, his fists clenched so tightly that his knuckles were turning white, and Naveen felt himself almost shrink in his presence. "Didn't your mother and I make it clear to you that we will not tolerate this kind of behavior any longer? Especially now that you're married?"
Naveen averted his eyes down and to the side, flinching.
"Well?" Shakir demanded.
Naveen flinched even more. "Yes, Papeto," he answered meekly.
"What more do I have to do to get it into your head that—that screwing around with every pretty girl you see is not proper conduct for the next in line to the throne! Do you have any explanation for this?"
Naveen's eyes flickered back to his father, having an explanation but not wanting to say it… however, he knew better than to remain silent when Shakir expected an answer. "None that you would approve of."
"It is not just you you are disgracing with your behavior," Shakir continued, not looking any less sedated. "It is not just your mother and I. It is the entire palace, the entire country! The press will soon tire of following Charlotte around, the novelty will wear off, and they will refocus back on you! And if you thought their judgments of your—of your bedroom exploits was harsh before, they—and I—will not be half as accepting now that you are married! You have a wife!"
"I know I have a wife," Naveen grumbled.
"Do not use that tone with me!"
Angering the king was never a smart idea, especially when the king happened to be your father. Naveen bowed even lower. "Yes, Your Majesty," he murmured.
Shakir opened his mouth, ready to berate Naveen even more, when suddenly the royal knock on the door interrupted him—two long knocks and three short ones. Sighing in frustration, he shouted, "Come in!" in response.
The door opened slowly, and Lysander stepped in with an awkward look on his face, having probably heard a good portion of their conversation. "Your Majesty," he said, bowing to Shakir; and then, bowing to Naveen, "Your Highness. Miss Wilcox from the United States has just arrived and is in the main foyer."
Temporarily forgetting his royal protocol, Naveen lurched forward a little bit and raised his head. "Tiana?"
"Shall I show her to her room? Is it ready yet?"
"I will show her," Naveen said quickly, standing up completely, much to Shakir's shock. "Have someone bring her luggage to her room, though. I will come greet her right away."
"As you wish, Your Highness." Lysander bowed to both of them, stepped out of the room, and closed the door.
Naveen couldn't keep still. His hands shaking with anticipation, he moved towards the door, then moved away, then moved back towards it, all the time not looking at his father, not giving the proper exit protocol—
Naveen jumped and stared at Shakir. "Oh—" And he gave a bow, perhaps a bit quicker than what royal etiquette demanded, and headed back for the door—
"Naveen. Remember what I told you." Shakir glared sternly at him. "I do not want to find rumpled beds that should not be rumpled. And keep your distance from Miss Wilcox."
"I will," Naveen insisted.
"I don't believe you," Shakir countered frankly. "Your previous track record doesn't show much promise."
"I will keep my distance from Miss Wilcox," Naveen emphasized, now looking Shakir squarely in the eye. "I mean, in the sense of not leading her to spare bedrooms. You have my word."
"That amounts to very little. About as much as it meant for all the other girls you've helped find a comfortable bed."
"But I love her," Naveen replied softly. "I don't love any of the others."
Shakir raised an eyebrow.
Naveen quickly bowed again and darted out of the room before Shakir could get another word in.
Tiana, still alone in the foyer, traced the patterns in the woodwork with one finger, trying to discern how long it had taken to carve all this. Surely it had to have been months, if not years! All that work just for decoration. And there had certainly been a whole crew of workers on the project as well. No wonder she on her lonesome couldn't get her restaurant off the ground. With the care and dedication so many people must have put into just this one room of the palace, let alone what all the other rooms must look like… Tiana pulled her finger away. Well, when you have lots of help, anything is possible. And when you don't…
The door the guards had left through opened and closed with a bang. "Tiana!"
Tiana spun around and felt all the rest of her worries and cares slip away. "Naveen!"
A second later they were wrapped in each other's arms, holding each other tightly and affectionately. "Achidanza," Naveen laughed, pulling away a bit to look at her. "You look wonderful!"
"I feel wonderful," Tiana answered truthfully.
"How—how did you get here? I thought you were supposed to arrive tomorrow!"
"Time was on my side," grinned Tiana. "The ship got in a day ahead of schedule."
"This is certainly a surprise! —A very fortunate surprise, of course!" Naveen hastily added. "Charlotte will be glad to know—"
"Already saw her," said Tiana, gesturing her head towards the main doors. "She's busy as a bumblebee today!"
"She left already?" Naveen's face fell dramatically. "Then I guess I will have to move your trunk all by myself!"
Tiana laughed. "Don't strain yourself too much, Your Royal Highness," she teased him, leaning in closer and, without thinking, brought a hand to his cheek tenderly.
Also without thinking, Naveen returned the gesture, stroking a stray lock of her hair at the same time. "Nothing in the world can strain me as long as you're here," he said softly.
They gazed at each other for about two seconds before suddenly pulling away in shock.
"Um, well, ain't that what your servants are here for anyway?" Tiana stumbled, rubbing her hand awkwardly.
Naveen also rubbed his arm in embarrassment, trying to talk to her without actually looking at her—but it was damn near impossible to keep his eyes off of her after not having seen her for so long, she was so gorgeous and vibrant and alive and— "My—my dear Miss Wilcox, you think I have already completely forgotten your teachings? I have actually been doing some things for myself since meeting you."
"Congratulations," Tiana smirked sarcastically.
"For example—" Naveen leaned over to pick up the trunk, lifting it up rather quickly. "Whoa—it is lighter than I anticipated—"
"I ain't got much," said Tiana with an apologetic shrug.
"It will be much heavier when Charlotte is through with you," smirked Naveen. "You should hear of her plans to take you shopping!"
"Oh, I believe it!" laughed Tiana. "We might have to buy me another suitcase to get everything back to America!"
"You can discuss that with Charlotte," said Naveen, grasping the trunk in both arms and holding it in the air. "For now, let me show you to your room."
"Naveen, stop trying to carry that trunk!" Tiana cried. "Drag it like a sensible person!"
"I told you, it is not that heavy," Naveen insisted. Yes, dragging it probably would be easier, but dragging it also came with the risk of leaving one arm free, an arm that would most likely find its way back to Tiana. If ever he needed a resolve of steel, now was the time. He had to keep his distance from her. Even if he hadn't given his father his word he still had to keep his distance from her. He didn't care too much of the reputations of any other girl that he happened to strike his fancy, but Tiana did far more than merely strike his fancy. And he wasn't about to do anything that might dishonor her. She was going to be a fabulous restaurateur, she was going to be successful and amazing and someone everyone looked up to, and he didn't want "fling with a married prince" to be a blight on her record.
Tiana followed Naveen down the corridor he had arrived from, taking care to remain several steps behind him. The way she had been so quick to run to his arms, to touch him, to let her feelings for him suddenly and inexplicably start to gush out—she had told her mama months earlier, when receiving the invitation to his wedding, that she needed more time to get over him. But time hadn't dulled her feelings for him one mite; indeed, it seemed it had only intensified them. And looking at him, being with him again, made her heart both heavy with grief and soar with love at the same time. It was painful, it was confusing, it was delicious ecstasy that she wished she had never had to experience and yet was more addicting than any other emotion she had ever felt.
Naveen dropped the trunk at a closed door and turned the handle, revealing a bright, spacious room with a large four-poster bed against the wall, a large bay window letting in every ray of sunlight it could. "Here it is, de Amaril Gransha—the Yellow Room."
"Aptly named," said Tiana, taken aback by the size and warmth of the room. The wallpaper was yellow, the bed covers were yellow, the day sofa in the opposite corner was yellow, and the sunlight made the yellow shine even brighter.
"I wanted to put you in the state room," said Naveen apologetically, pushing Tiana's trunk into the room with his foot. "It is far bigger and grander than this. But the Prime Minister of England will be here in a few days, and my father insisted he have that room. Charlotte felt that this would suffice for you… although I did want to get you something with a little more flair…"
Tiana was still staring in awe at the room she was to stay in. "For goodness sake, Naveen, this room is bigger than my house. Any room bigger than this I probably woulda gotten lost in!"
"Do you like it?" Naveen asked.
Tiana turned and smiled at him. "I love it," she said. "It's beautiful."
Naveen smiled too, feeling his heart melt—like it always seemed to whenever she smiled for him. "Perfect. I, uh… I will let you get settled, then." He gave her suitcase another kick, pushing it closer to her. "After you have unpacked, I can show you the palace, yes?"
"That would be wonderful," said Tiana gratefully. "I'm afraid I'm already a little bit lost."
"Oh, it is easy to find your way around! I will show you everything."
"Everything? I'm sure there's some areas that are off-limits to mere mortals like myself…"
"Off-limits? To you? Never." Again without thinking, Naveen took Tiana's hands in his own. "While you are here you will be treated like a princess. I promise." He lifted her hands and kissed them, as politely and chastely as he could manage. "I will leave you to your unpacking." Letting go of her hands, he gave her a swift bow and left the room, closing the door behind him.
Tiana's hands were still poised in the air where Naveen had raised them, as she stared at them, watching them slowly start to tremble… then her arms, then her shoulders, then suddenly her whole body. Finally she moved; she backed up and fell onto the day sofa, grasping her hands and looking up at the ceiling helplessly. "Why do you have such an effect on me?" she murmured.
Outside the door, Naveen was leaning against the wall, pulling at his fingertips and also looking up at the ceiling, taking a couple of deep breaths. "Faldi faldonza," he murmured, glancing back at the door longingly, "why do you have such an effect on me?"
"You spent the entire cruise in your room? Tia, that's not the way to travel!"
"Not the entire cruise!" Tiana quickly clarified. It was evening, dinner was long finished and Shakir, Avani, and Asher had already left, giving their leave to their new guest, but Charlotte and Naveen were still sitting at the royal breakfast table (much smaller and less ornate than the royal dining table, but still much grander than anything Tiana had ever seen), wanting details about everything in Tiana's life from when they had last seen her.
"Besides," she added, taking a last sip of tea from her teacup and smirking at Charlotte and Naveen, "it was a very nice room. Probably wouldn't'a wanted to leave it even if looking at the ocean hadn't made me feel more seasick."
"But Tia." Charlotte gave Tiana a look that clearly conveyed how utterly crazy she thought she was. "When you're on a cruise ship, especially one like The Siren, you don't just sit around in your cabin all day! You take in the sights of the ocean!"
"Take in the sights, and participate in all the activities the cruise has to offer!" Naveen added. "Dancing in the ballroom, playing tennis on the deck, swimming in the pool—there was a pool on the ship, right?"
"Well, yeah, but I didn't think to pack my bathin' suit," said Tiana with a shrug.
"You didn't pack your bathin' suit?" Charlotte repeated incredulously. "How are you supposed to go swimming with us in the royal pool on the twentieth? I'll have to lend you one of mine—"
"Wait a minute, there's a swimming pool in this palace?" Tiana asked, her eyes wide.
"Of course," shrugged Naveen. "Don't all palaces have a swimming pool?"
"Seeing as this is the first palace I've ever been to, I'm not the one to ask…" Tiana gave a surprised smile. "I was expecting the place to be extravagant, but not like this!"
"It ain't that big of a pool," Charlotte added with a dismissive shrug. "I've seen far grander ones."
"Lottie…" Tiana laughed helplessly. "I think you're also forgetting that I ain't much of a swimmer!"
"You seemed to swim fine to me," said Naveen levelly.
"I was a frog," Tiana reminded him. "Any skill I had at swimming at that time was because I was a frog."
Charlotte giggled. "I still woulda never believed you two were frogs if I hadn't seen you for myself! Well, I saw you as a frog anyway, Naveen."
"Have either of you told anyone about that?" Tiana asked. "The only people back in New Orleans that know are my mama and Louis. Buford and Cal probably woulda fired me for sure if I came in with such an unbelievable excuse as to why I didn't come into work."
"Yeah, sometimes the truth is pretty unbelievable, ain't it?" laughed Charlotte. "I ain't told anyone. Big Daddy knows, but he was there. Don't want people to think I'm crazy or nothin'! So no, nobody here in the palace knows except us three."
"Actually…" Naveen began.
Charlotte spun around in her seat to face him. "Actually what? Don't tell me you told someone that you were a frog!"
"I told Asher!" said Naveen with an apologetic shrug. "Even if he did believe me and told someone else, no one would believe him. He's only six years old!"
"Six and a half," Charlotte corrected with a smirk.
Tiana set down her teacup again, laughing so hard she had to hold her aching side. "Maybe I'll have to tell him I was a frog, too. Then he'll have two improbable stories to tell!"
Charlotte laughed too, straightening up in her chair. "Enough of this frog talk, Tia! You haven't said a word about your restaurant yet! Come on, tell us how that's going!"
"Yes, please tell us!" Naveen said. "You must be about ready to open it now, yes?"
Tiana's face fell. She had been so happy before they had to bring up that… that building… that building that also happened to be her life's dream, why should it depress her so? "Well, actually, I'm still getting the actual building fixed up. I've got all the junk cleared out and most of the rotten wood and floorboards replaced, though! And the windowpanes!" Tiana smiled, although she sensed it was a small one, so she forced the corners of her mouth up a little higher than they wanted to go. "Just before I got here I got all my new windowpanes put in. There ain't any broken or cracked glass anymore. The windows are all bright and shiny and new. And pretty soon I should have enough money saved to start painting."
"I can't believe how long it's taking you!" Charlotte said in disbelief.
"It's a lot of work for just one person," said Tiana.
"Well then, why don't you get some help?" Naveen asked. "Louis… your mother…"
"Mama's too busy with her own work," said Tiana. "And Louis did help, but his arms are a little too short to do much of the more delicate things."
"You could always hire help," said Charlotte.
"I ain't hardly got enough money for supplies, let alone…" Tiana cut herself off when she saw the expressions on both Charlotte and Naveen's faces. "And no, no, no, don't even think about it. I ain't takin' another cent from you two! I'll get it done eventually." She smiled at them, a smile that she hoped looked more reassuring than it felt. "Rome wasn't built in a day, you know."
"Rome also wasn't built by just one person workin' on their lonesome," Charlotte countered.
"When we visit New Orleans we will help you!" Naveen offered instantly. "Er, I mean…" He gave Charlotte an apologetic look. "I cannot speak for my wife, of course… but I will most certainly help you."
"Oh, Naveen, don't you know me better than that?" Charlotte chirped. "Of course I'll help you too, Tia! We're probably gonna come back around Mardi Gras, I'm thinking… we can help you put the finishing touches, and it'll be good to go!"
Tiana laughed nervously. "Yes, that's definitely how a prince and princess will wanna spend their vacation time—"
"Of course! We just said we would!" said Charlotte.
"We want to help you reach your dream!" said Naveen.
"And don't think just because we're royalty doesn't mean we can't work—oh we can work alright—"
"And if I can't, I can learn! I will learn anything to help you!"
"We want to help you, Tia, and we don't mind pitching in!"
"You have worked so hard on your own…"
Tiana felt her cheeks flush, a bit flustered but more than that, just deeply, deeply… touched. "You… you two are so sweet, y'all know that? Sweet as molasses!"
"You always act so surprised when someone cares about you," laughed Charlotte.
"After months of not really being in contact with everyone…" Quickly, Tiana changed her tone, giving a lighthearted laugh. "Look, Lottie, Naveen, I don't wanna talk about my restaurant anymore tonight. I came here to get a vacation from all that."
"Of course!" said Charlotte. She set down her teacup as well. "And since you look like you're finished with tea, it's time you saw all of my dresses! C'mon!" She stood up and pulled a surprised Tiana from her chair.
"But—but who's gonna clean the dishes?"
"The servants, silly! We don't have to clean up after ourselves here! Come on!"
Tiana had about two seconds to shoot a look to Naveen before Charlotte pulled her out of the room. "The pampered life indeed, rich boy!"
Tiana's first week in the palace was hardly spent in it at all; Charlotte spent every spare moment whisking her out of the palace to go shopping, see the countryside, all that. Sometimes Naveen came along too, although never on the shopping trips, which was probably a fortunate thing for all involved. The days went by quickly, in a whirl, but Tiana was grateful for those days… because the days Charlotte and Naveen were busy, Tiana was left with little to do, still feeling a bit out of place in the huge palace.
One such day, then, a few days before Christmas, Tiana ventured from the library where she had spent most of her time alone and followed the warm, inviting smells of cooking to the palace kitchen. A bit timidly, but still with resolve to cook again, she walked in and took in the large, spacious kitchen, smiling in contentment.
A young woman, wearing a white apron and a chef's hat, stopped in her tracks, holding a large bag of flour. "Niedro alinza, meniris?"
"Oh—oh, sen, sorry, I don't speak Maldonian… do you—"
"I speak some English," the chef said, her voice halting and faltering, but still understandable.
"I just… it smells good in here. Richonaza. Delicious." She smiled, and the chef smiled too, understanding. "And I… I like to cook." Tiana made a motion as if she was holding a bowl and stirring something in it. "Can I help you? Or just watch?"
"M'aysho coquil? O buniol?" The chef smiled again. "Viz, yes, you can help! Take this! We make… we make capastinos, how you say in English?"
Tiana shrugged as she took the bag of flour in her arms. "Bread?"
"Non, no…" The chef hurriedly made her way to a shelf and pulled out a book, flipping to a page and pointing at a picture of a multi-tiered cake. "Esina!"
"Oh! Cake!" Tiana exclaimed.
"Cake!" the chef repeated. "English word is cake?"
"Yes. Viz. Cake. Ca…capa…"
"Capastino," the chef said with a smile.
Tiana returned the smile. "Capastino."
The chef pointed to the recipe. "Niedrilpa… we need trisa dovas…" She held up three fingers. "Trisa?"
"Three?" Tiana asked, also holding up three fingers.
"Three? Three—dovas." The chef rummaged around in a lower cabinet and pulled out a measuring cup.
"Three cups?" said Tiana. "Of—" She pointed to the bag of flour she was still holding. "Of flour?"
"Viz! I will get genilvos."
Tiana didn't have a clue what genilvos were, but she decided not to worry about it right then. She set down the bag of flour, opened it, and dipped in the measuring cup. She needed three… trisa. Listening to Naveen, Shakir, Avani, and Asher speak amongst each other, Tiana had picked up a few Maldonian words, such as viz (yes), non (no), maricilpen (thank you), sen (sorry), and clardio (of course)… but, clardio, she certainly didn't know enough to carry on a conversation in Maldonian. But at least she was learning enough to be halfway understood.
The chef returned, holding a carton of eggs. Ah, so genilvos must be eggs. Tiana made a mental note of that.
"My name's Tiana," she said, pointing to herself before evening out the flour in the cup. "What's your name?"
The chef smiled. "Ianthe," she said, pointing to herself. "I am glad to know you, Tiana."
"I'm glad to know you too, Ianthe!" said Tiana with a grin. "Thank you for letting me help. Maricilpen."
"Fara nondra. Is nothing." Ianthe set down the eggs and motioned to a large mixing bowl on the counter next to them. "De trisa dovas—fra abrí." She pointed into the bowl.
Smiling, Tiana pulled her perfectly straight and level cup of flour and dumped it in, quickly dipping in her measuring cup for the second cup.
The familiar quick patter of small footsteps echoed down the hallway, thus making Asher's enthusiastic appearance into the kitchen come as no great shock. "Ianthe, Ianthe! Telpo galtizias m'fara?"
Ianthe grinned at Asher's excitement. "Clardio, lonven pruto." She turned to Tiana. "Trisa dovas lo bilne, o quermi genilvos." She held up four fingers and pointed at the eggs.
Tiana held up four fingers too. "Quermi genilvos—four eggs. Viz, clardio."
"Tiana, why are you in the kitchen? Working?" Asher gave her a look of utter confusion.
Tiana smiled at the young prince. "Because cooking and baking is what I like to do, Asher. It's hardly work at all when you're enjoying yourself!"
"What are you making?" Asher asked eagerly.
"Capastino." Tiana lowered the book with the recipe and picture of the cake down so that Asher could see it.
"Achidanza!" Asher exclaimed, grinning. "We always have great capastinos at Navilstom!"
"Navilstom?" Tiana asked, raising an eyebrow in confusion.
"Chris—Christmastime," Asher said, having to think for a moment to remember the English word. "All the cooks make great capastinos o galtizias!"
"And galtizias are…"
Ianthe returned with a plate of brightly decorated Christmas cookies for Asher. "Abrí, mio pruto. Sol lun." Glancing at Tiana, she held up one finger and grinned. "Lun galtizia! Nondra ma!"
"One cookie?" said Tiana, giving Asher a crestfallen look. "Only one cookie?"
"Only one cookie," sighed Asher, looking even more crestfallen than Tiana. He plucked a cookie from the tray without even looking at it.
Tiana looked at the tray, then at Ianthe, and pointed to herself hopefully. Understanding, Ianthe grinned even wider and held the tray in front of Tiana. "Viz, clardio! Per sol lun!" She held up one finger again, to make absolutely sure Tiana understood.
"Sol lun," Tiana repeated, taking a single cookie from the tray. "Maricilpen, Ianthe."
"Fara nondra." Ianthe turned to Asher and said something to him in Maldonian, her voice too quick for Tiana to be able to pick apart individual words. Asher nodded and Ianthe gave a quick smile to both him and Tiana before making her way to another part of the kitchen.
Asher looked up at Tiana. "She wanted me to tell you that she's going to be baking more cookies over there, but you should continue with the flour and the eggs," he said, his mouth full of cookie.
"That's all I can do," said Tiana with a bit of a helpless laugh. "I can't read anything else of this recipe." She dumped the third and final cup of flour into the mixing bowl. "Maybe you could help me?"
"I can't read food books!" Asher protested.
Tiana giggled. "I suppose not. You're probably busy, anyway."
Asher's face fell. "Viz… Papeto wants me to play croquet with him and Naveen. I hate croquet! Almost as much as I hate my lessons!"
"It can't be that bad, Asher," said Tiana, cracking an egg into the mixing bowl. "You're lucky to have so many opportunities. When I was your age all I had to play with was a ball to kick around."
"That is all croquet is," Asher countered, crossing his arms and pouting. "Kicking around a ball. With sticks."
"Well, it's fun though, ain't it?"
Asher shrugged, relenting a bit. "Kind of fun… more fun than my lessons… but eating cookies is the most fun of all," he added.
"Well, you'll get plenty of cookies when Christmas Day comes," smiled Tiana. "And cake, too. But for now…"
The door suddenly swung open and Naveen walked in, noticing Asher before Tiana. "Asher! Albró esso! Sapi t'enconquini abrí." He playfully scooped Asher up off the ground, Asher laughing and looking to Tiana for help… only then did Naveen realize Tiana was there, jumping back a bit in shock. "Faldi faldonza, Tiana, what are you doing here? Do not tell me they have put you to work!"
"I put myself to work," smirked Tiana. "It's been a long time since I've been in a kitchen and I just needed to make something. Language barriers aside, I think I'm going pretty well. I'm makin' a capastino."
"Mm, a cake? What kind of cake?" Still holding Asher, Naveen peered over Tiana's shoulder at the recipe. "Triple chocolate fudge! Achidanza! When will it be finished?"
"Not for awhile, Prince Greedy-Pants," Tiana admonished playfully. "Especially considering I can't even read this recipe."
"Oh, it is simple," said Naveen. "Three cups of flour, four eggs, three teaspoons… baking soda? There is soda used in baking? And what is a teaspoon?"
"You are absolutely hopeless, Naveen," sighed Tiana, but smiling despite herself.
"At least I can read it," Naveen shot back, grinning playfully at her.
"It ain't my language! You're the one who can't even understand it, even though it is your language!"
"It is not. Cooking and baking is not my language."
Naveen grinned even wider. "And clearly Maldonian is not your language. You do not roll your r's properly."
"Put me down, Naveen!" Asher demanded, kicking his legs.
"With pleasure. You are getting far too heavy." Naveen began to lower Asher back on the ground, but suddenly stopped. "I will let you go on one condition."
"Bring me a couple of Ianthe's cookies."
Tiana laughed. "Sen, Naveen. Sol lun."
"She talks as if she was running this kitchen," Naveen murmured to Asher. Asher giggled.
"Ianthe only let her and me take one. So you only get one too."
"Oh, very well. Fair is fair. Bring me a cookie." Naveen set Asher down and the young prince immediately scampered off to where Ianthe had set down the plate of cookies.
"In all seriousness, Tiana, you sell yourself short," said Naveen, now peering at the mixing bowl that Tiana was adding baking soda to. "Considering you have only been here a week, your Maldonian is very good. You speak it far better than Charlotte."
Tiana smirked. "Lottie was never one for learning anything that took longer than a few minutes to master."
"No, but really, you are a quick learner!" Naveen took the teaspoon from Tiana's hand after she had deposited the second spoonful. "May I?"
"I can learn too. I think I can still remember how to mince!"
"Too bad mincin' ain't a requirement for baking cakes…"
Naveen's face fell. Tiana couldn't help but laugh and squeeze his free hand affectionately.
"If you wanna help me, translate the recipe for me. I might speak Maldonian pretty well after only a week here, but I still can't really understand it."
"Very well." Naveen handed the teaspoon back to Tiana. "Since I speak Maldonian, and you speak cooking, together we will make beautiful music together! —I mean cakes! Cakes!"
Tiana curled away from Naveen a bit, chuckling awkwardly. "Yes, of course. Cakes."
Naveen cleared his throat, looking almost more awkward than Tiana, and turned back to the recipe. "Cakes. Ahem. You will now need… a teaspoon of baking powder." He blinked in confusion. "Baking powder, baking soda… what is the difference?"
Tiana felt herself laugh again, so suddenly and fully that it caught her off-guard. "Naveen, I swear, I really… tolerate you. I really, really… tolerate you." To say that was an understatement was in itself an understatement. She loved him. And the more time she spent with him, the more that love grew. So much that it was getting harder and harder to hide, and she had to let it out somehow… even if that "somehow" was under the mask of "tolerate".
Naveen laughed too, smiling warmly at her. "I will take that as a compliment coming from you, Tiana! And I certainly… tolerate you too." He in fact much more than tolerated her, and wished he could tell her, but "tolerate" seemed to be as far as he was allowed to vocalize it. So it would have to do.
Mixing in the baking soda, Tiana opened the cupboard above her again and found the baking powder, smiling and feeling her cheeks flush. "I've never been so happy to be tolerated before," she murmured softly.
"Neither have I," murmured Naveen.
She turned her attention from the baking powder to him. He turned his attention from the recipe to her.
They held their gaze for a few delicate moments.
Then, quickly and with stubborn resolve, they both turned back to their tasks, neither knowing that their thoughts were the same.
Tolerate is far too weak a word… but it will have to do.
Though I keep searching for an answer
I never seem to find what I'm looking for
Oh Lord, I pray you give me strength to carry on
'Cause I know what it means
To walk along the lonely street of dreams…
-"Here I Go Again", Whitesnake
Christmas Eve at the royal chapel in Cruce Salgradi was always a sight to behold, a feast for the senses, and this Christmas Eve was no different. The huge, ornate cathedral was lit up by hundreds of candles flickering against the many stained glass windows, wreaths and greenery adorning every pew and pulpit. Many of the citizens of the capital city attended the special Christmas Eve services there, for the lights, the music, and the sense of holiness.
In the front pew, the royal family sat in their usual seats, the young Prince Asher seated between Shakir and Avani. The minister was reciting the nativity story, but it was clear Asher was hardly listening (although that was slightly forgivable, as he had begged Charlotte to tell him the story a good five times earlier that day); instead, he was staring wide-eyed at the beautiful lights and decorations, as indeed most of the children in attendance that night were.
Prince Naveen, seated to the left side of his mother, also wasn't paying too much attention to the story. Instead he was focused on Princess Charlotte, sitting to his left, and Tiana, sitting to her left. Like Asher, Charlotte seemed far more interested in the lights and decorations than the actual message, although since it was being delivered in Maldonian, she had a bit of an excuse for her wandering attention span.
That didn't hinder Tiana, though. Of course, she had been completely awe-struck by the splendor of the chapel as soon as she first stepped inside, but now, her similarly fascinated expression was directed at the minister, clearly taking in every word despite the fact that she understood none of them.
And she had sung, too. Earlier in the service as the cathedral was filled with voices singing Christmas carols and the organ majestically swelling behind them. The hymns were in Maldonian and Charlotte, not surprisingly, didn't even attempt to sing. But Tiana did. Sure, so she had mispronounced some of the words, but that didn't matter to Naveen. Her heart was clearly completely in the music, so much that it didn't matter what language it was. And she had a beautiful singing voice. He already knew that, of course. But hearing it again was like hearing it for the first time.
"'And behold,'" the minister was saying in Maldonian, although judging by Tiana's expression she knew and understood where in the nativity story they were at, "'an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid.'"
Naveen continued looking to his left, past Charlotte and at Tiana. A great fear began to settle in him as well, one that he had felt on occasion before… one he had always quickly pushed to the back of his mind. He didn't think about God too often, because when he did, the thought of what God must think of him worried him so much that he simply elected to not think about God at all if he could help it. And when he ignored his problems, they generally went away. Or at least didn't bother him anymore.
But now, a sudden realization was hitting him, crushing him as he gazed at Tiana. Had it been that even though he had ignored God, God had not ignored him? Could it be that this painful torture of being so close yet so far from the woman he loved, forced to put up a façade of happiness while married to someone else, was punishment for the life of pleasure and sin he had pursued before meeting her? Could it be that God was twisting the knife in him further, by showing him through his time spent with her now what could have been?
Cruel. Very cruel. Naveen looked up at the ceiling, not being able to give in to the temptation to turn his thoughts away from God at a Christmas Eve church service. If this is my punishment, isn't it overkill? I can't look at her without…
Foolishly, he did turn around and look back at her, and Tiana, sensing that he was focusing his attention on her, met his gaze and gave him a smile.
And then a strange, strange sensation came over Naveen.
It still hurt to look at her, especially when she smiled at him like that, seeing that glimpse of something he was never meant to have. But there was a sudden realization that came over him as well, one that made him smile back, despite all the dark and despairing thoughts that were running through his mind.
That realization was that, if he had to do it all over again, if he could have avoided turning into a frog and even meeting her at all… he wouldn't change a thing. Even knowing he could never have her. Just knowing her was enough, something that he'd never trade for anything. It hurt, having to know her only as "my wife's best friend" and not as anything more intimate… but meeting her, despite the pain it had brought him, was the single greatest thing that had ever happened in his life.
They continued to smile at each other for a few moments before Tiana turned back to the minister, as he was still reading the nativity story: "'And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.'"
It was still in Maldonian, but as Tiana's eyes grew wider, Naveen couldn't help but wonder if she'd understood the message on a level far deeper than words could go.
A week later, Tiana stood alone in the Yellow Room, pulling the familiar light blue gloves up onto her arms.
It was New Year's Eve, and it was Maldonian tradition to hold a New Year's Eve ball. According to Naveen, anyone who was anyone in the country was invited to the festivities that lasted all night long. There would be music, dancing, games… and an entire ballroom of nobility dressed in their finest.
On her shopping trips with Charlotte since being in Maldonia, Tiana had acquired several new dresses, all completely out of her league, but Charlotte insisted on getting them for her anyway. "When your restaurant's open, you'll be wearin' dresses like these all the time! Might as well get you started now!" she had chirped. But for the New Year's Eve ball, Charlotte had given Tiana yet another dress… a new dress, yet an old and familiar dress, too. It was the blue gown that she had loaned to Tiana at the masquerade ball way back in February.
"You looked so pretty in this one," Charlotte had insisted, pushing it, along with the gloves, necklace, and tiara, into Tiana's arms. "You've just gotta wear it tonight. It looks far better on you than it does on me, anyway. My hips are too small and my bust is too big. But you've got the perfect build for it! You can wear it, and you can keep it. Well, I'd better go get ready too. Toodles, Tia! See you at the ball!" And Charlotte had zipped off before Tiana had any time to protest.
Tiana pulled up the other glove and reached for the necklace. Charlotte had breezed over something else significant about the dress, something that she probably didn't even think to consider—it had been what she was wearing when she first met Naveen. Well, first spoke to him anyway.
Sighing, Tiana fastened the necklace around her neck and looked at her dreary expression in the mirror. I'm farther along now than I was then, she reminded herself. Much farther. And yet… I don't think I'm any happier.
She placed the tiara on her head, finishing the outfit.
"This is gonna be hell," she mumbled to herself.
In a crowd full of Maldonian nobility and even some foreign dignitaries, Tiana felt completely lost and out of place, despite the fact that few people were paying any particular attention to her. They mulled about the room, laughing amongst themselves and chatting in Maldonian. Tiana hovered by the food and stayed off to the side, trying to interest herself in observing everyone. She did smile a few times when people sampled one of her culinary creations—for while the royal chefs certainly did most of the work preparing the food for the ball, Tiana had talked Ianthe into letting her whip up a few treats, some old New Orleans favorites and some new Maldonian recipes to which she had added her own personal touch. A personal touch that seemed to be a hit with all the nobility who tasted it. "Richonaza!" she heard many a nobleman exclaim upon trying a beignet. "Qualta esí?" Tiana didn't feel forward enough to step up and take credit for her beignets, but she couldn't help but smile in satisfaction at the obvious delight her cooking was bringing to such a noble audience. She finally let herself munch on one of her beignets as well, sipping a glass of cabernet sauvignon. Normally she made it a point to drink rarely, if ever, but a cynical voice inside of her was making her think that maybe she was going to need alcohol to make it through this night. Besides, even if she didn't, she didn't have a choice. All the drinks seemed to be alcoholic. That's the Mediterranean for you, Tiana thought dryly to herself.
She suddenly realized that the talking had died down save for one loud voice announcing something. Turning her attention to the front of the room, where the grand royal thrones sat, she soon saw why. The royal family had arrived.
King Shakir and Queen Avani wore their traditional royal regalia with twentieth-century style and poise, looking completely fairy-tale and completely modern at the same time. Avani's long-sleeved fuchsia dress had a high neckline and went past her knees, yet she held herself with a confident grace, her golden necklace, bracelet, and tiara adding every bit as much to her regality as her delicately sequined sash around her waist. Shakir's royal uniform might have looked stiff on anyone else, but not him, as he gave an eloquent sounding yet still good-natured speech in Maldonian to his subjects, eliciting true laughter from his jokes and remarks from time to time. Even little Prince Asher, standing to the right of his parents and dressed as a miniature version of his father, only fidgeted occasionally, and kept his attention focused on his father for the most part.
But who most of the crowd was keeping their focus on, Tiana included, was the young royal couple to the left of the king and queen. As always, Prince Naveen was stunningly handsome. As always, Princess Charlotte was remarkably beautiful.
If Shakir knew how to wear his regal outfit with a touch of ease, Naveen took that touch and made it into a full-blooded fashion statement. Keeping perfect posture in his uniform, Naveen still looked as spontaneous and full of life as ever, grinning at anyone who caught his eye and occasionally looking expectedly and eagerly at the orchestra… an orchestra that included, in addition to the normal strings, a number of trumpets, trombones, and saxophones. Clearly Naveen had arranged for his favorite genre of music to play that night as well as more traditional fare.
Charlotte, as usual, knew how to pull off a ridiculous looking dress and actually make it look good. Her dress was bright red, with a hoop skirt and pink trim on the fringes of the skirt. It was also completely sleeveless, and a long white feathered boa was wrapped around her arms and shoulders, positioned in a way that not a bit of her long, dangling silver necklace with its heart-shaped ruby pendant was hidden. Charlotte, like her husband, was absolutely beaming, looking out at the crowd with an expression of wonder that Tiana recognized from her exact same reaction to hearing fairy tales as a child.
I can't believe I know them, Tiana thought to herself, staring at them in full—thankfully, she was far enough in the back of the room and covered by enough people that they couldn't possibly see her. They're both so… regal. They can't be from the same planet I'm from.
She looked again at her dress, that beautiful dress that had once been Charlotte's, and found herself feeling that her score tally was quite a bit less than the prince and princess standing in the front of the room.
It sounded as though Shakir was nearing the end of his speech. His voice rose in tone, in volume, in enthusiasm, and soon the entire room was clapping, Tiana automatically joining in the applause as well. The orchestra began to play a lively waltz, the crowd went back to talking amongst themselves, some started dancing with each other, and Tiana knew that the party had officially begun.
Sighing, she gulped down the rest of her glass of wine, hoping that Charlotte and Naveen took their time in finding her.
Surprised, Tiana turned to the source of the voice: a young, dapper nobleman with a friendly—almost too friendly—smile. Tiana smiled in return, although hers was awkward and apologetic. "Manidaza, per sen, nonzaldi Maldoniazato."
"You don't speak Maldonian?" the man repeated incredulously, in English. "Your Maldonian sounds just fine to me, miss!"
Tiana laughed. "About the only thing I can say in Maldonian is that I can't say anything else."
"It is no problem—many of us speak English as well. You must be Princess Charlotte's friend from the United States."
"That's right." Tiana set down her wine glass and extended her hand to shake his. "My name's Tiana Wilcox."
To her surprise, he didn't shake it, but instead brought it to his mouth and kissed it. "A pleasure, Miss Wilcox. I am Calix, twenty-third Duke of Ochenropolis."
"Quite a mouthful there," said Tiana, giving a smile even more awkward than her first. One minute into the party and a man was already making moves on her? Where was Naveen when she needed him? …With his wife, of course, and Tiana didn't need him, she reminded herself resolutely. What was the harm in humoring this one hoity-toity anyway? "Can I just call you 'Duke'?"
"Calix is perfectly acceptable." He held her hand out to the side. "Would you give me the pleasure of joining me on the dance floor?"
Tiana hesitated. "Oh, I don't…"
"Please, I insist. I cannot bear to see such a pretty girl standing on the sidelines tonight."
"Alright," Tiana said, taking an unsure step towards him. "But I warn you, I ain't much of a dancer."
Calix led Tiana out on the floor and began to lead her in the waltz. "Dancing is nothing. I am sure you'll do fine."
As the waltz played on, Tiana clumsily attempted to follow his moves, although his dancing felt so… stiff to her. It was as if he was focused too much on the technique and not enough on just letting the music take over the soul. She looked away from him as they methodically went through the moves, only making eye contact with him to apologize every fifth step when she seemed to step on his feet. Dancing really wasn't that much fun, she was beginning to realize… perhaps the only time she could have ever found it fun was as a frog, in the swamp, with Naveen. But this was none of those things. She found herself praying that the song would end soon.
Finally she heard the finishing chord. Trying to not pull away too quickly, she let go of Calix. "Thank you for the dance, Calix. I'll, uh… I'm gonna go get another glass of wine now."
"Go right ahead, Miss Wilcox," said Calix, attempting to discreetly rub a sore foot against his leg.
"Sorry about your feet," Tiana said quickly, then turned and made her way back to the wine bar. Once her second glass of wine was poured for her, she turned back around and looked at the dance floor where she and Calix had been dancing. He was no longer there. Tiana sighed. Well, she scared that one off. Her sigh, however, was every bit as much a sigh of relief as a sigh of disappointment. If this was what a royal ball was like, she would much rather stand off to the side and just watch and drink her wine. Or just leave entirely.
It wasn't long before the music became slower, and the couples dancing grew closer and more intimate. In the center of the dance floor, Shakir and Avani were gently swaying, holding each other close, gazing into each other's eyes and smiling. Naveen and Charlotte were also dancing, but not as close; still, Naveen's fluid grace made the couple look devastatingly beautiful, and Tiana was unable to take their eyes off of them. She was unable to smile, either. How badly she wanted to be happy for her friend. Her friend, who instead of looking into her prince's eyes was looking blissfully up at the ceiling, clearly more in love with being a princess than with the prince who had made it possible. But the slowly simmering jealousy had finally reached a boiling point, one that Tiana couldn't ignore.
Feeling a painful knot in her throat, Tiana quickly turned away and headed back to the bar, ready for her third glass of wine. Her head felt lighter, her steps felt heavier, and her heart felt completely shot down. If the wine made her head feel lighter, perhaps it would lighten her heart as well.
At the food table, Asher was wistfully watching Charlotte and Naveen dance while stuffing one of Tiana's beignets in his mouth. "Tiana!" he exclaimed upon seeing her. "You are the best cook in the world! Can you stay here forever?"
Asher's enthusiasm was so infectious that Tiana couldn't help but laugh, already feeling a little bit better. "Sorry, Asher, but I've got a restaurant in New Orleans to worry about."
"Can't you have a restaurant here, so we can always eat your food? It's the best!"
"Well, maybe when Naveen and Lottie come to New Orleans to visit, you can come with them and eat at my restaurant then," smiled Tiana.
"Why aren't you dancing?" Asher asked. "You were earlier, I saw you."
"I think I scared that man off," Tiana laughed. "He found out what a terrible dancer I am. And he must have let everyone else know, because no one else has asked me."
"You're not dancing with anyone?"
"Nope. Not a soul."
Asher shoved the rest of the beignet in his mouth and, quickly and charmingly, held out his hand to Tiana. "May I?"
Tiana laughed again at the young prince's attempts to be smooth and debonair—attempts that would likely be highly successful if he continued in the same vein as he got older. "Why, Prince Asher, thank you. I'd be delighted."
They did not move out onto the dance floor, instead doing a small, simple dance next to the food buffet. Tiana had to lean down to dance with Asher, who was unable to twirl her or do anything except hold her hands and step back and forth. Still, the young prince's spontaneity made him far preferable to Calix in Tiana's mind, despite the fact that he was barely half her size.
"I think you're a good dancer," said Asher earnestly.
"Maricilpen, mio pruto," Tiana said with a smile.
"Naveen thinks so too."
Tiana's eyes grew wide in shock. "What?"
"At every ball there is always one woman who he watches all the time, and then he goes and dances with her. And he watched you the entire time you were dancing with that man!" Asher grinned at her.
Despite her heart racing, Tiana managed to laugh again. "Listen, Asher, your brother's already danced with me before, and if he was really watching me, it's probably just because he was thinking that I haven't improved a bit!"
"He already danced with you? When?"
Tiana smirked. "When we were frogs."
Now it was Asher's eyes that grew wide. "Achidanza! You were a frog too?"
"Yes," smiled Tiana, "and we danced in the swamp, on a lily pad and under the water, and I tripped and fell all over him. I think I scared him off too."
The song ended, and Asher let go of Tiana's hands. "I don't think so," he said in a sing-song voice, looking past Tiana.
Tiana turned around, and sure enough, Naveen had wasted no time in breaking away from Charlotte to find his next dance partner. "Miss Wilcox," he said in a mock serious tone, "I trust that your dance with my younger brother was diverting, no? However, I wonder if I might borrow you from him for the next number or two."
Tiana looked down at Asher. "You alright with me movin' on to a new partner, Asher?"
Asher shrugged and smiled. "Viz. I'm going to eat more of your food now." And with that, he quickly darted back to the buffet table without another word.
Naveen held out his hand for Tiana. "Well? Shall we?"
Grinning, Tiana put her hand in his. "We shall, Your Highness."
Naveen led Tiana out onto the dance floor and gave her a quick twirl, the song being played more upbeat than the previous song. "I recognize your dress," he said with a smile, placing his right arm around her waist and holding her right hand up in the air and close to their faces. "Although I believe when I last saw you wear this dress, I was quite a bit shorter than you."
"You were far more attractive then, too," Tiana teased, gliding along the floor with him, his steps quick and spontaneous, yet still with the beat.
"What? That is surely a jest. What could possibly be more attractive than this?" He brought his left hand, and by extension Tiana's right hand, to his face and flashed his pearly whites at her. "Aside from the very lovely woman in front of me who still makes a very convincing princess, I can't think of anything!"
"I'm still just a waitress," said Tiana. "The dress don't make me a princess, as you very well know."
"Just a waitress? Why Tiana, you are far more than just a waitress. You are also the owner of what will soon be the greatest restaurant in the world!"
"Stop exaggerating, Naveen," laughed Tiana, taking another step and swaying to the beat with him. Funny how she hadn't once yet stepped on his toes.
"Tia!" Charlotte and her dance partner, a slightly older man in a tuxedo, waltzed by Tiana and Naveen. "You havin' fun?"
"I sure am!" exclaimed Tiana, surprised that she didn't have to lie. "You look gorgeous!"
"Thanks, sugar," grinned Charlotte. "Likewise to you! You still wear that dress far better than me. I definitely want you to have it. Oh, my stars, I haven't introduced you yet—Tia, this is Dr. Philip Jenson, the royal practitioner. He graduated from Oxford, in England! Dr. Jenson, this is my good friend from New Orleans, Tiana Wilcox."
Tiana dipped her head in as much of a greeting as she could while still dancing with Naveen. "Pleased to meet you, Dr. Jenson!"
Dr. Jenson, also a bit incapacitated due to dancing with Charlotte, repeated the gesture. "Pleased to meet you, Miss Wilcox."
"I'm glad to see you ain't just standin' by the buffet table and thinkin' food like I was afraid you would be," Charlotte said to Tiana with a laugh. "You've gotta enjoy this ball and dance the night away! Which is what I plan to do!" Laughing again, she swept a startled Dr. Jenson off in a different direction. "Catch you later, Tia!"
"See you, Lottie!" laughed Tiana.
Naveen stared incredulously at the spot Charlotte had just occupied. "I will never understand how that woman can move like that in those ridiculous dresses she wears."
"It's just her running off her princess high," smiled Tiana. "The prettier she feels, the more of a livewire she is."
"She is pretty in that dress," Naveen conceded, "but I have to agree with her that you wear this particular dress much better than she does."
Tiana felt her cheeks flush, but she still smiled. "So is that why you were watching me dance with that Duke what's-his-name like Asher said?"
"Asher said… that? He said I was watching you?" Naveen gave a mock scowl and glanced over in the area of the buffet. "That little loudmouth!"
"He said it was because you wanted to dance with me, but I figured it was more that you were so shocked at how terrible I still am."
"There are two things wrong with your theory, my dear." Naveen gave Tiana a quick dip before pulling her back up and continuing to waltz with her. "Number one, you were never a bad dancer. On the contrary, you were quite graceful and skilled. Number two, if anything, your dancing skills have only improved since the last time I danced with you."
"Improved? I stepped on that poor man's feet more often than I stepped on the floor!"
"I know Calix. He deserves to have his feet stepped on every once in awhile." Naveen grinned at her. "Besides, you have avoided my feet entirely."
Tiana purposely brought her foot down squarely on Naveen's.
Naveen snorted cynically. "That didn't hurt a bit."
"I can make it hurt."
"I have no doubt of that." Naveen dipped Tiana again and held her there, his gaze piercing, passionate, tender. "You can do anything."
The song ended, but the two didn't move.
The usual flutters in Tiana's heart were this time almost screaming in intensity, her playful mood suddenly gone. WARNING, WARNING, WARNING, DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA OF WHAT YOU'RE DOING? Reality came crashing in like a thunderbolt. This wasn't dancing alone as frogs in the bayou. This was dancing in a ballroom surrounded by dozens of dignitaries, and dancing with someone else's husband besides. A fact that, up until now, had been pushed out of her mind.
She pushed him back up and let go of him. "You have far too much faith in me, Prince Naveen," she said sternly.
The next song was another slow one. A bit taken aback, Naveen still reached out his hand towards Tiana again. "I have only enough faith in you that you deserve. Won't you dance with me again?"
Tiana looked at the musicians, then back at Naveen. "No, I'm all danced out, I'm afraid. Besides, this song seems more appropriate for you to dance with your wife."
Naveen's face fell. "Yes… my wife. Of course." He withdrew his hand.
Giving him one last look that felt too little reprimanding and too much despaired to her, Tiana turned back towards the bar. Yes, she was definitely going to need more wine to get through this night.
One glass of wine later, Tiana retreated outside onto the palace grounds, walking through the gardens that seemed to glow in an other-worldly way from the lights from the palace, the night sky clear and pitch-black against the stars. Not entirely sure what she was looking for, if anything, Tiana continued to make her way through the garden, getting as far away from the party as possible. It seemed she wasn't the only one who had wanted to make a quick exit, either—a number of other people, in couples, had retired out in the dark to be a little more physically intimate. Tiana would have been put off by this on any day, much less in the state she was in now. To think, if she had kept that up she might have been one the partygoers rushing out for a little more privacy. With someone else's husband.
Tiana angrily kicked a pebble on the path, sending it skidding into the begonias. She was weak. She was weak and shouldn't have been drinking and shouldn't have done any of that, didn't she say she was done falling for that man's charms? And how terrible she was, how utterly terrible she was, to do that to her best friend. To interact with her best friend's husband that way. Tiana always hated people who moved in on married men like that, and thus right now she was hating herself. Stupid, stupid, stupid weak-emotioned little fool that she was, she had to get over him, she had to, it was a mistake to come here, she should have stayed back home and thrown herself into her work to make her forget about everything!
"Why do they have to ruin it…"
Tiana stopped in surprise upon hearing the familiar voice behind a bush. A voice that rarely sounded so… desperate and bitter.
Charlotte jerked her head up at the sound of Tiana's voice, her eyes wide enough with surprise that her angry tears began to leak out. "Tiana? What are you doing out here?"
"What are you doing out here? What's wrong?"
"Nothing! Nothing's wrong at all! What makes you think something's wrong?" Charlotte quickly dabbed at her eyes and flashed Tiana a huge, forced smile.
Tiana brought her fingers to her mouth and took in a deep breath, feeling like crying herself. Yep. She'd gone and done it. She'd let her feelings for Naveen take over and in the process had hurt her best friend. Charlotte must know by now, after the way they had been dancing. She had hurt her. And she was a terrible person for it.
"Oh, Lottie, I'm so sorry…"
"There's nothing to be sorry about! There's nothing wrong! …Oh shoot, yes there is!" Charlotte pulled out a hanky and blew her nose, her eyes burrowed in frustration and despair. "I'm tired of pretending like I'm happy!"
"I shouldn't have come…"
"Don't say that!" Charlotte looked at Tiana pleadingly. "Land sakes, Tia, with you here you're the only one who's keeping me sane. From all the reporters, all the duties of being princess—and someday queen, and they expect me to be perfect and instead of living happily ever after it's… it's terrible Tia, I hate it here! I want to go home!"
Tiana stared at Charlotte incredulously.
"I was far more of a princess in New Orleans than I was here. Bein' a real princess… it ain't what it's cracked up to be! And even at these balls, where I think I can be the princess I want to be, I try to have fun and suddenly the press comes and dogs me with questions about the country's finances and how I'm going to deal with that as queen someday and have I been studying international policies and this and that, and all the while they expect me to look perfect and all they do is criticize my clothing and hair and…" Charlotte blew her nose again. "I hate it here, Tia. I just hate it here. I wish I'd never married Naveen. I wish I was back in New Orleans. I was so much happier there. I was a real princess there. People treated me like one. I wasn't a political figure or anything, I was just… me. My dream was a stupid one, Tia, and I wish I'd realized it sooner."
"No… no dream is stupid, Lottie," Tiana managed to say.
"Mine was. Mine was all about the technicalities and nothing about what it was about the princesses in fairytales that I loved so much. They were friendly and well-liked and fashionable, and I was all those things before I came here. And they married for love, and I didn't, and it's just so… so hollow to have a husband that you don't love and that doesn't love you, and nothing at all what those fairytales were like… Princes in fairytales don't cheat on their wives, and princesses don't wake up every morning dreading the day and just wishing that they could go back home—"
"Wait a minute." Tiana's body grew rigid with shock. "Did you just say that Naveen is…"
Charlotte harrumphed slightly and apathetically, wiping her eyes with her free hand. "God yes he is, everyone's trying to hide it from me, but I know, I've known for a long time, and the problem is I don't even care, Tia. I don't care that he's sleeping around! And that's not the way you should feel in a marriage! You shouldn't… not care! But I don't care. I don't care at all. Let him do what he wants, I just don't care, I don't love him and he don't love me…"
"But he's still… married to you! That's not right, Lottie, that, that… womanizer!"
"I don't care, Tia! And the only thing that bothers me is the fact that I don't care! I never thought being married and being a princess would be so…" Charlotte looked back at Tiana and sighed helplessly. "My dream was stupid, Tia, just say it. I know you always thought so, and now I finally realize you're right. You always had a better dream than me—"
"My dream? My dream can't even get off the ground, Lottie!" Tiana shrieked. "All these months I've been chiseling away at this huge, broken-down building that's about to fall apart and as soon as I fix one problem, another one shows up, and I can't get enough money to fix it up even more even with my two jobs and even if I do ever get it fixed up the actual planning and running of an actual restaurant will take way more money than I'll ever earn working the jobs I got, and dammit I don't even care about the money or the stupid building anymore, I just care that I work and work and work and nothing's happening and I feel so empty and alone and some nights I cry myself to sleep and…"
Her voice trailed off, and for a moment neither one said anything, just staring at each other, shocked at the confessions they heard from the other, shocked at themselves for their own confessions.
"Oh Tia," Charlotte finally said, sympathetically and with helpless despair at the same time, "I guess things haven't worked out like we wished them to…"
"They sure haven't," Tiana muttered bitterly, looking upwards at the two evening stars. "You're full of false promises, Evangeline."
"Evangeline?" Charlotte asked in confusion. "Who's Evangeline?"
Tiana sighed and turned away, walking back towards the palace. "Nothin' but a ball of hot air."
Soon Tiana was gone. Charlotte took a shaky breath and rubbed her eyes again. She had long known, of course, that the façade she put on in her letters to Tiana about how wonderful her life was as a princess was just that, a façade, but she hadn't even dreamed that Tiana's enthusiasm at the state of her future restaurant was equally a sham.
But there was something else on Charlotte's mind.
Why did she feel that she'd heard that name before?
To get back to the Yellow Room, Tiana had to cut through the ballroom, as much as she wished she could avoid the party entirely. She made her way back into the room and, as quickly as she could, elbowed her way through the crowd. A young man approached her hopefully—Tiana breezed right by him. "Sen. Sorry. Don't talk to me. Nobody talk to me."
After what seemed like an eternity of pushing and nudging through hoards of overdressed partiers, she was finally in the palace hallway and out of the crowds. Her steps were now finally able to be faster. She had to start packing. Now. She had intended on leaving back for America soon anyway, but now she realized that the sooner she got out of this country, the better. Charlotte was hurting. She was hurting and Tiana was a terrible friend because she didn't know what to do to comfort her and the only thing she could think to do was to run away—but that would help her. That would get her out of Naveen's way.
Naveen. That scumbag. That complete and utter snake. That cheating, low-down, lying, manipulating… And to think Tiana had still, even that night, believed that maybe he did care for her. That maybe his affections were real—but no. He was a womanizer, a rotten scoundrel, and being married didn't stop him. He just wanted in her skirt. And even if his affections had been real Tiana couldn't keep getting her hopes up like this, especially since he was married—he was terrible—she was terrible—the sooner she got back home the better—
"Tiana? What's the matter?"
Speak of the devil.
Tiana spun around and glared at Naveen, who had followed her out of the ballroom and into the hallway towards the stairs, much to Tiana's surprise as the band was currently playing full-blown jazz. "You stay away from me, you snake. You slimy, slimy, mucusy little worm! I know what you want! I know what you've done!"
"What I've done? What are you talking about?"
"Lottie told me! Don't act all innocent! She told me what you are, you… you… cheater! How dare you do this to her?"
Naveen recoiled in surprise. "Charlotte knows?"
"Of course she knows! She's known for ages! And if I'da known for ages you'da been hearing this from me a long time ago!"
"Clearly it does not bother my own wife as much as it bothers you," Naveen muttered harshly.
"That don't matter!" screeched Tiana, now directly in his face. "You are married! And that means you have a commitment to her that you shouldn't go around breaking! And how stupid was I to think that when you did get married, you wouldn't actually… I was a fool for thinking you'd ever changed, you—you little toad!" She spun around and marched back towards the stairs.
"Look, I didn't intend on doing this after I married her—or anyone!" Naveen angrily shouted back at her.
"Don't you even try to rationalize what you've done!"
"Listen! Charlotte never made me feel like other women in the past did. I thought I'd lost something. Something that maybe I could find with another woman. It was never difficult to find before! I keep searching and searching for what's missing, but suddenly I just can't find it anymore, not in Charlotte, not in any other woman in the palace or the country or—I just want someone to make me feel like I'm worth something, like I can do something worthwhile—feel whole! Not empty like I've felt ever since I left…" His body slumped over helplessly. "The more I search, the more I come up empty-handed, and the more I realize that I will never find anyone who can make me feel whole again except for—"
Tiana spun back around to glare at him. "Don't you dare say it!"
"I love you! All I've been searching for these past few months is someone like you, but the only person like you is you!"
"I told you not to say it!" Tiana growled, marching back up to glare at him again and point an accusing finger at his chest. "You lying piece of shit! You honestly expect me to believe that you love me when you went and married someone else?"
"That's why I married her!" Naveen pleaded. "It was the only way to get you your restaurant!"
"Are you trying to tell me," Tiana shouted, glaring even more, "are you trying to feed me the line that because you love me soooo much, you married someone else?"
"That is exactly what I'm saying! I just wanted you to be happy, and it was the only—"
"Why didn't you ask me what I wanted?" Tiana demanded, her voice breaking but her glare still firm. "Why did you just assume that what you were doing was what I wanted?"
"I didn't have to ask you! All you spoke of was your dream! About how happy you were that you were about to get it, but oh yes, by the way, you need the money in less than twenty-four hours and to get it for you that quickly I didn't exactly have many options, did I?"
"It didn't have to be that building!" Tiana shrieked, flinging an arm out to her side helplessly. She and Naveen were now completely in each other's faces, glaring at each other and shaking with anger and tension. "I could have opened another restaurant somewhere else, and you and I could have…" Taking a step back and pushing Naveen away, she looked away bitterly. "Just forget it!" Once again, she turned back towards the stairs.
"Alright!" Naveen shouted at her. "Since I am apparently too stupid to figure out what you want, then tell me! Whatever it is you want, I'll get it for you! Just tell me exactly what you want!"
Tiana spun around yet again. "You!" she blurted out helplessly.
Finally, for a moment, they were silent save for their heavy breathing, staring at each other.
"Do you mean to tell me," Naveen finally asked, incredulously, but with something that looked like the beginnings of a smile begin to tug at his lips, "that all this time we have been fighting when we could have been—" And he took a step towards her and took her face in his hands and kissed her—
"STOP!" Tiana shrieked, pulling away from him.
"What?" Naveen demanded, angrily, defensively, hopelessly. "It's what you want!"
"It don't matter if I want you or not! I ain't like you! I don't go around having affairs when I'm married!"
"But you're not married!"
"But you are!"
Tiana's angry glare finally broke, and she helplessly buried her face in her hands. "Don't you dare talk to me about being empty. I know emptiness. I never realized how empty I was until I met you. And then you started showing me how I could really be happy. And Ray told me that you wanted to marry me and I'd never felt so overjoyed in my life, I'd never felt so happy before, I never thought I could, and… and there I was going on about my dream, but I never even realized what it was until the shadow man tried to tempt me by showing me in my restaurant. It was gorgeous and grand and everything I'd ever wanted, but I still felt empty in it… and I realized it was because you weren't there." She looked back up at him, her eyes narrowing a bit. "But now that's all I have to look forward to. A huge, empty building all by myself that with each passing day and how little I'm able to do with it the more I realize that I'll never have the capacity to run it by myself, and even if I did… But what can I do?" she added harshly, snorting and looking over at the stairs to her room. "It's all I got left now, so what's the point in me wasting time here when the only thing I've got going for me is sitting and rotting away in New Orleans?"
Naveen also brought his hands to his face, looking as though he was fighting the urge to cry. "Faldi faldonza… Tiana…" he murmured helplessly, "I don't know what to… all I wanted was to make you happy. No, that's a lie, I wanted much more than that, you have no idea of how much I wanted to marry you, of how much I didn't want to marry Charlotte. But I thought that was the only way to get you what you wanted. If there had been another way, any other way, I would have done it for you, whatever it was, whatever it would have involved, believe me…"
Tears were beginning to leak out of Tiana's eyes, and she scowled angrily both at them and in an effort to stop them. "What do you want me to say to that? That I appreciate your effort, you sweet, selfless angel? I'm not going to give you that satisfaction, because… because maybe in the short-term you make me happy, but in the long run, all you've ever done is made me miserable. More miserable than I ever thought I could be in my life. I wish I'd never even met you."
"What?" gasped Naveen, his eyes growing wide.
"I wish I'd never met you!" Tiana repeated, her voice breaking again as tears rolled down her face. "I wish your froggy little self had hopped over to Charlotte or someone else in a princess costume and you got her tangled up in all your charms instead! I never wanted anything like this. I never wanted to be in love or get married or anything, and I especially never wanted to fall in love with you. All it's left me is feeling bitter and jealous and heartbroken and—and all I want now is to get over you and forget I ever knew you. I can't… I can't live feeling this way. I can't live with all my thoughts about you and how close I was to being really, truly happy with you for the rest of my life… I want to go back to when my idea of happiness was just that restaurant. When I didn't realize something was missing. I wish I still didn't." Once again, she resolutely turned around and headed back towards the stairs.
"I just want you to be happy," Naveen murmured. "Please just understand… that that is the most important thing in the world to me. I never meant to hurt you. I thought I was helping you. Please believe that."
"Just leave me alone," Tiana muttered without looking back, quickly ascending the stairs. "If you want to help me just leave me alone."
Soon she was out of sight. Not that Naveen would have been able to see her through his tears, anyway.
If your fears could only be forgotten
We could pull all the barriers down
Would you follow your dream's desire?
Would you follow your secret dreams and forbidden fire?
Let's just peel out of this town
It's been nothing but dreams
It's been nothing but dreams until now
"Loving You's a Dirty Job but Somebody's Gotta Do It" -Bonnie Tyler
It was early the next morning, and a groggy, defeated, yet resolute Tiana was awkwardly dragging a fully-packed trunk through the palace, not wanting to attract attention to herself and ask for help. Not that she would have found much. It was New Year's Day and most of the staff had the day off… and those that were still around were still sleeping, most likely, having stayed up all night for New Year's Eve. So had Tiana, truthfully. She had stayed up packing and crying and cursing and pacing her room, so angry and heartbroken and lost and confused and… Somehow, actually, she had fallen asleep for an hour or two, leaning on top of her trunk. She must have taken a moment to rest and suddenly she found herself jolting awake from some terrible dream about an hour later. Couldn't have been much more terrible than reality, she thought bitterly to herself, dragging the trunk along the floor, probably scratching the woodwork. And probably making a lot of noise. She glanced at the grandfather clock in the hallway. 7:15. God, what was she doing up, after how little sleep she got? …No matter. The sooner the better. She was getting out of here.
"Why, Tiana, what are you doing?"
Tiana gasped in surprise as Queen Avani stood before her, seemingly having materialized out of thin air. Quickly remembering her royal court etiquette, she dropped the end of the trunk that she was holding and gave a low but quick bow. "Pardon me, Your Majesty, I hope I didn't wake you."
"Not all of the palace sleeps in, even on New Year's Day," smiled Avani. "And neither do you, I see. Where are you going with your trunk?"
Sighing, Tiana glanced at said trunk, then looked back at Avani apologetically. "I… I've stayed here far too long. I need to get back home and work on my restaurant some more. Thank you for your hospitality, you and the king have both been very kind in your accommodations, but I really need to get going."
Avani eyed Tiana in mild confusion. "This was a rather sudden decision, was it not? I would have thought I would have heard of your departure sooner than now."
Tiana sighed helplessly. "Yes, it's sudden, even though I wasn't planning on staying much longer anyway, but let's just say last night… last night I realized I don't belong here. I'm only making things worse. Tell Lottie and Naveen that I'm sorry for… well, just tell them I'm sorry."
"Tiana, dear, you're leaving without telling them goodbye? What's wrong?"
Tiana sighed again, wrapping her arms around her body and looking down on the ground. "Nothing. Well—actually—it's not nothing, but I don't want to talk about it. It'll be better if I just leave. Trust me."
Avani gently placed her hand on Tiana's shoulder. "How do you plan on leaving, then?"
"I'll go to the bank, exchange my money—I've got about twenty American dollars, that should get me a third-class ticket at least—"
"It's New Year's Day. While I am sure there are ships leaving today, I am equally sure that there will be no banks open."
Tiana's face fell. "Oh…"
"Come. I will get you enough rublinas to purchase you a ticket and be on your way." Avani led Tiana down the hallway and into one of her offices.
"Thank you very much, Your Majesty, I really appreciate all you've done for me." Tiana fished her American dollars out of her pocket.
Avani shook her head. "Your ticket here was a free gift, and your ticket back shall be a free gift too." She handed Tiana a small stack of Maldonian rublinas. "That should be enough to get you a first-class ticket, plus a little spending money on the ship itself."
"Thank you, but I really only need enough for third class…"
"You will be far more seasick in third class than first, let me assure you," smiled Avani. Then her smile faded slightly. "Tiana, I do not wish to stop you if this is what you feel you must do, but do you really feel that leaving without saying goodbye will fix things? Both Charlotte and Naveen care for you greatly. They will be hurt at your departure."
Tiana winced. "I'm hurting them more by staying here, Your Majesty. That's why I've got to leave before either of them can talk me into staying any longer. I… I don't want to explain. Just trust me. I have to do this."
On a sudden impulse, she quickly gave Avani a hug. "Thank you again for all you've done for me. And… I know Lottie and Naveen are going to be mad at me for this, and that's okay, but I really care about…" She bit her lip. "What I mean to say…"
Avani comfortingly returned the hug. "It is alright, Tiana. I am sure they will understand better than I do. I will bring a cab around to take you to the docks."
"Thank you. Maricilpen." Tiana let go of Avani and headed back out the door and to her trunk. "This really is a wonderful country, Your Majesty, and I wish I could…" She shook her head and resolutely picked up one end of it again. "But I can't. Thank you again. A… abinaza."
"Abinaza, Tiana," Avani murmured softly. "I hope it is not forever."
While Avani had risen at her usual hour that morning, Naveen and even Charlotte had not. Naveen hadn't seen either Charlotte or Tiana after his encounter with her… his frustrating, heartbreaking, maddening encounter with her. There were only two ways to deal with the emotions he was feeling—sex and alcohol. And given the circumstances, sex with anyone was only going to make it worse. So he made his way back to the ballroom, downed about five more glasses of wine, and threw himself into the music, forcing himself to enjoy himself. But all the booze and jazz in the world couldn't blot out Tiana's "I wish I'd never met you!" from his mind. He finally stumbled into bed a little before three o'clock that morning, exhausted, confused, wanting nothing more than to make his way into the Yellow Room and comfort Tiana, throw his arms around her and kiss all her (and his) cares away, his marriage be damned, she was hurting and miserable and—and it was all his fault and if he tried that stunt he'd just be making things worse—so instead he just flopped into bed and buried his face in his pillow, not noticing that his wife on the other side of the bed had fallen asleep in a similar position, the tearstains still shining on her pillowcase.
Naveen might have slept in late in even normal circumstances, but usually he was up well before noon. That day, however, he was still lost in an uneasy sleep when the sun was at its zenith… and probably would have stayed that way for a few more hours at least if Charlotte hadn't thrown a glass of water in his face.
Coughing harshly, he groggily wiped the water from eyes. "Qualta—"
"What did you say to her?" Charlotte shrieked, enraged.
"Queno? I—I mean, who?"
"Tiana! She's gone!"
"She's what?" shrieked Naveen, bolting upright in an instant.
"I woke up just an hour ago and was looking for her, and your mother said that she packed her trunk and up and left this morning! I raced to the docks as fast as I could, but the ocean liner leavin' for the United States was just pulling out as I got there! She left without even saying goodbye! What did you say to her?"
"What did I say to her?" Naveen shot back, glaring at Charlotte with more anger than he thought it was possible for him to hold, anger that he wasn't sure wasn't sure if all (or any) of it was actually directed at her. "What did—what did you say to her? I find her after she's stepped outside and she looked as though she was about to fall apart!"
"It was because of me, alright yes, so I said—I said some things that… but they weren't directed to her, they only made her say some things that were, and they certainly weren't enough to make her just leave without… Anyway, I was going to apologize, but she's gone!" Charlotte brought her hands to her face and moaned helplessly. "Cheese and crackers, no wonder the press is always goin' on about how I'm not suited to be princess, let alone queen, I'm a terrible host, I can't even make my best friend wanna stay, and my mascara was running all night and how can I be gracious and entertaining when everything's—"
"Would you just SHUT UP?" Naveen snapped, shooting up off the bed to glare over her, his patience with her finally breaking.
"SHUT UP?" Charlotte screeched in retaliation, flaring up and standing on tiptoe to better glare Naveen directly in the eyes. "I've got expectations to meet and live up to that are soooooooo important but that nobody cares about for you, you can just screw around and shirk everything and everyone just turns a blind eye, and I'm lonely and homesick and don't understand anything about this God-forsaken country and to top that all off, my best friend apparently HATES me and left without saying goodbye?"
"How do you think I feel?" Naveen demanded, enraged. "She is my—"
He stopped and dropped his hand that had been in the air, his expression only softening a bit. Charlotte's, however, did a complete meltdown. Her eyes grew wide and her jaw dropped with a gasp, the defensive, angry flare in her body vanishing.
He hadn't said it, but Charlotte suddenly remembered where she had heard the term Evangeline before.
It hadn't made sense to her the first time, so she thought little of it. It still didn't make much sense to her… but it made enough sense this time to make something finally click.
"Oh… oh my God…" she gasped, bringing her hands to her mouth and shaking her head in disbelief.
"What?" Naveen demanded harshly.
"You… you're in love with her."
"Of course I'm in love with her!" Naveen cried, his anger also finally melting away into frenetic hopelessness. "Why else do you think I was so quick to marry you? Why I would only marry you if you helped me get her what she wanted? I have never loved anyone or anything more in my entire life!"
"Oh my God…" Despite the fact that she was still biting her hands, Charlotte's lips were trembling, and her eyes were filling with tears.
"Don't cry," Naveen muttered, guiltily looking away from her. "Faldi faldonza, don't you even start…"
"You love her. How stupid could I be?" Charlotte sniffled, drew in a shaky breath, and brought one hand up to her eyes to wipe her tears. "How could I not've noticed? And she… and she must love you too, that's why she left without saying goodbye, that's why she didn't come to the wedding, that's why… Oh my God!" Her body shook with larger, heavier tears, tears that now required both hands to dry. "Look at how much I've hurt her… hurt both of you… all because of my stupid silly desire to be a princess. How could I have done this?"
Naveen took a step back from Charlotte, taking in a deep, sob-like breath himself, his eyes wide with surprise. First of all, he had never intended on confessing this to Charlotte, but secondly, he had always imagined that if he had… well, if he had, Charlotte would be furious at him. And she was furious… but more at herself.
Charlotte looked back up at Naveen, tears still running out of her eyes, in amounts that certainly would have ruined her mascara had she been wearing any. "I've gotta leave here, too!"
Naveen jerked back in surprise. "What?"
"I can't stay here when I'm standing between true love! Besides, I absolutely hate it here and I hate bein' a princess!" She suddenly smiled harshly. "How's that for a confession? That's what I told Tiana last night. I told her how miserable I am here. And she told me how miserable she is back in New Orleans. So we've gotta switch places. You and I… you and I need to get a divorce."
"Would you… would you even listening to what you're saying?" Naveen demanded. "You are the princess of Maldonia. You cannot just get a divorce!"
"The—the integrity of the royal name!"
"So what? King Henry VIII got divorces left and right! Besides, how is divorcing somehow dishonorable yet sleeping with every pretty girl you see is just fine and dandy?"
"Listen, alright, that was wrong," Naveen said defensively, "but I won't do that anymore! I was only… only trying to find something that I'd lost, something I didn't even know what it was, and… and I never really found it, except in Tiana, so I know now that I'll never have it. You're right, she's right, it was wrong of me, alright? I promise not to do it again. I realize now I'll never be whole again without Tiana, so I'll just have to learn to live with this emptiness!"
"No you won't!" Charlotte demanded. "You can divorce me and marry Tiana! It's what you want, and it's what I want too!"
"I can't marry Tiana!" Naveen cried. "Whether I want to or not doesn't matter! She has her restaurant in New Orleans to take care of, I'm not about to drag her away from her dream and force her to be a princess here!"
"Well then, why don't you go to her?" Charlotte countered. "You could live in New Orleans! Give up the crown for your one true love! How romantic…" Although there were still a few tears in her eyes, with her last sentence she sighed dreamily and looked up at the ceiling.
"This isn't a fairytale, Charlotte," Naveen muttered darkly. "I've disappointed my parents and my country for far too long. It's time for me to live up to my duties. That is what Tiana wants from me."
"To hell with duties! Ain't true love more important?"
"Charlotte! Get your head out of the clouds and—"
"Isn't this what you want?"
"Of course it is what I want! I want nothing more than to spend the rest of my life with her, but that's not possible! You and I are married, and it takes a lot of effort to get divorced, and my parents—who run the country, might I add—won't approve!"
"You've cheated on me," Charlotte countered. "Ain't that grounds enough for divorce?"
"No," replied Naveen. "That is not enough. Royalty in all nations have the reputation for having affairs. If anything, you are the one straying from the norm."
"Now that's an idea!" Charlotte suddenly said, excitedly. "I could fake a pregnancy and say that you're not the father! Then you'd have to divorce me!"
"I'm not going to let you drag your name in the mud too!" Naveen cried. "We can't get divorced. Royal bonds are thicker than steel. No member of the Maldonian royal family has ever gotten divorced! If you think it was difficult for us to get married, it will be ten—a hundred times harder to get divorced!"
"Marrying you wasn't hard at all!" Charlotte protested.
"My parents bent the rules for you," Naveen snapped.
Charlotte bit her lip thoughtfully. "Bent… or changed?"
"Bent, but what does that…"
Charlotte abruptly flittered her way to the door. "My Mardi Gras trip to New Orleans looks like it's gonna be a few months early. Get me my suitcases, I'm packing! While I'm in New Orleans, you might wanna spend your time in the library, reading up on Maldonian marriage law."
Naveen stared unresponsively at Charlotte for a good three seconds. Then, finally: "Qualta?"
"You heard me. I'll try to not be in New Orleans for too long, alright? I'll be back hopefully before February, and I'll bring Tiana back too. And if you don't find any loopholes, get the divorce proceedings ready. Well, off to find my trunks! Toodles!" In a flash, she was gone from the room.
Naveen stared unblinking for another three seconds before rubbing his temples. "Faldi faldonza…"
Upon arriving back in New Orleans, Tiana had three stops to make in rapid succession—home, Duke's, Cal's. Home solely to drop off her trunk and let her mother and Louis know she was back—and that didn't happen, since neither of them were there. Pushing her trunk into her room, Tiana didn't stay to ponder that very long. Eudora was probably working at one of her clients' houses. And Louis was probably in the bayou, chatting with his friends and such.
Well, she'd get back home and wait for them soon enough, but she couldn't hang around just yet. She had to let Buford and Cal know that she was back home and ready to work again. Her total time spent at her house was less than five minutes, rushing back to the streetcar and riding it down to Duke's Diner.
"Hey there, Tiana!" Maddy greeted her enthusiastically. "How was your trip?"
"Let's not talk about that," Tiana muttered. "Is Buford working today?"
"Yeah, he's in the kitchen like always—"
"Order up, Maddy!"
Maddy rushed to the window to the kitchen and grabbed the plate of hotcakes, Tiana right behind her.
"Hey there, Buford," Tiana said, "just droppin' by to let you know I'm back from Maldonia."
Buford snorted sarcastically. "And? What do I care if you're back from Who-whatlia?"
"What do you care? I'm available to work again! And I'm willing to work even more hours than b—"
"HA!" Buford interrupted with a harsh laugh. Tiana took a step back in surprise. "Ha!" Buford repeated. "You think that you can leave for a month and we just sit here and twiddle our thumbs waitin' for you to return? The customers sure didn't! I hired another waitress! Now I can maybe bring you back on board, but you'll be lucky to get half the hours you were working before. Wouldn't wanna cut into Emily's hours, now would you?"
Tiana felt her heart sink, then suddenly flare up with anger. "You—you can't do this! I need this job! I've been working here nearly five years, you can't do this to me!"
"I can and I did! Now get outta my way, I've got a job to do. A job that you can't just take a month's break from. I can schedule you to work… a week from today, noon to closing time. After that, we'll talk."
"Buford, please, I need this job!" cried Tiana. "I promise I'll never leave again, I'll never go back to Maldonia, I'll never even leave the city again, just please—"
"I'm working!" Buford snapped at her, turning back to the stove.
Maddy, who had witnessed it all, took a tentative step towards Tiana, wringing her apron in her hands. "That… that ain't fair, Tiana, even though I've only known you for a little bit I still know how hard you've worked… I'll give up some of my hours so you can get back in the schedule."
Tiana shook her head. "No, Maddy, I know how much you need this job too. Besides… I have another job. I think Cal will be a little happier to see me… I hope." She bit her lip in determination. "And even if he isn't, I can get another job. Maybe I should anyway. What else am I gonna do with myself when my restaurant's the only thing I'm living for?"
Maddy continued to wring her apron apprehensively. "I don't think your royal vacation did much to relax you."
"I ain't got time for relaxing! And I shouldn't have gone there in the first place… I need to stay here where I belong and work even harder. I will get another job. If I ain't workin' a job or workin' on my restaurant, I'm sleeping. I'll get there yet! I will!"
"Gosh, Tiana," Maddy said worriedly. "Everybody needs a break every once in awhile! Sometimes I think you don't know how to have fun!"
"I DO TOO KNOW HOW TO HAVE FUN!" Tiana snapped, every bit of her body flaring up defensively. Maddy squeaked in surprise and fear and recoiled from her.
Tiana's anger quickly vanished as she looked at Maddy's wide, frightened eyes. "I'm sorry, Maddy," she said softly. "It's just… the last person who said that to me… never mind. I've gotta get to Cal's. I'll see you later."
She hurried out the door, leaving Maddy to only continue to stare and wring her apron.
Cal, fortunately, hadn't hired anyone else… but still, Tiana thought wearily as she rode the streetcar back home, Cal's had always only been her night job, with less hours than she put in at Duke's. And she needed both jobs. Given how slow her progress was with her previous cash flow… her previous cash flow that was given a major boost by a prince and a debutante anyway…
Tiana made a harsh grimace as she stepped off the trolley and made her way back to her house, trying to push the doubt out of her mind. Do not give up. Do not give up. She couldn't give up. Even with all the financial and emotional turmoil she was experiencing right now. That was all the more reason to keep working even harder, for once she finally opened her restaurant, it would be all the more rewarding and fulfilling. She'd feel whole and complete again someday. As long as she kept working her fingers to the bone. She'd get another job. She'd spend every second on her goal. Yes, she'd get there yet.
Louis had returned to the house, and leapt up with joy upon seeing Tiana, his landing shaking the foundations of the house. "Tiana! You're back!" He ran to her and literally almost crushed her in a hug.
"Ack… Louis, I can't breathe…" Tiana gasped.
"Oh! Sorry!" Louis let go of Tiana quickly and blushed. "Sometimes I forget I ain't human." But then his huge, happy smile instantly returned. "But I'm so glad to see you back! How was Maldonia? How was Naveen? Did you have fun? Was there lots of jazz? Did you—"
"Slow down, Louis! It was… nice. Very nice. Where's my mama?"
"She went to a client's house…" Louis's enthusiasm melted into a quizzical expression. "You don't seem to think that it was nice…"
"I did," Tiana muttered, "but I'm just a little… Buford apparently hired someone else while I was gone. Now I've got only maybe half the hours there that I used to, if I'm lucky."
"Oh…" Louis said worriedly, but then he suddenly smirked. "Do you want me to go and roughen him up a bit?"
"No, Louis, no! Really… I suppose it's understandable that he did that. He needed someone to cover my hours. It's alright. I'll get another job. That'll be three different sources of income. Maybe then my restaurant will get finished faster!"
"Your… restaurant." Louis sounded hesitant.
It was only two simple words, but the tone immediately set off red flags in Tiana's mind. "What about it? What's wrong?"
"Nothing, really," Louis quickly clarified, "but there is… well, have you noticed all the branches and stuff on the ground?"
"Oh God, please don't tell me a hurricane went through here… it ain't even hurricane season, it couldn't have—"
"It wasn't a hurricane, it was some sort of windstorm, and—"
"What happened to my restaurant?"
"Really, it's mostly fine!" Louis cried, although still with wide, worried eyes. "It's just that the wind blew some branches around and into… well, they broke most of your windows. But that's—"
"Oh God, the windows!" shrieked Tiana, spinning around and sprinting back to the streetcar stop.
"It's not that bad, Tiana!" Louis insisted, but it was too late; she had already leapt onboard the streetcar that was gliding by, not even waiting for it to stop.
"You only just got back!" Louis cried. "Can't you stay here for just a little bit?"
Clang, clang, clang, and the streetcar was gone, transporting Tiana back to the bustle of the city.
No, no, no.
Not the windows.
Anything but the windows.
Tiana stared, slack-shouldered, her mouth hanging open slightly, in front of her restaurant. No, not her restaurant. Her building. Her building that was once a sugar mill, was neglected into just a mass of timber, and that had become her pet project to fix, to make beautiful, because unlike the equally shambled state of her life, she knew how to fix this building. She knew how, and, albeit in very very small steps, she could. On the inside, the progress had been small, but noticeable. But not on the outside, until she installed those new glass windowpanes. It had taken a full two months' worth of tips to pay for them, but she got them, and put them in…
And now they were all shattered. One still had the tree branch that had punctured it sticking out like an accusing finger—you you you. Your hard work meant nothing. Look at what's become of it. This is your future. You failure.
Tiana let out an inarticulate roar and flung a rock at the window, disintegrating the already splintered glass into thousands of tiny, sparkling shards. "DAMMIT DAMMIT DAMMIT!" she screamed, yanking off her left shoe and hurling it at the wall, bouncing off the old wood of the wall with a thud; her right shoe was quick to follow. With nothing else to throw, she felt her knees buckling, begging for respite on the road… but just before she sank to her despair, she noticed that a number of passers-by were staring at her, shocked and disapproving.
"Sorry… sorry y'all had to see that," Tiana muttered darkly, rising back up to her full height, awkwardly fumbling her way to where her shoes had fallen on the ground, scooping them up, and unlocking the door and rushing inside, slamming it shut behind her. Taking a couple of deep breaths, she looked around at the interior—broken glass and debris from the storm around the windows, but everything else still seemed about the same as when she had left it… that is, completely and utterly empty.
Tiana leaned against the wall and slid down to a sitting position on the floor, pressing her forehead to her knees and inhaling slower, heavier, willing herself not to cry. The windows. She was going to have to save up for them all over again. With only half of the working hours she had had before—and that was if she was lucky. And there was still the painting, the fixing up the outside, the decorating, the seating, the kitchen appliances, the food, the advertising, the insurance on the building, the taxes, the electric bill…
She lifted her head and looked up at the ceiling.
"God," she murmured, clasping her hands and pulling them up to her chest, "if this is a sign… if this is a sign that this isn't what I'm meant to do, this isn't what I'm meant to be… then please give me a sign of where I should be. I just… I just want to know where I'm going again. If this ain't it… and Naveen ain't it… I don't know what else to live for. Please… please show me what to do. Please give me a sign."
Tiana's sign came two days later, bursting through the doors of the old sugar mill cheerfully and enthusiastically, and completely unexpectedly: Princess Charlotte.
"Tia! Happy birthday, honey!"
Tiana dropped the broom in her hand and stared unmoving, too shocked at Charlotte's sudden appearance to have any other reaction at first.
"Twenty years old! Hard to believe, huh?" Charlotte looked around at the building. "I heard about the windstorm. Looks like it hit you pretty bad… You got another broom? Lemme help you!"
"Lottie," Tiana finally managed to say, "what are you doing here?"
"Wishin' you a happy birthday, of course!" laughed Charlotte. "Or have you forgotten what day it is? It's January tenth!"
"I… know what day it is," Tiana said awkwardly, for before Charlotte had appeared, she actually had forgotten that it was her birthday. "But what in God's name are you doing back in New Orleans?"
"Well, I told you I was gonna come back for Mardi Gras, right?" smiled Charlotte. "I just decided to come back a little… early…" Both her voice and her smile faded away slowly; she stood in silence for a second or two; and then she suddenly burst into tears and flung her arms around a startled Tiana. "Oh, Tia, I'm so sorry! Can you ever forgive me? I'm so, so sorry! Why didn't you tell me?"
"What—what on Earth are you going on about, Lottie?"
"What on Earth am I going on about? I'm going on about how utterly stupid and blind I've been, that's what! How I was blindly following this stupid dream of bein' a princess that was stupid anyway, even if I hadn't been hurting you in the process! I can't imagine what you've been going through this past year! I'm so sorry!"
"Lottie, I don't—"
Charlotte pulled away from Tiana and looked her in the eyes, her hands on Tiana's shoulders. "I'm sorry for not having the brains to realize that you're in love with Naveen and marrying him and hurting you. I'm sorry for making you so miserable."
Tiana coughed awkwardly, feeling something that wasn't physical suddenly lodge itself and get caught in her throat. "That's—that's not—"
"It's okay, Tiana." Charlotte smiled comfortingly. "I ain't mad at you. How could I be mad at true love? I'm only mad at myself for not realizing it sooner. Now I know why you didn't come to the wedding. And when you were visiting us in Maldonia, you always seemed so happy, happier than I'd ever seen you before, and I didn't really know why that was—but now I do."
"I…" The emotion caught in Tiana's throat prevented her from saying anything else.
"It's okay, Tia," Charlotte repeated. "I'm fine with it. It's love, how could I not be fine with it? And you do love him, don't you?"
Her eyes squinting shut with tears, Tiana brought one hand to her mouth and the other wrapped around her waist, nodding helplessly.
Charlotte brought a hand to her face too, to wipe away the tears of her own that were forming. "I'm so sorry for taking him away from you."
"He… he's your husband," Tiana managed to say, her words muffled against her fist. "I'm the one who should be apologizing—"
"No, I'm the only one who's gonna be apologizing here today. I'm the one who skipped off into the sunset with him and married him, not because of who he was as a person, but because he had a title that I wanted too. I married him for a title, Tiana, and that was wrong of me. Whereas you—I don't know how you fell in love with him, but I know you, and I'm sure the fact that he's a prince was just a footnote. You actually love him, and I just took him away from you, and—but since I married for a title and not for love I've been so miserable, and you've been even more miserable. I messed everything up!" Charlotte flopped on the floor and sobbed into her hands. "Can you ever forgive me, Tia?"
Tiana hesitated for a moment before sliding down next to Charlotte on the floor. "Yes, Lottie. You were following you dream and I wasn't about to stop you. It's just… I guess we both found out our dreams weren't all they were cracked up to be." She looked up at the ceiling. "But when they're all you got, you've gotta keep working at them…"
Charlotte's head snapped up. "No you don't. You've gotta reprioritize. That's what I'm doing back in New Orleans. I was miserable and I wasn't just going to sit back and let it continue to go down that path, even if it was the path my dream took me down. I don't want to be Princess of Maldonia anymore. I don't wanna be princess of anything anymore, except my own life. Like I was before. And I made a mess of things but I'm going to clean it up the best I can. I told Naveen to look for some marriage law that could have slipped past me when I married him—it was a hasty wedding and all, you know, we might have overlooked something, and if we did, our marriage wouldn't be legal and thus null and void and thus I'm not actually married to him and I can go back to New Orleans for good and—eeeeee!" Charlotte squealed happily and kicked her feet. "And I can live my own life here and away from the royal court and—and if I an't married to Naveen, that means Naveen ain't married to me, which means you can marry him and live happily ever after!"
"Lottie, it ain't gonna work like that!" Tiana countered. "Even if—even if you and Naveen are—even if Naveen was free to… to marry—look, he ain't gonna, alright? He's not in love with me!"
"Oh, yes he is! He told me!"
Tiana's eyes narrowed. "Listen, Lottie," she said, in a quick, low, firm voice, "if there's one thing I need to believe right now it's that Naveen doesn't love me, because if I believed he does, or did at any time, then my mind will keep thinking of what could have been, which makes my loneliness even worse, and as much as it hurts to think that I was just another one of his female conquests, it's better than thinking that maybe, in some other lifetime, he and I could have… dammit," she finished weakly, burying her face in her hands.
"You can now!" Charlotte insisted. "Look, if Naveen doesn't find any loopholes, then I'll just divorce him. I don't care if no member of the Maldonian royal family has ever gotten divorced before. Somebody's gotta be the first! And then he'll be free to marry you, and he will want to, Tia, you should have seen the look in his eyes when he talked about you—"
"Lottie, please…" Tiana didn't pull her hands away from her face.
"Do you know… do you know what he said to me?" Charlotte said softly. "When he agreed to marry me, back when he was still a frog?"
Tiana looked up at her.
"He told me he'd only marry me if I gave you the money you needed to buy this place, because… and I didn't understand this then, and I still don't really understand it now, but… he said you were his Evangeline."
Tiana drew in her breath. "He… he said that?"
Tiana's lips trembled for a moment before she brought her palms back to cover her face again. "That… that good-for-nothing lump, he really does love me… I wish you hadn't told me that! As if that will make getting over him any easier!"
"But you don't have to get over him!" Charlotte said emphatically. "That's what I'm trying to get through your head! You can have him! And he can be your happily ever after!"
"Lottie, this is my happily ever after!" Tiana said, gesturing out at the wide, empty room of the building.
Charlotte looked around. "It don't look all that happy to me," she said matter-of-factly.
"But it will be," Tiana insisted. "I've just gotta work even harder and it will be. I can't give this up, Lottie! This is what my daddy wanted! I can't get sidetracked for anything!"
"Now listen, Tia," said Charlotte sternly. "Now I know I didn't know your daddy as well as you did, but I think I knew him well enough to know that he wouldn't want you to sit all alone in some big ol' empty building and work yourself to death and just feel sorry for yourself. He woulda wanted you to be happy! And… and what means more to you, Tia? Naveen, or… this building?"
"N—" Tiana bit her lip. "Look, Lottie, that don't matter. I can't let my daddy down. This is what he wanted and I'm the only one who can see it through to completion! I can't give up now just for something silly like love!"
"Love? Silly? Honey, I thought love was what this dream was all about in the first place."
Tiana's eyes grew wide, remembering the nearly identical words she had spoken to the shadow man nearly a year ago.
"And that's what my dream was about too," Charlotte continued. "But we both got sidetracked and focused on the superfluous details so much that we forgot what it was that was so appealing about bein' a princess or ownin' a restaurant in the first place. It was love!" She sighed and pushed herself up off the floor. "Well, speaking of love and daddies and such, I'd better go to the mansion and let my daddy know that I'm back in town for a little bit. After I first make a li'l pit stop on the way, that is. See you soon, Tia!" In a whirl, she was out the door, leaving Tiana to slowly rise from the floor herself, a million thoughts swarming through her head.
Her daddy never did get what he wanted… but he had what he needed.
And hadn't Tiana told the shadow man that she would never lose sight of what was really important either? And yet, wasn't that exactly what was happening to her, wrapping herself up so completely in this old dilapidated building to block out her emotions?
No. No no no. She was doing this because of love. Her love for her father. A man who had had dreams, and a number of children to filter the dreams through until suddenly they were all snatched from him. Tiana had been the only one left to share his dreams with, and thus she shared all of them. And thus inherited all of them upon his death. If she walked away now, just because she had been foolish and weak and had fallen in love, she would be grinding every single one of her father's dreams into nothing. She couldn't let him down. Charlotte knew this as well as anyone. Charlotte had been the one who was there to comfort her when she and Eudora had learned of his death.
"This is Sophia," the ten-year-old girl had said, presenting Tiana with a slightly worn and heavily loved plush cat doll. "My daddy gave her to me when my mama died and she helped me feel a little better about it. And I know you think we might be a little old for this, but… I think she might be able to help you now, too. I want you to have her. I think you need her right now."
Tiana had only cried sparingly in the days following the news of her father's death, and never for very long, but strangely Charlotte's gesture brought a sudden, grateful lump to her throat. "Thanks, Lottie," she had said, throwing her arms around her friend.
"Thanks, Tia," Charlotte had replied softly, and she didn't have to say what she was thanking her for. Tiana knew. Tiana could remember one day when she was a little girl, about five years old, when Eudora had taken her along to one of her client's houses. "Mr. LaBouff has a daughter close to you in age," Eudora had said to Tiana before they entered the mansion. "He asked me to bring you here today while I work on a suit for him so you can meet her. Her name's Charlotte. Mr. LaBouff wants her to have a friend to talk to and play with right now, since her mama just died. She needs a good friend right now. Can you be a good friend for her?"
"I guess so," Tiana had answered. "How do I do that?"
"Just play with her and have fun," smiled Eudora. Entering the mansion, they made their way down many corridors, little Tiana losing count of how many corners they turned, before they came to a bright, cheerful room where a small girl with blonde curls and big blue eyes was holding a beautiful doll and straightening out its dress, sighing a bit. "Charlotte?" Eudora said, getting the girl's attention. "This is my daughter Tiana. She's here to play with you today."
Charlotte had instantly brightened. "Hi, Tiana!" she said. "Do you wanna play princess?"
"Okay!" Tiana said, running into the room and grabbing another one of Charlotte's dolls.
Recalling their first meeting, Tiana smiled softly. She had never seen so many toys in her life! But as much fun as the toys themselves were, they wouldn't have been half as fun to play with without Charlotte's imagination. Charlotte had brought magical lands and far-off worlds right to Tiana's listening ears… but Tiana, she had only realized later and with the help of Charlotte's gift of Sophia upon her father's death, had given Charlotte a friend during a time of loneliness and despair. Their friendship gave each other happiness. Unspoken, sometimes unrealized, but always there. Strong enough that their differences in social class had never been a threat to tear it away. Tiana was always there for Charlotte when she needed her, and vice-versa.
Except now, Tiana thought to herself, looking at the doors and raising an eyebrow quizzically. After a conversation like that, it seemed so unlike Charlotte to just suddenly up and leave, even if it was to see her daddy…
A pit stop?
What kind of a…
Tiana's eyes bulged open.
"Lottie!" she shrieked. "Stay away from my mama! Don't you get her on your side!"
But of course Charlotte was long gone, and Tiana had to sprint to catch the streetcar to get back home, fervently wishing that by some miracle she might beat her back…
"Took ya long enough to get here!" Charlotte said playfully, grinning at Tiana as she rushed up to the house, Eudora standing on the porch next to Charlotte and Louis waiting by the stairs.
"What did you say to them?" Tiana demanded. "What crazy idea did you cook up and try to talk them in to—look, I don't care what you say, I'm not going back to Maldonia. I don't care if you got my mama and Louis on your side or not. I don't care what silly fairy tale scheme you have. You can't even drag me back on that boat, or—or any boat!"
"I won't hafta drag you," smirked Charlotte. "You're gonna go willingly."
"Ha. Unlikely. Now let me—"
"You're gonna go willingly once you hear my proposition," Charlotte interrupted. "Here's the deal. You go back to Maldonia with me. You talk to Naveen. You figure out what it is you need to do."
"No," Tiana said flatly.
"Let me finish! If you decide that what you need to do is come back here and get back to your restaurant just like you are now, alright then. It's your choice, it's your life. And if that is your choice, I'll pay for all of the renovation of your building. You know, as compensation for the time you missed out on it while visiting Maldonia with me."
Tiana stared at Charlotte in shock, then at her mother and Louis, who were both smiling. "Only… only if I go to Maldonia again, huh? I suppose you two fully support this plan of hers?"
"Of course," said Eudora, still smiling. "It seems these drastic measures are the only things that work to help you get out of your ruts."
"Besides," Louis added eagerly, "Charlotte said that we could come to Maldonia too!"
Charlotte smiled again at Tiana, although this time it was slightly apologetic. "Come on, Tia, they oughta see the place too! …Look, in all seriousness, you've got nothing to lose and everything to gain here. If you just come back with me, just for a bit, you'll either get your restaurant or you'll get Naveen. Maybe you'll get both! And right now, you have neither. So whatever happens, you'll come out on top!"
Tiana frantically looked at Charlotte, then Eudora, then Louis, then back to Charlotte, her mind darting even more than her eyes were. Charlotte was offering to pay for the rest of her renovations. And that would help. A lot. But in order to get that money she had to go back to Maldonia, back to Naveen, and she couldn't… no, yes she could. This was a good idea. She'd go back there, apologize to Naveen, leave him on a brighter note than she had before… she'd get some closure with him. That would make getting over him easier. Then she'd come back here, finish up her restaurant, and finally live her dream. Yes. It would work. It had to work.
"Alright," Tiana said. "I'll go back to Maldonia with you. If you really will pay for the renovations of my restaurant when I get back!"
"If you come back!" Charlotte flung her arms around Tiana happily. "And yes, I promise, if that's what you decide—"
"I've already decided," Tiana said firmly.
Charlotte just shrugged at that. "Well, it's a long cruise across the Atlantic, and who knows, maybe you'll change your mind! Well, anyway… I hope you didn't get too much unpacking done, because you're gonna need to pack it again. We're gonna leave as soon as possible!"
"Can we get a cabin with a balcony?" Louis asked excitedly.
Tiana smiled awkwardly, feeling the same sense of uneasiness settle in her that had when she had agreed to go to Maldonia the first time. She had given in once, and it had been a disaster. Giving in twice…
Well, I did ask for a sign, Tiana thought with an inward sigh. And it looks like I'm getting it…
No mistake is more common and more fatuous than appealing to logic in cases which are beyond her jurisdiction.
"I can't believe that no Maldonian hotels will let Louis in!"
Tiana gave Charlotte a sardonic half smile as they and Eudora made their way across the lawn of the palace, dragging their suitcases behind them as best they could, Louis following behind and pushing. "I can't believe the cruise let Louis onboard in the first place."
"Hey, I'm polite, and cleanly, and fragrant, and I only eat a little bit, and—"
"And you're an alligator," Eudora finished with a chuckle, cutting Louis's protests short. "No matter how well-behaved they are, gators ain't normally allowed on boats."
"Or in hotels, I suppose," said Charlotte, who was leading the way and was nearly at the doors. "But don't you worry, Louis. We got room for you at the palace! Lysander, Ciro, open the doors—don't gape at me like that, I told y'all I'd be back soon, and that I'd be bringin' folks back with me! I'll put up Mrs. Wilcox in the Falstaff Room, Tia can have the Yellow Room again, and Louis—well I'll find something for him—Well don't just stand there, open the door!" Charlotte screeched at the guards Lysander and Ciro, who had simply stared in shock at Charlotte's appearance, complete with alligator to help with her luggage.
"Wow!" Louis exclaimed. "These doors are big enough for me to fit through!"
"Mrs. Wilcox, I'll help get you situated in your room, and I'll bring your bags to the Yellow Room too, Tia, while you go find Naveen," Charlotte breezed, moving past a still confused Lysander and Ciro who had opened the doors despite clearly not knowing how to deal with the new arrivals. "Oh, and Louis, I think I just figured out what we can do with you!"
"Lottie, I'll take my bags to my room myself," Tiana interrupted. "I'm completely beat and I wanna take a nap."
"Oh, don't give me that," Charlotte countered. "The girl who spends every spare moment at work or at her construction site doesn't get tired from sittin' on a cruise line for a week!"
"Oh, fine fine fine. I've gotta go talk to Naveen myself anyway. Come on, Mrs. Wilcox!" Charlotte pushed both Eudora and, somehow, Louis into the foyer and down a corridor. "I'll show you your room. And Louis, I've got a veranda that'll be just perfect for you—it overlooks the sea and everything! We'll grab your luggage later, Mrs. Wilcox." In an instant, she had herded them down a hallway and soon out of Tiana's hearing and sight.
Sighing, she grabbed her own suitcase and started to lug it in the direction of the Yellow Room. Her luggage, like before, wasn't very heavy, but she still felt her arms straining a bit. Last time I was moving in here Naveen took the luggage for me, Tiana thought to herself, smiling as she recalled his attempts to move the suitcase without looking like it was a strain on him.
Her smile faded as she also recalled why she was here again, and what she was going to have to tell him.
"This is gonna be the hardest thing I've ever done," she murmured as she made her way to the Yellow Room. But it was for the best. And she had a resolve of steel. And…
And she was going to need a lot of time to figure out how she was going to do this.
"Hello my baby… hello my honey… hello my ragtime gal…"
Naveen smirked to himself as he sang along with his piano practicing… his piano practicing that wasn't of the classical pieces he was technically supposed to be practicing. His father, exasperated at Naveen's tendency to break into jazz while practicing piano, guitar, or even violin, had all but issued a royal decree that Naveen (and by extension, Asher, who was picking up his brother's musical tastes) not play any jazz at all while practicing his lessons… and Naveen was adhering to that, erm, request. Ragtime was not jazz. But both were far more fun to play than classical. And both were about all that he had been playing ever since Tiana—oh, and Charlotte too—had left. When you don't know what to do, when you don't know what you can do, when you don't know what you should do, what else was there to do but make music?
The door to the room suddenly burst open. "Send me a kiss by wire, baby my heart's on fire!" Charlotte belted out vigorously.
Naveen nearly fell off the piano bench. "Ch-Charlotte! You are back from New Orleans?"
"Sure am! Now tell me, what did you find out?"
"About Maldonian marriage law, of course!" Charlotte looked positively exasperated. "Don't tell me you haven't been doing any research at all while I've been gone!"
"Naveen! How do you expect us to defeat the system if we don't even understand the system? Come on!" Charlotte grabbed Naveen's arm and dragged him off the piano bench and out of the room.
"But—but my lessons—"
"You weren't playing your lessons, and you know it."
"Why can't you do this alone?"
"'Cause I can't read Maldonian, idiot! And most of the books in the library are written in Maldonian!"
"We have plenty of books in English!"
"Probably none on the laws of your country though!" The library was thankfully quite close to Naveen's practice room, and Charlotte pushed the doors open with a foot while still pulling Naveen by the arm into the library. "Now where are the books on law?"
"How should I know?" Naveen asked irritably. "Do I look like someone who studies law for fun in his spare time?"
"Fine, fine, just tell me what the Maldonian word for law is so I can look for them too!"
"Semprini," Naveen mumbled under his breath.
"What did you call me?"
"I thought you said you do not understand Maldonian!"
"I understand that word! And I know that sure as heck don't mean 'law'!"
"Lenzo," Naveen sighed, pulling his arm free of Charlotte's grasp and looking down a row of books. "The Maldonian word for law is lenzo. There. Happy now?"
"Overjoyed!" chirped Charlotte, strangely enough not sounding completely sarcastic. She quickly made her way down another aisle and scanned the words on the spines of the books. "Lenzo, lenzo, lenzo… A-ha! Here they are." She yanked a book off the shelf and tossed it to a startled Naveen. "See if you can find anything in this one! And I'll look in this one. What's the Maldonian word for marriage—wait, lemme see if I can remember it from our wedding…" Charlotte bit her lip in thought. "Nuplista? Is that it?"
"I'm impressed," said Naveen sincerely, looking up from the book that Charlotte had thrown to him. He flipped the book open and scanned the pages. "Now… now remind me, what are you looking for again?"
Charlotte sighed in exasperation, opening her book as well. "We're lookin' for some Maldonian marriage requirement that mighta slipped past us, rendering our marriage null and void. You know, to avoid that terrible, terrible scandal of us gettin' divorced like we will be if we don't find anything."
"Scandal or no scandal, that option is seeming very appealing right now," Naveen shot at her.
"Heck, me too!" Charlotte shot back, although with a noted lack of bitterness. "But an even better option would be to find some way out of the divorce in the first place. Because believe me, I don't exactly wanna go about with the title of a divorcée either! Not the best social stigma…" She straightened up slightly and turned her attention back to her book. "But this is something that I—that we—have to do. Hmm. I got a book with pictures… is this some sort of medieval Maldonian torture device?"
"I found it!" Naveen suddenly exclaimed. "Marriage requirements in the nation of Maldonia!"
"Ooh! What are they, what are they?" Charlotte asked excitedly, leaning in to look at the page. The paragraph was a very short one.
Naveen sighed in disappointment after quickly reading it. "The only requirements are that both parties are Maldonian citizens and that they exchange their vows and sign the marriage license in the presence of a holy man or a judge. We did all that."
"Nuts," sighed Charlotte, looking just as disappointed.
"Wait…" Naveen looked at Charlotte. "Charlotte… did you ever actually become a Maldonian citizen?"
Charlotte drew in her breath.
Naveen suddenly shook his head. "No, no, never mind. I do not think that would be a factor for us. My mother was from a different country… my paternal grandmother was too… and I don't think either of them had to become a citizen before marriage. I do not think that counts for royalty. If you are royalty, you become a citizen upon your marriage."
"But… but Naveen, I wasn't royalty," Charlotte said slowly. "I only became royalty when I married you. But I wasn't royalty, so marrying you didn't make me a citizen, which means…"
"Which means…" Naveen's eyes grew wide. "Which means that since you were neither a Maldonian citizen nor royalty, our marriage wasn't legal!"
"Which means you and I were never actually married!" Charlotte let out a shriek of pure joy and flung her arms around Naveen happily. "Now you and I don't have to get divorced because we ain't married, and we never have been! I'm gonna go find your parents and tell them right away, and you can go tell Tiana! She's in the Yellow Room."
Naveen immediately perked up in surprise. "Tiana is here?"
"'Course she is!" Charlotte said with a giggle. "I told you before I left that I'd be bringing her! She needs to hear it from yourself that you're single and available!" She snapped the book in Naveen's hand shut and placed his other hand on top of it. "Now go get her, sugar!" she said, grinning. "She's waitin' for you!"
"Maricilpen—thank you, Charlotte, thank you—" Naveen laughed in happiness, giving Charlotte a one-armed hug before running out the door.
Charlotte sighed happily. How absolutely romantic was their encounter going to be! She had half a mind to follow him and observe it for herself… but no, this was their moment. It wasn't her place to watch it.
Imagining it, on the other hand…
Charlotte sighed happily and clutched the book she was holding to her chest. "How romantic!" she breathed. "It's just like a fairy tale!"
Tiana was curled up in the darkest corner of the Yellow Room she could find, on a day couch with a pillow clasped to her chest, but even there it was still far too harsh and bright. She took small, slow breaths—anything more and her already aching chest would have burst.
Sleep. Sleep. I want to sleep. I HAVE to sleep. I want to close my eyes and fall asleep and never ever wake up.
She knew what she needed to do. She knew what she wanted to do. And, remembering what Mama Odie had told her nearly a year before, she now fully understood that the two were entirely different things. What she wanted? She wanted to throw reason completely to the wind and stay here with Naveen forever. What she needed? She needed to keep at her restaurant dream. She needed to put Naveen and every one of his distractions behind her. She needed to get back on track.
She wanted to fall asleep and never wake up so she didn't have to make the logical decision.
But again, that was a want. And she needed to stay alive and pursue the dream. Not just for her daddy, but also for her mama. Where would Eudora be without Tiana? Harriet, Jimmy, Felicia, Ada, and James had all left her. Tiana was all she had left. She couldn't abandon her mother. No, never, never, never, she had to be there for her. Even if that meant that she herself would end up alone. She was getting used to the loneliness. Soon it would become second-nature.
Now how to tell Naveen all this?
Sleep. Sleep. Sleep. I'll come up with something. For now, let me sleep. Oh God, please let me sleep. Please let me sleep all through this and have it be nothing but a dream…
Urgent knocks on the door bolted any ideas of sleep out of her head. She jerked up, almost asking "Who is it?" but then remembering that probably no one yet knew of her presence in Maldonia, let alone the palace, other than Charlotte, Eudora, and Louis. And if it was a servant, hopefully it was one who spoke English, otherwise Tiana would have to figure out how to explain in Maldonian what she was doing back… Maldonian? She couldn't even explain it in English!
She opened the door and found that she wasn't the one who needed to be explaining anything.
"Naveen?" she gasped in shock.
"Tiana! Look at—look at this—read this!" Naveen pushed the book into her arms and flipped it open. "See what it says—oh, wait, you can't read Maldonian—citizen! You have to be a Maldonian citizen to get married in Maldonia! Charlotte was never a citizen, which means that we were never actually—marry me! Wait, I mean—" He quickly got down on one knee and kicked the door shut behind him, his speech still coming out fumbling and rapid-fire. "Will you marry me? I—I don't have a ring, but I will get you one, and—"
Tiana grabbed the arm of a nearby chair for balance, meaning to think, Oh God, he wasn't supposed to do this, this is only going to complicate matters! but her mind seemed to stop simply at Oh God. "Naveen, be serious!"
"I am being serious! I've never been more serious in my entire life!"
"I can't marry you! I—I have my restaurant back in New Orleans, I have my own path to follow there, I can't just rip it all up and—I don't belong here in your world of riches and glamour! I can't leave my world behind!"
"Then I will go there with you!" Naveen said earnestly, still in the traditional proposal posture.
"What—no, Naveen, you can't just… give up the throne for me! I won't let you do that!"
"If that's what it takes to be with you…" Naveen looked at Tiana pleadingly. "Any life without you, no matter what it is, would still be empty and meaningless. I don't want to live like how I've lived this past year without you! The only thing I need anymore is you. I love you. I can't live without you anymore. Please…"
Tiana took in as deep a breath as her aching chest would allow. "Naveen, listen to me," she said, slowly and forcefully, to herself as much as to him. "You're caught up in the moment. You just realized that you ain't married anymore and you ain't thinkin' straight. We're from two completely different worlds. Yours is Maldonia, and mine's my restaurant, and we can't move either one of them. What we had… what we could have had… it was nice, and real, but we have to get back to reality now. We have to be logical. And logic says that… that…"
Naveen's pleading eyes continued to bore into her, and Tiana felt the resolve she had been working so hard to maintain suddenly crumble.
"I can't lose you again," she whispered, leaning down and wrapping her arms around his shoulders.
Naveen lowered Tiana to place his arms around her shoulders too, and both of them surrendered to their knees and leaned against each other, cheek to cheek, stroking the other's hair, Tiana trying to say what she was thinking, This wasn't supposed to go this way! but all that she managed to say was "This… this…" as one hand moved down from his hair to his cheek, and she stroked it, kissed his other cheek, still feebly trying to get it out.
"Tiana…" Naveen murmured in her ear, running his fingers through her hair so much that it was becoming undone, and under normal circumstances Tiana would have been upset about her hair getting messed up, but this time she didn't care.
"I'm not gonna lose you again," Tiana murmured between her kisses. Funny, how could she say that and not what logic dictated she should be saying to him? Logic be damned. She was in complete agreement with him. She didn't want to live without him. No matter what that meant… it didn't matter. It didn't matter. As long as she had him, whatever else happened would be alright, fall into place. The only thing she needed anymore was him.
"Alright," she said, closing her eyes. "Yes. Yes, I'll marry you. We'll make it work. I don't know how, but somehow… somehow we'll make it work."
"I'll do anything. Anything at all. I don't care what happens to me, as long as you're with me…"
"Me too… me too… you mean more to me than that restaurant, or anything else…"
She finally pulled away from him slightly and looked him in the eyes, feeling worry begin to wrestle with the emotion of pure happiness that came from looking at him, touching him, having him. "How are we ever going to make this work? I've got to think of something… I can't give you up, but I can't give up my dream either…"
"I am not asking you to," Naveen said gently.
"I know you ain't," Tiana replied. "And I ain't asking you to give up anything either. Somehow… somehow we'll make this work, I don't know how, but… I need to think about this. Alone."
Naveen smirked. "Kicking me out already, are you?"
"Kicking myself out. I'm going to take a walk."
"You are assuming that I am going to willingly release you from my arms."
"You will. Willingly or otherwise."
"Only if you allow me to kiss you this time."
Tiana smiled and leaned in so that their foreheads were touching. "Just one."
Naveen also smiled, with both charm and tenderness. "Unless you beg for more."
He hesitated, as if waiting for and allowing Tiana to make a snappy comeback to that, but Tiana said nothing in response, instead simply wrapping her arms around his shoulders and bringing her mouth to his. Naveen's surprise lasted for only a second before he was returning the kiss, bringing his arms around her waist.
They remained that way, wrapped in each other's arms, for a few blessed moments, neither wanting to break away, now that they had finally found how to be whole again.
Tiana finally broke the kiss, standing up. "We'll have time for more of that later," she said in response to Naveen's disappointed facial expression.
"Killjoy," Naveen shot back.
"Don't you start, buster!" laughed Tiana.
"Killjoy. My beautiful killjoy. I would not have you any other way."
"And you're a scumbag charmer, and…"
"…you would not have me any other way, yes?"
Tiana smiled. "I ain't gonna give you the satisfaction of saying 'yes'."
"I notice you are not saying 'no' either," smiled Naveen.
"I am saying…" Tiana opened the door. "…that I will see you later."
"I eagerly await your answer, Miss Wilcox." Naveen stood up and leaned one arm against the wall, still smiling both lovingly and disarmingly at her.
Tiana just sighed and shook her head. "You are a piece of work, Naveen. But then again… I've always had a fondness for pieces of work." She leaned over to quickly kiss him again before departing.
Naveen watched her leave, smiling warmly. "I believe that counts as a 'yes' from you," he said quietly.
Tiana's walk had taken her out of the palace, off of the palace grounds even, and down in the heart of the city of Cruce Sagraldi. Her steps were slow, thoughtful, worried, even though she found it took little effort to smile and say "Manidaza!" to everyone on the streets that greeted her.
The citizens of Maldonia were so friendly and accepting, Tiana thought to herself as she strolled along the bustling sidewalk, lined with shops and cafés. She felt more welcome here than she did even in her own hometown. Moving here would be a very appealing idea even without Naveen's presence. She could easily imagine living here for the rest of her life. And opening up a restaurant here…
She stopped and looked at the small building sitting on the corner of the block, a sign in the window that Tiana assumed said "For Sale" in Maldonian. The building was far smaller than her old sugar mill, yes. She peaked in the window. But it was also warm, inviting, a place where all sorts of people could come together for her food… her New Orleans flavored food that was completely new and unique to this country… she already had a market that no one else did…
If she became a Maldonian citizen, she could marry Naveen and buy this building and turn it into her restaurant. All she had to do was sell the sugar mill, which would definitely give her more than enough money to buy this building, especially after all the work she'd done to the interior. She could open up her restaurant here. It wasn't the sugar mill transformed into the glitter and glam that she had always envisioned, but that had never been her daddy's dream in the first place! It wasn't about the glam, it was about the community, and bringing people together, and she didn't need a huge fancy building to do that. In fact, if anything she had learned that that building was too much for her to handle by herself, at least right now. Everything that was really important could still come to fruition from a smaller location, and could upgrade to a bigger one later. She was only twenty years old, after all. She had plenty of time to establish herself and move up.
But… the sugar mill. Sure, so her daddy had never been wrapped up in fantasizing of the glamour of the restaurant like Tiana realized she had been all these years, but it was still always that building James had set his sights on, and no other. Tiana had bought it for him every bit as much as she bought it for herself. What right did she have to throw away her father's dream just because…
Tiana leaned against the wall of the building, tugged at her fingertips, and looked up at the sky. She had wished upon Evangeline and Ray; she had prayed to God; but now she was making a request of her father, the only one who could give her an answer this time.
"Daddy, I have a plan," she said softly. "I've got an idea for how I can have both Naveen and my restaurant. I can't lose Naveen again, but I don't wanna give up our dream either. But… my plan means I'm gonna have to give up that sugar mill. And I'm ready to do it, as long as… as long as I know you're okay with it. So please… give me a sign. It's your dream too, and I need to know if you're okay with it or not. 'Cause if you ain't, if you want me to stay with that sugar mill, you know I will. Just… just let me know what you want me to do."
"It's too nice a day to spend it standing around talking to yourself," a middle-aged man suddenly said to Tiana.
"Oh!" Tiana yelped in surprise. She then laughed awkwardly. "Well, I ain't exactly talking to myself… Oh, hey, can you read Maldonian?"
"Read, yes. Speak, even after twenty-four years of practice, I'm still not the best at."
"What does this sign say?"
"Good. That's what I was hoping… You an American?" she suddenly asked, taking note of his perfect English, without an accent… no, there actually was a bit of a northern one, although Tiana had met few people who lived anywhere north of even Tennessee to be able to identify exactly what accent he had specifically.
The man chuckled. "I never know how to answer that. I was born and raised there and part of me will always consider it home, but I've been a Maldonian citizen for—well. Twenty-four years."
"Wow. What made you decide to come here?"
"Come here? I was young and adventurous and I was going to conquer the world. Staying here was a whole other matter, though. I was born and raised in New York City. You ever been there?"
Tiana shook her head. "Before now, I'd never even left Louisiana."
"I could tell that's where you're from. You're Princess Charlotte's friend, right? I read about you in the papers."
Tiana felt her cheeks redden. "Oh lordy. They've been writin' about me?"
"Don't worry," smiled the man. "It's all been positive. I actually do freelance work for De Gazeto v'Cruce Sagraldi, one of the major newspapers in town. Mostly political cartoons and other illustrations. Art's always been my passion. I didn't take school too seriously… instead I was going to get a job with the Saturday Evening Post. That was always my goal. I sold enough of my drawings one summer to be able to travel to Europe. Like I said, I wanted to conquer the world, get artistic inspiration, all that, before returning to New York and living my dream."
Tiana felt her heart quicken. Was this the sign from her daddy already? "What made you stay?"
"Not what. Who." The man smiled wistfully and looked off into the distance. "Ophelia. I wasn't looking to fall in love, but nobody every really is, right? I met her and I couldn't get her off my mind. I didn't stay in Maldonia long at first, I traveled on to Italy… but then I changed my plans and came right back here. I realized I couldn't leave her behind."
"But what about your dream?"
The man grinned at Tiana. "I'm living it. Sure, so I'm not with the Saturday Evening Post, but I'm still getting my artwork out to a large audience… and I have Ophelia. No amount of artistic exposure anywhere can compare to what she gives me. She's a part of my dream now… the most important part of it, in fact."
Tiana almost wanted to cry with relief and happiness. "Thank you," she murmured with a smile, looking skyward. Then, to the man, "Thank you, sir, thank you so much."
The man's smile remained, but softened into confusion. "You're quite welcome, although I'm not exactly sure what I did!"
"You answered a question for me. A very important question. And—" Tiana looked at the "For Sale" sign in the window. "And I think I'm gonna be making a more permanent move to Maldonia myself and set up my dream here."
The man's smile grew warmer again. "If that's where your heart's leading you, follow it. That's the best advice I can give."
"And it's just the advice I needed!" Tiana fell back against the wall of the building and smiled, again directing her eyes up towards the sky. "Thank you, Daddy," she whispered.
Tiana wasted no time in getting back to the palace, her euphoria wearing off just a little bit when she realized she was going to need to put her plan of action through her mother and Naveen's parents. Would the king and queen allow Naveen to marry a commoner like herself? They had allowed him to marry Charlotte, yes, but from what Charlotte had said, rules had been bent for her. And Charlotte was upper-class. Tiana… was not.
And what about Eudora? Tiana's plan benefited both herself and Naveen, but left her mother alone, just as she'd feared. Before, she could never even imagining leaving her mother to marry someone who lived in New Orleans, let alone a prince who lived in an entirely different country!
Well, maybe she wouldn't have to leave her all alone. Maybe she could move here too!
Tiana didn't have to go far to find her mother; in fact, she didn't even have to step inside the palace. Eudora was admiring the flowers that lined the pathway to the doors they had entered, clearly having gotten distracted by them from her true purpose, which re-manifested itself when she saw Tiana. "Tiana! There you are! I've been looking for you, and you weren't in that yellow room… Where've you been?"
"I've been walking… and thinking…" Tiana took a deep breath. "And Mama, I think I might do something… drastic."
"Drastic?" Eudora raised a questioning eyebrow.
Tiana drew in her breath again before continuing, in a rushed voice. "I think I'm gonna sell the sugar mill, move here, open a restaurant down in the middle of town, and become a Maldonian citizen and marry Naveen."
There was a second or two of silence.
"Is… that alright with you?" Tiana finally asked, hesitatingly.
Eudora laughed and engulfed Tiana in a hug. "Oh, sweetheart, of course it's alright with me! If that's what'll make you happy, and I know that that prince of yours makes you happy, then I couldn't want anything less for you!"
Tiana smiled gratefully as she returned the hug. "You could move here too. I'm sure you could live at the palace, or we could find a place for you in town somewhere."
Eudora pulled away from Tiana and shook her head, although she was still smiling. "Honey, I'm too tied down in New Orleans to make a move now. This is your life, not mine."
"But I don't wanna leave you all alone," Tiana protested.
To Tiana's complete surprise, Eudora barked out a laugh at that. "Alone? Babycakes, do you think without you in the house I'm gonna just become old and decrepit and waste away in loneliness? If that's what happened when you ain't around I'd be dead by now, since you're hardly ever at home anyway! Don't you worry about me. I've got plenty of friends, you know. And I got Louis." Eudora smiled warmly. "If anyone's gonna rescue me from a life of loneliness, it's that gator. Don't you worry about me. As long as you come home to visit every once in awhile!"
Tiana laughed. "Oh, don't worry, Mama, I will. Just as long as you come and visit me too!"
They hugged again, Eudora still laughing in happiness for her daughter, but Tiana's smile was fading a bit as she looked up at the imposing palace.
She had her father's approval. She had her mother's approval.
But getting the approval of the king and queen might be a different matter altogether.
Tiana stood outside of King Shakir's office, her hand raised to give the royal raps on the door to request entrance, but feeling unable to move it any farther. Royal protocol was not nearly as strict as Tiana had imagined it would be, but Shakir and Avani would surely still be less than impressed with her appearance. She hadn't even changed out of her traveling clothes yet, for goodness sake. And her hair was a mess—she inwardly cursed Naveen and his wandering, wondrous hands as she finally knocked on the door, loud enough to be heard over the urgent-sounding conversation she could hear.
"Entranzo!" she heard Shakir say, sounding a bit distracted.
Timidly, Tiana opened the door and bowed. "Forgive the intrusion, Your Majesties—"
"Tiana?" Avani gasped in surprise. "What are you doing here?"
"That's… a very good question," Tiana admitted with an apologetic smile.
"Charlotte brought you back, didn't she?" Shakir asked. "That woman has so many tricks up her sleeve she must be a magician."
"Tricks?" asked Tiana.
"She was just in here telling us that her marriage to Naveen isn't legal." Avani sighed. "But the strangest thing is that she seemed happy about it."
"Seemed?" Shakir repeated in shock. "My dear, there was no 'seemed' about it. She was overjoyed! And I thought she wanted to be a princess. But now she clearly wants out, and is dragging up technicalities to do so!"
"We can't argue with her, though," Avani countered. "She is right, the marriage wasn't legal. To make it legal she'd need to become a citizen and wed Naveen again, and she was very much opposed to that idea. She wants to go back to New Orleans."
"We've lost a princess," moaned Shakir in despair. "I knew we should not have allowed Naveen to marry her. How can the royal family rise above this legal and ethical disaster?"
"It is not as dire as you are making it sound," said Avani dryly.
"Dire, no. An unpleasant and shocking bit of news, yes. What a way to start the day…"
"Can you handle another shocking development?" Tiana suddenly asked.
Shakir and Avani quickly turned to face Tiana, apparently having nearly forgotten that she was there. "And what would that be?" Shakir asked.
Tiana took a deep breath. "Naveen… asked me to marry him."
Shakir's eyes bulged in shock. So did Avani's, but her expression quickly morphed into simply raising a knowing eyebrow. "And what did you say to that?"
"I—I said yes, but only under certain conditions. But I think I've found the conditions!" Tiana quickly explained. "I'm going to sell the building I own in New Orleans and with the money I get from that buy this little place down in the center of town and open up a restaurant there. Then I'll become a citizen so that our marriage will be legal. That is… that is, if you'll allow a poor commoner like me to marry a prince."
Shakir gave Avani what was to Tiana an unreadable expression, but apparently Avani could interpret it. She looked back at Tiana, her expression gentle, yet firm and unsmiling. "Well, Tiana, we made an allowance for Naveen to marry Charlotte, but we cannot continue to stretch rules like this, especially since clearly the results were not favorable last time. That is, not without good reasoning. So tell me… why did you say yes?"
Tiana sighed helplessly and looked up at the ceiling. "I don't know, Your Majesty. I've been asking myself that ever since I did say yes, to be honest with you, because I was so set for us to part and go our separate ways, we come from two different worlds, we live such different lives…but every time I'm with him I just…" Her voice quavered and she looked back at Shakir and Avani. "I don't have good reasoning. Good reasoning is telling me to not even try. I guess… my only reasoning for saying yes is because I love him."
Avani smiled warmly, with Shakir quick to follow. "Now that, Tiana, is exactly the right reason to get married."
Tiana let out a shaky half-sigh, half-laugh of gratitude and relief, feeling her stomach begin to unknot.
"And I do not see why we can't bend the rules again for such a union—the rules of royalty only marrying royalty, mind you," Shakir added. "You must become a citizen first, so that you do not make a hasty escape in the same manner that Charlotte is."
"I won't want to escape," Tiana insisted. "And I will. I'll become a citizen. I won't even live in the palace if you don't want me to, I'll just take care of my restaurant and—"
"My dear," laughed Avani, "whatever makes you think we won't want you in the palace? You will be a princess, after all."
"Yes…" Tiana suddenly staggered backwards a little bit, feeling light-headed. "A princess…" Yes, of course. A princess. She hadn't even stopped to think of that. Being a princess was never something Tiana had dreamt of, even in passing. And now it was going to be a reality. She would have charity events and balls and public gatherings to worry about in addition to her restaurant dreams and oh God there's no way I can do all this I don't know how the only things I know how to do is cook and run a restaurant I can't possibly be the princess and maybe queen QUEEN of a foreign country…
She put an arm against the wall to steady herself. She'd learn. Naveen was willing to learn for her. And she was willing to learn for him. If he helped her, if she helped him… they'd manage. They'd get through it.
"Do not worry about it, Tiana," smiled Avani. "There is no right or wrong way to be a princess. All you have to do is be yourself, albeit on a far larger stage than before. And I think you will make a fine princess. A princess and a restaurateur!"
"What kind of food will your restaurant serve?" Shakir asked, also smiling. "We Maldonians love good food, you know!"
"Yes, I know, I was eatin' it all when I was staying here last month!" laughed Tiana. "And I wanna learn all the local recipes. But my restaurant's gonna be New Orleans themed, 'cause that's what I make best, and it looks like there ain't much competition in that brand of cooking around here! I'm gonna serve gumbo, and beignets, and jambalaya, and po'boys, and red beans and rice, and hotcakes, and—"
The door very suddenly and dramatically flew open without any royal raps whatsoever. "STOP!" Naveen cried, rushing into the room and glaring defiantly at his parents. "Madrina, Papeto, I do not care what you say, I am marrying Tiana whether you like it or not! I will give up the throne! If you banish me to Siberia even that would not stop me from marrying her! The throne means nothing to me compared to her, and between the two of them I chose her! I shall abdicate!"
"Naveen!" Tiana interrupted harshly.
Naveen's mouth clamped shut and he looked at her, questioningly and apologetically.
Tiana laughed despite herself. "They said we could get married."
"They… did. Oh." Naveen looked strangely disappointed. "You mean I gave that dramatic, impassioned speech for nothing?"
"Wait one moment," Shakir cut in sharply. Naveen and Tiana both turned to him attentively, Tiana's smile completely gone and Naveen's expression one of sudden worry. "I never explicitly gave my approval. Tiana has presented her case quite strongly, yes, but Naveen… I seem to recall I have made an exception for you before, and it appears that that didn't turn out very well. I am reluctant to give you a second chance."
"But—but Tiana is different, Charlotte was just—"
"I allowed you to marry Charlotte," Shakir continued through Naveen's stammering, "because you gave me a good reason as to why you wished to marry her. If you can do the same for Tiana…"
"Clardio, of course I can, I wish to marry Tiana because—well, actually, it is the same reason I wished to marry Charlotte—I wished to marry Charlotte because I was in love with Tiana, and now I wish to marry Tiana because—I am in love with Tiana!" He paused and considered his words for a minute. "Did… that make any sense whatsoever?"
"It may be the same reason, but it certainly makes more sense this time around," grinned Avani.
"At least you are marrying the girl you actually care for this time," said Shakir with an accepting shrug. "Why you couldn't have done that in the first place is beyond me…"
"Come, Shakir," Avani said, still smiling, as she led her husband to the door. "Tiana has much to tell Naveen about her plans for the future."
"But… this is my office," Shakir protested in vain just before Avani herded him out and closed the door behind them.
"They said yes. They said yes!" Naveen grasped Tiana's hands, absolutely beaming. "I thought they would say no. I thought you would say no. I thought…" He raised her hands to his lips, kissing them distractedly. "And now I never have to live without you again. Now I can finally be whole. Now I can actually make you happy like you deserve, like I should have been doing all this time…"
"Stop kissing me and listen to my plan," said Tiana, as firmly as she could, but still smiling lovingly. She stroked the corners of his mouth before pulling her hands away. "I've figured it out, Naveen. I've figured out how we can make this work!"
Naveen dutifully took a step back. "Alright," he said eagerly. "What is it? What is your plan?"
"I'm gonna go back to New Orleans as soon as possible and sell that old sugar mill. I should be able to sell it for more than I bought it, after all the work I put in, even with the broken windows now—"
"Wait a minute." Naveen looked incredulous. "You are going to sell your restaurant? I won't let you do that, Tiana, that is your dream!"
"No, that building ain't my dream," Tiana countered. "That's what I've finally realized. It ain't the building. I was so wrapped up in that building and how beautiful and glamorous I was gonna make it and how beautiful and glamorous I was going to be, and… I lost sight of what the dream was really about. It wasn't about a specific building. And it wasn't about the ritz. It was about bringing people together with love and good food. And I can do that here. There's this little shop for sale down in the center of town, and once I sell the sugar mill and get my dollars converted to rublinas I can buy that building and open up my restaurant here in Cruce Sagraldi. It'll be quite a bit smaller than what I'd always envisioned… but I think I'd always envisioned more than I could actually accomplish by myself."
"But you will not have to do anything by yourself again," Naveen said. "I will help you. I want to help you. You… you will let me help you, yes?"
Tiana smiled again. "Of course I will," she said gently. "That's why I'm telling you this. You're a part of my dream now, Naveen… it wouldn't be complete without you. And if we're going to be married, we're going to be sharing a whole heck of a lot, and that includes our occupations! While I'm getting the restaurant ready, I'll become a citizen. I don't know what all that involves, but… I'll do it, whatever it is. And then… I'll marry you." She blushed apologetically. "And then, when I'm a princess and I'm helping you run the country, promise me you'll help me? I don't know a thing about ruling or being royalty or anything, and I'm afraid I'm gonna be the worst princess Maldonia's ever seen…"
Naveen made a move as though he wanted to embrace Tiana, but perhaps remembering that she had wanted space to allow herself to lay out her plans, he held himself back. "Tiana, you will be the best princess Maldonia has ever seen. How many other princesses can make the time to run a restaurant at the same time?"
"But will I be able to?" Letting out a nervous chuckle, Tiana took a step backwards and sat down on a settee, brushing her rumpled hair out of her face. "I'm scared as hell…"
Again, Naveen involuntarily moved forward a bit towards her before stopping himself. Straightening himself up slightly, he cleared his throat and gazed at her, questioningly and a bit pleadingly. "Miss Wilcox… my dear, courageous, beautiful, wondrous Miss Wilcox, I realize that you asked me to back away from you just now, but I cannot bear to see you so distressed—"
"Naveen, are you asking my permission to come and sit next to me?" Tiana interrupted, raising an eyebrow.
"Oh, I am asking your permission to do much more than sit," Naveen said with a suggestive smirk. It quickly faded to an apologetic awkwardness. "Is… that alright? I do not wish to upset you again."
Tiana let out a shaky sigh, one that attempted to alleviate her fears while at the same time signaling her body finally giving in to its desires. "Get yourself over here," she murmured.
Finally allowing himself to move forward, Naveen wasted no time in positioning himself next to Tiana on the settee and wrapping one arm around her while stroking her face with his other hand. "You really are scared," he murmured, lightly kissing her. "Look at how much you're trembling… Tiana, if you really feel this way about this… us… I do not want you to do anything you feel unsure of. Perhaps—"
"It only scares me because it's so different from what I'd always imagined me doing," Tiana interrupted, linking her arms around Naveen's shoulders. "But this past year I've found out that what I always wanted isn't working out like I thought it would. Besides, as much as moving here and leaving my life in New Orleans behind scares me… losing you scares me even more." One hand began to absent-mindedly stroke Naveen's back rhythmically as she gazed into his eyes. "I have a whole heck of a lot to do and learn if I wanna be successful here, and I'll need you to help me learn. I know I'll be alright as long as you're here for me… so will you be? That's all I'm asking for…"
"You do not have to ask." Naveen kissed her again, a bit longer, a bit more urgently and passionately. "As you have already discovered, you only need to ask me to step back from you." Again he brought his lips to hers, and Tiana continued to tremble, but this time for an entirely different reason. Their arms tightened around each other as their kiss grew in intensity and desire.
Suddenly realizing just how intense they were getting, Naveen pulled away enough so that their faces were no longer touching. "Tiana, I'm sorry if I am being a little too…"
"Forward?" Tiana offered, moving her face closer to his again.
"Yes, forward, but you must understand, I have been wanting to do this for nearly a year now, and… faldi faldonza." He closed the distance between their mouths yet again.
Tiana offered no complaints, simply sinking into his arms as her heart and spirits lifted. Every time he looked at her, every time he touched her, every time he was simply near her, her very real fears slowly began to vanish, one by one. If the sign from her daddy and the enthusiastic approval from her mother hadn't convinced her that she had made the right decision, the way she felt when she was in his arms, when she was just near him in general, when she just thought of him, did it. It wasn't logical. What she was planning to do was the most illogical thing in the world. But it was still the right thing. She was sure of it.
She felt Naveen pull away from the kiss, but she kept her eyes closed, focusing on her breathing because she had the feeling that if she didn't, she'd forget to breathe at all.
"Tiana?" Naveen asked, apprehensively.
Tiana opened her eyes.
"You told me before that… you wished you'd never met me. Did… did you mean that?"
Tiana took a deep breath and closed her eyes again, remembering the searing pain that had been piercing her heart that night, and pretty much every day working in her building, alone, in New Orleans. "I meant it then, yes."
Naveen winced, looking on the verge of tears. "You are the best thing that has ever happened to me, and I would not trade even just having met you for anything, and to think that I caused you so much unhappiness… Let me make it up to you. I don't know how I can ever… but I will do anything for you."
"I already told you," Tiana murmured softly, "the only thing I'm asking of you is that you… just be there. Because just being with you right now is making everything better. I can't explain it, it doesn't make any sense, but even though I'm scared and still hurting a little bit it's all going away with you here… this is so… different from anything I've ever… I love you," she finally finished in resignation, nestling her face in his shoulder.
Naveen held her closer to him, one hand finding its way to the nape of her neck and massaging it. "I don't like how much you are giving up just for my sake, my dear," he murmured into her ear. "I don't want to stand in the way of your dreams… and I feel as if that is exactly what I'm doing…"
"I want to do this," Tiana insisted, still nestled into his shoulder, and she could feel him shiver as her words sank into his neck. "I want to move here. I want to open my restaurant here. I want to marry you. I love this country. I feel more at home here than I do in New Orleans."
"But you have lived your whole life there."
"I know. I'm not saying it'll be easy. But… I know it's the right thing. My mama supports my decision. And… my daddy does too."
She felt Naveen's head turn around to face her, and she looked up at him and smiled at his confusion. "When I was out walking and thinking about how we were gonna make this work, when I found that building that I wanna buy… I asked my daddy for a sign. That was the only thing holding me back. That restaurant dream was his too, and if I felt that he wouldn't have been okay with me selling it and moving here then I wouldn't do it… so I asked him to give me a sign if he was okay with me moving my dream here or not. And just then I met this man… he was born in America, he told me, he had dreams there, but when he came here and he fell in love with the country and he fell in love with his now wife and…" She felt her smile grow even deeper as a light of understanding flickered in Naveen's eyes. "I know you probably think it sounds crazy, but I know that that was my daddy's way of telling me that he's okay with it. That he wants me to do this."
"Oh, Tiana…" Naveen cupped her chin in his hands and gazed into her eyes. "You are… perfect. And I promise you I will do everything in my power to make you happy, for as long as I live."
"That don't take much from you," smiled Tiana, once more wrapping her arms around his shoulders. "And I'll do my best to make you happy too."
"That takes little effort on your part too," smiled Naveen. "Will my… helping you in your restaurant make you happy? Because that will make me happy."
"It sure will," said Tiana, touching her forehead to his, still smiling. "I'm gonna need me an excellent mincer."
"Will you teach me other things about cooking too?"
"Yes. Anything you want to know. As long as you teach me about princessin' and how to speak Maldonian."
"Clardio, mio lombra. Rigasha t'fara."
Tiana grinned. "I have no idea what you just said, but I'm gonna guess it meant yes."
"You understand clardio at least, don't you?"
"Clardio. Of course." Tiana laughed at herself in mock despair. "You're gonna have a tough job with teaching me. If I wanna be a successful restaurateur and a successful princess here… I've got a lot of Maldonian words to learn, and not much time to learn them in."
"Not much time at all," Naveen agreed with a playful grin. "How do you expect to even buy the building or make any business transactions if the seller doesn't speak English?"
Tiana's face paled. "Oh… I hadn't even thought of that…"
"The answer is obvious, of course. Bring along a translator!" Naveen released his hold on Tiana and stood up from the settee. "Where is the building? We can go and reserve it for you now, in case someone else wants to buy it before you get the money converted."
"N-now?" Tiana asked in shock.
"Yes, of course! Why wait? What if someone gets to it first between now and then? And besides, I want to see it."
Tiana couldn't help but smile at Naveen's eager enthusiasm, but it was a shaky one. "Naveen, I only just got into the country today and I've been running back and forth between about half a dozen different people and I'm exhausted and… can I just freshen up first?"
"Freshen up?" Naveen repeated in confusion.
"You know. Make myself look like I actually take a little care in my personal appearance. I'm still in the clothes I stepped off the boat in. I look like a fright."
"You do not. You look beautiful."
Tiana snorted with a sarcastic smile as she stood up from the settee. "Stop lying. I'm a mess."
Naveen shrugged. "Very well, my love, if you say so… you're a mess."
Tiana folded her arms. "For someone who's been married, at least in theory, for six months… you don't know a thing about being married."
Naveen looked incredulous… overly so, in fact, showing that wasn't as offended as he was making himself out to be. "I disagree with you and you are upset with me. Then I agree with you and you are still upset with me. How am I supposed to know how to please you? How about this—you are the most beautiful mess I have ever had the privilege of laying my eyes on. Is that better?"
"A little bit." Tiana smirked. "I can see you've still got a lot to learn, though."
"I am a fast learner." Naveen smiled at Tiana, his sarcasm gone. "And you are an excellent teacher."
Naveen and Tiana had hardly peered in the windows of the building Tiana intended to buy for five seconds before Naveen, who seemed to have even more enthusiasm than Tiana did regarding her restaurant plans, excitedly whisked her off to the real estate office to stake their claim. Tiana didn't have time to feel overwhelmed at all. Her plan, what she was going to do, what she was doing, still was only just beginning to sink in as she entered the real estate office, Naveen right behind her.
The man at the desk looked up and smiled. "Manidaza, meniris—oh! Mio pruto!" Upon seeing Naveen, he immediately and in complete surprise stood up and bowed respectfully.
"Non niedro fara fimalicas," said Naveen with a friendly, disarming smile. "Zaldo Ingrishia?"
"Wonderful!" Naveen took a step back and held out an arm to indicate Tiana. "Miss Wilcox here would like to do business with you, and she only speaks a little Maldonian."
"Of course. How can I help you today, Miss Wilcox?" the real estate agent asked, smiling but looking a bit confused, probably wondering how she had snared a prince as a translator.
"Well, I'm actually interested in buying one of your properties," said Tiana.
"Did you have a specific one in mind?"
"Yes, the one that's… in the center of town—"
"It is the little building at the intersection of Main and Batinza Streets," Naveen interrupted.
"Ah yes!" The agent opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a few stacks of papers. "Were you interested in paying for it all at once, or would you prefer a payment plan?"
"Well—actually, I don't have the money with me now, but I'll get it soon, within a couple of weeks or so—I hope," Tiana added, biting her lip. "I was actually just wondering if I could reserve the building, and once I sell another property I own in the United States I'll have more than enough money to buy this one, but I need to sell the other one first."
"I will still need a down payment in order to hold the property for you."
"How much?" Naveen suddenly asked.
"Four hundred rublinas."
"Reasonable enough," said Naveen with an amiable shrug, pulling out a checkbook from his jacket pocket.
"Naveen!" Tiana hissed. "I'm buying this myself! With my own money!"
"You can pay me back!" Naveen insisted. "But since we are here right now, we should reserve the building and make sure no one buys it while you are in the United States, yes? It is only the down payment, anyway…"
Tiana sighed, realizing that he had a point. "Alright. But don't think you're gonna get away without me paying you back."
"I know you better than that. Besides, given the circumstances, it will be quite hard to avoid you from here on out." Naveen quickly finished writing the check, signed it, and handed it to the agent, grinning at Tiana. Tiana laughed, unable to remain upset at him.
"Maricilpen, Pruto Naveen." The agent took the check and pushed a stack of papers towards Tiana. "Should you decide against purchasing the property, the down payment is only fifty percent refundable."
"Oh, don't worry. I'm dead set on this." Tiana quickly glanced over the preliminary paperwork and began signing her name on the bottom margins.
"Right now, I can put you on the eight year payment plan. Your next payment of four hundred rublinas will be due next month. If you would later wish to increase the amount of the payments to pay it off sooner, that can be arranged as well."
"Tell you what." Tiana scribbled her signature on the final form. "If you give me just two or three months or however long it'll take me to go back to the United States, sell my building, come back here, and convert my dollars into rublinas, I'll pay it all in full right then and there. Because I doubt I'm gonna be back here in a month to make the payment."
"I can always make it too," Naveen offered.
Naveen took a somewhat startled step back. "Fine, fine, I know better than to argue with you!" He gave a knowing glance to the real estate agent. "You would know better than to argue with her as well. If I were you, I would take her up on her offer."
The agent smiled good-naturedly. "I can see that! Very well, Miss Wilcox. You may pay the full amount whenever you are able. Here is your preliminary deed—I'll have the final one ready for you to sign when I receive full payment. And here is the key." He gave Tiana a friendly smile. "I trust that you will not run off and will pay the rest when you get the money."
Tiana grinned. "Oh, I will. I will. Thank you so much! Maricilpen!" She shook the man's hand, then turned to Naveen. "Come on, let's go see the inside!" she said with excitement, rushing to the door, Naveen quick to follow.
"Yes, let's! Achidanza!"
Only when they were gone did the real estate agent allow himself to laugh in confusion. "Now that was… strange."
"This is perfect. Absolutely perfect. This must have been a restaurant at some time in the past. See, through this revolving door? This had to have been the kitchen. It's nice and roomy, too! And plenty of space out here for the tables." Tiana smiled in satisfaction. "It's a whole heck of a lot smaller than that old sugar mill, but still, I think it's just the perfect size."
"And look over here!" Naveen was standing on the other side of the room, where there was a raised platform in one corner. "There is even a stage! You can have live music! And since your restaurant will be New Orleans themed—this is the perfect place for a jazz band!"
"Oh yeah! Kinda small though…" Tiana stood next to Naveen and bit her lip thoughtfully. "But then again, jazz bands don't have to be big to make a lot of noise. You know of any jazz players here in Maldonia?"
"I can think of one right away," Naveen said slyly, grinning at her.
Tiana laughed. "I got plans for you in the kitchen, mister!"
"I know, but—I can do both! I can cook and mince and—and do the dishes—and play in your band! …Can't I?" Naveen added, frowning a bit in uncertainty.
Tiana smiled, squeezing his hand. "Of course you can, sweetheart. I was just teasing you. You can do whatever you wanna do here. And I have a feeling I couldn't pull you away from the music if I tried."
She looked again at the stage, feeling a glow unlike anything she'd ever felt before. Well, no, she had felt something like it many times in the past whenever she thought about her dream, and she had felt it even more when she had finally stood inside the sugar mill, but never before had her glow been this powerful. She had never felt closer to her dream than she did at that very moment.
"Just think," she murmured, "there's gonna be good food and great music and it'll bring people together, just like my daddy said… and it'll all be right here…"
She glanced at Naveen, who was giving her a dreamy look. "What?" she said with a slight laugh.
"It is just… the way you light up when you talk about your dream…" He brought his other hand to their already clasped hands, with Tiana also resting her other hand on top of his. "I confess I have never seen anything more beautiful." He raised her hands up to his chest and leaned in closer to her—
"Naveen, stop," Tiana said, pulling back. "Not here."
"Why not here? We are engaged, after all…"
"As far as everyone else is concerned, you are married. To Lottie. You two are gonna have to clear the public up on that before we can even… holy smokes." Tiana recoiled. "Do you realize how this is going to look, you finding out that you're not legally married to your wife and then instantly running off to someone else?"
"I don't care what it looks like, and I don't care what people think—"
"But I do. I don't wanna be the cause of some royal marriage drama…"
"It doesn't matter what they think. If I have to give up my royal title and live as a commoner in order to be married to you, I will do that." He grinned at her. "I thought I made that clear earlier."
"I just don't wanna be known as your fling," Tiana sighed.
"You won't be. I would never help just a 'fling' with a down payment to her restaurant. Or offer to wash dishes for her."
Tiana laughed again and touched her forehead to his chin. Damn him and his ability to make her carefree in instances where she probably shouldn't be. "I guess I'll deal with that later. Right now… I've got yet another cruise across the ocean to prepare for. God am I getting sick of these… I only just got here." She let go of Naveen's hands and looked out the window. "But the sooner the better. The sooner I get that place sold, the sooner I can get back here and start working on this place and becoming a citizen."
"Stay for at least another day or two… please?" Naveen gazed at her pleadingly. "I am not sure I can handle you coming and going so quickly."
"I know my body sure can't, at least." Tiana turned back to face Naveen and smiled at his expression. "I'll stay for a day. I won't do anything tomorrow. I'll just relax and be with you. But then… no more fooling around, this is our future we're talking about!"
Naveen laughed. "A future of dirty dishes! I never thought it could sound so appealing!"
It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had…
"Charlotte, dear girl, why didn't you see Tiana off?"
Charlotte, sitting in a lounge chair in one of the guest bedrooms that she had moved into for the time being, looked up from the newspaper she was reading upon hearing Queen Avani's question. "But I did see her off, Avani," she insisted. "Right before she left the palace I gave her a hug goodbye. And besides, she'll be back soon!"
"You haven't left the palace since you've returned," Avani said, raising an eyebrow. "What are you hiding from?"
Sighing unhappily, Charlotte gestured towards the newspaper she was holding. "Them. I can't take those pushy reporters anymore! I think they still think I'm out of the country, and I want them to keep on thinking that for as long as possible." She harrumphed and tossed the paper on the ground.
Avani sighed as she leaned down and picked the paper back up. "You can't avoid the press forever, Charlotte, especially when they discover that you and Naveen are no longer married."
"That we were never actually married," Charlotte corrected.
"You see? That is what you have to do. If you say nothing, they will assume the worst. You have to assure them of the circumstances. For Tiana's sake every bit as much as your own."
Charlotte's eyes wildly darted to the newspaper, then back to Avani. "Jiminy crickets, Avani, I know, but… every time I open my mouth they've already twisted my words! I don't know how to talk to them and have them respect and realize what I'm actually saying!" Her eyes brightened. "The press likes you, though! How do you do it?"
"It is simple," smiled Avani. "I merely anticipate what they will ask me, and I think about what I will say before actually saying it."
"But they never give me time to think! Cheese and crackers!"
"You must communicate to the people of Maldonia somehow," Avani said, handing the paper back to Charlotte and looking her in the eye firmly. "And given time to think, I believe that you will be able to say something that will make the wonderful young woman you are shine through in a way that no one will be able to twist it into something you're not. But that has to reach a wide audience, and the newspaper is the best way to reach a wide audience. However… you do not need to be interviewed to be heard via a newspaper." Avani smiled at Charlotte. "Have you considered writing a letter to the people of Maldonia?"
"Wr… writing?" Charlotte's eyes grew wide with surprise and confusion. "Do you really think I can write a letter like that?"
"I think you can. And I know you can try. You don't seem to realize it, but you have quite a way with words." And with that and one more comforting smile, Avani left the room.
Left alone, Charlotte's eyes darted back to the paper… and then to the writing desk in the other corner of the room.
Avani was right; the Maldonian public needed to know just why Charlotte and Naveen so suddenly parted ways, and they needed to know why it was alright that Naveen could go and get married again like he was, and… they needed to know from Charlotte, who was in the middle of it all and thus was the most qualified to explain. To give her okay. To apologize for what she had done, not only to Tiana and Naveen, but also to the country, and to herself.
And yes. She definitely owed this to Tiana. If Charlotte said nothing, it would look as though she was bitter and angry about her former husband so quickly marrying another woman, her best friend no less, and that wasn't the case at all—but how could she let the public know the truth of how much she actually supported this union? She was forever being scrutinized, forever having what she said be twisted into meaning something else, although… that was partly her fault; she spoke faster than she thought sometimes, and…
She looked again at the desk. A short stack of stationary was on it, expectedly, as if calling out to her.
"Well," Charlotte said with a resolute grin, "at least when I'm writin' there's plenty of time for me to think about what I'm sayin'!"
Tiana looked like death warmed over when she pushed open the door to Duke's Diner, but she didn't really care. Given how many times she had been on a boat the past few months, she had every right to look a little green and seasick. At any rate, she was still smiling resolutely as she stepped in the restaurant.
It was a slow day, apparently. Buford looked up from the counter, reading a newspaper someone had left behind. "You again," he snorted. "I suppose you'll be wanting me to completely turn around everyone else's hours and work you back in the schedule as much as you were before?"
"No, I don't expect you to make that kind of allowance for my absence," Tiana replied diplomatically. "I'm actually here to tell you that I quit."
Buford stared at Tiana incredulously.
"You got any beignets ready? I'd like to order one." Tiana placed a nickel on the bar countertop.
"I just fixed up a fresh batch," Maddy said, moving in and taking over for Buford, who was still slack-jawed with utter shock. She scooped one up, placed it on a plate, and handed the plate to Tiana. "Did… did you get another job or something?"
Tiana laughed helplessly. How crazy she must be appearing right at this moment… "No. And I'm quittin' Cal's, too."
"Tiana, don't take this the wrong way, but… have you lost your mind?"
"I think I have. I really think I have." Tiana took a bite of the beignet and looked at Maddy, still unable to stop laughing at the craziness of it all. "I'm going to sell the sugar mill and buy a restaurant in Maldonia instead."
"Wait… you're gonna move to Maldonia? Why?"
"My fiancé lives there." Tiana barked out another laugh, sending bits of beignet flying out of her mouth, Maddy only just barely dodging them. "I really have lost my mind. I'm moving away and opening up a restaurant in a country where I don't speak the language and I'm getting married… and it feels wonderful. I should have lost my mind ages ago."
"Well… congratulations, Tiana!"
"Congratulations on losing my mind?"
"No, I mean on your engagement! You're engaged! That's wonderful!"
"Yes. Yes it is." Tiana laughed yet again, taking only a brief moment to attempt to stop to be able to swallow the rest of the beignet. "And it's also the craziest, craziest thing I could have done. But, at the same time, if I'da said 'no' it woulda been the stupidest thing I'd ever done in my life. Oh dear God. I'm getting married." Tiana moaned and pressed her hands against her face. "I really have lost my mind…" And then she started laughing again.
Maddy looked utterly baffled.
"Sorry, Maddy," Tiana said, finishing the beignet and standing up. "I'm just… this still hasn't sunk in yet. And there's still so much I need to do… and right now, I need to sell that building of mine so I can go back to Maldonia and buy the other building… Lordy, will I be glad to stay on dry land for more than a month at a time… Do you know of anyone looking to buy a big ol' abandoned sugar mill? Or a real estate agent who could take it off my hands? 'Cause I sure as heck ain't sellin' it back to the men who sold it to me…"
Maddy's eyes suddenly lit up. "I bet Harry would take it!"
"My boyfriend. He has a—well, actually, it's his dad's real estate business, but Harry's been learning the ropes and will probably become his official partner pretty soon, but I'm sure he'd love to take a look, at the very least! They're a small operation, and they probably can't offer you the money for it that some others could, but…"
"Maddy, all that I care about is their business policies. And as long as they won't be condescending towards any potential buyer just because she's a poor black girl…"
Maddy smirked at that. "If they do, lemme tell you, this poor black girl will give them a talking to they won't soon forget!"
Tiana smiled gratefully. "Well, I'm sure they won't! I'd love to meet with them and work something out. Where's their office?"
"You know, I can take you to them myself in about fifteen minutes, when Emily comes and takes over my shift for me. I'd kinda like to see the place, anyway. Maybe… maybe I might like to do something with it someday."
"Like what?" Tiana asked.
Maddy shrugged, noncommittally. "Oh, I've just thought sometimes it would be kinda fun to open up a dance club someday. I mean we're talking years from now, obviously, right now I ain't hardly got two pennies to rub together, but once I get a little more money, and… settle down with Harry, I'm sure we will someday, then maybe…"
Tiana grinned. "Just promise me, Maddy, that you'll never lose sight of what's important."
Two days later, Tiana stood in her familiar spot in the neighborhood graveyard, the far-off clatter of streetcars and hurried pedestrians only just barely reaching her ears. Holding her arms around her body tightly, she looked at her father's grave, her eyes cloudy with thought and emotion, her mind aimlessly wandering like it often did when making her pilgrimage to this spot.
"Am I doing alright, Daddy?" she finally asked softly.
The tomb gave no answer.
"I know that I have your blessing on what I'm about to do…" She smiled. "What I've already done." Yesterday she had sold the sugar mill. The sugar mill that she had worked so hard to earn. The sugar mill that her daddy had always dreamt of. Like Maddy had said, Harry hadn't been able to give her a huge sum of money for the building, but it was still a bit more than what she paid for it. And besides, as she had shown them the building, the work she had put into it, and watched Maddy's eyes light up with ideas and possibilities that she rattled off to Harry in a manner that reminded her of a slightly younger version of herself, and in turn seeing Harry regard Maddy's enthusiasm with an expression that reminded Tiana of the way Naveen looked at her when she rattled off her ideas for the building in Maldonia… she felt a calming peace of mind settle through her body. She had done the right thing. She wasn't sure how she knew, or why she knew, or even why it was the right thing… it just was. The very next day Harry had bought the property from her. And Tiana immediately took the check to the bank and cashed it. Now all that was left was to stop by the house to check in on it (Eudora and Louis had stayed in Maldonia for the time being, it seeming pointless for them to come back with her if they were going to be in Maldonia for the wedding anyway, which they were) and pick up her few personal belongings to take to her new home.
"I guess all that's left now is knowing that you're proud of me." Tiana looked up at the gloomy, cloudy sky. "Look at me. I'm standin' here talking to myself, asking for approval from someone who's been dead nearly ten years… but I guess that shows how important it is to me, Daddy." She sighed and wrapped her arms around herself tighter. "So are you proud of me?"
She turned her gaze to the shared grave of her siblings. "Have I done enough for five?" she murmured.
Only the streetcars' rumbling answered her.
"I guess I won't be able to talk to you like this very often from now on." Tiana looked back at her father's grave and bit her lip. "Not here at your grave, anyway… but that don't matter. I can talk to you anytime. I know you're always with me. I don't need to come here for that." She smiled softly, chuckling a bit to herself. "All these years I've thought you were here… and I guess you are here physically, but… y'all are dead and buried… literally." She gulped. "And all these years I've come here, trying to live your lives for you… but maybe it's time I lived my own life."
Getting down on her knees, she ran her fingers in the grooves of where her father's name was carved in his tombstone, looking up at the sky again. "And that's what you want for me, ain't it?"
Again, the muted sounds of traffic were her only answer. But Tiana smiled, feeling her father's affirmative answer ringing in her heart.
Tiana set foot back in Maldonia ten days later… and was immediately overwhelmed by a slew of reporters, yammering away in Maldonian at her, Tiana understanding none of it.
"Uh, uh, sen, pardon me, but would you let me through, please?" she asked as diplomatically as possible through her confusion, a suitcase under one arm and her trunk being dragged behind her by her other, filled with practically everything she owned.
The reporters continued their verbal onslaught, their words becoming so jumbled with each other that she couldn't even tell anymore what language they were speaking.
Except when one question reached her ears quite clearly.
"Miss Wilcox, is it true that you are going to marry Prince Naveen?"
"What?" Tiana gasped in surprise. "I mean—I mean, yes, it's true, we're engaged, but how did you know—"
"Tia! You're back!" Charlotte had barreled her way through the crowd and happily and enthusiastically grabbed Tiana's suitcase from under her arm. "Gang way, dearies. Give the poor girl some breathing room, she only just got here!"
"Lottie, what's with all the…?" Tiana gestured to the eager reporters, still shouting out questions.
Charlotte sighed. "Get used to them, sugar," she said while leading her away from the mob. "They'll be watching you like a hawk once you're a princess. Come on, I've got a cab waiting. And I'll explain the reporters. Actually, on that note, there's something I need to show you…"
Charlotte shrugged apologetically at Tiana, who regarded the blonde questioningly while peeking above the newspaper, the two sitting in the back of a cab taking them back to the palace. "It was Avani's idea. I'm sorry I couldn't'a given you advance warning about it, but you know, I needed to say something. Otherwise the public's gonna think my marriage crumbled and either I'm a complete shrew or you're a home wrecker or Naveen's a philanderer—well, okay, that last one's true—but anyway—I had to let the citizens of Maldonia know the truth! That it's okay what's happening, that it's the right thing—but I didn't want to be interviewed for it. I can't stand having all those questions thrown in my face! So Avani suggested I write a letter to the people of Maldonia…" Charlotte's voice quieted a bit, and she gestured to the newspaper in Tiana's hands. "It's on pages six and seven. Six is in English, and seven is in Maldonian. Avani translated it for me. It just got published two days ago… I'd like you to read it, Tia." Her voice had grown uncharacteristically soft.
With one more questioning yet compliant glance at Charlotte, Tiana opened the paper to pages six and seven.
TO THE CITIZENS OF MALDONIA:
I owe all of you this letter, and I've owed it to you for a long time now, but I still don't exactly know how to say it. I've started it about five or six times but every time it felt too stiff and formal, and it didn't sound like me. So this time I'll go for informal but believable, one that actually sounds like my own words. Because more than anything else, I want you all to believe me. I NEED you all to believe me.
First and foremost, I'm sorry. I'm sorry for dragging you all through my childhood fantasies.
As you all probably know (since I've mentioned it about five times every time I'm interviewed!), my lifelong goal has been to be a princess. Like most little girls, I was obsessed with princesses, but I took my obsession to a crazy level. I've never grown out of loving the splendor, glamour, and romance that filled the lives of all the princesses in the fairytales I'd read. And I wanted all that for myself. So much that I always, deep down, wanted to marry a prince. Not just any boy would do for me, no siree, I needed actual royalty!
I'm sorry that I had to inflict that desire on your country. I never realized that I already had almost everything the princesses in my fairytales had back at home until I got married, and I found that I'd given up everything that made me happy just for a title. The princess life I'd always envisioned? Heck, I was living it more in New Orleans than I've lived it here. And I'm ashamed of the fact that it took me actually BECOMING a bonafide princess to realize that.
I married Naveen for one reason, and he married me for one reason. My reason was completely wrong. I saw him as a passport to royalty. He was all I needed to become a princess, and I snatched up that offer like THAT. And again, I'm absolutely ashamed that it took me as long as it did to realize that what I was drawn to so much in my princess stories and their relationships with their princes was the ROMANCE. It wouldn't have mattered in those stories if they had been royalty or peasants, it was their love for each other that was so beautiful, not their station in life. And would I have married Naveen if he had been just a peasant? Heck no! Like I said, it was a prince or nothing for me.
Naveen and I aren't married anymore. We never were legally.
I put that in its own paragraph to make sure you didn't miss it. If there's only three important things you take out of this, that's the first one. To get married in Maldonia you have to be a Maldonian citizen, and I'm not. Both of us couldn't be more relieved. We found a perfect loophole to get out of our marriage without having to actually get divorced!
I mentioned earlier that Naveen had one reason for marrying me, too. His reason was more on-track than mine was. He married me for love. But it wasn't love for me.
And now I have to tell you about my very dear friend, Tiana Wilcox. We've been best friends since we were little girls, even though we're both so different. Like me, she's always had a dream and a goal in life too, but hers was never hinged on such silly notions on what made a girl regal and beautiful. Hers was to open up a restaurant. Now, I didn't know this at the time, but apparently around the time Naveen arrived in New Orleans, Tiana was about to lose the building she'd always had her sights on, despite how long and hard she'd worked for it (unlike me, since I just sat around primping and waiting for my prince to plop right in my lap!). Naveen met her, got to know her, and learned of her predicament.
Naveen agreed to marry me if and only if I in return gave Tiana the money she needed to buy her restaurant. I didn't think much of that at the time, actually, besides being surprised at Tiana's circumstances and wanting to help her myself.
Golly. I'm tearing up here. I owe apologies to Tiana and Naveen every bit as much as I owe apologies to you, citizens of Maldonia. I was so caught up in making my wish of becoming a princess come true that I was completely blind to the real-life fairytale romance that was right before my eyes. So blind, in fact, that I barged right between it and tore it up and separated it across an entire ocean.
Number two of the three points you need to take from this: Naveen and Tiana are going to get married. And number three: I couldn't be happier for them.
I just know that a lot of you sensationalist folks out there (and I'm one too, so I completely understand the way your minds work!) are going to read the first two facts (Naveen and I weren't ever really married; and Naveen's now engaged to my best friend) and immediately weave it into some huge scandal: "Oh, poor Charlotte, her best friend snatching away her man from her like that!" And to that I say: if anyone's the bad guy here, it's me. Naveen was never really mine, and I was the one who so blindly and cruelly snatched him away from Tiana. I wish more than anything that I had realized their feelings for each other sooner. Heck, if I'd have known way back when Naveen first agreed to marry me, I never would have said yes.
Tiana never dreamt of being a princess in the manner that I had… but believe me when I tell you that she's already ten times the princess I ever was. She's smart, she's driven, and she's going to do a lot of good for your country, in between filling your bellies at the restaurant she's going to open once she becomes a citizen and marries Naveen! She's still got her dreams and is still pursuing them, and she's not letting the glitz of the princess life distract her! She's going to be an amazing princess, and you are all very lucky to be getting her!
My happiness at their engagement is lessened only by my regrets that I stood in the way of it for so long, and that it took me so long to figure out what it was I truly wanted… and that I had to trample all over your country to do it. So again, to everyone reading this, I ask you to forgive me. I'm sorry I never really knew what I was doing and that I had to sort it out while making a mess of things here. And I assure you that your next Princess of Maldonia won't make the mistakes that I did, because she DOES know what she's doing and where she's going, and she's in fact almost there!
Love, hugs, and apologies,
Tiana lowered the paper and stared at Charlotte, wide-eyed.
"Well?" Charlotte asked worriedly. "What do you—the public seems to like it, but what do you—"
Tiana dropped the paper on the seat between them and wrapped Charlotte up in an all-encompassing hug. "Lottie," she laughed, gratefully and affectionately, yet still with a playful jab, "how on Earth am I gonna live up to the impossible expectations you set out for me there? I don't know nothing about being a princess!"
"You're on the right track to knowing more than I do!" Charlotte laughed, returning the hug before pulling away still looking not completely assured. "So you think it was alright?"
"It was more than alright. Lottie, why ain't you writin' full-time?"
Charlotte's eyes widened in shock, not having a ready answer to that. "Well, I… oh come on, Tia, you know I can't write!"
"Well, what do you call this, because this sure seems like writing to me! You oughta have your own column in a newspaper."
"Oh lordy, no! I don't wanna turn into one of those blood-sucking reporters!"
"You could show them how to be a nice reporter. Besides, you could write stories or articles instead of interviews."
"I could… write stories…" Charlotte's eyes grew even wider, if that were possible. "Do you really think… maybe I could! Maybe I could write books for children—Asher always loves my stories! If he does, other little ones probably would too!"
Tiana grinned. "I wouldn't be surprised!"
"And I think I know what the first story I'm gonna write will be!" Charlotte continued, giving Tiana a sly smile. "I'm gonna write a twist on the Frog Prince story where instead of the kiss turning the frog back into a prince, it turns the princess into a frog!"
Tiana laughed. "Come on, Lottie… no one's gonna be able to take that story seriously."
Becoming a Maldonian citizen was a surprisingly easy process—one only needed to reside in Maldonia for at least six months, and then give an oath of citizenship and sign legal papers in the presence of a judge.
Six months seemed, to Tiana, to be plenty of time to get her restaurant going. And the process was going much smoother than it had in New Orleans. As soon as Tiana had converted her dollars into rublinas and paid the rest of the amount on her building, she had taken the money left over, rented an apartment in the center of town, and began the process of ordering supplies for her restaurant, using money she made by having informal bake sales on the streets of Cruce Sagraldi (which doubled as advertising for her upcoming restaurant). Oh, and Naveen chipped in to order supplies too. In fact, when push came to shove, Naveen was providing the bulk of the money there, a fact that bothered Tiana a bit. Hadn't she spent her whole life proving that she could get exactly what she'd always dreamt of without any free handouts?
"But they aren't handouts," Naveen had finally objected. "We are going to be married, remember? And don't married couples share things? Besides, compared to all the hard work you have done up to now, this is nothing."
Tiana hated and yet loved how he was able to break down her stubborn resolve like that.
And as Naveen helped her, both physically and financially, with getting the restaurant ready, he also helped her learn Maldonian. He proved to be a patient and encouraging, if a little distracting, teacher; and Tiana often marveled at the end of the day, preparing herself for bed in her cozy, tidy little apartment, at both how fast she was picking up the language and that she was somehow still holding on to her virginity. Because, oh, were her desires rising with each and every day, and he was doing absolutely nothing to stop that.
But giving into them right now would be just one more thing to deal with, and she had enough on her plate as it was. On top of learning another language and getting the restaurant ready for its swiftly approaching opening date, she also had to plan for her wedding with its equally rapidly approaching date. With Charlotte and Eudora's help, of course. Charlotte perhaps being a little too helpful. For every time Tiana had to stress yet again that she wanted a small, simple ceremony, Charlotte had to go and plan something that made it that much more of a big, grand event. Okay, sure, she was marrying royalty and a large, grand wedding was to be expected. But why go overboard?
Bleary-eyed and exhausted, Tiana rubbed her temple with one hand and sighed while looking at the floral order form one balmy July evening, sitting in her office at the restaurant, now lit-up and decorated and stocked with food and staffed and hopefully completely ready for its grand opening the next day. Having been so busy making sure everything was in order for her first day of business for the past week or so, Tiana had left the wedding preparations in Charlotte's hands for the time being… a decision she was already regretting.
"How many flowers do we need, Lottie?" she muttered, looking at the copy of the order form Charlotte had forwarded to her.
"Enough to drown in, of course!"
Tiana jerked around in surprise at Naveen's voice, surprised he was still there. She had known he and Louis had come earlier to practice with the other jazz musicians for tomorrow, but they had all left hours ago, she thought. "Naveen, what are you doing here?"
Naveen pretended to look deeply hurt. "What, you have not noticed that I unpacked all the menus and shelved them by the maître d's podium, or that all the dishes have been washed and dried, or that the tablecloths have been smoothed out… or did you just assume a little fairy did it all instead?" He stood behind her and leaned down so that his cheek was pressed up next to hers, wrapping his arms around her shoulders. "I certainly wasn't going to leave you here alone, anyway. What are you still doing here?"
"Just double checking everything for tomorrow," Tiana sighed, setting down the papers she was holding and tilting her head so that she was leaning in closer to him.
"Double? I think you're on at least check number five by now." Naveen also tiled his head slightly, touching his lips to her cheek in a soft kiss. "Everything will be fine. And you're far too tired to stay here anymore." He hadn't moved his head, his lips still pressed against her as he spoke, and Tiana shivered at the sensation despite the heat of the night air. "Please come home with me," Naveen murmured, one hand sliding down slightly and resting on her breast.
"We ain't married yet," said Tiana, although not moving or making any attempt to push him away.
"But we will be soon."
"And I'll come home with you every single night when we are. But if I wanna be a citizen, I have to live in that apartment for six—"
"You know, you could very easily become a citizen after living in the palace for six—"
"I'd be just a royal guest then. Not a resident." Tiana brought her left arm off the desk and to her right side and Naveen's right hand resting on it, entwining her fingers in his. "I want to show everyone I'm serious about this. That I'm not going to take any easy ways out. That I'm going to do things the right way."
"Well, I want to show people I am serious about this too, but it can hardly seem as if I am truly caring about my fiancée if I hardly ever see her." He softly and deliberately brought his lips to her again, although this time to the corner of her mouth. Tiana inhaled deeply and let out her breath with a sigh that cut through the knotted-up nerves of stress that had been shooting through her body all day.
"I want do to this the right way to show I'm serious about you," she murmured softly, closing her eyes. "I love you."
"Ah, mio lombra, t'lomzi apo, t'lomzi maden rigashi fra de umdro."
Tiana grinned, both at his words and the fact that she actually understood what he was saying. Yes, Naveen was an excellent teacher… although, of course, Naveen being Naveen, a large part of her lessons turned into phrases of affection and adoration like those. "Lordy. Here I am thinking I'm getting really good at Maldonian, and now I realize that all I really understand are things like that. I'm sure the customers tomorrow are gonna love me making romantic passes at them."
Naveen laughed. "But you make them so well. And you have the cutest American accent when you speak Maldonian."
"I do not have an accent!" Tiana objected. "I copy your pronunciation exactly!"
"No, you have an accent. But it is a very charming one. You know, confidentially…" Naveen smirked at her. "If you were to tell me how much you love me in Maldonian, you would sound so adorable and irresistible that I would do anything you asked of me."
Tiana smirked back at him. "You already do," she said, lightly kissing him.
Naveen sighed in resignation. "Alright, you win."
Tiana giggled. "Esso veshalni, mio pruto. O t'lomzi mamarla."
Naveen sighed again, but this time it was breathier and completely blissful. "Oh, Tiana, your voice…"
"I hope you like it just as much in English," Tiana countered. "Because as good as I might get in Maldonian someday, I don't think I'll ever feel as comfortable with it as I do with English. …You don't expect me to speak Maldonian at you all the time, right?"
"If you feel more comfortable speaking English, then that is what we will speak," said Naveen, wrapping his arms around her tighter and lightly squeezing her breast.
"What about you, though? You're probably more comfortable with Maldonian than you are with English…"
Naveen shrugged. "Maldonian, English, French, German, Italian… I am equally comfortable in all of them. Besides, I got to know you and fell in love with you in English. So I am quite happy to continue that."
"How do you keep all those languages straight? I'm having enough trouble with just two!"
"I have had English, French, German, Italian, and Latin lessons since I was very young. And Maldonian is what we speak around the palace. When you learn them when you're young, they come naturally." Naveen hummed thoughtfully, his cheek still pressed against Tiana's, as the two of them continued to gaze at their conjoined hands. "Of course, I do not actually speak Latin very well, I can only read it…"
"What language do you think in?" Tiana asked softly.
"What language do I think in?" Naveen seemed surprised by the question. "Well… I guess I have never really paid attention before. It depends on what I am thinking of, I suppose. When I think of you, I think in English." He squeezed her again, but using his other hand, the one that was entwined in hers.
"Not in French? French is a pretty language."
"Well then." Naveen smiled and kissed Tiana again. "I will try to think of you in French from now on, mon chére."
Tiana smiled, twisting her head enough so that Naveen could kiss her full on the lips this time, a cue which he gladly took… but in moving her head upwards, Tiana caught a glimpse of the papers on her desk, and cut the kiss short by pulling away and groaning. "Damn it, Naveen, why do you always have to distract me when I'm working?"
"I only distract you when you're working and you shouldn't be." Naveen released his hold on her and stood up. "Besides, you distract me as well, so fair is fair, right?" He smiled at her and extended his hand. "Now then, Miss Wilcox, if you will allow me to escort you home—seeing as you refused my generous offer to put you up at my place of dwelling for the night—"
"Don't even," laughed Tiana, taking his hand and standing up out of her chair. "Alright, you can take me home. My home, not yours."
"Soon those will be the same place," grinned Naveen.
Tiana returned the smile, leading him to the door of her office and pushing it open. The light from the streetlamps filtered through the windows, illuminating sections of tables at even intervals against the dark backdrop.
She stood and stared at it for a moment, the reality sinking in in the silence far more than it had ever had before now. "Almost there…" she murmured. Then she turned and looked at Naveen, incredulously. "I can't believe I'm really almost there…"
"I can," said Naveen in earnest. "After all you've gone through, plus the faith you've always had in your dream… did you ever really think you wouldn't get here?"
"Oh, many, many times," sighed Tiana. "After all the obstacles, all the things and people standing in my way…" She smiled resolutely. "But that don't matter. I faced them all and here I am. Here… here we are."
"As I said… I would not leave you here alone."
Tiana looked at him, her hand still in his and stroking it absent-mindedly, feeling a sense of wholeness with him there, him and her restaurant dream finally coming true and again that happiness that she had never known she could feel to such an extent and…
"I wouldn't even be here without you," she murmured with a soft, loving smile. Someday she'd find a way to make it up to him for all he'd done for her. Someday she'd at least find the words to be able to thank him, when right now all she could do was look at him and smile. "Thank you, sweetheart, thank you…"
They pulled each other close and kissed in the darkness.
"Are you sure," Naveen finally asked, pulling away only just enough to speak, "that you do not want to come back home with me tonight?"
"I need to get my rest," Tiana answered. Naveen could only just see the playful, knowing smile on her face through the darkness. "If I went home with you I wouldn't get any. And I have a big day ahead of me tomorrow."
Naveen laughed good-naturedly. "Of course. I will escort you home, Miss Wilcox."
The hours I spend with you I look upon as sort of a perfumed garden, a dim twilight, and a fountain singing to it. You and you alone make me feel that I am alive. Other men it is said have seen angels, but I have seen thee and thou art enough.
-George Edward Moore
Tiana's Place was the place to eat at that everyone was buzzing about.
The food was American, but the type of American that was special only to a certain section of the United States, Louisiana, and it was the owner's specialty. And the owner, Tiana Wilcox, seemed to have a way of bringing that specialty to everything she served up. The restaurant was small, but always packed. People from all over the island flocked to the restaurant, wanting to taste the food, have a chat with old friends, and hear the swinging jazz provided from the in-house band, fronted by the most unusual combination of a trumpet-playing alligator and Prince Naveen himself. Of course, the prince's love of jazz was well-known, as was his sudden engagement to Miss Wilcox. The royal family confirmed it, and Princess… the former princess Charlotte seemed to be more excited for the upcoming nuptials than anyone else, but some still conveyed their confusion and disapproval… that is, until they visited Tiana's Place and saw the way the two interacted, their two seemingly opposing personalities melding together into one perfect fit, the tender way they regarded each other. It was difficult for anyone to disapprove of their upcoming union then.
Miss Wilcox ran her restaurant under a tight schedule, detail-oriented and everything in its place, but she was also a gracious and friendly host, even if her Maldonian was a bit broken and shaky. Her American accent just added to the overall charm of the restaurant, though. It was inviting. Well-run. And there was always something to celebrate. The day of Miss Wilcox's official recognition as a Maldonian citizen, a mere three days before her wedding day, was of course the biggest celebration of them all.
Miss Wilcox tried to set aside time to thank each and every one of her customers for their gifts and well-wishes, but her hands were full with more than presents.
She had a wedding to prepare for.
She had a wedding to cater.
"Salmon. I put in the order for salmon two weeks ago. And it still wasn't at the restaurant this morning. If it ain't in by now—"
"The delivery's at noon, Tia. You know that." Charlotte brushed out a section of Tiana's hair, bobby pins in her mouth.
"They should be here by now. I've gotta get them to the—" Tiana stopped herself, looking at her reflection in the mirror. Her hair was only half-done, strands of it still lying against her back, the rest of it twisted in a bun that Charlotte, as both Tiana's attendant and maid of honor, had fixed. "I told Katharine to bring them. But that woman's so forgetful. And she and Helena need to decorate the cake too. I didn't even have time to decorate my own wedding cake last night, I misjudged how long it would take me to bake it—"
"Tiana," Eudora interrupted, who was making some last-minute adjustments to the wedding gown she had made for her daughter and smoothing out the hems so that they lay evenly at her feet, "it's your wedding. All a bride's supposed to do at her wedding is walk down the aisle and say 'I do'."
"I won't be saying 'I do', I'll be saying 'viz'," Tiana snapped. "And I said I'd do the catering. If we were going to have a New Orleans flavored wedding and the royal chefs don't exactly know how to make that and… who am I kidding, I shoulda let them do it, I can't get married and try to plan a three-course meal all at once! I must be insane—" She jerked forward as if wanting to stand up out of her chair, and Charlotte let out a yelp of surprise through the bobby pins. "How much longer are you gonna be with my hair?" Tiana asked. "I need to go find Katharine and Helena—"
"Oh no you don't!" Charlotte admonished, pinning up another stray lock of Tiana's hair. "The bride can't be seen until the ceremony! You're staying right here until the organ music swells."
"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard!" Tiana shrieked. "I've got too many people to supervise and I can't do that while just sitting here getting dolled up! Who says I can't be seen?"
"It's wedding tradition, silly! It's unlucky if anyone other than the attendants see you. Especially the groom. You need to stay right here."
"I'm not staying put just for some stupid superstition!"
"You're gonna anyway. Once I'm finished with your hair, you still need your makeup."
Tiana groaned. "This is a disaster… I knew we should have just gotten married at the courthouse, but no, half the kingdom's showing up and I've gotta be on display like some perfect little doll and the whole ceremony's in a language I still don't quite understand and there ain't gonna be any food because I can't leave this stupid room!"
Charlotte hastily pinned the last of Tiana's hair in place. "Here, sugar, I'll go find Katharine and Helena for you. Mrs. Wilcox, if you'd be a dear and start with Tia's makeup—we've only got half an hour before the ceremony starts—"
"Half an hour?" Tiana exclaimed in despair.
"Not a problem, Charlotte," said Eudora. "I'll handle her."
"You'll handle me," Tiana moaned helplessly as Charlotte quickly darted out of the room. "You say that as if I'm some sort of wild animal."
"Well, you're acting a bit like one," laughed Eudora. "But it's your wedding day, so it's forgivable. Wait here a minute. Before I put your makeup on, I've got another silly wedding superstition to give you."
Tiana groaned. "I'm not sure if I can handle any more of these."
"I think you can handle 'something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue'," Eudora said, moving over to a counter in the other corner of the room, picking up a small box, and making her way back to Tiana. "Here's your something old." She lifted the lid. Inside was a set of gloves, small, delicate, satin, transparent. "I wore them at my wedding."
Tiana drew in her breath. "Thank you, Mama," she said softly, gingerly lifting them out of the box. "Do… do these count as the 'something borrowed' then too?"
Eudora shook her head. "I'm giving them to you to keep. The borrowed is the bobby pins in your hair, they're Charlotte's."
"The dress, of course."
Tiana looked down at her dress and smiled for perhaps the first time that day, despite her stress. Eudora had made it herself, of course, and it was about as far from a stereotypical over-the-top princess wedding dress as one could get. No poofy sleeves and shoulders, just thin shoulder straps and bare arms. No ruffles or frills, just a green satin band crisscrossed around her torso. The dress seemed to be the only thing that had remained simple as Tiana had wanted it. Simple, yet elegant. She slowly pulled the gloves on her hands. "And something blue?"
"I think that's gonna be this blue eye shadow," said Eudora, motioning towards the makeup.
"Oh please, Mama," Tiana moaned, her smile gone, "use another color, I can't wear blue eye shadow, I'll look like a prostitute—"
"I ain't gonna put that much on! Now close your eyes."
"I'm gonna look like a harlot. A nagging screw-up harlot marrying a lazy playboy. God. Won't that look swell. Please just let this day be over with…"
"Babycakes, if I didn't know any better, I'd think you got forced into this or something! Don't you want to marry him?"
"I want—I want to be married to him, I just don't want to marry him, I don't know if I can handle the wedding, that's what it is, I just wanted to say 'I do' and sign the papers and be done with it dammit." And suddenly Tiana giggled, imagining what she must have looked like, the perfect, demure, beautiful bride on her wedding day, cursing.
"Don't you say that," Eudora warned. Tiana felt the unwanted pressure of the makeup stick ramming against her eyes. She scrunched her face in revulsion—she hated makeup and hated whenever someone tried to put it on her. "And don't scrunch your face up. How do you expect me to put this on evenly if you make faces?"
Tiana heard the door to the room open and shut, and Charlotte's quick footsteps bound in. "Dinner has arrived at your restaurant, Tia! I found Katharine and she told me that all the orders got in and they'll be transporting it all to the ballroom as soon as possible for the reception. And here!" Tiana suddenly felt a fragrant-smelling bundle get deposited in her hands. "These are from Naveen," Charlotte continued as Tiana's eyes flew open, staring at the bouquet of red and white roses in her hands. "When he heard me say how stressed you were he immediately grabbed this bunch of flowers from the altar and told me to take them to you to cheer you up. Isn't he a dear?"
"Wait a minute." Tiana's mouth was still hanging open in disbelief, but her eyes were quickly narrowing, first with suspicion but rapidly growing into full-blown rage. "Did you seriously just inform everyone out there that I'm some sort of wild, raving, stressed-out mess, and—and please tell me these ain't actually from the altar, that Naveen didn't ruin the arrangement in some deluded attempt to cheer me up, if you insist on having flowers Lottie we have to have them perfect but now they're—why did you say that? Why did you do that? Why did he do that?"
Charlotte and Eudora exchanged worried glances. "Well that didn't go as planned," Charlotte murmured.
Tiana was only slightly more composed as she waited in the back, obscured from sight, unable to see the crowd but able to hear the anticipatory silence as they waited for the ceremony to begin, the wedding processional lined up ahead of her, her makeup on, her veil on, the roses from Naveen still clutched in her hands, one hundred percent bride, and she couldn't keep her breathing or her heart rate down. She had to focus all her energy on fighting down the urge to run right out of there.
What was happening to her?
Yesterday she hadn't been like this. Yesterday, last night, she had been the happiest woman in the world. She had stayed late at the restaurant, baking the three-tiered cake, and although she realized that she wasn't going to have time to decorate it she hadn't quite cared, surprisingly; it was something that could be done later, but right then she was just enjoying the moment. Naveen had been eager to help her, getting in her way… he meant well, of course, and Tiana had finally told him that his playing music to relax her would be the most helpful thing he could do. She had been back in the kitchen and he had been out on the main stage, switching between the piano and the ukulele, whichever seemed to strike his fancy at any given moment, and Tiana had sung along as she baked, feeling carefree, feeling happy, feeling like a million, Naveen interrupting her every so often to compliment her singing voice or the smells coming from the kitchen. And this made her sing even more. Life didn't get any better than this. She was happy. She was undeniably happy. And she was getting married tomorrow.
Why, then, had tomorrow brought her nothing but worry and doubt? Things weren't going right. There was too much to do and not enough time to do it. She still didn't know if the catering was going to be exactly as she'd ordered it. She had to get bathed and cleaned and prettied and dolled up and apparently locked away from the rest of the world, and there was still too much to do even there. She hadn't even seen Naveen yet that day.
Eudora, standing by Tiana's side in the shadows and holding her arm, gave her daughter a proud smile. Tiana tried to return it, but judging from Eudora's expression morphing into worry and concern, she obviously hadn't done a very good job of it.
The organ music suddenly swelled, filling the entire building, the entire city more likely judging by how completely it hit Tiana. The chord knocked out what little bravery she had left. "Mama, I can't do this," she whispered.
"What do you mean you can't do this?"
"I can't get married. Wh…what do I know about getting married? I don't know how to be a wife, or a princess, or—all I know how to do is cook and bake and own a restaurant, nothing else! I can't do this, Mama! I'm going to mess everything up!"
Eudora just sighed and comfortingly patted Tiana's shoulder. "You're too much of a perfectionist, babycakes. You're gonna do just fine. You love him, don't you?"
"Of course I do." Tiana turned her head to the side and looked longingly, hopefully, through the crowd and the processional slowly moving forward ahead of her, in a vain attempt to catch a glimpse of him, her heart aching for some sort of relief from the stress and doubt that she knew he could give. "But it… scares me how much I love him, Mama, and it scares me to realize that he deserves better than me, he deserves perfection, so I need to be perfect for him but I just can't do it…"
"That's absurd, honey. Naveen doesn't expect you to be perfect."
"I know he doesn't, I never said he did, I said he deserves me to be perfect, and—"
"Tiana," Eudora interrupted firmly. "Nothing is perfect. You ain't perfect. He ain't perfect. Your marriage won't be perfect. It's a fact of life. But as long as you both love each other… you'll be fine."
Tiana felt herself smile, the tears that finally leaked out of her eyes grateful ones.
"Please rise," she heard the minister say in Maldonian.
Eudora smiled and linked her arm in Tiana's. "Now go get him, tiger."
They slowly began to walk down the aisle, the attention of the entire chapel focused on them.
Tiana looked down at the floor. The wood paneling was exquisite, but old. A chip of the floor was jammed upright where a pew met it, she noted. Not perfect.
She looked up and to the sides at the stained glass windows. They were beautiful, filled with images of doves and crosses and tiny flickers of light—at least they would have been if it weren't storming outside. No light was shining through them today. Not perfect.
She looked at the altar. Flowers of every shape and size adorned it, but she could see where, to the left side, a small gap existed, making the arrangement asymmetrical. Not perfect.
She looked at Naveen.
Well… he sure looked perfect. He was so handsome, so beautiful, so full of life, and when he looked at Tiana he looked as though he'd never seen anything more beautiful in his entire life, and Tiana smiled through her tears, her not perfect tears because they were happy and condemning all at the same time, condemning of herself, how could she have even considered running away from this, from him? Now she wanted to run to him, wanted that delicious ecstasy of having her spirits lifted as only he could, want want want need need need and she was going to have him, she was going to have it all, she was going to marry him and nothing could have been more right.
The processional music hit its ending chord just as Eudora and Tiana reached the front of the chapel. Eudora wrapped her arms around Tiana in a gentle hug. "I'm so proud of you, sweetheart," she whispered.
"Thanks, Mama," whispered Tiana gratefully. "I love you."
Eudora smiled at Tiana and Naveen before sitting down in the front pew. Naveen smiled at Eudora too, gratefully and affectionately, before turning back to Tiana and taking her free hand in his. With no free hands to wipe away her tears now, Tiana simply blinked them away, still smiling, thinking to herself that she completely forgave him for upsetting the flower arrangement.
A rumble of thunder resonated through the chapel.
The minister chuckled. "Lovely weather we're having, isn't it?" he remarked in English. The guests all laughed appreciatively.
"Before we start," he said, still in English, "there's a little something I'd like to say. Before the ceremony the prince and I were talking, and the subject of Tiana's remarkable language abilities came up. While we both agreed…" He smiled apologetically at Tiana. "That your Maldonian isn't perfect, it is still amazing considering you have only been speaking it for six months." He turned back to the audience. "But Prince Naveen voiced his concerns to me that as far as Tiana has come with her Maldonian, she still feels far more comfortable in English. And seeing as the two of them, collectively, understand English better than Maldonian… And I believe most of you here understand English too…"
Tiana drew in her breath. Was she hearing what she was thinking she was…
"And, as the prince wisely said to me, shouldn't the bride be able to fully understand what is being said at her own wedding?" He smiled at Tiana apologetically. "You will have to forgive me if I make any errors, I've never performed a wedding in English before…"
English. It was going to be in English. She didn't have to worry about pronouncing the words right or saying the right thing or having to so intently listen to what was being said in order to understand even half of it… she was getting married in English. Letting go of Naveen's hand in order to wipe the tears from her eyes, she smiled gratefully at the minister. "Thank… you…" She turned her attention back to Naveen, still smiling through her tears.
Naveen smiled back, warmly, tenderly, and Tiana was finally able to agree with her mother.
This ceremony wouldn't be perfect. It already wasn't.
But it would be just fine regardless.
In Charlotte's own, probably biased opinion, the wedding had gone absolutely beautifully. Tiana had been radiant, Naveen had been beaming, it had gone without a hitch, at least as far as Charlotte could tell through her emotional sobs. The instant she had been one of the first to arrive at the ballroom for the reception, reporters swarmed around her, all apparently wanting the scoop about how broken-hearted Charlotte was at having lost her husband, but after all they were able to get out of her were sighs of "It's so romantic!" and "Ain't they just the perfect couple?" they apparently gave up on her. Now Charlotte was left alone, sitting at the table set aside for her, Shakir, Avani, Asher, Eudora, and of course Tiana and Naveen, watching the other guests start to file in and waiting for the others at her table to join her, enjoying the peace from the reporters.
She wasn't a princess anymore. She was free from their scrutinizing eyes. They only reason they had wanted to speak to her today was because they wanted a juicy drama to take away from the day's happiness… they were the press, after all, they lived for drama. The citizens of Maldonia had all accepted the fact that Charlotte was quite happy with the union of Tiana and Naveen as soon as she published her letter… and it seemed now that the press was finally starting to get that hint, too.
Charlotte sighed with a bit of regret, glad that the reporters weren't paying any attention to her. She was happy for Tiana, of course. Couldn't be any happier. But when was Charlotte going to get that kind of happiness in her own life, too? When was she going to find a love as beautiful and encompassing as Tiana and Naveen's? When was she going to find her Prince Charming?
She knew it was silly to ask these questions, even to herself; she could be perfectly happy without a man and her life wouldn't be doomed to nothing and worthlessness if she never found love. But her soul still yearned for it. It always had, there was going to be no stopping until she found it. But nineteen years of looking and she was still sitting at the wedding reception by herself, at the wedding reception of her former "husband", alone…
Prince Asher glumly slid into the seat next to Charlotte, while Shakir, Avani, and Eudora were still standing in the main doors, smiling for pictures. "Hey there, Ash!" said Charlotte cheerfully. Seeing the young prince's expression, however, her eyebrows raised in concern. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing," Asher mumbled sullenly.
"That's a mighty big nothing to make you frown like that," Charlotte retorted. "Come on, Ash, put on a smile! Ain't you happy for your brother?"
"Sure…" Asher mumbled with a marked lack of conviction.
Charlotte gasped in surprise. "Don't tell me you don't like Tiana."
"I do like Tiana! But…" Asher looked at Charlotte with wide eyes. "Now that they're married, you will be going away! I don't want you to leave, Charlotte!"
Surprised, Charlotte brought her hand to her collarbone. Asher had always been fond of her, yes. He was fond of pretty much everyone. But now, with the way he was looking at her broken-heartedly, with what he had just said… Charlotte was normally quick to tell when someone had a crush on her, but normally that someone wasn't seven years old. Well, a voice inside of her whispered, bubbling up into her brain and sinking back down into her heart, you wanted the love of a Prince Charming, and here he is.
Suddenly smiling, Charlotte threw her arms around Asher in a tight hug. "Now don't you be upset over that! I ain't going away forever! Far from it! I'll be coming back to visit Tiana and Naveen as often as I can! And when they come to New Orleans to visit me, you are definitely most welcome to visit too."
"I am?" Asher asked, brightening.
"Darn tootin' you are!" Charlotte released her hold on Asher. "More than welcome, you'll be expected! I'm gonna start writing stories once I get back home to New Orleans, and I'm gonna need an appreciative audience to test them out on! You won't mind hearing more of my stories, will you?"
This time Asher was the one to initiate the hug. "I love your stories, Charlotte! I want to hear them all!"
"You will, and you're gonna be the first one to hear them too!"
Charlotte realized that the mull of the reporters had grown much louder. Turning her attention to the doors, she saw why. Naveen had arrived. The reporters descended upon him like vultures. Somehow, Naveen managed to throw out friendly-sounding Maldonian responses while at the same time cutting his way through them and to the table. Charlotte marveled at his skill of breezing right past the press. Why couldn't she have learned how to do that?
"Your clothes make you look like a gimo-gimo!" Asher said to Naveen with a grin, jumping out of Charlotte's arms and running to him.
"Well, you look like a miniature gimo-gimo!" Naveen retorted, playfully grabbing Asher and rumpling his hair.
"Gimo-gimo?" Charlotte asked.
"Yes, it means…" Naveen bit his lip thoughtfully. "There is a wonderful English expression for it… ah yes! 'Fuddy-duddy'." He smirked. "And Asher, I must disagree with you. Prince Naveen never looks like a fuddy-duddy."
"Where's Tia?" Charlotte asked.
Naveen sighed helplessly, but he was still smiling. "Where do you think? She is catering this reception, after all! As soon as the cameras stopped flashing she made her escape to the kitchen to supervise everything."
Charlotte laughed in mock despair. "Someone needs to tell that girl that it's her wedding day!"
Naveen looked at his left hand, or more specifically his new wedding ring, and let out a gentle laugh. "If she has not figured that out by now, there really is no hope for her!"
"Vishza de capastino?"
Katharine, Helena, and the other staff members of Tiana's Place who were helping cater all nervously wrung their hands at Tiana's anger. "We don't know where it is, Miss Wilcox—Princess Tiana," Helena said, making her Maldonian slow enough so that Tiana could understand. "The men who drove the delivery trucks said they never saw the cake getting loaded into the truck, but we looked at the restaurant and it's not there, either."
"Well, it didn't… just… disappear!" Tiana sputtered, her frustration and anger making her already slow Maldonian even more staccato and jumpy. "It has to be somewhere, where is it?"
"We don't know, my princess," Helena repeated. "We are looking, but we don't know."
"Perhaps it's behind the box with the serving… utensils." Katharine's voice cut short when she moved said box with a noticeable lack of a clang of silverware.
"What's in that box?" Helena asked.
"I thought the utensils!"
"Move. Please." Tiana cut her way through them and flung open the top of the box.
She, Helena, and Katharine stared in dumb horror at what they saw.
It was the cake. The three layers were stacked with the biggest on bottom and the smallest on top, but their journey in the box had left them jostled and a little smashed. And they were not decorated. No frosting, no whipped topping, nothing.
The three women continued to stare.
"Who did this?" Tiana finally shrieked in English. "Which one of those idiotic moving men threw my cake into a box like it's just some—and it ain't decorated! It ain't decorated! My wedding cake ain't decorated! You—" Tiana alternated between glaring furiously at Helena on her right side and Katharine on her left, remembering to switch back to Maldonian. "You were supposed to decorate the cake!"
"Your Highness, we never saw the cake until now," Helena pleaded. "When we got to the restaurant this morning we didn't see the cake. We assumed that you had taken it and decorated it. It must have gotten loaded in here by one of the moving men before we even got there. Please don't get upset, Your Highness."
Tiana fumed, inhaling deeply, wishing she knew how to say "I can't get upset when I'm already far past it!" in Maldonian. Instead, she said markedly, "It is my wedding, and I don't have a—" She flung her arm to the box to accentuate her point, a little too forcefully. The box tumbled over and the cake fell against itself, becoming even more mashed.
"…dammit," Tiana hissed in English, bringing her hands to her face.
Katharine comfortingly put an arm on Tiana's shoulder. "It is alright, my princess," she said in slow, accented English. "We have the… plunidra o frigi."
Appetizer and main course. Tiana moaned into her palms, not looking at her. "A wedding's supposed to have cake," she muttered, still in English. "But I had to be stubborn and try to make it myself and it fell flat. Literally. I've ruined my own wedding."
"It is alright, even without cake. It is still your wedding!"
"It is your wedding," Helena said comfortingly, in Maldonian, "and you should be out there celebrating it. Not worrying yourself back here in the kitchen!"
"You haven't been out in the ballroom once since the reception started," Katharine added gently, "and they have already started eating the appetizer. In a few minutes we will begin to serve the main course. You should be out there with them. It is your wedding."
Tiana bit her lip. "Esí mio boshra," she repeated. With resolve, she stood up, leaving the cake where it was, and made her way out of the kitchen, through the hallway, and finally into the ballroom.
So many people. And all of them talking, smiling, laughing above the clatter of their silverware and the music of the jazz band, Louis at the forefront playing his trumpet beautifully. It was extravagantly elegant, the food, the décor, the location itself, and Tiana nearly forgot that the extravagance was for her… that is, until she heard shouts of "De pruta esí abrí!" and a swarm of reporters and photographers gathered around her. The flashes of the camera were accompanied by… silence. The whole ballroom had grown silent. Tiana realized with a slow surprise that they were waiting for her to say something.
And, well, there was only one thing to say at that moment. "De capastino esí…" Tiana held her arm out into the hallway and in the direction of the kitchen, hesitating, and then finally sighed, bringing her arm back to her side. "Ruined," she finished in English. "The cake is ruined. It got a little squashed on the way here and I accidentally knocked it over in the kitchen. Not that it matters since… I never got around to decorating it anyway. So… there ain't gonna be any cake tonight."
"I, uh… I hope y'all like the hors d'ouevres, though," Tiana said, wanting to just curl up and die right then and there.
No voices were kind enough to break the deathly quiet.
Failure, a silent voice hissed in Tiana's ear.
"And what, exactly, do you mean by ruined, Miss Wilcox?"
Naveen, who was on the other side of the room where he and Calix had been chatting amiably and munching on bite-sized quiches before Tiana's arrival, smiled playfully with his words, and although it was an expression Tiana was certainly used to from him, it and what he had said still caught her off guard. "I mean—I mean it's ruined, we can't eat it, what else would I mean?"
Naveen just shrugged. "So it has no frosting, and it got a bit squashed. I don't see what the problem is. I am sure it still tastes delectable."
"It looks like an elephant sat on it," Tiana retorted angrily, "and—"
"Ah! Give me your fork, Calix!" Naveen quickly whisked the utensil from Calix's hands and zipped to the doorway upon seeing Katharine and Helena passing by in the hallway with the alleged cake on a platter. To their and Tiana's utter shock, he dug his fork in the cake, took a large forkful, and put it in his mouth.
"We were going to throw it out, Your Highness!" Helena whispered to Tiana in Maldonian in response to her questioning, icy stare.
Now all eyes were on Naveen, who was slowly and thoughtfully chewing the bite of cake, as if he was… savoring it? "Delicious!" he declared with a grin. "Richonaza! The best cake I have ever tasted! I knew it would be good, my wife makes the best cakes in the world, but this puts all her others to shame! It is probably a good thing it is not decorated, that would have made it too good for mere mortals like us! Come, everyone, have a taste!"
The room was suddenly filled with the happy, approving mull of guests eager to get a taste of the cake. They rushed to the unsightly wad of cake with forks in hand, all diving in with abandon, Helena and Katharine managing to hold the platter steady through their shock. But if they were frozen with surprise, Tiana was tenfold, simply staring slack-shouldered at the bizarre sight in front of her, saying, "What… is going on…"
Naveen slid up in front of her with another bite-sized piece of cake on his fork. "Have you had any yet?"
"No—no. Put that down."
"Tiana! Is it not a wedding tradition for the bride and groom to feed each other the wedding cake?"
"If you like it that much—" Tiana suddenly grabbed Naveen's wrist and twisted his arm back to his own face, the cake getting crushed on his lips. The room filled with joyful laughter, laughter that Tiana suddenly felt herself joining.
Naveen grinned as he licked the cake off his face. "Now that's the spirit!" Reaching over towards the platter, he scooped up a chunk of cake with his hand and gently yet firmly smushed it to Tiana's mouth. The laughter of the crowd this time was joined by enthusiastic clapping.
Tiana let out a muffled yelp before wiping the excess cake off her face, but some had made its way inside her mouth anyway. "Mmm!" she exclaimed before she could stop herself. "This…" She quickly swallowed. "This is good!"
"I told you so!" Naveen wrapped his arms around Tiana's waist and lifted her in the air. "Why do you doubt how amazing you are?"
They kissed, and this time the crowd cheered.
"Do you want more?" Naveen asked after they broke the kiss short.
Tiana smiled slyly at him. "Cake or kisses?"
"Hmm… either one, whichever you would like." Smiling, he flicked a last remnant of cake from the corner of her mouth. "Quite a difficult decision between the two of them!"
"We shouldn't even be eating the cake right now anyway, we haven't even had the main course yet." Tiana pulled away from Naveen. "I'd better get back to the kitchen and—"
"Stay out of the kitchen! I mean—" Naveen, looking abashed, lowered his voice but still grasped Tiana's hands. "I'm sorry. I did not mean for that to come out like an order. But please… it is our wedding day, no one expects you to be working, you should be out here being waited on, you're… you're a princess and it's our wedding day and…" Realizing that the entire room was staring at them, Naveen dropped his voice even lower and murmured, "Please stay with me. I believe I once told you I cannot handle you coming and going so quickly…"
"But… the food…"
"Will be fine. Katharine and Helena can take care of it. Please stop worrying and…" He drew her into his arms and whispered in her ear so that only she could hear him, "stay with me. I need you."
The call of the kitchen was suddenly paled in comparison to the call of her husband.
"Okay," she exhaled.
The crowd, hearing her answer, applauded with approval.
Tiana smiled awkwardly. "You sure put on a scene," she said.
"I often do," smirked Naveen. "And now, my love…" He gestured towards what was left of the cake. "If it is more cake that you want, you had better get it before it's gone!"