A/N: This was a Rumpelstiltskin AU I wrote for an anon prompt by the way of: "I want to say it was worth it. For a while, it was." A wayward thought got me thinking about how the miller's daughter of that story didn't really get a good deal, so I tried retelling the story to give her a better happily ever after. Also with 100% less threatened baby-napping.
Spinning straw into gold was impossible; everyone knew that.
Everyone, it seemed, but her father and the King. But that was enough.
Haru Yoshioka had never been one for tears, but she decided the universe wouldn't judge her too harshly for shedding a few in the face of her impending death. After all, who was there to see? If a poor peasant woman cried in a locked tower and no one was around to hear her, did her sobs make a sound?
"Fair maiden, fair maiden," called a voice from the rafters. "Why do you weep so?"
Haru's tears came to an abrupt halt. The voice was well-spoken, like that of an old-fashioned noble or royalty; definitely not one of the guards. Also, guards didn't tend to linger in the rafters. Neither did nobility or royalty, but she could only worry about one thing at a time. She gave one last snivel for good measure and glared up at the ceiling. "I'll have you know that it's ill-mannered to listen in on a lady's distress." She dabbed at the corner of her eyes with her sleeve. "Let a lady die in peace."
"Die?" A shadow leapt down from above, and Haru was greeted with the form of a small ginger cat. "I have heard of many ways to die, but over-exposure to hay is a new one to me."
Haru chuckled, and a little of her usual good temper returned. "You have a sense of humour, cat. I would appreciate it if it could keep me company until the sun rises."
"And after the dawn?"
"After the dawn you will need to find a new friend, for this one shall be gone."
The cat placed both paws onto her knees, and emerald-green eyes stared into hers. "Oh now, fair maiden, that shall not be."
"You have little choice." Haru waved a hand across the crowded room. "I am but a miller's daughter, but my father laid claim that I could spin straw into gold, and when the King heard he locked me up in here and told me I must turn all this to gold by sunrise or be put to death."
"Your king would kill you for that?"
"Apparently. So you see, cat, I have not long for this world unless you can spin straw into gold."
"But of course. Did I not make that clear? I am a magic cat." He rose onto his back paws and stood in a manner most human. "And, as a magic cat, I cannot leave such a fetching young lady to such a dire fate."
Haru's heart leapt. A fae cat! But then she remembered the tales of being indebted to the fair folk, and quickly removed the ring from her hand. "Please, take this as payment for your help."
"I take no payment."
"Please. It isn't much, but it was my mother's wedding ring. Is it enough for your kindness?"
The cat took the ring, and in return Haru was rewarded with a strange look. "It is enough for my kindness," he said, and moved to the spinning wheel, whereupon it whirred into life. The straw spun through the wheel, round and round, until the bobbin was full of gold and he had to replace with another, and another, and on it went till morning and all the straw was gone. And all the while, he kept her company.
When all was done, the cat bowed and vanished.
With the rising sun, the King arrived, and he was both delighted and amazed by the room of gold he now possessed.
His advisors were… less so. Haru saw the stilted looks they exchanged with one another, all too aware – even if their monarch was not – that such feats were beyond the scope of mortal folk.
Still, the King wanted more, and so the following night he locked the miller's daughter in a second room filled with straw, larger than the first, and uttered the same ultimatum.
This time she didn't weep, but called out for her previous companion.
"Fair maiden, fair maiden," the cat greeted, bowing. "Why do you call me so?"
"The King has once again demanded that I spin gold for him and has threatened to kill me if I fail," she said. She loosened the ribbon in her hair, the ribbon she had specifically brought tonight. "All I have is this ribbon. It isn't much, but it is the last gift my mother gave me before she passed. Is it enough for your kindness?"
Again, that strange look.
"It is enough for my kindness," he answered, and began to spin.
Again, the straw was gold by dawn, and again Haru swapped companions from cat to King with the rising sun. She didn't miss the way his eyes lit up at the shimmering room, nor did she miss the whispered rumours from the advisors. Once, the transformation may have been a trick; twice, and it became witchcraft.
"Three times, and you shall prove your worth," the King told her. "Why, with a wife such as you, our kingdom would be rich."
"Wife?" echoed Haru.
"Wife?" echoed the advisors.
"Naturally," the King said, and led her to a yet larger room filled with straw. "If you spin all this gold by the next sunrise, I shall make you my queen. But if you fail, you shall die."
And thus, when the cat came that evening, he found the miller's daughter in tears once more.
"Fair maiden, fair maiden," he said. "Why do you weep so?"
"I weep because the King desires to make me his wife if I succeed tonight."
"Why so sad? Surely it is the wish of anyone to rise to such rank."
"Oh, cat, you do not know me at all if you think that," Haru wept. "If he marries me, he shall expect this every night, and I shall spend the rest of my life under threat of death. He does not love me; he only loves the gold which you spin."
Her face buried in her hands, she could not see but she was sure she felt gloved fingers gently brush the hair from her face. "Oh, fair maiden," the cat's voice murmured, "I know you too well to let you suffer such a fate. Just trust me a moment longer, and all shall be well."
She raised her head, but the cat was definitely still just a cat. Even so, the phantom touch of tender fingers lingered on her skin. "Cat, you have been such a good friend to me these last two nights; I want to say it was worth it. For a while, it was. But do not spin the straw this final night. In all the chaos, I have forgotten to bring anything to thank you for your kindness."
"I need not take anything now," he said. "You may owe me, if it is enough for my kindness."
Haru faltered. To be indebted to the fae folk… perhaps would be no worse than being married off to a gold-hungry king. Perhaps she could pay him back in precious gems or trinkets from the royal treasury, if he would accept such baubles when he could create gold at a touch.
"It is enough," she whispered.
"Then the deal is made," he said, and he set to spinning.
True to his word, the room was filled with gold by daybreak and, true to his word, the King made immediate preparations for the upcoming wedding upon seeing her success.
"Wife," the King called her.
"Queen," the peasants said.
"Witch," the advisors muttered. "Alchemist. Fae." She heard their murmured accusations, however quietly they said them, and knew the words would spread. A queen who makes deals with the devil, they asked, what kind of queen is that? And she couldn't help but agree, although she could not have said which was the devil of her dealing.
Still, she found herself suitably adorned and embellished; a bride fit for a king. The gold the cat had spun was woven into her dress, and the ensuing result left her more gold than girl by the time the tailors were finished. The ladies-in-waiting perfected her face with powder and if they had to add a little more than usual to hide the red-rimmed tearful eyes, then no one commented.
Still, everyone could be heard to agree as she stood alongside the King, she was a suitable bride. Everyone agreed.
"Fair maiden, fair maiden," called a familiar voice. "Why do you marry so?"
And where the priest should have been stood the cat. But not the cat Haru recalled. This one was taller, human in height and dressed in a suit, fitted with a top hat and cane. But still. Haru recognised him, however altered he was, as the same cat who had helped her three times prior.
"A demon!" snarled the King, and stepped back.
"Yes," the cat said, before Haru could correct him, "A demon." He approached them, and swept his hat off in a low bow. "I would love to give my congratulations to the happy couple, but I'm afraid there's been some confusion. You see, the miller's daughter still owes me a debt, and I wish to collect."
"Collect?" Haru echoed. "Collect what?"
The cat rose from his bow, and his smile was wane. "You, Miss Miller-maid. Three nights' worth of gold is a fine price for a bride, I'd say."
The King bustled, but did not step between Haru and the cat. "You cannot buy her," he snapped.
"Why not?" the cat asked. "You did." He returned his gaze to Haru and held out a hand. "Miss Miller-maid, I'm waiting."
She felt herself shivering, and belatedly recognised it as rage. "Not like this," she whispered. "I will not trade one cage for another. Cat, if you ever held any affection for me in your heart, do not do this."
His eyes sparkled, and Haru had the strangest sensation she had given the correct answer. "Very well; we shall turn this into a game, then. I will give you three days with three guesses each, one for each night's service rendered, for you to win back your debt. All you have to do is call me by my name." He smiled. "Do that, and you will be forever free of me."
The first day dawned with the release of messengers sent across the land by the King. Their task was simple, but perhaps impossible: find the name of the cat demon.
Haru, the prize, was left guarded in her new room – "In case that demon comes to collect early," the King had said, although she doubted a few soldiers would stop a fairy. She would be given the array of hopeful names, and select the three to offer that day.
"Fair maiden, fair maiden, how grand your cage is now. Why, 'tis fit for a queen."
Haru didn't turn to the voice. "I ought to throw you out of this window for that foul trickery you did me, cat."
"I did nothing you did not agree to."
"You could have asked for anything," she retorted. "So why choose that?" She felt her eyes water with angry tears, and she turned and slammed both fists into his chest. "How dare you ask that of me! I thought you were my friend!"
"And I am. I always will be." He gently pried her hands off him. "Fair maiden, look at me."
"I'd rather not," she muttered into his waistcoat.
"As you wish. But whatever form I take, whether talking cat or demonic beast, I am clearly not of this world, and there are certain ways things must be done for my magic to help anyone. It must be balanced. Equal. If I spirit you away from this unwanted marriage, it will only place you further in debt. And you are running out of precious things worth a fairy's debt."
"There are jewels in the treasury–"
The cat laughed. "Jewels? Do you think you can pay off a fairy debt with shiny rocks? No. I accepted your offers because they were important to you – your mother's ring, her final gift to you – not because they carried any monetary value." He tentatively brushed her hair from her tear-stained eyes. "Eventually, the debt finds its own payment and I fear the price, if left unchecked, will be too rich for you." His touch was gentle. "It may be the colour of your hair, or the sight from your left eye, all or all your memories from before you turned five."
"But you think my freedom isn't too rich?" she muttered.
"Who said anything about freedom?"
"But you said–"
"That I came to collect you, Miss Miller-maid, but the debt cares little for what I do after it is paid. If I decide to buy a caged bird only to set it free, that is none of the concern of the seller."
"You're… you're telling the truth?"
"I cannot lie," he said, and slipped a familiar ring onto her right hand. "However, if you choose to stay, then you will need this. This ring is now enchanted. Wear it, and you will be able to spin straw into gold as well as I can. Consider it part of the debt I'm collecting."
Haru's fingers flew to her mother's wedding ring. "Why do this? Why help me?"
"That's simple. It's because you are my friend, fair maiden."
"Haru," she said, and abruptly felt foolish. Giving her name away to a fae? The only thing more foolish would be to put oneself into unspecified debt to a fae… oh, wait.
But the smile he gave was only kind, not conniving. "Then you may call me Baron. It is as much of a name as any."
"No, it is not my true name, although I did go by that title once." He grinned. "Do you think I'd make it that easy?"
"Is your name Pendragon?"
The second day came, and Haru found the cat – Baron – once again at her door.
"Fair maiden, fair maiden, how grand your cage is now. Why, 'tis fit for a queen."
She smiled, despite herself. "Then it is too grand for me."
"Then we shall have to remedy that," he replied, and he swung the door open behind him to reveal an empty corridor.
"Baron, I can't leave here – everyone will recognise me, and I can't just run–"
"We're not running. We're going for a walk," he said, and drew close. His gloved hands worked through her hair and tied a familiar-looking ribbon into her locks. "This ribbon is now enchanted. Wear it, and no one but those you choose will recognise you. Consider it part of the debt I'm collecting."
She tenderly touched the favoured ribbon. "What do you mean they won't recognise me? Do I look different? Is it a disguise?"
"It's only a disguise as far as their minds go," he answered. "People will see you, but they will not realise they see their future-queen." He smiled. "If you decide to leave the King, it will enable you to live an unencumbered life, free from the risk of royal recognition."
She wished to thank him, but knew that thanking for fairy gifts was unwise. At the very least, the gift might lose its power; at worst, it might retaliate back at her. So she could only smile, but she felt Baron see the gratitude. Then she hesitated. "Baron, the… guards. You didn't–"
"Fear not, there are no unfortunate soldiers masquerading as mice. I simply took good note of their shifts and schedule and planned accordingly. As long as we are out of this door in the next five minutes, no one will be any the wiser." He winked. "Let's stretch those wings, fair maiden."
And so she let him lead her through the maze of palace corridors and stairways, and she found that neither of them earned more than a passing glance. She fiddled with her ribbon, awed by its newfound properties. "Tell me, Baron," she said as they stepped out into the royal gardens, "do you have a similar spell affecting you? For no one seems to mark you."
He tapped the polka-dotted tie around his neck. "Indeed. With this, everyone merely thinks how strange it is to see a cat demon, and moves on. It has become a valid tool in many a situation. But now it is my turn to inquire. Before all this started, you were a miller's daughter. If you do leave, what would you wish to do with your life?"
Haru faltered. No one had ever asked her that before – not in any meaningful way, anyway. "I suppose," she said, "if I could choose, I would wish to travel. Travel, and then settle down as a seamstress, like my mother."
"Just that?" Baron asked, although he sounded… pleased, if anything. "No riches or power?"
"I've seen how people live with excess riches and power," she answered. "I only want enough riches that I can eat and live, and enough power than I can be free. I have no need for anything more." She looked to him. "And what of you?"
"What of me?"
"Did you always wish to be… this?"
He looked at her then, and she wondered if, similarly, no one had ever seen fit to ask him either. "I suppose," he echoed, "if I could choose, I would wish to run a teashop."
Haru had to resist a laugh. She did smile. "Just that?"
"Just that. I used to make tea for my sister, Louise, and she loved all the blends I would create." He smiled at the fond memory. "If I were to run a teashop, it would be a local affair, located in a quiet little village with a quiet little village green and rolling hills over the horizon, and annual fairs. People would come from the neighbouring villages to meet up and talk, and when they wonder where they should sup, they would go, 'but of course, to Baron's teashop.'"
Haru leant over to him. "So why don't you?"
He only smiled. "Such a simple life is unsuited to one of my kind."
"Is your name Toto?"
"Why create the game?" Haru asked on the morn of the final day. "Why ask me to guess your name and drag this three days longer if you could have just spirited me away now?"
"That's simple," Baron replied. "You deserved to have the right to choose."
"It is barely a choice. That would imply that the decision is difficult in the making. Anyway," she added, a smidgen indignant, "how is it a choice when we both know I don't have a chance of guessing your name?"
"You have the ring and the ribbon," he said. "Between them, they give you the ability to either live safely in the palace, weaving away, or escape to a quiet, modest life; neither require me anymore. As for the matter of my name," he said, and gently placed a handkerchief in her hands, "you already have all you need to know that."
She glanced to the silken material. "Is this another of those 'consider this part of the debt I'm collecting' things?" she asked.
"Something like that."
"What does it do?"
He chuckled and tucked a stray hair back from her face. "It dries eyes, no more, no less. Consider it my promise to you to never make you cry again."
Immediately, her eyes began to water. She hid them behind the handkerchief, laughing and crying simultaneously and failing to successfully conceal either.
"Haru, I just said–" Baron started, alarmed.
"No crying, I know," she laughed. "Relax, these are happy tears. Still…" she said, "Why me? Why go to all this trouble for me?"
Baron softly drew her hands away from her face. "Do you think it was pure coincidence I met you that first night? I heard tales of a miller's daughter whose father's outrageous claims had lined her up for death. And so I came to help." He smiled. "I had planned to move on after I had secured your freedom, but the thought of being without you leaves me quite lonely. It has occurred to me that I may be in want of a companion." He drew away. "But, it's your choice. It must always be your choice."
It was a strange item, really, to receive.
Haru turned the handkerchief over in her hands and pondered. Baron had said it retained no power, no unseen enchantment nor spell, and yet it seemed at odds with the other gifts he had bestowed. It didn't carry the same emotional weight that her ribbon or ring had borne, and yet he had chosen to bequeath such a thing on the day of her final guesses.
She would have been content to leave it at that, until it caught the light and through the silk she saw the remnants of a faded pattern.
A coat of arms.
And after that, it all slotted into place.
His title of baron narrowed it to the lower rankings of nobility.
The coat of arms to a single family.
The sister Louise to a handful of individuals.
And there was only one name that had vanished under mysterious circumstances.
Haru sat beside the King, the parchment of chosen names spread out before her, but none of the offerings matched the name she knew to be true. She chose one at random.
"Is your name Totoro?"
He smiled, and she wondered if he knew of her newfound knowledge.
It was ridiculous. Crazy. Irrational. To trust someone steeped so deep in fairy magic was to be a fool, and a short-lived one at that.
Or so the stories went.
"Is your name Moro?"
Ridiculous. Crazy. Irrational.
She tried to remind herself of that.
And yet, he had been her one friend through all this.
"Is your name…"
Humbert von Gikkingen?
She hesitated. She thought of rooms filled with spun gold, and reckless boasts, and greedy kings, and ribbons and rings and handkerchiefs with family coat of arms and it's because you are my friend–
"Nago?" she finished. "Is your name Nago?"
The smile he gave was not triumphant.
But it was happy.
Baron stepped up to the dais and held out a hand to her. "No, fair maiden. It is not."
She took it.
There were a great deal of things to learn while travelling with someone like Baron, but she had both time and a good friend on her side. Eventually though, when the steepest of the learning curve had been breached and their current adventure had drawn to a close, she asked the one thing that had stayed with her since that fateful day.
"What would have happened if I had said your name?"
"I imagine you would have found some way to escape to a better life," he replied. "No matter which way you chose, you would have been happy, Haru. I made sure of that."
"No, I mean… what would have happened to you?" she asked.
"Oh. I would have returned to my human shape."
"Indeed. I was once human, but a bad encounter with a fairy left me in the form you see today. While useful in its capacity for magic and immortal lifespan, it has stolen the human life I had desired from me. The fairy that cursed me stole my name, and said that only when I hear it spoken once more will it be broken."
Haru considered this. "I know your name," she said.
"Then the day you tire of travelling and magic, speak it," he said, "and our human lives will begin."
Years passed, and the King passed away, and in his stead a sensible young monarch rose up. The fairy gold tarnished and rusted long before its due, all except for a golden-laden wedding dress that had once been fitted for a future queen. It stayed, and the whispered witch tales transformed to fairy as memories faded and people fell in love with the story of a gold-weaving miller's daughter who bewitched a king and spirited away before they could wed.
And, in a quiet little village, with a quiet little village green and set between rolling hills, a teashop owner and a seamstress lived happily ever after.