Here’s the thing.
Most of the time, she hates the Briarwoods more than anything. In the moments she can, when the charms they’ve wrapped around her brain slip down a little and she can grasp at lucidity, she plans their deaths over and over, perfecting every last little detail. She imagines stabbing Sylas in his stupid grinning face again and again, until the smile slips and his nose sinks back into his brain. She counts the steps that Delilah takes to the washroom each night and pinpoints the perfect time to slam her head into the stairs. She memorizes every inch of Anders’ room when she’s in there, so she knows where she can stash his body after she impales him on the iron poker he keeps by the fire.
But here’s the thing.
Five years is a long, long time to hate, and if there’s one thing that Cassandra learns under the Briarwoods, it’s that hate builds up like a stain soaking into your soul. She starts dreaming their deaths, and she wakes up with the copper sting of blood stinking in her nose. She starts slipping into fantasies, like the one where she beats Delilah’s head in with a table leg only to snap back to reality and realize that she’s shattered a teacup and everyone is staring at her. She learns to dig her nails into her palms, to distract herself with pain rather than lose her control and get herself killed
More than anything, she wants to fight back. So she does. She gets in contact with the rebels. She guides them, she feeds them information. They call her Lady, and she wants to cry because that’s her mother, not her, but she doesn’t have anything else, only this, and so she will be their Lady with everything she has. If she does this, she can survive, she thinks, and so she pours her hate into destroying the people that inspire it.
And they almost win.
And then Sylas and Delilah slip in, and the charms tighten, and whatever lucidity she’s fought to claim slips through her fingers. She watches herself betray the rebels, lead them into a trap, and stand aside as the Lord and Lady slaughter all her hope. And she feels all the hate she’d poured out soak back in.
Only now, there’s nowhere for it to go. So it builds up in her soul, and it bleeds into her body and her brain. And here’s the thing.
You can’t spend five years hating someone without the hate leaking out.
Most of the time, she hates the Briarwoods. But some of the time, just some, she hates him.
She doesn’t mean to. She loves Percy. He’s all she has left to love. But it’s so hard to love someone with hate soaked into your soul. It curdles everything like vinegar in milk.
It’s only for a few seconds each time. It’s nothing compared to how much she hates the Briarwoods. She doesn’t even know if he’s alive, the first time she really, consciously hates Percy. She’s taking tea with Delilah and Ripley, like they always do now, because Delilah has decided she likes to play at being motherly. Out of all the things Delilah does, even more than the charms and the torture, Cassandra hates this. It makes her sick to sit in the sun room, her mother’s sun room, and sip tea out of little pink cups with the monster who slaughtered her family. She’s already full to the brim with hate, and Delilah makes some comment about how nice it is that we caught the girl instead, I could never bond with boys, and for a few seconds her brother flashes before her eyes and she thinks why did you leave me? I could have escaped if it weren’t for you. And then, just as quickly, she stamps it out and laughs along with some insipid thing Ripley says and tries not to vomit.
Later, she lies on her bed and lets the self-loathing roll over her. How could she hate her brother, when she was sitting in the same room as demons in human form, how could she? He’s probably dead, she thinks, and a new wave of guilt washes up against her heart. She wants to cry. She doesn’t. She never cries anymore.
The next time it happens, she crushes the hate before it can grow, and the next, and the next. He’s dead, she thinks each time, he would have come back for me if he wasn’t dead, I can’t hate him, that’s not fair. She tries to miss him instead, but that hurts even more, so she pushes Percy out of her mind and she hates the Briarwoods. She hates them.
And then Ripley tells her that her brother is alive.
It just slips out one day. She’s in the library, and Ripley walks in and talks at her. Ripley never talks to her, only at her. She doesn’t even bother to pretend to care about Cassandra. In a way, it’s refreshing. At least with Ripley, she doesn’t have to play along. She nods when it’s appropriate and lets the words wash over her, and she doesn’t care.
And then Ripley says “ –there’s the matter of my favourite subject, who from what I’ve heard was last seen mucking about in Westruun with a band of mercenaries–”She stops abruptly, like she’s said something she shouldn’t have, but Cassandra knows Ripley, has planned her death so often that she could paint it out on canvas. This was not an accident. She schools her face closed, says something non-committal, and lets Ripley continue her tirade.
Her insides toss like a stormy sea. Percy is alive, Percy is in Westruun, Percy has friends and allies. Praise the fucking Gods, right? He’s alive. He lived!
And he hasn’t come back for her. Something knots in her stomach and she clenches her fists. Four years. She has rotted here four fucking years, has had to play nice with murderers and vampires and monsters, has betrayed everyone who trusted her, and he has just stayed away. Just washed his hands of her and left her here to die. He left her. She hates him then, more than she ever has before. Why the fuck hasn’t he come back? She wants to cry. She wants to scream and wail like a child. She wants to throw books, flip tables, burn the gods-damned keep to the ground. She keeps her face placid. She lets nothing slip. But she feels the hate bubbling inside her, and for the first time she doesn’t stamp it out.
She feels guilty that night, more than ever. She lies awake, going over it again and again in her head. There must be a reason, she thinks. Percy wouldn’t abandon me. Not Percy. She tries to figure out his plan. He’s got allies now, friends. He must be building an army to storm Whitestone and burn the Briarwoods alive. He must have spent these last hellish years talking to leaders and great warriors, buying support and making deals. He must be coming for her. He wouldn’t just leave her. He wouldn’t.
Here’s the thing. Hate feeds on so much. It feeds on love until it shrivels. It feeds on anger like fire from a coal. It feeds on everything that you throw at it. But most of all, hate feeds on doubt. Hate feeds on doubt like a parasite, bloating it with its own girth, until the doubt swells, until all you can see is the doubt.
And most of the time, she hates the Briarwoods, and there’s no doubt in that. But the time, just some of the time, that she hates Percy, that little speck of doubt gets hate right down its gullet, and the hate takes root. And it feeds. And the doubt grows. And with it grows the crushing knowledge that her brother isn’t coming for her. And that, more than anything, is too much to bear.
Little by little, Cassandra slips. Because there’s one thing that hate can’t compete with, and that’s despair. She fights the charms less and less, starts letting Delilah brush her hair and Sylas pat her back. She smiles and talks more, and little by little the charms slide away, until one day there aren’t any left at all. She could escape. Nothing holds her back now. She could just go.
Instead she hates. But she doesn’t know who she hates anymore. Just that she hates so much.
And then her brother comes back. And he brings his army.
His army of six people. One of whom isn’t even really there. She wants to laugh, but her throat has just recently been slit and it seems like a bad idea. She’s not sure Percy even sees her at first, because he kills Anders like he’s not even human anymore. He kills Anders like a machine.
She thinks, I wanted to do that. I had a plan.
Percy comes over to her, and she wants to hug him but she can’t. He doesn’t hug her. He takes her by the shoulders and tells her their plan and trusts her absolutely, but he doesn’t hug her. She thinks maybe he can smell the hate that’s rotted whatever soul she has left wafting off of her. But that’s a silly thought. So she puts on her mother’s armor and she goes along with them and she doesn’t know what to do with five years of now-directionless hate floating around inside her.
Until they reach the glass room. Until Sylas and Delilah show up again, like they were waiting for her. Until, impossibly, she chooses them. Over her brother. Her brother, who doesn’t curse her for this new betrayal. Her brother, who doesn’t rage or weep or beg for mercy. Her brother, who just presses his hand against the glass, and says “it’s alright,” and looks at her with so much fucking love and hope and forgiveness that her throat closes over.
How dare you? she thinks, after all these years, how dare you. Do you have any idea what I have done? Do you have any idea how much I hated you? How dare you sit there and tell me it’s alright, how dare you wander back after five years, you have no idea what I have been through, you cannot possibly understand you fucking asshole.
She hates him. She hates him, she hates him, she hates him and she hates them she hates them she hates this she hates she hates she hates…
Oh god. Oh god what have I done?
When her brother and his friends arrive at the ziggurat, because of course they do, because two miracles in one day isn’t too much after five years of hell, she thinks maybe they will kill her. She picks the one she wants to do it. She almost settles on the one with the knives. He seems kind behind his shadows. But he saved her before, and she doesn’t want to do that to him. So instead she chooses the big one and she attacks him. Once, twice, he hits her, and she thinks, yes, please stop me, please, and she runs around him and raises her sword to her brother and–
Cannot swing. Because she has hated for so long that her soul has rotted, and still he didn’t hate her back. Even though she knows that he can smell it. How could you not smell it? It is all she can smell.
She drops the sword and the fight ends around her.
She almost dies again, and she chose well because it is the big one who will do it. He hangs her over the edge, his hand around her throat, and she thinks of all the ways to die, a fall is not so bad. She readies herself. This is what she has earned.
And her brother, oh god, her brother asks him not to. And the big one pulls her back, and a small part of her, the smallest part, thinks you should have done it. And then there is a pain in the back of her head and sweet, sweet darkness.
When she wakes up, she’s surprised to find they haven’t ended things with Delilah yet. She’s even more surprised that they didn’t leave her. Her brother carried her out. Her gut twists. She wants to cry. But then a smoke demon comes out of Percy’s gun and she thanks whatever out there is listening that she doesn’t have time to think about how bad she feels, because having something to kill is easier than that.
And here’s the thing. Cassandra knows her rotten soul. She’s spent enough time alone with it to know it to its core. Percy’s soul hasn’t rotted like hers. She would have known. She would have smelled it. But she hadn’t accounted for actual demons. All of hers are metaphorical. At least they can kill Percy’s. At least he knows that his are real.
They let her kill Delilah. She makes a speech. In all her plans, in the thousands of ways she had killed Delilah in her dreams, she had never made a speech. It’s a short speech. She means every word. She sinks the sword into Delilah’s chest and watches the last dregs of life bleed out. She doesn’t feel satisfied. She doesn’t feel vindicated. She doesn’t feel anything. She just wants it, all of this, to be over. With the help of her brother’s friends, she throws Delilah in her own acid and watches her melt.
The gnome (the one that is actually there) saves her brother from himself, but she likes to think she helps. It is cruel, but the part of her that hated him, that even now still hates him a little, enjoys it when she slaps him. It makes her sick to her stomach. She wants to cut that part out of herself like infected flesh. She wants to cry. She wants to hug her brother because she hasn’t seen him in five years and she thought he was dead and she still has a family. Even after hell, she has a family.
For the first time in five years, Cassandra’s heart lightens.
Here’s the thing. There is no easy way to come back from a soul gone rotten with hate. You have to pull the roots of hate out of yourself and replant the seeds of everything it drove away. You have to cultivate them with love and friendship and duty and kindness and repentance. And it will be hard. It will be the hardest thing you have ever done. But you must do it, or you will die.
She tells him everything. She opens up the floodgates inside herself and lets five years of hell pour out onto the floor. She vomits up the rebellion and her betrayal and Ripley and Anders and teas in the sun room and games in the library and every plan she had to kill the Briarwoods. She empties out her hatred for them into his hands. And, because you cannot do these things by halves, she empties out the few remaining shreds of her hatred for him, too. It hurts to see his face when she tells him all the horrible things she thought, but she must say them so they can finally die. If she holds them inside, they will take root again. He understands, she thinks. She can see it in his eyes.
At the end of the flood, she looks at the floor. She cannot read him, not after five years. They barely know each other anymore. There’s nothing else to do, so she just waits, quietly. She readies herself for him to hate her. It’s his right. She owes him that much. She’s strong enough now, to take him hating her. That much she knows.
She expects that he’ll hit her. She’s ready for him to hit her. Instead, he wraps his arms around her and pulls her in. He’s still taller than her, even though she’s tall now, even though it’s been five years and they hardly recognize each other. He doesn’t say anything. He just hugs her. She had wanted him to hug her so badly.
For the first time in five years, Cassandra cries.
She doesn’t know for certain, but she thinks Percy cries too.
And here’s the thing. You can’t regrow a soul alone. If you did, it would be a shriveled, nasty thing, starved by its own existence. You need other people. You need them to give you what had been taken from you to make your old soul rot. You need them to love you, even if you don’t love yourself anymore. Cassandra has ripped out her rotted soul, and planted the seeds of a new one, but nothing has grown. She has nothing left to feed it.
She hugs her brother tighter.
Somewhere, deep inside her, in the place where a soul grows, a little green sprout bursts forth. It’s not much yet.
But here’s the thing. It’s enough.