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Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

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With the fog-choked battlefield left as far behind as they could travel before the sun began to set, Cassandra and Riccardo chose one of the countryside’s abandoned orchards to stay the night in this time. The small campfire’s woodsmoke, pleasantly fragrant, was dispersed enough through the branches that Cassandra worried less about being spotted from afar as she laid both their cloaks out in the grass, spread the witch-knight’s partially destroyed suit of plate over them, and began to clean it in the earnest. Riccardo, in the meantime, had climbed one of the trees and was tossing apples to Fidella and the pinto gelding they were still keeping around.

“You sure you don’t want any help?”

“No, I’ve got this.” Cassandra huffed onto a reasonably intact pauldron and worked the soft cloth against the mist of her breath. “How hard, do you think, will it be to find a Kotoan merchant here?”

“Oh, I rode in with one, I just ditched him when that scammer showed up with five hundred gold upfront and a promise of more after.” Riccardo shifted onto another branch. “That’ll be about two weeks ago, now. Depending on how deep into Equis he planned on going, we’ll probably have to wait a few days, up to a week, until he turns up again.”

“I can work with that.”

“Yeah, me too. Worse comes to worst, we take another posting together, what do you think?”

Cassandra considered. She’s not seen the halberdier in a fight yet, but his equipment and the way he carried himself suggested a practiced and opportunistic fighter. He also seemed reasonably forthright, what with having told her of the conman’s plan to pit them against each other in the first place and their easy cooperation on keeping things clear and simple with the treasures ever since, as well as sincerely grateful to her for the way she spoke up for him before the witch-knight’s ghost. In moments of downtime, he wasn’t forcing conversation or pushing her to share more than she wanted to. If she decided to form a team with someone, he would be a fine choice to start with, really. There was nothing stopping her if she wanted to.

But then again, she kind of didn’t want to.

Cassandra realized that she was letting the silence linger. “I don’t have anything against you. It would be smart to team up with you. I just think I’m not– I’m not ready to do that again, join other people for the long haul, not yet. We do this together and go our separate ways, alright?”

“That’s fair, yeah.” Riccardo gave her a sympathetic look. “Got burned on shitty teamwork before, huh?”

“You could say that,” Cassandra allowed, trying not to think about the years of receiving dismissal only as constant as the effort she’d put forth.

“You and every other sellsword on the continent. It happens, and solo work is a fine counterweight every now and then,” Riccardo said simply, then took a bite out an apple. “But hey—you find yourself further in Equis land and looking for a partner or a small team to join up with, you ask around for me, okay? It’s better when you have someone in your corner from the start, strength in numbers and all.”

“I’ll remember that. Thanks.”

They both let the matter drop after that, Cassandra focusing on making the mangled suit of plate somewhat presentable, Riccardo gathering more firewood and concocting some variety of stew with fresh water brought from a nearby stream, some of the rations they had each, and the orchard’s fresh apples. He’d winced when Cassandra started cleaning out the armour on the inside as well, stained and crusted as it was with a decade and a half of its wearer’s body decomposing under its breached shell, but said nothing. The horses weren’t thrilled with the smell of it seeping into her gloves, either, when she laid the armour aside and went to groom them—first Fidella, then the skittish gelding, who seemed to have begun leaning towards accepting her already, particularly after she managed to pick a stone out of one of his hooves. When Cassandra looked down at herself after all of that, she realized that to partake in the stew right now would not only be unpleasant, but borderline unsanitary.

“I think I’m gonna go take a bath.”

“You do that,” Riccardo agreed with feeling. “I’ll stay here. Food’s still gonna be warm once you get back.”

Cassandra left the medallion, the sword, and the snowglobe in the grass, earning a nod of acknowledgement from Riccardo, and discreetly signalled Owl to stay. Then she went through her saddlebags to find the one with a change of clothes, and on second thought grabbed her bow case and quiver as well before heading towards the nearby stream. With the sun yet to fully set, the water would be as warm as it could get—and as private as it could get.

When she reached the stream, Cassandra pulled out the red bandit scarf she used to carry the jade medallion in, and gathered up dry sand from the stream’s bank to wrap inside the fabric. With the resulting bundle hanging from a tree branch nearby, she strung her hunting bow, and pulled out one of the falcon-fletched carrier arrows.

“Time to see what you’re good for,” she said quietly to the bulbous arrowhead and the flights dyed bright blue.

Kneeling down by the stream, Cassandra gathered some of the water into her left palm and dipped the arrowhead in it. There was a faint gurgling sound, as if slits in the metal had indeed taken the water inside. She shook the arrowhead, and thought she could hear a faint sloshing sound, as well. She stood up straight, nocked the arrow, aimed at the sand-filled scarf, and loosed it—hitting the mark dead on, easy as it was to target, although the arrow had indeed felt a little off due to the arrowhead’s shape and added weight. Setting the bow aside, Cassandra walked over to the bundled scarf, took the arrow by the shaft, and carefully pulled it out.

The once-bulbous arrowhead was now but a sliver of metal, all of its edges sharp enough to cut herself on, and tearing at the scarf’s threads with a pair of barbs still remaining on the sliver. It had fragmented indeed—quite thoroughly so.

Cassandra took the scarf off the branch, untied it, and began to carefully sift through the sand. Wet sand, she noticed with a smidge of surprise. She hadn’t expected the liquid carrier part to actually hold true. Certainly not to this degree, at least.

Then again, she hadn’t expected to count no less than seventeen shards of metal, in addition to the one remaining on the shaft, no matter how peculiarly-shape the arrowhead used to be. Had the sand been the guts of a living being, she would have turned them into a goulash of razorblades and gore, before even considering a load more deadly than simple freshwater.

And there were three more of these monsters inside her quiver.

She broke the eighteenth shard off the arrow’s shaft, discarded them all into the streambed along with the sand, and kept the headless blue-fletched arrow. Then she walked far enough away up the stream to be certain she wouldn’t cut herself on the broken pieces of her own arrow, started taking her clothes off, and paused when it came to her right glove.

Keep it warm, keep it dry, Adira had advised her on her last day in Corona. Warmth had indeed helped with the pain in her withered arm—but cold, Cassandra had noticed, was helping as well. The entire affected area was in less pain on cold days. The hand itself had a wider range of movement, and maybe even a slightly stronger grip, on cold days. And she hadn’t noticed anything about dry conditions helping or otherwise, not to date.

But every time the pain had flared or her grip had failed, it had been on a rainy day, hadn’t it?

Cassandra shook her head. Keep it dry or get it wet, she still had to wash the mosaic of dirt from the glove, and those she didn’t have a spare pair of. So she stripped down to bare skin, did her best to clean the glove using her left hand only, hung it to dry, and decided to attempt to bathe without getting her withered arm into the water.

It turned out to be an unexpectedly complicated endeavour.

By the time she was done, she had firmly resolved to next time wash her clothes first and herself after, even as she towelled her hair off and shrugged clean clothes on. With the right glove still damp, Cassandra folded her thumb as close to the palm as she could and awkwardly pulled the left glove onto her withered arm, careful with the split fingernails and the lack of reinforcements, and set to washing the outfit caked with the road’s dust, the uncobbled streets’ mud, the old battlefield’s grime, the horses’ hair, and more.

The water was warm near the surface, but the current of it carried a hint of cold. The stones patchworked through the streambed were smooth; the reeds growing along the bank were firm; the sand flowing between threaded through her fingers. Cassandra let her healthy hand linger against each. She hadn’t even realized that she missed touching things without leather or fabric in the way, just with bare skin, until she was doing it again.

The sun had set and the moon had come out in the earnest when Cassandra finally walked back to the campfire and hung her wet clothes out to dry. Riccardo lifted his head to look askance at her, from where he sat by the sizeable stack of firewood.

“That took a while. You good?”

“Yeah.” Cassandra poured herself a ladleful of stew, making sure to sit with her left side to the halberdier. “You want first watch?”

Riccardo gestured to the food. “Eat like a normal person and stay up the rest of the hour. If your bird can take second and wake me up for third, though, that’d be great.”

Hoot, Owl aquiesced easily.

“We can work with that.” Cassandra focused on her food, and ignored the way Riccardo looked between her and Owl before shaking his head and settling down to sleep with his face to the night. Once he stopped fidgeting, she peeled the glove off her withered hand and put it to the fire, hoping for some of those lauded warmth and dryness.

It still hadn’t gotten any worse—except for the two broken and haphazardly glued back together fingernails. Cassandra gingerly prodded at each with a healthy fingertip. Both halves of the middle one have gotten looser, its root slowly becoming yet another tiny fissure in the expanse of cracked, scorched skin. One half of the ring one, however, held in place more firmly. That would have to come off by force, or run the risk on catching on something and getting torn out in a less planned, more violent fashion. She flexed the hand open and closed, studying how she could no longer clench a fist, how none of the joints in her fingers fully straightened anymore.

At least it wasn’t the only reminder of home that she would carry everywhere she went, Cassandra thought as she put the withered hand against the favour tied around her left arm.

She leaned back where she was sitting, staring up through the latticework of branches and leaves, the thin wisp of smoke filtering up and the moonlight shining down. Cassandra tilted her head to get a better look. It was a full moon.

Her second full moon out of Castle Corona.

With a slowly growing sense of dismay, Cassandra realized that she had promised to write, then neglected to do so for a month and a half now.

She folded her hands, healthy if pale against scorched and numb. What was there to even write of? Each reminder, each thought of Rapunzel ran hot and cold through her veins, poured love through her chest and chased it down with howling resentment and washed it off with a raw and naked hurt and drowned it all under a tidal wave of unspeakable exhaustion rising so high as to block out the sun. What was she supposed to say, washed ashore amid the wreckage of their shared past as she had been, just one broken piece among so many? What was she supposed to look through the driftwood for?

Six weeks, and all Cassandra had to show for herself was a mess of contradictory feelings that all rang true at the same time. Six full weeks, and she still couldn’t think about this yet.

Six weeks of silence. Raps had to be climbing the walls by now.

Cassandra sighed, and looked back at the dead witch-knight’s suit of plate. One task at a time: send the treasure-laden armour to the Kotoan court first, worry about feelings later.

That was going to be a whole another letter that she’d have to write, as well. Easier. Formal. A warm-up, she realized with the smallest glimmer of hope. Court etiquette was something she’d spent most of her life ingrained in, a set of expectations and rules she knew the cadence of and knew the part of each instrument in—and knew that, as knight-errant, she had a different tone to sound than she used to as lady-in-waiting. No longer a background murmur that could only rise through the symphony if it was echoed by a blooded, titled, and blazoned noble deigning to take it from her and claim it as their own. Now, hers was a bold motif that stood alone against that orchestral weave, ringing clear in the silence of more powerful voices pausing. And while it didn’t guarantee that she would be heeded, it did ensure she would be heard. While it didn’t command, it did inspire, making sure that she would be impossible to ignore any longer—and even if it would not be taken up and repeated, it would be unforgettable, perhaps even to become the most memorable part of the symphony within her generation’s lifetime. While it didn’t grant her song the immediate recognition of one sung by someone more important, it did give her the space to carve out that recognition for herself, and to do so with her own strengths and virtues now forced to be acknowledged by the powers-that-be with the mark she carried on her arm, beside her scarred-up heart.

It had been an apology, a gesture of repentance—the first meaningful one.

She could write a formal letter. Feel herself against the walls she knew, familiar spaces, familiar limits. Find how her place within them changed from handmaiden through traitor to knight-errant. And then she could find where breaking those limits and demolishing those walls and opening those spaces left her, because that was what Raps had always done, intentionally or not—with the power of heiress apparent in her hands, there was little she could be denied and few who could deny her, and she left everyone who had spent their lives within the cadence of rules she had been stolen away from fumbling for what to say, what to do, what to think. She could write a formal letter, and do something she knew how to do, before trying to do something she had been avoiding.

Cassandra paused, and had to stifle a hollow laugh at herself. An official missive addressed to the ruler of an allied kingdom—and she was finding solace in thinking about that as practice before the letter to a friend.

She spent the rest of her watch considering what to write in that missive, composing within the cadence she knew so well. Then she signalled Owl to take second watch and laid down to sleep, the withered arm wrapped in her blanket at the cost of exposing a shoulder to the cold night air instead. Two hours later, Riccardo shook her awake, and she stood watch while he slept again, and then she waited until Owl returned with the remains of some unfortunate rodent in his talons to stay up for them both.

There was a sort of cadence to this, as well, a rhythm that Cassandra knew and could easily slip back into, but the thought of surrendering to it again so quickly was repulsive. She knew she would eventually have to find a partner or a group—she knew it was unfair to entrust the burden her safety, in the times she would spend resting or injured, solely to Owl and Fidella—but not yet, not while she was still nursing the cuts sheared through her heart with her last group raising obliviousness and dismissal to the rank of cheerful cruelty, her last partner fine-tuning greed and malice until they were almost a form of art, almost beautiful, evoking a gut-wrenching fascination that made it hard to look away. Each was a wound, and like any other, it threatened reopening if she worked the injured limb too much, too quickly. She’d rest among people again, Cassandra promised herself, but on her own terms, and not just yet.

When morning came, it came with a hefty layer of dew, and with the sound of a sawblade grinding against wood and metal. Cassandra pawed for her reinforced glove and put it on, then pushed herself up from her bedroll to find that Riccardo had pulled a small saw from his belongings and was methodically shearing through the shaft of the witch-knight’s lance. Practical, she thought. Certainly less dramatic than breaking it. And two four-foot lengths of wood would be immeasurably easier to conceal and transport than a single eight-foot-long lance.

Riccardo turned his head as he noticed her moving, and gave her a nod. “It’s slow, but I’m getting there.”

“Good. Keep going.” Cassandra gave the campsite a once-over. Treasures in their place, armour in its place, Owl snoozing on a low branch, the horses nearby. Nothing seemed amiss. She sorted through the conman’s papers again and picked each that laid out the scam’s setup and progress, then sat cross-legged, put the witch-knight’s reasonably intact backplate in her lap as a makeshift scribing pulpit, and pulled out a dip quill, a carefully packed flask of ink, and a few blank sheets of paper. “I’ve been thinking about what to write. Keep it simple: we came across a thief stealing your stuff from other thieves, recognized the treasures, decided to send them back, here’s your knight’s gear for good measure, we packed it with the treasures and didn’t let the delivery guy know to make sure nothing gets stolen all over again. Attached are the thief’s papers. We killed him, by the way. Signed, me and you.”

“I mean, it’s pretty much what happened, if glossing over how we were ready to steal these things ourselves,” Riccardo said over the partway sawed-through lance.

“It’s a report, not a confession. Besides, we could have, but we didn’t—we went out of our way to be fair to that witch-knight instead. I’ll draft this thing, then you can look it over.”

“Sounds fair.”

Cassandra unstoppered the ink, thinking fiercely. Given that they were sending the treasures back, she needed to address the king of Koto. Given that they were sending the witch-knight’s gear along with the treasures, she should address the head of his order—she didn’t have to, strictly speaking, as the court would just pass the armour over to the order anyway, but it would strike a dissonant tone to do Koto the courtesy of retrieving the dead man’s armour yet not the courtesy of speaking directly to those who would lay it to rest. Given that the treasures were originally gifted as wedding presents to the current King’s grandparents, the Kotoan crown prince of decades past and a princess of the royal house of Bayangor, it would be appropriate to use the titles passed down both sides of his ancestry. Given that they were writing the court of Koto from the land, and concerning a matter, that was contested between Equis and Koto, it would also be appropriate to subtly indicate that she thought Koto was in the right in this feud, whether by more titles or by word choice later on.

And given that she wasn’t going to be able to do calligraphy, not today and not ever again, the rest of the letter had to be immaculate to compensate for it.

She tapped her fingertips against the backplate, muttering a mnemonic she’d been taught to remember the style of address of Kotoan royalty, then dipped the quill in, and started writing.

Unto His Majesty, Lysander, King of Koto on This Side of the Seas and Beyond Them, Prince of Noriyuki, Grandson of Heaven, Lord of Conquest, Navigation, and Commerce, etc., and Her Most Reverend Eminence, Mercedes de Carrasquilo y Iglesias, Grand Mistress of the Tribunal Order of Knights of the Royal Office of the Inquisition, does

Cassandra of Corona, knight-errant to Her Royal Highness, Rapunzel, Crown Princess of Corona, send salutations.

May it please Your Majesty and Your Eminence,

I include this missive to detail the sequence of events that saw the chief contents of this parcel passing through the hands of myself and my companion.

Five days ago as of the morning I write this message, I have come across an impostor claiming the name and the château of House Bayard as part of a scheme to seize three items that belong in the hands of the Kotoan Crown: a medallion, a sword, and an artwork. Upon recovering all three within these past five days and dispensing justice to the impostor himself, my companion and I resolved to have the items returned to Your Majesty’s court in a discreet manner, as to avoid any further theft. Following my companion’s excellent suggestion, we then retrieved the equipment of the late Sir Étienne of Your Eminence’s order from an old battlefield (known locally as Wolf’s Head Hollow) and concealed the items within it.

The merchant we have sold the privilege of returning Sir Étienne’s armour to was not made aware of these items, this missive, or the attached documents taken from the impostor. It is my utmost belief that their reward should reflect their show of faith to the crown, if Your Majesty and Your Eminence find it wise, and if the parcel and this letter itself arrive unopened.

I include a courtesy copy, meant for Your Eminence’s archives.

Lastly, as at present neither myself nor my companion claim a permanent place of residence, I humbly request any response is directed to the Royal Court of Corona.

Remaining in faithful service to the Seven Kingdoms,

Cassandra sanded the letter, shook her hand out, and read the entire thing over. “Hey, I think it holds up. Come and see.”

Riccardo set the lance and the saw aside, and walked up to Cassandra to read over her shoulder. “...Holy shit, woman.”

“What?”

“Fucking—” the halberdier gestured wildly to the letter. “—knight-errant up in this bitch, I would have written 'Dear King'!”

“Oh, no.” Cassandra winced, even as she couldn’t help a laugh, thinking about what the tutors who schooled her and the other Coronian handmaidens on court etiquette would’ve had to say about that.

“And going into the hollow was an 'excellent suggestion', now?”

Cassandra shrugged. “Credit where it’s due. I didn’t do this alone.”

Riccardo gave her a confused look. “Are you sure you don’t want to team up? I’m getting some mixed signals, here.”

“No. Not yet. I’ll try to find you when I’m good and ready.” She wrote Cassandra of Corona at the bottom of the letter and handed the quill to Riccardo. “Sign under my name. And please use your best handwriting so that I only have to rewrite the entire thing once.”

The halberdier knelt down and carefully signed, Riccardo Leonori, precisely under Cassandra’s signature. “Good enough?”

“Yeah, it’ll do.” Cassandra gently took the letter by the corners and shook the sand off in one firm gesture, avoiding smudging the ink, then set the letter aside, placed a dagger across it as a paperweight, and sanded their signatures in turn.

“Hey,” Riccardo said after a moment, still standing next to her instead of going back to the partially sawed-through lance. “Can you look at something for me?”

“What’ve you got?” Cassandra asked without turning to him as she cleaned the quill’s nib, preparing to copy the letter.

“I mean, you obviously know your shit around all the... courtly shit. And you’ll be sealing that, right?”

“I don’t have a seal. Just wax and cord will have to do.”

Riccardo cleared his throat awkwardly, and handed her a signet ring that hung from a length of braided leather to be worn around the neck. Cassandra stared.

“And you didn’t bring this up any sooner why?”

“Because I don’t know what it says,” Riccardo said uncomfortably. “Leonore was my mother’s name, and she nicked this off my father one night to have something of his to give me. They weren’t exactly, uh...”

“Married?”

“Yeah no, they definitely weren’t married.”

Cassandra took the signet, holding it to the light and squinting at it. The thick band was brass covered with gold, nicked or rubbed off in places; the gem itself, likely some variety of agate, judging by the pattern across it and by much cheaper than carnelian or sardonyx it would have been. She studied the engraving for a long while.

“I mean, it is a coat-of-arms for sure, but I don’t recognize it. no coronet or diadem overtop, no division per pale to put the royal wolfhound in the dexter, there’s a lot of petty nobles in Koto and I can’t imagine trying to memorize all of their crests. I don’t even know if we’d find a record of that anywhere outside of the royal archives.” She handed the signet back, and only then noticed the discouraged look on Riccardo’s face. “...But if we seal the letter with it, the court might actually look through their records for who carried or is carrying the crest—and with you signing a name derived from that of your mother, they’ll assume you don’t know. All the more reason to check themselves, since they can’t ask you.”

The halberdier mulled that over. “You think so?”

“I mean, they won’t think it’s mine.” Cassandra gestured at the letter. “If I had my own crest, I would be using that, instead of calling myself a knight-errant and talking about the princess for days. It might be worth a shot.”

“Yeah,” Riccardo conceded, paused, then nodded more firmly. “Yeah, it might, let’s do that.”

“Then let me write that copy and we’ll get on it.”

In the end, she had to write two copies—her withered hand twitched and seized up when she was almost done the first time over, dragging a smear of ink over already scribed words. Just as well, Cassandra admitted to herself even as she let out a groan and started over, paying far more attention to her hand and taking a small break after every sentence now. Better to have a copy for herself, just as a reminder of what she had written to the two most powerful people in an allied kingdom.

By the time she was done, Riccardo had finished sawing through the lance and started gathering up the suit of plate, packing its elements into saddlebags or loose sacks. Cassandra waved him over to sign the copy as well, and when she was certain the ink was dry, she folded the letter and its copy, wrapped a length of fine cord from her scribing kit around that and the conman’s documents, gathered its edges together against those of the letter, then dripped sealing wax over them and pressed the ring against it, making certain that any tampering with the papers would be immediately obvious. After splitting the plate suit, the halved lance, and the sheathless two-handed sword between Fidella and the pinto gelding, they broke up camp and rode towards Silberstadt at an easy pace, crossing the town walls by midday.

They were drawing a bit of attention with their purchases in town, Cassandra noticed—a small rectangular coffin and a multitude of cloth and fur scraps from several shopkeepers were screaming 'chest and padding for buried treasure', she supposed—but more than that, those stares both of them were drawing in equal measure, and from the locals. Riccardo, however, was getting stared at differently as well—by the guards. Who wore Equisian uniforms.

“It’s not just me, right?” Riccardo asked quietly. “The guards are looking at me like I’m their date to the harvest festival.”

“It’s not just you. Something’s wrong here,” Cassandra said, keeping her voice down as well. “Did the merchant you rode in with have horses?”

“Yeah, he had a cart.”

Cassandra pulled on the reins to turn the gelding around. “The Brazen Brigand is the only place to stay with a stable, isn’t it? Go ask when was the last time they’ve seen that merchant. I’ll stay with the horses.”

Riccardo gave her a cautious look, but didn’t say anything, and walked into the inn while Cassandra remained outside, still mounted. She scanned the streets, suspicion churning in her gut.

There was a pair of guards standing at a less-than-busy crossroads. Innocuous enough, but they were keeping an eye on the Kotoan furrier’s shop, not on the streets. Another pair was following a family of four, the mother carrying a small child and the father leading a toddler by the hand, all of rather obvious Kotoan heritage. The market square had half again as many patrols as she would’ve said were necessary, and the stationary ones were always keeping the stands with Kotoan vendors or Kotoan wares within their sight. Things were tense—far more tense than when she had passed through, less than a full week ago—and the guards were fuelling that instead of de-escalating it.

Barely a minute later, Riccardo walked out of the tavern, his face changed and his steps oddly hurried.

“Are you some kind of sorceress?”

Cassandra stiffened. “Excuse me?”

“He came through last night and rode home this morning.” Riccardo climbed back into Fidella’s saddle, if somewhat clumsily. “Equis closed the borders to Kotoan trade three days ago. How the fuck are you doing this?”

“Woman’s intuition,” Cassandra deadpanned without thinking. Half a day of a head start. The merchant had a cart—they had a palace guard horse. “Let’s get out of here and pack that coffin, then one of us takes Fidella to catch the merchant, the other takes the package and keeps walking to catch up.”

“Whoever stays will get attacked. We’re being tailed, have been since we came into town.”

“Then I guess it should be me, because I can have Owl keep an eye out from the sky.”

The halberdier sighed heavily. “You’re going to get yourself killed, and just when I was starting to like you.”

“You got a better idea?”

“Pack the coffin, hang it between the horses, work them to catch up.”

Cassandra thought for a moment. The gelding and Fidella haven’t worked together before, nor had she worked them on anything together before. But if there was a definite strength to Fidella’s character, it was that she was a born-and-bred team player—while Maximus was perfect for the guard because he had a forceful personality and a tendency for taking the lead, Fidella was perfect for the guard because she was capable of moulding herself against any partner, be it another horse or a rider, adjusting herself to match their pace and putting forth anything that was needed of her. Whether a chase, a scouting assignment, or pulling a wagon across hundreds of miles of unknown territory, a pair that Fidella was a part of just did not fail.

So Cassandra turned to the mare. “Do you think you two can make this work?”

Snort, Fidella said confidently.

“Okay, then.” Cassandra nudged the gelding into a trot, and as Fidella fell in step, she caught the resigned look on Riccardo’s face. “What? Don’t tell me you still think talking to animals is creepy.”

“Oh no, it was creepy with the bird,” Riccardo said calmly. “I was just thinking about how it’s not me riding your horse, it’s your horse carting me around.”

Cassandra chuckled. “You did say you’re not a cavalryman.”

“I sure as fuck aren’t. I can’t wait to walk on my own legs again.”

Once the town walls were far enough behind them, Cassandra pulled the gelding off the road and sent Owl ahead to scout, hoping he could find the merchant and gauge whether they’d be able to catch up within the day. Then she set to wrapping the three treasures in rags while Riccardo was bolting the two-handed sword and the sawed-through lance to the bottom of the coffin, and together, they carefully layered the witch-knight’s mangled plate inside, using more scraps of cloth and fur as padding around the armour and stuffing around the treasures: the sword inside the intact greave, the medallion inside the intact gauntlet, and the snowglobe at the tassets’ waistband. Cassandra then tucked the sealed packet of documents under the breastplate and helped Riccardo close the coffin without nailing it shut for now, hastily constructing a cradle of sorts from two coils of rope and suspending it from Fidella’s and the gelding’s backs. She looked up at the sound of hooting; Owl was back, circling around in the air instead of landing on her shoulder to indicate that they needed to hurry. They mounted the horses again, and Cassandra made sure to steer the gelding and call out to Fidella at the same time, directing the horses first into a trot, then once they caught a rhythm, into a canter. It still took several hours before even spotting the merchant’s cart—or its three armoured guards, for that matter.

Riccardo raised an arm to hail them as soon as the guards saw them in turn and the cart slowed to a halt. “Trade! Trade!”

“You must think you’re very funny,” the man who was driving the cart said dryly. He was the only one wearing clothes instead of armour, if clothes a little more fine than the garb of ex-miners and craftsmen from Silberstadt, and in a definite Kotoan fashion. The merchant, Cassandra assumed. “I am ruined, sellsword, ruined! There isn’t a trade in the world that could make up for this entire wasted trip.”

“I beg to differ,” Cassandra called out, while Riccardo dismounted to slide the coffin’s lid backwards a little.

The merchant looked at her in turn, clearly unsure what to make of her when she held her left arm out for Owl to swoop down onto. “What’s a Coronian looking for in the bottom end of nowhere?”

“Fame and fortune,” Cassandra deadpanned.

Riccardo then managed to wrestle the coffin into submission and pulled out the witch-knight’s mangled helmet, holding it up by one upright lupine ear. The merchant stared at it for a moment before recognition flashed on his face, and his eyes widened.

“Where on earth did you get that?!”

“Haunted ground,” Riccardo said easily. “There’s a full set inside this. Trade?”

“But by all means!”

Cassandra helped Riccardo haul the open coffin into the cart, and stayed quiet while the two Kotoans engaged in a spirited dispute over the price, choosing instead to keep the three guards in her sight and make sure the armour wasn’t disturbed enough to discover the documents or the treasures. When the merchant finally shook Riccardo’s hand, agreeing to the price of three and a half thousand gold coins for the witch-knight’s equipment and the pinto gelding, the sun had begun to set; with money exchanged, Riccardo and Cassandra nailed the coffin shut in the merchant’s presence, and made a bit of headway back towards the town before nightfall. Come morning, Cassandra found the halberdier waiting for her to wake up off his last watch shift.

“I guess it’s time to split the money and split up, huh?”

“I guess so.” Cassandra tested her withered arm. Painful, a little moreso than usual, but not too much to handle. “Fifty-fifty, you said?”

“Nah. Taking a hundred and seventy-five,” the halberdier gathered up a small stack of gold, laid out next to the significantly fatter purse. “Five percent after, like I was hired for. The rest’s yours. You saved my life, now we’re even.”

Cassandra stared at him for a moment. “What am I gonna do with all this money?”

Riccardo laughed. “You’ll find something to do with it, trust me.” He stood up, halberd slung across his shoulders like a water-bearer’s stick. “I’ll see you around, I hope.”

“Still heading deeper into Equis land?”

“Yeah. Closed borders with Koto means that Koto-trained sellswords like me will be in higher demand. I’m going to give Silberstadt a berth, though, so this is goodbye.”

Cassandra nodded, and shook his extended hand. “Thank you.”

“You as well, and good luck.”

And with that he left, trudging off the road and across the countryside. Cassandra dug a hand through the pouch of money, dredging up gold and only ever more gold.

Hoot, Owl commented.

“No, I hadn’t expected that, either.”

Snort, Fidella said.

“I think he was okay, too.”

They settled into an easy pace towards the walls of Silberstadt again, and before they got too far, it started raining again. And quite like when they first entered the former mining town, nary a week ago, Cassandra was a rain-soaked rat of a woman before she could even see the settlement rising through the rainfall and mist.

Except that this time—and she couldn’t keep a grin off her face at the admission of the truth of it—she had more to her name than a gold-trimmed kerchief and a castle-forged sword. She had thwarted a scheme to fence the stolen treasures of an allied kingdom to Equis, held her own against enemies fully intent on killing her, made allies if not outright friends, and helped people: some living and some dead.

She paused for a moment on that thought. Then evened the purse out to three thousand gold, switching the remaining three hundred and twenty five coins to her own pouches and pockets. Maybe she did know what to do with all that money, after all.

When she did cross the town walls of Silberstadt, instead of heading to the Brazen Brigand or the job board, she nudged Fidella towards the clinic. A knock on the door, and a fairly burly man she hadn’t seen before opened it for her.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m here to see Emil. Tell him Cassandra is asking, please.”

The man’s eyes widened, and he gestured her inside immediately. “Oh, you’re the one who brought us the woundwort! I’m Bruno, I’m Eliza’s husband, Emil is with a patient right now but if you don’t mind waiting a few minutes, I’ll let him know right away.”

Cassandra inclined her head to him, even as she took a moment on the doormat to get at least the worst of the mud off of her boots. The herbalist’s daughter soon came through, with armfuls of small flasks and clean bandages.

“Oh, hello.” She gave Cassandra a thorough look. “...You don’t seem injured or dying this time, either.”

“I’m quite alright,” Cassandra assured. “I’d like to speak with you and your father soon as he’s free.”

“Shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. We only have the one patient right now.”

“How is she doing?”

“Better, thanks to you. Don’t think she’ll be walking again anytime soon, but she’s well away from being on death’s door, and we still have woundwort to spare.”

“Enough of it, do you think?”

“We’re stocked for months,” Eliza said candidly. Then gave a little sideways nod. “Unless Koto starts rolling soldiers through the area again, of course. Then we’re stocked for weeks.”

“I’ve heard of the closed borders, has there been no unrest?” Cassandra asked carefully.

Eliza winced. “Some, but nothing nearly as brutal as what Tara’s been through. A few broken noses, a few black eyes. And the furrier’s shop was vandalized overnight. Funny how much trouble the guards are having with trying to find who did that, though.”

“So funny,” Cassandra said slowly. “No other shops?”

“No, but that was the only storefront shop with a Kotoan seller, not just a stand or a tent set up in the marketplace every other day. Which, I’m sure there’s no relation at all.”

“None whatsoever.” Cassandra turned at the sound of footsteps, and greeted Emil with a nod as he descended the stairs, Bruno in tow.

“Hello again,” the elderly herbalist smiled at her warmly. “What brings you here?”

Cassandra put the three-thousand-gold pouch in his hands. “I find myself better off than expected. And, with respect, I’ve seen the condition of this place—you’ll put this to better use than I could.”

“Well, goodness me,” Emil said softly in a sudden silence.

“Are—” Eliza stared for a moment before looking at Cassandra again. “Are you serious?”

Cassandra folded her hands behind her back. “Do I look like I’m joking?”

The herbalist’s daughter and her husband turned to each other.

“We could fix the roof,” Bruno said.

“And the windows.”

“We could set the attic up for more beds.”

“And replace the rotten bookcases.”

“Holy shit, this might be enough to fix the entire building.”

“We’ll have to budget, but after we do, it genuinely might.”

Cassandra cleared her throat. “I was planning on staying more or less put for two or three weeks, and I’ve been part of renovation works before. I’d lend my aid, if you’ll have me, of course.”

“There is no one else we would rather have,” Emil said firmly as he placed one hand on Cassandra’s arm. “Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, from all our hearts.”

“This is going to take a while to set up. We’ll need to run a few errands, ask a few people around town.” Eliza set the pouch of gold down on a table. “But if you want to help more than you just did, I’m not about to turn that down, just check in around midday.”

Cassandra nodded. “I’ll stable my horse, and tend to another matter.”

“But really though, thank you.”

“Quite alright. I’ll be back in a few hours.” Cassandra exited the clinic, leaving the three to their excited planning, and led Fidella to the Brazen Brigand. The same stable boy took Fidella, and Cassandra requested a hammock in the stall straight away. Without entering the dining area, she followed the boy to the stable, and he cleared out immediately upon noticing her insistence to tend to her steed herself.

Snort, Fidella said, and put her nose to Cassandra’s neck for a moment.

“I know. We did good. You did great,” Cassandra stroked the mare’s face for a moment. “Things are like they should be.”

Hoot, Owl said pointedly from the rafters.

Cassandra looked up at him. “I was going to ask about that, actually. See, I haven’t planned, really, to end up in Equis territory. I thought I’d be sending letters through the Seven Kingdoms' joint postal service, but Equis doesn’t have that.”

Hoot, Owl confirmed.

“So would you be willing to play messenger pigeon for me and Raps?”

Hoot, Owl said, sounding almost offended that she thought he’d refuse her.

Cassandra laughed, relief trickling through her chest, finding a place for itself next to the quiet triumph she’d felt ever since last evening and dislodging a bit of the heavy knot of worry, tiredness, resignation, and worse tangled through her chest for months now. Then she put another piece of paper against the stable’s wall, scribed a note, and picked a few small trinkets.

She’d promised to write, and to send back treasures from her travels. And maybe it had taken her over six weeks to find something worth writing home about, but she had, she thought as she exited the stable and boosted Owl into the sky, watching him disappear through the rain as he flew towards Castle Corona.