Despite being exhausted to a quite extreme degree, what Cassandra woke up to was the sound of a door being opened, rather than the hand that came against her left forearm soon after to shake her gently. She rubbed her eyes open and nodded at Eliza, standing over her; the herbalist nodded back, squeezing a little before withdrawing the hand, and brushed a few locks of Cassandra’s hair behind her ear in a gesture too quick to lean away from. And as she walked away to Tara’s bedside, calling out to her in a gentle tone until the Kotoan spy stirred awake, Cassandra was left with the ghost of touch lingering against her skin, the memory of warmth searing its absence against her arm like an afterimage branded on the inside of her eyelids, and for a moment, she had no recourse but to face the truth as stark as it was uncomfortable:
She missed being touched.
For all of Rapunzel’s disregard for boundaries and limits, she had gotten Cassandra used to physical affection—hugs, hand-holding, light elbow jabs, sitting close by and leaning against each other and resting heads against shoulders. Now that her tolerance had been heightened, she craved the minimum she would have leaned away from in the past. And presently, she had no one to get that kind of affection from.
Two months since she last held a loved one in her arms. Longer still since any scraps she might have received hadn’t been soured by feeling consolatory or patronizing in nature—far, far longer.
Cassandra sat up and slapped both hands against her cheeks, hard. Nothing would come out of wallowing in self-pity, and she had things to do.
Though sleep had helped, she was still a little light-headed and the world still had a tendency to gently sway from side to side if she moved too suddenly, she discovered as she leaned down to put her boots back on. She took care lacing them back up, minding the new deep crack in her withered arm, but found it easier than expected. Surprisingly more so. So much, in fact, that it took her a long moment to realize that it simply didn’t hurt. Though the range of movement in her withered hand was still even less than usual, she could bend the fingers far enough to tie the laces in her boots and the knot on her favour, and did so without trouble. She could feel the motions pulling at the crack’s edges, but distantly, only as a bit of tightness in her wrist, of stiffness in her hand.
It was a relief, but it was also a problem. What a rare and wonderful feeling, to not be in pain for a little while—but since Cassandra tended to rely on pain to tell her when she had to stop pushing herself, the brief and blissful inability to feel that pain meant she had to watch herself so much more closely or run the risk of going too far once and regretting it for weeks. Or forever, she corrected herself silently, given that the withered portion of her arm wasn’t prone to healing at all.
“You look better,” Tara said weakly, while Eliza was unwrapping the bundles of bandage and herbal cataplasm from around her hands to replace them with fresh ones, squinting at Cassandra with her one eye. “Though, the bruises are going to take a while to fade. Hogni?”
“If that’s what the barbarian’s name was, then yes.” Cassandra felt at her broken nose, and only pulled her hand away when Eliza clicked her tongue at her to stop.
“Yeah, that just about figures,” the brutalized Kotoan agent turned her head slightly, indicating the bandaged half of her face. “Can you help me sit up?”
“I’ll need you on your back in a moment. After that, yes.” Eliza didn’t react when the spy grumbled quietly. “You know these need to be changed. The one over your eye socket is no different.”
“I know, just...”
“I can come back later,” Cassandra offered. “I’ve a few things to take care of.”
Tara sighed, then inclined her head—as much as she could while laying down. “That would be appreciated.”
Cassandra nodded, took a few seconds to gauge how steady her legs were, then grabbed her weapons and cloak off the nightstand and walked out into the corridor. Once she was halfway down the stairs, she noticed that the front door was open—or rather, what was left of it hung open, and Bruno was trying to force the remaining pieces off the hinges.
“Oh, you’re awake! And Tara?”
“Also awake,” Cassandra said.
“Excellent.” Bruno picked up a woodcutting axe and in a few strikes, hewed the remains of the door off. “We didn’t want to wake either of you up, but now that it’s not a worry...”
Cassandra looked at the thoroughly destroyed door. They had just replaced it a week prior. “Wish I could have been faster, now.”
“What, are you kidding? You were exactly fast enough. You got here before anyone got hurt.” Bruno looked around in a manner he probably thought was inconspicuous before leaning closer. “And between you and me, I hated that door, it was so ugly. Don’t tell Eliza I said that.”
Cassandra couldn’t help a little laugh at that. “Hanalei and Sigrid are fine, then?”
“Absolutely. Han’s just a little bruised, nothing he can’t walk off. Sigrid won’t be able to sleep on her back for a week or so and she has a few lacerations, but she was walking okay a few hours ago, and she’s already happy about the eyebrow scar she’ll have from this. Takes more than a few licks to keep either of them down, I assure you.”
“How did they even end up here? They’re both far from home.”
“Oh, they spent some years as swords-for-hire in this endless border war. You wouldn’t guess that they even liked each other back then, but I suppose dragging each other off the battlefield to find help time after time is what counts as romance in that line of work.” Bruno looked across the town square, where the Neserdnian smith was hammering away again and the Ingvarrdian fletcher was at one of the workbenches already—if seated in a rather heavy wooden chair with massive armrests, instead of atop the workbench itself. “They’re good people, and do good work, and they always stand up to fight if something goes as wrong as this morning. We’re really lucky to have them, the whole town.”
Cassandra was quiet for a moment. “Do people here commonly know that Sigrid is a sorceress?”
“She isn’t trying to hide it, she’s just not making a point of displaying it either. And frankly, it’s easy to forget—she’s always using mundane means to the limit before she resorts to magic. I think the most recent time I saw her do something like that was two and a half years ago, when a Kotoan detachment was trying to build a funeral pyre for their dead, and she kept it burning until over two dozen bodies were cremated on the amount of wood that would barely suffice for one.” Bruno paused, and gave her a careful look. “Why? Bad experiences with magic?”
“You could say that,” Cassandra allowed after forcing herself to unclench her teeth.
“That doesn’t surprise me. You’re from Corona, right? There’s not that many nice stories about sorcerers from there.”
“No, there really isn’t.”
“Well, just try to remember that not every kingdom has a track record as bad as yours when it comes to magic.”
“What about Equis and Koto?” Cassandra asked.
“Koto has its witch-knights, and while I’d never want to meet one, it’s more because they’re powerful in the political sense of the word than because of the magic. As for Equis, that’s, uh...” Bruno cleared his throat awkwardly. “Worse.”
Whatever follow-up question Cassandra was going to ask was left forgotten when she heard a clatter of hooves against the town square’s riverstone cobbles, and looked towards the sound to see Ramon pulling his work-worn chestnut to a stop by the currently doorless clinic. Despite the longer look he gave Cassandra, he barely acknowledged her with a nod, and turned to Bruno instead.
“Still need that replacement hauled over?”
“Yes, please. Kirill’s workshop. He said he’d have something whipped up by now.”
Ramon grunted. “Three gold.”
The spy nodded, and nudged his horse into a trot again, heading down one of the muddy Silberstadt streets. Cassandra stared after him for a moment.
“What does he even do around here?”
“Who, Ramon? Bit of everything, to be honest. Odd jobs, seasonal work, every now and then a courier run to drop people’s letters into the Seven Kingdoms’ postal service a town over and pick up replies. He’s an honest man, hard-working—has to be, to earn upkeep for a horse.”
“And the guards don’t bother him? Especially recently, they seemed more hostile to anyone visibly Kotoan,” Cassandra asked slowly.
Bruno grimaced. “I wouldn’t say they don’t bother him, but they certainly act as if he’s beneath them, and he does a lot of their dirtiest work in exchange for some scraps of silver. I mean, take the bodies. Not to say that your display earlier on wasn’t impressive, but you can be sure it wasn’t the guards who cleaned that up.”
“I see.” That was the perfect position for a spy, Cassandra supposed. Too insignificant to be noticed, a permanent background fixture quite like the buildings raised from excess mine rock or the ever-muddy streets, with more than enough reasons to make rounds and ask for gossip and keep a handle on any recent events, large or small. “Isn’t it strange that he’d come over to check on Tara?”
“No, they’re a bit of a—” To her surprise, Bruno laughed at that. “Let’s put it this way: if we had a matchmaker here, they’d drive her insane. I mean, Tara hasn’t lived here for very long, maybe three years now, but I hear one of the servers at the Brazen Brigand has a betting pool on when they’re finally going to kiss and get it over with.”
Cassandra smiled, shaking her head. Not only a perpetual smokescreen for the work of an agent of the crown, but an easy excuse for being seen together, and an amusing one at that to keep people formulating their own answers instead of look too closely or ask too much. The Coronian guard should be taking notes, frankly.
Before long, Ramon returned with another man in tow, carrying a door together—far simpler in design and lacking the small window that the previous two sported—and Cassandra sat on the stairs to the building’s first floor to get out of the way as the two of them and Bruno quickly set the door in its place. Small sums of gold exchanged hands, and the carpenter went back to his workshop, while Ramon hitched his horse by the clinic’s entrance and came inside to ask after Tara.
“My wife is with her right now, I’ll ask if she’s well enough to take visitors soon as they’re done,” Bruno was saying.
“I know this might be too early to ask,” Ramon admitted, “but do you think she’ll walk again?”
“Eventually,” Bruno said slowly, a considering look on his face. “But not unassisted, not for a very long time or possibly ever.”
Ramon nodded at that. “Do you think she’ll be using her hands again?”
“Hard to say. And even if, only harder to say how much grip strength or precision she’ll retain—it’s a little early to know for sure. It won’t do to pressure her about recovery, either. Remember that she was dying three weeks ago.”
“Believe me, I’ve not forgotten,” Ramon said grimly.
At that point, Cassandra heard a door creak open upstairs, and looked over her shoulder to see Eliza exiting Tara’s room.
“Are you still here, or back already?”
“Still. Is Tara up for another long conversation?”
Eliza considered for a moment before she gave a little sideways nod and ducked back into the room to ask. She emerged again shortly. “Come on up. Hello, Ramon.”
The second Kotoan spy nodded at her, and followed Cassandra into the room where Tara was now seated in her bed, pawing gently with one bundled-up hand at the bandages over one of her eyes. There were hints of persistent pain on her face, and she looked as if she’d been crying, but her expression dropped into the familiar clipped, business-as-usual demeanour as soon as the door was shut.
“Good, you’re both here. Cassandra, did Teagan give you a stamped note and a second set of their posters?”
“He did,” Cassandra confirmed, and produced the small stack of papers.
Tara nodded at Ramon, who then took the documents and quickly looked them over before giving her a thumbs up and pulling the chest out from under her bed to dig through it in search of a letter-scribing kit, and she turned back to keep Cassandra in her one-eyed field of vision. “We’ll set things in motion, make sure the kingdoms involved know that it was a Coronian knight-errant who brought their worst criminals to justice. These are going to be some ridiculous sums of money—as in, beyond what one person will be able to carry. Is there an address you want all that to arrive at?”
Cassandra shrugged. “Just the court of Corona. If it’s under my name, it’ll be fine.”
“Can be done. Are you satisfied with the supplies you were given, or do you want to exchange or restock on what we’ve left?”
“The ink that glows near magic,” Cassandra said immediately. If she ever needed to mark a map with that, not only would it contrast profoundly against the map’s own ink, it would also be invisible to a considerable amount of other people until she touched the map.
“Take your fill. Anything more?”
“Well the poison certainly worked out, but I’d rather carry something that isn’t illegal.”
A genuine smile pulled at Tara’s lips as she shook her head. “Ah, honour. What an unaffordable luxury.”
“It’s an obligation, too,” Cassandra said dryly as she deposited the flasks of venom and antidote back in the lidless cassette she had taken them from earlier.
“I’m sure. You are still after poison to dip weapons in, I assume, rather than one that needs to be ingested, inhaled, or made skin contact with in order to take effect?”
Cassandra sighed heavily. “I am going to ignore the fact that I now know more about poisoning that I ever thought I’d need to, and say yes, preferably arrowheads rather than blades.”
“And with the intention to paralyze, weaken, or kill?” Tara inclined her head at the confused look on Cassandra’s face. “One of each, then. I’d recommend sandbank serpent venom to paralyze. They’re small Ingvarrdian snakes that hunt from just below the surface of water, and use the venom to partially immobilize their prey—mostly small birds and rodents—for long enough that the creature drowns. A bite is rarely fatal in humans, but a dipped arrowhead or dagger-blade will quickly render a limb useless for a short time. It’ll be enough to put a combatant’s weapon arm out of commission for the fight, or an escapee’s leg for the chase. To weaken, bronze-backed scorpion venom. It can be fatal in larger doses, but you would need to cause several wounds for such a dose to be delivered, and with one hit you can expect the target to suffer from fever, muscle spasms, and extreme fatigue within a few days. It can be enough to turn the tide of a fight if you use it long enough beforehand. To kill... there’s a few options.” Tara looked to Ramon. “What do you think?”
“Ivory spider,” Ramon said, not looking up from a quill he was tempering.
Tara nodded. “That’s what I was thinking, too. It breaks down the target’s nervous system around the affected area, essentially. I recommend you commission a woodworker for a cassette like this, keep the vials well-padded, and the entire package as safe as you can.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Cassandra picked the venoms and their respective antidotes as she was directed, then looked to Ramon, who was starting to scribe a short missive in multiple copies. “About the one you send to Pittsford—I didn’t kill their outlaw alone. Only one-fourth of the reward is mine.”
“And you’d like the remaining three quarters to go to who?” the Kotoan agent asked, his tone betraying no surprise.
“Hanalei the smith, Sigrid the fletcher, and Teagan the job board’s keeper, one-fourth each.”
The two spies looked between each other and Cassandra.
“I think it can be done,” Ramon said eventually. “Although, it will take time for the bounty money to arrive here all the way from Pittsford.”
“I don’t mind.”
“All right, then. Leave me to it for a moment.”
Tara shifted slightly against the headboard, with a brief grimace of pain. “While he’s doing that, what do you want to know?”
“Give me the basics on the political situation in this area.” Cassandra sat down at the edge of Tara’s bed. “I understand that Equis and Koto have been locked in an endless tug-o’-war here, but little more.”
The injured agent sighed, gathering her thoughts for a moment. “Endless tug-o’-war about sums it up. The silver mine used to be a big point of contention, and that was even before House Bayard was eradicated—on Koto’s part, that is not a deed that can go unavenged. The King will keep pushing until enough ground is taken to establish a proper, self-sustaining province under an aristocratic family and a knight chapter of the Tribunal Order, and until the ruins of Château de Bayard are anointed and enshrined. On Equis’ part... if their monarch was a Kotoan margrave, I would be deeming him unfit to rule and looking for any half-competent replacement around so I could formally request a writ for his execution. Turning his own seat of power into a maze-riddled deathtrap, naming a pet animal his heir to the throne, whatever that shameful display of attempting to marry the Queen of Corona to himself in international waters had been—this is not a man who considers the repercussions of his actions.”
“Trevor is a tantrum-prone manchild,” Ramon grumbled over the letters, not looking up. “Say it like it is, Tara.”
Tara gave a one-shouldered shrug. “He’s a tantrum-prone manchild. Except that his tantrums can send hundreds of thousands to an early grave. And he’s been fixated on responding to petty insults—or simply to being told no—with increasingly disproportional force for a few years now. He will not back down in this dispute, and he will not negotiate unless pressured to do so by multiple foreign powers.”
“And will King Lysander halt the advance after establishing this new province?” Cassandra asked slowly.
“I believe so. Unless, of course, Equis finds it prudent to attack the province to retake lost territory, which will turn this border dispute into an actual war.” Tara smiled painfully. “Then he’ll keep advancing until Equis is to Koto what Saporia is to Corona, or until the Seven Kingdoms force these monarchs into peace talks. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what that is going to look like.”
Cassandra stayed silent for a long while, thinking. The animosity between King Frederic and King Trevor was a perpetual consideration, growing up in the Coronian court, but came to the forefront only rarely. For the most part, the two kings were capable of civil behaviour towards each other—particularly if Queen Arianna was not in the room.
“When did this start, this... increase in pettiness?”
Tara raised an eyebrow. “Why, when your crown princess was found, of course. Equis and Corona have both been heirless for a very long time; it would have been prudent of your king to remarry and attempt to sire another, but I suppose the heart of a man had overruled the will of a king. With King Trevor’s fixation on Queen Arianna, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had been waiting for that divorce only to resume his own advances towards her, and kept himself... available, as it were, for that reason. With your princess returning to the court, there was no twisted miracle of the sort to wait for anymore.” The spy paused at the look on Cassandra’s face. “Repulsive, I know, but politics often are.”
“I find that more true every day,” Cassandra said dryly.
The injured spy considered her for a moment. “Do you plan on travelling further into Equisian territory?”
“Then, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to find other agents of the crown operating there,” Tara said carefully. “Some hire sellswords and lead them as just one among the innumerable small teams of mercenaries, if only carrying out the orders passed through those in positions more like Ramon’s and my own, for the most part.”
Cassandra idly smoothed out the gold-trimmed kerchief tied around her left arm, marking her as a knight-errant, one who hailed from a kingdom that counted Koto among its allies. “Funny how I was thinking about finding myself a team, at some point.”
“There are three currently active who are known among the service for taking good care of their hirelings: Francesco, Delphine, and Bonaventura. I would not recommend asking for them by name, as that would immediately turn them suspicious or outright hostile, but if you find yourself choosing between recruiters you’ve never met before, those three will not think of yourself—or anyone else they lead alongside you—as disposable.”
“I’ll remember that.” Cassandra thought for a moment. “What have been they up to, last time you heard from them?”
“That is not something I can tell you,” Tara said calmly.
“Right. What means do you expect to be used in securing this new province?”
“Aside from any means necessary? I think we might start seeing events like nobles being executed for treason on fabricated charges, just to push their successors into switching sides; bandit outfits growing in strength and boldness enough to raid towns, and garrisons swelling in size ostensibly to protect the people; siege laid to cities and breaking only through an inside source poisoning the wells, opening the gates, or pressuring the leadership into surrender. And make no mistake, I mean we’ll be seeing these acts from both sides. Hopefully they’ll be enough. Because if they aren’t, there will be armies marching through this land as soon as the winter breaks.”
“You’re aware that Equis is offering titles and privilege to people who bring them treasures, right?”
Tara inclined her head. “I am, but I appreciate you mentioning it. Trevor has been emptying the treasury on every caprice and whim for years—it’s been some time since his advisors and topmost retainers had managed to pressure him into even the slightest bit of effort towards refilling it. And really, it’s a little funny how you mention this two-and-a-half weeks after the mine settlement’s Scarlet Brigade went crazy over losing some deepest reserve of their buried treasure. What a mystery.”
“I wonder what could have happened,” Cassandra said in a deadpan tone. Then cocked her head in disbelief. “I’m sorry, are you trying to tell me that those red scarf bandits are the Scarlet Brigade?”
“They are. Why?”
“I thought the Scarlet Brigade was the result of Equis attempting to form a foreign legion! I killed two of them without even trying!”
“How many tassels did they wear on those scarves?” Ramon spoke up from over the letters.
Cassandra thought back to the brief fight in the mineshaft. “I can’t remember seeing any.”
“That’d do it. Tassels are to them what rank insignia are to any actual military. I’m not surprised you killed two recruits without breaking a sweat.” Ramon laid the letters out to dry, without sanding them, and gave Cassandra a gauging look. “Though after today, I wouldn’t be surprised if you had killed two of their veteran fighters without breaking a sweat, either.”
Cassandra felt herself smile. “You didn’t think I could actually kill those four, did you?”
“I thought you’d probably kill one. I hoped you’d kill two before dying yourself,” Ramon said calmly. “And yet here you are, barely worse for the wear, after I had to clean up all four of their bodies.”
“The Scarlet Brigade did start out as an Equisian foreign legion,” Tara spoke up again, and Cassandra turned to her to listen rather than choose between well-advised modesty and well-deserved gloating. “Except that they were ridiculously easy to destabilize, and turned back to banditry decades ago. The group operating out of the mine is just one detachment; there are many, and each claims to be the one true Scarlet Brigade. Some hire themselves out as a regimented mercenary outfit, while some are content to raise a stronghold to settle down in and rule the surrounding area with their top officers as kingpins. Our local detachment has been long contesting against three other major bandit outfits also operating out of the mines—the Rats, the Shankers, and the Coon Tails. The former two are just regular thieves and highwaymen. The Coon Tails, interestingly enough, had started out as a neighbourhood watch and a group that made an effort to convert the spent mineshafts into some semblance of liveable space, attempting to keep it at least somewhat sanitary and cannibalizing the infrastructure into something of more use to an underground shantytown. They used to call themselves the Cleaners, but it didn’t stick after they started pinning raccoon tails to their garb to signify function, after how raccoons always seem to wash their food if at all possible. The Shankers and the Rats moderately hate each other, but both yield to the Coon Tails long as they keep trying to make conditions safer instead of grab at power. The Scarlet Brigade regularly pushes all three around, and there is a lot of bad blood between it and the others. Hard to expect anything else, with how the Scarlet Brigade are ex-military and the other three are each made up of local survivors, refugees, orphans, and deserters.”
Cassandra thought for a moment. “How much trouble do they cause here?”
“A moderate amount. The Coon Tails are barely a gang in their own right, any violence they resort to is truly minimal. The Shankers and the Rats are mostly just desperate people who refuse to be victimized all over again—if given food, land, and security outside of membership in a group that fights back for its own, most of them would likely disband and go back to their previous lives. The Scarlet Brigade is more of a problem, but having to contest against three groups all operating in the same area keeps them from following through on any real ambitions their officers might have. They mostly stick to harassing farmers and merchant caravans.”
“Okay.” Cassandra rubbed her forehead against a slowly building headache. “I’m still very tired. I might come back with more questions, but I need to process first.”
“Reasonable.” Tara looked to Ramon. “Token.”
“Right.” Ramon rummaged through the chest again, and eventually pulled out what seemed to be a steel medallion, shaped like a twelve-spoked cog with a scratched circular surface in the centre, hanging off a long chain. “You’re going to need to blood this.”
“Excuse me?” Cassandra said dryly.
“Prick a finger. It’s inactive, and locks onto the blood of whoever is to be the wearer. Once it does, you’ll be able to use it—and when used, it’s a mark that you’re an ally of the Kotoan crown. Show this to sentries guarding a city’s gate, and they’ll open it for you. Show this to an aristocrat’s servant or a witch-knight’s squire, and they’ll arrange an audience for you.”
Cassandra frowned, but drew a dagger to pierce a fingertip, and took the medallion from Ramon’s hand to put the bead of blood against it. A faint glow came from the steel as it seemed to vibrate in her hand for a moment, then nothing. She side-eyed the spy.
Ramon motioned her to grab at the medallion’s edge. “Twist.”
Cassandra did, and to her surprise, the cog’s spokes shifted, turning the medallion into a perfect circle. The nicks along the edges turned into a smooth engraved inscription that read FAVOURED • OF • THE • CROWN; the formless scratches in the middle turned into the coat-of-arms of Koto, two seated wolfhounds facing each other.
“Huh,” Cassandra said.
“It’ll stay like that until you untwist it. Now watch this,” Ramon took the medallion from her once she reverted it to its unassuming, scratched-up form, and tried to repeat what she had just done. Nothing happened. “Only you can do that now—that’s what the blood was for. Carry it like a sentimental piece of garbage on an everyday basis, twist into the token when you need it. And since for some reason you already radiate magic, not even that is going to show.”
“Clever. Very clever.” Cassandra put the unassuming medallion around her neck, tucked it under her clothes. “Though if they all look like a cog, that might draw attention.”
“That’s why they don’t all look like a cog.” Ramon grabbed at a handful of identical chains, and pulled out several more—a flower, a Kaiser roll, and a snail were three shapes that Cassandra caught sight of before he put them away again. Then he dug out a fat purse and plopped it into Cassandra’s hands, the motion accompanied with the weight of metal and the sound of clinking coins. “One last thing: pocket money. It’s laughable compared to the bounties you just secured, but it’s here instead of nations away, and it’s from both of us.”
“What?” Cassandra asked dryly.
“Thanks for killing the people who put me in this bed,” Tara said calmly, imitating a salute with a wrapped up hand at the end of a broken arm, raised to the blind and bandaged side of her face. “Get yourself something nice.”
Cassandra turned to Ramon. “Didn’t you just spend the morning running errands and doing work no one else wants to do for a handful of gold? How much is in here, hundreds?”
Ramon chuckled. “Five hundred. And I keep the local persona funds apart from funds for the actual work we’re doing. People would start wondering where the resident no one got the coin to throw left and right, otherwise.”
Cassandra looked between the two spies for a moment. Thought about how she’d feel if one of the guys on the guard of Castle Corona got beaten nearly to death, and only survived thanks to a hired hand retrieving healing herbs. Then she pocketed the money. “...Thanks.”
“Back at you.” Ramon gathered the dried letters and tucked them away, and rose from the neighbouring bed. “Now let’s go before Eliza throws us out again.”
Cassandra nodded, and rose as well, giving Tara one last look on her way out. “Rest well, and... I wish you a smooth recovery.”
The injured agent of Kotoan crown bowed her head slightly. “I hope you find what you’re chasing, knight-errant.”
After exiting the clinic, Cassandra looked up to the sky. Overcast, heralding rain to come. She thought for a moment, wondering whether her withered arm would ache already if she hadn’t drank the painkiller-spiked herbal brew, counting out matters to attend to, gauging how much she had the strength to do before she settled in to sleep for more than a few scant hours. A gust of crisp wind tugged at her cloak, tumbled a few red and yellow leaves past. Cassandra looked after them, caught off-guard with the reminder of the passage of time.
Two months since she left Castle Corona. It felt like yesterday and a lifetime ago, at the same time. It felt like she’d barely had the time to do anything at all, to even begin finding her footing, and like she’d already grown beyond the expectations and wildest dreams of those who used to know her.
Then again, even the wildest dreams of those who used to know her hadn’t exactly featured her accomplishing anything of note, now had they.
She walked along the town square’s edge, studiously ignoring the stares of Equisian guards, the pointed fingers and excited whispers of the locals, and returning the greetings of a few she remembered the faces if not the names of. Instead of enter the Brazen Brigand’s dining floor, she went into the stable first, finding Fidella standing asleep in a stall. Her tack and harness had been removed and laid aside in orderly rows, next to the saddlebags, the sorcerer’s crosier, and the barbarian’s two-hander; her coat had been brushed out into a lustrous sheen; the troughs in front of her were still half-filled with water and oats respectively; a few carrots had been left in a row as treats next to the trough of oats. Cassandra raised her eyebrows, impressed. That did indeed look like an earnest attempt to give a horse everything it could ever want.
She turned to leave, but looked over her shoulder again at the sound of a tired nicker. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you up.”
Snort, Fidella said dismissively, and leaned into Cassandra’s hands as she came up to stroke the mare’s nose.
“We did good.” Cassandra leaned her forehead against Fidella’s for a moment. “We did something very hard and very necessary. Now a few terrible people can’t hurt anyone else. You worked so hard with me on this, too, I never could’ve done it without you—”
Snort, Fidella interrupted, a gentle tone and a firm disagreement.
Cassandra chuckled weakly, her throat tight and her eyes burning all of a sudden. “What did I do to deserve you guys? You and Owl both, you just believe I can do anything I put my mind to, don’t you?”
With another soft nicker, Fidella pushed one of Cassandra’s hands away and put her chin at Cassandra’s good shoulder to nudge her closer.
“No, of course I’m not cross with you for returning to Corona back then, I never was.” Cassandra put her arms around the mare’s neck. “Owl stayed with me until he needed to go get help for my dad, I wasn’t alone for very long, and you had the others to take care of and get them home safely. It was the right decision. Though, if you had stayed, I probably would have tried to make moon rock barding for you.”
That last remark slipped out unbidden, and Cassandra found herself taken aback with how freeing it felt to say something like that out loud—just to acknowledge her time as the usurper, wielder, and vessel of the Moonstone as a period of her life, no different than her time spent serving as a handmaiden or trying to prove she was good enough for the royal guard. Just as something that had happened, not an act too depraved to even speak of without veiling it in euphemisms and unspoken implications. Just as an event that had taken place and shaped the course of a few months, little different from a rich harvest or a slight flooding. Not a crime. Not a mistake to endlessly repent for. She breathed more easily, closing her eyes for a moment.
Maybe being forgiven in a manner that was nothing short of a fucking spectacle, back in Corona, had felt as humiliating as it did because she hadn’t done that many things that she had to be forgiven for. Maybe being kept around like a trophy, another living proof of how the Princess could tame even the sworn enemies of Corona right next to Varian, had been as demeaning as it was because it magnified her mistakes while stripping her of the agency for having made them in the first place, the endless stream of excuses made for her in front of anyone who would listen as if she were a misbehaving child, it wasn’t her fault, it wasn’t how she really felt, it wasn’t meant to hurt anyone—
It had been her choice, and she’d take the fault along with it, whatever. It had entirely been how she felt, and felt so strongly that the Moonstone had resonated, ice-cold sparks and wisps of lightning flashing around her each time she lost her temper or raised her voice. It had thoroughly been meant to hurt, as much as she had been hurt beforehand and then some. And this insistence to bleach her heart out of anything unsightly, to have even her own mistakes denied to her, had only served to convince her that even the first time around, Cassandra had the right idea—to leave.
Zhan Tiri may have lied. Zhan Tiri may have manipulated. But her scheming had only been sown in fertile ground because her assessments were far from inaccurate.
My whole life I’ve been cast aside, for you, Cassandra’s own words echoed through her head. And though she had originally spoken them in anger, they were not untrue. The lost princess had been a focus of the court even in her eighteen-years-long absence, a last hopeless chance to avoid a war of succession after King Frederic would die, a reason to fill the royal guard with men who were loyal instead of with men who were competent, to speak nothing of the euphoric bustle and business that had erupted upon her return. Or of the way protocol and tradition, the pillars of the court’s continued existence, suddenly meant nothing as soon as she came home. Or of the way the wishes of no one but the King himself were suddenly worth anything as soon as she asked for something on the contrary.
She felt the favour tied around her left arm, tight against her bicep as her fist clenched against these thoughts. Something had changed, in the very end. It had, at long last. A beginning. A hope fainter than a candle’s light. But it was too little, and too late, and if Cassandra was to nurse that tiny feeble glimmer in her broken hands and in the hollow cage between her ribs, it had to be somewhere far away from the excessive, self-serving, inconsiderate caring of another, far enough that she would not have to watch this light being choked out and smothered all over again.
And now she was free—with the first mark of being loved, truly loved, for all that she was, given openly but with room for refusal should she choose to refuse it, and taken to be carried in an open display for all to see—now she was free, and could do anything she wanted, be anyone she wanted. And all she had ever wanted was to become the best version of herself that she could ever dream up. Good enough to prove everyone wrong, everyone who had looked down on her, everyone who had muttered of stray mongrels and orphan brats behind her back, everyone who had only ever rewarded her for making herself smaller and lesser than she could be. Good enough to breathe with her entire chest. Good enough to be worth telling others about. Good enough to matter.
“Fidella? Thank you for coming with me. For not leaving me to do this entirely alone. I need—” Cassandra sniffed, exhaled slowly, pulled her withered arm back to rub at her eyes with gloved fingers. “I need company. And I know it’s not fair to make you and Owl give me all of it. I’ll find some people to be with soon. Just not yet. Just give me until I get sick of how hard everything is when I can’t trust or rely on another person, okay?”
Snort, Fidella said lovingly, a warm puff of breath coming against Cassandra’s shoulder and neck.
“Okay.” Cassandra wiped the last of unwanted tears from her eyes, and pulled away. “You keep resting. I’ll go deal with people some more now.”
The mare gave her one more encouraging little nicker, and Cassandra stroked a hand down her neck before she walked past to look through the saddlebags, making sure everything was accounted for. Once she was certain that none of her belongings were missing, Cassandra strapped her quiver to her belt, then hefted the barbarian’s two-hander, tucked it under her good arm, and headed towards the smithy. Once again, it was the fletcher who looked up first, as if she had a sixth sense based on proximity. Or maybe it was just that the smith was partially deaf, which would not be uncommon in his profession at all.
“Hey, look what the cat dragged in.”
Cassandra exchanged nods with Hanalei, then gestured to Sigrid’s bandaged forehead. “You’re well, I see?”
“Well enough. What’ve you got there?”
“I pulled this off of Hogni Galdrsbani after killing him.” Cassandra heaved the massive, jagged, two-handed sword onto Sigrid’s workbench. “I was hoping either of you could tell me why it looks like this.”
Hanalei craned his neck to look, and scowled in a grimace of distaste. “Because it’s a trophy rack, that’s why.”
Cassandra looked between him and his wife, and finally noticed that Sigrid’s usual veneer was suddenly gone—the fletcher was staring at the weapon, eyes wide and a mixture of shock and revulsion on her face.
“Oh, this—” an overwhelmed little laugh escaped Sigrid’s lips. “—this is vile.”
“What do you mean?” Cassandra asked, as patiently as she could.
Instead of answer straight away, Sigrid reached under her shirt, and pulled out a knife that must have been sheathed in a scabbard strapped under her left arm until now. An ornate knife, sharpened only on one side of the blade, curved delicately into an S-shape and forged of watered steel, its guard practically non-existent, its pommel masterfully carved into the shape of a bird’s head, a shrike judging by the slightly hooked beak, with small beads of semi-translucent smoky quartz forming its eyes. When she held it in front of the two-hander, Cassandra looked between both of the weapons.
The giant sword’s jagged silhouette had resulted from dozens upon dozens of knives like that being partway molten and hammered into the sword’s own steel.
“This is the mark of a sorcerer where I’m from,” Sigrid said, somewhat weakly, indicating the dagger. “It’s traditionally worn in the front of the belt, I just don’t like to advertise myself as a magic user all the time. So he probably targeted people based on seeing them carry one.”
“I thought a dagger worn in the front of the belt was the mark of a warrior in Ingvarr,” Cassandra said with a frown.
“Not precisely. You have to pass two sorcery trials to be recognized as warrior, instead just random person who’s okay at fighting. The knife, you earn after passing the first trial, and it’s supposed to be buried or burned with your body after you die.” Sigrid sheathed her dagger under her clothes again. “He’s been collecting them off sorcerers he’d killed and using them to kill more.”
“That is vile.” Cassandra gestured to the sword. “Isn’t there a way to put all this to rest? If these are now, essentially, defiled burial goods?”
Sigrid considered, then slowly shook her head. “Not in the way you’re thinking.”
“But you’re thinking of another way.”
The fletcher looked pointedly to the arrows she’d just been making. “I have an idea, and I hate it, but it would work. Was there anything else you wanted?”
Cassandra inclined her head, recognizing that the matter was out of her hands now. “You’re the one who cinched a ward around Wolf’s Head Hollow, aren’t you?”
Sigrid grinned proudly at that, a bit of her usual irreverent air returning. “Ah, my finest piece of work. Hopefully you took the hint and didn’t go inside?”
“I went inside twice,” Cassandra said dryly. “The hounds are gone, but the witch-knight’s ghost is still around. If you can make a barrier like that, can you destroy magical objects, too?”
“No. I’ve never gone that far into the trials. There are people who have, and can, but you don’t find them around every corner.” Sigrid paused, giving Cassandra a careful, searching look. “But, if you’re determined to look until you find one, we could probably make you a box that’d contain and ward off any enchanted junk you’re carrying, if it’s not too large.”
“I’ll take it.” Cassandra thought back to the sorcerer’s tome and crosier—she’d have to break the head off the staff or poke the crystal out of it—and moved her hands to indicate the dimensions she’d need. “About this big.”
“Doable,” Hanalei said confidently. “It’s going to be expensive, though: cold iron, wardwork, a casing to make sure it doesn’t rust through, and, I imagine, a lock.”
Sigrid nodded slowly, then looked at her husband. “Hundred seventy?”
“Hundred fifty, we know she’s okay.”
“Hundred seventy is fine. I was also going to ask after the arrows you don’t sell,” Cassandra said. “Blue fletch?”
“Oh, those beauties.” Sigrid grinned openly. “How do you find them?”
“Impressive, to be honest. I didn’t think I’d ever want to use them, but, well, I only have one left now.”
Sigrid inclined her head at that. “While I agree with the sentiment... they’re too brutal a weapon for use on people... sometimes you find yourself fighting monsters.”
Cassandra cleared her throat. “I did, in fact, use them on a person.”
“The only way for monsters to be real is if they used to be people,” Sigrid said simply. “Every now and then, someone decides to abdicate their humanity and starts acting like a monster. If you act like a monster, you get put down like a monster, and your slayers deserve a hero’s fame.”
“I don’t know if I agree with that, but what’s done is done, and I’m still in the market for more.” Cassandra thought back to the poison vials. Judging from her shots at the minotaur, each would be enough to load three of the liquid-carrier arrowheads. Nine, then, and a few to spare in case a few would break before they could be used. “How many do you have?”
“No more than two dozen at any given time. They’re a bit of a hobby project and a way to use up scraps, to be honest.” Sigrid unlatched the false bottom in one of the drawers, then narrowed her eyes, quickly counting under her breath in her native language. “Fifteen right now.”
Sigrid raised her eyebrows. “Alright, big spender, you’re cleaning us out here.”
Cassandra shrugged as she exchanged some of the Kotoan spies’ gold for the falcon-fletch dyed bright turquoise, bulbous-headed carrier arrows. “What else am I gonna do, gamble?”
Sigrid laughed at that. “If you’re a shit gambler and someone dirt-poor around you doesn’t want a handout, challenge them to a game and then play to lose. It’s basically charity, just lets them keep their pride.”
“Do you give life advice to everyone who trades with you, or do you just not have friends to philosophise with?”
“Whoa, claws out today, huh?” Sigrid shook her head, if gingerly, still smiling. “Go eat something and maybe you’ll calm down.”
Cassandra rolled her eyes. Then thought for a moment.
She hadn’t eaten today yet, had she?
“Ugh.” She turned on her heel to walk away. “Great. Fine.”
“Take care!” Sigrid called out after her cheerfully, another bout of quiet laughter drowned out with the strikes of metal against metal when she and the smith went back to work.
Cassandra grumbled, heading back towards the Brazen Brigand—the dining floor this time. There was not a lot of traffic at this hour, somewhere around noon; beyond a regular sleeping with their head and chest atop the table but a hand still closed on their tankard, a few rough-and-tumble types idly playing cards, and a woman around Cassandra’s age sitting alone in a nook at the countertop’s edge where she wasn’t immediately visible from the door, the inn was fairly empty.
Sebastian, the owner, looked up from where he was checking bottles and flagons beneath the counter. “If it isn’t the hero of the day. I didn’t think we’d see you again, not after Teagan told me who you went after.”
“I’ve faced worse,” Cassandra said as she climbed into a high chair in front of the countertop. So what if her feet dangled slightly off the floor like that, maybe she needed her legs to rest. “Any chance I can get a late breakfast from you?”
Sebastian chuckled. “Dumplings with minced pork, baked potatoes in spinach sauce, eggs and a ham sandwich, or fried slices?”
“What’s that last one?”
“You whisk an egg with some milk, soak slices of bread too dry to eat normally in it, and fry them in a pan. Pretty good, especially with a fruit preserve on top.”
Cassandra glanced to her withered arm. Something she wouldn’t have to cut into smaller pieces would probably be best. “The dumplings, and whatever vegetables you have handy with that.”
“Solid choice.” Sebastian considered her for a moment. “You look too wiped to be drinking today, want some borsht instead of an ale? It’ll fit the dumplings like cranberry fits roast duck.”
“Yeah, sounds good.”
“And for your bird?” Sebastian looked around. “Come to think of it, where is your bird? I haven’t seen him in a while.”
“He’s on an errand,” Cassandra said.
Sebastian stared her, visibly uncertain if she was being serious. “Right. Well then. Three gold, and be with you in just a minute.”
Cassandra paid, and leaned an elbow against the table to rub her eyes and squeeze at her temples once Sebastian ducked into the kitchen for a moment. She was still extremely tired. But she could take a day to rest up, before she checked back into the clinic for more renovation work, however little she could accomplish with her dominant hand incapable of closing and the same shoulder restricted to light labour or no labour at all.
She was going to have to do something about her withered arm. And Cassandra knew, as only someone trained for combat could know, that every human being was meat—when cut it bled, when burnt it roasted, when dead it rotted. And if her withered arm was meat, if scorched and cracked with magic older than kingdoms and nations, maybe it would still behave like meat when treated with something that made actual meat pucker and last. Like salt. She grimaced at the very thought, remembering a time when she was little and had accidentally rubbed salt into a scratch. That was not a mistake anyone made twice.
A persistent, dull ache was building in the broken bridge of her nose again. The painkiller she had drunk in the morning must have begun wearing off.
Shortly, a tankard full of beetroot soup so dark red as to be almost black was placed before her, as well as a deep plate full of thick, sticky balls of dough and a hefty serving of shredded cabbage and narrow chunks of carrot and parsley root on the side. Cassandra looked up at the teenage boy of a server who brought it.
“I said whatever you have handy, and you still did all that?”
“Well, you know,” the boy said nervously, clearly unsure whether she was pleased or angry.
“That’s really nice of you.” Cassandra handed him a silver.
The server’s eyes lit up, and he snatched the coin before scurrying away. Sebastian chuckled as he looked after him.
“Word got out that you’re a tipper. This is your life now, I’m afraid.”
“I think I can live with that.” Cassandra took a fork in her left hand and sliced one of the dumplings in half without trouble. The minced meat filling was well-cooked, and still steaming, only more inviting for how hungry she suddenly realized she was. “Did anything interesting happen while I was gone?”
“Not much.” Sebastian drew a breath as if to say more, but then looked at someone who had just entered his inn, and his face froze into a uniquely hostile expression. “Excuse me for a moment—GET OUT OF HERE, CARTER!”
Cassandra turned to the man who was just bellowed at, as did everyone else in the tavern. A tight, uncomfortable look passed through his face, as he desperately looked through the Brigand’s customers for someone familiar, someone who would speak up for him, to no avail.
“I SAID GET OUT, YOU SHIT!” Sebastian roared again, and settled with his elbows against the countertop again when the man reluctantly walked back out. “I’m sorry, there are just some idiots I don’t want to see in my establishment.”
“What’d he do?”
“Ah, he’s been... bothering one of the ladies who’s renting a room here,” Sebastian said with a grimace. “She doesn’t need that kind of shit in her life, and frankly, neither do I. As for recent events, well, the guards still aren’t letting up on harassing Kotoans, which is unsavoury to say the least.” He thought for a moment, then gave a little sideways nod. “I guess we still haven’t gotten any news from three farms nearby, which is a lack of something happening rather than something happening, but yeah.”
Cassandra frowned, and swallowed her food before speaking again. “Is one of those farms about half a day’s travel on horseback westwards from here?”
“Yeah. Why, were you there? What happened?”
“I came through when I was tracking those four I’d killed,” Cassandra admitted with a wince. “All I found was six bodies, and a lot of bones.”
Sebastian sighed heavily. “That would be all of the Richters, then. Damn it. I hope the Isards and the Tysons are okay.”
“Do farmhouses often go dark like this? I’ve heard there can be trouble with bandits from the mines.”
“Only if it’s the fucking Reds stirring trouble all over again. The Shankers and the Rats talk a big talk, but it’s mostly just talk. They’re just people—our people—half of them we know from before yet another army steamrolled through their houses and fields. And the Coon Tails only show up to fairs to trade salvage and ore for things they can actually use. Did you know they built a charcoal mound and even a pottery kiln? From nothing! All they had was a few smelters to take apart and a lot of grit to put everything they know to good use.”
Cassandra gave a hum around another mouthful of food, hoping to encourage the tavern owner to talk more about the local hearsay and common knowledge. The more she learned about matters that the locals considered too obvious to teach an outlander about, the better prepared she would be for dealing with any upcoming trouble—and if life had taught her anything, it was that trouble never ceased coming.