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Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

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Cassandra wiped at her forehead with a wrist, cold rain mingled with sweat pouring into her eyes and dripping from the soaked locks of her hair, then took the soil-filled bucket from Ramon standing below her and passed it to the local standing behind her. Then the next one, filled with muddy water, and another full of water, and another full of earth. One of the resting diggers tapped ash out of the pipe he’d been smoking under the awning of the farmhouse’s roof, rolled his mud-stained sleeves back up, and went back down the ladder into the wide, long ditch.

It started raining on the day after Cassandra had brought the three outlaws’ bodies back as proof of their execution and aided in killing the fourth, and it didn’t let up since. But the dead at Richter farm had been left to rot under an open sky for long enough—rain or no rain, someone had to come bury them, and if Cassandra still wasn’t well enough yet to take a more demanding notice off the job board, she might as well help, she decided. So there she was. A knight-errant of one of the Seven Kingdoms. Digging a mass grave in unallied land, for people she had never met, taking buckets full of muddy earth and rainwater from a Kotoan spy and handing them to a Shanker bandit, if the knife tattoos on the inner side of both of that local’s forearms were any indication.

She was coming to realize that people needed a knight-errant far less frequently than they needed just about anyone willing to pitch in alongside them. She was also finding, Cassandra thought to herself as she took another bucket and passed it along, that she could live with that.

At least she didn’t have to be the one sewing bed linens and burlap sacks into funeral shrouds.

Between the six bodies of the Richter family, one belonged to an elder, two to middle-aged adults, and three to youths ranging from Cassandra’s age to barely into their teens. None of their faces were recognizable anymore, no matter the somewhat variable stages of decay they were in—what was still recognizable, however, was the injuries. If it weren’t morbid and extremely disrespectful to do so, Cassandra would be willing to bet that the corpse with multiple fractures all over the skull, multiple knocked-out teeth, and multiple broken ribs as if the person had been kicked repeatedly after falling was the barbarian’s doing; the one with at least two dislocated joints per limb was the minotaur’s job; and the one with bones broken and softer tissue torn like gauze in seemingly random places was the ogre’s last toy.

She and Ramon had been the only ones to barely react upon seeing the bodies. Most of the locals had rapidly looked away; one had thrown up. And now, the woman who was stitching up the shrouds worked with gritted teeth and dismayed eyes, the headband with a rat skull mounted at the forehead marking her as another bandit from the mine settlement. It felt almost like a diplomatic summit, Cassandra thought as she looked away from the Rat and passed another bucket to the Shanker, if on an infinitely smaller scale: two bandits from a different outfit each, a few ex-miners, a few commoners or craftsmen, all working together on a simple, straightforward task of burying their dead. And the Richters were evidently all of theirs: a family that each of them knew, and between all of them, they knew all of the Richters’ given names. One of them was already carving those names into a sturdy wooden board salvaged from the farmers’ destroyed dining table, drawing dark red ink into the lines, and putting together a rudimentary little roof to nail overtop the board afterwards.

And there was herself, Cassandra supposed, an outsider who did not try to blend in, working alongside them without a word and taking their cues for what was necessary and for what was appropriate.

Eventually, the grave was deep enough. The diggers took the ladder up in turns, and took turns again lowering the enshrouded bodies down into it, using a makeshift lift constructed from a wide bench and two long ropes, letting go of one side of each coil of rope to deposit every next corpse into its muddy resting place. After that, it was once again a communal effort of the whole small group, this time to toss the dirt back in, whether with shovels or with their bare hands. Then to pat the overturned soil down flat, once again with their hands, a sharp admonishment immediately correcting the one person who had tried to pitch in with their feet. Then to mark the grave’s edges with a border of large stones torn out of the farm’s already crumbling wall and ferried over on a squeaky cart pulled by Fidella and Ramon’s old chestnut, as well as mount the roofed wooden board of a grave marker in the centre between a few larger rocks. Then, with each of the group soaked with rain from the outside and with sweat from the inside, each panting and with their limbs trembling with exertion, the woodcarver went into the farmhouse to bring out a stack of small clay cups and pulled a small flask of dark glass from an inside pocket of his vest. Handing one cup to each of the others, he filled it with the dark amber-brown liquid from the flask for them—the former miners, the townsfolk, and the bandits alike. Cassandra stood to the side, silently, and looked up with a bit of surprise when he extended a cup to her as well.

“You too, Coronian. You brought their murderers to justice. They’ll rest in peace because of you.”

“Thank you,” Cassandra said, took the cup, and glanced to the others to see what they would do so she could do the same.

The woodcarver filled his own cup last, tucked the flask away, and cleared his throat. “Well. May the earth be light to them.”

A murmur of may the earth be light to them went through the group, as each member tipped their cup to the side, to spill a little onto the ground, and knocked back the rest. Cassandra followed suit, and was one of the three that coughed immediately after. Her first thought was that it burned. Her second thought, once the initial bite of the liquor had passed and turned into a much-needed torrent of warmth spreading down her throat and all across her chest, was to recognize it as a homemade whiskey. There had to be at least one pot still in the neighbourhood. The Brazen Brigand’s basement, most likely.

“The Richters were good folk,” one of the ex-miners said grimly. “They didn’t deserve to go like this.”

“Where the fuck were the guards?” another snapped, throwing his empty cup to break against the grave-marker rocks in a useless, frustrated gesture.

“Keeping their hands clean and their asses warm in the stockade, I bet,” the Rat who had been sewing shrouds murmured entirely loud enough for everyone to hear.

“I told them there was something going on at Richter farm, but did they listen?” Ramon grumbled. “No, why the fuck would they listen to me?”

“What are those guards even for?” the Shanker asked angrily. “The mine has better drainage than the town. The mine! The mine is not someplace people are supposed to live, and it’s only liveable because the Coon Tails never stopped trying to make it liveable, not in all these years. No patrols around town, because why the fuck put in as much effort as a goddamn mercenary outfit that half the time doesn’t even have a sponsor paying them to care, and they sure aren’t stopping crime, either!”

“I sure didn’t see them pitch in with the guy who attacked the clinic not too long ago,” Ramon pointed out, and nodded towards Cassandra. “She did, and Teagan, and Sigrid and Hanalei.”

“Oh, I saw them alright—waiting for the others to duke it out.” The woodcarver spat onto the ground, if only after respectfully turning away from the freshly dug grave. “If that huge piece of shit had thrown Sigrid into a fucking wall instead of a pottery stand, they’d shoot a few crossbows to mop up and say it was all thanks to them we were 'safe' now. More than that, we wouldn’t have a competent fletcher or a smith in town anymore, because Han would’ve gone batshit insane and gotten himself killed if he saw his wife go down and not get back up.”

Cassandra stayed silent, listening to the agent of Kotoan crown steer the locals’ outrage against the Equisian garrison. Growing up in the castle, knowing the practice of law enforcement and the theory of war from swathes of maps of the central region of Corona and innumerable city plans, and from moving guard figurines across them rather than from on-the-ground, up close and personal work, it was easy to forget that the big picture was comprised of little pictures. Like making sure the local populace had nothing but resentment for the forces wearing enemy uniforms. Or convincing the locals that said forces saw them as rabble to be controlled, rather than as citizens to be protected.

Then again, the Equisian guards had genuinely done half of the spy’s work in these matters for him, hadn’t they.

The group began heading back towards town, soon after—including the Shanker and the Rat, to Cassandra’s surprise. She took a page from Ramon’s book, and walked beside them rather than ride ahead. When one of the diggers started lagging behind, saying he must have pulled a muscle in his leg during the burial, she helped him climb into the saddle, and led Fidella by the reins more to let the man feel safer than to really steer the mare. With that, the entire group made it back to town before sundown—hard as it was to see through the rainclouds—and the curfew, if barely, with a small patrol of guards attempting to give the group trouble before the woodcarver stepped in and explained that they were all just returning from a funeral. With the ex-miners and craftsmen scattering home and the bandits, Ramon, and Cassandra herself all heading to the Brazen Brigand, the trouble blew over—but not without further hostility mounting towards the guards among the now-scattered group.

“I miss when Koto ran the show,” the Rat bandit grumbled.

“I miss being warm and dry, we can’t have everything we fucking want,” the Shanker shot back.

“Be a smartass all you like, but the Bayards had a school running. What the fuck did Equis ever do for this place? They brought the Reds in, that’s what,” the Rat snapped angrily. “And now this stupid curfew. It’s not even for anything! It’s just to show us small fry who’s boss.”

“Yeah, and I’m sure Koto wasn’t sucking out the marrow from the mine like Equis did,” the Shanker rolled his eyes at her. “They’re all the same. Wish they would just go kill each other somewhere else.”

Cassandra looked away from the squabbling bandits at the sight of firelight coming from across the town square. Even so late in the evening, Hanalei and Sigrid were still at work, the smith with his long curly hair tied back in a topknot as he tipped over a small crucible and poured glowing hot metal into a mould, the fletcher swaying from side to side as she sang with half-open eyes fixed on the casting, hands twirling invisible patterns through the air. That must have been her wardwork box they were working on, Cassandra thought, and hoped that the rain would let up for a little once they were done. She’d rather sort through the sorcerer’s junk outside of town than in the stable.

The pair of bandits headed to the Brigand’s dining floor, with Ramon handing off his chestnut’s reins to a stable boy so he could follow suit. Cassandra led Fidella into the stable herself, instead, and quickly changed into dry clothes before taking care of the mare. Then, after making sure the stable boy was far enough away and thoroughly occupied, she peeled her reinforced glove off and unwrapped her withered arm.

It had been aching, constantly and in a significantly more persistent pitch, ever since the rains came. The crack that stretched halfway down the forearm and forked over the back of the hand was no less deep, but after Cassandra had poured a rather generous amount of salt all over it, the edges did seem a little closer together. More than that, the salt made a considerable number of smaller, more shallow cracks to spiderweb from the large one’s edges, redistributing the pull of attempting to close her withered hand all across the outer side of the arm. Which meant she could hold objects in that hand again—if carefully, if at the cost of the withered skin coming worryingly close to flaking apart and crumbling off. And if the beating she had taken from the barbarian did anything for her, at least it made the two fingernails broken root-to-tip finally slough off. Between that and the now-manageable crack, wrapping her withered arm up was enough to keep it together and turn it almost useable again.

Cassandra sighed, using a soft paintbrush to whisk the last granules of salt out of the fissures and crevasses in the withered area, patted it gently with a clean rag to make sure no rainwater, no coagulated blood remained. Then she ground her teeth, salted her arm again, and bandaged it back up with a clean roll of silk. It hurt, but it worked. Even if 'it worked' meant, these days, only that her already pitiful range of motion wasn’t decreasing any further.

Now she just couldn’t get hit on that arm for the rest of her life.

She pulled her reinforced glove back on, wrung her wet clothes out and hung them out to dry, and headed to the Brigand’s dining floor for an evening meal. It had been growing slightly more crowded, every other night, and that night was no exception—the sight of dagger tattoos and rat skull headbands was becoming less and less uncommon. Some of the mine settlement’s bandits must have come for the last of seasonal work at the harvest; some were likely hoping to winter in town. And winter was coming swiftly indeed, every night chillier than the last, close to freezing the ever-present mud and painting frost blooms against windows, and past the point of transforming rain to sleet.

Cassandra found herself a seat at the countertop and hailed Sebastian, and waited for him to find a moment. To her surprise, however, he placed a full plate and tankard before her straight away.

“There you are. Ramon said you pitched in with burying the Richters. There wasn’t a way to hold a real wake for them, or any mourners to hold it for, but the group all pitched in to buy you dinner for helping.”

She stared for a moment at the small heap of baked potatoes and shredded beets, an entire thigh of roasted duck, and a pint of deep amber ale. Not the batch Sebastian was commonly serving, either. “...Thanks.”

“You worked for it, way I hear it.” Sebastian stepped away as he was hailed by another customer. Once that order was squared away, though, he came back to keep her company. “You know, it’s not every day someone like you shows up.”

“I was just trying to find something to do,” Cassandra said, not looking at him.

“Sure, and you picked things to do based on how needed they were, not how profitable or safely done. That happens just about never. If this heavens-forsaken place was even capable of heroic dreams, I’d call you a local hero by now.”

Cassandra laughed at that, shaking her head. “Running a few errands and killing a few criminals isn’t hero material, not where I’m from.”

“Then it’s doubly a good thing you aren’t in Corona anymore, isn’t it?”

And to that, Cassandra found she didn’t know what to say. So she just focused on her food once Sebastian was called away by a customer again.

Not a month ago, she had resigned herself to the work of an errand girl for a man she already knew was a con artist, so desperate for virtually any endeavour to go well for her that she would count even a successful completion of simple instructions as a victory. Not a month ago, she had given up on every dream she may have still harboured through all the failure and humiliation she had been put through, one hand tired and one hand destroyed and both still clutching onto whatever fragments she had managed to save from being tainted by every ordeal she was made to endure. Dreams of greatness and glory and recognition, all seeping from her fingers like handfuls of sand, jagged broken pieces tarnished beyond repair and too warped to still fit together. Not a month ago, she had finally let them tumble from her hands and walked away, and turned instead to unglamorous tasks that no one would thank her for.

And upon carrying those tasks out, she found that people were remembering her name, doing her small favours, telling stories of what she had done to others who hadn’t seen her do it firsthand. In letting go of lofty dreams, she found them returning to seep into her clothes and hair like fragrant woodsmoke—as if she had discarded shards of broken glass into the sea only to find them washed back ashore at her feet, sanded by the depths into charming little baubles no one would cut themselves on anymore, a child’s pretend-jewels free of the responsibility to hold any objective moral or monetary value. It was less that giving up on those dreams had restored them, and more that it had allowed her to see them in a different light; it was less that she would never see them realized, and more that she was already seeing them realized in a way she would have never expected. After all, what was it that she had done? Ran a few errands, spent a few days spelunking in unsavoury places, almost gotten herself killed with her own stupidity a few times—

Cassandra let that thought trail off, unwelcome and out of place as it was. She was done getting belittled, maliciously or unintentionally, and she was not about to let the memory of those who had done so drag her down all over again, even so far away from them.

What had she done?

She made sure a horribly beaten up woman wouldn’t die.

She made sure three Kotoan treasures wouldn’t find themselves in the hands of Equis, who would pawn them off like unwanted inheritance and spend the coin on hiring mercenary soldiers.

She made sure a half-dozen restless souls would be remembered, and with those that weren’t beyond her reach yet, that they were no longer as broken and lost as she herself had used to be.

She made sure four extremely brutal murderers were brought to justice, and that they would never torture or murder again.

And maybe these tasks had been straightforward—but they hadn’t been easy, or she wouldn’t have had to give herself time to rest and heal afterwards. Maybe they were simple, when broken down to their essentials like that, but they were not easy, or someone would have seen them done long before she showed up. The fact that no one had only served to underline that she was uniquely suited to such tasks, Cassandra acquiesced before the harshest judges she’d ever known: the tribunal of her ambition, her sense of duty, and her conscience.

People didn’t need a knight-errant as often as they needed just about anyone willing to pitch in alongside them. But there was nothing disgraceful about pitching in. And sometimes, when they did need a knight-errant, they already knew that the one beside them did not look down on them, or their livelihoods, or their troubles and their needs and their sorrows.

And if the things she had done were not all that much, then asking the respect she was being given for having done them was not all that much, either, Cassandra was forced to admit—and if so, then it was, truthfully, a very good thing that she was not in Corona anymore.

Cassandra speared another slice of potato with her fork. Growing up in the royal court, raised by the captain of the royal guard, she had never even questioned the fact that she loved Corona. Turning against it, she had to admit from perspective, had only made her as vicious and spiteful as she had been back then because of a truth that, to this day, still held true: for all her devotion to the kingdom, for all her actions and thoughts and feelings naming the good of the kingdom as the highest value, the place that made her did not love her back.

And maybe that had been the first misstep, the first desire formulated so poorly that it could not be sated, she thought. A nation was not a god—it did not demand worship, and cared none for any freely given. A nation was not a person—it did not deserve love, and could not return any. And she was old enough, Cassandra decided, to admit a broken heart and let it tumble from her hands, to gift it to the seas of the world’s indifference for being sanded into something better, and tend instead to simpler, harder, earthly matters of missing farmers and healing herbs and scamming thieves. And maybe, if she was to be kind to herself, she could hope a little that in tending to such matters, she’d learn to redirect that devotion and fondness from a faceless ideal to actual people, who could and sometimes would do right by her in return.

She ate in peace, a meal better than what she would have bought for herself, and went back to Fidella’s stall in the stable with the same hammock hung from the rafters. And before she slept, she wound the sounding cylinder of the same long-destroyed music box that was the only thing she had left from a home before home, and rewound it again, and a third time, until she found herself humming along with her eyes closed, watching any long-harboured feelings of unsated craving and rejection and inadequacy drip away like rainwater from the soaked change of her clothes, as she laid swaddled in the latticework of rope and in blankets layered over and under her.

What an insidious gift it had been—a display of affection that was designed to free its giver from a small child’s nagging pleas for affection, because she could wind it herself, now couldn’t she. A proof of love that placed a brick after brick in a wall between her and any actual love, every time it was wound and sounded, because she had been given a gift already, what more did she want, why was she being so ungrateful for it.

It was something she hadn’t even remembered, not until the touch of a meddler so malicious as to truly be demonic yanked it into razor-sharp focus, burned it into the forefront of her mind as if the memory was a woodcut illustration, one that rendered in loving detail the history of how she had always been unwanted, undeserving, not enough, cast aside.

But it was hers, now—it was hers, again—and she could make it hers, her own, no one else’s and beholden to no wraith of near-forgotten past. And damn anyone who would use the same thing to hurt her all over again, Cassandra thought sleepily as she cradled her withered arm to her chest against the tune, she’d like to see them try once she built up a strong enough resistance to it all.

Morning came with rain, and only ever more rain. Cassandra spent the day idle for how badly her withered arm ached, interspersed with some modicum of assistance given to Eliza as she rearranged books and boxes and jars on new shelves and cabinets, the clinic’s renovation and repairs largely completed. The day after that, as rainy as too many before it, Bruno had poked his head into the Brazen Brigand to ask after Cassandra, and upon following him to the clinic, she found that the family of herbalists had thrown a little party to celebrate the work’s successful end with a little cake and a heap of marmalade cookies instead of the usual biscuits set out for every afternoon tea—and that they had refused to entertain the thought of celebrating without her, as well. And even if Cassandra didn’t know what to do with gratitude, she knew what to do with the sweets, and maybe it was a good feeling to watch the three happier and more hopeful than she had found them, and to see them cheering with a laugh when Gadwall the griffincat deigned to sit in Cassandra’s lap for the first time.

The day after that, it was Hanalei to come looking for Cassandra and give her the wardwork box she had commissioned—its outer surface cast from bronze and decorated with a reasonably elaborate design of a coiling snake knotted across every side of the box, its inner surface lined in iron worked cold. The lid closed on four clasps, rather than two hinges, and on a simple but heavy lock in the centre that would turn thick bolts into the sides of the box, with the keyhole framed by the snake’s mouth and swallowed tailtip.

“Whatever doesn’t block on the iron, the ward will keep inside,” the smith told her upon handing off the box and its rather massive key. “It might be hard to find a disenchanter, but keeping things inside this will mean you’re in no hurry, at least.”

“You don’t have any idea where to start looking?” Cassandra asked.

Hanalei shook his head no. “Chanters more advanced than my wife rarely leave Ingvarr, especially for reasons as banal as sellsword work. I wouldn’t trust an Equisian sorcerer as far as I could throw them. Or a Coronian one for that matter, no offense—”

“None taken.”

“—mercenaries from farther away are generally rare in these parts, even moreso when you’re in the market specifically for magic users, I haven’t seen another Neserdnian in years. I guess you could cross into Koto to try and find a witch-knight, but there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t confiscate the items you’ve got instead of destroying them. So I think you’ve got yourself a bit of a long-term project here.”

“I’m beginning to realize that.” Cassandra thought for a moment. “You don’t think the dead witch-knight from Wolf’s Head Hollow...?”

Hanalei scowled at the mention of Étienne’s ghost. “Ornery bastard. Heaps of good steel went to waste because he’d rather have the dead look honourable and pretty in their stupid tin suits than let anyone remake them into a plough or a spade or a scythe and put it to work to feed the living. Good thing at least the dogs are gone, but it’s a shame he isn’t, too.” He sighed, the sound frustrated as it was drawn from deep within his barrel-broad chest. “No. No, I don’t think he can help where my wife can’t. Some things just need... well, a human touch, so to speak.”

And it did, unfortunately, make sense—if the ghostly witch-knight had been unable to pull the arrows and swords and spears from the bodies of his hounds, then it stood to reason that he was simply unable to interact with physical objects in general.

The rest of that evening, Cassandra spent sorting through the sorcerer’s belongings, testing each against the jar of magic-reactive ink she had gotten from the Kotoan spies—after making sure she herself was far enough away from it to trigger the reaction. The book, predictably, made it light up, and Cassandra lowered it into the box without even attempting to pry open the metal clasp holding its covers closed. The crosier, once she broke its head off, was just a thick length of wood; the crystal still hovering in the spiral’s centre, however, was magical enough. Cassandra weighted her options for a moment before laying the entire staff head into the box, atop the tome. She could always try poking the crystal out at a later time, if she needed to—at present, she didn’t need to, and didn’t want to risk the Brigand’s stable catching some sort of arcane fire.

She turned her attention to the small handful of other trinkets then. They seemed like nothing: two small charms meant for being carried in a pocket or a money pouch, four pendants carved from wood or bone, three bracelets woven from strips of leather or threads fit for embroidery work. But they all made Cassandra’s skin crawl as she touched them, and the small jar of ink lit up like a lantern next to every single one of them.

Cassandra placed the trinkets inside the wardwork box, shut its clasps, and turned the key to lock it, then found herself shaking with a sharp, involuntary, full-body shudder of abruptly released tension. Whatever she was keeping in there, she finally realized, it was at least as vile as some of the worst displays of magic she had seen—not quite as terrifying and horrible as the Moonstone’s decay spell, no, but certainly worse than Terapi Island’s idol with an unpronounceable name or the Saporian wand of forgetfulness. Possibly on par with the Mind Trap, she recalled, and winced against the memory. And given what the barbarian’s two-hander had turned out to be, especially when coupled with the horror stories the Coronian guards were telling of the sorcerer since she was very young, Cassandra could imagine more than enough reasons for why the charms that came from his hands would feel this bad.

The day after that, a thunderstorm broke across the sky, and the sun poked out through the diminished clouds after it had run its course. And in that sun, as Cassandra finally took Fidella out for a run again, she spied a stain of red uniforms and a reflection of light against polished helmets swimming along the road like a school of fish: an Equisian contingent marching down the north road, towards Silberstadt, easily half again as many men as Cassandra had estimated the garrison to count.

She pulled Fidella around and pushed her straight into a canter, intent on double-backing before the reinforcements could arrive. By the time she gave the heads-up to Sebastian and to the clinic family, Ramon had whistled at her from the entrance to the Brigand’s stable.

“It’s about to turn very unsafe here for anyone as visibly from the Seven Kingdoms as you and me,” the Kotoan spy gestured to himself, skin darker and curly hair coarser than what was commonly seen among the region’s locals, before nodding at Cassandra. “Your accent, that favour, you’re going to get bullied until you lose your temper and they turn you into a pin cushion for instigating unrest or whatever other stupid excuse they feel like drumming up. Find work, and find it anywhere that’s not here, fast.”

Cassandra bit her lip, and looked across the town square, to where the clay-skinned Neserdnian and the platinum-haired Ingvarrdian were working at the smithy. The furrier was Kotoan, likely after both parents. Tara was Kotoan, if still unable to walk, a dubious mercy at the moment. Eliza had higher cheekbones and eyes of noticeably different shape, likely after a Kotoan mother or grandmother. Sebastian had the unmistakable, middle-height but thick-boned, nimble build of a Pittsfordian highlander, and a shell-rimmed hat hung above the Brigand’s countertop to match. A lot of people Cassandra had eaten beside and played cards with at the Brigand, or returned the greetings of in the streets, or dug a mass grave with in the soil of Richter farm, were of mixed heritage tracing to at least one of the Seven Kingdoms.

“Oh heavens,” Ramon sighed. “I know that look. Please, anything but that look.”

“I can’t just split,” Cassandra said slowly. “If there’s something that needs doing away from here, I’ll do it, but I’m not leaving just because the garrison doubled in size.”

The spy dragged a hand down his face. “I’ll try to point someone at you, but for fuck’s sake, take their work, job board or no. You’re going to keep the lead toys up in the stockade on edge just with your presence. I need them cocksure and complacent so I can actually do my job. And while your death would solve that problem for me, I’d still hate having to explain later how we got a Coronian knight-errant killed and strung up like a smoked partridge.”

“I’ll be on my best behaviour,” Cassandra promised in a dry tone.

“You’d better be. If you ruin everything we’ve been building here since the Bayards died out, I’ll kill you myself and make it look like the guards’ doing.”

The day after that conversation, it hadn’t taken past noon for the regular patrols of Equisian guards to double in frequency and change from pairs to teams of four or five. It hadn’t taken until sunset for one of those patrols to antagonize a group hailing from the settlement in the mine, ending in a scuffle that saw the Shanker who had helped with digging the Richters’ grave unconscious on the ground in a puddle that was rapidly filling in with blood, and the Rat who had sewn the farmers’ shrouds clutching at a stomach wound with trembling hands. Ramon had been nearby, and pulled the Shanker across his chestnut’s saddle to take him to the clinic immediately, while Cassandra threw the Rat over her shoulder and ran after him on foot; by the time she got there, the three herbalists were already at work, Emil and Bruno rapidly stitching up the Shanker’s head wound, Eliza calling out at Cassandra to stay and help her in turn, even if just with holding the wounded woman down. Within minutes, the Rat died on the table, and the Shanker was stable enough to hopefully pull through—if he woke up reasonably soon.

Eliza stopped trying and walked away the moment it became clear the bandit was gone. Cassandra looked at Bruno and old Emil, noting that they seemed to have the still unconscious Shanker handled well enough, and went after her, finding her in the clinic’s backyard and rolling up a thin cigarette.

“Will you be okay?”

Eliza gave a crooked smile around the cigarette as she struck a match to light it. “It’s not the first time someone died on me in surgery, I can promise you that. It’s just been a while since the last time it happened.”

Cassandra was silent for a while. “Did you know her?”

“In passing. Marta, I don’t know her last name. Her family used to have a farm east of Wolf’s Head Hollow. Her greataunt was a maid in Château de Bayard. One of her brothers was drafted into the Kotoan army, her sister and father into the Equisian. All are likely dead by now.” Eliza took a pull on the cigarette, slowly exhaled the smoke, making sure to blow it away from Cassandra’s face. “Give me five minutes and we can go, there’s bound to be someone in the Brigand who knew her better to break the news to.”

“Okay.” Cassandra thought for a moment. “...You said Château de Bayard, not Fort Rimwarden.”

“Maybe I did,” Eliza allowed, her tone just short of challenging.

“I thought Equis and Koto were all the same to little folk, and it didn’t matter whose banner was flying off the town walls?”

Eliza laughed ruefully, shaking her head. “Equis leaves more leeway to what’s going on around here, on a good day, but I’ve seen few days that good in the past decade, and it’s not looking up. Koto is harsher, but fairer, and demands more order in return for giving us more. Like a school. Or a court of law. Or what little cobbles exist in this mud-flowing nightmare of a town. Or an opportunity to move to somewhere else within the kingdom—or six more kingdoms, for that matter—or a postal system to keep in touch with loved ones living away.” She reached to her neck, and pulled out a pendant shaped like a scallop shell. It took Cassandra a moment to realize what she was looking at: a medal of commendation dispensed only among the members of the two factions of Kotoan knighthood to be patroned by the King, its order ribbon cut off and replaced with a thin silver chain that must have been either an heirloom, or a wedding gift, judging from the nearly squalid level of wealth Cassandra had commonly seen from the locals. “My mother was a knight of the Hospital Order. She built this clinic damn near entirely with her own bare hands, and we’re only as good at what we’re doing as we are because she brought her order’s expertise to the folk knowledge passed down my father’s family. Bruno was studying to be a physician, in the same order, up north in Riddersbrug before Equis took over there again and started demolishing every Kotoan institution it could find. My father and husband know what I think about politics, and there’s no need to discuss the same things all over again where we all know I won’t listen to them any more than they’ll listen to me.”

“But Silberstadt would be flying Kotoan colours, if you had anything to say about it,” Cassandra said slowly, not really a question.

Eliza shrugged, grinding the butt of her cigarette against the doorframe pockmarked with identical marks, new and old. “I don’t. Now come on. Time to ask if there’s anyone left to bury Marta.”

And there was, once again a mix of Shankers and Rats, only further driving home the point Sebastian had made earlier on, about the two rival bandits outfits having recruited from a mix of local people who had lost their livelihoods or families to the endless border conflict between Equis and Koto in this region. The rest of the evening did nothing to discharge the heavier, stormy atmosphere across the Brigand’s dining floor, Cassandra noticed, furious murmurs rolling from every other table like distant thunder.

The day after that, another guard patrol rolled up to the smithy, the topspikes of two halberds pointed at Sigrid’s throat as the sorceress stood at her woodworking lathe with both hands raised in the air and unmoving, her eyes icy and furious, her face a calculating sort of calm as she answered the questions of an Equisian wearing the guard uniform and the distinctions of an officer—and her husband stood to block any other guard’s approach towards her, a massive pair of tongs in one hand and the other very close to an orange-hot length of steel in the furnace. Cassandra glanced around quickly. The town square and the surrounding muddy streets were rapidly turning into a chessboard mid-match: two guards threatening Sigrid, Hanalei covering her position, three more guards more than ready for escalating the situation if the couple tried anything, Teagan leaning against the side of the brick building that held the job board with his massive crossbow rested atop one boot and a few Rats not even pretending they weren’t staring straight at the stalemate by the smithy clustered nearby, another patrol loading their own crossbows from around the corner, a trio of Shankers reaching into their sleeves behind the patrol—

The officer signalled his men to withdraw their weapons, and Sigrid slowly lowered her arms, the murderous look on her face far from abating. With the layers of threatening positions rippling into a calm again—if one unmistakably preceding a storm—Cassandra turned from watching the chess pieces scatter, each on their way, to see Hanalei placing a hand on Sigrid’s shoulder and the fletcher answering a short question in an equally concise manner before she leaned in to give her husband a kiss, and the two went back to work.

Later in the day, Cassandra found them at the Brazen Brigand, speaking quietly with Sebastian at the countertop, and climbed into a high chair next to Sigrid. Whose feet also dangled a little off the floor, she noted, as the three turned to her without surprise.

“You two alright?”

“Worry about the guards, not about us,” Sigrid said calmly from over her tankard. “They try that one more time, and they’ll start finding bodies of their friends impaled atop the stockade.”

“Sigi,” her husband said in a tone that carried a little warning and a lot of tiredness.

“What did they even want from you?” Cassandra asked.

The sorceress rolled her eyes. “Magic, of course, to fortify the town by turning wooden walls into stone ones. Dumb fuckers. It doesn’t work like that.” She put Cassandra in a headlock to yank her closer, and murmured, “Except when it does, but they don’t need to know that.”

Cassandra pushed her off. “Think they’ll start gang-pressing people to repair the walls normally instead?”

Sigrid laughed. “With what stone? The only place to get that from without a convoy is the mine, and they’ll get obliterated before they even see a tunnel! Good riddance, I hope they try that.”

“They might try with a convoy instead,” Hanalei admitted thoughtfully. “But that would have to come all the way from up north, and given how much they’re already antagonizing the Shankers and the Rats, they’d have to hire the Scarlet Brigade as escorts for each wagon.”

“Even then there’s no guarantee nothing would happen. Gosh, and I was already planning to go out of town for some fletch.” Sigrid sipped her ale loudly. “I wonder if I could call in a few favours and get someone on third watch overnight for us.”

“Sigi, weren’t we supposed to be done fighting?” her husband said tiredly.

“Not when someone comes into our house and points a weapon at my face, we aren’t.” The hard look on Sigrid’s face softened slightly when she looked at Hanalei. “I know you’re tired, baby, but it doesn’t take clairvoyance to see that this place is going to get fought over again soon.”

“Sometimes I wish you couldn’t see things coming in either of those ways,” the smith sighed.

“Trust me, it doesn’t inconvenience you more than me.”

Cassandra looked to Sebastian instead of get into all that. “Still no news from the other two farms?”

“The Isards are alive,” Sebastian said with relief, though the stormy look on his face lingered. “Mind, they’re not great, the Reds raided them into ruin. It’ll be a miracle and a community effort both to keep them from starving until the spring.”

“And the Tysons?”

“No word. Except for the miss, but she came over before her folks dropped out of contact. And for the farmhand—Carter Jenkins, the fuck I’ve been throwing out every day—he insists he’ll only talk to her, but she’s scared of him for some reason, so he doesn’t get to. And Tyson farm is far enough away that you can’t make it there and back on foot in the same day. It wouldn’t be an issue without that stupid curfew, but, well.”

“I see.” Cassandra fell silent for a moment. The fletcher and the smith beside her were arguing quietly again, about arrows and magic and more, and she could gather that the matter revolved around Hogni Galdrsbani’s trophy rack of a two-handed sword without paying too much attention to them. She looked at Sebastian again. “How hard will this be on the town? Losing up to three families worth of farmers at the same time as this many soldiers show up?”

“Hard,” Sebastian admitted with a sigh. “The guards brought some provisions with them, but unless we have a really good spring harvest next year, it’s going to be lean for a while. It’s not even entirely clear who’s going to inherit the Richters’ land, much less if anyone will farm it. I really hope the Tysons are okay.”

Cassandra let the three of them be shortly after, and stepped outside into the night to think. Hopefully, Sebastian and Hanalei would be capable of talking Sigrid down from the warpath—magic or no, a single pack of warriors couldn’t destroy an entire garrison. All they’d accomplish would be provoking the guard into tightening their grip on the populace, more reinforcements getting called down from the city up north, and some deaths.

Maybe a lot of deaths, she admitted to herself, thinking back to the fight with the ogre. Especially because, if Sigrid could not be dissuaded, not only her husband would go with her. Sebastian, perhaps, even though he had much to keep and much to care for in town. Teagan, likely, considering his immediate aid during that battle; true enough that the ogre had been a big target, but he hadn’t missed a shot from that monstrously sized crossbow. Then there was the calling in of favours that Sigrid had mentioned, no doubt meaning at least a few more mercenaries who had long since settled down—and the part where the Equisian guards were gleefully, carelessly antagonizing both the Shankers and the Rats, who could well jump at the chance of having a few more seasoned ex-sellswords in charge of planning any acts of revenge.

She could join them, Cassandra thought carefully. She probably would, if they asked. But it would most certainly count as ruining the careful, years-long, quiet work of the two Kotoan spies. And even aside from Ramon’s doubtlessly very serious threat against doing so, Cassandra was inclined to believe that if there was to be any stability found for this region, it would genuinely be only after Koto established this new province that Tara had spoken of. Structured and rigid as Koto could be, it was likely to also mean security and a foundation firm enough, strong enough, to support any sort of growth. Equis, in turn, was on the verge of civil war between the monarch and the aristocracy, and even if King Trevor prevailed in such a conflict, he remained heirless and was not getting any younger. The looming perspective of a war of succession may have been banished from the immediate future of Corona, with the return of the lost princess—but Equis had no miracle of the sort to count on, and its skies remained dark with this threat.

Cassandra looked up at the moon, past another fullness and almost perfectly in its last quarter as it peeked out from between returning rainclouds. Perhaps she was letting her heart, passionate as it could be, simplify matters too much again. But in her mind, she felt with a slowly yet steadily increasing certainty that to advance Koto’s interests in the area would advance the locals’ interests as well, at least in the long term. She couldn’t be sure whether it was nothing more but the patterns she had spent so long living within—the ways of a prized bloodhound feeling at the indents of a collar at its neck in the absence of knowledge on how to be a wolf again—the loyalty she had never been encouraged to question singing its siren song of surrendering again to an easily parsed world and a stable place within it. An old yearning for glory rearing its head again in the form of seeing a town in trouble and defaulting to thinking of ways to solve it all by herself, as if such a feat was even possible and not just an insidious form of arrogance.

Then she saw a winged shape flit against the moonlight, and froze for a moment before pushing off the wall. She looked around in the dark, quite fruitlessly—but nevertheless, she held out her left arm, and hoped.

She felt a presence more than she heard the silent whoosh of wings, and turned her head just as Owl swooped down onto her forearm.

“There you are, I missed you so much—” Cassandra lost her tongue as she took a closer look. “What... are you wearing?”

Hoot, Owl said primly as he turned around on her arm and spread his wings, presenting a scroll case snapped around his torso with two straps criss-crossing his chest, quite like a backpack.

A backpack in royal purple, decorated with a seven-rayed golden sun.

“How did– what even–” Cassandra gave up with a sigh, and unstrapped the contraption from around Owl’s chest. “Did anyone see you? Did anyone pay attention to... all this?”

Hoot, Owl said negatively as he folded his wings and turned back around on her arm.

“Good,” Cassandra breathed out with relief. Because if anyone had paid attention to that, especially in a region already on fire with conflicting interests of two hostile kingdoms, they would assume Owl was a spy’s messenger bird and attempt to shoot him down. “Have you rested at home at all?”

Hoot, Owl confirmed easily.

“Because, tell me if I’m wrong, but it looks like you made the distance both ways in less time then I did on foot one way.”

Hoot, Owl said smugly.

Cassandra huffed a quiet laugh. “Thank you. It’s good to see you again.”

Hoot, Owl said pointedly, and narrowed his eyes at her.

“...I got into trouble while you were gone,” Cassandra admitted uncomfortably. “But I’m fine now, alright? Fidella took care of me, and then I went to other people for help—”

Hoot, Owl scolded.

“Listen– It was stupid, okay? I got hurt and it was almost a lot worse, but– listen, someone who was very hurt asked me for help, me personally and no one else, what was I supposed to do?!”

Owl snapped his beak at her angrily, and Cassandra levelled a withered finger at his face.

“Do not snap at me, mister.”

Hoot, Owl said with frustration.

Cassandra sighed, pinching the corners of her eyes for a moment. “I got my nose broken. It doesn’t hurt anymore, and it’s almost healed by now. I got injured on the right shoulder, but I dressed it best I knew how while alone, and found help for it as soon as I could. It’s very nearly healed up by now, as well. And... my arm is... worse, but I’m handling it. Listen, it wasn’t the smart thing to do, but I couldn’t do anything else. And I don’t want to ever do something like that again, especially not alone, not if I can help it at all. I said this to Fidella and I’ll say it to you, I know it’s unfair to depend on the two of you with everything I can’t do myself, and I’m going to find people to be with soon. Soon, alright?”

Hoot, Owl acquiesced reluctantly.

“Are you angry with me?”

Hoot, Owl said, conveying that he was indeed still angry, but that he was also less angry than he was concerned.

“Thank you.” Cassandra leaned down to him, and felt the flat of his beak press against her forehead for a moment, and finally smoothed a finger down the feathers on his head. “I missed you. Stay for a little before I write her back.”

Hoot, Owl told her softly before they pulled away from each other. Then he indicated the scroll case backpack with a wing.

“What, more than just the fact that Raps must have hand-sewed that thing entirely for—” Cassandra broke off as she opened it, and saw the sheer amount of paper inside. “—oh, brother.”

Hoot, Owl encouraged.

“No, I– no. Tomorrow. That is too long to start going through right now. Right now, let’s just get you something to eat.”

Hoot, Owl insisted.

“There’s art, too?” Cassandra asked dryly. Then shook her head, exasperated, but with herself rather than with the perspective of Rapunzel having packed drawings along with the letter. “Of course there’s art, what am I even saying.”

She tucked the scroll case away and walked back into the Brigand’s dining area, close to empty so late at night, and asked Sebastian for the best cuts he could give Owl at this hour. Soon after, she went back into the stable proper, where Owl and Fidella greeted each other with a hoot and a nicker before Owl settled comfortably on a rafter and was fast asleep seconds later. Cassandra smiled as she looked up at him, and opened the small cylindrical backpack to sort the multiple pages filled with Rapunzel’s rich, flowing handwriting from the paintings.

There were three, in total.

One was pretty straightforward: a cityscape of Castle Corona, in Rapunzel’s usual cheerful, almost lineless style and seamlessly blending pastel colours. It was still a representation accurate enough for Cassandra to recognize the sights, the streets, the shop signs—and an image much more put together than the one she had left behind. Repairs must have progressed without issue, she thought even as she started noticing details, more intricate ones than she was used to from seeing Rapunzel’s art and, occasionally, from having to scrub it from some of the flat surfaces the princess had gotten her hands and her paints on. She could pick out which buildings in the picture had newer walls and fresh plaster, like scars sheared against the city’s shell. She could guess which window the view had been painted from—and it was not Rapunzel’s room, surprisingly, but her own. And, she couldn’t help but notice, there was a lovingly rendered figure of a lone rider on the bridge to the mainland, heading away from the city under a sunset if the colours playing across the sky and the way the shadows fell were any indication, and into a star-wreathed moonrise.

One was a very thorough departure from Raps’ usual work, and Cassandra would’ve sat up at the sight of it if laying down in a hammock allowed the motion. Not only was the subject very different, but the method as well, a concentrated effort towards a more candid, almost photorealistic style—and the subject was hands, sometimes a pair, sometimes only the left, but each time turned so that the palm or palms faced the viewer, a study sheet of how the lines played against motion and light. Rapunzel’s own hands, Cassandra guessed, both from the angle and from trying to imagine her asking someone else to sit still for her long enough—cupped to drink water from, captured midway through a come-hither gesture, reaching out as if to grab something, folded inwards to examine her fingernails, and in the centre of the page, laced with palms open to the sky and the thumbs touching lightly, the way Cassandra knew Raps would usually hold them when she wanted to meditate. And in each but the central piece, Cassandra noticed on a closer look, there was a slightly discoloured stripe across the palms, the skin a little more glossy and hinting at a coarser texture. Burn scars, she recognized, and tried to think of when that could have happened, but came up with nothing. In the central piece, and that piece only, the scars were touched with colour: a hint of Rapunzel’s usual tendency for adding ornaments and embellishments, but even in that a very tame instance of it, working only with what was already there—glowing yellows curling in soft waves, icy blues carving in jagged crack-patterns. The Sundrop and Moonstone, Cassandra realized slowly, a rising recollection of an explosion consuming Zhan Tiri’s bloated demonic form, then a violent mixture of motion in impossible directions and pressure too crushing to remain human underneath and light so harsh as to be screamingly painful, then a starburst of something dizzying and incomprehensible inside her chest, then her lungs full and her heart beating, and her eyes cracking open, and the first thing she saw was Rapunzel, hair blown about and hands folded around something little and a spherical halo of the same glowing yellows curling in soft waves, the same icy blues carving in jagged crack-patterns, surrounding her entire body. So she was now carrying physical marks from the stones, too.

And one was almost a midway point between Raps’ usual style and this new effort at capturing a different way of looking at the world: a place, one that Cassandra didn’t recognize. A pond in the middle of a meadow full of indistinct wildflowers and low-to-the-ground shrubbery, a soft mist of fireflies rising through to illuminate it only barely enough for the edges of dark leaves and stems to be visible, here and there. The main source of light in the scene was a full moon, white and blue and impossibly large as it took up most of the sky. Its lowest edge stood framed with three extremely familiar, sharp spikes of glossy black rock—almost as if they were supporting it, like a small stand fitted to a fortune-teller’s crystal ball. And against the moon’s soft but unyielding light, two more details were visible: a spiral staircase leading down the pond’s clear water, and a dark silhouette of a person seated before the pond itself, with their back to the viewer, their legs crossed and their hands rested against their knees and their hair cut short enough not to reach their shoulders. Raps herself, Cassandra realized. Sitting still and contemplative in a silent, moonlit space.

She set the pieces aside for a moment, staring at the stable’s ceiling now. Apparently, the theme had stuck, and she didn’t quite know how to feel about that. On the one hand, taking the Moonstone had been one of the least selfless acts she could ever commit.

But it had, unequivocally, served to save Rapunzel’s life. For the princess, for the kingdom, for the oath Cassandra had sworn before King Frederic before they all left—it had served to protect the integrity and the future of Corona, and the life of her first close friend, even in her burgeoning resentment towards both.

Even in her defiance, it had been an act of service. Even in her rebellion, she had been used to advance the interests of another. And if Raps had associated the sun with herself and the moon with Cassandra, it was still a way to see and define Cassandra through the lens of how she related to Rapunzel, and not for who and what she was herself.

Yet on the other hand, ceding a lunar motif to Cassandra was almost an acknowledgement of her claim to the Moonstone. Almost a recognition of the act and an acceptance of it for what it was, for all that it was: a desperate attempt to make her listen, a display of loyalty despite having never been respected for it, and a declaration of war, all in one. Almost an extended hand so that Cassandra could take it and pull herself up to a position beside her, to a more equal status. And that—that felt good.

Cassandra looked at the piece with the pond again. She would have expected Raps to think of the black rocks as a threat, not a support; she would have expected Raps to be uncomfortable bathed in shadows and cold colours, not voluntarily paint herself at peace among them. But if she was looking at the moon and thinking of Cassandra—

She tucked the paintings back into the scroll case, and folded it into her arms. Now it was time to sleep, not to work herself up thinking about her feelings.

Morning came, and with it a drizzle, the rainfall not as intense as earlier in the week but entirely enough to feel like Silberstadt would never be free of mud again. Cassandra looked across the town square, relieved to find both Sigrid and Hanalei working at the smithy as they did every day, and entered the Brigand’s dining floor for breakfast. This time, however, she took her plate and tankard and Owl’s small bowl of raw meat to a seat beside the fireplace, hoping that the warmth would ease the persistent ache in her withered arm a little. And after she ate, with Owl perched atop a neighbouring chair, she opened his backpack again and unfolded the letter’s multiple pages at last.

Hi, Cass.

Thank you for writing, and for the gifts you sent with the letter—I haven’t figured out each yet, but I’m going to. What a wonderful puzzle! It was so sweet of you to give me something to solve, too, it’s almost like I’m out there in the world with you. Thank you for letting me be a part of your travels, even in a small way like this.

Cassandra smiled. Distance had helped to make it disarming, rather than frustrating, how Raps could get so excited about the smallest things. Of all the people Cassandra knew, the one who would treasure a bunch of clutter the most was the crown princess of a prominent kingdom—how ironic, and how rare an irony that brought with it a sense of warmth instead of a bitter aftertaste.

Hoot, Owl said, alerting her to the fact that someone in the tavern was watching her read.

“Oh?” Cassandra kept her eyes firmly off the direction he was indicating. “Then keep an eye and let me know if they start walking up or leave the building, please.”

Hoot, Owl acquiesced easily.

“Thanks.” Cassandra went back to reading.

I’m really happy to hear you’re doing better. I think I’m starting to, as well, even if it doesn’t feel like that at all. In my weaker moments, I miss the times when I honestly believed that getting better is a painless or effortless experience, that just feeling happy meant I was doing well. But, even when I think these thoughts again, I know now that confusing happiness for wellness like that was a luxury I’ve claimed at the expense of everyone around me. I know now that it was a disservice to myself, as well, no matter how comfortable it was to resist change like that. So I pause only for long enough to rest up a little, and then I try again, no matter how hard it’s going to be. And it is hard, and painful, and I feel ashamed and angry more often than I know what to do with. I look at what I’ve been doing, and at why I’ve been acting like that, and I find myself outraged and disappointed, with myself for doing it, with those I’ve learned such behaviours from, with myself again for letting them shape me this way without thinking and for dismissing the concerns and advice of people who have tried to steer me down a better path. I want to believe I’m better than that—or at least, that I can be, and try my hardest to do better and be better, so I don’t have to start honestly hating myself now.

You’re one of my closest friends, Cass. Do you remember when we agreed, together, to try and find out how to be friends? I think about that every day, about how you laughed and finally allowed me to really see you, and about how thoroughly I’ve been failing you ever since. For as long as we know each other, I’ve been treating you terribly, and whenever you tried to get me to understand it and to stop, I brushed you off so that I wouldn’t have to listen. I’ll never be able to apologize to you enough. The only way to come close, I think, is to make sure I become someone who will never treat another person like that again—for you, for me, for everyone I know and love, for everyone I’ll ever meet.

I thought the first promise I broke was to Varian. I can’t stand the thought, the truth, of that I couldn’t even acknowledge how many times I’ve gone back on my word when it had been given to you.

“You could have warned me she was going to get this emotional,” Cassandra told Owl, her voice a little weak and barely short of cracking.

Hoot, Owl rebuked firmly.

Cassandra cleared her throat, uncomfortably tight all of a sudden, and made sure to make the sound vaguely irritated. It was easier to be angry than to be hurt, and she was not about to cry in the middle of an inn where people looked up to her somewhat.

I’m sorry I kept pushing you to tell me things you weren’t comfortable sharing, and only ever dismissed them after you did. It was a horrible and thoughtless and cruel way to treat you. I’m sorry I refused to accept your choices and kept making excuses for you. I thought I was helping, but what I’ve done instead was belittle you yet another time and make it look like you couldn’t be left alone with your own actions. I’m sorry I drove you away, twice over now. I’m sorry I never listened. I’m listening now. Anything you decide to tell me. And if you decide that you don’t trust me with saying anything, that’s okay too, because I’ve earned distrust like that more than enough.

“...Damn it.” Cassandra rubbed at her eyes with withered fingers, sniffed, exhaled slowly. She was not about to cry in the middle of the Brigand’s dining floor, not before hell froze over.

I hope it’s okay to bring this up: do you know I’ve kept Pascal secret from Gothel, for all those years he spent in the tower with me? In what fragmented and twisted understanding of love I had back then, I loved her. If someone had asked, I’d say it outright, without thinking. (If there had been anyone to ask me, back there.) But even despite that, I couldn’t deny that she’d hurt him if she knew. I was afraid that she’d take him away from me, one way or another, if she knew. So I kept him secret when she was home, and played hide-and-seek with him when she wasn’t, so he’d have practice in keeping himself safe in case anything bad ever happened.

I feel so stupid for how long it took me to realize that I’ve spent two years forcing you to keep things secret from me in the exact same way. And so ashamed for having done that to you in the first place.

Cassandra closed her eyes for a moment. Even as Zhan Tiri had gleefully fed the blazing furnace of her anger, resentment, and hatred—even at her lowest and most fire-blinded with the intensity of those feelings—and as she was being steered towards taking out the pain of it all on Rapunzel, for taking everything from her down to and including her own mother, it hadn’t been about Cassandra’s mother being taken away. Not truly. Not to a girl who had been raised a servant in the royal court, looking up to the royal guard, a girl who breathed loyalty and thought in categories of responsibility and prided herself immensely on being unfalteringly reliable.

At the core, it had been about even the worst person in existence—the one who had destabilized the entire kingdom and its future with one abhorrent act—cutting her losses with Cassandra, only to raise another child. And it was only made worse for how her own father had neglected to tell her the truth, for how she knew by then that she could not confide even in her closest friends with the newly-regained memory and all its terrible implications. If that was where she had come from, if even that had discarded her at such a young age, how could she possibly be worth anything?

And from there, she had been so easy to manipulate into aggressively trying to prove herself, to herself, to the world. And she had been so easy to break, so completely, simply by revealing that she had been nothing but a tool the entire time, all over again.

And, Cassandra had to admit before herself as she felt her jaw tighten, even after that entire ordeal, she was still far from immune. What had she done, ever since leaving Castle Corona, ever since coming here to the endlessly fought over no-man’s-land between territories claimed firmly by Equis and Koto?

All she had done for almost three months now was trying to prove herself. To prove she was worth something. To prove she was good enough for something, for anything. Already, she had gone to suicidal lengths to prove it, before herself, before others, and she had only lived to tell about it and be told about because she had been smart, careful, well-equipped, and lucky. Three of which she could attribute to being raised by a brave, steadfast, good man. To plan, to measure her strengths against the enemy’s weaknesses, to demand supplies she needed without hesitation and use them to the fullest without any excess pride getting in the way—those were the lessons her father taught her. Those were the lessons worth holding close to the heart and carrying with her for the rest of her life. Not the ones branded against the same heart with the irons of her mother’s cruelty.

In allowing that decades-old cruelty to shape her in any way, in allowing it to dictate her actions and thoughts even so long afterwards, lied her weakness—and she would hammer it out if it killed her to do so, Cassandra promised herself coldly.

I’m a slow learner when it comes to people, I guess. Another thing I can probably blame on growing up in the tower. But I’m coming to learn, too, what the difference between a reason and an excuse is. Saying 'I spent my entire childhood and adolescence confined to a single room' is a reason for why I’m like this. Letting that confinement be an argument against growing up, no matter how belatedly, turns it into an excuse. I owe it to you, and to everyone else, to do better than that. I think I even owe it to myself to do better than that. If I love the world, if I love you guys, then I can’t act like a child anymore, or I’ll make a mockery of that love and turn it into a burden. And I’ve already been a burden long enough.

Remember when Eugene and you fought the disguised guards, back in Varian’s laboratory room, a few days after the blizzard? It was the first time I watched you hit the ground and not get back up immediately after. I don’t think I’ve been that scared, in my entire life, more than a handful of times.

Up until that moment, in my eyes you were unbreakable. Nothing bad could ever happen, because you were there, because you were so strong you could fight back everything I’ve ever been afraid of all by yourself. What a selfish and child-like way to think—to absolve myself of considering that you could be hurt, that your feelings were as real as mine, that I should act on the respect and admiration I feel towards you instead of let them be just a feeling and a meaningless one through how unexpressed it was.

It was a childish way to think, Cassandra admitted reluctantly, but if so, then it was no less childish to eat it up like she had. She’d been so desperate for someone to look up to her, for someone to rely on her and see her as strong and capable, that she allowed Rapunzel to push her into such a role with absolutely no resistance, no matter how impossible it was to measure up, and had been from the very start.

In the end, it had served neither of them. In the end, it had only enabled both of their worst habits: Rapunzel’s to push without a smidge of consideration, and Cassandra’s to yield against it on a desperate hope that the submission and the disregard of herself would buy her affection.

But, even in unlearning that unreasonable and unfair burden I had placed on you, I can’t even entertain the thought that you aren’t strong. You are. And I know it so deeply because you’re the one I learned the real meaning of strength from. Before I left the tower, I was kept afraid of the world, of its people, of dangers I wouldn’t even see sneaking up on me in the dark. I’ve not unlearned these fears yet. I don’t know if I ever will. I have nightmares of being afraid every other night. Some nights, I delay going to sleep for as long as I can, just because I’m scared of facing those dreams again.

You, though, you’ve never allowed fear to stop you.

When we were warned that the Moonstone would kill anyone who touched it, you grabbed it and smashed it into your chest. When I was confined to the castle for how unsafe it was beyond its walls, you snuck me outside and stayed near me the entire time. Whenever I insisted on doing something risky, you came along and kept me safe throughout, no matter how hurt you could get in the process. Whenever there was danger or difficulty, you found a way to conquer it. You always risked yourself first, and yourself only if at all possible. You never mocked me for how pulled I am to light and warmth, like the lanterns I’ve spend eighteen years dreaming of, and never allowed your own brightness to burn me like a moth or to fireblind me, only illuminated my way as you stood beside me. Instead of letting me pretend the world could never be as bad as I was made to be scared of, you showed me the beauty and the grotesque of it, and you didn’t let me feel betrayed or threatened by the latter. Instead of hiding me from the dark, you led me by the hand through it—Cassandra, you are my moonlight. No matter how far you go, you’re always with me in the ways you’ve poured yourself into my heart and gave me the courage to face its worst and ugliest corners. I’ll be as brave as you. I’ll be as honest as you. And I hope I can grow up into someone at least occasionally as strong as you, through it. I’ll look up to you like I look up into the night sky. I’ll make myself worth of all you’ve given me. I hope that one day, no matter how far in the future, I’ll become someone you can be proud of. And it’s okay if you don’t believe I’d do all that for you. Like I said, no one has the right to blame you for not believing me after I’ve failed you so many times already. It’s okay, because you also taught me that sometimes we need to do the right, difficult thing no matter what other people will think of us for it.

So that was where the motif had come from, Cassandra thought with her throat tight all over again. She pulled out one of the drawings again—the one with the pond in the meadow. The one where Rapunzel had painted herself sitting, peaceful and safe, under the light of the moon held up with three black rocks, as it shone down on her in an incredibly peaceful scene, an image that felt almost sacred for how soothing and intimate it was.

That was how she felt about Cassandra’s staying influence in her life?

I’m learning to see things as they really are. The world, my friends, my family, myself. I’ve scarred my hands taking the Sundrop and Moonstone after they were together again, did you know that? It’s okay if you didn’t. I tried to hide it from you. I didn’t know why, at the time, I just felt too many contradictory things about the possibility of letting you see. I can admit it now: I was afraid you’d hate me all over again for how it’s nowhere near as bad as your arm. Sometimes, when I feel terrible about myself or when I can’t sleep, I catch myself thinking that it should be worse—that I deserve it being worse, for what I’ve done to you with the decay spell. It’s the worst thing I’ve caused to happen, to you or to anyone else. And it’s yet another thing that had happened because I didn’t listen.

It’s so easy to feel guilty. It’s so easy to fall on old habits and make myself small instead of making up for what I did wrong, instead of making sure I never, ever, do these things again. To stay selfish and act like the pain and hardship I’ve caused to others is not about them, but about myself, like I can erase it by putting myself through the same amount of it.

I won’t let myself off the hook so easily. I won’t let myself stop trying to better myself just because it’s difficult. And that, too, is something I’ve learned from you, Cass.

Corona is rebuilding from the battle, from what Zhan Tiri did to us all. It’s only rebuilding because everyone is putting a lot of hard work into making things better. So I’ll put a lot of hard work into making things better, as well. If I’m to be responsible for this kingdom one day—if I’m a little responsible for it, already—I have to be worth its respect. I have to be worth being followed, like on the day the Captain had been hurt and you stepped up for him, and everyone rallied to you without a second thought. So this will be the next thing I learn from you.

I miss you. But I'm glad to hear from you. Be safe and happy in your travels.

Rapunzel.

Cassandra slowly sat back in her chair, laying the letter against the table.

She had been bracing herself for at least one plea to come home or at least visit soon. Nothing of the sort was present. Quite the contrary, Raps had finished with an indirect encouragement to run wild and free for as long as she wanted to, because a letter was enough—and maybe an implication that a letter was more than Raps had been hoping for, or considered herself deserving of.

This was a lot, Cassandra couldn’t deny as she folded the pages chronologically again and absent-mindedly smoothed her withered thumb over a small doodle of Pascal amid curling branches and leaves in a corner of the first page. And even if she hadn’t already asked Owl to stay for a little before flying back to Corona with a response, she was going to need a while to re-read Rapunzel’s letter, possibly more than once, really sit with it for a while, and think of what to write back to her.

But if Raps was serious about fixing things between them, she wouldn’t begrudge Cassandra for taking her time.

Come to think of it, Raps hadn’t said anything about Cassandra having taken over a month to write in the first place, she realized slowly. Only about how happy she had been to hear from Cassandra at all.

She looked at the letter again. Then thought about the paintings that had come with it, about the differences, the newfound depth of detail, the entirely unexpected and very thorough attempt at a different style.

Raps had already started doing some of the things she was talking about, without waiting for Cassandra’s approval, hadn’t she?

Owl gave an alarm call, and Cassandra’s head snapped up even as she folded the letter shut. A woman in undyed homespun clothes startled to a halt mere steps from Cassandra’s table at that reaction. She was recognizable, though not immediately—the one who had recently been taking a seat at the Brigand’s countertop in the spot hidden from the entrance, and slinked a little closer to the wall every time the Tysons’ farmhand tried to come in and was immediately yelled back out by Sebastian.

“May I, um, may I take a moment of your time?”

“Is that why you’ve been staring at me since I came in?” Cassandra asked, only a little incredulous.

The woman’s cheeks coloured slightly. “Well, I didn’t– you were eating, and then you were reading. I didn’t want to interrupt.”

“Considerate of you.” Cassandra pushed one of the free chairs away from the table with a foot. “Sit. What’s this about?”

“My name is Moreen Tyson,” the woman said as she perched at the edge of the offered chair, hands clasped nervously before her on the table. “My parents and me, we’re not from Silberstadt proper, our farm is a ways north-northeast from here. I was supposed to come over first and ask after what’s needed that we could sell or trade for, and my folks were to come a few days later, but... that was almost two weeks square past, and... no one showed up yet. No one but Carter, Carter Jenkins, he came to us for work shortly after my brother went into the Kotoan army, he’s been helping around ever since.”

“Sebastian said you were scared of him,” Cassandra said with a frown.

Moreen looked away with a strained look on her face, and nodded quickly. “He never... did anything, but... he never had the chance to, if you catch my meaning.”

“I might.” Cassandra cleared her throat after she heard how cold her voice sounded all of a sudden. “So what is it that you want from me? Put the screws to him until he tells me what happened?”

“No. No, he said that bandits came to the farm and he ran, but it’s safe to go back with him now.”

“That does sound like the exact last thing you should do,” Cassandra agreed with a raised eyebrow.

Moreen laughed a little, if nervously. “Bandits raiding, soldiers marching—it’s always a risk in these parts. But because of that, it’s always a convenient excuse for something worse, too. I don’t think he’s telling the truth. I’m afraid something worse had happened, and– Ramon said to talk to you, and Bastian here said you’ve been helping the clinic folks just because, and I don’t know if there’s anything left to pay you with, but, won’t you help me? Please? I don’t know if I have a home or a family to go back to—”

Cassandra leaned forward to lay a hand against the farmer’s arm. “Calm down. I’ll help. Just take a deep breath, then tell me what you need.”

“Thank you. Sorry. I’m– heavens, I’ve been worried sick.” Moreen pressed a hand to her eyes for a moment in an effort to calm herself down, then looked up at Cassandra again. “Could you please go to my family’s farm and check on them? Find out what happened and come back and tell me? I know it’s not a job board thing, and that Teagan won’t let you back in if you do work off the board, but I don’t know that I could pay the fee.”

“It’s fine. I was thinking about moving towns soon, anyway.” Cassandra withdrew her arm, and packed the folded letter back into the scroll case, then tied it to her belt so that it would be hidden under her cloak. “How many people are living at the farm, barring you and that Jenkins guy?”

“Just my parents. So two.”

“And Sebastian is keeping you safe here, I take it?”

“Yes. Yes, he’s been very good to me.”

“Do you think you can come out with me long enough to give me directions to your family’s farm?”

“Long as I’m not alone outside, yes.”

“Come on, then.” Cassandra tapped her left shoulder for Owl to perch on, and rose from her chair.

They walked outside the Brazen Brigand’s doorstep, and Moreen pointed down one of the mud-filled streets as she described the distance and the landmarks in an unexpected amount of detail. Once she was done, Cassandra placed her withered hand on the farmer’s shoulder in a gesture meant to reassure.

“Stay safe, and wait for me. I’ll be back as soon as I’m able.”

“You’ll go right away, then?” Moreen hedged in a hopeful tone.

“I mean, I just ate and I don’t have anything better to do.”

Moreen breathed out a sigh of relief. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

“You can thank me after I bring you good news,” Cassandra rebuked, but tried to keep her tone gentle through it. “Which, you realize I probably won’t.”

Moreen nodded quickly, eyes downcast. “I know. It’s been two weeks. I’m expecting the worst, but I need to know for certain. So thank you for helping, even if it’s too late to help.”

Cassandra inclined her head at that, and watched the farmer go back indoors before she took Fidella out of the stable.

Hoot, Owl commented.

“I told you I don’t want to do dangerous things again if I can help it at all,” Cassandra said dryly.

Hoot, Owl praised.

Snort, Fidella said grimly, whipping her tail against her hindquarters in the rain.

“Oh, I know we’re going to find everyone dead. I asked her, and she seems prepared for it, too.” Cassandra nudged the mare down the street, towards the path to Tyson farm. “This is the second family I’m gonna have to dig a grave for here, you do realize that? I’ll need to buy a shovel at this rate.”