“I thought you would’ve left by now,” Sebastian said to Cassandra as he placed a full plate before her and Moreen each. “Gone home to Corona, or crossed the border into Koto. The guards aren’t going to get any nicer here, you know.”
“I know. I just don’t care all that much.” Cassandra slipped a silver to the server who brought them two tankards of the usual weak ale, and who beamed and grabbed the coin before scurrying off. “We’ll be heading north soon, anyway.”
Cassandra nodded. As did Moreen, if with a sigh.
“I can’t work the farm alone. I’m going to try and find a trade, and maybe... maybe if my brother comes back, we’ll see what to do about the farm.”
“Roderick, right?” Sebastian asked with a frown. “Stout lad, red hair, dogs love him?”
“That’s him, yes.”
“Well, I’ll tell him where to look for you if I see him.”
“Thank you. And Bastian? There’s, um– there’s one other thing,” Moreen said uncertainly. “I’ve a cat at the farm that it would just be cruelty to haul along, and there’s no one left to take care of her here, she’s an outdoor cat but she’s used to having people around and to sleeping inside, and she’s a really good mouser—”
Sebastian held up a hand in a calming gesture. “I’ll look after your cat for you. What’s her name?”
“Barley. And thank you again. I was– I was really worried about what would happen to her.”
“Hey.” Sebastian put a hand on the farmer’s shoulder. “We help each other out. That’s how everyone gets by. Trouble comes, and we face it together, and we pick each other up afterwards. Which, speaking of trouble, you’re not worried about Carter anymore?”
Moreen smiled a little. “I’ll never worry about him again.”
“He won’t be causing trouble anymore,” Cassandra said at the same time, slicing a chunk of beet into two smaller pieces.
Sebastian looked between them, then glanced to the hilt of Cassandra’s sword peeking over her shoulder and laughed. “That’s good. Damn, but I never liked him. Something just... wrong was staring out of his eyes, you know? Like he thought things were his just because he wanted them, and that people were things for him to own or toss away, too.”
“Those kind of people are a nightmare to live with,” Cassandra said flatly. When she realized that both Moreen and Sebastian were looking at her as if they expected her to continue, she shrugged and poked at her food again. “My, uh... my best friend was raised by a woman like that.”
Sebastian winced sympathetically. “Oof, that’s got to leave a mark. I hope they can walk out of her shadow, and sooner rather than later.”
Cassandra put another slice of beetroot in her mouth to delay answering, and thought back to the multiple pages of a letter packed away safely between rarely used belongings as she chewed. She thought of what she had written back in response to it, and what Raps probably had in her hands by now.
Forgiveness was a tough thing to dole out, and only harder for how it used to be squeezed out of her whether she had been ready to even consider giving it or not. But she did still love Raps, and hoped—against hope and against her better sense—for a day when that love was something she could safely give, rather than a chain to be threaded through the collar of her loyalty and yanked on to throw her to her knees and keep her back bent, her head bowed, her hands pressed into the ground. A day when that love was no longer poisoned with resentment she couldn’t help but answer such treatment with. A day when admitting that love was no longer an act of surrender and a trial of her bravery, a rephrase of 'do what you will to me', with no certainty that anything to come afterwards would be endurable.
But if Raps was serious about what she had written, and as ready to follow it up with concrete action as she seemed to be, then maybe there was a chance that such a day would really dawn. Someday.
She looked up when she noticed another person approaching, and recognized Teagan as he pulled up a chair at her other side.
“Curfew closed up shop, huh?”
“Hard to be selling when no one’s allowed outside to buy,” Cassandra said dryly.
“I guess it must be. Hey, Bastian. Just an ale, please.” Teagan passed a few silver to Sebastian before leaning his elbow on the countertop as he turned to Cassandra again. “So... you found yourself a job off the board.”
“So I did.”
“So you know I can’t let you back inside.”
“Um,” Moreen said as she leaned out from behind Cassandra. “I’m not actually sure whether I’ll be able to pay her at all.”
Teagan stared at her. Then dragged a hand through his hair in a frustrated gesture. “Well fuck, now my entire speech of 'rules are rules, and the rules are the same for everyone' falls apart, doesn’t it?”
Cassandra snorted. “I can listen to it anyway, if that’ll make you feel better.”
“Eh, that was pretty much the whole speech.” Teagan retrieved his tankard from Sebastian and tapped its rim against Cassandra’s, which she acknowledged with a nod. “So you’re doing this all for Moreen here free of charge?”
“Blood money paid well enough,” Cassandra said with a shrug.
“That it did.” The job board’s minder drank a long pull. “Damn. Now what the hell do I do?”
“Nothing. No need to give the guards any excuses. We’re leaving soon enough anyway, and I don’t plan to be coming back.”
“Fair. Heading south or north?”
“North,” Moreen said for both of them.
Teagan nodded at that. “Riddersbrug is a big place, but it might be a little safer for you to get away from the border. Plus, the citizenry is a lot more mixed there, with a lot of mercenaries as well. Don’t think the guards will be as abrasive as here.”
Cassandra gave him an unconvinced look. “Didn’t these reinforcements come down from there?”
“Yeah, but they’ve been ordered to keep a sharper eye on anyone who’s not Equisian enough. Sorry, 'to safeguard the loyal citizens of the Crown against insurrectionists', is how they put it.”
“Do they actually believe this town is capable of an armed revolt?” Moreen asked incredulously.
“I mean, fuck, if they keep harassing the mercenary veterans and the mine folks like they’ve been, they’ll have one on their hands whether we’re capable of it or not.”
Cassandra paused at that. “They’re splitting this place into the town and the mine versus themselves and the Scarlet Brigade, aren’t they?”
“I don’t think that was the guards’ or the Reds’ initial plan, but it’s certainly what’s happening,” Teagan admitted with a frown. “The Brigade has been going crazy for some weeks now, and it’s not normal for them to thrash about this much. They’re going hard at it. Really hard. I don’t know if the guards had someone instigate it, or if they’re just making use of a coincidence, but they’ve got the Shankers and the Rats in pincers. It’s hard to watch, really.”
“Aren’t those two groups bandit outfits?” Cassandra said dryly, keeping silent about the jade medallion she had pulled from the mine.
Teagan waved her off. “A little highway robbery never killed nobody! Least, nobody who didn’t already sign up for the risk. No one in the Shankers or the Rats has delusions of grandeur. Or in the Coon Tails, for that matter. They just want to live. The Scarlet Brigade, on the other hand, thinks it’s on par with a kingdom’s army and it’s dying to prove that point against anyone handy. That, right there, would be us.”
Cassandra thought that over, one hand at her chin. “What about the Shanker that the guards put in the clinic? The one who helped bury the dead at Richter farm?”
“Who, Simon? Never woke up. Died about a week ago.” Teagan stared down his tankard with a grimace. “The Rats lost one of theirs in that scuffle, too, didn’t they?”
“They did,” Cassandra recalled, and turned her head to look across the Brigand’s dining floor.
She was used to seeing the place reasonably crowded in the evenings—townsfolk, farmers, hirelings for work in the field and for work with a sword, bandits with rat skull headbands and bandits with dagger tattoos. She was also used to seeing the Rats and the Shankers keeping a reasonable distance from each other, a tenuous sort of unspoken non-aggression pact, a group of one outfit’s bandits clustered at their own table and a group of the other’s at least two tables away from that.
Now she was seeing Shankers and Rats at the same tables. Not exactly friendly to each other, not in the way they were with members of their own outfit each. But they were sitting in mixed groups nonetheless, talking and drinking together, playing games of cards and dice together, actually making a mutual effort to transform that non-aggression pact into a full-blown alliance.
Cassandra turned back to Teagan. “Are you sure Sigrid went out of town just for fletch?”
“You’ve got blue in your quiver, yeah?” the ex-mercenary who usually minded the job board sipped the remains of his ale. “Then you should know it’s not what she went out of town for, it’s what she’s gonna fletch with it.”
And that remark didn’t quite let her sleep afterwards, not when coupled with Sigrid’s comment as she had dragged Carter away in a headlock, I was thinking about finding myself something already soaked through with death. Coming from anyone other than a sorceress, it would’ve been a threat as empty as it was indirect. In Sigrid’s mouth, it was more of a promise.
Cassandra sat in the hammock hung inside Fidella’s stall in the stable, thinking. Then scratched her good hand through her scalp and untied her too-long hair. She ground her teeth as it fell in her face, and silently thanked whatever twist of fate or nudge of intuition responsible for that when she was gathering up things to take with herself on the road, back in Castle Corona, she hadn’t packed a mirror.
She combed her hair back with her fingers, and brushed it off her face again after laying down. Cut it back to a comfortable length or grit her teeth and grow it out until she could actually do something with it, things could only get better from here.
And no matter how tempting that dagger’s fine edge looked when she had her hair gathered up at the back of her head in the morning, she took the blue ribbon instead of the knife. She was far enough away from Corona. No one would know Gothel here. No one would look at her and instead see the cruelty and selfishness that had borne her.
Despite these thoughts, Cassandra was still far from fully awake when she walked out of the Brigand’s stable, intent on entering the dining floor instead. All traces of sleepiness evaporated when she looked up from rubbing her eyes open and saw a small procession of people limping into town from the direction of the mine, Ramon’s old chestnut pulling what looked to be an old mining cart with sides sheared down to turn it more shallow and filled with the forms of a few unmoving people covered in tattered fabrics and sheepskins, his rider on foot beside him and half-leading, half-dragging another person forward, a person who was one of many there to bear clear signs of injury: bloodied bandages, makeshift splints, leaning heavily on walking sticks or each other.
Cassandra rushed over, only speeding up as she noticed one of them walking on soft legs, and caught them seconds before their knees gave out. “Whoa. You’re okay, lean against me.”
She heard a tired chuckle, and the person she had just steadied on their feet reached one shaky hand to throw back the hood of their cloak, showing Eliza with a weak grin, her face pale and haggard, her eyes bloodshot and too glossy.
“I’m starting to see why the first thing my father called you was heaven-sent.”
“You’re injured as well?”
“No, but I think I have a fever, and I was up through the night. The guards, they—thank you—they refused to let us in before sunrise.” Eliza leaned her forehead against her shoulder when Cassandra swept her knees from under her and started carrying her towards the clinic. “Four people died overnight, because of a stupid curfew.”
Cassandra went silent at that. The ever-present mud beyond the town square’s cobbles was solid; a paper-thin sheet of ice covered every puddle in sight. There was being a stickler for the rules, and then there was gleeful malice from behind the excuse of upholding the law.
“What happened?” she asked when she remembered her tongue.
“There’s a gang war in the mine. I don’t know what else to call it. Heavens, my hands are shaking, I can’t operate like this...”
“I think more than just your hands are shaking,” Cassandra told the surgeon gently as she felt another tremor run through Eliza’s entire body—cold, exhaustion, who knew what else. “Let’s get you home to bed.”
Eliza let out a groan of protest at that. “No. I have work to do.”
“You know, someone very wise once told me that you can’t help anyone if you’re falling apart, yourself.”
“Why did I ever give you advice?” Eliza asked with a sigh.
“I don’t know, but I know there’s still going to be work to be done after you’re well enough to do it. Don’t waste your strength arguing your own advice with me,” Cassandra said as she carried the surgeon into the clinic.
And the clinic immediately became a pandemonium of frantic activity, what with over a dozen wounded coming in all at once, at the same time as one of the three healers there was put out of commission. Over the initial burst of work that Cassandra, Ramon, and a few able-bodied of the newcomers had stayed to assist with however they could—holding the wounded bandits down as their broken bones were realigned, helping others ascend the stairs to the clinic’s beds, heating water and passing bandages or remedies to Emil and Bruno as they called out for more—she counted six wounded with rat skull headbands across their foreheads, five with dagger tattoos on their forearms, and three with raccoon tails pinned to their belts.
By the time she walked back into the Brazen Brigand, Cassandra was feeling a little light-headed herself, for the amount of effort she had undertaken before having a meal or a sip of water. She found Moreen without trouble, and hailed Sebastian with her withered hand. “Sorry to have worried you, there was a bit of trouble at the clinic.”
“So I can see.” The farmer looked at the rest of the dining floor, where the uninjured of the newly arrived Shankers and Rats were still talking animatedly with their compatriots who had been in town longer. “Will we be alright to get more things for sale from the farm tomorrow, do you think?”
“Yeah, I think so.” Cassandra nodded at Sebastian as he came up. “Hey, whatever you’ve got left for breakfast, please.”
“Oh, we’re still running breakfast orders no problem, look at the crowd we’ve got today,” Sebastian said as he gestured at the amount of people in his tavern. “Are the clinic folks okay? I hear there’s been a bunch of wounded coming in, after some major scuffles in the mine.”
“Eliza looks like she’s caught a bad cold. Emil and Bruno are okay, but they have a lot of people on their hands now,” Cassandra said simply as she folded her hands across the countertop. “Three of them Coon Tails, from what I could tell.”
Sebastian’s eyes widened at that. He leaned towards the kitchen’s entrance for a moment. “José! Hie yourself to the smithy, check if Sigrid’s back yet!”
“I’m assuming injured Coon Tails are bad news?” Cassandra asked as one of the Brigand’s servers sped out the door.
“That is one way to put it,” Sebastian agreed in a strained tone. “First of all, it’s extremely bad news that the Reds raised a hand on the Coon Tails at all, instead of negotiate. Secondly, the Coon Tails are a 'one for all, all for one' club—if there’s any wounded among them, they will not sit down until the people responsible are put down, Koto-style, cut the tongue that gave the order and the hand that carried it out. Third of all, I’m pretty sure some of the old mining equipment is still stashed in some of the deeper tunnels. Fire siphons included. And the Coon Tails are the only ones who know how any of it works.”
“You know, old-but-gold mining technique, spraying the rock with burning oil and freezing water in turns?”
“No, I know, I just– they were fire-setting underground?!”
“Yeah, when Koto ran the mine, mostly. Or at least, there were fewer accidents with fire-setting when Koto ran the mine,” Sebastian amended with a wince. “It’s closer to oil cauldrons used for castle or gatehouse defence than to genuine Bayangoran fire when it goes wrong, but Equis knows jack shit about when it was safe to use, anyway.”
Cassandra shook her head, incredulous. “So now there’s a gang war with the three local outfits allied against the Scarlet Brigade, and it involves genuine, if improvised, siege weaponry?”
“That about sums it up!” Sebastian turned as the boy he had sent outside ran back in. “Anything?”
“Han says she’s home, but resting,” the server panted.
“Okay, good, get back to work.” Sebastian sighed when the boy disappeared back into the kitchens. “Must have snuck back in overnight. If there was ever a bad damn time for taking a nap...”
Cassandra frowned slowly. “Wait a minute. Eliza said the guards kept her and the wounded out the gates overnight. How did Sigrid past them?”
“What, you think she’s above using magic to go in and out of town whenever she wants?” Sebastian chuckled.
“Do you think the fighting is going to spill out all the way to here?” Moreen spoke up from beside Cassandra.
Sebastian shook his head. “If anything, the Reds and the guards are going to strike a formal alliance and start pulling Rats and Shankers of the streets for court-martial on banditry charges. But it’s not like we’re gonna let that happen, not in this house. Bulk of the trouble is going to stay in the mine, especially now that the Coon Tails are involved in the fighting, rather than in making it stop so they can go back to maintaining a reasonable upkeep of the place.”
“I was under the impression that it’s unusual for the Scarlet Brigade to stir up this much trouble.” Cassandra slipped a silver to a server who brought her breakfast: a veritable mountain of bread slices that have been soaked in milk whipped with an egg and pan-fried, each with a thin layer of fruit preserve on top, and a steaming tankard of something that was very distinctly not ale. And for the better—given how hungry she was, an ale would’ve gone straight to her head. “...Is that acorn coffee?”
“Yes to both. The Reds have had a bit of infighting over leadership recently, though, way I hear it. I’d say good riddance if the new officer wasn’t this much of a blood-drunk idiot, but on the flip side, if he’s enough of a blood-drunk idiot to piss off the Coon Tails, then a lot of people are going to be mad enough to actually do something against the Reds this time. Only bad thing about that is the amount of guards in town.”
“I’m surprised they haven’t sent anyone to negotiate the terms of employment with the Scarlet Brigade yet,” Cassandra admitted with a frown.
Sebastian coughed politely, and leaned closer. “See, here’s the thing. Sending someone out and having that someone arrive are... very much not the same.”
Cassandra smiled into her tankard, only partly due to the tangy, bitter taste of the acorn coffee hitting her tongue. “I understand.”
It was a little funny how one Kotoan spy kept a riding horse, and another kept an extensive supply of poison. It was a little funny how an Ingvarrdian ex-mercenary sorceress was apparently capable of bypassing the checkpoints on her way in and out of town, and how the guards had already given her more than enough reasons to consider them her enemies.
And, Cassandra thought as she and Moreen set up shop in the late morning, it was more than a little funny how the Equisian soldiers still seemed to think that she herself was the worst of their problems.
“Are you ready to begin?” Adira asked, her tone no different than normal, even though her eyes betrayed that she had evidently noticed that things weren’t quite normal this time.
Rapunzel shook her head. “No. I can’t sit still today.” She caught herself fidgeting with her hands again, and forced herself to stop. “Could you walk with me instead?”
Adira inclined her head in an easy acquiescence. “We can push this to tomorrow, and take a walk today.”
“Can it be the day after tomorrow? I’m supposed to be present for a tax dispute tomorrow, and one more evening to think things over might help me, anyway.”
“That is not a problem for me.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
“What’s causing you so much distress?” the old warrior asked as they began to stroll along the battlements at a restless pace.
Rapunzel sighed. “Well apparently, Cass is killing people now.” She looked up at Adira in the expectant silence that followed. “And– you don’t think that’s worrying, either? She hadn’t killed anyone for as long as I’ve known her! Not even when Zhan Tiri was– Why does no one else think that if Moonstone Cass hadn’t taken a single life, then it might be strange for Right Now Cass to do it?”
Adira folded her hands behind herself, a genuinely bewildered look on her face. “Princess, you must be aware that Shorthair had always been ready to kill for you and to die for you?”
“Die for– no! Why would you even say that?!”
The old warrior cleared her throat. “Do you remember the first time I came to speak with you? Shorthair decided to fight me sooner than allow me a moment alone with you. I had her disarmed and on the ground with my weapon sheathed and both hands held behind my back. I had done that entirely on purpose, to teach her not to raise a hand on me again, because I could kill her where she stood if I wanted to—and that I didn’t want to, not unless she insisted on giving me a reason for it. I don’t think that is a lesson she ever forgot. Now, do you remember the Great Tree? Shorthair watched Hector and myself matched evenly, and then she watched him best me. She put herself between Hector and you regardless.”
Rapunzel placed a hand across her face for a moment. “Are you saying she was trying to get herself killed before having to watch something happen to me?”
“She was being clever,” Adira corrected, though not ungently. “She heard me call Hector sadistic beforehand, and played the mouse to his cat. She used her surroundings and Hector’s own cruelty to neutralize danger that she could not duel into submission—and succeeded.”
“And the part where you said she was ready to kill for me, as well?” Rapunzel asked tiredly.
“Hector, again. When Shorthair pushed him off that cliff, she had done so with the intention to kill. The only reason for why that intention had not resulted in death was that he landed on his feet.” Adira cocked her head slightly, a considering look on her face now. “Frankly, I was surprised he hadn’t tried to pull Shorthair down with him.”
“I know this is a little beside the point right now, but—” Rapunzel trailed the hand down her face and looked at the warrior beside her. “I can tell you actually remember all our names. Can you stop calling her Shorthair?”
“Just because she burned her name into my mind does not mean she’s earned the familiarity of me using it,” Adira rebuffed calmly.
“Right. That happened. Sorry. It’s just that we have gotten into fights, when we were travelling along the black rocks trail. And Cass had never killed anyone. And after she took the Moonstone, too, she was– she was cruel, at times. But she still hadn’t killed anyone. And now...”
“Okay, one at a time, then. When you were fighting people on the road,” Adira acquiesced, a note of studious patience slipping into her voice now. “Were they people who ran away when they realized they were outmatched? Besides Hector.”
Rapunzel thought back. Then hung her head. “Yes, mostly.” Then thought again as she realized something. “Wait. How do you know that? You weren’t there a lot of the time.”
Adira cleared her throat quietly. “Have you never wondered what I’ve been doing, when I was not in your presence during travel? Why I was able to head Hector and King Edmund off as quickly as I did, when you crossed into their domains?”
“I just assumed you had other things to do! You were following us the entire time? Why haven’t you joined us openly for the long run instead, then?”
“You were travelling in a masterfully constructed and richly decorated cart pulled by two palace horses, and had no guards or soldiers with you aside from the person currently driving,” Adira said with mild exasperation. “You must have been aware that you were a mobile silver platter set with gourmet meats and caviar to every highwayman within a five mile radius—if not you yourself, then Shorthair, or Fishskin, or Earring, even. I left the task of protecting you at close range to your companions, which they were adequate for against most threats, and kept at enough of a distance to spot anyone preparing to ambush your group, yet close enough to intervene before they could act. So to come back to the original question: Shorthair had killed no one because she didn’t have to—because I was wiping for you front and back. And when she had to, with Hector, it was not for the lack of trying that she didn’t. Now, when she was under the influence of Zhan Tiri, it may have actually been the cruelty you’ve mentioned that stayed her hand, along with the standards she still held herself to. She fought you time and again using the rocks, rather than close the distance and cut you down—she wanted you to suffer, not to end. She jailed your little alchemist and waited for you to take him off her hands, rather than kill him and be done—she held to the idea that revenge is to be exact, not indiscriminate, and that wanton slaughter was simply beneath her. She had not killed because it was not her goal to do so, and because she was too proud to do so.”
“She left me behind a cave-in, someplace filled with toxic fumes, once,” Rapunzel said quietly.
Adira raised an eyebrow. “That would be an event on par with pushing Hector off a cliff, then. I imagine she had been at the end of her rope to a similar degree, at the time?”
Rapunzel looked away, and nodded. “She was... she was very hurt, back then. And I wasn’t making it any better.”
“Live and learn,” Adira said calmly, “and you’ve devoted yourself quite fervently to the latter.”
Rapunzel smiled despite herself. Then let the silence linger between them for a moment. “So... Cass is killing people now, but it’s not as new as I thought.”
“You are still uncomfortable with that idea,” Adira observed rather than asked.
“Yes. If anything, I’m more uncomfortable with it.”
“Princess, if you are to rule this kingdom one day, then people are going to kill in your name. And sometimes it will be bad people who are killed, and sometimes it will not,” the old warrior told her patiently. “I am not saying you must grow comfortable with that thought, but you will have to grow accustomed to it eventually. And if I know Shorthair at all, then I would say that when she is killing people, it is to keep other people safe, herself among their number. It will not do to begrudge her for that.”
“No. No, it won’t.” Rapunzel exhaled slowly, frowning at the unabated heaviness in her belly. “...I understand now that you’re right, but it still bothers me.”
“Is it a matter of trust?” Adira asked calmly. At Rapunzel’s inquiring look, she elaborated. “Is it that you don’t trust Shorthair’s judgement on what situations can only be resolved with violence? On which people deserve to die by her hand?”
“No,” Rapunzel said fervently, without a beat of hesitation. “Cass knows what she’s doing and what she’s getting herself into. I trust her judgement. Yes, she may like to fight, but she hates putting herself or others in unnecessary danger. If she’s drawing a weapon on someone, it’s probably because they did it first, or because she really thinks it’s the only way. Or the best way.”
“Then, if it’s not to do with her, is it to do with the people on the business end of her blade?”
Rapunzel paused at that. The silence stretched on between them as they walked along the battlements of Castle Corona, stepping from sunlight to shadow to sunlight again.
“Isn’t it silly to say that it might be?”
“No,” Adira told her calmly.
“Because I– it’s like I care about those people more than I care about Cass,” Rapunzel said with dismay. “And that’s just so patently not true, I love Cass and we’ve just established that if she kills someone, it was someone who meant her harm, or someone who was going to do bad things to other people and she stopped them from doing that.”
Adira watched her with an increasingly bewildered look in her eyes. “Princess, is it the thought that there are people in the world who mean others harm, and need to be violently prevented from bringing the intent to bear, that which is causing you such distress?”
Rapunzel stopped dead in her tracks, and only barely noticed the old warrior beside her coming to a halt as well. She knew that there were cruel people in the world. She knew it as only someone who had been hurt by such people could know. She wanted to scoff that of course she knew, argue that she was not that obliviously naive, that of course she had considered that before.
And yet, she found that she couldn’t.
“I think it might be,” she said again instead, her voice weak. “But why is that, though? I know that. It’s not like I’ve never seen that, or like I’ve not been cruel, either, even if I didn’t mean to.”
“How do you feel right now?” Adira asked carefully.
“Disappointed,” Rapunzel admitted with dismay, “and frustrated, and– and angry.”
“We can still sit and examine this, slowly.”
“No.” Rapunzel cleared her throat when she heard how harsh her voice came out. “No, I need to be together for that dispute tomorrow. And I feel like going into this now is– is just going to tear me up inside. In two days’ time, I’ll sit with... all this, and you, and I won’t get up until I break it into a thousand pieces.”
Rapunzel ground her teeth, eyes averted to cast her gaze over the crenellated wall, across the churning sea. “I’m not pushing off hard feelings again, am I?”
“I do not think you are,” Adira told her gently, and Rapunzel looked up at her when she felt a rare touch of a hand on her shoulder. “Quite the contrary, I think it’s very mature of you to consider your own state in the context of your responsibilities and balance your own needs with those of your station. Many who hold positions of power fail to recognize that distinction. I will see you on the day after tomorrow, princess.”
“Okay. Thank you again.”
Adira gave her a nod and stepped away, heading back the way they came. With a sigh, Rapunzel re-entered the castle proper—and before long, she turned her head at the sound of footsteps echoing her own to find Faith trailing her at a deferent half-step behind and to her left.
“Do you know where I can find Eugene?”
“I think he might be at the Captain’s office this time of day,” Faith replied, giving Rapunzel a careful look even as she held her folded hands out to Pascal to hop into and ferried him onto Rapunzel’s shoulder. “Are you all right, princess? You seem a little... out of sorts.”
“I am. Out of sorts a little, I mean. But it’s okay, no need to worry.” Rapunzel smoothed both hands down the sides of her head and back, a gesture meant for keeping her hair out of her face that she had yet to unlearn, and one she wasn’t trying to unlearn very hard—not with how grounding it was to feel the ends of her hair slipping from her fingers. “Let’s go. I needed to see the Captain about something, anyway.”
The handmaiden inclined her head. “As you say, then.”
They walked through the castle in an easy silence after that. Rapunzel let the meandering corridors lead her, long familiar with their layout by now, without concentrating on where she was going.
Squeak, Pascal said, concerned with her absent-minded manner.
“I’ll be all right, buddy. Really.” Rapunzel cradled his head with a finger, and smiled a little when he hugged it to his chest with a loving chitter.
It wasn’t so strange to find Eugene in the Captain of the Guard’s office, recently. A small desk had been set out for him there, and he made a point to spend hours every day reading old guard reports and court protocols for as long as he could handle, interspersed with asking questions about what he found of the Captain and any of the guards with a career that spanned twenty years or longer. King Frederic’s crackdown on crime after the abduction of his infant daughter had been only as severe as it was thorough—and most of the laws concerning criminal justice established in that period were still in use. And seeing as Eugene himself had been a toddler at the time, he had concurred to the advice that in order to plan out a better future, he had to learn from the example of the past, whether it was worth emulating or only demanded correcting.
The Captain looked up as Rapunzel and Faith stepped into his office. “Good afternoon, princess. Faith.”
The handmaiden bowed slightly to him without a word, at the same time as Eugene sprang to his feet with a grin as if their arrival meant nothing short of salvation.
“Sunshine! Just who I wanted to see!”
“Are you implying that sometimes you don’t want to see me?” Rapunzel teased with a smile.
“No, only that sometimes I want to see you even more than usually.” Eugene put an arm around her as he picked up on her mental discomfort, muted as it was by now, and she leaned into him gratefully. “Everything okay? I thought you’d be doing your thing with Adira right now.”
“We’ve rescheduled,” Rapunzel summarized, though she knew the oddity of it didn’t escape Eugene, and turned to the man whose office they were standing in. “Captain, Cassandra wrote again. She’s still doing well, and says that people have started to like her where she is after she did some stuff for them.”
The Captain smiled a little at that, and nodded firmly. “She’s doing us proud, then, as I always knew she would.”
“That’s not everything. She sent these, and said—” Rapunzel cleared her throat as she pulled the set of four wanted posters from her bag and handed them over. “Well, word for word she said, I’ve gotten rid of a few murderers.”
“She also said she was okay,” Eugene added pointedly as they watched the Captain’s face change at the sight of who the posters were of. “Right, sunshine?”
“She didn’t say anything about getting hurt,” Rapunzel admitted, wincing at her own omission of how laboured Cassandra’s handwriting had turned—a hint of further injury to the hand and forearm already mutilated beyond recovery. “I asked Owl, though, and he said that she wasn’t injured or unhappy when she had sent him.”
The Captain blew out a long breath. “When the Kotoan ambassador passed us the news that these four’s executions have been carried out, and by a Coronian knight-errant, I thought there must have been a mistake. But, once again, I see that the Royal Kotoan Office of the Inquisition does not make mistakes.”
“I genuinely forgot to mention that I gave Cass my favour before she left.” Rapunzel sighed. “I asked if she wanted to, and she said– well, she didn’t say anything, but she did give me her arm to tie it onto.”
“Isn’t Cass in Equis right now?” Eugene asked with a frown. “How did we get the news on the authority of a Kotoan inquisitor?”
“She’s at the border between Equis and Koto,” Rapunzel corrected. “The region that’s been contested between those two kingdoms for a long time now.”
“Even if she weren’t, the fact that we learn of her deeds from a Kotoan inquisitor would not surprise me,” the Captain said simply. “Their spy service spans the continent and reaches beyond it with ease. I’m nearly certain there are three of its agents within the city here—depending on whether some suspect intel we’ve gathered in the past was true, up to five. I can’t imagine King Lysander would allow a region marked for re-conquest to slip through that net.”
“Wait, we have foreign spies in the capital?” Eugene repeated.
“Of course we do. At least a dozen have been rotated out since I first took this post, after my men had seen through their cover. And the number of active Kotoan spies within Corona had dwindled over the years regardless, as diplomatic relations with Koto have improved. And—” the Captain inclined his head to Rapunzel, “—now that her highness’ knight-errant appears to be helping advance the interests of Koto, however unofficially, in a region that Koto and Equis have been butting heads over for decades, I can only expect these relations to improve even further.”
Rapunzel mulled that over. First the glowing letter of thanks after Cass made sure that a few treasures that belonged to Koto would find their way back there. Now the executions of four terrible people, three of them hailing from kingdoms allied with Corona as well.
She had thought that Cass just wanted to find adventure and figure out where she stood without the weight of the past on her shoulders. She hadn’t thought that Cassandra’s search for her own destiny would involve doing any favours to Corona, or any of its allies, not for how similar it could feel to what had been constantly required of Cass while she was living in the castle.
Maybe except for Ingvarr, Rapunzel conceded before herself as she remembered the first time Cass had given up on something for her.
“Would being known as the person who... executed... the Ingvarrdian among those four earn Cass some respect or opportunities in Ingvarr?”
“If she can prove her claim, then I imagine it would,” the Captain admitted with feeling, folding the one-eyed outlaw’s poster to the front. “Ingvarr prides itself on solving its own problems whenever possible. I believe the last time it put out an international bounty, before this man’s, was almost a hundred years ago.”
Eugene shook his head, squinting at the poster. “I’ve heard enough to know this guy was bad news, but how do you even say his last name? Is it even a name?”
“Galdrsbani. It means 'Spell-Slayer'. He was known for murdering sorcerers who came from among his countrymen, wherever he came across them,” the Captain said simply. “Any other deaths he had caused were mostly in self-defence or somewhat accidental, somewhat off-handed in nature.”
“Oh.” Rapunzel thought back to the evening she and her father had spent with an Ingvarrdian sailor-prince and his personal protector—one of whom had told her that they taught all of their sailors enough magic to protect them from drowning, and the other was kind enough to act with respect both of Rapunzel’s curiosity about magic and her father’s resentment of it. A conversation about sorcery that stemmed from personal virtue and from knowing one’s own place in the world. And now, the knowledge that someone used to seek out and kill such people on purpose, paired with the knowledge that Cass, brave, strong, incredible Cass, had stopped him from doing that to anyone ever again, and two conversations of how Cass had been right to kill these people. “What... did the Coronian one do?”
The Captain sighed heavily, and shot Faith a brief look. Apologetic, Rapunzel realized after a moment. “Well, that is a case I’ll be happy and very, very relieved to finally close. Casimir was first apprehended a few years after your disappearance, princess. We tracked him down through a chain of transactions he had made with a few dozen other criminals of every stripe—common thieves and burglars, highwaymen and thugs involved in extortion rings—demanding they perform some favours for him in exchange for a... a charmed object, of sorts, with a single use and holding magic that assisted these criminals in evading the Guard, resisting arrest, or escaping from it.”
Eugene chuckled. “To think some knuckleheads need magic to break out of jail.”
“Fitzherbert, be serious for once. The favours he demanded were always of the same sort, and more than one of these criminals found themselves in over their head—some even turned themselves in, begging for protection in return for their testimony against him. I regret to admit that each of them had either disappeared, or was found dead shortly after.”
“What did he want from them?” Rapunzel asked hesitantly.
“Abductions,” the Captain said bluntly. “The burglars were to steal people from their beds. The highwaymen were to take prisoners, rather than demand valuables and run. Then Casimir would retrieve these unfortunate folks, and spirit them away to his heavens-forsaken hideout. When we finally found the place and stormed it...” He paused, an uneasy expression crossing his face. “An abattoir would seem clean and welcoming in comparison. We found multiple people, people who had been missing, dismembered all across it. As well as many more of those little charms we’ve intercepted prior, both unfinished and complete.”
“Oh,” Rapunzel said weakly.
“So he killed people to make things, to give out to criminals, so they would bring him more people to kill for making things to give out to more criminals...?” Eugene shook his head, a grimace of dismay on his face now. “Where’s the profit? What did he get out of it?”
The Captain lifted his hands in a shrug. “Satisfaction? Love of the craft? Practice before engaging in sorcery more purposeful and at least as nefarious? I can’t say, and I’m very happy I won’t have to try plumbing the depths of a mind that depraved ever again.”
“Yeesh. Man, am I glad I liked my crimes too victimless to cross paths with that guy.”
The Captain inclined his head. “One of your redeeming qualities, Fitzherbert.”
“One of my many redeeming qualities, Cap.”
“Those charms he made,” Rapunzel asked slowly, pushing through a sense of foreboding that screamed at her to stop asking questions that she was not ready to hear the answers to. “What did they look like?”
“Inconspicuous, really,” the Captain admitted. “We’ve identified many of those only after storming the hideout of that degenerate, from looking at the ones he had been in the middle of crafting, and we believe there were more sorcerers kingdom-wide involved in similar activities—anywhere between three and seven in total, depending on the year. And since these items had to slip under the Guard’s notice, they were often disguised as meaningless personal effects. Pendants. Good luck charms. Gambling tokens. Weighed dice. Friendship bracelets.”
“Do you still have any of them?”
She noticed Faith turning to her with a nervous glance. The Captain considered her carefully. Eugene put a hand on her shoulder, the one that Pascal wasn’t perched atop.
“Sunshine, I don’t think there’s any need to see that.”
“I am not going to do anything with them,” Rapunzel said with a calm she did not feel, the ashen taste of wither and decay and terrible consequences of carelessness with magic still staining her tongue. “I just need to see for myself.”
Eugene and the Captain exchanged glances, before the latter cleared his throat uncomfortably. “We... do still keep evidence from the investigation, yes.”
Rapunzel steadied her voice. “Show me.”
Despite the apprehensive look in his eyes, the Captain bowed his head at that. “Yes, your highness. If you would follow me, please.”
He led the small group towards one of the Guard’s archive rooms; Eugene fell in step at Rapunzel’s side immediately, without waiting for an invitation or permission, while Faith still trailed behind, despite the sudden tightness to how she held herself. After a few short minutes of looking across the neatly indexed boxes, the Captain climbed a stepladder to pull one off a high shelf, and rested it atop a nearby table.
“These came from Casimir’s hands, princess. I implore you to be very careful—some of these have been... discharged of their powers, and some have not.”
“I’ll be careful,” Rapunzel promised, and lifted the lid off the box.
Her first thought was that the charms did look inconspicuous. She took a few into her hands, if delicately. A bracelet of braided ribbons, all the same faded green—all centred on a sinew, she found with a sick feeling when she gently pried the fabric apart. Another, but woven of embroidery threads and fixed with a bone-carved clasp. A simple pendant, carved from bone as well. Another, carved from wood this time, linden if the depth of detail was any indication, covered with a thin layer of tallow-like resin.
Quite like the little pendants she had formed by pressing cookie cutters into rolled-out clay, then glazed into a deep glossy black with bone char paint. Quite like the beeswax candles she had coloured with a rusty reddish-brown pigment that was, in hindsight, very much not vermillion.
Distantly, she was aware of her breath coming in short and fast, now. Of the floor threatening to fall out from under her. Of the hands within her field of vision, and trembling now, being her own.
“Sunshine?” Eugene prompted, alarm staining through his voice. He looked from Rapunzel, pale as a sheet and staring at the trinkets as if she had seen a ghost, to Pascal—who had shrunk onto himself atop her shoulder, eyes wide and scales shifting colour to camouflage him against her clothes on a reflex, holding himself more still than Eugene had ever seen. “Frog?”
“Gothel used to make things like these,” Rapunzel said shakily. “And I– I—”
“I mean, we already knew she was a bottom feeder, but—”
“You what?” Eugene blurted out before he could think about it. “I’m sorry, what?!”
“I was a child!” Rapunzel screamed, raw desperation and panic echoing through the room. “I thought she was my mother! I saw her doing crafts and I just wanted to spend time with her, she was so rarely home! I didn’t know what she was doing when she went outside! I didn’t know where these came from, or where anything came from, the food, the yarn, the clay, the—!”
“Hey. Hey, hey, hey.” Eugene brushed the trinkets out of Rapunzel’s hands, leaving them to tumble back into the box, and held her tight, only as tight as she clung to him in return. “Rapunzel, we know you. We know you would’ve never done that on purpose. And you were not the one who hurt these people, Gothel was, so blame Gothel and not yourself. She was using you, like she had used you for the Sundrop in your hair.”
And it was true, true enough that Rapunzel didn’t even try to argue—not when she gripped the back of his vest in both hands in a desperate reach for anything to anchor the ground back under her feet, not after she calmed down a little from the initial shock and let the Captain get back to his usual work, not after she asked to be alone for a bit and spurned the spacious expanse of her room in favour of climbing into a spot that Cass had once termed her 'brood perch', half-affectionate and half-exasperated: a space cleared out on the highest shelf of a massive bookcase, nested with pillows and blankets and supporting her back against a giant atlas almost as large as her entire torso. It always made her feel better to tuck herself in there, when she was feeling sad or hurt or overwhelmed. To feel the walls against each but one side of herself: the bookcase’s edges in front, above, below, to one side, the atlas behind, and only have open space to gaze out over to her right. To open one of the tower’s three books in her lap and read one sentence, and watch the ones that followed rise up from her memory, billowing up in her head like a recitation and like so much smoke, shouting down and obscuring everything that made her climb up there in the first place, until she could breathe again.
Squeak, Pascal hedged with open concern, from where he was nested against the side of her throat—from where he hadn’t moved, not since they were led out of the Guard’s archive room.
“I don’t feel guilty,” Rapunzel told him quietly. “I feel violated. I knew that Gothel was using me for my hair, but it just didn’t occur to me until today that she was using me for my hands, too. She let me believe it was something good—some proof that she loved me—but it was just another lie I told myself for her benefit.” She gripped her hands into fists and opened them again, glossy burn scars across the palms shining against the setting sun. “Would I have even tried to make things in as many ways as I did, if she hadn’t encouraged me like that? Would have taught myself to work with clay and yarn and wax and paints?”
Squeak, Pascal said decisively.
Rapunzel smiled, even though there was no mirth, no warmth in it, and lifted her scars to the light. “You’re right. I’m not about to let her take that from me, to poison even that for me.”
She took the ladder down from the bookshelf, and walked over to stand by her desk, setting down the tower’s books in their usual prominent place across it and dislodging a stack of tomes taken from the castle’s library to pull out her second journal from between them. After unlocking the covers, she trailed the backs of her fingers over the title page one more time, the pool of self-reflection illuminated by a full moon, and herself in an understated, humble silhouette before both.
Tend to her duties tomorrow and walk into that pool the day after, and keep walking until she was deep enough for everything to make sense, she promised herself fiercely.
Rapunzel flipped the page, turning to a two-page spread of twin illustrations in sheer black-and-white, deep dark ink confined within lines as thin as they were severe, left uncoloured across the paper. On the left page, Cassandra, sprawled bonelessly across torn-up cobbles, her perfect face obscured with her hair falling across it like a curtain, her limbs limp at awkward angles, her chest and stomach opened up with the barest hint of cracked ribs poking through as a grotesque amount of black blood poured out to form a monstrous, bloated shape cut with jagged lines of a grinning demonic maw, two angular eyes shaped like lacerations burning stark white among that sea of ink, a pair of curled ram-like horns spanning the breadth of the page like a crown. On the right, Eugene, slumped against a wall in profile, his own chiselled face hidden among shadows in turn, and the shadow tied to his feet not his own, but Gothel’s, outlined in chainlinks and shackles and brambles and snakes, pieces of a shattered mirror and a bloodstained dagger strewn across the floor, and again a grotesque amount of black blood pouring out of the stab wound in his side to form the tower’s brickwork downwards, downwards, until the bottom edge of the paper cut it short.
She flipped the page again, turning to another ink painting—this time of her parents, standing side by side, their faces bewildered and showing absolutely no recognition, and their images formed of words they had called her with and told her, honey, sweetheart, I’m proud of you, there’s more in you, how strong you are, the ink dark at the bottom of their figures and gradually fading upwards, until their wide eyes and confused faces were as faint as when they did not remember her, did not remember saying these things to her.
It was the only place within her second journal where there were any words at all. Normally, in her actual journal, she interspersed the art with verbalized memories. This one, however, she filled with what she was struggling with, what she had no words for just yet, what she had to pin down and hold still to look at it before she could think or talk about it at all. So there were no words, except for typography.
Rapunzel exhaled slowly, looking up from the journal to the brood perch: an elevated, confined space that a girl raised in a tower would crawl into whenever she needed to make herself feel safe. She shook her head at herself, even as she trailed her fingertips against the blank page next to the painting of her parents and snapped the journal shut.
“I think we’re going to need a bigger canvas,” she told Pascal calmly, and turned her gaze to the wall.
It was still strange to pencil silhouettes beforehand. She was more used to passionate, spur-of-the-moment captures of what she felt and saw, almost lineless figures and colours blending smoothly from one into another more often than not. But this was different—this was structured, quite like her sessions of sitting down and walking into the water with Adira—and for that, it was more fitting, and for how unfamiliar and how much more demanding it was, it was that much more rewarding.
And it did serve perfectly well to tire her out before bed, enough that she could sleep even despite the churning millstones of emotions too dark and too vicious to name still wheeling inside her after everything. Enough that she could sleep, and come morning, disentangle herself from the slick and coiling viper nest of restless dreams, half-remembered memories kneaded through with recurring older nightmares and fears. Enough that she was not exhausted before the day had even started, and that she relished to start it, to put that entire quagmire to the side for a bit.
And come sunset, the tax dispute condemned to a standstill until an investigation into a nearby count’s estate returned verified estimates and records of wealth, Rapunzel was leaning her arms against the back of her chair as Faith worked to unlace the back of her dress, and breathed with her whole chest before letting the air out on a sigh of relief.
“Are you quite alright, princess? You’ve been terribly focused today, relentless even. And what with last night being as, um... impactful as it was...”
Rapunzel chuckled breathlessly, one hand rising to her face. “Impactful sure is a word for it. I knew Gothel was a horrible person. I did. I just wasn’t prepared for that she would’ve involved me in something that evil. I feel like my heart needs a shower.”
“I wasn’t aware that it was a witch who had taken you, as well,” Faith said quietly.
“Well, she didn’t do much magic in front of me. Only enough to keep me scared. Illusions, blowing out the lights.” Rapunzel paused as something registered. “Wait a minute, 'as well'?”
There was a brief silence only interrupted by the rustle of loosened laces. Then Faith cleared her throat quietly, and when she spoke again, it was haltingly and in a tone barely above a whisper.
“I’m not surprised that you don’t remember, princess. But some time after you left... I was on my day off, visiting family on the mainland. I thought I’d heard someone in my room, at night, but I blacked out directly after. When I woke up, there were bars, and we were in the back of a moving cart. Day after day, we’d hear voices, men and women arguing about what to do with us. I think we were meant for one of the sorcerers like the Captain mentioned last night, but who vanished overnight, and that– that made us surplus, one of them had said. A fight broke out eventually, and one of the winners had thrown a ring of keys into the back of the cart before they ran, and then one of us managed to reach these keys and let us all out, and... we didn’t know where we were. We were just trying to find a road, or a village, or– or anywhere, and people started splitting off, and eventually it was just me and a boy who was from here, from the capital, too. We’ve wandered through a forest for days, without seeing another soul, and when we came into a meadow with a– a little house, and a pair of people who asked if we’d like some tea...”
“The birds,” Rapunzel said faintly. “The teapot?”
Faith nodded, eyes downcast and lower lip between her teeth now. “We’ve climbed high enough up into the sky to see which direction to go to Corona. Then... well. You know what then. If you and your companions hadn’t arrived...”
Rapunzel turned on her heel and grabbed the handmaiden in a bear hug, paying no mind to the fact that she was essentially down to her smallclothes. “It’s over now. It’s over, and it’ll never happen again, not to you, not to anyone else.”
Then she realized what she was doing, and was on the verge of pulling away, a breath drawn to apologize for the outburst, when she felt Faith hug back.
“Thank you. I knew you’d understand, princess. It’s why I wanted a place at your side so badly.”
“Did you tell the Captain what you just told me?” Rapunzel asked, trying to sound gentle.
Faith nodded into her shoulder. “I told him everything I remembered, and went back once or twice with another detail I’d recalled later. I’m... trying not to think about it, or about how it was not the worst that could have happened to me, how I’m lucky to be alive at all.”
“Well, you know I have a personal beef with abductors,” Rapunzel hazarded, and was rewarded with a shaky laugh. She let Faith pull away, and led her by the hand to a chair, then threw a nightgown over her shoulders and sat as well. “And Cass broke the teapot, as well.”
“Oh yes, yes she did. It was the only time I’ve ever seen Cassandra cry,” Faith admitted, wiping at her own face now. “And the first time I’ve been afraid of her.”
Rapunzel watched her for a moment, letting her settle down while pieces were clicking into place. A servant who had been absent from work or unable to work for a few months. What her mom had said about Faith having asked to be made the princess’ lady-in-waiting after the Saporian insurrection—after she had come home from the journey towards the Moonstone. “How did you get home? You and the boy with you?”
“Well, we walked. A day or two after you’ve lifted that curse from us, we woke up and found a stack of warmer clothes, travel food, and a decent amount of coin next to ourselves. I don’t know who left it there for us, but it was enough. There was another terribly dark forest in the way, so we went around it, and by then we’ve chanced across a Kotoan merchant caravan heading towards Castle Corona. I don’t know what they assumed my relationship to the boy was, but I can’t claim to care, not when they took us along anyway.” To her surprise, Faith managed a smile. “I can barely look at hard cheese anymore, but I have to admit, it did get us home.”
They spoke for a little longer, of the boy who had gone back to his parents and of how he hid or pretended he didn’t know Faith every time they saw each other in the market, of Faith blaming him none as she assumed she was simply a reminder of a horrifying period of his life and hoped that he was young enough to forget it entirely, in time, of having to explain the whole ordeal before being taken back to work in the castle, of recovery from helplessness and terror and hurt. Then Rapunzel sent her handmaiden to bed, with another hug and much less stiff this time, and a smile.
And then she tore her second journal from its hiding spot and yanked out her coloured inks, and spent hours furiously painting a knotted frame of grasping hands and screaming mouths and bloodshot eyes along the edges of the page, and within it, a little golden bird with a feathered mane in the upper half of the space, with the lower blanketed with a thin cover of snow—and a chain of the bird’s footprints leading up to it, footprints rapidly filling in with deep dark red from beneath. Pieces had clicked, and were still clicking, hard cheese on the road, a deadly dark forest blocking that road, never leave home without hard cheese within that forest, I was wiping for you front and back from the same person a day ago. And when she was tired enough to sleep, with a waxing moon already high up in the sky, Rapunzel slept with a pillow tucked over and around her head as if she could smother her nightmares right along with herself—and wasted no time after breakfast with tracking Adira down, rather than wait until sundown.
“Were you the one who left enough things for Faith and that kid so they could make it back home?”
To her surprise, Adira actually winced, before looking at her from where she was polishing her new sword. “Good morning to you as well, princess. I assume you haven’t told her yet that it was me, if you’re asking about it in the first place?”
“It was you, then.”
“It was me, yes. I had a job to do, so I didn’t lead them back. But if I was killing bandits left and right for you and your retinue anyway, I could at least put their belongings to better use,” Adira said, perfectly matter-of-fact about the whole endeavour, and wiped a soft cloth along the odd, brass-sheen blade one more time. “I would appreciate it if you kept that to yourself, though.”
Rapunzel dragged her eyes from the weapon, strangely familiar as it seemed despite knowing she had never seen one like it, and to the old warrior’s face. “Why?”
“Because it will just make running into her awkward,” Adira said in an even tone. “I didn’t know she was a servant at the Coronian court. Nor had I expected to find myself living in the Coronian court. There is nothing lost if she doesn’t know, and nothing to be gained by letting her know. So leave the matter be.”
Rapunzel thought that over, and had to admit the logic of it. And if Adira didn’t want to be thanked, that was her business, wasn’t it. “Okay. I won’t say anything.”
Adira inclined her head gratefully. “Okay, then. Am I right to assume that you would like to sit with me sooner rather than later?”
“Yes, if that’s alright with you? I understand if you have things to do before that, but I’d rather get this underway as soon as we can.”
“I can make time.” Adira gave her sword one last pass with the rag, then sheathed it at her back and sprang to her feet in an effortless motion.
They took one of the castle’s unused room for how cold it was getting outside this time of year, dust shimmering in the sunlight that fell across long-unswept floors and sheet-covered furniture. And once the incense was burning, once they both shifted into their preferred ways to sit for meditation, Rapunzel took a deep breath and closed her eyes, and let the water rise behind them.
“Find the pool,” Adira told her in a steady tone, “and tell me what it’s like today.”
“It looks the same. Dark meadow with fireflies, three black rocks standing out against the full moon, spiral staircase leading down the water...” Rapunzel trailed off when she noticed that there was, in fact, something different. “The water is steaming today.”
“Okay,” she caught a note of surprise in Adira’s voice. “And where are you?”
“At the top of the stairs. About to walk down.”
“Then go ahead, and tell me how deep we are heading.”
“Deep. Until I can’t see the surface from where we are anymore.”
“What can you feel?”
“It’s hotter here. The water, it’s almost uncomfortable, and air bubbles are escaping upwards.”
“Okay. Why is the water boiling?”
“Because of what we’ve talked about the day before yesterday. About Cass killing people and about how bad people exist.” Rapunzel drew a deeper, slower breath to steady herself. “Because I’ve learned that there are people who abduct and murder others and fuel magic trinkets with their deaths, and the woman who raised me was one of them. Because I’ve learned she had me helping her make some of those trinkets. And that there’s someone in my life who had only narrowly escaped being murdered like so.”
Adira was quiet for a moment. “Concentrate on the thought that started this all. That there are people in the world who take pleasure in hurting others, and have to be violently stopped from doing it again.”
Rapunzel did so, and saw red mist rising through the water. It took her a few seconds to realize that she had also audibly gnashed her teeth. “Agh. Sorry—”
“Don’t. Let yourself be angry. And tell me why the prospect of accepting that thought is so repulsive to you.”
“Because it would mean she was right,” Rapunzel bit out, her voice dropping into a snarl. “Gothel, she kept telling me the world was dangerous and that people were terrible, that anything and everyone I came across would only find ways to hurt me, she kept me caged with that fear and worried sick for her every time she went outside, and all just so she could use me yet again and in yet another way. She was wrong, in everything she did or said to me, she was evil and cruel and I will never let her chain me up again, I will never let her keep me scared again, and I will not let her be right.”
“Was this Gothel,” Adira mouthed the name as carefully as if it were a curse, “as bad as the dangerous people she told you scary stories about?”
Rapunzel barked a laugh, the sound of it something she never knew could come from her, enraged and vicious. “All of that and more. She was the worst person I’ve ever known, right up there with Zhan Tiri. Actually, it feels like she was worse than Zhan Tiri, but I know that’s just because Gothel had hurt me and lied to me, personally, ever since I was baby. Zhan Tiri did almost the same thing to Cass, I just didn’t have to watch that. So it feels like less when I’m not thinking about it.”
“Take what you just said, and set it side by side with your refusal to permit that people can enjoy evil.”
Deep in the steaming volcanic vent of a pool, Rapunzel lifted her hands up, one-half of an oyster’s shell in each.
“Gothel was the worst person I’ve ever met,” she repeated slowly. “And I can’t accept that people can be bad, because it will mean that she was right.”
She folded her hands, and the shell, and unfolded again to find a pearl between them, a perfect little orb as if the depths had its own tiny pale moons to give her.
“This is not a problem. It’s not something I’m responsible for fixing, and not something that can be fixed in the first place, not by anyone but every person who chooses between doing something evil or not doing it. It’s a fact of life that I took issue with.” Rapunzel took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, and watched the red mist clear and the boiling water cool somewhat. “Being wrong in every way that matters doesn’t make Gothel any more right than she already wasn’t.”
“How do you feel right now?”
“Better. I’m still angry, though.”
“Rapunzel,” Adira said patiently, “you are allowed to be outraged on your own behalf.”
That gave Rapunzel pause for a long moment. “Isn’t it wrong of me?”
“No. Anger is not something to get rid of. It’s a feeling, and it’s important—and as with love, what matters is not how we feel, but what we do about it. You don’t have to smile through it anymore.”
Rapunzel choked out a shaky laugh at that. Then tears trailed down her cheeks. And then she had to unlace her hands and clamp them over her mouth, as her back bent under the onslaught of everything that simple permission had ripped up to the surface, as hysterical laughter and heart-rending sobs wrenched out of her at the same time, as she folded down on herself like an axe had just been slammed into her stomach and chest to cleave her in half.
Distantly, she registered a rustle of fabric next to herself, even though she couldn’t move, not even turn her head, not even open her eyes. Then the next tears-choked burst of laughter that tore out of her mouth turned into a painful whine, when one of Adira’s hands came against the nape of her neck and started gently stroking her rigid back, down the spine, as if to ease out the two decades of pent-up anger, fear, frustration, resentment, and worse, and Rapunzel cried, and screamed her way through every shuddering exhale.
She couldn’t tell how much time had passed until her shoulders were no longer tense, but trembling, until she could start wiping tears from her face rather than just dig her fingertips into her jaw and cheekbones. The hand over her back rubbed across her shoulders more firmly, then stilled, but stayed as Rapunzel slowly straightened up where she sat and turned to look, finding Adira with one leg folded down under herself, the other drawn up to her chest so she could rest her chin on her knee, and with a sympathetic look on her face.
“...That happened, huh?”
“How are you feeling?” the old warrior at her side asked gently.
“Like I’ve just retched up a world’s worth of poison,” Rapunzel said weakly. “Which I guess I have. My world’s.”
“And it’s not something everyone can do, no matter how necessary.” Adira withdrew the touch, and busied herself with untying a canteen from her hip. “Give me your hands, splash cold water on your face.”
Rapunzel extended cupped hands to her. The water was indeed cold—she thought she could hear the clinking of ice cubes from inside the flask—and it helped, and she found herself sighing with relief as she wiped it from her face with a kerchief, along with sweat and tears. “Thank you.”
“Do you want to finish like we always do?”
“Okay.” Adira pulled her leg down to sit on her heels beside Rapunzel. “Fold your hands at your heart, and lift it up. Thank the world for seeing you to this point; thank yourself for the work you’re putting into helping yourself get better.”
“Thank you,” Rapunzel whispered as she bowed herself forward, marvelling at how wonderfully loose things felt inside her chest. She waited for Adira to tap her hands to her forehead and mouth the words soundlessly, and open her eyes after. “And thank you, so much, for all of your help, for everything you’ve done for me and helped me do.”
A small smile pulled at Adira’s lips, and she shook her head as she looked at Rapunzel again. “What a start to the day.”
“Oh gosh,” Rapunzel groaned, “I forgot it’s morning.”
“This is why I’d originally proposed that we take these sessions in the evenings.” Adira watched her sympathetically. “Are you needed for much of public appearance today?”
“Not much, thank goodness. But I think I might just... cancel my study period, this once.” Rapunzel smoothed her hands over her hair, sighing with relief when she felt the ends brush against her scarred-up palms. “I need to rest up a little. Write Cass back. Paint something for her.”
“Make sure to find someone who can give you a hug,” Adira said gently, something very much like pride in her eyes. “You’ve made a big step forward today.”
“You know, you don’t have to sleep in the stable,” Moreen said hesitantly as they finally passed the guard checkpoint back into town, the Tysons’ dinky cart laden with more clutter of everyday use for sale. “There’s space enough for you in the room that Bastian is renting me.”
“I know. It’s that I have some things that I don’t want to leave unwatched,” Cassandra said, glancing to the large leather satchel that held the wardwork box. “Plus, with the guards as keen on giving me trouble as they are, I worry they’d have someone sneak in and try to injure Fidella.”
Moreen winced a little. “I hadn’t thought about it like that.”
“Hopefully I’m just paranoid.” Cassandra leapt down onto the town square’s cobblestones and extended her arms for the chicken cage that the farmer had been holding in her lap the entire way. “Hanging in there, buddy?”
Mrow, Barley said miserably, bundled up in a little blanket inside the basket.
“Stay strong, you’ll stretch your paws and figure out your new home in a minute.”
She had sat down with the cat the evening prior, after making sure Moreen was otherwise occupied, to explain the situation to Barley in simple terms and tell her to choose between staying at the farm, in which case she should leave before the morning, or coming into town to live with a man who had been good to Moreen, in which case it would save everyone a lot of time and effort if she got into the basket. And come morning, they found Barley curled up inside the basket with an unbearably sad look on her face.
With the farmer taking the basket back to walk into the Brazen Brigand’s dining floor, Cassandra and the stable boy pulled the cart and Fidella into the stable. Once that was squared away, she stood at the entrance for a moment, giving the town a once-over. The guard patrols were as numerous as usually, the new normal of too many in too large groups that had been established when the reinforcements had arrived. The mine settlement’s bandits were mingling with the townsfolk, talking or doing business or heading inside with their relatives from town, groups of Shankers and groups of Rats and slightly more often now, groups of mixed Shankers and Rats, occasionally with an errant Coon Tail that the members of both other outfits clearly deferred to without discussion and without trouble. The brick booth holding the job board was being closed up so close to dusk, Teagan waving a hand at Cassandra as he walked towards a backstreet inn that was distinctly not the Brigand. And at the smithy—and drawing the nervous stares of many a guard—Hanalei and Sigrid were both hard at work, the smith hammering away while the familiar silhouette of a two-handed sword with a thick, jagged blade rested in the furnace, the sorceress’ voice weaving through the clanging of metal on metal. This time, however, she didn’t look entranced within her work as much as she looked strained, all reaching arms and grasping hands, face twisted up in a grimace of desperation, voice closer to a lament or a funeral dirge than a sung spell and breaking into a vibrating wail on every other note. A flash of spectral blue shone behind Sigrid’s shoulder, an indistinct figure reaching out to her, and another at the right, and another at her side. The sorceress shivered as if dunked into ice-cold water, but didn’t falter, only hiked her shoulders halfway up to her ears and kept on singing, and her husband kept on forging.
Cassandra dragged her eyes away and walked into the Brigand’s dining floor, just in time to watch Barley nosing carefully at one of Sebastian’s hands, and nodded a greeting at him. “Any new cataclysm happen while we were gone?”
“Nothing that wasn’t already here, thank heavens,” Sebastian tapped a knuckle against the underside of the countertop. “Eliza’s gotten really sick, so the clinic fam is struggling a little with that entire boatload of wounded they’ve got on their hands now. And I guess Sigrid’s been scaring everyone who hasn’t seen her magecrafting yet.”
“I saw, they’re still at it,” Cassandra said with a frown. “That doesn’t happen often, does it?”
“No, but she’s been really insistent that we’re going to need... well, whatever it is that they’re making. Really hope it’s finished soon, though, they’ve been going for a day and a half now. She has a great voice, don’t get me wrong, but it’s getting hard to listen to when she’s been singing the same three nearly identical verses the. Entire. Time.”
Cassandra paused at that, watching Barley slink away from Sebastian’s hand for now. “She has some... foresight, right?”
Sebastian grimaced. “She can’t do it on command, and it’s usually so vague that you only get what she meant in hindsight. And she kind of hates it, anyway, so do me a favour and don’t raise it with her.”
“Done deal. Think we can get some dinner from you?”
And though the food was as good as ever, onion soup with croutons tossed through in quite a generous amount, the evening meal was a sombre affair, the stormy atmosphere across the Brigand’s dining floor far from relaxing as the Shankers and Rats mostly populating the tavern these days kept each other’s company and talked in murmured, worried voices, losing sleep over thoughts of friends and families, of the makeshift home they had struggled so to make a living in. Eventually, some began retiring for the night—in pairs or threes, Cassandra noticed, rather than alone. Sebastian must have started quartering them wherever there was enough space for another bedroll or hammock, regardless of how many the Brigand’s rooms were designed to hold. And then there were some who laid down to sleep on the dining room’s benches, and some, on the tables that weren’t immediately visible from the entrance.
Food supply was going to start becoming a problem very soon, Cassandra thought as she laid in the hammock that had been kept for her in Fidella’s stall in the stable. However well the local hunters and ex-mercenaries—or still-mercenaries, really—could supplement the Brigand’s stores with venison and whatever they could smuggle from that nearby village across the border with Koto, it would not be enough for very long. Unless the bandit war nearby was resolved, there would be no stability to be found for people who had none of their own anymore. And if the Scarlet Brigade was to emerge victorious, no matter how decimated, it would only mean a more affordable amount of more experienced mercenary soldiers ready for being hired, further fortifying the border against the Kotoan army.
With a sigh, Cassandra sat up, and started going through everything she had from here. A few small rock shards, threaded with veins of silver. A spare roll of silken bandages. A long-since fulfilled bounty poster, the first she had taken, Emil’s shaky handwriting and multiple detailed drawings of starlight woundwort across it. A set of hunting and skinning knives, gathered up in a small leather case along with a small whetstone. Three slightly faded hair ribbons, knotted loosely together to keep them in one place. Three reports, or letters, or who knew what else, penned in Colette Bayard’s young hand and long-since turned entirely illegible with years upon years of frost and rain. A bag of poison and crackers and smoke bombs, gifted to her by the Kotoan spies. A wardwork box holding the belongings of a Coronian serial killer she had pursued against her better sense and executed, and against all odds, lived to tell about it. A dozen liquid-carrier arrows fletched with falcon flights dyed bright turquoise, and forged for use against monsters.
A cynical part of her was grumbling that she shouldn’t have stayed in one place as long as she did. The rest of her, unfortunately, was only ever maintaining that once again, there was something needed here—and that she was here, and she was capable.
And that, this time, she was not the only person both willing and capable.
Cassandra set her belongings aside and stood up, and gathered up her hair again. As she was tying it off, with the white ribbon this time, she turned at the sound of a sleepy little nicker. “Just going indoors, don’t worry. I’ll be back soon.”
Snort, Fidella reprimanded gently, but argued no further. Cassandra patted her shoulder, then left the stable to walk back into the Brigand’s dining floor.
It had to be close to midnight, what with how cold it was outside. With that estimate, she found herself mildly surprised when she saw Sebastian still awake and at the countertop—and only more surprised with seeing another person there as well, one who had not been there at any point of the evening before, slumped with head and both arms against the polished wood and with an empty glass before her, platinum blonde hair reaching half down her back, an undercut sheared against both sides of her head. And right now, one hand rising slowly from the countertop, to point a finger at Cassandra without looking.
“Don’t ever bring me anything as fucked up as that sword again, Kazandra.”
“I almost didn’t recognize you with your hair down,” Cassandra said dryly as she sat next to the clearly drunk sorceress. “Don’t you have a bed to sleep in?”
Sigrid laughed breathlessly, her voice raw and reduced to a near-soundless rasp. “You try sleeping with a quiver full of ghosts.”
“You reforged that into arrows?”
“Yeah. Now I just need to fletch all that. But not before I get nice and fucking hammered.”
“I hope you’re not here to keep her company in that endeavour,” Sebastian said tiredly.
“Oh, fuck off, Bastian.” Sigrid flicked her fingers at her empty glass, pushing across to him for a refill. “You dealt with those kitties yet?”
Sebastian looked at her from over pouring more whiskey into her glass. “What kitties?”
“What fucking kitties, he says. Barley’s litter! I know you said you were gonna keep Pilsner and Cookie, but anyone showed up yet to adopt Pancake or Scarecrow?” When the resulting silence lingered, Sigrid rattled out a frustrated groan and lifted her head marginally from the countertop, only to thump her forehead down on it. “That hasn’t happened yet, has it.”
“No, I just got Barley today,” Sebastian said gently. “And stop making these sounds, you’ll tear your throat up even worse.”
“Pour me half a tankard, and do you have anything of a snack handy to go with it?” Cassandra asked the tavern’s owner while Sigrid grumbled inaudibly to herself.
Sebastian sighed, but smiled through it. “You know what, screw it, might as well bring out the nice stuff if we’re getting drunk in the middle of the night.”
“You really don’t need to—”
“Well, I’m already pouring my best liquor into that, aren’t I?” Sebastian pointed a thumb at Sigrid, who dragged one arm up solely to give him the middle finger. “Give me a moment.”
While he disappeared for a moment into the kitchen, Sigrid studiously pushed herself up and cocked her head at Cassandra. “Huh, growing your hair out? Nice. That’s going to be a really cute look on you. ...Oh, shit, touchy subject?”
“Don’t. Just—” Cassandra forced herself to unclench her teeth, and shook her head instead of snap again. “Just don’t.”
“You got it.” Sigrid raised her glass at Cassandra, who acknowledged the gesture with a nod. “Why are you awake, anyway?”
“Just thinking about how the Scarlet Brigade started thrashing about right after I pulled a treasure from one of their stashes,” Cassandra said with a frustrated sigh.
“Oh, that was you?” Sigrid sipped her whiskey. When Cassandra looked askance at her, the sorceress shrugged, entirely unfazed with the confession. “I wouldn’t ascribe this entire shitstorm to yourself if I were you. No single stash would kick all this off, and Reds have a tendency for destroying themselves from the inside whenever they aren’t under contract. All you did was give one officer an excuse to tear out the throat of another. And really, this is working out so far, anyway, because the Coon Tails finally got involved.”
“You’re planning to get involved, too, aren’t you?”
“Oh, honey.” Sigrid gave her a wolfish grin. “You think I aren’t already?”
A tankard and an oval plate heralded Sebastian’s return, the latter heaped with a small mountain of thin strings of cheese that had been braided and smoked. “Missed anything important?”
“Your little folk hero’s asking after when we go kick Red ass,” Sigrid summarized with a sideways nod at Cassandra, and knocked back the rest of her glass.
Sebastian raised his eyebrows. “And you’re telling her that just because. I think it’s time you start drinking water.”
“It’s fine, don’t be a little bitch.”
With a heavy sigh, Sebastian refilled her glass again. “Promise me you’re not going to sing before you sober up.”
“Well, since my voice is completely shot, I don’t think you have to worry about that.”
“Didn’t you say just a few hours ago that she’s a really good singer?” Cassandra asked dryly, between bites of the braided cheese.
“It’s not about how good a singer she is,” Sebastian said as he poured himself a glass of whiskey as well. “It’s that getting a chanter so drunk they no longer care what they’re singing is a very bad idea.”
Sigrid chuckled to herself, forehead rested against the wrist of the hand she was holding her glass in. “It’s usually real funny afterwards, though.”
“Not to the one who has to clean up,” Sebastian said pointedly.
“I know, I know.” Sigrid looked over to Cassandra. “You caught responsibility, huh? I thought you were going to leave with the Tyson girl, not pine after kicking mercenary ass.”
“No one says I can’t kick mercenary ass and then leave with the Tyson girl,” Cassandra shot back.
The sorceress rasped another little laugh, and stretched her back until her vertebrae cracked. “I knew I had a good feeling about you. And that’s before you started racking up the favours like nobody’s business. That’s what, three now?”
“What are you talking about?”
Sigrid pointed at the gold-trimmed kerchief still tied around Cassandra’s left bicep. “That one’s just nice, but then there’s the pendant, and another thing you’ve got going. What, you didn’t know?”
Cassandra stared at her incredulously. “How do you even keep doing that?”
“It’s not like I can stop. Least, not without this.” Sigrid knocked back the rest of her drink.
“You can’t just decide not to do it?”
“No, because foresight is normally a thing you can decide to do or not to do past a trial above me,” Sigrid pushed her glass at Sebastian again. “Technically, I’m ready for taking it, so there’s a bit of... whatchamacallit. Bleedover, of sorts. I’d probably be able to do it consciously if I passed that.”
“Do you plan to try?”
“Fuck no. What, do I look like I need to be this shithole’s bonafide village witch? I’d rather shoot myself in the foot with an actual arrow, thank you.”
“When you saw me the first time,” Cassandra said slowly. “You remember?”
“Oh yeah. You still reek of old magic.”
“Can you tell what it came from?”
“Nope. Just that it was something real big, and probably older than dirt.”
“Do you think other chanters could, just by looking at me?”
Sigrid sniffed thoughtfully, swirling the whiskey in her glass. “I wouldn’t bet money on it. Maybe some people who’ve passed all the trials—maybe—but that’s like, I don’t think you’re ever gonna meet one. I know I haven’t. This part of the continent, you commonly get people with two under their belt, sometimes three, doing sellsword work. Specifically a leadership position, and you might someone who did four, but I wouldn’t count on it. And even if you do go up north, the higher the count, the rarer they are.”
“How many have you passed?”
“Out of how many?”
Sebastian placed a hand on Cassandra’s shoulder, putting his arm between her and Sigrid. “Time to back off.”
“Oh, lay off her, Bastian.”
“Sigrid, you just told her three things that I didn’t know.”
“Did I?” the sorceress considered that for a moment. Then shrugged, and emptied her glass again. “Well, now you know.”
Sebastian sighed, and placed a pitcher of water in front of her, then turned back to Cassandra. “I know you’re from Corona, and probably have shit experiences with sorcerers, but she isn’t one of those sorcerers. You need to stop asking her questions she wouldn’t answer while sober.”
“Alright,” Cassandra relented.
“I’ll check if I’m mad at you in the morning,” Sigrid said calmly, leaning against the wall now. “If not, I’ll come find you when it’s time. If yes, well, I might still come find you, but I’ll be hoping that you die in the fight.”
Cassandra grinned at that. “It takes a good deal to kill me.”
“Good. We’ll have a good deal to handle. Because top dog in the mine right now is a chanter as well.” Sigrid slowly poured herself a glass of water. “Or was, rather.”
“How do you stop being a chanter?” Cassandra asked with a frown.
Sigrid cleared her throat, and winced at the uncomfortable feeling against her already stripped raw throat. “You ever read any Ingvarrdian sagas? Or heard them sung?”
“I’ve read a few. Why?”
“Right, you remember the parts about where the monsters come from?”
“Like the one who turned into a dragon out of the greed and evil in his heart?”
“Yeah, that’s how you stop being a chanter.”
Cassandra stared at her incredulously, looking for signs that she wasn’t serious. There were none to be found. “I thought that was a metaphor!”
Sigrid sighed. “My people’s metaphors tend towards extremely literal when magic is involved. I told you before and I’ll say it again, monsters are only real if they used to be people who chose to abdicate their humanity. Hard part is that this guy is still looking vaguely like a human. So the Reds, especially those who aren’t from Ingvarr, are still behind him and think he’s awesome because ooh, magic powers. They either don’t realize, or don’t even mind that his existence has been reduced to battling every day and feasting every night. We’ll see if they fucking mind when he runs out of enemies and mutton, and the only thing left around for him to fight and eat are his own followers.”
“And that’s why you’ve been forging arrowheads for two days?” Cassandra asked slowly.
“Arrowheads. If it was only the heads...” Sigrid shook her head with a grimace. “You asked if it’s possible to put that nightmare of a trophy rack to rest, you remember? They’ve been defiled, so in order for them to find rest, they have to cleanse a defilement—like a sorcerer who allowed his own magic to twist him inside out until he wasn’t human anymore.” She rubbed the tip of her nose, and gave Cassandra a considering look. “If you’re good enough to shoot carriers, you’ll be shooting ghostloads, too, because I’m going to need a backup archer for when I’m busy with spells or in melee. It’s still going to be a day or two, at the least. I can’t say if we’ll be fighting above ground or in the tunnels, either, so take that time to prepare for both. Go catch up on sleep for now, and come see me in the morning.”
“Alright.” Cassandra stood up from her chair, but hesitated before turning to leave. “Hey, uh... sorry about asking you things you weren’t going to share.”
The sorceress studied her for a moment, then smiled and reached over to ruffle Cassandra’s hair with a heavy hand. “You’ll go far, you know. Don’t die in a ditch before you can get there.”