“This is so nice,” Teagan quipped from where he laid, swaddled in a makeshift cradle one side of which hung from Fidella’s back, the other from the back of Ramon’s chestnut. “Just need a lullaby now.”
“You’re not going to wake up again if I sing one of those for you,” Sigrid grumbled good-naturedly, her fractured arm in a sling and her injured arm tucked into her belt as she walked beside the horses.
Cassandra rolled her eyes at their antics, but without any actual frustration. The fact that the veterans around her kept up a light banter on the way from the mine back to town meant that they had the strength to spare on jokes, and therefore none of them were injured too severely, not even the one who hasn’t been allowed to move on his own yet. She looked to the physician, the smith, and the spy walking along with them as well. Overall, the group seemed in high spirits, what with the victory they had hard-won the day before for all who called the region home—or at least, the others were in high spirits, while the spy was faking it well enough.
When the town walls and the guard checkpoint were in sight, she waved Sigrid aside for a moment and lowered her voice. “Aren’t you going to make fog like on the way out?”
“Oh, the fog wasn’t me,” Sigrid murmured back to her calmly. “I could do a similar thing, but I’d have to sing throughout to keep it up.”
Cassandra frowned slowly at that. Sigrid had seemed incredibly sure of herself when she had called for the strike team to assemble four hours after sunset, saying that the cover of night and fog would be thick enough to shield them from the guards by then. Normally, she was only that sure of things that she herself could do. So if the fog had not been her doing, it had to have been conjured forth by someone Sigrid knew and trusted as deeply as she knew herself and her own capabilities, and the only person Cassandra had seen her open with and reliant on in a similar capacity who wasn’t already present was—
“Sebastian?” she hissed at Sigrid, if still quietly. “Sebastian is a sorcerer?!”
“Pretty good, huh?” Sigrid grinned at her openly. “He only knows how to do three or four things, but damn if they aren’t useful. And who’s going to suspect the smiley, domestic, one-for-all all-for-one little innkeeper when there’s a loudmouth like me being weird and rude in plain sight?”
Cassandra didn’t answer, busy as she was abruptly reconsidering the past dozen or so weeks. She had been sleeping under a sorcerer’s roof. Eating a sorcerer’s food. Asking a sorcerer for advice, for local lore and custom. She had left some of her most sensitive belongings, including the wardwork box full of a murderer’s craftsmanship, in a sorcerer’s care.
“Hey.” Sigrid placed a hand at the small of Cassandra’s back, reaching no higher in an attempt not to tear at the injuries in either of her wounded arms. “I won’t have you thinking any less of him for that.”
“No, you’re right. He’s done right by me, by everyone I’ve seen him have dealings with,” Cassandra admitted, reminding herself of as much. Sebastian’s agreement with the clinic to supply meals for them, his immediate refusal to tolerate Carter in his inn simply because Moreen had asked him to keep the farmhand away from her, his protective attitude towards the Shank Rats even before the two bandit outfits had joined forces—all she had seen of Sebastian spoke of a righteous man who knew unjust laws too closely to respect their authority anymore, a man ready to rely only on a few carefully chosen friends to bring any semblance of justice into the world, for himself and for all who weren’t strong enough to take that stand on their own as well.
It didn’t change the fact that she had let her guard down, for sure, but at the least, this time it had happened with someone disinclined to take advantage of her the moment it happened.
“I know you’ve had shit experiences with magic, and I remember that you haven’t even started telling me about the heavy part,” Sigrid said, her tone firm but not ungentle. “I know that Corona taught you that magic is dangerous and everyone who touches it is too, that you need to fear and hate both the hammer and the nail. But if you’re going to spend any length of time in this part of the continent, you need to get it through your head that magic is like emotions—neither is inherently good or bad on its own, and the only thing that matters is what we do with it—and that sometimes, sorcerers can be good people.”
Cassandra ground her teeth and looked away. She’d have a thing or two to say about magic that wasn’t just not unlike emotions, but actively influenced by emotions, if it weren’t pointless to speak of in the first place. The Moonstone was gone—and so was the way it lit up like white-hot iron every time she lost her temper, the way it spat forth sparks and enshrouded her in a crackle of bright blue lightning every time she felt nothing but pure volcanic rage welling up in her soul. There would be no more black rocks in the world—and there would not be, either, any chance anymore to summon forth thrice as many with half the effort when she was furious enough, or to turn them red and so much more dangerous when for a moment, she cracked, and lost her grip on herself, and panicked.
Was that why she hadn’t experienced any of the Moonstone’s pull to reunite with the Sundrop, Cassandra thought slowly for the first time. The stones’ visceral need to be back together had sent a devastating trail across kingdoms and villages and no-man’s-land alike; Raps herself, she recalled, had been able to lead the group through the Dark Kingdom’s former seat of power by following the Sundrop signalling its counterpart how near it was, and the Moonstone’s response of folding the black rocks into a path to itself. And true enough that the rocks had been incomparably easier to call forth whenever the Sundrop was near, a bristling cage and a chasm-spanning bridge built at the slightest gesture and without any experience with handling the magic, yet a terrible struggle to dredge up a single pitiful spike afterwards, but there had been no pressure on Cassandra herself to chase after the Sundrop and its vessel, to close the distance, to be together, to touch. Not in all the time she had carried the Moonstone. Was that part of the reason why she had been led by the hand into so much anger—to provide a catalyst for turning the Moonstone’s screaming for its other half, screaming to be whole again, into a blaze of cosmic rage? To manipulate that which she had taken, along with herself?
“What, that hard a concept to parse?” Sigrid asked dryly, pulling Cassandra back to the present.
Cassandra looked at her again. “Would you say that you’re a good person?”
“Ask around in town, and I imagine a lot of people would tell you as much.”
“I’m asking you.”
“Then no,” the sorceress admitted easily. “I don’t go out of my way to make the lives of others better, I don’t do charity. Being good, and doing good, is more than just the lack of bad.”
“Then what do you call what we’ve just done?” Cassandra pointed a thumb over her shoulder, towards the mine.
“Bare minimum,” Sigrid said simply.
Cassandra raised her eyebrows. “You know, that does tell me a thing or two about you.”
“Spare me the flattery. If I decide to brag, you’ll be able to tell that and this conversation apart, trust me.”
“I’m sure I will.”
Cassandra let the matter rest afterwards, deep in thought as she walked. She’d spent too long a time in one place—long enough to stop watching herself the entire time, to stop being as cautious as she should have been. That carelessness had put her, as well as Fidella and Owl, in danger that was perfectly avoidable, and she had only stayed safe by lucking out. Thanks to some chance or twist of fate, the people she had left herself wide open for hadn’t manipulated and exploited her this time. Thus far.
And especially with moving towns soon and leaving behind the one where she was at least moderately liked in, she would have to go back to being more careful, Cassandra knew.
But she was still very lonely. And she was still going to have to look for more permanent company, like she had promised Owl and Fidella she would. And if she were to approach looking for company with the excessive caution she had just been chiding herself for throwing to the wind, then truthfully, few could be blamed for cutting their losses with her. Again.
And she was very tired of people cutting their losses with her by now.
Cassandra sighed to herself silently. Distrust was a shield only as simple as it was effective, but at what point was it cowardice and wilful blindness to keep hiding behind it? How much open trust should she extend to strangers, particularly ones who would probably have been in the sellsword market for years longer then herself? Corona had its annual Goodwill Festival to celebrate charity and togetherness and lack of conflict, but from the perspective of a handmaiden in the royal court, of one who had to prepare the festival each year and clean it up afterwards, Cassandra knew extremely well that it was little more than putting on a show. But she was not in Corona anymore, and there were people around her who displayed actual goodwill. The family of physicians and herbalists who ran the clinic seemed to have no source of income, yet treated everyone who came to them, without charging any of their patients a penny. The Brazen Brigand was a safehouse for all who didn’t have their own accommodations in town, and a space kept safe for all who had no choice but ask for sanctuary there. The Coon Tails, with their Kotoan faces and names and engineering expertise and penchant for retribution with blood and fire, must have been founded upon one of the occasions when their kingdom had been ousted from the area, but they’ve converted the mine into whatever makeshift living spaces they were able to for anyone who lived in that wide and bickering anarchist commune, not only the now-displaced Kotoan citizens among them. And then there were the mercenary veterans around her—one of whom had decided to hold herself responsible for rectifying the monstrous conduct of a stranger from a similar walk of life, and the others who had refused to let her fight that battle alone.
And if outside of Corona, some sorcerers kept their powers in the back pocket for emergencies—whether caused by cruelties of the mundane, or by calamities of the magical—then maybe not all of magic and its users deserved the suspicious, hostile sort of caution that Cassandra had learned to rely on in her service to the Coronian royal family.
That conclusion was, she decided, good enough to settle on for now. Then, but a moment later, another thought arose from it, and Cassandra felt herself frown against it:
She was not a servant anymore.
And with a whole new sky opened up wide and endless before her just like that, Cassandra scarcely noticed that they had made it to the guard checkpoint into town, and startled when one of the Equisian soldiers hailed them in a curt tone.
“Halt! What business have you in Silberstadt?!”
“Sir, we live here,” Bruno shot back, his voice equally devoid of patience.
The guard cocked his head at the amount of injuries on Sigrid, Hanalei, and Teagan. “The hell happened to you lot?”
“Oh, you had to be there,” Sigrid dismissed with a lazy grin. “Wild party last night.”
The guard stared at her for a moment before turning his attention to Teagan. “You?”
“I fell down the stairs,” Teagan deadpanned, staring the guard straight in the eye.
Frowning now, the guard jerked his chin at Hanalei, and made an inquisitive noise.
“Well, you see, sir,” the smith said serenely, “when you marry an Ingvarrdian woman, things like this just happen sometimes. And then you say thank you, and tell her which parts you enjoyed, so that she can do them again at some point in the future if you’ve been good, and then you do something for her, as well, if she’s so inclined, like—”
“Okay, okay, fuck! Just—” the guard motioned them sharply into town, a disgusted look on his face. “Just keep walking and don’t cause any trouble!”
“You only say shit like that when I already can’t elbow you in the ribs,” Sigrid hissed at her husband as soon as they were out of earshot of the checkpoint.
“I wonder why,” Hanalei said thoughtfully, to the accompaniment of Teagan cackling shamelessly from the cradle between horses, Cassandra shaking her head, Bruno blushing a scandalized beetroot red from behind the hand at his face, and Ramon only partially succeeding in his own attempt not to laugh.
After the ferrying of Teagan to the clinic’s doors was done, Bruno and Ramon had taken the makeshift cradle on each end to carry him upstairs into a bed, and Cassandra busied herself with ridding both Fidella and the spy’s chestnut of the latticework of rope that used to support the construction. The mare took a moment then to put her nose to Cassandra’s shoulder and puff a bit of warmth at her affectionately, and Cassandra smiled as she stroked Fidella’s neck. The sorceress and the smith beside them had meanwhile agreed which of them would check if everything was in order at home and which would go to the Brazen Brigand to give Sebastian the news, and Cassandra turned when a hand came lightly against her left forearm.
“Go watch the Reds today as well, will you?” Sigrid asked of her quietly. “Just today, and if they keep walking, I’ll leave you alone tomorrow.”
“Not a problem. I already told you I’d do it.” Cassandra paused for a moment. “If you see miss Tyson, tell her I’ll be back this evening, okay?”
“If I see the Tyson girl, I’ll tell her that you’re unhurt and you’re running an errand for me,” Sigrid told her in a calming tone. “Both of which are true. I’ll vouch for you to her if you’re scared she’ll think less of you for not clocking back in straight away, don’t worry.”
Cassandra stared at her for a moment. Then lifted a finger. “Uh, it’s not like that at all.”
“No? Then maybe I was mistaken,” the sorceress said flatly, looking entirely unconvinced that such was indeed the case. “Well, get moving, huh? The day’s still young, but it’s not getting any younger.”
Shaking her head, Cassandra climbed into the saddle and turned Fidella back to the road out of town. The guard at the checkpoint frowned at her when he saw her approaching.
“What, leaving already?”
Cassandra lifted her hands for him to see, the left bare and the right clad in her reinforced glove. “I forgot the other one.”
The guard gave her a long look. “Are you taking the piss out of me, sellsword?”
“Sir, it’ll be a hassle to get another one made,” Cassandra said calmly, resigning herself to the fact that it would be best not to take the piss out of that guard anymore. At least today.
Maybe she could ride back into town through a different checkpoint later on, she considered as she nudged Fidella into a trot back to where she had left the Scarlet Brigade’s survivors the evening before, and took her left glove from where it had been tucked into the back of her belt to pull it on.
Sure enough, a group of about a dozen Reds had splintered off to double-back towards the mine. And could she really blame them, Cassandra wondered even as she put two fingers into her mouth and whistled three piercing notes, echoing out over the plain loudly enough for Fidella to fold her ears against it and whinny her disapproval. The Coon Tails had offered either death, or terms of surrender so steep as to mean death very nearly as certain as in the fire siphon’s flames, only delayed and elsewhere. With no winter gear, the remaining Reds would have to march from one location at least pretending to provide shelter from the elements to another, and keep campfires burning overnight for the slimmest chance to live through every next night. With no provisions, no weapons with which to hunt for food, and no equipment to make even rabbit snares or anything more complicated than a primitive pitfall trap, they would soon have to choose between stealing and starving.
And that would be a very easy choice, as well as terrible news for anyone living between Silberstadt and Riddersbrug, Cassandra admitted to herself with a grimace as she snapped her archery aid on and loosed another warning shot towards that dozen-or-so Reds. They seemed to pause, and argue for a moment, some of them visibly no longer up for it since the alarm call entirely loud enough to alert any possible Shank Rat and Coon Tail patrol nearby. Cassandra stood up in the stirrups, looking over to where the rest of the Scarlet Brigade’s remains had been last, in case the smaller group was just a decoy. Forty, at a glance, or just under that. At least the numbers checked out.
When the splintered-off dozen divided into two teams of six, Cassandra sighed, and ignored the one heading to the mine in order to pursue the one heading to the town. If she tried to herd them away, not unlike a bloodhound coursing game, maybe they would take the hint and give up.
They did not give up.
She dropped the first Red with an arrow that caught him through the throat, from too far away to aim properly and try for non-lethal shots. That, unfortunately, drove the remaining five into taking a stand rather than running; the second Red attempted to throw his knife at Fidella, though the blade fell into the grass far from its mark. Cassandra nocked another arrow, and this time when she sent it straight into the Red’s face, it had been very much on purpose. She tossed her bow into her withered hand then and drew her sword with the left, swiping at the third mercenary as she rode past and straight into the fourth, to ram Fidella’s chest into him and trample. Then, there were hands grabbing at her right leg, trying to yank her to the ground, and Cassandra kneed the mercenary in the chin without thinking before jumping off the saddle to grace him with a woefully short duel and open his throat up ear-to-ear.
Snort, Fidella said, indicating a direction with a little upwards nod of her head.
Cassandra turned to look, and found the sixth Red running away as fast as his legs could carry him. Heading back the way the group had come from, as well. “Good. We’ll deal with that in a minute.”
She went between the others, strewn on the ground, bleeding out into the yellowed grasses and muddy topsoil, and finished off the two that weren’t dead yet. Cleaned and sheathed her sword, and put the bow back in its case at the saddle. Mounted Fidella again, and gave the area one last look, scowling now.
Five more dead, for nothing, fed to the fields that had already swallowed so many. Five more deaths that would have been perfectly avoidable if it hadn’t been for Kotoan retribution, if the pitiful remains of the Scarlet Brigade had been not only told to leave, but allowed the means to make the journey.
What a waste.
With a frustrated sigh, Cassandra nudged Fidella straight into a canter, chasing down the last of the half-dozen. He was starting to flag, she could see, but one glance over his shoulder was enough for him to gain a desperate second wind and redouble his efforts to get away.
Still not enough to outrun a horse, though.
Cassandra pulled Fidella to pass by on the mercenary’s right. When they caught up, she grabbed at the Red’s clothes with her good hand and hauled him up, throwing him across the saddle in front of herself like a sack of grain. “Stop wriggling, you don’t want to fall off at this speed!”
“Please don’t kill me,” the Red squeaked as he went very still, clinging to whatever he could grab on for dear life.
“If I wanted to kill you, we would not be speaking!” Cassandra barked at him.
She rode towards where the other half-dozen Reds had been approaching the mine from. Sure enough, she found six more bodies with red scarves around their necks, and a patrol of three Shank Rats with a Coon Tail for an officer. Cornrows, small scar on the left side of his face. Luc, Cassandra recognized, the same who had greeted Sigrid’s war party at the entrances to the mine a day prior.
“You have quite a way with alert calls,” he greeted Cassandra. Then he noticed the Red slung across her saddle, and his eyes turned far colder. “And a penchant for pets?”
“I will thank you not to ever make that comparison again,” Cassandra said flatly, and pointed her withered thumb over her shoulder to indicate the way she came. “There’s five more bodies that way.”
“Why not six, though?” Luc gestured to the Red she was just hoisting off of Fidella’s back and setting back on his feet, where he immediately lifted both hands, open and empty, at the sight of three crossbow bolts trained on him.
“I didn’t drag him all the way here so you could kill him.” Cassandra waved the Coon Tail aside, just far enough to get out of immediate earshot, and lowered her voice. “Do you actually want his friends to leave?”
“I want them gone,” Luc told her coldly. “I don’t much care if they leave for anywhere that’s not here, or for the heavens.”
“Look, if you wanted them dead, you should have killed them when they came out of the mine. Now it’s just pointless cruelty,” Cassandra snapped at him quietly. “They aren’t going to leave if they know they’ll just starve before they even get halfway there. They’re going to keep trying to get back in—either here, or into town, and if they go into town, they’ll pull the guards down on all your heads.”
The Coon Tail crossed his arms, entirely unconvinced. “What do you care?”
“I don’t leave jobs half-done,” Cassandra ground through her teeth. “This is a problem, and I want it solved before I leave.”
“And how do you expect us to solve it? By giving them food and charcoal? They killed all of our oxen and a lot of sheep, they torched half our hay and slaughtered entire families,” the Coon Tail bit out at her. “We’re hampered enough as it is with the aftermath of their own fucking captain kicking off this entire problem, as you say, and they’ve already gotten all the mercy we have to spare for the likes of them. They can leave, or they can die, and I’m pretty sure I speak for everyone here when I say that we don’t mind either way.”
Cassandra pinched the corners of her eyes with her withered fingers. “Is there any chance I could buy a few sheep and chickens from you people?”
Luc said nothing at that, limiting his answer to a deeply unimpressed look.
“I can pay,” Cassandra said tiredly.
“I don’t doubt you can, but we can’t eat your gold before the first spring fair, now can we?”
“Listen, it doesn’t have to be your best animals. Any old rooster, or hen that doesn’t lay anymore, or ram that you’ve been dying to get rid of will do.”
In the end, it was three sheep and five chickens, paid for with an amount of coin that was nothing short of exorbitant and ate clean through Cassandra’s reserve of gold she had set aside for emergencies. She was going to have to find work first thing in Riddersbrug, she knew, even as she tied the dinky wicker cages with chickens overtop Fidella’s saddle, took the Red she had taken prisoner by the scruff of his scarf to drag him away, and handed the cords of rope tied around the sheep’s necks off to him.
“Take these and follow. What’s your name?”
“Tiachren,” the Red said uncertainly as he pulled the sheep along. “What’s yours?”
“Mind your own business. Tell your friends to eat and keep walking, you hear? We’ll just kill the rest of you if you don’t leave.”
Snort, Fidella said, her tone as long-suffering as Cassandra felt.
“Oh, don’t even start,” she grumbled at the mare.
“But I didn’t say anything,” the Red beside her mumbled.
Cassandra led him to a point reasonably halfway between the Scarlet Brigade’s miserable excuse for a camp and the mine settlement’s sentries, then piled the chicken cages on the ground and climbed into the saddle again.
“I’m going to clear out. Bring a few people to carry the chickens to your camp.”
“Okay,” the Red said slowly, still clearly uncertain what was going on. Or why, rather. “Uh, thanks.”
Cassandra gave him a longer look. He seemed younger than she was. Closer to Raps’ age, maybe. Or if the patchy stubble on his face was any indication, he was just a teenager, and so closer to the age Colette Bayard had been when she had died in another battle with no victors that solved nothing.
With a sigh, she pushed Fidella a step closer to the Red. “Hey.”
When he turned towards her again, Cassandra shoved all but the day’s worth of her rations into his hands—travel bread, hard cheese, dried fruit, and a metal tin stacked with paper packets full of various seasonings she had taken from Castle Corona—then unbuckled her flimsy little summer half-cloak from around her shoulders and threw it to him as well.
“Find something better to do with your life, Tiachren, alright?”
He blinked at her. “I’ll... try?”
“Make sure you do.” Cassandra turned Fidella around, and clicked her tongue at the mare to get moving.
And sure enough, a few more Reds came quickly for the chickens when Tiachren returned to camp alone but with three sheep in tow. Immediately upon arrival, the animals were butchered, and though Cassandra had known that the Scarlet Brigade’s roots were in an Equisian attempt to form a foreign legion, she still found herself a little surprised with that there were no scuffles over the food, no further unnecessary deaths. Not only that, but from what she could see at this distance, the Reds had some of that food left over. Whoever had taken command in the aftermath of the gang war in the mine was clearly capable of maintaining enough discipline to implement half-rations and still retain authority.
But when the Reds were done eating, they did move on, and spent the rest of the day slowly trekking north. Cassandra tailed them at a distance, as she had the night before, and noticed that the mercenaries were moving in a loosely defensive formation; what few wounded were still walking among them, they made sure to take in the centre, and the sentries at the edges rotated out every hour. Some of the younger members, Tiachren possibly among them, were also splitting off at a faster pace every now and then—but only ever ahead, very mindful of Cassandra’s continued presence and the fact that they had just suffered eleven deaths among their already decimated numbers—and coming back with loads of firewood, with scarves full of the soft underlayer of tree bark that they could boil and boost their meagre rations with later on, with animated reports they gave to someone at the front of the group as they pointed towards an errant mesa, an overgrown orchard, a long-since burnt down farmhouse. Cassandra tried to count them several times, and each time came away with thirty-six. There must have been another violent change of leadership overnight.
It was a very fortunate thing that the current officer had only come into power after the Scarlet Brigade had already lost, Cassandra thought to herself. Then she looked to the sky to gauge the hour, and at the road south to Silberstadt to gauge the distance. With little time to spare until sundown, she rode back, crossing back into town maybe a quarter hour before the Equisian guard’s pointless curfew.
With the smithy closed up, Cassandra wasted no time heading to the Brazen Brigand. The near-reverent look in the stable boy’s eyes told her that the rumour mill was already going full steam ahead, and she took a moment to brace herself before walking into the tavern’s dining floor.
It still hadn’t prepared her for the applause cut with cheers and wolf whistles that erupted as soon as she came in, the Shank Rats and farmers and townsfolk having obviously heard about who it had been to kill the twisted, deadly creature that the Scarlet Brigade’s former captain had become. And judging from the insufferably smug look on Sigrid’s face from where she and her husband sat at the countertop, Cassandra knew exactly who to blame for that.
Before she could offer the sorceress a report on the Reds’ movements or a death threat, however, Moreen Tyson leaned out from behind Hanalei and rushed towards Cassandra to take her hands and look her up and down, twice, three times, as if fearful that she was missing something for wanting so badly to see her well. “You really are alright, then?”
“I’m fine. Not a scratch on me,” Cassandra told her, and stiffened on a reflex when Moreen pulled her into a hug. After a moment, she managed to pat the farmer’s back awkwardly with her withered hand—and caught Sigrid’s eye over Moreen’s shoulder, the sorceress mouthing I told you so at her soundlessly.
There were definitely going to be death threats involved, Cassandra decided with murderous calm.
“You’re freezing cold,” Moreen murmured next to her ear before pulling away. “Come and eat something. Where’s your cloak?”
“It’s fine,” Cassandra repeated mechanically, trying to find an opportune moment for getting everyone out of her personal space. “It didn’t rain today.”
“No, there wasn’t a cloud in sight all day long, we’re going to have frost soon.”
“I welcome whatever sorry excuse for a frost this place can give me,” Sigrid grumbled into her tankard as Cassandra sat on her other side, and was joined by Moreen on her left in turn. “Shame our little friends are going to get caught in it, but also, do I care. How’re they doing?”
“Down to three dozen square, and spent most of the day walking. They tried to give me and the mine folks trouble, and it ended very poorly for them,” Cassandra said, choosing to omit that it had also ended with her very nearly flat broke. “Whatever new officer they have is keeping them in impressive shape, though, all things considered.”
“Really? Huh.” Sigrid sipped her ale thoughtfully. “I’ll take over with tailing them tomorrow, just to see if they try anything silly. But if that’s the kind of officer leading these three dozen to join with another detachment up north, it might be something to keep in mind for your future, maybe.”
“I know.” Cassandra looked to Sebastian, who had just emerged from the kitchen, and greeted him with a nod. “Do you think I could get some dinner from you? And a refill on rations, I’m out.”
“Sure, but only for the price of a story,” Sebastian told her with a grin, and indicated Sigrid. “Everything that homegrown poet said about it has been outrageous.”
“I waited until I had a clear shot, and then I kept shooting until he dropped,” Cassandra said flatly.
Sebastian burst out laughing. “All in a day’s work, huh?”
And with this day’s work, too, being done, Cassandra spent the evening with the three mercenary veterans around her, eating a hefty meal nothing short of a feast for the local standards and speaking with them of what the Scarlet Brigade’s disappearance from the area would mean for the mine settlement and for the surviving farmers within a few dozen miles’ radius, of how the amount of deaths among the bandits and the farmers would affect the food stores for the coming winter, of the town’s most experienced combatants having lost most of their gear in the battle against the turned chanter and of what could be done to have it replaced. And when Cassandra went to sleep that evening, she found herself drifting off as soon as she laid her head down for all the exhaustion of the day and the day prior, yet claimed in an equal degree by dreams just as screamingly bright, sudden, and violent as the events of those past two days, a mixture of memory and imagination and fear. None as vivid as the courtyard of Castle Corona, and Raps standing before her, still with golden hair and with shock and fear on her face, and then an impact against the side of Cassandra’s black rock armour-clad torso, hard enough to make her stagger onto her back foot, and a sound of shattered glass and a cloud of elixir fumes and then she could no longer move, her legs encased up to mid-thigh in what looked almost like a slab of translucent yellow glass—and then that yellow stain in the air settling over the black laid against her body and clinging to it, and making it sizzle and bubble and bloat and twist, inside and out, and her dream self screamed out as the sheer black spikes wriggled into motion and knotted up into amber brambles, thorns inch-long and longer growing through her skin and muscle with absolutely no resistance, the sleek opaque black warping into chunks of yellow too thick to allow for motion or for bending joints anymore, and still warping afterwards, blurring even the contours of her form, a human-like shape reduced to a malformed, crystalline hedgehog bristling with tangled barbs as the amber kept surging upwards and over her neck, and still upwards, over her eyes to turn the world blurry, her face to choke off any desperate attempt at drawing breath against the sheer mass of crystal too firm over her chest to allow its rise and fall, her brow as it settled overtop into a mockery of a crown shaped like five grasping hands reaching upwards, upwards, as if to drag down anything she could have stood for along with herself, and a faint ray of consciousness shone dimly through, then shattered the image and sensation and sound of all around her as if they were a pane of glass, as Cassandra thrashed in her sleep one time too many and fell out of her hammock, landing on the stable’s floor with a thud and a grunt, and the first thing she did was frantically paw at herself, finding fabric and skin and leather with her left hand and absolutely nothing with the right.
Snort, Fidella said worriedly, looking over her shoulder.
“It’s a dream,” Cassandra wheezed, and allowed herself to thump flat onto her back in the hay. “Oh, it was just a bad dream.”
Fidella nickered at her, now only more concerned than she already was.
Cassandra raised one arm at the elbow to give the mare a dismissive gesture, not inclined to move before she could breathe right again, before her heart settled down into a normal rhythm again. “It’s fine. Don’t fuss. I had a nightmare, that’s all, nothing to write home about.”
It had taken quite a while before she could go back to sleep that night, but eventually she did sleep, and without any more similar misadventures. Morning came with frost, the mud turned hard with the cold and the puddles frozen from the surface to the bottom, and Cassandra threw her longer, warmer, winter cloak around her shoulders before slowly testing her withered hand. With a smile, she found that she could close it. Not squeeze, not without starting the slow everyday buildup of persistent pain, but she could close a fist freely in the cold.
True to Sigrid’s word, she did not see the sorceress throughout the day, or through the next day, but she did notice something else: the Equisian soldiers in town had suddenly turned distinctly more polite. There were much fewer attempts to start shit with the Shank Rats, to harass the locals of non-Equisian descent, to provoke a fight with anyone who looked at their uniforms wrong. And if it came at the cost of at least one patrol tailing Cassandra everywhere she went in town, with varying degrees of success at being discreet about it, then she could work with that, she decided as she went back to helping Moreen sell her family’s belongings.
The day afterwards, Sigrid was at the Brigand’s countertop again, with her usual lazy grin and with news of the Scarlet Brigade’s survivors having continued on north without stopping or doubling-back anymore. The day after that and the following one, Cassandra spent on a one last trip to Tyson farm, where Moreen took the last remains of anything worth a couple of silver coins and spent a long moment at her parents’ grave before leaving behind the only home she’d known so far. The day after that and the one that followed, Cassandra spent still on helping the farmer sell what she didn’t want to keep or couldn’t carry.
And over the nights that followed those days, Cassandra dreamed the nightmare of living crystalline amber armour crushing her alive twice more, yet each less intense than the last. Maybe she should have been more careful with herself than making a point of inspecting the turned chanter’s corpse, she admitted to herself reluctantly. But as the dreams were fading, then so too did any persistent distress she hadn’t allowed herself to admit and struggle with, so she spoke of it to no one, and only ever insisted before Fidella that she was fine and there was no need to worry.
On the ninth day after the battle in the mine, Cassandra exited the Brazen Brigand’s stable in the morning only to be greeted with a very familiar hoot!, and her head snapped up at the same time as she held her left arm out on a reflex, and Owl swooped down to perch on it.
“I missed you—” Cassandra wrapped him up with her withered arm and smooshed him up against her chest for a moment, disregarding another startled hoot, but easing off once he flapped his wings at her to stop. “Did you have safe skies?”
Hoot, Owl confirmed easily, and gave her a stern, inquisitive look in turn.
Cassandra held up a finger at him. “This time when I got into trouble, I made sure I wasn’t doing it alone, and I didn’t get hurt. Ask Fidella if you want. She wasn’t there for it, exactly, but she saw me before and after.”
Hoot, Owl conceded, and put his face into her cheek for a moment as a reward for that forethought.
Cassandra laughed a little, and kissed the top of his head, earning herself a gentle pull of his beak on the lock of hair curling over her forehead. “We’ll be taking a trip, okay? It’s time to keep moving.”
Hoot, Owl agreed easily. Then shifted his shoulders at her to indicate the scroll case on his back.
It was not the same scroll case.
The first letter he had brought back to her, he’d carried inside one with a circular lid and coloured in the royal Coronian purple and gold. This time, the backpack had an oval lid, with the cylinder’s flatter side laid against his back, and the whole of it was beautifully patterned and coloured to match Owl’s feathers.
Cassandra blew out a sigh of relief as she took it. Raps was listening. She hadn’t just been saying what she thought Cassandra had wanted to hear, to keep her affection and bargain for as much closeness as possible. She actually was listening now, and a lodestone-heavy weight of fear fell from around Cassandra’s heart at the first proof of it.
She walked into the Brazen Brigand’s dining floor, raising her withered hand at Sebastian to hail him, and didn’t have to ask for raw scrap cuts along with food for herself. Moreen was at the countertop already, and greeted her with a smile from over her own half-empty plate.
“We can leave today,” Cassandra told her as she directed Owl to shift onto her right shoulder and took a seat as well.
The farmer’s eyes flicked to Owl. “You were just waiting for him? I thought he ran away!”
“No, I sent him on an errand. And while he’s very smart, I can’t expect him to find me after I run away on him to who knows where, now can I?”
Hoot, Owl reminded.
Cassandra wagged a finger at him. “I know you’ve technically done as much in the past, but it would be more difficult now than back then, and I don’t want to be putting you through your paces so much without a good reason.”
Hoot, Owl acquiesced graciously.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Cassandra turned to Sebastian as he brought her and Owl their breakfast each. “Thanks.”
“I don’t see this guy around you all that much anymore,” Sebastian said curiously, indicating Owl. “Bit of a wild spirit there?”
“No, loyal to a fault.” Cassandra chuckled and smoothed a finger over the feathers on Owl’s chest when he turned his head almost a full ninety degrees sideways to press against her cheek. “It’s just the errands I send him on that take a while.”
“Right,” Sebastian said slowly, just as disbelieving as Moreen in her silence. “And you’re the one who has a problem with magic.”
Hoot, Owl said derisively.
“This isn’t magic. He’s just a good friend.” Cassandra handed another scrap of raw liver to Owl at the tip of her knife before slicing one of her baked potatoes into bite-sized pieces. “And if I keep seeing good uses for magic, I think I might stop having a problem with magic. Or as much of a problem, at least.”
Sebastian raised his eyebrows. “Well, look at that.”
“How soon do you think we’ll be ready, then?” Moreen asked, leaning against the countertop now.
“Before midday,” Cassandra said with a one-shouldered shrug, careful not to unbalance Owl’s footing on the other. “I’m good to go after I eat and read something. Though, I guess I should make the rounds and say goodbye to a few people here before we leave.”
“Midday at the latest, then? Meet up here when we’re ready?”
“I can work with that.”
The rest of breakfast was a quiet affair after that, the farmer by Cassandra’s side growing noticeably anxious now. But that had to be expected, Cassandra supposed, and wondered idly whether Raps had felt something similar when she stepped out of the only world she had known within the tower’s walls. Then she made sure there was no one nearby poised to read over her shoulder, asked Owl to stand watch for her like before, and opened the scroll case backpack, pulling the letter out first this time.
Slightly shorter than the last, but not by much. Still on multiple pages of gilded stationery and scribed in expensive ink, and with coloured doodles in the corners, fern leaves and suns and moons and an errant Pascal in places of greater honour.
Thank you, Cass.
Even so far away, you keep looking out for me. What you said about me taking issue with facts of life that I don’t like and treating them like problems—you were right, and admitting it helped me address and dismantle another little bit of the nightmare that Gothel had crowded me into. A little over two years out of the tower, and I still live inside it, isn’t that just laughable? Every time I was proud of how far I’ve come, every time I’ve said that I’m not the same naive girl just now treading grass for the first time, and it turns out that I’ve just been ignoring how I haven’t moved a step.
Sorry for putting Owl in danger. I haven’t thought about the backpack like this, that it would make him a target. I tried to think of how to fix that, but since I can’t make it change colour to help camouflage Owl against different environments, my next best idea was to camouflage it against Owl—so that it would be less noticeable on his back even if he’s spotted. Tell me if this is any better, and if it’s not enough, what to do instead.
She was listening, Cassandra thought again, the relief of it no lesser for coming in words as well as in deeds. She was not only listening, but implementing what she had been told, and asking for clarification to make sure she understood right and for further pointers.
It didn’t erase never being treated seriously for two years on end, whether a servant and protector or a traitor and enemy of the state. But it did end them, and quite irrefutably.
Speaking of messengers and letters, we got a letter from the King of Koto and the Grand Inquisitor of the Tribunal Order, and it was practically singing your praises after you sent their stuff back to them. Was that what happened with the con artist you wrote about? It must have been such an adventure! And you made a friend on it, too! They wrote a smaller one to him, as well, so I’m adding it in. What’s his name? Does he treat you well? What does he look like? Oh, I want to ask so many questions, but I don’t want to push you. These are the important ones, at least, I’ll be as patient as I can.
Cassandra chuckled a little, and reached into the scroll case again. Sure enough, there was an unopened sheet of more gilded stationery, but distinctly different from the usual set used in Castle Corona, still letter-folded and held closed with a wax seal coloured vermillion red. Cassandra squinted at it, unwilling to pull it out into the open among company on Equisian soil, even here in the Brazen Brigand. She couldn’t make out much detail, but she thought there was a division per pale on the seal. From the Grand Inquisitor, then, rather than from the Kotoan monarch.
Well, that was two reasons now to try and find Riccardo again.
And the posters you sent—Eugene choked when he saw them, and he was really impressed when he remembered his tongue, too. Your dad was so relieved when he heard that the Coronian one of those four outlaws was killed, and so proud of you. I asked him about that man’s crimes, and I think I found out more than I bargained for. There are sorcerers in Corona who kill people and make magical trinkets from parts of their bodies, did you know that? And he was one of those sorcerers. The Guard seems to have never discovered why, and Eugene was confused when he heard about it, because he couldn’t find any part of that scheme that would result in a profit. I don’t know how to think like a criminal, but he does, and if he can’t say why a criminal would be committing his crimes, then what does that mean? And how can anyone even think about doing something like that to another person? Who would come up with such a thing, and why are there multiple people emulating it?
That, Cassandra stopped smiling at.
That was what her wardwork box was full of.
The sorcerer and his companions, each deferent to him somewhat, had been arrested in Koto shortly before they had crossed into Equis, according to what Tara had told her earlier. From what she had seen with the Kotoan agent brutalized at their hands and with the carnage they left at Richter farm, their general approach to other people had been not only cruel, but extremely utilitarian in that cruelty—the sorcerer’s threat to divine her entrails moments before she killed him, the minotaur’s penchant for cannibalizing his enemies as if to absorb their strength into himself, the barbarian’s trophy rack of a two-handed sword to shackle the memory of those he killed and use them to kill more of their kind. So if Fitzherbert hadn’t been able to see any gain in the sorcerer’s usual modus operandi, it meant that there wasn’t a gain to be seen, and that the blood trail tied to the sorcerer’s feet wasn’t the goal.
Cassandra frowned slowly, one hand at her mouth and chin now. Coronian sorcery was either hedge witchery and simple herbal remedies, or the exploits of a bunch of Zhan Tiri wannabes; that much she knew, and that much still held true. And she had spent enough time with the real deal—being tutored by it on the subject of harnessing and channelling the magic of the Moonstone, no less—to have a reasonable idea what the runner-ups would be attempting to emulate.
“Practice,” she murmured to herself quietly.
Whatever dozens the sorcerer had taken and butchered and defiled even after death, they had been neither the destination nor the journey. They’d been an exercise. And with having seen the others—the minotaur’s headdress of horns that was no longer a headdress, but a part of his skull; the ogre’s bloated, monstrous size; the barbarian’s blind eye that saw in light and in darkness—Cassandra was reasonably sure that exercise had been finished successfully, yielding any insights that the sorcerer had been hoping to gain. Whatever it was that he’d been headed towards next, on his way through Koto and into Equis, it would not have been as trivial as a few dozen missing people dismembered for use as arcane components, Cassandra thought gravely.
Then she went back and re-read the part about her dad being proud and Fitzherbert being tongue-tied, and felt a smirk curling her lips again.
I’ve been having a bit of a hard time recently. I started a new journal not too long ago, to have someplace separate to draw messed up things in. It helps a little, especially when I don’t know what it is that’s giving me so much trouble, or when I don’t know how to talk about it yet. I wanted to paint something happy for you, but I just couldn’t at the time, every next piece came out more unsettling than the last. But I’ve been trying not to force myself to be happy all the time—to not be scared of emotions harder to deal with, and to stop dismissing those of other people against a burning wall of forced cheer. So I hope it’s okay to show you things like these, and that you don’t hate them too much.
Cassandra paused, and took the paintings out of the scroll case as well, at least for a cursory look. There were three this time, as well—and Cassandra sat up straight when she noticed that one of them was a map, drawn on fine parchment rather than paper. Not only that, but there were little indents at the parchment’s corners, left by small but heavy clasps that were typically used for copywork, to make sure that the paper or parchment the copy was being made on overtop the original did not move during the process. Raps hadn’t just drawn that, she’d traced it for her from an atlas. Which meant that it was to scale.
She pulled out her own map, which had to have been scribed by a Coronian cartographer either unaware of, or unconcerned with the ongoing border dispute between Equis and Koto, and sparing little attention for the contested region. Her old map only barely accommodated Silberstadt itself near the northwestern corner, with a small arrow pointing further north and subtitled with TO RIDDERSBRUG. The one that Raps had just sent had Silberstadt square in the centre, and held not one, but three major cities to the north, as well as a glimpse of the western seashore, a branching web of rivers, a few small mountain ranges, and a smattering of lakes, one of them enormous.
Cassandra huffed an incredulous bit of laughter. Puzzle or not, Raps knew exactly where she went, and all she needed to make the connection was getting her hands on a rock shard with a vein of native silver, a dried stem of starlight woundwort, and a pheasant flight feather.
She tucked the map back into the scroll case to study properly later, and blinked in immediate surprise at the other two pieces. There was an unprecedented amount of dark colours, with the few and far between splashes of bright paints serving only to contrast how muted and heavy the rest of it was. And even aside from the fact that Cassandra hadn’t seen Raps using so much black paint between all the pieces and murals and sketches and journal entries and whatever else she’d painted to date, the brush strokes were visible, short and sharp and layered overtop each other, lending both pieces a choppy, restless look.
Raps had not been okay when she made them.
I haven’t shown these or things like them to anyone else yet. (Except for the one on the wall, which is a little impossible to hide, but that’s just been sitting in the open as I make progress on it rather than being purposefully shown to other people. Does that make any difference? I feel like it makes a difference, but at the same time, it’s still pretty visible, so I don’t know anymore.) And I asked for a lock on that other journal; Pascal has the only key other than mine. I almost feel like I’m not allowed to paint things this bad, like it’s wrong of me somehow to put things this dark and scary into the world. I’ve always used art to feel better. This new way of using it feels like a perversion, but even as it does, it still makes me feel less bad. Which is not the same as better, I guess, but it helps all the same, so how different is it, really?
Everything is so confusing when I’m trying to fix the problems in my behaviour. Sometimes I feel like I’m just second-guessing everything I do, and have ever done, and making no progress at all. But then I think about how everything I’ve been doing for so long has been based on an awful approach and incredibly wrong assumptions, and I think that maybe I should have been second-guessing it from the start, I just didn’t know any better. And then I think about how people I spend the most time with seem a little happier and a little less tense around me, these days, and I think that maybe I’m making a little progress after all. But I’m not sure of anything, anymore. It’s hard on me. I’m scared when I’m uncertain like that. I just try to be brave, and I try to be calm, and ask for advice more often now, and I ask more people than I used to. And if I’m still not okay afterwards, then I draw another horrible thing, and it helps take a little pressure off. I still have a lot of nightmares, though. I’m starting to grow really tired of them. I miss sleeping well.
That kind of uncertainty was quite unlike the Raps that Cassandra knew. Or not exactly, she admitted as she thought back. It was a little similar to what Raps had been like after the blizzard, when she had to set aside things she’d wanted to do or things she’d been comfortable with and focus on things that were needed of her. And yet, even as she was a nervous wreck in the aftermath of it all, she had tried to pretend that she was alright, as if convincing herself and others that there wasn’t a problem would make the problem go away.
Burning wall of forced cheer, indeed.
It had to be hard on her, Cassandra thought, but it was a good sign that she wasn’t stopping just because it was hard. And not just for the relationship between them—for the entire kingdom’s future, for decades to come.
But I think about you often, and it helps. I think back to every time you stood watch for us on the road when everyone else went to bed, and how I’d just look at you until I fell asleep, and it’s easier to fall asleep again. I think about how you were ready to face anything, fight anyone, all to keep us safe, and I think how I should have been infinitely more scared for you; I think about the terrible people you’ve gone after, and that you’re okay even despite how dangerous they must have been. (You are okay, right? Owl wouldn’t tell me yes or no directly.) I think about how you were always ready to do anything that was needed of you—no matter how sad or hurt or angry you were, you just pushed right through it and you held fast to what you believed in, and acted on it. And I find it a little easier to breathe. Because if you could do that, and show me how to always keep doing that, then I think maybe I can do it, too.
Enough about me, though. The puzzle you sent with your first letter turned out to be really difficult, with the flower in particular, but I solved in the end! Did you know that it doesn’t grow in Bayangor and Corona at all? And not in southern, western, eastern, or central Koto, either. I’m told it can only be found at certain heights—did you have to climb? I saw mountains on the map, but have you been that far yet?—and in places where magic is or used to be present, too. Did you meet someone who does magic? Were they any better than people we’ve had dealings with in the past, or did you have to fight them? Was it a creature like the kurloc or the drexis? Or was it that the place itself was very magic, like the Deadly Forest of No Return?
There was the signature Rapunzel enthusiasm. Except that it wasn’t as annoying anymore, Cassandra found with a bit of surprise, and couldn’t quite put her finger on why. Maybe it was that Raps seemed genuinely interested, and not just like she was always curious about everything—but in the context of what these things meant for Cassandra, specifically. Maybe it was that Raps was waiting for answers now, rather than formulate her own and talk over any possible response. Maybe it was the distance between them, and how Raps was neither able not attempting to close it, to see what Cassandra had and take it out of her hands for a few minutes of fleeting interest and, once again and all over again, leave her with nothing.
Maybe a little bit of each, and more.
You were in Equis last time you wrote, weren’t you? Eugene said that he had been to that region of it at one time, too, but didn’t stay very long because he didn’t like the weather and because there wasn’t much worth stealing there. What is it like where you are? It must be so different from Corona! And you said you were going to help a farmer; I can’t help but imagine you in a straw hat and with a blade of grass in your teeth, and it’s an amazing picture. In all seriousness though, it must have been a lot of hard work, are you well after all that?
And, if I may ask, how is your arm?
Cassandra winced at that. Her arm was a constant source of pain and reduced functionality, and an extreme vulnerability in combat. Her arm was the reason she had needed a staggering amount of sustained effort to relearn at least some of its functionality with her left hand, as well as invention to circumvent its sorry state or protect it from deteriorating any further, like with her reinforced glove that she’d bought from the Kotoan furrier and the archery aid Sigrid had created for her, and blind experimentation and sheer coincidence and luck to see what helped and what didn’t, like with the silken bandages the clinic family had gifted her and the salt she had been sprinkling the deeper wound with. And Cassandra didn’t feel like talking about it with the person who had first caused it, then told her to suck it up and get over herself, rather than apologize for it or even acknowledge the part they played in her injury.
She didn’t want to answer that question. And paused on that thought for a long moment.
Raps had said that she was listening now, and proved it. Raps had also said that if Cassandra didn’t want to say anything, then that was okay too. So maybe it was time to test if both these things were true.
You said you were going to move towns, as well, so I understand it’s going to take you a little longer to write again. Take all the time you want afterwards, too. Anything you write is worth waiting for.
Cassandra folded the letter closed, and tucked it back into the scroll case for now. Raps was genuinely trying to be a better friend now. A better person, really, if what she wrote of others around her was true. In the last letter Cassandra had sent her, she'd pointed out a dangerous mistake, if while attempting to temper it with mild praise; in response, Raps had apologized, fixed it, explained her previous reasoning, and asked whether the new one was okay now or if it could be further improved upon.
Which meant that maybe Cassandra could actually try to start being honest with Raps again.
It’s been such a long time since she had last tried. Since it had been safe for her to try. Since it hadn’t been doomed to failure before she even opened her mouth. And she wasn’t sure how to go back to trying.
But that was okay, because this trip would take her more than a few days, and so she had enough time to figure it out along the way. So she tied the scroll case backpack to the side of her belt, where it wouldn’t be immediately visible from under her new, thick, fur cloak, and stepped out of the tavern to make the rounds before leaving. The sun was still low in the sky, peeking out from between a few gray wisps of clouds, nothing as heavy as to herald more rain to come.
Straw hat. Cassandra shook her head with a smile.
Maybe she’d get one, if she ever went somewhere too sunny.
Rapunzel took the paintbrush out of her mouth and called out, “Come in!” as a knock came against her door. It came out quieter than usual, and still took more out of her than she was used to.
The door opened, showing Eugene with a tray in one hand and a concerned look on his face. “You okay, sunshine? It’s not like you to skip breakfast. Faith said you weren’t feeling well?”
“Yeah,” Rapunzel admitted, and lowered herself into a chair. The brush she had been using, the one she had been holding in her teeth, and the one she kept behind an ear went into a jar of water, blotting muddy dark through it, and she pushed the palette she had set on the corner of a table a little further from the edge to avoid accidentally knocking it to the floor. “I don’t know. I’m really tired for some reason, and it’s so early in the morning. I mean—” she gestured to Pascal, who was curled up on himself atop a little pillow in the centre of the table and trailing her every move with worried eyes. “Pascal feels heavy today. I’ve been carrying him for most of my life. I know the last thing he could ever be is heavy. So I tried to paint something instead, but it’s not coming to me, and I get light-headed if I’m standing up for too long. I don’t know why. It’s a little annoying.”
“You should really eat something,” Eugene said slowly, setting the tray of food down beside her. “You’re almost as pale as Cassandra.”
Rapunzel shook her head. “I’m not hungry at all.”
“Something small? I got you apple mousse? You don’t have to take anything else with it.”
That did sound a little closer to something she could manage, Rapunzel decided after a moment’s consideration. “Okay.”
Squeak, Pascal offered, a tiny sound soaked through with discomfort.
“Aw. Come here, frog.” Eugene cupped his hands for the chameleon to hop into. Before he could ferry Pascal onto his shoulder, though, he caught sight of the black-brown-gray mess in the jar with the brushes. Then looked at the palette, filled with shades of purple and green and whatnot so dark that they were virtually indistinguishable from each other, with an errant flash of acidic yellow or red as bright as to put him in mind of arterial blood. Then he looked at the wall, where Rapunzel had just started applying those colours.
He’d noticed the knotted mass of linework on the wall before, of course he had. It was hard not to. But Rapunzel seemed to always be painting something on the walls, and he was no great art critic unless it was something valuable or portraits of himself, which, how different were the two, really, there was a definite overlap, and so whatever it had been that she’d spent slightly over two weeks pencilling against the plaster hadn’t caught his attention at all.
It did now, however, as he came to stand next to the chair where Rapunzel was slowly eating apple mouse straight out of the bowl by the spoonful, so slowly as if even that much was an effort and a struggle. And looking at it from this angle, from beside the chair that she had set out before this roiling tangle of snakes and brambles and tendrils of smoke, Eugene finally saw a recognizable shape within it. Not familiar, exactly, since he’d only seen the place three times, had been otherwise occupied rather profoundly each of these times, and on the third it had come down around his, Cassandra’s, and Rapunzel’s heads.
“Why are you painting the tower’s window on your wall?” Eugene asked gently.
Rapunzel turned her head to look at the partway-done mural, and stayed silent for a long while. “I’ve been thinking about it for some time now.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“I am talking about it,” Rapunzel said with a gesture at the nightmare on her wall. “The only way I know how right now.”
“Okay.” Eugene stroked her shoulder, earning a small smile. “Take all the time you need.”
“I’d kiss you, but my mouth is full of apples.” Rapunzel gave a little laugh, even that sound diminished and tired. Then she looked up at him again, suddenly thoughtful, more serious. “Eugene?”
“I need to ask you something,” Rapunzel said quietly. “And I think I know what you’re going to say, but I need to hear you say it, because I’m really scared I could be wrong, like I was wrong with... everything about Cass, so—”
“Rapunzel,” Eugene interrupted her in a calming tone. “Just ask.”
With a nod at that, Rapunzel drew a deeper breath as if to brace herself, and looked at him in a very new way—careful, inquisitive, and giving away very little else. “Would it make you love me any less if I said I’m not always as happy as I look, and I’m scared every day, and I’ve been having nightmares at least three times per week for years now?”
“No, it would not,” Eugene told her firmly. “If anything, it would make me love you more, because everyone feels sad or scared or stressed out sometimes, and if you’re feeling like this, too, then it just means you’re not living in a different world completely out of the reach of a guy like me or all our friends. And because it means you trusted me enough to tell me something uncomfortable like that. And that means a lot, sunshine.”
Rapunzel smiled at him, gratefulness and relief in her eyes, and leaned back in her chair more easily. “I love you, Eugene.”
“I love you, too.” Eugene kissed the top of her head. “What did you think I would say?”
“I thought you’d say no, but I didn’t expect you to say everything else.”
Eugene nodded at that. Then tilted his head slowly. “Have you been crying?”
“No,” Rapunzel said earnestly, a bit of confusion on her face at the question. “Why?”
“Your eyes are all red.”
“I don’t know why that would be. I don’t remember hitting myself, or rubbing soap in them,” Rapunzel said with a frown. One that relaxed immediately when Eugene put one hand on her forehead and the other on his own, and she leaned into the touch without thinking. “Oh, that feels good.”
“Well, no wonder. You have a really high fever.”
“And a fine fever to you too, sir.” Rapunzel patted his chest affectionately. “Aren’t we having an excellent fever today– I don’t know what a fever is.”
Eugene stared at her. This was the second time that her hair was short, and brown, and no longer magic, and she’d been in perfectly good health both beforehand and for the two years that the entire Moonstone situation had taken to resolve. Surprising in hindsight, really, that nothing like this had happened before, especially given that she walked barefoot everywhere and regardless of the weather, even on sheer snow.
But it hasn’t been four months yet since she was not the Sundrop anymore.
“Sunshine, have you never been sick?”
“No? Not that I can remember. Well, I do feel a little off and in pain and uh, bleed a little, every fourth week or so, but it’s different from when I cut my finger or something, and it always goes away after a few days. And of course, Gothel kept scaring me about—” Rapunzel trailed both hands through the air as if to draw an embellishment not unlike the little ornaments she was so fond of painting, the world’s most resentful air quotes. “—the plague, but I think that’s just another thing she made up to be mean to me.”
“Okay, the thing that happens every month? That’s a period, which is normal, and I am begging you to have that conversation with your mom,” Eugene said, eyebrows raised nearly to his hairline. Of all the topics he’d never expected to have the greater amount of knowledge on. “Did you never ask Cass about it?”
“I didn’t think to,” Rapunzel admitted with a shrug. “And she never started the subject, either. I’d notice she looked a little more irritable, or a little paler, for a day or two per month, but she always just... dealt with it, like she did with everything. I think we were having that at the same time from a certain point, so since she was just going about her business like normal, I thought it was something everyone handled on their own.”
“Great. Wonderful. Now I actually wish you’d heard the lecture we were given about it in the orphanage every year.” Eugene sighed at the memory of that. And of how, one unforgettable year, one of the older girls had just stuck a hand into the waistband of her skirt and pulled it out with blood on her fingers. Half the kids had been fascinated and the other half disgusted or scared witless, age and gender notwithstanding. “Please talk about it with someone close to you who experiences it first-hand, which I don’t. And uh, plagues are real things that exist.”
“Oh.” Rapunzel chewed on that for a moment, silently. “...There’s more than one?”
“But I think you just caught a bad cold,” Eugene continued hastily. “Which is why you’ve been feeling so tired, by the way. So, what you do when you catch a cold is, you get a lot of rest, and keep warm, and eat something light like you just did. I’ll let Faith know we’re gonna need chicken soup on the menu. Oh, and I’ll get the court physician for you in a minute, he’ll give you some medicine to help get you back on your feet and make sure this doesn’t turn into something serious. Then you just make sure to take it like he tells you to, you give other people a berth so they don’t catch it from you, and you stay patient with yourself, and a few days later you’re all better.”
Before the sun was halfway to the zenith, Cassandra had finished her circuit between the few places in town that were not the Brazen Brigand where it would be polite to say goodbye. The clinic family had insisted on gifting her an extremely generously stocked first aid kit that included three variants of medicine made from starlight woundwort—an ointment from the pollen, a paste from the leaves, and a tonic from the petals that could be applied externally or internally—and gave her a very heartfelt hug each, if a little weaker from Eliza, who was still recovering from her recent illness. She’d visited Tara in her sickbed, as well, the spy in noticeably better health and spirits now and clumsily setting out a game of solitaire before herself with the painted deck of Ronan Tyson’s cards. Teagan had shaken her hand without getting up from his seat inside the brick booth that held the job board, a sturdy pair of crutches leaning against one wall; Hanalei had as well, patting her shoulder with his other hand, and Sigrid had given her another hard embrace and a usual irreverent grin. She’d found Ramon and visited the furrier, as well, before going back to Sebastian at the inn and finding that he, too, had prepared her a goodbye gift of some slightly better rations, and quality feed for Fidella, and scraps of smoked meats for Owl. And between everywhere she went, people she didn’t recognize by their faces but by the bandit marks they carried and people she knew the faces but not the names of, came up to her on their own, an endless litany of thank you, we’ll miss you, be well, thank you, thank you.
When all of that was done, Cassandra and Moreen had dragged the Tysons’ dinky bullock cart out of the Brigand’s stable, and abandoned it just out of the city walls—whether to be commandeered by someone who could make use of it, or taken apart for firewood, as the locals saw fit. When all of that was done, Cassandra gave Moreen a boost into the saddle, and climbed up behind her, and swept her cloak back over Fidella’s hindquarters before reaching for the reins around the farmer to turn Fidella towards the road north and nudge her past the guard checkpoint out of town. And going out of town, facing a new road and a new adventure, Cassandra found herself humming the melody of a long-destroyed music box that she knew by heart once again, and felt strong with no give against the tune, and nudged her steed forward to challenge that horizon.