Actions

Work Header

Cassandra's Tangled Adventure

Chapter Text

This... is the story of how I died.

Eugene.

Of fright! Alright, alright. This is not a story about me, really. Except for some cameos, which are, as we all can agree, the best part of the story. Or at least the most dashing, charming, suave—

You want to die that much, Fitzherbert? I’m pretty sure I can oblige.

Uh, no. No! That won’t be necessary— sunshine, a little help, here?!

~*~

It was easy to be proud of Corona, with all of its people working together again to rebuild, the citizens and the pub thugs working shoulder to shoulder. It was easy to smile when Big Nose and Feldspar passed bricks from a cart to a work gang, when Attila and Xavier set out braziers and trays to keep everyone warm and fed, and when everyone paused in their work to grin and wave at their princess as she walked by.

It was easy to be cheered for.

It was less easy to hear the cheers falter mid-shout, to watch the happiness on everyone’s faces turn into uncertainty and suspicion—to look over where they were looking, and see Cassandra silently working alongside them all, with her shoulders slanted low under the weight of her guilt, her head hung at a hopeless, penitent angle, her entire bearing guarded and measured as she took deliberate care to make not a single sudden move, speak not a single stronger note, choose not a single scathing word.

“No wonder she wants to leave.”

“I don’t get it. Why is everyone acting like that? It’s not like she’s going to hurt them.” Rapunzel leaned into Eugene as he put an arm around her shoulders. “They all saw what happened. They saw her fighting Zhan Tiri with me!”

“Sunshine, what they saw was you using the Sundrop and Moonstone to heal everyone, and Cassandra picking herself up from the floor,” Eugene said gently. “You crying out for her when Zhan Tiri fell, and me pulling her into a hug pile afterwards, helped things to where we are now: they know you and I trust her again, and they trust us, but that doesn’t make them automatically trust her. They’re just being cautious, and they have every right to.”

“I guess, but...” Rapunzel sighed, looking over to where a work gang was just finishing up wall repairs for the day, its members exchanging handshakes and high fives—except for Cassandra, who had to wander off a little before the others felt safe enough to take their eyes off her and begin the mutual praise and well-wishing. “This feels wrong, Eugene. She’s helping them! She’s trying to fix what she did. If they could just give her a chance, I know they would see she’s a good person.”

“Good people can make mistakes too, and her mistakes cost a lot of people their homes,” Eugene reminded, putting both hands on Rapunzel’s shoulders and turning her away from where Cassandra had just sat down on a crate and began to wipe the dust and sweat of the day’s work from her face with a wet kerchief. “We’ll rebuild. We always have. But I’m starting to lose count of how many times we’ve had to, this past year. People are tired of it. It’s not something that can be fixed with a festival. And Cass is miserable right now—”

Squeak, Pascal said in an urgent tone.

“Do you mind? I’m in the middle of something, here. Rapunzel, I hate to say this, but her leaving is the best thing that can happen right now. She gets to stop being a pariah in her own home, everyone else gets to stop looking at her until things cool off—”

SQUEAK, Pascal said again, this time more insistently and while furiously pointing one hand to the side.

Rapunzel turned to look, and went pale. “Uh, Eugene? Think we could put a pin in that?”

“What? Oh. Oh no.” Eugene laughed nervously when he looked as well, and saw Adira making her way towards Cassandra. “We’re gonna have to break up a fight.”

~*~

That someone would come close enough for their shadow to reach her feet was strange enough, and made stranger still by no princess calling out to her from afar. Cassandra lifted her head to look, surprised, and felt her face pull into a grimace of distaste at the sight of Adira before she had the chance to school her features.

“Not you.”

“I’d think you have something else to say to me,” Adira shot back, then hooked a foot around another crate and pulled it close enough to sit on, directly opposite of Cassandra, leaning forward with knees apart and elbows braced on her thighs. “So let’s hear it.”

“Fine.” Cassandra pinched the bridge of her nose and took a deep breath, swallowing the acidic humiliation of saying what she was about to say. “I’m sorry I used the Mind Trap. It was unnecessary and cruel. I should have recognized that taking your freedom, and that of the rest of the Brotherhood, in such a way was a violating and unforgivable act. If I had the chance again, and a head clear enough to make my own decisions, I don’t think I would do it again. The sword is gone, too, it broke during the battle. If it hadn’t, I’d give it back to you. There. Happy now?”

“Somewhat,” Adira conceded, her tone just as disaffected as ever, making the answer a mockery.

“I still really hate you,” Cassandra said flatly, and rose from her crate to walk away.

Sit.” Adira’s voice snapped like a cracked whip—just enough to freeze Cassandra mid-step and make her look over her shoulder at the Brotherhood warrior again. When she didn’t move through the second of stalemate, Adira raised her eyebrows, an icy look in her eyes. “You owe me that much.”

Cassandra ground her teeth, and sat back down, glowering.

“You don’t hate me,” Adira said calmly. “You don’t know me well enough to hate me. You hate having everything you ever said being dismissed by people who should love you, and know you, well enough to trust you, from the moment I showed up and said something else.”

“Same difference from where I’m standing,” Cassandra growled back.

A ripple of impatience passed through Adira’s face, a narrowing of her eyes and a tightening of her lips, before she leaned forward. “Shorthair. Mind Trap aside, I should be thanking you. You succeeded in doing what I’ve been failing to do for longer than you’ve been alive. More than that, you did it without anyone suffering, where I wouldn’t have blinked before sacrificing the Sundrop’s bearer.”

“Without anyone suffering?” Cassandra repeated incredulously, unable to stifle a break to her voice, and waved an arm in a sharp gesture encompassing the wrecked streets and partially collapsed buildings all around. “Where have you been?!”

“How many people have you killed?” Adira asked, though not ungently.

“Just because I’ve not taken lives doesn’t mean—”

“You’ve killed no one. That means you haven’t done anything irreversible. And from what I’ve seen of Corona, it can handle a renovation just fine,” Adira cut her off, in the same calm tone. “People here will be alright. They’ve not suffered debilitating losses. They have a true beacon of a princess to rally them, and for them to rally under. I’m not worried about them. You, however...”

Cassandra narrowed her eyes. “Why would you, of all people, be worried about me?”

“It brings me no joy to watch misery and suffering,” Adira said simply, a note of concern finding its way into her steady voice and earnest eyes. It was enough to make Cassandra grit her teeth again and look away, but her focus was pulled back when Adira extended an open hand to her. “Show me your arm, please.”

For a long moment, Cassandra was tempted to slap that hand away and leave. Really, no one could blame her if she did; she had enough reasons to be angry and resentful towards Adira. And the humiliation of having to apologize to someone whose very presence belittled her and took away what feeble weight her words and actions may have still had among her loved ones was yet another reason to stay angry.

But she was tired of staying angry.

Zhan Tiri had played her by exploiting a deep-seated wound and her tendency to handle pain by turning to anger. Zhan Tiri had fed that anger, righteous it may have been, and kept her fire-blinded with its intensity. Zhan Tiri had used her, but was able to only after turning her into an enraged attack hound, and had done so easily by using nothing but her own anger.

And she was so, so tired of being angry.

So instead of biting out a scathing riposte and walking away, Cassandra sighed, unbuckled the strap keeping her right glove in place at the elbow, and tugged on its fingertips to remove it, then rested her withered hand in Adira’s waiting one.

Logically, it was no wonder that the Brotherhood warrior didn’t flinch away from the sight of flesh cracked with fissures and blackened as if scorched by a powerful fire. She was here when it had happened, after all. But in the absence of anger that fended away any emotions that were less overwhelming, Cassandra found herself feeling relieved when Adira leaned closer and brought her other hand to examine and carefully test the range of motion in the withered fingers, instead of avoiding mere proximity—to speak nothing of direct touch—as if dealing with a leper.

“Has this gotten any worse?”

Cassandra shook her head. “It’s been the same since it happened. That also means the fingernails haven’t grown either, though.”

The concerned frown on Adira’s face deepened. “I’ve seen you use this hand; you have some feeling in it, yes?”

“Some. It’s not as functional as the other one anymore.” Cassandra shrugged when Adira looked up, making it clear she was waiting for elaboration. “I can’t move it as much. Grip has been a problem. Precision, like with embroidery, has been gone rather than just a problem.”

“What about pain? Temperature?”

“I noticed I haven’t felt warmth when I put the hand towards a brazier,” Cassandra admitted. “Pain, sure, but not every day and without rhyme or reason. When it’s there, it hurts a lot. Doesn’t hurt as often as when I was relearning to use the hand, though. No pain today. Yet.”

Adira placed one hand around Cassandra’s withered wrist. “Tell me when you feel something.”

“Nothing. Nothing. Still nothing,” Cassandra reported dryly as Adira began to gradually squeeze. Finally, when Adira’s knuckles began to pale, Cassandra cocked her head. “I can feel pressure, but not pain.”

“You can feel pressure, but not pain, when I’m beginning to actively try to break or dislocate your wrist.” Adira relaxed her grip, and moved her hand to try finding the pulse point. After several unsuccessful attempts, she seemed to give up, and settled for holding Cassandra’s withered hand in both her own. “You’re going to have to pay a lot of attention to this arm, Shorthair. Keep it clean. Keep it dry. Always double-check if you aren’t cutting off circulation. What you can’t feel happening can still cause further harm, and I don’t think any damage to it is going to heal very well. If at all.”

Cassandra nodded, looking down at the cracked, charred skin folded between the weathered brown of Adira’s hands. No warmth. No pressure. She couldn’t even register the touch. “Thought that might be the case.”

“I hear you’re planning to leave.” Adira paused, giving her a gauging look. “If I gave you advice where to, maybe, look for help, do you think you would listen?”

Cassandra considered for a moment, then looked Adira straight in the eye. “I think I’d go the exact opposite way.”

For a moment, nothing happened. Then Adira burst out laughing, the sound devoid of mockery and genuinely amused, and Cassandra couldn’t help a grin pulling at her own face.

“Better to wish you luck than tell you what to do, I see.” Adira withdrew her hands, letting Cassandra don her right glove again, and reached out as if she was going to ruffle Cassandra’s hair—but stopped herself mid-movement, and placed a hand on Cassandra’s shoulder instead. “Look after yourself, yeah?”

“I will.” Cassandra went to pat Adira’s wrist in return, but noticed the immediate shift in the Brotherhood warrior’s demeanour at the movement, and stopped as well when she remembered that Adira did not like to be touched. “May I?”

For the first time, there was a hint of regard in Adira’s eyes, a sign that they were now equals, and she inclined her head to Cassandra a little more deeply than would be needed for a simply permissive gesture. “You may, this once.”

Cassandra clapped her healthy hand over Adira’s wrist, completing the exchange of mutual respect, of support through that respect. They nodded at each other, then, and the pressure on Cassandra’s shoulder deepened a little as Adira leaned against her to rise from the crate, and went on her way with hands in her pockets and her usual little smile about her face. Cassandra looked over her shoulder at Adira, briefly, before she too stood up and went towards the castle.

~*~

“We didn’t have to break up a fight,” Eugene said weakly, his voice cracking with incredulous and overwhelming relief.

“I thought they hated each other.” Rapunzel looked between Adira, strolling into town, and Cassandra, walking the opposite way but with her head held a little higher. “Or at least, that Cass hated Adira.”

“She does, though. Doesn’t she?” Eugene turned to look at Rapunzel, and found her no longer at his side—instead, she was trotting down the street to catch up with Adira. “Oh, great.”

“Hi! Adira! So good to see you!”

“Hello, princess,” the warrior greeted with a smile, folding her hands behind her, then nodded at Eugene as he joined the two of them. “Fishskin.”

“Hey, Adira.”

“Wow, you look great today,” Rapunzel proclaimed excitedly, and Eugene recognized the expression on her face as the herald of a new journal entry and painting subject.

“Sea air has always done wonders for me.” Adira’s nonchalant tone was only highlighted by the way she dramatically leaned her face into the breeze blowing past.

“So, um...” Rapunzel stumbled through an unwieldy pause, searching for more things to say that weren’t talking about the weather. “What are you up to?”

“Waiting until your blacksmith finishes me a new blade,” Adira replied airily. “Passing the time until then.”

“Passing the time by talking to Cassandra?” Eugene laughed a little. “You know, I can think of many ways to pass the time that scar you for life less than that does, like bear-wrangling.”

“Eh.” Adira shrugged. “Figured it was time we had a conversation.”

“I know she’d hurt you, but please don’t be too hard on her?” Rapunzel said gently. “She made a lot of mistakes, but she’s doing everything she can to fix them.”

An odd look passed through Adira’s face. Confusion, Eugene recognized after a moment, at which point the warrior looked at him in the still-stretching silence.

“Do you mind if I speak to the princess in private? I won’t take much of your time together, I promise.”

Eugene turned to Rapunzel, who seemed just as surprised as he was. “Your call, sunshine.”

“Could you get us a table at Monty and Attila’s? I’ll meet you there in a minute.”

“Only the finest of tables for my girl.” Eugene gave her a quick peck on the cheek, then walked away, heading towards the Sweet Shoppe.

Squeak, Pascal said in a tentative tone, pointing at himself.

Rapunzel glanced to him, then translated. “Can Pascal stay?”

Adira gave the chameleon a searching look, which Pascal met with one of his own, puffing up his chest and not breaking eye contact. “I don’t mind, as long as you feel you can speak your mind freely in his presence.”

“Of course I do,” Rapunzel replied without thinking, and felt Pascal nuzzle into the side of her neck in thanks. “But I also feel that way around Eugene.”

Adira didn’t respond to that, staying silent instead as she seemed to gather her thoughts for a moment. Rapunzel nervously tucked a lock of hair, short and unwieldy now, behind her ear as the silence stretched on.

“So, um... what did you want to talk about?”

“The way you speak about Shorthair alarms me,” Adira said simply, her tone dropping into the same lower timbre Rapunzel knew from their foray into the Deadly Forest of No Return: solving a problem, tackling a challenge, navigating through hostile and dangerous territory. “You must know by now that she is a very proud young woman, with the honed skill and the sharp mind to back that pride up, who finds joy and fulfilment in overcoming challenges and receiving the recognition she deserves for it. Yet you are making a conscious effort to clear obstacles from her path. I can see this effort comes from a place of love, but you would do well to consider that such displays can be well-intentioned and misplaced at the same time.”

“What do you mean?” Rapunzel asked, a small incredulous break to her voice. On another day, and with anyone else, she may have laughed at the accusation. But now, and faced with Adira’s cautious, gravely serious expression, she found herself suddenly facing the terrifying perspective of having missed something crucial—and of missing it for years.

“Has she never indicated that she would prefer to accomplish something with her own strength, or that she was unhappy or frustrated with your offer of help?” Adira asked carefully.

“No. I mean—”

Squeak, Pascal said apologetically.

“Maybe,” Rapunzel admitted, uncertain now.

Cassandra, the locks of her hair and the irises of her eyes a brilliant turquoise, and a furious snarl twisting her face. No! This has to stop now, this thing where you think that you’ve been my friend and don’t even hear how you condescend, the way you’ve always done—

Cassandra, teeth clenched and eyes squeezed shut and posture screaming pain as she folded herself around the arm she was cradling to her chest, even the sleeve tattered and burnt away. I said I’m fine! You should have let me try.

Cassandra, two full years younger, and irritated beyond finding gentler words. You’re a princess! You’ve got nothing to prove! Can’t you see how much this means to me?!

Cassandra, on countless other occasions, with the same look of hurt rapidly turning to anger and lashing out, not as unprovoked as she had seemed at the time.

“...Yes.” Rapunzel closed her eyes, feeling her shoulders slump. “But we’ve— we’ve made up, every time.”

“And what did that look like?” Adira asked, her tone softening.

“She’d say she was sorry.” Rapunzel paused, and stopped dead in her tracks, as soon as she heard what she’d just said. “Oh.”

Adira came to a halt beside her, but said nothing.

“I didn’t think I was being a bad friend,” Rapunzel said weakly. “I thought she’d be happy to share things. To have help. To do things together. I thought that because it would make me happy. I was too busy thinking about what would make me happy that I never stopped to think about what would make her happy. And all this time, for— for as long as I’ve known Cass, I’ve been treating her like— like—”

Squeak, Pascal said quietly, lifting two fingers to indicate a very small size.

“—like she was this big. Oh. Oh no.” Rapunzel buried her face in her hands. “This is terrible. I have to fix this.”

Adira laid a hand on Rapunzel’s shoulder, as comforting as it was restraining. “It is good to hear you feel this way. But, by focusing on the way you feel, you are perpetuating the mistake that led you to this point.”

Rapunzel looked up at her, eyes full of tears and teeth sunk into her lower lip to keep it from quivering. “What do you think I should do?”

“I think it’s time to stop doing,” Adira said gently. “Rapunzel, now that you have realized that you weren’t treating your friend well, you feel terrible. You want to do something, so you can stop feeling terrible. And you are still focused on what you feel, what you want. Now ask yourself two questions. What does Cassandra feel?”

“She’s miserable here in Corona,” Rapunzel said slowly, eyes downcast. “She feels guilty, and tired, and sad. And I think she might feel like everything that’s happened has been unfair. Because I’m starting to realize that it was. A lot more of it than I thought.”

“And what does Cassandra want?” Adira pressed.

Rapunzel hung her head. “She wants to leave.”

“Then you know what’s the only decision there is,” Adira told her. “The right one.”

“Let her leave,” Rapunzel said quietly. Then shook her head. “But how am I supposed to start making things up to her if she’s gone?”

“Be patient. Let the dust settle before you start raising new walls.” Adira took Rapunzel’s hands in both her own. “Make sure she knows she is loved; that you will let her go if she wishes to leave, and that you will welcome her with open arms if she wishes to return. Make sure she knows she is trusted; that you will let her fight her own battles if she wishes to prove herself in them, even if to no one but herself, and that she will receive any aid she could wish for if she asks for it. Make sure she knows she is respected; that you will no longer impose on her, and that she will be treated as an equal, not a maidservant and personal protector all rolled into one. And above all, make sure to let enough time pass to let you heal, both of you.”

“Thank you, Adira,” Rapunzel said quietly. “I have a lot to think about. I don’t like feeling this way, but I think— I think I needed this, a lot. I’m in your debt.”

The corners of Adira’s lips twitched upwards. “Not really. Think of it as an apology for leading you to your death with a smile on my face, and a thanks for seeing my vows fulfilled by destroying the Moonstone. Now, I believe you have a long-lost prince waiting for you?”

Rapunzel laughed a little, even as she pulled her hands back and began to wipe errant tears from her face. “I think he turned out better for not growing up a prince.”

“No argument there.” Adira stepped away, giving a jaunty wave as she put her other hand in her pocket. “By your leave, princess. I’ll be around.”

“Thank you,” Rapunzel repeated with feeling, and waved back at Adira before parting ways.

Squeak, Pascal said lovingly.

“I love you too, Pascal.” Rapunzel scratched lightly under the chameleon’s chin, smiling. “I think... I think I’ll have to talk about this once I’ve had the time to process. Think you can help me go over the past two years and rethink everything I’ve done?”

Squeak, Pascal said decisively.

“Thank you, my friend. Let’s go back to Eugene.”

~*~

Devastated as her room was—devastated as she had left it—there was still packing to do, choosing from what she could salvage. Cassandra stocked a mending kit as best she could, for whenever wear and tear would make something come loose on the road; her dominant hand’s pitiful condition may have forever freed her from the long days of sewing and embroidery, but she’d still have no one but herself to rely on for repairs. A cloak warm enough to wear for the season, thin enough to layer through the upcoming winter. A trusty sharpening stone. A waterproof map case. A spare bowstring.

A knock came against her doorframe, and Cassandra looked over her shoulder to see Rapunzel there, waiting at the door left half-open for her, hands folded behind her back and face drawn with worry even as she tried to smile through it.

“Hi. May I...?”

Cassandra nodded, beckoning her closer. “Come in.”

Rapunzel stepped inside, eyes travelling over the half-packed satchels on the bed, the clothes Cassandra had changed into for travel rather than for repair work. “Almost ready to go, huh?”

“Almost. Not quite done yet.”

“Well, in every story I read about a knight-errant, they carried a favour from someone they were important to. So I thought...” Rapunzel pulled a gold-trimmed kerchief from behind her back, looking at Cassandra uncertainly. “Maybe? If you want?”

Cassandra stared at her for a moment, equal parts touched and surprised. A sign that she was of a place, a proof of belonging. A mark of honour, one that would immediately distinguish her from a fugitive or a convict. A letter of marque, absolving her of responsibility to represent more than just herself, yet still promising wrathful retribution against those who would wrong her. Offered freely, hers to bear, but only if she wanted to.

In the before times, Rapunzel wouldn’t have asked if she wanted to.

So in the end, Cassandra just presented her left arm, wordlessly.

“You know this also means a promise to come back to you, right?” she managed when she could trust her voice not to crack.

“I won’t make you promise me that,” Rapunzel said softly, wrapping the fabric around Cassandra’s bicep and securely tying the ends off. “But I want you to know that no one here will turn you away at the door, Cass. No one. Not ever.”

Cassandra nodded, swallowing thickly.

Rapunzel fiddled with the knot one last time, then smoothed out Cassandra’s cloak over her shoulders. She was stalling, Cassandra realized, finding reasons to not step away yet. “Write me.”

“I will,” Cassandra promised. “I’ll write you, and send you treasures from my travels.”

A smile finally curled through Rapunzel’s face. She drew a breath as if to ask something, but changed her mind at the last moment, and in the end, only patted an open hand against Cassandra’s collarbone. “I’ll leave you to it. Come see me one last time before you go?”

“Okay.”

And after that, Rapunzel exited the room, looking over her shoulder one more time along the way. Cassandra breathed deeply, wiped at her eyes, and forced a partially destroyed cabinet open in an attempt to find some clean paper.

~*~

When all was said and done, Rapunzel held her arms wrapped tightly around herself, looking out the massive hole in the side of her room, slowly losing sight of a lone rider cantering down the bridge that connected the capital city of Corona to the kingdom’s mainland.

“You haven’t asked her to stay, after all,” Eugene said, more of a statement than a question.

Rapunzel shook her head.

“You okay, sunshine?”

“Yeah,” Rapunzel said, her tone somewhat strained.

Squeak, Pascal said from her shoulder, making a so-so gesture with one hand.

“I keep thinking, ‘we just got her back, and now she’s gone again’ before I even catch myself on how selfish that thought is,” Rapunzel admitted with a sigh. “Cass isn’t a possession I get to keep around for my happily ever after. If she needs to leave, if I’ve treated her in ways that made her crave to leave, then she gets to leave.”

~*~

When all was said and done, Cassandra pulled on the reins as Fidella trotted up to a road sign sitting in the middle of a crossroads. Behind her, Corona sprawled, left to its own devices as she was finally free to tend to hers with the wind in her hair and a song in her heart. Before her, a choice between three new paths awaited—Koto, Equis, or Bayangor.

Cassandra patted the mare’s neck, and held out an arm for Owl to perch on. “What do you think? Where should we go first?”

Chapter Text

To feel this revitalized and liberated and looking forward to the future just from being on the road again was probably not a great sign, but even if, Cassandra couldn’t bring herself to care.

With no one to fuss over and no pit of hellfire burning in her belly, it was the best of both worlds: of the travel along the trail of black rocks, and of the arguable freedom she had claimed right after taking the Moonstone. No added responsibilities, no division of watch shifts and driving shifts to keep track of, no makeshift repair work on the wagon and hoping it would be enough to get them to a wheelwright, no recalculations of how long they had until another resupply every morning based on how much the others’ eating habits varied. No demonic entity dripping poison in her ears, no power to be hunted for, no empty desire to recreate everything she had seen from a servant’s perspective and perch atop it as a monarch, no doubt and fear gnawing at her in every lonelier moment.

Now, Cassandra had no one to put before herself but Owl and Fidella—with Owl mostly taking care of himself, and Fidella having finite and uncomplicated needs. Now, the solitude was a balm on her soul, instead of another razorblade taken to its shredded fabric. Now, if she didn’t want to talk, she didn’t have to, with no invasive concern or manipulative advice to deal with—and if she did want to talk, the conversation was exhausted in the shortest amount of time required, with any discussion limited to Owl’s short, to-the-point hooting and Fidella’s soft nickers.

She had gone off the cobbled roads on her second day out of the capital, after a messenger of the pan-Seven Kingdoms postal services had pulled his sleek horse to a stop beside her instead of galloping past.

“You might want to give it a bit of time, miss,” he’d said as he handed her a wanted poster of herself, now stamped with a red PARDONED across the face. “Not every corner of the kingdom has seen the new version yet, I don’t think.”

She’d thanked the wisp of a boy, and watched his steed thunder off on their way to deliver small parcels and letters, then folded the poster into the breast pocket of her cloak and spent a long while with the map before nudging Fidella off the road and into the countryside.

Snort, the mare said, looking back to side-eye her rider sceptically.

“I know,” Cassandra said in a tone she hoped would sound reassuring. “But it’s easy enough to keep an azimuth, and each major crossroads is marked. Whenever we find another cobbled road, we’ll just follow it until a signpost tells us where exactly on the map we are.”

Fidella flicked an ear, looking entirely unconvinced with the bare truth she was given.

Cassandra took a deep breath, then admitted, “Maybe I need to get lost for a while.”

With a softer sound halfway between a nicker and a sigh, Fidella began to step off the cobbles, first finding a well-walked path to trot down, then abandoning even that as Cassandra dismounted and walked beside her instead.

The iron rations she took from the castle would last her a month. But there was nothing wrong, Cassandra reasoned, with supplementing these with whatever she could hunt or forage. So she let herself disappear into the wilds of Corona, heading directly away from any forest clearing, any shout of shepherds calling out to their flocks, that she came across. She gathered wild sorrel and dug up rampion root, and cut up young yarrow leaves as if they were dill sprigs. She drank birch sap and rainwater, collected in the cooking pot and frying pan she would leave in the open overnight and sometimes find wild critters drinking from in the morning. She set rabbit snares and hunted for pheasants, cleaning pelts and collecting flight feathers while the meat was cooking, Owl delightedly helped dispose of the guts, and Fidella grazed nearby. She slept under canopies and open skies, and on cold nights curled up to Fidella, if the mare was inclined to sleep laying down, with Owl standing watch for them overnight. And in-between, she walked ahead, with no direction more defined than simply leaving Castle Corona behind.

For the first week of her hermitage, Cassandra would spend long hours pretending to do something—walking, tracking, skinning, cooking—but rather than focus on that task, she would find herself pausing and letting it lie in favour of just soaking up the inoppressive silence and mild noises that made up the soundscape of the forests and plains she was travelling through. The rustle of leaves and the creaking of pine trees as the wind wandered with her washed away the clatter of hobnailed boots and wagon wheels against cobbled stone, the noise of a city life layered into her soul since she was four years old. The shouting of merchants and town criers and more, piercing in its intensity, faded like an echo against the bellows of distant stags and the alarm calls of blackbirds chirping as she walked by. The songs of crickets during the day and of nightingales at dusk rang more soothing than any busker or court musician to ever perform within the walls of Corona’s capital. The moss and dead leaves underfoot spilled forth softer than any palace carpet, and although she spent more time on her feet now than she used to even when running errands and serving royals, now the evenings brought her less aching, less strain, concentrated in her knees and hip joints, as if the forest floor itself was reaching its invisible grasp into her legs to loosen the knots pulled so tight by endless treading on flagstones and cobbles. And slowly, gradually, day after day Cassandra could feel the confines and burdens of a citizen’s—a court member’s—lifestyle rust and loosen and unravel around her, their weight tumbling from her shoulders like a flood of autumn leaves falling to the forest floor. She could relax her posture. She could walk without minding the hems of a dress. She could stop thinking for other people who had the luxury of neglecting to do so. She could take a moment to stand in the rain, and comb her hair back with her fingers without worrying what it was going to look like afterwards, or how much more it was going to curl from the water, and just breathe in: deep lungfuls of crisp, moist air.

For the second and third week, she felt the recent events that had taken such a toll on her as if they were thick mud caked all over her, and she had just stepped under a powerful current of water—as if the wanderings she had only just embarked upon were all she needed to make all the hardship, heartbreak, fury, uncertainty, and fear just slough off and leave her lighter, cleaner, than she had felt in months. There were no kingdoms to fight and no betrayals to commit—not of the self, not of those who had spent years relying on her and her obedience. No mistakes to regret and no guilt to suffer. No dismissal to endure and no lies to be trapped in. All she had to do was find the next shelter and secure the next meal. All she had to think of was the few and base matters of immediate relevance. No one to explain herself to. No one’s contempt and suspicion to deal with. No one’s forgiveness to grovel and beg for, after wanting one thing of her own. And when the moon grew full overhead, Cassandra stared up at it, an elbow propped on her knee and her withered hand rubbing slowly over the starburst nest of grey-black scars sheared through her clavicle, and as she looked up, she did not sing.

For the fourth and fifth week, she caught herself chatting aimlessly to Fidella while grooming her and to Owl while skinning rabbits increasingly more often, the continuing solitude well-deserved and much needed but still an abrupt change from the noise of Castle Corona and the constant presence of Zhan Tiri’s ghostly manifestation. So when the next clearing began to open between trees, the woods showing signs of being logged from time to time, Cassandra nudged Fidella towards the opened space rather than away from it, feeling a growing confidence that she could handle dealing with people again now—now that she’s had a rest, now that the previous hardships were left tangled in the brush like a stag pursued by hunting hounds, and she could ride ahead renewed.

“Let’s find us that signpost, shall we?”

Snort, Fidella said affirmatively, lengthening her stride into a trot once the ground underfoot cleared from a forest floor to a well-walked dirt road, and then, eventually, to stone cobbles once again.

It was another day and a half before Cassandra did, in fact, find a signpost as they travelled down the road in the same direction they had been hiking in. When she did come across one, it had taken her a long while of studying the map to realize where they ended up—they’ve made more ground than expected, Cassandra realized when she finally found the only settlement of those the signpost’s arms were pointing to that was large enough to be accounted for by the cartographer. Silberstadt. A town built around a silver mine that was abandoned in the past decade, after the veins of ore had ran out. It had struggled ever since; most of the townsfolk lacked the means to travel far enough to find new places to live, and the remaining opportunities to make an honest living tended towards scarce, backbreaking, and uninspiring.

The town was also located on the border between Equis and Koto—a border that constantly moved several dozen miles this way and that, depending on whose troops ousted whose for now, an endless series of skirmishes and ongoing animosity that constituted a large part of the reason for why Equis was continuously blocked from entering the Seven Kingdoms’ alliance. And with Silberstadt’s location, somewhat central to innumerable smaller villages and hamlets, Cassandra supposed she could see a reasonably significant strategic advantage to holding the mining town, even with the mine itself long gone. Not to mention the power of a plain old grudge between two monarchs contesting the territory. King Trevor of Equis, at least, excelled at holding meaningless grudges, after all.

Cassandra rolled up the map again and tucked it into its scroll case as the first raindrops began to fall. A no-man’s-land like that, conquered and retaken and re-conquered every few months, would hardly support a unified national identity. Constant military presence in the area would undoubtedly echo in the number of malicious accidents and disappearances among those living in lone-standing hamlets and farmhouses, as well as make for a thriving mercenary business, whether for hired help and odd jobs, or outright wetwork and carrying out vendettas. Whatever aristocratic presence may have once kept watch over the region, be it Equisian or Kotoan retainers, was either long gone or thoroughly absent, not willing to test their delicate constitution against life in the gutters and hovels that their subjects had to call home.

It sounded like something straight out of Eugene’s beloved Flynn Rider novels, Cassandra thought with a grin, and permitted herself a silent admission that maybe there was something exciting in that.

Hoot, Owl said, swooping down onto the signpost’s arm that pointed towards the ex-mining town.

“I think so, too,” Cassandra told him. “I mean, it can’t be any worse than Vardaros, and Vardaros was almost homey by the time we left it.”

Hoot, Owl said again, and opened his left wing to fix a few feathers with his beak.

Cassandra trailed the gloved fingertips of her withered hand over the favour tied around her left arm. “Hopefully it’ll cancel out the wanted posters, if either version made its way all the way to here. And since it’s the only thing I’m wearing that’s more expensive than my sword, I don’t expect it to cause a lot of problems.”

Hoot, Owl said pointedly.

Cassandra rolled her eyes. “I’ll write her when there’s something to write home about, alright? What would I even say now? 'Took a month-long walk, it was nice'?”

Snort, Fidella said, equal parts amused and exasperated by her companions.

“You know what? You’re right. It’s raining and it’s time to get a move on.” Cassandra nudged the mare down the Silberstadt road. “We’re gonna sleep under a roof tomorrow night.”

The rain kept up for the remainder of the day and overnight. There was no point in trying to start a fire—short of going off the road to ride up to any farmhouse in sight, she had no chance to find dry fuel or adequate shelter. So it was another night spent on a patch of ground too stony to soak up the rain, with a waterproof blanket thrown over Fidella, Cassandra snuggled up to the mare as best she could, and Owl keeping his eyes open for them. When morning came, the rain was still falling, and Cassandra wasn’t sure which had woken her up: the meagre sunlight from behind the thick cloud cover, or the piercing pain in her withered arm.

“Left today,” she told Owl as he shook himself and batted his wings to shake the rainwater off.

Hoot, Owl said sleepily, then perched on her left shoulder.

“Yeah, you get your rest.” Cassandra smoothed the feathers overtop his head with one finger, then climbed into the saddle on Fidella’s back and patted her neck companionably. Immediately after she took the reins, the pain flared badly enough to make her hiss with wince, and the reins slipped from her hand as it opened again.

The mare looked back at her with a worried little noise.

“I’m fine. It’s just a little ache.” Cassandra pulled a few of her tunic’s clasps open and tucked her withered arm under her clothes, hoping that her body heat would help combat the pain a little. “We’re heading in the same direction as last night, anyway. Think you can take us there?”

Snort, Fidella said, still eyeing her rider with concern. She didn’t make a fuss of it, though, getting on with the day instead, and Cassandra silently thanked the divine providence of whatever had been watching on the day when the palace guard took in a barrel-chested buckskin mare built like a draft horse rather than a racer.

At some point during the morning hours, a lone rider passed her by, bundled up too tightly against the perpetual rain for Cassandra to see who they were. She made no effort to converse, but inclined her head in response to the stranger raising a hand to the brim of their hat at her, and made a point to remember their steed: a work-worn chestnut gelding with rather pronounced dappling denoting age, three white socks, and a star on his forehead. Soon enough afterwards, Cassandra thought she could spy a darker shape of buildings rising through the drizzle and fog, so she fixed her clothes up and rested her withered hand atop the front of the saddle for now. It had yet to stop aching, through the pain did subside somewhat against warmth—even though she couldn’t feel any through the hours of keeping the hand tucked under her left arm, thumb rested on her collarbone near the greyish Moonstone scars and the other fingers loosely flattened against her side.

By the time the town walls of Silberstadt came into focus, Cassandra began to make out other shapes moving in the fog: people, livestock, chickens, dogs. The streets, such as they were, flowed with mud in the absence of cobbles after a day and a half of rain. The dwellings around, as well as the town fortifications themselves, seemed raised from the excess rock pulled from the long-abandoned mine and stacked into structures of vaguely equal thickness and height, with layers of simple mortar in-between. The locals, most of them with massive postures and stooped backs of miners, were interestingly enough carrying some sort of a weapon each, to the one—mostly spears used like walking sticks, Cassandra noticed, followed by axes with heads just as fit for lumberjack work as for splitting flesh and bone, and by chipped swords hooked through belt loops like the axes were instead of properly sheathed. Iron helmets and suits of chainmail were far less common, and nearly all sported rusty spots or signs of makeshift repairs with cheap materials. Here and there, individuals carrying weapons of more expert make and clad in well-kept armour—however piecemeal it could sometimes be—poked through the crowd. And finally, looking as out of place among these people as they were miserable under the heavy glares and ghastly weather, an occasional pair of guards in Equisian colours patrolled the muddy streets, followed by barely hushed mutters and an absolute lack of respect among the populace.

Seeing as Cassandra had yet to dismount, she had no trouble getting through the crowd, with people clearing out of Fidella’s way. Seeing as Cassandra was a rain-soaked rat of a woman right now, with a quiver and bow case strapped to the saddle and a sword slung over her back, she had no trouble with drawing undue attention, either, since she looked almost exactly like everyone around her; if anyone did a double-take after her, it was to stare at Owl, who was still dozing on her shoulder. That, she supposed, and the still relatively impeccable condition of Fidella’s tack and harness was what made another pair of guards walk out from under an awning and head directly for her.

“Hail! I’ve not seen your face here, what business have you in Silberstadt?”

Saved her the trouble of bothering someone for directions, at least. “I’ve pelts and fletching to sell, and rain to get out of. Maybe an odd job or two afterwards. Got any pointers?”

One of the guards eyed her suspiciously, while the one who’d called out to her directed her down a perpendicular street. “There’s a furrier a few minutes’ walk from here. Fletcher, we have several, ask around the smithy. If you’re looking for a place to stay, the only one with a stable is the Brazen Brigand. And don’t do any unsanctioned mercenary work here—you want a job, you check with the job board at the town square, is that clear?”

“Crystal,” Cassandra confirmed easily. “Any other rules I should know about?”

“Emil’s clinic is neutral ground: you start shit around it, and it’s every passerby’s responsibility to put you down,” the guard started tapping his fingers as he answered. “Curfew starts at sundown and lasts till sunrise, don’t leave your place of residence in-between. You hire yourself out for anything or anyone that’s not on the job board, you get blacklisted from the job board. And keep your ass out of trouble—no one cares who started it, if your foot touches the turd, you’re in the shit house with everyone else.”

“I like it,” Cassandra lied in a deadpan tone. “Simple, easy to remember.”

“You’re far from home, Coronian,” the other guard spoke up, glaring up at Cassandra through squinted eyes. “You’d do well to watch your step here.”

“Oh, you don’t have to tell me twice.” Cassandra clicked her tongue at Fidella, and headed towards the furrier’s workshop she was pointed to. A wooden sign hanging over the door, carved into a likeness of a squirrel overtop and a badger underneath, heralded a necessity to finally dismount and sink ankle-deep into the muck, and she sighed as she unhitched the bundle of rabbit pelts from Fidella’s saddlebags. “I’ll be right back.”

Snort, the mare said affirmatively.

Cassandra tapped a finger to Owl’s beak. “Hey, eyes open.”

Hoot, Owl said reproachfully as he blinked awake.

“Make sure no one bothers Fidella for a few minutes, alright?”

Hoot, Owl said, and flew from Cassandra’s shoulder to perch atop the saddle.

“Thanks.”

The inside of the shop smelled like tanned leather and wet fur, and the doorbell’s ring made her teeth ache with how shrill and dissonantly cheerful it sounded. There was only one other person inside, besides Cassandra and the Kotoan-looking proprietor—and they immediately gave Cassandra a wide berth at the sight of her equipment, leaving within seconds. The furrier himself seemed unbothered, and commented favourably on the condition of the rabbit pelts she’d collected and partially tanned over the five weeks of her wanderings, eventually buying all of them off her hands.

“Interesting gloves you’re wearing,” he remarked as Cassandra divided the money between her coin purse, a pocket of her tunic, and a satchel on the inside of her belt. “They seem mismatched at a glance, but are a custom pair instead, no?”

“That they are,” Cassandra allowed, tugging at the right glove to set it into place more firmly.

“Hm. Come see me if you find yourself in need of a winter pair. I believe I could replicate the reinforcements inside the right, as well.” The furrier glanced over Cassandra’s shoulder and leaned back, the look on his face abruptly shifting from interested to baffled. “Miss, is that your, uh, bird?”

Cassandra whirled around, and through the storefront window, saw a gangly teenager frantically flailing his arms in an attempt to shoo Owl away while Fidella was watching on with a look that said, Really? You tried that? Really?

“Oh for ffff...” She glanced back at the furrier. “Thank you for your time, have a nice day—” Another aggressively cheerful ring, and she was back out in the mud and rain. “Hey! You got a problem with my owl?!”

“Call that monster off!” the teenager screamed.

Hoot, Owl called out angrily as he whirled around for another swoop.

“Give back what you stole first,” Cassandra demanded, and was pelted with several horse brushes, the same ones she’s been grooming Fidella with for months. “Are you serious?!”

“How was I supposed to know what was in that saddlebag?! Call your murder bird off already!”

Despite herself, and despite the pain that plagued her all day long, Cassandra snorted with laughter. Then she gathered the brushes against her chest, put two fingers in her mouth to whistle at Owl, and held out her left arm for him to perch on. “Get lost, alright?”

Silberstadt’s most unlucky thief was gone before she finished speaking.

“Just when I think no one could botch a heist worse than Fitzherbert...” Cassandra put the brushes back where they belonged. “Did that idiot touch anything else?”

Hoot, Owl said negatively.

“Well done. Settle back in.” Cassandra extended her arm in a straight line, letting Owl inch his way from her forearm back onto her shoulder, then took Fidella’s reins in her left hand and carefully tucked the right into a pocket. “That guard said to ask after fletchers around the smithy. Heard any hammering?”

Snort, Fidella said, and began walking towards a road intersection.

Five minutes later, Cassandra arrived to a fair bit of open space cobbled with unworked river stones—the town square, she realized. One corner was occupied by an open-air smithy, where a powerfully built man was hammering at some small elements of metal while a woman of much more willowy posture loitered around. Another side of the square was taken by a large tavern, far from quiet even at such an early hour, with a patina-stained brass sign proudly naming it the Brazen Brigand. And in the centre, raised from honest brickwork, stood a small booth with a single person and a wooden board full of tacked-on pieces of paper or parchment visible inside: the much-rumoured job board, no doubt.

The smith, of Neserdnian descent if his skin the colour of lacquered clay and his curly black hair tied in a topknot to keep it out of the way were any indication, looked up from the anvil as Cassandra approached with Fidella in tow. “I don’t shoe horses.”

“I’ll remember that,” Cassandra said calmly. “I’m looking for a fletcher, I was told to ask here?”

The woman perched atop one of the workbenches, piercing gray eyes and a braid of platinum blonde hair that spilled down the back of her neck while the sides of her head were shorn close to the skin betraying Ingvarrdian heritage, flicked two fingers at Cassandra in a lazy salute. “You found one.”

Cassandra pulled out her case of carefully kept feathers. “I have some fletch for sale.”

“Ooo. Pheasant, huh?” The fletcher leaned close, her legs dangling off the edge of the workbench now, and indicated Owl with a careless gesture. “Good, but not as good as his would be.”

Hoot, Owl said indignantly.

“His aren’t for sale,” Cassandra said flatly.

“Not even when he moults? Alright, alright.” The fletcher pulled her gloves off and wiped her palms on her trousers before examining one of the pheasant feathers. “Tell you what. I don’t have coin to spare for buying these off you right now, but I’ll trade you for a handful of completed arrows.”

“Deal.”

The fletcher gave her a grin as wolfish as it was dazzling. “You’ve just made this day beautiful, Coronian.”

The smith rolled his eyes with a thunderous sigh and went back to hammering away, after having paused to let them have an uninterrupted conversation. Cassandra waited as the fletcher slowly, delicately sorted through the feathers, laying the ones she wanted on a pile that she shielded from the wind with one hand, and the few and far between she rejected aside. She spent over half an hour doing nothing but that, during which the smith had completed three arrowheads and the rain had finally let up. Cassandra started looking around to stave off boredom. The forge’s setup was only somewhat similar to the one Xavier was using in Corona. The smith’s dark skin was tattooed in intricate, if geometric and simple, patterns of ocean waves and lateen-sailed ships and schools of fish. The fletcher’s shirt was opened quite a ways down at the throat, showing the tail end of a blade scar that cut diagonally across her chest; and when the smith placed a pair of tongs into the belly pocket of his apron, tugging its neckline down a little, Cassandra caught a glimpse of a similar scar across his own chest. No, not similar. Identical. Like a woodcut and its charcoal rubbing.

Before she had the chance to stare too long, however, the fletcher looked up at Cassandra again. Somehow, her eyes now held an entirely new respect and very keen interest.

“You really know what you’re doing, huh?”

Cassandra shrugged.

The fletcher chuckled at that, then leapt off the workbench and pulled one of its drawers open, revealing a thick row of arrows laid next to each other. “Pick twelve, any twelve that you want, or four that I don’t actually trade in if anyone asks, if you catch my meaning.”

Cassandra leaned over the open drawer. Fletchings threaded and glued, arrowheads profiled for hunting and for war, some designed to cause lacerating wounds, some to pierce mail and plate. She glanced back at the fletcher, without straightening her back for now.

“What’s that you said about things you don’t actually stock?”

The fletcher’s answering smile held volumes as she reached deeper into the drawer and unlatched a hidden compartment in its back, pulling forth several arrows fletched with falcon feathers dyed a brilliant blue and heads hammered into a peculiar, almost bloated shape, yet still carrying multiple barbs at the edges. “Now, make sure you don’t accidentally use these beauties for just anything, because there’s no one to buy them from and certainly not myself. See the heads? If you dip them in a liquid, they hold it like a charm, and on impact they shatter to release it and add some shrapnel cuts into the mix. Magical poisons, alchemical fluids, animal venom, Bayangoran fire, you name it. Miracle and work of art all rolled into one, really, if I do say so myself.”

“Flatterer,” the smith called out from where he was working.

“And you eat it up every time,” the fletcher shot back at him with a grin.

Cassandra considered, trailing a fingertip over one of the liquid-carrier arrowheads. The shape would make them harder to aim right, as would the fact that they were hollow inside and supposed to carry a load, though the falcon fletching would help somewhat with stabilizing the arrow’s flight. A good shot would result in an incredibly nasty wound, even without considering the added potency of a poisonous load. If the good shot was, by chance, a gut shot, she would sooner make bets for the target’s death than recovery. It wasn’t an end she wanted to wish on any living person—much less actively cause it.

But she had spent enough time outside of Corona to know that there were many strange and vicious creatures in the world, monsters and beasts and remnants of ancient sorcery that defied death by normal weapons and simple strength of arms and wits.

So either this was a scam to sell absolute scraps of metal hammered together into something that could be talked up to high heaven, or a weapon of last resort to use against something too terrible to fight fairly and live to tell about it, Cassandra decided, and eyed the fletcher suspiciously.

“You’ve only just met me. Why are you showing me these?”

The fletcher cocked her head, giving Cassandra a curious look. “You reek of old magic and unfulfilled fate, girl. I’ve a good feeling about you.”

Cassandra narrowed her eyes at the Ingvarrdian. The fletcher easily held her stare, and when she blinked, her steel-gray eyes were no longer steel-gray or human-like, but a brilliant silver cut with a vertical pupil of a snake. Another blink, and it was gone, leaving Cassandra creeped out and wondering whether she saw anything at all, while the fletcher continued staring at her, a knowing smirk curling up her lips now.

Deciding that she wanted to get out of here more than she wanted to win a staring contest, Cassandra looked away and pointed at the carrier arrows. “I’ll take four of these.”

“Oh, beautiful. Just remember: you didn’t get these from me. Unless a skald writing of your heroic exploits is asking, of course.”

“Sure.” Cassandra packed the carrier arrows into her quiver, trying not to look at the fletchings—a turquoise as bright as she used to see in the mirror—and hurried away.

“Sigi, what did I tell you about the snake eyes thing?” she heard the smith saying tiredly from behind her.

“'Don’t do the snake eyes thing, it scares away customers',” the fletcher whined, evidently parroting an earlier argument. “Oh come on, she’ll be fine, I’m pretty sure she’s seen worse magic than that already. Or maybe will in the future. It’s never exactly that clear.”

Another thunderous sigh, and Cassandra was finally out of earshot.

Hoot, Owl said uncomfortably.

“I know, me too.” Cassandra looked up at the job board booth’s window. “You two mind if we find something to do to take our minds off... whatever that was... before turning in?”

Hoot, Owl said negatively, and perched on the saddle again.

Snort, Fidella agreed, and nudged Cassandra towards the brick building.

“Okay, then. I won’t be long.”

The board’s minder looked up at her with disinterest. “Hello, fresh meat. Take a gander, pick one, pay the fee, and get out.”

“What’s that fee?” Cassandra asked.

“Ten percent of the bounty, paid on taking the job. Non-negotiable.”

“Great.” Cassandra stepped up to the board.

It took up the entirety of the three walls that weren’t taken with the window and door of the brick booth. One side of it was covered in wanted posters; Cassandra raised her eyebrows upon seeing a reasonably flattering mugshot of Eugene, but none of her own. The other wing of the board was covered in thoroughly mundane offers: work at the harvest, work at a wedding, work at a lumber camp. The central portion seemed a mix of these two extremes, boasting a gallimaufry of bodyguard work, scavenging, fetching, hunting, and more. One offer in particular caught her eye—the only one that came with a picture other than a wanted criminal’s face. A flowering shrub, in fact, surrounded by several detailed illustrations of the compound leaves, bell-shaped flowers, and fleshy fruits. Cassandra stepped up and squinted to read it, as the offer’s text itself was written in an elder’s shaky hand.

URGENT
MATURE STALKS OF STARLIGHT WOUNDWORT (AS PICTURED) NEEDED POSTHASTE
LOOK FOR THIS HERB AMONG CRAGS AND HILLTOPS EAST OF SILBERSTADT
DELIVER TO EMIL AT THE CLINIC
REWARD: FIFTY (50) GOLD COINS

Cassandra tore the notice off the board and presented it to the minder. “This one.”

“Starting small, huh? Five gold.” The minder frowned at the sun-stamped coins Cassandra placed in his hand. “You might want to exchange these for currency of Equis or Koto soon as you get back, Coronian.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Cassandra deadpanned, folded the notice, and left.

No one had bothered Owl and Fidella this time, it seemed, and they both greeted Cassandra with an inquisitive look.

“Up for a trip? We’re going on one.” Cassandra tapped her shoulder for Owl to perch on, and mounted the mare again.

Healing herbs. Cassandra shook her head, nudging Fidella into a trot, then into a canter once they exited the town walls. Hilarious.

Unless you asked Raps, of course, who would’ve loved that to bits.

Chapter Text

“Okay,” Cassandra said flatly as she stared up the sheer wall of a mountainside before her. “I’m torn between 'I wasn’t expecting this' and 'I don’t know why I wasn’t expecting this'.”

Hoot, Owl called out to her from above. Cassandra pinched the bridge of her nose with her withered fingers before looking up at him.

“And you’ve seen absolutely nowhere else that this thing is growing?”

Hoot, Owl said as he perched on a small outcropping, and shook his head no.

Cassandra sighed. She was going to have to go rock-climbing. After having her dominant hand wracked with pain since the small hours of the morning, after a day and a half of rain turning the mountainside slick and slippery, she was going to go rock-climbing.

“At least it’s not the stupidest thing I’ve done...”

Snort, Fidella said, and waited for Cassandra to shift her weight and brace herself. Then, the mare stood up on her hind legs and leaned her front hooves against the wall of stone, letting her rider look for handholds a bit up from the ground already.

“I think I’ve got it,” Cassandra told her once she had both hands wedged into striations in the rock. “Boost me?”

Fidella allowed one of Cassandra’s feet to rest briefly against her head and in a single smooth, strong movement, pushed her further up the mesa’s steep side. Pulling herself up along with that burst of force, Cassandra started climbing, fingers scrabbling for purchase and boots testing the crevasses and outcroppings before resting her weight on them, a slow vertical crawl across the treacherous expanse of rock. On the third time when she was pulling herself up with her right arm, a persistent, acidic burn began building up in her withered hand and wrist.

This has been a very bad idea.

Cassandra looked down over her shoulder. She was still low enough to just jump off, and find someplace the godforsaken herb was growing that wasn’t atop a tall and fairly inaccessible mesa, without seriously hurting herself. Then she looked back up. The distance she had left to go couldn’t be farther than twice the distance between her and the ground right now. She could probably do it.

Unless her dominant hand refused her again. Like it had first thing in the morning, when it flared with intense pain. Pain that was building again, now. Pain that was going to have her hand open abruptly again and throw her into a fall.

But no one put out urgent bounty letters after a woundwort herb without a life being at stake.

“I am so going to regret this,” Cassandra said tiredly to the world around her, and kept climbing.

Several right-hand pulls more, and she found herself sweating more from the pain than from the overall effort of the climb. Several more, and the ache begin to spill further up the arm, beyond the withered area. Cassandra paused for a moment to catch her breath, then started pulling herself up on both arms each time instead of on one at a time. Several pulls more, and she could see her right arm shake more than she could feel it becoming unsteady. Several more, and her boots slipped on a moss-covered outcropping, squeezing a pained grunt past Cassandra’s throat as her entire body weight hung from her arms for a moment, and the world narrowed down to the fine points of her feet scrambling for purchase, her right arm burning with all the agony a legion of sinners could ever howl out from a pit of hellfire, and her entire mind concentrated on the single desperate task of keeping that hand closed on the rocks.

When she had finally found steady footholds, Cassandra unclenched her right hand with a whimper and, breathing raggedly, let the arm hang at her side for a moment. When she didn’t move for a longer while, a worried whinny came from below.

“I’m fine,” Cassandra called out to Fidella.

Few had been the times when she was any further from fine.

She was more than halfway up the mesa’s side, and high enough that the only way left to go now was up. Her arm was burning almost as badly as on the first days after it had died to the Moonstone’s magic, when she was struggling to relearn how to use it. Her breath was coming in ragged pants and wheezes, as much from the pain itself as, she finally recognized, from rapidly mounting panic.

She was going to fall. She was going to fall and break her neck and no one would ever find out what had happened to her. She was going to die, far from home, where no one knew her and now, no one ever would, because the next time she slipped, she was going to die, and there was nothing she could do anymore to prevent it. It was too far up to keep going. It was too far down to jump off. And the longer she stayed still, stuck between up and down like the no one that she was, the bigger the possibility that a gust of wind would yank at her cloak too strongly and throw her off, or that it would start raining again and her flimsy hand- and footholds would wash away straight from under her, and once again, she was going to fall, she was going to die, and there was no one left to keep going on the back of her failures, there was no one better than her kept around anymore.

And like a match struck against the sandpaper of her scarred-up soul, that last thought lit a fire in her belly, an abrupt and devastating torrent of anger rising through her like a flash flood, drowning away everything that wasn’t its own deep-seated fury, pouring a startling burst of second-wind strength through her limbs.

She had been bested by everything she faced for at least a year now. She’d been bested by Zhan Tiri, by Hector, by Adira, by Rapunzel who refused to even fight.

She was not going to be bested by a fucking inanimate formation of stone.

Cassandra snapped her right arm up and yanked herself up with a growl. Then the left. Then the right again. She kicked off an outcropping that crumbled beneath her from the force, and grabbed onto an exposed tree root. Yanked herself up again, and wedged the withered hand into a gap too small to be considered a proper handhold. She heard her reinforced right glove creak as she put her weight on it again—or at least, she hoped that the sickening sound had come from the glove. And eventually, when she snapped her healthy arm up again, she felt her hand grasping not at sharp stone, but at thready blades of grass.

Heaving herself onto the flat surface atop the mesa, Cassandra allowed herself a sigh of relief and a moment to just faceplant into the wet soil and breathe. An almost inaudible whoosh of wings, and Owl landed on the ground next to her, as awkward and stilted in a walk as he was graceful in flight.

“See? Told you I had it,” Cassandra panted, voice still breathless and unsteady. “Piece of cake.”

Hoot, Owl said proudly.

“Thanks. Let’s never speak of this again.”

Owl blinked at her in silent accord, and turned his head sideways. Cassandra braced her right elbow and left hand against the ground, shaky as the adrenaline crash had left her, and pushed herself up onto her knees.

The entire mesa was covered in a field of wildflowers, with only an occasional fir or birch tree framing the edges of it. No sign of animal life, save for an occasional butterfly re-emerging after the rain, and the low buzz of bumblebees and lone carpenter bees working their way across the mosaic of colour spread out in bloom before her. No sign of human presence, save for an occasional and long-healed notch on this or that shrub, where stalks had been trimmed in the past. And a bare patch of ground in the centre, thick rich soil strewn with tiny little bones in various stages of bleaching and slow decomposition, full skeletons laid out with cat-like skulls and curving spines and three pairs of limbs spider-webbing from them: front legs, hind legs, and an expanse of wings spread in-between. A graveyard, Cassandra realized. This was where these critters—whatever they may have been in life—had come to die.

She pulled out the bounty notice and unfolded it, looking between the pictures and the flowers in front of her. A good two-thirds of the field was covered in the sleek silhouettes, compound leaves, and bell-shaped flowers of the woundwort she had come here for. Better to cut a little from many than to shear a few to the ground, she recalled from what little she knew of the castle’s herb garden upkeep as she drew her boot knife and rose to her feet.

The moment she reached for one of the woundwort plants, a soft gleam began to emanate from its faintly translucent lilac flowers, the thin pale rim framing each leaf, and the inside of its stems, as if liquid light had been poured through its entire body.

Cassandra yanked her hand away and stayed very still for a moment. Nothing happened. Very slowly, she reached towards the plant again and tapped a leaf with one finger. Nothing happened then, either. Experimentally, she reached towards another one. It lit up as well, before she could even touch it. She extended her other hand to yet another one, causing it to start glowing too.

Owl landed on her shoulder again, visibly intrigued.

“I guess that’s why it’s called a starlight woundwort,” Cassandra told him. Careful not to imbalance his footing, she leaned forward and waved one arm in a big arc, causing at least a dozen more to light up against the proximity.

It really was kind of pretty.

She opened an empty saddlebag she had strapped to her belt for this and began to move along the edge of the meadow, cutting a few stalks from each woundwort plant—some with flowers, some without—as each and every last one that she reached towards continued to light up before she could touch it. The severed stalks she layered into the bag continued to glow, Cassandra noticed, as did the sap beading where she cut them off.

The bounty notice failed to mention how much was needed. But, given that she was supplying a clinic, she felt like nothing of what she could bring them would go to waste. Especially since the mesa she was atop appeared to be the only nearby place where the woundwort was growing, and a more sizeable delivery meant that the next trip to climb up here would get postponed.

Owl seemed to lose interest in the herb harvest fairly soon, and took off from her shoulder to fly a few laps around the mesa, keeping an eye on Fidella and on the neighbouring terrain instead. Cassandra glanced up to him a few times, checking the sky for how late in the day it’s gotten as well; she had a fair bit of distance to go before she broke the line of town walls again, and if the Equisian guard was to be believed, there was a curfew to stay mindful of.

When the bag was reasonably full without being too stacked, Cassandra buckled its lid and stood up, holding her arm out to Owl.

“Seen anything of interest from up here?” she asked when he swooped down to her.

Hoot, Owl said, and extended a wing to the side.

When she looked where he was pointing, she saw another mesa in the distance—a switchback path carved into one of its sides and its flat top crowned with the ruins of fortifications. A modest structure, to be sure, even moreso when precious little of it remained. This must have been what Equis called Fort Rimwarden and Koto called Château de Bayard: the seat of nobility holding dominion over this border territory, with Koto claiming ownership of for having raised it, and Equis counter-claiming that since it was property built on Equisian land, it automatically belonged to its crown, not to the builders. With residents changing as often as the area was conquered and reclaimed, and hosting bands of highwaymen and thieves in-between, the stronghold had been destroyed by Equisian engineers setting off explosive charges in a retreat several decades ago, reasoning that if they could not hold it, then Koto should not benefit from its existence either.

Cassandra shielded her eyes from the sun’s glare with a hand, squinted slowly at the distant plateau and its broken crown. “Are those... tents, up there?”

Hoot, Owl confirmed.

“Interesting. Good job spotting that.” Cassandra lowered her hand. “Now please tell me you’ve found a way down from here that’s not as murderous as the way up.”

Owl stared at her. Cassandra stared back. After a moment of impasse, she sighed.

“At least it’s easier going down than up.”

And it was, if only marginally, even though she had forgone the use of her right arm entirely in this endeavour, trying to have it shield the woundwort-packed bag instead. Shortly after the halfway point down, her feet slipped, her one-handed grip on the rocks broke, and with a yelp she found herself in a freefall, tumbling ass over tea kettle, before she hit the ground with a crack and rolled again from the impact. Another worried whinny, rapidly approaching hoofbeats, and Fidella’s nose nudged against the side of her face.

“Right,” Cassandra wheezed, coughed, and pushed herself off the ground. A careful deep breath told her that while she was going to bruise a fair bit, nothing seemed broken. The saddlebag full of herbs seemed intact, its contents not crushed. Cassandra’s withered arm was still in quite a bit of pain, but mercifully not any more than it was atop the mesa. “I think that’s enough adventure for one day.”

Snort, Fidella said, equal parts reprimanding and relieved.

“Aw. Don’t worry, I’m fine.” Cassandra put the side of her face to Fidella’s for a moment. “Think you can take us back to town?”

The mare gave her a nicker, and Cassandra climbed into the saddle, relieved to sit down again. With Owl flying overhead, and Fidella knowing the way, she focused instead on her withered arm, carefully pulling the glove off for a moment to see if the reckless part of her upwards climb had done any considerable damage. She found the middle and ring finger’s nails each split in half, all the way from root to tip, with tiny bits of thick, long-coagulated blood oozing through the cracks.

Cassandra sighed. Reached into the saddlebag she had stocked like a first aid kit for a clean rag and a flask of disinfectant, and started dabbing away at the broken fingernails. There was no sting, no bite to be felt, despite the fact that she was essentially rubbing alcohol into an open cut. Once that which used to be blood stopped staining forth, she pulled out her boot knife again, disinfected the blade as well, and made a very gentle attempt to pull one of the broken fingernails off. When there was no give, no progress in even dislodging it, she gave up, deciding that in this case it would probably be better to let them slough off in their own time. Given that she did have to put the glove back on, however, and the cracks would keep catching on the inside of it, something needed to be done about that. So Cassandra trimmed two short, thin strips of fabric from the rag, wrapped one around her right ring finger’s tip without tying a knot, and dabbed a drop of a quick-binding glue that she used for fletching into the fabric over the fingernail, then repeated the same treatment for the middle finger as well.

While this was another incredibly stupid endeavour she had undertaken today, if it was stupid and it worked, then it wasn’t stupid. And the nails were likely going to come off in a while, anyway.

Hoot, Owl said as he watched her handiwork from his perch on her left shoulder, somehow managing to sound queasy.

“Don’t even start.” Cassandra blew on her fingernails to dry the glue out faster. “I didn’t have any better ideas. Do you?”

Hoot, Owl said pointedly.

“I know we just made a trip for a healing herb, but dead things don’t heal.” Cassandra stowed the now-frayed rag, the glue, and the knife in their places. “I’m gonna have to start wrapping this up in some linen before putting the glove on, I think. Hopefully that won’t mean I need a new glove.”

Owl slowly narrowed his eyes at her, staring hard.

“No, I am not going to glue an entire roll of bandage to my arm,” Cassandra said flatly. “Tempting as that may sound.”

Snort, Fidella said, causing her companions to both look up. The town walls of Silberstadt were in sight again, and quite close as well.

“Good call.” Cassandra tapped the haphazard glue-dressings with a healthy finger to see if they were dry enough, and on the finger coming away easily, she gingerly pulled her reinforced glove back on.

This late in the afternoon, there was significantly less people out in the streets, with most having apparently squared their business away in preparation for the curfew, and some flocking to the small handful of inns that managed to thrive. The Neserdnian smith and the Ingvarrdian fletcher were still at work in the corner of the town square, with the fletcher seated atop a workbench again and looking up from painstakingly threading flights onto an arrow shaft at the clack of Fidella’s hooves against the riverstone cobbles.

“Which way to the clinic?” Cassandra called out to her.

The fletcher pointed towards a street intersection just off the square. “Three-story building on the corner, can’t miss it!”

Cassandra inclined her head in thanks, then nudged Fidella in that direction. The building was indeed unmissable, seeing as it was the only three-story structure in sight; Cassandra left Owl with Fidella and made sure she had the herb bag on her, then stepped up to knock on the clinic’s door.

“Yes, coming!” she heard, muffled from behind the door, before it creaked open. An elderly man with stooped back and a stark white beard, liver spots marring his face and hands, yet his hair trimmed neatly and eyes sharp with intelligence, gave her a friendly look. “Good afternoon, miss. How may I help you?”

“Good afternoon. I’m here about the bounty,” Cassandra opened the herb bag, showing him the contents.

“Well, goodness me,” the elderly man said gently, one hand at his chest, then ushered her inside. “Come in, come in, please! We must put these to work posthaste.”

Cassandra allowed him to lead her inside, taking a moment to use the doormat. The bottom floor of the clinic seemed to be simply living quarters for the people who ran the clinic. A woman was walking past, holding a clay bowl half-full of water and blood-stained bandages, but stopped immediately upon seeing Cassandra to eye her warily.

“Hello,” Cassandra said.

“Hello? You don’t seem injured or dying,” the woman said carefully.

“Darling, if I could trouble you to fetch the bounty money,” the elderly man said proudly, gesturing to Cassandra. “The miss brought us a full satchel.”

“Wait, are you serious? I didn’t think anyone would take it, not for fifty gold!”

“I’m starting small,” Cassandra deadpanned.

The woman gave an incredulous little huff, taking the herb bag from Cassandra’s hands. “And you even had the sense to make it react before you cut it—” she turned towards another room. “Bruno! We’ve got the woundwort!”

“We’ve got what now?” another voice answered, with the same amount of shock.

“Put the water on again! Excuse me for just a moment—” the woman rushed off, and Cassandra heard the clay bowl clatter against a countertop somewhere out of sight.

“My daughter, Eliza,” the elderly man introduced belatedly. “I am Emil, and you, miss, are heaven-sent. May I ask your name?”

“Uh, Cassandra.”

“I was just taking my tea for the afternoon. I would be most happy if you agreed to join me.”

Cassandra went very still against a stark remembrance of the last time a harmless, endlessly polite stranger had offered her tea. “I should probably get going.”

“It would speak poorly of me if I neglected to offer you even such a basic courtesy. Besides, we must still pay you and return your satchel, no?”

That was unfortunately true. “If you insist.”

“I do indeed! Come, please, right this way.”

She was led through the clinic’s ground floor to a reasonably cozy nook on the building’s far side, where a small table with its top rested on a single central leg stood. Between a well-used porcelain teapot, a chipped cup, and a tin of hard biscuits, several stacked books took up most of the space, the topmost one left open; a ream of yellowed paper, a quill, and a box holding several dip nibs completed the picture. Cassandra took that in, as well as the condition of the place. Rags stuffed in the window. Rainwater stains on the walls. Bookcases of partially rotten wood. A shaggy-eared cat perched atop the topmost intact shelf, one of its hind legs hanging off lazily.

Emil was setting out a second cup and carefully pouring the tea. “Please, make yourself at home.”

“Thank you.” Cassandra took the cup, and didn’t drink. “Is it really so rare that someone would take one of your bounty letters?”

“Truth be told, this is the first time I’ve resorted to posting one,” Emil confessed easily as he settled back into his chair, tossing a crocheted shawl over his shoulders. “I would not normally, but the situation is quite dire.”

“How so?”

“Well you see, a few days ago, a young lady was brought to us, beaten within an inch of her life and left at the mercy of the elements,” Emil said, his face drawing into a look of cold anger. “Quite a heinous crime of hatred, I would say, given that it was committed against a Kotoan sympathizer while we are under Equisian control.”

“I see,” Cassandra said with a frown. “And the herb I brought you was the key to aiding in her recovery?”

Emil gave a small mirthless laugh. “The herb you brought us means she has a ghost of a chance to make it, now. Without it, I would soon have little choice but to simply make her passing easier.”

“Is it really that powerful? To change her fate like that?”

“It is in its reactive form, which is what you have brought us.” Emil sipped his tea.

“Your daughter said that as well—what does that even mean?”

“You’ve seen the woundwort plants begin to glow when reached for, have you not?” Emil waited for Cassandra to nod. “They react like so to the presence of magic, which heightens their restorative properties. Like recognizes like, you see. Usually, when my son-in-law makes the trip, he takes Gadwall with him for that reason.” He indicated the cat perched atop a bookshelf.

“You named your cat Gadwall?” Cassandra heard herself say before she could bite her tongue.

Emil smiled at her. “Griffincat, to be precise. You must have seen the final resting place of many of his kind, atop the mesa.”

Cassandra gave the cat a longer look. Gadwall yawned at her, and stretched his limbs where he was laying—front paws, hind paws, and a pair of feathered wings that had been folded on his back until now.

“Oh.”

“His meows sound a duck is quacking, hence the name.” Emil took a biscuit out of the tin. “Help yourself, please. What a happy accident, that you were already carrying enough to trigger the woundwort’s reaction without even knowing you needed a presence of magic beforehand. The trinket on your arm, perhaps?”

“That must be it,” Cassandra said slowly as she folded her withered arm under the table.

“Mm. I always hoped there was some truth to the legends of rightful kings and queens having the power to heal with their touch. That there truly was a benevolent sort of magic at work, and not simply persuasive enough propaganda.” Emil reached for another biscuit. “You are doing Corona proud, I daresay. Few would brave the trip for such a meagre compensation. Especially the climb.”

“It was quite a climb,” Cassandra agreed easily.

Emil eyed her with amusement. “So it was, if the grass and dirt stains on your garb are any indication.”

“Maybe I took a tumble,” Cassandra admitted.

Emil chuckled. “None shall learn of it from me.”

Cassandra felt an answering smile pull at her lips, and took a sip from her cup. Maybe sometimes her extreme caution, though warranted more than one time too many, was a little unfair to others. Sometimes, polite strangers were just polite strangers, and tea was just tea.

The woman—Eliza—returned, carrying Cassandra’s empty saddlebag and a small coin purse. “These are yours, miss. You may well have saved a life today.”

“We do what we can, don’t we?” Cassandra set her cup down and rose. “Thank you for your hospitality. I should really find a place to stay before curfew.”

“The Brazen Brigand sounds rough, but it’s actually a very nice place,” Eliza advised.

Cassandra nodded at her. “I’ve heard it has a stable, as well.”

“If you would not mind doing me one last favour?” Emil spoke up again, and when Cassandra looked to him, he handed her a slip of paper. “Do please deliver this to Sebastian, the Brigand’s owner, if you are already on your way there.”

Cassandra glanced at the note. Almost a grocery list. The Brigand must have been supplying meals for the clinic. “Not a problem.”

“Thank you. Most kind of you.” The elderly herbalist stood as well, smiling. “You’ve made friends here. Come back whenever you find yourself in need.”

Cassandra inclined her head and left, escorted to the door by Eliza. Outside, Owl and Fidella were waiting patiently.

“Sorry that took so long. Did anyone bother you?”

Snort, Fidella said negatively, and Owl shook his head no before flying to her shoulder.

“Good. Let’s go turn in.”

The sun was low in the sky, about to meet the horizon. There was even less people out, but the Equisian guards were far from the only ones still on the streets, Cassandra noticed—some would still be going about their business, some were playing checkers or dice games on barreltops, and the smith and the fletcher on the town square’s other side were still hard at work. The inn, however, was echoing with music and voices and laughter.

A boy hailed her at the entrance. “Stable for your horse, miss?”

“Yes, please.”

He extended one scabby hand. “Three silver.”

Cassandra paid, handed him Fidella’s reins, and took advantage of the distraction to grab him by the shirt with her withered hand. “Touch nothing. I will know.”

The boy looked between Cassandra’s murderous poker face, Fidella’s calm demeanour, and Owl’s unblinking menace. Whatever threats he may have dealt with daily, this one was nothing like, and Cassandra was confident that he wouldn’t try anything funny as he went pale and nodded rapidly.

The Brazen Brigand’s inside was quite like the Snuggly Duckling—if far more spacious, frequented by rough-and-tumble types as well as by more ordinary-looking citizens, and treaded by several young men and women in aprons, dispensing meals and tankards. Cassandra made her way up to the bar, and raised her hand at the person manning it; he held up a finger at her to wait, refilling a mug for another customer and exchanging a few words, then made his way up to her.

“Welcome to the Brazen Brigand. Haven’t seen you before, what can I get you?”

“I’m looking for a Sebastian,” Cassandra said.

“You’ve found the one and only.” The barkeep squinted at the herbalist’s slip of paper as Cassandra handed it to him. “Oh, Emil sent you, then?”

“Yeah, I took his bounty letter.”

“Huh. Didn’t think anyone would take that. Be back with you in just a moment.” Sebastian ducked out into the kitchen, bellowing something inaudible over the common room’s din. A few seconds later, he leaned on the countertop again. “Thanks for running these errands for him. Half the town would be dead and buried if it weren’t for the clinic fam. I’m told you stabled a horse—we’re out of rooms for the night, but I can get you a hammock in your horse’s stall.”

Cassandra cocked her head. “What’s a hammock?”

“Neserdnian invention. It’s like a latticework of rope or leather that you hang both ends of on trees or poles, or rafters in this case, and sleep inside. Sounds unsafe, I know, but it’s really hard to fall out of it. Keeps you safe from venomous vermin, like scorpions and snakes, in warmer climates. Here, it means you don’t risk sleeping on an infested hay mattress. Pretty handy, if you ask me.”

“Sounds good,” Cassandra admitted. “What food do you have tonight?”

Sebastian started tapping his fingers. “Cucumber stew. Mutton and carrot goulash. Baked potatoes. Usual sides of hard-boiled eggs, lettuce leaves, or bread with lard and sugar. Ale, stoat, or kvass to drink.”

“Mutton with potatoes and an ale,” Cassandra decided, “and a handful of raw meat for my bird.”

The barkeep stared at Owl. Owl stared back, unblinking.

“Right.” Sebastian cleared his throat. “Four gold. Find a seat, one of my runners will bring you your food.”

“Is Coronian gold fine?”

“Yeah, of course it is, who told you it wouldn’t be?”

“The job board’s minder.”

Sebastian made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat. “Teagan? Don’t listen to that idiot, nobody cares where your gold comes from as long as it’s genuine.”

“I’ll remember that.” Cassandra walked away from the countertop to find someplace to sit.

A couple of farmers had just cleared out from right in front of the fireplace; out of the corner of her eye, she saw someone making a move as if they wanted to take their chairs, but stopping short when Owl turned his head a hundred and twenty degrees to stare at them. With competition kept at bay like so, she was free to turn a chair so that her right side would be against the heat emanating from the fireplace, her withered arm remaining a void in the comforting sensation almost up to the elbow. Shortly after, one of the barmaids arrived with a large bowl of food, a small bowl of diced raw meat, and a tankard of ale. Cassandra slipped her a silver for her trouble. With the meal hearty and filling—and any unwanted company kept well away by the sight of Owl tearing into the unidentifiable scraps of meat in an inexplicably dignified way—the day’s exhaustion and chilly weather were slowly pushed out by the warmth layering into Cassandra’s bones, even the pain in her withered arm subsiding slightly at long last.

When she took the empty dishes back to the countertop, complimented the cooking, and went to the stable, she found Fidella in a stall, well-fed but still saddled and ungroomed.

“Oh wow. He really did touch nothing, huh?” Cassandra started unbuckling the tack and harness, hanging it on a handy rafter for the night. “Let’s get these off of you. Think we should scare people less next time?”

Snort, Fidella said, rather non-committal.

“You’re right, it does have its advantages.”

After giving Fidella her due attention, Cassandra spread a blanket over the hammock and sat in it, feeling it for how it rocked against her weight before pulling her legs up. It was strange, but not in a bad way. After a moment, she managed to settle in, and folded the blanket over herself.

“Goodnight, Owl.”

Hoot, Owl said lovingly.

“Goodnight, Fidella.”

A soft nicker came from the mare.

The night went by uneventfully. The morning came with a bit of sunlight piercing through the sky still cloudy, but no longer as overcast as it used to be. After a solid meal at the Brigand’s countertop, Cassandra headed straight for the job board, its minder—Teagen, she knew now—already in his place and greeting her with a nod. She returned it, silently, then started scanning the board.

There had to be something that tied to the tents beside the ruins of Château de Bayard she had seen the day before—if not about structural or architectural work, then about simple food delivery or camp construction.

After a good quarter hour of searching, she finally found what she was looking for.

TREASURE HUNTER NEEDED
LOST TREASURES AWAIT RECOVERING
CONTACT SIR THEOPHILLE de BAYARD AT THE BAYARD CASTLE CAMP
REWARD: 10% OF THE PROFIT

Below that, an addition had been scratched in a different hand:

T A K E R ’ S   F E E :   8 0   G O L D   C O I N S

Cassandra pulled the notice off, making the minder look up at the sound of torn paper.

“This one?” Teagan frowned at her. “You did Emil a solid, so I’ll do this for you—once. This looks like a scam. The guy who put this up calls himself a Bayard, but the Bayards were cut down to the one before you were born, by the looks of you, and he speaks with a Pittsfordian accent. He’s already got a hireling with him, too, some devil-may-care halberdier from Koto. And if he’s banking on a percentage payment, it means he doesn’t have the money to pay you in the first place. I’d take a steadier contract if I were you.”

“Yeah, but now I really want to give him what’s good,” Cassandra said, already counting out money for the fee.

To her surprise, Teagan snickered at that. “You know what? Good for you, I can respect that. If I’m right and you fuck him up, I’ll tell Bastian to give you a drink on me.”

“Deal.”

It would almost be a full day of travel to Château de Bayard, Cassandra estimated. But given how early she had started the day, she might actually get there by the afternoon without straining Fidella too much.

Chapter Text

Standing up in the stirrups, Cassandra strained to see over a small rockslide blocking the switchback path up to the Kotoan ruins. It seemed recent enough—probably triggered during the rains over the past few days—but had accumulated in such an unfortunate place that it would almost be easier to shift the rocks uphill than roll them downwards and off a turn in the path, and that pushing them aside would only mean shifting the problem onto an earlier length of the switchback. There were no signs of a work crew attempting to clear it from the other side, either.

“See if there’s anyone coming, please.” After giving Owl a boost as he took off from her arm, Cassandra dismounted and walked closer to the rockslide. No higher than up to her shoulder, and looking reasonably stable—at least for someone her size. Someone who was capable of crawling overtop it. She turned back to Fidella. “I am not going to make you walk over that.”

Snort, Fidella said with relief.

Cassandra looked over the view from the path’s height. They were exposed where they stood, and there was no shelter or cover to be found here. While she was still mulling the situation over, Owl returned, and she held out her arm for him.

“Anything?”

Hoot, Owl said, and shook his head no.

“Okay. You two stay together, I’ll go up top and see what this pretend Bayard is about. Be back for you soon as I can, before nightfall at the latest.”

Snort, Fidella said, and laid down next to the rockslide in an attempt to blend in with her surroundings a little more.

Owl, in the meantime, was narrowing his eyes at Cassandra in an unblinking, suspicious stare.

“You know I’ll call for you if something happens.”

Hoot, Owl said, making it very clear what he’d think of her if she didn’t, and only then moved to perch atop Fidella’s saddle.

Cassandra rolled her eyes and started ascending the rockslide. With the gentle slope of the pile, and the boulders too large to be moved by her weight alone, it was incomparably easier than last night’s climb. She leapt from its summit down onto the path on the other side and continued on foot, making another turn of the switchback path before she frowned at a hole right in the middle of it, no doubt where the rockslide had crumbled and dislodged from. On even ground, she’d jump the distance easily—on an incline like this, she found herself landing a little too unsteadily for her liking. Were she carrying anything heavy, the gap would have been a problem.

Two more turns of the switchback path, and it started evening out, leading Cassandra up to the top of the mesa. A few ramshackle tents were huddled together beside a somewhat taller section of the devastated walls, most likely in an attempt to use it as a windshield. No more than five people in the modest wear of farmers, construction workers, and ex-miners loitered around, some repairing damaged garments or tools, some tending a campfire and a deer haunch slowly roasting overtop it. Seated on a large rock in front of the only tent that looked slightly better was a man-at-arms distinctly not hailing from the region: a bronze-skinned Kotoan about Cassandra’s age, with slightly mussed black hair and a round goatee. He was busy taking a whetstone to the blade of a halberd in his lap, but as soon as he spotted Cassandra entering the camp, he donned the helmet laying next to him on the rock and rose to his feet. Cassandra came to a halt a reasonable distance away, giving him the same gauging look as he was giving her. Mixture of plate and chain-reinforced cloth that would provide considerable protection without sacrificing mobility or a fair quietness of movement. Open-faced coif helmet with the noseguard profiled like a diving bird of prey and an attached chainmail hood spilling down onto the shoulders. Extensive familiarity with handling the halberd, a sheathed bastard sword at his left hip, and a modestly-sized crossbow hanging from a belt hook at his right. He’d probably put up a pretty tough fight, if it came to it, and if she was fighting fairly.

“State your business,” the halberdier called out.

“I’m looking for lord Bayard,” Cassandra replied, barely squeezing the false title past her throat, but still managing to sound somewhat neutral. “It’s about the treasure-hunting bounty notice.”

The halberdier gave her a pitying look, but turned away to pull the slightly better tent open and exchange a few words with someone inside. After a moment, an older man emerged from within—greying, in his late forties maybe. His garb was fine enough, Cassandra supposed, but she also noticed immediately that it wasn’t a perfect fit. It seemed to have been made for a man slightly taller and broader in the shoulders; it also sported several less-than-expertly mended tears that failed to hide entirely behind the decorative sash across his chest. Quite as if the outfit had been pulled off a dead person killed for it. And although his face was free of scars and his hands were hidden in a pair of doeskin gloves, making it impossible to gauge how much work they’ve seen, his eyes held an appraising, ever-calculating sort of avarice, as if the only thought on his mind at all times was how to use those around him and how much he could get away with.

Rather than a noble, this was a conman pretending to be a noble—and doing a pretty convincing job of it, really, unless someone had spent just about her entire life in the background of a royal court.

Though he was a little shorter than her, he managed to make it seem like he was looking down at her. “You don’t look like much of a treasure hunter.”

“I’m the one you’re getting,” Cassandra said flatly.

“Hm.” The conman gave her an uncomfortably thorough up-and-down. “You’ll have to do. Welcome to the humble abode of my ancestors, devastated as it had been by Equis barbarians in the years past. My men are excavating the ruins in pursuit of an heirloom, one of three, that will pay for restoring the castle to its former—and rightful—glory, while my servant Roberto is charged with the security of this endeavour.”

Cassandra glanced at the halberdier. Judging from the irritated look on his face, whatever his name was, it wasn’t Roberto. Or maybe he just took issue with being called a servant, which Cassandra could understand and agree with on a very deep level.

“The remaining two, you are to retrieve and bring to me,” the pretend-baron continued. “Both have long since been looted and stashed away, but fortunately I was able to narrow down their last known locations. One has been hidden in the southernmost depths of the abandoned silver mine; one was accounted for most recently as finding itself in the possession of a farmhand who fled into Wolf’s Head Hollow to protect his claim and was never seen again. Your payment will be doled out after these artifacts are returned to me, and sold by me: ten percent of the monetary gain from such a transaction. Now, if there aren’t any more questions—”

“There are, actually,” Cassandra interrupted. For a conman, he certainly carried himself with the self-important air of a blueblood. “What are these two treasures? I need to know what I’m looking for.”

“An item of jewellery, and a ceremonial weapon.” The pretend-baron folded his hands behind him, looking at her down his nose. “Unfortunately, as the family chronicles have been savaged by fire and rain, that the extent of detail I possess.”

“Okay, which one is where?”

“Are you deaf, sellsword? I only just said that I do not possess any more detail.”

Cassandra ground her teeth. “Great. I need directions.”

The conman sniffed indignantly, and turned on his heel to walk back into the tent, even as he waved a dismissive hand at the halberdier. “My servant can perform that plebeian a task.”

With a barely audible sigh of frustration, the halberdier looked at Cassandra and sharply jerked his head sideways, signalling her to follow him.

“I fucking hate that guy,” he said as soon as they were out of earshot. “Whatever money that comes out of this had better be worth it.”

“You’re on a percent payment too?” Cassandra asked.

“Not exactly, I insisted on five hundred gold up front and a percent afterwards. Bastard haggled me down to five percent, though. You?”

“Ten, but I had to shell out eighty gold to take his notice off a job board.”

The halberdier grimaced at that. “We might end up getting about the same amount, net-change. You came through Silberstadt, then?”

“Yeah.”

“Head further into Equis territory, most of their towns don’t charge a taker’s fee off bounty boards.”

“I’ll remember that. Thanks.” Cassandra gave him a longer look. “What’s your name?”

“Riccardo,” the halberdier said. “Yours?”

“Cassandra.” She shook his extended hand. “You know this guy isn’t actually a Bayard, right?”

“I honestly don’t give a shit, I just want to get paid.” Riccardo came to a halt near the mesa’s edge and pointed into the distance, a little off to the side from where the town walls of Silberstadt were. “See those hills over there? That’s where the mine used to be. Still sees traffic, and a lot of folks are using the less accessible tunnels for hideouts or stashes, so keep your wits about you and head in prepared for trouble.”

“That’s going to complicate things,” Cassandra said slowly. She hadn’t expected the mine to still be in use, even if a different use than originally intended.

“Yeah, good luck finding a needle in that haystack.” Riccardo pointed in another direction, this time indicating a lower area in the plains and hills stretching far and wide—an area that seemed filled with mist, even in the afternoon sun. “Now see that over there? Wolf’s Head Hollow. Every local I talked to seems pretty convinced that it’s haunted, and they avoid it like the plague.”

Cassandra shielded her eyes from the sun as she squinted at the fog, trying to make out any hint of shape or movement, to no avail. “Why is it even called that?”

“It’s where Koto lost a battle against Equis, some fifteen, seventeen years ago. And when I say lost, I mean lost so badly that Equis actually managed to kill a witch-knight there,” Riccardo said. “And you know how it is when one side kills an officer or a noble from the other. Apparently they chopped his head off and mounted it on his own lance stuck into the ground like a flagpole.”

“Wolf’s Head Hollow,” Cassandra repeated with disgust, remembering how the helmets of Kotoan witch-knights were wrought in the likeness of a wolfhound.

“Yeah, I’d haunt the place if something that tacky was done to my corpse, too.”

Cassandra shook her head. “It’s probably the stupidest thing they could have done.”

“I know, right? I mean, witch-knight, it’s in the name.”

She couldn’t help a chuckle. “Thanks. Looks like I have a ways to go, either side.”

“A fair bit, yeah. You staying overnight?”

“No, I should probably start making headway. You have a rockslide and a hole in the path, by the way.”

Riccardo shrugged. “I’m not paid to deal with that. Already done more than I’m contracted for when I built a pulley to get that deer lifted topside, instead of having the hunter carry it all the way up to here.”

“That’s fair.”

“Be careful, and good luck.” Riccardo shook her hand goodbye. “Both our payments depend on that.”

Cassandra thanked him with a nod, then made her way through the campsite again and began descending the path. A careful leap over the hole, measured not to carry her off the path and into a lethal fall, then an easy climb over the rockslide again, and she found Owl and Fidella still waiting for her where she had left them.

She indicated her left shoulder for Owl to sit on, and took Fidella’s reins. “Where do you want to go first: an exhausted mineshaft, or a haunted battlefield?”

Snort, Fidella said, resigned.

“I know. I don’t like either, as well.”

Hoot, Owl said, unimpressed.

“Mineshaft it is.”

After they made their way down the switchback path, Cassandra climbed into the saddle again and headed for the mines, going off the road this time. While she was keeping an eye out for trouble, rather than admiring the view, she did have to admit that the view was easy on the eyes: the plains and gently rolling hills covered in thistles and clovers and grasses that reached to Fidella’s knees or even further up, all turned a golden hue by the slowly setting sun, interspersed often with small thickets and sunlit groves and clear-watered ponds, and far more rarely dotted with mesas, colossal in comparison. And as beautiful as the landscape was, Cassandra couldn’t help but linger on the details that betrayed it for what it was, and for what it used to be.

The high, golden grasses were immediately recognizable, barley and oat and rye and wheat, left largely uncut for years on end and choked through with weeds and wildflowers. The sunlit groves were comprised of fruit trees that had been planted in regular grids, untended orchards growing wilder each year. The small lakes and ponds were ripe with fish, many of them twirling through rusted helmets cloven in half and between algae-covered ribs still protruding from the muddy bottoms. The hilltops were crowned in overgrown ruins of houses and barns, long-turned into abattoirs and torched down, or in clustered beehives torn apart by honey bears. Atop the mesas, faint remains of fortifications lingered: paths carved into their mountainsides, watchtowers reduced to crescent-shaped walls and scattered rubble and an errant stone of scathingly contrasting rock large enough to have been launched from a trebuchet, stacked piles of wood for fuelling signal fires decayed into mulch and overtaken with dandelions, flocks of carrier pigeons turned feral and scattering for shelter whenever a raptor’s silhouette hovered in the sky—whether it was Owl, a kestrel, or an unfamiliar falcon-like shape.

It was hardly surprising that Equis and Koto battled for control over land so verdant. But Cassandra did have to wonder just how verdant it would be, had it not been fed a generation from each side of this conflict, and more from those who used to call it home.

Nightfall saw her taking shelter just past the treeline of one of the thickets left in the middle of what used to be a field. She burnt no fire, concerned with how visible it would be even from afar, and woke up stiff from the cold air and the hard ground. Her withered arm, however, ached almost as an afterthought, almost as if only to make up for the overall loss of feeling. Cassandra flexed her fingers, clenched a fist and opened it again. She could swear that the normal range of movement for it was not this wide anymore.

She ate in-between tending to her sword and sharpening her daggers, preparing herself however she could for a day of spelunking in spent mineshafts—some of which she fully expected to be collapsed, unstable, or flooded, not to mention whatever threat their inhabitants could pose.

A piece of jewellery or a ceremonial weapon, one that she had to look for in the southern section of the mines, or at least start in the southernmost and work her way north in case it had been moved. Nothing more to go off of. Cassandra sighed heavily at herself.

“How did this end up being what I’m doing?”

Hoot, Owl said, tilting his head sideways pensively.

“I know it’s not anything I’m particularly beholden to, but I don’t want to give up so early on. I’ve only just started, haven’t I?” Cassandra closed one eye and stared critically down her sword’s blade, then wiped the whetstone dust off. “It would leave a bad taste in my mouth to stop the moment I’m having trouble. This is life, not a Flynn Rider book, there’s always going to be trouble.”

Hoot, Owl said, inquisitive without pushing.

“I don’t know. It’s like– this isn’t too much for me. It can’t be. I’m not expecting this to be easy, or anything other than really time-consuming, but this is far from convoluted. Go in here, find a thing, bring it back. It’s—” Cassandra shook her head. “If I give up on doing even this, what am I good for? Everything is so much simpler now, too. Nothing is at stake. There’s almost no opportunity for failure. I’ve tried for hard and difficult things every chance I got, and I was denied or did terribly every time. Maybe it’s okay to start small, like this, this time. Maybe it’s better to not try to be a hero.”

Owl stayed silent, simply looking at her compassionately.

“I just want something to go well for me,” Cassandra said slowly, her throat suddenly tight and her eyes burning, and hid her face in her withered hand. “How did I get from a servant at the royal court to a con artist’s errand girl?”

Hoot, Owl said gently.

“No, it really isn’t all that different, is it?” Cassandra dragged her hand upwards and through her hair. “Ugh. Enough with the feelings. Let’s just go do something and figure all this out later.”

It wasn’t long until she made it to the mines, and withdrew into the thin cover of a nearby forest when she spotted how much traffic the area was seeing. There was a rather sizeable communal area in the slight depression where three mineshafts poured out, with big cauldrons and roasting spits placed over well-tended hearths. There was an earthen mound that Cassandra recognized as used for turning wood into charcoal, and a few soot-covered loggers pulling a felled rowan tree towards it along the ground. There was a bare-bones yet functional kiln, seemingly built out of parts scavenged from several different smelters, and a clay-stained couple beside it: one blowing against sparks to start a fire, one shaping a simple jug on a pottery wheel. There was a ramshackle thatch-roofed hut built of poorly stacked wood and stone, off to the side, the shared workshop of a tanner and a dyer if the stench was any indication. There were chickens everywhere, there were at least twenty sheep and a herding dog being led out into the countryside by a youth in threadbare clothes, there were a few oxen pulling two-wheeled carts or used as beasts of burden, there were half-feral cats grooming each other and chasing after rodents as ever-present as the chickens were. And above all, there were people, of all genders and ages, descended from locals and from foreigners, wearing stained leathers and threadbare linens and poor-quality furs, going about their business: talking, trading, resting, working, making, breaking. Many had skin discoloured gray, a sign of silver poisoning. Many were running errands, between the charcoal mound and the hearths, between the hut and the tunnels. Only some were carrying any weapons larger than an all-purpose knife, and even fewer were clad in anything resembling armour—and those who were usually walked in pairs or groups and carried another identifying mark, a red-dyed scarf, a headband with a rat skull mounted at the forehead, a raccoon tail pinned to the side of a belt, a crudely tattooed dagger on the inner side of each forearm.

Rather than just a bandit hideout or a difficult-to-access location riddled with thief stashes, this was a veritable village of refugees, deserters, survivors, and outlaws. And here, far more than in Silberstadt, Cassandra was going to stick out like a sore thumb, if only by virtue of her clothes being too well-made. And by leading a horse. And by bearing a gold-trimmed kerchief on her arm. And by carrying multiple weapons in pristine condition. And more.

Skirting around the settlement, Cassandra headed further south, not caring much that she was making little progress in comparison to what she could have accomplished by heading straight there. It was probably better to waste a little time, which she had an abundance of, than parade across someplace that had at least four separate and distinct gangs, none of which would be very likely to bat an eyelash before attempting to kill her for her gear, by the looks of them.

She passed by several more mineshaft entrances, each manned by a few sentries bearing the marks of one local outlaw band or another, and did her best to stay hidden. Once or twice, she was pretty sure she had been spotted, but none of the bandits on watch did anything more to pursue her than maybe stand up from where they were sitting, and sit back down once Cassandra moved far enough away. Finally, when she made it to the southernmost point of the rocky hills area that the spent silver mines were concentrated in, she realized immediately why this would be the tunnel to hide valuables in safely, and why there was no one on watch at its doorless entrance.

The mineshaft was caved in so profoundly that the hillside over what would have been its ceiling was concave.

Cassandra dismounted. “Stay here, stay safe, and stay patient. This might take a while.”

Snort, Fidella said uneasily as she looked between Cassandra and the mineshaft’s entrance.

“I went crawling up a cliffside already. Why not go crawling between a floor and a ceiling now?”

Hoot, Owl said firmly, digging his talons into her shoulder.

“No, you are staying with Fidella.” Cassandra took a fire starter, a few dry torches, and a small flask of oil out of a saddlebag. “If I start having trouble breathing down there, I’ll just come out empty-handed. If she has to go somewhere else to avoid people, though, she’ll need you to watch her back while I’m gone, and I’ll need you to lead me back to her.”

Owl glared, silently.

“I’m counting on you,” Cassandra said pointedly. When he didn’t move from her shoulder, she set her jaw and matched him glare for glare. “Owl.

Fidella sighed deeply and began to walk away from their staring contest, headed farther into the thin woods.

Cassandra lowered her voice. “When you left, I know it was to get help for my dad, and when you came back, I know it was to set me straight. So I didn’t try to leave Corona without you. Because I know you and I will always take care of each other. Because I know you won’t belittle me with pity or with candy-coating things. I need you. I depend on you. It’s hard for me, but you’ve made it easier, you never came short or made me regret it. Can you trust me in return, this once?”

Hoot, Owl said, pointing a wing at the collapsed mineshaft.

“I know I won’t be able to call for you from in there if someone follows me in, but it’s so narrow that every fight will be a one-on-one, and I can win those.” When Owl still refused to move, Cassandra pinched the bridge of her nose with her withered fingers. “Please. I need to be capable of doing something—anything—on my own. I need to know that I can. And everything’s been going so badly for me, for years, that I have to prove it to myself before I can believe it. Please believe in me first so I can make myself worth your trust again.”

Owl pressed the flat of his beak to Cassandra’s forehead and hooted at her softly. Then, the pressure of his claws against her shoulder intensified briefly before disappearing altogether, as he took off and flew after Fidella.

Cassandra took a deep breath, exhaled slowly. Then another, exhaled slowly. On the third inhale, she rubbed at her eyes with her withered hand, opened them to look at the mine, and walked towards it. On the threshold between the outside world and the tunnel’s bowels, she doused one of the prepared torches in oil and lit it. Moving now in a circle of flickering light and dancing shadows, she walked into the mineshaft, and inspected the cave-in that began less than two dozen steps in.

There was a very narrow passage between the floor and the giant folds of rock that have collapsed from the ceiling.

She shifted the scabbard of her sword from her back to the front of her chest, and started crawling through, struggling to keep the torch tilted upwards enough to prevent it from going out, her chest grinding against the rock beneath her and her back against the rock above her. Ten feet in, and she could see a wider stripe of darkness before her. A cavern opening back up, it must have been. Fifteen feet in, and she found the grinding of rock against either side of her turning from grinding to a static, consistent pressure. She was stuck.

Cassandra stopped moving, and considered her options. Tried to crawl backwards to get herself unstuck, failed. Awkwardly pulled her sword out of its scabbard, in an attempt to flatten her frame a little more. Took a moment to focus on staying calm, then emptied her lungs, and forced herself forward again.

By the time her shoulders and upper back crested the edge of the rock, leaving her free to gasp for air again, her heart was hammering a too-fast drumbeat and three of her limbs were burning with exertion. If there was ever a time to be grateful for her scrawny build, no matter how hard and time-consuming it had been to build up muscle tone...

She coughed, and looked back at the small gap she had just gone through. Just under twenty feet of a very difficult crawl. Nothing she couldn’t handle going out. Unless the treasure stashed here was the ceremonial weapon, and it was a big one. Like a lance, or a halberd, or any manner of two-handed weapon. But if someone had taken it here to stash it away safely, then she could take it back out—at worst, she’d have to tie one end of a rope around the weapon and the other end around her ankle before crawling out, then pull it out. And with that thought, Cassandra lifted her still-burning torch up, looking around the cavern she’d just managed to enter.

At first glance, it seemed far wider than she would expect of a mineshaft. Under more careful inspection, it turned out to be a five-, six-foot-wide path bordered with a wall on one side and a fissure too deep to see the bottom of on the other. Cassandra briefly considered lighting a second torch and throwing it down to see how deep it was, then remembered everything she read and heard about mining accidents that involved poisonous or explosive gas, and decided against that. There was, however, an abundance of small rocks around—knocked loose by the cave-in, no doubt. She wondered briefly whether it had been caused by the fissure opening up, or if an unfortunate foreman had miscalculated the potency of explosive charges set off in an attempt to fill the fissure up.

She sheathed her sword and shifted the scabbard back into its place, then picked up a couple of stones, and threw one over the edge.

“One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand, four-one thousand, five-one thousand...”

A distant, echoing clack.

“Wow.”

That was not a survivable fall.

Cassandra tossed one of the remaining stones up and caught it again a few times, thinking. If the treasure had been stashed somewhere along the fissure’s side, she wouldn’t have a chance to find it without knowing exactly where it was, and it would be suicide to try. However, if that was what its last possessor had pulled off, it had to be a small object—a dagger, at the largest, and more likely a piece of jewellery. So if she could find nothing in the rest of this area, it would narrow the Wolf’s Head Hollow search somewhat.

It took her a moment, busy weighing her options as she was, to notice a reflection of the torchlight in the rock. Examining it more carefully, she realized that the dark gray of it was cut through with brighter, whitish threads.

Cassandra lifted her torch up against the cave-in. Broken up as the stone of it was, the lines were irregular, but clear and much thicker than in the rock she was holding.

The silver mine wasn’t spent. It had been collapsed, likely on purpose, and to prevent further profit.

Funny how things could shake out when it was about a strip of land argued and fought over by two kingdoms for decades on end.

She pocketed the rocks and walked deeper in, along the fissure’s edge, until she found it ending. When it did, the tunnel narrowed again into a single mineshaft, no forks in the road of it, more veins of silver in its walls. There were timbers propping up its low ceiling, still, and seemingly free of rot in the dry air. About fifty feet in, the tunnel came to a dead end, a few mining spikes and sledgehammers abandoned on the dust-strewn floor, and a lone skeletal corpse tucked into the corner.

Cassandra lowered herself down to one knee beside the remains. Dead for anywhere between six months and several years, at a glance. Thankfully, it meant that it no longer stank; curiously, it meant that it hadn’t been here anywhere near as long as the mine had spent closed. Not only did it have no pouches or satchels on it, it had no belt to hang them off either, no boots, no shirt, and the pockets of its soiled and tattered cut-off trousers had been turned out. Teeth in poor condition, some partially rotted, some missing. Skull bashed in on one side, like with a blunt strike, but nothing as heavy as one of the mining hammers covered in dust nearby—a small club, or maybe a rock, seemed far more likely.

So it probably used to be someone who had crawled in here looking for a treasure, and got murdered for their trouble by whoever was laying claim to that treasure still.

Cassandra lifted her head at the sound of something grinding against stone, echoing from where the mineshaft’s entrance was. And from where she was, she caught a glimpse of a different colour in the torchlight—a red tassel hanging off the top side of the timbers propping the ceiling up. She stood, and strained to reach for it, then jumped up to grab onto it and pull at it with her whole body weight, successfully yanking out a red scarf, the same style as she had seen some of the bandits outside wearing, bundled carefully several times around a smaller object. A quick attempt to unwrap a little, a cursory glance—jade. Finely carved, green jade.

The piece of jewellery. She would be going to Wolf’s Head Hollow for a weapon.

Cassandra smiled, and headed towards the exit, to catch whoever had followed her between the wall and the fissure.

Two someones, as it turned out, and both wearing those red scarves. One was armed with a rusted sword, one with a butcher’s club, the kind used to knock livestock out before slaughtering them.

“Hand that over,” the swordsman demanded as he pointed at the bundle in Cassandra’s hand, “and no one has to get hurt.”

“Nice blade,” Cassandra said calmly. “You pull it off a dead soldier ten years ago?”

“I’ve killed with it before. Hand that over, I’m not gonna warn you again!”

“Good.” Cassandra tucked the bundle into her tunic, between her skin and the fabric, and drew her own weapon.

The swordsman hesitated, eyeing the path along the fissure’s edge. Cassandra lifted her arms, open, torch in one hand and sword in the other.

“Hey, hero! Are you gonna come kill me, or what?”

That finally made him angry enough to charge at her. Even one-handed, Cassandra parried his untrained attempts to strike at her easily, then uncoiled in a backhand of her left fist to his jaw driven from the hips, staggering him easily, and kicked him over the fissure’s edge. He screamed as he went into the dark, the sound of it piercing and abruptly cutting short about five seconds later.

“You bastard!” the club-wielder roared at her, charging down the narrow path in turn. “You killed Desmond, you fuck, I’ll kill you!”

Cassandra stood her ground only to move out of his way at the last moment, allowing his momentum to carry him past her, and slashed at his back as he went. The regularly sharpened castle steel met little resistance as he yowled in pain, and with little trouble, she kicked his knees out from under him, and finished him with a swipe to the throat.

She wiped her sword clean with a severed length of one of those red scarves, then sheathed it. Considered the butcher’s club hanging off a loop around the dead bandit’s wrist. Rolled her shoulders, then put the torch in her teeth and started dragging the still-bleeding body deeper into the tunnel, ultimately dumping it at the feet of the skeletal corpse. Doused a second dry torch in oil, then spent a while setting it upright between two of the abandoned sledgehammers, and lit it.

It wasn’t a candle, but it would have to do.

“May you rest peacefully now,” Cassandra quietly told the skeletal corpse, and bowed her head to it before leaving.

The crawl back out was just as gruelling, but still not impossible. Cassandra brushed some of the rock dust off of herself, coughing, before she extinguished the torch, tucked it into the back of her belt to properly dispose of later, and exited the mineshaft.

And came to an immediate halt, yanking her sword back out, at the sight of three more bandits with rat skull headbands waiting outside.

“Look at that,” one of them called out in a gleeful tone. “Not only found the Reds’ stash for us, but killed the pair to come in after her, too. Hey, you sure you’re not looking for an outfit to join up with?”

“I thought we weren’t recruiting,” another piped in, turning his head towards the first one, but without taking his eyes—or the point of his crossbow—off of Cassandra.

“We’re always recruiting if you can kill a useless idiot to take their place,” the first one answered, nimbly pulling a small axe out of a belt loop.

“For the love of all that is holy, kill him if you do that,” the third one spoke up, one hand at her face in an exasperated gesture, the other holding a sword.

“Are you quite finished?!” Cassandra yelled.

Three against one—two bruisers, one crossbowman—in an open space. This was bad. This was very, very bad.

Cassandra threw herself to the side to evade a crossbow bolt, and barely had the time to regain her footing before the axeman fell on her, the swordswoman hot on his heels. She could barely do anything but parry and back up to avoid getting flanked, trying to keep both of the bruisers in front of her. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the crossbowman reloading—and just as he finished winching up, Cassandra managed to get into the swordswoman’s reach, grab her by the wrist to keep her blade away, score a slash across her midriff, and yank her to the side just as the crossbowman levelled his weapon up again. An impact and a shout of pain told Cassandra that the bolt had hit the swordswoman, and she threw her into the axeman to buy time for leaping a few steps away, putting two fingers into her mouth, and letting out a piercing two-toned whistle.

The swordswoman was on the ground, alive but out of the fight; the axeman and the crossbowman looked around quickly, unsure whether the whistle was a bluff or a call for aid, giving Cassandra a moment to catch her breath. When nothing happened, if one did not count a tawny shape barrelling across the sky towards them all, both bandits turned their attention back to her.

“Oh, nice try,” the axeman growled, and fell on Cassandra again.

He was taking care to stay out of the crossbowman’s line of fire, this time, and Cassandra struggled to keep both of them in her field of vision. Seconds later, a startled yelp came from the crossbowman’s direction, quickly morphing into a howl of pain; Cassandra focused on the axeman fully, then, regaining ground, and grabbed her cloak with her free arm to throw it at his weapon, entangling it for just enough time to slash his throat open. She wasted no time charging across to where Owl was harrying the crossbowman, who was now bleeding from multiple talon slashes all over his face, and put the momentum into a shoulder check that left her the perfect opening for a thrust to the heart, sending him toppling down.

The swordswoman, still on the ground, lifted both empty hands up as soon as Cassandra looked at her. “Yield, yield!”

Cassandra lowered her weapon, and held her left arm out for Owl. “Don’t try to follow us.”

“Sure,” the bandit said quickly.

Waving the sword in a sharp motion to flick the blood off the blade, instead of clean and sheathe it for now, Cassandra turned and walked away. “That was top work. You came just in time.”

Hoot, Owl said proudly.

“Thanks. I found what we came for.” The truth of saying it out loud pulled a grin across Cassandra’s face. “I got it. I got what we came for. Now let’s get out of here.”

Chapter Text

Keeping in mind what Riccardo the halberdier had said about Wolf’s Head Hollow and banking on the fact that she saw oxen used as beasts of burden around the mine settlement, but not horses or even ponies, Cassandra headed straight for the haunted ground, cutting across the countryside and putting Fidella through her paces for once. If she gained enough ground before sunset, any pursuit that the bandits might launch wouldn’t be able to catch up to her, not even by marching overnight—assuming they would even try, given where she was going.

As the evening chill swept in, Cassandra realized that she would have to burn a fire overnight this time. Which meant that making camp in a thicket again was not going to be an option. A quick scan of the horizon in the afternoon light left her with having to choose between the remains of a long-scorched home, an orchard of plum trees, and the distant mass of another mesa wreathed with the jagged diadem of a destroyed watchtower. Deciding that if she couldn’t avoid setting up a more serious camp than just a rain cover and a blanket, she could as well seek an adequate shelter from the wind, at least, Cassandra headed for the mesa.

The path to the top was treacherous enough for her to climb on foot, leading Fidella behind her, and she still heard the mare trip once or twice on the eroded stone. The watchtower’s pitiful remains seemed stable enough to spend the night in, however—any loose stones that could have crumbled from atop its broken walls have long since crumbled already, leaving piles of rubble and a layer of mortar dust mingled with bright yellow pollen of pine trees that seemed to have been laying undisturbed since at least the year’s early summer. About three hundred degrees of the tower’s circle remained intact, at least on the bottom floor, with the second floor reduced to a narrow platform of rotted-through wooden planks and a collapsed spiral staircase; with the wind blowing against the remaining part of the walls tonight, Cassandra hoped it would be enough of a shelter to keep her from catching a cold, if it didn’t rain and if she could keep warm.

Snort, Fidella said, digging a hoof against the stone floor.

Cassandra looked at her. “Which part are you unsure about?”

The mare leaned her head down, indicating the base of a rubble pile. Cassandra followed her gaze, and found herself staring at a skeletal corpse buried under the collapsed walls up to halfway across the ribcage, evidently crushed when the tower had been attacked. The rusted helmet and ever-grinning face were turned to the side; the one arm visible from under the rubble was still clutching onto a shield so damaged by age and the elements that Cassandra could only surmise it used to bear the crest of Koto by seeing two tall blurs on each side of it, rather than a single wide blur in the centre.

She turned to Fidella again. “I don’t know, it doesn’t look like he’s moved in a while now.”

Fidella tossed her head, making an irritated sound close to a whinny.

“I’m not trying to make fun of you,” Cassandra lifted both hands in a placating gesture. “I’m saying that it’s late, and we can camp here or in the middle of an open field. I brought us here because I thought here would be safer, and I still think it’s safer than out there.”

Snort, Fidella said, staring at her critically.

“Well, then we’ll just have to be on our best behaviour as guests in someone else’s home. I’ll go find some firewood before it’s completely dark outside.”

The mare gave a disgruntled little nicker.

“You can sleep as far away from him as you want,” Cassandra promised over her shoulder, exiting the ruined watchtower.

There was a small grove surrounding the watchtower’s remains, mostly birches and pines with an occasional rowan and oak sapling tossed through. Owl took off from her left shoulder when she began gathering dry branches and twigs, flying first through the trees, then overtop in a perimeter loop; by the time Cassandra carried the first armful of firewood into the watchtower and began gathering the second, he called out into the evening air to alert her, then pointed a wing towards the watchtower again—if a little off to the side from it. Cassandra shifted the bundle under her healthy arm and followed him, soon finding a rectangular stone tablet cloven with several deep fractures, weathered by wind and rain so heavily that the writing upon it was close to illegible, and two large sections having crumbled out of the structure to rest face-down on the ground, overtop of what seemed to be a communal catacomb vault for urns of those whose bodies had been burnt to ashes.

“Oh, brother.”

Hoot, Owl said, perching over the lichen-covered pennant in Kotoan colours still flying on a small flagpole at tablet’s side.

“No, I know,” Cassandra said, resigned. Then sighed heavily, set the firewood down, and knelt down to start cleaning weeds, dead leaves, and moss from the communal vault.

This must have been where the watchmen used to be buried, when the tower still stood. And as one beholden to a kingdom allied with Koto, it wouldn’t do for her to walk past a neglected burial ground without tending it, particularly since she knew perfectly well that its designated caretakers were also long dead and likely unburied. Much like the unfortunate skeleton inside the watchtower.

Diplomacy and honour were both such a hassle sometimes, Cassandra thought to herself as she pried a strip of moss from between the catacomb’s flagstones with her boot knife.

By the time vault was presentable and Cassandra had dragged the tablet’s broken-off pieces to rest against the wall face-up, leaving at least some of the names of the dead watchmen legible, night has fallen. Relying on feeling her way around as much as on the wan starlight of the nearly-cloudless sky, the moon but a sliver overhead, Cassandra stumbled her way towards the half-pile of firewood, gathered it up, and walked into the tower’s remains once more. A glance up the relatively intact fireplace yielded a view of the sky, if somewhat limited, so she stacked some of the wood there instead of attempting to start a campfire like she would have to in an open field. Owl stayed within the shadows, while Fidella seemed to welcome both the light and the warmth. Cassandra rubbed her gloved hands and extended them towards the fire until her left was uncomfortably close to it, while the right remained numb to the sensation, any sensation.

She glanced to the half-buried skeletal remains in the tower’s corner. Now it seemed almost unfair to do nothing with that, after cleaning the catacomb vault up. Sighing, she looked at Fidella.

“Watch the fire for me for a moment?”

Snort, Fidella said, unimpressed.

“I didn’t say I expect you to do anything if it starts going out— You know what, never mind. I’ll be right back.”

Cassandra closed her eyes for a moment before stepping out of the fire-lit area to adjust to the darkness outside faster. The grove loomed thick and lightless now, while the rest of the mesa’s open space was a mosaic of shadows dotted with the tiny glimmers of fireflies and underscored with the music of cicadas. She smiled at the thought of Pascal, and how he’d consider several of these cicadas skewered and toasted against the campfire a gourmet meal; of Rapunzel, and how the fireflies would reflect in her eyes wide with excitement. Grass crunched under her feet, and Cassandra lowered herself onto her knees to feel her way through the plants, eventually using her withered arm to brace against the ground and stabilize herself as she leaned forward, since she couldn’t feel anything with it anyway.

A pale glow began to build around lilac bell-shaped flowers and compound leaves rimmed with a lighter tone and sleek silhouettes of stems as her hand passed next to a lone starlight woundwort, causing some of the surrounding plants to come into focus.

“Oh, thank goodness.”

Plucking one of the glimmering leaves and using it as a lantern, Cassandra managed to gather a handful of wildflowers—a few dandelions that haven’t turned into fuzzy orbs yet, a few red poppies, a few clovers, some yellow-blooming thing that she couldn’t name but looked vaguely like yarrow—and after deciding that it would have to do, she walked back into the crumbled watchtower and laid the flowers beside the Kotoan watchman’s remains. Then she tended to Fidella, nodded at Owl as he hooted at her to signal that he was going hunting for the night, and finally settled by the still-crackling fire to warm up a meal, such as it was, being made from trail rations.

When she was halfway through drinking the fruit-laced tea she had taken from the kitchens of Castle Corona, Cassandra pulled out the red bandit scarf and the treasure wrapped in it to examine it more closely. It turned out to be a medallion—a large one, just slightly larger than her palm—hanging off a string of spherical beads, all carved of the same green jade, and separated by decorative knots on the silken cord they were wound onto. Cassandra frowned and set her mug aside, taking the treasure into both hands and turning it towards the fire. This wasn’t something one would find in the possession of petty nobles, like what the Bayards used to be. Even more, this wasn’t of Kotoan make. This was the finest Bayangoran craftsmanship money and status could buy.

She took the bandit scarf’s corner and started gently cleaning the medallion’s surface of the mud, grime, and long-dried blood caked across it. There was engraving on it, she was pretty sure, and hopefully the motif would offer some clue as to what this medallion was or how it got here. Here, to the rear end of Koto, endlessly fought over against Equis.

Cassandra dipped one gloved fingertip into her tea and stained the scarf with the liquid, the wet cloth finally succeeding in dislodging the dirt covering the medallion. A tree, or the side of one. Carefully wedging a fingernail underneath the dirt to pry more of the grimy shell off, she managed to crumble off another piece, and then the rest of it.

A tree indeed, but not the Ingvarrdian leafless and uprooted one. This was a far more delicate silhouette, with elegantly curving branches coming against the medallion’s top, and comprised of almost oval leaves all over. Dotted between the leaves, in small stylized clusters, were six-petalled flowers. At the foot of the tree, its roots blending seamlessly into the ground, two hounds were seated, one on either side of the slender trunk and each facing the medallion’s edge, the branches extended slightly further out than the hounds’ heads. Overall, both the material and the art style was definitely Bayangoran, with the sole exception of the hounds—which were almost a carbon copy of what comprised the Kotoan crest, just like a seven-rayed sun was the crest of Corona.

Except that the wolfhounds present in coat-of-arms of Koto, Cassandra knew, were seated facing each other.

Wait a minute.

“Holy—”

Fidella looked over at that outburst, letting out an inquisitive nicker.

“I don’t think that idiot realizes what he sent me for,” Cassandra said incredulously. “If this is the kind of thing I’m looking for in Wolf’s Head Hollow, too, that will narrow it down quite a bit.”

Snort, Fidella said with relief.

“Don’t relax too much yet.” Cassandra carefully wrapped the medallion back into the bandit scarf, paying attention to place clean sections of the fabric between the dirty ones and the jade. “If there’s really two more of these out there, you could pawn them for enough to hire an army’s worth of mercenaries. Or try causing a major diplomatic incident between Koto and its allies, maybe.”

She placed the bundle in the inside pocket of her cloak, then added more wood to the fire and tucked herself into the best wind-shielded nook beside the hearth that she could find to sleep, hands on the still warm, half-full steel mug of tea, head rested against cold stone.

When she came to, it was because of a hand shaking her shoulder gently, and she looked up at Lammert with his eyes as bloodshot with exhaustion and lack of sleep as hers must have been, it felt like.

I told you not to pull that double shift for Joris last night, Lammert said, concern in his tone mellowing out the irritation.

You know he’s sweet on that girl from down the hill, she found herself saying with the confidence of a dreamer—of knowing, right now in this moment, that Joris was an idiot kid who didn’t deserve this posting, and that he was stupidly in love with a farmer’s daughter, no matter how hopeless that kind of romance would be. What was I supposed to tell him, 'forget about her and just die here with us tomorrow'?

Lammert shook his head, but the drawn look of persistent stress on his face didn’t abate. Cheerful as always. Pour some coffee in yourself and come on up with me.

Right, right. She emptied the steel mug in her hands, the still-scalding acorn coffee unbearably bitter but doing its job well enough, then rose from her chair and followed Lammert up the spiral staircase, five floors up to the ladder that exited onto the tower’s roof. She found him already huffing into his hands to warm them, and staring at the battlefield in the distance. Shit, they’re still going, aren’t they?

Looks like it, Lammert said, and paused when a cone of screaming winds laced with purplish cracks of lightning was sucked down from the sky towards a single point. And they’ll probably stay at it for as long as the witch-knight’s alive.

The miniature typhoon tore through a small detachment of Equisian bannermen, thunder and screams echoing out, but there weren’t enough Kotoan soldiers left anymore to follow into that breach in enemy ranks. The Equis forces shored up, then split up, trying to pincer the remaining Kotoans, but the manoeuvre was cut short as one half of the Equisians was fended off by a curtain of white-blue fire bursting forth from the ground and the other engaged in a desperately brutal melee with the Kotoans. With both sides of the battle in their death throes, Cassandra realized that the stakes were no longer victory and defeat, but how many enemies each side could drag down to an early grave with itself.

I don’t think ours can win this, she heard a stranger’s voice come out of her mouth.

No, Lammert admitted calmly. Me neither.

You sent Joris out already?

Yeah. I hope he has better luck than Andrea.

Well, at least the bar for that ain’t high. She found herself brushing dust off the face of her shield, two golden wolfhounds seated facing each other against a field of bright red, to fend away the memory of how Equisian scouts had found and murdered Andrea before he could make it out of earshot of the watchtower. And Fabrice?

Sleeping, I think. Or at least I hope he can sleep at all. Lammert turned to watch the battlefield again as a new pitch of screams began to echo through the night. The white-blue flames had flared up to the height of a house, completely engulfing half of the remaining Equisians. Holy fuck, he’s really going all out, isn’t he?

Cassandra felt her hand snapping up to grip Lammert’s arm. Few, if any, Equisians had escaped the curtain of cursed fire; and against the backdrop of that curtain of light, the silhouette of a single mounted lancer was clearly visible as he galloped across the battlefield contained in a wide patch of slightly depressed ground, followed by scattered remains of Kotoan infantry racing after him, racing towards the hollow’s edge, towards a taller and deeper shadow of regular lines and steel-reinforced timbers and the distant, yet not distant enough, creaking of siege engines being winched up.

Get Fabrice out of bed, and get out of the tower.

What? Why? Lammert looked, and didn’t see. Where is he going? Oh, fuck. Tycho? What is that?

That, Tycho said calmly through Cassandra’s mouth, is a trebuchet. Now get your ass down the ladder before I throw you down.

The witch-knight was still charging across the hollow when the first trebuchet stone was loosed and sent crashing into the watchtower’s side, taking out almost two thirds of the fourth floor and half of the third, sending a hail of rubble spraying out across the mesa. Cassandra looked down the still-open hatch with Tycho, gauging the sudden length of the drop, and that they’d probably break their legs trying to make it. Part of the remaining walls was sprayed red with what little was left of Lammert, and somewhere below, Fabrice was screaming—startled awake with the bombardment, so far, rather than dying already.

They risked a glance towards the hollow again. What little Kotoan infantry had followed the witch-knight’s desperate charge was being pursued by the Equisian remains, and getting slaughtered by them. The trebuchet, meanwhile, was being reloaded.

Fuck, Tycho said, almost serene, and Cassandra felt an eerie sort of calm-before-the-storm stillness overtake his soul as he realized that he was about to die. And then they leapt down what was left of the watchtower, their already bad landing made even worse by the second trebuchet stone crashing squarely across the second floor, throwing them tumbling down the spiral staircase as the tower came down on itself, chunks of its walls raining out again, burying Fabrice somewhere too deep to keep hopeful, and blasting air out of Tycho’s lungs as a timber came down on his spine and rubble on his lower back, right shoulder, and both legs.

A ray of sunlight came against Cassandra’s eyes, and she blinked awake.

The mug was still in her hands, though tilted precariously, close to spilling. The fire was still crackling, far more alive than she would have expected it on an armful-and-a-half of firewood, particularly since not all of that firewood had been spent. And she, herself, was still bundled up in her blanket and tucked into the corner of the remaining walls, no chair to be sitting on, no table to take tankards of acorn coffee from.

She sneezed, staring at the inexplicably still-going fire. Were it not for that, the unexpectedly cold night would have probably ended up making her seriously sick.

Cassandra turned to the skeletal remains of a Kotoan watchman still half-buried under his tower’s rubble, still with the flowers she had brought him. “Thanks, Tycho.”

Fidella nickered at her from outside the tower, where she was getting breakfast across the mesa.

“Hi, morning, I’m awake.” Cassandra poured the remains of her tea over the fire to douse it. “One last thing to do and we can be off, alright?”

Snort, Fidella said affirmatively.

Cassandra untangled herself from the blanket and took a moment to find a sharper piece of rock among the rubble. Then she went to the stone tablet still remaining at the ruined watchtower’s back, a little off to the side from the cone of shrapnel that had sprayed out of the structure on impact with trebuchet stones, where the communal crypt of fallen watchmen was. Testing her withered hand for a moment—no significant pain so far—Cassandra walked up to the cracked tablet, brushed a bit of dust off it, and found a free space to painstakingly scratch four new names into: TYCHO, LAMMERT, FABRICE, ANDREA.

She had no idea who Joris was, but she hoped he had made it.

While Cassandra was breaking up camp and packing her belongings, Owl came back to hoot a concise scouting report at her.

“So you saw movement across the hollow, but no mist was displaced by it? Sounds about right.” She finished saddling Fidella, took her reins, and began to lead the three of them to the mesa’s edge, where the switchback path down began. “Say, you didn’t see me getting up overnight, did you?”

Both Owl and Fidella shook their heads no.

“Yeah, I thought so.” Cassandra shielded her eyes from the early morning sun, looking out from the mesa’s height. There was a fair bit of mist across the fields, but none as thick as over Wolf’s Head Hollow, where it churned and roiled like a mythical creature’s poisonous breath, like plumes of smoke rising from burnt grass and wet leaves. “Let’s go bother some ghosts for a fancy weapon, then.”

By the time she had made it across the country to where the dead watchman had shown her the battle raging almost two decades ago last night, most of the mist over the fields had burnt off in the late morning sun, and visibility across the Hollow’s perpetual fog increased slightly—to about twenty feet ahead. Maybe twenty-five.

Cassandra dismounted, and looked down beneath her boots as their soles crunched against ground frost. The surface layer of grass and flowers was thin here, and further thinning the deeper into the fog she could see. Moreover, there was a line of stones, slightly curving, that cut right across where the ground dipped into a gentle slope down the hollow—all flat river stones, polished with ages of water and sand, laying so closely that they had to have been placed there intentionally.

No, not a line. A circle.

Kneeling down to examine the stones, Cassandra realized two things. First of all, the stones were painted, a bright red of cheap fabric dye made somehow more enduring, more lustrous. Upon each of the stones was a pair of stripes, and a letter of the Ingvarrdian alphabet between them, spelling out something Cassandra could not read; she tilted her head, trying to read the inscription upside down, and followed the circle of painted riverstones for a few minutes until she came across a larger one that held no letters, but transformed the pair of stripes into the mouth and tail-tip of a snake—by having the snake devour its tail. Cassandra frowned, and experimentally reached her withered arm towards the picture. As expected, the paint’s colour intensified against the proximity, almost as if it were stained glass backlit by a rising dawn.

Someone had placed a magical ward here, one that was likely stretched around the entirety of Wolf’s Head Hollow.

Secondly, the ground outside of the ward—and within an arm’s reach past it—was picked clean of any remains of weapons, armour, barding, and tools. Past that distance, the long-decayed corpses were still wearing full suits of chain and plate, with broken swords and spears sticking from ribcages, from shields, from the ground. Desperate as the locals seemed to be for a source of good steel to rework into items of everyday use, they were clearly not desperate enough to brave the Hollow’s permanent residents.

Cassandra walked back to Owl and Fidella. “It doesn’t look great. I’d rather you two stayed here.”

Hoot, Owl reminded pointedly.

“See, normally I’d agree with you, but this time I think it’s a better idea to do it the other way around,” Cassandra told him. “Look at how thick that fog is. If you hear me calling for you, I’ll need you two to make as much noise as you can, so that I can go in your direction.”

Snort, Fidella said uneasily.

“I fully expect to get lost in there, yes. Well, let’s check if this works in the first place...” Cassandra walked backwards into the mist, looking under her feet to know when she crossed the riverstone ward. The painted snake flared with red light as she crossed it, but nothing more happened. “Can you still hear me?”

Hoot, Owl called out affirmatively.

“Okay, I can hear you too. Be back when I can.” Cassandra sighed, and turned around. “Expensive weapon. Dead farmhand. Haunted battleground that a ghost showed me last night. What could be simpler?”

She walked slowly, taking as much care as she could to avoid stepping on bones—a task far from easy, given how strewn with remains the bare ground was. There were still scorch marks where the witch-knight had conjured cursed fire to burn down his enemies, and the Equisian breastplates and shields there were indeed charred and partially molten around the area. There were complete skeletons of horses and people, looking as if they had simply decayed where they fell, no carrion eaters crossing into this forsaken ground. There were tattered banners still hanging from their flagpoles, broken off or lopsided as they had been placed in the soil by their bearers, most of the crests too fragmented or too faded to be recognizable anymore. Cassandra came to a halt before one of them, narrowing her eyes as she tried to make out the blazon still embroidered on the reasonably intact fabric.

Ugly sight, innit? she heard, and turned to see the translucent figure of a youth, wearing a squire’s gambeson and keeping her hands tucked in her pockets, a forlorn smile across her face and another ripped across her throat where it wept bright silver of ghostly arterial blood onto her garb. All cocked up by the Equis sons of mothers.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Cassandra offered, and looked back at the banner. “Unfortunately, I can’t quite make out the colours.”

Per pale gules a wolfhound sejant or and azure a fir tree argent. The ghostly squire raised her eyebrows. I showed you mine, you show me yours.

“Purpure a sun of seven rays or,” Cassandra said calmly.

Straight under the throne of Corona, eh? Swish. Maybe if I had one of them royal favours on me, I’d be worth more alive rather than dead. The ghost sighed, and kicked one of the nearby Equisian helmets, only for her foot to go right through the rusted metal. Would’ve earned my spurs here, too, had I made it through.

“Died a Bayard banner-bearer, didn’t you?”

Sure did! Made 'em pay for logging the old doggy tree down before I fell, so I did.

Cassandra stayed silent for a long moment. “How old were you?”

Been sixteen for a while now, best I can tell. How long has it been, again?

“I think you may have spent more time dead than alive,” Cassandra admitted, as gently as she could.

Aw, bugger, ain’t that just my luck. The ghostly squire attempted to kick the Equisian helmet again, with the same exact outcome. Not even old enough to find me a lady love, you so-and-so...

“I’m looking for something,” Cassandra said. “Something that doesn’t belong here.”

Checked the mirror lately?

“A weapon,” Cassandra pressed. “A masterwork one. Possibly ceremonial rather than functional.”

The Bayard squire sighed thoughtfully, an uncertain look on her translucent face. I mean, if you’re looking for fancy, there is a lance that milord from the capital used to carry. Wouldn’t recommend touching it, though.

“No—something that was carried in here years after the battle was over, by someone who never came back out,” Cassandra tried again. “Something that a thief masquerading as a lost heir of your house is trying to claim as his inheritance.”

Well, that’s just a piece of work, innit? The squire shrugged her translucent shoulders. Don’t rightly know how what you’re after, of if it’s here at all, but if someone came in after this shindig was over and died here? Then it’s a good wager he kicked the bucket over yonder.

Cassandra looked into the mist in the direction the ghost indicated with a nod. “What happens over there?”

The hounds come out to play, the squire said with a sympathetic wince. And let me tell you, they’ve long grown bored of chew toys that don’t scream anymore. Hope you’re a good runner, so I do.

“Thanks.” Cassandra turned to leave, but hesitated, and looked over her shoulder again. “What was your name?”

The ghostly squire gave her a pained smile from above her torn throat. Bugger me if I know.

“Do you want me to try and find out?”

The dead Bayard banner-bearer seemed to consider the offer for a moment, before she tilted her head in an almost pleading manner. Would you be a dear and do that?

“Okay, where’s your body?”

Around, I think. That son of a mother was the one who gave me a second smile. Think I remember breaking his own before I fell over. The ghost pointed her chin at the Equisian helmet she’s been trying to kick. Pow! Right in the kisser! Ah, good times.

Cassandra couldn’t help a chuckle, noticing that the skull still laying inside the Equisian helmet was indeed missing multiple teeth in the front, and carefully stepped over a few tangled up sets of armour suits and bones that had piled up near the Bayard banner. “Looks like you really made them work for it.”

Oh, you know, the dead squire said nonchalantly. Then gave Cassandra a more careful look. Actually, you seem like you might know, really. That sword, that’s castle steel, innit?

“Sure is. Grew up on weapons practice for playtime.”

Huh. The ghost’s smile turned softer. I think I may have, as well.

“That’ll narrow it down.” Cassandra stopped over a slumped corpse wearing a long-rotted gambeson stained a deep brown of dried blood all the way down the front. “Is that you?”

The Bayard squire shrugged. Maybe?

Cassandra gave the ghost a longer look. “Why do you keep your hands in your pockets?”

Uh. The dead squire looked down at her translucent self, genuinely puzzled now. Do you know, I’ve never wondered?

“Can you take them out?”

The ghost pulled her hands out of her pockets. Her face immediately contorted with discomfort, and she tucked her hands back in. Well, that was unpleasant.

“Are you holding on to something there?”

I think so. I might be? The squire shook her head. I don’t know, can you turn out my pockets? Such as they are, after a decade and a half, I guess.

“I can try.” Cassandra fixed her gloves more firmly in place, then knelt down and started prying the gambeson’s swollen, tattered stitches open. She found the remains of an abandoned rodent nest between the pelvis and the thighbone, strewn with scraps of cloth, and managed to pluck out one scrap of a slightly different colour even under all the dirt and age. “...I think this used to be a ribbon?”

Oh, the ghost said slowly, a glimmer of comprehension dawning across her face. Me mum gave that to me. Good luck charm, she said. Don’t think I had the time to braid it in before the fight kicked off, so I’d just tucked it in me pocket and went.

“What did your mother call you? Your friends?” Cassandra pressed.

The dead squire looked off to the side, brows furrowed, her expression increasingly lost. I don’t 'member. I don’t– would I have made it, I wonder, if I had put that on?

“You’d die to someone else,” Cassandra said simply as she walked around the squire’s corpse to dig at the other pocket. “Koto lost pretty badly here, even if you made Equis pay just as badly for it.”

Think I’m fine that we lost, long as they didn’t win, the ghost admitted.

Cassandra bit her tongue before she could say 'that’s the spirit', exasperated with herself for having even thought it, and found a small leather satchel that a colony of ants had formed small tunnels and egg chambers underneath. “This is for holding letters, isn’t it?”

Well, bugger me, the dead squire said calmly. That’ll be waterlogged to shite.

“Can’t hurt to try.” Cassandra unwrapped the rotten cord from the leather, and pulled out several folded pages of paper that looked like it had been soaked through and dried a dozen times over. “Do I have your permission to... attempt to... read your correspondence?”

The Bayard banner-bearer sighed deeply. But by all means, knock yourself out.

Cassandra stood up and unfolded the papers, careful not to tear them, and leaned away to cough as the dust puffed off. “Yeah, that’s pretty waterlogged. I can’t make anything out on the first one.” She folded that page behind the rest. “This one looks like a draft. Lots of things crossed out, nothing legible either.” Folded it back again. “Okay, that’s almost...”

You can read it?

“Bits and pieces of it.” Cassandra squinted at the page, lifted it up to try and read it against what little sunlight pierced the fog of Wolf’s Head Hollow. “It is with the utmost... I can’t read that... lacking in... as well as impolite... furthermore impatient...”

Aw shite, the dead squire sighed, it’s a scolding from my tutor.

“Esteemed... far from adequate... lady’s station of... Orsinia?”

No, that’s me Nan’s name. Picture of grace, so she was, or so I’m told at least that she was.

Cassandra looked at the ghost. “Isn’t there something you wrote in here? Why would you be holding onto a tutor’s scolding like onto a good luck charm from your mother?”

The banner-bearer gave another shrug. Doesn’t seem to make sense, does it? I can’t recall if I had anyone to write to, though.

“Reports? Chronicle? Journal?”

Reports, the dead squire said slowly. Maybe those.

Cassandra leafed through the remaining papers. Three of them had an identical blur of a signature at the bottom. “Were there two T’s in your name?”

The ghost’s eyes widened, her entire bearing suddenly stiff. There were. There were! You found it?

“I think so. It’s not clear on any of these, but...” Cassandra tossed the other papers to the side, then layered the three reports overtop one another, trying to line up the signature, and lifted them against the dim sunlight against. “...Colette?”

Colette! the dead squire shouted, echoing across the hollow.

In a surge of movement, her translucent form was upon Cassandra again, reaching desperately for the papers. Cassandra stood her ground, and extended the faded reports to her instead of flinch. The ghost’s hands passed through the crumbly, waterlogged papers—and the moment they did, her entire form shifted. Gone were the soft contours of youth, gone was the lacerated throat and blood-stained gambeson of a squire, and Cassandra found herself facing a pedigreed knight with braided hair tied off with a ribbon, clad in burnished plate she may have dreamed of wearing, a Bayard-crested shield in one hand and the banner’s flagpole in the other, a proud young woman she was never allowed to grow up into.

I am Colette Bayard, the ghost said shakily, with a wide grin as euphoric as it was disbelieving. She stared at the Coronian standing before her with gratitude, silver tears slowly trailing down her face. In the heavens, I will be Colette Bayard.

There was a flash of light, intense enough that Cassandra had to squeeze her eyes shut and shield them with a hand. When she could look again, she was alone, and the fog permeating Wolf’s Head Hollow seemed a little thinner in the immediate vicinity.

Cassandra carefully pocketed the faded reports, drew her sword, and saluted the torn-up Bayard banner, then sheathed it again and headed to where Colette had pointed her towards earlier. True to her warning, the bones strewn around were no longer laying in complete skeletons—they seemed to have been dragged around, instead. And the farther she went, the more of them started to look damaged. Chewed on, specifically.

Trying to move more silently, Cassandra slowed her pace. She needed to find a corpse that hadn’t been here for as long as the others, and one that was not of a soldier. Or at least, the belongings of such a corpse, she corrected herself as she came across a torn-off arm that came to rest beside a mangled torso that had evidently come from a different set.

She turned over the remains of a small keg, finding nothing. Moved to a tattered canvas bag, finding nothing. Looked around in search of more, and stumbled over what she had mistaken for another section of skeletal remains—a knapsack of rotting leather. Except that it wasn’t as thoroughly rotted as everything else that she had found.

Cassandra tore the knapsack open, paying little mind to the buckles and straps when she had a knife at her disposal. Threw out half a loaf of mouldy bread, the shrivelled remains of unrecognizable fruit, a change of clothes that a centipede angrily slithered out of once it hit the ground, and finally squinted against a reflection of the wan sunlight against metal. She grabbed at it, and pulled it out: a scabbard of engraved silver, and a sword-hilt with a golden jewel embedded in the pommel.

“Oh,” Cassandra breathed in awe, suddenly uncertain whether she’d give this beauty away after all.

That was when she heard a howl. Then an answering one. Then, furious baying in the mist, approaching, fast.

The hounds.

“FIDELLA!” Cassandra roared, loud as she could, a parade ground bellow that would’ve made her father proud.

A distant whinny came from somewhere to the right, and Cassandra went from still to sprinting in that direction in the blink of an eye. Bones crunched under her feet, now that she had no time and no presence of mind to spare on walking gingerly, and she tripped on a helmet or a broken spear haft a few times, but never quite badly enough to take a tumble. She heard Fidella whinnying again, same direction, far more worried, and kept running as fast she could. The edge of the mist came into focus, held at bay with the riverstone ward, as did the sound of paws hitting the ground; a snap of jaws right behind her, and she barrelled across the ward’s edge, accompanied with the same flare of red light, and immediately after with two heavy impact sounds, before she let momentum carry her half a dozen steps further and came to a slow halt, breathing heavily, and finally dared to look behind her.

On the inside of the ward circling the hollow, two monstrous wolfhounds the size of a fallow deer each paced along the circle of stones as if it were a set of bars, eye sockets empty save for a blaze of white-blue cursed fire, fangs long enough to stick out of their mouths, pelts darker than a moonless night and each mangled—one hound’s side was turned into a pin cushion of arrows and crossbow bolts, the other’s back studded with broken sword-blades and spears, with a handful poking out on the other side through its belly.

“We’re leaving,” Cassandra wheezed, frantically climbing into the saddle and yanking Fidella away. “Leaving, just go, anywhere that’s not here.”

It took her about ten minutes to calm down, in which time Fidella had made quite a bit of headway through galloping directly away from the hounds of nightmare and shadow.

“Okay,” Cassandra said, her voice more steady, pulling gently on the reins. “Okay. We made it. Let’s sit for a moment.”

Hoot, Owl called out from overhead, signalling that they hadn’t been followed.

“Thanks.” Cassandra slid from the saddle, and decided there was no better time to hug Fidella by the neck than after having nearly been eaten by something that’s been dead for a decade and a half. “That was a lot. I don’t ever want to go there again.”

Snort, Fidella agreed wholeheartedly.

“Okay.” Cassandra pulled away, and focused on the sword that had just about cost her her life. “Alright. Let’s see who you are, beautiful.”

The blade was watered steel, she realized the second she drew it. It still held a fine edge, she found after doffing her left glove and testing it on a thumb. The jewel in the pommel seemed to be a very large yellow topaz, polished into seven facets, the same number as that of the allied kingdoms. This was an Ingvarrdian weapon, judging from the make, but profiled like a Kotoan one.

It was a shame how much attention it would draw on a belt, instead of in a display case, Cassandra admitted to herself reluctantly.

The scabbard, once cleaned of the detritus of everything else that had been in the dead farmhand’s knapsack, turned out at least as interesting, however. Engraved with flat reliefs of infantry and mounted warriors, it did not depict battles as per the classic Ingvarrdian fashion—instead, the imagery seemed to be a parade. Kotoan knights and halberdiers on one side, Cassandra noticed, but Bayangoran samurai and a phalanx on the other.

She pulled out the jade medallion again, looking at the two treasures side by side.

Hoot, Owl said, landing on her shoulder.

“I know. They match.” Cassandra looked between the Kotoan hounds under the Bayangoran cherry tree on the medallion, and the united Koto-Bayangor forces on the scabbard. And not only did the imagery match—both of these items were one-of-a-kind, both by virtue of their make and their monetary value. “Time to check in with a fake Bayard, for a change.”

Chapter Text

Night had long fallen by the time Cassandra made it to the foot of the mesa that still housed the ruins of Château de Bayard. With Fidella starting to show signs of fatigue—and no wonder, after almost a full day of really being put through her paces—Cassandra took a little extra care grooming her before bedtime, unbraiding her mane to comb through it as well, and slept without a fire to keep the camp topside unaware of her presence. When she woke up in the morning, it was not to the dim sunlight of a sky drawn with clouds that threatened rain further in the day, or to the pain slowly mounting in her withered arm once again, but to the sound of Fidella nickering inquisitively and being answered by another horse.

Cassandra lifted her head, trying to extract herself from the blankets and the small nook in the mesa’s cliffside that she had tucked herself into for the night, withered hand on the hilt of her sword already. Then slowly relaxed her posture when she realized that the other horse didn’t have a rider.

It was a gelding, though significantly smaller than Fidella, his coat such a mosaic of colour as if creation itself had ran out of paint and used the last splotches of white, red, and several shades of brown to create him. Mane left loose in a shaggy, untended wave. Tack and harness all in place for entirely long enough to start chafing. Lengths of rope at his hooves, pointing to poorly-tied knots that had long since come undone, letting him wander around.

“Well hello,” Cassandra said, keeping her tone soft as she slowly reached for the gelding’s bridle with her healthy hand. “Don’t you just look like a getaway waiting to happen?”

The gelding’s nostrils flared at her hand, and he snorted, leaning back slightly. Cassandra fell still, and smiled when Fidella’s nose came against her cheek, the mare trying to assist in calming the stranger down.

“Come on now, it’s okay. Come on...”

When the gelding didn’t seem to be convinced with that, Cassandra withdrew her hand slowly, dug through her pack of rations to pull out an only slightly withered apple, and extended it to him. That finally succeeded in drawing him close enough, and Cassandra took the bit out of his mouth before handing the apple to him.

She shot Fidella a long-suffering look over her shoulder. “Boys, am I right?”

Snort, Fidella agreed with amusement.

“Let’s get these off of you, yeah?” Cassandra started taking the gelding’s harness off. At first, he attempted to pull away again, but stopped once he realized what she was doing. “That’s right. You don’t really need these, do you.”

While she knew it was entirely possible to ride a horse without a saddle, stirrups, or reins, she also knew that a lot of people would find it difficult or simply never try due to how dangerous it could be. She scattered the tack and harness among a few coniferous shrubs, growing here and there at the foot of the mesa, hoping it would be enough to slow down or downright ground whoever it was that had prepared the gelding as a means to escape.

Hoot, Owl said inquisitively.

“Well, I can think of two people in the camp up top who’d have a use for a horse, not to mention the money for the upkeep of one. And halberdiers are infantry, not cavalry.” Cassandra started gently pushing the gelding away. “Go on, boy. Go on.”

Snort, Fidella said calmly. The gelding eyed her, then walked off in search of fresher grass than what was still left in the vicinity. Fidella then gave Cassandra a questioning look, as if waiting for further instructions.

“The plan is to be prepared,” Cassandra told her companions, turning to them both. “Fidella, I need you to stay hidden, and stay ready for if we have to chase down whoever left that horse here. Owl, if you see me and the guy I’ll be handing the sword off to splitting up, I need you to follow him—if he runs, fly high enough to point Fidella and me at where he’s going, so we can give chase. Got it?”

Two affirmative noises.

“Alright, let’s do this.”

Cassandra started climbing the switchback snaking up the mesa. The hole in the path was still there, thankfully no larger than it had been last time, and she jumped over it without any more trouble than previously. Glancing up into the morning sky, she saw Owl’s silhouette against the clouds as he hovered high enough to keep an eye on the entire surrounding area, circling for a second pass; she smiled, and cleared the last leg of the path to crest into the camp atop.

The workers were gathered around a small campfire, chatting over a modest meal. Only three of them remained, Cassandra noticed, and there was one less shabby tent comprising the camp. Two must have given up on the endeavour or realized that the pretend-Bayard was running a con. The halberdier was still there, his signature polearm laid across his lap again, looking immensely bored as he played cards with one of the workers. His expression swiftly changed into one of surprise as he noticed Cassandra entering the camp, however.

“That was fast. How’d it go?”

“Eh,” Cassandra said, pitching her voice so that the answer would answer nothing. “Let’s get this done, yeah?”

“Heavens, please.” Riccardo threw his cards down, ignoring the worker’s disappointed sigh, and led Cassandra to the slightly fancier tent. “Lord Bayard, the treasure hunter is back.”

“She is?” The conman sounded surprised, but schooled himself by the time he emerged from the tent, and gave Cassandra an impatient look. “Well? Don’t tell me you’ve returned empty-handed.”

Cassandra reached to the back of her belt and pulled the Ingvarrdian masterwork sword from under her cloak, handing it over and keeping her eyes off the sky. “There was a fissure in the mine, and the jewel fell into it. There’s no way I could have retrieved it alone.”

The pretend-Bayard sighed through his nose, even as he took the sword. “Unfortunate. I’d hoped a dedicated treasure hunter would not be as clumsy as to let one-third of their objective slip through their fingers. Though I don’t know how disappointed I can truly claim to be, what with you not being very much of a treasure hunter in the first place.” He paused, glancing between Cassandra’s murderous glare and Riccardo’s stiff-jawed anger. “But I suppose you have done the bare minimum of your task. And you will be pleased to know that while you were off gallivanting, my men have unearthed the third treasure in the ruins of my ancestral abode. Go, feast your eyes, as a prelude to your payment, my servant Roberto will take you there.”

The halberdier nodded her aside again, and Cassandra kept her eyes on the conman in another ominous glare over her shoulder for as long as she could before turning to follow.

“This is what you’ve been dealing with this whole time?” she asked as soon as she and the halberdier were out of earshot. “Why do you even put up with this guy? He treats you terribly. And looks like he treats everyone terribly, to be honest.”

“Doesn’t he just?” Riccardo sighed as they walked into the ruins, and rubbed the back of his neck in an uncomfortable gesture. “Right, so, there’s nothing here. This is supposed to be the part where I kill you somewhere the workers won’t see, but you have a good look in your eyes and I don’t feel like listening to that fucker anymore. He’s not been paying the others their daily due. Don’t think that bodes well for my payment, even if I did kill you for him, so I think I’d rather cut my losses with what I got upfront. What do you say we team up and go after that jewel again?”

Cassandra gave him a long look. Then pulled the jade medallion from the inside pocket of her cloak and showed it to him, taking care to not let it be visible from the camp.

“Huh,” Riccardo said calmly.

“Look at this. Really look at it,” Cassandra told him quietly. “Do you know what the coat-of-arms of Bayangor is?”

“Cherry blossom, right?”

“Right. And of Koto?”

“Two dogs sitting face-to-face.”

“Wolfhounds, but close enough.” Cassandra tapped a fingertip against the medallion’s edge. “This is a cherry tree. The hounds are guarding the tree; the tree is sheltering the hounds. You remember how your King’s grandfather married a Bayangoran princess? This is entirely enough to be a wedding gift for that occasion. Same deal with that sword. If there even is a third one of these here, probably same deal as well.”

“Fuck me,” Riccardo said, coming to a halt just behind the château’s ruined walls. “Nothing good comes out of something this expensive. You can’t just pawn these off like nobody’s business, this is the kind of thing that gets you a grand theft bounty so ridiculously high that nowhere is safe anymore.”

“There was a saddled horse left at the foot of the mesa.” Cassandra watched the halberdier stiffen. “So I unsaddled him before coming up here. I have a horse, too. We can catch him.”

Riccardo stared at her for a moment. Then extended a hand. “You wanna kill that guy, get rid of these things, and split the profit fifty-fifty?”

Cassandra grinned, and shook his hand. “I can work with that.”

They both turned on their heel and ran towards the mesa’s edge, scanning the vista for the sight of a rider. And sure enough, there was one—struggling to mount a bare-back horse and turn it to head further into Equis territory.

“I see him!” Cassandra called out. “Get to the path!”

“Don’t waste time with the path!” Riccardo yelled back, running straight for the pulley at the mesa’s corner, and throwing himself down its ropes.

Cassandra leaned over the edge, waiting to see if he’d make the descent; not only did he make it, but appeared to land unharmed, and beckoned to her impatiently from the ground. She rubbed the palms of her gloved hands together and followed suit, hoping that if the halberdier had proposed the truce, he wouldn’t find it prudent to break it by letting her fall to her death. Mercifully, she was right, and she landed with a jolt but without breaking her legs thanks to the way Riccardo made sure to control the momentum.

“Where’s that horse of yours?”

With two fingers in her mouth, Cassandra let out a single-toned whistle. A familiar whinny, and Fidella trotted up from where she was hiding behind a small pile of rocks overgrown with juniper bushes. While she was climbing in the saddle, Riccardo had snapped both ends of a belt of sorts over the haft of his halberd, making it possible to sling it over his shoulder the same way Cassandra was carrying her sword. She grabbed the halberdier’s arm and pulled him onto Fidella’s back behind herself; the mare snorted under the added weight, but more from surprise than from exertion.

“Run like you’re racing Max!” Cassandra barked at Fidella as soon as Riccardo’s arms snapped around her waist.

Fidella whinnied, a competitive sound that made Cassandra grin, and went straight into a gallop after the conman’s gelding. Leaning forward slightly to work with her steed, Cassandra glanced up into the sky, correcting course to follow Owl as he made sure to lead them on the easiest path across the country.

“Are you following that bird?!” Riccardo yelled incredulously, struggling to make himself heard over the wind and the thunder of hoofbeats.

“That’s my bird, he knows what he’s doing!” Cassandra yelled back over her shoulder.

“I really hope I’m not about to regret teaming up with you!”

“Don’t worry! We’re catching up!”

And they were, if not quite fast enough, if at the cost of Fidella’s breathing slowly growing ragged under the added weight of a second rider clad in far heavier armour. Cassandra ground her teeth, trying to gauge how much longer they had, but then noticed that Riccardo only had one arm around her waist now—he’d managed to unhook the crossbow from his hip, and with a one-handed hold, he was aiming at the escaping conman.

“Pull her left!”

Cassandra did, veering Fidella just slightly off course, trying to line up Riccardo’s shot without losing too much ground. She heard the halberdier hold his breath before releasing the trigger, and watched the bolt whiz past the conman’s ear, causing him to duck his head and look over his shoulder with fear in his eyes.

“Fuck!” Riccardo braced the crossbow against Cassandra’s ribcage, and she pressed her elbow to its other side to hold it steady without being asked to as he tried to reload from over her shoulder. Glancing between Owl, the conman, and the crossbow, she was mildly impressed to see that Riccardo succeeded in the attempt, and leaned her head away as he snapped the crossbow up again. “Left!”

This time, the bolt hit its mark, causing the conman to scream and wobble on the back of his horse—and after a moment, lose balance and fall off over the side. Cassandra pulled on Fidella’s reins, letting momentum carry them to where the pretend Bayard hit the ground and was currently keening in pain; Riccardo slipped to the ground the moment they caught up, tossed the spent crossbow into his left hand, and drew a long dagger with the right to open the conman’s throat before he had the time to beg for mercy.

“Clean,” Cassandra commented as she pulled Fidella around. “Good shot, too.”

Riccardo nodded at her. “You set me up for it, and set him back on the escape before that.”

“I couldn’t have done it alone, could I?” Cassandra patted Fidella’s neck, then dismounted. “See if you can bring the skittish guy back, please.”

Snort, Fidella said, and trotted off after the conman’s steed at a leisurely pace.

Owl had meanwhile swooped down onto Cassandra’s shoulder, and was giving the halberdier a very scrutinizing glare. Riccardo cleared his throat, visibly uncomfortable, and nudged the conman’s body with his boot as he hooked the crossbow back onto his belt and cleaned the knife before sheathing it.

“Right, so. You have the medallion, and gave him the sword, and he’s been saying there was supposed to be a third one?”

“I can’t tell if that was for real, or just part of the scam,” Cassandra said honestly. “Did he have any papers when you were working for him?”

“Oh, loads.” Riccardo knelt down beside the corpse and started going through his pockets. It only took a moment for him to toss a flat satchel of waterproofed leather to Cassandra. “Kept them in here, too.”

Cassandra opened the satchel. It was full of loose pages, some looking like scrawled notes, some like slightly crumpled letters, all stacked next to a small notebook bound in stained leather. “That’s a fair bit. I’ll leaf through all these, you look for the sword?”

“Gotcha.”

She sat down in the grass and started with the notebook, starting with the most recent pages. It wasn’t much of a journal, at least in comparison to what she was familiar with, filled with mental shortcuts rather than full sentences, the handwriting a chicken scratch that almost doubled as a cipher. The pages were each only slightly larger than her hand, and she managed to get through one—describing the acquisition of an object, the hiring of a bodyguard, the setup of the excavation ruse, and the original encounter with herself—before Riccardo let out an impressed whistle.

“Holy shit, I see what you meant, this would make for a kingly gift.”

“This seems to say that there was in fact a third one,” Cassandra indicated the notebook. “And that he found it before you and I even showed up?”

“I’ll keep looking... in a minute.” Riccardo lifted the Ingvarrdian sword against the sun, marvelling at how the light played against the faceted topaz in the pommel. “Fuck, but it’s beautiful. You sure it wouldn’t be okay to carry after ditching the scabbard and prying the gem out?”

“Don’t think I haven’t thought about it.” Cassandra turned a page.

She heard the halberdier sigh deeply, and sheathe the sword. “Yeah... It’s too small for my tastes anyway.”

“Hand-and-a-half more your speed, huh?”

“Ah, I like my bastard. What’s a mercenary without a bit of a bastard? Besides, if I were to fight with something this expensive, I’d probably start pulling hits trying not to nick the weapon and get myself killed like an idiot.” Riccardo tossed the masterwork sword to her, and Cassandra caught it without looking. “You’re right about the art on the scabbard, by the way, that’s definitely Koto on one side and Bayangor on the other.”

“Yup.” Cassandra gave up on the notebook when it seemed to detail earlier scams, and started going through the loose papers. An imprecise map, scrawled in a drunkard’s shaky hand, of what must have been the mines, she realized after a long moment, with the southernmost—collapsed—shaft marked with an X. An old bounty letter with a sloppy portrait of a thoroughly unremarkable young man, wanted dead or alive for theft, and notes scratched on the other side about the man having been last seen fleeing into Wolf’s Head Hollow. Another bounty notice, but newer, and far less specific. “Hey, look at this. Looks like Equis is promising rewards and royal favour to anyone who brings lost treasures to the king... it doesn’t specifically say 'treasures stolen from the Seven Kingdoms', but it sure doesn’t say otherwise, either.”

“Does it say what order of magnitude with monetary rewards?” Riccardo asked.

“Nope.”

“Then it’s bullshit like pardons and titles and everything else that can be taken away once you’re inconvenient again. Figures.” The halberdier shook his head, giving the dead conman a look full of distaste. “You know what, now I kinda want to see these sent to Koto, just to spite this fucker more.”

Cassandra chuckled. “Good, I was going to push you for returning these to Koto anyway.”

“You from there, too?”

“No, Corona.”

Riccardo looked up at her. “Then what’s your stake in this, anyway?”

“I don’t have a stake.” Cassandra folded an uninteresting page behind the rest, examining the next one. “It’s just going to cause the least trouble to have these go back where they came from.”

“No, I mean this is choosing a side between Equis and Koto, who are at war over this region, in case you haven’t noticed.”

“Oh, I’ve noticed,” Cassandra said darkly. Then stayed quiet for a moment, considering how to answer. “I don’t know. Corona’s allied with Koto, so might as well lean into that. And I don’t like the Equisian king. So there. Koto it is.”

Riccardo raised his eyebrows. “What, like you met the king of Equis?”

“Not personally, no, but I heard enough first-hand accounts to have an opinion.”

“Hm.” The halberdier eyed her for a long while, as if trying to gauge if she was being serious, then went back to searching the scammer’s corpse. A long while passed in silence. “Hey, I found the third one! Or at least, I think so. But it certainly looks royal.”

Cassandra looked up from the papers, frowning. “How does it look 'royal'?”

“Useless and expensive,” Riccardo said dryly.

Cassandra couldn’t help a laugh at that. “You’ve got that right.”

The halberdier walked over, carefully carrying something small in both hands, and sat down in front of Cassandra to show it to her. The third treasure turned out to be a glass sphere, mounted on an ornate flat surface serving as its base. The inside was filled with a thick, transparent, colourless liquid, and strewn with what looked like silver shavings and diamond dust laying in an unreasonably thick layer along the bottom, drifting gently with each movement. And along the bottom, profiled like the surface of the ocean, two small boats bobbed along the painted waves: a Kotoan gondola and a Bayangoran sampan, both carved from what seemed to be whale or walrus ivory.

“What even is this?” Riccardo asked, his tone dripping disapproval for this amount of expensive materials used up on something that didn’t even have a practical purpose. “Fake fortune-telling ball?”

“I think it’s called a snowglobe.” Cassandra overturned the glass orb and shook it, upsetting the glimmering snow, then set it upright again to watch the silver and diamonds drifting down all around the orb’s interior.

“What’s it for?”

“Looking nice? I don’t know, there isn’t a point to them.”

Riccardo sighed. “Who even makes these?”

“I think this one’s Galcrestian,” Cassandra said, looking at the ivory boats and the carving of the waves. “But in general, I don’t understand either, it’s the most useless thing I’ve ever seen. Not to mention one of the most expensive.”

“Well, at least the royal wedding gift theory holds.”

“It does.” Cassandra pulled out the Bayangoran medallion, and laid it out in the grass next to the Ingvarrdian sword and the Galcrestian snowglobe. “So, we’re gonna get these back to Koto, right?”

“Right,” Riccardo nodded. “This level of expensive is way out of my league, I don’t want this kind of trouble. Sellsword work is more my speed.”

“You’re from Koto. I’ve only read about it,” Cassandra said simply. “Is there a surefire way to get something to your king?”

Riccardo scratched his cheek. “I mean, I can only think of one.”

Cassandra sighed. “No.”

“Sending back the gear of a dead witch-knight.”

“Oh, no.”

“You went to Wolf’s Head Hollow, right? Is that guy’s gear still there?”

“Probably.” Cassandra pinched the corners of her eyes with her withered fingers. “I just really don’t want to go back there.”

“What, it’s that haunted?”

“It’s less about the ghosts. Ghosts are fine, for the most part, when they can be reasoned with. It’s that the witch-knight’s war hounds are still...”

Riccardo stared at her incredulously as she trailed off. “What, alive?”

“They didn’t look alive,” Cassandra admitted, “but they almost ate me all the same.”

“Okay, good thing that wasn’t ominous as fuck.”

Cassandra chuckled despite herself. “It could work, though. Packing the treasures into the witch-knight’s armour.”

“Yeah, if we pull that off, we could just heap it all into a crate and trade it to a Kotoan merchant heading home,” Riccardo said. “Taking back something like that is a certain ticket for a one-time royal favour, like a tax break or a monopoly on some goods for a while, so a lot of those merchants would pay good cash for this kind of privilege. Split it halfsies and we’re good.”

“I’d pack this guy’s documents and a letter to explain, as well, but otherwise it sounds solid... as long as we can get the witch-knight’s armour. Which is the part that I really don’t want to do, but I don’t have any better ideas.” Cassandra looked up at the sound of Fidella calling out, and stood up to wave at her. The mare was leading the pinto gelding back, she noticed. “Let’s get this guy’s harness back, so we don’t have to both ride Fidella, and head off.”

The halberdier gave her a flat look. “The fuck do I look like, a cavalryman? What am I gonna do with a horse?”

“Sell it?”

“You make a compelling point.”

Cassandra looked over her shoulder at the conman’s dead body. “Are we doing anything about that?”

“Ah, let him rot.” Riccardo lifted a belt with a small money pouch and an all-purpose knife. “Already got everything worth the trouble from him.”

She considered as she gathered up the treasures. “I guess the foxes won’t mind an easy meal.”

“It’s what he deserves, really.”

By the time they made it back to the mesa and retrieved the gelding’s tack and harness, Cassandra noticed that the workers topside had broken camp and left, no doubt having witnessed the brief chase and their employer’s death at the hands of his hirelings. Given that how skittish the pinto gelding was, and how unused to riding horseback Riccardo was in turn, Cassandra decided that it would be better for herself to ride the gelding and for Riccardo to ride Fidella, for now, and steered the group back towards Wolf’s Head Hollow.

The fog that still suffused the area, and the ward of painted riverstones cinched around it, came into focus by the late afternoon. Cassandra broke the silence then.

“I don’t want to go in there after dark. Let’s make camp and prepare for tomorrow.”

“Man, this place really has you spooked, doesn’t it?” Riccardo said, curious rather than mocking.

“Let’s just say that if you hear dogs—like, really big dogs—run for the edge of that circle of stones and don’t look back.” Cassandra turned to Owl, who was still perched on her shoulder, and had consistently kept the halberdier in his field of vision. “Fly perimeter, please.”

Hoot, Owl said, and took off as she boosted him into the sky.

Riccardo stared. “How do you even do that?”

“What?”

“Talk to your horse and your bird like that?”

“It’s a Coronian custom,” Cassandra lied in a deadpan tone. “You see anywhere suitable for a campsite?”

Riccardo pointed towards a relatively nearby mesa, looming in the distance. “Is that a watchtower up there?”

“Yeah, it’s alright as long as you don’t mind sleeping next to a corpse.”

“I’ll pass, thank you.”

They settled for making camp in the middle of the open field, in the end, letting Fidella and the pinto gelding graze nearby. Mercifully, the morning’s rainclouds seemed to have blown over during the day. Cassandra rubbed at her withered arm, mildly painful still, and felt at her split fingernails through the glove; there seemed to be a little more give than normal, a slightly too-wide range of movement, and she left the hand alone. There would be time enough for dealing with that later, in the privacy of being accompanied only by Owl and Fidella again.

With including Owl in a three-person watch order, Cassandra managed to get enough sleep to be reasonably rested in the morning, if with her withered arm having grown stiffer and the ache in it more persistent. She noted that Riccardo looked similarly refreshed, and after checking together that the three treasures were still in their places, Cassandra turned to brave the roiling mist.

“Alright, you ready?”

“Judging from the look on your face? Probably not.” Riccardo slung the halberd across his shoulders like a water-bearer’s stick. “Let’s go.”

They walked into the fog, the red paint on the riverstone ward flaring twice as they crossed into Wolf’s Head Hollow. With the old battle’s detritus thick under their feet, Cassandra was walking slowly again, taking care not to step on bones if she could avoid it at all; eventually, she noticed that Riccardo had followed suit, although treading respectfully evidently hadn’t been his first concern. Difficult as it was to navigate in the mist, she was reasonably sure she was keeping a direction well enough, and that she hadn’t walked past any particular landmark twice. She did make her way to a familiar spot, however: a faded banner with one of the royal Kotoan wolfhounds and a fir tree, half-surrounded with a pile of Equisian corpses and pushed askew by the falling of a body in a squire’s gambeson stained rusty brown with the blood spilling from a severed throat. Cassandra came to a halt, taking a moment at the Bayard banner again, then looking around, straining to see through the fog.

“You lost?” Riccardo asked, visibly set on edge by their surroundings.

“No, just thinking,” Cassandra said calmly. “What do you know about witch-knights?”

He shrugged. “Only hearsay and common knowledge. I’ve never really met one, only saw them in passing once or twice.”

“Tell me.”

“Hell of a place you’ve picked for ghost stories.” Riccardo sighed. “I’ve heard they can conjure up fire and lightning to destroy their enemies. I’ve heard they can talk to the dead and always know if they’re lied to. Each trains two war dogs and rides something that may have been a horse, once. Each carries a lance they use both as a weapon and as a focus for their sorcery. They’re nearly impossible to defeat in combat, even without taking the magic into account, and they’re fanatically loyal to the crown.”

Cassandra pointed towards a slim shape rising from the ground for at least eight feet, too slim to be a tree, from where she stood under the Bayard banner she had paid her respects to a day ago, as the mist seemed to part slightly for her. “Lances like that?”

Riccardo looked, and confirmed with a nod. “Let’s go grab that, find the armour, and get out of here.”

“I don’t think it’s gonna be that simple.” Cassandra fell silent as they approached the lance, the thicker shape of a helmeted severed head looming atop it through the fog.

Fog that seemed to thicken around them now.

Fog that seemed to emanate from the lance, and the head, outwards all throughout the hollow.

Fog that was now, in the silence between the two trespassers, echoing with a laboured two-toned sound: a rasp, a huff, a pause. A rasp, a huff, a pause. Repeating, endlessly, and in an unsettlingly familiar pattern.

“Oh, heavens.” Riccardo sounded like he was about to be sick. “Tell me you don’t hear that.”

“It’s breathing,” Cassandra said with a calm she did not feel.

With each exhale that the severed head took, more mist billowed out from between its clenched jaws, puffing through tears in the decayed skin pulled taut over the cheekbones, filtering between the teeth. Cassandra looked around, swallowing hard when she realized that the sightlines around the lance dwindled from the twenty, twenty-five feet elsewhere across the hollow to ten, maybe twelve feet in every direction. The morning sun was barely a hint of a glimmer overhead, turning the fog opaque, serving only to blind them further. The sound of any life that continued on beyond the hollow’s edge did not make it this far in, as if the fog was blocking even that, cushioning the old battlefield against any reminder of the passage of time, of the world that kept turning, regardless of any fates and lives that met their end here.

“Now I really wish you had a better idea than this,” Riccardo said weakly.

“Let’s get this over with, already.” Cassandra stepped up to the lance and laid her withered hand against it.

The fog immediately turned freezing cold. The severed head’s rasping breath was drowned out by a monstrously deep growl, coming from two different directions somewhere out of sight. Riccardo took a step backwards, keeping back-to-back with Cassandra, clutching his halberd in front of himself protectively. Cassandra suppressed the instinct to draw her sword and ready herself for a fight—this was not a fight that could be fought, only lost, along with both their lives—and instead strained to see through the icy mist, any hint of movement, any shape or sound.

Vultures. Hyenas. Grave robbers, a voice echoed out from the fog, as sourceless as it was hateful. Another faithless brood come to steal from the dead? Speak your last words before I add your bones to the pyre of my troops!

Oh, this was bad.

Cassandra drew a deep breath, and yelled out, “I carry the mark of the heiress to the throne of Corona! State your needs, servant of Koto, so that I may fulfil them in the name of alliances that bind our kingdoms together!”

CORONA HAS NO HEIRESS! a roar came right against her ear, and when she flinched away, she found herself staring right into the furious face of a translucent man in his forties, a thin line of silver circling his neck where his head had been cut off, his helmet profiled like the jowls of a snarling wolfhound and its lifted visor deformed enough to entirely obscure one eye after a heavy crushing blow. Your king’s only child was stolen from her crib in infancy, and shame on him for doing nothing to secure a clear line of succession!

“She was found less than three years ago,” Cassandra shot back steadily. “Taken by a witch and sequestered in a tower throughout her youth and adolescence, she has escaped her captor and returned to take her rightful place within her kingdom, and soon enough, upon its throne.”

The witch-knight’s remaining eye narrowed. Cassandra shivered with a hiss through her teeth when he pulled his right hand—or what remained of it, a shapeless mass of mangled steel and splintered bone—through her healthy arm and the favour tied around it.

You speak the truth, knight-errant. The ghost seemed surprised to even admit that. Then, however, his baleful one-eyed glare shifted from Cassandra’s face to over her shoulder, to where Riccardo still stood frozen in place behind her. And you? I see your heart, oath-breaker. I know the names of your misdeeds. I may stand still among those who walk past me into the beyond, but do not think they go silently. I hear your name carried on the wind of their cries, and the names they give you—traitor, murderer, thief—today you’ve come to rob one time too many.

Unable to think of anything else, Cassandra extended her arm to the side, blocking the ghost’s approach to the halberdier. “I will vouch for him.”

For him? the ghost spat the words like an insult. You would stake your honour on the conduct of a man who has none? By what will you guarantee him?!

“I will guarantee him by the fact that he had erred once,” Cassandra recited, the memory of studying a Bayangoran treatise years and years ago rising clearly to the forefront of her mind, otherwise emptied with fear. “And so he will take care not to err in the same way again. If we were to find a use only for men who are blameless, then useful men could not be come by, for who among us can claim to have made no mistakes?”

Hm. The dead witch-knight cocked his head at her, one side of the gaping wound that circled his neck widening slightly against the motion. Well-principled and well-read, to cite a common ally’s wisdom at me. Heed my words, servant of Corona: choose your companions more carefully, and leave those unworthy of the favour that shines upon you to face the consequences of their own misdeeds.

Cassandra forced herself to unclench her teeth, already ground at the sound of being called a servant again. “I’ve known thieves who gave away their treasure troves once they were given to freely. I’ve known a traitor whose allegiance was true under the lies she had been fed, and whose betrayal had saved her sovereign’s life. I will stake my honour upon that of my companion—and trust that I won’t come to regret it.”

The ghost sniffed, giving her a thoroughly unimpressed look, and leaned away. Very well.

Cassandra slowly let out the breath she was holding, and folded her hands at the small of her back, settling into a neutrally official posture. Riccardo’s hand came against her left elbow, and she turned to look at him.

“Thank you,” the halberdier mouthed at her, careful not to make a sound, his eyes still wide and forehead still dripping with sweat under his helmet.

Cassandra nodded at him, letting herself look as scared as she felt for a moment, before looking away again and snapping her game face back on.

In any event, the dead witch-knight spoke up again, motioning the living two to follow him in an inviting gesture of offering a tour around the hecatomb ground of a battlefield under their feet as if it were a nobleman’s estate. To what do I owe the pleasure of your presence in the place of my unrest, knight-errant?

“My companion and I have come to inquire after your armour and the privilege of returning it into the hands of Koto, my lord, if it pleases you to permit such an endeavour,” Cassandra said formally. “In exchange for a labour performed in your stead, of course.”

It shames me to have an ally from across the border witnessing my armour in such a state, the witch-knight sighed as gestured to himself—the caved-in helmet, the cloven breastplate, the partially crushed left greave, a dozen or more crossbow bolts scattered all through his chest and legs. Even as a ghost, he walked with a heavy limp, leaning hard on a massive two-handed sword with a flamed blade as if it were a cane, and concealed his mangled right arm in the folds of a rich cloak billowing behind him as if against a hot wind. However, there is a task I would charge you with, and permit you to have my armour returned to rest among those of my fallen brethren upon its completion.

“What is it?”

The ghost came to a halt and stabbed the flame-bladed sword into the ground more firmly, then leaned against it with his right elbow and put two fingers of his only hand with fingers remaining into his mouth to let out a modulated, trilling whistle. Rastaban! Kuma!

Cassandra fell very still as the growling reverberated through the freezing-cold mist again. This time, however, when the monstrous wolfhounds came, they came in a walk, and with no malice burning in their eyes. This time, one sat down at the ghost’s feet and lolled out its tongue, and the other laid on its side, unable to sit with the broken-off swords and spears protruding from its coat.

Look at what they’ve done to my boys, the witch-knight said, his voice cracking with tears. I can’t bear to watch them like this, yet I can’t ease their suffering, either.

“What would you have us do, my lord?” Cassandra asked slowly, a cold sense of foreboding settling in her gut.

Take out what causes them pain, and burn it down. The witch-knight gave her a resolute stare. Then, and only then, will I lead you to where my armour lies.

Cassandra looked at Riccardo, who gave her a nod and a shrug, still clearly rattled quite deeply with just about everything that was going on. Then she turned back to the ghost. “With respect, my lord, it is very difficult to find our way across your domain, and to burn anything down we will have to start a fire. May I ask that you scatter the mist a little, so that we can gather up firewood without getting lost?”

The witch-knight narrowed his eye at her suspiciously, but after a long moment, he did raise his left arm and beckon at nothing with two fingers. The thick fog whooshed away as if scattered by a powerful wind, clearing out from all around them in about an eighty-foot radius, locking Cassandra, Riccardo, the ghost, and the hounds in an arena of clear visibility. I am watching, knight-errant.

Cassandra bowed her head and stepped away, then turned to the halberdier. “Come on. Anything that looks like it’ll burn.”

“Yeah, no, that’s– yeah. I swear to high heaven and low hell, next time someone as serious as you says they don’t want to go somewhere, I’m gonna stop pitching the idea of going, immediately.”

“I didn’t have a better idea, did I?” Cassandra picked up a few pieces of a long-broken barrel.

Riccardo stared. “How are you staying this calm, with all the ghost shit happening?”

“Ghosts are the easy part. They’re—” Cassandra sighed. “They can’t do anything. They’ve failed one time too many, and there’s nothing they can do about it anymore, all they have left is just... waiting, until someone else shows up, and hoping for help they may not even remember how to ask for. You and me, we’re alive. We can always try to do another thing right. They can’t. And it’s keeping them here, driving them crazy.”

When her withered hand flared with pain again and another piece of reasonably dry wood slipped from Cassandra’s grasp, Riccardo motioned her to give him the pitiful scraps of firewood they could find. “You know we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation if you hadn’t argued him like you had.”

“I know.”

“That was, um...” the halberdier cleared his throat awkwardly. “That was a lot.”

“It’s fine.” Cassandra tossed the remains of a kite shield at him. “I already killed four people since this started, and watched you kill the fifth. I think it’s enough already.”

“Yeah, when you put it that way.” Riccardo pointed her at what seemed to have been a small cart or wagon once, and started helping her pry out the moss-covered boards. “So... knight-errant to the Coronian princess, huh?”

“She’s a friend,” Cassandra said without thinking. Then shrugged. “Mostly. Or was. I don’t know.”

“That good, huh?”

She sighed again. “When it was good, it was great, when it was bad...”

“Oh,” Riccardo said when she didn’t finish. “That kind of a friend.”

“Yeah,” Cassandra admitted reluctantly. “What about you? Oath-breaker, huh?”

Riccardo made a disgusted noise. “So I deserted from the army, so what? I didn’t ask to get conscripted in the first place. Not into the infantry, anyway.”

“No? Where would you have rather gone?”

“Siege engineer corps. Spent half my life studying for that.”

“So that’s how we didn’t kill ourselves on that pulley.”

Riccardo chuckled despite himself. Then glanced briefly at Cassandra’s right arm, and motioned her back to where the ghost and the monstrous hounds were waiting. “You take the hedgehog, I’ll take Mr. Skewers?”

“Deal.”

Under the witch-knight’s unsettling scrutiny, they managed to get a small fire going, then knelt by a monstrous wolfhound each. Cassandra placed one hand over the messy, blood-clumped coat, and took the shaft of an arrow sticking from its flank into the other, immediately eliciting a thunderous growl.

Calm, Rastaban, the ghost said firmly.

The growling subsided momentarily. Cassandra held her breath and pulled the arrow out, causing the wolfhound to yelp in pain, then tossed the arrow into the fire. The stench of burning flight feathers filled the air. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Riccardo watching, then carefully bracing a foot against the other monstrous hound’s flank and pulling out a spear, only to break it over his knee for good measure and toss the halves into the fire as well. The weapons seemed to burn more easily than the firewood itself—arrows, crossbow bolts, swords, spears, javelins, axes, the fletching curling up in the matter of seconds, the hafts and hilts cracking in half like a log put into a fireplace, even the metal shrivelling away like a dry leaf placed against hot coals as the witch-knight glared silently into the flames. And with each weapon removed, the giant monstrous wolfhounds seemed to lose their monstrosity. Their teeth started resembling those of a mundane dog. Their size dwindled to normal. Their coats faded from the tangle of darkness and shadow into something smoother, if just as insubstantial, until Cassandra was gathering up arrows by the handful with no flesh to be torn up by pulling them out anymore, and Riccardo was picking out shards of broken sword-blades and spearheads from the soil between the other hound’s ribs. With nothing left to cause them pain anymore, the wolfhounds turned out to be nothing more than any other corpse along the battlefield: dead, and long-decayed into a full set of skeletal remains.

My boys deserved a kinder end, the witch-knight said quietly.

“They’re free now,” Cassandra told him. “Will you follow them?”

The ghost gave her a patient look. I shall not rest till war is done, knight-errant. If one who is a sibling-in-arms to me lays rightful claim to this land and brings it back into the fold of Koto, then and only then will I find rest, knowing that my oaths are unbroken and carried forth in another’s hands. He stepped aside, then, causing the mist to reveal a headless and partially crushed corpse on the ground behind him, clad in destroyed plate and pierced with multiple arrows, not unlike one of his hounds had been. Take my armour and my lance. See them returned into the hands of my King, that my brethren may know I await them.

“What of your mortal remains, my lord?”

I am Étienne of Koto, the dead witch-knight said calmly. Whatever man may have lived in those bones had given his life away on the day I was sworn into service to the crown. They matter none, and have not since, not beyond being a tool to move my soul and advance the will of my King.

Cassandra bowed her head in a sharp motion, trying to ignore the dismayed look on Riccardo’s face and the deep sense of understanding that statement had invoked from inside her own heart. “As you say, Sir Étienne.”

She waved the halberdier forward, and together they managed to disassemble the pitiful remains of the suit of plate from the desiccated corpse. When they stood up to pull the lance from the ground and take it along with the deformed wolf’s head helmet, the ghost was gone, and the severed head had stopped breathing.

“I hate this place so much,” Riccardo said serenely.

“You can say that again.”

The halberdier pointed at a familiar massive two-handed sword with a flamed blade, laying on the barren soil nearby. “Do we take that, as well?”

Cassandra paused, unsure. Then shrugged around the armful of plate. “Sure, why not?”

With a sigh, Riccardo managed to sling the weapon over his back next to his halberd, then took the lance in one hand and tucked the cloven breastplate under his other arm. “Where to next, o servant of Corona?”

“Don’t call me that.” Cassandra heaved the rest of the plate suit in both arms. “Silberstadt, maybe? We need a merchant to take these to the court of Koto for us. And a box, I guess.”

Riccardo indicated the eight-foot-long lance. “More like a coffin. After I break this thing in half.”

“You know what, packing all of this into a coffin is gonna be the least morbid thing I’ve done this week.”

Chapter Text

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

“You sure you don’t want any help?”

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

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

“I can work with that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll remember that. Thanks.”

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

“I think I’m gonna go take a bath.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It turned out to be an unexpectedly complicated endeavour.

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

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

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

“That took a while. You good?”

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

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

Hoot, Owl aquiesced easily.

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

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

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

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

Her second full moon out of Castle Corona.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds fair.”

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

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

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

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

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

May it please Your Majesty and Your Eminence,

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

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

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

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

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

Remaining in faithful service to the Seven Kingdoms,

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Married?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, he had a cart.”

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

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

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

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

“Are you some kind of sorceress?”

Cassandra stiffened. “Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

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

“You got a better idea?”

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

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

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

Snort, Fidella said confidently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fame and fortune,” Cassandra deadpanned.

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

“Where on earth did you get that?!”

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

“But by all means!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still heading deeper into Equis land?”

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

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

“You as well, and good luck.”

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

Hoot, Owl commented.

“No, I hadn’t expected that, either.”

Snort, Fidella said.

“I think he was okay, too.”

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

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

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

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

“Can I help you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How is she doing?”

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

“Enough of it, do you think?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We could fix the roof,” Bruno said.

“And the windows.”

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

“And replace the rotten bookcases.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But really though, thank you.”

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

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

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

Hoot, Owl said pointedly from the rafters.

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

Hoot, Owl confirmed.

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

Over the next days, Cassandra settled into a comfortable routine, however temporary it was going to be. Wake up in the Brazen Brigand’s stable, make sure all of her belongings were accounted for, break fast at the tavern’s countertop, head to the clinic and spend the day helping in renovation work there, take Fidella out for a run in the afternoon, check back in before sundown. Whether it was carrying stacks of wooden planks or baskets of roof shingles, shifting the family’s belongings from one room to another, chiselling off crumbled plaster or placing fresh layers after scrubbing the mould, bringing some new—if simple—furniture from across town or chopping the rot-free sections of the old into firewood, there was always more to do, and at the end of each day she found herself exhausted yet accomplished. On the third morning, she realized that Sebastian, the Brigand’s owner, was charging her less for the stable and the food; she didn’t say anything, and he didn’t either, but a sense of understanding and respect fell into place between them. On the fifth evening, Teagan, the job board’s minder, took a seat next to her and asked after the scammer who’d pretended to be a Bayard—and upon hearing that she and the 'devil-may-care halberdier from Koto' had teamed up to murder him and split the profit, he burst into delighted laughter and hailed Sebastian to buy Cassandra a drink, as promised. The Ingvarrdian fletcher and the Neserdnian smith came to the tavern every few evenings, greeting Cassandra with a lazy two-fingered salute and a simple nod respectively if they caught her eye, and she would nod back at each of them without engaging any further.

She managed to fend off the clinic family’s concern, each time she’d grimaced in pain or had to rest her withered arm, with a claim that it was an old injury long since as healed as it would ever be, simply painful from time to time—all of which was true—and politely refused to have any of the three look at it. The Moonstone’s magic was a power older than kingdoms and nations, and more than that, a power now gone; with the herbalist family’s field of expertise being firmly the mundane kind of ailments and injuries, as she was able to glean over the time spent in their company, it would bring no solutions and only needless worry to ask their help in a matter they could not help her with. She did, however, ask for advice and assistance with restocking her first-aid kit for whenever she would return to the road, and among some other items she had little or none of, she was gifted two rolls of silken bandage—for burns, she was instructed, to keep them clean and protected from the elements without sticking to the burned tissue like linen wrappings would. She’d given her thanks, knowing how much of an expense the gift must have been in a region well away from any source of silk trade, and spent the same evening with one end of the bandage in her teeth, trying for hours upon hours to wrap her withered hand and forearm in the thin, smooth, cool-to-the-touch fabric, each finger separately, a few extra passes around the wrist, the ends eventually tied together in a flat knot at the outer side of her forearm, everything double-checked and triple-checked to make sure it was loose enough to not cut off circulation to those parts of her arm that still had circulation. When she donned her reinforced glove again, it fit the wrapped hand a little too snugly, constricting the already diminished range of movement and feeling too tight when she checked with two fingers of her left hand, so she visited the furrier’s store—or what remained of it, the beautiful shop sign askew on the single intact chain and scarred as if with blows of an axe, the display window boarded up in the absence of replacement glass, significantly less wares and materials remaining inside. The furrier himself, no less devastated than his livelihood, seemed to slowly regain a semblance of hope when Cassandra handed her reinforced glove over and asked after having a second one made, but measured for her hand with the wrappings included, and when his tentative request for most of the price upfront on the account of his workspace’s sorry state was met without a word. A few days later, he found her at the Brazen Brigand when she was having her evening meal, and informed her happily that he was having the smith replicate the reinforcements. A few days later still, the furrier proudly presented her with the completed glove, and with a bit of surprise Cassandra had to admit that it was better than the original one—not only slightly larger to accommodate for fabric wrapped around the withered area, but lined with soft fur that would help cushion any impact a little more, and with the reinforcements at the fingertips, back of the hand, and circling the forearm replicated perfectly but with having accounted for the overall difference in size.

More often than not, now, she was getting recognized, whether in the tavern, in the streets, or in the town’s vicinity when taking Fidella out for the afternoon—by the merchants she had given business to, by the Brigand’s regulars, by the craftsmen she had ran errands to with Eliza or Bruno. And by the guards, who kept a careful eye on her, and made sure that she wasn’t gallivanting across Silberstadt unsupervised when none of the family of herbalists was with her. Oh, it wasn’t that she was being followed, not exactly. But it sure was curious how everywhere she went, there was at least one guard, and how they never seemed to make eye contact.

She was building a reputation, Cassandra realized, and could only shake her head at herself for not realizing sooner. Coupled with how she purposefully kept speaking with a Coronian accent, and how she never took off the favour tied around her left arm, it was no wonder that Equisian guards would grow wary of a knight-errant of the Seven Kingdoms growing popular in an area they had been shakily contesting against one of those kingdoms for decades or more.

“That’d do it,” Eliza commented one afternoon, when the four of them settled down for the clinic family’s habitual teatime. “I don’t know how anyone in their right mind could expect this town to launch an uprising, but aside from that, you do look like someone who might lead one.”

“I suppose having the ruler change every few months might be a circumstance that culls the number of valiant patriots,” Cassandra said dryly.

Eliza laughed and shook her head. Emil stroked the back of the griffincat curled happily in his lap.

“Why, there is quite a number of patriots here. Most of them, especially the valiant ones, in the ground.” He stilled his hand when Gadwall yawned broadly, then started scratching under the griffincat’s chin. “I’ve lived here all my life. I have yet to see patriotism that can feed a family or save a life. All it has ever done was put more people in a sickbed or a shallow grave.”

“I realize it might be hard for you to see,” Bruno indicated the gold-trimmed kerchief on Cassandra’s arm. “But it doesn’t matter which colours the tax collector is wearing, he still takes our money. It doesn’t matter which banner the soldiers are carrying, they still injure people and trample fields. The more things change, with who is flying their flag off our walls, the more things stay the same—lords and generals take, no matter the side they fight for, and we have to make it through the winter with what we have left afterwards. Maybe it’s different for a knight, but for simple folk like us, there’s just nothing to inspire being loyal to.”

“No,” Cassandra said slowly. “I can think of a few times I did something for someone else, or gave something up for someone else’s benefit, out of a sense of loyalty. And in the long run, it helped neither of us that I had done that, even if there wasn’t really anything else I could have done.”

She took a bit longer on Fidella’s daily exercise run, later that evening, thinking and trying not to think simultaneously. Everything she used to want, she had been holding in her hands by the time Varian was arrested—not only a place on the royal guard, but a place leading the royal guard, an officer proven capable of stepping up during the castle’s defence and of commanding a counterattack afterwards—and as soon as she had finally gotten it, she was laying it down to follow Rapunzel out of Corona, somewhere her whole life of trying to prove herself worthy of being on the guard would no longer matter. That one moment of recognition, back home, that one instance of being entrusted with responsibility was only made into a mockery over the months of travel that came afterwards, any meaning it could have held bleached away with never being listened to again, never being trusted with anything again, not even something as simple as a request to keep the group together instead of letting members stray far enough to get separated and lost. And when she did return to Corona, the Moonstone’s power crackling at her fingertips and well-deserved fury enveloping her heart and Zhan Tiri’s machinations shrouding her better judgement, it was to find Eugene in the uniform of the Captain of the Guard—something she scarcely dared to dream of having one day, one beautiful day, and oh how easily it was tossed to someone else, someone who didn’t even want it, someone who wasn’t her and therefore could just as well have it.

Cassandra shook her head at herself. It hurt, and turned her bitter, to even revisit those thoughts again. It served no purpose to dwell on them again. But they were only as persistent as they were because they weren’t untrue. And more than that, it wasn’t untrue either that maybe if she had chafed more, maybe if she had pushed back more, maybe she wouldn’t have been walked over as thoroughly as she had been. Maybe if she had tried harder or more often to set a limit and insist on it being respected, then maybe not even an irrepressible free spirit would have been able to ignore it and breach it as thoroughly as all of her limits had been disregarded, pushed against until they shifted, and even after that simply violated without ever being acknowledged. But then again, as soon as she thought that with resignation, came the memory of the one time she tried to push back more firmly, and was put in her place twice over, hours before her dominant arm burned up in searing cold.

Talking could accomplish nothing without being listened to. Earning respect was impossible if none was there to be given. No friendship could subsist on only one side working and yielding and making allowances. And it had been good for Cassandra, now even more than the first time over, to leave.

She pulled on the reins to turn Fidella around and returned to the tavern, where an evening meal and a night’s rest awaited her. And after wrapping the blankets around herself for the night, she took a moment to wind the sounding cylinder that was all that remained of a music box, letting it lull her to sleep filled with dreams she could not remember, but left her feeling vulnerable and exhausted, by the time she woke up.

When she made it to the clinic in the morning, she was caught off guard by the sight of a horse hitched beside the door. A chestnut, his entire coat heavily dappled with age, with three white socks and a star on his forehead. Cassandra squinted at him slowly. She had seen that horse before, and not too long ago, she was sure of that.

“Is there someone new who needs help?” she asked Eliza as soon as she saw her.

“No, Tara has a visitor,” the herbalist’s daughter replied, taking the question of a greeting in stride. Practical and to the point; she had to be the one Cassandra liked the most, out of the family of three. “Which reminds me, she asked to see you. By name.”

Cassandra frowned slowly. “I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone called Tara.”

“Funny how that works out, because we haven’t told her your name, either.”

“Ah.” Cassandra made sure that her daggers were within easy reach, and shifted her sword from her back to her hip. “Well, if you hear screaming or a scuffle...”

Eliza nodded calmly, without a word, and watched her ascend the staircase to the only room with an occupied sickbed. When Cassandra heard a soft murmur of voices, she did them the courtesy of knocking, and pushed the door open.

“I’m told you asked after me?”

“Yes, I did.” A pale, haggard-looking Kotoan woman slowly sat up in bed, her face contorting into a grimace at the effort. Her legs were encased in a heavy splint each, as was her entire right arm and the left’s lower half. Both of her hands were wrapped up into thick bundles of bandage and herbal cataplasm, heavy bruises were partway through fading all across her face, one of her eyes was still wrapped over and her only visible ear carried the tell-tale signs of frostbite. Despite the evident pain she was in, she managed to crack half a grin. “Excuse me if I don’t get up.”

“I don’t believe we’ve been introduced,” Cassandra said calmly.

“No, we’ve not met, but I know who you are. Congratulations on your pardon.” Tara’s eye flicked to the kerchief wrapped around Cassandra’s left arm, and a look of surprise passed through her face. “...And more than, I see.”

Cassandra looked between her and the only other person in the room: an unshaven man in travel clothes, standing on the other side of Tara’s bed, light brown skin and bright blue eyes and soot-black hair shorn close to the skin at the sides of his head. Mixed Kotoan and Ingvarrdian heritage, Cassandra guessed.

“Ramon,” he said, voice scratchy with disuse, as he nodded at her in a greeting. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. Forgive the shady circumstances of this meeting, but I wasn’t aware we’d show up at the same time.”

“What do you want?” Cassandra asked, folding her arms across her chest, hands kept away from her weapons for now.

“I want to know whether there’s still any love for the Seven Kingdoms in your heart.” Tara’s voice dropped into a harsh, demanding tone, made no less sinister by the sorry state she was in.

“Yes,” Cassandra said firmly, without having to think about it.

The two Kotoans exchanged a look. Tara nodded at Ramon, who then leaned down to pull a wooden chest from under the bed and started digging through it.

“I’m sure you know by now that Equis and Koto have... conflicting interests in this area.” Tara was speaking a little more quietly now, but in a clipped tone that Cassandra knew well from hearing guards giving reports to her father. “My associate and I are here to advance those of the Kotoan Crown and thwart any other, which at present means a necessity to apprehend four condemned criminals. They escaped justice before they could be executed, and have continued to rampage across the land, most recently finding their way here.”

While she was speaking, Ramon had pulled a set of wanted posters from the chest and extended them to Cassandra, who took them with a frown. A square-jawed Ingvarrdian with a set of claw scars down one side of the face, the eye snow-blind and discoloured underneath. A bald, bulbous Pittsfordian baring jagged teeth at whoever had painted the portrait in a hateful grimace. An unassuming Bayangoran, wearing some sort of elaborate headband that looped around his head multiple times to secure a pair of bovine horns to his temples, an eerily vacant look on his face. When Cassandra looked at the fourth poster, of a man with salt-and-pepper hair pulled into a thin braid and a round goatee, lips curved into a sardonic smile, and a glint of avarice in his eyes, she felt her own expression freezing into one of murderous calm.

“I take it you recognize the shame of your own kingdom,” Tara commented.

“I know of him,” Cassandra allowed, keeping her tone steady.

Where normal people told ghost stories, the royal guard told stories of the worst people they’ve apprehended, the most stomach-churning crime scenes they’ve seen—and of the scariest people they’ve failed to bring to justice. Casimir the Sorcerer featured proudly in all three categories; sentenced to death for serial murder, multiple abductions, and aiding and abetting in numberless other crimes ranging from jailbreak through highway robbery to murder again, he had initially been tried after getting dragged out of a simple basement turned into a blood-soaked nightmare, the fragmented remains of no less than five different people strewn across magical contraptions and circles scribed with symbols of power. The guard who had been on jail duty when the sorcerer escaped from arrest would swear up and down, even years afterwards, that he saw the man slitting his own throat, and when the resulting explosion of arcane smoke and light had dissipated, the sorcerer was nowhere to be seen and another citizen who had been missing for weeks appeared out of nowhere in the cell instead, bleeding out from a slashed throat before the guard could get them help.

“He leads the other three, and appears to command some modicum of loyalty among them, not just fearful obedience,” Tara said in the same clipped, impersonal tone. “Their crimes are no less foul than his own. There is no one in the world who deserves to die more than these four degenerates, and I want you to carry out the sentence and bring back proof of what you’ve done.”

Cassandra gave the brutalized Kotoan agent a long look. “They’re the ones who did this to you, aren’t they?”

“You must understand that this is more than a simple vendetta. If these men aren’t apprehended, they will continue to violate and murder anyone they come across.” She paused, and inclined her head in an acquiescent gesture, lips pressed into a tight line. “And yes, they’re the ones who did this to me, because my attempt to execute them with less-than-forthright means went miserably wrong—I can poison, spy, and assassinate, but I am not a fighter, and I have no control over the guard here while the town is flying Equisian colours. You, however, are one of the finest warriors of Corona and the adopted daughter of the captain of its royal guard. You have the strength and the experience necessary for this task. Any supplies I have left that could come in handy are yours—whether to use or to keep, your choice, and some of them rather illegal—any intelligence myself and my associate have about these criminals is yours. Do this deed, return safely, and bring proof of each execution, and I will notify all of the kingdoms involved that each bounty is rightfully yours, and give you any information you ask for that I can give without earning a treason charge of my own, as well as a token that will open the gates of every Kotoan town and city to you for as long as you bear it, or could be exchanged for an audience with any local aristocrat, leading military officer, or knight of the Tribunal Order. And you will have done me a personal favour—one I hope to be well enough, in time, to be able to repay.”

Cassandra stayed silent for a long while. She should say no. Going after the sorcerer alone would be a suicide mission even if he didn’t have the other three around him, whoever they were. With four of them and one of herself, and Owl too far away to watch her back, she’d be lucky if she ended up in a neighbouring bed, hovering on death’s door for days on end. And if Koto could afford its spy network to extend to places that were technically beyond its borders, then it could afford sending one of its own great warriors after those four. All of these were perfectly good reasons, and Cassandra knew she could only come up with more if she thought about the situation any longer, for why she really should say no.

“I want you to brief me and show me those supplies of yours before I decide,” she said with a sigh instead.

“Reasonable,” Tara nodded as she settled back against the headboard, both of them aware that the decision has already been made. Sweat was beading along her forehead, above her upper lip—the conversation was tiring her out, and profoundly. “I doubt I could tell you more about the sorcerer’s crimes than you already know. He did something with each of his companions, I believe, something that turns them stronger or more capable. And he carries a walking stick that he never parts with—its head is curved, like with a shepherd’s crosier, with a small crystal hovering inside that spiral. I don’t know what it does, but it might be prudent to not find out.”

“Agreed.” Cassandra showed the Kotoan agent the Ingvarrdian’s poster. “Tell me about this one.”

“Hogni Galdrsbani, known out of Ingvarr as Hogni the Barbarian. It’s a wonder he keeps the sorcerer’s company, since he was originally sentenced for challenging any Ingvarrdian chanter he came across to single combat, fighting them to the death even after a yield, and outright murdering those who refused to fight him—which should tell you just how dangerous he is. Ingvarr treats practitioners of magic as mighty warriors or wise sages, as figures of authority, and blocks those who don’t practice that magic from performing some of the more important social functions. That of the Queen included.” Tara mimed dragging fingers down the side of her face, however she could with a partially bandaged face and with fingers bundled up along with the rest of her hand, imitating the claw marks on the criminal’s face. “Don’t let the scars fool you: he does not have a blind side. The sorcerer’s doing, I imagine. He tends to favour a very nasty two-handed sword whenever he can, but when that isn’t possible, he will use any weapon available or improvise one. I’ve seen reports of him bludgeoning a grown man to death with a chair, a stone, and the other man’s own belt buckle, in particular.”

“Charming.” Cassandra pulled out the Pittsfordian’s poster. “Him?”

“Detlev Dreisternen, better known as Detlev the Ogre—”

“Wait. How did a Pittsfordian get nicknamed 'ogre'?”

“I take it you’re familiar with how some Pittsfordians are... rather short, and rather stout?” Tara waited for Cassandra to nod. “Same proportions, but eight feet tall.”

“Oh.”

“He is a dimwit, and a hedonistic one. It matters little what he’s doing or who he’s killing, as long as there’s a creature smaller than himself that he can squeeze and pull at until it makes yet another delightful little noise. I don’t think he even realizes his own cruelty—he strikes me as too childish for that—I think that in his mind, animals and people are just toys, and the world is an ever-rebuilding diorama that replaces those toys unto infinity. So he breaks them, because it makes him happy, and because he can.”

Cassandra pulled out the last remaining poster, that of the Bayangoran. “What about this guy?”

“Tassos the Minotaur. Champion pankratist for multiple years in the national Bayangoran games. When he lost the title, he challenged the new champion to an official rematch, and was disqualified for life in the process. I don’t know how familiar you are with pankration—it’s a martial art that combines boxing, wrestling, and more. It is usually performed naked in the games, and has very few rules, but it does prohibit gouging out eyes and biting. Tassos had broken the latter limit to result in the disqualification.”

“And it was a disqualification for life because...?” Cassandra asked slowly, even thought she felt like she’d regret it.

“Because he didn’t just bite his rival. He tore out a chunk and swallowed, and then just kept going, essentially eating his opponent alive,” the Kotoan agent said in a tone studiously devoid of emotion. “I’m told he still does that sometimes, and might regard it as a way of absorbing the strength of whoever he beats in such a way. He is an abhorrent creature, half-feral and half-philosopher, finding justifications for acts like that in a grand universal theory that revolves around himself only, entirely at peace with every next atrocity he convinces himself is his heavens-given right to commit.”

“What’s the thing that the sorcerer did with him?”

“I don’t know. And I don’t recommend getting close enough to check while he’s still breathing.”

“So, to sum up,” Cassandra said slowly, and gave a small shake of her head, incredulous at how this conversation was going. “You want me to go up against a sorcerer I’ve grown up hearing horror stories about, a specialized mage killer, an eight-foot-tall cheerful sadist, and a cannibalistic grandmaster of a very brutal martial art. Alone. And kill them.”

“And bring back proof of their deaths,” Tara reminded, and turned to her companion, who stood silently beside her throughout. “Ramon, give her the chest to look through.”

With assistance from him, Cassandra pulled the chest across the floor, and opened it on her side of Tara’s bed. A few layers of clean if rather worn clothes overtop, some personal effects, a dog-eared book—and beneath that, neatly arranged pouches and strongboxes and a lidless cassette stacked with well-padded flasks and vials. Experimentally, Cassandra took out one of the pouches, and found it full of caltrops.

“What do you recommend?”

“Poison your weapons,” Tara said calmly as she gestured to the vials, “score one good hit, and run like hell. Don’t fight them with honour—they have none, and will laugh at the courtesy rather than repay it. Don’t sleep within a day’s walk of their campsite. If you kill one and cannot kill another, run. If you kill two and the others stand against you together, run. If they split up and you don’t know where even one of them is at any given time, run.”

“Your advice on how to fight them involves a whole lot of avoiding the fight,” Cassandra said with a frown.

The brutalized Kotoan agent gave a weak laugh. “I can’t advise you how to fight—I’m asking your help, not anyone else’s, because you know how to fight well enough, yourself. Any advice I can give you is going to be that of a spy: lie, cheat, steal, and survive. The mission isn’t over until you come home. And while you’re my last hope for executing any of them before they cross deeper into Equis, where they will likely turn into hired swords against my kingdom’s soldiers and supply caravans, there’s a saying where I come from that translates to hope kills more people than war. I would rather like to avoid having to explain how I got a Coronian knight-errant killed and strung up like a smoked partridge.”

“Okay, enough with the metaphors. Looking at you is enough.” Cassandra tied the bag of caltrops to the side of her belt. “Which of those vials are poison that works the fastest?”

“Through an injury? Lower-mid row. Second from the left has a paralyzing effect, and a well-coated dagger will deliver enough to cause respiratory arrest within the day if it isn’t neutralized. Third from the right needs a much larger dose than a single hit with a blade could deliver, but if you have a few dipped and ready, and manage to drop about a teaspoon’s worth into an opponent, he’ll be dead in hours.”

Cassandra took both, and raised her eyebrows when she read the labels. “I thought that possession of crested rattlesnake and emerald-eyed cobra venom was a capital offense in the Seven Kingdoms. All of the Seven Kingdoms.”

“And you think anyone who confiscates outlawed substances lets them go to waste?” Tara asked with a tired smile. “The bottom row is anti-venoms. Take those as well.”

Cassandra did so, and picked a vial of fine whitish powder that had to be ingested to take effect from the cassette of poisons for good measure. Then she asked her way through the rest of the Kotoan agents’ kit, taking a few smoke bombs, a few crackers entirely loud enough to spook horses when lit, and a small jar of invisible ink that turned phosphorescent in the presence of magic—and began to glow, the entire supply of it, when Cassandra took the jar and when she was tucking it into one of the satchels threaded along her belt, causing both of the agents to stare in suspicion. By the time they were done going through the chest, a knock came against the door.

Ramon hastily signalled Cassandra to hide the chest. She threw the decoy layer of personal belongings back into it, snapped it shut, and shoved it under the bed before calling out, “Come in!”

The door opened, revealing Eliza. “You two’ve been in here long enough. Tara, you need to rest.”

“Heavens, do I,” the brutalized Kotoan sighed. “But this is important. We’re almost done.”

“You can be done later. Ramon, Cassandra: out.” Eliza lifted a hand when Tara drew a breath to protest. “No. Lay back down before you fall over. You two, out, now.”

“He can tell me where to go,” Cassandra tossed over her shoulder as she exited the room.

Tara gave her a searching one-eyed look. “You’ll go, then?”

“I’ll go.”

Thank you,” Tara said with feeling, and slowly lowered herself back onto the mattress, pain mixed with relief playing across her face. Eliza gave her bed a quick once-over and came into the room, closing the door behind herself, a muffled murmur of admonishment sounding as soon as she did. Cassandra looked at the other Kotoan agent, who was copying a section of a map onto a separate sheet of paper with speed and accuracy that spoke of extensive practice.

“They’ve been holed up in a farmhouse for about a week now, but it’s running out of livestock to slaughter and people to torment. This evening or the next one, they’ll be moving on, I think—and while they travel on foot, they make a lot of ground each day, so go immediately or not at all.”

“How did you stay alive through keeping tabs on them?”

“Telescope,” Ramon said dryly. “I kept a distance of at least six hundred yards at all times. Also, I have a horse. You’ll need one as well, to catch up and to get away.”

“I have one.”

“Good.” The agent of Kotoan crown handed the copied map to her. “One last thing. If you don’t come back, how long do you want us to wait before we send condolences to your kingdom’s court?”

“You don’t do that until you find me dead,” Cassandra told him sharply. “The last thing I need is to rush because I’m worried I’ll have to explain a too-hasty death notice.”

“That’s fair. Good luck, Coronian. Don’t die.”

“I’ll try not to.”

Ramon nodded at her, and walked down the stairs to leave the clinic. Minutes later, which Cassandra spent studying the map copy he gave her, Eliza exited the patient room, closing the door again as quietly as the newly-oiled hinges allowed.

“I didn’t think we’d take quite that long,” Cassandra indicated the room with a sideways nod. “How is she?”

“Worn out to the bone, but a little calmer, and asleep already.” Eliza slowly leaned away when she saw the look on Cassandra’s face. “...Are you okay?”

Cassandra cleared her throat, tucking the hand-drawn map away. “I need to leave for a couple of days. I hope it won’t be too much of a setback to the work here.”

“I mean, we’ll feel that you’re gone, you’ve been a very big help,” Eliza said cautiously. “But overall I think we’ll manage.”

“Good.” Cassandra nodded goodbye at her. “I’ll return when I can.”

She walked out of the clinic without waiting for an answer or for more questions, heading across the market square past the job board, straight to the Brazen Brigand, to get Fidella and get to the task at hand.

Cassandra cursed at herself silently. The job board.

Take jobs from anywhere other than the job board, get blacklisted from the job board.

She was going to have to move towns eventually, anyway.

But nevertheless, she walked into the small brick building, returning Teagan’s greeting of a raised hand wordlessly and pointing to a screened-off section of the wanted posters that made up one-third of the board. “Why are these behind a glass?”

Teagan looked up. “Oh, those? It’s because while there’s an outstanding bounty for those people, it hasn’t been put out by anyone who’s here to pay it. So there’s no taker’s fee, but if you were to bring one of those marks in, you’d have to bring proof of doing that to me, then I’d give you the poster, then you’d take the proof and the poster to an official a town over and argue about getting paid there. Why, are you thinking about going after blood money?”

Cassandra gestured at the familiar faces of the sorcerer, the barbarian, the ogre, and the minotaur, displayed in a neat row among the multitude of posters. “It’s a four-in-one.”

“Are you suicidal?” Teagan asked incredulously. “The fuck happened to starting small?!”

“Guess I’m not as smart as previously assumed,” Cassandra deadpanned, and walked out of the building.

Okay, so at least she wasn’t going to have to move towns immediately after.

When Cassandra entered the Brazen Brigand’s stable, Fidella greeted her with a surprised little nicker.

“I wasn’t planning on being back so soon, no.” Cassandra started saddling the mare. “Something came up, and we have a very dangerous job to do.”

Snort, Fidella said pointedly.

“We can’t wait for Owl. There’s not enough time.”

Fidella tossed her head at that.

“I don’t like it either. Listen, we’re outnumbered on this one. If I just charge in head-on, I won’t live to tell about it. We’ll have to be sneaky, use hit-and-run tactics, and stay very careful, and there’s still a very big possibility we’ll get really hurt. Are you still with me?”

Snort, Fidella said firmly, and put her nose to Cassandra’s shoulder.

“Good, because I need you for this.” Cassandra leaned her cheek against the mare’s for a moment. “Thanks. I knew I could count on you.”

And soon enough afterwards, the late morning found Cassandra on horseback, heading past the town walls and towards one of the nearby farms, map in hand and a satchel full of poison slung over her shoulder, chasing after certain death on the promise of seeing justice served—one way or another.

~*~

“You realize that for this to work, these defences of yours have to go,” Adira said patiently. “I’m sure they served you well in the past, but the threat you created them against is long gone. The time when you needed them is long over. And they’ve been hampering you, instead of aid or protect you, ever since.”

“I know.” Rapunzel sighed. “It’s just– it’s hard. I’ve built so much on this.”

“It’s a palace built on quicksand. Whatever struggle next comes your way, either it will collapse this palace and leave you with no shelter, or demand you put forth so much effort and time to keep it standing that you will neglect all matters to really need your attention.” Adira paused for a moment, taking in the resigned expression on Rapunzel’s face, and reached over to place a hand on her shoulder. “I know this must be very difficult for you, but it is not a difficulty you can’t handle. Don’t be afraid of it. Every bird must break through the egg’s shell before it can fly.”

Rapunzel felt a small smile curling her lips and finding its way into her eyes at the encouragement. She let it linger long enough to look at it, and past it, at the feeling that brought it forth—a glimmer of hope, a gratefulness for the expressed belief in her and her ability and her strength. And then she breathed, letting the reflex of falling on old habits pass, watching it fade like a raincloud against a bright clear sky, instead of follow it into grasping at that spark and blowing it up into a conflagration to shield her from the world of all she was ever afraid of, a wall of fire blazing too bright for anything bad, hard, or unsightly to still retain its shape, still show through.

It was a spark, and it was good enough as it was. It wasn’t much, and it didn’t have to be anything more. And beneath it, somewhere too deep to see without light, something she hadn’t dared examine for as long as she could remember churned into motion, no longer kept away with the fire.

Rapunzel took another deep breath, bracing herself to face whatever her heart and mind were conjuring up this time. “I think I’m ready.”

Adira inclined her head to her. “Then let’s begin.”

It was a simple ritual they’ve constructed. A bowl of sand, a stick of incense set upright within it, a quiet space that was outdoors if at all possible. The repetition of setting it all out every time, Adira had explained early on, was meant to associate a simple task with a certain mindset and a sense of calm, both of which would only continue to help with further sessions. And it was working, Rapunzel had found a few weeks in, without even really expecting it to.

Once the incense was burning, a thin wisp of smoke swirling through the air from it, they both shifted to sit more comfortably: Adira craned her neck to each side until the vertebrae cracked and rolled her shoulders backwards to loosen their harsh set, arms relaxed and hands laid flat over her thighs, while Rapunzel stretched her legs out in front of herself before crossing them as well, her feet under her knees, hands laced lightly with palms still open to the sky.

“Comfortable?” Adira asked, and waited for Rapunzel to nod. “Then close your eyes, and breathe deeply. Breathe in, and look at everything you’ve been needed for today and everything you’ll be needed for tomorrow. Breathe out, and close the door to it. Let all the colours pale, all the clamour quiet. Breathe in, and hold this growing stillness. Breathe out, and watch how it extends. Let it smooth out all else to nothing. You sit here with me, now, and this is what we’re doing. What can you hear?”

“Silence,” Rapunzel murmured, “and you.”

“What can you feel?”

“Motion. I think something is crawling to the surface, or trying to.”

“Are you afraid?”

“Yes, but I’m calm too. I know it’ll help to face this.”

“Then find the pool, and tell me what it’s like today.”

Rapunzel kept silent for a long while, trying, but each time she thought she could follow the stillness and silence into a place of calm that Adira had helped her build, a sick feeling loomed closer, dragging her focus away like a discordant note, a prick of a beetle’s leg, and she found herself having to relax a frown and unclench her teeth. “I– can you speak to me a little more? Lead me there again?”

“Okay.” Adira’s voice didn’t change, still the same grounding, steady tone it dropped into during every session. There was no surprise, no disappointment to be found in its sound, and Rapunzel leaned against that as if it were a load-bearing pillar in one of the castle’s halls. It was safety. It was soothing. And even that much unravelled some of the uncomfortable tightness in her belly, and made it possible to breathe deeply again. “Inhale, and exhale, and pause for a moment. Find the cadence of it. Focus on your body taking the air in—feel it cold against your nostrils, flowing down your throat, stretching through your chest and filling your lungs—then let it go, and let it take the tension away. Pause for a moment, and listen to the silence. Inhale, and let the air fill you to the brim. Exhale, and direct it to wherever you feel tension linger. Pause, and stay with how it left you. Inhale, and let the motion of it hold onto this peace. Exhale, and let the steam of it paint the pool before your eyes. Pause, and watch the reprieve of it pulling the image into focus. Inhale, and feel yourself standing before it. Are you there?”

“Yes,” Rapunzel murmured.

“Tell me what the banks are like.”

“They’re rough gray stone, the circle and the stairs, all a single piece of rock. Nothing grows around it, this time.”

“Tell me of the water.”

“It’s clear, but dark. I can’t see past the surface. Not warm and not cold either.”

“And where are you?”

“At the top of the stairs, next to you.”

“I am beside you, this entire time. You are not doing this alone,” Adira reaffirmed to her. “Now walk into the water with me, and tell me how deep we are heading.”

Rapunzel took a slow, deep breath, and imagined descending the carved stone stairs into the pool of dark water, with the knowledge of Adira’s presence at her side as real as the sun’s warmth and light even through closed eyes. “I’m underwater.”

“What can you see?”

“I can’t see anything. It’s too dark here.”

“What can you feel?”

“I feel motion again. It’s swimming next to us now.”

“Okay,” Adira said in the same steady, calming tone. “Why is it here?”

“Because I haven’t—” Rapunzel drew in another deep breath, if a little too quickly, if frayed around the edges this time. “I haven’t kept it away. We talked about how I have to stop doing some things that I keep doing without thinking about them, last time, and I haven’t– I haven’t forced myself to feel happy since then. I guess it was behind that.”

“I want you to remember that this is not a monster. It can’t hurt you. It doesn’t need to be fought. It’s an image you’re giving to a problem, so that you can see it and solve it.”

“I remember.”

“Good. How do you force yourself to be happy?”

“I take whatever little thing I can find and I make it be more than it is. A beautiful morning, or a ray of sunlight letting me see the dust dancing, or a tasty meal I didn’t know I wanted to have—anything that’s nice but meaningless on its own—I take these things and I turn them into a reason for why there’s nothing bad about the world. I use them to be excited about everything, and not let anything get me down, not even when it’s a real problem.” Rapunzel sighed against the weight of the day’s unpleasant realization sinking onto her shoulders. “...I use them to fireblind myself so I don’t have to see the real problem, especially when it’s one I can’t fix. So I don’t have to feel sad or angry or hurt instead.”

“Tell me what it does with those more difficult feelings.”

“They– it pulls them out of focus, but they don’t go away. They just fester under the surface. Rot just out of sight. They lose strength eventually, but they still don’t have an outlet, and I think– I think they only ever get resolved if I lose my temper soon afterwards, and it’s an accident if they do. They just lie there forever if I don’t.”

“Tell me what kind of problems you’ve used this against.”

Rapunzel swallowed as her throat tightened at the memories. “When Eugene and Cass were arguing all the time, long before we met you. When Cass didn’t want to talk to me, after the Great Tree, and I was trying to force her to. When Cass left with the Moonstone, especially.”

“Was it a new thing for you to do, the first time it happened in a situation like that?”

“No.”

“Then think of when you were doing it without a problem like the ones you’ve described to me. How did it protect you?”

Rapunzel stayed silent for a moment, surprised with the question, and dismayed with the truth of an answer as it began to unravel before her closed eyes, as ugly as a bandage ripped off an old unhealed wound and just as painful. “It helped make people like me. When I came out of the tower, I was excited and happy, but I was scared, too. If people liked me, then they wouldn’t want to hurt me, and I’d have nothing to be afraid of. And I think I’m going to cry again.”

“That’s okay, let it flow if you need to.” Adira’s voice gentled a little. “Was it a new thing for you to do then?”

“No,” Rapunzel admitted, and heard her voice break.

“How did it protect you before then?”

“It helped make me easier to ignore. If I made myself look stupid and naive, then it was easier to feel stronger and bigger against me, and harder to be angry with me and take it out on me. It helped to keep me safe because it made me look too weak, too small, to be treated seriously or to think I was strong enough to disobey. It kept me from being screamed as often as I could have been.”

“Do you still do that?”

Rapunzel nodded, hands unlaced now and wiping tears from her face. “I apologize a lot even when something isn’t my fault, so that people aren’t angry with me. And I do it in a way that keeps them from being harsh to me, even when I deserve it or when they have a reason to, because it would make them feel bad about themselves if they were.” She took a deeper breath, trying not to cry anymore. “I don’t think I like that very much about myself.”

“You don’t have to keep doing it if you decide you no longer want to. I understand that it’s a habit, and that they can be difficult to unlearn, but difficult does not mean impossible. Are you still afraid people will hurt you unless they like you?”

“No. Yes and no. I know there will always be people who’d be happy to see me hurt, and that thought is scary, but I know that it’s not my fault, too. I don’t have to make everyone like me. I’m strong enough to protect myself, and I’m not alone. I have friends and loved ones who’d never want to see me hurt.”

“Are you still afraid of people being angry with you?”

“No, not as much. I know it’s not a punishment, not anymore. And I know that sometimes—” Rapunzel’s voice faltered a little again. “Sometimes I hurt them, even if I don’t mean to. And if it gets me to stop doing that, then getting angry at me is a good thing.”

“Then you don’t need this anymore. It served you well enough when you didn’t have healthier ways to cope, but you do now, and it’s time to lay this one to rest. If you could tell your younger self one thing about this, what would you say?”

Rapunzel took a moment, letting the thought crystallize within the place of peace she had built for this with Adira’s assistance. “...It’s okay. You don’t have to be afraid.”

“Take a deep breath again.”

Rapunzel did, and felt relief flow through her along with the air.

“Tell me what the water is like now.”

“It’s a little clearer. It’s not as dark around anymore.”

“Do you still feel motion?”

“Yes, but from far deeper down, and I don’t think I’m ready to go there yet.”

“Okay. Then walk up the stairs again, and tell me when you reach the top.”

With every imagined step upwards, the still and examining honesty drained away, and exhaustion of the effort came into focus. It was a good effort, however, and the satisfying kind of fatigue—that of having seen a job well done. “I’m ashore again.”

“Fold your hands at your heart, and lift it upwards. Thank the world for seeing you to this point; thank yourself for doing this, for your persistence in doing something hard and painful to help yourself.”

Rapunzel bent her back in a bow, and murmured, “Thank you.” Then she let her eyes open and turned her head, waiting. Adira always took a moment longer than herself at the end—sitting perfectly still with hands folded at the centre of her chest, before lowering her head and tapping the edge of her hands to her forehead as she mouthed the words soundlessly. “And... thank you, Adira, for doing this with me.”

Adira acknowledged that with a simple nod. “You are doing very well. You’ve worked hard on your honesty before yourself, and I’m glad to see you’re treating this very seriously.” She thought for a moment. “There is nothing wrong with finding small joys in life—it is strength, I would say, but not when taken to such an extreme as you’ve made of it. Try to let them be as they are, and enjoy them as they are, without making them be more than they should be. Then see how that leaves you, what that feels like, and we’ll come back to it next week.”

“Every time I think I understand just how badly I needed to work on my problems like this, another magnitude or depth comes into focus,” Rapunzel said candidly. “I couldn’t do this without your help.”

“Oh, you could.” A bit of Adira’s usual veneer began to flow back into place, with her airy tone and her little smile. “After all, you are doing this all on your own. I’m just holding your hand throughout.”

Rapunzel laughed a little, while Adira stood up without uncrossing her legs first, and took her extended hand to be pulled to her feet as well. “Same time next week, then?”

“I’ll be there. By your leave, princess.”

“Good night, Adira.”

They went their separate ways then—the old warrior going on a stroll along the battlements, Rapunzel heading back inside. She closed the terrace door behind herself and turned to see Eugene leaning against the wall where he was waiting for her, Pascal on his shoulder, and both their faces dropping into a look of concern as soon as they saw her.

“Did she make you cry again?”

“It’s not like that at all,” Rapunzel defended with a sigh even as she gratefully sank into the offered hug, a welcome reprieve from the hard emotional labour of the evening. She felt Pascal crossing onto her shoulder and pressing himself up to her cheek, and she tilted her head to lean against him. “And, yes, I cried again today, but only a little.”

“Look, sunshine, I know I pressed you to talk about your feelings before, but if this is driving you to tears every time...”

Rapunzel shook her head. “It’s okay. Really. She’s helping, and it’s not like she’s making me sad every time. I’m not crying because I’m miserable or hurt, it’s just... release.”

“Okay, I trust you.” Eugene took her hand as they walked through the castle together. “I just want you to know, if you decide that it’s too much or not what you need anymore, you just call it all off and no one will have the right to think less of you.”

“I know. Thank you.” Rapunzel fell silent for a long while. “...Still no word from Cass?”

Squeak, Pascal said with a gentle sadness. That and the resigned silence from Eugene told her everything she needed to know.

“I’m sure she’s okay,” he said when Rapunzel’s shoulders sank. “She was doing just fine when she was alone with the Moonstone and, apparently, the ghost of Zhan Tiri, for months. I almost feel like the next time you throw a party, she’ll crash it with her hair dyed a different colour and another magic sword.”

Rapunzel’s lips pulled into a smile despite herself. “It’s not her I’m worried about. She has Fidella and Owl with her this time, and I know she can take care of herself.”

“What are you worried about, then?”

“I think she just doesn’t want to talk to me anymore,” Rapunzel said quietly.

Eugene gave her a quizzical look. “You told me that you two said goodbye on good terms.”

“We did.”

“And that she promised to write you.”

“Yeah.”

“Then there’s no need to worry! It’s Cassandra, remember? She wouldn’t talk about her feelings if her life depended on it, and barely knows how to start a conversation at all!”

“Eugene, it’s been two months.”

“Okay, so she’s taking a little time, but when hasn’t she stalled when you wanted to ask how she feels? It’s still on-brand for Cass to be silent for this long, I mean, I’ve yet to stop reeling from when she said she missed me two months ago. And if she said she’ll write you, then she’ll write you when she’s good and ready.”

“I drove her away twice over now. Even if I did make her promise to write, I can’t hold her to it. I can’t act like she owes me anything,” Rapunzel said calmly. “If she doesn’t want me in her life anymore, then I have to let her go, no matter how painful it’s going to be.”

“Sunshine, I think it’s generally considered too early to start mourning while the person’s still alive. If Cass didn’t love you, she wouldn’t have said that she does, and she wouldn’t have waited to tell you and hold you before leaving. You haven’t given up on her when she was actively trying to kill you—I didn’t think I’d see you give up on her while she’s just on a trip.”

Rapunzel paused on that, taken aback. Then shook her head and found it easier to smile. “You’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“I do,” Eugene said gently. “You miss her, and horrid as it is to admit it, I do too! The castle’s so quiet without her grumbling and so empty without her marching around at a parade pace in that dress, and no one else tears their hood off in frustration quite the same.”

Rapunzel laughed softly at the memory. “Did you know she was always carrying at least one dagger under her dress?”

“She was what?”

~*~

If there was ever a time when she needed more daggers, Cassandra thought with frustration, it just had to be now.

The farmhouse had been empty when she arrived within line-of-sight of it. There was nothing left alive in any of the buildings or in their shared courtyard, she found after a brief sweep, no livestock and no people, only bones of the former and bodies of the latter. There was only an easy to follow trail of four sets of feet, dramatically differing in size and depth—a trail so easy to follow and so even-paced that Cassandra’s suspicious nature had her abandoning it soon enough.

The four did have a magic-user among them, after all.

And so she had found herself here, stabbing daggers into the trees, building a false trail that led to the headless blue-fletched arrow she had left among the dead leaves on the floor of the forest that the four outlaws had made camp in, not too far away.

Cassandra looked up at the sky. The night was still young enough. She could see four shapes huddled around the campfire, the barbarian having just returned from a firewood run, the sorcerer lounging idly with some sort of notebook or a tome, the minotaur tending some sort of evening meal bubbling in a large cast iron pot, the ogre chattering excitedly at his companions and drawing reactions that ranged from indulgent to irritated. They haven’t spotted her yet, she was pretty sure.

Rule one: turn your enemy’s strength into a weakness.

If she came into the minotaur’s reach, she would die. So Cassandra poured the emerald-eyed cobra venom into a leather mug that she was never going to use again, dipped two of the blue-fletched carrier arrows into the poison, and nocked one while putting the other’s shaft into her teeth. She kept patient, waiting for the minotaur to put his hands at the small of his back and stretch, the cooking pot hung far too low for a man of his height, and as soon as he did, she loosed. The poisoned arrow struck him two-thirds up the ribcage, not too far from the armpit, and he let out a sharp cry that was equal parts surprise and pain. By the time both him and his companions snapped to the direction the arrow had come from, Cassandra had the bow drawn again, and loosed the second arrow to hit the minotaur square in the belly.

He was dead, she thought in an endless split second of calmness, before she turned on her heel and started to run with the ogre’s roar and the barbarian’s bounding footsteps behind her.

“Go. Go!” she hissed at Fidella.

The mare burst from her hiding place and went straight into a gallop, heading away and to the right, while Cassandra split to the left and used her momentum to leap upwards and start climbing the tree she had picked out for this exact reason earlier. Lungs burning as she forced herself to control her breath and quiet it, hiding behind the trunk as much as she could and hoping that the outlaws stayed fireblinded from how close they had just been to their campfire, Cassandra watched the barbarian and the ogre chase after Fidella for a few seconds and then give up, realizing that they could not catch up with a galloping horse. She ducked her head as they walked back to the camp, where the minotaur was flat on his back and roaring in pain as the sorcerer was pulling out one of the arrows—and tilting his head in a puzzled expression when he found no head on its end. When he moved his fingers over the headless shaft with a murmur, Cassandra silently breathed a sigh of relief.

Coronian sorcery was either hedge witchery and simple herbal remedies, or the exploits of a bunch of Zhan Tiri wannabes—and she had spent enough time with the real deal to know just how malicious, arrogant, and self-centred their ideal was. If there was a possible magical explanation, no Coronian sorcerer was going to look for a mundane one instead, seeing how they held themselves and their craft in higher regard than the rest of everything in existence.

So she had used the magic-responsive paint to draw the symbols she remembered seeing on the Scroll of Demanitus along the shafts of her carrier arrows—the two she had shot the minotaur with, and the spent one she had tested against a bunch of scarf-wrapped sand a few days prior. Some of them were scribed wrong, she was sure, and they were not going to spell out anything but utter nonsense even if the sorcerer would be able to decipher it. But it would occupy his attention, maybe even serve to convince him that the arrows had been a magical device that released its power on impact, instead of simply a marvel of artisanal blacksmithing and a load of extremely potent venom.

She kept still, and waited, as the sorcerer seemed to argue with the barbarian and the ogre, and eventually sent them away on a perimeter sweep while he and the minotaur remained in camp, the sorcerer studying the arrow shafts and animatedly leafing through his tome. When she saw the two sent away pointing out the trail of daggers to each other, and both heading that way, Cassandra quietly slid down the tree and started sneaking towards the campfire, hoping to surprise the sorcerer from behind.

She didn’t quite manage to, given that the minotaur was still conscious, and called out an alert from where he was laying down.

“And what have we here? Another bounty hunter?” the sorcerer yelled gleefully as he parried Cassandra’s sword with that crystal-bearing crosier Tara had mentioned. He was entirely loud enough for the other two to hear, and come running, Cassandra knew.

She didn’t have much time.

“I thought what Tassos did to that Kotoan pest would’ve scared her off, but all right, then!” the sorcerer roared, humour rapidly draining from his voice and giving way to fury, as he struck out with the staff to punctuate each next threat. “I will divine your entrails—Detlev will eat your liver—Hogni will chop you up into tiny little pieces before you've finished twitching—and don’t even ask what my loyal Tassos likes doing!”

Fortunately, Cassandra didn’t need much time. Not with Coronian sorcerers being so arrogant and so convinced of their craft’s superiority, they depended on it to do everything for them. Including fights. And so, the best way to deal with a Coronian sorcerer was nothing other than to close the distance and hit him hard.

Each hit he launched was easy to see and easier yet to avoid. His weapon’s longer reach helped him none. Four parries was all it took, and on the fourth, she dragged her blade across his arm to drop the staff from his hand, then went straight for the throat, slashing it open so forcefully that she heard her sword creak against his spine.

“My regards to Zhan Tiri,” Cassandra snarled with her left hand at her temple in a gesture of mock respect, “useless and dead as you are.”

She swept up the staff and kicked the sorcerer’s body over just in time to see the ogre re-enter the clearing from the other side. And once again, Cassandra turned on her heel and ran instead of sticking around to find out just how loyal the other three were to the sorcerer, or what they would do to avenge his death. She heard the ogre roar as he started bounding after her, and she let out a piercing whistle, hoping to high heaven that Fidella has had the time to double-back already.

When a moment passed, spent on running like hell, and she didn’t hear hoofbeats sounding against the heavy footfalls behind her, Cassandra whistled again, growing desperate. There hadn’t been enough time. Anywhere she could hide that the ogre couldn’t fit inside, the barbarian was going to come in after her. Anywhere she could run to on foot, both of them were going to catch up to her. She had mistimed the entire thing, and it was going to kill her with their hands.

She should have never agreed to do this without Owl.

Cassandra risked a look over her shoulder. The ogre was about ten paces behind her, and with his own paces quite a bit longer than hers; significantly farther away, the barbarian was giving chase as well. Shifting the sorcerer’s staff under her left arm, she lit one of the Kotoan spy’s smoke bombs and spiked it into the ground before changing direction—the barbarian saw the entire manoeuvre, and gained on her as a result, but the ogre ran headlong into the smoke and smashed into a tree, still coughing and pawing at his face, instead of catch up and grab her. Breath growing ragged, Cassandra desperately considered her options: keep running and get caught later like a stag chased down by bloodhounds, or stand her ground and take her chances while there was still some air left in her lungs.

Then she heard a whinny, and felt her heart skip a beat, and let out a third sharp whistle as she ran towards the sound of hoofbeats.

Fidella barely slowed her pace for long enough to let Cassandra climb to the saddle in a leap, and broke into a gallop again before her rider could wheeze at her to. Two roars of frustrated rage tore up the night behind them, and Cassandra barked a cry of pain as one of her own daggers sank into her right shoulder. She looked behind herself again, and saw the barbarian straightening up from a throw.

“Take us to a road,” she panted at Fidella. “We need to stop leaving tracks.”

Two down, two to go, and her sword-arm out of commission. And anything else to be considered only after much-needed rest, if only a little of it, somewhere far enough away to be safe.

Chapter Text

After crossing onto a road, where Fidella’s hoofprints would drown amid the sea of tracks left by boots, horseshoes, and wheels, they continued to make ground for quite a while yet before the mare slowed down to a trot and veered off into the countryside again, looking for a place to hide. By the time Cassandra climbed down from the saddle, careful of her dominant arm now a source of pain and reduced functionality twice over, dawn had broken across the sky. Starting a fire was out of the question now; the smoke would be too easy to follow. But the cut in her shoulder was deep, and had only been jostled with the hours of horseback riding that had been required to get away. And she did have wound dressings suitable for burns now.

With a sigh, Cassandra started gathering firewood.

She only kept the fire alive until the offending dagger’s blade turned a dull orange against the flames, occupying herself in the meantime with trying quite fruitlessly to get the cut to stop bleeding. Burning the wound shut had been as thoroughly painful as expected, and in hindsight, Cassandra was glad she had shoved a roll of plain linen bandage into her mouth to bite down on beforehand. She heaped loose soil and sand onto the fire to smother it immediately after, and pulled the dirt-stained gloves off before spending a while with her second roll of silk bandages and trying to put a reasonable barrier of it between the now-burned cut in her shoulder and the clothes she was going to have to put back on as soon as possible, with the early morning chill gnawing through her chest with enough force to make her shiver and no source of heat to combat it. When she was done, she was still shaking, and quite certain that despite the very long and rather demanding day she’d had, the sheer pain of the injury would keep her wide awake.

Fidella laid down on the ground beside her, inviting her to nestle close with a little nicker.

“Thanks.” Cassandra winced at the croak of her own voice. “This went well enough, since I’m still alive and two internationally wanted criminals are dead or dying. But not stellar, seeing as I’m going to have a lot of trouble fighting now.”

Snort, Fidella said, as much a reminder as an admonishment.

“I know you told me to wait for Owl. I would have if I could.”

The mare sighed deeply, the sound reverberating through her broad chest.

“I don’t want to just let the other two go without trying. We’ll see if I can draw a bow after we rest a little; if I can, it can probably be done.”

Snort, Fidella said, resigned but not surprised.

“See, if I didn’t have that bag of tricks, I’d agree that it’s too dangerous to keep going after them. But I also wouldn’t have gone after them in the first place if my only option was taking them head-on and hoping I could get each of them to duel me one-on-one. I still have a few ideas. And the ones I’ve had so far did work out, if barely.” Cassandra put her healthy arm around the mare’s back. “Mostly thanks to you, though. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Fidella gave her a soft nicker, breath puffing with warmth against the side of Cassandra’s face and neck.

“I don’t want to find out, either.”

Despite expectations, she did sink into a shallow nap, surfacing again at every gust of wind, every bark of a fox, every cry of a hawk, every change of light as clouds crossed the sun’s path. Restless as she was throughout, the few hours of sleep were still hours spent sleeping, and restored at least a modicum of strength to her by the early afternoon. Cassandra shifted the belt of her scabbard between shoulders, making sure she could draw the sword with her left arm if she had to—she was nowhere near as good a left-handed fencer as she used to be with her right hand, back before they had crossed through the Great Tree, but at least it wouldn’t tear the cut in her right shoulder open all over again. She strung her bow, and drew it, and held for a few heartbeats before slowly easing the tension off the bowstring. It hurt, but it was doable. As long as she wasn’t trying to do it too much.

She headed for higher ground first, hoping to scan the plains from the vantage point of yet another mesa or ruined watchtower, however visible it would make her in turn. It took her a while, but she did notice two shapes trudging across the country—one of them extremely tall and bulky, the ogre’s silhouette recognizable even across a few miles of distance.

Her second destination was the outlaws’ camp from last night, although she dismounted before crossing into the woods, careful to keep watch for any trap the ogre and the barbarian may have left behind on the off chance she’d return there—and narrowly avoided a snare set a few steps from the burnt-out campfire. Cassandra signalled Fidella to stay a little bit behind, and crossed to where the minotaur’s body was still on his bedroll, both of the falcon-fletched arrows removed and each puncture wound now surrounded with a cobweb of blackened veins where the poison had impacted and spread only ever further though the carnage caused by fragmentation of the arrowheads. He was otherwise pale, cold, and unmoving, and must have died overnight.

Cassandra emptied the minotaur’s pockets, drawing a handful of silver and gold and a well-used foldable razor, then grabbed the corpse by the shoulder and hip and rolled it over face-down on the bedroll, before grabbing a coil of rope and wrapping the body up like a package, hefting it to walk back to Fidella, and slinging it across her back like a sack of grain. They wanted her to bring back proof of the executions? She’d bring back irrefutable proof.

In the process, she noticed that the elaborate set of headbands securing the minotaur’s namesake horns to the sides of his head, the one he was wearing in the wanted poster’s portrait, wasn’t there anymore. The horns were part of his skull as firmly as his cheekbones or eye sockets, now.

It did explain what the sorcerer had done with him, alongside the ogre’s size and the barbarian’s no-longer-blind eye.

She took a longer while with the sorcerer’s corpse, left behind and unburied by the surviving two as well. Sorting the tome and any unrecognizable trinkets separately from pocket money and personal effects of everyday use to deal with them later, Cassandra realized that she’d have to find a trustworthy magic practitioner to destroy these eventually, especially if she was going to keep getting into these kind of situations. She thought for a moment, and smiled darkly as she set to wrapping up the corpse of a criminal that her dad and the rest of the Coronian Royal Guard had been failing to catch and bring to justice for almost as long as she’d been alive.

She was probably going to keep getting into these kind of situations. More than that, she was probably going to love it.

Cassandra slung the sorcerer’s corpse over Fidella’s back as well, and paused, leaning against a tree and panting. She was still tired after last night, her injured shoulder was causing her considerable pain, and the blood loss had left her a little shaky on her feet, no matter how well she’d mitigated it. She looked up at the mare.

“Think you can carry all that and me at the same time?”

Snort, Fidella said with easy confidence.

“What am I saying. Of course you can.” Cassandra slowly climbed back into the saddle. “Let’s go find our little friends. Tail them from a distance for a while.”

Taking care to keep well away, she started following the only trail of two pairs of feet that exited the campsite without doubling-back. She didn’t spot the two on the horizon again—and only for the better, given that she was more visible on horseback than they were on foot—but around sunset, a divergence in the tracks caused her to dismount and take a moment.

Footprints leaving deeper indents in the ground, trampled all over a small area. A spray of blood, as if shaken off a sword-blade. A scuffle had taken place here—one that ended with the pair’s tracks separating, the smaller and steadier set continuing on, the deeper and shapeless set heading back towards Silberstadt.

Cassandra looked down the second set of tracks. Dim-witted or no, the ogre had evidently been smart enough to realize that Tara had survived their ministrations to send another executioner after them, and decided to rampage back in pursuit of revenge.

Once again, she did not have much time.

Thankfully, the barbarian seemed content to cut his losses with the deaths of his companions, and stayed on course straight for the nearest Equisian city. Possibly heading towards a port and back home to Ingvarr across the sea, hoping to maintain his reputation of chanter-killer. Possibly to stay within Equis, and broaden his challenges to every Kotoan witch-knight he could come across in this endless border dispute.

Cassandra looked at Fidella. “We can either go after three out of four, and let the barbarian cause harm elsewhere in the future, but more-or-less guarantee our own safety. Or we can go after four out of four, and ride overnight with three corpses and myself on your back, which is going to work me hard and you far harder, and is also far more risky. Which do you think we should do?”

Snort, the mare said patiently.

“You know full well which I’d like to do.”

Fidella dug a hoof against the soil.

“What, you want to hear me say it? Fine. I want to go after all four, but I can’t force you to do it with me. If you think you can do it, which, I won’t think less of you if you don’t, and if you’re down for it—” Cassandra broke off when Fidella whinnied at her. “I’ll make it up to you if we get out of this alive. Anything you want.”

She climbed back into the saddle and nudged the mare into a trot down the barbarian’s trail, moving forward more carefully in the low evening light. Shortly after, she spotted a brighter speck among the darkened landscape: firelight. Cassandra dismounted, and silently signalled Fidella to stay. She didn’t know much about Ingvarrdian practice of magic, but Tara had mentioned their sorcerers enjoyed renown as figures of authority and were held in high regard for both their wisdom and their power. And if the barbarian had made his reputation by killing such people by the dozen, then he would not be sitting next to a fire in the middle of the night when he knew that an executioner was stalking his associates and himself.

Making sure to move as silently as she could, Cassandra slowly scouted out the area in a wide radius from the fire, keeping herself low to the ground and taking care to never move into the light. And finally, when the sliver of a crescent moon was well past the zenith, she spied the figure of a burly man wrapped in some sort of blankets or furs, sitting slumped with his back against a rock outcropping, a massive jagged two-hander partially keeping him upright, partially cradled to his chest.

Cassandra went very still where she was. She knew the barbarian was an extremely formidable warrior. She knew he had a penchant for single combat. She noticed that he seemed to have a tendency to charge, trying to close the distance to an unknown enemy and engage in melee if at all possible, and he knew she had a horse and had used that to get away twice now—if he saw Fidella again, he’d go for her first and then deal with Cassandra once she wouldn’t be able to escape again. And she also knew that he used to be blind in one eye, until the sorcerer did something magical to restore his sight.

She reached into the satchel filled with the Kotoan spy’s tricks, and started scattering caltrops in front of herself, slowly crawling backwards as she went. Then she strung her bow and readied an arrow, quietly stood up, and pulled out the jar of magic-activated phosphorescent ink. Lightly tossed it up, caught it again, and threw it against the rocks above the sleeping barbarian’s head, shattering the glass to pelt him with the pieces and paint his head and face with ink that started glowing immediately on contact.

At that point, the barbarian had jolted awake. Cassandra gave him a jaunty wave, hoping it would be visible against the starlight, then turned on her heel and ran, not putting a lot of heart into it. She heard the man spring to his feet with a growl and heft up the two-hander, then yowl in pain and hit the ground with a heavy thud as he ran straight into the caltrops—which was her signal to whip around again, draw her bow, and shoot immediately, aiming right underneath the streaks of glowing ink. She heard a choking sound, and realized she’d hit the neck.

She also saw the barbarian rising to his feet, and realized she’d missed the spine.

With his now-glowing face pulled into a grimace of fury and focus, the barbarian sucked in a breath and held it, and charged again. Cassandra tossed her bow aside and pulled out her sword, only barely quick enough to parry, and with her feeble left-handed parry immediately broken with the sheer force of the barbarian’s blow, sending her staggering back. She ducked under another, and leaped backwards again to avoid the next, taken aback with the speed of his attacks, knowing that she couldn’t take a hit like that or properly block it, and as she scrambled for another tactic to try, she came up blank.

But he still had an arrow through the throat. All she had to do was outlast him, and not give him the time to pause and try to take care of himself.

The barbarian’s breath exploded from him in a rush, and he drew another, holding it again. Trying to take advantage from the momentary breach in his defences, Cassandra closed the distance and swiped at him. She felt her sword slide through flesh, but the barbarian did not make a sound, only retaliated—and while the giant jagged blade whiffed past her, the backhand with his left fist as he uncoiled from the miss did not. Cassandra staggered back with a grunt, clutching at her face, and had to throw herself to the ground to avoid the next hit, rolling back to her feet across her injured shoulder to leap away again, trying to ignore the blinding flash of pain.

It wasn’t only that the barbarian could see in his blind eye again, she realized finally as she tried to flank in the wan starlight and watched him keeping track of her as easily as if they were fighting under midday sun. The sorcerer had made him able to see in the dark.

Another bursting exhale, another held breath, and this time Cassandra kept her distance. He was starting to get wobbly on his feet, although he was doing an admirable job of putting the accidental bit of momentum of it behind his strikes. When he overextended with a wide horizontal slash of his two-hander, Cassandra threw herself down into another roll underneath, and put it into a leg swipe to the back of his knees. The barbarian went to the ground, the air vacating his lungs in a pained bark, and he seized up where he fell with a horrible, wet, choking sound. It still didn’t stop him from grabbing at Cassandra, finding purchase in her cloak; one yank, and she found herself on the ground as well, clawing frantically at his forearm and bicep holding her in a stranglehold. And with barely a split second to spare for shielding her head with an arm, the barbarian brought the two-hander up with his other hand and started slamming its guard down on her, hammering with all the strength he had left, causing Cassandra to scream when something in her withered arm cracked under the blows. She finally managed to grab the dagger he had thrown at her the night before when he choked again, to slash at his tendons and shove herself out of his grip, and kicked his good hand off when he tried to grab at her again. Cassandra moved another two steps away when the barbarian slowly rolled onto his side and up to his hands and knees, and watched as he immediately went down onto his elbows as he tried to breathe and seized up with a terrible wet cough again. Another wheezing attempt, and he collapsed back onto his side, and Cassandra closed the distance enough to kick him in the solar plexus, forcing the remainder of air out of his diagraph. She stood over him until he heard him stop breathing, making sure she’d be the last thing he ever saw, then waited a moment and put a foot against his shoulder to roll him onto his back. No response; his body went easily. She raised her left hand to put two shaky fingers into her mouth and let out a single-toned whistle, and watched the world lurch as her knees gave out under her and she landed on her ass right where she stood.

When Fidella trotted up, Cassandra was trying to wipe blood from her mouth and chin. Which proved considerably difficult, given that it was still flowing.

“Ugh.” She scowled at the sound of her own voice, and felt the pain radiating across her face spike from the motion. “I think he broke my nose.”

Snort, Fidella said with rather deep concern.

“I’m fine. Mind, I’m not great—” Cassandra grabbed at a stirrup and pulled herself to her feet with a grunt of exertion, leaning against the mare’s side to keep herself upright. “—and be careful, there’s caltrops over that way.” She gestured with her withered arm, and regretted it immediately. “Oh, that hurts.”

Fidella gave a worried little whinny.

“I know—just give me a minute, I need light—” Cassandra pawed through the saddlebags until she pulled out a torch and a box of matches. Any attempt at a solid grip on any of these with her right hand failed with a debilitating flare of pain, and she eventually succeeded by holding the torch in the crook of her elbow, the matchbox in her mouth, and the match itself in her left hand. Sitting down again, the torch now held between her feet, she pulled the reinforced glove off as quickly as she could, and found the silken bandage already soaking through with a liquid too thick and too dark to be properly considered blood. “Oh no. No-no-no-no-no—”

While she was frantically unwrapping the silk, Fidella laid down next to her to put the saddlebags within her reach, and Cassandra uncorked the flask of disinfectant with her teeth to pour its contents into a new and very deep crack in the withered area, running halfway up her forearm and forking at the wrist into two separate breaks over the back of her hand. It hurt, but in a very different way—a dull ache, somewhat like that of muscles seized up in a persistent cramp, clenched as tight as they could go for far too long a time—contrasting vividly against the pain of her broken nose or her injured shoulder, sharp and resounding in time with the pounding of her heart. She leaned closer to the torch, and experimentally wriggled her withered fingers, watching the motion pulling at the open crack’s edges. She couldn’t bend the fingers far enough to grip anything right now, not without widening the crack, and not without having to purposefully concentrate on it, given how much it hurt to even try.

At the very least, there was no fresh blood mixed among the thick, dark liquid oozing from her withered veins. The dead portion of her body and the living one seemed to have remained separate, with the wound not breaching all the way through one and into the other, and she didn’t have to worry about getting decayed tissue into her bloodstream, at least.

Assuming there was still something alive in her dominant arm, from fingertips to just under the elbow, in the first place.

Cassandra closed her eyes for a moment, a little queasy from watching the disinfectant turning the thick dark once-blood marginally runnier and easing it out. It was just disinfectant, easy enough to resupply on, and it was better to be safe than sorry.

Snort, Fidella said, unsettled.

“Trust me,” Cassandra said weakly. “Me, too.”

Once it stopped oozing through, Cassandra carefully patted the open crack dry, and wrapped the arm up again, making sure the already stained sections ended up well away from the gaping wound. Then she motioned Fidella to stay as she was, dragged the barbarian’s still-warm corpse over without using her dominant hand, and tied him atop the minotaur’s and the sorcerer’s bodies, then took his weapon for good measure and secured it next to her saddlebags, opposite of the sorcerer’s crosier.

“Okay,” she panted. “We need to head back to town, immediately, because I can’t tell whether the last one is going to march overnight as well.”

Snort, Fidella said pointedly.

“No. It’s too late. There’s nothing to go back on. He’s on his way, and we need to be too, or we won’t catch up in time.” Cassandra wiped the blood from her upper lip again. “Unless you’re the one too tired?”

Fidella stood up, as easily as if the weight of three adult men heaped on her back was nothing, and put her nose to Cassandra’s cheek with an admonishing nicker.

“I know. I know I’m a mess. But he’s going to be heading for the clinic.” Cassandra put up a hand, her healthy one, when Fidella made a sound like she was going to keep arguing. “Hear me out. He knows his friends are dead because they didn’t finish Tara off and she sent me after them. If she survived, then she’s in the clinic. So he’s headed for the clinic. The clinic is neutral ground. Whoever starts something around the clinic, everyone is supposed to help putting down—everyone, not just the guards, and you saw how many people in this town were carrying weapons.”

Snort, Fidella said, still unconvinced but at least willing to discuss.

“No, of course I don’t expect everyone to pitch in, not against that big a guy. But someone is going to, if not right away then after they notice me challenge him, and he’s going to take that challenge because he saw me last night right when I killed the sorcerer. I’ll probably be a big enough distraction for others to decide they want to exploit it. Especially with the bounty on his head. I just have to get there.” Cassandra took Fidella’s chin in her hands. “Please just get me there.”

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

“I know already said this, but I swear I’ll make this up to you.” Cassandra climbed into the saddle, and rolled her eyes when Fidella made an admonishing little noise. “And take care of myself afterwards.”

Snort, Fidella said again, making it clear what she’d think of Cassandra otherwise.

They turned back towards Silberstadt, and Fidella began to run—first in a trot, then started interspersing the pace with bursts of a canter to make more ground, more quickly. Cassandra breathed more easily when they settled into a rhythm. Somewhere aside from the pain, this wasn’t much different from what she had once dreamed her life would look like—a lone rider, challenged but not outmatched, a loyal steed under her as she charged ever forward in pursuit of justice. Forget patrolling the jail, policing the capital, and securing the checkpoints. What were they worth next to the Royal Guard’s outriders, ranging between the settlements of Corona to scout against threats and to pursue wanted men into the wilds, while the rank-and-file troops stayed behind and stayed put to hold the fort?

Dawn broke across the sky, pulling the town walls into focus. Cassandra shook off the exhaustion and the daydreams, forcing herself to concentrate, and checked the hilt of her sword with her left hand. Ahead, she could see the unmistakable silhouette of the ogre, walking straight towards the clinic with something that looked like a tree torn out of the ground, reduced to a hand-held battering ram when compared to his bulk. And past him, across the town square, Cassandra noticed that the Ingvarrdian fletcher had looked up idly from her work—then did a double take, grabbed the smith’s arm and gestured wildly at the ogre, at which point both of them abandoned their work and swept up a weapon each, and started running over. With the first slam of the tree-turned-ram against the clinic’s door, the fletcher leapt into the air and hurled a javelin at the ogre, putting the momentum of her sprint behind it, and pulling his attention to herself and to the Neserdnian smith, who was barrelling straight for the ogre with a giant, double-headed axe in both hands.

“We’re almost there!” Cassandra drew her weapon and raised it high, hoping to signal the others that she was about to join the fight. “Can you give me a run-up?”

Fidella responded with a breathless whinny, tired but determined just as Cassandra was, and drew on some deepest unspoken reserve of strength to drop into one last burst of gallop. Cassandra pulled her feet from the stirrups and perched precariously atop the saddle, and in the last moment before being carried past, she leapt, putting the charge into an overhead strike that carved a deep wound in the ogre’s back before she landed on her feet. The ogre roared at her, partway hatred and partway pain, but that was the extent of attention he could give to Cassandra—between the smith who was scoring hits below and around the small tree, which the ogre was striving to use both as a weapon and a shield, and the fletcher who had drawn a sword and closed the distance to join the melee, he had his hands full, and Cassandra circled around to flank for the other two, trying to make it so that at least one of them would always end up at the ogre’s back.

Immediately after, she had to break away, evading a broad swipe with the torn-out tree. The smith grunted with exertion as he brought his axe up to meet it, cleaving deep into the wood and stopping them both in a clinch, even though his feet sank half an inch into the mud. The ogre panted a deep growl, and reached with his other hand to palm the smith’s face, but broke the motion with a yowl of pain to grab at his own; Cassandra risked a glance, and saw Teagan, the job board’s minder, quickly rewinding a massive crossbow from a safe distance.

Breaking the crossbow bolt out of his cheek with another roar, the ogre then heaved the small tree free of the smith’s double-headed axe, with enough force to lift the smith off his feet and throw him back-first into the mud a few steps away. Before he could follow up on it, Cassandra slashed at his right arm in an attempt to get him to drop the tree—and while that didn’t work, she did pull the ogre’s attention as he tried to retaliate at her and left himself wide open for the fletcher, who jammed her sword between the ogre’s ribs on the left side up to the hilt while he wasn’t looking at her. By the time he finished shrieking in pain, the smith had pulled himself to his feet again, charging back in and bringing the axe into an upwards blow that sank deep into the ogre’s right forearm, successfully dropping the tree from his hand. Another crossbow bolt, this time sinking into the ogre’s shoulder, and he flailed his arm in a backhand, missing all three around him—then back around, and Cassandra rolled away, glancing up just in time to see him grab the fletcher like a doll and hurl her into one of the nearby merchant stands, with enough force to crash the pottery and shatter the wooden boards that broke her fall.

“Sigi!” the smith screamed.

“I’m fine!” the fletcher yelled back, voice soaked with pain, as she struggled to push herself up.

The tone seemed to land with the smith more than the words, and his attacks turned far more reckless, leaving Cassandra to distract the ogre from what was rapidly becoming single combat between the two of them. Another crossbow bolt, and the ogre pawed at the side of his neck, Teagan’s shot creating an opening for the smith to score a deep cut and for Cassandra to yank out the fletcher’s sword from where it was stuck between the ogre’s ribs, trying to bleed him out more quickly. She threw herself backwards again, avoiding retaliation and letting the smith land another blow that would have brought a smaller man to his knees, and only then did she notice that the destroyed pottery stand was now empty. Teeth gritted and blood pouring down one side of her face, the fletcher swayed on her feet, but not like she was about to fall—almost like she was dancing across the muddy street back towards the melee, eyes dark and mouth slightly open and a vacant, entranced look of utter concentration on her face as she stared the ogre down, reached both arms towards him in time with her steps, and started to sing in a fearsome, commanding tone.

“For ein er to
Der knutar knytast
I byrd er bunde
Heile verda
Om eg bind deg
Kan eg ferde—”

A hint of silver colour shimmered through the air, causing Cassandra to jerk back from another attempted strike, the wisp of unnatural mist taking the form of a massive translucent snake coiling through the air as if weightless. With every syllable, with every gesture of the fletcher’s hands and every swipe of her arms, it slithered through the air, weaving itself around the ogre’s bulky form. Cassandra struck out when she saw an opening, an instinct built by a lifetime of training, and her blade went through it; the ogre reached out, trying to grab at her or at the smith again, and his arm strained against it. Down the street, the fletcher was still chanting in Ingvarrdian, her reaching hands now clenched into fists, her outstretched arms now flexed as if yanking two heavy loads together, and the focus ringing through her voice narrowing the world down to the fine point of winning this one fight.

“Nar to vert ein
Der lenkjer smiast
I byrd er bunde
Heile verda
Om du bind eg
Kan du ferde—”

The giant silver snake bit down on its own tail and began to swallow, the multiple loops coiled all around the ogre’s body constricting tighter and tighter as the fletcher continued to sing furiously and draw her arms together. Cassandra put both hands on the hilt of her sword and poured everything she had left into a slash to the back of his calf, to hamstring him. Knees bending from the strike and the magical ties pulled too firm to allow for taking another step and catching himself, the ogre fell flat on his face and bellowed to the sky. Before he was done, the smith leapt up and in a brutal, two-handed swing, cleaved his head clean off his shoulders.

With the fletcher’s song trailing off, the giant snake dissipated, fading into a wisp of silvery fog that soon scattered into nothing with a gust of wind. The smith tossed his axe aside and ran to the fletcher’s side as she stumbled onto her back foot, blinking rapidly, a moment passing before she seemed to shake herself awake as if from a deep trance. Cassandra started walking towards them, cleaning and sheathing her sword along the way, and watched the fletcher pat an open hand against the smith’s chest.

“You good?”

“I’m great, I’m not the one who crashed a pottery stand with their face!”

“I always hated gravy bowls.” The fletcher wiped still-flowing blood from over one of her eyes, and extended a hand to Cassandra. “Sigrid.”

“Cassandra. Lightly, please, I’m injured.” She shook the fletcher’s hand, if gingerly.

“Hanalei,” the smith said, taking Cassandra’s withered hand in turn, and looked over his shoulder. “Thanks, Teagan!”

“Oh, you three did the heavy lifting there!” the job board’s minder yelled back, setting his massive crossbow back inside the small brick building.

Sigrid, meanwhile, was giving Cassandra a knowing grin. “I told you I had a good feeling about you.”

“I didn’t know you were a chanter,” Cassandra said.

“No, you didn’t, and neither did he.” Sigrid jerked her chin towards the ogre’s remains, and immediately listed on her feet, grabbing onto Hanalei to keep herself upright. “Whoooa. Fuck. I need to sit down.”

The smith effortlessly swept her up in to a bridal carry, if eliciting a small startled noise, and nodded at Cassandra. “You should get yourself checked out, as well, you look almost as beat up as my wife does.”

“Charmer,” Sigrid seethed, but let herself be carried towards the clinic.

“I said you’re beat up,” Hanalei said patiently. “I didn’t say you aren’t beautiful, or that blood doesn’t look wonderful on your face.”

Cassandra heard the fletcher let out a loving 'aww' as the pair walked away. She looked at the clinic’s first-floor windows, and just as she’d hoped, she spotted a bit of contrast within the one above the entrance—dark hair against stark white bandages across half the face.

“Hey, Teagan!”

The job board’s minder turned over his shoulder. Cassandra beckoned him closer while she whistled at Fidella, and once the mare walked up, she untied the barbarian’s corpse from her back and threw him off, onto the unworked riverstones cobbling the town square. Untied the sorcerer’s corpse, and threw him off next to the barbarian. Untied the minotaur’s corpse, and threw him off next to the other two, all four of the wanted men now laying lifeless under the Silberstadt sky.

Teagan gaped at the bodies with an uncomprehending look on his face. Stared at Cassandra. Stared at the bodies again. Let out a chuckle, his grin equal parts disbelief and something rapidly approaching awe, and without a word, he started clapping. Cassandra looked around as she heard the sound being echoed—and only then realized that first the brutal melee, then her display had drawn a crowd of spectators, townsfolk and ex-miners and craftsmen and more, who hadn’t dared to join the fight but hadn’t dared look away either. And as she stood there, a young knight-errant far from home and returned victorious from a mortally dangerous mission, the spontaneous applause only growing in strength for her, Cassandra couldn’t help the grin on her face, the triumphant laughter bubbling up her chest.

~*~

If there was one thing Rapunzel was not, she would admit readily and with an easy laugh if asked, then she was not a light sleeper. The nights of her youth and adolescence had been peaceful, spent stargazing or sleeping soundly—after all, she was safe as long as she remained sequestered in the tower, wasn’t she—and the nights of her travel along the trail of black rocks had been no different, even as they were nothing but different, the sense of safety now brought not by staying hidden from the world but by the sense of her own strength, the company of friends and loved ones, and the awareness that someone was always standing watch while the others slept. And more often than not, all throughout her life, Rapunzel woke up simply when she was rested, or when the sound of those around her beginning to go about their morning routine woke her up.

It was, however, quite unusual for her to wake up to the sound of something hard tapping repeatedly against the glass of her window and to Pascal’s excited chittering, too rapid-fire to be understandable, as he rushed in that direction with no heed paid to the early hour.

“And good morning to you, too.” Rapunzel dragged a hand towards her face to rub at her eyes. “Gosh, what’s got you so excited already?”

Squeak, Pascal called out again in an elated tone, just as he put his entire weight on the window’s handle. It creaked open, and Rapunzel felt a gust of cold wind sweeping its way into her room.

Then she heard a hoot, and bolted upright, leaping out of bed at the sight of a very familiar bird.

“Owl! How are you here?! Is Cass okay?”

Hoot, Owl said primly, and pushed a small bundle of leather towards her with one clawed foot.

With trembling hands, Rapunzel unwound the cord holding it closed, and grabbed at the slip of paper held within as soon as she saw it.

Hey.

Took a month-long walk. Feeling better. Came out near the Equis-Koto border. Helped restock a clinic on healing flowers. Flipped a conman’s scheme against him. Settling down for now to assist in some repair work. Have Owl rest a few days before you send him back.

—Cass.

Rapunzel laughed shakily, the sheer force of relief blasting through her leaving her a little light-headed, and sagged where she was kneeling on the floor. She read the short letter a second time, then a third, and folded it against her chest in both hands. Each arduously-scribed word loosened something she hadn’t realized had been wound up so tightly inside her, the terrible grip of fear clenched around her heart like a giant greedy hand around a jewel, the devastating weight of guilt piled across her shoulders and growing only ever heavier with every brick she pulled from her palace built on quicksand. She hadn’t been a good friend. She hadn’t been kind, or respectful, or attentive enough. But she also hadn’t been refused a chance to do better, this time.

Cass didn’t want to just disappear all over again. She did want to stay in contact. She had just taken her time.

Rapunzel trailed her fingers over the rest of the leather bundle’s contents: a small rock, a long feather, a dried wildflower. She didn’t know what any of it meant. Not yet, she thought with a smile as she looked at the letter again. It was like clues for solving a puzzle. She loved puzzles. And Cass knew her entirely well enough to be aware of that.

Squeak, Pascal said tenderly.

“She is a sweetheart, isn’t she?” Rapunzel picked Pascal up in one hand and pressed up her cheek against him for a moment, then let him climb onto her shoulder and held the letter up so he could read it as well. “How is she, Owl?”

Hoot, Owl said vaguely, an imprecise answer to an imprecise question.

“Is she– well, I don’t know if 'safe' is the right word, but– is she injured, or not taken care of, or suffering in any way?”

Hoot, Owl said negatively, silencing those concerns at least.

“Is she happy?”

Hoot, Owl said with a sideways tilt of his head, indicating that it was a work in progress but one well on its way to bear fruit.

“How are the people there, are they treating her well?”

Hoot, Owl said in a non-committal manner, and Rapunzel wasn’t quite sure of his meaning: whether that people everywhere were the same at the core of their being, or that he wasn’t willing to give a more candid answer to that.

“Is she,” Rapunzel hesitated for a moment, “healing, from everything that happened?”

Hoot, Owl said resolutely, refusing to answer with anything other than a firm implication that he was the wrong person to ask that.

“You’re right.” Rapunzel sat back on her heels, and took her first deeper breath of the day.

Squeak, Pascal said, and uncoiled his tail to point the tip at the words feeling better scribed in Cassandra’s severe, tight handwriting.

Rapunzel smiled. Cass never did wax on about what she felt. Maybe it was just two words, but it was two words that spelled out relief and hope, and two words that weren’t the perpetual lie of I’m fine repeated whenever she so clearly wasn’t. Maybe it had been a little over eight weeks, but it was still too early to expect Cass to truly be fine.

After all, Rapunzel herself wasn’t fine, and only discovered how deep that ran with every session of guided meditation, every longer conversation with Adira, every bout of honest self-examination.

But she was getting better.

A knock came against her door. “Good morning, sunshine! Who’s ready for a whole new day?”

Rapunzel laughed a little, and called out, “Come in!”

The door opened, revealing Eugene, fully dressed for the day and staring at a pocket-sized notepad in his hand as he swaggered into the room. “Okay, we’ve got breakfast with your parents to start with, then a study period I’d not managed to get rid of for you, and in the afternoon there’s two dignitaries who just keep insisting you’re present for their stupid teatime or other negotiation, but with a break in-between. It’s gonna be pretty busy, but not packed, you’re welcome, so after all of that is over, what do you say we h—” He looked up, and broke off mid-word. “—holy owl, is that Owl?”

Hoot, Owl said derisively.

“Definitely Owl, you even sound like Cassandra.”

Rapunzel looked up at him, smiling. “Cass wrote.”

“How is she doing?” Eugene leaned down when Rapunzel showed him the letter. “Yep, she’s great, that’s classic Cass right there.” He chuckled, shaking his head. “Healing flowers. She must have thought that’s hilarious.”

“She sent these, too.”

Eugene picked up the feather. “Pheasant? She’s been eating well, that’s for sure.” He set it down, and looked at the rock—and turned it to the light, suddenly incredulous. “Oh mama, that’s a vein of native silver right there.”

Rapunzel sat up a little. Border between Equis and Koto, and someplace with a silver mine. Gently, she took the dried wildflower in her hand: a sleek stem with bell-shaped lilac flowers and compound leaves, each rimmed with a thin strip of paler colour at the edges. “Do you know what this is?”

“No. I could ask Lance, but I don’t think he’d know either, not unless it’s food for some kind of native animal where it grows.” Eugene gave her a longer look, and smiled as he watched an animated look in Rapunzel’s eyes, a hint of excitement. “What are you thinking?”

“I think I’d like to look through a few herbariums in the evening,” Rapunzel asked softly, “and some geographical albums with maps.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Eugene said with confidence, then eyed his notepad critically. “You know, I could probably sneak those into your study period. No one has to know.”

Rapunzel laughed. “I do really need to focus on history more than I have to date.”

“Why would you? It’s boring!”

“It’s not as boring as you think.” She kissed Eugene on the cheek. “And I think I’d rather look through those in the evening, anyway. Keep something to look forward to throughout the day.”

“Your call, sunshine. What do you want to wear today?”

Rapunzel considered, standing in front of her closet. “Who are those two people I have to meet later today?”

“Ah.” Eugene studied his notepad again. “Some kind of duke or other marquis first, and the other an Ingvarrdian dignitary. Jarl. Noble. Person.”

“You didn’t write it down, did you?” Rapunzel asked with an adoring softness.

“I didn’t write it down!” Eugene admitted easily, with an only slightly panicked laugh. “But it’s not like I’m failing before breakfast, it’s going to be fine!”

“Not the ambassador, though?”

“No, someone who’s passing through on other business but decided to pay a formal visit along the way.”

Rapunzel considered quickly, and narrowed her choices down to two dresses that were both noticeably more elaborate than her usual everyday wear, but didn’t quite crest into evening gown territory. “Pink or blue?”

“Blue. Tell me when you need me to lace you up.” Eugene took Pascal and turned around, facing away, without being asked to. “I might need to start writing down the things I have to write down, at this rate.”

“You’re doing better every week. And thank you for doing this for me in the first place, I know it’s a bit far from what you’d usually be focusing on.”

“Hey, if it takes at least a bit of pressure off of you, it’s worth it,” Eugene said gently. Then sighed. “I have no idea how Cass kept a handle on all of this. I almost feel bad for giving her a hard time early on, now. Almost.”

“You were both giving each other a hard time back then. More so than I would’ve liked, sure, but I guess I wasn’t helping you stop, either.” Rapunzel readjusted the dress over her shoulders. “You can look now. Help me with the corset?”

Eugene turned around and went to stand behind her, slowly lacing up the back of her dress. “...Is this too tight? I feel like this is too tight.”

Rapunzel drew an experimental breath. “No, actually, pull it tighter.”

“Are you sure?”

“Trust me, it needs to go tighter. Slightly more. Okay, that’s good.” She looked over her shoulder, watching Eugene’s face pull into an almost comical mixture of uncertainty and focus, then glanced to his vest with a smile. “Did you say blue just so we’d match?”

“No, sunshine, your hair is brown now,” Eugene said patiently as he worked his way through lacing her up. “This shade of blue contrasts nicely against it, without clashing against your skin tone, the silver accents on your skirt aren’t too much since your hair isn’t golden or nearly as long anymore, and the embroidery over your chest is the exact same green as your eyes, which will bring them out. I said blue because, while you are indisputably the most beautiful woman in the world, every masterpiece needs a proper frame to highlight it.”

Rapunzel interrupted his work to give him a quick kiss. “Well, one of the most beautiful, maybe.”

“Oh? Any particular lady on your mind?”

“You don’t think Cass is beautiful?”

“I don’t think the word suits her. I think Cass is very handsome; I think she can be very striking, particularly in that suit of armour she scavenged at the Great Tree, and whatever else the spiky black-and-turquoise makeover had done, it looked amazing on her. But I don’t feel like she was ever shooting for beautiful,” Eugene said thoughtfully. “Whenever she had to wear that lady-in-waiting dress, she held herself differently, she walked and spoke and gestured differently, unless it was just us or unless she was too frustrated or angry to care anymore. When you wear a dress, you’re wearing clothes—when Cass wore a dress, she was wearing a uniform, along with a role to fill and a job to do. And a big part of that job was always going to be blending into the background, being overlooked, so that she’d see everything and stay unseen by hiding in plain sight. Now, if she was ever to dress to the nines and in an outfit that’d bring her out like facets of a diamond, she’d look...”

“Arresting?”

“That word has some unfortunate associations for me,” Eugene teased, eliciting a laugh. “I’d go with stunning, myself.”

Rapunzel smiled as she tugged on the cuffs of her dress, aligning the sleeves along her shoulders. “What could you see her wearing, that she’d look stunning in?”

“Knee-high leather boots and a ridiculous, billowing, satin-lined cloak for sure,” Eugene declared without thinking. “Massive cloak pin, but not jewelled if possible, that’d be too much. Wide-sleeved blouse with cufflinks, a vest over that, just slightly embroidered, a cravat around her neck and tucked into the vest. Thick leather belt with a pressed motif matching the embroidery on the vest, definitely a big buckle matching the cloak pin. Straight-cut pants tucked into the boots, not tight enough to show off too precisely how strong her legs are, but fitted enough to suggest it, and definitely embroidered along the outer seams. What am I missing? A sword! Of course there’s a sword. Rapier with a swept-hilt covered in filigree at her hip. Now, for the colours, that depends on whether she’d set out to understate how light her carnation is, or highlight it. If understate it, then a rich mahogany brown, but a cool shade, she is very pale, with gold accents like the embroidery and the pin and the cufflinks, but the cloak lining and the cravat a muted pale gray. If highlight it, then black with silver and pearl, no question. Ooh, pearl buttons on the vest.”

“That,” Rapunzel said slowly, the image clear as day before her eyes, “does look stunning.”

“To be fair, that would also look arresting, in the sense that no one in their right mind would be able to take their eyes off her.” Eugene finished up with the lacing, and after a moment of careful consideration, pulled a dark stormy gray shawl from its shelf. “Keep this on hand, too, it’s cold outside today.”

“Good idea.” Rapunzel extended a hand to Pascal, letting him walk across her arm and nestle at her shoulder, then looked at Owl, who had long since perched atop the back of a chair and tucked his head under a wing to sleep. Wondering how long he must have been flying for, she decided against disturbing him, and folded the shawl into her bag. “Let’s go. I think we’re running late already.”

“We’re running fashionably late.” Despite the quip, Eugene matched her quick pace without argument. “Speaking of which, if I’m doing the job of a lady-in-waiting, what does that make me? Lord-in-waiting? Sir-in-waiting?”

“I know what the term would be if I were a prince, not a princess,” Rapunzel admitted.

“Yeah?”

She tried to keep amusement from her face. “Gentleman of the bedchamber.”

Eugene laughed. Then stopped. “Wait, you’re serious.”

“Like I said, history class isn’t as boring as it sounds.” Rapunzel came to a quick halt when she spotted a familiar figure down an adjacent corridor. “Oh, Captain!”

“Good morning, princess.” The recently-reinstated Captain of the Guard greeted them both with a nod. “Fitzherbert.”

“Morning, Cap.”

“Cassandra wrote,” Rapunzel said warmly. “She’s doing well, and she’s helping people where she is.”

A bit of tension seemed to drain from the Captain’s posture at that, a rare smile lighting his face. “That is very good to know. Thank you, princess.”

~*~

“That’s a broken nose if I’ve ever seen one.” Eliza took Cassandra’s chin in one hand and the bridge of her nose in the other. “I’m going to set it, on three. Don’t move.”

“Fine.”

“One, two—” Eliza pulled, and Cassandra yelped as she both heard and felt the bone align.

“You said on three!”

“Everyone tenses up by the time I get to three,” Eliza said calmly, entirely unrepentant. “Where else does it hurt?”

“Ugh.” Cassandra pulled a hand away from her face, trying to ignore the sound of Sigrid the fletcher laughing quietly from where she was sitting, still in her husband’s lap, Hanalei making sure she stayed awake due to a risk of concussion. “A knife got thrown into my shoulder, deep enough that I had to burn it shut.”

The herbalist stared at her incredulously. “You know, you may have led with that. Upstairs. Now.”

Knowing better than to argue with a tone like that, Cassandra stood up and headed for the staircase. She had retrieved a set of wanted posters from Teagan, along with a written note stamped with what must have been the town seal that he said would legitimize her claim to the bounty in the nearest Kotoan town, and led Fidella to the Brazen Brigand, leaving the stable boy with a bursting fistful of gold and instructions of give her everything a horse could ever want, before going to get herself checked out at last. And with the adrenaline of one bout of combat to the death after another finally draining, with the tension of chasing after terrible people finally releasing, she found herself swaying a little on her feet. Having trouble concentrating on conversations. The night spent awake in the saddle and the one before it that ran very long, and was followed only with a few scant hours of very shallow sleep, were both catching up to her.

And knowing that she probably looked worse than she felt, Cassandra smiled to herself before pushing open the door to the only room with a taken sickbed.

Tara gave her a one-eyed up-and-down from where she was laying flat on her back. “You look like death warmed over.”

“Yeah, said the kettle.” Cassandra walked past the brutalized agent, who chuckled at the riposte, to one of the three free beds in the room. “They’re dead.”

“I saw. Thank you. You’ve lifted a great burden from my mind.” Tara closed her eye with a sigh. “And after I’m able to walk again, maybe I can finally leave this filthy province and return to the court.”

Cassandra found she didn’t have an answer to that, and focused instead on putting her weapons down on the nightstand before she took off her cloak and folded it overtop, and started undoing the clasps of her tunic to get to the haphazardly tied silk bandage and the burnt-shut cut in her shoulder. She hesitated before undoing the knot on the gold-trimmed kerchief tied around her left bicep, and carefully threaded it between her still-gloved withered fingers, wrapped it around the hand, in order to avoid not wearing the favour for any significant length of time. When she was down to her smallclothes, she finally remembered the Moonstone scars sheared through the left half of her chest—and that if she was to avoid a multitude of needlessly worried questions, she’d have to keep that covered. While stripped from the waist up. She grumbled to herself, before she realized that Tara was looking at her tiredly.

“I hope you’re not in too terrible a state.”

“It’s fine. Mostly I’m just tired. Your advice and supplies were good, my planning and my luck were good.”

“So it would seem, given that four extremely dangerous men are dead and you’re still alive.” The spy gave her a weak smile. “Ramon will come over before nightfall, I’m sure. We’ll handle the matters of rewarding you then, since out of the two of us he’s the one with useable hands at present.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“This is twice now you’ve saved my life, I hear.”

Cassandra looked away. “It’s not like I wasn’t being paid for it. Either time.”

“Yes, and I’m sure you’ve gifted thousands of gold to the family running this clinic with an ulterior motive in mind, as well.”

Cassandra groaned in frustration, but before she could dress the feeling into words, the door creaked open and Eliza came in with a pile of medical supplies carried in her arms.

“I see you’ve not bled out to death yet from another open wound you’ve forgotten to mention?”

“It’s not an open wound, and I’ve taken care of it as best I could, if you’re going to just give me a hard time about it then I can go sleep somewhere else,” Cassandra snapped right back.

“Calm down.” The sense of irritated disbelief dropped from Eliza’s tone immediately. “I’ll see how you managed it until now, and I’ll do what I can, but first I need you to believe that I’m not your enemy. Are you going to accept help or not?”

Cassandra sighed heavily, pinching the bridge of her nose with withered fingers. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

“I guess you are.” Eliza set a steaming earthenware mug on the nightstand and started placing the armful of items she brought along the bed, before tapping Cassandra’s good shoulder to indicate the linen shift she still wore. “Take this off, then.”

Cassandra pulled the garment off, keeping it cradled to her chest to hide the Moonstone scars, indifferent about the gesture being mistaken for excessive modesty. Eliza didn’t comment, only set to unwrapping the silk bandage tied over Cassandra’s shoulder and across her collarbones; from the other corner of the room, Tara looked away, the bandaged side of her face now turned towards them both.

“Well, you certainly were thorough,” Eliza said with only a slight bit of tightness to her voice when she uncovered the burned wound and set the weepings-soaked silk aside. “And this area has been hit afterwards?”

“I had to roll across that shoulder a few times,” Cassandra admitted.

“Did you attempt to clean it since you burned it?”

“I didn’t have that kind of time.”

“No, I imagine you didn’t, not with how deep the shadows under your eyes are. When was the last time you slept?”

Cassandra had to think about that for a moment. “...Yesterday noon? But that was after—” she nodded at her injured shoulder. “—and I didn’t get much sleep.”

“And before that?”

“Night before I left.”

She heard Eliza sigh. “How are you still even sitting upright?”

“I don’t know.” Cassandra pinched the bridge of her nose again, feeling the motion pulling at the edges of the crack in her withered arm. It was hard to open her eyes again and to keep them open. “Momentum, maybe.”

“Then I hope you’re ready to stop moving for a bit, because otherwise you’ll just keep hurting yourself until you drop.” Eliza pressed a towel to her back, well below the burn, and uncapped a small flagon with her free hand. “This is going to sting.”

Cassandra hissed through gritted teeth as a liquid was poured over the burn, and clamped her good hand over her mouth to stifle a growl of pain as the wound was then patted dry.

“Keep breathing, you’re okay, you’re doing well, it’s almost over...”

And when it was, Cassandra found herself wiping tears from her eyes, shocked at the murmured litany of encouragement and at a terrible feeling of something deep inside her coming unhinged against it, something that bent her back under its weight and pulled her throat tight and made her eyes water. She was just tired. She was just tired, and after she slept, she could bury it again, and deeper this time, just going deeper until nothing could rattle her like that anymore—

“I’m going to put on an ointment and wrap it back up,” Eliza said from behind her, still in the same steady tone. “You’ll need to keep checking in to get it changed twice a day. Try not to sleep on it and don’t do a lot of hard labour with this arm until this heals up.”

Cassandra nodded, not trusting her voice yet.

The last stage of getting the burned cut in her shoulder taken care of wasn’t nearly as painful, both the rather thick ointment and the clean silken wrap that came after cool against her skin, already soothing a little even against the pressure required to keep the dressing in its place. Eliza worked quickly, with practiced and gentle hands, and wrapped the bandage much more smoothly than Cassandra had been able to manage, then gestured to the linen shift.

“You can put your clothes back on. And keep your voice down, I think Tara’s asleep again. Where else does it hurt?”

“That’s everything.”

“Cassandra.” There was a note of warning in Eliza’s tone.

“I’m fine, alright?”

“You realize that I can see you’re favouring your right arm,” Eliza said calmly. “That old injury of yours reopened, didn’t it?”

Cassandra ground her teeth as she started closing the clasps of her tunic. “No. I’m just in a bit more pain than usual. It’s not getting worse or anything like that.”

Eliza sighed, exasperated now. “You are a terrible liar.”

Cassandra dragged her good hand down her face. “...I know.”

“Old injury. For heavens’ sake.” Eliza shook her head. “How old even are you?”

“I’ll be twenty-five this year,” Cassandra grumbled without looking up.

“Then take it from the woman half again your age: it’s admirable that you don’t want to be a burden, but taking this to a point where you’re too proud to accept help is a greater burden on yourself and those around you than actually letting yourself be taken care of every once in a while. I understand the drive to be the one who gives help, not the one who accepts it—I’ve been a healer my whole life—but you can’t help anyone if you’re falling apart, yourself. Even if you think of yourself as nothing but an automaton constructed to fix the problems of everyone else, you must face the truth that you need maintenance, if only to keep going. Now, what is wrong with your arm?”

“It’s not that I—” Cassandra gave up, and pulled the collar of her tunic far enough down to show the topmost edge of the starburst, gray-black Moonstone scars, but not far enough to show the half-oval indent in her flesh were the Moonstone itself had used to sit. “It’s a magic-caused scar like these, but covers the entire hand and most of the forearm. It’s not getting worse, but not better either, and causes me a lot of pain every other day. It’s just a bad day at the moment. Happy now?”

She was a terrible liar, yes, if she was trying to lie while thinking about the truth of the matter or behaving in accordance with it. But if the months she spent with Zhan Tiri had taught her anything, it was that one small lie wrapped up in truth could make the entire rhetoric sound honest and reasonable while warping it beyond the recognition of anyone who did actually know the whole truth.

“That’s how you got the woundwort to glow without even knowing it would,” Eliza said quietly.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Eliza rounded the bed, and sat down next to her. “Listen. I can’t help you with a cursed wound, nor can my father, but that doesn’t mean no one can. Sigrid told me once that she hadn’t taken the healer’s trial, but there are chanters in Ingvarr who have, and who might be able to unravel whatever spell that did this to you. There are highlander hermits in Pittsford who could try the same, there are medicine men in Galcrest and Neserdnia, there are temples of healing in Bayangor. There is help to be found. There’s just no one, even when you’re right in front of the water, who can force you to drink.”

Cassandra chuckled tiredly. If the Sundrop’s healing song had dragged her errant soul back into her body and lurched her heart into beating again and shoved her breath back into her lungs, but it hadn’t fixed her arm, then no parlour tricks performed with human hands and human means were going to.

“But speaking of, drink this.” Eliza gestured at the mug on the nightstand.

Cassandra took it, and sniffed at the steam rising from it, a light and pleasant herbal scent. The earthenware was warm against her left hand, and vacant against the right. “What is it?”

“Lemon balm. It’ll help you sleep,” Eliza said as she started gathering up the medical supplies she had brought. “It’s also spiked with a painkiller.”

Cassandra froze and lowered the mug, halfway to her mouth already. The herbalist gave her a tired look.

“Oh for heavens’ sake, if I wanted to hurt you or interrogate you, I’d tell you to drink first and asked questions after, not the other way around. Cassandra, you gave us everything. No one here is going to touch you. Just go to sleep before you collapse.”

Cassandra looked down at the brew. There was no way to verify whether that was true. There was nothing to count on, for making it be true, other than her own conduct thus far and a stupid, risky faith placed in the inherent goodness of people she barely knew. There was no one that she trusted, unquestionably, to watch her back for her while she slept.

She missed Owl so much, she realized miserably.

And then she drank, feeling a wave of warmth spread through her chest and stomach. “Can you wake me up in a few hours so that I spend some of the day awake and call it an early night?”

Eliza nodded, and leaned over to help Cassandra unlace and pull off her boots when she saw her struggling. “I’ll come to check on you both before noon.”

Chapter Text

Despite being exhausted to a quite extreme degree, what Cassandra woke up to was the sound of a door being opened, rather than the hand that came against her left forearm soon after to shake her gently. She rubbed her eyes open and nodded at Eliza, standing over her; the herbalist nodded back, squeezing a little before withdrawing the hand, and brushed a few locks of Cassandra’s hair behind her ear in a gesture too quick to lean away from. And as she walked away to Tara’s bedside, calling out to her in a gentle tone until the Kotoan spy stirred awake, Cassandra was left with the ghost of touch lingering against her skin, the memory of warmth searing its absence against her arm like an afterimage branded on the inside of her eyelids, and for a moment, she had no recourse but to face the truth as stark as it was uncomfortable:

She missed being touched.

For all of Rapunzel’s disregard for boundaries and limits, she had gotten Cassandra used to physical affection—hugs, hand-holding, light elbow jabs, sitting close by and leaning against each other and resting heads against shoulders. Now that her tolerance had been heightened, she craved the minimum she would have leaned away from in the past. And presently, she had no one to get that kind of affection from.

Two months since she last held a loved one in her arms. Longer still since any scraps she might have received hadn’t been soured by feeling consolatory or patronizing in nature—far, far longer.

Cassandra sat up and slapped both hands against her cheeks, hard. Nothing would come out of wallowing in self-pity, and she had things to do.

Though sleep had helped, she was still a little light-headed and the world still had a tendency to gently sway from side to side if she moved too suddenly, she discovered as she leaned down to put her boots back on. She took care lacing them back up, minding the new deep crack in her withered arm, but found it easier than expected. Surprisingly more so. So much, in fact, that it took her a long moment to realize that it simply didn’t hurt. Though the range of movement in her withered hand was still even less than usual, she could bend the fingers far enough to tie the laces in her boots and the knot on her favour, and did so without trouble. She could feel the motions pulling at the crack’s edges, but distantly, only as a bit of tightness in her wrist, of stiffness in her hand.

It was a relief, but it was also a problem. What a rare and wonderful feeling, to not be in pain for a little while—but since Cassandra tended to rely on pain to tell her when she had to stop pushing herself, the brief and blissful inability to feel that pain meant she had to watch herself so much more closely or run the risk of going too far once and regretting it for weeks. Or forever, she corrected herself silently, given that the withered portion of her arm wasn’t prone to healing at all.

“You look better,” Tara said weakly, while Eliza was unwrapping the bundles of bandage and herbal cataplasm from around her hands to replace them with fresh ones, squinting at Cassandra with her one eye. “Though, the bruises are going to take a while to fade. Hogni?”

“If that’s what the barbarian’s name was, then yes.” Cassandra felt at her broken nose, and only pulled her hand away when Eliza clicked her tongue at her to stop.

“Yeah, that just about figures,” the brutalized Kotoan agent turned her head slightly, indicating the bandaged half of her face. “Can you help me sit up?”

“I’ll need you on your back in a moment. After that, yes.” Eliza didn’t react when the spy grumbled quietly. “You know these need to be changed. The one over your eye socket is no different.”

“I know, just...”

“I can come back later,” Cassandra offered. “I’ve a few things to take care of.”

Tara sighed, then inclined her head—as much as she could while laying down. “That would be appreciated.”

Cassandra nodded, took a few seconds to gauge how steady her legs were, then grabbed her weapons and cloak off the nightstand and walked out into the corridor. Once she was halfway down the stairs, she noticed that the front door was open—or rather, what was left of it hung open, and Bruno was trying to force the remaining pieces off the hinges.

“Oh, you’re awake! And Tara?”

“Also awake,” Cassandra said.

“Excellent.” Bruno picked up a woodcutting axe and in a few strikes, hewed the remains of the door off. “We didn’t want to wake either of you up, but now that it’s not a worry...”

Cassandra looked at the thoroughly destroyed door. They had just replaced it a week prior. “Wish I could have been faster, now.”

“What, are you kidding? You were exactly fast enough. You got here before anyone got hurt.” Bruno looked around in a manner he probably thought was inconspicuous before leaning closer. “And between you and me, I hated that door, it was so ugly. Don’t tell Eliza I said that.”

Cassandra couldn’t help a little laugh at that. “Hanalei and Sigrid are fine, then?”

“Absolutely. Han’s just a little bruised, nothing he can’t walk off. Sigrid won’t be able to sleep on her back for a week or so and she has a few lacerations, but she was walking okay a few hours ago, and she’s already happy about the eyebrow scar she’ll have from this. Takes more than a few licks to keep either of them down, I assure you.”

“How did they even end up here? They’re both far from home.”

“Oh, they spent some years as swords-for-hire in this endless border war. You wouldn’t guess that they even liked each other back then, but I suppose dragging each other off the battlefield to find help time after time is what counts as romance in that line of work.” Bruno looked across the town square, where the Neserdnian smith was hammering away again and the Ingvarrdian fletcher was at one of the workbenches already—if seated in a rather heavy wooden chair with massive armrests, instead of atop the workbench itself. “They’re good people, and do good work, and they always stand up to fight if something goes as wrong as this morning. We’re really lucky to have them, the whole town.”

Cassandra was quiet for a moment. “Do people here commonly know that Sigrid is a sorceress?”

“She isn’t trying to hide it, she’s just not making a point of displaying it either. And frankly, it’s easy to forget—she’s always using mundane means to the limit before she resorts to magic. I think the most recent time I saw her do something like that was two and a half years ago, when a Kotoan detachment was trying to build a funeral pyre for their dead, and she kept it burning until over two dozen bodies were cremated on the amount of wood that would barely suffice for one.” Bruno paused, and gave her a careful look. “Why? Bad experiences with magic?”

“You could say that,” Cassandra allowed after forcing herself to unclench her teeth.

“That doesn’t surprise me. You’re from Corona, right? There’s not that many nice stories about sorcerers from there.”

“No, there really isn’t.”

“Well, just try to remember that not every kingdom has a track record as bad as yours when it comes to magic.”

“What about Equis and Koto?” Cassandra asked.

“Koto has its witch-knights, and while I’d never want to meet one, it’s more because they’re powerful in the political sense of the word than because of the magic. As for Equis, that’s, uh...” Bruno cleared his throat awkwardly. “Worse.”

Whatever follow-up question Cassandra was going to ask was left forgotten when she heard a clatter of hooves against the town square’s riverstone cobbles, and looked towards the sound to see Ramon pulling his work-worn chestnut to a stop by the currently doorless clinic. Despite the longer look he gave Cassandra, he barely acknowledged her with a nod, and turned to Bruno instead.

“Still need that replacement hauled over?”

“Yes, please. Kirill’s workshop. He said he’d have something whipped up by now.”

Ramon grunted. “Three gold.”

“Done deal.”

The spy nodded, and nudged his horse into a trot again, heading down one of the muddy Silberstadt streets. Cassandra stared after him for a moment.

“What does he even do around here?”

“Who, Ramon? Bit of everything, to be honest. Odd jobs, seasonal work, every now and then a courier run to drop people’s letters into the Seven Kingdoms’ postal service a town over and pick up replies. He’s an honest man, hard-working—has to be, to earn upkeep for a horse.”

“And the guards don’t bother him? Especially recently, they seemed more hostile to anyone visibly Kotoan,” Cassandra asked slowly.

Bruno grimaced. “I wouldn’t say they don’t bother him, but they certainly act as if he’s beneath them, and he does a lot of their dirtiest work in exchange for some scraps of silver. I mean, take the bodies. Not to say that your display earlier on wasn’t impressive, but you can be sure it wasn’t the guards who cleaned that up.”

“I see.” That was the perfect position for a spy, Cassandra supposed. Too insignificant to be noticed, a permanent background fixture quite like the buildings raised from excess mine rock or the ever-muddy streets, with more than enough reasons to make rounds and ask for gossip and keep a handle on any recent events, large or small. “Isn’t it strange that he’d come over to check on Tara?”

“No, they’re a bit of a—” To her surprise, Bruno laughed at that. “Let’s put it this way: if we had a matchmaker here, they’d drive her insane. I mean, Tara hasn’t lived here for very long, maybe three years now, but I hear one of the servers at the Brazen Brigand has a betting pool on when they’re finally going to kiss and get it over with.”

Cassandra smiled, shaking her head. Not only a perpetual smokescreen for the work of an agent of the crown, but an easy excuse for being seen together, and an amusing one at that to keep people formulating their own answers instead of look too closely or ask too much. The Coronian guard should be taking notes, frankly.

Before long, Ramon returned with another man in tow, carrying a door together—far simpler in design and lacking the small window that the previous two sported—and Cassandra sat on the stairs to the building’s first floor to get out of the way as the two of them and Bruno quickly set the door in its place. Small sums of gold exchanged hands, and the carpenter went back to his workshop, while Ramon hitched his horse by the clinic’s entrance and came inside to ask after Tara.

“My wife is with her right now, I’ll ask if she’s well enough to take visitors soon as they’re done,” Bruno was saying.

“I know this might be too early to ask,” Ramon admitted, “but do you think she’ll walk again?”

“Eventually,” Bruno said slowly, a considering look on his face. “But not unassisted, not for a very long time or possibly ever.”

Ramon nodded at that. “Do you think she’ll be using her hands again?”

“Hard to say. And even if, only harder to say how much grip strength or precision she’ll retain—it’s a little early to know for sure. It won’t do to pressure her about recovery, either. Remember that she was dying three weeks ago.”

“Believe me, I’ve not forgotten,” Ramon said grimly.

At that point, Cassandra heard a door creak open upstairs, and looked over her shoulder to see Eliza exiting Tara’s room.

“Are you still here, or back already?”

“Still. Is Tara up for another long conversation?”

Eliza considered for a moment before she gave a little sideways nod and ducked back into the room to ask. She emerged again shortly. “Come on up. Hello, Ramon.”

The second Kotoan spy nodded at her, and followed Cassandra into the room where Tara was now seated in her bed, pawing gently with one bundled-up hand at the bandages over one of her eyes. There were hints of persistent pain on her face, and she looked as if she’d been crying, but her expression dropped into the familiar clipped, business-as-usual demeanour as soon as the door was shut.

“Good, you’re both here. Cassandra, did Teagan give you a stamped note and a second set of their posters?”

“He did,” Cassandra confirmed, and produced the small stack of papers.

Tara nodded at Ramon, who then took the documents and quickly looked them over before giving her a thumbs up and pulling the chest out from under her bed to dig through it in search of a letter-scribing kit, and she turned back to keep Cassandra in her one-eyed field of vision. “We’ll set things in motion, make sure the kingdoms involved know that it was a Coronian knight-errant who brought their worst criminals to justice. These are going to be some ridiculous sums of money—as in, beyond what one person will be able to carry. Is there an address you want all that to arrive at?”

Cassandra shrugged. “Just the court of Corona. If it’s under my name, it’ll be fine.”

“Can be done. Are you satisfied with the supplies you were given, or do you want to exchange or restock on what we’ve left?”

“The ink that glows near magic,” Cassandra said immediately. If she ever needed to mark a map with that, not only would it contrast profoundly against the map’s own ink, it would also be invisible to a considerable amount of other people until she touched the map.

“Take your fill. Anything more?”

“Well the poison certainly worked out, but I’d rather carry something that isn’t illegal.”

A genuine smile pulled at Tara’s lips as she shook her head. “Ah, honour. What an unaffordable luxury.”

“It’s an obligation, too,” Cassandra said dryly as she deposited the flasks of venom and antidote back in the lidless cassette she had taken them from earlier.

“I’m sure. You are still after poison to dip weapons in, I assume, rather than one that needs to be ingested, inhaled, or made skin contact with in order to take effect?”

Cassandra sighed heavily. “I am going to ignore the fact that I now know more about poisoning that I ever thought I’d need to, and say yes, preferably arrowheads rather than blades.”

“And with the intention to paralyze, weaken, or kill?” Tara inclined her head at the confused look on Cassandra’s face. “One of each, then. I’d recommend sandbank serpent venom to paralyze. They’re small Ingvarrdian snakes that hunt from just below the surface of water, and use the venom to partially immobilize their prey—mostly small birds and rodents—for long enough that the creature drowns. A bite is rarely fatal in humans, but a dipped arrowhead or dagger-blade will quickly render a limb useless for a short time. It’ll be enough to put a combatant’s weapon arm out of commission for the fight, or an escapee’s leg for the chase. To weaken, bronze-backed scorpion venom. It can be fatal in larger doses, but you would need to cause several wounds for such a dose to be delivered, and with one hit you can expect the target to suffer from fever, muscle spasms, and extreme fatigue within a few days. It can be enough to turn the tide of a fight if you use it long enough beforehand. To kill... there’s a few options.” Tara looked to Ramon. “What do you think?”

“Ivory spider,” Ramon said, not looking up from a quill he was tempering.

Tara nodded. “That’s what I was thinking, too. It breaks down the target’s nervous system around the affected area, essentially. I recommend you commission a woodworker for a cassette like this, keep the vials well-padded, and the entire package as safe as you can.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Cassandra picked the venoms and their respective antidotes as she was directed, then looked to Ramon, who was starting to scribe a short missive in multiple copies. “About the one you send to Pittsford—I didn’t kill their outlaw alone. Only one-fourth of the reward is mine.”

“And you’d like the remaining three quarters to go to who?” the Kotoan agent asked, his tone betraying no surprise.

“Hanalei the smith, Sigrid the fletcher, and Teagan the job board’s keeper, one-fourth each.”

The two spies looked between each other and Cassandra.

“I think it can be done,” Ramon said eventually. “Although, it will take time for the bounty money to arrive here all the way from Pittsford.”

“I don’t mind.”

“All right, then. Leave me to it for a moment.”

Tara shifted slightly against the headboard, with a brief grimace of pain. “While he’s doing that, what do you want to know?”

“Give me the basics on the political situation in this area.” Cassandra sat down at the edge of Tara’s bed. “I understand that Equis and Koto have been locked in an endless tug-o’-war here, but little more.”

The injured agent sighed, gathering her thoughts for a moment. “Endless tug-o’-war about sums it up. The silver mine used to be a big point of contention, and that was even before House Bayard was eradicated—on Koto’s part, that is not a deed that can go unavenged. The King will keep pushing until enough ground is taken to establish a proper, self-sustaining province under an aristocratic family and a knight chapter of the Tribunal Order, and until the ruins of Château de Bayard are anointed and enshrined. On Equis’ part... if their monarch was a Kotoan margrave, I would be deeming him unfit to rule and looking for any half-competent replacement around so I could formally request a writ for his execution. Turning his own seat of power into a maze-riddled deathtrap, naming a pet animal his heir to the throne, whatever that shameful display of attempting to marry the Queen of Corona to himself in international waters had been—this is not a man who considers the repercussions of his actions.”

“Trevor is a tantrum-prone manchild,” Ramon grumbled over the letters, not looking up. “Say it like it is, Tara.”

Tara gave a one-shouldered shrug. “He’s a tantrum-prone manchild. Except that his tantrums can send hundreds of thousands to an early grave. And he’s been fixated on responding to petty insults—or simply to being told no—with increasingly disproportional force for a few years now. He will not back down in this dispute, and he will not negotiate unless pressured to do so by multiple foreign powers.”

“And will King Lysander halt the advance after establishing this new province?” Cassandra asked slowly.

“I believe so. Unless, of course, Equis finds it prudent to attack the province to retake lost territory, which will turn this border dispute into an actual war.” Tara smiled painfully. “Then he’ll keep advancing until Equis is to Koto what Saporia is to Corona, or until the Seven Kingdoms force these monarchs into peace talks. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what that is going to look like.”

Cassandra stayed silent for a long while, thinking. The animosity between King Frederic and King Trevor was a perpetual consideration, growing up in the Coronian court, but came to the forefront only rarely. For the most part, the two kings were capable of civil behaviour towards each other—particularly if Queen Arianna was not in the room.

“When did this start, this... increase in pettiness?”

Tara raised an eyebrow. “Why, when your crown princess was found, of course. Equis and Corona have both been heirless for a very long time; it would have been prudent of your king to remarry and attempt to sire another, but I suppose the heart of a man had overruled the will of a king. With King Trevor’s fixation on Queen Arianna, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had been waiting for that divorce only to resume his own advances towards her, and kept himself... available, as it were, for that reason. With your princess returning to the court, there was no twisted miracle of the sort to wait for anymore.” The spy paused at the look on Cassandra’s face. “Repulsive, I know, but politics often are.”

“I find that more true every day,” Cassandra said dryly.

The injured spy considered her for a moment. “Do you plan on travelling further into Equisian territory?”

“Eventually.”

“Then, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to find other agents of the crown operating there,” Tara said carefully. “Some hire sellswords and lead them as just one among the innumerable small teams of mercenaries, if only carrying out the orders passed through those in positions more like Ramon’s and my own, for the most part.”

Cassandra idly smoothed out the gold-trimmed kerchief tied around her left arm, marking her as a knight-errant, one who hailed from a kingdom that counted Koto among its allies. “Funny how I was thinking about finding myself a team, at some point.”

“There are three currently active who are known among the service for taking good care of their hirelings: Francesco, Delphine, and Bonaventura. I would not recommend asking for them by name, as that would immediately turn them suspicious or outright hostile, but if you find yourself choosing between recruiters you’ve never met before, those three will not think of yourself—or anyone else they lead alongside you—as disposable.”

“I’ll remember that.” Cassandra thought for a moment. “What have been they up to, last time you heard from them?”

“That is not something I can tell you,” Tara said calmly.

“Right. What means do you expect to be used in securing this new province?”

“Aside from any means necessary? I think we might start seeing events like nobles being executed for treason on fabricated charges, just to push their successors into switching sides; bandit outfits growing in strength and boldness enough to raid towns, and garrisons swelling in size ostensibly to protect the people; siege laid to cities and breaking only through an inside source poisoning the wells, opening the gates, or pressuring the leadership into surrender. And make no mistake, I mean we’ll be seeing these acts from both sides. Hopefully they’ll be enough. Because if they aren’t, there will be armies marching through this land as soon as the winter breaks.”

“You’re aware that Equis is offering titles and privilege to people who bring them treasures, right?”

Tara inclined her head. “I am, but I appreciate you mentioning it. Trevor has been emptying the treasury on every caprice and whim for years—it’s been some time since his advisors and topmost retainers had managed to pressure him into even the slightest bit of effort towards refilling it. And really, it’s a little funny how you mention this two-and-a-half weeks after the mine settlement’s Scarlet Brigade went crazy over losing some deepest reserve of their buried treasure. What a mystery.”

“I wonder what could have happened,” Cassandra said in a deadpan tone. Then cocked her head in disbelief. “I’m sorry, are you trying to tell me that those red scarf bandits are the Scarlet Brigade?”

“They are. Why?”

“I thought the Scarlet Brigade was the result of Equis attempting to form a foreign legion! I killed two of them without even trying!”

“How many tassels did they wear on those scarves?” Ramon spoke up from over the letters.

Cassandra thought back to the brief fight in the mineshaft. “I can’t remember seeing any.”

“That’d do it. Tassels are to them what rank insignia are to any actual military. I’m not surprised you killed two recruits without breaking a sweat.” Ramon laid the letters out to dry, without sanding them, and gave Cassandra a gauging look. “Though after today, I wouldn’t be surprised if you had killed two of their veteran fighters without breaking a sweat, either.”

Cassandra felt herself smile. “You didn’t think I could actually kill those four, did you?”

“I thought you’d probably kill one. I hoped you’d kill two before dying yourself,” Ramon said calmly. “And yet here you are, barely worse for the wear, after I had to clean up all four of their bodies.”

“The Scarlet Brigade did start out as an Equisian foreign legion,” Tara spoke up again, and Cassandra turned to her to listen rather than choose between well-advised modesty and well-deserved gloating. “Except that they were ridiculously easy to destabilize, and turned back to banditry decades ago. The group operating out of the mine is just one detachment; there are many, and each claims to be the one true Scarlet Brigade. Some hire themselves out as a regimented mercenary outfit, while some are content to raise a stronghold to settle down in and rule the surrounding area with their top officers as kingpins. Our local detachment has been long contesting against three other major bandit outfits also operating out of the mines—the Rats, the Shankers, and the Coon Tails. The former two are just regular thieves and highwaymen. The Coon Tails, interestingly enough, had started out as a neighbourhood watch and a group that made an effort to convert the spent mineshafts into some semblance of liveable space, attempting to keep it at least somewhat sanitary and cannibalizing the infrastructure into something of more use to an underground shantytown. They used to call themselves the Cleaners, but it didn’t stick after they started pinning raccoon tails to their garb to signify function, after how raccoons always seem to wash their food if at all possible. The Shankers and the Rats moderately hate each other, but both yield to the Coon Tails long as they keep trying to make conditions safer instead of grab at power. The Scarlet Brigade regularly pushes all three around, and there is a lot of bad blood between it and the others. Hard to expect anything else, with how the Scarlet Brigade are ex-military and the other three are each made up of local survivors, refugees, orphans, and deserters.”

Cassandra thought for a moment. “How much trouble do they cause here?”

“A moderate amount. The Coon Tails are barely a gang in their own right, any violence they resort to is truly minimal. The Shankers and the Rats are mostly just desperate people who refuse to be victimized all over again—if given food, land, and security outside of membership in a group that fights back for its own, most of them would likely disband and go back to their previous lives. The Scarlet Brigade is more of a problem, but having to contest against three groups all operating in the same area keeps them from following through on any real ambitions their officers might have. They mostly stick to harassing farmers and merchant caravans.”

“Okay.” Cassandra rubbed her forehead against a slowly building headache. “I’m still very tired. I might come back with more questions, but I need to process first.”

“Reasonable.” Tara looked to Ramon. “Token.”

“Right.” Ramon rummaged through the chest again, and eventually pulled out what seemed to be a steel medallion, shaped like a twelve-spoked cog with a scratched circular surface in the centre, hanging off a long chain. “You’re going to need to blood this.”

“Excuse me?” Cassandra said dryly.

“Prick a finger. It’s inactive, and locks onto the blood of whoever is to be the wearer. Once it does, you’ll be able to use it—and when used, it’s a mark that you’re an ally of the Kotoan crown. Show this to sentries guarding a city’s gate, and they’ll open it for you. Show this to an aristocrat’s servant or a witch-knight’s squire, and they’ll arrange an audience for you.”

Cassandra frowned, but drew a dagger to pierce a fingertip, and took the medallion from Ramon’s hand to put the bead of blood against it. A faint glow came from the steel as it seemed to vibrate in her hand for a moment, then nothing. She side-eyed the spy.

“Now what?”

Ramon motioned her to grab at the medallion’s edge. “Twist.”

Cassandra did, and to her surprise, the cog’s spokes shifted, turning the medallion into a perfect circle. The nicks along the edges turned into a smooth engraved inscription that read FAVOURED • OF • THE • CROWN; the formless scratches in the middle turned into the coat-of-arms of Koto, two seated wolfhounds facing each other.

“Huh,” Cassandra said.

“It’ll stay like that until you untwist it. Now watch this,” Ramon took the medallion from her once she reverted it to its unassuming, scratched-up form, and tried to repeat what she had just done. Nothing happened. “Only you can do that now—that’s what the blood was for. Carry it like a sentimental piece of garbage on an everyday basis, twist into the token when you need it. And since for some reason you already radiate magic, not even that is going to show.”

“Clever. Very clever.” Cassandra put the unassuming medallion around her neck, tucked it under her clothes. “Though if they all look like a cog, that might draw attention.”

“That’s why they don’t all look like a cog.” Ramon grabbed at a handful of identical chains, and pulled out several more—a flower, a Kaiser roll, and a snail were three shapes that Cassandra caught sight of before he put them away again. Then he dug out a fat purse and plopped it into Cassandra’s hands, the motion accompanied with the weight of metal and the sound of clinking coins. “One last thing: pocket money. It’s laughable compared to the bounties you just secured, but it’s here instead of nations away, and it’s from both of us.”

“What?” Cassandra asked dryly.

“Thanks for killing the people who put me in this bed,” Tara said calmly, imitating a salute with a wrapped up hand at the end of a broken arm, raised to the blind and bandaged side of her face. “Get yourself something nice.”

Cassandra turned to Ramon. “Didn’t you just spend the morning running errands and doing work no one else wants to do for a handful of gold? How much is in here, hundreds?”

Ramon chuckled. “Five hundred. And I keep the local persona funds apart from funds for the actual work we’re doing. People would start wondering where the resident no one got the coin to throw left and right, otherwise.”

Cassandra looked between the two spies for a moment. Thought about how she’d feel if one of the guys on the guard of Castle Corona got beaten nearly to death, and only survived thanks to a hired hand retrieving healing herbs. Then she pocketed the money. “...Thanks.”

“Back at you.” Ramon gathered the dried letters and tucked them away, and rose from the neighbouring bed. “Now let’s go before Eliza throws us out again.”

Cassandra nodded, and rose as well, giving Tara one last look on her way out. “Rest well, and... I wish you a smooth recovery.”

The injured agent of Kotoan crown bowed her head slightly. “I hope you find what you’re chasing, knight-errant.”

After exiting the clinic, Cassandra looked up to the sky. Overcast, heralding rain to come. She thought for a moment, wondering whether her withered arm would ache already if she hadn’t drank the painkiller-spiked herbal brew, counting out matters to attend to, gauging how much she had the strength to do before she settled in to sleep for more than a few scant hours. A gust of crisp wind tugged at her cloak, tumbled a few red and yellow leaves past. Cassandra looked after them, caught off-guard with the reminder of the passage of time.

Two months since she left Castle Corona. It felt like yesterday and a lifetime ago, at the same time. It felt like she’d barely had the time to do anything at all, to even begin finding her footing, and like she’d already grown beyond the expectations and wildest dreams of those who used to know her.

Then again, even the wildest dreams of those who used to know her hadn’t exactly featured her accomplishing anything of note, now had they.

She walked along the town square’s edge, studiously ignoring the stares of Equisian guards, the pointed fingers and excited whispers of the locals, and returning the greetings of a few she remembered the faces if not the names of. Instead of enter the Brazen Brigand’s dining floor, she went into the stable first, finding Fidella standing asleep in a stall. Her tack and harness had been removed and laid aside in orderly rows, next to the saddlebags, the sorcerer’s crosier, and the barbarian’s two-hander; her coat had been brushed out into a lustrous sheen; the troughs in front of her were still half-filled with water and oats respectively; a few carrots had been left in a row as treats next to the trough of oats. Cassandra raised her eyebrows, impressed. That did indeed look like an earnest attempt to give a horse everything it could ever want.

She turned to leave, but looked over her shoulder again at the sound of a tired nicker. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

Snort, Fidella said dismissively, and leaned into Cassandra’s hands as she came up to stroke the mare’s nose.

“We did good.” Cassandra leaned her forehead against Fidella’s for a moment. “We did something very hard and very necessary. Now a few terrible people can’t hurt anyone else. You worked so hard with me on this, too, I never could’ve done it without you—”

Snort, Fidella interrupted, a gentle tone and a firm disagreement.

Cassandra chuckled weakly, her throat tight and her eyes burning all of a sudden. “What did I do to deserve you guys? You and Owl both, you just believe I can do anything I put my mind to, don’t you?”

With another soft nicker, Fidella pushed one of Cassandra’s hands away and put her chin at Cassandra’s good shoulder to nudge her closer.

“No, of course I’m not cross with you for returning to Corona back then, I never was.” Cassandra put her arms around the mare’s neck. “Owl stayed with me until he needed to go get help for my dad, I wasn’t alone for very long, and you had the others to take care of and get them home safely. It was the right decision. Though, if you had stayed, I probably would have tried to make moon rock barding for you.”

That last remark slipped out unbidden, and Cassandra found herself taken aback with how freeing it felt to say something like that out loud—just to acknowledge her time as the usurper, wielder, and vessel of the Moonstone as a period of her life, no different than her time spent serving as a handmaiden or trying to prove she was good enough for the royal guard. Just as something that had happened, not an act too depraved to even speak of without veiling it in euphemisms and unspoken implications. Just as an event that had taken place and shaped the course of a few months, little different from a rich harvest or a slight flooding. Not a crime. Not a mistake to endlessly repent for. She breathed more easily, closing her eyes for a moment.

Maybe being forgiven in a manner that was nothing short of a fucking spectacle, back in Corona, had felt as humiliating as it did because she hadn’t done that many things that she had to be forgiven for. Maybe being kept around like a trophy, another living proof of how the Princess could tame even the sworn enemies of Corona right next to Varian, had been as demeaning as it was because it magnified her mistakes while stripping her of the agency for having made them in the first place, the endless stream of excuses made for her in front of anyone who would listen as if she were a misbehaving child, it wasn’t her fault, it wasn’t how she really felt, it wasn’t meant to hurt anyone—

It had been her choice, and she’d take the fault along with it, whatever. It had entirely been how she felt, and felt so strongly that the Moonstone had resonated, ice-cold sparks and wisps of lightning flashing around her each time she lost her temper or raised her voice. It had thoroughly been meant to hurt, as much as she had been hurt beforehand and then some. And this insistence to bleach her heart out of anything unsightly, to have even her own mistakes denied to her, had only served to convince her that even the first time around, Cassandra had the right idea—to leave.

Zhan Tiri may have lied. Zhan Tiri may have manipulated. But her scheming had only been sown in fertile ground because her assessments were far from inaccurate.

My whole life I’ve been cast aside, for you, Cassandra’s own words echoed through her head. And though she had originally spoken them in anger, they were not untrue. The lost princess had been a focus of the court even in her eighteen-years-long absence, a last hopeless chance to avoid a war of succession after King Frederic would die, a reason to fill the royal guard with men who were loyal instead of with men who were competent, to speak nothing of the euphoric bustle and business that had erupted upon her return. Or of the way protocol and tradition, the pillars of the court’s continued existence, suddenly meant nothing as soon as she came home. Or of the way the wishes of no one but the King himself were suddenly worth anything as soon as she asked for something on the contrary.

She felt the favour tied around her left arm, tight against her bicep as her fist clenched against these thoughts. Something had changed, in the very end. It had, at long last. A beginning. A hope fainter than a candle’s light. But it was too little, and too late, and if Cassandra was to nurse that tiny feeble glimmer in her broken hands and in the hollow cage between her ribs, it had to be somewhere far away from the excessive, self-serving, inconsiderate caring of another, far enough that she would not have to watch this light being choked out and smothered all over again.

And now she was free—with the first mark of being loved, truly loved, for all that she was, given openly but with room for refusal should she choose to refuse it, and taken to be carried in an open display for all to see—now she was free, and could do anything she wanted, be anyone she wanted. And all she had ever wanted was to become the best version of herself that she could ever dream up. Good enough to prove everyone wrong, everyone who had looked down on her, everyone who had muttered of stray mongrels and orphan brats behind her back, everyone who had only ever rewarded her for making herself smaller and lesser than she could be. Good enough to breathe with her entire chest. Good enough to be worth telling others about. Good enough to matter.

“Fidella? Thank you for coming with me. For not leaving me to do this entirely alone. I need—” Cassandra sniffed, exhaled slowly, pulled her withered arm back to rub at her eyes with gloved fingers. “I need company. And I know it’s not fair to make you and Owl give me all of it. I’ll find some people to be with soon. Just not yet. Just give me until I get sick of how hard everything is when I can’t trust or rely on another person, okay?”

Snort, Fidella said lovingly, a warm puff of breath coming against Cassandra’s shoulder and neck.

“Okay.” Cassandra wiped the last of unwanted tears from her eyes, and pulled away. “You keep resting. I’ll go deal with people some more now.”

The mare gave her one more encouraging little nicker, and Cassandra stroked a hand down her neck before she walked past to look through the saddlebags, making sure everything was accounted for. Once she was certain that none of her belongings were missing, Cassandra strapped her quiver to her belt, then hefted the barbarian’s two-hander, tucked it under her good arm, and headed towards the smithy. Once again, it was the fletcher who looked up first, as if she had a sixth sense based on proximity. Or maybe it was just that the smith was partially deaf, which would not be uncommon in his profession at all.

“Hey, look what the cat dragged in.”

Cassandra exchanged nods with Hanalei, then gestured to Sigrid’s bandaged forehead. “You’re well, I see?”

“Well enough. What’ve you got there?”

“I pulled this off of Hogni Galdrsbani after killing him.” Cassandra heaved the massive, jagged, two-handed sword onto Sigrid’s workbench. “I was hoping either of you could tell me why it looks like this.”

Hanalei craned his neck to look, and scowled in a grimace of distaste. “Because it’s a trophy rack, that’s why.”

Cassandra looked between him and his wife, and finally noticed that Sigrid’s usual veneer was suddenly gone—the fletcher was staring at the weapon, eyes wide and a mixture of shock and revulsion on her face.

“Oh, this—” an overwhelmed little laugh escaped Sigrid’s lips. “—this is vile.”

“What do you mean?” Cassandra asked, as patiently as she could.

Instead of answer straight away, Sigrid reached under her shirt, and pulled out a knife that must have been sheathed in a scabbard strapped under her left arm until now. An ornate knife, sharpened only on one side of the blade, curved delicately into an S-shape and forged of watered steel, its guard practically non-existent, its pommel masterfully carved into the shape of a bird’s head, a shrike judging by the slightly hooked beak, with small beads of semi-translucent smoky quartz forming its eyes. When she held it in front of the two-hander, Cassandra looked between both of the weapons.

The giant sword’s jagged silhouette had resulted from dozens upon dozens of knives like that being partway molten and hammered into the sword’s own steel.

“This is the mark of a sorcerer where I’m from,” Sigrid said, somewhat weakly, indicating the dagger. “It’s traditionally worn in the front of the belt, I just don’t like to advertise myself as a magic user all the time. So he probably targeted people based on seeing them carry one.”

“I thought a dagger worn in the front of the belt was the mark of a warrior in Ingvarr,” Cassandra said with a frown.

“Not precisely. You have to pass two sorcery trials to be recognized as warrior, instead just random person who’s okay at fighting. The knife, you earn after passing the first trial, and it’s supposed to be buried or burned with your body after you die.” Sigrid sheathed her dagger under her clothes again. “He’s been collecting them off sorcerers he’d killed and using them to kill more.”

“That is vile.” Cassandra gestured to the sword. “Isn’t there a way to put all this to rest? If these are now, essentially, defiled burial goods?”

Sigrid considered, then slowly shook her head. “Not in the way you’re thinking.”

“But you’re thinking of another way.”

The fletcher looked pointedly to the arrows she’d just been making. “I have an idea, and I hate it, but it would work. Was there anything else you wanted?”

Cassandra inclined her head, recognizing that the matter was out of her hands now. “You’re the one who cinched a ward around Wolf’s Head Hollow, aren’t you?”

Sigrid grinned proudly at that, a bit of her usual irreverent air returning. “Ah, my finest piece of work. Hopefully you took the hint and didn’t go inside?”

“I went inside twice,” Cassandra said dryly. “The hounds are gone, but the witch-knight’s ghost is still around. If you can make a barrier like that, can you destroy magical objects, too?”

“No. I’ve never gone that far into the trials. There are people who have, and can, but you don’t find them around every corner.” Sigrid paused, giving Cassandra a careful, searching look. “But, if you’re determined to look until you find one, we could probably make you a box that’d contain and ward off any enchanted junk you’re carrying, if it’s not too large.”

“I’ll take it.” Cassandra thought back to the sorcerer’s tome and crosier—she’d have to break the head off the staff or poke the crystal out of it—and moved her hands to indicate the dimensions she’d need. “About this big.”

“Doable,” Hanalei said confidently. “It’s going to be expensive, though: cold iron, wardwork, a casing to make sure it doesn’t rust through, and, I imagine, a lock.”

Sigrid nodded slowly, then looked at her husband. “Hundred seventy?”

“Hundred fifty, we know she’s okay.”

“Hundred seventy is fine. I was also going to ask after the arrows you don’t sell,” Cassandra said. “Blue fletch?”

“Oh, those beauties.” Sigrid grinned openly. “How do you find them?”

“Impressive, to be honest. I didn’t think I’d ever want to use them, but, well, I only have one left now.”

Sigrid inclined her head at that. “While I agree with the sentiment... they’re too brutal a weapon for use on people... sometimes you find yourself fighting monsters.”

Cassandra cleared her throat. “I did, in fact, use them on a person.”

“The only way for monsters to be real is if they used to be people,” Sigrid said simply. “Every now and then, someone decides to abdicate their humanity and starts acting like a monster. If you act like a monster, you get put down like a monster, and your slayers deserve a hero’s fame.”

“I don’t know if I agree with that, but what’s done is done, and I’m still in the market for more.” Cassandra thought back to the poison vials. Judging from her shots at the minotaur, each would be enough to load three of the liquid-carrier arrowheads. Nine, then, and a few to spare in case a few would break before they could be used. “How many do you have?”

“No more than two dozen at any given time. They’re a bit of a hobby project and a way to use up scraps, to be honest.” Sigrid unlatched the false bottom in one of the drawers, then narrowed her eyes, quickly counting under her breath in her native language. “Fifteen right now.”

“Eleven, then.”

Sigrid raised her eyebrows. “Alright, big spender, you’re cleaning us out here.”

Cassandra shrugged as she exchanged some of the Kotoan spies’ gold for the falcon-fletch dyed bright turquoise, bulbous-headed carrier arrows. “What else am I gonna do, gamble?”

Sigrid laughed at that. “If you’re a shit gambler and someone dirt-poor around you doesn’t want a handout, challenge them to a game and then play to lose. It’s basically charity, just lets them keep their pride.”

“Do you give life advice to everyone who trades with you, or do you just not have friends to philosophise with?”

“Whoa, claws out today, huh?” Sigrid shook her head, if gingerly, still smiling. “Go eat something and maybe you’ll calm down.”

Cassandra rolled her eyes. Then thought for a moment.

She hadn’t eaten today yet, had she?

“Ugh.” She turned on her heel to walk away. “Great. Fine.”

“Take care!” Sigrid called out after her cheerfully, another bout of quiet laughter drowned out with the strikes of metal against metal when she and the smith went back to work.

Cassandra grumbled, heading back towards the Brazen Brigand—the dining floor this time. There was not a lot of traffic at this hour, somewhere around noon; beyond a regular sleeping with their head and chest atop the table but a hand still closed on their tankard, a few rough-and-tumble types idly playing cards, and a woman around Cassandra’s age sitting alone in a nook at the countertop’s edge where she wasn’t immediately visible from the door, the inn was fairly empty.

Sebastian, the owner, looked up from where he was checking bottles and flagons beneath the counter. “If it isn’t the hero of the day. I didn’t think we’d see you again, not after Teagan told me who you went after.”

“I’ve faced worse,” Cassandra said as she climbed into a high chair in front of the countertop. So what if her feet dangled slightly off the floor like that, maybe she needed her legs to rest. “Any chance I can get a late breakfast from you?”

Sebastian chuckled. “Dumplings with minced pork, baked potatoes in spinach sauce, eggs and a ham sandwich, or fried slices?”

“What’s that last one?”

“You whisk an egg with some milk, soak slices of bread too dry to eat normally in it, and fry them in a pan. Pretty good, especially with a fruit preserve on top.”

Cassandra glanced to her withered arm. Something she wouldn’t have to cut into smaller pieces would probably be best. “The dumplings, and whatever vegetables you have handy with that.”

“Solid choice.” Sebastian considered her for a moment. “You look too wiped to be drinking today, want some borsht instead of an ale? It’ll fit the dumplings like cranberry fits roast duck.”

“Borsht?”

“Beetroot soup.”

“Yeah, sounds good.”

“And for your bird?” Sebastian looked around. “Come to think of it, where is your bird? I haven’t seen him in a while.”

“He’s on an errand,” Cassandra said.

Sebastian stared her, visibly uncertain if she was being serious. “Right. Well then. Three gold, and be with you in just a minute.”

Cassandra paid, and leaned an elbow against the table to rub her eyes and squeeze at her temples once Sebastian ducked into the kitchen for a moment. She was still extremely tired. But she could take a day to rest up, before she checked back into the clinic for more renovation work, however little she could accomplish with her dominant hand incapable of closing and the same shoulder restricted to light labour or no labour at all.

She was going to have to do something about her withered arm. And Cassandra knew, as only someone trained for combat could know, that every human being was meat—when cut it bled, when burnt it roasted, when dead it rotted. And if her withered arm was meat, if scorched and cracked with magic older than kingdoms and nations, maybe it would still behave like meat when treated with something that made actual meat pucker and last. Like salt. She grimaced at the very thought, remembering a time when she was little and had accidentally rubbed salt into a scratch. That was not a mistake anyone made twice.

A persistent, dull ache was building in the broken bridge of her nose again. The painkiller she had drunk in the morning must have begun wearing off.

Shortly, a tankard full of beetroot soup so dark red as to be almost black was placed before her, as well as a deep plate full of thick, sticky balls of dough and a hefty serving of shredded cabbage and narrow chunks of carrot and parsley root on the side. Cassandra looked up at the teenage boy of a server who brought it.

“I said whatever you have handy, and you still did all that?”

“Well, you know,” the boy said nervously, clearly unsure whether she was pleased or angry.

“That’s really nice of you.” Cassandra handed him a silver.

The server’s eyes lit up, and he snatched the coin before scurrying away. Sebastian chuckled as he looked after him.

“Word got out that you’re a tipper. This is your life now, I’m afraid.”

“I think I can live with that.” Cassandra took a fork in her left hand and sliced one of the dumplings in half without trouble. The minced meat filling was well-cooked, and still steaming, only more inviting for how hungry she suddenly realized she was. “Did anything interesting happen while I was gone?”

“Not much.” Sebastian drew a breath as if to say more, but then looked at someone who had just entered his inn, and his face froze into a uniquely hostile expression. “Excuse me for a moment—GET OUT OF HERE, CARTER!”

Cassandra turned to the man who was just bellowed at, as did everyone else in the tavern. A tight, uncomfortable look passed through his face, as he desperately looked through the Brigand’s customers for someone familiar, someone who would speak up for him, to no avail.

“I SAID GET OUT, YOU SHIT!” Sebastian roared again, and settled with his elbows against the countertop again when the man reluctantly walked back out. “I’m sorry, there are just some idiots I don’t want to see in my establishment.”

“What’d he do?”

“Ah, he’s been... bothering one of the ladies who’s renting a room here,” Sebastian said with a grimace. “She doesn’t need that kind of shit in her life, and frankly, neither do I. As for recent events, well, the guards still aren’t letting up on harassing Kotoans, which is unsavoury to say the least.” He thought for a moment, then gave a little sideways nod. “I guess we still haven’t gotten any news from three farms nearby, which is a lack of something happening rather than something happening, but yeah.”

Cassandra frowned, and swallowed her food before speaking again. “Is one of those farms about half a day’s travel on horseback westwards from here?”

“Yeah. Why, were you there? What happened?”

“I came through when I was tracking those four I’d killed,” Cassandra admitted with a wince. “All I found was six bodies, and a lot of bones.”

Sebastian sighed heavily. “That would be all of the Richters, then. Damn it. I hope the Isards and the Tysons are okay.”

“Do farmhouses often go dark like this? I’ve heard there can be trouble with bandits from the mines.”

“Only if it’s the fucking Reds stirring trouble all over again. The Shankers and the Rats talk a big talk, but it’s mostly just talk. They’re just people—our people—half of them we know from before yet another army steamrolled through their houses and fields. And the Coon Tails only show up to fairs to trade salvage and ore for things they can actually use. Did you know they built a charcoal mound and even a pottery kiln? From nothing! All they had was a few smelters to take apart and a lot of grit to put everything they know to good use.”

Cassandra gave a hum around another mouthful of food, hoping to encourage the tavern owner to talk more about the local hearsay and common knowledge. The more she learned about matters that the locals considered too obvious to teach an outlander about, the better prepared she would be for dealing with any upcoming trouble—and if life had taught her anything, it was that trouble never ceased coming.

Chapter Text

Rapunzel pulled out the shawl she’d been carrying with herself the whole day and wrapped it around her shoulders the moment she was hit with the breeze. Evenings were growing cold, this time of year; the castle’s elevation and its proximity to the sea did nothing to mitigate wind-chill, either. She looked beyond the walls, over the vast expanse of water and sky, listening out for the echoing cries of that squabble of gulls or another, and licked the salt carried on the wind from her lips.

“You look magnificent, my dear,” her father commented.

“Thanks. Eugene helped me pick.”

“The boy has excellent taste,” King Frederic admitted. His moustache twitched in a discreet smile. “But then again, we’ve known that since he set his eyes on you.”

Rapunzel laughed a little, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear against the wind. It was going to get tousled again so very soon, she knew, but couldn’t bring herself to care. No matter how much easier it would be to keep her hair in order if it was long enough to be tied back or plaited again, the thought of growing it out even to the shoulders was abhorrent, and she would hear none of it.

They walked together towards a table that had been carried into the castle gardens for this meeting, set with a fat teapot and a few platters of snack foods both sweet and savoury. And across the way, Rapunzel could see the herald leading two more people there, one keeping a respectful half-step behind and to the right of the other, their dress tastefully modest but made of expensive fabrics and leathers, high boots and broad belts shiny with some sort of waterproofing agent. Though sleeveless and bare-headed, they were clearly comfortable in the early autumn wind, and accustomed to such weather as well—with their hair bleached and their faces tanned from long hours in the sun, their lips cracked with the sea’s wind and salt, their steps a listing walk of sailors on dry ground.

Squeak, Pascal said as he stuck his head out from under the dark gray shawl around Rapunzel’s shoulders.

“Who’s the second person?” Rapunzel asked, leaning to her dad.

“A personal protector, I believe.”

“Huh.” She glanced to Pascal. “Stay underneath to keep warm, if you like, but I don’t think you should change colour.”

Squeak, Pascal acquiesced easily, and reverted to his usual vibrant green.

“Your Majesty, your highness,” the herald spoke formally as soon as the two groups met. “May I present: Prince Erling of Ingvarr.”

“I trust Corona has been treating you well?” King Frederic said, shaking the prince’s hand.

“Well enough. The embassy’s guest chambers are quite spacious, compared to a shared bunk on a ship,” Erling said with a chuckle, his youthful face crinkling in a grin, his voice a tenor dropping into a baritone in his lower register. “And you must be Princess Rapunzel. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”

“Pleasure to meet you as well,” Rapunzel replied, delighted with this new person before her.

Erling gestured to the woman who stood silently beside him, an elaborate knife sheathed at the front of her belt and a gray fur half-cloak thrown across her shoulders, buckled at the chest with a massive pin made of an entire fox skull, it looked like. “My huskarl, Dagny.”

“Your Majesty. Your highness.” The warrior nodded to each of the Coronians in turn, rather than bow. Her eyes lingered on Pascal for a moment, a keen examining look, but she made no remark and posed no question of him.

With pleasantries exchanged, all four of them settled into chairs, the corpulent figure of one of the older handmaidens materializing as if from thin air to pour the tea and wait the table. Ethel, Rapunzel remembered, fairly quickly compared to when she had first started living in the castle.

“It is perhaps a trivial matter, or a circumstance too undeveloped as yet to be entirely certain,” the Ingvarrdian prince was saying to King Frederic’s question about why he had requested the meeting, and Rapunzel reminded herself to focus. “But we have been seeing a rise in piracy in the recent months. A small uptick, to be sure, but nevertheless the trend has been constant—and only with ships of continental make.”

“You must be suspecting something sinister to make that distinction,” King Frederic remarked.

“I am suspecting that this rise in piracy is, in fact, not a rise in piracy, but in privateering,” Erling said calmly. “A foreign power seeking to disrupt the prosperity Ingvarr and Corona bring to each other with trade by sea, and to itself profit from such disruption while keeping its hands clean, would be wise to issue letters of marque to a few dozen independent shipowners. And if I recall, Corona employs some of its decommissioned ships-of-the-line as prison barges, does it not? It might be time to consider sailing them into safer waters, or replacing them with prisons built on the mainland.”

King Frederic nodded, a considering frown marring his forehead now. “Your warning and your advice are greatly appreciated, Prince.”

“I hope none of your sailors have gotten hurt,” Rapunzel spoke up.

Erling looked to her with a smile. “We are far from the only ships to have been attacked, and I am pleased to say we have yet to lose a single vessel to those miscreants—boastful as that may sound. Our sailors are mostly recruited from among warriors who seek a simpler life, one of work aboard a mercantile or fishing vessel instead of a short one on the fields of glory, and we provide sorcery training to those who have not received it prior.”

Rapunzel sat up slightly. “Wait, so all of your sailors can do magic?”

“In so many words,” Erling chuckled, then inclined his head to the warrior seated beside him. “Dagny would be the one to ask about that, as she is the one with hands-on experience.”

The huskarl glanced to him over her half-eaten miniature spinach quiche, then to Rapunzel, and seemed taken off-guard somewhat with the curiosity and excitement in her eyes. “It’s a simple incantation that makes sure they do not drown at sea. Those who come from warrior backgrounds may know other spells, but it isn’t universal policy to teach further uses of magic to those who do not know them already. Each of the major ships does, however, employ one rather more accomplished sorcerer like myself.” She paused for a moment, tilting her head slightly in confusion at how Rapunzel still looked thrilled rather than uncomfortable. “...It is mostly for the safety of the crew and the vessel itself. There is little use for titles and birthrights aboard a ship three weeks of travel away from shore, and with my Prince fulfilling the role of navigator, the importance of my role as his huskarl fades in comparison to what I can contribute to the crew at large. I’ve passed six sorcery trials—I can set wounds to heal more easily and more cleanly than they would without my aid, I can go underwater for longer periods of time than the crew and suffer no ill effect, or in times of dire need, I can scatter fields of mist or sing a storm to a standstill.”

“That sounds amazing,” Rapunzel burst out, leaning forward in her chair now. “I’ve had some experiences with magic, but I’ve never seen anything like that! How do you do these things?”

“Ingvarrdian sorcery derives its strength from the practitioner’s own virtue and from deep, intimate understanding of the world and one’s own place in it,” the huskarl said smoothly, then inclined her head to King Frederic. “And knowing Corona’s... recent history, particularly concerning matters of magic, I think it may be best not to explore the subject any further.”

“Thank you, madam. Your kindness is noted and appreciated,” King Frederic said studiously, with a slight tell-tale tightness to his jaw—a subtle giveaway that he was finding the subject a painful reminder of the past.

“Oh. Okay.” Rapunzel sat back, trying not to look disappointed, and thought quickly of another way to keep the conversation alive and stay in the company of these strange, fascinating, new people for that much longer. “I’ve heard the term 'huskarl', but I’ve never had the chance to ask an Ingvarrdian if my understanding of it is correct—a close friend and personal protector?”

“It’s a word for a free man or woman, particularly of the warrior persuasion, who willingly enters the service of another. More specifically, the other is most often of noble birth, and the servant is not only a companion and protector, but very nearly a sibling in all things, a second-in-command and an implicitly trusted advisor,” Dagny explained easily. “It brings my Prince great honour that one such as myself would choose to call themself his servant.”

“And let it never be said otherwise.” Erling raised his teacup to the warrior beside him as if it were a tankard or a drinking horn, and she bowed her head to him, if with a hint of amusement in her eyes at how the porcelain turned the gesture far daintier than they must have been used to.

“And—I hope you don’t mind me bringing it up—Prince, you mentioned these privateer ships are of continental make? You are able to distinguish the origin of a ship at a glance, then?”

“The shipbuilding method’s kingdom of origin, more reliably than the ship’s own,” Erling corrected slowly, considering his words. “It isn’t uncommon for an independent vessel to be built with Kotoan methods, yet sail under Equisian or Pittsfordian colours, or for small, single-family boats that sail far warmer waters to sport Neserdnian rigging, yet fish in Kotoan waters. But, I wouldn’t want to bore you with a seadog’s unreasonable fondness for such details.”

“I love learning new things,” Rapunzel said earnestly.

Erling grinned, a delighted if surprised look on his face. “I’ll be certain to pass that along to my aunt when it comes to presenting you with wedding gifts, then. One of the easier ways to recognize a vessel’s purpose and through that, often its origin, is the rigging—the shape of ropes and sails as they’re arranged upon its masts, to put it simply. Another is the hull’s own shape, and the way it is constructed; the hulls of Ingvarrdian ships, for example, are traditionally built with planks lined to overlap at the edges, or clinker-built. A contrasting method, of carvel-building, is most notably used by Koto, where the planks are fitted smoothly against each other instead...”

From there, the conversation continued on and on about small boats and ships-of-the-line, about shipbuilding methods across the Seven Kingdoms and beyond them, about Kotoan caravels and clippers and Coronian galleons and barques and Ingvarrdian longships and more, about the advent of cannons and how their introduction had changed everything in naval warfare, about ropes and knots and canvas fabric, with the Ingvarrdian sailor-prince dressing even complicated concepts into layman’s terms and Rapunzel listening intently only to ask follow-up questions—and before long, a second pot of tea had been brewed and then emptied, the platters of food held little but crumbs anymore, and the afternoon had grown into a swiftly-darkening late evening.

“You must forgive us for taking so much of your time,” King Frederic said eventually as he was shaking the Prince’s hand goodbye.

“Oh, not at all, it was delightful to enjoy your company for quite this long.” Erling turned to Rapunzel then. “And yours, Princess—I’ve heard so much about you, and yet no story can hold a candle to meeting you in person.”

Rapunzel smiled, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “Hopefully the stories have set up only a few disappointments?”

“I can say with confidence that it must be quite impossible find oneself disappointed with you. My best wishes for your future with the heir of the Dark Kingdom.”

And once the Ingvarrdians were off, led by the herald through the castle’s halls and back to their lodgings in the embassy, Rapunzel finally rubbed her hands together and huffed into them against the evening’s cold.

“Well, that was certainly an uneventful teatime. And a lengthy one,” King Frederic said, somewhat pointedly, but not in a scolding tone, not just yet.

Rapunzel pushed away the urge to duck her shoulders and smile and say sorry. She didn’t have to apologize for enjoying another person’s company. Not anymore. Instead she said, “I liked him a lot.”

“He did seem quite taken with you,” her father admitted as they walked back into the castle. “He’d make for a good potential suitor, were you not already involved.”

“He’s a nephew of the Queen of Ingvarr, right?” Rapunzel asked thoughtfully.

“That is correct. Why?”

“I think I read somewhere during my classes that the Queen’s brother had daughters, but not sons.”

“Ah. The records must not have been revised. I’ll tell Nigel to see to it,” King Frederic said calmly. “The prince had been born a princess.”

“Huh.” Rapunzel looked around, hoping to spy Eugene somewhere, but instead only spotted one of the younger handmaidens hurrying towards them. Doris, Rapunzel thought, but then caught herself as that was a mistake she kept making. Not Doris. Gertrude.

The castle had employed three new handmaidens once it became clear in no uncertain terms that Cassandra wasn’t coming back, Rapunzel recalled, and pushed away all over again, as she still didn’t know how to feel about that. Oh, certainly, part of it was that another had apparently been unable to work for several months while Rapunzel’s group was away following the trail of black rocks to the Moonstone; part of it was that she was expected to choose a replacement lady-in-waiting, still, and Eugene was doing what he could to delay the necessity of that decision for as long as at all possible. When you’re about to be hanged, use your last wish to ask for a glass of water, he had said of it, and Rapunzel smiled at the memory.

But another part of it was that apparently, Cass had been completing the amount of work that everyone else thought would be fair to expect of two other people put together. And that was before her lady-in-waiting duties. Or her ceaseless attempts to earn a place on the royal guard. And it felt profoundly wrong to only realize that once she was gone.

“Your Majesty.” The handmaiden curtsied to the king, before turning to Rapunzel. “Your highness, the Queen had requested that you come see her at your earliest convenience.”

One unfortunate event in the past had been enough to teach Rapunzel rather profoundly that 'at her earliest convenience' typically meant 'immediately' and not, in fact, her earliest convenience. She looked to her father, who patted her on the shoulder.

“Go. There are some documents I must attend to before retiring for the night, I believe.”

“Okay. Goodnight, dad.”

“Goodnight, sweetheart.”

She followed the handmaiden down the corridor, recognizing the route soon enough as one leading to the Queen’s private study—adjacent to the rooms her parents shared, but not quite part of them. It didn’t take five minutes for her to clear her throat in the silence.

“Gertrude, right?”

The handmaiden smiled. “Yes, your highness.”

“We’ve accidentally kept Ethel out in the cold with us for hours,” Rapunzel admitted sheepishly. “Could you make sure she’s able to keep indoors and in warmth for the rest of the evening?”

“Of course, your highness.” Gertrude stepped back with a bow, and hurried away.

“Thank you,” Rapunzel called out after her, and continued on towards her mom’s chambers. Sighed as she realized she was walking more and more slowly, and took a deep breath to calm herself down.

Squeak, Pascal said in an encouraging tone.

“I know I’m not about to speak to Gothel,” Rapunzel told him quietly. “I know mom is everything that Gothel never was. I know she’d never belittle me, or mock me, or– or cage me like Gothel had. She’s the one who gave me the journal. She’s the one who encouraged me to find adventure and find out who I am, instead of saddle me with a battalion of guards or lock me in another tower 'for my own safety'. I know she’s not going to be angry with me about a problem if she can focus on solving the problem instead, and on teaching me how to do it, too. I know she’s not going to scold me when she can just talk to me instead.”

She stopped walking, and took another deep breath against how hard and fast her heart was beating, against a pervasive sense of unease slowly growing into a bristle of anxiety scraping through her belly, and lifted her hands to find them shaking slightly.

“I haven’t even thought about Gothel for weeks,” Rapunzel said with a calm she did not feel, testing if she had control over her voice at least. Thankfully, she did. “Why am I so scared again?”

Squeak, Pascal said tenderly, tugging on a strand of Rapunzel’s short hair with one hand.

She brushed it back behind an ear. Then pulled it to beside her cheek again and started twirling it onto a finger. Even now, months since it had been cut again and months during which she’d already had it trimmed once or twice, sometimes she felt unbalanced for the lack of its weight. Almost two years of wearing her hair in a winding braid almost as thick as the entire breadth of her shoulders; almost the whole of her lifetime of wearing it loose and trailing against the tower’s floors, a length only ever increasing as she grew older and her hair grew longer.

So much had been wrapped up in that weight. It was why she had been born at all; it was why Gothel had stolen her and sequestered her in a hidden vault like an object of immeasurable wealth; it was why Gothel had abandoned a four-years-old Cass to the whims and mercies of chance. Why she and Eugene hadn’t drowned, and why she had been able to bring him back from the brink. Why the black rocks had torn through Corona, across the sea, all over the uninhabitable Dark Kingdom lands, and why Varian’s father had spent a year encased in amber. Why she had gone on the greatest adventure of her life, and why Cassandra had taken the Moonstone. Why Zhan Tiri had used Cass like Gothel had been using Rapunzel. Why everything she’d ever known, everyone she’d ever loved, had almost been destroyed. And why she had been able to bring Cass, too, back from the brink.

It was an old weight—one that was now long since lifted away and gone. One carried in its entirety within a short, I have magic hair that glows when I sing.

But the chafing wounds that carrying it for her entire life had left across her shoulders were far from scarred over and gone.

Rapunzel rubbed her hands together. Squeezed them against each other, hard. When her knuckles turned whitish, when it hurt a little to keep tightening the grip, she counted to ten and relaxed it, and brought her hands towards one of the lamps in the castle’s corridor, open to its light.

The flash-burn scars over her palms, from when she had grabbed at the Sundrop and Moonstone in their reunited form, were rarely even visible: splotches and curving waves seared with the fury of a thousand suns transitioning smoothly into jagged lightning patterns and crystalline blooms carved with the pitiless, unforgiving glare of a full moon laying all of her misdeeds bare and leaving no greyness, no shadow, no excuse to hide herself behind any longer. The scars were rarely even visible, but Rapunzel wouldn’t mind if they showed against the unmarred skin more clearly.

She used to think about them as a badge of honour, at first. A proof of how far she would go, for her loved ones, for her kingdom. When it came to the choice of saving Cass or sparing herself, it was not a matter of choosing, but of acting on the only decision there was—the right one—the one her heart had been set upon months and years prior. There had been no single breakthrough event to lead her there, no blinding revelation or great secret unravelled to point to as the source of it. There was only Cass.

Cass, who did not get a say even on whether she lived or died, because Rapunzel wouldn’t let her be heeded even if she spoke.

Oh, it wasn’t that she regretted bringing Cass back. It wasn’t that she thought it had been the wrong decision. Seeing Cassandra draw another breath and open her eyes again was the last thing she would ever regret. It may have been the first thing she had done right for Cass, even in denying her a repentant martyr’s death and the forgiveness of her home that such an act—such an end—would have bought her, as it gifted Cass the chance to choose freely now, the chance to build herself a life she wanted, the chance to live long enough to heal. But from the perspective of these two months, months she had spent just barely beginning to prune her way through the overgrown nightmare of a blackberry patch that her own heart and mind were lairing inside, Rapunzel was slowly coming into an understanding of how sometimes it was possible to make the right decision for the wrong reasons.

Cass was alive because Rapunzel had wanted her back. Cass was a courtier and subject of Corona again because Rapunzel had wanted her back. Cass was suffering from a unique, chronically painful, untreatable injury because Rapunzel had wanted to do something differently than she had been advised. Cass could not have anything for herself, for as long as they’ve known each other, because Rapunzel had wanted those things as well.

And maybe Rapunzel wouldn’t have minded if the Sundrop and Moonstone’s scars slashed across her palms in a looping stripe stood out more, because it would mean that she could never forget again how prone she was to taking without moderation and without thinking.

Squeak, Pascal said worriedly as he watched comprehension and dread dawn across Rapunzel’s face like the morning star fading against the sunrise.

“Is that why I’m thinking about Gothel again,” Rapunzel said faintly, and couldn’t bring herself to care about how hollow her voice sounded even to her own ears. “Because I’ve acted as selfishly as she had?”

SQUEAK, Pascal said aggressively, furious against such a comparison, and Rapunzel lifted a hand to stop him mid-tirade.

“No. That isn’t– I can’t think about it yet. I’ll sit with it when I have the presence of mind to. Now we’re going to see my mom and see what she wanted to talk to me about.”

Mom. It had always been 'mom', a distinction from 'mother', one that had never been distorted. And even then, Rapunzel had slowly trained herself out of thinking 'mother' and into thinking 'Gothel', to deny the ghost of her jailer even that much, even the familiarity she had usurped for herself right alongside the Sundrop’s power fettered in Rapunzel’s long-gone golden locks.

Her hair was short, now, and didn’t glow, and she didn’t sing. Her hands were scarred, and not scarred enough. She was the Crown Princess of Corona, heiress to the throne—not the Sundrop, not anymore, and good riddance.

And right now, she was also unexpectedly angry, but at least her hands weren’t shaking anymore.

She knocked on the door leading to the Queen’s study to announce herself, and came inside. “Hi, mom.”

“There you are.” Queen Arianna capped a fountain pen and set it aside before looking up from over one of a small stack of letters she was scribing. As soon as she did, the tired look on her face immediately gave way to worry. “Honey, are you all right?”

“I’m okay.” Rapunzel sighed as she caught herself on the reflex to lie. “...I’m working on it. You wanted to see me?”

“Yes, I did. Sit with me, please.” Queen Arianna gave a nod to the handmaiden at her side. “That will be all for today, Friedborg, thank you.”

The handmaiden stepped away with a bow, and withdrew from the room. Rapunzel looked after her, before pulling herself a chair and sitting next to her mom’s scribing desk, close enough to rest an elbow on the pulpit.

“I know you’re tired of hearing this, but you need to choose a new lady-in-waiting already,” Queen Arianna said as she cleaned ink stains from her fingers with a soaked handkerchief. “It’s been long enough. I understand that you aren’t entirely comfortable with this, but it is a function that needs to be fulfilled, and has been left neglected for entirely too long by now.”

“Eugene is getting better at it,” Rapunzel defended weakly, not even trying to really argue.

“Eugene,” her mom said slowly, “learns remarkably quickly, especially considering his upbringing and his lack of familiarity with court etiquette. But the amount of his regard for decorum is equally remarkable in how miniscule it is, and there are only so many ruffled feathers I can smooth out. You need someone who knows what they are doing, and cares for what they are doing, fulfilling this function. Eugene does neither, sweet as it is of him to find ways to support you with no regard for his own personal pride.”

Rapunzel looked away, and said nothing. There wasn’t anything she could say, really. She knew that Eugene didn’t care for a lot of rules that the Coronian courtiers were following. She knew he didn’t have to care, because he was her boyfriend, and that meant there was a lot he could get away with. She knew that she had been missing classes, or meetings, or other duties for months now, because Eugene had decided they were less important than a good amount of downtime or a regular date night. And she had known the entire time that the longer he was doing the job of a lady-in-waiting, the higher this backlog would pile up, and the more of it would be pushed onto other people’s hands.

With a sigh, Queen Arianna removed her crown and set it aside before rubbing at her eyes in an uncharacteristically tired gesture, then looked at her daughter with open concern. “Honey, what is it that you find so painful about this?”

“It feels like replacing Cassandra,” Rapunzel said quietly. “And it’s... I did everything wrong with Cass. I know that much. But I haven’t figured out yet what was the wrong part in some of those things, and I’m scared I’ll repeat the mistakes with another person, without even knowing that I did.”

“Problems are for being solved, not to fret about endlessly,” Queen Arianna said warmly as she reached to place a hand over Rapunzel’s and squeeze gently. “Do you mind talking about it a little?”

“No. No, I don’t mind.” Rapunzel looked down at their hands, and folded both of her own around her mom’s. “I’ve been doing that a lot lately.”

And she hadn’t expected to speak for quite that long, but by the time she was done pouring her heart out, a crescent moon was peeking into the room through the window framed with delicate curtains, a ray of white light mingling with that of the lamp on her mom’s desk. And as she spoke, on and on and on, she watched a realization form rather quickly on her mom’s face—and progress into an unexpected sadness, as if her daughter’s failing had been her own.

“Honey,” Queen Arianna said softly once Rapunzel was done recounting past events. “I’m sorry we’ve never addressed this before. For all the hardship each of us had endured after you were taken, it has been all too easy to forget you had not grown up in court, and matters that seem so obvious to myself and your father may need to be pointed out and explained to you.”

“So... you know what I did wrong?”

“I’m afraid there is no kind way to say this, but...” her mom hesitated for a moment, then gave her another sad, deeply understanding look. “Did you want her love, or her obedience?”

Rapunzel blinked at the question. Shook her head slightly, almost sure she heard wrong, or maybe just wishing that she did. “What?”

“People of our standing tend to lead very lonely lives,” the Queen of Corona said gently to her only daughter. “When entering relationships—professional or personal—with those of lower standing, there are... boundaries, to be observed. Doubly so when the matter concerns your servants.”

“Cassandra is my friend,” Rapunzel heard a note of warning slip into her voice, unbidden.

“Cassandra is a servant girl, and she had always known that perfectly well. As well as that being the Captain’s daughter meant little to those her equal or lesser than her, and nothing to those above her—only moreso for being adopted by him rather than sired,” Queen Arianna said calmly. “If you told her to do something, even asked it of her, she did not have the freedom to say no. If you chose a course of action that would imperil you, she did not have the power to stop you, only to suggest and advise a different one—and if you chose not to follow these suggestions and advice, all she had left to do was to follow and attempt to minimize damage, mitigate or destroy danger, and bodily throw herself in harm’s way rather than allow it to threaten you. I am not saying that Cassandra did not come to care for you more deeply than a handmaiden does for her sovereign—I don’t believe you would have been quite as hurt and furious with each other if that were the case—I am saying that your relationship had been unequal from the start, and with yourself never realizing that fact and, consequently, never acting with respect of it, you could not have built a lasting relationship with Cassandra no matter how much you both tried.”

Rapunzel chewed on that for a moment, silently.

Squeak, Pascal said gently from her shoulder, still partway underneath the stormy-gray shawl.

“Sometimes I miss how simple things were when it was just you and me and a window and a room,” Rapunzel said quietly. Then rubbed her eyes with a sigh, and looked at her mom again. “So every time Cass had told me, 'I don’t think that’s such a good idea,' or 'that place creeps me out,' or 'that’s too dangerous'—”

Queen Arianna nodded, a sympathetic look on her face.

“And when you asked me just now whether I had wanted her love or her obedience...” Rapunzel clenched her fists, feeling her fingertips come against the coarse burn scars across her palms. “I had tried to have both, hadn’t I.”

“To have someone’s love, you must accept that they will disagree with you and go against your wishes, sometimes. To have their love, you must give them the freedom to be as your equal, at least in private settings,” Queen Arianna said softly. “To have their obedience, you must assert the differences between the two of you, and their inferiority to yourself, without belittling them if at all possible. You cannot have both of the same person at once.”

“Cass had said once,” Rapunzel stumbled a little on the memory, painful as it was. “She told me once that I’ve never let her ignore that we had always been standing on the opposite sides of a divide between the beggars and the choosers.”

“That is a somewhat uncharitable assessment,” her mom admitted with a raised eyebrow.

“Yeah, well, she had a lot of reasons to be angry and... uncharitable... with me by then. And she wasn’t wrong, either.”

Queen Arianna sighed. “There isn’t a way for that divide to no longer exist between the two of you, and that is something you must accept. And, now that you know where you’ve erred, you have all that you need to not err in this way again.”

“And with another person.” Rapunzel leaned back in her chair, and closed her eyes for a moment. “What do you think I should do?”

“That will depend on the person of your choosing, to a certain degree—on fitting your temperament against theirs.” Queen Arianna rested her head on a hand, one finger at her chin and another at her lips in a thoughtful gesture. “I would not advise you to choose any of the newer servants, both because we do not know them well enough yet to let them so close to the sole heiress of Corona and because it would be a slight to the loyalty of those who had been with us for years and decades now. Ethel is significantly older than yourself—by the time you take the throne, she will be advanced in her years enough for such an increase in workload to be quite a strain on her and possibly beyond her. Joanne... is a dear, but lacks... hm. Certain quickness of wit, I would say, at the risk of sounding uncharitable myself.”

“Faith, then,” Rapunzel said with resignation.

“That would be my suggestion,” Queen Arianna confirmed. “She had requested the honour of the position in rather passionate terms, as well, shortly after the Saporian insurrection.”

“And I’ve already been... not great to Faith, at that time.” Rapunzel rubbed at her forehead, both tired and embarrassed now. “I was trying to force her to be like Cass.”

To her surprise, her mom laughed quietly. “Forgive me, I was trying to imagine a sweet thing like Faith attempting to emulate a lion-hearted little bundle of audacity like Cassandra.”

Rapunzel smiled, for what felt like the first time in years. Cass was lion-hearted. And she was a bundle of audacity.

And unlike Rapunzel, she came to a realization as stark as it was obvious in hindsight, Cass had grown up in court.

She looked up at her mom again. “What was Cass like? When she was little?”

“I can’t claim to have been present enough in her life to be an influence, but... it had been comforting, in the most bittersweet way, to catch sight of her every now and then. To see her grow up, and grow stronger and sharper and only ever more steadfast, year by year,” Queen Arianna admitted, an old pain mixed with melancholy in her eyes now. “The Captain brought her in on the night you were taken. I’m not certain whether I believe in fate, but even on the nights I don’t, I think there is poetry to be found in such events. And on the nights I do...” she placed a gentle hand against Rapunzel’s cheek. “Well, if there is a cosmic spinner of destinies out there, then no one had felt the touch of their loom if not the two of you.”

“She saved my life,” Rapunzel said quietly, but with a stoic certainty of having realized as much over the months and weeks she had spent learning candid self-examination. “When Cass took the Moonstone, she saved my life. Everyone tiptoes around it or flat-out accuses her and calls her a traitor, but if I had touched the Moonstone back then, I would be dead. She took it so I wouldn’t have to. And I know it was also because she was already being lied to by Zhan Tiri, but I saw her panic when she accidentally lashed out with the rocks. She didn’t want to hurt anyone—and she didn’t want to watch me get hurt with my own stubbornness all over again. She didn’t try to fight us. She just yelled at me a lot, and defended herself when Adira attacked her to take the Moonstone back. All she tried to do was to leave. And, I’m realizing now, she had only yelled as much as she did because she was making her one last attempt to get me to listen, and she only left after I didn’t.”

“Perhaps it would be wise not to push Faith quite as hard, then,” her mom suggested with a smile.

Rapunzel laughed despite herself, the tension and gravity of the conversation breaking. “Do you think I can still make friends with Faith? If I say sorry for wanting her to be someone else, and don’t try to take so much from her as I had done with Cass?”

“I think it will be quite impossible for you and Faith to work together smoothly if you do not grow fond of each other,” Queen Arianna pointed out, if not unkindly. “But I don’t think you should view this situation as making a friend. Becoming your lady-in-waiting will mean an uptick in Faith’s status, but also in her responsibilities, and I think it would be wise to let her adjust before anything else. But... if you are determined to have more than a strictly professional relationship with her... it will require you both to, eventually, come to an understanding about what is necessary in public and what is permissible in private—only the latter space can accommodate displays such as informal ways of address, or honesty overruling politeness, or gestures of affection that would be seen as disrespectful in official settings. The sooner you understand where the difference between public and private spaces lies, for both of you, the easier it will be to maintain the necessary divide between you in public without letting it sour and injure your closeness in private. From what you’ve told me, it seems as if that was sorely lacking between you and Cassandra.”

“It was. It is. I’ve never thought about things between us like that, not until right now,” Rapunzel said with a sigh.

Squeak, Pascal reminded from her shoulder.

“...And I haven’t because I didn’t have to,” Rapunzel agreed reluctantly.

“I believe you have now discovered what privilege is,” her mom said gently. “The freedom to not even be aware of some matters, because they do not already affect you every minute of every day.”

Rapunzel trailed a thumb against the burn scars on one of her palms again. “I wish I could take so much back. I wish I could make it all up to Cass, one day. But I’ll start with not letting things get nowhere near as bad with Faith. I’ll talk to her first thing in the morning.”

“Excellent,” Queen Arianna said with no small amount of relief. “I’m glad you let me help you. And sweetheart... I know there is always work to do, and that as such, it is always a convenient excuse. But there is no point in postponing difficult conversations for when there is less work—there will never be less work. If you are struggling, I want you to remember than you can always ask to speak with me, and I will make time for you. We’ve been robbed of so many years together already. We can’t let a sense of duty rob us of any more.”

Rapunzel stood up from her chair and stepped closer for a hug. “I love you so much, mom.”

“I love you so much, too.”

Even after all this time, each embrace Rapunzel shared with her mom felt like they were making up for all they had been denied, all they had missed out on—like every hug was the result of thousands that hadn’t happened, of their ghosts laid to rest, of their echoes coming home.

“Well, you should probably get some rest,” Rapunzel said finally, and reluctantly stepped away. “There was one last thing I’d wanted to look at before bed, as well.”

“Burning the midnight oil so young?” Queen Arianna asked with a smile. “Don’t let the habit build. You’ll never escape it otherwise.”

Rapunzel laughed a little, even as she headed for the door, but hesitated and let her arm drop instead of pull on the handle. “Mom?”

“Yes, sweetheart?”

“You always say that problems are for being solved,” Rapunzel said slowly. “And Adira has been helping me with seeing the problem before I can solve it. But what about when I can’t see it? When I don’t know what I’m feeling, other than that there’s a lot of it?”

“That is certainly an obstacle,” her mom admitted, taken somewhat off-guard with the question, and considered quickly before speaking again. “You’re remarkably inclined towards working with imagery and with your hands—making things, particularly artwork. Have you tried drawing whatever it is that you feel so strongly? Perhaps that would aid you in examining the issue.”

“I haven’t, but...” Rapunzel imagined flipping through her journal a few years from now and looking at messy, dark, disturbing illustrations of her inner demons right next to the record of everything she loved, and winced at the very thought. “I don’t think I want to put those things in my journal.”

“Then start a second journal,” Queen Arianna suggested. “A journal of recovery, rather than life itself? Something you can close and put away when you no longer need the aid of its mirror.”

“...Huh.” That, Rapunzel realized, did sound better. A lot better.

“I know you’ve spent a lot of time, recently, very focused on your past. It is sometimes necessary to address one’s faults and failings in such a manner, and I couldn’t be more proud of how readily and how diligently you focus on work so difficult,” her mom said softly. “But it wouldn’t do to let yourself fixate on what you can’t undo, to get bogged down in guilt and blame. It is not the purpose of such endeavours to flagellate yourself, and they are not a punishment—you should not seek one, not within the endeavour and not elsewhere—quite the contrary, I believe you should find small ways to reward yourself for your persistence, and ways to look forward to the effort of it. Try out something new, perhaps. A different art style, or method, or medium. It could further help maintain a distinction from your regular journal, as well, if such a separation is something you want.”

“I think I know what the front page will be.” Rapunzel smiled at her mom again. “Thank you. I’ll try it out as soon as I can.”

“Be sure to let me know if it helped, honey. Good night.”

“Good night, mom.”

The door thudded closed behind her, and Rapunzel yawned as she headed towards her own room.

Squeak, Pascal said sleepily.

“Soon. Thank you for staying up with me this long, Pascal.” Rapunzel scratched his cheek with a finger. “I feel braver when you’re with me.”

Squeak, Pascal demurred, and made an inquisitive noise while moving his hands as if to open a book.

“I think it’s a great idea. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself, just—a second journal. It’s so simple.” Rapunzel scoffed at herself, a dozen ideas already milling through her head. “And you know, I think mom is right, I should try something new. I know it didn’t work out for me before, but that art teacher was an acolyte of Zhan Tiri, so what did she know?”

Squeak, Pascal said, the very sound of it derogatory.

Rapunzel laughed a little. A second journal, she thought again, and found herself smiling. Sturdier covers, though. No cheerful embellishments across them. Maybe metal fittings at the corners. A bookmark ribbon, deep red or dark gray. And, she decided as she remembered how it had felt to realize that someone she trusted—her father, no less—had read her journal without asking, a lock.

It’s not like a lock could not be pried off or picked, she knew perfectly well for dating a reformed thief. But just the fact that it was there, as opposed to simple cords of leather to be wrapped around the covers and hold them closed, would spell out that this one’s contents were even more private.

And if she painted some of these feelings, some of these fears and nightmares, maybe she could finally stop thinking about them, as well.

Rapunzel entered her room and closed the door behind herself, noticing that a single-candle lamp was alight at her desk. Next to it, a few scuffed albums had been left in an uneven stack, piled atop an atlas almost twice as large—and beside the books sat a cup of hot chocolate, long since gone cold and too thick to actually drink anymore. She smiled. Chocolate mousse wasn’t so bad, either, and she could eat it with a spoon.

She lit a second candle and replaced the nearly burnt-out one inside the lamp, all but one of its inner surfaces lined with mirrors to allow for an adequate amount of light for reading from a single little flame. Then, with Pascal’s help to unlace, she changed into a more comfortable nightgown, and sat with the books to wind down from the day before bed.

Came out near the Equis-Koto border, Cassandra’s letter had said—but not on which side of that border.

Rapunzel looked at the short note and the three mundane treasures sent with it. For most of her life, there had been only three books in the world—one about geology, one about botany, and one about cooking. Cass had sent a stone, a flower, and a feather from a game bird she had presumably caught and cooked for herself. She couldn’t remember whether she had told Cass of the tower’s three books, and consequently, whether this was intentional. But if it was, then it was yet another reason to love Cass dearly, and to miss her so much. And if it wasn’t, then it was yet another way to understand implicitly what her mom had meant about the nights on which she believed in fate.

It had taken a while spent with the atlas, even knowing that she was only looking at the border territories of Equis and Koto, before Rapunzel leaned closer to it with a feeling of triumph. A small mining town, built around a silver mine—both of which had been on the Kotoan side of the border when the cartographer was doing their work, but with the text beside the maps stating that the area was engulfed in a lasting conflict between the two kingdoms, and with an editor’s note scribbled in since then stating that the mine had been exhausted and shut down some seven years ago, now.

Rapunzel trailed her fingers over the map. What had she been up to, seven years ago? She would’ve been thirteen, back then. Cass would’ve been seventeen going on eighteen, she thought with a sad smile, and probably planning to apply for the royal guard on the morning after her birthday. Eugene would’ve been nineteen or freshly turned twenty, dodging the royal guard in turn. All lives that had seemed so clearly defined and so obvious with what their futures would hold—tower, service, adventures—all lives that had been so static and untested, from perspective. Seven years, and how many times each of their worlds had been upended? Seven years, and it barely merited a single note beside a cartographer’s work.

She took the dried flower’s stem into her fingers, carefully, to examine it in the firelight again. Eighteen years with the same book about botany, the same she had learned to read on and the same she would idly flip through every other day, and she could still recite most of its contents from memory. It did have a section on herbs—not a very large one, but still—as did the cookbook, with entirely different herbs.

Neither taught her about this particular plant, nor had the travels and classes she had taken since leaving the tower behind.

Rapunzel glanced to Pascal, fast asleep on her shoulder. Then to Owl, snoozing atop a chair in the corner of the room, an emptied bowl of choice cuts of raw meat nearby. She wiped a hand over the unopened herbariums piled atop her desk, then blew the lamp’s candle out and finally headed to bed. She would have to take this one victory at a time.

Silver was usually mined from ore, she thought sleepily as she drifted off, and Cass’ stone had a vein of native silver rather than a vein of ore. There was no way a mine would shut down on the pretence of depletion when there was still native metal to be found in its shafts.

Morning came all too quickly, but at least it came heralded with Eugene’s chipper voice, and Rapunzel sat up in bed with a broad yawn before calling out to him, “Come in!”

“Oh, someone’s sleeping in today, huh?” Eugene crossed the room while Rapunzel was rubbing at her eyes, and sat at the edge of her bed. “Well, I have excellent news: no holding court today, and no one to meet.”

“One person to meet. Send Faith in as soon after breakfast as you can find her,” Rapunzel said with another yawn. “I talked to my mom until very late last night, and I think I’m ready after all.”

“New lady-in-waiting?” Eugene asked.

Rapunzel nodded. “I hope you don’t mind?”

Eugene laughed. “Sunshine, we always knew this was going to be temporary. I don’t know what I’m doing! And it wasn’t about starting to know, but about faking it for long enough to buy you time. Don’t get me wrong, I’d do it again, but I’m a little relieved that it’s over. I’ve been thinking about a bit of a project, recently, and I’m glad I’ll have the time to really sit down with it, too.”

“What kind of project?”

“Well, I’ve been on the wrong side of the Coronian justice system a few times—maybe a few more than a few—I know that, you know that, everybody knows that. And it doesn’t work,” Eugene said simply. “The prisons are about as secure as a sieve. And getting punished for crime is all fine and dandy, but there’s not really an alternative for ex-convicts than going back to crime. You know the pub thugs: they’re good folks, under the grime. Lance, me, Angry and Catalina, we’re all doing good enough with the whole making an honest living thing, ever since we were given the chance to. I think we could get rid of a lot of crime in the kingdom if more people had the chance to, or if they knew that there were more options than to just... ruin someone else’s life.”

“That,” Rapunzel said slowly, “is certainly a project.”

“All the more reason to start early, am I right?”

“You are.” Rapunzel stretched, and got out of bed. The window was rain-streaked, she noticed as she walked past it, meaning there would not be a shared breakfast out in the gardens, this time. She came to a stop in front of Owl, who was idly cleaning his feathers in the corner of the room. “Do you think you’ll be able to fly back to her tomorrow?”

Hoot, Owl said, disgruntled.

“What about the day after?”

Hoot, Owl said in a considerably more favourable tone.

“Okay.” She turned back to Eugene. “There’s actually one last errand I’d like to ask you to run, as my... gentleman—”

“Up-up-up-up-up.” Eugene raised a finger. “I’ve decided to stick with 'valet', for my resume.”

Rapunzel laughed. “Can you take a note to a bookbinder from me?”

And maybe it ended up more of an incredibly detailed and specific order, rather than a note, but there was no way she wouldn’t be particular with a new journal. With breakfast not a communal affair this time, on account of some pressing matter or another having demanded her parents’ time, Rapunzel took the meal in her room, slowly reading through the stack of herbariums as she ate, Cass’ dried flower kept in sight for easy reference. There were no entries so far to reference it against, though.

Rapunzel looked at the book to have failed her first, frowning. The Complete Herbal of Corona. Either not as complete as it could be, or the plant didn’t grow in Corona at all.

She was halfway through a second album, still fruitlessly, when a knock came against the half-open door to her room, and she looked up to see Faith the handmaiden standing there nervously.

“You’ve asked for me, your highness?”

“I did. Come on in, sit.” Rapunzel pushed the album away, and only just noticed that her breakfast platter was still more than half-full. The perils of reading at breakfast. “So, uh. I’m sure you’re aware I was supposed to pick a new lady-in-waiting about half a year ago.”

Faith nodded, a cautious look on her face now.

“And I know we’ve... tried, and that had been a disaster,” Rapunzel looked away with a sigh. “I wanted to say sorry, I’ve been trying to force whoever took that place to be like Cassandra, and it was unfair to all of you. But if you’re still interested, especially when I don’t do that anymore, well, the position is open and I need someone in it.”

“I– yes, of course, it would be a great honour,” Faith blurted out immediately, the conversation obviously taking a turn very different from what she had been expecting. “As soon as you’ll have me, your highness.”

“Today?” Rapunzel hazarded, and was rewarded with an enthusiastic nod. “Look, Faith, I don’t– I don’t know you very well yet. But, I was hoping that rather than just work together, we could be friends? After we figure out where we stand with each other? If we took it slow, and were careful about it?”

“I’ll do whatever you ask of me, your highness, to the best of my ability,” Faith said slowly, that cautious look back in place. “But if I’m not mistaken, that is not what you’re asking.”

“It’s not. It isn’t... something I can order you to do.”

“I’m not opposed to the idea, but it might be prudent to establish,” Faith paused for a moment as she weighed her words. “Ways, to communicate whether we’re acting in an official or unofficial space, or to swiftly correct from one mode of conversation into the other as the situation changes?”

Rapunzel smiled a little, trying not to get too overwhelmingly excited. “Like code words?”

“That would be a way,” the handmaiden agreed easily. “Perhaps something to start with.”

“Then, do you think you could call me anything other than 'your highness' in an unofficial space?”

Faith leaned back a little with an uncertain, slightly overwhelmed expression. “Oh. Hmm. I’m not... quite certain if I could get used to anything overly familiar, that would go against everything I’ve been taught of in court. But, if 'princess' would suffice...?”

“I’ll take it,” Rapunzel said immediately, and felt relief washing away months of stressing over the matter from her soul when she caught Faith on trying not to smile. “Like I said, I won’t try to make you be Cass. You don’t have to call me by my first name, just not... that, when it’s not necessary.”

“Very well,” Faith glanced at the closed door, then inclined her head, “princess. And if I may speak candidly, from however little I’ve known Cassandra, I feel quite certain in that no one in the whole world can be like her. Though, Lord Hector certainly tries.”

“What do you mean?” Rapunzel raised a hand as she heard her own tone. “Like, 'how so', not 'I am offended with the comparison'.”

The newly-minted lady-in-waiting discreetly let out a sigh of relief before answering. “At his, um... sunniest disposition, he is somewhat reminiscent of Cassandra at her most aggravated.”

Rapunzel burst out laughing. “I’m sorry, I just—Hector, sunny—oh but that’s good...”

She bit her tongue before she could ask if she had mentioned that Hector had tried to kill her and all of her friends and companions on multiple occasions in the past. The Dark Kingdom’s last knights were all sharing a rather peculiar status in Corona; King Edmund was a guest of honour at the court, and would remain one until the end of his days, especially for the part where his heir was dating Rapunzel and had been for a while now. Quirin had returned to his farm in Old Corona with little fuss, to the life he had built since the mass exile, and with the respect of both of his kings. Adira was still in Castle Corona, despite having initially implied that she’d only hang around for as long as it would take Xavier to forge her a new sword, though half the time no one knew where to find her. And Hector had been a problem that no one seemed to know what to do with—except for Adira, who tirelessly pelted him with smug looks and 'I told you so's as thoroughly delighted as they were, in fairness, well-earned. He was too brutal for the guard, too volatile to become a knight-errant or an outrider, a diplomatic incident waiting to happen if he were to encounter an allied kingdom’s envoys and treat them like potential threats. And now he was also, apparently, growing restless in his boredom.

Rapunzel dragged her mind back to the matter at hand, and sent Faith away to prepare however she needed for the new function she was about to embrace. Finished her breakfast properly, and looked at the herbariums again before leaving the current one open next to the atlas beside the stack. She re-read the note Cass had sent, though she already had it near-memorized, and could imagine hearing it in Cassandra’s voice. Then she stacked the books away to make room for a few pages of stationery, and stared at the blank paper for a very long time as she thought about what to write—and how to write it, how to not push so hard anymore and how to still speak her mind well enough, but in a gentler way—and about what to keep silent, what would be unnecessary or too painful to bring up. And for the next two days, in-between testing the waters with another, in-between tending to her duties and her needs, she wrote. Thought about how much she missed Cass, and how Cass had a staying presence in her life even while absent from it, and she painted. Thought about how the puzzle Cass had given her to solve was proving unexpectedly hard, but how regardless of its answer, she knew that Cass was doing a lot where she was, even when no one knew her well enough to expect such actions, and she sewed. And when the two days have passed, Rapunzel made sure Owl was ready to go, about to carry a response that was maybe perhaps possibly a little disproportionate in comparison to Cassandra’s bare-bones note. But then again, that had always been true of the two of them—and maybe, Rapunzel hoped, it could be tamed into becoming a good thing.

“Look after her, okay?”

Hoot, Owl said primly, very clear on that she did not have to tell him so.

And once he was on his way, Rapunzel stared after him until he disappeared against the sky, before she sighed and went back to work.

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What had she done?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“None taken.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will you be okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You two alright?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the Tysons?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoot, Owl confirmed easily.

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

Hoot, Owl said smugly.

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

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

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

Hoot, Owl scolded.

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

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

“Do not snap at me, mister.”

Hoot, Owl said with frustration.

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

Hoot, Owl acquiesced reluctantly.

“Are you angry with me?”

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

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

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

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

Hoot, Owl encouraged.

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

Hoot, Owl insisted.

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

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

There were three, in total.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hi, Cass.

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

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

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

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

Hoot, Owl acquiesced easily.

“Thanks.” Cassandra went back to reading.

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

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

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

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

Hoot, Owl rebuked firmly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rapunzel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just my parents. So two.”

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

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

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

“Long as I’m not alone outside, yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoot, Owl commented.

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

Hoot, Owl praised.

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

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

Chapter Text

Being a rain-soaked rat of a woman in these parts was, by now, an intimately familiar state of existence. Being a rain-soaked rat of a woman against this much windchill, however, was both new and worse.

Cassandra shivered in the saddle, bundled up against the wind whipping her with sleet as best she could. The light little cloak she had taken with herself when she was leaving Castle Corona, though reasonably water-resistant, was no longer an adequate outer layer of clothing, not this long into the autumn and not this far from her home kingdom’s comparatively light winters—barring the curse-caused blizzard two winters back, admittedly. The sea, she thought as she brushed the slowly building up layer of partially melted snow from her reinforced glove. While Equis wasn’t entirely land-locked, the nearest shore was quite a ways away, weeks of travel even in a bird’s flight—entirely enough for the air to turn dryer and the climate harsher. She was going to need a warmer cloak made. Or just a longer coat, if with slits on the sides to still allow for mounting a horse. And definitely boots, especially if the wet, muddy weather was to hold. Maybe just an entire change of warmer clothes, Cassandra admitted with resignation, in which case she should probably hunt something for pelts to save up both on money and on time.

She pushed her hood’s edge a little up her forehead so she could look around, squinting through the frozen rain. The lone, massive weeping willow Moreen had described loomed ahead, marking the spot Cassandra was supposed to take a left at to get to Tyson farm without trampling a field.

Hoot, Owl complained from where he was tucked into Cassandra’s neckline, his head nestled against her throat, as they began to trek directly into the wind.

Snort, Fidella echoed, whole-heartedly disgusted.

“Me too, you guys,” Cassandra grumbled as the tugged the hood of her cloak as far down as it would go.

Snort, Fidella repeated, more insistently now.

Cassandra paused at that. Lifted a hand to shield Owl from the sleet carried on the wind as she leaned into the next sharper gust to blow past, sniffed against it. “I can’t smell anything yet.”

Snort, Fidella said patiently and continued on, as if to emphasize the 'yet'.

Frowning, Cassandra readjusted her flimsy little cloak around Owl and herself. Horses had a keener sense of smell than humans, she was pretty sure, and so she wasn’t too worried. But the fact that she could smell nothing also meant she could smell no woodsmoke—just as she could see no lit windows in the distance, despite being on a path that led straight to a farmhouse, if directions given by one of that household’s members were to be believed. And especially when coupled with the autumn’s early nightfall, the chilly wind, and the sleet carried upon it, the lack of any beacons of firelight ahead meant that any last dregs of hope Cassandra may have harboured about the Tysons’ situation being just an elaborate misunderstanding were losing substance quickly indeed.

She pulled on the reins, signalling Fidella to stop, as she spotted something a little ways off the path. Folding one arm around Owl to cushion him from the impact of her feet hitting the ground, Cassandra dismounted and walked out into the field, towards a darker shape upon the ground. A cow, she realized quickly—or rather, the skeletal remains of one, gnawed on and cleansed of flesh rather thoroughly by whatever predators that felled it, by any carrion eaters that got to the carcass afterwards.

“Hm.” She looked to Fidella. “Think this is what you smelled earlier?”

Snort, Fidella said negatively.

“Same smell, though?”

The mare confirmed with a little whinny. Cassandra looked at the bones again.

“Well then.”

There were no tracks left in the soil anymore, not after that many days of almost non-stop heavy rain, and no way to tell what had been responsible. But any predator large enough to bring down cattle—whether wolf, bear, mountain lion, or something entirely unknown, or even just a group of hungry outlaws—was likely going to be a problem.

Cassandra climbed into the saddle again and nudged Fidella to continue on. Not a half hour longer, during which the frozen rain mercifully subsided at long last, Cassandra squinted through the rapidly descending nightfall as she thought she spied a darker shadow of buildings ahead. Another gust of wind, and she clasped a hand over her nose and mouth as she abruptly learned what the mare had meant earlier.

“Oh, son of a—”

Fidella tossed her head with a disgruntled whinny.

“—mother.”

The stench of death was heavy in the air so close to the farmhouse, a noxious odour of rotting meat hanging over the muddy courtyard like a cloud. Cassandra pulled a scarf out of one of her saddlebags and tied it around her face, wishing fervently that the smell of smoke from the Brazen Brigand’s hearth would cling to the fabric for as long as possible, then opened the top of her tunic to let Owl outside.

“Fly perimeter for me, please.”

Hoot, Owl acquiesced easily, and took off into the night sky.

Cassandra climbed down from the saddle again and lit herself a torch. The door to the house was closed, but that to the barn was laying in the mud, evidently rammed off its hinges from the inside—a desperate bull’s job, it looked like. She glanced inside the barn, but didn’t enter for how much more intense the stench of decay was there, and thought she spied the remains of at least one more cow within, at the edge of firelight from her torch. Noticing a chicken coop beside one of the barn’s walls, she broke the flimsy lock at its door to open it, and regretted that choice immediately as she found nothing but dead chickens, rotting feathers, broken eggshells, and a smell to match. Then she walked up to the house, switched the torch into her withered hand, and pulled the door open, finding that it hadn’t been locked.

The inside of the house hadn’t been disturbed much. There were still sacks and baskets and hams hung at the ceiling, the remains of a half-eaten meal long since finished by mice across the table—set for three people—the ladder up to a small attic area at the far end of the building hadn’t been pulled up, the chests and the cupboards were closed and orderly.

It certainly ruled out bandit culprits, Cassandra thought to herself as she wiped her boots on the doormat and walked inside. Whether for wealth or for food, anyone intending to raid the farmhouse would have ransacked it and taken as much as they could carry. Including the livestock—if not the cattle, then at least the chickens—instead of just leaving them to die where they stood.

She moved her torch in a wide arc, looking at the floor now, strewn with rodent droppings as it was. There were drag marks on the uneven clay surface underfoot, in how the straw scattered all across it had been pushed aside, in bloodstains that looked as if the blood had been sloppily wiped while wet but not scrubbed clean afterwards: two sets leading from inside the house to the doorstep.

Murder, then, and a very poorly masked one at that.

At least with Moreen smart enough to stay careful, and with Sebastian kind enough to consistently refuse service to the man who had most likely been responsible, Cassandra didn’t have to ride back overnight in an attempt to outrun impending tragedy again.

She sighed, then looked at Fidella over her shoulder. “Come on in. I’ll start a fire for the night, and look for the bodies once the sun comes up.”

Snort, Fidella said uneasily as she bowed herself enough to fit through the door.

“Well, it’s this or the barn with dead cattle inside it, you can pick whichever sounds better to you.”

Fidella gave her an unimpressed look, digging a hoof against the clay floor.

“I thought you might see my point.” Cassandra glanced up the chimney, and upon catching a glimpse of stars between clouds, she stacked firewood in the hearth and started it with her torch. While she was doing that, Owl flew in through the still-open door, and perched on a rafter. “Found anything?”

Hoot, Owl began counting out.

“So one in the field along the way, at least one in the barn, and another at the edge of the woods. Should’ve asked how much cattle they had before I left town,” Cassandra grumbled.

Hoot, Owl continued.

“Please tell me it was normal wolves, at least, and there was nothing as messed up as with the hounds in Wolf’s Head Hollow going on.”

Hoot, Owl confirmed.

“Okay, what else?”

Hoot, Owl told her.

Cassandra sighed again. “Of course he didn’t even bury them. Why would he, if he left the chickens inside the coop for weeks, and didn’t leave enough feed with the cattle. Anything more?”

Hoot, Owl said negatively.

“Alright. Good job. Let’s just stay warm overnight and I’ll deal with all that in the morning.” Cassandra closed the door and, upon noticing two iron hooks on its inner side, barred it for good measure. As she turned around, she caught a glimpse of colour—or reflected light, perhaps—under one of the cupboards. She walked up to it and knelt down, a prudent step away, so she could put her cheek to the floor and look under the cupboard.

An inhuman, high-pitched, modulated growl came from the darkness underneath.

“Here, kitty, kitty,” Cassandra said.

The cat hissed at her.

“Yeah, that figures.” Cassandra stood back up. “Owl, if you’re going to hunt for some of these mice overnight, can you catch a few for that fellow as well?”

Hoot, Owl agreed easily.

“Thanks.”

After hanging the clothes drenched with rain and sleet out to dry and tending to Fidella’s needs, Cassandra spent most of the evening going through the farmhouse to try and salvage what little was still left—cleaning the pantry of curdled milk and various foodstuffs that mice have gotten into, hanging a few more sacks from the rafters for protection against the rodents, climbing up to the ceiling to stuff more straw into the thatching where the recent wind and rain had caused a leak, sweeping the floors clean of old straw and rodent droppings. Keeping in mind that an actual burial would need holding, she went through several of the wooden chests in search of the most battered fabrics large enough to wrap an adult person in, to stitch into shrouds later. If the Tysons had been dead for nearly two weeks, they were not going to look pretty, and it would be a cruelty to let their daughter see them like that.

So much for no longer having to sew because of her arm, Cassandra thought tiredly as she folded a linen tablecloth with a few prominent stains that could not be washed out and a tattered wool blanket into her arms.

She considered climbing up to the small, open attic for the night, but decided that it would be weird to sleep in the dead people’s bed, and set out her bedroll on the floor beside the hearth instead. Mice weren’t going to be a problem with Owl around—and while she did crack her eyes open a few times, overnight, to the sound of a terrified little squeak abruptly cut short, none of her gear was gnawed on in the morning, and there were no new droppings within a fairly wide radius of the spot she had picked to sleep in.

There were also the scant remains of several unfortunate mice next to the cupboard, and the cat—its coat a two-toned, striped orange—was sitting beside it, instead of underneath, cleaning its muzzle with a licked forepaw when Cassandra blinked awake. As soon as she stirred, the cat startled, but froze in place immediately after rather than scamper back into its hiding place.

“Here, kitty, kitty,” Cassandra said again, without putting much heart into it. Then yawned and stretched slowly. “Alright, let’s not pretend we’re both stupid, I know you don’t like me.”

The cat licked its muzzle one more time, but otherwise stayed still.

“I’m going outside, then I’ll come back for a bit, then I’m leaving to bring Moreen back.” Cassandra watched the cat’s ears perk up at the name. “She’s okay, she’s the one who sent me. You just stay safe here, alright? I’m sure she’ll be happy to see you again.”

Mrow, the cat said in a forlorn tone.

“I know the other two aren’t okay. I can’t fix that,” Cassandra said gently as she sat up. “Did you see what happened?”

Mrow, the cat summarized.

“Not much of a fight, huh? Was it Carter?”

The cat folded its ears back and hissed, the sad doe-eyed look on its face instantly transforming into a visage of fury at that name.

“Yeah, that tracks.” Cassandra sighed. “I’ll leave a bit of better food for you, huh?”

And it was a good sign that the cat was eating in the first place, she thought as she left behind a generous handful of scraps sheared off the smoked ham by the ceiling. At least one thing was alive, and likely to stay alive, on this death-choked nightmare of a farm.

Snort, Fidella reminded as she followed Cassandra out of the house.

“I haven’t forgotten about eating, I just don’t want to eat before I’m done with the bodies,” Cassandra said dryly as she tied the freshly smoke-soaked scarf over her face again. “You can come if you like, but if there’s a wheelbarrow or anything similar around here, I’ll have to be using that instead of ride you.”

Snort, Fidella said nonetheless.

“Alright then. Give me a second.” Cassandra went into the doorless barn.

The significantly more intense stench of decay was coming from not one, but two dead cows, she discovered—both with the muzzles of their skulls laid amidst torn-up, spilled sacks of grain. Must have gorged themselves and died of bloat, Cassandra thought as the tried not to breathe and to look around as quickly as possible. There wasn’t a wheelbarrow in sight, but there was what looked to be the remains of another large wooden chest, lidless and with a pair of short, broad skis nailed to its bottom. It would do, Cassandra decided, and yanked on the rope attached to its front to pull it outside and through the ever-present mud. She then put her withered fingertips, glove and all, underneath the scarf and into her mouth to let out a sharp two-toned whistle at Owl.

“Which way?”

Hoot, Owl said, and flew ahead.

Finding the Tysons’ bodies wasn’t a challenge—not with a flying scout to lead her there. The shallow ditch they’ve been heaped into had since become almost a creek bed through the recent heavy rains, as well, turning the open grave into a deep puddle choked with muddy sludge. The challenge, Cassandra found, was in pulling the remains out of all that in a manner as respectful as at all possible. Then in stitching up the tablecloth and the blanket with a thick shoemaking cord that would hold well enough. Then in carrying the now-enshrouded bodies into that makeshift sled, while trying not to think about how swiftly the fabric was soaking through with rainwater and worse, how much work in the same vein was left with the barn and the chicken coop, how sickening the consequences could be if her reinforced glove was allowed to soak that sludge up. And by the time she was done, Cassandra found herself thankful several times over for deciding to delay breakfast after all of that has been dealt with.

She left the ditch as it was and started pulling the sled back towards the farm with one arm, her right glove tucked into her belt and her withered arm into her tunic, Fidella walking beside her and Owl perched atop the saddle. After dragging the bodies into the barn for now, Cassandra went back into the farmhouse to clean herself as thoroughly as humanly possible and change her clothes; the orange cat watched her throughout, curled up comfortably atop one of the wooden chests, but made no move—whether to approach or to hide. Finally, when Cassandra felt somewhere halfway to clean again, she ate a very late breakfast and tried to ignore how anything she put in her mouth tasted like ash, then donned her now-dried reinforced glove again and climbed into Fidella’s saddle to ride back towards Silberstadt, putting the mare through her paces this time.

When she arrived to where one of the dirt roads criss-crossing the town morphed into a street, however, it was to find a makeshift checkpoint under construction. The Equisian garrison was really beginning to take things seriously, Cassandra realized with more than a little surprise, raising one hand in a greeting as she approached.

“What business have you in town?” one of the guards called out to her.

“Sir, I’ve been in the neighbourhood for a month and a half,” Cassandra said calmly as she pulled Fidella to a halt in front of the checkpoint.

The guard’s eyes narrowed. “What’s a Coronian mercenary doing here for a month and a half?”

“I’ve engaged in a bit of sellsword work and in renovating the clinic, sir.”

“Oh yeah? Who’s running the clinic, then?”

“Emil, his daughter Eliza, and her husband Bruno,” Cassandra answered easily, growing frustrated. “May I enter, sir?”

The guard glared her a moment longer before he motioned his companions to open the checkpoint for her. “We’re watching you.”

Cassandra inclined her head to him as she passed through, and rolled her eyes as soon as she left the guards behind her. Equisian bastards, she caught herself thinking, and chided herself for it.

“Seven Kingdom scum,” she heard one of them muttering behind her back.

Never mind any more chiding she was about to engage in, then.

She gave Fidella’s reins to the Brazen Brigand’s stable boy, along with one more silver than she was supposed to pay, then turned as Owl alerted her with a hoot. A man was approaching her—modest-to-poor dress, unshaven for a few days—a local, and a familiar one. The same Sebastian had been yelling at to get out of his inn every day.

“You, Coronian—”

“Are you Carter Jenkins?” Cassandra cut him off.

Carter paused for a moment. “Maybe. What it’s to you?”

“I know what you did,” Cassandra said coldly.

He gave her an odd look—fear mixed with an attempt at intimidation. “Are you accusing me of something?”

“I don’t have to. I know exactly what you did. And in a minute, she’s going to know, as well.” Cassandra turned away from him, intent on walking through the Brigand’s door, and was pulled to a halt as the farmhand grabbed her arm.

“I can pay you. She can’t pay you. What do you want, huh? You’ll have it.”

“I want you to stop coming after her,” Cassandra said, slowly, and very clearly. “Now, hands off.”

Carter’s eyes darkened. His grip on Cassandra’s arm hardened. “Oh, you want her for yourself, is that it? Not if I have anything to say about it, you—”

He cut himself short with a yelp as Cassandra grabbed his wrist and stopped just short of dislocating it.

“Hands off, or I will break them off.”

“Like hell you will, right in front of the town square? The guards will break more than just your hands.” Carter laughed a little, a desperate look on his face now along with the fear. “Let’s be smart about this, huh? You tell her the truth—you tell her it was a bandit attack—and I’ll make you rich. She can’t do that. She has nothing to give you. But I do. We got a deal, yeah? You do your bit and I’ll do mine, partner.”

Cassandra heard her voice dip into a growl. “One more word out your mouth and you’ll be coughing it back up along with your teeth, you murdering piece of—”

“Oy, Kazandra!”

She turned at the sound of a familiar voice, if with a scowl at how the Ingvarrdian accent mangled her name, and saw Sigrid walking up towards them across the square.

The fletcher indicated Carter with a jerk of her chin. “Is he bothering you?”

“He is, in fact,” Cassandra admitted gratefully.

Sigrid gave an exaggerated sigh, and put the farmhand into a headlock, one far less gentle than the one Cassandra had been on the receiving end of. “Carter, Carter, we’ve talked about this. No one will think you’re cool enough to be gay just because you’re crushing only on extremely inaccessible women. It’s time to play in your league. I’m sure there are still pigs around that aren’t taken.”

“Agh– fucking—” Carter tried to push her off. The only thing he accomplished was that Sigrid flexed the arm she had around his neck. “Get off me, witch!”

“That’s sorceress to you.” Sigrid’s voice hardened from it’s demeaningly indulgent tone. When she looked up again, an odd look passed through her face, and her eyes momentarily flashed silver-and-black as she slowly sniffed at Cassandra and licked the smell from her lips. “You have the stench of death about you. What happened?”

Cassandra indicated Carter with a nod. “Why don’t you ask our little friend?”

Sigrid’s eyes, human-like again, narrowed slowly. “Ah-ha. I see.”

“You can’t prove anything,” the farmhand snarled at them.

“Can’t I? What was that about a witch, again?” Sigrid ran her knuckles across his scalp, only slightly too hard to be considered friendly, and yanked him off Cassandra, sending him stumbling away after herself as she walked off. “You know, it’s a real shame you don’t have feathers. I was thinking about finding myself something already soaked through with death.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about—!”

“I’d pluck you like a chicken, little boy.” The fletcher gave a contented laugh as she hauled him away from the tavern door. “Oh, but that would fly like a dream.”

Cassandra smiled as she watched Carter finally break out of that headlock, exactly at the moment a guard patrol had begun walking over. With Sigrid heading back to the smithy, unbothered, Cassandra went into the Brigand’s dining floor, waving a hello at Sebastian as she quickly scanned the tables.

“Is miss Tyson around?”

“Yeah, right over where she usually sits,” Sebastian nodded towards the countertop’s hidden corner, at the same time as Moreen leaned out from it.

“You’re back so soon? Did you find what...?”

Cassandra folded her arms behind her back, and tried to make her voice sound gentle. “Your parents are dead.”

Moreen looked down, sagging a little where she was on a heavy sigh.

“Fuck,” Sebastian said softly. “Listen, if there’s anything I can do to help—”

“No. No, I already owe you enough.” Moreen pressed a hand to her eyes and took a deep breath before looking at Cassandra again and beckoning her over. “I knew this was what you were going to say, but thank you for going all the same. And I know there’s probably... not much left to go off after all this time, but... do you have any idea what could have happened?”

“It looked like there was an argument and a scuffle over a meal for three,” Cassandra said as she leaned against the counter rather than sit. “Then two bodies were dragged outside.”

“Carter.” Moreen’s voice dropped into a dangerous tone.

“That would be my suspicion,” Cassandra agreed, choosing to omit that a cat had told her as much. “There weren’t any obvious signs of theft. A lot of things are left in their places. It’s obviously not been a raid of bandits or marauding soldiers. So I think he killed them after you left, then followed you here, and has been around waiting for you ever since—just now, he tried to bribe me into lying to you. I can’t do anything in town, not with how many guards are swarming here now and not with how they’re just begging for an excuse to give me trouble. And I don’t have any actual hard evidence to make a formal accusation. But if you’re okay with going home, I’d like to tag along, because he’ll follow you again.”

“And you’ll deal with him away from the guards’ eyes?” Moreen asked hopefully.

“I’ve killed murderers around here before,” Cassandra said calmly. “I can do it again.”

“Thank you. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” Moreen reached between them, and it took Cassandra a moment to realize that her withered hand was being held in both the farmer’s own now. “Did you see if the animals are okay?”

“I found four dead cows. Or what was left of them, rather,” Cassandra said uncomfortably. “How many heads of cattle did you have?”

“Four.” Moreen leaned her back against the wall, as if staggered with this next piece of devastating news. “And the chickens?”

Cassandra cleared her throat. “He left them shut in the coop without food or water this entire time.”

“Bastard,” Moreen hissed as she hid her face in her hands.

“I’ve, uh, retrieved your parents’ bodies,” Cassandra said as she reached to place a hand on Moreen’s shoulder in a gesture she hoped would be comforting. “If there’s any place you can think of where they’d like to be buried, I’ll help you dig.”

“He didn’t even bury them?” Moreen’s voice broke.

“I found a cat that made it through okay,” Cassandra offered lamely.

“Oh—” Moreen rubbed at her eyes furiously before looking up, a desperate attempt to latch onto the one glint of hope she was given. “Barley’s alive?”

Cassandra stared at her for a moment. “You named your cat Barley?”

“Well– she’s orange with darker stripes, yes? Like a field of barley at sundown.”

Cassandra shook her head slightly. “It’s a fair distance to your farm, but we can make it before nightfall if we eat now and go immediately after.”

“Heavens,” Moreen said in a hollow tone. “It is my farm now, isn’t it? At least until my brother comes back from war. If he comes back from war. I’m sorry, it’s just...”

“It’s okay. It’s a lot.”

Moreen nodded with a sigh. “Let’s eat and go. Let’s just... get things in order, at least.”

“Okay, then.” Cassandra looked at Sebastian. “Think you can whip up two servings of anything?”

“Give me five minutes,” Sebastian said confidently.

“And some provisions, as well, two people and a horse. A week’s worth?”

“Not a problem.”

“I knew there was a reason I kept coming here. Besides the stable, of course.” Cassandra grinned at Sebastian’s raised eyebrow. “How much?”

“Oh, on the house.” Sebastian raised a hand when Moreen tried to protest. “None of that. On the house. And I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you,” Moreen said tiredly.

Sebastian patted her arm consolingly, and gave Cassandra a deep, respectful nod. She inclined her head back at him, as much in response as it was in surrender before the observation he had made not a few days ago: that Cassandra’s method of finding something to do was based on how needed it was, not how glamorous or profitable or easily completed.

And what of it, Cassandra thought to herself in a tone as aggressive as if she were daring someone to have a problem with that. What, was she supposed to turn away someone who came up to her and asked her help, only hers and no one else’s? To turn her back on someone in danger, and pick a paying task instead, never mind that she still had enough coin for herself and for an emergency? Her father raised her better than that.

Sepulchral as the atmosphere was, the meal was completed quickly enough, and the satchel of more non-perishable foods was easily assembled within that time—hard cheese, travel bread, dried fruit, a sack of feed. Cassandra took Fidella out of the stable and motioned Moreen closer, only to find her just short of backing away and evidently daunted with the mare’s sheer bulk.

“You’ve never ridden horseback before?”

Moreen shook her head slowly. “We have a bullock cart. Had, at least. I don’t... know how to deal with horses.”

“Well, then it’s a good thing your first experience is going to be Fidella. Don’t be afraid, she’s very gentle.” Cassandra took her steed by the bitless bridle, more for show than to actually hold the mare still. “I’ll give you a boost into the saddle. Come on.”

She couldn’t help but think of Riccardo the halberdier and his own aversion to horses as she helped Moreen climb onto Fidella’s back, then followed, settling herself into place behind the farmer and reaching around her to take the reins. She was pulling Fidella around when felt Moreen stiffen, and followed her gaze to where she was focused on someone in the muddy streets—Carter, predictably, wild-eyed and with hair still mussed from Sigrid’s treatment of him.

Cassandra gave him a very mean smile, hoping to make the murderer angry enough to follow them out of town, then nudged Fidella into a trot towards Tyson farm. As soon as they passed the checkpoint at the edge of town again, she turned to Owl, seated on her shoulder.

“Keep an eye on that guy, would you?”

Hoot, Owl agreed easily, and took off into the sky.

“We’ll have an advanced warning now,” Cassandra said calmly. “Lean forward in the saddle a bit.”

“Um, okay?” Moreen tried to accommodate the request, even though she clearly had no idea what was expected of her.

“Think we can make it all the way before sundown?” Cassandra called out to the mare under them.

Fidella gave a confident little whinny, and dropped straight into a canter.

~*~

“I must confess, it eludes me why you’re so adamant about refusing him a place on the royal guard,” King Edmund said with a frown. “Hector is a very loyal and extremely capable man in his prime. It will not do to keep him idle anymore.”

“He’s also a violent sadist who only respects the rules when they let him be terrible to people, and putting him on the guard would just let him do that more often,” Eugene countered, frustration slipping into his tone. “If he gets patrol duty, Corona will be terrorized by its own police force instead of by the criminals. If he gets jail duty, we’ll start finding dead prisoners, and I know someone had insisted to abolish the death penalty—” he blew a kiss to Rapunzel, who pretended to catch it with a smile, “—after yours truly had narrowly escaped being hanged. If we make him an outrider, he’ll attack the first envoy of an allied kingdom he sees, and say that he thought they were a spy.”

“True enough that he may be...” King Edmund speared a brussel sprout with his fork as he considered his words. “Overzealous, at times. But he is a great knight, and I insist that he must not be cast aside any longer.”

“We will find a position for a man of his standing,” King Frederic promised. “One that will not, hopefully, encourage any of those more unfortunate tendencies.”

“I appreciate the declaration, but we have been searching for such a position for nearly three months now. It’s been long enough,” King Edmund said sternly.

“Maybe we’re looking at it the wrong way,” Rapunzel spoke up, and looked at Eugene as both her parents and his father turned to her. “What was Hector up to when we met him?”

“Killing us,” Eugene said dryly. “Riding a rhino. Destroying the caravan. Beating Cass into the ground. Shouting matches with Adira as they tried to kill each other. Which by the way, if they don’t stop demolishing every room or courtyard they’re in when yet another one of those breaks out between them, we’ll never complete renovations of the castle. And I think he was also up to unleashing something left behind by Zhan Tiri at the Great Tree, after Cass had pushed him off that cliff.”

Rapunzel gently set aside the guilt coming with the memory of what else had been done to Cass at the Great Tree, focusing again on the matter at hand instead. “And Adira said that he was tasked with guarding the Great Tree?”

“He was indeed,” King Edmund confirmed. “Both to stand watch at the edge of the Dark Kingdom, and to ward the foul powers of that place from any who would seek to use them. I’m sure you are aware that demon had a cultist following.”

“Yeah, we’ve met a few.” Eugene scowled at the memories.

“What if,” Rapunzel said slowly, “we asked Hector to map Herz Der Sonne’s tunnels again?”

Eugene stared at her for a moment. Then clapped his hands with a wide grin. “Sunshine, you are a genius.”

“I’m afraid I don’t quite follow,” King Edmund turned his attention to her more fully.

“One of the Coronian kings, centuries ago, had created a system of underground tunnels to move his knights and supplies through during a war,” Rapunzel explained. “But the only existing map of those tunnels was destroyed not too long before the battle with Zhan Tiri, and even that map didn’t account for all the damage the tunnels had suffered through all these years, or for the many traps strewn all throughout them. The Great Tree was like a maze—the tunnels are like a maze. Maybe Hector would enjoy this kind of thing.”

“And! It gets him out of the castle!” Eugene exclaimed happily, and rolled his eyes at King Edmund’s withering look. “Oh come on, half the staff are terrified of him and the other half are dreaming of the good old days when Cassandra was the castle’s resident stormcloud person. Which by the way, was Hector abandoned by his mother as a baby, too? Because—”

“Do not make that comparison,” Rapunzel said sternly.

“Alright, that is unfair to Cass.”

Rapunzel turned to King Edmund again. “I don’t think Hector will be able to take his rhinoceros with him into the tunnels, though, not with how low the ceilings can be. Also, some of the traps I’ve seen in there have been pitfalls.”

“And how many times have you ventured into these trap-filled, incredibly dangerous places?” King Frederic asked pointedly.

Rapunzel smiled her best innocent smile at him. “Only as many as the duty of the Princess and the good of the kingdom demanded.”

Eugene choked quietly on his drink, watching the conversation play out from behind his goblet with glee.

“Hm,” was all that King Frederic said, as he looked unimpressed and negatively impressed at the same time.

“I believe this task of exploration and charting would fit Hector most profoundly, especially if coupled with the responsibility for disarming any traps that may be still functioning. Possibly also running out any creature to have taken up residence,” King Edmund declared with a rare smile. “I will inform him first thing in the morning. Let us begin preparations then.”

“Then it is settled,” Queen Arianna said with no small amount of relief. “Excellent bit of insight, Rapunzel.”

Rapunzel smiled, and let the conversation between the three monarchs at the table progress into discussing details, while she caught Faith’s eye and winked at her discreetly. The handmaiden, who was waiting the table along with Friedborg, fought to suppress a smile.

After all, it had been Faith who brought the staff’s misgivings about Hector to Rapunzel’s attention, even if it hadn’t been entirely intentional. And with this, it could genuinely be the best solution for everyone—a much-needed yet mortally difficult task left in the hands of a man capable in an equally mortal degree, keeping Hector out of the public eye, maintaining a friendly relationship with Eugene’s birth father, getting Hector and Adira to stop destroying the castle every time yet another argument got out of hand.

And on the subject of Adira, hadn’t she implied that she was only going to stay for as long as it took Xavier to make her a new sword?

Rapunzel frowned slowly. She didn’t know how long it took to make a sword—Cass would know, and she hadn’t ever thought to ask, nor had she ever considered that Cass wasn’t going to be at her side ready to weigh in or lend expertise, not until the Moonstone. But even so, she was pretty sure that making a single sword didn’t normally take three months.

She beckoned at Faith, and once the lady-in-waiting leaned down to her, she murmured, “Could you try to find Adira for me, please? I’d like to speak with her after dinner.”

An uncertain look passed through Faith’s face. Adira was notoriously impossible to get ahold of, even though no one had actually seen her leave the castle, not once in all these months. “I’ll do my best, your highness.”

“Thank you.” Rapunzel caught her mom looking at her with mild concern as the handmaiden stepped away with a bow and hurried off. “Nothing, I just remembered there was an errand I’d needed someone to run.”

Queen Arianna inclined her head in an acquiescent gesture. “I was curious if you could weigh in on another of today’s little mysteries, as well.”

Rapunzel sat up, interest sparked. “What’s going on?”

“Earlier today, the Kotoan ambassador had delivered a joint missive from the King of Koto and one of his Grand Inquisitors. It’s a thanks for an act performed by a member of our court—it says your knight-errant...?”

“Oh, that’s Cass,” Rapunzel said happily as she cut another bite off her slice of meatloaf.

There was a sudden and absolute silence at the table.

Rapunzel looked between her parents, and pulled the fork out of her mouth. “...Did I forget to tell you that I gave her my favour and named her knight-errant right before she left?”

“I believe it may have slipped your mind,” Queen Arianna said, a bit of exasperation breaking through her usual diplomatic facade. “It does, however, explain... much.”

“Sorry,” Rapunzel said earnestly, far from the usual sing-song tone of her past defensive apologies. “There was a lot going on, back then. Can I see the letter?”

Her mom nodded, and handed Rapunzel a small stack of gilded stationery—one small bundle of it still sealed. “Don’t open that one, it’s meant for some acquaintance Cassandra had made on that endeavour. I’m not sure how we’re supposed to pass it to that man, or even to her, though.”

“I’ll just give it to Owl along with my own letter when she writes me again,” Rapunzel said absent-mindedly as she unfolded the Kotoan missive. “Unto Their Majesties and Her Highness, blah blah blah, send salutations, yada yada yada... to express appreciation and gratitude for the sterling conduct of Her Highness’ knight-errant, whose actions prompted by nothing but chivalry and faithfulness to the alliances that bind our kingdoms together have returned the equipment of a fallen knight of the Tribunal Order into the hands of his brothers and sisters, and three treasures that had been gifted to Our venerable grandparents on the occasion of their wedding into Our vaults... huh.”

“Did Cass mention any of that?” Eugene asked with a frown. “I don’t remember her mentioning any of that.”

“No, but I think this might be what she meant when she wrote about turning a con artist’s own scheme against him,” Rapunzel said slowly.

Cass hadn’t mentioned that she made a friend already, either. But to be completely fair, there were more than a few things that Rapunzel hadn’t mentioned in her first return letter as well. Maybe they were both uncertain how to talk to each other, after everything. Maybe Cass was feeling awkward and trying to figure out where they stood now, too. There was nothing to do about it but wait for Owl again and see, Rapunzel told herself as confidently as she could, even though she already knew that it was going to gnaw at her anyway.

“A woman of few words, then,” King Edmund summarized with a hint of humour in his voice. “Though I must admit, the logic of granting your favour to a recently pardoned traitor escapes me.”

“She wasn’t a—!” Rapunzel clenched her fists, fingertips coming across the scarring across her palms, as she heard herself raise her voice. She had a tendency to take. Even the agency. And she was working to no longer let that tendency speak for her. “Zhan Tiri was the real enemy. Cassandra risked everything, gave everything—up to and including her life—to help defeat her. There’s no one else in the entire world I’d rather grant my favour to.”

King Edmund gave a little sideways nod at that, accepting but unconvinced. “That is certainly the kind way of looking at these matters, though I am unsure if it is the wise one.”

“Sometimes it’s wise to be kind.” Rapunzel indicated the letter. “And Cass is already doing Corona proud, even if her recent history with us has been rocky.”

“That’s my girl,” Eugene whispered aggressively from his end of the table, effectively beheading the conversation, and with the studious disregard of the others’ discomfort spelling out that he had done that entirely on purpose.

Queen Arianna cleared her throat subtly. “You are staying in contact with Cassandra, then?”

“Yes, she wrote, though I don’t know how long it’ll take her to write again,” Rapunzel admitted. “She’s somewhere along the border between Equis and Koto—or was at the time, at least.”

King Frederic frowned. “Relations with Equis are strained enough already. I hope she can remain discreet enough to avoid becoming another point of imagined provocation.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much,” Eugene said with a dismissive wave of a hand. “That region is chock-full of mercenaries, bandits, deserters, and fugitives of every stripe. She’ll just be a fancy one among many. Well, somewhat fancy. I’ve seen fancier, of course, mainly in the mirror, but not exclusively there.”

Rapunzel perked up. “Oh, you’ve been to where she is?”

“Not for very long. There’s nothing but farmland for miles on end, and it rains the. Entire. Time. Unless it’s snowing, and you know how I feel about snow. Lots more opportunities to fight than to steal, too, and sellsword work was never my first choice for a line of employment.” Eugene cocked his head thoughtfully. “Actually, Cass might love it there.”

“The fighting part does sound pretty perfect for her,” Rapunzel agreed with a smile.

From there, the dinner progressed without further arguments or revelations, the conversation tactfully steered back to domestic matters of lesser importance. And once the meal was done, with the monarchs and their heirs retiring for the night or heading back to their study rooms for a last bit of work before resting, Rapunzel found Faith leaning against the wall and breathing heavily right outside of the private dining room.

“West drilling courtyard,” the handmaiden panted before Rapunzel could ask.

“Oh, thank you, you’re the best. Get some rest and I’ll see you in the morning?”

Faith nodded, a look of gratitude for the early night on her face. “As you say, your highness.”

“Good night!” Rapunzel chirped, and bounded down the corridor to the west wing without waiting. She didn’t have to worry about making noise, not with still running barefoot, and soon enough she slowed down into a walk again, the initial burst of excitement exhausted and replaced with a mixture of uncertainty and worry as she remembered why she had wanted to see Adira in the first place.

And that, in turn, evaporated the second she saw the old warrior: stripped down to light exercise garb and practicing with an oddly brass-coloured sword profiled very much like the Shadow Blade had been, but with an actual proper blade rather than a solid chunk of unbreakable crystal. She moved with the grace of a dancer, flawlessly executing sets of movements as she advanced across the courtyard in a circular pattern—but still very much putting her bulk and momentum behind each and every next one of those movements, the near-constant modulated whoosh of sliced air turning the weapon and the warrior herself into a two-toned wind instrument, an Aeolian harp set out beneath the stars, the light of the last-quarter moon blocked by the mass of the castle and left to rise unnoticed across the opposite half of the sky.

Another pass around the courtyard, and Rapunzel noticed the focused expression on Adira’s face break into mild surprise. The sword was lowered, the combat stance dropped, and the well-worn thick jacket picked up from its resting place along the courtyard’s flagstones as Adira sheathed her blade and walked up towards the princess. “Aren’t you supposed to be sleeping at this hour?”

“I wanted to talk to you for a bit before bed, if that’s okay. And– sorry, I didn’t mean to stare,” Rapunzel admitted.

Adira raised her eyebrows with a little grin. “Oh, you may look, just not touch. It’s certainly what your royal guard has been doing.”

Rapunzel looked into the nearby lit windows—a portion of the guard barracks, she knew—and thought she noticed a few immediately retreating faces. “I guess they find you... inspiring?”

“That is certainly a word for it,” Adira laughed as she tied her jacket closed. “If you wish to speak, come take a walk with me. Nothing good comes from standing in the cold at my age.”

“Right, of course.” Rapunzel paused for a moment as a belated realization hit her. “You know, I don’t think we’ve ever asked how old you actually are.”

“You haven’t,” Adira said airily, and chuckled at Rapunzel’s inquisitive look. “Fifty-four. It was never important, I don’t think. What is it that you needed of me?”

“Oh. Right. Well,” Rapunzel hesitated, eyeing the weapon Adira had sheathed at her back. “I guess I just wanted to ask when you were planning on leaving?”

Adira gave her a longer look. “I have no plans to leave. Unless there’s a matter you absolutely cannot entrust to anyone else in your entire kingdom, that is.”

“But I thought– didn’t you say that you were only waiting for having a new sword made? And—” Rapunzel gestured to the weapon. “I can see that it’s ready.”

“It’s been ready for weeks. And while, yes, that had been the initial idea, it was also before I acknowledged how much you needed help—serious help—and made it my business to provide some of it,” Adira said gently. “It would not do to open your eyes to how mired you are in your own mistakes without extending a hand for you to grab onto and pull yourself out. I am not leaving, not until you or King Edmund send me away.”

“Oh. Okay.” Rapunzel breathed out a deep sigh of relief. “Thank you. It really means a lot. And I do really need your help.”

“Rest assured that my motivations are far from selfless.” Adira folded her arms behind her back as her voice dropped into her usual focused tone. “I lacked a sense of purpose after the Moonstone and the Sundrop were expelled from the world together, and aiding you was as good a pastime as any. Besides, it’s simply very nice to feel needed, and to have comfortable accommodations for once.”

“But this is good,” Rapunzel said impulsively. “It’s more balanced, more equal this way. We both get something we needed and everyone’s happy.”

Adira watched her for a moment, a little smile about her lips. “You’ve been thinking about matters of mutual gain for a while, I see.”

“I’ve been trying,” Rapunzel admitted. “And, I know this might just be the tower speaking, because I’ve spent so long dreaming of such things, but... don’t you want to go out into the world, find adventure, see new places and meet new people?”

The old warrior gave a genuine laugh. “After a quarter century of trying to track down a legend, I think I’m all adventured out.”

“What about love?” Rapunzel hedged.

Adira shook her head. “Love is a very sad affair for me, princess.”

Rapunzel paused at that, taken aback. “How can love be a sad thing?”

In response, Adira lifted the back of her right hand to face Rapunzel with the Brotherhood’s mark: three black rocks against the outline of a full moon. “When you have dedicated yourself—your mind and your body, your heart and your soul, and your life and your death—to a person or a cause, what have you left to give to a loved one?”

There wasn’t an uplifting answer to that, Rapunzel realized slowly. There was only one answer: that there was nothing left to give—and that, truly, would make loving someone an incredibly sad thing. And even as she drew a breath to say that the war was over, the oaths were fulfilled, and there was nothing to be so beholden to anymore, the words died on her tongue, and she gave the old warrior beside her a keener look.

“You were ready to die, weren’t you?”

“Every day of the twenty-five years I spent searching for the Sundrop,” Adira confirmed calmly.

“Is that why you were acting like—” Rapunzel made a vague gesture with her hands. “Well, like you were? Abrasive and borderline mocking and purposefully cryptic enough to drive half of us insane? And why you refused to learn anyone’s names, too? You didn’t want to get attached, or for anyone to get attached to you. You were making sure no one would miss you once you were gone.”

There was a brief silence, during which Adira looked away for a moment, before she inclined her head slightly. “You are growing very astute.”

“So you would have just– if the Sundrop was still a flower, you would’ve just put them back together yourself,” Rapunzel said with dismay, remembering the resulting explosion when the stones had reunited, how it had thrown her off her feet, how it had taken Cassandra’s life, how there had been nothing left at all of Zhan Tiri’s enormous demonic form.

“That is precisely what I was planning to do.” Adira turned her head to give Rapunzel a long look, folding her hands behind her again. “I admit I hadn’t been prepared for the Sundrop to be a person... but it didn’t change much.”

“So, if Cass hadn’t grabbed the Moonstone?” Rapunzel asked slowly.

“I would have sacrificed you,” Adira said firmly, looking her straight in the eye, “and mourned afterwards.”

It was Rapunzel’s turn to look away at that. “...You know this means Cass was right about you from the start.”

“Of course she was right about me,” Adira said with a raised eyebrow, as if surprised that the matter had been in question at all. “Like recognizes like, and Shorthair knows loyalty of the same magnitude as I do. It’s simply that she found the only answer other than my own to the question of 'what have you left to give to a loved one', and fell in love with the one she was sworn to.”

Rapunzel sighed, grateful to the late hour’s darkness for hiding the heat that rose to her cheeks at that. “Well, we know how that story ended.”

“I wouldn’t say so. I’d say no one knows how that story ends, because it hasn’t ended yet,” Adira pointed out. “She still loves you, does she not?”

“Yes. Somehow. Even after all that. And I still love her, too.”

“Then that is the future for you to work towards,” Adira told her. “A good thought to go to sleep with, hm?”

“A very good thought.” Rapunzel smiled. Then hesitated. “May I hold your hand?”

Adira cocked her head with a quizzical expression. “Is this the moment you would usually tackle another person in a bear hug?”

Rapunzel couldn’t help a laugh. “It’s rapidly approaching that moment, yes. But I know you don’t like being touched, so... only your hand, and only if it’s okay to?”

The old warrior beside her chuckled, and came to a halt as she unfolded her arms from behind her back once more. “You may hold my hand. Briefly.”

“Thank you.” Rapunzel took Adira’s left hand into her right. She pondered at the coarse, scarred-up, weathered palm alongside her own for a moment, at the way Adira’s fingers closed around her hand in return, at the barely noticeable stiffening of the old warrior’s shoulders as she braced herself for the touch. “Thank you for talking to me tonight. Thank you for everything. And, I want you to know that I’m glad you didn’t have to die after all. I’m glad you’re here.”

Adira studied her for a moment before nodding. “I’m glad to be here.”

“That’s good to hear.” Rapunzel released Adira’s hand, keeping in mind the condition of 'briefly'. “Oh, I almost forgot: Hector will be leaving soon. We found something for him to do, and it’s a bit of a longer project.”

She watched perhaps the broadest grin she’d ever seen blooming on Adira’s face. “Now that is an excellent thought to go to sleep with.”

~*~

“Oh, heavens.” Moreen coughed when they were close enough to Tyson farm to smell it.

“I know,” Cassandra said in a strained tone.

They had been caught in more rain along the way, though mercifully not of the frozen variety. And though Fidella had slowly started showing signs of exhaustion, somewhere two-thirds of the way there, she paced herself well with interspersing the canter with bursts of a trot, weighing her speed against the distance. The last dregs of dusk’s dim light were still illuminating the sky when Fidella entered the muddy courtyard between buildings; Cassandra dismounted first, and helped Moreen slide off the saddle as well rather than fall from it, then motioned her towards the barn.

“I left them in there for now. It’s not, uh... it’s not pretty.”

Moreen nodded, setting her jaw as she braced herself. “Can you give me a minute?”

“I’ll wait here.” Cassandra watched the farmer go, then turned to Fidella and lowered her voice a little. “There’s a lot of work to be done in this place, and it might take a fair bit of time. Are you okay with that?”

Snort, Fidella confirmed, and put her nose to Cassandra’s forehead for a moment.

“You hold that thought until after I’ve done something to be proud of, here.” Cassandra stroked the mare’s neck. “But thanks.”

Fidella gave a pointed look around, as if to indicate the things Cassandra has been doing here already. Cassandra thought for a moment, but whatever she had planned to ask next was left forgotten as she noticed Moreen exiting the barn on shaky legs, and rushed over to make sure she didn’t collapse.

“You weren’t wrong,” Moreen said weakly as she leaned against the offered arm. “It’s not pretty.”

“Are you okay?”

“No. No, I’m really not. But it’s probably best to get inside and... and handle all that in the morning.”

“Come on, then.” Cassandra started leading the farmer, no less devastated than her livelihood, towards the house. “Do you mind if I take Fidella inside, as well? The barn is really no place to stay at the moment.”

“No, that’s okay.”

The moment they pulled the door open, a frantic meow came, and Cassandra left Moreen to gather up Barley the cat in her arms—and Barley to wiggle free, rub her head against Moreen’s hands and knees and anywhere else she could reach, and continue meowing and purring all the while. At least this was a good thing, Cassandra thought as she led Fidella in and shut the door, and busied herself with starting a fire in the hearth and putting the water on to make their evening meal a warm one. She was halfway through grooming Fidella when Moreen had recovered enough to help, although Barley protested immediately and began following her around, until Moreen picked the cat up and draped her across a shoulder. After barring the door for the night, Cassandra fed Fidella from the sack, and sat with Moreen to eat as well.

“Isn’t your bird coming back?” Moreen asked, scratching the top of Barley’s head with one hand, the cat curled comfortably in her lap.

“Owl is following Carter. And Carter won’t make it all the way to here until sometime around midday tomorrow, at the earliest, even if he walks overnight,” Cassandra said calmly. “He’ll break away and warn us when it’s time.”

“Um. Okay.”

Cassandra looked up at the uncertain tone of that. “It’s going to be fine. Don’t worry.”

“If you say so, it’s just that this—” Moreen picked the cat up for emphasis, drawing a startled little purr, “—is all there’s left. Everything else is gone. I can’t work the farm myself. I don’t have the coin to buy replacement livestock, especially not right before winter. Even if I could hire enough hands to make ends meet, I’m afraid they’d hurt me and take what they can for themselves. If I sell the farm, my brother’s home and my parents’ grave will be someone else’s to do with as they please, and I can’t stand that. If I stay here, I’m going to starve or freeze to death over winter, or worse if soldiers or some other bandits come.”

“How does selling land even work in Equis?” Cassandra asked with a frown. “I know Koto tends to document everything, but I don’t really know much about Equisian law.”

Moreen gave a little sideways nod. “Well, I am a citizen of Koto by birth.”

“You are?”

“Yes, by land and by blood—I was born when the Bayards were still in power, and my mother... was... a citizen as well.”

“That’ll make everything easier. Where do you keep documents?”

Moreen looked at her carefully. “I thought you were from Corona.”

“I am, it was just required of me to know at least the basics of culture and custom and law and such things of the other allied kingdoms as well.” Cassandra tilted her head to the side as she took in the newly-cautious expression on the bereaved farmer’s face. “I’ll only help if you want me to. If you don’t, that’s fine as well. But check if the documents are still where they’re supposed to be, at least, or if Carter took them.”

That gave Moreen pause, and she sat back on the bench a little, busying herself with scratching behind Barley’s ears. “That’s true. And I do want your help, and I’m grateful for it. You’ve done nothing to make me doubt you.”

“It’s okay. It hurts no one to be careful.”

Moreen nodded, and gently set the cat aside. Cassandra didn’t watch her rummage through one of the wooden chests, feeding a bit of meat from her stew to Barley instead, but she did turn at a grunt of exertion when Moreen heaved a metal cassette from under a stack of old clothes and blankets within the chest, then came over again and laid the flat strongbox on the table before opening it. The paper inside was yellowed with age, the ink across it faded somewhat, but still very much legible, and each document did bear the seal of a Kotoan magistrate indeed.

Moreen quickly counted the pages. “I don’t think anything’s missing, thank heavens.”

“May I?” Cassandra waited for a nod before she set her food aside and wiped her still-gloved fingers by habit, then started leafing through.

A summons for service in the Kotoan army, for one person of capable age from the household. A birth certificate and proof of citizenship, for Moreen Tyson. The same, for Roderick Tyson. A marriage certificate, of Ronan Tyson and Annabelle Martre. Another summons, this time for court proceedings; another one, for the army again, if noticeably more dated. More birth certificates of Kotoan citizens, interspersed with death certificates, each under the name Martre—and underneath all that, a three-page land grant for a Victor Martre, stamped with the seal of House Bayard as well as that of the magistrate.

Cassandra gently tapped the document with one finger. “This will be respected in any legitimate Kotoan court of law. I understand that you want to leave? Take all of these with you, and guard them with your life. No matter how long you’re gone from here, if you decide to come back and someone has moved in on the farm, these are ironclad proof that the land is yours and your brother’s—at least if the region is under Kotoan control when you return. And if you think the magistrate is acting suspiciously, as a citizen of Koto you have the right to demand that a knight of the Tribunal Order arbitrates the dispute. Though that’s far more likely to result in a harsh and thoroughly letter-of-law ruling, from what I’ve read.”

“That does all hinge on who’s in power here, doesn’t it,” Moreen said quietly.

“It does. I’m not familiar with laws of Equis, but from what I’ve seen of those on the royal Equisian payroll recently, I don’t think any lawmasters would consider another kingdom’s legal documents binding in a court case, not without being forced to somehow.” Cassandra laid the papers in the open strongbox again. “What do you want to do, from now on? Because that’s what everything else depends on.”

“I want to leave. I have to, or I won’t survive.” Moreen stroked a hand down Barley’s back again. “But I can’t cart her around with myself if I don’t even know I’ll have anywhere to live. And it’s not like I have the coin to travel, either. I’ll need to sell everything I can’t take with myself, and give away everything I can’t sell. And burn or bury the cattle and the chickens, because the state this place is in now, this is how plagues happen. After that, I don’t know. I don’t even know where to go.”

“It’s a good enough start,” Cassandra relented. “You have time to figure it out, especially with how much there is to do. Let’s take things one step at a time.”

And the first step for doing anything was to sleep, if they were to have the strength for tomorrow. Cassandra retained her last night’s spot, bedroll set out near the hearth, while Moreen took the ladder up to the attic area in the far end of the building. Waking up several times overnight for a moment to the sounds of Barley hunting mice, Cassandra thought she also heard the farmer crying silently, and pulled her blanket overhead in a helpless gesture.

Morning came, and with it the perspective of burying the second family Cassandra had found dead in this region. After burdening Fidella with a ladder, two shovels, and as many buckets as they could find, they began pulling the makeshift sled laden with enshrouded remains towards a spot that Moreen was leading them to.

“My parents got married there,” she had said of it as they went, her voice strained as she tried not to look behind herself at the sled. “It’s only right to let them be buried there, as well.”

They dug in turns, and deep as they could, knowing there was nothing heavy to place over the grave, nowhere to bring enough stones from to pile up a cairn; the ditch itself had to be deep enough to prevent carrion eaters from desecrating the Tysons’ bodies any further. And as the pile of dredged up earth rose, the sun advanced across the sky—and right as it was to crest into the zenith, there was a very familiar hoot!, and Cassandra looked up to see Owl landing atop Fidella’s saddle.

“He walked overnight, then?”

Hoot, Owl confirmed.

“Good.” Cassandra dusted her hands off, hoping to get some of the soil off the gloves, and set the shovel aside in favour of slinging her sword around her back, hilt over the right shoulder.

It would be very good to know whether she could still use the sword right-handed, anyway.

Carter’s silhouette was rising quickly through the mist—too thick to fully burn off even so close to midday—as he spotted them even in the fog and turned sharply from approaching the farmhouse to walking towards them. Cassandra whistled at him sharply through her teeth, and tossed her head at him, arms crossed, hoping to spark adversity and keep him focused on herself. Judging from how he immediately pulled out a knife at her, it worked.

“I told you to be smart about this. You could’ve been rich,” the farmhand spat towards her. “Now you’ll just be dead.”

“Your idea of smart is remarkably stupid,” Cassandra said coldly.

Moreen stepped forward from where she was, standing beside Cassandra now, her face pale but her jaw set and her eyes determined. “You killed my parents, didn’t you?”

“I fought for our happiness! They stood in the way, and didn’t listen, so I had to fight for our future together!” Carter screamed at her, then gestured furiously at Cassandra. “Now she’s in the way, too!”

“What the fuck are you on about?” Moreen’s voice trembled with a mixture of shock and revulsion.

“Your father refused me your hand in marriage! Your mother laughed at me even though I did them the courtesy of asking! They wanted to separate us, and they got what they deserved for it,” Carter took a step forward, pointing a finger at the Tysons’ daughter aggressively. “Now come with me, and we’ll be happy. Don’t let that Coronian stand between us, too!”

“I’m going to enjoy this,” Cassandra said quietly, an ice-cold murderous calm settling over her.

“I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last person alive, and that was before you murdered my family and turned my home into a ruin!” Moreen roared back at the farmhand. “There was never a chance you had with me! I will go nowhere with you, and you’re going to pay for what you’ve done!”

The fervent, desperate look on Carter’s face fell into something far more sinister. “Happy or no, you’re coming with me. This marriage, this farm, I’ve earned this. I’ve been working my ass off for years to earn this! I gave you a chance, and you throw it back in my face—!”

Cassandra turned her head toward Moreen, without taking her eyes off the farmhand. “Stay behind me.”

“Get out of my way, or I’ll clear you off it myself!” Carter screamed at her.

Cassandra drew her sword. “Then come on and clear me.”

It’s been a while since Cassandra fought in the position of a bodyguard, not a lone-wolf warrior, she mused as she dropped the knife from Carter’s hand with a single hit that severed the sinews in his forearm. Or since she fought to disable, rather than kill immediately, she mused as she reversed the grip on her sword and slammed her weapon’s hilt into Carter’s jaw with the force of a right hook driven from the hips behind it. It was good to flex those reflexes again, and find they hadn’t dulled, she admitted to herself as she swept his knees from under him and pinned him to the ground before the thud of his fall echoed through, wrenched his arms behind his back, and looked up at Moreen.

“Do you have anything left to say to him?”

“I hope the heavens’ embrace boils the flesh off your bones and never stops rending your rotten soul apart.” Moreen looked up at Cassandra then, both of them ignoring the murderer’s curses and threats. “Nothing more.”

“Then turn around, please.”

“No. I think I’d rather watch.”

Cassandra inclined her head, yanked at Carter’s hair, and slit his throat to drown the yellowed grasses in bright, pouring red. After cleaning and sheathing her blade, she gave Moreen a scrutinizing look, finding her a little paler than before watching a man killed, but a lot calmer than before watching the murderer of her parents and wannabe-tormentor of herself removed from her life, for good.

“That’s that, then.”

“Just about.” Cassandra rolled the still-warm corpse around and started turning out Carter’s pockets. “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”

“You make it– you make this look easy.” Moreen finally looked away. “Like you always know what to do. How do you do that?”

“I’ve been trained of this kind of thing pretty extensively,” Cassandra said calmly as she studied a crumpled piece of paper. A complex, handwritten rebus, it looked like. She handed it to the farmer. “Does this look familiar at all?”

Moreen took it, and smoothed it out with a frown. “It’s my dad’s drawings. The tree and the pile of stones are that way,” she pointed off to the west, where the shadow of a tree did loom through the mist, “and under the stones there’s a... bird nest full of eggs? There aren’t going to be any eggs, not this time of year.”

“Let’s check it out after we’re done here.” Cassandra pocketed a half-ration of unidentifiable jerky and defaced a wooden charm with her boot knife before leaving Carter’s body be. “I’m in half a mind to just leave him here.”

Moreen shook her head, the hard look back in her eyes. “Bury him at my parents’ feet.”

And there was poetry in that, Cassandra had to admit as they finished digging up the grave, deposited the two sets of enshrouded remains inside it along with the sled, and heaped their murderer’s corpse in at the shorter side of the ditch without care for how he fell, only that he fell. She had certainly read of the glorious funerals of warriors, with the shattered weapons of the foes they slew before succumbing heaped at their feet as well.

There was significantly less glory to be found in putting her hands at the small of her back to stretch, then shovelling the overturned soil back into the grave. But the stories of warriors and glory never talked about those who outlived the heroic dead, unless it was to speak of avengers or of a new generation of heroic soon-to-be dead. Nor did they talk about those who had to bear double the work on their shoulders now that those who used to work beside them had chosen to burn bright and burn out, rather than remain at candle-dim for long enough to light a dozen candles more. There wasn’t a way to destroy darkness by striking it with spears and swords, not in the long run. Nothing worth doing was that simple or quick. But there was a way to destroy darkness by kindling and sheltering light. A thankless and easily-overlooked task, certainly. But so was digging a grave. So was fetching herbs for a clinic. So was giving a ghost her name back. And they had all been necessary.

Glory, Cassandra was beginning to feel, seemed to tend towards overrated.

“May the earth be light to them,” she said over the grave, as she had heard the team burying the Richters say.

“May the earth be light to them.” Moreen wiped at her cheeks, smearing soil across her face. “Except Carter. I hope he chokes on the earth for all eternity.”

They walked towards the tree and the heap of stones from the stolen puzzle map after that, Fidella following suit and Owl still perched atop the saddle. With Moreen’s instructions off reading her father’s rebus, Cassandra levered one of the flatter rocks up with a shovel to push it aside, and uncovered a small empty space in the middle of the pile—and true enough, there was an old bird nest hidden there, spiders scurrying away from the light and cold between what did look like eggs. Or eggshells, rather. Chicken eggshells, collected and dried after the eggs had been cracked and presumably eaten, wedged back together in two or three layers each. They were old, however—old enough that when Cassandra experimentally picked one up, it came apart in her fingers, revealing a small load of silver and gold jewellery. She extended them to Moreen in an open hand.

“Just a guess, but was your father a mercenary in the war?”

“Yes, I- yes, he was,” Moreen said weakly as she stared in shock. “I had no idea.”

Cassandra brushed the crumbled eggshell out of her palm and put the jewellery in Moreen’s hand. “Well, now you can pay for a place to stay in any settlement with a pawnbroker.”

And among the half-dozen 'eggs', each had been loaded with such baubles—earrings, pendants, necklace chains, wedding bands, in one case even a ring set with a large gemstone. That one Cassandra studied more carefully, but was relieved to find no crest carved in the jewel, no engravings across the band; it was simply a very fine trinket, not a signet or a mark of station.

The remains of the swiftly receding day were spent on gathering up firewood, with the farmhouse’s lingering supply having been exhausted through the two nights of keeping the hearth burning throughout. And after Moreen had turned in for the night, the exhaustion of physical effort and emotional trials of the day catching up to her, Cassandra found herself faced with a very insistent Owl, tugging the scroll case backpack towards her across the freshly swept floor.

Cassandra sighed. “I’ve not forgotten, alright?”

Hoot, Owl said firmly.

“I know this is looking like a longer—”

Hoot, Owl continued in the same adamant tone.

“No, I won’t get myself hurt again the moment you’re off like last time.”

Hoot, Owl said, and tapped a talon against the backpack.

“You said you’d stay longer this time,” Cassandra told him quietly.

Hoot, Owl reminded.

“You don’t have to tell me how to time things with the—” Cassandra bit her tongue. Then pinched the bridge of her recently-healed nose, and looked at Owl again. “Promise me next time you’ll actually stay longer, 'best circumstances' or no.”

Hoot, Owl promised.

“Fine.” Cassandra took Rapunzel’s letter and paintings out of the scroll case, and pulled out her small scribing kit as well. Then she considered the backpack, and winced as she gathered up ash from the hearth to thoroughly smear the purple-and-golden fabric with. “...Sorry, Raps.”

For the longest time, she felt, she sat at the Tysons’ table, reading Rapunzel’s letter again, and staring at the disdainfully blank sheet of paper next to it. But when the words finally came, it felt almost like an overturned bottle had been unstoppered, and though the last thing Cassandra could ever be was a poet, she thought it wasn’t too bad a reply as she read it over. Then she read it over again, and had to physically put the quill away in order to stop herself from crossing whole sentences out. Her withered hand ached enough already—she was not about to rewrite all that again.

Hoot, Owl said quietly as he watched her struggle.

“Not another word.” Cassandra packed his backpack, and snapped it around him with an eyeroll as he spread his wings to present himself in an exaggerated fashion. “There. Come back soon. I’ll miss you. I’m going to sleep.”

Owl tugged gently on the curled lock of hair over her forehead with his beak as she quietly unbarred the door and opened it to let him outside. A well-practiced motion of boosting him into the sky, and Cassandra watched him go until he disappeared between the stars.

She glanced back at the farmhouse. Then bundled her too-light cloak around herself and went on a walk. Before too long, she found herself standing before the Tysons’ fresh grave, without having even intended to—but intentions or not, she supposed it would be awkward without doing anything at all, so she drew her sword for a moment to salute with it. A gust of wind whispered past her, and Cassandra thought she felt a hand in her hair, ice-cold and gone as quickly as it came. She lifted her shoulders to suppress a shiver, jaws clenched to stop her teeth from chattering, and went back inside to actually do what she had said, and sleep.

Chapter Text

If there was one smell Cassandra had never expected to be relying on to block out worse ones, it had to be that of woodsmoke.

She and Moreen Tyson had spent the rest of the week burying the remains of chickens and cattle across a field, hoping to enrich the soil at least a little as it was left to lay fallow, and that the bones would not cause too many problems the next time someone would plough it—whenever that would be. The chicken coop was easy enough to demolish and burn, along with the straw, grain, and more that had been fouled by the bodies inside the coop and the barn. The barn itself, however, was more of a problem. With their other choices being to torch the building whole or to leave it as it was without even attempting to do anything, they mixed a small jar of burnt lime with water into the texture of thick paint, layered the most worn of the dead farmers’ clothes over their own, and set to painting the barn’s inner walls and floor in an effort to sanitize it as best they could. It was throughout that endeavour that Cassandra was finally confronted with another mark of time that had passed since she left home: her hair had gotten long enough to be an annoyance, endlessly brushing against the nape of her neck, falling in her face whenever she looked down, blocking her sight every time she wasn’t facing directly into the wind.

“I could give you a trim,” Moreen had admitted when Cassandra finally caved and asked her to. “But I don’t think you should cut your hair right before winter.”

“Why not?”

“Well, it gets cold here. Growing your hair out before the frost comes means a bit of another layer to keep you warm, without having to pay for it.”

Cassandra sighed heavily, resigning herself to the logic in that.

“I’ll find you something to tie it back with,” Moreen promised, a hint of humour in her voice.

And it was a good thing to hear, to know that there was still capability for laughter buried under everything the farmer had to become and undertake in order to survive what her life had turned into: a livelihood brought to ruin with thoughtless cruelty, a family murdered in a bid to claim her like an object, a man she had lived beside for years staking that claim to her on the back of his crimes. Even if Cassandra had woken up, barely two days into her stay at Tyson farm to help out as much as she could, to the sound of steps descending the ladder in the middle of the night, and lifted her head to look over her shoulder at Moreen laying down her blankets next to Cassandra’s bedroll on the floor.

“It’s cold,” she had murmured of it, all the explanation Cassandra would get.

“It is,” Cassandra had agreed, and lifted an elbow from her side to allow the farmer to snuggle up to her back.

She had been waking up with warmth pressed up against her and the sound of peaceful breathing in her ears ever since. On every other night, Barley graced them with her presence as well—whether curling up against the back of Cassandra’s knees, nestling into any small gap between the two of them she could find, or unceremoniously climbing over them to perch atop Moreen’s shoulder like a proud mountaineer and sleep there. And although the farmer’s hands always ended up only in respectfully neutral places, Cassandra would find herself torn at with conflicting emotions regardless.

She’d missed being touched. She had, and it brought an incredible sense of relief to exist within the personal space of another again; it poured into her bones the warmth of knowing that she must have done something right to deserve this, a feeling as indisputable as it was disarming, threatening to overpower her and transform the burning in her eyes into actual tears. She’d missed being touched, and it was good to be held again, even if just for a little.

But she also had no intention to stay. She was here to help for as long as help was welcome and needed, and then she would leave, probably never to see Moreen Tyson again. And that made every time Cassandra had caught the farmer looking at her with a smile on her face or with gratitude in her eyes almost uncomfortable, almost alarming.

And even beyond that mess, as if it hadn’t been enough, two more persistent thoughts returned each time Cassandra tried to rebuke them by day and ignore them in the small hours of the night, when there was no more activity to drown them out with anymore.

The first was a bloodhound sniffing out weakness, and barking at that overwhelming relief just to be held in another’s arms, growling that it was no accolade, no great proof of righteousness to receive such a simple and undemanding form of affection. That it was only her mother who would have her believe otherwise. That to sandpaper off the sharp edges she had been carved into with her mother’s negligence, she had to quit finding pride in how chiselled the shape of her heart was, and the sooner the better.

And the other was far quieter and far gentler and far, far harder to chase off, whispering that it was another’s arms Cassandra missed being held in, another’s warmth she missed pressing her back into, another’s breath she missed listening to when she couldn’t go back to sleep. But even at her loneliest, even as Cassandra curled herself up around the hollow space carved inside her ribcage and cradled her withered arm to it, even as she waited for that heart-rending longing to lull her to sleep and bring her dreams of green eyes and freckled cheeks and a laughter flowing like a cascade over riverstones, she had to admit at least before herself that she had been missing that for far longer than they’ve been apart. That just living together, be it in the castle or in the caravan, had never been enough on its own to earn her that warmth, that affection. That she’d had to work for it or grovel for it. And that just because Raps hadn’t done any of it on purpose didn’t make it any less hurtful.

And now there she was, standing in the middle of a field in late autumn, turning to face into the wind and tilting her head back to gather up her too-long hair as she held a ribbon in her teeth, after Moreen had insisted that she should pick at least three—one as green as Rapunzel’s eyes, one as blue as the Moonstone’s sparks crackling in tune with her fury, one as white as Eugene’s oppressor and sworn enemy: snow. There she was, far from home and determined to head even farther from it, craving closeness at the same time as she was backing away from it. At least the shovel didn’t ask her any questions. Neither did her withered arm, fingers closer both to straightening fully and to clenching into a fist in weather this cold, but in pain sharper and harder to ignore, or with the familiar-by-now lesser range of movement and lesser pain that never quite abated as she kept the hand close to the hearth, tucked into her clothes, wrapped in silk and encased in thick leather lined with fur and reinforced with banded steel.

And neither did Fidella ask her any questions as Cassandra took her out for a run, every afternoon like they had fallen in the habit of doing, the mare’s coat beginning to thicken somewhat against the colder weather. Mindful of Owl’s initial perimeter flight and the warning he’d brought her about wolves, Cassandra always took her bow with her and kept it strung throughout these daily little runs, yet for the first few days she saw neither hide nor hair of wolf. On the sixth, she noticed a shape following them through the yellowed grasses. On the ninth, their audience had swelled into a pack of eight wolves, keeping pace with them from different directions—and when it came to a confrontation, Cassandra killed one and threw a cracker she had taken from the Kotoan spies into the largest group of the rest, eliciting a few pained whines as it exploded with a resounding noise and effectively drove the wolfpack away for now.

“I didn’t realize you were going hunting,” Moreen said slowly as Cassandra led Fidella into the house, then dragged the dead wolf inside with a grunt.

“I hadn’t planned to be going hunting,” Cassandra panted as she heaved again. “I just didn’t fancy getting eaten. Or letting Fidella get eaten. Now please tell me you have skinning knives somewhere in this house?”

Moreen nodded, and dug through the modest pile of tools and clutter they had managed to salvage from the barn, laying a bundle of leather on the table and unwrapping it to display a set of large hunting knives—among them, a skinning knife entirely big enough to do the job on an elk, not just a wolf. “Keep these if you like.”

“Are you sure?”

Moreen shrugged. “They used to belong to my father. Had he known you, I think he’d want you to have them.”

“If you say so,” Cassandra said uncertainly, but relented at the farmer’s firm nod. “Alright then. Thank you.”

The process of skinning the wolf had taken her most of the evening, but even as she washed her gloves clean of blood and more, she had to admit that she had done a pretty good job of it—the pelt was intact enough to take to the furrier and ask for having it made into at least one piece of winter clothing. The meat was far less exciting, even when drained of blood and quartered and cooked in a stew, with a few more cuts hung inside the chimney to smoke over time, but it was not inedible, and the rations they had brought from the Brazen Brigand were already exhausted and leaving them to dig into whatever remained inside the Tysons’ pantry, anyway.

They spent the following days trying to convert the dinky bullock cart into something that could be pulled by a horse without putting too much strain on Fidella, and on sorting the entirety of Moreen’s belongings into what could be sold and what would need to be given away. With little more than a few items of sentimental value, the stash of Ronan Tyson’s looted jewellery, and two changes of clothes set aside to keep, Cassandra leaned over to trail her good hand over a large triangular shawl of woollen yarn finished with long tassels along the outer edge.

“This is quality work. Did you make this?”

“Yes, I did. I’ve been crocheting since I was very young,” Moreen admitted. “I broke my leg as a child, and my grandmother taught me, to keep at least my hands busy.”

“If this was dyed in more expensive colours, you’d easily see a minor noble wanting to wear it at informal occasions,” Cassandra said honestly. “You must have improved a lot on what you were taught.”

The farmer’s cheeks coloured slightly, but her eyes turned thoughtful. “You really think so?”

“Of course I do.”

“Because I’ve been thinking where to go. There’s another town, a little smaller than Silberstadt, about four days of a walk or a cart ride away. It’s across the Kotoan border right now—Espinheiro, I’ve gone with my father enough times, to trade and to meet people. I thought it might be the safer choice, but... I’m not sure people would welcome a stranger with a name as foreign as mine.”

“They must be used to refugees by now, but I see why you would be worried about it,” Cassandra conceded. “What’s the other option?”

“Riddersbrug. Up north, much farther away—and much larger, a city proper, not a little town like here.”

“Must be where the garrison reinforcements came from,” Cassandra mused aloud with a frown.

“It is. And I think the husband of Eliza at the clinic is originally from there, too.” Moreen took the shawl in her hands, extended it to Cassandra after a moment. “This is my best work, I’d say, but do you think it’s good enough to find work in a– a weavers’ guild, or tailors’, or similar?”

“I don’t know about Equis, but any Coronian guild and more than one noble estate would be happy to have you.” Cassandra trailed her fingers, gloved and not, along the tassels. “They might push you to work faster than you’re used to, and demand that you maintain the quality, but otherwise I don’t think you’ll have problems at all if you show this kind of work as your credentials.”

“Well, I will have problems getting there,” Moreen said in a tight voice as she turned away. “It’s almost winter, and... it’s far. Far enough that I’ve never been.”

“Lucky I was already planning to head deeper into Equis, then. I’ll take you there,” Cassandra offered calmly.

Moreen let out a breath she’d been holding. “You’d do even that for me?”

“I need to find a new job board,” Cassandra reminded, “and I promised someone I’d look for him in Equis soon as I got the chance.” Then she considered the sheer length of Rapunzel’s first letter, and the fact that Owl had probably almost made it to Corona by now, meaning she’d be carrying twice as much paper before the month was out. “I should probably find a bookbinder of some sort, as well. And even besides, if you say this Kotoan town nearby is even smaller than Silberstadt, then there’s not much of a chance to find a pawnbroker there, to sell that jewellery from your father’s stash to. All good reasons to head north instead. It’s not just for you, if that makes you feel better.”

“It does. But thank you all the same.” Moreen took Cassandra’s hands in her own. “I don’t know what I’d do without your help.”

“It’s fine,” Cassandra said quietly, just short of pulling away. “It was needed, and I was there.”

And that was what the entirety of her exploits out of Corona had come down to, she thought as she laid in her bedroll before the hearth that evening, wasn’t it? True as it was that she’d spent these months desperately grasping at any task that could be completed even by a tool discarded as many times as she had been; true as it was that she had taken at least one mission so suicidally dangerous that no one in their right mind would have agreed to it, simply because she craved tangible proof of her own capability that much—it wasn’t only her own past failures that drove her forth, and it wasn’t only a feeling of relief that she was, in fact, still able to accomplish absolutely anything that came out of these exploits. There were lives she had saved from being severed too soon in their years. There were souls she had eased the indignities or the suffering of, where nothing better could be done for them anymore. There were allegiances she had honoured, even though no one would’ve had the right to expect her to go out of her way to do that like she had. There were wicked men rotting in the ground whom she had put there, rather than let them rot the lives of others any longer. And now there was a farmer trying to salvage anything that was still left of her life, that she was devoting a solid month of her time and her strength to, without any prospects of being rewarded for it.

When something was needed, Cassandra was there. And when it was done, she moved on to the next thing that was needed.

It wasn’t glorious, and it wasn’t a destiny, she mused as she stared into the fire with Moreen embracing her from behind again and Barley vibrating with an idle little purr against the side of her belly. But it was something that neither of those had ever been.

It was real.

~*~

“And there’s nothing more on the subject?” Rapunzel pressed desperately as she and Faith deposited a stack of herbal albums on the royal library’s front desk. “Are you absolutely sure?”

“I am quite certain, your highness,” the librarian reiterated for the third time. “With respect, this is a very specific interest you’ve acquired. Were you inclined to broaden the field somewhat, I would be happy to point you at a dozen tomes expanding upon another aspect of it, any aspect you name.”

“No,” Rapunzel relented, disappointed as she was to admit defeat. “Thank you for all your help.”

“Well, I remain at your service, should you change your mind.”

“I’ll hang on to the atlas for a little more, if that’s okay?”

“As you wish, your highness.”

Rapunzel held back a sigh until after the library doors were closed behind them, but when she did sigh, it came out deeper than the grave and collapsed the set of her shoulders in resignation.

Squeak, Pascal said in a consolatory tone, as if to remind her that they had tried.

“I know,” Rapunzel said sadly. “I just really wanted to solve Cass’ puzzle.”

“It’s strange how this herb you’re looking for doesn’t seem to grow in several of the Seven Kingdoms,” Faith admitted with a frown. “Not Corona, not Bayangor, and not Koto?”

“Not most of Koto, at least. Those herbariums didn’t cover the northern provinces.” Rapunzel stared at the dried flower accusingly where it laid, inside a small box she had placed it in to prevent the heavier contents of her bag from grinding it into dust. “I didn’t think this would be easy, but I hadn’t expected it to be so difficult, either.”

“I could find out when the outriders are scheduled to check in, so you can ask them if they’ve seen anything like it,” Faith offered as they walked out into the castle gardens. “But I’m not sure if it would help all that much.”

“Maybe not, but it’s a good idea to ask people who travel a lot or have in their past,” Rapunzel admitted. “I’ve asked Eugene already, and he said Lance wouldn’t know, either. Who else do we know who had gone outside of Corona for a long time?”

Squeak, Pascal said, and changed colour into a visage of a pale redhead with a fang-shaped stripe of red facepaint down each cheek.

“That’s true, but the girls were looking for gold and valuables,” Rapunzel reminded. “And if this herb was valuable, Eugene and Lance would know about it, too.”

Squeak, Pascal conceded her point, then changed colour again, the top of his head white now and his face in split colours, one half of it brown and half painted red.

Rapunzel stopped dead in her tracks.

A quarter century of trying to track down a legend. One about a magical, golden flower.

“Of course Adira could know. I’ll ask her next time I see her.”

“Ask her what?” a cheerful voice sounded from behind them.

Faith startled with a yelp, and Pascal’s squeak came distinctly closer to a shriek as he reverted to normal colour, while Rapunzel just turned on her heel—to see Adira, a thoroughly satisfied look on her face as she took in the reactions to her appearance.

“How long have you been there?”

“Long enough to see your friend’s approximation of me,” Adira gestured to Pascal, who grinned uncomfortably and slinked behind the high collar of Rapunzel’s dress. “Admirable work your court’s gardeners have done. It is beautiful here, even so late into autumn.”

Rapunzel smiled. “Are you finding yourself a few favourite places?”

“I am, now that it’s been made unspeakably easier by no longer having to play hide-and-seek with Hector,” Adira admitted airily.

“Oh, you were trying to avoid him?”

Adira raised an eyebrow. “I wasn’t going to let him walk all over me, but I didn’t enjoy demolishing our surroundings in every scuffle we got into. It’s unbecoming to display so little respect to everyone else’s work around here. What is it that you wanted to ask?”

“Right.” Rapunzel opened the little box again and extended her to Adira, showing her the dried herb. “Do you know what this is?”

Adira took it by the stem and lifted it into the sunlight, and tilted her head with a surprised expression. “Well, this is certainly the first time I’ve seen one of these in the past decade.”

Rapunzel perked up. “But you’ve seen it before?”

“Yes, this is starlight woundwort. It’s a healing herb, rare and very powerful, inherently magical. In the hands of a skilled practitioner of hedge magic, or an experienced enough herbalist, it could reliably drag someone back from death’s door if administered in time. It grows only in places already soaked with ambient magic—like ruins of wizard towers, or graveyards of magical creatures—and only at certain elevations. I still carry a few applications of medicine made from it, diminished with age as its potency may be, but other than that I don’t think I’ve seen it in your kingdom at all. Where did you get this?”

“Cass sent it,” Rapunzel said softly. “She wrote that she had resupplied a clinic on healing herbs.”

“That’s a score of lives she’d given them the power to save, then.” Adira lowered the woundwort’s stem, squinting at the sky now. “Speak of the devil. Isn’t that Shorthair’s bird?”

Rapunzel’s head snapped up at that. It took her a moment to make out the silhouette against the clouds, but there it was, unmistakably different from those of the castle island’s crows and seagulls, and heading directly for her window. She lifted both hands to her mouth and called out as loudly as she could, “Owl!”

If there had been any vocal response, it was carried away on the wind, but the distant silhouette sharply changed trajectory to one leading straight to her, now. Rapunzel quickly took the dried herb back, put it back in the box, and tucked it safely away, then held her arm out. Within moments, Owl landed on the offered perch, and folded his wings with visible relief.

“You’re back so quickly! I mean, in comparison. Is everything okay?”

Hoot, Owl confirmed easily.

His backpack, Rapunzel noticed, was smeared in streaks of black and gray. “Aw, what happened? Did you get into trouble?”

Hoot, Owl said dismissively, and Rapunzel wasn’t quite sure of his meaning: whether that nothing had happened, or that it was nothing he couldn’t handle.

“Okay then.” Rapunzel unstrapped the stained backpack from around Owl’s chest, and watched him fluff up his feathers a little. “How did she seem when you left her?”

Hoot, Owl described, concise yet diplomatic in his assessment that Cass had not been suffering or unhappy.

“That’s good to hear. Well, let’s get you inside, you must be tired? Hungry?”

“I’ll leave you to it.” Adira withdrew with her usual little smile. “Come find me if you need another midnight chat.”

“Okay, thank you!” Rapunzel called out after the old warrior, earning a nod, before heading back into the castle. “She walks like a cat, doesn’t she?”

“Sometimes I wish she would wear a bell around her neck like one, as well,” Faith admitted, her voice still a little faint.

“Well, it would certainly make for a unique Gopher Grab, to have people chase Adira and try to put a kitty bell on her, but I’m not that sure how much goodwill such an event would demonstrate.”

Faith snickered, hiding a grin behind a hand. Rapunzel watched her with a smile. Her new lady-in-waiting was a scaredy cat, and infinitely more timid than Cass, but the same traits made her observant and incredibly discreet. And even as Rapunzel missed Cass terribly, craving to see her around every corner and almost hearing the echo of her voice still reflecting off the castle’s walls, it was good to make a new friend—really make a friend, not just impose on them and call it good.

“I’d like some time to myself for now, do you think we can fit that in?”

Faith considered, and after a moment, nodded slowly. “It isn’t going to be very much, but I think it can be arranged. Any exceptions to not allowing people into your chambers?”

“Eugene can always come in.”

“Okay, then. I’ll come before the banquet to get you ready.”

“Great. Thank you so much.”

“Of course, princess.”

With these matters settled, Rapunzel headed to her room, where Owl took off from her arm to nestle in-between a few pillows rather than atop the back of a chair. Poor thing, Rapunzel thought as she watched him conk out immediately. She hadn’t been able to measure the exact distance between Castle Corona and the mining town that Cass had been in the neighbourhood of when she wrote her first letter, but she didn’t need pinpoint accuracy to be able to tell that it was hundreds upon hundreds of miles even in a bird’s flight. And Owl wasn’t just flying to and fro between them, but carrying messages both ways, too.

And thanks to him, Rapunzel now had Cassandra’s second letter in her hands. She thought of everything she had poured her heart out about in her reply to the first one, everything she had promised and everything she had kept quiet, then opened the stained scroll case.

There were a few sheets of paper inside, but only one carried the tell-tale marks of a quill’s nib pressing through and visible on its blank side. Rapunzel took that one out first, and was immediately struck with the state of Cass’ handwriting—shakier than usual. Far shakier. And not just in the way Rapunzel had seen in her own, through journaling in the evenings that crested days filled with physical effort, days that strained her arms more than usual. Cass hadn’t just been tired when writing that letter. Though she evidently was, as well, clear as day in the way the words at the end were scribed in wider strokes than those at the beginning, or a little harder to read, the differences between individual letters growing faint in places.

Something must have happened to her injured hand. Again.

Rapunzel swallowed, and took a deep breath, then started reading.

Okay, Raps.

You can be better than that. I know, because I’ve seen it sometimes. It just never stuck. But if you’re actually trying this time, you can make it stick.

I wish I could’ve talked to you about some things back when they happened. I’m starting to face a few of them again, but I don’t have to tell you how difficult it can be to scrub away the indents of other people’s hands on us. And it was more than just knowing by then that it wasn’t safe for me to talk to you about it, or that you wouldn’t listen. Sometimes, when you convince yourself there’s a problem, you start looking for whose fault it is like you need to prove it’s not yours, and scrambling to make it go away. And it’s usually either entirely out of your hands and not your responsibility, or outright not a problem at all, just a fact of life that you take issue with.

Your hands are not like my arm. I have scars on my chest from carrying the Moonstone. Those are like your hands. Those are both from things we chose to take.

The backpack was a good idea, but it can’t be in colours this noticeable. Things are tense where I am. If someone spots Owl carrying messages, they’ll assume he’s a courier trained by the enemy and shoot at him.

I’ve run a few errands for the locals here, joined them in a few tiring group tasks, and gotten rid of a few murderers. People have started to like me for it. It’s weird, and I don’t know what to do with it, but I’ll figure that out later. There’s a farmer who can’t handle everything alone, so I’ll spend some time helping out and move towns afterwards.

—Cass.

Rapunzel sat back heavily in her chair, overwhelmed already.

Oh, she knew that Cass was concise. That wasn’t news. She knew that Cass could be incredibly direct, especially when contrasted with the other Coronian courtiers and their diplomatically polite double-speak. That wasn’t news, either. But now, Cass was drawing limits in words as direct and concise as when they were actively fighting each other, if with infinitely less aggression. And that was news. And it shouldn’t be.

And Rapunzel had promised she would listen, this time, she reminded herself as she watched her first reflex rising to the surface to defend her, an urge to argue that wanting to solve problems was wanting to help people, and that helping was a good thing, a virtue—

She ground her teeth and closed her eyes, and imagined putting a hand on the head of that impulse and shoved it back underwater.

Cass had limits. And that wasn’t something to be treated like a problem. Not anymore—not ever, if Rapunzel had been a good enough friend to deserve the title of it at all. It was a fact of life, one that she had taken issue with on so many separate occasions, hadn’t she? One that she had tried making go away on each of those occasions, hadn’t she? How humiliating that must have felt, to be constantly disrespected and pushed like that, only to hear it interspersed with declarations of love. How devastatingly painful that must have been, to watch these two contradictory extremes happen in conjunction, and see the pattern of it for what it was: an unspoken rule that love was to be earned with submission and timidity and obedience, not to be received unconditionally.

Come to think of it, Rapunzel knew exactly what that felt like.

Squeak, Pascal said worriedly as he watched her grimace.

“Does it even matter that we’re out of the tower,” Rapunzel asked him quietly, “if we’re dragging the tower with us into everything we do?”

Indents of other people’s hands on her, indeed. Would that she could just scrub them away. Would that she could just take her monsters by the throat and drown them and be free.

She gathered Pascal up to press their foreheads together. “How do we leave someplace that’s built itself up inside us, hm?”

Squeak, Pascal told her gently.

Rapunzel managed a faint smile. “I don’t know if there even is a right answer to that, but 'together' is far from a wrong one, I think.”

She pulled her second journal out from its hiding place, in the gap between books stacked into a larger pile, and unlocked it to trail her fingertips over the title page, the image she had painted twice: the pool with stone stairs leading into the water and a full moon rising into the sky from behind three black rocks. The thought of Cass that kept her trying, the help of Adira who had her realize in no uncertain terms that she needed to begin trying at all, and the place of peace she had constructed between both of their influences, a mirror to look at herself in and see the poison behind the sickness of her actions, the reason for her habits and weaknesses, so she could brew herself an antidote.

And how was she going to take the tower out of herself, indeed? If it was possible at all, then 'one demanding and difficult session of honest self-examination at a time, one day of ceaseless self-improvement after another' seemed like a viable answer. Like a path that could genuinely lead her there—to dismantling the palace she had built on quicksand, and to finding the tower’s foundations at its centre, and to dismantling that in turn.

Maybe that would stop her flaws from sabotaging every work of her actual positive traits, at least.

She rubbed at her eyes with a sigh, then pushed the dark and unadorned journal aside to pull out the rest of what Cass had sent. Four sheets of paper, as it turned out—each thinner than the letter, and each holding the mugshot of a man and the seal of one of the Seven Kingdoms.

Wanted posters, Rapunzel realized slowly, for internationally wanted criminals.

One massive even in the perspective that only showed his head and shoulders, with a flat face and hateful eyes and a bulbous nose that looked like it had been broken and then set multiple times, his teeth jagged and some of them chipped and a lot of them bared in a murderous grimace. Below, the Pittsfordian griffon that marched ahead but with its head turned back to look over its shoulder, and a subtitle of DETLEV DREISTERNEN: MASS MURDERER, ARSONIST.

One square-jawed and scowling in contempt, several parallel scars shorn in his face as if with a set of claws that have been dragged from eyebrow to jawline. Whoever had painted his portrait had conveyed, in some unspoken detail, that the eye those scars ran across was still—and its iris was a slightly paler colour than the other one, as well. Below, the Ingvarrdian leafless and uprooted tree, and a subtitle of HOGNI GALDRSBANI: SERIAL KILLER, OATHBREAKER.

One with an expression so vacant that Rapunzel immediately felt as if she was being stared past, no hint of anger or scorn so prominent in the previous two’s expressions. No hint of anything, really. Only a pair of bull-like horns tied to the sides of his head at the temples with an elaborate set of leather headbands that looped across his forehead multiple times. Below, the Bayangoran cherry blossom, and a subtitle of TASSOS THE MINOTAUR: MASS MURDERER, CANNIBAL.

One far scrawnier than the others—not emaciated, exactly, but clearly with no muscle mass to speak of. Salt-and-pepper hair pulled into a thin braid at the back of his head, a round goatee framing a mocking little smile, eyes alight with avarice. Below, the Coronian sun, and a subtitle of CASIMIR THE SORCERER: SERIAL KILLER, ABDUCTOR.

Rapunzel found herself leaning away slightly from the last one. She’d seen people looking at others like that—looking at her like that, among those others. Sugracha. Tromus. Zhan Tiri. Gothel. Even Cass, for a time, when her eyes were a stark turquoise and equally stark hatred, rather than blue-green like seawater and endlessly warm with loving adoration. People who looked at another person, and entertained themselves with thinking how to best hurt them. People who looked at another person, and saw only things to be used and things to be taken, not another person at all.

Each charged with taking the life of more than one other person.

She looked up as a knock came on her door, and hid her second journal with a sigh before calling out, “Come in!”

It was Eugene who opened the door, and Rapunzel immediately felt herself smile and her shoulders drop. “Hello, sunshine—”

Hoot, a disgruntled reprimand came from the stack of pillows, making Eugene startle.

“And hello to you too, murderbird.” Eugene turned back to Rapunzel. “Cass wrote again, huh?”

“She did,” Rapunzel said softly, looking at the letter and the four posters.

Eugene studied her for a moment, a look of bewilderment cresting into worry on his face. “...And you’re unhappy?”

“I’m not unhappy. It’s just– I’m– she gave me a lot to think about.”

“Yeah, she does that sometimes. Man, remember the blizzard? I thought she was just giving me a hard time like we used to do all the time, but then it turned out, she was actually giving me good advice and pushing me to be a better person.” Eugene shook his head with a chuckle. “What has she been up to?”

“Helping people who live where she is, for the most part. And, um– bounty hunting, apparently.”

Eugene chuckled, taking a goblet from Rapunzel’s desk to sip water from it. “Oh yeah? Well, I can’t imagine she’d go after house names larger than yours truly—” he choked immediately when Rapunzel showed him one of the posters, his eyes wide with shock now. “—holy bounty hunter, is she okay?!”

“She didn’t write anything about getting hurt,” Rapunzel said slowly, a sense of dread creeping over her at Eugene’s reaction. “And Owl told me she wasn’t injured or anything when she sent him back. You know these people?”

“People? You’re telling me she went after more than the one?” Eugene leaned closer to look over her shoulders at the remaining three posters. “Oh. Oh mama. Wow. No, that’s– wow. And you’re saying she’s not even injured? How is she alive?”

Rapunzel took that in. Glanced to the letter again. “So when she said she’s 'gotten rid of few murderers' and sent these...”

“Yeah no, that doesn’t mean jail.”

“Oh.” Rapunzel sat with that, silently, for a long moment. “...So she’s killing people now.”

“If it makes you feel any better, if there is anyone who deserves to die, it’s people like them,” Eugene gestured to the posters. “Oh man, I gotta tell Lance about this, he’s never been afraid of Cass like he should be. And Cap needs to know, too, especially about the sorcerer.”

“But you were condemned to death at one point, too,” Rapunzel said quietly. “And a lot of our friends, they’re criminals too, aren’t they?”

Eugene raised an eyebrow. “I’d like to think that my death sentence was meant more to make an example of me, to show the whole of Corona what happens when someone dares steal from the royalty, rather than equate grand theft with mass murder, sunshine. I know you’re all about seeing the best in everyone, but with people like these four, the best that’s there to be seen is that they didn’t torture some of the people they’ve killed for very long before killing them. They are not like the pub thugs. They’re what the pub thugs are scared of at night.” He thought for a moment. “Actually, from everyone we know, they’re most like Zhan Tiri.”

“Wait a minute,” Rapunzel objected immediately. “But Zhan Tiri wasn’t a person, she was a demon from another realm.”

“Rapunzel, I’ve been all around the world, and the only demonic realm I’ve ever seen was cruelty and greed,” Eugene said, patiently but firmly. “Cass made the world a better place by taking these people out of it. And no, jail wouldn’t have solved anything, they’ve all broken out from behind bars multiple times. It takes a lot to earn a death penalty spanning all of the Seven Kingdoms without committing political crimes, and they’ve murdered their way into that, both before they’ve banded up and afterwards.” He took in the struggle playing across Rapunzel’s face, then reached to stroke her cheek with the back of one hand, and was rewarded with a small smile as she leaned into the caress. “Did Cass write anything else?”

“I’m getting the sense she’s not opposed to giving me a chance,” Rapunzel admitted with palpable relief. “Like she’s trying to show me a few places she can allow me into, and waiting to see if I do anything differently than I used to.”

“That’s a good sign, then.” Eugene leaned down to kiss the top of her head. “You just remember to take it slow and let her come to you when she’s good and ready. Cass plays things closer to the vest than you or me. If you show her that she can trust you with a few small things, she’ll try to see if she can trust you with bigger things, too.”

“I will. Thank you.” Rapunzel put an arm around Eugene’s waist, leaning her head against his chest, grateful for the comfort.

Not everything Cass had written of was a small thing. Already, she was extending a hand and hoping that Rapunzel would take it rather than scorch it, despite all experiences on the contrary, despite how much it must have hurt to have that hand slapped away so many times. If only Rapunzel could take all that back, she thought, she would.

But since she couldn’t, she’d do the next best thing, which was to take that hand gently and hold it until Cass decided either to pull it back, or to allow her close enough to kiss it better.

~*~

“I’m just here to help miss Tyson, sir,” Cassandra repeated for the third time.

“I heard you the first two times.” The guard standing in front of her looked no more convinced than before. His companions, each with a halberd at the ready, were growing visibly frustrated. “I have yet to hear why a bounty hunter from Corona would even take interest in a farmer’s daughter out here.”

“Sir, miss Tyson was the one who took interest in me. She sought me out for help, so I’m helping.”

“Likely story. I’m only going to ask this one more time, Coronian.” The officer beckoned at the other two guards, who pointed the topspikes of their halberds at Cassandra’s throat. “What do you want with the Tyson girl?”

“Sir,” Cassandra said tiredly, readying herself to grab at the two halberds and push them sideways if it came to fighting the guards. “Miss Tyson came to me for help, and said upfront that she didn’t know if she’d be able to pay me because of the tragedy that recently struck her family. I was well enough off at the time to not have to worry about being paid, so I decided to lend my aid for free. I’m honestly just here to help miss Tyson.”

“Then you won’t mind if we ask miss Tyson about that, I’m sure.”

Cassandra turned her head, still keeping the two guards threatening her in her field of vision, and called out, “Moreen!”

“Yes?” The farmer leaned out from behind the cart, and her face immediately froze into a horrified expression when she took in the scene: Cassandra standing very still with her hands held up, two guards more than ready to run her through with their halberds, the third clearly in half a mind to give them free rein to. “Heavens, what’s going on?!”

“We’re about to bring this bounty hunter in,” the officer said formally. “You won’t have to worry about being extorted by the likes of her anymore, miss.”

Moreen sputtered at that. “Extor– no! No, she’s been nothing but wonderful! Please let her go, she didn’t do anything wrong!”

The officer gestured at the cart, filled with tools and knickknacks of everyday use, an unimpressed look on his face. “Then what do you call forcing you to sell off your belongings to pay her fare?”

“No one is being forced into anything here,” Moreen bit back at him. “Sir, I’m planning to winter in Riddersbrug. This is to pay for the travel there, and for someplace to stay until I can find work. She’s been kind enough to help me get everything in order and prepare for the trip, and I couldn’t do it without her. So please, let her go and let us get back to it. It’s getting colder every day.”

Reluctantly, the officer signalled his men to withdraw their halberds—which they did with disappointment very clear in their bearing—and leaned his face into Cassandra’s with a glare.

“We’re watching you, Coronian. Make sure you don’t run out of charity.”

“What was I supposed to do, turn away a mourner in need?” Cassandra asked in a scathing tone. “My father raised me better than that, sir.”

“You keep that father of yours in mind and stay on your best behaviour, or we’ll send you back to him in a matchbox.”

With the patrol walking away, Cassandra lowered her hands, and fixed her too-thin cloak around her shoulders. A few Shankers across the town square unfolded their arms from behind their backs, a few Rats at the Brazen Brigand’s entrance took their hands off the handles of small axes or leaned on their spears again, the sound of metal hammered against metal flew through the air as Hanalei went back to work at the smithy nearby.

“Are you okay?” Moreen asked worriedly, wringing her hands in a nervous gesture.

“I’m fine. They didn’t do anything to me.”

“Well not for the lack of trying! Why are they harassing you like this?!”

“Politics,” Cassandra said with a shrug. “Equis and Corona haven’t been on the best of terms for a bit. And a different patrol was pushing Sigrid around just about as much, a few weeks back. I think they’re just stupidly jumpy because of how close to the border with Koto this town is right now.”

Moreen’s face pulled into a look of concern as she listened to that. “You know, I don’t think I’ve seen Sigrid since we came into town.”

Cassandra paused for a moment. Looked towards the smithy. Hanalei didn’t seem to be acting any differently than usual, and since he was there in the first place, his wife hadn't gone down the warpath yet. “She may have just gone out for some fletch, she had mentioned she was planning to.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m not, but I think we’d see more signs of unrest around here if the guards had done something to her. And besides, I’ve seen how capable a warrior she is. She can take care of herself.”

Moreen nodded slowly. “You’re right. She’s probably fine. But it can’t hurt to ask, can it?”

“Probably not. You go, I’ll keep an eye on things here.”

“Okay, I’ll be right back.”

Cassandra watched the farmer hurry towards the smithy, and heard Hanalei pausing in his work again to speak with her, but turned her attention back to her surroundings when she heard someone clear her throat nearby. One of the townsfolk, but not anyone she recognized.

“Those plates, how much are you selling them for?”

Cassandra looked to where the commoner was pointing. “One silver apiece, or one gold for the dozen.”

“And the platter?”

“Four silver.”

“What about the pitchers?”

“Three silver each, or five if you get both.”

She’d deferred to Moreen’s assessment for prices to set on everything the farmer had decided to sell, if after pointing out that they seemed too low to her—and after being told that it was a little to account for wear and tear, a little to make sure everything they tried to sell would go. And despite the cold she found herself standing in for most of the day, out in the open on the town square, Cassandra did have to admit that she hadn’t expected to spend her days selling clutter from a cart. Or for her appearance, which was so easily and so consistently getting her mistaken for a sellsword in these parts, to make people take the prices she listed at face value instead of try to haggle with her, like they did with Moreen.

Learn a new use for a weapon kept in clear sight every day.

She took the half-handful of silver and a gold from the person before her and helped them stack the dishes in their bag to protect them from getting banged up on their way home, then stashed the money with the rest of the profits and looked up to see another person approaching. Ramon. Not murderously inclined, though, at least at a glance.

“Can I interest you in some fine wares today?” Cassandra asked in a deadpan tone. “Only slightly used and definitely not taken from a murdered family’s home.”

“Very fucking funny. I thought I told you to get out of town,” the spy said politely.

“I did, and I will. Just helping the Tyson girl sell everything she can’t carry, then I’ll be escorting her to Riddersbrug.” Cassandra counted days back to when she had sent Owl to Corona. “Just under two weeks and I’m gone.”

“Can’t you leave any faster?”

“No can do, sorry.”

“I’m sure you are. Fuck.” Ramon stepped closer to the cart, looking through the items set out. “Got anything that a girl would love? Especially a girl who can’t walk.”

“Think I saw a nice deck of cards somewhere in here,” Cassandra gestured to a few small wooden boxes laid out next to each other. “Sigrid isn’t around, did something happen?”

“She snuck out of town two days back,” Ramon said dismissively as he opened one of the boxes and started shuffling the well-used deck. “Either a fletch trip, or checking on a few folks in the mine.” He chuckled at one of the cards. “Oh, that’s rich, the queen of diamonds is Saint Claire.”

“Who?”

“Patron of goldsmiths and gilders, mostly.” The spy pulled out a few more court cards, each with a nimbus around their head, and snorted at another one. “Heavens have mercy, they put the patron of grave diggers as the king of spades. Oh, this’ll give Tara a laugh.”

“Eight silver. How is she?”

“Just about how you saw her last. Doesn’t have to sleep as much anymore, though, and started moving her hands a little,” Ramon said as he fished out a few coins and pocketed the cards. “So she’s bored when she’s not in pain, and getting a little stir-crazy. Bruno says they’ll start physical therapy a few weeks from now.”

Cassandra nodded at that. “Good thing she’s recovering, even if it’s slow. I’ve been meaning to ask you something, do you think Fidella will need a blanket for the winter here?”

Ramon looked at the mare, who acknowledged him with a little upwards nod of her head. “You’re taking her out every day, yeah? I don’t think she will, then, not unless you’re planning to sleep outside. Which, you’ll freeze to death anyway, unless you keep a fire going overnight and wear something thicker than that flimsy little cloak.”

“That’s underway,” Cassandra assured him, thinking back to when she dragged the wolf pelt to the furrier. With enough coin spent next to it, she was going to get a very warm vest and pair of trousers, and a much longer fur-lined cloak, as well as a flat document satchel made of boiled leather for Moreen—not unlike the kind that the Seven Kingdoms’ couriers carried sensitive missives in against their chests, rather than in their saddlebags or carts. Dragging a strongbox around wasn’t going to be easy or advisable in a larger city, and it was out of the question to leave the Tysons’ documents behind. “Is there anyone in Riddersbrug you want me to give your or Tara’s regards to?”

Ramon chuckled. “Heavens no, you’ll float up in the river the day after saying that. I’ll send word ahead of you, though. Someone might try and find you if they’re in a pinch, but look for work on your own, too.”

“Done deal. Tell Tara I said hi.”

“I will. Don’t let the guards lock you up.”

Cassandra nodded at the spy as he left, and turned at the sound of footsteps as Moreen hurried back from the smithy. “Anything?”

“Sigrid just went out of town for fletch,” the farmer said with no small amount of relief. “Han says she’ll probably be back tomorrow.”

“It’s good to be sure.” Cassandra pointed her thumb at the cart. “We sold a few dishes and the cards in the meantime.”

“Okay. We might need to go back for more in a day or two, then.”

“I can work with that.” Cassandra turned to Fidella. “You?”

Snort, the mare confirmed calmly.

“She’s fine with it too.”

Moreen smiled a little. Then an expression of worry overtook her face again as her eyes were drawn to something in the distance, and Cassandra turned to look as well—at a panting, red in the face teen sprinting up to the clinic to frantically bang a fist on the door. Moments after he was let inside, Eliza ran out in turn, slinging a bag over her shoulder and buckling a cloak, and turned her head sharply a few times before spotting Ramon and calling out to him. The Kotoan spy, astride his dappled old horse now, headed towards her without delay. A rapid flurry of words was exchanged, then Ramon extended an arm and pulled the clinic’s best surgeon up into the saddle behind himself, and turned his steed towards a dirt road out of town.

Cassandra watched them get past the checkpoint, Ramon pushing his chestnut into a canter straight afterwards. “The mine settlement is that way, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is,” Moreen admitted with a frown. “I hope everyone is okay.”