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Build your house on the rock

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In this new white world, Cassandra ended up losing the count of days.

A welcome change. The stars did not ask questions, and the silence was soothing, both on the inside and the outside.

On that fine afternoon, she had decided to take a hike until the cliff. Air was still sharp, though the worst of winter seemed past her, and her keen eyes moved from peak to peak, fleeting like the birds that had flown south months before.

All save one. Cassandra gave her arm a little shake and Owl opened his yellow eyes, a little more tired, a little grumpier than he used to be, but that had been in far-away years, and she did not want to fill her mind with those thoughts, just with the sight of her bird friend opening his wings and going for a flight, in lazy and ever-widening circles, hooting from time to time, the only noise apart from the soft howling of the wind and her own breaths.

Snow was fresh and dry, and it creaked pleasantly as she sat on the cliff. She used to ask herself if this was peace, then she stopped asking. Learned to simply close her eyes, lose her mind in the moment. The occasional flash of deep green eyes and a far-away echo would come, for sure – Cass! – but she let it come, and go. Like the birds in fall and spring. Let them cross her thoughts, and after that, clear skies.

She let out a pleased breath as warm peace dawned inside her chest, little by little, like one of those silly weather balloons. She sat there upon the cliff, accepting dreams and memories reach her, pass through, and then leave, free in the wind. There was not much more for her, in this new white world, but it was enough. More than enough.

More than she deserved? She was not sure.

Cassandra waited for Owl to come back. He sat on her arm – the good one – and began plucking at his own feathers, tossing her a lidded look which she answered with a smile and a soft scratch behind his head. Owl hooted, content. Good bird. Up above, islands of blue slowly being eaten up by a rolling wave of white. A snowstorm was coming, it echoed already through the ruins of her right arm. Of all the good things that might have come from that choice, being able to somewhat predict weather was not something Cassandra had expected. It made her feel old. It was practical, though, especially in the rougher parts of the world.

Case in point, better walk back to her cottage, make sure she had every supply stowed away and she could rest in front of a crackling fire.

Wait.

Her clean azure eyes were drawn to the road below, at the bottom of the cliff. Something moved through the snow, a small grey carriage, big enough for just one person, maybe two. A brown horse dragged it through the white. Her good hand rose to brush against the pulsing stone etched inside her heart, humming and thrumming with a beat of its own.

She licked her lips.

Ridiculous. It just could not be.

She crossed her gaze with Owl, who tooted back at her, as if she had asked him a question. Owl flapped his wings and flew down the cliff, a maroon arrow between black and white, without waiting for her answer. Clever bird.

She pursed her lips as she saw him dance around the carriage. To her enhanced hearing, his soft hoots of doubts reached her ears clear like smooth chimes. No need for supernatural senses to get drowned under the rumble of her own thunderous heart. Owl entered the carriage.

Cassandra shifted her weight. The soil, the rock, welcomed her pressure with the easiness of an old friend. Did it need to answer her call, to sprout its insides out, and bloom thorny leaves down the path of her sight? The wretched, hallowed opal in her chest sang notes of allegiance after her own heart.

Then Owl whipped out of the carriage like the last leaf of autumn caught in the incoming storm, and he flew up the cliff towards her, looking at her with those soft yellow eyes of his. He propped himself on her raised arm and tooted once, twice, shaking his wings as if to say nothing was out of the ordinary.

Cassandra caressed him behind the ears, and her bird ruffled his fears, happy for a job well done. He had just earned double rations.

She let go of the deepest breath she had held for the longest time, and it come out as a cloud, softly coiling around her neck before she descended the cliff once again. She let go of her worries like a worn-out scarf. She had better things to care about.

The carriage forgotten, she spent the next hour getting ready for the storm. As it turned out, though supplies were more than enough, she was out of tinder. Owl could not help her much in this endeavor, so she left him inside, happily focused on the thin strips of dried meat he had rightfully earned. She stepped out of her black cottage, making sure to shut the door behind herself. As she had learned, you were never too cautious in the woods, especially this close to Pohjola.

She trod down a beaten path, axe in her left arm. It still did not feel the same as her old grip, a little uncertain, but she was learning. The day her left arm forgot all about not having been her arm of choice, would be the day she let go of yet another tassel of her checkered past. Pursing her lips, Cassandra found a patch of birch trees and set to her training, as the day revolved around her.

Little by little, the sun piled down as wood piled up. Her left arm ached, but she welcomed it. She wriggled it, feeling its weight, the sore muscles. Still needed a little more training, but she was bound to come back to top form. Just something she felt like doing out of duty, if only to her own body.

Cassandra picked up the logs, latching the axe to her armor and carrying them back to the cottage, retracing her own footsteps, deeper this time. The sky had almost drowned out light, and a thin wind howled between the pines, carrying with it the promise of one last storm before the return of spring. Cassandra picked up pace, wobbling in the snow.

As she reached her black stone cottage, sticking out of the soil like an angular thumb, she stooped for a moment. No sight of a carriage around. It was probably a lonely traveler, trying to reach Pohjola. Might Heavens conserve him. She came in, threw the wood in front of the hearth, and then came back for more.

She had finished three loads by the time her muscles refused to work against the howling wind. She picked up the last few branches – waste not, want not, as Father used to say – and she carried them to her cottage, finally shutting down the door behind herself.

Hm.

She crouched in front of the door, thinking. Owl fluttered about, curious, sensing her doubt. She softly curled her fingers, and the black stone rose to kiss the wooden panel, shifting with soft creaking sounds, like crumpled leaves trod over, until the howling wind was a far-away thing, and no deadly breath of winter pushed through the door.

There. Owl tooted his approval at her workmanship, tapping his beak against her shoulder. Cassandra took him in her hands and carried him in front of the hearth, where she proceeded to lit up a fire.

At last, just as the last glow of the day died out and the crackling flames filled the air with cozy warmth, Cassandra poured Owl upon the fireplace chair, stepped quickly into the still-cold kitchen to fetch herself a slice of bread and cheese, and sat down in front of the fire.

If she was about to spend a few hours like this, with Owl’s soft feathers under her fingers and the pleasant tinge of burning wood, she would not mind. Her eyelids dropped. She would not mind at al-

Knock-knock-knock.

Heavens.

Cassandra sighed, but she did not move a muscle. There was nobody out of her door. It must have been a branch knocking against the wood, or maybe a pebble carried by the wind.

Kno-knock-kno-knock.

Or even a long-lost spirit of the place, rapping his ghostly fingers against her door as a punishment for having stolen firewood. Maybe it was good old Väinämöinen himself.

Kno-kno-kno-knock!

“Uugh!”

Cassandra jumped up, and Owl flapped away, coming to rest on a shelf, looking towards the door. Was it just her, or there was an odd glint in his large yellow eyes? It must have been her. Solitude had a way to creep up to you. Maybe she was just seeing things. Hearing things.

There was not a voice yelling out in the wind, just outside of her door. There could not be.

But if she was wrong, someone was outside freezing his bones out. Maybe it was a traveler who had been surprised by the storm, no matter the hours-long forecast of its coming. Maybe…

Owl was still looking at her. Cassandra called upon the wretched stone embedded in her chest, its eager song coming back to haunt her fingers. She slowly opened them as the rock withdrew from the wooden door like the skin of the sea at the low tide. The breath of the storm slipped through, lapping with its freezing tongues at her feet.

Knock-knock-knock-knock.

Fainter this time.

She gripped the handle. Whatever it was, whoever it might be. It could not be her.

It would just not make sense.

Alright. It was not her.

Cass!

It was not her, Cassandra reminded herself, and the echo of her own gritting teeth agreed. It was another person, and he was probably about to die in the storm any moment soon so she’d better decide between her own peace and quiet and the fragmented remains of her own conscience.

She swung the door open. In came the bellow of the storm, thousands of snowflakes covering her body and clinging to her hair, and behind them, a figure, carved out of the night, lightened by the thin golden light of the hearth as it filtered through Cassandra’s silhouette.

The person outside her door was covered head-to-toe in winter clothes, so only her head was visible, but it was more than enough. Cassandra’s breath slipped out in small clouds in front of those deep emerald eyes.

Cassandra,” sighed Princess Rapunzel.

 

-

 

Cassandra had been saved by her honed habits. Rapunzel – the Princess – had fallen in like a crumbling tower, and it was just thanks to her quick reflexes that she got her. This… she… Cassandra batted her eyelids and carried her inside. The Princess seemed lighter than the last time she had carried her, or maybe it was the opal, or maybe all the wood she had cut as of late.

There. Focus on the wood. Do not think. Act. She put the softly-breathing Princess in front of the fire, even before coming back to close the door. Wait. If it had been Rap-… the Princess inside the carriage, didn’t she have a horse?

“Max?” Cassandra cried as she jumped out into the night. The wind carried a frightened whinny. There, half-lit by the golden light of her cottage, there was the same brown horse she had seen hours before. It wasn’t Fidella, though. Shorter and of stockier build, maybe one purchased in Kaleva. Cassandra came closer, slowly raising her hands. The horse did not seem to like her presence. Few animals did, since…

“Good boy, good boy,” she said, grasping at its reins. There. She caressed the side of his head with her good hand, and though the animal did not seem keen on her touch, it seemed smart enough to understand that it was the least of two evils. “There, there. Good boy.” She led the animal to the place where she used to keep wood. Max or Fidella would have been too tall to fit, but this horse snuggled in, whinnying softly as it finally had some respite from the wind. Cassandra nodded, covered him with the blanket she used to protect her wood from rain, and came back inside. She had larger problems to tackle, for sure.

The Princess breathed in front of the fire, trembling, keeping her pale hands closer to her body. Cassandra sat down close to her. She had taken off her hood, revealing her longer, brown hair. The eyes were the same, though, and they sparkled as soon as they caught sight of Cassandra.

“Your hands,” she commanded. The Princess held them out for her. Hm. Only the tips were dangerously white, the rest of the skin seemed healthy enough. She must not have been out in the snow for too long. Stupid. Stupid. Brave. Stupid.

She crouched in front of the fire, withdrew a pack of warm blankets she had stopped using a few weeks before, and began to softly rub the Princess’ hands with them. Bit by bit, the whiteness receded, leaving way to reddened skin. No sign of frostbite. Cassandra let go another long breath, pushed the logs a little further away inside the hearth, making sure to spread the heath so that the Princess would not feel too much heath difference, and then she turned to face her.

Was she scowling? The Princess did seem a little taken aback by her reaction.

What did she expect? Rainbows and flowers? For Cass to have a pie baked in already, and maybe a few glasses of wine, to celebrate her impromptu visit? Maybe they could bond for a while over shared memory, and then what? The Princess would leave again, and Cassandra would wave at her from her threshold, a wide smile on her sharp features? All would be forgiven; all would be forgotten?

“I took care of the horse.” It was not the best way to open a conversation. Maybe it was a good way to end it. Maybe the Princess would disappear in a plum of snow, and all this would have been a dream, a malignant nightmare whispered into her mind by echoes of Zhan Tiri.

“T-thank you,” whispered the Princess, and those fantasies left her. She let go of her hands. Now that she was out of immediate danger, it was better this way. Owl hooted softly, giving an affectionate peck to the Princess’s hand. Blasted bird. She was not sure to be angrier at him or at the Princess. She was surrounded by conspirators. Owl hooted again, blinked once at Cassandra, and withdrew into the protective embrace of the Princess.

“He seems really happy to be with you…” the Princess said, moving her hand to caress her bird. Her fingers were still a bit unresponsive, but they were quickly healing. Healing had always been her thing.

Not always, her ruined hand pulsed.

Again, the opal sang to her. Maybe out of some forsaken instinct more than real need: the Princess’ hair was brown, and would forever be. Longer, falling to her forearms. Splitting image of her mother. Plumper than she used to be.

Childbirth?

Gold glinted from her right hand, mocking Cassandra.

She did not want to know.

“Cassandra,” the Princess said, as if she was getting used to some tool she had not used in a long time. Her heart jumped at the sound, but the opal shook as well, vibrating with her own bubbling anger, rising from the depths of her tainted stomach like so many seething brambles.

“You must go.” No need to ask her why she came here. She would make sure Cassandra knew. Her green eyes opened in surprise, but surprise soon gave way to sorrow. Sooner than she expected. She had grown.

Silence was soon filled by the howling wind. The storm would not abate for hours.

Nevertheless.

“You must go,” Cassandra repeated, standing away from the chair and the hearth and the Princess. Owl hooted softly, but she ignored him. “I did not invite you. Princess. And I do not want to see you.”

The Princess shifted, opening up her coat. Beneath it, a glimpse of gold. Her figure was just like she remembered, no sign of a stretched belly, though her hips were a tad wider, and her chest was a tad larger.

She truly did not wish to know.

“But I have letters!” The Princess smiled, that innocent, optimistic smile that she used to love, and hate, and now she only wanted to forget. Her hands rustled in pockets, produced a pile of white sheets. “I have one from Eugene! And my parents, and Max wanted to give you something, but it’s not like he can, you know, write, so he and Pascal… sorry?”

Did she talk? She was not sure.

Maybe it was her tongue, acting of her own volition.

Beneath her feet, blackness awoke from its slumber. This place always had keen senses. Maybe not as keen as the rocks in the Dark Kingdom, but sharp enough. A word, a touch, a thought. They would rise up like a saving dawn, and protect her from this hell.

“My father,” Cassandra repeated, moving her tongue like a puppeteer his strings, a mockery of true will. “Do you…”

“The very first,” the Princess replied, her smile softer. She passed her the entire pile, but Cassandra’s good hand only wrapped her fingers around the letter at its top.

She opened it.

The Princess said nothing while she read. Owl seemed to have found his resting place in her lap, and hooted softly, no questions in his tone.

She would not know what to answer, anyway.

Cassandra folded the letter, not a word. She would… she needed time. She put the letter upon the shelf of the fireplace, hugging her ruined body.

Thump, thump, thump, the opal inquired.

No answer from her.

“What about you, then?” Mockery had always come easier to her lips than compassion. It was just like slipping back into old habits, a comfortable, warm pit of black sticky tar. “Do you have a letter? Gifts?

The Princess’ hands covered the gold band coiling around her finger.

“No letter from me. Cass… I only wanted to talk.”

Talk.”

“Yes!” She balled her fists, and the gold peeked out again, scolding her with its inane brightness. “I wanted to talk! I know we did not have much time after everything that happened, so I came as soon as I could.”

“As soon as you could.” Cassandra gasped, chocked. It took her a few moments to understand she was not having a fit, just laughing, like small popping bubbles of that same sticky tar. “As soon as you could.”

“Cassandra…”

“If you tell me to wait,” she barked, “I will throw you of the door. Princess or not.”

“I am not sure I am your Princess anymore.”

“We both made sure of that, didn’t we?” Cassandra bit her thumb. Her good one, as she kept the ruined hand hidden behind her back, like a secret, like a shame.

Owl hooted. It was the only sound for a long time, until Cassandra turned to take care of the fire, threw yet another log in.

“You can stay until the storm abates, but not a moment longer.”

“Cass…”

“Do not interrupt me. The road to Pohjola is the quickest, but you are going to find worse weather on that side. You better go back the way you came, to Kaleva, and take a ship from there.”

“I did not come here to leave.”

Cass laughed again.

“Neither did I.”

Owl hooted one last time. She ignored him. Stupid, treacherous bird. Cassandra took a step away from the fireplace, came back, snatched the letter from the shelf.

“The kitchen is that way,” she said pointing to her right, turned left, entered her own bedroom.

A pulse. The opal reacted with all the eagerness of a well-trained dog. Black rock wriggled, grew like ancient roots to cover the edge of the door, devouring wood inch after inch, and when Cassandra let herself fall against the wall, only black rock welcomed her.

 

-

 

Sleep did not come. She had learned, in time, how the opal had… muted some of her edges, smoothed her like a rock drowned deep into a river, forgot there for one hundred years or a thousand. She still needed sleep, of course. But at times like these, Cassandra could only hold onto her own legs, lying there in the cold darkness of her own room, the howling wind outside the only echo to her own thunderous thoughts.

She was doing fine. Had been for a while. Even that afternoon, she had proven herself free, and somewhat happy. She did not need Rap-… the Princess to tell her how to feel, tell her what to do, tell her to wait.

Waiting had never been her thing. Father had seen to that, trained her to be headstrong, self-confident, a true Guard. The letter was soft in her hands, and oh-so-fragile. She kept it close to her chest, seeing if she could get a little bit of warmth from it.

So far it did seem to work, a little.

And yet sleep did not come. She was hung over the abyss, this deep golden hook in her breast, keeping her from falling down into dreamless slumber, where she could find if not peace at least respite.

I have one from Eugene!

She balled her left fist. Heavens, no. She truly did not need to hear more poison from him. What did he write? About his new life with the Princess at his side, how he enjoyed his new station? Mockery after mockery, for sure, in stinging acidic drops. She would not read the letter.

Why did she come? Probably wanted to humiliate her once more.

Cassandra put her hand over the gem in her chest. Breath after deep breath. No. It wasn’t like her. She did not wish to humiliate her, or to mock her – like Fitzherbert wanted, for sure – she only wanted to put her back into her old place, her old station, an enclosed, barbed place at her side. From where if she squinted hard enough she could look up and see the sun looking back at her with deep green eyes, from where she could pray to the sun and from time to time the sun would throw her a bone.

Cass!

No. Not anymore. She had thrown herself into the darkest corners of the land, here in the forsaken places between Kaleva and Pohjola, where even the snow hissed with discontent, away from her former life as a servant, away from her former attempts at hollow revenge, and now she only wanted to wither and decay, alone and sustained only by roots and locusts, and maybe the unrelenting magic of the opal.

She had walked alone and known a small slither of peace. The endless sky of Kaleva had called her, and she had let go of the warm streets of Corona for the trodden hills of rusted swords and helmets. This was her iron peace, and this she would get. This, at least.

Cass?”

It wasn’t her mind, this time. Cassandra put the letter away, took her head in her hands, softly shaking it. The Princess would get tired of trying to reach to her. At last, her unnerving optimism had met its match.

“Cass, please open the door. I just want to talk.”

Owl’s soft hoots passed through the stone, and the stone trembled according to Cassandra’s own betraying heart.

Please go away. Leave me alone.

It was better this way. She had lived in the ever-narrowing space between Fitzherbert and the Princess, and, oh heavens! she would cut her one good hand before she came back to reside in that blasted land. No, no, no matter who knocked on her door, no matter how many honeyed lies the Princess would spin around her heart, no matter what she said, the door would not open.

“I’ll wait for you here,” the Princess said. The rock spoke to her of another body, slightly smaller than her own, sitting with her back to the door. The rock spoke of her breaths as the Princess patiently waited, and waited, and waited.

Waited?

For her?

Cassandra bit her lip, until a tiny tinge of iron sprung against her tongue, and she let go. She could not do this. Not this. Not now. Why now? I’ll wait for you. She had never.

Never…

Her ruined hand pulsed.

Oh, was she so weak? She would let go of all her hard-won peace, her new white and empty world for a few half-hearted words spoken through a thick shell of rock?

Cass!

Her hands rose to cover her ears, though there was no stopping the words rising from her heart, growing like thorns and brambles to squeeze the breath out of her chest, white-hot and coiling around her chocking throat.

Cass!

“Do you enjoy this?” She hissed through gritted teeth. Heavens, she had intended for it to be a private thought. The rock spoke of a body jumping slightly from her venomous words. How much would they burn through the Princess’ though hide? Deep and forever, or so she hoped.

“Cass…” the voice said, and she braced for yet another lecture. Yet another lecture about the strength of their friendship, of the importance to be optimistic, to look up to people, to consider them for their real worth. Empty words spoken by a twisted mouth. To think she used to believe in them. “… I am sorry. I should have come much earlier.”

Please don’t. Please don’t tell me what you were busy doing in your golden, happy life.

But she was going to, wasn’t she? She was going to get another lecture. From her Highness.

“Please tell me where I did go wrong.”

The pulsing, red-hot iron embedded in Cassandra’s chest sled further in, grating through her heart, breaking her breath in spurts. She blinked. Blinked again. The opal sang in its soundless voice.

Rise.

She only had to ask. Just ask, and a landscape of thorns would sprout from the rock to protect her, and she would be taken deep inside the earth, and there in its silent bowel she would rest, unmoved, unshaken. There she would remain until the Princess and all the things she did would be reduced to powder, and she would know an endless peace, just slightly tinged by regret.

She only had to ask.

Please ask.

Let it help.

“Where do I start?” Cassandra hissed. Oh, she was trembling now, and the rock with her. Why wasn’t the Princess asking her, begging her, demanding her to stop? She was just waiting. Her and that blasted band of gold around her finger. “Where do I start, Raps?

She wasn’t supposed to call her with her name, a name that was like choking on barbed wire.

“F-from when it began, Cassandra,” came her reply.

“It began…” she cackled. “It began on the first day! Since you were brought into my life. My own mother would have had you rather than the useless fruit of her womb. And when you came back… what did you see in me, Raps? Pity? A side-project? Something to amuse you while you were waiting for Fitzherbert to grow half a spine?”

“Please. Please make me understand, Cass.”

“Understand…” Cassandra stood up, veins of fire pumping from her heart, veins of stones withdrawing from her heartstone. The door creaked, fissured, folded inwards with a horrible noise of broken, twisted branches. There she was, looking up in fear, as she should be, for the sundrop had long-left her, and Cassandra would need nary a thought to break her too. She stood up.

“Understand!” She repeated, flaying her arm, the stone splashing away from her path like ink. “What was so hard to understand, Raps? Wasn’t it obvious?”

“Cass…”

“Shut up!” She stepped forward, looming and dark. Her own shadow seemed to grow behind her as the Princess did not move, awaited her coming towards her. Please run. Please run far into the storm and come never again. “Stop mocking me!” It was her ruined hand to shoot forwards and coil around her collar, drawing her in. Their breaths intermingled. Please run. “And you come here with offers of friendship?”

Why was she so weak? She had deluded herself she had escaped her. She had escaped her scent. The way her nose scrunched up in fear. The way she curled up her hands, as if trying to grasp a frying pan that wasn’t there. The way her emerald eyes reflected her own, azure and wavering. Why was she so weak?

A hand, cupping her cheek. So warm. So soft. Please don’t touch me.

But the Princess did not listen.

“What should I understand?”

Once again, it would be so simple. Why shouldn’t she?

Trap her in the stone. Cut down her clothes.

Throw the carriage down the mountainside, drown the horse in rock.

And have her, for herself, for all eternity.

It would take so little.

She would make her own destiny, and that of others.

Take her. I shall show you the means.

The opal had no need for the shaken girl in front of her, not anymore. The sundrop forever lost, it would heed its call never again. But it would try to help Cassandra’s heart.

Please let me help.

Her ruined finger rose to brush against red lips. Just a tiny snap.

A tiny snap. Father taught her well. Behind the third vertebra. It wouldn’t even hurt.

Her finger traced an arc across her lips. Soft skin so pliant.

So intimate.

Emerald eyes opened wider. Her breath broke, once again.

And Cassandra smiled.

She let go of her lip. Took a step back. The opal sang with its offer still.

Quiet.

And the stone obeyed.

A strange calm fell upon her, now. A bit like sadness, really.

“Since…?” Raps said, her hands coming up to touch her lips. Come on. It was not like she had soiled them. Surely she did not ruin her for Fitzherbert.

“I am not sure, and do not care. It was just… it just happened, Raps. You of all people should know there is no controlling these things.” Owl hooted, sad. Stupid bird. He probably thought he was doing her a favor. She crouched to scoop him up, caressing him softly behind the ears. Stupid bird. Such a blessing. She’d better double his rations for a few days.

Strangely empty, Cassandra fell back against the ruined door. Could she smile? Maybe a grin would be a good start.

“You wouldn’t get it.”

“I… I think I do now. Maybe. Maybe not? I never imagined…”

“Raps, I know you did not imagine. If you did, you would have left me a lot sooner.”

“That’s not true,” the Princess said, pursing her lips, but her left hand did come to cover her right, hiding her ring. “I would have… maybe I could…”

“Raps.” Her ruined hand rose to point a stick-like finger at her. “You would not have. And you were not supposed to. You were, are, the Princess. You would have never stooped so low for me.” It did not help that, for Fritzherbert, she did. But a lie was much tastier than the truth. What was she doing, now? Trying to protect her once more? Did anything truly change in the last few years? “So please give it a rest. What is done is done, and no incantation can heal this kind of wounds.”

Her emerald eyes moved on to her hand, worry shining in them like a venomous ichor.

Oh, Heavens, all but this pity.

“Is your hand… fine?”

“Not worse than the last few years. The opal preserves me, but cannot heal. Think of it like encased in Varian’s amber. I… continue.”

Silence. The Princess looked down at her hands, dejected. A sudden lick of brazen satisfaction at seeing her like this, lost and dubious, for maybe the first damn time in her life understanding there was nothing she could do to change the situation.

So this was the feeling of victory? Hm. Cassandra licked her lips. Not a fan.

Then the Princess frowned that one frown of hers, when she was forcing her mind to follow her stupid, errant heart. Her hands rose to her clothes, and she unclipped the mantle covering her body. She took a step towards her, with the same uncertainty she had displayed in another life, tumbling on a barrel over a trail of hot coals. Her hands did not let go of the hem of her dress.

Oh please no.

“Cass. You asked me what you were to me.” A pause, as if she were reconsidering this madness. “You are my best friend.” Another step. Her warmth, her breath, her thrumming heart. So close, she only had to lift her hand. And finally take her bite at the sun. “I did not expect this, but…” she bit those ruby-red lips of hers. So soft. “… I will not come back alone. If you ask me to do this, I…”

I am not asking you to do one damn thing, she replied, but this time the thought did not turn into words. Maybe because her tongue was too busy twisting and turning inside her own mouth. Maybe because her heart was jumping up and down, sizzling on the terrible frying pan of hope, and about to fall onto the endless embers of eternal remorse.

She crouched next to her. Their palms, united. Their breaths, mingled. Their lips, approaching.

“If I must do this to have you back, I…” she gulped. “I have no idea where to start, but…”

No idea where to start, her own pride bellowed from inside the gallows of her own heart. Stop it stop it stop it you will be a thing once again you will be nothing but a thing

Wasn’t that what she had always wanted?

Maybe her entire rebellion had been nothing but a long, unheard cry for help.

Maybe she would go back to the castle, be docile, be helpful, visited in short spurts by the phantom of this girl for whom she once would have given life and limb, and well, she did at least come at the limb part…

“I… want you to…” the Princess whispered, final words etched on the ruby altar of her lips. She was pressing in all the wrong places, contorting her body against her own like she was standing up to kiss Fitzherbert, and her chest was in the wrong position, and her hands coiled around her neck a twice-knotted rope, and yet she needed this, she needed to crumble, and all her works to end in shivering sand, a stream of obedient steps traced from Kaleva to Corona, and there, in the gilded castle she would have her final, happy, long-yearned cage. “You are my… best…”

Cassandra’s hand sled against Rapunzel’s. Their fingers entwined, like they used to be, lava and magma pouring from her fingers deep into her chest and drip-drop-dripping down into her belly, and further down, a softening heat that smoothed all her edges and made her press her thighs against each other to try and catch it, and hold it there forever, in waiting, waiting in the wings… her finger brushed against something cold and smooth.

Gold.

It tinkled and swooned against the firelight.

You are my best. My best second chance.

“Rapunzel.”

“Cass?” Her voice quivered, uncertain like a bird about to take her own first flight. There would be no coming back from that freefall. If she let… if she got what she had wanted since the first time she had seen the Princess smile at her, those sparkling green eyes and smooth brown hair and twin dawns behind those eyes, she would never be able to let it go. It would forever stay with her, an ember burning too bright for its light to shine upon anything but rotten memories.

“Let me go.”

“W-what?”

That joy again. It rose in tall tides of burning foam against her own chest. She had never been denied. At last, first in something.

“I said let me go, Rapunzel.” She pushed her away. Gently, but as firm as the foundation of the earth. The confusion and hurt in the Princess’ eyes would be a meager prize for the one she had just rebuked, but consolation enough. She had never been so self-confident, not even when she had grabbed her pulsing heartstone, not even when she had decided she would become the Princess’ protector and never, never, never let go of her, no matter the cost. “It’s far too late for this carnival.”

Confusion, trailing down to shock, to anger. Like a river turning red, about to explode in steam touching the mouth of a volcano.

 “I… I don’t understand. I am trying to help.”

“Not the right way, Raps. I’m sorry.”

“Then what should I do? Enough, Cassandra! I did not pass through snow and storm to come here and listen to this. You will…”

She laughed. Never felt this triumphant, either. Oh, Heavens, it was so deliriously painful. And yet so freeing. What form would she take once she finished ripping off her own skin? She was about to find out.

“You cannot give me orders, Raps.” A sigh. “Not for a long time.”

“You are… Cass, you should… why don’t you just listen to me! I can fix this!”

“I took a different path.”

“You can still come back!”

“Not down this road. And you…” she slid her fingers against the gold. Oh, how she hated it. And how grateful she was. “… you have made your choice.” A hiccup, who knew if laughter or pain. “I know you only mean the best. Maybe if it had been me who took you out of that tower. But it is far too late now.” She pushed her hand away. “Go back to your shining life, Princess. Leave me here. I have the snow, and the birds, and the rocks to keep me company. Sometimes the air smells like fresh ice and pine needles, and I hear a soft harp in the wind. This is the place for me.”

“I don’t want to leave you here.”

“We can’t all get what we want.” She stood up. She must have been tired: she felt so light, as if her entire body was made of moonstone. Maybe it would be, one day. “As I said, you can stay here until the storm abates, and not a moment longer.”

“We can…” a plead. “We can still spend the night together. I can tell you about Max, and Pascal, and… how everyone at the castle misses you!”

Dubious at the very least.

“Thank you, Princess, but no. I already enough memories for a lifetime.” She crossed the threshold to her own room, stepping past the remains of the door. “If you don’t mind, I’ll keep the door open. Ring if you need anything.”

Without waiting for a reply, she let herself fall upon the bed, showing the Princess her back.

It took her the longest time to shuffle her feet away from the door, for her shadow to leave the entrance.

For a very long time she heard soft sobs coming from the chair in front of the fireplace.

All for the best. They drowned her own.

 

-

 

Morning came like a thief. She blinked crusty eyelids, and light rushed in. The storm had blown through, leaving clear-blue skies. The letter, Dad’s letter, was still open to her side. She put in on the drawer and stood up, taking a moment to brush her fingers over her heartstone.

Alright.

She stepped out of the room.

“Princess?” No answer.

Owl hooted sadly atop the fireplace, now reduced to a few dying embers. He turned his yellow eyes towards the window.

Cassandra opened the door. No sign of anyone outside, except for four thin lines etched on the snow, a trail of hoofprints, and empty steps, all around her house and her impromptu stable. The lines receded back the mountainside. Maybe if she was quick, she could get one last glimpse.

If she was quick enough.

Cassandra turned and came back inside. She extinguished the fire and put the pieces of her broken door in store for the next time she would light her fireplace. At least now she would not run out of firewood for a while.

She called Owl, and he answered, after throwing one last long look at the pile of letters left on the table. She would take her time to read them.

She checked her kitchen. Most of her jam had been pilfered.

Very cheeky, Rapunzel.

But it did not matter, did it?

Not when she felt so light. Not as much as empty… like a hole she had tried for the longest time to cover had finally been filled.

Whole.

She stepped out in the light of morning. Took a hike in the snow. Dried her tears when they needed to be, and stopped to hear the echoes of her laughter when she wanted to.

At last, she reached a clearing, amidst yet more birch trees. The air smelled fresh.

Up above birds sang: an arrow of geese, coming back home from the long winter. Spring was just behind the corner.

Owl hooted.

“Do you want to go say hi?” He tapped her with his beak and she let him take flight. He shot up, and she followed him for a while.

The wind picked up, and it seemed to her she could hear a far-away echo of harp.

Cassandra sat on a rock, and closed her eyes, and listened to the music in the wind, and at last, she was in the music too.