This... is the story of how I died.
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.
“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.”
“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?”
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?”