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Cassandra's Tangled Adventure

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.