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Cassandra's Tangled Adventure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This has been a very bad idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoot, Owl said proudly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Owl landed on her shoulder again, visibly intrigued.

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

It really was kind of pretty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoot, Owl confirmed.

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

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

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

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

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

Snort, Fidella said, equal parts reprimanding and relieved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoot, Owl said pointedly.

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

Owl slowly narrowed his eyes at her, staring hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello,” Cassandra said.

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

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

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

“I’m starting small,” Cassandra deadpanned.

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

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

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

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

“Uh, Cassandra.”

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

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

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

That was unfortunately true. “If you insist.”

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

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

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

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

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

“How so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe I took a tumble,” Cassandra admitted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good. Let’s go turn in.”

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

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

“Yes, please.”

He extended one scabby hand. “Three silver.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I took his bounty letter.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is Coronian gold fine?”

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

“The job board’s minder.”

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

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

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

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

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

Snort, Fidella said, rather non-committal.

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

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

“Goodnight, Owl.”

Hoot, Owl said lovingly.

“Goodnight, Fidella.”

A soft nicker came from the mare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Deal.”

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