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Cassandra's Tangled Adventure

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After crossing onto a road, where Fidella’s hoofprints would drown amid the sea of tracks left by boots, horseshoes, and wheels, they continued to make ground for quite a while yet before the mare slowed down to a trot and veered off into the countryside again, looking for a place to hide. By the time Cassandra climbed down from the saddle, careful of her dominant arm now a source of pain and reduced functionality twice over, dawn had broken across the sky. Starting a fire was out of the question now; the smoke would be too easy to follow. But the cut in her shoulder was deep, and had only been jostled with the hours of horseback riding that had been required to get away. And she did have wound dressings suitable for burns now.

With a sigh, Cassandra started gathering firewood.

She only kept the fire alive until the offending dagger’s blade turned a dull orange against the flames, occupying herself in the meantime with trying quite fruitlessly to get the cut to stop bleeding. Burning the wound shut had been as thoroughly painful as expected, and in hindsight, Cassandra was glad she had shoved a roll of plain linen bandage into her mouth to bite down on beforehand. She heaped loose soil and sand onto the fire to smother it immediately after, and pulled the dirt-stained gloves off before spending a while with her second roll of silk bandages and trying to put a reasonable barrier of it between the now-burned cut in her shoulder and the clothes she was going to have to put back on as soon as possible, with the early morning chill gnawing through her chest with enough force to make her shiver and no source of heat to combat it. When she was done, she was still shaking, and quite certain that despite the very long and rather demanding day she’d had, the sheer pain of the injury would keep her wide awake.

Fidella laid down on the ground beside her, inviting her to nestle close with a little nicker.

“Thanks.” Cassandra winced at the croak of her own voice. “This went well enough, since I’m still alive and two internationally wanted criminals are dead or dying. But not stellar, seeing as I’m going to have a lot of trouble fighting now.”

Snort, Fidella said, as much a reminder as an admonishment.

“I know you told me to wait for Owl. I would have if I could.”

The mare sighed deeply, the sound reverberating through her broad chest.

“I don’t want to just let the other two go without trying. We’ll see if I can draw a bow after we rest a little; if I can, it can probably be done.”

Snort, Fidella said, resigned but not surprised.

“See, if I didn’t have that bag of tricks, I’d agree that it’s too dangerous to keep going after them. But I also wouldn’t have gone after them in the first place if my only option was taking them head-on and hoping I could get each of them to duel me one-on-one. I still have a few ideas. And the ones I’ve had so far did work out, if barely.” Cassandra put her healthy arm around the mare’s back. “Mostly thanks to you, though. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Fidella gave her a soft nicker, breath puffing with warmth against the side of Cassandra’s face and neck.

“I don’t want to find out, either.”

Despite expectations, she did sink into a shallow nap, surfacing again at every gust of wind, every bark of a fox, every cry of a hawk, every change of light as clouds crossed the sun’s path. Restless as she was throughout, the few hours of sleep were still hours spent sleeping, and restored at least a modicum of strength to her by the early afternoon. Cassandra shifted the belt of her scabbard between shoulders, making sure she could draw the sword with her left arm if she had to—she was nowhere near as good a left-handed fencer as she used to be with her right hand, back before they had crossed through the Great Tree, but at least it wouldn’t tear the cut in her right shoulder open all over again. She strung her bow, and drew it, and held for a few heartbeats before slowly easing the tension off the bowstring. It hurt, but it was doable. As long as she wasn’t trying to do it too much.

She headed for higher ground first, hoping to scan the plains from the vantage point of yet another mesa or ruined watchtower, however visible it would make her in turn. It took her a while, but she did notice two shapes trudging across the country—one of them extremely tall and bulky, the ogre’s silhouette recognizable even across a few miles of distance.

Her second destination was the outlaws’ camp from last night, although she dismounted before crossing into the woods, careful to keep watch for any trap the ogre and the barbarian may have left behind on the off chance she’d return there—and narrowly avoided a snare set a few steps from the burnt-out campfire. Cassandra signalled Fidella to stay a little bit behind, and crossed to where the minotaur’s body was still on his bedroll, both of the falcon-fletched arrows removed and each puncture wound now surrounded with a cobweb of blackened veins where the poison had impacted and spread only ever further though the carnage caused by fragmentation of the arrowheads. He was otherwise pale, cold, and unmoving, and must have died overnight.

Cassandra emptied the minotaur’s pockets, drawing a handful of silver and gold and a well-used foldable razor, then grabbed the corpse by the shoulder and hip and rolled it over face-down on the bedroll, before grabbing a coil of rope and wrapping the body up like a package, hefting it to walk back to Fidella, and slinging it across her back like a sack of grain. They wanted her to bring back proof of the executions? She’d bring back irrefutable proof.

In the process, she noticed that the elaborate set of headbands securing the minotaur’s namesake horns to the sides of his head, the one he was wearing in the wanted poster’s portrait, wasn’t there anymore. The horns were part of his skull as firmly as his cheekbones or eye sockets, now.

It did explain what the sorcerer had done with him, alongside the ogre’s size and the barbarian’s no-longer-blind eye.

She took a longer while with the sorcerer’s corpse, left behind and unburied by the surviving two as well. Sorting the tome and any unrecognizable trinkets separately from pocket money and personal effects of everyday use to deal with them later, Cassandra realized that she’d have to find a trustworthy magic practitioner to destroy these eventually, especially if she was going to keep getting into these kind of situations. She thought for a moment, and smiled darkly as she set to wrapping up the corpse of a criminal that her dad and the rest of the Coronian Royal Guard had been failing to catch and bring to justice for almost as long as she’d been alive.

She was probably going to keep getting into these kind of situations. More than that, she was probably going to love it.

Cassandra slung the sorcerer’s corpse over Fidella’s back as well, and paused, leaning against a tree and panting. She was still tired after last night, her injured shoulder was causing her considerable pain, and the blood loss had left her a little shaky on her feet, no matter how well she’d mitigated it. She looked up at the mare.

“Think you can carry all that and me at the same time?”

Snort, Fidella said with easy confidence.

“What am I saying. Of course you can.” Cassandra slowly climbed back into the saddle. “Let’s go find our little friends. Tail them from a distance for a while.”

Taking care to keep well away, she started following the only trail of two pairs of feet that exited the campsite without doubling-back. She didn’t spot the two on the horizon again—and only for the better, given that she was more visible on horseback than they were on foot—but around sunset, a divergence in the tracks caused her to dismount and take a moment.

Footprints leaving deeper indents in the ground, trampled all over a small area. A spray of blood, as if shaken off a sword-blade. A scuffle had taken place here—one that ended with the pair’s tracks separating, the smaller and steadier set continuing on, the deeper and shapeless set heading back towards Silberstadt.

Cassandra looked down the second set of tracks. Dim-witted or no, the ogre had evidently been smart enough to realize that Tara had survived their ministrations to send another executioner after them, and decided to rampage back in pursuit of revenge.

Once again, she did not have much time.

Thankfully, the barbarian seemed content to cut his losses with the deaths of his companions, and stayed on course straight for the nearest Equisian city. Possibly heading towards a port and back home to Ingvarr across the sea, hoping to maintain his reputation of chanter-killer. Possibly to stay within Equis, and broaden his challenges to every Kotoan witch-knight he could come across in this endless border dispute.

Cassandra looked at Fidella. “We can either go after three out of four, and let the barbarian cause harm elsewhere in the future, but more-or-less guarantee our own safety. Or we can go after four out of four, and ride overnight with three corpses and myself on your back, which is going to work me hard and you far harder, and is also far more risky. Which do you think we should do?”

Snort, the mare said patiently.

“You know full well which I’d like to do.”

Fidella dug a hoof against the soil.

“What, you want to hear me say it? Fine. I want to go after all four, but I can’t force you to do it with me. If you think you can do it, which, I won’t think less of you if you don’t, and if you’re down for it—” Cassandra broke off when Fidella whinnied at her. “I’ll make it up to you if we get out of this alive. Anything you want.”

She climbed back into the saddle and nudged the mare into a trot down the barbarian’s trail, moving forward more carefully in the low evening light. Shortly after, she spotted a brighter speck among the darkened landscape: firelight. Cassandra dismounted, and silently signalled Fidella to stay. She didn’t know much about Ingvarrdian practice of magic, but Tara had mentioned their sorcerers enjoyed renown as figures of authority and were held in high regard for both their wisdom and their power. And if the barbarian had made his reputation by killing such people by the dozen, then he would not be sitting next to a fire in the middle of the night when he knew that an executioner was stalking his associates and himself.

Making sure to move as silently as she could, Cassandra slowly scouted out the area in a wide radius from the fire, keeping herself low to the ground and taking care to never move into the light. And finally, when the sliver of a crescent moon was well past the zenith, she spied the figure of a burly man wrapped in some sort of blankets or furs, sitting slumped with his back against a rock outcropping, a massive jagged two-hander partially keeping him upright, partially cradled to his chest.

Cassandra went very still where she was. She knew the barbarian was an extremely formidable warrior. She knew he had a penchant for single combat. She noticed that he seemed to have a tendency to charge, trying to close the distance to an unknown enemy and engage in melee if at all possible, and he knew she had a horse and had used that to get away twice now—if he saw Fidella again, he’d go for her first and then deal with Cassandra once she wouldn’t be able to escape again. And she also knew that he used to be blind in one eye, until the sorcerer did something magical to restore his sight.

She reached into the satchel filled with the Kotoan spy’s tricks, and started scattering caltrops in front of herself, slowly crawling backwards as she went. Then she strung her bow and readied an arrow, quietly stood up, and pulled out the jar of magic-activated phosphorescent ink. Lightly tossed it up, caught it again, and threw it against the rocks above the sleeping barbarian’s head, shattering the glass to pelt him with the pieces and paint his head and face with ink that started glowing immediately on contact.

At that point, the barbarian had jolted awake. Cassandra gave him a jaunty wave, hoping it would be visible against the starlight, then turned on her heel and ran, not putting a lot of heart into it. She heard the man spring to his feet with a growl and heft up the two-hander, then yowl in pain and hit the ground with a heavy thud as he ran straight into the caltrops—which was her signal to whip around again, draw her bow, and shoot immediately, aiming right underneath the streaks of glowing ink. She heard a choking sound, and realized she’d hit the neck.

She also saw the barbarian rising to his feet, and realized she’d missed the spine.

With his now-glowing face pulled into a grimace of fury and focus, the barbarian sucked in a breath and held it, and charged again. Cassandra tossed her bow aside and pulled out her sword, only barely quick enough to parry, and with her feeble left-handed parry immediately broken with the sheer force of the barbarian’s blow, sending her staggering back. She ducked under another, and leaped backwards again to avoid the next, taken aback with the speed of his attacks, knowing that she couldn’t take a hit like that or properly block it, and as she scrambled for another tactic to try, she came up blank.

But he still had an arrow through the throat. All she had to do was outlast him, and not give him the time to pause and try to take care of himself.

The barbarian’s breath exploded from him in a rush, and he drew another, holding it again. Trying to take advantage from the momentary breach in his defences, Cassandra closed the distance and swiped at him. She felt her sword slide through flesh, but the barbarian did not make a sound, only retaliated—and while the giant jagged blade whiffed past her, the backhand with his left fist as he uncoiled from the miss did not. Cassandra staggered back with a grunt, clutching at her face, and had to throw herself to the ground to avoid the next hit, rolling back to her feet across her injured shoulder to leap away again, trying to ignore the blinding flash of pain.

It wasn’t only that the barbarian could see in his blind eye again, she realized finally as she tried to flank in the wan starlight and watched him keeping track of her as easily as if they were fighting under midday sun. The sorcerer had made him able to see in the dark.

Another bursting exhale, another held breath, and this time Cassandra kept her distance. He was starting to get wobbly on his feet, although he was doing an admirable job of putting the accidental bit of momentum of it behind his strikes. When he overextended with a wide horizontal slash of his two-hander, Cassandra threw herself down into another roll underneath, and put it into a leg swipe to the back of his knees. The barbarian went to the ground, the air vacating his lungs in a pained bark, and he seized up where he fell with a horrible, wet, choking sound. It still didn’t stop him from grabbing at Cassandra, finding purchase in her cloak; one yank, and she found herself on the ground as well, clawing frantically at his forearm and bicep holding her in a stranglehold. And with barely a split second to spare for shielding her head with an arm, the barbarian brought the two-hander up with his other hand and started slamming its guard down on her, hammering with all the strength he had left, causing Cassandra to scream when something in her withered arm cracked under the blows. She finally managed to grab the dagger he had thrown at her the night before when he choked again, to slash at his tendons and shove herself out of his grip, and kicked his good hand off when he tried to grab at her again. Cassandra moved another two steps away when the barbarian slowly rolled onto his side and up to his hands and knees, and watched as he immediately went down onto his elbows as he tried to breathe and seized up with a terrible wet cough again. Another wheezing attempt, and he collapsed back onto his side, and Cassandra closed the distance enough to kick him in the solar plexus, forcing the remainder of air out of his diagraph. She stood over him until he heard him stop breathing, making sure she’d be the last thing he ever saw, then waited a moment and put a foot against his shoulder to roll him onto his back. No response; his body went easily. She raised her left hand to put two shaky fingers into her mouth and let out a single-toned whistle, and watched the world lurch as her knees gave out under her and she landed on her ass right where she stood.

When Fidella trotted up, Cassandra was trying to wipe blood from her mouth and chin. Which proved considerably difficult, given that it was still flowing.

“Ugh.” She scowled at the sound of her own voice, and felt the pain radiating across her face spike from the motion. “I think he broke my nose.”

Snort, Fidella said with rather deep concern.

“I’m fine. Mind, I’m not great—” Cassandra grabbed at a stirrup and pulled herself to her feet with a grunt of exertion, leaning against the mare’s side to keep herself upright. “—and be careful, there’s caltrops over that way.” She gestured with her withered arm, and regretted it immediately. “Oh, that hurts.”

Fidella gave a worried little whinny.

“I know—just give me a minute, I need light—” Cassandra pawed through the saddlebags until she pulled out a torch and a box of matches. Any attempt at a solid grip on any of these with her right hand failed with a debilitating flare of pain, and she eventually succeeded by holding the torch in the crook of her elbow, the matchbox in her mouth, and the match itself in her left hand. Sitting down again, the torch now held between her feet, she pulled the reinforced glove off as quickly as she could, and found the silken bandage already soaking through with a liquid too thick and too dark to be properly considered blood. “Oh no. No-no-no-no-no—”

While she was frantically unwrapping the silk, Fidella laid down next to her to put the saddlebags within her reach, and Cassandra uncorked the flask of disinfectant with her teeth to pour its contents into a new and very deep crack in the withered area, running halfway up her forearm and forking at the wrist into two separate breaks over the back of her hand. It hurt, but in a very different way—a dull ache, somewhat like that of muscles seized up in a persistent cramp, clenched as tight as they could go for far too long a time—contrasting vividly against the pain of her broken nose or her injured shoulder, sharp and resounding in time with the pounding of her heart. She leaned closer to the torch, and experimentally wriggled her withered fingers, watching the motion pulling at the open crack’s edges. She couldn’t bend the fingers far enough to grip anything right now, not without widening the crack, and not without having to purposefully concentrate on it, given how much it hurt to even try.

At the very least, there was no fresh blood mixed among the thick, dark liquid oozing from her withered veins. The dead portion of her body and the living one seemed to have remained separate, with the wound not breaching all the way through one and into the other, and she didn’t have to worry about getting decayed tissue into her bloodstream, at least.

Assuming there was still something alive in her dominant arm, from fingertips to just under the elbow, in the first place.

Cassandra closed her eyes for a moment, a little queasy from watching the disinfectant turning the thick dark once-blood marginally runnier and easing it out. It was just disinfectant, easy enough to resupply on, and it was better to be safe than sorry.

Snort, Fidella said, unsettled.

“Trust me,” Cassandra said weakly. “Me, too.”

Once it stopped oozing through, Cassandra carefully patted the open crack dry, and wrapped the arm up again, making sure the already stained sections ended up well away from the gaping wound. Then she motioned Fidella to stay as she was, dragged the barbarian’s still-warm corpse over without using her dominant hand, and tied him atop the minotaur’s and the sorcerer’s bodies, then took his weapon for good measure and secured it next to her saddlebags, opposite of the sorcerer’s crosier.

“Okay,” she panted. “We need to head back to town, immediately, because I can’t tell whether the last one is going to march overnight as well.”

Snort, Fidella said pointedly.

“No. It’s too late. There’s nothing to go back on. He’s on his way, and we need to be too, or we won’t catch up in time.” Cassandra wiped the blood from her upper lip again. “Unless you’re the one too tired?”

Fidella stood up, as easily as if the weight of three adult men heaped on her back was nothing, and put her nose to Cassandra’s cheek with an admonishing nicker.

“I know. I know I’m a mess. But he’s going to be heading for the clinic.” Cassandra put up a hand, her healthy one, when Fidella made a sound like she was going to keep arguing. “Hear me out. He knows his friends are dead because they didn’t finish Tara off and she sent me after them. If she survived, then she’s in the clinic. So he’s headed for the clinic. The clinic is neutral ground. Whoever starts something around the clinic, everyone is supposed to help putting down—everyone, not just the guards, and you saw how many people in this town were carrying weapons.”

Snort, Fidella said, still unconvinced but at least willing to discuss.

“No, of course I don’t expect everyone to pitch in, not against that big a guy. But someone is going to, if not right away then after they notice me challenge him, and he’s going to take that challenge because he saw me last night right when I killed the sorcerer. I’ll probably be a big enough distraction for others to decide they want to exploit it. Especially with the bounty on his head. I just have to get there.” Cassandra took Fidella’s chin in her hands. “Please just get me there.”

Snort, Fidella said with resignation, and put her nose to Cassandra’s forehead for a moment.

“I know already said this, but I swear I’ll make this up to you.” Cassandra climbed into the saddle, and rolled her eyes when Fidella made an admonishing little noise. “And take care of myself afterwards.”

Snort, Fidella said again, making it clear what she’d think of Cassandra otherwise.

They turned back towards Silberstadt, and Fidella began to run—first in a trot, then started interspersing the pace with bursts of a canter to make more ground, more quickly. Cassandra breathed more easily when they settled into a rhythm. Somewhere aside from the pain, this wasn’t much different from what she had once dreamed her life would look like—a lone rider, challenged but not outmatched, a loyal steed under her as she charged ever forward in pursuit of justice. Forget patrolling the jail, policing the capital, and securing the checkpoints. What were they worth next to the Royal Guard’s outriders, ranging between the settlements of Corona to scout against threats and to pursue wanted men into the wilds, while the rank-and-file troops stayed behind and stayed put to hold the fort?

Dawn broke across the sky, pulling the town walls into focus. Cassandra shook off the exhaustion and the daydreams, forcing herself to concentrate, and checked the hilt of her sword with her left hand. Ahead, she could see the unmistakable silhouette of the ogre, walking straight towards the clinic with something that looked like a tree torn out of the ground, reduced to a hand-held battering ram when compared to his bulk. And past him, across the town square, Cassandra noticed that the Ingvarrdian fletcher had looked up idly from her work—then did a double take, grabbed the smith’s arm and gestured wildly at the ogre, at which point both of them abandoned their work and swept up a weapon each, and started running over. With the first slam of the tree-turned-ram against the clinic’s door, the fletcher leapt into the air and hurled a javelin at the ogre, putting the momentum of her sprint behind it, and pulling his attention to herself and to the Neserdnian smith, who was barrelling straight for the ogre with a giant, double-headed axe in both hands.

“We’re almost there!” Cassandra drew her weapon and raised it high, hoping to signal the others that she was about to join the fight. “Can you give me a run-up?”

Fidella responded with a breathless whinny, tired but determined just as Cassandra was, and drew on some deepest unspoken reserve of strength to drop into one last burst of gallop. Cassandra pulled her feet from the stirrups and perched precariously atop the saddle, and in the last moment before being carried past, she leapt, putting the charge into an overhead strike that carved a deep wound in the ogre’s back before she landed on her feet. The ogre roared at her, partway hatred and partway pain, but that was the extent of attention he could give to Cassandra—between the smith who was scoring hits below and around the small tree, which the ogre was striving to use both as a weapon and a shield, and the fletcher who had drawn a sword and closed the distance to join the melee, he had his hands full, and Cassandra circled around to flank for the other two, trying to make it so that at least one of them would always end up at the ogre’s back.

Immediately after, she had to break away, evading a broad swipe with the torn-out tree. The smith grunted with exertion as he brought his axe up to meet it, cleaving deep into the wood and stopping them both in a clinch, even though his feet sank half an inch into the mud. The ogre panted a deep growl, and reached with his other hand to palm the smith’s face, but broke the motion with a yowl of pain to grab at his own; Cassandra risked a glance, and saw Teagan, the job board’s minder, quickly rewinding a massive crossbow from a safe distance.

Breaking the crossbow bolt out of his cheek with another roar, the ogre then heaved the small tree free of the smith’s double-headed axe, with enough force to lift the smith off his feet and throw him back-first into the mud a few steps away. Before he could follow up on it, Cassandra slashed at his right arm in an attempt to get him to drop the tree—and while that didn’t work, she did pull the ogre’s attention as he tried to retaliate at her and left himself wide open for the fletcher, who jammed her sword between the ogre’s ribs on the left side up to the hilt while he wasn’t looking at her. By the time he finished shrieking in pain, the smith had pulled himself to his feet again, charging back in and bringing the axe into an upwards blow that sank deep into the ogre’s right forearm, successfully dropping the tree from his hand. Another crossbow bolt, this time sinking into the ogre’s shoulder, and he flailed his arm in a backhand, missing all three around him—then back around, and Cassandra rolled away, glancing up just in time to see him grab the fletcher like a doll and hurl her into one of the nearby merchant stands, with enough force to crash the pottery and shatter the wooden boards that broke her fall.

“Sigi!” the smith screamed.

“I’m fine!” the fletcher yelled back, voice soaked with pain, as she struggled to push herself up.

The tone seemed to land with the smith more than the words, and his attacks turned far more reckless, leaving Cassandra to distract the ogre from what was rapidly becoming single combat between the two of them. Another crossbow bolt, and the ogre pawed at the side of his neck, Teagan’s shot creating an opening for the smith to score a deep cut and for Cassandra to yank out the fletcher’s sword from where it was stuck between the ogre’s ribs, trying to bleed him out more quickly. She threw herself backwards again, avoiding retaliation and letting the smith land another blow that would have brought a smaller man to his knees, and only then did she notice that the destroyed pottery stand was now empty. Teeth gritted and blood pouring down one side of her face, the fletcher swayed on her feet, but not like she was about to fall—almost like she was dancing across the muddy street back towards the melee, eyes dark and mouth slightly open and a vacant, entranced look of utter concentration on her face as she stared the ogre down, reached both arms towards him in time with her steps, and started to sing in a fearsome, commanding tone.

“For ein er to
Der knutar knytast
I byrd er bunde
Heile verda
Om eg bind deg
Kan eg ferde—”

A hint of silver colour shimmered through the air, causing Cassandra to jerk back from another attempted strike, the wisp of unnatural mist taking the form of a massive translucent snake coiling through the air as if weightless. With every syllable, with every gesture of the fletcher’s hands and every swipe of her arms, it slithered through the air, weaving itself around the ogre’s bulky form. Cassandra struck out when she saw an opening, an instinct built by a lifetime of training, and her blade went through it; the ogre reached out, trying to grab at her or at the smith again, and his arm strained against it. Down the street, the fletcher was still chanting in Ingvarrdian, her reaching hands now clenched into fists, her outstretched arms now flexed as if yanking two heavy loads together, and the focus ringing through her voice narrowing the world down to the fine point of winning this one fight.

“Nar to vert ein
Der lenkjer smiast
I byrd er bunde
Heile verda
Om du bind eg
Kan du ferde—”

The giant silver snake bit down on its own tail and began to swallow, the multiple loops coiled all around the ogre’s body constricting tighter and tighter as the fletcher continued to sing furiously and draw her arms together. Cassandra put both hands on the hilt of her sword and poured everything she had left into a slash to the back of his calf, to hamstring him. Knees bending from the strike and the magical ties pulled too firm to allow for taking another step and catching himself, the ogre fell flat on his face and bellowed to the sky. Before he was done, the smith leapt up and in a brutal, two-handed swing, cleaved his head clean off his shoulders.

With the fletcher’s song trailing off, the giant snake dissipated, fading into a wisp of silvery fog that soon scattered into nothing with a gust of wind. The smith tossed his axe aside and ran to the fletcher’s side as she stumbled onto her back foot, blinking rapidly, a moment passing before she seemed to shake herself awake as if from a deep trance. Cassandra started walking towards them, cleaning and sheathing her sword along the way, and watched the fletcher pat an open hand against the smith’s chest.

“You good?”

“I’m great, I’m not the one who crashed a pottery stand with their face!”

“I always hated gravy bowls.” The fletcher wiped still-flowing blood from over one of her eyes, and extended a hand to Cassandra. “Sigrid.”

“Cassandra. Lightly, please, I’m injured.” She shook the fletcher’s hand, if gingerly.

“Hanalei,” the smith said, taking Cassandra’s withered hand in turn, and looked over his shoulder. “Thanks, Teagan!”

“Oh, you three did the heavy lifting there!” the job board’s minder yelled back, setting his massive crossbow back inside the small brick building.

Sigrid, meanwhile, was giving Cassandra a knowing grin. “I told you I had a good feeling about you.”

“I didn’t know you were a chanter,” Cassandra said.

“No, you didn’t, and neither did he.” Sigrid jerked her chin towards the ogre’s remains, and immediately listed on her feet, grabbing onto Hanalei to keep herself upright. “Whoooa. Fuck. I need to sit down.”

The smith effortlessly swept her up in to a bridal carry, if eliciting a small startled noise, and nodded at Cassandra. “You should get yourself checked out, as well, you look almost as beat up as my wife does.”

“Charmer,” Sigrid seethed, but let herself be carried towards the clinic.

“I said you’re beat up,” Hanalei said patiently. “I didn’t say you aren’t beautiful, or that blood doesn’t look wonderful on your face.”

Cassandra heard the fletcher let out a loving 'aww' as the pair walked away. She looked at the clinic’s first-floor windows, and just as she’d hoped, she spotted a bit of contrast within the one above the entrance—dark hair against stark white bandages across half the face.

“Hey, Teagan!”

The job board’s minder turned over his shoulder. Cassandra beckoned him closer while she whistled at Fidella, and once the mare walked up, she untied the barbarian’s corpse from her back and threw him off, onto the unworked riverstones cobbling the town square. Untied the sorcerer’s corpse, and threw him off next to the barbarian. Untied the minotaur’s corpse, and threw him off next to the other two, all four of the wanted men now laying lifeless under the Silberstadt sky.

Teagan gaped at the bodies with an uncomprehending look on his face. Stared at Cassandra. Stared at the bodies again. Let out a chuckle, his grin equal parts disbelief and something rapidly approaching awe, and without a word, he started clapping. Cassandra looked around as she heard the sound being echoed—and only then realized that first the brutal melee, then her display had drawn a crowd of spectators, townsfolk and ex-miners and craftsmen and more, who hadn’t dared to join the fight but hadn’t dared look away either. And as she stood there, a young knight-errant far from home and returned victorious from a mortally dangerous mission, the spontaneous applause only growing in strength for her, Cassandra couldn’t help the grin on her face, the triumphant laughter bubbling up her chest.

~*~

If there was one thing Rapunzel was not, she would admit readily and with an easy laugh if asked, then she was not a light sleeper. The nights of her youth and adolescence had been peaceful, spent stargazing or sleeping soundly—after all, she was safe as long as she remained sequestered in the tower, wasn’t she—and the nights of her travel along the trail of black rocks had been no different, even as they were nothing but different, the sense of safety now brought not by staying hidden from the world but by the sense of her own strength, the company of friends and loved ones, and the awareness that someone was always standing watch while the others slept. And more often than not, all throughout her life, Rapunzel woke up simply when she was rested, or when the sound of those around her beginning to go about their morning routine woke her up.

It was, however, quite unusual for her to wake up to the sound of something hard tapping repeatedly against the glass of her window and to Pascal’s excited chittering, too rapid-fire to be understandable, as he rushed in that direction with no heed paid to the early hour.

“And good morning to you, too.” Rapunzel dragged a hand towards her face to rub at her eyes. “Gosh, what’s got you so excited already?”

Squeak, Pascal called out again in an elated tone, just as he put his entire weight on the window’s handle. It creaked open, and Rapunzel felt a gust of cold wind sweeping its way into her room.

Then she heard a hoot, and bolted upright, leaping out of bed at the sight of a very familiar bird.

“Owl! How are you here?! Is Cass okay?”

Hoot, Owl said primly, and pushed a small bundle of leather towards her with one clawed foot.

With trembling hands, Rapunzel unwound the cord holding it closed, and grabbed at the slip of paper held within as soon as she saw it.

Hey.

Took a month-long walk. Feeling better. Came out near the Equis-Koto border. Helped restock a clinic on healing flowers. Flipped a conman’s scheme against him. Settling down for now to assist in some repair work. Have Owl rest a few days before you send him back.

—Cass.

Rapunzel laughed shakily, the sheer force of relief blasting through her leaving her a little light-headed, and sagged where she was kneeling on the floor. She read the short letter a second time, then a third, and folded it against her chest in both hands. Each arduously-scribed word loosened something she hadn’t realized had been wound up so tightly inside her, the terrible grip of fear clenched around her heart like a giant greedy hand around a jewel, the devastating weight of guilt piled across her shoulders and growing only ever heavier with every brick she pulled from her palace built on quicksand. She hadn’t been a good friend. She hadn’t been kind, or respectful, or attentive enough. But she also hadn’t been refused a chance to do better, this time.

Cass didn’t want to just disappear all over again. She did want to stay in contact. She had just taken her time.

Rapunzel trailed her fingers over the rest of the leather bundle’s contents: a small rock, a long feather, a dried wildflower. She didn’t know what any of it meant. Not yet, she thought with a smile as she looked at the letter again. It was like clues for solving a puzzle. She loved puzzles. And Cass knew her entirely well enough to be aware of that.

Squeak, Pascal said tenderly.

“She is a sweetheart, isn’t she?” Rapunzel picked Pascal up in one hand and pressed up her cheek against him for a moment, then let him climb onto her shoulder and held the letter up so he could read it as well. “How is she, Owl?”

Hoot, Owl said vaguely, an imprecise answer to an imprecise question.

“Is she– well, I don’t know if 'safe' is the right word, but– is she injured, or not taken care of, or suffering in any way?”

Hoot, Owl said negatively, silencing those concerns at least.

“Is she happy?”

Hoot, Owl said with a sideways tilt of his head, indicating that it was a work in progress but one well on its way to bear fruit.

“How are the people there, are they treating her well?”

Hoot, Owl said in a non-committal manner, and Rapunzel wasn’t quite sure of his meaning: whether that people everywhere were the same at the core of their being, or that he wasn’t willing to give a more candid answer to that.

“Is she,” Rapunzel hesitated for a moment, “healing, from everything that happened?”

Hoot, Owl said resolutely, refusing to answer with anything other than a firm implication that he was the wrong person to ask that.

“You’re right.” Rapunzel sat back on her heels, and took her first deeper breath of the day.

Squeak, Pascal said, and uncoiled his tail to point the tip at the words feeling better scribed in Cassandra’s severe, tight handwriting.

Rapunzel smiled. Cass never did wax on about what she felt. Maybe it was just two words, but it was two words that spelled out relief and hope, and two words that weren’t the perpetual lie of I’m fine repeated whenever she so clearly wasn’t. Maybe it had been a little over eight weeks, but it was still too early to expect Cass to truly be fine.

After all, Rapunzel herself wasn’t fine, and only discovered how deep that ran with every session of guided meditation, every longer conversation with Adira, every bout of honest self-examination.

But she was getting better.

A knock came against her door. “Good morning, sunshine! Who’s ready for a whole new day?”

Rapunzel laughed a little, and called out, “Come in!”

The door opened, revealing Eugene, fully dressed for the day and staring at a pocket-sized notepad in his hand as he swaggered into the room. “Okay, we’ve got breakfast with your parents to start with, then a study period I’d not managed to get rid of for you, and in the afternoon there’s two dignitaries who just keep insisting you’re present for their stupid teatime or other negotiation, but with a break in-between. It’s gonna be pretty busy, but not packed, you’re welcome, so after all of that is over, what do you say we h—” He looked up, and broke off mid-word. “—holy owl, is that Owl?”

Hoot, Owl said derisively.

“Definitely Owl, you even sound like Cassandra.”

Rapunzel looked up at him, smiling. “Cass wrote.”

“How is she doing?” Eugene leaned down when Rapunzel showed him the letter. “Yep, she’s great, that’s classic Cass right there.” He chuckled, shaking his head. “Healing flowers. She must have thought that’s hilarious.”

“She sent these, too.”

Eugene picked up the feather. “Pheasant? She’s been eating well, that’s for sure.” He set it down, and looked at the rock—and turned it to the light, suddenly incredulous. “Oh mama, that’s a vein of native silver right there.”

Rapunzel sat up a little. Border between Equis and Koto, and someplace with a silver mine. Gently, she took the dried wildflower in her hand: a sleek stem with bell-shaped lilac flowers and compound leaves, each rimmed with a thin strip of paler colour at the edges. “Do you know what this is?”

“No. I could ask Lance, but I don’t think he’d know either, not unless it’s food for some kind of native animal where it grows.” Eugene gave her a longer look, and smiled as he watched an animated look in Rapunzel’s eyes, a hint of excitement. “What are you thinking?”

“I think I’d like to look through a few herbariums in the evening,” Rapunzel asked softly, “and some geographical albums with maps.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Eugene said with confidence, then eyed his notepad critically. “You know, I could probably sneak those into your study period. No one has to know.”

Rapunzel laughed. “I do really need to focus on history more than I have to date.”

“Why would you? It’s boring!”

“It’s not as boring as you think.” She kissed Eugene on the cheek. “And I think I’d rather look through those in the evening, anyway. Keep something to look forward to throughout the day.”

“Your call, sunshine. What do you want to wear today?”

Rapunzel considered, standing in front of her closet. “Who are those two people I have to meet later today?”

“Ah.” Eugene studied his notepad again. “Some kind of duke or other marquis first, and the other an Ingvarrdian dignitary. Jarl. Noble. Person.”

“You didn’t write it down, did you?” Rapunzel asked with an adoring softness.

“I didn’t write it down!” Eugene admitted easily, with an only slightly panicked laugh. “But it’s not like I’m failing before breakfast, it’s going to be fine!”

“Not the ambassador, though?”

“No, someone who’s passing through on other business but decided to pay a formal visit along the way.”

Rapunzel considered quickly, and narrowed her choices down to two dresses that were both noticeably more elaborate than her usual everyday wear, but didn’t quite crest into evening gown territory. “Pink or blue?”

“Blue. Tell me when you need me to lace you up.” Eugene took Pascal and turned around, facing away, without being asked to. “I might need to start writing down the things I have to write down, at this rate.”

“You’re doing better every week. And thank you for doing this for me in the first place, I know it’s a bit far from what you’d usually be focusing on.”

“Hey, if it takes at least a bit of pressure off of you, it’s worth it,” Eugene said gently. Then sighed. “I have no idea how Cass kept a handle on all of this. I almost feel bad for giving her a hard time early on, now. Almost.”

“You were both giving each other a hard time back then. More so than I would’ve liked, sure, but I guess I wasn’t helping you stop, either.” Rapunzel readjusted the dress over her shoulders. “You can look now. Help me with the corset?”

Eugene turned around and went to stand behind her, slowly lacing up the back of her dress. “...Is this too tight? I feel like this is too tight.”

Rapunzel drew an experimental breath. “No, actually, pull it tighter.”

“Are you sure?”

“Trust me, it needs to go tighter. Slightly more. Okay, that’s good.” She looked over her shoulder, watching Eugene’s face pull into an almost comical mixture of uncertainty and focus, then glanced to his vest with a smile. “Did you say blue just so we’d match?”

“No, sunshine, your hair is brown now,” Eugene said patiently as he worked his way through lacing her up. “This shade of blue contrasts nicely against it, without clashing against your skin tone, the silver accents on your skirt aren’t too much since your hair isn’t golden or nearly as long anymore, and the embroidery over your chest is the exact same green as your eyes, which will bring them out. I said blue because, while you are indisputably the most beautiful woman in the world, every masterpiece needs a proper frame to highlight it.”

Rapunzel interrupted his work to give him a quick kiss. “Well, one of the most beautiful, maybe.”

“Oh? Any particular lady on your mind?”

“You don’t think Cass is beautiful?”

“I don’t think the word suits her. I think Cass is very handsome; I think she can be very striking, particularly in that suit of armour she scavenged at the Great Tree, and whatever else the spiky black-and-turquoise makeover had done, it looked amazing on her. But I don’t feel like she was ever shooting for beautiful,” Eugene said thoughtfully. “Whenever she had to wear that lady-in-waiting dress, she held herself differently, she walked and spoke and gestured differently, unless it was just us or unless she was too frustrated or angry to care anymore. When you wear a dress, you’re wearing clothes—when Cass wore a dress, she was wearing a uniform, along with a role to fill and a job to do. And a big part of that job was always going to be blending into the background, being overlooked, so that she’d see everything and stay unseen by hiding in plain sight. Now, if she was ever to dress to the nines and in an outfit that’d bring her out like facets of a diamond, she’d look...”

“Arresting?”

“That word has some unfortunate associations for me,” Eugene teased, eliciting a laugh. “I’d go with stunning, myself.”

Rapunzel smiled as she tugged on the cuffs of her dress, aligning the sleeves along her shoulders. “What could you see her wearing, that she’d look stunning in?”

“Knee-high leather boots and a ridiculous, billowing, satin-lined cloak for sure,” Eugene declared without thinking. “Massive cloak pin, but not jewelled if possible, that’d be too much. Wide-sleeved blouse with cufflinks, a vest over that, just slightly embroidered, a cravat around her neck and tucked into the vest. Thick leather belt with a pressed motif matching the embroidery on the vest, definitely a big buckle matching the cloak pin. Straight-cut pants tucked into the boots, not tight enough to show off too precisely how strong her legs are, but fitted enough to suggest it, and definitely embroidered along the outer seams. What am I missing? A sword! Of course there’s a sword. Rapier with a swept-hilt covered in filigree at her hip. Now, for the colours, that depends on whether she’d set out to understate how light her carnation is, or highlight it. If understate it, then a rich mahogany brown, but a cool shade, she is very pale, with gold accents like the embroidery and the pin and the cufflinks, but the cloak lining and the cravat a muted pale gray. If highlight it, then black with silver and pearl, no question. Ooh, pearl buttons on the vest.”

“That,” Rapunzel said slowly, the image clear as day before her eyes, “does look stunning.”

“To be fair, that would also look arresting, in the sense that no one in their right mind would be able to take their eyes off her.” Eugene finished up with the lacing, and after a moment of careful consideration, pulled a dark stormy gray shawl from its shelf. “Keep this on hand, too, it’s cold outside today.”

“Good idea.” Rapunzel extended a hand to Pascal, letting him walk across her arm and nestle at her shoulder, then looked at Owl, who had long since perched atop the back of a chair and tucked his head under a wing to sleep. Wondering how long he must have been flying for, she decided against disturbing him, and folded the shawl into her bag. “Let’s go. I think we’re running late already.”

“We’re running fashionably late.” Despite the quip, Eugene matched her quick pace without argument. “Speaking of which, if I’m doing the job of a lady-in-waiting, what does that make me? Lord-in-waiting? Sir-in-waiting?”

“I know what the term would be if I were a prince, not a princess,” Rapunzel admitted.

“Yeah?”

She tried to keep amusement from her face. “Gentleman of the bedchamber.”

Eugene laughed. Then stopped. “Wait, you’re serious.”

“Like I said, history class isn’t as boring as it sounds.” Rapunzel came to a quick halt when she spotted a familiar figure down an adjacent corridor. “Oh, Captain!”

“Good morning, princess.” The recently-reinstated Captain of the Guard greeted them both with a nod. “Fitzherbert.”

“Morning, Cap.”

“Cassandra wrote,” Rapunzel said warmly. “She’s doing well, and she’s helping people where she is.”

A bit of tension seemed to drain from the Captain’s posture at that, a rare smile lighting his face. “That is very good to know. Thank you, princess.”

~*~

“That’s a broken nose if I’ve ever seen one.” Eliza took Cassandra’s chin in one hand and the bridge of her nose in the other. “I’m going to set it, on three. Don’t move.”

“Fine.”

“One, two—” Eliza pulled, and Cassandra yelped as she both heard and felt the bone align.

“You said on three!”

“Everyone tenses up by the time I get to three,” Eliza said calmly, entirely unrepentant. “Where else does it hurt?”

“Ugh.” Cassandra pulled a hand away from her face, trying to ignore the sound of Sigrid the fletcher laughing quietly from where she was sitting, still in her husband’s lap, Hanalei making sure she stayed awake due to a risk of concussion. “A knife got thrown into my shoulder, deep enough that I had to burn it shut.”

The herbalist stared at her incredulously. “You know, you may have led with that. Upstairs. Now.”

Knowing better than to argue with a tone like that, Cassandra stood up and headed for the staircase. She had retrieved a set of wanted posters from Teagan, along with a written note stamped with what must have been the town seal that he said would legitimize her claim to the bounty in the nearest Kotoan town, and led Fidella to the Brazen Brigand, leaving the stable boy with a bursting fistful of gold and instructions of give her everything a horse could ever want, before going to get herself checked out at last. And with the adrenaline of one bout of combat to the death after another finally draining, with the tension of chasing after terrible people finally releasing, she found herself swaying a little on her feet. Having trouble concentrating on conversations. The night spent awake in the saddle and the one before it that ran very long, and was followed only with a few scant hours of very shallow sleep, were both catching up to her.

And knowing that she probably looked worse than she felt, Cassandra smiled to herself before pushing open the door to the only room with a taken sickbed.

Tara gave her a one-eyed up-and-down from where she was laying flat on her back. “You look like death warmed over.”

“Yeah, said the kettle.” Cassandra walked past the brutalized agent, who chuckled at the riposte, to one of the three free beds in the room. “They’re dead.”

“I saw. Thank you. You’ve lifted a great burden from my mind.” Tara closed her eye with a sigh. “And after I’m able to walk again, maybe I can finally leave this filthy province and return to the court.”

Cassandra found she didn’t have an answer to that, and focused instead on putting her weapons down on the nightstand before she took off her cloak and folded it overtop, and started undoing the clasps of her tunic to get to the haphazardly tied silk bandage and the burnt-shut cut in her shoulder. She hesitated before undoing the knot on the gold-trimmed kerchief tied around her left bicep, and carefully threaded it between her still-gloved withered fingers, wrapped it around the hand, in order to avoid not wearing the favour for any significant length of time. When she was down to her smallclothes, she finally remembered the Moonstone scars sheared through the left half of her chest—and that if she was to avoid a multitude of needlessly worried questions, she’d have to keep that covered. While stripped from the waist up. She grumbled to herself, before she realized that Tara was looking at her tiredly.

“I hope you’re not in too terrible a state.”

“It’s fine. Mostly I’m just tired. Your advice and supplies were good, my planning and my luck were good.”

“So it would seem, given that four extremely dangerous men are dead and you’re still alive.” The spy gave her a weak smile. “Ramon will come over before nightfall, I’m sure. We’ll handle the matters of rewarding you then, since out of the two of us he’s the one with useable hands at present.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“This is twice now you’ve saved my life, I hear.”

Cassandra looked away. “It’s not like I wasn’t being paid for it. Either time.”

“Yes, and I’m sure you’ve gifted thousands of gold to the family running this clinic with an ulterior motive in mind, as well.”

Cassandra groaned in frustration, but before she could dress the feeling into words, the door creaked open and Eliza came in with a pile of medical supplies carried in her arms.

“I see you’ve not bled out to death yet from another open wound you’ve forgotten to mention?”

“It’s not an open wound, and I’ve taken care of it as best I could, if you’re going to just give me a hard time about it then I can go sleep somewhere else,” Cassandra snapped right back.

“Calm down.” The sense of irritated disbelief dropped from Eliza’s tone immediately. “I’ll see how you managed it until now, and I’ll do what I can, but first I need you to believe that I’m not your enemy. Are you going to accept help or not?”

Cassandra sighed heavily, pinching the bridge of her nose with withered fingers. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

“I guess you are.” Eliza set a steaming earthenware mug on the nightstand and started placing the armful of items she brought along the bed, before tapping Cassandra’s good shoulder to indicate the linen shift she still wore. “Take this off, then.”

Cassandra pulled the garment off, keeping it cradled to her chest to hide the Moonstone scars, indifferent about the gesture being mistaken for excessive modesty. Eliza didn’t comment, only set to unwrapping the silk bandage tied over Cassandra’s shoulder and across her collarbones; from the other corner of the room, Tara looked away, the bandaged side of her face now turned towards them both.

“Well, you certainly were thorough,” Eliza said with only a slight bit of tightness to her voice when she uncovered the burned wound and set the weepings-soaked silk aside. “And this area has been hit afterwards?”

“I had to roll across that shoulder a few times,” Cassandra admitted.

“Did you attempt to clean it since you burned it?”

“I didn’t have that kind of time.”

“No, I imagine you didn’t, not with how deep the shadows under your eyes are. When was the last time you slept?”

Cassandra had to think about that for a moment. “...Yesterday noon? But that was after—” she nodded at her injured shoulder. “—and I didn’t get much sleep.”

“And before that?”

“Night before I left.”

She heard Eliza sigh. “How are you still even sitting upright?”

“I don’t know.” Cassandra pinched the bridge of her nose again, feeling the motion pulling at the edges of the crack in her withered arm. It was hard to open her eyes again and to keep them open. “Momentum, maybe.”

“Then I hope you’re ready to stop moving for a bit, because otherwise you’ll just keep hurting yourself until you drop.” Eliza pressed a towel to her back, well below the burn, and uncapped a small flagon with her free hand. “This is going to sting.”

Cassandra hissed through gritted teeth as a liquid was poured over the burn, and clamped her good hand over her mouth to stifle a growl of pain as the wound was then patted dry.

“Keep breathing, you’re okay, you’re doing well, it’s almost over...”

And when it was, Cassandra found herself wiping tears from her eyes, shocked at the murmured litany of encouragement and at a terrible feeling of something deep inside her coming unhinged against it, something that bent her back under its weight and pulled her throat tight and made her eyes water. She was just tired. She was just tired, and after she slept, she could bury it again, and deeper this time, just going deeper until nothing could rattle her like that anymore—

“I’m going to put on an ointment and wrap it back up,” Eliza said from behind her, still in the same steady tone. “You’ll need to keep checking in to get it changed twice a day. Try not to sleep on it and don’t do a lot of hard labour with this arm until this heals up.”

Cassandra nodded, not trusting her voice yet.

The last stage of getting the burned cut in her shoulder taken care of wasn’t nearly as painful, both the rather thick ointment and the clean silken wrap that came after cool against her skin, already soothing a little even against the pressure required to keep the dressing in its place. Eliza worked quickly, with practiced and gentle hands, and wrapped the bandage much more smoothly than Cassandra had been able to manage, then gestured to the linen shift.

“You can put your clothes back on. And keep your voice down, I think Tara’s asleep again. Where else does it hurt?”

“That’s everything.”

“Cassandra.” There was a note of warning in Eliza’s tone.

“I’m fine, alright?”

“You realize that I can see you’re favouring your right arm,” Eliza said calmly. “That old injury of yours reopened, didn’t it?”

Cassandra ground her teeth as she started closing the clasps of her tunic. “No. I’m just in a bit more pain than usual. It’s not getting worse or anything like that.”

Eliza sighed, exasperated now. “You are a terrible liar.”

Cassandra dragged her good hand down her face. “...I know.”

“Old injury. For heavens’ sake.” Eliza shook her head. “How old even are you?”

“I’ll be twenty-five this year,” Cassandra grumbled without looking up.

“Then take it from the woman half again your age: it’s admirable that you don’t want to be a burden, but taking this to a point where you’re too proud to accept help is a greater burden on yourself and those around you than actually letting yourself be taken care of every once in a while. I understand the drive to be the one who gives help, not the one who accepts it—I’ve been a healer my whole life—but you can’t help anyone if you’re falling apart, yourself. Even if you think of yourself as nothing but an automaton constructed to fix the problems of everyone else, you must face the truth that you need maintenance, if only to keep going. Now, what is wrong with your arm?”

“It’s not that I—” Cassandra gave up, and pulled the collar of her tunic far enough down to show the topmost edge of the starburst, gray-black Moonstone scars, but not far enough to show the half-oval indent in her flesh were the Moonstone itself had used to sit. “It’s a magic-caused scar like these, but covers the entire hand and most of the forearm. It’s not getting worse, but not better either, and causes me a lot of pain every other day. It’s just a bad day at the moment. Happy now?”

She was a terrible liar, yes, if she was trying to lie while thinking about the truth of the matter or behaving in accordance with it. But if the months she spent with Zhan Tiri had taught her anything, it was that one small lie wrapped up in truth could make the entire rhetoric sound honest and reasonable while warping it beyond the recognition of anyone who did actually know the whole truth.

“That’s how you got the woundwort to glow without even knowing it would,” Eliza said quietly.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Eliza rounded the bed, and sat down next to her. “Listen. I can’t help you with a cursed wound, nor can my father, but that doesn’t mean no one can. Sigrid told me once that she hadn’t taken the healer’s trial, but there are chanters in Ingvarr who have, and who might be able to unravel whatever spell that did this to you. There are highlander hermits in Pittsford who could try the same, there are medicine men in Galcrest and Neserdnia, there are temples of healing in Bayangor. There is help to be found. There’s just no one, even when you’re right in front of the water, who can force you to drink.”

Cassandra chuckled tiredly. If the Sundrop’s healing song had dragged her errant soul back into her body and lurched her heart into beating again and shoved her breath back into her lungs, but it hadn’t fixed her arm, then no parlour tricks performed with human hands and human means were going to.

“But speaking of, drink this.” Eliza gestured at the mug on the nightstand.

Cassandra took it, and sniffed at the steam rising from it, a light and pleasant herbal scent. The earthenware was warm against her left hand, and vacant against the right. “What is it?”

“Lemon balm. It’ll help you sleep,” Eliza said as she started gathering up the medical supplies she had brought. “It’s also spiked with a painkiller.”

Cassandra froze and lowered the mug, halfway to her mouth already. The herbalist gave her a tired look.

“Oh for heavens’ sake, if I wanted to hurt you or interrogate you, I’d tell you to drink first and asked questions after, not the other way around. Cassandra, you gave us everything. No one here is going to touch you. Just go to sleep before you collapse.”

Cassandra looked down at the brew. There was no way to verify whether that was true. There was nothing to count on, for making it be true, other than her own conduct thus far and a stupid, risky faith placed in the inherent goodness of people she barely knew. There was no one that she trusted, unquestionably, to watch her back for her while she slept.

She missed Owl so much, she realized miserably.

And then she drank, feeling a wave of warmth spread through her chest and stomach. “Can you wake me up in a few hours so that I spend some of the day awake and call it an early night?”

Eliza nodded, and leaned over to help Cassandra unlace and pull off her boots when she saw her struggling. “I’ll come to check on you both before noon.”