If there was one smell Cassandra had never expected to be relying on to block out worse ones, it had to be that of woodsmoke.
She and Moreen Tyson had spent the rest of the week burying the remains of chickens and cattle across a field, hoping to enrich the soil at least a little as it was left to lay fallow, and that the bones would not cause too many problems the next time someone would plough it—whenever that would be. The chicken coop was easy enough to demolish and burn, along with the straw, grain, and more that had been fouled by the bodies inside the coop and the barn. The barn itself, however, was more of a problem. With their other choices being to torch the building whole or to leave it as it was without even attempting to do anything, they mixed a small jar of burnt lime with water into the texture of thick paint, layered the most worn of the dead farmers’ clothes over their own, and set to painting the barn’s inner walls and floor in an effort to sanitize it as best they could. It was throughout that endeavour that Cassandra was finally confronted with another mark of time that had passed since she left home: her hair had gotten long enough to be an annoyance, endlessly brushing against the nape of her neck, falling in her face whenever she looked down, blocking her sight every time she wasn’t facing directly into the wind.
“I could give you a trim,” Moreen had admitted when Cassandra finally caved and asked her to. “But I don’t think you should cut your hair right before winter.”
“Well, it gets cold here. Growing your hair out before the frost comes means a bit of another layer to keep you warm, without having to pay for it.”
Cassandra sighed heavily, resigning herself to the logic in that.
“I’ll find you something to tie it back with,” Moreen promised, a hint of humour in her voice.
And it was a good thing to hear, to know that there was still capability for laughter buried under everything the farmer had to become and undertake in order to survive what her life had turned into: a livelihood brought to ruin with thoughtless cruelty, a family murdered in a bid to claim her like an object, a man she had lived beside for years staking that claim to her on the back of his crimes. Even if Cassandra had woken up, barely two days into her stay at Tyson farm to help out as much as she could, to the sound of steps descending the ladder in the middle of the night, and lifted her head to look over her shoulder at Moreen laying down her blankets next to Cassandra’s bedroll on the floor.
“It’s cold,” she had murmured of it, all the explanation Cassandra would get.
“It is,” Cassandra had agreed, and lifted an elbow from her side to allow the farmer to snuggle up to her back.
She had been waking up with warmth pressed up against her and the sound of peaceful breathing in her ears ever since. On every other night, Barley graced them with her presence as well—whether curling up against the back of Cassandra’s knees, nestling into any small gap between the two of them she could find, or unceremoniously climbing over them to perch atop Moreen’s shoulder like a proud mountaineer and sleep there. And although the farmer’s hands always ended up only in respectfully neutral places, Cassandra would find herself torn at with conflicting emotions regardless.
She’d missed being touched. She had, and it brought an incredible sense of relief to exist within the personal space of another again; it poured into her bones the warmth of knowing that she must have done something right to deserve this, a feeling as indisputable as it was disarming, threatening to overpower her and transform the burning in her eyes into actual tears. She’d missed being touched, and it was good to be held again, even if just for a little.
But she also had no intention to stay. She was here to help for as long as help was welcome and needed, and then she would leave, probably never to see Moreen Tyson again. And that made every time Cassandra had caught the farmer looking at her with a smile on her face or with gratitude in her eyes almost uncomfortable, almost alarming.
And even beyond that mess, as if it hadn’t been enough, two more persistent thoughts returned each time Cassandra tried to rebuke them by day and ignore them in the small hours of the night, when there was no more activity to drown them out with anymore.
The first was a bloodhound sniffing out weakness, and barking at that overwhelming relief just to be held in another’s arms, growling that it was no accolade, no great proof of righteousness to receive such a simple and undemanding form of affection. That it was only her mother who would have her believe otherwise. That to sandpaper off the sharp edges she had been carved into with her mother’s negligence, she had to quit finding pride in how chiselled the shape of her heart was, and the sooner the better.
And the other was far quieter and far gentler and far, far harder to chase off, whispering that it was another’s arms Cassandra missed being held in, another’s warmth she missed pressing her back into, another’s breath she missed listening to when she couldn’t go back to sleep. But even at her loneliest, even as Cassandra curled herself up around the hollow space carved inside her ribcage and cradled her withered arm to it, even as she waited for that heart-rending longing to lull her to sleep and bring her dreams of green eyes and freckled cheeks and a laughter flowing like a cascade over riverstones, she had to admit at least before herself that she had been missing that for far longer than they’ve been apart. That just living together, be it in the castle or in the caravan, had never been enough on its own to earn her that warmth, that affection. That she’d had to work for it or grovel for it. And that just because Raps hadn’t done any of it on purpose didn’t make it any less hurtful.
And now there she was, standing in the middle of a field in late autumn, turning to face into the wind and tilting her head back to gather up her too-long hair as she held a ribbon in her teeth, after Moreen had insisted that she should pick at least three—one as green as Rapunzel’s eyes, one as blue as the Moonstone’s sparks crackling in tune with her fury, one as white as Eugene’s oppressor and sworn enemy: snow. There she was, far from home and determined to head even farther from it, craving closeness at the same time as she was backing away from it. At least the shovel didn’t ask her any questions. Neither did her withered arm, fingers closer both to straightening fully and to clenching into a fist in weather this cold, but in pain sharper and harder to ignore, or with the familiar-by-now lesser range of movement and lesser pain that never quite abated as she kept the hand close to the hearth, tucked into her clothes, wrapped in silk and encased in thick leather lined with fur and reinforced with banded steel.
And neither did Fidella ask her any questions as Cassandra took her out for a run, every afternoon like they had fallen in the habit of doing, the mare’s coat beginning to thicken somewhat against the colder weather. Mindful of Owl’s initial perimeter flight and the warning he’d brought her about wolves, Cassandra always took her bow with her and kept it strung throughout these daily little runs, yet for the first few days she saw neither hide nor hair of wolf. On the sixth, she noticed a shape following them through the yellowed grasses. On the ninth, their audience had swelled into a pack of eight wolves, keeping pace with them from different directions—and when it came to a confrontation, Cassandra killed one and threw a cracker she had taken from the Kotoan spies into the largest group of the rest, eliciting a few pained whines as it exploded with a resounding noise and effectively drove the wolfpack away for now.
“I didn’t realize you were going hunting,” Moreen said slowly as Cassandra led Fidella into the house, then dragged the dead wolf inside with a grunt.
“I hadn’t planned to be going hunting,” Cassandra panted as she heaved again. “I just didn’t fancy getting eaten. Or letting Fidella get eaten. Now please tell me you have skinning knives somewhere in this house?”
Moreen nodded, and dug through the modest pile of tools and clutter they had managed to salvage from the barn, laying a bundle of leather on the table and unwrapping it to display a set of large hunting knives—among them, a skinning knife entirely big enough to do the job on an elk, not just a wolf. “Keep these if you like.”
“Are you sure?”
Moreen shrugged. “They used to belong to my father. Had he known you, I think he’d want you to have them.”
“If you say so,” Cassandra said uncertainly, but relented at the farmer’s firm nod. “Alright then. Thank you.”
The process of skinning the wolf had taken her most of the evening, but even as she washed her gloves clean of blood and more, she had to admit that she had done a pretty good job of it—the pelt was intact enough to take to the furrier and ask for having it made into at least one piece of winter clothing. The meat was far less exciting, even when drained of blood and quartered and cooked in a stew, with a few more cuts hung inside the chimney to smoke over time, but it was not inedible, and the rations they had brought from the Brazen Brigand were already exhausted and leaving them to dig into whatever remained inside the Tysons’ pantry, anyway.
They spent the following days trying to convert the dinky bullock cart into something that could be pulled by a horse without putting too much strain on Fidella, and on sorting the entirety of Moreen’s belongings into what could be sold and what would need to be given away. With little more than a few items of sentimental value, the stash of Ronan Tyson’s looted jewellery, and two changes of clothes set aside to keep, Cassandra leaned over to trail her good hand over a large triangular shawl of woollen yarn finished with long tassels along the outer edge.
“This is quality work. Did you make this?”
“Yes, I did. I’ve been crocheting since I was very young,” Moreen admitted. “I broke my leg as a child, and my grandmother taught me, to keep at least my hands busy.”
“If this was dyed in more expensive colours, you’d easily see a minor noble wanting to wear it at informal occasions,” Cassandra said honestly. “You must have improved a lot on what you were taught.”
The farmer’s cheeks coloured slightly, but her eyes turned thoughtful. “You really think so?”
“Of course I do.”
“Because I’ve been thinking where to go. There’s another town, a little smaller than Silberstadt, about four days of a walk or a cart ride away. It’s across the Kotoan border right now—Espinheiro, I’ve gone with my father enough times, to trade and to meet people. I thought it might be the safer choice, but... I’m not sure people would welcome a stranger with a name as foreign as mine.”
“They must be used to refugees by now, but I see why you would be worried about it,” Cassandra conceded. “What’s the other option?”
“Riddersbrug. Up north, much farther away—and much larger, a city proper, not a little town like here.”
“Must be where the garrison reinforcements came from,” Cassandra mused aloud with a frown.
“It is. And I think the husband of Eliza at the clinic is originally from there, too.” Moreen took the shawl in her hands, extended it to Cassandra after a moment. “This is my best work, I’d say, but do you think it’s good enough to find work in a– a weavers’ guild, or tailors’, or similar?”
“I don’t know about Equis, but any Coronian guild and more than one noble estate would be happy to have you.” Cassandra trailed her fingers, gloved and not, along the tassels. “They might push you to work faster than you’re used to, and demand that you maintain the quality, but otherwise I don’t think you’ll have problems at all if you show this kind of work as your credentials.”
“Well, I will have problems getting there,” Moreen said in a tight voice as she turned away. “It’s almost winter, and... it’s far. Far enough that I’ve never been.”
“Lucky I was already planning to head deeper into Equis, then. I’ll take you there,” Cassandra offered calmly.
Moreen let out a breath she’d been holding. “You’d do even that for me?”
“I need to find a new job board,” Cassandra reminded, “and I promised someone I’d look for him in Equis soon as I got the chance.” Then she considered the sheer length of Rapunzel’s first letter, and the fact that Owl had probably almost made it to Corona by now, meaning she’d be carrying twice as much paper before the month was out. “I should probably find a bookbinder of some sort, as well. And even besides, if you say this Kotoan town nearby is even smaller than Silberstadt, then there’s not much of a chance to find a pawnbroker there, to sell that jewellery from your father’s stash to. All good reasons to head north instead. It’s not just for you, if that makes you feel better.”
“It does. But thank you all the same.” Moreen took Cassandra’s hands in her own. “I don’t know what I’d do without your help.”
“It’s fine,” Cassandra said quietly, just short of pulling away. “It was needed, and I was there.”
And that was what the entirety of her exploits out of Corona had come down to, she thought as she laid in her bedroll before the hearth that evening, wasn’t it? True as it was that she’d spent these months desperately grasping at any task that could be completed even by a tool discarded as many times as she had been; true as it was that she had taken at least one mission so suicidally dangerous that no one in their right mind would have agreed to it, simply because she craved tangible proof of her own capability that much—it wasn’t only her own past failures that drove her forth, and it wasn’t only a feeling of relief that she was, in fact, still able to accomplish absolutely anything that came out of these exploits. There were lives she had saved from being severed too soon in their years. There were souls she had eased the indignities or the suffering of, where nothing better could be done for them anymore. There were allegiances she had honoured, even though no one would’ve had the right to expect her to go out of her way to do that like she had. There were wicked men rotting in the ground whom she had put there, rather than let them rot the lives of others any longer. And now there was a farmer trying to salvage anything that was still left of her life, that she was devoting a solid month of her time and her strength to, without any prospects of being rewarded for it.
When something was needed, Cassandra was there. And when it was done, she moved on to the next thing that was needed.
It wasn’t glorious, and it wasn’t a destiny, she mused as she stared into the fire with Moreen embracing her from behind again and Barley vibrating with an idle little purr against the side of her belly. But it was something that neither of those had ever been.
It was real.
“And there’s nothing more on the subject?” Rapunzel pressed desperately as she and Faith deposited a stack of herbal albums on the royal library’s front desk. “Are you absolutely sure?”
“I am quite certain, your highness,” the librarian reiterated for the third time. “With respect, this is a very specific interest you’ve acquired. Were you inclined to broaden the field somewhat, I would be happy to point you at a dozen tomes expanding upon another aspect of it, any aspect you name.”
“No,” Rapunzel relented, disappointed as she was to admit defeat. “Thank you for all your help.”
“Well, I remain at your service, should you change your mind.”
“I’ll hang on to the atlas for a little more, if that’s okay?”
“As you wish, your highness.”
Rapunzel held back a sigh until after the library doors were closed behind them, but when she did sigh, it came out deeper than the grave and collapsed the set of her shoulders in resignation.
Squeak, Pascal said in a consolatory tone, as if to remind her that they had tried.
“I know,” Rapunzel said sadly. “I just really wanted to solve Cass’ puzzle.”
“It’s strange how this herb you’re looking for doesn’t seem to grow in several of the Seven Kingdoms,” Faith admitted with a frown. “Not Corona, not Bayangor, and not Koto?”
“Not most of Koto, at least. Those herbariums didn’t cover the northern provinces.” Rapunzel stared at the dried flower accusingly where it laid, inside a small box she had placed it in to prevent the heavier contents of her bag from grinding it into dust. “I didn’t think this would be easy, but I hadn’t expected it to be so difficult, either.”
“I could find out when the outriders are scheduled to check in, so you can ask them if they’ve seen anything like it,” Faith offered as they walked out into the castle gardens. “But I’m not sure if it would help all that much.”
“Maybe not, but it’s a good idea to ask people who travel a lot or have in their past,” Rapunzel admitted. “I’ve asked Eugene already, and he said Lance wouldn’t know, either. Who else do we know who had gone outside of Corona for a long time?”
Squeak, Pascal said, and changed colour into a visage of a pale redhead with a fang-shaped stripe of red facepaint down each cheek.
“That’s true, but the girls were looking for gold and valuables,” Rapunzel reminded. “And if this herb was valuable, Eugene and Lance would know about it, too.”
Squeak, Pascal conceded her point, then changed colour again, the top of his head white now and his face in split colours, one half of it brown and half painted red.
Rapunzel stopped dead in her tracks.
A quarter century of trying to track down a legend. One about a magical, golden flower.
“Of course Adira could know. I’ll ask her next time I see her.”
“Ask her what?” a cheerful voice sounded from behind them.
Faith startled with a yelp, and Pascal’s squeak came distinctly closer to a shriek as he reverted to normal colour, while Rapunzel just turned on her heel—to see Adira, a thoroughly satisfied look on her face as she took in the reactions to her appearance.
“How long have you been there?”
“Long enough to see your friend’s approximation of me,” Adira gestured to Pascal, who grinned uncomfortably and slinked behind the high collar of Rapunzel’s dress. “Admirable work your court’s gardeners have done. It is beautiful here, even so late into autumn.”
Rapunzel smiled. “Are you finding yourself a few favourite places?”
“I am, now that it’s been made unspeakably easier by no longer having to play hide-and-seek with Hector,” Adira admitted airily.
“Oh, you were trying to avoid him?”
Adira raised an eyebrow. “I wasn’t going to let him walk all over me, but I didn’t enjoy demolishing our surroundings in every scuffle we got into. It’s unbecoming to display so little respect to everyone else’s work around here. What is it that you wanted to ask?”
“Right.” Rapunzel opened the little box again and extended her to Adira, showing her the dried herb. “Do you know what this is?”
Adira took it by the stem and lifted it into the sunlight, and tilted her head with a surprised expression. “Well, this is certainly the first time I’ve seen one of these in the past decade.”
Rapunzel perked up. “But you’ve seen it before?”
“Yes, this is starlight woundwort. It’s a healing herb, rare and very powerful, inherently magical. In the hands of a skilled practitioner of hedge magic, or an experienced enough herbalist, it could reliably drag someone back from death’s door if administered in time. It grows only in places already soaked with ambient magic—like ruins of wizard towers, or graveyards of magical creatures—and only at certain elevations. I still carry a few applications of medicine made from it, diminished with age as its potency may be, but other than that I don’t think I’ve seen it in your kingdom at all. Where did you get this?”
“Cass sent it,” Rapunzel said softly. “She wrote that she had resupplied a clinic on healing herbs.”
“That’s a score of lives she’d given them the power to save, then.” Adira lowered the woundwort’s stem, squinting at the sky now. “Speak of the devil. Isn’t that Shorthair’s bird?”
Rapunzel’s head snapped up at that. It took her a moment to make out the silhouette against the clouds, but there it was, unmistakably different from those of the castle island’s crows and seagulls, and heading directly for her window. She lifted both hands to her mouth and called out as loudly as she could, “Owl!”
If there had been any vocal response, it was carried away on the wind, but the distant silhouette sharply changed trajectory to one leading straight to her, now. Rapunzel quickly took the dried herb back, put it back in the box, and tucked it safely away, then held her arm out. Within moments, Owl landed on the offered perch, and folded his wings with visible relief.
“You’re back so quickly! I mean, in comparison. Is everything okay?”
Hoot, Owl confirmed easily.
His backpack, Rapunzel noticed, was smeared in streaks of black and gray. “Aw, what happened? Did you get into trouble?”
Hoot, Owl said dismissively, and Rapunzel wasn’t quite sure of his meaning: whether that nothing had happened, or that it was nothing he couldn’t handle.
“Okay then.” Rapunzel unstrapped the stained backpack from around Owl’s chest, and watched him fluff up his feathers a little. “How did she seem when you left her?”
Hoot, Owl described, concise yet diplomatic in his assessment that Cass had not been suffering or unhappy.
“That’s good to hear. Well, let’s get you inside, you must be tired? Hungry?”
“I’ll leave you to it.” Adira withdrew with her usual little smile. “Come find me if you need another midnight chat.”
“Okay, thank you!” Rapunzel called out after the old warrior, earning a nod, before heading back into the castle. “She walks like a cat, doesn’t she?”
“Sometimes I wish she would wear a bell around her neck like one, as well,” Faith admitted, her voice still a little faint.
“Well, it would certainly make for a unique Gopher Grab, to have people chase Adira and try to put a kitty bell on her, but I’m not that sure how much goodwill such an event would demonstrate.”
Faith snickered, hiding a grin behind a hand. Rapunzel watched her with a smile. Her new lady-in-waiting was a scaredy cat, and infinitely more timid than Cass, but the same traits made her observant and incredibly discreet. And even as Rapunzel missed Cass terribly, craving to see her around every corner and almost hearing the echo of her voice still reflecting off the castle’s walls, it was good to make a new friend—really make a friend, not just impose on them and call it good.
“I’d like some time to myself for now, do you think we can fit that in?”
Faith considered, and after a moment, nodded slowly. “It isn’t going to be very much, but I think it can be arranged. Any exceptions to not allowing people into your chambers?”
“Eugene can always come in.”
“Okay, then. I’ll come before the banquet to get you ready.”
“Great. Thank you so much.”
“Of course, princess.”
With these matters settled, Rapunzel headed to her room, where Owl took off from her arm to nestle in-between a few pillows rather than atop the back of a chair. Poor thing, Rapunzel thought as she watched him conk out immediately. She hadn’t been able to measure the exact distance between Castle Corona and the mining town that Cass had been in the neighbourhood of when she wrote her first letter, but she didn’t need pinpoint accuracy to be able to tell that it was hundreds upon hundreds of miles even in a bird’s flight. And Owl wasn’t just flying to and fro between them, but carrying messages both ways, too.
And thanks to him, Rapunzel now had Cassandra’s second letter in her hands. She thought of everything she had poured her heart out about in her reply to the first one, everything she had promised and everything she had kept quiet, then opened the stained scroll case.
There were a few sheets of paper inside, but only one carried the tell-tale marks of a quill’s nib pressing through and visible on its blank side. Rapunzel took that one out first, and was immediately struck with the state of Cass’ handwriting—shakier than usual. Far shakier. And not just in the way Rapunzel had seen in her own, through journaling in the evenings that crested days filled with physical effort, days that strained her arms more than usual. Cass hadn’t just been tired when writing that letter. Though she evidently was, as well, clear as day in the way the words at the end were scribed in wider strokes than those at the beginning, or a little harder to read, the differences between individual letters growing faint in places.
Something must have happened to her injured hand. Again.
Rapunzel swallowed, and took a deep breath, then started reading.
You can be better than that. I know, because I’ve seen it sometimes. It just never stuck. But if you’re actually trying this time, you can make it stick.
I wish I could’ve talked to you about some things back when they happened. I’m starting to face a few of them again, but I don’t have to tell you how difficult it can be to scrub away the indents of other people’s hands on us. And it was more than just knowing by then that it wasn’t safe for me to talk to you about it, or that you wouldn’t listen. Sometimes, when you convince yourself there’s a problem, you start looking for whose fault it is like you need to prove it’s not yours, and scrambling to make it go away. And it’s usually either entirely out of your hands and not your responsibility, or outright not a problem at all, just a fact of life that you take issue with.
Your hands are not like my arm. I have scars on my chest from carrying the Moonstone. Those are like your hands. Those are both from things we chose to take.
The backpack was a good idea, but it can’t be in colours this noticeable. Things are tense where I am. If someone spots Owl carrying messages, they’ll assume he’s a courier trained by the enemy and shoot at him.
I’ve run a few errands for the locals here, joined them in a few tiring group tasks, and gotten rid of a few murderers. People have started to like me for it. It’s weird, and I don’t know what to do with it, but I’ll figure that out later. There’s a farmer who can’t handle everything alone, so I’ll spend some time helping out and move towns afterwards.
Rapunzel sat back heavily in her chair, overwhelmed already.
Oh, she knew that Cass was concise. That wasn’t news. She knew that Cass could be incredibly direct, especially when contrasted with the other Coronian courtiers and their diplomatically polite double-speak. That wasn’t news, either. But now, Cass was drawing limits in words as direct and concise as when they were actively fighting each other, if with infinitely less aggression. And that was news. And it shouldn’t be.
And Rapunzel had promised she would listen, this time, she reminded herself as she watched her first reflex rising to the surface to defend her, an urge to argue that wanting to solve problems was wanting to help people, and that helping was a good thing, a virtue—
She ground her teeth and closed her eyes, and imagined putting a hand on the head of that impulse and shoved it back underwater.
Cass had limits. And that wasn’t something to be treated like a problem. Not anymore—not ever, if Rapunzel had been a good enough friend to deserve the title of it at all. It was a fact of life, one that she had taken issue with on so many separate occasions, hadn’t she? One that she had tried making go away on each of those occasions, hadn’t she? How humiliating that must have felt, to be constantly disrespected and pushed like that, only to hear it interspersed with declarations of love. How devastatingly painful that must have been, to watch these two contradictory extremes happen in conjunction, and see the pattern of it for what it was: an unspoken rule that love was to be earned with submission and timidity and obedience, not to be received unconditionally.
Come to think of it, Rapunzel knew exactly what that felt like.
Squeak, Pascal said worriedly as he watched her grimace.
“Does it even matter that we’re out of the tower,” Rapunzel asked him quietly, “if we’re dragging the tower with us into everything we do?”
Indents of other people’s hands on her, indeed. Would that she could just scrub them away. Would that she could just take her monsters by the throat and drown them and be free.
She gathered Pascal up to press their foreheads together. “How do we leave someplace that’s built itself up inside us, hm?”
Squeak, Pascal told her gently.
Rapunzel managed a faint smile. “I don’t know if there even is a right answer to that, but 'together' is far from a wrong one, I think.”
She pulled her second journal out from its hiding place, in the gap between books stacked into a larger pile, and unlocked it to trail her fingertips over the title page, the image she had painted twice: the pool with stone stairs leading into the water and a full moon rising into the sky from behind three black rocks. The thought of Cass that kept her trying, the help of Adira who had her realize in no uncertain terms that she needed to begin trying at all, and the place of peace she had constructed between both of their influences, a mirror to look at herself in and see the poison behind the sickness of her actions, the reason for her habits and weaknesses, so she could brew herself an antidote.
And how was she going to take the tower out of herself, indeed? If it was possible at all, then 'one demanding and difficult session of honest self-examination at a time, one day of ceaseless self-improvement after another' seemed like a viable answer. Like a path that could genuinely lead her there—to dismantling the palace she had built on quicksand, and to finding the tower’s foundations at its centre, and to dismantling that in turn.
Maybe that would stop her flaws from sabotaging every work of her actual positive traits, at least.
She rubbed at her eyes with a sigh, then pushed the dark and unadorned journal aside to pull out the rest of what Cass had sent. Four sheets of paper, as it turned out—each thinner than the letter, and each holding the mugshot of a man and the seal of one of the Seven Kingdoms.
Wanted posters, Rapunzel realized slowly, for internationally wanted criminals.
One massive even in the perspective that only showed his head and shoulders, with a flat face and hateful eyes and a bulbous nose that looked like it had been broken and then set multiple times, his teeth jagged and some of them chipped and a lot of them bared in a murderous grimace. Below, the Pittsfordian griffon that marched ahead but with its head turned back to look over its shoulder, and a subtitle of DETLEV DREISTERNEN: MASS MURDERER, ARSONIST.
One square-jawed and scowling in contempt, several parallel scars shorn in his face as if with a set of claws that have been dragged from eyebrow to jawline. Whoever had painted his portrait had conveyed, in some unspoken detail, that the eye those scars ran across was still—and its iris was a slightly paler colour than the other one, as well. Below, the Ingvarrdian leafless and uprooted tree, and a subtitle of HOGNI GALDRSBANI: SERIAL KILLER, OATHBREAKER.
One with an expression so vacant that Rapunzel immediately felt as if she was being stared past, no hint of anger or scorn so prominent in the previous two’s expressions. No hint of anything, really. Only a pair of bull-like horns tied to the sides of his head at the temples with an elaborate set of leather headbands that looped across his forehead multiple times. Below, the Bayangoran cherry blossom, and a subtitle of TASSOS THE MINOTAUR: MASS MURDERER, CANNIBAL.
One far scrawnier than the others—not emaciated, exactly, but clearly with no muscle mass to speak of. Salt-and-pepper hair pulled into a thin braid at the back of his head, a round goatee framing a mocking little smile, eyes alight with avarice. Below, the Coronian sun, and a subtitle of CASIMIR THE SORCERER: SERIAL KILLER, ABDUCTOR.
Rapunzel found herself leaning away slightly from the last one. She’d seen people looking at others like that—looking at her like that, among those others. Sugracha. Tromus. Zhan Tiri. Gothel. Even Cass, for a time, when her eyes were a stark turquoise and equally stark hatred, rather than blue-green like seawater and endlessly warm with loving adoration. People who looked at another person, and entertained themselves with thinking how to best hurt them. People who looked at another person, and saw only things to be used and things to be taken, not another person at all.
Each charged with taking the life of more than one other person.
She looked up as a knock came on her door, and hid her second journal with a sigh before calling out, “Come in!”
It was Eugene who opened the door, and Rapunzel immediately felt herself smile and her shoulders drop. “Hello, sunshine—”
Hoot, a disgruntled reprimand came from the stack of pillows, making Eugene startle.
“And hello to you too, murderbird.” Eugene turned back to Rapunzel. “Cass wrote again, huh?”
“She did,” Rapunzel said softly, looking at the letter and the four posters.
Eugene studied her for a moment, a look of bewilderment cresting into worry on his face. “...And you’re unhappy?”
“I’m not unhappy. It’s just– I’m– she gave me a lot to think about.”
“Yeah, she does that sometimes. Man, remember the blizzard? I thought she was just giving me a hard time like we used to do all the time, but then it turned out, she was actually giving me good advice and pushing me to be a better person.” Eugene shook his head with a chuckle. “What has she been up to?”
“Helping people who live where she is, for the most part. And, um– bounty hunting, apparently.”
Eugene chuckled, taking a goblet from Rapunzel’s desk to sip water from it. “Oh yeah? Well, I can’t imagine she’d go after house names larger than yours truly—” he choked immediately when Rapunzel showed him one of the posters, his eyes wide with shock now. “—holy bounty hunter, is she okay?!”
“She didn’t write anything about getting hurt,” Rapunzel said slowly, a sense of dread creeping over her at Eugene’s reaction. “And Owl told me she wasn’t injured or anything when she sent him back. You know these people?”
“People? You’re telling me she went after more than the one?” Eugene leaned closer to look over her shoulders at the remaining three posters. “Oh. Oh mama. Wow. No, that’s– wow. And you’re saying she’s not even injured? How is she alive?”
Rapunzel took that in. Glanced to the letter again. “So when she said she’s 'gotten rid of few murderers' and sent these...”
“Yeah no, that doesn’t mean jail.”
“Oh.” Rapunzel sat with that, silently, for a long moment. “...So she’s killing people now.”
“If it makes you feel any better, if there is anyone who deserves to die, it’s people like them,” Eugene gestured to the posters. “Oh man, I gotta tell Lance about this, he’s never been afraid of Cass like he should be. And Cap needs to know, too, especially about the sorcerer.”
“But you were condemned to death at one point, too,” Rapunzel said quietly. “And a lot of our friends, they’re criminals too, aren’t they?”
Eugene raised an eyebrow. “I’d like to think that my death sentence was meant more to make an example of me, to show the whole of Corona what happens when someone dares steal from the royalty, rather than equate grand theft with mass murder, sunshine. I know you’re all about seeing the best in everyone, but with people like these four, the best that’s there to be seen is that they didn’t torture some of the people they’ve killed for very long before killing them. They are not like the pub thugs. They’re what the pub thugs are scared of at night.” He thought for a moment. “Actually, from everyone we know, they’re most like Zhan Tiri.”
“Wait a minute,” Rapunzel objected immediately. “But Zhan Tiri wasn’t a person, she was a demon from another realm.”
“Rapunzel, I’ve been all around the world, and the only demonic realm I’ve ever seen was cruelty and greed,” Eugene said, patiently but firmly. “Cass made the world a better place by taking these people out of it. And no, jail wouldn’t have solved anything, they’ve all broken out from behind bars multiple times. It takes a lot to earn a death penalty spanning all of the Seven Kingdoms without committing political crimes, and they’ve murdered their way into that, both before they’ve banded up and afterwards.” He took in the struggle playing across Rapunzel’s face, then reached to stroke her cheek with the back of one hand, and was rewarded with a small smile as she leaned into the caress. “Did Cass write anything else?”
“I’m getting the sense she’s not opposed to giving me a chance,” Rapunzel admitted with palpable relief. “Like she’s trying to show me a few places she can allow me into, and waiting to see if I do anything differently than I used to.”
“That’s a good sign, then.” Eugene leaned down to kiss the top of her head. “You just remember to take it slow and let her come to you when she’s good and ready. Cass plays things closer to the vest than you or me. If you show her that she can trust you with a few small things, she’ll try to see if she can trust you with bigger things, too.”
“I will. Thank you.” Rapunzel put an arm around Eugene’s waist, leaning her head against his chest, grateful for the comfort.
Not everything Cass had written of was a small thing. Already, she was extending a hand and hoping that Rapunzel would take it rather than scorch it, despite all experiences on the contrary, despite how much it must have hurt to have that hand slapped away so many times. If only Rapunzel could take all that back, she thought, she would.
But since she couldn’t, she’d do the next best thing, which was to take that hand gently and hold it until Cass decided either to pull it back, or to allow her close enough to kiss it better.
“I’m just here to help miss Tyson, sir,” Cassandra repeated for the third time.
“I heard you the first two times.” The guard standing in front of her looked no more convinced than before. His companions, each with a halberd at the ready, were growing visibly frustrated. “I have yet to hear why a bounty hunter from Corona would even take interest in a farmer’s daughter out here.”
“Sir, miss Tyson was the one who took interest in me. She sought me out for help, so I’m helping.”
“Likely story. I’m only going to ask this one more time, Coronian.” The officer beckoned at the other two guards, who pointed the topspikes of their halberds at Cassandra’s throat. “What do you want with the Tyson girl?”
“Sir,” Cassandra said tiredly, readying herself to grab at the two halberds and push them sideways if it came to fighting the guards. “Miss Tyson came to me for help, and said upfront that she didn’t know if she’d be able to pay me because of the tragedy that recently struck her family. I was well enough off at the time to not have to worry about being paid, so I decided to lend my aid for free. I’m honestly just here to help miss Tyson.”
“Then you won’t mind if we ask miss Tyson about that, I’m sure.”
Cassandra turned her head, still keeping the two guards threatening her in her field of vision, and called out, “Moreen!”
“Yes?” The farmer leaned out from behind the cart, and her face immediately froze into a horrified expression when she took in the scene: Cassandra standing very still with her hands held up, two guards more than ready to run her through with their halberds, the third clearly in half a mind to give them free rein to. “Heavens, what’s going on?!”
“We’re about to bring this bounty hunter in,” the officer said formally. “You won’t have to worry about being extorted by the likes of her anymore, miss.”
Moreen sputtered at that. “Extor– no! No, she’s been nothing but wonderful! Please let her go, she didn’t do anything wrong!”
The officer gestured at the cart, filled with tools and knickknacks of everyday use, an unimpressed look on his face. “Then what do you call forcing you to sell off your belongings to pay her fare?”
“No one is being forced into anything here,” Moreen bit back at him. “Sir, I’m planning to winter in Riddersbrug. This is to pay for the travel there, and for someplace to stay until I can find work. She’s been kind enough to help me get everything in order and prepare for the trip, and I couldn’t do it without her. So please, let her go and let us get back to it. It’s getting colder every day.”
Reluctantly, the officer signalled his men to withdraw their halberds—which they did with disappointment very clear in their bearing—and leaned his face into Cassandra’s with a glare.
“We’re watching you, Coronian. Make sure you don’t run out of charity.”
“What was I supposed to do, turn away a mourner in need?” Cassandra asked in a scathing tone. “My father raised me better than that, sir.”
“You keep that father of yours in mind and stay on your best behaviour, or we’ll send you back to him in a matchbox.”
With the patrol walking away, Cassandra lowered her hands, and fixed her too-thin cloak around her shoulders. A few Shankers across the town square unfolded their arms from behind their backs, a few Rats at the Brazen Brigand’s entrance took their hands off the handles of small axes or leaned on their spears again, the sound of metal hammered against metal flew through the air as Hanalei went back to work at the smithy nearby.
“Are you okay?” Moreen asked worriedly, wringing her hands in a nervous gesture.
“I’m fine. They didn’t do anything to me.”
“Well not for the lack of trying! Why are they harassing you like this?!”
“Politics,” Cassandra said with a shrug. “Equis and Corona haven’t been on the best of terms for a bit. And a different patrol was pushing Sigrid around just about as much, a few weeks back. I think they’re just stupidly jumpy because of how close to the border with Koto this town is right now.”
Moreen’s face pulled into a look of concern as she listened to that. “You know, I don’t think I’ve seen Sigrid since we came into town.”
Cassandra paused for a moment. Looked towards the smithy. Hanalei didn’t seem to be acting any differently than usual, and since he was there in the first place, his wife hadn't gone down the warpath yet. “She may have just gone out for some fletch, she had mentioned she was planning to.”
“I’m not, but I think we’d see more signs of unrest around here if the guards had done something to her. And besides, I’ve seen how capable a warrior she is. She can take care of herself.”
Moreen nodded slowly. “You’re right. She’s probably fine. But it can’t hurt to ask, can it?”
“Probably not. You go, I’ll keep an eye on things here.”
“Okay, I’ll be right back.”
Cassandra watched the farmer hurry towards the smithy, and heard Hanalei pausing in his work again to speak with her, but turned her attention back to her surroundings when she heard someone clear her throat nearby. One of the townsfolk, but not anyone she recognized.
“Those plates, how much are you selling them for?”
Cassandra looked to where the commoner was pointing. “One silver apiece, or one gold for the dozen.”
“And the platter?”
“What about the pitchers?”
“Three silver each, or five if you get both.”
She’d deferred to Moreen’s assessment for prices to set on everything the farmer had decided to sell, if after pointing out that they seemed too low to her—and after being told that it was a little to account for wear and tear, a little to make sure everything they tried to sell would go. And despite the cold she found herself standing in for most of the day, out in the open on the town square, Cassandra did have to admit that she hadn’t expected to spend her days selling clutter from a cart. Or for her appearance, which was so easily and so consistently getting her mistaken for a sellsword in these parts, to make people take the prices she listed at face value instead of try to haggle with her, like they did with Moreen.
Learn a new use for a weapon kept in clear sight every day.
She took the half-handful of silver and a gold from the person before her and helped them stack the dishes in their bag to protect them from getting banged up on their way home, then stashed the money with the rest of the profits and looked up to see another person approaching. Ramon. Not murderously inclined, though, at least at a glance.
“Can I interest you in some fine wares today?” Cassandra asked in a deadpan tone. “Only slightly used and definitely not taken from a murdered family’s home.”
“Very fucking funny. I thought I told you to get out of town,” the spy said politely.
“I did, and I will. Just helping the Tyson girl sell everything she can’t carry, then I’ll be escorting her to Riddersbrug.” Cassandra counted days back to when she had sent Owl to Corona. “Just under two weeks and I’m gone.”
“Can’t you leave any faster?”
“No can do, sorry.”
“I’m sure you are. Fuck.” Ramon stepped closer to the cart, looking through the items set out. “Got anything that a girl would love? Especially a girl who can’t walk.”
“Think I saw a nice deck of cards somewhere in here,” Cassandra gestured to a few small wooden boxes laid out next to each other. “Sigrid isn’t around, did something happen?”
“She snuck out of town two days back,” Ramon said dismissively as he opened one of the boxes and started shuffling the well-used deck. “Either a fletch trip, or checking on a few folks in the mine.” He chuckled at one of the cards. “Oh, that’s rich, the queen of diamonds is Saint Claire.”
“Patron of goldsmiths and gilders, mostly.” The spy pulled out a few more court cards, each with a nimbus around their head, and snorted at another one. “Heavens have mercy, they put the patron of grave diggers as the king of spades. Oh, this’ll give Tara a laugh.”
“Eight silver. How is she?”
“Just about how you saw her last. Doesn’t have to sleep as much anymore, though, and started moving her hands a little,” Ramon said as he fished out a few coins and pocketed the cards. “So she’s bored when she’s not in pain, and getting a little stir-crazy. Bruno says they’ll start physical therapy a few weeks from now.”
Cassandra nodded at that. “Good thing she’s recovering, even if it’s slow. I’ve been meaning to ask you something, do you think Fidella will need a blanket for the winter here?”
Ramon looked at the mare, who acknowledged him with a little upwards nod of her head. “You’re taking her out every day, yeah? I don’t think she will, then, not unless you’re planning to sleep outside. Which, you’ll freeze to death anyway, unless you keep a fire going overnight and wear something thicker than that flimsy little cloak.”
“That’s underway,” Cassandra assured him, thinking back to when she dragged the wolf pelt to the furrier. With enough coin spent next to it, she was going to get a very warm vest and pair of trousers, and a much longer fur-lined cloak, as well as a flat document satchel made of boiled leather for Moreen—not unlike the kind that the Seven Kingdoms’ couriers carried sensitive missives in against their chests, rather than in their saddlebags or carts. Dragging a strongbox around wasn’t going to be easy or advisable in a larger city, and it was out of the question to leave the Tysons’ documents behind. “Is there anyone in Riddersbrug you want me to give your or Tara’s regards to?”
Ramon chuckled. “Heavens no, you’ll float up in the river the day after saying that. I’ll send word ahead of you, though. Someone might try and find you if they’re in a pinch, but look for work on your own, too.”
“Done deal. Tell Tara I said hi.”
“I will. Don’t let the guards lock you up.”
Cassandra nodded at the spy as he left, and turned at the sound of footsteps as Moreen hurried back from the smithy. “Anything?”
“Sigrid just went out of town for fletch,” the farmer said with no small amount of relief. “Han says she’ll probably be back tomorrow.”
“It’s good to be sure.” Cassandra pointed her thumb at the cart. “We sold a few dishes and the cards in the meantime.”
“Okay. We might need to go back for more in a day or two, then.”
“I can work with that.” Cassandra turned to Fidella. “You?”
Snort, the mare confirmed calmly.
“She’s fine with it too.”
Moreen smiled a little. Then an expression of worry overtook her face again as her eyes were drawn to something in the distance, and Cassandra turned to look as well—at a panting, red in the face teen sprinting up to the clinic to frantically bang a fist on the door. Moments after he was let inside, Eliza ran out in turn, slinging a bag over her shoulder and buckling a cloak, and turned her head sharply a few times before spotting Ramon and calling out to him. The Kotoan spy, astride his dappled old horse now, headed towards her without delay. A rapid flurry of words was exchanged, then Ramon extended an arm and pulled the clinic’s best surgeon up into the saddle behind himself, and turned his steed towards a dirt road out of town.
Cassandra watched them get past the checkpoint, Ramon pushing his chestnut into a canter straight afterwards. “The mine settlement is that way, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is,” Moreen admitted with a frown. “I hope everyone is okay.”