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Peacetime
Things changed after the war. Cassandra, like the rest of the inhabitants of this godforsaken country in the midst of the northern sea, assumed that the peace would be a good thing. Civil wars were hardly pretty, much less when families were torn, brothers and sisters fighting to the death over stupid issues, over bloodlines and property rights. The whole war was a stupid venture started by stupid people, and during every minute of those six blasted years, she wished that the arrows and the swords and all of the pointless shouting would just stop already.

Some wish that was.

With a sigh, Cassandra looks over the dreary tavern interior one more time, as if hoping something new has sprung up in the last five minutes. She's only been here an hour, but it feels like an eternity. This place had been so promising from the outside... When she had first peered into the dingy windows and tasted the air of hopelessness that pervaded every inch of the place, she'd thought that her year-long search was finally over. It should be perfect. There are unsavory characters, wandering drunks, furniture that threatens to break every time someone dares to move... Hell, she's fairly sure that there's an assassin having an in-depth discussion on the benefits of certain types of fungi based poisons with an apprentice in the corner. But it's all the same as the other places; tropes and clichés. She stares into her empty mug of mead, swirling around the last drops of the stuff as if it will reveal some great truth to her. It's such a shame that this isn't the place. This inn is the only establishment in this damned country that doesn't have booze that tastes of swill.

With a sigh, she adds another mead to her steadily growing tab. The barkeep doesn't seem too happy to hear her voice after the fierce questionnaire she subjected him to just an hour before, but a glare is enough to keep his mouth shut as he refills her mug. As she drinks, a sullen thought occurs to her. Maybe it's finally time to settle down. After grilling nearly everyone not only at the inn, but dozens of little things scattered across these frosty lands, she's about ready to hang up her quill for good. The parchment she writes on is more interesting than the stories here. Oh sure, the pretty young thing by the door had escaped the hand of an abusive lover to make a new life for herself. The aristocrat at the bar had won his fortune in a midnight duel to the death. Hell, the tattered drunk outside claimed to be the bastard brother of the king. If she heard any of that nonsense before the war, she would've been writing for days under the notion that she had the most compelling tale since Ulric the Second's eradication of helldemons. She gives a self-depreciating smile at the thought.

Cassandra knows that she doesn't have a reason to stay in this little place, but she finds herself ordering another, and another, lingering in her rickety stool with the plan to drown in self-pity like the rest of the unfortunate wretches here. And, for the first time in her life, she's weirdly content to do so.
Of course, all it takes is a tap on her shoulder to have reality crashing back all over again.

"Excuse me?"

Cassandra doesn't bother to glance back. "I'll pay my tab tomorrow," she says, tilting her head back and gulping the last of her mead. It warms her from the inside out as it slickly slides down her throat, but even the haze isn't enough to cloud her annoyance as the person taps her shoulder again.

"No, I'm not here for that."

Cassandra's been in enough unsavory deals to know that if a stranger doesn't want money, they want something equally unpleasant. With a sigh, she finally deigns to glance back at the interloper. Short, small, soft, with wide eyes and armor that looks like it's been handed down for generations. A grimace twists her lips when the realization hits: a young adventurer. Types like this are only after one thing...

"You're Cassandra Gallo, right?"

And just like that, her suspicions are confirmed. She stubbornly turns her back on the interloper.

"Look, kid, I know what you're here for, and let me just save you some time: I'm not interested. You can hear about the Hero from someone that isn't busy."
"You don't look particularly busy."

The kid (which perhaps isn't the most reliable description, considering the mature, confident way that she carries herself) pointedly glances from the seats around them to the mug in Cassandra's hands, making it glaringly obvious how empty they all are. It isn't a look that Cassandra's fond of. She knows how far she's fallen; any reminder just feels like salt in the wound. Despite her glare, the kid slides into the seat beside her without waiting for a reply, her face set in stubborn determination. It's eerily similar to the look Cassandra would get back in the days when inspiration still knocked at her door. It's another irritating thought to add to the list.

"I don't know what I can tell you about him that you don't already know," Cassandra grumbles. "He was an underdog from the south who gathered a ragtag group of companions and united the country. That's all you need to know." It's been the same song and dance since this damned era began. Everyone wants to talk to the woman who had traveled with the Hero, wants to know more about the man who had singlehandedly brought about a new age of truth and heroism and all of that bullshit. If she had known that the little runt would cause her so much trouble, she would've kicked him to the curb when he first approached her with those big round eyes and a dream to change the world.

"I'm here to talk about you."

Cassandra pauses. That's... Strange. She glances at the stranger, and despite the earnest look plastered across her face, she assumes that it's a ruse. It has to be. This isn't the first time someone's tried to pull a fast one over her.

"Oh yes, of course you do." She shakes her head, raising her mug for another. "Don't think that I haven't seen your type before." The look the kid gives her, an odd mixture of troubled and puzzled, guilts her into ordering a slice of honey cake along with the drink.

"What do you mean, my type?"

"You know, your type. A young adventurer set out to make the world a better place, or something." Cassandra vaguely waves her hand like as if that would explain the vastness that the 'something' covers. "Let me guess: you come from a loving, but sad little family. You've got a dead parent, maybe two, so as soon as you're old enough you take down your daddy's armor and decide to make a world a better place. You're probably inspired by an adorable little sibling, or something. You'll go on, realize that the world is a shitty place and will always be a shitty place, and either succeed as a world weary campion or end up like that guy." She jams her thumb at the window, where the bastard prince can be seen begging from across the street. "Trust me, it's a story that's been written a thousand times. You probably just hunted me down so I, the wise old storyteller, can tell you a tale of the great heroes that came before so you can have some shitty foreshadowing that you won't listen to until it's too late. Do I have that right, princess?"

The kid's staring at her like she's been struck, but it's easy to ignore that look when the innkeeper brings her cake. An air of awkward silence falls as she eats. A silence like this is the worst fear of a storyteller (silence is only good when it's thick with anticipation or thoughtful with the conclusion of a story), but some dark, bitter part of her rejoices it.

The kid's voice is quiet when she speaks again.

"I came to hear your story."

Cassandra pauses. She turns to the kid to shoot her the most withering look she can conjure, but somehow, seeing those earnest eyes and the stubborn line of her mouth just makes things worse. The girl looks at her with those big brown eyes like she actually cares about what she has to say. For a moment, she's transfixed, until she forces out a huff at the foolish thought and looks away. The mead must be getting to her.

"Stories are for heroes and lovers. I'm neither."

There's a noise that borders on indignant, but Cassandra refuses to rise to it. She's too damn tired to keep arguing. Tired of wandering and hoping and living in a time where a bard is about as useful as a beggar.

"But you've been around the world. I've read all of your epic poems," the kid insists, and there's a warm hand on Cassandra's arm that only makes her want to sink into the ground. "You've written everything. Why can't you be a hero?"

"Because heroes can only be certain types." The cake tastes like sawdust in her mouth, so she pushes it away with a touch more annoyance than the sweet deserves. "It's a formula. You take someone attractive sod, add a restless streak and a sad past, and then you've got the sort of person that wants to change the world. You ever hear of an old hag being a hero?" She aims for derisive and gets something bitter instead. There's another moment of that damned silence, then the hand on her arm gives a gentle squeeze. Her eyes dart from the offending appendage to the kid's face. She immediately regrets it; there's enough softness and sadness in her smile that brings forth a wave of self-loathing far stronger than the last.

"I want to hear about you. Can't you tell me a little bit? Please?"

"Why?" Cassandra yanks her arm away, her eyes narrowing in clear suspicion. "What can you possibly hope to gain from all of this? I don't take apprentices anymore. There's nothing left for people like us."

The kid seems surprised at the outburst, but surprisingly unoffended.

"Well..." She flushes like it's something shameful, her ruddy cheeks darkening as her eyes flick to the oaken door in lieu of the bard. It strikes Cassandra as odd that a person who has the nerve to accost a stranger in a less than reputable tavern would blush when asked a perfectly reasonable question. It's such a little detail to latch onto, but Cassandra begins to find herself interested. "I'm... Curious. I'm from a merchant family, y'see. Mostly fishing, some spice trading when the weather's good, things like that. Everywhere we went, we heard about the Hero and his companions, but barely any of them mentioned you. Then I came across one of your transcripts – the one about the death of King Harmont, when that arrow went right through his head – and I was entranced."

It's so damn earnest that Cassandra aches from it all. She rakes a hand through her greying hair, refusing to look at the kid as her chest feels close to bursting. It's a rare thing, to be appreciated.

"But I had a hard time finding any of your transcripts after the war ended." That voice softens, but Cassandra can't tell if it's from confusion to pity. "I wanted to see if everything was okay. I got curious."

"Curious," Cassandra repeats. "You came all the way out here because you were curious?"

The girl gives a sheepish smile, shrugs. "Isn't that why you joined the Hero?"

"You don't get it." How could she? The kid was young; hell, probably too young to have seen most of the bloodshed. "Those bloody old days were the best of my life." The confusion on her companion's face is all the provocation she needs to continue. "Bards aren't useful during peacetime. Back then, I used to stay up until dawn night after night so I could describe every last little thing about the negotiations or the battles or to write songs for the heroes; or Hero, in this case. What the hell do you think happens when there aren't any more royal deaths or battles to write about? Trust me: the well of new material dried up as soon as the Hero's signature was scrawled across the damned peace treaty. Might as well have been my death certificate, for all the good it did me." It's been a long time since she's ranted like that, and damn, it feels good to get it out.

However, it doesn't seem like it has the intended effect. The kid just looks curious as she tilts her head, blinking at her as she asks, "Why don't you tell your own story?"

Cassandra makes a noise of frustration. "Didn't I tell you already? I can't be the hero. People don't want to hear about-"

"What, 'old hags'? And why not? If you're so desperate for new material, why don't you try something new?"

That tone makes Cassandra's skin inch, but the sentiment gets the gears in her mind turning before she can stop them. Talking about herself would be weird, wouldn't it? She doesn't know how to characterize herself, or if she's in the climax of her life or the resolution. There are too many factors to talk about herself in the subjective, brutal manner she handles her work with. She wouldn't know where to begin.

But, slowly, she leans back, staring off into space as her fingers drum against the bar. It's certainly a tempting notion... Some selfish part of her rejoices at weaving a tale that she's never had the chance to tell. It'd certainly stand out from all of the tales of heroics...

"Fine," she says. The agreement is all it takes for the kid's face to light up with a joy that makes Cassandra scoff. "Don't get too excited. You'll get bored long before I get to the part where I met the Hero."

"That's fine," the kid assures, crowding closer. "Please, begin."

Cassandra takes a deep breath. A different sort of silence falls in that moment; one of contemplation, of anticipation. This is the sort of moment a storyteller lives for.

"It began when I was seven, when I received my first inkwell from my grandmother."

Emily Barr (Barrtender) is a member of RCM's Summer Writing program. Any questions, comments, or feedback can be sent to her email at emilybarr77@gmail.com
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