“For treasonous crimes committed against the kingdom and the kingdom’s royal family, particularly against persons Queen Annabella Rousseau and King Jacques Rousseau, you, Cassandra Urquart, are hereby sentenced to death by hanging.”
Cassandra, seated behind the bars of a dungeon and mired in the filth of decidedly less civilized prisoners, raises her head and straightens her already perfect posture and casts upon them a look of absolute superiority.
(All she can feel is the violent weightlessness of her own relief.)
At thirteen, it occurs to Cassandra in the exact moment that she is forced to play lady-in-waiting to Annabella Vance exactly how much she despises her.
Even at this age, she’s conditioned herself to maintain a remarkable degree of distance from the notion of hate. Not because it is the more ladylike approach, or because a strong moral compass demands it, but because hate necessarily levels the playing field. Hate is too strong, too all-consuming, and it offers too much power to the opponent. Hate breeds vulnerability. Instead, contempt and disdain are her weapons of choice—regardless of rank.
But this girl—the one who will be married off to the inheritor of a distant kingdom, whose every word bleeds entitlement and self-righteousness and ignorance, whose dark brown hair takes hours to straighten because when she wakes it is a mess of curls and frizz and Annabella will not allow a single strand out of place—forces a crack into the very foundation of Cassandra’s theory.
She doesn’t realize then that this is only the precursor of things to come. She doesn’t consider the fact that all it takes is enough cracks in all the right places and everything shatters.
At fourteen, she stares at her image in the mirror and takes a steadying breath.
“This is the only hope for keeping your family afloat,” she reminds herself quietly. Certainly. It’s been a year and a half and somehow Annabella is still the only person who has ever managed to so thoroughly burn her way underneath Cass’ skin. Somehow she knows exactly where to push, until Cass’ insincerely charming smile has been stretched to its limits and all she can taste is the headiness of rage in the back of her throat.
But her father is gone, and all that separates her family from the destitute surviving on the outskirts of the kingdom is Cassandra’s position in the castle. Her brother brings in a little bit of money, when he can, but it is status that mandates their existence here, and Cass is that thin, tenuous string keeping them attached.
“Do you intend to actually help me with my hair or just stand out there having a conversation with the voices in your head?”
Cassandra was not born for a life of servitude. Reflexively, she keeps her head dangerously high and maintains a posture that occasionally verges on treasonous. Reflexively, she considers the majority of people she meets inferior to her.
But she turns, and nods, and says of course, and Annabella’s smirk widens because she knows she isn’t far from winning this game.
“Do you intend to contest the charges?”
“They’ll put you to death.” There’s a tremor in her voice she cannot quite disguise. “You’ll hang.”
“There’s no other choice. You know that as well as I do, Mother.”
Their eyes meet through the bars for the first time.”Your brother has half a mind to assassinate the Queen for this, you know,” she says, and there’s a quiet, hollow half-laugh there, underscoring her words.
“He doesn’t touch her. He doesn’t go anywhere near her,” Cass says, and it’s so quiet and insidious that it can be nothing but rage. “If he does not leave her alone, he should be aware death will not keep from haunting him into a very early grave. Please do deliver that message for me.”
“You’re in love with her.”
It’s not a question, so Cassandra Urquart does not find it particularly necessary to provide an answer. Instead, she arches a skeptical brow and closes her eyes and takes a quiet breath.
It tastes rank, like sweat and slow decay, and also a little bit like freedom.
At sixteen years old, Cassandra Urquart breaks.
It’s not that Annabella hasn’t previously made degrading remarks directed at her family, but the surge of anger she feels each time is white hot and violent, and today she isn’t strong enough.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” she hisses, stepping defiantly into Annabella’s personal space, so she’s pressed against the wall and Cass is there and she’s done being afraid. “Have you met your family? Because their only disguises are the gold and jewelry, and for all its shine it can’t distract from the entirely pathetic truth that the only time they ever offer you attention is when you fuck something up.” She pauses, looks Annabella up and down with the degree of distaste she had always managed to hide. “Oh, hm. I wonder why none of your siblings ever received the same amount of attention.” They’re so close that every one of Cass’ breaths in is a little bit one of Abs’ breaths out.
“Get out,” Annabella says, and Cass feels a violent twist in her stomach to accompany the acrid sting of regret in the back of her throat.
She knows that by engaging she has just cost her family everything.
What she doesn’t realize is that she has underestimated the cruelty of her Princess.
At seventeen, Cassandra is not only still lady-in-waiting for this kingdom’s Princess, but in fact the lady-in-waiting. She accompanies Annabella on every occasion; she helps prepare her for the morning and for the evening. She readies her baths, ensures that each party hosted will live up to Annabella’s taste, and coolly dismisses any potential for conflict before the Princess is given the opportunity to unleash her legendary temper.
It’s true that Cassandra is incredible at her job. Never before have there been so few royal screams echoing throughout the castle, and more than once others who have worked in close corridors with the Princess have commented upon this remarkable feat.
Only Cassandra and Annabella see it for what it is: punishment at its cruelest. Her brother was stripped of his work; Cass was given a position that would require the perpetual company of her least favorite person in the world. She has no choice but to stay quiet and obey—which, despite her occupation, have never been her most exceptional talents.
Because what Annabella Vance came to realize was the very thing Cassandra Urquart had always pretended wasn’t the case: it was Abs who was the tenuous string. It was Abs who was her family’s lifeline. And it was Cass who had no say in the matter.
It also came with the unexpected side effect of earning Cass’ grudging respect.
And sometimes, in those fleeting in between moments when Annabella pretends to be almost human (the moments where they trade insults about the king’s personal chef and the moments when their laughter mixes and startles them both), she’s nearly tolerable.
At eighteen, Cassandra Urquart discovers there are a few moments she doesn’t hate Annabella Vance at all.
Of course, she’s still entitled and she’s still selfish and sometimes she accidentally smiles at Cass she means it. (And sometimes Cass accidentally smiles back.)
At eighteen, Cassandra Urquart says “Abs” reflexively, like it isn’t a familiar name for the girl who has imprisoned her here, a half-second before she remembers not to care.
At eighteen, she hears “Cass,” spoken with all the petulance of a five year old. Or a Princess. “Help me decide what to wear.”
It’s a not-request she’s heard so many times that the roll of her eyes is more amusement than genuine annoyance. “I thought that was the point of last week’s escapade. Didn’t you have something made?”
“Apparently it would make me a disgrace to the family,” Abs answers, and not without a decidedly unladylike snort. “Someone might catch a glimpse of my elbows, see.”
“Ah, of course,” Cass says. “I suppose that might be quite scarring.” There’s an image in the mirror, then, of Cassandra Urquart inches behind Annabella Vance, a ghost of a smile tugging at her lips as she reaches for the zipper of the dress. “You’re not wearing this, either.”
“But Cassie,” comes the protest, and it should be jarring because no one else calls her that, demeaning because of the pride entrenched in her name, but instead it settles comfortably over her, “they deserve it. Don’t even pretend they do.”
Suffice to say, the particular “gown” she’s chosen is hardly fit for a lady, nevertheless a princess. “I would never deny that your family deserves mortification,” she says, “but you are going to be stunning, and captivate every potential suitor, and that will be the real surprise to your charming mother.”
“You ruin all my fun,” Annabella groans half-heartedly, already lifting up her arms so Cass can pull the dress over her head.
She catches a glimpse of their reflection, then—Cass’ skin several shades darker, her hair darker, too, almost black, and a touch wavier, her eyes brown opposite Abs’ hazel. But when their eyes meet in the mirror, there’s nothing challenging or artificially submissive or contemptuous about it. It feels more like that flighty, anxious, alien feeling settling into the pit of her stomach. It feels more like it has to do with the way her fingers have settled against Abs’ forearm, so light the pressure might as well be nonexistent.
Except it isn’t.
Dangerously, Cass lingers.
The touches become more daring, after that. A light brush against the skin of her collarbone, a moment where Cass’ fingers are inside the spaces between Abs’ fingers. She rests a palm against her hip and earns a too-breathy sigh.
They never look at each other again until they day they do, and it means the uncertain first kiss of two very certain people.
When they pull back, they’re more breathless and more sure and more unsure than ever.
The voice itself is so quiet, so broken, that if it wasn’t for the too-familiar name she’s sure she wouldn’t recognize it at all.
But of course there’s only one person who calls her that, ever.
“What are you doing here?” she answers, bitingly, because suddenly her hands are shaking with all the weakness she was never supposed to have.
“You’re such an idiot,” Annabella says, stepping out from the shadows the torches have cast, so she’s standing just in front of the bars. “What the hell is your problem?”
“I think we both know the answer to that,” Cass answers with a wry smile, but the room feels unsteady and her heart is banging wildly against her throat.
“I didn’t realize you had a death wish.” Cass can hear the way Abs takes a violent, shuddering breath.
“Get out of here, Annabella,” she says, “because they’ll find you, and then you’ll be the one with the death wish. You do realize what you’re risking by being here. That little cloak isn’t going to shield you. They’ll know, and then all of this will be for nothing, so you—”
“I can’t fucking believe you’re doing this for me,” Abs practically growls, slamming her hand hard against the bars. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“Don’t be stupid,” she breathes. “I’m dying or we’re both dying. And you know how selfish I am. I need you to stay alive.”
“Those aren’t the only choices,” she hears, just as the ground comes up to meet her. There’s the distant of a key turning in the lock, and then a had beneath her head.
Drugged. The bitch drugged her.
The last thing Cass remembers is how much she can’t stand her. (How she’s seeped into all the crevices, how Cass can’t get her out.)
At twenty, Cassandra Urquart witnesses the marriage of Annabella Vance and Jacques Rousseau.
“You could do quite a bit worse,” Cass murmurs. “He’s actually relatively tolerable. Not even hideous.”
“I know,” Abs says, and she’s twirling a strand of Cass’ hair absently around her fingers and they’re close enough that every one of Abs’ breaths in is a little bit of one of Cass’ breaths out.
“He might even be willing to wait on you hand and foot, personally, which I imagine is quite high on your priority—”
“I want you.”
When Cassandra Urquart looks up to catch the gaze of Annabella Rousseau, she means it like goodbye.
But instead her breath catches and Abs is looking back and it feels a lot more like hopeless inevitability and less like an end or even an epilogue.
There’s another chapter.
They turn another page.
“I guess this is it.”
Cass pretends the raised eyebrow she offers Abs by way of response isn’t her way of making everything less weighty, less final, less stupidly cliché, less tragic. Less. “Try not to completely destroy your kingdom in my absence,” she offers with a smirk. But her eyes are fixed on Annabella like she’s trying to take her all in without having to say goodbye. “I know that’s a thoroughly difficult task, but nevertheless.”
“Maybe I’ll try not to fuck everything up,” she says. “Even if my mother thinks it’s for her.”
“Just for me,” Cass whispers, smiling like she means more than that.
“Just for you.”
And then Cassandra Urquart, in the vein of all the ridiculous cliché things of which she never knew herself capable, erases the space between them and kisses her.
It’s stupid, and desperate, and forceful, and stupid.
When she leaves, she says nothing, and she certainly doesn’t say goodbye.