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The Sparrow

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“You’re….Zhan Tiri.”

Rapunzel tensed, taking a step back from the girl–– no, the demon –– who now circled her with a wolfish grin. “B-but that doesn’t make any sense,” Rapunzel cried, “Cass knows how evil Zhan Tiri is. Why would she team up with––”

Zhan Tiri growled, waving a dismissive hand. “Cassandra knows only what I want her to know.” She turned, sporting a garish smile which was much too wide for her face. “I’m playing her, Rapunzel. She has no idea, but she is under my complete control.”

Rapunzel glared, lifting her chin and curling her hands into fists. “Cassandra’s too smart for that! She’s––”

Zhan Tiri chuckled, taking a seat on the staircase railing. “Oh yes, she was magnificent when I found her. She had a will to be herself–– to hold all her pain because it was hers when nothing else was. Unfortunately for you, pain is only energy. All I had to do was…. redirect it.”

Rapunzel frowned. “What do you mean?”

Zhan Tiri swung her legs, looking every bit a malicious child. “Don’t you see? Cassandra would rather turn to me, the monster , than give up the only thing in the world she could call hers. Pain is the soul of identity, and to relinquish it in favor of acceptance is to be forced to rebuild into someone else-- someone weaker. But of course, as is true with all volatile things, there is only so long that pain can grow quietly before it shatters its confines and demands attention.”

“I don’t understand,” Rapunzel’s foot jittered in place as a few leftover strains of adrenaline trickled through her body.

“Oh, of course you wouldn’t. That is, after all, your....essence, isn't it?” Zhan Tiri batted the air like a disdainful cat. “Personal growth, reformation. Belief in human goodness. All such noble concepts…. But every time a new tree grows, its roots strangle the core of another. You see that now, do you not?”

Rapunzel averted her gaze from the demon, gripping her elbows and chewing her lip. “I know that Cass is angry with me. A-and I know she has reasons for that.” She narrowed her eyes. “But that still doesn’t explain why she’s working for you.”

Zhan Tiri laughed–– a piercing, bubbling sound which echoed in the shadows of the vaulted ceiling. “Oh my child, isn’t it obvious? Cassandra's pain molded her into someone desperate for freedom. And the desire of a dependent for liberty is a demon’s fodder, my dear. So often, humans become infatuated with the concept of free will, and not the reality of it. It amuses me to no end how they can be so confident in their independence when they have only changed hands from one puppetmaster to another."

Rapunzel curled her lip, toying with the bands which constrained her hair. Talk was cheap, and two flicks of her hand was all it would take to capture the demon. And yet, the burned ties which had once bound her and Cassandra together held her still; kept her waiting in this cold spire for some clue that her friend wasn’t gone forever.

Zhan Tiri smiled, fully aware of her advantage. “You won’t attack me, Sundrop. You want to hear what I have to say.”

Rapunzel opened her mouth to retort, but found no words.

Zhan Tiri chuckled. “Mmm. That’s what I thought.”

Rapunzel seethed, anger threatening to boil over. "Enough, Zhan Tiri. What did you do to Cassandra?"

The demon laughed again, wild with mirth. “What did I do to her? Oh my dear child, it seems you have misunderstood! Cassandra’s own ambition has worked against her, Sundrop, not me. It testifies to her desperation; borne of deep desires left abandoned and unheard. Do you have so little respect for her that you think she could not have turned against you of her own volition?” Her eyes narrowed, cheshire grin still firmly fixed in place.

Rapunzel's frown deepened, and Zhan Tiri sighed. She shrugged back against the railing with a pout. “If you must know exactly what I did…. well. I hardly needed to do anything at all. Cassandra bent to every scrape of my claws as if it were the brush of a dear friend. Independence can be so lonely, hmm? Especially when no one comes to look for you.” 

Rapunzel’s anger wavered, sputtering like a fire in a drizzle. “That wasn’t–– I would have–– My kingdom was in danger, and Cassandra made it quite clear she didn't want to come back--”

“Oh please, spare me the details.” Zhan Tiri huffed. “What fascinates me is how completely ignorant you were of her turn. Cassandra is no expert liar, especially to you. I have seen great blindness in the past, but rarely so great as what I have witnessed in you.” 

Zhan Tiri met her gaze, curious, and Rapunzel furrowed her brow. “Maybe I could’ve been more observant, or less…. M-maybe I could’ve been a thousand things, and I’d give anything for a second chance to get it right!” Rapunzel’s voice cracked, and she winced at the desperation creeping through. “But Cassandra could have talked to me. Her choices were her own–– not mine.”

Zhan Tiri smiled, and it looked painful, stretching all the way across her face in a horribly unnatural split. “Well you’re right about that; her choices were not yours. That's the beauty of it-- there was hardly a choice involved! Cassandra desires only validation in return for her loyalty. I simply gave her what she desired, and she shifted her loyalties from you to me as the needle of a compass becomes confused in the presence of a magnet. No longer does she point true north, but south–– yet she knows not that her way is false. Whatever choices Cassandra thinks she has made have been guided carefully by my hand.” The demon arched her brow. “And to think–– she was so excited to be free of control–– and of you.”

“What? No, Cassandra and I were––”

“Friends? Oh my dear, perhaps you may have thought so. But those feelings had been fading for months before she fell to me.”

“But…. we resolved everything that happened at the tree! I–I didn’t have any reason to think– there was no warning––”

“No warning? Please, Sundrop. Perhaps the only physically rotted part of that girl is her hand, but the rot spread to your puppet-strings of friendship almost immediately. You poisoned the love–– Cassandra only let it die.”

Rapunzel was at a loss for words, a lifetime of confusion and second-guessing thrumming in her forehead and reddening her vision. Zhan Tiri leaned back on the railing, utterly at ease.

“She resisted me in the beginning, you know. Spoke with me only sometimes, and softly, when she gave in to her own darkest sorrows. She dared not come to you with her suffering; she was so sure you would never listen. And who was I to tell her otherwise? I watched her grapple with her own mind, twisting herself in knots until she had no rope left to cast out to you. One thing led to another and she told me everything, eventually. Every dark thought became mine to use. She told me how she came to you in her frustration, time and time again, only to be cast aside upon bringing her thoughts before you. Most notably, on the night you spent in my tree.”

Rapunzel found her voice. “That wasn’t my fault.” She clenched her fists to the point of pain. “We were all stressed and exhausted that night. Cass…. She was upset about Adira. She snapped. A-and I couldn’t just let her kick out our only guide––”

The demon laughed. “Regardless of whether or not she ‘snapped’, it was you who failed to handle the situation, my dear. You and Cassandra have that in common–– always failures in the end.” 

Rapunzel took a step forward. “I did what I had to do that night. I can’t take responsibility for how Cassandra reacted.”

Zhan Tiri arched her brow. “And yet, your countenance suggests that you feel guilt.”

Hot blood hammered under Rapunzel’s skin. Her throat swelled up, constricted with a thousand raw emotions.

Zhan Tiri sighed, inspecting her nails. “Oh, poor Sundrop. I see your plight. You so desperately desire to help, but every time you try, you sow only seeds of resentment. In seeking to help fallen birds, you cage and restrict them, unaware that your love is poison.”

Rapunzel recoiled as though burned. “I would never––”

But the demon continued on with a tsk, heedless of her interruption. “All metaphors aside, you were fools to enter my great tree. I was there that night–– a hazy trace of my conscience, to be sure, but a trace nonetheless. Cassandra’s pain called to me…. and I would have been uncourteous to refuse such an adamant invitation.” Zhan Tiri hopped off the rail, neatly folding her hands behind her back as she strolled toward Rapunzel. The click-click-clicking of her tiny shoes echoed in the gloom.

“That night, long after you had gone to sleep, I watched Cassandra shrink down behind a wall to hide from your eyes. I found her there, choking on her own despair and horror at her nightmares come true. In her eyes, she had no one left. No one but a master, masquerading as a friend. I watched her numb expression as the ashes of her labor fell at her feet, and I took those ashes as an offering. After that night I followed her–– carried on the winds of her quiet resentment until your arrival at Tromus’ little…. shack of wonders. There, at last, I found enough power to speak with her.”

The demon chuckled, returning to prowling about Rapunzel’s skirts. “It was so painfully simple, Sundrop. All I had to do was show her the first thing you took from her–– her original fall from grace. The first abandonment–– the one which would lead to a thousand more. She fell at my feet as though I had dealt her a blow, and her pain spilled over in her eyes.”

Zhan Tiri stepped up to the staircase, gently brushing her fingers against the wall. “I, then, took her face in my hands and offered her my sympathy. And although my nails cut her delicate skin and made her bleed, she pressed into my touch as though I were an old friend. I did not need to impress myself upon her, only to sit silently and listen. I watched her fall apart before me, with only the occasional gentle prompt to guide her words. Truly, it was no masterwork of manipulation.”

The demon plucked a red hoop from its cubby, and the artifact crackled with the sound of a thousand hissing serpents as electricity danced along its edges.

“I offered a means to put an end to her suffering–– a new purpose devoid of human vulnerability, and Cassandra conceded,” Zhan Tiri said. “Grounded birds, for all their desperation to take flight, will accept even the bare minimum of the freedom they long for. I have done naught but cradle a flightless sparrow in my hands-- and she has accepted, somewhere inside, that she will never fly–– that being held up to feel the wind in my palms is the closest she will ever get. Now, Sundrop–– tell me: how am I worse than the one who clipped her wings in the first place?”

Rapunzel’s knees quivered and threatened to give out beneath her. Her jaw worked, a defensive swell building up in her throat. "I-- you're wrong. About everything. You're wrong about Cass, and you're wrong about me."

"Am I wrong, my dear princess? Or have I told you a truth you would have preferred not to hear?" Zhan Tiri's brow was arched, catlike eyes glittering with unshaken confidence. 

Rapunzel growled and took a step forward, but before she could make a retort, she faltered. What could she say that would not sound like foolish justification? What could she say that would not be a lie? The more she thought about it the more her resolve crumbled-- in the tower everything had been her fault, and after she escaped to the gilded whirlwind of the castle it had all been turned around. She had been taught that nothing was her fault-- it was all accidents, circumstances, complications; and although they made her feel better at first those justifications never stopped the guilt--

Why couldn't it just be simple?

Zhan Tiri's smile never faded as she watched Rapunzel struggle. Her fangs glinted, malicious in the blue light as she dipped into a prim curtsy. “I confess I must be going, my dear. But be warned, Sundrop. An eclipse is coming–– and Cassandra’s anger still burns. I don’t plan to waste the day of reckoning on such frivolous indulgence as I have tonight.”

 Rapunzel stood paralyzed until it was too late. The demon held the hoop over her head and dropped it with a flourish, disappearing in a flash of coiling red light. The hoop fell with a twang! at Rapunzel’s feet, sizzling and hissing against the cold stone floor.

For a moment Rapunzel stood in silence, watching the hoop fizzle into dormancy. Her mind spun until its spindle broke, and the last dregs of her energy spilled out the corners of her eyes. Rapunzel's knees shook and finally gave. A loud crack of bone striking marble echoed in the rafters, followed by a single, quiet sob.