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Juliana Shale

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    Madison, WI
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  1. Jacques now had his back to the open door. A sound and a flash of movement behind him caught Juliana's attention. Jacques registered it a split-second after she did and was beginning to turn when a small figure leapt through the doorway and flung itself on him. "Michaelis, no!" Juliana screamed. The boy must have followed her. Jacques flung Michaelis off him, the boy crashing against the wall. As Jacques drew himself back up to full height, his sword fell from his hand, thudding on thick carpet. The handle of a kitchen knife protruded from his throat, and a sheet of blood poured from the wound. He looked at Juliana, eyes wide and terrified, then he crumpled to the floor like a marionette with its strings cut. Frozen, Juliana watched Michaelis get shakily to his feet. They looked at each other as Jacques took his final choking breaths on the floor between them. Shouts from outside snapped her out of it. She ran to the window and looked down to see a half dozen mounted city watch knights riding into the courtyard, their torches flickering. A servant met them in front of the mansion, gesturing wildly. Juliana couldn't make out any of the words, but she didn't need to. She turned back to Michaelis. His clothes had been spared, but he had Jacques's blood all over his hands. She tore down a curtain and tossed it to him. "Clean yourself up, then find somewhere to hide. I'll lead them on a merry chase, and once the coast is clear, you can sneak out." She started down the servants' stairs. She was down one floor when she heard the heavy footfalls of armored watch knights below. She dove through the nearest door and found herself in a darkened ballroom. She crossed, keeping to the wall. As she was edging toward the door on the opposite side, it opened, and torchlight illuminated a pair of watch knights. She hunkered down in a corner and watched them enter. They stood just inside, conversing in whispers. Juliana drew one of her daggers, cocked her arm, and flung it as hard as she could toward the opposite end of the ballroom. It struck the wall and clattered the floor, and the watch knights took off after the sound. As soon as they started moving, she darted behind them and through the door by which they'd entered. This brought her into a wide corridor. She had to get out of the mansion, had to lead the guards away from Michaelis. She fled down the corridor and down a wide stairway that brought her into the entry hall. The main doors were open and a single knight stood guard. Juliana took a deep breath and launched into a spring, dashing past the guard as he yelled "Hey!" The knights' horses were tied up in the courtyard, but Juliana made for the stables. She wanted them all after her. She chose a white mare who looked to be the strongest of Jacques's horses and rode bareback through the courtyard, nearly running down the knight who had been guarding the door. As she rode through the open gates, she looked back to see two of the knights mounting up to chase her. As she led them on a chase down the main road, she watched the two in pursuit become three, then four, then five. Her horse was faster than theirs, but she tried not to get too far ahead, at least not until all six were on her. She was getting too close to town. She couldn't let herself be caught between the knights behind her and those on night patrol in the city. She took the next side road and galloped along it into darkness. She cast a look behind her to see the knights following, then looked ahead just in time to pull up short as something loomed out of the darkness onto the road in front of her. "Halt," said a voice, and Juliana realized it was a rider blocking her way. The five knights came up behind her, and in the light from their torches she could see the sixth knight in front of her, sword drawn. This one wore no helmet, and Juliana could see it was the woman with the short silver hair who had nearly captured her and Michaelis back in town. "You are under arrest," the knight said, "for the murder of Jacques Kolvynn." She was surrounded. She was caught. She thought briefly about fighting, going down in a blaze of glory, but banished that thought. She raised her hands in surrender. * * * Juliana didn't say a word as they took her weapons, bound her hands and put her on a horse in front of one of the watch knights. She didn't answer a single question they asked her on the short ride to the city prison, and she remained silent as they handed her over to the prison guards. At the prison, they made her strip, bathe in cold water, and don prison clothes, which consisted only of a gray knee-length tunic stiff from too much washing. They cut her hair short—she assumed to avoid the spread of lice. Then they led her to her cell, a tiny windowless box with a bed on one side and a bucket on the other. Juliana wasn't sure how much time passed. Judging by the number of times they slid trays of food into her cell, it was three days. She barely touched the food, not having much appetite. Mostly, she slept, the exertion of the past several days catching up with her. When she wasn't sleeping, she thought about how to get out of this. She was maybe a few days from the gallows—not much time to formulate an escape plan. The impossibility of her situation filled her with dread, and so she thought instead about Michaelis, wondering if had gotten free. If she'd at least managed to save him, that was something. On what she guessed was the third day, the silver-haired woman from the city watch came to see her. The jailor let her into Juliana's cell, where she sat on a stool she'd brought and looked Juliana over. Juliana sat on the bed and waited for her to break the silence. "You'll go before a judge tomorrow," the guard said. So it was time. Juliana felt a tightening in her chest. The guard continued, "As I assume you know, you'll be convicted and hanged for murder." Juliana swallowed the fear that welled up in her, and put on a defiant face. "So why are you here?" she said, speaking for the first time since Jacques's mansion. "To offer me a deal? I give you information, you keep me off the gallows?" "Give me some credit. I'm smart enough to know you won't give me anything." "What, then?" "I'd like to hear your version of what happened at Jacques Kolvynn's mansion." Juliana tried to read her face, which was hard in the light from only a single lantern. "Tell me your version first." "The official version is quite straightforward: you broke into your old enemy's home, murdered him, and fled." "I noticed you called that the official version," said Juliana, "not your version." She smiled again. "There are some problems with it. First, you were armed when we captured you, yet Kolvynn was killed with a kitchen knife. Second, his sword was near his body, but when I looked at the wound, it sure looked to me like someone had come up behind him and stabbed him. A hard thing to do if he were already alert enough to have his sword drawn." That was a surprise. Juliana said, "Are you saying you don't believe I killed him?" The guard leaned forward. "Miss Shale. I have as much reason to want to see you hanged as anyone else in the city watch, but what's more important to me is finding the truth. I'll not hang the wrong person for a murder." Juliana smiled and shook her head. "What's it matter? They've surely got enough on me to hang me anyway." "I don't believe they do. There are rumors of course, but I'll tell you this now: if we brought you up on only the charges we could prove, you won't go to the gallows. You'll spend a few years here and go back to your life. Your cooperation in solving Kolvynn's murder will likely shorten your sentence." Juliana crossed her legs and leaned back, mulling this over. One thing was now clear: they hadn't captured Michaelis. The guard said softly, "A number of people around town have seen you with a young man of late. I saw him myself when I encountered you in that cooper's shop. If he's the killer, I can guarantee he won't hang. He's only a child, after all. You'll both serve your time and go back to your lives." That was it. That was her way out. With her help, they could surely capture Michaelis. A few dungeon years for both of them, and then, as the guard said, back to their lives. Except...what kind of life would Michaelis have to look forward to? A young petty criminal, either hardened or broken from years in prison, with no family and no prospects—well, she knew too well how things ended up for someone like that. His best hope, if he proved to be as strong and lucky as she was, would be a life like hers. A life of fear and violence, balancing on the edge of oblivion. She could betray Michaelis as Jacques, her own mentor, had betrayed her, and doom him to become her. But she wouldn't. "It was me," she said. "Ask around, and you'll find I had cause." The guard looked at her hard for a while, then sighed. "Very well," she said as she stood up. "I wish you the best in the time you have left." As the guard picked up her stool and motioned the jailor to let her out of the cell, Juliana said, "You know, instead of trying to find someone else to hang for Jacques's murder, you should be looking into his business dealings." The guard hesitated. "What do you mean?" "Just look. You might be able to save some innocent lives." * * * When the guard was gone, Juliana lay back on her bed. She suddenly felt bone-tired. She had spent so much of her life surviving, staying out of the hands of the law, away from the blades of her rivals. Now that the game was finally up, she didn't feel fear or even relief. Just exhaustion. Her dreams that night were strange and wild, and they faded quickly when she awoke. The trial was brief. She had wondered if any of her old rivals would be present to watch, but the judge ordered the chambers closed to the public, perhaps fearing a rescue. She couldn't help but smirk at that—there may have been a time when she had allies who could have helped her stage a daring escape, but if so, it was long past. The judge seemed relieved when she did not contest the charges against her. When he leaned forward to deliver the sentence, Juliana's heart raced as though it knew it would soon be stilled. "Juliana Shale," he said, "for the crime of murder, I sentence you to death by hanging, to be carried out on the morrow at noon." Her racing heart slowed, and as they led her back to her cell, a calm settled on her. The knowledge that she would be dead within fewer than 24 hours filled her not with dread or sorrow, but a surprising peace. She had certainty now. Back in the prison, she declined a last meal. She hadn't had much appetite these last few days. Instead, she asked for pen, paper and an envelope. She sat cross-legged on her bed looking at the blank page, composing her thoughts. Then, she dipped her pen in ink and began. A few tears splashed the page as she wrote her farewells. When it was done, she folder the letter, wrote delivery instructions on the envelope, and handed it to the prison guard. She returned to her bed, stretched out, and fell asleep almost immediately. Her last night, she slept better than she had since she was a child, and dreamed of a night many years ago when she'd danced with a new friend at the Tavern of Legend. The morning of her execution, Juliana awoke to a sliver of light streaming through a small crack in the bricks of her cell. She lay there thinking of her daughter Evelyn, imagining a long and happy life for the little girl, until she heard the rattling of keys as the guards came to take her away. It was a warm, bright morning. After those days in a windowless cell, the sun on her skin and wind in her hair was the best thing she had ever felt. They led her into the town square, where the gallows stood waiting. There was a modest crowd assembled—mostly friends, she noticed. Her enemies, it seemed, had already moved on. On the balcony of one of the inns, she saw Adeline, Mattias and Michaelis. She gave them a smile, thinking they looked like a family. She reached the scaffold and put one foot on the first step, the wood of it worn smooth by years of people going to their deaths. Juliana took a deep breath and ascended the steps to face her fate. * * * From the second floor balcony, Adeline watched her old friend come into view, flanked by guards. Juliana was barefoot and dressed in a gray tunic, her wrists and ankles chained. Her hair had been cut short, and she seemed pale from her days in prison, but was otherwise no worse for wear. She seemed calm, and when Adeline's eyes met hers, she smiled. She watched Juliana ascend the scaffold with head held high, watched the guards put her head in the noose. The judge standing beside the executioner asked if she had any last words. Juliana's gaze swept the town square. She spoke up, her voice carrying on the morning breeze. "I have more than a few regrets, looking back on my life, but there are many of you here—" and here her eyes found Adeline and she smiled again. "There are many of you here whose friendship has made it all worth it." Juliana nodded to the hangman, who tightened the noose and put a dark cloth hood over her head. Standing between Mattias and Michaelis, Adeline took their hands in each of hers and held tight. For a second, all was still. Then, the hangman threw a lever and Juliana dropped. The rope went taut and Juliana's feet jerked once, pulling the chain between them tight. Then she was still, her body swinging gently back and forth. Juliana Shale was dead. * * * When the crowd dispersed, Adeline let Mattias take Michaelis home, and went alone to claim the body. She had arranged a cart to take Juliana to Tom the undertaker, and she helped the guards load her gently onto it. One of Tom's men drove the cart; Adeline rode beside the body, holding her friend's cold hand. She wiped the stinging tears from her eyes and looked for the first time at Juliana’s lifeless body. Juliana's skin had gone white as new paper, the only color a blue tinge at the tips of her fingers and toes. The dark purple mark of the rope slashed cruelly across her broken neck. But her face looked so serene that she could have been sleeping, her eyes closed and her lips slightly parted. Perhaps, Adeline thought, Juliana had found in death the peace that had eluded her in life. * * * They buried Juliana that afternoon. There hadn't been many people at the execution, but scores of people were at her funeral, some Adeline knew, most she did not. They drank and shared stories of Juliana late into the night. Adeline slipped away around midnight, and alone in her room she read the letter that had been delivered to her from the jail. Through teary eyes, she read Juliana's farewell. What money Juliana had saved—and it turned out it was a substantial sum—she left Adeline in care of, to be used for benefit of Michaelis and Evelyn. In the letter, she asked Adeline and Mattias to consider raising Michaelis as their own, or to use the money to find him a home. For Adeline, there was no question. She would welcome Michaelis into their home even without Juliana's money for support. The letter ended with a series of personal goodbyes, which Juliana asked Adeline to read to their intended recipients. To her daughter Evelyn, she had written: "I am sorry that we never knew each other. I made a choice to give you a better life. I believe it was the right one, but that doesn't mean it didn't hurt us both. Know that every moment of your life, I have always loved you with everything I am." To Michaelis, Juliana had written: "Michaelis, I am glad you came into my life when you did. You saved my life a few times, and in a way I believe you saved my soul. I have asked Adeline and Mattias to help you, and I pray you'll accept their help. I have made a choice and bought your life with mine, and I die trusting that you won't waste it." Adeline's own was the last, and the briefest: "Dearest Adeline," Juliana had written. "I can only say thank you. You are a true friend, and if there is an other side, I will see you there. I love you." Adeline folded the letter and set it down, smiling through her tears.
  2. "I truly hope so, Michaelis," she said. She gave his shoulders a squeeze, then rose to see what awaited her in Tom's office. Inside sat a pale man dressed all in black. She couldn't tell his age: his head was shaved, and the lines on his face could have come as easily from hard living as from years. He looked up at her as she entered, his face expressionless. "Miss Juliana Shale?" "Yes. Who are you?" she said. "My name is Callan, but that isn't important," he said flatly. "Please, have a seat." Juliana sat down opposite the man. "What can I do for you, Callan?" Callan gave a faint smile. "It's not what you can do for me, it's what I can do for you. We have an enemy in common." "I'm trying to find out who my enemy is," she said, frustrated. Callan smiled sadly. "You know who it is, Miss Shale. Jacques Kolvynn. I've heard one of his agents has been pursuing you with...deadly intent." Juliana froze. "How do you know this?" "I used to be in his employ, until rather recently," Callan said. "It could have been me he sent after you, and if it had, you'd be dead by now. But I am no longer his man. I cannot be a part of what he does." Anger sparked in Juliana's chest. "Why would Jacques want to kill me?" she asked. "He was my mentor. We...I believe we were friends, once." Callan shook his head. "You could hurt him someday," he said, "and so in his mind, you have to go away. He hoped that when he hired that boy to ruin your job, you'd be caught and hanged. When you escaped, you had to be dealt with more directly." She didn't want to believe it, couldn't believe it. But that did sound like the way Jacques thought. "Why?" she said quietly. Callan said, "Jacques Kolvynn is not the man you knew. He has grown paranoid and dangerous. And the work he does now—well, it has only made him more so." Juliana looked at him. She said, "You're beating around the bush. Say what you want to say." Callan said, "You've heard the rumors, I'm sure, of children disappearing from the capitol." "Street children, and those from impoverished families." Callan nodded. "Ones who won't be missed by anyone important. All the disappearances are connected: those children are being kidnapped, taken abroad, sold into slavery—and worse. Miss Shale, Jacques Kolvynn runs the operation." She tensed. The pure evil of it chilled her. "Why?" Callan shook his head. "Jacques would say that someone forced him into a position where he had no choice. I disagree. There's always a choice." Juliana said, "So what do you want from me?" Callan shook his head again. "I don't want anything from you. I want to give you a chance. Like you, I know too much. Like yours, my life is forfeit if I stay here. I have arranged my escape, and I'm offering you a chance to come with me. New lives and safety await us in Aelindra City." Juliana sat back and thought. She wondered what had happened to the Jacques she knew—then she wondered if she'd ever really known him at all. No one knew her in Aelindra City. Her life here was in shambles. She could make a new one there. Jacques was pragmatic: in time, he would stop hunting her. But he would carry on his vile trade in human lives. Children's lives. She made up her mind, and looked back up at Callan. "Thank you for the warning and for the offer, but I'll make my own arrangements." "I think you're underestimating Jacques." "No," she said, "you're underestimating me. I've made a lot of enemies and always knew I might need someday to disappear. I can handle it." Callan rose, put up his hands. "Very well. I hope you're right." Juliana watched him go. Once he'd departed, she went and found Adeline. "Gods, Juliana," Adeline said. "You're white as a sheet. What happened?" "It's not important. Where's Mattias? I need weapons and transportation." Adeline got in front of her, blocking her way. "You're scaring me, Juliana. Where are you going?" Juliana took a deep breath. "I'm going to kill Jacques Kolvynn." * * * Two hours later, she was on the road. Her clothes and her horse were dark. When night fell, she'd dissolve into it. But she had to make a stop first. She rode to a farm two miles outside of town, tied up her horse out of sight, and made a stealthy approach to the farmhouse. There was no one outside. The woods she hid in were too thin near the house...it would be hard to get closer. Then, she saw her coming around the corner of the building. Juliana could hardly believe how much she'd grown since the last time she saw her: little Evelyn, five years old now, prattling away to herself, the sunset shining off her golden hair. From concealment, Juliana watched her daughter play. Her adoptive family had taken good care of her. Juliana wondered if they'd told her yet—Juliana wanted her to grow up knowing the truth, that her father was dead and that bad people wanted to hurt her mother, and would hurt her, too, if they knew about her. Someday, when Evelyn was ready, Juliana would tell her the whole story. "Evvie," said a woman's voice from the farmhouse. "Dinner!" With tears in her eyes, Juliana watched Evelyn run inside. * * * It was dark when she made it to Jacques' mansion. She'd stabled her horse at an inn and walked the last mile. She scaled the wall in silence and perched there, watching for the guards who patrolled the grounds. They carried torches and were easy to spot—the trick was to not look at the light, keep her eyes adjusted to the dark. When the coast was clear, she sprinted across the yard, her soft leather shoes silent on the grass. She skirted the wall until she found what she was looking for: the servant's door she'd identified on her one visit here. It wasn't that she'd intentionally been casing the place when she'd visited Jacques, it was just old habits. When she entered a building, she got to know it. The door was unlocked, as she knew it would be. She eased it open and slipped inside. Footsteps ahead startled her. She put a hand on one of the daggers in her belt. Light glowed around the corner of the hallway—and a maid stepped into view. Juliana sprang. The maid's face was just beginning to register surprise when Juliana was on her, one hand clamped to her mouth, the other closing around her neck, finding the vein. Juliana squeezed, and the maid lost consciousness. Juliana eased her to the floor, hoping to be long gone by the time she woke up. She made her silent trek through the darkened corridor. She found the servants' stairs and followed them all the way up to the study. She heard the heavy thud of Jacques' boots through the door. He was pacing like he often did, his bad leg dragging a little. She drew a dagger in each hand and let the footsteps get close. As soon as she heard him turn, she shouldered through the door and leapt at him. But he was too quick. He twisted out of the way and drew a sword. As they circled each other in the spacious study, he grinned. "I'm proud of you, you know? I'd hoped my ploy with the child would eliminate you as a threat—but at the same time, I can't help but take pride in the fact that you survived to come after me. It tells me I taught you well." She kept her eyes on his, watching for the tell that he was going to attack. "Are you ready to find out just how well? You're not as quick as you once were." "I suppose that's true. Still, you're no match for me and you know it." He slashed at her, but she saw it coming and twisted out of the way. She could tell he was just toying with her. "I'll be quick about it," he said. "I owe you that much." "Why children, Jacques?" He feinted, but she didn't take the bait. He looked sorrowful when he replied. "I'm working off a debt to some bad people. They didn't leave me a choice." This time, she lashed out, testing his defenses. He deflected her daggers easily. She said, "There's always a choice." "There was. It was that, or my life. You'd do the same to save your own neck." Juliana hoped that wasn't true. She said, "You know what happens to them, don't you?" "Of course I do." He drove at her harder this time, and she twisted away. "Juliana, these children don't have much ahead of them but hunger, cold, and an early death. We're not taking much from them." "You're taking everything from them." She came at him low, ducking under his sword when he raised it. He pulled back just in time, but her blades ripped his shirt. His counter nearly cut her in half, but she narrowly got clear of the slashing blade. He was grinning now. "Take your time, Juliana. You'll wear down before I do."
  3. Basics Name: Juliana Shale Gender: Female Age: 30 Occupation: Bandit, con artist Skills: Archery, lock-picking, stealth Appearance Juliana was of below average height, but she was wiry and surprisingly strong for her size. Years of hot pursuits and acrobatic escapes kept her in excellent physical condition. She placed a high premium on appearances, and, when not disguised or dressed for fight or flight, she favored the fine dresses and corsets common among ladies of higher birth than her own. Image: "Distant Shores" by RGUS Personality Though she could convincingly assume a wide range of personas as required in the course of business, Juliana was naturally soft-spoken and laconic. She was extremely wary and slow to trust, but was fiercely loyal to those rare few who won her friendship. Biography Childhood Juliana was born to a traveling merchant and his wife, and spent her childhood on her father's caravan as they toured a seemingly endless succession of towns and cities throughout the northeastern parts of Genesaris. As she grew, her father began to teach her what he could of his trade, while her mother spent the evenings teaching her reading, writing, and sums. When Juliana was nine, tragedy struck. Her father took a nasty kick from one of his horses, and died of his injuries a few days later. Juliana's mother never truly recovered from the loss. The two of them attempted to settle down near the Bloodmage Mountains, and with her mother unable to work, it fell to Juliana to support them both with whatever she could beg or steal. Over the next several months, Juliana became quite an accomplished thief and even began to develop a bit of a reputation among the street children of the city. Early Career Thus things continued for nearly a year, until Juliana crossed paths with a young bandit by the name of Jacques Kolvynn. Jacques, recognizing her affinity for criminality, persuaded her to leave the city with him on the condition that he see to it that her mother was provided for. Jacques was part of a rather notorious band of highwaymen that had been plaguing the mountain roads for some time; violent and ruthless men, most of them. Juliana was frightened of them at first, but soon came to realize that they would do her no harm while she was under Jacques' protection. Jacques became something between a father and a brother to Juliana. He trained her in the art and craft of all things criminal while doing his best to continue the education her mother had abandoned. As years went by, the band of highwaymen eventually dissolved, but Jacques and Juliana became a fearsome team in their own right. The pair staged their first major heist when Juliana was only 19, and, for a period of three years, were the unstoppable terrors of the road. Their streak of good luck came to an end when Jacques was shot through the leg with a crossbow bolt during a dispute with a member of a rival gang. The wound healed, but he never regained the full use of his leg. Theirs was no line of work for a crippled man, and so Jacques and Juliana parted ways: he to settle down with his share of their accumulated spoils, she to make her own way in the world.
  4. "A man named Vaughn," Juliana added. She carefully watched Tom's face for a spark of recognition. He didn't show anything—but, then again, he wouldn't. "Vaughn hired Michaelis here to scotch a job I was on a few days ago. I tried to find out why, and things went bad." Tom nodded. "I can promise you both a night's peace under my roof." He stepped aside and beckoned them to enter. "Your arrival is fortuitous, Madame Shale. There is someone here to see you." "Who?" Juliana asked as she stepped past Tom into the cool dimness of the building's interior. They stood in a well appointed lobby that wouldn't have looked out of place in a country inn. But to the right, a door stood ajar, and Juliana could see a dark hallway curve downward and out of sight. A chill draft came from the hallway, and she knew it must lead down to the embalming room where Tom worked. She shivered, and found she was clutching the Strauss dagger so tight her knuckles whitened. "I will allow him to explain himself," Tom said. He pulled the door to his workshop closed, and, with smooth and precise moments, he removed the bits of cloth from his nose. "Come," he said, striding across the lobby. Juliana followed him to another corridor until he stopped outside a door that looked like it led to an office. "He awaits you in there." Juliana turned to Michaelis, and got down on one knee so their heights were nearly equal. "Michaelis," she said, "I can't thank you enough for all you've done these past few days. None of this should ever have been asked of you, but you survived it, and you saved me a couple times too. You should be safe now. We'll spend the night here, and I'll send word to Adeline. In the morning, she'll take you someplace safe."
  5. Juliana heard Michaelis' voice and stopped short, breathing hard from her run, and cast about for the boy, finally spotting him atop the building she'd just passed. She looked around and spied a way down: a drain pipe that looked climbable on the next building over—the gap between the two structures small enough for the boy to jump. She pointed to him, then to the pipe, then to herself. Then she stepped back into the shadow of a jeweler's open-air stall, hoping the boy had taken her meaning. She'd lost her pursuers for now, she was certain. She turned her attention to the dagger in her hand. The blade was curved outward and the handle curved inward. She saw a small, steel button protruding from the handle's leather wrapping, and a deep groove down one side of the handle. When she pressed the button, she realized the dagger was hinged: now released, the blade easily folded into the groove in the handle, locking in place. Another press of the button, and it sprang out again. She folded the dagger once more and realized how easily such a thing could be concealed in a boot. With no small amount of admiration, she wondered where Vaughn had obtained it. Then she remembered the engraving. Heart pounding, she turned the dagger and saw what was on its hilt: the letters A.T.S. Something hard and cold settled in her stomach. A.T.S. Arthur Tristain Strauss. Strauss had been as fine a weaponsmith as this land had ever known, but he had died some ten years before Juliana was born. The only reason she knew his name and his signature engraving was that most of Strauss' weapons were now in the possession of a single collector: Jacques Kolvynn, the man who had practically raised her. When Michaelis reached her, she pointed the way and strode forward without a word. She stopped to give a beggar all the gold she had in her purse for his tattered cloak, which she wrapped around herself to hide her torn, bloodstained clothes. As she walked, it gnawed at her: why would Vaughn have one of Jacques' blades? He could have stolen it, but that didn't ring true. From what she heard of Jacques these days, he'd grown so paranoid you'd get yourself killed paying him a visit, let alone trying to steal from him. He could have bought it, but Jacques would never have sold. He was obsessed with obtaining everything Strauss had ever made, down to the man's fumbling attempts as a blacksmith's apprentice. That left one possibility: Vaughn was in Jacques' employ. Could Jacques have sent him after her? What would the man want with her? They had grown apart in the eight years since their partnership ended—she hadn't spoken to him in perhaps five years—but there was no bad blood between them. Then again, she thought about the stories she'd heard about Jacques, how reclusive and suspicious he'd become. Perhaps some kind of madness had taken hold of him. At the sight of their destination, she set her thoughts aside. Turning to Michaelis, she said, "It may not look like much, but this is the safest place in the city for us. Tom the Undertaker has been in business since your parents were children, I'd wager. He lays to rest those who lived their lives on the wrong side of the law, and if you ever visit his graveyard, you'll find the graves of every thief who ever died in this city, along with anyone else the good folk of the capital don't see fit to give a proper burial. But, more importantly for our purposes, his place is a safe haven. Warring bosses have their parleys here, and fugitives like us are guaranteed one safe night under his roof—though after that, he will wash his hands of us." Tom himself stepped out the front door to greet them. A tall, thin man, completely hairless, with dark skin the color of a dead tree's trunk. His skin stretched tight across his bones, and he might have looked as dead as those he buried if not for his bright blue eyes, which were full of life. He had clearly been at work: he still wore an apron stained with who knew what, and he had bits of cloth stuck in his nostrils. "Juliana Shale," he said. "I was just going to send for you." His bright eyes found Michaelis. "You are too young to be here. What brings you to my door?" Juliana opened her mouth to reply, but a look from Tom silenced her. She nodded at Michaelis to speak.
  6. No sooner was the man off her than Juliana sprang off the ground. The man who'd given his name as Vaughn was on his back in the dust, Michaelis crouching over him. As the boy turned toward her, she saw Vaughn raise himself up and lunge. Juliana flung herself at him, seizing the arm the swung the blade. The force of her impact spun him around, and she brought him back to the ground, pinning his arm with her body. She mercilessly hammered his wrist with the heel of her hand until his fingers released the blade. She snatched it and slashed his hand. He yelled. She sprang up, standing over him for a moment as he lay prone in the dusty street, then dropped, straddling him, her knees pinning his arms. She pressed the blade against his throat until blood leaked out. The light caught an engraving on the blade's hilt that stirred a memory, but she pushed that aside for later. "I want answers," she hissed at the man. He managed a nasty grin, though his face was chalk white and his eyes wide with fear. "You don't even know what questions to ask." She was about to reply when a voice boomed behind her. "Oy, what's this now?" Vaughn looked at whoever was behind her, and suddenly his face showed nothing but pure, innocent terror. "Help!" he cried. "I've been waylaid by brigands!" A heavy hand grabbed Juliana's shoulder. Cursing, she twisted free. Leaping off Vaughn, she saw a beefy merchant glaring at her. "Fool," she said, "this man attacked me." The merchant's face flashed confusion. Vaughn kicked free of her and leapt to his feet, but she spun around to plunge the dagger into the flesh at the back of his knee. He went down with a roar of pain. She wheeled on the merchant, whose face had gone from confused to terrified. "Listen," she said, "if you want to play the good citizen, hold this man until the city watch come to collect him. They're on the hunt." And without another word she fled, wiping the bloody blade on the hem of her shirt as she ran. She looked about her for Michaelis.
  7. "We must have been spotted," Juliana said through her teeth as they ran. She mentally cursed herself for a fool. With the city watch involved, this situation was about to get a lot more dangerous. She tried not to get too far ahead of Michaelis, but, in truth, she didn't have to try very hard. The boy had speed. "In case we get separated," she told him, "we're heading for an undertaker's on the outskirts of the city, far end of Fairfield Street, behind a tavern called the Cloak and Dagger. Adeline will meet us there, and Mattias if he gets free of the watch." They hit heavy foot traffic, and Juliana shoved her way through disgruntled shoppers and tourists. This was attracting too much attention; they needed to get off the main road. She spotted a narrow alley alongside a smithery and waved at Michaelis to follow as she ducked into it. The ground was uneven, but the going was faster now that she didn't have to dodge around so many people. But it was a brief respite. Not far ahead, the alley opened onto another busy thoroughfare. "Stay close to the building walls when we're out there," she told Michaelis. "Look for a way up to the roofs." They reached the street and Juliana was mid-turn when something slammed into her so hard it knocked her flat. She blinked starbursts from her eyes and tried to get up, but he was on her, pinning her legs. She looked up into the wild eyes and rage-twisted face of the black-clad man they'd captured. He waved a curved dagger in her face. "You take a man prisoner, and you forget to check his boots for a blade. I thought you was a professional, Juliana." "We did," she blurted, bewildered. The man winked. "Not the soles." He brought the dagger down. She seized his arm, stopped the blade centimeters from her face, twisted it aside. His other hand slammed into her head so hard everything went dark for a split second. She reached up and seized his arms, bracing herself against the ground as she pushed them upward. He thrashed and tried to pull loose. She held on, but she could tell he was stronger than she was. She could see in his sneering face that he knew this as well. She screamed out for Michaelis, for anyone on the street, for someone just to even the odds for her.
  8. Juliana sighed. She'd hoped the boy would take the safer course, but she supposed she wouldn't have done any differently in his shoes. On the floor in the corner, the captured man came awake. She saw panic flash across his face as he realized he was bound, the panic giving way to anger as he looked around the room. He pitched himself up into a sitting position, cursing them all. ”Do you fools know who you've just crossed?” he said with a sneer. Mattias hit him in the face hard enough to knock him flat. The man sat back up and spat out blood and what looked like a broken tooth. "You're digging your own graves," he said through gritted teeth. Mattias kicked him in the ribs so hard Juliana had to wince, and the man cried out as he went down. She approached him as he struggled upright again. Leaning over him, she said, "You'll keep quiet until we ask you a question, understood?" The man looked defiant, but he shot a look over at Mattias, who was raising his fist again, and nodded. Juliana said, "What's your name?" "Vaughn." "Who do you work for?" "Nobody." Mattias kicked him to the ground. He came up cursing. "Who do you work for?" Juliana repeated. "You'll have to be more specific. I work for whoever pays me.” He was smiling nastily. Blood from his cut lower lip had turned his teeth dark red. “Much as you do, Juliana Shale.” Juliana supposed he thought he could rattle her by showing he knew her name, and she made sure not to give him the satisfaction. She said, “Who were you working for when you tipped this boy here off about the gala at the Plaza Hotel?” The man squinted through the locks of sweat-damp hair that hung in his eyes. “I’ll be damned,” he said, his smile broadening, “you two are in this together now?” He laughed and spat out some more blood. "You're both already dead, you just don't know it yet." The door to the street flew open with a crash. Juliana whirled around to see two armored figures standing in the doorway, wearing the colors of the city watch, swords drawn. They were both tall and powerfully build, the one of the left a man with a shaved head and a bushy beard. The one on the right was a woman; her close-cropped hair was silver, though her face was young. "What's going on in here?" she said, her voice loud and commanding. "Thank the gods you're here," said Juliana. "There were four of them—two went through the shop, two went through that alley behind you." As both the city watch knights looked back the way they'd come, Juliana grabbed Michaelis by the shoulder and bolted through the door into the cooper's shop, dodging around the counter, across the main floor and out the front door onto the street.
  9. "We did," Juliana said. "Quick, come inside before someone sees you." She closed the door behind Michaelis and leaned against it, the adrenaline starting to drain from her. Her legs felt wobbly, but she stood firm and turned back to Michaelis. "Listen, the man we captured is unconscious in the corner there," she said, nodded to where he lay trussed with Mattias standing over him. "He won't stay out for long, and you need to decide if you want to be here when he wakes up. If he recognizes you, and lives to tell anyone, it'll put a target on your back." She pointed to the door opposite where Michaelis was standing. "Through there is the store. Dolph's a friend; he'll keep you company while you wait. The choice is yours." In the corner, the captive man groaned and began to stir.
  10. Mattias handed Juliana the bottle and cloth, and together they waited, keeping their eyes on the man in black. From somewhere off in the heart of the market came a shout, then full chorus of raised voices. Juliana cracked a smile. Whatever Michaelis had done, he'd done it well. Their quarry halted, and looked back over his shoulder toward the commotion. Juliana and Mattias fell on him at once. Mattias drove his shoulder into the man's chest as Juliana came up behind him with the ether-soaked cloth ready. As the man stumbled into her, she wrapped her arms around him and held the cloth to his nose. He thrashed. He was strong. He managed to get free of her grip and turn toward her, but Mattias pinned his arms to his sides and Juliana kept the cloth pressed to his face even as he struggled. The man's eyes met hers, and there was a definite flash of recognition in them. Recognition and something mocking and sinister. Then his eyes glazed and fell shut, and he went limp in Mattias's arms. Mattias threw his cloak over the man's shoulders and pulled the hood down over his head. Juliana took one arm and Mattias took the other, and they bore him between them through the narrow streets like they were escorting a drunken friend home. They reached the cooper's shop on Azalea Street and Juliana led the way through the back door, which opened into a dimly lit store room. They dropped their burden with a thud to the floor and Mattias bound his hands and feet with leather straps. While Mattias watched the unconscious man, Juliana stepped back outside to await Michaelis. As she did, she pondered the meaning of the man's look. She'd never seen him before in her life, but it was clear he knew her. And he wasn't the least bit afraid of her.
  11. Juliana Shale was dressed in what had to be the finest clothes she'd ever worn in her life. The dress itself was worth more than she'd made on her last three jobs combined, and the jewels (assuming they were the real thing) would probably fetch enough to live comfortably on for quite a while. It was a testament to her reputation that her employers trusted her not to take off with the valuables, and a testament to the generosity of their payday that she never even considered doing so. In her opulent attire, she blended right in with the society types milling about the inn foyer. She sipped wine from a crystal goblet and watched the parade of nobles. A woman with a pinched face and elaborate hair caught her eye and smiled. Juliana smiled back, thinking about the disgust that woman would feel toward her if she knew what she really was: a poor merchant's kid turned highway bandit turned high-priced expert thief. Juliana scanned the foyer. Not a face in the crowd she didn't recognize...except one. She caught it in a flash, then it disappeared into the crowd: a pale, thin face, a child's face. "You're not supposed to be here," she said under her breath. She set her goblet down on the pedestal of a marble statue and headed for where she'd last seen the stranger.
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