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."
"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.