Posts posted by Juliana Shale
"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."
Name: Juliana Shale
Age: 30 (at the time of her death)
Occupation: Bandit, con artist
Skills: Archery, lock-picking, stealth
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
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.
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.
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.
Life in the Underworld
While Juliana found great success after striking out on her own, she never became truly wealthy. Many of her underworld peers believed she lacked the necessary ruthlessness to do so; Juliana herself attributed it to her caution in picking jobs. In any case, while she dreamed of leaving the life behind and establishing herself in respectable society, it was never to be.
Juliana's one great love was a young mercenary whose name is lost to history. Their romance lasted nearly a year, until he was killed on a job gone bad. Juliana was pregnant with their child at the time. When the child was born, a girl whom Juliana named Evelyn, Juliana realized that the life she led was no place for a child. She knew a kind, childless couple who ran a successful farm on the outskirts of the Union Capitol, and arranged for them to raise Evelyn as their own.
On what would prove to be one of her final jobs, Juliana crossed paths with a boy named Michaelis Rou, who had been hired by a third party to disrupt her job. The opportunity blown, the two went on the run together. She investigated who had hired Michaelis and followed the trail back to her old mentor, Jacques Kolvynn. She also discovered that Kolvynn was responsible for the disappearances of dozens of street children like Michaelis, running operation that kidnapped them and sold them into the slave trade. Disgusted with what Kolvynn had become, she decided to assassinate him. She confronted Kolvynn at his estate, and Michaelis, who had followed her there without her knowledge, attacked and killed Kolvynn. Juliana helped Michaelis escape, but she was captured by the city watch.
Rather than give Michaelis up to the authorities, Juliana confessed to killing Kolvynn. After a brief trial, she was executed by hanging. Juliana was 30 years of age when she died.
Before her death, Juliana wrote a series of letters saying farewell to her loved ones, and, with the help of her friend Adeline Wald, arranged for her money to be used to support Evelyn and Michaelis. Additionally, the information she passed to the city watch led to the downfall of the slaving ring that Kolvynn had been involved in.
Juliana's body was buried in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city that was known as the resting place for many professional thieves and other underworld figures.
"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."
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.
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.
"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.
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?"
"Who do you work for?"
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.
"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.
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.
Juliana dug at a piece of dried mud caked on the side of the building, thinking. "He's carrying enough money that he'll be armed. If we take him, we'll have to surprise him." She rapped the wall with her knuckle. "Knock him out before he can draw a blade."
Mattias patted the bag he'd brought with him from home. "I have cloth and a bottle of ether. If we can hold him for a few seconds, he'll be ours. We'll need a place to take him after, though."
"Hmm." Juliana ran through her mental list of safehouses in this part of town, the shops and homes whose owners she could trust, the places she could bring an unconscious man. Given her changed fortunes, there weren't many people she could be sure she could rely on. She decided there was really only one location that made sense. "I've got a place. An old cooper's shop down Azalea Street. Farther away than I'd like, but we don't have many options."
She turned to the boy. "It's best he doesn't see you, but a distraction could help us catch him off guard. I wonder." She paused, thinking aloud. "Is there a way you could create a diversion without drawing his attention right to you?"
Mattias nodded vigorously, catching on to the idea. "It's a crowded market. Surely you can cause some chaos."
Juliana smiled. "What do you think?"
"Hunting," Juliana said. "Mattias knows where to find your man with a tattoo."
After breakfast, Mattias led them to the eastern market. It was a chaotic, bustling place where farmers who lived beyond the city walls plied their trade alongside craftsmen of all kinds. Juliana knew it best as a place to recruit young pickpockets to help on jobs.
It was late morning and the market was already in full swing. Leading them through the crowds, Mattias said, "The man I'm thinking of, he appears around midday."
He led them to the very edge of the market district, a block away from the city's walls. The vendors here seemed, a little rougher and so did the crowd.
"He's a courier," Mattias said. "He makes his rounds, transports profits from certain craftsman back to wherever he comes from."
"If we have to take him," Juliana said, "we could use the money as a pretext."
"That's what I was thinking too," said Mattias. Then: "There!" he said, pointing then taking shelter around the edge of a building. "Man in black, coming up the alley to the northeast. Look quickly and casually, tell me if that's who you're looking for."
Juliana looked to Michaelis.
"Good morning," Adeline said. Juliana and Mattias both greeted the boy with a nod.
Adeline stood up, sliding her feet into slippers and wrapping a shawl around her shoulder. "Terrible hostess I am, I don't even have breakfast ready. Have a seat, and I'll make something." She gathered her papers and pen and locked them in a desk in the corner of the room before disappearing into the kitchen.
Juliana wondered if the boy had slept well. He seemed rested, which was good.
With a friendly smile, Mattias said, "What's your story, boy?"
"We'll be safer here than we will be anywhere else," Juliana said. She felt the long day weighing on her and longed to close her eyes.
As she helped Adeline and her husband Mattias make up the guest, shaking out wrinkled sheets and musty-smelling blankets from a closet off the hall, she filled the couple in about the predicament she and Michaelis found themselves in. At the description of the man with the tattoo, Mattias frowned and for a brief moment looked like he might say something--but he didn't. Juliana made a mental note to ask him about it in the morning.
Ever since her childhood on her family's merchant wagon, Juliana had been able to sleep just about anywhere, so she ceded the guest bed to the boy. She took a pillow and a pair of blankets and bedded down on the floor as close to the fireplace as was comfortable. Before bidding Michaelis good night, she said, "Rest well if you can. Lots of work to do tomorrow, and we'll need to be sharp."
She had barely gotten comfortable on the floor when sleep took her. If she had dreams that night, she didn't remember them in the morning.
Juliana woke up early to find Adeline already up, sitting at the dining room table in her nightgown writing rapidly with a quill pen on a stack of loose papers. "A little project I've been working on," she said when she noticed Juliana watching. "Not a memoir, but something a bit like it."
"How do you mean?" Juliana asked, joining her at the table.
"It's a story about my life, but it's not really about the events...more about the flow or pattern behind them. If that makes any sense."
It didn't quite, but it got Juliana thinking about the patterns and meanings behind the recent events in her own life. "I see," she said in a perfunctory way, her mind already running over all that had happened, trying to formulate a narrative to work from.
The back door opened and Mattias came in, his breath clouding in the morning chill. "Good morning, you two," he said with an impressive amount of energy for the early hour.
"Good morning, Mattias," Juliana said, thinking about his frown last night. "Say, can I ask you something? Last night I described a man whom that boy I brought with me had met, one with a tattoo on his arm. It looked to me like that description meant something to you."
"I was going to bring that up myself," Mattias said. "Your description sounded familiar, and on my walk this morning it occurred to me why it did. There's a man I've seen around the market who matches that description. I can't tell you much about him, but I'd bet I could bring you to him if that would be useful."
"I think it would. We'd need the boy to identify him before we proceed with anything."
Adeline said, "You have a plan?"
"Not much beyond questioning that man, but I know we need to do that. I'm starting to get a sense of what's going on, but I'm missing the who and the why of it all."
"Somewhere we'll be safe," Juliana said. "At least long enough to figure out what's going on."
She led the way across the city roofs, all these buildings crowded up against each other. A fire in one of them would turn the whole block into an inferno–it was a wonder the city hadn't burned to the ground by now.
It took them nearly an hour to reach their destination. After two blocks climbing over soot-coated shingles followed by a treacherous climb down the side of a tenement building and a winding route through the city's narrow streets, they found their way to the home of Adeline Wald just as dawn was starting to lighten the very edge of the horizon.
Adeline answered the door in her nightgown, blinking at them sleepily in the light of the lantern she carried. "Juliana?" she said. "What's this?"
"Trouble, I'm afraid. We need a place to stay out of sight a while."
Adeline looked from her to the boy trailing behind her. "Of course." She glanced back up the stairs behind her. "Mattias is still asleep, I'll have him make up the guest room. Come on in."
Juliana led the way, looking back to beckon Michaelis in after her. The boy looked as tired as she felt. "Come on, we'll be safe here a while."
As the kid pulled, Juliana heaved herself upward. Something wrenched in her shoulder, but she got up enough that she could let go of Michaelis and grab a handhold on the roof. With all the strength she had in her upper body, she dragged herself up until her whole body was safely on the angled roof. She clung to it a moment, panting.
From below, she thought she could hear heavy footsteps. Gingerly, she stood up, rolling her shoulder, which was starting to throb. "Follow me," she said. "The buildings here are end-to-end – we can run two city blocks without touching the ground." She started forward, then looked back. "Oh, and thanks. I'd have fallen and broken my back without you."
We're going to break our fool necks, both of us, Juliana thought as, getting as good a grip on the ledge as she could with her right hand, she reached upward with her left. She stretched her arm, kicking her legs in the empty air to find balance, and finally caught hold of the boy's extended hand.
"Brace yourself before you pull," she said. "It's a hell of a drop."
"It's like I said," Juliana whispered in the darkness. "They're tying up loose ends." She groped in the dark for the boy's arm, gripped it, pulled him deeper into the attic. "There's a passage here that leads out onto the roof, and then we've got some climbing ahead of us after that. Move as fast as you can, but silence more important. Whoever those men are, you can bet they'll find this passage on their own before long, so every second we can buy by not alerting them is more precious than gold."
She led the way from memory and by feel, testing each step before she put her foot down. The attic was hot and smelled of dust and decay, and cobwebs tickled her face as she pressed forward. Her keen ears picked up the skittering of rats, and she didn't like how much she felt like one of them right now.
The passage came to an abrupt end, and Juliana stepped sideways, crouched, fumbled around in the dark until she found the handle. Cracking the door let in a sliver of moonlight; she pushed it all the way open and squeezed through it. The ledge it opened on to was barely wider than a windowsill--definitely not enough for two people to stand on. She looked up the steeply angled roof of the building, found a handhold and pulled herself up.
"Come on out," she whispered. "Careful, the ledge is n–"
One of the shingles she was gripping came loose in her hand. She tightened her grip with the other hand too late and started to slide down the roof. She instinctively reached out and caught the ledge with her right hand. Her shoulder wrenched, but she held on and dangled there. Somehow she managed not to cry out.
"Help," she managed through gritted teeth, looking up at the opening into the darkness of the attic.
Juliana got to her feet. "No bread, but I'll see what I can do."
In a small cupboard in the kitchen she found some dried beef and apples – since she visited this safehouse so rarely, it didn't make sense to keep anything perishable. She took a strip of dry, hard meat for herself and laid the rest out on the table for the boy.
She went to the small storage closet just off the doorway to the kitchen and found the set of street clothes she kept there: a loose, white blouse, a moth-bitten drab skirt, a pair of soft leather shoes she could easily run in. "Avert your eyes," she told Michaelis as she struggled out of the extravagant dress and into clothes that she could actually feel like herself in. The jewelry she placed in a velvet pouch, which could be worn on a string around her neck, concealed beneath her shirt.
A sound outside brought her senses to full alert. She froze and listened. The murmur of voices trying not to be heard came from somewhere downstairs. She looked at the boy, held a finger to her lips, then whispered, "Follow me."
Back in the kitchen, she reached up to open the trap door in the ceiling and pulled down the knotted climbing rope. "Up here," she hissed, and climbed up the rope with practiced agility, into the musty darkness of the attic. "Pull up the rope behind you and close the door."
"Running and hiding," Juliana said. "I hope you're as good as you think you are, because there are some powerful people after us."
The gravity of her situation hit her in waves. It wasn't just her life that was in danger now, it was everything she'd built over the last nine years. Her reputation, her livelihood. She had to fix this.
"We're going to have to keep moving. Neither of us chose this, but we're in it together now. Tell me, can you fight?"
As the boy spoke, Juliana watched his face for signs of deceit. She saw none.
"Tall man, dark hair, tan, tattoo," she said. It didn't sound like anyone she knew, and she most people worth knowing in this city. Safe bet he was some kind of outside operator--hired, certainly, by the people who had hired her. She began to take stock of her resources. Going back home seemed out of the question, and she doubted this safehouse would remain secure for long. She had allies, but she couldn't take any of those for granted right now. It seemed that all she could count on for the moment was the small amount of gold she had stowed away here for emergencies, whatever money she could make selling these jewels and what was left of the dress, the dagger she'd brought with her on the job...and this boy.
"Tell me about yourself, Michaelis," she said. "Where do you come from and what are you good at?"
"Good." Juliana slid down a little in her seat and stretched her legs out, crossing them at the ankles. "I knew you were a smart one, Michaelis," she said. "Now, start from the beginning and tell me everything you remember about the man who told you to go to that inn tonight."
Juliana smiled -- disarmingly, she hoped -- pushed one of the wooden mugs over toward Michaelis and took a sip from her own. "You don't know either of those things," she said. "But you must be a smart kid to have survived on these streets, so think about it: what would I gain from killing you? The man you spoke to and the people he works for -- it's in their interest to kill you whether you talk or not, so you might as well help me take them down."
Juliana took another step back. Either this boy was a dangerously good actor, or he truly was innocent in all this. She sheathed her dagger and said, "Don't think I won't stop you if you try to run. But even if you manage to escape me, you won't escape them, so I'd advise you to take your chances sticking with me."
Watching him out of the corner of her eye, she stepped over to the kitchen of the tiny apartment to retrieve a bottle of win and two sturdy wooden mugs. "The man who gave you that tip," she said as she set the mugs and the bottle on the small table in the common area, "was trying to use you as a pawn. There's something very valuable in that inn that I was hired to steal. I suspect the people who hired me also sent you in there, knowing you'd get caught."
She leaned over the fireplace and struck a match. It died. She struck another and got the fire going. "The commotion you caused would put pressure on me to act rashly, and I'd get myself captured."
She stood up and looked ruefully down at her dress. It was splashed with muddy water from the scuffle in the alley, and the left sleeve was ripped from her climb down the wall. Her stockings were tattered and stained from her shoeless run through the city streets, so she stripped them off and tossed them in a corner.
"So," she said, sinking into the chair opposite the boy, "I helped you because you can help me find the people who set me up." She leaned forward to pour wine into the two mugs. "Now, tell me everything you remember about the man who gave you that tip."
Now that she had a chance to really look at him, Juliana could see the kid was even younger than she'd thought. Small, and his fear made him seem smaller. She felt herself softening just a little.
"Look," she said, "You and I were both supposed to come out of that inn in chains. The plan failed, and that makes you a loose end. That means you're in as much danger as I am until we fix this."
She pulled back a little to give him more space. "If it assuages your fear any, Michaelis, I don't think you were in on it. I think somebody gave you the tip about that gala knowing you couldn't resist the opportunity. Think about it...did it seem easier than it should have been to gain entry to that inn?"
The Wrong Thief
in Union Capital
Posted · Edited by Juliana Shale
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.