Prologue: The Knife

Prologue
The Knife

You best beware,
The man who dare
To harm his own wife
For when she comes
And her work is done
Your blood be upon the Knife

She did not know who had written the macabre little poem that had so encapsulated her recent activities, but in truth, it likely did not matter too much.

Regardless of the identity of the author, the poem had spread throughout Hercalest, moving from person to person like a plague that jumped from mouth to ear faster than could be contained. It made her job far more difficult than it had ever been, putting focus and attention into the shadows from whence she worked. No longer was she an unknown entity, spoken of in whispers without a name or identifying traits. Instead, she had crossed into the tangible, a poltergeist that had suddenly taken on a visible form, left exposed to the naked eye. All of that on account of the viral nature of a little rhyme. Granted, that catchy verse had propelled what were only modestly newsworthy events into a dramatic narrative unfolding on the stage of real life.

At first, she had thought about moving on to another location, or retiring from the cause altogether. After all, people across the city were gossiping about the actions of a woman known as the Knife and debated, and even bet coin, on when and where she would next strike. All of this had served only to put those who would be her targets on edge. The city watch, in their own turn, had further taken to shining lanterns into the darkness from which she once worked without disturbance. That poem, and the infamy it brought with it, had made her role as a liberator for the Women’s Road Network difficult and it was a job fraught with danger enough as it was.

The primary task of a liberator was, as the name suggested, to liberate, and what she liberated were people. Specifically, she extracted women and children directly from the abusers they lived with. Despite the peril, it was one of the most sought after positions among the members of the Women’s Road, and one that she earned through studious dedication to her craft.

The management of the Women’s Road had assigned her to be the Liberator of the Nemeth District, the common name on what was formally known as the Southwest District of Hercalest. The area was cluttered with factories and warehouses and as a result, it was one of the dirtier locales within city limits. The population living in the shadows of these businesses consisted mostly of the poor, underpaid employees that worked within. After dark, things typically grew worse again, as the dimly lit streets attracted the denizens of the city’s scummy underbelly. That seedy atmosphere, and the people that walked through the sooty streets, made the Nemeth District a frightening place to be for the faint of heart at night.

Yet, after a year of living and operating out of the district, she considered Nemeth to be almost a home.

A home I might soon be driven from, she thought almost sadly.

To add to her woes, the shadowy figure she presented herself as was now labelled a murderess. The unwanted title had been foisted upon her due to three deaths of similar nature that had occurred in close chronological and geographical proximity to one another. To that end, she was in truth responsible for only two of those kills. The third was a sloppy facsimile, albeit one that borrowed just enough detail from her actual deeds to pass for it in the opinion of the people’s court.

The two she had slain were both men, and they were not her first. She was not proud of that fact, as it was an avoided practice amongst her fellow liberators. Yet, there were instances when there was no other recourse. If her own life or the lives of people she was extracting were in immediate danger, at the hands of the abuser or anyone else, it fell to the liberator to be their last defence.

During her training upon the island refuge of Phaleayna, she had been told by an old warrior named Bansam that any battle, no matter how many were involved or how many sides there was, always came down to a series of variables and invariables. Identifying those variables and learning to do so quickly, he posited, was tantamount to any fighter. Whether they went on to become members of the Thieves, the Women’s Road, Guardians of the Island, or members of Bansam’s own unit, the trainees of Phaleayna were always taught to steer the variables toward the preservation of life. Despite her diligent efforts to follow this training, she had learned from both Bansam and personal experience that the invariables could at times make even the best of intentions turn to dust in her hands.

The house where the extraction was taking place this night was uphill from her hideaway, which made the travelling difficult for one who primarily got about by rooftop. The one redeeming quality of her route was that the homes here were all connected to one another, and most had ladders in place for use by the chimney sweeps. Starting with the lowest point, each ladder was built into the wall of the house that sat further up the incline from the one adjoining it. In her previous ventures in this particular neighbourhood, she knew some ladders were either missing or were in such a state of disrepair that using them was a safety risk.

It’s still preferable to walking through the streets, she reminded herself.

The patrolling guards alone made that dangerous for an unescorted woman at night. Being approached by the patrols without a man, or a signed and dated letter from a guardian male meant an immediate arrest and a night in the district’s jail. With no guardian to claim her, the next stop would almost certainly be Biddenhurst, the prison city. From there, it would either be the auction block to be sold as a slave, a life of imprisonment, or execution. The unclaimed women of Illiastra were afforded little mercy in their own country.

Then there were the usual ne’er-do-wells that emerged after dark and the Triarchy religion’s own police force comprised of lumbering brutes known as the Burgundy Order roaming the roads as well. Given all of that, she was far more willing to take her chances with broken and rickety ladders.

I also have to contend with what waits for me at my destination.

From the information she had been given by the Women’s Road contractor for Hercalest’s southern regions, the extraction target for this particular job was a woman in a childless marriage. As usual, the husband was the abuser. According to the wife, her husband was short in stature, but thick in the arms and chest with muscle from spending long hours shovelling coal into a furnace for the factory that employed him. His height had long been a point of contention and he had endured taunting and teasing for it from all who knew him. His wife, who was even shorter than he, had become the victim of the rage he bore for his tormentors. The wife stated that the outbursts were solely verbal at first, and she had endured in silence. However, with enough time and rye whiskey, his verbal tirades had manifested into physical violence. To add to the wife’s testament to those facts, the contractor’s own attestation stated that the woman’s eyes showed bruising and she was missing several teeth. Furthermore, she was timid and terrified, and the contractor was certain she would ultimately refuse rescue at the last possible moment, which was common to both a saddening and frustrating degree.

The grade of the hill began to taper off as the Knife climbed, and the roofs here required only a short jump to clear from lower to higher. After five houses, the Liberator came to a stop and lowered herself to a sitting position, turning her attention to the house situated directly across the back alley. It had two storeys and a sloping roof, with a pair of windows poking out in separate dormers. Both were closed, as per the instructions given to the target, though one would soon be the Liberator’s means of egress into the home.

While she waited for the signal from the target, she went through her inventory with as little detectable motion as possible. Cotton trousers, soft-soled boots, and a silk fencing shirt were her attire, all of it dyed black and worn beneath a matching cloak of plain wool. Her hands were gloved in a mixture of cotton and leather that was worn so close to the skin that it felt like a second layer. Over her mouth and nose was a bandanna tied tightly to help conceal her identity. To her right hip, she could feel her small satchel of supplies hanging from a thin belt and on the left was the weapon to which her recently earned sobriquet derived. It was composed of good quality steel, but unremarkable in its make, with a simple hilt wrapped in dark brown leather and a short, narrow crossguard. It mattered not to her that it was far from the prettiest knife ever made. Rather, it was of more importance that the knife was sharp enough to do the job and on that account, she kept the blade in superb condition.

From the upper floor window of the house across the alley, the Liberator espied a tiny candle being lit. She took to counting seconds until three minutes went by, letting the numbers roll over slowly in her head. With no disturbance of either the candle or its flame in that time, she stood up, ensured that the alley below was clear, took a deep breath, and leapt across the gap toward the little light.

The landing was graceful and she felt certain that it would be nearly inaudible to the human ear, whether those ears were inside the home or out. In spite of her feelings on the matter, she remained perfectly still for what she felt was a full minute, listening for any sudden movements that might be attributed to someone reacting to her landing. Upon hearing nothing in that span of time, she stepped to the side of the illuminated window and flattened against the dormer wall. Her cloak was undone and stuffed into the corner behind her, as such loose clothing always proved to be a hindrance in close quarters. With one more deep breath, she was ready for what lay within and extended a hand outward to the window, tapping on the pane of glass with a single finger just twice.

Seconds passed, at least thirty by her count, before the candle disappeared and the window slid upward slowly, until a wooden prop was pushed into place by a small, bare hand from within.

“Where is he?” the Liberator asked the owner of the hand in a whisper.

There was a delay before a small voice stammered back. “Asleep in the next room… He’s drunk… As I was told to make him.”

“Well done, madam,” she stated while sliding closer, so that she could see into the room for herself. “Stand back, I’m coming in.”

A few gingerly taken steps later and the Liberator was inside the house and crouched just to the side of the window. The target was standing near, breathing rapidly, and from what she could tell with the limited light, dressed for the outdoor weather.

“You are ready to leave?” she asked the target, “Where are your things?”

“I… I don’t have much to take, truth be told,” the target responded. “Just a few coppers and articles of clothing, not counting what I am already wearing. I was told to travel lightly by the last man I spoke to.”

The Liberator’s first instinct was to nod, which was a wasted gesture in the darkness, and instead she gave a verbal answer. “Good. Take them to hand and climb out onto the roof. I shall keep watch while you do.”

“Out there? What if I fall? Can we not use the door?” the target asked fretfully, her voice creeping just above a whisper.

“Yes, I assure you that you will not, and no,” she responded quickly for all three questions in order of how they were asked, inflecting her own voice with a measure of urgency.

Without further queries, the target took a deep breath and approached the window, stopping to hike up a skirt, and revealing a pair of heeled boots worn beneath.

“Heels and a skirt?” the Liberator asked the target rhetorically with exasperation. “You were instructed to wear flat boots or shoes with trousers.”

“My flat shoes are worn out so badly that my toes poke through,” the woman explained fretfully. “Atop that, I don’t own any trousers of my own. If my husband caught me taking his, we would not be talking right now. What choice do I have?”

There was no time to argue further and the target was talking louder by the sentence. “Fine,” the Liberator said in relenting. “Hurry on and climb out there. We will deal with it when we are on the roof.”

“Hullo? Who’s here?” a new voice shouted in a drunken slur. “Opal, where are you? Who are you talking to at this ungodly hour?”

“That’s my husband,” the target stated with panic, still having not climbed onto the roof. “You’re not going to kill him, are you?”

The Liberator pulled her knife from its sheath and fell further back into the shadows. “Not if I don’t have to. Distract him for a moment.”

The steps from Opal’s husband sounded loudly on the creaking floorboards, increasing in volume until the door of the room swung open with a clatter and a bang on the opposite wall from the window.

There he stood, swaying in the doorframe. From the little she could see, he seemed as short as he was made out to be, and every bit as broad too. From the dim light that shone from the hallway, she could see that he was shirtless and shoeless and clad in naught but a pair of tan trousers.

“Opal, what are you doing in here?” he asked with a belch while sauntering toward his wife. “You’re all dressed to go somewhere… What is going on?”

Even in near total darkness, the Liberator could see the target freeze with fear, her mouth open and no answer coming forth.

While the couple stared one another down, the Liberator slid behind the man, wrapping the arm with her empty hand around his head while laying the knife against his throat.

The drunk staggered and nearly lost his balance, staying aloft only by virtue of tripping forward into a tall bureau of drawers. The weight of him pulled her along for the ride, but her own stance was sure and her grip firm. She followed his momentum into the furniture and used it to carry him back into the middle of the room. She turned and extended a foot, tripping the man enough to send him down onto his knees.

“Get off me! Who are you?” he bellowed in bewilderment while swinging his arms backward in an effort to grab at her.

“Stay perfectly still, mate,” she said in a low voice directly into his ear while avoiding his flailing. “You feel that knife against your neck, don’t you? It’s deathly sharp and will slice through flesh with the lightest touch. As long as you don’t move, I won’t have cause to use it.”

At first, he groaned and resisted and she pressed the flat of the blade against his throat to give him a better feel for the steel. He gasped and went stiff, relinquishing control to her at last.

“Who are you?” the husband demanded to know, which the Liberator found ironic given that she held his life in her hands.

“Now why would I tell you that?” she gave back. “What I will tell you though, is what is going to happen here: if you do as you are told, you will take a little nap on the floor, and your wife and I will leave. When you wake up, you will not come looking for her ever again. This is inarguable and should you violate this order, you will almost certainly die. Do you understand?”

He grumbled and squirmed a little, but did not make any sudden moves apart from replying. “You’re a woman. I can tell from your voice. I wager you’re the Knife and you’re gonna kill me like you did the other three. You sent for her Opal, didn’t you? You bloody bitch, I put a roof over your stupid head, and this is how you repay me!”

“I don’t want her to kill you, I just need to leave,” Opal declared, the waver in her voice indicating that she was crying while doing so. “We can’t keep doing this Vander, I can’t keep doing this. I’ve begged you to stop, I gave my all to make this work but it’s not enough and nothing ever seems to be. So yes, I did the last thing I could think of: I asked for help to get me out of here. I’m going Vander, and you’re not stopping me.”

“No!” Vander roared, trying to push back against the Liberator fruitlessly in the process. “You’re not going anywhere, Opal! I’m your husband and I forbid it!”

The Liberator pressed the tip of the blade into the tender skin around the throat, pressing just enough that she drew a bead of blood, giving Vander pause long enough for her to speak. “If you move against my orders once more, you die. There will be no more warnings. Your wife is leaving and that’s not a debate, that’s a matter of fact. The only choice you have remaining to you is whether you live to see the sunrise.”

There came a loud series of banging noises from the lower level of the house and before the Liberator could process what it was, a voice from without roared. “City Guards, open this door at once!”

“It sounds like someone heard all the shouting you two were doing and reported it to the guards,” the Liberator said to the shattered spouses, before speaking solely to the wife. “Come over here and reach into the satchel hanging on my hip. You’re looking for a balled handkerchief that will have a small vial inside.”

The husband tensed up in her grip. “You’re going to poison me!” he shouted in a panic.

“Just putting you to sleep, mate,” she corrected him. “So long as you don’t resist me, you’ll live through this.”

While the Liberator had been speaking to Vander, Opal had switched on a light and did as she was commanded, producing a purple swatch of linen within a few seconds. “I got it!” she declared, over the sound of more banging from the city guards outside. “What do I do with it?”

The Liberator forced Vander to the floor on his side, pinning one arm beneath his body while leaning a knee into the other. His head was held to the floorboards with one of her hands and the other kept the knife firmly to his neck. “The vial is filled with concentrated oil from dreamshade flowers. You’re going to pour all of it onto the middle of the handkerchief and tie it around his mouth and nose.”

“No!” Vander declared beneath her, trying drunkenly attempting to squirm his way from his position and failing to do so. “You’re not going to do this to me!”

“Do it now, Opal we don’t have any time to waste,” the Liberator instructed sternly, making sure to use the target’s name to establish some measure of trust and reassurance.

After a few precious seconds of further delay, which saw Opal staring wordlessly at the cloth and vial, she did as asked. The cork was popped off the glass tube, and its contents poured out onto the handkerchief.

The cheek of the husband that was pressed to the floor was lifted by the hair just high enough to allow Opal the chance to slide the handkerchief beneath, where it was tied tightly in place.

He stopped moving immediately and Opal looked to the Liberator hopefully, “that worked rather quickly, didn’t it?”

“It didn’t work yet. He’s merely holding his breath and hoping we think as much,” the Liberator explained while sheathing her knife and sliding her now empty hand over Vander’s mouth and nose, where she clamped down tightly. “He seems to think he’s clever, but every moron that has necessitated the use of dreamshade on them inevitably attempts the same ruse.”

For a scant few seconds, the quarry stayed motionless, likely hoping that the Liberator might fall for the act. With the option to breathe suddenly taken away from him though, he grew panicked and began writhing beneath her. She felt his resistance intensify, his unpinned arm and both legs thrashing uselessly, and when it reached a fever pitch, the Liberator pulled her hand away from his lips and nostrils. The sound of the husband sucking air through the wet handkerchief was the Liberator’s reward and she looked down just in time to see his eyes roll backward.

“Now he’s unconscious,” she explained to Opal. “Normally, on a sober person in a regular breathing pattern, the dreamshade can take ten to fifteen minutes to work properly. Alcohol works wonders to speed the process up, but so does the rapid breaths of say, a person who believed they were suffocating. As I said before, they all try to fool me by pretending to be out like a snuffed candle, but it is they who fool themselves.”

The banging and shouting of the guards had not ceased while the Liberator was putting Vander to sleep, rather she had ignored it as background noise. Suspiciously enough, it stopped as she and Opal got to their feet and left the man to his impromptu nap.

The Liberator knew what was to come next and turned to Opal to tell her as much. “The guards are about to warn us that they are going to knock down your door, then there will be a loud crash. Close the door to the room, get the light, and then climb out the window and onto the roof.”

“Where will you be? You’re not going to try to fight the guards, are you?” Opal asked concernedly while following through with the Liberator’s orders.

“You need not worry, I’ll be right behind you,” she said calmly, laying her hands gently on Opal’s shoulders as she did. “As the door falls in, I’ll shut the window so the noise of it will be unheard beneath their ruckus. That should give us all the cover we need so that we can get away without them being any the wiser of where we went.”

The warning was shouted by the guards as Opal scrambled her way out through the window and the Liberator followed quickly after. Once safely outside, the Liberator removed the prop from the window and held it until she heard the main door being smashed from its frame on the first floor.

She gathered her black cloak from where it had been left and held it out to Opal. “Here, put this on, it will help you to blend in with the darkness.”

“Won’t you be cold without it?” Opal queried while accepting and donning the garment.

The Liberator shook her head assuredly. “I spent my youth in constant view of the North Casparian Sea. Your eastern autumns chill me not.”

With the cloak wrapped about her, the woman named Opal attempted to make her first step, but the Liberator laid a hand gently on her shoulder to stop her. “What are you doing?”

“We’re leaving, are we not?” Opal asked, nonplussed.

“Not in those boots,” the Liberator stated, before explaining further. “We’re going to be walking the rooftops for quite a span and those high heels are begging to twist your ankle or worse. Take them off, please.”

Opal’s face was one of utter incredulity in that moment and she protested. “It’s freezing cold out here and you expect me to walk in stocking feet on the cold tiles?”

The Liberator was stern in her demand but tried in earnest to keep her tone soft. “Aye, we have little other choice. I could carry you, but it would make the going slow and we don’t exactly have time to spare. Remove those boots so we can get out of here before the guards think to look on the roof for us.”

There was grumbling from Opal but no further protest and soon they got underway, sock footed though Opal was. The journey was not without its perils, but the Liberator guided Opal through each obstacle that presented itself. There was no commotion behind them and things were quiet below, indicating that there were no guards in pursuit.

We might have eluded them, at least for now, the Liberator said to herself with cautious optimism.

The two kept moving without rest, making their way in the same direction that the Liberator had arrived by slowly climbing down each roof in turn, taking Opal’s boots to hand as they did. They came to a stop as the buildings gave way to a main thoroughfare street. At this hour, it was usually empty and that night did not disappoint. Regardless, the Liberator looked as long and as far as the darkness would allow, checking for any signs of life that she might find. When she was content that there were no patrols, of either guards or the Burgundy Order, she turned to Opal. “We will climb down into the alley and you can put your boots back on your feet. From there we walk on flat ground, but I do hope you can keep up in those, for we must move quickly.”

“You have no worries, ma’am. I will keep up just fine,” Opal answered affirmatively.

The concern for the Liberator was not whether Opal could keep up, but whether they might be seen. City guardsmen and Triarchist brute squads were not the only dangers lurking in Hercalest after dark. “Keep the hood of that cloak raised, your head down, and follow my lead. We need to be nearly invisible at best and if all else fails, at least be inconspicuous. Do you understand?”

“All too well,” Opal nodded in agreement. “I’m ready to go when you are.”

The Liberator found them a ladder to use and they descended into a cluttered, damp alleyway. Once on the streets they strode casually, and the Liberator took on a gait that might pass for that of a man. Opal stuck close to her side with her head down and covered. As far as could be discerned, the pair seemed to be unnoticed, but the Liberator had done this far too many times to allow herself to be lulled into any sense of certainty.

Residential gave way to commercial and they were soon walking before the large, unlit windows of the shops and businesses of the middle-class area just inside the Galdweir District. The Liberator led them into the nearest alley and kept them walking through it until the shops were all behind them. Ahead there lay the looming smoke stacks and tall brick buildings of what could only be the Nemeth district. Specifically, they were walking through the industrial corridor, home to the factories, warehouses, and the coal plant that powered the whole city and the nearby outskirts.

“I know this area. This is near to where my husband works. What are we doing here?” Opal inquired in a whisper, her steps slowing to a shuffle.

“He’s not working right now, dearie,” the Liberator reminded her. “Besides, what better place to hide if not right under his nose?”

That drew a shocked response from Opal. “You mean to stash me away around here?”

“For a few days, aye,” the Liberator confirmed in a soft voice. “But don’t worry, for the accommodations are both cosy and safe. You will be more than fine. Until we are ready to take you to Phaleayna, my people will be checking in with you every day and will make sure you want for nothing.”

“But my husband-”

“Won’t find you,” the Liberator cut her off with a voice that was as calm as it was certain.

Opal said nothing further and the two continued on, their walk coming to a stop just outside of a particular factory emblazoned with a painted logo that read Helmsley Steel in big, bold lettering.

“In here?” Opal queried in an unsure tone.

“Aye, but we’re not going through the front door. Follow me,” the Liberator both affirmed and instructed.

She ushered Opal around the corner of the building and onto a narrow avenue shared by Helmsley’s and the business next door. There, the Liberator found a sewer grate and slid it off to one side until the way below was passable. “We go this way.”

A glance to Opal’s face saw her taking deep breaths and though the Liberator expected an argument, she instead was pleasantly surprised to hear Opal say, “I can do this. I can do this.”

“I believe you can too, Opal,” she added confidently. “It’s not far and there is enough space to stand up the whole way throughout. You have come a long way, and I promise that you are almost there.”

The sewer shaft had a short ladder that ended on a landing above the stone canals that ferried the wastewater of Hercalest. At the bottom and behind the ladder was a lantern hidden just out of sight, left there so that the way through could be lit. As was the nature of sewers, it smelled abhorrent, but as promised it was only a short walk through the tunnels to what was the sub-basement of Helmsley’s factory.

Once within, the Liberator led Opal to an old stairway built into the exterior walls, which was entirely hidden from the workspaces and offices of the factory. The flights were long and winding, leading all the way from the sub-basement to the top floor of the building. The Liberator was given to understand that the original building plan called for the staircase to be a means for the maintenance staff to go from the lowest floor to the top floor without interruption. There had been an exit on every level, but as the stairs fell out of use, they were bricked over until there was only access from the sub-basement and their destination, the attic.

All but forgotten, the attic floor made for the ideal hideaway for the Women’s Road. Given its geographical convenience, it was the prime choice for the Liberator to house those from her district while they waited to leave the city. It had been furnished sparsely, with only a small bed with a straw mattress, a greying wooden table and chair combination, and further essentials to see an emergency guest through the night.

Given the narrow parameters of the stairs and the sheer number of flights, it was the best that the Liberator could do. The Helmsley family, for their own part, were aware of the attic’s usage and had been the ones to offer it up for such. She understood from her contractors that the family had personal reasons for doing so, and the agreement was held on the basis that if the illegal activity were discovered, the Helmsleys would deny all knowledge of it.

It was far from an ideal arrangement, but when working with the Women’s Road, nothing ever was.

“This is where you will stay until we can relocate you to Phaleayna,” the Liberator explained once they reached the attic. “I advise you not to leave unless in the escort of one of our people, as there will be a warrant for your arrest issued come morning and it will no longer be safe for you outside. Do you have any questions?”

While she had been briefing Opal, the Liberator had struck a match and lit an oil lamp on the table, casting the visible parts of her face in a glow as she did. As she raised her gaze from the light source they fell on Opal, who was staring directly back at her.

“So you really are a woman?” Opal asked in awe.

“Aye, but you knew that the moment you heard me outside your window,” the Liberator confirmed. “However, I get the feeling that it still comes as a surprise to you.”

Opal shrugged anxiously while taking in her temporary abode. “Some part of me wanted to believe as much, but in truth, I could not imagine. It’s so unheard of for a woman to be doing what you do that it borders on the absurd, at least in civilised Illiastra and in this day and age. How would you even learn the sort of skills you have? Who would train you?”

It was the Liberator’s turn to shrug then. “The same people who would train Lady Orangecloak and the Thieves in the wilds of the Southlands. You would be surprised at how many women there are north of the Varras with jobs and duties like mine and with the proper skillset to perform them.”

“Do you know Orangecloak?” Opal queried, her eyes going wide at the mention of the name.

“Haven’t had the pleasure, I’m afraid,” she replied casually. “I arrived in Phaleayna well after Orangecloak last lived there on any permanent basis.”

Opal let out a dreamy sigh and undid the black cloak she had borrowed. “I often wonder what it must be like to live as she does. I’ve been told from the time I was a small girl that men are the superior ones. They are the protectors, the fighters, and the leaders, and we are made only to serve them. The God’s Gift scriptures seem to support that. The Patriarchs remind us from the pulpit that even among the gods, the goddess Iia was no match for Ios in the Deistic Wars and that is why we are subjugated in the first place.

“Yet, there is Orangecloak, and you too, defying what we were led to believe is the order of things and succeeding at it. How did you find the courage? What made you decide on this way of life?”

“I want you to imagine something for me,” the Liberator requested in a gentle voice, directing Opal to the chair before the tiny table. She obliged, sitting down quickly and the Liberator sat on the edge of the table, so as to face her.

“Picture yourself cornered in an alley where a big, swarthy man has chased you,” the Liberator began. “He’s holding you there, with just a few centimetres between you and a sharp sword in his hand, and the man is promising that he is going to kill you with it. What do you do?”

Judging from the raised eyebrows, Opal seemed confused by the scenario presented to her. “What does this have to do with what I asked?”

“It will become clear momentarily, I assure you,” she responded softly. “But to the question: what do you do with those last precious moments if death is all but guaranteed? The dying does not matter, whether slow and drawn out or quick and painless, it is coming and unavoidable. Knowing that, how do you choose to spend those last few seconds?”

“I suppose I would beg for him to spare me,” Opal said, still apparently puzzled by it all.

“Sure, pleading with your captor is an option, as is merely accepting your fate and waiting to die,” the Liberator said with a ponderous hum. “However, both of those options put control of your life out of your own hands and squarely in his, would you not agree?”

“I suppose so…” Opal granted, dubious though it was.

“What else could you do?” the Liberator put to the other woman.

“I could try to run,” Opal suggested, finally sounding at least somewhat confident in an answer. “Maybe if I surprised him from the start and ran fast enough, I could escape and get away.”

That was indeed a fair answer and she let Opal know as much. “Aye, running is another way, and it might be a successful means of saving yourself. For many, this might seem like the only means of self-preservation and I do not deny them their choice. For me, though, there is yet another option.”

“What might that be?” Opal inquired, now engaged with what the Liberator was saying.

“I stand and I fight back,” the Liberator declared with pride inflecting throughout her voice. “You and I and Orangecloak and all the other girls and women of Illiastra, even the highborns, we all have one thing in common: we are all the Cornered Woman, both individually and as a sum of all parts. We were born in those last seconds, with the sword already drawn before we ever came into the Known World. Not all of us are aware of the sword, but once we see it, we must each decide how we will respond to its presence.

“As I said just seconds ago, my choice was to fight,” the Liberator continued. “Should I die in the effort, then so be it. At least I will die knowing that though I lost, I took my fate back into mine own hands and fought for my chance at existence beyond the point of the sword. Before me and after me, all women must decide for themselves how they will answer the question. As each of us makes our own choice as the Cornered Woman, we, as a collective, each become one part of the Cornered Woman in the story. Though many of us never realise it, we all play a role in how womankind responds to the captor.

“I find that most are pleading, and many more are lying down and waiting for the sword to be swung. Despite that, the good news is that the woman is not yet dead. For as long as there are those like you who are willing to run, or those like Orangecloak and I who are ready to fight, the Cornered Woman continues to breathe.”

There was a deep inhale from Opal as she took in what she was being told. “It took a great deal of courage for me to become a runner. I could argue that it is far easier to surrender and beg or simply do nothing.”

“Aye, it certainly is,” the Liberator agreed readily. “Yet run you have from the depths of the darkened alley and down a long and often lonely road. I am proud of you, Opal. The more runners and fighters we have the better chance that the Cornered Woman has.”

“Perhaps in time, I will return to face the captor and fight back,” Opal stated hopefully.

“Oh, that is a great possibility Opal,” the Liberator replied while standing and preparing to leave, her cloak in hand. She stopped before the door to wrap it about her shoulders and collect her lantern, turning back to face Opal when she was done. “For the Women’s Road is ever long and you have but taken your first steps upon it.”

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