Stealing Back Freedom
Full Short Story
Originally Published in 2016
They were three, left alone in a darkened woodshed to wait. Though abandoned, the shed remained full of sawn spruce and birch that emitted a calming, pleasant scent that Orangecloak always welcomed in such stressful times.
Although, it appeared that there was at least one among them didn’t find the aroma so soothing. “Myles, for the love of all things, sit. You’re going to wear a hole in the damn floor,” she said to her friend. He had been pacing since the scouts had gone out, working himself into a ball of nerves like he always did.
Myles chose to remain standing, but at least came to a stop before the short row of wood Orangecloak had commandeered as a seat. “I saw a lot of guards when we snuck into town, Orangecloak. I think you should call off the protest for the day,” he stated, as she knew he would. Myles was cautious by nature and protective of Orangecloak at the best of times.
From beside her stirred Coquarro, her other constant companion. “It’s Aquas Bay, Myles. We’re in the home of Illiastra’s naval fleet. There’s always a heavy presence of guards. I tell you this every time. Red asked you to sit and I agree with her. Spinning in circles isn’t going to improve our situation,” Coquarro told Myles. Red was the only name that Coquarro had ever known Orangecloak by, going back to the day they had met on the island refuge of Phaleayna all those years ago. One of his thick, callused dark hands found its way onto her knee. “Have you thought about what you’re going to say today?”
“Something similar to what I usually say, I think,” Orangecloak answered with a shrug. “I haven’t given it much thought.”
Myles wagged a finger at her. “You’re too lackadaisical, Orangecloak. You should have your speech ready in the back of your head. We won’t have much time for a protest today, and every second you waste trying to think of things to say on the spot is time the guards will use to move in on you.”
“Calm down, Myles,” Coquarro said with a shake of his head.
“No, I won’t calm down, Coquarro,” Myles responded, making visible effort to keep his frustration from getting the better of him. “You heard what people are saying: There’s a ship from Daol Bay docked in port from Lord Tullivan’s own fleet and the Master of Blades himself was seen disembarking from it. He’s here, Coquarro and if he knows Orangecloak is too, he’s going to come after her. Who’s going to stop him? Are you naïve enough to think you can fight off Tryst Reine? I know I can’t.”
In truth, the news had been weighing on Orangecloak’s mind as much as it had Myles’, but she was Field Commander of the Thieves, whatever worries burdened her, she could not show them. “We don’t know that it will come to that, Myles. It’s a fairly large city, the Master of Blades might be anywhere within its walls. If our scouts see him in the market, where we are to protest, then we will call it off.”
Myles remained unconvinced. “I still don’t think it right that we go through with it, Orangecloak. If the Master of Blades is in town, then that means that Lord Master Grenjin Howland might be here as well and he travels with the Honourable Guardsmen about him.”
“If the Lord Master of Illiastra were on that ship, people would be talking more about that than they would the Master of Blades, Myles,” Orangecloak pointed out. “It would seem that Tryst Reine came alone. He’s probably here for a vacation. In fact, I bet he’s on his way to the Red Isles for some rest and relaxation as we speak.”
“What if he’s not?” Myles offered as a counterpoint. “By the gods, what if he knew you were coming here and was sent alone to do the deed of killing you himself? We should be on our way out of the city and heading for the ruins of Amarosha right now before he has his chance to do anything, Orangecloak.”
Coquarro groaned and leaned forward from the high row of wood he had been using as a backrest. “For goodness sake, Myles, do you even hear yourself? We’ve been in Aquas Bay half a hundred times doing this very thing and you’ve never been craven before. It’s not going to be any different now. The Master of Blades is just one man in a city of tens of thousands.”
That drew a scoff from Myles and he threw his hands up. “Tryst Reine is the Master of Blades,” he argued, putting heavy emphasis on those two words above all. “He is the best swordsman in the Known World, the sworn protector of the Lord Master and given to serve with full authority and full immunity from all laws. That man can do whatever he so pleases in the name of the Lord Master, and Orangecloak is the most wanted person in all of Illiastra. Do you think it coincidence that they’re in the same city together? I’m telling you both, he knows she is here and he has come to make the arrest.”
Despite knowing how stubborn Myles could be, Orangecloak knew she must try to reason with him. “They call Tryst Reine the Master of Blades, but that is a title only earned by students of the University of Combative Arts in the nation of Drake. How many have there been that were called Master of Blades? Only two or three in a thousand years, right? We all know who the first Master of Blades was: Segai, the Great Hero of Phaleayna. We’ve seen his bones and the remnants of his plate armour in the crypts behind Great Valley Lake. I don’t think you can earn the name Master of Blades if you don’t somehow embody his heroic traits. Besides, this Tryst Reine is a sell sword. He’s sworn no oaths, said no vows, and his loyalty to the Lord Master is made of paper. I doubt he spends his days worrying about pleasing Grenjin Howland. Also, consider that if he was all he’s made out to be and he wanted to find us, it would not have taken him four years to do so.”
“Red speaks sense, Myles,” Coquarro said in an attempt to assuage Myles’ concerns. “If she is not worried, then you should not be either.”
It did worry Orangecloak, though. Not that she could say as much, but the notion that Tryst Reine was in the city was one she found troubling. If what she had heard about him out of Atrebell, Illiastra’s capital, bore any truth, then he was a monster, as morally depraved as he was skilled with a sword. Oftentimes, stories that made their way across the Varras River and into the Southlands had a way of becoming exaggerated along the way, but Orangecloak could not dismiss them outright. Some among her ranks believed the tales of Tryst Reine to be mere fabrications, knowing that the Lord Master and his Elite Merchant Party frequently spread such lies, all of it done to bolster fear in the populace of Illiastra toward their government. Fear that Orangecloak and their Thieves worked tirelessly to dispel.
If nothing else, it will not do to let these tales cloud my perception. It is on me to rise above the fear mongering of the EMP, I cannot let myself be swayed by it, Orangecloak told herself, as she often did.
At the very least, her words had sated Myles enough to make him stop pacing. Though steady, he was still anxious and fidgeting and he idly picked a bit of sawdust that had fallen into Orangecloak’s long red hair that tumbled well past her shoulders. For a moment, Myles looked as though he was going to break his brief silence, but just as he opened his mouth, a scarcely audible knock came on the door.
There was not as much as a breath while the three of them waited. Coquarro raised a hand with three fingers raised and counted them down wordlessly until he was at a fist. The person without knocked again, this time in a pattern of rap-a-tap-rap-a-tap tap-tap-tap, repeating it over again twice more.
Myles exhaled with relief and went to the old door, peeking through a knothole in the wood for added security before finally unlatching it. “It’s Ellarie and her ladies,” he declared as he stepped back, door in hand and gave entry to four cloaked figures, hoods drawn and heads down.
Only when Myles closed the door behind them did the four reveal their faces. They were young and fair, near Orangecloak’s age but all younger by a few years, save for one.
“You’re the first to return, Ellarie,” Orangecloak told her first lieutenant and dear friend. “Have you crossed paths with the other lieutenants?”
Ellarie shook out the dark, wavy hair that fell just past her ears before she answered. “I haven’t seen Merion, Joyce, or Lazlo since we split up this morning. I just came across Edwin and Garlan not far from here. They were coming to report that they had spotted the Master of Blades. When we found one another, they gave their report to me and returned from whence they came to keep an eye on him.”
“Well, where was he? What was he doing?” Myles asked eagerly.
“He was in the market square,” Ellarie began to answer.
“See, Orangecloak?” Myles said, rudely cutting Ellarie off. “I told you that’s where he’d be, he knows you’re coming-”
Ellarie returned the gesture and stepped in. “The Master of Blades was buying an expensive bottle of liquor. He left the market as soon as he had it and seemed content to wile his morning away in a small inn several streets away, drinking mead and eating mutton in the common room.”
“See, Myles?” Orangecloak mimicked him jokingly. “I told you that you were working yourself up over nothing. I think you owe Ellarie an apology.”
He grumbled and turned to the first lieutenant of the Thieves. “Sorry, El, I shouldn’t have cut you off like that. Still though, we should keep Edwin and Garlan in position to track Tryst Reine, if he’s still at the inn.”
With an overdue stretch, Orangecloak slid from the woodpile to stand up. “Indeed, Myles. I intend for Edwin and Garlan to stay on him. What of your own scouting trip, Ellarie?”
“Outside of the Master of Blades’ presence, there’s nothing unusual to report,” Ellarie went on. “This is Breakday, so the markets are bustling and you should have a large audience. We counted six guards and one overseer patrolling inside the market, all armed with swords and pistols and in groups of two.” She gestured towards a fellow raven-haired woman standing beside her and to one of the two blondes. “Bernadine and Nia were sent to the rooftops and they counted just two riflemen stationed up there today. I think standard procedure should be enough to distract them all without incident.”
Orangecloak considered everything she heard and looked to the last blonde. “What about you, Coramae? This is your hometown. Did you see anything out of the ordinary?”
The woman had been looking all around the shed and looked surprised to hear her name. “No, milady, I noticed nothing worth reporting.”
“That settles it, then,” Orangecloak decided. “Once Lazlo, Merion, and Joyce return, we will proceed.” She eyed Coramae again, still glancing all about the tiny building. “Coramae, we will likely have time before everyone else arrives, if you’d like, you can go have a look around your old house.”
“I think I would like that, milady, thank you,” Coramae said.
Orangecloak gave her a nod. “Take Nia with you and keep an eye out for the others. Return to the shed if you see them.”
The two departed and Myles latched the door behind them once again.
“That poor thing, I feel for her,” Coquarro said from where he still sat on the woodpile. “It’s been two years since she and her friend Alia came to us and she’s still so full of longing.”
“I feel badly every time we drag either of them back here,” Ellarie commented sadly. “This was their home, I know, and they know this city better than anyone, but they’ve been through so much here.”
Orangecloak pitied Coramae and her friend as much as anyone. “It was the EMP that was responsible for what happened to them. They came for Allia’s father’s tailoring business, tore down his building, and give him a pittance for it. As if that wasn’t enough, they drafted her oldest brother into the Illiastran armed forces and arrested her father when he complained about the whole thing. He’s in Biddenhurst now, as is her mother. We all know that anyone who goes to the Prison City never returns.”
“You forget that Coramae’s family fared just as poorly after she left,” Ellarie reminded her. “Her father died at sea and her mother was not permitted to earn a wage under the laws of the Triarchy religion. Coramae doesn’t even know what happened to her, or her younger siblings for that matter. Biddenhurst again, I would imagine. Although, her siblings might be holed up in a Triarchy orphanage somewhere. Though, I don’t think that’s necessarily any better.”
Bernadine stepped forward. “With all due respect to the both of you, I don’t know one of us that haven’t come to the Thieves through tragic circumstances.” Though she was the youngest of Ellarie’s unit, Bernadine was wise beyond her years, unwaveringly loyal and perpetually sullen and stoic.
“That’s a fair point, Bernadine,” Orangecloak agreed.
From the corner of her eye, Orangecloak espied Myles taking a sudden peek through the knothole again. “Someone’s coming, looks like Lazlo and he’s alone.”
As Ellarie before him had done, Lazlo knocked, waited and went about tapping out the same pattern three times over. He was admitted and the instant Myles closed the door behind him he had his cloak drawn back, sending long, blonde ringlets tumbling over his toned shoulders. “By Aren’s beard, it’s too bloody hot outside for wearing cloaks,” Lazlo said to no one in particular as he wiped at the beads of sweat forming on his forehead with his cloak.
That garnered an amused scoff from Coquarro. “You know nothing of heat, my friend. Remind me to take you to Johnah someday. The desert in the interior of my country will make you beg for the ocean breezes of Aquas Bay in summer.”
“Forgive me if I somehow forget to take you up on that offer, Coquarro,” Lazlo said with a jovial wink to the tall, dark skinned man before turning his attention to Orangecloak. “Donnis, Etcher and I had quite the busy morning, despite the unyielding heat and humidity.”
“Speaking of those two, where are they?” Ellarie asked quickly. “Also, did you happen to come across my sister and Joyce?”
Lazlo produced a canteen hanging from a leather thong around his neck and took a seat beside Coquarro before granting an answer. “Merion, Joyce and the three with them are not far behind, actually. We spaced out our arrivals to avoid suspicion. As for my own lads, I left them to investigate a potential distraction for you on the waterfront.”
The mere mention of one of Lazlo’s distractions caused Orangecloak’s brows to furrow. “What sort of damage is this going to cause?” she asked suspiciously.
“Just some bruises, broken noses and busted lips on a bunch of sailors,” Lazlo explained with a sly grin. “There’s a ship in port from one of the nations from the Crescent Island’s, Gallick, to be exact and this particular ship of Gallicians are looking particularly surly today. Donnis and Etcher were just going to instigate a little scuffle between them and the crew of a merchant ship from Weicaster Bay docked nearby. Both crews are drinking heartily as we speak, so it wouldn’t take much to set the Gallicians on them, but it would require quite the compliment of guards to get in between the brawl.”
“Your damn distractions are always more trouble than they’re worth,” Orangecloak said with a shake of her head, though she did not dismiss it outright. “Keep Donnis and Etcher there, but don’t do anything unless we absolutely have to. It might be that our usual tactics will suffice to draw the guards out of the marketplace.” She passed a hand through her red locks and sighed loudly. “At any rate, go on with your report.”
Lazlo casually crossed his legs and took another sip of water. “Right then, you may be interested to hear that the Master of Blades doesn’t seem to be in Aquas Bay for any official reason. It is purely pleasure… A lot of pleasure, if I do say so.”
She narrowed her gaze on him. “How did you come into this information?”
“There’s a certain city councillor’s assistant who is willing to tell me everything he might hear just to keep me coming back to his bed,” Lazlo admitted with tongue in cheek. “Although it may also be to prevent me from telling his wife and the rest of the world that he enjoys having me in his bed. Either way, I sought him out and he told me that Tryst hasn’t been to visit Minister Polliane or any of his city councillors nor anyone else related to the EMP. However, our sellsword friend has been spending a great deal of time going between a cheap inn and an expensive brothel since arriving in the city.”
Orangecloak thought that a little puzzling. “The protector and enforcer of the very same Lord Master that views prostitution as a crime worthy of public flogging and lifetime imprisonment has been seen frequenting a brothel? Are you certain of this?”
“Quite,” Lazlo told her, his smug grin never fading. “As it is, I happen to know one of the workers there, so I did a little more digging around. Apparently, he’s been spending all his nights with a freckled, brunette woman near our age named Sinzia.”
“So he came to Aquas Bay to drink and screw,” Coquarro concluded with what they were all thinking. “Not exactly my idea of scandalous. However, the good news is that he should not be a problem for us. Is there anything else you have to add, Lazlo?”
Lazlo clicked his teeth while he thought about it before ultimately giving a quick shake of his head. “That’s all I’ve got. The other Dollen sister and Joyce went deep into the market with the other Aquas Bay girl. They’ll have a better report.”
All eyes were on Orangecloak then, waiting on her order. She dusted off her green leather trousers, matching bodice, and white, sleeveless tunic and took a deep breath. “We’re going ahead as planned. I’ll meet Joyce and Merion on the road to the market and give them their orders. Coquarro and Myles, as always, are with me. Ellarie, separate your unit into pairs as you see fit, harry the ground patrols and lead them out of the market. Lazlo, ready your men on their distraction. If I feel we need the extra help, I’ll have Myles give you a signal before I start the rally. I’ll stand in the market as long as I can and when the time comes I’ll make my escape by rooftop. We’ll meet outside the town walls in the south woods gathering point after it’s all over. If you’re not there by nightfall, we’ll move on to the Amarosha ruins and you can find us there. Does anyone have any questions?”
When no one spoke up, Orangecloak took that as an affirmation and extended a fist, finding it soon joined in a circle with the others, everyone touching knuckle to knuckle.
“We are the Thieves,” Orangecloak stated in a strong, firm voice.
They looked to her and answered as one with the three words that had come to be a mantra and rallying cry alike for their movement: “Stealing back freedom.”
As they had arrived, so too did they leave: Ellarie and Bernadine went first, to collect Nia and Coramae and make for the market. After a few minutes had passed, Lazlo departed with Myles, so that they could work out a means of sending signal from the marketplace to the waterfront. Once they left, Coquarro latched the door behind them, leaving him and Orangecloak alone to wait and leave last.
He came to stand before her, his big hands on her shoulders. “Are you ready, Red?”
“As much as I ever will be,” she answered firmly while reaching into the pocket of her trousers and drawing out a green ribbon to tie back her red hair into a neat tail.
Coquarro knelt and scooped up the weighty satchel that had been between his feet where he sat and slung it across a shoulder. From within he drew a brown, linen cloak and handed it over. “I have your other one tied in a neat little bundle and at the ready.”
“Good,” she said with a nod as she fastened the light cloak about her shoulders and drew the deep hood down to cover her face. “Let’s be off.”
“And may good fortune be upon us,” Coquarro added as he brought his own hood up.
Outside the air was sultry hot and Orangecloak sympathised with Lazlo’s disdain at wearing a cloak at all, even if it was made of linen. She and Coquarro walked side by side down a dirt road, passing a few other farmsteads. There were but a few in this one corner of the city that were permitted to keep small patches of land for livestock and produce, nestled safely beneath the walls. The family of Coramae had been one such farmstead, though when the family fell from grace, their home and land had been forfeited to the EMP. Their house and shed sat empty, waiting to be razed so the land could be sold off.
Green knolls and quaint homes soon gave way to crowded houses that were lumped together and fronting on streets bustling with activity. People passed, shoulders were bumped, but no heed was paid to the pair of cloaked strangers. As long as her face and trademark hair were covered, Orangecloak could get about fairly easily in any city. Even then, passage wasn’t impossible, provided she wasn’t wearing the brightly coloured cloak her name derived from.
A couple were walking in the street ahead of Orangecloak and Coquarro. The man wore a grey, velvet suit and matching wide brimmed hat and the woman was in a light blue dress and white bonnet. Their pace was tediously slow and Orangecloak nudged Coquarro to make a move to walk around them.
“There you are. I was starting to think you had second thoughts on this whole operation,” the woman suddenly said to Orangecloak as they began to walk around them.
Orangecloak looked into her face to find Merion Dollen, sister of Ellarie, staring back. The younger Dollen was light complexioned and freckled like Orangecloak, with her own head of red hair falling in long, natural curls. Given those similarities and the fact that they were of near the same height and size, Merion had taken on the role of being Orangecloak’s double. Whenever a protest was staged, Merion was there and dressed in raiment to match Orangecloak to serve as a diversion during the inevitable fleeing.
She eyeballed Merion and Joyce beside her, dressed in the suit. “Where did you two get these getups?” Orangecloak inquired whimsically.
Merion shrugged nonchalantly. “An untended clothesline behind a large house is a great place to find a new wardrobe.”
“You know I don’t approve of that,” Orangecloak reminded Merion with a hard stare. “We may be known as the Thieves, but we do not steal from the people.”
Joyce Keena, the lean muscled, hard hitting, blonde haired lover of Merion leaned out around Merion’s bonnet to get a glimpse of Orangecloak. “The people we took these clothes from will not miss them,” she argued while rolling her shoulders and looking herself over. “Look at this suit, the man who can afford this is not in a sore need for coin.”
There was little time to squabble over it and Orangecloak reluctantly pushed beyond the issue to more pressing matters. “I assume you’re both wearing your own clothes beneath those outfits. We’re going ahead with the plan. You might have been told by the others already: Tryst Reine is not going to be an issue for us. Where is your unit?”
“Aye, my sister came through here and told us everything,” Merion replied, her voice dropping to her usual, serious tone. “I left Ami and Alia in the market with a plan to draw away the riflemen on the rooftops. Barring something unforeseen cropping up, your path should be cleared by the time you need to flee.”
All while they talked, the four kept moving towards their destination. Directly ahead lay a crossroads between the poorer neighbourhood they were leaving and the more upscale homes and businesses of the upper reaches of the middle class. The streets were wider, but no less crowded, and the four turned off the main road and into a dusty alley. Orangecloak’s two lieutenants ducked into a tiny, covered alcove and immediately began undressing.
With the bonnet yanked off, Merion made a single, deft move and pulled the dress over her head. Beneath was a full outfit nearly identical to Orangecloak’s, right down to her worn and weathered leather boots.
“You’ve done great work, as usual,” Orangecloak complimented them. “Merion, I want you in place on the roof of the naval recruitment building. Hide behind the spire and wait for me.” She turned her attention to Joyce, who was down to her smallclothes and digging her own gear from a satchel that had been stashed in a crate. “When the guard’s reinforcements arrive, I’m going to head towards the waterfront. Myles and Coquarro will be with me and we’ll leave town near the lighthouse tower in the southwest corner of town. I’m leaving it to you to ensure that everyone else gets out. We’ll convene at the Stone Horn in the south woods.”
Joyce gave Orangecloak a confident wink while pulling a faded, short-sleeved tunic over her head and topping it with a padded leather vest. “You can count on me,” Joyce assured Orangecloak as she cinched her vest tight with a matching leather belt. “I’ll be sure to get all of ours out safely before evening.”
Orangecloak glanced about the alley to ensure they were alone. “I have faith in you,” she said, while extending a fist towards her lieutenants. “We are the Thieves.”
“Stealing back freedom,” they answered, touching her knuckles with their own.
That’s where she left them, fastening old, faded cloaks into place and doing final inventory checks.
For her and Coquarro, it was time to go into the heart of the city and tug at its strings.
Aquas Bay was not a spacious city, by any means, but it was densely populated. The thick, stone walls that protected the denizens from the roving gangs of raiders that lay beyond had made expansion of the city limits impossible. As a result, it seemed as though everyone in the Southlands that had emigrated to the protective embrace of Aquas Bay had just piled in on top of one another. Nowhere was that more evident than in the tightly packed neighbourhoods surrounding the marketplace. Here, it was teeming with people at all hours of the day. These were the working poor, mostly and those even less fortunate than they.
It was easy for Orangecloak to blend in here, so long as she kept her head down. These were the citizens she worked to endear herself to, and her work all around Illiastra had yielded her celebrity and empathy from many. Though few among the populace dared to vocalise their support for the Thieves, Orangecloak could see who her sympathisers were when they recognised her face. Some nodded in silent understanding, while others just stared, with hope and anxiousness in their eyes. They would not alert the guards or impede her passage, but rather they would wait and see if she would speak.
If there were eyes on her this day, Orangecloak could not see them through the sea of humanity before her. The closer she and Coquarro came to the market, the closer the crowds were pressed. Soon they were beneath the archway built between two shops that stood as the entrance to the market, with neither sympathiser nor detractor aware that Lady Orangecloak was among them. Her eyes fell to the wrought iron lettering dangling from the red, brick, arching span: A Free Market for a Free People.
Except it never was free, was it? Orangecloak thought to herself. The Elite Merchants peddle in that illusion while holding the reins in their own greedy hands.
Another woman in a hooded cloak sidled up beside the pair and looked directly at Orangecloak. “My girls are in position,” Ellarie told her in a voice that was equal parts nervousness and excitement. “Are you ready?”
“I am ready, aye,” Orangecloak answered. “Joyce, Ami, and Alia are due on the roofs any moment to lead the riflemen away. That’s your cue.”
Ellarie gave Orangecloak a nod and disappeared back into the masses once more.
Inside the market, the air somehow seemed stuffier and it was stiflingly hot. Orangecloak scanned the rooftops, looking for the three women or Myles and finding neither of them.
Coquarro leaned down to her ear level. “Shall we go for the merchant’s stall in front of Benson’s Jewels again?” he asked.
“Aye, it’s the best location,” Orangecloak replied while still looking about worriedly. “I don’t see any of ours up above yet.”
“They will come, Red,” he assured her. “Joyce was still readying herself when we left her. Give her a little more time.”
She knew Coquarro was right, yet she remained nervous all the same. In the four years since Orangecloak’s appointment to the title of Field Commander, her Thieves had grown quite efficient at planning and executing these demonstrations. There had been many before and usually her group came away unscathed. Though without fail, her stomach fluttered and a dark thought crept forward from the recesses of her mind. Each time the Thieves succeeded the thought grew louder until it practically screamed at her. Have I pressed my luck too far? Is this the day it all comes apart at the seams and I fall from grace? So what if it is? The wheels are in motion and I can go no way but forward.
If this is it, let them say I went out fighting.
If this is it, may the dream live on after me.
If this is it…
Orangecloak looked around to find that she and Coquarro were huddled between two stacks of crates beside a whitewashed brick wall and he was staring at her curiously. “Now is not the time for the mind to wander. Prepare yourself, for your moment is at hand.”
Despite the doubt plaguing her, Orangecloak managed to give Coquarro a smile that she hoped displayed some measure of confidence. “Don’t worry, Coquarro, I am. I was merely going over my speech to myself,” she lied. “Could you go and check the skyline and let me know when Joyce and the others have begun their distractions?”
He gave her a wink and half of a smile of his own. “Of course, Red, I’d be glad to.”
Once he had gone back into the fray, Orangecloak pulled her hood tighter, crouched low and took a pair of long, deep breaths to clear her mind. She heard men shouting and a collective gasp from the crowd and shortly after it Coquarro’s voice, drawing her back once more. “It is done. Joyce and her pair of Thieves have sprung and Ellarie’s crew have drawn the ground patrols away.” He squeezed around her, put his back to the wall and cupped his hands at waist level. “Go now, so that their effort is not in vain.”
“Aye, I’m ready,” she said, finding her will in that instant. Her right hand went to the clasp of the brown cloak and it fell away to the ground. Repeating a move practiced a hundred times before, Orangecloak set a foot into Coquarro’s hands and his strong arms vaulted her upward. As the lip of the roof of the stall came into sight, she grabbed it and clung tightly with her fingertips, feet scrabbling for purchase in the mortar lines of the bricks. With a last push she was up and looking over the whole market.
From here, she could see almost the entire square laid out before her. It gave her a good vantage point of the main access points, though she was not so high up that she could not be heard. Her eyes fell to Coquarro, himself opening his satchel to retrieve a bundle that he threw to her above. It was snagged from the air deftly, her hands working quickly to untie the brown twine that bound the treasured garment that was her namesake.
It was a cloak that once had been orange but in time had faded to the colour of a peach. As she flung it across her shoulders and clasped it into place, Orangecloak could nearly feel the eyes of the crowd beginning to fall on her. There were whispers and even more heads turning away from the ruckus the other Thieves had incited to the woman standing high above them. One more thing, she remembered while reaching for the ribbon that held her ponytail, pulling it loose to let her red hair tumble across her shoulders. Whoever hasn’t noticed my presence before, most certainly will now.
Orangecloak looked across the market and at the faces before her, raised a hand high and inhaled. “We live in a nation controlled by men who rule over us with fear,” she started, speaking in a loud, powerful voice. “These men would make us believe that they are a single, unified entity bigger than any one single person and that we are each alone against them. They send out papers and criers to convince us that we can do nothing to touch them and that we survive because they allow it.” She paused, looked about and made eye contact with as many as she could in that moment and spoke again. “I come before you today to tell you that is a lie.”
All had turned to face her by then, poor and wealthy alike until a silence had fallen over the entire market. Far to her right, Orangecloak noticed a man in a dapper suit leaning on the railing of a second floor balcony that belonged to a bank. He was joined by others shortly after, one of which she knew to be a city councillor. Even they, the very people she opposed, stared at her in silent anticipation, waiting to hear what she might say.
She began to pace atop the roof in slow, deliberate steps. “When I look at all the men, women, and children before me, I see thousands of faces staring back, all standing side by side, together, if but for a moment. There are more people before me now than all the lords, ministers and councillors in the Elite Merchant Party together.”
A man near the front who looked to be but a few years Orangecloak’s senior laughed at that statement. “They have an army!” he shouted at her.
“An army comprised of your brothers, fathers, and neighbours,” Orangecloak countered without missing a step. “The EMP arrives at your doors to force your own into their ranks, they give them a wage and tell them to do their bidding or rot in Biddenhurst. However, for their own worth, the EMP is but sixty men called lord and minister with five city councillors each for a total of three hundred and sixty. That’s all, just three hundred and sixty flesh and blood men, no better than you or I. Just scared, frightened, little men hiding behind an army made of your own to protect themselves from you.”
From over the whispering waves of the crowd, she could hear town guards yelling orders to the crowd and to one another to move aside. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught something glinting in the sunlight and looked to the rooftops to her left to see a shape she knew to be Myles. He was using a little mirror to send a signal to Lazlo to spur the brawl on the waterfront. Orangecloak knew that she was growing short of time and went on hurriedly.
“Yet, those few control almost all the wealth and resources of our country and grow fat and wealthy from our labours,” she went on to explain to the crowd. “What do we, the many, get for making them, the few, into the controlling hoarders that they are? We are left to survive on the scraps and given the ‘right’ to serve our overlords. That’s it: A mere existence, expectations of servitude and overwhelming fear. That is all we are granted under our current government. The only hope the EMP leaves to the people is that we might die before we are sent off to the prison city to be made slaves of.”
There was murmuring from the crowd by now. From the voices closest to her, Orangecloak could hear supporters and detractors alike. The guards had backed off, likely to attend to the melee Lazlo’s crew had started, though a few individuals remained, weaving their way through the crowd toward her.
Orangecloak spread her arms wide, in open embrace. “There is a hope, though, however small it may be. It is a hope shared by those like the Thieves and me. Do any among you know what that hope is?”
A woman’s voice somewhere to Orangecloak’s left spoke up above the others: “You hope that a pox will sweep through the EMP?”
“Do you hope for a quick death when they catch you?” a man japed right before Orangecloak’s very feet to a chorus of laughter from other sceptics.
“You hope that we will somehow fear a band of lawless brigands?” roared a voice far to the left and she turned her head to see the same city councillor. His fists tightly gripped the wrought iron railing of the balcony and he leaned out over it.
As she was about to answer, Orangecloak spotted a man standing on the street directly in the line of sight between her and the bank’s balcony. Their eyes locked and she froze where she stood. Despite the scorching heat, the man was clad head to heel in black clothing, with a long mane of straight, fiery red hair that touched his waist.
Even dressed as he is, with that head of hair I still might doubt who he was if not for those eyes, Orangecloak thought to herself.
They were a strikingly bright shade of green that she could discern despite the distance. Eyes of that shade were a rare feature and unique to a select few people from the faraway continent of Gildriad. As rare as it was among the three nations of Gildriad, to see someone with the ‘Gildraddi Greens’ in Illiastra was a rarity above measure and it left no doubt. Somehow, I knew you would come, Master of Blades, Orangecloak thought. I tried to convince myself otherwise, but I knew you would not stay away. If this is it and you are here for me, then may you hear what I have to say, Tryst Reine.
Orangecloak steeled her resolve, cleared her throat and answered the calls. “Our hope, our tiny, meagre little ray of hope, is that you will learn what the Thieves have all come to know: that power is but nothing but an illusion. The men we give power to are people just as ordinary as you and I, no more worthy of reverence and submission than any other. It is not we who should fear this minority of mere mortals. It is they who should fear a wakened, unified people.”
There was a smattering of applause and roaring from the gathered mass, however it was clear that most were still mistrustful, apathetic, or even outright dismissive of her message.
Orangecloak tried to keep her attention on the nearing guards, though her eyes seemed intent on wandering back to the Master of Blades. He was still as stone, arms folded and staring back. On his hip, he wore a sword in a red, leather scabbard and Orangecloak knew it must be that fearsome sword made of dwarven blacksteel he was said to wield. Yet, it sat as still as he.
Have my words compelled him to stay his blade? She wondered briefly, before the councillor above him bellowed out once more.
“As you can see, no man here with any good sense will pay heed to raving woman who does not know her place,” the councillor roared above the growing noise of the crowd. “You and your kind are naught but verminous, godless outlaws worthy of only continual scorn, a noose for your necks, and the eternal damnation that awaits you.”
The soldiers were close enough that Orangecloak could make out brass buttons on the blue jackets of their uniforms. She turned one last time to the councillor, looking between him and the still unmoving Master of Blades below. “No, Councillor, we are none of those things. We are exactly what your party named us all those years ago.”
A gloved hand reached for her ankle and Orangecloak kicked it away. She backed towards the wall of the jewellery store and looked to the roof to find Coquarro already there and waiting. He knelt and extended a hand, and Orangecloak darted up the wall to him. She grabbed at the ruts in the mortar and any outcropping bricks she could until she could make a lunge for Coquarro’s outstretched arm. In a single, strong lift, she was carried to the relative safety of the upper rooftop, where she turned and faced the awestruck crowd once more. “We are the Thieves and we are stealing back freedom!” she called from the top of her lungs.
The people below erupted in a mixture of praise and derision, coming alive as she stood there, arms raised. The councillor was barking orders to the soldiers in the streets and whomever hadn’t reached Orangecloak’s previous position were doing anything they could to get free of the tightly packed throng. At first, she thought that the Master of Blades had would surely be advancing on her and she scanned the area to the left of the jewellery store for him. Much to Orangecloak’s surprise, she followed the trail all the way back to the street where Tryst Reine had been, finding him standing in exactly the same spot.
Coquarro grabbed her by the arm and began to haul her away as soldiers began piling onto the roof of the stall below them. “Red, we must leave with haste if we are to get out of this alive and free,” he advised her.
“Did you see him?” Orangecloak asked as they began running. “Tryst Reine was there.”
“Then we should run even faster, Red,” Coquarro cautioned, with his voice full of urgency, yet still somehow calm and measured. “I do not want to face him this day.”
The guards shouted at them from below to stay put and surrender.
Given that Orangecloak and Coquarro had no intention of doing any such thing, they broke into a run.
They leapt from one roof to the next several times across the narrow gaps. The fifth roof they came to was further and lower and required a longer jump and a rolling landing. The next building was too high to leap to, but a balcony with an open door was at the same elevation as they and the two made for it. An old man was seated inside at a small table, fanning himself in the sultry heat. Orangecloak apologised for the intrusion and asked if there was another way out of the apartment. Despite his initial shock, he nodded and pointed to the right of where they came in to a long, open window.
Coquarro looked out through it and came back with a scowl on his face. “That’s a one way trip to the alley below. We’re not looking to die just yet.”
“No, don’t go out the window. Look up, young one,” the man told them.
Orangecloak looked above Coquarro’s head. “There’s a hatch!” she pointed out to Coquarro, leaving him to open it while turning back to the old man. “I’m sorry again for barging in. Thank you for all your help.”
“Least I can do. Steal back freedom, young ones!” he called out to them as they climbed the sliding ladder to the roof above. Coquarro pulled it shut behind him and they took off southward once more.
Guards were climbing onto the roofs wherever they could find ladders and were trying their best to catch up to the Thieves. “Stop at once!” one called from nearby to the left while pulling a pistol from his belt. When neither Orangecloak nor Coquarro complied, he fired his lone shot, fortunately missing them both.
For a second, she turned and looked back at him and all about, seeing only bluecoats clambering up after them. No sign of him. If he did give pursuit he’s not chasing us from up here, Orangecloak told herself.
“Come on, Red, not too far now!” Coquarro shouted at her when he finally noticed that she wasn’t beside him any longer.
They took off again, running and jumping two more roofs until they were at the catwalk that allowed the guards direct access from the recruitment centre to the rooftops.
The rickety, wooden footbridge shook unsteadily beneath their feet as they made their way, crossing over a wide, busy street filled with people, horses, and carriages below.
Behind the tall spire that stretched high enough to peek atop the city walls, they found Merion and Myles, crouched low and waiting. Along with the apparel she was already wearing to match Orangecloak, Merion had tied a linen replica of the signature cloak across her shoulders. It wasn’t an exact copy of the famous orange cloak, but served more than ably to make Merion an excellent decoy.
As much as Orangecloak would have like to, there was no time to stop for a rest. As they had done many times before, Coquarro switched places with Myles without a word and the two teams bolted in opposite directions out of hiding.
The guards, having caught up with their targets, were crossing the rickety, wooden overpass one man at a time when the four Thieves burst forth from behind the spire. Orangecloak estimated there to be a dozen or so in total, some atop the same roof as the Thieves, but most waiting to cross.
As they caught sight of the two pairs of runners, every man among them seemed to have a different idea of which one to pursue. They cursed and shouted over one another and in trying to decide which redheaded, orange-cloaked woman was the real one, had stalled in their tracks.
When Orangecloak looked over her shoulder again, she saw that roughly half of the guards that had crossed the rickety catwalk were now giving chase of her and Myles. The other half, she suspected, were hot on the trail of Merion and Coquarro.
This leg of the escape was more suited to Myles, who was far more agile and dexterous than Coquarro. The route they had mapped out led them downhill, but the jumps between buildings were longer and the drops higher than they had been.
It was no secret that this sort of risky, dangerous behaviour was commonplace for the Thieves, and to Coquarro’s credit, he was passably good at the acrobatic feats. For Myles though, it was as if he was bred for it. The man saw nothing in his path as an insurmountable obstacle and for as long as Orangecloak had known him, she still found herself barely able to keep up.
Finally, after an exhausting sprint, the two of them came to the waterfront area. With a wide, open street below, the only way left to them was down. In a flash Myles had vaulted over the rear of the building, grabbing the roof’s lip as he turned in mid-air and hanging from the side. Orangecloak followed suit and the two began jumping back and forth between it and the previous building they had leapt from, getting closer to the ground with every timed jump. They touched down safely and ducked inside the first unlocked door they found, leaving the door open a crack to listen for their pursuers.
“They’re gone!” one guard shouted from somewhere overhead.
Another made the jump to the building facing the waterfront street and after a tense few minutes returned to his comrades. “I’m not seeing any immediate way down, but it’s the only way they could have gone unless they climbed the town walls.”
“The gods be damned!” a voice shouted that Orangecloak could only assume to belong to that of the highest-ranking guard among the bunch. “Hurry up and let’s find a way down. There should be a ladder a few houses back we can use. Detain every red haired woman you see, no exceptions. If we’ve lost sight of her, she might already be in disguise.”
Orangecloak exhaled at last and let her body relax. “That should give us a few minutes. Let’s get out of here and make sure we put as much distance between us and them as we can.” Ever so casually, she began tying back her hair into a tight tail to hide it away. For the first time since leaving the former woodshed of Coramae’s family, Orangecloak actually felt calm and as she worked on the ponytail, she idly asked Myles, “Where did we end up to anyhow?”
“As to that…” Myles began to say, trailing off as he looked beyond where they had been huddled beside the door.
It was at that moment that she felt many eyes upon her, all at once. Slowly, Orangecloak turned in the direction Myles was facing and looked across a tavern full of patrons, all male and most of them at least a decade older than she and Myles. The pair of Thieves had just so happened to slip inside the rear delivery door of the establishment. Though the alcove the door rested in was darkened, it was directly beside the bar and in plain sight of everyone within.
The recognition on the faces of the men sitting shoulder to shoulder was plain to see. There was no way for Orangecloak to feasibly deny who she was, especially in light of the fact that she was still wearing the cloak she was named for. The only thing left to wonder was if these men saw her as a friend or a foe.
In an effort to gauge as much, Orangecloak took a single, careful step forward, her hands out with her palms raised upward. “Gentlemen, I apologise for disturbing you,” she said as a peace offering. “We mean no trouble and we’ll be leaving as quickly as we came.”
Not one of them made a move to answer her, though their stares remained fixed. She glanced to Myles, who was clearly feeling every bit as nervous as she was and they began to slowly back away towards the rear door.
A big, gruff looking fellow with hairy arms, a thick beard, a fading hairline and a menacing face began to advance on them. Given that he was wearing an apron, Orangecloak guessed he was the barkeeper and she was about to apologise to him once more when he reached up high to a shelf unseen.
Myles began to work the latch on the door and Orangecloak was ready to make a bolt for it when the barkeep called out to them, “Wait just a moment, you two.”
They froze in place, Orangecloak’s heart beating ferociously in her chest.
The keeper’s hand came away from the shelf and in it was an old, floppy, felt hat. He beat a layer of dust off it with his other hand and plopped it down on Orangecloak’s head. “That should help to keep your hair covered,” he said sternly, but not unkindly. “No one here wants to go to Biddenhurst on your account, miss, so I suggest you take off that cloak before you go so that no one sees it. Then scurry out that back door and make sure none of the guards see you and want to come sniffing about. Do we have a deal?”
“Yes, of course, thank you,” Orangecloak answered with a bow. She undid her own cloak, rolled it quickly around an arm and stuffed it into Myles’ satchel. The brown, linen cloak Myles had been wearing was then given to Orangecloak to further conceal her clothing, which the guards would most certainly be on the lookout for. With a last nod, the pair turned back to the door, checked that the alley was clear and left hastily.
The main road running along the waterfront was a hive of activity and there certainly was a heavy presence of guards about, but none seemed the slightest bit interested in Orangecloak, Myles, or the pursuit of the Thieves. The two strode amongst the townsfolk casually, trying to act as though they belonged and saw no eyes being cast their way.
As Orangecloak got a peek in the general direction that the crowd were focused she realised why the guards were so preoccupied. “I’ll have to give Lazlo full credit for that distraction he devised. It worked far better than I could have imagined,” she said to Myles in a low voice.
The majority of the guards had been dispatched to the pier and were still working to quell the brawl that Lazlo and his unit had instigated there. Without that, Orangecloak had no doubt that there would be far more men searching for her.
A racket to her left caught her attention and Orangecloak glanced to find the guards that had been chasing her and Myles across the rooftops were now on the ground and searching noisily through everything they saw. “Our pursuers are one street over,” she informed Myles. “Just keep walking casually and they shouldn’t be too interested in us.”
By mid-afternoon, the two had walked unbothered along the south side of Aquas Bay. As they went, the city fell away to a smattering of modest homes. Local fishermen who docked their skiffs and dories in the many coves that dotted this side of the naval port owned everything here. It was as ideal a location as one could get in the Southlands, Orangecloak knew. They were offered the protection of the Aquas Bay’s imposing walls without the noise and bluster of the city. At the end of the long wall, the duo found the old lighthouse tower. There was always a keeper on duty and no less than two guards to keep watch, but passing beyond them unnoticed was nothing Orangecloak was ever bothered by.
The tower was built centuries before, atop a cliff overlooking the ocean. In that long time, those cliffs had been eaten away by the rough seas that roared through in the early autumn nearly every year. It had been told to Orangecloak that from the sea, the tower looked like it might well tumble to the rocks below at a moment’s notice. The former basement was left open and exposed to the elements and was quite nearly rotted away, but enough remained that it made for a fairly dangerous, albeit traversable passageway to the other side of the wall.
For Orangecloak and Myles, it was a relatively easy descent over the rock face. Far below lay jagged rocks and crashing waves, but Orangecloak knew better than to look at them and she kept her focus solely on her own climbing. Finally, her foot touched lumber and she dared to look below for the first time, finding herself on a support beam of the tower’s ruined cellar. She put her stomach to the rock wall and began shimmying along the beam until she came to an alcove that allowed for a little more room to manoeuvre. Myles was following close behind and they continued along the wall, stomachs against its smooth surface, feet shuffling along another beam. The climb out to the gulch was far easier than the descent and within no time they were on the other side of the city walls once more.
Ahead lay the old forest far away from the city centre that had been allowed to creep its way right into the shadow of the ancient lighthouse.
Myles waited until they were beneath the canopy of the trees before he asked the burning question: “How did the protest go?”
At first, she deigned to answer, letting herself breathe deep of the forest air and relax. Overhead the songbirds chirped and sang sweetly and gave Orangecloak an overwhelming sense of calm. Her stride slowed to a saunter and she undid both her hair ribbon and Myles’ cloak. It was then she remembered the hat and took it off as well, opting to carry it in both hands and use it as a fan. “It went well, I thought,” she answered Myles just as he was growing even more impatient. “A councillor happened to be in the market, I think it was Councillor Havellan. He got riled up by the things I said and I think I answered his jeering quite well.”
“That’s not all, is it?” Myles asked concernedly. “I had to take off and get to Merion’s location midway through, I missed much of your speech. Pray tell, what happened?”
“You were right, Myles. Tryst Reine did show up,” Orangecloak finally admitted.
His eyes went wide in surprise and he began glancing over his shoulder, as if he was expecting to be followed. “By the gods, I had no idea that the Master of Blades saw you. Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?”
She shook her head slowly, reflecting back on the sight of him. “That’s the thing, Myles. He didn’t make a move to capture me. All the Master of Blades did was stand in the crowd with his arms folded, listening and watching. Even when Coquarro and I were making our escape, I looked back and there he was, still in the exact same spot.”
That didn’t seem to satisfy Myles and he continued to look all about. “Damn him, I bet he followed us. I should double back to the lighthouse and try to get him while he’s climbing the rocks. It might be the only chance to take him unawares.”
“Tryst Reine is not coming after us, Myles,” Orangecloak said reassuringly. “He watched me leave and made no effort to do anything. I don’t know why, but I can tell you that we’re alive now for only one reason.”
“And what do you think that is?” Myles asked.
Orangecloak straightened, looking him in the eye. “Tryst Reine had no desire to arrest us.”