The following entry is an excerpt from the short story Stealing Back Freedom, its first appearance in print being the tenth installment of the Sci-Fi From the Rock compendium released on April 1st of 2016. For more information on where to get the full story, read on to the bottom of the page!
Stealing Back Freedom
They were three, left alone in a darkened woodshed to wait. Orangecloak had always liked the smell of freshly sawn birch. It had a calming effect on her that was most welcome in such stressful times.
Although, there was at least one among them didn’t find it 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.
He chose to remain standing, but at least came to a stop before the 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, trying hard 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 didn’t 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’s 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 #&@%,” 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.”
The rest of this story can be found in full in:
Sci-Fi From The Rock
Accompanying Stealing Back Freedom are a selection of short works by authors like Larry Gent, Jay Paulin, Scott Bartlett, (As Fierce as Steel editor) Erin Vance, Matthew LeDrew, Kenneth Tam, Melanie Collins, Samuel Baur and Matthew Daniels.
Sci-Fi From the Rock can be found on sale at conventions and markets where Engen Books or Christopher Walsh can be found. To buy it online, be sure to follow one of the links below: