Karina’s cheeks were flushed despite the chill morning. The murmur of spectators and hushed whisper of robes set her teeth on edge as she impatiently waited for the old men to determine her fate. Of course, she didn’t fault anyone aside from herself for her sloppy habits after nearly ten years out of the trade.
She would have swiped a coat if she’d have known how damn cold it was going to be.
“It is the opinion of this council,” the Master of Ancients wheezed through an impressive beard, “that these robberies were all in fact committed by you, Karina Debonara.”
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
The master’s hunched shoulders were supported by a gnarled ironwood staff half-again as big as he was, and Karina felt a little bad for making him stand for such a long trial. She thought about whether she actually did have anything else to say, tapping a thumb to her bottom lip. The master continued, “if not, the atonement is the redistribution of all of your earthly possessions, or banishment. The choice is yours.”
Well, she didn’t feel that bad.
“Of course I do! These accusations are an assault on my character. That old bag didn’t see me take anything!” Karina flung an accusatory finger at a middle-aged woman, who clutched her bag and gasped.
“But you had my knife, how do you explain that? It was my knife, it has my initials!”
“They’re my initials too,” Karina dismissed.
“P.A?” The woman replied. “You…your name is Karina?”
“They’re old initials,” Karina scowled. “I changed my name for religious reasons.”
The skepticism was almost strong enough to taste. Stupid, she chastised inwardly.
The Master banged his staff against a metal plate, the tin-shod bottom resonating against the iron plate with authority. “Enough. What of the other possessions on your person, Miss Debonara. For example, why do you carry a man’s protective cup?”
Don’t, she warned herself. “I-” Don’t you dare. She struggled to stop the next words flying from her mouth of their own volition. “I used to be a man.”
Worse, she had no idea if she was still holding a straight face anymore. “That’s when my initials were different.”
The Master of Ancients’ wrinkled eyes opened wider than they probably had in years, and muffled laughter permeated the crowd. Noisy busybodies with nothing else to do. “A what? You what?” Shrilled the woman across the way. “No, no you were not. Where did you even…It…it’s mine. It’s my knife and I want it back!”
The group of men and women huddled the woman nodded grimly. Karina had already known once those four testified to seeing the woman make the knife a few months back that it was probably over, but she was going to give it back. Later. She’d stupidly pulled it out in front of the woman by accident, to finish the little wooden penguin she’d been carving for Teena.
But she really had intended to give it back. She almost never stole something permanently
“Miss Karina, please stop,” the master’s voice belied the twinkle she caught in his eye. “The Council of Ancients has made its determination. Turn over your possessions at once, or be cast from the protection of the Ilth es Trada,” the old man evoked the official name of the wandering monks and she knew he was serious.
“Fine. Take it,” she sighed.
A small mound of items grew as she emptied her bags and hidden pockets. Papers, clothes, toys, candy, a wrench, two glass eyes and a bottle of spirits. The master’s eyes lingered on her hands. She got ready to fight in case he demanded the figurine tucked into her sleeve. But he just nodded.
“Very well, you are dismissed. Please refrain from thievery for the duration of your stay with us, Miss Debonara, and we will accept you with open arms.”
His hands cupped into a small moon as he bowed, then retired to a nearby tent. A couple of buff monks in brown robes collected her things while the mousy woman clung to her precious knife and disappeared into the crowd, throwing dirty looks over her shoulder.
“Dammit,” Karina kicked a stone. The crowds all dispersed now that the day’s entertainment had concluded. There were a lot of chuckles as she made her way through them, and she heard a lot of whispering.
“A man? Wait til we tell-”
I’m never going to live that one down, she thought testily. She fondled the little penguin she’d saved from redistribution. The little feet weren’t finished, but the hilarious face and tufts of feathers sticking out either side of its head were perfect. Teena would love it.
“May I join you?” A voice broke her concentration. This week’s speaker, a rotund blond man with a jovial expression and a ponytail, fell into step alongside her.
She shoved the wooden figure into a pocket. “Speaker, uh, yeah what can I do for you?”
He chuckled. “I have not come to take, child. Rather, I come to ask.” She cocked her head. “There are few enough of my kind trained in the discreet arts, and most have taken the war brothers’ oath,” he said. “I wondered if I might employ your services. I have it on good authority that you could use some coin.”
“I’m not sure what you mean, Speaker. Discreet arts? I’m no artist. I can’t even draw a stick figure,” she protested.
“Let’s dispense with the usual dance, for brevity’s sake,” he waved her off. “I will not judge the skills which you possess. I, too, once made my living in the shadows. I’ve seen you skulking about at night, in fact. That I did not witness your liberation of my own bottle of brandy is a testament to your abilities, if I do say so myself.”
Karina was mesmerized by the undulating waves of the man’s stomach as he laughed a big, hearty laugh.
“I won’t take up more of your time Miss Debonara,” he said. She couldn’t say she was happy with how many times her name had been thrown about this afternoon. She’d be the talk of the town, so to speak, for some weeks to come. Infamy made training a lot harder. “Our perimeter sentries have informed me that a Triad warship has set down a couple of miles due South.”
“Wait, why would they land?” She questioned.
“That’s what I want to know. There’s been a decrease of air traffic recently but we’ve seen more and more military vessels just this week,” he concluded. “I’d like to find out what they’re doing, if possible.”
“Ohhh,” she realized. “You want me to spy on some soldiers because if I’m caught, I can’t be tied to you. And if I’m killed, it doesn’t matter, right?”
“I trust you with your own life, of course,” he said. “And I’m willing to part with a Rosewood gold or two for your troubles.”
“Sky mother’s arse,” Karina stole one of Jovi’s favorite expressions. “A gold piece? Consider them spied, Speaker.” She bowed.
The portly monk bade her goodbye and Karina sprinted South, hesitating just long enough to slip someone’s breakfast into her bag for the trip.