Tag Archives: A Most Unusual Applicant

A Most Unusual Applicant – Part Five

A Most Unusual Applicant
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part Five-

 

As soon as the city’s bells tolled midnight, Jadie Rivers lowered herself off the top of the Viscosa cliff wall and climbed down towards the hidden cave that led into the tunnels. It was a tough descent, but Jadie had already made it once with guards at her heels, so doing it at her leisure felt like a breeze. “Yes!” she hissed as she swung into the crevice and dropped lightly to her feet. “I am the best thief ever!” She couldn’t quite stifle a giggle. “And when I steal enough gold to buy my own manor, I’m totally gonna install caves and tunnels just like these. Put some traps here, treasure chests there…”

The back of the cave led to a maze of long, winding passages, but Jadie had come prepared with torches and plenty of rope to trail behind her so she couldn’t get lost. She had a destination—the shaft that led into Nemeroth’s office—and she figured that the path leading from the outer tunnels to the shaft was likely straightforward, since whoever had built the escape route wouldn’t want to risk getting lost if they ever needed to use it. And while the shaft’s tunnel could have been cut off in a cave-in or barred by a gate, Jadie doubted that was the case. Someone as shifty as Nemeroth would surely want to be able to escape in a hurry should his corruption be discovered, so he would have ensured that the route remained unblocked. There was a way to get from the outer tunnels to the shaft, she told herself, and she would find it.

And, after some time wandering through the tunnels, she did.

Jadie reached a vertical passage that rose through the ceiling and up into the inky blackness of the cave system, with ancient metal rungs embedded into one side of the shaft at various intervals. She immediately retraced her steps and verified she stood more or less under where Nemeroth’s office would be on the surface. Then, with a bright grin on her face, she grabbed the rungs and hauled herself up. Soon enough, she could see the top, which seemed to be a trapdoor, and rushed more quickly.

But then she climbed past a cross-passage and someone within it yanked her off the ladder. She cried out in pain as she slammed into the rock wall, and though she scrambled for a knife, more figures seized her and tore her blade from her grip. Despite her fierce struggling, she was bound and trussed in seconds.

“Don’t kill her.” Jadie recognized Nemeroth’s voice. Seconds later, someone held up a torch, and she could see his wizened face. Nemeroth beamed at her, then glanced at the others in the hallway; Jadie recognized Harsten among the thugs. “The guards will want a live prisoner. But don’t worry; I’m sure we’ll get to watch the hanging.”

“Guards?” Jadie forced a smile. “For what? These aren’t your tunnels. I’m allowed to stroll down here if I want, Nemmy.”

Nemeroth flushed and seemed about ready to shout at her, but he caught himself. “For attempting to break into the castle and kill me, of course. Your presence here, in the shaft leading to my office—and the testimony of me and my guards as to your attempt a few nights ago—is all we need to hang you.”

Jadie couldn’t hear any guards approaching but figured they would surely be along soon. “How did you find me?” she asked.

The clerk crouched slightly so his head was level with Jadie’s. “After your failed attempt to kill me, I thought you might hire muscle to try again, so I put a man in the adventurers guild to keep an eye out. He overheard every word of your conversation with our friend Mr. Barrows. It was easy to figure you’d plant that letter in my office to frame me and that you’d try to take the ‘hidden’ way into my office to do it.” He chuckled. “You’re a thief. It’s what you do.”

“Takes one to know one.”

Nemeroth smirked. “Well, as enlightening as this conversation’s been, we should move on. Harsten, search her and get that letter. It would be easy enough to prove that I couldn’t have sealed it, since I reported my ring stolen when she first took it, but I’d rather not have to deal with it in the first place.”

Jadie said nothing while Harsten searched her until he found the signed, sealed letter rolled up in the back left pocket of her pants. He showed it to Nemeroth and then lit it with the torch, burning it to ashes just as booted footsteps sounded from down the hall. “Uh, boss—”

“The guards are here, yes, I know. Well, put her front and center, gentlemen.” Nemeroth grinned as Jadie was shoved in front of him. “Let’s not give her a chance to wriggle out of those bonds and stab us in the back, yes?” Light filled the cave, and several guards holding torches stepped into view from around a corner. Nemeroth straightened and said, “Captain Horn! Thank you for coming.”

Horn was a tall, broad-shouldered man with curly black hair and a very thick beard. His armor gleamed in the torchlight, as did the gigantic axe in his right hand. “This is the assassin?”

Jadie opened her mouth to beg and plead, ready to play the helpful, woeful maiden for all she was worth—but then she looked at Horn’s eyes and was taken aback by how piercing and focused they were. He was staring at her, eyes flicking over her body as if cataloguing every detail, and she suddenly had the feeling she was under a lens. She wasn’t sure she could sell this man the idea she was a hapless damsel in distress.

So she took a breath and decided not to force any emotion. “That’s not true!” she insisted, her voice as controlled as she could manage. “I was talking with a friend at Renzeya mansion, and I saw that man drop a letter as he hurried through the lobby. I took it and went to give it back to him, but when I caught up, he said he thought I might have read it, so he would have to—” Jadie cut herself off. “Well, he had his men grab me and take me to his office while he thought about what to do, and then he had them bring me down here so nobody would see him ‘deal with me.’”

Nemeroth snorted. “Captain, she’s making up nonsense.”

“I am not!” insisted Jadie. “You still have the letter on you. You said it had something to do with selling weapons—”

“Oh, for the—this is absurd!” Nemeroth snapped. “You’re just trying to save your own skin!”

“There’s an easy way to settle this.” Horn glanced at his men. “She seems confident you have that letter on you, Edwin. Mind if we search you?”

Nemeroth was silent for a moment, but then he stepped forward. “Of course. I’d be happy to put this to bed.”

One of Horn’s troops, a slim woman who wore no armor and had a bow on her back, approached Nemeroth and began to check his clothes. Almost immediately, however, she stopped and drew a folded letter from his front pants pocket. “What’s this?”

“Uh…” Nemeroth blinked. “I’m not, uh…”

The woman unfolded the letter and passed it to Horn, who glanced at it for a few seconds before looking back at Nemeroth with a dark expression. “Well,” he said. “This is, in fact, a letter declaring your intention to steal weapons from my guards and sell them to a foreign mercenary, Edwin. Sealed with your signet ring too.”

Nemeroth’s mouth was gaping. “But—wait, Horn, think about this! That ring was stolen; I reported it yesterday!” He swept his arms out as he spoke and a shining object slipped out of his left sleeve. Horn’s hand darted forwards and caught it before it hit the ground, and he held it up to reveal Edwin’s ring.

Jadie struggled not to laugh. Yes, Nemeroth had caught her…but she’d planned that. Planting the letter in his office wouldn’t have meant much, even with the ring; he could just claim that someone had, well, planted it. But putting it on his person? He’d never talk his way out of that. So she hadn’t taken any special precautions to disguise herself when entering the adventurers guild, knowing Nemeroth’s next move after foiling an assassination would surely be to see if she was trying to hire help, and she’d made sure his agent got the impression she’d plant the letter in his office.

The rest was easy. Nemeroth would think she only had one copy of the treasonous letter—and so could destroy her plans by burning it—so she’d bumped into Barrows before leaving and swiped his copy too. She put Barrows’ letter in her pocket for Nemeroth’s thugs to find, folded up her copy of the letter and slipped it into the vines around her left arm while the signet ring went into the vines around her right, then gone into the tunnels and got caught as she’d planned. Nemeroth had bound her hands, burned the letter he found, and let his guard down, at which point she’d snuck out her vines and used them to slip the letter into Nemeroth’s pocket and the ring into his sleeve, just like she’d used them to dump swamproot seeds onto Taryn’s head a few days before. Once Nemeroth called the guards, he’d sealed his own fate.

“Arrest him,” ordered Horn. “And his men.”

“Stop!” shouted Nemeroth as the guards seized him. “I can explain! I have a perfectly good explanation for everything!”

Jadie couldn’t help but smile. She knew that Barrows was long gone; he’d have fled the moment he’d realized that Jadie had stolen his copy of the letter. The others at the adventurers guild wouldn’t be able to say more than they’d seen Jadie talking with a man who wasn’t there anymore, and it wasn’t like they could swear that Nemeroth definitively hadn’t been there—even if they hadn’t seen him, they might have just missed him while they were drinking or talking. There was no possible source of evidence or testimony that would allow Nemeroth to exculpate himself. He was done.

The next few hours were a blur—Jadie dimly remembered answering more questions about what Nemeroth had done, accepting Horn’s apologies on behalf of Raleigh and Viscosa, and even leading the interrogators back to Nemeroth’s office so she could show them the trap door. But when they were over, she found herself back in the Stately Lady, lying on her wonderfully soft bed and running the gold coins she’d picked up in Atalatha through her fingers. She’d done it, she told herself. She’d stopped a corrupt minister from looting the government treasury, and she’d ousted his stooge on the diplomatic mission so she could take his place and get on with her real job of uncovering the Warus conspirators. And she’d had a blast too.

“I love being a thief,” she said, smiling as the sun rose outside her window and lit up wealthy estates that stretched as far as the eye could see. “I’ve got the best job in the world.”

A Most Unusual Applicant, Part Four

A Most Unusual Applicant
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part Four-

Jadie spent the next two days visiting the bars, inns, and taverns that Viscosa’s officials preferred to pretend didn’t exist. She sat at dusty counters that had never seen a washcloth, hugging a ragged outfit to herself as if they were the only clothes she owned and pretending to drink the strong, bitter beer that was the only beverage such places sold. A watcher with a keen eye would have seen that every drink she bought was discretely spilled into the sewer, floor basin, or convenient potted plant, and might even have noticed her cocking an ear just slightly whenever someone new came into the bars, but few such watchers patronized those establishments. That was why individuals who wanted their affairs to remain discrete often met in such venues. And that was why, after just two days of eavesdropping, Jadie had what she needed.

Specifically, she had the name of the person who would help her destroy Edwin Nemeroth.

When she reached the Adventurers Guild headquarters at the Renzeya estate—where a shifty-eyed man in the Bloated Nymph had mentioned that the mercenary named Barrows would wait—she looked completely different than when she’d sat next to that shifty-eyed man and listened to him ramble about the criminal underground to a thoroughly uninterested barmaid. Her hair was now in a short ponytail, as was popular with adventurers in the area, and she had stopped in her room to put on a clean, comfortable blouse with several concealed pockets and spaces for hidden weapons. Four knives were on her person: one in a sheath on her hip, two hidden within her blouse in such a way that a trained warrior would see their outlines and assume she was a warrior or adventurer, and one tiny knife hidden under her sock just in case things got violent. Two small, exotic flowers in her hair completed the ensemble.

Barrows wasn’t hard to find; the thug in the Bloated Nymph had mentioned that he had blue eyes and a greying beard. Only one such man in the guild headquarters fit that description. She approached the stocky, muscular figure sitting at the back table and slid into the seat across from him. “Mr. Barrows,” she said. “I have a proposition for you.”

The man’s eyes flicked to meet hers with a bright intensity that looked out of place on his otherwise slack, tired face. “Have we met?” he asked.

“No,” Jadie said. “My apologies. I’m Truda Varset, and I work for a man who…will remain nameless for now. But he’s heard of your plight, and he wants to help.”

Barrows tilted his head back for a moment, then waved to the bartender. Once a fresh beer was placed in front of him, he asked, “And what plight is that?”

“You’re a mercenary hired by a village in Warus. The village paid you to help them in their war against the next town over, but that town made an alliance with the gnomes, and now they have better arms and armor than anything your band has. You need better weapons, shields, helmets, everything.” She smiled. “My employer and I might be able to assist you.”

“Hmph.” Barrows quaffed half his beer in one gulp. “Let me guess. One of my idiot subordinates got drunk and told some bar my life story.” Before Jadie could answer, he shook his head. “But why do I need you? I can go to the local blacksmiths just as well as you can.”

“Because the local blacksmiths can’t help you.” Jadie lowered her voice. “None of them make anything better than the gnomes. Only the private armorers for the Viscosa elite guards have the weapons and armor you need. And they don’t take private contracts…which is why you’ve spent the past two weeks trying to find someone to steal the guards’ gear from their depots.”

Barrows’ eyes narrowed. “I know nothing about that.”

“Uh-huh.” Jadie rolled her eyes. “I’m not with the guards, Barrows. If I was, you’d already be arrested. I’m with another individual who can get you the armor and weapons you need—if you’re able to pay.”

Silence stretched between them for several seconds. Finally, Barrows said, “And I’m supposed to believe you could rob depots guarded by Viscosa’s elite guards…why, exactly?”

“You want to test me?” Jadie grinned to herself. She already had a few trinkets she’d stolen from the pockets of wealthy merchants in Viscosa; she could present any of them as proof of her skill. Or, if he wanted to see her in action, she’d scouted out one mansion on the north end of town that looked a lot harder to break into than it actually was. “I’ll—”

But before she could finish, Barrows reached into his pack and took out a handful of coins, which he slipped into his pants cuffs, sleeve cuffs, and various pockets on his outfit. “Take one of the coins,” he said. “And I’ll believe you.”

Jadie paused. “What?”

“I’ve got thieves in my band, and the mark of a real thief is that they can steal something right out from under a target’s nose,” said Barrows. “If you’re good enough to get into the guard depots, you’re good enough to grab a coin even while I watch you.” He smirked. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”

Jadie took a moment to think before shrugging and getting to work. She placed her hands on the table, inching them towards Barrows, who raised an eyebrow as if he couldn’t believe she would try just snatching the coins. But at the same time, Jadie worked the vines wrapped around her arms, coaxing them to unwind. They slowly slipped out slits on the underside of her sleeves, reaching beneath the table—

Barrows suddenly thrust both of his hands down and seized Jadie’s vines. “Nice try,” he said. “And nice magic; you’re part elf, I’m guessing. But no—”

Jadie lunged forward, and before Barrows could move to block her, she yanked a coin out from the breast pocket of his shirt.

The mercenary blinked as Jadie struggled not to cheer or laugh. “All right,” he sighed, his mouth twisting upwards with amusement. “You’re clever, I get it. Maybe you’ve got a chance.” He interlaced his fingers. “What price are you talking about?”

Jadie named a fair value—at least, taking into account the risk she’d be running if she’d actually had any intention of breaking into the guard depots. Before Barrows finished nodding, however, she said, “But there’s one condition. We need that in writing. Just to make sure there’s no disputes after we deliver the merchandise.”

Barrows stared at her. “Wait. You’re seriously asking me to write a confession, so that if you get caught you have something to trade for leniency?”

“No. The letter will say that we approached you—which is what happened—and it will be countersigned by my master as well. Even if we wanted to betray you, we’d be hanging ourselves if we gave that letter to the authorities. Besides, we both know Barrows isn’t your real name. The guards wouldn’t know who to arrest even if we turned you in.”

“Then…” Barrows frowned. “What’s the point?”

“Because, while the guards wouldn’t know who to arrest, I’m guessing other criminals know who you are. If you try to change the price later, we’ll show the letter to every thief, fence, and assassin in town. Everyone will know Barrows doesn’t pay what he owes. You’ll have to make a whole new alias…wasting all the time you spent building up this one.”

Barrows was silent for a few more seconds. “Then I just have one more question: How do I know you’ll use your real name to sign it? Like you said, we’ve never met.”

Jadie took Nemeroth’s signet ring from her pocket and laid it on the counter. “My master’s signet ring,” she said. “Absolute proof of his identity—and as he’s my employer, proof of mine as well.”

Barrows held the ring up to his eye and examined it closely. “It’s legitimate,” he said at last. “And if it’s stolen, then if you turned that letter in to betray me, you’d be arrested for robbing a noble.”

“Exactly.” Jadie smiled. “You’re perfectly safe. Let’s write out this contract, and in a week, you’ll have as many swords and suits of armor as you could want.”

It took a little bit longer for Barrows to decide and another hour for the two to hammer out the exact nature of the contract. But in the end, two papers stating Edwin Nemeroth would ‘obtain’ gear from the Viscosa guard depots and sell them to a Warus mercenary at the agreed upon price were signed by Barrows, sealed by Jadie, and slipped into their respective pockets. All she needed to do now, Jadie thought, was get the letter in her pocket into Nemeroth’s possession and have the guards find it. Then it would be over for him.

When she rose to leave, she tripped and stumbled into Barrows, and after pushing off of him and apologizing, she felt someone watching her. When she turned, though, she only saw an average-looking man slipping out a side entrance. She shook her head and made herself leave the adventurers guild as planned.

It was time to uphold the honor and glory of the Westwick Thieves Guild!

A Most Unusual Applicant, Part Three

A Most Unusual Applicant
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part Three-

When Jadie approached Nemeroth’s office late that night, she found it was in a large building two blocks from the castle itself. The building was ornate, with gold and silver filigree lining the doors, and a plaque above the entrance was engraved with a nine-pointed star that Jadie guessed was an official seal of some kind. She did two circuits of the building and saw a few lit torches within it, but most of the windows were dark, and nobody at all seemed to be around. It was a perfect setting, Jadie thought, for a little thief work.

She was dressed all in black, with her hair tied in a tight bun so it wouldn’t get in her face and several pollen-laden dandelions tucked under that bun in case of an emergency. The vines around her arms writhed slightly as she slipped into an alley and placed her hands on the office’s side wall. “All right,” she said. “Let’s do it.”

Climbing the wall wasn’t hard for a trained thief. It was made of common stone, which gave her plenty of places to grip, and she had a short knife tucked into her belt she could use as an improvised pick when needed. She took a moment once she reached the top to look over the city, marveling at the buildings that seemed to gleam with wealth and power even in the light of the waning moon. Viscosa was amazing, she thought to herself, and she wondered if she might get more missions in the city. She’d love to stay there for weeks at a time, living in the lap of luxury and exploring all the noble manors—

“Hey!” She heard a voice from the street below her and glanced towards it long enough to see the speaker’s helmet had the tall plume denoting a member of Viscosa’s elite guard. “Jeraim,” the speaker called. “Did you hear something?”

Wincing at her inattention, Jadie pressed herself flat on the roof until the guards moved off. Then she chuckled ruefully, slipped through an unlocked skylight, and continued on.

The Counting Quarry’s records had indicated that Nemeroth was in charge of an entire wing on the ground floor. Jadie reached it, noting how the walls, furniture, and even carpet of Nemeroth’s domain were more ornate than those of the other suites she’d seen in the building, and searched until she found the biggest office in that wing. When she picked the lock and cracked the door open, she could see an older man writing at his desk by the light of a dim, flickering torch. Smiling at her good luck—now she wouldn’t need to wait for Nemeroth to show up the next morning—she slipped inside, shut the door behind her, and approached the clerk.

The office, she saw, was full of labeled boxes, and neatly arranged shelves lined all of its walls. Even the loose stacks of paper on Nemeroth’s desk were arranged in an organized manner. There were no noticeable luxuries, but then again, the clerk would surely have been caught by now if he’d been the type to flaunt his gains where his colleagues and superiors could see them. He probably had a vault somewhere with the rest of his gains, and Jadie made a note to try and find where it was if she could.

She took another step forward, and her foot caught on something under the carpet. She bit her tongue to stop from yelping and knelt to feel the obstacle. Her fingers closed around a metal ring and wooden slats, and she guessed she was standing on a trap door. There hadn’t been any stairs down or anything else indicating there was a basement to the building…but now that she thought about it, she had heard rumors of some soldiers escaping the Viscosa dungeons through underground tunnels that opened into all kinds of weird places. Maybe whoever had built this building had wanted an escape route and had dug a shaft connecting to those tunnels.

But it didn’t matter, not when she had a job to do. Jadie drew her knife as she took another step closer to the clerk.

Then a cacophony of blasts erupted in her ears. Nemeroth spun around, and Jadie heard shouting from another room as she realized she’d set off a magical alarm. “Who are you?” demanded the clerk, jumping to his feet. “Guards! In here!”

“Edwin Nemeroth!” Footsteps closed in, and she guessed she only had time for one attack. “Your corruption has been discovered!” She jumped forward and stabbed with her knife—

Only to feel it bounce off Nemeroth’s skin as if he was wearing heavy armor. The clerk laughed at her stunned expression, then raised one hand and showed her the signet ring on his fourth finger. “Fool. Do you have any idea who I am? The Nemeroth line dates back to the founding of this city. The Raleigh family has given us more magical trinkets than even I can count. No weapon short of a cannon will hurt me.”

Jadie gulped. None of the plants she had on her would be able to take him down if her knife couldn’t. That didn’t leave many options.

The door burst open behind Jadie, and she turned to see four burly guards rush in with drawn swords. “Take her to the dungeons,” ordered Nemeroth. “We’ll interrogate her and find—”

Now! Jadie thought to the flowers in her hair, and they responded instantly by blasting pollen through the room. The guards coughed and doubled over as the pollen filled their lungs. Jadie’s hand flicked out and—more out of habit than anything else—yanked the signet ring off of Nemeroth’s hand while he was shouting for his men to grab her. Then she raced out of the building and through the streets before his men could recover.

But within moments, a louder alarm sounded behind her, and seconds later, guards shouted from several nearby streets. She would never get to her inn, she realized, and even if she did, they’d just arrest her there. That meant she had to get farther away. Viscosa was on a cliff, and all the paths down would be guarded, so that meant her only option was…

She frowned, grit her teeth, and kept running.

Nemeroth’s thugs and the local guards almost caught her at one point when she dashed through a narrow alley, but she lashed out with the vines across her wrists and struck a stack of crates piled up on one side. They collapsed and delayed her pursuers long enough to reach the alley’s end and sprint into the open. Then she was at the cliff’s edge, staring down at the Spirit River below her, and her heart leapt in her chest as she looked at the distance below. She couldn’t wait anymore unless she wanted to try out Viscosa’s dungeons for herself, though, so she made herself kneel and grab an outcropping. “This really sucks,” she muttered and began climbing down.

Jadie quickly descended, ducking into cracks and crevices as she went, hoping against hope she could get far enough away for the dark night to shield her from her pursuers. The top of the cliff soon vanished, though the bottom didn’t seem to draw any nearer, and she told herself that surely she was out of the guards’ sight. But then heavy footsteps stomped around the top of the cliff, and guards shouted for torches and belaying equipment, so she forced herself to go still lower into a narrow crack between two outcroppings. “Please don’t look here,” she muttered. “Please, just…”

As she slipped into the crack, she realized that it didn’t just lead to the cliff face below the outcroppings but instead into a small, narrow tunnel. She went a little farther and found herself in a damp cave, lit only by the sliver of moonlight that had followed her through the crack. As far as she could tell, there was no back to it.

“The tunnels!” she whispered with a grin, sitting down to wait until the alarm had died down. “Guess they weren’t so hard to find after all.”

After a few seconds, though, her exhilaration left her, and she sighed. She’d failed her mission. She’d been caught, the most shameful thing that could happen to any thief of Westwick. And even though she’d gotten away, she had no idea how to beat Nemeroth in a rematch. His magic shields could block any weapon or plant she brought to bear. It was hopeless.

But giving up wasn’t an option. Raleigh needed her, and besides, her superiors in the Thieves Guild were counting on her. She was the youngest member of the guild; some of its older leaders had been skeptical as to the wisdom of graduating her; and she would not prove her doubters right. She’d find some way to take down Nemeroth if it was the last thing she did.

“Okay. Lesson one—everyone has a weakness,” she murmured, reciting a maxim the guild had impressed upon her. “Everyone’s got some weak point I can attack. Nemeroth’s got magic shields, but that doesn’t mean he’s invincible. I just have to find something else to hit. His money, his power, his…”

A smile spread over her face. “Right. He said it himself—his family’s been here forever; the king trusts him. He’s got a reputation. And I’m pretty sure they don’t make magic charms to protect reputation.”

She laughed as she thought of the perfect plan to destroy the clerk. “All right!” she said. “Round two, Nemeroth. This time, you’re done!”

A Most Unusual Applicant – Part Two

A Most Unusual Applicant
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part Two-

 

The Counting Quarry was a neighborhood northwest of the massive Temple of Mathias. With more banks and financial institutions than any other district in Raleigh, it was a thief’s dream, and Jadie’s fingers itched as she walked past bank after bank. When she had more time, she told herself, she had to come back and case the neighborhood properly. There was probably enough gold in its vaults to satisfy even her…assuming such a thing was possible.

But first she had to focus on completing her mission, so she forced herself to head to the Foreign Transaction Institution on the eastern side of the district. This was where the records of Raleigh’s many foreign dealings were kept, with every tribute, tax, and diplomatic gift catalogued before moving along to the royal treasury. Jadie checked over her outfit once more and verified she looked every inch a government clerk—professional clothes, nicely groomed hair, vines stowed beneath her sleeves where nobody would see them—and stepped inside.

The front hallway opened into a small office. Several clerks worked at desks along one side of the room, some talking to visitors and others calculating sums or writing reports on their own, and behind them was a door Jadie guessed led to the records they weren’t using at the time. Jadie began to approach the door with crisp, brisk steps but slowed when she saw the ornate magic sigils carved on its front. They were alarm wards, and while she could neutralize them given enough time, at least one of the dozen clerks in the room would surely notice her trying to break into the restricted area. Simply walking through the door wasn’t an option.

Jadie turned to look at the desks again while she worked out her next step. Although most were prim and orderly, one—whose clerk was absent—was covered in exotic plants and spices, presumably trade gifts needing categorization. Jadie’s eyes widened at the sight of the massive snapdragon sitting on one edge of the desk, and she had to stifle a giggle at the thought of getting it to bite some jerk. But she realized the clerk’s coat was on his chair—meaning he was around, even if he wasn’t working—and a plan formed in her head.

She strode to the messy desk and frowned at the empty chair behind it. The neighboring clerks glanced at her, and one asked, “Do you have an appointment with Mr. Aephol?”

“I need no appointment.” Jadie shook her head. “I was expecting to talk with Aephol, yes. However, if he’s not here…” She trailed off, letting the other clerks guess the dire consequences. “Well, my superiors won’t be happy, but that’s not your concern—”

“He’s here,” another clerk quickly added. “Please wait; I’ll get him right away.”

That clerk took a wand from her pocket and waved it at the door, then opened it, slipped through, and quickly returned leading a scowling man. The newcomer stifled a yawn and rubbed his eyes as he waved his own wand at the door behind him to reactivate the wards. He’d been napping in the back, Jadie realized, and she quickly hid her smile. “Mr. Aephol. I need a few moments of your time.”

“Yes?” Aephol shoved the wand into a back pocket, straightened his clothes, and strode forwards. “What’s this about?”

Jadie began idly pushing the snapdragon back and forth while she gave Aephol a neutral look. Her guild teachers had taught her silence was often more effective at loosening someone’s tongue than the best lies, and so she said nothing. She just watched him as if she knew some deep secret.

“Yes?” repeated Aephol, blushing. “I—I apologize for my delay in greeting you. I was in the middle of looking up a very important file. Couldn’t be disturbed.”

Trying not to roll her eyes at the blatant lie, Jadie pushed the snapdragon a little harder. Wouldn’t you like a yummy snack? She thought, feeling the snapdragon tensing in anticipation of a meal. Work with me, and I’ll get you a nice treat! “Be that as it may, I need some information from you. If you just—”

She pushed the snapdragon too hard, and it fell forwards. The clerk frantically grabbed at it, then yowled as the ravenous plant chomped down on his fingers. “Stupid plant!” he roared, wrenching his hand away and knocking aside Jadie’s arms as she tried to steady him and running for the front door. “I need a doctor! Come back tomorrow!”

Jadie watched him run off, then looked at the wand she’d slipped from his pocket while ‘helping’ him keep his balance. “All right,” she called as if they’d been talking about a different topic before the accident. “I’ll get those records myself and come back tomorrow!” And then, acting like she had every right in the world to do so, she waved the wand at the back door and stepped through it without anyone saying a single word to stop her.

The files were so voluminous that Jadie was surprised they could fit in a single bank. It took her half an hour of sorting through shelf after shelf of personnel files to find information on Harsten, and a few more hours after that to pull the relevant files from all the diplomatic missions he’d worked on. More than once, Jadie was tempted to tie up Harsten in some back alley until he was dismissed for tardiness and Jadie was selected in his place. But if she didn’t find Harsten’s real employer, that person could get another stooge to help them, and then Raleigh wouldn’t be any better off. So she just sighed, went back to work, and eventually got the documents she needed.

“All right,” she muttered as she looked through the files. “Eight missions, all as a low-level functionary, like his application said. The money he took in…” She paused, frowning at the numbers, and checked them against other functionaries who had been on similar missions. “Ah. For six of them, it’s a little bit less than the others. Not as much tribute, fewer gifts from warlords. So this isn’t related to the Warus thing; he’s just skimming. Although…he’s just a functionary, even if he stole some gold and didn’t report it, how would he get it home? Not like he can hire a wagon train—”

She cut herself off. “Of course. The diplomatic missions are the wagon train. All the gold comes home, someone steals it on this end, and Harsten alters the records so nobody notices if there’s an audit. That person’s probably the one pulling the strings here. And they are…”

She rushed back to the personnel records and pulled the files on the missions Harsten had worked on, looking for anyone in common. One name immediately jumped out at her. “Senior Clerk Edwin Nemeroth!” she hissed. “He was in charge of the Viscosan end of six of these missions, and now he’s running the Warus one. And the two where he wasn’t in charge—” She checked Harsten’s files again and nodded. “Those were the ones where Harsten wasn’t short. That’s it; Nemeroth’s definitely the thief!” She laughed. “Got ya.”

When Jadie met another thief, she was usually eager to see if she could learn some new tricks, but when she thought about Nemeroth, she just felt contempt. There was no skill in what he did; even the falsification of the forms was done by his subordinate. He was just some rich jerk who literally had other people steal for him. It was pathetic when she thought about it.

Besides, Jadie stole, but only from rich nitwits who had more money than they knew what to do with. And then she promptly spent that money at the finest inns, stores, and restaurants she could find, which she figured was a much better use for the gold than leaving it to molder in some duke’s treasure chest. This was different, though. Robbing the Raleighn coffers meant less money going to the charity initiatives, the temples, and the army that kept the country safe. And she wasn’t going to accept that.

She grinned as she copied down the address of Nemeroth’s office from the records. It was time, she thought, to show Edwin Nemeroth what the Westwick Thieves Guild did to those who hurt their country.

A Most Unusual Applicant, Part One

A Most Unusual Applicant
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part One-

There came a time in every thief’s life, thought Jadie Rivers, when one was forced to do some unsavory things. The path of a successful burglar wasn’t all about snatching gold-laden purses under the moonlit night or scaling thousand-foot walls in pursuit of treasures that would put a dragon’s hoard to shame. No, there was plenty of unpleasant work as well, some almost bad enough to make Jadie regret the day she joined the Westwick Thieves Guild.

But it was necessary, so—with a small sigh—she approached the nearby clerk and checked in for the inspection that was her gateway to honest employment.

Jadie’s shoulders slumped as she returned to the cluster of hopefuls at the other side of the courtyard. She had nothing against legitimate income in principle, particularly when rich people left theirs in pockets, bags, or treasure chests with easily picked locks, but real work wasn’t her style. She’d much rather sneak into a noble’s estate and make off with their gold, then enjoy sumptuous luxury to her heart’s content without the tedious effort needed to procure it honestly. As a result, this mission’s requirement that she obtain a day job and actually perform its duties—show up on time, report to superiors, even file paperwork—was dragging her down.

Still, she thought, it was necessary, and the end would be worth it. The Westwick Thieves Guild wasn’t just about enriching its members; in exchange for the Raleigh government permitting Westwick to exist tax-free and the guild to exist at all, the thieves also identified and eliminated threats to the nation the government couldn’t deal with openly. During her last mission in Atalatha, Jadie had uncovered evidence elements in the nation of Warus were involved in a conspiracy against Raleigh, and members of the diplomatic missions to Warus were likely involved. Now it was her duty to do whatever it took to unearth those conspirators, stop the plot, and maybe even save the country…even if that meant taking a job with the diplomats in order to get close to the traitors.

Of course, to do any of that, she had to get the job. Having broken into the records office and checked up on the other applications, Jadie knew only one of the other candidates stood a chance against her impeccably forged credentials: Taryn Petrin, the arrogant son of a minor baron in the Raleigh hinterlands whose affairs were already the talk of Viscosa’s seedier bars. He was exactly the kind of person she loved to rip off, and despite her grumpiness with her current assignment, she would enjoy getting him out of the way.

She hid a smile as she meandered between the groups of applicants and drifted towards Taryn, who was chuckling at two other candidates. “Don’t feel bad when you don’t get the post,” he said. “My dad’s pulling a few strings. Yeah, needed to get out of town for a bit ‘cause of this seamstress, and…well, it was just a fling, but now she’s raising this whole stink about it.” He waved a hand airily. “Such a bother.”

Jadie rolled her eyes as she leaned against a tall tree on one edge of the courtyard. It was bigger than the others and had longer roots, some of which stretched under the cobblestones and even broke through them in a few places. Hey, she thought to the tree. That guy is a total jerk. Wouldn’t it be fun if you lifted that root a little bit and tripped him into that puddle?

She grinned at the tree’s resistance. Her magic, slight though it was, let her encourage plants to help her in subtle ways. She was best with flowers and vines—trees were stubborn and slow to move—but this particular tree was already bursting through cobblestones, so Jadie figured it had energy to spare. Come on. I’d really appreciate it, and he definitely deserves it. She giggled to herself and tried to push that laugh towards the tree along with her thoughts. What d’ya say?

            Nothing happened for a moment, but then the tree seemed to shudder. Seconds later, Taryn yelped as a root tangled between his feet, and he tripped into a muddy puddle.

Jadie rushed forward and helped lift the sputtering heir while the others laughed. Her sleeve rippled as she moved, and a vine she kept coiled around her arms darted out from under her sleeve and flicked a handful of swamproot seeds at him before slipping back under cover. She directed the seeds to open just as her vine let them go, and Taryn had barely regained his balance and snapped that his father would punish whoever had tripped him before the odor from the now-open seeds drifted over his body. His threats cut off with an agonized cough, and Jadie suppressed her smile.

The clerk brought the other members of the Warus diplomatic mission into the courtyard, and Jadie couldn’t stop herself from grinning anymore. The candidates stood in their finest outfits—Jadie had a massive flower in her hair she’d brought from her personal garden in Westwick, not to mention a gorgeous outfit she’d bought from Viscosa’s finest clothier the previous day—except for Taryn, who was now soaked with mud and stank of swamproot. The members of the diplomatic mission stared at Taryn, then swiveled to face the clerk, who quickly made a placating gesture as if the heir was no longer under consideration. Everything, Jadie thought, was going according to plan.

A cursory inspection followed, but Jadie could tell the decision had already been made, and soon enough, the clerk moved in front of the applicants and raised a hand. “We have made our decision,” he said. “The applicant who will join our mission is…”

Jadie tensed, though most of her thoughts were concentrated on whether she’d have time to spend a few more days at the Stately Lady—Raleigh’s best, and most expensive, inn—before leaving. She’d made a lot of money in Atalatha, after all, and she wasn’t the type to leave it sitting around in her guild account.

“Jasper Harsten,” finished the clerk. “The rest of you are dismissed.”

It took Jadie a moment to realize what the man had said, at which point she couldn’t help swiveling to gape at Jasper—a slim man with chalky skin and thinning hair—in disbelief. Jasper’s application had been unremarkable; he’d served on a few missions in minor capacities, but never to a nation as chaotic and unstable as Warus. He was unqualified for the job, and—

And he wasn’t reacting. Jadie realized Jasper didn’t look excited that he’d gotten the position, or disappointed that he’d been forced into a job he didn’t want, or even annoyed that the process had taken so long. He looked bored. Like he’d expected it.

His appointment had been fixed.

Jadie remained frozen for a few seconds longer but, just before the clerk again told her she was dismissed, turned on her heel and walked away with a big smile on her face. Someone, either the Warus conspiracy or other corrupt officials, thought they could mess with Raleigh’s diplomatic efforts.

And Jadie Rivers, world-class thief, would show them just how wrong they were.