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A Most Unusual Guardian, Part Four

A Most Unusual Guardian
By Aaron Canton
—Part Four—

 

 

There was little light in the vault hallway, except for the glowing sigils carved into the walls at various intervals. The patterns on the floor tiles were almost invisible in the murkiness of the hall, and Jadie could barely make them out even when she crouched. A faint breeze blew in from a few ventilation shafts, but there was no hope of entrance or exit via those; all had fine meshes of threads across their openings that were charmed to blast alarms if even a single one was cut. There were concealed traps in the walls and the floors, more alarms set to go off every few feet if there was too much light or sound or any of a dozen other signs of intrusion, and even if Jadie made it all the way to the far end, she’d have to defeat the toughest door she’d ever gone up against: a massive metal slab with both a magical and a physical lock that had to be flipped simultaneously or the alarms would fire. And then, of course, once she dealt with Gerard, she’d have to beat every trap all over again in order to get out.

She let out a soft sigh and looked behind her at the door out of the vault. Getting onto the Renatta grounds had been as easy as scaling the fence and dodging the guard patrols, but breaking through the upper door which led down to the vault hallway had taken about thirty minutes of intermittent lock-picking mixed with ducking behind hedges so that passing guards didn’t see her. That alone would have specified this vault as one of her hardest missions yet. But this hallway was something else entirely, especially since she barely had any tools to work with, and the thought of turning around and leaving was feeling awfully attractive.

“But I have to try,” she muttered to herself, opening her backpack and setting one of her few tools—a large, heavy rock she’d stolen from a local garden—onto the ground behind her. “Violet needs me.” She took a deep breath. “Let’s go.” She took one step forward—she heard something thrum around her, some magical system gearing up as it registered her presence and began counting down the seconds until it concluded she was taking so long she must be a thief—and she nodded to herself as her ordeal began.

Her vines extended out of her sleeves and dropped to just above the ground, then swept back and forth over the tiles in front of her. The plants moved lightly, with as little pressure as Jadie could manage, but also quickly enough that they made soft swishing noises as they passed over the stones. One tile wiggled a little and Jadie yanked back that vine, hoping she hadn’t set off what was probably a pressure plate; the one next to it held firm, so Jadie pushed down harder with the vine. It remained still, which was promising, and normally Jadie would have then run another test with a heavier plant or rock—but she was on the clock and had already bled enough time on this one tile that she couldn’t waste more. So she tensed, took another deep breath, forced herself to step onto the stable tile…

And nothing happened.

But there were still many more tiles to go, and that was just in this one section.

Jadie turned, pulled the heavy stone onto the tile she’d just vacated, and swept the stones in front of her again until she found another safe one. Unfortunately, she couldn’t just test all the tiles by dropping the heavy stone on them, as that would set off alarms and summon guards; nor could she test any tile at all with the thoroughness she wanted for fear of running out of time. All she could do was control her plants as tightly as she could, sweeping over the ground in front of her without wasting a single second and rushing forward as soon as she thought she had a safe square. She made her way through the second tile, then the third, fourth, and fifth, and Jadie let herself think she might beat this first section without trouble.

Then Jadie stepped onto a plate that she’d swept, but instead of supporting her weight like she expected, it moved downwards.

There was no clearance to jump away, and if Jadie tried to just yank her leg back she’d overbalance and fall across several tiles, setting off the alarms for sure. So instead, she snapped her wrist and sent the vines back at the heavy stone one tile behind her. They wrapped around it immediately and yanked her backwards against it, securing her on the tile she knew was safe and getting her off the trapped one before the alarm went off. For a moment, she could do nothing but tense up, sure the slight pressure she’d applied to the trapped tile had set off an alarm, but nothing happened, and she realized she’d gotten off of it in time. Still, sweat was pouring off her forehead, and she wanted nothing more than to collapse somewhere and nap.

But there was no time, so she made herself keep going.

It took just a few minutes for her to reach what her architectural plans said was the end of the section, though it felt like much longer, and Jadie sighed with relief when she was done. But of course then there was the next set of tiles, and many of these had magical wards that would go off at the faintest touch of anything at all that wasn’t protected by the proper counterspells. Had Jadie been able to get the supplies she’d needed, she might have been able to carve counterfeit wands to mimic the counterspells and satisfy the wards. But of course that was impossible, and so Jadie would have to fake it. She knelt as she opened her pack, then took out a large chunk of rotting wood and focused on her magic.

And the phosphorescent moss on the wood began to glow.

Jadie had first encountered this moss back when climbing through the caves in Viscosa’s cliff wall in order to deal with Nemeroth, and she’d never wanted to return to them, but she hadn’t had any other options and so had reluctantly climbed halfway down the cliff wall to the cave entrance and then scrounged around until she’d found the moss she needed. She couldn’t use a torch, after all; the wards in this hallway would have been charmed to sense that. But she didn’t think the wards yet existed that could see if someone was holding a chunk of faintly glowing moss. And with this moss, she had a chance of seeing the warded tiles… and knowing which ones were safe and which ones weren’t.

The light of the moss wasn’t much, and some of the fine details of the tiles were still obscure, but Jadie could make out most of the sigils now and matched them to the ones described in the notes she’d stolen from the mage’s hall and hastily memorized. The first two wards she saw would, if she was recalling the notes correctly, set off a fireball, and the third would summon a ball of acid on her head, but the fourth had been listed as a ‘safe’ symbol, so Jadie stepped on it. Once more, she tensed up, but after a few seconds, no alarm had sounded, so she wiped the sweat from her forehead and continued.

Jadie worked her way through the rest of the second set of tiles in a similar fashion. The third set included physical traps again, the fourth had more magic wards, and the fifth was a combination of both types. The last set was excruciating to get through; she found scrambling to haul the rock, hold the moss, and maintain her balance difficult.  On those increasingly tiny tiles, making sure she didn’t touch even the corners of the traps and wards was even more trying. Her hands grew slippery from sweat, she frantically blinked her eyes to try to clear them so she could see what she was doing, and every step she took felt like it might be her last before the alarms sounded.

But they didn’t. Jadie made it through. And at long last, she stood directly in front of the heavy metal door—now her final obstacle to getting into the vault and setting her trap.

Smiling slightly at last, Jadie pushed her heavy rock to one side, stepped under a ventilation shaft in the hopes it would dry some of her sweat, opened her pack again, and took out a set of conventional lock picks along with a little dagger. “Almost,” she muttered. “Just one door. And it’s not like I haven’t cracked doors before.” She chuckled as she approached it and held up the moss, examining the wards carved into the surface. “This’ll all be worth it when I see the look on Gerard’s face—”

The vault door swung open, and Gerard the Fang smiled at her from inside the vault. “You mean, this look?”

Jadie’s mouth dropped. “No,” she murmured. “No, you—”

“I must say, I’m impressed,” Gerard said, stepping out of the vault door and beaming at her. “I genuinely didn’t think you’d make it through the hallway, Jadie. Especially without using a torch. You really are a talented thief. But…” He withdrew a hand from his pocket and flashed two brilliant green stones dangling from golden chains—the Renatta heirloom amulets, Jadie guessed. “You’re too late.”

Jadie glowered at him and racked her mind for what she could do next as she tried to stall. “If you already had the amulet, why were you waiting around?” she asked. “You could have just left.”

“Yes, I could have, but I wanted to watch you. Like I said, you’re supposed to be a prodigy, so I was truly curious just how far you’d get.” Gerard gestured at the vault door, which Jadie saw had a small glass dot near its top. “The vault was installed with a peephole so the family can hide inside it in an emergency and then look out to make sure any ‘rescuers’ are actually on their side and not, say, bandits. So I figured, why not stay for the show?” He smiled wide, and his teeth gleamed even in the dull light. “It turned out to be a pretty good one, I’d say.”

“Right.” Jadie let out a soft breath, still thinking furiously. “And what happens now?”

“Now? Well, let’s see.” Gerard put a hand to his chin as if thinking. “I plan on leaving, Jadie. And since killing or fighting you might trigger an alarm, you’re perfectly free to leave as well… and you’ll do so right by my side, I imagine.”

“Right by—” Jadie cut herself off. Why, she wondered, would she want to be right by his side? She didn’t trust him one bit, not since he’d proven he wasn’t the awesome, noble thief of legend she’d thought he was but was just a greedy jerk who’d steal from anyone to enrich himself. She was at the edge of the trapped tiles, which was a few feet in front of his position by the vault door, and she had every intention of maintaining that distance as she worked her way out. The only reason she’d want to be near him would be—

Would be if she were going to pickpocket Gerard on the way out.

Then it hit her. Gerard thought he was in a competition with her, where the winner would be the one who walked out of the vault with the amulets. He assumed Jadie, at heart, was just like him: he only cared about possessing the amulets and so assumed that was all Jadie wanted too. But Jadie didn’t want the amulets for herself. She just wanted to get Violet’s back and return it to its proper owner, preferably without getting arrested in the process. That was it.

Jadie couldn’t beat him; he was too good of a thief. But that was all right. She didn’t actually need to win. She just had to make sure Gerard lost.

And that, Jadie realized, would be one of the easiest jobs she’d ever had.

The young thief stepped up to the veteran and dropped her hands to her sides, holding them loosely and flexibly as if getting ready to grab at his pockets. Gerard grinned and tossed a mocking salute at her before stepping onto the first safe tile. She followed, watching him draw his hidden dagger and tilt it so he could see her reflection in it. He was looking at her hands and sleeves, she saw, presumably so no matter how she grabbed at him, he’d know and be able to react.

So she didn’t grab at him.

She instead thrust out with her vines, had them grab the heavy stone behind her, and then hurled it onto one of the alarmed tiles.

A magical caterwaul blasted through the tunnel, and the light wards turned an ugly red. Gerard’s mouth dropped, and for one precious moment, he was frozen in shock. “You—they’ll catch us both! They—”

Jadie leapt up onto his shoulders, then jumped up again and grasped the lip of a ventilation shaft. She swung herself up and into it, ignoring that she was ripping through the alarm threads as all the alarms were already going off anyways. The shaft was tight enough that she could jam her feet against one wall and her back against another, and as soon as she’d caught herself and made sure she wouldn’t fall, she spider-walked up the passage—but only for a few feet. Then she urged one vine out of her sleeve, split several strands off with her dagger, and let them drop to form a lattice over the shaft opening that looked pretty much like the threads which had been there before.

And then she waited, because she had to hear what happened next.

Heavy, clanking footsteps sounded from the vault entrance a moment later, and she heard men shouting as they entered the room. A reedy voice yelled several words in a language Jadie didn’t know, presumably the spell to turn off all the wards so the guards could get through without killing themselves, and then a man in a much rougher voice screamed something Jadie understood perfectly well. “You! Get down on the ground! You are under arrest!”

Jadie wondered idly if Gerard had guessed that she might run for the vents. If he had, she knew, he’d have thought she’d try to get the amulets before fleeing—but of course if Gerard didn’t have the amulets on him when he was caught, the grounds would be sealed like a drum and searched top-to-bottom until the precious necklaces turned up. Jadie would surely be caught under those circumstances, so she wouldn’t have tried to escape that way, so Gerard had probably dismissed any concerns he’d had about her trying for the vents. But of course if she went for them without the amulets…

That was a whole different story.

Down below she heard the sound of fabric ripping, and then a shout from a guard. “Found the amulets! Both of them!”

“So my daughter didn’t lose hers,” came Baron Renatta’s furious growl. “It was stolen.” He let out a dark chuckle. “Those were gifts of the king, thief. Do you have any idea what the punishment for stealing them will be?”

“I didn’t act alone,” said Gerard in a calm voice. “My partner crawled into that vent. Check it and you’ll find her.”

“The vents are all sealed with their alarm threads,” rejoined a guard. “Nice try—we won’t let you distract us. Now come on; we’ve got a trip to the jail ahead of us.”

There was silence, and then Jadie heard Gerard give a resigned sigh. “Very well,” he said at last. “Congratulations. You’ve caught Gerard the Fang.”

The Gerard the Fang?” repeated the guard. “Stopped by… a simple wardstone?” He snorted. “I guess you’re not as good as the legends say.”

A thin chuckle drifted through the air, and Jadie shuddered when she heard it. “Believe that if you want,” Gerard said. “I’ll be out soon enough to show you all otherwise.” His voice rose. “But know this. I have been a thief for approximately forty years. I have been caught one dozen times and put in jail for a combined sentence of about nine hundred and eighty years. On average, I have only served ten days before breaking out. My shortest consecutive stay in jail was a day and a half; my longest, six months. I will escape soon. And when I do… I will find the person who put me there.”

Jadie sighed to herself as the guards hauled Gerard away below. So she had a rival now, she thought, and hers was determined to bring her down as soon as he got out of jail. That was just great. But at least for the moment she was safe, and Violet would get her amulet back, and she’d also punished Gerard for what he’d done—his formerly unblemished reputation now had a major stain upon it. She could almost imagine his face when he heard stories of how he’d stupidly blundered onto a wardstone and gotten arrested. That, she thought, was a humiliation he well deserved.

Jadie smiled to herself, savoring the thought for a moment longer, and then resumed climbing out of the shaft.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The vent opened onto the grounds, and Jadie glanced around and verified nobody was around before hauling herself up. Now all she had to do, she thought, was—

“Thank you, Miss Candy Person!”

Jadie swiveled to see Violet standing up from behind a nearby bush. The little girl smiled bashfully at her but said nothing, so Jadie asked, “How did you know where I’d be?”

“Sometimes I see things.” Violet blushed and began to rend her nightdress in her hands. “I can’t explain it. But I saw you’d be here and that you’d help get my amulet back.” She paused. “And I saw—I saw that you had powers too. Do you? Can you show me?”

So Violet had a little bit of magic, Jadie thought, and furthermore the girl probably had no one to share her talents with. Jadie glanced around to make sure there were no guards, then nodded and coaxed a vine—the uninjured one—to slip out of her sleeve and rise in front of Violet. The little girl’s mouth dropped as the vine waved in front of her. “Wow!” said Violet. “That’s so cool!”

“I try.” Jadie smiled at her. “Your amulet’s back—now the king’ll know you didn’t lose his gift. Do you need anything else?”

Violet shook her head. “Thank you so much,” she said. “You’re a really nice candy salesgirl. And, um…” She hesitated. “I saw that you’re leaving town, but if you’re ever back and I see something that might help you, I’ll try to let you know. Is that okay?”

Given she now had a personal enemy who would shortly go after her, Jadie figured she’d need all the help she could get. “I’d like that,” she said. “Thank you, Violet.”

The little girl beamed.

“Now…” Jadie looked around. The grounds were big, and she wasn’t quite sure of the way out. “Ah…”

“There’s almost no guards on the east side,” said Violet, eyes twinkling. “I know ‘cause that’s how I sneak out when dad chastises me and I wanna go out anyways.”

Jadie giggled, and Violet laughed as well. Then the thief said goodbye to the little girl one last time, waved, and rushed away, heading for the walls of the Renatta property and the city beyond.

A Most Unusual Guardian, Part Three

A Most Unusual Guardian
By Aaron Canton
—Part Three—

 

 

Architecture firms; vendors of building supplies—wood, metal, hired men to dig and build; government offices where zoning and building permissions were handled, filed in triplicate, and then buried in a maze of paperwork; mage halls containing magic-trained mercenaries prepared to serve in whatever capacity their mystical arts could assist with; restaurants, cafés, and the seediest of pubs where said mages congregated after work; more firms, more vendors, more offices…

It was nearly midnight by the time Jadie dragged herself to the little inn she’d decided would be her new base of operations. Her room at the Stately Lady was too obvious and ostentatious; Gerard might know of it already. So she instead removed the flower from her hair, wrapped herself in a cloak and hood, and checked herself into a quiet room in the Flaming Pitch just outside Viscosa’s walls. There, she thought, she could go over what she knew and suspected about Renatta’s vault so she could work on her plan.

The broad strokes were simple: Gerard had the amulet, and Jadie wanted it. She didn’t know where he was, where he was staying, or what safe houses he might have—but she knew he’d break into the vault soon so as to steal the second amulet. She just had to get into it first, wait for him, then get around him and lock him inside the vault before fleeing and tipping off Renatta that a thief was around. Then Renatta could have Gerard arrested and interrogated until he gave up the location of the first amulet—or until he simply dropped it, if he had it on him. And then Violet would be happy again, and Jadie could go to Warus with a clear conscience.

Actually getting into the vault was another matter entirely. Jadie had found the mages, architects, and builders who had set up Renatta’s new treasury. Although she’d convinced them to tell her much of what they’d done—and burgled their offices to look at the detailed schematics—so far all that was accomplished seemed to intimidate her. The vault was a new basement structure next to the Renatta mansion consisting of one room set at the far end of a long, narrow hallway. That corridor was an absolute nightmare to get through without knowledge of the “safe” path. There were sections with physical traps that would launch arrows dipped in paralyzing powders or simply drop the intruder into a pit while sounding an array of magical alarms, followed by sections full of wards that would wreck any intruder. Some of the trapped sections were even timed, with spells set to go off if a visitor stepped on the entrance ward but didn’t reach the exit one in time (presumably on the basis that an intruder would be more hesitant and take longer than someone who actually knew the route). One could make their way through easily by knowing the right path, the flagstones to step on and those to avoid… but of course that was the one thing she hadn’t been able to finagle out of those who had built the vault.

Yes, she had her plant magic, and she was a pretty good thief besides, but this was the hardest mission she’d ever tried to crack by far. She didn’t even know if her instructors could manage it, much less her.

But if she was having trouble, she decided, Gerard might be having more—after all, however talented he was, he didn’t have her plant magic. And besides, he was arrogant enough that he might wait a few days for the baron to bolster security before making his run for the amulet. So Jadie probably had time. She could get local supplies, write to Westwick and have them send her some resources, do more scouting, maybe find some former employees of the baron’s who could be persuaded to talk—

She entered her room while deep in thought, saw the pile of gold sitting on the table, and swiveled just in time to see Gerard the Fang walk into the room behind her. “Jadie Rivers,” Gerard said, eyes twinkling. “Your ten percent.”

“What?” Jadie asked after a few moments of reeling from shock. “What ten percent?”

Gerard shut the door behind him and bowed slightly. “From the little job we did earlier. You were gone when I got back to your vantage point on the street, and you didn’t seem to be coming back to your room at the Stately Lady, so I took the liberty of giving it to you here. The amulet was already valuated by my client, so I figured I could take care of the payment here and now.” His mouth curved upwards into a smile. “After all, good help deserves to be paid promptly—and you were superlative, Jadie. Well done.”

Jadie took a deep breath to clear her mind enough to work out what to say next. “How did you find me?” she demanded at last.

Gerard clicked his tongue. “Surely you were taught the easiest way to follow someone is to simply figure out where they’re going and beat them there? I know how the thieves guild trains its students to look for hide-outs—places outside the center of town and away from guards, places frequented by day laborers and short-term guests where they won’t be noticed, places with solid walls so the rooms are defensible if an enemy does manage to track you down… really, when you think about it, this was the most suitable place by a mile according to all the rules you know. So I chatted with the clerk, paid to assign you this room when you arrived, and waited for you to show up.”

Jadie flushed in embarrassment. “Then why wait around?” she asked. “You could have just left the gold. I’d have figured out where it came from.”

“Well, when someone does a job for me and takes off before I can pay them, it makes me curious.” Gerard raised an eyebrow. “Something wrong?”

She knew she could try to bluff or lie, but Jadie had a feeling that wouldn’t work on Gerard the Fang. And besides, Jadie thought, he needed to know she hated what he’d done to Violet. She was representing the Westwick Thieves Guild, after all. He had to know they wouldn’t tolerate this.

“You robbed a child,” she said at last. “I thought you were going after the father. I mean, he totally deserves it. But you stole from the girl.” She clenched a fist. “You hurt her, and she didn’t deserve it. She’s just a kid.”

Gerard looked at Jadie for a long moment before a smile slipped across his face. “Really?” he said. “A thief with scruples? What are they teaching at your guild?”

“That we have a responsibility to others,” growled Jadie. “That because we take, we also have to give back; protect; look out for innocents.” Her eyes narrowed. “What client was so important that you robbed the girl instead of anyone else in this city?”

“A Warus warlord,” said Gerard easily. “The trinket I took was a gift from the king signifying his favor. A lot of warlords would like such a jewel that indicates they’ve earned the favor of the king of Raleigh. It tends to… help one’s negotiating position.”

“The king obviously didn’t give the amulet to a warlord!” insisted Jadie. “Somebody will tell the king—”

Gerard chuckled. “Really? Would you? Knowing there was a chance, however faint, the king really had given the amulet to that warlord and he might interpret your comment that he could never have done such a thing as calling him stupid for making that decision?” He shook his head. “Nobody will challenge it. My client will enjoy a very nice advantage in the trade negotiations. And I, of course, had the satisfaction of putting one over on Baron Renatta, who was so crude as to boast at a dinner party last month that thanks to his new vault, nobody could rob him—which I took as a personal challenge. Of course, catching him napping outside the vault is no big deal… so I’ll have to crack the vault itself later. Just to show I can.”

Jadie didn’t respond for a long moment. She had to get rid of him, she thought, so she could work out her plan to break into the vault. If she got all her supplies quickly enough, she could probably do it within a few days; maybe she could scare him into laying low until then. “I’ll report you to the Westwick Thieves Guild,” she said at last. “They’ll stop you.”

“I would be honored if they tried,” said Gerard lightly. “It’s been too long since I’ve had a proper nemesis. The last one was… almost three years ago, I think. I almost wish I hadn’t dropped him into that cursed tomb; he made things fun.” He shrugged. “But that’s for the future. Will you tell your guild about me before or after you try to break into the vault yourself and steal my prize?”

Jadie’s mouth dropped. “What—”

“My dear Jadie, I’m just as capable of finding out who Renatta hired to build his vault as you are. I talked to a few key apprentice mages and assistant architects when I arrived in town, told them to let me know if anybody odd questioned their masters. And you would not believe the reports they sent me today.” His eyes gleamed. “You want to hit the vault before me so you can get the second amulet for yourself. Come on, Jadie. We’re both thieves. You can protest about robbing kids all you want; we both know we both want the same things.”

That wasn’t true, Jadie thought—she didn’t want the amulet; she just wanted to stop Gerard. But if he’d finally made a mistake about her, she wasn’t going to tell him. “Yeah,” she insisted. “I do. And I’ll get it too.”

Gerard chuckled. “Jadie. I do respect your abilities, and in ten years or so you may be one of the best thieves in Raleigh. But right now, Renatta’s vault is… quite simply, it’s out of your league. I myself may have some difficulty. A novice like you? No chance.” He held up a hand. “As a professional courtesy, from one thief to another—you aren’t ready for this.”

There was no hint of deception in his voice that Jadie could make out—he meant it. And he was probably right too, Jadie knew. But she couldn’t stop; Violet needed her. “Guess we’ll see soon enough.”

“We certainly will,” said Gerard. “Tonight, in fact.”  Jadie couldn’t stop her mouth from dropping, and Gerard’s eyes twinkled. “Yes, Jadie. Tonight. In and out by sunrise. Exactly at sunrise, in fact, because that’s when a silver caravan passes by the Renatta mansion, and I figure I might as well nab that too while I’m here. What, were you thinking I’d need a few days to get ready?” He turned towards the door, but then looked back at her and shot a grin over his shoulder. “Sorry, Jadie, but that’s the difference between a talented amateur and a pro like me. So if you’re really dead-set on trying this, then… well, good luck. You’ll need it.”

When he reached for the door, Jadie grasped at her vines and sent them at him in pure desperation—but his eyes flicked down to the reflective brass of the doorknob, where the vines were dimly reflected, and he easily spun to the side and dodged. “Really?” he asked as Jadie’s vines retracted. “That’s it?” And then he slipped out the door before Jadie could attack him again.

Jadie waited until his footsteps had faded away before slamming the door shut and locking it. Then she sank to the ground, putting her head in her hands. “Now what?” she muttered. “I have to get into the vault tonight? I don’t have supplies, tools, help from Westwick—what am I supposed to do?” She thought of her mission, the crucial job she had to do in Warus. Maybe, she thought, she really should give up and lie low until it was time for her to leave.

But then she thought of Violet, with her red cheeks and tear-streaked face. And she thought of Gerard’s smug face, his glib dismissal that anything mattered besides seizing goods from whoever had them. She couldn’t let that stand. She had to do something.

After all, if she did otherwise—if she took from others but did nothing to help those who needed it—was she really all that much better than Gerard?

After a long moment, she pushed herself to her feet, then went to a counter and spread out the plans stashed in her pack. If she had to get into the vault tonight, then she would. That was all there was to it.

A Most Unusual Guardian, Part Two

A Most Unusual Guardian
By Aaron Canton
—Part Two—

 

 

“Sweets!” Jadie yelled, waving green and purple frosted candies at the crowds in the busy street. “Frosted, freshly baked sweets! Perfect for boys and girls of all ages!”

A few passersby turned to glance at Jadie, who blushed. Her barker’s costume had been thrown together in about five minutes when she’d sprinted into the nearest clothier and grabbed the brightest, gaudiest, most barker-esque dress they had that fit her. Even then, she’d had to steal a cap from a stranger in the crowd and a pair of gloves from a windowsill in order to finish the outfit. The candy was even worse, as she’d lifted the first tray she could grab from a nearby bakery only to realize once she’d rushed away from the store that the candies were too small to actually catch anyone’s eye. But none of that mattered; the costume and candies were all she had, so she’d just have to find some way to make them work and attract the attention of the girl who Gerard had robbed.

And she needed to attract her attention, because she had to know if there was some kind of reason for what Gerard had done. Maybe the child’s father used his daughter to hide his most valuable possessions in her pockets on the basis that most thieves wouldn’t think to search a young child for a priceless treasure; Jadie had learned of that tactic in her training. Or maybe the father had stolen some present for his daughter and Gerard was trying to return it to its rightful owner, even if that upset the girl. Or maybe the kid was fine, and Gerard had simply gotten her to wail and carry on in exchange for a toy or a sweet, and he planned to rob the father blind during that distraction.

Jadie knew none of this was likely. But as long as there was any doubt whatsoever, she couldn’t make herself believe the great Gerard the Fang pickpocketed innocent children. And so she had to find out for sure.

The entourage fixed the carriage and guided it down the street to Jadie’s position, with Gerard no longer in sight. As the carriage began to move past her, Jadie shouted, “Fresh candies! Delicious, wonderful candies! Perfect to cheer you up if you’re sad or make you feel even better if you’re happy!” She tossed a few candies around, ‘accidentally’ sending one through the window of the carriage. “Guaranteed to bring a smile to your face!”

She beamed at the carriage as it rolled past, and moments later, there was a call from within, and the driver pulled back on the horses’ reins to stop the vehicle. Then the door opened to reveal the daughter, with her cheeks red from crying, and the scowling father behind her. “Um, ma’am?” asked the girl. “Can I have a candy?”

“You certainly may!” chirped Jadie as she tossed the candies from one hand to another and flipped one up so the girl could catch it. “You look like you could use one!”

“Uh-huh.” The girl pocketed the candy and gave Jadie a coin in exchange. Her pigtails were askew, and she wouldn’t meet Jadie’s eyes. “Thank you, ma’am.”

She turned to go, but Jadie quickly said, “What’s the matter? Why’s a little girl like you so sad? Did you lose something?”

The father glared and opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, the girl sniffed and nodded. “My heirloom amulet got lost.”

“Oh my. That sounds serious. Here—you can have another.” Jadie passed her a second candy, which brought a brief smile to the girl’s face. “What’s your name?”

“Violet,” sniffed the girl as she sucked on the candy. “Violet Renatta.”

Jadie’s eyes widened slightly. There was a noble family with some land out in Western Raleigh called Renatta, and if Jadie remembered from her lessons correctly, the current heiress to that title was a little girl named Violet. So this was Baron Renatta’s daughter, as well as presumably the baron himself behind her. “And how long have you had your amulet, Violet?”

“All her life,” said the father, with an air of trying to hurry the conversation along. “That’s why it’s an heirloom. They’ve been passed down parent-to-child for centuries, ever since the House of Renatta was founded. Now if you’re done, Violet—”

“I wore it every day. And I took real good care of it ‘cause Daddy said it’s one of two amulets the king gave my great-great-great-great-granddad way back when!” Violet clutched her hands to her chest like she was hoping she could somehow feel the missing amulet where it had used to dangle. “And he said I should always take care of it ‘cause it shows the king really liked our family and so everyone should be nice to us. But the carriage broke and I lost it and Daddy says that’s like losing the king’s favor and—”

Jadie managed not to scowl at Baron Renatta, who was doing enough scowling for the both of them. “It was priceless,” the baron muttered in a voice he clearly intended only Violet to hear. “We will talk about this—at home. Now come along. And miss?” He caught Jadie’s eye. “It would be wise for you not to mention an amulet was missing.”

The thief quickly nodded. “Of course, sir. I wouldn’t dream of it.” And then, as both Renattas turned to go, she realized she had to know one more thing. “But you still have one amulet, right? So surely the people will still know the king supports your family?”

“But I can’t show it to anyone!” Violet wailed. “Daddy put it in this super-secure vault last month, and I can’t get it! And Countess Essett’s daughter is visiting next week, and I just know she’ll say all kinds of mean things if I don’t have it. She’ll say the king took it back and doesn’t like us anymore or—”

“Violet!” snapped Renatta. “Enough!” He took a long breath. “You know it is vital to our family fortunes that we retain at least one amulet, if only so we can show it to the king when he visits and prove we still value his ancestor’s gift. That is why it will remain in the vault, guarded by the best protection spells money can buy, where nobody can steal it… or lose it… or see it at all except when I come down to get it for him. Yes, the other noble families will talk when they observe you no longer have your amulet. Yes, the family will suffer for your carelessness.” Violet’s eyes welled up at that, but the baron didn’t seem to notice. “But so long as the king knows we value his favor, we will still endure. Now. Let us get home before you lose anything else.”

Jadie watched them go, struggling not to say anything. Baron Renatta was a louse, and ordinarily she’d love to take him down a peg, but right now she had bigger problems. If the Renatta family was seen as less legitimate on account of the theft, that could blow back onto other members of the family who weren’t completely obnoxious. That wasn’t fair to them. And even setting that aside…

Gerard had robbed a child. He hadn’t paid Violet to throw a fake fit; he wasn’t trying to get anything back to its rightful owners; he had no decent motivation Jadie could see. He’d just wanted a rare and valuable amulet and so had taken it. And if that made an innocent little girl cry… Apparently that was a matter of no concern to Gerard the Fang.

Jadie flushed red with anger. She stole from rich adults who had so much money they’d never notice the loss or from bad people who deserved to be taken down a few pegs. Sure, it might be wrong in some strict ethical sense, but she wasn’t really hurting anyone. This, though, was different. This was nothing but naked greed and a complete disregard for innocents that might be hurt.

And it wouldn’t end here. Baron Renatta had mentioned a high-security vault with the other amulet. If she knew anything about Gerard the Fang, she knew he’d be going after that next, both to complete his set as well as to say he’d beaten the best security systems on offer yet again. In fact, Jadie guessed that Gerard might even have done this deliberately to raise the challenge for himself—rob Violet and get the baron into such a tizzy that he’d boost his own security measures. Then it’d be even harder to break in… and even more glory would go to anyone who could manage it. That seemed like the kind of thing Gerard would want.

Jadie knew she had a responsibility to stay out of trouble for the next few days so she could go on her trip to Warus and resume her actual duties for the thieves guild. If she was arrested trying to stop Gerard, she would be fired from the ambassador delegation and would have no chance at stopping the anti-Raleigh conspiracy she was trying to root out. But despite all that, she couldn’t let this go. She didn’t know how, but she would get that amulet back for Violet. If that was the only thing that would dry her tears, then that was what Jadie would do.

And the only person standing in her way was the best thief she’d ever heard of.

Jadie’s heart sank. This, she thought, would be tough.

A Most Unusual Guardian, Part One

A Most Unusual Guardian
By Aaron Canton
—Part One—

 

 

It was the bronze cane with the cobra-shaped head and the silver tip that made Jadie Rivers realize she had just bumped into a legend. The man had already slipped past her, an older gentleman with graying hair, tanned skin, and a softly wrinkled face, and Jadie was half a dozen steps away down the crowded Viscosa street when she realized she recognized his cane from her thieves guild briefings. And then she saw the rest—the tiny spot below the man’s left ear, the subtle motion of his hand as it drifted past the pockets and purses of those around him, the minute bulge in the back of his cloak which Jadie knew concealed a knife coated in a paralytic agent so powerful that even an elephant would be felled with one scratch. There could be no doubt about it: she had just encountered one of the greatest thieves in the world, the man who had robbed palaces and temples, burgled warlords and pirates, plundered ancient ruins and pilfered priceless treasures from the strongest vaults ever built. She had just bumped into Gerard Falcoron, or as he was known in the criminal underworld, Gerard the Fang.

And then she touched her pocket and realized, to be more precise, she had just been robbed by Gerard the Fang.

But though such a realization would normally have upset the young thief, she could only smile to herself as she moved after him. There was no shame in losing to the best—and besides, as much as she loved gold, that was nothing next to the knowledge she had been so near a legend. She had grown up hearing stories and legends about Gerard the Fang. That he would deem her worthy of robbery was almost an honor.

Almost, she thought, but not quite. She needed to get her gold back. Her own reputation, not to mention her ability to afford that fancy dinner at The Stately Lady she was looking forward to, was at stake. She was due to leave town in just a few days as part of an ambassador delegation to Warus, where she would smoke out elements of an anti-Raleigh conspiracy as part of her service to the Westwick Thieves Guild. Once the delegation left, she’d be spending a long time traveling on dusty roads and camping out in the largely unsettled nation of Warus. Until then, she fully intended to avail herself of all the luxuries Viscosa made available to a bright young thief in her prime—but those luxuries required there to be money in her pocket. And so, even as she marveled that his stature, his form, and his muscled arms were just as perfect as they’d been described to her, she forced herself to hurry after him.

She wasn’t sure what gave her away, but once she had narrowed to within a couple body-lengths of him in the crowded street, he drifted away from her. His motions didn’t look deliberate or even hasty, but she noticed that suddenly he was always standing such that there were more and more people between the two of them. If this kept up, she’d never catch him; he’d screen himself until he reached a shop or an alley where he could completely disappear. Jadie would have to do something drastic to get him to acknowledge her.

So she pulled back a sleeve just slightly, thought about how wonderfully fun it would be to reach out and grab the silver-haired gentleman a few steps ahead of her, and flicked her arm—allowing the vines wrapped around it to uncoil, reach out, and yank back on Gerard’s wrist before he could do anything.

Gerard was too skillful to stumble, and he instead let the motion turn him around so he could see his adversary. Even though Jadie was already tucking her vines away, she saw his eyes flick to the few bits of green still visible as she pulled down her sleeves and knew he’d seen them. But that was all right; in fact, she realized she preferred he knew of her talents. “Um, hi!” she called in a voice somewhat more rapid than usual as she approached the legend, remaining just out of his arm’s reach in case he tried to take something else from her. “Mr. Purse, I think you have my Fang.”

The older thief blinked in confusion, and Jadie’s cheeks reddened. “I mean—I’m Purse, you have my Mister—no, um, you Fang my purse, er—” She cut herself off, blushed furiously as she took a deep breath, and blurted out, “Mr. Fang, I’m really excited to meet you, I’ve heard all about you, and could I have my purse back please?”

She cringed, hoping against hope Fang didn’t just roll his eyes and turn away from the stuttering mess she’d become, but instead, Fang’s mouth quirked upwards in a smile. It wasn’t a sincere smile—it didn’t reach his eyes—but it was, at least, a mark of respect. “Sure,” he said in a sonorous voice. “Here you go.” He drew a bag from the folds of his cloak and tossed it to her—

But Jadie had been trained by the best instructors the thieves guild had to offer, and she knew better than to catch a random object being thrown at her. After all, it could be poisoned, or enchanted, or even something the authorities were hunting for. It was moving too fast for her to dodge, so she instead grasped for the vines around her arms and focused on her magic again, rapidly urging them to lunge forward and shield her. And lunge they did, springing out from beneath her sleeves and intercepting the bag just before it would have fallen into her hands. They caught it, held it in front of her—and she saw it wasn’t her moneybag at all, but instead a red sack with a sigil etched on one side.

“A charm spell,” she murmured as her vines dropped the bag and retracted again. The spell markings were in faded gold thread that blended into the red fabric, but though it was faint, she still recognized the design from her training. Had she touched it, she would have been made to feel more trusting of the thief in front of her—not much, by any means, but enough to convince a typical victim that Gerard had surely returned the right bag. The victim would then let Gerard go, would carry on with her day as before, and wouldn’t notice the theft until much later, when she next went for her moneybag and found an empty red pouch instead.

But Jadie was no ordinary victim of theft. Having blocked the spell, she looked up at Gerard with a faint smile on her face—only to see his own smile had grown and now reached his eyes. Then he bowed down before her like he was introducing himself at a ball. “You’re as good as they say, Miss Rivers,” he murmured as he took Jadie’s moneybag out of his pocket and tossed it to the ground before her. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Jadie’s mouth dropped, and when she picked up her bag, her hands were so unsteady she missed and bounced her fingers off the ground twice before grasping it. “You—you know me?” she managed.

“The thieves guild prodigy? Of course I know you.” Gerard straightened up, eyes twinkling, and swept an arm at a nearby café. “I’m on a job, but I have a minute or two. I would love to make your acquaintance.”

Jadie’s heart, already beating fast, began to race like it was trying to burst out of her chest. She might get to see Gerard the Fang demonstrating his mastery of his profession—and even better, she could make a dependable companion of him! She glanced down at herself, wishing she’d worn something other than her usual green-and-brown traveling clothes or even styled her loose, brown hair nicely—maybe added more flowers—but now there was no time and she’d just have to make do. “Of course!” she said quickly. “I, uh, whatever you want, Mr. Fang, sir! I—”

“Please. We’re practically colleagues. You can call me Gerard.” The thief moved towards the café, and Jadie hurried to keep up with him. “And what should I call you? Do you have an alias?”

He wants to use my nickname, Jadie thought before reminding herself she didn’t actually have one yet. “Just Jadie is fine,” she said as they entered the café. Gerard led her to a booth in a dark corner, and she sat across from him, still gazing at his roguish face “And, um… What do you know about me?”

“You?” Gerard grinned. “I know you’re the youngest recruit ever to graduate the thieves guild. I know you have an unusual facility with plants, always wear a flower in your hair, and have vines wrapped around your arms that cause those almost-but-not-quite invisible bulges in your sleeves.” Jadie blushed, and Gerard chuckled. “So yes, I did recognize you as soon as I saw you, not just after you’d used your vines. I hope you don’t mind me giving you a little test, but I just had to see if you were as good as I’ve heard.”

Somehow, Jadie’s smile grew a little more. He hadn’t just heard of her, he knew everything about her. “I don’t mind at all, you can test me any time you want,” she said, realizing she was babbling again. “I mean, I’m just, I mean—”

Gerard held up a hand, and Jadie fell into grateful silence. “Relax,” he said. “You don’t need to worry about impressing me. You already have—I know you were behind that whole thing with Nemeroth last week. Well done. He was a pox on the kingdom.”

Jadie’s mouth dropped again. Nemeroth had been a high-ranking bureaucrat who had abused his office to steal diplomatic gifts and similar shipments, plundering the kingdom just to line his own pockets. Jadie might be a thief, but she was first and foremost a patriot and wasn’t about to let that stand. And though her plan had been incredibly dangerous—she’d gotten herself caught by Nemeroth and his thugs so she could get close enough to plant incriminating evidence on him—she was still happy she’d taken him down. But she hadn’t told anyone; even her superiors in Westwick hadn’t gotten her report yet. “How did you know that?” she managed.

“I talked to a few contacts in the guards. They told me Nemeroth had been with an innocent civilian when he was caught, and wouldn’t you know it, that civilian’s description exactly matched that of Westwick’s most promising young thief.” Gerard grinned. “Just as a tip, using the guards to take down opponents for you is great when you can swing it, but try to disguise yourself first at least a little. That way people like me can’t find you out. And hey, if you do have to go to the guards for something legitimate, you won’t need to worry about them recognizing you and wondering why you keep getting into trouble.”

“Right.” Jadie wished she had some way to record Gerard’s advice, but she had neither parchment nor anything to write with on her. “Sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry about. You beat an opponent who had a lot more resources than you did… and you did it with style. Like I said, you already impressed me. And today? You showed me you really are as good as your teachers think you are.” He raised a hand as if tipping a hat. “In ten years, maybe five, they’ll probably be telling legends about you instead of me.”

It took Jadie a few moments to recover from that and formulate her next question. “Thanks, really, I really appreciate it—I mean—” She blushed again as Gerard chuckled. “Can you tell me any stories?” she asked at last. “Famous places you’ve been? People you’ve met? Stuff you’ve… done?”

Gerard’s eyes gleamed, and he opened his mouth, but then a faint drumbeat sounded from outside, and he hesitated. The drums repeated, growing slightly louder, and he sighed. “Sorry. Like I said, I’m on a job. But if you wait for me here, I’ll be back in a flash, and then I’d be happy to share any stories you want.”

He rose, but Jadie jumped up even before he finished. “Can I watch?” she blurted out, acutely aware she was embarrassing herself and yet unable to stop. “Or—I mean—if you possibly needed someone to watch your back or help in any way at all—what I mean is, I’d love to—”

She fell silent as Gerard’s smile flattened out and he examined her. “I don’t usually work with partners,” he said. “It’s not my style. And for this job—I mean, really, all I’d need is someone to stand on a rooftop and distract the local soldiers if a patrol shows up. It’s not exactly glamorous—”

“I’ll do it!” said Jadie, a desperate smile on her face. If she got to work a job with Gerard the Fang… Well, she couldn’t think of many opportunities that would come close. She would get to watch a true master of their craft, someone who was rumored to have never failed to loot whatever he was after. You couldn’t get that kind of demonstration anywhere else. “Don’t worry,” she insisted. “I won’t let the soldiers come anywhere near you.”

Gerard was silent for a long moment before nodding. “All right. I’ll cut you in for ten percent. Your best bet is—”

“Building on the other side of the street, two doors back, since it’s tall and has crenellations to hide behind,” said Jadie immediately. For a moment she felt like she was back in the guild training halls, desperately trying to ace every test and convince her teachers they hadn’t made a mistake by accepting her at such a young age. “There’s an alley, and the walls of the building are rough enough to scale. I can be up there in less than a minute.”

Gerard said nothing for a moment, but then his smile returned, and he inclined his head. “Exactly what I was going to say. See you soon, Jadie.”

Jadie’s heart leapt at his words, and it kept thundering away as she slipped out of the café as quickly as she could. Without seeming to rush, she worked her way through the crowds to the building she’d mentioned and raced up the rough wall towards the top. Nobody looked at her, and even if someone had glanced into the alley and seen her halfway up, she would have already made it to the roof by the time they’d done a double-take and looked again. Jadie then ducked behind a crenellation and quickly peeked around it to look around, noting both Gerard’s probable target—an entourage of what looked like dozens of bodyguards and servants surrounding an ornate carriage shining with gold filigree and pulled by white-coated horses, all approaching her position from farther down the road—as well as a squad of palace soldiers marching towards the entourage from the opposite direction. She quickly thought through her possible options, settled on the simplest, and pried up a loose chunk of stone from a crenellation. Then she gripped it with both her hand and vines and threw it as hard as she could.

The stone flew straight and true, helped by Jadie’s vines as well as her strength, and slammed into an alleyway just behind the squad with a loud smash. The palace soldiers spun around and searched the alley, no longer looking towards the carriage and its guards. And Gerard—whom Jadie saw had slipped out of the café without her noticing before—was glancing up at her with a gleam in his eyes. “Thanks,” he mouthed. “Now watch this.”

He stepped forward, heading towards the approaching group. Jadie’s breath caught as he reached them. A guard motioned for him to move aside, he nodded and began to do so…

And then Gerard the Fang made his move.

Despite her close focus, Jadie couldn’t see exactly what Gerard did, but suddenly a guard in front stumbled into a pedestrian. The guards rushed forward to help their comrade, some of the pedestrians didn’t move out of the way fast enough, and as the two groups pushed against each other, Gerard was shoved forward. He bumped into another guard, and this time Jadie did see Gerard’s technique, a little hook with his foot in a smooth, subtle maneuver, and that guard fell sideways, grabbed Gerard for balance, and almost thrust him towards the carriage to catch and stabilize himself. Now the pedestrians were mixing into the formation, the guards were trying to regain control—and Gerard let himself be buffeted and pushed forward, shoved by the crowd or pulled by falling guards, until he was at the carriage. He made a flicking motion with his hand, and for a moment, nothing happened.

Then one of the carriage wheels broke off.

He’d flung something, Jadie realized. Maybe a dart in just the right spot, maybe acid, maybe some spell to unmake the joint. Whatever it was, he’d broken the carriage—and nobody suspected a thing.

Now the guards were rushing all over the place, some trying to calm the whinnying horses, others trying to push back the pedestrians who crowded around the accident. Gerard wound up pushed against the carriage in the crush, ignored by all as they fought for control. Then the carriage door opened, and a fat man, dressed in ornate robes with a ridiculous number of expensive gemstones glittering amidst their fabric, jumped out, followed moments later by a little girl who was probably his daughter. Both brushed past Gerard as they hurried into the midst of their guards. “Get off the road!” the man screamed. “There’s an alley—get off the road, calm the horses, and fix the carriage! Do it now!”

“Just buy another!” called a wag from the crowd, “And next time, make sure the wheel doesn’t fall off!”

The rich man blushed red as everyone in the crowd laughed, and even Jadie was so caught up in the moment she didn’t realize for a few seconds that Gerard had slipped away. When she looked back, she saw nobody by the carriage except for the rich man’s entourage. The theft was already done.

Jadie played it back in her head and focused on when the rich man had brushed up against Gerard. That must have been it, she thought. He’d snuck his hand into the man’s pocket or robes and taken some incredibly valuable object. A signet ring, perhaps, which could be used as proof of identity to let Gerard impersonate the noble at, say, his bank in order to clean out his accounts. Or some magic wand with incredible powers. Or maybe Gerard was doing the same thing Jadie had done with Nemeroth; maybe this man had done something bad, and Gerard had slipped the proof into his pocket and was even now going to call the guards—

But then the girl patted her dress, gasped, patted it again, and began to cry. “Daddy!” she wailed. “My heirloom amulet is gone!”

And Jadie’s mouth dropped as she understood. Gerard the Fang hadn’t robbed the rich man, the merchant or noble whose ostentatious wealth practically screamed that he’d done something to deserve being taken down a peg.

Gerard the Fang had robbed a child.