Tag Archives: Aaron Canton

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.

The Golem-Maker of the City, Part Four

The Golem-Maker of the City
By Aaron Canton
—Part Four—

The next day was bright and sunny—Laika’s favorite weather—and she smiled out the stairwell window as she descended to the guild’s lobby, a set of six one-foot-high golems in tow behind her. “I’m going out, Mr. Renzeya!” she called once she’d reached the bottom floor. “I’ll be back for lunch!”

“That sounds fine,” responded Renzeya, who had poked his head into the lobby with a knowing grin. “Just don’t get into trouble.”

“Who? Me?” Laika chirped, affecting an expression of injured innocence. “I would never!”

Renzeya’s grin grew as he gestured to the door. “Go then,” he urged. “I’m sure you don’t want to keep your friends… or anyone else… waiting.”

Laika giggled before hurrying outside—stopping for only a moment to let her iron golems by the doorway bang their staves a few more times than usual, just for a little added ceremony—and then rushed towards the square. Her new golems chased after her, with only a couple bits getting caught in the rough cobblestones of the road and breaking off. They were fairly simple golems which she’d whipped up just since last afternoon, but she knew they were good enough to serve her purpose. “Come on!” she urged them as they advanced. “We gotta go take back the square!”

The golems saluted as they ran—she’d got them trained to do that, at least—and as she sped up, they matched pace until they all were tearing through the streets at a rush.

They reached the square in just a few minutes, where the situation looked much the same as it had the previous day. Most of the kids, Laika’s friends included, were clustered on the square’s sides and staring longingly at its center while the half-dozen mage apprentices watched Brandon waving his wand in a tightly-controlled pattern. Normally, Laika might have been curious enough to wait and see what kind of spell Brandon was casting, but she had a mission to complete, and they were losing precious minutes of playtime.  Instead, she skidded to a stop by her friends and murmured to her golems. “Now! Go now!”

“What are you doing?” Matthias asked as the golems hurried away into the crowd, cutting between people’s legs and even knocking a few people aside as they ran. They were short enough that they vanished almost immediately, and within thirty seconds, Laika knew none of her friends could see where they’d gone. “They’ll break your golems again—”

“Nope!” Laika grinned at him. “I’ve got a plan to get rid of them!”

“A plan?” Thomas grinned. “Awesome. Need any help?”

“Nope! But if Lyra wants to write a song about it later, that’d be really neat!” Laika turned to Lyra, who blushed—she was comfortable performing other people’s pieces, but composing and playing her own made her lose her confidence, so Laika always tried to remind her how good she was at it—and then gave a quick nod. Laika beamed at her, then spun on her heel to face the square. “Here I go. Wish me luck!”

“Good luck!” said all three of her friends at once, and Laika’s smile grew. It was nice to have friends, she thought. She’d never had them before—she’d been stuck in a shed making golems from dawn to dusk—but now that she did, she wouldn’t let anyone hurt them. Not even big kids with magic like Brandon and his gang. After all, she was strong too—more than strong enough to stop the bullies in their tracks.

And she had just the plan to do it.

She squared her shoulders and then advanced towards the square’s center as she had the previous day. “Hey, Brandon!” she called. “I wanna talk to you!”

Brandon sighed then turned toward her as a lazy, cruel grin spread across his face. “Again?” he said. “Where’s the golems? Learn your lesson?”

Laika shrugged. “I wanted to make a deal with you!” she chirped, counting seconds in her head. “So that you can use the square sometimes and we can use it sometimes. How’s that sound?”

“A deal?” Brandon looked at the other mages, most of whom were chuckling by this point, before turning back to her with a sneer. “And why, exactly, should members of the Vestigo Guild listen to a little kid like you?”

“Well,” said Laika, trying to match the conciliatory tone Reynoll used in his diplomatic negotiations. “There must be something you want…”

As she spoke, she saw her little golems advance out into the open from the side of the square behind the mages, all of whom were looking at her. They crept closer, their leafy feet completely silent on the ground, and their vine fingers twitching a little as they neared the mages.

“Oh really?” taunted Brandon. “’Cause right now I’m thinking all we want’s to be able to practice our magic in peace. What else you got that we would want?”

Reynoll had described many times how it could be useful to keep someone talking, and Laika knew all his tricks. “I got a lot!” she said, spreading her arms wide and inviting them to waste time laughing at her instead of paying attention to their surroundings. And sure enough, the big kids laughed and teased her—and the golems crossed more of the square as they snuck up on the mages.

“Like personal golems to do all our cleaning and chores and stuff?” asked another mage. “’Cause that could be nice.”

Brandon thought for a moment, then grinned. “You know what? I could go for a cleaning golem—in fact, I bet we all could. And hey, I guess if we ever needed more golems to do other stuff, we could just come back here, and you’d make them for us, right?” He chuckled. “So that we’d leave you alone—”

Then one of Laika’s little golems rushed up behind him, reached out with its vine fingers, and ripped his wand from his hand.

Brandon’s mouth dropped as the other mages drew their own wands, but it all happened so quickly that Brandon’s friends had no time to look behind them, where Laika’s remaining golems were standing. In moments, her other golems pounced and snatched up the remaining wands. They then ran behind Laika, who took the wands and beamed—her magic had worked perfectly. If Mr. Cenard had seen her, she knew he would have been proud. “How about this?” she asked. “I’ll give you your wands back if you agree to let everyone else use the square!”

The mages gaped—except for Brandon, who flushed. “Give those back!”

“Not unless you promise to let us use the—”

Brandon bunched up his fists and took a big step forwards. “Give,” he hissed. “Them. Back. Now.”

Laika thought for a moment—then stuck out her tongue at him. “Come get them!”

The kids around the square gasped, and then Brandon rushed her with a roar.

He was a big kid, and Laika knew that if she let him land any blows he could really hurt her. But she also knew, from Miss Naphkator, lots of tricks for avoiding that. As he ran at her she waited until the last minute, then dropped into a crouch, and as his fists swung over her head, she swept her arms out at just the right time. He ran right into her grasp, and she twisted to redirect his momentum outwards and send him stumbling away, until he tripped and smashed into the ground. “Ow!” he screamed, rolling over and revealing bruises and cuts on his face. “You jerk! I’m telling!”

“Telling what?” Laika asked. “You attacked me! And yesterday you broke my golems first too! Everyone saw it!”

Brandon’s eyes flashed as he hauled himself back up to his feet. “That’s not what my friends will say!” he snapped. “They’ll back me up, say you started it—”

“And say I somehow got all your wands without you noticing?” Laika grinned and waggled the wands at him, though she kept an eye on the other mages—all staring at the scene in shock—just in case they tried to intervene. “Okay, go ahead! Of course, they’ll want to know what happened and I guess you’ll have to explain how my golems beat all of you.” Her eyes twinkled. “Sound good?”

Brandon’s eyes darted back and forth for a moment before his face took on a darker shade of red. “Then maybe I won’t tell. I’ll just wipe the smile off your face—”

“And we can do this again?” Laika dropped into a combat form Naphkator had taught her, and even though Brandon was bigger than her, when he saw her steady, focused stance, he faltered. One hand went up to his bleeding cheek, and Laika smiled. “’Cause you might have had a lot of magic school, but I’ve gotten lessons from a real knight!”

The mage stiffened, but then his shoulders slumped. “Fine,” he hissed. “Whatever. Just give us back the stupid wands, and we’ll leave.”

All around the square other kids burst into applause, and Laika almost cheered at her own triumph. If she’d just beaten him in a fight like Miss Naphkator had suggested, he could have tattled, but now he couldn’t do that without embarrassing himself by admitting he and his friends had all lost their wands to Laika’s magic. And if she’d just used her magic to take their wands like Mr. Cenard had proposed, Brandon might have attacked her friends in revenge, but now he was too scared to do that. So he was giving up… and she hadn’t even had to bribe him with any golems to do it. “See?” Laika teased as she sorted through the wands. “I knew I had something you wanted!”

The mages all swore, in front of all the other kids, they would never try to stop anyone from playing in the square again. A couple seemed hesitant, but then Laika threatened to break their wands over her knee and they quickly gave in. She returned the wands after that, but not before carefully carving a strip from each of them with a pocketknife so she could still prove she’d had the wands at one point by showing how the strips fit the damage to each wand. This way, if Brandon went back on his word and tried to tattle, she’d be ready. Brandon scowled when she carved a piece off his wand, but he could do nothing about it except jam his wand into his pocket when he got it back and then turn around. “Let’s go,” he growled. “This square sucks anyways.”

“Bye!” called Laika as the mages scurried away, the other kids jeering too. “Don’t come back unless you wanna mess with me again!” She grinned, then turned back to the other kids. “Okay, what do you want to do—”

“Three cheers for Laika and her golems!” yelled Thomas from one side of the square. “Hip hip hooray!”

“ Hip hip hooray!” echoed the other kids.

Laika grinned, and at that moment, she knew the day was going to be absolutely perfect.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

When Laika returned to the guild a few hours later, she was still chewing the last of the warm honey rolls the others had bought for her, and at the same time, she was humming the new song Lyra had composed. She was just up to the verse about how Laika had thrown Brandon onto the ground with the force of a mighty avalanche when she walked into the guild’s lobby—and saw several adventurers looking at her.

“So?” Miss Naphkator asked, leaning against one wall and cocking a grin at her. “How’d the quest go?”

Laika quickly swallowed and then grinned at her. “It went great! The mages left, and I don’t think they’ll come back ever again! And then everyone bought me honey rolls and candy, and Lyra made up a new song for me, and now a bunch of kids want me to teach them fighting moves!” That had probably been the most fun part of the victory celebrations—everyone had been watching her as she explained and demonstrated how to do the move she’d used on Brandon, and then she’d had her golems help practice with the others until all the kids more or less had it down. “It was awesome!”

“I hope our advice was of some use to you,” said Mr. Cenard. He was leaning on his wizard’s staff near Reynoll, while Renzeya himself was waiting by the entrance to the bar and dining area. “Did you find it helpful?”

“Uh-huh!” Laika quickly nodded, and her golems behind her followed suit. “It was!”

“Well.” Renzeya stepped to one side so Laika could get through the door into the dining area. “In that case, I’d say it’s your turn, Laika.”

“My turn?”

“To tell us your story!” Miss Naphkator grinned. “We’ve told you plenty of ours—now you should tell us the great saga of how little Laika from the mountains beat a big, tough, Vestigo mage in front of everyone!”

Laika blinked, for a moment scarcely able to believe it. “You… want to hear my story?”

“Of course,” said Mr. Cenard. “After all, it does seem like you’ve had an impressive adventure.”

“Perhaps even worthy of being recorded in the guild’s journals,” Reynoll noted.

The golem-maker slowly grinned at the adventurers around her. And as she headed into the dining area, sitting down in the most comfortable chair and gathering her golems around her so she could point to them as needed during her story, she felt happier than she ever had before.

The Golem-Maker of the City, Part Three

The Golem-Maker of the City
By Aaron Canton
—Part Three—

Hours later, Laika had flopped down on her bed and was staring up at the ceiling when someone knocked on the door. “Laika?” called Mr. Renzeya’s voice. “Can I come in?”

“Uh-huh,” Laika managed. She groaned and looked up just in time to see Renzeya enter her room with a small tray of strawberries and cream. Even though that was one of her favorite dishes, she wasn’t feeling particularly hungry and didn’t smile or grab at the dish. “What’s going on?” she asked.

“I thought I would come see how you’re doing.” Renzeya set the tray on Laika’s nightstand and smiled down at her. “Have you figured out what you’ll do about the Vestigo Guild apprentices yet?”

She slowly shook her head. “Sorry.”

“Sorry?” Renzeya frowned, then shut the door behind him and knelt by her bed. He was a broad man with a muscular build that hadn’t changed since he’d been a mighty warrior with the Viscosan guard, but his hands were gentle as he helped slip a fresh pillow under Laika’s head so she could rest more comfortably. “You don’t need to be sorry.”

“Mmf.” Laika shook her head again and tried to push herself up, but she was exhausted—not least because she’d spent the past few hours pacing around her room as she tried to work out which of the three ideas the guild patrons had given her might actually get rid of Brandon and the other mages. “I know. I just… I should be better at this.”

“Why?” asked Renzeya, but his tone was gentle and not reproving. “Have you done anything like this before?”

“No, but…” Laika was silent for a long moment. Why did she feel like she should be better at this? If none of the other kids could solve the problem, why should she—who was still relatively new to town and who had rarely interacted with friends her own age before—be any better than her friends or any of the other kids?

“But I am really good at magic,” she continued at last. “I can do all kinds of things. And back where I grew up, the mayor always said, because I had power, it was my job to use it to help people. But now I can’t use my powers to do anything useful.”

Renzeya’s frown deepened. “The mayor took advantage of you. Just because you have a gift doesn’t mean you’re obligated to work without end like he had you do. And your golems are very useful. Don’t sell yourself short—”

“I know,” she quickly interjected. “But I still feel like I should be able to do something! I mean, I have all kinds of people helping me—Miss Naphkator and Mr. Cenard and Mr. Reynoll, and Mr. Grannick when he brought me here, and you—and I still can’t figure out which of their ideas is the best one!” She pushed herself up at that. “I don’t want to waste…”

She trailed off, but Renzeya tilted his head and said, “What would you be wasting? Not their time, surely?”

Laika turned away.

“Laika.” Renzeya moved around the girl’s bed so she was looking at him again. “Nobody here is teaching you anything expecting you to beat up a bully every month.” Laika did smile a little at that, and Renzeya went on. “They’re teaching you because they like it. Because you’re a good student who listens and practices and wants to someday use what they teach you to do amazing things. You’ve already repaid them, every time you come in for another lesson and remember everything from the last one. And Grannick’s happy just to know you’re living your life here, away from the village that did you wrong. He’s always eager to hear of what you’ve been up to, even if it’s just running around with your friends. You’re not wasting anything.”

A slow smile formed on Laika’s face, and she thought back to when Naphkator had grinned after Laika had learned a complicated blocking move, or when Reynoll had bought her a candy once she could recite a couple of his stories verbatim, or when Cenard’s eyes had actually twinkled after she’d mastered a meditation technique. And of course there was Grannick, whom Laika recalled was always happy to see her even if she really hadn’t been up to much since he’d last left. But then she thought of the other people she was worried about letting down and her smile slipped. “What about my friends, though? Don’t I need to help them?”

“And I know you will,” said Renzeya. “Because you are a very talented girl. But I’m sure they’d understand if you didn’t come up with a perfect plan the first day, wouldn’t they?”

“I guess…”

“There you go.” Renzeya patted her shoulder. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Laika thought for a long moment before slowly nodding. Renzeya had been a great warrior himself, and he’d probably fought loads of bullies. She knew he had to know what he was talking about. And even in her village, she sometimes had to take a day or two to work out a golem problem—surely it was all right she hadn’t quite figured this one out yet. “All right,” she said. “And I’ll think about it some more. Try to figure out which of the plans they told me downstairs is best.”

Renzeya paused and a slow smile crossed his face. “Do you have to use one of those plans?”

“Well, no, but… Naphkator and the others are real smart!” Laika insisted. “They could all make their own plans work.”

“Yes, but they aren’t you,” said Renzeya. “Naphkator likes fighting, so she’s tough enough to fight people and make them back down. Cenard likes magic, so he has experience using spells to win fights. Reynoll likes being diplomatic and making deals, so he’s great at negotiating with people standing in his way. What do you like?”

Laika blinked. “I like all those things. I really like using magic to make golems—but I also like Miss Naphkator’s fighting training, and sometimes I like just talking to people.” She paused as something occurred to her. “Hey… could I maybe use a little of all their plans?”

“I don’t see why not,” said Renzeya. “In fact, if it’s your own idea, it’s probably better suited to you than any of theirs. What did you have in mind?”

Laika described the ideas she was pulling together in her mind, combining little bits of Naphkator’s, Cenard’s, and Reynoll’s ideas. Renzeya occasionally chimed in with a suggestion of his own, but he didn’t seem to feel she needed many of those, and Laika felt her smile growing as the plan came together. “I think this will work!” she said as she finished, eyes gleaming again. “And Brandon won’t know what hit him!”

“It sounds good to me. Let me know if you need any help—although, personally, I think you’ll do fine on your own.” Renzeya stood and flashed a brilliant grin at Laika. “As for materials, we’ve got some stone and lumber out back for the new wing of the guild, but I don’t think it’ll be a problem if you take a few pieces. Want me to send some up?”

“Yes, please!” said Laika at once. “Thank you! And—if it’s not much trouble—maybe a few other materials?” She named them. “Please?”

Renzeya chuckled and agreed before wishing Laika good luck on her quest and leaving her to her work. A few minutes later, porters came up with the supplies, and Laika busily started creating everything she’d need to put her plan into action.

The Golem-Maker of the City, Part Two

The Golem-Maker of the City
By Aaron Canton
—Part Two—

Laika stumbled back to the Adventurers Guild, head drooping and feet dragging, and went right to the stairs to go up to her room. Normally she would have stopped in the bar and dining area first so she could listen to the adventurers talking about the awesome quests they had completed and the great battles they had triumphed in, or—if the bar had been quiet—would have curled up in a corner with one of the diaries or journals retired adventurers had donated to Renzeya’s library. But this time, her only goal was collapsing into bed and hoping the stupid day would just end already.

“Laika?” She turned to see Renzeya passing through the lobby with a great jeweled sword in his hands. “Are you all right?”

She was silent for a moment before shaking her head. “Some mage kids broke my golems,” she said quietly. “And they threw me an’ my friends out of the square so we can’t play there anymore.”

“What?” Renzeya looked baffled for a moment before frowning. “That doesn’t sound right. Why don’t you come in here and tell me all about it?”

For a moment, Laika wanted to keep going. That was what she’d done back in her hometown, after all. When she’d been sad or upset, it had been her duty to hide that from all the villagers, get back to work making golems, and let whatever was bothering her fade on its own. But she wasn’t in her hometown anymore, she thought; Grannick had brought her here. She could be sad in public now. “Okay,” she managed, turning to the bar. “That sounds good.”

The dining area was nearly full, a sign there was a big quest or job somewhere that adventurers were getting ready for, but Renzeya got her a seat in a big chair with a comfortable cushion. A few moments later a rich bowl of stew, a thick piece of cinnamon-spiced nut bread, and a big glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice were set in front of her. “So,” said Renzeya, sitting across from her as if she was his only concern. “What exactly happened?”

Laika quickly recounted the story as she dug into the food, and between the rich, savory taste of the chicken in the stew and the sweet spiciness of the bread, she began to feel a little better. But when she got to the part where Brandon had broken her golems, she felt her spirits drooping over again. “He said his magic was important and mine was stupid,” she murmured. “And then he broke them, and I couldn’t pick up the pieces because he made me leave the square.”

Renzeya nodded. “And so you’re upset because they broke your golems?”

The girl began to nod before stopping herself. “That’s part of it, but…” She thought for a moment as she carefully split off part of the crust of the nut bread so she could savor it by itself. “My friends still couldn’t use the square, and I felt really bad about it. Like I should have been able to help them.”

“Hmm.” Renzeya leaned back. “Well. That’s a very mature response, Laika. It sounds like you’re already thinking like a leader.”

Laika smiled a little, but it quickly fell when she looked back into her rapidly cooling stew. “What should I do, Mr. Renzeya?” she asked. “Back home the mayor wanted me to be happy making golems for him, so he stopped anyone who was being mean to me—I never had to do it myself. And they said adults can’t help now because the mages are super important.”

“Well, the Vestigo Guild is vital to the city,” mused Renzeya. “So they do have influence. And they may well be willing to hush up misconduct from their apprentices rather than let them draw the guild’s name into disrepute.” The guild leader grimaced, fierce anger visible on his face, and for a moment Laika could see why nobody even thought about starting trouble in Renzeya’s guildhall. “You may have to deal with this yourself—assuming you don’t simply rebuild your golems and find another square.”

“I don’t wanna find another square!” Laika insisted. “It’s not fair. We were there first, and we weren’t even stopping them from playing. We just wanted to play too!” She crossed her arms. “I wanna make them let us back into the square and to promise never to break my golems—or anyone’s toys—ever again. But I don’t know what to do.”

“Why not just punch him in the nose?”

Laika brightened a little and turned as Renzeya looked up at Lily Naphkator, who had moved next to their table with a tankard of beer and a plate piled high with chicken drumsticks and roasted potatoes. Lily was a tall, wiry woman with brown skin, a jagged scar across her right cheek, and a rapier at her side with a big diamond set in the hilt. As far as Laika was concerned, Lily was one of the coolest adults ever. “Punch him?” Laika repeated. “Would that be okay?”

“Why not? Sounds like that mage twerp hit you first by breaking your golems. ‘Scuze me, kid.” Lily dropped into the seat next to Laika and bit a large chunk off a drumstick. “Just give him one right in the face. He’s a mage, right? Most of them are pretty bad in a brawl—and unlike you, he hasn’t been trained by one of the best duelists in the land.” She smirked. “He’ll go down like a sack of potatoes, and he won’t bother you anymore.”

“But…” Laika glanced at Renzeya, who was frowning, before turning back to Lily. “What if he tells someone and gets me in trouble? Or Mr. Renzeya?”

“Just tell him that if he does that, you’ll come back and beat him up again.” Lily took a long draught from her tankard. “Did that myself once. A minor noble wanted my family’s ancestral lands, so he bribed a barrister—that’s someone who says what’s legal and what isn’t—to fake up a title deed saying he was the real owner of my manor. Then he had his goons try to evict me for trespassing.” Her eyes gleamed, and Laika—as she always did during Lily’s stories—leaned forwards so she could hear better. “I thrashed his goons, of course, but when I went to thrash him, he got all smug and said he’d have me thrown in jail. So—did I leave?”

“Uh-uh!” said Laika, who knew Lily never backed down from any confrontation when she was convinced she was in the right.

“’Course not!” Lily continued. “He had this big marble statue in his yard, so I grabbed my enchanted mace from my pack, went up to it, and bam!” She mimed swinging a mace. “Knocked it down in one strike, made him go all white and gape like a fish.” She bulged her cheeks in a fish-like way, drawing laughter from Laika. “Before I left, I told him that if he tried to have me arrested, I’d bring his mansion down on top of his head. Next day, I heard he’d taken an early visit to his summer home in Cranebridge. That was three years ago; I’m pretty sure he’s still there.”

Laika clapped at the end of the story, but as Lily took another swig from her tankard, the girl’s brow knitted. It was one thing for Lily to threaten someone, she thought, but Lily was really strong. Even if Laika could hit Brandon hard enough to make him not want to tangle with her again, she didn’t think she could make him so scared that he wouldn’t even tell his teachers what she’d done. He’d go to them and cause a lot of trouble for her and her friends.

“Aw, come on, Lily. You’re always about the smashing.” Laika turned again to see the wizard Averic Cenard approaching. He was a short, red-faced man who had a big black mustache and walked with a cane that doubled as his wizard’s staff. He was wearing his formal robes, which Laika knew meant he was meeting with other wizards that day. “Ever hear of the subtle arts?”

“Sure.” Lily grinned. “Those’re the arts where you chant for half a day to cast a spell on the bad guys, except by then all the real warriors already showed up, beat up the bad guys, and made off with all the loot.”

Cenard chuckled and sat next to Renzeya. “Ah, but when one spell can best an army of villains, perhaps spending the day casting it is preferable to spending a fortune hiring ‘real warriors’ by the dozen to fight them.” He steepled his fingers as Lily laughed and Laika smiled, familiar with their longstanding argument. “In any event, Laika, you have a prodigious talent for one so young. Why not beat this Brandon fellow at his own game? Show your magic is superior to his. Embarrass him off the field.”

Laika tilted her head. Cenard had taught her a few techniques, mostly for gathering up her magic to build stronger golems, but when she thought back to them, she couldn’t recall any that would guarantee her a victory. “But he’s got more training than me, and he’s older. What if he’s better?”

“You have a rare talent for one so young—I think it highly unlikely he can beat you, particularly as he’s quite likely to underestimate you.” Cenard’s eyes twinkled. “He won’t know what hit him, and he’ll be forced to back down… without any claim against you he can bring to the adults in his guild.”

Laika nodded, but her smile had faded. If Laika beat him in a magic show instead of a fistfight, then he might not be able to go to the adults like he would if she hurt him—he’d just look whiny—but he also wouldn’t be scared of her coming back. He’d just be embarrassed, and he might even seek revenge on her or her friends. Laika couldn’t have that.

Meanwhile, a third figure had stepped over from a nearby table. Renzeya nodded at the figure of Reynoll, an official whom Laika knew often served as the point of contact between the government and the mercenaries it occasionally hired. Reynoll had no weapons training or magic to teach Laika, but he knew more about the history of the city than anyone else Laika had met, and he was often willing to fill in the gaps—or correct the lies—in the adventurer journals Laika read for fun. “I couldn’t help overhearing,” said Reynoll, his northern accent perfectly crisp as usual. “And might I suggest a third option? That of diplomacy?”

“Diplomacy?” repeated Laika.

“Yes. He holds the square. You want the square. Surely there is a trade you could work out.” Reynoll munched on a piece of oat bread covered in melted goat cheese. “Perhaps if you gave him a golem, he would leave you alone. And then you would need not fear retaliation from him or his superiors.”

But that also felt wrong to Laika. Brandon was in the wrong, and he’d broken her favorite golems, so why should she give him anything? And besides, she didn’t want to be forced to make golems for people that would mistreat her anymore. She hadn’t done that since leaving her hometown, and she wouldn’t start again!

Renzeya glanced at her and seemed to notice her frowning. “I think we’ve all given her enough advice, lads,” he said. “Maybe we could let her be.” He then looked back down at Laika. “But if you do want to talk things over, I’ll be up later, okay?”

Laika nodded, and as the others got up to go, she returned to her food.  Although she tucked in with gusto and was as nice as she could be to Renzeya and everyone else who greeted her, Laika’s mind was still uneasy. She had to deal with Brandon, she knew, but despite all the advice she’d been given…

She had absolutely no idea how.

The Golem Maker of the City, Part One

The Golem-Maker of the City
By Aaron Canton
—Part One—

“Mr. Renzeya, can I go out to play?” Laika beamed up at Renzeya with her brightest smile. “I finished my lunch, washed the dishes, and cleaned up my room. And a few of my friends and I were gonna practice sparring in the town square! So… can I?”

Cedric Renzeya, veteran of the Viscosan guard and current head of Viscosa’s Adventurers Guild, looked over his desk at her with an amused expression. They were in his office, a large room in the rear of the guild with racks of weapons, shelves of books, and several maps lining the walls. “I don’t know,” he drawled, leaning back a little in his chair. “Is that really the only reason you want to go out?”

Laika blushed a little—Renzeya was too good at reading her, she thought. “Well… there’s also a bakery with a special on honey rolls today, and I was thinking maybe I could stop in?” She clasped her hands together and looked right into his eyes as she smiled. “Please? Just to get one piece?”

Renzeya let the moment extend for a moment longer before flashing a smile of his own and gesturing at the door. “Of course. Have fun with your friends, Laika—but remember: one piece. If you’re going to be a great hero someday—”

“I have to eat right, I know. Thanks, Mr. Renzeya!” Laika was already scampering out the door and down the short hallway to the main lobby of the guild. “I’ll be back for dinner!”

She rushed through the lobby, greeting the various adventurers who said hello to her. Though she’d grown a couple inches since she’d been brought to the guild and now wore shiny, sparkling dresses instead of the faded brown ones she’d arrived in, she otherwise didn’t look too different from when she’d first arrived. She had the same long blond hair tied into braids, the same bright blue eyes, the same charming smile that had helped make her lots of friends. And so, even though some of the patrons had been gone for months on various adventures, almost everyone recognized and waved at her. “Hey, Laika!” called one of the regulars, a middle-aged mercenary named Lily Naphkator, known for her skill with a rapier. “Gonna go show your friends what I’ve been teaching you?”

“Of course!” chirped Laika, flashing a quick grin at Miss Naphkator before vaulting onto the stairs. “Thomas said he was a better sparrer than me, and I gotta prove him wrong!”

No sooner had she run into her room than two of her golems, Rosie and Lim-Lim, turned from their posts by her bed and trotted to her side, prompting another smile to appear on her face. Laika was a natural at making golems, and while she didn’t have to make dozens of them every day anymore—the warrior called Grannick had taken her away from the village where she’d been cooped up in a shed and forced to build as many as the mayor could sell to neighboring villages—she still liked experimenting with her talents and learning how to build better golems out of new materials. Both Rosie and Lim-Lim were basic humanoids about as tall as Laika herself and didn’t look much different from any other golem she had made.  Rosie still smelled as sweet as when Laika had first crafted her out of bits of rosewood, and the limestone that comprised Lim-Lim was so easy to work with that Laika found it simple to give him fun add-ons like cat ears and tails, so they were definitely her favorites. “Come on!” she called to her golems as they helped gather up sticks and wooden bucklers for sparring and coins for the honey rolls. “We gotta go!”

The golems saluted—Lim-Lim bonking himself in the head in the process, which Laika made a note to look into later—and then chased after her as she rushed back out of her room.

Laika hurried down the stairs and out the front door of the guild, passing the two iron golems she’d built as sentinels, which obediently banged their staves down whenever she or Mr. Renzeya entered or left the building. Once outside and on the sunny streets of Viscosa, she quickly straightened her green dress—a present from a guild member whom she’d loaned a housekeeping golem for a few weeks—so the flecks of emerald in its fabric sparkled in the sun. Then she was racing to the nearby town square where she knew Thomas, Matthias, and Lyra would be waiting. “Hey!” she called as she approached the square, her golems easily keeping pace with her and drawing interested glances from passersby. “Hey, Thomas, ready to play? Thomas—”

She reached the square but skidded to a halt when she saw it was almost empty. While the cobblestones were usually swarming with other kids running around and playing games at this time of day, now the only people in the square proper were a half-dozen kids—maybe two or three years older than Laika herself—standing in the center. They all wore green habits, which Laika recognized as the uniform of the Vestigo Mage Guild, and a blocky blond boy waved his wand around while the others watched.

“Laika!” called a voice. The girl turned to see her friends and several other kids standing against the wall of a nearby building facing the square. She approached them as Thomas, the one who had called to her, gestured at the young mages. “Can you believe this? They won’t let anyone else play!”

“Why not?” asked Laika. Her golems formed up behind her as she looked out into the square. “They’re barely using any of it!”

Thomas shrugged. He had brown hair, hazel eyes, and an athletic build that made him look kind of cute in Laika’s opinion—though she would never admit that out loud. “They just said nobody else can use it.”

“And they’re mages,” added Matthias, a short boy with scraggly black hair. “If we do anything, they could turn us into frogs!”

Laika frowned, thinking back to something another Adventurers Guild regular had told her once. “Mr. Cenard says that’s really hard,” she said at last. “And he’s a real mage, and he can do all kinds of cool stuff, so he’d know. I bet they can’t do any of that.” She looked at the kids. “I’m gonna go talk to them!”

“Be careful!” murmured Lyra. She was a lithe girl who always had her little lute with her and had appointed herself the de facto bard of the group. “I mean, I know you’re a super-powerful golem-maker and all, but… but those kids are scary!”

Laika just grinned and waved for her golems to follow her, then jogged up to the mages while the other kids watched. “Excuse me!” she called as she approached. “Um, my friends and I want to—”

“Beat it!” The blond mage snapped, not looking away from the others. “We’re using this square to practice magic. Go play somewhere else!”

A scowl crossed Laika’s face. “It’s not yours!” she insisted. “Everyone should be able to use it!”

“Are you deaf?” the kid snapped. “I—”

“Brandon, wait,” said another mage. “She’s got magic too. Look.”

Brandon finally looked up at Laika, and then his gaze moved to the golems behind her. Laika grinned and waved at the golems, who quickly ran through a series of poses she found impressed people. “Right,” she said. “I do also have magic! And me and my friends—and the other kids—want to play too. So—” A sneer ran across Brandon’s face, and she trailed off. “What?”

“We’re apprentices in the Vestigo Guild,” Brandon snapped. “You know, the most important mages guild in Raleigh? The one responsible for guarding the king and the nobles from any dark wizards that might try to hurt him? We’re learning important magic, and we have to practice. That’s a lot more important than letting a novice like you play with stupid constructs like those.”

Laika flushed red. “Rosie and Lim-Lim aren’t stupid!” she yelled. “They’re—”

“You named them? Wow.” Brandon twirled his wand for a moment, and then a wicked gleam came to his eyes. “Here, let me teach you some real magic.” With a snap of his wrist, two bolts of green light flashed out of his wand, and both of Laika’s golem’s shuddered and collapsed back into little pieces of wood and stone, their animating magic gone.

“What? No!” Laika’s mouth dropped as she stared at the ruins of her golems. “You can’t—you—”

“Why not? You gonna tell on us?” taunted Brandon. “Our instructors keep the city safe. I don’t think your family’ll want to mess with them—or us.”  He shoved Laika hard enough to make her stumble into the rubble that had been her golems. “Now get out of here, kid!”

The other mages laughed, and Laika was tempted for a moment to turn back and punch them in the nose.  Instead she lowered her head and slowly retreated away from the wood and stone that had been her favorite toys.

The Golem Maker of the Hills, Part Four

The Golem Maker of the Hills
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part Four-

 

The next morning was bright and sunny, though the mountain chill remained in the air and hit Grannick as soon as he stepped out of the inn. Rather than complaining, though, he stretched and tilted his head so the wind played over his face and helped rouse him. That, at least, was familiar; the inn with its draft-proof walls, luxurious mattress, and fine mulled wine he’d had with his dinner had seemed like another world.

“Do you need anything else, sir?” asked the innkeeper, a slight man named Nerril. “Breakfast? Perhaps you’d like to borrow some archery equipment to go goat hunting?”

Grannick looked back at him. “I don’t need anything right now. But if you could gather everyone in the town square in an hour, I’d appreciate it.”

Nerril frowned. “Why?”

“It is for…” Grannick trailed off, and for a moment he wondered how someone good at this, like Laika, would respond. “A surprise,” he finally said. “One that everyone in the village needs to see.” He smiled, trying to match Laika’s energy. “Nobody will want to miss it.”

Nerril still looked confused, but Grannick saw a hint of intrigue on the man’s face as well. “All right. I’ll tell my staff,” he said, then hurried back inside. A moment later, Grannick heard him call, “Madelor, get up! Meeting at the town square in an hour!”

For a moment, Grannick was reminded of his first real battle, when he’d gone up against a massive boar, survived its attempts to gore him, and ultimately smashed its head in. Like then, his heart rushed, and a fiery exuberance spread through him. He chuckled quietly, then caught himself and hurried off to tell others about the meeting.

Over seventy people were in the town square by the time the hour was up, Maltra—though not Laika—among them. There were also about twenty golems made of stone, mud, grass, and even one of marble present. The mayor walked up to Grannick before the latter man took the stage. “Mr. Aldermair,” he said. “I heard you called a meeting. Do you mind me asking what for?”

“I wanted to talk to the whole town about the golems I’m ordering,” said Grannick. He leapt onto the stage despite the heavy armor he was wearing, earning a few claps and whistles from the crowd.

Maltra frowned, and Grannick again felt a foggy confusion creeping over him, but he pushed past it. Laika, he guessed, would just start talking to people without getting sidetracked, and he would do the same. So he turned away from Maltra and called, “Everyone! I’d like to talk to you about the golems of this town! I—”

The crowd immediately applauded, and Grannick saw a few other children cheering on their parents’ shoulders. He winced and held up a hand. “I am a mercenary who hunts bandits,” he said. “But there is only one of me, and there are a lot of bandits.” He paused as a few people laughed. “So I want to buy some golems to help me. I was thinking…fifty or so.”

A hush fell over the crowd, and then the applause and cheers returned, even louder than before. Maltra’s suspicion fled from his face, replaced by naked greed, and he smiled unctuously as he climbed on stage and then bowed. “We are at your service,” he said. “And would be happy to provide you with all you might need for your duties.”

Grannick nodded. “However, I cannot stay long. There are too many bandits. And I must leave soon to fight them.” He paused, wishing he knew how to make his thoughts fit together better when he spoke, but he plunged on like he was sure Laika would do. “How long will it take you to fill my order? If longer than a week, I must—“

“We can do it in three days!” said Maltra, earning another round of gasps and whistles from the crowd. “Of course, there will be an express fee, but for an order of that size, I’m sure a sizable discount could be arranged.”

“Yeah, Laika’s real fast!” shouted a kid from the front row. “She can make a mud golem in two seconds!”

So the townspeople didn’t know what Laika was going through, Grannick thought. They believed she could whip up golems in a few moments, like she’d shown Grannick, and didn’t know that she took so long to make a saleable golem that she was working fifteen-hour days. “That works,” he said. “But first, can I talk to Laika again? I have, uh, a few more questions.”

“Of course, of course!” said Maltra, beaming. “Anything you say, sir!”

He left and returned ten minutes later with Laika stumbling behind him. Her hair had been styled into more elaborate braids, and she was now wearing a fancy blue dress, but the dark circles under her eyes were visible. When they got to the stage, Maltra nudged her, and after a moment, she pressed her hands together and managed to chirp, “Hi, Mr. Grannick! What would you like to know?”

There was forced cheer in her voice, and Grannick wondered if Maltra had threatened to increase her workload if she made him look bad. A white-hot rage coursed through him again, but he kept his hands off his war hammer and said, “I want golems to help me hunt bandits. If I asked you for fifty golems, could you make them for me?”

Laika looked down, looking small and exhausted. But when she spoke, it was with a bright, “Yes, sir!”

“Is that more than you usually make?” He looked back at Maltra. “What kind of orders does she usually—”

“I can do it,” interjected Laika, shooting a quick glance towards the smiling Maltra as she spoke. “I do orders like that all the time.”

“You do?” Grannick frowned and tried to look confused, which wasn’t hard. “How long does it take you to make each golem? I’ve heard that archmages spend weeks on a single one.”

Laika opened her mouth but then hesitated, and then Grannick saw a glimmer in her eyes like she knew what he was doing. “Not me,” she said at last, speaking a little more strongly. “I can make one golem an hour.”

Nobody spoke for a few moments, and then the crowd began to murmur as a few people worked out how many hours per day Laika would have to work to meet the deadline her father had set. For the benefit of the rest, Grannick added, “But your father said you could turn out this order in three days. If you do one an hour, won’t you be working…?” He took a few moments to do the math himself. “About seventeen hours a day for the next three days?”

The crowd started to look uneasy. Maltra’s smile slowly faded into a grimace, and then he said, “Well, she doesn’t usually work those kinds of hours…but you’re a special customer who needs our help to keep us all safe. After all, we wouldn’t want bandits to get through while we were waiting for more golems, would we? Now—”

Grannick turned away from him and looked at Nerril. “What was the most golems this town ever sold in a day?”

Nerril hesitated. “Well, three months ago there was that trade caravan that got lost and stumbled into our valley. When those merchants learned about us, they all wanted one…think they took home about twenty or so. Left the very next morning.” He paused, then turned to Maltra. “Wait. You said Laika could make one golem every few minutes. Now you’re saying she needed twenty hours for that order?”

“No, no.” Maltra forced a laugh. “The one-hour is just for the very best, hardiest golems she makes, the kind that this mercenary would need. For common, conventional golems she really does need just a few minutes—”

“But Mr. Maltra,” said Laika, “You told me I’m not supposed to make golems fast anymore because they fall apart too quick and you can’t sell them. You said that all my golems need to last for at least three months, and you know I need at least an hour to make a golem last that long.”

Maltra’s face had gone pale, but Grannick didn’t give him a chance to recover. “Laika,” he said. “How many hours a day do you spend building golems?”

“Fifteen, Mr. Grannick,” she said, eliciting gasps from the crowd. “Mr. Maltra says if I spend less time on it then I’m letting everyone down.”

“Now, dear, don’t tell stories,” Maltra hastily interjected, before turning to the others. “You know my ward has a very fanciful imagination. She told you all last year that I was overworking her, but you all saw that wasn’t true—”

“You told us it wasn’t true, and we believed you because you’re the mayor!” shouted an elegantly dressed woman. “But now you yourself said she needs an hour to make each golem and that you’ll have her do fifty in three days!”

“Liar!” screamed someone else.

Maltra hurriedly glanced between Laika, Grannick, and the crowd before settling on the latter. “Look, even if…even if the situation isn’t ideal, we can all see how essential my girl is for our economy. Without her, we’d still be a ramshackle collection of huts. Now we have a proper smithy, a full inn, two taverns, a cleric—”

“We didn’t know you were making your daughter work sixteen-hour days to get those things!” shouted an older man. “What’s wrong with you?”

The crowd surged forward against the stage, forcing Maltra to back up. He grabbed at his daughter, but Grannick stepped between them. “You should go,” said Grannick. “I don’t think they want you as mayor anymore.”

Maltra scowled, but when he advanced on Grannick, the hulking mercenary let his hand drop a few inches closer to his hammer, and the mayor’s face lost all color. He turned and rushed away.

Then Grannick realized Laika was hugging him. “Thank you, Mr. Grannick!” she said, leaning her head against him as if tempted to go to sleep. “Mr. Maltra says I have a duty to make golems for the town, but…”

“He was wrong,” said Grannick.

Laika was quiet for a moment. “Mr. Grannick? If I stop making golems, is the town going to be hurt?”

Grannick paused, wishing he’d thought further ahead. “I don’t know. I—”

“Excuse me.”

Grannick and Laika both turned to see a collection of well-dressed individuals Grannick guessed were the merchant class in town. Nerril was there, as well as a broad-shouldered man with soot-stained hands who was probably the smith, a woman Grannick had briefly seen that morning running the general store, and a few others.

“We wanted to apologize,” continued Nerril, looking at Laika. “We didn’t know how your father was treating you.”

“And we also wanted to say you don’t need to worry about golems anymore,” said the blacksmith. “We’ll be fine if you stop.”

“Really?” Laika asked. “Mr. Maltra said the town would collapse.”

The shopkeeper shook her head. “We’ll use the golems you already made to carve a road out of the mountains; they should last long enough for that. The inn, smithy, everything else you earned for us, we can use them to make this town into a base for whoever wants to come here. There’s always trade caravans coming over these mountains. A proper town with an inn, shops, a doctor, and everything else people might need will have plenty of business.”

Laika brightened and then straightened up as if a load had been removed from her shoulders. Grannick couldn’t help but smile. “That’s great!” she said. “That’s really, really great!”

The merchants apologized a few more times, which Laika accepted, and then the crowd dispersed. Laika stayed with Grannick, though, and after a few moments she asked him, “Where should I go now, Mr. Grannick? My parents are dead, and Mr. Maltra won’t want me anymore.”

Grannick hesitated for a long moment. “Would you like to come with me?” he asked at last.

Laika’s mouth dropped. “Really?”

“Yes.” Grannick knelt so he was level with Laika. “I was sent into these mountains to find the gold from that wagon. But you found it first, so you deserve a share of the reward. I can take you back to the city with me so you can get it, and then we can find a place for you to stay.” There were mages Grannick knew of that might want a talented apprentice and a few nobles who might appreciate the chance to have an heir with talents besides squandering the family estate. Social situations still weren’t his strong suit, but with Laika helping him, he was sure he’d find her something.

“Yay!” Laika hugged Grannick again. “Although…does that mean I have to give up Goldie?”

“Yes,” said Grannick. “It belongs to someone else. But don’t worry. In the city, there’s all kinds of toys and other things you could make golems out of, if you wanted. I could help you look.”

Laika was silent for a few moments, and Grannick worried she was upset over the loss of her favorite toy, but then she nodded. “I want a really good toy in exchange for Goldie, though.” she said. “Promise?”

Grannick grinned. “Promise.”

As Laika ran off to get her golem, Grannick rose. For the first time in ages, he realized, he felt good while within the boundaries of an inhabited settlement.

Maybe other people weren’t so bad after all.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“You have no idea how grateful we are,” Vanarl said from across the table. The merchant’s face was the picture of contentment, and he’d just set down a tip for the waiter that was more than the price of his actual meal. “Losing all that gold would have been catastrophic for my branch of the guild. Believe me, when we have any future jobs, you’ll be the first name we think of.”

Grannick grunted his approval, paused, and then said, “Thanks.” He was sitting at ease on a rough chair in the Renzeya Adventurers Guild and drinking a mug of ale. “Anytime.”

Vanarl nodded, then inclined his head as someone made a squeaking sound near the top of the staircase. “And how is she doing?”

“Laika?” A smile came unbidden to Grannick’s face. “She’s good. Thanks for understanding—”

Before he could say anything else, a gleeful squeal sounded, and Laika slid down the stairs on a few carpet squares which had been golem-ized and were gamely gripping onto Laika with their edges.  They also hovered just above the stairs, courtesy of a spell cast by one of the more magically inclined adventurers who frequented the guild. “Wheee!” squealed Laika. “Yay!”

“She seems to be fitting in well,” said Vanarl. “I suppose it’s a more hospitable environment than her home, anyways.”

Grannick had debated adopting Laika himself, but he knew it was impossible; he routinely went on missions into war zones, bandit strongholds, and environments so inhospitable they made the mountain valley look like pleasant farmland, none of which were any place for a young girl. So when he’d stopped at the Adventurers Guild and notified the couriers he’d completed his mission for Vanarl, he’d also mentioned to Cedric Renzeya himself that he had a little girl with him and needed to rent her a room for a few days while he worked out what to do with her.

But Laika was so excited during her stay in the guild—spending hour after hour listening to the other adventurers tell their stories, playing with children of the other warriors who sometimes stopped in to see their parents, or curled up with the journals of heroes who had left copies of their memoirs in the guild’s extensive library—that she didn’t want to leave. When Cedric Renzeya had seen her using a little golem to sweep out her room so she didn’t have to ‘waste time’ that could be spent playing, he’d broached the idea of having her stay permanently. Grannick, who could find no flaw in the arrangement, had agreed.

The most notable signs of Laika’s presence in the guild were the new golems wandering around. While Renzeya had pledged to never force Laika to make golems, he’d also given her access to various unusual stones, metals, and plants in case she wanted to practice, so she usually spent an hour or two a day making golems out of new things and seeing what they could do. The golems in turn were put to work at various little jobs around the guild, from sweeping out the rooms, to caring for an ill adventurer with a contagious disease that might have infected a human caretaker, to guarding the door. The latter task was handled by two iron behemoths who had been trained to knock down any intruder and to bow and bang their staves in unison when Renzeya or Laika herself came in to make for a more dramatic entrance.

Grannick also noted that a few new books about swashbuckling pirates had found their way into the guild library, and the backyard now frequently featured ”sparring practice” where Laika and a half-dozen other children dueled with golems while the actual warriors of the guild—most of whom had been charmed by Laika’s cheerful attitude and helpful nature—shouted advice and encouragement. “Yes,” she said. “She’s doing well. And she—”

“Mr. Grannick! Mr. Vanarl! Hi!” Laika scurried over. “Thank you again for the gift! I love my new dress!” She glanced down at the brilliant blue fabric of her outfit, which had been enchanted by a mage in Vanarl’s merchant guild to always sparkle and glimmer even in the worst lighting—their way of showing their appreciation, Vanarl had said, for Laika’s help in securing the gold and bringing it back to him. “It’s really pretty!”

“Thank you,” said Vanarl, smiling at her. “It’s good to see you again, Laika.”

Laika beamed and turned back to Grannick. “Are you gonna stay long? Miss Naphkator’s been teaching me some really cool sparring moves, and I wanna show you!”

Grannick nodded, and Laika’s smile somehow got even wider. “Thanks, Mr. Grannick!” she called before scurrying off. “You’re amazing!”

Vanarl chuckled. “I don’t remember you ever staying in town longer than you needed to before,” he said. “And for that matter…the job I mentioned, with that bandit ‘king’ in Warus I need you to stop before he intercepts our next shipment. I suppose you don’t need to leave for a few days since our convoy’s been delayed anyways, but…waiting around like this isn’t like you, is it?”

He trailed off, and Grannick shrugged. “I guess not. I’ve never really got along with other people. But…I’m learning that some of them are worth getting along with.”

He grinned and raised his glass, listening to the merry hubbub of the guild around him, as well as the happy laughter of the greatest golem-maker in the land.

 

The Golem Maker of the Hills, Part Three

The Golem Maker of the Hills
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part Three-

 

The man who answered the door at Laika’s house looked nothing like the girl. He had brown hair that was going silver with age, a sharp, angular jaw, and piercing grey eyes that focused on Grannick with an unsettling intensity. “Howdy,” said the man with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “You here for a golem?”

“…maybe?” Grannick hesitated, realizing from the man’s exasperated look that this wasn’t the right answer. “I mean, I heard golems might be useful but don’t know much about them, so…?”

That seemed to satisfy the man, who gave a sharp nod and pushed the door open all the way. Grannick found himself escorted into a comfortable living room with a big settee, two easy chairs whose like Grannick would have had trouble finding even in Viscosa itself, and a roaring fireplace which completely shut out the evening’s chill. The rural cabins Grannick had slept in before had always been drafty if not overtly leaky, but this one felt completely solid. “This is a nice house,” he managed.

“Thank you.” The man gestured for Grannick to sit on the couch, which he did, wincing as his armor dug into it. “A testament to my girl’s skill. This used to be a one-room cabin before she found her gift.” He waved his arm towards the window, which looked out towards the inn and a smithy. “So did most of the village. But when you have multiple caravans coming weekly…well, it does good things to the town economy.” He stuck out a hand. “Anton Maltra. Mayor.”

“Grannick Aldermair. Mercenary.” Maltra raised an eyebrow at that, and Grannick hurried on. “I’ll admit, I was surprised to see so much merchant activity given the remote location…”

“Most of our trade’s with other mountain villages,” said Maltra. “There’s lots of old mining paths around these parts which helps keep everything connected. So if the people in Hastral, the town a day to the west, want golems, they’ll all come over here, and we’ll trade favors…We make them so many golems, they fix up so many houses, or trade us so many goods, or whatever we need.”

Grannick slowly nodded. “Will you build a road next? So actual merchants can get here?”

For a split second, the mercenary thought he saw a frown on Maltra’s face. “Maybe,” he said. “But there’s something to be said for not being on everyone’s maps. We prefer nobody getting in our business.”

Grannick remembered how reluctant Laika had looked upon returning home, and his sense of unease grew. “Speaking of business,” he said. “What kinds of golems can I get?”

“Any you want.” Maltra grinned. “And for you, we wouldn’t even ask much. You said you’re a mercenary, right? We had a few problems with this one village, about a week north, selling us defective goods. If you could go over there and…recover our golems until they’re properly paid for…we’d be happy to trade you whatever kind of golem you’d like.”  He leapt to his feet. “Come—I’ll show you for yourself.”

He led Grannick out back to what the mercenary had assumed was a shed. Upon entering the room, though, he saw it was full of tables laden with every conceivable material. There were rocks, minerals, plants, even animal furs and skins. And in the middle was Laika, sitting cross-legged and slowly placing stones into the approximate shape of a person.

“Laika!” called Maltra.  His voice sounded calm, even kind, but his eyes maintained their hard, almost cruel glare. “This customer wants to see how you make golems.”

Laika turned, and her eyes—which looked much more tired than when Grannick had met her, though not even an hour had passed—widened. “Mr. Grannick?” she asked.

Grannick looked at Maltra, who had given him a sidelong glance. “We met up the valley. She was—” Laika’s face suddenly paled, and though Grannick didn’t know what that meant, he cut himself off anyways. Then Laika interjected, “Getting more materials for the Hastral order, Mr. Maltra.”

Grannick frowned. Though he rarely spent time with children, he knew they didn’t generally address their parents by their last name.  “Mr. Maltra?” he repeated.

Maltra frowned for a moment before sighing. “Laika’s parents passed away two years ago. It’s the village custom for the mayor’s family to take in orphans, and we did so, but she still thinks of her deceased parents as her ‘real’ mother and father. Of course, I’m hoping that will change soon.” His face said that it had better change soon, and the tense undercurrent in his voice concurred. “I hope you didn’t bother Mr. Grannick.”

“I didn’t,” said Laika before Grannick could comment. “I just needed to get some river quartz—”

“We should have plenty of that.” Maltra frowned, and this time he didn’t bother to hide it from Grannick. “Dear, we’ve been over this. You have a wonderful gift which is of such benefit to our village…and those with gifts have an obligation to share them. If you spend your time rushing over the mountains for raw materials which we already have, then you can’t make as many golems for the people who need them.”

Grannick frowned. “How many does she make in a day?”

“Well, she can do a simple one every few minutes, but those fall apart quickly. To make one durable enough to sell, she usually needs an hour, and she does about fifteen or so of those in a day.” Maltra saw Grannick’s shock and smiled genially. “Worried about being last in the queue? Don’t be. If you agree to help us with the ‘recovery’ job I mentioned earlier, I’ll bump you to the front of the line.”

Grannick, who hadn’t cared about the queue at all, tried to think of what to say. “The mountain villages need fifteen golems a day? When will they have enough?”

“Laika’s golems tend to last for about two or three months,” said Maltra. “After that they stop working, and their owner usually wants to buy another, so we’re expecting to be busy for the foreseeable future. Of course, if Laika takes longer. she can make them last for longer periods of time, and we’ll make sure she takes as long as she needs with yours to ensure it works for years.”

That meant Maltra was deliberately having Laika make weaker golems so they would fall apart and the village could sell more, even if it trapped his adopted daughter in a never-ending cycle. “I suppose she has a lot of golem toys?”

Laika again paled, but Maltra was watching Grannick and missed it. “She really doesn’t have time. There’s so many golems to make for the benefit of the village and the…the family.” He chuckled. “Don’t worry; she won’t put off yours because she wants to make a toy for herself. She’s very conscientious and understands that family comes first. Right, dear?”

“Right,” murmured Laika. She had been assembling the stone golem while they were talking, and Grannick saw it was now in the rough shape of a human. Then she took a deep breath and pressed her hands over the stones; after a long moment—longer than the mud golem outside had taken—it began to glow.

A hot rage creeped through Grannick, but the only response he could think of was to pulverize Maltra, and he was relatively certain that wouldn’t help. “I’m not a mage,” he drawled, “but I know some mercenaries with magic, and they told me that if someone overuses a gift like that, they could get hurt.”

Maltra waved his hand airily. “I won’t let it come to that,” he said. “I consider her to be my daughter, after all. Besides, she likes making golems. Now!” He clapped his hands. “What kind of golem do you want?”

Again, Grannick felt like he should say something, but his thoughts felt leaden and slow. “I don’t…”

“Well, you can put up in the inn for a couple days while you think about it.” Maltra ushered Grannick out, and the mercenary realized Maltra wanted his ward to get back to golem-making without being distracted. “Any stone, any gems, anything. Get our property back from that village which cheated us, and we’ll make you any type of golem you want.”

Before he could respond, Grannick found himself out in the backyard with Maltra closing the shed door behind him. He took a long breath and almost turned to go back inside but stopped short. He didn’t know of anything he could do. All his basic plans—killing Maltra, grabbing Laika and fleeing, smashing up the place until Maltra agreed to treat Laika better—would probably terrify Laika, not to mention make it impossible for him to convince her to give him her gold golem. But if he didn’t do anything, a young child would continue to work fifteen-hour days in a stuffy shed so her father could add another floor to his house.

Ironically, he thought, Laika would probably be better at this than he was. She was outgoing and gregarious; if she was the adult and he was the trapped kid, she could surely talk Maltra into doing the right thing and letting him go. She’d even been willing to talk to him, a total stranger, so…

Then he paused.  Maltra was bad, but he wasn’t the only person in the village. There were others who might help. If he could use Laika as inspiration and talk to them like she had talked to him, he might have a chance. And while this wasn’t anything like the challenges he was used to, he wasn’t going to walk away from it. Laika needed him as much as any of the merchants he’d served as a bodyguard or the nobles whose keeps he’d defended from monsters did.

And he would come through.