Tag Archives: Jadie Rivers

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.

A Most Unusual Applicant – Part Five

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Takes one to know one.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Most Unusual Applicant, Part Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jadie paused. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Most Unusual Applicant, Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She frowned, grit her teeth, and kept running.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art – Jadie Rivers Figurine

It has been a very long time since we had the opportunity to share some awesome work from Hozure, but we’ve finally passed through April, and our big book reveal for May… it’s time to get back to brass tacks.

We still have a handful of awesome artwork to show you from our “figurine master,” but we’re focusing on a really special one today.  Since we’re currently doing our run of A Most Unusual Applicant, we thought this was especially fitting. We’re focusing on a character who was created outside of one of my books or stories. We’d like to give a special thanks to Aaron Canton, who created this awesome character.  Without further adieu, let’s see what Hozure did with Jaide Rivers:

 

Jadie Desaturated

One thing that I will say about these figurines is that their outfits are always one of the coolest things.  You can’t fully appreciate it, though, until you see it in full color.

8_Tellest Jadie_75Clear

Jadie always presents herself as ultimately very humble and reserved.  She doesn’t need to be seen as gaudy or ostentatious—instead she values what life presents to her.

jadie_rivers_by_skence-d9n6ewl

And here you have the complete version, along with the expanded details.  I love the whole piece, from the dagger to the vines to her outfit.  Hozure did an awesome job with Jadie, and I’d like to again thank Aaron for providing us with such an incredible character to begin with!

A Most Unusual Applicant – Part Two

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Most Unusual Applicant, Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His appointment had been fixed.

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

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