A Most Unusual Applicant
A Story by Aaron Canton
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.”
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