"The Thief and the King"
by Jamie Crothall

Even the dust froze suspended in air when he entered, tiny particles just as stunned as every other patron in the saloon. The doors were pushed open by his entourage, who did not seem too happy to be upon the premises despite the wishes and intentions of their overseer. At the bar a line of colorful patrons ceased in their chatter, while in the far corner upon which illegal gambling took place suddenly fell silent. They were aboard a grounded ship which traveled to various regions, piloted by a sole proprietor, bringing illegal winnings and chance to those who felt lucky.

The visitor surveyed this unease not with a grim sense of satisfaction, but with a smile that seemed to show obliviousness to the uncertainty he had caused. He gave a nod to the barkeep and a pat on the shoulder of a nearby patron, heedless of the fact that they had frozen in terror. No one spoke to him or returned his cordial nods and smiles, but he did not seem to care. Only one man dared to approach this visitor with a surge of resentment, but he was quickly waylaid by one of his entourage, who pushed him aside and threatened his life should he not leave immediately. They did so quietly, because they knew that their overseer would disapprove of such harsh behavior.

He approached a young lady at the bar, who's nervousness was only as strong as her breathless anticipation. She motioned to bow or curtsey, but was immediately stopped by the visitor's hand. He took her own hand and kissed it gently.

"And you are?"

She had to catch her breath before responding. "I am Arleene, a dancer."

The visitor raised one eyebrow. "I fine one at that, I should imagine. I may request you one day. Tell me, Arleene....do you know who I am?"

She did not speak, but humbly nodded.

"That is a shame. Nevertheless, you must speak to Clancy over here," he said as he looked over his shoulder to one of his entourage. He received a sharp glance in return. "General Musta, I mean. He will make an appointment for you to perform. You will be well paid."

"....thank you......" was about all she could say due to her exasperation.

The visitor then pressed on further into the dingy saloon, towards the gambling tables. He knew of the ship's proprietor - his reputation preceded him - and spotted him sitting by a roulette wheel which had long since stopped spinning. His white length of hair, noticeable upon a young man, allowed him to stand out. He made no attempt to explain to this visitor why he had landed his ship in this territory. He simply kept himself at bay.

All those participating in illegal acts had stopped and disowned their winnings for fear of being prosecuted. All but one man, who was too busy counting his winnings to take note of the sudden silence that had enveloped the establishment. Those about him seemed to disown the lucky man just as much as they did their own winnings. His light brown hair was cropped in a bandana, and he eyed his gold coins with a lustful gaze - all the obvious and rather cliche signs of a thief.

"What game do you play?" the visitor asked.

"Baccarat," the thief said. He then looked up and set eyes upon the visitor. His face immediately dropped with the recognition, but it did not take long for him to salvage his poker-face and have his flippancy return. "You must bring at least 2,000 Gil to the table though."

Baccarat was the game of choice amongst most avid gamblers. A simple card game not unlike black jack, the purpose was to get a count of nine. A card was dealt, and one could request as many cards as they liked. Cards 2 to 9 were face value, aces were worth 1, and the ten and face cards were worth zero. You could aim for an exact count, or come as close as possible - should you go ‘‘over' nine then you simply take the second digit of the two-digit number. For instance, a count of 14 was worth only 4. The nearest to nine, or a nine itself, won the hand, unless matched by the dealer.

"I think I can match that," the visitor said, putting his hand out and having a small pouch placed upon it. He untied the purse-strings and poured the gold coins upon the table.

"Happy to oblige," the thief said as he placed a deck of cards in between them. "I'll give you the honor."

The visitor cut the cards then proceeded to shuffle them. With a wry smile he dealt the thief a single card, face down. He lifted the edge and eyed it carefully.

"If I could trouble you for another."

The visitor dealt another card, but just as the thief reached out for it he knocked over his tankard of ale. It did not spill upon the cards, but he quickly motioned to pick it up to avoid any undue ‘‘contamination' of his chances. The thief withdrew a handkerchief and patted down the table where it was wet.

"Sorry about that."

"Not at all," the visitor said.

"Your turn. I'll stay with what I've got."

The visitor drew a card and turned it over. It was an eight. He put down the deck, stating his intention to stand with that single card. The thief turned over his hand - a five and a four. He gave a sly grin.

"I believe that speaks for itself," he said as he reached out and collected the gold coins. "I've never beaten royalty before."

The visitor, sat back and crossed his arms. He viewed the table with a scrutinizing eye and his mouth crooked in a contorted smile.

"No one has ever beaten me before," he spoke firmly. "No one has ever really tried to beat me, really. They always let me win. It's quite infuriating, really."

"All's fair, your majesty."

"I've never been beaten before," he reiterated. "Least of all by someone who cheats."

General Musta took an aggressive step forward with the words his king spoke, and in response the thief stood defensively. The king put out his hand, an unspoken gesture that froze the general in his tracks.

"We are in the kingdom of Figaro," the king said, still calmly seated. He held up one of the cards, manufactured in that region, which bore his royal crest. The proprietor showed the proper respect for his illegal actions by purchasing his necessary provisions in that region. The king then pointed at the thief's cards. "Not Figara."

There was a short laugh that came from behind them, the only one to break the stunned silence. It was the floating casino's proprietor. He turned his back and left the room, disowning whatever consequences the thief brought upon himself.

The thief looked down at his poorly reproduced cards with a sheepish grin. He sat back down in his chair and shrugged his shoulders. "Well played, your highness."

"What brings you to my lands?"

"Good travels, good sir. I merely stopped on my way through."

"Are your travels your own choice, or are they thrust upon you?"

"You mean am I a fugitive?" he said with a grin. "Well why should I tell you that?"

"Do you not trust your own luck? You cheat when it could very well have cost you your life."

"Fate is like many women I've known - only there to aid you when it suits her. I contrive my own victories because the rarely favor me, but when those plans fall through she's usually around to back me up."

"Is your life not worth more than these risks you take?"

"Not until I find my prize. Nevertheless, I work for another authority at the moment, and my travels are in his name."

The king was intrigued. "And who might these be?"

"That, your majesty, is something I can not tell you before so many people. However, should I gain an audience with you, then my employer will be very pleased."

The king pondered this vague and ominous proposal. He then turned to General Musta and held out his hand.

"Give me the crest."

The general was not pleased. "Certainly you jest, sir."

"I do not," he replied quite plainly. "Are you refusing me?"

Hesitantly the general withdrew a small medallion which bore the royal crest of Figaro. He handed it to the king, who in turn handed it to the thief.

"Show this to the guards and it will give you limited passage into the castle. It has no value to any legitimate reseller, and attempting to find a buyer for it is quite punishable. I have overlooked the gambling, for I only uphold my father's wishes. I overlooked the cheating for I admire your audacity. I will not overlook this transgression, however, should you attempt it."

"I won't even dream of it."

"Good. I will listen to your proposal tonight."

The thief smirked. "Before or after the dancer, your majesty?"

The king shot him a cold stare, which then melted away.

"Why after, of course."