"Double Cross"

"Double Cross"

            The light of a sole candle burned nearly to the nub was flickering in a brass candlestick, its hot wax dripping onto the oak desk in the King's private office. King Edgar of Figaro seemed not to notice the hot wax endangering the battered old wood of the desk—a valuable piece of furniture indeed in Figaro's desert climate. His attention was absorbed by the scraps of parchment paper that did not officially exist littering his desk to the exclusion of everything else.

            The writing on them would not be easy to interpret by many. Rather than the basic, common language of his world, the notes he read were written in Figaro's all but forgotten language, not spoken since before the War of the Magi and forgotten for centuries. Some years ago, his father's scholars had unearthed a few decrepit old books written in that dead toung, and his father had immediately realized that it would be a great benefit to the kingdom to translate it. Though his father had probably intended that translation to be the start of a new cultural renaissance in which Figaro began to rediscover her lost heritage…

            He was positive his father hadn't intended for it to be reborn as a secret code, but that was precisely what it had become. For by the time that translation of Figaro's old written language had been completed, his father was dead, "officially" of natural causes.

            Like the officially nonexistent sheets on his desk, that "official" façade hid a deadly secret. It had once been common suspicion around Figaro Castle that the late king had been murdered by the Empire for refusing to cooperate with that great, terrible nation; poisoned, because Emperor Gestahl hoped that a mere teenager's inheritance of the throne would weaken the nation…or, even better, that Figaro would erupt into civil war. For although Edgar was the eldest child of the late king, he was only eldest child by twenty-three minutes. During his lifetime, his father had never let it be known which one of his twin sons he wished to inherit his throne; the mechanically inclined Edgar, or the athletic, strong Sabin.

            Edgar sighed to himself, rubbing at his aching temples with one hand and leaning back in his chair. Would that he was working as an engineer somewhere far from this castle, and not ruling from it as King.

            Absently, he toyed with a double-sided coin he kept in his pocket: the coin that had made him King of Figaro and won his twin brother the freedom he so desperately wanted. That was the only act of deception he had ever practiced and felt guilty about. He too had wanted to be free from the weight of the kingship….but he also knew that of the two of them, he was the more suited to rule. Sabin would've wasted away on the throne, like a caged bird longing to be free. Edgar could tolerate the golden cage that was Figaro Castle. He wasn't completely happy, but he coped well enough, he guessed.

            Besides, there was much that needed to be done, and only by being King of Figaro could Edgar accomplish his goals. Edgar was playing a deceptive game with the Empire: he pretended to be the simple minded young king, with no thoughts in his head other than how to get that lovely milkmaid to notice him. In return, the Empire pretended it didn't have it's eye on Figaro and it's lands, and that it's interests in allying themselves with the young King went no deeper than attempting to help a novice ruler.

            The difference between Edgar and the Empire was that Edgar knew that the Empire was toying with him. He doubted anyone from the Empire suspected there was anything treacherous going on at Figaro Castle. He allowed himself a cocky grin, as there was nobody here to see it. The Empire didn't suspect that their puppet king was not only acting without their direct command, but was planning on cutting the strings very soon. Playfully, Edgar flipped that coin up in the air, watched it soar and spin before falling, and caught it midair. He smiled to himself, repocketed the coin, and stood. He snuffed the guttering candle out, and then sought his bedchamber and his hard earned and much delayed night's sleep.

            The door had barely clicked shut behind the young king then a stealthy, shadow-clad figure was silhouetted in the office window. Smoke was still rising from the snuffed candle as the window was slid open, inch by inch, the polished wood of the window frame making a soft, barely audible hiss. The shadow figure slipped in, the thick carpet of the office muffling the sound of his feet dropping down onto the floor. Carefully, he closed the window behind himself, and crept up to the desk.

            The parchment was still carelessly strewn across the top. He wasn't sure if that was because those sheets contained nothing important, or if it was merely because the young king was a very great fool. As he drew closer, he realized why there was little need to conceal the papers: they were written in an odd style of script indeed, one not even the intruder himself recognized except to know that it was very old.

            Gloved fingers picked one of the sheets up, to examine it closer.

            And just then, the door opened up again, light from the hallway torches spilling in and momentarily blinding the intruder, who dropped the parchment sheet and instinctively threw up a hand to block some of the light.

            "What the…Guards!!" King Edgar yelled. Off a hook on the wall, he grabbed a crossbow, and leveled it on the intruder's heart. "Move one inch," the king stated flatly. "And you're a dead man."

            "Like hell." The intruder scoffed, and dove at the king's legs.

            There was a brief scuffle, during which the intruder expertly relieved the king of his crossbow and jumped back.

            "Call of the guards." The intruder said matter-of-factually, as he pointed the crossbow at the king, who was still sprawled out on the floor. "Or you're a dead man."

            Edgar stared up at the intruder, and laughed. "Go ahead and shoot, you're holding the crossbow backwards." He informed him gleefully.

            The intruder looked down. "What?"

            "The arrow isn't supposed to point at your own stomach, you idiot, it's supposed to be pointing at who you want to shoot. Fire that thing now and you'll pin yourself to the wall like a specimen bug on a card."

            The intruder grudgingly nodded and turned it around so the arrow faced the king.

"If I was holding it wrong, why are you telling me?" the intruder said suspiciously.

            "Because it doesn't matter." The king explained. "Because I didn't disengage the safety, and if you're holding it backwards you could try until next year to figure out how to disengage it and still not succeed. So whether you're pointing that at me, at yourself, or at your own father, it doesn't matter."

            "I wouldn't point a crossbow at my father even if I knew who he was." The intruder stated in his own defense. "I wouldn't point a crossbow at my mother, even if she hadn't died when I was two. I suppose then I should add that I wouldn't point a crossbow at my own grandmother; she's the one who raised me, not that it matters." The intruder tossed the crossbow aside and drew a short sword. "Call off the guards."

            "As you said, like hell." The king stood and drew his own blade.

            Which was significantly longer and more deadly looking than the intruders.

            The intruder stared at it for a moment, then did the only wise thing.

            He turned, opened the window, and dove out of it.

            Considering the fact that the King's office was on the sixth floor of one of the towers, that was tantamount to committing suicide. Edgar ran to the window, alarmed. If an Imperial solider was trying to break into his office, he wanted him for questioning, not splattered all over the sand.

            He couldn't see the intruder at first. No intruder, no dead body, no footprint trail in the fine white sand to indicate that he'd slipped off into the desert. As it was dark and Edgar was rather confused by the intruder's seeming ability to slide off into thin air, he didn't notice the shadow above him until it was almost too late.

            "Hi there!" the intruder said cheerfully as Edgar looked up. The intruder was hanging above the window clinging to a rope that was tied to the top of the tower.

            That was about all Edgar had time to see before the intruder's boot connected with his chin, knocking him back into his office. Edgar reeled back, tripped over his own desk chair, and thudded to the ground in a dangerous tangle of sword blade, chair legs, and his own limbs. The intruder swung in after him, landing as spryly as a cat on the rug.

            "Tsk tsk tsk. I learned that trick when I was eight." The intruder informed him, standing above the king. He kicked the king's sword aside, and held his own to the king's throat. "Oldest trick in the book. Call off the guards."

            "What guards?"


            Edgar took advantage of the intruder's stunned silence, squirmed forward onto his belly, grabbed the intruder's ankle, and yanked, pulling the intruder down.

            After another brief quarrel, Edgar managed to pin the intruder down. Sabin had always been interested in martial arts, wrestling, and the like…Edgar had never shared his brother's love of unarmed combat, but one didn't grow up twin brother to a martial-arts mad boy without learning a thing or two about it too. It helped that the intruder had to weight a good fifty or sixty pounds less than him; he was still strong, but Edgar simply out-massed and out-muscled him.

            "Now," Edgar said pleasantly once he'd gotten the intruder pinned to the point where none of his struggling was doing much good. "I learned that when I was about eight. Oldest trick in the book."

            "Very funny."

            "I find it so." Edgar turned serious…and threatening. "Want to explain to me why the Empire is spying on it's own ally?"

            "Whoever said I was from the Empire?" the intruder said mildly.


            "Oh, come on. Think about it." The intruder replied. "If the Empire was gonna spy on you—and they are spying on you—they'd do it covertly. They've slipped people into your own household. That's more efficient, and safer, than having someone break in y'know."

            "Who?" Edgar asked, his mind racing through a half-dozen stewards, pages, and retainers he didn't quite trust to have more loyalty to the Figaro Crown than to the Empire's massive purse.

            "Your personal page, for one. Family slaughtered by the Empire, indeed." The intruder scoffed at the notion. "Picked up off the streets of Vector as a child and groomed for service as a spy's more like it. I'm not entirely sure how loyal your Head Guard is, either. All jokes about lacking guards aside, they really should've been here by now, right? So where are they? I've seen your Head Guard talking a great deal to those Imperial Ambassadors when they come…too much, I think, and making suspicious references when they think they're alone."

            That confirmed things Edgar had already known, or at least suspected. "Who are you, then?" he demanded, suddenly uncertain.

            "Ever heard of the Returners?"


            "They resist the Empire. I'm their scout, spy, and general troublemaker. Name's Locke Cole."

            "Oh, yes, I've heard of you. You're wanted in four or five kingdoms for thievery." Edgar remarked casually.

            "I'm. Not. A. Thief." Locke protested, turning red in the face with anger. "I'm a Treasure Hunter. Not a thief. There's a difference, you know!" he paused, then added, "And last time I checked, I was only wanted in two for…slight disagreements on ownership rights."

            Edgar chuckled. Despite himself, he rather thought he liked this thief…treasure hunter…whatever. "What do the Returners want with me?"


            "I do rather appreciate the truth."

            "You're an ally of the Empire." Locke replied. "So we would watch you no matter what. But you also seem to be working against the Empire, so therefore you bear closer watching as a potential ally of ours." The thief grinned at Edgar's exclamation of surprise. "Thought you were pretty clever, didn't you? Actually, you haven't done a half bad job of hiding the fact that you're double-crossing the Empire…but you would've been caught by now if we weren't helping to, ah, keep that knowledge out of the hands of our mutual enemy."

            "You've been helping me?!"

            "Sure. The enemy of my enemy and all that."

            "Then why were you trying to break into my office?!"

            "I didn't try to break in, I did break in." Locke corrected. "You were just inopportune in your re-entry. And as for why, wouldn't you want to scope out a potential ally before you approached them? We wanted to make sure you weren't going to double-cross us."

            That sounded reasonable, he had to admit. "Why are you telling me all this?"

            "Why? Because I was ordered to if I was caught, as I was ordered by my master Banon, our leader." Locke replied. "If you were caught cheating in cards, wouldn't you want to show your hand to prove that you have nothing else to hide?"

            Edgar hesitated, then stood. "I suppose I would." He admitted, holding a hand out to Locke.

            Locke just stared suspiciously at it.

            "Oh, come on, take it. It's just a hand, it's not going to turn into a snake and bite you."

            Locke laughed and did so, letting the king haul him to his feet.

            "We should talk." Edgar said. "Up front and honestly."

            Locke cocked his head. "Honesty? From a man who's already betraying one ally?"

            "When one is double-crossing one who double crosses, one should know who one can trust." Edgar quoted.

            "Banon said that."

            "I said I didn't know much of the Returners, but I've heard of Banon." Edgar replied. "Shall we talk?"

            Locke was silent for a moment, then nodded. "I think that would be a very good idea…"