Entire Fiction (2007)
Fabulous, I thought to myself as the cell door clanged closed. Just absolutely ruttin' fantastic. The guard's key squealed in protest as he turned it in the lock, and my fate was sealed. Thanks to a rotten stroke of bad luck in South Figaro's market, my home for the foreseeable future would be a dusty little square in Castle Figaro's dungeon with nothing more valuable than clean straw to get my hands on.
I caught the guard's eye with my meanest glare as he fastened the dull brass key ring securely to his hip; he just smirked in reply. Keep smiling, I dared him silently. You ale-swilling turnkeys can't keep me in here forever, and if you have five gil left in your pockets when I'm done with you, I'll eat my own lockpicks.
I didn't like to admit it, but I was in a worse fix than I wanted to believe. I'd been locked up in King Edgar's dungeon before, and only once had I managed to leave early. The guards were generally loyal to their king and dedicated to their work, and it was hard enough to sneak my precious strips of metal in with me, let alone put them to work without being caught. I'm a pickpocket by trade, not a lockpick, and while I'll allow it pays to diversify, there's only so much one man can be expected to master in twenty short years.
This time, however, I'd caught a green one, or else my trick of bending the picks just enough to work them into my belt had never been tried around here. I'd be out of here as soon as that oaf had to take a leak.
In the meantime, I decided that I might as well take advantage of Edgar's hospitality. It had been a long time since breakfast in South Figaro, and I had missed lunch on the road. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to let them keep me for a few more hours, just long enough to get something in my stomach. Unlike the Emperor's rat holes in Vector, the dungeon of Castle Figaro was more like a storage room with bars added as an afterthought. Clean straw had been piled in a corner, and there was even a blanket to keep warm with. The toilet in the opposite wall wasn't very private, but it could be counted on to flush. And since they expected you to work for your freedom around here, the rations were composed of thick brown bread and a hearty stew, three times a day. In Vector, you were lucky if the previous occupants had agreed upon a single corner and not shat in the straw, and if you got anything other than lukewarm broth to eat, it was only because the sadistic freak in charge had forgotten to wait for the leftover pig slop to congeal into a rancid, greasy mess before sloshing it all over anyone stupid enough to hold out his bowl.
I took a moment to run my fingers the wrong way through my hair, making it stand up around my face. Pale blond in color and streaked with days' worth of dirt, it made me look older than I was, at least thirty, if not thirty-five. With unkempt sideburns and generous stubble, my hair was as wild and unruly as a wolf's grizzled fur. All it took was a good glower to get your typical miserable excuses for soldiers quivering in their shiny leather boots.
Since I was in a cell all by myself at the end of the row, I had to worm my head through the bars to follow the receding footsteps of the guard as he walked the length of the dungeon. Most of the other cells were practically bursting with some second-rate band of would-be bandits practically celebrating their first time being captured. I sneered as they regaled each other with obviously exaggerated tales of their thieving prowess, noting that even the mealy-mouthed guard wasn't taking them seriously. Ordinarily, I might be inclined to consider freeing my fellow brigands when I took my leave of a dungeon—it makes the jailers look even more foolish—but these halfwits would probably get us all caught.
Some new distraction interrupted their hubbub, but I couldn't see what it was from my place all the way at the end of the row. Judging by the hoots and hollers from my fellow prisoners, though, it was a woman. I grinned suddenly, forgetting my menacing scowl in my glee. The cell next to mine was the only empty one, and I relished the idea of spending the evening next to the kind of spitfire hellion who could get herself locked up by a softie like King Edgar.
As she came into view, my excitement subsided into disappointment. The guard accompanying the lass plucked anxiously at her elbow, clearly eager to protect her from the stench of our villainy, and having no intention of locking her up with us. This must be one of Edgar's legendary conquests merely curious to see how the other half lived; she looked too meek and pasty-faced to be much fun, anyway.
I was about to send a sneer of contempt in her general direction, but something made me pause… an aura about her, maybe, and I mean something more than my deliberate avoidance of bathing and practiced glares. She had long, dishwater blonde hair spilling over the shoulders of her cherry-red dress. Small white hands timidly clutched the edge of her cloak, drawing it closer around her body. She wasn't my kind of girl at all—I like a little more meat, myself, not a quivering leaf to blow away in the wind—but, in spite of her shyness, she had a certain strength.
One of the bandits nearest to her laughed, startling her; she bumped into the guard in her surprise, prompting more laughter from his comrades. "Don't worry, love," the bandit chortled. "King Edgar won't keep us in here for too long."
"Aye, he knows we're small fry compared to the real trouble out there!" his cellmate chimed in.
The first prisoner winked lecherously. "We'll be out of here in to keep you company, we promise."
The guard started to say something reassuring, and I was sure she was about to turn on her heel and leave in a huff. Instead, she silenced the laughter with a single glance and continued further into the dungeon. Now, I know I said Figaro's wasn't any great shakes, as far as dungeons go, but it was dank and smelly enough to curl a woman's hair…or so I'd thought. She glanced into my dark corner with the same deceptive trepidation as she had displayed already, and I wondered what she could possibly have experienced that allowed her to process this scene so calmly.
Her eyes met mine for an instant, and, before I knew what I was about, my mouth was open and words were falling out. "I'm Lone Wolf, the pickpocket," I commented conversationally, cocking my head at that angle I knew would be either revoltingly arrogant or roguishly charming, depending on the girl in question.
I was probably going to continue either way until I saw the disinterest in her gaze, as if she had been thinking of something else entirely and was still trying to work out what had made me think we could converse. Instead, my pause lapsed into silence, and she walked away wordlessly, utterly unimpressed.
Disgusted with myself, I ignored the brigands and their raucous laughter. I had more important things to worry about then mysterious beauties with disarming stares, and getting out of here before they could force an honest day's work out of me was at the top of that list. I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd meet that woman again someday, but I did manage to put it out of my mind for the time being. After all, you don't get to be the world's greatest pickpocket by dwelling on the future.