9 months ago.
High Priest Celios finished his nightly prayers and returned to his private room. Yawning with exhaustion, he changed into his night clothes and crawled into bed. Pulling back the sheets, his eyes fell upon a black envelope laying on his pillow. It had been deliberately placed there for him to find. Clutching it to his chest, he wildly looked around the room.
The grand temple was heavily guarded. His heart raced, realizing that someone not only was able to sneak into the temple, but into his private chambers as well. Realizing he was alone; he opened the envelope. It contained only one word:
Celios was immediately awake and renewed with some energy. Removing a box from beneath his bed, he took out the simple clothing of a peasant. Changing into them, along with a black cape, he was ready to leave for this important and secretive meeting.
For a High Priest, like him, to wear regular clothes instead of the traditional robes was strange. However, it was a necessity for his actions this evening. He made his way though the hidden tunnels beneath the temple. They had been dug as a secure escape route in case of a siege. This wasn’t the first time he had made use of their escape. At the exit, in a wooded area miles from the temple, a black carriage awaited him beneath the trees.
Celios quickly entered the vehicle, and it took off at a breakneck speed. It stayed on back roads, so as not to be seen by anyone, and rumbled the distance to a small cottage in the middle of nowhere. Celios exited the carriage and entered this building, the actual location in the kingdom being a mystery to him.
“Am I late?” Celios asked the man guarding the entrance.
“No. Everyone has just arrived, so we have not yet begun. The host and dealer today is Four,” the guard informed him.
A man, a woman, and the host known as Four were the only other individuals in the cottage. On these nights, no one went by their actual names.
Each person took their seat at a table and Four began to shuffle a deck of cards, as the chips were distributed. Antes were place into the centre of the table and two cards were dealt to each player.
“Well, shall we raise the stake? I bet twenty.” The man to Celios’ right was coming out aggressive.
“Of course,” Celios followed, matching the bet.
“Yes.” The woman matched the bet as well. Four also nodded. Four was a notoriously aggressive gambler as well.
“Is this going to be another lucky day for you, Four. You seem to be winning everything.” The woman, known as Two, was trying to use flirting as a tactic to distract Four.
“I have not.” Four did his best to ignore her obvious ploy to throw him off his game.
“Please be gentle. At this rate, I won’t have any money to bet.” Two batted her eyes at Four, causing him to laugh. Yet, despite her attempts, Four quickly took the hand.
The wins and losses for each player fluctuated throughout the night. The stress of the high stakes game brought out different reactions from each of the players. Celios observed the nervous laughter, the biting down on cigarettes, and the excessive drinking, taking all of them as possible tells.
“Damn!” Four finally lost a hand to One. The pot drained him of all the money he had won up until that point. Four began shaking his leg out of anxiety.
Celios took note of this, as he prepared to use this information to his advantage. He needed to win a few hands himself. Strangely though, it seemed that all of the players were down from their original stakes. He had no idea how that was possible.
“Celios, it’s your turn.” Four seemed to be speaking at him from a distance.
He regained his consciousness at the sound of someone calling him. He had been about to deal the next hand. What happened? Looking around, he found himself staring into the concerned face of a priest. He was lying in his bed, in his sleeping chamber, in the temple. He had no recollection of how he had got back.
“What time is it?” Celios asked, feeling extremely disoriented.
“First prayer will start soon,” the priest replied.
It was unlike him to sleep in for so long. “All right, I’ll be there shortly.”
The priest nodded and left the chamber so that he could dress. Sitting up in his bed, Celios realized he held something in his hand. Looking at the piece of paper, he saw that it was a bill for an immense amount of money that he owed to the winning player of the previous night’s game. His head began to pound from anxiety.
Celios hurriedly changed into the robes of the High Priest and left his chambers, making his way to the temple for prayers. Even as the sermons were read and the hymns sung, Celios’ head swirled in chaos. This wasn’t the first time he had such a large loss. In fact, it seemed to be more loss than winning for quite some time. Once again, he knew that there would be no way to cover the debt unless he dipped into the week’s donations.
He had been embezzling the temple donations for some time now. With extended peace in the land, the people had been able to amass a large amount of wealth that they happily donated to the temple. Strangely though, the temple continued to become poorer. So far, no one expected the reason to be Celios.