Of course, since the Lady is the patron of thieves and gamblers, someone climbs up to it nearly every day; but it's always there again in the morning. The legend leaves out something; legends always do, when you think about it. But this one leaves out the most important piece.
I am a thief, after all, and she took my prize. I had to steal something.
The first time, she caught me by surprise. I had stolen a pack of cards that morning, and been thrown out of a tavern for trying to start a game that afternoon; and so I went to the Lady's temple, and laid the deck on her altar. "It's the first deck I've owned," I said, as if the significance would mean anything to a stone statue; and maybe it did, because her hand closed over mine as I laid the cards down.
"And you start by playing Luck herself."
I answered, with false braggadocio, "Of course, my Lady," and watched as she dealt out the cards.
There are times in a thief’s life when bravery and a lie serve better than humility and the truth; but this was not one of them.
She let me win, at first. Tiny things – a gold spoon from the king's dining service, three uncut diamonds dropped by a passing merchant, an overheard bit of political intrigue worth money to the captain of the king's guards. And then larger things, things that I was willing to take a few losses in exchange for – the way I lost that youthful straightness in my posture when I fell climbing down from the roof of the king's treasury.
If I thought anything of the loss at the time, it was quickly forgotten when I sold the solid-gold statuette I had stolen. That statuette bought me meals and lodging for the rest of the year, and the first month of the new year besides; and in the space of that winter, hair began to sprout on my cheeks, and recede from my forehead.
By the next winter, I was making a fair living as a gambler in the taverns, besides what I earned from theft; and I counted the loss of my hair as a gain. But the Lady was not finished with me.
"It is a fair gift," she said, turning over the sapphire pendant I laid on her altar. "The sort of necklace most young men your age would give to their sweethearts. Will you play for it?"
"No, my Lady; it is a gift. All I ask for it is the honor of seeing it around your neck."
She studied me thoughtfully. "And that is the kind of flattery a man your age would say to his sweetheart."
Word had gotten around that I was small enough to slip into the palace unseen and nimble enough to bring treasures out again, and I didn't lack for work that summer. I knew who was responsible for my success, though, and never forgot to lay something on the Lady's altar in thanks – a gold coin, a bit of jewelry, a lock of hair.
Not my hair, of course. By now I didn't have a lot of it to spare; I was going bald faster than most men can walk to the market. But I had stumbled onto another lucrative opportunity – leaving threatening notes at the bedsides of my clients' political rivals. Of course, that meant that those rivals were likely to become my clients as well; but leaving a political love-triangle's worth of notes in one night was good for my reputation.
What wasn't good for it was the amount of time I spent at the Lady's temple; merchants had started to watch me whenever I was in the marketplace. But the Lady quickly changed that.
"When you court Luck," she said, "You take the bad with the good."
"I know, my Lady," I replied.
"No," she said, "You don't. But you will."
And she flipped a card.
That night I found myself distracted from the king's treasures by the sound of crying. It was a girl, hardly old enough to be called a woman, sitting in the midst of a pile of straw with a spinning wheel. The sight was so strange that I had to know what was going on; so I picked both of the locks on the door and walked in.
She wasn't at all surprised to see me; but, as she had been set the task of spinning the straw into gold, I suppose there was very little left to surprise her with. Or perhaps she was simply naïve; she turned over her necklace without asking for any proof that I could even spin, much less spin magically. But her red-rimmed eyes met mine as I pocketed the trinket, and I found myself sitting down at the wheel without quite meaning to do so.
To my surprise – but not to hers – the straw positively fed itself onto the spindle; I had barely to touch the treadle with my foot, and the wheel was spinning and the straw winding into golden thread. Startled, I stepped back, but no sooner had the wheel slowed than the girl was rushing past me with a cry of delight, and switching out the bobbin on the spindle for an empty one.
I didn't even have time to examine the full bobbin, to see if it really was gold, before the girl had pulled a thread from her hem and tied it around the new bobbin. For luck, I assumed, as she stepped back and I picked up a handful of straw and approached the wheel again; and it worked. Once more the straw practically flew at the spindle, and once more the girl stepped forward to remove the bobbin as soon as it was full.
This time, I took it from her, and examined the golden thread while she tied a plain wool one from her hem around the empty bobbin. I had spun gold, pure, unadulterated gold that any goldsmith would be happy to pay me for; and all from straw. And from that straw-spun gold, I spun something of far less worth: hubris.
In that moment, I truly believed I had won.
"You've met another woman."
"And brought you her necklace."
"So I see." My Lady smiles, and draws a card from the deck. "But our game is not over."
The third day, the girl has no more jewelry to give me. Somewhere in the last two nights of spinning, laughing together over my lumpy thread and joking about the excuses the king might give his goldsmiths for presenting them with gold wound on a bobbin, we've become friends. More than friends; we're comrades, pulling the wool over the old king's eyes.
But she will come out of it as queen, and I as a thief still playing a game of cards against a statue; and remembering that my Lady had drawn the Prince of Hearts, I ask her for the child she will bear to the king after her marriage.
She is perhaps not so naïve as I thought; she casts one long, despairing glance around the straw-filled room, and agrees.
A scant eleven months after the wedding, I lay a pair of Princes on the Lady's altar – the Prince of Swords, for his father, and the Prince of Clubs, for his mother. But she just smiles, and draws the Queen of Hearts from the deck, and lays it on top of mine; and beside it, the ace of Hearts as well.
And I think about the beautiful queen, who traded imprisonment in a room full of straw for imprisonment in a palace, and the harsh king, laid up these past three months and spending his bobbins of gold on doctors instead of luxuries, while the miller's daughter rules his kingdom for him. And then I do what I ought to have done in the first place, and show her my hand.
"My Lady, I do not know what to play."
"This one," she says, and points to the Fool.
I give the queen three days to reclaim her child by guessing my name. On the third day, when her messengers are sweeping the kingdom for children with odd names and combing through old family records for the names used by long-dead generations, I find a cottage on a hill and I wait. In the late afternoon, I build a bonfire so there's no chance that the messengers will miss me.
They finally approach around dark, and I start dancing around the fire before they even make it to the foot of the hill. There's not much sense to my song, made up in such a hurry, but it doesn't matter; the important thing is that it has rhythm and says my name, loud and clear so that they'll remember it. I even throw in a cackle or two, for good effect, and they scramble away twice as quickly as they arrived.
The queen doesn't disappoint, either; I can tell by her expression that the messengers told her my name. Still, she pretends for a moment, trying two names before saying, oh so casually, "Is your name Rumpelstiltskin?"
Looking back, there is not much that I can say I got from the young queen; her resentment at my attempt to hold her to our bargain far outweighed any sense of gratitude that I had saved her in the first place. But I have my own Lady, the same Lady who has watched over me from childhood; and it is the sapphire pendant I stole that hangs on the breast of the statue in her temple.
The legend says that anyone who climbs up to steal it will get his heart's desire. What it does not say is that to truly find what you desire, you have to play the Lady – and win.