Queens and Vagabonds
"I don't think that belongs to you," Nabile said.
Across the room, a younger Ixi stood completely still, eyes wild and searching... no doubt for a quick escape. She empathized; his was a position she'd been in many times in her tenure in the streets. Thieves didn't last long unless they were good at finding novel ways out of sticky situations, and this—getting caught pilfering a priceless, ancient vase, and by the queen of Qasala, no less—was about as sticky as situations got.
He set the vase down. The panic in his expression melted into naked shame. "Please don't tell Brynn."
"I expect she knows what you're up to without me saying," she replied.
Hanso shrugged and brushed a tuft of thick blue hair from his line of sight. He said nothing, but his downcast demeanor led Nabile to suspect that this was not the first time he'd been found in the middle of a theft. She knew little about him; her husband told her next to nothing, and what he had said was hardly informative. Jazan, for all he was a wise and fair king, was not a gifted storyteller, and so the version of the tale of Faerieland's fall she'd heard was probably missing a few details.
She was used to being observant, however... used to noticing minute details others would not. It was likely he was the same way, this young thief. A keen eye and the ability to read people were invaluable traits when one depended on stealth to survive, after all. There was an odd maturity to him, the look of a boy who'd been forced to try and be a man far too early in life. He'd danced on the thin line between life and death, between a successful heist and starvation...
... And so she immediately liked him. She had come from similarly humble origins and ascended to a similarly revered position in Neopian society. He, like her, was called hero, and if she was right—and she usually was about these things—he didn't care for the label as much as he pretended to.
Heroes were under an awful lot of pressure to behave as heroes ought.
"Walk with me," she said, gesturing to the corridor she'd come out of.
He did so, but warily.
"Don't care much for diplomatic meetings, hmm?" she asked, smiling. "Neither do I. I've never had a head for politics, and my husband—desert winds bless him—can turn to rambling in short order."
The jab at Jazan elicited a small grin. "I thought we came here looking for an artefact."
"That is why the pair of you were summoned," Nabile confirmed, "but the location of magical item is, regrettably, on Qasalan sacred ground. If one wishes to root around in hallowed places without starting a war, one must swim the proper channels, so to speak. That is why Jazan is speaking with the court. He needs to obtain permission for you and the Captain to do your work."
"He frequently reminds everyone he's the king... can't he just demand they let us look?" Hanso quirked an eyebrow.
"He could, yes," she replied, "but it would not earn him any love from the court, and between the two of us, he would like very much not to come across as tyrannical. He wishes not to become like his father."
Hanso chuckled. "His old man's not very popular, then? Color me surprised."
"Not at all," Nabile said. "Razul was wicked, completely and utterly cruel. If Jazan lashes out at others, it is because his father lashed out at him. The day Jazan took control of the kingdom was a moment of liberation in several ways."
"Ah." Hanso looked at his hooves. "Well, we've all got our stories."
"That we do." Nabile nodded. "Mine began on the streets of Sakhmet. I don't suppose Jazan has told you, but I was once a thief myself."
There was a shift in Hanso's demeanor then; his expression was one of rapt interest, but also of skepticism. She couldn't blame him. Only a handful of her closest friends knew precisely what she'd been prior to marrying Qasala's cursed prince, and while the people of the desert's two kingdoms knew she'd risen up from a life of abject poverty, most either refused to acknowledge her criminal past or simply weren't aware. It wasn't as though Jazan went around telling people his beloved wife and queen used to eke out a living by stealing.
"It's hard to believe, I know," she said. She scrunched up her left sleeve, revealing a faded tattoo of a scarab. "I was part of a gang called the Desert Scarabs, hence the mark."
Hanso examined it. "I might've heard of them. I used to run with the Thieves' Guild... they didn't work in this part of the world much; too many eyes and too much competition. Pretty sure the Scarabs were one of the groups they mentioned, though."
It was her turn to raise an eyebrow. The Thieves' Guild wasn't quite the kind of group she'd pictured him with; he seemed far too good-natured for a band of cutthroats like them. "I expect they'd have no trouble pushing the local factions out of the region if they tried. Brigands though they are, the Scarabs and their ilk are pretty poorly organized. My impression of the Thieves' Guild is one of extreme organization."
He sighed. "They've got their fingers in all the tastiest pies, yes, and they don't make it easy for anybody they don't like."
Something told her they hadn't been too fond of him, but she wasn't about to press further. In addition to being known for its spyder web of connections, the Guild was also renowned for its ruthlessness. She had no doubt they'd made his life exceedingly rough, especially if he'd upset them in any way. "I see. Well, it's all behind you now. I cannot pretend to know what kind of pay the Faerie Queen offers her special operatives, but I'm guessing it's more than you ever made stealing."
"We get by fine, Brynn and I," he answered. "I mean, we're not royalty or anything, but we don't go hungry."
"Takes getting used to, doesn't it?" Nabile said. "When Jazan first brought me here, I could barely finish a single meal. There was so much food... it seemed unfair that I was being offered a bounty like that when my friends on the streets were starving. I helped as many as I could, naturally, but not a day goes by when I don't think about where I come from."
Hanso shrugged. "I try not to think about it too much. What's past is past, you know? No point in living with regret, it takes too much energy."
"Sound advice," she replied, nodding, "but our stories make us who we are, don't they? You and I are kindred spirits; we've known hardship and made more than a few bad choices. In the end, if we'd been anything other than what we were, we'd never have ended up in the right place at the right time. Who knows where the world would be now if my husband hadn't spotted you stealing from those poor faeries..."
He was silent, unsure. She placed a hand on his shoulder. "No matter how many people call you a hero, all you really have to be is you. The ones we love will love us no matter where we've been, and those who'd deem us unworthy because of our histories will just have to deal."
"You know," he said, grinning, "I have to admit, I didn't think I'd like any wife of Jazan's. I'm glad I was wrong..."
"But," Nabile finished, "you'd appreciate it if I kept all of this between the two of us. From one Ixi thief to another, Hanso, your secret's safe with me, especially since you did as I asked and put the vase back. But if you think I'm going to let you abscond with that broach, you're not as clever as I thought."