Jazan looked up as Nabile walked into his study with an armful of holly garlands. Before he could say anything, she chided, "Oh, cheer up, Jazan! It'll be fun to decorate the palace for the Day of Giving! And Caspar and Aldie are absolutely thrilled!"
Their desert Ixi twins were three years old – it didn't take much to thrill them. "Nabile, holly in the desert makes no sense."
"It's traditional! The Scarabs used to steal chalk so we could draw it on the walls."
Jazan sighed. Nabile loved throwing herself into holidays, and he supposed it would be fun for the children. But he had no fond memories of them, himself – for him, a holiday had been a day when he successfully avoided his father. Razul had certainly never hung a stocking or a sprig of holly in his life.
"And I think we should invite some people to have the holiday with us."
He sighed. "I thought we would have a quiet day. Just us and Nightsteed."
As she put the holly over the fireplace, she said, "The more the merrier! Isn't that what the Day of Giving's all about? Sharing with people?"
He complained, "I deal with people constantly! It's my job to deal with people! A holiday isn't dealing with more people!" Trying to be logical, he added, "What other family do we have, anyway? I'm certain Amira will have some official function to attend to."
"The Scarabs, for one."
Well, that wasn't too bad. The other six Scarabs were all good enough people, even if Nabile's closest friend, Tomos, was the only one who'd gotten over feeling uneasy around the Kyrii sorcerer. Then something else occurred to him. "Wait – for one? Who else would you invite?"
She shrugged happily. "I'll think of people. Jazan, it'll be fine, and you'll end up enjoying yourself – I know you will."
He just nodded. He really needed to finish penning the orders he was giving General Sambar before he stopped for lunch. He could worry about surviving the Day of Giving later.
But he found himself unable to focus after Nabile had left. It wasn't that he had anything against the Day of Giving, really. It was fun to give presents to Nabile, Caspar, Esmeralda, and Nightsteed. And since everyone else in Qasala was with his or her family, he was able to have an uninterrupted day with his own.
That was all he wanted – a nice, quiet day with the people he cared most about. Extra guests would make him be on his guard. And that would make the whole event feel far too much like work.
It would make Nabile happy. And if she was happy, the twins were happy, and Nightsteed was happy, he could be happy, too. Or he could put on a convincing show of being happy – he could do that in front of houseguests for a day or two, at least. He had a feeling that was what he'd have to resort to.
That afternoon, the little twins caught up with Jazan as he left a meeting. Caspar said, "Daddy, Aldie's stocking is bigger than mine!"
Esmeralda squealed, the picture of righteous indignation, "No, his is bigger than mine!"
Jazan had helped Nabile pick out these stockings, and knew that they were exactly the same size. Still, he took them and laid them on the ground before him, and used magic to make them each grow slightly. "Look – they're both the same size now!"
As Esmeralda stuck her head in hers, Caspar asked, "Could you hang them for us, Daddy?"
He walked them back to the family's sitting room. Nabile had already been here with the holly, and there were a few holiday cards sitting on the mantle. One was from Altador, with the city-state's sun emblem emblazoned on the front. He flipped it open – Altador hoped they were well, and wished them every happiness, and there had apparently been ten Neopoints enclosed for each child.
There was another that was from Faerieland – Jazan recognized it as the one that Queen Fyora always sent to her fellow monarchs. He passed it to Esmeralda, who was entranced by the shimmering rainbow of colors on the front.
Then there was a card adorned with a holly wreath. The message said, We're coming to Qasala for the Day of Giving – it'll be great to see you!
Hanso and Brynn
P.S. – Hanso will bring Aldie a new Usuki to replace the one he broke last time we visited.
Jazan sighed. He didn't mind Brynn. But even though Hanso had proven himself a good person to have around when the going got rough, he was also absolutely insufferable. Perhaps it came of having a job where he got to hunt treasure without getting arrested for it.
Wouldn't this be bad enough already without having him as a houseguest?
"Daddy! Daddy, will you hang up the stockings?"
He took them and put them on the hooks that Nabile had already set out – she'd thought of everything, hadn't she? That was why she made a wonderful queen. She thought of everything, and then she got everything done.
Though perhaps she hadn't thought about how Jazan could possibly stand dealing with that idiotic Ixi for the holiday without turning him into a Scamander. But since even Jazan didn't have a solution for that, she probably wouldn't have been much help.
He tried to tell himself that even the Ixi thief couldn't get into too much trouble in a week. But, in Jazan's experience, Hanso had always managed it somehow.
This wasn't going to be good.
A week later, early in the evening before the Day of Giving, Nabile and Jazan sat on the palace steps waiting for the Scarabs to arrive. The weather was relatively cool in these days around the winter solstice – which meant, in the desert, that it took a Red-Eye Egg a whole half-hour to cook on the street instead of just ten minutes. Caspar and Esmeralda had been highly disappointed to find out there would be no snow like there was in all the pictures on their Advent Calendar.
A band of carolers were singing in the plaza – Jazan threw a coin into the hat laying in front of them. Nabile smiled at him. "See, you're getting into the spirit!"
He had his dignity, so he wasn't quite willing to admit it. "Well, they're capable. And I might as well be in a good mood while I can before that thief shows up and ruins it."
She pointed out, "There are going to be a lot of thieves at the table besides just Hanso."
"Reformed thieves! All of the Scarabs are upstanding citizens now!" he protested. "And none of you ever attempted stealing magical artifacts or other such nonsense."
She grinned. "Only through lack of opportunity."
Then a tall red Lupe came bounding up the plaza – Nabile jumped up and hugged Tomos, her closest friend from childhood. Behind him were a yellow Blumaroo and red Zafara – Horace and Zina. Then came a blue Techo, Bokan, and in the rear were the red Cybunny and the green Acara, Yari and Raq. Aside from Tomos, he didn't see them very often, and he was fairly proud of himself for remembering all their names.
Nabile was hugged tightly by all the guests – Jazan received a hearty pat on the back from Tomos and five polite handshakes.
He bowed. "If you'd like to come inside, dinner will be served soon. The children will be thrilled to see you." He smiled, trying to be a gracious host, trying to be friendly. It wasn't something that came naturally to him. His own particular form of diplomacy consisted of looming over people until they did what he wanted – if his size didn't work, small reminders that he could turn them into a Scamander generally did. But it would make Nabile happy if he put on a show of being sociable.
Two little tawny-furred blurs shot down the hall toward them as they entered through the main doors. "Uncle Tomos! Uncle Tomos!" They barreled into the Lupe, and then went for their hugs and head-pats from the other Scarabs. Jazan smiled a little at their excitement – Caspar and Esmeralda were both whirling around in circles trying to absorb all the attention, and it had almost certainly occurred to them that all these extra people might mean a couple of extra presents.
Then the doors swung open again. There were Hanso and Brynn – Brynn was wearing normal desert clothes, but Hanso was still wearing that stupid coat that Jazan had never once seen him without. Hanso waved. "Hey, everybody!"
"Hanso! Brynn!" Tomos crossed over to them – they had met a few months ago when a rogue Fire Faerie attacked Qasala. It looked like he was handling the introductions, so Jazan was able to take a deep breath and prepare to keep any aggravation hidden.
He was doing it for Nabile and the children. He had to keep telling himself that.
A head bumped up under his hand – good old Nightsteed. The Uni said, "I can just ram him if you'd like me to."
He wasn't any more fond of Hanso than Jazan was. But the Kyrii sighed. "No, Nabile would scold."
Nightsteed laughed. "Well, the dining room's all set up and there's chilled cider and gingerbread along with the meal, so you may as well lead everyone in and get his mouth filled so he can't talk."
Tomos's ears perked up. "Gingerbread? Let me at it!"
Brynn sighed happily. "That'll be wonderful – I'm absolutely starving."
Yari – the youngest of the Scarabs – said, "I'm starving, too!"
Raq pointed out, "You're always starving. You could down a whole Grackle-Stuffed Turkey and still be starving."
Nabile said, "Then what are we waiting for? Let's eat!"
Jazan took his seat – Nabile had had a round table placed in the room, so there'd be no disputes as to where the head of the table was or who belonged closest to it. It was getting dark outside already – night came early this time of year, and the temperature dropped enough that it was actually comfortable to light a fire. He'd used a little magic on it – it flickered golden and warm, but with little sparks of red and green throughout. He'd also had to put a preservation spell on the evergreen wreath over the mantle, or the needles would have shriveled and dropped off in under an hour in the desert heat.
He couldn't imagine a land so cold those things could flourish – he'd never even seen snow in person, and he didn't want to. Thankfully Terror Mountain had no monarch he might ever have to visit.
Horace, who'd always been a leader among the Scarabs, said, "King Jazan, I met Shenkuu's ambassador to the Lost Desert when he came to Sakhmet – did he come to Qasala?"
Jazan remembered the diplomat – a rather unpleasant man, full of himself and completely convinced that his own kingdom and his own Emperor were superior to every other realm and leader in Neopia. "Yes – he stayed very briefly, which was agreeable to both of us."
Nightsteed added, "The pompous rat."
Nabile snickered. "Jazan controlled his temper until the ambassador shouted at Aldie for trying to touch his robe. Then he scared the man so badly I doubt he'll ever come back."
Raq asked with interest, "What did you do to him?"
Jazan corrected the green Acara, "I didn't do anything. I merely insinuated that several unpleasant things would happen to him if he dared to talk to the Princess of Qasala in that way again. Ever."
Zina asked Hanso, "So what do you do for a living?"
The blue Ixi crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, the picture of easy arrogance. "I'm Queen Fyora's Master Thief."
Jazan winced – while the Scarabs had "gone respectable," they were all quite proud of their lawless youths, and he had a feeling this was not going to go well.
It didn't. There were several snorts, and Bokan said, "I'll believe that when I see it."
Hanso took a medal off his chest. "Here, then – take a look."
Raq sniffed. "A bit of gold? Just because you've got something shiny saying you're a thief doesn't mean you know the trade. Look at you! You've never climbed three stories straight up with an angry shopkeeper hurling rocks at you."
Yari added, "You're one of 'em who likes thieving for the glory and the treasure – not one who needed it to eat. We had a name for those types in Sakhmet."
Raq laughed. "Yeah, dungeon bait!"
Hanso bristled. "At least I set my sights higher than half-moldy fruit! It's not hard stealing something no one cares that much about!"
They were off, defending their different burglary methods and disparaging the others – Jazan sighed. He'd known this was a bad idea, he'd known, he'd known, and if it got any worse Caspar and Esmeralda were going to witness their first brawl. Nabile had told him that Bokan was far quicker to fight than he was to calm down, and while she, Zina, and Brynn were all trying to cut in and get people to cool off, it wasn't working particularly well. Tomos was just looking out the window, and Jazan couldn't blame him.
Finally, he knocked his fork against the side of his goblet of cider. The noise rang out over the din, and he said icily, "I'm not sure who are the real children here – the twins or the rest of you. Can we eat our dinner in peace, and argue later? Preferably when I don't have to listen to it?"
That did the trick. He was irritated to the point that he knew his eyes had turned from gold to ruby-red, and he was probably a frightening enough picture to scare them into being quiet.
At least they'd stopped the racket.
The conversation considered, somewhat strained, about the continued rebuilding efforts in Faerieland. Brynn, Zina, Tomos, and Nabile did most of the talking, as the others still looked angry – the tension hung thick in the air. Jazan added his own views here and there – he was knowledgeable about rebuilding destroyed cities, after all – but mostly focused on his food, the tea, coffee, and borovan that followed it, and how long it would be before he could leave.
Finally, he and Nabile each picked up one of the slumbering twins and excused themselves to carry them up to bed. After they left, Jazan asked, "So, was I right?"
Nabile looked up at him, eyes narrow. "It'll all go better tomorrow when everyone's calmer. They won't fight like that again. And if you don't stop being such a grouch I'm making you hand out presents – while wearing the red hat."
He muttered, "I'm a red Kyrii. I look silly in red clothes. And the white trim on that hat makes my head itch."
She rocked Caspar back and forth. "Jazan, I know that didn't go as well as you'd hoped – it didn't go as well as I'd hoped, either. But tomorrow's the Day of Giving, and you know miracles happen!" She sighed. "When we were little, I think all the Scarabs half-hoped that our parents would come on the Day of Giving, and take the whole group to some big house with a garden. Didn't you ever dream like that?"
He sighed heavily. "I always knew it would take more than just a Day of Giving miracle to make my biggest problem go away." He remembered a pair of angry pale eyes and a hulking figure, then shook his head. Razul was gone – no use thinking about him. Especially not on what was supposed to be a holiday.
She reached out and tapped his nose. "Well, my Day of Giving wish is that you get some holiday spirit. No, don't talk back, I know you just agreed to this to make me happy. And I'm certain we'll still all be thankful we did it."
He nodded, and Esmeralda shifted in his arms. "I hope so."
She whispered then, losing some of her iron certainty, "I hope so, too – I'm glad to have everyone here. It's been so long since we've all been together."
Jazan resolved to, even if he couldn't enjoy it, at least hide it better. Not that it would work. His carefully cultivated king façade could fool just about everyone except Nabile and her violet eyes. He said softly, "I'll try. I promise that I'll try."
She smiled, and took his free hand. "And I thank you for that, Jazan. I know it's hard for you – it means a lot to me. It really does."
When he tucked Esmeralda into bed, she stirred and woke up. "Daddy, could you tell me a bedtime story?"
He sighed. "It's long past your bedtime, sweetling."
But she'd already woken Caspar. "A story, Daddy? Please?"
He sat down in the comfortable chair between their beds as Nabile perched on its arm. He began, "Do you know why we exchange presents on the Day of Giving?"
They did, but they still leaned in eagerly as he recited, "A long time ago, the Winter King was making a long journey. But he was beset by ill weather and ill luck, and he eventually was forced to seek shelter for the night in a small village on his path.
"This village had had as much misfortune as the Winter King. It was very poor, and the people had very little. When the King saw them, he was ashamed to come as a beggar in their midst. He said to himself, 'No – I cannot ask these people for aid. They have barely enough to feed themselves, let alone me. I shall find somewhere else to sleep.'
"But before he could leave, an old widow-woman came to him. She refused all his excuses, and brought him to her home, splitting her food for the night in half and giving him a place to rest beside the fire. And when he left the next morning, though he tried to depart in silence, the other villagers found him and gave him all the food they could spare to keep him on his travels.
"The Winter King did not forget the generosity of the village when he returned to the splendor of his palace. Every year in winter, for as long as he lived, he sent food and warm clothes and other wonderful things, and no one in the village ever went hungry again.
"Those times are long gone, but the lesson remains. We make everything green and bright during the winter to remind ourselves of the spring to come, though the reason for that is a story for another night. And we exchange presents and wish each other well to remind ourselves to be generous to others, and to see the goodness in all men."
He rose and tucked them in – they were already almost asleep again – with the last line resonating in his mind. To see the goodness in all men.
The breakfast spread was wonderful the next morning, and Jazan found that he was hungry as everyone came in. But he looked up from the muffins he'd been choosing among as Hanso stuck out his hand to Bokan. "I think we got off on the wrong foot yesterday, friend. Day of Giving truce?"
The blue Techo nodded curtly. "Truce." But when Hanso passed him a Neggnog, he cheered up quickly. Then Jazan noticed Brynn and Zina look at each other and smile – clearly, the red Kyrii hadn't been the only one who'd needed convincing to start over fresh this morning. But it actually looked like there would be peace.
And then Hanso raised his glass. "To the Day of Giving!" Jazan toasted him, and then Nabile, and smiled. He didn't even try to blame his good mood on the food. Maybe the old tales were right and the Day of Giving was actually something special.
Brynn started up an old carol in a clear voice, and the others joined in. Jazan didn't actually sing along – he was as musical as a brick – but he listened, especially to the children in their baby-voices, singing "la la la" when they didn't know the words, and Nabile's high, pure tone. He beamed at her, and she beamed back, eyes big and bright.
When they finished, the children started wolfing their food, their big eyes focused on the pile of presents near the hearth. It was lit again this morning, with the colored sparks flashing merrily. Finally, Nabile got up and started passing out the presents. Jazan was irrationally surprised and pleased to see that he had more than he'd expected – one from Nabile and one from Nightsteed, but then one from Tomos and one from Hanso and Brynn.
He really needed to rethink his view of the thief, he decided, as he opened the package to see a few gemstones – good for anchoring magic – and a note, stating that they had reclaimed them from a malicious lesser sorcerer in the Haunted Woods and that they had thought Jazan would like to have them.
He looked up as Nabile opened her present from him – a lapis pendant with a scarab inlaid in the stone. She hugged him. "This is lovely, Jazan! Zina, look!"
As the Zafara admired the necklace, Esmeralda asked, "Daddy, what's this?"
The two children were holding something Jazan had only seen in pictures – a sled. Hanso explained, "You may not have snow here, but you've got sand dunes, right? It should work."
Tomos' eyes lit up. "I say let's finish up the food and go try it!"
They'd all decided that Hanso ought to test the sled, as they stood on top of a dune outside the city in the clear blue morning, though Caspar and Esmeralda had both loudly insisted that it was their present and they got to ride it first. The blue Ixi crouched on the wooden platform, and Tomos gave him a push with his foot.
And he was off! Sand flew up behind him as he shot down the hill, only coming to a stop a good distance from the bottom as he shouted, "Yeah! Woohoo!"
After Hanso had climbed back up with the sled in his hand and grit in his hair, Jazan balanced Caspar and Esmeralda on it and instructed them to hold tightly to each other before giving them the most gentle of starts. They didn't go half as quickly as Hanso, but they still screamed with delight as they flew down the dune, and Jazan smiled.
When he stood up, Nabile beamed at him again. Jazan freely admitted as Bokan and Tomos started to arm-wrestle for who got to ride next, "You were right, Nabile. This was fun. Perhaps we could even do it again next year."
She took his hand. "Happy Day of Giving, Jazan."
"Happy Day of Giving, Nabile."
Happy Day of Giving to all!