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Guilty Conscience


by aria_imp

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1.

     "He tried to pick my pocket my very first day on patrol. I took him in, but he escaped the next morning."

     "Of course, I let her catch me that first time, to boost her confidence."

     She knew it made her look nervous and twitchy -- and the last thing, really, the last thing Brynn wanted was to look nervous and twitchy -- but she couldn't stop adjusting her helmet. She walked through the main marketplace in Brightvale Square stiffly, paws swinging from side to side in a semi-militant march, but she couldn't help but glance at every reflective surface (and in Brightvale, which was, Brynn admitted grudgingly, made mostly of stained glass, there were many) and push her helmet into place, concealing her hair. It was fine. It would be difficult to tell that she was a girl. She caught herself gazing sideways at a highly polished set of pots and looked away again quickly.

     I deserve to be here, she thought with nervous determination, passing underneath the shade of a streetside shop hawking miraculous cures (could those be contraband? can those things really be legal? is that thing... squirming?) from Shenkuu. Never mind that she was the only female guard in her cohort. Never mind that it was her first day on patrol and that somewhere behind her lurked Malgan, an officer who had it in for her from her first day in training and who would leap on any excuse to --

     Brynn was so finely balanced between a semblance of calm and sheer panic that when she felt something brush at her hip, she instantly turned in a fury of red fur and within moments had the would-be thief pinned and choking under a paw to the ground.

     "Grararghug," said the thief.

     Brynn blinked. "Did you just try to pick pocket a guard?"

     "Unnggg," said the thief pitifully. It was a scruffy Ixi. His paws waved like feeble seaweed.

     Brynn let up a little as Malgan strolled toward them. The hard-eyed Usul watched silently, and Brynn knew that her brain should be babbling protocol at her at the speed of light and that she should be listening to it, but she couldn't stop staring at the Ixi disbelievingly.

     "Were you dropped on the head a lot as a child?" she said wonderingly.

     "Can't," the Ixi panted, "breathe."

     "You are under arrest," Brynn said. She paused. "For trying to pick pocket a guard."

      2.

     "At the risk of being hit again, can I say that you look much better without that helmet?"

     Hanso was calm. He was calm, he was cool, he was in charge. He was sprawled in a dungeon cell in a casual, offhand manner and making up insults to mock the guards. That was what a good thief did. He was not thinking about what the Thieves Guild would say about this. He was not thinking about how he had chosen a Brightvale guard in full uniform as his very first mark. He was not thinking about the astounding variety of fungi sprouting healthily on the wall that he was staring (casually and offhandedly) at. He was not thinking about the dank prison cell with its single window cut high into the stone which let in only a pale scarf of moonlight. He was most certainly not thinking about how he would never see the sun again. Hanso liked the sun. Hanso wanted to see the sun. All the time. When it was up in the sky. Unframed by a prison window.

     There was a movement outside, a door opening and closing, the silver clink of keys. Hanso perked up before hastily rearranging himself again in what he hoped was very much an in-charge, thief-like, rascally adorable, utterly irresistible attitude. A shadow fell across the floor outside as someone moved towards him, and soon the torch-light resolved itself into the guard he had tried to pick-pocket that morning in the square. The guard set his torch into the bracket on the wall and sat on the bench facing the cell -- and Hanso -- with a tired sigh.

     There was a long silence as the guard looked steadily at him. He was a Kougra, small, sleekly agile. The firelight flickered over the glint of his helmet. Hanso's gaze trailed down to the guard's paw, and he swallowed, feeling profoundly grateful that the Kougra's claws had been sheathed that morning.

     "So," he said conversationally. "This is very pleasant and all, great service, loved the food, can't wait to sleep in that bed in the corner, but when do I get to go home?"

     The Kougra snorted. "Not for a while, thief. Not for a very long while, if I have my way."

     Hanso rolled his eyes. Another do-gooder, black and white, all thieves are evil and scum of the earth and would sell Baby Unis to Jhudora for a handful of Neopoints, blah blah blah.

     The guard let out another long sigh, turned from Hanso and lifted the helmet from his head, setting it down next to him. Hanso stared as long red hair fell free and framed the Kougra's face.

     "You're a girl!"

     "Surprise," she said bitterly.

     "You smushed my face into the ground!" Hanso said admiringly.

     The Kougra let out a laugh and then stopped, looking almost surprised at herself. She was pretty, once Hanso got over the shock. She was also (he admitted grudgingly) extremely dangerous to his well-being. "I don't know whether to take that as a compliment or be annoyed that you're patronising me."

     "Wow," Hanso said. "Touchy."

     "I'm the first female guard they've had in a long time," she snapped. Her free hand, resting on her helmet, drew restless shapes over its visor, again and again. "They don't know what to do with me. They can't decide if I'm better off put on a pretty pedestal and babied to within an inch of my life or hidden away guarding useless thieves in the dungeon." Once more she looked surprised, and then annoyed, her lips pursing as if she was determined to stop talking.

     Hanso was silent for a while. Play the lovable rogue. It was easy. Comment on her not messing up her hair. Call her darling.

     Instead he lay back on the ground, his arms pillowing his head, and looked up at the sifting beam of the moon. "It was my first day at work, too," he said after a while. "I'm a good thief. I'm going to be a really good thief."

     "Do something else," she said. Her voice was pretty, too. "Thievery won't get you anywhere."

     He laughed and turned on his side.

     "I'm Brynneth. Brynn," she said. That was the last thing either of them said until dawn.

      3.

     "You must be a terrible thief, Hanso."

     "Your purse, ma'am," Brynn said politely, handing the purple purse back to the old Yurble, who snatched it out of her grasp and walked off without a word.

     "She was old as the hills!" she hissed in Hanso's ear as she twisted his arm behind him.

     *

     "Your jewels," she said, dropping the heavy pouch back into the Lupe's hand. Hanso made a tiny whining noise in his throat as he gazed at the tantalizing, liquid weight of the emeralds (as big as Pteri eggs!) now disappearing back into the Lupe's pocket. Brynn rolled her eyes and hitched Hanso's arm behind him a little tighter.

     *

     It was a black, black day for Hanso the day Brynn marched him ignominiously down the street, dispensing lost goods like a vending machine. "Coins," she said, handing them to a startled young Grarrl mother. "Your vase," to a gnarly shopkeeper. "Your bracelet," she said to a Buzz, reaching casually into Hanso's back pocket to extract it. "And I do believe this is yours," she said kindly to a small Kacheek. Hanso closed his eyes in horrified shame as she handed the stolen lollipop back to the child.

     *

     It got to the point where Brynn walked up to Hanso on the street and he held out his wrists obediently.

     "What are you doing?" Brynn said suspiciously.

     Hanso sighed. "Handcuff me already, darling."

     "I was actually here to praise you for being uncharacteristically law-abiding," Brynn said warily.

     Hanso quickly dropped his hands and flashed her a winning smile, but Brynn was already fastening the handcuffs shut.

     "Guilty conscience," she said, squinting at him. There was a sideways smile in her eyes. "Let's see what you're feeling guilty about today."

      4.

     "Those were the only times I got caught out of hundreds of heists. And I had my reasons for letting myself get taken in. Besides, I never hurt anyone."

     (Hanso would never admit it. He never thought about it. It was a game, soothing, simple. The Thieves Guild was tough. Sometimes he didn't meet his weekly quota, and that meant a cold night, no roof over his head, no food. Sometimes they caught him keeping something for himself, a glinting bauble or two, and that was worse than no roof, that was pain. But then there was the dungeon cell with its abundant plant life and its small window and there was Brynn, sitting calm, tail curled, across from him. Sharpening her sword sometimes, other times reading a book. One night in the cells, released the next day. Simple, soothing, a game. He had quick hands. He was a good thief. Usually he was fed and warmed and rewarded. But sometimes he let himself be caught because it made that Usul, Malgan, look at Brynn without derision. Most of the time Brynn got him anyway, because she was good at her job, and that was what she did. Because there was Brynn, across from him, and sometimes he made her laugh.)

      5.

     "It's just that -- I never told you about this -- I almost lost my position in the Guards because I trusted you."

     He wasn't a bully. Brynn admitted that much. He never hurt anyone, never pickpocketed anyone who didn't look like they could stand to lose a few coins. He was a good person. A lousy thief, of course, clumsy and obvious, but a good person. A thief nonetheless.

     Brynn was loyal to king and nation, like her father before her, and her grandfather, and her great-grandfather. That was what she was: she was a guard. She was a guard, and so her job was to protect Brightvale's citizens from injustice, and that included pilfered housewares and jewellery. Her duty was clear as night and day. She was a good guard. King Hagan knew her name. She knew she was turning out to be one of the best.

     Thieves amounted to nothing. Thieves had to be caught, and imprisoned, and taught that what they did was unacceptable. Even if they cracked jokes or stole only from those who could afford to be stolen from or never hurt anyone or were her only friend. Brynn's breath caught, and she turned, leaning her head against the stone wall and closing her eyes, breathing deeply.

     "Please," Hanso said. He was standing up, grasping the bars, his eyes so intent she could feel them like a physical itch. "Please, Brynn. He's my friend. He's new to the Thieves Guild, he didn't make the quota. They'll throw him out onto the streets. He'll be terrified. There'll be nowhere for him to go."

     "I can't," Brynn said stonily. "Releasing you would be wrong."

     "Then go off duty. Let one of those other fools take your place. That Skeith, that Draik. I can escape if they're in charge. You won't be blamed. It's all I ask. I swear I'll come back and give myself up again in the morning. Just let me make sure he won't be hurt by those tyrants."

     "I can't," she said again. "It would be so irresponsible. I can't, Hanso."

     "Please," he said, and she made the mistake of looking at him. He had never looked more serious. Hanso always had a joke in his eyes or mouth or hands, always quick to laugh, but now he stood still as stone, desperate.

     Woodenly she unlocked the prison door and it swung open. Hanso stood frozen for a moment, then caught her paw, kissed it fervently, and slipped away.

     Brynn slowly sat back down. She was a guard. She was a good guard. That was all she knew.

     6.

     "You know I'm no hero. I'm just a thief, remember? That's why I'm behind these bars."

     The silhouette was unmistakable. Brynn saw it -- him -- slide away behind a corner. At night, the marketplace was silent and still, the tents folded in on themselves, canvas tightly wrapped around the goods, everyone asleep: it was an eerily quiet chase. She rounded a corner behind the flap of his tunic, saw Hanso's ears, twitching nervously, as he slouched along some barrels before breaking free and darting towards the city gates. Brynn kept one hand on her sword as she ran; she knew she would catch him; she would always catch him.

     He made the mistake of running into a dead-end alley and before he could backtrack and make a break for it she was there, unfolding in a fluid pounce, her sword like a long silver tooth. Hanso gazed up at her, his pulse fluttering madly in his throat.

     Brynn meant to say, "you're under arrest," cold and calm and professional. But then she pushed her sword closer and Hanso closed his eyes.

     "Why?" she said.

     Hanso kept his eyes shut. "I couldn't come back. My friend fell ill. I needed -- "

     "You said you would be back in the morning. You made me a promise, Hanso."

     Hanso opened his eyes again, and for a moment she saw the moon reflected in his irises. "It was my duty," she said, and she hated the way her voice sounded. "It was my duty."

     Hanso cocked his head at her. "Darling, what did you expect?" He reclined back in the dirt, casual, offhanded. "I'm a thief."

      *

     "At least say you still trust me. I don't care what Altador and the rest of those self-righteous, buttoned-up heroes think of me, but you..."

     *

     "You see everything in black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. It's not that simple, Brynn. It's never that simple."

The End

 
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