The Nine Bows
He had no choice but to run. The gold was in his pocket and already he was being pursued, across the back streets and alleyways of the city. It hadn't taken much effort to procure it, even—one look at his scarred face and the sharp dagger in his hand and they'd put together who he was. Fear was one thing to contend with, but the bounty on his head was another.
The guards who pursued him were tall, strong men from the Palace, no doubt itching to do away with the thief, especially one who had eluded capture for so long. He didn't even stress himself running, and the first guard was on him in a matter of seconds.
His right hand was still wrapped around the handle of his dagger, itself tucked within his belt. His hand moved seemingly on its own—he could not remove it from the weapon now, not even if he tried—and met the slash of the guard's blade, whirling and twisting to keep up with the dagger. His grin was low; he knew something the guard did not.
The blade would not cease until it had found purchase, until it had claimed the life-blood of the enemy. It would continue to attack until the guard was dead. And the blade's wielder could do nothing to stop it.
He held on, slicing upwards again, allowing the dagger to guide his hand. He spun and lashed out with his left hand, latching on to the guard's arm and pulling, watching with dismay as his right hand had already headed for its target, plunging the blade into the guard's chest, withdrawing quickly from the flesh like it had been a viper who had bitten him and not a deadly, enchanted blade.
The thief fled again, staring almost mutinously at the dagger. He supposed he hadn't even really tried to take out the guard on his own terms, but he'd lost track of how many he had killed with this dagger, and it gave a man pause to consider whether his reputation was really his, or if it was all due to the blade whose hilt still rested comfortably in his hand.
There was one way to find out, although he knew it would not last, and with one smooth movement he flung the dagger away from him, burying its blade deep into the sand even as he continued to move. He did not wait to see what the guards behind him would do to it, if they even discovered it.
He darted left, down another street. He knew the city well, possibly as well as it was possible to know something as temporal as a city. A bit of cloth, tacked as an awning, provided the perfect cover for him as he watched, amused, as a bevy of guards ran right past him, shouting and stamping their feet.
Behind the group one guard paused, just barely out of sight, his deep scowl visible for the second before he turned his head. A smart one, he must know there was nowhere to run; there was only to fight, and to fight well enough to live.
"Thief!" he called, his voice bellowing to transform the word into something even more ugly than its customary associations. He turned, planted his feet, and shouted again. "Thief!"
The thief in question smirked; it was as if the guard thought that he could command his movements just from the sound of his voice alone and the demands it issued. He allowed himself to come into view, dipping his head just below the cover of a draped cloth, the scarlet fringe brushing his ears.
"I am not just any thief," he said lightly. "I am the greatest of thieves." He stepped into the sunlight. "I am the King of thieves."
"I only answer to one King," the guard snarled, pulling a familiar blade from his own belt, holding it with obvious expertise.
"I see I am not the only thief around here," he answered, his words only serving to irk the guard further.
"Watch your tongue, or I will cut it out myself!" The guard lunged, but the thief was not watching him; his eyes were drawn firmly to the dagger, and to the way that it recognized its opponent. It was not something he had never seen before, but each time it served as a chilling reminder of the latent power of the dagger, and the covenant they had made that forbade him from ever being free of it.
The dagger turned on its wielder, guiding his hand to slash at his own body, seemingly heading for the tongue to deliver the punishment its owner had promised to another. At the last minute the guard shifted, but still the hand followed, clutching the dagger with an unwilling force, scoring a deep line across the guard's stomach and chest as he scrabbled for the hilt, buried within flesh, leaking blood.
The thief plucked the dagger from the guard's body, still fighting death. It would not be long now. The hilt of the dagger felt oddly warm, his fingers curling around the metal with a practiced ease. It almost felt comfortable.
"The greatest of thieves…Bakura…"
He tensed; the guard had spoken his name, and at the word the thief fell to his knees on the sand, leaning closer to hear better the last words of a dying man.
"Yes, I am what you say," he replied.
"If one is the greatest...there is nothing left. Nowhere...higher. What…can one do," he said, the words so faint they barely carried on the breeze, "when there is nothing left to do?"
"Silly fool." And Bakura stood, noticing the way the man's eyes drooped shut and the way his harried breathing no longer caught in his throat. "Even if I am the greatest, there will always still be things to steal."
He glanced up, past the hills and rows of sand-colored buildings rising and falling like the tide of a desert. Rising above them all, in all its glory, stood the Palace. No thief had ever broached its walls. Bakura himself would be a dead man for trying, although just getting inside the building would prove an accomplishment all its own. He leaned against one hip, tasting the spices on the air, the salt. The sand, already sticking to his lips as he licked them twice.
With the dagger by his side, it was near impossible to lose. Well, he'd wanted to test its power, hadn't he? Casting another glance at the Palace, he knew that was exactly what he would do.
The rug-dealer's shop was a good place to hide. It was known to him as a hideout for those of his kind, those hailing from a particular city deep in the desert, more myth than reality. He had access to scraps of fabric to use as blankets and food when the rug-dealer's wife felt particularly generous. Otherwise, he honed his trade, sneaking amongst the citizens and vagrants alike, stealing their pocket money for his own. After all, what else could one expect from a boy of a city of thieves but to be a criminal himself?
There was a fire in the city; something was burning, he could smell the smoke as it curled upwards, polluting the air with its dark stain. The rug-dealer and his family was gone, and as Bakura crept through the shop, at the carpet-rolls lying haphazardly along the floor, tilted against walls, smudged with smoke, he knew that something was wrong.
A hand, sharp and strong, had grabbed his arm and twisted him around, removing the small knife Bakura kept at his belt. Bakura's eyes met those of an old man with a graying beard, who observed his knife with an exhale of disgust.
"This blade is dull, boy," he said. "It is weak. What can be done with a dull blade?"
Bakura had not needed to use it in serious combat before, but he knew his way around a blade. "The hilt is expertly balanced," he said snidely, making to reach for it.
The old man tossed it aside almost carelessly, still holding on to Bakura with his other hand. "So it is."
"I know when I am being mocked, sir," he told him. "What business do you have with the rug-merchant? Do you…require lodging?" He asked the last almost hesitatingly, unsure what to make of the stranger. He was old but not infirm, and if the strength in his grip was anything to go by, the man was not entirely helpless. His clothes were unornamented, but the cloth was not stained or ripped—he had either taken excellent care of these garments or he had only acquired them recently.
"Would you like a new blade, boy?" The old man reached into a pocket and withdrew a knife with a thick, slightly curved blade.
"Careful now," he added, as Bakura began to reach for it. "This is no ordinary dagger."
"It is quite nice," Bakura agreed. "Are you giving it to me?"
"Its power is yours to wield, but never to command," the old man continued, "and it will test you, I am sure."
Bakura stared at the dagger, at the glistening, clear blade. New-forged, it had that look. He glanced, skeptically, at the stranger.
"A test? What must I do?"
"This dagger…it is enchanted," he said. "It has never before tasted a man's blood. It has only to acquire a bit of yours, and then it will protect that blood."
He held out the dagger, and Bakura's hands were on it in seconds, thinking of all of the things he could do with an enchanted dagger, as the man said. Even if it were nothing but lies, at least he would have a new weapon to replace his tarnished knife. He glanced at the blade, sniffing it lightly. It was not poisoned, but there were other ways to enable it with powers made of man and not of magic—poisons of liquid or dust, hidden spikes in the hilt to deeply puncture anyone who held it incorrectly.
"Just a little taste?" Bakura asked, raising the blade to his left hand and slicing quick, watching a few drops rise to the surface, sliding along the tanned skin. Along the edge of the blade he saw the thin line of red, and he felt the hilt began to vibrate in his grip.
Slowly, the blade began to move on its own, dragging his hand up into the air. He could not let go of it.
"Well," the old man said, taking a few steps backwards as he watched the dagger with relish. "Maybe more than a little."
Bakura screamed as the knife slashed upwards across his face, marring his skin from chin to cheek. Already he could feel the blood running down his face, and he stared at the hand that caused it and the dagger resting within, the full expanse of its blade now coated with red. The red of his thick, stolen blood.
He tried to toss it away, but the fingers of his right hand were still clenched firmly around the hilt. Across the room, the old man laughed. "Enjoy your prize, thief," he said, disappearing into the night through a side door, the same one Bakura had entered earlier.
Bakura found enough fabric scraps to bandage his wound, although he knew there was little to be done. He was stuck with them both—the scar and the dagger. They had both been given to him, after all, and he would make good use of his gifts.
The guards already had his arms in chains, even though he had yet to be thrown into the prison cells underneath the Palace. He stood instead on the top of the grounds, where he had strolled without a care in the world, in broad daylight, after scaling the walls to enter the compound. Like a true king of thieves, he had broken in to the one place that was insurmountable—and like the title that he claimed, he would break out of the same place, to prove it doubly.
"Search him for weapons!" The call came from one of the Priests—Bakura could not tell them apart, each were the same to him in the way that they acted with blind devotion towards the Pharaoh and immediate scorn towards anyone who was not their ruler.
Bakura let them search him, knowing they would only find one weapon. He rarely needed more than the one, after all, but he glanced at the guards closest to him as if daring them to take it.
"You doubt your faith in these men, Priest," Bakura exclaimed with a cold laugh. "Do you think your guards are not strong enough to keep me contained while I retain possession of a single dagger?"
"We are precautious, not stupid," was the Priest's reply. Bakura laughed again, and the men closest to him drew back at the harshness of the sound.
"But you did not dispute my claim. Tell them, Priest, what you really think of their abilities! If they were half the guards you claim, they would be able to contain me with the entire armory at my back!" Bakura leaned forward, the sunlight shining harshly in his eyes, yet he never broke contact with the Priest. "You know that there is no way to dispute my words without acceding to my request. If you would be so kind…?"
The Priest returned his smirk coldly, and Bakura had the feeling that the Priest wasn't as generous with the definition of the term 'compromise' as he had hoped for. While Bakura knew he had won this small battle, the Priest was determined to claim the ultimate trophy.
"You can have your dagger," the Priest said. "But you will be executed at dawn."
The prison barracks were hardly comfortable, not that Bakura had expected them to be. Sure, a pillow would have been nice—the Palace was famed for its comforts! Surely they could spare a single pillow or two—but the cold stone floors and walls seemed heavy with failure and death. He wondered for a moment how many had shared his cell before him.
There were no other prisoners. The entire Kingdom was in a period of great peace and prosperity, so that fact did not surprise him. Their only intrusion, if one could call it that, would be the village of criminals hidden deep within the desert, Kul Elna, the village that had trained him. It was obvious none of the cell's prior occupants had been from his birthplace—thieves from Kul Elna never allowed themselves to be caught, or at least not without a good purpose.
Bakura relaxed his arms, which were suspended above him in metal chains. He could probably break them with enough effort, but it was barely nightfall and he had plenty of time. He relaxed further as he heard the sound of boots shuffling over the floor, making such an uneven pattern that he knew whoever the footsteps belonged to, they were clearly indecisive about the purpose of their visit. Unless they were here to clean the place or hand him a pillow, they were here to see him.
Imagine his surprise when through the metal bars before him the Prince himself emerged, dressed more for the heat of the day than the cold brought on by the night.
He must have been unable to disguise his shock, for the Prince leaned against the bars, observing the prison casually as though it was not entirely unfamiliar to him. Bakura scoffed at the act.
"Expecting someone else, were you?" he asked. "The executioner can always replace me, you know."
"If you think he would make a better Pharaoh," Bakura replied lightly. "But what puzzles me, Prince, isn't that you are here, but why."
"I am not interested in your conclusions."
"Oh, I believe you couldn't help yourself," Bakura said, his grin more sneer than smile. "You just couldn't help but visit me—to see the greatest of thieves for yourself. Am I right?"
"You cannot be so great," he replied. "You are in chains; you are not free."
"No? Are you not in chains yourself?" Bakura gestured with an elbow towards the ornamental gold bracers that stretched from the Prince's wrists to his elbows. "Are you free, with your endless obligations and vocational responsibilities? Did you choose to one day become the Pharaoh?"
The Prince leaned back, resting one tanned arm against the bars before him. The clink that echoed as the gold touched iron was not unintentional, Bakura thought. "Did you choose to be a thief?"
"No," Bakura answered, hating the way the Prince believed with that query that he had won their argument. "But any troubles faced by my kind were ultimately at the cause of one of your choices." He was speaking, of course, about the lineage of Pharaohs—there had never been a one that did not seek to persecute their criminals, after all.
"But you could be a simple thief," the Prince reasoned. "You could steal for your livelihood—you could even forbid yourself from killing, restrict yourself only to the theft of small goods. Instead, you chose to be the greatest thief, as you said. No one else can take responsibility for that."
Bakura's eyes darkened as he thought of an old man, a magical dagger, and drops of blood splattered across a woven carpet. "It was my destiny, Prince. I have greatness in me. Surely you wish to become a mediocre Pharaoh? It is better than becoming a dreadful one, on that I think we can agree."
The Prince began to laugh at this, turning to lean both arms against the railing. Bakura had to smirk at this; when he had entered, the Prince had kept to the wall, maintaining a good distance between the two, but as the hours and the conversation wore on, he had moved closer, until they could have been chatting as friends instead of opposites in every way, from station to disposition.
"Then we share a similar destiny," the Prince said. "For it is mine as well to become the greatest—the greatest Pharaoh that has ever lived."
"Then I will be your match," he replied. "The greatest of Pharaohs must not have a mediocre opponent…or worse, a dreadful one."
"You forget you are to be executed at sunrise." The Prince's reminder did not jar Bakura as the former had hoped; instead, it seemed almost to provoke him further, and he leaned forward as much as his bindings would allow.
"And you seem to have forgotten, Prince, that it is you who has visited me without a single guard and taken up most of this time with idle conversation."
"I would not call it idle," he said.
"Then tell me what you would consider meaningful? From one great man to another."
The Prince withdrew, whether from cold or from the realization that in possibly a few short hours the sun might be peeking over the horizon. "I must leave you. Enjoy your…time," he said.
"What, you would leave without answering my question first? Do your aspirations extend to being the most impolite Pharaoh, I wonder?" Bakura mimicked him by leaning back against the stone, withdrawing into the shadows, ignoring how cold the surface felt on his back through the thin fabric of his shirt.
"Then I will answer your question tomorrow." The response was given offhandedly, but Bakura grasped at it.
"Ah, but you said I was to be executed at dawn, remember? That is my sentence."
The Prince turned back, regarding him through lofty eyes and a slight tilt of the head. Bakura scoffed at the act, even as the Prince spoke.
"Then I suppose we'll have to suspend your execution by a few days," he said, "unless you are in a hurry to die?"
"At your leisure," Bakura answered.
"Then I guess I will wish you good morning," the Prince said, leaving him in darkness save for the thin ribbon of light emerging at the edge of the horizon, just barely visible through the small window set high into the opposite wall.
The High Priest held council with the Pharaoh, as was customary. Akhenamkhanen was not one to break routine, but Akunadin was, and as he approached the Pharaoh's throne he bent low to speak softer, speaking words just meant for the two of them.
"My Pharaoh," Akunadin said, "something must be done about the city of Kul Elna. Those thieves and robbers have plagued our kingdom for decades! Why, just the other day one of their kind broke into the Palace!"
"And he has been captured and rests well within our walls," Akhenamkhanen answered. "I do not fear a small group of bandits, High Priest. The kingdom should not fear them either. I will lament the day when a group such as theirs can cause a kingdom that has stood so tall for so long to crumble to dust. One man or a hundred, it makes no difference to me. They are no serious threat."
"A diplomatic and just answer." No others shared the room save for the two guards by the doors, but still Akunadin kept his voice low and measurably even. "But how long do you think this prosperity will last? Do you want that village to become your son's problem?"
"What are you suggesting, High Priest?"
"Remove the problem before it becomes one. Show them that we will not tolerate their actions any longer. Let me"—and here he paused, nearly breathless, the fervor gleaming in his eyes—"let me take care of them once and for all. Just say the word, and our kingdom will never have to worry about that city again."
The Pharaoh considered his words before nodding slightly. "I trust your words," he said. "Do as you have said, in service to the kingdom and to myself."
"I will," Akunadin promised, delivering a deep bow before his ruler. With his back to the Pharaoh, he could not see the deadly intent that had overtaken him, from the hard glint in his eyes to the deep-set grin that stretched his mouth.
The sun had barely dipped below the horizon when the Prince came to visit him again. Again, he came without guards, golden bracers glinting in the pale light, but a thick cloak was looped around his shoulders to keep them warm.
"And how have you enjoyed your last day, thief?" His attitude was almost cheerful, a stark contrast to the actual words being spoken.
"And would you have chosen to spend your last day like this, Prince?" he asked in return.
"Of course not."
"If you had been told it was to be your last day, I doubt you'd have any choice in the matter of how you could spend it."
"You imply I would ever allow myself to be captured and imprisoned?" He laughed. "Like you?"
"Perhaps I didn't." Bakura watched as the Prince stiffened, considering the implications. "Yes, why would a powerful thief enter the Palace? Think hard, now."
"You've come to steal something?"
"I'm stealing your time quite effectively, Prince, that's something." In the shadows, the Prince had to come nearly to the bars to see his face clearly, and he knew the closeness was just as unsettling as the promised safety of the bars was liberating. "Yes, I suppose had I been the prince and you the thief, I would have had you executed immediately. That solves the matter."
The Prince tried not to show how unsettled Bakura made him, but it was difficult with so little separating them in the way of distance or ceremony. Here was a man who paid him no respect, who spoke to him plainly, and it fascinated him.
"I promised you an answer, didn't I?" he asked. "What I consider meaningful—I don't have just one answer. I have many. My Kingdom. My people. My responsibilities towards them. Life—even an ordinary one—I consider meaningful beyond measure."
"And an extraordinary one?"
"Even more so." From his position, Bakura could only look up at the Prince, and it irked him. He wanted to know what the other angle looked like; he wanted to know how it felt to look down on the next Pharaoh. He wanted that power, and not because it was just another thing that he didn't already have.
"Prince…do you have a name to go along with that title?" he asked. More power, and he wanted it.
"Not for you to know," he said. "My title will suffice. Although I prefer to call you by yours, thief, do you have a name to go along with it?"
"Hmm," he considered, mocking. "I will give it to you if you give me an extra day."
"A hard bargain." The Prince's quick comment diffused the tension, although there was still enough of it left for the air to feel almost charged with the residue of its presence. "But I accept those terms."
"My name is Bakura." Even after he said the words, nothing seemed to have changed. There was no satisfaction in the Prince's eyes, no thoughts of triumph gained or lost. There was only stillness and shadows, cloaking them both in the night.
"You know my name now," Bakura continued. "And you have no reaction to it?"
"It is a very nice name," he commented, almost offhandedly.
"I expected trumpets." They traded words again like weapons, each gaining and losing ground—but where was the battlefield in a war of words? It was not this cell, of that Bakura was certain. Perhaps it was his own mind—the Prince seemed to control his body, at least in the fact that he could order an executioner at any moment and yet chose not to. He would wait to discover why that was, he had more important business at the moment.
"High expectations. Tell me, how does this prison cell hold up to those?"
"It would be better with a pillow," he said, leaning back in an effort to make the chains look more comfortable. They clanked together with a low, metallic sound.
"Anything else you would like?" he asked.
"Oh, many things, Prince," Bakura said. "My freedom. Your crown—the gold one, not the figurative one—and—and—"
He had been about to mention the dagger, and its curse. Freedom from that, as well—it was what he wanted perhaps most of all. What good was being the greatest if he could not fully claim that it was done by his own hand?
"I can give you none of those things," the Prince said, staring curiously at Bakura. He did not mention Bakura's slip, and continued to speak. "In fact, I cannot even offer you my company for too much longer."
"Ah, are you always going to leave me wanting more from you?" Bakura smirked at the stunned look on the Prince's face. "One day for my name, now."
"Of course," he said, determined to have the last word as he backed away from the cell. "It was you who valued it so poorly. I would have given you two."
Outside in the courtyard, the Prince stood with his back to the sun, facing the city, waiting for news. The mission had been a success, word had already reached them of that, but Akunadin and the soldiers that had been sent with him were due to return today. The Prince would wait for them.
He wouldn't have to wait for long. From the other side of the courtyard, he could see the High Priest emerge, a sand-colored cloak drawn tight around his head and shoulders, obscuring all but his gray beard and the tip of his nose.
The Prince's warm welcome died on his lips as Akunadin approached him. Something was different, something he could not quite figure out. It was like the Priest had lost a part of himself and gained something new to replace what was gone.
"Tell me," the Prince said. "Tell me what happened."
"What happened?" The Prince got a quick glance at the right side of his face, at the flash of achievement and victory found there in his one visible eye. "Something extraordinary."
He was suddenly struck by those words, the same ones spoken to him by a thief lodged in a dungeon through layers of rock below their feet. "Tell me."
Akunadin twisted, and still the Prince could not clearly see his face. Just what was it he was trying to hide? As if their thoughts were synchronized, he spoke, "Is the thief we captured still alive, or has he been killed?"
"Alive." He felt his throat go dry at the word, and swallowed quickly. It didn't help. "I've been…questioning him." A plausible excuse for an implausible act.
Akunadin nodded, accepting this, and when the Prince pressed again he recoiled. "My news is only for the Pharaoh…for the Pharaoh…"
"Then you'll get your chance." The Prince could already see his father appearing from inside one of the buildings, slowly making his way towards them. "He is coming this way. I am sure he is looking forward to hearing your good news."
And with that, the Prince departed.
News of the Pharaoh's death spread like wildfire. The transition was as smooth and quick as could have been hoped—one day he was the Prince, and the next he had become the Pharaoh. To him, it felt no different. He expected…trumpets.
Perhaps the numbness was because of the suspiciousness of his father's death—he did not know just how his father had died, but some of the other Priests had speculated from the way that his spirit had changed, his ka had changed, his soul even had shifted and faded. No one wanted to believe it, not even when presented with proof before their very eyes. It was too much, and for the Prince-turned-King, he now had an entire Kingdom and its legacy to concern himself. It made no sense, then, that everything he was told or everything he said seemed in some way connected to the strange thief bound prisoner within the Palace walls, surely all but forgotten in the chaos. He didn't even know if the thief had made true to his word and escaped; he was sure no one else would have noticed or cared.
He had kept the same number of advisors as his father—the six Priests and one Priestess, with Akunadin retaining his role as High Priest. It was just barely the second day of his induction as Pharaoh when Akunadin had gathered them together, his cloak still pulled tight to hide his face—the possibility that he had sustained an injury was the only conclusion he could come to—and handed each of the Priests a small metal object, gleaming of both gold and magic. Artifacts, he had said. Relics.
He knew what relics were—supposedly the remains of a person or a possession, something that held meaning and power. Strange that Akunadin should call them by that name.
His Priests looked comfortable with the golden items, handling them with care, realizing that what they held in their hands was indeed powerful.
As Pharaoh he needed no trinkets for power like this. The Kingdom was still standing tall; its power was innate. Its power came from the foundation of their very civilization. Accepting a relic to power it would be like admitting that he needed that power. He didn't need it.
What he needed were answers.
A few days prior, Bakura had finally had enough with his restraints and had picked the lock. He still had to deal with the outside lock to the bars, however, and was formatting a plan to escape from these, too, when he heard the sound of footsteps on the rough stone outside of his cell. It was not the Prince—his footsteps were always hesitant even if his bearing was not, and Bakura wondered who else it would be. Perhaps the executioner had come for him at last.
If so, he should be expecting a fight. For all of their long discussions about greatness and destiny, the Prince should not have thought that Bakura would hand his life over to anyone. It was his to do with as he pleased.
A cloaked figure came into view, and Bakura stared at him for a few long seconds while he tried to grasp why the stranger seemed so familiar.
"Who are you?" he asked. "Show yourself!"
Slowly the man lifted his arms to grasp the edges of his hood, throwing it back and exposing his face. It was long and weathered from the passage of many years and the harsh climate, equally, although Bakura's eyes were first drawn to the short gray beard on the edge of his chin, up at last to his eyes.
One was a hard, deep gray, while the other was made of gold, surrounded by scabbed skin. The grin he wore was ugly, and it was then that Bakura truly recognized him.
"You! You were the man I met when I was younger…the man who gave me this!" Bakura pulled out the dagger, lifting it towards the ceiling as if daring it to take over, to exert its vengeance on the one who had first given it to him. The dagger had made Bakura every bit as cursed as the object itself was.
"That is right, thief," he said, pacing lightly before the cell. Every time he turned, Bakura got a different view—the man with a single working eye, furrowed in anger, or the gold eye that stared blankly at nothing and everything at once. He could feel the power it held from where he stood. Bakura glanced between the golden eye and his dagger; he could feel a similar power, although the latter was nowhere near as strong. There were different shades to power, after all.
"Why are you here?" he asked. "Who are you really?"
"I am a Priest of the Pharaoh," he said, "And my name is Akunadin. I bring news." He paused then, the golden eye facing Bakura. "Not good news, unfortunately. I regret to inform you that your birthplace, the village of Kul Elna, is no more."
The words were like a punch to his stomach, delving deep within past skin and bones to pierce his very soul. "What? You lie." His voice was low.
"I speak the truth," he said. "The Pharaoh himself ordered it. Who am I but a servant to his wishes?"
"All of your people are dead," Akunadin continued. "You are the last one left. How does that make you feel?"
"I feel angry," Bakura said, spitting out each word. "I will avenge the one responsible! He had no right!"
Bakura held back a scream, and he could feel the dagger pulsing within his hand, threatening to unleash its vengeance. Only the lack of an available target hindered it.
"I am glad you have put my gift to such good use," Akunadin said, ignoring the venomous look on Bakura's face. He nurtured that anger. "I chose well with you."
"You had no right," he shouted. He would have flung the dagger at the man, had it not been held to his hand by its enchantment. It sought blood, and he would not rest until he had given it what it wanted.
"I chose well," he repeated, backing away slowly as the sound of more footsteps echoed in the distance. Not hesitant this time.
The Prince burst into the narrow hallway, one hand pressed against the bars as he caught his breath. The other clutched a small pillow, and when he caught sight of Akunadin he straightened up.
"Priest Akunadin…what are you doing here?" he asked. "Never mind what you are doing here, I need to speak with you immediately." He sucked in a deep breath as he caught sight of the Priest's face, and reached out a hand towards his shoulder. Akunadin recoiled as if burnt.
"I do not need your pity, I know what I have done to myself," he said. "I have given myself more power…so that I might serve you better."
Unconvinced, the Prince pushed the pillow through the bars, where it fell to the ground, landing softly on the stone. "Akunadin, return with me. I command you to tell me everything. No detail shall be left out."
"Of course," Akunadin said, glancing back at Bakura, watching his eyes blaze with undirected fury. "My Pharaoh."
Bakura started at the title, pressing his back against the cold stone behind him, hoping it would do something to diffuse the liquid fire spreading through every pore of his body. All along, it had been the Prince—the Pharaoh, now, clearly—who had pretended to gain Bakura's acquaintance only to turn and destroy the very place of his origin? He didn't want to believe it, but he knew the truth, and the dagger would pass its judgment accordingly.
He noticed the edge of the pillow had been crudely sewn shut with a dark black thread, different from the other corners. He lifted the pillow and ripped the seams with his teeth, pulling out the stuffing and finding a black metal key resting inside.
The Pharaoh had meant to free him. To avoid execution? Bakura's, perhaps, but in doing so the Pharaoh had just brought about his own.
The Pharaoh stood in the courtyard for different reasons this time. The sun hung low in the sky, washing the blueness with a hint of red. He knew the time would come when he would have to assume this leadership, but at the moment his only singular discovery of the role was his unawareness that the headdress he would wear as Pharaoh would be so heavy. He supposed it had to be; he was carrying the entire Kingdom, and what would that say about the Kingdom's strength if its symbol was light and weak?
Footsteps behind him—the entire assembly of Priests stood, hesitant of whether to approach him or not. Each of them clenched a gold-tinged object in their hands—or in the case of the Eye, Ring, and Puzzle, wore them on their bodies—and it seemed as though even if they'd had wanted to they could not tear their hands away, so enthralling was the power they emitted.
"We have been given these objects…" It was Priestess Isis who spoke first. "Now that we have them, what are we to do with them?"
"And where ever did you get such power? I find it hard to believe that the city of thieves was gathering such a force for their own use—they had no one capable of wielding one." Another Priest spoke, the spines on the edges of his gold Ring clinking together with his breathing.
"The Pharaoh will tell us what to do with them." It was Akunadin who answered them, so matter-of-factly that the Pharaoh himself could have believed it. And what would he command them? He would do as his council advised, which in turn perpetuated a circle of uncertainty and inaction.
"I will be the greatest Pharaoh," he whispered, soft enough that they could make out his speech but not his words. One of their number asked, "What?" before their assembly split into a circle with shouts as Bakura approached them, madly clutching a dagger in the palm of his right hand.
"Who is this?" the Priest who held the Rod asked, addressing them all while speaking to no one.
"I am Bakura," he said, "the last survivor of the Kul Elna tribe." He pointed the blade of the dagger at the Pharaoh. "And I am here to kill you."
Several of the Priests made to separate Bakura from his prey, but at a single motion from the Pharaoh they fell silent. "He is right," he said, dismayed. "I take responsibility. It is my fault, after all—"
Bakura did not wait any longer, lunging at the Pharaoh even before his blade reacted. It moved on its own then, slashing through the air, seeking purchase but finding none. The Pharaoh was skilled, weaving and ducking out of the dagger's way, taking no weapons to defend himself.
"Fight me!" Bakura shouted. "Why won't you fight me?"
"The King would fight to protect his person and his kingdom," he said softly, as the metallic rush of the dagger's slice through air echoed in his ears. Too close. "But the man does not wish to fight you."
"I will take my vengeance! You cannot take that from me!" He slashed again, cutting a thick slash in the Pharaoh's cloak. His ornamental headpiece fell off, and he discarded it without a thought to continue to evade Bakura's frenzied strikes.
"I would not wish to."
"You did this!" he said, seeming not to listen to anything but his own words still ringing in his ears, driven by the sound of revenge and the dull comfort of a magical dagger. "You ordered them dead! You—I am the last one left, do you understand? Their legacy…rests with me, now. I am it! I am all! I am—I am—"
"…the greatest," the Pharaoh murmured, tripping on a clump of dirt and falling on his back. Above him Bakura towered, struggling to keep the knife in check. A quick slash and an easy death was not vengeance, that was failure. He would do this right.
He looked down on the Pharaoh. Somehow the angle was not as satisfying as he had hoped it would be. Before him, he seemed almost defeated, like all of the fight had vanished with the ease of a flame being breathed out of existence.
"A name," he growled. "I want to know the name of the man I'm about to kill."
"Atem," he said, releasing the name into the air with an almost palpable feeling of relief. "My name is Atem."
"Well, Atem," Bakura said, and if it were possible he tightened his grip around the hilt of the dagger. "Are you prepared to die? The last of your kind too, now—your line will die with you, just as mine will die with me."
"You're wrong," he said, leaning up on his elbows as if daring Bakura. "What you said earlier—I did not order them dead. I did not call their attack."
His right hand was shaking now, the dagger searching for the blood that still pulsed within Atem's veins, seeking to spill it, to taint the ground the same red color as the sky. "Then who did?"
Atem glanced up, and slowly each of the Priests turned to Akunadin, identifying him for Bakura more clearly than through words.
"It was you?" Even as Bakura spoke, he knew it had to be. "You gave me this dagger—you gave these Priests this power. You led my people to death."
"I do not deny it," Akunadin said, "but what will you do? The dagger does not thirst for my blood, it thirsts for his! And you cannot control it—it cannot be controlled! Why do you think I gave it to you? You were but a test, thief, to wield an object enhanced by the magic of blood, so that I might have practice for the creation of true power."
One by one they looked down at the golden relics, while Bakura stared at the single golden eye. "I will kill you when I am done."
"You won't," Akunadin replied. "These Priests will do their duty and use their new powers to destroy you after you kill the Pharaoh. And the new Pharaoh—"
"How long?" Bakura brought his left hand to grasp his right wrist, keeping the hand from moving, from using the dagger for its intended purpose. "How many years have you spent perfecting your mad plan? And how many years did it take you to locate my city?" he snapped.
"But a few," Akunadin answered. "I had such high expectations, but their blood proved more than adequate—it is what allowed me to craft these Items, after all."
"Enough!" Atem shouted, and Bakura could not hold back any longer, diving to the ground with the blade outstretched just as Atem rose to meet him, raising his arms to shield him from the blow.
The tip of the dagger struck the bracer on Atem's right arm, and a sharp cracking noise filled the air. The bracer fell to the ground in two parts, severed down the middle, followed swiftly by the severed blade of the once-enchanted dagger.
Bakura stumbled back, dropping the now-useless hilt, the shard remaining now no more than polished metal. He glanced at Atem, who looked just as shocked; he had been prepared to die. They both had.
"It's good to know you would spend your last day trying to kill me," Atem murmured, but Bakura was not thinking about his last day—he was thinking about his first in years, free of the dagger.
He clenched and unclenched his fingers, feeling them as if for the first time. He turned towards Akunadin, watching with satisfaction as the rest of the Priests regarded him with icy reservation.
Atem nudged the detached shard of the dagger with his boot-covered foot. "How should we deal with him?"
"You are the Pharaoh, aren't you?" Bakura said. "You should just tell us what to do with him. Tell him to let us kill him. Tell him to die."
"No," Atem said standing. A few steps took him to where the headpiece had fallen and he picked it up, settling it back on his head. "That honor is not mine—it belongs to you, Bakura."
"In that case…" And he turned to the Priests, still clutching the golden Items with mixed expressions of disgust and anticipation. "Use the items on him, then," he said. "If those scales can weigh his heart, use them. If that key can open his soul, do it. You will see the truth, that the greatest threats to this Kingdom are the golden relics you hold in your hands, and the malevolence of the ones who wield them."
"And you?" he asked Bakura.
"I do not need something like that. To take it is to admit you're not strong enough without it. I am strong enough—I am the King of Thieves, after all."
"Walk with me."
"This will be the one time I will ever follow an order of yours," Bakura said, but he followed Atem as they walked across the courtyard, disappearing into one of the buildings. He turned his back on Akunadin and the others, and did not look back once.
"Then I shouldn't have wasted it," Atem said lightly, projecting false confidence in place of apprehension. "Will you stay?"
"No," Bakura said, finding it an easy decision to vocalize simply, yet inside of himself he couldn't quite uncover why he felt it was the right thing to do. "I can't—and I don't need to explain myself to you." How could he express that he needed to learn how to live without his people? How could he explain that he was, and always would be, a thief?
"Of course not," he replied. "The King of Thieves answers to no one, is that right?"
"I am glad you acknowledge my superiority, Pharaoh."
"And you saved my life. Thank you," Atem said. "How did you do it? Breaking the dagger, overcoming its power?"
"But I didn't overcome its power," he said glumly. "Not on my own, at least. How am I to know if it was by your doing or mine? My reputation is still ruined. I cannot ever be in charge of my own destiny, can I?"
"Then you must build it up again," Atem replied. "The greatest Pharaoh needs an adversary worthy of him."
"And that is the only way I will ever be worthy of you. As an adversary."
"And you will be the greatest," he promised. "Of that I have no doubt, thickheaded as you are."
He would not ask Bakura to stay again. "Will you…return?"
"Perhaps," Bakura said. "With time."
"Then I wish you good luck," Atem said. "And goodbye."
He stood on the top of the dune as the waves of sand swirled around his feet like a smooth beige ocean. The moon rose overhead, and beside him his camel—stolen, what else?—tugged at his harness.
He could not stay in this city, not while they each had their destinies to build. But he would return, of that he was certain.