It must be so nice to be king, Atem thought wryly. Everyone has to do whatever you say.
Atem did what he could to keep his expression one of calm neutrality as he listened to the man who was chattering to him about whatever he thought needed doing. Sarcasm didn't come naturally to Atem, but after dealing with this sort of thing for the last few weeks, his stock of patience was beginning to run low.
The saddest part was, he wasn't even properly king, yet. He still had about a month left before his coronation, but from where he sat, it seemed like both an eternity and not nearly enough time to get everything done. His grandfather, the current king, had already begun handing off responsibilities to him - "to ease you in gradually", he said, so there was all of that to take care of. On top of that, Atem was constantly being consulted on various aspects of the coronation ceremony, much of which could have been decided without his input. His twin brother, Yugi, was doing his best to be helpful, but he was so painfully eager to show that he had no hard feelings about being passed over for kingship in favor of Atem that he'd started to get underfoot. Atem didn't have the heart to tell him to stay out of the way. He knew how much Yugi had hoped to be chosen to wear the crown, and trying to force him to stay out of the proceedings altogether when he was being so gracious about the situation seemed cruel.
At this point, Atem would almost have been willing to pass on the position to his brother of his own volition. Only his natural reluctance to pass up a burden he knew was his own responsibility kept him from abdicating before he'd even been coronated.
The messenger who'd been speaking paused to take a deep breath, and Atem took the opportunity to cut him off.
"Please tell Priest Seto," he said, "that as he has more experience with this matter, that I will defer to his superior judgment."
"Yes, highness," said the messenger, and scurried off.
Atem sighed. There was yet another reason why he hadn't had a moment's peace in weeks. High Priest Seto and High Priestess Kisara were in the midst of planning their wedding. Ordinarily, Atemu would have been immensely pleased by this turn of events. The priest and priestess had been separately chosen for their posts by their predecessors, selected more for their aptness to the task rather than personal compatibility, and Atem had been hoping that his irascible sometimes-friend wouldn't terrorize the new priestess too much. Instead, much to everyone's amazement, the usually antisocial Seto had hit it off with Kisara, and eventually had surprised everyone by announcing their betrothal. It should have been the wedding of the year, possibly the decade, but now their union was not only being overshadowed but delayed by the new king's coronation. Kisara was taking the change in plans with her usual composure, but Seto had been deeply irritated. Though the upcoming festival in honor of their god Horakhty should have been entirely his and Kisara's responsibility, he was taking out his frustration by deferring every decision possible to Atem, even when it was something he could easily deal with himself. It was growing extremely tiresome.
If one more person asks me to do something...
Before he could finish that thought, the mellow sound of a horn echoed over the city, and Atem breathed a sigh of relief.
Night at last!
He slid off of his throne and went to get some well-deserved rest.
He made his way to the dining hall, intending to eat and relax for a while. All around him, other people were doing the same, most of them looking just as happy as he was to have a break from their labors. The lamps had already been lit at the first signs of the coming of evening, and they filled the halls of the castle with a warm light that almost tricked the eye into believing it was still daylight. The windows, of course, were all shut tightly, and had been since sunset. Their shutters muffled the sounds of other people moving around outside, and the occasional snatch of strange music. Atem tuned it out. There was no actual law against looking outside after dark, or even stepping outside. There didn't need to be. Tradition older and more honored than law said that Atem's people were day people. No work was to be done after sunset, except in cases of extreme emergency. Windows were to remain tightly closed once the sun was no longer visible through them, and no one ever set foot outside after dark.
The dark was for the Night People. Just once, as a child, Atemu had peeked out the shutters to try to get a glimpse of them. The city was full of stories of what the Night People were like - that they had fangs and claws, that their eyes were slitted like a cat's and glowed in the dark, that they were nothing but ghosts beneath their clothing. Mothers told their children to behave, or else the Night People would creep into their rooms while they slept and carry them off to live with them in the darkness beneath the city, or possibly to roast them for dinner. Young Atem hadn't been able to confirm or deny any of this with his brief rebellious look. All he could make out in the darkness and flickering torches were a lot of indistinct shapes milling around in the street, too far away and too dimly lit to be seen as anything other than moving shadows.
As Atem settled into his seat at the high table, he found himself wondering about the Night People. All anyone seemed to know about them for certain was that they lived in catacombs under the city, and they came out after dark and went back when the sun came up. They never seemed to disturb anything or trouble anyone, and they never seemed reluctant to be shifted back to their lairs when their time was up. Yes, there were stories, but no one Atem had heard of had ever claimed to have actually met one or been harmed by one. Even stranger, to his way of thinking, was that despite all the horror stories that circulated, there had never been any sort of movement to try to do anything about them. Whether it was out of fear, tradition, or something else, the Sun People seemed content to take the day for themselves and leave the night to their mysterious underground neighbors.
"Grandpa," he said, during a lull in the dinner conversation, "what do you know about the Night People?"
His grandfather scratched his head thoughtfully. "I can't rightly say I know much about them. They've never caused any harm that I know of, but they don't exactly socialize, now, do they?"
"And they've always been here?" Atemu persisted.
"As far as I know," said his grandfather. "You might check the library if you're really interested. There might be some old histories gathering dust somewhere."
"Why are you asking about the Night People?" asked Yugi. "Did something happen?"
"No," said Atemu. "I'm just curious, that's all."
But the truth was, he was more than just curious. The burden of his impending rulership was beginning to weigh heavily on him, and it had occurred to him that as ruler of this city and its environs, he probably owed something to the people who lived beneath his feet. Didn't his decisions affect them as well as his own people? What if he did something that offended them and they rose up against him? Of course, they never had in the past, but the way this month was going... well, everyone else was making demands on him. Why expect them not to join in?
Worry about the problems you know, he told himself. Don't go inventing new ones before you've dealt with the ones you have already.
He knew what he was doing, of course. He was distracting himself from his real worries by inventing different, more interesting ones. He could feel like he was being responsible without actually attending to any of the things he was supposed to be doing.
The things people keep asking me to do. Seto could deal with the preparations for the Feast of Horakhty by himself. He's done it for years. And do I really need to approve every song they play at my coronation and every decoration they hang?
This was giving him a headache. He finished his dinner as quickly as he could, excused himself, and slipped out of the dining hall towards his room. Once again, he could hear the music and the babble of voices outside the tightly shuttered windows. For a moment, he contemplated unlatching one and stealing a quick glance outside, but he stifled the urge. The last thing he needed now was for someone to see their future king indulging in an unwarranted and possibly unhealthy interest in darkness.
Nevertheless, as he lay in his bed that night, trying in vain to fall asleep, the idea kept buzzing through his head. He tossed and turned until he finally gave up and threw back his blankets. He had never been the kind to avoid a problem when he could tackle it head-on. He would go have a look at the night and its people, satisfy his need to know, and put it out of his mind.
He padded barefoot to his wardrobe and fished around inside until he came up with a thick and largely unadorned brown cloak, which he wore when the weather was particularly bad. It was made of tough material that could stand up to the worst that nature could throw at it, protecting the fine clothes he'd be wearing underneath. He thought it would also do to obscure his identity for his brief foray out of doors. What little he remembered from his first glimpse of the world after dark was that most of the people had been wearing some sort of cloaks or robes. Hopefully this one would be enough to keep anyone from paying much attention to him. He slipped on the least ostentatious clothes he owned, buckled on his oldest sandals, and slipped out of his room.
The palace was very quiet after nightfall. By this hour, nearly everyone had already gone to bed, or at least to their rooms to partake of quiet amusements. With the ban on working after nightfall firmly in place, there wasn't so much as a servant or page in the hallways to trouble him as he passed. He still stayed as quiet as he could as he picked his way through torchlit corridors and down back staircases. Eventually, he reached a servant's exit, one that led from the kitchens to an alley where shipments of foodstuffs could be delivered and garbage taken out. It was narrow and uninviting enough that Atem hoped it would be vacant long enough for him to slip out without being noticed.
Luck was with him, at least to some extent. The alley was empty of anything more than some straw and bits of trash that had accumulated there. At the far end of the alley, Atem could see the rush of many bodies moving around in the street. He lingered in the shadows for a few moments, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness, and then crept slowly forward, waiting for a break in the crowd where he could slip in without being noticed. Then, taking a deep breath, he plunged into the chaos.
He had never imagined there could be so many of these Night People. Anything so mysterious, he'd always vaguely felt, had to be rare. Instead, they seemed to overflow the city, making it look as busy and festive as any market day. They had set up what seemed to be portable stalls made of cloth and wooden rods in long rows up and down the main street. Tall torches had been arranged between the stalls and at every intersection, filling the world with dancing orange light that was just bright enough to see by.
In this light, people bustled about, chatting with acquaintances, haggling over goods, or enjoying the entertainers who occupied the street corners. Atemu saw musicians playing instruments he'd never seen before and dancers performing steps he'd never seen. A juggler tossed silver balls in intricate patterns, but didn't attract as much attention as the one a few blocks down who was juggling flaming torches. What fascinated Atemu, though, was not how strange they were, but how like his own people they were. If one of them had shown up in his court, he wouldn't have looked twice at them. The clothing they wore was slightly different - where Atem's people favored short belted tunics on the young and longer gowns for older men and women, these people favored gowns of loosely draped fabric for the women, trousers and close fitting vests for the men. They wore jewelry, men and women alike, but they seemed to eschew gems in favor of highly polished metal, or else wore bangles of intricately braided and knotted thread in bright colors. But their hands, their faces... there was nothing demonic or monstrous about them. They were simply people, out having a good time under the stars.
So why do they hide from the light, if they are so much like us? Atem asked himself, and then shook his head, smiling at his own foolishness. Then again, why do my people hide from the shadows?
He was finding that, apart from it being hard to see where he was going, he actually found the night to be pleasant. It was cooler without the sun beating down on him, and the sky was astonishingly beautiful with its spangling of stars and the curved sickle of the moon. It was all he could do not to gawp at them in a way that would have plainly marked him as an outsider. No, he was going to play it safe. He was not going to talk to anyone or do anything that would draw attention to himself.
That resolution lasted up until the point where he walked past a side street and heard the unmistakable clatter of dice being shaken. He had always been attracted to games, whether they were those of luck, skill, coordination, or some combination of the above. He had a reputation as a master of cards and dice, to the point where there were very few people who could give him a real challenge. The possibility of playing against someone he'd never tried himself against was too much for him to pass up, and without even thinking about it, he drifted towards the sound.
What he discovered was a booth where two men were kneeling in front of a mat that had been spread on the hard-packed dirt between them. Strewn over the mat were several dice and a number of colored stone discs that had to be some sort of playing pieces. Atem watched for a moment, attempting to understand the rules of the game. The two men seemed to be taking turns rolling the dice, and, depending on the results, either adding or subtracting chips from their piles. Atem joined the other spectators in watching over their shoulders until he was certain he understood the rules.
Then he continued watching, because he wanted to be certain of what he was seeing. It wasn't that he was confused by the game. It was that he was beginning to suspect that one of the men was cheating, and he wanted to be sure before he said anything.
The game continued. The man who seemed to be in charge of the game rolled his dice, looked at the outcome, and winced. He pushed a handful of chips towards the other player. Atemu watched closely, and observed that while most of the chips were going where they should, a few of them got pushed beneath the mat. The ground it rested on was dusty and strewn with pebbles, so beneath the thick matting, the hidden chips barely created a ripple.
"Let me have a turn," said Atem aloud.
The other man, who was apparently getting tired of losing, obligingly moved out of the way. Atem stepped in to take his place. Then, in an intentionally clumsy move, he stepped on the edge of the mat and pulled it slightly askew. Just as he'd expected, the move revealed a scattering of colored stones. There were exclamations of shock and anger from the onlookers.
"Someone call the watch!" shouted a voice in the crowd, and Atem heard the sound of someone running back up the street.
Good. Someone had gone to fetch whatever passed for law enforcement around here. That meant Atem could leave with a clean conscience. He turned to leave, but the gambler lunged at him and caught his sleeve.
"You bastard! Look what you've done!" he shouted.
Automatically, Atem turned to face him, and as he did, his hood fell away. The crowd stared at him. He realized suddenly how fragile his disguise had been. His tunic was nothing like what the other men here were wearing, and he was still wearing a pair of gemstone studs in his ears that were quite unlike the gold and silver bangles the others here were wearing. There was no way he could be mistaken for one of the Night People, and he knew it.
"An outsider!" the gambler exclaimed.
The onlookers erupted into chaos. Apparently, none of them had ever seen one of the Sun People before, and had no idea what they were supposed to do with him now that they'd found him, only that they didn't agree with whatever their neighbor's suggestion was. Atem made an effort to escape, but there were too many people around him, hemming them in. Someone seized him by the shoulders, and someone else grabbed the gambler and dragged him in a different direction. Atem made an effort to get away, realized it was pointless to struggle, and instead did what he could to compose himself. He was, after all, a prince, and nearly a king. He was not going to let these people see him acting like a common vagabond. He straightened his spine, squared his shoulders, and watched to see what was going to happen next.
He got his answer a few moments later, when a man approached the group. It was easy to see him coming. He was taller than average, and carried a certain amount of muscle. People got out of his way. The hood of his cloak was down, so that Atem could see that he was shaved bald save for a neat ponytail held in place with a loop of gold. The oddest thing about him was that one entire side of his face appeared to have been marked in some way, by scarring or perhaps some sort of tattoo. It seemed to be some sort of lettering, but it was in no script Atem recognized.
And yet, what struck him was not the exotic nature of the man's appearance, but the solemnity in his expression. There was an aura about him of stillness, as though he were a rock that the seas of life raged around but couldn't move. Whatever course he was on, he was certain it was the right one and determined to see it through to the end. There was something soothing about it, and the crowd reacted to it, calming and quieting as soon as he came within sighting distance. He continued moving at his easy pace until he was near enough to converse.
"What has happened here?" he asked.
Various voices all chimed in at once. The man listened a moment, then raised his hands for silence. He selected a man from the crowd and said, "You tell me what happened."
"This man is an outsider, Rishid!" he said, pointing at Atem. "He's one of the Sun People!"
"So I see," said the man called Rishid. His expression was mildly disapproving, but it was directed at the speaker, not at Atem. "And has he done something wrong?"
The man looked flustered. "No, but..."
"I believe I was called here to investigate charges of cheating," said Rishid calmly. "If I am mistaken, forgive me."
His tone remained perfectly civil, but nevertheless, the other man cringed as if he'd been threatened.
"No, this is the man who was cheating," he said, pointing at the gambler.
Rishid looked at the gambler. "Is this true?"
"I'm innocent!" the gambler babbled. "This stranger set me up! It's his doing!"
"Is that a fact," said Rishid flatly. He turned to Atem. "What is your side of the story?"
"The only person deceiving anyone here is him," said Atem, gesturing towards the gambler. "I happened to be passing by and heard the sounds of a game being played, so I stopped to observe. I noticed that this man was hiding game pieces under his mat, so I moved the mat and revealed the deception. These people were all watching - they'll tell you I never got close enough to him to have slipped those tokens under the mat, and certainly couldn't have done it without him noticing me."
Rishid listened to this statement, nodding slowly. He glanced down thoughtfully at the mat and the scattered game pieces, then at the crowd of gawkers.
"Can anyone confirm or deny this?" he asked.
The crowd murmured, sounding uncertain.
"The stranger is telling the truth," said one woman. "He never got close to the playing mat until just before he revealed the trick."
"She's right," said someone next to her. "He couldn't have done it."
Everyone else apparently agreed with them. So did Rishid. He finished his inspection of the play area and nodded once, decisively.
"I believe the stranger is telling the truth," he said. "I see no reason why he should choose to risk having his identity revealed simply to frame a man he'd never met before of a petty crime."
"He's one of the Sun People," the gambler spat. "Who knows why they do what they do? They aren't like us."
"Nevertheless, this one has revealed and reported a crime," said Rishid, "so I intend to deal with the matter accordingly." He gestured to the two men who were holding the gambler's arms. "Take him to the council hall and have him secured until someone has time to deal with him."
This seemed to be the cue they were waiting for. They nodded and began dragging the protesting gambler away.
"But what about him?" the gambler protested, pointing an accusing finger at Atemu. "What are you going to do with him?"
Rishid gave Atem a considering look. Atemu looked back at him, meeting his gaze squarely.
"If I have violated some law," he said, "I will willingly make whatever recompense is required."
"I am not aware of any laws against Sun People visiting our community," said Rishid slowly, "but I think perhaps you had better come with me anyway, to meet our leader and assure him that you mean no harm."
Implicit in his words was the sense that if Atem actually did mean harm, the leader would ferret it out and he would not be happy. Atem only nodded agreeably. He didn't mind meeting this leader - far from it. He was pleased at the idea of being able to meet the person who was apparently in charge here. He imagined he could learn a lot from him, given a chance to speak to him.
"I'll come with you, then," he said, bowing his head gravely.
That seemed to please Rishid. His shoulders, which had been set at a tense angle, relaxed fractionally, and some of the guarded look left his eyes. Atem had a sudden sense that this was a man who spent a great deal of time shouldering responsibility, whether it should have been his to bear or not, and that he was rather tired of it. It gave Atem a deep sense of fellow-feeling for the man.
"This way, then, please," said Rishid, and gestured for Atem to follow. He glanced back over his shoulder. "And you might put your hood back up."
Atem quickly pulled his cloak more securely into place. Then he stepped closer to Rishid, who began walking. The crowd moved to let them pass, but not without a few more curious looks at Atemu. As he made his departure, he suspected that they were all about to dart off and find all their friends to pass the news that one of the Sun People had come to liven up their night.
I wonder what kind of stories are going to come of this? he mused as he walked. He had no doubt that whatever they were, they were going to morph into something wildly inaccurate before long. He hoped they would remember that he'd been the one trying to help, rather than believing the gambler's side of the story. He doubted that it was going to be that clean cut.
"I hope I haven't created a problem," he said aloud.
He had meant it as a general remark, but Rishid took it as addressed to him.
"For me, no," he said. "I will turn you over to someone with more authority, and that will be all. In the long term? I don't know. We have never had a visitor from the daylight side before, that I know of."
"If I had been less careless, you still wouldn't know," said Atem. He smiled a bit with self-deprecating humor. "I'm afraid I don't tolerate cheaters very well."
A fleeting smile crossed Rishid's face, there and gone almost at once. It pleased Atem to see it. Walking beside this tall, solemn man felt a little like walking beside a statue of some ancient warrior-hero, someone from a time when right and wrong were clearer and people were nobler. The effect was enough to impress even a king-to-be, and Atem was slightly relieved to see the man show some sign of being human. It wasn't often he met someone who could awe him, even a little bit.
"I can sympathize with that point of view," said Rishid. "But you didn't come here to deal with our problems, did you?"
"No, I'm afraid not," said Atem.
"Then why are you here?" Rishid persisted. "Why, after all these years of separation, would you come visit us?"
Atem shrugged. "I was curious."
Rishid gave him a shrewd look. "There has to be more to it than that."
"Fair enough," said Atem. He was quiet for a few paces, considering his answer. All around him, the Night People were busy with their comings and goings, paying little attention to him beyond occasionally pausing to offer a greeting to Rishid. At length, he said, "Our two peoples are so close and so far away. We live in the same city and walk the same streets, but we never see each other or try to get to know each other. My people tell stories that you're all monsters who steal our children and blight our crops, but I've never seen any evidence that you mean us any harm. It seemed to me that as close as our two clans are, the decisions I make must also affect your people as well. Our worlds are intertwined, no matter how much we hold ourselves apart from each other. I wanted to see what sort of people you were, so I could learn better what my people need to do to maintain harmony between us." Then he smiled again. "And again, I was curious."
"I see," said Rishid, nodding thoughtfully. "There is wisdom in that point of view. I think our leaders will probably be willing to forgive your trespassing if you explain that to them." He was quiet for a few more paces, before saying at last, "There is some truth to the rumors about monsters, though. Just perhaps not the way you think. Would you like to see a monster? We're going to pass that way to get to the council hall anyway."
Atem was taken aback, but all he said was, "Yes, I believe I would like to see a monster."
Rishid nodded, as if this were a perfectly reasonable request - as if people asked him to show them monsters every day of the week. He led Atem down a series of familiar streets, made unfamiliar by darkness and the changes made by the Night People. They ended up in the city square, where a statue of Horakhty stood, surrounded by various lesser spirits. Rishid walked over to the largest statue and slipped a key out of his pocket. He fitted it into one of the carvings around the base, then turned it slowly. There were several heavy clunks from inside the statue, and then an entire large section of the statue receded, revealing an opening wide enough that three men could have walked through it side by side. Atem's eyebrows raised.
"How long has that been there?" he asked.
"As long as anyone can remember," said Rishid. "Probably as long as there have been Night People and Sun People."
He ushered Atem through the opening and down a long flight of stairs. They were well- worn, edges rounded by generations of feet, but the walls were set with elaborate mosaics that Atem wouldn't have been ashamed to have on the walls of his own palace. Lamps were lit at regular intervals, making the way clear and easy to follow. If Atem didn't think about it too hard, he could have imagined he was in somewhere in his own home after the end of the day, when all the windows had been shuttered and the lanterns lit. For a time, the stairs went straight down, but eventually he and Rishid began to come upon landings and side corridors. Rishid never deviated, going down and down and still further down.
This place must be immense, Atem thought. Perhaps even larger than the city above it, and we never knew. He itched to explore, but he knew better than to wander off alone. Perhaps later, though, if he could convince these people that he meant them no harm, they would permit him to visit more often and learn his way around. There was something strangely soothing about this dark, quiet place. His people had always linked light with all good traits, but he thought he could see how a place like this could produce someone with Rishid's sense of stable serenity. He wondered if many of the other people down here were like that. If there were, he thought he would have liked to meet them.
Eventually, they reached the bottom of the stairs, where the passage opened up into a wide hall, fully as large as the grand hall of Atem's palace, and just as elegantly furnished. But where Atem's hall was made of pale golden stone and white marble, elegant in its clean simplicity, this was a place of bold colors and intricate detail. The floor was patterned in a mosaic of multicolored tiles in complex geometric patterns, and the columns that supported the ceiling had been painted in deep green, navy blue, brick red, and goldenrod yellow. Mirrors adorned the walls, catching the light of the lamps and throwing it back. What wasn't covered by mirrors was covered instead by many hanging banners, each with a different pattern. In a smaller room, it would have seemed gaudy, but in such a vast space, the impression was one of opulence but not ostentation. The borders of the hall were punctuated by a variety of arched doors. Rishid chose one near the back and kept moving.
"We're nearly there," he assured Atem.
"I'm enjoying the tour," said Atem, in all honesty.
"You aren't seeing very much yet," said Rishid. "This is only the main road. These paths spread far wider than you'd imagine."
Atem considered. "They would have to. You must have your own food supplies somewhere, so I suppose you must have your own farms outside the city."
Rishid looked surprised a moment, then smiled slightly. "All right, perhaps not further than you'd imagine."
They turned down a corridor, one that was as wide and well-maintained as the others, but less ornate, decorated in shades of black and gray. The lamps were set further apart there, and more heavily shaded, so that there was just barely enough light to see by. Something about it gave Atem a faint shiver down his spine.
"Where are we going?" he asked. His voice echoed down the empty corridor.
"I told you. To see our monster," said Rishid, "and to learn what you wanted to know."
The corridor terminated in a pair of metal doors. Atem could see the faint glints on their surface where the dim lamplight reflected off of them, and he got the impression that they were marked over with the same sort of writing that marked Rishid's face. A system of locks and heavy iron bars secured it shut, but Rishid took out his keyring and began undid them one by one. He lifted the heavy bars away as though they weighed nothing at all, and with a practiced ease that suggested he'd done it far more than once. Atemu found himself wondering just who this man was, anyway. He was certainly more than just a mere officer, but he wasn't the one in charge here, either. And why did he have those strange facial markings when no one else here did? Was he some sort of priest? Somehow, Atem didn't think so.
Then the doors opened, and all other thoughts were driven out of his head by the stench wafting from the chamber beyond. He coughed as the smell of harsh incense, rotting flowers, and old blood clogged his throat.
"What is that?" he choked, but Rishid didn't answer. The answer was obvious, anyway. He'd asked for a monster, and if he'd ever been asked to guess what one might smell like, this wasn't too far off.
Eventually, he managed to clear his lungs and wipe his streaming eyes long enough to work out what he was supposed to be seeing.
Though the haze of smoke, he could see that he was standing at the entrance to a vast room made of glossy black stone. Braziers were lit at regular intervals down the central walk, giving off a sullen red light. The shape of the room tickled a memory in the back of Atem's mind, and he frowned a little, trying to work out where he'd seen a room of this shape and size, with the same rows of columns and the same sort of pathway down the center and the same sort of altar...
Then perspective snapped into place, and he realized he knew exactly where he'd seen this before. It was the mirror image of the Temple of Horakhty in his own city, identical in shape and size but wildly different in the details. Horakhty's temple was a place of light, made entirely of white marble and inlaid with gold, silver, and white gems, with tall windows to let in the sun by day and beautifully embroidered white curtains to hide the dark of night. This place was dark and unadorned save for the altar at the far end, where a statue of Horakhty would have stood. There was a statue here, too, but it was like nothing Atem had ever seen. He glanced at Rishid for permission, and when the man nodded, he began to walk down the aisle to get a better look.
Hulking over the altar was a demonic beast, with heavy curved horns and a lipless mouth full of knifelike teeth. A second head, that of a snarling dragon, protruded on a long snakelike neck from the beast's lower body, and vast batlike wings spread nearly the width of the temple. An altar in front of the beast was black with a crust of what looked like dried blood, and a heap of dead flowers lay rotting on top of it.
"What is this?" Atem asked.
"The reason you were looking for," said Rishid. "This is the god of darkness, Zorc Necrophades." He came to stand next to Atem, gazing thoughtfully up at the statue. "A very long time ago, perhaps thousands of years in the past, the god of light, Horakhty, did battle with Zorc. It was a terrible battle, but in the end, Horakhty was able to seal Zorc deep beneath the earth. The effort of their battle was so great that both of them fell into a state of stasis. The men and women who lived in those times agreed that they would stand watch to make sure that nothing like that ever happened again. Half of them agreed to stand watch over each of the gods. Since then, your people have lived in the light, sustaining Horakhty with your prayers and offerings so that her seal on Zorc will never falter, and my people have lived here in the dark, placating Zorc so that he will remain sleeping."
"So you're here protecting us, and we never knew," Atem murmured.
"Both sides are protecting each other," Rishid corrected. "If your people failed in their devotion to Horakhty, it would bring disaster just as certainly as if we failed in our vigilance guarding Zorc."
"So I was right," said Atem. "Everything is intertwined, even when we don't see it. Why doesn't anyone else know this?"
"I can't speak for your people," said Rishid. "It is not something we speak of often here. I only know because..."
"Rishid! There you are!"
A voice cut into their conversation, and Atem turned to see a young man striding into the room, followed by a slightly older woman and a number of armed guards. Rishid's posture shifted into a posture that Atem read as deference. He guessed that this, then, was the authority he'd been wanting to meet.
The young man was neither as tall nor as muscular as Rishid, but he carried himself with pride. He had untidy fair hair, striking against his dark skin, and his eyes were an unusual shade of lavender. The amount of gold jewelry he was wearing would have been enough to mark him as someone important all by itself, even without the way everyone else was looking at him. The young woman with him had sleek dark hair, striking blue eyes, and a serious expression. She gave Atem a long, thoughtful look as she caught sight of him.
"Rishid. You brought an outsider here," said the young man. His tone held a hint of warning.
"He was asking questions," said Rishid. "I thought it was best to give him honest answers."
"You should have come to me first," said Malik.
Rishid bowed his head. "My apologies."
The young woman interrupted, saying, "Please, introduce us to our guest."
Rishid nodded and turned to Atem. "This is my brother Malik and my sister Isis. They act as regents of our clan."
Atem lowered his head in a gesture of respect. "I am Atem. I'm honored to meet you."
"Atem?" Malik repeated, his expression becoming interested. "As in, the prince of the Sun People?"
"Malik..." said Isis, concerned.
Malik waved her off.
"I want an answer to my question," he said.
"In that case, the answer is yes," said Atem. "I am the crown prince."
He fixed Malik with a defiant look, trying to cover his anxiety. He didn't like the look Malik was giving him, and if Malik was the one in charge here, he had the power to make this situation go as badly as he cared to. Still, Atem had never been one to show weakness or to turn down a challenge.
Malik smiled. "In that case, highness, I think it would be best if I offered you the hospitality of our people for a while. Guards, escort this man, if you please?"
Atem suddenly found himself surrounded by tall, strong, armed men. They weren't touching him yet, but they were on all four sides of him, and resting their hands on the hilts of their swords in a manner that suggested that any sudden moves on his part would result in lost limbs.
"Come," said Malik. "I'll show you to your room."
He began walking, and Atem had no choice but to follow. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rishid and Isis bringing up the rear, shooting worried looks at each other and exchanging whispers. He tried to hear what they were saying, but the heavy footfalls of his guards and the echoing corridors made eavesdropping impossible. Instead, Atem gave his attention to mentally mapping which way they were going. He might be going along quietly now, but that didn't mean he wouldn't want to attempt an escape later.
Eventually, they came to a particularly elegant hallway, every bit as colorful and ornamented as the entry hall, with a long row of carved doorways on either side. Malik selected one and unlocked the door.
"This should suit you," he said. "Guards, show him in."
"And may I ask why I'm being imprisoned?" Atem asked. "What have I done wrong? Is there some rule I've violated?"
"This isn't a prison," said Malik. "It's a guest room. It's very comfortable. It was my father's, before he died. You should feel honored I'm giving it to you."
"And if I would prefer not to stay?" Atem persisted.
"Then I would consider it a snub," said Malik. "And since you are the king-to-be and I am the regent of my people, you might want to think carefully about the ramifications of that."
"So you're saying that if I refuse your... hospitality, you'll consider it an act of aggression between our people?"
Malik nodded. "I'll make sure you're treated well while you're here. If I were you, I'd cooperate."
"I see," said Atem. "In that case, I suppose I will have to agree to be your guest. But I should remind you that acts of aggression go both ways."
"Trust me, I've thought about it," said Malik. His expression, which had been calm and haughty until then, shifted into something that under other circumstances, Atem would have read as grief. "Under the circumstances, I'm willing to take the risk."
And with that rather ominous pronouncement, the guards pushed Atem into the room and shut the door behind them. Atem heard the sound of a lock being clicked shut, and then the sound of retreating footsteps. At least one person lingered by his door after the others hand gone; he heard them leave several seconds after everyone else. They were slightly familiar. He wondered if Rishid felt bad about leaving him here in this mess.
Of course, things weren't as bad as they could be. For one thing, the room he'd been locked in was certainly no dungeon cell. If he'd been an actual guest, he would have been more than happy to spend a few days there. More importantly, he'd paid close attention on the way down, and he'd noticed that the walls all had carvings or inlays on them that seemed to form a sort of crude map, probably for the benefit of those who had trouble keeping their sense of direction underground. He was sure that, if he could just get the door open, he'd be able to follow them out. Even better, a brief exploration revealed that there were still some old clothes hanging in the wardrobe that stood in the corner. He could easily disguise himself with clothing that wouldn't make him stand out as an outsider. If he was careful, he could be well away before anyone realized he'd switched outfits.
The catch was going to be getting out of the room. Deep underground as it was, there were no windows. The only way out was the door, which was made of metal and mounted securely into the stone walls. He didn't think he could break it with anything short of a full-sized battering ram. He knelt down to inspect the keyhole. It was hard to see in the dim lamplight, but he thought it was a simple enough mechanism. He thought he could probably pick it or jam it if he could find the right tools to work with. The other possibility was to wait and hope someone would open the door and he could disable them or slip by them. Either way, he thought that as long as they didn't bind his hands and feet, he probably had a chance.
He spent the next hour or so prowling around his room, trying to find anything that might possibly be useful to him. It turned out that the room had been fairly thoroughly cleared of small objects, but he managed to pry up some of the metallic insets and ornaments on the furniture in hopes that they might come in handy for something. If nothing else, it was a way to pass the time, and it kept him from fretting over what must be going on outside the room.
As time went on, his sense of urgency faded as his energy began to run low. He had lost all track of time, but he was sure it must be very late, or possibly very early. The bed was starting to look more inviting all the time. He was just weighing the merits of lying down for a while to regain his energy, when there was a rattling sound at the door. He quickly stashed his meager supply of tools under a pillow.
"I'm coming in," said Rishid. "Are you standing clear of the door?"
"I'm sitting on the bed," Atem replied. "Don't worry. I'm not going to attack you or anything as foolish as that."
"I'm sure." Rishid sounded justifiably skeptical. A moment later, he opened the door and stepped into the room. He was carrying a tray with bowls of food and a cup on it.
"The rest of us are eating," he explained. "Malik said you should be given every hospitality."
"Except my freedom."
Rishid sighed and set the tray down on the table. "He isn't a bad man."
"I'm afraid I have only your word on that," said Atem. He regarded the food skeptically. It was unfamiliar, but the smell was enticing.
"It isn't poisoned," said Rishid. "I promise I took it directly from the communal stores."
Atem considered a moment, then got up to take the tray. "All right. I get the feeling you're trustworthy."
"But not Malik?" said Rishid wryly. "Well, I can understand that. He can be very... single-minded about things he's passionate about."
Atem regarded him thoughtfully. "You think highly of this Malik."
"I'm loyal to him," said Rishid. "You have a brother, don't you? We heard rumors of twins."
"And you'd do your best to help him, if there was something he truly wanted, wouldn't you? Even if it wasn't something you were sure you wanted?"
Atem thought about Yugi, who had wanted so much to be king, and had been so painfully eager to show there were no hard feelings when he'd been passed over.
"I think I understand," he said.
Rishid nodded. "Malik is my brother. He is hot-headed and ambitious, but he is still family and I still care about him. I mean to do my best for him, no matter what it takes."
Atem looked around at his opulent prison, and then looked back at Rishid, who had the decency to look embarrassed.
"We've sent a messenger to leave a letter for your family," he said. "They will know by morning what has happened. They'll come for you soon."
"But why hold me here?" Atem persisted. "What is it that your brother wants so badly?"
"His freedom," said Rishid succinctly.
"I think," said Atem, "you had better explain more than that."
"I'll try," said Rishid.
He paused a moment to gather his thoughts. Atem took the opportunity to sample the food he'd been given. He wasn't very hungry, but the unfamiliar but savory scents tempted him. The dishes proved to contain some sort of vegetable stew, some rice mixed with herbs and spices, and a dish of honey-drizzled dumplings that proved to be filled with soft cheese and dried fruit. After a few bites, he decided that he was hungry after all. It had been a busy night.
At length, Rishid said, "I told you that the task of our people is to placate the god of darkness and encourage him to remain sleeping. What I didn't say was that it is my family's position is more closely tied to him than most. Our family has always been the keepers of his temple, the analogue to your high priest and priestess. Malik in particular has great influence over the clan, but it also places him under certain restrictions."
"Wait," said Atem. "You mentioned that your family is like our high priests. Who is the king, then?"
Rishid smiled without humor. "You've put your finger on it. We have no king. We had kings, once, the descendants of the king that ruled when this was one city. When the two people's split, the king's eldest son became ruler of the Sun People, and his younger son became ruler of the Night People. A few generations ago, the king died without clear heirs, so the high priest at the time took over as regent, and since then his heirs have ruled us in their stead."
"I see," said Atem. "And they've never tried to find a new king?"
Rishid shook his head. "No one else had a clear claim to the title. If anyone tried to claim the throne, someone else could easily dispute the claim, and the situation could lead to civil war. As long as the priests are acting as regents, the laws are enforced and everyone is content."
"Except for Malik, I see."
"Except for him," said Rishid. "I understand why. Being in his position demands a great deal from him. He is bound even more closely to the underground than the rest of us. He has never even been to the surface. He dreams of being able to see the sun."
"Why doesn't he go, then?" Atem asked. "Can't the laws be changed?"
Rishid shook his head. "It isn't only the laws. When he became the temple, he underwent a binding ceremony. The letters of a spell were carved into his back while he lay on that altar, and his blood was spilled upon it. When he underwent the ceremony to become the next regent after his father's passing, the tie was strengthened even further. The bonds are so strong now that he is physically unable to stray very far from the temple, nor can he bear the touch of the sun. " His expression was wry. "That may be one reason why he was so quick to imprison you. He wouldn't enjoy being reminded that while you can cross whatever boundaries you choose, he cannot stray any further than the walls of the upper city."
"I can imagine," said Atem. He studied Rishid thoughtfully. "And are you bound as well?"
Rishid looked surprised. Then his expression settled into something more thoughtful.
"You're observant," he said. He touched the markings on his face. "I am... a special case. I was born one of the Sun People, but my parents died when I was still very young. At the time, Malik hadn't been born, and his parents were desperate for a male child to carry on the family line. They took me in. When Malik was born, though, they became less enchanted with the idea of giving me any share of the family honors or responsibilities. They told me I could go back to the daylit world if I chose to, but I didn't want to leave. Where would I go? This is the only thing I know. When Malik was old enough to undergo his binding ceremony, and I understood just what it would do to him, I bound myself as a gesture of support. I can't go back to the Sun People now, not unless the bindings are broken."
"And can they be?" Atem asked.
"Not by my own choice," said Rishid. "If there was a king, he could dissolve them. No one else could."
"And you haven't got a king, and can't get one," said Atem slowly. The light was beginning to dawn. "Rishid, you said your kings and our kings were all descended from the same king, yes?"
Rishid nodded. "That's true."
"Then theoretically, the legitimate heir to your throne would be..."
"You," Rishid finished. "Or your brother. Either one would do. I believe what Malik is trying to do now is to use his hold on you, the crown prince, to convince your people to give us your brother in exchange."
Atem had a sudden flash of his bright, eager brother being confined to this dark place, forced to spend the rest of his life placating the sleeping god, never seeing the sun again... It wouldn't be right. He had so many friends on the surface - he would be miserable without them. Yugi had been born to the daylight, and he wouldn't be happy anywhere else.
Atem shook his head, trying to rid himself of those thoughts. He couldn't let that happen, and he wouldn't.
"Why are you telling me all this?" he asked.
"Because it seems fair, I suppose," said Rishid. "And because you've asked."
"There must be more to it than tha," Atem persisted.
Rishid thought about that before finally offering an answer. "The truth is, you've impressed me. I'd always been taught that the Sun People cared nothing about us, and I resented you for never taking the time to do anything for us, even to exchange a few pleasantries. It is good to know that at least one person took the time to think about what we might want or need from you, and came to try to find out. You told me that you had heard we were all monsters, and yet you still came here to learn about us and try to help us. That speaks well of your sense of courage and honor. You even risked your own safety to try to stop that man from cheating his customers. You haven't tried to escape by violence or treachery, but you haven't shown any signs of cowardice or stupidity, either. In fact, talking to you has led me to believe that you possess a remarkably keen mind. You seem to be a good man, and I am sorry that your goodness has put you in this situation. I would help you, if I could, but my loyalty is to my brother."
"I understand," said Atem. He smiled. "I would do anything for my brother as well."
Rishid gave him a weak smile in return. Atem found himself thinking that the esteem went both ways. After days of being hassled by practically everyone he met about all the things they wanted him to do for them, it was refreshing to spend time around someone who was so wholly and quietly selfless. He found himself envying Malik for having someone like this he could rely on.
If I could, I would change things so that you were both free. You deserve better than this.
He looked down and realized that he'd finished the food in front of him without meaning to. He swallowed the last mouthful of wine from his cup, and Rishid took the tray from him.
"I should go," he said. "My brother will be wondering what's keeping me here."
"You were interviewing me," said Atem. "Learning my weaknesses. Formulating a plan of attack."
Rishid almost smiled. "That will work." Then he sobered. "I am sorry. You understand, don't you?"
"I do," said Atem. "And you understand that I am going to try to escape if I can, don't you?"
"I would think less of you if you didn't," said Rishid soberly.
He took the tray and started for the door. Atem walked with him and closed the door behind him. As the door closed, he noticed the faint look of scepticism in Rishid's eyes. Atem couldn't blame the man. After all, Atem had just said he was going to escape if he could, and here he was, docile as a lamb, shutting himself back into his prison. Of course Rishid should be suspicious.
Atem would have thought less of him if he hadn't been.
The hallways were very silent.
Atem had been crouched by his door with his ear pressed to the crack for quite a while now, trying to learn the rhythm of the sounds that passed by his door. He had learned that heavy slow ones meant that Rishid was coming to check in on him, that the fast light ones were Malik's, and the almost inaudible ones accompanied by the swish of cloth were Isis's. Any time Atem heard one of those, he would sprawl on the bed and pretend to be asleep, in case one of them looked in on him. Often they did, so he took care to make sure he was always lying in more or less the same position each time. The only other footsteps he heard were the patter of servants, who wore slapping sandals and who always seemed to be in a hurry, and guards, who marched with a steady clanking of light armor. Those always marched straight past his door without troubling him. Moreover, he'd worked out that the soldiers kept to a fairly regular schedule, to the point that he could reliably count down to when he'd hear them again.
He hadn't heard Malik, Isis, or Rishid in some time now, and he could only assume that they were busy elsewhere. The soldiers had just passed by on their most recent circuit; it would be a good ten minutes before they were back again. The occasional servant still passed by, but they were erratic enough that Atem was willing to chance encountering them.
It was time to get out.
Atem straightened and pulled his borrowed clothes more securely around them. The man who had originally owned these had obviously been taller than Atem, and while he'd done his best to keep it from looking baggy on him, his means were limited. He would have to hope that his purloined new cloak would disguise anything that would make someone suspicious. From his hiding place beneath the bed pillows, he took several scraps of gold trim, selected the most likely of the lot, and fitted it into the lock on his door.
Luck was with him. After only a few tries, he managed to get the lock picked, and the door swung smoothly open. He looked up and down the hallways. The lamps were burning low, but they still gave enough light to see by. Atem looked up and down the halls for signs of trouble, and, finding none, he began moving a swiftly and quietly as he could down the halls.
It was a nerve wracking experience, walking through unfamiliar tunnels in the dark, without even any windows where he could stop to get his bearings. All he could do was to trust his memory of his trip down there, his guesses at what the etchings on the wall meant, and the knowledge that as long as he kept going up when he came to a staircase, he would probably reach the surface eventually. From time to time, he would pass a landmark he thought he remembered - a particular rug on a floor, an especially elaborate lamp shade, a unique mosaic set into the wall - and he would hope that meant he was still going the right way.
All the same, it took a few dead ends and wrong turns before he finally found his way back to the main hall. He breathed a sigh of relief as he caught sight of the stairs to the surface. All he had to do was climb them, open the door, and he'd be home free.
He'd think about what he was going to do when he got home later. He already had a few ideas on that score.
Moving quickly now, Atem mounted the stairs two at a time, his gaze fixed firmly on the next landing and then the next one after that. He was so intent on his progress that he didn't see that someone was standing in one of the side corridors. He realized it too late when they stepped out and seized him in one swift, economical motion. Atem found himself caught from behind in a bear hug, his arms pinned at his sides and his feet dangling an inch or so from the floor.
Atem sighed. "Hello, Rishid."
"I expected you sooner," said Rishid. "I should have known you'd be cautious."
"Not cautious enough, it seems," said Atem.
"You did warn me that you would try to escape. I knew if you were to do so, you would have to pass this way eventually."
"And you were right," said Atem. "But I had to try."
They were silent for a moment. Atem could feel the rise and fall of Rishid's breathing and the pounding of his heart. The powerful arms that held him were shaking slightly. For all his calm words, he was clearly on edge. The thought gave Atem some courage, and he thought, He doesn't really want to be doing this.
"Let me go," he said. "Please. It will be better if you do."
"Are you threatening me?" Rishid asked.
"No. I'm trying to help," said Atem. "I promise, if you let me go, I'll do everything in my power to make things right for you and your family."
"I can't," said Rishid. "I can't disobey Malik's orders."
"You know what he's doing isn't right," said Atem. "There are better ways to get what he wants."
"There aren't. We've looked for them," Rishid said flatly. "You have no idea how much we've gone through, trying to find a way out of this prison we're trapped in..."
"You didn't have my help before," said Atem.
"You would help us, even after what we've done to you?" asked Rishid incredulously.
"I would," said Atem, "because someone needs to. It's the right thing to do."
Rishid was silent for a moment. Then his grip on Atem relaxed, and Atem felt himself slipping back to the ground. He heaved a sigh of relief and turned to face Rishid. The man was tense, braced for some betrayal or attack. Atem regarded him levelly.
"Trust me," he said. "You said you thought I was a good man. Believe that."
Rishid sighed. "I shouldn't."
"But you will?"
"Go before I change my mind," said Rishid gruffly. He gave Atem a shove. "If anyone asks, I'm going to have to say that I saw you."
Atem nodded. "Don't worry. I'm going to take care of everything."
He turned to go, but before he could take a step, Rishid said, "Wait." He reached under his vest and took out the keyring, which he threw to Atem. "You'll need this."
Atem caught the keys and made them vanish beneath his cloak. "Thank you. You won't be sorry."
Rishid gave him a wry smile. "I'm sorry already. Go."
There was nothing more to say. Atem turned and ran.
He made it up to the door and fumbled for the keyhole. It wasn't easy to see, but at last his fingers brushed against a small notch, and he was able to fit the key into it. The door's workings clunked and groaned, and Atem fidgeted, sure at any moment that Rishid would have a change of heart, that guards would come running to seize him, and his chance would be lost.
The door opened. Beyond it, he could see the last of the Night People packing up their stalls in anticipation of morning. Already he could see lights lit in the windows of some of the buildings, as he own people rose and prepared for the coming of day. Did he dare trying to run into one of those houses? No, the doors would all be locked, and if someone saw him pounding at them, he'd surely be caught. He had to get back inside the palace where his own people could recognize him and help him. If he was fast enough, he might even get there before anyone ever realized he'd been gone.
There were very few people left in the streets. Those that remained seemed to be in a great hurry to put their things away and get back down to the underground. Some went one way, some another, and Atem found himself wondering exactly how many entrances to the underground there were. There had to be more than one, or else this whole crowd would never fit. There were still so many unanswered questions, so many things he wanted to explore.
The sun would be up soon. Already he could see the eastern sky growing lighter. He should have been eager to see the sun again. Instead, he realized that he was going to be sorry to see the night end. The flat blue sky of daylight seemed bland in comparison to the stars of night and the elegant beauty of the moon. The pale white and gold palace was going to seem bleak and sterile after seeing the intricate ornamentation of the underground world. He might have been angry at Malik for capturing him, but he could sympathize with wanting to get out. Atem might have escaped his prison, but he still didn't feel free.
I felt more at home in the dark than I ever did in the light...
Atem walked swiftly down the street, doing his best to look as though he had important things to do that no one had better interrupt. It worked. No one spared him more than a glance. He began to have hope that he might make it all the way home without being noticed.
Then he rounded a corner and discovered something unexpected. A regiment of armed men, dressed in the gold and white of his personal soldiers, was marching up the street, seizing anyone they could latch on to and shouting questions at them. There was too much commotion for Atem to hear exactly what they were saying, but he was sure he could guess what they were saying. He was even more certain when he saw that among the crowd were Guard Captain Jonouchi, High Priest Seto, High Priestess Kisara, and Yugi. All of them looked upset to some degree or another; Yugi looked downright frantic.
Atem broke into a run. The soldiers bristled as Atem burst into the street, but he didn't stop moving until he reached Yugi.
"I'm all right! I'm here!" he said, pulling back his hood.
"Atem!" Yugi exclaimed, and hugged him. "We were worried about you!"
"I'm fine," Atem assured him, smiling and returning the embrace. "I've just been off learning about our neighbors beneath the city."
"Well, you should have said something about it instead of just disappearing," said Seto disapprovingly. "The whole palace has been in chaos. You can't do anything without creating a stir, can you?"
Atem ignored that remark. Instead, he said, "How did you know I was missing?"
"Someone threw a rock through one of the windows and woke the staff up," Jonouchi explained. "There was a note tied around it saying you were being held hostage unless we were willing to turn Yugi over in exchange, and like hell were we going to do that."
"Yugi's been doing a wonderful job keeping things organized," said Kisara. "As soon as he knew what had happened, he set everyone searching for you."
Atem smiled. "I always knew you would make a fine leader, Yugi."
Yugi grinned, looking both embarrassed and pleased. "Well, I couldn't let anything happen to you."
"Actually," a voice cut in, "I think you might not get a choice in that."
Atem turned around to see Malik standing in the street, flanked by Rishid and a number of guards. Several of them held pikes or bows, which they aimed at Atem and Yugi.
"No one reach for a weapon," said Malik calmly. "Otherwise we may have to use force."
"You won't do it," said Atem. "You wouldn't dare kill either of us. It would cost you your only chance at freedom."
Malik looked surprised for an instant, and then his features twisted suddenly with rage and despair.
"How did you know?" he demanded. "Who told you?"
Rishid reached for his arm. "Brother, calm down..."
Malik turned on him furiously. "It was you, wasn't it? You told him our secrets!"
"He deserved to know the truth about what you were doing to him," said Rishid quietly.
"You did tell him! You let him escape!" Malik snarled. He raised a hand as if to strike him. Rishid only watched him calmly, prepared to bear whatever Malik's anger threw at him. They held that tableau for a moment, and in the end, it was Malik who backed down.
"I'll deal with you later," he snarled. He turned towards Yugi, Atem, and their entourage. "And if you won't help me, then I'll make you suffer along with me!"
He gestured to his guards. The bowmen drew back their arrows. Rishid tried to interpose himself between them and the men they were aiming at, but he couldn't possibly block them all.
"Brother, wait..." he begain.
"No," said Atem, stepping forward, "let me handle this."
All eyes turned towards him. He kept his gaze fixed firmly on Malik's lavender eyes.
"Tell your men to lower their weapons," he said. "We should talk about this."
"What is there to talk about?" Malik snapped. "You've already made matters clear. We can't hold you by force, and you won't stay with us voluntarily. What else is there?"
"It's true that I won't let you take Yugi by force," said Atem. "He is happy here in the sunlit world, and I don't think he would be happy as one of the night people. I won't tolerate you trying to force anyone to become king against their will. However, if it can be done peacefully, and if you will have me, I would be honored to accept the position."
Malik froze, apparently unable to process what he had just heard. Atemu's friends and family were looking at him as if he'd lost his senses.
"Say that again," said Malik.
"From what I've seen, you live in a beautiful, fascinating world," said Atemu, "and if you truly need me to be king, I will. I am willing to renounce my claim on the title of king of the Sun People in favor of my brother Yugi."
Malik was still staring at him thunderstruck. "You'd actually do that? No tricks?"
"None at all," said Atem. "And if I am king, I promise that the first thing I will do is to break the bonds that keep you from seeing the sun. In fact, I think it would be a good idea to appoint you ambassador to the Sun People so that you can help them to learn your ways. Would such a situation be acceptable?"
Now Malik was starting to look slightly ashamed of himself. "I... yes. I'd like that very much."
"Atem, you can't," said Yugi.
"I can," said Atem gently. "I have the right by blood, and you would make a very good king."
"But I won't see you anymore," Yugi protested.
"Don't worry," said Atem. "I think from now on there will be a lot more coming and going between the day and the night."
"I'm not sure this is proper," Kisara murmured.
Atem smiled suddenly as a thought struck him. "I think it can be arranged. Besides, if Yugi is to be king in my stead, it will probably push back the coronation date while everything is sorted out. You can get your wedding plans back on track."
"If he wants to leave, let him," said Seto firmly.
"Perhaps," said Atem, "we should take this conversation to the underground? The sun will be up soon, and we have a lot to talk about."
"I think," said Malik thoughtfully, "you might be right about that."
Some time later, the entire lot of them - Malik, Rishid, Isis, Atem, Yugi, and the various members of their respective courts, were sitting in what seemed to be some sort of audience chamber - an elegantly furnished room full of soft cushions in place of furniture. Everyone was sitting at their ease, drinking cups of spiced tea and occasionally helping themsevles to small seedcakes from a tray that was being passed around. They had all been talking more or less nonstop for the last couple of hours, and every point they agreed on had put them in slightly better humor. By this point, they were all feeling quite cheerful and well on their way to becoming friends. Eventually, they had managed to work up a contract, and put their names on it, signifying that Atem had accepted the title of king and that all four of the high priests had witnessed the agreement. By that point, the Night People were exhausted and struggling to cover their yawns, and the Sun People were eager to return to their home and tell everyone else what had transpired.
"Let's pick this discussion up again at sunset," Isis suggested. "My brother and I will be better rested, and you will have had time to think more about what needs to be done next."
Everyone agreed with that plan, and Malik, who was now more than eager to make up for his behavior earlier, offered to show his guests the way back to the surface. Atem, however, lingered behind.
Rishid came up behind him.
"Aren't you going with the rest of them?" he asked.
"I thought I'd stay here for now," Atem replied. "If I'm going to live here from now on, I might as well start getting used to it."
"You seem to have made up your mind about all this very quickly," Rishid observed.
"I know, but I don't regret my decision," said Atem, "for a lot of reasons. What about you? Are you looking forward to being released from your binding?"
Rishid smiled a little. "A bit. I'm happier about knowing that Malik will finally be released. He's dreamed of this all his life."
"And what do you dream about?" Atem asked. "Now that your brother has what he wants, what do you want?"
"I don't know," Rishid admitted. "I hadn't thought about it very much."
"I hoped," said Atem, "that you might agree to stay here with me, at least part of the time. I wouldn't want to keep you from your brother, but I could use someone like you at my side."
"Even after I put you in prison when you didn't deserve it?" Rishid asked.
"I can forgive that," said Atem. "I'll need help in learning the ways of your people... my new people, now." He laughed softly. "I'll need help learning my way around the city, even. I've been impressed with your loyalty and bravery. I can think of no one I'd rather have helping me. I hope someday I will earn your loyalty as well."
Rishid smiled. "I think that won't be very hard."
Atemu smiled back. He thought he wasn't going to miss the sun awfully much. From where he stood, the future looked dazzlingly bright.