The boy sat by the window and stared out at the world. Mokuba had a reputation for being quiet, these days - ever since his father died, in fact. Most people blamed it on emotional scars from losing both his parents so young, and shook their heads sadly as he trotted in his brother's wake, watching all and saying nothing. Some people even went so far as to insinuate that his brother the Baron might be mistreating him, but those who were in a position to know quickly put a stop to that rumor. It was true that Baron Kaiba prized his brother above all else, and protected him better than he protected his own treasury. Even now, two armed guards stood on either side of him, watching him as if gazing out a window was something very hazardous. Mokuba paid no attention to them. He was watching a distant white speck in the sky that was drawing ever closer.
A few minutes later, a white pigeon fluttered down out of the sky and perched on the windowsill, cooing softly to itself. Mokuba picked it up, and it rested calmly in his hands. There was a bit of paper tied to its leg. The boy untied it, read it over, and frowned.
"Big Brother isn't going to like this," he muttered.
With that slightly ominous announcement, he rose from his window seat and began walking briskly down the hallway to seek that higher authority. He found his brother hiding in his room, poring over tax records. The Baron looked up as he heard the door open.
"Mokuba," he greeted. "Is something wrong?"
Instead of replying, Mokuba handed him the scrap of paper. The Baron squinted irritably at the writing; not only was it very small, in the interest of fitting the entire message onto the tiny bit of paper, but it was also not the kind of news he wanted to hear.
"Those traitors!" he snarled. He crumpled the paper up and threw it into his fireplace; it burst into flames and was gone in the time it took to draw a breath. "They think they can just walk out on me, do they?"
"I don't think they were very happy," said Mokuba.
"They weren't here to be happy - they were here to do a job!" his brother snapped. Kaiba got up and began to pace. "The nerve of them! Complaining that the job isn't worth the money... Just because that stupid thief stole their payment, they think they have the right to-"
He broke off suddenly, looking thoughtful. Then, somewhat to Mokuba's displeasure, he began to laugh.
"Oh, that's very funny," said Kaiba coolly. "That's very, very funny. It's funny that they think they can get away with something so simple."
"What do they think they're getting away with?" asked Mokuba hesitantly.
"Look. See how it all falls out. Here we have that Half, Ryou - an acknowledged thief, even if no one has ever been able to pin a crime on him. Obviously he's had some accomplices along the way to help him stay out of trouble. Then we have that Yugi, who just happens to walk straight into their hands the moment I send my hunters out to find him. Both of those are locked in a cell. Who put them there? My monster hunters, that's who. Then, as soon as I'm ready to hand over their payment, the thief gets out of his cell and makes off with it. Who let him out? The only people with keys to that cell are me, my guards, and those hunters. When did he get out? Just minutes after I send them down there to lock up the new prisoner! And as soon as I send them out to capture him again, they send me a notice saying they don't want the job anymore. When I hired them, they were desperate for money, and now they suddenly don't need it anymore. Doesn't that strike you as just a little suspicious?"
Mokuba's eyes were wide. "You mean you think they set this up from the beginning?"
"That's exactly what I think. It's all timed too conveniently," Kaiba replied. "Well, they may be fooling some people with this little charade, but they won't fool me. Hmm..." He stared thoughtfully into the fire.
"I still need something to send to the Count," he said irritably. "He'll notice if I change my habits now, and the last thing I want is to start attracting attention, but it will take more time to hire new hunters and find more Halves than I can afford... Hmm..."
"What are you going to do?" Mokuba asked him.
"Don't worry. I'll think of something," Kaiba replied. "In fact... I think it's time I paid a little visit to the Count myself."
"You... you are?" asked Mokuba, suddenly going pale.
"You don't have to go if you don't want to. Trust me, I feel the same way about meeting that demon face to face. But if I can put him on the trail of these criminals, it might keep him on a wild goose chase long enough that we can think of something else."
"It's getting harder to keep him happy. There aren't that many Halves in our borders," Mokuba observed.
"We'll raid other people's borders if we have to. We'll leave the kingdom if we have to! Anything to keep him away from us. But for now we just need to think about appeasing him for the time being. On the more positive side, once the Count finds out about these rebellious hunters of mine, I think it's safe to say they'll never work anywhere ever again."
Yugi was forced to admit that traveling with the Wind People was much easier and more pleasant when he didn't have to do it inside of a trunk. He actually had a comfortable perch, now, with a seat on one of the wagons that led the procession. Jonouchi and Honda shared the wagon, and the three of them took turns watching the countryside for anything suspicious. Yugi had already known beyond a shadow of a doubt that his other Half was a master of his trade, but it became evident that Jonouchi and Honda knew what they were doing, as well. It was Honda who first spotted the tell-tale signs of orlochs in the area, narrowly saving the procession from rolling right into the middle of a camp of semi-human brutes. Yugi had never seen an orloch up close before then. He still hadn't, but he had gone with the other two hunters when they went to scout out the camp, and was glad that he hadn't come any closer. The last thing he wanted to do was end his adventure by being pounded into the earth by the club of an orloch. Later in the week, they had spied a deer carcass, picked nearly clean, and the three hunters agreed that it looked like the work of a lone skriek, a variety of enormous predatory bird that wasn't picky about its prey.
Ryou also rode with them - not because he was any use as a hunter, but because he was good company, and he wasn't needed anywhere else. He even made himself useful, from time to time, by reading his cards for glimpses of the future, warning his companions of impending bad weather. Anzu had to ride with her family, but she would visit them when the caravan stopped to rest. The group shared songs and stories as they rode, or simply relaxed in comfortable silence. They never seemed to grow bored of each other's company. Sometimes Yugi felt it had always been this way: him and his friends, riding an endless road to a destination he didn't care if he'd ever reach.
Not everyone shared his feelings.
"If it weren't for you guys," said Jonouchi, "I'd say I was looking forward to getting to the city." It was a hot, sunny afternoon, and the road seemed to be dustier than usual. "I bet there's lots of jobs for trained fighters in a big city like that. Hey, wouldn't it be somethin' if we could all get hired together?"
Ryou smiled, a bit wryly. "I don't think it's likely that I'll be hired as a fighter."
"Don't worry about it," said Honda. "It's not like we'd abandon you. What is it you do when you're not hanging out with us?"
"Oh, a little of this, a little of that," said Ryou modestly. "Actually, I used to be a cook."
"Really? You didn't mention that!" Jonouchi exclaimed.
Ryou nodded. "I worked for a rich merchant for a time, until his daughter took a more than casual interest in me. I thought it was safest to take myself elsewhere." He blushed lightly, and Jonouchi and Honda guffawed.
"Too cute for your own good, huh?" asked Honda. "Wish I had that problem."
"Well, there's the answer, then," said Jonouchi. "We'll all join a trade caravan. Honda and Yugi and I'll be guards, and you can join on as a cook. Easy!"
"I suppose," said Ryou doubtfully.
"What's wrong, Ryou? You don't look happy," Yugi observed.
"Oh, it's all right," Ryou replied. "It's just that what I'd really like to do is, well... but you'll laugh at me."
His friends confidently assured him that they would not laugh. Ryou took a breath.
"I've never really told anyone," he said, "but what I really want is be a magician. Not the kind you see around here, that just do tricks. A real one - like your grandfather, Yugi."
"Well, then, why don't you become one?" Honda asked.
Yugi frowned a little. "I don't know. You have to have a knack for magic. I mean, if it was just about lessons, I could have learned it from Grandpa, but I never could get it to work."
"All Halves can do magic, to some extent," Yami cut in, and Jonouchi and Honda jumped. Yami seldom spoke unless he had something useful to say, and his friends still weren't completely used to him appearing unexpectedly. "Your talents lie in other directions, Yugi. I've watched you. Your knack is for games. I suspected it earlier, but I have confirmed it watching you play among the Wind People. Haven't you noticed that when you play a game of chance, even if it is entirely new to you, luck always falls out in your favor?"
"But I lose against you, sometimes," Yugi protested.
"Yes, but I am a part of you. You can't lose against yourself. Luck works normally between the two of us, but against anyone else..."
"So Ryou might have real magic?" asked Honda, interested.
"I think it most likely," Yami replied. "Only someone with true talent could read the future as accurately as Ryou does."
"I'm glad to hear you say that," said Ryou. "I really did try to learn. I hired a teacher and everything - practically spent all the money I had - but it never amounted to anything. Everything I did came out wrong. The teacher said I was doing everything the way I'm supposed to, but, well... he said a lot of things I didn't understand, about a diffused magical field, or something. Whatever that means. I wondered if it's because I'm a Half, but I was afraid to ask for certain."
"There are kinds of magic that only Halves can do," said Yami thoughtfully. "I learned some of it, while I was alive, but most of it was protective magic, to keep myself from being too badly damaged when I was attacked by monsters. You can see how successful that was, so perhaps I did not master it as well as I thought."
"I'll bet he knows it," said Ryou.
"Who?" Jonouchi asked.
"That thief. Bakura," Ryou replied. "He did magic - I saw him! He just waved his hand and disappeared! That's real magic." He sighed a little. "I bet he could teach me how. I wonder if I'll ever see him again?"
"He said he'd be back," said Yugi doubtfully. He wasn't sure he wanted to meet the thief again. Just because he'd helped them once didn't mean he was trustworthy. In fact, as he had come out and admitted his motives were entirely selfish, Yugi rather doubted that Bakura was likely to start helping Ryou to do anything, unless there was something in it for him.
"Why don't you ask your cards?" Honda asked.
Ryou looked sheepish. "They're usually pretty vague when I ask them about myself. I can try, though. It might not tell me what I want to know, but it might tell me something."
He took out his deck and cleared a space to work on top of a nearby packing crate. Everyone who wasn't involved with piloting the wagon leaned closer to get a better look, as Ryou began laying out the pattern of cards and turning them over one by one. Yugi in particular always enjoyed watching these readings; they reminded him of home. He was only half paying attention, instead giving his attention to daydreaming about what his grandfather was doing now, and whether or not he knew Yugi was all right, when he realized that Ryou was frowning.
"What is it?" he asked.
"I can't tell," Ryou complained. "I told you they're not clear when I ask about myself. It's saying something about somebody being in disguise, but it won't say who. It's very annoying."
"I'll bet that's your thief," commented Jonouchi. "Thieves always have to wear disguises, right?"
"Maybe," Ryou said doubtfully.
A whistle echoed through the air; the leader was giving the signal that they were to stop traveling and rest for the day. The wagons began rolling to a halt. Yugi yawned. The shift from his usual daylight-oriented schedule to the more nocturnal habits of the Wind People was still not fully ingrained in him, and he was more than ready to get some sleep by now.
"Time to hit the hay! Finally!" said Jonouchi. He hadn't been having any problems, when it came to sleeping or not sleeping, as far as Yugi could tell. Both hunters seemed to have developed the trick of falling asleep anywhere, at any time.
At least sleeping in a box was no longer necessary; there were hammocks cleverly placed both inside and outside the wagons, depending on how large a family they were meant to hold. Yugi preferred his outside, when the weather was clear, so he could look at the stars before he drifted off. He was just setting up his bed for the night when Anzu came by.
"Oh, hello!" he said. He missed the hook he was trying to hang his hammock from and ended up dropping it on the ground. "Oops!"
"Here, I'll get that," said Anzu. She caught the loose end and hooked it deftly in place. "There you go! I've been handling these things ever since I could walk. These days I practically go to sleep first and hook them up afterwards."
"Heh. I guess I haven't gotten the hang of it yet," said Yugi, a little distractedly. Even when she wasn't dancing, her movements were quick and graceful. He still hadn't lost his fascination with watching her.
"I guess you won't have to worry about it for much longer," said Anzu. "Tomorrow you'll probably be sleeping in a real bed, right?"
Yugi boggled. "Er... what?"
"Tomorrow," Anzu repeated. "When we reach the city."
Yugi squeaked. "We're getting there tomorrow? But it seems too soon."
"I know what you mean," said Anzu, a little sadly. "I'll kind of miss having you guys around when you leave. It's definitely made for an interesting trip. Have you made any plans for what to do next?"
"We've talked about it. Jonouchi and Honda are all for us finding the first trade caravan heading out of the city and signing up as guards. I don't know how well that will work, but I know we can't stay here and wait for the Count to find out about us."
"Ah. I was kind of hoping you might stay with us a while longer. I mean, nobody can tell you're a Half just by looking at you. You're bound to be safe just for a week or two, right?"
In response, Yugi rolled up one sleeve, showing the mark where the drachies had bitten him. It still hadn't completely healed; it had an unusual pearly pink glimmer to it that sparkled even in the dim light.
"I don't think anybody can mistake what that means," he replied. "Even if I keep the scabs covered up, all it would take is for me to slip and skin my elbow or cut my finger, and that will be it for me. I can't take the risk. I have to get as far away from the Count as I can - maybe out of the kingdom entirely."
"It's not fair!" said Anzu angrily. "Just because you're different, they think they can hunt you down and do whatever they want with you! It's like you're an animal, or one of those drachies. You and Ryou are some of the gentlest people I've ever met. Why doesn't someone put a bounty on those monsters, instead of letting them run wild like this, and leave you alone?"
"I'm an easier target," said Yugi.
Anzu scowled. "That shouldn't have anything to do with it. I wish someone would hunt that Count down and do a few things to him, and see how he likes it."
Yugi didn't say anything. He kept his gaze fixed on the distance, still vaguely contemplating what might lie beyond the kingdom's borders, and whether there was anywhere a Half might be safe. A glint of light caught his eye.
"Look," he said. "A shooting star!"
"Really?" Anzu looked up. "It is! And I just wasted it wishing ill on people. You make a wish, Yugi. Maybe it'll come true!"
Yugi nodded and closed his eyes. A moment later, he opened them again.
"All right, I did," he said.
"What did you wish for?" she asked, curious.
"Well, back in my village, I was always alone," said Yugi slowly. "I was always wishing I had friends to keep me company. Now I've got Yami and Ryou and Jonouchi and Honda, and you too. I was just wishing that somehow, well... not exactly that we'd stay together, because I know you have to go with your people, and Jonouchi and Honda have to work, and Ryou and I have no idea where we're going to end up, but... I wished not to lose you all. That someday, we'll all find each other again."
Anzu smiled a little and ruffled his hair. "You're sweet, you know that? It's hard to believe you're half a hunter. Well, sleep well, Yugi."
"You too, Anzu," Yugi replied.
He settled down into his hammock and closed his eyes. In a little while, the sun would come up, and he preferred to fall asleep before it got bright out.
Did you make a wish too, Yami? he asked his other self.
I don't need to, he replied. I saw many such stars while I was waiting in the mountains, and my wish was always to be found by someone I could talk to. That wish was granted. All I want now is to keep you safe.
I'm sure you will, Yugi replied. I would be a whole lot more afraid to do this if you weren't with me.
Just remember, as much as I'd like to, I can't defend you from everything, Yami replied. He was thoughtful a moment. Yugi, have you taken a close look at my pendant? Do you see how it's made?
Yugi opened his eyes and took the pendant in his hands, turning it over carefully. Glints of pale morning light played over it.
It's all made up of pieces, he thought. Like a puzzle.
Yes. Listen to me, Yugi. Inside this puzzle is a glass bottle. If everything goes wrong and you're certain there is no way out, take the puzzle apart and break the glass inside. It won't save you, but...
What will it do?
It will set me free. Otherwise, my soul will be bound to this amulet forever. Do you understand, Yugi? If the worst happens and you die, I don't want to be left behind.
I understand, said Yugi. I'll do as you say.
Yugi made himself comfortable in his hammock, reflecting to himself that tomorrow he might bed down on a real bed, and not just a mesh of ropes suspended from the side of a wagon. He couldn't help but think he was more comfortable where he was.
Baron Kaiba had gotten a bit of a late start, but he could still cover ground more quickly than the Wind People could. They were encumbered by their wagons, and had to make regular stops. Traveling alone, he could cover the distance at the speed that a strong, fast horse could gallop - or more than one horse, since he had the wealth to stop along the way and exchange his tired animal for a fresh one. He was limited only by his endurance, and there were no lengths he would not go to in achieving his goals. He had proven that once already to the man who had been Baron before him; he would prove it again to the Count someday. Someday he would make the man regret that he'd ever chosen to cross swords with Baron Kaiba!
Cross swords! I only wish he would, Kaiba thought, as he handed over his horse's reins to one of the Count's stablemen. I would carve him to pieces, and that would be the end of all this! He's more a scholar than a fighter; I would have him at my mercy in no time.
But he couldn't do that, not without some reason that would justify challenging him to a fight that way, even assuming the coward would accept his challenge. If he started killing people in public, the King would have to get involved, and he was hoping to avoid that kind of nonsense. As usual, Kaiba was going to have to rely on himself if he wanted to get anything done. He announced himself to one of the Count's servants, and within a few minutes, he was being escorted to the great man's study.
Kaiba had been there before, and knew what to expect, but his keen eyes swept the room anyway. There was no telling when he might light on something significant; it was not beneath the Count to have a trap laid for him. Kaiba was convinced that nothing was beneath the Count. Not that you could tell by looking at him: outwardly, the Count was every inch the handsome, graceful nobleman that poor girls told each other stories about marrying someday. Only his eyes and the way he smiled showed that there was nothing sane behind that cultivated facade.
"Well, well," he said. "I am pleasantly surprised to see you here. I wasn't expecting you to turn up for another fortnight, at least, Baron Kaiba."
"There's been a slight change of plans, Count Pegasus," Kaiba replied.
If this news bothered the Count, he didn't show it. He wasn't even looking at Kaiba particularly; he was toying with a wineglass and gazing idly off into space. It wasn't the first time Kaiba had taken note of the Count's taste for red wine, and now he found himself wondering if he might not use that weakness to do for him what he'd done for the former Baron. Tempting as it was, he decided not to risk it. No use setting a pattern that might be traceable back to him.
"Is that so?" the Count answered mildly. "In what way?"
"Someone has conspired to steal what is rightfully yours."
"Let me guess - you let them get away with it. Really! Did you come all this way to complain to me that you are incapable of doing your job?"
Kaiba tried not to let his frustration show. "I did my job just the way I always did. It isn't my fault I was taken advantage of. They laid it out so neatly, I never suspected anything until it was too late. It turns out the very hunters I hired to deal with those pests you're so concerned about were in league with them all along."
"You're entirely too trusting," said Pegasus. "I would have expected you to be a bit more suspicious. After all, we know all too well that one can find enemies very close to us... even in our own homes. Even in our own families."
"Is it really necessary to go over that again?" asked Kaiba tiredly.
"It is, because you seem to have forgotten. You know what I can do to you if you make an enemy of me, Kaiba. You want me to be happy with you. I am not happy with you today. We don't really want any unfortunate information about you to leak out, do we?"
Kaiba glared. "Come out and say it, and stop trying to sound clever. We both know that if I don't give you what you want, you'll tell everyone I killed my father. Isn't that right?"
"Listen to you! One would think you weren't properly ashamed of yourself."
"I'm not. He was never really my father, and he needed killing. I'm just smart enough to know the rest of the world doesn't see it that way, and the King won't like me for ascending to my position a little early. Just because the secret can ruin me doesn't mean I'm ashamed of it."
"Well, I suppose I should expect that kind of attitude from a cold-blooded killer," said Pegasus mildly.
"Look who's talking. I may not know what you do with those Halves I bring you, but I have a fairly good idea. Anyone who spends so much time torturing and killing living things has no right to insult me because I rid the world of one useless old man."
"I thought you didn't care for Halves. I thought we agreed that they are monsters, and undeserving of pity."
"I don't have to pity them to think it's sick that you enjoy torturing them," Kaiba snapped. "I only go along with this insanity to keep you quiet. You know that."
"Then be of some help to me."
"Fine. Here is how things stand. Some days ago, I hired two monster hunters to catch Halves for me. Instead, they conspired with them to take the reward I offered and escape with both of them. Is that the kind of thing you concern yourself with? Someone is trying to profit off of your project, and robbing us both while they do it."
"Yes, that is mildly annoying, when you put it like that," Pegasus mused. "I'll have to look into it. I suppose that's useful information to know... Very well. I will forgive you this time, if this tip of yours turns out to be useful. If it doesn't, however, I will expect you to make the usual tribute at the end of the month, just as always. Is that understood?"
"Perfectly," Kaiba ground out.
"Then just leave me whatever information you've got on these nasty little conspirators of yours, and then you can go away and stop boring me."
Holding his temper in check as best he could, Kaiba gave all the information he knew about the hunters and their whereabouts, and then stalked out of the room, fuming.
If he had never worked out that I killed my father, maybe he would have left me alone, Kaiba mused. I'll never figure out how he did it... unless the rumors are true, that he's learned black magic. I suppose that would make it easy enough to see if someone had a murder on their hands. Murder? No, it was justified! I don't regret it. I'd do it again, if I had to.
The more he thought about it, the more convinced he was that it had to be magic of some sort that had clued him into Kaiba's past deeds. There had been no other evidence - Kaiba had been far to careful about that. He had planned it much too carefully to leave any traces of how he'd killed the man he'd been forced to call his father.
In truth, he was in no way related to the Baron who had come before him. Kaiba's real father had been a landed knight. His holdings had been small but fertile, and he'd managed them well and made sound investments, and by the time Mokuba had been born into the family, they had become quite wealthy. Unfortunately, he had given more thought to cultivating his land and marketing its products than he had to keeping up with his knightly training. When the King had called him away to deal with a group of bandits, it had ended with his throat being slit, and left his wife a widow - but a comely and wealthy one. She had ruled over the property as regent, waiting for the day when her eldest son would attain his majority.
Meanwhile, the Baron, who should have had a fortune of his own, had ended up squandering it on projects that had failed to yield any returns, and was in need of ready money. He had married the young widow and adopted their sons, only a year before the entire fortune would have become Kaiba's. She did not live long after the marriage, but had faded away under a mysterious illness and died only a few months afterwards. Instead of becoming the master of his own small patch of land, Kaiba was forced to become subordinate to a man who was no kin of his, and content himself with waiting until the man's death before he could claim what belonged to him by rights. Nevertheless, Kaiba bore up under the treatment quietly, knowing that the man couldn't live forever. He was resigned to wait.
Until two years ago, when the secret had come out.
It had not gone any further than the Baron's ears, but that was far enough. Kaiba had seen the change come over him. One day, he had looked at Mokuba as only a little boy, someone who was slightly in the way but nothing that couldn't be ignored. The next day, he was ready to kill him. Kaiba had never doubted that he would do it. He had never wanted two sons who didn't belong to him, and would have preferred to pass his title on to a child of his own blood, if he could. He might tolerate having Kaiba around just to be sure that there would be someone to keep his holding from falling into anarchy if something should happen to him, but he had no reason for keeping a small child around if he didn't want it. It would be entirely too easy for an "accident" to be arranged, and then there would be one less irritating small child in the world... unless Kaiba decided to do something about it first.
The matter came to a head the night that the Baron announced that Mokuba would be sent to the King's court to become a squire. No one had seen anything odd about that - it was a logical thing to do with a younger son of a noble who had few prospects of becoming Baron himself someday, but might make it as a knight of the realm with a bit of training. It was only Kaiba who guessed that there was a good chance that Mokuba would never come back, and probably never arrive at the King's court at all. He had confronted the Baron in private, and there had been a shouting match that had shaken the rafters. That shouldn't have been enough to make anything suspicious; everyone knew Kaiba and Mokuba were close and weren't looking forward to being separated. Of course there would be a fight. Afterwards, he had asked for permission to spend the night in Mokuba's room so they could make the most of their time together before Mokuba was sent away. A place was set up for him there, and he and his young brother settled down in a chair together by the fire. When the servants had left them, they were reading together out of a story book. So far, so good.
After a few minutes had gone by, Kaiba had slipped out of the room and worked his way downstairs - not a particularly difficult task. The Baron insisted on keeping his servants out of sight when they weren't wanted; they all used the hidden hallways. No one was there to see him as he followed the staircase down to the wine cellars, selected a bottle, and poured most of it down a privy. The rest he took with him to his so-called father's private rooms, set it down carefully next to the door, and then rapped politely and asked for admittance.
It took all his willpower to keep the conversation civil - meaning quiet. Nobody needed to hear this discussion. He had told the Baron that he'd reconsidered, and that it meant more to him to have a chance to succeed as baron than it did to protect Mokuba, who would only be a liability to him anyway. He'd said he'd only been so outspoken because he'd promised his mother he would look after Mokuba, but she was dead now, and Kaiba had his own fortunes to consider. He'd hated himself for saying it, but it seemed to please the Baron. They had discussed what would happen after Mokuba had set out on his final journey. Then, suddenly, Kaiba had looked up and exclaimed that he'd heard a noise out in the courtyard. He ran to the window, and the older man had followed him.
And Kaiba had caught him by the front of the shirt and pulled, and that had been the end of the conversation, unless one counted a short scream that was abruptly cut off. Kaiba retrieved the near-empty bottle that had once held potent wine, left it conspicuously on the Baron's desk, and then retreated to his brother's room. When questioned later, Mokuba had been more than willing to say that his brother had been with him the whole time, and since everyone had seen Kaiba go in but no one had seen him go out, there was no choice but to believe that the Baron had drunk a bit too much after dinner and taken a tumble out the window. The next morning, Kaiba had been the new Baron, and both he and Mokuba were perfectly safe.
Or so Kaiba had thought, before he'd gotten mixed up with the Count.
I'll get rid of him somehow, Kaiba swore. There's blood on my hands already; one more won't matter. No one can be allowed to know the truth.
The Count's city loomed in the distance, gray and massive and imposing. Yugi stared at it and found himself mildly stunned; when he'd seen how much bigger the Baron's city was than his own small village, he couldn't imagine anything bigger. Now he was seeing it. He wondered what the King's city must be like.
"Well, that's the place," said Honda. "Guess it's time for us to get ready to start packing our things up."
"I don't have any things!" Ryou replied, looking mildly dismayed.
"Then you're a step ahead of us," Jonouchi replied. "I pulled all my stuff out of my bag looking for my spare whetstone, and I still can't find it. I bet I lost it somewhere."
"If it's a spare, don't you have another one?" Honda asked.
Jonouchi gave him a glare. "If I did, I wouldn't be looking for a spare, would I?"
"I'll bet you can buy a new one in there," said Yugi, still looking up at the city, which was drawing steadily nearer as their wagon rolled along.
"Good idea!" Jonouchi declared. "All right, then - when we get in there, we go shopping!"
Yugi wasn't sure he entirely approved of that idea, but it wasn't entirely his decision to make. Before he could object, the voice in his mind said, It wouldn't hurt if I were better equipped.
That made Yugi pause a bit. Thus far, he and Yami had been making do with weapons borrowed from the Wind People; they had nothing that truly belonged to them. If they were going to go out into the uncertain world, it would probably be a good idea to have at least a knife to protect themselves with. He was certain his partner would be able to pick out something they would be able to manage.
"I think I'll come with you," he said to Jonouchi. "I just thought of some things I need."
At last, the wagons rolled to a halt a short distance outside the city, and the Wind People began to unpack and prepare for another stay. Yugi sighed a little as he climbed out of the wagon. He'd enjoyed his stay with these carefree wanderers, and he was sorry to have to leave them and go back to the everyday world... for more reasons than one.
As Yugi and Ryou waited for their friends to get their things together (the two of them had very little in the way of belongings, having lost most of them when they'd been captured, but Jonouchi and Honda had come prepared) Anzu arrived with the clan chief in tow.
"So, you four are leaving us, are you?" he asked as he drew nearer.
"We really can't stay," Ryou replied. "We would if we could, but it's just not safe for a Half in this big city."
"We'll be sorry to see you go. You've all been very helpful to us, far more than most outsiders would think of being to the Wind People."
"Aw, it was nothing," said Honda modestly. "Just doing what we do best!"
"True. You did an excellent job. Here is the payment we promised." He passed each of the young men a sack of coins. Jonouchi opened his and poured part of it out to have a look at the contents.
"That's about right," he said. "Thanks! I'll take a job with you guys any time."
"I'm going to miss you guys!" said Anzu. "Come see us again as soon as you can, okay?"
She hugged each of them in turn, prompting more than one blush. Yugi in particular found himself hard-pressed not to look too ridiculously pleased. After she let go, he stood there, shifting from foot to foot and staring at the ground.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" she asked. "Get going already. I hate long goodbyes."
"Yeah, I guess we'd better get a move on," Honda agreed. "Thanks for everything. We'll try to get back to you when we can."
"I know you will," she said. "Now go on, shoo!"
She waved them away, and then turned and hurried off, wiping fretfully at her eyes. The boys watched her, feeling awkward, until they finally turned and walked resolutely away.
Yugi might have felt sad for much longer if he'd been parting with Anzu back in his own home town, but the advantage to a big city was that once he was lost in the crowd, he couldn't hear himself think. There was simply too much noise around him, and too many sights, too much movement, too many people jostling him. He had only seen the Baron's city by night, with the streets nearly empty. The roads he was traveling now were crammed with people of all ages and stations, from little children helping mind their parents' produce stalls, up to gray-bearded nobles in their carriages. Yugi stayed close to Jonouchi, Honda, and Ryou, torn between the desire to stare at everything and to hide somewhere quiet and hope everything went away.
"Hey, don't look so scared," said Jonouchi, patting him on the back. "It's just people."
"But there's too many of them!" Yugi protested.
"Let's get off the main streets," said Ryou. "The crowds will be thinner elsewhere."
"I'll bet we can get better bargains, too, from places that aren't right in the center of things," said Jonouchi practically. "No point in wasting money."
"Not after all we went through to get it!" Honda agreed.
They escaped down the first side street they came to and scanned the signs on the next road until they found a modest weapons shop that didn't look like it would be too unbearably crowded. Judging by the covetous looks Jonouchi and Honda cast the goods in the window, Yugi assumed the weapons were good quality, though he himself wasn't sure he'd be able to tell a good piece from a bad one. He exchanged a look with Ryou, who appeared as bemused as he was, but seemed willing enough to go along with the deal. They went inside and began to look around.
Jonouchi and Honda were immediately attracted to a rack of swords displayed on the back wall. Yugi considered those a little beyond his means, not to mention a bit awkward to carry around, and opted instead to look at smaller and more affordable things. He found a sturdy sling, reinforced with metal and far less worn than the sticks-and-leather contraption he'd been using to hunt small game, and considered the merits of a matched set of knives that could be used for throwing or hand-to-hand fighting. Ryou toyed with a small penknife.
"I'm not much of a fighter, but this is practical," he said.
Jonouchi was rapturously contemplating a gleaming sword with a charmed blade.
"I want this so bad!" he wailed.
"So get it!" said Honda.
"But I can't afford it!"
"Then you'll just have to do without it."
"But I want it!"
Ryou chuckled softly. "I'll loan you something, if you want. I really don't need it all that much, and you do need weapons for your work..."
"You don't hafta do that," said Jonouchi. "I really do have other things I need more. This one will do just fine." He picked up a different weapon, sturdier but less elaborate. "I could use a new one. This old thing I've been lugging around barely holds an edge."
Yugi bought the sling and the knives, Ryou purchased his penknife, and Jonouchi and Honda came away with several things that would be useful for their trade. Thus equipped, they stepped out of the store and into the city streets.
"Where to now?" Ryou asked.
"Guess we start looking for work," said Honda, running a hand through his hair as he considered. "Or maybe finding a place to stay the night. Or both. I know we don't want to stay here longer than we have to, but..."
"We're bound to be safe for one night, at least," said Jonouchi. "I don't know about the rest of you guys, but I wouldn't mind sleeping in an actual bed just once before we hit the road again."
"It's still a bit early to be thinking about that," Ryou replied. "It's barely noon, yet."
"Wouldn't that be the best time, though?" asked Yugi. "I mean, once it starts getting dark, everyone from out of town is going to be looking for a... Wait a minute, do you hear that?"
There was a disturbance somewhere far up the street, though from where the boys stood, they could make out nothing but an indeterminate jumble of shouts and curses. Then a hooded figure burst through the crowd and came barreling down the walkway as fast as he could, carrying a bulging sack under one arm that in all likelihood didn't belong to him. He glanced their way, then skidded to a halt and changed direction, heading straight for them.
"Here, hold this," he said to Ryou, and shoved the bundle into his arms.
"What? But - huh?" Ryou stammered, involuntarily closing his hands around the sack.
"Don't worry - I don't want it anymore," the thief answered. He flicked off his cloak and tossed it over Ryou's head and shoulders. "Hold that, too. Well, I'm off! Have fun!"
Everyone watched blankly as the pale-haired thief gave one last wicked grin and vanished into the crowd.
They did not have long to contemplate this phenomenon, however, before a number of town guards ran up. It didn't take long for them to catch sight of the still baffled Ryou.
"There he is! Seize him!"
"No, wait! You've got the wrong one!" Yugi protested, stepping in front of his friend in a vain effort to protect him.
"He looks like the right man to me," said one of the guards. "Don't try to play games with us! He's holding the loot there in his hands, and you're trying to tell me he's not a thief!"
"He isn't," said Jonouchi. "We were just standing here, and this crazy guy runs up, shoves a bag into Ryou's hands, puts a cloak over him, and runs off! None of us have stolen anything!"
"That's right," said Yugi. "We only just stepped out of the shop - you can ask the shopkeeper. Ryou couldn't have been the one you were chasing, because he was here the whole time. Besides, the thief had a scar under his eye, and Ryou hasn't got one."
Ryou was studying the bag he'd been given with an expression of puzzlement, peering into its depths. "This is full of rocks. Why would anyone steal a bag of rocks?"
"Let me see that!" barked the guard. He stared into the bag, and his expression shifted from fury to confusion. "It is full of rocks! What's going on here?"
"If I were to guess," said Yugi, "I'd say your thief either put whatever he stole into his pockets, or dropped it off somewhere safe, and replaced it with the stones. He might have even been carrying this bag when he started and left it here just to confuse you."
"It worked, too, 'cause you guys are standing around talking to us instead of looking for him," said Jonouchi irritably.
"Right. Sorry about that," said the captain. He pointed to some of his men. "You, you, and you - fan out and see if you can find some trace of him. He's probably long gone by now, but we might still get lucky and have him be overconfident. As for you," he added, to Yugi and his friends, "I'm going to have to ask you to come down to the constabulary building and file a report. You all must have gotten a close look at the culprit; you can give us a good description of him."
The boys looked at each other uncertainly. Eventually, they seemed to decide that the best way to stay out of trouble with the law was to be cooperative. They followed the guard back to the station. Yugi found himself wishing heartily that there was another option; the last thing he needed was for anyone in this city to figure out who and what he was, and Ryou already had a criminal record of sorts. He wasn't aware that Honda and Jonouchi had any history with the law, but given the questionable nature of their work, it was entirely possible. Still, there was something about refusing to speak to the police that sent a certain message, and it wasn't one he really wanted to send. Maybe they wouldn't ask very much beyond what Bakura looked like. That would be safe enough.
The constabulary wasn't a very impressive building, on the inside. It consisted mainly of a series of cells for holding minor offenders, and a few small offices that were presumably used for meetings like this one. Yugi and his friends were told to sit in a row of rough wooden chairs, which creaked alarmingly whenever anyone moved. Yugi sat at the edge of his seat and was grateful, for once in his life, that he wasn't very large.
"Now," said the guard, as he settled down behind his desk and whisked out a clean sheet of parchment, "tell me what you remember about this thief."
They spilled out what details they could, taking care not to imply that any of them had ever met the thief before, and being equally cautious never to mention his name. It was a bit harder not to draw too much attention to the uncanny resemblance between Ryou and the thief, acting as if it were a simple coincidence. Ryou himself was very quiet and spoke only when spoken to, and even then, said as little as possible in a nearly inaudible monotone. Eventually the captain just stopped talking to him. Yugi was rather grateful; he was afraid someone would take Ryou's shyness for guilt.
"Well, that's about all we can do," said the captain at last, as he began rolling up his parchment. "Just one more thing - I'll want to get your names, for official purposes."
"Oh, ah... it's Yugi," stammered Yugi. He watched with a sense of relief as his name was written down without any sign of recognition or interest. Looking somewhat heartened, Ryou gave his name, and the two monster hunters did likewise. The captain wrote everything down and summoned a page of some sort to take the paper. The two of them held a whispered conference, and then the boy scampered off.
"So, I guess we're all done, huh?" said Jonouchi, beginning to climb from the uncomfortable chair with evident relief.
"No, not quite," said the officer. "We're done interviewing you about the thief. However, there is another question involved here."
"Eh?" said Honda, looking baffled. "What else is there?"
"Word has come in from the Count," the captain replied, "that we are looking for a group of two Halves and two monster hunters who answer to your names. I'm afraid you four are going to have to be brought before the court for crimes of conspiracy."
The young man dangled from the walls, suspended painfully by his wrists by manacles and chains. They were barely long enough for his toes to touch the ground, so that he had a choice between letting his arms hold his entire weight, or to strain his legs trying to balance on tiptoe for hours at a time. It was nearly impossible to sleep in that position, and he was bound too tightly to move his arms enough to relax them. Feeding himself was likewise impossible, even if his captor had been gentle enough to do more than allow him a sip of water once every so often. There was a wild light in his eyes as he stared up at the man who had imprisoned him.
"I don't know why you're doing this to me," the prisoner gasped. "I don't know anything!"
"I think you do," the man replied. "And I think you're going to tell me. If you do, I'll give you this."
He gestured at a table nearby, where rested a pitcher of clear water, moisture beading on its cool surface, and a bowl of soup with some bread. The prisoner looked at it very hard; he had lost track of how long he had been without food, and his guards had not been generous with his water supply.
"Is that not enough? Don't be afraid to ask; I can be generous," the man continued. He reached under a fold of his cloak - a rich garment, quite out of place in the squalid dungeon - and plucked out an iron key. "It occurs to me you might be more comfortable if your hands were free, and you could walk around your cell a bit. Wouldn't you like that?"
"You aren't offering me anything I didn't have before you got to me, Count," the prisoner croaked.
"Fine, fine. Be that way. How about this?" said the count. "I have it on good authority that you were, before my people apprehended you, a member of a gang of thieves. I suspect a fair amount of that finery you wear wasn't purchased honestly, now, was it? I know all the nobles for miles around, and merchants don't have tattoos like yours."
The thief cringed. He had been well-dressed before he'd been dragged down here, but his clothes had been torn to rags by now, and his skin was bare from the waist up. It was hard to hide the fact that his back was marked extensively. Perhaps as a matter of mockery, they had left his heavy gold necklaces, the cuffs on his wrists and ankles, and his earrings in place.
"So what if I am a thief?" he managed at last.
"Tell me what I want to know, and I'll grant you a full pardon," said the Count. "You do realize that if you don't take my offer, you will have to be punished. I believe the usual punishment for thievery is losing your hands?"
He beckoned to someone behind him, and a man came up carrying a hefty blade. The thief shied away from it.
"Ah, I see you don't like that idea," said the Count. "Very well. Just tell me what you want to know, and you will be safe from harm. Now, answer me this: what is the power of the Halves?"
"Their blood," answered the thief instantly. "The power is in their blood!"
He knew instantly that this was new to the Count; an expression of keen interest flashed across his face.
"I suspected as much," he said. He sounded almost like he was talking to himself, now. "I thought there had to be something special about it. Next question: is it true, as the old books say, that there is a way to use a Half to gain eternal life, or to raise the dead?"
The thief nodded, eager for anything that would keep that sword away from him. "It's true. The gang leader told me so, and he knows about that kind of thing. He could use his own blood to do magic, and he taught me some."
"Can you do the thing I spoke of?"
"Are you sure?" There was menace in the Count's voice now.
"What about this leader of yours? Would he know?"
"I don't think so, or he would have used it, I think," the thief replied thoughtfully. "There was only one in recent years who had the knack of putting his soul back into his body, no matter how many times you killed him. He'd always come back."
"Where is he now?"
The thief grinned. "Dead! Eaten by drachies. The drachies ate his body, so there wasn't anything for him to come back to. He never told anybody how he made himself stay alive before that, so the secret died with him."
The Count was not amused. "So you don't know anything else?"
"Nothing else. I've told you all I can tell you - now let me go!"
"Oh, I think not," said the Count smoothly. "If you can't tell me how to do the magic myself, then I'll just have to drain your blood so I can do some experiments." He nodded to the executioner with the blade. "Get a basin and slit his throat."
"No!" the thief shrieked, his voice cracking with panic and thirst. "Wait! Don't kill me yet! I can tell you more!"
"I don't believe you," said the Count.
The executioner had the basin in his hands; it must have been very close by, and the thief realized that the Count must have been planning on killing him anyway, whether he had spoken or not. He began to babble wildly, desperate for anything that might save him now, even for a few minutes more.
"It's gold! Gold!" he shouted. "You can't do the magic without gold!"
"Stop," said the Count to the executioner. "I want to hear the rest of this."
"Gold," the prisoner repeated weakly. "It's why we started the gang in the first place - to steal gold. The boss knew how to do magic with it, but it has to be pure gold, not the alloyed stuff. Pure gold."
"Easily attained," said the Count. "Then what?"
"You have to mix it with the blood of a Half. Even a drop will do," the thief replied. "You melt some gold down and pour in the blood, and then you form it into whatever shape you want. The shape of the object defines its powers. You just have to find the right shape."
"I see... Well. You have been useful to me, thief. Far more useful than anyone else has been. Just for that, I have decided to spare your life, after all. Loose his bonds."
The executioner, looking rather surly at not being allowed to slit any throats today, grudgingly took the key from his master and set about undoing the chains. The thief fell to his knees with a groan, as his stiff limbs were forced to bend from the positions they'd been held in. For a moment, all he could do was lie there in pain, until his muscles slowly relaxed enough that he could move again. On his hands and knees, he crept toward the table where food and drink lay. The Count made little shooing motions, urging him to get on with it. The thief fixed him with a glare.
"It's not poisoned, is it?"
To his annoyance, the Count laughed. "Gracious, no! What would be the point? No, dear boy, your blood is a precious commodity. I will not soil it. Eat and drink as you will, and regain your strength. You're going to need it."
The thief looked at the repast he'd been about to partake of, and then at the Count, and it slowly dawned on him what was going on.
He's not going to kill me off now - he wants to keep me alive so he can bleed me off slowly!
It was on his lips to say that everything he'd said was a lie, that he'd just made it all up to keep from being killed, to go ahead and kill him now and get it over. The last thing he had ever wanted was to become the tool of some insane rich man. The marks on his back bore testament to his days as a slave; he had promised himself that he would never go through that again. He had joined the band of thieves with the thought of becoming rich and powerful himself, some day, so powerful that he could bring low the ones who had treated him so cruelly, and make himself the master over them.
But it would be idiotic to lie down and let him slaughter you like a tame little sheep, he told himself. Better to pretend to be docile for now.
Slowly and deliberately, he got up and took a long drink from the pitcher, without bothering with the cup that was sitting nearby, and then began carefully sipping at the soup. He seemed so intent on his food that he didn't even wince when a knife was drawn across his arm, and a few drops of sparkling pink blood were collected in a dish. He didn't seem to notice, but he did.
Oh, yes, I'll need my strength, he was thinking. I'll need it for the day I punish you for this. I'll come to take payment for every drop you take from me...
To Be Continued...