The sun was high in the cloudless Egyptian sky, glinting majestically off the Nile River. Thin plumes of fragrant smoke rose from the stately temples that lined the streets of Thebes as white-robed priests and reverent worshippers offered up incense.
Those worshippers would have been shocked to see a young woman scramble over the wall of the grandest of the temples, hitching her up nearly to her waist to do so. They would have been ever more shocked to learn the woman was the High Priestess, the Keeper of a Millennium Item, and a member of the Pharaoh's inner circle. But Mana wasn't particularly concerned with what anyone might think as she picked her way to the riverbank, bounding along the tops of walls and roofs, just as she had when she was a young apprentice just learning magic.
She wasn't much older now, though her magic had certainly improved. Before, she had struggled to lift a simple freezing spell. Now, she had taken her master's place as the foremost magician in Egypt. But Mana knew that she would ever be as powerful as he had been, not even with the aid of the Millennium Ring that hung around her neck. She fingered it now pensively.
When the Pharaoh had asked her to be its Keeper, Mana had been apprehensive. The golden Item was tied so closely to all her memories of Mahad's life—and his death. It was painful just to look at it; she couldn't imagine using it. The thought of owning it like betrayal, like she was usurping her master's place. But she had consented to the trial (could she really have refused the Pharaoh?), and when the Ring had accepted her, she had found a way to accept it as well. Mahad's spirit was tied to this piece of gold, in some way. He had used it, he had served it, he had tied his magic to it, and as Mana did the same, she could feel his presence, like a hand not quite there on her shoulder, or a warm voice blown away by the wind, helping her, guiding her, just like he used to. There was a bond between Item and Keeper, and the bond had not ended when the Keeper did. It remained, joining Mana to the Ring, Mahad to the Ring…and to each other.
She had arrived at the edge of the water. She kicked off her sandals and waded in up to her ankles. The girl she had been would not have thought twice about diving headlong into the river, but the priestess she had become could not be so irresponsible—her unceremonious escape from the temple notwithstanding. Mahad's death, as well as what had followed, had changed her. She had vowed to work hard at her magic and become a great magician, and so she had. She had always longed and begged to go with the Pharaoh and priests on important missions and was always being left behind anyway. Now responsibility fell squarely on her young shoulders whether she liked it or not, and she had discovered it was not half as exciting as it looked. Her world had been shattered—and then painstaking rebuilt, shard by shard. She had lost her mentor, her king, her friends, the only family she had, and her innocence. She could no longer be the carefree child who had frolicked in the palace gardens. Egypt needed her, now. And, well, she needed someone too, Ra blast it! She was just a girl—what did she know about keeping a country together? She wasn't noble like the Prince—no, Pharaoh—no, former Pharaoh; she wasn't steadfast like Mahad, or understanding like Isis, or brave like Karim, or strong like Shada, or wise like Shiamun, or…
The High Priestess of Upper and Lower Egypt sat on the bank of the River Nile, trailing her gown in the muddy water and cried like the child she still was. She cried until her eyes were red and blurry and her nose was red and runny and until the wrenching knot of pain in her chest loosened itself a little.
"Feel any better?" A tall, stoic figure stood beside her on the riverbank, regarding her calmly.
Mana scrambled to her feet, dabbing hastily at her eyes with her gown. "Ah, my king! What are you doing here? I mean…"
"I heard you had left the temple again. It wasn't too great a mystery as to where you would be."
Mana looked down, like a child before a schoolmaster. "I'm sorry! I know I shouldn't have gone, but…"
The Pharaoh held up his hand. "It's all right, Mana. I understand." His voice grew quiet, and his gaze wandered from her face to across the river. "I also feel solace in solitude, sometimes."
"There were so many people," Mana ventured, after a moment. "All talking and bustling and crowding, and everything was so noisy. It was like…like my soul couldn't breathe." Her companion slowly nodded. "So I came here." She shrugged. "It helps, to be alone."
"Alone with your ghosts and your pain." His eyes had a haunted, faraway look as he stared at the slow-flowing river. Mana didn't think he was really talking to her anymore. She turned her gaze to the water as well.
After a moment of silence, she added, "There's not just pain, though."
"No?" He turned and looked at her in surprise, as though he had forgotten she even existed.
She shook her head. "No. There's memories. Sure, some of them are sad, but so many are happy, too." She smiled wistfully. "We can remember the happiness, can't we? The joy, the strength, the friendship they brought into our lives."
He was silent for a while. "But…it's gone," finally answered. "All of that's gone with them."
"But we had it for a little while," Mana argued. Tears began dripping onto her nose. "And we're better for having had it. We're stronger, wiser, happier for having known them. I know it's sad, but…" She swallowed hard. "But I wouldn't trade that for anything, would you?"
"No…" He shook his. "No, I would not."
It was quiet for a long while. They watched the river lap at their feet and the papyrus reeds rustle in the faint breeze. They were still, until all the world around and all the turmoil inside them was too.
Mana was the one to break the silence. "I don't laugh anymore." She flopped down onto the bank and scratched at the sand. "Sometimes I'll think of something funny—something hilarious—and there'll be the huge laugh welling up inside, longing to burst out. And I'll turn around to tell Mahad or Prince, and…" She sniffed. "They wouldn't be there. And then I'd remember, and the laughter would just die right inside of me." She looked up at her companion with tear-stained eyes.
Seto frowned. What was he supposed to say? His own grief still lay on his heart like a millstone; how could he possibly hope to lighten someone else's load? He had no words to say to her, no comfort to offer. Those she loved were gone and they would not return to her. What cause had she to laugh? But here she was looking at him for some kind of answer, and she was his priestess and he was her king, and more than that, she was another creature suffering , the same as he. They were two of a kind, cut by the same sword, bound by the same grief. They were survivors and they had to carry on.
Seto swallowed. "It's okay to laugh. It's okay to smile and be happy."
Mana just shook her head. "It doesn't feel okay. It feels like I'm just forgetting them, forgetting they were ever there to make me laugh, or share my smiles, or be happy with."
Seto considered this. "Mana," he said after a moment. "Do you think they would be happy seeing you miserable?"
"Do you think that as they watch over you from the Land Beyond Death, Mahad and the Pharaoh are happy knowing that you never smile, never laugh?"
"No…" Mana sighed. "But—"
"How can they rest in peace when they know that their deaths have taken from you the very things that they loved about you most?" He watched Mana's face as she absorbed his words. The girl seemed stunned at first, but gradually sighed and nodded her head. She sniffed, then wiped her nose. Seto hid his grimace of distaste.
"I guess you're right." She closed her eyes with an air of resolution. "I vow right here and now that I will live. I will not despair or let grief rot my soul away. I will hope, I will smile, and I will dance…and I will laugh again."
"Good." The smile slipped from Seto's face as he turned back to the river. His own problems couldn't be solved with a pep talk, no matter how applicable it might be. Kisara. He knew in his heart that she would want him to be happy, but without her, happiness seemed so elusive. He could almost feel her soft touch sometimes, hear her voice on the wind, see that tender look in her eyes just before she…
"Ah, Pharaoh?" Mana's voice broke into his thoughts. "Does this mean I have to go back to the temple now?"
He nodded slowly, not understanding, as reality trickled back in through the numbness of grief.
"Because, ah, I…sorta broke something and I…"
"You broke something?"
"Yeah, ah, you see, there was this vase—a sacred vase, I guess, but if you ask me, it was an ugly vase anyway—and, well…You know when I said I was kinda having a bad day?"
"Yes," Seto replied warily.
"Well, yeah, I was having a bad day, and I was upset, and it was just sort of standing there—being all ugly and obnoxious—and…and well, it smashed."
Seto raised an eyebrow. "It smashed," he repeated.
Mana giggled nervously. "Well, I did hex it."
Seto bit his lip as he stared at the High Priestess. "You hexed it." She nodded looking only slightly contrite. "Was it a strong hex?" he asked curiously.
"The strongest I could cast."
His blue eyes bored into her turquoise eyes. And then he laughed. He laughed harder than he'd laughed since the war first started, maybe harder than he'd ever laughed in his whole life. He laughed until his chest ached and tears sprang to his eyes. And there was Mana, laughing just as hard beside him, neither laughing because it was so funny, but simply because it was such a relief to let everything go and laugh.
Finally, when the last traces of laughter subsided, they sat there looking at each other. "Well, Priestess," Seto began, "It's time we headed back to our duties."
She nodded thoughtfully. "I guess so. But, um, it would be okay with me if you called me Mana. If you want."
He smiled. "My pleasure." He swallowed. "And--when we are alone, of course—perhaps you could…"
"Call you Seto?" He nodded. Mana smiled shyly. "I would like that."
Seto got to his feet and offered her his hand. He helped her to her feet. They stood in silence, watching the sun on the Nile for a moment, then turned back towards Thebes.
Sometimes, you had to remind yourself to smile once in a while. Sometimes, you had to remind yourself that it was okay to move on with life. And sometimes, you had to find happiness wherever you could.