Summary: He had never before thought to measure the philosophy of the heart. Vaseshipping, Atemu/Mana
A/N: Written for round 3 of the YGO Fanfiction Contest. This is an AU AE story. How does that make any sense? It's AU in the sense that I'm disregarding canon, and using some characters entirely out of their original context. It's AE in the sense that it still takes place in Ancient Egypt, with Atemu as the Pharaoh and Mana as an apprentice-magician. It's obvious that the AE arc is so very anachronistic, and I'm trying to portray the pairing taking into account their roles in Egyptian society. I also want to warn you in advance that I use some of the more unconventional spellings of the characters' names.
Atemu rose as he always did with the sun. With its return to the skies the councilors and priests breathed a sigh of relief, but Atemu's fears about such matters were set at ease. The sun rose because he willed it, because he was the sun; the representation of Horus here on Egypt to comfort the people and lead them in just and honorable ways.
He frowned, seeing the traditional purple cloak resting on a wooden bench. He dressed, and as he fastened the cloak's clasp his fingers stilled, remembering again that Akunadin was in the afterlife, and today they would ensure that his life was celebrated and his ka nurtured. His other priests had remained by Akunadin's side until his passing, but Atemu had been where he belonged: on his throne, the kingdom and its citizens spread out before him, offering up their gifts and problems, both Atemu accepted with equal grace. There were guards and servants on either side of him, to accept the offerings and to escort the citizens to and from the palace walls, as the common people were only allowed to view the face of their ruler. Touching him, or even addressing him out of order, could mean execution.
To Atemu, he had never known any other way.
Atemu's youth had been spent learning and observing from those around him. His father had assigned him a tutor, one of his own priests, Akunadin, who was to teach him everything that would be useful to him as a ruler. He learned geography and philosophy, studied astronomy, astrology, and ciphers.
One day, he learned that Akunadin's own son, Seto, had also been receiving instruction from Akunadin, although he would teach Atemu in the mornings and Seto in the evenings. The young Atemu approached his father, full of unresolved confusion, with a rational query:
"Pharaoh, Priest Akunadin's son and I are very near in age and education, yet Priest Akunadin's time is split between myself and his son. Would it not make more sense for him to instruct us both at the same time?"
His logic was sound, and he knew of other schools inside the palace where the young guards were taught in groups. Should he not follow the example and tradition of his people?
"Son, I am surprised at you. Your responsibility as the future Pharaoh is to always remain beyond the common. You are Horus, as I am. For you to mingle with anyone below your status, even the son of a Priest, is forbidden. For you to form attachments with any commoner is forbidden. As Pharaoh, you will be confronted with the wars and demands of the public, and must do your best to uphold justice. But to actively seek out the common or associate with them on any level other than as Pharaoh to subject is forbidden. They will always be beneath you, and it is their responsibility to care for you, and your ka, after you depart to the afterlife. In the future, you will be Egypt, as I am."
Atemu was sure it was the longest speech he had ever heard his father make, and the Pharaoh looked far older for it. Atemu did not question his father then, no matter how much he wanted to, but accepted his logic as truth. Horus did not speak lies. It seemed to Atemu that Egypt would be more of a composition of its people than its ruler, but it seemed, according to the Pharaoh, that Atemu had been wrong about a great number of things.
The next day, he requested a new style of bench to be made for the room in which he received his lessons, which placed him at a higher height than his tutor, Akunadin. The Priest did not comment, nor did he address the young Atemu without Atemu himself initiating a question or comment about the material they were studying. During their first several lessons together, many years ago, Akunadin had been far more congenial towards Atemu, but that had ended the day they began studying the royal histories, detailing the lineage of Atemu and his family for centuries.
That day, the moon was but a slice of white in the night sky. By the time the moon was full, Atemu's father had departed for the afterlife, and Atemu had been made Pharaoh in his place. His lessons ended. He ordered the copy of the royal histories brought to his room and stored in a specially-made case, but not before he opened the front cover, finding a note written in Akunadin's hand.
Pharaoh, your father would be proud, as I am, of the strong and decorous ruler you have become.
Akunadin's penchant towards a severe acuity often made him too forward with his judgments. Atemu had his guards dispose of the letter, and as he returned the book to the shelf he glanced out the window, imagining the sky to be the color of ashes.
"Who is that?" Atemu asked one of his Priests, Shaada. His convoy was processing down the main street of the city, and everyone had gathered along the sides of the street to watch, although his other Priest Mahaado was currently conversing with a rather small figure in a rough brown cloak. Atemu saw them move their hands the way Mahaado did, and with a small puff of smoke, a thin glass horse stood in their hand, a near replica of the one Priest Seto was riding at that moment, Atemu noted, amused. How interesting. It was rare to find citizens with the Gift, which each of his Priests possessed. Isis could see glimpses of the future. Seto and Karim could command armies of monsters created from their ka. Mahaado and Shaada could do small works of magic. He was intrigued.
"I do not know, Pharaoh," Shaada responded. His question was answered when, a moment later, the figure removed their hood and Atemu could see that it was a young girl with disheveled brown hair. Mahaado said a few words to her and she nodded and walked away, soon lost from Atemu's vision into the crowds that had come to see him. He glanced back, and found that Mahaado, too, had vanished.
The moon had hidden and returned in full three times before Atemu spoke at length to Mahaado again.
"Mahaado," Atemu recognized. "What business do you wish to discuss with me?"
"My Pharaoh," Mahaado knelt before Atemu's throne, and behind the Priest Atemu could see the girl-magician from the day of the procession, kneeling hurriedly in Mahaado's wake.
"I wish to introduce my apprentice, Pharaoh."
Atemu's raised eyebrow invited further clarification, but Mahaado waited until the Pharaoh gave him a verbal acknowledgement to continue.
"My apprentice, Mana," he said.
So, the waif had a name. Mana. She looked much better with the dirt from the streets scrubbed from her face, although her hair was just as he remembered, although she wore an unusual headpiece over it.
Atemu frowned, his eyes still fixed on the girl, her own head tilted downward, although he noticed that she kept sneaking glances towards both Mahaado and himself, although her eyes never met his.
"How can you take on an apprentice when your duty is first and foremost to ensure my own protection?"
"I did not think you objected so to my apprentice's presence," Mahaado responded. "It was not my intention. I merely wish to cultivate her impressive abilities so that she might one day join your ranks of Priests."
Atemu frowned. When Isis and Karim had been apprentices to prior Priests, their training had been highly regulated. Even when Seto was instructed, as the future High Priest, his actions and deportment had been on display for any observation. This was not how things were done.
"I will require a test of her talents," Atemu said. Mahaado looked relieved, and Atemu noted that their preparation for this moment is likely what had kept the Priest this long, now that he took the time to think about it.
"Of course, my Pharaoh," Mahaado responded, rising, Mana copying his actions clumsily. He pushed her forward, and Mana finally raised her eyes to meet his. For that moment, Atemu was taken aback. It was almost like…was she laughing at him? He had seen enough faces, enough expressions, to know that laughter did not require sound or the movement of the lips to achieve. Mana did it through her eyes. He could hardly reprimand her for looking at him, but as he moved his own gaze to wander the room, he found that he did not wholly dislike her expression.
"Go ahead, Mana."
"Pharaoh," she began, "my specialty is working with sand, so I have brought some from the desert to show you."
Her voice did not seem to match her face at all. Nothing about this girl seemed to match. She was clearly not from a noble family, yet possessed the Gift of magic. Her hair, eyes, and skin were all variants on a similar color, just about the same sandy brown as the sand she tipped into her palm from a brown leather pouch at her waist.
A familiar poof of white smoke engulfed the entire middle of the room, and when it cleared Atemu allowed himself to feel marginally impressed by her abilities.
A giant glass urn stood to the left of Mana, easily double her height, with scalloped edges and curving, fluted handles. Upon it were hundreds of etchings, different hieroglyphs and carvings depicting maps of the city and pastoral scenes. Atemu allowed the corners of his mouth to quirk upward a bit at Mahaado's surprised expression.
"Thank you for your gift, Mana," Atemu said, motioning to several guards to come forward. Mana stepped aside and they circled the urn, and after several minutes of attempting to lift the urn, it became obvious that the glass was too smooth and heavy to be lifted easily.
"We can hardly leave it in the center of the room," Atemu muttered, although Mana must have heard him, for she brightened, engulfing the room in another puff of smoke before a shrunken version of the urn stood in her hand.
One of the guards tried to take it from her, but Atemu commanded, "Mana. Bring it to me."
The guards stepped back and Mana approached the throne, holding out the much smaller vase. Atemu stood and took it deftly, turning it once more in his hands to inspect its alterations. It was exactly the same as he remembered, although several of Mana's fingerprints had smudged the glass. As he turned it and the surface caught the light, he could see the ridges of her fingerprints light up almost like they were substitute engravings or hieroglyphs.
"Mahaado," Atemu addressed, without looking up, "make sure that Mana's education is thorough. She has a very promising future in my court."
"Thank you, Pharaoh." Mana's voice was enthusiastic, and she bowed so deeply that the top of her head almost brushed the bottom of his cloak.
The next week Atemu was rounding the corner near the armory when he collided into someone who was walking in the opposite direction. The parcels they were carrying dropped to the ground, and Atemu briefly considered exacting the proper punishment until he saw that it was Mana on the ground, rubbing her elbow with the other hand.
He bent down, picking up the scrolls and paper-bound packages and whatever else Mana had been carrying. Probably errands from Mahaado, he assumed.
"Pharaoh!" Her voice was higher than he remembered, but then again it seemed to him as though the girl seemed to shift overnight, and was never fully the same person twice. Maybe the sand she worked with seemed to transfix her very self, changing as often as the sands blew—which, in Egypt, was quite often.
"Please forgive me!" She exclaimed, picking herself up from the ground and dusting off her robes.
"I believe these belong to you," Atemu said, handing back each parcel, which Mana received carefully, tucking each safely in her arms.
"Thank you, Pharaoh!" She said. "Mahaado would be very angry with me if these were somehow damaged! Although," she paused, "he gets angry at a lot of things, so I am not sure how this would have been any different, although he seems especially short whenever Seto is around, and—oh! I was not supposed to say that!" Her face burned, and Atemu began to laugh.
"They are very similar, Mahaado and Seto, although that is a good enough reason for them to repel the other," Atemu said.
Mana's mouth split into a wide grin, which Atemu found he could not help but duplicate.
"You'd best get those supplies to your instructor," Atemu reminded her.
"Oh! Yes! I'd almost forgotten!" She bowed her head as much as she could considering the many packages she carried, but after a few paces she turned back towards him. "I will see you later!"
Atemu nodded, but Mana's expression turned thoughtful. "I will see you again, soon, won't I?"
He had no better answer to give her than:
Atemu paced the halls of his chambers, the candlelight still glowing even though it was long after when the rest of the kingdom, save his loyal guards, were likely asleep.
Nothing was making sense anymore, but Atemu did not have his father or anyone else to whom he could direct his questions; he was Pharaoh, so his answers should come easily, but he found himself as confused as when he was a boy first studying philosophy.
He had never before thought to measure the philosophy of the heart.
He knew several things. His priests and servants had often spoke about love as their primary source of motivation for their actions. For certain, he was sure that the feelings that Mana inspired in him were not that.
This was not love. Love was what his father held for his long-dead mother, when he had refused to take an additional wife after her passing to cherish her memory. Love was what Atemu felt for Egypt and its people; his love for them was his sole purpose for existing.
What he felt when Mana was in his presence was not love. Love was pure—this felt like something was crawling under his skin, causing his blood to race or his entire body to perspire—and by the second time he had figured out that it was not dehydration, like he'd feared, but something else entirely, something much worse, because Atemu could not figure out how to make it stop tormenting him.
It was not that way with other women. He could be calm around Isis. He could be calm around High Priest Seto's bride-to-be when she visited the palace the previous full moon. The sound of their footsteps did not haunt his own. Their perfume did not linger in the air for days. They did not occupy his mind when it was of utmost inconvenience to do so. He was the ruler of a country, and he could not guide his people if his thoughts were all of a girl of little standing or importance!
But, he thought to himself, his own carefully-tended logic reworking everything he knew about himself, and her. If the thoughts of the Pharaoh turn to her, then she must be of great importance.
Even his thoughts conspired against him. And he could do nothing but let the sweet anguish keep him awake at night, tormenting him with the knowledge that he knew a life before these strange sensations, and a life with these conflicting emotions, and he did not know which he preferred, if Atemu were to have any choice in the matter.
He thought of her, and his eyes flickered to a shelf where a small glass urn rested, the candlelight flickering off of the tiny engravings, an additional fingerprint smudged on top of a much smaller one.
His High Priest Seto had visited him, in a courtyard, and they were conversing quietly. While the others who spent a considerable amount of time with him might have noticed that his mind was wandering from his true tasks, only Seto was brash enough to actually confront the Pharaoh about it.
"Speak freely, Seto," Atemu invited.
"You are not yourself," Seto said.
"I used to think I knew myself," Atemu responded, dimly. "I do not think I know myself anymore."
"Then do whatever you need to do to be focused again," Seto insisted. "Egypt depends on you."
He paused, thoughtfully. "It is Mahaado's apprentice, isn't it? The girl, Mana."
Atemu froze. Hearing it aloud made it seem that much more real, that much more present.
"Just because you wish to take a commoner bride, does not mean that I am free to do the same. The whole of Egypt does not follow your example, Seto." Atemu's voice was harsher than he intended, but his words were absorbed in a way that made their differences very clear to Seto. They were roughly the same age, but he was the Pharaoh, and Seto was not. Seto had freedom in a way that Atemu would never know—unless, as Pharaoh, Atemu decided to change the rules.
"We need you, Pharaoh," Seto said. "Egypt needs you. You are Egypt!"
And Seto was very much Akunadin's son, as he proved yet again with every word of concern that dripped from his mouth.
And Atemu was…he did not seem to know. Yes, he was Horus, the Pharaoh, Atemu. But he did not know who he was anymore, and all of the uncertainties seemed to be growing in number, and he could pinpoint the source.
Ever since he met Mana.
Ever since he met Mana, Atemu had been doing a lot less sleeping. It was just past sundown and he knew he would not be closing his eyes to sleep before daybreak hit. He did not know what had compelled him to leave his room, but the guards did not spare him any questioning thoughts or glances as he walked the halls. He was the Pharaoh. If the Pharaoh wanted to wander the Palace grounds in the dead of night, it was probably for something important. Something ritualistic. Atemu would not have argued with them.
He found himself in the throne room, candles blazing. The lights were never fully extinguished in this room, to give the city the appearance that their Pharaoh was always watching over them.
The sight that greeted him was both entirely shocking and wholly angering. Atemu had never felt so much righteous fury in his life, although the more furious he felt the more he struggled to feel anything else, so that his memory of her would not be tarnished in this way.
Mana was sitting on his throne, eyes closed, her head leaning against the polished back, one arm on the armrest, the other wrapped around her stomach, her knees drawn up to her chest.
Her eyes flew open, and she immediately sprang from the throne upon seeing Atemu, tears springing at the corners of her eyes as she knelt to the ground, wincing as her head struck the tiled floor, babbling partial apologies.
Atemu approached her, fire still burning in his eyes and through his veins. He had not come here hoping to find her or expecting to punish her. The more he looked at her, kneeling before him, he found that he did not really want the latter.
When she finally answered, her voice was smaller than a grain of sand, yet Atemu could hear each word perfectly.
"I wanted to know what it was like."
"What?" He must not have understood her, or she must not have understood him, to give such a reason.
"You want to know what it is like to be the most powerful man in the world, and to bear that burden? You want to know what it is like to be tormented by an affliction I cannot name or cure?"
She instantly grew worried. "Is there anything I can do for you, Pharaoh, to make up for my sin? Please," she begged.
"Yes, there is."
If there was one thing Atemu needed to do before he died—if there was one thing he could do before the night ended and the sun rose again, he needed this particular knowledge more than anything. Atemu needed to know what her skin felt like.
Mana went completely still, her back perfectly straight and a look of pure surprise etched into every muscle on her face as Atemu reached out one determined hand towards her, his fingertips barely brushing the skin of her right arm before his hand fastened around her, the sensory overload almost painful but in such a perfect, blissful way.
Her slightly pained cry made him realize that he'd probably grabbed her more tightly than he'd wanted, but as his fingertips explored the exposed flesh of her upper arm, trailing their way up to her neck and cupping the side of her face, their eyes never leaving each other's, although while Mana looked uneasy, Atemu was wondering why he had lived this long without ever knowing these realities.
Slowly, she reached up one hand, laying it over his. Atemu shuddered.
The more he discovered, the more he found he needed to know. Her skin felt like silk, but her cheeks were warm and flushed. He could not get enough. Now, he needed a different kind of knowledge. He was overcome with the urge to kiss her, so he did.
Mana all but melted into him, firmly grasping his free hand in hers and twining their fingers as his other hand re-explored the planes of her face and shoulders, moving across her back and pulling her closer to him. He could never be close enough to her.
"…Pharaoh," Mana whispered.
"No," He replied harshly. Her eyes widened, although she was still dizzy enough with confusion and euphoria that both her tongue and her self-control had loosened.
"You will not call me that tonight. Or any night in the future, for that matter," he said resolutely.
"Then what should I call you?" Mana asked. He was doing that again, running his fingertips up and down her spine and it gave her such delicious chills; she didn't think she remembered her own name, much less whatever he wanted her to call him.
Atemu was silent for a minute longer.
"I said, you are not to call me that," he reminded her, kindly. He was doing that again—smiling at her. Mana didn't think she could ever tire of it.
He brushed his forehead against hers.
"Call me Atemu."
A/N: I hope you enjoyed! As always, I would appreciate and value your reviews!