Otogi did not know what he'd come into the tavern looking for, but he knew as soon as he entered that, whatever it was, he was bound to find it. It was the sort of place that had everything a lively young man could want after a day of hard and very nearly honest work. The air was full of the rich scents of food cooking - the sort of simple, wholesome food that satisfied the soul as much as the body. There was a roaring fire at one end of the room, turning the chilly night air into a readily forgettable memory, and a fiddler was perched on a stool there playing a cheerful tune. The bar showed an impressive array of beer taps and wine bottles, sufficient to drown any thirst a man could work up. At several of the tables, guests were playing cards or dice. A trio of pretty serving girls moved deftly among the customers, flashing saucy smiles as they went, and a few more young women were clustered around the stairs to the upper rooms, watching the men hopefully. Otogi didn't know which of these entertainments he wanted most, but he saw no reason why he shouldn't sample a few of them until something struck his fancy.
He ambled up to the bar, flashing a grin at one of the serving girls as he went. She giggled and winked at him. And why shouldn't she? He was certainly a cut above the rest of the men in this building. He very nearly a prince, and his looks and wardrobe showed it. While most of the people in the tavern were wearing the simple homespun browns of a working man, he was dressed in a deep green velvet tunic over a pure white shirt and breeches, and his golden chain of office still hung around his neck. He was drawing attention, possibly not all of it welcome, but the fine blade that hung from his belt would be enough to discourage most troublemakers.
Anyway, he'd had enough of court life for one day. He caught the bartender's attention, ordered a tankard of what turned out to be very good brown beer and a slab of meat pie still steaming from the oven and dripping with juice, and went to join the men at the gaming tables. He grinned, feeling his spirts rise. Tonight was going to be a good night.
Otogi had missed being a prince by a narrow margin. It was, as most of the problems in his life were, his father's fault. There were, now, three kingdoms, known as the Kingdom of Domino, the Kingdom of Illusions, and the Kingdom of White Dragons, three roughly triangular nations fitting together like a row of jagged teeth, flanked on one side by an arc of mountains and on the other by the ocean. Once, though, there had been a fourth. It had been a small kingdom, crammed between Domino and the mountains, and it had been ruled by Otogi's family. That had lasted up until the point when Otogi's father had hatched a plan to assassinate King Sugoroku of Domino and conquer the kingdom. There had been a brief flurry, a few villages leveled, and at the end of it, it was Otogi's kingdom that had been assimilated into Domino. Of course, he had been only a small child at the time, too young to really understand what was going on. His father had come to a bad end, but Otogi had been lucky. The king had taken pity on him and allowed him to grow up in the royal court with the rest of the little pages. He had found the enemy his father had schemed so determinedly against to be a wise and kindly man, and his two grandsons had been Otogi's firmest friends growing up. Now that he was grown, they had appointed him their ambassador to the two kingdoms on either side of them. It worked well. Otogi was a born charmer, and everyone he dealt with seemed to be convinced that he would favor them when dealing with Domino because surely he must have a grudge against the people who conquered his kingdom.
He didn't. He liked being an ambassador. It paid well, and his responsibilities were limited to traveling, spending a few weeks in various royal palaces, enjoying royal hospitality, and being generally charming. He had watched Prince Yugi and Prince Atem in action, as they took on more responsibilities from their aging grandfather, and he'd decided that being a prince was not a job he particularly wanted. As far as he was concerned, the royalty of Domino had done him a tremendous favor, and he did all he could to repay them.
But not right this minute. Right now, he was off-duty. He'd spent most of the day in a conference room, trying to steer King Kaiba in the direction he wanted him to go without making it too obvious that he was trying to be persuasive. It was hard work, given what a stubborn man Kaiba was, and while Otogi enjoyed the challenge, he was ready for a change of pace. That was why he'd come to this less-than-exalted establishment, where things were simple and he could get up to a few harmless amusements without anyone looking down their noses at him. He circulated around the room, playing a few hands of a card game here, rolling a few dice there, never settling down for long.
I wonder what's gotten into me tonight, he thought, feeling irritated. He scooped his winnings into his purse. Normally he enjoyed gambling, and normally he won. He was an expert at all types of card games, but the dice were where he really shone. It was as though they were an extension of them, as easily manipulated as his own fingers. It got to the point where he generally couldn't visit the same establishment too often or people would stop wanting to play with him. Normally he found his wins to be satisfying, but tonight, victory felt hollow.
"Are you looking for someone to play cards with?" asked a soft voice behind him.
Otogi turned. Sitting alone at a table near the wall was a man of about his own age, dressed in a loose blue robe with silver trim. A staff with a glittering crystal leaned against the back of his chair. He had very pale skin, and his hair was white as well, falling in an untidy jumble down nearly to his waist. Otogi hadn't seen hair quite like that before; he imagined it must sparkle in strong sunlight, like snow or diamonds. The stranger's eyes were a rich brown, looking huge in his pale face. His hands were on a deck of cards, shuffling them deftly. Suddenly, Otogi decided that the way he was going to assuage his restlessness and boredom would have a lot to losing himself in those eyes, with running his fingers through that soft-looking hair and discovering exactly how clever those hands really were. He smiled.
"Yes," he said. "Do you know any good games?"
The man smiled back at him. "I might."
Otogi sat down across from him and called for a refill on his drink. He was interested to see that his new friend ordered a glass of white wine. Clearly this was a man of some sophistication - but then, the staff he had balanced behind him and the silver thread on his robe had already told him that.
"So, what brings a guy like you to a place like this?" Otogi asked teasingly.
"Oh, just slipping my leash for a little while," said the man, looking a bit sheepish. "I'm Ryou, by the way. Ryou Bakura. I'm a white mage."
"Call me Otogi," Otogi replied. "Everyone does. What do you mean, slipping your leash?"
Ryou began dealing the cards. "I'm traveling with my older brother. He... tends to be protective of me. But he's off doing something on his own right now, so I thought I'd come out for a drink and relax for a little while."
"How lucky for me," Otogi purred.
Ryou actually blushed and became suddenly very intent on what he was doing with his cards. Otogi almost laughed. Hadn't anyone ever flirted with his man before? Well, maybe not, if he was used to having an overprotective older brother watching over his shoulder. Otogi revised his plans for the night. A man who wasn't used to being flirted with probably wasn't used to a lot of things, and while Otogi might enjoy playing the field, he tried not to be stupid about it. He didn't go after people who already had sweethearts or spouses. If there was rivalry over someone, he didn't stir up ill-will by getting involved. Most of all, he didn't put pressure on people who were unready or unwilling - he liked his partners to be enthusiastic. He wasn't thrilled about the idea of an overprotective older brother coming after him with a cudgel, either. Then again, Ryou didn't seem displeased by the flirtation - if anything, he seemed shyly flattered by the attention. Maybe the thing to do was to take it slow and see what happened.
And maybe, he thought, that was exactly what he needed anyway. A pleasant long-term project with some challenge to it would do him good.
"So, what are we playing?" he asked.
"Do you know how to play Dodge the Sentry?" Ryou asked.
Otogi nodded. "I haven't played in years, but I think I remember how."
Ryou smiled, and suddenly there was a hint of mischief in his eyes. "It's my brother's favorite, so we play it together a lot. I've gotten very good at it."
"Really?" said Otogi. "I'm pretty good at games, too, you know."
"Then may the best man win," said Ryou.
Otogi grinned. It seemed his new friend had more spirit in him than showed at first glance. Tonight might just end up being fun after all.
They played cards. Dodge the Sentry was an old game, mostly played by children, but it was a good game for two people, and it had been long enough since Otogi had played it to have the pleasure of novelty about it. It consisted of about twenty-five percent strategy and seventy-five percent bluffing the other player, provided plenty of opportunities for teasing exchanges and careful searching of each other's faces to try to guess what the other was thinking. As promised, Ryou was an excellent player. He had the knack of keeping his face fixed in a vague smile, as if he had no idea whether the cards he held were good ones or not. Otogi found that he didn't even care who won or lost this game - he was enjoying the battle of wits for its own sake. They were both laughing as they played their final cards and began tallying up their points.
"Looks like you won," said Ryou. "I'm impressed."
"What can I say?" said Otogi, making a show of preening. "Some of us are just naturally talented."
Ryou eyed him thoughtfully. "You know, you could be right. Would you like me to tell your fortune?"
"What?" The sudden shift in topics took Otogi by surprised.
"With the cards," said Ryou, shuffling them. "It's one of my knacks. I can tell things about people by reading the cards. Sometimes even a little of the future, if I'm lucky."
"Well, give it a try, then," Otogi said. "I don't have any secrets."
"Everyone has secrets," said Ryou.
He drew a few cards and arranged them on the table. They didn't mean anything to Otogi, though he noted that there were a lot of high scoring cards. He supposed that was a good thing. Ryou looked at them with a faraway expression, like a man hearing voices that were almost too distant to make out.
"Well, that explains a bit," he said. He looked up, meeting Otogi's eyes seriously. "Did you know you have a touch of magic?"
"No, I never guessed," Otogi admitted. The thought had never even crossed his mind, but if a wizard was telling him, he was prepared to believe there might be truth in it.
Ryou nodded. "You're a Luckbringer. That's rare. It's not the kind of talent you can control... It means that when there's an outcome that's mostly up to chance, it will always come out in your favor. Your number always comes up, the dice roll sixes, the cards you draw are aces. Only if you're up against someone whose will to win is stronger than yours do you stand a chance of losing."
"Hmm," said Otogi. He'd noticed that particular propensity himself, but he'd never thought of it as being magic. As far as he'd known, it was just... luck. Then he smiled suddenly. "Does that mean I'm lucky in love, too?"
Ryou's cheeks colored again, but his eyes sparkled as he answered, "Usually."
"Good to know," said Otogi. "I was hoping for a little good luck tonight. How about you?"
"Oh, um... I don't know if I..." Ryou stammered. He looked genuinely distressed. "You wouldn't want me."
"Why not? You're smart and attractive, and you seem like good company..."
"It's just... there are things about me you don't know," said Ryou softly. "Things that, if you knew them..."
"Whatever they are, I can deal with them," said Otogi. "Luck's on my side, remember?"
"Well, maybe," said Ryou, but he didn't look convinced. He lowered his eyes, staring down at the cards. At last, he said, "You can walk me back to the inn, if you want."
"But no further?" Otogi guessed. "Well, I guess that's good enough for a first date."
Ryou looked at him inquisitively. "Was this a date?"
"That depends," said Otogi. "Can I see you again?"
Ryou thought about it for a while. At last he said, "I'll probably be in this city a few days longer. If you come back tomorrow, I'll probably be here."
"I'll be here," Otogi promised. "I'm only in town a few days, myself, but I'll keep you company until one of us leaves. Deal?"
"Deal," said Ryou, smiling.
They left the warm tavern and stepped out into the cool night air. The sky was very clear, and the moon was nearly full. Light glittered off the crystal in the tip of Ryou's staff as they walked down the quiet streets. Otogi felt mildly gratified to notice that Ryou's hair shimmered too. Was it something to do with being a white mage, he wondered idly, or was Ryou just special that way? They didn't talk much as they walked, but they stayed close to each other, and from time to time, their hands would brush, and they would glance at each other and smile. It seemed like no time at all had passed before they arrived at the inn. Otogi glanced up at the signboard, marking it for later recall. It was far from the most opulent inn in the city - not the sort of place visiting nobility would lodge - but it looked tidy and respectable, the sort of place a well-off traveler would be happy to check into.
"I guess this is our stop," he said aloud.
"It seems so," said Ryou. He looked mildly disappointed.
"Sure you don't want to invite me up?" Otogi asked, but lightly. He had enjoyed himself, and he was happy. Anything more would be just icing on the cake.
"I wish I could," said Ryou, sounding like he meant it. "It's just, well, my brother and I are sharing a room, and... it's complicated."
"It's okay. I get it," said Otogi.
"You could kiss me goodnight," Ryou suggested.
Otogi smiled. "Now, that's the best idea I've heard all night."
They kissed then, slowly and softly, under the cool stars. Then they pulled apart, looking into each other's eyes.
"That was my first," Ryou admitted. He smiled. "You've brought me some good luck tonight, too."
Otogi grinned. "There's more where that came from. Goodnight, Ryou. See you tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow," Ryou promised.
The inn was one of the better ones they had stayed in. Ryou wondered why his brother had decided to stay there, when there were cheaper places they could have chosen, and indeed, usually did when they were in this city. To call his brother a penny-pincher wasn't saying nearly enough. The man guarded his wealth with a single-minded avidity that sometimes frightened Ryou. Then again, he'd never really been able to fathom why his brother did the things he did. Sometimes he suspected there was an element of madness in there that he didn't dare try to tamper with, even with his magic.
At least there were more pleasant things to think about. Ryou settled into a chair by the window, looking out over the city and thinking about everything that had happened that evening. It had been a long time since he'd let himself open up to another person, had allowed himself the freedom to relax and have fun. There was just something liberating about Otogi, something that made anything seem possible, even escape...
He was still daydreaming when a nearly inaudible swish of a door opening announced the return of the room's other occupant. Ryou reluctantly dragged his eyes away from the window.
"Hello, Brother," he said tiredly.
The man who walked into the room could easily have passed for Bakura's twin - the same pale skin, same white hair, same brown eyes. Where Bakura was slim and quiet, though, this man was a creature of expansive movements and whipcord muscle. His face was stretched into a feral grin.
"Well, did my little brother have a nice night out on the town?" he asked. He unfastened the loose robe he wore and began removing things from its inner pockets. Bakura watched with dull fascination as the pile of things being dumped on the bed grew. It seemed a miracle that all of it had fit underneath a single robe, and that anyone could move as briskly as its owner had without making any sound. Ryou suspected there was some magic involved, though it was none of his doing.
"I suppose," said Ryou guardedly. "Did you have a good night too, then?"
"Good enough." The tone suggested that it would have had to be a lot better to satisfy him. "Of course, I had things to do tonight besides make money." He laughed once, harshly, as if that had been a joke. Of course, to him, it was a joke. If he had ever made an honest profit, even so much as a copper coin, Ryou had never seen it. His brother was a thief, a man who lived for the thrill of taking things that didn't belong to him, reveling in his ability to outsmart and outmaneuver anyone. He called himself the Thief King, and boasted that he could steal anything, anything at all. Ryou had no reason to think he was exaggerating.
"I'm glad your night was successful," said Ryou. It didn't pay to be anything but blandly polite to his brother.
"Mm," said the Thief King. He wandered around the room, eyes roving as if searching for something. "You're sure everything went smoothly tonight? You were in public sight the whole time?"
"I went to a tavern - the Fish and Fiddle - just the way you told me to," said Ryou quickly. "I had dinner, ordered a few drinks, and played cards with the other men. Everyone could see me. I didn't leave until after the eleven o'clock bell chimed."
The Thief King's eyes glittered. "Is that so?"
Suddenly, he darted forward, locking one arm around Ryou's neck. Ryou was too startled even to cry out. He held very still, breathing shallowly, waiting to see what his brother would do. The Thief King leaned very close and pressed his nose to Ryou's hair.
"I smell cologne," he said. "It's fresh, and strong. You don't wear cologne. What were you really doing tonight?"
"I..." Ryou squeaked. "I did what I said I did! There was a man - he played cards with me for an hour or two and then he walked me home."
"Mm. You must have been walking very close, for him to get his scent in your hair and clothes that way."
Ryou felt his face burning with humiliation. "He... he kissed me goodnight. But that's all! I swear, we did nothing else but play cards and talk."
For a moment, the Thief King didn't move. Then the danger suddenly passed, and he stepped away with a laugh.
"So my sweet little brother has made a conquest!" he said. "I always knew you were too pretty for your own good. Of course, you get your good looks from my side of the family." He laughed as if that were a wonderful joke.
"It didn't mean anything," Ryou lied. "I was just passing the time."
"Of course you were," said the Thief King silkily. "So, who was this fine fellow? The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker?"
"I don't know," Ryou admitted. "He was well dressed, so he might have been a merchant of some sort." Reluctantly, he added, "He said his name was Otogi."
The Thief King went still. Was he furious? Frightened? Elated? Ryou couldn't tell.
"I think I know him," said the Thief King at last. "Fair skin, dark hair, green eyes, too cocky for his own good?"
Ryou was forced to admit that was an entirely accurate assessment. His brother smiled.
"Oh, you are a clever boy," he purred. "You've done me a favor. I entirely approve."
"You aren't going to do anything to him, are you?" asked Ryou, suddenly frightened. "I swear, we just..."
His brother cut him off with a dismissive gesture. "I don't care if you and lover-boy stained the sheets of every bed in the inn. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!" He flashed his savage grin. "Do you want to know who he is? That's no mere merchant - he's Quality. He's the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Domino."
"Then you are going to do something to him," Ryou accused.
The Thief King gave him was he surely thought was a reassuring smile. "Now, why would I do that? No, let's say I just want to meet this fellow, and see if he's suitable for my little brother. Who knows? Maybe I'll decide to let you keep him."
"What are you planning?" Ryou asked.
"Oh, nothing," said the Thief King. "Nothing I wasn't planning on doing all along."
Ryou said nothing, but somehow, he was not reassured.
"I think that's enough discussion for one day," said Kaiba, shuffling the papers in front of him into a neat stack. "We'll pick this up tomorrow morning."
The assorted ambassadors and council members began gathering their own papers and pushing their chairs back. Otogi stood up with a slight groan - he'd been stuck in the same hard-backed chair for hours - and gulped down the last of the watered-down wine he'd been sipping to keep his mouth from going dry. He grimaced. It had not been the best wine to begin with, and being watered and left sitting out for hours had not improved the flavor. Ah, well. He had an appointment tonight at someplace with much better service. In the meantime...
He ambled out of the room and returned to his quarters to start writing messages. He'd done a lot of negotiating today, but it had been largely successful, and he wanted to make sure his rulers knew where they currently stood with their neighboring kingdom. In particular, there had been a lot of discussion about where Kaiba could and could not fly his war dragons without it being viewed as a sign of aggression. He'd always been the most martial-minded of the kings Otogi dealt with, and anything that would prevent a misunderstanding and help keep the peace was welcome. Once he'd finished his status report, he sent for a messenger and handed over his letter with instructions to have it delivered to a relay post at the border, where it would be forwarded to the royal palace. The messenger turned out to be one he'd used several times in the past and had always found to be quick and reliable, so he left the castle with his mind clear of worry. All that was on his mind was heading to the Fish and Fiddle to enjoy a good meal and to hope that Ryou would show up.
When was the last time I was this excited about meeting someone? he mused. A good while, he decided. Maybe it was because Ryou came off as being so clearly genuine. He wasn't playing the games of flirtation and social climbing that so many of the people in the royal courts indulged in. Then again, maybe he just liked Ryou. There was something appealing about his gentle mien, and the sudden flashes of wit and character that showed through it. They enticed him to keep trying to draw the man out of his shell to see what else would bubble up.
When he arrived at the tavern, it was already busy, and there were very few free chairs left. In the crowds and the smoke, it was hard to pick out any individual person, so after scanning the room in vain for a sign of Ryou's pale hair, Otogi managed to worm his way up to one of the bar stools where hopefully he could be seen when Ryou arrived.
For a few minutes, he contented himself with his meal and with listening to the chatting and gossip going on around him. Eventually, though, he became aware that the level of conversation had dropped, and he looked over his shoulder to see what was going on. While his back had been turned, someone new had come into the room, a man in a red cloak and hood. He had apparently taken a place at one of the card tables, and had apparently been winning consistently for some time. The pile of coins in front of him was considerable, and the way he kept running them through his fingers was not making any of the other players happy. Otogi scowled a little. He might win consistently, too, but at least he usually had the sense to cut and run before people started getting resentful. This fellow, on the other hand, was being a blatantly bad sport about it. Otogi couldn't hear the taunts from where he was sitting, but he could make out the mocking tone of his voice over the angry mutters of the crowd.
If he doesn't cut it out, there's going to be a brawl, Otogi decided. He didn't want that; it would spoil his evening. Maybe I ought to teach this joker a lesson.
He slid off his stool and sidled over to the table where the game was wrapping up. He tapped one of the players on the shoulder.
"Hey," he said. "Stand up and let me have a go at him."
The man responded with a snarled comment, but since it was mostly about the arrogant player, Otogi ignored it and slid into the vacated chair. He flashed a grin at the man in the red cloak.
"Mind if I have a turn?" he asked sweetly.
"Well, well," said the stranger. "I wondered when I'd get your attention."
He unfastened his cloak and pushed the hood back. Otogi stared. The man could have been Ryou's double, and yet, there was something very wrong about him. His eyes were too narrow, and his hair was wild, as though he hadn't remembered to brush it anytime in the last week or more. His smile had a stretched quality, showing too many teeth.
The strangest thing about him, though, was the amount of jewelry he was wearing. With the cloak removed, Otogi could see now that he was wearing a multitude of necklaces, their chains and cords tangled together in such a mess that he wondered how the man would ever get them separated again. Bracelets were piled together on his wrists, and rings were stacked on his fingers. In fact, Otogi realized, some of the necklaces had other rings and bracelets dangling from them, the ones that were too small for him to wear any other way. There was no rhyme or reason to them - he had everything from a collar of rubies that must have been worth a small fortune to what looked like a girl's charm bracelet, hung with little copper hearts and stars. Something about the eclecticism of it all made Otogi's skin crawl. This wasn't just the usual showing off of one's wealth - he saw that in court all the time. This was something else, a kind of mad avarice, as though wearing these things gave him some sort of visceral pleasure that he couldn't get enough of. If this was Ryou's brother, Otogi could understand why he'd acted a bit cowed by him.
"I'm guessing you're Mr. Bakura," he said, trying to keep his tone light."
Bakura gave him a mocking salute. "And you're Ryuuji Otogi, the man who's been making eyes at my little brother."
"No law against that," said Otogi. He felt even more uneasy now. He usually didn't tell strangers his first name, and he knew he'd taken that precaution when he'd first met Ryou. What did this man know about him?
"I've never given much thought to the law," said Bakura silkily. "But let's say I'm concerned about what my little brother is getting himself into. He's very sheltered - rather naive. He doesn't always make the soundest decisions. I'm sure you understand."
"Where is he?" Otogi asked. "Are you the reason he's not here tonight?"
"I asked him if I could meet you first," said Bakura. "He agreed."
I'll bet there was more to it than that, Otogi thought angrily. He was liking this man less by the second.
"Fine," he said. "You've met me. Now what?"
"Now we get to know each other," said Bakura. He picked up the deck of cards and shuffled it. "I'll make you a deal. Play a game with me. If you win, he's yours. I won't interfere with you. If I win..."
"You'll what? Stop me from seeing him?" asked Otogi.
"No, I wouldn't do that," said Bakura, looking scandalized. "No, I think I'll take something else as a wager. So, what should it be, I wonder? I'm sure you're carrying plenty of money. I could take your wits, but I doubt I need them. Your good looks, perhaps? Or... yes, how about your luck? I think that would make a fine addition to my collection."
Otogi stared at him.
This guy's crazy, he thought. Completely off his hinges. Somebody ought to call the Watch on him.
On the other hand, Ryou had told Otogi that his luck was more than just luck. Did that mean that wagering it would create some kind of weird magical contract? Or would this Luckbringer ability Ryou said he had protect him?
It doesn't matter. If I can get this guy off my case, it'll be worth it!
"Fine," he said. "If I win, you leave both of us alone - for good. You go off wherever you want to go and leave him here with me. You stay out of his life forever. Understand?"
Bakura laughed. "A lot to wager on the turn of a card. Very well. If you win, I will agree to your terms. What game shall we play?"
"Ryou said you liked Dodge the Sentry."
"Did he?" said Bakura, raising an eyebrow. "He's getting talkative. Very well. That is what we'll play."
He dealt the cards, and they began to play. Otogi quickly learned what Ryou had been talking about when he said that playing this game against his brother had made him skilled at it. Ryou was good. His brother was ten times better. Otogi watched in dismay as his opponent racked up points, and he was left struggling to win a card or two. Sweat ran down his back as they dealt the final hand.
What's wrong with me? I've never lost this badly before...
But Ryou had said it, hadn't he? He always won, unless someone's will was stronger than his own. Looking into Bakura's eyes now, he realized that this man's will had all the unshakable certainty of one too far divorced from reality to ever even consider losing.
"Well," said Bakura, looking over the sad spread of cards on Otogi's end of the table, "will you look at that? It seems you aren't good enough for my brother after all."
"What are you going to do now?" Otogi asked. His mouth was dry. The one time in his life when it hurt most to lose...
"I told you," said Bakura, "I'm going to take your luck."
"That's not exactly something you can take," said Otogi. "I mean, I don't just carry it around in my pocket."
Bakura laughed. "Ahh, but I am the King of Thieves. I take whatever I want to take - luck, hearts, minds, souls. Nothing is beyond my grasp."
And with that, he reached out and grabbed... something. Otogi felt it take. It was the opposite sensation of walking into a spider web, as though something thin and sticky were being tugged gently away from him. For a moment, he thought he saw a greenish shimmer in the air between them, writhing in Bakura's hands as though it wanted to escape his grasp. Then he tucked his hand up his sleeve and it was gone.
"There," he said, smiling unpleasantly. "That didn't hurt a bit, did it?"
Otogi swallowed a couple of times. He felt dizzy, as if he'd stood up too suddenly, and his heart was beating much too fast. "What happens now?"
"Now? Now I have what I wanted from you, so I'm leaving," said Bakura. "And you'll just have to muddle along without magic like everyone else."
"And what about Ryou?" Otogi persisted.
"Feel free to seek consolation from him if you like," said Bakura, getting up from his chair. "I really don't care anymore."
And then he was gone, slipping through the crowd so deftly that he seemed to vanish like magic. His jewelry didn't even clink as he went.
Otogi sat there a moment, feeling hollow and stunned. He couldn't seem to pull enough air into his lungs. People around him were talking, but their voices sounded very far away.
He set me up, he thought, a little wildly. But that's impossible, isn't it? He couldn't have. How could he?
Fresh air, that was what he needed. He needed to get out of this crowded, hot, smoky room, get a few breaths of the cool night air, and clear his head so he could think. He staggered to his feet and managed to lurch out of the tavern.
He felt a little better once he was outside. The cool air washed away some of the feverish feeling he had. He wandered around to the side of the building and ducked into the alley, where it was dark and private, and made him feel safer. He laughed bitterly. Safer? Either he was admitting that someone could really steal his luck the way they might steal his handkerchief, in which case hiding in the shadows was hardly likely to help him, or he was letting a clever showman play mind games on him, in which case he didn't need to hide. Either way, he was being ridiculous.
Then he heard a light footfall coming up the alley behind him, and he jumped.
"It's okay," said a soft voice. "It's only me."
A cool white light lit the alley, and in it he could see Ryou holding up his glowing staff. Otogi relaxed a little.
"You startled me," he said.
"Sorry," said Ryou. The light went out. "It's just... I wanted to see if you were... doing all right?" His voice rose uncertainly on the last word.
"I don't know," said Otogi. He sighed and leaned against the wall.
"You met my brother, huh?" said Ryou sympathetically.
"Met is a word," said Otogi. "We played cards. I lost."
"I'm sorry," said Ryou softly. "I wish I'd had a chance to warn you. I really didn't know he was going to do this."
"He said he took my luck," said Otogi. His voice sounded plaintive in his own ears. He was hoping that Ryou would tell him that it was all right, that this was impossible, that the other man had just been playing with him.
Ryou's face fell. "That's bad."
"He can really do that?" Otogi asked. "I mean, he can't. It's not possible."
"It's hard to explain." Ryou looked miserable.
"Well, I want an explanation!" Otogi retorted.
"I don't really know..." Ryou began.
A figure shuffled up to the mouth of the alley. Otogi twitched, but it was only a beggar, leaning on a stick, holding a battered tin cup in one hand.
"Oy," he said. "Spare a coin for an old man?"
"Do you mind?" asked Otogi. "We're kind of having a private conversation here."
"Oh, I see how it is," the man grumbled. "His nobleness is too good for the likes of me. Can't be sparing a coin or two for a poor old beggar."
Otogi sighed. "All right, all right. Here."
He fished out his purse and began tipping a couple of coins into his palm. As soon as the beggar saw the money, though, his eyes lit up. Suddenly, the bent "old man" was standing straight, and he'd jerked the end off of his stick to reveal a knife hidden inside. He made a lunge at Otogi, blade flashing in the moonlight.
Before he could react, though, Ryou had flung himself into the path of the knife. It went deep into his chest, and he gave a gasp of pain before crumpling to the ground.
"Ryou!" Otogi cried. He turned on the thief with eyes blazing. "You'll pay for that, you...!"
He seized on the stick that the thief had dropped and swung it at him. Rage gave him added strength, and the stick hit the startled man so hard that it broke. He went down in a heap with blood trickling from a wound in his scalp. Otogi threw the remains of the stick at him before turning his attention back to Ryou.
"Ryou?" he called, "are you okay?" He knew it was hopeless, though. The blade had gone straight into the center of his chest. There was no way it could have missed his heart. Not even a powerful healer could fix a wound like that. He would have been dead almost instantly...
Ryou hissed and closed his fingers around the hilt of the knife, grimacing in pain. "Ow, this really stings."
"Don't try to move," said Otogi. "I can get help."
"It's okay," said Ryou. "It's not as bad as it looks."
White light began to play around his fingers. Slowly, he drew out the knife. The blade appeared to be clean. Otogi stared. Blood should have been spurting everywhere, but no, there was only a tiny trickle on Ryou's robe where the knife had gone in.
"How did..." Otogi began, and then tried again. "Why aren't you dead?"
"It's a long story. Part of the other long story I was getting ready to tell you," said Ryou. He considered the knife before shaking his head. "Shoddy workmanship. Do you want it?"
Otogi shrugged and took it. "Better me than someone else. Of all the times for someone to try to rob me..."
"It's because your luck was stolen," said Ryou solemnly. "Things are going to go wrong at the worst moments, now."
"Great. Terrific," said Otogi. "So why are you still here? Shouldn't you have bailed on me by now instead of saving my life?"
Ryou smiled. It was a small smile, but there was warmth to it. "It isn't just luck that drew me to you." He bent to pick up his staff. "Let's walk. I don't feel safe here."
They walked. It was nothing like the pleasant stroll they'd taken the night before, but Otogi hung close to Ryou anyway. He didn't feel safe anymore either, and if Ryou was all he had for protection, he wanted him as near as possible. For a while, they didn't say anything, and Otogi was grateful to Ryou for giving him a chance to collect his wits.
"So," said Ryou after a while, "where do you want me to begin?"
"Let's start with how you can take a knife in the chest and not die," said Otogi. "I thought white mages could only cure things that aren't immediately fatal, and I'm pretty sure stab wounds to the heart are usually pretty immediate that way."
"They usually are," said Ryou, sounding a little embarrassed. "But it's different with me. I don't have a heart."
Otogi stared at him. "You know, usually when people say things like that, they're being metaphorical."
"I told you this was hard to explain," said Ryou. "Maybe it would be better if I showed you. Here."
He took Otogi's hand and pressed it flat against his own chest. Otogi could feel Ryou's body heat through the thin fabric of his robe, could feel the rise and fall of his breathing, but...
"There's no heartbeat," he said, amazed.
Ryou nodded. "That's the reason... one reason... I couldn't stay the night with you. If you were that close, you would have noticed, and I didn't want to get you this involved."
"Well, I'm involved now," said Otogi. "So, what happened? Why don't you have a heart?"
"I used to have a heart. The Thief King stole it, just like he stole your luck."
"All right, let's back up," said Otogi. "Tell me more about this Thief King."
"Like I said, he's my brother. Half-brother, really," said Ryou. "I don't even know his real name - he changes it in every town we visit. He prefers to be called the Thief King. He really is my half-brother, though - I did some scrying into the past. My father was a wizard, just like I am, and he did a lot of traveling - going to important men's homes to do his magic for them. Apparently a year before he met my mother, he had a... brief encounter with a serving woman in one of these households. It was only once, but apparently that was enough." He shrugged. "Anyway, I had no idea I had a half-brother until one morning I woke up to the Watch pounding on my door and telling me I was being arrested for theft."
"Let me guess," said Otogi. "Someone saw him pulling a heist and thought he was you?"
Ryou nodded. "I was a stranger in town, and people can be a little suspicious of mages. They dragged me into a magic-proof cell to try to force me to tell where I'd hidden the loot." He shrugged. "Maybe if I'd waited long enough, they'd have realized they had the wrong man, but I'd never been in trouble with the law before, and I was scared... and then he showed up. He broke into my cell and told me he'd rescue me and make sure the law would never bother me again. We made a bargain - he'd set me free, and in return, he claimed my heart."
Otogi shook his head. "You are really messing with my metaphors tonight."
"Sorry," said Ryou, looking sheepish. "I thought all he was asking for... a pledge of loyalty. Something like that. Instead, he took my heart and hid it somewhere. He's promised that if I ever turn on him, he'll crush it."
"Ouch," said Otogi. "So he's stolen your heart and is threatening to break it. Gotcha."
"It wasn't my idea," said Ryou apologetically. "So now I travel with him. We look a lot alike naturally, and he uses makeup and glamours to enhance the resemblance to the point where it's hard to tell us apart. Then he sends me out in public and makes sure I'm somewhere everyone can see me while he's pulling his heists. As long as no one knows there are two of us, he's always got an alibi."
"So that's what you were doing in the tavern last night?"
Ryou nodded, looking miserable. "He makes me use my magic for him, too - helping him change his appearance, transporting treasure back to his hideout, all that sort of thing." He made a face. "I'm sure he wishes I had more than just white magic for him to make use of. He has to rely on premade charms for everything else."
"Including the one he used to steal my luck?" Otogi asked.
"Probably," Ryou admitted. "If I knew what it was, I'd try to destroy it, but he's got so many. You should see his lair - there are royal treasure vaults with less in them"
"So what am I supposed to do?" asked Otogi.
"I'm not sure," said Ryou. "Maybe nothing, for now."
"I can't just do nothing," said Otogi. "You told me yourself - from now on, my luck is going to fail me at everything I do. Somebody's going to kill me before the month is out."
Ryou looked thoughtful. "The thing is... when I told him where I was last night, I didn't mention your name. He already knew it. He knows something about you he's not telling me. I don't think he's done with you yet, so I don't think he'll let anyone kill you until he's done whatever it is."
Otogi rolled his eyes. "That's a lot of help."
"I'm sorry," said Ryou. "I'll try to find out what I can and get back to you. That's the best I can offer. Maybe with the two of us working together, we can figure something out. Do you think you can hold out until tomorrow night?"
"Probably," said Otogi, after a moment of thought. After all, he was expecting to be holed up all day in a room with a collection of stuffy legal documents and the equally stuffy people who wrote them. The odds of getting into fatal danger in there seemed to him to be fairly low. "Do you want me to meet you at the tavern again?"
"Not there," said Ryou. "Too obvious. Are you staying in the royal palace? I can meet you out in the garden. It should be private enough there."
Otogi nodded. He felt a small spark of amusement - just yesterday, Ryou asking him to meet him for a private chat in the castle gardens would have given him an entirely different set of emotions. Now he was just relieved to not be alone in this.
"Tomorrow night, then," he said.
They paused for a moment, and for a fleeting moment Otogi wondered if Ryou was going to kiss him again, but he only put his arms around Otogi's shoulders and hugged him gently. The touch and the warmth of it was reassuring, even from someone without a heartbeat.
Ryou pulled away again far too soon.
"I should probably go," he said. "I don't want him to come looking for us."
Otogi nodded. "Get going. I don't want you to get into any trouble."
Ryou gave him a small, sad smile. "It's a little late for that. Goodnight... and I'm sorry. Sorry I got you into this."
Otogi forced himself to smile back. It wasn't as hard as it should have been.
"I'm not sorry," he said. "At least it hasn't been boring. And I got to meet you. That's worth something."
When Ryou left, Otogi stood there for a while, watching him go, until he'd turned a corner and vanished from sight. It wasn't until he couldn't even convince himself he was hearing the echoes of Ryou's footsteps that he finally sighed and started walking towards the castle.
It was, he thought, going to be a long and sleepless night.
In the end, it turned out to be not only a long night, but a long day as well. He spent the night tossing and turning, finally dozing off in the small hours of the morning, and as a result, he slept through breakfast. He was forced to run directly from his rooms to the conference room without stopping to eat, and with barely enough time to dress and tie his hair back. From there, things went rapidly downhill. Short on sleep as he was, he kept dozing off in the middle of the long droning speeches he was trying to look as though he was paying attention to. After the fourth or fifth time his forehead smacked the conference table, even the most forgiving members of the council were beginning to look at him with some annoyance.
"Ambassador Otogi," said King Kaiba in his frostiest tones, "if I didn't know better, I'd say you had lost interest in the proceedings. Perhaps I should send you home?"
"Sorry," Otogi mumbled. "Didn't sleep well last night."
"You were out boozing and gambling all night," mumbled someone at the other end of the table. Otogi shot a look in that direction, but whoever had been speaking was keeping their face carefully blank.
"I don't know who told you that," said Otogi, slowly and carefully, "but I'm afraid you were misinformed."
"Is that a fact?" said one of the councilors. "I had heard you've been spending all your free time down at one of those low taverns in the city."
"I admit, I went to a tavern last night, but all I did was buy a meal and play a hand of cards," said Otogi. "I was back in my room long before midnight."
"Of course," said Kaiba dryly. "And that would be why you keep falling asleep."
Otogi felt his face burn. "I didn't get much rest last night. I had things on my mind."
"You're supposed to have things on your mind now," said Kaiba. "This meeting, for example. Unless, of course, you would like to be excused? I'm sure your superiors will understand."
"No, your majesty," said Otogi. "I'm paying attention."
"Of course you are," Kaiba replied. "Now if we could get back to the subject at hand..."
Otogi subsided, feeling annoyed. What was wrong with these people today? It wasn't like there was a law against going out for a few drinks and a game of cards, and he knew he'd seen a few of the older councilmen dozing off a few times before. Of course, he knew what it was - his luck had simply run out, and no one was going to cut him any slack today. The only thing he could hope for was that he could pay close enough attention to what was going on that using his wits would be enough to get him through the day. As long as he could keep from falling asleep, and keep himself from saying the wrong thing...
But it wasn't going to be that easy. Not ten minutes later, a messenger dashed into the room. He skidded to a halt next to the king's chair and bowed low.
"Your majesty," he said, "I have a message from the court of Domino."
"Give it here," said Kaiba at once.
He snatched up the letter and read it. His expression turned stony. When he'd finished reading, he threw it down on the table in front of Otogi.
"Explain this," he snapped.
Otogi read it, with a growing sense of things sliding inexorably out of control. The words were written clearly in Crown Prince Yugi's own familiar handwriting, and yet they could not be more mystifying. They said in no uncertain terms that he was refusing to accept the terms of the most recently proposed treaty, and strongly implied that he thought Kaiba was overstepping his boundaries. Any further attempts to press the issue would be considered an act of aggression and met with strong force.
This is not right... Otogi thought. He knew Yugi, and he knew that he would go to great lengths to avoid fighting when a matter could be resolved peacefully. Atem might be quicker to put up a fight, but even he wouldn't be this rash, not when there was still plenty of room to talk the matter through. And how had the message gotten here so fast? Otogi had only sent his letter to them yesterday. It would take at least two more days for the messenger he'd sent to even reach the border post, and more days for the message to be delivered to the castle itself. There just hadn't been enough time.
He remembered Ryou saying that Bakura hadn't finished playing with him yet. Was this part of his plan? Was he trying to provoke Kaiba into declaring war? The Kingdom of White Dragons had been looking for an excuse to go to war against Domino for years, and it was largely Atem's sharp wits and Yugi's ability to accommodate and compromise that had kept the peace. It wouldn't take much to tip things into an all-out battle. Normally, it would be Otogi's job to try to smooth things over, to convince Kaiba that there had been a misunderstanding and that he should wait until things could be clarified, but with Otogi's luck backfiring at every turn, anything he did was liable to make things worse.
Then this is the Thief King's doing. All right, so how do I stop it?
"I... I need to go," he said, jerking to his feet. His chair tipped over and fell on its back, but he paid it no attention. "Please excuse me."
He hurried out of the room, hearing mutters behind him. Perhaps they thought he had gone mad, or worse yet, had betrayed them. Probably the latter, the way his life was going. Well, he'd sort it out later, if he could. Right now, the important thing was to figure out where the Thief King was and try to put a stop to him before things got any more out of control. There was still a chance that, if there was no further interference, someone would realize that the letter was a fake, and the whole thing would simmer down on its own, but not if someone kept stirring the pot.
Not that I'm going to be able to do much against him, he thought ruefully. He hadn't made much headway against the Thief King even with his luck working for him. What he could do now was up for debate, but he was the only one who had any clue what was going on, and no one was going to believe him if he told them.
Except Ryou. Maybe he'd been right. With the two of them working together, maybe something was possible. It was, anyway, his only hope. He raced to the inn where Ryou had been staying and made frantic inquiries among the staff until he finally found someone who would tell him which room Ryou was in. He thanked them hastily and rushed up the stairs. Once he was there, though, he slowed. What if Ryou was out? Worse yet, what if he was gone and the Thief King wasn't? He stood there in the hall a moment, weighing his options. At last, he decided that if the Thief King was in there, at least he might be able to distract him from doing anything else damaging. Otogi knocked on the door.
"Ryou?" he said softly. "Are you in there?"
There was a shuffling inside the room. Then Ryou said, "I'm here. Hang on."
A few seconds later, his door clicked open, and Ryou peered out worriedly.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"That isn't the wording I'd use," said Otogi, "but I'm not hurt or anything. Yet. Can I come in?"
"Oh, yes, of course," said Ryou, stepping aside to let him pass.
As he stepped into the room, Otogi took a quick look around, making sure they were alone. He was reassured to see that aside from the two of them, the place was empty. He sat down on the edge of the bed and sighed.
"What's happened?" asked Ryou, coming to sit beside him.
"I'm not sure yet, but I think we're going to war," Otogi replied. "The king just got a message from Prince Yugi that I know he would never write, but Kaiba's not the sort to let an insult pass. He's going to start mustering the troops as soon as he can get away with it, and I don't know what I can do to stop it."
"I wish I could help," said Ryou regretfully.
"Can't you?" asked Otogi. "You're a white mage? Can't you do some kind of spell and figure out where the letter really came from?"
Ryou shook his head. "You're forgetting - I'm not a free man. I would if I could, but my hands are tied." He met Otogi's eyes, looking deeply sad. "You really shouldn't have come here."
"I didn't know where else to come," said Otogi. "You're the only one besides me who has any idea what's going on around here."
"You still shouldn't have come," said Ryou. He sighed. "I'm really, really sorry, Otogi. I wish it didn't have to be this way."
"What do you..." Otogi began, but Ryou was already raising a hand to touch his face. Light glinted on his fingertips.
"Sleep now," he said softly. "I'll explain when you wake up. Sleep."
Otogi felt his eyes slipping closed. He tried to fight it, but he was already so tired. His body ached for sleep, and some treacherous part of his brain was saying yes, everything would make more sense if he just closed his eyes and rested for a little while. The last thing he heard before his world went dark was Ryou saying one more time how sorry he was.
When Otogi woke up, he knew he was not in his bed. He was pretty sure he wasn't in Ryou's bed, either, or anyone else's for that matter. He was half-sitting, propped against something rough and cold. The air smelled of damp stone. He tried to stir a little, and was relieved to find that at least he didn't seem to be tied up.
"He's coming around," said Ryou's voice. It echoed slightly.
"I see. You haven't lost your touch." That was Bakura, sounding smug. A moment later, Otogi felt the touch of a beringed hand pressed beneath his chin. "Come on, I know you're awake."
Otogi reluctantly opened his eyes. Then he blinked a few times, rubbed them, and looked again.
He was sitting in a cave. Actually, it appeared to be the intersection of a series of caves, with paths branching off in five or six directions. What made him stare, though, was that every one of them appeared to be crammed with treasure. He could see coins of all three kingdoms and others he did not know. There were heaps of jewels, both cut and uncut, and there was gold and silver in bars or unwrought lumps. Rings, necklaces, and bracelets were strung from ropes across the ceiling, and heaps of brooches, buttons, and medallions were piles on the floor. There were knives and swords and jeweled scabbards, shields and helmets and suits of armor. The walls were hung with tapestries that glittered with jewels and gold thread, and the ceiling was ablaze with gold and crystal chandeliers. There were enough gold plates and silver spoons to serve dinner to an army, and enough jeweled goblets to hold a lake of wine. Everything that could possibly be made of precious metal or jewels or semiprecious stones was piled here, in some places heaped almost to the ceiling. It filled the cavern and spilled down every corridor. Otogi couldn't imagine how long it had taken to assemble such a treasure trove. For a moment, he felt a stirring of something that was almost respect. The man was insane and probably downright evil, but he was certainly not lazy.
He was also looking at Otogi. Otogi looked back at him. This was clearly the same man he'd seen last night in the Fish and Fiddle - the tilt of the eyes and the shape of the grin were still there - but he'd changed. His skin was darker, and there was a scar under one eye. His hair was darker, too, more the gray-white of ash. His eyes weren't brown at all, but rather a washed-out violet color. Otogi remembered how Ryou had told him that the Thief King used makeup and glamours to make himself look more like Ryou, and now Otogi could see why. He would never be confused for Ryou in full daylight.
"How do you like it?" asked the Thief King, spreading his hands in a proud gesture. "My life's work."
"It's shiny," said Otogi.
Bakura laughed, too long and too loud. It echoed around the chamber. Ryou, lurking in the background, flinched.
"You're right, that's exactly what it is," said Bakura indulgently. He scooped up a handful of gems and gazed at them lovingly as he let them trickle through his fingers. "Even more than that, it's useful."
"Pays the bills, I bet," said Otogi, trying to sound casual. His mind was racing. What was he doing here? Were they holding him hostage? Somehow, he didn't think that was it - that would be too straightforward.
"You have no idea," said Bakura, amused.
"So tell me," said Otogi. Anything to keep him talking. Otogi needed time to figure out what he was going to do. "What are you planning on doing? Building yourself a solid gold mansion?"
"Oh, no," said Bakura. "I have much bigger plans." He began strolling around the room, admiring his treasure trove like a man admiring a garden or an art gallery, pausing here and there to run his fingers over a particularly fine piece. "I am going to buy an army."
"An army?" Otogi repeated. The words stirred up a thought in his mind, and he frowned, trying to get it to take shape. An army... a war...
"We have something in common, you know," said Bakura conversationally. "Did you know that? We were born in the same kingdom."
"My father's kingdom?" Otogi asked.
"Sharp, very sharp," said Bakura. "Yes. I was born in your father's kingdom. In your father's castle, in fact. We're neighbors." He laughed. "Yes, my mother was a serving woman in your father's household. She served him right up until he came up with the idea of going to war with Domino." His eyes took on a wild light. "My whole family, my friends - everyone I'd ever known - they died in your father's vain, stupid war."
Otogi felt a sinking feeling. Now he knew why Bakura had known him.
"I had nothing to do with that war," he said aloud. "It wasn't my fault. I was just a kid."
"Well, so was I," said Bakura. "A child with no one who cared about him. You got taken in by the royal family of Domino, despite your treacherous blood. I had no one. I had to take care of myself. I learned to do whatever it took to get by. I learned to steal. And see where it's gotten me!" He gestured around the room. "I've amassed wealth that kings would envy... and you're the lapdog of the princes instead of being a prince in your own right."
"Good for you," said Otogi. "I'm really impressed."
"You should be," Bakura replied, "because right now, King Kaiba is preparing for war. It was pathetically easy to waylay that messenger of yours - especially after something happened to make your luck turn against you." He grinned. "Even easier to send a new message written by my little brother, glamoured to look like the prince's handwriting. And I can keep sending false messages back and forth until there's no hope of reconciliation. I might even send you to help. By the time my brother and I are done with you, you won't be able to do anything to help matters if you tried, but you could do a lot to make things worse."
"What good is a war going to do you?" asked Otogi. "Are you planning on throwing your weight behind Kaiba and hoping he'll wipe Domino out for you?"
"Of course not. That would be foolish and pointless - and worst of all, of no benefit to me," said Bakura, grinning. "I'm going to stir up war between the three kingdoms. There's no love lost between King Pegasus and King Kaiba, and both of them have been spoiling for a chance to put their dear neighbors in their place for years now. I'm going to play one against the other until all three are exhausted. Then, I'm going to use all of this..." He gestured around at his heaps of untold wealth, "and I'm going to hire mercenary soldiers from beyond the mountains. Every soldier in three kingdoms will be exhausted and battle-torn, and my troops will be fresh and well-armed and well-provisioned. We'll crush everyone who stands in our way, and then..." He snatched a crown off one of the piles and set it on his head, tipping it at a rakish angle. "King Bakura! It has a nice ring to it. Or better yet, Emperor!"
Otogi did not think it had a nice ring to it at all. He could all too easily imagine what an empire ruled by Bakura would be like. The crazy thing was, he could also imagine it working. The plan had a demented sort of sense to it.
"So, what do you want from me?" he asked. "Planning on killing me now, or sending me back to be your personal bad-luck charm?"
"Maybe," said Bakura lazily. "But I have other plans for you first. You see, as an ambassador between the three kingdoms, you have inside information that almost no one else has. You grew up with the princes of Domino - you were practically raised by King Sugoroku. You know all about the court of King Pegasus, and of King Kaiba and Prince Mokuba. You know their weaknesses, their little quirks, even the layout of their palaces. So I'm going to have Ryou lay a truth spell on you, and then you're going to tell me everything you know about all of them. And then, yes, maybe I'll kill you. Or send you back. If you're cooperative enough, maybe I'll even let Ryou keep you as a pet. He seems to like you, though I can't fathom why."
Otogi cast a glance at Ryou, who was looking miserable. It made Otogi's blood boil.
There has to be some way to get us both out of this. Even if I can't get myself out of it, I can't let him use Ryou this way.
Impulsively, he said, "Let's make this interesting, Thief King. Play a game with me."
Bakura leered at him. "You seem to have forgotten that you can't win games anymore."
"Indulge me," said Otogi. "Sounds to me like I won't be getting a lot of chances to play games in the future, so let's say I want one more gamble for old time's sake."
"And if you win, what?" Bakura asked. "You want your freedom?"
Otogi shook his head. "I want you to give Ryou back his heart."
"How noble," said Bakura. "And if I win?"
Otogi swallowed hard. "Name it."
Bakura laughed. "Very well. Just for fun, then, let's put your own heart on the line. That seems fair, don't you agree?"
"Otogi, don't do it," Ryou pleaded.
Otogi forced a smile. "It's not like it would make the situation worse, right? At least if I lose it will be the both of us in this together."
"How touching," said Bakura. "Very well, then - I will make this simple." He picked up a jewel-encrusted hourglass and flipped it over. "Ryou's heart is hidden somewhere in these caves. You have until this sand runs out to find it. If you can find it, it's yours to do what you like with. If you can't..."
"Starting now?" asked Otogi, pulling himself to his feet. He felt wobbly. Whatever spell Ryou had used to knock him out, it had been very effective.
"Starting when I turned the glass over," said Bakura, smiling unpleasantly. "You're wasting time."
Otogi nodded and started forwards, weaving his way through the heaps of treasure. The further he went, the more he realized the extent of these caverns and their contents.
It goes on for miles, he thought. How am I supposed to find anything in all of this? I'm not even sure I'd know what his heart would look like if I found it...
He scowled. He had been so sure he'd be able to outsmart Bakura somehow, but he hadn't been expecting him to pull something like this. He looked to Ryou for guidance, but he only shrugged. Judging by his expression, he'd had no idea that his heart was so close at hand to begin with.
All right, think. Use your brain, for once, instead of relying on luck to see you through, he told himself. If I were Bakura, where would I hide something I don't want someone to find?
Well, obviously, he'd put it somewhere no one was likely to find it. No, not just unlikely to find it, but couldn't find it. Unlikely meant there was still a chance, and he wouldn't want to let a prize like this slip through his fingers. This had to be some kind of setup. It was possible, then, that Bakura was lying, and the heart wasn't here at all. Otogi considered that possibility and rejected it. For someone like Bakura, simply lying wouldn't be as satisfying as tricking someone. He was probably looking forward to the moment when Otogi admitted defeat, and he could show off what a clever deception he'd pulled. All right - so assume that the heart was hidden somewhere clever, somewhere he wouldn't think to look. That would mean that it was not among the piles of treasure. But where else was there?
Frustrated, Otogi swung his fist at the wall, and immediately regretted it, as pain lanced through his hand and wrist. He rubbed at them, cursing.
As he did so, an image flickered through his mind, a memory of the first time he'd seen Bakura. He'd been wearing enough bracelets and necklaces to sink a small boat. Was he also carrying Ryou's heart? He was in the caverns, and he probably wouldn't expect Otogi to search him. In Otogi's mind, he could see one of the bracelets in particular, the copper charm bracelet. In this room of gold and silver and jewels, he hadn't seen the barest scrap of copper. Such base metals were, apparently, beneath the Thief King's notice. And hadn't Ryou said himself that most of his brother's magic was bound up in charms? Otogi thought back, remembering that moment his luck had been stolen. He'd seen a flicker of something in Bakura's hand, something he'd slipped up his sleeve.
Otogi remembered that charm bracelet. He'd noticed it almost before he'd noticed anything else about Bakura, and had thought there was something strange about seeing a grown man wearing it - and he'd noticed it before his luck had run out.
Well, Ryou had said his luck couldn't hold out against someone sufficiently determined to win. If wanting to keep what remained of his freedom, to save Ryou, and to stop a war didn't give him sufficient incentive, nothing would.
He made a show of rummaging through the heaps of treasure while he considered his idea. Was he right? Or was this just more of his luck turning sour, giving him wild ideas with no basis for reality? He didn't have long to worry about it. That sand timer only had about ten minutes on it, if he was any judge of these things. He would have to give his answer soon. At least he could take a little insurance with him. While he was rummaging around, he picked up a jeweled knife and slipped it in his boot. Then he started back towards the chamber where Bakura was waiting.
"I hope you know what you're doing," Ryou murmured as he passed.
"Me too," said Ryou.
"I can hear you whispering to each other back there," Bakura called to them. "Asking Ryou won't help, you know. He has no idea either."
"Do I get three guesses?" asked Otogi.
Bakura laughed. "Feeling insecure? Fine, make your three guesses, then."
"All right," said Otogi. He pretended to think. "Is it... buried under the floor?"
"Not even close!" Bakura crowed. "Second guess?"
"You hid it up in one of the lamps," Otogi said.
"Wrong!" said Bakura. "You really have no idea, do you? Fine, waste your last guess and let's get this over with."
"Hmm," said Otogi. He gazed off into space and stroked his chin. "Well, if it's not in the ceiling, and it's not in the floor, then I guess..."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ryou moving slowly but purposely towards one of the heaps of treasure. He wondered what he was doing. To keep Bakura distracted, he plunged back into his guessing game.
"My guess," Otogi said loudly, "is that Ryou's heart is on the copper charm bracelet you wear on your right wrist."
For a split second, the smile froze on Bakura's lips. The color drained from his face. Then his expression contorted into one of pure fury.
"No!" he shouted. "There is no way you could have known! How could you have guessed?"
"Because I'm not stupid," said Otogi. He felt himself grinning like a maniac, elated by the fact that he'd been right. "I'll bet you're kicking yourself now for saying you didn't want to steal my wits, huh?"
Bakura snarled. Like a pouncing animal, he flung himself at Otogi, drawing a long knife from his belt. Otogi ducked and snatched the knife out of his boot, just barely raising it in time to block the attack.
"Not happening," he said. "We had a deal. Give it back."
"I'll kill you first!" Bakura snarled.
He shoved Otogi away and then slashed at him again. Otogi tried to back out of the way and slipped on the scree of coins that were strewn over the floor. He fell backwards, and his knife tumbled out of his hands. He scrambled for it, but it was too late - Bakura was already on him, pinning him down with his knees, leaning over him with his long knife against Otogi's throat.
"Fool," Bakura growled. "You should have asked for your own life when you had the chance."
"We had a deal," said Otogi.
Bakura gave him a nasty grin. "You said I would have to give Ryou his heart back, and I will. I never said I would let you be alive to see it..."
He began to lean on the knife. Otogi felt its razor edge bite into his skin, and he thought, Oh, well, so much for luck...
There was a bloodcurdling screech. Otogi and Bakura both turned to see Ryou rushing towards them, holding a sword clutched in both hands. He swung it, and Bakura reflexively raised his arm to shield himself, and Otogi felt a surge of relief as the knife was lifted from his throat. Ryou's sword came down, but he was not aiming at Bakura's neck or chest as the Thief King seemed to expect. Instead, he brought the edge of the blade down on Bakura's unprotected wrist. Bakura gave a howl of pain, and there was a clatter as several of his bracelets fell to the floor with their chains severed.
In that moment of distraction, Otogi gave a surge and managed to shove Bakura off of him, slamming him into the wall. He snatched up his knife and held it at ready. Bakrua's eyes darted back and forth, looking first at Otogi's knife and then at Ryou's sword.
"You wouldn't do it," he said, staring fixedly at Ryou. "Not to your own brother. You haven't got the guts."
Ryou stared at him for several long seconds, his expression stony.
"I wish I could put this sword through your evil black heart," he said. Then he sighed. "But you're right, I can't do it."
Bakura relaxed and began to smile. "I knew it..."
"But I can do this," said Ryou. "Sleep."
"What? Wait!" Bakura protested, but Ryou was already bringing the tip of the sword down to tap his forehead. The moment it touched his skin, his eyes took on an odd fixed expression, and then slid shut. He slumped over and landed in a heap of loose gemstones. Ryou dropped his sword, letting it clatter to the floor.
"I can't believe we did that," he said shakily.
"You were amazing!" said Otogi. "I thought I was a goner there for a minute."
Ryou smiled sheepishly. "I didn't even think. It was just... finding out so suddenly that my heart was right there in reaching distance the whole time and it never clicked, and then you were in danger, and I just rushed in..."
"Good thing you did, too," said Otogi. "Otherwise I'd be up the creek."
"Well, you were pretty amazing, too," said Ryou, smiling. "I was so used to seeing him wearing that bracelet all the time I never even thought about it. Speaking of which..."
He walked over to where the bracelets he'd cut loose had fallen, and he picked up the copper charm bracelet. Eagerly, he wrenched the heart-shaped charm from its loop, and then, without hesitation, put it in his mouth and swallowed it. He gave a gasp and pressed a hand to his chest, and for an instant, Otogi thought he must have guessed wrong after all. Then Ryou began breathing more easily, and a healthier color came into his pale face.
So, that was how it worked. Otogi reached for the bracelet, and Ryou handed it over for him to inspect. He quickly located a charm in the shape of a four-leaf clover that looked newer and shinier than the others. He quickly twisted it free and popped it in his mouth. To his surprise, it didn't taste like metal. It dissolved in his mouth like sugar, leaving behind the green scents of mint and juniper. Suddenly he felt revitalized, as an energy he'd only been dimly aware of missing came flowing back into him.
"Feeling better?" Ryou asked.
"Like a whole new person," Otogi said, flashing a grin.
"Not too new, I hope," said Ryou. "I mean..." He trailed off and looked at Otogi hopefully.
Otogi smiled at him. "It's okay. I haven't changed my mind about you. I mean, you saved my life back there. That balances out everything you had to do to me because of this guy." He prodded Bakura's unmoving form. "And then some."
"So... what are we going to do now?" Ryou asked.
"Well, for starters..." said Otogi. He looked down at the motionless thief. "How about helping me tie this guy up?"
It turned out to be a very busy afternoon.
When Otogi had run out of the conference room several hours ago, he'd created quite a stir. That was nothing, however, to the stir he caused when he and Ryou walked back into it, hauling the still-unconscious body of the Thief King, which they dumped unceremoniously onto the table. The look on Kaiba's face, Otogi thought, was absolutely priceless, and worth a fair amount of the trouble he'd been through in the last day or so. Still, the delivery provided sufficient distraction that Kaiba was willing to stop planning his war to listen to what Otogi and Ryou had to say. By the time Bakura had awakened and realized what he'd gotten into, everyone had been fairly effectively won over. His angry rants just put the seal on his fate. Kaiba was not entirely pleased to have his plans rerouted, but the descriptions of what Bakura's treasure cave looked like soothed his mind considerably. After some argument, Otogi had managed to convince him that the spoils should be split evenly between the three kingdoms, since there was no way to tell, now, where he'd gotten it all from. That discussion, and the ones that followed, took up most of the day, and it was well after nightfall by the time Otogi and Ryou were allowed to leave the conference room.
"That was exhausting," said Ryou, as the two of them strolled down the city streets. "And you do that every day?"
"My job in a nutshell," said Otogi cheerfully.
"You have nerves of steel," said Ryou. "So, what do you think is going to happen to him?"
"No idea," Otogi replied. "Nothing good, that's for sure. You're not sorry you turned him in, are you?"
"Definitely not," said Ryou firmly. "Whatever happens now, he brought it on himself. I'm just glad to finally be free."
"So what do you plan to do now?" Otogi asked.
"I'm not sure yet," Ryou admitted. "Probably go back to what I was doing - traveling, finding work where I can. Maybe see if I can find a noble house willing to take me on permanently." He smiled a little. "I imagine I have a bit of clout after this."
"You know," said Otogi, "if you're looking for someone to hire you for a long-term job, I can think of a guy who might be interested. Someone who travels a lot and could use a guy like you to watch his back..."
"You wouldn't have to hire me," said Ryou. "If you really want me to come with you, I mean. I'd follow you."
"Of course I want you to follow me," said Otogi. "You're really something special, you know that? After what we've been through together, I'm not just going to forget about you. I don't want to walk away from you until I've found out if we can make something work between us."
"I don't want to walk away either," Ryou said. "How much longer are you staying in town?"
"A few more days," said Otogi. "Maybe a little longer than I planned, depending on how long it takes to get this mess sorted out. After that, it's home to Domino."
Ryou smiled. "Good. I've never had the chance to see the royal palace of Domino. I hear it's something."
"I'll make sure you get the best room in the house," Otogi promised. "You know, I could probably get you a room in the palace right now, if you'd rather stay there than at the inn..."
"The inn is fine," said Ryou. He smiled suddenly. "Seeing as how we're nearly there already."
Otogi glanced up and saw that they were in fact only a block away from the inn where Ryou had been staying. He smiled.
"You could invite me to stay here," he suggested.
Ryou flushed a little, but said boldly, "I could do that... Do you want to stay?"
"I think I do," said Otogi.
A few minutes later, they were in Ryou's room, sitting on the edge of his bed. The last time Otogi had been there, he had been on edge, and the room had felt claustrophobic and woefully unprotected. Now it felt cozy, appealingly private. Strange, the difference a few hours could make.
"You know, I've never done this before," Ryou admitted.
"It's okay," said Otogi. "There's no rush. I mean, if you don't feel ready..."
"It's fine," said Ryou, and he smiled. "After today, I feel like I can do anything."
Otogi grinned. "Well, then..."
And then he kissed Ryou softly and teasingly on the lips, and pressed his hand to his chest to feel his heart race.