“Don’t let them escape!”
The soldiers of Tsukishima closed in on their targets. Only yards ahead of them, a small troupe of five women fled. At the front of the female unit was a short and petite young woman with shoulder length raven hair and striking violet eyes. A long white ribbon flowed just behind her, connected to the pure white katana on her side.
She was the unit’s leader, Rukia Kuchiki – sister of her clan’s head.
“Rukia! They’re gaining on us!” shouted Tatsuki, one of the unit’s best warriors.
Rukia turned back to see the enemy gaining on them. She grit her teeth and called back, “We’re almost to the border! If we can make it that far, I doubt they’ll pursue us!”
The women of the unit nodded and sprinted faster. They raced through a clearing and Rukia began to recognize the area. Only a little further and they’d be—
The entire troop stopped as their healer, Orihime, lost her footing and fell. She lay sprawled out on the ground, her long auburn hair spewed out around her. Tatsuki was by her best friend’s side immediately and began to lift her up. Another pair of arms helped Orihime to her feet.
“No time for lying around! We need to move!” Rangiku, a woman with long blonde hair and breasts the size of watermelons, shouted as she helped pull her friend along.
Rukia skid to a halt and turned back to see a flash of steel heading for her comrades. She grasped her pure white blade from its sheath and rushed around behind her unit. Tsukishima’s soldiers rushed the women as they picked up their comrade but the soldiers suddenly became distracted when they saw the white blade fast approaching. Rukia slashed at the ones in front and they jumped back, preparing for battle.
“Go! I’ll hold them here!” she shouted, blocking a soldier’s attack and knocking him back.
“But Lady Rukia we can’t just—!” Momo, the youngest of the team, shouted and drew her blade.
Suddenly, a spray of blood littered the ground in front of Rukia as she sliced her enemy open. Her cold violets turned back to her unit and she narrowed her eyes. “Go! I’ll be along shortly.”
Momo hesitated for a moment before Rangiku gripped her shoulder and tugged her along. As the troupe of women disappeared into the forest beyond, Rukia turned her full attention to the men that surrounded her. She scanned all around her and found no possible means of escape, with nearly twenty men on all sides of her. She huffed and flicked the blood from her ivory blade, the long white ribbon attached to it fluttering about.
“Come at me if you dare! I will show you the strength of the Kuchiki Clan!”
The soldiers shouted and charged her all at once. The clashing of steel and men’s screams rang out for miles around. Nearby, hidden in the darkness of the forest, a pair of amber eyes watched the scene with bated breath.
“Open the gates!” Tsukishima’s soldiers yelled to their comrades. A loud banging was heard as the gate slowly opened wide. A wooden cage carriage strode through the gates, holding a single prisoner.
Rukia lay on her stomach with her arms tied behind her back, grunting as the carriage bumped along. Her battle kimono was torn and her injuries ached with each rumbling of the cage. Three days had passed since her capture and the transport to Tsukishima’s castle had been nearly unbearable. Immediately after her defeat, she was forced to ingest a small amount of poison to keep her docile. All her strength was gone and the soldiers had only given her water during their journey.
Struggling to stay conscious, Rukia tilted her head to see the castle growing closer. She breathed heavily and rolled onto her back. Staring up at the roof of her prison, she whispered “I hope they made it to the border.”
Since Rukia was the only one captured, it meant that either her friends had crossed the border or they had been slain in the process. In either case, her fate was all but sealed. She was not looking forward to her audience with Tsukishima.
As the wooden prison passed through the town at the base of the castle, a young man with a straw sedge hat watched intently. He pulled his hat down, hiding his hair, and disappeared into the darkness of the back alley.
The guards dragged Rukia’s tired body through the halls and into a grand chamber. It was nearly large enough for an army and even had an elegant stairway that led up to a grand throne. Sitting on this throne, a wicked smile on his face, was Lord Tsukishima. He was slowly reading from a foreign book when the door was pushed open and the guards brought him his prize.
Rukia was forced to kneel before him, not that she had the energy to resist. Tsukishima snapped his book shut and an attendant took it from him. He stood and grinned down at the fallen warrior.
“This is a surprise,” he bowed deeply, as if to mock her. “I never expected a visit from Lady Rukia Kuchiki of the esteemed Kuchiki Clan. Tell me – to what do I owe the honor?”
Rukia lifted her head and scowled at him but said nothing. This only made him grin wider and slowly descend the steps down toward her. The Lord stopped in front of Rukia and she turned away.
“Don’t tell me it was you that disrupted my business. Oh Rukia, don’t you know not to meddle in another clan’s affairs?” Tsukishima gripped her chin and forced her to look at him. “I thought that we had an alliance between our clans, an agreement that maintained the balance of power in this region.”
If she had had the strength, Rukia would have torn her face away but in her condition, all she could do was endure his words.
“Does your brother know of your investigation into my clan? Oh, of course he does. That must be why he sent you, his most trusted vassal, to my doorstep.” He released her chin and turned to the guards, “Do you have the rest of her entourage?”
A moment of silence came before one of the guards answered, “Unfortunately, they managed to cross the border before our men could apprehend them.” This news brought a slight smile to Rukia’s worn out face.
Surprisingly, Tsukishima chuckled at this news and said, “It’s of little consequence. I now have a far greater prize.” He gripped Rukia’s hair and pulled her up as he leaned down. “The adopted sister of Byakuya Kuchiki will fetch a high price, as well as gain some leverage.”
“Y-You intend to sell me? Just as you did all those women you’ve captured,” Rukia choked out, fighting the pain.
“What a brilliant suggestion Lady Rukia. Why, yes. I think that will be a fitting punishment for releasing as much of stock as you did. The price for your life will certainly cover all the missing merchandise that fled.”
Tsukishima let her go and she fell to the floor with a grunt. He snapped his fingers and an attendant brought him a small vial. As he examined it, he said “Did you know that two years ago your brother refused my request for your hand?”
“I was the one to refuse,” Rukia insisted as she labored for air, “But Byakuya certainly supported my decision.”
Tsukishima knelt down to her and said, “Is that so? Well, it was your choice, even if poorly chosen. But it’s not too late for you to reconsider.” He held out the small vial in front of her. “Surrender yourself to me and I will give you the antidote to the poison you ingested. Not only that, I’ll forgive your clan’s transgressions and forget the incident all together—”.
Spit splattered on his face and he jolted back in shock. Rukia grinned up at him, saliva dripping off her chin. “I saved my strength for three days…just for this.”
His face stoic, Tsukishima wiped away the moisture and replied, “I forgot how strong you Kuchiki’s are. I should have known better.”
He tossed the vial back to his attendant and kicked Rukia in the face. She crashed into the floor but continued to smirk at him. Tsukishima turned his back on her and marched up to his throne and took his seat. He signaled to his attendant and Rukia’s white blade was delivered to him. He marveled at the ivory blade and long ribbon that adjourned the hilt.
“What a masterpiece. Forged by none other than the great sword smith, Muramasa.” The scabbard was then handed to him and he sheathed the sword. “I think this will go wonderfully in my collection.”
A guard took the blade from him and departed with it. Rukia watched her sword disappear out the doorway until she was grabbed by several hands and forced to sit up. A knife appeared before her eyes and slowly moved back behind her head. More hands pulled her hair up and her eyes widened as she heard the knife tearing through her raven locks.
“I think a change of appearance is necessary,” Tsukishima said with a smirk, “After all, we can’t have someone recognizing you before the sale is complete.”
Rukia gritted her teeth as globs of her hair fell around her face. She grunted as her pride began to diminish and finally the shearing ceased. The men released her and Rukia lifted her head, the stray bang between her eyes amazingly untouched. She glared up at Tsukishima, who merely nodded in approval.
“I hardly recognize you. A nice, even bob cut will entice the buyers. Besides, long hair will only serve to get in the way of your new life as a slave. We’ll send some of your hair as a gift to Lord Byakuya, regrettable informing him that you were slain by a ronin while traversing through our lands.”
The Lord chuckled and waved his hand. “Take Lady Rukia to her special chamber and prepare her for tomorrow. I’ll come by later to assess her myself.”
The guards bowed before grabbing Rukia and dragging her from the chamber. Her eyes fell on the pile of hair that remained where she had and she clenched her fists behind her back. Tsukishima grinned at her before returning to his book and chuckling to himself.
The guards held Rukia’s mouth open and forced a small bamboo tube into her mouth before pouring mashed rice mixed with murky water down her throat. This is what her captors did instead of allowing her a meal. Her body needed sustenance but if they fed her too much, then her body could fight off the poison and that would be disastrous.
She coughed and sputtered as her hands were untied and instead chained to a cell wall. Several men stood over her, gawking.
“Thirty men were killed by such a fragile looking woman?” one said as he used his foot to press her face against the wall.
“Haven’t you heard? This bitch single-handedly destroyed a unit of our finest men when she freed Lord Tsukishima’s merchandise a few days ago!” Another informed everyone, licking his lips.
“It doesn’t matter anymore. The poison takes all the fight out of even the strongest woman. She’ll make quite a toy to play with, that’s for certain!” The head guard said, forcing them all away from her. He grabbed her kimono and pulled back abruptly, ripping the material off her body.
Bits of her robes hung off her arms and the bandage over her breasts were revealed. With a sick grin, the head guard gripped the bandage and pulled back to reveal her small, pert breasts. The men instantly howled with delight and began to drool. The head guard laughed haughtily as he tore off her pants next, showcasing her smooth legs.
Rukia crossed her legs to hide her sex and glared at her jailers.
Unable to contain himself, one of them absent-mindedly reached out and grabbed her breast, making her grunt.
Suddenly, the head guard smacked the offender in the face and sent him flying away. The offender looked up to see the head guard raise his sword high. “Lord Tsukishima demanded that she be untouched! You dare to defy his Lordship! This shall be your punishment!”
The offender screamed as the head guard slashed through his skull and chest, nearly splitting him in two. Blood splattered onto Rukia’s face and she jerked away, disgusted. The head guard cleaned his blade with the remnants of Rukia’s robes before the door opened and Tsukishima walked in. The guards bowed and the Lord observed the corpse before shrugging and approaching Rukia.
“I trust you are being treated well?” he said as the corpse was carried out, leaving them alone. “I do hope you new room is took your liking. It was specially designed for the most important of guests.”
Rukia lifted her head and smirked, “There’s a bit of a draft. I’ve had finer accommodations sleeping on the ground.”
Tsukishima raised an eyebrow and cupped her cheek. “I must admit that I’m pleased to see you in such high spirits. It’ll be all the more rewarding when your will to live lies shattered at my feet.”
He released her and pointed over to a small table with various tool on it.
“I plan to personally oversee your conversion tomorrow. Then again, it will take several days to completely prepare you for your new life.” Tsukishima mused as he ran his hand down her chin. “After all, you have an exceptionally strong will.”
Slowly, his hand ran down the length of her body, gliding over her breasts and settling on her legs. He gripped her legs with both hands and pried them open, getting a good look at her assets. Rukia jerked her leg free and kicked at him but he stopped it with his wrist before getting a firmer grip.
“That’s not very ladylike, now is it?” Tsukishima chuckled as he forced her leg back down. “Don’t worry I don’t plan on letting anyone have their way with you, at least not tonight. These things take time. But it seems that you having the ability to walk will be a huge problem. We’ll take care of that first thing in the morning.”
Rukia’s eyes widened and her eyes shot to the table of tools. Following her gaze, Tsukishima released her, stood up and walked up to the table. He picked up a metal mallet and showed it to her.
“All it takes is a little—”, he struck the table and the sound resounded through the room, “and your knees will be beyond repair.” He glanced back at her but Rukia hardened her features and showed no fear. Shrugging, the Lord picked up another tool and showed it to her. It was a pair of steel pliers.
“This is used to ‘declaw’ our merchandise. Can’t have you biting or scratching whoever decides to purchase you.” He said as he gripped the end of the table and ripped the edge of it away for emphasis.
Again he turned back to Rukia but she remained unfazed. Smirking, Tsukishima set the pliers down and picked up one last tool. He marched back to her spot and knelt down in front of her. He lifted the last item, a sharp poker, and extended it toward her face.
Stopping just short of her eye, the Lord grinned and said, “This happens to be my favorite. Eyesight isn’t exactly needed where you’ll be going. So searing your eyes with a hot edge will greatly reduce vision, making it impossible to escape.”
Rukia met his gaze but didn’t waver, narrowing her eyes. Tsukishima huffed in amusement and pulled back, returning the tool to the table.
Tsukishima raised an eyebrow and turned back to Rukia, her glare strong enough to burn a hole in his head. However, it only enticed him more and he quickly straddled her, pressing her face back against the wall.
“What a thing to say. You have no one to blame but yourself for all this.” He leaned in and breathed his hot breath on her neck. “If you had accepted my proposal, you could be enjoying the vast pleasures I could provide you. And then you exacerbated the situation by freeing my merchandise, accumulating a great debt that you now owe me.” He turned her face to him and smirked.
“And I intend to collect—”.
As he leaned into her lips, the top of Rukia’s head struck his nose. Tsukishima shrieked and fell back off her. He grunted and groaned as he rubbed his tender nose, a few drops of blood spilling out.
“You let your guard down. It’s your own fault for being so careless,” Rukia informed him with a smirk.
Gritting his teeth, Tsukishima stood up and smashed his fist into her face before kicking her stomach with great force. Rukia gasped for air and coughed up blood. She struggled for air as the Lord grabbed her hair and pulled her up to him.
“I suppose you’re right. I was careless, but no more!”
He reared her head back and crashed it into the wall behind her. Rukia cried out briefly before falling limp in her chains. Tsukishima slapped her face, forcing her back to consciousness before grabbing her hair again and saying, “I was going to be merciful and let you keep your tongue but now it seems it’ll be more of a nuisance than I thought.”
The Lord pulled a small dagger from his belt and gripped her face but suddenly stopped, smiling devilishly.
“On second thought, I’ll wait and do this later.” He sheathed the small blade and released her before standing up and casually walking toward the door. He opened it but just before he slammed it shut he called back, “If I got impatient and cut it out now, how would I hear your screams as I burn away your beautiful eyes!”
He laughed heartily as he slammed the heavy steel door, leaving Rukia in total darkness.
Her weakened body shivered at the cold. She hugged her legs to her chest, trying to warm her exposed flesh. The cold wasn’t as terrifying as the darkness however. Knowing this was her last night with sight, Rukia suddenly wished she could see the moon. For whatever reason, the moon had always enticed her ever since she was young. The thought of never seeing it again saddened her but it brought another relief.
If she was forced to live the life of slavery, at least she would not be able to witness what was happening to her. Then again, she didn’t plan on letting that happen. Tsukishima had been effective in restraining and defacing her but he had made a fatal miscalculation in not gagging her. Rukia ran her tongue along her teeth and steeled herself.
Death was preferable to slavery.
Extending out her tongue, she gently placed her teeth against it and prepared to sever it when a noise disrupted her. A clicking sound came from the door as it unlatched and was slowly pushed open. No light streamed in from the entrance and the darkness was too thick for Rukia to see what was happening. She heard the door slowly shut and the sound of soft footsteps approaching her.
Had Tsukishima returned? Or was it some other poor fool looking to have their way with her before her body became mangled?
In either case, Rukia decided it was best to end herself before something worse happened. She opened her mouth but a hand was pressed over it, preventing her from doing the deed. She struggled against the hand and another found its way to her head, patting softly. This action surprised Rukia, as did the low voice that accompanied it.
“You need to stay quiet. The guards will come running if you make too much noise.” The voice was rough but tender, certainly not Tsukishima or any of the guards that captured her.
“I’m going to take my hand away, stay quiet.”
Rukia nodded and felt whomever it was release her. “Who are you?” she whispered in the darkness.
“Just a sec,” the voice replied, obviously fiddling with something.
Suddenly, a spark ignited and a small candle illuminated the area just around them. Rukia finally saw who was before her. Kneeling in front of her was a young man with a straw sedge hat and a katana on his back. The sword was black as night with a strange cross guard, and had bits of red cloth wrapped around the hilt. The stranger’s kimono was completely black as well, making him blend into the darkness almost too well.
“You’re the prisoner they captured near the border. The Kuchiki Clan’s princess, am I right?” The stranger asked, hiding his face with his hat.
Rukia stiffened but replied, “How do you who I am?”
“That’s not important right now,” the stranger insisted, “Just tell me if you’re the adopted sister of Byakuya Kuchiki. And be quick about it woman.”
“It’s not ‘woman’. It’s Rukia Kuchiki.” She fired back, glaring at him. “And don’t you think it’s rude to hide behind that hat while demanding answers from someone you’ve not yet introduced yourself to?”
The stranger pulled the hat down further, hesitating. They sat in silence for a moment before he slowly reached up and untied the hat. As he pulled it off, Rukia’s eyes widened at the bright head of orange hair that came into view. He lifted his head and burning amber eyes met shimmering violet.
“I’m Ichigo Kurosaki. Is that good enough?”
Rukia nodded, not trusting her voice. He was much more handsome than she had anticipated, considering how fervently he hid his face. Ichigo frowned and said, “Got something to say?”
“Nice hair,” came out before Rukia knew what she was saying. Ichigo clenched his fists and grit his teeth.
“This is why I wanted to keep the hat on. It’s so annoying.” He grumbled to himself but quickly recovered. “But that’s not the point. You’re the prisoner who was captured at the border.”
Rukia noticed how he said it, it wasn’t a question. “And how do you know about that?” she asked, narrowing her eyes.
“Never mind that now. We’ve got something more important to discuss.” His visage hardened, and despite Rukia’s distrustfulness, she listened carefully. What choice did she have really?
“We each want something the other can get them,” Ichigo told her, “You want to escape and make your way back to your clan and I can do that for you.” She gave him a skeptical look. “I’m serious. I know how to get in and out of the castle without being seen.”
Rukia considered for a moment. “Let’s say you’re telling the truth. I don’t know anything about you. This could all be an elaborate scheme concocted by Tsukishima for his own twisted amusement.”
“Don’t you ever lump me together with that bastard!” Ichigo seethed, clenching his fists. Rukia could feel that his rage was genuine but it didn’t settle her fears.
“Either way, give me one reason I should trust you.”
“We’ve both seen the hell that lies at the core of this country’s business. And I believe we had a similar reaction.”
His words brought back the painful memories of her investigation. Rukia’s eyes glanced over at the tool table and she cringed. She had watched, unable to help the poor women that Tsukishima’s men tortured and brutalized, all in the name of business. She choked back the bile that rose up at the images that would haunt her nightmares for the remainder of her life.
“So you know what’s been happening in this country?” she asked, testing him.
“Not many people who live here don’t. They just stay quiet because it’s better than getting involved.” Ichigo said through grit teeth. He huffed and turned back to her. “They’re gonna do it to you too. They’re going to put you through that same hell, just because you had the guts to fight back.”
Rukia didn’t miss the hint of admiration in his voice as he told her that. It was the first reassuring thing he’d said since he arrived.
After a moment of silence, Rukia asked, “How would you do it? Get me out of here I mean. Also, what will you do about getting out of the castle town? The large wall surrounded the town won’t be so easily navigated.”
“True, but I have some resources. I’m not originally from this land and it’s best to have alternatives if I need to get out.” Ichigo answered, hastily. “Look, it’s only a few hours until sunrise and I think we both know what that means. I don’t have time to run through the entire plan with you right now. Not only that,”
He picked up the candle and shined it toward the table of tools. He cringed a bit and Rukia watched in carefully.
“I’m sure you understand the danger I took just to get here. So are you in or not?”
Rukia lowered her head and thought hard, one particular thought plaguing her. “Tell me, what is it that you require of me?” Her question caught him off-guard and he didn’t immediately answer, increasing her suspicion.
“You said that we were the only ones able to help one another. What do you think I can do for you that you’d take such a risk?”
Ichigo took a deep breath and answered, “I need you to guarantee save passage through the Kuchiki Clan’s lands all the way back to my homeland.”
“And that would be?”
“The land belonging to the clan of Genryusai Yamamoto.”
Suddenly, Rukia understood his request. Her clan had been on poor terms with the Yamamoto Clan for over five years. Passage was allowed between their nations, but not without a passport from either Yamamoto or Byakuya personally. Did he need a passport to get back home? Surely if he requested one it would be issued within a few months. Not only that, there was another snag in Ichigo’s story.
“Why not simply travel around to the other side of the Kuchiki Clan’s territory and cross the border there?” Rukia realized she might be giving up her chance for escape by pointing this out, but something told her there was far more to the story.
“Security along the border leading to the lands surrounding Tsukishima’s Clan is very strict. Not to mention that I’m in this land illegally.” Ichigo answered.
“That explains why you would want to sneak into my brother’s lands. It would be nearly a straight shot to Yamamoto’s territory.” Rukia speculated before eyeing him cautiously. “But that doesn’t explain why you need me. Unless there’s something you’re not telling me.”
Ichigo turned away and sighed. Rukia continued to glare at him and finally her turned back and pulled up the sleeve of his arm. Branded on it was the mark of the black butterfly, proof that the bearer had committed a grave offense against the Kuchiki Clan.
“I’m a wanted fugitive…in your brother’s lands.”
Pressing her back against the wall, Rukia narrowed her eyes at him. “After showing that mark to me, you honestly expect me to allow you to pass through my brother’s lands?” Ichigo remained silent as he replaced his sleeve.
Rukia looked him directly in the eye and asked, “What crime did you commit?”
“That’s not important,” Ichigo insisted again, “No more questions. We’re running out of time and you need to decide. Either come with me and give your word to let me pass or stay here and die. The choice is up to you.”
Rukia closed her eyes and thought hard. Dying here wasn’t appealing, but if they were caught trying to escape, she’d most likely never have the chance to die with dignity. Her punishment would be far worse than simply being mangled and sold. To stay and die or leave and risk a far worse fate. She thought of all her friends and allies that were waiting for her to return, and of the many women who continued to suffer at the hands of Tsukishima and his clan.
“Do we have an agreement?” Ichigo asked softly, eyeing her carefully.
Finally, Rukia lifted her head and said, “Yes, I agree to the terms.”