Sesshomaru and Higashi stood before her as she remained defiant; her arms crossed, and tears streaming down her face. They had spent the last hour attempting to convince her to greet the lords and ladies upon their arrival, but she was insistent in her refusal. Higashi agreed after a bit but Sesshomaru remained with her.
“I can’t do it,” she whispered as she uncrossed her arms and wound her hands together in her lap. Sesshomaru placed one of his much larger hands over both of hers and looked at her as she glanced up at him shyly.
“You’re not being forced,” he told her softly, “it’s just preferred. I’m sure Kagome and Izayoi would be more than thrilled to see you as Kagome is preparing for her mating ceremony now with Inuyasha and I’m sure she has questions she’s embarrassed to ask Izayoi.”
“Maybe…maybe tomorrow,” she said as he nodded after thinking about it. “I just…this is so very…” she shook her head as she tried to think of the words. “I can’t today.” Sesshomaru nodded as he kissed her on the head.
“That’s fine, but I’ll need to go and greet them as well,” he informed her as she nodded in agreement. “As soon as I’m done I’ll be back up here to see you.”
“Its fine,” she said with a watery smile, “I’ll be alright here.” Sesshomaru pulled her into a hug before getting up and heading out of the room.
The five princes stood in the doorway of the palace, each in his armor and looking as serious as if an attack were occurring. They stood with the troops at attention as the carriages and such creaked and groaned upon their arrival. Higashi stood in front of them with Sesshomaru to his right as they prepared to greet the royal members of the other kingdoms. Quickly the hall contained the alphas of their pack; Lord Kita and his lady, Naoko, of the Northern Wolf tribes with their litter of seven cubs. Lord Nishi and Lady Izayoi stood with Higashi, Izayoi holding Eri as she babbled at the energy of the hall. Inuyasha and his mate-to-be, Kagome, were standing off to the side and talking with Sesshomaru as they tried to gather information about what was going on. Lord Minami and his mate, Lady Kayura, were watching the families gathered in what looked like a kingdom prepared for war.
“Higashi,” Minami said smoothly as he gained everyone within the great hall’s attention, “I’m not sure I understood the summons, there is to be a trial?” Higashi nodded as the other lords, ladies, and their children all looked at him curiously.
“Please, my friends,” Higashi said with a heavy sigh as he thought about what he was asking them, “keep in mind; you are the judges of this trial. My mate has committed a great set of crimes against our daughter with the assistance of five guardsmen. Upon my return from assisting Nishi I found Nikki in the dungeons of the castle bound, beaten, dirty, and broken.” Everyone looked at him stunned as he finished what he had to tell them.
“Where is she now, Higashi?” Izayoi asked softly as she held Eri close.
“She is confined to wherever she has chosen to hide,” Higashi answered as she nodded. “Once she learned that you were on your way, she hid among the shadows with her grief and humiliation. Sesshomaru and I tried to coax her out, but she’s terrified at this point.”
“Father, she’s close,” Seiji informed him from the doorway. Higashi looked at him surprised.
“Really? How close?” He asked him curiously.
“Within the room, you wished for me to be here,” Nikki replied as her father and the other guests looked up to see her hidden in the rafters in her training gi.
“Kitten,” Higashi said as he sighed, “this isn’t what we meant. This isn’t how I wished for you to greet our guests.” The ladies looked up at her sadly as the males looked convinced they knew how to try the prisoners.
“Our guests have a grim duty,” Nikki replied without a blink of her large green eyes. “I presumed they would not want a candid welcome, as it is not a candid task.” Izayoi stepped out of the crowd a bit, causing Nikki to cower back a little bit.
“Wait!” Izayoi said gently as she shook her head and held her hand up, shifting Eri so she could see better. “It’s alright, we’re here for you. You’ve endured so much, and none of it should have been endured to begin with. Leave the dirty work to the lords and their heirs, we’re all here to help you in any way we can.” Nikki looked at her as she remained silent and unmoving.
“How so?” Nikki asked as she moved from one rafter to another, light on her feet, as if to get a better look at the human queen below her. “There is no help that I can receive to lighten what has happened to me. As I was told, repeatedly, I earned my punishment for my crime.”
“To be punished for a crime, there must be one first,” Kayura said as she moved and stood with Izayoi. “You’ve committed no crime. We are here to give you the love and support you need to endure this and grow through it all.” Nikki looked at them calculatingly as Naoko moved forward with her oldest daughter, Chiaki. Several of the other princesses, including Inuyasha’s mate-to-be, moved forward to stand with the ladies. The males all remained silent as they watched, Sesshomaru more on pins and needles because he didn’t want Nikki to fall.
“My ladies,” Nikki whispered her voice soft but echoed through the silent hall, “I do not expect from you what my own mother could not give me. I was punished for being rebellious and independent, as I was raised. I am not a princess or lady, I am a monster, and people do not care for monsters.”
“But you’re not a monster,” Kagome said as she moved forward from within the crowd, “we are quite similar, you know.”
“Explain,” Nikki demanded as she looked at the human girl and waited.
“We are independent, powerful, and intelligent females,” Kagome replied to the surprise of her future mate, “and as such we are always suspected by those around us. They wonder what we do, how we think, why we do what we do. But then, when they need our assistance, they beg for it and it’s not in our natures to refuse them.” Nikki remained silent and motionless as Kagome watched her. “From here it looks like, at least for a little bit, you need some help.” Higashi and Sesshomaru jumped as everyone watched Nikki roll off the rafter and land deftly, as if she’d been doing something like that her entire life. Looking at the shock and awe on her brothers’ faces, it wasn’t.
“I received help from my mother when it came to my lack of a mate,” Nikki explained softly. “Because I chose not to just find any old male and mate him at her demands.” Kagome looked at her worriedly as Nikki turned her back to them and allowed her haori to drop. They all looked stunned; some of the ladies gasping at the sight of the scars across her shoulders and back where she allowed them to see. Sesshomaru stared at her just as amazed. “So, I’m not a monster, but do you think love and support can change them as well?”
“What in the hell happened here?” Naoko demanded as she turned to Higashi. Nikki pulled her haori up and tied it before facing them all.
“You are all here to be judge, jury, and executioner to my mother and five guardsmen for attempting to sell me as a slave,” Nikki answered as they all stopped and looked at her stunned, including Sesshomaru and her own family. “When I refused to cooperate with them I was imprisoned, raped, beaten, and tortured until my father came home and found me. It is you who determines if they live the rest of their lives in a dungeon or if they are fit to die.” Several looked at Higashi in surprise as Higashi nodded mutely. Since they were able to see her, no one had heard Nikki describe what had happened to her before. She turned to leave the hall. “To be honest, all you have is their words against mine.”
“And by the looks of your back, by the mourning in your voice, and the hollowness of your eyes,” Inuyasha replied as she stopped at the doorway to listen, “you’re the one telling the truth.” She turned slowly as several of the heirs nodded in agreement.
“You can’t possibly expect us to find them innocent?” Kouga asked her surprised as Nikki cocked her head to the side a little as a look of confusion and listening crossed her face. “You were left in a palace unprotected with someone who was angry beyond what you had or had not done.”
“I am never unprotected,” Nikki replied softly as he looked at her and thought, “I was trained to be as powerful as my brothers by my father personally. Same as you lot.”
“Yes, but like the rest of us, you do have vulnerable times,” Shinta said as Nikki seemed to shudder and shake at the thought. “We’re not invulnerable, not like father at least.” Nikki looked at her brother as she seemed to be obviously thinking. “Even we can be attacked at times and beaten.”
“Mother was the one to betray you,” Jiro added as Nikki turned to him surprised. “After all, like the six of us, mother knew the perfect moment to strike. She ordered the attack, she knew the weakest members of the guardsmen, and she was angry at the way she and father raised you.”
“What they’re both saying, it’s not your fault,” Sesshomaru clarified as Nikki looked at him. It was very shocking to some to see her fight her emotions, it was obvious that unlike the oldest prince of the west she was not in control of her emotions. Slowly the mask to hide her pain broke before she crumpled to the floor before them all sobbing. Three figures rushed to her side, but only one pulled her tightly into an embrace only a mother could provide.
“No more tears, little kitten,” she whispered softly as she held her close like she were her own daughter, “you will get beyond this. You will grow as you were intended to. You are still as beautiful as you were when you arrived at my castle to celebrate the birth of my own daughter.” Nikki whimpered a bit as she forced herself to calm down, attempting to reinforce the passive look to show she was as alright as she was going to be. “I pray that one day little Eri will be as strong and beautiful as you are.” Higashi moved forward, slowly to not startle his daughter, and gently released her from Izayoi’s hold before pulling her into a tighter embrace.
“No more tears,” he murmured hoarsely as she hiccupped and calmed down some. He helped Izayoi up as well before she moved to her mate’s side and accepted their daughter back. “The ladies are going to take you to get ready for dinner as the lords and I discuss a few things. No more hiding from everyone, you’re safe now.” He let her go and allowed the ladies and princesses to lead her out despite her being the one to show them where to go.
“She is worse off than I could believe,” Kita said shaking his head as Higashi led them all to the dining hall.
“She was destroyed physically and mentally,” Seiji informed them as his brothers nodded in agreement. “She hides from everyone, she jumps when you surprise her, and she will use her darts first and ask questions later if you’re not careful.”
“She’s got a long way to go,” Minami said sagely. “She’ll need time more than anything.”
“It may be best to have her away from here, to heal away from where the violence against her was committed,” Nishi suggested as he thought about it. “Have you thought of sending her to another kingdom to get through this time?”
“I have,” Higashi answered nodding in agreement, “but I worried that if I did that she’d think I was sending her away in shame. She blames herself for being weak; I’ve been blaming myself for not doing more to protect her. I should have left one of her brothers behind to keep her safe. In the end, there is one person who is truly guilty, and I don’t know how she did all of this and not feel guilty about it.”
“Has Mai appeared guilty about it?” Kita asked cautiously.
“Not the few times I’ve seen her before she was detained and put in the dungeons,” Higashi answered shaking his head.
“Then we shall find out what she was doing when the court convenes. Obviously you, the boys, and Sesshomaru will not be participating in the decisions,” Minami informed them all as they all nodded in agreement.
“We anticipated and agree fully with that,” Higashi replied as Sesshomaru also nodded in agreement. “We’ve been discussing quite a bit for a plan while we figured out what we had to do for it to end. I had many imprisoned, and really beyond who I took, every guard in this palace is guilty. But beyond the ones she specifically pointed out, I released them and they are all being punished as I see fit.” The other lords nodded in agreement, they’d be replacing a few guardsmen if this happened within their own keeps as well. “If and when you find the guardsmen guilty and destined to die, we’ll notify the top taiji-ya clan to assist in the executions. Mai can’t be touched by them, but the guardsmen can.”
“What will happen to Mai? What if she has to be executed as well?” Nishi asked him worriedly, he knew that’d be more than the boys and Higashi could handle.
“I’d let Nikki have her, I’m sure she’d pump enough poison into her to melt her on the spot,” one of the younger wolves suggested. His father shot him a dark look.
“No boy,” he replied, “she’s been traumatized enough. We don’t need her facing her mother if she’s not prepared to do so.” Higashi, Nishi, and Minami nodded in agreement as they all fell silent again.
“So, then how do we do this?” Inuyasha asked them as he looked specifically at his father and the other lords. “Do we try all the guardsmen at once? One at a time?”
“That is a good question, we can hear each of their defenses better if we do them one at a time,” Kouga said nodding as his father looked at them and thought. “But all five at once, we can be said and done rather quickly.”
“We have to determine if all five deserve death, or if some deserve it and others imprisonment,” Miroku answered as he shook his head. It was a big task asking them to determine who should live and who was to die. Some of the heirs weren’t ready to make these choices; they were still juveniles by default.
“Who do we want to make this judgment?” Minami asked as he looked at some of the males. “Some are just too young to make such decisions.”
“I agree,” Nishi said as Kita looked at his sons. “I think it should be the lords and their heirs, anyone else can watch to learn.”
“Agreed,” Kita replied as some of his sons looked to protest, “Inuyasha is more than capable of replacing Sesshomaru for his position.”
“Yes, Sesshomaru is a bit too biased at this point,” Nishi said with a chuckle. “Not that this is an overly appropriate time, but have you asked her?” Sesshomaru shook his head as Nikki’s brothers looked at them confused.
“It has been decided that Higashi and his sons will discuss it together and then with her,” Sesshomaru answered as Higashi nodded in agreement. Nishi nodded as he sat back and thought about it.
“I think she’d say yes,” Inuyasha chimed in as Nishi nodded. “I also think it might help her get through this more than we think. It’d show her that she’s got less to fear than she believes.”
“I know before all of this she would have said yes,” Higashi said as he shrugged and sighed, “but we are concerned about her self doubts now being a reason to refuse. She doesn’t believe she has the right to be cared about.” Sesshomaru remained silent as he thought about what Higashi was saying. “I plan on sitting down with her and the boys after the trials, if she agrees you can take her away before any executions take place.”
“You don’t want her here for that?” Minami asked him surprised. “What if she wants to be here?”
“My daughter has seen horrors she should never have seen, let alone in her own home,” Higashi answered with absoluteness that none of them knew he still had, “I don’t need her seeing the horrors of death as well.”
“But if she wishes to be here, if she feels it’ll help her move closer to closure?” Minami continued to ask. “You may not be able to stop her from being here.”
“That is my biggest concern, or her walking into the trial and being further traumatized despite what she thinks will help herself,” Higashi replied as he thought about it. As the males all relaxed the females all joined them. Nikki was in the center of their cluster and looking as beautiful as she did before her imprisonment and torture her mother had devised for her. Sesshomaru stared as she moved silently and sat beside him, which seemed to have become her place without anyone saying otherwise.
“You look beautiful,” he told her softly as she blushed and looked down.
“No more work talk,” Izayoi announced as she sat down with her mate and pup, “it’s time to enjoy each other’s company; we really should get together more often.”
“Well, we will in the spring for Inuyasha and Kagome’s mating ceremony,” Nishi replied as the servants started to bring food and drink in. “And isn’t the end of summer one of your daughters’, Minami?”
“Yes,” Minami answered proudly as his youngest daughter blushed a bit, “Kairi is getting mated to one of the lower lords’ sons. We couldn’t be more thrilled.”
“Both will be such exciting events,” Kayura said happily as Izayoi smiled and nodded in agreement. “Hopefully it’ll inspire others to pair off.”
“Yes, I much prefer gathering together to celebrate than to mourn,” Naoko agreed delicately. “And mating ceremonies are so much fun, so much dancing.”
“Mother is trying to hint at us,” Kouga warned his siblings as Naoko eyed him. “She wants us to get mated off, though I think it’s just to have more cubs.”
“I think its more mother wants grand-cubs,” Junpei, Naoko’s youngest cub said amused, “so she can spoil them and return them to us.”
“Well, for you it’s going to be a long time,” his brother, Yoshiki, teased. “Naturally, she’s looking to those who are older, like Kouga and Chiaki.”
“I think you lot should calm down and start eating your dinner,” Kita warned his group. Higashi watched as his own group of kittens ate silently and wanted to sigh, he remembered when they’d tease each other like that. Now the boys were treating Nikki like she was made of porcelain.
“Tomorrow, the guard will welcome any who wishes to join them while training,” Higashi announced as the males all nodded. Many of them seemed to plan on working out, Sesshomaru watching Nikki silently as he wondered if she’d go out as well.
Dinner was quiet, for the most part; none seemed to upset over it. Many were thinking of the tasks at hand, they weren’t easy on a normal basis and this was anything but normal. The servants showed everyone to their quarters for the night after they finished eating; many revealing muffled yawns from their long day of travel and revelations.
Nikki slipped from her room when she was certain everyone was in bed, if not already sleeping, and walked into her garden. The night wasn’t overly cool, but there was no warmth as winter’s chills set in. She sat down by her pond and stared into the frigid water as she slipped off into her own world of her thoughts again. Confusion and self doubt floated as if they were on the water while she tried to figure out her next move. Part of her knew what was coming, her father hadn’t had a chance to speak with her, and neither had Sesshomaru, but she knew his proposal was on its way. She didn’t know what to do; she didn’t know what to say when he asked. She was certain that was what he was coming out here to do, but now since he hadn’t she wasn’t so certain. Would he now that he knew how damaged she was? Was he doing it because he wanted or had he been convinced by his family to continue so for her sake? She shook her head as she heard someone join her.
“You shouldn’t be out here,” Kagome said coming out of the shadows of the palace, “it’s so cold.” Nikki shrugged as she turned and faced her. “Couldn’t sleep?”
“I haven’t slept in a while, actually,” Nikki answered softly as Kagome nodded while listening.
“What are you thinking about?” Kagome asked her curiously.
“Nothing,” Nikki lied. Kagome looked at her unconvinced.
“You grow a look of complete concentration when you get lost in your thoughts, like you’ve gone somewhere not here, despite physically remaining in the same place,” Kagome observed as Nikki looked at her, hiding her surprise as best she could. “Since we’ve arrived, you’ve gone off on your own a few times despite everyone around you. It’s hard not to see.”
“So you can tell when I’m thinking about things,” Nikki replied with a shrug. “Not the greatest of skills.”
“I’m more curious of what you think about,” Kagome told her honestly as Nikki grew a confused look. “Do you plan what you’re going to do moment to moment? Are you contemplating what you’re going to do tomorrow? Or are you overstressing everything that’s happened, analyzing everything that’s happened over and over again?” Nikki nodded as she thought about the questions.
“It depends on what’s being discussed at the time,” Nikki answered to Kagome’s surprise. “Just now I was trying to figure out what I should do if Sesshomaru still wished to discuss mating.”
“Do you want him to?” Kagome asked excitedly as she sat down by Nikki. The young neko hanyou shrugged as she sighed and thought.
“Before all of this, I figured after the rebellion in the West, that was what he was planning,” Nikki answered honestly. “But this changes things, I’m not sure he will, and if he does it’s probably because his parents want him to.” Kagome looked at her surprised.
“Why wouldn’t he want to? He dotes on you, took care of you, and has refused to come home just so he can be with you,” Kagome informed her as Nikki stared at the ground and listened. “I’m almost positive, you’re the one he chooses, and that’s the end of that. He hasn’t allowed anything to separate you so far, he’ll continue that in the future, you should fight for it as well.” Nikki looked at her as she thought.
“Except he fights for absolute power,” Nikki reminded her as Kagome looked at her surprised, “and a male looking for absolute power does not need nor want a female, let alone one as damaged and dishonored as I am.” Kagome watched as the other female sighed and looked down in thought. “No male wants a dishonored female for a mate, it does not bring them honor. We are raised that honor and family are so very important that nothing tops them.” Kagome sighed as she watched Nikki nod to herself, convinced of something being right, “I think I’m going to go lay down, good night Kagome.” Nikki left her in the garden watching her retreating form before Kagome followed in suit. As she entered the palace and pulled her clothes closer for warmth she noticed Sesshomaru close by.
“You heard it all, didn’t you?” Kagome asked him softly. He just looked at her and Kagome noticed the glint of something in his eyes for a split second.
“Don’t push her, Kagome,” he warned her.
“I wasn’t, I wasn’t expecting her to answer me at all,” Kagome replied as he nodded. “I figured she’d find a way out of answering, she has been all day.” She looked down as she thought about it. “You should just ask her to be your mate; she’d say yes, she didn’t say she’d refuse you. In fact, her greatest fear is that you’ll refuse her.”
“This Sesshomaru has to finish the quest chosen, she is correct on that,” Sesshomaru informed her as Kagome shook her head. “You think this is an unwise decision.”
“I think it’s a very stupid decision,” Kagome answered bluntly. “Your happiness shouldn’t be based off of a stupid quest with no end. She once told you how she felt about such a quest and it infuriated you…”
“She is not the same Nikki that was at that ball,” Sesshomaru growled warningly.
“Yes she is!” Kagome challenged, “She is lost and scared, and she doesn’t know her way back. How can she return to herself when no one will light the way in this darkness forced upon her?” Kagome turned and headed off as Sesshomaru watched her and fell into deep thought. He returned to his own room, which was right next door to Nikki’s and listened to make sure she was alright before settling himself in.