Yes, believe it. The second chapter to 'The Emperor's Last Consort' is here. =) I actually did not mean to update this fic, or do any updates this week but it was remarkable, the response to this story. I do not know if the last bunch of reviews for this fic came from the same person using multiple usernames or if it was really a bunch of reviewers but thank you so much!
I was really very surprised when the reviews came in a whole bunch this week, and then this fic abruptly jumped to the top of the polls, tying with my new IchiRuki fic. So I decided to update TELC this time, and an answer to Impatient's funny littie review: "It's definitely harder to finish something than to start it. XD Why else would authors have all these brilliant but hanging stories everywhere? XD XD I hope you like the new chapter. :)"
And also thank you to all those who reviewed TELC's first chapter in the past, it was overwhelming but I got caught up in other stories as of late. But then the funny little things about this fic happened with the sudden reviews, the poll jump, the PMs, the Livejournal msgs XD. Sudden things like these motivate me (yes, I'm strange) and I always believed readers would be really excited about a story to review and do all those wonderful stuff. So yes, I feel your excitement. =)
Also, if you haven't noticed, I have a new ByaRuki story out on my profile, titled "I Think I'm Married". It's set in Bleachverse, in the current Bleach manga timeline. Do have a look if you haven't. =)
Back to this chapter, it is one of my longer pieces to write, I took 2 days off studying to write this so it's all your fault that the books were neglected in the process. XD I'm also in a very busy phase as of now so I'm really happy that I could come out with this update, and I hope you all will like it. :)
DISCLAIMER: I don't own Bleach series. But I do own this PLOT.
Rukia grinned as she leapt over the wall, landing on all fours with ease. She slowly rose from the ground and looked around warily at the lighted compound of the huge estate.
Piece of cake.
Today, Rukia had decided that she was going to steal some high-quality cloth to sell and get a small supply of money for a month. The shopkeepers in town had taken extra caution the last few days to ward off thieves such as herself, and Rukia found herself going without food for three days.
So she had decided to target the prestigious textile shop in town, a shop many petty robbers had feared to even intrude upon. It was the textile shop of Madam Shiba Kukaku, who was the boldest and most infamous woman in the district. Rukia had never come face-to-face with the proprietress before, but she had heard infamous tales about the woman. Madam Kukaku was known to use live dogs as foot cushions and whipped disobedient servants on a daily basis. That, and she was also rumoured to have a bosom resembling double watermelons.
Rukia wasn't too sure of how true the tales were, but she was here for the textile and not all too eager to stay and see the owner for herself. The petite girl hurriedly ducked down one of the many walkways to the main stores. She had taken time to familiarize herself with the geography of Madam Kukaku's huge estate, and knew that there were three main storerooms where they housed the textile. Locating the correct side door, Rukia opened the door silently and slipped into the room.
This was it.
Rukia stared around the storeroom in awe, where countless rolls of expensive textile lined every bit of wall. There was a bounty of silk, brocade and every type of cloth available in the whole district. Rukia walked over to the rolls of cloth and hurriedly took three small rolls of silk and tucked them under her arm. She wasn't going for an extreme robbery, these three precious rolls would keep her stomach full for a month.
Rukia allowed a small smile of victory to curve her lips. 'And they say no one ever managed to steal from Madam-'
Rukia's eyes widened as she heard the gruff voices of two men, and hurriedly turned around. They were huge and gruff, standing at the entrance with their muscled arms folded. Both men wore a red hat with a white tassel on top and a blue scarf tied at the front by a red fastener.
Rukia narrowed her eyes. They must be Madam Kukaku's guards.
"We are Koganehiko and Shiroganehiko! What's your name? Be prepared to die, THIEF!" The two men bellowed again, before starting to advance forward.
Without answering, Rukia ducked to the right of the storeroom, where there were more pillars. The men followed her and Rukia immediately started throwing the rolls of textile at their feet, trying to make them lose their balance. Whatever their reaction, Rukia definitely did not expect what happened in the following second.
"N-NO! What are you doing… STUPID?" The men bellowed in frightful desperation. "Those are the Madam's most precious collection!" Forgetting about her, they scrambled to retrieve the textile. Rukia only stared at them in disbelief.
Are they really... guards?
"Serve you both right!" Rukia chuckled and decided to press her advantage, tossing more rolls of textile at them. While both men were bent trying to catch all the unraveling cloth, Rukia lifted a heavy roll of brocade and promptly sent it swinging to the backs of their head, and watched as both men slumped to the floor unconscious.
Rukia grinned. "Ha! Stupid guards! How does it feel to be overpowered by a small woman?" She grabbed her three precious rolls of silk and walked toward the door.
The next moment happened so fast that Rukia could only stumble back as something hit her right at the front of her head, hard.
"And how does it feel to be overpowered by a VERY big woman?"
Rukia looked up and felt her heart sink right down to the floor. She stared at the long, bare leg leaning against the door frame, which was probably what had struck her just now. That long, bare leg belonged to a woman with bandages wrapped over her head, right shoulder and ankles. Her red-and-white robe bared too much skin, particularly in the busty chest region. Rukia stared at the tattoo on the woman's left arm, and at the right arm where a prosthetic limb was fitted.
"You are one brave girl, to actually attempt to rob my house." Kukaku blew a white wisp of smoke from her smoking pipe.
Rukia looked away, not saying anything. She was kneeling on the floor of the Shiba textile house, bound with tight ropes. Madam Kukaku's two guards, now conscious, stood behind Rukia on either side.
"Cat got your tongue, lass?"
Still, Rukia refused to say anything. Frightening tales of Madam Kukaku's infamous reputation of torture now swirled in her mind, despite her brave façade.
"Tell you what, lass? I usually hand over thieves to the local police, and under my secret orders, they chop their hands off in the dungeons." At this, Rukia's eyes widened horrifically. "Either that, or I sell them to nearby brothels for a good sum of money." Kukaku grinned at the terrified girl on the floor. "I've done some thinking myseld so it turns out you are in luck. Because I'm going to choose to sell you to a very high-profile customer."
At these words, Koganehiko and Shiroganehiko gasped. "Madam Kukaku, W-WHAT? You are going to invest in h-her? But she's nothing more than a thief-"
Kukkaku put up a hand in the air to stop the protests of her two workers, her expression thoughtful. "Thieves are probably one of the smartest people, to sneak past one's property and rob from said person. They also require stealth, and a lot of courage. This one here is pretty decent."
All the while, Rukia was listening to the conversation with bewilderment? High-profile customer? Did that mean she was going to be sold to a brothel? No no, she would rather be subjected to hot rods on her skin, or beatings of the whip…
Kukaku continued. "She does have some foundation to work with. Look at her eyes." Kukkaku stepped nearer to Rukia, who shrank back. Reaching out, she pressed Rukia's lower eyelid downward as she peered closely at the girl's right eye. "A very nice violet colour. And the hair isn't too bad either…" The bold proprietress ran a hand through Rukia's shoulder-length locks. "Though it stinks." Rukia blushed angrily at the insult.
Kukaku smiled and took a step back. "With the right make-up and clothes which our shop certainly has, she might be able to win the Emperor over."
Emperor? EMPEROR? Rukia was sure the horror of everything that was happening had made her misinterpret what she had just heard. How had she gone to robbing a shop to this?
"I don't think you have quite caught up to it yet." Kukaku smiled at the confused Rukia. "I'm sending you in as a candidate for the title of Consort to the Emperor. Either that, or you choose the other two options."
The two guards were flabbergasted. "B-But Madam-"
"Do you know why our shop has yet to regain the Royal favour for textiles over a decade from my longtime enemy, Madam Cirucci?" Kukkaku yelled at her servants as Rukia's eyes bulged in surprise. "It is because I have been picking all the WRONG girls to send into the palace!"
"But…" Koganehiko raised his hand timidly. "The Emperor has been known to not summon a woman to his bed for years now."
"That is because they were sending him all the NORMAL women!" Kukkaku shouted, a manic glint in her eyes. She whirled excitedly back to Rukia, who nervously crawled backward. "And this girl might just be our jackpot ticket! Look at how strange she is!"
In spite of the fear, Rukia felt herself bristle in anger. Who did this woman think she was? "I think I-"
"Shut up! You will have no say in this, unless you want to be missing a hand or working in the red-light district?" Kukaku was smug as she stared at Rukia, who immediately quieted down. "We will give you a makeover and you will take part in the candidate selection in a week's time!"
"A week?" Rukia was confused for a split second. Selection?
"Selection for the consorts of the Emperor begins in a week!" Kukaku smiled. "What do you say, robber girl? We will even provide you food and lodging for the time leading up to the selection so you will stay here with us! We will train you on the proper manners of a palace lady and then you go in for the selection. If you get selected, I will drop all charges against you trespassing with thieving intentions. Sounds like a very good deal to me."
Rukia stared at the bold woman, weighing her options. Was Madam Kukaku crazy, choosing her to go into the palace for the selection of consorts… to the Emperor? But the young woman weighed her options, and realized that the advantage of the deal really did lie with her. Food and lodging for a week, and the backing of the one of the strongest and most influential woman in the district. She just had to succeed this one time.
Rukia looked up. "Deal."
A single word which changed her life forever.
Rukia inwardly sighed, and immediately received a hit to her nose by Madam Kukaku. "Eat properly!"
It was the third day since Rukia was integrated into the Shiba household. Kukaku insisted that Rukia sleep in her bedroom, in order to keep an eye on her lest she decided to run away. This was indeed Rukia's initial plan but she soon abandoned it with every hour spent in the estate.
The tales were untrue. Madam Kukaku might be harsh and rude, but she was warm and funny and very strong as a woman. She was actually the type of woman Rukia often imagined herself to be, minus the provocative robe. She was also very, very kind. On the first day, Kukaku had taken Rukia out to a restaurant while commenting on beggars being a nuisance in the community. Yet, Rukia knew that Kukaku ordered a large bag of meat buns which she secretly slipped to a group of homeless children just outside the restaurant.
Madam Kukaku was very kind, but she obviously tried not to be seen as such.
Rukia also spent time with Koganehiko and Shiroganehiko, who fretted on the perfect textile cloth for her upcoming selection. They brought her out for fun drinks in the tea house and loved showing off their muscles to her. They were also in charge of her "walking pose" training, which consisted of Rukia walking on a very thin block of wood while holding a single fan in her hand. Rukia still hadn't been able to make it to the end, and when she asked Madam Kukaku how walking would help attract the Emperor, she was only told to shut up.
Rukia ate and practiced all day long, sometimes with very funny consequences. The Shiba estate, though large, brimmed with life and laughter and Rukia found herself easily drawn into their midst.
And on the second day, she stopped trying to run away.
She was trained in both table manners and education of the Emperor's background, the latter of which she was better due to her easy nature to memorize lines and facts. The Emperor's name was Kuchiki Byakuya, and he ascended the throne at the rather tender age of eighteen and was currently aged twenty-six. Rukia was amazed that such a young man could manage a country, and hold the fates of so many people in one hand. He already had an Empress, Empress Yoruichi, who was a General's daughter and subsequently appointed as the Emperor's first wife by Kuchiki Ginrei, the previous Emperor. The next highest Lady in the palace was Lady Unohana, who was the daughter of the royal physician. And then there were the thousands of imperials consorts in the palace, all awaiting for a possibility of being summoned by the Emperor. However, he had not summoned a woman to his bed in years. Rukia speculated that he either loved his Empress very much… or that the he was homosexual.
She also learned that the selection for consorts into the palace was a political agenda in itself, with certain parties vying for beautiful women in all corners of the nation to be sent in, hoping to catch the interest of the Emperor long enough to exert the influence of said party into the imperial court. At least, that was what the historical records seemed to reflect to Rukia. There were ministers who would ride thousands of miles to impoverished counties to fetch the most beautiful woman to enter into the palace, whereupon the consort would be under their influence, and in turn influence the Emperor himself. Though because the current Emperor had not summoned a woman to his bed for so many years, there was barely any chance of political agendas.
It was also an agenda of Madam Kukaku herself, but it was more of a business aspect. On the first day, she had told Rukia of her textile competitor, Madam Cirucci. Madam Cirucci had employed a beautiful woman, who was then betrothed to the royal administrator of clothing supplies to the palace. From there, Madam Cirucci made the young girl persuade her new husband to only obtain textile from the Cirucci shop.
"Ever since then, I have been sending girls to the palace to the Emperor, hoping to get to a higher level instead." Kukaku had said.
Rukia also learned of Kukaku's younger brother, Shiba Kaien, who was a General in the royal army, before he was slain in one of the wars in previous years. Kukaku refused to talk too much on the subject, and Rukia was smart enough to not dwell on the once-painful matter.
On the fourth day, her table manners were judged as decently well.
On the fifth day, her robes for the selection of palace consorts were finished, using real textile cloth from Madam Kukaku herself.
On the sixth day, she managed to make it to the end of the thin plank of wood, balancing herself rather haphazardly with a fan, as Koganehiko and Shiroganehiko laughed themselves silly at her.
On the seventh day, it was the selection.
"Rukia, you look BEAUTIFUL!" The double male voices were identical in tone.
Rukia managed a weak smile. "You think so?"
A vein twitched in Kukaku's temple. "Of course, you are. You are wearing my cloth, which can transform any woman into a beautiful goddess." She gave Rukia a once-over. "And I would say it has done its job perfectly once more."
Rukia had to chuckle.
Kukaku had maintained that the robes could not be of yellow colour or any shade remotely similar to yellow, as that was the imperial colour of the Emperor. And Rukia did not want the colour pink as it was too girlish.
So they had chosen… blue. The robes were a pale blue colour with inner white lining and complemented by soft gold patterns of peony flowers. Early in the morning, Kukaku had woken Rukia up and combed her hair thoroughly to release any tangles. Then she had made Rukia bathe with fragranced goat's milk and sea salt. After that, Rukia was fitted into her clothes and Kukaku had started the makeover. Now, Rukia had on make-up and slight lipstick, her hair held up at the back with several silver flower-shaped hairpins.
"Take a deep breath, you can do this," Kukaku counseled Rukia. They had arrived at the palace gates early and everywhere around them, young women were having last-minute words with their family members.
"Just remember everything we have taught you this past week." Koganehiko and Shiroganehiko nodded together.
Kukaku smiled, just as the palace gates began to open. Rukia watched as guards stepped out from the gates and formed a line on either side of the walkway. Her heart began to beat at an accelerated pace.
"It's time." Kukaku smiled.
"Good luck!" The two brothers clapped Rukia on the back.
Rukia nodded and mechanically stepped toward the gates, as all the women did the same.
Rukia turned back at Kukaku's voice.
"Whether or not you succeed, I am already proud." Kukaku grinned. "Well, half proud anyway."
Rukia smiled softly back, as the palace gates closed behind her.
The panic and nervousness crept in easily now that she was alone, and did not have the company of the three closest people she had had in the last one week. Rukia walked along with the young women in a single line to a huge table set at the front, where a fat officer sat with a huge ledger-like book.
This must be the corrupted Officer Takano that Madam Kukaku told me about.
Madam Kukaku had briefed Rukia on this man. He was the first step to pass to get into the palace. He was fat and ugly, and loved money. Unfortunately, he was also the officer who decided "purity" of the bloodline of women entering the palace, as only women of noble or well-to-do backgrounds were allowed in. It was tricky, because this was a characteristic Rukia obviously lacked.
"In the event that Officer Takano does see past our bluff, you will have to bribe him." Madam Kukaku had said.
Rukia watched as the line grew closer to the table, and the fat man sitting at it. She watched as an occasional one or two young maidens were turned away, sobbing broken-hearted. Rukia swallowed slightly and walked on.
"Shiba… Rukia?" Officer Takano looked up at Rukia with a gold glass eyepiece.
"Yes, Sir," Rukia answered, trying to maintain a calm expression.
"Hmm…" The officer was now poring over the official letters that Rukia had brought with her. "Distant cousin of the late General Shiba Kaien and his sister Shiba Kukaku… borne from the marriage of the late uncle and his noble wife… educated under the Shiba house…"
Rukia slowly felt her confidence creep in. The details were flawless, surely this officer would be fooled-
"So, where is your Shiba family tattoo?"
Rukia felt the panic overtake her heart as the officer smiled wickedly at her.
"Every Shiba family member has to have a tattoo somewhere, be it big or small, and would certainly serve to confirm your identity. Where might yours be, Shiba Rukia?"
Rukia flashed back to the huge, dark tattoo on Kukaku's left arm on the night she had first met her. Oh my God…
She hurriedly replied, "Unfortunately, kind Sir, it is in a very private area, surely I do not have to reveal it now?"
The officer looked at Rukia for a split second before bursting into laughter. "My dear dear girl, surely you know that the Shiba family tattoos have a distinct characteristic to always be drawn on body parts visible to the public?" Rukia felt her blood turn to ice water in her veins. Her lie had been discovered. "It is simply to distinguish themselves from other nobles and commoners."
Suddenly, the officer's hand shot out and pulled Rukia's arm forward so they were almost nose-to-nose. Rukia found herself staring into smug, evil beady eyes. "And I think I have just smelled another fish in the ocean..."
Both Rukia and Officer Takano looked down at the dull sound on the table. Rukia's eyes widened as she saw what it was and she hurriedly snatched up the green carved jade that had fallen out from her sleeves as the officer had pulled her.
"And… what might that be?" Officer Takano's eyes were slightly round and looked almost greedy.
"It's… my family heirloom jade." Rukia clutched the jade in her hands nervously, trying to cover it completely from sight.
"How about that… in exchange for entry to the palace?"
"I… I can't." Rukia fingered the jade nervously. "It is not mine, I'm only taking care of it for someone else."
"N-No wait!" Rukia shouted out in a panic and the officer turned back to her with an evil grin. "How about this? You let me into the palace and if I manage to become a consort, I will give you the first valuable thing in my jewelry box! Consorts have jewelry provided for them, don't they?"
The officer was now nodding, deep in thought. Rukia held her breath, hoping he would take up the offer. After what seemed like centuries, he turned back to her with his horrible toothy grin.
"Agreed. And if you fail, I get the jade? My allowing you into the palace has some risks in itself, you know."
Rukia reflexively grasped the jade tightly in her hand. "F-Fine."
"Well then…" The man straightened back and wrote her name down into the register. "PASSED!" He shouted in a loud voice and motioned Rukia forward with a wink.
Rukia had kept the piece of jade with her ever since her fateful encounter with the young boy so many years back. She had been tempted to sell the valuable amulet for money and being so very poor, there were too many times that the thought had crossed her mind.
However, she had not and persevered through the hard times, keeping the amulet with her. Rukia sometimes wondered why she did what she did. If she had sold the jade, she would have gotten so much money and lost the one thing that would allow the boy to track her down.
But she had not.
I will return to claim it someday…
The boy might had just forgotten about her. After all, it had been so many years back when she had ran into him and she did not even know his name. But he had saved her life, even if for his own interest and she had made a promise to him.
So… can you give me your first kiss in exchange for safety?
Rukia felt her cheeks heat up slightly at the memory. As she grew up, Rukia had learned of the things around her in the real world… and of the relationship between a man and woman. One too many times, she had stumbled upon couples as she ran barefooted down the street, chased by an angry vendor she had just looted from. A man and a woman. Hand in hand, whispers in the ear, adoring eyes, lips locked in a kiss…
Rukia never had any chance to know a man properly, let alone kiss him. She was constantly on the move, trying to escape the cold and hunger. Even acquaintances with kind people of the opposite gender who offered her food and lodging were fleeting and ended in a second. And in the midst of all this, her promise to the young boy so many years back… remained intact.
The promise of a first kiss.
It was so improper a promise, between two individuals who weren't even lovers. But a promise was a promise, and Rukia was not someone to break her own word.
Rukia's hand tightened on the jade as she tucked it into her pocket.
She just had to wait and see if he ever came to claim it in this lifetime.
"Your Majesty, are you not going to oversee the selection of palace ladies this time?"
Byakuya kept silent as he looked over the district reports. His red-haired assistant moved to his right.
"Abarai, if your interest in these ladies ever overwhelm you, you have my permission to go there yourself."
Renji jumped back in fear and hurriedly coughed. "O-Of course not, Your Majesty."
Byakuya moved the report he had been holding to the side, before stamping the official royal seal on it. He then took up another report and started to read.
"The women are nothing but a waste of space in my palace."
"Good morning, my dears."
Rukia looked up at the most beautiful woman she had ever seen in her life standing on a small erected podium, flanked on either side by two guards. This woman wore the softest of white silk, embroidered with golden bamboo and floral patterns. Her very long black hair was secured with a lovely set of golden pins and flowers and left to hang in a braid around her right shoulder.
Rukia thought she looked like a goddess.
"I am Lady Unohana." The woman smiled, revealing a set of perfect white teeth. "And I will be overseeing your selection process today."
Oh, so this was Lady Unohana. No wonder she was the second highest-ranked Lady in the palace, her beauty was breathtaking.
Lady Unohana continued to address the crowd. "Today, your selection will be divided into three stages. The first, will be a physical examination of your traits and body, as we select only the best women for the Emperor." Rukia felt the nervousness start to creep in again. "The second test will be an academic one, regarding your knowledge on our Emperor and country. A beautiful woman is like a pearl of no value, if she does not possess knowledge or the will to learn." Unohana smiled.
If I can get through the first, the second should be okay. The stakes were extremely high now, Rukia had promised the precious jade to the officer at the gates, and she could not lose it now.
"And the final test will be announced after we have short-listed the candidates." Unohana smiled. "I welcome you to the palace again, and wish you good luck in your selection."
And so the selection commenced.
It was the most uncomfortable process for Rukia in her entire life. For the first exam, she was ordered to strip until there was not a single garment left on her body at all, and told to lie and stand in different postures. Lady Unohana examined Rukia herself, using only a silver eyepiece and her gentle hands. After a long and thorough examination, Lady Unohana smiled and told Rukia to put her clothes back on and sat on a table, writing away on a huge book.
The second test proved a lot easier for Rukia, as she was able to recall what she had studied about the Emperor and the government without much effort. While some of the women in the hall sighed as they wrote, Rukia was able to complete the entire paper well within the time limit, with some to spare.
And finally, the short-listed candidates came in the form of a long white list which Lady Unohana read off with a smile. Of the three hundred women who underwent the process, only one hundred and fifty candidates were selected to the final test of the selection.
And Shiba Rukia was one of them.
"Congratulations for making it this far." Lady Unohana smiled at the remaining women present. "Most of you might know that this year's selection is slightly different from the previous year. At the end of the physical and academic examinations, we usually conclude the ceremony by picking out those we deemed suitable to offer themselves to the Emperor as his worthy wives. This year, I am afraid the palace has decided to cut down on the number of consorts taken in, by personal request of the Emperor himself."
A flurry of noise greeted this revelation.
"Cutting down the numbers!"
"He must have a favourite already, to not want to be bothered by new concubines!"
"Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…"
Rukia took a deep breath, feeling nervous. Cutting out the number of consorts would mean cutting down the possible places to the palace, and cutting down her chances. She had come so far, it would be so disappointing to fail now! Not to mention she was going to lose that valuable jade that had kept her company for so long…
Unohana smiled as she observed the women. "What will conclude this selection process is a test of how far you will go to get into the palace."
Rukia looked up in surprise.
How far one would go to get? Well, that goes without saying… very far. But how would they-
Rukia watched as a guard carried an extremely huge woven basket onto the stage. She watched as Lady Unohana bent down and retrieved something from the basket. As the elegant Lady moved to the front of the stage, Rukia saw what it was.
A white, fluffy rabbit.
What was the meaning of this?
"Each of you will have one rabbit, which has been tagged with your name. We have constructed a closed booth at the far end of this hall, and each of you will enter the booth when your name is called. You will be alone in the booth. And within this booth, you will find a bowl, a blade and your tagged rabbit."
Rukia felt a bad feeling start to creep over her.
"And then it will be your choice to kill the rabbit and fill the bowl with the rabbit's blood… or not."
A collection of gasps and screams echoed in the palace hall. Rukia felt her insides begin to churn. Kill… kill a rabbit?
"I want to see how far you will go to get into the palace, and we will choose only eighty women from this test to become official consorts of the Emperor."
Rukia felt as if she was floating in a nightmare as she sat in the tent with the other women to await their turn. Kill a rabbit to become a consort? How in the world did the palace and Lady Unohana think of such a horrible test? So they were advocating one to murder to reach their goal?
It was despicable, it was sick.
Rukia knew she might be over-reacting, hundreds of rabbits were killed during hunting missions anyway. But to do it with her own hands… it was just sick. And she had loved rabbits so much, they were her favourite animals in the whole world ever since childhood, when she had watched them longingly in cages in the pet shop.
But this was the final test which stood between her and entry into the palace. It was what stood between her and losing that precious jade belonging to the mysterious boy. It was what stood between her and her life in the slums.
"Shiba… Rukia!" After what seemed like hours, Rukia heard her name being called… into an even bigger nightmare.
The walk to the enclosed clothed booth was probably the longest Rukia had ever walked in her entire life. When she entered the booth, she could see that it was exactly as Lady Unohana had informed everyone it would be. There was a small table on it covered with a red cloth, on which a single blade and bowl now stood. Not far from it, there was a basket, no doubt holding Rukia's tagged rabbit. A notice hanging from the wall stated that the dead rabbits were to be thrown into a basket below the table. Rukia chose not to look at said basket at all.
As Rukia stepped to the table, she could smell the blood. There were already women who were brave enough to kill the rabbits, all for a post in the palace. And with a sickening lurch, Rukia realized that the cloth covering the table was not in actuality red in colour, it was soaked with so much blood that it was all stained red.
Rukia looked into the basket, and saw the quivering little white rabbit. A tag with the words Shiba Rukia was fastened to the collar around its neck. A rabbit of her own, marked with her name. A rabbit which was marked with death, the second it was labeled with her name.
Rukia felt her heart constrict, as she slowly lifted the trembling fluff from the basket. It was her first time holding a rabbit, her very own rabbit. It was warm and soft, and everything wonderful that she had always imagined holding a rabbit would be. Just not in this place, not in this scenario. In this scenario, the rabbit was a sacrifice.
Did she dare kill the rabbit?
Or would she spare it… and lose her place in the palace?
It was between her life and the rabbit's life now.
Rukia stared at the clean blade, and then painfully made up her mind.
Unohana looked up as she watched the small figure walk out of the closed booth, to approach her table. In the woman's trembling right hand was a bowl filled with dark red liquid, her left hand tucked neatly under her robes.
Unohana's eyes narrowed.
I see. So you chose to sacrifice.
But as the girl came closer, Unohana noted that there was something very different this time. She stared up at the nervous girl standing in front of her.
"The bowl, if you please, Shiba Rukia."
Rukia shakily placed the bowl filled with blood on the table, her eyes looking empty. Unohana pulled the bowl toward her and looked at the crimson liquid.
"You are a very bold woman, Shiba Rukia." Unohana smiled as she poured the cup of blood into the an already half-filled barrel of blood behind her. "To draw so much blood is courageous and equally… merciless."
Rukia shivered slightly.
"Poor rabbit." Unohana smiled and marked something in her paper.
"Everyone, please gather near the stage!"
This time, the crowd of women was less excited and the atmosphere was almost muted and mournful. There were those who were crying because they had failed to kill the rabbit and fill the bowl, and then there were those with traumatized eyes at what they had been forced to do in the closed booth.
Lady Unohana walked up to the podium. "I thank you all for your participation in the selection, and congratulate all of you for making it this far. I apologize for the need of this test, which had probably been very inconvenient for all of you." Lady Unohana's expression was calm.
"Before, I mentioned that through this test, I wanted to see how far each of you will go to achieve your goals but I did not make the exact purpose of this test clear."
Several women lifted their heads in confusion.
"I will tell all of you now. What we were trying to test you here was a test… of humanity. I admire women who will go far to achieve their goals, they are strong and willful. However, it is important to note that there is a limit to going so far for your goals, especially if it requires sacrifice of innocents. This is a principle our very own Emperor has spoken about, that he is very against the use of innocent civilians sacrificed in battle. And here in our case, I be speaking about the rabbit."
All the women collectively gasped. Rukia's eyes widened.
"There were many of you who did not hesitate to kill the rabbits to drain their blood. And at my will, these women… will not find themselves in service of the Emperor."
Rukia's eyes widened some more in shock. No… no…
"I will now call out the names of those who were chosen and you may take a small prize with yourself, other than the entry card to the palace in three days' time." Unohana smiled as a worker came on the stage, bearing a basket of the remaining tagged rabbits which were alive. Another worker followed behind, carrying smaller hand baskets.
Rukia felt her heart constrict. No, no… this was not how it was supposed to be… She could only listen as Unohana called out the names, and each happy woman came forth to take their rabbits in the smaller baskets that were passed out. The happy women who had humbly spared their own rabbit… who had not filled their bowls at all…
"Ayama Miko… Sato Ayumi…"
Rukia felt as if she could not breathe, as the disappointment weighed down on her heart like a stone. She had filled her bowl with blood, and yet…
Either way… I lose…
Every name called out felt like a mockery to Rukia's pathetic condition. With this, she had lost everything. She was going to lose her jade, she was going to fail Madam Kukaku.
After all I had done to get this far…
Rukia sadly watched the rabbits in the basket dwindle down to one, and finally the final rabbit was presented to another woman. The happy women holding baskets of their live rabbits were standing at the front now in a bunch and chattering happily, awaiting Unohana's next announcement now that the candidates had all been selected.
"… and finally, Shiba Rukia."
Rukia gasped as her eyes shot out to the front. All the other women looked up in shock especially as the basket of live rabbits was already empty. Had Lady Unohana chosen a woman who had killed a rabbit? Had there been a mistake?
Unohana retrieved the final small basket from the guard as she walked down, deliberately slow. Rukia was frozen to the spot, unable to move or speak a single word.
How? How? Am I chosen? But… how? Not when I filled the bowl with blood?
The guards parted before Lady Unohana as she walked toward Rukia. All Rukia could only do was stare at the glorious silk the elegant woman was wearing, and her flawless facial expression covered by white powder. What was the meaning of this?
Unohana stopped directly in front of Rukia and held out the basket, before speaking the words.
"The rabbit… if you please, Lady Rukia."
Rukia gasped in shock, and the women around them started whispering amongst themselves.
And as everyone in the hall watched, Rukia slowly lowered both her hands which she had kept tucked underneath her robes, to reveal that they were holding a single white rabbit. A rabbit which was frightened but otherwise unharmed and alive. A rabbit with the tag Shiba Rukia on the neck collar.
The entire hall gasped collectively, except for Lady Unohana and Rukia.
"Well, this be your prize." Unohana took the rabbit and placed it gently into the basket before offering the basket back to the shocked girl.
How… how did she know?
Lady Unohana only smiled and started to turn away.
Lady Unohana turned back to see the petite woman hunched in a grateful bow, clutching the basket containing the rabbit.
Lady Unohana only smiled. "It is interesting… that there are those who still retain their humanity and stay on the right path… yet they dare to push the limits of their own selves to reach their goals. I wish you well, Lady Rukia. Please report to the palace in three days' time."
As Rukia watched, Lady Unohana and the royal entourage left the hall. The selection of palace ladies had ended.
"Yes, Isane?" Unohana turned to her left, where her faithful servant girl, Kotetsu Isane was looking at her.
"Is it what I believed it to be?"
Unohana smiled and nodded. "The candidates were told to fill the bowl with the rabbit's blood. We make it seem as if that was the final result, that someone who dared kill the rabbit to drain its blood would be selected. Thus, we have those who mercilessly kill to gain from it, and those who were too humane to do such a thing."
Unohana continued, "Lady Rukia, like all of them, thought filling the bowl was the only way to enter the palace. But when the bowl was brought before us, I knew immediately that it was not rabbit's blood in the bowl. It was human blood."
Isane gasped in horror.
Unohana looked ahead in front of her. "She didn't want to kill, yet she wanted so badly to get into the palace. So Lady Rukia chose to cut herself and use her own blood to substitute as the rabbit's. And then she hid the rabbit under her robes to prevent us finding out the truth. Did you not notice that she kept her left hand under her robes at all time?"
"But, t-that's so dangerous!"
Unohana smiled. "That is why I chose her, even if she dared to perform a trick under our noses, with the threat of death as punishment. Such strong-willed and enigmatic women are rare in the palace. And to fill the bowl with such an amount, it must take some courage and endurance."
Lady Rukia… I will be keeping my eye on you. You are a very interesting woman.
"I did it!" Rukia whispered in awe as she watched the Lady and guards leave. Everywhere, women around her were either rejoicing or weeping bitterly. Rukia turned to grin down at the white ball of fluff in her basket. She poked a finger into the basket, and the rabbit approached it cautiously before sniffing it excitedly with its adorable twitchy nose.
"We did it! And I get to keep you!" Rukia whispered to the rabbit, and grinned in pure joy. She raised her arms in celebration. "We did- OUCH!"
The young woman grimaced in pain, as a trail of blood slowly trickled down her right arm. Damn it, it looks like the bandage is soaked already.
Rukia hurriedly retreated to a corner out of the sight of the other women. Gingerly, she folded up her right sleeve to expose a white bandage around her arm. It was soaked with blood. She had haphazardly tied the bandage around her right arm after she had cut through the skin with a blade to drain her blood into the bowl.
Rukia pulled out her handkerchief and hurriedly tied a double bandage to her wound. There. That would keep it for a while.
Bruises or cuts did not matter anymore. She had won.
She was going to be in the palace.
"The selection for imperial ladies of the palace are over, Your Majesty." Renji bowed. "A total of eighty women were selected, limited as per your instructions."
"Eighty. That is good." Byakuya nodded, but did not look up from his work.
"Are you not going to greet the newest entries to the palace, Your Majesty?"
"No." The answer was a cold, blunt retort.
"Who knows? There might a few women out there who might tickle your fancy, Your Majesty." Renji tried to poke fun at his young Emperor.
"There might be some to your liking though, Abarai," Byakuya spoke and Renji cringed. Renji was a close assistant to the Emperor who was neither an officer nor an eunuch. After being Byakuya's closest childhood friend, it had been ordered that Renji was to be castrated and made an eunuch when he came of age but Byakuya had prevented this, knowing that the act would only humiliate and destroy his best friend. Thus, Renji served Byakuya in an eunuch-like title in court, but was actually not one.
"And who would be your company for tonight, Your Majesty? Empress Yoruichi perhaps? Lady Unohana?"
"None of them. I wish for peaceful sleep tonight."
Renji was also no fool. He knew the Emperor was not romantically involved with neither women, nor any other woman for that matter.
Renji also knew that his childhood friend was not homosexual and, unlike rumours circulating in the palace about a scandalous relationship between both of them, did not romantically love Renji himself.
The woman the Emperor was supposed to love had apparently not materialized in the palace yet. And the Emperor was definitely not making an effort to find her.
Rukia's eyes widened in surprise as she stepped out through the palace gates. Following the announcement of the selection of imperial consorts, Lady Unohana had smiled and addressed all the women to present the good (or bad) news to their families before instructions were given out for them to report to the palace in three days' time.
Rukia had been swept along the trail of beautiful women as they were escorted out by a line of guards. And when they had reached the entrance, she watched the small crowd of families greet their respective female member.
"Tousan, I made it! I'm going to serve the Emperor!"
"I didn't make the selection, well maybe, next year…"
"We missed you…"
Rukia smiled serenely as she walked through the crowd of families with her basket of rabbit, ignoring that little disappointment in the corner of her heart that she was probably the only one who did not have an expectant family member waiting for her, to take her to that wondrous little place called home. She should walk back to the estate and-
"RUKIA! Over here!"
The violet eyes widened as she looked up at the rough female voice. Rukia stared in shock at Kukaku, who stood alongside her two workers, beaming and waving at her. Rukia hurried over to them.
"W-What are you all doing here-"
"Did you make it?" Kukaku smiled at the petite woman.
Rukia felt a small grin spreading across her face. "I did," she replied as the two brothers cheered and started dancing with each other. Kukaku gave Rukia a big smile.
"I knew you would, anyway. Come on, let's go back home."
Go back home…
Rukia smiled as the happy tears pooled slightly in her eyes.
They drank all night in celebration, as the lamps burned bright in the Shiba halls and gardens. Rukia had never been so happy in her life, and it was amazing that robbing an infamous textile house in the district could lead her to this and to the wonderful people she was now with. When the two brothers were knocked out drunk on the floor, Rukia turned to an unaffected Kukaku.
"Madam Kukaku, arigato. Thank you very much for everything."
"Pffftttt…" Kukaku waved her hand dismissively. "Have you forgotten your job? When you get into the palace and charm the Emperor, you are to recommend my textile as the royal supplier and wipe out Cirucci's business. You are the one doing me a favour, lass."
"No, you were the one who did me a favour."
Kukaku turned to Rukia, who was now smiling softly.
"If you wanted to sell me to a brothel or chop my hands off, you would have done so without giving me prior notice. Instead, you went to all the trouble to make me a deal, give me food and lodging and then allow me a shot at being an imperial consort. I am not even half as beautiful as the women in the selection, you could have gotten a better woman yet you did not. It was my very good fortune to meet you, I think I might start believing in God after all." Rukia smiled again.
"Very good fortune to meet me? That's a first someone has said to me." Kukaku let out a loud laugh. "And about you being less beautiful, I will have to agree. But what makes you think the Emperor is looking for beauty?" The older woman chuckled again as she took up her cup of wine.
"You are a very kind woman, Madam Kukaku."
The next moment was only bright stars for Rukia as Kukaku punched her square in the face.
"How's that for kind?" The busty woman dusted her hands off and took a huge gulp of her liquor as Rukia gingerly felt her nose. "You."
Rukia looked up in surprise.
"The palace is a very dangerous place. It might be all gold and riches, but that is where people can turn against their own kind. Women can be scary in their pursuit of the Emperor, especially if only one woman stands in their way. Poison, witchcraft, forced miscarriages… you have read them all in the history annals. It won't be any easier for you." Kukaku looked up at the stars.
"Err…" Rukia raised her hand timidly as if she was in a classroom. "What makes you think the Emperor will even take a look at me?"
This time, she expected the hit, and so received it.
Kukaku gave her an angry stare. "Never underestimate yourself. Oh, and in the palace, you might have to adapt to some of the dirty tricks. The bribing, the backstabbing, trying to short-cut through things. Do those as you see fit. But in the midst of all this…" Kukaku lifted her bottle of liquor. "Remember to make friends, and keep several true ones by your side. They will help you rise to power. And don't lose your humanity."
The busty woman took a swig of the drink. "There is nothing left for you here, Rukia. Even if I take you in now, the people around here will recognize and come after you. What you need to do… is get into a higher position. With this selection, we will see if you can earn a better life for yourself." Kukaku turned to give Rukia a subtle smile. "And if you tire of the palace soon enough, you will have enough root and power in your position to come back here and not be bullied anymore. And at that time, we at Shiba house will welcome you with open arms."
Kukaku gave Rukia a serious look. "But in the meantime, be careful in the palace."
Rukia felt the tears slowly form in her eyes as she listened to every word of Kukaku's. The petite girl looked up as she spoke the words softly, almost a whisper. "I thank you for allowing me to carry your family name, and if I could, I would go on carrying the name for my whole life. I... the past days were the best seven days in my life, Madam Kukaku, because it..." Rukia felt her voice break and she coughed slightly. "... it felt like I had family for the very first time. Something I could come back to, something I could look forward to. And people who... who actually cared about me." She bowed her head, as a tear slowly slid down her cheek. "I will never forget everything that you have all done for me. Arigato... arigato."
"Che." Kukaku waved her hand slightly as if to brush away Rukia's words. "You can use that name all you want."
Rukia was unable to stop herself as she lunged at the busty shop owner, smothering her in a hug and upsetting the wine bottle. "Arigato!"
"LET GO! LET GO OFF ME!" The loud voice could be heard through the silent night air, and Rukia laughed in spite of her tears.
The lamps burned on merrily through the night in the Shiba gardens.
And there you have the second chapter. I hope the long content makes up for the half a year period where it was left without an update. I had the idea for the third test and thought it would really put in an exciting, heart-pounding twist to the chapter. I was really trying for the unpredictable factor about the rabbit, even though we all know that Rukia would get into the palace eventually by some way. So I definitely hope you enjoyed it and thank you for reading. :) And soon enough, little Rukia will set foot in the palace and somehow meet our dashing Emperor Byakuya. ;)
Hope you will review this chapter for me, any opinion/criticism/suggestions are very much welcome, and reviews will definitely help motivate me to do more writing! :D