Author's Notes: I am attempting something a little crazy in writing several stories at once. I had two completely different story lines pop into my head at the exact same time and cannot seem to separate one from the other enough to write one at a time. Thus I will do my best to write two Shinkenger stories at once...should be interesting. As always, Constructive Criticism is always welcomed. :) Enjoy!
Ceteris Paribus is Latin for "all other things being equal."
This story is dedicated to all of those who have followed my Shinkenger stories since Veneer. I can't tell you how much it means to me that you've read and reviewed every single one and encouraged me to write more. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
Disclaimer: I do not own Shinkenger or her characters. I simply borrow them for my own (and other's) amusement.
Chapter One: Coming-of-Age
"Welcome princeling," the guard sneered. "I hope you find the accommodations to your liking." He shoved his bound prisoner through the metal grating of the stone dungeon far below the palace. The prisoner stumbled, unable to use his bound hands and cobbled feet for balance. The guards that had escorted him to his new dwelling burst into raucous laughter.
"If you're lucky, someone will be down with some water and table scraps one day," another grinned maliciously.
"Enjoy your stay," the last guard mocked before they slammed the doors with an audible clang and twisted the key in the lock. The trio made their way back up the hallway, leaving a single, dim torch behind that lit up nothing in the dark, cavernous space.
The man they had left behind took in his new surroundings with careful eyes, wincing at the movement as he finally allowed himself to feel the injuries he had received – both from battle and from the none-too-gentle handlings of his captors. He sunk wearily with a quiet hiss of pain against the far wall, leaning his head back against the cold stone.
It will work, he told himself. It has to work. If it doesn't… He shook his head. He couldn't allow himself to think of the possibilities of it not working out. Then again, getting caught in the middle of battle hadn't exactly been in the plan either. What could he do from inside here? What were they going to do to him here? He dared not let his mind wander too far into that realm of possibilities. Better to leave lying nightmares alone until it was time to face them head on.
"Mako!" An exasperated voice called out. "Where are you?"
"Up here Kotoha," a patient and distracted voice called back from high up in a flowering tree, before the owner of the voice returned to her book.
"Mako!" The voice was now directly beneath her, torn between shock and amusement. "What are you doing up in that tree? How did you get up in that tree?"
"I climbed," Mako replied simply.
Kotoha giggled in reply. "I'm aware of that! I just don't understand how you managed it in your dress."
Mako tucked a long, stray strand of dark hair behind her ear with a smile before she turned to look down at her sister, mischievous dark eyes meeting the nearly identical ones below her. "I may have shown more of my legs than was entirely appropriate," she confessed with a tease. Her younger sister's face was a perfect blend of shock and envy.
"What if someone had seen you?"
Mako shrugged. "If it had been a woman, I would have been told how scandalous I looked. Had it been a man, I would have questioned what he was doing here in the women's sanctuary to begin with."
Kotoha now had her hands on her hips, looking up at her older sister in an attempt at being stern. "You do know that male servants of the other Ladies are allowed in here too."
Mako gave another shrug. "He wouldn't be able to do anything about it. You know they're not even allowed to speak, much less enter here unless their Lady gives them permission to."
Kotoha sighed in exasperation but her face was all smiles. "So are you going to come down or do I have to come up?"
Mako glanced around. "Where's Ryunosuke?"
"Did you ditch him again?"
Kotoha tried to look innocent as Mako burst into laughter.
"That poor man has been chasing after us trying to keep us in line since we were all kids together, and he is stillso easily misled."
Both girls turned at the call.
"Uh-oh, looks like we're about to be found," Mako grinned. Kotoha's smile matched her sister's. "Shall I climb down before he finds us or remain here?"
"I don't think he's received his daily heart attack yet," Kotoha answered back sweetly.
"Just what I was thinking."
"We're over here Ryunosuke!" Kotoha called, waving her arm until a tall, lanky young man with light brown hair spotted her and came running in her direction. A bright, metal medallion swung from his neck, showing all who glanced at it that he had been given special permission by a Lady to come and go as he pleased.
"Hime!" Ryunosuke exclaimed, leaning his hands on his knees to catch his breath. "Where did you go? I turned around and you were gone!"
"I went looking for Mako," Kotoha answered.
"Have you found her yet?" He asked, concern furrowing his brows.
"I'm right here Ryunosuke, stop worrying," Mako assured him.
"Hime? Where are you?" Ryunosuke spun in a circle. "I hear you but I don't see you."
"Look up," Mako urged.
"What do you mean look up – Hime! What are you doing in a tree?! How did you get in a tree?" He clutched at his heart in a panic.
"I climbed," Mako answered simply.
"Why are you in a tree?" He asked with a tone stuck somewhere between exasperation and exhaustion.
"It's peaceful up here," she explained. "The flowers are beautiful and fragrant, and I don't have to worry about running into any of the other Court Ladies." Mako studied a delicate white blossom as she stated the last bit.
Ryunosuke and Kotoha exchanged knowing glances. They knew Mako couldn't stand most of the other Ladies in the sanctuary, full of their own self-importance, ridicule and gossip. Mako was different. She had an independent streak that led to "wild" ideas for a woman, and she had a kind and tender heart – the two didn't mix well with the games the other Ladies liked to play. She escaped any way she could.
"You need to come down," Ryunosuke insisted. "Today is your coming-of-age ceremony; we need to get you ready."
Mako scowled up at the sky. "What a pointless tradition," she muttered. "I don't want it."
Kotoha and Ryunosuke sighed simultaneously; they had been through this argument with Mako countless times over the past year.
"It's what your father will expect of you," Ryunosuke tried to explain patiently but gently. "The entire court will."
"I'm tired of doing what's expected of me," Mako muttered again rebelliously.
"Mako," Kotoha tried a different tactic. "If you don't come down soon, Ryunosuke could get in trouble." It wasn't a manipulative trick on Kotoha's part, only the bare truth. He had been assigned to look after the pair of princesses since they were born, a job he took very seriously. He cared for the two of them sincerely and they him but Ryunosuke wasn't royalty, he was merely a servant and could be punished severely should be fail to attend to his duties properly.
Mako sighed deeply. "Alright," she agreed softly before tucking her book into her silk bodice and maneuvering her body so as to climb back down and out of the tree.
Ryunosuke looked away with a faint flush when she moved to gather her skirts up above her ankles, trying to give her privacy and watch for any other watching eyes at the same time.
With a firm and agile grip, Mako slowly made her way down the tree's trunk and landed delicately on the grassy surface below her.
"Only you could make climbing out of a tree look graceful," Kotoha bemoaned in envy. "I would have fallen flat on my face, ripped my clothing and landed in a mud pile."
Mako gave her younger sister a one-armed hug. "I'll just have to teach you how to do it properly then."
"You will?" Kotoha's eyes lit up in excitement. "You promise?"
Behind them Ryunosuke let out a groan of torment. "Why do you two insist on doing this to me all the time?"
"It keeps you young," Mako teased over her shoulder.
"Or gives me gray hairs at a very young age," he muttered mutinously under his breath.
The sisters laughed in good humor, Ryunosuke finding it hard to cover his own answering smile. Had the two been anyone else, he could have had his tongue cut out for his comment. It was a sign of just how unique the pair of girls were in that place and Ryunosuke never had a day go by where he didn't marvel at his good fortune. The two were sweet, innocent and demanded nothing of him. If they needed something, it was a request and never an unreasonable one. He wondered sometimes what he must have done in a past life to receive such a gift for someone in his position. He smiled broadly and hurried ahead of them with renewed energy.
"Alright! Let's get you ready!"
Mako groaned. "I can't wait for this day to be over. The stiff ceremonies are bad enough to go through, but then the banquet and all the people…"
"Don't forget father's traditional present at the end of it," Kotoha chimed in.
Mako winced. "I've been trying very hard to forget."
Kotoha laid her head on her sister's shoulder in comfort as they continued to walk along the corridors, making way for Mako's personal rooms.
Ryunosuke glanced back at the two discreetly. He would do anything to protect them, now and in the future. They deserved that and more.
"Wake-up swine!" A loud, rough voice rang out just before a bucket of freezing water was thrown on the prisoner's face.
The young man was startled out of the darkness of his dreamless sleep, wincing as it pulled at still healing wounds after the cold jolt to his system.
"Better make yourself look pretty," another man grinned spitefully. "You have a big, special day ahead of you."
The young man's mind raced at the possibilities. Some form of new torture? Would they kill him? A wave of muted whispers entered his hearings and he looked up between his matted hair to see the men bowing out of the way in subservience, making signs of honor as they did so. His eyes narrowed as a man wearing vastly rich clothing who walked with an air of self-importance appeared before them.
The King, his mind hissed to him, his eyes narrowing further in distaste.
The King stopped before the heavy metal grating, his penetrating eyes seeking out the prisoner beyond, assessing him from head to toe. "This is him then?"
"Yes, Your Majesty," one of the guards answered in humbled obedience. "This is the prince that was captured during battle."
The King studied the prisoner with a frown. "He'll have to do I expect. No doubt he has to be broken first before he can be trusted to do his job properly. See to it."
"With pleasure," the guard answered, sneaking a look of glee at the prisoner beyond.
The King nodded once. "I want it quick and efficient, I wish there had been more time but none of the others will suit her. Besides," a small, satisfied smile slithered across his face. "What better humiliation to our rival kingdom than to have their prince and heir becomes a bound slave to the First Princess of the Court?" He slid a glance at his prisoner in barely concealed delight before making his exit, the guards bowing reverently at his departure.
When the King had fully departed the guards looked at their prisoner. "You heard the King, time to get you ready for your new role in life."
"Hope you enjoyed your stay here. Where you're going, your titles will mean nothing. You'll be lower than the most common servant."
"Do you think being raised in his palace will have softened him too much for his new assignment?"
"Could have, but it'll make him all the softer in bed when she wishes him there."
The guards chortled at their lewd jokes, unconcerned about the affect it might have on their Princess's reputation. After all, what Court Lady didn't enjoy the thrill of a night's ride? They had to learn all their techniques for their future husbands somewhere. Best to experiment with a worthless life that could be ended at the twitch of a finger than anyone of real importance who couldn't be silenced.
The young man could do nothing but glare; he wouldn't give them the satisfaction of a vocal answer. He had remained stubbornly mute there this long, he wouldn't break his silence now.
One of the guards unlocked the metal grate as the others pulled out various instruments in glee. "Ready to learn how to be obedient?"
The young man braced himself mentally for his new "lessons."
Mako resisted the itch to escape the room. The incense and heat in the air was stifling, and the chanting seemed like it would never end.
She understood that her ceremony required a lot of pomp and circumstance as the First Princess of the Court – her mother being the First Consort to the King before she had passed away when Mako was still young. It didn't mean she had to like it.
To everyone else she looked like the picture perfect essence of a First Princess, perfectly poised on her cushion, her head bowed at just the right angle as the priest recited the traditional phrases over her head. Her body was curved in exactly the correct position but managed to make it look graceful and easy as she neither twitched nor shifted throughout the entire ceremony. Only Mako knew how much her neck and shoulders ached from remaining in such a stiff position for so long. Or how much her knees screamed at her to move, the loss of blood in her lower limbs leaving them tingling.
Female servants had dressed her in the finest, softest materials and silks, the emerald and crimson colors accented by the fine gold trims. Her hair had been washed, dried, brushed and plaited in complicated designs piled upon her head before a delicate, sheer veil was placed over it all, pinned in place near her forehead before cascading down her back in what looked like fluid motion even in stillness. To say she looked stunning was an understatement. The court recognized this with awe, the court Ladies realized this with burning jealousy, but Mako herself just felt bored and antsy.
With an internal sigh of relief, Mako heard the priest finish his chanting and ask her to rise. She did so with a grace anyone would envy, even as Mako found it difficult to feel her legs from the blood loss. She forced a royal, elegant smile on her face as her father approached her with pride swelling from every surface of his being. She tried to look humble as he took her hand in his and presented her to the court. Mako stamped on the instinct to jerk her arm away, her flesh crawling at the sensation.
She couldn't stand – no – hated her father with a rising passion. Most days she was almost able to succeed in forgetting who she belonged to, though he never let any of them forget it. She, Kotoha, Ryunosuke, all of the court – the King owned them until he said otherwise. Not much better could be said about the rest of the kingdom, they were largely forgotten until needed – a blessing and a curse.
Still, being the First Princess didn't mean much. She wasn't a man, so she couldn't inherit the kingdom. Her role in life was to look pretty and eventually be sold off to the highest bidder to be a wife to some nameless, faceless man she had never met before. If she was lucky, said man would ignore her after she gave him a son or two and then direct his attention to newer, younger wives or concubines. She didn't dare dream that she would ever find love in a marriage. That word was all but forbidden in this place.
As the court applauded politely, Mako's father escorted her personally to the adjoining room where the banquet and celebration would be held. Mako had been through many a gala from the various ceremonies or court holdings before and knew the sequence of events by heart. Usually she could slip out unnoticed when just the right amount of wine had been consumed and no one would miss her presence. Unfortunately she would be required to stay throughout this feast until her father deemed it time to release her. She stifled a weary sigh. It would be a long night.
Mako worked not to tap her fingernails in agitation against the table. She sat demurely in the seat of honor as the revelers around her all but spilled off their cushions at the low-sitting table, most too drunk to care about decorum now. She would have given anything to at least be sitting next to Kotoha right now, but her younger sister was the daughter of a minor concubine – someone with such little importance on the royal food chain line that she would never be allowed to sit near Mako at an event as grand as this. It irritated Mako to no end.
Finally, her father called for the attention of the room. Mako sat straighter, the perfect picture of an obedient, humble daughter as he gave a speech about her, his pride, his kingdom, and eventually seguing into the victory they had scored in the last battle. Mako tuned it all out the moment he opened his mouth. For one, she was sick of hearing the propaganda on how "great" her kingdom was, how benevolent a ruler her father was, and how demonic the other kingdom was – one lie after another after another. She wasn't expected to really listen anyways; she was only a woman after all. Besides, she already knew where to get the real story when she wanted to hear it.
The room erupted in cheers and calls to the health of the King and then her with a robustness that only those steeped in alcohol could provide and Mako took that as her cue that the speech was over. She tuned back in with immense gratitude to hear that she was finally being dismissed.
"And now, my daughter, I present to you a great gift. One befitting of the First Princess of our most beautiful kingdom," her father announced loudly as he drew her to her feet beside him.
Mako worked hard not to snort in derision. "Beautiful" it may have been once upon a time, but it only took a pair of eyes to see the true condition of her father's kingdom outside the palace walls.
Her eyes were drawn to the opposite end of the hall when the doors swung open and a small troop of guards entered, causing all those inside the banquet hall to talk excitedly amongst themselves.
"As is tradition for all the young maids of the court," her father continued, quieting the voices around the room in an instant. "I give to you your first personal slave to do with as you please."
Men around the room elbowed each other in knowing glances and women tittered behind fans or their hands. Mako felt her cheeks warm under the implications. She knew what the "traditional" gift was, knew what it was meant to imply, but being at the center of it made it all that much harder to swallow. The women of her kingdom were known for their skills in bed, not politics. What more could a man want?
"This slave is special, my beloved daughter," he persisted. Mako swallowed her bile at his attempts at endearment. "He is the prince of our greatest rival kingdom whom we captured in the last battle with our military might and prowess. Watch as he now bows before us!"
Mako knew the speech was for everyone else in the room, not for her. She was just the tool with which her father could proclaim more of his power and dominance. She pretended to be watching as the guards roughly shoved their prisoner to the ground to prostrate before the King, but instead her eyes were already searching out for her sister amongst the crowd.
"Thank you Father, for this lavish gift," she replied right on cue, not meaning a word of it. "I am humbled by your generosity." She dipped her head and body perfectly before rising once more when he ushered her back to her standing position at his side.
"Go," he commanded. "Take your prize and enjoy your evening in peace, my daughter. Your grace and beauty fills me with no end of pride – you will be most sought after by suitors. I'll have to make my selection carefully with your new skills." He winked audaciously, Mako flushing in anger but her father mistaking it for a maiden's blush. He laughed uproariously, along with his court before dismissing her with a wave of his hand.
Mako struggled to keep her anger off her face, safe behind her carefully schooled court mask for the moment, but feeling it slip the longer it took her to exit the room. She deliberately forgot all about her new "present" as she made her way for her sister who stood anxiously near the door.
When they were safely ensconced in Mako's personal rooms, Ryunosuke having checked every nook and cranny for other visitors, did Mako release her frustrations. She picked up a velvet pillow and threw it with all of her might against a wall.
"Curse him! Curse him to hell and back!"
"Mako," Kotoha approached her sister soothingly. "It's okay, it's over now."
Mako felt her cheeks flame from her anger and embarrassment. She breathed in deeply to steady herself, breathing out slowly and letting the tension fade. "I'm sorry Kotoha," she apologized.
Kotoha shook her head. "Don't be, you have every right to be frustrated. I know this isn't easy for you. You're different than the rest of them."
Mako embraced her sister in a hug, needing to feel the comfort of another. "So are you," she insisted. Kotoha's smile was bright.
"Hime," Ryunosuke's voice broke in reluctantly. "They're at the door, requesting to come in."
Mako scowled. "What I wouldn't give to refuse them in with their gift."
"You could you know," Kotoha told her. "You are the First Princess. There are very few people who can force themselves in here uninvited."
"But if I don't, Father himself will come to see what is wrong," Mako sighed. "But thanks Kotoha." She gave her sister an affectionate kiss on the cheek. "Let's get this over with."
Kotoha stifled her giggles. Only Mako would go to meet a man who was to be "hers" with the same attitude as lying in a pig pen for a week. Arm in arm they walked into the front room and watched in stony silence as a few guards were granted entrance by Ryunosuke, the prisoner dragged behind them like cattle on a leash. Mako hoped that the guards would take her look of disgust as one for the prisoner himself and not the way he was being treated.
The guards bowed when they halted in front of her. "Your gift, your Highness, from your Father."
Mako nodded in acknowledgement, not trusting her words to not come out as a sharp retort.
The head guard of the escort looked over to see the prisoner still standing. "Bow you dog!" He kicked at the back of the knees of his prisoner, sending the man to his knees with a crack on the marble stone that had Mako wincing.
"Enough!" she called sternly.
The head guard looked at her in surprise from her tone.
"I can take it from here," she assured him with her court mask firmly in place. With a nod, the guards bowed out, leaving the room empty except for Mako, Kotoha, Ryunosuke and their new guest.
"Please," she insisted. "Rise." She studied her "gift," as he struggled to his feet, with a critical eye. He was taller than her, lean, but strong, his tattered clothing from his rough treatment not hiding this frame. His hair might have been dark, but it was so matted and filthy that it was hard to tell. His skin was covered in bruises and abrasions, obviously more "hospitality" from the dungeon guards, if the metal tether around his neck, connected by slim but strong chains that linked to iron wrist cuffs were any indication. His bangs hid most of his expression but she could see that his posture was dignified, his chin stubborn, and his eyes were dark and insightful even if they currently gazed straight ahead to stare at nothing.
She sighed. What am I going to do with him?
"Ryunosuke?" she called.
She saw flash of something startle across the prisoner's expression before it was erased behind his composed mask of indifference once more. She eyed him closely for a moment before turning back to her friend. "Could you find something to take care of his injuries?"
No flash this time.
"Let's find him something to eat as well. And maybe find another solution to those restraints." She frowned at the metal.
"Of course Hime. I'll see to it all right away."
Mako nodded as Ryunosuke made his exit, looking for all the right people. She tilted her head to the side, studying this new person in her rooms. When she took a step closer, Kotoha's hand grasped her sister's sleeve.
"Be careful Mako," Kotoha warned, unsure and nervous.
Mako gave her a reassuring smile before turning back to the young man before them. "Do you have a name?" She asked politely, gently.
He didn't answer. Nor did he even make a movement that he had heard her speak at all.
"I would like to know your name," Mako inquired, no demand behind her words, just simple curiosity. She frowned. Perhaps he was deaf? "Can you not hear me?" She started slightly when his eyes suddenly connected with hers.
Mako felt her heart pound and her breath still as she stared back unwaveringly into eyes that were dark with loathing. Adrenaline coursed through her limbs as the age old instinct to fight or flee clawed its way to the surface. She had never seen someone look at another with such unadulterated hate before, much less directed at her. And against all common sense, those eyes drew her in, rather than repel her like they were meant to. She felt a ridiculous desire to want to get to know him; find out what made him tick, hear the thoughts racing through his mind, watch that passion for animosity unleashed into physical form.
"Mako?" Kotoha's nervous voice sounded from behind her, breaking the spell and his eyes went blank once more. Mako felt as if she had awakened from a walking day dream and shook her head slightly to clear her thoughts and still the slight shaking of her limbs. "Are you okay?"
"Fine," Mako assured her in a quiet voice.
Ryunosuke chose that moment to re-enter the room, halting as he sensed a disturbance in the air. "Is everything okay, Hime?"
"Just a little tired from the day's excitements," she assured him. "What about…?" She waved her hand at the young man in front of her, not sure how to address him.
"It is being seen to, others will be here shortly." He bowed his head slightly in respect.
Mako nodded, still slightly distracted. "Good, that's good. We'll be content for the night then Ryunosuke." She grasped her sister's hand to lead her to their shared bedroom.
"You won't need any attendants again tonight Hime?"
Mako smiled at the familiarity of the continued joke that had gone on for years, she had always insisted she could take care of herself as much as possible. "No, thank you, we'll manage."
Mako turned to see Ryunosuke waving his hand in the direction of the young man. "After he's been fed, cleaned, healed, and newly dressed try to find a spot…somewhere, for him to sleep. It looks like he needs it. We'll figure out the rest in the morning."
Ryunosuke nodded and wished the two princesses good-night with a reverent bow. Nobody was watching the young man, his eyes following their every move with intense suspicion mingled with curiosity.