The Prologue to Pros and Cons of Arranged Marriages: (Ramble Edition). I suppose it counts as a SasukexSakura, if you think about it. Though you might also get a headache. I got rid of the original and posted this in its place, I happen to like it better. This will more than likely updated in smaller segments than what I normally do. In fact this might be the longest chapter I write for this. Which is sad because this is a prologue…

Warnings: AU, Potential OOC-ness (I'll keep it within reason), Subtle references, Blunt references, SasukexSakura, TsunadexDan, Crack, and … that actually sums it up nicely.

Summary: Because, in the end, Sakura knew she should have ran the moment her mother informed her of her engagement to king of Tomato Country. AU, SakuxSasu, Crack

The Pros and Cons of Arranged Marriages

Prologue: I should have ran.

The members of the royal family of Katsuya were known for their powerful personalities. They were headstrong, independent, and stubborn; mulish to the point of stupidity, and with high tolerance to alcohol. Nobody in the palace knew this better then the maids, who had tried every thing in the book- including the alcohol tricks- to get the royals to agree with the gowns, and all to no avail. The family's latest princess was no exception to this.

"I told you, I can do this on my own." The princess's voice was dripping venom as she sullenly allowed them to braid her hair in the latest style. Whether or not it was actually still in style remained to be seen, seeing as how the Duchess of Katsuya's neighbouring country changed the rules of fashion every other hour and got very huffy whenever the trends didn't follow suit quickly enough. Rumour had it that she planned to write a book detailing all of the intricacies of the 'art' of fashion, a feat made somewhat difficult by the fact that writing the rules down tended to make them permanent and, thus, insusceptible to the changes the Duchess made at the drop of a hat. We'll leave that headache alone though. "I'm not a cripple, you know."

"You're a princess. Deal with it." Her mother smiled wickedly from her place in the doorway- not like a witch, mind you, but close enough to be mistaken for one. She was reclining in that regal way she always got while mocking someone; a habit she took great delight in, along with her smile. (Some of the maids gossiped about what would happen if their Queen was let loose in a room of politicians, before wincing at the thought and begging their king not to let her anywhere near the visiting diplomats). Sakura's glare immediately moved from the cowering maids to her mother. As soon as the glare was removed from them, however, the maids got an evil gleam in their eyes, and with a quick motion they finished tying the princess's royal corset. Very tightly. Out of revenge, we assume, for all the trouble the Princess caused them. A few of them felt a bit guilty about involving the corset. Elder maids merely shook their heads and replied that it was for her own good, after all, and they might as well tighten it a bit more. Said princess's glare sputtered out very quickly as she focused on breathing properly, not that it had been very effective against Tsunade anyway. She was more than likely immune to glares; an inevitable side effect of perfecting the art.

"And what if I don't want to be a princess?" Even with oxygen cut off, Sakura managed to keep a respectable amount of righteous fury in her voice. Tsunade was sure she got that trait from her father- nevermind that he had never shown any sign of possessing it. Said father, also known as Dan, just smiled and nodded whenever she mentioned it. Most people actually blamed the resident spymaster for teaching her, as she sounded just like the old pervert whenever someone was caught performing a ''injustice'' against him. He still claimed that peeking was a constitutional right for the spymaster, and since no one could ever catch him in the act they had no right but to agree. Anyway, Tsunade had a pretty good idea of what was bothering her daughter.

"Are you still sulking about the arranged marriage?" Granted it was a bit of an unusual arranged marriage, but Sakura was overreacting just the same. Tsunade herself had had an arranged marriage, and she and Dan got along famously. Agreed, nobody spoke about the first few rocky years, when nearly all the training grounds and bedrooms had been destroyed though a variety of super punches and illusions, courtesy of the two lovebirds. Naturally, Sakura didn't know about that little detail.

"How would you feel about being sent to the country that all evil supposedly comes from, to marry a boy who's eight years younger then you?" She had a point. Although, there were recorded cases of marriages just as odd that turned out fine. For example, there was an arranged marriage several years ago between a couple where not only was there an age difference of several years, but it turned out that the prince involved in the marriage was actually female. Apparently, she had started a movement to prove that females were equal to men in all areas of life. In any case, she refused to halt the marriage (taking feminist to a whole new level). The princess, it was discovered, really didn't care one way or another so the marriage proceeded without a real hitch. The two then adopted several children and will be celebrating their 16th anniversary together later this year. Politicians, and everyone else for that matter, have no idea what to think.

"He can't be more than two or three years younger, and I'm sure the rumours have been exaggerated." Still, Tsunade personally agreed with the 'origin of evil' part. It was kind of hard not to, with the rumour mills working constantly to keep the country's reputation firmly in the "evil," "avoid at all costs" and even "FOR ALL THAT IS HOLY LEAVE IT ALONE" categories. It is suspected the mills had way too much fun with tales from Tomato Country.

"That doesn't stop you from spreading them." Which was also true; queen Tsunade was a leading factor in the rumour mill. Maids could only be awed when the ruler of Katsuya entered the dining hall, only to return later that evening before the main course with nearly every noble lady attending believing that a meteor had crashed into the nearby mountain over the border had released aliens into the forests, and the only way to kill them was by beating them in a game of chess on the night of the full moon. By the end of the night, of course, the lords believed it too.

"Whatever. I was trying to comfort you." Tsunade turned and left in a huff, refusing to deal with her stubborn daughter (she really couldn't point fingers in regards to stubbornness, but she is a queen so the rules sort of bend for her), passing the princess's bodyguard as she went. Who was late, by the way. Not that anyone blamed her. Beating all the other knights took time after all. Especially when you're trying to polish off the last of your morning dango at the same time (the knight had almost perfected the technique by now).

"Don't worry, Sakura-hime," she greeted the princess cheerfully. "Anybody from this royal family can handle whatever Tomato Country throws at you." She pulled out her ever-present dango stick and stuck in her mouth, managing to look very not-dangerous. And she was one of the best in the business, with several titles to hold over her fellow knights' heads, like "The Demon Slayer", "Queen of the Blade", and "Dango Loving Ass Kicking Mistress of Battle." Not to mention voted most likely to bring glory and booze to her country by "Unsheathe Thy Swords: a Knight's Magazine." It was a rather impressive resume, to say the least. Especially that last part.

"Well, if you listen to the rumours…" Sakura wasn't about to let it go so easily. Which was understandable. As Princess she was one of the first to hear the Queen's stories, fresh from the mills. Being the trusting and only-slightly gullible daughter that she was, Sakura assumed that these stories were true. She never once considered that her mother might actually be the source of 90% of all rumours in Katsuya. Actually, we're not sure if Tsunade was aware of that fact either.

Anko waved it away. "Yeah, yeah, the king's supposed to be arrogant, brainiackish, godlike and generally not human-ish." Sakura was a bit surprised at the bored tone she was using. Most people had at least a little bit of awe in their voice when talking about the mysterious kingdom. Then again, the knight wasn't one to listen to rumours, unless they involved potential rivals. Listening to and allowing gossip to control her life as if she was a slave to who broke up with who, who crashed their carriage into what, who'd got into trouble with the Demons last and the most recent Dragon sightings were not all that Anko-ish. "You don't actually believe that stuff, do you? Nobody's actually been there, so what would they know?" Imagine- if everyone acknowledged that, the mills would shut right down.

"But what about that country that vanished after insulting their king?" Ah. That country had been erased from the history books because nobody wanted to admit that there were people who thought it was funny to poke fun at the most dangerous country around.

"They had it coming." Which didn't answer the question, because that was a well-known fact. Nobody had really liked that country. And it wasn't just because their monarchy tended to step on the toes of other monarchies (taking a bulldozer to the toes would describe it better) on a fairly regular basis (it was a wonder they had lasted as long as they did, really). Due to the rumours about Tomato Country that held sway even there, not even The-Country-That-Was-Destroyed's royalty tried to dance anywhere near Tomato Country's toes. Then in a foolish, stupid move the crowned prince commented on how tomatoes were disgusting vegetables and that only someone with no taste buds would like them or eat them daily. The following day saw a crater where the country had previously stood, and an unspoken agreement by everyone else to never speak a word against that particular vegetable (or fruit, if you want).

The maids had finished tightening Sakura's gown, and she was finally allowed to leave the room. She immediately made a beeline to the dining room, with Anko following right behind her. Well, they didn't really beeline, like bees do. Zigzagging through the hallways would be counter productive, after all, and cause raised eyebrows as the princess bounced from one side of the wall to the other, her bodyguard laughing in behind her. Anyway, thanks to the lack of zigzagging the duo arrived at their destination in a timely manner, and were met with a familiar sight. A sight that also informed them the Queen had already passed this way. The spymaster was just managing to remove himself from the hole in the wall the Queen made for him, dust filtering through his white hair. Once he regained his bearings he turned to the newest arrivals.

The spymaster's eyes lit up as soon as he saw them, promising them both that he was going to say something stupid. Jiraiya didn't disappoint. "Sakura-hime! Anko-chan! Have you written your wills yet?"

A punch from Anko almost sent him flying through another wall. One for the fact he tried to scare her charge, the other for adding '-chan' to her name, because no self-respecting knight allowed anyone to add something like that to their name. Sakura watched in amusement as he fell to the floor in a daze before finally passing out. By the time he woke up both women were just finishing their final meal in the castle before they set out to Tomato Country.

"I was only speaking out of concern for our beloved princess," he defended himself belatedly. Anko snorted loudly. "I've been there-" Anko scoffed louder and Sakura smothered her giggles at the bodyguard's antics, "-I know what a horrible place it is. Every single citizen is a trained assassin from the age of ten, and they can smell fear. Their king is a horribly ugly demon-child with glowing red eyes, from numerous experiments the royal family has performed on themselves to become immortal. And worst of all," here he paused dramatically, "they're vegetarians."

Sakura paled. Beside her, even Anko looked queasy. This was something they hadn't heard before, and the humour of the situation was lost at the last point of the Jiraiya's speech. "You had better hope you're lying." The bodyguard told him emotionlessly, reminding all that she was trained to dispose of anyone in her way. Or if they got in between her and her dango… or her sake, or her bed, or the washroom, or her swords, etc.

"Why?" Even though he was the best spymaster in the world, Jiraiya wasn't very smart. After all, testing two people capable of destroying you in under a minute was generally frowned upon. (Not that anyone, besides Jiraiya, was stupid enough to test that theory.)

Anko was now smiling sweetly, which usually meant she was going to say something that would result in you disappearing as fast as you could. "Because Sakura-hime's going to tell her parents. You know what Tsunade-sama said she'd do to you if you scared Sakura-hime again. I doubt the king will be very happy, either.

What exactly Tsunade would do him, we do not know. Most people knew to clear the room whenever the queen pulled rank on her spymaster, physically reminding him that she was in charge and did not appreciate him scaring her daughter. Staying, after all, was pretty much guaranteed to be bad for one's health. The king, on the other hand, tended to show his displeasure in more subtle ways. By quietly ordering all the bathhouses in the country to close, for example. The Killing Intent felt in the room, despite the fact Dan had still been smiling, was more than enough to make most pause. It was understandable, then, that Jiraiya quickly went about making himself scarce.

Anko steered Sakura towards the entrance, muttering about stupid spymasters. Having no evidence contradicting those comments, Sakura listened to the knight, grateful for the distraction. The next hour passed by far too quickly for Sakura's taste (as she wanted to savour every moment she had left at home). The Queen sent her off with wave and promises to write when she remembered to. Dan hugged his daughter tightly and whispered that would keep Tsunade away from the sake, and to take care of herself. Anko, moaning about how sappy this entire thing was, ended up picking up Sakura and throwing her into the carriage (the latest design, as of this morning).

Soon the landscape drifted by, and Sakura sat on her perch beside Anko, who was driving, having moved from the confines of the coach. Her bodyguard made the trip eventful with bouts of road rage against carts and other carriages that cut her off on the street- resorting to throwing pebbles at the drivers some times. It did a remarkably good job of keeping Sakura's spirits up. There was no one else travelling with them. There was no need: Anko was fully trained and down right lethal, and Sakura was no slouch in a fight either. The two could hold their own. And Katsuya was very well regarded for its safe roads. Not as safe as Konoha, to the East, but safe enough not to have to worry about it. Of course, no one had any idea what the crime rate was like in Tomato Country, so the princess would have to rely on her bodyguard until the 'safe' hit satisfactory levels, if it ever did.

They stopped only when it was too dark to travel, and Sakura's fears came back full-force under the cover of night. A fire flickered lazily between them, casting dark shadows on the now-suspicious white bunny hopping about the equally suspicious flower patch, with the creepy yellow butterflies floating about in a flirtatious manner that suggested they were spies of some sort. Anko told ghost stories. Which made Sakura feel so much better; seeing how most of them starred the king she was going to marry.

~***~

After 2 weeks, 4 days, 11 hours, 47 minutes and 56 seconds of travel- according to Sakura, who kept close track of her final moments of freedom- the princess and her knight entered Tomato Country. The difference was immediate; like night and day, white and black, light and dark, books and TV. The moment they crossed the border the spring flowers seemed to disappear, replaced with leafless trees and dead shrubbery littering the path. An overcast sky added even more shadows to the strange, alien landscape of hills and cliffs. Leaves every shade of red through yellow coated the ground, crunching eerily as the carriage rolled over them. Even Anko paused to glance back at the forest they'd just left, that seemed to end in a perfect line, the butterflies, flowers, trees, sun, blue sky and bunny waving goodbye, then back to the front where heavy fog was curling and floating above the ground and air was so much heavier. "Okay," the knight started, placing a dango stick in her mouth, "that's just cool."

They travelled in silence now, as something about the place seemed to drain the good mood that they'd managed to develop on the way there. While no one had ever been to Tomato Country, its borders were well-known: after all if you knew where not to step you were less likely to enter the place where no one ever returned. Though, Sakura would have thought that people would be smart enough to leave the country that even spring choose to skip well alone. Then again, common sense seemed to be a rare occurrence nowadays...

It took another 6 days to reach the capital city. The various towns they passed through were forever silent and still. Windows were tightly shuttered, and the chilly breeze that picked up when they crossed the border grew colder with every quiet house they passed. It was Anko who suggested they just camp out, and Sakura agreed without pause. Not that she slept a wink anyways, and neither did Anko's sword ever leave her hand, even in sleep. In fact, that curious deer was lucky that the knight didn't behead it when it started nibbling on Anko's hair. Poor thing nearly suffered a heart attack when Anko gripped its antlers and threw it down to the ground, her sword halting half an inch from the creature's neck as she woke up more fully and realized that the animal hadn't been attacking them. It stood a little shakily, twitching every so often, even after Sakura had healed it, still white as snow from the surprise. The princess got the impression of someone with swirly eyes and knees clattering together.

After seeing the deer off, the two could find no reason not to continue their journey. Well, Sakura most certainly could, but Anko replied that none of them were good enough to prevent Tsunade from pummelling them into the ground if they turned around before even meeting the King. Therefore, the purple-haired knight concluded, they would just have to meet the king then hightail it out of there. With their goals set, the travelling began once more.

The capital city surrounded the palace in an outward circle, and the city was surrounded with a wall thicker than Sakura was tall. Within the walls were houses similar to the homes in the towns and villages they'd passed in the countryside. All of them were closed and dark, and the fine mist that had greeted them that morning was, by now, a downpour. Thunder crackled menacingly overhead, and the lightning flashed in sheets over the whole sky. Anko was cursing from the driver's seat on the irony of it all. Sakura was in the coach quickly preparing the cold medicine the knight would need later, having already finished mending the raincoats they would also need. During the moments Sakura paused in her work and glanced out of the glass, she swore she saw eyes peering out from the cracks in the shutters and doors, watching the carriage clatter slowly down the street. Closing the curtains, she retrieved some of the daggers her father had hidden for her in the coach, feeling a little safer only when they were securely tucked away on her person.

Ahead of them was the palace, looming ominous and dark against the stormy sky. It was built of dark grey stone and the windows carved into the walls seemed to absorb what little light made it through the clouds. Even from where the two were looking at it, in what appeared to be a market square, it was foreboding. Worse than The Annual New Years celebrations in Katsuya, where every adult got drunk and the property damages to castle were immense, despite Dan's numerous attempts to control the problem. He'd failed miserably in the past and no one was betting it would change. Tsunade, after all, led the drunken crowds in their partying.

Within a matter of minutes Anko had managed to drive right into the courtyard of the palace, dead and deserted like the rest of the country. There was no gate keeping anyone out, which was odd. The wall around the courtyard was even thicker than the first wall of the city, decorated symmetrically on each side with empty watchtowers and winged mythical beasts carved right into the wall. The empty eyes of the gargoyles glared balefully down at them, without the covertness of the people in the town. However, they were also covered in bird droppings that managed to make them much less threatening. Sakura somehow found herself more at ease than she'd been in the town. To the right, she noticed with a frown, part of the wall was coming apart. There was a hole at least the size of her carriage, perhaps larger- it was partially hidden by the castle from her angle. She tsked under her breath. It was dangerous to have such vulnerabilities in one's defences.

The horses were, surprisingly enough, calm and steady as the Knight pulled them to a stop. Sakura lightly leapt from the coach; one hand holding an umbrella over her head, and the other expertly keeping her petticoats out of the puddles. It was a skill all ladies of nobility somehow mastered before they could walk. Anko was still baffled by the concept of dresses, however, so there was no one to rate the jump. In the back of her mind, the princess wondered if anyone would notice the knives she had hidden in her corset, on her legs and up her sleeves. Certainly nobody back home ever did, except Anko and her mother. Or, she thought as she looked at the deserted courtyard, if she never showed up. They obviously weren't expecting anyone. She shook her head miserably and cursed whoever had first thought up arranged marriages.

The knight finished putting the horses into the open stable. The carriage was left in the open, currently hiding Sakura as she fiddled with the wooden stake secreted in her dress (just in case, you know). Anko returned, raincoat soaked and purple hair practically flat, shaking like a dog to remove the excessive water as she moved beside Sakura and, more importantly, under the umbrella. The swords-woman was cursing under her breath in a way that would have had Jiraiya blushing if he ever heard it; however, Sakura had known Anko since she was a young girl and Anko just a squire. She was, therefore, unaffected by the crude language.

"Jeez, can they be any ruder?" Her bodyguard was muttering, "They didn't even send a servant to greet us. Guess we just barge in." Sakura wasn't so sure about the wisdom of that, or about Anko's sanity, but nevertheless followed her into the place. The doors were unlocked and swung open with a simple push, clanging loudly against the interior wall, leading Sakura to think that perhaps she was expected after all. No ruler, sane or otherwise, left their doors unlocked. Although, considering everything else they'd encountered, Sakura wouldn't have been surprised if the rulers had died or left a long time ago.

The interior of the palace was dark- too dark to see in front of her, almost. Closing her umbrella, but keeping it in hand, neither she nor her guardian bothered removing their rain cloaks. They kept to the walls, and Sakura jumped every time her foot hit the marble floor, sending echoes through the granite halls. She edged close to Anko, fingering one of the daggers hidden in her gown. The hallway lightened considerably several steps in, courtesy of a small lamp that lay, abandoned, in a corner. Anko picked it up gingerly, wary of traps, and swung it around to illuminate more of the hall. Sakura gasped softly at the result. The hallway was made of polished stone, and was covered from floor to arched ceiling with intricate carvings. Statues lined the floor at every convenient interval. The creatures depicted ranged from winged elves and pegasi to more traditional beasts like dragons and winged tengu. But they were all carved in the same style; with sharp-edges and smooth curves that contrasted in ways both beautiful and strange. Sakura had never seen anything quite like it before. Not in any of the famous, wealthy or antique art displays and museums she had visited in her life.

As they passed yet another griffin, the silence evidently proved too much for Anko, who had never gone so much as five minutes without talking before. Not even at official functions. Although she very rarely got invited to one of those. For obvious reasons. With a deadpan Sakura hadn't known the knight possessed, Anko commented, very seriously: "I wonder if these guys have a fetish for wings, or something." The question echoed through out the hall for several seconds. Sakura fought to keep the grin off her face as Anko's face gained a pensive expression. The dango stick she was chewing on flicked up and down.

They stopped at a large oak door, covered in the same ornate designs (as well as smudges of ash). Sakura glanced at Anko, motioning her to open the door. The knight rolled her eyes before edging it open silently and peering through. Sakura waited patiently, watching her guardian closely for signs of something bad being on the other side. But Anko's face remained expressionless.

"There are people in there," she mouthed to her princess as she backed away from the crack slightly.

"Let me see," Sakura mouthed back, crouching to peer in as well. Her petticoats were silent even as she shifted for a better view. Inside the room were two figures, one rather short and the other medium-sized, standing next to a throne where another figure was seated. The throne itself was surprisingly close to the door- the room was at least half the size of Katsuya's. Probably, she thought, because they never entertained guests. Sakura couldn't make out any of them out from the door, since this room was as dark as the hall and they couldn't risk shining the lamp into it. They were talking quietly, and Sakura had to strain to hear what they were saying.

"But, this time it will work," The shortest of the trio was saying, exasperation clear in his voice.

"Yeah, when we catch him, he'll be sorry he ever messed with us." The short figure's companion added casually. This was followed by a muffled crunching that made Sakura think of Jiraiya's eating habits.

"And how exactly are you going to do that?" The figure on the throne sounded irritated and bored. "Annoy him to death?"

The duo paused, perhaps thinking about that. "We could always give him to Orochimaru." The tallest figure suggested. There was a silence after this comment and Sakura wondered who this 'Orochimaru' was.

"Are you sure that's wise?" The shortest figure questioned. "He's dangerous enough as it is. We don't need the resident mad scientist trying things out on him."

"True…" The figure on the throne said thoughtfully. "But if worst comes to worst we can always set him loose on the next country that annoys us." All three figures chuckled evilly at that, and Sakura had gone white as a sheet. Tomato Country was turning out exactly like the rumours said. Anko leaned close to whisper in her ear.

"Let's just back up quietly and leave before they notice us. We're skipping to part B of the plan. I'm sure your mother will understand." Sakura nodded, and slowly moved away from the door. One of her daggers was in hand, though the lace of her sleeves prevented its gleaming edge from being seen. Unfortunately, she happened to step on a squeaky board

In a heartbeat the door was open and she was face to face with the two standing figures. Anko had her sword out and had shoved Sakura, dagger in hand, behind her. Sakura got into a defensive position and looked the men straight in the eyes. A mistake, she immediately decided, as this allowed her to see that their eyes both shined a hellish crimson. Sakura's face went pale as all the blood drained from it, and she promptly fainted.

~***~

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