A/N: Ranma & Co. belong to Rumiko Takahashi.
The forest was filled with the sounds of battle. Akane's heart pounded in her chest as she ran, the sound of it filling her ears…Please don't let me be too late, she thought. Then she was stumbling into the clearing and could only watch in horror as the Queen snarled and drove her dagger through the stomach of the soldier who held her, her smile bloody and black in the moonlight as she stared up at him challengingly…
Memories faded as iron chains rattled, manacles biting into Akane's ankles as she attempted to draw her knees up from the dirt and stone floor of the dungeon in which she sat. She slumped forward, tears silently sliding down her cheeks from the memories. She couldn't move far, as her arms were spread- eagled and her wrists pinned to the brick wall behind her in clamps.
She'd escaped the clearing, only to be caught and lie imprisoned in the dungeons of her other nemesis, her life-long enemy, and there was nothing she could do about it. She didn't know how long she'd been here but surely it hadn't been longer than a day or two. There was no window. She shivered. The air this far down was cold and damp, chilling her bones through the rags of her once-fine clothing.
Akane whirled, her sword slicing in a deadly silver arc around her, leaving a trail of fallen soldiers. A talon-tipped hand that was too fast to evade snagged in her clothing, ripping her tunic, and she was smashed against the ground, dazed and bleeding…
The sound of boots rang against the flagstones outside her cell, signaling guards approaching her. There was the sound of murmured voices, then the turning of a key in the lock. Her ears picked up the soft rustle of someone quietly walking across her cell.
She wiped her eyes against her shoulder quickly and glanced up, to see Ranma Saotome himself standing in front of her, watching her with unreadable blue eyes.
The Prince of the Islay Kingdom was dressed in formal black floor-length court robes, silver and dark-blue runes chasing each other across the heavy cloth. His dark hair was loose now, not tied back in a braid as she remembered it. Instead he'd left it long and flowing sleekly past his shoulders.
She wanted to stand, straighten her spine with royal fury in the face of her enemy, look on him with disdain. But she hadn't the strength to wrench free of the clamps. What she'd seen in the forest had leached her of any will to live. It was so unlikely that she had survived.
A spark of black humour lit briefly within her. Then again, she had landed in the country of her enemies, and they had found her. No doubt the prince was here so he could personally run her through with his sword and finish the job that Ryouga's Hruthgul had started. Ryouga Hibiki, Warduke of the Sumo Kingdom, and destroyer of her home.
She wanted to chuckle, but was too tired. She must be the only royal in the Six Kingdoms who actively had two different rulers out for her blood.
She refused to look away, however. She stared up at Ranma as his eyes swept her from head to manacled feet with chilling assessment. That, at least, she could do.
Ranma's gaze returned to her face. "Akane," he said thoughtfully. "It really is you. I'm afraid I didn't really believe my guards when they told me they'd captured the princess of the Hidden Lake Kingdom on our side of the border, defenseless and alone."
He abruptly dropped to his haunches between her spread legs, his robes pooling around him, and Akane flinched, the chains that bound her clinking as she flattened herself against the cold, damp wall, staring at Ranma with sparks in her eyes.
"If I'd known who you were when I met you, I would have killed you right then and there!" she spat.
Ranma smiled coldly. "But instead you cut me for kissing you." He absently traced with one finger the faint scar that ran low across his left cheek. Akane felt a surge of satisfaction as she stared at it. Sensing her elation, he smiled coldly. The long sleeve of his robe skimmed her arm as he brushed her hair away from her face.
She tried but couldn't quite suppress a flinch when he cupped her cheek, his thumb softly caressing her skin. She twisted away, eyes shut and he let her. But he came closer still, his voice descending to a whisper as he regarded her. "Your kingdom has been laid waste by the Hruthgul, hasn't it?"
Akane's eyes snapped open and her face turned to him. "You know what they are? You know of Ryouga's army?!"
Ranma leaned back. "Ryouga Hibiki, the ruler and Warduke of the Sumo kingdom, and his mysterious new army of Hruthguls. I know quite a lot about Ryouga, and I have spies in Hidden Lake, Akane, just as I'm sure your father does here in Islay. Most of them fled your kingdom two nights ago with news of the Hruthgul arriving on your shores. IS your family dead?"
"Run, Akane!" Her father screamed, even as he disappeared in a cloud of choking green smoke. The cloaked Hruthgul that seemed to be controlling the smoke made a circling sign, and Akane could see her father no longer….
Akane shuddered, hating to answer Ranma but knowing nothing could be gained by lying at this point. "I don't know. We received news just before the attack that Kasumi was kidnapped from her husband's home in Ferria. Nabiki has disappeared into hiding. My mother and father were escaping from the castle when the outer wall was breached. My father refused to leave before everyone in the castle could escape, so we were the last to leave. He was captured by the Hruthgul in the forest. But my mother was killed in the fighting...Ryouga killed her." She took a deep, ragged breath, tamping down her rage and grief at the memory.
"Did he ever send you any kind of warning?" Ranma persisted. Akane shook her head. "Did he give you a reason for attacking?"
Akane looked straight at him. 'No."
"And why weren't you captured, Akane?" Ranma softly questioned. She hesitated. The question may have been softly voiced, but Akane heard the underlying thread of steel in it all the same. Ranma would patiently stay there all night, as long as necessary, to get the answers he wanted from her.
"I told my father I would leave with them, but instead I stayed to fight in the castle. I disobeyed him. By the time I caught up to them, the Hruthgul and Ryouga had already found them." Tears brimmed in her eyes again, and fell. She was responsible for his capture. Her father had entrusted their kingdom's safety to her, but instead she'd stayed to fight out of a mad stubbornness and reckless defiance of her father's wishes.
And now, Hidden Lake was lost, and her family was captured. She lay in the dungeon of the Saotomes, minutes from being skewered. She'd failed her people, failed to guard them. She hung her head, berating herself silently.
Ranma watched her through lowered lashes. Ever since fleeing the Hidden Lake ball he'd braved on a dare, the memories of Akane had teased him. He'd tried to push them aside. The first few nights he'd returned home, he'd experienced the most erotic dreams he'd ever had, and they all featured one lovely, stubborn princess in his arms and his bed. He'd woken up frustrated, knowing he wouldn't be seeing her in the near future. In odd moments, he'd catch himself making up excuses to steal back into Hidden Lake. He'd even checked with his spies to see if she'd gotten betrothed, but they reported that she hadn't favoured any of her myriad suitors. The news had improved his mood somewhat. Finally, he'd applied his father's discipline to himself, and sternly walled away his memories of Akane.
And here she was, in the flesh. All his, to do with as he liked. After all, her family was either dead or captured. There would be no repercussions from them if he kept her. And God, his memories were only a shadow of the reality. She was so beautiful, even now. But he had Ryouga and the Hruthgul to worry about.
Why had his rival and sworn enemy attacked Hidden Lake instead of Islay? Ryouga in fact had had to sail around Islay's coast to land at the harbor at Hidden Lake, and although Tendo and his people were enemies of Ranma and the Islay kingdom, they certainly had no love for the Sumo kingdom that Ryouga ruled as Warduke. In fact, only two of the Six Kingdoms were allies to any of the others. Ferria and Jax had a pact with each other but they were too far north-west for Ranma to worry about at the moment. The ice-cold province of Sim was even further north.
His more immediate worry was what Ryouga's plan would be. The Warduke's parting threat was still strong in his mind.
I'll find a way to bring you down, Ranma. For what you've done to me, I'll pay you back a hundredfold.
And now Ryouga had made the first move on the chess board. What should Ranma do? It had to be something bold enough to match Ryouga's opening gambit.
Akane's chains clattered, drawing his attention back to her.
"What are you going to do with me?" she whispered. Ranma stared thoughtfully at her, and then all of a sudden a dark light entered his eyes, and Akane was suddenly sorry that she had asked.
To match Ryouga's move, or even exceed it, Ranma hid a smile.
"I have a proposition for you," Ranma said slowly, wondering at the audacity of his plan. "You weren't able to defend your kingdom. But I can help you regain your honour." He slid his hand into her hair, relishing the feel of the silk strands. The thick silver thread stitched into his wide sleeve scratched her cheek uncomfortably, but she almost didn't notice. She held her breath as she waited to hear what sort of doom Ranma planned for her.
"If you agree to be my willing wife, and hand over Hidden Lake into my rule, then I will use my army to free the Hidden Lake people."
There was a pause, as Akane stared at him with stunned eyes. "Give you…Hidden Lake?"
A watchful stillness took over Ranma. He stared at Akane. "Yes. Ryouga is no friend of mine either. I'll have to fight his Hruthgul, but they will take their time burning and pillaging in Hidden Lake." He didn't bother telling Akane his belief that Ryouga had attacked Hidden Lake as just a part of his plan to conquer Ranma's kingdom. That would hardly endear him to Akane. " So I can wait for them to come here, and have my defenses prepared and ready. But if you want me to free your country, then I'll have to go in there with my army and wipe them out. Root them from the land."
"So that you can take it?" Akane began to laugh hysterically.
Ranma grabbed her shoulders and shook her. She stopped laughing, and began to weep.
"Akane! Get a hold of yourself! Think of your father and sisters. Think of your people. This is your only chance to rescue them from Ryouga."
She said, "You want me as your wife? Why? You could just have Hidden Lake signed over to you."
"I'm thinking of the future, my sweet. I don't want to rule Hidden Lake myself. Let your father keep it for his lifetime if he wants. But the kingdom will belong to me. The people of the Hidden Lake are more likely to go along with that peacefully if the royal line is half theirs."
The royal line…heirs. Akane shuddered. With Ranma…And yet, this was the only chance her people might have. Kasumi's husband would be frantic about her disappearance but he was a healer, not a fighter. Nabiki's husband was gone on a yearlong trade trip across the sea. And Hidden Lake had no geographical allies. That was the cost of being bordered by the sea on two sides. And now, no one could help them by sea without alerting Ryouga.
Not to mention that she had lied outright to Ranma about Ryouga's reason for coming to Hidden Lake, a secret she had to keep safe. She couldn't die here without passing on the secret. It was her burden until then.
She looked up. "All right, I…" Ranma held up a finger.
"If you agree to this, you also agree that you will never bar me from your bed."
"So I am at your beck and call all my life!" she exclaimed bitterly.
"Is your freedom worth that of everyone else in your country?" he asked softly, gentler now that he'd succeeded in painting her into a very tiny corner. He'd won, he knew that.
Akane treated his question as a rhetoric one. The answer was obvious. She would willingly sell herself to save Hidden Lake. It was a small, if dear, price to pay. It had always been understood that one of the princesses would marry and their husband would hold Hidden Lake. Kasumi and Nabiki had both married royalty, who if not rulers, then nevertheless were quite content to stay where they were. They would be quite unwilling to take on the job of reigning over Hidden Lake, so the job of finding one who would had fallen to Akane.
And there was that other, irrevocable reason that each member of her family knew. ..
It was ironic. When she'd first met Ranma, she'd been angry that her father was ready to sell her to the most advantageous bidder. And now she was selling herself to her bitterest enemy instead.
She licked her lips, her pink tongue darting out quickly. Ranma's gaze locked, and his fist clenched in the dirt as he stopped himself, barely, from clamping his fingers around her jaw and pulling her into a kiss.
She looked up. "Very well, I agree. On one condition."
"What's that?" he ground out.
"I want to be part of the mission to rescue my father from Ryouga. I need to be there." She pinned him with her eyes.
Ranma smiled suddenly, and concealed his gloating within. He changed to a kneeling position and, setting his teeth, pried open the manacles on Akane's wrists and feet with his hands. She watched, surprised, noting the strength hidden by the wide, trailing brocade sleeves.
She shouldn't underestimate him, she thought.
"It's done," he said, as she awkwardly rubbed her sore wrists.
Then he did bend his head and kiss her, savoring his victory and the taste of her. She tasted salty, as though she'd been crying. Her mouth was soft and vulnerable, and he couldn't help but turn his head and deepen the kiss. Akane let him, seeing that she had no other choice at the moment. She stayed still and unresisting in his arms, until he drew back.
"I suppose that's good enough for now," he said, helping her to her feet. "Come on. We'll need to get you cleaned up for the wedding."
Akane stumbled. "What…now?"
Ranma steadied her and smirked. "How eager you are, Akane. No, this is a very official wedding, and not something to be taken lightly. I have to send the banns out. My heralds will get one day to spread the word, and my people will have two days to travel here if they wish to see the wedding. So we'll be married in three days."
Not to mention the fact that his mother and servants would all descend upon him with outrage if he didn't give them time to prepare for such a momentous occasion as their crown prince's wedding. But there was no need for Akane to know that he considered such things, he figured as he unlocked the door and led her out into the hallway.
But her response surprised him. She whirled on him. "I can't wait three days! My family may be dead by then! If I marry you sooner, will you send your soldiers after them?"
Ranma hid his smile this time. Really. She made it too easy. He stared down at her watchfully.
"The wedding can't be any sooner, but we'll have a council of war tonight," he said. "And I'll allow you to attend, if, that is, you attend dinner with me and behave in a pleasant manner," he added as he guided her up the dungeon stairs.
He opened the door and the sudden light from the brighter lamps beyond nearly blinded Akane after her stint in the cell. She held onto the doorjamb to steady herself. Ranma didn't seem to notice, but rather led her up more corridors that became increasingly well lighted until they were obviously in the main part of the castle.
Ranma beckoned to two maids who chatted in an alcove.
"Behave yourself, my dear betrothed," Ranma warned. She scowled at him but couldn't say much as Ranma gave orders to the maids. He watched as Akane was led away by maids to be cleaned.
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P.S- This story's rating will change to M for future chapters, if itsn't obvious from the content already. Cheers!