AN: Thank-you so so much to everyone who continues to support TKM! I love writing, but you guys make it so rewarding for me. Sorry this took so long to come, it wasn't supposed to be this late but I've been sick for the past 2 weeks and have only just started to get better.
RayPenBrush (another incredible artist) has drawn Rukia with Grimmjow's coat draped over her, and Ichigo as the young King... (dreamy sigh) – have a look yourselves. Like the talented individuals who have drawn for my stories, these two additions are just love. Links can be found on my profile page.
Also, Moon's-Wing (fellow talented writer) has written a very intriguing piece called King, Queen, Knight inspired by TKM. (The story is so unique and intriguing that Moon's-Wing was just being super nice to mention TKM)Check it out!
Words of Riddles
Senna was slowly dulling in contrast to her sister.
And Inoue had a suspicion that her lady knew so better than anyone else.
Silent as she combed through Senna's hair, Inoue watched her lady stare through unseeing eyes at her own reflection that now mirrored a woman far beyond her years and exhausted beyond her age. She had watched Senna over the last few days in her feeble attempts to monopolise the King's time, only to come out of it with the small feat of ensuring the Lord's presence at their wedding fittings. Inoue had wondered how Senna perceived of her own predicament, but it was increasingly hard to decipher as her lady kept more and more to herself, and with each passing day, spoke less to anyone around her. But in spite of the future Queen's silence, Inoue knew without doubt that her lady was a victim to her own thoughts that now plagued her mind in every waking moment, and she knew with certainty that the time was fast coming when Senna would finally answer to her paranoia.
Inoue gripped Senna's hair a little tighter than she should have at the thought of Rukia. Having observed her movements within castle walls in the time that she had settled in and thus understanding the hold she had over certain people, the realisation that Rukia was in fact her largest obstacle and not Senna terrified her. The moment she had known that her lady was in actuality the one walking in the shadow of her younger sister and not the other way around; it was a sense of helplessness so great that Inoue felt an unnatural bitterness in her grow. Whilst she bore no personal hatred for Senna, Inoue was far from hesitating in doing what she needed to destroy her rise to Queen, and it pleased her to no end that Senna posed little challenge to her. But all good things always had an end and that perfect illusion was soon shattered when she not only understood that it was Rukia who held all of the King's attention, but that Rukia, unlike her sister, was almost untouchable to her.
Staring at the back of her lady's head, she could not help but resent how weak she was in contrast to her sister. How people had not yet realised was beyond Inoue, but it was clear that Senna was second to Rukia in every regard, and it angered Inoue that she was now facing a foe so far beyond her own capabilities. Failing to conform to the conventional, Rukia was too hard to understand and even more difficult to predict. It also did not play to Inoue's advantage that before she had known of Rukia's threat, she had actually liked the girl for her respect to any person despite their hierarchical standing. It was indeed unfortunate that the younger sister was now pulled into this predicament for Inoue truly did admire her individualistic nature, and though she knew that Rukia would outsmart her, she would still try to her dying breath to eliminate two birds with one stone.
Inoue decided she had watched on in silence for long enough.
"My Lady." Inoue finally broke through the stillness, watching as Senna's eyes flickered softly up at her through the reflection of the mirror.
Without saying anything, Senna indicated for Inoue to speak freely.
Trialling a red hair piece in Senna's hair as she readied her lady for the night's festivities, Inoue asked absentmindedly, "What does one mean by 'what is a snake without its poison'?"
Senna's brows drew together slightly to form a somewhat questioning look, "Why do you ask?"
Inoue merely shook her head, gently placing the red hair piece back onto the table as she reached for another. "No reason, I was simply curious."
And then the silence returned, but Inoue swore she could hear Senna's thoughts as her face betrayed everything that ran through her racing mind now. Inoue held her breath, but her posture remained oblivious to the seeds that she had swiftly planted. She would make use of Senna's reign over Rukia, she was at least useful for that, and perhaps then she would be able to overcome the youngest Tanaka sister, and in the same process, bring them both down.
The calm silence, a stark contrast to the raging thoughts surging through Senna's mind, dragged on endlessly and although Senna made no outward movement, Inoue knew her words had been placed in the right moment to parallel with her lady's mounting paranoia. It was a growing obsession, this desire to analyse her own sister, but Senna could not stop herself from subconsciously trying to emulate Rukia, and she couldn't despise herself more for striving to duplicate herself into someone who was supposed to be inferior to her. But Inoue knew Senna would soon cave into finding a different approach to eradicate the threat that Rukia posed.
All she needed was a push in the right direction.
When Senna spoke, her voice sounded so empty... like she was finally selling her soul.
"I think it is time we find her a suitor."
A married Rukia would be a snake without its poison.
A flurry of hushed whispers fell over the mass of people crowded in the great hall as all eyes turned to watch in admiration of the future Queen's younger sister. Dressed in a simple gown of soft champagne with white lace trimmings, Rukia made her modest entrance ignorant to the captivated attention she had garnered. Her long black hair, now much longer than she had remembered, draped across her back in soft curls and her eyes, dusted with a soft charcoal, shone vividly in its perfect shade of violet. With a natural pink hue accentuating her cheeks, her face shone with youth but lost the child-like quality she had in her earlier days in Court. She was blossoming and blossoming quickly. It was easy to miss her seemingly sudden transformation for Rukia placed little effort in her daily appearance, content to braid her hair and dress in more ordinary gowns. But tonight, she was alluring in her mysterious beauty and undeniably second to no one.
Walking gracefully across the floor and unaware of the curious looks she had gathered, she watched from afar her King, more handsome than she remembered him to be, in conversation with his advisors amongst other unfamiliar faces. Senna was close by his side, majestic in her royal blue gown and acting very much like the Queen expected of her as she laughed joyfully at something Ichigo had said. Rukia's face betrayed no emotions, only smiling gently as she turned further away from the King and walked towards the musicians playing near the secluded balcony.
The night air was much colder now as the days progressed further into winter, but Rukia conversely found herself more drawn to the cold, or perhaps it was the privacy, as she made her way to the empty balcony. She shuddered as the chill hit her, but she preferred the refreshing feeling. Closing her eyes and leaning against the marble ledge, she felt the cold breeze tickle her face and run through her hair as she listened to the laughter, singing and dancing of royals gathered for the festivity of the return of someone whom she had never heard of. But still she had come because that was what she had promised her two mentors, whom both were nowhere to be found. It didn't really matter either way, she would wait for their arrival and once she had reassured them of her participation in the festivity, she would make her exit.
Thinking of her training with Grimmjow and Yoruichi earlier in the day, she wondered vaguely how many days, or perhaps weeks, had passed since she had recommenced her training. How many sleepless nights had passed since her knowledge of the person behind her poisoning? When she realised that the memory of that evening was still too fresh in her mind, the answer was that it had not been long enough.
"You look bored."
Rukia did not turn to the owner of the voice for she did not have it in her tonight to engage in conversation with anyone. Hoping her silence would deter further attempts from this person, she remained unmoved and oblivious to the unwanted company. However, instead of the desired effect Rukia was so desperately seeking, her silence only prompted the stranger to continue on unperturbed.
"I'm bored also."
Rukia kept silent, only taking in a steady breath to keep patient.
"I think we should seek our own entertainment for the evening."
"I doubt the King would appreciate that." Rukia spoke in no particular tone, only stating a fact.
"I doubt the King would notice." Was the blasé response.
Those words effectively stirred a reaction from Rukia when the amethyst-eyed beauty flinched at the truth behind the statement. Rukia was only meant to glance at the persistent stranger, but one look at her new companion and she was unable to tear her eyes away. Standing next to her and also staring out into the far-reaching south garden stood one of the most unique, most beautiful women Rukia had ever seen in her young life. Not even drawings depicted of such dangerously seductive beauty. Her almost child-like voice did not seem to match the sensual being that she was and her womanly figure, Rukia imagined, could have even the most sought after man.
"So what do you say Rukia?" Her light hazel eyes finally turned to look at Rukia as she watched with mirth as the younger girl's expression contorted in surprise.
Rukia regarded her carefully, briefly wondering whether she should know the girl, but knew without doubt this person was no more than a stranger to her, "How do you know my name?"
The curvaceous beauty merely smiled, and whilst it simply further enhanced her exotic appearance, Rukia only found the grin too secretive and unnerving, "Your name has become infamous."
Rukia's features hardened, "You have mistaken my eminence to that of my sister's-,"
"Senna?" She raised a perfectly shaped eyebrow, "No, I'm afraid your name has far surpassed that of your sister's. Perhaps neither to the public nor the Court, but to anyone with any political importance, your name piques far more intrigue." She spoke in a way that seemed entirely mysterious yet so nonchalantly that Rukia knew it would be impossible to figure her companion out.
"Forgive my ignorance for I am somewhat new to Court, but you are?" Rukia asked carefully, unsure of the reception she would receive for her blatant unawareness to who this stranger was.
But said stranger was not listening as she marvelled at her amethyst eyes, "They were right, they are indeed violet." She whispered in awe to herself, unashamedly leaning into Rukia's personal space to gain a better look. "How peculiar." She tilted her head and smiled.
Rukia didn't know how to respond, but her eyes did widen a fraction at the insinuation that she had been spoken about. This girl knew too much to just be a Courtesan, but could someone her age and a female no less really be of political standing?
So she reiterated much more firmly this time, curiosity getting the better of her, "Your name, my lady."
But the stranger did not seem fazed by the eagerness, "Name.." She pondered whimsically with a soft smile ghosting her features, "I'm afraid I have gone by too many to recall my own. But what is the importance of a name without an identity? You need only know the person that I am."
"A name is an identity."
"Oh but names could be so deceptive sometimes."
Though the hazel-eyed beauty's smile did not falter, her words turned insensitive and harsh, "Senna, sister by name, stranger by heart."
But Rukia was faster in her retort, "Senna is my sister by title." It did not even occur to Rukia how this stranger knew of her forged relationship with her sister, and it would only be later that Rukia would realise how unfazed she had been to the blatant knowledge that her relationship with Senna had become no more than a title.
Immediately the seductress could not contain the genuine laughter that bubbled from within. Throwing caution to the wind and seemingly uncaring of the way she was conducting herself or the attention she was garnering, she laughed uninhibitedly. Conversely, Rukia merely stood there, carefully regarding her companion as she struggled to decipher whether she was a friend or a foe.
"Your eyes.." The stranger smiled as one would when they had a secret, so cunning it reminded her of Yoruichi's cat-like eyes.
Rukia tried to temper her exasperation with her company's tendency to speak her mind as she pleased, dictating the conversation to her heart's content, "Yes, they are violet-,"
"Amethyst." She corrected, "But not what I was meaning to say. Your eyes...they have flickered to my left eight times in the time that I have spoken to you."
Rukia shook her head, not understanding how such minor details were worth her observation. "I have not noticed and I fail to see the significance of where I choose to look."
A pregnant pause followed as the stranger stared relentlessly at Rukia with eyes that were reading and deciphering her every action and word. Rukia did not drop her gaze, an act of defiance and irritation at the constant knowing look on the beauty's face. Finally, the corner of her lips quirked upwards in a smirk before she spoke, albeit somewhat to herself, "Interesting.."
With her annoyance escalating at the girl's love for speaking in riddles, Rukia did not mask the bluntness in her tone, "What is?"
When she spoke, it was strange. Though her eyes were kept firmly on Rukia and her voice was loud enough for anyone to hear, there was no doubt that she had only uttered her words in self-observation. "You are in love with the King."
Rukia's body instantly tingled unpleasantly, her breath shortening in shock as she managed to prevent the jolt that had threatened to reveal her deepest secret. Momentarily rendered speechless, Rukia could only stare at her companion with hard and distrusting eyes. How had she known? How could she trust that this person would not use the information to her advantage?
But she did not get to ponder for long as the stranger was quick to lose interest on the subject.
"So!" She clapped her hands together, her persona reverting from mysterious to playful so suddenly, albeit effortlessly, that Rukia couldn't help by eye the girl with caution. "Shall we go and seek our own entertainment? I know a way to sneak out of castle grounds if you are daring." She finished with the customary upward inflection of persuasion.
But her efforts to seek out amusement of her own were not to be.
"Neliel." A deep stern voice cut through.
Instantly her eyes enlarged in uninhibited excitement as her face shone of a genuine happiness, "Ic-chi-goooo!"
Running to the King, she did not hesitate to throw her arms around Ichigo as she pressed her body right up against his side in a heartfelt hug.
Rukia was quick to turn her head to the side in an attempt to mask the sudden spike of jealousy at their close proximity, but beyond that, her demeanour revealed nothing of her thoughts.
Ichigo did well to conceal the roll of his eyes as he manoeuvred his body from Nel's grip and took several steps back from the overzealous girl. "This feast is held in celebration of your return, but it seems you have done well to elude the guests."
Nel waved her hand dismissively, "The guests have not come for me tonight, I am offending no one with my absence." And then glancing at Rukia, she added, "Also, I am content here."
Ichigo internally sighed at how difficult Nel was making this to be, and how transparent she was forcing him to become, "Be that as it may, it is still customary for you to at least greet the guests who have come in your name tonight."
Nel was unfazed as she raised an eyebrow, "They have come under the pretence of my return. I doubt they realised my absence in the last year." She was not deluded enough to think herself so important to these pompous self-loving royals.
"Neliel." Ichigo spoke warningly.
Nel regarded Ichigo for a while wondering if he knew that she had already observed the four times he had glanced at Rukia. But because she loved him dearly like a brother, she would relent to him for tonight, "Is that an order?"
"Does it need to be?"
"I see." But it was not the order she was referring to and the smile that accompanied her words told Ichigo that she saw through his efforts.
Offering one last look over her shoulder at the rigid girl, Nel smiled her knowing smile before she sauntered away from the pair, all the while wondering how Rukia had managed to invoke a possessiveness in Ichigo she never knew him capable of.
Turning back to look at the beauty that had taken his breath away the moment he had approached the balcony, Ichigo took a steady breath as he savoured her name as it rolled naturally off his tongue, "Rukia." Unable to stop staring he added absentmindedly, "You look... lovely tonight."
"Thank-you." She smiled and curtseyed... to which Ichigo should have taken as his first cue that Rukia was not herself tonight.
When she did not carry the conversation as he had somewhat expected her to, he continued on, "It's been a while since we've been able to speak in private."
Rukia nodded, doing her best to remain unmoved by Ichigo's genuine joy at seeing her, "Time has not been kind to us."
Ichigo chuckled, "I sense there is a hidden meaning behind your words, are you hinting your dismay at your impending coming of age?" he teased, not realising that he had just potentially revealed to Rukia how mindful he was of everything to do with her.
Had Rukia's heart not felt as heavy as it did, she would have noticed, but as it were, all she could hear in her mind was the haunting repetition of Hisana's words to stay away from the King.
"No, I barely realise that it is almost my birthday." She avoided his gaze and his entire being. It was too difficult to watch him stare at her the way he did and not be moved by his handsome appearance.
"Not just a birthday, your eighteenth." He added playfully.
But today Rukia would breach their silent promise to each other to never touch upon the topic of Ichigo's marriage. "That would mean your wedding cannot be too far from now."
The silence that followed was deafening and Rukia wondered whether she was the only one finding it difficult to stand tall. The way she looked at Ichigo was impassive, an ironic contrast to the pain of uttering those words, but this was a decision she had asserted herself with and now there would be no turning back. Her eyes fell to a dull shade of violet, a perfect mirror of the emptiness she felt from within. So hollow she felt no more than a shell of trained facades as she watched with hooded eyes as Ichigo struggled to contain the shock and confusion at her choice of topic. Slowly, she watched his brows crease together to form his signature scowl as she observed his desperate need to decipher her actions.
Regarding her very carefully and not taking his eyes off her, he slowly uttered in confirmation, "No..."And slowly, the realisation that she was not her own person finally dawned on him.
"Senna tells me the wedding preparations are coming along fine." Lies, she had not spoken to Senna nor did she have any desire to, but Ichigo didn't need to know that.
It hurt a lot, but she knew that only until she faced the truth would she finally be able to accept that Ichigo would never be hers, and would she finally be able to move on from him. She was doing this for both of their sakes'. It was surreal, as though she was watching her own person speak the words she felt so disinclined to say, but the further she barricaded herself from her feelings for him, the less painful it would be in the future. That was all she could tell herself to keep from crumbling before him.
"I wouldn't know." Ichigo's voice had taken an edge as he stared hard at her, feeling slightly betrayed that she was seemingly trampling all over his feelings when he on the other hand had spent every waking moment thinking about her. He did his best to keep logical, to remind himself that this was not the usual Rukia, but all that registered was how real the pain felt.
She stayed calm even though all she wanted to do was apologise for her ruthless words, "I see. Nevertheless, you must feel elated for your momentous day."
"Why would I be?" He asked lowly, irritation and anger apparent. His once jovial spirit all but completely diminished.
But Rukia continued to push him away, "A sacred union between two people is a joyous occasion, so why shouldn't you be?"
"Do you truly believe I am happy about this union?" He asked in offense with bated breath, slightly aware that she was doing this to provoke him, but too consumed by hurt that he knew he was losing his reign over his anger.
She did not respond immediately, but when she did, it was strained and indirect and the smile that came spoke of a tortured soul, an image that would stay with Ichigo for nights to come, but in his moment of hurt he chose not to see her pain for now. "Senna will make a good wife."
The expression that followed forced Rukia to look away. He tried to conceal it, but she saw the hurt and betrayal painted across his handsome features. "I see..." He replied flatly as he tried to temper the anger, only for his efforts to be in vain as his expression turned uncaring and equally detached. "You're right, Senna is more than I have asked for, I have everything to be happy about."
The spite that accompanied those words sounded so foreign to the both of them, but Ichigo refused to play into the palm of Rukia's hand. If this was what she wanted, she best be sure she could handle it.
She bit her inner cheek. "Yes, she is perfect in every way." She balled her right hand into a tight fist.
"Perfect for me in every way."
Rukia took a steady breath in and tried to remind herself that she was the one who had deliberately provoked him, but hearing those words were too much for her to bear. "How fortunate of you then." She responded darkly, her own anger rising steadily as she felt a jealousy so strong she couldn't be sure she would be able to remain composed.
"I could not have asked for more." He stirred, trying to incite a reaction from Rukia the way she was cruelly doing to him.
She knew it was unfair and that she had no right to feel the anger that she felt, but the hurt and bitterness that followed upon his words were so suffocating that for the first time, she wanted to be as far away from him as she could be. "On that note, I shall excuse myself for keeping you from your beloved." She offered bitingly.
And he would not stop her. "Then I bid you farewell m'lady."
She bowed low for him, a sarcastic reminder of the commoner that she was to the King that she could never reach, "Your Grace."
"How interesting." Nel muttered impassively, swirling her wine cup in absent circles, her eyes hard and observing as she watched Rukia make a hasty exit.
Yoruichi watched as Nel, so serious and so capable of being deadly, stared after her younger protégé as a hawk would to its prey. "You underestimate her." She stated simply, a hint of chastising in her tone.
"Have I?" She raised her left eyebrow with a smirk that veiled the challenge in her blood.
"She may not be skilled like you are, but her determination and willpower is second to no one. Not to myself and not to you."
"Perhaps." Nel simply smiled in her mysterious way, feeling no desire to contest Yoruichi's words.
"Of all people, you should understand her. After all, she is just you, a you from a lifetime ago." Whilst Yoruichi betrayed no emotions in her tone, she knew the telltale sadness that took hold of her at the thought of the life Neliel, her once protégé, had lived... was still living.
"It is not very pleasant to be me." There was neither sadness nor bitterness in her voice, just a tragic irony that came out sounding satirical.
"No." Yoruichi conceded honestly as she refused to insult neither herself nor Nel by offering empty words of solace to a life of pain she would never understand. "But she is a survivor, just like you are."
At this, Nel didn't hold back her scepticism, "Can you be so sure? To walk upon the land of the West is no different to a dead man's road."
But Yoruichi was unfazed, staring absentmindedly at the small back of Rukia as she was gradually disappearing from their view. "Whatever it may be, she is destined for far greater things, things beyond even our imagination."
Nel laughed, though not unkindly, "You speak as though she will rise to be our King."
And that was when Yoruichi smiled her infamous feline smile. "Not quite." As though she knew of a secret that no one else had yet discovered. "Not quite.."
Little did anyone know that Rukia's days in court were slowly numbered, and when that time came, her only means of survival would be Neliel.