The blinding sunlight was a cruel contradiction to the cacophony below.
Sakura tried to tune out the sounds of the Occupation; the endless cadence of running horses, crude shouts, pained screams, the ominous cracking of the whip and, of course, the drums that signaled the hangman had claimed yet another pair of boots to add to his growing collection. Oto had invaded just two weeks ago, and already her peaceful kingdom of Konoha was almost unrecognizable.
If she looked out her window, past the chaos and despair that had gripped her innocent people, towards the ocean, she could pretend that this was all nothing more than a nightmare.
The horizon was as beautiful as it had ever been, white sand beaches that stretched for miles, not at all far from what remained of her family's palace. The water was crystal clear where it lapped up along the shoreline and retreated again, palm trees with their jungle green fronds swaying lazily in the warm summery breeze.
Sakura chose to focus on that at this moment, the last she would have in the bedroom she had been confined to since Orochimaru's invasion. The bedroom she had slept in almost every night since she was born.
She considered throwing open the window to hopefully tempt a sweet sea breeze into the safe haven that had since become a prison, but if these were her last few moments of peace, she did not also want to also invite the stench of death and decay that pervaded every corner of Konoha since Orochimaru had arrived with his men two weeks prior. So the window stayed closed as she took a seat before her vanity to examine her reflection.
Her mother would be fussing with her hair now, even in these miserable circumstances. She recalled the late Queen Haruno with a mixture of exasperation and fondness, remembering the way her soft fingers would comb roughly through her thick pink locks, bemoaning their unusual color and her unseemly lack of hair maintenance.
"Plenty of time to practice archery with your father and dabble in medicines with your foolish aunt, and run about the kingdom playing doctor, but not a single moment in the day to devote to this distressing pink mop," her voice resonated throughout the room.
The thought made Sakura want to choke. She forced the tears that threatened to fall back, recalling the words of her beloved father. "Above all things, above being a girl, above being my daughter, above being a princess...you are Konoha. And until the very end...Konoha is strong."
King and Queen Haruno, the fair rulers of their peaceful metropolis, had been the first to fall, when Oto attacked. It was a deadly invasion; Konoha hadn't been prepared, and what little defense they were able to rally had been obliterated under the sheer number of Orochimaru's forces. The invaders stormed the palace, and the king and queen had been quickly, violently executed before they could use their influence to rally support from their neighboring allies.
Most of the palace workers were driven into hiding, and Sakura herself was taken prisoner, kept in close confinement until the day of her sentencing.
There were no words to describe the carnage. Hundreds of innocent people, soldiers and civilians, men, women, and children, were mowed down in the bloody takeover. Screams of terror, wails of despair served as the soundtrack to Konoha's doom. Oto soldiers were known for their brutality, and took great pleasure in killing all those who risked defying them. Those who had survived the initial bloodbath suffered the loss of their comrades, friends, husbands, wives, children, and were still being rounded up and executed on a frightening basis. Their numbers dwindling, their spirit broken, Orochimaru's hostile invasion had been a horrific success.
Sakura was under no illusions about her fate. She knew she would not be executed; that merciful outcome was reserved for her parents alone. Orochimaru would keep her alive to serve as an example to any who dared oppose him, and, frankly, he'd garnered quite the reputation towards being the type to play with his food before he ate it.
Orochimaru issued a decree that all Konoha citizens gather in the Square that day at noon to bear witness to his inception as rightful king of Konoha, now a puppet state of Otogakure. Sakura would be summoned as well, where he would strip her of her title and pass sentencing.
She dressed in her finest robes, a cream-colored gown that cinched in at her slender waist and flared out slightly at the bottom, along with the deep purple mantle around her shoulders that signified Konoha royalty. Her pink hair hung in loose, lovely curls framing a heart-shaped face, button nose, cherry pink lips and shimmering green eyes the color of jade. At sixteen, if she was marching to her disgrace and the end of her family's long and peaceful reign, she would present herself not only as the princess, but as Konoha.
If Orochimaru planned to break her spirit today, he had another thing coming.
This resolve in mind, she barely looked up when the door was thrown open, and three young women strode inside her bedroom as if they owned it. She recognized them as the daughters of three high-ranking Oto officials: Tayuya, pink-haired and infamous for her brutality, Ami, shallow and cruel as they came, and Karin, the woman Sakura understood to be her replacement.
The expressions on their faces were mocking and gleeful; Orochimaru's official inception recognized their roles in Konoha as Ladies of the Court. Everything Sakura previously claimed would now be theirs.
Except my will, she thought fiercely. Her green eyes flashed heatedly in the mirror as she glared at her successors. They can never inherit the Will of Fire!
Karin was dressed extravagantly, her scarlet eyes brimming with satisfaction, her painted lips quirked into a sneer as she counted down the minutes to when Sakura's position would be given to her. She wore flowing golden robes that, Sakura calculated in revulsion, were expensive enough to feed a family for a year. Her arms were festooned with bracelets made of the most precious jewels, the necklace around her neck had to weigh five pounds, and diamonds dangled from her earlobes. Her face was painted in traditional Otogakure cosmetics, her red hair choppy on one side and smooth on the other; Oto was known for its unusual hairstyles.
"It's time to go, Your Majesty," Karin informed Sakura; she placed a mocking emphasis on the title, which everyone knew held no meaning anymore anyway, since the Invasion. "Wouldn't want to be late for your own deposition, would you?"
Sakura paid her no mind as she opened the drawer of her vanity and removed her tiara. It was simple but impossibly beautiful at the same time, silver and lined with diamonds that caught the sunlight. With steady hands, she placed it on top of her candy pink curls and examined its appearance in the mirror.
This would be the last time a Haruno would present herself as a princess.
"That crown will look beautiful on you, Lady Karin," gushed Ami. "You'd better enjoy it while you can, you little -"
Sakura cut her off.
"You will address me as Your Highness," she said coldly, her voice dripping with regality. She was not one to flaunt her title or demand that others acknowledge it, but she would make an exception in this case. "I am a princess now, if not for much longer in the eyes of your spineless countrymen, and you will speak to me with the proper respect."
"But we are giving you the respect that you deserve, Princess," Tayuya snickered, with a snap of her fingers. Two armed Oto soldiers entered the room quickly, their stances threatening should Sakura show any signs of insubordination.
With a heavy heart but a resolve of steel, Sakura cast her gaze around her once-beloved room. The bed, far too big for one slener young girl, pillows that she would hug after hard days, blankets made of down that kept her warm on cold winter nights. She ran her fingers over the sheets to commit the feel of them to memory, before taking in the soft ivory curtains that a little princess once hid behind during spirited games with her childhood friends; the windowseat she would sit on sometimes, just to stare out at the ocean and dream of far-off places.
"Come on, you," snarled one of the guards with a rough shove to her back. "Get your ass in the carriage, you've got an appointment with Orochimaru-sama."
Sakura was satisfied that there was no fear in her eyes. It would not do to show cowardice, and Orochimaru had murdered her citizens, her friends, her family. She would never recognize his power. Perhaps if she showed defiance, it would inspire her citizens to do the same...to rally against his terror. With a queenly air, she set off out of her bedroom, flanked by the guards and followed by Karin and her ladies-in-waiting, sending up a quick prayer for the safety of her people.
Even if this reign ends with me, she thought, her expression composed and her steps even and fearless, the Will of Fire can never be extinguished!
Sakura was unaware that at that very moment, her sentiment was echoed in the hearts of thousands of Konoha survivors. In the heart of the grieving, oppressed nation, a rebellion stirred, first nothing more than quiet whispers and furtive glances, before its flames were fanned into a full-scale revolution of which Orochimaru remained unaware.
This last act, this monstrous deposition of the princess Konoha loved and revered, was the catalyst.
The flame had been ignited.
It was war.