Ayasegawa Ikkaku was freezing his ass off. "Are you ready yet?!" he shouted toward the cabin.
"Very nearly," said a deeply resonating, yet somehow innocuous voice.
Ikkaku gave a sideways glance as the speaker finally appeared through the door, dressed very lightly given they were on the side of a snowy mountain. But then, he didn't need much extra warmth. Ikkaku gazed up at him, feeling even more strongly what he had felt when the man was sitting down inside, which was that he was impossibly large. Probably twice Ikkaku's height, he thought. In fact, at nine and a half feet, he was a little less than that, but it was hard to judge someone's height correctly when you could barely see their head when they were standing beside you. This man was not only tall, but stocky and heavily muscled, further adding to the impression of his largeness. Rather than the more practical weapons of a hunter, knives and arrows, he only carried one massive sword across his back. He also carried very little with him, not food nor a sleeping sack (though Ikkaku could understand about the latter).
But for all his apparent impracticality, there was a very good reason. He was, after all, a wolf.
Even Ikkaku, whose courage often ventured onto the side of the stupid, was a little too wary to ask the story behind this monster. Nor did the wolf offer any explanation about why he was giant and could speak human words. Yet he seemed strangely polite, not at all what Ikkaku was expecting after hearing stories about him from the nearby villages.
"So Yumichika is Queen now?" asked the wolf, Komamura, looking down at him as Ikkaku walked on top of the snow and Komamura forded it.
Ikkaku was silent for a while, sizing the wolf up. "I take it you knew my brother before he got married."
Komamura nodded. "Indeed. We met during the last conflict between Magadan and the Northern barbarians. He was very kind to me, even though I'm ugly." Komamura chuckled. "It's normal for anyone to be frightened of me, of course, but in his case it was doubly difficult, since he is such a connoisseur of beauty. Ha ha."
Ikkaku stared up at him, not realizing he was making a face. Why was this monster laughing and making idle conversation with him?
"If he would permit it, it would be good to see him again." Komamura laughed again. "But somehow I doubt he would."
Ikkaku tried to nod politely, but paused. "So…you're willing to go so far to do a favor for him, even if he won't see you?"
Komamura looked at him in surprise, then he thought for a moment. "Well, I always think there's something to be said for going with your heart. Much though it might seem shallow to you or myself, I think Yumichika's love of beauty ventures on the spiritual. He sees the world very differently than most people. And even if he chooses not to see me, the fact that he has given me this profitable work shows that he still thinks of me. As a friend, still, I hope."
Even Ikkaku found himself a little moved. He sighed. "You're a good guy. Yumichika should have kept you around."
Komamura laughed. "How kind."
Queen Yumichika had indeed replied to their missive favorably, so with a small entourage, the prince and king of Sakha left their lands to reach nearby Magadan. They took the main roads this time (unlike Byakuya's little impromptu excursion before), so it took a little longer. As they rode, Byakuya couldn't help giving his father sidelong glances now and then.
"Father," he said at one point. King Kyouraku looked up at him with a blithe grin, having obviously been daydreaming. "I take it…you've met Queen Yumichika before."
Kyouraku's happiness left his smile like it had sprung a leak, replaced only with dread. He sighed heavily, slouching over in despair. "Once or twice. Thankfully when your mother was still alive."
"Yes," Kyouraku said heavily. "It's fairly well known among the royalty that Queen Yumichika has been looking for a husband for some seven or eight years now. I believe he's especially keen on royalty." Kyouraku shivered and then he reached over and grabbed Byakuya's sleeve, causing Sakura to start a row with the king's horse, Katen. "Don't leave me alone with him, Byakkun. He's scary. Oh! And don't you get left alone with him either!"
"I hardly think I am in danger of being bewitched by someone twice my age. And a man."
Kyouraku shook his head. "Don't let your guard down. He doesn't look his age. In fact, he's still more beautiful than almost any woman I've known. Except for you, Nanao-chan," he said, smiling up at the sky.
Byakuya tried not to roll his eyes. "Very well. But in what way is he scary? Scary as in determined to find a man?"
Kyouraku shook his head. "No, that only makes it worse. He's a master of demon magic."
Byakuya's eyes widened, since suddenly the conversation had taken a serious turn. "He is?"
"Yes. There was…well, I normally don't pay attention to such ludicrous talk, but there was a rumor, years ago, that the king of Magadan hadn't actually died."
Byakuya frowned. "What kind of rumor?"
Kyouraku sighed sadly. "Now, look. I give this rumor no credit whatsoever, and I think it was just something cruel to say about someone beautiful, so don't you pay any heed to it but…the rumor went that Yumichika wanted the throne for himself, and instead of killing the king, who was sickly anyway, so everyone would believe he had died naturally, he changed him into a beast, which even now roams the forests of Magadan."
Byakuya's eyes narrowed. "For someone who doesn't give credit to the rumor, you seem to be enthusiastic about it."
"Well it's a good story! Doesn't it give you the shivers?"
"Which is precisely why it was repeated so often that it reached our borders, no doubt." He thought for a moment. "But turning someone into a beast. That isn't possible, is it?"
"I'm not an expert, but I don't think so, no."
Byakuya nodded. "We must be careful nevertheless. If Queen Yumichika were to suspect my sympathies toward her step daughter, we would both be in danger."
Kyouraku stared at Byakuya for a long time, and eventually Byakuya had to address him.
"What is it?"
Kyouraku got tearful again. "Byakkun…we just got into the woods, why did you have to say such a scary thing?"
"Firstly, you brought it up. Secondly," he sighed again, "you are a much greater warrior than myself. Why must you whine and cry like a child all the time? You make the men uncomfortable."
"I do not! And it's just my personality! Don't be so mean, Byakkun…"
Byakuya rubbed his temples again.
Yumichika was unknowingly tapping his fingers on the arm of the chair where he sat, by a window overlooking the woods. Unfortunately, he'd sent away Ikkaku, who was more often than not his conversation partner. Though Kenpachi was often happy enough to keep company, he didn't really like conversation and often argued with Yumichika whenever they did speak. Still, too much was happening and Yumichika had to talk about it.
"Ikkaku's taking a while," he said.
"Mm," replied Kenpachi, sitting by the wall with one leg propped up on another chair. He was sharpening his boot knife, and seemed utterly disinterested.
Yumichika rolled his eyes. he decided he was just going to talk, and Kenpachi could add things if he felt like it. "Snow White and Abarai Renji going missing at the same time is a worry, but I'm sure Komamura will find them. If he ever gets here," he added, grumbling.
"Did you ever meet Komamura?"
Yumichika stared at him in annoyance. "But the surprise of the hour was Sakha. Can you believe it? A father and son, both widowers, royalty of the most profitable kingdom for leagues on end, and from what I can gather, both fairly easy on the eyes as well."
Kenpachi raised an eyebrow at that. "Yumichika. How old to you think you-"
"Kenpachi, you finish that sentence and I'll tear your eyes out."
He smirked dangerously at him. "Okay then. How old do you think he is? I notice you had to say 'from what I can gather'. Right? Because the last time you saw the prince, he was this high, right?" Kenpachi held a hand up at about the top of his chair. Then he threw his head back with laughter.
A vein popped in Yumichika's forehead. "I think you're underestimating me."
Kenpachi chuckled again. "I think you're underestimating a handsome man in his twenties. Suppose you did get married. Are you sure you could keep up?" he added with suggestive grin.
"Kenpachi. I'll shove your face in pigswill later."
Kenpachi just laughed.
A servant knocked on the door. "Your Majesty. Their royal highnesses, the king and prince of Sakha approach through the main gate."
Yumichika leapt to his feet, unconsciously straightening his hair. "Very well. I will await them in the throne room."
Having said this, he hurried off in that direction, but not before stopping to preen in the nearest mirror.
"Kenpachi get off your ass," he growled, barely moving his lips so he didn't mar his reflection.
Kenpachi laughed dangerously again and rose from his chair, sheathing his boot knife before following Yumichika.
Byakuya and Kyouraku were meant to meet the queen in the throne room, but it seemed for some reason to take the queen longer to get there than them. They were waiting about five minutes when a servant's voice rang out.
"His Royal Highness, Queen Yumichika of Magadan."
By habit, they both knelt with one fist on the floor, then were able to look up. The queen, along with a terrifying man who was eight feet high and covered in scars, descended a set of stairs before coming to stand beside the throne. Byakuya's eyes widened. The tales of his beauty were not exaggerated.
Queen Yumichika did not dress in a particularly feminine way, but in an almost artistic way; long, azure robes in a somewhat oriental style, the waist tightly synched by a wide, elegant belt of red silk that extended from the top of the ribs to the waist. He had long, black hair which hung unhampered around his shoulders, with two strands of bangs held around the back of his head by colored beads. Even if he were ugly, his taste was impeccable. However, ugly, he was not.
Strong eyebrows, black as his hair, made his eyes seem darker and more alluring. His eyes were quite large for a man, and heavily lashed as to almost blur the line between man and woman. He had a long, straight nose which was just the right size for his face. His cheekbones were very high, and together with his large eyes and the almond shape of his face, made it hard to look away from him. He had a luscious, red mouth, though some of that may have been maquillage. All in all, it was just as his father had said, hard to spot a wrinkle or imperfection, or to judge his age. A true beauty.
The only thing which prevented Byakuya from being enthralled was the thought of Princess Rukia. The more he thought about her, the more he realized she only vaguely resembled his fallen wife. Her beauty was of a different kind, and he understood very well why they called her Snow White. Compared with this painted peacock, the thought of her was as fresh and pristine as mountain snow. And it was there where his mind briefly drifted as the queen welcomed them.
"Friends from Sakha," he said, in a dulcet voice. "You are well met indeed. Please rise, and make yourselves at home." They rose, as she bade. "I shall not sit, for I am sure you are tired from your journey, and I would like to show you directly to my drawing room, if you are amenable."
Both men nodded, and Kyouraku said, "We would be very grateful."
"Well then, please follow me."
Byakuya was always amazed at the transformation his father made among outsiders. It made him, though he would never admit it, somewhat proud. The queen, along with the terrifying man from before, who did not introduce himself, showed them to a large, but cold room, walled on two sides with great windows. Of course, at this time of year, they were closed to keep in the heat, but the queen bade the two men sit at the warmest part of the room, then had her servants build up the fire, and open the curtains for them.
It was a stunning sight, with the woods in the foreground, and snowy peaks in the background. The day was sunny and crisp, and did not feel cold at all to look upon it. The queen himself, and the scary man, both took seats nearer the cold of the windows.
"Your Majesty," said Yumichika, bowing his head demurely toward Kyouraku. "It has been too long."
"Yes, indeed," said Kyouraku, showing none of his earlier fear. "I was remiss not to have visited more often. Ukitake was a dear friend of mine, and I am sure I share your sorrow at his loss."
Suddenly, Byakuya's eyes widened. He had been watching the queen all this time, and it was so instantaneous, he thought he might have imagined it. But as his father said that last phrase, Byakuya was sure he saw hate streak those beautiful features. It was gone as quickly as it had come, almost making him doubt his eyes. Now, Byakuya understood very well what his father had meant by "scary".
"Yes…" the queen said slowly, apparently weighing his words. "But let's not talk of such sad things. I hope what brings you here today is along a somewhat happier theme."
Kyouraku laughed. "You have sniffed me out."
Byakuya blinked. What?
Yumichika blushed and concealed the lower half of his face with his long sleeve in demure embarrassment.
Yumichika said gently, "I had thought to myself, more than once, that it must be lonely in a family of just two widowers. How I feel for you."
Byakuya tried to keep himself under control. He was jumping to conclusions. But…what?!
Kyouraku smiled kindly. "It warms my heart to hear you say so."
Byakuya tried to keep it out of his face but he was panicking inside. After all that fuss he had made before, was his father really going to fall on his sword like this, just to get some information? Just for the sake of his son's interest? And just what exactly had he written in that letter?!
"You see, my son has been so lonely of late…"
Byakuya sighed. I see now, he thought to himself. That's why he needed me to come. He's not the one falling on his sword. I am. Well played, father, well played indeed.
"…of course there's the issue of succession, but that's secondary," Kyouraku went on, exchanging knowing looks with Yumichika. "A young man needs companionship. And I myself am very excited…"
Yumichika's blush deepened.
"…having heard so much of the beauty of the princess, Snow White."
Byakuya's eyes widened. He instinctively held his breath. Despite the fixed expression on Yumichika's face, the atmosphere in that room was positively explosive. The smallest spark, and it was ready to go up and take them all with it. Such was the nature of Queen Yumichika's smile at that moment.
And though the scary man in the corner was smiling as well, Byakuya felt no comfort in that smile. Quite the contrary, he was beginning to feel some real fear building, experienced warrior though he was.
"You mean…Rukia…?" asked Yumichika, in a tiny and very controlled voice. He reached up to touch his hair briefly in what may have been a nervous gesture.
Kyouraku nodded with a blithe smile, as if he was completely immune to this poisonous atmosphere. Byakuya wasn't sure whether to be impressed with his father's self-control, or embarrassed with his lack of ability to sense the mood.
"Yes, indeed. She is the one your people call 'Shirayuki Hime', is she not?"
Yumichika again was frozen for a few seconds, like a broken machine. Eventually he blinked. "Why…yes."
"And since she is the daughter of my good friend, I thought I should introduce her to my lonely son, and see if they might make a match."
Kyouraku looked around a bit, and even Byakuya wasn't sure if that part was a show or not. "Would it be rude to ask if we could see her?"
This prompted another long moment of silence from Yumichika. Obviously, he was thinking of what the best lie would be, what was safest and what would best serve him. As Byakuya saw it, there were three possible types of lie in this case. First, to say that she was missing. That was hardly Yumichika's fault, and it would probably even gain sympathy. However, it would also lose their interest. Second, to say that she was indisposed. That way was slightly more suspicious, and an unsafe lie, since the truth of it could be easily discovered, but it meant that Sakha's interest in Magadan would be maintained. Third, to say that she was either crazy or involved with another man. This had the same problem as the first lie, losing their interest, but might be safer in the long run, if Yumichika wanted to keep her death/disappearance a secret publicly. However, with the last two, there was still a possibility that he could, in actuality, accept Rukia back into his house for the simple sake of marrying their two houses. But could he bear it? A vain creature like this?
He took a breath in. "I…am so sorry," he said. The first lie, then, Byakuya thought. "The stories of Shirayuki Hime…they are lies."
Yumichika looked to the ground, sadly. "Yes, my former husband had a baby daughter. She had hair as black as ebony, and skin as white as snow." She met Kyouraku's gaze. "But the poor girl died as a child. When she was seven. She went into the woods alone and a wolf ate her heart out."
Now neither Byakuya nor Kyouraku could hide their fear of this person. Who could say such a thing with such a calm face?
Yumichika cleared his throat, hiding his mouth behind his sleeve. "Pardon me. It is still a painful memory." Kyouraku could think of no reply. "However, any lingering rumors on that case are usually traced back to a poor peasant girl, born quite nearby, who grew up thinking she was a princess. Now she calls herself 'Snow White'." Yumichika chuckled a little. "Poor thing. I find it so sad that some people even believe her. Poor, confused girl."
Byakuya's heart pounded in his ears. He knew. He knew. This man clearly knew why they were here. They could stay no longer. His grip tightened over his knees.
Fortunately, Kyouraku was thinking much the same thing. "Well," he said, sighing. "I must say that is a pity to hear. But if that is the case, I'm afraid we must leave immediately, in order to arrive home before nightfall."
"Oh?" said Yumichika innocently. "Then by all means, allow my footmen to escort you."
"No," Byakuya said suddenly, unable to stop himself.
Yumichika's eyes narrowed, gazing at him with no sign of surprise at his outburst at all. Byakuya's heart was pounding. He knew. There was no question.
"Forgive me," Byakuya continued. "It is such a great disappointment, I am not quite myself. Father, pardon me, but I wish to return home immediately."
"Of course. My deepest apologies for our intrusion, Your Majesty," said Kyouraku, and both he and Byakuya got to their feet and bowed deeply. Yumichika gracefully rose to see them off, and Byakuya was sure that before he turned away he saw morbid delight touch those beautiful features. "I very much hope that we can meet again soon, to cement our friendship better," Kyouraku said as they were leaving.
Yumichika merely nodded demurely.
Byakuya and Kyouraku walked swiftly back outside, met their entourage and mounted their horses, setting off at a fair speed. But not too fast, lest they give themselves away for sure.
"Father," Byakuya murmured as they rode.
"Hush. I know."
Byakuya swallowed heavily. They meant to help her. Now they had put her in danger, and there was no way to help her without revealing her location. Byakuya gritted his teeth. He would meet the danger. He would fight a war single-handed if he had to. It was so unbearable to him that this one girl should suffer, he would do anything he had to.
I'm so sorry, Rukia, he thought sadly. Please let me find you safe.