Ulquiorra listened to the guard's report with a tight frown. He sat in his chair rigidly, his fingers crossed under his chin. A muscle was working in his jaw as he tried to reign in the dark fury rising within him. He didn't want to let his anger get the better of him for he was scared of what he would unleash. He had seen a glimpse of the monster that resided within him and he hated it from the bottom of his heart. He wasn't going to let that fiend resurface. That black winged, tailed and horned creature still plagued his dreams and was driving him to the edge. He wasn't going to let that beast win. His fingers dug into his flesh in his effort to curb his anger. Once the guard was finished with his report, Ulquiorra asked him to call a couple of people and dismissed him with a wave of his hand.
Alone in his privy chamber Ulquiorra hid his face in his hands. His world was collapsing around him and he didn't know what to do to stop it. There had been yet another attempt on Orihime's life. As his anger reduced, a pit formed in his stomach and icy fingers of terror crept up his veins. Thanks to her vigilant maid, the attack had been averted. To think that he had been pondering to have her arrested for housing the rebel! What would have happened if he had? His wife would have been dead and he would have been the one to blame. In how many more ways was he going to fail Orihime? He had been a disappointment in every way. In the almost two months that they had been married, he had done nothing whatsoever to protect her or be a husband for her in any way. All he had done was put her in harm's way, over and over again.
A soft knock sounded on his door and broke his musings. He looked up to find his manservant, who informed him that the Prime Minister was here, in response to his summons.
"Bring him in," Ulquiorra said in a steady voice.
Moments later, the silver-haired, ever smiling man stepped in. Ulquiorra frowned. He had never trusted Gin, he smiled way too much. His flippant attitude and jocularity were highly disconcerting and something about the way he spoke reminded Ulquiorra of snakes. He signaled for him to take a seat.
"Do you know why you've been summoned Prime Minister?" his voice was deceptively calm.
"No your majesty," he replied smiling, "I am afraid I do not."
"Have you heard," Ulquiorra asked conversationally, "a disaster was averted today?"
"Ah! For sooth?" Gin said with dramatic affectation, "Pray do tell me."
Grinding his teeth to bite back an irritated response, Ulquiorra said, "There was yet another attempt on the Queen's life."
The surprise that flickered on his face was genuine, or so Ulquiorra would've liked to believe. But whatever disbelief Gin had had showed, disappeared within a moment, making Ulquiorra think that the slip had been inadvertent.
"What an unfortunate turn of event," he said finally, "I hope the perpetrator was caught?"
"No he wasn't. Actually, he was pretending to be a woman, so he could be anybody."
"This is most disturbing," Gin said his smile still unnervingly in its place.
"Indeed," Ulquiorra said, "You were in charge of this particular investigation. I haven't heard anything from you in this regard."
"Ah but your majesty, these things take time," Gin answered.
"In the meantime my wife's life is in perpetual danger," Ulquiorra responded in a cold voice, "For us to keep her alive, we have to succeed every time and for them to win, they have to succeed just once."
"I understand your concern your highness …," Gin began.
"Do you, my Lord?" Ulquiorra asked sarcastically, "I'm yet to see any sort of proof of that statement."
"Your Highness I …"
"Let me make it absolutely clear My Lord," Ulquiorra said, stressing on the last words, "If you're unable to find the culprit within the next fortnight, consider yourself freed from the duties of the prime minister of this realm."
This time there was no mistaking the shock that was on his face. Satisfied with the effect he'd had, he dismissed the man. Soon after he'd left, the usher announced the arrival of the next person. The woman came in looking very scared and curtsied.
"Y- your Highness," she stammered.
"Tatsuki Arisawa, am I right?"
Unable to speak the woman nodded.
"Sit," he said pointing at a chair facing him.
The woman blanched but took the seat nevertheless.
"You should know that I wanted to have you arrested for sheltering the rebel."
Tatsuki didn't look shocked which led Ulquiorra to believe that she had expected it.
"However you have been vital in saving the Queen's life," he said slowly, "And therefore as a reward for your prompt action and bravery, I will pardon your sin. You are no longer guilty. Also, please accept my sincerest gratitude."
This time she was surprised, "Thank you Your Majesty, your kindness is unparalleled."
"Take good care of her," he said before dismissing her.
An usher announced the arrival of Ulquiorra. Orihime stood up and nervously smoothed her skirt. She licked her lips once and took a deep breath. She had barely gained a semblance of composure when Ulquiorra walked in. He waited till all her servants and maids left and then bowed deeply.
"How are you?" he asked, his voice strained.
Orihime tried to smile but failed, "Honestly," she whispered, "I don't know."
Ulquiorra's lips twitched in a derisive smirk, "I don't blame you."
An uncomfortable silence filled in the chamber as both searched for the appropriate thing to say. Both of them started speaking at the same time.
"I heard …"
"What did …"
"I am sorry," Ulquiorra said hurriedly, "Please continue."
Orihime bit her lip slightly and said "I heard you pardoned Tatsuki?"
"Yes," he said, glad for a topic he could converse on, "I did pardon her. She saved your life."
"Thank you so much for that," she replied, "She wasn't guilty, you know. She wasn't aware that he was a rebel. And when she did …"
"Doesn't matter," Ulquiorra said with a shake of his head, "I pardoned her. That is all that is there to it now."
Although Orihime didn't quite agree to it, she let it be. He had pardoned her and didn't want to discuss it any further, so she would not bring it up. She just hoped that someday he would realize that Tatsuki didn't mean to be traitorous.
"What did your father ask in his letter? Is he faring well?"
Orihime smiled slightly, "By God's grace, he is faring well. He was asking after our wellbeing. Thank you for asking."
Ulquiorra nodded solemnly.
"My Lord," Orihime said tentatively, "I … I was having a conversation with Lord Jagerjaquez the other day."
Ulquiorra frowned, "About?"
"I wanted to go out of this castle," she said slowly, "It was getting suffocating. Lord Jagerjaquez suggested the Old Palace. I was hoping I could go there someday, but given the current conditions …"
"I am sorry Madam," he said looking genuinely apologetic, "I wish for nothing more than to take you there myself but your life is at risk here. I would, if I could."
She smiled slightly, "I understand."
"I am truly sorry," he whispered, looking at her.
She nodded slowly.
"Also, I would have to increase the vigilance even more," he looked extremely uncomfortable as he finished.
She nodded yet again.
He opened his mouth to say something else but then decided the better of it. He bowed and walked away. Orihime crumbled on to a chair, staring after him.
The crickets had whipped up a crass cacophony. One could hear the heat sizzling on the cobblestones. Four rebels sat on the grass, looking at the night sky, the stars winking at them.
"Do you think he's up there?" Ichigo asked to no one in particular.
"He was a good man," Ukitake said slowly, "He's up with the angels, for sure."
"You'd better hope he is," Kenpachi added gruffly, "He can tell them about our war and ask them to aid us."
"He would do that," Ukitake concurred, "I think he already has. The King's tax got abolished."
"About that," Uryuu spoke finally, "I was talking to Nelliel this afternoon. I informed her about the tax, she seemed astounded."
Kenpachi scoffed, "Of course she did! She must be wondering why something so lucrative for the lords would be removed."
Uryuu shook his head, "No. She didn't even know about the tax. According to her, Uriel Schiffer never signed an edict for that tax."
"And you believe her?" Ichigo asked with a raised brow.
"Why would she lie about it?" Uryuu asked.
"I think she wants to gain your trust," Ukitake answered, "She's been a member of the court and a general of an army. Lies and pretentions come easy to people like her."
"She's not trying to gain my trust," Uryuu replied, "She knows that'd be a pointless quest. No one in this entire group has more reasons to doubt her integrity than I do. Yet I believe she's speaking the truth. From what I've seen of her, she's not someone who needs to hide behind lies and deceit."
"Listen to yourself Uryuu," Ichigo said seriously, "You're praising your biggest enemy?"
Uryuu retorted, "There is no harm in knowing and respecting your enemy. She is my enemy but that doesn't mean that she's a weak person. I'm beginning to understand the reason why she was the leader of an army."
"There is a difference between respecting your enemy and fraternizing with them," Kenpachi's tone was condescending.
"What in God's name is that supposed to mean?" Uryuu's eyes were blazing in anger.
"What he means is, make sure that you know the reasons for your respect," Ukitake explained calmly, "Nelliel Tu Odelshwank is a beautiful woman."
"Shut up," Uryuu replied through gritted teeth, "You have no idea what you're talking about. If a woman is what I desire then I can find plenty of them in the Pleasure District. There is only one thing I desire when it comes to her and that is her blood. I want her dead."
"You're according her an honor she doesn't deserve Uryuu," Ichigo spoke in soothing tones, "Why do you want to wait till she regains her strength before she can fight? From what I have heard of her, she's one of the best fighters in Hueco Mundo. If she does indeed regain her strength, chances are you will die fighting her."
"I didn't want to say this Ichigo," Uryuu's voice was cold, "But if you ever find a way to avenge your family's death, would you step back from it just because you can die?" Ichigo's face darkened as Uryuu continued, "Would you look for the dishonorable way out just because it is easy and guarantees that you will live?"
"No," Ichigo answered shortly.
"My point exactly," Uryuu emphasized, "It's always easy when it is someone else's life. And as for Nelliel, I believe her when she says that she didn't know about the King's tax, simply because it is consistent with Ikkaku's account of how the King reacted. My growing respect for her as a warrior has nothing to do with it."
Not bothering to listen to his comrade's replies the archer stood up and left the scene.
Sakura was cleaning his chamber while Grimmjow lounged in a couch, a glass of wine in his hand. He had just heard the disturbing news. Every pore of his was screaming to run to Orihime, see if she was doing alright. Instead he sat here, drinking wine. Never before had it tasted so horrid. Never before had he hated his chambers as much as he hated them now. He wondered what Gin Ichimaru was doing. Hadn't Ulquiorra asked him to find out who was behind the attacks? Then why hadn't he turned up any leads? What was going on?
In fact when he had heard about the attack, he had run to her chamber. He had almost reached the chamber when he spotted Ulquiorra heading towards it. It had been fortunate that he had not been spotted. He didn't know if he could have come up with a convincing lie if he had been asked at that point. As soon as the black-haired man had entered her chamber, Grimmjow fled. His heart had thundered so loudly he had been scared that the entire castle could hear it. He reached his chamber and had poured himself some wine. Since then he had been sitting on the couch, drinking his wine and scowling at something that only he could see.
He hated this! He hated the fact that he had to hide. Hiding or fleeing didn't come to him naturally. If only Orihime hadn't been married! He would have openly challenged Ulquiorra for her affections then. But alas, it was not meant to be. Orihime was married and therefore, technically, his desire for her was wrong. His mind knew it. And that's why he hid his true feelings. But by damnation, his heart disagreed vehemently! According to that traitorous little thing, nothing that was wrong could feel so right. If it felt right, it had to be right. Torn between his heart and mind, Grimmjow spent many a nights tossing and turning in his bed.
He had been able to satiate his desire and his fire for a little while with Sakura but it hadn't lasted long. Now all Sakura was, was someone who had helped him at one point and therefore his responsibility. He would ensure that Sakura was married to a well-off man. He had even promised her that he would pay for her wedding, a promise he intended to keep.
But as of now what bothered him was that the assassin who had tried to kill Orihime within her own house was still at large. The strike had been too close home. He could strike again. He needed to be found out immediately. If Gin Ichimaru was useless, he would find that bastard out on his own. He wouldn't let a hair on Orihime's head be harmed. He would die before he let anything happen to her. He finished his wine in one gulp and slammed the chalice on the table. It was time to get to work. He had a bastard to find.
Aizen lay in his chamber, looking at the night sky from the window next to his bed. He had always liked the night. Just like him, it hid many secrets. No one knew who he really was or the real reason he was here. To the world, he was the Prime Minister's adviser; a lowly man whom no one cast a second glance at. They didn't have the slightest inclination that he was the reason Hueco Mundo was at the brink of a civil war. Even Gin didn't have a clue as to why Aizen did what he did. He thought, like him, Aizen wanted money. While Aizen didn't mind the luxury that the money conferred on to him, it wasn't what he was looking for. His ultimate goal was the complete and utter ruin of Hueco Mundo. He would make the Schiffers pay for their sins.
True Ulquiorra was a thorn by his side but he had done just enough to keep him busy. The failed assassination attempts on his wife should keep him busy and thereby keep his eyes away from the real problem. He had nothing against the woman. He had never really asked the assassins to kill her. All he had asked them to do is to make sure that people realize that an attempt has been made on her life. With the sharp and keen eyes of Ulquiorra Schiffer otherwise engaged, Aizen could continue to slowly bleed the country die. The abolishment of King's tax was a problem but Aizen wasn't worried. There was still the subsistence tax, the water tax and the death levy; enough to push people into a rebellion. A few more ingredients needed to be added and then Hueco Mundo would be ready to blow up into smithereens.
Aizen smiled a content smile, everything was going as planned.
The next morning turned out to be one of the coldest in a long time. The first rays of the Sun had broken through the dark skies and the hearty chirping of the birds and the sharp crowing of a rooster signaled the beginning of yet another day in Hueco Mundo. For the High Priest Zommari, today was an extremely inauspicious day and he was miffed that such a day should start so gloriously. He, the other priests and all of the acolytes were doing the morning prayers, although his heart wasn't in them. Amidst the synchronized chants, Zommari added a silent prayer of his own. He prayed to the Lord that he would be forgiven for the blasphemous act he was being forced to commit. The chants reached to a fevered pitch before slowing down and ending.
All the priests and acolytes bowed in front of their deity and one by one they left the prayer hall. Only Zommari remained, staring at the statue of the deity. It was while before an acolyte approached him.
"Your Holiness," the acolyte said in a low voice.
Zommari gave no indication of having heard him. The acolyte waited for a while before repeating himself.
"Yes," Zommari replied, "I heard you the first time, what is it?"
"The notices, Your Holiness, you asked them to be made by this morning."
"Are they done?" he asked brusquely, without looking at the teenaged acolyte.
"Yes Your Holiness," he replied.
"Fine, get them distributed," Zommari finished with a sigh.
The acolyte bowed low and started to retreat. He gone about then paces when Zommari called, "Aldegor."
The boy turned, "Yes Your Holiness?"
"Can you read?"
The acolyte was puzzled but answered the question nevertheless, "Yes Your Holiness."
"Have you read the notice?"
"Yes Your Holiness."
"What do you think about them?" Zommari asked. He still hadn't looked at the acolyte.
"B-B-Begging your pardon My Lord?" the acolyte stuttered.
"I asked, what do you think about them?"
"Although I don't have the right to say it My Lord, I think it is a good thing," the young man sounded scared.
"You don't think that the idea of children of commoners and nobles studying together is blasphemous?" Zommari asked in a monotone.
"No My Lord, I don't."
"You're young, boy," Zommari said, "Your ideas of right and wrong, good and bad hasn't yet developed. One day you will know that I'm speaking the truth."
"Yes My Lord," the acolyte replied dutifully.
"Go now, get to your work. May the Lord be with you."
The acolyte bowed low and walked away. Zommari continued to stand staring at the statue of the deity.
Ichigo looked at the two pieces of parchments with a worried frown on his face. Kira had spotted them and had immediately brought them to him. While the content of one of them was expected, the other one bothered Ichigo. He looked at Kira and thanked him for his prompt action. The blonde man nodded and left. Ichigo folded the parchments and stuffed them within the folds of his clothes. He sighed and walked out.
Sometime later, he found the person he was looking for. As Ichigo had expected, the person was sitting on a rock, watching Nelliel Tu Odelshwank practice sword play. Being a swordsman himself, it didn't take Ichigo long to realize why Uryuu considered her to be a great warrior. Even though she was completely out of practice and her muscles had atrophied badly, still her strokes and parries were flawless. She was perfect, like poetry in motion. He stood there for a while, admiring the display of expert swordsmanship taking place in front of his eyes. It was a while before Uryuu sensed his presence.
"Ichigo," Uryuu said looking up, using his hand to shield his eyes from the Sun.
"Uryuu," Ichigo sat next to him on the ground, "She's really good."
"Yes she is," Uryuu agreed.
The two friends lapsed into silence that was punctuated irregularly by Nelliel's sword whooshing through the air. After a while Uryuu broke the silence.
"I don't suppose you came here to watch her."
"No I didn't, although I admit I wish I had. She's marvelous," he reached into the fold of his cloth and brought the two parchments out, "Here, look at these."
Uryuu took the parchments looking confused. He glanced at them for a while and handed them back to Ichigo.
"You have nothing to say?" Ichigo asked.
The black-haired man shrugged, "What is there to say? It is nothing unexpected. Nelliel is a wanted person; she has broken out of Las Noches prison."
"Yes, I expected the bounty on Nelliel as well and that is not what I am worried about," Ichigo said irritably, "I am talking about the bounty on your head."
"Surely you can't be surprised to think that the Government considers me to be a threat?"
Ichigo pinched the bridge of his nose to stop himself from snapping, "No, that is not surprising either. What is surprising is, how did they know what you look like?"
"Someone saw me," Uryuu replied casually, "I am surprised it didn't happen earlier. I wasn't exactly hiding."
"Uryuu, you are taking it much too lightly. This is serious," Ichigo was getting agitated.
Uryuu frowned, "You seem inordinately worried about it, what is going on?"
The orange haired man took a while to organize his thoughts before saying, "I suspect there is a spy in our midst."
Uryuu raised an eyebrow, "That is a serious allegation Ichigo."
"It is not an allegation," Ichigo said, picking up a pebble from the ground, "It is a suspicion. That is why I am only sharing it with you."
"You mean you haven't shown this to anyone else?"
Ichigo shook his head, "No I haven't. I can't trust anyone, not after this suspicion has entered my mind. I have a feeling that there is a spy and he is targeting you."
Uryuu fingered his lower lip thoughtfully, "Say you are right, what do you propose?"
Ichigo seemed to be lost in thought and took a while before replying, "I would ask you to lay low for a while. Go into hiding."
"You are asking me to run?" Uryuu's tone was icy.
"Only for a while, my friend. I have lost Shuuhei, I can't lose you too," Ichigo's voice shook slightly.
Uryuu sighed, "I don't like this."
"I know you don't. I don't either. But it has to be done."
"Fine, I will go. I will hide in the old temple ruins. No one goes there," Uryuu answered wearily.
"Take Nelliel with you," Ichigo added in a low voice.
"What?" Uryuu screamed. In the distance Nelliel paused to look at them quizzically. When neither of the men met her eyes, she shrugged and resumed her practice. "Are you out of your mind? I agreed to go into hiding because you called upon our friendship. But now you want me to take my enemy with me?"
Ichigo hung his head, "Yes I am. There is a lot of hatred brewing in the group towards her. They are only holding back because they know that you have the most right to kill her. But with you gone, I can't guarantee her safety. Not everyone is as honorable as you are, Uryuu."
It was Uryuu's turn to pinch the bridge of his nose. As much as he hated to admit, Ichigo had a point. He gave a deep mournful sigh, "As you say Ichigo, as you say."