Nnoitra bunched his hand into a fist and grimaced. Shards of pain shot up his arm making him twitch involuntarily. He was no stranger to pain, in fact he reveled in it, but only when he was the one inflicting it. Normally he would have made mincemeat of those mongrels but he hadn't been completely focused and it was all Nelliel's fault. The bitch haunted him in all his waking hours and even in his sleep. He had thought that he had snubbed her out completely. But he was so wrong. Now she was back to torment him, even while staying out of sight. He hated it. He hated the fact that once again he was forced to think of ways to hurt her. And this time, Szayel Aporro Granz would not be helping him; the healer had made it clear.
Speaking of the healer, he had sent in a salve earlier that day for the General to apply on his wound. Nnoitra slowly undid the bandage on his wound and looked at it. He could still see the holes where the teeth had dug in. The affected area was a strange dark red and a weird smelling liquid oozed out of the wound. Using a twig, the General applied the greenish paste on his skin, hissing at the burning sensation that followed. He muttered a string of curses as he held his forearm, writhing in pain. He wanted to strangle Nelliel, kill her as painfully as he could. This was all her doing.
A small knock on his door distracted him from his pain. He draped a cloth over his wounded arm; he'd be damned if he let anyone know that he was hurt. Then he barked an order for the person to come in. A smallish man stepped in and bowed.
"My Lord, General," the man said, keeping his eyes fixed on the ground, "I have news."
"Speak!" Nnoitra spat.
"Sources confirm that she hasn't left the borders of Hueco Mundo."
A wide, toothy grin appeared on his face. This was the first good news he had heard in a while.
"Good, very good," Nnoitra laughed.
Impulsively he picked up the ornate chalice that was near him and extended it to the messenger as a gift. The man, surprised by the unexpected and uncharacteristic generosity of the General stepped forth to accept it. It was then that the messenger's eyes flickered over to the wound on Nnoitra's arm. Although a cloth covered it, the stench of the salve and the pus were unmistakable. Unnoticed by the messenger, all glee left the General's face as his lone eye narrowed in marked displeasure. Before the man could accept the chalice, Nnoitra swung it hard, splitting the skin on the man's temple. The messenger stumbled on to the floor, clutching his bleeding face.
"You rascal," Nnoitra screamed towering over the man, "How dare you!"
"I I am sorry my Lord," he stuttered but Nnoitra would have none of it. With a flash the General's sword was at the messenger's neck.
"Any last prayers before I kill you?" Nnoitra asked coldly.
"L - Lord I," the man muttered.
"Thought so," Nnoitra said before driving his scythe through the man's neck.
"You didn't see his face?" Grimmjow questioned the guard.
"No my lord," he answered, "The man disappeared far too quickly."
"How could he disappear so fast?"
"He clearly knew his way around the castle, My Lord," the guard replied.
Grimmjow frowned, "So you think it is someone within the castle?"
"It has to be," came the response, "It is not easy to learn the layout of Las Noches."
Grimmjow nodded in agreement with the guard's assessment. He dismissed the guard and leaned back thoughtfully. He had questioned every guard and every maid who had been around for the incident. Not one of them could say for sure who the assassin was or how he looked like. So far all he had was that the man was short enough to pass for a woman and had black eyes. That could have meant anyone. What he needed was something distinctive, like a mole or a birth mark but no one had been able to provide him with that.
Frustrated he reached for his wine glass and took a swig, making a face. Wine had lost its taste ever since Orihime had been attacked. His worry over her had spoiled his beloved drink for him. He was about to toss its contents out when his eyes fell on Sakura who stood some way off, her head bowed. He frowned. The girl used to be scared of him, fleeing his chamber as soon as she could. Now, she seemed to be hanging around his chamber even when she was not required.
"Is there something you need?" Grimmjow asked annoyed.
"N No, My Lord," she replied in a low voice.
"Then don't just stand here, be gone," he snapped.
Visibly trembling, the girl bowed and fled. Scowling he drained the wine and grimaced. He had to purchase better wine.
Uryuu was tapping his feet on the floor with increasing impatience. The dramatic display in front of him was getting on his nerves. They had to leave as soon as was possible but if these two morons had anything to do with it, it would be day-break before they could even step out of the hut. He looked at Ichigo who was studiously avoiding his gaze. Suppressing an annoyed huff, Uryuu looked in front of him.
"Can we make a move now?" he asked just as Pesche let out yet another wail.
"Mean man," Dondochakka said sobbing, "Why can't we go with our mistress?"
Uryuu inhaled deeply before saying "I am going into hiding. I need to remain hidden. You both don't understand the concept."
"You want to go into hiding, you go," Pesche sniffled, "Why do you have to take our mistress with you?"
Uryuu threw his arms up in the air, "I give up!"
"Like he said about four times already," Ichigo answered in bristled voice, "She needs his protection. He is being magnanimous enough as it is by agreeing to take her with him, don't push it."
," Dondochakka began.
"No buts," Uryuu said shortly, "I'm only willing to go so far as taking Nelliel with me. If that is not fine by you then by all means keep her here. Don't come crying to me when she ends up dead or worse."
"She won't die," Pesche said vehemently, "We will protect her. Plus she's one of the best warriors in Hueco Mundo
"Was," Ichigo interjected, "She's marginally better than a child as of now."
"And what would you know of it?" Dondochakka asked.
"He's a swordsman," Nelliel spoke finally, "He's seen me practice, he knows what he's talking about," with a small sigh she got up from the floor and hefted her small bundle on her shoulder, "Besides, I agree with Ichigo Kurosaki. Uryuu Ishida is being very gallant by offering me his shelter. Don't push him into doing any further."
Pesche and Dondochakka stared at her as she continued; "Besides, with me gone, you both won't be facing too much hostility. In fact, I think, given time, you both might actually find friends here."
Although the two didn't seem too pleased with it, but they couldn't refute Nel's soft command. They bowed low and one by one hugged her before following her out of the hut. A small cart waited at the entrance. Pesche helped Nel on to the cart as Uryuu tossed his bundle in. He climbed up at the front and took the reins.
"Farewell friend," he told Ichigo, "I will see you soon."
"Stay hidden, stay safe," Ichigo answered as he stepped away from the cart. With a small nod, the black haired man cracked the reins and got the bullock to move. Nelliel watched as her beloved subordinates disappeared from the view.
Renji winced as he pulled his legs up to his chest. Pain shot up his bad leg with a vengeance. He breathed through his mouth as he tried to blink back the stars from his vision brought on by the movement. He gently massaged the sore leg, muttering to himself. Unbidden a face made its way into his consciousness; a petite frame, a beautiful yet fierce face, hair as dark as the darkest night and a heart purer than gold. Slowly his lips broke into a smile. He wondered what that brave yet strangely naïve woman was up to. He hoped she hadn't fallen into trouble for sheltering him. True she had done so unknowingly, but she had sheltered him. And now that he had broken out of the so called impregnable Las Noches, he was fairly sure that the tall, insane General would be looking for them like a blood thirsty hound. He feared that his wrath might descend upon Tatsuki.
A cold, empty feeling settled somewhere at the base of his stomach as he pictured the ways and means the sadistic man would torture her. He closed his eyes and leaned against the wall, sending a silent prayer to the Gods. He hoped and prayed that she wouldn't have to pay the price for her generosity. She was more human than any human being he had ever known. He didn't want her to suffer for that.
"God," he prayed, "Don't make her pay for saving my life. If a price has to be paid, let it be me who pays it. Give her my happiness and give me her pain."
He bowed his head and hoped that his sincere prayer would be heard.
Orihime dismissed all her maids before she started to undo her dress. It was yet another full sleeved and high necked gown that was covering her scars. Very carefully she undid the fasteners and strings that held her dress in place. As she pulled the sleeves out she realized that there were no marks on her arms. Frowning slightly she walked over to the mirror and peered at her reflection carefully. The bite marks on her neck had faded away. Her lips had healed. Physically there were no signs of that morning. A small smile tugged at the corners of her lips. She would no longer have to wear those stuffy and stifling gowns any longer. She could wear things that were more suitable for the weather.
Dressed just in her under clothes, Orihime sat down with a soft sigh. The second attempt on her life had jolted her out of the thoughtless limbo that she had been in. However that didn't mean that she had become her old self. Instead of focusing on mending her fractured relationship with Ulquiorra, she found herself thinking about trivial and insignificant things.
From a state of complete shock, she had now slipped into denial. It hadn't really happened, not to her. It couldn't possibly have happened. She must have imagined it. She couldn't accept that the gentle man that her husband was had turned into
whatever it was that he had become that morning.
"Forget about it Orihime," she told herself, "Move past it and rebuild your life."
It was easier said than done.
Ulquiorra sat in his privy chamber with Starrk. The nobleman had requested for a meeting with him and Ulquiorra had agreed to meet him immediately. From the looks of it, the brown-haired man hadn't slept in a while. He looked disheveled and tired but his messenger had said that it was urgent and therefore, to Ulquiorra, his physical appearance didn't matter.
"What happened?" The black-haired man jumped straight to the point.
"As per your command," Starrk began, "I have been working on the infrastructure development."
Ulquiorra nodded, waiting for the man to continue. Starrk ran a hand through his hair and said, "The work on the roads had just about started when one day a worker came to me, asking me for some money. Since it was a considerably large amount, I asked him why he would need so much money."
Ulquiorra wondered where this was heading, "So what did he say?"
"He said it was because his father had died," Starrk replied.
"So he wanted money for the funeral?"
Starrk shook his head, "That's what I had thought as well. But the amount he requested was more than a funeral should cost. So I asked him, he said it was to pay to get his father's body."
"The man was too distressed and I couldn't get another coherent reply from him," Starrk answered, "However it got me worried. Since then I did a bit of digging myself and I found out the existence of something called 'The Death Levy'."
Ulquiorra frowned, "The Death Levy? What is that?"
"Apparently the people are supposed to pay a heavy amount to the government before they can earn the rights of funeral for their deceased family members," Starrk answered slowly.
"What rubbish!" Ulquiorra thundered.
"I don't even know who is collecting this levy and what exactly is happening," Starrk continued, "I just discovered about it and I rushed over to inform you."
Ulquiorra ran a tired hand over his eyes, just how many more things were hidden from him? What kind of a mess was his country in? What was he going to do about everything that happened around here?
"Starrk," Ulquiorra said after a long pause, "Find out more about this levy."
Although his instincts told him to cancel this levy immediately, he wouldn't. He had a feeling that the King's tax and Death levy were somehow connected. His plan of smoking the enemy out by eradicating the King's tax hadn't worked. He wanted to use this levy to find out the person who was spreading poison through the entire country. As Starrk left, he hid his face in his hands. He was tired, extremely tired.
"Father," Ulquiorra stared at the old man lying on his death bed, unsure if he felt anything other than pity at the frail body lying in front of him.
"Ulquiorra," Uriel Schiffer wheezed. Using that small amount of energy put immeasurable strain on his fragile health causing him to cough up blood.
"Don't talk," Ulquiorra commanded. It was pathetic to see the man waste away like this because he had no control over his desires and appetites.
,"he coughed again.
Ulquiorra waited for the coughs to subside.
"Weed!" the man said slowly, "Poison
Those were the last words Uriel Schiffer had ever spoken.
Ulquiorra sat up with a start only to realize that he had fallen asleep in his privy chamber. He ran a hand through his hair and thought back to his dream. Back then he had no idea what his father had been talking about but now he wondered if Uriel Schiffer had been warning him about this? Had he somehow figured something out? Something that Ulquiorra had no clue about?
The cart slowly rolled downhill as it made its way to the old temple. Nelliel sat hunched as Uryuu drove along in the afternoon heat. The two hadn't exchanged a word since they had left the slum in the middle of the night. Slowly it was beginning to get too hot to continue down the road. Uryuu moved the cart to an outcrop of rocks and got down the cart. Nelliel started to get down when a hand came into her view. Ignoring Uryuu's offer of help, she descended the cart. She didn't notice the small scowl that came onto his face. He sat down under the rocks and drank from the sheepskin he was carrying. Nelliel stood facing the Sun, closing her eyes.
"What are you doing?" Uryuu asked, "You'll fall sick."
Nelliel shook her head, "I never appreciated the Sun till it was taken away from me."
"What do you mean?"
"Sitting in that cell, for two long years, I missed the heat. I missed the light. I'll never hide from the Sun ever again," she answered.
Uryuu shook his head, "There is such a thing as too much of a good thing."
Nelliel turned around to face him and smiled, "You won't understand Uryuu. To me Sun represents freedom."
Taking a swig from the sheepskin he answered, "I understand the need for freedom alright. I'm fighting for it, remember?"
"You'll win it," Nelliel whispered, "I know you will."
Uryuu raised a brow, "Aren't you supposed to be one of our enemies? And you're saying that we will win? Isn't that some sort of betrayal?"
Nelliel shook her head, "It isn't. I am just telling the truth. I know that your war is justified and I know the man who's sitting on the throne now. You will gain your freedom, of that I am completely sure."
"You know the King?" coming to think of it, Uryuu realized that it should have been obvious.
"He was my student once," she had a fond smile on her face, "He can be a stubborn fool at times but he's a great man. He's not Uriel Schiffer. He will understand."
When Uryuu remained silent, she turned again and welcomed the Sun on her face again.