Hanamichi strongly believed that it doesn't matter how many times you fall, so long as you are able to get up again.
He was just as good in falling as he was in getting back to his feet. It happened all the goddamn time. He was born fallen – abandoned in some forsaken temple, naked and crying with nothing but a few red hair to cover his body... Maybe that's why his current situation looked so familiar. He was once again naked and abandoned, and once again he couldn't move. Back then because he was a new born baby, now because his arms and legs were bound to the sticks dug deep into the dirt...
He was becoming tanned much more than he would like to...
Things didn't go according to plan… Maybe he should have kept his mouth shut, and he surely should work on his temper... Maybe he could have played it differently somehow….? Maybe, but his temper always got the better of him, and then there was nothing he hated more than betrayal! It was something he could not forgive. Also, waiting was never his forte…. He was good in doing things without thinking when he was pissed….
So, what was the direct 'cause' of his current predicament? Was it his temper? Or was it those assholes fault? Would it still happen if he waited? The more he thought about it, the more he was beginning to think that there was no such a thing as a 'cause' or a 'reason' for things...
Now, look at him, he was becoming a philosopher in his dying hours! A genius!
His next musings were less philosophical. Were vultures really scavengers? Those monsters were getting dangerously close to him, and now his protruding manhood seemed to catch their attention...
He was drifting on the verge of consciousness when he heard some voices and felt water splash on his face. When he woke up he was no longer alone, nor was he on the desert. His hands and legs were still bound but at least now he was dressed in some shaggy rags.
A red aura of the setting sun covered the sky above the Kanagawa amphitheatre. It could sometimes take Yoshifumi Rukawa's breath away, just standing on the balcony of his palace and watching his favourite city fall asleep.
"My lord, do you need anything else?"
"No, thank you, Mitsui. Is everything ready for my son's arrival?"
"Of course, my lord."
"Do you think he's going to like it here?"
"I do hope he will, my lord."
"It will be the first time he leaves the Capital. Did you make sure he has sufficient protection?"
"Yes, my lord. He is accompanied by the best men of the royal squad. I'm sure he will be here safely, in the morning."
The king sighed making his young, longhaired soldier hesitate by the door.
"Mitsui... I wanted him to be raised as a soldier but his mother kept him in the capital. I hoped he would at least take into politics but she says that he has no interest in it whatsoever. I am desperate. I want him to become a man…"
Hisashi shivered dreading his lord's next words. He was afraid that it may come to this. He would have to babysit some spoiled brat… Just his luck. But he would do everything for his king. Yoshifumi Rukawa was like a father to him and Hisashi wasn't going to disappoint him in any way.
"Will you take care of him here, Mitsui? He grew up in the capital. All he knows is the court and... Here everything is about the army, about fighting."
"Do not worry yourself, my lord. I'll show him around." Mitsui tried to hide his displeasure, but from the older man's apologetic half smile he was pretty sure he didn't make it.
"The word 'theatre' to him surely means things like pretty actors and poetry, while for you it's the sand of the arena and gladiators fighting to death. Could you..."
"Of course, my lord. I'll watch over him."
"Oh, and…. He's coming with a friend. According to his mother's words that young man was bored out of his mind and decided to accompany my son on this trip. It can only mean two things. Either he is my son's lover, though I highly doubt that. Kaede is… You'll see. The second is that my wife is sending that boy here as her adherent in fear that I'll turn her beloved child into a soldier; which of course I hope I will do."
"I'll do my best to make them both feel comfortable, my lord."
"Thank you, Mitsui. Keep an eye on that 'friend' of his and let me know what's going on."
"Of course, my lord."
"Mitsui… Your father would be very proud of you."
Mitsui was a good soldier and followed his king's every order. He would gladly die for lord Rukawa, so he could surely do this too, no matter how much he hated the thought. The young prince was probably arrogant and spoiled by his mother; raised in splendour and fawned over his whole life. Hisashi watched the very tall, black haired young man stepping out of the carriage. His heart skipped a beat. That was exactly how he imagined the young prince: handsome and slightly bored... He was followed by the slightly shorter one. That other man, surely the prince's 'friend' looked much more subtle and impossibly pretty. Where the prince was cheerful and smiled in admittedly cute manner, asking questions and looking around a bit helplessly, the shorter one was quiet, composed, cold. Hisashi was now almost sure that the tsundere boy was simply the prince's lover.
The soldier dropped to one knee in front of the handsome young man.
"My Prince. I'm Hisashi Mitsui. Your father asked me to show you around the place."
"My, my… Kaede, I think he thinks I'm you."
Mitsui straightened up and looked in horror at the shorter of the two men. That kind of mistake would probably cost him a lot. Such a disrespect and…
He didn't even manage to apologise because the prince was already passing him silently, completely ignoring him and his taller friend.
"Don't worry about him, Mitsui-san. He's always like that." The taller man was smiling brightly at the still frightened soldier.
"I'm Akira Sendoh." He grabbed one of Mitsui's hands into both of his and pulled him up, back to his feet. " Kaede's mother sent me here to keep an eye on her precious baby, but honestly I just really wanted to come here. So… why don't you show ME around. I don't think the prince is interested in sightseeing."
Mitsui was still a bit stunned. That strange young man was…. Too much for him; too good looking, too nice, too cheerful and too... close and too fast. He just told Mitsui everything he wanted to know before the soldier had a chance to investigate or even ask. Was he lying or was he simply that reckless?
"Why are you looking at me like that? I'm hungry… Let's go."
Kaede munched silently on his dinner, listening to his father. Akira was humouring the king with conversation, all the while keeping that young soldier occupied as well. Kaede liked that about Akira. He did the talking for him. It's not that Kaede had nothing to say, but in conversation people tended to ask questions and he didn't like answering any of them. He didn't feel comfortable talking to people in general. He preferred to listen.
"Kaede! Did you hear that? They have arena for slaves fights. We have to see it!"
Kaede just shrugged. He didn't like to think about slaves. He could already imagine their dirty cages and sweat covered disgusting bodies. Wild barbarians killing each other for the cheers of the crowd held no appeal to him at all.
"As I was saying…" The long haired soldier was frowning deeply wen correcting Akira. "Those are not just some simple gladiator fights. Those are games. The one most popular and liked by the soldiers is called kago. It's performed every Saturday."
Kaede listened how Mitsui explained the rules of the game to Akira. It was pretty simple. They put a skull in the middle of the ring and let the gladiator players in. The goal was to get the skull and then place in the basket hanged on the wall. The loge above the basket was the best viewing spot so it was always reserved for the most important guests.
Kaede was not impressed but Akira hummed and put his arm over the young soldier's shoulders.
"Kago...? A basket? It doesn't sound interesting and it seems to not take long."
"Actually, it usually takes about twenty minutes to half an hour for a fighter player to get the skull. It depends on how many players participate. Sometimes they throw tigers and lions into the mix to make it more interesting, though animals are expensive so it usually requires some special occasion. After a player kills the rest and gets the skull he tries to place it in the basket."
"Is it necessary to kill all other opponents?" Akira liked the general idea of that game but didn't approve of that last part.
"No, but it would be hard to place the skull in the basket with some blood thirsty men trying to kill you. The record time is seven minutes, done by the monster Kawata. He's huge. They say he can crush people's skulls with one hand. Not many people survived playing against him."
Kaede was already dreading the moment he would have to see it with his own eyes and he was afraid it may come much sooner than he would like. He managed to wee his way out of going to watch the games three times in a row but let Mitsui to drag him around the training camps and the city.
Soldiers stayed away from him. They showed him respect but never approached him. Some were looking at him with longing but he didn't look at them at all, acting more like a spoiled princes than a prince. His father insisted he should learn some fighting techniques and Kaede had to admit it was fun. But still, everywhere they went, he needed to have at least two soldiers for protection. Except the one day when they had six soldiers with them plus Mitsui.
"This is the best Guild of fighter players in the country." Mitsui led him and Akira through the huge gate, and into the open space surrounded by cages and barracks. There were countless items used by slaves for training and a special place for sparring with wooden weapons.
"They always buy the best men, and train them to be killing machines. Akagi-san! Come here!"
A tall bulky man walked over to them and bowed.
"Akagi, this is prince Kaede."
"Your highness..." Akagi looked up surprised and quickly dropped to his knees.
"...and his friend Akira. I wanted to show them your guild. Can you assure their safety?"
"Of course, sir. I'm honoured."
Akagi led them along the training field where slaves fought with fake weapons landing blows that surely could be lethal for any other man. Most of them were bulky and muscled, some were simply fat. Some were tall and lean making up with their speed for the lack of raw strength. Rukawa was looking around curiously wondering how did they train the throwing of a skull into the basket. After about twenty minutes he decided that they simply didn't. Which was surprising. But Akagi was explaining that the basket was there mostly just to direct the fights closer to the main viewing spot. No one really expected actual scores to occur often. The only thing pushing some players to even try were promised prizes.
Most of those barbarians disgusted Kaede but they still looked better than he expected. They weren't as dirty as he feared they would be and their armours covered their ugly bodies just enough to not spoil Kaede's appetite. But some of them leered at him, smiling, making weird gestures with their tongues toward him. Some whistles and cat calls went through the crowd and some very crude compliments reached Kaede's ears even though he tried to pretend they didn't. When they were passing the training grounds someone even tried to throw himself at him. The soldier who 'stopped' that man wiped the poor bastard's blood from his sword not even uttering a word, but Mitsui apologised to Akagi.
"I'm sorry, Akagi. I'll pay for this. How much?"
"No need, Sir. Had your soldier not done that then I would. I would rather die than endanger the son of my king."
Mitsui smiled at the taller man and explained. "Akagi Takenori used to be a fighter player himself. King Rukawa gave him his freedom for one astounding performance."
Kaede was only half listening and chose to concentrate on observing his surroundings again. Tall barracks with bars in the front lined up on the west side of the guild. To their right was a space with tables set in square and a fire with a huge kettle in the centre. So, this was their dining room.
Then a woman appeared out of nowhere and dropped to her knees in front of Kaede.
"My Prince, I didn't expect to see you here. Please, let me s-..."
Mitsui sweat dropped seeing Kaede's displeased expression. The young man took a step back and raised his hands slightly, avoiding an unwanted touch. It was something Mitsui observed from the start. No one touched the prince. Not even Akira. Not even his own father. No one. He would bet anything that the prince didn't even recognize his chamber maid that was also Akagi Takenori's sister.
"Haruko, please, just leave the Prince alone. He'll let you know if he needs anything."
Kaede just turned away. Who was she? Some crazy girl... Luckily she didn't lay her dirty hands on his clothes... And then something caught his attention, a low growl to his left. He turned and froze when piercing brown eyes bored into his baby blues.
"Show a woman the respect she deserves, you bastard."
The low growl made a shiver run down the prince's spine. He couldn't turn his gaze away from those eyes until they squeezed shut in pain. He was tied to a wooden post with his hands high above his head and his bare back exposed for a whip that just cut his caramel skin open. He didn't scream, hardly even winced and supported his forehead on the post.
Mitsui drew out his sword and positioned it in front of the tied slave's throat.
"You insulted the wrong person, slave."
The slave just snorted. "Like I care, you girly eunuch." Once again his raspy voice made Kaede's inside tremble. It was low and harsh, full of anger, defiance and courage. The man was very tall, probably even taller than Akira, and even though he looked strong he was lean and... even through all that dirt and ragged clothes Kaede could see he was handsome. His face was marred by a deep frown, and his upper body was covered in sweat and blood. His hair was red. Even tied and whipped he still dared to insult the prince and, to the horror of other soldiers, he spat straight into Mitsui's surprised face.
Hisashi took a swing with the hilt of his sword. The brown fierce eyes were still glaring daggers at Kaede making the Prince unable to move. The royal watched as the blood splashed from the redhead's temple leaving crimson dots on his expensive white raiment.
"Why is he like that?" Mitsui gestured toward ropes around Hanamichi's wrists.
Akagi wiped the sweat from his forehead. Sakuragi was an idiot and a troublemaker but for some reason Akagi liked him and didn't want him to die just yet.
"He... He's new, my lord. He keeps trying to escape and refuses to fight."
"Why?" The prince's voice was just above whisper and his eyes never left those of the slave. Akira stared at his friend with his jaw dropped, trying to figure out why was did he speak. He didn't do that often.
"Because..." The barbarian growled again. "I refuse to kill people simply for a cheap thrill of some rich louse-" A punch from Akagi cut his speech short. The ex-slave knew that letting the younger man speak was like letting him commit suicide. Luckily under the heat of the scorching sun, being beaten, whipped and dehydrated the redhead lost his consciousness immediately. If not for a accrual of all four of those factors Akagi would never manage to knock him out so easily, and he knew it.
Mitsui was pissed. "I want to see him in the next game."
"But… he's not ready..."
"Then he'll die! I don't care. He should think about it before he insulted the prince and spat into my face."
Akagi didn't press the matter. After what he had done Sakuragi was lucky to not be decapitated on the spot. Only when the Prince and his men had left, he cut the slave off and dragged him to his cell where his friends could take care of him.
"He's fighting tomorrow."
Few pairs of eyes widened in disbelief. "But... he can't even move..." Akagi just shrugged and turned around casting one last apologetic look at Miyagi - the small curly haired young man standing helplessly over the redhead. Miyagi came to their guild in the same transport as Sakuragi. He was ridiculously small and Sakuragi was taking care of him from the day one.
"I'm sorry, Ryota. He asked for it. He insulted the prince."
"We're both gonna die tomorrow, aren't we?"
Akagi turned to leave. He had no interest in making friends with his slaves. They were all sentenced to death just by being there and a tiny little flea like Miyagi had no place in his guild of fighter players anyway. He bought him only because Sakuragi physically refused to let him go and the trader just waved it off. He didn't even charge Akagi for this one and it was fine. Akagi needed fighters to fight but, spares to just die were sometimes needed as well.
"You don't have to fight tomorrow, Ryota, you know that." Guilds were paid for the game, not for people, so there was no profit in putting two players from one guild in the same game since only one could survive.
"He didn't leave me, so I'm not going to leave him."
After saying this Miyagi moved to his unconscious friend and started to dry the sweat forming on his bruised and bloody forehead.
Tsuzuku. Weird? Probably, but it gets better later.