The envoy was late.
Daimyo Gohachiro Takeo studied the white lotus blossoms floating gaily on the surface of his koi ponds. Rain fell over the gardens of his temple, and the hour grew early—near dawn. The escorts he had sent to meet the emissaries of the Councilwoman's court should have returned long before now. The daimyo tapped his fingers in a pensive rhythm along the bannister of the terrace.
"Do you know," he muttered aloud. "I would never have expected the prospect of marriage would actually make me anxious."
Beside him stood Aijyn, one of his thirteen temple courtesans. She glanced up at him, curious, but the daimyo said no more. He returned to his study of the lotus flowers. Even in his most brooding contemplation, they always managed to ease his mind. Indeed, after a time his thoughts grew encouraged and a wry smile came to his face. He had little cause to be out of sorts, even if the contingent from abroad had yet to appear. They would come. She would come.
"Do you think she will like the Blood Lotus, Aijyn?" he mused. He didn't expect an answer, however, and if his courtesan gave one, he didn't hear it. He had no doubt: no matter the circumstance of their calling, the delicate beauty of these gardens and his temple would captivate even the hardest of men.
Or—if he were lucky—the fiercest of women.
A ravenous typhoon had struck offshore of the provinces some time the day before. It explained why the envoy had not made their appointed arrival when they should have. Now, its violent passion satisfied, the storm stretched its languid feline muscles across the land before finally meandering away for good. The lingering shower made the flowers on the dappled surface of the ponds bob like little paper boats, and the sound of the rain, always familiar, always a comfortable acquaintance, played a soothing rhythm through the tall pines of the forests surrounding the Blood Lotus Temple. Gohachiro kept his watch from under the eaves of the doorway, listening for the drumming of hooves on the woodland path.
He was the most powerful vampire daimyo in Osaka: he had fought alongside Tokugawa Ieyasu two and a half centuries ago, uniting the region under the strict control of the shogun and receiving the land on which the Blood Lotus now stood as his reward. Though Ieyasu had died, Gohachiro Takeo had remained as generation after generation of the Tokugawa shoguns rose and fell. Osaka had grown, and its people followed the rule of their human masters—but Gohachiro still held his place as the true lord of this realm, and of all the Kansai region.
He found it fitting the Councilwoman of the vampire race, Lady Helena Donovan, would favor him with this visit from her Court. There had been talk of such a meeting between their two houses for decades. Now, finally, the night had arrived. Finally, Gohachiro would have his chance.
For any other man in Japan, welcoming outsiders into his home would be unthinkable. The country remained firmly in the grip of isolationism, and other than Dutch merchants, they would accept no foreigners into their cities. It rested in human custom, however, and human laws. The five nations of the Blood Circle, the demon nations, had no reason at all to halt their own business for ill-motivated mortal pride. Gohachiro might have rejected the Councilwoman’s offering, were he still the man he had been three hundred years ago, decidedly loyal to the emperor and to the motherland of Japan. Since his ascension into the world of the Fourth Blood, however, such petty things had ceased to matter to him. He was a vampire, and Donovan’s proposal profited him far more than any promises made by his mother country.
Aijyn, as always, remained quiet beside him, her eyes steadily on her own small feet, her slender hands tucked into the folds of her pale pink suzohiki kimono. She had always been an attentive girl, one of his oiran, his personal concubines, a creature as beautiful and graceful as the petals floating on the surface of his ponds. She proved a very pleasing companion, and he thought he'd chosen well to pick her as his helper this night.
He had chosen her for the task because he trusted she would not be distracted by personal distaste or over-indulgent pride, as many of the others in his service might. Aijyn always behaved herself, and though not a vampire, she knew their ways. She would never dishonor him in front of Donovan’s messengers.
The young woman had already been given her instructions for the emissaries’ stay: she would be their hostess, their attendant, and their servant. Whichever tasks were required of her in those roles, she would do without question or hesitation, always mindful of the great honor and respect due to the members of the Councilwoman’s royal house. The other members of Gohachiro’s court were still swayed by the ingrained values of their human culture, and they might unwittingly—or even not so unwittingly—betray their disgust at the idea of foreigners in their home. Aijyn would not be so obstinate: she minded her place. She would be the perfect ambassador to his guests.
The clatter of hooves soon joined the patter of rain. Four of his guards, riding black chargers from the temple stables, came to a stop just outside the courtyard gates. They were followed by a kago litter carried by lean, athletic human slaves, men from Edo wearing blanched, nervous expressions as they came within sight of the temple grounds.
The men’s strong bodies, tan as the skin of a walnut, were taut with anxiety. They were naked except for a single white loincloth wrapped around their waists. Their long, muscled thighs and broad shoulders were drenched with rain and sweat, hints of steam curling up from their fevered flesh. They panted with exertion from the long, hard journey, but Gohachiro saw they also trembled. In the litter they carried strangers, and even in ignorance they could sense the hungry, predatory nature of those strangers, inhuman creatures who had come to Blood Lotus in the black of night. The daimyo could smell the men’s fear, could hear the thump of their veins. He liked it.
A group of Gohachiro’s servant-boys rushed out from under the wooden eaves to make way for the representatives of the vampire Councilwoman’s court. Gohachiro—with Aijyn following behind—came slowly down the temple steps, as four more servants rushed up alongside him carrying wide parasols in red and black to shield the honored vampires from the rain.
The envoy brought with it the Councilwoman’s notorious daughter, Rhiannon Donovan. A renowned swordswoman and much anticipated acolyte of the Drogh Lord’s Order, Rhiannon was the young woman slated to become the daimyo’s vampire bride.
As the door to the kago swung open, the servants and Aijyn averted their eyes. A heavy leather boot slipped out of the darkness, and touched down on the ground.
Gohachiro bowed as a tall, broad vampire stepped out into the rain, pausing just outside the gate of his temple to assess the contingent before her. The woman’s dull white hair had been shorn close to her head in an ugly fashion closely resembling the feathers of a dirty sea-bird...or perhaps just its nest. Gohachiro grinned to mask his disdain; the lady’s leather jerkin did little to hide the hard set of her muscled arms and torso, and the flash of her pale blue eyes failed to offer even a sham of the same graciousness he had attempted in her honor. She wore the black-and-gold cords of the Guild of Orchályva at one shoulder, pinned to the single leather epaulette supporting the sheath and broadsword slung on her back. That would be the emblem of the immortal society of weapons-masters, students of the armed martial arts—she'd earned some renown as an accomplished member of their ranks. Around her throat she wore a choker made of dark suede, and hanging from it a vial of blood set into the winding metal wings of a burnished steel torc, just above the dip of her collarbone.
As the woman glanced about the assembled court, Gohachiro could see in the sweep of her gaze: she haughtily disliked his show of greeting. She somehow disapproved of his servants bent low before her.
This one had to be the bodyguard, then, the Viking. Almost as famous among their people as her fascinating ward: the strapping, belligerent misandrist called Sölva.
"Welcome, loyal servant to the Councilwoman," he greeted her, using the common language of their elders, the vampire tongue.
Sölva returned his smile, but it came back calculating and cold, proper enough for politics but barely effective at masking the arrogant disgust underneath it.
Then she turned away from him, offering up her hand to the darkness of the waiting carriage.
Delicate fingers emerged from behind the doorway. They gently grasped the lip of the kago as Rhiannon Donovan peered out into the rainy night, assessing the display before her with wary but fascinated attention.
If the liege woman Sölva could not appreciate the subtle, delicate beauty of Gohachiro’s temples, her young ward more than made up for it. Rhiannon’s pretty, lion-like eyes were quietly delighted as she considered the exotic gardens, watching the bright, pale flowers shining in the rain like sheer, shimmering ghosts. Her dark red lips parted slightly in quiet adoration, and she took long moments assessing the koi ponds and the white lotus blooms, just as he’d hoped she would.
Finally, she took in the sight of the temple itself. The solid lines and slender arches of a masterful pagoda stood in reverent beauty in the center of the dark, verdant forests: the Blood Lotus, quiet and patient, almost as though waiting for the creature standing hovering just outside its gates.
Yes, Rhiannon recognized the loveliness of the world she stepped into now. He could see it right away in the quiet awe on her youthful face.
Her hair shone the color of liquid wildfire, of amber spirits glinting in the light. It fell past her shoulders, held away from her face by two braids in a careful yet attractive style. She bore herself with a royal demeanor, a confidence burning brightly even in the face of great prejudice—a circumstance she would not be unfamiliar with. In one brief, unguarded instant, she became vulnerable, almost innocent. As she extended her long legs and stepped down from the carriage after her guardian, ignoring the proffered hand Sölva had extended for her, a long, leather coat—one like many European seamen wore to bear away the cold mist of morning—fell around her with the protective sweep of heavy, dark wings. Underneath it she wore hunter’s leggings and a heavy weapons belt; a black bodice, like the corset of a western noblewoman’s dress, embraced the tender curves of her body, the crisp white fabric of the flowing blouse beneath it dotted tenderly by drops of rain. She looked almost human … like vulnerable game.
Except for the four sharp fangs revealed behind her half-parted lips.
Gohachiro mulled this over.
The elite ranks of their nation all counted Rhiannon Donovan a rare specimen. They called them kin-born vampires: lesser demons, and bastards. The girl had been brought into the world as mortal creatures were, in blood and filth...she had not been chosen for the gift of immortality, as the majority of demons—those deemed the kin-bitten—were. She'd simply been dispatched with it, an accident.
Kin-born demons were quite unusual, an inexplicable and much-lamented phenomena. They were generally counted worthless in all of the five nations, fit for little else but slavery and servitude, and most were killed by their dishonored mothers before they had a chance to become even so much. There were soft, weaker than other demons: they lacked the sophistication and refinement of an ascended being, one who had properly earned the notice of a true demon.
For a vampire of his standing—the daimyo of the entire Honshū island—to be offered a kin-born child in marriage might have been the deepest insult. The thought had crossed his mind perhaps Councilwoman Donovan did not so much honor him by this arrangement as merely drop her unwanted offspring on his doorstep. The flawed and disgraceful nature of kin-born vampires proved evident in a glance if they were not cautious: they all had those bracketed fangs, a shorter pair of eyeteeth set snugly between the sharper canines. Those teeth were the mark of their shameful illegitimacy. Most of the wretches would keep their second set of fangs filed down, well-mannered enough to be disgraced by them, but Rhiannon wore them blatantly. What did that foretell?
Of course, he had already known Rhiannon Donovan for a kin-born. Everyone knew; it had never been secret among the Fourth Blood. Councilwoman Donovan did not make any excuse for it, though any other vampire dam certainly would. The fact remained, however, kin-born or no, young Rhiannon had excelled quite beyond all expectations. It had been whispered in the noble houses of the Fourth Blood this girl had the makings of a formidable and unprecedented warrior. They spoke of her somber, keenly predatory demeanor, as well as her remarkable prowess in the guild of the Orchályva; yes, even now he saw the black-and-gold cords on her too, hung at the shoulder like an officer’s rank, though of course she yet remained a student under her Viking master. Even the Order of the Drogh Lord had shown rumbles of interest in her. They might even accept her as a devotee, the first bastard to achieve such a thing. She did prove dedicated to her mission: she’d been surrounded by reproach and warning for her shameful birth...and she had evidently decided to prove the naysayers wrong.
Yes, the daimyo had expected this girl to be quite an anomaly—it had been suggested among the nobility she would be the first kin-born to stand a chance of casting off her miserable birthright.
Now, seeing her in his gardens, a lithe little devil in the flesh of tender elegance…
Now, he thought he might finally understand it.
Even so...she ought still have had the decency to file down those bastard fangs.
He gestured for his servants to meet her with the parasols, and stepped forward to greet her formally. Two of the eunuchs rushed to protect his bride from the rain, even as the other two jostled to keep him dry as he dipped into a low, reverent bow.
"Welcome to my home, princess."
There came a brief pause—an instant of silence telling him he had caught Rhiannon off guard. When he looked again, he saw an odd mix of confusion and offense on her face. She shot a glance at her guardian, who tipped her a nod in return, before she turned to him again.
"Arigato, Daimyo Gohachiro," she replied carefully. To his delight she offered a perfect imitation of his own bow, dutifully respectful. Her Japanese was endearingly conscientious, downright charming. The momentary lapse in manners passed and Rhiannon became a model ambassador.
He smiled openly, showing her his fangs. He gave it as a dual sign of his approval as well as his attraction, but also a subtle reminder of his own status over her as a chosen son of the nation. He had but one set of fangs, the vicious predatory canines.
She cast her eyes down—another good sign—and dipped her head in a tiny nod.
"I am afraid the hour grows quite early, my Lady Donovan," he continued. "The storm has delayed your arrival and brought us very near to the dawn. You will forgive me, I hope, if I delay a more formal reception until we have all settled in safely away from the sun, and taken the benefit of daytime sleep."
Again, she nodded, though again with a little glance aside at her guardian, and murmured a low agreement. She crossed the threshold of his gates with the nimble poise of a fighter, he noticed, and the polished grace of an aristocrat.
"Allow me to introduce you to Aijyn, one of my house-servants," he said, holding a hand out to the oiran without looking at her. "She will be happy to make you at home in my temple. She will show you to your rooms, and will be quick to provide you with anything you desire."
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a sly expression on the face of Rhiannon’s guardian, a crude smirk that somehow filled him with the urge to strike her, taking it from her ugly lips. He restrained himself, however; he would not insult the House of Donovan so blatantly in front of their honored daughter, kin-born or no.
Rhiannon bowed her head again in thanks, and Gohachiro moved in closer, taking her by the hand.
He saw the briefest flash of displeasure in her then: a bright gold glint in those lion-like eyes, like torchlight sparking off the face of a coin, then gone. He returned the fiery expression with a placating smile, pretending he had seen nothing.
She did not want to be here. He might have expected as much. Even so, however, the daimyo smiled for himself as much as for her.
He had plans of his own, of course, for this arrangement. If Rhiannon balked at the proposal of their union, so much the better. She would give him ample cause to prove himself, to her, her vampire dam, and the whole Blood Circle Council.
He thought perhaps this visit would prove much more promising than he had first expected.