The daimyo’s bathhouse proved, in a word, perfect.
Aijyn saw it on Rhiannon’s face as soon as the young woman set foot through the thin, muraled doors: she was overtaken by the rippling music of bubbling water pouring over the stones, the warm velvet steam rising from the lip of the springs, the scent of lotus and jasmine lingering like silk ribbons over the water. The young woman brightened immediately as she took in the sight of the Daimyo’s exotic grottos spread out before her like a paradise.
Aijyn smiled to herself as Rhiannon stared. The girl’s enchantment shone in her eyes, lit by the soft touch of the chamber’s torchlight, replacing the cynical mistrust she had worn in the temple. The oiran found herself quite glad their visitor had asked to see the springs at a time when they would be empty of anyone but themselves; the true loveliness of the baths would best be enjoyed in quiet solitude.
Rhiannon took a deep breath, closing her eyes to savor it.
"Zu gut, zutreffend zu sein."
"I am sorry, Rhiannon-sama?"
"Too good to be true," she muttered.
Aijyn offered her a tiny smile and reached out to help her untie the obi sash and remove her kimono.
"Take as much time as you like, mistress. I will wait to show you back to your lodgings."
Rhiannon slipped out of the kimono in one smooth, sleek movement. This time Aijyn didn’t cast down her eyes, curious at the sight of the vampire noblewoman, a wild and lovely predator.
Naked, Rhiannon became remarkably vulnerable...and remarkably lovely. A tall, athletic creature, her flawless skin glowed like fair ivory. It proved a shade warmer than the pale flesh of her kin-bitten brethren, exotically unfamiliar. Her legs were long and slender, her hips gracefully narrow, delicately sloping to a flat belly and the shallow cup of her navel.
Unlike a human girl, the vampire had no thatch of hair upon the mound of her womanhood. She had a perfectly smooth sex, like a flawless marble statue. Her breasts were not large, but more like little teacups, little peaches with timid, clandestine buds curiously pert in the wafting steam. On her left shoulder blade, she wore the savage black tattoo, the image of a double-headed axe ringed by weaving knotwork patterns. The ring grew narrower at the top, wider and more intricate at the bottom, like a circlet, a royal diadem around the warrior’s blade. Along the bottom of the design read a short inscription in the Greek language—Aijyn recognized the characters from engravings and artwork the daimyo and his samurai sometimes collected. Orgí kai chályva, the creed of the weapons-masters: "rage" and "steel".
Then, Aijyn frowned. Nearly healed, she almost missed it: the tender flesh just above Rhiannon’s buttocks appeared faintly bruised, and crisscrossed with switch-marks.
Aijyn wasn’t sure she’d ever seen scars—even as tiny as these—on any vampire ever before.
"Hidenka," she said gently, forgetting herself for a moment and reaching out to touch the welts.
Rhiannon shrunk away with a startled hiss at the brush of her fingers, and Aijyn quickly bowed, hiding the embarrassment—the fear—rushing to her cheeks. She wasn’t sure what had just come over her; she had never before risked laying a hand on one of the demons without express permission.
"Forgive me," she said in a tight whisper.
"It’s all right," Rhiannon replied. The dark edge came back to her voice, though, and Aijyn feared she may have stirred up the beast within. She had been too bold in admiring the young creature’s nudity, and even worse, daring to touch her.
To her relief, Rhiannon turned back toward the pools right away, nervously running one hand up and down the opposite arm as she debated stepping in.
"Those marks," she explained. "I am a student of the Orchályva. They are the marks of my master’s discipline."
"You have no need to explain to me, Rhiannon-sama."
Feral yellow eyes turned on her, a little spark of warning in them.
"I neglected to tend to my sword," she continued pointedly. "My master did not appreciate my carelessness."
"Please, hidenka," Aijyn said, extending a hand toward the water. "Forgive my trespass."
As Aijyn watched the noblewoman’s daughter assessing the hot springs before her, she found herself curiously amazed. For a vampire, Rhiannon’s movements were oddly discordant, even gawky...like a budding adolescent. She seemed a girl who wasn’t sure yet if she wanted to embrace the elegant femininity in her bones or vehemently deny it. She had become acutely aware of her own nakedness, and quickly disconcerted.
It amazed Aijyn. She had never met a vampire who could be...shy.
This young woman—the bold daughter of the demon Councilwoman—was like no other creature who had ever walked the halls of the Blood Lotus Temple before.
Presently, Rhiannon stepped down into the stone basin of the baths, and Aijyn saw a delighted shiver go through her. The water would be blissfully hot and, Aijyn hoped, a soothing distraction.
Rhiannon sunk down into the pool and presently relaxed, uttering a soft sigh of relief. Aijyn hid her smile, folding the girl’s kimono carefully over her arm.
"Please don’t just stand there waiting," Rhiannon said suddenly. "It makes me nervous to have you hover."
"Forgive me," Aijyn said. "Would you like for me to leave?"
Rhiannon turned to face her, leaning her arms on the lip of the stone and gazing up at the oiran.
"No," she said. "Just...could you sit? Or even get in the water. Just please don’t...wait."
Aijyn bowed her head again and deposited the folded kimono on a flat stone table near the door. Lifting up the hem of her own robe just slightly, she stepped across the stones forming the edge of the pool, carefully avoiding the small waterfalls running through the rocks and flowers, until she found a calm place to sit across from where Rhiannon still reclined at the rim of the bath. Sitting gracefully, she removed her sandals and dipped her feet in the water.
Rhiannon watched her closely.
"You come here often, don’t you?" she finally asked. Aijyn nodded and gently plucked up one of the lotus blossoms, admiring the delicate petals as she held it in her hands.
"This bath-house has been built explicitly for the daimyo’s oiran," she explained.
Rhiannon closed her eyes, sinking a little deeper into the water, and then ducked her head under for just a second before coming back up. Aijyn tipped a nod toward a small wooden tray left by the rim of the pool, a tray containing soaps and oils for rinsing the hair. Rhiannon gratefully reached out for them.
"I am surprised the first thing you should want after such a long sea voyage would be a bath," Aijyn said.
"After weeks of hiding in a stinking cargo hold, picking off the deckhands, wallowing in the smell of men’s sweat and mildewing food?" Rhiannon growled bitterly, "What else could I want?"
"Blood," the oiran mused, speaking before she could think better of it. Rhiannon’s brow knit as she worked the scented soap into her hair.
"I find I have little appetite as of late."
Aijyn quirked an eyebrow.
"Because...you do not wish to be here?"
It came out bold, much bolder than she ever would have been with any of the daimyo’s court, and it earned her another warning—if somewhat quizzical—glare. Rhiannon did not lash out at her, however, correcting her with a stinging slap or a snap of the teeth like the temple vampires would. The girl’s eyes were smoldering and wild, like molten gold. Aijyn bowed her head to hide the tiny smile on her lips; she thought she rather liked the girl’s petulant expression.
"Do not worry," she said quietly. "I am not a spy for my master. I will not go running to him with tales of your reluctance at this union."
"I almost wish you would," Rhiannon muttered with a hint of a growl. "Perhaps it will anger him enough to break the contract with my mother."
"Why do you not simply explain yourself to the Councilwoman?" Aijyn asked carefully. She did not know if the vampire realized she’d witnessed the kiss earlier.
"Because I am kin-born," the girl growled. "And I don’t have the right to refuse her."
A brief sting of pity came to Aijyn’s heart. She wondered at the oddly compelling sympathy this girl, this demon, had stirred up.
"Here," she said, beckoning Rhiannon to a natural seat in the stone just beneath where she herself sat. To her great surprise the vampire stood obediently—the movement appeared ingrained in her, an indoctrination come from a long life of following orders—and crossed the pool. Aijyn marked how decidedly graceful Rhiannon became in the water as the vampire noblewoman came to sit almost submissively before her.
"If it does not displease you," Aijyn said quietly, beginning to strip off her own kimono, "I will join you."
Rhiannon shook her head—her eyes were distant, bothered with much more complicated matters than sharing her bath. Undressed, Aijyn slid smoothly into the water beside the lady and resumed washing the dark, wildfire tresses of her hair. It was not an unfamiliar act: the oiran bathed together often, and it had always been customary—especially for the humans, who were obligated to serve the vampire tayu—to wash one another, as innocently as sisters.
"Of all dishonorable kin-born," she said quietly, "I have heard you are hardly one to be concerned with the limits of your caste, Rhiannon-sama."
Rhiannon replied with a careful grunt. She glanced down at her hands, and presently began playing with the delicate lotus petals drifting just on the surface of the water.
"We are both slaves and prisoners," Aijyn said softly. "The unfortunate and unwanted bastards of our races. But you are like the hawk born from a kite, hidenka: an extraordinary child born from common beginnings."
"You tread a little near treason against my mother with such talk, slave."
Aijyn paused, her hands stopping their careful kneading.
"You must forgive me if I have offended you," she finally whispered. Rhiannon remained unmoved, cupping her palms and bringing up a handful of water, a single petal resting in its center. For long, long moments, neither of them spoke.
"Is there tea?" Rhiannon finally asked. "I am sick from all the filth I have been forced to feed upon while at sea. The blood of men nauseates me to my core."
"I am sorry," Aijyn replied. "But I have not brought my tea kettle. Once we return to the temple proper I will be happy to prepare something to settle your stomach."
Another quiet, distracted grunt. Rhiannon sighed, and Aijyn reached for one of the wooden bowls on the side of the bath to pour over the girl’s head, rinsing the oils from her hair.
Aijyn watched Rhiannon’s unreadable profile, amazed at the closeness of their flesh, how near this vicious predator had allowed her to come without once giving her the threatening, hungry grin Gohachiro’s tayu concubines gave to her, without showing her teeth in a gleefully taunting menace of impending attack.
"Most honorable daughter of the Councilwoman," she said carefully, daring to allow one hand to trace the line of Rhiannon’s neck, down to her shoulder. "I am appointed to serve your needs while you are our guest. Please do not hesitate to ask of me what you will."
Rhiannon turned her head, gazing at Aijyn over her shoulder. Aijyn took the chance to take Rhiannon’s chin in her hand, gently running her thumb over the young woman’s dark lips. As she did, those lips parted, and she could see the pert little points of Rhiannon’s fangs, like sharp diamonds.
Four fangs. How strange.
"I have gyokuro tea—it is the highest quality tea in Japan, hidenka—but if you will forgive me for speaking too boldly, I think it is something more substantial than tea you must require right now."
Rhiannon studied her for a long moment. Aijyn thought perhaps the weapons-mistress gauged her warily, but the gleam in her eyes appeared to be a mix of hunger and hesitation.
"I am not a salty pig-man, Rhiannon-sama. You are welcome to drink from me if it pleases you."
Again, Rhiannon stiffened, a quiet wariness creeping through the line of her shoulders.
"To drink the blood of another demon’s slave is an act of treason," she said in a soft voice. Aijyn smiled, though she couldn't say for sure if it masked the trepidation rising in her breast to let another one of the beasts to feed upon her.
"The daimyo makes an exception for you."
The vampire turned to face her fully, debate warring in her eyes. Finally, her conditioning seemed to give way to hunger, and, won over, she leaned carefully forward with her palms flat against the stone on either side of Aijyn’s thighs. When Aijyn did not shy away, Rhiannon let herself come a little closer still, running her tongue over those four erect little teeth—yes, despite her stubborn assertions otherwise… she hungered.
Aijyn leaned back to welcome her, angling her head to offer her throat. She tried not to tremble; trembling could heighten the vampire’s predatory instincts and drive it into a frenzy. Rhiannon’s naked breasts pressed against her own in the warm water—she felt the brush of excited nipples, hard little nubs against her skin. Belly-to-belly, they embraced, and Rhiannon shut her eyes as she dipped intimately close, to bite.
Aijyn suddenly held up a hand—she couldn’t help it.
"Please," she whispered, unable to keep the quaver out of her voice. "Do not...do not drink too deeply and kill me, Rhiannon-sama."
Rhiannon blinked—already her black pupils were widening with her thirst, becoming the eyes of the demon side of her, succumbing to her ravenous nature. She offered no assurance she had even heard Aijyn’s plea, and lunged for the oiran’s throat.
The sensation of Rhiannon’s fangs as they pierced her tender flesh began as abruptly painful...and then, intensely sweet. Tiny needles stung for just an instant, and just as quickly, the cold hurt melted away into something warm, almost dizzying, purely gratifying.
As she always did, Aijyn gasped at the first cruel twinge; no matter how she prepared herself for a vampire’s bite, she could never help the tiny flinch of sharp anticipation coming just a split second before the fangs broke flesh. After several seconds, though, she closed her eyes, trembling, timidly surrendering. A pleasurable, penetrating heat slid just beneath the skin, seducing her blood from her with slow, agonizing thrill, an arousal running tingling through her veins.
She recognized this feeling, of course. It held the vampire’s lure, their terrible promise: agony and death twisted into delight like poison mingling undetected in rich, lavish wine. Even the daimyo could be wickedly tender, sinfully sensual when he fed his own deep hunger with her blood, her flesh. It snuck up on a victim, their sinister predation. What mortal could refuse such beautiful pain?
Despite herself, Aijyn gently lifted a hand to twine in Rhiannon’s wildfire hair, pulling the demon closer, rendered blind to the fear always accompanying the savage exchange. A smile came to her face as the vampire began to drink, desperately voracious. Aijyn lifted her other hand to Rhiannon’s shoulder, blindly hoping for the tattoo, to trace the lines of rage and steel set in the girl’s flawless skin, astonished by the heat of the vampire’s lips against her throat.
Gohachiro had fed on Aijyn’s blood in times of passion and in times of simple appetite, but this...this was different.
Rhiannon released her bite for just a moment, her breath cool against the wound she had made, and she began licking Aijyn’s skin, slowly and indulgently. A tiny, satisfied pant escaped her—and then she bit down again, sending a second, more intense spark racing through the oiran’s body as she renewed her sucking, even more fervently this time.
Aijyn bit her tongue to keep from crying out. Rhiannon’s body firmed against hers, flesh against flesh from breasts to thighs, the mesmerizing heat of a vampire’s kiss radiating just beneath the surface everywhere their skin touched. Had she not learned well from the daimyo, Aijyn expected she would be lost by now: the promise of eternal pleasure, immortal, indulgent desire, overwhelmed the senses just as the vampire’s saliva numbed the victim to the deepest of the pain.
However, she had learned, and she knew better than to let herself sink too deep. After several long moments, she put both hands on Rhiannon’s elegant shoulders, gently pushing the young woman away.
She might have expected resistance, or even—fearfully—anger or rage. Any one of Gohachiro’s vampires would not have let a human stop them: her jugular would be torn open before she could offer even a squeak. Rhiannon released her grip gently, though, coming away with a satisfied but faintly regretful sigh. She lingered a moment more to drag her tongue over the wound, savoring the last taste of the blood...but finally, she let go.
When Rhiannon pulled away from her neck, pausing to meet Aijyn’s gaze, Aijyn could see the intoxicated flush on the other woman’s cheeks, and the way those yellow eyes had turned almost entirely black, barely a tiny ring of gold left. It made her resemble a lion even more—a mildly drunk, deeply satisfied lion.
Vampires were not warm. Their bodies remained frozen in the icy moment of their cruel death. Their hearts did not beat. Their blood ran, flowing in their veins by some unearthly animation, but like the blood of reptiles: cold and chilling. Even in the midst of passion, the heat somehow generated between bodies no more than the heat they stole from living lovers, the way cold marble might start to warm if a living body pressed against it for some time.
Rhiannon...she had been cold, her breath touching Aijyn’s flesh like a kiss of cool morning fog. Now...now she ran somehow hot. Truly hot...a heat coming from within, running beneath ivory flesh. Perhaps… perhaps because the girl had been immersed in hot water. Gohachiro’s tayu sometimes took on a heat throughout their bodies while lingering in the baths. Surely that had to be it.
Aijyn daringly brushed a hand against the girl’s neck again. She gasped very quietly—she almost thought she felt the faintest flutter of a pulse.
No. As she waited, slowly counting seconds, she felt nothing. She had imagined it.
"I am pleased I could honor you with my blood," she finally said as she pulled herself from her thoughts and sat upright, gently nudging Rhiannon out of their embrace. The whole exchanged dazed her, and she found it astounding she had not, in fact, died beneath the vampire’s savage teeth. Especially after touching her tender flesh yet a second time.
"But now, hidenka, we must return to the temple. You are bathed and fed, and you will still need to rest."
"Aijyn," Rhiannon whispered. Her lips were stained a deep, cherry red, and Aijyn could feel the feverish heat still radiating faintly along her skin. The oiran carefully wiped the last of the blood from the corner of the vampire’s mouth and, to her surprise, Rhiannon took hold of her hand, kissing her fingertip, sucking at it tenderly.
"Let us go," Aijyn said. "Before we are missed."
Rhiannon nodded, her eyes still closed as she let go of delicate fingers and slid away on the shelf of stone. Then, without speaking, she turned around and lifted herself up out of the bath, shedding the warm comfort of the scented water and the vulnerable intimacy they had just shared, as if neither had had any effect on her at all.
Aijyn watched the demon with thoughtful interest. Rhiannon did not return the gesture.
"Lead the way," the vampire said simply, never meeting Aijyn’s eyes.
Rhiannon required no assistance with her kimono, and when Aijyn attempted to help pin up her wet locks of hair the noblewoman brushed her away. When all had been returned to its place and the bath-house left with no evidence of their presence, Aijyn showed Rhiannon the sliding panel leading to the temple’s underground entrance, bowing her head to indicate the noblewoman proceed first.
Rhiannon made to go forward, but stopped just before crossing the threshold into the passageway.
"You will not speak of this visit," she said. Her voice rang cold, like stone. "Not to your master, nor to mine. Not to anyone. Do you understand?"
"Hidenka?" Aijyn asked, peeking up from her bow. The vampire had not turned to her, but kept her eyes sharply focused on the lamp-lit darkness of the path before them. The line of her back was rigid and proud; the set of her shoulders firm.
"Not to anyone, slave," she said again, and this time a mean snarl ticked just under her words. "If I discover you let slip the Councilwoman’s daughter fed at your throat, I will slit it without a second thought and spill your entrails for the dogs."
A troubled shiver rippled down Aijyn’s spine. She bowed her head again in a nod.
"I will not speak of it, noble princess," she said. Before she realized her mistake the vampire lunged, seizing her by the throat, and wrenched her off her feet to pin her to the wall.
"And the next time you call me princess, in my language or yours, I will rip out your tongue and make you eat it," she growled.
Aijyn nodded desperately—the flare in Rhiannon’s eyes shone with malice and venom. Here was the beast Aijyn sensed lurking beneath the surface; here was the vicious killer, devoid of feeling or remorse, the demon.
Once again, Aijyn found herself afraid.
Rhiannon dropped her, saying nothing more, and waited pointedly for her to regain her feet.
Keeping her eyes low, Aijyn stepped into the passageway first. The vampire followed, her presence like the shadow of a looming nightmare in the small, cold tunnel.