January 22, 2012

Chapter Two

Back to the Beginning

Aijyn was afraid of vampires. She always had been.

Until she had been ten years old, Aijyn had lived in a village north of the Blood Lotus Temple. The people there had spoken of the vicious demon lord who ruled the forests on the other side of the pass: they had feared him, whispering of him and his monstrous brood in the hours of darkness. The village, like so many in the Kansai region, belonged to Gohachiro. Every year the villages in his domain gave the daimyo an offering of six living children—three boys and three girls—to keep peace with him. Those villages who offered a suitable child accepted by the daimyo would be protected from his hunters for the duration of the year, until he demanded the next offering and required another sacrifice.

Finally, on the cusp of adolescence, Aijyn herself had become part of the offering.

Of the six children offered to Gohachiro every year, four of them became blood-givers. These children were imprisoned and kept alive, fed upon little by little by the strongest and most vicious of the daimyo’s demons until the coming of the next offering. Then, they were killed. The demons did this because to them, the warm blood of the still-living held the essence of life itself, and the blood of children proved more satiating to their ravenous natures, purer than the blood of adults. If the villages submitted to the daimyo’s demands and offered four suitable juvenile blood-givers each year, Gohachiro’s vampires would repay the honor by seeking out their nightly prey in other towns and provinces instead.

The moment Aijyn’s terrified mother had given her over to the tithe-collectors, Aijyn had been convinced this would be her fate. A girl of ten, she resolved then and there she would not see eleven. Her mother had drawn back the string of a bow and shot an arrow through her heart, though it would take a year for the bolt to strike home. Aijyn found a strange peace with this; she had had two younger brothers and an infant sister, and if she could spare her mother the agony of ever having to offer another of them to future tithes, Aijyn would go to Gohachiro.

Perhaps this saved her. Two of the six children offered—one boy and one girl—were always kept by the daimyo to serve other purposes. To her silent surprise, in her year he chose Aijyn. It proved her live would be one of a servant of the household instead, where the boys were made eunuchs or soldiers and the women made attendants to the Lord’s harem, the oiran and the tayu. Rather than one year’s imprisonment, being bled for the vampires’ joy until she died, to be replaced by the next sacrifice, Aijyn found herself thrust into the bustle of the temple itself. She began her servitude as a housekeeper for the courtesans, tending to their needs with graceful obedience.

Though she had been spared the short life of a blood-giver, Aijyn had always known it did not make her safe. Gohachiro’s thirteen oiran were mostly human, but his favorites, the tayu, were demons like him...and demons were soulless, heartless things, twisted shadows of mankind. Every day the vampires eyed her like hungry men feasting their sights upon a suckling pig. Now and again one of the women would lean in close to her, inhaling the scent of her neck with a little purring pleasure, and Aijyn kept herself steady by reminding herself she had already died; the fated arrow would simply take a little bit longer to reach her still-beating heart.

During her years in the temple, Aijyn had seen many of the other tithing children come and go. The boy who had been spared during her year would have survived longer if he’d been made a blood-giver: he defied the temple soldiers and attempted to fight them for escape, and they’d killed him outright, snapping his neck with cold brutality and then moving on as though nothing of particular notice had passed at all. She had seen three girls—two older than herself and one younger—slaughtered by the concubines, sometimes out of nothing more than spite, or out of an indulgent whim. She had also seen two girls chosen to become oiran, and one of them bitten by the daimyo, made a child of his hellish race. This, of course, would be the highest honor among most of the demon lord’s women: to become a vampire tayu.

Aijyn kept all these things close to her heart while she grew up within the temple walls, and she kept her eyes averted from her master’s, obeying him in everything without question or hesitation. She knew risking the wrath of a vampire would bring the hovering arrow home for good.

When her gawky childishness gave way to a quiet, tender grace—Gohachiro again took notice of the girl he had allowed to live. He declared he wished for her to become one of his oiran. She would train under a loyal servant of the Blood Lotus in a seirō green-house—a sort of school, a training house—near the coast. There she would learn the ways of a proper temple courtesan: the arts of dance and music, poetry and repartee, calligraphy. This would be her life until she proved ready to return and serve Gohachiro as the rest of his women served, tending to the needs of his household and his bed, expected to hope he would one day choose her for ascension to the Fourth Blood.

Aijyn allowed herself to enjoy the short reprieve from the vampire’s court. The green house had been beautiful, nestled into a quaint hill village and quite private in comparison to the temple rooms she had shared with several other mortal slaves. Her own quarters had been kept tidy and open, her windows always wide to admit the crisp breezes smelling faintly of the sea, and the bright, verdant scents of the house mother’s gardens below. She had been a model student while she lived there, keeping herself clean, fresh and attentive to her lessons always, lest she displease the Daimyo’s servant and risk the vampire’s punishment.

The thought of attempting to flee Gohachiro’s grasp never crossed her mind. Why should it? There would be no point. The house-mother would always be decidedly dedicated to the ancient demon, though whether out of fear or fanaticism, Aijyn never guessed. If any of his girls had tried to run away from him, thinking themselves safe and distant from his power, they would find themselves tragically mistaken: the servant-mother had been clever and meticulous, and any unexpected absence from her house would be heard of in the Blood Lotus Temple at once. Gohachiro and his hunters would find any who tried to flee. So, as she had in the temple, Aijyn accepted her fate, moving through it with calm resignation. Yet though she had paid honor to her noble patron with her obedience, Aijyn had also savored those few years liberated from demons and the cold, quiet halls of their undead lair. She never for a moment believed herself free.

If Aijyn could have allowed herself anything more—entertained her own fancies, let herself dream of a true life outside Gohachiro’s walls, a world without his kind prowling in the shadows around her—she would have easily admitted she had no wish to become like him. Vampires were ravenous beasts driven by hunger and lust. Their flesh remained cold as a grave unless they had recently fed, and fed well. Their hearts did not beat but their blood ran through their veins by some otherworldly power, like ice in a frozen river, though when feeding on the warm veins of humans would they also become warm, leaching heat as they leached the very life from the body. When they sunk their fangs into the throats of their victims, life and unlife sank into one being—vitality, passion, heat, all flowed from one vessel into the other, a carnal and climactic, violent exchange. For the mortals they fed upon, the moment might be violent, painful, an act akin to rape or slaughter, a mauling and gruesome death; or, it might be slow, languorous, seductive, a long, dreamlike dance of irresistible bliss.

In the grip of the vampire’s embrace a mortal being could lose their mind from the addictive pleasure before they even realized they were dead. If they died. Vampires like Gohachiro, of course, might keep whole harems of enduring victims to feed off in portions, but even these masters and lords ultimately craved the kill and the brutality, lusted to ravage and destroy and revel in hot, steaming blood.

Time always returned them to their cold, pristine state of living death, however. Then they were pale, perfect beauties, graceful and elegant, ethereal and alluring. They wore painted faces of serenity, of wisdom and courtesy. They were like precious porcelain dolls, exceptional in their loveliness.

She had never met one she didn’t fear with everything in her.

Aijyn had not been privy to all the secrets of the Fourth Blood, of course, but she had learned enough of their ways. They could not be fed by the blood of animals, could not survive on livestock or other living fauna. Only the blood of humans—the blood of creatures who were once brothers, sisters, kin—proved capable of feeding the devil within them. Without it their own unnatural, undead bodies grew slow, the old blood blackening, decaying, and rotting within them. Human blood renewed them nightly—it served as the catalyst which perpetuated their terrible glamour. Likewise they could not drink the blood of the dead, called "cold" blood: if the heart which pumped it had gone still, if the life filling it had been extinguished, it became like poison to them. Creatures who drank this foulness withered and became like scavenging rats, inevitably prey for one of their own, or a demon of the other nations, an incubus or a werewolf, provoked by disgust and shame.

Aijyn could never desire to be one of them. She could not bear the thought of drinking from the daimyo’s own glacial veins, letting his inhuman stain burn away her own humanity, killing her and leaving her to lie dead in the ground for three long nights before being animated again by his will.

She did not want to become an ever-living monster, like them.

Now, an hour after the arrival of the Donovan emissaries, Aijyn found herself carefully arranging elegant silk shrouds in the heavy coffin where the visiting demon would find her daytime rest. The daimyo’s guests—perhaps unaware of her—argued quietly on the balcony nearby. Having spent half her life in a vampire’s temple, Aijyn had been taught their language, but Gohachiro’s guests either did not realize or did not care she could hear—let alone understand—their hushed and heated words.

"You almost disgraced yourself in front of Gohachiro and his court, girl," purred the bodyguard, Sölva. The sound of her voice, gravelly and low, stripped away any last vestige of femininity she might have had hidden underneath her hard, muscled exterior. In her guttural tone, Aijyn heard everything that made vampires frightful and detestable to her: this creature was bitter, a cruel torturer, a mad, hungry beast.

"I warned you about behaving yourself."

"You heard what he called me," Rhiannon growled back, a tinge of hurt lacing her words. The girl did not sound as savage as her master, but the sharpness in her words rang equally as fervent as the other woman’s madness.

"Don’t be a mewling little worm. You are exactly what he said you are: a princess. A spoiled little political toy to be traded around to eligible noblemen however your mother sees fit to trade you."

Aijyn heard so much sinister joy in the ugly woman’s tone. Aijyn folded her shrouds silently, careful not to give their guests any hint she might be listening. Inwardly, though, she found a part of herself feeling sorry the younger vampire—a young woman the Council had sent halfway across the world. Clearly the poor thing wanted to be anywhere but here, and she had no desire at all to capture the interests of Daimyo Gohachiro.

Aijyn certainly understood the feeling.

Of course, such a thought weighed very strange on her mind. She had never found anything in the other vampire women of the daimyo’s court with which to sympathize. Rhiannon, however, might be no different now than Aijyn had been a decade ago, when she stood as a little girl in a line of other little boys and girls, trembling with terror as the beasts judged them for slaughter.

Aijyn marveled at the feeling for a moment, but then continued her work.

"Filthy hund," Rhiannon spat in cold German, and Aijyn had to pause with a little note of shock. Whatever the noblewoman had said, it sounded decidedly vulgar, and not the sort of tone she’d have expected from a courtly lady.

"You should have been strangled at birth," Sölva replied off-handedly. Evidently Rhiannon’s language did not bother her. "So be thankful you’re being sold off to the hund instead. He can satisfy himself between your thighs and dress you up like his little doll for the nobility."

Rhiannon did not respond, and a pang of temptation made Aijyn want to glance up and see the expression on the younger girl’s face.

"Why are you going along with this?" Rhiannon finally asked. Her voice became very soft now. "I thought of all people, I could trust you to defend my honor."

"I will do the will of my Councilwoman," Sölva replied. "Your mother wants you to wed the daimyo, and I will see it happens."

"But I thought you—"

A sound of shuffling cut the girl off—the weapons-mistress appeared ready to take her leave.

"Do not whine, Rhiannon," she said. "You are inherently weak and corrupt, as all bastard birth vampires are, but you will not disgrace your house by whining."

So much cruel enjoyment painted everything she said. Cruelty… and also a strange hint of something else, something Aijyn could not exactly place. The woman played with a degree of double-speak in her words, as if, in truth, she didn’t want to see Rhiannon wed to the daimyo any more than Rhiannon herself did...although certainly not because of anything so kind as sympathy. Whatever the vicious woman could be thinking, though, whatever she might be hinting at, could be anybody’s guess.

Aijyn turned to bow before the weapons-mistress as she left, but the oiran had misjudged the sound of Sölva’s footsteps. Instead of crossing back into the room toward the door, the older vampire had moved closer—intimately close—to her young ward.

The Viking leaned her hard, muscular body against Rhiannon’s smaller frame, casually putting one large hand on Rhiannon’s waist. The other hand came up to caress the girl’s cheek; as Aijyn watched in surprise, Sölva leaned close and pressed her lips to the other vampire’s, closing her icy blue eyes with sultry, indulgent pleasure.

The oiran quickly busied herself elsewhere and avoided staring, but she did not miss the reaction on Donovan’s daughter’s face. She saw a mixture of fear and desperate confusion there, and at the same time, something in the way Rhiannon timidly pressed back against her master spoke of more. Like a child, she seemed to crave a kind of approval, needing it, even as it made her tremble.

Aijyn had heard some of the rumors regarding the Councilwoman’s bastard as they made their rounds through the temple, the marvel over the extraordinary reputation the girl had begun to build for herself. Aijyn had also heard the other rumors, however: rumors Rhiannon Donovan was not the kind of young woman to welcome the attentions of a man. Quite the contrary...the demons whispered of Rhiannon, under the careful tutelage of hateful Sölva, having come to despise men, all men, to the point where she could barely stomach the blood from their veins.

They said—and Aijyn felt herself blush even at the thought of it—young Rhiannon preferred the affections of the fairer sex.

Surely even the daimyo must have heard the rumors. He perhaps dismissed them when Councilwoman Donovan made clear her intent for sending Rhiannon to Osaka. If the girl had been offered as a bride, certainly it implied she would be his bed-mate, his lover. Now, though...here...in his own temple…

The kiss broke. Now Sölva turned to stride back into the room and past Aijyn, ignoring the stunned servant and sweeping out into the hall, leaving Rhiannon alone.

After several moments, Aijyn carefully brought up her eyes. Rhiannon remained on the balcony, her back turned to the quiet, rainy forest night. She bowed her head—could she be crying?

No. Vampires did not cry. Vampires did not have emotions; least of all the Councilwoman’s daughter, so hell-bent on proving herself in the eyes of her nation and the eyes of the demonic deity, the Drogh Lord. The kin-born had to be stronger than all the other demons ...she would never allow herself to cry.

Aijyn knit her brow in tender worry. She couldn’t help it. Vampire or no, this girl seemed so young and hopeless, flung to the ends of the world and so far from everything familiar to her, forced into servitude by the will of an unforgiving nation. She of all people should have been allowed to cry.

Aijyn knew the feelings very well, oh yes. She also knew the punishment for showing frailty or weakness in the court of the soulless.

The little oiran came to her feet, and approached the door to the balcony.

"Hidenka?" she said quietly. Rhiannon did not appear to hear her, so she respectfully lowered her eyes and approached.

"Hidenka? Rhiannon-sama?"

Still nothing. Finally, Aijyn passed her tongue quickly, nervously over her lips, and tried a third time, in the language the vampires spoke among themselves.

"Are you quite all right?"

Now Rhiannon looked up sharply, her wild golden eyes full of bright anger. Aijyn thought it might be an anger turned inward, however. It brought a small sadness to her heart.

"How is it you speak the vampire tongue?" Rhiannon demanded, as if it were an unthinkable trespass. Aijyn dropped her eyes in immediate apology.

"Forgive me, hidenka. The daimyo instructed me to learn your language, so I might better serve him and the honored guests of your nation."

Evidently she gave a satisfying enough response, though Rhiannon still eyed her with wary distrust.

 "Hidenka, the sun will be rising soon. I have made the preparation for you to go to ground...you must come inside."

"Don’t call me that," Rhiannon muttered back.

"It is a suitable title, Rhiannon-sama...to address you otherwise would be improper. It means royal majesty, companion to the prince."

"I know what it means," the girl muttered begrudgingly, coming away from the balcony and back into the sleeping chambers. Aijyn followed her obediently, shutting the heavy wooden doors—they had to be thicker than those of most traditional Japanese structures, in order to keep out the sunlight—behind them.

Rhiannon slid out of her heavy captain’s coat, and Aijyn took it from her without a word, neatly laying it aside.

"Is there anything I can offer you, hidenka?" she asked. Rhiannon didn’t correct her this time. She shook her head, already delicately undoing the black corset she wore. Perhaps she wished to be left alone. Aijyn simply didn't want to leave her there.

"Are you hungry?" she asked, again taking over the undressing and untying the cords of the corset for Rhiannon. "So many weeks at sea...you must not have fed well."

"No, and on the blood of salty pig-men, to boot," the weapons-mistress growled in disgust. Aijyn removed the corset at last and folded it, placing it aside with the coat.

"Then, please," she said quietly, letting Rhiannon finish the rest of her undressing on her own, before offering her a darkly-dyed kosode, the simpler-style kimono worn in the house or for sleeping. "Allow me to satiate you before you rest."

Now the weapons-mistress turned around, a strange, suspicious quirk to her eyebrow. Aijyn blushed immediately and shook her head.

"You misunderstand me...I mean, please feel free to take of my blood."

It frightened her to even mention it. Many years now she had been required to give her blood to Gohachiro when he asked for it, as his servant and his courtesan, but she had quickly learned the daimyo could drink from her without letting his hunger overcome him and killing her. He had never offered her to any other member of his court, though, nor any other vampire at all, and she realized how the very smell of her could make them all leer with hunger.

Gohachiro had made it clear to her, though, before Donovan’s envoy had arrived, she would serve them in any way they required. It meant offering them her neck, if need be. Even if another vampire might kill her if she let them drink, Gohachiro himself would surely kill her if she refused.

Rhiannon took the proffered kimono, her wary expression unchanging, and slipped her arms through the sleeves. Pushing aside her trepidation with practiced obedience, Aijyn helped her, choosing a bold obi belt to tie carefully around the lady’s waist. The noblewoman dropped her gaze and assessed the garment, but not before Aijyn thought she caught the slightest hint of discomfort in those wild eyes.

The sharing of blood, while not precisely carnal in nature, became highly intimate. The offering of a human slave was a gift most often extended to kin-bitten demons, those with great honor and influence among their nation. Similar to sharing the lord’s finest wine to welcome guests to his table. For a kin-born to feed on a human belonging to one of their betters, however, remained strictly taboo. Many were killed for it.

Gohachiro had instructed Aijyn to treat Rhiannon as royalty, though, as graciously as she would treat any noble bearing but two fangs.

"No thank you," Rhiannon muttered. Evidently the offer shamed her; the tone of her voice had gone quite soft, finally losing the last of its hostile edge. "I will be well enough for now. But…"

She gazed upward, listening to the quiet sounds of the rain pattering against the temple’s wooden walls.

"Aijyn," she said. "Is there somewhere I can bathe?"

Aijyn brightened and nodded—she could joyfully offer such a setting, and one she thought Rhiannon would be more than pleased to see.

"Most certainly, hidenka. I will show you the bathhouse! It is the most beautiful part of all the daimyo’s gardens, I am quite sure it will amaze you!"
Rhiannon nodded. The dreariness in her eyes said she didn’t believe Aijyn’s excited assurance, but the little oiran took her hand with a smile and led her out the door.

Go to Chapter III

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