January 31, 2012

The Forge

The Forge is the first of my "Hump Day Request" stories, written in response to a prompt by one of my readers. This is the original prompt, received through my Tumblr Ask Box:
I wanted to request Seduction! I'm in the mood for something soft and sweet. I want a story where the guy seduces the shy sweet innocent gal. She's not secretly dirty or secretly kinky. She's a virgin, and innocent, but has a LOT of love in her heart. So he can seduce her and coax her into trying some fun stuff with him. That stuff can be as tame as doing it with her on top, or as wild as.. well.. wild stuff.. The main point to it should be seduction though.  I want 100% unfilterd romance.
One thing about romance: it always takes a hell of a lot longer than pure sex.  I'd written stories about this couple before but never hit quite the right note with them, so this time I took a different angle, putting them in a fictional fantasy/historical setting and gave them a new twist. I'm pleased with the results (and hopefully my requester is, too), and while the focus was sweet romance, it's still a little sexy, too.  But as I said, romance takes a bit longer than sex.  That said, The Forge will be a three-part story.
Here is Part One.

 Ayasha was not well-loved among the people in the mountain outpost of Harpy's Roost; she was an  outsider, and worse than that she was a heretic: a priestess of the Chyaen religion, robed in the dark cloak and hood of the Charossians wherever she went.  She was a disciple of the Death-God.

It wasn't precisely the aspect of her deity that turned the residents of the Roost away from her, though.  She wore black robes, where most Charossians wore white and gold; her hood always hid her face, where there was no such prescription for the loyal priests and priestesses of her order.  She never spoke, bound by an oath of silence that all acolytes took at initiation, but such an oath was renounced upon initiation into the Order proper and evidently, she had never been released of it herself.
Ayasha had turned away from the great Chyaen Temple in the faraway city where she had been raised and taught the miracles of a chosen worshipper.  She'd left her home to come out to the isolated northern country and settle in the harsh terrain of the great mountains, leagues and leagues away from the nearest church which bore her patron's crests.  She was no missionary, either, seeking to bring the will of Charos to the untouched northern range.  Ayasha was an apostate, cast out from her church, and shunned.
The black robes were a bad omen, a mark of shame.  The hood hid her face and her disgrace.  This was the garb of mourners, and Ayasha had been sentenced to a life of silent mourning for her own spiritual death.
She'd come to the Roost, alone, over a year ago, and since had lived alone, a hermit unto herself even within the borders of the town.  She was avoided, mostly ignored, left to her own devices.  As far as the residents of the Roost were concerned, the unlucky Charossian was content enough with that: she never spoke to anyone, and she didn't seek their friendship, and she didn't mind their pity.  The Roost and its single Untouchable existed almost within different realms all their own, interacting only as needed and happy to go on without ever meeting eyes.
Most of the Roost, at least, was content with this.  There was one man—Kayao, master of the outpost's great Forge—who did not truck with his neighbors' manners.  Kayao himself had been the source of some discomfort and avoidance among others before: he was terribly scarred, the left side of his face mutilated in an accident of his youth and now always covered by a thick leather mask.  Of course, his own deformities had come years ago, and he'd grown up with that mask covering one half of his face, of knowing that no friend, no woman who would be his lover, could ever look upon him without it.  His mask was like Ayasha's robes, his mark of shame, but he'd also been a boy in this region, raised and tempered here.  His people had become accustomed to his ugliness, and the mask hiding his true face was hardly noticed by anyone anymore.
Ayasha was an outsider.  He wasn't sure if her masks could ever be ignored.
He'd never understood why Ayasha was to be shunned in the first place.  He'd met her on her first day in the Roost, when she'd come to him to request a new bridle and shoes for her horse, and since that day he'd been the only one in the outpost who was not somehow afraid of her.  He'd seen beneath her hood that first day—he'd seen a sweet, cherubic face with wide, innocent eyes, one blue, the other green, and the earnest, genuine light in them that asked for nothing besides simple human tolerance.  She was beautiful.  Was it only the maimed man, forever meant to hide his ugliness, who could see that?
He did not know why she'd been cast out of her church, or why she'd been made to wear the black robes of a dishonored priestess or keep an eternal silence.  He didn't care.  She was young, she was alone, and she was only searching for a place to exist after everything she'd known had been stripped from her.
Kayao was her only friend.
And he realized, as time went on and as Ayasha became a part of the everyday reality in Harpy's Roost, a part of his everyday reality, that soon there was more to his feelings than that. 

Ayasha came to Kayao periodically, seeking his skills to help repair her simple tools or to request his aid in matters of upkeep on her simple home, a spartan hut on the edge of town where she was mostly unbothered by others.  She was always under those robes, she never so much as put back her hood, but Kayao snuck glances underneath its shadows nonetheless to her pretty eyes, and the shy smile she sometimes gave him when she noticed him peeking.  She was always very careful to pay him promptly and kindly rejected any offer to forgive payment or delay it until another time; Kayao knew nothing about where she might earn her money but that was not his business in any case.  One winter as he helped her to repair a portion of her roof damaged in a snowstorm—helped her, notably, as she refused to stand idly by to watch him handle the job alone—he wished she would let him do it without compensation.  He wanted to help her, after all.
He wanted to do more for her.
She occupied his thoughts more and more often, her gentle, silent presence a comfort to him.  Kayao was a hard man, had to be, as all residents of the Roost were in this harsh and unbroken mountain wilderness.  The women he had known were hard, too, carved from the very stones of the peaks, as it were, beautiful and regal and strong, but Ayasha was different.  She had grown up in the city.  She'd never had the callused hands of worker, and he saw the blisters rise and turn her palms ruddy now that she was given little choice.  He saw her take in the sight of work—like the roof in need of repair—and steel herself to do it though she had never been required to do anything like it before.  She was a priestess, not a farmer, not a fighter; but she had been dealt a new hand, and when she stood beside him in her dooryard watching him slaughter a set of chickens for her, she did not turn away or flinch.  She asked him—in her graceful, subtle sign language—to instruct her, so that next time she would know to do it for herself.
And somehow she'd managed it, without so much as staining the dark cotton of her mourner's robes.
He worried about her, living alone far from the others.  The Roost was built on perilous, craggy mountainside, and Ayasha in her seclusion had been relegated to a dangerous section of the borders.  In a bad enough storm she could easily be hurt or even maybe killed without anyone there to help her, and when the winds howled some nights he couldn't stop the thought of her isolation from gnawing at his gut.  Sometimes he even ventured out to check on her, and she was always there, silent and patient, whatever nervous fear she might have felt tamed behind those lovely mismatched eyes.  She'd let him in and start a pot of tea, and he remained with her throughout the storms to be sure no harm came to her.
He had fallen in love with her, of that there was no doubt.  His affection for her, his secret adoration, glowed and burned like the fires in his forge, with beautiful intensity every day.
Soon, it was impossible to deny.

On the night Ayasha came to him through the storm, Kayao had already been awake, standing in the storefront of his smithy and gazing out into the gales of sleet coming down.  It was perhaps the worst winter storm the Roost had seen in years, and his mind of course had gone to Ayasha's humble hut, standing alone near the cliff side.  He was thinking about the patch he had made on her roof that spring, and wondering if it would hold through this harsh northern wind.
It hadn't.
The knock came just as he had made up his mind to pack up and go to her, and when he opened the door and saw her standing there, holding the hood of her robe down over her face as the wind tried to snatch it away, he was speechless for several long seconds before he realized the stupidity of that and hurried her into the safety of the shop.
"What are you doing?" he demanded once he had shut out the howling storm again and turned to regard her disheveled state.  "You shouldn't have come out in this all alone, you could have been injured!"
She looked up at him, arrested as she tried to adjust the hood, and her mismatched eyes held a note of uncertain hurt.  He chastised himself immediately; he'd never spoken that way to her and of course it must have sounded exactly like the others in the Roost who mightn't have cared less if she stayed in her lonely hut as it blew over the cliffs.
"I'm sorry," he said, softer this time.  "I was worried, I was just about to come out to you.  What's the matter?"
She shook her head at him and her gaze fell to the floor.  He noticed that her robes—which she had never allowed to be stained, even when she learned to slaughter chickens in the dooryard—were dirty with wet slush and mud.  It was the first time he'd ever seen her in disarray.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
The hood bobbed as she nodded, and her graceful hands slipped out of the robes voluminous sleeves, working through signs even as they shivered.
Roof, she told him.  Partway collapsed.  Fallen tree.
"Oh," he said, and his heart thumped painfully.  "Were you hurt?"
No, she signed, though he could see the way her shoulders trembled a little in fear.
"Aya," he said gently.  "Don't worry.  We'll look at it in the morning.  You'll be safe here for the night."
She looked up at him again.  He saw the glimmer of tears in her eyes, tears of relief, and then she threw her arms around him in gratitude.
He was shocked at the sudden display of affection.  After some hesitant moments, he carefully lifted his own arms back and returned the hug.
"Tea," he said, his mind a stammer of uncertainty.  "You're all wet, you'll need some tea.  And…"
He frowned, then pushed her gently away from him to look down into her face.
"Aya, do you have anything other than these robes?  They're soaked.  You'll get sick."
She wore an expression of chagrin, and shook her head.
"Oh.  Well… I'm sure I can find something for you—"
She shook her head again, a little more frantically this time. 
"But you have to take them off," he insisted.  "Come on, Aya, you must take them off some time."
Her eyes fell to the floor again, and a third time she shook her head.
"That's nonsense," he told her.  "Aya, if you don't get out of those robes you're going to take a chill and get sick.  I respect your faith but I'm not going to let you do harm to yourself by it."
He put a hand on her shoulder and guided her towards the back door of the shop, which would lead to his personal rooms and to the stairs which led below, to the forge.  Kayao had moved into the small secondary chambers off of the forge room for the winter; in a place like Harpy's Roost, heat was precious, and the fires of the smithy made dwelling in the quarters below far more comfortable in the winters.  So he had not made use of his own kitchen or upstairs domicile in some weeks now, and when he brought the lamps to life around his humble dining table, it was obvious.  Everything had been taken downstairs, down the the teapot, which now rested on one of his anvils.
"Well, damn," he sighed.  Then, "Pardon that, Aya, wasn't thinking.  I'll have to go downstairs for the kettle, if you don't mind waiting up here.  My trunks are down there, too, so I'll bring you up something to wear while we put those robes out in front of my forge-fires to dry."
She regarded him with those clear, lovely eyes and nodded, taking a seat at the table.  Meltwater from her robes dripped to the stone floor beneath her.  In a moment of cautious forwardness, Kayao reached out for the folds of her hood, and—very slowly, giving her time to stop him if she wanted to do so—he pulled the wet, black fabric back, revealing her fully for the first time since they'd met.
He'd known that Aya had fine, golden hair underneath the hood.  Occasionally a length or strand of it had escaped its confines to tumble playfully into sight.  What he hadn't known was how long it was, falling well below her shoulders, presently in dripping dark tangles like a bedraggled thing.  She  trembled a bit as the hood came down and turned her face away from him, as though she was ashamed.
"I'm sorry," he said softly.  "I don't mean to dishonor you, Aya… I'll put it back, if you want.  I just don't want you catching cold."
She shook her head again and put her hands on his, letting him release the hood and keeping it where it was.  She ran one hand through her disheveled lengths of hair and it occurred to him, suddenly, that she must not have cut her hair since donning the hood in the first place.
"Oh, hell," he muttered, unsure of what to say to her.   Then, "Sorry, again.  Me and my mouth.  Are you sure you're okay?"
She nodded.
"I'll be right back."
He turned to leave here there as he descended into the forge, when:

January 29, 2012

Tracks In The Snow - Prelim Colors

Just preliminary coloring, hence the sloppy outside-the-lines bits.  This is going faster than my usual art... I think I'm getting more used to the tablet and Photoshop.

Illustration - Tracks In The Snow

I wrote a short story this week with intentions of submitting it to Breathless Press for their "Ravished' anthology, featuring shifters.  Since the story is slated for submittal I won't be posting it to the blog right now, but I will give you this tittilating "preview":

Still in its preliminary pencils stage; I'll continue to post as it develops.

This photo, originally posted by TheGucciSlut, served as photoref.

January 26, 2012

Once Bitten

Possible Trigger Warning:
Contains scenes of supernatural horror

She sat beside the window of her small room, the humble cell she had occupied in the boarding house since she was a very, very young girl.  It was raining outside, a steady rhythm of autumn song, turning the whole pleasure quarter into a gleaming wet jewel in the night.  It was cold outside—she felt the night breeze tickle her arms underneath the fabric of her kimono, sending a shiver down her spine.

“Are you almost ready, Ayame?”

The young maiko turned to give a nod to her onee-san, her mentor, a lovely and experienced geisha that was everything like an older sister to her.  She rose gracefully from her spot by the window and slipped on her okobo shoes—tonight, when she returned to the okiya, she would no longer be the little apprentice with the red collar, who needed Big Sister to manage all her accounts and possessions, all her training in the okiya.

After tonight, she would be geisha, just like onee-san herself.

This was to be the night of her mizuage ceremony.  Ayame’s older sister had spent days receiving bids for the right to deflower the beautiful maiko, a coming-of-age that would issue her into the full splendor of life as one of the pleasure-quarter’s most admired artists and entertainers.  Ayame had been well-loved in Edo, a maiko sought after by many men.  Tonight, one of those men would take her to his bed, and make her a woman.

January 23, 2012

Come to Bed, My Darling

Come to bed, my darling.
There’s room right here in my arms.
Come lay yourself down right beside me,
This place, always safe from all harm.

Whatever is happening elsewhere,
Whatever may weigh on our hearts,
In this room, in this bed, we are sheltered,
Comfort and passion are ours.

Come to bed, my darling,
This place we surrender so much.
Here you have seen every harsh truth in me,
And calmed every fear with your trust.

You’ve known all there is to be known here,
You’ve opened yourself here, in faith.
I’ve cried here, I’ve died here, you’ve loved here and tried here,
Together, serenity’s made.

Come to bed, my darling,
My favorite place in our home.
A place where we’re nothing but lovers,
A place where we’re never alone.

Come lay down here beside me,
Hold me in patient embrace.
Let the world move along then, without us,
I’m happy, content here.  In case

There ever is hardship between us,
I know that we’re safe in our bed.
With your arms around me, your breath at my ear,
There’s no place I’d long for instead.

Come to bed, my darling,
Come love me, and let’s apprehend
Each moment of bliss that is shared here,
My partner, my mate, my lover and friend.

January 22, 2012

Lotus Petals
(c) 2010
Watercolor and Acrylic

Chapter Three

Back to the Beginning

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.

"This is…"

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."

Rhiannon nodded.

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, hidenkabut 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.

And...something else.

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.

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