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Count Taka and the Vampire Brides! Intro bit

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Hiding behind the iron maiden, shoulders hunched so black hair brushed his photographer’s vest, Kae Mishima sighed. At this rate, he was going to miss the best part of the party. Or the most dangerous part, who knew. And Yris had promised him Taka wanted him there. Not just for the plan, for moral support, she’d said - though the idea of putting Yris and morals in the same sentence kind of boggled his mind....     

Two more minutes. If she doesn’t pick up by then - we go to Plan C.     

I really don’t like Plan C.    

But the phone was ringing, and if he was lucky, it wasn’t going straight to voicemail. Or maybe that should be unlucky. Either way, Miwa Mishima didn’t usually ignore international calls. Though if she read the caller ID she might decide he could wait for an email-     

“Kiyo?” His mother’s voice sounded harried, and no little grumpy. As usual. “Why did the airline tell me you cancelled the tickets?”     

“Because I cancelled them,” Kae said honestly. Screaming at his mother wasn’t going to do any good. Even if it might make him feel better. What she’d done with his raw photos, with his sister, what the whole Mishima and Akaushi family had done-     

Van Holsteins, Taka’s voice snickered in his memory.     

Kae had to stifle a laugh. Now... now would not be the best time to drop that on his mother. Really.     

“Why did you cancel the tickets?” Miwa growled. “Do you know what it’s like trying to arrange connecting flights from Tramontana to Japan?”     

“Probably about as hard as arranging them to America? I got here in the first place, so yes, I do,” Kae said dryly, drumming his fingers on ancient steel. “I cancelled them because we’re not going to be using them. I’m not done here yet. When I am, I’m heading back home, not out on another assignment. And if you try to drag Yuri away from the party she’s been looking forward to all week, you can deal with her boyfriend.”     

Err. Maybe that wasn’t the best turn of phrase, given the Akaushi habit of dealing with people a little... out of the ordinary. Though Kae was willing to bet Miwa hadn’t even considered someone like Criosol might date her daughter.     

What boyfriend?”     

As if this were just an ordinary family spat, to be resolved by shouting and unyielding silences, the way his mother solved everything. Everything she didn’t shoot, at least.     

God, I’m tired of this.     

And damn it, given what he’d found out about his photos, and his past, and those idiots who’d tried to make Reule a wolfskin rug - it was even odds his mother already knew about Criosol. And was lying to him. Again.     

“Mom,” Kae said, very deliberately, “Yuri has finally found her very own bishie tentacle monster. And if the blushing is anything to go on, he’s head over heels for her, too. I don’t think you can pry her out of here with a crowbar. So let the tickets stay cancelled, okay? At least until she figures out how to break it to you that he’s absolutely adorable.”     

“Bishie. Tentacle. Monster.”     

Holding up his free hand, Kae took the phone away from his ear and starting counting down. And five, four, three, two-     

“Kiyo Mishima!”     

Kae tried to look innocent. Even if his mother couldn’t see it. “I warned you what kind of manga she liked, Mom. He is definitely bishie; he could beat out a whole boy band in the young and sweet-looking category. But Criosol’s really a nice guy. He’s responsible, he loves his family - he’s the guardian for his little cousin, she’s cute enough to make kittens blush-”     

“Tentacle monster?!?”     

“A really nice one?” Kae offered. Unless someone threatened to make Seda or Yuri cry. After that, sayonara, suckers.     

Which was a good thing. Yuri needed someone willing to pull her back from indiscriminately kicking supernatural ass. Someone who was also willing to get right in there when said asses really did need to be kicked. Permanently. Because Yuri was a Mishima, she was a Hunter, and there would always be something stalking out there in the night that wanted to eat his little sister, even if she hadn’t done anything to them.     

And Kae had to stop right there and count to ten. Because he was Yuri’s older brother, he was supposed to be the one looking out for her. Yet his whole family had kept him in the dark.     

Not anymore.     

“Kae.”     

Ah, yes. The Rational and Reasonable tone, that promised Extreme Pain to any soul so foolish as to ignore it. “Mom?”     

“You and Yuri are both in grave danger.” Miwa’s tone was level. Unyielding. “Trust me, anything with tentacles feeds on people. Yuri may think this - creature - cares about her, but-”     

“Criosol is not a creature,” Kae bit out. Though anyone who lived around Castle Raven probably wouldn’t mind the term at all. It beat monster, or demon, or augh kill it lots. “He’s polite, he’s employed,” keeping Castle Raven’s swamp in good health totally counted, it was part of the castle budget, “and he’s learning to use chopsticks. When’s the last time you cared about someone enough to use a fork for them?”     

“I use forks on them.” Miwa’s voice had no more give than an iron bar. “All right. Tell me how this mess started.”     

Eep. But for their mother, that was being surprisingly reasonable. “Well,” Kae began cautiously, “I guess it started when Yuri got lost in the gift shop....”


 

Chapter One

Eight days before Halloween....

 

I don’t believe this. Kae took a deep breath, and tried not to bury his face in his hands. October in Tramontana was crisp and clear, sunlight warming the mountain slopes to light-jacket weather as it glinted off the white snow tipping the highest peaks. He could smell hot cider drifting from more than one of the neat little shops lining Dunraven’s wandering main street, and hear bells on someone’s lead goat, in one of the mingled flocks of goats and sheep that produced the soft local telemea cheese currently being offered in over a dozen herb, fruit, and pepper-flavored varieties in the Cheese Stake Gift Shoppe. All of which his younger sister Yuri seemed determined to sample before she went anywhere.     

Cheese, sure. Do you really need to field-test the stakes? Kae sighed silently. What would you even test them on?     

Knowing Yuri, she’d probably already bought one of those garish Vampire Plushies for exactly that.     

One of these days, I’m going to sneak onto a tramp freighter, sail to Russia, wait for her to catch up, and swear I never saw this girl in my life.     

Which was not something responsible twenty-three-year-old photojournalists did to their bright-eyed twenty-one-year-old sisters. Damn it.     

Then again, most older brothers didn’t have their kid sisters popping up on work assignments. Travel assignments, where she didn’t know the country, didn’t speak the language, and didn’t look anything like the locals. Who were not always happy to see him, even if Kae explained dutifully that he was a travel photographer, with an emphasis on the wild and the spooky, and definitely Not Interested in politics - local, country, or world. Sometimes especially if he wasn’t interested.     

Granted, Kae didn’t look like the locals either. Collar-length black hair, honest gray eyes, boots meant for all-day walking, dun pants with lots of pockets and a vest with even more shouted foreign photographer even without his cameras. And he didn’t speak every language of the various countries he’d visited. But he could speak English, Japanese, and Italian, he could get by in half a dozen other languages with a dictionary, and he’d memorized “sorry, I don’t speak X and I’m really lost” for at least a dozen more.     

“Sorry, my sister’s a little strange.” That, he had down in at least twenty languages. And counting.     

“I’ll just be a few minutes.” Yeah, right. Kae sighed, looking at the perfect, crystalline autumn sunlight knifing down. Enough is enough. I’m not getting paid to lose the light.     

Camerabag over his shoulder, Kae moved out. Digital shots first. They were fast, and gave him an idea what light levels he’d need to cope with and which shots he’d want to take his time and set up something special. Anyone could make a tourist spot look spooky. The real trick to a good Travel in High Spirits column for Light and Shadows was showing the contrast; cheerful, active tourist spot by daylight, something that raised the hairs on the back of the reader’s neck when the wind shifted.     

This is going to be a good one. Kae smiled at one of the little girls staring at him, keeping a respectful distance from the rusty-coated lupine creature lolling on the stone step by her, heavy head on her lap. It had a collar. It was lying on the girl’s porch step in full view of the neighbors without a care in the world. But if that animal was a hundred percent dog, he’d eat Yuri’s school skirt.     

No. Bad idea. She’d hold me to that. And take pictures.     

The little redhead shot to her feet, letting the canine of doubtful pedigree lurch back with an indignant whoof! “Sarai! Marai!”     

Twins. Wow. Kae stood politely as the dark-haired sisters approached, hands away from the camera around his neck. They were dressed for tourists or a festival, starch-white embroidered shirts, dark and gold-embroidered skirts, and complicated-looking shoes that managed to combine peasant clogs with an almost modern high heel. “Hello,” he said, hoping he wasn’t mangling the local dialect too badly.     

“You’re the magazine photographer?” One of the twins, green ribbons in dark hair, crossing her arms under the generous bosom draped by her dragon-embroidered shirt.     

Oh, good. Some people here did speak English. His contacts, especially Martin, had said that would be the case, but since he didn’t know anyone in Dunraven personally, it was always a risk. “Kiyo Mishima, with Light and Shadows Journeys, yes, ma’am,” Kae said politely. “Would you like me to take a picture?”     

“Pictures steal the soul.” The other twin, purple ribbons in her braids setting off black hair like the sheen of a raven’s wing.     

Oh. Great. “I haven’t had mine stolen yet,” Kae said calmly. “But if that’s how people feel, I’ll ask them if they want pictures taken.”     

“Don’t let Sarai tweak you.” Green-ribbons - Marai, if they weren’t pulling a twin trick and messing with the outsider’s head - gave him a cautious smile. “We’re not that backward here.”     

“I wouldn’t call it backward,” Kae said honestly. “There are people who think that light and electricity can have all kinds of effects on etheric bodies, and then there’s Kirlian photography, and....” He shrugged, not willing to get into what people thought they could photograph when all that was really involved was light, chemicals, and a little bit of electricity. “All I can say is, I’ve never trapped any spirits yet. But a photograph is personal. People are entitled to their privacy. I don’t use people’s pictures without permission.” Which left him out of certain assignments, but the travel spots Kae shot actually benefited from that treatment. People looking for ghosts and spooky places weren’t looking for crowd scenes. They were looking for the soulful lone person standing on the edge of a moor, or a deserted castle, or anywhere that looked like living people would be the last things you expected to see.     

Yes, he’d love pictures of the twins in their brilliant clothing. It’d add that touch of local flavor the readers hungered for. But if they didn’t want him photographing him, he’d never do it. Part of being a good photojournalist was trying to keep local goodwill. In case you wanted to come back.     

...Not to mention, American tourists had aversions to being tarred and feathered. Perfectly understandable ones. People who read the High Spirits column were looking for a little history, a little thrill. Fun. Hostile locals were not fun.     

Please let Yuri still be in the gift shop.     

Sarai’s look was still wary. Marai crouched to scratch the not-a-dog behind the ears, giving him an unreadable smile. “That’s different.”     

“I get that a lot.” Kae touched his camera. “Would you like a picture? Or, do you know anyone who really wouldn’t? I don’t want to make a fuss, if we can avoid trouble by asking.” He straightened, trying to give a friendly shrug. “Really, I’m here more for the landscape. And, well, the castle. Of course.” He glanced right and left, then leaned forward. “I hear there’s a ski resort about fifty miles north of here? I’m really looking for the places they don’t go.”     

Twin looks of honest surprise. Damn, that would be a picture. Sigh.     

“Where they don’t go.” Sarai gave him a second look. “You have a grudge against skiers?”     

“Nothing personal,” Kae said honestly. “But the people I’m writing for are more interested in staying up late to see if they can spot a ghost than hurtling down the mountainside to break their necks and haunt the slopes themselves.” Not to mention High Spirits readers were more of the older, less athletic, less rich type. True ski buffs - well. It was hard for him to relate to people who thought nothing of dropping several thousand dollars for equipment they couldn’t even use half the year.     

Cameras were different. Cameras could go anywhere.     

“But you are here for the castle.” Marai’s stare was piercing.     

“Oh, definitely,” Kae nodded. “It’s the kind of thing our readers love to see. And hear more about. I’ve read that it’s got an interesting history. I couldn’t document it all without being here, but... legend says the lord who took power here back in 1623 wasn’t from around here?”     

Legend said a lot more than that. But he wasn’t going to quote local webpages that linked a foreign castle lord to a samurai lost from the Keichou Embassy without a lot more facts backing him up. People who read his articles wanted the spooky stuff, yes - but they wanted the truth, not just wild rumors.     

Get the facts right. Show people what they can really see. Kae had to smile a little, sadly. Then they can invent the rest themselves.     

Which was pretty much what half his family did, so he couldn’t throw stones. But he’d been over spooky places all over the world and never seen anything spookier than rabid dogs and crazier people.     

Just once, I wish I could see something a little magic.     

Tramontana had such amazing legends. Not just of vampires and werewolves, or even of the flying hosts of restless dead in the Wild Hunt. The mountain country had tales of whirling glass castles ruled by sorcerers or dragons. Of the child-eating vântoase, beautiful wind-spirits who soared through dust storms and blizzard winds in a glowing wagon, clad in silvery chainmail or nothing but their flowing gold hair. Of the uriași, giants tied to mountains or caves or fire, mound-creators and the cause of avalanches, murdering humans for their delicious, marrow-fat bones.     

Okay, so some of the legends were a little gory. They weren’t any worse than his grandmother’s tales passed down from Japan. Haunted warehouses that ate everything but your clothes and hair, eep.     

No matter where you go in the world, stories are just stories.     

Ah, he had no room to complain. Old stones and misty marshes had a charm all their own. And he was going to get to figure out how to bring out the best in all of them. Just as soon as these two decided he’d passed their scrutiny enough to be let loose among strangers and small children.     

Harmless. Try to look harmless-     

The rusty lupine leapt to his feet, ears perked and swiveling back toward the east.     

The gift shop. Kae tried not to groan.     

Sarai was craning her head the same direction as her canine companion. Marai was... studying him. With interest. “Well, you won’t find information on the old lord at the local gift shop. They keep those documents at the castle, under Count Herodes’ care.”     

“Count?” Kae said skeptically. Because seriously. There were plenty of old noble titles rattling around in the tiny overlooked country of Tramontana, but count wasn’t an accurate translation of any of them. “I’d love to see them, if I can arrange a time....” She can’t really be in trouble. Seriously. It’s only been a few minutes. The locals are friendly. She’s in a gift shop.     

Sarai drew a deep breath of sunlit air. “Do you smell smoke?”     

Panicked, Kae bolted.     

...Why did he have the distinct impression the dog was laughing at him?