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Down till You Fall

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December 24th, 2012: Tokyo

When Yuuichirou was eight years old, his mother and father tried to murder him.

His parents were virtuous people. They knew better than to listen to their son’s pleading. For the boy was not their child, but the spawn of Satan, the entity known as the Seraph of the End. His death would save the world from falling into ruin; it was nothing less than an act of pure righteousness.

His father raised their kitchen knife, fit for butcher’s work. Yuuichirou ran and barricaded himself in his room. His body shook and tears ran down his face, but he never stopped denying their accusations. 

Soon, he began to feel an unnatural heat, and saw flames lick at his door. He learned later that it was his mother who set the fire. His father had remained in the apartment to ensure his death, his body burning to ashes. Yuuichirou would have met the same fate, had a man not climbed up to his window and pulled him out.

Outside, his mother was screaming, her long black hair tangled and a wild light in her eyes. She had set herself on fire, screaming that it should never be put out. Screaming for the death of a demon.

His parents had died, but the demon survived.

From that day forward, he went to live with adults of no relation to him. While living that colorless life, Yuuichirou came to accept the truth of his ill-fated existence. He may be a demon child, he may be damned, but even so he lived on. He didn’t really have any reason for doing so. He loved no one and no one loved him. All he had was the words the adults had given him: one day, he would meet someone he cared for. One day, he would be blessed.

A scant few months later, even that guardianship was at an end. Now Yuuichirou was sitting in the backseat of a car, his index finger painting spirals through the fog on the window as he watched the night-time scenery go by. He rested his forehead on the window’s surface for a brief moment, recoiling at the bite of cold. With his head lifted, he saw that the path his finger had taken had been blurred.

Yuuichirou’s eyes darted towards the driver. He was an indistinct figure. Well-dressed and neat, he could say, if pressed. They had first met when the man pulled Yuuichirou from the fire. This was their second meeting, and it was dragging on rather longer than the first.

Where they were headed was unknown to Yuuichirou. The tug of curiosity compelled him to speak. “Hey,” Yuuichirou said. He faced the driver’s seat and tried to catch the man’s attention. “Hey, you. Where are we going?”

The man didn’t say anything. “Hey, answer me.”

At last, he responded. “Because Shibuya has become a bit noisy, we are evacuating to somewhere further away.”

“Evacuating?”

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“The Hyakuya Orphanage.”

“Orphanage…” Yuuichirou muttered. He had never experienced such a place.

“Are you worried?” the man asked in a soothing tone.

“It’s nothing,” Yuuichirou replied.

“Don’t worry; all the children in the orphanage are gentle. Surely you all will…”

Yuuichirou interrupted him. “I cannot get along with anyone.”

“That’s not true.”

“They won’t care for anyone like me.”

“Why do you think so?”

He stayed silent.

“Please, tell me why you think so?”

“Because my mother said that.”

The man made a noise of acknowledgement.

“My father as well.”

“You didn’t get along?”

“…I’m a demon child.”

That was the indisputable truth at the heart of everything, a fact Yuuichirou could never escape.

“You are not a demon child.” 

Even so, the man denied it. 

“But my mother said that. Then she became crazy and died—because of me.” 

Tears filled Yuuichirou’s eyes. 

Every time he thought he could move beyond it, could think of the parents who hated him with indifference, he once again was confronted with his own failure. If he were truly a demon child, why did he feel pain?

“Don’t look like that,” the man said, causing Yuuichirou to suppress his burst of emotion. “Children are cuter when they’re smiling.”

“I don’t want to be cute,” Yuuichirou said. He turned back towards the window. 

“Are you lonely?” asked that smooth voice. 

He said nothing.

“You are a demon.”

He said nothing.

“Your life is not worth living.”

He said nothing.

“If you want to die, you can jump. Open the door. Right now, the car is moving at over one hundred and thirty kilometers an hour. You can easily die.”

He said nothing. 

It wasn’t as if he had anything to live for. It wasn’t as if he had anyone to live for. But if he stayed alive, then…

“I will not die. There is still something good left.”

Even articulating such a statement felt like defiance. 

“No, there isn’t.”

“There is.”

“Nope.” The man’s flippancy irritated him.

“There are things. Those older than me were talking about meeting someone, being blessed by something, and that would be a lot of fun.”

He said it lightly. He did not want to expose his reason to live to ridicule by explaining it with even half of the emotion Yuuichirou felt while thinking of it. 

The man seemed to get lost in his head for a moment before replying. “If you go to the Hyakuya Orphanage, you can meet friends.”

“There won’t be any friends.”

“There will be.”

“There won’t!” Friendship—how meaningless, how idealistic. As if a demon child could experience something so innocent. Didn’t Yuuichirou tell him he was living for the sake of something more important than that?

However, the man didn’t seem to have any interest in continuing the conversation. Instead, he pulled out his phone and made a call. Yuuichirou tuned him out, only paying attention when the man clearly looked at him and said, “A cute kid.”

Yuuichirou wanted to throw up. No doubt the man was explaining the situation to the orphanage. 

Yuuichirou thought he saw the edges of a smile on his face.

“He is a child of great destiny. I will be sending you a demon.”

This man who had saved him, who denied that he was a demon, now twice named him such. Yuuichirou didn’t care to learn his name. 

Drops of rain began to hit the windshield. 

“…Ah, it’s raining,” the man said.

He mumbled something else that Yuuichirou couldn’t make out.

Yuuichirou fell into silence, watching the rain turn to snow. They didn’t pass many other cars on their journey. Yuuichirou almost felt as if he existed in a state of unreality, brought back to earth when the car came to a stop.

“Farewell, Yuuichirou Amane.” 

Yuuichirou exited the car.

After watching the plain man in the plain black car drive off, Yuuichirou turned towards his destination, reading its name off the placard: Hyakuya Orphanage—the orphanage of one hundred nights. It looked like a normal, modern-looking building—three stories high and off-white, the front entrance was bracketed on either side by large bushes, weighed down by the press of snow. Beginning to feel the effects of winter’s chill himself, and not desiring to get snowed on any longer, he hurried to the front door, only to have it open before he could reach it, warm yellow light cutting through the darkness. 

Before him was a matronly-looking woman in her fifties, wearing an apron and a kindly smile. Was she the one the man had been talking to? Did she know the truth about him? “Yuuichirou-kun, yes? Come in, come in!”

He found himself ushered through the door. 

It is said that one day, out of the blue

the world was ravaged by an unknown virus.

Only children survived, and they were enslaved by vampires…

…which suddenly appeared in the bowels of the earth. 

Down till You Fall

Prologue

The Legacy of the World of Blood

October 30th, 2016: Sanguinem

Learn ye well, nightcrawlers, from the story of Florin Dan.

Turned in the eleventh century by Lady Stela Antonia, nineteenth progenitor, Florin Dan became a commoner of some skill. For over five hundred years he lived out his cursed existence in the principality of Transylvania, now Romania, serving his sire admirably. 

Then he, as most of our kind are wont to do, fell into a rebellious phase. In 1571, I happened to make a visit to her residence, where I obtained the account of what transpired from the lady herself. 

Five years ago, Florin Dan, along with some other vampires of little wisdom, had decided to make overtures to another noble: Lord Marcel Gabor, fourteenth progenitor. It was well known at the time that he was looking to expand his territory, and no doubt would have taken them in if the opportunity arose.

However, his plotting could not come to fruition. I suspected that my child had grown restless, and had ordered a trusted servant to mark him. This servant witnessed a meeting in the early morn at the German church.1 With such undeniable evidence, I could not mistake his treachery. 

I accused him according to law in the presence of witnesses. As the minister of the territory, I performed his execution personally. Politically, that put an end to the affair. I must say that the occasion moved me so close to rage that I could swear I almost tasted its shadow. I stomped on Florin Dan’s head several more times than necessary as a result, ruining my shoe in the process.

Stela Antonia

Braşov, 18 of August 1571

1 The church spoken of acquired a more famous moniker after it was damaged by fire on April 21, 1689. It is known today as the Biserica Neagr ă, or Black Church.

“Mika! Hey, Mika, take a look at this! It looks like vampires…die if you destroy their head.”

Yuuichirou Hyakuya pointed at the entry and projected his voice so the boy beside him would take notice. 

A glance to his right, however, revealed crossed arms and closed eyes. “I’m trying to think, so please don’t bother me.”

This was a response typical of one Mikaela Hyakuya, age twelve. Laying back on a white reclining chair, he looked just like the identically dressed children in the same position throughout the hall: docile as a lamb. Scowling at the thought, Yuuichirou checked the positions of the hooded figures making their way down the line of children. Not too close, yet. 

Since his first attempt was no good, Yuuichirou would have to pull out a more impressive fact from his earlier research. “If you remove the armband device they wear on their arms, they can be killed by ultraviolet rays!”

“Not interested.”

Despite his words, Mika sat up. “Why are you even looking that stuff up, Yuu-chan?”

“Isn’t that obvious? I’ll become strong and kill all the vampire scum!” Yuuichirou placed Memoirs of Those Who Roam the Darkness in his lap and turned his full attention on Mika, giving up on making him sensible of its charms. It was just like him, really, to miss the value of understanding the enemy; the way they thought, their strengths and weaknesses...

“That’s nonsense. You know, there’s no chance a human will ever be stronger than a vampire. Use your head!”

“You’ll never know if you don’t try!” he fiercely retaliated.

“No, no, no. I know all too well. I’m sure it’s written in that book too.” 

Yuuichirou flushed. He hated when Mika, who spent his time playing with Akane and the children, suddenly acted like a know-it-all, even though Yuuichirou was the one who spent hours every day holed up in the palace library in addition to his physical training—though, come to think of it, he had been disappearing a lot lately. 

Mika continued: “The physical strength of a vampire is seven times that of a human being.”

(This was true of the common vampire. When considering the ranks of the nobility, a twentieth progenitor’s strength was estimated at around nine times greater than a human’s. Considering the feats of the vampire queen herself, a third progenitor’s potential might be…)

That doesn’t mean anything!  If you train enough you can become seven times stronger…!”

He trailed off abruptly at the touch of a gloved hand.

“Stand still,” the vampire ordered, sticking a syringe into his neck. Another was doing the same to Mika. Yuuichirou’s eyes were drawn to a large jar resting on top of the vampires’ push cart, filling up with the dark red of their blood. 

From beneath the cowl of his hood, the vampire looked down at him with dark amusement. “We vampires are permitting you to live…as long as you collaborate and provide us with blood.”

And if I have no intention of doing so?

…Futile. As long as Yuuichirou wanted to live, he had no choice but to do as his captors wished for now.

He met Mika’s gaze, finding in him the same grim resolve. 

***

Descending the steps of the palace, Yuuichirou cursed at the trembling in his legs. He should have been relieved to take his leave of the place, but the air outside was hardly less stagnant than inside.

Such was a natural consequence of living in the underground city of Sanguinem. Built on flat ground beneath what was once Kyoto, the gothic-style buildings reached as high as possible, some almost scraping the ceiling several hundred meters above. The intricate carvings and stately pillars were marred by one concession to modernity: a network of large, thick pipes, some hugging the ground and others climbing up the sides of buildings like vines.

As he and Mika began the journey back to their assigned living quarters, Yuuichirou continued to stew, glancing at his companion. Comparing his blond hair and large blue eyes with Yuuichirou’s features, if one did not already know that they shared a last name, a bystander would sooner surmise the two boys to be friends rather than members of the same “family.”  When Yuuichirou had inquired, Mika had freely answered that his mother was Japanese and his father Russian. He never failed to take advantage of his angelic features to get out of trouble, the type to smile even when knocking the heads of misbehaving younger children together. If he was having difficulty with the blood loss, Yuuichirou couldn’t tell.

Giving voice to his frustrations, Yuuichirou yelled, “Ah, I can’t stand this anymore! It hurts! And it makes me dizzy! But the thing I hate the most is how they look at us as if we’re livestock! Do we look like pigs? Or cows? Or chickens?”

Mika’s expression showed clear exasperation, but Yuuichirou slung an arm around him regardless. “We should start a rebellion, Mika, a rebellion! We will become strong and kill the vampire queen. And then we’ll turn this world into a place for human beings!”

“What a foolish plan…you dream too much, Yuu-chan—or maybe you read too many manga?”

“I don’t read any manga! This is not a manga!” Come on, don’t you know that?

“By the way, could you please stop yelling like that when you talk about killing vampires? I really don’t want to attract any unnecessary attention to myself…”

Spying two common vampires passing by, Yuuichirou became distracted. He pointed at them and declared, “One day, I’ll definitely kill you bastards! I do ten thousand push-ups every day…!”

Well, maybe not ten thousand. Yuuichirou had a hard time performing repetitive tasks, so he tended to focus extensively on one exercise for a short while and then switch to something else. He had the same approach when it came to studying. He liked to collect giant stacks of books, rarely finishing any in their entirety, but there were some he returned to frequently. He liked Memoirs of Those Who Roam the Darkness because the entries were usually digestible chunks, tending towards the gory, or, at least, informative. 

With a chop to the back of his head, Mika reclaimed his attention. “Are you even listening?”

Yuuichirou turned around, rubbing his head. Mika was far from done lecturing. “You can’t fight vampires with sheer physical strength anyway. The physical strength of a human being cannot even compare to that of a vampire. It’s written in that book you were reading too.”

Perhaps Mika had picked it up at some point when Yuuichirou left it unguarded. Still, he was in no mood to be charitable. He struck a confrontational pose. “Then what would you suggest?”

“Let’s outwit them,” Mika said, spreading out his arms. “Using our brains. Grey matter, you know? That’s impossible for an idiot like you. Understand?”

“I’m going to kick your ass.”

Mika toned down his expression, though hints of a smile still lingered. “But…you’re aware of it, aren’t you? That physical strength is useless against vampires.”

Yuuichirou paused for a moment. At length, clenching his fist, he said, “Then…what should we do?”

“Well…” Mika began, but his attention was diverted by the approach of three vampires. Two hooded vampires flanked the one in the center. His long silver hair was tied back with a striped ribbon, showcasing his pointed ears, from which danged a pair of red earrings. 

“That guy…he’s not wearing a hood…a noble?”

With all the time he spent in the palace, it wasn’t as if Yuuichirou had never seen one; but out here in the streets, close to the district where humans were lodged, his presence brought him a shiver of unease. 

Suddenly, Mika’s face lit up with a bright smile. “Ferid-sama!”

“Eh? H-hey, Mika!” Before Yuuichirou knew it, Mika was running over to the noble.

“Oh, Mika-kun. Will you come to my house tonight as well?” The noble—Ferid?—greeted Mika with a more restrained smile.

“I would love to!” If anything, Mika radiated even greater happiness.

“Good boy. You’re more than welcome; your blood tastes so good.” Ferid reached out and stroked Mika’s cheek. He turned his red-eyed gaze onto Yuuichirou. “Is that boy coming today as well?”

Yuuichirou froze for a moment at finding himself the subject of a question like that. Quickly recovering, he protested, “What?! No wa—”

Mika darted over and slapped his hand across Yuuichirou’s mouth. As Yuuichirou struggled to escape his hold, Mika addressed Ferid. “He’s very shy. Maybe next time…”

“Really? That’s too bad.” The vampire Ferid took the events in stride. “See you later then.”

“Sure!”

As soon as he and Mika were a good distance from Ferid and his escorts—hopefully far enough that they would stand a chance of not being overheard, or at least listened to—Yuuichirou started interrogating him. “Hey, Mika…are you letting the vampires drink your blood willingly?

Mika walked ahead of him, forcing Yuuichirou to address his back. “Yes, I am…do you have something against it?”

“Of course I do…” Yuuichirou frowned. Drinking blood directly from humans was forbidden in Sanguinem by order of the vampire queen; it was the whole reason they had the blood collection system in the first place. He had heard that some vampires were willing to break the rules, but from a human’s perspective surely it was not worth the risk that a vampire would take too much, or above all, the indignity of offering your blood in the first place.

“Ferid-sama belongs to a very distinguished noble family. In exchange for blood, he will buy me anything. I get to eat a lot of delicious food…in order to survive here, you’ve got to learn to swim with the tide. You’ve got to use your brain.”

Picturing the smug expression Mika no doubt had planted on his face, Yuuichirou slapped him upside the head, paying him back for earlier. “I’ve heard enough! Let them suck your blood or whatever! Grunt like a head of livestock!”

Yuuichirou began to walk away, fuming. Mika called after him, “Ah…if they give me money, I’ll buy something for you! What would you like?”

Nothing!

As he walked, Yuuichirou didn’t look back.

***

Rather than go to the dwelling he shared with the other former residents of the Hyakuya Orphanage, Yuuichirou went to his favorite thinking spot: a secluded rooftop. Lying on the hard tile with his arms crossed behind his head to provide cushioning, he sighed. “That idiot…”

The sound of footsteps startled him out of his thoughts. He looked for the source and saw Akane. A few months younger than him and Mika, the three of them were the oldest members of the former Hyakuya Orphanage. Her bright grin was just as typical as the side braid her rich brown hair was pulled into. 

“Here you are once again, Yuu-chan. Yo!”

It was unlikely he would be allowed to delve back into his thoughts. He pushed himself upright and said, “Oh, it’s you, Akane?”

“Yes, it’s me.” She leaned forward, putting her arms behind her back. “So, what’s up?  Where did you leave Mika?”

“Who cares about that idiot!”

Akane closed the gap between them. “Eh? What are you so mad about?”

“Shut up and stay away from me!” She sat down next to him, moving even closer. “I told you to stay away!”

“Ah-ah-ah, come on!” she said playfully. “After all, we’re part of the same family.”

Yuuichirou could only wonder at her undaunted attitude for a moment before his eyebrows furrowed. “I don’t have a family.”

Akane’s expression was unchanged. “Of course you do! The director used to say that the kids of the Hyakuya Orphanage all belong to the same family.”

“Are you an idiot?” Yuu said, but the heat was gone. He couldn’t help but think back to that long-ago day…

…December 25th, 2012: the day the apocalypse began.

A memory.

SCENE: The playroom of the Hyakuya Orphanage, Tokyo, Christmas Day. The space is large and open, with smooth wood flooring, and a table and chairs off to the left. Large bookshelves cover the right wall, some of the shelves filled with bins holding stuffed animals and other childish paraphernalia. Crayon drawings paper the right and left walls; across from the door, there are floor-to-ceiling windows through which the cityscape is visible, snow falling upon it. YUUICHIROU, having arrived in the early hours of the morning the day before, had spent Christmas Eve on his own, recovering in self-imposed isolation. However, the DIRECTOR had decided that his grace period was over, and that Christmas morning was a fine time to introduce him to the other residents of the orphanage. 

Fourteen children occupy the room, waiting in varying states of impatience; they look with curiosity at the unknown figure of YUUICHIROU, standing in the doorway next to the DIRECTOR.

DIRECTOR.  This is Yuuichirou-kun. Try to get along with him.

MIKAELA HYAKUYA.  (Waving.) Sure! (He approaches YUUICHIROU, holding out his hand.) Hi! I’m Mikaela! You said you’re eight, right? Same as me! Eight-year-old kids are the eldest here at the orphanage, so let’s be friends! (YUUICHIROU turns away. MIKAELA grabs his arm and shakes his hand vigorously.) Nice to meet you!

YUUICHIROU.  (Pulling his hand sharply away.) Hey, what’s wrong with you? What is this? A challenge to decide who’ll be the leader here?

MIKAELA.  I’m the leader here. I just want to be your friend. Nice to meet you! (The two boys scuffle briefly, ending with a winded YUUICHIROU lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling in a state of shock.)

DIRECTOR.  No fighting, Mika-kun. 

MIKAELA.  We’re not fighting. We’re making friends! (He holds out his hand once more.) Let’s start over again, Yuu-chan. (YUUICHIROU props himself up with an elbow, wiping his mouth with his other hand.) I’m Mikaela. I used to be alone like you, but now I have a big family. And from now on, you will have one too.

YUUICHIROU.  (Looking away.) …Ridiculous. (Looks directly at MIKAELA.) What family are you talking about? I ended up here because my father tried to kill me. While my mother…she spread the rumor that I was the son of a demon. Then she lost her mind and killed herself. Do you get it now? I don’t have a family.

MIKAELA.  I see. That must have been tough. Maybe I should tell you something about myself too. (With a cheerful grin.) I was abused by my parents…and then I was dropped out of a car and taken in by the orphanage.

YUUICHIROU.  (Surprised.) Eh? (The children begin speaking at once, making it hard to tell who is saying what.)

CHILD A.  You know? We’ve never seen our parents!

CHILD B.  My mother and father both committed suicide!

CHILD C.  I’m here because I was abandoned!

YUUICHIROU.  (Overwhelmed.) Eh? Wait a sec…

MIKAELA.  (Raises a finger.) But we are not lonely…because…today our new brother Yuu has joined us! 

CHILDREN.  YAAAAY! (They run at YUUICHIROU and dogpile him. YUUICHIROU screams loudly in response.)

DIRECTOR.  (With a happy sigh.) …They seem to be getting along. (Suddenly, blood begins pouring from her nose and throat, dripping onto the floor. She raises a hand to her chest, shocked at the pain.)

MIKAELA.  (Turns at the noise.) Eh?

YUUICHIROU.  What the— (The DIRECTOR collapses. Children rush to her side, but YUUICHIROU is distracted by crashing sounds coming from outside. Looking out the windows, he can see smoke pouring out from many buildings. A loud announcement plays, broadcasting a female voice.)

VAMPIRE QUEEN.  This is a warning! A lethal virus is spreading among…you, stupid human beings! I’m afraid this is…the end of mankind! (YUUICHIROU and MIKAELA look at the chaos spreading throughout the city in utter shock.) However, we discovered that contagion does not spread among those who are less than thirteen years old. This regiment, under the direct command of Third Progenitor Krul Tepes, will henceforth be in charge of… (Outside, people are screaming for help.) From now on, the children of this district will be in our charge. Please follow our instructions.

CHILD D.  Mika-nii-chan!

CHILD E.  The director…the director… (MIKAELA stares at the children grouped around the body of the DIRECTOR open-mouthed, startled into action. He starts towards them.) 

MIKAELA.  Yuu-chan, look after the kids! I’ll take care of the director!

YUUICHIROU.  Eh?! H-hey…! (Two children are clinging to either side of him. Tentatively, he grabs onto their hands.) A-all right….D-don’t worry…I’ll protect you…

Memory end.

“Four years have passed…since that day when the vampires…led us here to their underground world.” Akane’s tone had grown melancholic. For his part, Yuuichirou felt nothing but displeasure at the memory of that journey. The vampires—mythological creatures come to life—had stuffed them into trucks and forced them to endure the hours-long journey to Kyoto, where they bid farewell to the surface and began life underground. In the beginning, Yuuichirou had not truly accepted his circumstances, but once he saw what the creatures who had collared him like a beast were capable of and began donating blood, he had no choice but to adjust his understanding of reality, deeming it pointless to live in denial. For all that he had been called a demon, Yuuichirou had never taken the existence of the supernatural seriously prior to the apocalypse.

Akane stood up, regaining her cheer. “Come on, let’s go! Everyone is waiting for Yuu-chan to have dinner! See you there.” 

Akane, likely having dawdled with him too long, took her leave. Yuuichirou pulled his knees up to his chest and put his arms around them, deciding to spend a little more time thinking over the events of the night.

***

Upon his return, Yuuichirou wasn’t surprised to see the children gathered around their kitchen table. Noticing him, two sprang up and ran over to greet him. 

“Yuu-chan!” said Taichi, ever the excited puppy. Yuuichirou gave his head a few quick pats.

“Yuu-nii-chan, you’re late! I’m starving!” Hikari bounded up to his other side.

“That’s because you make too much noise when you gather to eat,” Yuu said.

“Hey, Yuu, we’re having curry rice today! Akane is cooking it for us!” Hikari informed him.

This was an unprecedented occurrence. Special ingredients required bartering with resources that they didn’t have in order to obtain them—same went for any other contraband. Most of the time, they made do with the normal rations supplied by the vampires. But to actually pull together all the ingredients to make curry rice for fifteen people…how had it been accomplished?

He vocalized his thoughts nominally to Taichi and Hikari, but looked at Akane. “What is she making curry rice with? The rations provided by the vampires are garbage.”

Akane, hard at work, glanced at him. “Ah, Yuu-chan, it’s amazing, isn’t it? We have to thank Mika. He found the ingredients through back channels.”

“Back channels?” He couldn’t quite keep the surprise off his face. Normally, Mika wouldn’t have bothered, since it went against his principles of staying out of trouble. As the self-appointed leader, he kept an eye on the younger kids to make sure they were adhering to this principle as well. He would have justified it that way, anyway, but it wasn’t as if Mika didn’t enjoy spending time with his family for its own sake. As far as Yuuichirou had observed, the group of orphans truly did get along as if they were family, fights and all. 

Because of Mika’s reluctance to endanger them, it had been Yuuichirou who Akane had often secretly dragged off to bargain with other groups to try to obtain items that, in the world above, would have been considered necessities. Yuuichirou viewed those experiences as good information gathering exercises, letting Akane do the sweet-talking. He tended to let his temper get the best of him right when he needed to stay calm the most.

And yet, Mika’s taking risks? In exchange for blood, he will buy me anything. I get to eat a lot of delicious food…in order to survive here, you’ve got to learn to swim with the tide. You’ve got to use your brain. It must be…for the children’s sake? But still, for non-essential treats like that…he’s giving away far too much.

“I’m not sure it will turn out good though.” Evidently, Akane decided elaborating was unnecessary. “But I’ll do my best since we hardly ever get to eat such a treat.”

Yuu looked down at his clenched fist. That idiot…I should have hit him harder…

It wasn’t long before the curry was prepared and they sat down to eat, but Mika’s place remained empty. Under the influence of Akane’s pleasant but intense gaze, he devoured his bowl. The fact that it was so delicious made the truth behind its origins feel even worse.

By the time the Hyakuya orphans settled down to sleep—an activity they performed on the bare tiled ground, with only threadbare blankets to wrap around themselves—Mika still wasn’t back. As everyone else drifted off, Yuuichirou took the place nearest to the entrance and remained awake, attentive to the noise around him.

At last, he heard the door creak open. “Hey, I’m back, Yuu-chan,” Mika greeted softly.

A smile was on his face, but somehow it looked off to Yuuichirou. He rolled over and faced away from Mika. “Good for you.”

“…How about 'welcome back?'” 

Yuuichirou huffed. “By the way, I ate your portion of the curry rice as well.”

“You didn’t!”

“I didn’t. It was delicious. The kids were so happy…”

“I’m glad.”

“So? What did you have to do for that curry?”

Mika gave no response. Yuuichirou sat up and faced him. Mika was sitting with his legs folded beneath him, staring at the ground. “Damn…quit it already! Next time, I’ll sell my own blood.”

“Eh? You don’t have to do that. You must become strong and kill all the vampires, remember? Until then, I will do my best—”

“Don’t make me laugh! You can’t take it all on yourself!” Yuuichirou poured every ounce of his conviction into his words. Mika merely looked at him, tears welling up in the corner of his eyes. “I…

…no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be able to defeat a vampire. I know that much…I’m not stupid.”

Mika raised a finger to his lips. “Yuu-chan, don’t say that. The children…have faith in you…”

His expression turned gentle. “Vampires can be defeated. We can do it. You repeated those words over and over…and that gave me…”

Tears spilled over and fell to the floor. “…strength…”

“H-hey, Mika! What did they do to you?”

A moment later, Mika drew his hand across his face and stuck out his tongue. “Just kidding!”

No way he believed that. No way! Unrelenting, Mika crawled towards him, causing Yuuichirou to backpedal rapidly. 

“You really thought I was crying, didn’t you? I was just kidding.”

“I’ll kill you one day,” he muttered. “…Are you sure you’re alright?”

There was no way giving blood to that creepy noble had been easy for Mika. Even so, he had done it without a word until circumstances had forced him to admit it. Did Mika view him as untrustworthy? Unreliable? The idea unsettled Yuuichirou, but it was more likely that Mika just didn’t want to burden him, even if that was completely ridiculous.

Meanwhile, Mika was messing around with the folds of his uniform. “Well, I’m not exactly all right, but…I’m not the type of guy who would let vampires…drink his blood for free. Voila!”

He pulled out a lavishly decorated gun.

“What’s that?” Yuuichirou asked, concerned.

“A weapon. I pinched it at Ferid’s mansion together with some other stuff. This is for you, Yuu-chan.”

“Really?” He accepted the gun with minimal skepticism and stuffed it down his shirt. He doubted any one of them had shooting experience, so it didn’t really matter who held onto it.

“That’s not the best part. Take a look at this.” He held out a rolled-up piece of paper.

“What is it?”

“It’s a map!” Mika said eagerly, spreading it out on the floor. “And not just any map, but the map marking the exits leading to the human world.”

“Wh—you!” How had Mika found something like this?

“Hush…lower your voice. I approached Ferid-sama hoping to get my hands on this. The mansion is big enough that it took me quite some time to find it.”

Yuuichirou could only stare, struck dumb.

“But at last, I found what I was looking for. We’re leaving this place. Today! Right now! Immediately!”

What!? W-wait a second…what…how…we need to plan things out…” Yuuichirou’s mind raced. There was no telling how quickly Mika’s thievery would be noticed. Ideally, it would have been best to spend days checking out the patrols and tracing out the route, but as things were they had to choice but to try it tonight and risk it all. This crime…would otherwise end in Mika’s death at the very least.

Again, it made Yuuichirou sorely wish he’d been forewarned. Their chances would be much higher with a proper plan—

“Don’t worry. I have already thought of everything. While a certain idiot was busy training and bragging about killing vampires, I worked on a plan all alone.”

Somehow, when he looked at Mika’s animated face, he found he couldn’t muster up the energy to get angry at him. “I see…”

Wait a second… “Are you calling me an idiot?!”

“You realized it just now?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Yuuichirou saw Akane stir. 

“By the way, what about the virus outside?” he asked Mika.

“The virus won’t affect people below thirteen years of age. You and I are still twelve. We have one year to find a solution to the virus problem. The two of us together…or rather, the whole Hyakuya family together…can overcome anything!”

“He doesn’t seem to get the difference between having a plan and improvising,” Yuuichirou muttered to himself.

“What are you talking about?” said Akane, who had sat up a few meters away.

Yuuichirou rubbed the back of his head. He supposed there was nothing for it. “All right. Let’s go!”

“Yes, let’s go! Akane-chan, wake all the others!”

“W-what?”

Mika smiled widely, holding out his hand to her. “We’re leaving this place!”

***

It must have been past noon by the time they left. Late, but still early enough that no one would be awake except for the daytime patrols.

With Mika in the lead, holding the map, they slowly made their way to the marked exit without encountering any vampires. The walk was no longer than an hour, but the whole time Yuuichirou felt like he would sicken and die. He listened to the uneven rhythm of his heartbeat, busying himself with quieting the children. They were all very excited to leave Sanguinem, but surprisingly were taking their escape seriously, so there wasn’t much for him to do.

At last, they reached a large entrance hall, and beheld the gate leading to the outside world.

The doorway was at least seven times his height. Peering into the pitch blackness, Yuuichirou could only perceive that there were stairs ahead. The hall itself looked like it belonged in a cathedral, as with most of the vampire architecture Yuuichirou had seen. The high ceiling was held up by two massive square pillars. Directly to his right and left were two hallways—empty. 

The group had paused as one to gaze at their destination.

“I’m a little worried…we reached the gate too easily. Are you sure this leads outside?” he asked Mika.

“Yes…at least according to this map…” Mika was staring at it distractedly. Looking up, he said, “Besides, I don’t think the vampires expect humans to try to escape. After all, the virus is still rampaging out there.”

“But this is way too close…”

“Livestock won’t even leave the pen even though it is full of cracks and openings. The same goes for us…they’re taking us for fools.”

Yuuichirou hardened his resolve. “But we are going to escape.”

Mika’s serious expression transformed into a smile. “We’re not livestock. And I’m a genius.”

“I’m a genius too!” chimed in Nobuo.

“Me too!” said Kaori. 

“All the members of the Hyakuya Orphanage family are geniuses,” proclaimed Mika. “All but Yuu-chan.”

“Quit it already!” Yuuichirou said, but felt his irritation melt quickly away. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Yes,” said Mika.

A tapping sound on his left caught his attention. He turned to face it.

“Ah-ah-ah—I was waiting for you, pathetic lambs.”

Standing above them on a ledge was the noble vampire Ferid.

“That expression…the expression humans make when their hope is suddenly shattered into pieces. That’s why I never grow tired of playing this game.”

“Game…? Don’t tell me…this is a trap…?” 

Impossible. No, this was, without a doubt, reality. He should have known things would end this way. He should have told Mika to put the stolen items back. It was impossible to fool vampires. It was impossible to win against a vampire.

The body of one of the children flew past him. Ferid stood before them, clutching another—clutching Kaori—in his arms. He was biting her neck. He dropped her. She did not move.

“Oh? I drank just one gulp and she’s already dead…”

No. There was something he could do. 

“You…bastard!

Yuuichirou pulled out the gun and shot it. The power of the recoil stunned his right arm. 

“He dodged…the bullet?” The movement had been so fast that Yuuichirou’s eyes could not keep up.

From behind him, Mika suddenly cried, “It’s useless, Yuu-chan! You’ll never manage to hit that monster from afar.”

“Isn’t that my gun?” Ferid asked. “So you didn’t only steal the map, but also my gun…ah, you kids are really something! You still have the courage to oppose us! So I’ll tell you something which may rekindle your hope.”

He spread out his hands. “That map…is accurate. Which means that if you follow the path behind you, you’ll reach the outside world. Once outside, it won’t be easy for me to follow you. I really want to hear you scream when you’re trapped in between hope and despair.”

Once more, Yuuichirou turned his desperation into action. He turned his back on Ferid and faced the others: “Get away! Run, all of you! You must run away! Towards the exit! Hurry up!”

His words provided the impetus for them to move. He addressed the frozen statue by his side. “Mika, you and I will keep Ferid busy! We’ve got to buy them some time!”

“Uh…” Whatever else he would have said was cut off by Ferid dashing between them.

“Didn’t I tell you…that I wanted to see your faces distorted by despair?”

A headless body fell to the ground.

“Stop it…stop it!” Mika screamed.

What were once the former residents of the Hyakuya Orphanage were being cut down, one by one. Yuuichirou ran towards the scene.

“Please don’t!” he heard Mika say. Yuuichirou’s eyes were fixed on Akane, who had caught Ferid’s attention. She looked over her shoulder.

“Akane!” Yuuichirou shouted. A pool of blood spread out from her neck. 

Where once there had been fifteen, there were now only two left alive. Ah, that included himself, of course.

Once, a long time ago, when Yuuichirou had thought there was nothing to live for, he had been told that if he stayed alive, he would meet someone he cared for. One day, he would be blessed.

He had met someone he cared for. He had met more people than he could have ever dared to hope for. They had spent four years as prisoners, but at least they were together. And the entire time, instead of being grateful, Yuuichirou had denied them. Instead of thanking God, he had lived as if he were alone, focusing only on his selfish desires.

Slowly, his furiously trembling body ceased moving. 

“Yuu-chan, give me that gun. I’ll attract his attention at the cost of my life. You at least have to escape.”

Mika, you’re so brave. But I can’t let that happen. Allow me, who wasted his time idly…

…to save you, at least this once. 

“Sorry, Mika,” said Yuu. “But you are going to live on. Okay? After all…we’re family, right?”

Before Mika could stop him, he ran off towards Ferid in a sprint. 

He raised the gun. Bang. Missed. He raised it again. Footsteps, behind him. Yuu had to try again. Ferid grabbed him by the neck and raised him up. Yuu couldn’t breathe. He dropped the gun.

“Ah…” said Ferid. “I probably shouldn’t have a taste, but one is as good as the other, I’m sure.”

Brief stabbing pain. He was on the floor. Dizzy. He tried to focus, to sit up.

Bang. 

Blue eyes. Mika. Mika was holding him. 

“Go on…get out of here…”

Distant voices. Mika tightened his hold. “I can’t do it. I can’t go on without you, Yuu-chan!”

“I know that…if it’s Mika, he can do it. I’m glad I…got to meet you. I want you to…live on in the human world…happily, in a world without vampires…”

Mika was shaking his head. His eyes were hallowed out. Yuu hated to look at them. He lifted a hand and pressed it against Mika’s chest in an imitation of a push. His white uniform has blood on it now. 

It looked like it hurt Mika physically to let go.

He watched with bleary vision as Mika jerked his gaze past him for a second, eyes widening, before shutting them and running into the dark. 

It hurt. It hurt so much. Yuu wanted to sleep. He allowed his eyelids to slide closed.

Yuu Hyakuya was truly blessed. 

Chapter Text

Part 1: Until We Meet Again

Chapter 1

Cursed Existence

November 1st, 2016: Sanguinem

When Yuu first regained awareness, it was with an almost pleasant tingle spreading throughout his limbs.

It didn’t take more than a second for that feeling to turn to blinding pain.

He had never felt anything like it before in his life. Every part of him was being burned from the inside out. It could have gone on for hours, weeks, eternity; Yuu had no way of knowing. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t do anything but scream his vocal cords raw.

When the pain began to recede, starting from his toes and working upwards, the fire was replaced with the coolness of ice. Yuu welcomed it, would have begged for it, if he were capable of speaking. When at last his whole body went cold, Yuu stared at the ceiling and reveled in thoughtless bliss.

As he laid on the soft surface—a bed; when was the last time he’d slept on one of those?—he began to follow the tangled threads of his memory back, trying to remember how he’d ended up in these circumstances.

He remembered his family, the failed escape. The noble’s cruel smirk as he slaughtered every one of them without mercy, their bodies falling to the ground like puppets whose strings had been snapped, blood pooling from their necks, spreading out on the mirror-like floor, crimson blood, blood, blood—

Mika.

Mika was alive.

Against the enormity of his grief, this was the one fact he clung to. Mika was safe, and he was free. It was enough. It had to be enough.

But Yuu…that’s right, he had been dying. If by some miracle he had been saved, then he was probably still in Sanguinem. Looking down at himself, he saw he was wearing his uniform, save the choker with his ID tag, which was missing. He poked at the congealed substance that had dripped down his chest, wrinkling his nose at the unpleasant scent.

He looked around the room. The four-poster bed had red velvet blankets with gold trimming. A dresser with a large mirror and what looked like the doors to a closet were on his right; a small nightstand was to his left, a shiny black jar resting on top. Dominating the left wall was a portrait of a woman. Though her form was prepubescent, child-like, it was impossible to mistake her for a child. Her pointed ears and red eyes marked her for a member of the undead. A closed-mouth smile slashed across her face as she held a golden goblet aloft. Such was the visage of the vampire queen.

Yuu looked away. He couldn’t see why one would want the vampire queen staring while one was trying to—rest, he supposed. There was no way this room belonged to any human, which made his presence here all the more worrying. 

He touched his throat. It felt like it was healed, but he was parched. Looking around the room, there was no convenient glass of water. 

It was probably dangerous to stay here any longer. Moving decisively, Yuu exited the room and entered a hallway. Emerging into what looked like a living room, he was startled by the appearance of a vampire woman in servant’s attire, not unlike the standard commoner’s robes; the hood hid most of her face. He had seen many such vampires move about the palace library, snatching books with speed and efficiency. She was standing quietly, making not a single sound. Well, since vampires had no need to breathe, it made sense that such complete stillness was possible. 

“The queen requests your presence,” said she. “I will take you to her.”

***

As he left what he realized was some sort of suite and exited into the palace proper, Yuu mindlessly followed after the vampire, directing the bulk of his focus within. While a part of him kept track of the turns they were taking, the rest of him ran circles within his mind.

Since he was the only one left, was the vampire queen going to make an example of him? A warning, once and for all, to any bold humans who would try to leave this city? One of us has managed it, Yuu thought angrily. Even if she kills me…Mika is out there, far away from vampires.

If that were the case, though, why go to the trouble of healing him? Yuu wondered if magic had been utilized in the process. There was no trace of the wound that he could see, though he hadn’t thought to examine himself properly back in the bedroom.

At length, they came to a grand set of double doors, one location in the palace it was impossible for humans to enter. They looked solid enough that only vampires would possess the strength to push them open. The servant did just that. Though they were well oiled, Yuu could hear faint creaks. With a low bow, she turned and brushed past Yuu, departing.

He had no choice but to enter.

He had no choice but to approach the throne and the vampire sitting on it.

Yet, he was not afraid. If the vampire queen was the obstacle preventing him from someday reuniting with Mika, then he must overcome her.

Third Progenitor Krul Tepes was waiting. 

Yuu stopped within five meters of her. He did not bow.

Her legs, covered in black thigh-high socks, were crossed. A matching frilly dress covered the rest of her body. Beside her, Yuu noticed her familiar, the one-eyed bat Arukanu, fluttering. A hand was placed beneath her chin. Yuu could no more read her smile now then he could the one in her portrait.

Her other hand, hidden by a voluminous sleeve, threw something at his feet. Yuu recognized his missing collar.

“Congratulations, Yuuichirou Hyakuya,” said Krul Tepes.

“Last night, the human Yuuichirou died and descended to a new existence. Forsaken by God, live now as an unchanging immortal, one who dwells within the darkness.”

She snapped her fingers. A hooded vampire appeared from the left, carrying something in her arms—a human, breathing shallowly, on the verge of death. The vampire dropped the child, bowed to Krul, and left. 

“Drink, and I shall tell you a little of your past and future.”

He couldn’t understand.

Krul was talking to him as if he weren’t human. As if he were a monster.

This was hardly an unusual occurrence for Yuu, whose own parents had called him a demon and attempted to end his life.

What was unusual was the aroma that hung heavy in the air. It clung to the child. It made him thirstier. He wished even more for some water.

He didn’t move.

Krul laughed. The motion shifted her mane of long pink hair.

“I see. Could it be you have not yet realized? Then I shall enlighten you. Feel now the prick of your fangs and understand the call of blood.”

Liar. Yuu raised his hand to his mouth and ran his finger along the top row of teeth. Where before had solely lain the blunt molars and narrowed incisors of omnivores, he felt two pointed teeth poking out that had not been there previously—his fangs.

If he were human, he would probably be going into shock, he thought. 

“Do you believe it? Then drink, and slake your thirst.”

Yuu spoke almost before he realized it. “I refuse.”

Krul made a small noise. “Oh?”

Unwillingly, he found his eyes drawing back to the child, the boy…no. Don’tcan’t think about it. Focus on the queen…

“I…am an incomplete vampire, right? I haven’t been fully turned.”

“That is correct.”

“I’ve read about incomplete vampires…while they’re not as widely studied as full vampires, largely because most drink human blood and complete the transformation rather rapidly, there are those that remain in that state for a few years. The main advantage is that the aging process has not yet stopped, allowing incomplete vampires to age in pace with how they would as humans.”

Emboldened, Yuu continued. “Most accounts I’ve read have marked incomplete vampires as transforming within the three-year mark. Because of the overwhelming nature of the desire for blood, the individual’s willpower is a large factor in determining the duration, as well as their lifestyle. The only certainty is that it is impossible to survive as an incomplete vampire indefinitely.”

“And do you know the reason why?”

“Incomplete vampires live off the blood of their sire. I’m not sure of the reason, but eventually it loses its ability to serve as a source of sustenance.”

“Excellent,” Krul murmured. “So you desire to extend your time as an incomplete vampire? Quite understandable. I’m sure your charms would be enhanced with a few years more. Though I warn you, to resist drinking human blood for that length of time is no easy feat. It would require immense self-discipline.”

“I can do it,” said Yuu. He thought of Mika. There was no way he could ever drink the blood of a human.

“I would almost believe in your earnest explanation,” said Krul, “were it not for the disgust on your face.  You are a very expressive child. It is a common deficit among the newly turned. Your tutors will train it out of you.”

Krul went silent.

“Your majesty?”

“A better attempt. So, how do you intend to enact your plan?”

At Krul’s prodding, Yuu realized the problem. He had no idea who his sire was.

“If you could tell me the identity of the vampire who saved my life and brought me to the night, I would be eternally grateful.”

Every word tasted like razor blades, but he couldn’t falter now. Mika had always preached the value of guile, of deceit. Yuu didn’t have the power to defy vampires openly. Now, as then, he had to play along. 

“I am moved to hear it,” said Krul. “You will be glad to know that the identity of your sire is none other than myself—Third Progenitor Krul Tepes, Vampire Queen of Japan.”

The knowledge shocked him to his core. 

“My generosity will make more sense soon,” she said. “For now, why don’t you have a drink and seal our pact, child of mine?”

She slit her wrist. Before Yuu knew it, he was on her. 

In the first rush of it, he almost lost himself to pleasure, but as he continued to drink he regained his senses. Even so, the last thing he wanted to do was stop. Blood was the first drop of water after forty days wandering a desert, a morsel of food after endless starvation—it was the feeling he had after what must have been his transformation had ceased, given texture and taste. No desire Yuu had ever felt before could compare. It went beyond the sin of gluttony: he understood now why it was written as the lust for blood.

“That’s right,” Krul said with a light laugh. “Drink my blood. From now on, you can’t leave my side. You’re my dog now. My loyal servant…for all eternity.”

Believe what you like. I’ll make you a vow of my own. 

One day, I’ll escape your grasp and see Mika again. That’s a promise.

Reluctantly, he let go of her arm. His primal need for blood warred with his embarrassment at his lack of control, and underneath both, a deep shame at what he had become.

The mess Yuu had made of Krul’s arm was already healing. She sat back on her throne while Yuu lay, dazed, at her feet. 

Abruptly, he came back to himself, jerking his head to look behind him. Now that he had sated his thirst, he found that the scent that had minutes before been so alluring had turned somehow. It reminded him of the unpleasant rot he smelled earlier—

—and with that connection made, he realized the truth: it was the scent of dead blood.

Yuu reached out, trembling, and touched the body. From the moment Yuu saw him he knew it was too late, but he didn’t even try to do anything…he had been trying to keep up with Krul, reeling from the shock of his vampirism, and as soon as she offered her blood, all other thoughts flew from his mind. Blood he could drink free of guilt…was that all it took to distract him from trying to save someone’s life?

Reflexively, he touched the dried blood on his chest once more. That blood belonged to a corpse—Yuuichirou Hyakuya.

He flipped over the nametag of the body at his side. Daisuke Ando. He engraved the name into his heart, a reminder of the sickness within it. Digging his nails into his palms, he looked up at Krul.

Judging him ready, she began speaking. “I’m sure you are quite curious as to why I turned you, Yuuichirou Hyakuya. I will tell you plainly.

Before the advent of the apocalypse, two magical syndicates fought for control of Japan. One was the Order of the Imperial Demons, led by the Hiiragi Clan, which still exists to this day. The other was the Brotherhood of a Thousand Nights, now called the Hyakuya Sect. Ever since the Second World War, the latter dominated and controlled this country from the shadows. Perhaps their most infamous quality was their gruesome and forbidden experiments on humans.

They ran several orphanages as a front to gather suitable test subjects. They were not above murdering a child’s parents to have them placed in their orphanages. By day, those children would live normal lives; at night, they were sedated and subjected to gruesome procedures, with memory modifications if it became necessary. The orphanage you came from in Tokyo, was, of course, one such example.”

“That means…Mika and Akane…everyone was…?”

It was incomprehensible. Despite the tragedy that hid in their pasts, each of them had surely led happy lives in the orphanage...

Yuu knew the world was not kind, and perhaps he should have suspected the motives of a place willing to take someone like him in, but the kind of horrors Krul spoke of should have belonged in fiction, not reality. They didn’t belong anywhere near his family.

“And you as well.”

“No, that’s not possible. I was in the orphanage for less than two days, and I spent most of that time in isolation.”

“I see. Perhaps you were taken by the Hyakuya Sect before you came to the orphanage?”

Yuu frowned. After his parents died…what exactly had happened to him?

He had lived with adults. Nothing remarkable happened. They wanted him to live. They told him that one day, he would meet someone he cared for and be blessed, so he should live on. He turned the mantra over in his mind, soothed by the fulfillment of his life-long goal. The feeling took up space right next to the gaping emptiness where thirteen of his family members once belonged. It wrapped around the one cord that was quivering and alive: Mika.

“I can’t remember the details of what happened after the death of my parents,” he told Krul. “That was a few months before the apocalypse. If the people who took me in were members of this Hyakuya Sect, then I suppose I was a test subject as you say and had my memory tampered with.”

It was disturbing, not being able to trust his own mind. At the very least, it was probably limited to those few months, if indeed he was suffering from a sort of amnesia. He was far from uncritical of the fantastic story Krul was weaving, but there was nothing to be gained by protesting at this juncture.

“That explains it,” said Krul. “For the Sect to seize you directly and not bother with the legalities…perhaps you were a particularly promising prospect.”

She paused for a moment.

“What I have previously related is common knowledge among vampire society, for those interested in human affairs. I speak now of forbidden knowledge. Even if you are my child, to betray my trust in these matters will result in unforgiving punishment. Do you understand?”

Yuu nodded.

“Well then…let us speak of a magical curse, created by greedy humans in their hunger for power, an experiment the Hyakuya Sect came closest to completing out of all the organizations that meddled with the taboo. The Seraph of the End. Among all the children I recovered from your orphanage, only you and Mikaela Hyakuya can be called seraphs. The others were not so successful. It is the unanimous opinion of the Progenitor Council that all knowledge of these experiments should be eradicated, along with their subjects and those who performed them.”

The Seraph of the End…the words struck a familiar chord. Wasn’t that one of the things his parents had called him? Did they have some sort of connection to the Hyakuya Sect, to be familiar with this curse? He wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer. 

“I destroyed the Hyakuya Sect utterly, but I let your group alone survive. If that information were to make its way to the Council, I would be removed from my position and named a traitor to my race. You, naturally, would be killed.

And yet, what should occur but the escape of one seraph and the near death of another? I was most interested in how these circumstances came about…ah, you should know that regrettably, Seventh Progenitor Ferid Bathory survived and gave a most miserable account of himself. You are forbidden from associating with him, not that you would ever want to. He is the only one outside of my trusted circle who is aware of your status, but he has his own incentives for keeping quiet.”

“You said Mi—Mikaela Hyakuya escaped. Are you aware of his whereabouts?”

“A patrol spotted three members of the Japanese Imperial Demon Army with a child of his description, but they escaped. It seems likely that they are taking him to their stronghold in Shibuya.”

“The Japanese Imperial Demon Army…?

“I forgot that I had not explained the situation in the world above. While the virus felled perhaps ninety percent of the population, there are still humans living on the surface. The Japanese Imperial Demon Army is the military group under the control of the Order of the Imperial Demons, making it the only resistance of any note in Japan.”

“Humanity…still exists? What about the virus?”

“The Order of the Imperial Demons was able to develop a vaccine, allowing their group to maintain its leadership structure.”

So Mika had come into the hands of that sort of organization. He wondered if they were any better than the Hyakuya Sect, and what his life would be like there. At least he was among humans, and safe; that was more than Yuu could have hoped for.

Observing his worry, Krul addressed it. “Make no mistake; even if Mikaela went with them willingly, the Order of the Imperial Demons is just as vile as the Hyakuya Sect. They make use of whatever talent they can get their hands on, throwing the young and able-bodied into their army, the best among them funneled into the Military Academy for a few short years while others receive only a few weeks of basic training before they are put to work. They claim to be the center of humanity’s rebirth, but they are known to be selective as to the refugees they let inside their walls. In secret, they perform human experimentation as well, foolishly seeking an edge over us, their enemies. Pray that they don’t know what they have in Mikaela. If they do, you may be the only one who can save him from an unpleasant fate.”

Can I really believe the words of a vampire? By her own admission, Mika was a seraph. In that case, was Krul trying to motivate him to take Mika back from the Order of the Imperial Demons and hand him over to her gift-wrapped, so she could once more have both of them in her clutches? He needed more information before he could determine the right course of action.

“I kind of got side-tracked from it, but what exactly is the Seraph of the End? Why would you risk so much to keep me and Mikaela alive?”

At this, Krul simply smiled. “That information I’ll keep to myself for now. Rest assured that the curse is unlikely to be triggered passively. I don’t know how it will interact with vampirism, either. It may be that the potential for it to activate is still within you, but will no longer exist when you become a full vampire; it may already be gone, or vampirism may have no effect. The first scenario is the one I have determined to be the most likely, however.”

It seemed she had no intention of answering. Well, Yuu had already received enough information to make his head spin, but for some reason he had no trouble recalling Krul’s words. He wondered if vampires had a better memory than humans; he would have to look it up later.

“Your majesty…what do you expect of me?”

“As to that, I’m in the process of manufacturing the paperwork to explain your existence. You may know that there is a law in place forbidding the creation of new vampires. Only progenitors had the right in the past, but if any were to feel the urge to do so today, they would at the very least have to make a supplication to me and explain why an exception should be made. As a result of this law, you will be the youngest vampire in Sanguinem by over a hundred years. Factoring in the matter of your status as an incomplete vampire, I have no doubt you will almost manage to be a curiosity. 

I am arranging a curriculum that will begin next week, if all goes well. You will be privately tutored by the best. For the first year or so, I would like you to remain in the palace as much as possible and stay away from outside company. Once I know how your studies are progressing, we can meet again to discuss your future. As a child of mine, albeit a secret one, I may send you to act as my eyes and ears on delicate missions, if you prove yourself worthy.”

“I understand,” Yuu said. “Is that everything you had to tell me?”

Krul’s red eyes glittered. “I believe so.”

“Then may I ask what was done with the bodies of the former Hyakuya orphans?” He was unable to stop the pain from bleeding into his voice.

“They were cremated, as is standard,” said Krul. “I thought you might want the ashes, so I had them placed in an appropriate vessel and delivered to your chambers.”

“What vessel?” His voice flattened.

“Your personal servant knows the details. As for your former residence…I have it under discreet guard and am keeping it undisturbed for now. After your period of mourning is over, you may return there with an escort and take what you like.

You are dismissed, my loyal subject.”

Glancing once more at the body of Daisuke Ando, he turned around and left.

Approaching the massive doors that marked the entrance and exit to the throne room, Yuu hesitated before them.

It took no more than a light push for the doors to open. He stepped through and watched them glide back into place. 

The servant had returned. She waited no more than a moment before setting off. Yuu once more followed after her.

It wasn’t long before they returned to his quarters. He didn’t waste any more time. “Where is my family?”

“I had it placed on your nightstand, young master.”

“That’s enough,” he said. She didn’t move.

“Leave,” he snapped. She departed with a shallow bow.

He walked into the bedroom. He had been looking right at them and hadn’t known.

The urn was black with golden etchings: feathers molting from outstretched wings. He wondered if Krul had selected the design herself.

Yuu wanted to break it, but its contents were far too precious. He touched it lightly, just for a moment, and then laid down on the bed and stared at it. He no longer needed to blink. He wouldn’t miss a second.

***

At some point, the servant must have come in and dropped off a set of vials. When his throat began to irritate him, he got up and uncorked one of them. The scent of Krul’s blood invaded his senses, and he drank it down.

Over the next six nights, that was the only reason he stirred from his spot. He did nothing but wallow in his thoughts, thinking about the past. About Akane and Hikari and Nobuo and Chihiro and Kouta and Ako and Fumie and Taichi and Natsumi and Takahiro and Masaki and Mariko and Kaori, all of whom he would never see again.

He knew very well that he had to get up and live among his slavers and pretend to be one of them, body and soul. He had someone to live for, someone who no doubt believed he was dead and was suffering all alone. Thinking of the agony Mika must be in, his own troubles were nothing in comparison. Still, he did not move.

Two brisk knocks on the door. It swung open, allowing the servant to take precisely two steps into the room before stopping. “Good evening, young master. Your schedule has been decided upon; classes begin next evening. I will lead the way, but afterwards you will be expected to keep your appointments without assistance. If you behave appropriately, this Sunday you will be allowed to go to your previous dwelling. For now, you have the run of the palace, as long as you remain discreet.”

She turned to go, then stopped. “I suggest you take a shower and change your clothes first.”

“Wait,” said Yuu. “What’s your name?”

Her eyes met his. “Fionnuala Ó Cinnéide.”

After she left, Yuu sighed and rolled out of bed. He should have felt like death, but instead of protesting his muscles responded more happily than they ever had. Making to rummage through the dresser, he paused and looked in the mirror.

If Yuu had thought to glance within it when he first woke up in this room, he would have immediately noticed his pointed ears. He lightly ran his fingers over them, feeling out their new shape. He shifted his hair, but after a few moments decided to leave his hairstyle the way it was. It wasn’t like covering up his ears would transform him back into a human.

Another detail that struck him was the smoothness of his skin. He turned his left hand over and felt the unblemished palm where once there had been light red discoloration—a wound sustained when his mother burned his apartment down four years ago. Now it and every other scar and flaw was erased, as if his body were telling him to forget about his human past.

He met the eyes of his reflection. Their green color should have been a comfort to him, but somehow, they looked just as unfamiliar…deceptive. Their color may be the same, but their capabilities were changed. They could behold the world so much more clearly…

…clearly. Clear, clarity, sight, insight, knowledge…information! That’s right, I need to learn even more. I have to find out what this body truly is.

What…is a vampire?

It was ironic, but for all the information Yuu absorbed about the creatures, his goal had exclusively been to find ways to kill them. While that meant that naturally he had been interested in vampire biology and their physical capabilities, there were a lot of boring parts—er, blind spots—that he missed.

Vampires. Jailers, murderers; the enemy of humankind.

But…they had a queen, nobility, superiors they had to obey. Did every vampire agree with their orders? Somewhere, somehow, was there even one vampire…who could be called a good person?

He recoiled from the thought. But if it were true that all vampires were evil…then Yuu would be right back at the knife’s edge he had been walking on all his life, with no more ambiguity to hide behind:

Am I a monster?

Am I evil?

Do I deserve to die?

If he could definitively answer yes to those questions…than rather than seeking out Mika, it would be proper to kill himself there and then and spare Mika the pain of seeing his family member transformed into an unforgivable monster.

I have knowledge, now, about the true nature of the Hyakuya Orphanage, and this Seraph of the End…I don’t know if any of it is true, but I can’t risk ignoring it. If it comes to that, I’ll have to try to explain things to Mika beforehand, and afterwards...

Yuu let out a breath, grounding himself.

He should start by hoarding some books from the library. Yuu had no idea how much free time he would have with these classes Krul arranged; perhaps next evening he could get his schedule from Fionnuala. Either way, he had all of tonight free—and the day too, he supposed…? Yuu resolved to find out what the deal was with vampires and rest first.

He took a few determined steps towards his door before realizing that he forgot to change his clothes. And take a shower. He doubled back and started pulling open drawers, tossing their contents onto the bed.

Yuu eyed the growing piles of white clothing despairingly. Vampires really were obsessed with the color. White and black, but the latter was never allowed to dominate. It was no different from his livestock uniform in that respect. Unlike his livestock uniform, the fabrics were soft, the designs giving off the same “European lordling” vibe that all the noble vampires he’d seen conformed to. Yuu didn’t know a better way to describe it; he knew nothing about fashion. Regardless, it was clear that he now belonged to a different tier in Sanguinem society. Come to think of it…maybe the secret behind all the white was that no one was allowed to overshadow the queen, dressed in black?

He shook his head. That really wasn’t important. He found the plainest shirt and pants he could find—and reluctantly, a pair of nude boxers—and exited into the hallway. The first door on the right turned out to be the bathroom, and so he entered, locking the door behind him. He ignored the bathtub with its bronze-clawed feet and opted for the shower. A stack of clean towels were laid out on the counter, so Yuu grabbed one to make use of and headed in, furiously lathering off nights of acquired grime.

When he stepped out of the shower, Yuu examined the contents of the counter and the cabinet drawers beneath more closely and found a toothbrush and toothpaste. Dental care had been among the least of the vampires’ concerns when it came to the needs of their human prisoners. He and Akane had gotten a roll of twine which they used as floss among too many mouths. They had running water in their quarters, but soap was another luxury that had to be carefully rationed out between the pots and utensils that needed to be cleaned as well. And yet, here they were: evidence that vampires knew perfectly well what dental hygiene required.

He wondered what vampires needed them for, come to think of it. They didn’t eat food…well, he supposed mouths got dirty as much as any other body part, eventually.

Yuu proceeded to brush his teeth, moving carefully around the fangs, which were situated in his top row of teeth, the third tooth on either side. They weren’t very large and didn’t seem to be causing any trouble with the rest of his teeth; the two rows were straight and even. Had his old teeth elongated, or were the fangs newly created? Anyway, it was likely that the required adjustments had been made during his transformation, when the whole of him was too alight to recognize any individual occurrence.

When he spat into the sink, Yuu noticed that the substance was different from his usual saliva. It felt slightly thicker, with a different taste in the back of his throat, like dried weeds…venom, he realized. He no longer produced saliva.

He snapped off some professionally-made floss and finished up, getting dressed in the clothes he brought. Yuu hesitated over what to do with his bloodied uniform. On one hand, it was vampire-made, a symbol of their ownership over him (but then, his new clothes were no different), and on the other, they were the last clothing he’d worn while with his beloved family, while he’d fought with them and intended to die with them—

—but that was exactly the problem. They were a symbol of his attachment to the past. In the new world he lived in, keeping them would only be interpreted as weakness. With that in mind, he laid them gently into the trash can.

Heading back into the bedroom, Yuu gathered up another white mass of cloth—a cloak with a hood. Both Krul and Fionnuala seemed to expect him not to do anything attention-grabbing; walking around with his face exposed like a noble would certainly fall under that category. Passers-by would know he wasn’t a servant, at least, but that couldn’t be helped.

The arrangement suited Yuu as well. He wasn’t really in the mood to interact with anyone.

Pulling open the doors next to the dresser, he was pleased to discover an empty set of bookshelves taking up the top half of the closet, a rod for hanging clothes beneath with some accompanying hangers, and two storage bins. Taking off the lids of the bins, he found nothing but a large off-white canvas bag in one of them, which was exactly what he needed; he slung it over his shoulder.

With one last lingering glance at the urn, he left the bedroom. Making his way down the hallway, his curiosity was aroused by a faint ticking sound, the source of which turned out to be a grandfather clock taking up space in the living room. It was only 9:10 or so.

Yuu put the hood of the cloak up and left the suite, retracing the steps he had taken a few nights ago to arrive back at the throne room. Across from the closed doors was a wide set of stairs leading downwards to a landing and then another set of stairs. Peering at the arrangement, Yuu conjectured that the throne room was likely on the third floor, with the main entrance to the palace straight ahead on the bottom. Descending the stairs two at a time, Yuu saw that he was correct, spying the archways and, in the exact center, the square doorway that marked the open-air exit.

Glad that he now knew where he was going and wouldn’t get lost, Yuu quickly crossed the entrance hall and went down the hallway to his right. The left wall did not exist; rather, more archways took its place, creating yet more possible entrances and exits to the palace. The hallway to the left of the entrance hall, which he took to get to the blood donation hall, was just the same. Yuu thought the architecture suited the policy of the palace’s master, who permitted both humans and vampires, regardless of station, to enter and explore as they wished.

In no time at all, Yuu arrived at the library. Breathing in the musty air, he could now detect the scent trails of the humans and vampires who were either present or frequented the space. Looking around at the quiet chaos, it was clear that the atmosphere hadn’t changed in his absence.

Height-wise, the library extended to all five main floors of the palace. A wrought-iron chandelier dangled from that high-above ceiling; Yuu could see the nine lightbulbs plainly now from his position whereas back when he was human it was but a glorious blur. Many more lamps were scattered haphazardly throughout the library, giving the overall impression of dim light occasionally brightened by soft yellow pools. Most of the bookshelves on the ground floor weren’t taller than three stories, but some seemed to be trying their best to reach the chandelier. The walls were covered floor-to ceiling, with four levels of wall-hugging platforms that snaked upwards in intervals through use of staircases to give people access.

As far as organization went, there was only one rule: dictionaries were in the cart next to the front desk. Yuu had seen one determined girl a few years older than him make a letter “A” sign and put it on the top of one bookshelf while she hunted for all the authors whose family name began with that letter, but it was a fruitless endeavor. People borrowed books indefinitely and never returned them, new books were wheeled in and placed wherever the individual felt like, and no documentation was required for any of it.

At first, Yuu couldn’t fathom why anyone would accept such a disorganized public service, but then he realized that might just be the point. This wasn’t a society that valued equal education and opportunities for all; every vampire who mattered had a private library. Still, he was uncertain whether the Head Librarian—one Dael Cantor, whom Yuu had never once seen at her desk—ran the place this way intentionally, was acting under orders, or simply neglected her duties.

The consequences of this arrangement were an aura of competition and secrecy, at least among the humans. It was a free-for-all; the strongest got what they wanted while the rest fought over the scraps. What you were reading one day may not be there the next, and with that in mind, Yuu grabbed a Japanese-English dictionary from the cart and headed over to his own favored hiding spot.

Getting down on the ground, he retrieved the two books he had wedged between a bookshelf and the floor: Memoirs of Those Who Roam the Darkness, author blacked out (a common policy when the author was attainted, Yuu had discovered) and The Thinking Vampire’s Guide to Combat by Agi Farkas. The former he had replaced just before that fateful encounter with Ferid Bathory, so Yuu was relieved that no one seemed to notice and/or care.

Yuu put both books in his bag and braced himself for a long search for a useful book on vampire biology. In the past, he’d thumbed through a lot of books with such creative titles as Vampire Biology, Vampire Anatomy & Physiology, Atlas of the Vampire Skeleton, and so on and so forth. None of them had really stood out to Yuu. Surely it wouldn’t take too long to find something relevant…

Sounding out titles and looking up unfamiliar words slowed the process down, but overall Yuu liked to think he wasn’t too bad at reading English. If anything, his progress in reading Japanese had faltered as he switched his focus to the more useful English when he arrived in Sanguinem. However, here he found his improved memory to be a boon once again as he had no trouble recalling the new words he looked up. Yuu wondered if it wouldn’t be worthwhile to sit down and read the dictionary cover-to-cover one day—would he then become fluent in written English?

Dragging over an abandoned ladder, Yuu climbed up to the “second floor” of the bookshelf he was looking through. He had seen vampires climb the shelves using their claws, catlike, but Yuu wasn’t sure he was up for that. He was only ten books in when he lucked out with Understanding Vampire Biology by Manuel Gebara. Flipping to the index, he found entries under “sleep,” “rest,” and “memory,” so he figured it would be fine to start with.

Having succeeded so admirably, Yuu hopped off the ladder and walked over to one of the multitudes of wooden desks to take a break, glad that the area was more or less deserted. He slammed Memoirs of Those Who Roam the Darkness down on the surface and flipped back to the entry he was reading when he was waiting to get his blood drawn. All the various memoirs collected in the book came with commentary by the author, and the story of Florin Dan was no different.

His foolishness is plain. For those looking to betray their sires, greater age and experience must not be underestimated. Think once, then twice, then back again before acting, and only then success might be visited upon you.

Of course, betrayal among the sire-child relationship from either side is so abundant that in fiction the trope has become oversaturated. Many great vampire novelists and playwrights feature it, as well as the lesser ones and the awful ones. It is only natural that fiction should represent reality, but what is the source of this literary obsession that has captured the imagination of vampire society for millennia?

My pet theory is that the obsession is connected to old vampiric woes: reproduction and the eternal. Our bodies are not capable of seeding and carrying children as humans do…we must feed our blood to another to transform them. Unlike humans, who can only pray that their child becomes satisfactory, we have the benefit of getting to try the product before we buy it, so to speak.

While humans grow old and die, we vampires will live forever unless we are killed. Humans need children to bolster their population and carry on their legacy. However, as with many species at the top of the food chain, the world only needs so many vampires. How is our population to be managed, if we have no greater enemy? You’ve already guessed the answer, dear reader…a macabre dance to chase away stagnation, an artificial fight to maintain our hold on eternity.

Vampires create that which will kill them, and yet many are still surprised when their children manage the deed. Think once, then twice, then back again before assuming your child feels any “loyalty” towards you, and only then might your life be long and prosperous.

Somehow, Yuu wasn’t surprised that the author was endorsing the actions of the vampires in the memoir, nor that the commentary was longer than the entry itself. That was par for the course. He wondered if arrogance had been the flaw that brought the unknown author down…

…in any case, Yuu had no ordinary task before him. He had to learn as much as he could about the true nature of vampires and of this world. Furthermore, he must excel and fit in among vampire society as much as possible and give Krul and his minders no cause to actively suspect him. And then, when the time was right, he would gather as much of Krul’s blood as possible and go to Mika’s side.

Whether their reunion would end in facing life’s burdens together once more or in Yuu’s subsequent death, he did not yet know.

All Yuu knew was that he swore he and Mika would meet again, and there was no force on Earth that could prevent him from keeping his word.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

The Tutors Nine

November 8th, 2016: Sanguinem

“Stop breathing.”

“What?”

“Pointless habit. Stop breathing.”

Vinícius Mata spoke nothing further, as if expecting Yuu to stop then and there.

“But—”

Vinícius sighed deeply.

Yuu waited, but he didn’t say anything.

“What is the purpose of breath, Yuuichirou Hyakuya? I inhale”—he breathed in—“and I exhale. The motions are deliberate; they convey something to you, ostensibly my conversation partner.”

Vinícius, fluorescent lights shining on his bald head, paced about the empty lecture hall until he arrived back at Yuu’s seat.

“As a vampire, your body is capable of processing more visual and auditory detail than it could in the past. Others will be looking for certain cues to see how much control you have over yourself. Beginning to breathe again out of habit is—

“—the mark of a former human,” Yuu droned, as dry and dusty as he possibly could. Yuu liked to think he conveyed a lot of auditory information right there.

Vinícius glared severely. “A former human,” he said, "is one of the last things a child of a third progenitor can afford to be. You will be perceived as one for at least a century, that much is unavoidable, but your behavior can mitigate that impression.”

Vinícius was, apparently, one of his tutors that was, quote, in the know, unquote. He was also one of the ones who spoke Japanese. Yuu’s meeting with Xue Bai, his language tutor, was scheduled third, in order for him to be “spoke at effectively, at least.”

“And do not think,” he went on, “that just because you can expect to join the ranks of the nobility one day that power and respect will be instantly handed to you. There are nobles whom people like, and those whom they despise. Nobles whom they respect, and those they do not. The queen has entrusted me with ensuring that you do not fall into the latter category.”

He fell silent once again.

“I fully understand,” Yuu tried.

“If you understand, then stop breathing!”

***

Yuu sat on the very edge of the cushion, paralyzed by the perfection of Sylvianne Dubois’ apartments.

A slick coffee table separated him from the opposing loveseat, where Sylvianne was holding a tea cup containing some ominous black liquid that didn’t look like blood. Yuu was pretty sure, anyway…could you dye blood? Yuu didn’t dare breathe in to try to get a whiff.

A cuckoo clock on the left wall started blaring, announcing the stroke of midnight. Yuu’s eyes followed the movement of the blue-painted wooden bird involuntarily.

In that time, Sylvianne had set her tea (?) down and had picked up a book—shiny and black of cover.

“What do you know about the origin of vampires, Yuuichirou?”

“Not much. Um, it’s a bit of a mystery, right?”

“There are…religious interpretations. If you’re interested in them, you may seek them out on your own time. The domain of history is that which can be supported by evidence.”

Yuu forced himself to bob his head up and down. The pressure was immense.

“Well. Where to begin? How long the First Progenitor spent wandering, no one could acquire for certain before he disappeared. But this, we know for a fact: ten thousand years ago, he was in the state now called Russia, where he happened upon a young man, a foreigner to that land, dying by the side of the road.”

Her thin lips turned upwards. “Surprised our history is so short, compared to that of humans? Your history is long and fascinating, it’s true, and the parts you had no opportunity to learn, even more so. I can give you some recommendations on the ancient wars between magical syndicates. I’m sure you’d find them both fascinating and illuminating.”

He opened his mouth to say I couldn’t possibly, but nothing came out.

Sylvianne was petting the beetle-like surface of the book. She made no move to open it.

“Sadly, for now at least, the queen wants me to give you a thorough grounding in the history of Sanguinem. Oh, there’s been truly astonishing occurrences in this city, moves of extraordinary political cunning, and actions so foolish you might find it hard to believe a vampire capable of committing them. Heinous crimes, the accompanying grand executions…oh, how long’s it been? In any case, it is still a great tragedy to skip over what came before.

I will just give you a little taste. Put the situation in context. The queen couldn’t possibly object…”

“Dubois-sensei?”

“Yes?” She looked faintly displeased.

“I get that the First Progenitor was the progenitor of all vampires, I mean the vampire race, but how did he become a vampire?”

The air of palpable displeasure grew stronger. “He always said, when asked, that it was the curse of an angel that turned him. If that explanation does not satisfy you, then you could ask Iulian Vladimirescu—or better yet, someone more competent—about the prevailing research on the subject.

Now, where was I? Ah, yes, the turning of Urd Geales. For those interested in art history…”

When Fionnuala came to fetch him, he had been there for five hours and thirty-six minutes.

***

At ten in the morning, Yuu found himself at the summit of the westernmost tower, a height roughly equivalent to a sixth floor of the palace, if one existed. He had spent the last three hours laying in bed, trying to slip into a trance-like state, but he didn’t meet with much success. Golden feathers rained down in flurries in the back of his eyelids.

Stepping into the circular room, Yuu found it much more cluttered than he expected. The only light sources were two flickering candles, far too dark to get anything done when he was human, but his new eyes adjusted faster than Yuu could consciously notice. The candles filled the room with something sweet and floral that Yuu couldn’t place. None of the hardy plants that grew in the underground produced anything like it.

“Jasmine,” said Xue Bai, who appeared, like all the best vampires (as Vinícius Mata would have said), from nowhere and in total silence.

After Yuu had finished yelping, he sat down in the single rickety desk while Xue overpowered the jasmine with the scent of cleaning supplies, liberally applied to the dusty blackboard.

Unlike Vinícius and Sylvianne, whom Yuu would have placed somewhere in their twenties (well, their thousands, probably? Yuu didn’t ask), Xue looked to be in her late thirties. Her black hair was short, a few strands brushing over her pointed ears.

“I’m sorry that our time slot is so late,” Xue said. “I’m afraid you and I both lead busy lives.”

“It’s not that big a deal,” Yuu said, sitting up straighter to appear more alert. “History just ran a little long.”

“Indeed,” said Xue. “Some vampires have so little respect for time. They let it sift through their fingers as carelessly as grains of sand. I suggest you bring an alarm next time,” she added, turning around to face him.

“To…history?”

“Yes,” said Xue. “Actually, it is an effective technique in many situations. Otherwise, one might become absorbed in the most mundane of tasks, spending hours learning about how pigeons were bred instead of memorizing the names and appearances of poisonous plants. There is a charming anecdote of a fifteenth progenitor who was presented with a pot of one such plant, thinking nothing of it. Later, a servant mixed it into his glass of blood—he was the type to prefer a blend drawn from no less than seven virgin girls—and he collapsed in acute agony as his organs began to melt from the inside faster than they could regenerate. I believe it is collected in a book you’ve shown interest in. Most curious.”

It sounded probable, but if it was in Memoirs than Yuu hadn’t gotten to it yet.

“In any case, Fionnuala tells me you read a great deal for one your age,” she said. “Tell me, do you have an affinity for languages?”

“I’ve mostly tried to learn English so far”—the less said about his forays into Latin, the better—“and I’m getting a lot better with reading it, but I’ve never had any lessons in school or anything, so I have no idea how to speak it or how most things are pronounced…”

Yuu occasionally overheard snatches of English spoken by vampires, but he usually only caught a couple of words, if anything.

“And your Japanese?”

“Um…” How did he tell her I’m shit at kanji more delicately?

“You’re a fluent speaker, no doubt,” said Xue. “But your compulsory education was cut short around age eight, correct? I’m sure your writing skills have room for improvement.”

“That’s probably true,” Yuu said. He felt a brief burst of gratitude before quashing it; this was a vampire he was talking to. He couldn’t let his guard down.

“Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?” She wrote the word “language” on the board in white chalk. “How would you define it?”

“What we use to talk to each other?” Yuu said tentatively.

“A tool of communication,” Xue said, nodding. “Animals communicate with each other as well, don’t they?”

“Yeah,” Yuu said. He thought about it… “Whales have songs, right? Or at least, they make noises to each other…”

“Yes, both they as well as a number of other species utilize echolocation,” Xue said. “As for the role of whale songs, there is room for further research…what do you think separates that kind of communication from language?”

Yuu scrunched up his face. “I don’t know,” he admitted.

“That’s quite alright. Please tell me whenever I’m going too fast or you don’t understand something—that will help our sessions progress effectively.”

She wrote on the board:

Basic Units (finite) → Combine – Meaning (infinite), Semanticity

“Essentially, language is exactly what I have written there—a set of basic units that combine to create infinite meaning,” she said. “Semantics, the branch of linguistics concerned with meaning, is of particular interest for a student trying to learn a language. Of course, linguistics—the scientific study of language—has other areas of concern as well that I can give you information on as we move along. For now, I don’t want to overwhelm you.”

Continuing with her lecture, Xue said, “As vampires, we do have some advantages when it comes to learning a new language, some of which you may have picked up on already.”

“About that,” said Yuu. “I’ve noticed that I’m doing much better with remembering the words I’ve read in the dictionary after becoming a vampire.”

“Not ‘much better,’” said Xue. “From now on, you will remember everything you ever experience, every single detail of your new life, for better or for worse. This is invaluable when studying a language, since when reading or hearing words, there is a ‘trigger’ that allows you to recall when you have read or heard it before.”

“So…if I read a whole dictionary, would that actually work?”

“It would,” said Xue. “But it would be more efficient if you learned the general pronunciation patterns beforehand, to eliminate confusion when speaking. I’m sure you understand the potential…if you read the dictionary entry for the English word ‘think,’ when you next come across ‘think,’ it would cause you to remember that entry—pure economy of learning.

Enough memorization and pattern recognition will take you far, but there are some aspects of language that are not so simple. For example, how would you know how to choose between ‘think’ and ‘ponder’ in a sentence? Native speakers intuitively understand their boundaries of meaning, but one aspect of our sessions will be teaching you how to make such judgments for yourself.

In the short term, we will prioritize getting your English-speaking skills up to par, and then will move on to intricacies in written English, and Latin as well. I cannot force you, but I highly recommend going through the most detailed dictionary you can for our next meeting. Your Japanese should also benefit from the experience.”

She paused, allowing Yuu to take in her words.

“Yuuichirou, do you know why you have both a conversation and a language tutor?”

“It may be called ‘conversation,’ but it feels more like some kind of—manners class,” said Yuu. “Like how to behave, and how not to get yourself beheaded, and things like that.”

“All useful information,” said Xue. “But Vinícius Mata is a very traditional vampire, in many ways, and if I were feeling uncharitable, I’d suspect him of lacking a certain ambition…forgive me, I didn’t start this topic to insult my colleague…merely to point out that there is much more I can teach you than language alone.

Even if you became a fluent speaker in English, Japanese, and Latin, for all the good that speaking the last would do you, it would all be for nothing if one day, you could not recognize that potted plant that someone brought into your household.

What knowledge to acquire, Yuuichirou, and how to apply it. Please, consider my offer carefully.”

Somehow, it felt like the room had gotten colder. Yuu looked at Xue’s face, at the black hair that swished slightly passed her shoulders…

Yuu startled. “Am I going crazy, or has your hair gotten longer?”

Xue’s eyes widened owlishly. “Oh, that…my hair was very long when I became a vampire, you see, and even though I cut it every night, it grows back so fast…it’s such a pity. I much prefer it short. Of course, many vampires suffer from the same problem. Our bodies are insistent on remaining in the exact state they were when we ‘died.’ If you ever hear of a breakthrough regarding hair growth from the scientific community, please let me know.”

Yuu did not know how to react to that, except: vampires. “Sure. It’s…no problem.”

***

Before coming to this meeting, Yuu had carefully read over the vocabulary sheets his tutors Peter Paole and Alissa Grigori had given to Xue Bai to pass on to him. Xue had warned him that neither were the type to slow down just because their student was a child.

“And so you see, your reading list—”

Right now, it was his first meeting with his literature tutor, Peter Paole.

“—Isaac the Blind—"

Yuu wasn’t completely certain—there were a few words here and there he was missing—

“—oh, and Waldron Rankine, he was very learned.”

—but he was pretty sure: he hated this vampire, this Peter Paole. More than the others, he meant.

“Are we going to read anything by human authors?” Yuu asked, speaking slowly.

“Yuuichirou Hyakuya, there is nothing a human ever wrote that was worth reading. And even if there were, inevitably [what?] a vampire has written it more elegantly [you know, that word, it sounded sort of familiar…], with more insight and detail.”

Yuu shouldn’t have pressed, he knew he shouldn’t have pressed, but this situation, it made him so—

“—pissed off.”

“What was that, Yuuichirou Hyakuya?”

He blinked. Deliberately. “Nothing, Mr. Paole.”

Mika wouldn’t have done something stupid like that…jeez. All vampires were so full of themselves, the cold-hearted know-it-alls…

…in the back of his mind, he held on to the surge of anger. He wanted to feel it, and keep feeling, for as long as he could—forever.

***

“Pick anything you like,” Hashirou Minami said in his calm, evenly modulated voice.

Yuu looked around the music room, unsure of where to start. The place was a storm of metal, brass and silver filling his vision. A piano was sitting in the corner, next to it a harp, and there a few paces away a drum set. Apparently, Krul didn’t care what he played, as long as he learned.

As Yuu walked along the circumference of the room, he found himself drawn to the brass instruments, reaching over to pick up a—

“Anything but the trumpet,” Hashirou amended. “The queen has forbidden you to learn the trumpet. I am not sure why; I have never heard her express a dislike for it…”

“Aw, really? Kill-joy,” Yuu muttered.

The expression Hashirou was making was, on a human, known as “shocked,” and was one he should “avoid provoking” (according to the venerable Vinícius Mata).

“The queen’s wisdom is boundless in all things,” Yuu intoned.

Hashirou nodded solemnly. “I will overlook your indiscretion [speech or behavior that displays lack of good judgment—he knew it was a good idea to start reading that dictionary]. Is there anything else that catches your eye?”

Hashirou had chosen to speak to him in English, Yuu noted, even though they were both Japanese. He seemed like a stickler for protocol. Well, as Yuu was learning, a little protocol went a long way in vampire society. Even when you were about to stab somebody in the back, there was a proper way to go about it (the proper way being, as it appeared to Yuu, to be the one that maximized potential opportunities for gloating and showing off one’s cleverness).

“Well, what instrument do you know the best?”

Hashirou tilted his head. “I am quite capable of teaching any instrument in this room.”

Yuu tried again. “But which do you like the best?”

“If you’re asking what I am an expert in, then I will say that the piano and the clarinet are what I play most often in concert.”

Hm…honestly, Yuu didn’t feel like learning either one of them. If Krul didn’t like trumpets, then what about…

“If you have your heart set on it,” Hashirou managed.

Yuu’s arms were wrapped around the fattest tuba in the music room.

***

Aneta Slaski’s spidery hand darted across the—“interactive white board,” she had called it, writing multiplication problems. Yuu had wondered if he couldn’t just look at a sheet of multiplication tables and memorize them, but—

“W-what if they’re wrong,” Aneta had said. “It’s the same idea with calculators. If there is a useful tool, you should use it, but you shouldn’t, you should not rely on it; you should understand how its calculations work yourself, to the best of your ability. Then, maybe, you could make progress as a mathematician. I-if you enjoy it, that is.”

Somehow, Aneta’s youthful appearance—she looked to be around the same age as the eldest human prisoners—along with her thin limbs and quick movements added to the arachnid imagery Yuu’s mind constructed. He imagined that Aneta would be the type to spend more time trying to weave the perfect web and fretting over her mistakes rather than how many flies she was catching.

Aneta’s hand stopped moving. “T-there. I’ve never taken on a student before, so tell me if I’m doing something wrong, or ways I can improve…oh! Of course, I’m in-incredibly honored, it’s a great opportunity, to be assigned a job like this personally, from the queen herself. I-if you see her, tell her how honored I am, and, if it is, if it is not too bold, if she were to read any of my articles—”

Aneta seemed overcome by her brashness and collapsed into her chair, waiting nearby for such an occasion. Yuu walked up to the board, picking up the pen with the blue tip. He wrote his answers in wiggly strokes far from the uniform straightness of Aneta’s writing. He counted them off on his fingers. 7, 14, 21…

“It’s unusual,” Aneta said, almost to herself, “to have, to have so many tutors!”

She raised her voice almost to shouting levels by the final word. Yuu stared down the ten remaining problems.

“Nine of the most, the most distinguished common vampires in the city…though I am the least among them, s-surely. There’s even a council member! Even two, two of the vampires who taught…n-no one. What, what I mean is, do you not have an idea of what you’re going to specialize in, or, well, do with your life…in general?”

Yuu put down the pen. “Whatever the queen wants me to do, I’m more than happy to oblige [do as someone desires in order to please them—with the goal of making her less wary of me, of course].”

“Oh,” said Aneta. “H-how admirable…your anchor does not translate well to a, a profession, then?”

The concept of an anchor had come up before in Yuu’s past reading, though not always referred to in the same vocabulary. Basically, whatever a person cared about most in their last moments as a human tended to be the thing that the vampiric version of that person retained the most emotion towards. As a result, vampires who did not check their impulses could develop a one-track mind about their anchor, usually to the detriment of their life expectancy.

“As an incomplete vampire, I don’t think I’m in quite the same situation,” Yuu demurred. “I’m happy learning from all of you, for now.”

To be honest, the idea of slowly loosing his range of emotion and ability to care about the world around him frightened him way more than he could handle for the present. But thinking back to his “death,” Yuu supposed he could be in a much worse situation in this regard.

Yuu watched Aneta’s eyes move back-and-forth across the board.

“Hm…hm…maybe…maybe we can go back, yes, go back and…start with the fours instead?”

***

A shower of gold fell from Alissa Grigori’s fingers, forming a pyramid atop the circular marble table. “So, who exactly is your sire, Yuuichirou Hyakuya?”

“What?”

“Who, not what,” said Alissa. “Come now. I know whatever budget your seneschal allotted you is not enough for a young man trying to make his way in society.”

“My what?”

“Your servant, Fionnuala Ó Cinnéide,” said she, waving a pale hand. Her red signet ring flashed. “The official term is finally beginning to fall out of fashion—except for our dear Lady Seneschal, of course. Speaking of the lovely Lia Fierro, rumor has it she was caught skulking about before sunset on All Saints’ Day, bringing a child-sized bundle into the palace. I wonder if you might know anything of those events?”

Alissa scanned his face. Yuu wasn’t sure he knew what was going on, but in the back of his mind, he wondered if…

“Not Lia, then,” said Alissa. “A noble vampire after all…well, there are precious few the queen tolerates. I’ll have the answer before long.”

“I’m sorry, but I really can’t accept your… [gift, something given with the expectation of receiving something in return, oh, what was—] bribe!” Got it. Sometimes it was hard to go from definitions to words compared to the other way around, but Yuu could almost always trigger the memory eventually.

Alissa’s left hand moved up to flip strands of her rich blonde waves (Yuu was tempted to call the color “golden”) over her shoulder. “Very well. As Lady Treasurer, you can expect the best from me, and in turn, I expect the best from you. Have these books”—she dropped three on the table, rattling the coins—“read for our next session. Perhaps that odious woman will have improved your speech enough for our conversation to be productive. Dismissed.”

***

Yuu was totally ready for this.

“I’ve been having trouble falling into ‘the trance,’” he told Iulian Vladimirescu.

“It’s like, all of a sudden I have so much time, even if being awake during the day feels strange. I can read hundreds of pages without even thinking about it if I don’t set an alarm—I used to have a hard time focusing, but now once I concentrate on something I can’t stop. Unless something distracts me, anyway. It’s great for reading dictionaries, which are the most boring books in the world, but kind of a dangerous habit in the long run. Anyway, I feel like there’s no time to waste, but I also know that being awake and doing stuff nonstop isn’t healthy for anyone, vampires included. So, what’s the minimum amount of time you would recommend for rest periods? And are there any ways to, um, zone out faster?”

Iulian’s face, which looked constantly set in a morose frown, moved in the minute patterns required to begin speech. Yuu wished he’d perform them a little faster.

“Between one to three hours every day is the recommended amount. It’s common for new vampires to go through periods of restlessness. Perhaps, if you down large amounts of a potent tonic…”

“Probably not going to do that,” Yuu said. “It’s nothing personal. It’s just, a lot of vampires have died from trying to get drunk, or high, in—a ton of really hilarious ways, actually.”

Iulian pondered the matter.

“Many techniques that humans use to fall asleep,” he said at last, “are also applicable to vampires trying to rest their minds. Deep breathing, for example, as well as trying to stay awake, as paradoxical as that sounds.”

Yuu made encouraging noises. Iulian had said that Krul wanted him to start with vampire biology, anyway, so Yuu was just facilitating the process. Focusing the proceedings.

“You could try to relax by thinking peaceful and happy thoughts. Anxiety is known to prevent rest.”

“Not going to happen, but I get why that would work for some people. I think I’ll be fine for now.”

Yuu leaned forward. “I have a few—some more questions. This is going to sound weird, but—”

***

No way! You actually read my book?”

Yuu was more than a little stunned himself. Authors, as a rule, were dead people. The schedule Fionnuala had given him only listed the subjects and time slots, so he hadn’t known about this handy-dandy coincidence until Agi Farkas (“Captain of the city guard!”) had introduced herself.

“Parts of it,” Yuu hastily clarified. Furthermore, he hadn’t touched it since he became a vampire, so he didn’t have his photographic memory to rely on.

…That’s right. Sometimes, vampires wrote books, meaning some vampires were both authors and alive. Some of them must live in Sanguinem, whiling away their immortal lives, available for pestering—that is, academic inquiry—

“Well,” said Agi, “You should know that easily puts you among my top ten favorite students. Because I like you, kid, we’re going to start with running!”

Yuu paused. “I thought you were supposed to teach me how to fight.” At least, that was how Yuu interpreted Combat Training.

“We will get there,” Agi assured him. “It’s like they say: ‘If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also a suffer a defeat.’ Fifty-fifty’s not bad!”

Yuu looked around. Fionnuala had dropped him off at the back exit of the palace. The area was essentially a courtyard, an enclosed rectangle bracketed off by other tall buildings.

“Where exactly am I supposed to run?”

“Wherever you want!” Agi replied. “You could climb the buildings…but don’t worry about that, we’ll cover climbing later! Run through the palace! Run anywhere! Just go as fast as you can. That’s the only requirement. I’ll fetch you in, say, twenty minutes?”

Yuu tossed her one last glance, trying to convey as much skepticism as possible, before setting off.

No, he flew off.

In a blink, he reentered the palace, running through the hallways and leaping up sets of stairs three at a time. The only reason he wasn’t hitting shit was his reflexes. His body was keeping up way better than Yuu’s mind could, so he decided to let his body keep doing its thing.

Somehow, Yuu ran his way to the front of the palace and outside. He headed away from where the humans congregated, towards the mansions of the vampire nobility. His surroundings didn’t even have the decency to be a blur; his eyes were more than capable of picking out the details in the paint jobs. He was simply covering ground too fast for any of it to matter.

Out of nowhere, a hand reached out and snagged the back of his hood.

“It’s me,” Agi announced. “How was that, kid?”

Yuu shook his head, bringing his brain back down from the clouds. “That was—”

Amazing.

Instantly, Yuu’s mood soured, his elation transformed into the self-disgust it should have been all along. No part of being a vampire should be fun. His speed, like all the rest of his new abilities, was a tool, one he would learn to use to the best of his ability, but nothing more than that. His tutors, too, were tools, not his friends. All of them were reporting to Krul; undoubtedly, each of them had their own goals and advantages they were hoping to get out of the situation. Yuu couldn’t afford to drop his guard, not even for a moment. A “moment,” in the world of blood, could mean the difference between life and death.

“I know, right?” said Agi.

Whatever else she would have said was cut off by the appearance of two vampires, their soldiers’ uniforms marking them for members of the city guard. Elites, Yuu noted, taking in their exposed faces. The one with purple hair waved and called out a greeting while his dark-haired companion stayed silent.

“Yo-yo-yo!” Agi snapped her fingers. “Hey, Lacus, René. This is Yuu, my new student!”

Yuu stiffened. “I prefer Yuuichirou.”

“Oh, sorry,” said Agi. “My new student Yuuichirou! I swear he’s a cutie when his face isn’t doing that grumpy thing. What’s up?”

“Well, about that missing persons case…” Purple-hair’s face was cheerful, but Yuu detected strain in his tone.

“Oooooh, that. Doesn’t sound like good news, but I’ll hear you out. Yuuichirou! I’ll be back in ten, so don’t go anywhere!”

Yuu strained his ears and caught “that fool diplomat” before they were out of range. Whether the diplomat was the missing person or the cause of the trouble, Yuu could only wonder.

Soon, Agi came back and the time for thought was over. He was going to run, and she was going to chase.

***

When Fionnuala stepped into Yuu’s room on Sunday night, she found him laying face down on his bed.

“How did you find your tutors, young master?”

Yuu twisted his head around and looked at her.

“Vampires are all insane.”

Fionnuala cocked her head. “In any case, your behavior was adequate, so I am here to escort you to your former dwelling.”

Rolling out of bed, Yuu grabbed his bag.

“I’m ready,” he told her, and so they headed out.

As they walked, Yuu wasted no time before beginning his interrogation. “Did any of my tutors ask you for information about me?”

Fionnuala’s impassive expression remained unchanged. “I’m sure the queen told them as much as they needed to know and no more.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Yuu said. “I want to know if any of them asked you directly for more information.”

“You must suspect what my answer will be, if you asked such a question,” said Fionnuala. “Your language tutor, Xue Bai, asked me about how you spent your nights and I answered her. None of the others approached me.”

“What’s the point of having a personal servant if they go around spilling your life’s story to anyone who asks?” Yuu grumbled.

“I do have a sense of discretion,” said Fionnuala. “I will not do anything that harms the queen’s interests, then yours as my second priority. In that situation, I didn’t see the harm in answering.”

Yuu looked at her sideways. She didn’t look like the type to crack.

“Whatever,” Yuu said. “Just tell me when something like that comes up again, okay? People trying to get to me through you, I mean.”

“Of course,” said Fionnuala, and that pretty much put an end to the conversation. It was just as well; they were getting closer to their destination, and Yuu began to implement the whole “not breathing” strategy in order not to smell any of the humans they were passing in greater numbers. He pulled his hood down even lower. He didn’t want anyone to see his face.

Time seemed to slow as Yuu found himself at the front door of the place he’d lived in for four years, dark and quiet as it had never been before.

Fionnuala took two steps back, broadcasting her intention not to enter.

Yuu stepped inside, closing the door behind him. He took a few steps forward, numb, listening to the unfamiliar sound of shoes clacking across the tile.

Their place or dwelling or whatever you wanted to call it—was just a room. Large, but still all they had, the fifteen children who lived there. There wasn’t even a bathroom—they shared a facility with four other groups.

He looked around at the cracked walls, the sections of brick. To his left, the kitchen counter, their (his, his, the rest are gone, they’re all gone) rickety tables and chairs. What dishes and cleaning supplies they possessed were stored in the cupboards, along with anything else they didn’t want to leave out in the open—for all the good it did when the older kids came looking for someone to rob and bully. There, to the right, their blankets were haphazardly piled, so unlike the neat way they were usually folded…they had left in such a rush. Everyone had been so excited…

Next to the pile, a pair of straw dolls had been thrown. He remembered Akane scolding Hikari and Mariko—they had tried to bring the dolls along, of course, but Akane said they couldn’t bring anything with them—they hadn’t wanted to risk the noise. Furthermore, they would need every pair of hands gathering food once they made it outside, to a world with no more vampires.

That world may as well be heaven. It may as well not exist. But Mika was there…Mika was there.

Yuu felt his eyes beginning to sting, but he tried to stop it, forcing himself to blink. He didn’t want Fionnuala to see the sticky residue of bloody tears instead of—watery fluid. What were tears made of…? Vampires bodies are made to simulate the appearance of humans, their prey, without many of the limitations humans possess. Many human bodily processes retain functionality, some in limited or changed fashion, but most vampires find they are no longer necessary…

No longer necessary…

Yuu couldn’t stop himself from breathing in. Their scents were faint, dulled; even easier to bear than similar scent trails Yuu encountered in the palace and on the journey here.

Pathetically, Yuu crawled over to the blankets and sifted through them, carving the individual scents into his memory, even as he felt his mouth begin to produce more venom. Yuuichirou the vampire had never known them, so he could not put a name to each scent. His body registered them all as sweet, a promise, a faded afterimage…

A memory.

SCENE: The residence of the HYAKUYA ORPHANS, Sanguinem, the twenty-ninth of July. AKANE and YUUICHIROU enter their living area in triumph, their prizes bundled in their arms. The children are gathered around MIKAELA, listening to a story. They quickly notice the return of their family members and shout greetings, some getting up and running over to the door.

MIKAELA HYAKUYA.  Hey, you two.

YUUICHIROU HYAKUYA.  You’re allowed to show a little more enthusiasm, you know?

AKANE HYAKUYA.  No need for such a worried expression. The trade was with Hirohito’s group…we just gave them some extra blankets. (She is distracted by KOUTA and MASAKI, who try to poke the objects in her hands. She holds them out of reach.)

YUUICHIROU.  You all like cuddling, right? You’re good at cuddling.

TAKAHIRO HYAKUYA.  We like candy even more, Yuu-nii-chan!

MIKAELA.  (He gives up on staying aloof and gets up. He is suspicious of their favorable trade—regardless of the importance of warmth, many children will do anything for a taste of food from the world above. He is unwilling to interrogate the two of them in front of the others, however.) Well, it looks like Akane-chan and Yuu-chan have brought back quite a treat, huh? You all know what to say to your brother and sister? (“Thank you” spills out in disharmonious chorus.)

FUMIE HYAKUYA.  (Her bearing is eager, but she is trying not to show it.) I can help you guys divide it evenly.

AKANE.  Thanks, Fumie! All right, you guys, give us some space! (AKANE and YUUICHIROU unload their bounty onto the floor—lollipops and gummies, and even a box of pocky. They sort the candy into twelve piles—YUUICHIROU tried to make thirteen, but AKANE shot him a look and he relented.)

FUMIE.  That’s no good! You two and Mika-nii-chan are each having one thing—you can have the worst pieces of the lot, if you insist. (This draws laughter and agreement from the other children.)

YUUICHIROU.  (Wanting AKANE and MIKAELA to have some, and knowing this is the best way) Deal.

MIKAELA.  (With the candy divided, everyone digs in. AKANE and YUUICHIROU separate from the bulk of the group and go over to MIKAELA to talk.) Are you sure this was a good idea?

AKANE.  (Quietly) Don’t play the big brother with me, Mika-chan. I know we could have used the cloth, not just for sleeping, but making the children happy is just as important.

YUUICHIROU.  They probably thought they got the better deal, but how many groups have been able to prevent infighting and keep their spirits up as well as we have? Even the ones lucky enough to be living with people they know…I may not be interested in your idea of “family,” but I want everyone to survive, Mika.

AKANE.  Don’t worry…we’ll focus on practical things next time. Who knows, we could win it all back at discount price!

MIKAELA.  I know…I get it, but this isn’t a game. This is dangerous. Back channels, shady deals, however you explain it, you could easily get yourselves hurt, or— (He stops himself, but they all know the truth. Humans have gotten themselves killed there in the underground—not by provoking vampires, but by getting in the way of other humans. Rape, maiming, and murder, and in all of it, the city’s authority takes no interest. The strongest humans get what they want, and that’s the way it is.)

YUUICHIROU.  We’ve been careful. We haven’t dealt with anyone we can’t handle.

MIKAELA.  Even so, tell me next time, okay? That’s an order from your leader! (He strikes a playful tone, but in the back of his mind, wheels are turning. He recognizes the value of what AKANE and YUUICHIROU are saying, but how to better the lives of the HYAKUYA ORPHANAGE FAMILY without risking the safety of the two of them? The answer has not yet presented itself, but it will.)

YUUICHIROU.  Yeah, yeah… (He looks around at the smiling faces, taking in the eager chatter. He feels good that he helped put those smiles there. He’s happy. Everyone is so happyhappyhappyhappyhappyhappyhappyhappy)

Memory end.

Yuu wiped his mouth and rubbed venom into his skin. He’s unsure how long it’s been.

Yuu sighed. He could take a few blankets, but the scent will fade soon, and then he’d just have a pile of blankets that weren’t very good at their job. He grabbed one at random and put it into his bag. He liked to think it smelled slightly different from the others. He snagged the two straw dolls as well.

Yuu went through the cupboards next. There’s food—lots of cans—pots, pans, utensils. Can opener. No fresh food, nothing that will spoil—they don’t have a refrigerator, anyway. Hiding in the back are their set of crayons—random colors, really. Yuu gathered them up and added them to his bag. He wished he could take the drawings that decorated the walls: the orphans’ own version of paper.

The bottom left corner had a few words written in Mika’s hand. He wanted to teach some of the younger children how to read, but the project never really took off as the others let their creativity run wild and filled up the space. Yuu sat on his knees and traced the strokes. He wanted a picture. He wanted a piece of paper to trace them over. That wouldn’t be too hard to accomplish; he would just have to visit another day. And if Krul didn’t want him coming back here, then so what? It’s not like he planned on causing trouble.

In the end, Yuu left the house with the meager belongings he collected. If he didn’t leave now, he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to.

Fionnuala was waiting across the street, leaning against the wall.

Yuu walked up to her.

“Let’s go back,” he said, and it was done.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

The Future of Academia, Resplendent

November 20th, 2016: Sanguinem

I once met a vampire who believed in God.

Oh, they’re around, don’t get me wrong—you’d be surprised how many of the First Progenitor’s children worry themselves over such concerns. But in the case of this particular specimen, he was unwilling to reconcile his faith with his existence as a vampire. He was wandering the Italian countryside in the dying gasps of the sixteenth century, looking for someone—another vampire—to kill him. He was afraid for the sake of any humans he came across.

I was more than willing to oblige, in exchange for receiving his life’s story beforehand.

And so, I present to you: the tale of Costanzo Dioli.

I was walking along a deserted road late at night. Many stories of tragedy and damnation have begun thus.

Eventually, I came upon someone sitting by the side of the road, a young lady not past her fifteenth year.1 I approached her to discover her circumstances, and intended to offer her shelter if it should be required.

I later surmised that she was waiting for just such an opportunity. She attacked me, sinking her fangs into my neck, but abruptly pulled away. I sunk down to the ground, weakened.

She lifted my hand and let it fall. “A rosary ring! You’re a man of great faith? A true believer?”

I somehow found the strength to speak. “Begone…demon…”

She laughed. God did not answer my prayers that night. Once she forced me to taste her blood, He never would again.

When I recovered from the agony, I was alone. Fearing for the safety of my family and my hometown, I turned back in the direction I came. No matter how hard I fought, my willpower was not strong enough. I have killed; I have tried to drink only a little and stop, and yet I have killed again. I attempted to drink the blood of animals, but the taste was foul and it nourished me not. I realized that there is no way to live as a vampire that does not do harm to others. I resolved to die.

Using such a creature as the method to my end…am I compounding the weight of my sins by taking my own life, for all that it will end at another’s hands? It matters not. I go to fields of fire, to burn for all eternity.

Pitigliano,2 20 of November 1598

1It took me some time, but I believe I have correctly identified the vampire in question. We had a chat in Fosdinovo, ten years after I obtained this account. She called herself Luiza Vidra, a twentieth progenitor, very lively. Her human family had been Jewish, and she turned Costanzo Dioli on a whim, as many of our kind do; she wanted to “see what would happen.” I daresay she found the shade of amusement when I told her how he met his end.

2The outskirts of the place, to be more exact. I added the date myself. Costanzo Dioli was not exactly married to civilization. He had no idea which day it was, and didn’t seem to care. One way or another, Dioli would descend. Honestly, it was a miracle he hadn’t become a demon before I had the chance to meet him.

Yuu frowned.

Costanzo Dioli was among the most moral of the vampires included in Memoirs, regardless of how the author/editor framed the situation. Even so, he had thought that seeking out his death was the only choice available to him.

He put the book aside, for once not in the mood to read the snarky commentary. His pet project to find a “good vampire” wasn’t going well so far. Talking to Fionnuala was like talking to a brick wall, his tutors were varying degrees of untrustworthy and insane, and he hadn’t yet found a good excuse to start approaching random vampires.

A good excuse…huh. Maybe he was getting too immersed in vampire culture. He couldn’t afford to fall into the trap of judging them by their own standards; he needed to maintain objectivity, find some universal measure…

Yuu bolted upright.

Why not turn my pet project…into a real one?

He scrambled over to his desk, got out some paper, and started scribbling.

A Collection of Memoirs (Working Title) edited by Yuuichirou Hyakuya.

Ugh. No. What was the theme? What set it apart? Why did it deserve to exist?

He twirled his pen. Sparks were flying. Sparks of pure genius.

He couldn’t go globe-trotting in search of answers. He was stuck here, in Sanguinem. Who lived in Sanguinem? Vampires and humans.

Life in Sanguinem: A Collection of Memoirs (Working Title) edited by Yuuichirou Hyakuya

Wait. In the interest of equality, maybe he could shorten the time frame? If he wanted to include as many people as possible, he should probably limit the entries to around two pages or so. If he were contrasting the lives of humans and vampires in the underground, then it only made sense to target the four years the two races shared the same city.

Sanguinem Post-Apocalypse: A Collection of Memoirs (Working Title) edited by Yuuichirou Hyakuya

There! Brilliance, distilled into words. There was no way a vampire would do a project like this, and it would be impossible for a human to execute. He was filling a clear gap in the literature.

Yuu got up and stretched his arms (regardless of the fact that they didn’t need to be stretched). He felt buoyant, energized—like he could run all the way to the headquarters of the Japanese Imperial Demon Army. This will help me sort things out for sure, Mika.

For now, he’d settle for sneaking out to the human district. Downing a fresh vial of Krul’s blood, Yuu lamented that hadn’t been able to acquire a camera, but he had paper, pencils, pens. If he traced some of the drawings, he could either tack them up on the walls or place them next to the urn. He’d decide later. He had this night and the next off; plenty of free time to get this errand done and get started on his project afterwards.

***

“Sneaking out” entailed walking at a normal pace, keeping his senses on high alert. He followed the route he took to get to the library, not wanting to arouse suspicion.

For all his caution, Yuu didn’t expect his movements would escape his spy/personal servant’s notice if her duty really was to follow him around everywhere. In that case, he would just have to hope that she wouldn’t stop him.

Just before he reached the library, he slipped out through the archways on the left and departed the palace. It was still early—around five o’ clock—so the city was just beginning to stir to life. Yuu took advantage of the quiet streets to wind his way with haste.

When he reached his destination, Yuu stopped, stock-still.

His former residence was no longer deserted. There were definitely…people inside.

Robbers? He thought wildly. Sure didn’t take them long, the bastards.

He took a breath, held it, and barged in.

The occupants of the room startled. Most of them were wrapped up, still, in piles on the floor. Two of them were awake, however. A girl standing by the sink let out an eep! before she covered her mouth, glancing at the sleeping intruders. Another girl was sitting against the left wall, reading a thin volume. She lowered it in order to look up at Yuu. Both girls looked to be around Akane’s age.

“Hey,” said the girl who was sitting down. She stood up, shoving her reading material down her shirt. Her wavy black hair fell to her shoulders; her hazel eyes were shifting, assessing him.

“T-that’s a vampire!” said the other girl in an alarmed whisper.

“I can tell, dipshit. Let’s find out what he wants.”

He didn’t really want to get a ton of people involved at this juncture, so… “Let’s take this outside.”

Hazel-eyes shrugged. “Fine. Come on, Kimi.”

Kimi—her own black hair slung in a bun—whimpered as she followed her companion-in-villainy outside. She closed the door behind her and pressed herself up against it, as if protecting the occupants within.

Hazel-eyes spoke. “So, what brings you here?”

“What brings you here? This is where—” Shit, he needed to breathe. He ran away at top speed, pressed his face against the wall of a building, took a large breath, and ran back.

Hazel-eyes raised an eyebrow, as if she were amused. Kimi looked petrified.

“—I used to live.” Yuu finished.

“Used to live? You mean, you’re one of those Hyakuya orphans that disappeared?”

He nodded.

She narrowed her eyes. “I see…you’re a newly-turned vampire…well, an incomplete vampire. That means he hasn’t drunk human blood, Kimi, so you can stop worrying. They obviously haven’t finished indoctrinating him yet.”

To know something like that…this girl must be well-read, possibly even more than Yuu had been. No wonder she seemed so unconcerned. No, she really should be. Yuu was painfully aware of the consequences the slightest mistake on his part could cause.

“I thought there was a law here preventing the creation of new vampires. How’d you pull it off?”

Yuu flinched. “I didn’t have a choice. I was unconscious. There was nothing to…”

Yuu gave up and reached into his bag. Pulling out paper and pen, he wrote: I never would have chosen this. He held it up to the side of his body so Kimi could see it too.

“Fine, fine. I’m Hotaru, by the way.”

Yuuichirou.

“How about I tell you our story and you tell us yours? If we’re going to talk peacefully, that’s only fair.”

All right. You start.

“Okay. Last week…last Monday, to be precise—”

“She burned our house down,” Kimi blurted out.

Hotaru gave her a disappointed look. “Do friends interrupt friends, Kimi? Is that what a good housemate would do?”

“N…no.”

“That’s what I thought.”

How did you pull that one off? See how she liked it.

Hotaru huffed. “I wasn’t cooking or anything, if that’s what you thought. I’m not an idiot. What happened was I got my hands on some candles, and was trying a certain ritual…you’d have to have an extensive background in demon summoning to understand. The moral of the story is if I wasn’t living with a bunch of idiots, my life would be so much easier.”

“But…someone could have gotten hurt!” Kimi protested. “You were lucky that almost everyone was out of the house to begin with.”

“I am sorry that some of our stuff was trashed,” Hotaru compromised. “Especially the candles. I mean, I just got those.”

Demon summoning…to defeat the vampires?

She looked at him sideways. “I think you’d need a lot more than one demon. I was thinking more along the lines of self-defense, maybe a little pro-active defense…”

On one hand, Yuu felt like he could relate to the weary expression on Kimi’s face. Hotaru seemed like she was hard to get along with. On the other hand…demons. Magic. Why the hell didn’t he have a magic tutor? And why hadn’t he thought of demon summoning?

He’d read a bit about magical syndicates in the past, but most research that brought up magic said it wasn’t much of a danger to vampires, so Yuu had put the topic on the back-burner. It seemed there was no freely available way to learn magic, so that had also put a damper on his interest. Or so he’d thought.

“Anyway, after the fire, it turned out there was a convenient vacancy, so we got shunted in here right away. That’s pretty much it.”

Where’d you get your information on magic?

“Oh, some punk…I’m willing to share more, but first you have to tell me what happened to you.”

Yuu wrote down the events of—it was almost three weeks already. But this wasn’t the time to think about it.

We had a plan to escape. We’d gotten our hands on a map and a gun. However, it turned out they were planted by a vampire, and we were attacked near the exit. They were all killed. I am the only survivor.

He didn’t want to get into the Mika situation with these strangers; he had a feeling that the less he mentioned him, the better off he would be. In this case, Yuu’s desires and his practical concerns aligned.

“I’m so sorry,” said Kimi. “Y-you really became a vampire without even having a choice? And your family…that’s awful.”

“Yes, it’s all very sad, very tragic,” said Hotaru. There was a strange look in her eyes. Something he couldn’t read. “You planning on getting revenge?”

The question threw him off balance. In a world where Mika was dead, he supposed there would be nothing stopping him from going on a rampage.

I’m sure in that scenario, I’d be dead, Yuu thought bitterly, remembering the strength of that murderer, Ferid Bathory. He was a seventh progenitor, and Yuu was an incomplete vampire with two nights of pre-combat training. The gulf between them felt as wide as it ever had.

He shook his head. Ferid Bathory didn’t matter. Mika, the only person he had left in this world, mattered. So there was no reason to ponder the question of revenge further.

No.

“Got it,” said Hotaru. “So, what did you come here for in the first place? You sure weren’t expecting to see us.”

I was just going to copy some pictures, Yuu wrote. The ones on the walls.

“That’s all?” asked Hotaru.

Well, I didn’t plan on interacting with anyone, but now that you two are here, there’s actually a favor I’d like to ask. I’m collecting some memoirs about life in Sanguinem, so if either of you would be willing to write one, that would be awesome! Yuu drew a smiley face at the end to make the request more palatable.

“Memoirs, huh? That can be arranged,” said Hotaru. “Of course, you’ll have to do something for me in return.”

What is it?

Hotaru stepped forward, lowering her voice so only Yuu could hear.

“Information,” said Hotaru. “I want everything you can get your hands on about magic. The good stuff, I mean. Something you can’t find in the palace library.” She raised her voice. “If you bring me something useful, in return, Kimi will contribute to your little project. If I like what I see, maybe we can keep up this exchange.”

“Hotaru-chan!” Kimi protested. Hotaru was unmoved.

Fine. It’s a deal.

Yuu still wasn’t happy about these people moving into his old residence, but on the bright side, he had already secured an entry. It surely wouldn’t be too difficult to uphold his end of the bargain, and he would have to come back here anyway to pick up Kimi’s memoir.

Is next Sunday enough time?

“Sounds good,” Hotaru said.

“You could at least write one yourself, instead of making me do it…” Kimi trailed off, her voice getting progressively quieter.

Yuu sent her a look of sympathy that he hoped also conveyed please write this. He grabbed some more sheets of paper and a pen and held them out for her to take. Kimi’s wobbly smile seemed to say Um, I’d do that, but I can’t move.

After a moment, Hotaru consented to play the role of intermediary, depositing the items from Yuu’s arms into Kimi’s.

One more thing. You said you’d tell me where you got the information you have already.

“It’s not some big secret,” said Hotaru, but her expression was smug. “I got some alright shit from a guy named Sakuma—one of the elderly, you know. I won’t name names, but it’s well known that he’s been hanging around the mansion of a certain noble vampire—one who knows how to treat his favorites. I would never lower myself to that, personally, but there’s no reason not to take advantage of those who do.”

Sakuma…Yuu knew him. More importantly, a noble vampire with human favorites…could there be any doubt? Yuu ran away, took a breath, and ran back again. He wanted to say this out loud.

“If it’s Ferid Bathory, don’t trust him.” Yuu stared Hotaru down, then Kimi. “He’s the one who killed my family.”

Hotaru’s eyes flashed. “We’ll be cautious,” she promised. “Scum like him doesn’t deserve to live, but what can we do? We’re only human.”

Yuu traced his tongue around his fangs. Studying his expression, Hotaru added, “Same goes for you, half-baked vampire. If you die before you get me my info, I’ll be pissed. Oh, and is it cool with you if you get those drawings next week? The others are going to wake up soon and I don’t want to deal with the hassle.”

Without waiting for a reply, Hotaru skipped back into—her residence, dragging Kimi along with her.

Yuu stood there for a moment, shell-shocked, before shaking his head and beginning the journey back to the palace.

***

At least, Yuu had the best intentions of promptly returning. But as it turned out, on a deserted stretch of road, he was intercepted.

Yuu recognized the human teenager who accosted him. Handily enough, it was Sakuma. The asshole and his tagalongs had tried to steal the Hyakuya orphans’ food rations a couple of weeks back, so Yuu had attacked him. Mika had broken it up before the situation got too bad, and since then the Hyakuya orphans had no quarrel with them. What Yuu hadn’t known before Hotaru’s pronouncement was Sakuma’s association with a noble vampire.

It made sense in retrospect. Was he the means by which Mika found out about Ferid Bathory? In any case, Sakuma was standing right in front of him, so Yuu was in a position to get some answers. He readied his pen and paper.

What do you want? He displayed the message to Sakuma. Next time, he would bring a notebook. Writing on his thigh was getting inconvenient.

“You are…Yuuichirou Hyakuya, right?”

Somehow, his long face displeased Yuu’s eye. Yuu begrudgingly nodded.

“I was instructed to pass on this invitation,” Sakuma said, not looking particularly pleased himself.

He handed over an envelope. Yuu tore into it and read the contents, squinting at the portions in flowing cursive.

PLEASE JOIN US FOR

Yuletide Festivities

HOSTED BY

Thirteenth Progenitor Crowley Eusford

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 21st

11:00 P.M.

211 OLD AVENUE

 

PLEASE R.S.V.P. BY DECEMBER 14th

TO SEVENTEENTH PROGENITOR HORN SKULD

Sorry, but I can’t attend. Can you pass that on to Seventeenth Progenitor Horn Skuld?

Sakuma shrugged. “I was told to let you think about it,” he said. “Come track me down if you change your mind. Horn-sama is aware that you’re on a short leash.”

Yuu wanted to ask why on Earth he should trust this guy and his invitation, but he didn’t want to reveal that he suspected that Sakuma was connected to Ferid Bathory and therefore that this party was some sort of trap…huh. That was tricky thinking, wasn’t it? Yuu gave himself a mental pat on the back.

The downside of this logic was that he wouldn’t be able to ask about Mika…but what good would knowing do for him at this juncture, anyway? Looking for someone to blame would only distract him from his goal. Hadn’t he just affirmed that in his conversation with Hotaru and Kimi?

He settled for writing I’ll think it over before brushing past Sakuma and continuing on his way, shoving the invitation in his bag.

***

When Yuu arrived at his quarters, he found Fionnuala awaiting him.

For once, her hood was all the way back, displaying her complicated brown braids. She was sitting on the nice leather chair, reading a book. She closed it and set it aside, her movements slow, calm.

It was the most casual Yuu had ever seen her. Down his back, he felt the wriggling of hundreds of tiny insects.

Had she been watching his entire sojourn, or had she never left the palace? He had no idea.

“I may yet die and be replaced,” Fionnuala said. “But I want to explain my thinking to you. Perhaps the queen will agree with me when I report to her.

I agree that it is important to avoid attracting undue attention. However…a perfect separation from the outside world will draw just as much if not more attention. Vampires cannot resist a mystery, or refrain from seeking out information that they believe has been hidden from them. If you are seen performing willful actions—'striking out on your own,’ so to speak—then the public would begin to catch your measure. ‘The child of some lesser noble the queen favors,’ they might think. No great secret, no great topic of interest, just a run-of-the-mill scandal. And they’ll feel all the cleverer for having figured it out themselves.”

“So…I presume you had orders not to let me leave the palace. Unsupervised, anyway.”

“Correct.”

“I get what you’re saying, but why didn’t you stop me and, like, petition the queen instead of…dying?”

“I determined that this opportunity would be invaluable for gathering intel. My report will always be available for perusal, even if I myself disappear from this world.”

“Well, I won’t let that happen!” Yuu said, surprising himself with his outburst. “It was my fault. I ignored your instructions.”

“The failure was willful, and mine,” Fionnuala countered.

She stood and crossed the room to within two paces of him. Her gaze was cold. Unreadable.

“What do you care if I die, Yuuichirou Hyakuya? I am a vampire. That will never change until the day I die or become a demon.”

He took a step back, as if he had been struck. “I…”

“If you could trade me for one of your dead companions, would you not do so? There is no need to pretend at caring or compassion. I am well aware that hate is not something that can be overcome so easily.”

Yuu was silent for a moment. He could not deny her words, not outright. But…

“…I hate vampires,” he said. “I hate how they take humans prisoner and treat them like they’re no better than livestock. Human lives don’t matter to them. Even vampire lives don’t matter. All vampires care about is blood. That’s what this fucked-up city is based on, right? The First Progenitor’s blood was so special that no one else’s children has been able to equal his in strength, or even the strength of their own sires. If I’m lucky, maybe the nobility will kill each other and die out, and take this whole system down with them.”

Yuu met her eyes. “I don’t know if you’ve killed anyone. You…probably have. But you don’t seem like the kind of vampire who tortures children for fun. So…

…I hate vampires, but I don’t hate you.”

Even as he spoke, Yuu turned his words over in his mind, feeling the shape of them. He tasted the truth of them, and felt defeated.

If his family could see him now, they probably wouldn’t recognize him. Where was the Yuu who had sworn to kill all vampires, to slay the vampire queen and win victory for humanity?

That Yuu was gone. He had joined his former oppressors, however unwillingly. His grand rebellion had ended before it could begin.

The world he once belonged in no longer had a place for him.

And what of this world, the world of cruelty and callousness: the legacy of blood?

That’s right.

This world doesn’t need him, but Mika does.

All he could do…was continue along the path he had chosen. Even as he learned, and changed, it was not up to Yuu to pass judgment on himself. How could Yuu, who had been blessed at the last, fail as long as he kept his eyes fixed on his higher purpose?

In a way, this was what he wanted. Hadn’t he wanted to shed his hatred of vampires? Hadn’t he wanted to find even the slightest excuse not to hate them? I must live, so I cannot die. Could an emotion woven into the fabric of his being for four years be eradicated? Yuu didn’t know.

For now, he would decide for himself who could be forgiven for the sins of their race.

Yuu rose up from the submerged pool of his thoughts at the sound of Fionnuala’s voice.

“…don’t hate me…huh.” The last word was exhaled not in question or wonder, but in sorrow, with something else bleeding through the edges that Yuu could not parse.

“Um-hm,” Yuu said. He touched the back of his neck, shifting his eyes away. “I’m not the type who can handle having a busybody servant, so I’d rather you stay right where you are. I’ll explain things to Queen Krul, if you like…can’t promise I’ll get out of there alive, but what can you do…”

Fionnuala was laughing. Or performing the vampire equivalent, at least, which was to chuckle lightly and then cover your mouth as if you had been caught doing something foul.

“Thank you,” she said, equanimity restored. “I will accept a statement from you, but this is something I must do on my own. The queen does not want you in her presence unless an emergency arises.”

Yuu pouted, but Fionnuala did not budge.

“If you’re sure,” Yuu said, giving up on the trick. “This is a little awkward, but there are a few things I wanted to ask you.”

“Please, go ahead, young master.”

“I’m working on a collection of memoirs,” said Yuu, “from various humans and vampires, focusing on life in Sanguinem after the apocalypse. I would be super grateful if you could contribute. It’s alright if stuff from your past makes its way in there, as long as it’s relevant to the current version of you, if that makes sense.”

“Are you certain about taking on such an endeavor?” Fionnuala’s question blindsided Yuu. “The author of that book you admire met an unenviable fate, and even now the very mention of the matter causes the queen to wreak great destruction upon who or whatever is nearest.”

“Well….” Yuu stalled. “That probably happened because they included un-vampire-like stuff, right? Insulted the wrong people, called the queen ugly...”

“Wrote of forbidden knowledge,” Fionnuala added dryly.

“Yeah, that,” Yuu said. “I won’t do that. Then there won’t be a problem.”

Fionnuala still looked hesitant, for some reason, but did not protest further. “I understand. Then, I will contribute.”

“Great!” Yuu said. “Just get it to me whenever.”

Yuu remembered the other topic he should bring up. “Oh, right!”

“Yes?”

“Does the queen have a private library? She’s got to have one, right?”

“Yes, I believe she does.”

“Then, would it be possible to get me access? Before next Sunday would be ideal.”

“I do not think it impossible,” said Fionnuala. “I will pass on your request.”

“All right!” Yuu said. “I think that’s everything. Wait, I have to write you that statement…is there some sort of format I should be following? In Defense of Fionnuala Ó Cinnéide, with my Sincere Hope that She Not Be Ceremonially Beheaded?”

Fionnuala placed a finger to her chin. “I think I have a decent chance of survival; the queen has been known to show mercy on occasion. At least a forty percent chance. Such a title might lower it to thirty, however.”

“Hey!”

***

Before Yuu knew it, his remaining free time slipped through his fingers, and Tuesday night arrived.

“What is the capital of Cambodia?”

“Frickin’—I don’t know.”

“That is not an answer, Yuuichirou Hyakuya. You might have said ‘Shanghai’ and it would have been a better answer.”

The goal of tonight’s session was this: to erase hesitation. If Yuu didn’t know the answer to a question, he was supposed to lie, or at least say something plausible.

Unfortunately, Yuu was discovering that he was terrible at eloquence under pressure. At this point, he would settle for competence.

Vinícius stopped the endless bombardment of questions to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Perhaps something less grounded…what kind of seaweed do mermaids prefer to weave into their hair?”

Yuu felt the realm of possibility open before him. “Mermaids are real?! You should have led with that!”

Vinícius looked at him with a combination of peculiar admiration and profound pity.

“No, mermaids aren’t real.” He reconsidered. “Well, as far as we know. Ever since the ocean became poisoned, it has become exponentially harder to study as well as traverse. What dwells in its depths and managed to survive may be greatly altered or transformed.”

Yuu nodded sagely. He would be sure to bring up the possibility when he met with Iulian on Friday. Speculation on the Existence of Mermaids might make a good paper topic. Help him leap ahead of the competition.

More relevant to tonight’s proceedings…should Yuu ask Vinícius to contribute to his project? With a speculative eye, Yuu looked him up and down. His bulging eyes, Yuu reflected, were funny to behold. Like the eyes of a fish.

“Let us try again,” Vinícius said. “How many stars light the sky tonight?”

“Thirteen,” Yuu said. Vinícius—along with Agi, and Fionnuala as well, Yuu hoped—he hadn’t seen her since Sunday—had Krul’s trust. When he asked Fionnuala, she seemed somewhat wary of the idea, but in the end she’d agreed fairly readily.

Vinícius Mata is a very traditional vampire, in many ways…

…well, Yuu could always hold off and ask him another time.

“Not bad,” said Vinícius. “Not too slow, not too fast. What marks on a toadstool betray a faerie’s passing?”

***

“The Third Vampire City, Sanguinem, was founded eight hundred and fifty-five years ago. This date marks when the palace finished construction, but at that point the city was still far from what it is today, naturally.”

Yuu couldn’t believe it. They were actually at the founding of Sanguinem! It had only taken nine hours to get there—the total lecture time since he’d met Sylvianne.

He couldn’t take it anymore. He had to distract her with something. He thought he had just the topic…

“Ahem,” Yuu said. “Early in Sanguinem’s history…was there any political instability? I mean, any good tales of backstabbing or clever maneuvers or something?”

Sylvianne took a sip of her tea-like liquid. Tonight, it was amber in color. It must be blood. Why would any vampire drink something that wasn’t blood?

“Good tales,” she said. “Perhaps some fit that definition, now that the centuries have distanced those of us in the present from the events of that era. Nevertheless, what I speak of is always the best approximation of events—history, not historical fiction.

I myself came to this city not ten years after the founding and swore myself to the queen, and ever since then have been counted among the royal historians here at court. And now, none others are so honored, I might add. In any case, at the time the queen was changing seneschals as often as she changed her clothes, the princess—not her official title, but historically convenient—was getting restless and causing the queen no end of trouble, and on top of that there was the Royal Council, constantly probing for weakness. Yes, one could say that her position was politically uncertain, and needed shoring up.”

“The princess?” Yuu asked.

Sylvianne set down her blood-tea. “The Princess of Sanguinem, Queen Krul’s child, now attainted. Thus, historically convenient, now that her name has been blacked out from the records.”

There were a lot of blacked-out names in history textbooks, Yuu reflected. He thought it was a rather inconvenient practice, from a historian’s perspective. Anyway—Krul’s child. His predecessor? Now that was interesting.

“Was she the only child the queen ever had?” Yuu asked.

“Yes,” Sylvianne replied. “The queen turned her in 1099, according to the princess’ accounts, and since then she has never turned another.”

Huh. This seraph business must have been pressing enough for Krul to make an exception.

“Well, tell me something about her, then,” Yuu said.

“Very well,” said Sylvianne. “In 1172, one of the princess’ enemies had found cause to bring her to court. Now, she was not the queen’s heir, you must understand—that is not how the transfer of power is done in our society. If the queen were to perish, the Progenitor Council would appoint an appropriate replacement, one much more powerful than an eighth progenitor. I explain this to say that even so…it is rare for kings and queens to like having vampires of higher rank than their children around at court, and Queen Krul is no exception. To this night, her enmity towards Seventh Progenitor Ferid Bathory is infamous.

Despite their recent difficulties, the queen still favored the princess immensely, but of course was not fool enough to display her bias openly. The lady justiciar ended up presiding herself, and a fairer vampire—such nobility of face! Such bearing!—has never held the seat. The princess’ accuser was a nineteenth progenitor—he was attainted after the case’s conclusion. He brought her to trial for the crime of…”

Sylvianne’s face went pale—paler than normal. “…of conspiring to betray the queen. There, I said it.”

“O-kay,” Yuu said, drawing it out somewhat.

“Please, find within yourself a greater imitation of horror, Yuuichirou,” Sylvianne urged. “Your patron the queen has shown great generosity in sparing your life and inducting you into society. Betrayal to further one’s own advancement is honorable, but surely no other liege would be superior.”

Wow. If only she knew Krul “spared” his life more literally than she thought. “I won’t forget.”

“…I shall resume the telling. The princess presented her case with complete composure. As is tradition, she finished by naming the true culprit—the lord seneschal at the time. He was a common vampire who dreamed of being the power behind the throne, so to speak—I’m sure you’ve met the type—and believed that in order to carry out his vision he must first eliminate the queen’s foremost confidante.

Both he and the nineteenth progenitor were executed in high style—I wish for your sake that you had been there! They brought out the Catherine wheel…come to think of it, it wasn’t long after that incident that she began to be called 'princess'—in shadows, not to her face. She was a lenient creature, in terms of the amount of vampires ordered to the dungeons, but sharp of tongue.”

“That sounds pretty cool,” said Yuu, “but I’m not quite sure what was so spectacular about it. Was it how she discovered the lord seneschal’s treachery? Was her speech particularly memorable?”

“Ah, that,” said Sylvianne. “The night before the trial, she met with Tenth Progenitor Beatrix Godebert—the lady justiciar—and asked her for the details. The queen had told Beatrix the whole thing, of course. She really was not fond of that particular lord seneschal and wanted rid of him. The princess wrote her speech that very night—as I said, she was a great wit.”

“You mean—she cheated? And got an innocent vampire executed?”

“I suppose that’s one way of looking at it,” said Sylvianne. “Personally, I view it as a fine move on the princess’ part. Don’t you forget that he was also trying his best to get the—well, at the time—innocent princess executed. No vampire goes into a fight expecting it to be fair, Yuuichirou.”

Yuu felt disgruntled. It wasn’t the kind of story he liked hearing most—he preferred the ones with a lot of tension and danger, or at the very least, a plan more brilliant than sitting down for a brief meeting with someone. The contest between the princess and the lord seneschal was too one sided. Hadn’t he known there was no way Krul would side with him over her own child?

“Yes, it was well done,” Sylvianne continued. “But in general, I am not overly fond of the princess’ style as a political actor.”

“Why is that?” Yuu asked.

“To come out of a treason trial so unscathed—a remarkable accomplishment, but what was it she relied on in the end? Her sire’s favor. Sentiment. She was so certain of her intelligence and abilities, to the point where she believed herself singular, and yet she never doubted until the end. There are lines a queen must not cross, even for her own blood.”

Yuu made eye contact with Sylvianne. “Your wisdom is boundless, Dubois-sensei.”

Vinícius would be proud. They had covered flattery last week.

“As the most distinguished court historian,” Yuu went on, “I wondered if you might be interested in a project of mine? I’m collecting memoirs from humans and vampires about life in Sanguinem after the apocalypse and was hoping that you would contribute.”

Sylvianne looked at him like he had begun speaking Latin.

“A collection of memoirs,” she said, as if she were testing him.

“Yes,” said Yuu.

“I cannot tell if you have learned nothing from what I have told you,” said Sylvianne, “or if your political acumen is more advanced then my own. Either way, I shall write something, yes, and much more than that! If you don’t want your name blacked out and consigned to oblivion, then you’re going to need someone to check for historical accuracy.”

“Oh,” Yuu said. “Yes, that would be helpful?” He had no idea what Sylvianne would be like in a work-related setting.

“A portion of the content will be unverifiable, of course, but as for the rest—you do not want people to think they can get away with writing whatever they like. I suggest you avoid those who are prone to lies and exaggeration.

Humans and vampires! What an undertaking. Are you sure you’re up to it? The queen approved?”

“I think so,” said Yuu, “and I haven’t told her about it. I can have Fionnuala-san pass it along in her next report if you like.”

“Please do,” said Sylvianne. “The queen may yet forbid it. And if she does, I was never involved.”

“Of course,” said Yuu.

At that moment, his alarm clock rang—a silver clock face with alarm bells that were ringing very loudly. Yuu’s hand snaked out with destructive force, but thankfully he managed to stop himself and gingerly picked it up instead, restoring silence to the room.

“My, my, has it been three hours already? Then, I suppose you are obligated to stay no longer.”

If any vampire could pull off “crestfallen,” Sylvianne would certainly be a contender.

In the privacy of his own head, Yuu allowed himself an internal sigh.

“If you don’t mind staying a little longer, there a few things I’d like to ask…”

“Yes! Please, ask away!”

“Well, I’m thinking of making two versions—one in Japanese, one in English…”

In the end, Yuu got away after one hour and twenty-seven minutes. Who knew all this self-understanding and self-improvement would lead to the most delectable of tangible rewards? Certainly not Yuu.

He could only hope that Fionnuala’s luck was even better, wherever she was now.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

Glow, Burn; Repeat

November 23rd, 2016: Sanguinem

“Ms. Bai…do you mind if I ask you an off-topic question?”

Yuu was once more in the cluttered room his language tutor preferred, today perfumed by two periwinkle-blue candles. Yuu thought there was a hint of jasmine involved, but it was mixed with other scents, creating the undefined impression of outside. He was about two hours into his session; he figured that was enough time spent productively to satisfy Xue.

The vampire in question walked up to him and peered at his classwork. Apparently, she judged it satisfactory enough to take a break. “Not at all.”

Yuu decided jumping right into it would be best. “What do you know about magic?”

“Magic?” she repeated. “That’s a rather broad category.”

“Secret vampire magic, then.”

“I cannot tell you any knowledge I do not possess myself,” said Xue, “and I am not an expert in this topic. Most vampires don’t take much of an interest in magic, and I’m in the majority in that respect. Let’s see…”

She clapped her hands together. “Wards are a popular category. Very technical and finicky work. The ones on the borders of Sanguinem itself are less impressive than those you’d find in one of the aboveground cities—building underground gave us a natural advantage in repelling human attention. Of course, they’re utilized for more small-scale enterprises as well. Protecting vaults, hidden areas, things like that.”

“Are there specialists that you hire, or something?”

“Yes, that’s right. For personal business, I suppose the nobility are the most likely patrons.”

“Got it,” Yuu said. “So, how do wards work?”

Xue considered. “The drawing materials can vary, but I’ve never seen a vampire-made ward that wasn’t keyed to blood.”

Well, Yuu shouldn’t have expected anything less. “Are there other common uses of magic?”

“A few others,” said Xue. “The armbands and jewelry that protect from the sun’s rays, for example. Most of the city guards and nobles have their weapons enchanted as well, essentially enhancing their combat ability by sacrificing the strength of the lives they have stolen.”

It took Yuu a moment to parse that characteristically-indirect piece of vampire dialect.

“Oh,” said Yuu. “More blood, huh…I haven’t started training with real weapons yet, but that sounds pretty cool.”

To be more precise, Agi told him that the next time they met, she’d take him to the armory and see if anything “stuck.” Yuu was pretty sure he wanted some sort of sword, though. And even after that, they’d be training with blunted weapons. No one wanted to have to pause and reattach limbs in the midst of a friendly spar.

“One might say that,” said Xue. “But there’s risk involved. There’s only so much one can give away—it would be wise not to neglect your training.”

“I don’t plan on it,” Yuu said honestly.

“The last category of interest would be familiars,” Xue said. “I’m sure you’ve seen the queen’s bat, Arukanu? He’s quite the status symbol. The mechanisms behind attaining a familiar are not well understood, and those who do attain one are considered to be well in-tune with their vampiric nature, for whatever that is worth. It indicates a certain strength of spirit, perhaps. I can only speculate.”

While that gave Yuu an idea of what vampires were interested in, he wasn’t sure the information would necessarily interest Hotaru. However, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to bring up demons to Xue; a lot of demons were born from starved vampires, after all.

“Thanks,” Yuu said. “I think I’ll be able to go from there.”

“I’m glad you found that helpful,” Xue said. “You truly are a busy young man. You’re working on a book at present, correct?”

“Yeah,” Yuu said. He wasn’t surprised that Xue knew about it. “Did you want to participate?”

“Maybe another time,” Xue said, “but I do know a vampire at court who would likely be willing—Eleuterio Torres, the royal candlemaker. I have reason to visit him on occasion, as you might have guessed.” She nodded in the direction of her candles. “Those are called ‘Summer’s Day.’ In any case, I’ve always found him rather forthcoming for a vampire.”

“Great!” Yuu said. “Where can I find him?”

Xue gave directions. It seemed Eleuterio had a setup on the second floor of the palace.

“Alright, thank you so much,” Yuu said. “By the way, do you know where I could find a camera?”

“A spare camera…hm. You could ask Fionnuala to requisition you one. I’m sure it won’t prove too difficult to acquire.”

As long as she could be found, sure… “I’ll try that.”

***

All of Yuu’s worrying proved to be for naught when he returned to his quarters. Fionnuala seemed to be in fine spirits. He could tell by the speed at which she pored over her paperwork.

“Young master, I have returned,” she said.

“About time,” Yuu blustered. “How did it go?”

“The queen approved of my initiative,” said Fionnuala. “Yes, overall she was quite lenient. She only decided to confiscate my pinky toe, so I consider myself fortunate indeed.”

“Your—what?”

“My pinky toe. The one on my left foot.”

A beat.

“I’ll get it back,” Yuu said with urgency. “There’s definitely—no need to worry.”

“As you wish. Though I hope you won’t overreach yourself on my account.”

Was that vampire-speak for don’t get yourself executed? Or lose freaking body parts, apparently?!

Yuu exhaled, shaking his head. Trying to make sense of vampire culture was clearly beyond him. Every time he thought he was starting to get it, some other ridiculous event would occur and send him down a rabbit-hole of investigation all over again.

In this case, he supposed he wasn’t learned in vampire punishment and torture techniques, but only because there were so many of them.

He felt a little awkward saying this, but… “During your audience with the queen, did you manage to relate my request?”

“I did, actually,” Fionnuala answered. “I arranged a visit for this Saturday, just before midnight. The lady seneschal graciously agreed to supervise you.”

Those words called up the memory of his first meeting with his economics tutor, Alissa Grigori—she had mentioned the lady seneschal, Lia Fierro, while under the belief that she might be Yuu’s sire.

…She was caught skulking about before sunset on All Saints’ Day, bringing a child-sized bundle into the palace.

In spite of himself, Yuu remembered Daisuke Ando, the boy he had been meant to kill when he first met Krul. Fetching…someone to drink seemed like a trivial task for the lady seneschal to attend to personally—but then there was the matter of law. By Krul’s own decree, drinking directly from humans was forbidden in Sanguinem—it wouldn’t reflect well on her if it were known she made exceptions as she pleased.

If his conjecture were correct…then how was Yuu supposed to interact with her?

Getting into Krul’s library was important both for his bargain with Hotaru and his own private curiosity. He couldn’t afford to antagonize someone so close to the queen. Yuu was sure she’d been acting on orders, anyway…

…no. He had to stop making excuses for vampires.

“Alright,” Yuu said. “I’ll make sure to be around, then. I’m so sorry, but do you mind if I ask you one more thing?”

“I assure you, neither my mind nor my body are in a delicate state, young master,” Fionnuala said. Yuu got the impression he offended her sense of professionalism. “Whatever it is, I shall do my best to answer.”

“I was hoping you could get me a camera? Before Sunday, preferably,” Yuu added sheepishly.

“Of course,” said Fionnuala. “Consider it done. And…Yuuichirou, you’ve completely forgotten, haven’t you?”

“About what?”

“The queen gave her approval for your project,” said Fionnuala. “So feel free to work on it however you see fit—you have blanket permission to visit the pens, and as for vampires, there are many here at court who would take an interest, I’m sure.”

“The pens?”

“Where the humans are housed,” Fionnuala said, tilting her head. “Have you never heard the term for it before?”

Maybe she can live without her toe for a while, Yuu thought. A second later, guilt jabbed him in the spine.

Yuu excused himself with a few words of thanks.

Indoctrinated. Was that…really all it was? And if so…

…could it be undone?

***

Before Yuu could tackle his upcoming visit to Krul’s library, six more tutors demanded his attention.

Literature was, in Yuu’s opinion, suffering given form (they were discussing a well-respected classic, Night of Fortune by Arnold Garraway, which was about nine hundred pages longer than it should have been).

Music was okay. Yuu thought he and his tuba were really bonding.

Yuu still believed his tutoring in math would go much smoother if he ran his eyes over a textbook. Yuu mentally marked that idea for later review. Maybe he could be subtle about it, get some answers wrong on purpose so Aneta didn’t get suspicious…

Unfortunately, regurgitation tended to be less helpful in economics. Even as he took in massive amounts of definitions and concepts, Alissa liked nothing better than to pose convoluted verbal questions and see what Yuu came up with on the spot. Why did he have to apply the information he learned? It didn’t help that Yuu had absolutely no interest in the topic.

His science/biology tutoring continued to be informative. Yuu had floated the idea of mermaids past Iulian, but his only reply had been: “That’s a very interesting thought.” Yuu supposed he could always reserve the topic for his own paper, if Iulian ever got around to making him write one. It was a pity, but not everyone could recognize genius, even when it dropped directly into their laps.

Before Yuu knew it, Saturday’s sunset arrived, bringing along Agi, who was all fired up for their field trip to the armory.

“We with the city guard have our own armory,” Agi explained, “plus contracts with smiths, things like that. What we’re about to see is basically a treasure trove of confiscated weapons—all sorts of cool loot! It’ll be fun.”

Despite his better judgment, Yuu was looking forward to it.

Their destination turned out to be on the third floor, not too far down the right wing from the throne room. It had a nice, fancy steel door that Agi opened with a light push.

The contents of the room were badass. There was no other way to describe it.

The armory was large and circular, at least four hundred meters in diameter by Yuu’s estimation. Among the weapons he recognized were spears, battle axes, war hammers (so cool), bows, maces, morning stars, other club-like weapons he didn’t know the name of—swords. Holy hell, there were a lot of swords. Longswords with their cross-like grips, single-edged falchions, and Yuu thought he spied a katana or two. Hell yeah, he was checking out the katanas.

Agi was saying something about “feeling the heart.” Yuu was standing on his tiptoes in order to wrench a katana from its perch.

“Ah…” Agi said. “That’s strange. The queen mentioned she would approve of such a choice, but also told me to let you play around in here. I really don’t get her…if she wanted you to learn how to use that kind of weapon from the start, why not say so from the beginning?”

Yuu stopped swinging the katana around for a moment to say, “I think the queen just has a lot of strange opinions about things. It’s probably fine to indulge her when it comes to the small stuff.”

“Oh no-no-no, she’s not strange at all!” said Agi. “Queen Krul is the best! Her thought process can be a little inscrutable sometimes, that’s all. Well, I’m glad it worked out,” Agi continued. “It would have been awkward if you chose something else and I had to be like, ‘That’s super awesome, but have you considered this here katana? It’s pretty shiny…’”

It felt like a total coincidence from Yuu’s perspective. He just thought katanas were cool. In that way, it was different from the time he’d been selecting an instrument, where he hadn’t possessed any preconceived opinions beforehand.

Taking a closer look at the displays—it was seeming more and more like that was what they were—Yuu noticed that each of the weapons had plaques beneath them. He read the one for the weapon he had taken:

Glory’s Fire

This blade belonged to a warrior of noble blood whose family line ended at the hands of a dragon.

The next wielder was unstoppable on the battlefield, but he perished in the flames of a housefire.

The next crossed the queen of vampires and was sentenced to burn.

To escape the curse: slay the dragon and take its fire into thine own body.

“A dragon?” Yuu asked, raising an eyebrow.

“They’re all like that; don’t take them literally,” Agi said. “Writing those descriptions is one of the royal armorer’s only joys in life. No one has the heart to take it away from her.”

Yuu gave the weapon in his hand a closer look. He estimated the blade length to be somewhere in between sixty-five and seventy centimeters. It had a wicked curve, single-edged, with a dull-gold square guard and a grip long enough to accommodate two hands. Further examination of the grip revealed a few flakes of gold on its black surface, remnants of an inscription that had been removed, if he were to guess.

Although Yuu had his newfound strength, he wouldn’t be able to use the katana at its full potential until he gained some height. Even so, he found himself sure of his choice, despite having only tried one weapon. He could always exchange it for something else later if he didn’t like it.

“I’ll take it,” Yuu said.

“We’ll have to have a scabbard made,” said Agi, “although I suppose there’s a chance the old one is laying around somewhere. I’ll have to make inquiries. Anyway, you won’t be using it for a while, so don’t get too excited, mister!”

“Right, right,” said Yuu. He already knew that, but his heart still managed to dredge up disappointment. “Can I just, like, wrap it in something and take it back to my room?”

“Sure!” said Agi. “It’s yours now, kid. When you’re ready to start training with it, we’ll take it to a blacksmith and see what enchantments it’s got. If it needs a little sprucing up, that shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Cool,” Yuu said, looking down at the shine of Glory’s Fire.

To that, Agi could only smile. “It’s good to see you have some youthful enthusiasm. Sadly, I have to let you go early today—Queen’s orders. But next week, prepare for a non-stop introduction to melee combat! And don’t forget to practice holding your breath underwater!”

“I won’t!”

***

Not more than an hour later, Lia Fierro arrived at his quarters.

Yuu had been waiting in the living room, and he immediately jumped up to greet her.

She was of average height, with an ageless face that could have belonged to a vampire who turned as young as twenty-five or as old as forty. Her dark brown hair was in a high bun, a braid circling its base, reminding Yuu of a dancer. Yuu thought her narrow eyes made her expression seem severe. On the ring finger of her right hand, Yuu noticed a signet ring, the twin of Alissa’s.

“It is a pleasure to meet you again, Yuuichirou Hyakuya,” said Lia. “I regret that I did not have the chance to be introduced during our prior encounter.”

Her words all but confirmed his suspicions. “I’m afraid I did not realize, but it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

The courtesies dispensed with, Lia turned on her heel and left, Yuu following after her with his supplies in tow. She led him up a few flights of stairs; Yuu figured they must be heading for one of the towers. Sure enough, they climbed even further, to the summit of the eastern tower.

The compact space was jam-packed with books. There was a single table and chair in the center of the room, to which Lia waved him forward. She leaned against the doorway and shut her eyes. Not a very good watchdog, Yuu thought wryly. She no doubt thought that being a babysitter was beneath her.

A quick perusal of the shelves brought him to the truth: Krul’s private library didn’t have an organizational system either—or at least, not one an outsider like himself could discern. Annoying, but it couldn’t be helped. Yuu resigned himself to the business of reading titles. But first…

“Am I allowed to take anything out of this room?”

“No.”

Yuu expected that answer, but it was still depressing. He would have to take copious notes.

What kind of books did Krul consider worthy of exclusivity? Yuu suspected banned books would feature heavily, and sure enough, he found a lot of titles that had to do with angels and/or the apocalypse. Nothing with the exact term “Seraph of the End,” though. Yuu was far from uninterested in such avenues of exploration, but he had to prioritize. If he behaved appropriately, he was sure he could arrange a return visit.

He was on the sixth row of the second bookshelf when he found something useful: Notes on the Demonic Plane by Nobuko Nakano. Yuu also wanted to find something on vampire magic if he could, so he kept looking.

He was rewarded forty-five minutes later with the discovery of Vampyric Wards by Shreya Tamboli. He opened up the cover to check it out, only to have it removed from his hands.

“Not that one,” said Lia. “Information on Sanguinem’s protective barriers is a little too delicate to give to a former human. I’m sure you understand.”

Yuu flushed. He hadn’t even been thinking along those lines—although…with sensitive intel, what damage could the Japanese Imperial Demon Army cause to the seat of Krul’s power? Not only were Japan’s vampire forces concentrated in Sanguinem, but the city itself had hundreds of human hostages that Krul wouldn’t hesitate to use against invaders. Still, Yuu wasn’t exactly a tactical expert; he didn’t have the required knowledge and know-how to speculate properly.

When he did see Mika again…it was possible that Yuu could be a greater help than he could have ever imagined.

Yuu’s musings on his possible future as a spy were interrupted by sharp words from Lia. “Are you even listening to me?”

Yuu apologized with a “sorry,” as if that would shield his treasonous thoughts from discovery.

“I know that I’m not trusted,” said Yuu. “But you’re basically the queen’s right-hand vampire, right? How did you get the position?”

Lia started him down. Yuu thought she wasn’t going to answer for a minute, but then she spoke.

“By proving myself both objective and competent,” Lia said.

As Yuu thought…Lia Fierro really did not like him. Yuu didn’t see that changing anytime soon. Therefore, he didn’t have anything to lose by questioning further.

“So…do you enjoy your job? What is it that you do, anyway?”

“Scheduling,” said Lia. “A time consuming and delicate task. I am also the head of all the palace servants, so most personnel and supply issues are mine to deal with. Much of that work is delegated to other seneschals, such as your own. I also manage and monitor Queen Krul’s public image.”

“Oh,” said Yuu. “That sounds…cool?”

“Like any job, the key is to not become complacent. I would be cautious of your own position, Yuuichirou Hyakuya. What the queen gave you, she can easily take away.”

Yuu remembered the Princess of Sanguinem, who had been named a traitor and met some horrid fate unknown to him. Lia could be speaking from precedent.

“I understand,” said Yuu.

She shot him a skeptical look before trudging back to the doorway to continue imitating a gargoyle. Apparently, their conversation was over.

Just as well. Yuu didn’t know how long Lia’s patience would last, so he should continue looking…hold on a second, was she playing around with a phone? Vampires used those? There was internet down here?

Truly, when it came to vampires, Yuu had more questions than answers.

***

In a way, it was a relief to seek out human company. Sunday night saw Yuu—equipped with a camera, this time, courtesy of Fionnuala—knocking on Hotaru’s door, ready to share his findings from last night’s research. It was around six o’ clock.

The door swung open, revealing the girl in question.

“Hey,” said Yuu.

“Hey,” said Hotaru. “Please, come in.”

Yuu did so, and discovered the place was eerily deserted—except for Kimi, who looked as miserable as always.

“H-hello, Yuuichirou-san,” Kimi said.

Yuu gave her a wave, trying to look as friendly as possible.

“Okay,” said Hotaru, crossing her arms. “First, Kimi’s going to hand over her writing project. Then, she’s going to skedaddle.”

Yuu thought now would be a pretty good time to get out his notebook and pen, so he did so.

Kimi looked hesitant, but she soon capitulated, getting the papers Yuu had given her out from a cabinet. Her gait was uneven as she walked forward and thrust them at him.

“Thank you,” Yuu said, touched that Kimi was willing to get that close to him.

“You’re welcome,” she said after jumping back three paces.

He put Kimi’s memoir into his bag. He would have time to go over it later.

“Is there anything else you need to tell her?” Hotaru asked, tapping her foot.

“Um…let’s see,” Yuu said. His air wouldn’t last much longer, so he started writing. I’ll edit it when I get back. When I have a version I’m satisfied with, I’ll give it back to you for final approval, make whatever changes you want, and then it will be good to publish. Any questions?

“N-no, that sounds good,” Kimi said.

“Thanks for helping me out here, Kimi,” said Hotaru. “You have my permission to leave.”

Yuu stepped to the side, allowing Kimi to run out the door unimpeded.

How did you get everyone out of the house? Yuu queried.

“Easy,” said Hotaru. “I told them a vampire was visiting, and that anyone else who was here when he showed up would get eaten. Some of them didn’t believe me, but when Kimi confirmed it, they cleared out pretty fast.”

Why would you say that?! Yuu underlined his words in two thick strokes. I don’t want people thinking that

“—You don’t have control?” Hotaru interrupted. “You don’t. If you can’t risk breathing, then I sure don’t trust you not to eat people—in general, you know. You should be happy that I reduced the possible collateral down to just me.”

Yuu frowned. I don’t breathe to make sure that no one gets hurt.

“I get it,” said Hotaru. “I’m just saying.”

They were both silent for a moment, but it quickly became apparent to Yuu that if he didn’t make the first move, nothing would get done. In that spirit, he got out the notebook he had used to take notes.

One book I found on wards got confiscated, but I found another book on the topic called Household Protections by Bahar Tiryaki that my minder didn’t yell at me for reading, so it’s probably less compromising, but still interesting. I also found a book called Notes on the Demonic Plane by Nobuko Nakano that I thought you might like.

“Your minder?” Hotaru asked, laughter on the edges of her tone.

Just a common vampire, Yuu wrote, as dismissive as the written word could be.

“Got it. You couldn’t get the real things?”

Don’t have permission.

“Okay. Show me what you have from the demon book. I’m sure I know most of it already, so I’ll just skim it.”

Passing his notes over, Yuu had to resist the temptation to roll his eyes. He closed his eyes instead and reviewed the material himself. He had taken some sections down verbatim, taking advantage of his hand’s speed and inability to cramp.

It is an undeniable fact that demons possess their own plane of existence. What is less certain is what exactly this plane is.

Some call it the Underworld, but I don’t believe it.

I believe the Underworld exists and demons do reside in it, along with worse things—corrupted beings, fallen angels, and the most horrendous of them, their master.

The demonic plane as we know it, however, is not some unreachable hell or heaven, but rather an overlay upon the earth that can bleed into our own reality. There have been many cases of both humans and vampires stumbling across areas where the air was “thin” and making contact with demons. Some of the most famous magical human bloodlines have begun that way—but they have also been the death of many humans and vampires.

Death, or transformation.

Most vampires view becoming a demon as dying. A madness that one can never come back from—the memories of one’s previous life erased, supplanted with the need to feed on desire alone.

The question remains: what is there left to become after the transformation into demon-hood?

How much further is there to fall?

I call it a fall, because that is how it is always spoken of.

So then: is it possible to rise?

Yuu could understand why Notes on the Demonic Plane was (most likely) banned. A lot of it was about exercises the author thought would be useful to strengthen mental discipline, in the event the reader ever became a demon. She also suggested that if a demon managed to purge lust from the mind, it might be possible to become an angel. Yuu looked upon that possibility with extreme skepticism. There weren’t exactly any precedents.

For some reason, Yuu had never thought about this in conjunction, but he was apparently both a vampire and a seraph—an angel. A kyuushi, if he were to combine them. “Narrowly averting death”—that seemed to summarize the course of Yuu’s life pretty well. Then again, he had no idea if he still retained any seraph traits, whatever those could be—they could easily have vanished when he turned. Still, Yuu was rather attached to his invented portmanteau, so he didn’t want to discard it just yet.

Basically, it relies heavily on religious interpretations, Yuu displayed to Hotaru.

Hotaru looked up. “Yeah, I see what you mean. Where did you get this again?”

A noble’s private library. Throwing around his connections to Krul would probably be a little too blatant, even if Krul had proved herself more lenient than Yuu would have thought at first.

Hotaru hummed. “I see. Well, I’d heard the stuff about the demonic plane or whatever being connected to our world before. It just makes sense, you know? But it seems like Nakano wasn’t interested in the really cool stuff. That’s alright—I’ll catch you up on the basics of demon summoning next time.”

…Yuu didn’t say that he wanted to learn, but…he kind of wanted to learn. Not that he actually believed Hotaru was any good at it. Either way, it would be an interesting experience.

“Let’s look at wards. Hiding stuff.”

Protecting stuff, too.

“We’re both novices at that, right? Let me at it.”

Yuu obliged her.

Household Protections by Bahar Tiryaki did pay off, in Yuu’s humble opinion, which made him even more curious as to the contents of the other book. One section he found particularly fascinating was:

On the hiding of rooms, doorways, vaults, etc.

First: it helps if the place you are hiding is not in a predictable location. If the foresight could not be found to manage that, then so be it.

Second: Make it innocuous. Unremarkable. If it is predictable, this step is of all the greater import. You may be tempted to mark the spot with a little hint, something that would be humorous to yourself alone. Crush this impulse.

Third: If you can, hide some other place in the worst way possible.

Pick the most obvious spot you can, with the most obvious marker—a prominent vase, a gaudy painting, or a library bookshelf; it matters not as long as you ensure that anyone who goes looking will find it. Then put something suitably innocuous within your poorly guarded location—something that will sting, but not damage you overmuch. Having succeeded in their quest, your more foolish or lazy enemies will rest satisfied.

Even if the seeker is not deterred by this ruse, the disturbance of your false hiding place will alert you that someone is looking, which is valuable in and of itself.

Fourth: Draw the ward.

What you are about to do is an art, and must be tailored based on the situation. The following templates I have recorded in this book are designed to give you an understanding so that you may find new applications of them yourself.

With Household Protections, Yuu had focused on copying as many of the diagrams as possible, in addition to the helpful parts of the written content.

“Complicated stuff,” Hotaru murmured. “You reproduced the drawings exactly?”

Exactly, Yuu confirmed. His eyes would have been able to pick out if anything looked incorrect.

“Do you—need them?”

Yuu hadn’t considered this possibility. I think it would be best for them not to fall into the wrong hands. It’s hard to keep anything a secret in this place—even if you were trying to make something a secret.

Hotaru met his eyes, grabbed paper, and wrote something down herself.

What would happen if you tried to hide something other people already knew was there? Would it be possible to add a component to make them forget?

I wasn’t looking for that, specifically, but I see why you’d want such a feature, Yuu wrote. I’ll look into it.

He wanted to ask why she felt the need to write that down instead of saying it out loud, but Hotaru continued writing.

What if you were to apply this to, say, an entrance to a tunnel?

His veins were nothing less than electric.

You mean—an escape from Sanguinem.

***

Hotaru had been quick to assure him that she wasn’t talking about mass organization, just a little insurance, but even as Yuu departed with his pictures, his mind was working itself into a whirlwind.

A coordinated effort to get every single human out of the city—it might not be possible. No, anyone in their right mind would call it impossible. Still, there were some advantages that worked in the undertaking’s favor.

First and foremost was that vampires weren’t in the business of respecting humans as thinking beings. It was just as Mika said: “Livestock won’t even leave the pen even though it is full of cracks and openings. The same goes for us…they’re taking us for fools.”

Pen…at the time, Yuu hadn’t realized just how literally the vampires took their views of humans as nothing more than sources of sustenance. He thought he’d knew; he hated them with all his heart, but before, he couldn’t even begin to understand their worldview. He’d been examining them from the distance of words on paper, heated pronouncements and glances from across the room: the one-way interaction of a student examining data.

Second…they weren’t alone. There was a human resistance out there—somewhere to run to. It was true that Yuu didn’t know anything about the Order of the Imperial Demons, but he could learn. Krul had said they were “selective” about refugees…but even if that was the case, the humans who lived here were children. Innocents. How could anyone deny them shelter?

But…even if this rebellion were possible, it wasn’t Yuu’s place any longer to have anything to do with it. There was no reason to risk his life for something that was doomed to fail when he already had something of greater importance to focus on.

What did he think would happen, anyway? A triumphant exodus, vampires reduced to so much dust, a joyful reunion with Mika—and hey, Yuu-chan, have you heard? We found a cure for vampirism, just for you!

It was more likely that Mika would receive Yuu’s dust. More probably, not even that.

It wouldn’t hurt to gather as much information as possible, but right now, he must keep his eyes trained on an attainable future. Besides, there were ways Yuu could help the humans trapped in Sanguinem without thinking so ambitiously—his earlier idea about becoming a spy wasn’t bad, he thought. Like Hotaru, he should be thinking more selfishly.

(If all the humans escaped from the underground…all the vampires living here would starve, wouldn’t they?)

…Yuu didn’t think that was the wrong choice, but he didn’t know how far away the day was where he would prove unable to choose something else over Mika. He should probably keep that in mind.

Speaking of rebellion…what should he do about the invitation?

His mind circled and folded in on itself in indecision. Yuu hadn’t been able to risk making inquiries about Crowley Eusford or Horn Skuld; he was sure it wouldn’t be hard for certain vampires to put the pieces together. Maybe he should try thinking about it logically.

What did Yuu stand to gain by attending? A glimpse of vampire society outside Krul’s carefully curated circle, for one.

If you are seen performing willful actions—'striking out on your own,’ so to speak—then the public would begin to catch your measure. That was what Fionnuala had said earlier, after he first met Hotaru and Kimi. Wouldn’t going to this party be in line with that philosophy?

What were the potential negative consequences? The possibility that Ferid Bathory would be there was one Yuu could not discount. Even if Yuu avoided him, Krul had said that Yuu was expressly forbidden to speak to him. He could always plead ignorance if it came to that—put his attendance down to another “youthful indiscretion.”

There was also the element of the unknown in general. Yuu didn’t know much about vampire social gatherings. He could embarrass himself or mortally offend someone and become embroiled in a duel to the death…

Beyond logic, what was it that he wanted to do?

For some reason, he wanted to irritate that vampire—that sire of his. Was she fazed by nothing? He refused to drink human blood; that was fine with her; he wanted to leave the palace; that too was fine with her; he wanted to make a collection of memoirs…he was free to do so.

The boundaries of Krul’s generosity were unknown to him.

It was hopelessly reckless, but part of him wanted to know where they were.

Having made up his mind, Yuu went to seek out Sakuma, relying on his blurry human memories to locate his dwelling. His search paid off when he found him and two of his lackeys harassing a younger boy who looked to be around Yuu’s age.

“Hey, assholes,” Yuu said. “Quit it.”

They turned around at the sound of his voice, startled. Apparently, Yuu was capable of getting the jump on humans, even if he couldn’t manage the same feat with vampires.

Upon seeing his vampire attire, the two lackeys made a run for it—and after a moment, the kid followed suit. Sakuma stayed, putting his hands into his pockets.

“You seriously need three teenagers to rob a twelve-year-old?” Yuu said, trying to inject as much scorn into his voice as possible.

“That kid was giving us trouble,” Sakuma returned, voice tight. “He accused us of murdering his friend and won’t stop harassing us about it.”

“Did you?”

Sakuma shook his head, adamant. “I had nothing to do with it—the guys wouldn’t have done something like that on their own, either.”

“Alright, whatever,” Yuu said. It’s not like he planned on investigating. He got out his notebook once more. I wanted to let you know—I’ve decided to come to that party after all.

“Horn-sama will be pleased to hear that,” Sakuma said, but Yuu was already gone.

***

When he got back to the rooms Krul had given him and collapsed into bed at last, Yuu enjoyed staring at the ceiling for an hour or two. His brain was thoroughly fried.

Still, he shouldn’t waste his time off. He pushed himself up onto his elbows to grab his bag from where he dumped it on the floor. Getting out Kimi’s memoir, he settled in to read it.

When the apocalypse began, I was alone.

I mean that I had run away from home, out into the cold…how stupid, right?

It wasn’t even for a good reason. My parents weren’t hurting me, or doing anything wrong, really…they were just paying more attention to my new baby sister, Hikaru, than they were to me. So I kicked up a fuss and ran into the street.

I was just going to do a loop around the sidewalk and then come home, but that’s when a passing car kept going instead of following the road, crashing right into one of the neighbor’s houses. I was shocked, but that was only the beginning. I had a feeling something was really wrong. I turned to go home, but I didn’t make it in time.

A truck had rumbled into our neighborhood, and the vampires made quick work of it. They didn’t leave one house unturned. I didn’t know they were vampires then, of course, but they were scary people in hooded cloaks. I tried to hide, but I suppose they found me by my scent.

When I learned that all the adults had been wiped out by the virus…I prayed that one of my parents had been holding Hikaru and that the drop had killed her instantly.

The vampires didn’t take the infants captive. They slaughtered those that had no one to care for them.

If I had been there, I could’ve saved my sister.

Instead, I went to the underground.

Like other only children and small groups, I was assigned to live with a bunch of strangers. I was so scared and so alone.

Every few weeks, I donate blood. The vampires have us in a rotation by age group so they always have fresh supplies. We’re their food source, after all. Dying en masse from losing too much blood would be troublesome.

One girl in another group got pregnant. She’s probably going to die soon, so I don’t talk to her as much. I’m frightened of what would happen if I got pregnant. One girl tried her best to kill the baby, but she died of the infection.

Hotaru says I haven’t “bled” yet, so I should stop worrying. Hotaru doesn’t seem to worry about much of anything.

Hotaru is so brave! One day, some older kids were harassing us when it was our turn to stand in line for the rations, but Hotaru stabbed him in the foot and since then they’ve left us alone. I didn’t even realize she carried a knife around. It wouldn’t be much help in my hands—I don’t think I’d have the courage to use it.

The others mostly think that Hotaru is difficult, though. She did burn our house down last week.

Most people hate living here, but in a way, I’m glad. I don’t think I would have survived on the surface all by myself.

Maybe I shouldn’t be happy that I’m alive when my family is dead, but I’m afraid. I’m afraid to die, so I’ll continue living.

- Kimi Yoshida

A wave of sadness swept over him.

Yuu didn’t know how to add to that. He wasn’t sure that his words would do anything other than trivialize the story.

It wasn’t like he was obligated to write commentary. He’d put it aside for now, and think about it later.

***

The next night, Yuu went to visit the royal candlemaker, Eleuterio Torres, on Xue’s recommendation.

The workshop itself was nice—vats of wax and jars of mysterious herbs were everywhere, along with a center island containing a countertop stove, pots strewn messily about its surface.

The conversation, however, was turning out to be quite the…experience.

Yuu had expressly mentioned that he wanted a written memoir, but—

“—Three years and five moons ago, I was making a beauty that captured the rays of the sun—not as they feel now, but as they were, you understand—and I was convinced that the top notes must be orange. What other scent would do? The citrus, the freshness…”

—Eleuterio had asked if Yuu could take down a transcript, and Yuu, sweet, naïve fool that he had been, agreed to his request—

“…truly remarkable. But the mikan breed they grow in this country are freshest in the winter months. Still, I did not give up!”

—and now his hand was mechanically writing down the words, over four hours into the meeting and six months into the story.

Seriously…Xue knew this would happen, didn’t she? Some vampires have so little respect for time. Yuu was going to complain all he liked the next time he saw her.

From now on, Yuu was instituting a page limit. He could lead with that next time. No more than two pages!

That, and he was never going anywhere without his alarm clock ever again. A more blessed invention had never graced the soil of the Earth, and that was simply all there was to it.

At least when he finally, finally left the workshop, he got a candle out of it. “Sandy Beach”: cypress, jasmine, sandalwood, and, of course—orange flower.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

Our Lord of the Underground

December 21st, 2016: Sanguinem

It wasn’t like Yuu didn’t know what he was doing. He’d found a conduct manual buried under Marin Petran’s Wife of the Banished and its sequel, The Severed Head of the Wife of the Banished.

As Yuu spread out yet more white articles of clothing onto his bed, he consulted its pages:

YOU DO

Bring a small token of your appreciation.

YOU DON’T

Arrive with only your belongings or bring an unsuitable gift.

WHY?

It is only polite to give your hosts a gift. However, an expensive gift will be taken as a bribe or an indicator that you expect something from your hosts, while a gift that has no aesthetic beauty or utility will reflect poorly on your judgment.

Gift: check. Yuu had stolen the plainest and smallest vase he could find from its stand on the second floor.

YOU DO

Compliment the food.

YOU DON’T

Complain about its perceived lack of health, purity, virginity, etc. Or alternatively, lavish effusive praise.

WHY?

The former will signal to your hosts that you desire to be their enemy, while the latter will appear insincere.

That part wouldn’t be a problem for Yuu. Now, how to refuse when someone offers you something…

YOU DO

Pass along without comment a bite of something you know you hate.

YOU DON’T

Make disparaging comments about your hosts’ tastes.

WHY?

Even if you are the sort of picky eater who can perceive fine differences in blood quality, bragging about your sense of taste will not get you invited back any time soon. If your reason for refusal is because you are full, simply say so.

Yuu thought he could handle that. He just had to pick out an outfit and get dressed, and then he would be ready to go.

Thankfully, Yuu had this week off. Over the last three weeks of tutoring, he had subtly tried to get some information about vampire festivities out of his tutors, as a supplement to Leroy Attaway’s fine work.

By which he meant he asked Vinícius and Sylvianne. Xue would have suspected his motive if he had said anything to her, and Yuu didn’t think any of the others would have anything useful to contribute. When Yuu had asked Vinícius about the etiquette at “gatherings,” he had squinted at Yuu suspiciously before saying that they would get to it in two months. Sylvianne, on the other hand, had been more than happy to explain the origins of popular vampire holidays, how they were changed and appropriated from their human counterparts—things like that.

Yule was one such bastardized holiday, adopted as a retaliation to the rise of Catholicism and that religion’s particular arrogance when it came to vampires, but it wasn’t the reason Yuu was free from tutoring. This Sunday was the twenty-fifth of December: the anniversary of the apocalypse. It was incredibly selfish of him, but—Yuu hadn’t lost anyone he cared for that day. He couldn’t bring himself to hate it, not when it was the day he first met his beloved family.

Technically, it was supposed to be a worldwide day of contemplation. Yuu didn’t know what he was supposed to be contemplating—the sins of humanity, or the afterlife, maybe. High nobility tended to be more likely to worry about such concerns, according to the majority of Yuu’s sources. For the humans, however, the day took on an air of mourning appropriate for all they had lost.

This year, perhaps Yuu would do the same. For right now, though, he had to focus on the night ahead of him.

Eventually, he settled on a white shirt with ruffles and sharp black dress pants. He grabbed the fancier of his white cloaks as well, with a golden clasp and matching buttons.

As he guzzled down Krul’s blood, Yuu glanced at the time. Nine o’ clock.

Vase in hand and invitation in pocket, Yuu began the process of sneaking out of the palace. Ideally, any interested parties would guess he was venturing to the human district—it wasn’t like he made a habit of going anywhere else. With that in mind, he performed the same mock-furtive movements as usual.

Slipping through the archways, Yuu headed towards the mansions he had briefly blew past on his first meeting with Agi. Crowley Eusford’s mansion, 211 Old Avenue, was his destination.

So where the hell was it?

Yuu sighed. Even with an hour to find the place, lateness wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Spying a well-dressed common vampire, Yuu dashed over. Someone had to know where this place was, right?

Sure enough, Yuu was rewarded. “Thirteenth Progenitor Crowley Eusford’s mansion? Why, it’s…”

…three streets over, down one, the third house on the right.

Looking up at the mansion, Yuu could tell the building was teeming with guests already. His ears captured the streams of chatter, though Yuu didn’t bother picking out any individual conversations. From the outside, at least, Yuu noticed nothing special about the architecture. It looked like any other building in Sanguinem, large and stately, with not a pillar or spire left undecorated.

Ascending four steps, Yuu walked through the open doorway. He was promptly greeted at the door by a vampire with a top hat. A second vampire swept his vase away as Yuu got his invitation out from his pocket and handed it over.

Yuu took the chance to glance around. Heavy brown wood dominated, with red and gold accents—not dissimilar to his own quarters, Yuu thought. To the left, a table with multitudes of gift bags, black tissue paper poking out, rested against the wall. A winding staircase led upwards, but most of the noise was emanating from further down the hallway.

The greeter (door-vampire?) straightened out Yuu’s crumpled invitation.

In less time than it would have taken Yuu to blink, he crossed the room, grabbed a bag, and handed it to Yuu.

“Party favors,” he informed Yuu, beginning to walk down the hallway. “You may use them tonight, if you wish.”

It took no time at all to reach their destination. The room the vampire had led him to was undoubtedly a ballroom, with twelve crystal chandeliers dotting the floor with pools of light. There was a stage in the back of the room where a grand piano rested, a vampire wresting elegant music from its keys. Yuu double-checked, but it wasn’t Hashirou, thankfully. Yuu hadn’t put much thought into what he would do if anyone he knew was here. Run away?

Yuu’s examination was interrupted by a loud pronouncement from the door-vampire. “The incomplete vampire Yuuichirou Hyakuya has arrived.”

Judging by the speed at which the door-vampire retreated back to his post, he did that to everyone. It was still annoying, having hundreds of eyes briefly drawn to his location. It didn’t take long for most of them to look away. Vampires were nothing if not socially conscious.

Discreetly breathing in through his nose, Yuu could tell—there were humans here. Or their blood, at least.

You drank beforehand, Yuu reminded himself. You can do this.

“Hello? Are you present?”

A vampire waved a hand in his face. Yuu jerked to attention. “Yes! I mean…”

She giggled lightly. Her dress was sleeveless, black leaves and swirls decorating the top while the white skirt flared out to just past her knees, the trim a repeating pattern of semicircles. Her hair was medium purple and short, but the multitude of layers gave it a fluffy appearance.

“Seventeenth Progenitor Chess Belle,” she introduced herself. “Oh, it’s so exciting to have someone new around! You must meet Horn; I’m sure she’s not busy…”

“You know her?” Yuu questioned, allowing himself to be towed across the room.

“Oh, yes. We both live here as Lord Crowley’s assistants. I’m much better than her, though, and prettier too.” She winked.

The hosts, huh? This was his chance to find out what nobles besides Krul were like.

Chess made a beeline for a blonde vampire mired in conversation with two others. Chess grabbed her by the elbow and removed her.

Nobles really can do whatever they like.

Despite the force, the blonde vampire didn’t spill a drop of the blood contained within her wine glass. “What is it, Chess?”

“This”—she gestured grandly—“is Yuuichirou Hyakuya. Isn’t he cute? Yuuichirou, this is Horn Skuld. We’re the same rank, but you know, I think I might make sixteenth, someday. Before Horn does, that’s for sure.”

“Thank you very much for inviting me,” Yuu said, “and to Thirteenth Progenitor Crowley Eusford as well.”

“It was our pleasure, I assure you,” said Horn. “It’s been a long time since the creation of a new vampire. I’m sure many are eager to meet you. I do hope”—she sent her own icy glare in Chess’ direction—“that Chess was not impertinent in demanding your attention.”

“Not at all,” Yuu said. It was probably best to stay neutral and avoid becoming embroiled in their rivalry. “If I may ask…”

“Yes?” said Horn.

“What is it that you do?”

Horn’s expression barely changed, but she managed to project a quizzical air nonetheless.

“Do?” Chess repeated. “Well, we manage all the property we own between the three of us, the servants and the inventory—we make sure our allotment of blood is received with no trouble…”

“We also handle the logistics for events like these,” said Horn, “or at least I do.”

“We are attentive to Lord Crowley’s every need,” Chess added. She seemed to enjoy provoking sour frowns from Horn.

“If you are asking whether our duties are arduous, then they are not,” said Horn. “It is our choice to perform them. We have the majority of our nights to ourselves.”

“I see,” Yuu said. They must really like this Crowley guy, even so. It wasn’t common for nobles to serve another vampire personally, even when that vampire was a monarch.

Horn smiled. “Of course, you must meet him.”

“You must!” Chess added. “I bet you’d understand it better. Lord Crowley is a wonderful person.”

“I have forgotten my manners,” Horn said with a glance at Yuu’s hands, empty of drink. “Can we offer you anything to drink?”

“No, thank you,” Yuu said.

Horn tossed her hair—parted into two drill-like curls that Yuu couldn’t help but associate with ojousama. “Very well. Where did Lord Crowley run off to…?”

The two vampires, attuned to the scent of their superior even in a crowd of this size, began to follow his trail, Yuu obliging their whim.

They found Crowley Eusford upstairs, alone on a balcony, breathing in the night air. His height and broad shoulders stood out. His two-toned red and brown hair, pulled into a single braid, shifted as he turned to face them.

“I’m sure you will not rest until I am introduced,” said Crowley. Somehow, Yuu thought his voice sounded slightly more expressive than the average vampire. Richer in tone, maybe.

“We will not,” said Horn. “Lord Crowley, this is the incomplete vampire Yuuichirou Hyakuya. Yuuichirou, this is Thirteenth Progenitor Crowley Eusford.”

“It’s very nice to meet you,” Yuu said.

“And you as well,” Crowley returned. “Are you satisfied now that I have seen what all the fuss is about? No offense to you, Yuuichirou.”

“None taken,” Yuu said.

“What a lack of curiosity,” Horn chided.

“Or openness of spirit,” Chess chimed in.

“I understand that we must all talk,” said Crowley. “Very well. Yuuichirou, how are you finding life in the palace?”

“It’s fine,” Yuu said, not really sure where this was going. “My tutors keep me pretty busy.”

He could bring up his project, but Yuu wasn’t sure it was okay to pressure them at their first meeting. Maybe he could visit another time.

Besides, he wasn’t sure yet how much they could be trusted—or rather, how much Yuu wanted to associate with them. They must have some connection to Ferid Bathory, but how to get it out of them would likely require more conversational skill and grace than Yuu possessed. Did they simply move in the same social circles, or was it deeper than that?

“You’ll learn to appreciate that when you’re older,” Crowley said.

“Keeping busy, that is,” said Horn.

Normally, Yuu would think of “when he grows up,” but what was getting older, to vampires? Five hundred years? A thousand?

“I think keeping track of time is important,” Yuu said. “Being conscious of the time you’re spending on something, or being aware of how much of other people’s time you’re taking up…things like that.”

“Very wise,” Chess cooed. “Who told you that?”

Horn slapped her arm, light and ladylike. Chess widened her ever-present smile.

“Now, now,” said Horn. “Yuuichirou, we know this is a tumultuous time in your life. Ask us anything you like and we’ll do our best to answer.”

Yuu had no idea what they wanted from him. Did they have some roundabout plan to discover his sire’s identity? Or something? Yuu didn’t have much else about him that would catch the interest of high society.

“Where did you all meet?” he settled on.

“That’s not—”

“Here in Sanguinem, actually,” said Crowley, cutting Horn off. She smoothed away the irritation on her face like a bird arranging ruffled feathers. “Around seven hundred years ago, I believe.”

He must know the exact time and place, but he adhered to social convention, adding shades of doubt and ambiguity. Yuu wondered if the trend had come about in an attempt to mimic human speech.

“Lord Crowley was just getting settled, and we hit it off right away,” said Chess.

“We did meet on the same occasion,” said Horn.

“That’s cool,” Yuu said. It wasn’t a very descriptive story, but he was willing to bet their status quo hadn’t changed much in the last seven hundred years.

…Hm. Yuu wasn’t sure how to handle this “socializing” business. Normally, people talked at him and he listened attentively, or he had defined questions and answers he wanted to get out of the conversation. Since the only piece of information he wanted to know was low priority and difficult to obtain, Yuu wasn’t sure what to do.

“…Have you read anything interesting lately?” Yuu tried.

“Reading…hm,” said Crowley.

“He doesn’t have much interest in it,” said Horn. “As for myself, I’m not sure anything has caught my eye lately.”

“I read a lot for my position on the Literature Committee,” said Chess.

“Literature Committee?” said Yuu. Not “Literature Club” or something?

“Yup!” said Chess. “Whenever someone wants to publish a book or paper that might have controversial material, the committee members have to read and approve the text by majority vote. Often, even if something doesn’t get approved, we can make suggested revisions and then the author can resubmit. There are only twenty of us, so it used to be a lot of work, but with the apocalypse on, a lot less censoring is required compared to how things used to be, so less material winds up in our to-read pile.”

“That makes sense,” Yuu said.

If you don’t want your name blacked out and consigned to oblivion…that was what Sylvianne said when she agreed to help me. This Literature Committee is probably the group responsible for making that decision. With that in mind, he would do well to get on Chess’ good side.

“Sometimes if what we’re reviewing is super technical or relies on expertise, we can borrow a guest twenty-first member who basically gets to do all the work. I like to try my best to understand anyway, though; it makes the arguments so much funnier.”

“Arguments?” Yuu asked, leaning forward.

“Oh, yeah, the debates can get pretty vicious,” Chess said. “Especially the cases with higher stakes, you know, like are we sending this person to court with a recommendation to execute or imprison? Well, court versus rejection is usually the worst, but you get the point. By ‘worst’ I mean ‘best,’ of course, but most of the other members wouldn’t agree with me. They take themselves too seriously.”

“Committee membership is on a five-hundred-year rotation,” Horn explained for Yuu’s benefit. “1661 was the last reassignment, so everyone has more-or-less been on the same committee for three hundred and fifty-five years at this point. Petitioning for early reassignment is discouraged. Sanguinem’s population shifts are responsible for most of the changes, along with the occasional removal for corruption.”

“Only idiots get removed for corruption,” said Chess.

“Why every five hundred years?”

“I believe it is the kind of situation referred to as an ‘administrative nightmare,’” said Crowley, his mood slightly more jovial.

“The palace had quite the time with it,” Horn agreed.

“So, what committees are you two on?”

“Oh, ours aren’t nearly as time consuming as Chess’ committee,” Horn said with a wave of her hand. “I am on the Maintenance Committee while Lord Crowley is on the Plant Life and Gardening Committee.”

“They’re designed to encourage active participation in society,” said Crowley. “It helps stop vampires from slipping through the cracks. Practical work is a secondary concern.”

“Is there controversy about gardening?” Yuu wasn’t sure what they could possibly review.

“Sometimes, vampires try to get away with growing corrupted plants,” Crowley said mock-gravely. “If the plant in question is on property that the offender does not own, then we sometimes bring in the Land Allocation and Housing Committee. They tend to be busier, however, so most of the time we settle it ourselves.”

Yuu’s first instinct was that he didn’t want to know, but—on second thought he kind of wanted to know. He tabled “corrupted (demonic?) plants” for later reading.

Yuu angled his body towards Chess. “Are there any anecdotes you can share, or is it all classified information?”

“Oh, no, I can totally spill anything I want as long as it’s not about texts we’re currently reviewing. I’ve got tons of great stories,” said Chess. “Let’s see…oh! Agi Farkas is one of your tutors, right?”

“Yeah,” said Yuu.

“It must be—a hundred and twenty years ago now that she tried to get that book of hers published—The Thinking Vampire’s Guide to Combat. Of course, the captain of the city guard having to submit to the Literature Committee—what scandalous treasons did its pages contain? It turned out that she had insulted some third progenitor’s military wisdom. I shouldn’t say who, but let’s just say she was totally right. We had to recommend the passage be scrubbed anyway, but that’s just typical. God forbid a commoner criticize a noble; clearly that’s beyond the pale, regardless of how qualified the commoner happens to be.”

“Blood isn’t everything,” said Horn. “Unsuitable nobility tend to be eliminated by their rivals…”

“Unless you’re one of the First Progenitor’s brood,” said Crowley. “They fight it out amongst themselves.”

This elicited sighs of agreement from the two seventeenth progenitors.

“The Progenitor Council, right?”

“That’s right,” said Chess. Her smile gained a wicked edge. “They don’t rotate the membership in that committee. There’s only two ways out of it: defection or death.”

“People actually defect?” Yuu asked. “What would be the point of that?”

“Power,” Crowley said. “Could there be any other reason?”

Chess considered. “I suppose in Rígr Stafford’s case, he went completely off the grid—no one has any idea what happened to him. But in most circumstances, we know exactly what happened.”

“Fourth Progenitor Lishan Nimr’s giving Queen Natalia quite a bit of trouble,” said Horn. “She went against her orders four years ago and claimed Egypt for herself, and the situation is still not resolved.”

“You mean—all-out war? Between vampires?”

“Essentially, yes,” said Horn. “I wonder if the Progenitor Council is testing Queen Natalia. The monarchy of Africa could easily be transferred to someone else if she fails.”

Yuu wondered what the human resistance was like in the contested territory. Could that be a factor in the situation? He didn’t want to reveal his interest in such matters, so he kept that speculation to himself.

“The point is that it happens, sometimes,” said Chess. “Less often than you’d think. In order to maintain its absolute authority over the vampire race, the Progenitor Council must maintain a united front on most matters. Urd Geales must be quite talented, gaining those unanimous votes as much as he does.”

“Oh, let’s not speculate,” said Crowley. “You never know who might be listening.”

Silence restored, the group listened to the sounds of the night for a few moments. Horn gave her empty glass a mournful look.

Yuu wouldn’t mind extricating himself from the conversation soon, but there was one more thing he wanted to ask. “Chess, do you mind if I ask you one more question?”

She looked at Yuu attentively.

“Wasn’t the book Memoirs of Those Who Roam the Darkness submitted to the Literature Committee while you’ve been on it?”

All of a sudden, Yuu found himself the recipient of three intense stares. It was starting to become a familiar reaction.

“The queen doesn’t like to talk about it,” Chess said.

And that was the end of that.

***

Soon, Yuu made his excuses and wandered his way back into the ballroom. The moment he stepped inside, his eyes were caught by a pair of brown irises. They belonged to a girl, her thin hair piled elegantly on top of her head, exposing the collar around her neck. Her livestock uniform had been doused in some sort of glitter, but it was a poor imitation of a dress that would suit such a refined party.

A vampire reached out to her, empty wineglass and knife in hand…

Oh, Yuu realized. They had those in the bags—the party favors. Pretty.

A gash opened up in her wrist, a crimson stream filling up the glass.

It’s more elegant than doing it with your nails. That’s probably why.

He wanted some. He moved over to get it; oops, needed a glass, well, that delayed him for less than second…

The sudden grip of a hand on his left arm proved to have more persuasive force. Yuu struggled against his assailant, but the vampire’s strength was iron.

“Let me go!” Yuu protested hotly, looking around to catch a glimpse of his assailant.

“Are you certain about that?” the vampire said. Yuu thought he sounded familiar. “You might not be happy with me if I do.”

“Just let me drink first,” Yuu said, annoyed. “Then I’ll listen to what you have to say, okay?”

“Let’s go somewhere else,” said the vampire, and so they left. Yuu stopped supporting his weight, forcing the vampire to drag him away from the ballroom by one arm, like a sack of meat. He really wanted it…

...blood.

The vampire let go of him, and Yuu curled up into a ball, shivering. He had brought him to a deserted stretch of hallway where they hadn’t even bothered to light the lamps.

Yuu looked up at Ferid Bathory.

His striped ribbon had been replaced with a version in solid black, Yuu noticed, but other than that he looked exactly the same. Yuu swept his eyes over his form, immortalizing every detail of his appearance.

This was a familiar sight, a familiar position for him. It hadn’t been that long, after all, since Ferid Bathory murdered his family and intended to kill Yuu as well.

Yuu forced himself to sit up. He stood up on trembling legs, and then he walked over and tried to kick Ferid in the stomach. Ferid caught Yuu’s leg, preventing the blow from connecting.

“That’s not a nice way to treat someone who did you a favor,” Ferid said.

“You bastard,” Yuu said hollowly. He threw a punch; Ferid stopped him.

“Yuuichirou Hyakuya, incomplete vampire,” said Ferid. “You’ve got the city all aflutter. You do know that if you expect to remain an incomplete vampire, you must refrain from drinking human blood?”

Yuu felt drained, like he was fighting through sludge. “I know that.”

How on Earth had he done it before? The sight, the smell…he’d been lost in an instant. He’d completely forgotten that human blood wasn’t meant for him, that he had to avoid drinking it at all costs.

With Daisuke Ando, in the throne room…Yuu knew that he was on the verge of death. If he’d thought about at all, if he touched him, Yuu would have killed him. He hadn’t articulated his thoughts like this before, but that was the truth, wasn’t it?

Yuu had thought himself so clever when he’d hit upon his solution of not breathing. It was useful, and it worked, that much was undeniable, but if he wasn’t prepared? Then “not breathing” may as well not exist; he’d already taken the breath that sealed his fate.

He would already be a complete vampire, were it not for the one vampire he hated above all others.

Ferid Bathory looked down on him with his mysterious, thin-lipped smile. Yuu wanted to break his face, but it was impossible. It was impossible to kill a noble vampire.

Impossible, at least, to do it the way Yuu wished: a complete and utter physical defeat.

So where did that leave him?

“I’m done talking to you,” Yuu said. He turned to walk away.

“Don’t be so hasty, Yuuichirou-kun,” said Ferid. “I did seek you out tonight for a reason. Don’t you want to hear what I have to say about your dearly departed family member, Mikaela Hyakuya?”

Yuu stopped walking.

“He’s still alive,” Yuu said roughly, “and far away from you.”

“Departed from this wonderful city of ours,” said Ferid. “You are quite a remarkable creature, Yuuichirou-kun. I must admit I expected you to seek me out much sooner. Your heart must have been seething with rage after watching me kill all those defenseless orphans. You even charged right for me yourself. And yet, you fixated on something else on your final moments…of course, there’s only one other viable alternative, isn’t there?”

“I didn’t come here to find you,” Yuu said.

“Really?” Ferid said. “You did come to a party hosted by my very own child. He could hardly fail to invite me.”

Yuu felt like the dumbest person who ever lived.

“Whatever,” Yuu said. “What the fuck do you know about Mika?”

“I know that he’s been taken to the headquarters of the Japanese Imperial Demon Army,” Ferid said.

“Great, I know that too,” Yuu said. Regrettably, Seventh Progenitor Ferid Bathory survived and gave a most miserable account of himself. “I wish Mika had the chance to shoot you a few more times.”

“Such faith in humanity,” Ferid crooned. “I suppose it’s only natural…we vampires are still the villains in your story, aren’t we? Despite witnessing what the cesspool of humanity is capable of firsthand, you’ve blinded yourself to their faults, romanticizing sins far greater than vampire-kind has ever committed.”

“Just spit it out,” Yuu said.

“Lieutenant Colonel Guren Ichinose isn’t a kind man,” Ferid said. “He’ll ensure Mika-kun stays alive, but his only worth is as a soldier—a weapon to wield against us. If he rebels, they won’t hesitate to mold him by force.”

Krul hadn’t given him any specific names—that might come in handy later. For now… “You mean human experimentation.”

“Precisely,” Ferid said. “No matter how much you try to ignore it, the reality is that Mika-kun is in danger, and not just from other humans.”

“What do you—”

“He could fall down the stairs and break his neck,” said Ferid. “He could succumb to disease.”

Ferid’s slanted eyes stared right into Yuu’s own. “He could even slip the lieutenant colonel’s watch and put an end to his life himself.”

“Mika would never do that,” Yuu insisted, clenching his fists. “I told him to live on…out there, in the human world! So he doesn’t have a choice. Even if it’s painful. Even if he’s alone…that won’t be forever.”

“Even if Mika-kun took your words to heart,” Ferid said, “the fact remains that he’s terribly fragile. Your ‘forever’ will last for—perhaps another eighty years at most? Such a short span of time for creatures like us. It really does fly by.”

“Sounds fine to me,” Yuu said. He didn’t really plan on sticking around after that point.

“The only solution,” Ferid pressed, “is to turn him.”

“What?” Yuu said. The idea had never occurred to him, but now that Ferid had drawn his attention to it, the very thought revolted him. To inflict the same agony he was going through onto Mika was unthinkable.

“Many vampires consider it to be the ideal,” Ferid said. “Eternity with someone you love who loves you in return…it’s not out of reach for the two of you.”

“I would rather die,” Yuu said.

“Such a pity,” Ferid said. “I am certain Mika-kun will outshine you—"

Yuu grabbed Ferid’s throat and slammed him against the wall. Judging by the amused glint in his red eyes, he was allowing it to happen, but Yuu nonetheless proceeded.

“If you even think about touching him ever again, I will kill you,” Yuu said.

Yuu dropped him.

“How sweet,” Ferid said. “You care so much, but not enough to save him from the specter of death.”

This time, Yuu walked away for real—down the shadowed hallways, out of the mansion, and into the streets.

***

Flashes of anger and humiliation coursed through his body in waves, rising and crashing and leaving him cold.

What have I been doing, all this time? What was I thinking?

After he mourned the dead, when he first stood up and restarted his life, Yuu had resolved to do what was necessary. He had vowed to succeed and blend in among vampire society as much as possible. He had tried his best, hadn’t he? He’d done it, no matter how much he’d hated himself for it.

The only problem was his best wasn’t nearly good enough. Everyone could see right through him. Yuu’s human life, the only part that mattered, was on public record, a tragedy to be mocked or brushed aside and dismissed as the other party saw fit. Every single vampire had at least a hundred years more life experience; to them, Yuu was a former human, an almost-curiosity. The only thing that mattered to them was the mystery of who made him and why he was allowed to flout the law via his very existence.

Yuu couldn’t cut it here, plain and simple. He never should have tried.

Almost two months had passed since his family’s deaths and Mika’s escape. Time he had wasted trying to be someone he wasn’t; someone he wasn’t capable of pretending to be.

His lofty dreams and ambitions that would take years to execute meant nothing in comparison to the urgent matter of Mika’s safety.

I care I care I really do why else would it hurt so much I’m not heartless not a demon not cursed Mika Mika Mika—

Yuu had no choice.

He had to get out of here.

His mindless footsteps brought him to the path his feet had walked on that nightmarish day. The route wasn’t empty, but it may as well have been. This world no longer mattered. Yuu was leaving it behind.

When he arrived at the room his family died in, he lingered.

The immense pillars, the high ceiling, and the shining floor…not a trace remained of the tragedy that had taken place here. He breathed in deeply, but only picked up faint vampire scent trails.

Yuu didn’t know how long he stood there, but at some point he moved. He entered the dark, tunnel-like hallway that Mika must have taken before him. It sloped gradually upwards, sets of stairs helping to ease the way.

Yuu emerged into the night and saw the sky for the first time in almost four years.

The blackness appeared more absolute than Yuu remembered, but at the same time the sky shined brighter. Thousands of stars were nestled in that darkness; Yuu broke his gaze on prisms of light.

Stepping further out into what he realized was a hill, cushioned with long grasses, Yuu looked upon an overgrown industrial landscape—what could only be the city of Kyoto. Yet, Yuu could tell the city wasn’t deserted; he could hear the workings of industrialization, distant machines that must have human masters to tend to them…it wasn’t unthinkable. Krul had told him that ten percent of the adult population survived the virus; populated centers would have more survivors, more people who could band together and pool their resources.

Did they know how close they were to Sanguinem, where so many of their brethren were imprisoned? Surely they must…

…what had Mika been thinking, when he stood on this very spot?

When Mika escaped, it would have been midday. Perhaps the sun’s rays shone with radiant warmth, or, if the skies were kind, perhaps they wept a river of grief upon the land. Yuu had no way of knowing, but…the world wasn’t a kind place.

Time passed.

Yuu stirred at the approach of another vampire from the entrance to Sanguinem.

A shrug pushed the vampire’s hood back, and Yuu recognized Fionnuala. She stood beside him, and silence fell once more.

“I must confess, I’ve been struggling over what to write in my memoir,” she said at last.

“The richest part of my life isn’t relevant to the interests of your project, and I wouldn’t write it for public consumption even if it were, but I would like to tell you about it anyway.

I was born in 1312 in Béal Feirsde—Belfast, where two rivers meet. They didn’t call it that then; the name came later. It was a dismal little town; this was before the Ua Néill clan constructed their castle. Now, even that is gone…

The earliest buildings were built on the narrow land between the two rivers. Tidal water flooded the surrounding area, creating great swathes of swamp. The poor erected thatched huts on the river banks, my parents among them. The higher ground was thick with trees, a forest so entrenched that cutting it all down seemed an impossible prospect.

As I said, strategically, our position was minor, so we were largely left alone by our lords and our oppressors alike. I grew up in relative peace.

My mother was frail, and so I was my parents’ only child. They were disappointed I was not a son, of course, but they loved me well. I was fair enough, and by the time I was eighteen I had several prospects; a young man to move into our home and help take care of the land in my parents’ old age. My children would inherit, and that was good enough for me. That was all I had reason to expect.

But that year, 1330, a stranger came to town.

It is an old story, one I’m sure you’ve heard a thousand times. A young man not past twenty-five, not exceedingly handsome, but somehow bewitching. He appeared readily in daylight, but preferred the night, and when he lent his arm to those who needed a helping hand, all were awed by his strength.

It wasn’t long before he visited our home. He was ready to move on by then, you see.

He killed my father first, draining him in a few moments. He toyed with my mother before he drank her blood—he knocked her around, but he was sure not to let her die; he hated the taste of dead blood and never subjected himself to it. I clung to him, hit him, clawed at him, but my hands could not bruise him, my nails could not tear him open.

I don’t know why he chose to turn me; he never gave me a straight answer. Amusement, I suspect. Maybe things had been going too well for him and he wanted the challenge.

His name was Riagán Ó Dochartaigh. He was no one of consequence in vampire society; merely a common wanderer. He was all I knew of vampires, and for a long time I had no desire to learn more.

At first, I starved myself, but Riagán treated me like a pet who wouldn’t behave. Rather than allow me to become a demon—although I had no idea starvation did not result in death at the time—he forced me to drink human blood himself.

I fought him with everything I had, but eventually, I stopped fighting. I followed him and did his bidding. I learned how to hunt, how to recognize the presence of other vampires and avoid them.

Thirty years later, we broke into an abandoned dwelling and planned to while away some time there. It could serve as a base from which to feed from the nearby town, perhaps.

That was the night I killed him. I struck suddenly. We were fed equally well, but I could fight, and I was filled with desire where he had none.

When I ripped him into pieces and burned him, I thought I would be satisfied, but I was not. I was afraid. What would become of me, I wondered? I had to believe he still existed somewhere, a target to which I can direct my thoughts. Well, I still believe that today.

I admire you greatly, Yuuichirou. How did you do it?”

“Do what?” Yuu had almost forgotten he had a voice, but it rose to the occasion as smoothly as ever.

“You witnessed Ferid Bathory kill your fellow orphans yourself, didn’t you? You must have felt it…and yet, when it mattered, you…

…to feel love instead of hatred…I wonder what that must be like.”

Yuu looked at her. Her braids were disheveled, windblown. For the first time, he took in how young she really was. The short years she had lived, and the centuries she spent frozen.

“Mika shot him,” he murmured. “For all I knew, Ferid Bathory was dead. Mika was still alive…it didn’t happen that way for you. It wasn’t anything I did…just a quirk of fate, I guess.”

“What astonishing loyalty,” Fionnuala said. “‘Loyalty’ is what is known as an empty virtue among vampires. One swears it to the nobility and to one’s sire, but no one takes it seriously. It is but a courtesy that allows society to function. However useful it is to band together, we vampires are solitary creatures, in the end. We are expected to put ourselves first above all else.

So, Yuuichirou Hyakuya. What are you doing here, and what do you plan to do?”

“Find Mika,” Yuu said.

“Without blood? Without even an armband to protect you from the sun? That will extend your travel time significantly.”

Yuu stayed silent.

“Why are you doing this?” Fionnuala asked. “What would it gain you?”

“Mika is in danger,” Yuu said, feeling more grounded. The heated emotions he felt in the mansion had begun to return to him. “I have to save him.”

“If you had left immediately, you might have had a better chance,” said Fionnuala. “It’s been almost two months since All Hollows’ Eve. Far too long to protect him in the short term. If your concern is for his long-term prospects, then this venture is rash and unplanned in the extreme.”

Yuu didn’t want to hear it. Yuu didn’t want to think about it.

“If he were in any immediate danger, it would be too late,” Fionnuala continued. “With that in mind, you should play the long game. But you’ve already thought of that yourself, haven’t you?

I know you’re capable of being civil to vampires. I might even call your behavior ‘nice’ at times. You wouldn’t have made such a rash decision on your own—someone provoked you.”

Yuu wanted to lie down and sleep for a thousand years. He missed sleep: true, deep sleep, the kind where he could be alive or dead and it would feel the same either way.

“I went to a party tonight,” he admitted, “and—a certain vampire found me.”

“I see,” said Fionnuala. “And this ‘certain vampire’ pressed your buttons—isn’t that right? Was this the outcome that vampire wanted?”

“I don’t think so,” Yuu said. “Not really.”

He paused for a moment and gathered himself.

“I’m going to ask you a question,” he said. “Why are you doing all of this?”

“Why am I helping you?” Fionnuala said. “Not out of fear of punishment. I would be going about this assignment very differently if that were the case.

Don’t fret, Yuuichirou. I act for my own sake. My hatred for my sire animates me even now, and I have developed a few tricks over the centuries to stoke that fire further. With some difficulty, I can transfer a portion of that emotion to those in similar situations. The slaughter of loved ones, a forced turning…it matters not that my opponent was a common vampire and yours is a third progenitor. Ferid Bathory and Krul Tepes…you want them dead, don’t you?”

Yuu narrowed his eyes. “If possible. Make no mistake—that’s not my priority. My goal is to get to Mika. Helping the residents of Sanguinem comes second.”

“You mean your revenge comes second.”

“Yes,” Yuu said bitterly, “I suppose that’s what I mean.”

The night wind blew through the hill and stirred up the scent of wildness. Yuu turned his eyes away from the city and looked at Fionnuala properly. Her eyes were bright with other people’s blood.

“You took on that goal yourself,” said Yuu. “So. Have you done anything that implicates me or harms my position in any way?”

“Nothing that you don’t know about,” said Fionnuala. “You have done most of the damage yourself. But I do not think anything you’ve done requires undue amount of worry at this stage. Acting out at your age is only natural, as I’ve mentioned.

I’ve bound myself to your fate because I want to, Yuuichirou. I don’t intend to drag you down with me, if it comes to that, though you could very easily bring me with you.”

“Rather than clinging to that emotion,” said Yuu, "have you considered trying to let go of it?”

“You mean dying?” said Fionnuala. “I know many of the living dead. I’m not interested in joining them.”

Yuu didn’t have a rebuttal for that, so he didn’t reach for one.

Fionnuala smiled. A mechanical movement: lips turned up, then back down.

“You are a powerless child,” she said, “but if you live, you will be a threat one day. Not because of your blood, but because you have an open heart. Friends and strangers could not wish for a better listener, and your enemies a more ardent hatred. Right now, who belongs in which category may not be easy to determine, but either way, you must not let sentiment blind you.

You must keep your head down, and more than that. You must bury your heart of hearts deep enough that only you may find it and know its contents.

What do you want, Yuuichirou Hyakuya, and how will you get it?”

Yuu turned her words over, looking for Fionnuala’s own heart. A black and brittle thing, honest in the intentions it oozed out from every pore.

Yuu had resolved; his resolve had been tested and shattered. What to do? There was no other path but to forge anew. Redeclare and resolve once more.

“I want to save Mika,” Yuu said. “To do that, I have to take him away from everyone. Humans and vampires.”

It was possible that could change once Yuu assessed the situation or new information came to light, but right now, that seemed like the only solution.

But then, what to do about the axe over his neck, the chain binding him to the underground? Krul’s blood was a necessity, but its nourishing effect wouldn’t last forever. At some point, Yuu would either have to drink human blood, become a demon, or die. This was an unavoidable fact: his inevitable fate.

Was “crossing that bridge when he gets to it” good enough? But that was just it; he couldn’t change it, so there was no point thinking about it. He just had to put it off for as long as possible.

“I’m glad you’ve made your decision,” said Fionnuala. “To attain that goal, you have to learn how to lose. Put your pride aside and look upon the world with clear eyes. Choose your battles with clarity and purpose. Lose, and lose, and lose again—”

Slow, helpless, Yuu looked up at the sky, its edges lit by the encroaching dawn.

“—until it’s time for you to win.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

Playing the Part

April 22nd, 2017: Sanguinem

“It may have taken me four months…but I don’t intend to lose.”

“Such insolence. I’ll just have to show you what your betters are capable of.”

Yuu didn’t waste any more time. As his opponent took a step forward, Yuu rushed ahead, making a horizontal slash with his wooden katana from the right.

His opponent backflipped out of the way, her movements elegant and smooth. Her own wooden training sword was held with her left hand on top. It was modeled after the longswords popular with the city guard: a straight blade—complete with a cross guard—that narrowed to a blunted point. Still, Yuu was intimately familiar with the damage it could cause, so he didn’t let his guard down.

As he watched his opponent land and return to her stance, he scowled. Not even bothering to defend with her sword…she was underestimating him, as usual.

She shook her head slightly, shifting the stray strands of pale, pink hair that escaped from her bun, framing her elfin face. “You may as well concede, Yuuichirou. I won’t go easy on you if you refuse.”

Yuu didn’t waste time replying. He narrowed his eyes, focusing with all his senses.

He advanced once more, and his opponent matched him. She thrust forward, aiming for his chest, but Yuu managed to cross her sword from above, with his false edge down. The differences between the true and false edges of his training katana weren’t significant the way they would be in a real fight—to win this crossing, he had to use his strength. She attempted to make the thrust anyway, but Yuu bore down from above, preventing her blade from moving. With the advantage gained, he attempted to slide his blade forward and stab at the upper-right portion of her chest.

She wasn’t so foolish as to allow him to succeed, however. Instead, she disengaged, throwing her sword upwards and catching it midair amidst another aerial maneuver.

From the standpoint of speed, her movements were hardly at their most economical. She was showing off—playing with him as a cat bats around a feather, or perhaps a mouse about to be eaten.

Frustrated, Yuu closed the distance between them and attempted a downward cut.

Bending her knees as Yuu moved, his opponent collected his blade, catching it in the cross guard of her hilt. Flicking his blade aside, she went in for a cut of her own.

It was Yuu’s turn to try and create distance to avoid her strike. He took a small step backward with his right foot, accomplishing his task, and continued his retreat until he was a few meters away.

Still, his opponent did not press her advantage; instead, she watched him with her sword held aloft. Her face was set in a neutral expression, as if implying that she could do this all night if that’s what he wanted.

With a vampire’s speed and strength, there was no such thing as “wearing your opponent out.” Yuu had no choice but to outwit her and claim victory with his own hands.

With his own hands…

It seemed she had no intention of making the first move. That was fine with him. Yuu took a few quick steps and lunged forward. His opponent had her sword out in front of her and began to attack, but Yuu’s right hand let go of his katana and grabbed the blade.

“You little—” She stepped forward, attempting to dislodge his hand and twist out of the way. She managed the feat, but as a result, her weapon was a half-second behind her movement.

Yuu didn’t hesitate. He thrust the tip of his sword at her chest.

To her, it was no more than a tap—a light bop, perhaps. But as she looked down, her eyes wide open, Yuu knew that it was her pride that had truly been struck.

“Woo-hoo! Alright, alright, let’s call it.”

Agi Farkas jumped up from her navy-blue-and-white striped lawn chair, stretching her arms in a theatric motion.

“Not bad, not bad at all,” Agi said, pleased. “I wasn’t expecting this outcome, but I suppose you have been sparring with her almost every night…it’s as they say: ‘If you know the enemy but not yourself, for every victory gained you will also a suffer a defeat.’ Sounds like a nice ratio to aim for.”

“Do I know myself or not?” Yuu said, turning his head to look at her, but Agi just continued beaming.

His opponent—Noin Teta, an elite member of the city guard—reached out her hand and pushed Yuu’s katana downwards. He tried to look apologetic, but that expression was hard to manage with euphoria coursing through his veins. He couldn’t wait to tell Fionnuala—oh, and then he could brag about it tomorrow to Hotaru and Kimi and the rest of their housemates…

Holding his katana loosely in his left hand, Yuu trotted over to Agi. Her little setup looked out of place in the enclosed courtyard that she had turned into a training field. Way back when he first met Agi, Yuu had thought the place was reasonably large, but the amount of times he had been cornered up against a wall taught him otherwise. At the very least, he was better at keeping track of his movements now, even if he still had a long way to go.

“Well, anyway,” Yuu said. “I feel like that took me forever…are you saying you expected it to take even longer?”

“From your perspective, it may have taken a long time,” Agi said, hands on her hips, “but Noin has centuries of fighting experience and is excellent at reading body language. You should be proud.”

“If anything, that means I should be embarrassed,” said Noin, her posture stiff. She had joined Yuu in an instant, her steps silent. “I’ve failed you.”

“Please lighten up!” said Agi. “I was rooting for you, you know! I thought it’d take him at least another three months…jeez, now I owe Lacus money…”

“You most certainly do, captain!” said a voice from above.

Yuu looked up, and sure enough Lacus Welt and his erstwhile shadow, René Simm, were atop one of the buildings. They hopped down to join them.

“Hey, Yuuichirou,” said Lacus. To Agi and Noin, he added: “How’s training up the newbie going?”

“Don’t you two have work to do?” Noin fired back immediately.

“Now, now,” Agi said thoughtfully. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Yuuichirou is just my student; he’s not on the fast track to becoming part of the city guard.”

“And why isn’t that the case?” asked René.

Yuu wasn’t sure what to make of the calculating gaze the vampire aimed in his direction.

“Yuuichirou’s got a lot of other classes to worry about,” Agi said, but she soon wavered. “Hm…I wonder what the queen would say if I bugged her about it? Obviously, I couldn’t put him on anything resembling normal duties, but if I could just take him outside and take down a few Horsemen…”

“And what does Yuuichirou think about all of this?” Noin said, meeting Yuu’s eyes squarely.

Over the past few months, Combat Training had begun to take up more and more of his time. Aside from his meetings on Saturdays, he’d been obligated to spend the pre-sunset hours of almost every night sparring with Noin and learning from Agi.

Despite his frustration over his inability to land a hit on Noin, a common vampire…if fighting with her had taught him anything, it had been how inadequate and inexperienced he really was. When he was human, Yuu had approached fighting with the mindset of “punch ‘em till they stayed down,” but now he had to think about every move he made, as well as analyze his opponent’s movements and respond appropriately. Yuu thought that learning about strategy would be boring, but it was surprisingly interesting to apply, even if it didn’t get him anywhere the vast majority of the time.

Yuu didn’t mind his training. If anything, he found it…

…well, whether he should allow himself to be railroaded into the city guard was another matter.

“I’m not sure,” Yuu said. “Whatever the queen thinks is best, I suppose. Feel free to ask her about it.”

“Boring,” Agi said, before quickly following up with, “Seriously, kid, tell me what you want! I won’t ask her if you don’t like the sound of the idea.”

“I’m not sure what you want me to say,” Yuu said. “I don’t know. I guess it sounds cool.”

“I guess!” Agi wailed. “This can’t be happening. You’re not a teenager yet…it’s too soon…”

“He’s not a human,” Noin said. If she were less polite, Yuu suspected she’d be rolling her eyes.

It was true that Yuu’s thirteenth birthday wasn’t until October, but Mika’s birthday was in just a little over a week—the first of May.

Yuu had no idea what he was going to do about it yet. It wouldn’t be easy to mail him a present…and even if he did end up sending something, he couldn’t exactly sign it. “Happy Birthday, Mika! P.S. I’m alive!” wouldn’t go down very well. Mika would think it was a cruel prank at best. These kinds of unbelievable circumstances could only be explained in person.

Well, that was his current understanding of the situation, but…Yuu wondered if he could manage to arrange a courier, if he played his cards right.

“Please contain yourself, captain,” said René.

With reluctance, Agi gathered her composure. “Very well. I will make a formal request to the queen when I next inform her of your progress.”

As was typical, Agi leaped up and away, no doubt in a hurry to talk to her subordinates. When it came to city guard business, Yuu had gathered that there were two varieties: serious affairs and juicy gossip, both of which Agi treated with equal importance.

“Noin!” Yuu called out, stopping her from following suit.

“What is it?” Her eyelids were half-closed, but within her eye sockets was the burn of impatience.

“You’re on this assignment because you messed up in some way, right?” Yuu said.

Noin crossed her arms. “I have no idea what gave you that impression.”

(To be honest, he had thought there was a significant chance that their identical heights was the reason, but it seemed like his bluff paid off.)

“Well…” Yuu said. “If you want to get out of this situation, I can put in a good word for you with the captain. I did land a hit on you today. Maybe I need to move on to a more…challenging opponent.”

“Don’t press your luck,” Noin said. She tilted her head, assessing him. “And what do you want in return for such kindness?”

“Um…” He glanced around and lowered his voice. “How long would it take you to get from here to the headquarters of the Japanese Imperial Demon Army? Not for scandalous reasons, I swear! I just want to know.”

“I’m sure,” said Noin. “If I got reassigned right away…I’m sure I could find a position that would take me near the area within five days, perhaps.”

Yuu ran the necessary calculations through his brain. “Okay…are you doing anything late on Tuesday?”

Noin shrugged. “I’m sure I will be available.”

“Perfect,” Yuu said. “I’ll hand you the package then…that’s all I need, I mean. I just need you to hand over a package—to someone who can be bribed into taking it the rest of the way. I can give you however much you think you’ll need.”

“Is this for a soldier or a civilian?” Noin asked in a dry tone.

Yuu thought about it. “A civilian…probably.”

“Probably?”

“Maybe, like, pre-training, at best,” Yuu said, annoyed. Something like I’m doing right now. “I told you that it wasn’t scandalous at all and I meant it. It’s just a present.”

“That’s such a cavalier way of describing potential treason, isn’t it?”

Yuu had a feeling he could be doing a better job of conveying his disbelief. “That’s ridiculous. No one respects the queen more than me. It’s not possible. Did you know that in 1765, she—”

“Oh, fine,” said Noin. “I’ll be more than happy to never speak to you again, and if this is what it takes, then I suppose I can manage it.”

“Great!” Yuu said brightly. “How’s about we meet here at say...4:00 A.M.?

“Very well,” said Noin. She gathered herself and turned to leave.

“It’s a pleasure doing business with you,” Yuu said to her back. It was important to make use of the niceties.

“I can’t say the same,” Noin said, and then she was gone.

***

Yuu scrunched up his face in concentration.

He wasn’t…terrible at copying. He could do it eventually.

In his innocence, he had thought wards were tricky, but—

“You fucked up,” Hotaru said. “The third sector looks off.”

“I’m starting to suspect,” Yuu said, his jaw tightly clenched, “that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He didn’t mean to come off as harsh, but the strain of talking out loud in the presence of humans left him no room to worry about how pleasant his tone was. After the incident in Crowley’s mansion, the limitations of Yuu’s current strategy to avoid drinking human blood had been made abundantly clear to him. Acclimating himself to human scent was the only way to learn how to resist blood effectively.

This intellectual certainty didn’t make managing the feat any easier, however.

When he compared the illustration in Hotaru’s textbook to the sector of the three-by-three meter sheet of paper he had been working on, he couldn’t deny the truth of her words. He sat back and stared at the ceiling.

“You messed up, Yuuichirou-sama?”

Yuu’s gaze flickered over to the speaker, a six-year-old girl named Nozomi. Her words were playful, teasing—the complete opposite of her attitude when he first met her. She had been suspicious in the extreme, treating him like a bomb about to detonate, but after Kimi explained the situation she gradually warmed up to him.

He took her comment with good grace, but he could do without the honorific. He had expressed that opinion in the past, but no matter how much he protested that it was unnecessary, it didn’t do any good. Thankfully, Yuu managed to stop Kimi from jumping on the bandwagon by glaring her into submission. He supposed “Yuuichirou-san” wasn’t that bad, though it was strange to be addressed so respectfully by someone who was around the same age as him. Actually, maybe that was worse than “Yuuichirou-sama,” which just felt ridiculous…

In any case, as Yuu and Hotaru labored on their summoning circle, Nozomi, along with Kimi and the youngest of the group, three-year-old Kenji, were drawing with crayons on pieces of printer paper spread out on the floor, as far away from Yuu as they could manage in a one-room building.

Yuu didn’t take it personally. Over the past four months, Yuu had met Hotaru and Kimi’s thirteen other housemates, though most of them didn’t linger long when he visited. This was the first time that Kimi, de facto leader when Hotaru wasn’t indulging her whims, had allowed Kenji in his presence for an extended period of time. Yuu was even more hyperaware than he otherwise would have been, attuned to every possible sign of betrayal from his body.

As long as he never stopped thinking, he would retain his control.

“I guess,” Yuu said, directing a sheepish smile towards Nozomi.

“Oh, let me try,” Hotaru said. She plucked the charcoal pencil out of Yuu’s hand.

Yuu was glad for the opportunity to retreat back into his thoughts, only keeping half an eye on Hotaru, whose pencil was held between her teeth, her right hand furiously erasing the incorrect lines.

As Yuu continued to visit week after week, it became more and more evident how fruitful their bargain really was—for Yuu, at least. Many more people had responded to Hotaru’s solicitations for entries than Yuu had expected. Of course, they weren’t offering their labor for free—they wanted all manner of food, supplies, necessities, luxuries…

The requests didn’t come as a surprise to Yuu. As long as it was within his power, Yuu did his best to deliver. Most of the time, he handed a list over to Fionnuala and had her seek out the necessary items.

He didn’t mind doing it, but at this point, it was really beginning to strain his budget…hm. He wondered what get-rich quick schemes existed in vampire society, and how easy they would be to execute. It wouldn’t hurt to look into it; maybe if he caught Alissa in a good mood, he could ask her for advice.

Hotaru’s end of things wasn’t going nearly as well, but that was no more than Yuu had expected. Yuu had visited Krul’s library twice more and gotten some interesting information, but he had come to realize that vampires, as a rule, did not traffic with demons. As such, Yuu didn’t believe Hotaru’s ambition would ever materialize into reality.

It didn’t hurt to indulge her, however, no matter how much it tried his patience.

Even if we get this drawn out accurately, Yuu thought, there’s no guarantee that shady book did it right in the first place…

As if sensing his disbelief, Hotaru looked up and glanced at him. “How’s it going over there?”

“Fine,” Yuu said.

The two younger children giggled. Kimi shot him a look of concern, as if gauging his mood.

Yuu tried to beam reassurance back in her direction. He thought they were getting pretty good at telepathic communication.

When his boredom began to outweigh the relief of staying silent, he resumed the conversation. “So, has anything interesting been happening lately?”

“I don’t know,” said Hotaru. “Not really.”

“Hm…” said Kimi, angling her body in his direction from across the room. “You haven’t heard about Chizue-san?”

“I don’t know what the heck a Chizue is,” said Hotaru, “so no.”

Kimi pouted. “She’s a person, obviously! Oh, it’s so tragic…”

“Chizue…that sounds familiar…” Yuu said. He reached back into his fuzzy human memories, trying to recall where he’d heard it before. “Wait! Wasn’t she that girl who tried to organize the palace library?”

Yuu remembered the attempt with all the fondness of watching a train wreck. He admired her pluck, but it had been a task doomed to fail from the start.

She was one of the “elders,” as he recalled…she was probably, what, seventeen now?

“Maybe?” said Kimi. “I hadn’t heard about that. Anyway, it’s so sad! I heard she’s pregnant now.”

“Oh,” Yuu said, his spirits faltering. “That’s too bad.”

Hotaru snorted. “Really? I expected this from Kimi, but you too, Yuuichirou?”

“What?” Yuu said. “I’m trying to be sympathetic.”

“Pregnancy is not a death sentence, you utter fools,” said Hotaru. “Plenty of people survived it in the olden days without doctors.”

“There were birth attendants, though,” Kimi pointed out. “It’s not like people didn’t know what they were doing…and even today—well, before the apocalypse, I mean—a lot of people used josan-shi even if they didn’t want to involve a doctor…”

“The noble profession of midwifery,” said Hotaru. “Well, I’m sure it’s not rocket science.”

“Isn’t that taking it a little lightly?” Yuu said. “What if there are complications during the pregnancy? Besides, I haven’t heard of anyone successfully giving birth down here.”

Kimi nodded in agreement. “That would be pretty big news…still, I hope Chizue-san will be okay…oh, I know! Yuuichirou-san, you don’t have an entry from Chizue-san yet, do you?”

“No, not yet,” Yuu said.

“I’m sure she’ll agree to write one!” said Kimi. “It’ll be, like, something she gets to leave behind…”

Hotaru heaved an unnecessarily dramatic sigh.

“Well, you may as well track her down, you two,” she said.

“Oh…would you be okay with me coming along, Kimi?” Yuu asked.

Kimi hesitated. “Well…I guess I wouldn’t want to go alone. But then again, I don’t want to leave the kids unattended either.”

Nozomi puffed out her chest. “I’m very mature!” she said, her purple crayon almost flying straight out of her hand. “I can watch over Kenji-chan.”

“Will you keep an eye on them, Hotaru-chan?” Kimi said. Her voice trembled, torn between restrained hope and resigned disappointment.

“Of course I will,” said Hotaru. “Don’t worry about it—or yourself either, for that matter. You’ll be safe with Yuuichirou. As we all know, he defeated a city guard in single combat.”

“So cool,” said Nozomi.

Yuu glared at Hotaru. Desiring to get back at her, he leaned over to check her progress. Hotaru shifted out of the way.

After a glance back and forth, he made a small noise of surprise.

“That looks good,” Yuu said.

“What?” Hotaru said. She checked her progress herself. “There’s no way. Something’s off.”

“No, it’s identical,” Yuu said. “Maybe a little distraction is good for your work progress. Normally you’re not nearly as precise.”

“That’s just wrong,” Hotaru said. “Why would I do better when I’m not focusing?”

Yuu shrugged and gave up on arguing with her. Instead, he gathered up his belongings.

Meanwhile, Kimi had been speaking sternly to Nozomi and Kenji—or as stern as her temperament allowed for, at least.

“You better behave!” Kimi said. “Please don’t mess with Hotaru’s drawing—”

“—summoning circle.”

“It’ll be easier for everyone,” Kimi concluded. “Alright! We’re off!”

With a chorus of itterashai cheering them on, they departed.

***

After they had been walking for a minute or two, Kimi seemed to remember that she was in the presence of a vampire and hunched her shoulders, not daring to say a word.

The situation wasn’t entirely objectionable. Yuu would be spending more time in human company than he had planned to, so he focused on recharging his fortitude.

Even so, the chance to speak to Kimi alone was rare, and there was one thing he wanted to ask…

“About Hotaru,” Yuu said. “She does know that demons aren’t pets, right? Most people either go mad or get taken over.”

Kimi jumped. Yuu waited for her to recover.

“Well…” Kimi said. “I don’t know. I get the feeling she isn’t trying that hard to succeed.”

“…What?” Yuu said. How was he supposed to interpret that response? “Are you sure we’re talking about the same person?”

“It’s not that she’s not serious about demons, it’s just…I don’t know please don’t hurt me.”

“Please don’t worry about it,” Yuu said, smiling with his mouth closed. “I was just curious.”

A blanket of silence fell over them once more.

Their short walk ended in Kimi veering to the left as she spotted their destination. She knocked gingerly on the door, a caution that was likely warranted; it looked even more beaten up than most.

The door swung open to reveal a boy of around sixteen or seventeen. His features were dark and heavyset; Yuu thought it was the kind of face that would look grumpy even when its owner was happy.

“Hey,” the boy said, looking at Kimi first. He straightened up as he noticed Yuu. “Hold on, what’s a vampire doing here?”

“I’m not here to make any trouble,” Yuu said, holding up his hands.

“Actually, we’re here to visit Chizue-san!” Kimi squeaked.

“Oh?” said a girl, coming up behind the boy and peering over his shoulder. “I see…you must be Yuuichirou Hyakuya, the incomplete vampire.”

Yuu recognized the girl as Chizue herself—although, sure enough, her stomach had a slight roundness to it that it had not previously possessed. Her bangs cut straight across her forehead, and her brown hair fell to mid-back. From her angular eyes, her lively intelligence shined.

“My reputation proceeds me?” Yuu tried.

Chizue laughed lightly. “It does,” she assured him. “The vampire turned against his will who refuses to drink human blood…no, I’m being insensitive. I’m sorry for your loss.”

“It’s no problem,” Yuu said.

“Well!” she said. “I’m Chizue Nakahara, and this is my boyfriend, Michi Takahashi. Please, come in.”

She stepped back to create room, dragging Michi along with her.

The six other people in the room startled.

“Sorry, everyone,” said Chizue. “Do you mind giving us an hour or so?”

Her request was politely worded, but the room nevertheless emptied quickly, some giving Yuu a few backward glances on their way out.

With that taken care of, Chizue addressed Yuu. “When I heard you’d been turned into a vampire, I thought I’d remembered you. You spent a lot of time in the library, right?”

“That’s right,” Yuu said. “Well, I guess I still do.”

Faced with the brunt of Michi’s suspicious glare, Yuu added, “If it makes you guys more comfortable, I can write in my notebook from now on? That way I won’t have to breathe in your scent.”

Chizue’s calm never wavered, but Michi grunted his assent, so Yuu pulled out his notebook. It was probably for the best.

With that settled, Chizue sat down cross-legged on the floor, patting the ground in front of her. Yuu and Kimi obliged her unspoken invitation; after a beat, Michi sat down next to Chizue.

“We’re so sorry for intruding!” Kimi said, no longer able to bear the silence. “I’m Kimi Yoshida, one of the official liaisons for Yuuichirou-san’s book project!”

I’m sure Hotaru came up with that one…is that what they’ve been going around telling people? Yuu thought. Well, I guess it’s accurate.

“The goal is to capture life in Sanguinem after the apocalypse!” Kimi said, sounding like she was reading enthusiastically from a script. “It will include accounts from both humans and vampires. Your memoirs should be no longer than two pages. Please refrain from including graphic violence or explicit sexual material. You may write about events that occurred pre-apocalypse as long as you connect it to your present life in some way. If you decide to contribute, there’s no rush! Take as long as you like.”

Kimi slumped back down, looking satisfied.

Yuu was impressed. He didn’t have his own spiel down nearly so well.

“I think it’s admirable,” Chizue said. “I’d decided to contribute as soon as I heard about it, actually. Present circumstances just…distracted me a bit. What about you, Michi-kun?”

He crossed his arms over his chest, but soon gave in. “I will write something,” he said. “In exchange, you help people out, right?”

Yuu was in the midst of getting out paper and two of his many giveaway pens, but something in Michi’s tone gave him pause.

Grimace smoothed away, only desolation remained as Michi straightened out his legs and bowed, his head almost touching the ground.

“Then please save her,” he said. “I’ll do anything…”

Yuu froze. “Stop that,” he said without thinking. Fear clutched his heart in an icy grip. “Seriously, stop that…”

“Get up!”

Chizue’s shout startled the three of them. Michi didn’t move from his position, but he looked up at Chizue through his lashes.

“I’ve told you and told you…” Chizue said, returning to a normal volume. “That’s not necessary—no, that’s the last possible way we should approach this circumstance.”

“I’m not talking about blind faith,” she continued, switching her gaze to Yuu and Kimi. “It’s true that as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, no one has any hands-on medical experience to pass on. But what we do have is research, information, as well as our memories—first-hand accounts. Many of us have attended births before—myself among them.

I think we need to be honest above all else. That way, everyone in my position will be able to make a clear-headed decision without all this…panic.”

Personally, Yuu thought she could muster up a bit more panic. He scribbled in his notebook as fast as he could. You’re keeping the baby? Then, what do you need?

“Yes, I am,” said Chizue. “That’s very thoughtful of you to ask. Painkillers…yes, I think that would be helpful. I’ll give you a list as soon as possible; I want to do a little more research first…”

“I told you, I don’t care!” Michi burst out, sitting up. “If anything goes wrong…what the hell are we supposed to do about it? Chizue-chan, there must be some drugs he can get you that would get rid of it...please, don’t give up on yourself like this.”

“Sometimes, it feels like I’m the only one who hasn’t given up,” Chizue said, almost to herself. “I get that you feel like you’ve already killed me and all, but please put those feelings aside. This is my decision, okay? And believe me—I have no intention of dying.”

“You can’t guarantee that,” Michi said.

“No one can guarantee that,” Kimi said quietly. “Life…isn’t such an easy thing to hold on to.”

The couple’s argument subsided into thoughtful quiet for a moment.

“If possible,” Chizue said, “there is something you could do for me besides medical supplies, Hyakuya-san.”

Hyakuya-kun is fine, Yuu wrote.

“Hyakuya-kun, then,” Chizue agreed. “To be completely transparent, my information gathering process would be going much more smoothly if the library were in a less…woeful state.

I think there would be several benefits to organizing it besides my own selfish interests. Proper storage of knowledge will help all the less fortunate residents of Sanguinem. And if it is possible…it could provide the basis for restarting formal education for the human population.”

That angle took Yuu by surprise.

“You mean…opening some sort of school?” Kimi asked.

“Exactly,” said Chizue. “If the vampires have left us to ourselves, then why should we not take our governance into our own hands? The reality of our imprisonment shouldn’t mean that we live in a paralyzed state. Instead, we should better our lives as much as possible.”

“The way things are now,” Michi said, “it’s a reality that we’re doing more harm to ourselves compared to what the vampires are dishing out. When’s the last time you’ve heard of a vampire killing a human?”

The rhetorical question illuminated what they all knew: that humans killing other humans was so common as to be pedestrian in comparison.

“I think we can change everything,” said Chizue. “It’s not out of reach. But to accomplish our goals…I need some authority backing me. Someone no one can argue against.”

Yuu understood. So that’s what you really want my help with? Well, I’m not against it—in principle, anyway.

He didn’t think Chizue was a bad person, but he barely knew her. He couldn’t install her as some sort of dictator on a careless whim.

“Please, don’t misunderstand,” Chizue said. “I’m not out to seize power or anything…maybe in the future, we will be able to organize elections and have fairly chosen leaders. That would be the ideal. For now, I just want your backing on the matter of the library and my pregnancy, which are more urgent.”

I understand. I’ll track down the head librarian and do my best to persuade her. I think it really will help everyone, as you said.

Well, Yuu would make sure to keep a few of his own pilfered books off the records, if the undertaking got that far.

“I really do appreciate it,” Chizue said, smiling. “I’m sure the rest of my housemates will be able to help with your project as well—without making additional trouble for you, of course.”

I’ll give you some extra paper, Yuu wrote. Chizue was adept at the art of negotiation, if nothing else. Also, even if I get permission, I’m 99% sure the vampires won’t lift a finger for something like this. We’ll likely have to provide the manpower ourselves.

Chizue met his eyes. “Well, I expected as much.”

I’m usually in the human district every Sunday, so I’ll check in with you next week if that’s okay?

“Yes, that’s fine. No need to rush,” said Chizue.

No matter how cavalier she was, there was a definite need to rush…Yuu wondered if the gamble Chizue was taking would pay off, even if he did get her some medication. Did she want a baby that much? A baby that would be born into slavery? Yuu wouldn’t choose such a fate for his own child…

Yuu soured at the thought. The only children he could have now would be vampires—the last thing the world needed.

In any case, Chizue’s ideas about humanity’s future in the underground were worth thinking about. It was true that they were trapped for the present; maybe it was time to start taking things into their own hands. If Yuu could help even as a vampire, then certainly, he should do everything in his power to assist her—

—if she survived.

***

By the time Yuu returned to the palace, it was almost 2:00 A.M. He had a little over forty-eight hours to make Mika’s present, and he had no idea what he was going to do.

He rolled around on his bed and stared at the urn. By mutual agreement, the Hyakuya orphans had never made much of birthdays. They had nothing to give except well-wishes and their company, but of those, they gave in abundance.

Now, Yuu could get his hands on almost anything he wanted, but…

…that was no good. It should be handmade, whatever it was.

Yuu forced himself to get up, navigating through the clutter of his room over to his desk. From a drawer he pulled out some paper and, after a moment of hesitation, the crayons he had taken from his old dwelling before Hotaru and the others moved in.

Using the straight edge of a book, Yuu drew a horizontal line, dividing the page into two sections.

On the top half, Yuu drew a semicircle in green crayon, adding dozens of haphazard wavy lines to create a sea of grass. From there, he filled in the rest of the space with blue crayon, leaving a white space to mark the sun.

On the bottom half, Yuu marked out thirteen white stars, outlining them in black crayon. He contemplated whether or not he should add a fourteenth star, and at length he decided to draw it in green to distinguish it from the others. After that, he filled the rest of the white space in with black until he was satisfied.

Now all he had to do was write a letter. He pulled out a pen and a separate piece of paper.

He folded it over vertically. Maybe that would help the inspiration flow better.

A shiver of apprehension ran down his spine. Yuu retrieved his alarm clock from his nightstand and set it for half an hour.

He got out yet another sheet of paper. He may as well draft out his message instead of ruining his beautiful blank page with eraser marks.

Dear Mika,

Hm…if his letter was supposed to be anonymous, should he add an honorific? Or just write Mika’s name more formally? Well, he could think about that later.

During these spring days…

Yuu twirled his pen a few times and crossed that line out. He wasn’t really good at memorizing letter expressions…well, making something up would be fine, right?

The weather must be getting warmer for you.

There. He addressed the weather. With that obligation out of the way, he continued on.

Spring is a time of renewal, but I hope you don’t forget that those from your past are always watching over you.

Was that suitably cryptic? Yeah, that looked fine.

Be assured of that and look towards the future without fear.

As much fun as Yuu was having with striking a mysterious tone…was this letter really enough of a comfort?

Well, the answer to that was “of course not.” There was no way it could be in the first place; it was a message from a complete stranger. Even so, if it helped Mika even a little bit that was all he could ask for, right?

Please take care of yourself.

That would do for a closing expression. Now…how to sign it…

Your Friend

Well…that was obviously no good.

A Concerned Individual

That sounded too stuck-up.

A Well-wisher

It didn’t sound great, but it would do. Oh! He almost forgot:

P.S. Happy birthday.

Yuu read over his draft carefully. As far as he could recall, Mika had never seen his handwriting before, so he didn’t have to worry about that side of things. It was short and to the point—there wasn’t any information one could use to figure out his identity.

From Yuu’s perspective, he thought the picture seemed revealing, but regardless of whether Mika saw through his transparent symbolism or not…he just hoped it would be received with the best intentions.

With the text of his letter settled, Yuu decided to break out the fanciest pen he possessed. It had its own individual white box, and its ink flowed dark and smooth. The barrel was patterned with deep-blue-and-tan marble swirls, and the cap was magnetic and could attach to the back end of the barrel, which Yuu thought was fun.

His alarm clock chose that moment to ring. Yuu set it again, this time for an hour and a half. Surely it wouldn’t be that difficult to write one flawless, even letter…

***

Surprisingly, Yuu made it through Monday and his Tuesday classes without hearing from Agi again. Well, he appreciated the time off, so he didn’t question it.

After he had finished copying out his letter to Mika (…three attempts later), he had requisitioned an envelope, a box, and wrapping paper from Fionnuala. He felt guilty that he burdened her with finding so many strange items all the time, but this wasn’t even close to the strangest request he ever made. Sure enough, she rose to the task with adroit precision.

In the end, he’d addressed the letter to Hyakuya Mikaela-kun. He didn’t want to come off as creepy by being overfamiliar. It would be a puzzling enough gift as it was.

Yuu had whiled away the last of his free time working on editing and translation. He’d promised that every contributor would get the chance to look over the final version of their entry and give their seal of approval, and Yuu still thought that was a good idea even though it created a lot of extra work for him. He had to pick out the errors, rewrite the memoir in a grammatically-correct fashion, and then hand it off to Sylvianne for her perusal. Those he had already gotten back from Sylvianne then needed to be translated into the opposite language.

After some deliberation, Yuu had figured that commentary wasn’t his style; instead, once he finished collecting enough entries, he planned on analyzing the data and performing his own research, for the sake of his own goals if not for publication. He would probably write a forward and afterword, but Yuu didn’t want to contribute any more than that. He wanted everyone’s writing to stand on its own.

Before he knew it, Yuu was making his way through the palace to make his prearranged meeting with Noin. He had put the present in his bag; he wasn’t silly enough to carry it around out in the open.

He found Noin already waiting for him, staring into the distance. He had never seen her hair out of its bun before; its length was impressive, falling past her back and down to her knees. For once, she wasn’t wearing her uniform either, but rather the nondescript clothing of an ordinary common vampire.

Yuu greeted her and she turned to face him.

Handing the present over to her, Yuu said, “I’ll track down the captain first thing tomorrow and get my end of the bargain sorted.”

“Please see that you do,” said Noin.

“Oh, and here,” Yuu said. He gave Noin a pouch full of gold. “This should be enough to bribe someone into finishing the job.”

Noin accepted the items with grace, stuffing them into a plain black messenger bag of her own. “You’re a very forward child, aren’t you, Yuuichirou?”

“Is there something wrong with that?” Yuu said. “I’m not the type who likes to dance around the situation. Everyone has things they have to do. I don’t like to waste my time, so I extend others the same courtesy. I think that makes perfect sense.”

“It’s efficient,” said Noin. “But rare.”

“What’s rare?” Yuu said, but even as he spoke Noin vanished into the air, skittering up and over buildings. Yuu didn’t bother to track her movements further.

As Yuu walked back into the palace, he felt a sense of restlessness overcome him.

He was doing all he could. He was biding his time, but the one thing he truly wanted felt as distant and unreachable as ever.

One year, he thought. That was what Krul said…if I behave and excel in my studies, she’ll extend me a measure of trust.

In other words…he was a little less than halfway through his trial period. In six months, he would be evaluated—and he couldn’t afford to fail.

Yuu stopped walking. He inhaled and exhaled, sensing the limits and capabilities of his body.

Mika…are you thinking of us, wherever you are?

Yuu tilted his head upwards, as if his gaze could pierce through the ceilings of the palace and the underground, all the way up to the harsh, unforgiving sun hidden behind the horizon.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

Antipathy, Crystallized

April 26th, 2017: Sanguinem

“Good evening, Fionnuala-san,” Yuu said as he emerged into the living room.

“Good evening, young master. It’s rare to see you up and about so early. In a hurry to meet with your literature tutor?”

“Hardly,” Yuu said, flopping down on the couch. It was about five o’ clock; there was still more than an hour till sunset, and three hours until his meeting with his literature tutor, Peter Paole.

As usual, Fionnuala had a stack of paperwork arrayed before her, which she attacked with ruthless precision. At his entrance, she had paused in her assault.

Yuu wondered how much of her work was a direct result of his actions. Undoubtedly, Fionnuala must be familiar with every supplier and item vendor in the city by now. With her knowledge of palace goings-on, there was a good chance that…

“Hey, do you know anything about the head librarian, Dael Cantor?”

“She presides over the public library here in the palace, as I recall.”

Yuu sensed her growing amusement behind her blank façade.

“I know that much,” Yuu said. “Her nameplate is on the front desk. I was hoping you might know where I could find her.”

“Ah, I see,” said Fionnuala. “She can be found in—”

***

“—the darkest, dustiest, most suspicious hallway of all time,” Yuu muttered to himself.

Dutifully following Fionnuala’s directions, Yuu had traversed the left wing of the second floor, turning down twisting and winding passages until he reached his presumed destination. The door to Dael Cantor’s office was at the end of a hallway, directly to his left. The area was dimly lit; clearly no servant had set foot in this place in a long time. Directly in front of him was a ledge, and what could have been a window was boarded up in addition to the iron fencing running in front of it, creating a pattern of repeating diamonds.

A brass nameplate inscribed with the name “Dael Cantor” was nailed to the door. Thus assured, Yuu knocked three times upon the surface of the dark wood.

No response. Yuu waited a polite five seconds or so before grabbing the doorknob and inviting himself inside.

The first things Yuu saw were the—tendrils hanging from the ceiling. A network of dark vines crisscrossed the entire surface: a rectangular area roughly twelve-by-twelve meters.

Maybe Yuu could have gotten past that and turned his attention to the rest of the room’s plant-based clutter, but then the vines started moving, no, slithering…

“Nope, nope, nope—”

“And just where do you think you’re going, little one?”

The owner of the snide voice was blocking the doorway, the only clear means of escape. Yuu’s eyes began darting around frantically, but no convenient alternative presented itself.

Reluctantly, Yuu focused his vision on the person before him. An oversized sweater had slid down one of her shoulders, and her brown pants weren’t in much better shape. In other words, it was not the kind of clothing a vampire would wear in public—or at all, Yuu would have thought if he were being honest.

“I’m still growing, you know,” Yuu said, meeting her eyes at last.

His words didn’t provoke any particular reaction. She simply squinted at him, a few brown strands falling out of her messy ponytail. Well, since there could be nothing wrong with her vision, she must be trying to convey her evident displeasure through use of visual information

“And?” said the vampire. “Out with it! What do you want?”

“Um…you are Dael Cantor, right? The head librarian?”

She crossed her arms. Her hands were covered with brown leather work gloves. “Yes, that’s me. And who are you, exactly?”

Oh…she really hadn’t heard of him? It was rare Yuu found an occasion to introduce himself properly these days. “I’m Yuuichirou Hyakuya.”

“An incomplete vampire, hm?” said Dael. “Did they repeal that pesky little law?”

“No, actually,” said Yuu. “They just made an exception in my case.”

“‘They?’” said Dael. “You mean Krul Tepes approved? I didn’t think she was the type to give special treatment.”

“The queen should be spoken of with more respect,” said Yuu. You never knew who might be listening. It was best not to slip.

“Irrelevant,” said Dael. “State your business.”

“It’s about the library, as you can imagine,” said Yuu.

“You have some objection to my administration?” said Dael.

“This is just based on my own observations,” said Yuu, “but I don’t get the impression that you administrate it at all.”

“You could say that,” said Dael. “Everyone is free to do as they wish, as long as no one burns the place to the ground.”

“In that case,” said Yuu, “you wouldn’t object to me doing as I wish, correct?”

“And what would that be?”

“As lovely as the current state of affairs is,” said Yuu, “from a practical perspective, it’s no good. Therefore, I want to get the library into shape—organize all the books, take complete inventory, and ideally, create a system where people can check books out and are held accountable if they don’t return them.”

Dael bit her bottom lip. Her upper-right fang pierced the flesh, releasing a gush of blood that dripped down onto her chin and the vulnerable knitting of her sweater.

“That is…something I must discourage,” said Dael. Her wound closed up, and her tongue darted out to lick up the blood.

So that’s why someone like her is in charge.

“Discourage?” Yuu pressed. “So you weren’t expressly ordered not to allow anyone to do so?”

“I suppose not,” said Dael.

In that case…Yuu would just have to take a gamble.

“You know, all your plants are so gorgeous,” said Yuu. “I bet other people would be dying to see them too…perhaps the members of the Plant Life and Gardening Committee?”

Dael’s face crumpled. “No…not my black-weed redbud…there’s nothing wrong with it, I swear!”

Like a child regarding a favorite teddy bear, she tenderly stroked a tendril of the hanging monstrosity.

“I’m sure, I’m sure,” Yuu said, trying to think about it as little as possible. “There’s no reason it has to come to that. All I want from you is an official seal of approval, to help smooth the process along.”

“You’re cruel,” Dael hissed. “Cruel…blackmail already, is it? Children grow up so fast.”

Before Yuu could stop himself, he flinched.

It’s not that big a deal, is it? All I want is to organize a library.

“Like I said, I want us to get along,” Yuu said. “By transforming the library into an effective service, it will benefit the majority. I will take care of everything,” he reiterated. “You can stay out of it and continue on with your life. If someone gives you trouble, I’d be happy to intervene on your behalf.”

Judging by her expression, Dael would have liked to go on complaining, but instead she gave him a sharp look.

“Very well, little lordling,” she said. “You can have what you want, but I’m holding you to your word.”

***

With the successful completion of his errand, Yuu resumed the flow of his daily life.

Unfortunately, his daily life included being stuck in a room for three hours with Peter Paole.

Several factors combined to create the cocktail of suffering that was his tutoring in the art of literature. First: Yuu had absolutely no interest in the subject in and of itself. He read to further his knowledge of the world around him; any pleasure gained from the process was a bonus, not the goal. Even when Yuu was younger, he had always preferred nonfiction to fiction. There were so many amazing stories that had actually happened—so many lives, each of them with their own history to record. In comparison, fiction hadn’t interested him much.

Second: the reading selection. It felt like Peter went out of his way to pick the driest, most boring books possible. Pretentious philosophy, lurid descriptions that went on for pages, a depressing lack of intrigue and gore…

Third: Peter Paole himself. Yuu could dissect his flaws for hours, but if he had to distill it down to a brief thesis statement, it would be—

“—and so you see that while the necrotic briar is often said to symbolize the breakdown in the protagonist’s mental state, some have argued that instead, it heralds a newfound freedom as the prickly exterior melts away, oncoming death bringing forth clarity. It’s open to interpretation.”

Ugh. That was obviously wrong. The author’s intent, however uninspired, was buried in the text for the reader to unearth. Two viewpoints in opposition to each other couldn’t both be valid.

“Um-hm,” Yuu said. If he appeared to pay attention to Peter’s lecture, he could usually zone out at his leisure.

Anyway, if Yuu were being honest, he was simply a repulsive person. That was all there was to it. Whether it was his greasy-looking brown hair—combed into two sections that flopped over his forehead—or the liquid-like, shifty eyes that rested lightly within his sockets, every possible feature and mannerism biased Yuu against him.

“I think that is enough on the subject of Strangers and Ancestors,” said Peter. “Then, if you will forgive the digression—Mr. Hyakuya, you are working on a book project at the moment, are you not?”

“Yes,” said Yuu. Did he only just find out, or is he choosing to bring it up now? “Are you interested in contributing?”

“That remains to be seen,” said Peter. “Nevertheless, I thought you might find it useful to talk to someone familiar with the publishing process. My most recent book is entering the final stages as we speak.”

Yuu grabbed onto the change in subject like a lifeline. “A book?”

“That’s right,” said Peter.

“What is it about?” Yuu asked.

“Well,” said Peter, looking as pleased as Yuu had ever seen him, “it’s nothing too special—this will be my fourteenth novel. It’s called Vole Hunt, and it’s about a group of vampires who live in an isolated area. They’ve prospered for centuries, but the status quo is disturbed when one vampire betrays his long-term partner and lies with a human.”

Yuu couldn’t imagine a human character in one of Peter’s novels actually receiving fair treatment. That was conjecture on Yuu’s part, since he had never read any of Peter’s writing, but he didn’t think it was an unreasonable hypothesis.

“Oh…cheating,” Yuu said. “Is it depressing?”

Peter narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. “I don’t think so. If anything, the publication process has been more stressful than writing the book this time around.”

“How so?”

“It has a philosophical bent,” said Peter, “so it has to go through the Literature Committee first, as is standard. But even these days, their queue is impressive—I expect I’ll be waiting a few months before it’s approved.”

“I see,” said Yuu. “Are you allowed to edit it in the meantime?”

Peter shrugged. “If I so choose. Any major content revisions would require an addendum to the submitted manuscript, but minor changes wouldn’t be a problem.”

“And when did you submit it?” Yuu said, trying not to appear overly interested.

“Just last week, actually,” said Peter.

…A rejection was probably too much to hope for, but Yuu wished the project ill fortune regardless.

***

“So what is it exactly that’s bothering you?” Chizue inquired.

At the moment, Yuu was accompanying her and Michi on the way to the palace. Even though Yuu felt he had demonstrated his control enough to begin speaking out loud, Michi had positioned himself between Chizue and Yuu, as if serving as her bodyguard—or blood sacrifice, in this case.

In his own head, he recoiled at the thought. That idle possibility could have become very real…

“Hyakuya-kun?”

“Right,” Yuu said, snapping out of his reverie. “Nothing much, honestly. Just thinking about my tutoring, I guess.”

Chizue made a noise of polite interest. “Oh? Do tell.”

Yuu supposed it didn’t matter if he told her. “I really hate my literature tutor.”

“And why is that?”

“He’s annoying,” Yuu said, lamenting his inability to distill his own hatred down to a pithy phrase.

“What kind of things are you reading?” Chizue asked.

“Boring—um, stuff,” Yuu said with a glance towards Michi. “Vampire lit, basically, and not even tolerable vampire lit.”

“I see,” said Chizue. “You know, it’s interesting…after all, there are a lot of books written by humans in the palace library. Or at least, presumed humans,” she added, taking on a serious mien.

She had a point, but Yuu wasn’t in the mood to play “Which historical figure was a secret vampire?”

“Well, I’m not reading any of them, anyway,” Yuu said. “I’m reading ‘the classics.’”

Chizue shrugged. “What’s a classic? That which suits society’s dominant paradigm.”

“Huh,” Yuu said. “I’ve never thought of it that way.”

“Brilliant as always,” Michi said, nudging Chizue. It was more of a brush, on second thought.

“Hardly,” Chizue said, but her voice was light. “I’d need to compile the evidence.”

Chizue paused, as if taking a moment to stew in warmth and good feeling. Perhaps her intelligence was overstated—Yuu didn’t know her well enough to say, and had a few points against her, besides—but at the very least, she was a talented speaker.

“If that’s the case, Hyakuya-kun,” she said, “do you want some recommendations?”

“Recommendations?” he repeated—in a learned manner, of course.

“For vampire lit that isn’t ‘boring,’” she clarified, “or prejudiced.”

“I guess,” Yuu said. He doubted such a thing existed.

Chizue tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I’m talking,” she said, “about the forbidden.”

Michi was halfway through rolling his eyes when he did a double-take. “Whoa, Chizue-chan…”

“Relax,” she said.

“Like, authors-in-disgrace kind of forbidden?”

“He’s just a baby”—Michi contorted his face and abruptly switched tracks—“vampire. Very scary vampire worthy of our respect.”

Yuu didn’t know how to placate him without bringing up the incident they were both trying desperately to forget, so he ignored him.

“I’m well aware,” said Chizue, her tone like the taste of lukewarm water. “Don’t worry, Michi-kun. Hyakuya-kun, I’ll lend you my copy of Fruit of the Night once things settle down a bit, hm?”

Sure enough, their feet had let them to the palace steps, where there were always a few human loiterers to be found. One boy had his head in his hands, clearly praying for the worst symptoms of blood loss to pass, while others had the tapping feet and crossed arms of those awaiting their companions. Either way, upon spying Yuu, the predictable scattering effect occurred once again.

Rather than continue to grill Chizue, Yuu decided to let it slide for now, seeing as they had almost arrived at their destination.

From there, it took less than two minutes to get to the library. It was bereft of doors, so Chizue was spared the chance to make a dramatic entrance.

The three of them lurked near the front desk for a few moments before Chizue decided to break the silence. She clapped her hands, startling those nearby. Some people peered down from the upper levels as well, curiosity getting the better of them.

“If I may have your attention, everyone?” Chizue said.

It didn’t take long before the quiet was restored.

“Orders,” Chizue said pleasantly, “from the head librarian.”

***

A flurry of activity ensued just as Chizue predicted. She seemed ready to spend a few hours ordering people around, flushed with newfound power. Miraculously, the visiting patrons (humans, for the most part; the occasional vampire paid them no mind, naturally) decided not to cross them, instead accepting the new state of affairs. Yuu was thankful he didn’t have to take action; it wouldn’t have been pretty.

Since Chizue and Michi seemed to have things in hand, Yuu wandered off to a secluded corner to peruse the book the “Assistant Librarian” had lent him.

To be honest, it wasn’t the kind of book that impressed at a glance. Fruit of the Night was an ill-treated paperback of precisely three-hundred-and-fifteen pages; on the cover was, fittingly, some cut-open fruit the name of which Yuu didn’t recall. The author, Damien Deathwing—a “bona fide” vampire, according to Chizue—did not inspire much confidence either.

With trepidation, Yuu opened it up, smoothing out some of the prominent wrinkles.

Chapter 1: The Approaching Dusk

The sudden pain stole Berengaria Monet from her nightmare.

She blinked, disoriented, at the ceiling. Sitting upwards, she realized what had happened—she had fallen from her bed, just as she had fallen from the tower her mind created…

***

“I cannot, Bére,” Maxence said gravely.

Berengaria pouted, tossing her expertly-shined platinum blonde curls over her shoulder. “My love…”

But still he shook his head, denying her. “You do not understand,” he said.

His eyebrows were thick and bushy and his face looked very pained.

Berengaria thought back to when her vampire lover first tasted her blood. It had been during somewhat dire circumstances, certainly, but she still remembered the pleasure that the prick of his fangs had given her.

“I think it will bring us closer together,” she said.

“I do not regret drinking from you before,” he said quietly. “But during our—lovemaking? I will not.”

Against her will, she felt sparks of humiliation begin to ignite in her stomach. “You—”

“—are not my prey,” Maxence said. “You are the love of my life, Bére, my equal and partner in every way. Unless dark times fall upon us once more, and unless you will it, I will never taste your blood again.”

Yet you certainly seem content to tell me what I can and cannot do, Berengaria thought. An instant later she regretted her reaction. It was her pride that was wounded, not her autonomy.

Reluctantly, she tried to take a step back from the situation and consider things from Maxence’s perspective.

“Hyakuya-kun?”

The sound of his name caused Yuu to look up from Fruit of the Night. A quick glance down again revealed that he had gotten to page 189 already. He bid his lost free time farewell.

Peering over his shoulder, Chizue noticed the same information. “Oh, wow! You got so far! What did you think?”

“It was…weird. But not all bad, I think.”

Chizue brought her hands together, creating the lightest of claps.

“That’s the way!” she said. “What was weird?”

“The descriptions,” Yuu said. “There were way too many…adverbs and adjectives.” He didn’t particularly want to admit to knowing what those were, but whatever. Xue would approve. “Like, at some point, it’s okay for words to stand on their own, right? Right?”

“Literature is not so simple that it can be reduced to numbers, Hyakuya-kun,” said Chizue. “…But, in principle, you’re not incorrect.”

“And the characters,” Yuu continued. “The main two were okay—well, actually, the guy was a little…sullen? Broody? He needs to knock it off. The main character’s actions made sense to me, but I think the author has a problem with excessively describing her. It’s weird for someone to talk about their own, um, appearance and outfits that much…like, I swear she stops to look in every mirror she comes across.”

“I can’t say you’re wrong there,” said Chizue. “I read a lot of romance novels, so I tend to tune things like that out after a while. But it does become trying.”

“Anyway,” Yuu said slowly, “what I liked best about it was that the vampire guy wasn’t a dick—or at least, not on purpose. Whenever he messed up, he and Berengaria talked it out. She didn’t take any of his shit, and he was always patient with her too. I guess it helped make it feel more like a fantasy novel.”

Yuu started, realizing his mistake. “Realistic fiction, I mean? Or…”

“Even after all this time, it’s still difficult to adjust to our new ‘normal,’ isn’t it?” she commiserated. “An idealized world is what you were searching for, perhaps? It’s not surprising for a romance. Too much societal unpleasantness tends to dispel the fantasy unless it’s part of the appeal in some way.”

“Actually, I’m a bit surprised you like this kind of thing,” Yuu said. “I mean…vampires are the enemy. Don’t you hate them?”

Chizue’s far-flung gaze abruptly refocused. “As much as anyone. But that doesn’t mean I can’t get along with individual vampires.”

She smiled at Yuu, highlighting the point. “I don’t see something like that book being out of the realm of possibility for a young vampire…someone who hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be human. I don’t think it’s impossible for current vampire society to change, either. I’m sure it would be the work of centuries, though, considering a vampire’s lifespan. Not an endeavor a human could manage!” She laughed.

“I’m sure it would be impossible to quickly change vampires’ attitudes as a whole,” Yuu said. “But—”

He cut himself off. If the leadership changed, it’s possible a new regime could force the matter to an extent. Well, he’d thought of something along those lines before; it was still best not to say it out loud. Chizue wasn’t wrong in thinking that it would take centuries in either case.

“…individuals could be persuaded,” Yuu said. “Maybe.”

“I’m sure you would know best,” Chizue deferred, an almost foxlike glint materializing in her dark eyes.

***

The next night, Mika’s birthday, was a Monday and thus one of Yuu’s nights off. He planned to spend it lying in bed, thinking, but as it turned out, his erstwhile combat instructor had other plans.

“Captain Farkas requests your presence,” Fionnuala announced, her voice even less revealing than usual, and so Yuu was forced to freshen up.

By the time he walked out into the living room, he found Agi looking about with interest, in spite of—or perhaps because of—the fact that there wasn’t much to see. Fionnuala, of course, had vanished.

Agi picked up the candle Yuu had received from Eleuterio from its place on the coffee table. She brought it closer to breathe in its scent, even though she must have already been able to do so from a distance. “Nice! Ever light it? It looks brand new.”

“No,” Yuu said with the beginnings of alarm. “Fionnuala says the smell is too overpowering.”

“Hm,” Agi said. “Anyway! Guess what?”

“…What?”

“The queen hasn’t yet reviewed my request,” Agi said apologetically, “but no matter! We may as well get you a sword.”

Yuu’s eyes were drawn to the katana he picked out months ago, hanging above the fireplace.

“You can bring that along too,” she said. “You can get it appraised. You’ll grow into it eventually, after all. Well, hopefully!”

Yuu frowned at the reminder while Agi waved her hands.

“Sorry, sorry!” she said. “I know you’re going all the way, right? Like a monk!”

“Well…that is—I will grow into it! For sure,” Yuu said.

“I’m sure you will, champ,” said Agi. “Now, let’s go! To the smithy!”

***

The trip to visit the blacksmith was made a little awkward by the fact that Yuu had to carry Glory’s Fire along with him—sans scabbard. It turned out that the palace armory had never acquired it, and so that was another item that Yuu had to attend to.

Staunchly ignoring the frequent looks he was receiving, Yuu asked, “So who is the blacksmith, anyway?”

“His name is Guistino Ferro,” Agi replied. “There’s a few blacksmiths here in the city, but what can I say. I just like the guy!”

“That’s great,” Yuu said. Rolling with the punches tended to be the best policy when talking to Agi. “Is he…skilled?”

“He’s completely competent in every way!” Agi said. “Just a little…hm. You know those vampires who get one too many centuries under their belts and then suddenly start talking about ‘kids these days?’ No matter how dumb it makes them sound?”

“I guess?”

“He’s got a little bit of that going on,” Agi said. “But he’s not a bad guy. You’ll see.”

Yuu pictured a haggard old man banging away on a piece of metal. He wasn’t sure he was all that eager to meet him, but he was looking forward to seeing the smithy.

Agi lead him through what Yuu figured to be some sort of business district. The smithy, as it turned out, was a rectangular one-story; nothing about its outward appearance stood out to Yuu. There wasn’t even any sort of sign present to reassure potential customers that they’d found the right place.

The door knocker appeared hand-forged. A small circle no more than two centimeters in diameter with a cross inscribed in its surface decorated the top, almost resembling a seal.

Agi lifted the knocker backwards and struck it thrice on the waiting metal plate. “Hey! You want to—”

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” a muffled voice grumbled.

Agi took a step back right before the door swung open, evading what would have been a smack to the face.

Guistino Ferro, master blacksmith, made a harried figure. His brown hair was matted; if he weren’t a vampire, Yuu had no doubt he’d be sweating buckets. He was wearing thick overalls made out of some sturdy-looking tawny material, with gloves to match. His boots were sizable as well. No doubt it was all designed to spare the wearer pain should some accident occur.

He was also ten years old. His red eyes glared fiercely at Yuu out of his baby-cheeked face, no doubt as a response to Yuu’s gaping mouth.

Yuu quickly shut his jaw with an audible clack of his teeth, but the damage was done. He could only attempt to project contrite respect as an apology. He wasn’t used to seeing vampires who were physically younger than him, that’s all…well, not that he could tell when everyone had their hoods up most of the time. Still, he was sure it was unusual.

“Guistino!” Agi cheered. “This is my newest student, Yuuichirou. Say hi!”

“That’s Mr. Ferro to you,” Guistino said. He took a few steps backward to give them space to enter, scuffing the floor as he went.

“Hello, Mr. Ferro,” Yuu said obligingly as he stepped inside.

“And hand me that sword!”

As Yuu did so, he took the opportunity to look around. The smithy was overwhelmingly earth-toned. Metal shavings littered the ground and a pile of chains was stacked up next to a small boulder, atop of which an anvil rested. To the right, a desk with various hammers lay; to the left, a somewhat-sloppy pile of firewood and a stove setup. In the back, even more tools hung from wooden pegs: Yuu recognized tongs and clamps, but there were many more that he had no name for at all. What he thought was likely the unlit forge was situated back there as well.

A window on the right wall courted the ambient light outside, but it did little to mitigate the dimness. Yuu’s eyes adjusted almost instantaneously, but it still put off the part of him that enjoyed seeing in full color.

“You were lucky I wasn’t in the middle of working on something,” Guistino said to Agi as Yuu tuned back in.

“But I told you I would be coming by yesterday!” Agi protested. “Or, well, I told a runner to go tell you.”

“Why would you say that?” Guistino sputtered. 

Yuu, for his part, was quite baffled by the proceedings. Instead of trying to make sense of their dialogue, he observed the gentle way Guistino laid Glory’s Fire down on a workbench.

“Anyway,” Agi said, “we didn’t come here just so you could look at your shiny new toy. I need you to make Yuuichirou here a second-class weapon.”

Guistino folded his arms. “You came to me for a mere second-class weapon, Captain?”

“Well, he’s going to outgrow the thing,” said Agi. “No need to waste the effort. That’s what the fancy katana’s for.”

“Second-class?” Yuu interjected. “I mean, I know that they’re the weapons common vampires use. Obviously. But what’s the difference between them and first-class weapons?”

It was the kind of terminology that Yuu had often heard being bandied about but had never gotten the chance to have explained to him. He disliked drawing attention to his “former-human” status when he was around vampires. Even so, having an expert in front of him was too good a chance to pass up.

“It’s true that common vampires largely use second-class weapons,” Agi said. “But there are exceptions.” She patted the sword at her hip fondly.

“Elite members of the city guard have a special dispensation to use first-class weapons,” Guistino agreed, shooting Agi a sideways look. “Second-class weapons are made with traditional vampire magic—runes to enhance durability, strength, and the like. As well as excellent materials and craftsmanship, of course. First-class weapons possess all the enhancements of their weaker counterparts along with the ability to draw from the user’s own strength.”

“A blood sacrifice,” Yuu said, remembering Xue’s oblique answer to his questions about magic from way back in November.

“More or less,” Guistino said. “So it would be wise not to be careless, young one.”

“I won’t be using one, so I won’t have to worry about it, at least for now,” Yuu said. He would have shrugged if he were amongst more casual company. Well, if it were just Agi. “Or, wait…”

“Wondering about this sword, hm?” Guistino said, indicating Glory’s Fire. “I can sense that it does not possess any thorns…at least, not in the traditional manner. I’ll have to run a full diagnostic…”

Agi made a soft tsk. “Well, hopefully it’s good enough. If not, we can always look through the palace armory again or have one forged when the time comes.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Yuu said, even though in reality he was still rather attached.

“Oh, that reminds me,” Agi said. “I brought the inscription for it, Guistino.”

Guistino looked like it was the last thing in the world he wanted, but he accepted the slip of paper from Agi anyway.

“Regardless,” Guistino said, “I just need to take your measurements. After that, you two may leave and I can resume my work in peace.”

“You’re such a grump,” Agi teased.

Before Yuu knew it Guistino was shaking out a dusty old measuring tape. He took Yuu’s height and wingspan as well as carefully going over the length and width of his hands. “For the grip,” he said.

Yuu’s part in the task done, he was free to relax as Guistino bustled about the smithy, clearly enjoying his light chatter with Agi despite all protests to the contrary. He grabbed some small pieces of firewood and headed over to the forge, setting them on top of the already-present pile of coal, his free hand reaching for the lighter—

“Bye!” Yuu said before dashing out the door.

After a minute or two, Agi followed after him, shutting the door much more carefully.

“Let’s walk for a bit,” she said, and so they did.

She led him to the outskirts of the city, uninhabitable half-demolished buildings surrounding them. It was here that they sat down, resting their backs against a crumbling wall.

“I’m fine with lights,” Yuu said, trying to find the right words to explain. “Lamps, lightbulbs, candles…but the bigger stuff, actual fire—I just don’t…like it, I guess.”

It was like—it was like he was back there, in the apartment he’d spent the first eight years of his life, feeling the heat behind the door, hearing (the scrape of the knife) his father calling him, and at the last watching the flames spreading, Yuu powerless to stop them.

Hands, lifting him out.

Agi was silent for a moment. “Guistino won’t think anything of it. It’s common among vampires. You’re aware that without protection from the sun we sort of, um, burst into—”

“I know,” Yuu said.

“Vampires who’ve experienced it often don’t take too kindly to it,” Agi said. “That’s all.”

Yuu looked down at the smooth, perfect skin of his left palm. “I’ve never felt it before.”

“That’s good,” Agi said. “Let’s try our best to keep it that way.”

Agi was sitting with her knees pulled up to her chest, her arms clasped over them. Her knightly white cloak would no doubt emerge from the experience a soiled wreck.

“Hey, Yuuichirou,” she said. “Why did you choose that blade, anyway? After you read its name?”

“Its name?” Yuu said. “I don’t know. I just thought it sounded cool.”

Peals of laughter rang out, filling in the cracks of the empty ruin. Yuu looked askance at Agi, but she was unmoved by his censure.

“Oh, kid,” she said. “Never stop being interesting.”

***

By the time Yuu had gotten through another two weeks of tutoring, his frustration had reached its boiling point.

As soon as he got back from his meeting with Iulian, he was ready to vent. Grabbing Fruit of the Night from his bedroom, he slammed it down with enough force to rattle the table.

Fionnuala looked up at him, raising an eyebrow. “Is that a romance novel?”

“Yes,” Yuu said. “Yes, it is.”

“Not your usual material,” Fionnuala commented.

“No,” Yuu said, “and it makes me mad.”

Fionnuala went back to work.

“It makes me mad that something can be so good and so bad at the same time.”

Fionnuala set down her pen in one deliberate motion. “Do go on, young master.”

“It’s dumb,” Yuu said. “It’s so dumb that it hurts me physically. I want to stab just about every character in this book. The “romance” was some love-at-first-sight nonsense that makes me want to barf, and that’s supposed to be the selling point. The villain is a joke, by the way. If only he managed to do his job properly; at least that would be memorable.

And before you ask, the writing doesn’t save it. It’s not charming and it’s not funny and it’s not emotional. It’s just functional. I’d say it gets the job done but the job itself wasn’t very good to begin with. So there.”

“I find it hard to believe you have anything positive to say about the novel,” said Fionnuala.

“Well, I do!” Yuu said. “And that’s the relations between humans and vampires.”

“Oh?”

“Never once did I get the impression that Max—the love-interest vampire guy—thought that he was better than the main character, who’s human. He was just…different. He was capable of certain things, Bére was capable of others, and that’s okay. So…I’m just glad I didn’t have to read about an arrogant, jerk-wad vampire ordering a human around, you know?

And that’s why I feel confident in saying it: even an almost-irredeemable piece of trash like Fruit of the Night is better than anything Peter Paole has or will ever write.”

“Have you ever read any of his work?” Fionnuala said.

“No,” said Yuu, “but a vampire like that wouldn’t think to filter out his awful opinions in his writing. They’d rise to the surface, like—like scum on the surface of a pond.”

“Maybe you’re right,” said Fionnuala. “But I’m afraid that your personal distaste does not affect the business of other people’s writing. They’re free to do as they wish as much as you are.”

“No, they’re not,” Yuu said.

“Hm?”

“There’s no ‘freedom of speech,’” Yuu said. “Only what Queen Krul allows. And she makes those decisions by delegating them to others—to a committee. A committee that Peter Paole has been required to submit to!”

“The Literature Committee,” Fionnuala said, consideration lacing her tongue. “A committee whose decisions you have no authority to alter.”

“Nope,” Yuu said. “Not yet. But I’ll get it—by becoming an expert. An expert who they absolutely must consult.”

“Do you hate him that much?” Fionnuala asked.

“Yes,” Yuu said. “Besides, it’ll be, like, a statement. If the Literature Committee rejects him, there’s no way the queen could allow him to continue as one of my tutors. It would be unseemly.”

A thought-criminal as a tutor—Yuu could imagine Vinícius’ horror plain as day. And Sylvianne’s joy, he thought wryly. But in any case, there was no need for things to go quite that far. He just needed to get a verdict of currently unsuitable for publication. Maybe jail if he got really, really lucky…

“I think you’ve misunderstood something fundamental,” said Fionnuala. “If I’ve understood the situation correctly, it is not he with the radical politics, but you, young master. How could you possibly find fault with his submission?”

“I’ll find a way,” Yuu said, his confidence supreme. It’s possible that whatever made it controversial enough to draw the Literature Committee’s attention in the first place will give me the ammunition I need. Just one mistake…the tiniest flaw… “It’s not like I need to prove that it’s objectively un-vampire-like in some way. I just need the majority of committee members to say that it is.”

“Twelve out of twenty-one, including you,” said Fionnuala. “Twelve votes…that’s…”

Fionnuala briefly raised a hand to her temple and then set it back down. “I see you’re determined to remove him. But you must realize…by attempting to publicly disgrace one of your tutors, you won’t only be making an enemy of Peter Paole. You’ll be questioning the judgment of the one who appointed him—our queen, Third Progenitor Krul Tepes.”

“Yeah, I realize that,” Yuu said, with a calm that surprised even himself. “But I don’t intend to meekly go along with everything the queen thinks is best for me. I want to take my fate into my own hands.”

Fionnuala sighed. “You have—not my approval, precisely, but my support. As you do in all things.”

“Thank you,” Yuu said. “I’m sure I’ll be relying on you a lot.”

Fionnuala inclined her head. “I’ll do my best not to disappoint.”

His mind racing in a thousand directions, Yuu picked up the even-more-tattered Fruit of the NightSorry, Chizue—and made to retreat into his room and begin planning.

“Young master,” Fionnuala said. “A moment, if you will?”

“Yes?” Yuu asked, stopping in his tracks.

“It’s about that vampire you used to spar with every night,” she said. “‘Noin Teta,’ correct?”

“Correct,” Yuu said, suddenly feeling the urge to swallow.

“It’s a pity,” Fionnuala said, “but I heard she did not return from her most recent mission.”

Does that mean…Mika didn’t get his birthday present?

His breathing sped up; Yuu raised a hand to his throat, hyperaware of its dryness. He took a step back. “Noin…I…”

He truly was a monster—he’d sent her to her death and his first thought hadn’t even been of her fate. No…she was the monster!

You’re cruel, Dael had said. Children grow up so fast…

Noin, dancing across the battlefield: You may as well concede, Yuuichirou.

“In fact,” Fionnuala said, “the only member of her squad who returned reported that the lot of them had been captured. An unenviable fate.”

“Captured?” Yuu croaked. “She’s not dead?”

“Oh, no,” Fionnuala said. “Well, to be accurate, I can only speculate. But there’s no doubt that even if she’s not, she wishes she were. The Japanese Imperial Demon Army is said to conduct the most gruesome of experiments.”

Yuu was dry heaving, but there was nothing to throw up. He clutched his stomach and sank to his knees.

“It’s a pity,” Fionnuala repeated, “that your acquaintance with her had to end in such an upsetting way—and that you had a hand in it, no less.”

“…What?”

“I was very sad…” Fionnuala said. “I wanted to feel sad so badly. Instead of trusting me to handle your affairs, you turned to an outsider...”

Yuu twisted his neck to look at her. “You followed me…are you saying that you had something to do with it?”

“Of course not,” Fionnuala said. “Oh. I do have standing orders to be by your side as much as possible, however.”

At some point, Fionnuala had approached him. She reached out her hand, the same temperature as his own, and carded it through his hair. She folded him into her arms, setting Yuu’s head under her chin. She stroked his back.

They stayed there for a long time. Such a strange feeling. Yuu remembered the look on Mika’s face when he saw Ferid appear that day in the hall. Delirious happiness turned to disbelief before sheer horror froze him to the bone.

Akane…Hikari…Nobuo…Chihiro…Kouta…Ako…Fumie…Taichi…Natsumi…Takahiro…Masaki…Mariko…Kaori…

Mika…

“Are you going to calm down?” Fionnuala asked. “It isn’t as if you cared for her.”

“No.”

“Then what is it you’re feeling right now? Guilt? How pointless. She was just a pawn to be used. And you can pick a better one next time, hm? I can help you do it…”

Who was Noin?

No one.

“Yes.”

He freed himself from her embrace.

“She was nothing to me,” Yuu said. “Just a filthy vampire.”

He went to his room and shut the door.

He only emerged when Agi came hours later to drag him out, leading him into streets strewn with light.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

The Provisional Twenty-first Member

June 30th, 2017: Sanguinem

“Respected vampires of the Literature Committee,” Yuu said, his eyes slowly panning across the room. “I have come before you tonight in regard to the work of one Peter Paole, royal poet of the court of our glorious Queen Krul.”

***

“Wish me luck, Iulian-sensei,” Yuu said to Iulian precisely one hour before the start of his meeting. Despite the fact that they spoke in English, Yuu had worn him down to the address a few months ago; “Mr. Vladimirescu” was just too much of a mouthful to say every time. “You’ve been a real pal. I couldn’t have done it without you. And, uh, you’re the best for cancelling our session today, of course.”

For a moment, Iulian seemed to swing between wild desperation and frantic laughter before settling back into gloom. “I’m afraid the job is not yet done. It is sad, but…scientists in all manner of eras have found that their work means nothing if they cannot present it in a way that the ruling bodies will accept. So…I wish you the best in the trial ahead.”

With a solemn nod, Yuu pivoted on his heel and marched out the door.

***

“When examining the work of such an accomplished author, even an august group such as yours may miss some of the exquisite subtleties contained within.

In such a case, it would only be natural to welcome the advice of someone who is, without a doubt, an expert in the subject.”

“Without a doubt?” The severe voice of Kylian Royer, fifteenth progenitor, rang out into the room. “We will require some evidence to support your claim.”

Kylian was seated closest to Yuu on the right side of a large oval table, his clothing grander than those around him. Besides the table, the only other items of note in the conference room were an interactive white board and a podium, both of which Yuu declined to use for the moment. Each of the twenty members of the Literature Committee were in possession of an informational packet he had provided, some of them flipping through it while others had their eyes fixed on Yuu.

Thanks to Fionnuala’s scouting, Yuu knew that Kylian was the highest-ranking noble on the committee…well, the only one, besides Chess. She’d described him as “belligerent and difficult to get along with,” which Yuu had duly translated into “one of the biggest assholes you’ll ever meet.”

“Of course,” Yuu said. “I’ll go into it in as much detail as you would like.”

***

The first step in his plan had been to familiarize himself with Peter Paole’s oeuvre—that is, all thirteen of his previously published novels.

Obtaining them had been a trick and a half, considering the bustling state of the palace library, but he’d managed to get his hands on a complete set within only three days. Peter had provided a few of them himself, wholly ignorant to Yuu’s plans at this stage and rather flattered to find his student taking such an eager interest in his work.

***

“I can speak for the quality of his novels myself”—they were indeed very terrible—“and, as his student, I am familiar with him on an academic level as well. I have written several essays on their contents, two of which are published and a further three awaiting review. With those credentials, it is accurate to say that I am one of the foremost scholars of Peter Paole in existence.”

Yuu was mature enough to admit he wasn’t one of the greatest writers around. He was only twelve, after all. Therefore, he’d thought it prudent to do a bit of outsourcing…

“Mr. Hyakuya,” a placid voice interjected. “Am I to understand your coverage is quite thorough?”

The owner was Bahargül Ismailov, a vampire Yuu would place in her early forties. Despite her calm voice, Yuu found her eyebrows to be very expressive; a glint of indigo glimmered at her pointed ears, her long hair carefully arranged to show them off.

“My full literature review can be found on page eight of your packets,” Yuu said, “to peruse at your leisure.”

While Bahargül acknowledged his words with the slightest of nods, her daughter, Aýnabat, flipped open her packet. The description was quite literal, in this case: Aýnabat, sixteen in appearance, was Bahargül’s child from when she was human, just as her mother also happened to be her sire now that they were vampires.

“Now,” Yuu said, “I’ll move onto the main body of proof.”

***

When he’d first told Chizue and Michi of his plans in early May, the reactions had been mixed.

“You want—every single one I can think of?” Chizue asked, her voice a broken whimper.

“That’s right,” Yuu said. “I can’t risk leaving a single stone unturned.”

“I held back before,” Michi declared, “but I have to say it. I mean—Chizue-chan—you must know that some of them make reference to, uh, material of a—”

“The…the love scenes,” Chizue said. “He’s talking about…the love scenes…so, whenever two characters start…touching each other a lot…you should just skip those parts. Gloss over them as much as possible.”

“You’re talking about sex,” Yuu said. That took him a while to parse. Had they suddenly forgotten Japanese? “I always hate when authors waste time with that sort of junk, too. I mean, I get that most romances involve it, but it almost never adds to the characterization or the plot…just once, I want a girl to pull a dagger out from under her skirt and—”

***

“I am aware of one hundred and forty-five novels that engage with the relevant topic,” Yuu said. “Of that number, one hundred and ten are the property of the palace library. The other thirty-five are housed in private collections. This is documented on page thirty-two; I included the title, author, genre, and location for each.”

“A respectable list,” Prakash Ranganathan said, a smile playing at the edges of his lips. “Compiling such material and understanding it, however, are two different beasts, Mr. Hyakuya.”

Yuu could tell that Prakash looked down on him, but that didn’t mean it was necessarily impossible for Yuu to persuade him to his point of view. In any case, there was no need to respond disproportionately to such an obvious taunt.

“Naturally,” Yuu said. “Beginning on page thirty-eight, I’ve written summaries of the relevant portion of each work for your reference. You may, of course, look up the originals yourselves, but as you can see from the signatures included on the final page, I’ve had them verified for accuracy and objectivity.”

***

“Sorry, Chizue,” Yuu said. “I’ll get your signature on a backup document just in case, but…”

Chizue had already read several of the books relevant to his studies and her help had been invaluable for locating them in a timely fashion. What’s more, she had even assisted him with writing the summaries as well…and yet, he wasn’t able to give her credit for her hard work. With guilt front and center in his heart, he hoped he would be able to get his hands on something useful for pregnancies soon.

She brushed his concerns away with a wave of her hand. “No, it’s fine. I understand completely. It’s possible that someone might go out of their way and question which ‘respectable authority’ reviewed your content summaries, correct?”

***

“So, who exactly are these people?” asked Suzume Amano. She tilted her head, shifting a ponytail kept in place by a sky-blue scrunchie.

Trust a “free spirit” to get all pedantic about the details…fine! Just remember: you asked for it.

“I’m so glad you asked,” Yuu said.

***

Yuu was responsible, right? Totally organized and dependable? Alas, there comes a point in every capable person’s life…

“Putting it on hold, hm?”

…where one must acknowledge the truth: he had way too much on his plate right now.

“Yeah,” Yuu said with a sigh. “I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me so far, Dubois-sensei, but this new project has to take priority, at least for the next month or so.”

To be honest, he wasn’t one-hundred-percent caught up with the entries for his book project, so it would be convenient to have an excuse to halt the intake of new ones for now.

“I see,” Sylvianne said, holding her teacup with an artful tremble. “I suppose this current endeavor of yours has no need of a historian’s expertise.”

Yuu thought about it. “Well, it’s not like I’m thinking of making you do any work, but there is one way you could help me out. If you’re willing, that is.”

She puffed out her chest. “Leave it to me!”

“Uh, are you sure you don’t want to know what you have to do before you agree…?”

***

“First, there’s Sylvianne Dubois, royal historian,” Yuu said, spreading his arms out for emphasis. “Literature may not be her field, but there’s no one more passionate about documenting the facts, I assure you.”

His words were pure truth—when it came to history, anyway. Sylvianne evinced nothing but the most lukewarm of pretenses towards caring about his reading material, but she proclaimed that she trusted the quality of Yuu’s work, and in the case that some fault was found with it, her signature was—funnily enough—but a forgery.

“Sylvianne Dubois is one of your tutors, right?” said Kelia Collingwood. “You must be so close…I’m envious.”

Kelia was well-known for being something of a loner, even among vampires. And yet, she’d lived in Sanguinem since its founding, so city life must agree with her.

“I’m sorry?” Yuu said. “Are you truly maligning the work of one of the most honored historians here at court”—that turn of phrase had come straight from the mouth of Sylvianne herself—“based on a notion you’ve formed on…what evidence, exactly?”

“Did I say that?” said Kelia. “No, no. I just wanted to clarify.”

Clarify it for everyone here, you mean, Yuu thought sourly.

…Maybe he’d laid it on a bit too thick. Time for damage control.

“My apologies, Ms. Collingwood,” he said. “My great respect for Ms. Dubois lead me to speak more harshly than I would otherwise. I pray you can forgive me.”

“Already done,” Kelia said.

“In that case,” Yuu said, “I’ll move on.”

***

Once Yuu had burned through the material Chizue was familiar with, he felt a deep reluctance to continue.

He knew he had to, but it was just so boring. So dull, God, why was he doing this to himself…

And that’s when the idea came to him: screw doing it by himself. Why waste the time when he could bribe others to do it for him?

“I have a crap-ton of work to do already,” Yuu said, “before you get the idea that I’m pawning it all off on other people. I just really can’t bring myself to care about these dumbass summaries. So…”

Kimi tapped her chin. “Are you sure you want me to do it? I’m just a kid. If you were already going to ask someone, then surely you could find a person with more skill and experience?”

“I’ve read your writing. You’re fine,” Yuu said.

Across the room, Hotaru yawned, lounging on a pile of cushions Yuu had procured for them.

“Genius as always, Yuuichirou,” Hotaru said. “You haven’t realized the flaw in your master plan?”

Yuu wracked his brain. After a few moments, he scowled. “What flaw?”

“Kimi doesn’t know English,” she said. “You dip.”

“Oh,” Yuu said. “I totally forgot about that.”

“I figured,” said Hotaru. “But guess who does?”

***

Yuu, Chizue, and Hotaru had covered most of the summaries between the three of them. But Yuu thought it would be a good idea to have another vampire besides Sylvianne backing them up in order to achieve the maximum professional aura possible.

“Lia Fierro, lady seneschal, reviewed them as well,” Yuu said. And if his pleasure shined through, then he couldn’t be blamed; it had been a real coup.

“No way,” said Chinatsu Chabashira, leaning back against her chair.

Despite being an ordinary common vampire in most ways, Chinatsu did have one claim to fame: she had experienced the burn of the sun no less than twelve times. Yuu thought wistfully back to the days when he thought exposure to ultraviolet rays could kill a vampire. It turned out that was a popular misconception; in actuality, the rays activated a dormant toxin within vampire bodies, causing them to ignite into eternal flames, unable to die nor starve properly and transform into a demon. It was considered one of the worst tortures a vampire could experience.

“You have my assurances,” Yuu said, “and her signature, of course.”

***

When he had first raised the subject of involving another vampire to Fionnuala, she had gotten straight to the point.

“You need someone who isn’t your tutor,” she said. “Someone you don’t interact with much, but who would have reason to support your cause…and someone whose word can’t be doubted. It’s clear there’s a superior candidate who would fit the bill.”

“I agree,” Yuu said.

An expectant pause filled the air.

That was to say, Yuu waited expectantly for Fionnuala to provide the answer.

“You should ask the lady seneschal,” Fionnuala said at last.

“Oh,” Yuu said. “Her.”

“Yes, her,” said Fionnuala. “Accusing the right hand of the queen of partiality would be unthinkable—and yet, at the same time, there is a clear reason for her to be partial. An ideal situation.”

“A clear reason?” Yuu asked. “Wait, you know about those old rumors?”

“It’s not an unreasonable conclusion,” said Fionnuala, “from the available evidence, anyway. Besides, it’s only natural for a sire to indulge her child on occasion. With her power backing you, no one could possibly—”

Fionnuala stopped short, as if she just remembered something.

“What is it?” Yuu said.

“No, it’s nothing,” she said. “It doesn’t matter for the moment. More importantly, you should ask the lady seneschal as close to your deadline as possible, but before we put in the request for the meeting.”

“You mean that…you don’t want me to let her know what it’s for?”

“It will be revealed to her eventually; of that I have no doubt,” Fionnuala said. “But a little time-honored trickery never hurt anyone. She might even be impressed.”

“Okay, fine,” Yuu said. “I get why asking her is a good idea, but even without the full picture, why would she agree to verify their accuracy?”

“Oh, young master,” she said. “Trust me—she will.”

***

“Then I think there can be no further room for doubt,” Mitra Dawan said, “on the matter of the novel summaries.”

Yuu didn’t know what to make of their dark, cool eyes. He couldn’t get a read on what they were thinking at all.

“Well then,” Yuu said. “I’ll reveal the results of my qualitative analysis.”

Turning his back on his audience, Yuu walked over to the podium.

***

“Ms. Slaski?” Yuu said.

“Yes, Yuuichirou?” said Aneta, her hand stilling mid-equation.

“If it’s okay for me to ask an off-topic question,” Yuu said, “I was wondering if you could teach me to use one of those?”

“One of those?”

“The fancy white board,” Yuu said.

“Oh, that,” Aneta said. “W-well, it’s, it’s connected to the computer at my desk. It also has a c-clicker—see?”

She displayed a rectangular black device that fit into the palm of her hand.

“Neat,” Yuu said. “You know, I respect you a lot, Ms. Slaski. None of my other tutors have adapted to the twenty-first century as well as you.”

She lowered her eyes. “I…I would not dare claim that I, that I was above them in any way. Certainly not.”

“Good thing I was the one who said it!” Yuu said. “Anyway, I was hoping you’d be able to help me make a presentation…I’m really at a loss here, you see, and I just know there’s no one better I could ask…”

***

Grabbing the clicker from one of the podium’s inner shelves, Yuu turned on the interactive white board. Messing with a laptop also hidden there, he loaded up the presentation just as Aneta had showed him. The only price for her cooperation had been picking a math-related theme; Yuu hadn’t possessed the strength to refute Aneta’s quick hands and eager expression.

One vampire, Blanchard Rambeau, looked especially intrigued by Yuu’s deft handling of technology, but didn’t raise his voice. Yuu wasn’t surprised; he was rumored to be involved in Sanguinem’s black market, acquiring various electronic items from the surface. It wasn’t that such items were illegal, but rather that the queen kept those who were allowed to sell them on a tight leash.

Going quickly past the electric-blue pluses and minuses on the title card, Yuu got into the meat of his presentation.

“Every one of the books I read were deemed appropriate for consumption by vampire society here in Sanguinem,” said Yuu, “either by not appearing objectionable to anyone or by receiving approval from this very committee, as occurred in three cases. I thought it was important to understand what exactly was contained within those pages.

And so, I performed a qualitative analysis, with Iulian Vladimirescu as my supervisor.”

***

Iulian, of course, had been thrilled to be a part of Yuu’s undertaking.

“I…” he began. “I’m so…”

“I wanted to go about this in the most scientific way possible,” Yuu assured him. “I know we’ve gone over quite a few experiments by now, but we haven’t really covered research methods and design, so I was hoping you could look over the categories I came up with and tell me if everything looks alright. I’ll be conducting all the actual research myself, of course.”

“You’ll be doing all the coding yourself?” Iulian murmured. “No…before that…”

“I know it’s beyond the requirements of your duties,” Yuu said, “but I think it’ll be good for us. You’ll get to tell me all about research, and I’ll have a nice, shiny little study. It’ll be great.”

“You’re…you’re supposed to learn about biology!” Iulian said. It was the loudest Yuu had ever heard him speak. Yuu was very proud.

“I know, Iulian-sensei,” Yuu said. “I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned so much that one might say a break is warranted. Not a break from learning, but rather a break from biology, so that I may return to the topic with fresh eyes and invigoration.”

Iulian’s head dropped onto his desk, as if his neck had stopped supporting it.

“Alright,” Yuu said. “How should I begin?”

***

“The code glossary includes each code’s full name, abbreviation, definition, when it should be applied, and text examples.”

“What is a ‘code’ in this context?” asked one particularly bored-looking vampire.

Thomas “Tommi” Korhonen…his question was perfectly reasonable, but the air around him was flippant, as if he didn’t care what the answer would be. He seemed to be in his early thirties, with medium-toned brown hair and a matching beard.

“Coding is the process by which data is categorized,” Yuu said, “so a code can be considered a descriptive name for a particular piece of observable data.”

***

Despite the vast amounts of information his project was producing, Yuu still wondered if the raw material he had gathered would be enough.

“I think I found almost everything written in English and Japanese,” Yuu said, having explained it all to Xue. “I don’t think anything written in Latin is relevant? Anyway. What if someone pulls out some book written in Spanish and tries to invalidate my research?”

“Is that an earnest concern of yours?”

“You know a ton of languages, right?” Yuu said with a winning smile.

Xue stared at him, her gaze level.

“Mr. Hyakuya,” she said. “It is not necessary for any given study to find every example, though it can. For instance, someone may want to know the population of noble vampires in Sanguinem, while another might want a census containing all vampires.”

“I see,” Yuu said. “I guess it’s fine then.”

Xue sighed. “I won’t go out of my way, but if I ever hear of such a novel, I will let you know.”

“Really?” Yuu said. “Thank you so much!”

In the end, she did end up contributing one novel. Whether her French-to-English translation was accurate would have to remain a mystery.

***

“It’s really a lot more simple than it sounds,” Yuu said. “I won’t go over all of the results—they’re really just there to display my thoroughness and for your own interpretation—but I’ll point out a few examples…let’s see.”

The pause was just for dramatic effect. Yuu already prepared what he wanted to talk about in advance, of course.

“In the category of heterosexual romance,” Yuu said, “you can see that it was slightly more common for the vampire to be a man and the human to be a woman; a 55-45 ratio.”

“Interesting,” said Shinobu Hisamatsu. Their hair was unusually long, extending to just before their waist. “I wonder if human prejudice has anything to do with it.”

“The purpose of this research wasn’t to develop a theory,” said Yuu, “but rather to prove my expertise in the subject. So I couldn’t say.”

***

“Mr. Hyakuya!” Vinícius said as Yuu came into class one evening.

“Hello, Mr. Mata,” Yuu said, keeping his reluctance private.

“I hear that you are going to be presenting in front of the Literature Committee,” he said. “And in two weeks, no less!”

“How did you know that?” Yuu demanded. That was privileged information. He had been telling people it was for an assignment to impress his wonderful literature tutor.

“Captain Farkas related the news to me just last night,” he said.

Agi! Yuu hadn’t even thought to hold back when talking to her. He knew she was a gossip, of course, but he thought she knew the difference between secrets and juicy tidbits. But if she goes around telling Vinícius things, of all people, then Yuu needed to seriously reconsider her trustworthiness.

“Why would she do that?” Yuu said. “Has she told other people?”

Vinícius’ expression became miffed. “I imagine not.”

Yuu squinted at him, but he didn’t crack.

“I’ll believe you for now,” Yuu said generously. “…What were you going to say originally?”

***

“For how much longer are we required to listen to this farce?” Franc Kozel snarled.

Yuu kept his expression steady, although inwardly his mood could be described as not pleased.

“Now, now,” said Ken Kajitani. “There are charts and data. I think a comedian would run out of steam long before that point.”

Franc’s features were sharp, almost rat-like, while Yuu could best describe Ken as—bland. He was the kind of vampire you could pass in the street and never think twice about.

“This is ridiculous!” Franc said. “We don’t need an expert in—"

“You’ve agreed to hear me out,” Yuu said, cutting him off, “and I am afraid I am not done speaking. Will you sit down now, Mr. Kozel?”

***

“That’s right,” said Vinícius. “Two weeks! Where’s the draft of your speech? I’ve no doubt it’s dreadful.”

“Draft?” Yuu said blankly. “Do I really have to write something out for this? I was just going to explain my work.”

Vinícius appeared to be rather worked up. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he said, “Yes, it’s quite necessary. And not only the speech itself; you must be prepared for rebuttals, questions, and concerns of all kinds.”

He drew in a breath and stood firm.

“You are a student of the most accomplished etiquette master in court! And what’s more, I was charged to tutor you in the art of conversation,” he said. “Very well. I, Vinicius Mata, swear it: you shall not embarrass yourself, even if it’s the last thing I do!”

***

Even Vinícius Mata, Yuu hoped, would be able to say that he handled the sudden flare-up with grace.

Clicking to the next slide, Yuu continued his presentation from where he left off, as if he had never been interrupted. He admired the uniform gracefulness of the slide dissolving into tiny squares and reforming into something new.

Even as he opened his mouth to speak again, Yuu couldn’t help but sneak a glance at one vampire in particular. When Fionnuala said that someone on the committee used to be a samurai, well, who wouldn’t be interested?

However, Susumu Mishima didn’t stand out. His arms crossed, he had listened to Yuu so far in patient silence. Still, Yuu didn’t think it wouldn’t be wise to mess with him.

On a bloody battlefield, Susumu had been surrounded by corpses, but his body, barely clinging to life, had been abandoned by his comrades. A traveling vampire had happened by and saved him. That was his sire’s intention, anyway. Yuu wondered what kind of story he’d have to tell, if he asked him to contribute to his book project sometime…

Shaking himself out of his mental tangent, Yuu pressed on.

***

“Captain!” Yuu said, nearly pouncing on Agi.

“Yuuichirou!” Agi said. “Did I do it right?”

“Never mind that,” Yuu said. “Why’d you go and spill the beans to Vinícius Mata? I told you it was a deadly secret!”

“Viní?” Agi said. “I thought he was an exception, since he’s also in the know…you know? Besides, we go way back. He’s a good friend of mine!”

Yuu was still trying to process “Viní” when “good friend” knocked him out cold.

“There’s no way…” Yuu said. “It’s just…not possible…”

Agi, the very appearance of concern, waved her hands in front of Yuu’s face, but he didn’t say another word.

Someone buy him a coffin; Yuu wasn’t crawling out for a long, long time.

***

“That’s all I had to say on the topic of the study,” Yuu said. “Does anyone have any questions?”

As usual, vampire memory was the gift that kept on giving. Once Vinícius and Yuu had finalized the speech to their (mostly Vinícius’) satisfaction, all he had to do was read the page once and he couldn’t fail to remember it. It was like having invisible notecards floating in front of his face. Without that ability, Yuu was sure he wouldn’t have managed anything nearly so eloquent.

“I have one,” said Meheitav’el Pascal. Yuu thought her skin was extraordinarily smooth-looking, even for a vampire. She was also the eldest in present company, hovering somewhere around four-thousand years old. “Why did you choose only primary sources? Why not review any academic articles—in a literature review, perhaps?”

You mean, why didn’t I stick my neck out and spout my opinions?

There were several reasons. First, there really wasn’t a lot on the topic in academia. Second, if he were to formulate a thesis, that would be equivalent to taking an ideological and political stance; an inherently messy prospect to defend.

“Something like this has never been done before, to my knowledge,” Yuu said. “I didn’t want to bite off more than I can chew. Besides, there’s plenty of time to expand or build on this research in the future.”

***

“Apparently, the lady seneschal is only free on Wednesday around midnight,” Fionnuala reported.

Yuu frowned. “If I’m going to visit Krul’s library, I want to make the best of it…but I’ll miss Minami-sensei’s class.”

“This opportunity is essential,” Fionnuala said. “I will send a message saying you are indisposed. I’m sure he will be understanding.”

***

“Oh?” said Lisanne van Asch. “Do you plan to continue soon?”

Her wavy black hair fell to the middle of her back; her eyes were equal in color. She was a gambler known for her prodigious amount of luck, but no doubt there was a decent amount of skill to go with it. As expected for a vampire favored by chance, her voting pattern was just as capricious, yet landed her on the majority side more often than not.

“Not for a few years, most likely,” Yuu said. “I have a lot of other interests to pursue.”

“Such accomplishments at such a young age,” she said. “The future of Sanguinem’s intelligentsia seems bright indeed.”

“Not really,” Yuu demurred. Well, he couldn’t imagine sticking around long enough to make those kinds of waves anyway.

“We’ll just have to see, then,” Lisanne said. Lacing her hands together and placing them beneath her chin, Yuu saw that she was wearing several rings. One of them was matte black, with a red diamond etched into its face.

Concluding his interaction with her, Yuu asked, “Any more questions?”

***

Once more making the trek up to Krul’s private library, Yuu wondered how he could possibly get Lia to assist him. Fionnuala seemed confident, but Yuu was far less certain. Surely his scheme would be seen through? And if it was, what then?

He found Lia waiting for him at the entrance.

“Do what you like,” she said, her fingers tapping away on her phone.

“Well…before that,” Yuu said.

She glared down at him. “What?”

“I’m working on a project for literature,” Yuu began, “where I had to summarize a lot of novels. Over one hundred! But you see, I have to get someone to verify their accuracy—make sure they’re not biased, basically. I already got one vampire to sign, but I need one more.”

“And this vampire did the same amount of work?” Lia said. “Ridiculous.”

“Absolutely,” Yuu said. “So you wouldn’t have to go through that yourself! Unless you wanted to.”

“Who is the imbecile in question?” Lia sniffed.

“My history tutor, Sylvianne Dubois,” Yuu said.

Lia brightened, as if a switch had been flipped. “Ms. Dubois, hm? Naturally, I had no idea. I was very impressed with Vampiric Torture Methods and Executions Through the Ages. If she concluded your work was satisfactory, then I shall sign it.”

Now doubly determined not to cross Lia in the future, Yuu transferred his papers into her willing arms.

***

“No one else?” Yuu asked, chipper. “Well then. As you can see, there is no greater expert on vampire-human romance in all of Sanguinem. Thank you very much for your time and consideration.”

“I cannot believe that was real,” Abhijit Singha said immediately.

“It could have been a bet,” Joni Venäläinen said in a thoughtful tone.

“I have not yet set the timer!” Kylian said, gnashing his teeth. The fangs added an interesting dimension to the act, Yuu thought.

While Kylian left the room, Yuu considered the two vampires who had just weighed in. Abhijit was a vampire with a strong sense of fairness, apparently; he would cast his vote based on what he thought was right, no matter how unpopular the opinion was.

As for Joni, he lived an ordinary-enough life, but held himself at arm’s length from his peers. Most of the time, he took the “politically correct” path, rarely getting into extended arguments with the others.

In a flash, Kylian returned, placing an hourglass on the table with surprising restraint.

“If you would turn around,” he said, and so Yuu did. It wasn’t the end of the world; his ears still worked at full capacity.

“Ten minutes. No more, no less.” Yuu listened to the displacement of air and the thud as the hourglass was flipped over.

“That was the cutest thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life, guys,” said Suzume. “A bet? No way!”

“Then it is you who is naïve, I’m afraid,” said Bahargül.

“A product such as this is not produced without passion,” said Josefina Sala.

Although he wasn’t able to see her expression at the moment, Yuu knew that out of all the members of the Literature Committee, it was she who held the most interest in, well, literature itself. The amount of times she voted against an author were extremely rare.

“It would be foolish to deny that,” said Prakash. “But passion towards what end?”

“What are you implying?” said Blanchard.

“Forgive me, esteemed colleagues, but most children don’t dream of making their mark in academia,” he said.

“I find your line of thought quite leading, Mr. Ranganathan,” said Meheitav’el. “Objectivity has no value in this committee. Only two things are relevant for the current discussion: whether Yuuichirou Hyakuya is an expert, and whether his services are needed. I believe the first point has been answered to the majority’s satisfaction.”

Murmurs of assent swept across the room.

“It’s obvious he’s unnecessary,” said Franc. “There’s nothing about this case that we can’t handle ourselves.”

“That last part is the key,” said Kelia. “Come on. Think just a little bit harder about it…”

“That’s true enough,” said Chinatsu, “but don’t we also have to think of, um…our dignity?”

“We lost all pretensions of dignity back in 1701,” said Tommi. “Remember? The time when—"

“The Great Toothpaste Debacle!” Aýnabat said, accompanied by the slam of fist hitting table. “That was a trip. Good times.”

“Well, obviously we know that,” Chinatsu said. “But what about the rest of the city?”

“I think it’s possible to be dangerous and silly at the same time?” said Ken. “I mean, Lord Kylian—”

“What?” said Kylian.

“What are your thoughts on the matter?” asked Ken.

“I concur with Mr. Kozel,” said Kylian. “An expert is not needed in the case of Peter Paole.”

“We value your wisdom,” said Lisanne, “as much as always.”

A brief pause ensued. Yuu wished he could see the glances that were being traded around the room.

“If he were an adult, that would be one thing,” Abhijit said slowly, “but since he’s so young, it’s…probably fine.”

“I don’t think anyone would accuse a child of being—of doing—that,” said Josefina. “He’s clearly a bright and proper young mind, and industrious too.”

Yuu had no idea what they were talking about, but whatever conclusions lead them to take his side were the correct ones. If he failed here, after coming so far, what would he tell everyone who helped him out? Sorry, guys: I got an F on my assignment.

And then there was Fionnuala, Agi, and Vinícius, who actually knew what was going on. They’d hardly be eager to help him out again if he let them down.

No…he was panicking over nothing. He was in the same room with the people discussing his fate; he couldn’t afford to show weakness.

But passion towards what end? Prakash had said.

Yuu would show him, show all of them, when the time came—not a second earlier.

“Industrious, yes,” said Mitra, once more giving Yuu no idea of how they actually felt.

“Well,” a voice said, “I, for one, am all for it!”

The voice’s owner hadn’t spoken once all night, but Yuu was aware of who it belonged to nonetheless.

Seventeenth Progenitor Chess Belle clapped her hands. “We’ve gone through this process so many times, after all. It never hurts to have a fresh perspective in order to come to the best conclusion for our wonderful city. What do you all think?”

Yuu heard several intakes of breath, and then abrupt sighs.

“Time’s up,” Susumu said.

“Mr. Hyakuya,” Kylian called.

Yuu turned around.

“You may leave,” he said. “It’s time to vote.”

***

Somehow, once Yuu left the conference room and stepped out into the hallway, he could no longer decipher the voices within—could it be thanks to a ward of some kind? Regardless of the means, the result was that Yuu had no choice but to stand in place and wait for the results.

Likelier than not, it took less than five minutes for the door to reopen; still, it felt like an eternity to Yuu. He stood up straighter and tried to project confidence.

“The vote,” said Kylian, “was fourteen to six in your favor. Congratulations.”

That was what he said, but he completely failed to project any happiness. That was alright; Yuu would be happy enough for the both of them.

“I must give you a copy of the manuscript,” he said. A servant came running up to fulfill that purpose. Yuu accepted the servant’s burden with words of thanks.

“I already informed everyone else, but because of your acceptance the hearing has been pushed back.” As Kylian spoke, the members of the Literature Committee began filing out. Yuu tried to read their faces, but he didn’t get very far. “The date is set for October 31st at 10:00 PM—I trust you won’t be late.”

“I won’t,” Yuu said.

Kylian had begun to walk away as soon as he finished speaking, but it cost Yuu nothing to be polite.

Before he knew it, he was alone—well, almost.

“Hello!” said Chess, her hands clasped behind her back. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

She looked the same as he remembered her. Lively energy radiated from her frame as she bounced on the balls of her feet.

Yuu hadn’t really thought about it before, but he wondered how much she knew about the disaster that caused him to flee from the party at Crowley’s mansion. Yuu should probably just assume she knew everything, but there was no reason to bring it up now—or ever—and so he refrained.

“It has,” Yuu said. “How have you been?”

“Well, thank you,” Chess said. “But this is no place to catch up. Would you accept an invitation for—let’s see—ten to midnight on Sunday?”

“That should be fine,” Yuu said. “I accept.”

“Excellent!” Chess said. “You haven’t forgotten the way, have you? I’ll see you then!”

She disappeared in the nick of time. Fionnuala rounded the corner, moving more quickly than usual.

“You want to hear all about it, right?” Yuu said smugly. “I won’t leave you in suspense. I got in, of course. I’m sure the essays you wrote on Paole’s work clinched it,” he added. No one could accuse Yuu of being bad at flattery.

She really had done a nice job on them, though. Yuu had been forced to copy everyone else’s work into his own handwriting, but Fionnuala had simply asked for a sample to look at it before mimicking it perfectly.

“I know,” Fionnuala said. “The confirmation, not the essays.”

“How did you know?” Yuu said, put out by her matter-of-fact tone.

“I think we would both be very frustrated otherwise,” she said. “But never mind that. A courier gave me this. Will you open it?”

She handed Yuu a white envelope. Apprehension stirring in his mind, he did as Fionnuala asked.

YOU ARE INVITED TO PERFORM A CONCERT FOR

Third Progenitor Krul Tepes, Queen of Japan

IN THE THRONE ROOM

SATURDAY, JULY 1st

11:30 P.M.

“That…that’s tomorrow…” Yuu said.

“What’s tomorrow?” Fionnuala said. “Read it to me!”

In lieu of following her order, he handed the invitation—or rather, the command—over to her.

If Fionnuala’s face could have paled any further, Yuu’s sure it would have. “I will track down Minami-san immediately. Are you…have you become quite proficient? No, more importantly, this is clearly a pretense…”

It had been over six months since Yuu had seen the vampire queen face to face.

In that time, Yuu had performed a dozen acts of rebellion that could have drawn her ire, but they had all been met with no reaction whatsoever. So this was the one she chose to respond to after all…

…he was almost looking forward to it.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

A Spark of Divinity

July 1st, 2017: Sanguinem

Hashirou Minami set the tuba in its case with the same care as one preparing a corpse for burial.

“Don’t apologize,” he said, raising a hand to forestall Yuu’s speech. “You’ve done the best you could in the time you were given.”

They had been in Hashirou’s personal practice room—an average-sized room with a few chairs and stands along with a piano—for the remainder of the previous night and all day as well. Yuu’s tuba was normally stored here as well—it was not like he had ever been motivated to practice outside of his tutoring sessions. But before he knew it, the sun had set once more. Now, it was almost ten-thirty, and Yuu was out of time.

“If anything goes wrong, it’s my fault,” Yuu said. “I’ll make sure the queen understands that.”

Hashirou shook his head. “Do you remember what I told you when you first chose that instrument?”

Yuu thought about it. “‘If you have your heart set on it.’”

“Not that,” Hashirou said. “The tuba is a bass instrument. Not really intended for solo work, though it can, of course, shine in such situations. The tuba’s most effective place is often as a member of an ensemble.”

“Oh,” Yuu said. “I know that.”

Hashirou managed an exhausted smile. “It is the music’s heartbeat,” he said. “Should the tuba stray from its course, the rest of the ensemble will soon be lost. Please keep that in mind.”

You say that, but in the end, I’ll still be playing by myself…

In deference to the fact that Hashirou had been quietly going insane the moment he heard the news, Yuu decided to take his advice with a nod and a smile.

***

Case in hand, Yuu ascended the three central flights of stairs and stilled before the imposing doors to the throne room. The area appeared to be deserted, but after a moment Lia Fierro materialized into his field of view. Not a single hair on her head was out of place.

“Lady Seneschal,” he greeted her.

“Yuuichirou Hyakuya,” she said. “There is a side room that musicians often use to warm up in situations like these. I will lead you there.”

Yuu couldn’t resist setting his better wisdom aside and taunting her. “Sure you don’t regret putting your name to my ‘literature project?’”

Lia’s demeanor was serene. “It does no harm to indulge in the occasional spontaneity. I cleared it with Queen Krul afterwards, naturally.”

“Of course,” Yuu said.

Whether she was covering for herself or not, Yuu couldn’t tell. He supposed he should expect nothing less from someone who dwelt in the heart of Sanguinem politics.

As it turned out, the room she referred to was no more than a few steps down the hallway to the right. Yuu unlatched his case and did as he was bid.

***

When he had done all he could, Yuu left the side room and stepped into the throne room. As the doors slid shut behind him, he was shocked to see Arukanu flying towards him. Dropping his case, he put his arms up as a defensive measure, but the familiar merely hovered in place a meter in front of him.

“For a musician to treat his instrument so—how careless.”

Yuu loathed to take his eyes off Arukanu, but to ignore Krul would be equally foolish.

“My apologies,” he said, trying to gaze respectfully in Krul’s direction while also tracking her familiar’s movements.

As before, Krul’s frame dominated the throne despite her lack of size; the intensity of her eyes could pin even the most confident onlooker in place. The black fabric of her knee-length dress looked light, almost gossamer. As she shifted, silver thread embroidered within it caught and hid from the light in its turn. In contrast, her hair accessories were matte black and spiked like the wings of her bat, placed above her ears to keep the longer strands from falling into her face.

“He is not trying to attack you,” Krul said. “If that were my aim, do you not think I would have been more discreet? Or perhaps more efficient.”

Her right hand made a dismissive gesture. “Blood calls to blood. Nothing more. You may touch him, if you wish.”

As if her words were an understood command, Arukanu dared to come nearer. Yuu held out his left arm, and Arukanu preceded to alight upon it. With the lightest of touches, Yuu stroked the soft fur on his head. His lone, dark eye stared up at Yuu.

Blood calls to blood, hm? I don’t plan on doing your mistress any harm tonight, so for now let’s get along.

His earlier caution felt a bit excessive to him now, but all the same, he had no knowledge of Arukanu’s capabilities. No amount of prudence was too much when one’s opponent was the queen of vampires.

With that in mind, Yuu slowly rotated his arm. Instead of flying away, however, his passenger held on, leaving Yuu to stare helplessly at the upside-down bat.

“You’re very cute,” Yuu praised. “And powerful! Immensely powerful. It is an honor beyond measure to be favored by your presence so.”

“I see you’ve learned from someone in your time here,” Krul said. And, with a tilt of her head: “You may return.”

Arukanu obliged her, flying back to Krul’s side.

She waved Yuu forward. In front of her was a chair—a helpful aid for a performer. Plucking his abandoned case from the unforgiving ground, Yuu approached, bowed, and took his seat.

Setting up his instrument and getting into position was a matter of habit at this point. Yuu did so without thinking about it; instead, he focused his mind, trying to calm himself as much as possible.

Even so, Yuu couldn’t resist glancing upwards at Krul.

“At your convenience,” she said.

He played.

Out of all his education, it would be fair to say that Yuu counted his music lessons among the least stimulating. He read music sheets, painstakingly transferred their contents to muscle memory, and tried to play each song with the most technical skill possible. He not only had to hit the correct notes, but also had to do so with the proper tone and breathing. It all required intense precision that often moved him to frustration, even while contending with his not-inconsiderable attention span.

The selected three pieces together took around twenty-five minutes to get through. When faced with the life- and career-threatening prospect of failure, Hashirou had decided to keep things simple.

Yuu was sympathetic to his tutor’s plight. When it came down to it, he’d rather his fate not rest in the hands of another’s ability. The waiting must be like standing beneath the jaws of a lion, unknowing when they would retreat—or snap shut.

At last, Yuu’s right hand stilled upon the keys and his lips parted from the mouthpiece. He made no further motion.

Krul raised her hands and brought them together for a few seconds. The claps echoed through the vast hall.

“I see I was mistaken,” she said. “You are no musician. Your treatment of your instrument was only natural.”

Alarm and dismay filled his heart, brutal in the swiftness of their arrival, but his face didn’t move from its placid indifference.

“Your skill was more than adequate, but it’s clear your spirit was elsewhere,” she said. “I must apologize to Hashirou for giving him a thankless task, indeed.

Nevertheless, it is good for a child to cultivate discipline,” Krul concluded. “It’s fine for you to continue on as you have been. If you evince no higher interest in the subject, it is no great loss for the world.”

“Thank you,” Yuu said. He would have bowed, but his tuba hoarded the necessary space.

Krul leaned back against her throne.

“Last time, there was a barrier between us as well, I would recall,” she said softly. “This time, you should have no compunctions against…removing it.”

Treating his tuba with more care than he had when he first entered the room, he wiped the mouthpiece with a cleaning cloth before returning the tuba to its case. He closed it up and, after a moment of hesitation, placed it slightly behind him on his left side.

“Your eyes haven’t changed,” Krul said. “You’ve managed to resist far longer than most. Do you find it an easy task?”

“No,” Yuu said. “But it’s what I have to do. There’s no other choice.”

“Hold fast to your resolve,” she said, “if it pleases you.”

“I shall,” Yuu said.

“Fearless,” Krul said.

“What?”

“Blunt. Direct. One who takes not the meandering road. Do I give you the impression that I do not listen to many grievances, Yuuichirou?”

Yuu considered his reply carefully. “I would imagine that you hear many of them whether you would like to or not.”

“Even a queen of vampires cannot do all she wishes,” Krul allowed. “Well then. Have you thought of airing yours to me?”

The absurd question knocked Yuu off balance. What could he say?

“…I decided against doing something like that for two reasons. First, there was no reason to, and second, because I was told not to meet with you unless it was an emergency.”

“True enough,” she said, “but that does not preclude contacting me, as you are aware.”

“Yes,” Yuu said. “I know.”

“Contacting me,” she said, “about potential…reassignments.”

“Oh,” he said.

She studied his expression. “I genuinely don’t believe it occurred to you.”

“I get what you mean, I just don’t see what the point of that would have been.”

“Elaborate.”

“From an outsider’s perspective, you’re already being generous by assigning some random vampire of unknown pedigree—um, no offense meant—so much talent. Even if I am the first new vampire in over a century. Furthermore, they are all well established at court and can be presumed to have a certain amount of goodwill with you. Having even one removed based on something so trivial as a…’personality clash’ would be unwise, and thus extremely unlikely.”

“A personality clash,” she said, looking at him intently. “That is all?”

“I’m not really a big fan of the curriculum or the way it’s taught,” Yuu said, “and those are symptoms of personality, yes.”

“I see,” Krul said. “Yes, I’m beginning to understand. To settle this via my authority would be unacceptable, so you did not even conceive of it. Your pride would accept nothing less than a public arena: one that would validate and vindicate you in the eyes of others.

Of course, I could end this crusade here and now if I so choose. But I think not.”

“Your majesty?” he prompted.

A smile flashed across Krul’s face.

“To the child of a third progenitor, a common vampire is like a worm. Something that wriggles and writhes for your amusement before you crush it beneath your foot.”

“Do you believe that?”

“I enforce it,” said Krul, “and thus I make it so. I’m afraid such a child can no more do all he pleases than a queen, however, especially when his proper title is not yet free to claim. For we are not all children and worms, but rather players in a game of a complexity you cannot even begin to imagine.

Yes, I am content. The sides are as even as possible, given what there is to work with…”

“I am deeply grateful for your approval of my actions,” Yuu said. Understanding Krul was a futile task; at times like these, it was best to fall back on platitudes.

“I am ever entertained by the tapestry of your life,” she said. “I can only foresee one element spoiling the situation, and that is an excess of stupidity.”

Yuu wasn’t allowed to be affronted, so he refrained.

“Let me be clear,” she said. “In the conflict to come, you’ll find no interference from me—either in your favor or against you. I will watch it unfold; nothing more. All I will do is correct that which I find most intolerable. You have a fleet of fine tutors, as you said, but surely a lesson from your sire wouldn’t go amiss.”

Yuu stared at her. “A lesson…?”

“Consider this your crash course in Sanguinem politics,” Krul said. “Do try to keep up.”

“I will—I will do my best,” Yuu said.

She raised her arms up in a languid stretch. “I tire of sitting. I shall walk about. You may stay there.”

As Krul rose, her familiar spread his wings and left the resting place of her body. Instead, he fluttered back over to Yuu, settling on his right shoulder. Yuu gave him a few tentative strokes.

Meanwhile, in order to pay Krul the proper amount of attention, he was forced to jerk his head back and forth while he watched the queen pace like a jungle cat.

“Let’s begin with internal affairs,” she said. “Nominally, every vampire in this country swears their allegiance to me. Setting aside such paper-thin vows, what do we have left?”

“Those who are actually loyal to you,” Yuu said.

“For a given value of such. That is a very select few; a useful group, certainly. More broadly, there are my active supporters: those who compose my faction.”

Krul’s foot ground into the marble flooring, causing hairline fractures to spread through its surface. “Then there are the supporters of that swine—Ferid Bathory’s so-called faction. It is only natural for those seeking to counter me to turn to the second-highest ranking noble in Sanguinem, although I can’t imagine how further acquaintance doesn’t send them running.”

Her eyes burned into his. “Can you imagine the attraction?”

Dredging up Ferid Bathory’s “good qualities” felt like drinking sludge. “He’s sneaky. And smart…I guess.”

“That unfathomable charisma…he’s an incurable eccentric, but there are those who believe he’ll end up getting what he wants. Those who question why I have not removed him.”

“Is that my fault?” Yuu said, sudden understanding coming to him. “Because he knows I’m your child…is he using that against you somehow?”

It was Krul’s turn to stare at him. “Oh, no. It’s much worse than that. Did I not tell you?”

“‘He is the only one outside of my trusted circle who is aware of your status, but he has his own incentives for keeping quiet,’” Yuu parroted dutifully.

“I understand the confusion now,” she said. “Lia, Vinícius, and Agi—and your seneschal—know you’re my child, of course. There are countless others who may suspect, but certainly haven’t heard it from me. Ferid Bathory knows that much and worse.”

Storm clouds crossed her face, but she continued. “He knows you’re a seraph. And I have not yet managed to ferret out his sources.”

“He knows?” Yuu said. “About…Mikaela, too?”

“Oh, yes,” she said. “I have no doubt that stage production back in October was merely a pretense. Its real purpose was to sell Mikaela Hyakuya to the Order of the Imperial Demons. Why that rat desires to curry such favor with an informant in the Japanese Imperial Demon Army, I decline to speculate.”

“That…that’s treason,” Yuu said. “Definitely treason, right?”

“Most definitely,” said Krul. “And I would gladly have his head on a spike—were it not for the threat of turning me into the Council. An outcome that ends with both of us very, very dead. I trust you have not forgotten that.”

“No, your majesty,” Yuu said. “…My family died for something like that…no…for scum like that…?”

“I have no doubt that he enjoyed the process,” she said. “Do not work yourself into a lather, Yuuichirou. Mikaela is alive and safe, regardless of the nature of his transfer into the Order of the Imperial Demons’ care.”

“Back then, you said ‘pray that they don’t know what they have in Mikaela,’” Yuu said. “But if Ferid knows, then those people could as well!”

“As far as I have been able to determine, the Order at large is in the dark as to his true status. He is not being experimented on. Therefore, you have no reason to panic.”

“You—”

“Cease this line of questioning at once.”

—liar, his heart screamed, but at Krul’s admonition Yuu merely clicked his jaw shut and crossed his arms. He couldn’t afford to lash out, no matter how much he wanted to.

“There are those,” she said, resuming her lecture as if nothing had happened, “who remain neutral. People who benefit from the status quo and care not what it looks like, for the most part. Some can be converted or swayed, of course, but others aid no one but themselves regardless of circumstance.

There are many other powers in Sanguinem, but they can largely be folded into foreign influence of one kind or another.”

“What about the Royal Council?” Yuu asked.

“Ah, my beloved snake nest,” said Krul. “Perhaps I’ll tell you who’s in whose pocket another night. It’s not relevant to what you’re about to face.”

A part of Yuu was curious, but her words were true enough.

“I will elaborate a little,” said she, “on the subject of foreign powers. Japan is not the only country under vampire control. In name, the entire world is ours.”

“In name?”

“Practically, there are pockets of human resistance,” Krul said, “as well as the occasional defection from our ranks. The authority to rule and the assignments I and my peers are granted are nominally derived from the Progenitor Council; to defy the Council is to upset the unified foundation of vampire society, so naturally it cannot be borne.

To be a child of the First Progenitor is to have a seat on the Council. I often wish that he had been more sparing with his gift, but alas, we must all work with what we’re given. Arrogant, power-hungry vampires that they are—there is no way such as them could resist meddling in the affairs of their brethren. That is the situation to this night.

The most powerful outside factions in Sanguinem are Second Progenitor Urd Geales’, Second Progenitor Verthandi Asketill’s, and Third Progenitor Lest Karr’s. Of those, Lest’s is the most aggressive in its efforts.

Third Progenitor Farah el Sayed and Third Progenitor Nix Parthe are worth noting as well, but their personalities tend less towards interfering wretch and more towards due diligence. Of course, Third Progenitor Natalia Brónach has her contacts as well, but she’s tied up at the moment.”

“So do you have people keeping tabs on all of your—fellow Council members?”

“Just so,” said Krul. “I have much to deal with here in Japan, but to lose sight of the bigger picture would be foolish beyond compare.”

She stopped pacing and looked at him.

“To know how to act,” said Krul, “you must know from where you begin. Where does the incomplete vampire Yuuichirou Hyakuya fit in? You are a member of my faction by default, considering that I am your generous benefactor whom you owe so much to. But you’re also young; you could easily choose differently and distance yourself from me when you’re older. Or so others might think,” she added. “Aside from being your sire, you quite literally have my blood in your veins—a complicating factor. You have no choice but to remain on good terms with me, at least for now. Am I wrong?”

“No,” Yuu said. “You’re right.”

“And so I am,” Krul said. “That is as much as I feel like telling you for one night. How to proceed from here is something you must determine for yourself.”

She turned her back on him.

“You are dismissed.”

Yuu felt the gentlest pinprick of claws through the cloth covering his shoulder as Arukanu spread his wings and returned to his master. Krul held out her arm, providing a place for him to land, and gave him a few strokes of her own.

For his part, Yuu simply stood up, bowed, and departed.

***

Yuu barely had time to recover from his strange audience with Krul before the demands of social obligations forced him to leave his chambers once more.

“It’s been an entire night,” Fionnuala said.

“Not enough time,” Yuu lamented.

“You like interacting with people.”

“Well, yeah,” Yuu said. “But hanging out with people I like and going to stressful meetings are two very different things. Minami-sensei almost died last night!”

“I don’t think things were ever quite that dire—probably,” she said. “And in any case, you should have been more worried about yourself…anyway, this is business. You would do well not to waste the opportunity that has fallen into your lap.”

“I won’t!” Yuu said, injecting a generous amount of complaint into his tone.

Fionnuala shooed him away, so he left. He should have known better than to expect sympathy from that quarter.

As he walked, he contemplated what Krul had told him once more, one night having been far from enough to properly organize his thoughts. It wasn’t exactly news to him that vampires weren’t a monolith, but thanks to being in-the-know about the seraph business, Yuu was probably one of the only people who knew how much stress Krul was really under.

More importantly, her words at the end…how should he interpret them? To admit that he was functionally a member of Krul’s faction was only logical; the ties of blood and obligation bound them ever closer together.

However, the idea clashed with something fundamental deep within him. Krul hadn’t failed to live up to his expectations his first meeting with her had set. She was arrogant, domineering, controlling—she viewed Sanguinem and its inhabitants as toys for her amusement. He had wondered why she hadn’t stepped in to discipline him—it seemed that he wasn’t even worthy of that much respect. And if this were the way she treated her fellow vampires, then surely to her, humans were less than ants…

He understood now, at least a little, the personality who could order the mass enslavement of children without a shred of remorse. The hierarchy of blood—blood supremacy?—considered not the prey that lay at its feet.

If he were forced to answer the question of where he fit in, then he’d say that he’d fight to achieve his own desires and protect those he cared for at all costs. If the queen of vampires felt like being generous, then who was he to stop her? He’d take every piece of information she offered, hoard it greedily, and turn it into weaponry.

If a show was what she wanted, he would give her something worth remembering. Yuu had no intention of losing—not to Peter Paole, not to Krul, not to anyone.

And then, when the time was right, he’d find a way to cut himself loose from this web he’d been entangled in, and free himself from the condescending gaze of the vampire called Krul—for good.

***

His second visit to Crowley’s mansion was turning out infinitely more pleasant than his first.

“Yuuichirou!” Chess crowed, having evidently been waiting by the front door.

“Lady Chess,” Yuu said, and held out the box in his hands.

“A present? Such a gentleman,” she said, whisking it away from him. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the vampire custom to open one’s gifts then and there, but Yuu was sure she’d be happy with the sparkly silver bracelet Fionnuala picked out anyway.

Tonight, she was wearing a black dress; the top was plain with a modest V-neck while the skirt flared out, showcasing the large, flashy pink roses. Her head was adorned with a headband dotted with tiny flowers, paler in color; real ones, Yuu noted with some surprise.

Compared to Chess, he felt a tad underdressed, but after a moment’s thought he decided it would be fine.

“Well,” Chess said, setting her present aside, “would you follow after me, please?”

“With pleasure,” Yuu said, and so they set off. Ascending a flight of stairs, they traversed the rich, oppressive hallways until they reached a set of double doors leading out to a balcony.

Maybe she just likes sitting outside? Yuu thought as he took in the scene. Below them was a view into a courtyard he hadn’t seen last time, neatly-trimmed flora and all, while the immediate area was lit up by a string of golden fairy lights. There was no guardrail, so one could jump to the ground with minimal fuss, if one so desired. A circular white metal table rested in the center of the space, with two matching chairs beside it, their backs sculpted to resemble a wing of a butterfly: one left, one right.

With a sweep of her skirt, Chess sat down, and Yuu did the same. A teapot rested in the center of the table along with two adjacent teacups. Chess poured her own cup with elegance, a telltale red liquid emerging from the spout.

Yuu looked down at the rosebuds in his teacup with wry consternation; it appeared his host was aware of his dietary restrictions.

“Thank you so much for inviting me,” Yuu said.

“Nonsense!” Chess said. “It’s always nice to have an excuse to discuss my work with an interested audience! That is what you’re here for.”

“Well…”

“Lord Crowley and Horn never want to listen to me,” she lamented. “‘Heard it all,’ indeed. We’ll show them! The fate of far more powerful vampires than Peter Paole has been decided by our humble committee. Not to say that this case will be child’s play. I’m expecting quite the match…”

“You’re not the only one,” Yuu said. “…I’m not asking you to do anything, but if there’s anything you’d like to share with me, I would be…most attentive.”

Chess made an excited squeak that sounded a lot like “so cute!” which Yuu politely ignored.

“Let’s start with the lost causes, shall we?” she said once her recovery was complete. “Lord Kylian detests you, I’m afraid. It can’t be helped.”

“I gathered as much,” Yuu said.

“Josefina will vote against you as well,” she said. “She’s a proponent of free speech; I can count on one hand the amount of times she’s gone against an author.”

“What a horrifying and radical position,” he said.

“Oh, most certainly,” Chess said. “Everyone else is not utterly impossible. Although I wouldn’t count on Franc; he finds the whole concept of a consulting expert demeaning.”

“That seems—”

“—imbecilic? Yes. Come to think of it,” she added, “all of the queen’s usual sycophants will be in a tizzy. What will they do in such a situation, I wonder?”

Yuu folded and unfolded his hands. “I’m sure they wouldn’t go against someone in the queen’s favor.”

“Surely not,” she said. “It’s determining who that is which will provide the challenge. Of course, it’s a grand opportunity for you! All of those votes, yours for the taking!”

“Maybe,” he said. “Whose votes would that be, exactly?”

Chess merely smiled at him.

“Right,” he said.

“Don’t look so down,” she said. “It’s really not as simple as all that. She has her staunch supporters, certainly, but everyone has their deviations from the party line. Even Meheitav’el must have done it at some point.”

“You’ve talked about those who are against me,” Yuu said. “Do I have any supporters?”

“No one who absolutely couldn’t be persuaded otherwise, I suppose,” she said. “But many think favorably of you, yes. Prakash, Suzume, Blanchard—and myself, of course! Though I won’t make you any promises; I must see how things go first. I have a policy of never guaranteeing anyone my vote. Oh, and Aýnabat likes you as well, though it’s her mother who’ll decide for them both in the end.”

“Really?” Yuu said. “She’s an adult, after all.”

“I couldn’t possibly decipher the intricacies of the sire-child relationship,” Chess said. “That’s simply how things are with them! Best to just accept it.”

“Alright,” Yuu said slowly. “Are you willing to talk about who you think would be most amenable to persuasion? Either beforehand or during the trial.”

“A good question,” she said. “Ken, Susumu, and Abhijit will decide at the trial; there’s no point in bothering with them. Everyone else is fair game, really. Except for Joni.”

“Why is that?” Yuu asked.

“It depends on a lot of factors,” she said, “including what the queen would want, what would be best for Sanguinem as a whole, what would be worst for Sanguinem, Joni’s judgment of and interpretation of those factors—and the king of Russia’s personal opinion, if he deigns to stick his nose in directly. Joni’s been in his pocket since the beginning. Whatever the precise nature of the situation, his vote isn’t yours to control.”

Yuu conceded the point. A spy…well, it would be fine to ignore it for now. “Is he the only one?”

“Hm,” she said. “Who can say?”

“I’m sure someone with your wit could venture a guess,” Yuu said.

“Oh, you!” she said, a hand flying to her chest. “Alas, I think that will do. Yes…there’s no need to suck the fun out of the proceedings! A bit of mystery heightens the tension, don’t you think?”

“I’m having a certain amount of fun,” he said diplomatically. “It will be even more fun when the outcome is decided in my favor.”

“Is that so?” she said, her bright eyes fixed on his face. “What drives you, Yuuichirou Hyakuya? Why did you embark on this journey in the first place?”

“You could say,” Yuu said, hesitating, “that I’m just doing what I think is right.”

“One could!” Chess said. “Delightful.”

When Yuu looked down at his teacup, he saw that the rosebuds had fully bloomed, red petals spilling out onto the plate below.

***

At first, the notion that Yuu would have to interact with his literature tutor before their showdown had been a minor footnote in the rhythm of his life.

But before he knew it, Wednesday came and found him slinking into his seat. Guilt was entirely absent from him, but Yuu couldn’t deny the palpable awkwardness in the air.

At length, he broke the silence.

“Good evening, Mr. Paole,” Yuu said.

“Mr. Hyakuya,” Peter Paole said quietly.

He stared, vacant, down at his desk before lifting his gaze upwards.

“I do not know what I have done to draw your ire,” he said, frost creeping into his voice, “but I trust an explanation will be forthcoming.”

“I guess,” Yuu conceded, crossing his arms. “I don’t mind admitting that I dislike you. Always have, really. So…I’m not expecting you to believe me, but I’m not doing this because of a grudge.”

“Is that so,” he said.

“It’s the truth,” Yuu snapped. “The vampire you are, the things you write—we could never have gotten along.”

“Your regard—or lack thereof—is unimportant,” Peter said. “I was ordered to teach, as you were to learn. Nothing more.”

“You’re an awful teacher,” Yuu said flatly. “Not once have I ever been happy to show up here. I haven’t learned anything of value this entire time.”

“I had hoped otherwise,” he said, “but I see you’re still far too immature to appreciate what I’ve been trying to convey to you.”

“I would be overjoyed,” Yuu said, “to ensure that no one ever read a single word you wrote ever again. But since I can’t do that, then at the very least, stopping this book from being published is a public service.”

“A public service,” Peter said, derision dripping from every word. “I understand now. You’re using my work as an excuse to go on some sort of moral crusade and discredit me in the bargain. Vole Hunt is just a scapegoat.”

“I’m sure worse exists in this world, if that’s what you mean,” he said, “even if that’s hard to believe. But I’m only one person, and I have to start somewhere. You are not just an average vampire; you’re an honored member of Queen Krul’s court. ‘Discrediting’ you sends a message.”

“If you think your radical politics will get you anywhere with the Literature Committee, you are much mistaken,” Peter said, clenching his fists. Yuu noted with a touch of vicious satisfaction that he’d extended his claws. “I have no doubt your true colors will shine through; everyone will see you for what you are.”

“And what is that, exactly?”

“You are no vampire, Yuuichirou Hyakuya,” he said, “despite the dedicated efforts of your betters. You may look the part, you may even act the part, but at heart, you’re nothing but a miserable former human who would like nothing better than to see us all burn.”

“If being a vampire means turning into a racist bastard,” Yuu said, “then I’ll wear that label with pride, thanks.”

“You won’t even deny it?”

“I’m perfectly capable of getting along with vampires,” he said. “I even like some of them. It’s you who I can’t tolerate for a second longer.”

Peter took several deep breaths.

“We have our orders,” he said, “so it cannot be forever, but for now…”

“What?”

“Get out.”

***

On Saturday, Yuu received his regular visitor. What was not regular, however, was the fact that it was two hours after dawn.

“What do you want?” he complained, rolling about on his bed.

“Sorry to disturb you,” Agi chirped, “but great news! The queen gave her permission at last—we’re going outside! So you better get up and at ‘em, young man.”

“Go away,” Yuu said. “Wait out there or something…”

“Sure, sure,” Agi said, slamming the door behind her.

Just like that, Yuu was left with no one but himself and the cunning eyes of the queen’s portrait. He glared at it for good measure before getting dressed, strapping on the second-class katana that Guistino had forged for him.

Leaving his room, he sighed and shook off the last of his fitful trance. After a quick trip to the bathroom to brush his teeth and check his appearance, he went on his way. He found Agi near the exit, almost vibrating with impatience.

“Sorry, but do you mind waiting for a second?” he asked her.

She gave him a thumbs up. “No problem!”

As soon as she finished speaking, Yuu darted into the pitch-black side room that served as his seneschal’s quarters. He gave the solid, heavy wood coffin a sharp kick.

With the soft whir of a mechanism, the lid slid open and Fionnuala sat up.

“What do you want?”

“Agi just waltzed into my room,” Yuu said.

“You like her. It’s fine.”

“Well—I know that,” he said. “That’s not the point! Whenever you’re resting or not here, anyone could just walk in here with no one to stop them! I could be assassinated.”

Fionnuala mulled this over. “Is this an immediate concern?”

“If I were Peter Paole, I would totally try it,” Yuu insisted. “He knows I’m going to win, so cheating is the logical strategy.”

“You heard the door opening, did you not?” Fionnuala said.

“I suppose,” Yuu said sullenly.

“Then there you have it,” she said. “Rest with your weapon by your side. It wouldn’t be a bad habit to form.”

She reached up and slammed the lid of her coffin back down, signaling the end of the conversation.

Yuu trotted back over to Agi.

“Business concluded?” she said. “Then take this.”

She pulled a piece of cloth out of her pocket and handed it to Yuu. As he turned it over in his hands, he realized it was an armband.

“We’re really going there, aren’t we?” Yuu said, stunned.

Agi winked. “The sun’s pretty bright up there. Alright! You’ve got it on? Let’s go.”

***

The radiant blue of the sky blinded him.

He had thought the night sky was beautiful, but the light of day proved more than its equal. The occasional puffy cloud drifted across its surface, soft enough that Yuu imagined he could reach out and grab a handful, like cotton candy.

His sharpened eyes canvassed every inch of the sight, overwriting the hazy human memories of years past. It was still early, but summer’s heat was beginning to gather strength, an almost throbbing warmth suffusing itself into his bones. Yuu closed his eyes for a moment, basking in it.

This sight…hadn’t he once dreamed of seeing it with his family by his side? Mika and Akane’s happy smiles, the laughter of the children…such a vision had once consumed his thoughts, but it seemed so long ago. The echo of old longing warred with his grief.

“That’s my favorite color,” Yuu explained to Agi. “The sky…I always loved looking at it. I haven’t seen it in so long, I’d nearly forgotten…”

“Ah,” Agi said. “I’m glad.”

If they were alone, Yuu might have taken off his shoes and felt the grass with his bare feet, but a distance behind them trailed two guards, there to act as lookouts and backup in case some unforeseen disaster should befall them. They weren’t here to go on a relaxing stroll, after all.

Agi put a hand above her eyes, shading her vision from the sun’s glare. “Let’s see…oh, good. I didn’t want to get too close to Kyoto proper. See that blob on the horizon? We’ve got ourselves a target.”

Yuu straightened up. “One of the Four Horsemen of John, right?”

“That’s right,” she said.

As if the virus weren’t punishment enough, when the apocalypse began four years ago, vampires weren’t the only creatures that emerged from the bowels of the earth. Whether they were of mortal or divine make—or perhaps demonic—was uncertain, but their purpose was clear: the destruction of humanity. Any vampires who came within their range were simply ignored. That didn’t mean vampires were always inclined to let them be, of course.

“They’re mindless brutes, really,” Agi reassured him. “Big, yeah, but easy enough to take down. And remember: they won’t attack you until you start attacking!”

“I know,” Yuu said, his hand straying to his hip. “I’m ready.”

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s move!”

The run over to the Horseman seemed to take no time at all. They halted when they were about a hundred meters away, giving Yuu the chance to take in the creature’s appearance more thoroughly.

The Horseman was two stories tall; the majority of its body was white, with the occasional black accent breaking up the uniform coloring. It had six legs, four of which it used to scuttle across the ground while two were higher up, declining to touch the ground, almost like arms. A pair of massive wings protruded from its upper body; folded inwards were two smaller wings positioned beneath its glowing red eyes. A muscular tail lashed back and forth, but overall, the Horseman seemed disinclined to make any threatening moves.

“Can they fly?” Yuu asked.

“No,” Agi said, “or at least, I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“Great,” Yuu said under his breath. “One less thing to worry about.”

She looked at him encouragingly. “There’s nothing to it, I swear. Just get up onto its back and start slashing away at it. It’ll go down eventually!”

“If you say so,” he said.

As Yuu inched his way closer to the Horseman, he drew his katana and held it at the ready.

At his approach, it began to move, much to his surprise. It took a few steps closer to him and collapsed its legs, sitting down. It turned its head towards Yuu and gazed at him. It was strange, but he thought he almost heard some sort of whine coming from the Horseman; the sound existed at the very edge of his hearing. It could have been real or imaginary and Yuu wouldn’t have been shocked either way.

The overall presentation killed what little fighting spirit Yuu had managed to raise.

“That’s super weird,” Agi said from a good distance behind him. “Not normal behavior.”

Yuu crept closer.

If I touch it…will it bite me?

He decided to go for it. The flesh felt cold and yielding beneath his hand, almost rotten, but Yuu interpreted the rumbling coming from the Horseman as happiness. It didn’t seem worried at all about the blade Yuu held loosely in his right hand, tip pointed towards the ground.

“This is seriously weird,” Agi said.

“It…really attacks humans on sight?” Yuu murmured.

“Without a doubt,” she said. “Ugh…why is it being so friendly? Is it defective? Well, they’re not sentient, so it doesn’t mean anything…”

“I’m going to do it,” Yuu said, marshalling his courage. “If it could save someone’s life, then…I can definitely do it!”

“Hurry up, then; it’s really freaking me out.”

Circling around to the other side of the Horseman, Yuu bent his knees and jumped onto its back.

When Yuu plunged his katana into its back, it didn’t fight him. It stayed in position, trembling, as he carved off chunks of its flesh and began to hack away at its neck. Yuu stared, mesmerized, as the—

—holy—

—light left its eyes. The shine of blood on metal alone gave voice to his betrayal.

On the ground, Agi was clapping.

“Go, Yuuichirou!” she shouted. “You did it!”

“I guess?” Yuu said, hopping onto the ground. The experience left him more unsettled than anything else.

In the end, they headed back to the underground, leaving the corpse to bake in the heat of the sun.

***

After his semi-successful attempt at gaining some fighting experience aboveground, Yuu was more than ready for some routine, normal social interaction. Armed with a sizable tin filled to the brim with fudge-striped cookies (and a thank-you note that said “sharing is caring!”), he set off to visit Hotaru.

When he arrived at his destination, peace was the last thing he found. The sound of shouting was clearly audible, leading a few passersby to crane their necks in its direction.

Yuu slipped inside the building as quietly as he could and tried to ascertain the situation. Several people were standing in the right side of the room, either staring worriedly at the source of the din or plugging their ears and ignoring it. One of them was Kimi, wringing her hands and teetering on the edge of intervention.

On the left side of the room, Hotaru stood with her arms crossed. Across from her was a boy, his face red with anger.

I’ve seen him before, Yuu realized. It was the kid he’d seen Sakuma and his goons harassing months ago.

“You…” The boy’s face twisted. “Why won’t you give me what I want?”

“You’re frightening the kids, asshole,” Hotaru said calmly.

“I need that power to defeat the vampires!” he insisted. “You’re human. We’re on the same side!”

“Wrong,” she said. “I’m on my side. And even if I were inclined to help you, I can’t give you what I haven’t succeeded in doing myself.”

“Then show me what you have so far!”

“Don’t feel like it.”

Of course, Yuu’s luck didn’t last forever. The boy’s large, expressive brown eyes widened as he finally took notice of Yuu.

“Vampire!” he sputtered.

“That’s Yuuichirou,” Hotaru said. “Say hi, would you?”

“Kimi,” Yuu said. “Can you hold this?”

He passed the tin into her arms. She hugged it tightly against her chest.

“I should have known,” the boy said, sneering. “Everyone knows that vampire comes here. I honestly thought you were biding your time, waiting for the right moment to kill him, but I see now that’s not true. You just threw yourself on the nearest vampire who would have you, blood-whore.”

“Do you not know what an incomplete vampire is, moron?” Hotaru said. “One who doesn’t drink human blood. Idiot. Besides, that kind of thing’s not my style. I actually have a sense of self-worth—unlike some people.”

Yuu’s mind flashed fleetingly to Mika, but now wasn’t the time.

“Anyway,” she said, “if that’s what you thought was going on, then who’s to say I wouldn’t sic my vampire boyfriend on you for insulting me? Hm?”

Yuu wasn’t sure whether to take the teeth out of her threat or not. Hotaru seemed to have things in hand, at least for now, so he settled for glaring menacingly at the little punk.

“Are—are you crazy?” he said, his face paling.

“Listen up, Sugiyama,” Hotaru said. “I’m going to teach you a life lesson. Just because we’re members of the same species doesn’t mean that we’re all going around holding hands and singing about love and peace. Everyone else gets that, so why cling to your delusion? If you want to survive here, you have to look out for yourself.”

Her eyes were pitiless. “Your friend’s dead and he’s never coming back, so I suggest you forget about him. Keep your head down—unless you want someone to take it off your shoulders.”

“You’re wrong,” Sugiyama said in a whisper before raising his voice once more. “I—I wasn’t sure at first, but there’s no way a human killed him! The only way we’re going to get out of here is if we band together. And when we do, I’m going to take every last vampire down with me!”

Sugiyama stormed out of the building, allowing its inhabitants to breathe a sigh of relief.

Kimi dropped the tin. Yuu dove and caught it.  

“That absolute jerk!” Kimi fumed. “That awful stuff he said about you—”

“People have said worse,” Hotaru dismissed. “By the way, nice timing, Yuuichirou.”

“I wish I’d gotten here sooner,” Yuu said, frowning. “I’m just glad it didn’t come to a physical fight.”

“That wouldn’t have been pretty,” Hotaru agreed. “I didn’t want the children to have to watch that loser crawl out of here. Then we would have had to clean up the blood, too…well, this was a neater ending all around, really.”

“That guy…” Kimi muttered. “He seemed scared of you, Yuuichirou-san, but not scared enough, maybe…oh, I just hope he doesn’t cause any more trouble! Or get in trouble himself.”

“I wouldn’t hold out hope for that last one,” Yuu said. “He seems like the stir-crazy type. Who was he, anyway?”

“Gou Sugiyama,” Hotaru said. “Apparently, he’s the kind of person who thinks contracts with demons are handed out like candy. One of the stupidest people I’ve ever met, no contest.”

“The scary guy is gone now, right?” Nozomi piped up, apparently done with hiding in the corner. She was pretty brave for a six year old; Yuu admired her turnaround.

“That’s right!” Kimi said, switching into damage-control mode. “He’s gone, everyone! Everything will be okay now.”

“That reminds me,” Yuu said. “Anybody want cookies?”

No less than five children swarmed him. He popped off the lid of the tin and let them at it, backing away from the chaos immediately afterwards.

“They’re technically yours, Hotaru,” Yuu said, “but I did mean for you to share them. I hope you get to have one before they vanish.”

“You’re a saint,” Hotaru said. “When’s your birthday, Yuuichirou?”

“What?” he said, unsure how to reply to the non-sequitur. “October sixteenth.”

“I’ll get you something good,” she said, patting his arm. "If we’re all still alive by then.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

On the Existence of Mermaids, Or: The Shimmering Dream

October 14th, 2017: Sanguinem

For every vampire who thrives amidst the pleasures of city life, there are those who chafe under the yoke of their superiors. Doubly so for those rare vampires who manage to maintain a sedentary lifestyle in the countryside. Why give up the freedom and independence they worked so hard to obtain?

So it went for a certain noble line of vampires. The third vampire city was not yet a century old, but the seat of human governance had already shifted away from its sister city, Kyoto: a matter of great interest for those with concerns in the material world. Those vampires who lived in Japan for millennia—before Sanguinem and the appointment of its “foreigner queen” were even a glimmer in the Progenitor Council’s eye—were already well used to squabbling for power amongst themselves. Upheaval in the human political landscape often finds its mirror in vampire society as the nobility and their retainers seek whatever advantage they can wrest from the situation; this occasion proved no exception.

The dust of vampires eliminated at the wave of a noble hand often come back to haunt the perpetrators, however. For Kazuo Fujihara, sixteenth progenitor, reckoning came in the form of an undistinguished guest: a mere common vampire.

As the lord and his descendants are gone from this world, and with the other central player proving elusive, it falls to a surviving servant, Enmei Haruyama (who later went on to publish a most excellent study of the vampiric diet) to tell the tale.

Lord Fujihara kept an isolated residence; in those days he feared attacks from his rivals. I was but one of twenty guards in his employ.

He rarely permitted visitors he was not expecting, but somehow Ryouko Hinode persuaded the guards on duty of her legitimacy. I did not catch sight of her until that evening’s repast, where I was posted at the entrance to the hall.

Hinode was not tall, nor any more physically imposing than average. Her kosode was finely embroidered, with pale cherry blossoms and olive-colored leaves; she might have been perceived as a member of the merchant class had she covered her ears and walked about in daylight. Her movements were graceful yet efficient, and she comported herself well under the deluge of questions she faced…I remember her dark eyes, bright with contained emotion, the most.

Her person had been searched when she arrived, of course, and she had agreed to leave her sword behind. She had come under her own name, with no falsehoods between her and the household.

When she asked Lord Fujihara if he recognized her, he said he did not. He had never learned of Hinode before that night; as it turned out, her personal tragedy had been collateral of an order with greater concerns in mind.

She nodded, as if she had expected as much. “Would only that my sister1 have lived to see this day…”

Lord Fujihara had no interest in divining her deeper meaning, nor in the commoner whose name had never reached his ears, and so he let it alone. In accordance with the traditions of the day, he waited until the first round of drinks had been poured before dispensing with the pleasantries. “My dear, would you make your purpose plain?”

For a noble, his words were terse, but he disliked spending an excess of time on commoners and wanted her removed as soon as possible.

“I have come, Lord Fujihara,” she said, “to secure from you the sword of your line.”

This pronouncement was met with astonishment by those present: his children, their attendant friends and lovers, and Lord Fujihara himself. I was facing away from them, albeit with my ears perked, but I am sure nonetheless that their gazes flew to the blade in question, resting in ceremonial display. It was a katana of extraordinary craftsmanship, and on the black grip was a golden inscription that had been of Lord Fujihara’s sire’s choosing before he passed. To sell it was akin to blasphemy.

Lord Fujihara said as much. Hinode, rebuffed, raised her glass in apology.

“My lord and countrymen,” she said. “A toast to your health.”

I would not account Hinode a great speaker, but as one who saw her fight for even a brief time, I can safely say her skill lay elsewhere.  As soon as she spoke, the guard beside me caught my arm and showed me a slip of writing he had concealed in his palm:

As soon as Lord Fujihara drinks to her toast, Hinode paid me to close the doors and seal them with this. Are you in?

He revealed to me as well a magical seal from the folds of his clothing, undoubtedly given to him by Hinode: a traditional paper ofuda drawn in blood.

Intrigued by the prospect, I decided to go along with it. My frustration with my liege and current employment had been growing for some time, and if worst came to worst I was prepared to flee the country and move on to friendlier soil.

But as it turned out, that wasn’t necessary. Lord Fujihara began choking almost immediately, displaying to all the success of a well-hidden poison.

“My only sister!” Hinode cried. In a burst of speed, she wrenched his prized sword from its perch and struck his head from his shoulders before anyone thought to move. I had only just managed to see it; I and the guard had closed the doors and plastered the ofuda over it in the same frantic moments.

Even with only common vampires remaining as her opponents, slaughtering them all would be a great accomplishment, yet for some reason I never doubted that she would emerge the victor. I had no time to confirm this belief; by that point a commotion had been raised elsewhere in the residence. In the scant few hours since she had been given entrance, she had persuaded not only my fellow guard to her will, but another servant as well. To the east, a merry fire prepared to consume the place in short order.

My comrade and I fled in an instant, shouting that our former lord was dead2 to any who would listen. A few days later, I learned that Lord Fujihara and all who shared his blood were confirmed to have perished. Hinode vanished along with her spoil of war, and I have never heard tell of her since.

Kamakura, 28 of March 1193

1 The sister in question was Saori Hinode, her sister of flesh and blood; they had been brought to the night by the same sire, a common vampire of little consequence who died in obscurity. The sisters had been serving a master who happened to make a visit to a rival noble at a most unfortunate time…

2 Of course, the mere detachment of one’s head from body is not enough to kill the creature known as vampire, but I believe the blaze would have been responsible for finishing him off even if Ryouko Hinode didn’t take the time to crush his head personally. 

“That doesn’t look like work.”

Yuu, who had been holding up Memoirs of Those Who Roam the Darkness over his head, deigned to put it aside and sit up.

Over the last few months, he had been parceling out the remaining entries, not wanting to finish reading and be left devoid of content to devour. As such, he used them as a reward—or more uncharitably, a distraction—from his more productive pursuits.

“I was taking a break,” he protested.  

“Only seventeen more nights until the hearing,” Fionnuala pointed out, as if that number weren’t firmly ingrained in Yuu’s mind. “Are you sure you’ll be ready?”

“Yeah,” he said. He spread out his arms, drawing attention to the mess of papers covering every square centimeter of his room. “What do you think all this is for?”

Fionnuala pursed her lips. “I do not mean to belittle your efforts, young master. I only wish to ensure you’re aware of what’s at stake.”

Yuu sighed. “Look, I’ve run it through just about every literary lens that exists at this point, okay? And several that probably don’t, but whatever. Not to mention the time we’ve spent on the list.”

Their up-to-date predictions of the Literature Committee’s votes were tacked above Yuu’s desk, safe from the clutter that clogged up every flat surface. It was split into three columns: “yes,” “no,” and “unsure.” Needless to say, it changed on almost a daily basis.

“It’s those—capricious people you’re trying to convince, not scholars,” Fionnuala said. She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Look—I don’t mind helping you as much as I can. But in the end, you’ll be alone when it counts.”

“I know,” Yuu said. He tried to slide off his bed, but—oops, there went Fionnuala’s beautiful ten-page feminist analysis. He gathered it up into a neat pile and put it on a section of the floor instead.

“Really?” she said. “If I didn’t know better, I would think that your mind is more attuned to party planning these days.”

“Hey!” he protested. “It’s not my party. I have to help.”

“The bloated human girl has exploited you for all you’re worth,” she said. “The fact that she’s holding this ‘grand reopening’ on your birthday is transparent flattery. If this keeps up, we’ll need a higher budget. Or perhaps you’ll find a petitioner you’re inclined to refuse?”

It was Yuu’s turn to show displeasure. “Chizue-san hasn’t done anything wrong. She’s a slave—they all are, in case you’ve forgotten. She can’t just run out and go shopping. Anyway, the things she’s asked for herself are nothing compared to what she’s done for everyone’s sake.”

He stared her down fiercely. After five long months, the reorganization of the palace library had been achieved. Having a computerized database had been out of the question, so all the books had to be catalogued by hand. The reams of paperwork were stored in padlocked file cabinets, the passwords known only by the assistant librarians. And the head librarian, technically, but Dael hadn’t seem very interested on the occasions that Yuu dropped by to update her.

It wasn’t something Yuu would have ever thought possible in a million years—but together, they’d made it happen.

Fionnuala closed her eyes. “…My apologies. I don’t mean to judge what you do in your spare time. Perhaps I’ve been a bit stressed.”

Stressed? Fionnuala? It didn’t seem possible. “Are you dying?”

She opened her eyes. “No. Just thinking. Now, I think that’s enough light reading from you. Captain Farkas is almost here. Wait…”

“Yes?”

“But not alone.”

***

Yuu dashed out of his room in time to meet Agi and Vinícius Mata, of all people, at the entrance to his chambers.

…Well, he knew they were friends—supposedly—but it was still unsettling. In any case, there was still no good reason for them to be here together.

“Hey, Yuuichirou!” Agi said. “Víni and I were chatting earlier, you see, and we came up with an awesome idea!”

“Indeed,” Vinícius said. “I hope you’re not opposed to the prospect of a double lesson?”

Oh, man, Yuu thought. Wait, seriously?!

“Um…” he said. “Are we still going to meet on Tuesday?”

“I—”

Agi stomped on Vinícius’ foot, causing him to emit an ungainful yelp.

“—suppose not.”

“Okay,” he said. “Then I’m fine with it. Although…what exactly is it going to be about?”

“An ancient and noble tradition,” Vinícius said. “Try to take it seriously, if you please.”

***

As ominous as it had all seemed at first, Yuu had worried over nothing in retrospect. In fact, this was the best thing that had happened to him all week.

“You’re going to fight Mr. Mata, Captain?” Yuu asked, starry-eyed.

“It’s a duel!” Agi pouted. “The demonstration kind, anyway. So I’m not going to beat him up too badly.”

Disclaimers or not, Yuu was looking forward to it. He straightened out his expression and nodded, signaling that he was prepared to be an attentive student.

On one side of the courtyard, there was Agi Farkas, captain of the city guard, known kicker of asses and taker of names. She stretched her arms overhead in a casual motion, displaying her smooth and healthy brown skin, even if the underground’s perpetual lamplight declined to bring out the copper-bright undertones. She was only 167 centimeters or so and not overly muscled, but for a vampire that didn’t mean anything; Yuu had been tossed around by her far too many times to doubt her skill. You can’t beat a vampire who wrote an actual combat manual—it’s illegal.

In contrast, there was Vinícius Mata, master of etiquette and as far as Yuu knew, little else. From his pasty face, his pale, fishlike eyes darted back and forth in opposition with his rigid posture. If Yuu were being honest, he would place him as only being two years older than Agi physically—perhaps thirty at the latest—but his stuffy nature made the difference come across as more significant.

He was going to get utterly destroyed, and Yuu was going to enjoy every second of it. It wasn’t personal—Vinícius’ worst crime was being dull—but the prospect appealed to him on a visceral level nonetheless.

Agi tossed her head, attempting to flip her hair back despite the fact that it barely brushed her shoulders. “All right there, Víni?”

“Quite alright,” Vinícius said. “Shall we begin?”

“Cool, cool,” she said. “Take it away!

Vinícius breathed in deeply, settling into lecture mode. “While there are multitudes of situations that may result in a duel or the request for one, there are essentially two main types of duels. Do you know what they are?”

“To the death and…otherwise?”

“To death and victory,” he said. “The second category can include any variety of agreed-upon conditions, but usually the two parties will fight until one is unable to continue.

At a basic level, duels serve an ancient and honorable role as conflict resolution in our society. In either case, the challenger must issue a public grievance of a personal nature directly to the party who offended them. The challenged vampire can then offer an apology or restitution of some kind—or select the kind of weapon. Next, the challenger proposes a location for the field of honor; the challenged can name an alternative if desired.

With all that settled, when the time arrives, each party must bring along three seconds to serve as witnesses. If one party does not show up, the other wins by default and the loser is accounted a coward. That is not an enviable position to be in, Mr. Hyakuya.”

“I’m sure that won’t be a problem,” Agi interjected. “He is my student, after all! There’s no way he’d miss out on a fight.”

“Is it too much to hope that you’d at least consider a diplomatic resolution?” Vinícius said, directing his words towards Yuu.

“I guess it depends on the situation,” he said. “I’ll try to acquit myself well if it ever becomes relevant.”

“I suppose that’s all we can ask,” Vinícius said.

Agi glanced back and forth between them and put her hands on her hips.

“Well, I think that does it for the formalities,” she said. “So! Combat. The problem with duels is that it’s pretty important to determine which kind it is.”

“The inventor of lying has a lot to answer for,” Vinícius added dryly. 

“Oh, come on. You’d have no fun without it and you know it,” she said. “Obviously, if you’re dueling your mortal enemy or whatever, there’s no way you’d believe them if they said they didn’t want a duel to the death. But for—let’s call them your lower-tier enemies—there’s shades of ambiguity. You can trust in your ability to read the situation mid-fight, but it’s better to gather as much information about the situation as possible. After all, ‘if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.’

Of course, setting up your own trap is a different story. Just goes to show that you can never go wrong with having talented backup!”

“Let me guess,” Yuu said. “It’s fine if you win the normal way or through trickery, as long as you achieve your desired outcome.”

“Well, more or less,” she said. “If you go to the field of honor with the intent of killing every opponent there and forgoing the duel entirely, it makes you look bad if you do a poor job or if others find out somehow. If you’re going that route I would be as prepared as possible, basically.”

“It’s more common to have simple duels of victory, especially in the cities,” Vinícius said. “They can often attract large audiences and serve as a display of the challenger’s prowess—or their opponent’s, if they chose poorly.”

“Oh! I almost forgot.” Agi slammed her right fist into her palm. “Any vampire has the right to challenge anyone they please to a duel. So a common vampire can challenge a noble, if they want. Not that it’s a good idea most of the time, but hey, it’s a possibility!”

“Got it,” Yuu said.

“Alright!” she said. “I think it’s time for some demonstrations.”

***

The “demonstrations” largely consisted of glorified roleplay, but Yuu couldn’t say it wasn’t worth it.

“I yield!” Vinícius cried for the seventh time. His practice weapon, a rapier, had been flung halfway across the courtyard, and Agi’s own sword was held with enthusiasm at his throat.

“Aw…” she said. “I mean—I accept.”

She extended her hand, and he took it with only the tiniest of grimaces.

Yuu clapped with loud, exaggerated motions from his vantage point: one of Agi’s customary lawn chairs. “Great job, you two. It was an epic and long duel.”

As fun as this was, they had been at this for a while; Vinícius had proven himself less terrible than Yuu was expecting, which drew things out even further. If they weren’t inclined to let him try, then a dismissal would do just as well.

“I do believe we got a bit carried away,” Vinícius said, smoothing down his clothing.

“Oops,” Agi said. “Still! That was a valuable learning experience.”

“About that,” Yuu said, against his better instincts screaming out that escape was almost at hand. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

“Go for it.”

“I see that duels have an important place in the culture”—or whatever—“but do vampires really spend much time on that sort of thing these days? During wartime, I mean.”

“Oh, dear,” said Vinícius. “Now you’ve done it.”

“You have no idea,” Agi said, plopping down into the empty seat next to Yuu. “It’s not about you, Yuuichirou. I just have a minority opinion about all this.”

Vinícius followed her lead, angling his chair towards them. Now they were in a circle. Joy. “You must understand that we’re not actually at war, Mr. Hyakuya. Not officially, anyway.”

“What?” Yuu said. Perhaps his sensitive ears betrayed him. “But there’s a resistance! I mean, an enemy fighting force…the Japanese Imperial Demon Army, right?”

“They totally exist,” Agi said. “For sure. But we haven’t declared war on them, which sucks.”

Her fellow tutor cast a glance of alarm in her direction. “Are you sure you want to discuss this out in the open?”

“It’s fine,” she said with a sigh. “I haven’t been shy with my opinions, you’re my friend, and Yuuichirou is new, so he doesn’t count.”

Yuu crossed his arms in protest, but otherwise let it slide.

“You must have noticed that we don’t have a proper army of our own, haven’t you?” she asked. “The city guard is providing all the combat functionality we’re authorized to undertake—which isn’t much, since we’re not allowed to go on the offensive. Most of our operations outside the city consist of bringing human settlements under control, with Sanguinem as the center point and base. The self-governed territories have been left to themselves as far as their defenses go. They wouldn’t lift a finger to help the queen, so I don’t really care if they rot, but it’s unprofessional to have to operate from such a decentralized command structure.”

“Human settlements?”

“The system tends to be a lot more relaxed aboveground. Most of the human survivors who aren’t under the protection of the Order of the Imperial Demons aren’t equipped to deal with the Horsemen, not to mention all the other work that goes into survival. With the skewed ratio of adult-to-child survivors, the pool of people who can put in work compared to those who need to be looked after isn’t favorable, either. When we arrive and offer them our bargain, most of them see us as saviors…”

Agi’s expression looked distant, but in the privacy of his mind, he didn’t let it move him.

“Anyway,” she said, shaking her head, “the queen and council have refused to budge on the matter. Without a declaration of war, all we can do is fight back if we happened to be attacked.”

“Why won’t the queen do it?” Yuu asked, although he suspected he knew the answer.

“To acknowledge the humans as a threat in such a manner would be degrading,” Vinícius said, “no matter how many vampire lives are lost as a result.”

“Whether we accept it or not, the Order of the Imperial Demons is bent on our destruction, and they’ll use whatever tactics prove necessary to secure a favorable outcome. Our strength is immense, but they’re allocating their resources in a vastly more efficient manner,” Agi said.

“They’re desperate,” Yuu said.

She gave him a half-smile. “And they’re taking full advantage of our arrogance. Víni and I have tried to persuade the queen and Lord Melanthios—her military advisor—so many times…if they’d only accept my proposal, we’d have them routed within two years, I’m sure of it.”

In a way, the discussion carried an element of unreality to Yuu. The fact that a human resistance was out there, fighting, still seemed like a fantasy. From humanity’s perspective, the fact that the vampires were underestimating their capabilities was excellent news, but at the same time, he understood the motivation behind Agi’s frustration.

The lifestyle of most vampires in Sanguinem remained remarkably relaxed; they hosted parties and squabbled just as before, uncaring of the common vampires who surely paid the price for their carefree refusal to take the situation seriously…

The Order of the Imperial Demons are Mika’s protectors, he reminded himself. It’s fine if things continue as they have been. It’s ideal, in fact. He wasn’t used to the various flaws of the vampire race actually benefiting humanity, but he supposed they were owed at least one upside.

“I think that’s enough politics for one day,” Vinícius said.

“Definitely,” Agi said, hiding a dramatic yawn behind her hand.

“Sure,” Yuu said.

Vinícius and Agi got up from their chairs, looking as if they were going to leave together. Yuu tugged on Agi’s arm to forestall such an occurrence.

“Mind if I talk to you alone for a second?” he asked.

She acquiesced, waving Vinícius away with a playful glare. He offered them polite farewells before vanishing into the bowels of the palace.

***

Yuu listened to the air rushing through his ear canals for a while. He looked up, as if his eyes could pierce the barrier of the cavern ceiling and gaze upon the invisible sky.

“…About Noin Teta,” he said. “She was captured by the JIDA a few months ago, right?”

“That’s right,” Agi said. “So you heard about that, huh?”

He looked at her. “You didn’t tell me yourself.”

“You never asked.”

“It was my fault,” he said.

“Oh?” she said. “That’s news to me. I didn’t realize you’d run off and joined the army. I have to warn you: black is not your color. You’re dour enough already, kid.”

“Not like that,” he said. “I told her to go. She was running an errand for me.”

Agi’s stare was level. “The last I recalled, I was responsible for personnel allocations and mission assignments. Noin Teta left Sanguinem with my approval, and she and most of her squad didn’t return. That’s how it goes sometimes.”

Fionnuala had said that guilt was pointless, and he’d agreed, and had tried to bury it deep enough that it would never cross his mind again, but…he couldn’t stop himself.

“I’m ready to hear it now,” he said. “How badly do they torture their captives?”

“That’s not something a child needs to know,” Agi said abruptly. “Yuuichirou, what did you mean by ‘errand?’”

“It was nothing! It wasn’t…nearly a good enough reason in the first place, but I did it anyway. I used her to get what I wanted, even if it didn’t work out in the end. She wouldn’t have been on that assignment if I hadn’t paid her to go.”

Oh, what did he want to know, anyway?

Was it evil to kill a vampire? To want to? Vampires didn’t think so. What would a human say?

“I think the worst part is that I still don’t feel anything about it,” he said. “The only reason I’ve been dwelling on it so long is because of…me. What it says about me…”

“Has anyone ever told you that it’s okay?” Agi said, looking as intense as he’d ever seen her. “That it doesn’t matter who you use to achieve your goals, as long as they serve a purpose? That what happens to them is only worth caring about if it affects you and your plans?”

“Um…” he said, caught off guard and unsure how to respond.

Out of nowhere, she burst into a flurry of light chuckles. “Sorry, Yuuichirou! Just give me a minute…”

By the time she regained her composure, Yuu was very put out.

“I overstepped,” she said calmly. “I wasn’t trying to cast aspersions on…other authority figures in your life…well, let’s just forget about that! More importantly, I’m proud of you, really.”

“I’m trying to open up to you, you know,” Yuu said, annoyed.

“I mean it!” she said, her hands flying upwards. “I’ve known vampires hundreds of times your age who’d never gotten to the stage you have.”

“And what is that?”

“Think of it this way,” she said. “You spend your whole life thinking…I don’t know, that virgin blood is the best. So you’re out with a friend and you’re trying to be nice, you offer them some virgin blood, and they say ‘Sorry, I don’t drink from virgins.’

It’s kind of a weird moment, right? Most vampires can’t help but get offended just a little bit…like, why are you rejecting my gift that I so kindly offered? But in reality the other vampire just told you for practical reasons. It’s perfectly rational…so why get hurt?

But the trick of it is that it gets you thinking about virgin blood, and about why some people would make the decision to abstain from it. Are they somehow more correct than you? More intelligent than you?”

Yuu didn’t know. Agi, who had hit her stride, wasn’t slowed down.

“Yuuichirou, it’s so much easier not to question it,” she said. “To never doubt the righteousness of your position and move on. Because if you doubt yourself, even for a moment, that means there’s a chance that you were wrong. That your entire life was wrong. And that’s an incredibly hard thing for most vampires to accept.”

Yuu felt a lump building up in his throat.

“Captain…”

“Oh, Yuuichirou…It’s in our nature to forget what it is to change, to become more and more static with the passage of time. But you’re so young…I know you can decide the course of your life for yourself, so I’ll give my perspective on the whole ‘manipulation’ thing and you can decide whether or not you agree, okay? Trying to change someone’s behavior isn’t inherently malicious or anything like that. If you gave me a puppy-dog stare and asked for a day off, I could say I was manipulated into it, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Both parties in that equation were on the same level in terms of information.

Now, if you used abusive or underhanded tactics, then I’d have cause for grievance. I don’t know exactly what happened with Noin, so you tell me. Was she coerced into making that decision? Was she missing some key information?”

“…No,” he said. “I don’t think so.”

“Then it’s not your fault,” she said. “…You should know that most vampires would put the blame on the manipulated party for being fooled, so…I trust you can keep my moment of eccentricity between us, hm?”

Her words were light, but she accompanied them with a smile that seemed to Yuu to carry within it a hint of sadness.

“Yes, Captain,” he said. “And…thank you.”

***

Two nights later, the occasion he’d been waiting for arrived. Yuu tipped the vial of blood down his throat, catching every single drop. He eyed his last remaining vial with a speculative eye. He should really save it, but…screw it, tonight was important. He drank it in a few impatient swallows.

“Fionnuala-san, I’m out of blood,” he called.

“Understood,” she said, appearing before him. “I will be out meeting with Pascal-san, so I will attend to it tomorrow. And, young master…”

“What?”

“Take care.”

***

Yuu arrived at the library an hour before the festivities were scheduled to begin, but already the once-austere setting was transformed.

Although most of the library was dimly lit thanks to the suboptimal spread of lamps, the area surrounding the entrance had been shored up, creating a welcoming atmosphere. White folding tables had been set up to the right, laden with all manner of snacks. A few chairs were scattered about as well, but there was only so much space. A note had been left in neat handwriting requesting that guests please eat all food in the surrounding space, but Yuu didn’t hold out much hope that such an order would be followed.

What stood out most amongst the decorating efforts was definitely the balloons. Yuu had gotten his hands on a ridiculous amount in almost every color one could think of, an investment paying itself off with aplomb; hundreds had been tied in bunches around any surface that would allow it, while others were carried around or tied around wrists to prevent them from floating away. Of course, some had done just that, getting stuck on the ceiling five stories above their heads.

Fionnuala had also given him half-a-dozen crates of water balloons, but Yuu had just enough self-control to admit that would be a bad idea for a party held in a library. Instead, he planned to hold onto them until after Chizue’s baby was born; he figured they’d be a great way to spice up the party of the first baby born in Sanguinem.

To the left, Chizue herself was seated behind the front desk. Over the last few months, her stomach had swelled to an enormous—and inconvenient—size, although she still had just under a month before she was due. Michi’s overprotectiveness had grown a proportionate amount, insisting that she take it easy while he ran about attending to her every need. For Yuu’s part, he’d gotten her some prenatal vitamins as well as a variety of analgesics and anesthetics in anticipation of delivery, but he wondered if he’d done enough nonetheless.

“Need a hand?” Yuu said, leaning his elbows on the desk.

“Hyakuya-kun,” Chizue said, looking up. “I’m just fine, really; even if I am barely allowed to move.”

“It will be over soon?” Yuu tried. “You’ve almost made it!”

“Almost.” She sighed. “But enough about me. Will you be okay with this many people around?”

Yuu, out of breath, opened up his handy-dandy notebook and started writing.

I was thinking around the same lines, he explained. I thought it would be best not to take any chances today, so I’ll communicate in writing instead of testing my control by breathing in human scents. The last thing I want is for anyone to get hurt. Of course, I’ll keep an eye out for other vampires just in case, although I don’t foresee anyone starting anything.

“That seems wise,” Chizue said. “Oh, and before I forget—happy birthday.”

Thank you, Yuu wrote, adding an accompanying smiley face, but I don’t want to draw any attention because of that, really.

“That would not be proper, indeed,” she said, “but I hope you’ll remember your part in making today a reality even so. The work we’ve done so far is just the beginning, Hyakuya-kun. For now, though, I think a celebration is well-earned.”

The satisfaction of a job well-done infused her face with a warm glow, to Yuu’s private amusement. Still, despite the fact that his aspirations weren’t as grand as Chizue’s, he wasn’t immune to the pride he felt sweeping over him in a gentle wave.

His current contentment, for all its strength, didn’t manage to blind him to his surroundings. The front desk was being given a wide berth, and Yuu felt the weight of several stares prickling the back of his neck. Well, he suspected this would happen. It would be hard for everyone to relax and forget their worries with a vampire around, so it would be better for him to stay out of crowded areas and let everyone have their fun tonight.

“Yuuichirou-san!” a familiar voice called out. Yuu jerked his head in the direction of the sound.

I guess talking to Hotaru and Kimi wouldn’t hurt, he thought, locating their position from across the room, together with several of their other housemates.

“Go on,” Chizue said, dismissing him.

A smile already half-formed on his face, he said his goodbyes to Chizue and headed over.

***

After forty-five minutes or so, he managed to extricate himself from the girls and their energetic hangers-on. He had ribbed Hotaru about the present she promised him, but she simply rolled her eyes and said the pleasure of her company was exactly that. He would have distracted them further, but looking after the kids was a job that required the majority of their attention. Instead, he clambered up to the third floor, looking for a secluded reading nook he used to frequent.

After maneuvering between a few bookcases, he successfully located his destination. Instead of the peace he remembered, however, he was struck with a sight so unexpected that he couldn’t help but doubt its existence.

A girl around his age was sitting on the edge of a crimson cushion, her legs crossed. Behind her was a stained-glass window, an abstract kaleidoscope of color that failed to resolve into a coherent shape. Between her thin fingers, she held a book with a deep blue cover; a collection of fairytales, he believed from what characters he could make out.

Taking notice of him, she raised her head and lowered her book. Her bare lower arms were covered in scars, remnants of both cuts and bitemarks, and a smattering of bruises around her neck poked out from the skin her collar couldn’t hide. Her thin brown hair, unwashed and poorly maintained, floated around a pretty yet unremarkable face.

Yuu took a step backward, but ran into a bookshelf: a section of the half-trapezoid caging him in.

He’d seen her before—no matter how much he wished he hadn’t. His subconscious had done a remarkably good job of stuffing her in a box and forgetting about her, all things considered.

At Crowley’s party, they had met for only moments, he recalled, his stomach churning. Just enough time for him to catch the widening of her eyes as he attacked and tried to kill her.

“Oh, it’s you,” she said. Her voice wavered unsteadily, but not out of fear, as far as he could tell; her heartbeat was calm. “The human who turned into a vampire…we’ve met before, haven’t we? For just a little while.”

Yuu didn’t say a word.

“You looked awfully thirsty, but that other vampire dragged you away…I was sad for you, of course, but it was also a little funny. Ah! Don’t be mad…I can make it up to you…”

She raised a hand to her cheek, closing her eyes as she smiled.

“My name is Kioko Shinkai. What’s yours?”

***

Yuu could do nothing. He could do nothing but let Kioko talk at him, let her small, ill-used hands guide him to the space beside her.

He flared his nostrils, breathing in her scent, but she was no more or less tantalizing to him than any other human he had ever known.

“Shinkai-san,” he said, deciding to speak out loud.

Her face fell. “Oh…well, you can call me by my given name. If you want.”

“Kioko-san,” he said. He was wretched with the memory of his failure. “I can’t ask for your forgiveness—and I don’t deserve it. All I can do is…I mean, if there’s anything you want in the world, anything at all…”

“Forgiveness?” she asked. She placed a finger under her chin. “Hm…I don’t think you’ve done anything wrong that I can remember, but since you seem so distressed, then”—she reached out her hand and gave his head a few quick pats—“I forgive you.”

Yuu’s balance was thrown sharply off kilter. “Kioko-san—I attacked you. You said you remembered; you told me yourself…anyway, that’s what I was talking about. So you can’t forgive me that easily.”

“Oh,” she said. “Is that it? Then I forgive you again. I was only a little surprised, you know. Besides, now that I did, you can stop worrying about it. Don’t you feel lighter now…? If only a little?”

He felt like he was going to be sick. “I can get you almost anything, really.”

Kioko mulled his words over. “If you insist, then…I like…shiny things? Like jewelry…oh! And soft things. Stuffed animals with shiny marble eyes…” She trailed off. “It’s kind of hard to think of things on the spot, you know? Wait! I know. Why don’t you drink my blood properly?”

He recoiled from her. “What?”

“You didn’t get to last time,” she reasoned. “My blood is really tasty…many vampires have told me so. You won’t be disappointed—”

“I can’t,” he said.

Her tiny frown stabbed splinters through his eyes. “Why not?”

“I can’t drink human blood.”

“Forever?”

“No,” he said. “Someday, I’ll have to. But not today. Not for a long time.”

“Alright,” she said. “Then, when that day comes, you’ll drink my blood, won’t you?”

She looked expectant. He swallowed. “Is that really what you want?”

“Oh, yes,” she said, bringing her hands together. “It’s so much fun, even if makes me a little dizzy sometimes. I’ll be waiting, Yuuichirou-kun.”

She paused, her expression forlorn. “Are you sure you don’t want to call me Kioko-chan?”

“I couldn’t possibly do that,” Yuu said. “I owe you too much.”

“Such a gentleman.” She giggled. “Then, that time…was that the closest you ever came to drinking human blood?”

The sudden question caused Yuu to think back. “Probably. The only other time I came close was right after I turned.”

She tilted her head, waiting for him to continue.

“My sire brought him to me,” he said, reluctant. “He was just a kid. I think…I was in shock. For just a minute or so. By the time I snapped out of it he was already dead, most likely; otherwise there was no way I could have stopped myself.”

“How sad,” she said. “What was his name?”

“Daisuke Ando.”

Kioko’s eyes glittered as she sighed in admiration. “What a beautiful name…”

“I was helpless,” he said. “Just like with you. I can’t let that happen ever again. That’s why I practice talking to humans and breathing in their scent—so I can stay in control.”

“That’s lovely,” she said. “I’m ever so glad you entrusted me with your story. I’ll tell you a secret of my own in return to make it even, okay?”

She beckoned him closer.

He moved over a minuscule amount.

She stared at him with her wide eyes, so he gave in, angling his body towards her. She cupped her hands around her mouth and whispered into his ear:

“I’m a mermaid.”

His mind went blank.

“I always knew they were real,” he said when he recovered, but his tone was devoid of victory; it wasn’t as if he believed her.  

“Yes,” she said. “You see? We’re both monsters. So that makes us the same.”

“Monsters?” Heat prickled along the left side of his body, where Kioko threatened to touch him.

“Um-hm,” she said. “All the old vampires that live here…I like them, of course, but they’re different. They don’t love them.

You understand, don’t you? You spend so much time around them, listening to them laugh, looking at their smiles…ah, humans are just the best! I love them all!”

She strained her cheek muscles until they threatened to burst, then without warning dropped the expression.

“We’re monsters, Yuuichirou-kun,” she said, her voice dripping in deepest sorrow. “So they can no longer love us. But we can still love them. We can give them everything.”

“Everything?”

“Even the little parts you were holding back before,” she said, “back when you were human. I truly do love them…more than anything, I want to make them happy. So I give them everything, and they can have everything. Aha…you know that too, right? You’ve given people lots of things. Everyone’s happiness is different, after all! Toys. Blood. Smiles. Pain. The warmth of the sun…”

She looked up at the ceiling and hummed faintly, as if she could sense it.

Yuu didn't know what to say. Listening to her speak paralyzed him; it took him twice as long as usual to find the thread of his thoughts.

“I don’t know if vampires can love in the same way humans do,” he said. “I think whatever you hold onto before you turn…that strength is human at its core. So maybe for those who hold onto love, it’s the same; or maybe it’s tainted in some way I don’t understand.”

It wasn’t as if his brain had escaped the rapid and thorough changes of vampirism. How could he know for certain that his longing would never lead him to folly? If Mika were hurt because of him…

Yuu raised a hand to his forehead and closed his eyes. Divining the true nature of vampires was essential, yes, but he was working on it as steadily as he could. Impatience would accomplish nothing.

“So I don’t know if I can love everyone,” he said, opening them once more. “I think if someone’s strongest desire before death were truly a love of everyone, then”—her eyes were a deep, dark pool; they looked into his with an intensity that he couldn't help but revile—“they would become an angel instead of a vampire.”

He regretted his moment of whimsy almost as soon as he finished speaking, in an almost equal measure to the pleasure Kioko gained from it.

“Yuuichirou-kun,” she said breathily, “that’s so beautiful. I suppose it’s true…you don’t love everyone. You might like them, or you might hate them, but…you don’t love vampires, do you?”

She smiled again—not exaggerated, this time, but restrained. Almost unnoticeable.

“Just humans.”

The sound of approaching footsteps, which Yuu had filed away in the back of his mind as background noise, abruptly made their presence known, bringing him back down to reality.  

“You…” said Gou Sugiyama. “Get away from the crazy girl! I mean—don’t you dare take advantage of her, vampire!”

Yuu leveled an unimpressed look in his direction. It seemed Hotaru’s uninvited guest from months ago hadn’t learned his lesson. With his short-cropped hair, eyes narrowed as fiercely as he appeared capable of, and fists held at the ready, he resembled nothing so much as a small, angry dog.

“Don’t worry, Kioko-san,” Yuu said, rising to his feet. “This guy is incapable of being polite, but I’ll chase him off.”

“Oh! Sugiyama-kun!” Kioko stood up with a bounce, much to his consternation. “I remember you…a long time ago, you were looking for a missing person, right?”

His mouth thinned. “Yeah. Really, though, you should—”

“I knew it!” Kioko exclaimed, cutting him off. “The boy with the pretty name: Daisuke Ando. Oh, you’ll be so glad to know what happened to him…”

Her words sent a deep, full-body shiver shuddering through his system.

“You actually know something?” Gou demanded.

Yuu really should have realized it sooner.

“Yes,” she said. “He died almost a year ago, right when he went missing; a vampire kidnapped and hurt him so Yuuichirou-kun would drink him up, I think. Oh, but that didn’t happen, of course, so he just died untouched.”

But he was slow, and so, so selfish. He’d never cared to ask, and so he’d never known.

“Aren’t you at least a little happier?” Kioko said. “Now that you know the truth, you can rest easy.”

“Not yet,” Gou said, his voice raspy.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a knife. The blade was seven centimeters in length.

Kioko put her hands on his shoulders and hid behind him. “Oh, dear.”

Getting stabbed was a bit like getting punched, Yuu thought; at least at first. He looked down at the blood beginning to bloom from his stomach with interest. When Gou marshalled the courage to try a second time, however, Yuu grabbed his wrist tight enough to bruise and tossed him aside.

A throbbing pain began to set in, causing Yuu to grit his teeth. It was nothing compared to the pain of his transformation into a vampire, but it claimed the second-place spot with ease. He swiped a hand across his stomach, raised it to his mouth, and licked it, but sure enough—dead blood. Krul’s dead blood, in fact, efficiently stripped of all its vitality. He wrinkled his nose.

Gou had landed on the floor a meter away. After a moment, he got back on his feet, but didn’t move.

“Sugiyama-kun, your love for Daisuke Ando is getting blood all over the place,” Kioko informed him. “That’s enough for one day, don’t you think? It will take Yuuichirou-kun some time to recover that much blood.”

Gou stared down at his shining knife with emptiness in his eyes.

Yuu picked up his notebook. He wrote in a clumsy, quick hand:

YOU’RE NOT GOING ANYWERE.

If Gou ran, Yuu would have no choice but to pounce on him, but still, he did not move.

Kioko produced a minute noise from the back of her throat. “Yuuichirou-kun…could you lie down, please? Oh, and Sugiyama-kun, would you lend me that knife?”

Gou raised his arm in a tentative motion. Kioko opened his hand and pried it out of his palm.

With steady movements, she cut a strip of fabric from the bottom of her livestock uniform skirt.

“Don’t breathe,” she said in a whisper meant for his ears only. He wasn’t planning on it, so he nodded while Kioko wrapped her makeshift bandages around his wound. As she observed the rate at which it absorbed blood, she cut another strip and repeated the process.

“It will do,” she said when she was done, putting no effort into disguising her doubt. She made to return Gou’s knife, but Yuu shook his head.

I’ll hold onto it for now.

“Well…he does seem to be in a state of shock,” she said. She handed him the knife; Yuu promptly folded it and stuck it in his pocket.

With his other hand, he grabbed onto Gou’s arm and began the process of dragging him out of the library as quickly as possible.

“Farewell,” Kioko called out. Her voice was suffused with surpassing loneliness.

He waved at her with his back turned. If she were real, then they’d meet again; if not, he was content to let her fade back into the realm of dreams.

***

Unfortunately, there was only one exit to the library, and that was the main entrance. Yuu would have sighed, but he had no air remaining.

I’m going to pick you up, he informed Gou. This managed to elicit the beginnings of a response, but in that time Yuu had shoved his notebook back down his shirt, thrown Gou over his shoulder, and dashed out of the library at top speed, becoming nothing but a blur to human eyes.

He was only halfway down the hallway when he spied a palace guard. Yuu set Gou down and accosted him.

“What is it?” the guard asked, eyeing Gou with distaste.

Yuu took a moment to ground himself before taking in one sharp breath.

“Take him to the jail,” he said, “but don’t touch him. If he’s harmed in any way, I won’t be pleased. When I return, you’ll be rewarded for your care, of course.”

The guard’s expression was cold, but he accepted Gou without complaint.  

That’s fine.

He just wanted to get this night over with.

***

The closer he got to his room, the more he craved it—

—blood—

—but of course, he was out. Damn it all. He prayed that Fionnuala had returned, but when he trudged into his own chambers at last, she was nowhere to be found.

He might have fallen on the floor then and there, but he didn’t want to get blood on his papers. He swept the mess off his bed in a careless sweep instead and threw himself upon it, slamming his head against the frame. Fuck.

He turned his head to the left, where Krul’s oversized portrait dominated the wall.

“This is all because of you,” he told her. “You just do whatever the hell you please, without giving a shit what anyone else wants…”

Hissing in pain, he got up.

“Don’t you want to know how it feels?” he said, low, confiding.

When he unfolded Gou’s pocket knife and stabbed her, he met with no resistance. How glorious. He did it again, and again, and again.

Screw it. He tossed aside the knife, extended his claws, and slashed his way down her face.

The void behind Krul’s “wounds” wasn’t exactly the wall of his bedroom, however. He paused in his assault, waiting for his addled brain to make sense of his observation, but it didn’t happen.

Instead, he grabbed the edges of the frame with both hands and wrenched the painting from its place.

As it crashed to the ground, Yuu took in the newly-revealed passage with exhausted blankness.

“I guess I’ve got nothing better to do,” he told himself.

He lifted his foot and took a step into the darkness.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

Minor Light, Damp Leaves

October 16th, 2017: Sanguinem

Yuu watched the movements of his feet with dull caution. Every so often, he remembered that he was supposed to look where he was going and jerked his head up, but after a few moments of attention it would inevitably slide back down.

The—presumably—secret passage was cool, dark, and narrow: no more than a meter across. The ceiling was shorter than average as well, lending the space a claustrophobic atmosphere.

As Yuu’s boots scuffed up the stone flooring, he wondered where it led. He doubted it had been built overnight; it must have been constructed hundreds of years ago, when the palace was first erected. He had never bothered to inquire who occupied his chambers prior to himself, but now the matter came to the forefront of his mind. Surely, it would have to be someone the queen trusted…

As he walked, one slow step at a time, something began to catch the edges of his hearing. He continued to traverse the linear path, gradually drawing nearer to the sound.

Yuu halted when the tunnel began to widen by half a meter on either side. It lasted for a dozen paces, creating a rectangular tube. The right wall, floor, and ceiling were filled with blood-carved seals, making the entire room hum with magic. In the middle, a lone chair rested: dark wood paired with a generous cushion. And the left wall…

A mirror, Yuu thought, but—no. A two-way mirror.

Behind the glass lay a room that carried a sense of grandeur. An oval table topped with gray stone contained a swirl of mist; it seated five, with a sixth individual standing behind the head of the table. The figure of the queen of vampires was unmistakable.

He stepped into the space proper, intending to get a better look, and in that instant the almost inaudible sound swelled and filled his ears, allowing him to clearly make out the conversation.

“What has your investigation yielded after all this time? Please, enlighten us.”

“I’m delighted you asked, Lady Seneschal. My inquisitors have found…nothing.”

“You—”

“Enough,” said the queen.

An off-the-shoulder black dress encased her narrow frame, the wide skirt composed of three layers of ruffles. Her leather ankle boots possessed an intimidating heel in metallic silver; apparently, she had so far resisted the temptation to apply pressure and break the floor.

Turning his eyes away from Krul, Yuu took a few steps forward and slumped into the chair. As eerie as the setup was, it seemed plain that the inhabitants of the room in front of him remained unaware of his presence. For now, he could watch all he liked. He could think about what it all meant later, when he didn’t feel like garbage.

He focused on Lia Fierro and the vampire she interrogated. The latter was seated at Krul’s left hand; her posture was languid, straightening her spine only just enough to stay upright. Her hair fell in loose curls down the back of her neck, brushing over skin the color of sand.

As for the other three vampires…two of them were strangers while the last was quite familiar. Next to the object of Lia’s ire was none other than his economics tutor, Alissa Grigori. She twirled a strand of her hair, not bothering to hide the boredom on her face.

Across from her, a heavyset vampire with a neatly trimmed black beard sat with folded arms, frowning. In contrast, the vampire seated at the queen’s right didn’t betray what he was thinking; his eyes were half closed.

All of them save Krul, he realized, bore on their right hands the signet rings Alissa and Lia had been wearing for as long as he’d known them.

Even as he mused, the conversation moved on. Twin spots of color were burning in Lia’s pale cheeks as she addressed Krul. “My apologies, your majesty. However, this conduct must be answered for. If the lady justiciar is incapable of producing results…”

The vampire in question looked up at the ceiling. “I’ve had the best working on it for the past year, I assure you. There’s nothing to be found. Not even a speck of dust.”

The lady justiciar…Beatrix Godebert. Sylvianne had brought her up a few times, but he hadn’t been picturing someone as young as she appeared.

“Evidence or not,” the bearded vampire said, his voice a low rumble, “it’s clear Ferid Bathory was involved.”

“He was more than occupied on the day in question,” Alissa interjected. “As you well know. I must say the quality of the city guard is…quite concerning.”

“Captain Farkas dismissed those who accepted his bribes,” he said, reluctance bleeding through his tone. “It won’t happen again.”

“Ahem,” Beatrix said. “On the day our honored guest disappeared, Lord Ferid was busy taking liberties with our queen’s property, as he was more than happy to tell me. It’s indisputable that he wasn’t personally involved. Crowley Eusford, Horn Skuld, and Chess Belle also have confirmed alibis. Over the last few months, I’ve brought in every minion of his I could find for questioning, but no one provided anything substantial.”  

“A pity.” The vampire across from her laced his fingers together, the red gem set in his ring catching the light and flashing against his cool brown skin. “At this point, it seems unlikely that we will ever be able to present her dust. The amount of time we can afford to stall is nearing its end.”

“There are more people willing to go against our queen than Lord Ferid,” Lia said. “It could have been a scheme of King Lest’s devising.”

“Throw away his own diplomat?” the bearded vampire said. “To what end?”

“To harm the image of our great and fearsome queen, Lord Melanthios,” she said. “Could there be any other aim?”

So he was Krul’s military advisor. The fact that Agi didn’t get along with him was reason enough for Yuu to be wary.

“Regardless of the culprit’s identity,” Alissa said, “it wouldn’t be wise to ignore King Lest for much longer.”

“You suggest admitting culpability?” Krul said, swift as a falcon.

“Not at all,” she said. Yuu didn’t think Alissa had a tenth of the necessary poise, but to his surprise she met Krul’s eyes unflinchingly. “We’re an isolated nation. As regrettable as it is, alienating one of your fellow monarchs will result in the loss of many favorable trade deals. I suggest we send a diplomat of our own to appease him: someone capable of transforming an unfortunate situation into a net benefit for us.”

“Easier said than done,” Krul said, but the tension in the room relaxed. “I’d hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but I agree that further inaction must not be allowed. I’ll appoint someone within the next few days…leaving on the first of November should suit.”

“Do you want me to keep up with the investigation?” Beatrix asked.

She closed her eyes. “You may as well start to reassign resources. If she turns up, that’s all for the better, but there’s no reason to dwell on a lost cause. You’re dismissed.”

Scraping their chairs in unison, the members of the Royal Council got up and departed through a singular door. Lia, standing behind Krul’s chair, lingered for a moment when she saw that Krul didn’t seem inclined to leave her seat, but she soon overcame her hesitance and left.

Beneath the pain, Yuu felt a bone-deep tiredness. He didn’t want to get up, but he knew he had to…if he were lucky, maybe Fionnuala had returned…

Just for a moment, he’d close his eyes. It wasn’t like he could truly fall asleep. All he would lose was…

…just a little time, that’s all…

“My, my. How did you get into such a woeful state?”

Yuu raised his head, heavy as a bowling ball.

“No matter. I’ll hear it all later.”

Krul gave him her arm.

***

When Yuu came back to himself, he was lying on a hard, flat surface.

As he sat up, he realized it was some sort of bench. It was situated at the foot of a queen-sized bed, made up with thick, sprawling white covers. Glancing around the room, he observed that it was roughly twice the size of an average bedroom; the off-white walls and abundance of space created a cold sensation, as if a shiver of wind brushed his back. To his left, an unlit brick fireplace rested flush against the wall.

Lifting up his shirt, he saw that the scraps Kioko wrapped around him had been replaced with actual bandages. He raised a hand to his forehead. What happened, anyway?

That’s right…he entered the secret passage, spied on the meeting, and then…Krul had found him.

As if he had summoned her, the door on the far side of the room opened, and Krul stepped through. At some point she had traded her previous outfit for a plain cream shift. Her hair was down, save for a few narrow pins keeping the front strands out of her face. It fell far past her back, ending at her knees.

“Feeling better?” she asked.

“I think so,” Yuu said. With a jolt, regret at getting caught flooded through him. “How did you find me?”

“When I first set up that room,” she said, closing the distance between them, “I thought it wise to include a way to alert me to anyone’s presence there.”

“Some sort of magic, then,” he said.

Krul tilted her head in acknowledgement. “I must admit—I expected you to stumble upon it sooner, but now is just as well. I wasn’t engaged in so pivotal a discussion.”

“The Royal Council…” Yuu said, his curiosity sparked. “Lia Fierro, lady seneschal; Alissa Grigori, lady treasurer; Beatrix Godebert, lady justiciar; Melanthios…something…your military advisor, right? And I didn’t recognize the last vampire.”

“Correct,” she said. “Melanthios Pachis, eleventh progenitor. The one you did not identify is Ninth Progenitor Mayeso Kaphiri; he is the overseer of Sanguinem’s committees.”

Two commoners and three nobles, in total.

“I see.”

“Perhaps one day, I’ll allow you to watch again,” Krul said, crossing her arms. “For now, I advise against returning there. I will know if you do.”

He decided it wasn’t worth pouting over. Although, if circumstances were different and he had continued going down the passage…where would he have ended up, exactly?

“Understood,” Yuu said, and then, because he couldn’t resist: “Why doesn’t Ms. Fierro get a chair?”

“Tradition,” she said. “My seneschal is my personal assistant, after all.”

She regarded him with a piercing eye.

Venom pooled in his mouth, but he didn’t gulp.

“I would like to hear the tale of your injury,” she said.

There’s no way she’s completely in the dark…but still…

“I…hurt myself,” he said.

“How sad,” said Krul, sounding nothing of the kind.

Yuu flushed. “Not on purpose! I ran into a sharp object.”

“Oh?” She raised an eyebrow. “Then, pray tell, what was your motive in sending a human to the upper warden’s tender care last night?”

He swallowed.

“Um…”

He was hoping she didn’t know about that, but it seemed that possibility fled a long time ago.

“I should hope something happened,” Krul said. “Acting out of dislike alone is a luxury best not exercised on the property of your betters. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes?”

“Even so,” she said, “I understand that there can be extenuating circumstances. If a vampire were to kill a human here for their own purposes, I can overlook it—as long as they did not break the law against drinking blood directly. My mercy is not limitless, however; if a vampire harmed more than one human of mine, they would face disciplinary action. The same applies to the jail: I cannot have humans dying needlessly in droves. The supply is not infinite.

In theory, I reserved a section of the prison for humans in order to cow those who refuse to submit. In practice, I find it’s rarely necessary. More often than not, a human who incenses a vampire is killed outright, and those who do make their way there do not easily return.”

Krul frowned. “Perhaps I should maintain a closer watch on his behavior…keep your eyes and ears open when you visit. No doubt you’d catch the place nearer to its natural state than I could.”

“Visit? How did you…”

“You could hardly leave things as they are,” she said. “Not one so attached to humans as you.”

“I’m getting information from them,” Yuu said. “For my project…remember?”

She simply looked at him.

“In any case, I spelled things out to impress upon you that you are not an exception to the rules I outlined. If the human dies by your hand, so be it, but if such a case should occur again, I hope for your sake that you’d be able to produce a greater cause and evidence than you did today.”

“You don’t have to worry about that,” he said. “I understand. But I have to tell you…”

“What?”

“It really was my fault.”  

He met her eyes. They were overripe, like a fruit an instant away from falling from the vine.

“I see,” Krul said. “Let’s not tarry. I shall see you out.”

Krul pivoted on her heel and stepped through the doorway. Yuu scrambled to his feet and followed after her.

His haste was premature; Krul took her time descending a small spiral staircase that lay right outside the bedroom. Yuu kept at least two steps’ distance between them.

When his feet reached the floor, he took in his surroundings. The palette of whites and creams continued, with the occasional gold accent to break up the monotomy. Across from the staircase, the far wall was a three-sided picture frame, outlining the gap created by a set of open sliding doors. As a result, he could peer into the room beyond, and the room after that, and the one after…

Distracted by an unexpected hint of color, he looked up at the ceiling. A circular mural filled the majority of the surface: masses of clouds and feathers and half-formed figures floated across a heavenly blue sky.

As Krul led him through the series of rooms, Yuu craned his neck to examine each ceiling mural they passed. Each one depicted similar images, but the execution was slightly different. He barely noticed the various furniture he and Krul weaved around.

Her abrupt halt caught him unawares.

“This is the exit,” she announced.

Yuu’s eyes refocused on the door.

“Thank you,” he said.

“You are most welcome,” she said, lingering on the vowels as if she were telling a private joke.

To the left of the door, a cast iron coat stand held its burdens aloft. Krul walked over to it and sifted through the garments.

When a mass on top moved, Yuu nearly jumped out his skin.

Krul glanced at him.

“He blended in,” Yuu said defensively, watching as Arukanu rearranged his wings on his incongruous perch.

“Indeed,” she said. She pulled a black cloak free from the others. Taking the small steps required to bring her back in front of Yuu, she draped it around his shoulders.

For a moment, Yuu couldn’t hide his surprise.

“That will cover the blood,” Krul said. “Now—you’d best be on your way.”

***

Fortunately, it took only a little wandering before Yuu realized he had emerged onto the fifth floor of the left wing of the palace. From there, he made short work of the stairs and soon reached the ground.

Thanks to his hazy blood-drinking session with Krul, he was physically steady, but mentally, he was adrift. His routine had been completely upended…unless he lost more time than he realized, it should still be his birthday, at least.

The scarcity of people narrowed it down to morning or afternoon. That suited him just fine. The guilt festering within him would only get worse if he delayed.

One heavy step after another, he left the palace and turned his feet towards a place he had never entered in all his nights in Sanguinem. Even Mika and Akane, fearless as they were, had never gotten close enough to peer inside. Even Yuu, foolish and emptyheaded, had allowed himself to be pulled away whenever he drew near, his curiosity unsatisfied.

Yuu gradually came closer to the wall of the cavern massive enough to house an entire city. As he did, he began to leave civilization behind, the buildings becoming fewer and more run-down. Eventually, there were no more buildings at all.

Yuu stopped at the edge of the pit.

A rickety, cheap-looking desk was positioned dangerously close to the drop. The vampire sitting behind it looked almost ill; his stringy hair fell in his face as he leaned intently over a half-folded origami bird. Two bells lay to his right: one large, one small.

Yuu coughed. 

"Sorry...did you need something?" he asked.

"Yeah," Yuu said. "I came to...pick someone up."

"If you don't have permission, you'll need to schedule an appointment with the lower warden. Let's see—"

"No," Yuu said, cutting him off. "You need to clear it with the upper warden. I think."

He looked up. He made a noise that could be charitably described as a squawk. 

"Ah! Right away! I'll summon him at once."

He waved the large bell back and forth in his hand for around twenty seconds. 

One minute later, a vampire climbed out of the pit. 

"That incessant noise is unnecessary, Hemming."

"Sorry, sir."

A commoner, huh? Shouldn't be too difficult to deal with.

"I'm here to retrieve Gou Sugiyama," he said.

"Yes, you are. Well. I'm the upper warden, Bernard Porcher."

Bernard was short, around one hundred and sixty-seven centimeters, yet stocky. His fine, blond hair curled around his face, his eyes stark against his skin.  

"Yuuichirou Hyakuya," Yuu replied. 

"We're aware—or at least I am. Please forgive Hemming; he wouldn't know an important guest if they tapped him on the shoulder. Now, I had your inmate placed near the bottom of my jurisdiction, so we'd better get going."

Bernard turned and stepped on the ground from whence he came. Yuu followed.

The path was a gentle slope. It hugged the circumference of the pit, forming a series of rings, like a corkscrew. When Yuu looked straight down, he saw darkness, deep and far enough that even his eyes couldn't perceive the details. 

Along the walls, there were cells: ugly, inconsistent holes clawed out of the earth by sheer force. They must have passed hundreds of them, almost all empty. The scent of dead blood clung to the place, becoming stronger and stronger as they descended. 

"These are all reserved for humans," Bernard said. "Alas, they don't see much use. Further below is where the vampires are kept, but that is the lower warden's business, of course." 

"There doesn't seem to be many vampires around," Yuu said. "What happens if someone tries to escape? How do you catch them?"

"That hasn't happened in a long time, Mr. Hyakuya, but I assure you our security is top notch." 

He didn't elaborate. 

"What about...janitors?"

"We have some. They make the rounds when required." 

...Should Yuu be giving him a bad performance review? He wasn't sure, but a profound sense of unease curdled his stomach. He didn't want to stick around any longer than he had to. 

They kept walking. 

White noise buzzed in his ears. Yuu wondered how cold it was down here. He was made of ice. He couldn’t feel it.

"This is it."

Yuu stopped moving. Behind the bars, the cell appeared to have been power-washed clean and polished to a shine. A figure was curled up in the corner. 

"Untouched," Bernard said. "As you wanted. I have business to attend to, so I'll take my leave." 

Yuu watched him go for a moment, as if distracting himself would save him from what he had to do.

He curled his hands around the bars.

"Sugiyama?" 

The lump at the far end of the cell twitched and rolled around. There were no visible injuries he could discern, but Gou's face was wan. He sat up, squinting at Yuu with bloodshot eyes. After a moment, they focused on Yuu's face and he scowled.

Yuu waited for him to speak, but he didn't say anything.

"Alright," Yuu said. "I get it. So...I'm going to talk for a bit, and you can listen."

He looked up. The cavern ceiling looked further away than ever, but he knew it was just as immutable as before. 

"My story's like everyone else's, really," he said. "My parents died when I was eight and some people took me in. Didn’t last long. I got delivered to an orphanage just before the apocalypse. The other orphans all seemed to get along well; even though we were strangers to each other, they welcomed me as their family. I had never known anything like it...I couldn't accept it. 

When the apocalypse started, the director collapsed right in front of us. We had no idea what was going on, but the vampires rounded us up before too long and took it out of our hands.

There were fifteen of us, so we got the same housing assignment. Pretty lucky, huh? From that day forward, we spent four years together. It wasn't easy, but we had it better than most; none of us got killed or had any permanent injuries. Consciously, I refused to admit it, but in reality, I...was truly happy to have known them.

It didn't last. We'd gotten used to keeping our guard up around the others, but vampires were a different story. We'd forgotten how powerful they really were. And so, one day, we planned to escape from Sanguinem. 

We almost made it to the exit. We were so close, but it was an illusion from the start. A noble vampire had managed to get the guards out of our path so he could confront us himself—slaughter us, one by one. But he didn't get the chance to kill my entire family. One managed to escape. And I...well, I was passed out from blood loss. Losing my humanity wasn't a choice I got to make.

When it came down to it, we all fucked up," Yuu said, a bitter smile spreading across his face. "We thought we could make it past the guards and to freedom—without the schedule, without anything but a map and a gun. And with human reflexes, that precaution wasn't nearly good enough.

I won't say we deserved it—the evil bastard who attacked us like it was just a game is the one to blame in the end. It was his choice to trick—to mess with all of us. We were the victims. But still...we should have seen it coming. And since we didn't, we should have died there. We couldn't save ourselves, and there was no one to save us...not in this world, anyway."

He shrugged. "But here I am. I don't expect you to understand, but somehow I just knew that the people who took me in were right. I had found people I loved, and by some miracle they loved me in return. Something...higher intervened for me. I know it."

"God?" Gou spat with a baleful eye.

"Yes," Yuu said. "I don't really believe in any specific religious teachings, but...something like it exists. You don't have to agree with me or feel the same way. I just felt like telling you—that's all.”

Gou’s face was half in shadow. A stretch of silence passed, but he soon chose to break it.

"There's no way someone escaped from this place," he said. "You're a liar. And even if someone did, once they turn thirteen, then…”

“Maybe,” Yuu said. It would be dangerous to elaborate further.

“You’re an idiot.”

“Sure,” he said. “What about you?”

"What?"

"Are you really better off than me? What are you going to do from now on?"

"I'll kill you," he said, but his words lacked the fire or the shell-shocked emptiness from earlier. 

"Do you have anyone to live for?" Yuu pressed.

"What do you think?" Gou said. What strength he still had seemed to leave him all at once; he buried his head in his knees.

"It’s fine if you hate me," Yuu said. "You can live on that way until you find something better. After all"—the memory of a voice—"it's better than being dead."

"Damn it all," he said, and if there were tears in his eyes, Yuu pretended not to notice. He set his palms flat against the dirt and pushed himself up. He rocked forwards on the balls of his feet and took a trembling step, like a newborn colt. 

Yuu pulled on the iron bars. With a screech, they bent to his will.

"Can you walk?"

"Yes," Gou said.

Yuu retraced his steps, watching Gou labor in his wake. His breath was heavy, the ground brutal under his bare feet. At one point, he met a rock at an unfortunate angle and blood began to gush. Yuu had long since stopped breathing; he simply waited.

Yuu didn't know how long it took them to reach the top. When at last they managed it, he clambered out with profound relief. 

Gou swayed once, twice, before collapsing.

"Oh, it's you," said Hemming. "Are you sure you don't need the cart? One of the janitors can transport the body for you, no problem."

"He's still alive," Yuu said, "but thanks, I guess."

Yuu picked him up and carried him back himself.

***

In the end, Fionnuala didn't interrogate him over his injury. She merely accepted his laundry with a heavy sigh. 

"This is new," she said, fingering the black cloak.

"Yeah," he said. "It was a gift."

“I see. By the way, I found a tapestry to cover up that unsightly hole in your bedroom. Do let me know if you want a replacement painting, young master.”

Yuu nearly choked.

“About that…well…”

It didn’t take him long to crack and spill the whole story.

“Very well,” Fionnuala said. “Since there are no branching paths and the detection mechanism is unknown, it would be risky to try to explore further. It would be best to set it aside for now.”

“You’re probably right,” he said sheepishly.

She put her hands on her hips and gave him a pointed stare.

“Let’s try to keep distractions to a minimum, shall we? There are several matters that require your attention…”

***

Your majesty,

Prison conditions are mixed. I can’t speak on the topic of security, but I’m almost certain the record keeping is lax, at least for the humans. Most likely, this is to obscure the amount of deaths caused by the guards versus the visitors (and suicide). Also, it’s not too dirty, all things considered, but it could certainly be cleaned more often.

Your faithful servant,

Yuuichirou Hyakuya

***

When the sun set on Tuesday, he met with Vinícius and Sylvianne. By then, his wound was a thin line. 

On Wednesday morning, he climbed to the top of Xue’s tower. His skin was smooth and perfect.

"You seem distracted," Xue said, putting down her chalk. "Did something happen?"

A sage green candle perfumed the room. In truth, Yuu thought the scent—thick, heavy plant matter, like inhaling a forest—was a tad strong, but it wasn’t worth complaining. Glancing at his half-finished worksheet, he decided to accept the topic change with gratitude.

"It was a crazy weekend," Yuu said. "I'm thirteen now?"

"An exciting milestone, to be sure."

"You should tell me a story," he said, impulsive.

"Off the record?" She matched him with a mischievous smile. 

"Of course," Yuu said, crossing his arms in mock-offense.

"Hm," she said, tapping her chin. "I heard that a certain incomplete vampire will be joining the Literature Committee for a hearing on the thirty-first. Fascinating, wouldn't you say?"

"Cheater!" Yuu sputtered. "How did you know?"

"A lady never reveals her sources," she said. 

What part of secrecy did Agi and Vinícius not understand? Yuu was going to eviscerate them—or, well, he supposed it was possible she found out another way. There were twenty other principals involved, after all.

"In any case," she said, "I may have come across some useful information pertaining to that matter. I'm willing to part with it if you'll allow me to do you a favor." 

"Huh?" he said. "Isn't it usually the other way around?"

Xue continued with an air of serene patience. "I've also heard that a human here has gotten pregnant and is drawing close to term."

"Oh, yeah," Yuu said, wary. "That's true."

"I would be happy to assist, if you'd like. I used to be a midwife of sorts when I was human. I've kept up with modern advances on the subject as a hobby, so I am quite capable, if I do say so myself."

"Really?" Yuu asked, straightening his spine. "That would be amazing! Well...it would be up to Chizue-san, but any help sounds good to me."

"Of course," Xue said. "If Nakahara-san is amiable, then I will do everything in my power to ensure the birth goes safely for the both of them. All I ask for in return is a thimble of the child's blood."

Surprised, Yuu delayed a beat too long in formulating his response. 

"Only the tiniest amount," she said. "It will not be harmful in any way."

"Well, like I said, she'll have to agree, but I don't see why not," Yuu said. "I'm sure she'll see the value in having someone who knows what she's doing around."

"I hope so, Mr. Hyakuya," she said. "When you pass my offer along and get a response, do let me know. I'll hold up my end of the bargain at that time."

Although Yuu was desperate for anything that could give him an advantage, he knew it was impossible to wheedle anything out of Xue that she did not want to say. He had no choice but to wait.

"It's a deal," he said.

The candle flickered out.

***

When Sunday rolled around, Yuu made the journey to the human district to run his errands. 

He felt a certain reluctance to drop Xue's offer on Chizue—even if she was egalitarian enough to roll with it, there's no way Michi wouldn't kick up a fuss.

Perhaps a stroke of inspiration would come to him in time. In the meanwhile, he may as well stop by Hotaru's.

He had scarcely touched the door when it flew open before his eyes.

Hotaru herself was the culprit. For a moment, her face appeared sharper than usual, amber flecks in her eyes shining against her tangled black hair, but the slightest movement shifted the light and revealed the plentiful baby fat in her cheeks once more.

"Oh, it's you," said Hotaru. "Deigned to visit at last? Let's go for a walk."

She pushed past him and stepped out into the street.

"At last?" Yuu said. "Wait, is something going on in there?" 

Hotaru looked back at him, her hands in her pockets. Yuu bet that she was tempted to roll her eyes, but she refrained. "Nothing like that. Not every conversation needs an audience, is all."

"Oh," Yuu said. 

After a few impatient strides, she stopped in her tracks. "Ever climbed onto the roofs?"

"Loads of times," he said.

"Cool," she said. "Let's do that."

She wedged her foot into a protruding stone and scrambled upwards before Yuu had a chance to offer his assistance. Yuu was content to follow in her wake, letting her work out whatever buzz of energy had gotten into her system. She stopped on top of a building hemmed in by a taller companion.

"So," Hotaru said, leaning against the wall. "Want to explain what happened at the party last week? You sure took your time."

"It wasn't that exciting," Yuu said. "I got stabbed, so I had to ditch right after that."

She blinked. "Well, that sucks. Sugiyama?"

"Yeah."

"You're okay now, right?" she said, looking him up and down.

"It was only the once," he said. "It's all healed up now."

"Man," she said. "How did he manage to sneak up on you?"

Yuu shrugged. 

"Fine. I see that it was sort of an emergency. But that doesn't change the fact that your dumb ass handed Sugiyama over to the guards. What gives?"

"What?" Yuu said. "I couldn't just leave him to his own devices. He was in—a state. He could have hurt himself or others and I was in no position to look after him. Besides, I went and got him as soon as I could."

"You could have asked Nakahara."

"And risk her life? If I'd left him to a human and someone had been harmed...it might not have been fixable."

"Fine," Hotaru said. "Then what about one of your vampire buddies? I assume you have them."

"I don't really talk about humans with most of them, as you can imagine." If Fionnuala had been around... "There was no one I could find quickly and trust in that kind of pinch."

Her mouth thinned. "Still, if you'd stuck around for a second and found me, we could have tied him up, or...well, it still would have attracted a lot of attention. It doesn't matter now. Everyone knows Sugiyama spent a night in the pit. It's done."

"I won’t do it again," Yuu said. “That place was…I mean…I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

“That bad, huh?” She sighed. "I guess I have no choice but to bring you up to speed. Nakahara's been working pretty hard on your behalf, you know. Shoring up your reputation, getting the skeptics on board with the concept of a friendly vampire..."

"That's nice of her."

"Of course, you've done pretty well for yourself so far, which helps," she continued. "Giving people shit, being chatty, and so on. Oh, right—and not drinking human blood. It's convenient that the evidence is right there on your face."

She met his gaze. "You better cling to those green eyes for as long as you can. The moment you lose them, it's over for you."

"I know," Yuu said. It still stung to hear. 

"It's just a reminder. You don't need to sulk over it. The point is that this incident won't do you any favors in the eyes of everyone else. Some damage control wouldn't be a bad call. I have an idea, if you'll sign off on it."

He raised an eyebrow. "Okay...?"

"It's simple," she said. "Remember when you told Kimi and I about the Hyakuya Orphans’ little run-in with Ferid Bathory? We didn't go blabbing about it, just like you wanted. But I think it's a good idea to make it public." 

"What?" Yuu said, temper flaring. "What do you—"

"Well, I guess it's better to leave Bathory's name out of it. But most people’s sympathy would turn toward you if they knew the poor kids were dead.”

“All the vampires know what happened,” he said, his voice tight. “You want to make it all of Sanguinem?”

“Not just for your sake. This is about stability. Trust is a fragile thing, Yuuichirou. The humans in the underground have begun to kindle the tiniest flame of hope after so long; are you going to be the one who takes it away?”

Yuu had no desire to meet the challenge in her voice. He may have told Gou, but that didn’t mean he wanted to inform all and sundry. Even so, it wasn’t worth making a fuss over. It was nothing he didn’t know how to deal with.

“No,” he said. “Tell whoever you want. I don’t care.”

“Thanks,” she said, softening her tone by just a fraction. “Anyway, you said you fetched Sugiyama, right? Was he particularly murderous?"

It didn’t take her long to switch gears.

"Very funny," Yuu said. "I'd say...there was some intention to commit violence, but not right away, if I had to guess. I tried to direct all his attention onto me; I don't think he'll take it out on any of you, but it pays to be careful, I suppose."

"So he didn't have the strength to kill you. Well, not that he could, unless you literally stood still and let him, but you know what I mean."

"I get it." The irony brought a half-smile to his face. "I guess that's accurate."

"Regardless," she said, "even if he couldn't do it last time, he may work up the strength someday—or he may not. Not every human here is noble, after all. There are those who have the resolve to harm others—out of cruelty, for self-defense, for a cause they believe in..."

Her eyes wandered somewhere beyond him. 

"Don’t worry," Yuu said. "I can be careful. And you should be, too."

Her attention snapped back to him. "I'm allergic to trouble, unlike you. Save your concern for someone who needs it. Which reminds me—"

“Yeah?”

“This is just something I noticed, but…this whole time, you’ve never called a single one of us your friends.”

Yuu was stunned into silence.

“I’m not sensitive to that kind of thing, but people like Kimi are more easily hurt, you know? Even if it’s not the truth, it wouldn’t kill you to say it. I doubt anyone has noticed, but if they did, some people might get the wrong impression and think you believe you’re above us.”

“Not…the truth…?” He’d never thought about it before. He’d never had a friend in his life—just his family.

Hotaru yawned, stretching her arms above her head. She walked across the roof, passing him. Yuu had to turn his head to look at her.

“You’ve got your own agenda, right? I don’t mind.”

She made to hop onto the ledge below, but at the last second glanced over her shoulder, as if remembering something.

“Consider it some advice from your ally.”

***

The following week was the fastest of Yuu’s life.

The harder he prayed for time to slow down, the faster it ticked by. After his impromptu grilling from Hotaru, he had been lucky enough to catch Chizue alone and get her assent to Xue’s plan, so that was one less thing to worry about. The fact that Xue was absent on Wednesday was far less fortunate. She had left him a note stating that she was out on business and would return soon, but today was Sunday and Yuu had yet to catch hide nor hair of her.

His other tutors, lacking the grace to follow Xue’s example, dealt with his inattention with varying levels of patience. Ironically, his session with Peter Paole was the least taxing. They had taken to pulling out a book and reading in the same room for two hours.

As he lay on his bed, surrounded by detritus, he thought:

Two more days.

Alone and restless, he spread out his arms and legs and pulled them back in, making a snow angel out of paper. In the process, much of the junk crowding his space fell to the floor. Yuu leaned over the side and peered at the ground; he stretched out his right arm and retrieved a thick hardcover. 

Thumbing through Memoirs of Those Who Roamed the Darkness, he flipped back to the entry he had read just before his birthday. This time, he slid his eyes down to the commentary. 

An eye for an eye. Who would deny that it rules supreme in the world of blood? As long as one has the power to extract the price, who would argue the right that the demand be met?

If one follows this idea through, it doesn't take one long to realize the messy contradictions, all the uneven ways this rule can be applied. The justice we've chosen is a logical conclusion from everything a vampire is said to be, but it is by no means equal. Those who turn to dust crying for fairness are a pitiable breed of fool.

I call it justice, of course, because we vampires are creatures of rationality. It follows that there is nothing less rational than passion, and so there is nothing less rational than revenge. 

To enjoy the kill, as much as one can, is natural. To take true joy in the undoing of another—that can only come from the past. The past called humanity.

Perhaps the harsh separation between justice and revenge is an illusion in and of itself. Vampire-kind themselves can be blamed for smudging the boundaries. Despite the rigid and painful distance between nobility and commoner, the rights of the individual actor are highly valued. As an extension of this, even acts of justice sanctioned by the ruling authority have an element of the personal; nobles have always been expected to carry out executions by their own hands, for example. Disputes among vampires of all status have the option to be satisfied in the dueling arena: the eye of the public sanctioning personal vendetta. 

It may be the fashion to have proper courts in these modern times, but they are no exception to the rule. Judgment is not based on evidence, but the balance of power. Blood is not the only element in that game, but it weighs heavily, as it does in all things. 

And so we play pretend: dip a toe into the waters called vengeance. We plot and we scheme and we do everything in our power, and if victory is achieved in the end, we laugh at our cleverness and tell our peers of it afterwards. 

A vampire like Ryouko Hinode might look upon us with disdain. We might look upon her with fond judgment; admiring of her success, yet distant, suspended in our cerebral certainty. 

And yet, I'd wager neither could be said to be "happy" in the end. That, too, is only natural. It is the burden of the vampire race to never reach the state known as happiness except at the bottom of a vein, and even then, but for a fleeting moment. And so one must seek it out again, again, again. 

Yuu traced over the last few words with his index finger.

He wasn't after blood; he didn't require recompense. Just the sweet, heady taste of victory and the satisfaction of seeing someone brought low who deserved it. He'd call it justice, but unlike the author, he wasn't so generous. Both sides weren't weighed as equal, and truth wasn't the currency that mattered. 

Then there was the desire to prove himself. To show Fionnuala, Agi, and everyone else that their efforts on his behalf weren't in vain. To gain Krul's trust and with it, an inch off the leash she pulled tight against his throat. 

The night was almost upon him. At this point, he'd done everything he could to maneuver the strategical situation in his favor. In front of the committee, however, clever tactics could turn the tide in an instant; he mustn't let his guard down. Now was the time to focus more than ever before. 

Yuu got up and crossed over to his desk. Plucking a yellow highlighter from the mess, he contemplated the list of Literature Committee members.

He uncapped it and drew a large, decisive check mark across the entire page.

Game on.