It was the same thing every day. Maasa was still two blocks away when he began readying himself, steeling his nerve and planning his approach.
I can do this, he told himself firmly. I can do this, I can do this. It's not hard. People do it every day. I can do this…
The building came within sight. It was a modest little place, basically just a box with a roof on top, and a chimney that was always issuing smoke. It had a cheerfully painted white front, with green and yellow striped awnings above its windows. The front door was painted green and had a brass bell hung over it, which would issue a musical chime whenever it was opened. A pleasant shop front, one might have said, just like a million others all over the world.
As far as Maasa was concerned, a haunted castle next to a graveyard would have been less terrifying. Sometimes he didn't have the courage to face it, and he would go the long away around rather than go anywhere near it. He always felt like a coward when he did that, but the fact remained that getting anywhere within a block or so of the bakery meant that he could smell the tantalizing odors of baking cakes and cookies, and getting far enough away to escape even that temptation added nearly half an hour to his walk home. No, far better to just gird his mental loins and force himself to walk past with his eyes fixed straight ahead of him so he could get it over with quickly.
Unfortunately it was a gray, drizzly day today, and the streets were devoid of people. Maasa hated days like that, and not just because the damp spoiled his clothes and made his hair go frizzy. He preferred to have the press of a crowd around him at moments like this. He could put a mob of people between himself and those tempting windows, and let the scents of perfume and body odors shield him from more pleasant but more dangerous smells. Today, there wasn't much to get between him and the shop windows but a steady, misty rain. The air was chilly today, too, making the warm brightness of the shop even more appealing.
Don't look, don't look, don't look…
But his treacherous eyes weren't listening to his brain. Without his willing it, he found his head turning to gaze into the bakery, to take in the vistas of extravagantly iced cakes, the rows of cookies, the pies and sweet buns and…
Somehow, he found himself with his nose pressed up against the window glass, his hands pressed to it, his breath leaving a little cloud on its surface. His mouth watered.
Okay, fine, he told himself. You can look, but don't you dare go in there..
Sometimes telling himself didn't work. There were days when his stomach seemed to do the thinking instead of his brain, and he'd find himself walking into forbidden territory and walking home with a bag of cookies clutched guiltily in both hands. Sometimes he managed to give them away before they could overcome him. Sometimes he didn't. Those were the bad days.
It was cold comfort to think that he was, apart from this one little vagary, a generally happy person. His dressmaking business was thriving, he had plenty of good friends and a loving family. He was attractive, intelligent, and talented. He could, he felt, be absolutely happy if only he wasn't completely at the mercy of stupid things like cookies. The trouble was that it was so hard to keep himself in trim, and so easy to fall off the wagon and ruin a month's hard work in an hour's time. If only he could find the way to make himself stop craving sweets he'd be living a perfect life.
"Do you want some?"
Maasa jumped. Caught up in daydreaming as he had been, Maasa hadn't realized that someone had come up behind him. He turned guiltily away from the window, ashamed to think that anyone had seen him drooling over cakes like a little child.
He found himself facing a stranger. That was a bit unusual. This wasn't a very large town, and while Maasa couldn't say with certainty that he knew everyone in it, he thought he had probably at least passed most of its denizens in the streets a few times. He certainly felt that he knew all the town's more noteworthy members, and this man was noteworthy if ever the word could be applied to anyone. He was tall, for one thing, easily standing head and shoulders above Maasa's own diminutive height. He wore his hair long - rather unfashionably long, but it was beautiful hair, pale blue and wavy in a way that made Maasa think of mist or rippling water. His eyes were pale green, striking against the warm brown of his skin. He had serious, noble features and a proud way of holding his head that suggested he was from the upper classes, and wore clothing that backed up that supposition. Maasa knew about clothes - they were his business, after all - and his practiced eye took in the cut of this man's jacket, the delicate embroidery of the waistcoat, the silk kerchief held in place by what was surely a real diamond pin. His gaze traveled all the way down to the stranger’s boots, which were definitely made for show rather than hard work, and were nearly as finely stitched as the waistcoat. Then he totaled up what the entire outfit would have cost and came up with a number that was scarcely believable.
"Oh, sorry!" Maasa blurted. "Maasa didn't hear you coming!" He hoped this fine gentleman would not be offended that Maasa had been ignoring him in favor of a lot of simple baked goods.
The stranger smiled. It was an amused smile, but not entirely unkind.
"No need to apologize," he said. "I move very quietly, and I can see you were preoccupied." He turned slightly to study the display in the window. The baker's daughters were a talented lot of women, and could decorate a cake that even a king would be proud to see at his royal feast. "They do look rather good, do they not? If you want, I could spare you the money…"
Maasa's face went hot. Bad enough to long for something, but worse to have them actually offered to him for free, by someone who might well be offended if he turned the offer down…
"No, no, it's okay!" he said. "Maasa only likes to look, that's all. They're… they're really pretty, aren't they?"
The stranger smiled again. "Yes, they are very pretty. So. You are Maasa? Do I understand this correctly?"
Maasa nodded, glad to be on safer ground. "Maasa Shirahone.”
"I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Maasa Shirahone," said the stranger. "I am Furanui de Syakeen. I am a visitor to this town, here on business. Perhaps you could direct me to a comfortable place to stay the night?"
Maasa fought the brief but compelling temptation to offer this gentleman a place in his own home. He was sure it would be more comfortable than any of the public houses in town, and of course there were few people who could cook like he could. When the mood was on him, he would sometimes vent his feelings by baking cookies and cakes, pretending he was the one who was going to enjoy them, only to hand them to his friends and neighbors afterwards. He found it rather cathartic, as if by giving away the objects of temptation he could be rid of the craving itself.
"There's the Candle and Snuffer on Quarrycut Lane, and the Brindle and Spindle in Cobbler's Alley," he said. "Or there's Mrs. Ishida's place on Lacemaker's Street if you're planning to stay a while. She lets rooms by the week."
"I see," said Furanui thoughtfully. "I will not be staying here so long. One night, two at most, and then I must be moving along."
Maasa was faintly disappointed. There were very few people in the world he considered good enough to be romantic prospects, and most of the ones he did know were already seeing someone else or just generally not interested in him. A handsome stranger was the kind of opportunity he'd been hoping for, and this one was very good-looking indeed. It would have been nice to get to know him better.
"Well," he said, setting that thought aside reluctantly, "the food is a little better at the Candle and Snuffer, but the Brindle and Spindle has better rooms."
"I see. Then perhaps you'd be so kind as to tell me the way to this Brindle and Spindle," said Furanui.
Maasa perked up a little. "Maasa could show you the way, if you like."
Furanui bowed his head in polite acceptance. "I would be pleased if you did."
Maasa turned away from the bakery with a sense of relief and started instead in the direction of Cobbler's Alley.
"So," said his companion, after they had splashed a few steps through the drifting rain, "tell me something of yourself."
"Like what?" Maasa asked. Hope was rising in him again. He considered that someone asking to get to know him was a good sign in terms of relationship potential.
"Anything," said Furanui. "What you do with your life. What your hobbies are. Whether you have family or live quite alone."
Furanui smiled faintly. "Because I wish to know."
So while they walked, Maasa talked. He talked first about his business, about how he had always loved good clothing and pretty things, and had applied himself to learning to make them. He talked a bit about his habit of baking things to give away, though he framed it as a generous impulse rather than a coping mechanism. He talked about his best friends, Ata and Taiju, and about his cousin Ichiro, who he found endearing and exasperating in equal measures. After a bit of prompting, he admitted that he was so far unmarried and unattached, and tried not to let his new companion see how flattered he was that a handsome and apparently wealthy gentleman was interested in whether or not he was single.
All too soon, they found themselves standing outside the doors of a public house, overhung by a sign depicting a young woman working with a drop spindle while a striped cat attempted to bat at it.
"Well, this is it," he said reluctantly.
"So I see," said Furanui. He sized the place up and nodded. "Yes, I think this will do. Thank you for your assistance."
"Any time," said Maasa. "So… maybe we'll see each other again?"
Furanui sized him up with those solemn pale eyes of his.
"Yes," he said, "I do believe we will meet again. Soon."
Maasa smiled, pleased. There were some things in the world even more tempting than cake.
"Until then," he said. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight, Mr. Shirahone," said Furanui. "Until we meet again."
He made a small bow before turning and sweeping into the inn. Maasa watched him go, toying with the thought of going in and ordering dinner in hopes that his new friend might come down and join him. He decided against it. For one thing, it would look perhaps a bit too eager. For another, the proprietor of the Brindle and Spindle tended to focus on quantity of food rather than quality, which meant meals heavy on bread and potatoes, usually with generous portions of butter and gravy to boot. He wasn't about to risk that for anybody, no matter how handsome and intriguing that someone might be.
Speaking of intriguing, he was about halfway home when it dawned on him that his new friend had been asking about an inn and talking about staying two days, and yet had no sign that he was carrying any luggage. That was curious.
He's probably got a coach somewhere, Maasa told himself. Furanui was clearly a man of means, and he had doubtless come from a great distance. Wealthy men traveled in their own private carriages. He probably left his luggage at the livery stable until he knew where he would be staying.
But in that case, why had he been wandering around alone in the rain? He could have just as easily asked about a place to stay at the livery stable, without needing to question any random strangers about it.
Odd, that. But perhaps he was simply the sort who preferred to manage all the details himself, rather than leave matters up to lesser men. Maasa had heard that all rich men had their eccentricities. There was certainly something a little bit different about Furanui. If only he could put his finger on exactly what it was…
The announcement went out the next day.
No one was quite sure when or how it started. It spread by word of mouth, rippling outward through the town until every corner of it was abuzz with the news. With the news came fear, apprehension, even a certain amount of resentment that was quickly stifled before anyone could hear too much about it. It didn't do to upset the overlords. If you did, you might find that you had become the next subject of fearful gossip.
Vampires had been a fact of life for as long as anyone could remember, as long as there had been recorded histories. There were never very many of them. Vampires in general did not get along with each other, and would kill each other more readily than a human would - more readily than they would kill a human, even. After all, humans were useful to them, whereas another vampire was only competition. On the other hand, they could live a long time, and could reproduce easily by means of a carefully placed bite, so there wasn’t much to be lost in killing one.
In truth, humans and vampires had been getting along fairly well for most of history. The humans clustered around a vampire lord, who used his strength and magic to protect them from threats. No village guarded by a vampire ever had to worry about raiders or bandits, and villagers could walk abroad at night without fear of thieves or wild beasts. In exchange, the humans provided the vampires with the one thing they needed above all else. The vampires, for their part, had generally practiced a restrained form of hunting that meant they didn’t prey on those who were too young, too old, or too feeble to endure being bitten, didn’t bite the same person more than once every few years, and repaid them handsomely for their service. Often the humans would take it upon themselves to defend their vampire lord’s castle by daylight, when they would be vulnerable to enemies. It had all been balanced once, and everyone had enjoyed the benefits.
As far as Maasa knew, their current vampire had once been decent enough sort, as these things went. He'd kept the number of bandits and pirates down considerably, and had once managed to fend off an invasion from the kingdom next door by some means no one had ever understood very well, but which had started with a strange mist on an otherwise fine day and ended with a lot of dead soldiers and a lot more wandering around aimlessly miles from the battle site with no idea how they'd gotten there. However, as time went by and threats from the outside world diminished, he had become more arrogant and more greedy. Where he had once treated his people as his charge to be protected, he had begun to see them as a crop to harvest, something that grew wild and didn't need his cultivation, but which was his to take as he would. Once a year, he sent a messenger to the town and selected one person to become his thrall. For the rest of that year, the chosen human would live in the vampire lord's castle to serve as his personal food source. A human being could survive being bitten once, even two or three times, but to be fed from over and over for months on end would reduce them to little more than a vegetable state. At that point, they would be returned home, alive but broken, to be tended to by whoever cared for them, or to die alone if they had no one. Few ever recovered even enough of their capacities to feed themselves, and fewer still lived more than two or three years after their master abandoned them.
Now everyone gathered in the village square to hear who had been selected for the onerous task of feeding the vampire. Maasa was trying not to let his discomfort show on the outside. He wasn't sure he wouldn't have minded meeting the old count who had ruled in his grandmother's day. He had been a vampire with class. He had invited his dinner partners up to the castle, yes, but only for one night. He had dressed them in fine clothes, given them a lavish feast, and then afterwards, had sent them home with a bag of gold for their troubles. That didn’t sound so bad to Maasa. A little nip and a night of deep sleep didn't seem like such a high price to pay for the advantages that would come from it. On the other hand, the idea of becoming a mindless thrall revolted him. He would rather spend the rest of his days wrestling with his inner demons than to lose himself to an outer demon and never be whole again.
But it won't be me, he told himself. With the whole village to choose from, what are the odds that it would be me? If I were a vampire, I wouldn't choose me. I'm too little to have much blood in me. I'd choose someone big and hearty, like the butcher's wife. Even a really hungry vampire would have his hands full to eat his way through someone like her…
There was a stir as the town's mayor stepped up on to the wooden platform that was often used on festival days for performances, or on important occasions when public announcements needed to be made. Today was one of those days - a day for public announcements, anyway. Nobody looked to be in a very festive mood.
"Good people," said the mayor, "today is a very important day. It is the day when we recognize the, ah, sacrifices that must be made for the sake of peace and security…"
He babbled on. Maasa tuned it out. No matter how fine the words sounded, in the end, they were just a lot of justification for something everyone knew was wrong. It was one thing when there was a covenant everyone had agreed to. This was just the master taking what he wanted and making everyone deal with it, and the people finding a way to make it sound better so they never had to face up to what it really meant.
I wish they would get on with it, he thought. He wanted the awful moment to be over so he could go home and forget about it.
He got his wish a few minutes later when the mayor finally wound down his talk and stepped aside for a cloaked figure to take his place. Whoever it was, they were covered completely in a long black cloak and hood, leaving no glimpse of their features visible. Even their hands were encased in black gloves.
"This year's tribute has been selected," it said. "We call forth… the dressmaker, Maasa Shirahone.”