Chapter 1: Pilot
This story is dedicated to the fantastic writing talent of both Atlus games, and the creator of Vampire Hunter D: Hideyuki Kikuchi. In addition, all those who helped create those masterpieces.
I hope to do the source material justice with this story.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Darkness sat upon the land as a mother hen, incubating secrets. Under feathered shadow, unseen things crawled through sandy fields and shuffled through the dust of a farmhouse, all in ruin. Silence reigned here, for life did not.
Unblinking eyes watched this place. Eyes that hated the light and pierced the black. Moved by an animal intelligence that knew only the desire to feed. And the desire to find something upon which to feed.
A faint sound came out of the distance, and the hungry eyes moved towards the source. But they waited, for the sound grew in volume and proximity. A beacon of light shone from a far hill, sparkled, then dropped to illuminate the ruin of a roadway, potholed and cracked. The light sped along and the noise followed it, a faint crackling roaring.
As it approached, the eyes saw the motorcycle weave effortlessly between hazards. They saw the rider, a lith figure, armored in black leather. They saw the red lifeblood which pumped constantly through her veins. Their wait was over. A thing upon which to feed had finally arrived.
Braking slowly, Niijima Makoto brought her motorcycle to a soft stop. The engine rumbled quietly, but in this quiet place, it seemed to echo. Her crimson eyes roved the darkness, but the shadows here were deep, and she could discern nothing amidst this derelict farmstead.
A slight sound, barely audible. Her head whipped to its source, her short black hair whipping around under the armor of her visored helmet. Her revolver was out in an instant. But only the night could be seen down its barrel. Not wavering in her aim, Makoto’s left hand moved to the console of her motorcycle and flipped a switch. Searing blue light emitted from the sides of the vehicle, chasing away the darkness from a large radius of the surrounding land. Objecting screeches of pain roared up all around her.
She now saw her gun was aiming at a hunched, deformed figure, wincing before the light, trying to hide its eyes. It was a gross approximation of a human being. It was what Makoto was here for. She pulled the trigger.
Red fire burst from the barrel of her revolver. The chosen creature exploded into several pieces. Then Makoto’s smoking weapon sought more targets, more flinching figures shuffling desperately away from her motorcycle’s harsh illumination.
KOOM KOOM KOOM KOOM KOOM
Blood and flesh rained softly onto dust and sand. Dead things thrashed in the dirt, dying a final death. But her gun was now empty, and the land was not. The blue light flickered, went out- the motorcycle’s headlamp again the single candle in the night.
Red eyes glowed around her in the darkness. The screeching turned to heavy, slobbery breathing. Feet stamped heavily upon the earth, approaching fast.
Makoto moved her left foot from the brake to her custom foot throttle. Her motorcycle shot forward into the night. Her hips steered the vehicle skillfully. Her right hand spun her revolver, popped the cylinder, dropped the empty shells- raised the gun to her armor’s shoulder pads. The leather was lined with hexagonal patterns of vaguely sharp cylinders. She pressed the now empty revolver cylinder to one of these and it detached from her armor, bullets feeding seamlessly into the chambers. A flick of her wrist and the cylinder snapped back into the weapon. Her shoulder pads now displayed one less hexagonal pattern. Meanwhile, her left hand snatched a flare from a saddlebag, ignited it, dropped it behind her.
She twisted her body. Raised the reloaded gun. The red flame bounced into the darkness behind her. Dark shapes were following, running, clawed hands desperately reaching, fanged mouths slavering.
KOOM KOOM KOOM KOOM KOOM KOOM
She sped away from the flare’s pool of light, now filled with corpses. She spun her revolver again, flicked open the cylinder, dropped the shells-
A dark shape leaped from the darkness and struck her in the side. Something leathery and sharp flailed against her, pushing her over, biting at her neck, but tangling in her chainmail scarf. Makoto’s hips locked instinctively on her motorcycle so it tipped over with her- its long pegs protecting Makoto’s legs from being crushed between it and the ground and she skidded to a stop in the dirt.
The snarling crawling thing was still on her, her empty gun still in her right hand. She brought up her left hand, twisted her wrist in a practiced motion, long blades extended from her gauntlet. She stabbed them into the attacking thing. It screeched. Black blood flowed. It weakened. She flung it from her, back into the darkness.
She stood beside her fallen cycle. Calmly, she lifted her gun, filled it with another hexagon of shells from her shoulder pad. Flicked it closed. Feet were approaching. Many feet.
Makoto walked to stand in the middle of the headlamp light. She waited. Gun extended in her right arm. Her left gauntlet blade out, ready, idle at her side.
A creature leaped out of the dark on the right. Her revolver snapped to it.
It twisted in the air was dead before it fell.
Now a creature from the left. Makoto let it scurry close, then she jabbed forward with her left fist, impaling the creature’s neck. It gurgled. She jerked her left arm and pulled the blades in a spray of black ichor.
Another from the left. The revolver moved over.
That one was propelled back into the dark by the bullet.
The night was silent and still. Smoke drifted from the barrel of Makoto’s revolver. She heard no more footsteps. No more growls. Was that the last? No. Soft feet approached. Just one left. Makoto raised her revolver and waited for it.
A small child wandered into the light. A girl. Maybe five or six. Eyes wide. Mouth open. Her black hair in disarray around her head. Makoto froze, then removed her finger from the trigger. The child stepped forward on soft feet, wide-eyes staring. Makoto looked to the child’s neck. The two dots were there, She was marked. She was one of them. Makoto’s finger returned to the trigger. The thing that looked like a child bared her fangs, couched, leaped.
The child disintegrated in a hail of tracer rounds, transforming into a mass of meat and dark, dark red blood. The ruin of a body fell to the dirt. Motionless.
Makoto lowered her revolver, unfired. She turned to the source of the bullets.
Niijima Sae lowered her chaingun, the barrel still spinning to a stop, multi-muzzles smoking. She lifted the visor of her armored helmet, eyes as crimson as Makoto’s glowed angrily in the dark.
“What the hell are you doing, Makoto? Why did you hesitate?’
“I’m sorry, sis. It- it looked like a child. I thought-”
“You thought?” snapped Sae. Her eyes narrowed. Disgust plainly visible there.
Makoto’s mouth shut with a click of teeth.
Niijima Sae leaned forward on her motorcycle, her white hair spilling out of her helmet and over her shoulders. “What is there to think about? It was clearly one of them. You should have just killed it!” She sighed in frustration. Looked away. Looked back. “I can’t even trust you to handle one pod of vamp slaves!”
Bending over to the side, Sae reattached her chaingun to her cycle. Then she straightened up and glared again, eyes burning into Makoto’s.
“Right now, you’re useless to me.”
Makoto felt her heart skip. Her eyes burned. Watered. She looked down, not wanting to see Sae’s look of contempt.
She heard Sae sigh. “Sorry. That was uncalled for.”
An awkward silence. Makoto swallowed down the tightness in her throat.
“I’m just really tired...Let’s head back to town.”
Sae started up her motorcycle. Turned it around. She looked over her shoulder at Makoto. “I won’t take you hunting anymore. You need to concentrate on your studies.”
She accelerated away, leaving Makoto standing alone in the dark.
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Makoto did not return to the city immediately. She turned her motorcycle towards the more traveled trade roads, to places where the dangers of vamp slaves were commonly culled to keep travelers relatively safe. She found the long straightaways she knew well and opened Johanna up. The roar of the engine in the night was a balm. She almost couldn’t hear the memory of her sister’s voice over Johanna’s roar. Almost.
Right now, you’re useless to me.
Useless. Did she not slay the vile creatures? Did not her revolver always find its mark? Was not the contract completed? Yes, she hesitated! Yes, because it looked like an innocent! Was it not right to make sure? What the fuck was Sae’s problem? Useless. Useless. You’re useless to me. Makoto gritted her teeth, came around a corner sharply and pushed Johanna to the max. The dirt road streaked by, her headlamp illuminating terrain that was practically behind her by the time her eyes registered the sight of it in the first place.
A dark shape caught her attention- a darkly dressed man on a horse heading in the direction of Tock-Yo City. She vaguely noticed the horse skitter away from her motorcycle as she passed, but then she was gone and the man and horse far behind. Some fool traveling the roads at night alone. It wasn’t her problem. If he wanted to get eaten, fuck him. It was his choice. Makoto didn’t care right now. When she cared, it always came to bite her in the ass. You’re useless to me. Fuck. Fuck you, Sae. He was my father, too!
Early dawn finally brought Makoto back to the city gates of Tock-Yo. Johanna was steaming, low on fuel. It would be expensive to fill her tank again, but Makoto didn’t regret it. The long ride alone refreshed her more than sleep would have. She didn’t even want to go back to the house. Without her father, it was too dark, big, and empty. And the idea of encountering Sae only made it seem less desirable a destination than ever.
The gate checkpoint was not busy. Only fools and vampire hunters traveled at night, so most of the travelers and merchants would start queuing up for inspection and entry by mid-morning. The nearest layover outpost between here and Yoko-Ham to the south was several hours by cart. But Makoto was surprised to not be first up. A darkly dressed man was standing before the city guards, his horse standing idly nearby.
It was the man she passed last night. He must have continued his leisurely pace and arrived just now, or perhaps he was forced to wait for the city guards to open the gates for the rising sun. Makoto drove Johanna up to a respectful distance and cut the engine. Her arrival drew eyes from the guards, but no great excitement. Just another rider coming in early. But it also drew the attention of the darkly dressed man.
He turned his head, his strange wide hat shadowing his face. Makoto saw pale white skin, angular features, a sharp nose, sharp ears, and behind some spectacles, grey half-dead eyes. It was a vampiric face. Alarm shot through Makoto and her hand went instinctively to the butt of her revolver at her hip. The grey eyes regarded her cooly, watching to see what she would do. Makoto felt tension build in the air between them, as if both of them were springs that were coiling tightly, still and silent now, but ready to explode in released energy. But she hesitated, her mind regaining control of her instinct to attack.
It was daylight. And a wide-brimmed hat and a coat would not protect a vampire from the morning sun. And the guards. The guards seemed oblivious to her, to the tension, and they were standing around the dark man with wary but relaxed postures. None had their polearms pointed at him. They didn’t seem to feel any threat from this creature. In fact, the guard captain was standing right in front of the dark man, reading an official-looking paper.
Then it clicked. This was a dhampir, a half-vampire. They could move during the day, and they did not necessarily feed on humans, though she’d heard plenty of stories about ones that went bad and did so anyway. Some dhampirs were even vampire hunters, themselves. They utilized the strength of their heritage to hunt down the same creatures the Niijima family did. Was this man one of that variety? An ally against the dark, though dark himself? Makoto became curious despite herself. A half-blood. What did he know of being a vampire? What did he know of the world? She’d never been far from Tock-Yo, the place of her birth.
Sae would not be curious about this man. She would want him dead. Half-vampire was vampire, and half was more than zero. She was not a woman of greys. Black and white with her, always. Right and Wrong. And right conveniently was always whatever Sae thought it should be. Makoto was tiring of such limited philosophy. Or after last night, Makoto was just plain tiring of Sae and everything she thought and represented. Makoto used her feet to push her motorcycle a bit closer, straining to hear the conversation.
“This paper appears in order,” said the guard captain, handing back the document to the dark man.
“For real, Sarge?” exclaimed one of the guards. A young, blond-haired man. A private by the look of his uniform.
“Can it, Sakamoto. I know a writ of citizenship when I see one.”
Makoto was surprised. A writ of citizenship meant the dhampir was legally the same as any human citizen in Tock-Yo. He was protected by the law and held the same rights as anyone. In short, someone like Sae could not just gun him down in the street. Well- assuming the lawman in question didn’t just look the other way, which wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. People didn’t like dhampirs because of their… bitey reputation.
“But why would one of these things be allowed to live in here with us?”
“It’s above your pay grade, private. And why are you talking? We’ve had words about that big, loud mouth of yours. You’re cleaning the latrines today.”
“What! That sucks!” Sakamoto exclaimed.
“And tomorrow, too.”
The blond-haired private went quiet and sulked.
The guard captain returned his attention to the dark man. “You may enter. Do you know the laws of our city?”
“Where are you staying?”
“I believe it is known as the Cafe Leblanc.”
“Good. If there’s trouble… you know where I’ll look first.”
The guard captain looked seriously at the dark man for a long moment, then waved him through.
Makoto pushed her motorcycle up to the guard captain and showed her citizenship card. “A dhampir with a writ of citizenship?”
He looked at her card and relaxed. “I know what you mean.” He shrugged. “But I was told to expect his arrival. Apparently, he’s been specifically requested.”
“Who is he?”
“I’m told he’s called Vampire Hunter J. It seems a stupid name, but I guess cities in the south know it well. Apparently, he’s killed a great many nobles.”
Makoto had never heard the name either. But anyone who could kill even one noble was formidable. Noble vampires were the real deal. As intelligent as a human, or more so, and capable of various things both magical and mundane. Makoto had yet to even see one. Sae didn’t take Makoto on those hunts, even before she’d called her useless.
“Thanks for the info,” she said as the captain waved her through.
A brown-haired guard approached her. “Hey, beautiful. I can’t help but notice those amazing eyes of yours. Can I take you for a drink when I get off duty?”
Makoto glanced at the brawny guard. He looked about her age, but his private’s uniform was somewhat unkempt. His brown eyes were glazed with the look of base intellect.
“No.” Makoto pushed her motorcycle through the gate.
“What have I told you about hitting on travelers while on duty! Sakamoto, you won’t be alone shoveling shit this afternoon. Seito will help you.”
“Come on, Sarge!”
“Do you know who that was, you dipshit? That was one of the Niijima sisters. Your dumb ass is so fucking lucky it was the younger one, or you’d be bleeding right now…”
Makoto ignored the exchange. Men were weird around her. It was just a fact of life that she hadn’t had the time or interest to figure out. She was twenty, but whatever men and women did with each other was not on her agenda. There were more important things to do. Like tail this curious dhampir before she lost track of him in the morning bustle of Tock-Yo City.
She walked onto the street which ran along the city wall. She looked left and right but didn’t see the dark man or his horse. Where? Oh, right in front of me. The dark man was walking his horse straight ahead, down the main thoroughfare into the center of the city. He’d blended in surprisingly well with all the beasts of burden being readied for the day of labor. The wide avenue inside the gate doubled as a sort of staging area. A wagonry was here, as were a few stables. Even a mechanics shop, which is why she habitually entered via this gate herself. The owner here knew what Johanna needed the best of anyone in the city.
He hurriedly pushed her motorcycle into the dim garage of the mechanic shop.
“Yeah!” came a voice from a nearby oil pit.
A surly-looking man with a squarish face popped his head out from under the motorcycle he was working on. ‘Oh, Ms. Niijima. Good morning.”
“Can you take care of Johanna today? I’m in a hurry.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure. I love working on that bike. I’ll get to her next once I finish this pain in the ass.”
Makoto hurried back out on the street, assured Johanna would be ready when Makoto needed her again. Munehisa Iwai was the best mechanic in the city as far as she was concerned. Some people didn’t like him because he was an innovator. Not everything he tried worked. But Makoto was fascinated by the gadgets the man thought up and had several of them installed on Johanna. The ones that did work were amazing.
She spotted the dark man turning a corner far ahead of her. She jogged to catch up, then settled into a leisurely pace at a respectable distance from the dark man. Tailing him into the depths of the city. They were on the way to the Yongenjaya distract now, she noted. It was a normal enough residential neighborhood. Merchants and craftspeople of middling income.
The street was relatively busy. Townfolk going about their morning business. A young boy was hawking newspapers. “Extra! Extra! Another vanished schoolgirl from Shujin! Is there a vampire amongst us? Is the city hiding the truth? Are your daughters safe? Read all about it!”
Another one! How many was that now? Three? Could the gossip really be true? A noble vampire hiding amongst them in the city itself? Was that why this dhampir was called? This so-called Vampire Hunter J? It seemed to give credence to the rumors.
As if hearing her thoughts, the dark man turned and looked behind him. Makoto immediately turned to the newsboy and purchased a paper. She buried her face behind the pages for a few moments, then hesitantly peeked over the top. The dark man had turned away and was walking again. Makoto followed. She held the newspaper before her, holding it open just in case she needed to appear to be reading at a moment’s notice.
After a few more blocks, the dark man entered a small business. The sign read Cafe Leblanc, and it appeared to be a coffee shop. Coffee was an expensive luxury. She was surprised that this neighborhood's income could support a business of this type. Then Makoto looked closer at the sign. “And Saloon” was written in smaller lettering. Ah, that was it. A booze house that was trying to make itself seem respectable for local clientele. Makoto wondered if such a thin disguise was effective.
She walked close to the windowed door, but pushed against the wall, trying to listen without being seen.
“Hang on, please!” a distant voice was shouting. “I’m just finishing something up.”
The voice spoke again, nearer this time. It was gruff and mature, like a man in the latter half of his life. “Sorry, I had to finish that before I-”
A glass shattered.
“What- what can I do for you?”
Makoto strained her ear to hear- it was a soft, surprisingly warm voice that she heard say: “I’ve come to collect on this Sakura family debt.”
“Seriously? I’m barely related to these people.”
“But you are related. Are you saying you will break this family oath?”
“... Hold on. No. Let me hear what you want, first.”
Makoto couldn’t help herself. She peeked into the window. The dark man was standing across the bar from the shopkeeper, a lean man of his mid-50s with stylishly trimmed facial hair. There was a paper between the two of them on the counter. The shopkeeper’s eyes flicked to Makoto. Shit! Makoto dodged back out of sight, but already far too late.
“Just- just give me a moment. Don’t scare my customers. Come on in! I’m open!”
Makoto felt her face blush. Should she just leave? No. Niijimas didn’t run! She learned that from her father. She took a deep breath and opened the cafe door, trying to appear cool and collected. The dark man’s grey eyes watched her steadily behind his spectacles. The shopkeeper was looking at her, too. His eyes were traveling up and down her body, but not in a lecherous way. He was identifying her, his exam stopping on her gun, her armor, her bullet-studded shoulder-pads.
“Back from a hunt? What can I get you?”
The shopkeeper pursed his lips at her. “What do you want to drink?”
“Oh! Uh… yes. Sake. Hot. And- and pickled radish.”
“Coming right up.” He turned towards his kitchen, stopped, pointed at the dark man. “Hang on a sec, will ya? Let me serve my customer.”
The dark man remained silent, which the shopkeeper took for assent, and he left for the kitchen to prepare what Makoto ordered. The dark man’s grey eyes shifted to Makoto, and she quickly looked away. She looked around the cafe- a plain and clean place- it looked dated. But in a charming way. Unable to resist, she let her eyes flick back to the dark man. He was still staring at her with those odd grey eyes. It was a challenge.
“What are you looking at?” said Makoto, hackles rising slightly.
“You.” said the dark man, evenly.
“I know that! Why are you staring at me?”
“Because you are following me.”
Makoto blushed. She’d been made the whole time! Her mind whirled, looking for a solution. “No! I always come here after I get back in the morning.”
The dark man was silent for a moment. “You’re bad at that.”
“What? I’m bad at what?”
Makoto felt her cheeks go hot despite herself. Damn! She put on an offended voice. “What!”
The shopkeeper returned with a sake carafe and a small cup balanced atop it. And his other hand held a bowl of pickled daikon. He set them down in front of Makoto at the bar.
“Here you are, Ms.-? What’s your name? I’ve never seen you here before.”
Makoto sighed. So much for her ruse. What was the point now? “Niijima Makoto. Thank you.”
“What! One of the Niijima sisters in my place! It’s an honor! I’m Sakura Sojiro, the proprietor.”
“You are too kind, really,” Makoto said lamely. It was her father’s name that was famous, not her. She poured herself a small cup of hot sake and tossed it back. She looked away from the shopkeeper, trying to hide her embarrassment and anger. This was not going how she planned. Wait. She didn’t plan this at all. That’s why it was going this way. Damn. She was not herself this morning.
Sojiro seemed to take the hint and turned back to the dark man. “Okay, so- fine. A family debt is a family debt. I haven’t seen those people in twenty years, but whatever. What do you want?”
“A place to stay for a while.”
“You mean like a room?”
“No. No way. I can’t have one of you in my house.”
The dark man silently stared at Sojiro.
“Look, you- you just can’t. Ok? But I don’t have anywhere else you can stay. There is this room, but this is my business and I need to make money!”
“The cellar. You just came out of a cellar.”
“Yeah, what about it?... Oh. There? You want to stay there? It’s just coffee beans, sake barrels, and spiders down there. It has a dirt floor.”
“That’s fine. I’ll stay there. For as long as I want and need. And I’ll count the debt satisfied.”
“That sounds pretty open-ended...”
“This debt is for a life, and I’m asking to sleep in your cellar. Your family is getting off cheap. Is it a deal?”
Sojiro sighed. “Yes, yes. Fine. Just don’t be a pain in the ass, please? And don’t damage my goods!”
They shook hands. Stared at one another. The dark man was impassive. Sojiro looked defeated.
“Well, if I’m going to see you every day…” rumbled Sojiro, “What’s your name?”
“People call me ‘J’.”
“Seriously? That’s a letter, not a name.”
“It’s short for Joker, I believe.”
“That’s a ridiculous name. I’m not going to call you that. What’s your real name?”
The dark man looked at Makoto for a moment. Since her ruse failed, she was just staring at him openly. He looked back at Sojiro. “Amamiya Ren.”
“Okay, Amamiya it is… Do you need any furniture, Mr. Amamiya?”
Makoto and Sojiro watched the dhampir called Amamiya Ren turn and walk back outside to where his horse was standing. He took off his saddle and then walked back into the cafe with it over his shoulder. His grey eyes flicked between the two them.
“I’ll be going to my room, then.”
He walked past them both to the far end of the room and descended some stairs there, vanishing from sight.
“Yeah, make yourself at home, I guess,” Sojiro mumbled to himself, rubbing his temples. “Oh. Hey! Your horse! Your horse need food and water or what?”
“It’s mechanical,” came the soft voice back.
“Mechanical horse?” said Sojiro, turning to look at the horse outside. “They still make those? I thought everyone wanted motorcycles for riding these days. Huh.”
Makoto turned and looked back out of the window, too. The horse was standing very still, and it’s hide was unusually smooth. The eyes were also frozen open. Plain white orbs with no iris. She hadn’t noticed- it moved just like a real horse. Such automatons were certainly out of fashion versus motorcycles like Johanna. Mechanical horses contained more moving parts which made them somewhat less reliable. Parts were hard to get now. Repairs were expensive. They were slower. But in return, Makoto guessed they were much more stable and could handle almost any terrain, while cycles were more or less limited to roads and open spaces.
She looked back at Sojiro. The shopkeeper was frowning, eyes closed, and rubbing the back of his head as if trapped in a deep line of thought or worry.
Makoto poured herself another cup of her sake and watched him. A family debt? It was an old tradition. Ancient. From back when the vampiric empire still held sway over the world, if Makoto remembered her history. Humans who performed certain beneficial acts for vampires were sometimes rewarded with a debt, which could be cashed in by any member of the human’s bloodline for a favor later on.
The bloodline transference was meant to compensate for humanity’s frailty when compared with the ruling vampires. Humans lived shorter lives naturally- and also were food items, raised like creatures who were both serf and livestock. So should a human who was owed a debt meet an early end, it could still be repaid by the vampire to some member of that human’s family. Over the centuries, human families started doing the same thing with each other.
Makoto thought it was an odd development. A debt of gratitude designed to compensate for a human’s untimely… consumption. A pat on the head for a weak and inferior species. It was both sinister and honorable at the same time. But supposedly, not all vampire nobles were cruel, which the existence of the family debt tradition seemed to indicate… but then again, even the relatively benevolent ones had to eat somehow. Could a human cash in a debt by saying, ‘Don’t eat me?”
And what did dhampirs eat, anyway? Ones that went bad ate human blood, but their victims didn’t transform like a real vampire bite victim. But… what did not-bad dhampirs eat? Makoto couldn’t remember.
She crunched into a pickled radish, savoring the sweet-savory flavor and its cloying acidity. It paired with this sake well. Sojiro knew his business.
“So what’s this debt?” she asked him, breaking him from his internal mind journey.
“Eh?” Sojiro looked up like he’d forgotten he even had a customer in the shop. “Oh, sorry. Well, it’s kind of private and-...”
Makoto arched an eyebrow at him, fixing him with a hard look. As much as she hated the undeserved esteem that the Niijima name brought her, she did like to use the intimidation factor. Sojiro buckled under the pressure of her gaze.
“Ah, well, you heard it all anyway.” He up the paper that was still resting on the counter near him and placed it in front of Makoto. It was covered in formal cursive and the bottom featured a large wax seal with the kanji symbol of ‘Sakura’. It was a formal letter of familial debt.
‘In recognition of great service to the family Sakura, the bearer of this note, Amamiya Ren, is thereby owed a debt to be repaid by any Sakura now living, or any Sakura yet to be.’
Makoto admired the calligraphy of it. It was like a work of art. “People still have documents like these made? It’s like something from a history book.”
“You’re young. I’ve seen a few in my life, but I didn’t expect to see this one. It was created by my cousin. They migrated to Osk-aka twenty years ago. I don’t travel much, so I haven’t seen them. We exchange letters sometimes, but we were never close anyway.”
“What did the dhamp-” Makoto’s eyes shifted to the top of the stairs where Amamiya Ren vanished. “What did Mr. Amamiya do for your cousin in Osk-aka?’
Sokiro sighed, picked up the document and put it in a drawer. “Five years ago, his daughter was taken by a noble. That dhampir downstairs got her back before she was… eaten. The tale was probably the most interesting letter I’ve ever received from my cousin. He’s pretty boring, to be honest.”
Makoto ate another pickle and tossed back another cup of sake, it was cooling rapidly. A rescued child. A human family offering the debt tradition to a dhampir. It was like a role swap of history. A vampire saving a human. Well, half-vampire. But did it make the rescue half-heroic? Not in Makoto’s estimation, but perhaps in Sae’s. Makoto frowned to herself and emptied the last of the carafe into the small cup. But fuck Sae, right? She tipped the final cup back.
You’re useless to me.
Makoto slammed the cup down harder than she intended.
Sojiro was watching her. “Want another?”
Makoto awoke to soft whispering.
“Oh, it is her! I saw the gun on her hip when we came in.”
“What’s that black stuff on her clothes, daddy?”
“Vampire blood, I bet! I’ve never seen any before.”
“Wow! Can I be a vampire hunter when I grow up?”
“I’d be very sad if you got eaten.”
Makoto’s eyes opened. The blurry outlines of a forest of sake carafes shifted into focus. Sojiro was at the other end of the bar, serving a room full of customers. She blearily looked around the room- two dozen people suddenly seemed like they’d suddenly shifted their attention away from her. Makoto winced against a light headache. She’d only had a few carafes, so it wasn’t a full blown hangover, but her sleepless night had obviously caught up with her. She turned to look out the window behind her. The sun’s light was pretty yellow. It looked like early afternoon. She moved her tongue around a dry mouth. It felt like cotton. She’d fallen asleep with it open, right on the counter.
Embarrassment began to creep into her. She was unbathed. Drinking in public. In the morning. And sleeping at the bar in a saloon! She was a disgrace.
You’re useless to me.
Makoto rubbed her face with both palms. It wasn’t quite as easy to disagree with Sae at the moment. She felt like a hot mess of failure. What had she been thinking? Nothing, obviously. She’d been a stupid fool following a dhampir to a saloon with no plan- no reason. She’d just wanted to. Then she’d just wanted to drink. And now look at her. What would her father think?
“Oh, you’re awake,” said Sojiro quietly as he wandered down the bar. “You seemed tired, so I didn’t want to wake you.”
“I’m sorry for taking up your counter space,” said Makoto.
“Are you kidding? Rumor got out that you were here and- well, look at this place! I’ve never had so much business at one time before!”
“That’s-” Makoto didn't know what that was, actually. She settled with: “That’s great. Where’s Mr. Amamiya?”
“I haven’t heard a thing out of him. He’s still down there, doing whatever people like him do, I guess. I’ll need to go down there for some things if business keeps up like this, but I’m a little nervous to do it, actually.”
“Do you think he’s a danger to you?”
“No. With that debt? No. But… well- he’s still- you know?”
“Yeah,” agreed Makoto. “I know what you mean.”
She paid her tab and walked out into the afternoon sun, wincing from the glare of it. It would be several hours before the sun set, so that probably would be when Amamiya re-emerges from the cellar- to do whatever he was in Tock-Yo to do. Makoto intended to be here and follow him. She’d invested her time, and some of her self-respect, into the project of learning about Amamiya, so she didn’t want to lose that by giving up after one little miscalculation over sake. Oof. Though she should probably think about getting a real meal. And a bath.
Her eyes traveled the street as she calculated the best path home. If she were going to wash up, she would need to head back. Maybe she could avoid Sae and-
Makoto’s roving eyes stopped on the business sign directly across the street from Cafe Leblanc. Happy Maid Public Bath and Laundry. How’s that for luck?
Makoto walked down the short alleyway between buildings and came to a long open window. A very bored looking black-haired women in a low-quality maid’s outfit was sitting on the inside of the window, reading a paper. At the end of the alleyway, a yellow door awaited with the symbol for a public bath. Makoto approached the maid.
The woman looked up as Makoto approached. She was quite a bit older than Makoto originally thought. She set down her paper and bowed as Makoto walked up to the window.
“I’m so happy to see you, master!,” said the woman with wide eyes and a forced smile. “ Welcome to the Happy Maid! I’m Becky! I just can’t wait to serve you! What do you desire?”
Makoto’s nose wrinkled despite herself. What the hell kind of place was this? Was it trying to cater to men? Weird men? This woman in the cheap maid outfit was surely not the owner.
“Please. You can cut the act, Ms…. Becky?”
The maid’s face immediately went back to looking very bored. “Kawakami, actually. And thanks. What do you need?”
“A bath. And I need my armor cleaned. I want to wear it when I leave.”
“Rush job is extra.”
“The woman’s bath is to the right. I’ll come inside and get your clothing once you take it off.” Kawakami bent down and pulled out a towel, a robe, and soap. She placed them on the windowsill. “I’ll see you inside.”
Makoto took the items, entered the yellow door, and then went through the right-sided door inside. The first room was the main wash and rinse area. This was actually the first public bath Makoto had used in a long time. In fact, the last time was with Sae back when their father was alive. Ever since his death- both of them spent most of their free time in the house, and there were two full baths there.
A side door opened and Kawakami entered. She put her hands on her hips and stared at Makoto. What was she doing? Was Kawakami just going to stand there and wait for her to get naked?
“Well? Come on. Take it off, girl.”
Kawakami looked at her like she was stupid. “Yes, right now. I need to get started. Washing is quick, but drying isn’t. Hurry up, already. “
Makoto felt her cheeks blush. Get naked in front of a stranger? Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Maybe she should just- No! No. Niijima’s didn’t run. Most of the city used public baths like this. Not very many people lived in mansions like Makoto. Women got naked in front of other women every day of their lives. If they could do it, she could do it. She would do it. Right… right now.
She took off her gauntlets and set them on a nearby bench. The maid immediately reached for them.
“Watch out for the blade release.”
Kawakami froze. She looked at Makoto with wide-eyes. “The- the what?”
Makoto kept her face passive, but she grinned on the inside. She couldn’t resist a little bit of revenge for that look Kawakami so recently gave her. Now who was stupid?
“The blade release. If you hit them, the blades will shoot out.”
Kawakami moved away from Makoto’s gauntlets. “What?”
“Here.” Makoto reached into the structure of here gauntlets and hit the blade releases. Long blades shot out of both gauntlets. She left them extended. “There. Now you don’t have to worry about them. Just handle them like you would any sharp weapon.”
“Li- like any sharp weapon… of course.” But Kawakami picked them up gingerly and turned to leave with them. Then she stopped. “What’s this black stuff?”
“Vamp slave blood. Never cleaned it before?”
“It comes off a lot easier than human blood.”
Kawakami shot Makoto a concerned look, but didn’t say anything else and left with the gauntlets.
Makoto sighed. Maybe she’d gone too far. But she hated when people thought she was stupid. She was not stupid. Just... inexperienced in certain things. Like public baths. And getting naked in front of people. But it was easy right? Just... take off the clothes.
She stripped out of the armor, laying out the outer parts and the undergarments neatly. Kawakami returned, hesitated.
“Are there any other um- blades?”
“No, no surprises. It’s just clothing and armor.”
A reassured Kawakami gathered everything up in a messy clump and walked back out. Makoto frowned. Well- so much for organization. But she decided to let the woman do her work, and she’d not even glanced at Makoto’s body. She wasn’t even interested. That made Makoto more comfortable. She examined the faucets and discovered this place featured piped hot water, so at least this place had a boiler.
Makoto washed herself. Rinsed herself. Did it again. And then moved for the main bath. She opened the door and found only one other woman inside. She had short black hair, brown eyes, lithe figure, and long shapely legs clearly visible through the clear water. A beautiful woman in full maturity. The woman’s half-lidded gaze locked onto Makoto as she entered. Makoto felt intimidated, like she was a schoolgirl again. But she shook it off. She was a Niijama, a vampire hunter. She strode in confidently.
“My! Look at your body!” said the woman in the bath.
Makoto felt her face go hot, her stride faltered “What? Excuse me?”
“Oh, get in, dear.” said the woman with a wave of her hand. “I was just impressed by your musculature. Your muscles are obvious, but then those breasts, those thighs, that waist! You must drive men mad.”
“Um-” said Makoto as she settled into the hot water, too off-balance to enjoy the feel of herself submerging. “Thanks?”
The bathing woman gazed at her with half-lidded eyes. “Oh. I see, now.”
What did she see? Who was this woman?
“Who are you?”
The woman closed her eyes and smiled a small smile. “I suppose that’s fair. I was trying to praise you, but now I see I’ve been rude.” She opened her eyes, half-lidded again. “I’m Takemi Tae.”
The half-lidded eyes opened fully. “Niijima? THE Niijima?”
“No. That was my father.”
Tae blinked. “Of course,” Tae’s eyes shifted away. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Makoto’s jaw clenched. Easy. She is just trying to be polite. “A hazard of the occupation.”
Tae didn’t say anything to that. But she gracefully changed the subject: “Speaking of professions, then. You’re a vampire hunter, obviously. And I’m a witch.”
Tae laughed. “Kidding. I’m a physician. I’m only called a witch sometimes.”
“Why would people call you that?”
“Various reasons. But I like to think it’s because I’m an innovator.”
An innovator! Like Iwai. Makoto’s curiosity started buzzing in her head. Her body self consciously relaxed and she focused intently on Tae.
“An innovator? Like with new medicines. New techniques?”
“Yes, both.” She eyed Makoto appraisingly. “Actually, this may be a fortunate encounter, Ms. Niijima. My specific professional interests are somewhat in line with yours. I research vampirism.”
“You research- vampires?”
“And vamp slaves. If you could bring me corpses. Parts. Anything. I would pay you.”
“To encourage you to bring the parts to me.”
“No, I mean, why are you researching them?”
Tae blinked. “Because we never bothered to before. We know nothing of vampires. Or vampirism. I mean- in technical terms. We don’t know how any of it works. Who knows what we could find out! There might even be a cure!”
This woman was mad. Study them? Learn about vampires? Insanity. And a cure? A fool’s dream. Why not create the alchemist’s stone while she was at it? Transmute some sand into gold or whatever.
Wait. I’m thinking like Sae. I can almost hear her voice in my head.
Makoto cleared her head and looked at Tae’s intense face. What if? What if she was right? What did people know about vampirism? None of the common knowledge was much better than folk wisdom and legend. What might an eager scientific mind discover with proper materials? And vampire nobles- their lairs, their objects, their vehicles- it was of a stuff so beyond what humans could make, it was practically magic. But maybe it was just that- practically magic. Meaning it wasn’t magic. But technology. What might a man like Iwai do if he got his hands on some of the amazing things her dad and Sae used to talk about seeing: mirror walls that shot out burning beams of light; Doors that opened on their own: Machines that made things without anyone operating them.
“I’ll try and bring you things, Ms. Takemi,” said Makoto.
“Excellent!” She broke into a wide smile, her small mouth revealing an impressive set of white teeth. Another rarity in Tock-Yo.
“And maybe you will find this of interest,” said Makoto, “A dhampir vampire hunter, with a writ of citizenship, arrived just today and is dwelling in Cafe Leblanc just across the street.”
Tae’s eyes went wide. “What!” She stood up, splashing Makoto, water running down her lithe form. “A dhampir! Right here! You don’t jest?”
Makoto stared at the woman with wide eyes. It was not the reaction she had expected. “Ye- yes. He’s in the Cafe’s cellar right this moment.”
“Thank you, Ms. Niijima!” Tae turned and strode out of the bath and into the changing room.
Makoto watched her go. Then settled back down into the hot water, the bath now all hers. The physician’s excitement was extreme. It made Makoto feel a little less foolish for following Amamiya this morning herself. Maybe her instincts were right. Maybe this dhampir was as special as she’d sensed.
Amamiya Ren dragged his consciousness from the dark place of rest. He felt annoyed. He was still weary from the sunlight this morning.
What? What is it, Morgana?
~Someone is here. In the cellar. She’s looking for us.~
The vampire hunter from this morning? Alarm bells went off in Ren’s mind. He snapped his eyes open. The cellar was dark, but his eyes did not require light.
A woman was indeed in the cellar. She was fiddling with a lamp, apparently having forgotten to light it before coming down. It was not the vampire hunter woman. It was someone else. Lithe of body. Short of hair. Long of leg.
What do you smell, Morgana?
~Soap. Herbs. Corpses.~
A physician. But why was she here? Ren decided he was probably not getting anymore sleep today.
“What do you want?” Ren did not try to hide the annoyance in his voice.
The woman froze. Her eyes searched the darkness, but she would not see him. He was in the corner, half buried in the ground under a blanket of dirt.
“I want to meet you, Mr. Dhampir.”
~Hee, hee… you got another one, Joker. Have fun.~
Mr. Dhampir? God. Not one of these types. The last person Ren wanted to meet was some foolish woman who romanticized vampires. Enthusiastic fanatics like this were a major problem. They throw themselves at Ren, he rejects them, they go mad, and then the townsfolk arrive with the pitchforks and torches shouting things like mind-control and hypnosis.
“So you barge into my living space? Did you ask permission? Did you announce yourself?” Ren snarled. “Should I wish to meet you, should I walk into your bedroom while you sleep? Will you want to meet me, or would you scream for a vampire hunter?”
The woman froze. She abandoned the lamp. Reached for the wall, found the stairs, and climbed back up the steps and out of Ren’s sight.
~Maybe she has some sense, after all.~
Ren was surprised that worked. He closed his eyes. Tried to sink himself back to the place of rest.
“Mr. Dhampir!” called a voice from the top of the cellar stairs. “May I enter? I wish to meet you.”
“Hold there, then!” he shouted. There was no helping it. He might as well see what this woman wanted. Her switch of behavior had aroused his curiosity. Anyone who could accept making a mistake and change their behavior was worth knowing.
Ren rose from his half grave, dirt sliding from his bare body. He retrieved a fine horse hair brush and swept off the remaining dirt from his pale skin.
~You smell good. Like coffee. I think there is a lot of it mixed in the soil down here.~
Thanks for the irrelevant information.
~You’re about the talk to a beautiful human woman. Smelling good is important.~
How would you know?
~I know all sorts of things.~
Ren didn’t have a response for that. He dressed himself. Donning his armor. His long coat. He let the hat be. He didn’t need it down here. Nor did he need his spectacles, which were mainly for protecting his eyes from the direct glare of the sun.
He lit a lamp. “Very well! You may enter!”
The woman descended the steps again, her face grew eager when she saw that Ren already had a light for her. She was staring at him wide-eyed. Maybe this was a bad idea. This woman looked far too eager.
Then she seemed to calm herself and bowed respectfully. “Please forgive my earlier rudeness. It is inexcusable, but I was overcome with excitement. I am Takemi Tae. I’m a physician.”
Ren decided he would wait on his own introduction. “What about me excites you, Ms. Takemi?”
~The feel of your fangs on her neck… she longs for it…~
Ren clenched his left hand.
~Ow! I’m just teasing! Ow! Stop!~
Ren loosened his hand, and Morgana went silent.
“I want to study you.”
Ren was surprised. This was a first. “Study me?”
“Yes! I’m researching vampirism. And your… nature is a unique opportunity.”
“In what way?”
“Well- because you’re a hafu. Half-human. Half-vampire. You might very well carry the secret that will help me develop a cure.”
“A cure? Are you saying I’m half diseased?”
“No! No. A cure for vampirism. Not for vampires. Being a vampire isn’t an infection. Vampires reproduce sexually like us. Everyone knows that. I’m talking about vamp slaves! A cure for them.”
~This woman is a fool.~
Ren pursed his lips. A cure to vamp slaves? The transformed leftovers of a noble vampire’s meal. Ren didn’t know much about the technicalities of it, but he doubted it was a disease- or at least a disease as humans understood them.
However, this woman wasn’t a complete fool. She wasn’t like those people who thought noble vampires made other noble vampires by biting humans in a certain way. Where did people even get that idea? Do people bite a cow and expect it to become another human being? It was moronic.
“An interesting ambition, Ms. Takemi- but why would I want to be your guinea pig?’
To Ren’s surprise, the woman actually became excited, not discouraged.
“Like I said, I’m a physician. I can make all sorts of medicines and poultices for you.”
“I heal well enough on my own.”
“Okay. Well, then what do you eat?”
Ren didn’t respond. It was not wise to discuss eating around humans. It tended to make them uneasy.
“Blood, I would think,” continued Tae, “But you don’t feed off humans directly, otherwise you would not have a writ of citizenship. So you must have some sort of supply. Some sort of ration for yourself. Something you can attain without harming people.”
~Okay. Maybe she isn’t a fool, after all.~
“Show me what it is. And I bet I could make it.”
Ren was interested. That would be useful. That would be very useful.
“Very well,” said Ren, “I will show you, and then you tell me if you can make it.”
He went to his saddle and dug into his rucksack. In the very center, in the most protected part, he kept the sack which contained his entire food supply. He took out two of the small red capsules, and put the rest back into the rucksack. He was actually getting a little low. He still had enough. But not a comfortable surplus.
He returned to Tae, who was waiting in the lamplight. There was a bottle and a clear drinking glass next to the table lamp. Ren poured a glass of water. Held up one of the red capsules for Tae to see, and then dropped it into the glass of water. As soon as the capsule hit the water’s surface, it began dissolving, turning the water red. Blood red.
“I see,” said Tae. “A dried concentrate. Interesting.”
“You saw to the heart of the it quickly. But this is what I eat. But I cannot make them myself. Few know the method, and the demand is minimal.”
“I can imagine. There are fewer and fewer dhampirs in the world.”
“Fewer and fewer nobles to make them.”
Tae looked at him seriously. “You hunt them. Don’t you? Aren’t you hunting your own kind out of existence? Do you want there never to be more dhampirs?”
Tae regarded him with interest. “Well, I can’t complain about it. I’d like to see the world and not get eaten.”
Ren handed her the undissolved second pill. “You can keep this one to examine.’
“And you’ll let me study you?”
“Make me more of these, and document the method of its creation, and yes. You can study me to your heart’s content.”
“I’ll need money.”
“What? I’m going to pay you by being your guinea pig.”
“No, not for the pills. I need money to pay the blood donors.”
“Isn’t it obvious? I need blood. But no one is going to give me some for free. But if I offer money, I can get as many people as I want to sit in a chair for a while and let me drain some of your dinner from them.”
Ren scowled. “Just- never say that again. Say you are studying something. Anything. Talk about drinking blood and you’ll summon the lynch mob. We’ll both burn. Well- you will. I’ll get away.”
“Because I’ll tell them it was your idea as I ride away.”
Makoto sat on a smooth chair in a small open air courtyard. Kawakami returned Makoto’s hot pants and undershirt as they were already dry. They had been warm when Makoto slipped them on, as the drying method here appeared to be a clothesline in the boiler room, plus an electric fan to move air about. It was effective and efficient.
When Makoto complimented the ingenuity, Kawakami smiled at her and said: “It was my idea, too. The guy who owns this place doesn’t have much more imagination outside the kind of outfit he wants me to wear.”
Kawakami still wasn’t paying any attention to Makoto’s body, which continued to put Makoto at ease. The maid was standing idly in the doorway to the alley-side front counter. It appeared she could keep an eye out for new customers and the drying rack in the boiler room from that position. Her bored expression traveling between the two and her newspaper in a steady routine.
Makoto wasn’t naked, but with her legs exposed up to mid-thigh and the tops of her breasts and shoulders uncovered, she felt practically naked. But Kawakami spared not a glance, and this was a private courtyard. So not every woman was like that Ms. Takemi, thankfully. Maybe it was the physician’s background that made her so much more attentive.
Makoto realized she was thinking more about her body than Kawakami was, so she should just stop. On the near side of the courtyard where it connected with another small shed -like structure, movement of the wooden door caught Makoto’s attention. A small boy, maybe three years old, waddled his way out into the sunlight. He was holding a wooden gun-like toy in his hand. He looked wide eyed around the courtyard, spotted Makoto, stared at her, raised his wooden toy and said:
“Shinya!” said Kawakami, her normally bored face coming alive with vivacity. She walked quickly over to pick up the child, who laughed happily at being lifted up. “Shinya, did you open your gate again? What am I going to do with you? How is mommy going to work, huh?” She spun the child around and he continued to giggle.
“You live here with your son?” asked Makoto, unable to keep some of the shock out of her voice.
Kawakami stopped spinning and looked at Makoto, her smile vanishing. “Why? Should a woman like me not have a place to live?”
Little Shinya caught on to his mother’s tone and his smile vanished into a look of baby-like surprise. He turned to stare at Makoto, too.
Makoto was taken aback. What was this reaction? She could see Kawakami’s hackles rising. She’d grievously offended the woman somehow.
“What?” said Makoto, blushing, but embracing it, trying to consciously display her confusion to the woman. “That’s not what I meant- it’s just this is a public bath. I’ve never heard of people living at them, too!”
Kawakami remained impassive, but at least she wasn’t getting more angry. “Where do you live, Ms. Vampire Hunter?”
“Umm… the Azabu neighborhood.”
Kawkami’s eyes went wide. “Azabu! You have a mansion to go home to. Yet you come all the way down here to take a bath?”
Makoto realized this was the second reversal she could spring on Kawakami. “Why? Should a woman like me not have a place to bathe?”
Kawakami’s face lit up in laughter. “Touche`.” Shinya responded to the sound and started laughing himself. Kawakami bounced him on her hip as her face turned thoughtful. “But that’s why you were nervous to get naked. You’re probably used to bathing at home.”
“And that's why I asked that question. I was just curious about your living situation. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
Kawakami sighed and shifted Shinya to her other hip. “Sorry, I was touchy. But, yes, my son and I live in that little building there. It's one room, but with the public bath here, it has everything we need, and piped hot water to boot. The owner includes the room as a part of my pay, so I don’t make much extra, but this place is a haven as far as I am concerned- even if I have to wear this stupid outfit.”
Makoto’s eyes shifted to Shinya. “Is there- um.. Is there-?”
“A father?” sighed Kawakami. She looked away. “Yes. But who knows who it might be.”
Kawakami looked back at Makoto defiantly. “I used to do some gross things to survive. But I got lucky and the only consequence was my little Shinya. And now the grossest thing I have to do is mop the men’s bath every night.”
Makoto sensed she would need to defuse Kawakami again. She knew from social situations that complimenting a mother was almost always a good idea. “Shinya is lucky to have such a strong mother.”
Kawakami smiled and relaxed again. “Thanks. We get by. But now that he’s so full of wanderlust, I’m not sure how I’ll handle him when this place gets busy. But I’ll figure something out.”
“Could your parents…?”
Kawakami laughed darkly. “No. Humans. My parents used to have a liquor store when I was a teenager. Some gang raided the place and stabbed them to death. And I had to… get by on my own, after that You have your mission, Ms. Vampire Hunter, but I sure wish there were people who hunted bad humans with knife-gloves and such. Vampires never did nothing to me.”
Makoto didn’t know what to say to that. But maybe a change of subject would be good. And she couldn’t be called ‘Ms. Vampire Hunter’ forever.
“My name is Niijama Makoto, by the way. Sorry, I didn’t-”
“What! THE Niijima?!”
Makoto closed her eyes and sighed.
The late-afternoon sun was oranging by the minute when Makoto re-emerged from the public bath, clean and re-equipped. She was glad to have met Kawakami, and was disturbed at herself for never really meeting people like that before. For someone who ventured out of the city to hunt vamp-slaves, Makoto felt like she was actually quite sheltered. She’d never just talked to someone like that before, and what’s more, have serious life issues come up in the conversation. Next to Sae and their life-long butler, Yoshida, that half-hour spent with Kawakami made her the third-most known person in Makoto’s life.
That made Makoto feel somewhat sad. She was 20, and suddenly realized that Kawakami was the closest thing to a friend she had now, and that only having spent roughly an hour around the woman. Makoto had spent most of her childhood surrounded by her father and Sae. She’d been privately tutored. And when everyone was busy, Yoshida acted like a second-father, watching her, keeping her as entertained as he could while he went about his meticulous duties in the estate.
But when she had simply asked Kawakami questions, the woman opened up to her. Exposing Makoto to all sorts of situations and facts of life she’d never even had the imagination to consider. Could Makoto, an Azabu mansion princess, really view herself as strong when Kawakami had to claw her way to survival, selling her very body just to eat and survive? Was strength really just the ability to aim a gun and pull a trigger? Makoto was unsure now. The new information was churning its way through her mind, eating away at the solidified world-view the Niijima upbringing casted into her soul.
Johanna should be ready about now. She could go pick the motorcycle up, settle with Iwai, and ride it back to Cafe Leblanc well before the fall of darkness. Her feet turned in that direction and carried her away.
The staging area by the city gate was bustling as always, but instead of teams of horses and oxen getting ready for a day’s journey, they were getting prepared for a night’s rest. Tack was coming off, beasts were rumbling out their thirst and hunger, men were shouting at each other as they tried to shove unhooked wagons and carts around one another in the thin mud of the street.
Iwai’s mechanic shop was a bit of an oasis amongst the chaos- a dim place of organization and precision. The atmosphere had a calming effect on Makoto- she liked both of those things. Johanna was leaning proudly on her kickstand in the middle of the garage- her blue fuelselage gleaming even in the dim light of the shop. Iwai was in the corner, reading something and idly smoking a pipe of tobacco. He glanced up as she entered.
“Ah, good timing, Ms. Niijima. I finished but twenty minutes ago.”
“Thank you, Iwai.” Makoto omitted the -san from the end of Iwai’s name, because Iwai didn’t like the sound of it for some reason. No “Mr.” for him.
Makoto was suddenly inspired to ask Iwai about it. She’d connected to Kawakami so much today, and she’d known Iwai professionally for over a year now. Why not ask a question?
“Why don’t you like me calling you ‘Iwai-san’?”
Iwai took the pipe from his mouth and squinted at her. He was maybe 40 years old, but when he did that, he looked like he was 60. “What? What does it matter? I just don’t like it.”
Makoto was taken aback. Well, she supposed it wasn’t so easy with different people.
Iwai set down his pipe. “To the matter at hand... You used up a lot of gas last night, and I see you used my Blue Light. Did it work?”
“Yes! The light worked wonders. But it didn’t last very long.”
“So it’s like we expected. I recharged the battery for it, but I can’t think of a way to get more illumination time. Batteries are too big, too heavy, and I can’t fit anything in that frame without upsetting the balance, and Johanna is heavy enough as it is.”
“But-!” said Iwai, his face broke out in an excited grin. Makoto knew that look. That was the look of an Iwai with a new invention.
“But I do have something new for you to try out next time. Follow me.”
She followed him through a door in the back wall of the garage. It led into a small dirt courtyard that was cratered, singed, and otherwise marred by various unknown forces. Scrap metal and ash littered the area.
“Look at this.” He held up a clear glass cylinder, capped at both ends, with a fuse in the top making it look kind of like a stick of dynamite. A small bit of foggy liquid was in the tube. He knocked his knuckles on the tube. “Thick glass. Vacuum sealed. Molded it myself. Should be able to stand up to a pretty hard knock, but you don’t want to shatter this thing or it won’t work. Watch.”
Iwai took a match, lit the fuse, and then tossed the glass tube into the center of the courtyard. The glass didn’t shatter from the light toss, so it hit the ground and the fuse burned away. Then the top cap popped off, a blue flame appeared, and then shot down into the glass tube extremely quickly.
The courtyard glowed with a powerful blue light despite the late afternoon sun.
“Ha! Not bad right?” said Iwai clapping his hands together in victory. “Should stun vamp-slaves for a few seconds at least.”
“How does it work?”
“A type of gas I can get out of heating a certain saltpeter is combined with the fumes I get from a liquid that comes from heating up black rock and yellow rock together!”
Makoto blinked at the rapid speed of Iwai’s exited explanation.
“You have to be quick, but if you get them both sealed in the tube, they mix, and do that when you ignite it. I call it ‘The Barking Dog.`` because of the sound.”
It was like a temporary flare that could probably stun vamp-slaves. Normal flares just made red light, and didn’t really scare the creatures. It was an extraordinary invention.
“I put a few in your saddle-bags next to the flares to try out. Be careful with them. If they shatter, it won’t work. And you have the fuse to consider. You might be eaten before the thing goes off if you don’t consider the time delay.”
“I’ll remember. Thanks, Iwai.”
“I’ll be eager for your report.”
They both turned back to the garage and Makoto paid her bill for Johanna’s upkeep. Iwai’s inventions were free, as always. It was like a hobby for him. She considered the man as he put the money and his ledger away. She decided to try to get to know him again.
“What do you do when you’re not in this shop, Iwai?”
Iwai blinked at her. He frowned. “What’s with these questions? I got work to do, Ms. Niijima. If there’s nothing else-?”
“Oh- uh… right!”
She took her armored helmet up and walked towards Johanna. She supposed it wasn’t so easy to get to know everyone. Maybe some people weren’t interested in being known.
It was a short ride back to Cafe Leblanc. The sun was sinking into the east, and darkness hinting in the dark red colors of the sky. Makoto parked Johanna, set the defenses on, and took off her helmet. She was surprised to find the restaurant empty. A bored Sojiro looked up from his newspaper, brightening slightly as he recognized her.
“What can I get you this time, Ms. Niijima?”
“Actually, is Mr. Amamiya still here?”
“As far as I know. During my rush, a woman physician snuck by me and went down into the cellar with him,” Sojiro fiddled with his beard. “She left like she was on a mission, but seemed unharmed.”
So, the enthusiasm of Ms. Takemi took her as far as that? To enter the dark cellar where a dhampir dwelled? A gutsy proposition. But then again, this Mr. Amamiya did seem to be of honorable nature. Would a rescuer of small children be likely to assault women in the cellar of a cafe? It didn’t seem likely, but- his hafu nature… could instinct kick in? The desire to feed suddenly overwhelming whatever human side the dhampir might have?
“So you suspect me of harming women?” said a soft voice, but no longer warm. Both Sojiro and Makoto turned to regard Amamiya atop the cellar stairs, dressed again in black clothing and black hat. His saddle was again over his shoulder. Amamiya’s pale face was as neutral as ever, but Makoto thought she saw the faint hint of a disturbed frown.
An embarrassed denial grew behind Makoto’s lips, an ashamed blush blossomed on her cheeks- but before she could speak, Sojiro turned on Amamiya with one hand on his hip.
“Of course. Your kind has a bad reputation. Women seem to follow you about-” his hand indicated Makoto, causing her to blush even more, “...and then you draw them into the cellar with you. I’m your landlord. What am I supposed to think?’
“Think what you want,” Amamiya’s eyes turned to Makoto. “And why are you here again?”
Makoto shook off the embarrassment. If Sojiro could be so bold, so could she. And he said she was bad a lying, so why not be equally genuine? Makoto forced herself to grin at Amamiya.
“I’m following you, remember?”
She watched his face, seeking some subtle tell of his emotion, but saw nothing. She was shocked at herself, and she fought to keep her face set in that grin. That was such an aggressive thing to say! Why was she so daring around this dhampir? She was practically stalking him, and she would never dream of doing such a thing to a person. A person. Was that it? Did she not see this Amamiya as a person? Was it making her behave differently towards him?
“Well- stop.” said Amamiya, lamely.
Amamiya stared evenly into Makoto’s face. She put on a defiant look, daring him to disagree. Sojiro watched them both with curiosity. Then Amamiya broke his gaze with Makoto and strode past her into the darkening day. Makoto followed him.
“Where are you going?” Makoto asked him she stepped out of the cafe.
Amamiya didn’t answer. He tossed his saddle atop his eerily still mechanical horse. He began to thread the billet straps under the torso of the artificial beast. He was clearly not planning to respond to her questions. So… that was his play? Not talking? It was a childish tactic. Makoto could be childish, too. She lifted up her leg and put her foot firmly over the billet buckle, preventing Amamiya from threading the strap.
Amamiya froze. His eyes slowly traveled up Makoto’s long, armored leg and met her gaze- his grey eyes were less lifeless now. Something burned there. Anger? Annoyance? Makoto wasn’t sure, but she certainly had his attention. His passive face was tenser, his mouth a bit more drawn. He definitely had emotions, but one had to search his features for them.
“Move. Your. Leg.”
“Or what? You’ll attack a woman in the street? Assault me? I have a famous name, you know. It won’t end well for you.”
A long silence stretched between them. Makoto’s leg started to complain from the stance. Then Amamiya surprised Makoto by chuckling quietly.
“Well played,” he said. Then his face went back to its stoicism. “Move your leg and I’ll tell you what you want to know. And for as long as you stay out of my way, I’ll answer whatever questions you might have. Deal?”
Makoto pursed her lips. That worked better than she anticipated. So.. a little tenacity could go a long way. She moved her leg. Amamiya continued to work on his saddle.
He still wasn’t talking. Makoto was about to object, but then he said: “I’m going hunting at Shujin Girl’s Academy. I believe the noble hunts his prey there.”
“School was out hours ago.”
“There are dormitories. After school activities. Clubs. And none of the vanished students were ones which leave the campus earlier in the daylight hours.”
“How do you know that?”
“I was sent a docket of information with an advance payment. That conclusion was already made by he who sent for me.”
“Who sent for you?”
“I don’t know him, but perhaps you do? His letter was signed ‘Akechi Goro.’”
Makoto did know him. He was a young vampire hunter, too- but famously skilled. Or at least he was in Tock-Yo. Even Sae acknowledged him. They even hunted together. Akechi was younger than Makoto and he went hunting nobles with Sae, while Makoto stayed in the city, alone in the house. The train of thought started to reignite Makoto’s earlier anger towards her sister.
Amamiya finished the last bit of preparation with his saddle and mounted up. He pulled the reins of his horse, and the horse suddenly sprang to life and turned, moving just like a real horse. Makoto hurriedly put her armored helmet back on and mounted Johanna.
Amamiya eyed her, and Makoto expected another objection. But after a moment, he turned his horse fully around and trotted off down the street in the growing dusk. Makoto started her motorcycle and followed slowly after. She waited all day for this moment, and she wasn’t going to miss this supposedly famous ‘Vampire Hunter J’ in action. Sae never took her to hunt nobles, but Mr. Amamiya didn’t have the luxury of choice in the matter. He was stuck with her.
As Makoto followed Amamiya’s trotting mechanical horse, she wondered about this docket of information from Akechi Goro. Why would a vampire hunter seek to hire a dhampir vampire hunter to help hunt for a noble? And in his home city, no less. It was a lot like hiring the competition. However, the Akechi family was another powerful and wealthy family in the city- one of the founding families, even. Akechi Goro’s father, Akechi Masayoshi, was one of the ranking members of the city government, and often jockeyed for the top spot.
So with that in consideration, perhaps Akechi Sr. would not view hiring Mr. Amamiya, the so-called ‘Vampire Hunter J’, as payment to the competition. As a council member, he would want the rumor of the infiltrating noble vampire quashed, the problem solved. The longer it persisted, the more people who disappeared, the more incompetent the city council would appear.
Masayoshi Akechi was somewhat notoriously political, or at least, that was what Makoto’s father used to complain about. ‘Akechi is a windmill. He only turns when the winds blow.’
Well- vanishing schoolgirls spoke to every parent’s fears, so a mighty storm was brewing if the problem was not solved. But even so- invite a dhampir? Provide him a writ of citizenship? Extreme measures that could go bad for the senior Akechi. But... what if it were some imprudent action committed by the young Akechi? In that case, if Amamiya solved the problem, then it was the senior Akechi’s idea, of course. If he failed or it went nowhere... well, boys will be boys, and little Goro would be appropriately schooled in proper action to minimize political damage to Akechi Sr. And perhaps a little political boost: oh, that Akechi’s son went a little out of line and he took care of it immediately. What a leader he is!
It was an interesting theory. Her father used to talk endlessly about city politics, and he would praise Makoto when she remembered what he said from one conversation to the next. Perhaps that was why she still kept tabs on the city news. What would father have said about a vampire in the city? That he’d take care of it, probably.
Then Makoto wondered just how nervous the members of the city government were getting right now. It was not four years ago that Sen-Dye, the city to the north, experienced a full-scale revolution. Rumors of executions filtered down the trade routes for months. For older people, like city council members, four years would not seem long at all. If the people thought them incompetent, would the population rebel?
So the politicians probably nervously awaited news of victory over the vampire infiltration. Sae was certainly involved, Makoto was sure. And she hadn’t decided to involve Makoto in the assignment. Makoto felt that anger bubble into a hotter simmer the back of her mind. She was father’s daughter, too! She was trained by father, too! Her training might have been truncated by his disappearance, but she’d basically been ready- as ready as Sae had been when she’d started going with father on hunts!
Makoto decided she would show Sae just how useful she could be. She would help Amamiya find this vampire and kill it, then her sister would see. Makoto would prove she was worthy of her father’s legacy, worthy of the Niijima name, and certainly not useless!
Amamiya reigned in his horse, bringing it back to its eerily still state. Shujin Girl’s Academy loomed before them. It was a three-story construction of old brick and tile roof, one of the earliest schools built in the city; almost four hundred years ago when Tock-Yo was just expanding from a settlement to a real city. The gate was closed, but the door for people that was within that gate remained open. A few young women drifted out, perhaps seventeen years old or so. About the age as those girls who were rumored vanished.
Amamiya dismounted and stood next to his horse, looking intently at the school. Makoto parked her motorcycle and walked forward to stand next to him. His head slightly turned to look at her from the corner of his grey eyes, then he gazed back at the school. Makoto watched the passing schoolgirls. They looked at the two of them curiously, but then they continued down the street. Perhaps if one didn’t know what to look for, Amamiya was not immediately obvious as a dhampir- he did do a good job of tucking his pointed ears up into his wide, black hat. He might pass for a… strange man.
“There is no other entrance to the campus,” offered Makoto, “unless you scale the wall, of course, but there are safeguards against that sort of thing.”
“Good,” said Amamiya, “but how do you know?”
“This was my school. I graduated two years ago.”
“What are you looking for?”
“Not looking. Smelling. But I smell nothing.”
Smelling? Seeking the scent of a vampire? This was some sort of dhampir thing, then. And what would a noble vampire smell like? Blood, probably.
“Is it the wrong spot, then?”
Amamiya shook his head very slightly. “Inconclusive. A careful noble will mask their scent. It is not difficult for them. But I expect the victims are not immediately abducted. Within the city, the noble will want everything quiet, so it will influence the chosen target for several weeks, weakening their inhibitions, and then when the moment is right, the victim will abduct themselves at the noble’s will.”
Makoto felt her mind churning on Amamiya’s words. She was getting excited. So much new information! Amamiya’s earlier reticence to talk was gone. He seemed committed to their deal over her not getting in his way in exchange for answering questions. So- the technique Amamiya was describing was like a sort of hypnotism? If so, it was an insidious mechanism of predation.
“Will you go inside and investigate the campus?”
“I’d rather not. People tend to dislike it when I am around their young women.”
“Ah… and waiting outside like some stalker is better?”
Amamiya softly chuckled. He glanced at Makoto, his grey eyes a little less dead than usual. “Marginally. But I’m hoping to smell the next victim if she passes this way.”
Smell the next victim? So… the influence of the noble could be detected on the girl it was preparing to attack?
“The noble cannot mask its scent on the target?”
Amamiya looked over at Makoto again and gave her a nod of respect. “Exactly.”
“And if she is in the dorms on campus?”
“I’ll think of something. Urban hunting is a rather new thing for me. I’m used to infiltrating abandoned castles and such.”
They waited together in silence. A few dozen schoolgirls drifted by in small groups, all of them giving Amamiya and Ren curious looks, but none becoming alarmed. Makoto watched the side of Amamiya’s face as each group passed, but he didn’t react. She assumed that meant he wasn’t sensing whatever he hoped to sense.
“Hey!” called a new, loud voice. Makoto turned her head to see a blond city guard approaching them from down the street, walking in a rather slouched manner. He was unarmed, but still in his uniform. “I recognize you two!”
Makoto realized this was one of the guards from this morning- the one who objected to Amamiya being allowed in the city. Well, perhaps not objected. But he’d been loudly surprised. What was his name again? The guard captain said it…
Before Makoto could remember the name, the young, blond-haired man stopped before them and grinned, his eyes flicking between Amamiya and Makoto. Finally, he pointed at Makoto. “Yer one of the Niijima sisters, right?”
Makoto blinked at the pointing finger. What a rude person. But she said: “Yes.”
“For real! That’s awesome!” He then pointed at Amamiya. “And yer that dhampir!”
Amamiya remained silent, but it seemed the young man was not really interested in an answer.
“I’m Sakamoto Ryuji! I’m glad I get to meet you both for real. But what are you two doing together? And here?”
Amamiya ignored the question and turned his attention back to the school. Sakamoto’s eyes shifted to Makoto. She felt a social obligation to answer the question, and she was unaware of a reason to lie.
“We are hunting a vampire.”
“Whoa! Hunting a vampire! Here!” Sakamoto practically shouted. A few schoolgirls looked at them in alarm.
“Keep it down!” hissed Makoto.
“Quiet, fool!” snarled Amamiya.
“Sorry. But I thought the vampire in the city thing was just rumors.”
“Then who abducted the women?”
“They ran away, from like- a bad father or something.”
Makoto frowned. It was possible. But three in two months? Unlikely.
“Why are you here?” asked Amamiya quietly.
“My twin sister is a student. My mom wanted me to walk her home because… you know. The rumors. And I’m a guard!”
“Where’s your polearm,” asked Makoto.
Sakamoto frowned and rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m not allowed to bring it from the wall yet.”
“And if your twin sister goes to school here, why aren’t you in school, too?”
“School wasn’t really my thing.”
“I see,” said Makoto. School was not really his... thing? How could learning not be someone’s... thing? What did this young man do with his mind then? How did he sate his curiosities? Did he not have curiosities? What a strange way to live.
Makoto started to ponder this other way of life when a lone, blond-haired schoolgirl exited Shujin Academy. She had long, pale legs, an hourglass figure, and two blazingly blond pigtails off both sides of her head. The same blond color as Sakamoto Ryuji’s.
Ryuji pointed at her. “That’s her. Hey! Hey, Ann! Over here!” Ryuji started to wave his arm in an exaggerated fashion.
Ann stopped, looked in their direction with a somewhat surprised face. She walked over, her gaze flickering between her brother, Amamiya, and Makoto. Her pale blue eyes were vivid in the pre-night dusk, seeming to glow out of her pale complexion. Ann was a woman that Makoto could see men fantasizing over. Makoto didn’t believe what that physician Takemi said earlier today about her own body. Whatever was perfect female beauty, this girl Ann had it, assuredly.
“Ann!” said Ryuji as his twin sister approached, “Check out these people I met!”
“Hello,” said Ann, her face brightening politely. She was also obviously wary of her brother’s enthusiasm. “I’m Sakamoto Ann.”
Makoto glanced at Amamiya. His face was intensely riveted on Ann. So… even the half-vampire man was interested in this blond bombshell. Makoto felt annoyance scrape along her consciousness, but she wasn’t sure why. It was probably Sakamoto’s loud voice getting on her nerves.
“This is Niijima Makoto,” said Ryuji.
Ann’s blue eyes went wide. “Wow! Real- uh... I mean it’s nice to meet you, Ms. Niijima.”
Makoto returned the greeting.
“And this is- uh… well- he’s a dhampir!”
“What! Really?!” Ann’s eyes opened wide and she stared at Amamiya.
Amamiya remained still. But Makoto thought she could see evidence of tension in his shoulders. Perhaps something was showing on his face, too, because Ann suddenly blushed with shame and bowed to Amamiya.
“Sorry, that was very rude of me. It is nice to meet you, Mr.-”
“-Mr. Amamiya,” Ann finished sheepishly.
“See?” said Ryuji with confidence. “I told you I’d meet famous people working with the city watch.”
“Shut up, Ryuji! You can’t even introduce him right!”
“What!? I did so!”
“You didn’t even know his name! What kind of introduction was that!? You’re a moron, Ryuji! You always embarrass me!”
“What!? I didn’t even-”
Amamiya raised his arm and pointed upward. “Look.”
Makoto turned her gaze from the fighting siblings and followed Amamiya’s indication. A dark-haired schoolgirl was on the roof of Shujin Academy, standing very close to the edge, looking out somewhere off into the distance.
“Shiho!” gasped Ann. “What is she doing?!” She sprinted off towards the entrance to the school. Her voice ramping up in volume. “Shiho!”
“Holy shit, what’s that girl doing?!” said Ryuji. He started to run after his sister.
“Who is that?” yelled Makoto.
“My sister’s best friend!”
Makoto frowned and looked up at the girl on the roof again. What was this Shiho doing? Scaring people for no reason? Why stand so close to the edge. Unless…? An alarm of sudden realization rang through Makoto’s mind: was she going to jump? Intentionally? Like the agonized young women in novels? That sort of thing happened in real life?
“She’s entranced,” said Amamiya quietly. “She’s the one.”
“How do you-?” Makoto’s mouth froze as the girl named Shiho walked off the roof and fell.
Screams. And a gabble of voices.
Makoto’s felt tingling shock run along her limbs as her mind tried to calculate this turn of events. Why would a vampire want this to happen? Didn’t they want to eat people? But force a girl to fall from a roof? What was the point? It didn’t make sense! Makoto turned towards Amamiya. He was looking at her.
Before he could answer, a frantic female voice yelled out, “She’s alive! Get help! Someone help!”
She lived? Makoto’s eyes traveled to the roof of the school. Well, perhaps that wasn’t that high.
Amamiya’s eyes settled on Makoto’s. “If she lives, she certainly needs a physician. Those people. They will leave her where she fell and call a priest. She will die.”
He was right. People did not trust physicians. Physicians carried the taboo of the corpses they studied. People trusted prayer. Holy power defeated the vampires, it is said, so it was believed to conquer sickness and injury. Though Makoto always wondered why there were always so many funerals in churchyards if that were the case.
Makoto remembered Tae Takemi, the physician she just met earlier today. Her clinic could not be far- back somewhere near Cafe Leblanc. That was do-able. Yes! She could move the girl to the clinic. That would be useful!
Or should she bring the physician here? No, that would double the travel time. They might not have any extra time. They should probably take the Shiho girl with them.
“Let’s take her to a physician, then,” she said to Amamiya. She would do this. This was something she could do. She could be useful now to this Shiho girl.
“I cannot enter there. They will not allow me to take her. I must remain here. You must collect her yourself.”
Makoto felt anger simmer towards Amamiya. His face was impassive. Did he even care a girl was dying over there? Then her mind caught up with what he was saying. A dhampir taking away a wounded girl? Maybe he was right. Maybe they would think he was trying to steal her away before the priest could arrive. That could go very badly, and Shiho would be forgotten in the chaos.
“Use your name,” said Amamiya. “It is powerful, is it not?”
Makoto was unsure what he meant, but she nodded and turned from him, running towards the school gate. She entered through the man-door and faced a moderate sized circle of people- all heads looking toward the center and down. Fucking gawkers! Why wasn’t anyone doing anything?
Makoto gritted her teeth and pushed into them, violently shoving students and adults aside, no few people yelping from the feel of her spiked armor. Served them right. Makoto made her way to the center where Sakamoto Ann was cradling a bloody and limp Shiho while Sakamoto Ryuji hovered nearby, clearly unsure of what to do.
Makoto stared at Shiho. Well, she was here. Now how to move Shiho safely to the physician? For the second time today, Makoto found herself in the middle of something with no plan. Let’s see. Think. Think. How to move the girl. What did Makoto have access to that could move?
Her motorcycle wouldn’t work. Neither would Amamiya’s horse. When Makoto broke her arm as a little girl, she had to keep it very still and flat. Shiho probably broke more than that, but keeping her still and flat was still probably the best option. So what else was nearby?
Makoto was a student here not long ago! Think! Think! How to move things in and out of the school!
Oh! The cart! The two-wheeled cart the school used for various small loads. But did they keep it in the shack, still? Makoto jumped slightly to see over the surrounding people. The shack was gone. It must have been replaced since she was a student. She would need a current student. Makoto’s eyes went to Sakamoto Ann.
Ann would work, and her crying and hugging Shiho probably wasn’t the best thing right now anyway.
“Ms. Sakamoto!” Makoto said loudly.
Ann continued to cry and shake her head.
“Hey! Ann!” said Ryuji, trying to get his sister’s attention, too. He shook Ann’s shoulders.
Ann was oblivious to them. She needed to wake up! Makoto knelt down and grabbed Ann by her shirt, and pulled her forward. Ann’s eyes opened slightly. Makoto slapped her across the face.
Ann’s eyes sprung wide open. Her sobbing continued, but her eyes focused on Makoto.
“We can try to save her!”
“Yes! But we need the school cart. Do you know where it is?”
“Yes. But- but the horses don’t stay here. They are in the stables near the gate.”
Damn! Well, Amamiya had a horse. He couldn’t come in here, but his horse sure could.
“Can you ride a horse, Ms. Sakamoto?”
“Go out the gate. Go to Mr. Amamiya. The black-hatted man, remember? And tell him you need his horse.”
Ann let Shiho down gently and then stood and headed for the gate. The crowd parted before her.
“Open the gate so she can ride back in! Then help her attach the cart!”
Ryuji again followed his sister.
That left Makoto in the middle of a small crowd with a bleeding girl. The blood wasn’t pooling very much, so the bleeding seemed relatively light. Makoto’s father taught her how to treat wounds, and she knew that pressure was supposed to be applied to bleeding. But Makoto kept remembering how pressure hurt her broken arm. With the blood loss relatively light, Makoto did not want to go applying pressure to wounds that she didn’t understand. She could hurt the girl even more.
“What’s this? What’s going on!” An anxious male voice shouted from outside the circle of people, and the crowd parted to allow a bald, fat man without a neck to enter the circle. He was dressed in a fine tunic, bowtie, and pants. Makoto felt a sudden surge of guilty anxiety in her body. It was Principal Kobayakawa! Flashbacks of his stern face staring at her in his office flooded her memory. As student council president, she’d been in his office multiple times a week during her time at Shujin.
Kobayakawa’s slightly frantic eyes looked at Makoto. They widened with surprised recognition. “Ms. Niijima? What happened?... What are you wearing?”
“Niijima?!” exclaimed someone from the watching crowd.
“The vampire hunter?” said another.
“One of his daughters!”
“It has to be! Look at that gun on her hip! Why else would a young girl have one?”
Why did people care this much about her damn name? There was a girl dying at their feet and they were more interested in Makoto’s name, and Principal Kobayakawa was more interested in her hunting gear. This was wrong. There was something wrong with this city. Something wrong with its people. But the shock of that pessimistic thought stirred Makoto’s mind back into motion.
She wasn’t a student anymore. Mr. Kobayakawa was not her principal- he was just a principal. “This girl fell from the roof, Mr. Kobayakawa,” said Makoto,.”I’m going to take her to a physician.”
The crowd murmured in surprise and Kobayakawa’s eyes widened. Then everyone was distracted for a moment as the gate opened and the sound of galloping hooves crossed the courtyard. Makoto saw Ann’s blond head bounce past, riding Amamiya’s horse on the way to wherever the cart was, presumably.
Kobayakawa gathered attention back on himself by sputtering out: “A ph- physician, Ms. Niijima?” He was using the same tone he’d used years ago- a surprised and shocked tone that obviously implied Makoto was stupid for thinking of it. She felt a surge of doubt flood through her, as she’d felt so many times in this man’s office, as she stood before his desk in her uniform skirt, head bowed before this man’s overt disappointment.
“Why would anyone want to spend their last moments on the slab of a graverobber!” yelled someone in the crowd.
“Someone ran for a priest already! She will be sent in peace!”
Makoto felt desperation run through her. The crowd’s opinion seemed to share Principal Kobayakawa’s opinion. “She’s not dead!” yelled Makoto, her head turning back and forth, seeing tense faces of strangers all around. “She might live! We need to try and save her!”
More angered murmuring. “She fell! It’s the will of God!”
Kobayakawa seemed to gain more confidence from the crowd’s reaction. “Yes. I cannot allow you to take one of my students to such a person, Ms. Niijima. She deserves better!”
“But-” said Makoto, her throat catching. Was he right? Were this people right? Was she trying to do the wrong thing? If Principal Kobayakawa thought this was wrong...
“Outa the way! Outa the way,” shouted Ryuji, and he appeared between two people in the center of the circle, shoving them apart with spread arms. Makoto turned towards Ryuji’s voice, and then her eyes found Ann. The young woman was mounted on Amamiys’s black horse, closely following her brother, the school cart rumbling behind her. Ann’s eyes were a blazing blue in the afternoon light, and they were entirely focused on Shiho- Makoto could tell from the fear, concern, and determination found on Ann’s face.
Was Makoto wrong? Maybe. But she’d started this plan of action, and now the Sakamotos were on that path, as was Amamiya outside. Wrong or no, Makoto could not back down at this point. And what was the worst thing that could happen if she was wrong? Shiho would die, and that was already inevitable if no one helped her.
People shoved and stumbled away enough to let Ann pull up next to Shiho’s still form. Makoto knelt down and lowered her cheek to Shiho’s mouth. She was still breathing. Barely.
“Mr. Sakamoto, help me lay her in the cart,” said Makoto, “Try not to jostle her.”
Makoto slid her hands under Shiho’s shoulders and tried to cup her forearms together to support the girl’s bleeding head. This probably wasn’t the best way, but Makoto couldn’t think of anything else to do. Ryuji was grabbing Shiho’s ankles.
“No! Not there. Grab her waist! Where most of her weight is. Lift from there.”
Ryuji complied and together they managed to lift Shiho and move her to the cart, her limp arms and legs dangling. Not ideal, but limbs were not the most essential things in this situation.
“Where am I going?” said Ann, her eyes bright, eager, focused, and still glistening with tears.
“The Yongenjaya district! Keep the speed moderate, Ms. Sakamoto. Haste could jostle your friend. We want to avoid it.”
The cart turned and left the murmuring crowd behind them, the fat official in the center grimacing and sweating. This event was going to go public. Makoto realized using her name was a double-edged sword. It would make this a news item. It might even end up in the paper. Sae was going to be pissed.
The cart traveled relatively smoothly onto the dirt street. Ryuji had his uniform shirt under Shiho’s head as a sort of pillow, it seemed to be doing an okay job of keeping her head from bouncing on the cart surface.
“Try to avoid holes and bumps, Ms. Sakamoto.”
They passed Amamiya, still standing quietly on the side of the street. He hopped into the back of the cart as they passed. He kneeled over Shiho and placed his left hand on her bare arm. For a long moment, Amamiya held that pose.
Finally, he took his hand from Shiho. “Ms. Sakamoto! We can slow the pace and be more careful!” he said.
“Your friend is not in immediate danger of death. But there is great danger of exacerbating her crisis. Go slow. Walk the horse.”
“How do you know?”
Makoto did not want an argument. She trusted Amamiya to know more about this than she did. He seemed to know things. More things than a frantic high schooler. And herself.
“Listen to him, Ms. Sakamoto!”
The cart slowed, smoothing their travel to a greater degree.
Makoto was watching Amamiya’s placid face. “How do you know?” she asked quietly. “What did you do when you touched her? Is it some sense you have?”
Amamiya’s eyes wandered back to hers. They held for a moment. Then looked away.
“We have a deal.”
He looked back. Face as still as ever. “I’ll tell you later.” Then his eyes traveled to Ryuji.
Oh, it was private. Fair enough.
“What about the vampire?”
“He won’t come out with the commotion. There’s no sense in hunting anymore tonight. Better to not tip him off.”
That made sense enough, she supposed. Makoto looked down at the limp girl, clinging to life. Even if she survived, she might be damaged. One of the stablehands on her estate was kicked by a horse when he was little. He was… wrong his whole life. Happy enough, but wrong. Not what he should have been. What he could have been. That loss of potential. That was a tragedy that always bothered Makoto. If he’d been a few feet farther away, what would that stableboy have been? If Shiho had been a few minutes late somewhere, would she have been the target of this vampire? If Makoto’s father had not vanished, would they all be a team? The Niijima’s together? What they could have been… it was a waste.
This was a waste. This bleeding young woman in this cart.
“Mr. Amamiya, why would the vampire want this to happen? Why make this girl fall off a building? It seems wasteful. Doesn’t he want to- to-...”
“Eat her?” Amamiya looked a Makoto with a thoughtful expression. “Yes, surely he did. But as for walking her off the roof. I don’t think he did. I think she did.”
“But you said she was entranced.”
“Yes. I’m sure she was. She was moving in that way. But… I think she was resisting the influence. She wanted to escape, and perhaps death seemed the only option. Her mind was not wholly her own. ”
A quick end rather than experience being food for a predator. It was an understandable choice. A defiant choice. Makoto suspected she would pick the same route for herself, if all hope of victory was lost and there were only fangs in the dark. She liked this Shiho girl. Hopefully, she would recover.
“Okay! Where to now!” shouted Ann from astride the leading horse.
Amamiya stood and directed her. They passed Cafe Leblanc, took a right, then a left, and stopped before a wooden two-story building- joined together with all the others like the rest of the neighborhood. A small sign read: “Takemi Tae, Physician.”
Ren was satisfied the clinic was where Takemi said it would be. He stepped from the cart. The male Sakamoto was eyeing him with wide eyes. The female one was dismounting from the horse and rushing to the back of the cart.
“I’ll fetch her,” he said to Niijima. She was proving competent. She could manage the children.
He strode for the clinic.
“Let’s wait here and keep her still and warm. Ryuji, give me your shirt,” said Niijima as Ren entered the clinic.
A small, bland waiting room was immediately inside the door. It was quite dark. There were no lamps. No lights. No one was here. To Ren’s left, a window, and behind that, a desk. No physician. Immediately ahead, another door. Ren entered that door.
Bright light in the center of the room. Takemi was bent over a human body. She straightened up in surprise as Ren entered, her eyes magnified by a strange looking device attached to her head. Her hands held bloody implements.
“There is a severely injured young woman outside. She is in need of your aid.”
“She fell from a three-story building.”
Takemi’s magnified eyes blinked in surprise. Her pupils grew notably. “Truly?” She looked down at the corpse on her table. “This needs to go, then! Help me move it.”
Ren opened his mouth to complain at the delay. Yet they were here. The girl was alive and not in immediate danger of death. And it made sense that the physician would not put the injured girl atop a half-dismantled corpse.
He moved to grab the stretcher handles near the corpse’s feet. Takemi moved and took the ones by the head. They lifted and carried the man out another door to the rear of the room. They carried the corpse out into a sort of hallway, and Takemi opened a large metal door. Cool air poured out. She entered and Ren followed. It was a large icebox, with several large blocks of ice in the back corner. There was another body here on the left side. They placed the one they were carrying on the sawhorses on the right. The room smelled strongly of old blood.
“How do you move these by yourself?”
“I have a wheeled device. It doesn’t matter. I need to clean the table!”
Takemi ran-walked from the icebox with Ren on her heels. They re-entered the exam room. The table seemed clean from Ren’s point of view, the corpse’s gurney caught all of the related gore. But Takemi picked up a small bucket full of rags and set it on the table. She took one out and began rubbing the surface. Ren took a rag, too. The smell of alcohol was overwhelming.
“What are we doing?”
“Creating a preservative space!”
“What?” asked Ren as he began to rub.
“Rum. Whiskey. Gin. All of it. It basically doesn’t spoil. There is some sort of preservative aspect to them. This is a pure form of the chemical all those spirits share. I believe it helps preserve patients if one applies it to surfaces, instruments, and wounds. But it cannot be consumed. It is poison.”
“How can a poison be a help to anyone?”
“Are you a physician for humans, dhampir?”
That message was clear. Ren shut up.
In a short moment, Takemi was satisfied. “Very well. I am ready! Lead me to the patient!”
“Wait a moment longer. I have information about her injuries. Listen to my left hand.”
Ren turned his mind inward. He opened his left hand, showing his palm to Takemi. She looked down at it with a mix of curiosity and impatience.
Morgana, Ren thought, tell me again the injuries you sensed. Speak aloud.
Ren looked down at his own hand. A cat’s face appeared in his left palm as Morgana the symbiote rose to the surface. Takemi’s eyes went wide with shock. She stared at Ren’s hand/Morgana’s cat face.
“The bone of her head is pushed inward where she met with the ground. It is creating a pressure upon the organ. Several ribs are broken. The large bone of one leg. The small bone of the other. The right foot. The left wrist. And the right forearm. Several organs are bleeding inside but to a minor degree.”
Takemi’s gaping mouth closed with a snap. “Is her backbone damaged?”
“I sensed no breaks,” said Morgana.
“A miracle,” murmured Takemi.
Ren was impressed with Takemi. Her mind was chewing the information. She was shaking off the weirdness of meeting Morgana quite quickly.
She looked at Ren with determined eyes. “Let’s go! Help me with this stretcher!”
Ren lead the way back outside. The last vestiges of light were rapidly fading from the world. Three impatient and concerned faces looked up from the cart and watched Ren and Takemi approach.
“Move aside! Move aside,” said Takemi, her voice full of authority. “Mr. Amamiya, please set your end up near her head.”
Ren complied and climbed into the cart.
“Ms. Niijima! You’re here, too? Excellent. Please help us transfer her. Keep her head as still as you can.”
“Right! Mr. Sakamoto. Her hips, please! Like before!’
They transferred Shiho to the stretcher and then carried her inside to the exam room. Niijima and the Sakamotos followed.
“Can you save her?” asked Ann, her voice stretched thin with worry.
“I will try,” said Takemi. She began lighting additional lamps that were hanging around the room.
“You don’t have electricity?” said Niijima.
“Can’t afford it.”
Niijima pursed her lips. Ren thought she was probably doubting their course of action in bringing the Shiho girl here, but he was confident. Anyone who could divine the truth of his blood capsules in a matter of seconds was a sharp mind. He wanted this girl to survive. It would make his failure less of a burden. If he hadn’t delayed this morning and instead went directly to the school, perhaps he could have prevented this.
*With sun sickness? If you’d managed to find the vampire, he would have killed you.*
Stay out of my thoughts!
*Then don’t think so loud!*
Takemi was bathing Shiho’s head in water, washing away the blood that was beginning to dry there. She then began gingerly touching the young woman’s skull through her hair.
“It’s a fairly wide area,” said Takemi grimly. She procured a small knife from a liquid-filled jar. Ren presumed it was more of the whiskey chemical. And she placed it upon Shiho’s head and began slicing her skin open.
The male Sakamoto let his mouth drop open.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?” screamed the female Sakamoto. Her arms reached to stop Takemi.
Ren was surprised. Flat-footed. But the Niijima woman was faster than he was. She snatched the blond girl’s arms and pushed her back. “Don’t! She knows what she’s doing!”
“She’s cutting her!”
“She needs to repair what’s under the skin! An extra cut on the head is not going to kill your friend, Ann!”
Takemi didn’t seem to notice the exchange. She was focused entirely on her craft.
Ren realized they should leave her to it. “Let’s go into the other room and let the physician work.”
Niijima pushed the Sakamoto siblings back out into the waiting room. Ren followed. Before the door closed, he looked back. Takemi was entirely enraptured with her work, oblivious to the world. She set the bloody blade aside, bathed the new wound, and reached for some other chemically bathed tool that Ren had no name for. Ren took that as a hopeful sign. He let the door close.
Female Sakamoto was holding her head, tears leaking from her face, new sobs wracking her body- though she was obviously trying to contain them. Male Sakamoto guided her to a small couch and sat down with her. Niijima watched them with some concern, then turned her strangely alluring crimson eyes to Ren.
“Can he track her here?”
Her mind was still on business. Ren felt a glow of approval towards this young human woman. She was talking about the vampire at the school. Would it try and finish the job that the Shiho girl had interrupted?
“Yes, he could.”
“I don’t know.”
Niijma looked at the Sakamotos again, chewing her bottom lip lightly. Ren watched the outline of her face. She had a sharp chin, a small nose, and a profile that would be accounted one of beauty even amongst his mother’s people. But there were rings growing under her eyes. She was fatigued.
“I will watch this place,” he said. She turned and looked at him, her eyes intense upon his. “Go rest. If he comes here, it will be the end of my hunt. And the end of him.”
Her jaw clenched, but she didn’t frown. She seemed receptive.
“I left my cycle at the school.”
“Can you ride? Take my horse.”
“You would trust me with it?”
“If you left and stayed away, the horse would be a small price to pay.”
Niijima laughed. The sound seemed to surprise her. Blood flooded into her cheeks. But she nodded.
She walked towards the Sakamoto siblings. Kneeled. Gained both of their attentions.
“Ryuji. Ann. I’m going to go home and get some sleep. I’ve been away for much longer than just today, Mr. Amamiya says he will keep watch.”
Both their eyes flicked to Ren, some fear there. Ren felt a little anger at that, but they couldn’t help it. They were kids. And he knew his own kind’s reputation. It’s why he hunted them himself.
They looked back at Niijima with apprehension.
“Mr. Amamiya is a famous vampire hunter, as you heard Ryuji. And I’ve learned that he’s saved small children from noble vampires. He seems a noble… man.”
Ren kept his face neutral, but he felt a soft glow of gratitude grow towards the Niijima woman. What was her name again? Makoto? That was it. Niijima Makoto.
“Stay here. Don’t leave,” continued Makoto. “We don’t know what the vampire might know of us, or if he will come sniffing around.”
The Sakamotos nodded again.
Makoto stood. Turned. Walked back towards Ren and gave him a long look. She had an expression on her face that he couldn’t read. Worry? Anxiety? Concern?
“I’ll be back before sunrise,” she said.
Ren nodded and she left.
The watch was dull and slow. The Sakamoto siblings were asleep on the furniture in the waiting room. Ren remained standing near the door.
He was hungry. He hadn’t eaten since this morning. The smell of two young humans was becoming... notable. He could vaguely hear their heartbeats. He found his eyes traveling to the female Sakamoto’s neck of its own accord.
Ren clenched his left hand very hard.
He turned and headed back into the exam room. Takemi was still at work on Shiho’s head. It seemed she was doing things with bits of bone. Ren still sensed life in the girl, and it was stronger than it was earlier. So whatever Takemi was doing, it seemed to be having some minor beneficial effect. But the smell of blood was thick here, and Ren’s mind was filled with a desire to taste it. Shiho was a young woman in the virgin prime of her life- a most delectable taste, or so Ren had read. He was determined never to sample it himself. Takemi also had an amazing scent, but she too was off-limits. They all were off-limits.
Ren grimaced and pushed through the room to the back room. He headed for the ice box and entered where the corpses were stored. He sniffed. The smell he noticed earlier was even more pungent to him now in his state of hunger. He searched. Found a bucket covered in wax cloth.
Ren raised the fabric. The bucket was filled with old blood. Probably from the human corpses Takemi studied in her spare time. Ren grimaced. How old was this? How long were the humans dead before it was harvested?
But a harmless feeding was a harmless feeding. Until Takemi proved she could make his capsules, Ren wanted to preserve his stockpile.
He lifted the bucket to his lips. Tipped it. The half-congealed slop rolled towards his lips, where it rolled in like a half-liquid jelly, heavily twinged with the sour taste of rot.
He fought back the urge to gag, failed, vomited a little into his own mouth. It’s sharp acidity mixed with the sour filth of the old blood.
But he swallowed it back down, and then drank more anyway.
Makoto found that Amamiya’s mechanical horse was a little odd to ride. It followed the proper commands. It moved like a horse should. But it was too obedient. Suspiciously obedient. She expected the horse to do something soon, some naughty thing that horses liked to try on their riders sometimes, but it never came. That was the strangeness of this mechanical creature. The partnership with the intellect of the animal could never be gained. But perhaps the physical advantages were a fair tradeoff.
The trip back to the Azabu district took about the same time as it would have on Johanna. Makoto never rode the motorcycle that fast in the city in case some child were to jump out in front of her. She rode the horse about the same speed. Night fully enclosed the city now, but in Azabu, the oil street lamps were already burning, keeping the area more or less lit. She’d felt a bit uneasy leaving the physician’s office, wondering if the unknown vampire was lurking nearby in the dark. But nothing appeared, and these streets of home made her feel safe again.
That was a very dangerous feeling, Makoto realized. She let her right-hand drift closer to her gun and she shifted back into the alert frame of mind she used when outside the city. If she was getting involved with a noble vampire, she could no longer assume safety anywhere. That was a frightening realization, but also an exciting one- it felt… mature. Only children assumed the world was safe.
But she arrived at the gate to the Niijima estate without incident. The guard post was empty, but it was night, so Caroline was on duty. Justine was the day shift and would have already left. The two sisters worked for Okumura Security, a private firm famous in the city for trustworthy guards- or mercenaries if one wanted to use a more controversial word.
And the guard post being empty was common for Caroline’s shift. Makoto once asked her about that: Where are you at night, Caroline? I would expect you in the guard post. Caroline had looked at Makoto like she was stupid: Yeah, that’s why I’m not in it.
“Halt!” came the expected voice. Tonight it came from the shadows on the right side of the road. “Who goes here?”
“It’s me, Caroline,” Makoto said loudly. She dismounted before the gate.
Caroline walked into the light of the gate lamp, her rifle first aimed at Makoto, but then dropping. “Ms. Niijima!”
She was a small, blonde, curt, cold woman who was a wicked shot with a rifle. Makoto had been there when Father had interviewed her. It was several years ago now when diminutive Caroline stood confidently, and somewhat definitely, before Father’s stern gaze. Her sister, Justine, simply looking calmly confident. Father had them shoot clay pigeons. They didn’t miss.
Caroline walked forward, her gold-brown eyes shining briefly in the lamplight. She unlocked the gate. “Mr. Yoshida wouldn’t shut up about you being gone. Walked out here seven times last night to ask me about you.”
“I’m sorry to have worried him,” Makoto mumbled as she led the horse through the gate.
“Not as sorry as me,” Caroline’s voice was heavily laced with annoyance. Makoto didn’t think Caroline liked her. Then again, Makoto didn’t think Caroline liked anyone- except maybe her own sister.
Caroline eyed Amamiya’s horse. “Where did you get this relic?”
Makoto felt a reluctance to talk about Amamiya here. This was the house of a famous vampire-hunting family. He was a half-vampire. But then again, after the stunt at Shujin Girl’s Academy, she would be lucky if some rumor of her didn’t hit the papers… but again- Amamiya had not gone into the school. Perhaps their temporary association could remain private.
“A fellow vampire hunter,” Makoto said, satisfied that she found an answer that wasn’t a lie.
“I see,” said Caroline, her voice full of suspicion. But she wouldn’t press. She was a hired guard. “Well, go talk to Mr. Yoshida. Otherwise, he will be out here again in his nightgown.”
Makoto led the horse up the road to the looming two-story mansion. Four-white pillars stood around the front door like grey sentinels in the dark. Dim lights were on in the house. It had electricity. A rare luxury in the city.
Then the vampire came back to Makoto’s mind. She turned back and the gate was locked and Caroline was gone. Likely off to a new hiding spot.
“Be careful, Caroline!” Makoto called. “There is a vampire in the city.”
A soft whisper came from closer than Makoto expected. “I’m always careful.”
Makoto peered into the nearby shrubberies, but could not spot the woman. Caroline was crazy good at that. Makoto left her to her work.
Since Amamiya’s horse needed no grain nor water- nor any fuel that Makoto was aware of… she would have to ask Amamiya about that. Surely it didn’t just run forever. But that was a curiosity for another day. She left it standing still near the front porch and then walked up onto the white wood porch and through the heavy oaken doors. She took off her boots in the coatroom, and then pushed through the next set of heavy oak doors into the main atrium of the mansion.
“Ms. Niijima!” came a rich, carrying male voice. Makoto looked up to see Taranosuke Yoshida at the top of the curved stairs in the main hall. The slightly chubby older man was dressed in a nightgown- the estate’s lifelong butler no longer stayed up into the late hours in a tuxedo, as he had when he was younger.
His expression was a mixture of relief and anger. Makoto knew that face. That was the face he made when she did something wrong: like play with something that wasn’t a toy; or sneak cookies; or hide from bath time. The man was part-butler, part-nanny, and as close a thing to a mother as either Makoto or Sae knew. Mother died long ago. Makoto had no memory of her. Sae had only a little. But Yoshida had been with Father for longer than even mother had. Before even when Father was famous.
Yoshida was coming down the stairs in a rush, which was much slower these days.
“Ms. Niijima,” he said again as he neared, “Why did you not return home? I haven’t slept~ I feared- oh! It doesn’t matter what I feared- it’s none of it true.” He finally made it to the ground floor and swept Makoto into a hug.
Makoto wasn’t really in the mood, but it was for Yoshida’s sake. He did worry. And his parental embrace was associated with home in Makoto’s mind.
“Sorry, Mr. Yoshi,” said Makoto as the hug ended. She used the old nickname to please him. “Sae and I had a bit of a fight. I didn’t want to come home and see her. I’m sorry I worried you.”
“Yes, I know. Your sister told me the cruel thing she said to you. Not willingly, of course. But I got it out of her. She’s too much like your father, you know. Stubborn, but bad at spinning webs of lies. Niijimas are not spiders, and they always get stuck in their own webs, as I’ve told you.”
Yes, he had. Many, many times. Did you take a cookie, Makoto? No. What is that chocolate on your lip, then? I dunno. Are you trying to be a little spider, Makoto? No. Oh, and yet what are these crumbs on your shirt.. You seem to be sticking in your own web of lies.
Makoto remained silent. Yoshida seemed to take that as defiance. He drew himself up and put his hands on his hips.
“And where have you been?”
Makoto felt resentment bubble within her. What was this now? It was like when she came home late from Shujin Girls Academy. He was treating her just like the schoolgirl she used to be. That was two years ago. That was over!
“None of your business, Mr. Yoshida,” said Makoto, using the honorific with an acidic tone.
Yoshida seemed to deflate at the sarcastic formality. They both knew what she was doing. She was casting him back into the role of butler. Of employee. Which he technically was, but in reality, was so much not that at all. It was a cruel barb that surprised Makoto herself. Where was this coming from? Why stab at Yoshida like that?
But Yoshida seemed to recover rapidly enough. He’d basically raised two teenage girls while Father spent most of his time on vampire hunts. Yoshida had faced worse verbal abuse than that. Much worse from Sae, Makoto knew for a fact. But never from Makoto- so perhaps that was new to him.
“You need to speak with your sister,” said Yoshida, “You two mustn’t grow apart.”
“Is she here?”
“Good. Then I can’t speak with her, can I?”
“Do it when she gets home, then.”
Makoto’s resentment alighted into a simmering anger. “Why should I go to her! She said the wrong thing to me!”
“You know she won’t. She’s too set in her mind. Too focused on standing her ground.”
“She’s in the wrong!”
“She’s most immobile when she is wrong!”
So Makoto should bow for forgiveness over nothing because Sae was more stubborn than she! Well in that case, Makoto would be stubborn, too! “Then, fuck her! She can be immobile the fuck away from me!”
Makoto broke eye contact with a shocked Yoshida, and she began walking up the stairs behind him.
“Hime-kun!” said Yoshida sharply.
Makoto froze on the third step, her mind recoiled against itself in shock. It was his nickname for her: ‘little boyish princess’ was more or less the connotation. A joke between them. A private meaning. But for Makoto’s entire life, it was always spoken with a soft and amused voice- to hear it in the tone of a rebuke brought her up short. Her neck turned and she stared back at Yoshida with wide-eyed astonishment.
Yoshida’s dark eyes softened when he looked upon her. “Your sister is drunk on the pride of your family name. If you don’t snap her out of it, she may destroy everything your father worked for.”
Makoto didn’t know what to make of that. But the earnestness of Yoshida’s voice halted any comeback she might have considered. After a brief moment of them looking at each other in silence, the main hall of the Niijima mansion dim around them, Makoto broke the spell by turning away from Yoshida and continuing her climb.
What did he mean by that? Drunk on pride? Yoshida did love allusion and metaphor, but that lacked a certain subtlety Makoto was used to. Was Sae behaving that strangely? She’d always been tense. Serious. Focused on the future. In Sae’s mind, the present was merely a stepping stone to tomorrow. Was that what Yoshida meant? Or was Sae up to something else?
Yoshida was always a worry-wart. Sae was fine. And once Makoto killed this vampire with Amamiya, Sae would see the error of her own views and soften. Makoto could ask her all about everything then.
Makoto turned left at the top of the stairs. It was basically her wing of the house. So many rooms. So few people. Too many rooms for old Yoshida to take care of these days. Most were closed off. Furniture protected from dust by white sheets. Awaiting the next social party thrown by Mr. Niijima to celebrate a successful hunt. The house, the daughters, the butler- all awaiting the master who left to track a vampire and never came back. So dark rooms sat quietly, filled with odd white shapes collecting a thin layer of linty memory. A house of ghosts.
Makoto realized she didn’t want to be here. That was a new, sad thought. She didn’t want to be in her own home. With a heavy heart, She entered her own room. A tidy, elegant room of rich, blue floral wallpaper. A four-post bed, golden wood poles gleaming, carved with geometric shapes. Blue linens. A desk against the far wall, a large make-up mirror there- though it was never used for that purpose. Makoto knew the art of makeup as any proper high-class lady. Yoshida had tutored her and Sae well. But these days... she didn’t have much use for it.
On the desk was a small, painted portrait of Father. He was as stern-looking in the painting as he was in real life. His jaw set. His eyes looking beyond to some distant target. But it reminded Makoto of how that serious face could turn into a jovial, laughing expression, instantly transforming into a smile-wrinkled visage with sparkling eyes. Makoto walked to the desk and stared at the painting for a moment.
She opened the drawer of the desk. The shallow drawer was divided into lots of little compartments, like a jewelry box. A large collection of jewelry was organized here: gold; silver; gemstones of all colors- but like the makeup mirror- mostly unused. One large compartment was empty, however. The tiara. A tiara of sparkling white costume jewels. Father gave it to her on her twelfth birthday. A princess’s crown. She’d given it immediately back to a surprised Father. Take it with you out of the city. It’s good luck.
Father laughed and agreed. And it had become a ritual between them. Makoto would give him the tiara when he left. And Father would return it to her when he got back. But now she supposed the compartment would forever be empty. Makoto shut the drawer. She looked into the make-up mirror. Her crimson eyes stared into herself, bordered all around by the blue of her room. She looked tired, rings under both eyes. She resolved to bathe and go to bed.
The hot water and privacy helped soothe her, but after laying down in bed, Makoto found herself sleepless in the dark of her room. Her bed felt wonderful. It was not too warm and not too cold. But though she closed her eyes and waited. She could not fall asleep. Her mind wandered in a circle. What did Yoshida mean about Sae? Was Sae different? No. She didn’t seem different. Yoshida was worried about nothing. But Sae had acted very strangely last night.
She forced herself away from the topic and the image of Amamiya came to her mind. Amamiya Ren. Dhampir. Vampire Hunter. A strange, quiet... man with strange, wild hair. Dark. Somewhat dead looking at first glance. But she’d discovered multiple times today that he had life in him. He laughed. He seemed to care. About his trade. And about people. Then for some reason, she thought about how she put her leg on his saddle to stop him from tying it. She watched again how his eyes had traveled slowly up the length of her leg. Makoto remembered Takemi’s words: you must drive men mad!
No. That was a silly line of thought. Amamiya had looked intently at Ann. Not at herself.
And what was this line of thought! He was a dhampir! Who cares what he does or doesn’t think about her leg!
She forced her mind away from the topic and waited in the dark, eyes closed, mind more or less clear. Still no sleep. Well- there was one last thing to try… Makoto opened her eyes to make sure her room door was closed. It wasn’t enough just to look. She got up and tested the lock. It was locked. She climbed back into bed. Waited for long moments to be sure no one was in the hallway. Not that anyone came into this side of the house anymore.
Sure she was alone. She moved her hand down between her own legs and pressed upon her groin through her panties. A thrill of desire ran through her body. If she did this, she could probably fall asleep after. She pressed again.
A rifle shot! Makoto flung herself out of bed and grabbed her revolver from the nightstand. She stood tense in the dark, armed, in her undergarments. No other gunshot followed. Makoto hurried to dress.
She cautiously left her room and crept down the dimly lit hallway. In the atrium, Mr. Yoshida was already heading down the stairs to the front door. He had a large blunderbuss in his hands. He glanced at her. “It came from the front acreage!”
Makoto hurried down the steps, easily outpacing Yoshida. She flung open the first of the oaken doors but halted at the side of the outdoor set. Yoshida hurried up and halted at the other side of the door. They nodded to each other. Father had taught them both to do this sort of thing.
Makoto reached for the door on her side and opened it, granting Yoshida’s blunderbuss the first view of the porch. He indicated she should keep going. She opened it wider, using the gap in the door jam to look out directly in front of the door, the porch, the drive. It appeared empty. Next was to check to the left… Makoto began to move around the door.
“It’s clear!” yelled Caroline’s voice.
Yoshida sighed in audible relief. He lifted a lantern from where they hung on the coatroom wall. He quickly lit it with some available fire-strikers. Makoto opened the door. Caroline was walking down the drive towards them. She seemed unconcerned, which Makoto trusted meant the area was safe. Caroline wasn’t the type to take chances.
“What happened?” Makoto asked as the short woman approached.
“A shadow came over the wall near the gate. I shot it, and it didn’t like that. It left double-fast.”
“A shadow? Did it look like a man or a woman,” asked Yoshida.
Caroline shook her head. “Neither. It was just a shadow. It was like a pool of liquid. Sent goosebumps all over my body. So I shot it.”
Shooting without confirming the target? Well, if something weird came over the wall in the dark, not shooting it would probably be the dumber thing to do. Caroline was certainly not dumb. And Makoto knew from her father’s stories that noble vampires could transform. A liquid shadow. It didn’t seem impossible. Had the creature actually followed her here from the clinic?
“Show me where it was,” said Makoto.
“Yoshida. May I have the lantern?”
He handed it over. “Be careful, Makoto.”
“Caroline is here,” said Makoto, curtly. “And I’m a hunter, too. Remember?”
“Sorry…” Yoshida said quietly, worry still in his eyes.
Makoto followed Caroline to the front gate, the guards’ eyes roving the darkness ahead of them. Alert for a return of their strange visitor.
“Here’s about where it was when I shot it.”
Makoto lowered the lantern and scoured the grass. There didn’t seem to be anything. No. Wait. Something glistened in the foliage. Makoto knelt down, bringing the lantern closer. Some kind of liquid was here. Blood? She reached for it. Then she stopped herself. What good would touching it do? But blood had a smell. And Amamiya could smell things. She set the lantern down next to the liquid.
“Caroline. Wait here. I’m going to run back to the house for something.”
Makoto ran back to the house, past a confused Yoshida, and fetched a small glass from the dining room. She ran back out into the front yard to where Caroline waited near the lantern. Makoto bent down and collected some of the liquid into the glass. A few half-drops, nothing more. She hoped it would be enough.
She looked at the dark substance in the lamplight. Despite the dangerous reality of a noble vampire perhaps trying to sneak into her family home, Makoto gleefully held up her first clue. And she now had herself a bloodhound in the form of Amamiya the dhampir. She felt a savage grin grow on her face, she lowered the lantern to hide it from Caroline.
Makoto looked out into the darkness of the street. Yes. Run, vampire. Retreat. You’ve come to my home. And tomorrow, I will come to yours.
Ren watched Dr. Takemi hover a black mug of black liquid near her lips. Her eyes were underlined by dark rings, but she still seemed alert. The drink might be coffee, in part, but with a large amount of chicory- a more common and affordable variant of the fancy stimulant. Whatever it might be, Takemi took long, noisy sips of it while she stared at the unconscious form of Shiho.
The young woman seemed to be breathing easier. Her color was improved. Ren placed his left hand on Shiho’s upper-arm. One of the few uninjured places on her body.
*The pressure on the brain is gone. The fractured bones are all set.* said Morgana into Ren’s mind. *Her life force seems on an upward trajectory.*
Will she recover?
*She may. It’s up to her now.*
Can you use your persona?
*On a human? It would be too intense. It will burn her up.*
Don’t try and make her whole again. But can you… boost her own healing?
*Interesting. I can try.*
Ren felt a draw on his lifeforce. It was like those moments when he was extremely sleepy, his eyes close and his head falls forward, that movement jerking him back awake. Morgana used some of Ren’s energy for whatever spell he just attempted, and Ren felt that surge of sleepiness travel through him briefly. Shiho did not seem to react, and whatever Morgana did, the girl seemed unchanged.
*I think it’s working. Cellular reproduction is way up. She’s healing.*
“Well?” said Takemi. “What does your cat-hand say?”
*I’m not a cat!*
Ren ignored Morgana. “He confirmed that the head pressure is gone and the bones are all set. There seems nothing left to do but let her heal.”
Takemi sighed and set her black mug down. “A relief. I’ve never tried that on a live person before.”
“I don’t get many patients. None of us do. People prefer prayer over physicians.”
Ren considered that. So much of human society was ingrained in tradition. Then again… so much of his mother’s was, too. And far, far older. “The beliefs of one’s parents are difficult to throw aside.”
“But you don’t know how much-” Takemi looked at Ren. “Actually, I suppose you know better than me.”
Ren didn’t respond. He looked back at Shiho. The girl had a pretty, angular face. Nice bone structure. If Ren was any judge, males of both races would find her a wonder. But for now, she was slowly climbing up from death’s door, just as the sun was slowly climbing its way back around the land. It would not be long before dawn arrived. Ren could feel it in his bones.
He’d gotten a good number of hours under the cellar soil yesterday. He should be able to operate in daylight today if he were careful with his hat and cloak. But a few seconds of sun on his bare flesh and he wouldn’t be able to make it to sunset. He would need to sleep again. Actually, what he really needed was a good week in the dark, no day travel, and get his reserves back up. But he just didn’t have time. People were in danger. Shiho here already suffered from his delays. No more Shihos.
Speaking of Shihos… Ren remembered there was another schoolgirl in the clinic that would be relieved by the news: the blond girl. Having a firm ally in the school would be useful. The brother seemed a fool, but an ally on the town guard would be equally useful. They would both appreciate some news of Shiho.
And then there was the matter of the school and the girl’s parents. Right. Familial connections. Social hierarchies. Ren didn’t fully understand that, but the Niijima woman. Niijima Makoto. She said she would be returning before dawn, and she would understand those matters better than he. Ren had spent quite a bit of time in human settlements and cities in the south, but the city-states all seemed to be a bit different.
“I’m going to tell-” said Ren, but he stopped as he looked at Takemi. The woman was asleep in her chair, her head bowed forward towards her chest. Ren turned from her and opened the door to the clinic. It was still dark here. The two children were asleep. What were their names? Saka-something. Sakamoto. That was it.
It was the female one that was most concerned over the Shiho girl. Ren walked towards where she slept on a small couch. He stayed five steps away and looked at the female Sakamoto. Two blonde pigtails, a vivacious figure, with stunning limbs emerging from her uniform shirt and skirt. Virgin and delicious- or that’s what humans would think Ren was thinking. So… he couldn’t exactly lean over the girl and wake her up. She’d look at him and scream. Her brother would wake up, alarmed and protective... and things would escalate from there.
Wait. That was it. Her brother. Ren turned to the male Sakamoto who was sprawled over some chair cushions spread on the hardwood floor. He was young but muscular. Stringy with lean, corded power. A pronounced chin and a strong but narrow nose. Ren walked over to the young man and kicked him softly in the gut, then took three steps back so he would not be looming.
“Oooof!” said the male Sakamoto. His eyes shot open, then narrowed on Ren. “Asshole!”
“The physician believes she was successful. Perhaps your sister would like to see her friend?”
The anger vanished from the boy’s face instantly. “For real? That’s great!” He rolled over and crawled across the floor to where his sister was sleeping on the couch. “Hey, Ann! Ann! Wake up, Ann!”
“Mm, what? Ryuji?”
Ren memorized those names. Ann and Ryuji. Ann and Ryuji.
“Ann, the dhampir says you can see Shiho. She’s better!”
“Really!” Ann shot up on the couch.
“Not healed,” said Ren, angry at Ryuji for his poor word choice. “But improved. Dr. Takemi set to rights what was broken, but it will still take some time for Shiho to heal. She is still sleeping, but you can come see her if you like.”
“Yes!” Ann shot to her feet.
Ren led them to the door to the rear of the clinic. “The physician is asleep, so remain quiet. And Shiho is sleeping, too. She will probably sleep for a long time, perhaps several days.”
“Okay,” said Ann, a little more subdued and worried now.
Ren stepped aside and she entered with Ryuji behind her. Ren followed them in, just to make sure they didn’t get too excited. Ann had nearly attacked Takemi yesterday in her panic.
“Oh.. Shiho…” Ann stepped forward and hovered over her friend on the operating table. Thankfully, Takemi had cleaned up the patient and all the instruments, so there was no gore to be seen.
“Can I touch her?”
“Gently, I think,” said Ren. “Just avoid the bandaged areas. And don’t move her limbs. Most of them have broken bones. Especially, her head.”
Ann nodded and then tentatively touched Shiho’s unbandaged hand. She was facing away from Ren, but he could hear Ann inhale a shuddering breath. She was breaking down again. Ann bent over and kissed the top of Shiho’s hand gingerly. Ren could see tears glistening and falling down her face.
As Ann drooped to her knees and laid her face on Ann’s hand, Ryuji turned to Ren with a painful frown on his face: “I hate seeing her cry. Let’s leave her alone. She won’t do anything to hurt Shiho.”
Ren didn’t have any disagreement with that, so the men backed out of the exam room- leaving Ann with the sleeping Shiho and Takemi. They closed the door behind them. Ryuji lit a lamp to add a bit of light to the dark waiting room. Ren watched him.
“Your sister and Shiho… they are more than friends, aren’t they?”
Ryuji turned on him slowly, face grim, shoulders tensing, hackles rising. “Yeah, so? Got something to say about that?”
“Only that I especially hope Shiho gets well- for your sister’s sake.”
“Yeah?” Ryuji’s shoulders slowly relaxed. “What’s your name again?”
They looked at one another in silence. Neither had anything to say- nor anything in particular to do. It seemed like a relief to them both when the sound of a horse approached and the hoof clopping stopped outside the clinic.
“Oh, that must be Ms. Niijima,” said Ryuji.
The horse snickered quietly as someone dismounted. No. It was a real horse. It probably wasn’t Makoto. But who else knew they were here? Bootsteps climbed the short wooden steps to the clinic front door. The curtains were drawn. Ryuji and Ren watched the front door tensely.
“Hello?” said a young male voice. “Is the doctor in? I’m seeking Suzui Shiho.”
Ryuji and Ren shared a look.
“Maybe it’s family!” said Ryuji, then he mumbled to himself: “Speaking of that, our mom is probably worried sick, too.” He walked to the door and opened it before Ren could consider all the options. But Ren and Ryuji should be able to handle a worried family member without any notable trouble.
“Hey, man- Oh! Good morning, sir!” Ryuji shot to attention and saluted someone outside the door.
“Who are you?”
“Private Sakamoto, sir. East Gate Guard.”
“Okay, private. I’m looking for Ms. Shiho. Is she here?”
“I’d like to see her. Please stand aside.”
Ryuji hesitated for a second, but then stood aside. Then a young, sinewy man in a white military-style uniform entered. He had near shoulder-length brown hair, handsome features, and piercing brown eyes. His shoulders featured gold epaulets and on his hip a long cavalry-style sabre. The young man’s hand shot to the hilt of the sword as soon as he set his eyes on Ren, standing quietly in the center of the room.
“A dhampir!” The man looked ready to attack.
Ren started moving his hand slowly under the folds of his long cloak. His long knife was waiting for him on his left hip. “A citizen,” said Ren, seeking to distract the man from the subtle movement of his hands.
It didn’t work. The white uniformed man’s eyes narrowed slightly. Ren knew the sign. He abandoned subtlety and jerked his hand to the hilt of his own weapon.
“Sir! He’s an ally!” said Ryuji.
The man didn’t seem to hear- or didn’t care. He walked forward a few steps toward Ren. His shoulder dropped. That was it!
In a lightning burst of speed, the man drew his sword and slashed with it in the same motion. Ren drew his long knife and caught the slash on the deeply serrated swordbreaker side of his weapon. Ren twisted the swordbreaker, trapping the man’s blade in a serration. He wrenched the enemy sword away, sending it flying behind him to, presumably, embed in the far wall. It made an audible, woody thunk.
Ren stepped forward to press the advantage, but the young man was already backing away and laughing. “I’m not disappointed! So you are the Vampire Hunter J!”
Ren paused. This fool was playing games. Ren felt anger simmer up from the back of his mind, but Ren stifled it and let his weapon-hand drop slowly to his side. This man was obviously a member of the military in this city. It would not be a good idea to harm him- even in self-defense. But how did the man know Ren’s hunter name? Ah. Of course.
“And you are Mr. Akechi Goro.”
“Quick of body and of mind! Though that isn’t that big of a leap, is it? How many people would know your name way up here in the north?” Akechi flashed a white smile and laughed.
Ren glowered at him. Anger transforming into annoyance. If this was his mystery employer, he hoped the didn’t have to interact with this obnoxious fop very often.
“You attacked him as a test?” said Ryuji.
Both Akechi and Ren turned to the forgotten teenager. He was still standing near the door, his mouth somewhat ajar.
“Go stand outside, private.”
“That’s an order!”
Ryuji left the room and closed the door behind him. Akechi turned his attention back to Ren.
“I knew you arrived in the city, but I didn’t expect to find you here. What are you doing, Jay? Can I call you Jay?”
“Very well, Jay. Then you can call me Goro. We are both vampire hunters, after all. Comrades in arms.”
“Why are you here, Mr. Akechi?”
Akechi’s grin twitched slightly. “My father received word from a partisan about an injured girl being abducted from his school and taken to a physician. A trifle. But politics are politics. The girl’s parents are being rather noisy. The school community is in mild uproar. So my father sent me to solve the mystery. I didn’t expect to run into you. I’m paying you to stop schoolgirls from being abducted, not to abduct them yourself.”
Ren ignored the joke. But Akechi’s story seemed plausible. More plausible than this goof of a man trailing him around like Makoto. Ren would have noticed him easier than her. But still, how did Akechi know Shiho was here? Ren watched for people following them from the school, but saw no one. Yet in the wee hours of the morning, Akechi rode right up to the clinic like he knew ahead of time that it was the right one.
“How did you know the girl was at this clinic?”
Akechi’s smile shrank ever so slightly, then rebloomed to its full size. “There are few physicians in Tock-Yo, Jay. And this is both the closest to the school and probably the only one with the school’s horse-cart parked in front of it.”
Ah, the cart. Well… that did make sense. “I see. The girl is here but gravely wounded. She seems likely to recover.”
Akechi’s eyes grew a bit wider. “Truly?” A pause. “Thats- that’s wonderful! I heard she fell from the rooftop. I thought her dead for sure.”
Ren didn’t have anything to say about what Akechi thought. The man’s face moved strangely. So reactive, but subtly so. Minor fluctuations. Minor twitches and tweaks. Ren sensed a snake. He’d seen the like before.
They stared at each other in the moment of silence. Ren kept his face carefully impassive. Akechi with a smile frozen stiffly to his mouth. Akechi seemed to be unsure of what to say, and Ren didn’t particularly care to help him.
More hoofbeats broke the moment. This hoof pattern Ren recognized. It was his horse. Niijima Makoto was returning, as promised.
“Expecting someone?” asked Akechi.
Ren simply looked at him. Watching Akechi’s smile fade to consideration. Meanwhile, the horse stopped. Someone dismounted. There was a jangle of armor. The subtle slap of a holster on a hip.
“Ryuji? What are you doing out here?” asked Makoto’s voice.
“Ms. Niijima! I was ordered to stand out here!”
Akechi darted a look at Ren, then looked back at the door.. He seemed eager. Excited. He ran his hands through his hair and adjusted his collar.
“Ordered? By Mr. Amamiya?”
Akechi strode toward the door.
Ren watched Akechi open the door and stand in full view of the outside, toothy smile flashing. “By me, Ms. Niijima.”
“Mr. A- Akechi?!”
Akechi stepped outside, out of Ren’s field of vision.
“By me, Ms. Niijima,” said a male voice from the clinic door. Makoto recognized the voice. It had been a while, but she’d spent enough time at high-society events to know what Akechi Goro sounded like. She turned to see him in the doorway, standing prim and upright in his white Council Guardsman uniform. Her eyes traveled over his form- he was as he ever was. Dazzling smile, confident gaze, subtly muscular under the tunic, broad between his golden epaulets. But his sword was missing. That was odd.
“Mr. A- Akechi?!” Makoto felt her cheeks heat up. She hadn’t expected him of all people, and now she was stuttering in front of him.
“Surprised to see me?” Akechi advanced down the clinic steps. Grin never wavering.
“Well, I’m not surprised to see you.”
Makoto’s mind began to recover from the surprise. Not surprised to see her? Why not? Oh… this was because of her little name drop at Shujin Girls Academy. Her use of the Niijima name.
“You heard about the girl,” said Makoto.
“Sharp as ever. And I heard the name Niijima was involved. So I had to come see for myself.” Akechi tipped his head to the side. Makoto followed the movement and saw the parked school cart. Ah, of course. And there were few physicians in the city, as it was. But- still... what did he mean?
“See for yourself?”
“You! I wanted to see you!”
Makoto felt her cheeks go red again. Akechi Goro, the veritable prince of Tock-Yo, wanted to see her? There was a time not too long ago that she’d idly fantasized about such a thing- just like all the whispering girls at the galas and balls, watching from the sidelines as Akechi danced with the current social star of the moment.
“Me? Wh- whatever for?”
Akechi stepped closer. His chest less than a foot away from her face. She had to look up at him now. He beamed down at her in the dim pre-dawn light, teeth a lighter grey than the overcast sky above. “You always seemed such a pushover schoolgirl, Ms. Niijima. But now you’re the one doing the pushing. I thought that was interesting.”
Makoto took a half-step back. That was a convoluted compliment. If he intended it as a compliment. Were her actions something he approved or disapproved?... Wait. Why did she even care? And Makoto didn’t believe that her body was appealing to men, much less her personality. There had to be another reason he was here.
“Why are you really here?”
“That is really why I am here.”
“Then why else are you here?”
Akechi’s grin finally faded a little. Then he sighed dramatically. “Ah, you have me there. The principal of the school is a partisan of my father’s. The man is making a big stink because the Shiho girl’s parents are making a ruckus. My dad wanted me to find the girl and calm everything down.”
That seemed realistic enough. Politics were politics, after all. And the Akechi men, both young and old, were certainly political creatures. Makoto had seen Akechi ply the trade amongst the other debutantes plenty of times.
“And so? You’ve found her,” she asked him. “What are you going to do now?”
“Take her to her parents, of course. They want a priest to see her. That will calm everything down.”
So- Akechi didn’t really care about the girl, either. He was like all the rest. Worse even. He really was just an errand boy on a mission. Makoto’s opinion of the man sank suddenly and drastically.
“No. That will kill her. Bring her parents here.”
“She’s recovering. She’ll live. If you bring her parents here, I will make them understand. That will solve your problem.”
“The Suzui family won’t come sleezing down in a neighborhood like this.”
He was starting to make her angry now. ‘Just do it, Akechi! She’s involved with the vampire I’m hunting!”
Akechi blinked. His smile faded from his face for the first time since he walked out the clinic door. “You know about the vampire?”
“Everyone knows about the vampire. It’s in the papers.”
“Oh. Oh! Right! That vampire! The girl is involved? How?”
“No. It’s my hunt! Stay out of this. Tell the parents to come here for their daughter and I’ll solve your father’s problem. In return, stay out of my business.”
“Your business?” Akechi’s smile looked strained now. “What about Vampire Hunter J, back in the clinic there?”
“An ally. And your mercenary, as I understand it. If you hired him, you’re obviously too busy to hunt a vampire in the city, Mr. Akechi, the vampire slayer.”
Akechi’s smile finally vanished for a moment. Then it returned, but smaller: “I can’t take all the business, you know. I could wrap this up in a few days. But fine. Let’s see how little pushover Makoto handles this one.”
Makoto’s jaw went tight at the sound him using her first name so nonchalantly. She actually daydreamed about this prick? “Where’s your sword, Goro?”
Akechi’s hand instinctively traveled to his sword hilt but found nothing. He frowned. “Ah. I left it inside.”
He turned and walked up the stairs into the clinic. Makoto followed him. Both of them passing a bug-eyed Ryuji who was doing his best to stand so still he became invisible.
Makoto entered to find Mr. Amamiya standing quietly in the center of the waiting room. His eyes were on Akechi who was walking across the room, then past Amamiya, to grab hold of his sword, which was sticking out of the back wall.
“How did your sword get in the wall, Goro?” said Makoto, not actually intending to taunt the man.
But then Amamiya said: “It slipped from his grasp.”
Akechi yanked the blade free. Sheathed it. Turned and fought to put a smile on his face. “Well, I see I’m not welcome. I’ll go tell the girl’s parents and make my problem your problem.”
He walked back through the room, eyes avoiding them both, and out the door. Ren and Makoto looked at the empty doorway as they heard the sound of a horse being mounted.
“Have a good morning, sir!”
“Shut the fuck up.”
And a horse galloped off.
The sound of Akechi’s departing horse was a relief. Makoto was surprised at herself: taking on Akechi as he towered over her. Well, took him on socially anyway. But a victory was a victory. Just a few days ago, she would never have dreamed of such a thing, but now she had a purpose. A goal. And no pompous dandy was going to get in her way. If Sae could wrap that cretin around her finger, Makoto could, too. Well… maybe not wrap, but Makoto seemed able to flick him away, well enough.
Makoto turned back to Amamiya. He was still standing as quietly and still as before. It was like the man only moved when he had a reason. Left idle. He was… idle. Corpse-like. Makoto shied away from that thought as she regarded Amamiya’s dead grey eyes. No. Statue-like. That was… better?
“How did Akechi’s sword get in the wall?”
Ryuji wandered back inside. “He attacked Mr. Amamiya! Said it was some sort of test!”
Amamiya nodded. “It was a fair attempt at an Iaijutsu.”
A sword-drawing-technique? “Was he trying to kill you?” said Makoto.
Amamiya shook his head slightly. “I doubt it. He advertised the attack beforehand. I assume it was intentional.”
“Advertised it?” said Ryuji. “It sure surprised me. How did you know?”
“His eyes. His shoulder. Very obvious if you know what to look for. The man is either a total fool, or hiding his real abilities.”
“He hunts noble vampires with my sister,” said Makoto, “I don’t think a total fool would be able to do that and survive as many times as he has.”
Amamiya nodded slightly. “And it’s always safer to assume someone is more skilled than less. The surprise of being wrong is more pleasant that way.”
Makoto felt a smile turn the corner of her mouth. That was a joke. A dry, mild one, but a joke nonetheless. So there was a sense of humor under the dark clothing and pale skin. But thinking of pale skin. Where was Ann?
Makoto turned to Ryuji. “Where is your sister?”
“In the other room with Shiho. The doc finished her work a while ago.”
“Truly? What’s the girl’s condition?”
Ryuji shrugged. “Asleep.”
“...Recovering,” added Amamiya. “Ms. Takemi fixed what she could. Now it’s up to Shiho to do the rest.”
Amamiya’s voice sounded matter-of-fact. He knew something. Just like when he knew something about Shiho when they were first transporting her from the school. Oh, right! Makoto asked him how he knew about Shiho’s condition with such confidence. He’d promised to reveal his technique in private. Makoto turned on him.
“I want to know how you know these things.”
Amamiya frowned slightly. Then his eyes traveled past her. He was looking at Ryuji, she presumed. Ah. How to get rid of the big-mouthed guardsman?
“Ryuji,” said Amamiya. “Didn’t you mumble something about your mother?”
Ryuji’s eyes widened. “Oh, shit! Yeah! Mom! She’s probably going insane from me and Ann not coming home. I need to go tell her we are okay!”
He turned and opened the door, then froze. He turned and nervously looked at Ren. Then at Makoto. “Ms. Niijima, will you be staying with Ann until I get back?”
Amamiya shifted his weight. Makoto realized that was one of his emotional reactions. Ryuji didn’t trust Amamiya around his sister, that much was obvious. If Ryuji was trying to be subtle about it, he’d just failed miserably. But if Makoto was going learn another dhampir secret, she needed Ryuji gone.
“Yes, Ryuji. I’ll be here till you get back.
“Great! See ya.” And he was out the door and sounds of boots on the dirt road faded away rapidly.
Makoto shut the door behind him, sealing herself in the office alone with Amamiya the dhampir. But she did not feel any threat from him, and the prejudices against his kind did not sway her. She turned to look at him. He still had not moved from his spot in the center of the room. He was eyeing her with an even gaze.
She walked towards him, keeping her eyes level on his. She stopped at a respectful, but personal, distance. Put her hands on her hips, unconsciously mimicking the mannerisms of her older sister. “So?”
Ren wordlessly raised his left hand toward her, palm upward. Makoto looked down at it curiously. She remembered him putting the left hand on Shiho’s skin when he climbed into the school cart with them.
“Show yourself, Morgana,” said Amamiya.
The skin on the surface of Amamiya’s palm rippled slightly, like how the surface of a pond ripples from a fish just under the surface. Then the skin of Amamiya’s hand took texture and form, and the unmistakable face of a cat looked out at Makoto. It was furless, its eyes simply black pools, but certainly a cat.
Makoto felt her own flesh crawl and goosebumps trace down along her spine. If she had expected anything at all, it certainly was not this. She looked at Amamiya face. He was regarding her impassively. Taking that as a sort of permission, Makoto bent down closer to his hand.
“What is it? Some kind of… cat spirit?”
The cat face on Amamiya’s palm moved, taking on what was unmistakably an angry continence.
“I’m not a cat!” it said in a high-pitched voice.
Makoto jerked her head back in surprise. “It can talk!”
“Yes,” sighed Amamiya. “An ability Morgana uses too often, I fear.”
“I’m not an ‘it’!” said the cat-face named Morgana.
“Um-” said Makoto, feeling decidedly strange to be talking to Amamiya’s hand. “Then what are you, uh- Mr. Morgana?”
“Such a direct question!” said Morgana, his black eyes shifting sideways. “I think I was a person once. A long time ago.”
“My mother’s people call him a ‘symbiote’” said Amamiya. “They were once common, but are now quite rare in this world.”
“Your-... your mother’s people?”
Amamiya regarded her evenly. “My father was human.”
So that would make his mother the noble vampire. That was an unusual combination. Usually, it was the male nobles who became infatuated with humans. Makoto assumed it was because males were such prolific and inexact creatures. They see something they want to mate with and they go for it by looks alone. Many women, too, perhaps were that way- but Makoto thought her own gender was in general more disseminating. Any nagging doubt to that assumption she quickly quashed.
“If we once lived alone,” said Morgana, “It is now forgotten.”
“Then how did you… um- get inside? Mr. Amamiya?” Said Makoto.
“I was transferred by-!”
Ren closed his left palm.
A muffled: “Hey!”
Then when Amamiya reopened his hand, it was just normal skin. The cat-face was gone.
Makoto frowned. Was he trying to keep something from her? “Transferred?” she pressed.
“More like taken. Forcibly.”
Amamiya paused. Broke his gaze from Makoto. “Someone who disagreed with my mother. She then gave Morgana to me as a gift. His kind’s abilities are much prized.”
“Does a vampire survive that process? The… transfer?”
“I see…” Amamiya’s mother must have been a frightening personality.
Amamiya didn’t look back at her, instead he continued to look off to the side. It was unclear what he was thinking, though he was obviously not inviting more questions. But he’d told her enough. Prying into his family history was not part of their deal. It was a… technical exchange between them. That was all. And speaking of that, Makoto’s surprise to find Akechi had made her forget the excitement of events last night at her own residence.
“Mr. Amamiya, I think our target followed me to my home last night.”
That brought Amamiya’s eyes back to hers in a flash. He didn’t say anything, but waited for her to continue.
“My guard shot something that came over the wall- maybe two hours after I returned home.” Makoto reached into her belt pouches and pulled out a paper-wrapped glass. “She described it was a moving pool of shadow.”
Amamiya frowned but took the glass from Makoto’s offering hand. He took off the paper and eyed the congealed black substance inside. His eyes became a bit more eager. “It’s vampiric, certainly.” He sniffed at the glass. Frowned. Sniffed again. Frowned deeper.
Makoto watched him intently. Trying to let Amamiya do… whatever he was doing. But dammit, she was excited! “Well- can you use it to find our target?”
Amamiya’s thoughtful glance turned to Makoto. “No.”
A surprisingly deep surge of disappointment fell into Makoto’s gut. “Truly? It’s not a vampire?”
“Oh, it’s vampiric, certainly. But it's not our target. Nor is this creature derived from him.’
Makoto blinked. Not their target? So… there was more than one vampire in the city! Wait. What did he mean by that?
“Yes. I think this is the blood of a vampslave. A high-grade one, but a slave all the same. It’s hard to tell from this, but what your guard saw- the pool of shadow- makes me think this is the case. To a noble, that’s a parlor trick. Enthralled humans infected with vampirism can accomplish such a thing, which is why a true vampire would consider it beneath them.”
“A high-grade vamp-slave…?”
Amamiya eyed her. “Yes, of course.” His gaze narrowed slightly. “You’ve not seen one? They can look and act like normal humans, but they hide their necks with makeup or clothing. You can see the bite marks, otherwise.”
“No. I’ve… I’ve never seen one.”
Amamiya lowered the glass and stared at her more directly. His eyes roving her body again. Makoto felt herself being appraised.
“What have you seen, Ms. Niijima?”
Makoto realized she was about to reveal herself as the novice she actually was. But there was no helping it. She stuck out her chin and looked into Amamiya’s grey eyes. “I’ve seen many packs of vamp-slaves in the wilds. I’ve slain dozens at a time.”
“Ferals. You’ve only matched yourself against ferals?”
“That’s vastly more than most people!”
“They’re insects,” said Amamiya, his voice was impatient. It was some of the first auditory emotion Makoto had heard him use, and it was negative and directed at her. She began to blush furiously.
“You said you were a vampire hunter. But you’ve only exterminated vermin. Leftovers.”
“My sister-!” Makoto stopped herself as Amamiya raised his eyebrows slightly. He was already calling her out as an amateur, which if Makoto was honest with herself, she was. But he would label her a child if she complained that her big sister didn’t take her on big hunts.
“I mean- I haven’t had the chance to do anything else yet.” She raised her gaze back on Amamiya. “I want to hunt real targets, but it seemed an entirely foolish thing to do for the first time by myself.”
Amamiya’s expression went back to neutral. “Well, you’re not wrong. But I’m not your teacher.”
“No. You’re just my partner who has a lot more experience.”
“Partner!” There was shock in his voice now.
“Yes,” said Makoto, pressing the advantage. “Because you can’t get rid of me.”
“I’m not a teacher!”
“I know. I intend to learn passively through proximity.”
“Passively through proximity…” Amamiya mumbled to himself and his eyes rolled slowly upward. “What is with this city?”
Makoto remained silent. Staring Amamiya Ren down. She wasn’t going to give him any conversation points to turn against her.
His eyes refocused on hers. He looked her up and down again. A reappraisal. Makoto wondered what he thought of her now. Unlike with Akechi… Makoto did want the approval of this Vampire Hunter J- though she had yet to see him in action. Just the way he quietly carried himself seemed to waft an aura of competence and confidence.
“It’s not my fault if you die.”
“And all the prize money is mine.”
“I don’t need it.”
“Let’s just say I live in a big house.” That was two potential objections easily overcome. It was a prime moment to seal this arrangement. Formalize their relationship as more than… stalker and stalked. She offered out her right hand. “Well?”
Amamiya took her offered hand in a firm grip. “Don’t make me regret this.”
“It’s not like you would get rid of me by refusing.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
They shook hands. Then stared at each other.
“So-” said Makoto, breaking the silence. “What do we do now, Amamiya-sensei?”
“I’m not a teacher.”
“No! Not senpai! Never that! Just... use the same honorifics you used before. ‘-san’ is fine. Nothing is changed!”
Oh, but everything was changed now. Makoto had a partner. A teacher. An experienced mentor that would have to take her along every step of the way. And one so much more patient, and pliable, than Sae. But Makoto had sense enough not to push the point with Amamiya, who was likely very accustomed to being alone.
“Very well, Mr. Amamiya. What is next?”
Amamiya rubbed his face in a show of exasperation. He was becoming quite animated this morning. Was her ruthless pursuit at familiarity getting to Amamiya? Was the strong-and-silent thing just a mask that was cracking under the pressure of this little bit of personal attention? That was interesting, but something to think about later. Amamiya’s face returned to its more or less impassive neutral state.
“I was actually planning on asking you that.”
“Me? The vampire novice?”
“Yes, but not about vampires. About humans. We have here a grievously injured young woman- a member of high society in this city. And if what Mr. Akechi says is true, we can soon be expecting her relations to arrive.”
Oh, he was right. That was a rather pressing concern. They could not very well leave the clinic with Shiho in her current state. Whomever came for her might very well whisk her off to a priest, injuring her body again during transport, and inadvertently killing the fragile young woman. Not to mention the political considerations of their actions of taking the girl in the first place. It was almost kidnapping. Almost. But if the girl was taken back and then she died, they would be blamed even if it wasn’t their fault. And Amamiya would be chased from town. And the Niijima name would be irredeemably tarnished. That was unacceptable.
“I see your point. I don’t think there is anything to do but wait for the arrival of Shiho’s relatives. I’ll simply have to convince them.”
“That’s your plan? Hope to convince them?”
“What other options should I consider? Threats? These people can muster the city guard against us, Mr. Amamiya. Are you a human expert? How many times have you spoken with human aristocracy? How well versed are you in the culture and politics of my home city?” Makoto fixed Amamiya with a deep frown. You’re the novice in this. Not me!
Amamiya frowned, his eyes dropping in consideration. “Point taken.”
“What should I do then, Ms. Niijima?” Amamiaya asked.
Makoto didn’t sense anything from Amamiya’s tone other than neutrality. Whatever mask he wore over his true self was firmly back in place. If he was being cheeky or genuine, she couldn’t tell. Either way, the answer would be the same.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but: Leave or stay out of sight, Mr. Amamiya,” said Makoto. “You will just confirm the rumors in the eyes of Shiho’s parents. That a vampire took their daughter. Maybe get some sleep? You were up all night.”
“I don’t sleep. Not like you do, anyway. I don’t become fatigued from time, as humans do.”
“So… you don’t get tired?”
“I do. But from other things,” Amamiya’s eyes drifted away.
“Oh.” Makoto was starting to take that break of eye-contact as a sign that he was finished with a topic. She was curious but now wasn’t the time. Amongst the other revelations of this morning, chiefly of which was the apparent second vampire and the intrusion onto the Niijima estate- but that, and Amamiya’s sleeping habits, would have to wait for the time being. “Well, you could-”
“I can figure out how to spend my own time, thank you,” said Amamiya. “But I understand your point. I will make myself scarce. “ His eyes roved away again. ”I’ll head to the school and-”
“Hey. No. You can’t go hunting without me. We’re partners, now. We go together.”
Amamiya’s mouth became thin as he looked back at Makoto. “That’s ridiculous. I didn’t realize our handshake was actually you putting handcuffs on me.”
Makoto rolled her eyes. “You didn’t seem the type for hyperbole.”
“I wasn’t the type to have a partner, either. But here I am.”
Makoto felt her patience wearing thin. Her head was beginning to ache slightly. “Mr. Amamiya. You know what a partnership is, if at least academically.” That word triggered an idea in Makoto’s mind. She felt a smile of victory creep into the corners of her lips. “Besides, you can’t even get into the school, can you? A dhampir amongst the schoolgirls like a fox in the hen house. I suppose you need to wait for me, don’t you?”
Amamiya’s jaw clenched and he looked at her evenly.
“So…” Makoto pressed the advantage, just like Sae would in this situation. “When I handle the Shiho situation and leverage that into access to investigate the school on the behest of two thankful parents, I should just… leave you behind?”
Amamiya remained silent, but Makoto thought she saw his lips get ever so slightly thinner.
Makoto forced the smirk from her face. Got him! But no need to gloat. “We go together, Mr. Amamiya.”
“I thought the sensei had more power in this type of relationship.”
“I thought you’re not a teacher.”
Amamiya sighed. “Fine. Enough. I’ll have my gear looked at and come back in a few hours. With the sun up, we don’t need to fear attack.”
“I know the best mechanic in town. Iwai Munehisa. His shop is near the gate you used to enter the city.”
“Why should I go to a mechanic? I don’t own a combustion vehicle.”
“He’s a man of diverse talent. Trust me. He’s who you want to see for anything. Go there and tell him I sent you.”
“Will that get me a discount?
“A discount? Probably not. I pay full price. It's kind of expected of me… It would be bad taste for someone of my… economic status to haggle.”
“... I see. I can’t wait to drop your illustrious name, then.”
Amamiya was just being petty now, his neutral tone couldn’t hide that. He then walked past Makoto and left the clinic. She turned, opened the window blinds, and watched him remount his horse. He moved slowly and carefully, keeping the brim of his big hat firmly turned towards the rising run, like the head of a sunflower. He wore gloves, so the only portion of his bare skin was his face, neck, and ears.
Then she heard him curse as he realized the straps were set for Makoto’s legs. Get off. Redo the straps. Then remount and jerk the horse around and off into a gallop.
Maybe Amamiya wasn’t totally different from Sae. When Makoto first began accompanying her, Sae was on edge and nitpicky. Sae was used to doing things on her own, so having another person along added a new layer of considerations and social dynamic that complicated her world. Amamiya was obviously a loner, so it would probably take him some time to become comfortable with their arrangement, too. But Makoto didn’t plan on being a complication. She was an asset. She was not useless. She would show Sae- and Amamiya, too.
Amamiya’s attitude was fine for now. Makoto already discovered that persistence wore down Amamiya much faster than Sae, so it would be fun to stay on top of him. So to speak...? Fun to stay on top of him? That was… odd phrasing to use. But so was criticizing her own thoughts to herself. Makoto realized she was getting off track.
First things first. Makoto wanted to see the current state of the girl before the parents arrived. It was not a leap in logic to figure that would be the most important variable in dealing with the presumably enroute parents. Parents loved and feared for their children- that was a given, right? And these people would not be making a political fuss if they did not care about Shiho. If they were a different type of family, they would probably keep quiet and not want anyone to know Shiho was missing. It was something of a scandal. But if it made it to the ear of Masayoshi Akechi, then the Suzui family was being very loud.
Makoto entered the exam room. Ann was sitting on a stool next to Shiho’s cot. Her face turned to Makoto as she entered and Ann gave a feeble smile before turning back to stare at Shiho once more. Dr. Takemi was asleep at a small desk, her chin down towards her chest. She was breathing softly.
Moving into the room, Makoto was able to get a closer look at the injured Shiho girl. Her color looked much improved, which was readily obvious. The pale whiteness of her skin yesterday was now replaced with the more healthy colors of a vigorous young woman. Her breathing seemed deeper. And the general sense of mortality that Shiho used to exhibit had vanished. Now, she looked almost- serene.
Makoto looked at the sleeping physician again. Takemi Tae did amazing work. Were other physicians as good as her? They surely could not be, otherwise it would be a more respected profession.
“Ann, will you come out to the waiting room? I need to talk to you about something.”
“Yeah, okay, Ms. Niijima.” Ann looked back at Shiho. “She looks better, doesn’t she?”
“Yes. She does. I’m going to wake up Ms. Takemi.”
Makoto nudged Takemi on the shoulder. Her eyes flicked open. “Oh, Ms. Niijima.” Then she stretched, cat-like in her chair. Her long arms starting out and low, then gradually rotating back behind her head. Then she grabbed the back of her neck and winced.
“Ms. Takemi, the girl’s parents are likely on their way here. I’d like to talk to you about that.”
“Oh? You know her family name then?”
“I don’t know it.”
“Neither did I. But they seem to have the ear of the Akechi family. The young Akechi was here this very morning looking for the girl.”
Takemi paled. “This sounds political.”
“Yes. And I have some ideas on how to handle it.”
Takemi stood up, again wincing and rubbing her neck. “I’m interested.” She paused by Shiho. Checked the girl’s pulse, felt her forehead, frowned, then joined Makoto and Ann in the waiting room.
“Something wrong, Ms. Takemi?” asked Ann, worry in her voice.
“No. The opposite. She seems much improved. Much more than I expected in such a short time.”
“Your techniques are more effective than you thought?” said Makoto.
Takemi’s eyes shifted between the two of them. “Something like that. But what about the parents, now?”
“Right. Apparently, there is a controversy bubbling over the events yesterday. Some seem to think we abducted the girl in an effort to keep her from being blessed by a priest. Instead, taking her to-”
“A graverobber,” sighed Takemi. “You all are going to get me lynched.”
“Don’t be so macabre,” scolded Makoto. “If we handle Shiho’s parents correctly, we can quiet the controversy. Ann, have you met Shiho’s parents before?”
“Sure. Lots of times. I go over to her house a lot. It’s a lot cooler than our place. She’s got like three guest rooms!”
Makoto’s home had something like a dozen guest rooms. She couldn’t even remember the count. But it wasn’t a competition, but the comparison did give Makoto a sense of the Suzui’s relative social status compared to say, her own Niijima family, and an unpopular professional like Takemi- or a tooth-and-nail survivalist like the maid at the public bath, Kawakami.
“What do Suzui’s parents do, Ann?”
Ann’s blue eyes rotated up and to the left as the young woman scrolled through her memory. “Her dad does something with wagons. He’s always talking about how much a wagon can carry, how fast it can go, and when they arrive and depart.”
So a merchant of some kind- with enough capital to ply the trade roads between the neighboring city-states. She’d patiently listened to such men drone on about the intricacies of the business as she politely danced with those who managed to get themselves invited to galas and balls- and with their rather uninteresting sons and nephews. The way she and her sister, and all the daughters of all the upper classes, were dressed up and passed around to all the men at parties- it was kind of disgusting in a socially institutionalized way. Sae always loved it though- but she amused herself by subtly tearing all the men apart with her sharp tongue. Makoto didn’t enjoy inflicting pain as much.
“And her mother?”
“Ummm… I don’t think she does much except order the maid around. Oh, and stuff with the church. Oh, and with lots of parents at the school. Like picnics and gatherings and things. I’ve gone to a few. They are pretty boring.”
A socially active housewife with faith. If they were going to have a problem, Makoto assumed it would be from that direction. It wasn’t much to go on, but it gave Makoto a sense of how best to present the situation with Takemi’s clinic to these people. Makoto’s mind went back to all the parties and events which Yoshida planned for her father’s benefit:
“Why do you put so many decorations in here, but so few everywhere else, Mr. Yoshi?”
“Everything starts with appearance, Makoto. When a person comes into the atrium here, through the coatroom, what they see will color their entire cognition of the Niijima home. So if the festive look of the season...”, Yoshida shook a branch of an evergreen tree in front of Makoto’s face, wafting the smell of fresh pine needles, “...overwhelms them, the rest of the house will seem equally festive, even with much more reserved decoration.”
Everything starts with appearances. Makoto eyed Ann appraisingly. The girl slept in her school uniform here in the clinic, but she still looked fresh and well-groomed. Did Sakamoto Ann always look this good? It must be some kind of natural talent. But either way, having Ann here would add credibility for the parents, especially since they were accustomed to having Ann as a house guest at the Suzui residence.
“Ann, I’d like you to be the one to greet Shiho’s parents when they get here. A familiar face. A hopeful but concerned familiar face- might defuse the situation immediately.”
“Uh- okay. Sure.”
“What are their names?” asked Takemi.
“Shiho’s mother is named Hekima. And- I actually don’t know her dad’s name. They don’t use his first name when I’m around. So, he’s just Mr. Suzui.”
So the father wanted things formal when a non-family member was around. At least for himself. That was rather pretentious. Maybe the father would be the real difficulty and not the mother.
Makoto turned her attention to Takemi. She was a shapely woman with a smallish face and sharp chin- it gave her neutral state an almost sultry, seductive appearance. Takemi tended to look at people through half-lidded eyes, which added to her mystery. Perhaps useful for attracting more than your fair share of young men at a gala, but not for enhancing the credibility of a controversial place like a physician’s clinic. A seductive female in a dubious profession which was thought to seduce people away from their faith. Not an ideal combo for this morning. And all of that was not even considering that Takemi’s wrinkled black dress revealed more than a hint of cleavage and quite a bit of long leg.
“Ms. Takemi, please don’t take this the wrong way- but do you have anything more conservative to wear?”
Takemi grimaced and her eyes narrowed. “I own other clothes, Ms. Niijima- yes. What did you have in mind? Something nun-ish?”
“That would be perfect. Yes!”
“That was a joke.”
“Oh. You don’t have anything nun-ish?”
Takemi sighed. “I’ll figure something out. I think I get what you are going for. But what about you?”
Makoto’s mind hiccuped to a stop. She looked down at her own clothing. She was dressed for work. The grey-black utilitarian leather bodysuit, interspersed with metal plating which covered vulnerable parts of her body but still allowed full range of movement. Most of the metal was barbed and spiked. Her shoulder pads were polka-dotted with cylinders of revolver ammo. Her spiked gauntlets were thick and hid spring-loaded blades. Her boots were long, steel-shinned and steel-towed, spiked, and also contained blades. Then there was her raggedy black chainmail scarf Yoshida had knitted for her long ago, and of course, her father’s spare hand-cannon at her hip- shiny with menace in its holster.
“Um-” said Ann, “You do look a little… aggressive.”
Ren rode his horse a bit harder than usual, drawing a few surprised glances to himself as he galloped through the early morning streets of Tock-Yo. He was annoyed. Makoto- no: The Niijima-woman... She was starting to seem like a mistake. She’d been useful yesterday, but now she was simply getting in the way. Using some sort of… trick or mindgame, she had him accept a partnership with her. Then, he’d let himself be talked out of pursuing the vampire immediately, even though his earlier delay to recharge had resulted in the Shiho girl’s injury.
Not only that! But she’d only fought ferals! Anyone with half a brain could kill a pack of ferals. All one had to do was keep your distance while picking them off. Avoid their claws. Avoid their fangs. Avoid getting swarmed and dragged down. And cut off their heads. Child’s play.
A drunkard stumbled off a streetside stoop and fell into Ren’s path. He leapt the horse easily over the flailing man.
Well, that fellow would be a goner from just one feral. Maybe… maybe he was being too harsh on Ms. Niijima. But still! Calling herself a vampire hunter! Never having hunted a vampire!
And she didn’t reset his saddle straps! Who borrows a horse and doesn’t readjust the straps for the original rider? Who does that?!
Ren was nursing a mild headache. He was used to being on his own. Going where he wanted. Seeing a target and hunting it down, as he saw fit. Now with other people to balance.... the social realities of this city.... He missed the frontier. The peace and simplicity. And it was only day two of this hunt. Not to mention this other vamp-slave that tried to get into the Niijima estate. That seemed to herald a longer urban campaign for him: multiple vampires in this city. Ren grimaced. Maybe if he was offered a contract for this other supposed vampire, he would decline it. He’d never declined a mark. But this time?
Unbidden, Niijima Makoto’s crimson gaze flashed before Ren’s mind. Her smallish nose and sharp chin.
But this time?... Maybe.
The city gate could be smelled before it could be seen. The concentration of stables, ox-carts, and laboring men created a sort of olfactory bubble that was blatantly obvious to anyone that didn’t spend most of their time within its borders. Ren picked his way through the muddle, everyone too busy to pay attention to one more darkly dressed traveler.
There was only one mechanic’s garage here, so it seemed to be the obvious location of Makoto’s- Ms. Niijima’s recommended mechanic. The claimed man-of-many-talents. Ren stopped his horse at the threshold of the garage and dismounted. The dim garage was neat, but cluttered with many items and tools beyond Ren’s knowledge to name. Two motorcycles were resting on stilts in varied states of dismantlement. The barnyard smell of the city gate was significantly cut by the smell of petrol, oils, and other stranger things.
But where was the man?
Ren waited. A door in the back of the garage opened. A square-faced, mature man looked out, blinked when he saw Ren, and then came out into the garage. He put a boxy, front-billed hat on his head as he walked towards Ren.
“Good morning, sir. What can I-” his grey eyes shifted past Ren. “Whoa! Is that a Equinemek III?”
Ren followed the man’s eager gaze back to his own mechanical horse. “Uh-, I’m unsure. I just know how to ride it.”
“Seriously? I didn’t think I’d ever see another one of these things again. The factory broke down when I was just a kid. That was like… thirty years ago.” Iwai looked at Ren with an eager expression. “Could- could I take a closer look at it, sir?”
“My name is Amamiya,” Ren said. And if this man was as good as Mako-... Ms. Niijima claimed, then his goodwill might be a valuable thing to possess. “By all means, take as close a look as you like.”
A genuine expression of modest glee transformed Iwai’s face, and he rushed forward, took up the reigns of the horse, and led the animatron into the shade of the garage. Iwai ran his hands over the horse’s flank.
“Amazing design. So lifelike. You have to admit, they did some amazing work.”
“The vampires. Just really top notch stuff.”
Oh, right. Ren froze, but he was habitually a still person, so Iwai didn’t seem to notice. He was too absorbed with the machine, anyway. Ren had taken this machine from his mother’s stables. It was his impression that mechanical horses were common enough amongst humans to not be too surprising. He was doubting that now.
“There are no mechanical horses in Tock-yo?” Ren asked.
“Oh, there are a few model twos in some rich folk’s collections. They get brought out for parades sometimes. Or to show off. But nothing like this model three, here. At first glance, you can’t even tell it’s not a real horse!”
Ren frowned as he looked at his own beast. “I wasn’t aware these were so rare.”
Iwai turned and his mouth gaped at him. Then it closed with a click. “Well, I suppose a man living by the deep river isn’t aware there’s a drought. The factory that made these things broke down a while back. No new model threes. No new parts.”
“The factory could not be repaired?”
Iawi shook his head as he opened up a control panel on the side of the horse and gazed admiringly at some blinking lights. “The vampire staff did all the technical work. The humans were for the labor. During the Uprising: the vampires fled- or were slain- and so the knowledge left with them. Still, like this thing,” Iwai tapped the horse, “The factory was built well, and it ran for years before finally grinding to a stop. The people couldn’t figure out how to get it running again so they abandoned it.”
It was the same story all over the frontier. The abandoned ruins of the old empire lay rusting and decaying in the wilderness. Those who understood them were mostly gone, and the humans who remained forsook them as cursed places. Any intuitive soul was usually stymied by the complexity of the lost technology. There was only so much a curious mind and a hammer could accomplish.
Ren stood quietly in thought as Iwai continued to examine the horse. He was lifting up the mechanical horse’s fake fail, presumably to see if the machine had a horse’s anus, when he stopped himself and turned back to Ren.
“Oh! My apologies, Mr. Amamiya. You’ve been patient enough with me. What can I do for you?”
“I was referred to your shop by a... “ Ren paused. Maybe he was thinking of taking back this partnership thing, but it would be foolish to not try to exploit it for now. “...by my new business partner: Niijima Makoto. She said you were the man to see about anything I might need.”
Iwai’s face became suspicious. “Ms. Niijima referred you? Her partner? She’s never had a partner before.”
“I believe I witnessed the idea spring into her mind a few seconds before she mentioned it to me.”
Iwai laughed suddenly, the suspicion fading away. “Oh, you do know her! Okay, Mr. Amamiya. I think I know what kind of things you mean. Come into my shop. My real shop.”
Ren was curious now. He followed Iwai back into the room from whence he emerged. Several compact cases and wall racks surrounded a small room. All of them were filled with various weapons. Blades. Blunt objects. Guns. And several things Ren could not name nor identify. A hallway stretched away immediately left, and the wall here was only waist high, revealing an open-air courtyard. The seemingly thick walls of the courtyard were blastmarked and the earth was cratered and scorched. Shell casings of various sizes were littered everywhere. A single, raggedy manikin stood in the center, obviously for target practice. It was some kind of firing range.
“Excuse the mess. I really hate making ammunition, so I avoid cleaning up,” Iwai sighed to himself. “Which lets the shells get dirty and makes the whole process worse, but I never learn.”
Ren said nothing as Iwai closed the door behind him. He then circled around Ren to stand behind the main case of weaponry, presumably his main wares for sale.
“So what do you need? Repairs? Modifications? Something new?”
Ren considered Iwai a moment. Then unsheathed his longsword. Iwai eyed the blade as Ren set it down upon the counter. He tentatively reached out to touch it.
“Wow, that’s a thin blade. It’s almost like a rapier. Interesting texture. What kind of metal is that?”
“Steel, I presume.”
Iwai flashed him a frown. “Mmmm… I don’t think so. And I wouldn’t want to sharpen it if I don’t know what it’s made of.”
“It doesn’t need sharpening. It’s the hilt. Something is loose, but it's intermittent. Sometimes it is firm and sometimes it is not. I no longer wish to risk it.”
“Oh, well, that seems mundane enough. I can have that fixed easily. It won’t take long.”
Ren nodded, moving his hands along his equipment belt. Next his hand passed over his swordbreaker, but that dagger was fine; Ren instead pulled out his other small weapon from his hip. He set the broken wrist crossbow down on the counter. Iwai picked it up and considered the fractured frame and snapped curve.
“I’m afraid it’s a goner, Mr. Amamiya. Even if I try to repair this, it will never hold the tension you need for a killing shot.”
“I feared as much.”
“Well, items like this are common enough. But-” Iwai cast another appraising glance over Ren’s weaponry and his clothing. “But perhaps you are a man with coin. A main with coin because he doesn’t spend extravagantly. Because he has yet to see something extravagant that he desires…”
Ren recognized a sales pitch when he heard one. But what harm was there in looking? “I’m listening, Mr. Iwai.”
Iwai beamed an eager smile. He bent down and pulled out a small handgun. It was somewhat squarish, except for the extra length of the handgrip. It was a bit smaller than his ruined crossbow.
“I imagine you are looking to fill a similar sized hole in your kit with similar killing power at range. This is what you want, Mr. Amamiya.”
Ren frowned down at the firearm. “Why would I spend more coin on a single-shot gun to replace a single-shot crossbow?”
Iwai’s smile grew wider. “Ah, but it’s not a single shot. It has thirteen shots.”
“How? There is no way there is a cylinder in there.”
“Right you are! It’s not fed by a cylinder like a common revolver. It’s spring fed from the bottom. See?”
Iwai lifted the weapon, pushed a button, and the center of the handgrip fell out. A dozen bullets were stacked neatly atop one another in the detachable piece. Iwai shoved them back up into the weapon with a click. “It’s really foolish to keep it loaded like this, but the cinematic effect of the reveal just can’t be matched.”
Ren was intrigued. A dozen bullets without the need to reload? In such a small package. He did want that.
“Can I try it?”
Iwai led him over to the range. He set the weapon on a small shelf and stepped back. Ren picked it up and examined the smooth outer surface of the weapon. It looked advanced, but it really was a pretty simplistic item, to his eye. A few pieces of metal moving against one another.
“The top section of the gun can be pulled back to load the first round into the chamber. So if you really wanted, you could keep one round already in there with the twelve below it.”
Ren’s excitement faded abruptly as he pulled the top half of the weapon back as instructed. “I have to do this after every shot?”
“No. The force of the gunshot will automatically load the next round. Just like a revolver. Try it.”
Ren was doubtful. Reload a single chamber by shooting? But he pointed the weapon at the manikin and squeezed the trigger.
The sound was surprisingly tinny. Kind of like a low caliber revolver. Not a lot of power, but a hole appeared in the wall above the manikin’s head. Ren frowned. He’d forgotten that bullets don’t fall nearly so fast as crossbow bolts. He lowered his aim. Pulled the trigger again.
Wow! It worked! That really was impressive. He wanted it. But then he forced himself to lock down his face. It would not do to let Iwai know how impressed he was with the item before starting the negotiation over price. He was just about to turn back around to the mechanic when:
“Good morning! Mr. Iwai!” called a light, feminine voice from back in the garage.
Iwai looked towards the closed door. “Huh. Busy morning. I’ll be right back, Mr. Amamiya. Feel free to use the rest of the rounds up, if you want.”
Ren didn’t want to waste ammo, so he examined the weapon. Keeping his finger well away from the trigger, he pulled back the top of the weapon to see how the bullet rested in the chamber. Interesting.
“Ms. Okumura!” said Iwai’s voice, “I wasn’t expecting you this morning! But you’re arrival is perfect. I finished your item just last night.”
“Oh, that makes me so happy!” came a giggly, girly voice. “Can I see it?”
“Of course! Of course! Come right on back.”
Ren turned his head towards the door as Iwai came back through with an eager face. A shopkeeper with a big spender, certainly. But instead of small woman that Ren envisioned based on that voice, a tall, broad-shouldered man in a blue uniform entered. He had a large revolver at his hip, and his gaze snapped to Ren with a professional alacrity.
Ren tensed but made no move. The uniformed man stared at him.
“That’s another customer of mine,” said Iwai.
“Mr. Ako, move won’t you?” said the feminine voice again. “You’re in my way.”
“Sorry, Ms. Okumura,” said the big man, breaking eye contact with Ren and stepping aside.
A petite young woman in a flowery dress entered. Her hair was framed with curly brown hair and both her eyes and her smile sparkled.
“Oh!” She stopped. “Sorry to interrupt you, sir.” She gave Ren a curtsey as another big, meaty looking man with a gun and blue uniform followed in just behind her.
Ren bowed. Returning polite gesture with a formal greeting. “There is no trouble. My name is Amamiya Ren.”
“A pleasure, Mr. Amamiya,” the girl bowed this time. “I’m Okumura Haru.”
Ren’s eyes traveled to the two uniformed men.
“Oh, and this is Mr. Ako and Mr. Kato. They work for my father’s company.”
“Okumura Security,” said the first guard, “Maybe you’ve heard of it?”
Ren hadn’t, but why stir the pot? “Of course.”
That seemed to satisfy Mr. Ako. And then everyone was distracted by Iwai pulling out a bulky contraption from his case. It looked sort of like a gun. It had a two handles and an obvious trigger. But it had a huge cylinder, like it used beer bottles for bullets.
“Here it is, Ms. Okumura. I tested it just yesterday and I think I have it perfect!”
“Yay!” said Haru. She reached for the strange weapon. It looked heavy, but Haru’s thin arms took on the bulk with apparent ease. She walked forward to stand next to Ren on the firing range just as Iwai arrived with a small box of what looked like... small beer bottles.
“This is the ammunition, Ms. Haru. I’ve really nailed down the process for making them. Here’s how you load it.”
Iwai showed the girl the loading process as Ren and the two guards stood around watching. Everyone seemingly equally curious to see what this strange mini-drum weapon could do. Then, as Haru was sliding in the last of the beer bottle things, a third guard appeared in the doorway.
“Ms. Haru, I have a message.”
Haru sighed. And for the first time, Ren saw her smile fade slightly from her face. “From who?”
Haru’s smile died, her face went pale, and all the sparkle left it. But she said: “Okay. Give it to me.”
She took the note in one hand and used her thumb to open the sheaf of paper. There was a good amount of writing on it, though Ren could not make out what it said. Haru’s smile reappeared as she read it, but it was a lifeless version of itself; the lips making the shape of the smile, with none of its spirit- and Haru’s eyes remained flinty. Still smiling, she crumpled up the letter and handed it back to one of her guards.
“Okay. I’m going to try this thing now!”
She steadied the odd, mini-barrel weapon against herself. Her dead smile revealed white teeth in a snarl.
Iwai put his hands to his ears. Ren decided to imitate him.
Ren flinched away from the noise and blast, his wide-brimmed hat threatening to fly off his head. Smoke and dust swirled around the small gun range. Haru was laughing with glee, her brown curls bobbing as she hopped up and down in excitement.
“Oh, my! Wasn’t that graceful?!”
Ren dusted off his clothing. Graceful? He looked for the manikin in the center of the gun range. It was just gone. What was graceful about that? It was the opposite of grace!
“These are just test rounds!” Iwai half shouted. “The real things will have even more kick, and some bits of metal in them to really do some damage when they pop!”
“Mmm” said Haru, as she handed the weapon back to Iwai. “And I love the way it smells! It's so invigorating.”
“Uh-” said Iwai, “I’m glad you like it.”
“I’ll take it. The test rounds. The real rounds. All of it. Bill it to the company office, won’t you, please, Mr. Iwai?”
“Of course, Ms. Okumura. And shall I have the items delivered?”
“Heavens, no. I’ll take them now. Mr. Ako? Mr. Kato?”
“Yes, Ms. Okumura!”
The uniformed men stood steady as Iwai loaded stacks of small, wooden crates into their arms. Haru watched for a few moments, then seemed to remember that Ren was there. She turned back towards him.
“Sorry again- Mr. Amamiya wasn’t it?”
“Yes. And think nothing of it. Your weapon is- interesting.”
“Mhmmhmm…” Haru hummed as a sort of response as her violet eyes traveled up and down Ren. Her eyes flicked to his ears a couple of times in the span of a few seconds. Ren sucked in breath. Here it was. The moment she realized he was a dhampir.
“Oh! I see now,” said Haru, “You have an interesting family ancestry, Mr. Amamiya. That’s what is so unique about you.”
Ren’s social dread died in his chest. An interesting family ancestry? That was- that was about as polite as the reality could be stated. “It would be inaccurate to call me unique. There are plenty of others exactly like me.”
“Perhaps in the world, but not in Tock-yo. And you are a vampire hunter, I presume?”
“You are well informed.”
“Maybe. Or maybe I just looked at how you dress. But anyway, it’s logical you would need to be a hunter to be allowed here in the city. Are you close to your mark?”
“It’s early yet.”
“Well, come dine with me some evening and tell me about your adventures,” Haru smiled at Ren, most of the sparkling having returned to it. “I would adore a dinner guest who isn’t a total bore.”
Ren assumed that was just an empty, but polite invitation. He bowed slightly. “I would be honored.”
“The Okumura Estate. Just ask anyone where it is. Inquire the day before you intend to arrive, won’t you?”
The day before? She was serious? Inviting a dhampir to dinner? “Of- of course, Ms. Okumura.” Ren realized he sounded like every other man in the room. It was like this young woman cast some kind of spell over them all.
She smiled brightly. “Don’t forget! I’ll be sad if you leave town without seeing me.”
She glanced over her shoulder as her guards exited into the garage with her purchases. She bowed slightly again. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Amamiya!” And then she turned, bowed to Iwai and said a farewell, and then followed her guards.
Iwai and Ren looked at the doorway for a few quiet moments, both lost in thought.
“Ann!” Makoto looked back to the open door to the exam room. “They’re here!”
Ann rushed out to the waiting room windows to peek through the blinds with Makoto. Dr. Takemi followed at a quick walk. They all peeked out the window blinds together.
A stately carriage was just coming to a stop outside. It was blessedly alone. Makoto had feared a crowd. The horses were barely still when the carriage door flung open and a lean, middle-aged woman with a round face and small nose quickly climbed down the steps. Her long, billowing formal gown wrinkling in the muddy street long before the coachman could even climb down, much less assemble the plank bridge to the wooden porch of the physician’s clinic.
That gave Makoto a tangible sense of the woman’s urgency, rare in high-society women. Though perhaps upper-middle class was more accurate for the Suzui family. Either way, it wasn’t the time to dwell over minor distinctions like that.
“Ann, why don’t you head out there?”
Ann moved for the door and stepped outside. The woman Makoto presumed was Shiho’s mother was impatiently waiting for her husband to exit the carriage. He seemed to be indicating for the coachman to put down the plank bridge. In obvious frustrated impatience, Mrs. Suzui turned towards the clinic just as Ann stepped outside.
“Ann-chan!” cried the woman, relief obvious on her face. “You’re here! Where is Shiho!?”
Makoto nodded to herself as the older lady rushed Ann. So, she’d been right. It wasn’t a genius strategic move, but having them see Ann first thing was obviously the right play- the use of that endearment honorific was all the confirmation that Makoto needed.
“She’s here. She’s hurt- but getting better.”
“Oh, thank God! What happened?!”
“Ms. Suzui, I-”
“Ms. Sakamoto!” said a more pretentious male voice. The father. He was stepping across the plank bridge and up onto the porch with his wife. “What is going on?!”
Takemi clicked her tongue inside her mouth. “He’s going to be the problem.”
Makoto agreed. Ann handled the emotional side, but the father was obviously going to need more official clout. For the second time in two days, Makoto decided to use Amamiya’s advice and depend on the force of her father’s name, no- her name. Her family’s name.
“Mr. Suzui, I- Uh-...”
Makoto couldn’t see Ann’s face, but with Mrs. Suzui clinging on to her arm and Mr. Suzui leaning in towards her face with an aggressive stance, it was obvious she was under siege.
“Spit it out girl!” said Mr. Suzui.
Takemi turned her head towards Makoto. “You need to get out there, Ms. Niijima.”
Ann was floundering under the man’s pressure. Makoto did need to get out there. She looked down at her long, slim dress. It was one of Dr. Takemi’s, and her height and figure was close enough to Makoto’s to let the dress fit well enough. It revealed more of her figure than she was used to, and quite a bit more of her bosom- but it was not unlike the dresses worn by professional women of the aristocracy; those semi-radicals who stepped into male-dominated society and shoved their weight around with the men. Makoto had seen them at parties, social events, business events with father. Those women were heiresses without siblings, widows, or well-chosen wives of more passive men. Father told Makoto and Sae to mark them. Watch them. Be like them.
Now was the time.
Makoto smoothed the hips of the dress as she strode for the door. Makoto still needed to appear a woman (otherwise she would be viewed as trying to be a man, which would dash her credibility), but her seriousness would be regarded inversely to the diameter of her skirt. Thus, Makoto must walk with this hip-hugging dress and heeled shoes. Social politics were an exhausting but necessary evil.
They get you what you want.
Makoto’s right heel wavered just slightly as she missed the heelstep, but her muscles were strong, they held her up. She steaded her gait, and stepped out into the morning light.
“Mr. and Mrs. Suzui,” she said with as stern and formal voice as she could muster. Authority figures were stern- when they needed to be listened to, anyway. Yoshida was a master at this, his voice was like a toolbox, ready with the right tool for the specific task at hand. Makoto had watched him work as the butler, major-domo, and host of her home for her entire life.
“I am Niijima Makoto.”
The Suzuis and Ann turned to face her. Mrs. Suzui didn’t seem particularly concerned with who Makoto was. Her face remained the same mix of fear, concern, and relief. But Makoto’s dramatic entrance wasn’t for her, it was for Mr. Suzui- and his gaping, surprised mouth seemed to indicate that Makoto had the effect she wanted. Keel him over with the social power of her family name.
“Your daughter fell from the roof of the academy and was gravely injured. The people at the school were content to watch her die. Ms. Sakamoto was not. And neither was I. So we brought your daughter here. Please come inside and see her.”
The Suzuis were silent in the wake of Makoto’s statement, perhaps processing that information. Calculating their emotions. Mr. Suzui’s face seemed to vibrating under multiple inclinations. The moment was teetering on the edge.
“Come see Shiho, Mrs. Suzui,” said Ann, softly.
Mrs. Suzui looked back to Ann and nodded. Makoto felt immense gratitude for Ann’s social instinct in that moment. It was a perfect guidance of Mrs. Suzui’s priorities.
“Ms. Niijima!” said Mr. Suzui, stepping to the fore. “ I want more of an explanation than-”
“Fujio!” snapped Ms. Suzui in a sharp, acidic tone. “Your posturing can wait! Let’s see our daughter!”
Mr. Suzui rounded on his wife, shock on his face. He opened his mouth to speak to her, but-
The man’s mouth opened and closed a few times. Makoto thought she could understand the man’s emotions. He was publicly losing face, but to retaliate strongly against his own wife in public? That would be even worse. He was trapped between a rock and a hard place. He seemed to recognize this, closed his mouth, straightened his posture, and tucked his hands gracefully behind the small of his back.
“You are correct, of course, my dear.” he said evenly. And doing a good job of resetting his voice back to a polite, noble tone.
Makoto indicated the doorway behind her with her arms. “Please, step inside the healer’s clinic.”
Control the vocabulary. Control the perception. Another trick of Yoshida’s infallible hospitality and social diplomacy. Using “healer” evoked all the aspects that the word “physician” did, and avoided the latter word’s social stigma.
Ann took a step forward, and since Mrs. Suzui was still grasping her arm, that pulled her along, too. Once again, Ann was pushing the moment down the favorable slope. Makoto stepped back inside the waiting room and waited as Ann and the Suzuis made the short journey up the few steps into the office. The next hurdle was the introduction of Dr. Takemi.
At the moment, Takemi Tae was dressed in a rather loose-fitting brown dress- a utilitarian affair common amongst female shopkeepers and industrious housewives. Makoto was a little surprised Takemi even owned such a thing, but she supposed a woman couldn’t wear the type of society dress Makoto was wearing.all the time. She glanced up and down Dr. Takemi once more. Then again… that dress did have a never-worn kind of look to it.
But then Ann and the Suzui’s were in the door and introductions were in order.
“Mr. Suzui, Mrs. Suzui, this is Dr. Takemi Tae,” said Makoto with a slight bow. “She is the healer who is overseeing your daughter’s recovery.”
Dr. Takemi bowed. The Suzuis, captured by social convention, returned the bow- though shallower in unconscious declaration of their higher social rank. If Takemi took any offense, her face didn’t show it.
“Your daughter is strong,” said Takemi, “It is early, but I am optimistic of her recovery.”
Mr. Suzui opened his mouth to say something, but this time Makoto seized the momentum.
“Shiho is in the back room. This way please.”
Mr. Suzui closed his mouth, and the group moved towards Makoto. Perfect. She opened the exam room door and led them all inside, Dr. Takemi a respectful distance to the rear of the friends and relatives of the patient.
“Shiho!” said Mrs. Suzui, and she surged forward to stand next to her daughter on the exam table. Her hands reached, but just as Makoto was about to offer a warning to not touch, Mrs. Suzui withdrew her hands back to her mouth. A lady with a command of common sense.
The party gathered around the unconscious Shiho. She looked unchanged from earlier this morning, as far as Makoto could tell. But again, that was a huge improvement over last night.
“What are her injuries?” said Mr. Suzui. His voice tense.
So, the sight of his daughter was realigning his priorities. That was a good sign. But it wasn’t a question for Makoto. She turned to Takemi.
Takemi stepped forward. “The most alarming injury is her head. The bones of her skull were broken inward in a moderate area. That creates a dangerous pressure on the organ inside. I believe I was able to relieve that pressure, but I can do no more but wait. It is for Shiho and God to decide the outcome, now.”
“Oh, Shiho,” said Ms. Suzui again. Ann wrapped an arm around her.
Makoto’s esteem for Dr. Takemi rose. She was casting herself as more a facilitator than a miracle worker. It was a great perspective to use in this situation. Makoto supposed a woman didn’t last long as a professional physician in this would without some sensitivity to religious taboo.
“How is this done?” asked Mr. Suzui.
“I carefully remove the destroyed bone. It cannot be reset like a simple broken limb, understand. This removes the pressure, but also the natural protection the bone provided to the essential organ of the head: So, I must replace it with something else. In your daughter’s case, I used a thin piece of metal, well-bathed in the preserving elements of drinking spirits.”
Mr. Suzui blinked. That explanation was perhaps more technical than he expected, but it seemed to satisfy him. His thoughtfully concerned gaze turned back to his daughter.
“She also has numerous broken limbs, but they are, of course, not life-threatening. God was merciful and, to my knowledge, Shiho lacks any severe internal injury. Or if there is one, it seems in the body’s natural capacity to heal with my assistance. Your daughter appears to be on the mend, and her visible improvement over yesterday is- well… astonishing.”
Ann nodded. “It’s true, Mrs. Suzui. She looks so much better.”
“God is great,” said Mrs. Suzui. “Can I touch her?”
“Just avoid the bandaged areas, Mrs. Suzui.”
Shiho’s mother tentatively reached out for a part of Shiho’s bare skin. Mrs. Suzui sighed and her body relaxed visibly upon contact with her wounded daughter. To Makoto’s mild surprise, Mr. Suzui stepped forward and did the same. So, the man was not as emotionally alien as Makoto feared.
As everyone gazed at Shiho and her parents tentatively touched her skin, the girl’s eyes fluttered open. Makoto heard Dr. Takemi’s breath hiss inwards first and then Ann and the Suzui’s exclaimed: “Shiho!” in subdued voices, all at once. The girl’s eyes dreamily looked from her mother, to Ann, to her father, then in the vague direction of Makoto and Dr. Takemi.
“What’s… going on?” the girl said weakly.
Makoto felt a touch on her arm. It was Dr. Takemi.
“Let’s leave them to it. Too many people is overstimulating for the girl.”
Makoto nodded and followed Takemi back into the waiting room. She shut the exam room door softly behind them. Dr. Takemi seemed deep in thought.
“You did an amazing job,” said Makoto.
Takemi looked up at her. “Apparently. But it isn’t right.”
“The girl is recovering. How could that not be right?”
“She took a grievous head wound less than twenty-four hours ago. This should not be possible.”
Why worry so much over a good thing? Shiho was apparently recovering splendidly when only yesterday they feared her on death’s doorstep. Makoto’s father was not a religious man, so she was not raised in the church- but one could not avoid learning of God in this world. “Deus invisibilis operatur.” she offered.
Takemi frowned and looked at Makoto. “Deus operatur per alios.”
What did she mean by that? But before Makoto could ask, a loud, young male voice burst out from just outside the clinic door.
“Oh, Hey! Good morning, Mr. Amamiya! Uh- this is my mom.”
A slight pause. Then: “Good morning, Mrs. Sakamoto.”
“Good morning, Mr. Amamiya. My son told me you assisted my daughter’s friend?”
“I played only a minor role. The others are inside the clinic, I believe.”
It sounded like Ryuji was back and he brought his mother, and they arrived along with Amamiya’s return. Three more people to balance in this tentative situation, and one of them a dhampir. Though it did not seem like most people were immediately recognizing Amamiya as such. Makoto started walking slowly for the door. She should usher them inside, but at the same time, she was reluctant to include them.
“I see. Whose coach is that, Mr. Amamiya?”
“I don’t know. I only just returned myself.”
“I’ll ask. Coachman! Hey! Dude! Who do you work for!?”
“Ryuji! How many times have I told you about yelling!”
A more distant voice: “The Suzui family!”
“So Sawako is already here. Good. Let’s go inside. Ryuji? Mr. Amamiya?”
There was no further delaying it. Makoto opened the clinic door to the surprised faces of the Sakamotos and the (almost) always neutral, pale face of Amamiya. Mrs. Sakamoto was a thin, tired-looking blond woman with what seemed to be permanent fatigue rings under her eyes. She was pretty, and Makoto thought if she got a few full nights of sleep and some relaxation, she would be beautiful. She was definitely Ann’s mother.
“Mrs. Sakamoto? I’m Niijima Makoto,” she bowed. “Thank you for coming this morning.”
Makoto would much rather have not had her come here this morning, but there was nothing to do about it now. And the woman used the name ‘Sawako’ earlier, which must be Mrs. Suzui’s given name. So the two mothers must be close. That explained why Mrs. Sakamoto had come. It didn’t seem like it would have been Ryuji’s idea.
“Ms. Niijima,” said Mrs. Sakamoto, a bit in awe, but she bowed normally.
Makoto stepped aside to clear the passageway inside the clinic. “And this is Dr. Takemi.’
Those two exchanged brief bows as well.
“And where is Ann? And Mrs. Suzui?” asked Mrs. Sakamoto.
“With Shiho in the exam room,” said Makoto. “She just regained consciousness a short time ago.”
“For real?” said Ryuji. “That’s great!”
“Oh! What a relief,” said Mrs. Sakamoto. “From what Ryuji was saying, I feared the girl near death!”
“So did we,” said Makoto. “But she took a miraculous turn for the better overnight.”
“God is great,” murmured Mrs. Sakamoto.
The exam room door opened and Mrs. Suzui stepped out. She caught sight of Mrs. Sakamoto first thing.
The two mothers moved towards each other like magnets, slowly building up speed, eyes bubbling with tears, until they collided in a hug and both began sobbing quietly. Mr. Suzui walked around them to stand near Ryuji. Ann seemed to be under the influence of the matronly emotions in the room and was beginning to tear up herself. But she stepped close to Takemi and Makoto overheard her say that Shiho had fallen back asleep. Takemi nodded.
“Thank you for coming,” said Mrs. Suzui.
“Of course,” said Mrs. Sakamoto, “When I heard…”
The rest apparently didn’t need to be said. The two women gave each other faltering smiles, then both pulled out handkerchiefs from their dresses and started blotting at their faces.
Mr. Suzui cleared his throat. “I would like to hear your version of events from yesterday, Ms. Niijima.”
Mrs. Suzui nodded, still cleaning away her own tears. “Yes, me as well. I’ve only heard rumors and what the young Mr. Akechi told me this morning.”
“Of course,” said Makoto. She lead them through the events as she remembered them, but left out most information about Amamiya, except him allowing them to use his horse. She figured it would be better to keep him on the periphery, and she already knew the man didn’t particularly enjoy attention. Even now he was leaning against the near wall, resolutely keeping himself out of the circle of people… but notably still close enough to hear and see everything.
But it was time to reveal their suspicions. “My associate and I...” Makoto indicated Amamiya near the wall. The Suzuis looked over and seemed to realize he was there for the first time. “... believe that Shiho was under the influence of a noble vampire. We think it is in, or near, the school so as to prey upon the students.”
Silence met that conclusion. It wasn’t news to everyone, but the Suzuis and Mrs. Sakamoto paled and began to look fearful.
“So they are not just rumors,” mumbled Mrs. Sakamoto.
“A noble vampire in my daughter’s school!” said Mrs. Suzui. She was starting to puff up. “Why are the authorities not doing anything?”
That was a really good question. Makoto hadn’t thought about that. She’d made a quick political calculation and dismissed that concern. But rethinking it now: Akechi Goro, a self-proclaimed vampire hunter, hired Amamiya instead of tackling the issue himself. Seemingly content to let a sequence of schoolgirls go missing as the letter found its way to the presumably nomadic Amamiya, and for him to travel here. What was the turn around time of that letter? How long ago was it sent? How long did it sit in some hunter’s tavern or posting board till Amamiya found it? Did that mean the Akechis knew this vampire situation was happening for a long period? Why would they be content to let a situation simmer as young women were kidnapped and presumably devoured?
Makoto’s mind was whirling itself into overdrive with possibilities and assumptions. She tried to battle it back down and keep her focus on the essential situation she was currently in.
“I’m- I’m not sure…” she said, “But I think we need to be cautious-”
“Cautious! No!” said Mrs. Suzui. “We need to be decisive! We need to tell the papers! Everyone needs to know that the vampire is not some rumor! Our children are in danger! I’m going to march right over to the printing office! I’m going to gather the PTA! And we’re going to tear that school apart and find this creature!”
A surge of dread rolled in Makoto’s body. That would be a disaster. It would spread panic. And worse, send the vampire deep into hiding. Surprise would still be on their side if they kept this quiet.
“But- Um- Mrs. Suzui…” Makoto said again, but Mrs. Suzui wasn’t even looking at her. She was glaring at Mr. Suzui.
“Write your merchant friends and get the news out! Ask them to lend some of their guards and mercenaries! We’ll fill that school with swords!”
“An excellent idea,” said Mr. Suzui.
This was rapidly spinning out of Makoto’s control. It had been like the striking of a match. What had done it? Makoto quickly reviewed her words. Fuck! ‘I’m not sure.’ ‘I think.’ Those chinks in her display of command and confidence… publicly-active Mrs. Suzui had felt the slip instantly and slammed right through it, shattering Makoto’s authority in an instant.
“Mrs. Suzui, what Ms. Niijima means is that-” began Ann, trying to help.
“Hush, girl,” said Mrs. Suzui, “This is for the adults now!”
So much for Ann-chan. Mrs. Suzui’s mind was revving up on the warpath and her momentum seemed out of control. Makoto’s plan was falling apart. All the careful maneuvering of the Suzui family arrival and display of Shiho was crumbling to ash.
“You’re a fool, Mrs. Suzui,” said a soft voice. It wasn’t loud. It wasn’t stern. But it had just enough contempt in it to sound especially offensive. And the way it was slipped in between people talking made it striking.
All heads turned to Amamiya, standing tall and darkly against the near wall.
“Excuse me!” said Mrs. Suzui, sputtering.
“You’re a fool,” said Amamiya again, his voice even, his face neutral. “You’re going to ruin everything.”
“Who ARE you?’ said Mr. Suzui.
“A vampire hunter. Who are you?”
“I’m a respected-”
Amamiya pushed off the wall and broadened his chest, making himself more physically imposing. “You’re a fool, like your fool wife. Do you hunt vampires? Do you know how to track them? Identify them? Keep them from escaping and going into hiding?”
Mr. Suzui mumbled an incoherent response. But Mrs. Suzui’s mouth was shut and her face had taken an angry but thoughtful cast. Makoto could see her mind chewing on Amamiya’s words.
“If a mob could hunt a vampire, there would be no vampire hunters.” said Amamiya, “And here you are, disregarding the words of a Niijima, in favor of your own ignorance.”
Mr. Suzui was going red. “We know how to-!”
Mr. Suzui’s voice stopped as Mrs. Suzui placed a hand on his arm.
“Mr. Suzui,” said Mrs. Suzui, the formality having a visibly calming effect on the man, “Thank you for supporting me, but he’s right. His words are true. I want to listen to them first.”
Mr. Suzui’s breath gusted out in a pent up breath, but he managed a nod.
Mrs. Suzui turned back to Makoto and bowed her head slightly. “I apologize for getting ahead of matters. What would the experts suggest?”
Amamiya recrossed his arms and leaned back against the wall, his pale grey eyes meeting Makoto’s brief gaze. A brilliant rescue. Makoto felt immense gratitude towards the man. What was his name? Ren? Amamiya Ren?... With Ren’s earlier accusations of her own amateur status ringing in her ears, Makoto managed a confidant: “That’s quite all right. Emotions are high at the moment. “
She resolved to be careful about the authority of her own phrasing: “The correct path forward is a subtle investigation of the school. The creature is likely disguised as someone close to the students. Events indicate this is the case. I intend to search for the creature as soon as possible, with the aid of my associate here.”
“It’s Sunday today,” said Ann quietly.
Ann was helpfully supplying information that Makoto had forgotten. She’d lost track of what day it was in the hectic pace of her life this week. Sunday meant that school was not in session. Not all the students would be there, nor any of the male staff, and the campus would be closed to anyone who didn’t live there. It was a girl’s school, and proper young ladies were not allowed to get into mischief on their days off. So they were shut up tight. No boys allowed. But was the vampire necessarily male? Amamiya indicated a sexual basis of vampiric hypnosis, but women could like women in that way...
Makoto would have to ask him, but not in front of the Suzui family. For now, she needed to decide on the best course of action. If they could not investigate the school today, then that meant another night of waiting. Amamiya said the vampire could track Suzui though, which meant the girl was at risk in the night. Dr. Takemi’s clinic was not a secure location, nor was it a comfortable one. They needed a secure location with lots of rooms. At least until the vampire was handled…. Of course!
Makoto turned to Takemi. “Doctor, does Shiho need any more of your active care?”
“I need to keep watch on her healing from time to time, but no, there is nothing else for me to do but wait for her to finish healing and watch for problems.”
“Can she be moved?”
“Carefully. But yes.”
Makoto turned back to the group, all of them intently waiting for her decision. That felt unusual, but Makoto couldn’t stumble again. Not after almost losing this enterprise to Mrs. Suzui. Ren would not be able to rescue her again.
“Since we cannot investigate until Monday. I want to move Shiho to my estate. We have plenty of comfortable rooms. Dr. Takemi may visit whenever she feels it is necessary. And the grounds are guarded day and night by Okumura Security.”
And Caroline shot a vamp-slave just last night coming over the wall… but perhaps best not to mention that.
“That’s- That’s very generous, Ms. Niijima,” said Mr. Suzui. He looked at his wife. She was biting her lip, apparently torn over the decision.
“She’s Niijima’s daughter,” said Mrs. Sakamoto, “She knows about this sort of thing.”
If only. But once again, her father’s reputation was paving the way for her. Makoto was suddenly afraid of ruining this all and spoiling that reputation. If she messed this up and Shiho died or the vampire escaped, what would people think of the Niijima name then? In a sudden epiphany, Makoto wondered if this was what Sae felt. The pressure of the name? The pressure of being the heir as eldest daughter? Could this be what was driving her sister so hard? It was something to mull over when there was time.
But for now, Mrs. Suzui nodded. “Very well. Let’s do what you suggest, Ms. Niijima.”
“Ryuji, please do me a favor,” said Makoto. She would normally have phrased it as ‘Could you do me a favor?’ but after the recent lesson, she was resolved to use polite commands.
Ryuji perked up, seemingly interested in not being a bystander to these events. “Sure, Ms. Niijima, what is it?”
“I need someone to deliver a message to my estate. The butler, Mr. Yoshida, will need advance warning to prepare for our arrival. It would help get things ready for Shiho.”
“Sure, I’m in this thing. Anything for Shiho. I can do that, easy.”
“Oh, Shiho,” said Mrs. Suzui, and she went back into the exam room, presumably to sit next to her sleeping daughter. Mr. Suzui remained in the waiting room, likely to keep tabs on where plans headed.
“Thank you, Ryuji” said Makoto. “Please tell him that Shiho is arriving in the Suzui coach. We will need one of the ground-floor suites. Stock the larder for guests. And have the groundskeepers get the storm shutters out of storage. We will begin putting them on every night.”
Ryuji mouth slowly opened wider as the message got longer.
Makoto began to have doubts. “Do you have all that, Ryuji?”
“Uh- what’s a larder?”
“You should probably write the message, dear,” said Mrs. Sakamoto.
Makoto suddenly realized she didn’t have the authority to order the Sakamoto children around when their own mother was in the room. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Sakamoto. I hope it’s alright I impose on your children?”
“Of course. I appreciate it. Both are practically full grown. They need to be put to better use.”
“Mom!” This time Ann joined in with the objection.
“I’m a gate guard!” said Ryuji.
“Yes, so you stand around on the gate instead of standing around on our porch.”
“I have paper and ink in my desk over there, Ms. Niijima” said Takemi.
The parents struck up a low conversation while Makoto went to the desk and wrote a note for Yoshida. Though she was trying to maintain an authoritative tone with those around her, she didn’t want to convey that in writing to Yoshida. He would willingly do anything she asked, so she could afford to be brief and polite.
Makoto also added a request that she hadn’t wanted to say out in public:
‘Please contact Okumura Security and increase the number of guards at night. I would actually prefer it if a new team of two could take the day shift, and we request Justine to join Caroline on nights. Plus a few more guards to watch the other areas of the grounds. The danger is at night.’
She rolled up the paper into a scroll and tied it with one of the ribbons Takemi had for just such a purpose. Caroline and Justine were two people who Father himself approved. No sense in wasting one of them on the day shift.
Ryuji had been watching her, so he came over to receive the item. She held out the scroll and some coins. “Here is money for a rickshaw. Pick a runner that looks fast. Do you know where my home is?”
“Azabu somewhere. I’ll just ask people. But keep your money, I’m faster than any rickshaw.” Ryuji did some high-knee steps as if to prove the point.
“You will run all the way to Azabu?”
“Yeah, what? It’s like-? Eight kilometers? That’s easy.”
“If you say so…” Makoto handed him the rolled scroll.
“See ya!” said Ryuji to the group as he left out the front door.
While Makoto was somewhat dubious of Ryuji’s claims to be faster than a rickshaw runner, she didn’t think the young man would have trouble finding her estate. He was personable and entirely unafraid of speaking with strangers, and most people around Azabu would know where the Niijima manor was located. So, that would prepare the home and put Yoshida into frantic action.
Yoshida would deny Makoto nothing, and finances were not a concern. Yoshida ran the place in the black, and that was not even considering the ancestral holdings of the Niijima family and Father’s personal fortune he earned in his own lifetime. The expense of extra security would be a drop in an ocean, and knowing Yoshida, he would still somehow manage to balance the books even with the extra expense.
The single potential roadblock to Makoto’s maneuvers was Sae, but only if Makoto looked to get permission. If Makoto simply acted, Sae would be powerless to stop her. It’s not like she would, or could, stand at the threshold of the estate and bar their entry. Such an undignified act was certainly beyond Sae’s sense of propriety.
So, the way for Shiho’s transfer to the Niijima estate was paved, or at least, in the process of being paved. Yoshida would need some time to receive the message and marshal the few housekeepers still on retainer. He would probably need to recall some of the old hands who retired to their own families after Father’s disappearance. The Niijima manor would be bustling with life again, if only for the temporary period of Shiho’s convalescence, though- probably not even that long. More like till the death of the vampire that started this mess, then the Suzuis would take their daughter back into their own residence.
How best to use an hour or two this morning? The sun was still fresh, as it was early morning. Ren continued to lean against the wall between the door and the windows, not talking to anyone. He was pointedly avoiding the rays of morning light streaming through the blinds.
Mrs. Sakamoto and Dr. Takemi had sprung up a conversation with Mr. Suzui idly standing in their conversation circle but not actively participating. Ann, too, was there, but she looked somewhat anxious and her eyes were on the exam room door. She probably wanted to be with Shiho, too, but perhaps was allowing Mrs. Suzui some alone time- or maybe she just felt obligated to stay near her mother until dismissed.
Makoto’s stomach growled. Ah, that’s right. She had not eaten, and it was doubtful anyone else had. Food was in order, and it would be especially important to get Shiho something to eat. Where to get something? Her eyes landed on Ren. He basically lived in a cafe, right?
“Mr. Amamiya, could I speak to you, please?”
Ren glanced at her, then pushed himself from the wall. He walked the long way around the pools of sunlight in the room, drawing a curious look from Mr. Suzui. Ren approached the desk were Makoto was standing.
“Mr. Amamiya, please go get the proprietor of that cafe you are staying at to fix up breakfasts for everyone.”
Makoto was taken aback. That was not the response she’d expected. Her surprise must have shown on her face because Ren’s mouth curved downward slightly.
“I’m not your errand boy. But the cafe is a good idea. I will return there and rest.” He turned away from her.
“Hey!” hissed Makoto. He paused and looked back at her.
She kept her voice in a low but intense whisper. “You’re just going to leave me with all of this?”
Ren’s face remained impassive, but he whispered back: “These are humans, aren’t they? You’re the expert.”
He was really going to leave her with all of this! She felt a bit of desperate anger warm up in the back of her mind. What if she needed another rescue like with Mrs. Suzui?!
“Don- don’t you want to learn from the expert?”
Makoto felt the anger bubble into a low simmer. He was leaving her with the mess! What if Ren- no, stop being so familiar with this- this- co-worker! It’s Amamiya! And was this Amamiya going to start hunting without her, too?
“What about the vampire, then?!” She heard her own hissing voice take on a soft squeaking quality to it. She blushed despite herself.
Amamiya looked at her quietly for a moment. “Come to the cafe at dusk, and we’ll stakeout the school.”
Then he turned to the door. Amamiya took out some spectacles from his jacket, put them on, then pulled the brim of his broad hat low over the front of his face, and walked out the front door and into the morning light. Makoto’s jaw clenched tightly as she watched him go, her anger just barely simmering back down. At least she’d gotten confirmation that he would wait for her before hunting tonight. But he certainly wasn’t interested in being useful to the campaign as a whole!
Short-sighted... self-centered… lazy… bastard!
Ann wandered over. “Where is Mr. Amamiya going?”
“To rest, apparently,” said Makoto, trying to keep the irritation out of her own voice. She looked at Ann, realizing she could put the other Sakamoto sibling to work for her, and Ann could probably use a distraction for a bit. “I need you to do something for me, and for Shiho.”
Ann’s blue eyes opened wider and she nodded. “Of course.”
“Take this money and fetch breakfast for everyone. Something you can carry easily, of course. And make sure to ask Dr. Takemi what food is best for Shiho and make sure to get that. She will need to eat to regain her strength.”
Ann took the money and her face took on a determined cast. “Right!” she said, accepting Makoto’s mission and immediately turning around and injecting herself into the conversation between her mother and Dr. Takemi. Ann’s skirt flared slightly as she turned, revealing a bit of shapely thigh.
Men paid attention to that sort of thing, Makoto knew. She too accidentally turned plenty of heads when she used to walk around in a schoolgirl uniform. Amamiya sure noticed that sort of thing. His attention on Ann when they first met had been intense. Makoto’s anger towards Amamiya bubbled back into a simmer, though she was not entirely sure why.
Meanwhile, Ann received her instructions from Dr. Takemi and left out the clinic door. Makoto, with nothing left to immediately do, joined Mrs. Sakamoto, Mr. Suzui, and Dr. Takemi in the center of the waiting room. They turned to look at her expectantly. Oh, they still viewed her as the leader of the situation! Quick, think of something to say!
Dr. Takemi’s eyes traveled between them as Makoto’s mind tried to come up with something. “I’ll check on my patient, excuse me.” She wandered away to the nods of the others, buying Makoto a little bit of time.
“Thank you both for your assistance,” said Makoto. It was a vapid statement, but it was the best she could do.
It seemed to be enough, however, as Mrs. Sakamoto shook her head. “I haven’t done anything, dear. I should be thanking you for helping my daughter’s friend.”
There was a pause. Mrs. Sakamoto turned her head to Mr. Suzui and raised her eyebrows at him. He blinked. Coughed.
“Oh, yes. Ms. Niijima. You saved my daughter’s life. I am at your service, as is whatever resources I can bring to bear.”
“I appreciate that, Mr. Suzui.”
“Though… I am curious as to your next steps. We will place Shiho in your guarded household while you, and your rude friend, do… what?”
Makoto actually wasn’t too sure what they were actually going to do. But she obviously could not reveal that. “We will keep a close watch on the school tonight for movement, and if we see nothing, we will investigate the grounds tomorrow morning when the staff and student body have gathered.”
Mrs. Sakamoto paled. “So you truly believe this creature is disguised amongst them?”
Mr. Suzui frowned, but not in dread. He seemed to be thinking. He tapped his chin. “The administrator of that school, Principal Kobayakawa, is an extremely incompetent man, or so my wife tells me. But he has powerful political connections, and thus attained his post. However, he also has his vices- a particular weakness for a sweet bean paste which I happen to import from Zen-Dai. He owes me money. And he’s scared of my wife. If you will allow us, we can likely attain full access to the school for you.”
Makoto’s opinion of this uptight merchant soared. “That would be exceedingly helpful, Mr. Suzui. Thank you.”
Mr. Suzui nodded and waved his hand in a pretentious way. Think nothing of it, or that’s how Makoto interpreted it. Mrs. Sakamoto was also regarding Mr. Suzui with a softer expression.
“That Kobayakawa,” said Mrs. Sakamoto, “He’s more sweet bean paste than man.”
Mr. Suzui let out a sort of high-pitched, teetering laugh.
They- they were making fun of Principal Kobayakawa! For being fat! The thought had never crossed her mind until now. He was pretty fat. She squeezed her lips together and held in a bubble of laughter that threatened to escape. Fat Principal Kobayakawa. He could barely fit through his office door. He was wider than his desk. No. No, this was not a valuable train of thought- she needed to get back to the issue at hand: the vampire at the school.
But if these school parents knew personalities at the school, they might have information on other suspects there. “Have your daughters spoken of anyone else at the school? Anyone strange? Anyone different?”
“You think it might be a teacher?” said Mrs. Sakamoto.
Makoto thought it was likely a teacher but her mind raced through her own assumption. She had never seen a noble vampire. They were a dying population, supposedly. But they could live forever, as far as she knew, which made her wonder why the vampires were dying off. But that was a curiosity for later. So, violence or disease could kill a noble, but not time. That seemed to make it more likely the noble vampire would appear as an adult to human eyes. Then again, Amamiya didn’t look very much older than herself, but Makoto was pretty sure he was actually much, much older. And noble vampires were rumored to control magic and do all sorts of things. Perhaps they could make themselves look like anyone they wanted to.
“It could be anyone,” said Makoto, “So any information may be helpful.”
Mrs. Sakamoto and Mr. Suzui put on thoughtful expressions.
“Well..” said Mrs. Sakamoto, “Ann always talks about Ms. Chouno, the Womanly Skills teacher. Ann says the woman is a witch.”
Womanly Skills. Makoto had not been a fan of that class, either. She didn’t recognize the teacher’s name, but just the mention of the subject brought back memories of learning how to walk in high-heels and donning corsets unaided. Makoto had always thought the subject was a bit silly and demeaning, but she was also pretty bad at it. That was always her lowest grade. And by low, it was the only one that wasn’t 100%.
“Yes. Very strict, I think. But I think Ann is something of a lazy student and Ms. Chouno calls her on it. You know how kids are.”
Makoto didn’t exactly know how kids were, but she thought she mostly understood what Mrs. Sakamoto was saying. A strict disciplinarian was Ms. Chouno- perhaps. However, she was also a woman, and though that didn’t rule out Ms. Chouno as a suspect, it made her seem less likely. And Amamiya had said the vampire would attempt to charm the victim, and it did not sound like Ms. Chouno was successfully charming Ann. But then again, Ann wasn’t the target- Shiho was.
Makoto turned to Mr. Suzui. “Has Shiho mentioned this Ms. Chouno, Mr. Suzui?”
“Not that I am aware of. But she talks with her mother more about such things.”
And Mrs. Suzui was busy with Shiho at the moment, so Makoto could not barge in and interrogate the woman. So much for that line of logic, for now. But at least Makoto had the name of one suspect.
“Has Shiho mentioned anything at all about school?”
“She likes nature studies,” said Mr. Suzui, after a thoughtful pause. “Mr. Hiruta is the teacher, I believe. Shiho is fond of him. Though, I haven’t met the man myself.”
“I have,” said Mrs. Sakamoto, “He’s handsome, but he came off as a bit of a pompous poof to me.”
“A- a poof?” Makoto was unfamiliar with this term.
“A girly-man, dear,” said Mrs. Sakamoto. “But some girls like that sort of thing. And he dresses like some aristocrat going to a gala. Every day. Well, every day I’ve seen him, anyway.”
A charming man with high-class tastes. Noble tastes, one might even say. And he apparently charmed female students. He seemed a more likely suspect than Ms. Chouno.
“Oh, how could I forget!” continued Mrs. Sakamoto, “the athletics instructor: Mr. Kamoshida. Ann raves about him. I’m sure she has a crush on him. To be honest, I do, too. He is one fine specimen of manhood.”
Mr. Suzui frowned. “I haven’t heard of him.”
“Teenage girls don’t tell their fathers about their crushes, Mr. Suzui,” said Mrs. Sakamoto. “If you haven’t heard of him, I bet that’s what is happening.”
“I see...” Mr. Suzui twiddled with his small mustache, seeming a little uncomfortable.
Makoto agreed with Mrs. Sakamoto. The idea of telling her own father about boys, the few who had captured her girlish interest, had never crossed her mind. She went to Yoshida instead. He was a man, too, but- he wasn’t Father. Not that Makoto ever pursued any of those feelings in the end. Boys liked other girls. Girls like Ann. Not girls like herself.
But that was another suspect’s name. Kamoshida. Apparently very handsome. And charming enough to have Ann, and supposedly Shiho, interested in him in that way. He would be someone to look closely at, along with Mr. Hiruta. But there were surely plenty of other unknown suspects. Other teachers, groundskeepers, other staff. Even the students themselves. Makoto hoped Amamiya would have some means to narrow the search. Maybe use that nose of his. Or that cat hand.
The door to the clinic opened and Ann re-entered with a wicker basket of something that smelled wonderful. That was quick, but this district was a place of every-day employed folks. Early risers needed food, so there were plenty of eateries and food stalls plying their goods early in the morning. Ann must not have had to go very far.
Further thoughts on the investigation could wait. Everyone could take a moment to eat, and then they could prepare Shiho for the journey to the Niijima Estate.
Makoto was exceedingly glad she’d thought to put on her hunting clothing before leaving the clinic. Riding Johanna in that hip-hugging dress of Takemi’s would have been impossible without revealing every bit of her thighs, probably a bit of other things as well. She would certainly have drawn more attention to herself. As it was, she followed the slow-moving Suzui coach at some distance. Her bike was noisy. And being this far back, she could see if anyone was taking undue interest in the coach.
No one was. A few people looked at her, however. But that was normal enough, and the ride to Azabu was blissfully uneventful.
The Niijima Estate gate was manned by four male guards who Makoto did not recognize. The new men from Okumura Security were already in place. So Justine must have gone home… or her barracks, or wherever mercenaries went. Yoshida acted quickly, and since Okumura Security Headquarters was near Azabu, the new men arrived promptly. Not to mention that the Okumura home itself was in the same neighborhood.
As the Suzui coach rolled to a stop before the gate, the blue-clad guards peered curiously through the bars. Each held a large polearm, and a short sword was strapped to their waists. Guns were expensive items. Apparently, these men didn’t rate having them. That was not ideal, but Makoto supposed that the real threat was at night. And Caroline and Justine held two guns each.
“Who are you?” challenged one of the guards.
“That’s obviously the coach we are expecting, you moron,” said another.
“We need to know who they are!” said the first guard. “Don’t open the gate until we’re sure!”
“Shut up. Open the gate. This fuckin’ guy...”
The gate opened without further verification. The coach ambled through the opening. Makoto followed on her motorcycle, highly displeased by this shoddy performance. They could be anyone in a coach and would be inside the estate! She stopped before the first man who had challenged their identity.
“What’s your name?’ she asked him. He was a middle-aged man with short, salt-pepper hair.
“Dojima, ma’am. And you?” He asked her with a challenging tone. He still wanted to know. Makoto was impressed. This was how a guard should be.
“I’m Niijima Makoto.”
The man paled.
The other guards laughed at him. “We told you, Dojima.”
“Good to meet you, Mr. Dojima.” Then she drove on, leaving the guards to heckle their embarrassed comrade. Meanwhile, the coach was coming to a stop in front of the house.
Yoshida was coming out the front door, as were a few members of the returned house staff. Makoto recognized some faces she hadn’t seen in over a year. Yoshida did indeed work fast. These people weren’t in uniforms, but Makoto could care less. House staff uniforms? That was Father’s desire.
Mr. Suzui climbed down from his seat next to the coachman, while Mrs. Suzui was the first person out of the coach itself. Makoto parked and switched Johanna off while Yoshida performed the ceremonious greeting of guests: a choreographed bow from him and all the staff in unison. This time, the bows from Yoshida and the four staff were all off-timing and out of sequence. Ah, but they were all a year out of practice.
Ann climbed out of the coach next, her mother having returned home. Then finally, Takemi’s head emerged. “We need the strong men, please. To carry this stretcher.”
The two male staff moved forward, and under Takemi’s direction (“Gently, now. Gently.”) slid Shiho’s stretcher out from the floor of the coach’s center. Shiho was awake, wincing slightly from the inevitable bumps and jerks of being carried. But the men were doing the best they could do. And the transfer to the bed was going to be even worse for the girl, but Takemi was confident it could be done safely.
“Friends, guests, welcome,” said Yoshida in his host-voice; a booming, warm, rich thing. “We’ve the room ready. Staff knows the way.”
The Suzui parents bowed shallowly to Yoshida and followed their daughter’s stretcher into the house, with Ann and Dr. Takemi following closely after. Yoshida turned from them to Makoto.
“Ms. Niijima, a busy night?” He would speak formally to her when guests were about. “I was surprised by your letter.” He looked to see if anyone was nearby. No one was. So he leaned down and smiled. “And a bit excited, to be honest, Makoto! Something is afoot, is it not? The vampire last night, and now this?” Yoshida’s eyes had a vibrancy to them that Makoto had not seen since her father failed to return home.
“Tired of the quiet life already, Yoshi?”
“It’s too different from the life I’ve lived,” he said, still smiling. “When will you tell me all the news?”
“When today quiets down. I imagine once we have Shiho settled, everyone will begin to disperse for the time being. We can talk then.”
Yoshida nodded. Then he straightened up and put on his professional visage. “I trust the preparations are to your approval, mi’lady?”
Makoto suppressed a smile. If he wanted to play his role, then she could play hers. “I’m afraid not, Mr. Yoshida. Though through no fault of you own. The guards at the front gate are fools. Okumura has sent us his worst, I believe.”
“I’ll have them replaced immediately, Ms. Niijima.”
“But not the one named Dojima. He seems sharp. In fact, request Okumura to make him the leader of whoever they send over to replace the riff raff they provided us for day shift.”
“Very good, Ms. Niijima.”
“Is Sae here?”
“No, she is off on some contract. To the east.”
That was a relief. Makoto still wasn’t eager to see her sister. “And my messenger? Where is Ryuji?”
“He is assisting the groundskeeper with digging out the storm shutters. It has been some time since we suffered a typhoon, so they are deeply buried in storage.”
“A helpful lad. Then I will attend to our guests.”
“As you wish, Ms. Niijima. And a luncheon will be ready shortly in the breakfast solar.”
“Thank you, Mr. Yoshida.”
Makoto walked into the manor, leaving Yoshida to attend to the coach. A luncheon? Yoshida was pulling out all the stops. For the first time in a long time, Makoto felt like she was home. She took an immediate right in the main atrium and followed the soft voice of Takemi instructing the staff on how to move Shiho from the stretcher to the bed.
“Yes, that’s right. Now. Do it.”
Makoto entered as Shiho was set into the center of the mattress, her face wincing and her breath hissing audibly.
“I’m so sorry, my baby,” said Mrs. Shiho. Ann was similarly distressed at Shiho’s obvious pain. Dr. Takemi was frowning, but clinical.
“Ms. Suzui,” she said to Shiho, “Can you look at me? Good. Can you follow my finger? Do you hurt in any new places? Can you speak?”
“Same… places,” whispered Shiho. Then her eyes closed and she seemed to fall asleep.
“I see.” Dr. Takemi straightened up. “It seems the move was a success.”
The news didn’t particularly relieve the Suzuis or Ann. A silence lengthened in the room. Shiho’s somewhat labored breathing the only noise. With the goal of the moment accomplished, no one seemed to know what to do next. Makoto realized this too, was her role. Not only as the leader of the situation, but she was effectively Lady of the House. These were her guests. Not Father’s. Not Yoshida’s. Hers. In Niijima Manor. And she was Ms. Niijima.
“All of you are welcome to stay here, if you so wish,” said Makoto, dropping the volume of her voice for Shiho’s sake. “There is more than enough space for everyone. And I’m certain there is spare clothing and other such items that may be needed.”
“I will stay. Tonight, at the very least,’ said Dr. Takemi.
Everyone seemed relieved at that. Mr. and Mrs. Suzui looked at one another.
“I want to stay, of course,” said Mrs. Suzui.
“Of course,” said Mr. Suzui. “I’ll set things to rights at home and return tomorrow.”
Mrs. Suzui nodded. “You have those two wagons in this afternoon…”
“Right,” Mr. Suzui frowned. “And I have to be there. Because I don’t have a subordinate.” He gazed at Shiho dozing on the bed. “You’re right, Sawako. I need to start delegating. I’m sorry I didn’t listen.”
“Forget that for now,” said Mrs. Suzui fondly. “I’ll stay with Shiho, and you will maintain her home for when she returns to it, yes? We both have our part.”
They drew closer together and seemed oblivious to the others for the moment. Makoto gained the attention of Takemi and Ann and lead them out into the hallway. She shut the door to Shiho’s room to let the Suzui’s have a private moment with each other and their daughter.
“Let me arrange some rooms for you two,” Makoto told them. “I think you would prefer to be near Shiho? I can put you each on either side of her.”
“Yes, fine,” said Takemi, somewhat tersely.
“Umm,” said Ann, her face falling, “My mom wanted me and Ryuji home before nightfall, Ms. Niijima, so I won’t be staying over.”
Makoto was mildly surprised. The brief time she had spent with Mrs. Sakamoto didn’t make her seem like an overprotective or controlling parent. Was staying in the Niijima Manor somehow a problem? Oh, the woman probably thought her children would tax Makoto’s resources, and she was trying to get them out from underfoot. That was probably it. It was unnecessary, but Makoto admitted to herself it would help the short-manned and out-of-practice staff from being overwhelmed.
“Okay, Ann. Feel free to visit whenever you want. I’ll instruct the gate guards that you are always allowed inside without question.”
“Thanks, Ms. Niijima.”
“Mr. Yoshida said there will be a luncheon ready soon. It’s something of an informal lunch buffet. It will be in the breakfast solar- if you head back to the atrium and turn left, at the far corner you will see a door to a brightly windowed room. You could wait there, or head outside the doors into the gardens. I think your brother is in the back barn rooting out our storm shutters with the groundskeepers.”
“Ok…” Ann seemed to take that as a dismissal and turned to walk somewhat slowly back down the hall.
Makoto and Takemi watched her for a moment, then they shared a look. Takemi sort of raised her eyebrows as Makoto. She was unclear what Takemi was trying to say, but it was something about Ann. The young woman was clearly bothered, though surely the obvious reason was the injured Shiho. And Makoto and Takemi were already doing everything they could about that.
“Let me show you your room, Dr. Takemi. Everything is going to be covered in sheets, but I’ll show you the service bell and we’ll have staff whip the room into shape in no time.”
Takemi made a sort of affirmative grunt and followed Makoto to the next door in the hall. Makoto entered into the room and found it only dimly lit due to thick window drapes blocking out the daylight.
“The lightswitch is here, Dr. Takemi, and this is the service bell. Just push it like so, and the staff will know something is needed and come to your room. I don’t think we need the electric light; however, I’ll just open the drapes.”
Makoto flung aside the thick fabric, allowing the late morning sunlight to blaze into the room, immediately cheering the space, despite the sheets over everything. She turned around to find Takemi standing gloomily amongst the white-sheeted furniture. She seemed unhappy and her half-lidded eyes looked downcast. Was whatever was bothering Ann infectious?
Before Makoto could ask Takemi what was wrong, a short-haired woman appeared in the doorway.
“Yes, Ms. Niijima?”
Who was this woman? Makoto recognized her, but it had been over a year. Still, she’d been on staff for years before that. Makoto should know her name. Was it Nakagawa? No… that didn’t sound right. But it was Naka- something. Naka... Naka… Nakayama!
“Could you please oversee the readying of this room, Mrs. Nakayama? Dr. Takemi will be staying the night. And arrange linens and a nightgown?”
“Of course, Ms. Niijima.”
She rushed into the room and began snatching sheets off furniture items, moving around Takemi like a stream around a stone. Nakayama had everything uncovered but the bed and the dresser, but those sheets were much larger and her arms were already full.
“I’ll return with help, Ms. Niijima. Ms. Takemi,” she said with a slight bow and left.
Takemi seemed to look even more upset than before. She didn’t even seem to be trying to hide whatever was bothering her. Makoto suddenly realized she had no choice but to ask.
“What is it, Dr. Takemi? Is the room not adequate?”
Takemi sighed and sat down on the still-sheeted bed. She leaned back on her arms and suddenly glared at Makoto. “No, the room is amazing. The whole house is. Your whole life is, apparently.”
Takemi winced, leaned forward and rubbed her face with her hand. “How ugly that sounded. I apologize. Perhaps I need sleep as much as little Ms. Suzui does.”
Makoto didn’t know what to say. Takemi seemed to be… jealous of her. But Makoto thought that was just an emotion that schoolgirls felt. Yoshida called it a childish thing, so Makoto had assumed only children felt it. But apparently not.
Takemi met her gaze again, and Makoto returned it, trying to think of something to say. But Takemi spoke first, perhaps interpreting Makoto’s surprise and confusion as something else.
“I regret saying that, Ms. Niijima. It’s just… I studied for a long time to become a physician, and that poor girl in the other room is my very first patient. No one comes to the clinic. People avoid me. While you- everyone listens to you. Everyone pays attention to you. And all you had to do was be born with a certain name.” Takemi winced again. “God. I’m sorry. Why can’t I close my fucking mouth this morning?”
Makoto felt a burst of anger. Jealousy was one thing, but Takemi apparently thought she didn’t deserve the respect of the Niijima name. Though Makoto didn’t consciously realize it, the concept was so close to her own self-doubts that it sent sudden flames burning through her mind.
“I’ll leave you to the staff then, Dr. Takemi,” said Makoto, unsuccessful in keeping the anger out of her voice. She strode for the hallway.
“Ms. Niijima, I’m-” said Takemi.
But Makoto slammed the door behind her. And then looked up to see three members of the staff looking at her with wide eyes. Makoto’s anger hot skipped into full-on embarrassment, and she felt her own cheeks heat up. She wasn’t acting as a proper Lady of the House.
“Please see to Dr. Takemi’s needs,” she said with what dignity she could manage, and then turned and walked down the hallway as the staff members opened Takemi’s door and entered.
Makoto walked slowly back down the hallway to the atrium, trying to get herself back under control. Takemi had been incredibly rude, but Makoto didn’t think she was trying to be. There was no animosity there, but the anger had come so suddenly upon Makoto that she’d been unable to fully control it. Makoto thought only Sae could make her that angry, but apparently not.
The manor atrium was empty. Yoshida must be off seeing to something or other. The guests were occupied for the moment. Well, no. Ann wasn’t, Makoto remembered. She may be the only one alone, so though Makoto was suddenly in the mood for a bath and some solitude, she thought it best to check on Ann first.
Makoto turned left and headed for the breakfast solar. The long table was already half-full with pewter trays of tiny sandwiches and other such convenient food items. The kitchen staff sure hadn’t missed a beat. But Ann wasn’t here. Makoto walked to the glass doors which lead into the estate gardens, and there was Ann, sitting on the edge of the wood porch with an empty plate beside her. She seemed to be staring out over the flowerbeds. Makoto opened the door and went outside to join her.
Makoto flushed away the rest of the latent anger from Takemi as she closed the door behind her. Ann heard the door and turned to see who it was. When she saw Makoto, she stood and shifted her weight anxiously. “Ms. Niijima.”
Takemi was right, though, Makoto did naturally command a lot of respect. Here it was, personified in Ann’s rising upon her arrival.
“Relax, Ann. I came to sit with you.”
They sat together on the edge of the porch and gazed out over the gardens. They were as vibrant as Makoto remembered. Yoshida never skimped on the groundskeeping. A pristinely trimmed lawn filled the space between two long, rectangular flowerbeds, bursting with multicolored poppies, and those flower beds bordered by similarly sized rectangular stone gardens, raked into mesmerizing patterns. And beyond this very precise, squared-away front garden, the real garden began- a more natural combination of tree, shrub, flower, and bamboo which was all specifically designed to appear undesigned. The edge of the rear barn could just be discerned through the foliage.
Makoto looked from the gardens to Ann. The young woman was downcast, her eyes focused on the grass just before them. It was a look not unlike Takemi’s. But in this case, Makoto was pretty sure Shiho was the cause of Ann’s distress, not some selfish, personal thing.
“Shiho is getting better, Ann.”
Ann looked up at Makoto, seemingly surprised that Makoto was talking to her. Was she that deep inside her own head?
“I know,” said Ann, looking back at the grass. “I’m just thinking about yesterday.”
“What about yesterday?”
Ann looked again at Makoto, her blue eyes widening, then flickering back and forth between Makoto’s eyes. Ann seemed to freeze a moment, then her eyes closed, reopened, and she began to speak::
“I just don’t know how this happened. Was there some sign I missed?” Ann’s voice began to steadily increase in both tempo and pitch. “Could I have stopped Shiho before she fell? And even worse, we were supposed to walk home together yesterday, but when she didn’t show, I just left, figuring she was late! If I had just gone to look for her…!” Ann sucked in ragged breaths. “But I didn’t. So she had to jump! I didn’t do anything. I’m useless, Ms. Niijima!” Her face was red and contorted with sorrow, she looked at Makoto with bleary, glistening eyes before she buried her face into her knees and her shoulders bounced with the force of her sobbing.
My, God! What do I do? What do I say? I can’t just sit next to her and let her cry like this! Makoto felt her own breathing become short and tight as she frantically tried to think of how she was supposed to handle Ann’s meltdown. What would Father do? Makoto’s mind searched for a memory of her Father being around while she was crying. Nothing came to her. Yoshida, then? He would simply put his arm around her and wait for her to finish. And Makoto remembered that being comforting. So now she lifted her own arm and placed it over Ann’s shoulders. Ann responded immediately and leaned into Makoto’s body. Ann’s sobbing increased slightly, as if the floodgates were opening, but after a short time, that too began to subside.
It was a wordless time, and as Ann slowly collected herself together. Makoto wondered at what Ann had said. ‘I’m useless.’ Makoto knew that feeling. Makoto knew that guilt. The vague sense that she should somehow be better, do something more... What exactly? She didn’t know. And that was always part of the problem. If she wasn’t so useless, she would know what she should do, right? That not knowing what she could have done was objective evidence that she was useless. It was just so logical.
But was it? No. It wasn’t, was it? Now that she was on the outside looking in at Ann, Makoto could observe the logical chain. See it from gestation to Ann’s tears in this moment. First, Ann was incorrectly using retrospection as a judgment of her actions just before Shiho’s fall. There was just no possible way Ann could have predicted such an event. Shiho wasn’t a sad girl, as far as Makoto knew. Shiho was enthralled. If there were signs to such a thing, Ann would not be able to spot them. So any belief of ‘would-have, could-have stopped it’ was not logical- it was fantasy. Ann was torturing herself with an internal fantasy.
Makoto’s mind went back two nights to the derelict farmstead. The little girl, freshly turned into a vamp slave. Makoto had wanted to confirm the target. Sae had opened fire and called Makoto useless. And ever since that moment, Makoto had been seeking a path to some grand success which would prove Sae wrong. But that wasn’t logical, either. Makoto killed that entire pack of… ferals… as Amamiya labeled them. That certainly wasn’t useless. And since then, Makoto was involved in this Shiho situation, and that, for the moment, was going much better than if she hadn't gotten involved, of that she was confident. So then, how am I useless, Sae? I’m not. It’s a fantasy.
“Ann,” said Makoto, “You can’t blame yourself for what happened. There were no signs or signals you could have possibly picked up on, because if there were, you would have picked up on them- right?”
Ann raised her head back up. “I guess. But maybe there was and I just missed it, I could have-”
“No, Ann. Listen. You can’t look back on the past and blame yourself for it, because if you could, you would discover countless other people to blame.”
“... I would?”
“Yes. What about Shiho’s parents? They spend the most time with her outside of school, yes? Did they notice anything? No. And what about the gate guards who allowed this vampire into the city in the first place? Should they have allowed the disguised creature inside the city? No! And that’s just two examples- so how much blame would you give them versus yourself?”
Ann was wiping her eyes and nose. “I guess I don’t know. But I think I know what you mean.”
“And you were not useless, Ann. You helped get the horse cart to transport Shiho. You stayed near her in the clinic. You helped me with her parents, and with breakfast, and with getting her here. You’ve been extremely useful, Ann.”
“...Thanks, Ms. Niijima.”
“You can call me Makoto, if you like.”
Ann offered a small smile. The puffiness of her eyes was beginning to die down. Makoto’s words must have helped some. And Makoto could take her own words to think on herself. She’d been useful to many people in many ways. And she was only just getting started.
“Is- is that the barn there?” Ann said, indicating the mostly concealed building.
“I’ll go see if Ryuji needs some help.”
Ann stood up, bowed to Makoto slightly, and then walked out amongst the garden. She was walking more confidently than she had down the hallway earlier. So, that was something. She seemed a resilient young woman. Makoto could take a lesson from her.
But fatigue was settling on Makoto’s shoulders. She wanted that bath. And some quiet time to herself. But she should find Yoshida and talk to him before she vanished to her room. She was Lady of the House, not the youngest daughter of Niijima.
She stood and returned to the atrium. “Mr. Yoshida?” she called.
“In here, Ms. Niijima,” drifted Yoshida’s voice. “The study.”
Makoto walked down the right hallway and entered the study. It would probably be more accurately described as the library, as it was a sizable room lined with ceiling-high bookshelves. Makoto’s favorite rolling step-ladder was in here, as were a majority of her childhood memories. She’d read most of the books in this room. Hundreds of them. Even ones she didn’t understand all that well.
Yoshida was seated at the main desk near the far wall, brightly illuminated by the indirect noon sunlight streaming in through the room’s tall windows. He was peering at ledgers through his half-moon reading spectacles. An abacus was near at hand, and he flipped a few of the beads back and forth as Makoto walked towards him.
“Already balancing the budget, Yoshi?”
“You know me too well, Hime-kun. Alas, the house staff. The extra guards. It puts us deeply in the red, you know. The estate revenue is not what it once was.”
“We could live in the red for decades.”
Yoshida looked up at Makoto seriously. “Don’t say such things. Therein lies folly.” He looked back down at his papers and frowned. “Fortunes should always be made to grow. Never shrink.”
Makoto wandered around behind Yoshida to read over his shoulder. He was using several pieces of scrap paper to play with the monthly budget. This was the sort of thing Makoto had watched him do quite a bit, she could more or less follow the story of these numbers.
Little of the vast Niijima wealth was liquid, as Yoshida endlessly advocated ‘putting money to work.’ So while there was significant sums in several of the most prominent Tock-Yo banks (and even one bank down in Yoko-Ham), these existed primarily as potential emergency funds. They collected interest with the banks in question, but that gain was minimal compared to other options. Though Yoshida favored working money, he favored having an emergency fund as a high priority. One didn’t want current events to force money out of a lucrative long-term investment.
The biggest volume of assets was in real estate. Various lands throughout Tock-Yo was legally recognized as Niijima property, both ancestral and newer acquisitions by Father and Yoshida during Makoto’s childhood. The rent from these properties was the majority of the estate’s monthly income, but while it was certainly much more than the average Tock-Yo family could expect, it did not fully cover the expenses of the manor itself: upkeep, staff wages, electricity, and other such things. Or at least, the newly re-awakened manor. It seemed the dormant skeleton of the estate this last year was just under revenue, so Yoshida had managed to run the place with a minor surplus of passive income.
Father had supplemented that income with lucrative bounties on vampires. He’d preferred contracts with city-state governments, advising Makoto that was where the money was, and he brought back boxes of gold and silver from exotic places: Yoko-Ham, Chi-Ba, Zen-Dai, even so far as Nag-Ya and Aki-ita. But now that influx of bullion was gone, though Sae did bring in some money- they were local contracts put up by merchant cooperatives; small-timers who would struggle to raise enough money by themselves to attract a vampire hunter into keeping their routes clear.
Yes, their wagons traveled by day, but delays happened. Wagons got stuck, or they broke down. Animals got loose. Or people just plain got stupid and forgot how much time it takes to get from A to B. Rather than write off an entire shipment and several employees to vamp slaves the moment it got dark, businessmen liked to keep the local land clear of menace. That way, the setting sun was not a guaranteed death sentence.
Finally, after rental properties and hunting contracts, the estate owned a few small businesses: a stable on the north gate; a public bath in Shinjuku; and a plum orchard and a honey farm in Shibuya’s vast green space near Meiji Jingu, the central religious shrine of the city. Some claimed God dwelled there, but most regarded that as heresy.
Makoto’s eyes finished her tracing of Yoshida’s figures. She stuck a finger over his shoulder and pointed, just like she used to. “Is that the income from the honey farm? That’s much larger than it used to be.”
Yoshida nodded. “Yes. The old man who ran the place finally retired and his daughter took over. Chihaya Mifune is her name. I’ve met her a few times when I stop by… her head seems full of buzzing, and not just from bees. But she reports almost 50% more jars of honey than her father, and she’s secured contracts with local bakeries for the product- without my input! The initiative is impressive.”
“How did she increase production so much?”
Yoshida leaned back and gave Makoto an exasperated look. “She said that bees are sensitive to the movement of the universe, so she reads the stars for guidance.”
“I know. But results are results. Whatever the stars are saying to the girl, she’s using that information to produce more honey.”
“Does she seem overworked?”
“No. She seems entirely relaxed. Every time I go by, Ms. Chihaya is playing cards with herself.”
Makoto pursed her lips. Honey was a valuable resource. Basically the only locally sourced sweetener. Sugar was imported from the south and that made it rather expensive. “Do we still own those empty lots? The overgrown ones?”
Yoshida bent back over his figures. “Yes, but it’s not time to sell those yet. I’m sure the price will go up in the next few-” Yoshida froze. He leaned back to look at her again. “You’re suggesting to establish new hives in the empty lots, aren’t you?”
Makoto deepened her voice in an attempt to imitate Yoshida’s lecturing tone. “If you have a talented manager, give them more room to gallop.”
Yoshida laughed. “A wise man must have said that. I’d forgotten.”
Makoto was suddenly taken with how old Yoshida did look now. Father’s lifelong companion had always been something of an old soul, but this last year, since Father’s disappearance, Yoshida had greyed significantly. He wouldn’t be around forever. And that sudden realization nearly overwhelmed Makoto with a sharp, sorrowful pain between her eyes and nose, like tears were fighting to be created there. She tried to shake it off. There was plenty of time yet.
“Yes,” said Makoto, “but I don’t forget anything you say, Yoshi.”
He gave her a genuinely touched look. The emotional man suddenly had tears glistening in the corner of his eyes, but then he looked away and cleared his throat, acting like he was intently looking at the ledgers once more.
“It’s a good idea. I’m loath to sell land of any variety, anyway. There can never-”
Makoto continued her imitation of his voice: “One should never sell land because God will never make any more of it.”
Yoshida looked at her and frowned this time. Then they both laughed.
“I’ll invite Ms. Chihaya to lunch then, and we can discuss it,” said Yoshida, “I’d like you there. It’s time for you to take a more active hand in the management of your home. How about tomorrow?”
“Not tomorrow. I have plans.”
“Ah, related to your capers of these last two days, I presume?” Yoshida stood up and walked to the study doors and shut them.
“Hijinks. Adventures. Hunts,” Yoshida said as he walked back to the center of the study and sat on a small couch there. He indicated with his arm that Makoto should take the one across from him.
“Whatever you wish to label them, Makoto.”
“Hijinks?” said Makoto as she sat down.
“Come. Don’t tarry over my facetious terms. Tell me the news. All that you chose not to tell me last night.” Yoshida’s face had turned serious.
So then Makoto’s did, as well. She walked him through the events of the night with Sae, her late ride, and her stalking of Amamiya. Yoshida’s mouth curled into a frown.
“You stalked this man? What possessed you to do that? Hunters travel at night. It is no special thing. So why would this dark man from the road hold such interest with you?”
Makoto pressed her lips together as she decided what to do. Tell Yoshida the truth about Amamiya being a dhampir- or lie? Did she want Yoshi to know that she was… fraternizing with someone of vampiric descent? He was Father’s oldest companion, he was major-domo to a pre-eminent aristocratic family known for vampire hunting, and he was more or less what passed as a mother to Makoto.
Yoshida’s eyes narrowed. “Are you thinking of spinning webs, Hime-kun?”
Makoto sighed. The man could even tell when she was thinking about telling a lie. What was the point?
“Mr. Amamiya is a dhampir, Yoshi.”
Yoshida blinked, but then his face relaxed. “Ah, that certainly explains the fascination. Very well, continue your tale.”
Wait. That was it? Yoshida literally batted an eye and that was it. “Amamiya’s heritage doesn’t worry you, Yoshi?”
“Does the son of a murderer worry you, Makoto?”
It was Makoto’s turn to blink. How quickly Yoshida could reverse a question into a lesson. Obviously, the son does not share the sins of the father.
“No, I suppose not.”
“Well, there you are. Dhampir vampire hunters are uncommon this far north, but not unheard of. Your father worked with several in his career.”
Makoto’s mind went blank from shock. That defied every expectation she carried within her. “He- he did?”
“Certainly. Before you were born, of course. Before the Niijima name gained such social weight behind it. After Seven Day Parade; however, he stopped associating with their kind. Or anyone who associated with anything vaguely Imperial. Benevolent or no.”
Seven Day Parade- that happened when Makoto was still a baby. It was the most key moment of Father’s career. A band of noble vampire renegades had been striking wagon camps on the trade routes for months, leaving wreckage and nothing else behind. Father went into the frontier and came back riding the vampire prize wagon, and seven noble heads impaled on spears around him. People had walked with the wagon from the gates of the city to the City Council Chambers. It became a holiday. And Father had done it all by himself.
“Don’t mistake me, Makoto. Your Father was a good man, but a sensitivity to public perception was one of his weaknesses. Or at least, it quickly became one. He turned an old ally away from this very doorstep once, for fear of rumor. I called him a fool for it, but he didn’t listen. He stopped listening to lots of things…”
Makoto felt rocked again. Yoshida was sitting calmly in front of her, criticizing Father, on the couch in the study. “Why are you telling me this, Yoshi?”
“Because when I was sitting at the desk over there, and I looked over my shoulder and saw you standing above me, I realized you’re a grown woman. And I would be doing a disservice to you if I continued to gloss over truths as I would for a child. And the point of it is this: don’t let your name get in the way of what is right! If this Amamiya person is a good man, foster an alliance. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, you were stalking this man, and then what?”
Makoto had feared condemnation for becoming involved with Amamiya, but here Yoshida was practically advocating it, and she had yet to share the whole story. So with a halting restart, Makoto told of the events at the school, the physician’s clinic, and of this morning. When she finished, Yoshidas’ eyes were gazing off into space, his mind working at the new information.
“Interesting. The Akechi family is involved... And this Amamiya said the blood from our intruder last night is from some other creature? Not the one hunting the injured girl in our guest room?”
“I see why you requested the storm shutters. The night holds not one monster but several.”
“Speaking of the night. Amamiya and I intend to stake out the school tonight.”
“Then I suppose you should consider getting some sleep?”
Makoto did feel exhausted. She’d slept only sparingly last night, what with the intruder and then with needing to return to the clinic before dawn. And no sleep at all the night before that. Then this morning had been an emotional whirlwind: anger at Akechi, the anxiety of the Suzui’s arrival, then more anger at Amamiya, then the journey to the house, and then even more anger at Takemi, then Ann’s meltdown, and now Yoshida’s candid speaking of Father. And no sleep tonight, due to the planned stakeout, and presumably an immediate transition into the investigation of the school after the sun rose.
“Yes, I think I should sleep,” said Makoto.
“Go. I will handle the guests. Rest, Hime-kun. You’ve done well today.”
**Ren… Ren, the night is upon us.**
His eyes opened in the darkness. It was as Morgana said. He could feel it in his bones. The sun was in its final slide behind the world, and it was time for Ren, and those like him, to rise.
He stood- his dirt blanket shedding from him. He took up the horsehair brush and cleansed his skin of the remnants. Ren felt a returned vigor. An entire day’s hibernation, and only the brief journey from the clinic to the cafe to weaken him. This was good. Not perfect. But much better than he was this morning.
**Coffee smell again. I suppose I’ll just have to get used to it. It reminds me of a time...**
Ren dressed and let Morgana babble on about some past host of his. Ren had heard it all before, dozens of times. Once equipped, he dug his bag of blood concentrate out of his saddle, then he sat at the small table in the center of the floor. The water decanter and glass were awaiting him; Ren’s only imposition on Sojirio’s hospitality- save the shallow trench in the cellar floor.
Ren poured himself a glass of water as Morgana finished whatever he was talking about and went blessedly silent. Ren savored the solitude of the moment. The darkness. The small table and single chair upon which he sat. The clear liquid dull and quiet in the shadow. He dropped a capsule into the water glass and the smell hit him instantly. Ren salivated and his lips curled back of their own accord, as if to allow the scent in the air to reach his fangs.
He held himself back, though his hunger growled within him and his lips continuing to twitch. Ren wanted to drink, but he did not allow himself. The desire steadily grew, like an incoming tide. Ren fidgeted uncontrollably, but he clamped his thighs and held himself still. For agonizingly long moments, he held himself restrained.
**Fifteen minutes, eight seconds.**
A second more than when he’d last attempted this. It was enough. He decided he would allow himself to eat. His hand shot forward almost automatically, but then froze just before touching the glass. A goal met did not mean control was abandoned. He lifted the glass slowly, carefully, the pool of red liquid mostly still. Brought the rim to his lips, the smell intoxicating, just below his nose. And he sipped.
Delightful bliss flowed past his teeth and onto his tongue. Ren’s desire shuddered, stopped fighting him, and concentrated on what he allowed. He swallowed, warmth entwining down his throat and into his core, where it expanded to fill his chest. Then Ren forced himself to ease the cup away from his lips, holding it before him. Tantalizing himself with the allure of the second sip. His desire slowly began to grow again, though it was far easier to resist. But one must practice resisting the small temptations, too.
And he was enjoying the solitude. Ever since he’d entered this city, he’d been surrounded by humans. Bombarded, even, like when the Takemi woman barged into this very cellar. Children, adults, people of seemingly every social stripe. It was too much like home. Did humans organize themselves this way because they watched his mother’s people for thousands of years?… Or was it the other way around? A pointless thought, never to be answered.
But it was decidedly surreal to find the same social realities here that had made him forsake his own homeland. Class. Caste. Gender. Family status. It was something of a surprise, but perhaps only because he purposefully kept himself ignorant these last few years. He’d been to human cities plenty of times before, but not for long. Just in to get the contract, and out. Maybe a room in an inn here or there. Then later, back in to get the payment, and back out. Never dealing too long with the people. Nor too many people at once. Not like this morning in that clinic. God. What a circus. He was glad to escape that place.
Ren suddenly remembered Niijima Makoto’s face as Mrs. Shiho went on her tirade. The confidence and self-assurance in those crimson eyes had abruptly shattered, and the vanishing mask had been like ripples traveling across her sharp features, revealing the unsure girl underneath.
**Beauty in distress, eh? You read too many of your mother’s books.**
Ren’s fangs bared themselves at no one in the darkness. Rage tightened up his expression until the bones of his skull were plain upon the surface of his skin.
**Gah! I wasn’t! You’re lighting the sky up in here! I can’t not see it, Ren!**
Ren snarled and slammed his left palm onto the table. The surface splintered into wooden shards, the glass decanter hopped up from the kinetic violence, then fell amidst the collapsed ruins of the table and shattered, spilling water over broken wood. The cup of blood in his right hand sloshed chaotically.
But Morgana didn’t cry out in pain. He’d already slinked away to wherever he went within. Leaving Ren alone, breathing heavily in the dark.
Fuck. So much for control.
Ren guzzled the rest of his meal.
Niijima Makoto dreamed of ferals, but it was not a nightmare, for she was not afraid. She was eager, excited, her teeth bared and grinning with bloodlust. They came at her from the dark and she pointed Father’s gun:
KOOM! KOOM! Koom...
It never ran out of shells, but she ran out of targets. Makoto looked eagerly into the dark around her, breathing heavily, smiling.
A footstep behind her.
She whirled. It was Amamiya standing before her, with his dark overcoat, his strange hat, and his grey eyes. He looked… sad.
Makoto pointed her gun at him and pulled the trigger.
Makoto awoke. The orangish light of late afternoon was filtering through the thin gossamer drapes of her bedroom. Her heart was beating fast, and she felt a strange sort of latent sorrow.
She bolted upright, her untied nightgown spreading to expose her breasts to cooler air. Shadows moved on the other side of the drapes. Murmuring male voices. Alarm thrummed through Makoto’s mind and she wrapped her nightgown closed. Then she calmed when she realized it was just the groundskeepers installing storm shutters on her windows. Well, it was time to rise anyway.
Makoto bathed, dressed, equipped her gear, and left her room feeling refreshed and eager for tonight’s adventure. It was most likely to be a slow, uneventful night; but just the possibility of encountering something new excited her. And it would be interesting to see how Amamiya carried himself. Surely, his reputation meant he was highly capable. Then again, not very many people in Tock-Yo had ever heard of him, but supposedly he was a big name in the south.
As Makoto descended the atrium stairs to the first level, Yoshida walked through on the first floor. He looked up at her and stopped in his tracks. He silently watched her descend, with an apparent mix of emotions on his face, perhaps a bit of pride, a bit of worry, and some sadness, too.
“So,” he finally said when she reached the bottom. “You’re going hunting?”
He gazed at her for a moment. “You have your father’s cheekbones, but the rest of you is entirely your mother, you know.”
Makoto didn’t know what to say to that. “Oh- I see…”
“But when you were walking down the stairs… the way you carry yourself, and your expression. It was like I went back in time and was watching Him come down like always.”
She also didn’t know what to say to that, and while she was thinking of some response, Yoshida smiled fondly.
“Nevermind an old man. Be off. And be safe. Please.”
“Shiho? The guests?”
“Shiho is sleeping, as far as I know. The physician and the mother are with her and have been for some time. The Sakamoto siblings went home about two hours ago. Oh, and Okumura replaced the men at the gate, though I expect Caroline and Justine will be here in the next hour or so to relieve them.”
“Thanks, Yoshi. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I expect it.”
She left him and went out the manor doors. Johanna was waiting at the bottom of the steps, and it appeared someone washed her. The sleek, gunmetal blue metal shined in the sinking sun. She stepped over and settled into the familiar feel of the seat, flipped the switch, and rose to steady herself on the kickstand. She kicked.
Johanna thrummed to life in an eager rumble that was music to Makoto’s ears. She revved the throttle briefly in neutral, just out of habit, enjoying the increase of engine noise. Then she settled back down into the seat and gazed up at Niijima Manor. It was a beautiful house, even with storm shutters ready to be closed on every window. And a wonderful home. She was fortunate she would have this to come back to. Yoshida’s words had Father on her mind, and she wondered if he felt things like this before he left.
Ah, well… no way of knowing. She popped Johanna into gear and rumbled down the drive. The gate guards hopped into activity and opened it before her. The man called Dojima gave a salute and smile as she rode past the gate and away from home.
She went through a mental checklist as she rode: Did she replace the spent cartridge cylinders on her shoulder pads? Yes. Did she check the spring blades in her gauntlets and boots? Yes. Flares and noisemakers restocked in her pouch? Yes. Matches? Yes. Electric lantern? Yes, on the small of her back. Spare battery? Yes. Johanna recharged? Yes. A few of Yoshida’s super dense oatmeal bars? Yes.
It seemed she had everything she thought would be useful and would fit into the utility pouches around her waist. Plus spares of everything and a large canteen in Johanna’s saddlebags. Not to mention some of those Barking Dog things Iwai wanted her to try out.
Her armor was intact, and though that feral two nights ago tore into the chainmail scarf around her neck, it was still sound. She was uninjured, rested, and eager. Whatever would happen tonight, there was nothing else she could do to prepare for it. That filled her with confidence and excitement.
Johanna rumbled through the early evening traffic- the roads were chewed and muddy from the day. Since there had been no rain, it was probably all of it a mix of dust and animal urine. The air was certainly filled with that urine smell, with barnyard and chamberpot mixed in. It was a concoction that Makoto still noticed, since Azabu had none of it. But the pedestrians all around her seemed nose-blind to the smell, and they stoically picked their way around puddles of urine mud while ox-carts, carriages, horses, and a few motorcycles splattered through as they passed.
The sun was just setting behind the buildings when Makoto reached Cafe Leblanc. True to his word, Amamiya was still there, though he was in the process of saddling his mechanical horse. His head turned as she approached on Johanna; his eyes hidden briefly by a reflection of light across the lens of his spectacles. So, he was careful to wear those while the sun was still bright in the sky. What was the intensity of his sun-aversion?
She parked Johanna next to the horse and switched her off. Amamiya was reaching under the belly of his own mount and uniting straps with buckles. He didn’t offer a vocal greeting. So Makoto watched him in silence, and eyed her new partner’s equipment as he went about his business with the horse tack.
Amamiya’s overcoat was half-coat, half-cloak and it hid much of his figure. But she could catch glimpses through the front opening as he stooped, bent, and walked around his mount. He wore a longsword at the left hip, which sometimes poked in the back of his coat. And she could see a smaller bladed weapon on the other hip, as well as various pouches and bags around his waist- much like Makoto’s own gear. Underneath the cloak... she saw form-fitting clothing of a utilitarian grey-black color. It looked something like canvas in this light, but surely he would wear something more sturdy than tent fabric.
“Are you wearing armor?” she asked.
Amamiya’s head turned to her. His eyebrows lifted ever so slightly. “Armor? Of course.”
“Then what is it? It looks like tent canvas.”
Amamiya looked down and opened his own overcoat, revealing more of his form-fitting clothing. Now that Makoto could see all of him: his shirt and pants seemed to hug his flesh, revealing toned musculature, at least until the clothing tucked into the sleeves of his jacket and boots. “You are deceived. It is not made of plant fibre, but liquids from inside the earth- or so I understand.”
Not fabric? “Can I feel it?”
Amamiya was quiet a moment, then stepped over to where she still sat on Johanna. “If you wish…”
Emboldened by candid permission and curiosity, Makoto eagerly shot out her hand to touch Amamiya’s tunic. It was immediately obvious that it was no tunic, but a breastplate of some hard material. It was smooth to the touch, and if she pushed inward with her fingers, highly resistant. Then she blinked, realizing she was running her fingers over Amamiya’s abdominals. She withdrew her hand as if stung and felt her cheeks heat up.
Her eyes flicked up at Amamiya and he was gazing at her with his neutral expression, but something about it made her own eyes retreat and examine the businesses on the other side of the street.
“H- how can it be both hard and so… tight?”
Amamiya let his overcoat fall closed. “It’s molded to the shape of my body when it is crafted.”
“Where is such a thing crafted?”
Amamiya regarded her quietly, then turned back to his horse. “Elsewhere.”
Looking away again. That meant he didn’t want to go further into that topic. To craft armor such as that… well, it didn’t seem too different from boiled leather, which was another type of armor that could be molded to a body- but Makoto’s fingers could tell Amamiya’s breastplate was much more formidable than some processed ox hide. From liquids in the earth? Like oil? Liquid into solids? Makoto had never considered it… but the vampiric empire could make amazing things. Things like Amamiya’s mechanical horse. Would turning earth liquids to hard solids be beyond them?
And there remained two imperial provinces just off-shore to the south. The island of Kyushu was rumored to still hold remnants of the old world order, yet the human city of Fuku-Ka seemed to be prosperous- though Father said the people hugged the northern coast and dared not venture much further south. And everyone knew the island of Shikoku was firmly Imperial. Boats had always vanished near it, so it became taboo, as did most southerly ocean traffic. But coastal communities across the straits flourished for decades... and then in the last fifty years, they began vanishing. Entire villages with buildings and animals and boats and crops- but no people. As if they just... faded away one night. People suspected the vampires of Shikoku were not only active, but regaining strength. That was worrisome, but more a distant boogeyman than anything. The Empire was dust and legend, surely. But then again… where did Amamiya mean when he said ‘elsewhere’?
Amamiya finished a strap with a satisfied grunt. He turned back towards Makoto. “Are you ready?”
Thoughts about empires would need to wait. There were more immediate concerns. “Yes,” said Makoto.
“Then let us return to the school.”
Amamiya mounted his horse and Makoto kicked Johanna back to life. They headed out, Makoto allowed Amamiya the lead. His mount was slower, and frankly… she was eager for him to take the lead tonight. She’d never done this before- seeking an intelligent and elusive target. Ferals tended to come right at you, slobbering the entire way.
Shujin Girls Academy sat along a narrow dirt street, walled on both sides. The school wall on one side, and the back of the main-street-facing structures on the other. A line of unlit lanterns was spaced intermittently down school alleyway. The campus itself was directly bordered by buildings on all other sides, so this was the only thoroughfare past the school grounds. Amamiya brought them to a stop some distance from the school gate and considered the area.
Makoto stopped Johanna next to him and tried to see what he was seeing. Presumably, he was looking for the best stakeout spot. This street offered no cover, and a limited view of the school. Could they simply watch the street leading in? Makoto remembered Caroline’s description of the “puddle of shadow” which had come over the Nijima Estate wall. So… a vampire didn’t need to use the street, and probably would not. They would likely approach from a… less human route. Makoto’s eyes went upward, scanning the surrounding rooftops.
Tock-Yo rooftops were an eclectic mix of decoration, utilitilty, and living space. There could be gardens, clotheslines, sleeping lofts for warmer months, water towers- anything really. So, there was plenty to hide behind, but few clear sight-lines. And speaking of sight… it was shortly to be night. How does one spot a shadow amongst shadows? Perhaps Amamiya could, with those grey eyes of his, but not her. Though even he couldn’t see through solid objects, surely.
“What are you thinking?” asked Amamiya.
She came out of her train of thought to find Amamiya looking down at her from atop his horse. She answered confidently: “That the enemy is unlikely to use the street, but the roofs are not ideal vantage points. And that you can probably see in the dark better than I can.”
Amamiya nodded slightly and then looked away. “...A fair evaluation.”
Makoto waited for more, but Amamiya was not forthcoming. A bit of frustration oozed into her mind. “Well? What are you thinking?”
Amamiya glanced back at her, seemed to consider something, then said: “That we are not trying to stop a fox from getting at the hens. We are trying to find a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Oh! That’s right. She had defenses on the brain. What from the intruder onto her estate, the need to guard Shiho, the storm shutters. But that wasn’t what they were about now. They were looking for the disguised vampire, and they believed it would be in the school. Or if not in the school during no-men-allowed Sunday, then coming back to the school for classes tomorrow. And a noble vampire absolutely could not be outdoors in daylight, so they would return in the night before sunrise Monday morning. So… assuming the vampire was a male, then he would…
“So we watch the gate, and see if anyone comes to the school. If our target is looking to get back inside, then it will use its disguise to walk in like someone supposed to be there.”
“Yes, and if no one shows up?”
“Then likely the creature remains inside the school, and we will move in with daylight to sniff them out.”
“And so,” Amamiya turned his horse around. “We can see the entire alley from that shop there, without being seen ourselves.”
Makoto turned to look. By the shop’s sign, it was a small stationery store, likely profiting from the students of the school. As with most street-side buildings, it had an outer porch- and that porch was tastefully secluded by bamboo screens to subtly declare the business closed for the day. It should not be difficult to remain there, unobserved, yet watchful through gaps in the screens.
After Makoto spun her motorcycle, they traveled back to the main street; found an inconspicuous spot amongst the main-street businesses to leave their mounts; and then returned to the stationary store on foot. It was already closed for the day, so no one was there to object to the two of them lifting the bamboo screen and stepping into the enshrouded porch. Makoto walked to the screen facing the length of the alley and peered through the bamboo slats. It was a perfect spot. And even more perfect, the lamplighter man was already trudging his way down the alleyway from the other side, lighting the street lights for the night. There would be pools of illumination up and down the alley they wanted to stakeout.
That was a relief. Otherwise, she’d be sitting in the dark waiting for Amamiya to say something was happening. Useless and blind. And all of this was about not being useless. Yes, it was a fantasy of Sae’s, but Makoto realized suddenly she wanted to tear it down all the same. Tonight, she would do it. Well… tonight or tomorrow morning, she would do it!
A cloying scent caught her nose. It smelled like… roadside shrines and church mass. Incense from the smoldering stick or from the swinging thurible. She turned to find Amamiya carefully placing a few sticks of burning incense on the nearby banister.
“What is that for?”
“To mask your scent,” said Amamiya.
“What?” Do I stink? Makoto turned sideways away from Amamiya and sniffed down her armored tunic. No, and I just bathed! Did I ride Johanna through some foul puddle and it got on my pants? Makoto looked down at her leather leggings and boots. They looked clean. She looked back at Amamiya.
“You’re a virgin, Ms. Niijima.”
Heat burned across Makoto’s cheeks. “WHAT!”
“Why are you shrieking? Be quiet!”
“I’m not shrieking!’
“Yes, you are.”
Well, maybe she was. But that’s because of him! Her shocked embarrassment was rapidly transforming into indignation. She dropped her voice into a whisper, but it sounding more like a long, angry hiss. “What business of yours is my virginity?!”
Amamiya blinked and his mouth gaped open for a moment. “What? I-”
“None! None of your business, Mr. Amamiya! So! In the future! I’d rather you didn’t-!”
“Vampires can smell virgin women, Ms. Niijima! Virgin women have a unique scent!”
Oh… Makoto’s angry indignation deflated into embarrassment mixed with curiosity. The incense. The smell. Amamiya was accommodating for her presence on this stakeout, and she just attacked him for it “And the incense… is to keep us hidden from smell, as we are hiding from sight.”
“Yes. This scent is used in all manner of shrines. I’m sure you recognize it. Anyone passing will think there is some personal shrine nearby.”
The smell of a virgin woman? Well, that went right in line with the classic legends of vampires favoring young maidens as the targets of their… affections. It wasn’t just barbarity then? Not just a display of power? But a… physiological attraction? A unique scent?
“What does a virgin woman smell like?”
Amamiya gave her a surprised glance and then immediately looked away, acting like he was now keeping watch on the alleyway (though sunlight was still reddening the underside of clouds). It would be some time yet before any creatures of the night could wander freely.
“They smell like what they smell like.”
He was being deliberately evasive. Makoto thought she should just drop it, but… if he could smell virgin women… what else could he smell? What she ate? When- when she last used the bathroom?... Would he know when her monthly moon was rising? God!
She should just drop the chain of thought, but now she was worried about it. Amamiya didn’t seem the type to pull punches, so Makoto thought she should just ask him and get it over with. Otherwise, she’ll be worried forever.
“What do I smell like, Mr. Amamiya?”
Makoto saw Amamiya’s jaw grind together, but he resolutely didn’t look over. The silence stretched as she looked at the side of his face. And then, just as Makoto thought she would need to ask again, Amamiya said: “You smell very good, Ms. Niijima.” Then he looked even further away, turning away from her. “Now, can we get to the business at hand, and silently wait for-”
“I heard it over here somewhere,” said a familiar, loud male voice.
Amamiya sighed with disgust. Makoto turned to peek out the street-facing side of their bamboo enshrouded porch. Sure enough, Ryuji was walking towards them with his gate polearm in hand. Ann was just to his rear, and she seemed to be holding a… bullwhip?
What are these two thinking?!
Makoto lifted up the bamboo screen. “Ryuji! Ann!” Her voice retained the loud hissing quality that she’d so recently used against Amamiya. “What are you two doing?”
“Oh, hey! Ms. Niijima! We’re looking for you!” Ryuji said as he walked onto the porch to join them, forcing Makoto to back away to make room. Ann followed, though she seemed a bit more sheepishly aware of their intrusion.
“Sorry, but we want to help,” said Ann.
“You can help by staying out of the way,” said Amamiya.
“No way!” said Ryuji, pointing his thumb at his chest. “This thing hurt Shiho, so we want to take him down!”
Makoto didn’t like the idea of Sakamotos being involved. They were practically kids. “This isn’t a game. You’re both too young-”
“Yeah?” said Ryuji, “I’m seventeen. How old are you, Ms. Niijima?”
Makoto was taken aback by the fierce look in Ryuji’s eyes. She felt compelled to answer. “Tw-twenty…”
“Three years! Big whoop! How about you Amamiya?”
Amamiya answered with an even stare and did not speak.
“Yeah, well, I guess you’re probably older. But what does age matter? I’ve seen kids younger than me do plenty of stuff better than I can. Because they have experience doing whatever it is and I don’t.”
“Like what, Ryuji?” said Ann.
He spun on his sister. “Like that kid at the dorayaki place near our house. You’ve seen how he can pump those things out! He’s like- twelve!... But why ask, Ann!? We’re on the same side this time!”
“I’m helping you come up with an example!”
“Oh.” Ryuji turned back to Makoto and Amamiya. “So yeah, we don’t have experience, but we want it. So let us join you.”
Ann stepped forward next to her brother. “I want to get the thing that hurt Shiho!”
“Fine,” said Amamiya, “Just shut up. Both of you.”
Makoto turned to Amamiya, her mouth opening of its own accord. Seriously?! He was willing to let these two teenagers tag along? “Mr. Amamiya, they could get killed!”
“So could you. So could I. It’s their choice, as it is ours.” He looked at the Sakamotos. “But the prize money is all mine.”
“What?!” said Ryuji, but then Ann elbowed him in the side.
“That’s fine, Mr. Amamiya,” said Ann.
But this wasn’t some random job! This was vampire hunting! How could he be agreeing to this?!
“Mr. Amamiya,” said Makoto, “I don’t think this target is appropriate for novices!”
His grey eyes shifted to her. “I agree. But you’re here. What’s two more?”
Makoto felt a stab of pain from that. A wave of painful anger grew in her forehead, directed at Amamiya. Her jaw clenched shut. But the truth was she’d never hunted a noble vampire, either. While she certainly was more formidable than these kids, her mind could not come up with a logical counter to Amamiya’s harsh words. But he didn’t have to be rude about it!
He was watching her, waiting to see what she would do. The Sakamotos were a little wide-eyed, eyes shifting back and forth between them. Makoto fled his gaze and looked down the alleyway. “Fine, then,” she said, her pride forced her to say that at the very least.
Amamiya turned back to the Sakamotos. “Sit down. And keep quiet.”
Makoto heard Ann and Ryuji sit down on the porch floor behind her, Ryuji’s polearm scraping on the wood floor. She was still struggling to get her mood back in check. She felt like the Sakamotos were intruding, but shouldn’t she be glad of more allies? But she’d wanted to be with Amamiya. Alone. She wanted to learn everything she could from him, and now these two wanted the same thing. It was… jealousy? It was childish, Makoto knew that, but knowing that didn’t seem to give her the ability to stop feeling it.
“So,” said Ryuji in a loud whisper, “What are we gonna do?”
“Wait,” said Amamiya, “And if someone comes to enter the school. We confront them and see if they are the disguised vampire.”
“How will we know it’s the vampire?” whispered Ann.
“If they do something vampiric,” said Amamiya.
“For real?” whispered Ryuji. “That’s the plan?”
Makoto glanced at Amamiya. His normally impassive face was tight with annoyance, and he was baring his teeth slightly at Ryuji. But Ryuji did have a point, didn’t he? Makoto too had assumed there would be a more advanced technique to determine if some passing pedestrian was a vampire.
Amamiya had his cat hand...though, come to think of it, Makoto had no idea what that thing’s capabilities were. And Amamiya could smell things, but he said noble vampires can hide their scent. Not to mention the incense sticks would block his sense of smell as much as any approaching vampire’s. So… perhaps there really wasn’t anything else to do but force the creature to reveal itself, else they might attack an innocent person.
“Ryuji, shut up!” said Ann, “How many vampires have you hunted? Think you know better than Mr. Amamiya?”
“Well, no... But, why not just stab them?’
“What if it’s a real human, you moron! You’d be a murderer!”
“Enough,” said Amamiya, seemingly satisfied with Ann’s rebuttal in his stead. “Stop talking. It’s dark enough now. Our target could show up any time between now and sunrise.”
Everyone stopped talking. The darkness grew. And Makoto forgot her negative emotions and became mesmerized by the school’s long alleyway. Orange pools of lamplight glowed like oversized dinner plates on the cobblestones, all in a long row, stretching to the far end of the alleyway. The buildings all around were dark, none of their windows facing towards the school. The school itself was a vague black thing in the night, though a side building, which was likely the dormitories, contained many warmly lit windows. However, they began to darken as the city fell asleep and all grew quiet.
The minutes began to stretch and Makoto lost sense of time. Certainly, midnight was past by now? It was impossible to tell. Her companions were invisible in the shadow, and the only noise in the shrouded porch was Amamiya periodically lighting new incense sticks, and that was only some slight ruffling and a blown breath to stoke the coal of the previous one. The same ember passing eternally from one stick to the next.
Staying awake became a challenge as Makoto’s lids began to try and pull themselves closed. She determinedly held them open, but the necessity for constant will power made minutes stretch into hours. Then, as she despaired of her ability to keep it up, she felt a touch just above her left elbow. She looked left, but saw nothing but the shadow where Amamiya was. It was surely his hand, however.
While maintaining a soft grip on her arm, he traced a line across her sleeve to her right. Then it lifted and tapped four times. He was sending her a message. From her right? Four… four people? She turned her head and peered out the street-side blind. The main street was also lit by street lamps, though they were larger and more spread out. She didn’t see anything. But she waited, trusting that her eyes would soon pick out whatever Amamiya’s could already see.
After long moments, she saw them: four dark figures were walking their way, shadows, but then they stepped into a pool of light and revealed themselves to be four men. Three in similar cream tunics, and the fourth in a more ragged brown. All of them wore long knives at their hips with no efforts at concealment, but that wasn’t necessarily a threat. Almost no one wandered Tock-Yo unarmed. But these four men were certainly not out for a casual stroll, nor were they some drinking group coming back from their nightly binge.
All feelings of fatigue vanished from Makoto in a surge of adrenaline. It was the first sign of movement all night, and there was a menacing aura about the way these four walked. The three in cream had their heads on swivels, always looking around, while the brown one seemed focused on their path, and that seemed to be directly past where they were hiding.
Makoto felt her body tense, and she sensed a growing tension around her. Her companions were invisible to Makoto, but she was sure the Sakamotos were also aware of the approaching group. The dark porch was silent and patient, and they were soon rewarded with the soft steps on cobbles.
“It’s just down this alleyway,” said the man dressed in brown.
“Ugh, what’s that smell?” said one of the men in cream.
“Must be a shrine.”
Makoto felt Amamiya’s grip tighten on her arm. What was he trying to tell her? The smell? Oh! They didn’t like the incense smell! Did that- did that mean these were vampires? No. Not likely vampires, but perhaps those high-grade slaves Amamiya mentioned yesterday.
She peeked closer through the screen. As the four men stepped into the light of the nearest lamp, she saw their faces clearly. They looked like... men. Like any men one might see on the street. Makoto felt a twinge of doubt. Some normal people didn’t like incense, too. Was she interpreting Amamiya’s touch-messages correctly?
The men passed their hiding spot, Makoto following them with her eyes through the screen. A cream-dressed man turned his head and seemed to look directly at her. Her heart froze, breath catching in her throat. But then the man looked away and continued walking down the alleyway toward the school gate.
“That’s it there,” said the brown man. “If you need to meet your quotas, that place is full of virgin girls for your boss.”
Okay. Definitely vampires.
“What school is this?” said another of the cream men, “There is one we are not allowed to hit.“
“A school is a school,” said Brown, “Do you think Kaneshiro is really going to care?”
Cream-Man One shot out a hand and slapped the brown man over the head, the blow audible in the quiet night. “Don’t say his name, fool. Do it again and you die.”
‘Yeah, yeah,” said Brown, “Sorry. But anyway, like I said, will he care, and will he know?”
“Fool. Of course, he will know,” said Cream Two. “The Master always knows.”
“Yes,” said Cream Three.
“Well, shit,” said Brown, “I don’t remember the name. But the sign is right there.”
The group walked further down the path. Makoto startled when warm breath suddenly whispered into her ear.
“Don’t attack until I do,” said Amamiya softly, and then she sensed him move past her and under the bamboo blind, a shadow melding into deeper shadows.
Did he tell the Sakamotos? Hopefully, they would have enough sense to wait. They would have heard the talking men as clearly as she and Amamiya had.
Her eyes followed Amamiya, or a slightly darker shadow she thought was Amamiya. He avoided the lamplight as he approached the nearest of the buildings and then… vanished suddenly. What?! Could he turn invisible? She lowered her head to get more field of vision. No. There he was, halfway up the building wall. He was climbing in quiet leaps, apparently intending to traverse the roof and come down on the vampires from another angle.
She turned her attention back to the walking men, now a goodly distance down the alleyway, almost even with the school gate. She leaned forward on the balls of her feet, wondering what Amamiya planned to do. Would he directly assault the four all by himself? Was he that confident?
‘Ah, there it is. Shujin Girl’s Academy,” said Brown.
“No,” said Cream Three.
“It’s the one,” said Cream Two.
“Lead us to another,” said Cream One.
“Seriously? This is stupid. We’re here. Kaneshiro won’t- Urk!”
Brown’s hands shot to his neck to clamp on the knife that was now embedded in it. Cream Two and Cream Three also drew their weapons and stabbed Brown in the back and gut. Brown drooped, but three hands shot out to hold him up, and then more stabbing. The fleshy sound was clearly audible to Makoto even at this distance. Liquid splattered to the dirt, black in the lamplight, and finally, Brown was allowed to collapse to the ground.
“Fool,” said Cream Three.
“Good, I’m hungry,” Cream Two licked his knife and then started to bend over.
“No,” said Cream One, “It cannot look like he was eaten.”
Makoto was breathing heavily now. These were certainly not ferals. The cold calculation of their actions was the polar opposite of the only vampires she’d ever encountered. Amamiya was right. She’d not seen anything yet.
As if summoned by her mind, Makoto saw movement just beyond the three men dressed in cream. A shadow falling and landing in another shadow, Amamiya’s hat and coat only briefly illuminated by a lamp. The second cream man, the one half-bent over, seemed to sense something. He turned his head. A silver flash of a sword. There was a sound not unlike a knife sinking into a watermelon. A head bounced and rolled through the street, the body collapsing limply a moment later, a fountain of black ichor pumping from a severed neck.
“Hunter!” hissed Cream Three.
Cream One let out an animalistic snarl.
Makoto shook herself out of her captivation. It was time!
“Let’s go!” she said into the dark porch, and she heard the Sakamotos scramble to their feet as she bolted under the bamboo curtain. There was a clash of steel as she moved. She turned the corner back onto the alleyway. Amamiya was facing off against the two other...men? No… they’d changed. Their flesh was greyish-brown, bat-like; and their ears were longer; mouths wider, bestial, and slavering. Those looked like the type of vampires Makoto was familiar with. So with pretense lost, these high-grade slaves abandoned their disguises. That made things easier: the monsters looked the part.
Makoto was running as fast as she could, but it would take several seconds to reach the battle. Her hand drifted to her revolver, but it was moving as fast as her thighs were, she would need to stop to draw it, and even then, Amamiya was too close to the targets. Even if she landed the shot, the round could penetrate... She needed to get close for her bladed gauntlets.
The two creatures went on the offensive against Amamiya, attacking from both sides. A sword-breaker dagger appeared in Amamiya’s left hand, and he caught the blade of one attacker, while a swipe of his sword dissuaded the other. That one narrowly avoided the bite of the sharp metal, it’s smaller knife at a disadvantage to Amamiya’s sword.
The vampire with the trapped blade abandoned its weapon and simply leaped upon Amamiya, who, with sword still extended at his other opponent, was apparently caught flat-footed by the maneuver. He dropped his sword to have another hand to fend off the leaping first creature. Its clawed hands trying to find a vulnerable spot on Amamiya with savage swipes. His hat was raked off his head, revealing a poofy ball of black hair.
Makoto saw the other vampire see the obvious opening and move in to attack. God! She’d be too late! She skidded to a stop. Her hand again went for her gun, but she knew she couldn’t draw in time. But she had to try!
Then Amamiya’s body twisted violently, and he threw the first vampire into the approaching second and both creatures went snarling and sprawling in the dirt. So, he was not so easily overcome! Makoto started running again and extended the blades of her gauntlets, her eyes focusing on the backs of the rising vampires. She was almost there.
Then loud footsteps to Makoto’s left turned her head. Ryuji sprinted past her, halberd extended before him. God, he was fast! Makoto was forced to slow slightly as he crossed into her path. The two vampires ahead were almost to their feet, and one turned at the sound of Ryuji’s approach.
Red eyes glared their way, then went wide in surprise as Ryuji’s polearm impaled through the vampire’s chest. It was propelled backward by Ryuji’s momentum. Amamiya was reaching down for his fallen sword, but he was forced to leap out of the impaled beast’s stumbling path. It fell backward, and Ryuji drove it into the ground, the blade of his weapon clanging loudly on the cobblestones.
“Ha! Got you, fucker!” said Ryuji, breathing heavily. Leaning his bodyweight on the weapon while the impaled creature screeched and thrashed against the polearm.
But Makoto was out of time to observe, she was upon the scene and the second creature turned to meet her arrival, red eyes opening slightly in its own surprise to see yet another attacker.
Makoto drove a fist into the creature’s heart, the blade stabbing smoothly in, blood oozing slightly around the rim of the metal. The creature grunted and staggered slightly, then snarled and gripped Makoto’s wrist. She could feel its strength through her gauntlets. What!? That was to the heart! It was still moving?! That would drop any vamp slave she’d ever encountered!
She punched with her left fist, but the vampire's arm met that blow, accepting the blade through the center of its palm without even a wince, iron fingers gripping down on Makoto’s left hand. It snarled at her, and bore down with its full strength. Fanged mouth open with the obvious intention to bite into her head, face, neck, whatever it could reach. Makoto braced her body against it, but she was still slowly giving way.
Makoto’s arms began to shudder. This was no weak, starving feral; but a creature with full body mass. And that of a male human with nearly a foot in height advantage. Makoto felt her arms about to give way. Fine! Father always picked big, male instructors for her and Sae. She could deal with this.
Instead of fighting the creature’s strength, she abruptly pulled back in the direction of its pushing. The creature snarled as it fell forward, following Makoto to the ground. She extended her bladed boot into the vampire’s gut and kicked it over herself. It screeched as it’s momentum disemboweled it over Makoto’s foot-blade. She flinched away from a waterfall of blood splattering across her face, blinding her with black ichor. But the creature let her go as its tumbling momentum ripped both of Makoto’s hand-blades free. She rolled and regained her feet, desperately wiping blood out of her eyes, careful not to stab herself with her own weapons.
A creature snarled.
Makoto’s eyes squinted open, the blood finally clear. The beast was staggering at its knees as Ann flicked her arm at it.
Crack! Blood flew from the vampire’s face. The end of the whip was practically invisible in the night. It rounded on Ann. Then Amamiya stepped into Makoto’s field of vision and swung his arm, his sword hissing in the air.
The beast fell limp, truncated. Head thumping to the blood-stained cobblestones.
The night was silent except their labored breathing. Makoto turned to look for the second creature. It was still on its back with Ryuji’s spear in its chest, but its head was also separated. Ryuji was sitting cross-legged next to the corpse, breathing heavily.
“Sloppy,” said Amamiya. “All of us.” He leaned over and cleaned his sword on the cream tunic of the final vampire. “But... not bad.”
Makoto surveyed the scene. One dead human, but he seemed some sort of conspirator, so she held no feelings for the man in brown. And three dead vamp-slaves. High-grade. And no injuries amongst their own party. As far as she was concerned, it could not have gone better.
Ann was curling up her whip, her expression still wide-eyed with adrenaline. “Wha- what do we do with the bodies?”
Makoto surveyed the bloody, corpse-strewn street.
That was a good question.
Amamiya bent over the corpses of the vamp-slaves. He dipped a finger in their flood and brought it to his nose. Then he rose with a grunt.
“They said a name,” said Makoto, “Kaneshiro.” That wasn’t among the names she’d heard from Mrs. Sakamoto or Mr. Suzui. But it was another lead for when they could get inside the school after sunrise.
“Yes,” said Amamiya, “But these are not derived from the creature who hunts Shiho or Ann.”
“Me?!” said Ann.
“Yes, the scent is strong on you, too. I noticed it when we first met.”
Makoto recalled the expression of Amamiya’s face when he first met Ann. Oh! That was why he reacted so strongly! It didn’t have anything to do with Ann’s physical appearance, but with the smell of their target upon her. But he never mentioned it. Why keep that a secret?
“Why didn’t you say anything before, Mr. Amamiya?” said Makoto.
Amamiya cleaned his finger on one of the corpse’s shirts “These creatures smell like the one that invaded your estate last night, Ms. Niijima.”
While that was interesting, Makoto would not be so easily distracted. He didn’t warn Ann that she too was being hunted, which meant… Shock and anger ran through Makoto as she realized what he’d done. The- the- asshole!
“Don’t avoid the question! You were using her as bait! You’re still using her as bait! That’s why you agreed to let them accompany us tonight! Is she just a tool to you?!”
Amamiya rounded on Makoto, his face tight with anger. She stepped back in surprise. His expression made the bones of his skull seem to pop out of his face.
“She is bait to them! So are you! So is everyone in this city! I want to get the creature before he takes the bite! Do you think warning her would have made her even a bit safer? She’s been with us through the nights, and tonight we are outside the beast’s lair! What more could I have done?!”
He was trying to obfuscate his lie by omission. Makoto stepped back forward, bringing her face close to Amamiya’s. That caused him to take a step back this time. “Not keep secrets! That’s the point you-”
“Hey!” said Ann, stepping between them. “I’m standing right here!”
She turned to Amamiya. “You should have said something, you jerk!” She poked him hard in the center of the chest with the handle of her whip. Amamiya took it without flinching, but his face smoothed out as he gazed down into Ann’s face. After a moment, he looked away.
“I apologize,” he murmured.
Then Ann turned on Makoto, her blue eyes flashing in the lamplight. “There! You don’t need to stand up for me, Ms. Niijima! I can do it myself! And I don’t particularly care, so long as we kill this thing! “
Amamiya’s eyes looked at Makoto over the top of Ann’s blond hair. Makoto tore her eyes from his gaze and shifted back to the adamant blues of Ann’s face. She looked firm and determined. Makoto let her own anger go. Ann was right: It wasn’t Makoto’s battle to fight, in the end.
“So…” said Ryuji. Everyone turned to look at him, still sitting cross-legged and watching them. “The vampire is hunting my sister, too?”
“Keep up, Ryuji!” said Ann.
Amamiya looked to the sky. Makoto followed his gaze, but saw nothing but stars dimmed by the vague aura of Tock-Yo’s thousands of lamps and lights.
“The sun will rise in about an hour,” he said, “If our creature were coming, he would have come. And if we scared him away with this battle, well, there is nothing we can do about that.”
Which meant the school would start opening in two hours. Makoto looked down at the blood-soaked street. They needed to get this cleaned up. There was still a good chance the vampire they wanted was inside the school at this very moment, so assuming it wasn’t aware of them due to this skirmish... they didn’t want a hubbub over dead vampires at the school gate. The bodies would need to get moved. And they could not be carried. That would be too suspicious. What they needed was something like a… cart.
Makoto looked to Ann. She was an accomplished rider, but with the revelation that she was also targeted by the vampire, Makoto did not want her running through the city alone. Makoto could go with her, but despite her anger at Amamiya… she was not so delusional as to relish fighting a noble on her own without him. She would likely have been overwhelmed by these three high-grade slaves without him. And she didn’t want Amamiya to go with Ann because it would be better for Amamiya to remain on watch outside the school, just on the off chance their target still did show up. It wasn’t morning yet, after all. So that left...
“Ryuji,” said Makoto, “Can you ride? Can you ride Amamiya’s horse to the clinic and retrieve the school’s cart?”
“Sure,” said Ryuji, standing up. “I can do that.”
“Excellent. Does horsemanship run in your family?”
“Our father is a teamster,” said Ann.
“He’s a drunk,” said Ryuji.
“Ryuji! They don’t need to know that!”
“Why not? They don’t need to know he’s a teamster, either!”
“It explains how we both know our way around animals!”
“So does him being a drunk! He only wants us to ride with him so he can pass out in the back while we drive the team!”
Makoto hissed her breath through her teeth, gaining the attention of the Sakamoto siblings, telling them to keep the volume down. “Okay! It’s a yes. Ryuji, did you see where Amamiya’s horse was? Amamiya, can he take your horse?”
Both men nodded at her. So it was settled. The loyal school cart would be utilized for its normal task: cleaning up refuse around the school. Makoto did not fear for Ryuji’s ability to travel the city at night alone, no strange creatures were after him. Well... as far as anyone knew.
“Hold a moment,” Amamiya said to Ryuji. Then he leaned into the young man’s ear and whispered something..
“What? Why?” said Ryuji.
“Just do it.” Amamiya handed Ryuji something in the darkness. Makoto thought it might be money, but she couldn’t be sure.
Ryuji left on his mission. Leaving the rest to keep watch on the alleyway and the school. Their pretense of stealth was blown, so they resolved to prevent any chance passersby from spotting the corpses. Amamiya dragged the bodies to a dark spot along the wall between lanterns.
Makoto resolved to handle the heads. She approached one of them with trepidation. It was on one ear, facing away from her, so the dead vampire wasn’t looking at her, but just the way the human-sized head sat on the pavement, with its oozing, flayed neck and irregular shape… it was an unsettling sight. She bent over and reached for it, turning the face towards herself as she lifted. It was the first vampire Amamiya ambushed, so a mild look of surprise was frozen on the creature’s face. She turned it around again. Perhaps best not to look.
Head in hand, Makoto approached the pile of bodies that Amamiya was making, but when he saw what she was bringing over, he waved her off.
“No, keep those away,” he said. “Never leave the heads close to the bodies.”
“They’re not dead?” asked Makoto, suddenly feeling even more squeamish about the head in her hands.
“They’re dead. But they would rather not be. These ones are probably not strong enough to do anything about it, but best not to give them an opportunity.”
An opportunity? An opportunity to do what? Well, whatever it was, it didn’t sound desirable. Makoto turned and found another dark spot between lanterns to deposit the heads. Ann pointedly stood aside and acted like she didn’t realize what they were both doing. Makoto didn’t blame her: Ann wasn’t wearing any gloves. Makoto would not want to touch these things with her bare hands either.
That only left the dark pools of blood which stained the sandy cobblestones. Makoto tried kicking some of the dirt and sand around, but that didn’t do much to conceal the grisly scene.
“Leave it,” said Amamiya. “I have a plan for that already.”
“Like what?” asked Ann.
It was obviously something related to the secret request he made before Ryuji left for the cart. If Ann could not get a direct answer, Makoto did not think it likely she would get one either. So she settled into a dark space along the wall, concealed in the shadows between lanterns. Amamiya was to her right, and the bodies in the shadow beyond him. Ann settled against the wall to Makoto’s left, with the heads in the shadow beyond her. They waited, more or less invisible to anyone not looking closely.
Makoto looked towards Amamiya, his profile silhouetted against the lamplight. His nose was relatively small and it pointed out and away from a sharp, narrow chin. It was a handsome profile, Makoto allowed herself to admit. And handsome in an entirely human-seeming way (since Amamiya’s decidedly unhuman ears were invisible in the darkness.) But as the silent wait stretched between them, she started to wonder about this odd new partner of hers.
He was not a warm personality, that was for sure. He did not actively seek contact with anyone. With the exception of the owner of Cafe Leblanc, Sojiro, everyone that Amamiya now knew- herself, the Sakamotos, Akechi... Amamiya had not actively initiated conversation with anyone of his own accord. Well, except to insult Mrs. Suzui and shock the woman out of her tirade.
And that exception was especially interesting. It had obviously been a rescue maneuver, and one that gauged Mrs. Suzui and sliced her to the quick. It showed more social aptitude than Makoto would have expected from Amamiya, the nomadic outsider, two days fresh in Tock-Yo. So Amamiya certainly was not raised by wolves in the frontier, that much was certain. But where then? And by who? Well- he wore armor that Makoto had never seen. He rode a mechanical horse, all of which were designed and built in old imperial factories. And while the recent skirmish was brief, Amamiya was obviously no novice at swinging his longsword around. Which meant he’d been trained at some point. But again: where? And by who?
Makoto gazed at Amamiya again, but this was not the moment for conversation. And even if it was, she knew he would not answer such direct questions. He’d look away and give a vague answer and that would be that. It irritated Makoto a little bit, just imagining it. That was another thing about Amamiya. He got her… emotional. She’d always been relatively even-keeled, or so she’d thought. Back when she was in Shujin, some of her classmates called her a fence post: a dull thing that just stood there and did what it was supposed to do. Makoto hadn’t thought too much about it. Fence posts were important items. They were useful.
But then Sae had said Makoto was not. Not useful. And the night, just a few days ago now, had seemed to upend everything. Sae made her angry. More angry than she’d ever been. And as a result, Makoto had stayed out late. She’d drunk in the morning. She’d met a host of new people she would have never met otherwise. And one of those people was Amamiya, and he seemed to have a similar capability to make her angry. Like when he’d abandoned her yesterday, and just tonight, revealed he’d known their vampire was hunting Ann, too. But he also… excited her. He would reveal information that she was eager to know. He would surprise her with a supportive action. He would keep his word and wait for her. Like he’d done tonight. And also tonight, he’d led her into a battle with stronger enemies than she’d ever faced.
So though Amamiya seemed self-centered: he moved where he wanted, when he wanted, and always in the advancement of his own goals. He was not self-absorbed; in that, once engaged, he seemed to take an active interest in those around him: He was interested in Shiho’s injury and recovery, as evidenced by him keeping watch that first night; He tolerated the Sakamoto siblings, even welcomed them on their stakeout tonight; And he’d waited for Makoto when she wanted him to.
He could have not waited. He could have just left. He could have just jumped this school wall and sniffed around in the dark on his own. Makoto was now convinced Amamiya could easily move about the city unobserved. He didn’t actually need her, or her connections, or her social upbringing. Especially now with Shiho safe.
But he’d waited for her.
Amamiya’s head turned towards Makoto, and she abruptly looked away towards the dark shape of Shujin Academy. Had he caught her staring? No. She’d moved too quickly, surely. She stood tense in the darkness, wondering if Amamiya was looking at her or not now, but not wanting to risk a glance back at him to check.
Hurry up, Ryuji!
Ryuji returned as the black of night was just beginning to grey into overcast daylight; a slow, almost imperceptible illumination of the world. Makoto watched him drive Amamiya’s horse and the cart up the alleyway, a steady clacking on the cobblestones. She had both hands on cocked hips, subconsciously imitating Sae in body language that overtly said: ‘where the hell have you been?’.
“Sorry, Ms. Niijima,” Ryuji said as the cart passed her. “Mr. Amamiya sent me on an errand, too.”
Right. The errand. “What errand?”
Ryuji pumped a thumb behind his right shoulder, indicating the answer was in the cart. “A tarp and a dead hog.”
What? Makoto’s hands slipped off her own hips as her mind tried to calculate that unexpected information. She looked into the back of the cart as it passed her position. Sure enough, there was a folded tarp in one corner and a dead pig in the center. The pig’s throat was cut, but the blood was minimal. It looked like Ryuji went by the meat-market and purchased the animal just between the slaughter and the butchering. What was Amamiya planning with that?
The cart came to a stop before the still figure of Amamiya, who gave Ryuji an almost imperceptible nod of approval. He then walked around to the back of the cart, grabbed the hog corpse, and unceremoniously pulled it from the cart and let it drop to the cobbles. He then grabbed a leg and dragged the pig body over to the rough center of the skirmish zone, the area most thick with blood stains.
Understanding clicked through Makoto’s mind. Amamiya was going to use the pig as a facade for the source of blood. That was clever! There were gears turning behind that brooding face of his. That was interesting. Her opinion of Amamiya, (a variable that seemed to change hourly since she met him), took a large leap upward. He could think. Like Yoshida. Like Father.
Makoto heard footsteps to her side, she glanced to see a frowning Ann moving up beside her. Ann was also watching Amamiya with interest, but seemingly just moving forward towards Makoto to make herself a part of the reforming group. Makoto turned her back towards Amamiya, who was now in the cart and taking his knife to a part of the tarp. Ryuji was turned in his seat, watching him.
Amamiya held up a smallish scrap of folded tarp. “Ms. Niijima. The heads.” He tossed the tarp cutting to land neatly on the edge of the cart. Then he began spreading out the rest of the material over the bottom of the cart. Makoto walked forward immediately, not resenting the obvious command. They were continuing their individual responsibilities; she was handling the heads, he was handling the bodies.
Makoto took the tarp, spread it on the cobblestones near the pile of vampire heads near the wall (the faces all turned towards the bricks). She picked them up one by one and placed them on the tarp, then brought the edges together and tied them, turning the tarp into a macabre picnic bundle. Meanwhile, Makoto could hear the unmistakable sounds of heavy objects being tossed into a wooden cart as Amamiya did his part with the corpses.
Makoto returned to Ann’s side, head-bundle in hand, and watched Amamiya finish wrapping the larger corpse bundle in the cart. He appeared satisfied, stood, and turned to Ryuji.
“Turn the cart around, run the pig over with the cartwheel. Aim for the neck. Then, find someplace secluded to leave the cart and horse.”
“Leave a teamed cart with cargo? What if someone steals it?”
Amamiya leaped off the cart. Ryuji shrugged and drove off down the alley, likely needing to get out the other side before he had room enough to turn around. Amamiya turned towards Makoto, dark grey eyes a perfect match to the currently dark grey sky of pre-dawn. Makoto felt a strange thrill as their eyes met, but then it vanished. What the hell was that?
Amamiya walked up to her and held out his hand. Makoto stared at his black gloves, her mind still distracted by that strange feeling.
“... the heads…”
She handed Amamiya the sack. He took it, then turned and arced his head back to look up the building walls beside them.
“What are you going to do with them?”
“Leave them someplace secluded up there. The daylight will dispose of them.”
“I see, so the sun will-” Makoto’s breath caught in startlement as Amamiya suddenly crouched and then leaped fifteen feet into the air to catch himself on the building’s brickwork, one-handed. Still holding the head bundle in one hand, he then gathered his booted feet under him, head arced towards the roof, and with a slight curl, leaped upward again to another handhold, ten feet higher up.
So that was how he got up that wall earlier in the night. Makoto assumed he’d climbed, but she would hesitate to call what Amamiya was doing now climbing. And had he simply jumped off the roof to land silently behind the vampires in ambush? She hadn’t thought about it till now, but that required some amazing physical prowess.
“God,” said Ann. “I kinda forgot he wasn’t totally human.”
Makoto silently agreed with Ann as Amamiya made a final leap and then vanished quickly over the rim of the rooftops. It was sometimes easy to forget… but then Amamiya would do something surprising and take her breath away.
Makoto, Amamiya, and the Sakamotos retreated to the entrance of the school’s alleyway when the first students began arriving (and gawking at the blood-stained cobblestones).
((Oh, wow! That pig was hit last night! Right across the throat!))
((Gross! Look at all the blood!))
They stood in a loose group against the side of a building, idly watching the morning traffic balloon into the early-shift rush hour. It was shaping up to be a gloomy sort of day, the dark grey of early morning was lightening into a grey-white sky of total overcast. Makoto and the Sakamotos stood a bit away from the wall, trying to catch as much warmth from the light as they could, while Amamiya remained flush against the wall, still and restive in the shade of the building.
Ann was dressed in her school uniform- as she’d been last night. How she kept the thing pristine was a mystery to Makoto. Ryuji was in casual clothing, but was leaning lightly on his guard’s halberd.
“Don’t you have duty?” asked Makoto.
“I took leave.”
“You get leave?”
“My mom is sick.”
“No, she isn’t!” said Ann.
“Don’t tell my sergeant that.”
Ann frowned at Ryuji but didn’t press the issue. Instead, she looked at Makoto. “What are we going to do next, Ms. Ni- um- Makoto?”
“The Suzuis should be arriving soon. They are going to try to secure us access and cooperation from the school’s administration. Hopefully, that will make it easier for us to find our target inside. Assuming he, or it, is still in there.” Makoto looked into Ann’s blue eyes and worried about Amamiya’s warning that the vampire was after Ann, too. “Maybe you should stay away today, Ann. If we do find the-”
“No. I’m coming,” Ann said with defiance. “It’s my fight, too.”
Ann’s face was serious, determined, and perhaps even a little offended by Makoto’s suggestion. Obviously, it had been the wrong thing for her to say to Ann. Makoto felt her cheeks heat up just slightly. She nodded at Ann and returned her own gaze to the passing traffic.
They waited for a time in silence- an awkward-feeling silence to Makoto, anyway. The morning traffic intensified as the sky brightened to full grey day. Students were no longer trickling into school, but flooding their way down the alleyway. Hundreds of young women in the same uniform as Ann. Then, just as Makoto was fearing the Suzuis were going to renege on the agreement, their distinctive coach rounded a street corner in the distance and made its way towards them.
Makoto stepped out to make herself visible on the side of the road. The coach slowly made its way with the flow of traffic and turned towards the narrow alleyway of the school. It would be a rather tight fit, but students were used to coaches and flowed smoothly around the vehicle. A curtain whipped open from a window and the tense face of Mrs. Suzui appeared.
“Ms. Niijima! Why don’t you ride into the school grounds with us.”
Makoto nodded. That would send a wordless message that even a total fool couldn’t miss: only allies rode in coaches together, and Mrs. Suzui seemed a powerful figure in the school community. Mr. Suzui opened the door from the inside and beckoned Makoto with a small wrist movement. Before joining them, Makoto turned to regard her companions. The Sakamotos were young, and despite their apparent mental maturity, their appearance would lessen the impact of the coach’s arrival. Meanwhile, Amamiya looked formidable but dubious. He needed to be a passenger to gain respectability via proximity and association with the Suzuis.
“Ann, Ryuji. I think you two may as well walk into the school after us. I’m sorry to say, but it would be better if you let us handle this part of the investigation. You will still be close if anything happens.”
The Sakamotos both looked a bit disappointed, but they didn’t argue.
“Mr. Amamiya. Join us in the coach, please.”
Makoto watched him lean himself off the wall, so she turned and stepped into the coach, confident he would follow. She took a seat next to Mrs. Suzui. The older woman offered her a small smile and a good morning, though it was obvious she was tense for the impending confrontation with the school principal. For his part, Mr. Suzui seemed relaxed- or as relaxed as the uptight man seemed able to get. That relaxation vanished as a dark, wide-brimmed hat stuffed its way into the coach door and Amamiya sat down next to Mr. Suzui with a soft creak of armor and a clacking sword sheath.
“And what exactly is your role in this… sir,” said Mr. Suzui.
Amamiya’s grey eyes drifted past Makoto on their way to Mr. Suzui. Makoto tensed her forehead at him, but she couldn’t be sure he got the message. He looked at Mr. Suzui for a tense moment.
“Muscle,” Amamiya finally said, before turning back away from Mr. Suzui to stare at something over Makoto’s head.
“What my partner lacks in social graces- Mr. Suzui,” Makoto said quickly, stalling Mr. Suzui’s response, “He more than makes up for in swordsmanship, I assure you.”
“Leave the man alone, Mr. Suzui,” said Mrs. Suzui, “He’s going to help kill the thing that hurt our daughter.”
Mr. Suzui didn’t respond, but he assented and looked out the window of his side of the coach as it started creeping its way down the alleyway towards the school gate. Students still flowed to either side of them, only a few showing curiosity towards the coach’s presence. Most parents of the students here were well-off, so coaches were likely common. Makoto could remember at least two every week when she was a student here. But with the faculty and administration entirely different, she barely recognized the place. It just looked like her old school, but the spirit seemed entirely transformed.
“So, we’ve come this far,” said Mrs. Suzui, turning to Makoto. “What do you want from Principal Kobayakawa?”
That was a good question. She’d been so distracted last night that she’d failed to think of a plan for today. Makoto wanted to find the vampire in the school- presuming it was in there and still in there. But how best to investigate several hundreds of students and several dozens of staff members? Clear the school building by building? But how to clear even a single building? Amamiya said he couldn’t smell the noble directly, and Makoto was unaware of any other identifying methods. And even if they had some way to identify, how would they keep people from moving all over the place for the likely hours-long process? No. It was entirely impractical. Meanwhile, the coach was creeping closer and closer to the school gate. Mrs. Suzui was staring at her, awaiting an answer. Makoto couldn’t lose control of the situation to public-politics-Mrs. Suzui again. She needed a solution.
“Give me just a moment, Mrs. Suzui,” said Makoto, “I need to see if the campus has changed significantly before I decide on the best course of action.”
A lie. But it bought time. Makoto felt her pulse quicken and her thoughts were now splaying away from actual planning and into worrying over the consequences of not succeeding in planning, even though she still had time to succeed if she could just focus. She danced her eyes around her, as if that would speed up her thought process. Her gaze stopped and settled on Amamiya’s straight features. His eyes shifted down from the no-where he’d been looking to catch her gaze. His expression remained neutral, but Makoto looked into his grey eyes and thought he knew what they could do- but he wasn’t offering the information. So he was giving her time to come up with something. She had a backup. She didn’t need to worry so much about failing.
Okay. Back to square one: What was the problem? The vampire was likely hiding in a large pool of human beings. They could not check each person individually, but they likely would need to eventually meet the final suspects in private. So, the first step wasn’t immediately identifying the culprit… but narrowing down the pool of likely suspects. Makoto had a few names: Ms. Chouno, Mr. Hiruta, Mr. Kamoshida. But the vampire could be someone else, too. So… how to blanket-check people for vampirism? What was a defining characteristic of vampires? Ah! Obviously! They couldn’t be outside in sunlight, nor in any naturally illuminated room. Supposedly, they burst into flame. So…
The carriage pulled into the gate. Makoto made a show of looking out the windows at the campus, though she already had her answer:
“Mrs. Suzui, request the principal to call a full outdoor assembly: staff, faculty, students. Everyone. Then we will investigate anyone who doesn’t show up.”
Author's Note 8/26/19:
Previously, I wrote that Makoto and Principal Kobayakawa did not know each other. I felt this was a mistake as he is an important character in Makoto's life. I've changed Chapter 6, wherein Shiho falls, to make them recognize each other. So you will see that recognition continues in this chapter as they meet again.
“An outdoor assembly? That won’t be difficult,” said Mrs. Suzui, “I’ll have Mr. Kobayakawa convene one.”
Hearing Kobayakawa’s name sent a surge of confusing emotions through Makoto. Suddenly, she was less confident of her plan. How could they convince the man to do what was needed? When she’d been student council president of this school, she took Kobayakawa’s directives and carried them out to the best of her ability.
“You won’t have any trouble with him?” asked Makoto, trying to keep her voice neutral.
Mrs. Suzui’s face suddenly turned vicious. Makoto was taken aback at the look of hatred on the other woman’s face. Then, just as quickly, Mrs. Suzuis face went back to a more neutral, business-like look.
“No, Ms. Niijima. He won’t be any trouble,” said Mrs. Suzui. “Not for much longer.”
Before Makoto could ask what she meant, the coach pulled into the front courtyard of the campus and came to a stately stop. The general murmur of students waiting for first bell was notable now. The school was a different place during classes. As the coachman thumped his way down from his seat to prepare the steps for his passengers, Mr. Suzui peeked covertly from behind his window curtain.
“No one to meet us, it seems,” he said.
“Don’t worry,” said Mrs. Suzui, not bothering to look for herself, “He’s watching from his office window this very moment, worrying whose parents we are- likely forming a thin sheen of sweat on his fat head.”
Makoto was shocked. Mrs. Suzui really didn’t think much of Principal Kobayakawa! Could she really do as she claimed? Makoto felt the stirrings of anxious doubt in her chest. They were going to march up to the principal’s office and demand he act! It was such an alien concept. Makoto took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. She wasn’t a student anymore. She was as much an adult as Mrs. Suzui.
The coach door opened from the outside, the coachman bowing them out. Mrs. Suzui smiled at Makoto then put on a serious expression and stepped out of the coach- Mr. Suzui followed, then Makoto, and finally, Amamiya in the rear. They proceeded up the school steps, and the only note of their passing was the heads of students taking a second look at Amamiya- hopefully due to his rather unique clothing style.
They entered the first floor of the school, a moderate atrium illuminated by the large windows surrounding the main door. Dark wood construction evoked a somber aura, but the rich crimson of the school’s colors on the rugs and tapestries held the place back from seeming like a nunnery. Though Makoto had always thought that was a near thing.
The office was on the second floor, so they proceeded up the curved stairs. Mrs. Suzui then lead them to an office door, knocked, and entered without waiting for an answer.
“Excuse me, you can’t-” said a surprised female voice, “Oh! Mrs. Suzui! Good morning! I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting you...”
Mr. Suzui was blocking the doorway, so Makoto couldn’t see who was speaking. But she knew from experience this was the secretary’s office- the gatekeeper. Beyond this room was the larger office of the academy administrator.
“...I was so shocked to hear about your-”
“Not as shocked as I, Ms. Kondo,” said Mrs. Suzui. Her voice was the motherly equivalent of the hissing fuse on a stick of dynamite. “I’m here to talk to Principal Kobayakawa.”
“Oh- all right, let me set up an appointment and-”
A short silence passed.
“Uh- he’s- he is in his office right now, Mrs. Suzui. Let me tell him you’re here.”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Mrs. Suzui, moving into the room. Mr. Suzui was close on her heels, finally emptying the doorway for Makoto to enter the secretary's office. It was a gloomy, small room- having no windows and partitioned awkwardly between the hallway and the walls of the building. The wide-eyed secretary was obviously a student, and a young one at that- she was watching Mrs. Suzui cross the room towards the inner door, powerless to stop her.
Mrs. Suzui flung open the door. Makoto caught sight of an obviously scared balding man rise from his desk. It was a stark difference to the stern and vaguely disapproving Principal Kobayakawa who Makoto remembered. Then Mr. Suzui stepped in, cutting off Makoto’s view until she was able to follow him into the principal’s office. It was a nostalgic room- she’d entered this office many times to stand before the principal as the student body president. To receive her orders and march back out.
Principal Kobayakawa’s sudden smile was welcoming, but his eyes showed obvious anxiety and fear towards Mrs. Suzui. It was a look Makoto had never seen on his face before. In a sudden revelation, Makoto realized that Kobayakawa was afraid of Mrs. Suzui. Why would he look like that when confronted in his office, the very heart of his power? He’d always looked confident and stern to Makoto- secure in his greater power over her as a student. But now… did Mrs. Suzui command more power than he? Ann had said Mrs. Suzui held social events for parents at the school, and Mrs. Suzui herself said she could stir the PTA to action. Just how much clout did Mrs. Suzui wield amongst the school’s parents?
“Ah- uh- Mrs. Suzui, I hope your daughter-” said Kobayakawa.
“My daughter is recovering, thanks to you, Mr. Kobayakawa,” said Mrs. Suzui, her voice suddenly warm and grateful. She bowed. Mr. Suzui missed a beat, but then followed his wife’s lead.
Makoto was taken aback. Just a moment ago, Mrs. Suzui had intimidated the secretary, and now she was transformed into a bowing, deferential woman. What was she doing? If her plan was surprising Mr. Kobayakawa, it was working: his mouth gaped open like a koi.
“It’s true,” continued Mrs. Suzui, ”If you had not directed Ms. Niijima here to take my daughter to that physician… well, God only knows.”
“Of- of course. I’m glad it went as well as it could,” said Kobayakawa, his eyes shifting to Makoto. He pales slightly, then motioned towards the two chairs in front of his desk. “Won’t you and Mr. Suzui have a seat? Shall I send for tea?”
Makoto experienced yet another surreal shock as she watched her formal principal collapse back into his groaning chair. He was accepting this. He was accepting the credit, even though he’d tried to prevent Makoto from saving Shiho. Her mouth opened to protest, words forming in her throat, but then she remembered this was Mrs. Suzui’s ploy. Makoto held herself back.
“Tea sounds lovely,” said Mrs. Suzui, “Doesn’t it, Mr. Suzui?”
Mr. Suzui looked at his wife. She raised her eyebrows at him.
“Yes, the dust in the coach made me quite parched,” said Mr. Suzui.
“And uh- for you, Ms. Niijima? And, uh… sir?” said Kobayakawa, eyes traveling between Makoto and Amamiya.
“Yes, tea for them, too, please,” said Mrs. Suzui.
“Ms. Ogawa,” called Kobayakawa and his secretary appeared in the doorway, “Tea and four cups.”
The secretary left, and Kobayakawa’s eyes shifted back to Makoto and Amamiya. “I know Ms. Niijima, but not that man. Why are they here, Mrs. Suzui?”
“If you know, Ms. Niijima, you already know the answer. They are vampire hunters. They’re here to search the school for the vampire.”
“What!” Kobayakawa coughed loudly a few times. “There’s no vampire here, Mrs. Suzui!” Some of the earlier fear was visible on Kobayakawa’s face again. “And I can’t allow strangers to search a private academy! No, no. Out of the question.”
Mrs. Suzui settled back into her seat. A tense silence fell.
Mr. Suzui looked at his wife, but she remained demure and her head was somewhat down. He twiddled his mustache and then turned back to Kobayakawa. “A new crop of red beans is due in from Zen-Dai...”
“Oh, yes?” said Kobayakawa, obviously eager for the change of topic. The two men leaned forward to talk about the new subject. Mrs. Suzui started to pay polite attention.
What was this? An immediate denial of their objective and then… deference? An early tea and small-talk about confections? The disaster of Suzui Shiho hung over the room like a dark cloud, but Mrs. Suzui was apparently accepting defeat? No, that couldn’t be. She was up to something. She must be waiting to start the real attack. Makoto was morbidly eager to see how Mrs. Suzui would handle this man- this authority of Makoto’s childhood.
Makoto glanced at Amamiya. He was standing easily next to her, arms crossed, watching the proceedings with idle interest. Since he wasn’t bored, Makoto thought he must be waiting for Mrs. Suzui, too. Then he apparently felt her gaze and his eyes turned to look at her. Their eyes met. A flush of heat traveled across Makoto’s face, but she nodded at him. After a slight pause, he nodded back slowly with a quizzical look. He thought she was trying to send him some kind of message. But she wasn’t. She jerked her head back to look at the Suzuis and Kobayakawa.
What was that feeling? Get a grip! Makoto turned her mind to their main objective: the vampire. While they were here, having tea, the creature may be in the school this very moment doing who knows what! She wanted to rush this along, but that was an impossibility. Create a scene? Ruin whatever manipulation Mrs. Suzui was planning? No, it would be faster to just wait.
Makoto clenched her jaw and tried to pay attention to what Mr. Suzui was saying about the rumored red bean yield of Zen-Dai, but it did little to halt the growing anxious energy welling up in her body. Today was the day something big would happen. No mere skirmish. But a life-changing event. Makoto could feel it. She wanted it to hurry up already.
Instead, tea arrived. The distinctive smell of steeping green tea filled the room. Everyone fell silent as the drink was poured into five clay cups. Ms. Ogawa, the little secretary girl, served the others before handing steaming cups to Amamiya and Makoto. They both accepted.
Green tea was an uncommon treat, as black teas were more common due to the fermentation of the imported leaves. Kobayakawa must know a local artisan who was growing the plants. Makoto made a mental note to talk with Yoshida about it. She blew softly on the surface of the liquid to cool it. Well, today would happen as it happened. No reason not to enjoy this.
She sipped, savoring the clean bitterness. Her eyes traveled to Amamiya again. He was sniffing at the cup with a dubious curl at the corner of his mouth. Green tea was new to him? That was interesting. It wasn’t so rare or expensive that a common person would never experience it. So, again… where was Amamiya from?
Makoto watched him take a tentative sip. He frowned. Then the frown faded. He sniffed. Sipped again. His lips pursed and then he sipped yet again. He liked it. So, Amamiya liked bitter things. Interesting.
“Ah, a relaxing drink, Mr. Kobayakawa, thank you,” said Mrs. Suzui. “I’ve not been able to relax these last few days.”
“I can imagine,” said Kabayakawa.
“I think the last time I drank tea in this office… it was just after the second Shujin girl disappeared.”
Kobayakawa froze, teacup against his lips. He pulled it away slowly. “Mrs. Suzui-”
“What was it that you said to me then? Oh, yes. You said the girls were pregnant and they fled their families out of shame. Am I remembering that correctly?”
The new tension in the room was palpable to Makoto. She couldn’t see Mrs. Suzui’s face, but the woman was leaning forward in her chair. Her head was riveted on Kobayakawa, and his uneasy eyes were glued to Mrs. Suzui. He seemed like a mouse cornered by a patient cat.
Pregnant girls? The second missing Shujin girl? That’s right- the papers had sensationalized that- offering all sorts of idle theories. Makoto had followed the story, since Shujin was her alma mater. But in three days, the papers bored of the disappearances and moved on. Going by what Mrs. Suzui just said, she must have also followed those papers; and presumably fearing for the safety of her own daughter, came here to meet Kobayakawa about the subject. That made sense, since she was apparently politically active amongst the students' families.
“And I believed you. Fool, that I am. You know what I said to myself a few days ago, Kobayakawa? When I read the headline about a third missing Shujin girl? I said to myself, ‘my, my, girls can’t keep their skirts down these days,’ But my Shiho is safe. She’s a smart girl.”
“Of course she is, Mrs. Suzu-”
“But she wasn’t safe. She fell. It was sorcery. Some foul vampire sorcery, Kobayakawa, from inside your school.”
Kobayakawa put his cup on his desk with a thunk. “Don’t be absurd, Mrs. Suzui! Those rumors of a vampire-”
“The rumors!” said Mrs. Suzui, her voice suddenly vicious. “The rumors are untrue? So you mean to say my Shiho fell of her own volition!? Perhaps she is pregnant and she was leaping from the shame of it?! Is that your suggestion!?”
“Na- na- no!” babbled Kobayakawa, his face going pale as he leaned as far back in his desk chair as he could, as if trying to escape the sudden escalation of this meeting. “That’s not-”
Mr. Suzui cleared his throat loudly. “The rumors are true, sir. What do you intend to do about it?”
“Da- da- do?”
“Yes! Do!” yelled Mrs. Suzui, “You fat lard of a man! It drove my daughter off the roof! What are your plans?”
Kobayakawa’s mouth opened and closed. It was the koi impression again, but much more intense.
“So. It’s as I thought. You were just going to wait and hope for it all to go away. Well, I have a plan for you, Kobayakawa. I’ve hired two vampire hunters,” Mrs. Suzui raised her hand to indicate Makoto and Amamiya against the rear wall. “They will scour the school and find this creature.”
“No! Then everyone will know that-”” Kobayakawa’s mouth shut with a click.
“He did know,” said Mr. Suzui, turning to his wife. “The story about pregnant girls was a blatant lie, my dear. He knew the truth as he fed it to you.”
“And I ate it up, fool that I am.” Mrs. Suzui appeared to have transformed once again. Now she seemed calm and serious. “Three Shujin girls already missing and yet the school remained open so our Shiho could be the fourth. And I let her come here, day after day.”
“That’s not what-”
But the Suzuis were ignoring him now, focused on each other.
“What should we do with this man, Mr. Suzui?”
“Our daughter may be crippled. Let’s tell the papers and let the mob burn him. “
Kobayakawa let out a nervous laugh. “Surely, you jest. Such a thing-”
Mrs. Suzui shook her head at Mr. Suzui, “Even if we made the city think Kobayakawa is a conspirator, I don’t think the parents would do that on their own..”
“I’ll hire some men to be in the crowd and they’ll get it started.”
“Oh, that would work…”
Kobayakawa was seriously sweating now. “Mrs. Suzui, there’s no need for such dark thoughts. Your vampire hunters are more than welcome to search the school.”
Mrs. Suzui turned back to Kobayakawa. “Oh, that’s right. We don’t need papers or a mob. We have vampire hunters right here.” She turned back towards Makoto. “You two. You heard this man. He knew a vampire was targeting his students and he did nothing. He’s a conspirator. If you kill him and swear he’s a vampire, I’ll double your fee.”
Makoto’s mouth gaped open like a koi fish this time. What? Murder her old principal and lie? Unthinkable! And Mrs. Suzui suggesting it! Such a vile act didn’t seem in character for her. But then again… she’d already switched three masks in the last hour. Who’s to say what she was really like? Regardless, Makoto was certainly not going to do such a thing. And certainly Amamiya wouldn’t-
Amamiya drew his sword and began walking towards Kobayakawa. The man’s eyes went to the blade and then grew to enormous size. Makoto felt her own body freeze in fear. Was this really happening? She should stop this! Could she stop this? These were her own allies! And all of them seemed more formidable than herself right now!
“Please, no!” gabbled Kobayakawa, “I knew, yes, I knew! But it wasn’t my idea to keep the school open! I was told!”
Mrs. Suzui raised a hand. “Hold, Mr. Amamiya.”
And Mr. Amamiya held, stopping in the middle of the room. Makoto and Kobayakawa both let out relieved sighs. Makoto unconsciously put a hand over her own heart. It was thumping its way back to a calmer pace. God! What was going on here? Mrs. Suzui ordering Makoto’s old principal killed! Amamiya stepping forward to do it like a hired dog! Had she misjudged them that badly? Was she now associated with vile people?
No! It couldn’t be. Mrs. Suzui loved her daughter deeply. Someone capable of that surely couldn’t be capable of murder. Or- or was that love exactly what made Mrs. Suzui capable of murder? A ruthlessness born of motherhood?
Wrapped up in her own mind, Makoto vaguely heard Mrs. Suzui ask Kobayakawa a question. Something about keeping the school open.
No. No. No. Makoto realized she was overthinking this. No one was dead. No one was going to murder anyone here. It was just a threat. Ah! That was it! This was an act. All of it an act. Amamiya had seen it and stepped readily in his assigned role! This was just the final part of Mrs. Suzui’s strategy against Kobayakawa- but… she already had his permission to search the school. What more did Mrs. Suzui want?
“Akechi!?” exclaimed Mrs. Suzui. “Akechi Masayoshi told you to keep the school open!?”
“Yes! I swear! And he’s the one who appointed me here!’
“Fool! Your cushy office here is worth more than my child!?” yelled Mrs. Suzui. “I really should have you-!”
Mr. Suzui put a hand atop hers. She halted herself and took a deep breath. Mr. Suzui leaned forward in her place. “Why did Akechi want the school open?”
“He didn’t say. He would never tell me things like that.”
“Well, I certainly believe that!” said Mrs. Suzui.
Akechi again! Makoto frowned to herself. Mrs. Suzui was seeking the source of the cover-up, and now the Akechi name popped back into the situation. And Akechi Goro popped into the clinic two days ago. What did that mean?
A silence fell as Mrs. Suzui regained control of her breathing. Mr. Suzui was steadily tapping his fingers on the arm of his chair. Kobayakawa’s eyes shifted between the two of them with desperation.
“My dear, I hold no value for this man’s life,” said Mr. Suzui, “But he may be valuable in his current position. Revenge would rob us of that value.”
Mrs. Suzui took a deep breath. “Very well. Mr. Kobayakawa, you will help us find this creature and you will advise me of anything else Akechi says or requests from now on.”
Kobayakawa nodded eagerly.
“Then call an outdoors assembly,” said Mrs. Suzui, “I want all of the staff and all the students outside.”
“Of course! Ms. Ogama! Ms. Ogama!”
“Yes?” The secretary looked into the room, her face flushed and afraid. How much of Mrs. Suzui’s yelling had she heard? Enough, apparently.
“Call an assembly for students and staff. Have all the teachers assemble their students in the front courtyard.”
“An assembly?” said the secretary.
“Just do it!” yelled Mr. Kobayakawa. His face now red and sweaty.
The secretary startled- then bowed quickly and fled. Makoto watched her go. That was herself two years ago. Doing the bidding of this pudding of a man. She turned back to watch Kobayakawa sit back into his chair, breathing heavily, wiping the sweat from his head with a handkerchief. Makoto realized this was a man who could only order schoolgirls around. Kobayakawa derived the entirety of his personal authority from his position and title. He commanded none himself.
And the Suzuis! Makoto felt like she’d misjudged them. They came in here, got what they wanted, and effectively turned Kobayakawa into their agent. What manner of people were they? Not born wealthy, Makoto knew, but they’d made themselves wealthy. Was this how it was done? Manipulation and back-room threats? It was an alien world to Makoto. She could learn a lot from these people.
In less than an hour, Makoto was on the top of the school’s front steps, watching the assembled teachers complete the roll call of their classes. Amamiya waited nearby in the shade of the entryway. Ann was in the crowd, standing with her classmates. Ryuji was visible near the front gate, still holding his polearm- maybe intending to stop anyone trying to ditch out.
Kobayakawa stood tensely nearby, with the Suzuis in close proximity. Makoto was anxious for the count to be complete, as everyone standing out here was obviously not a suspect. She stepped towards Kobayakawa’s bulk.
“Is anyone missing, sir?” Makoto asked, feeling vague nostalgia for her past as she did so. “Any teacher or staff member?”
“Mr. Hiruta isn’t here,” said Kobayakawa, his eyes scanning the adults. “Neither is Mr. Kamoshida.”
Makoto felt a thrill of excitement. That was two of her names! Both of them were close to Shiho and Ann. Now why were they not coming outside? But she needed to rule out the others.
“Ms. Chouno?” asked Makoto.
“She’s over there.” He indicated a tan woman standing before long lines of students with her hands on her hips.
“You don’t know anyone named Kaneshiro?”
“No, Ms. Niijima. No one by that name works here. Perhaps amongst the students?”
That didn’t entirely rule this Kaneshiro out. While it seemed unlikely that a vampire would be a high school student, it couldn’t be ruled out. And perhaps Kaneshiro was just another fake name among many for the same creature.
Ms. Chouno turned and climbed the steps. “All students accounted for, Mr. Kobayakawa.”
Mrs. Suzui looked at Makoto. Well, that was a boon. No absentees. Thank goodness for the obedient nature of private school students. The assembly had worked. All but two people were entirely eliminated from suspicion. Makoto nodded at Mrs. Suzui.
“That will be all, Mr. Kobayakawa,” said Mrs. Suzui.
“Yes,” said Kobayakwa. “Mrs. Chouno, you can dismiss the assembly.”
Ms. Chouno blinked and then scowled in disapproval at Mrs. Suzui. But she turned and started yelling instructions to the gathered student body. A vast murmuring sound grew as the students began talking and dispersing in all directions.
“Where might Mr. Hiruta and Mr. Kamoshida be, Mr. Kobayakawa?” said Makoto.
“They should be here. No one told me they were missing today.”
“Yes. But if they are here, where might they be?”
“Mr. Hiruta likes his private office on the third floor. Mr. Kamoshida is almost always in the equine arena over there.”
Makoto turned to where Kobayakawa was pointing. A bulging, roundish structure was scrunched in the corner of the campus. The roof had a second round layer, and that layer was filled with windows to allow light in on the interior. Horses would be brought from the stables and housed there for the daily riding classes. Makoto could almost smell the sawdust and horse dung from memory.
Amamiya stepped forward next to her and gazed at the equine arena. “You investigate there. I’ll go to Mr. Hiruta’s office.”
“You want to split up?” Makoto balked at the idea of seeking the vampire out by herself. A noble! On her own? Could she handle that?
“You’re a hunter, aren’t you? Time is of the essence. If it’s here, the assembly will have tipped the creature off. We need to find it now.”
Makoto took a deep breath, staring at the equine arena. “What if I find it?”
“Don’t let it know you know- and wait for me. Otherwise, make lots of noise and I’ll come.”
“Mr. Kobayakawa,” said Amamiya, “Please lead me to Mr. Hiruta’s office.”
And with that, he vanished into the school’s interior. Makoto looked after him, her heart pounding, unsure of herself. She turned back to the equine arena, took a deep breath, and tried to steady her pulse. This was it. This is what she wanted for her life, wasn’t it? Danger and all? If she didn’t do this, who would?
She let her palm fall against the revolver at her hip, comforting herself with its presence. Then she went down the stairs and strode for the equine arena under the bright grey sky. It was surprising that Amamiya had enough confidence in her to go alone.
Wait a minute.
Makoto’s stride faulted. Amamiya didn’t have much confidence in her at all. He regarded her a novice. Was he so cold as to send her to a likely death? Like throwing a child in the lake to teach it to swim? He was cold, but Makoto didn’t think he was that cold. So what was he up to?
Makoto paused to look at the equine arena again. What had he seen? She traced the building’s outline with her eyes. God damnit! The roof windows! The building was as good as being outside! If this Mr. Kamoshida was inside, then it was already a sure bet that he wasn’t the vampire. Amamiya had selected the best suspect for himself and sent Makoto off to a safe distance. The bastard!
Rapid footsteps approached her. Makoto turned to find Ann and Ryuji jogging up, eager looks on their faces. Great! And now she had the kids in her charge, too!
“Ms. Niijima! What’s up?” said Ryuji.
“Do you know who it might be?” said Ann.
Makoto held in her frustration. She wanted to march back to the school and follow Amamiya to Mr. Hiruta, but that would now mean the Sakamotos would come with her. She wasn’t willing to lead them into such danger- and despite her suspicions, she still needed to check the arena. At least to see if Kamoshida was there. If he wasn’t, he was still a suspect.
“I’m going to see if Mr. Kamoshida is in the equine arena. He wasn’t at the assembly.”
“Nice! Let’s go!” Ryuji set off immediately.
“Umm- It can’t be him. It’s a really bright place and he’s in there every day,” said Ann.
Could Makoto just trust Ann’s word? Not really. Amamiya said Ann was a target, so maybe she was being influenced in some way. Makoto still wanted to check for herself. “Well, then let’s rule him out quickly, okay Ann?”
They followed Ryuji towards the building. The interior of the equine arena was indeed bright with sunlight. Golden morning rays spread out over the sawdust floor. A muscular man with fluffy brown hair was standing in the middle of the light, brushing a black horse.
“Hey,” called Ryuji, “You Kamoshida?”
The man looked up and gave a friendly wave. “That’s me! What can I do for you? Oh, Ms. Sakamoto! Good morning!”
Ann stepped past Makoto and entered the building. “Good morning, Mr. Kamoshida.”
“Wait! Is this that brother you are always talking about?”
“Yes, this is Ryuji.”
“I see! Good to meet you, young man.”
Makoto stepped in and gazed around the arena. No dark alcoves. No cellar doors. No attic. There didn’t seem to be any places to hide from the sun. She began to relax.
“And who is that woman by the door?”
Ann turned to look back at Makoto. “Oh, that’s a... friend. Ms. Niijima.”
“Oh, well… good morning, Ms. Niijima.”
Makoto turned back to Kamoshida, finding him beaming at her with a genuine-looking smile.
“Good morning,” she said, bowing slightly thanks to social instinct. Kamoshida returned a small bow, still smiling. Sunlight and smiles. Well… they could cross Kamoshida off the suspect list. “Sorry, I was just curious about this building. I’ll be going now.”
“Oh, okay!” said Kamoshida, “It’s a public place. No need to apologize.”
“Ann. Ryuji. Let’s find Amamiya.”
They both nodded at her, so Makoto turned and walked from the arena.
Meanwhile, Ann turned to follow Makoto and Ryuji out of the equine arena. But then she suddenly didn’t know why she should follow Ms. Niijima and her stupid brother around anyway. She was at school. It was a school day. And she should be spending time with Mr. Kamoshida, her handsome teacher. Without speaking, Ann turned away from their backs and the open door. And she turned back towards Mr. Kamoshida. He was grinning at her with that eager, bright smile of his. Ann felt her heart flutter. He was so handsome.
“Stay with me, Ann,” said Mr. Kamoshida.
Ann’s pulse fluttered up further. She thought about doing that. Staying with him. Just the idea of it filled her with pleasure. She took three steps closer to him. His smile transformed from eagerness to satisfaction. Ann was happy to see that change. It was evident that she was doing the right thing.
Kamoshida reached out and cupped Ann’s cheek. She sighed into his warm, smooth palm. It felt so good against her face. Why would she ever leave?
“You’re so much more pliable than your friend, you know?”
All the pleasurable emotions in Ann’s mind suddenly vanished, leaving her in a confused state of abrupt apathy. Something deep inside her screamed out, but it was drowned out by a sudden returning rush of all the pleasure and joy she’d been feeling up till that brief instant. Ann shook her head, trying to clear the lingering feeling.
“Oh. Well, perhaps best not to chance it,” said Kamoshida.
“Chance what?” said Ann, her voice dreamy in her own head.
“What? I don’t-”
Ann shuddered. There was an abrupt pain in her stomach. She looked down. A sort of reddish, segmented limb was pressed into her gut. As she stared at it, it began to pull back away towards Kamoshida- revealing a long, sharp, stinger emerging from her own flesh and clothing. It was red with her blood.
This wasn’t right, Ann thought, as her vision rapidly went dark.
Makoto stepped out into the stark light of a murky, overcast morning. She sighed in frustration. Amamiya had really sent her on a goose chase. The musk of impending rain was thick in the air. But at least it was another suspect eliminated from suspicion. She looked up at the main building of the school and wondered if she could find Amamiya before he found Mr. Hiruta, the likely vampire. The school seemed quiet, so it was unlikely he was dueling a noble vampire somewhere in there. Had they missed their target? Had their battle outside the gate last night tipped him off?
“Man, what now?” said Ryuji as he walked beside her.
Makoto only half heard him, her mind was already running through the events of the last few days, seeking clues. As she did, her eyes traveled skyward to the cloudy sky. The clouds were light and grey. It seemed Tock-Yo was due for a few spring showers. Makoto wondered if she missed something. Cloudy or clear, noble vampires could not be outside during the day, so that eliminated the student body and all the teachers who answered the outdoors assembly, Amamiya was verifying Mr. Hiruta, but that school was full of windows. If he wasn’t fighting anyone right now, it was likely Hiruta wasn’t the vampire either. And Makoto had already seen Mr. Kamoshida practically bathing in sunlight in the equine arena.
Makoto’s heart skipped and she froze in her tracks. How could sunlight have been streaming down on Kamoshida? It was cloudy today... That meant...
Makoto spun back towards the arena.
“What?” said Ryuji, turning more slowly.
But Makoto’s eyes were beyond him and focused back through the doorway of the equine arena. Ann was still inside, facing away from them, drooped into the arm of Mr. Kamoshida. Makoto felt goosebumps suddenly run up and down all of her limbs. Kamoshida looked up from Ann to connect with Makoto’s wide-eyed stare. He grinned tauntingly, his eyes glowed gold, and then the interior of the arena went black, as if some dark curtain had fallen in front of the open door. Dread sunk into Makoto’s gut like an icy stone.
“Ann!” shouted Makoto and Ryuji together.
Makoto drew her gun and pointed it uselessly at the opaque doorway. Her aim shook slightly, but there was nothing to aim at. Then Ryuji sprinted in front of her, halberd before him, and he plunged into the darkness, vanishing from sight.
But he was already gone. He could hear him shouting Ann’s name from inside the black. Makoto lowered her gun and reached into her belt pouches for one of her flares. She ignited it, the long-practiced motion flawless even as her hand shook with adrenaline and fear. She tossed the ignited flare into the horse arena, but it vanished as it passed through the threshold. Bright and blazing- then just gone, as if it never existed. Fuck! This was no normal darkness!
She was out of her depth. What was the right thing to do? Go into the dark? And be blind? What was the point! Ryuji was still screaming Ann’s name from somewhere inside. Then there was a loud crunching noise and Ryuji yelled in agony. Then silence.
“Amamiya!” screamed Makoto. She turned her gun on a nearby stack of old barrels.
Ren followed Principal Kawkobashi’s massive bulk through the darkened halls of the school. His sword hand flexed and unflexed in an unconscious exercise. The target would be in here somewhere, he was sure of it. No vampire would be out in that horse arena, light shining through all those windows. The windows would need to be boarded up- which any fool could see they were not.
Still, it was an excellent way to get Niijima out from underfoot. The last thing Ren needed was a famous aristocrat getting herself killed. He would inevitably take the blame. Lose the contract. And be forced from the city, unpaid, while she would gain local martyrdom for the vampire kill.
Plus, the idea of a world without Niijima was undesirable to Ren. He didn’t want her dead over some hobby she was currently romanticizing. Killing ferals and a single high-grade? Well, half killing… and that wasn’t hunting. Not really.
But... it was interesting to watch her change her masks as she learned new things; confidence, to insecurity, to realization, to confidence again; and all of them were beautiful. Not that aesthetics had anything to do with anything, of course. It was because humanity needed people like her in the world. She was a rising star of the species, and it would be irresponsible to allow some exile noble to snuff her out.
Kobayakawa led Ren down a long hallway, their apparent destination was another set of stairs going to the third floor. The school structure was elaborately windowed, but each pane of glass was covered by multiple layers of lacey drapery- all of it apparently meticulously cared for and sheening white. The hallways stretched along these lightly billowing linens in dull shadow; the white fabric glowing with indirect daylight. Ren winced against it and put his spectacles back on.
The rotund Kobayakawa wheezed his way up the third-floor stairwell with Ren following silently behind. The school decor was curious. Was this a recent change? An attempt to limit the amount of sunlight inside the school?
“How long have the windows been thus?” asked Ren.
“Huh? Huhhhh…. The- the-? Huhhhh… hhhhhooooohhhhh…. huhhh.. The windows?” gasped Kobayakawa on the apex of the third floor. “They- hohhh... they’vealwaysbeenthatway… huuhhhh… a tradition of the school.”
So, not a new addition. And Ren didn’t think a noble vampire could withstand the light, anyway. If it was this hard to his own eyes, it would kindle a noble in an instant.
“Mr. Hiruta’s office is just down this hallway,” said a recovering Kobayakawa.
“Has he been teaching his classes?”
“Does he keep the classroom dark?”
“He teaches natural science. I know he keeps it dark when he brings the damn fruit bats in. He started that last month. The students bring candles to class and light them at their desks.”
“I see,” said Ren.
**Sounds like our man.**
For once, Ren agreed with Morgana. Kobayakawa halted his lumbering pace in front of a door. Mr. Hiruta’s name was emblazoned in baroque lettering on the dark wood. As Principal Kobayakawa knocked, Ren edged back and looked under the door. It was dark. No lights were on in the room. No windows were open to daylight. What sort of human sat in a pitch black office in the middle of the morning? Ren’s right hand drifted under his coat to the hilt of his longsword.
“Mr. Hiruta. Are you in there? I called an assembly.”
Silence. Amamiya sniffed. Nothing vampiric, but that didn’t mean anything with a noble. He called to Morganna:
Do you sense anything?
“Mr. Hiruta,” said Principal Kobayakawa again as he knocked a second time. “I know you’re in there! Why didn’t you attend my assembly!”
“Oh! Uh! Mr. Kobayakawa!” said a nasally male voice from beyond the door. “I’m sorry. I’m a bit under the weather today…”
“Are you ill? Shall I call-”
Ren stepped forward and pushed Principal Kobayakawa aside. The obesce man stumbled sideways and fell, shaking the floor. Ren had used too much strength on him, but it wasn’t the time to worry about it. Mr. Hiruta was hiding in the dark and refusing to come out. That was almost confirmation enough. Ren raised his foot and kicked the office door in.
A squeal emanated from the darkness as the door flew open in a small burst of splinters from the frame. The tidy office was shrouded in shadow, two obviously massive windows were thoroughly curtained by thick drapes- blocking out almost all the daylight. Ren strode in, his eyes easily picking out a huddled humanoid form on a divan couch which rested between two small bookshelves. The person was enwrapped in light sheets.
“Who- who are you!” said the huddled form.
Ren strode towards the man, sword tip up. The dull metal incited a panicked scream of terror and the figure tried to scramble from the couch, but tangled as it was, it fell to the rug with a hard thump.
Ren paused, sword pointing at the cringing, sobbing figure. Doubt was now playing over his mind. This was exactly how Kobayakawa had reacted to Ren’s blade. And that lard was no vampire. If this Hiruta was a disguised noble, he was deeply devoted to staying in character.
Any of Ren’s other targets would have dropped the act and attacked by now. But perhaps this one was simply more subtle.? Well… subtlety was easy enough to end.
Ren strode for the window drapes and tugged at them savagely. The poles above the windows wrenched from the wall, showering plaster over the room as daylight suddenly blazed over the walls, white and harsh after the darkness.
“Ahh!” said the cringing figure and Ren saw a glimpse of red-rimmed eyes before a flailing arm of Mr. Hiruta desperately pulled the tangling sheets over his face to hide from the light. He was sensitive to the light!
… But he was not catching on fire! Was he a dhampir? A dhampir gone to the other side? Ren’s sword hand tightened, he thought about striking now and ending the battle before it began- but-.. He couldn’t kill an innocent person by mistake. He needed to risk further confirmation.
Ren stepped forward and used his left arm to pull the cringing, wormish form of the sheet-wrapped teacher up to its feet. Then he shook the man as hard as he could.
“Arrghh! Stop! Stop! My head! God!”
The sheet fell from Mr Hiruta’s face. Revealing a red-rimmed, blood-shot-eyed man with a sickly pallor. Ren sniffed lightly, and an overwhelming blast of stale gin-breath seared up his nose. He snorted and let Mr. Hiruta go. The teacher staggered but remained standing, holding his head and wincing against the light. This isn’t the fucking vampire. It’s just a hungover drunkard.
“Amamiya!” called a distant and frantic female voice from outside the window.
Ren’s head snapped towards the window he’d exposed. Down below him and across the campus yard, Makoto was pointing her gun towards the entrance of the equine arena.
She’d found the target. No question. But the windows! How? Fuck! An illusion! An illusion or windows, or an illusion of unblocked windows. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! How stupid could he be? Forgetting the fucking basics!
Ren didn’t have time to head back through the school. He raised his left hand, palm outward towards the office window..
“Amamiya damnit!” came Niijima’s voice again.
Morgana! The window!
Wind burst from Ren’s palm, pushing his arm back. He held firm against the expected blast, but the window exploded outward in shards of glass and wood. Ren leaped out after the debris. One gloved hand holding his hat firm against the brightest part of the morning sky.
Makoto wavered before the silent blackness that was now the interior of the horse arena. What was the creature doing in there? Was he eating the Sakamotos? Was he escaping? Was he just watching her? Waiting for her to go in after him, too? Should she?! She was a vampire hunter, right? If anyone was supposed to step forward in these situations, it was her!
But- God! Into the pitch black? Darkness even a flare couldn’t illuminate? That sure seemed a damn stupid thing to do. What would be the point? Go in. Be blind. Get killed?! That might be what just happened to Sakamoto Ryuji. But at least he tried! And what am I doing? Pointing my gun at a doorway and pissing my pants!?
Go in, coward!
No! It’s stupid!
Help. She needed help. They all did. Makoto forced her jaw to open. “Amamiya damnit!”
Almost as a response, a loud whooshing, snapping, shattering sound came from her right side. She turned her head to see Amamiya falling from one of the school windows amidst a cloud of sparkling glass shards. He landed in a crouch, gloved hand on hat, then Amamiya’s grey eyes focused on her as he exited the crouch into a sprint towards her. Quickly eating up the distance.
“He’s in there! Kamoshida’s it!” said Makoto frantically as Amamiya came to a skidding halt in the dirt next to her, his eyes immediately on the doorway to the horse arena. “He has Ann. Unconscious or something. Ryuji is in there, too, and I think he’s badly hurt. He ran into the dark, but my flares don’t work!”
“That’s not dark. It’s a blanket,” said Amamiya. “Only a fool would run into that.”
Makoto felt a small twinge of relief. It wasn’t cowardice keeping her out here! She’d been right not to go in! But that didn’t help Ann or Ryuji! Her mouth opened to ask Amamiya what they should do, but he raised his left hand, palm outward towards the dark interior of the equine arena. He was going to employ the cat-hand? What could it do?
At first, it seemed to do nothing. Amamiya stood there quietly, palm towards the arena. But then Makoto noticed that a long string of the darkness was threading its way out of the doorway towards Amamiya’s palm. Then more strands of darkness followed the first, and then thicker strands of darkness started flowing. Soon it was like the black soup which filled the arena was being sucked into some insatiable drain in Amamiya’s palm. A new sound emerged, a repetitive thumping and creaking, getting steadily louder. What was that?
In a final, hissing slurp- the black string was gone, revealing a sawdust-floored horse arena bathed in the normal light of day. And a four-horsed black coach charging directly at them. Makoto had time to realize that sound she’d just heard was hoof beats, then she flung herself to the side to avoid being trampled by the stampeding coach.
Ren crouched lightly as the coach thundered down upon him. Sun-tight coach. Interior reins. Semi-autonomous navigation via the four mechanical horses. The go-to vehicle for a vampire with somewhere to go during the day, and wanted to hibernate while doing it. These common vehicles were metal, and not counting the horses and wheels, almost entirely free of moving parts. They were annoyingly easy to find in the wilderness, rusty but serviceable to both mechanical and living horses. It seemed like every exile with a brain found one of these things first thing after landfall. But four mechanical horses? That was uncommon extravagance.
But these coaches were also heavy and relatively slow. They couldn’t handle wet terrain- and a hunter slayer on a single horse would always be faster. But no need to chase when one could just hitch a ride…
Ren leaped easily into the air, the horses thundering over where he’d just been standing. He landed lightly on the shafts connecting the animals to the coach. Startled screams erupted as surprised students fled the path of the careening team. Ren glanced to see the school gate and narrow alleyway coming up behind him. He crouched and held tightly to the horse tack as the team shot through the gap, metallic hooves sliding on the cobblestones as they turned tighter than any living horse would attempt. The trailing coach slammed into school gateway. Stone debis exploded into the air, but the metal rear wheel was unaffected.
The coach accelerated down the alleyway, mercifully free of pedestrians. Amamiya took advantage of the brief straightway to move to the shafts of the inner pair of horses. Meanwhile, a lithe figure in spiked armor climbed on top of the school wall just after the coach passed. Niijima. She didn’t give up, that’s for sure. He saw her leap to the alleyway cobbles as the coach took the next sharp turn onto the main street and then buildings cut her and the school off from view.
Louder screams erupted as the coach careened into morning traffic. Organic horses shied away, a few bucking their riders. A cart of fruits and vegetables disintegrated as the skidding metal bulk slammed into it. Then they were off on the straightaway of the main street, allowing Ren the stability to hop lightly to the coach itself.
Wait. This was the street his horse was on. He looked left just as the alleyway passed and spotted his own horse, standing idly next to Niijima’s motorcycle- still attached to that fucking school cart. Well, there was no helping it now.
“Sequor!” Ren yelled.
The horse started moving towards him, but then he lost sight of it as the alleyway fell behind Kamoshida’s rampaging escape coach. It would do its best to follow him, but the cart would slow it down- assuming that damnable thing didn’t get stuck on something.
The coach skidded into another turn. Ren snagged the edge to hold his balance. They’d just turned onto a west-bound avenue. Where was Kamoshida going? The nearest gate was south of here. Well, in the city, outside the city, it didn’t matter to Ren. He just needed to get this damn tank open.
The flat top of the coach was for luggage, mostly, but the one vulnerability in the otherwise solid frame was where the doors met with the main body. Ren scooted himself over to that part of the roof, holding the luggage bars to keep him steady as the coach careened left and right down the city streets, avoiding some obstacles- plowing through others. Ren found the door joint, lifted his left fist, and slammed it down atop the metal surface. Bone cracked. Ren gasped against the agony of a shattered wrist. The metal showed a very slight dent.
A hammer. I need to bring a fucking hammer, Ren said to himself as he waited for his wrist to heal. In a few moments, the pain vanished. He clenched his left hand experimentally, then raised it, and slammed the coach again.
Crrrunch. Ren gasped again and waiting for the pain to recede once more.
Fuck me. Hammer. Bring a hammer next time. Or maybe something like Niijima’s gauntlets. Those things looked pretty firm.
The coach turned again. Ren looked around them. It was a part of the city he was unfamiliar with; Smaller buildings; A bit rundown; Less traffic and more wide-eyed loiterers and morning drunks. Where was Kamoshida going? Was he even trying to get out of Tock-Yo? It didn’t matter. The longer the ride, the better. All Ren needed to do was open this door and let the light in.
Ren lost his balance and leaned forward slightly. He looked ahead of the coach’s path. It was angled downward as the street sank into a decline. A dark tunnel loomed around him, encompassing Ren and the rambling coach in artificially smooth stone walls. Daylight faded, and the far entrance was but a speck in the distance. It was a ruin: some ancient construction of the old imperial city that Tock-Yo must have been built over.
The underground dark was the only place a harried traveler could safely exit and remove a stowaway like Ren. The coach came to a sudden stop, then Ren stepped back from the coach door frame and drew his sword. The door opened.
Kamoshida’s hand shot out as he leapt from the interior of the coach, swinging easily up and over onto the roof, his own longsword ready for battle. Ren froze. His heart skipped as he saw the murderous look on his cousin’s face. A look that abruptly turned to one of wide-eyed surprise.
“Amamiya Ren?” said Kamoshida.
“Bathory Suguru?” said Ren.
Ren’s mind whirled with forgotten childhood memories of this man visiting Ren’s home during the summer. Suguru always accompanied his mother when she visited: Ren’s aunt, Countess Camilla Bathory. Back then, Ren was twelve years old. Meanwhile, Suguru had likely been closer to twelve-hundred. More an uncle than a cousin, really.
Brief flashes of nostalgic visions crossed Ren’s inner eye. Nightly hikes to the small river to swim. Dirty jokes and pranks on local women (human and noble.) All the fun things a young boy could enjoy with an immature older male relative.
Kamoshida lowered his sword, but he didn’t sheath it. “Small world. I’d heard you went hunting exiles.”
Ren lowered his sword slowly. “... I heard you were exiled for poaching serfs.”
The man humans called Kamoshida laughed bitterly. “You know my mother. Insatiable. But I’d rather get tossed off Shikoku for a few hundred years than deny one of her requests.”
“Your mother is dead, Suguru.”
“Yeah, but you know how she is. She’s not letting that stop her.” Kamoshida smiled disarmingly. “I’m glad its you- I wasn’t looking forward to a fight with a slayer. Not with the cargo I have. You should see this girl I got, Ren! She’s going to be delicious. I’m willing to share.”
Ren kept his face carefully neutral as his mind recalled an image of Sakamoto Ann. She seemed like the type who would be uniquely delicious, though Ren had no frame of reference for what that flavor might be. Apparently, blood capsules and corpse blood didn’t come close to the real thing, or so Ren understood from others.
“No, thanks,” said Ren, keeping his voice light. “Her brother?”
Kamoshida shrugged. “Just a snack till I can savor the girl. I broke his leg, so he’d have to be put down anyway.”
Suguru never did pay attention to the serfs. Ren accidently let some exasperation into his voice as he said: “Humans can recover from broken bones, Suguru. They’re not horses.”
“Oh? Really? Well… you learn something new every day,” Kamoshida laughed again. Then he sighed, his smile fading slightly. “This was a surprising meeting, Ren, but I need to get going. Sorry I ruined this contract for you, but I’ll pay you back someday, okay?”
He was expecting Ren to let him go. Well… he was family. Sort of. But he was also a monster feeding on innocent young human women. Did a few fond memories forgive that? Was that enough to doom the Sakamotos to being drained alive? For a cousin… and at that a deadbeat cousin only a pre-teen boy could love? Ren was not that boy anymore. His hand tightened on the hilt of his sword. This cousin was the personification of everything wrong with his mother’s people. Family or no- an exile was an exile. A beast was a beast.
Ren realized he should take the opportunity to strike now while Suguru wasn’t ready for it. But then, just as Ren made the decision to kill his cousin, he realized he’d hesitated too long. The mask of cousin Suguru was already melting away, and the creature who chose the name Kamoshida was standing before Ren now. His smile just barely twisted enough to no longer be friendly. Virulent energy abruptly surged between them as they both realized the other would have to die.
Ren lunged. Kamoshida’s sword flicked into defense. The blades clanged and then ground into each other as both men leaned forward and reached for their belts with their other hands. Kamoshida flashed out a knife, blade streaking for Ren’s eyes. Meanwhile, Ren pulled the trigger on his new acquisition.
Kamoshida’s dagger arm faltered as his torso jerked from the close-range pistol shots. The strength in his right arm faltered, so Ren surged forward against their grinding swords and pushed Kamoshida down to the roof of the coach. Then he stepped back and aimed at Kamoshida’s head.
Blood and white bone splattered across the coach roof as Kamoshida’s upper jaw collapsed inward. Damnit! Too low again! Anticipating the jump of the crossbow bolt was built into his muscle memory, he was aiming too low! No matter. It was enough. Ren swung his sword arm, aiming for the neck.
“Pabilsag,” slurred Kamoshida’s broken mouth. A monstrous scorpion tail shot out from his back.
It moved faster than Ren could follow and embedded its stinger into Ren’s descending wrist.
Ren’s sword tumbled from his grasp, his wrist suddenly not following commands. The blade hit the coach roof and tumbled to the concrete below. Then the stinger jerked out of Ren’s arm and plunged into Ren’s chest, driving the air from his lungs in a surprised gasp. Ren’s mouth yelled silently in agony.
**Persona! He’s got a persona, Ren!**
Ren struggled to recatch his breath, but he wasn’t getting much air with the stinger digging into his lung. He grabbed at the impaling tail, trying to get a grip on the hard red carapace, but his right hand was numb and useless.
Kamoshida was pulling himself to his feet- his eyes burning with rage while his mouth knitted itself back together. The tail pressed harder into Ren’s chest. Ren started to feel a bit woozy. It was injecting him with something.
“Think you can really kill me!? I was already old the day you came out your mother’s serf-fucking cunt!”
Ren raised his left hand again, aimed the pistol, and emptied the rest of the clip into Kamoshida’s head. Bone shards and grey slime erupted into the air and Kamoshida’s expression of rage transformed into meaty ruin. The gun clicked empty as Kamoshida’s torso fell limp against the ground.
The dead weight of the giant scorpion tail brought Ren to his knees as he pulled uselessly at the thing. Every effort to get it out brought fresh pain searing through his chest. His body was healing around it, then the new flesh was tearing with every effort to get the fucking thing out.
Never mind. He needed to finish Kamoshida off, then deal with the tail. But his sword was on the ground below them... Though Kamoshida’s sword was still in the man’s limp hand. It was out of reach. Ren leaned for it, but the stiff mass of the impaling limb in Ren’s chest pushed back against him. He couldn’t reach Kamoshida’s sword, and his own was farther away than that. Kamoshida’s head was already regenerating. Ren’s small window of opportunity to decapitate the noble was rapidly closing.
Fuck! Morgana! Can you suck the sword to me?
**No! Nothing material! You know that!**
**Get your knife out!**
Ren drew his sword breaker and stabbed at Kamoshida’s tail. The tip bounced off the hard exoskeleton. The force on the limb pushed the stinger around inside his chest, sending new agony through his mind.
Fuck! Calm down! Not the shell. The joints!
Ren jabbed the blade into the soft spot between the carapace segmentation. The metal bit in there and moved the stinger again, but Ren was ready for it, and there was no helping it. At least he was getting somewhere. Ren stabbed again, sinking the knife in further. The tail twitched slightly. Ren looked at Kamoshida. The man’s fingers were twitching, too. Ren was almost out of time. He tried slicing the joint. Not much progress. He turned the blade over and tried using the serrated sword-catcher side. A bit better progress.
“Stuck like yakitori, are you?” laughed a gargling voice.
Ren felt life return to the tail and it pushed upward, the stinger poking and slicing his insides all over again. He grunted in pain and was forced to stand up as the tail lifted him, then he used his arms to hang on to it as it lifted him off his feet. It wasn’t enough, he could feel the stinger slowly slicing him through as gravity pulled his body. Ren continued to tug at it, but it just wouldn't let him go.
All the while, Kamoshida was getting to his feet, sword in hand, skull steadily reshaping itself. The first of his eyes slowly regained its form as Ren looked. That eye immediately focused on him. The sword arm cocked back, now with a target in sight.
“You fucking hafu...”
Ren brought up his left palm. It was all he had left.
Kamoshida staggered back under the wind gust. The opposite force pushed at Ren’s stiff left arm, propelling him backward. He screamed as the stinger wrenched free of his body. Then his heels hit the coach roof, his upper body still traveling backward, and he fell from the coach. The top of his shoulders slammed into the broken gravel of the tunnel road. His neck twisted painfully as his lower body tumbled over him and he flopped into a gasping tangle of coat and limbs.
Knowing his attacker would be on him immediately, Ren frantically rolled onto his back so he could see the attack coming. Kamoshida was staring down at him, teeth bared, scorpion tail up and raised over his right shoulder. Ren had to avoid that thing. Morgana’s wind trick wouldn’t work a second time.
Then a roaring noise interrupted the tense silence. Kamoshida looked up and away from Ren, looking at something down the tunnel. He grimaced and then turned and vanished from Ren’s sight along the coach roof. Ren rolled and spotted his sword laying nearby. He scrambled over to it as he heard the coach door shut. The mechanical horses jerked into motion. Ren snatched up his blade and stood as the coach began moving away from him.
He stepped forward to grab it. But he teetered slightly, his vision going blurry. He took a step, lost his balance, staggered into the tunnel wall. The coach moved out of his reach. Fuck. Ren’s legs gave out and he slumped to the ground again.
Morgana, he poisoned me.
**Obviously! I’ve been holding it back as long as I could. Give me some time to clean this stuff out!**
We don’t have time!
**I’m doing the best that I can! Your horse needs to catch up anyway.**
Ren sighed in frustration. That much was true. Where was that thing? And also: what was that roaring sound?
He looked back down the tunnel. It was a flickering lamp approaching at high speed. A motorcycle. A motorcycle carrying a human woman.
Well, fuck me. It’s her.
Ren winced against the headlamp as the roaring machine drew close. The roar mellowed. Tires locked and skidded along gravel. Niijima was stopping to check on him. No… don’t stop. The coach!! There was still hope!
“No! Don’t stop. Go! Go after him!” Ren waved with his arm, indicating for Niijima to go past. “Don’t lose him. I’ll catch up! I can follow the tires! Wait for me!”
Niijima stopped her bike next to him, crimson eyes flashing under her armored mask.
“Just get on!”
She scrunched forward on her cycle, revealing a portion of seat for Ren to sit on.
Oh… that was a much better idea. Ren staggered to his feet, his legs not quite obeying his commands.
“Poisoned. He has a scorpion tail.”
Ren decided that was a rhetorical question. He lifted his leg, couldn’t quite get it high enough, and fell into Niijima’s back as he settled onto the seat. He thudded against her leather armor, her stance surprisingly firm. She barely budged under his abrupt weight.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’ll get through the poison. Just need some time.”
“All right. Hold on!”
She accelerated abruptly. The force surprising Ren. His arms clenched around her waist, but his grip was weak. He felt himself falling backwards, his greater height dragging his hands upwards and back with him. His hands slipped up Niijima’s leather tunic, fingers weakly clenching for purchase, trying to resist the forces pulling him back and off the motorcycle. He gripped her utility belt, lost it, his hand sliding to her lowest rib, he gripped but his fingers failed him, he slipped backward again, the rear fender pressing into the small of his back. Then his hands finally found purchase on the mound of armor over her breasts.
Niijima’s right arm shot up, snagged Ren’s forearm and yanked his arm back down. The force of the yank pulled his chest down and firmly against Niijima’s back, his other hand falling limp to her waist. Ren felt his center of gravity settle onto the seat. He was no longer in danger of falling off the back.
“What the hell are you doing?!” Niijima’s voice was shrill over the roar of the motor.
“Falling! My limbs are weak! I can’t grip!”
She kept a firm grip on his arm with her right hand and held onto the handlebars with her left. The motorcycle continued at pace, however. Did she have another throttle somewhere? She must have. It didn’t matter. They were traveling quickly now. The coach was far ahead, but it was just passing back into the sunlight. They weren’t far behind!
Makoto was aggravated and thoroughly uncomfortable. She was unused to being touched. The shock of it put her in a foul mood. But she could forgive Amamiya’s accidental roving palms. Makoto had fallen off the back of a motorcycle once- she knew that feeling of slow-motion panic.
Still! That didn’t make the indignation go away immediately. The pressure of his hands there, through her armor- it was stuck in her mind like a song she couldn’t shake.
She was also sitting forward on the bike, half off the seat, handlebars jammed up too close, the installed battery for Iwai’s blue light digging into the area just above her groin. Plus Amamiya’s surprising weight on her back pressing her forward even more. He was heavy! She was holding onto his right arm and her fingers could feel his flesh through the joints in his armor- though it was hard to tell what was armor and what was muscle because it was all surprisingly hard. If Amamiya was this thickly corded all over, it would explain why the man was so damn heavy despite being rather lanky.
She also hated riding on gravel: a treacherous, unfriendly surface. The extra bulk of Amamiya and her own forward position drastically altered the center of gravity she was used to. In short, nothing about the current situation was ideal or comfortable.
Also: it looked like Amamiya took a thorough thrashing from the vampire. Makoto only saw brief glimpses of Amamiya’s martial abilities last night and today: she’d seen him leap up the side of a building: suck in black magic: and leap from third-story windows unharmed. If despite being able to do all that, a noble vampire still turned Amamiya into a staggering weakling… how the hell did normal people hunt them? What did Father do? What does Sae do? Makoto’s revolver and bladed gauntlets seemed more and more like toys.
They rode back into the daylight and found themselves in a forested area with robust greenery. The tunnel they’d just passed was known as The Long Dark, and it led to a mostly uninhabited waste in the center of Tock-Yo- a swampy area known as Inokashira. The ground was too wet to build on, the soil too… something or other to grow crops in, and the air too filled with mosquitos to enjoy. Criminals and avid duck hunters were pretty much the only people who came here.
And noble vampires fleeing pursuit.
Gravel gave way to dried mud, which was solid enough for Makoto to increase the speed. The heavy metal coach was leaving an obvious path in the soft earth. Makoto followed it cautiously, as the path twisted amongst trees, both living and fallen. She was surprised there was a path here at all. Much less one that a coach could follow. Who was bringing enough carriages in and out of this marsh to keep the vegetation down?
“Maybe the fool will get stuck in the mud,” Amamiya said from behind her left ear. “Save us the trouble…”
Before she could stop herself, Makoto quoted something she read: “Only dead men hope their enemies are fools.”
Amamiya let out an amused grunt, a gust of hot breath flowing over Makoto’s ear. “True enough. He must be down here for a reason. Hey, wait. He went off the trail here.”
He was right. While the mysterious coach path continued on into the woods, the fresh trail of their quarry made an abrupt left. It was heading back towards the small ridge from whence the tunnel of The Long Dark emerged. Makoto turned onto the new path, feeling her back wheel slide on a thin layer of mud.
They soon came upon the stopped coach. It was parked near the entrance to some kind of cave, and the coach was jammed up near the rockface. The team of mechanical horses were standing like statues- a lot of wealth to abandon. Perhaps their prey was more desperate than they thought. Or… this is where he turned around to fight.
Amamiya slid off the back of Johanna as Makoto put out the kickstand and switched her off. An eerie quiet surrounded them, though likely it was simply the engine noise having scared the wildlife into silence. He was walking better now, though he was still looking leaden in his movements. He staggered slightly as he went to look inside the coach’s open door.
“Nothing. And no blood. He took them with him.”
Ann and Ryuji! Makoto felt relief flood through her. “Are they still alive?”
“Probably,” Amamiya turned to regard the dark cave. “A vampire isn’t likely to kill his captives outright. As I understand it, there’s no discernible difference in taste from freshly dead and long dead, so a meal loses all its value if the human dies first.”
A difference in taste? Based on the mortality of the human? How could such a thing be possible? The flavor of fresh pork and salt pork was vastly different; but Amamiya was saying that, from the vampire’s perspective, there was an instant change the very moment of death. Yet in such a moment to moment transition, the corpse would not be notably different than a few moments previous when the person was alive. So what then... were vampires feeding on exactly? Yes, blood, but blood was in fresh corpses, too. What else did a living human have?
This trail of thought was getting metaphysical, and there wasn’t any time for that. Their prey, and the Sakamotos, were getting away from them. Makoto strode to where Amamiya was leaning against the cave wall, looking down into the dark. She wanted to hurry, but they couldn’t move faster than Amamiya at this point.
“How are you?”
Amamiya’s eyes met hers. His face still had a bit of a sickly cast to it, though it was hard to tell due to his naturally pale skin. He nodded.
“I’m fine. I’ll be ready when we reach him.”
“What are we waiting for?”
Amamiya looked back down into the cave. “Traps. This must be his Palace. Never rush into a noble’s Palace. There’s always traps”
Amamiya shrugged. “It’s what I call their homes, their shelters. An exile noble is used to certain comforts. Qualities of life they enjoyed for thousands of years. In exile, they crave the same luxury they had before. So they turn their homes into a Palace as best they can.”
An exile? That was an interesting word. “What do you mean? Exile noble? Exiled from where?”
Amamiya stiffened. His mouth curled into a grimace. Makoto hadn’t seen this look in a while. He didn’t want to tell her something.
“An exile from where, Mr. Amamiya?”
“Somewhere else,” Amamiya heaved himself off the wall and turned his grimace down upon her. “We don’t have time for this, Ms. Niijima. I don’t see anything dangerous down there, but follow me at a small distance. Step where I step. Touch nothing else. Understand?”
Makoto’s mind was burning with curiosity. Amamiya had let something slip and he knew it, but he was also correct: they didn’t have time for this. But when this was over... there would be some quiet afternoon she could bring him to a private place and have him all to herself…
Makoto felt heat blush over her face. That was an odd way to think about a private conversation! The excitement of the day was getting to her. That was evidence, right there. And what was she doing even thinking about it at all! Ryuji and Ann were still in danger!
“Is something wrong?” asked Amamiya.
She looked up into his grey eyes and the heat redoubled over her cheeks. She looked away and stared down into the darkness of the cave. “No! I’m fine! I’ll follow you, of course!”
She felt Amamiya’s gaze for a few moments longer, then he moved in front of her and into the darkness. She followed. Somewhere down here was the vampire- and Ann and Ryuji. They needed to hurry, but Amamiya was still weakened, so not hurry too much- and now there was a danger of lethal booby traps.
It was daunting. Makoto still felt far out of her league. How much more didn’t she know? A lot, she was sure. She should have done more research- perhaps seek out vampire hunters and get them to explain their tactics. Father had never gone into such technical detail- he wanted her to have the fundamentals of combat and riding first. And Sae- well, Sae wasn’t one to talk about the specifics of her work. Then there was her new partner. Amamiya was mostly willing to share- but he wasn’t proactive. He explained things as they encountered it, which was way too late for Makoto’s liking. Just another reason for that private conversation with this reticent man.
But first things first: survive today.
A small part of Makoto was tired from lack of sleep and longing for a bath, a soft chair, a good book. The rest of her eagerly followed Amamiya into the darkness. She didn’t know what was going to happen. She wasn’t confident she was up to the challenge of whatever was down here. She felt ignorant, inadequate, incompetent. But Ryuji and Ann needed someone, anyone. And Amamiya had already been defeated once while alone. Maybe he was outmatched, too. Makoto realized he’d not even suggested that she stay behind or go back to the city. He offered her no ploy to go look at the “safe” spot. He wanted her with her.
He thought she would be useful.
Makoto drew her revolver.
And she will be. Amamiya will see. Sae will see. Father will see.
Sakamoto Ryuji came screaming back to consciousness. He opened his eyes to see some sort of smooth stone texture passing before him, illuminated by dim light. He felt an arm around his waist, over which he was awkwardly drooped. The pain which revived him was coming from his right leg, and with every stride of Ryuji’s captor, Ryuji’s leg was jolted, sending new agony careening through his mind.
They stopped before a metal door. Ryuji was dropped to the ground. His leg sent new agony to his mind. Ryuji couldn’t think- it was too intense. He screamed again, just to try and get some of the pain out of his body.
“Shut up!” snarled a male voice.
The door opened. Ryuji felt himself get picked up, but just as his leg was forcing another scream from his mouth- the open door slammed into his head. His vision flashed white and he was now focused on a new type of delirious pain in his skull. But- but it deadened the pain in his leg. Ryuji rotated his head, his vision blurry in the darkness.
The door was closing behind them. They were in some kind of hallway, lit by orange light. Ann was hanging limp beside him, on the other side of quickly-walking legs. She was also bouncing with the stride of the person holding them both, her blond pigtails swinging wildly. She was still unconscious.
They both were being spirited away like two bags of clothing... Or two piglets to slaughter. Ryuji’s daze faded as the reality of his situation came back to him, clearing his vision and sending a surge of adrenaline through his body.
Fuck! Kamoshida is a vampire! I gotta get Ann outa here!
As he realized this, the footsteps of Kamoshida changed pitch, now sounding metallic. But it was an unimportant development to Ryuji. He saw his target. Right between this fucker’s legs. He struck out with his right fist.
Right in the sack! So it works on vampires, too! Ryuji struck out again, this time aiming for a knee. He landed a hit, but it didn’t get the same reaction.
“Are you in a rush to die?” shouted Kamoshida.
Ryuji’s world suddenly spun and he was flying through the air. The back of his head hit something hard. Dazed once again, he fell to the ground- And then past the ground. Kamoshida was on some kind of metal bridge, watching him fall.
“Shit!” said Kamoshida.
Ryuji looked down into a yawning darkness. He screamed in fear. His injured leg smashed into something as he fell. Ryuji screamed louder. His head collided with a hard object and his universe went dark.
Makoro followed Amamiya closely, just as he’d advised. The darkness here was not entirely complete. Daylight was reflecting its way down the passage, giving just enough illumination for her to get a general sense of her surroundings. Was that enough daylight to give a vampire trouble? Makoto was unsure, and this wasn’t the time to make unnecessary noise by asking Amamiya about another curiosity. Besides, Kamoshida made it through here, so obviously it wasn’t too much daylight to impair him.
They were in a wide-open space with a smooth stone floor. Too smooth, some to think of it. Makoto realized this was a crafted space. Another imperial ruin, sitting dark and neglected amidst the growing metropolis of Tock-Yo. How many were there? Did anyone know them all? The places were taboo to most and useless to everyone else. Anything useful was cleaned out centuries before. But Kamoshida was utilizing them: first ‘The Long Dark’ as an escape route, and now this place as a- a Palace? That’s what Amamiya called it, anyway.
Was anyone still interested in these places, or were they just like mountains: mapped once hundreds of years ago and then taken for granted ever since. Admittedly, Makoto never spared them much thought but that wouldn't be the case after today. She should know what was under her own city.
They came to a new descent. This one was narrower and it appeared to be some sort of stairway. Four stairways, with individual waist-high walls which served as railings for each set of stairs. All four were only wide enough for maybe two people to stand. An unusual design. Why not just make the stairwell as wide as the passage? Why bother with extra little walls?
Amamiya stopped to examine one of the four stairwells. Then he stood, looked at her, then descended. His feet made a different sound as he stepped upon the first step. It sounded metallic. Makoto followed him closely, careful not to touch anything she didn’t have to. Darkness deepened around them as they clanked down the stairs. Makoto unhooked the electric lantern from her hip. This was an expensive item- perhaps the most valuable thing she personally owned.
She flipped the switch. A soft yellow glow illuminated the stairwells.The steps gleamed with a strange grooved texture… almost like rows of tilled farmland. Bizzare.
Amamiya froze at the sudden light. He turned to look at her. Seemed to consider the situation. Then turned back and continued downward. Makoto was sure he figured it out: she wasn’t about to wander around down here blind. And if vampires could see in the dark- it was unlikely they were going to sneak up on anyone, anyway.
At the bottom of the stairwells, the smooth stone floor stretched to the left and right, but abruptly ended in front of them. There seemed to be some sort of drop off into the dark below. They walked closer and found the drop to only be a few feet- down to more smooth stone. But the floor down there was adorned with two long metal… poles, Makoto guessed they were. The poles were laying on the ground, lengthwise, running parallel with each other into the unknowable darkness to the left and to the right. Further across this depression was another portion of raised smooth stone, like where Makoto and Amamiya now stood. What manner of place was this? The architecture was bizarre.
“Turn off the light,” Amamiya whispered.
Makoto did so, and darkness collapsed around her. But she found she wasn’t blind. There was a glow coming from their right. It was not enough to see her immediate surroundings, but she could make out the arc of another tunnel to their right. The light was coming from down there somewhere. Makoto felt Amamiya take her hand and pull her lightly along with him. They were heading towards the glow.
“How do you know this is the right way?’ Makoto whispered as softly as she could.
“I can smell Ms. Sakamoto. She passed this way.”
Oh, right. The smell of a virgin. ... Who smells better? Me or Ann?
What! What does that matter! Focus!
Nearer the archway of the tunnel, the light was strong enough for Makoto to let go of Amamiya’s hand and navigate herself. The platform they stood on ended in a smooth stone wall, so they dropped into the depression for the metal beams and continued into the tunnel.
They walked steadily down a large curved corridor, following the curved metal poles on the ground. Ahead of them, a single burning light bulb came into view- the source of the glow. Electricity! Was this place connected to the city’s steam plants? No, that couldn’t be possible. There must be another energy source. Something down here. Something Kamoshida must be using.
Below the bulb was a metal door. It had no handle or latch or knob that Makoto could see. And carved into the door were the words:
Impetu Indespectus Imperium
It was the imperial language. The same language the church used. Well, anything old seemed to use it. Makoto’s understanding was imperfect, and the grammar seemed weird, but she read it as: ‘Control Unseeable Force. Only Laborers.’ What did that mean? Maybe Amamiya would know.
“What does that mean?” she whispered.
“It’s a place where workers can control the power generator.”
“Power generator? Like electricity?”
“How do you know?”
“Does it matter? Kamoshida took the Sakamotos in there, I’m sure of it,” Amamiya ran his fingers along the edges of the door. “But how does it open?” He curled his fingers and tried pulling at the narrow edges. He didn’t seem to be making any progress.
Makoto reached out with her hands. Her gauntlet was suddenly pulled into the door with a dull ‘thunk’. And it stuck. Startled, she yanked her hand away and felt a familiar resistance before her hand freed itself.
“It’s a magnet,” she said, forgetting to whisper. “The door is being held closed by a magnet.”
“How can we stop it?”
“Umm-” Makoto flung her mind back to her schooling, her studies, her endless hours in the Niijima Library. Natural Science. Magnetized metals. Got it! “Melt it. Or hammer it.”
Amamiya grunted in frustration: “A hammer. Of course. Do you have one?”
Amamiya grunted again. Then he stepped back and push-kicked the door.
The door shuddered in its frame and developed a small dent. Meanwhile, Amamiya gasped in pain and collapsed to the ground, holding his knee.
“What are you doing!?”
“Hammering,” hissed Amamiya through gritted teeth.
Ryuji’s eyes fluttered open to a dim room. Wires and pipes covered the walls. Before him, on a small pedestal, a yellow, cantaloupe-sized orb pulsed with glowing light. It seemed all the wires and pipes in the room came out of the weird orb’s pedestal.
**Ah, I’ve been waiting quite a while.***
What was that?
But before Ryuji could start to think about the voice he’d heard, an overwhelming wave of agony ballooned through his mind. Everything hurt. Everything was blurry. His head felt like a heavy piece of iron on the end of his neck.
Ann… he had to get to Ann. His head was so heavy... He tried to push himself up, but his right leg crunched oddly and he screamed in shock. He collapsed again, breath ragged.
Damnit! I can’t get to her! I can’t get anywhere! I need my strength!
**So… you seek power, correct? Then let us form a pact.**
What the hell was that voice? Ryuji looked around, but he was alone in this space, just him and the orb.
**Since you’ve been crippled already, why not join with me and gain victory?**
Who the hell was that? God?... Victory? Fuck yes. Die here in the dark? Or win? What kind of fucking choice was that?
He groaned. Not that whatever this voice was could do anything for him. He was hearing things. Hit on the head too many times. And his leg was fucked. He was fucked. Ann was… Goddamnit. Ryuji felt a surge to sorrow push water from his eyes. Goddamnit.
“Yes!” he screamed. “God, give me fucking power or something. Help me!”
The room was briefly illuminated with yellow light, then it darkened back to the original dimness. The yellow orb detached itself from the pedestal. The countless wires and pipes of the pedestal went dark while the orb brightened notably.
The earth shuddered as the orb began floating towards Ryuji. What the fuck! He tried to crawl away from it, but searing agony in his leg stopped him, breathless. What the fuck!
**Excellent. Oh… You’re not…? I see. A long time ago… But there is enough here to work with. Let us begin.**
The orb drifted closer, filling up Ryuji’s vision. Instinctual fear filled his mind.
“Get the fuck away!”
He struck at the orb with his fist, but when he touched the orb, his hand stuck to it- a surge of some strange, vibrating force went instantly through his entire body. Muscles seized everywhere; his arms, his legs, his core, all tense and ignoring the panicked commands of his mind. And still the orb drifted closer to his face, pulling his hand with it.
Ryuji screamed inside his head, as his jaw was clenched tightly shut, teeth grinding.
**I am thou, thou art I…**
The yellow surface of the object touched Ryuji’s forehead. A new grinding agony shot through his consciousness, stealing his breath. The locking energy dissipated. He began to convulse, which further aggravated his broken leg.
“St- stop!” he gasped.
**There is no turning back…**
Ann’s world slowly regained color and texture- first a mixture of blacks, then greys, then color slowly bloomed as her mind regained consciousness. Textures and colors passed by her face, a mixture of smooth and rough surfaces in dim red light. It was entertaining to watch for a moment, but she tired of it. What else is going on? Her eyes shifted. She saw some moving legs on one side of her and a wall on the other. The legs were upside down. That’s odd.
Then her internal gyroscope kicked back on and she was shocked to be hanging sidewise. Her instincts told her to right herself, to regain her feet, but as she tried to send the usual commands to her limbs, she found they didn’t answer. This isn’t right... Something is wrong...
Memory returned to Ann in a flash. She remembered a disgusting monster tail sticking into her gut, red with her blood. Now she was being carried through some dark place, helpless. Fear drowned her mind, but she felt none of the usual physiological responses. No goosebumps. No paralyzing dread. She was already paralyzed, trapped in her own head- like she was tied to a chair and had two windows with which to watch the end of her own life.
Every nightmare she’d ever had began replaying in her mind- the bite, the violating feeling of being drained, the slow sleepy slip into the dark. She knew she needed to run, to get away, to do anything at all- but her limbs didn’t answer, refused to obey, leaden, fuzzy. SIlently screaming, she watched herself be carried down the side of a metal wall with intermittent windows.
Two portions of the wall separated. Dim lights turned on as Ann was carried inside and she was unceremoniously tossed upon some sort of bench. Ann landed painfully on her side, but it allowed her to move her eyes around. It was a long, narrow room; the grey walls filled with symmetric windows. Benches ran down both walls and there were intermittent metal poles up and down the length of the space.
The floor and benches were mostly cluttered with cases, boxes, containers, and bags. It looked like a family moving to a new house had unloaded the contents of their wagon all over the place. She should still just see Kamoshida at the far end of the room. He was doing something to knobs and levers on a small desk. He no longer had eyes for Ann. She was just another piece of luggage.
The room went dark, sparking new fear in Ann. Maybe it would be better to not see the end coming, but now it could be her death at any moment, she wouldn’t know it wasn’t coming, and so would have to remain tense until it actually happened!
To Ann’s relief, the lights came back on, but fewer of them and dimmer than before.
“What the-... fuck!?” said Kamoshida in the dim light, his voice full of frustrated disbelief.
Click. Clik. Click.
“ What the fuck! Now!? It breaks down NOW?! Come on… unable to initiate on reserve power? Shit!”
Ann wasn’t listening to him. Instead, she was screaming inside her own mind. Screamed for God. For help. Someone. Anyone. HELP ME, PLEASE!
**My… it’s been far too long...**
Ann’s fear froze into neutral shock, twinged by sudden hope. What was that?
She waited to hear something again, but there were no sounds in the room besides Kamoshida cursing and struggling with whatever he was doing over at the desk. Ann’s brief hope faded back into dread and fear- making her situation seem even worse than before. Her eyes liquefied with tears. She was going to die. God. And she was fooling herself with voices. Teasing herself with false hope.
Wait! Was she really going to lay her weeping and accepting her death?! Screw that! This isn’t happening! I’m not dead yet! I can still live! If I could just move!
Ann’s eyes focused on her own hand in front of her. She focused all her will on it. A finger twitched and then was still. Goddamnit! The surge of anger and denial collapsed as readily as her earlier grief. Ann’s vision began to blur again with new tears as frustration and dismay roiled through her. Was this all she should do? This was the thing that hurt Shiho! Kamoshida! He is right there! And I can’t do a fucking thing!?
**Tell me… who is going to avenge her if you don’t?**
Her mind fooling her again! Shut up! If it only never happened! All of this is just some nightmare! I’ll just wake up and forget!
**Forgetting him was never an option… Such is the scream of the other you that dwells within. The you that is not a child...**
Who was that? God? Ann’s eyes were drawn to one of the nearby boxes, just in the upper portion of her field of vision. It was glowing mutedly orange, and as she focused on it, the box intensified and reddened. Ann began to feel a fiery heat, her forehead burst into sweat.
**Do you hear me?**
Fear and wonder enveloped Ann as the metal case melted before her eyes, revealing a floating red orb. It hovered a moment, and then began to float towards her. The heat which had her sweating increased as the orb approached, turning into a scorching pain. Ann could feel the skin of her face beginning to burn.
God, help me! I hear it. I hear you!
The orb stopped its forward motion, almost entirely filling Ann’s limited field of vision.
**You are not…? Ah, but there is some, I see. It’s enough. But you’re also restrained? Nothing can be done with you restrained.**
A surge of heat blazed through Ann’s body and she felt the paralysis lift. She pulled her head away from the scalding orb, scrambling backward, she kicked at it. Her foot touched the orb and stuck there, like it was covered in some sort of glue.
**There you go… We can finally forge the contract…**
Ann’s shoe burst into flame, the sole began to melt and drip along the surface of the orb. Intense burning traveled up Ann’s extended leg. She screamed from the shock of it.
**I am thou, thou art I…**
The orb began melting into her foot. The agony intensified. And beyond that, the Kamoshida creature turned his head to look back at her. Its gold eyes widened in shock. He spun.
“NO!” he yelled.
“There must be a better way to do this!”
“We need to get through this door.”
“But your leg-!”
“-Will be fine. Pain is temporary.” Amamiya lifted his leg for his third kick at the door, which was showing mild disfigurement from his efforts. It seemed like progress, but Makoto was unnerved by the crunching sound his bones made every kick.
The light over the door went out, plunging Makoto into darkness.. She felt the ground under her shudder slightly. What was that? She reached for her lantern, but then the light came back on- but duller and less powerful than before.
And the magnetic door opened! Amamiya snatched its edge and flung it open. He paused, eyes roving. Makoto moved forward to see what he was seeing. It was a long narrow corridor with a metal path over a dark abyss. A bridge.
“No traps,” said Amamiya, then he took off at a run. Makoto followed, keeping pace. They crossed the abyss, their feet making clunking metallic sounds on the metal bridge. Then they were through and Amamiya paused at the next doorway. Makoto edged up behind him.
Ahead was a large empty space, sparsely illuminated by dull lights. It was another room of divided platforms and a central depression with steel beams. But in this room, there was something sitting in the depression. Some sort of windowed, narrow, metal building.
“They’re inside that train car,” said Amamiya, striding forward towards the small metal building. His hand was on his sword hilt.
“Train car? What’s a train-?”
Makoto shut her eyes against a blazing light. Her body was flung backward by a wave of heat. She landed on her back, hard. Her head snapped against the stone floor, her armored helmet clacking and protecting her skull. Makoto’s skin broke out in an immediate sweat as she blinked at the ceiling. What in God’s name?
She pulled herself up. The metal building had burst open. Flame and glowing metal illuminated the room with orange light. Amamiya staggered to his feet- his hat missing. He drew his sword. Makoto still had her gun in her hand.
Ahead of them, perhaps 70 meters on the far side of the platform, a charred corpse began rising from the ground. It hadn’t been there before, so it must have come from inside the exploded train car. It was still smoking and aflame in parts. God! It wasn’t Ann, was it?
A huge scorpion tail swayed into the air as the thing rose to its feat. No! It’s not Ann! Makoto raised her hand cannon. She quickly aimed center mass and fired.
The creature staggered as the heavy shells tore into its charred flesh, but it didn’t fall. Instead, it oriented on Makoto. She fired again. Kamoshida’s torso jerked from the bullet as it flicked its tail in her direction.
KOOM! Sssss! ...tsck!
Something Makoto didn’t see flew past her ear and struck something behind her. Kamoshida was shooting something at her! She needed to get to cover. Her eyes searched left and right. There was no cover here! Just an empty, open space! The tail flicked three more times. Time slowed for Makoto. A sense of doom rose up in her mind.
Oh, God! I’m going to die!
Amamiya jumped in front of her. His body jerked and he staggered back. She braced him with her forearm, keeping him upright. Makoto felt electrified with surprise and gratitude. He’d saved her! He was- he was leveraging his healing ability for her! If he could heal a broken kneecap in moments, whatever Kamoshida was firing at them must not be fatal to him.
But it was undoubtedly painful. She wouldn’t waste his sacrifice. Makoto leaned out from behind Amamiya and fired.
KOOM! KOOM! KOOM!
Kamoshida did some jerking of his own, but he didn’t fall. Makoto’s bullets were not doing enough damage. She was out of rounds and he would probably be healed before she could shoot him again. Amamiya raised his left hand as Kamoshida’s scorpion fail flicked again. Makoto ducked behind him.
Makoto heard a gust of wind followed by a fleshly impact. Amamiya staggered, grunted, and the weight on Makoto’s bracing arm intensified.
“Hang on, Mr. Amamimya! I have to reload!”
Amamiya swayed on his feet. Then he dropped to his knees. Kamoshida flicked his tail again as Makoto dropped down, too. These projectiles sailed over their heads.
“I can’t block them forever, Niijima, “ His words sounded slurred. “These things are poisoned…”
Makoto snapped in the new cylinder of shells with a practiced flick of her wrist. Poisoned! Even with his super healing, he’d be as weak and feeble as he was in the tunnel! Unable to fight. Unable to flee. A sitting duck.
Makoto’s heart rate jumped back up to a frantic pace, her mouth began salivating uncontrollably, and her stomach threatened nausea. They were doomed without his fighting ability. How could she face Kamoshida and that tail of his on her own? Super strength, speed, reach-- meanwhile, Makoto had a gun and some knives. She might be able to escape if she ran now…
No! Abandon an ally? Never! Niijimas don’t run! The shame of it would haunt her forever. Makoto swallowed down the bile and held herself firm. She could NOT go to pieces here! She would live. Amamiya would live. And they would put Kamoshida’s head on a pike!
“Just hang on, Mr. Amamiya,” Makoto’s voice sounded firmer than she thought it would. She leaned out from behind Amamiya’s drooping body, hand cannon up.
Makoto lined up Kamoshida in her sights. She needed good shots.Something that would disable the noble. But it was a small target and hard to see in the weird lighting of the room. Fire and molten metal created odd shadows. What was Kamoshida’s burned head and what was just darkness? Makoto’s finger tightened on the trigger as Kamoshida’s tail seemed to be readying another salvo. The bastard knew he was winning so he was content to sit back and snipe at them.
A new burst of blame engulfed Kamoshida in red fire- he screamed, limbs and tail thrashing in agony. Makoto’s eyes traced the trajectory of the fireburst. It came from the smoldering wreckage of the thing Amamiya called a train-car. In glimpses amidst the inferno, she saw a female figure, adorned in fire. God, was that Ann? Those huge pigtails were there. It had to be her. She was burning! But- despite that, she was walking calmly, menacingly, towards the thrashing Kamoshida.
The flames were quick to die out on Kamoshida, but his body was black and smoking. Still, his unnatural healing process was working fast. Kamoshida flicked his tail at Ann, but her outstretched arm produced a new firestorm, destroying the projectiles and reigniting Kamoshida.
“How is she doing that?!” said Makoto.
Amamiya didn’t respond. He seemed riveted on the battle before them.
Kamoshida screamed in rage and twisted into a fast spin. His scorpion tail lashed out and struck Ann at high speed. She streaked like a meteorite into the room’s far wall and collided with the loud crunching of stone.
“Ann!” yelled Makoto. Her voice regained the attention of Kamoshida. He turned upon Makoto and Amamiya again, both of them still mostly immobile and trapped in the open. He was obviously intent on finishing them off. Makoto raised her gun. She had to at least knock his aim off with a bullet.
As she aimed, she saw that one of the few surviving lightbulbs was above and behind Kamoshida’s head. It was rapidly increasing in lumination- turning from dull glow to a searing golden light. The bulb exploded, and in the passing of an instant, Ryuji was in the air, his body laced with arcing energy as blond as his hair.
What was this?! Were the Sakamotos a family of wizards?!
He fell atop Kamoshida, latching onto the vampire’s charred shoulders, fingers digging into burned flesh. Kamoshida’s eyes went wide in shock, he instantly reached up and behind his neck, seeking purchase on this new attacker. Ryuji hugged himself harder to Kamoshida’s back, avoiding the hands, and he bit savagely onto Kamoshida’s shoulder like a bulldog.
Kamoshida’s head jerked up, teeth clenched, limbs stiffened- he held himself frozen, slightly twitching. Ryuji was grasping and biting all the harder, new blood leaking out of Kamoshida's shoulder.
“Two? Two personas?” said Amamiya in disbelief.
Personas? What were those? Then Makoto realized that in the shock of seeing Ann shoot fire and now Ryuji appear out of nowhere, she’d missed an opportunity to get a good shot herself! But the window wasn’t closed yet. She raised her gun and aimed carefully at Kamoshida’s head. She needed to bring the creature down for good. Ryuji was holding the creature still- somehow. And Makoto’s vision was aided by Ann’s fresher flames; the head was a plain target. But it was also very close to Ryuji’s head.
Makoto emptied her lungs, her mind; she shut down her ears, her nose. Tuned out the pounding of her pulse in the side of her head. Time slowed. There was just her and the target. Father was watching somewhere behind her on the veranda. The wooden mannikin wobbled slightly from the wind blowing through the estate gardens. Be precise. Look down the barrel. Be sure of its angle. A hand cannon has a short barrel, so even a minor tilt will send the bullet far off target. Anticipate the tension of your trigger finger. Keep it smooth...
Kamoshida’s head snapped back. He collapsed like a severed marionette, the scorpion tail flopping down like a dead snake. Ryuji tumbled from Kamoshida’s back, cursing and cradling his right leg. But he was alive. Makoto sucked in a breath of air, giddy with relief.
“Good shot,” said Amamiya, his voice still slurring. “Cut off his head. One bullet won’t keep him down long.”
His voice was distant to Makoto, dreamlike. They might be winning. They might have done it. She just needed his sword.
She snatched the blade from his offering hand and sprinted across the open space. She could already see Kamoshida stirring. His tail began to snake along the pavement. As Makoto arrived, the bullet ejected itself from Kamoshida’s skull. His eyes opened in a flash of anger, then opened wide in sudden fear as Makoto swung Amamiya’s blade like an axe, putting in every ounce of force that she had in her.
The blade sliced through Kamoshida’s neck like it was a taunt string. Surprised by the lack of resistance, Makoto spun around with the force of her own swing, went off balance, and fell to the stone floor.
God! This sword is sharp!
Blood surged from Kamoshida's severed neck, his body pumping an unnatural amount of viscous liquid over the stonework, black in the firelight.
“Fuckin’ gross,” hissed Ryuji and he pushed himself away from the growing pool of blood.
Makoto stared at the corpse, finally limp in real death. She’d done it! She’d killed a noble! Pleasure and satisfaction frolicked through Makoto’s soul. She wasn’t useless! She wasn’t just playing with Father’s legacy! She was a vampire hunter! A real one! A real daughter of Niijima!
But she didn’t have time to bask in her self-glory. Ryuji was nearby, breathing heavily. All signs of his strange abilities were gone.
“Ryuji, how did you do that?”
He shrugged and shook his head. “I don’t know, really. It’s the glass ball, I think.”
The glass ball? What did that mean? “I see… are you hurt?”
“Yeah, my leg is fucked. I think it’s broken.”
So they would need a splint to get him back to town...
“The head!” called Amamiya, “Kick the head away, Niijima!”
Makoto broke from her internal pleasure and looked at the head. There was a great deal of blood pooling around it. More than gravity or random chance would allow. Goosebumps popped up all over Makoto’s body. She shot to her feet and kicked Kamoshida’s head with all her strength, sending it bouncing and rolling past Amamiya.
Amamiya watched it pass him. Then he collapsed onto his back with a sigh. For the first time, Makoto could see him from the front. He was impaled with eight long barbs- they stuck out of his body like broken arrows. God!
“Mr. Amamiya!” she blurted and ran back over to him. He was a pincushion! It was the price paid to save her. She slid on her knees next to him. He opened his grey eyes to frown up into her face. The distant dancing of flames reflected atop his irises.
He was silent a moment, then said: “I’m fine, Ms. Niijima. I’ve had worse.”
Fine!? He was impaled! “But these stingers!”
“I’m aware,” he sighed and closed his eyes, “Just-... give me a moment of peace before I start yanking them out..”
“Morgana has it under control.”
The cat-hand? It could do that sort of thing? How? She opened her mouth to ask, then held herself back. Amamiya was frowning slightly- he was in pain, but trying not to show it. It wasn’t time to bother him with questions. She gazed at the large stingers sticking from his chest and abdomen. They looked deep. They surely would have killed her.
Thank God Amamiya was willing to protect her. And thank God that Ryuji and Ann were somehow able-
“Ann!” Makoto blurted, every ounce of victory leaving her mind. Ann may very well be dead from that blow! Amamiya’s eyes shot open and he sat up. They both turned towards the distant wall where the flaming girl had flown. Makoto couldn’t see anyone over there.
“Amamiya, do you see her?”
“Ann!” yelled Makoto. She started walking towards the far wall. Please be alive. Please be alive.
“She’s here, Ms. Niijima?! Ann!” yelled Ryuji from his spot on the floor. “Ann!”
Then an anxious female voice called out: “Ryuji? Makoto?”
“Oh! Thank God! Ann!” Makoto spotted Ann’s wide-eyed face peeking out from below the edge of the stone flooring. She was down in the depression of the ground. Despite being recently covered in flame and slammed into a stone wall, she didn’t appear injured. But her face was one of extreme anxiety, that much was easy to see in the orange light of dying flames. Makoto rushed over.
“Ann! Yes! Are you okay?” yelled Ryuji from across the room.
“Are you hurt?” asked Makoto as she neared the young woman. “What’s wrong?”
“No. I mean, yes, I’m okay. I’m not hurt,” said Ann, hugging the low wall of the depression as Makoto approached. Her eyes flickered behind Makoto then focused back upon her. “Is he dead?”
“Yes. We got him. He’s dead, thanks to you.”
“Here, let me help you up.”
“No! I can’t!”
“It’s just-… I’m naked!”
Indeed, she was. Ann was huddled in the crevice, bare as a babe. She did her best to hide her bosom under one arm and her groin under another hand. Makoto wondered if this was how Kawakami saw her at the bath a few days ago. Makoto blushed. Ann really did have an amazing body.
“Oh, o- okay,” stammered Makoto. “Umm-... oh! I’ll get Amamiya’s coat for you. It’s like a cloak.”
“What’s going on? Is Ann okay!?” yelled Ryuji again.
“I’m fine!” yelled Ann. “I just don’t have any clothes!”
“... So?! Just come out! I’ve seen you naked my whole life!”
“There are other people here, moron!”
Bickering was a good sign. Makoto was relieved to have both of the Sakamotos back in hand. She returned to the sitting Amamiya. He had a tired look on his face.
“My coat to cover a naked young woman?”
“Yes, and we’ll need to do something for Ryuji. I think he’s injured.”
“Yes. Kamoshida broke his leg.”
“How do you know?”
Amamiya’s eyes went wide and he looked away from her. “Does it matter?” He tried to take off his coat and winced. It was effectively nailed to his body by Kamoshida’s barbs. He reached up to one of the stingers buried in his chest. He sucked in a few quick breaths, then gritted his teeth and yanked.
“Rrrraaagggh!” said Amamiya. His forehead began sweating profusely.
The stinger came out with a tearing sound and a burst of blood. It was long. Longer than Makoto had thought. The parts ticking out of Amamiya were roughly ten inches long or so, and the bloody part he’d just ripped out was almost the same. Eight inches at least! And an inch in diameter! So over a foot long. And barbed! God! Amamiya’s resilience was astounding. Most of those barbs were surely buried in his essential body organs even now.
Makoto realized again that if even one of those things had hit her...
“Mr. Amamiya...” she said as she watched Amamiya breathe heavily and examine the stinger with morbid curiosity. His eyes turned to hers.
“Thank you for my life.”
Amamiya’s eyes opened a bit wider, then he looked away quickly. “Don’t mention it. You saved me in the tunnel, if you didn’t know. So, I was just returning the favor.”
A business-like transaction for business partners. It was a logical way to look at it. But that didn’t end the gratitude she felt towards him. He avoided her gaze and grasped another stinger. Makoto closed her hands around another.
“Want to do two at a time? Get it over with?” she asked him.
“Yes,” he said, a little breathless.
“You can call me Makoto, if you like.”
“Use Ren, too.”
“Okay, Ren. Are you ready?”
“Yes. On three. One. Two. Three-... Raaargh!”
With Ren de-spined, Ann suitably enshrouded in his jacket, and Ryuji splinted; they made their way back out of the ruin, Ryuji on Ren’s back. Once outside, they settled the Sakamoto’s into the coach, which, lacking windows, seemed to make Ann rather uneasy. She didn’t like the coach at all. But there was no choice but to use it- since Ryuji’s leg was broken, he needed to lie down. So they propped the door open and that satisfied Ann.
The coach was a prize of war, as far as Makoto was concerned. The coach itself was heavy and impractical, but worth keeping as a curiosity. The real prize was the team of four mechanical horses. Ren advised they were model twos- medium lifters, as opposed to the draft model ones and the riding model threes. Either way, it was valuable technology. She would probably lend one to Iwai to tinker with. The man would probably forget to eat.
Anamiya’s… no- Ren’s horse never did arrive- so it must be lost in the city somewhere. So he climbed up to the coachman’s bench and resolved to drive the team. He’d probably rather be inside out of the sun, but with Ryuji lame and Ann practically naked, he was the only one to drive. And a driverless coach propelling itself through town would stand out. Makoto hoped for a quiet ride to the Takemi clinic to drop off Ryuji and Ann. Then an additional uneventful trip to the Tocho building to claim their bounty from Mr. Akechi Goro.
She mounted Johanna and kicked her to life. She looked over her shoulder to find Ren watching her from under the shadow of his big hat.
He nodded, but said nothing. Now that they were out of danger, he wasn’t talking as much. That was disappointing. She’d thought they crossed into another new realm of their association- an intimacy of conversation wherein he spoke with her and remained quiet with everyone else. That appeared an idle fantasy. Or maybe he was simply fatigued from the de-barbing… they’d pulled eight of the things out of his body.
Makoto turned back to the woodsy trail in front of them and revved Johanna. Another disappointment: she still hadn’t heard him use her first name yet. That didn’t mean anything... he would say it eventually, she was sure. And she was strangely curious to hear how ‘Makoto’ sounded in his voice.
She opened the clutch easy and led them back towards The Long Dark, the city, and home. The pace was a slow one, as they wanted Ryuji to have an easy ride with the broken leg of his. Makoto enjoyed the leisurely pace for a change. It was done. She could rest in success for a time and chase away that nagging inner voice that always told her she should be doing something more, something better, something useful. Well! She’d done it! So she would take a break thank-you-very-much!
But what about Ann and Ryuji’s strange new powers? And what about the vampire trying to break into her home? The high-grades outside the school last night? The name: Kaneshiro? Ren said that the blood of those creatures revealed no relationship to Kamoshida, the noble they’d just slain. There was another noble in the city. But so too were there other vampire hunters! Makoto couldn’t hunt them all down! And she certainly couldn’t do it for free... well-... actually… she could.
The Niijima Estate held plenty of capital. Yoshida was more than capable at finance. Money was an issue, but not an insurmountable one. She could pursue any target she desired- she didn’t need to get paid. But did she really want to go through this all again? These last few sleepless days and nights: constant worry, tension, fear. And at the end of it all, the capture of the Sakamotos and a close brush with death. Who in their right mind would want to do all that again?
Yet Father did. Sae did. Perhaps Niijimas didn’t possess right minds. Perhaps right minds simply read about abductions in the paper and hoped it didn’t happen to anyone they knew. Perhaps right minds counted on someone else to deal with the problem, having an unshakable faith that the best result was inevitable thanks to the unknown work of the “They”.
Those in their right minds were fools, then. Nothing happened unless someone went out and did it. They’d done it. They were the “they”. Herself, Ren, and even the Sakamotos. They’d all put their lives on the line to stop Kamoshida when everyone else had turned the other way, covered it up, and hoped it wasn’t true.
What if there was some organization that hunted vampires without contracts? What if this group worked for something other than money? Something like… justice for the taken and the slain. Justice for those countless people who went unavenged due to a lack of funds. It was an interesting idea, but would any other vampire hunters feel the same way?
As Makoto fantasized about the future, they emerged from the Long Dark and back into the city proper. A crowd of people was gathered around the tunnel entrance and a great murmur of general conversation suddenly hushed as Makoto rode Johanna back out into the sunlight.
“Hey! It’s one of those Niijimas! I told you it was a vampire hunt!”
“And there’s the coach! The one that tore down the streets!”
“Someone’s driving it now though. I swear it was driving itself before, and that man was trying to get inside it!”
“I bet he’s a hunter, too!”
“He looks like one!”
Makoto slowed her motorcycle down. The crowd wasn’t parting for her- instead they were standing in her path and gawking. The coach came to a stop behind her.
“Ms. Niijima! Did you kill a vampire!?”
“Um-” said Makoto, feeling highly uneasy with hundreds of eyes on her. “Yes.”
A cheer went up all around her. Hundreds of voices broke out in excited conversation. Several people rushed forward to shake her hand. Perplexed and surprised, Makoto began shaking hands. More people crowded around her till she could see nothing but excited faces. She turned to look at Ren, but his eyes were over her head- he was looking at something other than the crowd.
A trumpet blared. The crowd simmered down and hundreds of heads turned in the direction of the sound.
“Out of the street! Make way! Make way for the Council Guard!”
People made way, parting before Makoto’s path, revealing a waiting contingent of cavalry. A dozen men in white uniforms waited on impatient horses- the animals excited by the large crowd. Each soldier had a sword on their hip and a rifle on their back. A dozen rifles! That was a lot of firepower in one place!
Their leader had golden fringes on his shoulders and brown hair under his tall cap. It was Akechi Goro.
“Ms. Niijima!” said Akechi, trotting his horse forward. His eyes were narrow and he seemed aggressive. “What’s going on?”
Makoto remembered his dismissive attitude just a few days ago. She was suddenly filled with the desire to trump this preening princeling. She put the kickstand down on Johanna and stood over her leaning bike. She untied the sack that was attached to her saddlebags.
“We were coming to see you, Mr. Akechi. We’re honored you came to meet us,” she said loudly, making sure the silent crowd could hear.
Akechi blinked, off-balance from the unexpected formality. His brown eyes widened as they flicked around the gathered crowd. He was realizing they were on stage. “The honor is mine, Ms. Niijima.” He cleared his throat. “I’m eager to know why you wanted to see me.”
Makoto opened the sack and lifted up Kamoshida’s wide-mouthed head, exposing it to daylight. Gasps of shock burst out of the crowd as the head spontaneously burst into cold white flame.
“My partners and I wish to collect on your contract!”
End of Act 1
Niijima Makoto twisted her lithe frame before the mirror, frowning down at her own bare back. The red dress she wore strapped around the back of her neck, holding up a mostly modest front with no cleavage but bare shoulders. That was normal enough- but the back! It was like she wasn’t wearing anything at all- nothing from the base of the neck to small of her back! It was like being naked! And the skirt! The thigh-slits were so high, they were practically hip level!
“Yoshi,” said Makoto, her voice full of the doubt she felt, “this dress seems entirely scandalous!”
She turned from the mirror to look at Yoshida Toranosuke. He was standing next to her open wardrobe and was dressed in his most formal and stiff butler’s uniform. Yoshida had long since stopped helping the Niijima sisters dress (that becoming an improper task for a male butler when Makoto had turned ten), but his matronly eye still reviewed Makoto’s efforts before any formal event- and she would trust no other judge than the lifelong major-domo of the Niijima estate, and her late-father’s lifelong companion.
“It does show a bit of skin,” Yoshida said with an empathetic tone, “But I assure you, this is the current style of Tock-Yo high society. I went to several boutiques and saw the stock myself, and my dress-maker confirmed it: This is what eligible young women are wearing this season.”
“Eligible young women!”
Yoshida’s eyes opened a bit wider and he sighed. “Yes, Hime-kun. Young women without husbands are eligible, whether they want to be or not. And if they are eligible, they want to… put their virtues on display.”
“Well, I am that! On display!”
Makoto turned back to the mirror, her own crimson eyes gauging her dress with doubtful nervousness. The front of the dress really wasn’t so bad, but the ridiculously high thigh-slits hid almost none of the smooth skin of her legs. This was more a dress for her sister, Niijima Sae. She didn’t shy away from showing skin- Sae presented her own body as a challenge to everyone: can you see me and not be a fool around me? All men seemed to fail that test. But Makoto didn’t want to test men. She didn’t want to test anyone. Right now, she just wanted this gala to be over. And to put pants on.
But- at least HE will see me in this dress. That wouldn’t be so bad...
Makoto’s thoughts of Amamiya vanished as Yoshida stepped into the reflection of the mirror, a parental smile on his face as he gently placed his hands on Makoto’s shoulders. “You’re the lady of the house tonight. You look the part. You’re dressed in the latest fashion.” He turned and retrieved a hairband from the make-up desk. It was cleverly designed to look like Makoto’s own braided hair. “Put this on and greet your guests. It’s time for your entrance.”
Makoto settled the headband into her hair and gave herself one final look in the mirror. Did she really have the body to pull this dress off? It seemed better suited to Sae’s height and long legs. For the first time since that night, Makoto wished her sister was here. But she was off on some hunt. Yoshida said not to expect her to return for a few more weeks. So, like it or not, tonight Makoto was THE Niijima.
Makoto turned to Yoshida. “Okay, I’m ready, I suppose.”
Yoshida smiled slightly, then his face switched back to butler mode. He bowed stiffly. “Very good, my lady. I will introduce you shortly. Step out and descend the stairs, and we will perform the greetings at the base of the steps.”
Makoto nodded and Yoshida stepped out of her room. The greeting line. The agonizing formality of the hosts individually greeting every guest in a long queue. It wasn’t fun- unless you happened to be interested in social politics and the related gossip. For people who were, probably the formal greetings were the most interesting things of the evening. Father had enjoyed it. And Makoto thought Sae did, too. They’d become something of a team, back when this estate often hosted parties. Back when Father returned home. But then he didn’t. And now it was just Makoto.
The successful conclusion of the Kamoshida hunt was only a week past, but it felt like months. Makoto’s memory of the day was already beginning to lose its luster, like a dream fading in sunlight. There was the ride through the city (made slightly longer by the side-trip to drop the Sakamotos at Takemi’s clinic). A caravan led by a vampire head, ablaze like a torch in the dim morning sun. The cheers of pedestrians, and the steady horse-clopping of the accidental honor guard of Goro Akechi and his troops. Then, the rather anticlimactic payment of the contract from the junior clerk in the atrium of city hall. Sacked head into the window. A sack of gold back out of the window. And then that was it. A dispersing crowd on the main street, a general gaggle of city life returning to normal, and a weary-looking Amamiya slumped on the driver’s bench of their salvaged vampire coach. They’d parted ways and Makoto went home to a relieved Yoshida- and she promptly fell asleep.
Meanwhile, Yoshida began planning tonight's event: the gala of a successful hunt. Father’s tradition. He did so much love parties like this. Makoto... not so much. But Yoshida was adamant that traditions be continued. So the gala took shape over the intervening week, around an aimless Makoto- unsure of what to do with herself. Her usual past-times no longer seemed very interesting.
Makoto stepped out of her bedroom and shut the door. She began slowly walking down the hallway towards the atrium. She could see Yoshida ahead, taking his position near the top of the stairs. The gathered guests, unseen by Makoto below, began to quiet and she envisioned them all turning their attention to the major-domo standing expectantly at the top of the stairs above them.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” announced Yoshida, ending the last vestiges of crowd murmur from below. “Honored guests…”
Makoto picked up her pace slightly, carefully stepping in her formal, heeled shoes. Her mind focused on the imminent challenge of gracefully descending the staircase in heels and this dress. The bright side of feeling like she wasn’t wearing pants was that she didn’t have to worry about tripping over her clothing.
“...I welcome you all to the Niijima Estate. And I am honored to present you the lady of the house: Ms. Niijima Makoto.”
Makoto forced the ceremonial smile on her face. The same one her Father and Sae used, the same one Yoshida had spent a lot of time coaching into her. She walked to the edge of the atrium banister and silently accepted the customary applause of greeting from her guests. Father would usually say some joke which would get the guests laughing, but Sae would just walk around and descend quietly. Having no joke on hand, Makoto defaulted to Sae’s approach and walked around the atrium, past Yoshida, and focused on holding her smile; on descending the stairs without looking at her feet; on instead passing her eyes over the faces of the crowd, seeing without seeing. If she didn’t focus on anyone, she could somewhat pretend there was not over a hundred people staring at her legs and clapping. That kept her cheeks from heating up, at least.
The applause increased in volume as she descended, and when she was most of the way down, she paused on the steps and bowed. The applause faded away. She was expected to make a speech, to entertain. She’d been student council president in school, so speeches she could handle- but entertain? That was not her specialty.
“Thank you all for coming,” said Makoto, “I’m honored you all came to celebrate my successful hunt. But I cannot claim all of the honor for only myself. A great many people were involved in the effort.” She roved the faces of the crowd, trying to find the people she felt obligated to thank from the limelight. Her eyes landed on a middle-aged man of rugged features and close-cropped hair, standing uneasily in an old suit.
“First to Iwai Munehisa, the mechanic who supplies and maintains my gear. If anyone needs high-quality equipment, I cannot recommend his shop enough. It’s by the east gate.” She saw Iwai look down sheepishly. But she was sure he would appreciate the advertisement for his business amongst all this high-brow clientele.
Next, Makoto’s eyes found the Suzuis, easy to mark due to the gap in the crowd made by the sitting Shiho- she was well enough to sit in a wheeled chair now. The black-haired young woman was dressed in a modest dress, and she sat elegantly in the chair- designed by Dr. Takemi and crafted by Iwai. Her parents stood to either side- Mr. Suzui stiff in an over-starched tuxedo, and Mrs. Suzui a flowery explosion of color in a low-bodiced gown. Just behind Shiho was Dr. Takemi Tae, as loyal to her patient as ever. She was dressed in a rather skimpy black dress. Beside Mrs. Suzui stood the bulging form of Principal Kobayakawa- a jello of a man and a reluctant ally, but a politically valuable one. So he was here, too… under the firm thumb of Mrs. Suzui.
“To the Suzui family. Their efforts at Shujin Academy were instrumental in uncovering my target. And physician Takemi Tae, who expertly saved the life of their daughter.”
She’d spent a long time thinking of that part of the speech. She couldn’t mention too much about the vampire’s relationship with Shiho, for fear of socially tainting the poor girl. But she also had to praise Takemi’s efforts in saving the young woman’s life. Makoto hoped she struck the right balance there. And as for Principal Kobayakawa- he didn’t deserve any praise for his complacency. He shouldn’t even be here, as far as Makoto was concerned, but Yoshida and Mrs. Suzui had advocated there were advantages in inviting him. Makoto had reluctantly deferred to them.
“And to the Sakamoto family,” Makoto searched and found them. Sakamoto Ann seemed to be wearing a dress similar to Makoto’s, but blue like her eyes, and much more open in front. Mrs. Sakamoto was next to her, in a more modest green dress of a married woman. Next to her, Sakamoto Ryuji, dressed in an unkempt tuxedo with his shirt untucked.
“Without their help, the hunt would not have been a success.” That was an understatement. Ann and Ryuji were instrumental in Kamoshida’s defeat. Without them, Makoto would surely have been killed. But she wasn’t about to go into detail and advertise the strange powers both Sakamoto siblings were abruptly able to conjure in Kamoshida’s Palace. That mystery remained unsolved and alarmingly problematic. Those two were kidnapped by a noble vampire, and when they were next seen, they had magical powers. There was just no way that could be a good thing.
“And finally to my partner…” Makoto’s eyes searched the back of the crowd, as that was certainly where he would be. But he wasn’t there. So she searched the walls, but no one was leaning against them. Makoto’s heart fell. He wasn’t here. He hadn’t come. That was… disappointing. “Who couldn’t make it tonight, but he’s known as Vampire HunterJay, and his expertise was essential to the entire endeavor.”
Makoto bowed again. “Thank you. And thank you all for coming. I hope you will enjoy yourselves tonight.”
As applause broke out again and the guests began talking once more, Makoto descended the rest of the way to the floor. Yoshida was quickly at her side, and the first guests began queuing up for the traditional greetings by the host. Yoshida would introduce the guests, providing their names and occupation, and Makoto bowed and greeted them formally, then they exchanged brief, socially obligated small-talk.
First came high-society folk and city officials that Makoto vaguely remembered from her Father's events. It was a long sequence of people she didn’t really know, then finally the Sakamotos were there. They all exchanged more heartfelt greetings, and then the traditional time constraints pushed them on and there was another long sequence of people Makoto didn’t really know. Then, it was the Suzui family with Takemi and Kobayakwa. Shiho was looking lively and happy. They all chatted amicably with the traditional empty nothings for the allotted time and then they moved off into the party.
Makoto watched as the Suzuis moved on, Mr. Suzui pushing Shiho’s wheeled chair. Takamaki Ann bounded over and took over for him- Shiho looking up at Ann with a bright smile. They all looked happy. Of any event over the past week, the smile of Shiho felt most like victory. The broken girl looked well on the mend.
Yoshida cleared his throat behind her.
Oh! Right! Makoto turned to the next guests in line. A distinguished-looking older man with a stylish mustache stood before her. He was dressed in the traditional formal wear, complete with haori and hakama. Next to him stood a more modernly dressed young man, about Makoto’s age. His dangling blue-black hair was stylishly arranged around a sharp, angular face. Blue-grey eyes were rimmed with perfect eyelashes. Did he style them?
“Ms. Niijima,” said Yoshida from behind her, “May I have the pleasure to introduce Mr. Madarame Ichiryusai, an art dealer recently migrated from Yo-To... and his ward, Mr. Kitagawa Yusuke.”
Everyone exchanged bows.
“I was honored at the invitation, Ms. Niijima,” said Madarame, “you have a lovely estate.”
Makoto had no idea who this person was, but she nodded her head in acceptance. “Thank you, though Mr. Yoshida deserves all of the credit for it.”
“Ms. Niijima,” said Yusuke with sudden forcefulness, “Your eyes are sparkling rubies.”
Makoto was taken aback by the unexpectedly intense compliment. She felt her cheeks heat up. “Oh! Um- thank you, Mr. Kitagawa.”
Madarame flashed a brief scowl at his young ward, and Yusuke shrank slightly under the silent rebuke. Madarame turned back to Makoto and flashed a wide smile of pointed teeth. “I apologize for my ward if he embarrassed you. We attended few social events back in Yo-To.”
“Um- no, no. There is no need to apologize for a compliment,” said Makoto, still feeling her cheeks warm. She looked from Madarame to Yusuke, but the young man’s eyes were now downcast and he was frowning sadly. Makoto focused back on Madarame. “You’re from Yo-To then?”
“Previously,” said Madarame, “But even the wealthy run out of space for excellent art. It was time to seek new, untapped clientele. So if you have a room that needs something truly elegant, I hope you’ll come to my gallery.”
“I’ll be sure to do that.”
They exchanged bows again and Madarame and Yusuke moved on. Yoshida introduced more guests, and more guests after that- all of them blending into a stream of smiling faces and culturally acceptable exchanges of greetings. The line dwindled. Makoto’s formal role in the opening of the event was almost over, and she would be able to attend her own party like a normal person. The last couple was introduced, conversed with, and sent off into the gala. Makoto watched them go, sighing with relief and a little disappointment. So it was like she’d thought: he hadn’t come.
“And finally,” said Yoshida, “I am honored to introduce- ah… I’m very sorry, but were you invited young sir?”
Makoto turned back, her heart jumping into her throat slightly. Yoshida didn’t forget guests. But he wouldn’t know that she invited this guest personally. For reasons she couldn’t quite put into words well enough to explain to herself, she’d not wanted to tell Yoshida to invite him. She’d wanted to do it herself.
A pale, young man stood before them. He had a slight poof of unruly black hair, into which nestled a pair of spectacles which framed strangely grey eyes. He wore a well-tailored tuxedo, and it was the first time Makoto had seen him wear anything other than armor under a baggy coat. He looked… elegant. Noble.
“I was invited,” he said.
His grey eyes traveled from Yoshida to Makoto’s for a moment. She felt a strange flutter in her chest. Then he looked back to Yoshida and bowed to them both.
“I’m Amamiya Ren. Though some people call me Vampire Hunter J.”
“Ah,” said Yoshida as he looked Amamiya up and down. He then looked at Makoto with a small knowing smirk. “I see.”
Makoto felt her cheeks heat up again. What did Yoshida mean by that?!
But what exactly Yoshida was insinuating wasn’t something he seemed eager to reveal. Instead, his major-domo mask went back on. Yoshida stepped forward. “Welcome to the Niijima Estate, Mr. Amamiya. I was eager to finally meet Lady Niijima’s partner. I am Yoshida Torano-”
Yoshida froze midbow, stopping awkwardly bent over as he looked closely at Amamiya’s face- then after a brief moment passed, he finished the bow. “Forgive me. Yoshida Toranosuke is my name. But… have we met before?”
Amamiya looked at Yoshida for a moment, as if searching his memory. “Not that I am aware of, Mr. Yoshida.”
Makoto found herself suddenly curious. One of Yoshida’s specialties was remembering people- a key skill for a butler, for him to sense some recognition in someone… could they have met before? Some time long ago? She suspected Amamiya was older than herself- and due to his heritage, he could be hundreds of years older even. But he could also be as old as he looked- which would be about her own age.
“Have you been to Tock-Yo before, Mr. Amamiya?” she asked.
He switched his attention back to her. “No. This is my first time in this city.”
“Sorry, my mistake,” said Yoshida, “My mind is getting older, you know” He let out a hospitable laugh. “But if you will excuse me, Lady Niijima. Mr. Amamiya. I need to attend to the festivities.” He turned and leaned in towards Makoto. “The opening dance is soon, don’t forget.”
Social dread again welled through Makoto as Yoshida walked away. The opening dance! She’d forgotten. But this was a gala after all, and what was a gala without a band and dancing? A perfectly fine party, in her estimation- but everyone expected a bit of dancing before the buffet dinner became available. As hostess, and as the victor of the hour, it was her role to open the dance floor. It had always been Father before- or Sae a few times before Father didn’t come back. But tonight, it had to be her. God!
“Is something wrong?” said Amamiya.
She turned back to find him looking at her intently from behind his spectacles. His usual placid face was there, his usual grey eyes- but the glass before them, it was almost like a mask. The stereotype of the bookish scholar, the quiet accountant- those types of folks who seemed to more often use spectacles for reading. All of that unconscious bias wrapped up in a simple wireframe and lenses. Such a small and simple thing that could change the world’s perspective of a person, and the wearer was the same as they ever were underneath. A mask invisible to the person wearing it.
“Makoto?” he said.
She startled slightly from her internal wander, shivering at the sound of her first name wrapped in his voice. Oh. That’s right. First names, now. She’d not seen Ren most of this week… she’d almost forgotten… had it really only been a week?
“Sorry. Y- yes. I’m fine, Ren. I just half-expected you wouldn’t come.”
His face momentarily came alive with amusement and a soft chuckle that was more a breath of air than anything. “I half-expected that myself. I was never a fan of galas growing up.”
Makoto felt her heart lift slightly. Without thinking about it, she stepped forward towards him with a conspiratorial whisper. “Me either! So much nonsense to go through to entertain people I barely know.”
Ren’s mouth curled in a faint grin, which for him was practically beaming. Suddenly, Makoto realized two things: the first was that they were standing very close, their noses mere inches apart. She felt her cheeks heat up as she realized this was the closest she’d ever been to him. But that heat passed quickly as her curiosity churned away at the second thing: Ren just offered another bit of information about his past. Before Makoto could stop herself, she asked:
“Where did you grow up that you had to go to galas?”
Ren’s face shut itself like a bank vault- returning to placid neutral and his eyes shifted away from hers, traveling the room.
“In my hometown,” he said, taking a half-step back from her.
Another cryptic answer. The new space between them let in a rush of cooler air, and suddenly the room felt colder to Makoto than it had a few moments ago. Nice one, Makoto! You know he doesn’t ever talk about that kind of stuff! Think of something else to say.
“Oh, I see... “ Makoto said, “Umm…”
Dang it! This wasn’t hard! Just ask him how he’s been these last few days!
The estate door opened again, letting in a gust of late spring air. It was the chief of daytime security on the estate, Mr. Dojima. He was helping the night guards, Caroline and Justine, with the increased needs of the gala tonight. They outranked him, so that meant he opened the door for the people they approved for entrance. And that approved person was Akechi Goro, dressed in a tightly cut tuxedo- silver-grey, rather than black.
Late and in non-traditional dress. Akechi always had to stand out. Unconsciously, Makoto took her own half-step back from Ren. She quickly put her social mask back on, smiling and bowing slightly as proper for the hostess of honor greeting a high-ranking guest.
“Mr. Akechi, I’m so pleased you could come,” Makoto said, carefully holding her voice in a sincere tone. Akechi was another person she’d half-expected to be a no-show. But unlike with Ren, she’d actually hoped she was right. Akechi had thought her hopeless in finding the vampire of Shujin Academy- and her victory was practically him losing a mean-spirited bet against her. But Makoto didn’t want to shove her victory in his face; The ideal reward would have been not seeing him at all.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” said Akechi, his voice sounding perfectly genuine. But his brown eyes somehow managed to be even more dead than Ren’s grey ones. “I’ve been eager to offer formal congratulations, and to admit I was wrong about your abilities.”
“Is that so?” Makoto said before she could stop herself.
“It is,” said Akechi as he stepped forward. He briefly glanced at Ren nearby, then he looked at Makoto’s feet and then his eyes traveled up the length of her body. It made Makoto feel a little uneasy. Akechi smiled and towered slightly over her.
Why did he do that? Was he trying to impress her with his height? Was it to look down on her? Or did he just want her uncomfortable? Either way, this was her house, her party, and she wasn’t stepping back. “Then, please. Join the guests,” said Makoto, keeping her voice even. “I believe the-”
“Ms. Niijima,” called Yoshida in a sort of whispered shout from the site of the atrium. “The band is ready to start the opening dance.”
“Excellent! I’m not too late for the dance!” said Akechi, placing a cold hand on Makoto’s bare shoulder and pushing firmly towards the dance floor and the waiting party. “Allow me to be your partner, Ms. Niijima.”
Was he serious!? She stiffened her shoulder, forming an objection on her lips.
“Actually-” said Makoto, then but then Akechi just pushed on her shoulder slightly harder, pushing her forward and forcing her to take a step towards the waiting ballroom just to maintain her balance.
Then Ren was in front of them, stepping directly in front of Akechi so quickly that they almost collided. Akechi’s plastered-on smile faltered as his face recoiled slightly from Amamiya’s sudden proximity.
“Actually, she promised the first dance to me,” said Ren.
Akechi laughed in Ren’s face. “Sure thing, hafu. I’m sure she did. The daughter of a vampire hunter and a half-vampire opening a gala. How ridiculous can you get?”
Ren’s eyes traveled to Makoto’s, while Akechi continued to stare into Ren’s slightly turned face. Ren had just blatantly lied and was looking to see what she would do. Realizing she was now on the spot, time began to slow for Makoto as her mind began racing. She hadn’t promised him the dance, or any dance. And she hadn’t thought about dancing or any man to dance with at all since just a few moments ago anyway!
And as much as Makoto disliked Akechi, he had a point. Makoto knew galas were all about optics: how would social politics regard herself and her family after this event? Opening the gala by dancing with Akechi Goro, the son and heir to one of the most preeminent families in the city… that would send an obvious signal to the entire city that the Niijima family still held influence and close in favor with Akechi “Shido” Masayoshi. But opening the gala by dancing with… Ren? A charitable person would think him a hafu vagrant vampire hunter overstaying his welcome. The vampire was dead, right? So why was he still here? Why was he dancing with a Niijima? And the gossip mill would start working overtime.
Were these the things that ran through Sae’s mind? Through Yoshida’s? Through Father’s? These social calculations? Probably. But would they each respond in the same way? Makoto thought she knew what choice Sae would make, that’s for sure. She would dance with Akechi and soak in the advantages that brought her. But what would Yoshida do? What would Father do?
Suddenly a flash of memory came to Makoto. She remembered talking with Yoshida in the library just two weeks past. Yoshida’s tired, lined face said he’d seen Father turn an ally away from the doorstep because of optics. Because of social politics. And Yoshida had looked sad when he talked about it.
But did it matter what Father would have done? What Sae would do? What Yoshida would do? Hadn’t she been the one to motivate the team to hunt the vampire down?! That was what this evening was about. Her decision. Her choice. Her… team. And Ren was an essential member of that team- perhaps more essential than even herself. Why the hell would she NOT dance with him? He literally stepped between her and death, and now he was standing between her and dancing with a man she didn’t like. In the end, turning Ren down wasn’t even an option.
“It’s true,” said Makoto, pushing Akechi’s hand off her shoulder. “I’m dancing with Mr. Amamiya.”
Now Akechi looked at her, his face incredulous. “Seriously? You’re that stupid?”
Ren stepped forward and pushed Alechi back with his chest. Akechi’s head snapped around in a sneer and he stepped back into Ren with his own chest. They stood tensely, tuxedo’s touching, glaring down their noses at each other.
“Are you that stupid?” said Ren, “To insult the Lady host in her own home?”
“Are you stupid?” said Akechi, “Picking a fight with me? Do you know who I am in this city?”
“I just see a man without his sword.”
“Yeah. And you’re without your little knife.”
Makoto watched with wide eyes. They were practically fighting in her atrium. Over- over a dance? With her? Was this really happening?
“Gentlemen!” said Yoshida, beginning to walk across the room towards them. Meanwhile, the front door opened again to allow a tall, bald man into the house. He stepped in, his eyes fleshing briefly past Makoto to the two men bumping chests before her. His face tightened in frustration.
“What is the meaning of this!” the bald man said- his voice was powerful with authority. It filled the room without him even needing to shout.
Akechi winced back at the sound. Then he straightened and turned to face the newcomer with a posture of rigid attention. “Just a conversation amongst friends, father. Nothing of significance.”
Makoto realized this bald man was Masayoshi Akechi himself. The man whom the citizens fondly called “Shido”, though Makoto didn’t remember why. She also didn’t remember Shido being bald, but then, it had been many years since Masayoshi Akechi attended a party at the Niijima Estate.
Now he was looking at his son with disapproving disgust. “Is that so? Then why don’t you run along and find yourself some fools to fawn over you. That’s why you love parties, is it not?”
Akechi grimaced. That question was perfectly phrased to force him to accept the insult. “Yes. Father.” And with one last glare at Ren, he stalked off into the ballroom, not looking in Makoto’s direction.
Shido’s face remained in a scowl as he watched Akechi walk towards the ballroom. But his expression softened as he looked at Makoto and bowed. “Lady Niijima, please let me apologize for my son. And to thank you for the invitation.”
Makoto bowed in return. “It’s quite alright,” she said, offering the ritual response to such a statement.
Shido’s eyes were brown like Akechi’s, and they lingered on her. “My. When I last saw you, you were barely up to my waist, Ms. Niijima. Now, look at you! You’ve grown into a beautiful woman.”
“Um- thank you,” said Makoto. Shido was talking almost like a distant relative.
Shido turned towards Ren. “And you must be Vampire Hunter J? Congratulations on your successful hunt.”
But he didn’t bow.
Ren inclined his head slightly in response. “Thank you.”
Shido and Ren stared at one another in awkward silence. Makoto realized she should say something- she was the hostess after all. She was supposed to ameliorate this sort of thing.
“Mr. Akechi!” said Yoshida, arriving on the scene and bowing deeply.
“Ah! Mr. Yoshida!” Shido’s face offered a genuine smile. He returned the bow and then clapped Yoshida companionably on the shoulder. “It’s been too long. Far too long! You keep yourself cooped up in this house! Why don’t we see you at parties?”
“Ah, well, the invitations don’t come as often as they used to” said Yoshida as he turned Shido towards the ballroom. Yoshida looked back and flashed his eyes at Makoto: It’s time for the opening dance!
Makoto could hear the band doing their last-minute fine-tuning. A hush was developing in the ballroom next door. Meanwhile, she was alone in the atrium with Amamiya Ren. He was looking towards the ballroom, too. Was it Makoto’s imagination, or was a little of the dread she was feeling also visible on his face?
Then, he looked at her, his face neutral. He held out his hand towards her. “May I have the dance?”
Makoto felt her chest flutter a little. She placed her hand in his. His skin was surprisingly warm. Ren’s other arm swept out, indicating they should proceed. They walked quietly, hand in hand, and entered the Niijima’s estate ballroom. It was a moderately sized room, as ballrooms went, and the hundred or so guests were crowded around the edges of the dance floor. Makoto had seen plenty of bigger ballrooms at some of the other estates of Tock-Yo’s elite. But this was hers, and she lifted her chin and put on a small smile (a confident-looking one, she hoped!) as Ren led her to the center of the room- and the center of attention.
A soft murmur rose up in the room. Makoto assumed it was everyone speculating on who her dance partner was. Due to his late arrival, Ren had not been formally introduced like everyone else. And the mystery of it would fuel the fire of the gossip. Oh, well. Nothing to be done about it now.
The band started up. A graceful, elegant tune. Ren stepped in towards her, his free hand coming to rest just under and behind her left shoulder, his warm touch there causing another flutter in her chest. She rested her free arm atop his (it was like steel!). She looked up into his face. He was watching her, his expression neutral. Then he raised his eyebrows ever so slightly. Ready? Makoto sucked in a deep breath and squeezed his right hand slightly. Ready.
Ren waited for a brief moment, holding for the tempo, and then with a slight signal in his leading arm, led them around in the basic looping pattern any high-society child is taught from a young age. The room and the watching audience became a slowly spinning blur as they rotated, Makoto keeping her face resolutely facing her partner, as was currently fashionable; Yoshida’s coaching voice in the back of her mind.
Ren wasn’t looking at her. Instead, his eyes focused out ahead of their path. Off into space. It wasn’t the fashion, but he wouldn’t know current fashion in Tock-Yo. Regardless, the man looking away was old traditional dance- and like in so many things, men could do it the way they wanted and no one would comment. But if a woman did something out of fashion? Oh, the gossip.
It gave her time to examine the side of his face. The sharp edge of his jawline, leading to a sharper chin. She’d seen this side of him a lot. When he looked away from her. Like he always did when she asked about his past. Where was he from? How could he fit into society so well, yet prefer the wilds? And why is he pushing on my shoulder?
Oh! He’s trying to lead! He knows how to dance!
The sudden realization opened the door of Makoto’s childhood training. Ren pushed on her shoulder as they turned, she spun, his hand slid along her back causing her to shiver as she settled back into his arms, move complete. He turned to look at her now. Smiled that small smile. Then looked away and Makoto felt her leading arm receive a small tug. Another signal. He didn’t pull her along as some men did, merely gave the signal and waited for her to respond. So she twisted away from his embrace, as the signal requested. Makoto felt her long-slit dress flare around her as she spun. Ren’s eyes met hers as she stopped, and her chest fluttered again as he spun into her- transforming the usual female return into a male spinning follow. Makoto stifled her own giggling as he settled into her arms again. Appreciative amusement rumbled out of the crowd, presumably from the knowledgeable dancers among the guests.
Not only could he dance! He could tell jokes in dance! Questions swirled in Makoto’s mind as they twirled around the ballroom, Ren leading her smoothly through the song. Just who was Amamiya Ren?
A change in music, a murmuring of voices and the movement of feet. The interlude had come, and now all those guests who would dance joined Makoto and Ren on the dance floor. The music began again, and the previous silence was broken by the general murmur of a large party kicking off into real action.
“Ren,” said Makoto as they moved tamely now amongst the crowded dance floor- there was no longer room for fancy moves.
He looked at her with his neutral gaze.
“You can dance,” said Makoto, her voice slightly incredulous.
“So can you. So?” Ren’s face remained neutral, but Makoto sensed he was slightly offended. He sniffed suddenly, nostrils flaring.
“Oh.” Makoto looked away from him as they continued their steady circle around the room. Point taken. Why shouldn’t he be able to dance in a ballroom?
Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because he made his living traveling the world alone, killing vampires. Where did ballroom dancing lessons come in? And there was the whole half-human, half-vampire, social outcast thing to consider. Who taught Ren how to dance? And why? Just more questions along the lines of the others Makoto had asked and Ren refused to answer. Where did you get that armor? Those weapons? That horse? Where? Where? Where?
Elsewhere. Is what Ren would say. Makoto heard Ren sniff again. Had she bothered him that much?
Should she apologize for her surprise at his dancing ability? Could she ask where he learned to dance? Makoto looked back at Ren, doubtful that was a question he would answer. But he was looking above her head and behind her. His eyes intently focused and following some moving thing. His body was tense. His grip suddenly tight on her hand.
“What is it?” she asked.
But he stopped in his tracks, letting Makoto continue past with her momentum, then he shoved her slightly aside. Before she could object, she saw Ren reach into his tuxedo coat and pull out his long knife, the grey metal shimmering in the bright, chandelier-lit ballroom.
Ren took two long strides past Makoto, grabbed another dancing man by the shoulder and spun him around. It was a surprised and angry-looking man: balding, black-haired, narrow-nosed. A normal looking man as far as Makoto could tell.
Ren thrust his knife into the man’s chest.
“Urk-” said the stabbed man, hands scrabbling desperately to swat away Ren’s arms.
The woman he was dancing with saw the blood and screamed. Heads snapped around to see what was going on.
“Ren!” shouted Makoto.
But Ren pushed the knife in deeper, and the man screeched- screeched with a startling, alien pitch. Makoto was immediately reminded of the three vamp-slaves outside the school not so long ago. And then the man’s face transformed into a fanged, leathery, monstrous thing.
And then everyone screamed.
The creature’s screeching filled up the startled ballroom. Ren wrenched his knife arm. The scream ended with the punctuation of tearing flesh. Shocked into silence like everyone else in the house, Makoto watched Ren stand back up, hand dark with blackish blood. He then looked slowly around the room, seeming surprised at all the faces staring at him.
His grey eyes came to rest on Makoto. She couldn’t read the subtle expression on his face, but the sight of his handsome features, his well-fitted tuxedo- his bloody knife-hand… Makoto felt a jolt of something go through her. Something like excitement, but in her lower body and more intense.
The sound of clapping broke the spell over her. Makoto turned to see Shido Akechi stepping forward out of the crowd, smiling towards Ren, and clapping his hands in applause. She realized every other head in the crowd had turned to Shido as well. They began to follow his lead, applause started up in multiple parts of the ballroom and then swelled into a roar that reverberated off the walls.
“A commendable kill!” Shido roared over the applause, which faltered at the sound of his powerful voice. The clapping quickly died away. Shido turned his golden-brown eyes to Makoto, fixing her with his gaze. A different sort of feeling shot through Makoto, one of uneasy wariness. Father had been an ally of the Akechi family, but he’d never been a friend. Makoto had heard him complain of the Akechis many times to Yoshida, late in the night when they were both in Father’s room.
“As to be expected from the House of Niijima.” Shido began firmly clapping again and the crowd quickly followed him again. The roar of applause rose over the previous crescendo.
Unsure of what to do, Makoto could only stand and accept the attention. She didn’t know why they should applaud her or this house. She’d done nothing but watch, just like everyone else in the room. Why draw attention to her?
“But is it not a sign of the times?” Shido continued, the applause once again fading at the sound of his booming voice. “Has Tock-Yo become so blind? Has our great city become so weak? Is our city’s leadership asleep?” He pointed at the corpse of the vamp-slave. “Our enemies are so brazen as to attend our parties! At the house of some of our finest vampire slayers, no less! How has it come to this?! How could this have happened?!”
As Shido’s voice echoed into a new silence, uniformed house employees emerged from the crowd and converged on the corpse at Ren’s feet. Makoto hurried over to join them as murmuring began to spread amongst the crowd.
“Mr. Akechi is right. This city is going to shit…”
“Yeah, has been since the last election…”
Makoto leaned over the group of waiters and waitresses. They were deciding who would take which limb. Yoshida must have sent them over.
“What are you doing?” she asked them. One of the maids looked up at her. Ms. Chujo was her name.
“Mr. Yoshida told us to take him- it... outside to the stables.”
The stable was as good a place as any. It wasn’t in the house, the main door was nearby so the thing wouldn’t need to be dragged over carpets, and most importantly- Makoto didn’t have a better idea. She looked over the tuxedo-wearing monster. Who was he? Before he was transformed by the noble vampire. And who was he now? Or rather, who was he supposed to be? How did he get into the party? Was he invited or was he a plus-one? Yoshida would not have allowed just anyone to come inside, so it was one or the other. And if he was a plus-one. Who was the one? His dance partner? It was a woman, but the surprise of Ren’s attack had kept Makoto from paying any attention to her.
Makoto looked around the crowd, searching for a woman who seemed familiar. Yet the hundred-plus guests were bunched up. Many people were behind others and out of her view, and Makoto wasn’t even sure if any of the women she could see directly were the creature’s dance partner or not. And if it were one of those women, it might not even be the person the creature came with!
“You all know Tock-Yo has walls,” continued Shido, a droning voice in the background of Makoto’s racing mind. “But do you know that only 60% of the wall is manned at night? How easy do you think a vampire could climb a wall? It clearly was easy for that one there on the floor. And why is the wall criminally undefended? Lack of funds! Apparently! Our safety is too expensive! So I wonder! How is the City Council President spending all our tax money?!”
Some in the crowd gave off some grumbling murmurs.
Something warm touched Makoto’s upper arm. She jolted and felt goosebumps flare up over her bare skin. Her head spun towards the touch. It was Ren. He was still looking at her with that unreadable expression.
“Sorry,” he said softly.
Makoto’s thoughts came to a screeching halt. Sorry? What? For what?
“Sorry?” she asked him.
Ren’s eyes dropped. “Sorry for ruining the dance. And your party.”
Ruining the dance? What the hell was he talking about? He was sorry for killing a vamp-slave invading her home?! Was he-? Was he embarrassed? Is that what the look on his face was? Embarrassment? That must be it. She’d not seen him embarrassed before.
“Ren-” she paused, her eyes taking in the nearby guests and the staff members lifting the corpse nearby. “Mr. Amamiya. This creature ruined the event the moment it passed our threshold. If you’d not slain it, who knows what it might have done to someone here.” A sudden fear passed Makoto’s mind. “Do you think there might be others?”
Ren’s face lost its weird embarrassed look and returned to its usual placid seriousness. “I can check. Everyone is gathered here. It wouldn’t take long to circle the room. Vamp-slaves can’t hide their scent.”
“Do it discreetly,” said Makoto, “This one will be put in the stable. Maybe we can learn something from the body.”
Makoto felt a touch on her other arm, a slightly cooler, but much smoother hand. She turned to find the physician, Takemi Tae, looking down at the corpse with an eager expression on her face. The short-haired woman was wearing a dress of similar style to Makoto’s, but in Makoto’s opinion, Takemi filled hers out much better. Even now men’s eyes were wandering from the grandstanding Shido to Takemi’s pale thighs.
“I can learn all sorts of things from this body, Ms. Niijima,” said Dr. Takemi, “ May I go with it to the stables?”
Makoto and Takemi had been stiff with each other for weeks. What genuine comradery they’d shared in the early parts of the Suzui Shiho event had vanished in the face of Takemi’s display of jealousy for Makoto’s lifestyle. Makoto had been offended and became angry. They’d been stiffly and impersonally formal with one another ever since. But it seemed Takemi was forgetting all of that in her current excitement.
It was a silly, emotional feud with an ally. It was long since time to let it go.
“Of course, Ms. Takemi,” said Makoto in a hushed voice. “Do as you wish. And once we’ve learned everything we can from it, you may take it”
As the house staff began shuffling the body from the ballroom, Takemi tore her gaze from the corpse. She showed Makoto an expression of teeth-clenched excitement as she grasped Makoto’s hand.
“Thank you, Ms. Niijima! Such a specimen!”
She then walked after the staff, seemingly all thoughts of the party now chased from her mind.
The party! Makoto looked around the ballroom. The guests were grouped haphazardly around the room- some watching the transport of the corpse, some were watching Shido Akechi, who was now in the middle of some sort of discussion in a large circle of prominent citizens. Still others seemed to be watching her, and a spare few were watching Ren. He was now on the other side of the room, walking slowly around different groups of people. Probably sniffing or whatever it was he did. Meanwhile, the small band was idle in their seats, as derailed as the gala itself.
What to do? Restart the festivities? Was that proper? Makoto would rather not. And in light of the slain intruder, Makoto would rather have all these people out of the house just as soon as Ren confirmed there was not another creature among them. But could she do that? Kick everyone out? Declare the party over? Well- yes, she could. She could do what she wanted. But should she? Makoto wanted advice. Where was Yoshida?
After a few searching twists of her head, she found him just outside the ballroom in the atrium. He was watching the corpse be carried out the front door. Makoto hurried over to him before he dashed away on whatever task might be next on his internal agenda.
“Lady Niijima,” he said gravely as Makoto approached.
“Yoshi, what should I do? I think we should end the party. What do you think?”
Yoshida nodded shakily. “Yes, yes, I think that’s probably best. This will be the talk of the town, and doubtful anyone is much in the mood for more dancing. They’re more interested in Shido’s early campaigning. That man never fails to seize an opportunity.”
Makoto was relieved to hear Yoshida agree with her. She wanted these people out. She wanted to be out of the dress. She felt naked- not just because of her exposed back and legs, but because she didn’t have any weapons: Father’s gun and her gauntlets. The world felt a more dangerous place without them.
“I’m going to change out of this dress, Yoshi. Will you confer with Mr. Amamiya before you announce the closure of the party? He’s checking the guests for any other intruders. And tell him I’ll meet him in the stables.”
“Yes, my lady,” said Yoshida, all business. The major-domo had his orders from the lady of the house.
Makoto still felt uneasy ordering Yoshida like that. He was practically her parent. But that’s what he wanted- it was part of his identity: the house butler. And Makoto was a Niijima, lady of the house, and ever since that morning but a few weeks ago, when she’d trailed Ren through the city- Makoto found herself using the Niijima authority she’d never thought she deserved. Like it or not, it was part of her identity. And it continued to prove itself useful.
She hurried up the stairs, unremarked in an empty atrium. In the rush, she missed the heelstep on one of her shoes and rolled her ankle slightly- but her athletic legs were strong and fit. She merely stumbled, cursed under her breath, and took the high-heels off. She then ran down the hall, the long slit of her dress flowing along her bare legs.
Once in her room, she slammed the door, flicked on the luxurious electrical light, and immediately shimmied out of the red dress. It covered so little of herself, there was no notable temperature change over her body. No goosebumps here in the sanctuary of her room. Clad only in her panties, she strode past her armoire of dresses and other such social, lady clothing. Everything she needed was in the wooden wardrobe next to her four-post bed.
She opened the sturdy oak doors of the wardrobe and found everything as it should be. Against the back of the right door, her padded corset was waiting. Black, utilitarian, and with padded protection for her breasts and pelvic region built-in: the corset was the essential element of her gear which protected her most sensitive areas from the hardened leather of her real armor. She slipped into it and tied it quickly up the front. Why would anyone want a back-tied corset, anyway?
Next, her hardened leather pants. The plates of leather were placed well to preserve the full mobility of her legs, and the softer leather of the leggings themselves were cotton-lined. A terror to launder, Makoto was sure, but comfortable to wear. The breastplate, however, was much less hospitable. It was solid around her chest and offered little wiggle room. It hung in the center of the wardrobe on extendable pegs. Makoto pulled these out, bent down, put her arms over her head, and stood up into the breastplate while threading her arms into the attached sleeves. With an awkward jump, she detached herself from the wardrobe pegs and went to work on the fastenings. A final touch: the chainmail scarf Yoshida made her. It settled heavily around her collar. It had already saved her life once.
That complete: she was armored. Now she just needed her weapons. She pulled open the wardrobe’s center-top drawer. Father’s hand cannon rested there, clean and polished. She took it from its indent and flipped open the cylinder with a now instinctual motion. It was loaded with six shells. Unloaded weapons had no place in this world. And it wasn’t even the only loaded gun in the room. ((She kept another in her bed stand and still another in a hollow in the mattress near her pillow... Ever since that night a black pool of shadow attempted to infiltrate the grounds.))
She settled the gun in its holster on her right hip. Also in the drawer: her armor’s two pauldrons. Each was dotted with spare rounds for her revolver, standing upright in circular patterns of six shells. She need only press her gun’s empty cylinder to them to detach a new set of shells into her gun. There were no empty spots on the shoulderpads, so she attached them to her shoulders.
Her gauntlets waited in the lower shelf. The tops of each were solid steel, protecting the back of her hand and knuckles. They also concealed spring blades. Her palm was covered in hardy canvas, but her fingers were bare. She didn’t trust her gunplay with gloved fingers. And finally, her boots. Thick leather uppers, steel toes and hidden blades. As much protection as could be afforded without being too heavy.
She turned towards the mirror on her make-up stand. Only hours before, she’d sat and carefully painted the mask of high-society on her face… a mask that was still on her face. She scowled at her reflection, strode to the bathroom, and rinsed her face- the water running milky chromatic into the drain. She toweled dry and looked again in the mirror. Makoto now saw herself as she really was: a Niijima. A vampire hunter.
She snatched up her armored helm and strode from the room. The hallway echoed lightly with the murmur of departing guests. It was almost the same sound the guests had made when they were awaiting Makoto’s original descent in her red dress. Yet the apprehension Makoto felt then was absent now. She wasn’t wearing a costume. Her face wasn’t covered in a mask: No powder, concealer, blush, eyeliner, or curled lashes. Makoto was who she wanted to be, not who she was supposed to be.
Makoto’s feet didn’t falter as she strode along the balcony and quickstepped down the steps. As before, guests paused and watched her descent in awe- but perhaps a different sort of awe than before; slightly less admiration and slightly more intimidation- she was a lithe young woman... but spiny, hard, sharp. Some people took instinctual steps backwards from the stairs.. Makoto wasn’t aware- her eyes were on the open door and her mind on the stables beyond.
Two young figures stepped towards her and broke her focus. Ann Sakamoto, her figure bursting from her dress, and Ryuji Sakamoto, his tuxedo worn with minimalist attention to detail. Yet their faces wore the same look of curious eagerness.
“What’s up, Ms. Niijima?” said Ryuji.
“What’s the plan?” said Ann.
Makoto’s mind chugged into action. She realized she’d been thinking of nothing else but getting to the stables But something would need to be done, wouldn’t it? Something aggressive. Her home invaded by vampires for the second time. Were they targeting her specifically? Or was it random? And did it matter either way? A vampire in the Niijima estate? It could not stand.
But who was the culprit? Who to look for? How to find them? What were their resources? How to kill them? All the essential elements of an attack plan were not established. She had nothing to tell the Sakamotos. Makoto opened her mouth to say as much, but the determined, set-jaws of the blond siblings made her pause.
She needed to have a plan- or at least appear to have one. She was a Niijima. A vampire hunter. When it came to vampires, she had to always know what to do- at least in public. And the Sakamotos were not just tag-along minors. They had abilities now- or at least, had been able to use some sort of magic at least once before in the final battle with Kamoshida. Did they still have those powers? Both reported an inability to manifest their powers at will, but Ren confided that he was sure they still possessed them. How he knew, he had not revealed. Like with so many things, Ren offered little additional information when pressed.
Regardless, the Sakamotos were eager allies with perhaps too much enthusiasm. If they thought Makoto didn’t know what to do next, they might very well take initiative on their own. That could be disastrous in more ways than Makoto could imagine. She needed to tell them something… Anything… But what? She needed time to think!... oh! Time!
“We’re going to learn what we can from it,” said Makoto in a soft voice. She was sure they would know she was talking about the slain vamp-slave out in the stables. Now, to let the Sakamoto’s down easy- let them be sure that Ren and her would take care of it. They would sit this out: “Then we will begin our hunt.”
“Yes!” said Ryuji with a clenched fist.
“Er-- umm..?” said Makoto. She was surprised Ryuji was excited about being left out.
“So when should we come back? Tomorrow?” said Ann.
Makoto blinked. What? Why didn’t they understand?... Oh no! She’d used ‘we’. It was a too inclusive pronoun! She’d meant her and Ren- and NOT them through omission. Dang it! Once again, she was losing control of a situation thanks to the poor choice of a single word. Denials and reversals formed on her lips, but the guests were all very close- she didn’t want to make a scene. She didn’t want the Sakamotos to have any more attention than they already had.
Makoto sighed in self-defeat and closed her eyes. “Yes, tomorrow afternoon.”
“Awesome! We’ll see you then,” said Ryuji. ”We gotta go now, though. Mom’s waiting for us outside.”
“Bye, Ms. Niijima!” said Ann, her eyes sparkling as she spun, her legs flashing in her dress.
Makoto watched them go with a sinking heart. Goodness. How was she going to dissuade them tomorrow? It might already be too late. Maybe Ren could do it. He probably seemed a more firm wall to the Sakamotos than she did. If she could convince him to deny the Sakamotos… assuming he was willing to do so. He didn’t always do what Makoto wanted, and she didn’t know him well enough to convince him of much.
But Ren was probably in the stables already, and there was nothing Makoto could do about the Sakamotos tonight. She pushed them from her mind and moved through her departing guests and out into the yard. No one tried to speak to her, but interested eyes followed her movements. Makoto wondered at that briefly. She must have an intense look on her face. She would have to remember it.
Yet another thought for another time. The stables were around the east-rear side of the house. Makoto hurried quickly along the estate’s carefully-maintained gravel pathways, the murmur of departing guests fading into the night. The stable loomed in the darkness, barely illuminated by the electric light emanating from the windows of the main house. Except for the windows and opening of the stable itself, which glowed with lantern-light. Makoto strode for it, her feet gravel-crunching across the open space.
“Someone’s coming,” said a female voice from inside the stable. It was Dr. Takemi.
“It’s Ms. Niijima,” said a male voice. Ren.
Makoto rounded the corner into the stable a few seconds later. The dead vamp-slave, still locked in its monstrous humanoid form, was strewn out on the sawdust floor. Takemi was on her knees beside it, apparently unconcerned with dirtying the dress she was still wearing. She was intently examining the creature’s clawed hands, but she looked up as Makoto entered. Ren was against the wall- already in his habitual, cross-armed lean. Though, the pose was more dashing in his tuxedo.
“It’s the same scent as the first vial of blood you brought me,” said Ren as Makoto stopped to look down at the dead vamp-slave. “And the ones we killed outside the school.”
“Kaneshiro,” said Makoto. She might have known. The name that kept coming up- or rather, the smell of that name. An assumed noble vampire, also in the city, and once a suspect of the Shujin Academy disappearances. But in the end, that had been the noble vampire known as Kamoshida; to whom Kaneshiro did not seem related. Or at least in no way that they’d become aware. But Makoto was sure the two names, Kamoshida and Kaneshiro, were related somehow- it was too coincidental to not be the case.
“Who?” said Takemi, now examining the creature’s wrist.
Ren said nothing, but his eyes remained steady on Makoto. Was he trying to tell her something? Probably not. He was just looking at her, that’s all.
“We-...” said Makoto, “We don’t know. The name is all we know. And that we’ve slain four of his- or her’s- servants, and another was shot by my night guard some weeks ago. Ren-”
Takemi looked sharply up at Makoto, then over to Ren.
“I- I mean, Mr. Amamiya,” said Makoto, her cheeks feeling slightly hot, “Were you able to find anything else on the body? Anything in his pockets?”
Ren shook his head.
That was disappointing. Then there was no more information to be had here, except for the unique scent of the vamp-slave’s master, which only Ren could detect. And presumably other dhampirs like him- and vampires themselves. But- hopefully, Yoshida’s social memory would be able to identify the person the vamp-slave came in with, and which false name it had used in its false human form.
“Well…” said Ren, pushing himself off the stable wall. He hesitated a moment as Makoto looked at him. “I’ll be leaving.” He walked towards Makoto, came within a step of her, seemed to hesitate as she watched him. Then he walked past her. “Goodbye, Ms. Niijima.”
What’s with the excessive formality? It didn’t just seem for Dr. Takemi’s benefit. He’s acting strangely.
“I told the Sakamotos we would have a meeting tomorrow afternoon,” she said, turning her head to watch him walk into the night.
He paused. Didn’t look back. “Sorry. I’ll have left the city by then.”
Shock rolled through Makoto’s mind. “WHAT!?” she spun towards Ren, his back to her, shadowy at the edge of the lamplight.
Ren still didn’t turn around. “There are no contracts here. I need to find more work.”
No work?! They have a dead vamp-slave right here! Clear evidence there was at least one vampire in Tock-Yo! He could hunt that one!
“There’s a vampire here!” she said, incredulous
“But no contract.”
No contract!? Who cares about contracts!? Despair suddenly boiled up inside Makoto, fueled by this- this- betrayal! Abandonment! She was his partner!
“You’re just going to leave!?” Makoto said, incredulous.
“...I don’t-...” said Ren.
He finally turned, his grey eyes looking intently into hers. His eyes seemed placid, like normal, but was there something else there? Makoto couldn’t read it. But who cares! The traitor!
“...I can’t work for free,” said Ren.
Money! Was everything always about money?! Why was everyone so obsessed with it?! It wasn’t that big of a deal! Makoto felt her forehead go hot as the disappointment boiling in her chest burst up into her throat. The backs of her eyes were burning.
“Fine. Leave then,” said Makoto. She tried to keep her voice even, but her throat was constricting. Her tone was notably off-pitch. “Leave this vampire free to do as it wishes, ‘Vampire Hunter J’. I’ll hunt it myself.”
Ren’s face showed no reaction. He turned and walked away, heading for the estate gate.
Good riddance, then! Makoto turned away from him and towards the house, her face stinging all over from anger, sorrow, and welling tears. She instinctively wanted to be back in her room, door closed.
“So…” called Dr. Takemi, “I’ll just hire a coach and take this body, then?”