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Cherry Picking

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“Don’t think I'll feel sorry for you. Homes like yours deserve to be destroyed.”

Yuichiro didn’t respond.

An insurmountable fear had stitched his vocal cords like fabric. Every broken sob or whimper remained lodged in his throat, condensing into a single knot. The blanket’s wool scratched against his burns, pricked the oozing flesh of his wounds, but he let it swallow his frame without protest.

“Had she succeeded in killing you before I got here,” His savior continued, “I wouldn’t feel any malice towards her either.”

The flames grew in magnitude, stretching their fingers to reach a sky swollen with stars.

"You would’ve been no better than the rest of them."

The dedicated fire brigade looked tiny compared to the inferno before them. Some men were pumping water with all their might; others were manhandling ladders.

Everything existed in memory now: the bathroom where Yuichiro held himself until his knuckles turned white, the closet filled with secret drawings of his family to replace the photographs they never took, the hallways that amplified the sound of dislocated joints, even the old study where he’d sit on his father’s lap, receiving sweet words of comfort while his mother lied half-naked and bleeding.

“Part of you had to be relieved looking at her misfortune, right? I bet it's nice to pity those below you.”

Such an allegation wasn’t new to him.

His mother had told him the same thing.

Despite his hazy recollection, her call for him to enter the master bedroom was only a few hours ago. Her voice had rung with enthusiasm, which was quite the foreboding sign, in retrospect. She wouldn’t so much as look at him when his father was home, and what awaited Yuichiro left him breathless.

At his mother’s feet, his father was writhing on the floor. A puddle of saliva had collected under his mouth, and his wounds were more gruesome than anything he inflicted on her that day. Judging by their size, she must've used a hard, blunt object to hit him. It was only natural Yuichiro had tuned it out. Violence was commonplace in his home.

Lifting his eyes to his mother, her hideous smile matched every scar on her face. He couldn’t recall the last time he saw her eyes so clearly. On the rare occasions they were alone, she’d always stroke his cheek and whisper, “Momma’s eyes are no good. She can’t make them look sweet, like her voice.”

The bangs she'd spent years growing were now dry and mutilated.

“Yuichiro…”

Her teeth and tongue looked darker, brittle, as though she had finished gargling poison.

"Please stay. I want to see your face."

A flask of a colorless liquid was in her hand.

His name sounded garbled in the mouth of his father. Fragments of teeth fell onto the wood as he screamed: “Leave,” a promise of death towards his mother, and “Everything’s all right, Yu. Everything's okay.”  

His mother’s grin widened the tear on her busted lower lip. Without taking her eyes off her son, she poured countless layers on the man beneath her. One, she hummed in ecstasy, for every night he filled her bed with the scent of a stranger. Another was for every "instinct" excuse he used to justify his possessiveness. For every action, every word insisting that an alpha was the same as being her god, she splashed the liquid onto his hands.

“I’m sorry … I was never truthful to you,” She muttered.

“You didn't teach me to hate my body. The day I experienced my first heat … I cried more than when my father passed. Yes, the pain was intense, but the scent was worse was than that. It was repulsive. It lied. I didn’t want the intimacy my body ached for, but you believed it instead of my words. You smelled that I wanted you, and that was enough, wasn’t it?”

With a gentle laugh, she continued to pour, ignoring the outbursts of her mate.

“How stupid of me, crying to my mother in letters. Her alpha treated her the same way, and she never left. That’s what’s wrong with people like me. I’m too weak. I made my weakness my entire identity and then wondered why my life is so boring, empty, and sad. I was always a stupid child.”

With newfound bravery, Yuichiro called out to his mother.

She answered with the reveal of a match.

“Alphas, vampires … they’re the same thing, really. They benefit us just so we find joy in subservience. And you-you'll be the same way, Yuichiro. You’ll like an omega as weak as me. Maybe you’ll groom one to love you, so it’ll be funnier when that person can't leave.”

Only through childish naivety did hearing his name calm his heart. For a moment, it drowned out his father’s anger.

His mother’s eyes lowered to her mate.

“Darling?”

Finger by finger, the match was let free from her grasp.

“… Wouldn’t it be better if you all just died?”

After the eruption of flames, his sensations were more potent than any visual memory. The acrid smoke was a hammer to his temple. Everything throbbed and pulsated. His heart was the loudest thing in the house. Painful nausea relieved him of feeling the glass lodged in his feet or the burning in his throat.

The sudden grip on his forearm didn’t make him scream.

He remained silent when a knife tore through his flesh.

His mother's body felt soft when they tumbled down the stairs.

The sound of her bones cracking was familiar.

At some point, between collapsing into darkness and the shock of cold air reviving him, a broad pair of hands had placed Yuichiro upon a hill. His painful coughing fits, stomach emptying itself on the grass, and endless tears rinsing out his eyes was his first confirmation he was alive.

He snuggled his head against the earth, oblivious to both the rocks digging into his cheek and the footsteps of a stranger. The blanket’s sudden heat threatened to take what little consciousness he had, but his new companion roused him with haste.

The man threw multiple questions at Yuichiro, but the details the latter provided were lofty at best. His speech was laconic, broken, and raspy. The volume of his answers diminished until his voice slipped away entirely.

His compliance alone must’ve earned him an introduction. The stranger’s name was Guren Ariadust: esteemed marquis, head of the Imperial Order, and mentor who housed aspiring members. He had spotted the burning building on his nightly expedition.

“Oh well! No one stays a victim forever,” Guren said, bringing Yuichiro back to the present. “What was that Kimura principle? You know the one, ‘Magnanimity is worthless in an uprising?’ How good is your education?”

Once more, Yuichiro made no answer. The searing window frames collapsing into ash, spitting out embers as they fell, had captivated his eyes. Watching the flames consume his house, it looked brighter, more welcoming, than it ever had before.

Against the smoke and the rich black of wood, he thought he saw his mother’s silhouette dancing within the flames, twirling about the darkened shell of the house.

“Beautiful, isn't it?” Guren asked, his voice clashing with the wind.

“At least, I think so. Any omega would feel some vindication that a brutish alpha got burned alive. And even if I did pity him, there’d be no use in that anyway. If there's nothing you can do, why care about someone else's problems?”

Yuichiro could think of a few reasons, but he didn't have the mindset to argue.

A quiet observer he remained. 

“Adding value to someone's life doesn't come naturally," the marquis continued.

"You have to choose to be a remedy. If not, you’ll become a disease. If you're neither, you might as well not exist.”

For the first time, Yuichiro decided to look at Guren. His cloak was messy to the eye, for embellishments littered every inch, so he gathered the energy to meet his gaze.

The foreignness of his savior's eyes unnerved him. They weren't filled with contempt or weepy with animosity. A desire to intimidate—and an ugly god complex to match—hadn’t sullied them. He could only see what Guren permitted: intense pride, a desire to lead, and an underlying gentleness that softened the first two. The dark curls that framed his face only accentuated their brightness, rather than match a shadowy disposition.

His toothy grin alone out-shone the light of the fire.

“Praise your good luck, boy! From this point onward, it’s my choice what you are.” 


Yuichiro approached the carriage with all the self-pity (along with poor posture and knowledge that his suffering was entertainment) of a man approaching the guillotine. The stares of his peers, their faces pressed against the window and cheering for the demise of his life-long aspirations, were more oppressive than the thick humidity smothering his neck. Rainfall had ceased before his time of departure, and the sweltering heat—a commonplace at mid summer’s end—gave the sky its dull, greasy appearance. His gaze remained on the coachman, for the clouds gathered in such a sickly fashion he refused to stare at them. 

He was sure they'd revive last night's headache.

Escaping to one's last days of freedom was customary for all future inmates, he assumed. His apprehension was warranted before he even heard the news that day. It had been too soon for Guren Ariadust to summon him. He never sent for anyone until his post-heat-appointment-crankiness (as his students called it) was over. Remnants of a sweet fragrance still came and went under his nose.

Yuichiro recalled little of his exact words, but 'chosen,' ‘transfer,’ and ‘Illustrious,’ sent him into a panic.

He proposed a duel to keep his residency, and he demanded a rematch upon losing.

Then another.

Then several more.

By the ninth request—or perhaps his nineteenth—he had depleted every resource that sustained Guren’s patience. He dragged Yuichiro out of the study to dress his wounds, but his delicate touch didn’t heal the irritation flowing between them. Rather than easing the mood with sweet spoonfuls of sympathy, Guren wasted no time expressing his refusal to address the matter further. With each cut adequately bandaged, he left his son to his own devices without a word. 

When Yuichiro hastily assembled his peers to announce his loathsome tragedy, his theatrics were met with uproarious applause. 

They promised him a celebration on the eve of his removal, but the amount of work they put into their festivities was of little consequence to the man of honor. In all the years he’d known them, they’d invent any "joyous occasion" to excuse succulent feasts and a sea's worth of liquor.

At the designated evening, he was dragged out of bed and into the dining hall. He drank little, said even less, and merely observed the debauchery he would’ve participated in at any other occasion.

“I can’t believe you’re complaining about living amongst the vampires. You know you’re the only person who'd ever do that, right?” One of his colleagues scoffed, adjusting the thin frame of his glasses.

“But you’re not considering his feelings, Kimizuki,” Asserted another, distinguishable by the beauty mark under his stern right eye. “Hotheads who thrive on conflict would be miserable there.”

“‘Conflict!?’ Anyone from the Sangu family would kill to be in your place, and you’re worried about ‘conflict!?’” The young lady next to him cried, face flushed and wiping sauce off her chin.

“Steal some blood from a vampire, and then you’ll have all the conflict you want!”

Their breath was a cross of meat and aged liquor, and they amused themselves with a sense of humor only attainable to the stupidly drunk. Even the friend Yuichiro tolerated most that night, a noble with droopy eyes and brunette curls more befitting of a child, had lost himself in the hedonistic chaos. His affection was always exacerbated with drink, so Yuichiro found himself locked in a tight embrace and bombarded with sentimental whining.

“I can’t—I can’t believe you’re a resident of the Illustrious estate now! Since His Lordship introduced us, I worried about you a great deal! You know that, of course, but please, let me tell you how much you—you’ve blossomed! Fencing won't be the same without you! Swordsmanship practice even less! You’re so special to me, Yu! You're special to all of us! We love you! I love you! If anyone deserves this, it's you!”

His new state of being rolled off their tongues so easily, Yuichiro thought, as though his shame was comical and misplaced. To take residence with those who consumed his own made him feel like a pig, a spoiled swine who witnessed the massacre of its fellow livestock, yet snuggled against their butcher at night.

Such an existence ought to be berated.

As he dragged his feet along the cobblestone, his two-week-old scorn hadn’t lost a shred of its intensity. Even the beaming smile of his coachman failed to console him. It always raised his spirits that the old man's missing teeth didn't prevent him from grinning. He’d use them to support his many fist-fought-a-vampire-and-lived stories. His rough, sun-damaged skin, crooked nose, and over-powdered mustache were discernible even from afar.

He was a genuine antique, so much so that even a stranger would find him nostalgic.

Yuichiro’s footsteps became heavier. The immense château behind him seemed to acquire a gravitational pull. Through wistfulness alone did he long for the dingy pallor of limestone, the soaring ceilings that intimidated more than they impressed, and the hideously jagged shrubbery that surrounded a mediocre garden. How audacious it was, being a blemish on the countryside's otherwise picturesque face.

“‘Do you have any inkling of its designer?’” He mocked under his breath, “The avant-garde subtleties of What’s-His-Face de Whatever is beyond a simple boy like you! Learn a little something about architecture, and then you’ll worship my tacky—”

He had run out of cobblestone.

All that awaited him was the dusty plush of the carriage’s interior.

A sentence-length exhale was enough to install himself into the vehicle, but a fresh wave of anguish washed over him upon closing the door.

Instead of a greeting, the source of all his woe and heartache remarked:

“Your friends are quite proud of you. They sang praises of you all morning, yet you lacked the decency to give them a proper goodbye. Is it enjoyable feeling sorry for yourself?”

“It's not like that,” Yuichiro replied, “I’m ill, so it was hard to muster up the energy.”

The ‘silent treatment’ was an ineffectual punishment for Guren, and he knew as much.  An active listener was a plus, not an imperative, and his caretaker would craft his observations with purposeful, provocative commentary whether or not he expected a reply. Yuichiro himself, on the other hand, was never the type to leave his comments unacknowledged. In his twenty years of life, this was his first grudge against the man, for he always chose confrontation over brooding. 

Sitting across from each other, arms folded, were the perfect pair of choleric and instigator.

“My head hurts, my back is aching, and my nose bled for three hours. Also, I didn’t wanna alarm you, but my left foot was significantly larger than my right when I woke up this morning. This shoe is Narumi’s. Let’s go another day.”

Guren’s eyes remained on his cuticle.

“I know how you feel. I have quite the illness myself. A dreadful migraine has tormented me for thirteen years—”

“I became a knight to protect my family! Not to live under some bloodsuckers!”

“You’re a member of the Imperial Order because I told you to be. That and Shinya owed me a favor.”

“‘Owed you a favor!?’ Yeah, right! Like you don’t run off together every time you’re in heat.”

“Ha! What’s with that tone? Scared I’ll never come back or something?”

“No, I think you should stay there longer. That way you could be with a prince instead of ruining my life.”

“Ruining your life!” Guren parroted, bored enough of his cuticle to look at the distressed young man before him.

His expression was of vanity and feigned innocence, a look he had perfected down to the last detail. Even his eyebrows seemed to declare, ‘I beg your pardon; I’ve done nothing to you!’

“You act as though you’ve been pilloried! Nobody but you will mourn your unfulfilled goals and your doomed half-measures. Thanks to me, they’ll remember you as a man who lived a life of well-deserved dotationes.

Yuichiro’s face betrayed him. It was clear from his involuntary grimace that he had recognized the word from his studies, but he had no memory of its translation.

Guessing as much, Guren stated: “Dotatio, Dotationis. Feminine. Third Declension. Meaning: Endowment. Surely you’ve been keeping up with your Latin.”

“Of course I have! My tutor gives me twenty vocabulary words a week now! She insisted! I’ve been learning them so well she had no choice but to make it harder for me!”

“Your tutor gives you forty a week.”

“Ack!”

“Also, dotatio was on last week’s list.”

“Err—You’re mistaken! I never saw that one!”

“Have mercy on me and don’t spit when you talk. I can’t afford to catch your poor education.”

“Poor education isn’t contagious! And—Wait! I don’t even have a poor education!”

“I’m shocked you realized that underlying assumption. For the very first time, you’ve impressed me.”

With a sigh that sounded more like a guttural hiss, Yuichiro threw his back against the carriage’s slightly uncomfortable button tufting.

“Who cares about Latin, anyway!? It’s their language. We shouldn’t have to learn it in the first place!”

You should. It’ll be of great use to you among the vampires. Now they can’t cover up their plans to eat you in your sleep.”

Guren—”

“In any case,” The man in question interrupted.

A pained sermon about “betrayal” was far more than what his mood would allow. His son was a broken record when angry, and Guren could predict his tangent down to the upward inflection.

“There’s no point in yelling at me. Sending you off wasn't my choice.”

“Exactly!” Yuichiro spat, thrusting his index finger. “Who enforces a datotio!?”

Dotatio.

“It’s a power play! They want you to be willing to live on their little human farm! They wanna show how easy we are to manipulate when they cater to our greed! We'll give up our blood easier if we're spoiled!”

“That’s worth considering,” Guren admitted, though his flat tone masked his sincerity.

“But Sanguinem—”

“See!? That too! ‘Sanguinem!?’ You should be embarrassed that she changed the name of our country! How can you sip tea in a parlor with them in the room!?”

His first encounter was as fresh in his head as it was twelve years ago. Traveling to the home of a distinguished baron, he received the warmest of welcomes, hard candies that tasted of sweetened milk, and access to a playroom that was furnished for the children of guests. It was the wheel of a broken train set, waddling past the cracked double doors, that had lured him into their host’s parlor.

Deep in the stomach of his most exquisite room were the morbid, unsettling gazes of the ‘Illustrious family.’ A dark plaque rested on the even darker oak of its frame, displaying the inscription, “Her Majesty the Queen, Krul ‘Tertius Sator’ Illustrious & His Royal Highness, Mikaela ‘Octavus Sator’ Illustrious,” in the most grandiose of calligraphy. Their figures were eerily still, even for an illustration, with expressions so hollow of interest they evoked an optical illusion. The longer Yuichiro looked into the image, the more their eyes gleamed with thirst and foreboding contempt.

Amongst the ornate décor, statuettes, and other meaningless bric-a-brac whose only purpose was to signify the baron’s status, the darkness of their presence swallowed all else in the room. The dread he felt was nearly enchanting. He was sure if he took a step closer, that same darkness would consume him whole, and he'd wander for all eternity.

The phobia he gained from the painting since then had morphed into shame and resentment.

How anyone would trust the “endowments” of such monsters was beyond his understanding.

The whole kingdom deserved nothing but ridicule.

“What a fitting judgment for someone of your caliber. I’m sure every well-fed, well-rested person will agree with you.”

Wait.

What?

“That wasn’t Latin. You knew every word I said.”

Ah. He had spoken aloud.

“Hey, Guren? I’d appreciate not looking at me the same way you look at garbage.”

“My apologies. I didn’t want a face that severe.”

“It’s all right—”

“Tell me, what expression do I have for ignorant children? That’s what I was going for.”

“Whaddya mean by ignorant!? Besides, I understood what you said,” Yuichiro corrected, the color in his cheeks draining at last.

“I was confused about what you meant.”

Guren’s snort was in perfect harmony with the cross of his legs.

“Only an ignorant child would think petty humiliation is a legitimate issue. That's what I meant.”

“Petty!? There’s nothing petty about how I feel! I'm talking about the freedom of our entire country!”

“Freedom, he says! As if freedom without any way to protect it is worth a damn!”

“Those bloodsuckers aren’t protecting us! How could you even imply that!?”

“I’m not,” Guren stated, “I’m telling you how it is. Your lack of insight only proves my suspicion about you.”

“What suspicion!?”

“That you only read the headings in books and neglect the actual text.”

The warmth on Yuichiro’s cheeks displayed an embarrassment he had no intention of showing.

The best reply, he decided without much thought, would be a display of knowledge as sufficient as his caretaker’s.

“I read enough to know what I’m talking about! The vampire queen made an offer, and now she's taken over everything! You don’t need a book to see that!”

“Ah, never mind. My suspicions weren’t altogether correct," Guren replied after a brief look at the door sash.

“Told ya!”

“When you’re feeling especially studious, you’ll read the subheadings. And then you’ll neglect the actual text.”

“Stop talking as if you know!”

“I do know. I’ve seen the books you’ve actually read. Had you studied your vampire-related texts, the pages would be full of stains—”

“Augh, enough! You’re really getting annoying!”

To Guren’s surprise, his determined opponent held out an open palm rather than the fist he anticipated.

“ … What?”

“We’re gonna fight!” Yuichiro said.

There was no smile on his face; only his chipper tone relayed his enthusiasm.

“If I win, we turn this carriage around!”

“Really? After that horrid display of ignorance, you can’t just bow out like a gentleman?”

“That means nothing coming from you! Besides, if you wanted a proper duel, you should’ve let me bring my sword!”

Moments passed, including a sigh of irritation, before Guren linked his fingers with Yuichiro’s.

“I'm not telling Gramps to turn around, so I might as well humor you.”

“You better,” His son agreed, “'Cause nothing you say will convince me I’m wrong! One! Two—”

Violating the rules of his game, he slammed his thumb against the middle joint of his caretaker’s. The tactic was worthless, however, as Guren released himself with ease. He forced his thumb downward, lurched it toward his body, and gave his son a lackadaisical pin on the nail bed.

“Hey! You weren’t even looking!” Yuichiro scolded, body stiff.

“So? Relying on your sense of touch is better than looking.”

“That’s not fair! We’re doing it again! And neither of us are cheating!”

“All the better.”

At the proper count of three, Yuichiro thrust his thumb forward, once again falling prey to Guren’s evasion-and-strike technique.

“Wait, hold on! I wasn’t paying attention!”

“Sure you weren't. You know, if you really bothered to look into it, you’d see why nobody cares about your lofty ideals. Then you’d be enjoying a trip instead of the shame of defeat.”

With the same careless attitude, he began to slip himself out of Yuichiro’s grasp.

His fingers were caught in haste, however.

“Best two out of three!” His son demanded, and as an afterthought, “There’s nothing in those books worth reading anywa—er, worth reading again!”

Their grip tightened, the count was made, and right as Yuichiro attacked, his caretaker tucked his thumb into his palm.

“Stop it, Guren! I said we weren’t cheating!”

“Nothing’s worth reading in those books ‘again,’ huh? Well, I’m ready to agree with that to an extent. So I’ll tell you something your little texts wouldn’t. Consider this a parting gift.”

A reluctant pause followed, but Yuichiro’s face was aglow with boyish curiosity.

“Like what?”

Guren altered the curve of his lips, for a softer smile seemed more appropriate than a haughty smirk.

“Everything you hate about this country is our fault.”

Yuichiro knit his brow.

“Ours? What’re you talking about?”

“I’m talking about our history. You think our neighbors tried to kill us apropos of nothing? The vampires wouldn't have bothered with us if not for our underhanded practices. There was a value in our preservation—or maybe suppression’s the right word …”

“But we didn’t do anything!” Yuichiro cried, taking the same offense to Guren’s testimony as a pious man would sacrilege.

Nevertheless, the thumb on his middle joint stopped his upcoming rant before it could begin.

“Best two out of three. I win,” Guren taunted.

“You didn’t count to three, and you lied to distract me! There hasn’t been a single fair match!”

“It’s not a lie. If the Hiragi family had lost all of its power, it would’ve been an act of justice.”

“Shut up! Here, best three out of five!”

They set up their thumbs, and on the third count, Guren pulled back until his nail bed was out of reach. Yuichiro made himself comfortable in response, knowing his counterattack relied on the opponent’s fatigue.

“Your faith in your own kind is admirable, but humans don't deserve all your confidence, Yu.”

“And bloodsuckers don't deserve any of it!” Yuichiro barked, almost with dismay. “There’s no person alive who’s worse than them!”

“That's a bold statement! Go on, chastise a lion all day for eating a fox, but people like you always ignore the poor rabbit in its mouth!”

“What’s that supposed to mean!?”  

“That your sense of loyalty is so twisted,” Guren yawned, “You'll gladly blind yourself to any harm your loved ones have caused. Similarly, people you see as evil are incapable of doing any good. I don’t blame you for your one-dimensional thinking. That kind of naivety fits you. But it means anything outside your rules will be outside your understanding.”

“No, it wouldn't! And what’s wrong with that!?”

“Oh stop, you're not that obtuse. You may not like it, but we owe those bloodsuckers our lives. No debate in some carriage will change that.”

“Fine! Let's say you're right! Even if they did save us, what would we owe them for right now!?

“Look to your right, Yu.”

Yuichiro obeyed, and a gloomy stillness took over him.

The sickening mass of clouds, which seemed to harbor something more sinister than rain, had finally thinned into faint wisps across the sky. Flocks of sheep were grazing upon a meadow that seemed to stretch indefinitely. Their overseers, a shepherd and collie duo, observed them under a maple tree’s bountiful shade. So soft were the clamors and trills of the fat sparrows above them that it complemented the wind’s gentle hum.

Amidst the death of a summer afternoon, a blanket of rosy gold had enveloped everything.

It was the same tranquility he had known since childhood.

“We owe them that,” Guren said. “If life is good and people are fed, the likelihood of rebellion is slim. Not everything’s like your pathetic excuse for parents.”

Having received his prize, Yuichiro’s glare and rekindled attention, he continued.

“The vampire reign is mutualism. The bloodsuckers are the hummingbirds, and we’re the flowers. But enough of that! I doubt you’ve studied journals in biology, either. After all, they do mention bloodsuckers.”

Denying that claim, Yuichiro decided, would be more trouble than it's worth.

He was too fed up for banter anyway, and a mild dread had crept over him.

“What good is bringing up my parents?” He asked instead.

Guren lowered his eyes to their woven fingers, and Yuichiro’s followed suit. He hadn’t noticed the relaxation of his thumb, nor did he notice the pressure on his nail bed.  

His pouty lip earned a laugh from his caretaker.

“It matches the example right beneath you: Regardless of yourself or what you're dealing with, you'll take the same approach to everything. Observe.”

He placed his thumb on his son’s middle joint.

“If you’re pinned down like this, try forcing yourself out of this opening. A quick jerk works better than constant pressure.”

Yuichiro escaped the pin with success, pressing his thumb over Guren’s without a word.

“See? Yours is shorter than mine, so your muscles are more concentrated. You could get out of a bind with ease, but you move as if our thumbs are identical.”

The smoothness of Guren’s cuticle, the silky skin that followed, their miniscule warmth shortened Yuichiro’s breaths.

A burning sensation crept behind his eyes.

Entwined with his own were the same fingers that had run through his hair all night, calming his nightmares until his body was no longer on fire.

He’d trace their every crease, studying them like lines in a book, when the memories were too harsh and they’d share a bed.

When the shame of being abandoned ate him alive, a single caress made the distressed child within him disappear.

A languid heaviness rose from Yuichiro’s stomach.

They felt more like promises than flesh.

“Huh? What're you rubbing your eyes for?”

“Shut up!”

“That dress shirt’s expensive, you know. Don’t get snot all over it.”

“I’m not crying!”

In truth, he was thankful for black sleeves. They were kinder to his dignity, soaking up the tears without the exposure of white cloth. Upholding the power in his voice took all his efforts already, as he was one slip away from incomprehensible sputtering.

“There was—There was no point in any of this! In you saving me! Not if I can’t be with you! Not if you can’t even need—!”

He shut his mouth, blocking his choked sobs with clenched teeth.

They were heavy piling up on his tongue, but swallowing was impossible.

There was no room left in his throat.

Averse to prolonged silences, his caretaker replied: “What do you want me to do? Kick and scream for you to stay? Beg the council to let you serve a family like the Hiragis? You should be grateful. They're practically saving you.”

“I don’t care!” Yuichiro cried, letting a whimper escape.

Guren’s hand was free for only a moment. It was soon encased in his son’s hands, pressed against the warmth of his chest.

“I didn’t ask to be saved!”

Squeezing his eyes shut only hastened the flow of his tears, but Yuichiro couldn’t bear to look at the man in front of him.

He bit his bottom lip in the hope that it would stop trembling, but the biting quips he learned to expect from Guren never came. In their place was a steady, gentle hand that wiped his cheeks and lifted his chin to meet his crooked smile.

“My goodness,” Guren chuckled, raising a single brow.

“That was affectionate. What the hell’s gotten into you?”

Yuichiro had given up hiding how bashful he looked, but he couldn’t help averting his gaze.

“I … Um—”

“Bloodsuckers aside, I never expected you to whine like that. Oh, I know what brought this on.”

He smirked from ear to ear at Yuichiro’s puzzled look.

“You’re worried you’ll stay a virgin there! Sorry, I can’t give you any optimism about that.”

His tone was absolute, as though he spoke for himself and God.

“This has nothing to do with my virginity!” Yuichiro spat, throwing back Guren’s hand.

“Aw, I thought you wanted to hold my hand!”

“Idiot! Who’d wanna hold your hand!?”

"What was that a second ago? 'Oh, Papa, I'll miss you so much! I just can't live without you!'"

"I said nothing of the sort!" 

Guren rolled his eyes.

“Close enough. You're right, though. Someone like you is too soft for that kind of motive. You’re really worried about your dreams of marriage.”

“Am not!”

“Please, it's written all over your face. But don't fret. Someone like you prefers a kind spouse over an ambitious one, and you’ll find plenty of those where you’re going. People with actual goals would intimidate you, and you’d be overwhelmed with jealousy.”

“Why did you stress ‘actual’ like it was underlined or something!?”

Despite his protests, Guren ruffled Yuichiro's hair as long as he wanted.

“Quit acting like it's all over, and get a new reason to live. Who knows? You might find someone who needs you. It's not like I ever did.”

“But …” Yuichiro mumbled, “I wanna be needed the way you are. I … I thought I'd become—”

“My heir?” Guren interrupted.

“I already have one of those. You know that.”

“Lady Ariadust doesn’t count!”

“How could you say such archaic drivel? Women are as capable as you and me.”

“Your ugly Chihuahua’s not a woman!”

After a brief pause, their carriage was filled with laughter. It was cheerful yet soft-spoken, a testament that Guren was superior to any genuine prejudice towards his son.

He was merely a man of routine, and Yuichiro’s happened to be tough love, humor, and cold truths.

Half of him appreciated that.

“Hey… Guren?”

“What?”

“You’re a pain in the ass to talk to.”

“The feeling’s mutual.”

“Gentlemen, we’ve arrived!” Their coachman yelled from outside.

Yuichiro and Guren stepped out of the vehicle in silence.

They approached the Illustrious estate shoulder-to-shoulder, and they glanced at anything besides each other.

Their index fingers, however, were tightly knit behind their backs.

Chapter Text

The evening was now on its final breath. The sun had fallen into its Earthly coffin, making way for stars that crept from the East. At the crest of night washing over the surviving fragments of day, a colorful display adorned the work of art before them.

To call the Illustrious’ home an ‘estate’—an elaborate, grandiose structure that could cast a foreboding shadow over his own monarch’s—must have been the old joke of the matriarch possessing it. One who, Yuichiro guessed, found great amusement in feigning a humility vampirism couldn't grant. His knowledge of the 'estate' prior was ludicrously shoddy. The anecdotes from his friends had been fly-by-night hearsay, and only God knew their true source.

But one look at its grand facade confirmed every detail he thought superfluous.

The palace's architecture, daunting in how aggressive it sought perfection, could've only belonged to someone paranormal. The arc-boutants wrapped around the edifice like arms, the towering pinnacles sheltered their myriad of bells, and the residual rain bled between fangs of chimeras. Light from indoors frolicked across the stained glass windows, which contained every color Yuichiro thought imaginable. Theatrical performances appeared to take place in each room.

Above the entrance, human and vampire sculptures emerged from a void, stuck in a moment of chaos and creation. They bowed to their respective icons framing the doors: the queen and prince in intricate marble—at least four times larger than life-size. The eyes were closed, heads bowed, and the right hands rose in blessing.

Such were Yuichiro’s observations, and he drew back the corners of his mouth.

“What the heck …? People live here?”

The solemn that brought their fingers together vanished once he spoke, so their hands promptly returned to their sides.

“Isn't this like the opera house we visited?” Guren said with a lifted spirit only his son could've noticed. “I'm surprised you don't like it.”

“Yeah, right! That was a gift to yourself! It wasn’t even my birthday!”

“Really?”

“And it’s obvious you’d love it! This is worse than our house!”

“Give it time, Yu. I’m sure you’ll be bowing to those statues by morning.”

“Shut up!”

“Come to think of it, I can’t identify the material of those doors. Maybe they drain the blood of those who dare to enter?”

“Stop making fun of me!”

Making their appearance known at all, however, became unnecessary, for a lone man exited the mouth of the estate.

He was tiny against the looming doors of crimson. His gait had the confidence of a man stepping on stage, yet his bow was more of an awkward spinal fold. His sleepy eyes were a honeyed brown but overall lackluster. The hair he pulled into a lazy ponytail made a mockery of his dignified suit. Upon his face was the lofty expression of a man on trial, a man whose features relayed beautiful parents but did nothing to evoke their assets.

Yuichiro had expected a being more monstrous to greet them, but everything about the unkempt creature was flawed to the point of charming.

“Welcome to the Illustrious estate! Let’s have a happy day two of the semi-annual move-in—Guren!? Guren Ariadust!?”

In the time it took Yuichiro to direct his gaze at his caretaker, the man had already flung his arms around Guren’s neck.

“How the hell are ya!? It’s been … what? Five years!? Did you even notice I stopped sending you letters!? I poured my heart and soul into those! How could you respond with nothing but a ‘glad you are well!?’"

Guren, in contrast to the joyous agitation of their host, was as still as death. The exhale he pushed through his nose had the flair of an old, smothered dog.

“Yes, Norito. It’s me.”

He didn't need the confirmation, but Norito's hug intensified as though it were wonderous news.

A secret, almost delighted amazement ran through Yuichiro's person.

“It is! It is without question! The more I rub, the more it feels like Guren!”

“You’re snuggling me to be a nuisance. Let go.”

Norito obeyed with a cackle and dusted off Guren’s shoulder.

“So they’ve finally allowed your retirement, eh? ‘Bout time! Now we can relax together! It’ll be just like the good ol’ days!”

“Sorry to cut your dreams short, but the one moving here is my kid, not me.”

“Your what!?”

His coquettish smirk became the same dazzling ecstasy he exhibited prior. He followed the dismissive wave of Guren’s fingers and smacked his forehead at Yuichiro.

“No way!” He cried, circling around him. “I thought he was your servant, but I see it now!”

Who’s a servant!?”

“Here, let’s take a good look at you! You’re like Guren when he was your age! Do you also get lonely easily? Aw, your angry pout’s as cute as his!”  

Taking mercy on both himself and his son, Guren ceased Norito’s movements with a tug on his lapel.

“He’s not my kid in a biological sense. I took him in when his house burned down.”

“Oh?”

He leaned forward for one last inspection of Yuichiro.

“Well, adopted or not,” He shrugged, “A child will take after his parent. But come, let’s hurry inside. You’re the first to arrive on the second day!”

When the three gentlemen stepped into the entryway, the obsidian floor gave their shadows flesh at once, reflecting them in photographic detail. A desirable musk of sage floated beneath their noses, and the muffled sounds a cello coaxed them from the right.

“Home sweet home, younger Ariadust! What do you think?”

Yuichiro started at the pedestaled torchères and fanned outward. The ceremonial staircase they framed was of sparkling marble and diverged into two flights of stairs. Between decadent columns as tall as trees, on each side of the lavish balustrades, and next to exquisite artwork, the many accented lighting fixtures gave the area a flawless symmetry. Their subtle light provided a dark yet sophisticated ambiance.

“… This isn’t my home.”

A sympathetic chuckle passed through the lips of their host.

“Yeah, okay,” Norito said, pinching the pointed end of his goatee. He winked at Guren, assuring him his son didn’t offend. “Everyone needs time for a place to feel like their own, so let’s not waste any more of it! I prepared a favorite little room of mine for our introduction.”

He took a sharp pivot right, and the click of his shoes made a pleasurable echo against the floor. Yuichiro lagged behind (but not in a slump) as they entered another area to his distaste.

The aforementioned ‘little room’ was an exquisite parlor with a chandelier the size of a tree-top. Though the left side was rather bare of furniture, the right had two sets of faux-gold sofas and accompanying chairs. Mirrors cascaded from the ceiling to the rug of intricate design. The fireplace wasn’t small, but it dwindled below a massive oil painting of the queen. The lounging set was unique in its palette, but the remaining décor adhered to the chilly, powdery blues of the monarch’s gown.

Every so often, the summer breeze slipped under the window pane, agitating an assortment of wind chimes.

An old servant, plump in the arms and face with hair the same pallor as his skin, had finished preparing tobacco and a plate of cream puffs for the table. When the gentlemen plopped onto the sofa—Yuichiro was at the edge of the seat—he excused himself with a nod.

“I’m hurt by you, Guren,” Norito said. He pinched an indulgent amount of shag and stuffed it into the bowl of his pipe. “You haven’t even asked about me!”

“You’re alive and well. What else would I want to know?”

“Ha! Younger Ariadust, do be kinder than your old man and hand me those matches. In exchange, you can have that paper in front of you.”

Yuichiro dropped his eyes at a map next to the matchbox. He agreed to the exchange and unfolded the sheet without a word.

In red was a layout of the palace, but behind it was a setup akin to a university. Many a tourism points were marked in violet, and the paths were measured in kilometers rather than meters. Luxurious complexes framed a lake. Gardens were the size of an exhibit. Around a massive courtyard were shops, libraries and various sites of leisure.

“What’s all this stuff past the estate?”

“Past the estate!? This is the vampires’ house! All that is the estate!”

Yuichiro renewed his silence, slumped back on the couch and brows severe. That, paired with Guren’s lack of input, became exceedingly unpleasant to Norito.

“This air of gloom is really putting me on the spot, you two!” He said, massaging the back of his neck. “It's almost like you don’t want to be here!”  

“I don’t!” Yuichiro cried, “I’ve been trying to tell that to this idiot!”

Guren snatched the finger waving at his face and tucked it under his arm.

“My apologies. He thinks the vampires will eat him, so he’s been grumpy and irritable since we left.”

“Have not!”

Their host lifted his shoulder in a half-shrug and blew smoke from his cheeks.

“Don’t worry, kid. You’ll be fine!”

“And how do you know!?”

“Vampires are creatures of habit. They feed them 'round the clock over here.” (At this phrase, Norito spun his index finger in a circle). “No one will scavenge for you, and you'll live on the lake, anyway. Did you see that?”

After a failed attempt at rescuing his hand, Yuichiro scoffed, “They’re close enough! And what do you even do here? It sounds boring.”

Norito answered with a grin both brimming with politeness and patronization.

“As Ichihara Tsuji once said, ‘When a man is happy, his mind isn’t that active.’”

“I see you’re still reading philosophers,” Guren yawned.

“My collection’s taller than ever! It’s not that I can’t leave. I just do on rare occasions.”

“But why?” The reason escaped him, but Yuichiro was thankful his swift peek at Guren didn’t yield mutual eye-contact. “Don’t you miss your family?”

Norito reached for a dessert.

“Nope, never. My parents only fussed over that perfect little sibling of mine, so I messed around more than I spent time with them.

Unhappy with the chocolate distribution, he rolled his eyes and returned it to the plate.

“See, I have this theory that the council selected my brother, but my old man swapped us to get rid of me. If I’m right, though, it’d be the kindest thing he’d ever done. I couldn’t wait to leave!”

“You can switch!? Cause I know this girl named Mitsuba who’d love to—”

“The girls here are cute, too,” Norito continued after Guren quieted his son. “Illustrious was my only salvation! No vampire could’ve scared me off!”

“I’m not scared!” Yuichiro said, at last triumphant in freeing himself. He smoothed his locks in no particular direction, so his hair remained as disheveled as when his caretaker ruffled it.

“I need to stay home! I’m an Ariadust!”

“Your old man doesn't think so. Do you, Guren?”

He raised his eyes daringly at his friend who, despite keeping a placid expression, fidgeted in his seat.

“You do make an interesting point, younger Ariadust, so let’s ask him another way. If you wanted to dump him off, why didn’t you tell the kid the real story of your family?”

He was silent for a little, as Guren made no response, and he propped his chin on his palm.

“He holds so much pride for that lie of yours! Does he know why his name can't be ‘Ichinose?’ That’d kick the loyalty out of him—”

“Who cares?”

Yuichiro’s tone—grave and without a hint of his boyish agitation prior—aroused the older gentlemen's undivided attention.

“Who… cares?”

“Yeah! Why should he bother? If I knew something terrible happened to my family, I’d want to stay by their side even more. Wouldn’t you if you loved them?”

His additional contingency earned a constrained half-laugh from Norito.

“Your tough act is so adorable! Are you sure Guren’s not your dad? Anyway, you two kinda remind me of this one fable by Shinomiya—you’re frowning again, but listen.”

Feeling magnanimous, he lifted another cream puff and gave it his bite of approval.

“There once was a man who could attain unending happiness and leisure. He never had to experience pain for the rest of his life. And he rejected the offer! In his eyes, it was more fulfilling to help others who would never achieve that happiness! I know that’s how your papa thinks, but please don’t be one of those yourself. You may think you owe the Hiragis something, but I assure you—”

“That's not it.”

“Hm?”

“This is all my family has, Norito,” Yuichiro began, “And if they had no choice but to suffer, why abandon them just so I won’t? If I could help shoulder that burden and protect them, then I'll be happy.”

Norito blinked at Guren, whose cheeks had a momentary rosiness about them.

“Wow,” He mused, wiping the cream off his goatee, “You two love each other a lot, huh?”

In near-perfect unison, both Ariadusts bowed their heads and stammered, “Do I really have to say that out loud?”

The flush that overspread their cheeks was more satisfying than Norito expected, but he hid his pride with a more charitable smile.

“No, it’s obvious enough. But after such an edict of loyalty, is your papa still gonna leave you here?”

The stare Yuichiro fixed upon his caretaker was severe in its anxiety, yet a tender devotion radiated from his face. Guren returned his glance for no longer than a second, and he stuffed the hand that inched toward his son between his thighs.

“Yes. He’s staying.”

His confirmation was over-enunciated, with a carefulness that bordered on timidity.

Yuichiro’s fingers shriveled away from his caretaker, and he excused himself from their circle unhurried.  

“There’s no use in leaving this room. Gramps won’t go home without me.”

Back still turned, Yuichiro's hand slipped away from the wood's glossy finish, a slight quiver in his frame.

“… Er,” Norito chided, raking the smoke’s odor through his hair. “Couldn’t you have said that a little nicer? H-Hey, cuter Ariadust?”

He couldn’t help but flash his signature grin, even if Yuichiro wouldn’t see it.

“I’ll make sure your papa doesn’t leave, so walk around until you’re ready to say goodbye. I’ll torment him with some love letters Shinya gave me.”

“You have no such thing,” Guren said.

“You’d be surprised! And take your time, kid. I only ask that you stay away from the farthest left side of this palace. See, His Royal Highness is an omega—”

“I don’t care!”

A resounding echo bounced off the walls of the entryway, despite the door being closed with languid defeat. Yuichiro succumbed to the marble staircase before him, the knots in his stomach tightening with each click of his heel. He dipped his entire walk in something repugnant. Shoulders slumped forward, head high yet crooked, his posture threatened to give way at the slightest provocation.

He fancied (and hoped) that the door of the ‘little drawing room’ would throw open, and Guren would rush to him with an uncharacteristic call of his name, proclaiming he’d be an Ariadust forever. 

Escapism was never in his nature, so he could only attribute his repeating daydream to pathetic desperation.

Yuichiro couldn’t have answered whether he took any detours or remained on a single path. Locked in his pitiful imagination, swiveling through unfamiliar surroundings, only when he found a particularly nauseating corridor did he rekindle some awareness.

Mirrors the size of windows fattened the area, for they rested on every meter of the wall. There were a dizzying array of painted compositions on the ceiling, proud-standing angels of gold holding up effigies, and a return of the obnoxious chandeliers encased in bronze. Nevertheless, Yuichiro felt no more obliged to find another hallway, so he continued his walk with no singularity of purpose.

He drifted in and out of reverie, passionate and pure-minded with only the sound of his shoes as an anchor. But a shift in his step yanked him from the clouds into a world at odds with the estate.

The tiles under his feet had transformed into a glittering sheet of glass. Beneath the aisle, a vast garden of flowers swallowed what used to be the floor. Their jade throats stood in such a fashion that their leaves never touched another's, and a sliver of light—faint and with a source he couldn't identitfy—bounced off their white petals.

Yuichiro glanced over his shoulder, and the splendorous hallway was mere meters away from where he stood. No gradient existed between the conflicting areas, as though he had stepped onto the blank section of an incomplete painting.

He drew in a sharp breath and continued out of grave curiosity.

Everything about the garden perplexed him—a space where indefinite black enveloped the heralds of spring. Their stance was equal to those basking in sunlight, their amber cups sparkled with dew, and they swayed by a gentle breeze Yuichiro couldn’t feel. Their fragrance was indistinguishable.

Eyes glued downward, the end of his walk was unexpected. If the crown of his head hadn't slammed into cracked double doors, he could’ve trailed along forever.

Ouch! Damn it! What the hell was…”

In a room whose extravagance rivaled everything he’d seen prior (a feat he would've considered impossible), a round, stirring entity was upon a cherubic statue. It was perched on curled fingers that lifted the veil of a canopy bed, and it lacked a face in its entirety. Yuichiro couldn’t tell if the protrusions on top were ears or horns, and it flickered the spaded end of what appeared to be a tail.

"… Huh?"

It was the light of this chamber, one he guessed could fit his childhood home, that provided the garden its afterglow.

He peered deeper into the room, but his object of interest remained unclear.

At some point, the creature moved, folding what resembled wings against its body.

But what kind of bat was faceless?

Yuichiro double checked for any sign of life. He figured he could slip into the bedroom, inspect the mysterious animal, and then leave as quickly as he came.

The moment he placed one foot on the carpet, its shampooed wool emitted the faint scent of clover. He walked on the tip of his toes until he was up close.

Its little head rose and fell in deep slumber, and he jammed his finger on what he assumed was a chest.

That he felt nothing of fur intrigued him, and he continued poking and prodding when a sudden, singular eye appeared on the void of its face.

“Wha—What!?" Yuichiro flung his hand away with a shriek. "What the hell are you!? And what’s wrong with your face!?”

The creature, as though to torture the boy, replaced its eye with a mouth filled with endless spirals of fangs. Its wings cut the air, and the sharp, prolonged screech it bellowed was a razor to the ear.

Yuichiro’s scream bled into the halls, for the black monster whirled around him in the manner of a bee. His saving grace came in the form of candle holders amongst a vase, and he swung in no particular direction.

Its scream in response resounded throughout the chamber. He snatched the twin of his weapon with haste, shutting his eyes and thrashing them in all directions.

To check whether he hit his target wasn’t worth the visual.

“Die! Die right now!”

“Human.”

Yuichiro became still at once.

A voice, eery in its resoluteness, had silenced both himself and the small ‘bat’ in front of him. Its wings were spread in such a way that the creature appeared frozen in time.

The air was stagnant. His lungs seized. He was certain the Earth itself had stopped turning.

‘Human’ had been more akin to a command rather than a call. It echoed to and fro in his head, as if a spell of absolute obedience was behind its sinister ring.

Standing before him was the subject of his childhood nightmares and the source of his adulthood contempt: Mikaela ‘Octavus Sator’ Illustrious.

Yuichiro had memorized his name from the painting’s inscription, but even the most diligent hand failed to grasp the horrific nuance of his features. There was calculated precision in every detail—from the curve of his nose to the corners of his mouth.

Despite his human origin, the blood-chilling, mystical beauty only given through vampirism was a deformity itself. Its artistry stole a considerable amount of his personhood, and it both pleased and terrified the nerves.

“For what purpose are you in my room?”

Mikaela’s tone wasn’t angry or confused. There was no contraction in his brow. The only sign of his curiosity was a slight tilt of his head.

The golden locks cradling his cheeks, ruffled in some areas yet well-framed in others, kept an impossible cohesion when he moved.

Yuichiro’s knuckles were a considerable shade lighter from his grip. His teeth gnawed and clenched, a painful throb running through his jaw. By the time he gathered the strength to part his lips, another soul entered the room.

Unlike the prince, Yuichiro hadn’t seen this vampire in a work of art, but he could’ve been the inspiration of one. Had he lost his inhuman qualities, his face could've belonged to someone of pedigree. His hair was a glistening silver that rivaled his diamond earrings, and his ribbon bore a resemblance to blood streaming down his neck.

“Come now, my master, you must remember to wait for me. Did you forget your towels are in my possession—upon my word!” His smile touched the corners of his ears. “Someone has done you a kindness and delivered a snack to your room!”

The vampire had a frightening hollowness in his eyes. Even during laughter, his gaze was catatonic.

With no acknowledgment of his servant, Mikaela glanced at the frozen creature beside Yuichiro.

“Arcanu.”

‘Arcanu’s’ vortex of teeth changed back into a single eye. As it swung to join its master, its tail sliced Yuichiro’s cheek and forced him out of his trance.

Ooow! What the hell is that thing!? ” He yelled, dropping a weapon to hold the side of his face. Blood seeped between his fingers.

Perched on Mikaela’s shoulder, Arcanu lifted its bloodied spade as an offering, and the former sucked the tiny sample clean.

“Hey! I’m not your ‘snack,’ bloodsucker!” 

Yuichiro steadied his aim towards the smallest of the three monsters.

“Hold still! I’m killing that thing!”

“What a lively display of insolence!" The prince’s servant laughed.

“My master, you won’t let this go unpunished, will you?”

“What are you saying?” Mikaela replied, his first response to the vampire since he entered. Their fangs had the luster of pearls. “To feel anger towards a human is meaningless. I could extinguish its life with ease.”

There was something musical to his voice, for his words faded in morendo. He took a few steps closer to Yuichiro, but it was more accurate to say he was gliding. His walk had the immovable power and fluidity of a practiced dancer, as though years of choreography were behind his every stride.

He was a walking blasphemy; a cross between a grotesque evil and the stolen body of its victim.

Yuichiro’s whole being shook, and he was angry at himself for shaking. The moment Mikaela raised his hand, so certain was he that it was his final minute on Earth, his muscles didn't relax when the prince merely lowered his arm.

“Are you lost?”

“N-No! What’s it to y—”

His voice had died with less grace than the vampire before him. No matter how tranquil his expression, the emptiness of Mikaela’s eyes, the contempt and thirst he’d known for years was more pervading in person. His irises didn’t resemble pigment of any kind. They were more akin to a thick collection of blood sloshing around his pupils.

Averting his eyes to his wrist didn’t ease his stomach. The softness of the prince's hand, its milky appearance, was a hideous misplacement, for it had the chilly lull of a corpse.

A weak glance at Mikaela’s chest confirmed it didn’t rise and fall. The fit of his bathrobe resembled clothes on a mannequin rather than a person.

The ringing in his ears obstructed the servant’s voice.

“Can't you tell you’re scaring it? It’s not answering you.”

He received no response yet again, but his master freed Yuichiro’s wrist.

“There we go! Now, human, if you’d direct me to place your origin, we could—”

A scream and toss of a candle holder (though he caught it without trouble) interrupted his suggestion. Yuichiro shoved the prince’s servant from the threshold and sprinted into the dark garden.

“Refrain from slipping into the flowerbed, please! You’ll upset the children!”

Yuichiro's chest burned with the shame of his own cowardice. It was imperative to face forward; the blackness of the walls threatened to swallow him whole. The prince flooded his psyche, pushing his speed and throwing out his legs. The relief punched his gut upon reaching the gaudy hallway, and he skidded across the tile on his side.

His wound oozed and stung, demanding his attention, and the mirrors cooled his cheek once his legs gave way. His blood smeared across the glass, painted statues, and dulled crystal whenever he corrected his balance.

It was a miracle he didn’t tumble down the stairs. He miscalculated every other step.

The click of the obsidian floor eased his pulse, albeit marginal. He threw himself into the drawing room, collapsing to his knees the moment he stood before the table.

Norito had kept his promise. The number of souls remained from when he’d left.

“Yu!?”

“Younger Ariadust!?”

Guren kneeled before his son in an instant, lifting his bloodied hand like porcelain.

“What happened to you!?”

Yuichiro flinched at the warmth spreading across his cheek. His caretaker’s palm, the antithesis of the prince’s dollish hands, attacked him with the memory of Mikaela’s touch. The prince of his nightmares only intimidated him in a picture frame. This one had violated his space. He had assumed such a profound sense of harmlessness from his intruder that he disarmed him within spitting distance.  

Only by the grace of inferiority was Yuichiro dry heaving on a rug.

“Answer me! Why are you shaking like that!?”

“H-He…”

“Who’s ‘he!?’ Who the hell did you run into!?”

Damn it!

Yuichiro wrapped his arms around himself. His nails dug into his waistcoat, and moisture stung the corners of his eyes.  

Who did he think he was!?  That bloodsucker… those monsters looked at me like I was nothing! As if they could kill me anytime they wanted! Like I wasn’t worth getting angry over!

“Bloodsuckers…?”

Guren squeezed his son even tighter, praying it’d ease the words out of his mouth.

“Mikaela…” The latter began, desperate not to recall the vampires’ more unnerving features.

“And a taller one I’d never seen. He called him ‘master.’”

“The prince!? You mean you ran into the prince himself!?” Norito said. He almost dropped the pipe between his fingers. “How did you make him angry enough to hurt you!? I’ve never even seen him frown!”

“It wasn’t him! It was that thing with one eye!”

Norito played with his goatee, as was his habit in recollection.

“That little cyclops with wings? I couldn’t get a good look at it, but I always assumed it was a pet of sorts. Man, everything about Prince Illustrious is creepy. Don’t you agree, younger—”

There was a wall between the Ariadust family and himself. They huddled like lambs, and their foreheads were centimeters from touching. Neither of the two made a sound, but every stir, every tight-lipped grimace, was a language they had perfected with their expressions.

Out of mercy for his dear friend, their host broke in with, “You know, it is Saturday night, Guren. You still have one day left. If you returned tomorrow …”

“I already gave him Friday.”

‘What nonsense!’ Norito thought. ‘Everything in you wants to take your son home and embrace him. C’mon, I’m giving you a way out!’

He feigned hesitance with a refill of his pipe. Whatever he countered with didn’t have to be an outstanding excuse. There'd be no argument even if Guren saw through it.  

“Well… Younger Ariadust is in no state to join a festivity where the prince will also attend. Recovery is best in your own home.”

Yuichiro rose to his feet with the help of his caretaker, who avoided the gaze of both his son and his old friend.

“I…”

His voice was just above a whisper, and he began to knead the top of his ear.

“Tomorrow, then.”

Norito leaped from the sofa, threw his arms around Guren, then pulled Yuichiro into their embrace.

“It's settled! We'll reconvene tomorrow. I’ve kept you two from dinnertime long enough!”

The flimsy nods he received were good enough to release them.

Journeying back to the entrance was as silent as their arrival, but a softer atmosphere accompanied the three gentlemen. Relief had washed over the Ariadust family, despite the underlying shame that kept anything but a frown off their faces.

Their send-off was brief and without ceremony. A mumbled ‘farewell’ slipped past Yuichiro’s lips, and the faint crimson of Guren’s cheeks (along with a hurried pace towards the carriage) displayed a gratitude stronger than any words.

“If I know you,” Norito chuckled at the back of his old friend’s head, “You’ll show up the very last hour of Sunday.”

 

“Aaugh! How am I supposed to know!?”

The latest victim of his study session missed the waste bin by a couple paces. His desk had accumulated many scraps, some abused with verb conjugations, most littered with scribbles. When dreariness or boredom took hold of him, the corners of a page became filled with thoughtless doodles.

A Latin book was the center of his misery. Despite getting it four months prior, it had the crisp scent of when he first opened it. There was more ink smudged the side of his palm than every single note in the margins.

Yuichiro’s nose brushed over the text, as though bringing a page closer to his face would aid in comprehension.

“In lines two and three,” (He took a quick glance at the prose) “Ex eis… quod animus breve est?’ Quod act—act what? Acturi? Whatever. The author states that …”

His eyes glazed over the same sentence, and he restarted multiple times. Translating portions of a sentence had been the easiest part of his work, but changing his native tongue to Latin was always more difficult than its opposite. At any other time, he’d skip the cultural knowledge section, but now he had something to prove. Five questions required an hour of flipping through indexes and scanning paragraphs.

“‘The future is doubtful.’ That’s the one! Right? Wait. No? That’s—Okay, okay! I’ll skip this question!”

He massaged his eyelids. Despite the gaslamp’s soft light, the contrast of black letters against iridescent pages grated. He could feel himself blink.

“The author states in lines three and four that many men—lessee, ‘non vacet’ means ‘there is no time.’ And ‘praeterita’ … So it’s letter … Hang it all!”

After shoving his book, Yuichiro snuggled into the cool, hard mahogany.

Not an iota of his spirit lifted when he returned to his sanctuary. The coachman gave a sympathetic smile and asked nothing of his return. Guren embraced him in silence the entire way home and bandaged his face. The two went straight to their bedrooms afterward without a meal.

Sleeping wasn’t allowed. The last thing he wanted to do was skip time.

“ … Amicus, amici. Masculine. Third. Friend. Amator, amatoris. Masculine. Third. Lover.”

Mumbling old vocabulary to himself was far from reading comprehension, but it was enough to keep his brain active.

Cooperator, cooperatoris. Masculine. Third. Assistant.”

A faint smile appeared on his lips. As unwarranted as he knew it was, his quick recollection blossomed a newfound confidence.

Comes, comitis. Either. Third. Comrade. Advorsarius, Advorsarii. Either. Second. Enemy—”

With 'enemy' as the conduit, Mikaela Illustrious stormed into his peace of mind in the same way he had violated his space: a terrifying lack of insight for the dread he inflicted on others. His image, vivid behind Yuichiro's eyelids, doused his psyche in a cold intoxication even his nightmares couldn’t even give.  

He jolted upright, yanked open the drawer, and fished out a crumpled sheet of paper.

It was more tattered than any on his desk, but a single glimpse restored the color in his face.

A Yuichiro in crayon was smiling at him. His head took up half the page. His hands and feet resembled flowers. The eyes leaned to the left, mouth to the right. Above him was a cloud filled with cakes and toys.

The artist’s signature, ‘Yu’s good dream charm!!!!!! From Yoichi,’ would've been illegible without prior knowledge.

With a slight grimace, Yuichiro took a gander at the bed behind him. His pillow had a magnetic attraction to his skull, and he swallowed both an exasperated yawn and a whimper.

He nagged to himself that Yoichi’s gift had no place on his bed, and it was better suited between the pages of a book. The risk of falling asleep in the middle of his studies would only increase as the night went on, and he was certain Mikaela slithered back into his nightmares.

One look in his direction and he’d drop into the sinkholes that had been Mikaela’s pupils, his only salvation a tumble off the mattress.

“… Stupid bloodsucker.”

“Yu?”

At the first knock, he set his pen in the gutter of his book as slow as he could. He planted his fidgeting foot on the carpet.

He paused for minutes, but the muffled noises outside continued, one accusatory, the other sweet. The second tap on the door was more hurried, and there was no way to shut off his light without giving away consciousness.

“I’m sleeping! Don’t come in!”

His purposeful grogginess did nothing to deter his companions, for they welcomed themselves into his bedroom at once.

The taller of the duo made a beeline towards his desk, lifting the fruit of his studies like a dirty cloth.  

Hey! I didn’t say you could enter, Kimizuki! And don’t touch my—”

“It’s D.”

“What?”

“‘Ex eis, quod agimus breve est, quod acturi sumus dubium.’ The author said the future is doubtful. It’s D.”

Kimizuki’s Latin rolled off his tongue with fluent enunciations. He slapped the paper back on Yuichiro’s textbook.

“And what’s with your culture section?” He upturned a corner of his mouth, which only worsened the innate standoffishness of his face. “‘Golden literary age’ came from the vampires’ spoken vernacular. The churches overseas are the ones who—”

“I don’t need your help!”

“That's true. I mean, I confuse dative and accusative every time. Guess that’s why our marks are so similar.”

“Are you picking a fight with me!?”

“Kimizuki, Yu’s been trying his hardest! There's no need to make fun of him.”

“Yeah! Thanks, Yoi… chi…?”

The boy whom he owed his gratitude carried a third soul he didn't notice, and the mere sight of her slumped his shoulders. The chihuahua’s drooping tongue had an aloof energy that rivaled Kimizuki’s. Her gaze had rested on Yuichiro, but she was looking through him.

“… Why did you bring that in here?”

Yoichi gave a nervous laugh, crimsoned a little, and pulled Lady Ariadust closer to his chest. His eyes, doelike and a gentler green than Yuichiro’s own, were the first to invoke any sense of comfort in him since his trip. His hair bounced at the slightest twitch of his head, and his face was plumper than the dog’s bony cheeks. Next to the chihuahua in his arms, he was softer and more inviting in entirety.

“We found her at your door,” Yoichi said. “I think Lady was there for a while.”

She confirmed his statement with a lick, and an indignant pout twisted Yuichiro's lips.

“I was ignoring her! I’ve seen more than enough demons today!”

“Yeah… About that,” Kimizuki began, crossing his arms over his chest. “You wanna tell us what you’re still doing here?”

“Er!”

“The marquis was dead set on transferring you over, and some loudmouth idiot squandering a privilege like that pisses me off.”

“Who're you calling an idiot!?”

“Is that why you’re doing this old stuff? Trying to prove to daddy you’re good enough to stay here?”

Yuichiro exploded from his desk and grabbed Kimizuki by the collar.

“I’m already good enough, stupid!”   

“Yu, wait! Your bandage!" Yoichi cried.

Covering his cheek with haste, Yuichiro chewed on his bottom lip while devising a sufficient excuse. ‘He fell’ was the first thing that came to mind. On what though? What does one fall on that could leave a deep cut?

A knife? Perhaps a sword was more plausible.

“I believe Yoichi asked you a question—“

“Shut up!”

Even if he made sure he never said so, Kimizuki wasn’t an idiot, and he'd spent many childhood years beating up whoever lied to Yoichi. If there a layer of hell didn’t exist for that purpose, he’d build it himself.

With a sharp inhale through the nose, Yuichiro muttered, “Thevampireprince’spetdemonthingscratchedmeinthefaceandIgotupsetandthenwewenthome.”

“You met the vampire prince!? ” His friends shouted in unison.

“So!?”

“‘So!?’ Yu, that’s huge! What did he say!? What did you say!?”

“He asked me if I got lost. I said no and left his room. Big whoop.”

“You were in his room!?”

“How the hell did you get in there?”

“I went for a walk! I didn’t see where I was going!”

“Was it amazing!? Was the bed as large as our cellar!?”

“Who cares, Yoichi!?”

“Who walks into someone’s bedroom ‘on accident?’”

“I never said it was an accident!”

“It was on purpose? Gross.”

“It’s not that, either! He had a cyclops for a pet! A-And his room was in this weird garden! It was all the way in the back, too! To protect him from alphas or something!”

His two companions fell silent. For an agonizing amount of seconds, Yoichi or Kimizuki teased their lips to begin an inquiry, then opted for darting their eyes about the walls. A crinkle of the nose, a twist of the mouth, and their faces relaxed in an instant.

Lady Ariadust sneezed.

Right as Yuichiro inhaled to break the silence, Kimizuki’s laughter bounced around the room.

“‘Protect him from alphas!?’ What is that!? Are you serious, Yu!?”

“What!? Why are you laughing at me!?”

Yoichi covered his smile in a manner both sorry and bashful.

“Yu, didn’t you …?” He attempted between giggles, “Surely you’ve read—”

A Study of Bloodsucking Creatures? ” Kimizuki finished by stifling a laugh with his teeth. He jabbed his thumb toward a thick book, almost the size of an encyclopedia, that was keeping the desk balanced. “It seems he found a better use for it.”

Yuichiro scoffed and snatched up the book for himself. The insult done to him in his bedroom would've been sufficient to make the day memorable.

“'Latrodectus species' is the word you’re looking for.”

“I know what to look for, Kimizuki! There! Latrolala—”

He clasped his throat, and his blood drained from his face. The species' representative was the vampire prince he met earlier. Though the drawing lacked any upsetting detail, the likeness sent goosebumps up his arms. He masked his fear with a cough and read into his nightmare’s biology.

“Hey, Yoichi? Remember that incident five years ago? With that one esquire’s brother? Yuji, was it?”

Of course he did, Yuichiro thought. The only person who ever refused to listen was himself.

And there was no doubt Kimizuki knew that.

“Yeah… He went into the prince’s room, too, right? To steal something for a debt? And once he got home to pawn whatever it was he stole, he died?”

“He didn’t just drop dead,” Yoichi corrected.

“You’re right… He gasped in front of the merchant. And his muscles convulsed. And then he dropped dead. Poor bastards thought it was cyanide poisoning. Took them forever to realize he inhaled vampire pheromones. But hey, Yu’s still alive for the time being, so he couldn't have been in heat. Good for him!”

“Kimizuki…”

Yuichiro flinched. Every word he read verified his companion’s fear mongering. A sickness festered in the back of his mouth.

Mikaela didn’t have a ‘mate’ in its contemporary sense. He had a sacrifice. To mate meant consumption. The prince's venom halted a vampire’s disintegration, liquified their organs, and then he would drink them hollow.

Poisonous to humans, venomous to bloodsuckers, the chart ranked both species on how well their blood lowered his aggression.

“Do alphas even have a scientific name? I don’t think—”

Yuichiro slammed his book in a manner that cut Kimizuki off. His good-humored disposition had collapsed into something dark and contemplative, and though his eyes were intense, he stared at nothing in particular.

The hush that followed was so prolonged that his chair’s creak startled his friends.

When he dug out his worn pair of toe spat boots, Kimizuki and Yoichi rushed to block the entrance.

“I’m sorry, okay!? I was just kidding!”

“Yu! Do you have any idea what time it is!?”

Yuichiro's smile clashed with the desperation that still lived in his features. He kicked into his shoes, maneuvering past his friends with such tenderness they gave way like feathers.  

“Sorry, guys. I’m not going back to the estate.”

“Then where are you going?” Yoichi said, burying his chin into the fluffy little dog’s locks.

“Guren’s got this stupid idea that putting me near that bloodsucker could ‘save’ me. If I wait to go, nothing’ll change from today.”

“So what!?” Kimizuki spat, “You’re going to the Illustrious estate by yourself!?”

“It’s okay! There’s a guy there named Norito. He’s Guren’s friend. He’ll help me think of something.”

“Think of what!?”

“If I’m not back by morning, make up an excuse for me. I’m counting on you!”

“‘An excuse!?’ Are you crazy!?”

Yuichiro heaved a sigh, expelling with it the remains of his uncertainty. When he threw open the door, the darkness of the hall caused an involuntary shudder. He expected a garden to sprout beneath his feet.

“Yu, please…”

He grinned back at Yoichi, catching the almost human-like disdain in which Lady Ariadust sniffed at him.

“The only blonde monster I’ll tolerate is that thing!”

  

“Go take care of business, Master Ariadust!” The coachman cried, crushing Yuichiro’s hand with a wheezing laugh. “I have no qualms with waiting! You’ll remember, when I was down South, I had to sit for hours in excruciating heat as the vampires circled their shady willow trees! The devilish buzzards! My only items were a single glass of water and half a slice of Ezekiel bread! I had to make it last for eight—”

“Thanks, gramps! But … the friend I’m seeing inside can take me home!”

“Y’sure?”

“Yeah! Go back and sleep. Sorry I dragged you out here so late.”

His coachman released Yuichiro's palm only to squeeze him with both arms. His kisses left a faint trace of powder on the crown of his head.

“To see you again answered my prayers! It’s the duty of a grandfather—no! It is an honor for him to spoil his loved ones!”

He brushed off the locks he dirtied with his mustache, released his younger passenger, and waved until he was no longer in sight.

The crimson doors weren’t as perceptible in the dark, and they appeared farther away than before. He remained where he stood for an extensive amount of time, letting the drizzle freshen his skin and—God willing—loosen his legs.

The first step made him feverish. He couldn’t shake the feeling that a wrong move would cost him his balance, for the walkway felt narrower alone.

His focus stayed to the left, for the replica of the vampire queen was easier on his psyche. The statue’s translation had lost her more disquieting features, a blessing that Yuichiro realized he’d taken for granted.

His breath upon reaching the entrance was severer than he expected. He didn’t recall ever holding it.

There were no guards, no footmen. No one had the power to vanquish what awaited them.

Yuichiro’s stomach dropped to the ankles when the doors slid open before he knocked.

Emerging from what appeared to be an empty void was Mikaela’s servant, so he dropped his vision to the ribbons flowing down his chest.

“L-Let me—I need to see someone!”

Panic couldn’t shut him up, nor could it stop him in his tracks. He’d enter the Illustrious estate, he shouted to himself, as a dignified man of purpose.

“Welcome, human! I’ve been expecting you!”

The silvery voice of Mikaela’s aide, however, was a blow to the nerves for which he hadn't prepared.

He straightened his back and shoulders, clenched his fists, anything to compensate for the wave of nausea he knew for a fact distorted his face.

“How is that possible?”

The servant twirled the white ribbon around Yuichiro’s neck and yanked him into the mouth of the estate, which made the latter’s heart jump into his throat. He quivered not only from the glimpse of red irises but the frigid, lifeless hand stroking his back.

“My master heard your carriage about thirty minutes ago.”

Chapter Text

Temptation.

Maddening, agonizing temptation.

Yuichiro buried his teeth into his tongue.

To wet his lips would be irrefutable damage to his pride. He had to remain adamant, to reject the decadent offering right under his nose.

Mounds of succulent meat, coated in brown sugar, were a touch away from falling off the bone, and their charred, sticky edges veered off the plate. Their sauces were vibrant and smelling of fat. To his left, an arrangement of peppered shrimp was sautéed in glistening oils. They rested on a bed of onion and legumes, seasoned to perfection.

Everything gave off a fragrance-heavy steam, and that was nothing to say of the homespun, buttery masterpiece on his own saucer.

Toasty and tantalizing, ladened with soy-spiked maple, his pork cried honey and grease.

Yuichiro’s only sustenance that day had been as sorry as his predicament: lumps of raw oatmeal and bread burned at the center.

With each minute his eyes remained on the entrees, his stomach twisted and groaned, but to look up from his brow was infeasible.

A monster sat across the table.

“Don’t be shy,” the vampire cooed, his laugh polished and foreboding.

“Eat.”

At this command, Yuichiro’s fingers inched toward the silverware, and he swallowed an unfortunate mouthful of saliva.

“… You said we were meeting Goshi.”

Weakened by an army of delectable scents, his reply lacked any of its intended force. The name of his father’s old companion was but a tortured sputter.

“We will! Trust me. But first, please join me for a meal. Don’t humans negotiate better when they’re fed?”

A bowl of pillowy, stuffed dumplings brought another fit to Yuichiro’s gut. Their arrangement of chili flakes resembled a smile, and he averted their welcoming stare.

Even the faceless breast of a duck greeted him with the utmost hospitality.

“It would bring me endless delight if you tasted the Maitake Consommé. Humans say it’s the hen of the woods—”

“Your master heard me way before I showed up,” Yuichiro noted, taking mercy on himself by changing the subject.

“Shouldn’t you be trying to eat me or whatever he told you to do?”

“What an accusation! My master is a kind, sensitive soul.”

“Uh huh. And how do I know you didn’t poison this?”

“Toxins in the bloodstream ruin your flavor.”

The monster’s counter was a valid one, however nauseating. To make matters worse, even the ominous ring in his voice couldn’t spoil his appetite.

“Your ‘Goshi’ question hurts me. Am I not worth talking to at least once? Whatever quandary you have, I could assist you far more than a mere doorman.”

“What makes you so special?”

A hearty laugh echoed through the room with the upsetting resonance of a neck snapped.

“My name is Ferid. Ferid ‘Septimus Sator’ Bathory—designated aide of His Royal Highness and confidant of Her Majesty herself.”

Okay. That special.

Yuichiro crossed his arms and gave a snort of acquiescence.

“Now then, it’s only fair I get your name in return.”

Meeting Ferid’s gaze was an error—born from the habitual custom of introducing oneself. To his benefit, however, the persimmon pink of the dining room, their distance, and the dim candlelight relieved him of his nightmarish effect. Taking in his features was comparable to a spider’s mug: it evoked his disgust, he desired to avoid it on sight, but he wouldn’t flee in a panic.

He acquired enough solace, albeit begrudged, to take his unused knife, and with neurotic slowness did it rise from the table. Appearing too eager was risky. Only when he made the first incision could he stare down at his meal.

“… Yuichiro Ariadust.”

The moment his blade sunk into the meat, his dish became the scene of a crime. Blood splattered from a wound pinker than any rare serving of pork and oozed onto his sides. His weapon clanged against the porcelain at once, and he shoved his plate against the saucer of dumplings.

“What’s wrong?” Ferid asked as though bracing for a good laugh.

“Too raw!”

Within Yuichiro was a newfound ease, however. Not in his aching belly, but the relief of avoiding humiliation.

How dreadful it would have been if he expressed willingness to indulge from the start.

“I’m sorry it wasn’t to your liking.”

Tone far from apologetic, Ferid swiveled the blood in his wine glass.

“I thought if we consumed a similar meal, it would strengthen the bond between us—Hey! No need to scowl. Come, come, we’ve dined enough. Share your burden with me.”

Yuichiro was silent for a little, then assumed a posture immovable and upright. He focused on Ferid’s right ear to make a pretense of eye contact.

“You bloodsuckers made a mistake. Moving here isn’t a privilege! It’d suck, and my caretaker said there’s nothing he can do about it. I know, I know, ‘it’s so crazy you’d rather die than live here!’ But—”

“No, I believe you.”

The lengthy justification he prepared fell apart at once.

At the least, he expected a ‘why is that?’

There was no way a blood-sucking demon, whose every word implied a double meaning, would put his faith into such a vague explanation.

“What? Is it difficult to imagine I’d put faith into such a vague explanation?”

“Huh!?”

“Ahaha! It’s those eyes of yours!”

Yuichiro shot a glance at his reflection in a carving knife.

“… What about them?”

“They’re lovely, breathtaking even. They reflect your heart with such clarity. To lie is futile for a boy like you.”

“How do you know!? I’m a genius at lying!”

Having crimsoned to his ears; both from embarrassment and in disgust toward his flattery, he watched Ferid complete the rest of his meal without a word.

“To refuse the Illustrious Estate,” the demon continued, isn’t running from your desires, like those other snobby, insincere aristocrats. Rather, it’s that very desire that keeps you from staying. What pleasures you to such a degree?”

Involuntary shivers ran down Yuichiro’s spine.

“My family.”

“Is that so? Yes, there’s someone special, that much is obvious. A person sinful yet good-natured, easy to confide in, someone you idolized at first glance. Tell me, where do you fit in humanity’s social hierarchy?”

“A-Alpha.”

“How fitting!” Ferid sang, brimming with satisfaction as if his question had a ‘right’ answer.

“True, your personality isn’t pretentious, aggressive, or entitled, but your biggest quality makes up for all three.”

“Which is…?”

“When I alluded to that special person, a fire lit in your eyes, one expressing a love that’s arrogant and all-consuming.”

Yuichiro refused to leave the edge of his seat. He wouldn’t submit to Ferid’s claims with body language.

“How desperate it appeared! It’s unconditional love in the worst meaning of the term! Indeed, good and evil are of no consequence to you—”

A full glass of pinot grigio splashed onto his face.

“Stop speaking like you know everything!”

Smile ever present, Ferid blotted his forehead and cheeks with a napkin.

“How cruel! I take back what I said about your lack of aggression!”

“Then hold still while I punch you.”

“You couldn’t harm a vampire. Only an idiot would try.”

“Great! I’ll be the first idiot to succeed!”

Ferid blinked, remained silent for only a moment, then gave vent to a roaring laugh.

“Amazing! Unbelievable! You summed up your humanity in that one response!”

Having dried his collar, the napkin returned to his lap in a fold more intricate than its original triangle.

“The always rampaging greed of humans… the arrogance of vampires scornful of everything… of the two, you’re way more fun to play with.”

“Too bad. I’d never play with a creepy weirdo like you.”

“Please watch your language. What would you do if I cried?”

“Not regret it.”

“Ahaha! Wallowing in regret is such a fruitless exercise, don’t you think?”

‘Gross,’ Yuichiro thought, ‘our opinions overlapped.’

“But alas, I do regret one thing.”

Despite his certainty the depraved vampire was lying, the confession earned his attention—more than he would’ve liked to admit.

“What do bloodsuckers regret? Don’t you have to care about stuff for that to happen?”

“Your doubt is understandable, but yes, if the mistake is grand enough.”

Yuichiro inclined his head.

“What happened?”

“I upset a god.”

With narrowed eyes and heightened skepticism, he followed up his inquiry with: “How did you manage that?”

“It was hundreds of years ago. I orchestrated a lovely song for it, and its voice was so magnificent it filled the entire palace. But it never sang again.”

“How come?”

“It was too extraneous, I’m afraid.”

“… Okay, so you’re making this up, right? You’re making this sound dumb on purpose, right?”

“You’ve been rather hard on me today! I assure you from the depths of my heart. I’ve been at a loss for how to get its song back, but you… maybe you can help me.”

“No! What the heck can I do!?”

A whimsical sigh, filled with lazy enjoyment, escaped Ferid’s lips. He propped his cheek up with an open palm.

“What a shame. Here I thought an Ariadust partner would help me save the head of the Imperial Order—”

Yuichiro shortened the distance between him and Ferid, exploding from his chair and slamming his hands on the table.

“Hold it! You know Guren!?”

The newfound clarity of Ferid’s face didn’t scare him back into his seat, but his grip on the tablecloth was relentless.

Traveling up and down his frame for reasons that escaped him, his repulsive irises raised the hairs on his neck.

“Since he was a young student! It’s true what you say, retracting a selection is outside his authority, but did he inform you this choice was of his own doing?”

“I knew it!” Yuichiro cried, his heart drumming against his sternum. “He said he was trying to save me!”

“And it stands to reason he needs saving as well.”

“Exactly! So tell me everything! Right now!”

“Does this mean you’ll help me?”

“Yeah! I’ll do whatever you want! Just save Guren with me!”

“Such adorable resolve! To join sides with a vampire for love—!”

“Enough already!”

Ready for the fray, irritable and determined, Yuichiro rushed over to Ferid’s side and seized his upper arm, though he avoided the devil’s face.

“C’mon! We’re leaving!”

“To Goshi?”

“No! You said it yourself, didn’t you!? You’re close to the queen and prince! They’ll listen to you!”

Under no discernible influence of Yuichiro’s strength, Ferid rose from the dinner table.

The rosy dining room, whose walls flattered the guest’s complexions, was a salon tucked into the stillness of an under-lit corridor. Framed by female torchères with their arms behind their backs, the light from the grand foyer shone upon the exit.

“Seriously, Ferid! If you knew Guren, you shoulda said so earlier! Especially if you wanted to help him!”

“Really?”

“Duh!”

His stride came to an abrupt halt.

Hand in Ferid’s and gaze downcast, Yuichiro hadn’t taken a gander at his surroundings when he first entered. In the dulled light of the candelabras, there was a heaviness about the 30-meter high room that being the only human present accentuated. At the heart of the staircase, a foreboding aura emanated from the left. A fear struck his heart that the darkness from Mikaela’s garden would flow from the alcove and strangle him.

He released Ferid’s arm and spun to face the ribbon on his collar. Even in his peripheral vision, the lack of clarity melted his features into something equally gruesome.

“All right, which way!?”

A sudden chime from a grandfather clock, resounding from a higher-tiered balcony, made him jolt upright.

“Good,” Ferid said, “It’s time. He can visit us now.”

“Who can?”

The gentle ruffle of cloth, the scent of sandalwood oil, and strands of silver all enveloped his senses. When a gloved hand clasped his shoulder, Yuichiro’s attention remained on a mosaic painting.

“Never mind that,” Ferid said, evoking the same discomfort to the ear as a fork against glass.

“We won’t be seeing the council tonight.”

“Why not!? They would see us if you were there, wouldn’t they!?”

His laughter was too close, sending another rush of abhorrence.

“You—You’ve wanted to save Guren for a while, right!? So let’s hurry and—”

Suddenly, Ferid swung Yuichiro like a rag doll and brought him to his chest. Every place their bodies joined felt unnatural, jarring, as though he installed himself onto his person rather than an embrace. There was no shared warmth. Yuichiro’s heat surged from himself to Ferid, wasting its energy on a surface numbed for eternity.

When he spoke, the eerie stillness of his breast remained.

“For someone who hates vampires, you haven’t truly learned to doubt others.”

“Wha—Hey! Let go of me!”

Yuichiro threw himself backward, and at that moment, his breath vaporized from his throat.

As he stepped away, something had scraped between his ribs and burrowed into his organs. A nasty, razor-sharp throb pulsated in waves. He trailed his fingers to his upper abdomen and met something frigid, sleek, and wet. He found them amassed with his own blood, and he slowly directed his vision toward the smiling monster before him.

“… Y-You—”

His voice crumbled into a whimper.

In a breath’s time, Ferid yanked his blade out Yuichiro, cleaning off the blood with a single thrust.

His victim fell to his knees.

Head spinning, his eyes welled up and stung. His environment clouded and spun. Every exhale was a deep, labored sob. The ringing in his ears deafened the scream that filled his throat like vomit. As he clutched his wound, torn fabric and body fluid dirtied his nails.

Only the voice echoing in his brain, unhinged and boisterous, was coherent.

You lied.

You lied.

You lied.

You lied.

You lied.

You lied.

Guren…!

He’d never see Guren again.

From this point onward, his family only existed in memory.

Narumi.

Mitsuba.

Yoichi.

Kimizuki.

Guren.

Guren.

Guren.

‘Wouldn’t it be better if you all just died?’

His mother.

‘You’ll like an omega as weak as me. Maybe you’ll groom one to love you, so it’ll be funnier when that person can’t leave.’

She was mistaken. He manipulated no one, and it was through an omega’s guidance he had survived. The figure he idolized, who gave him something to live for, the man who was the reason this staircase would be his grave…

He was family.

He owed him his life.

Conceivably, she’d find joy in that when they reunited.

Maybe she’d laugh when he told her.

Maybe she’d decide he was worth loving after all.

“S-Said… you’d…”

With each word, saliva and tears bled into each other on the marble.

When Ferid kicked him on his back, what should have been a scream was an excruciating dry-heave.

Above him was a stained glass creation of the monarch and prince, dull from lack of sunlight and taking an ample volume of the ceiling.

The clicks assaulting his ears must’ve been his betrayer’s heels.

To lie between the feet of a monster, dominated and at his mercy in every respect, brought a shame unlike any he experienced.

“But you are helping me! You’re doing an incredible job!”

Another infuriated gasp was all he could manage.

“Exquisite, isn’t it?”

The blade returned to what Yuichiro assumed was a scabbard.

His breaths grew agonizing, heavy, and short-lived.

“Aah, that scent is wonderful. If I drank you dry, your suffering would end.”

“D…”

A burning sensation intensified as he blinked away his tears.

“D… Die…”

“I’m only kidding. We had a deal, remember? In fact—”

“Ferid Bathory.”

Yuichiro turned leftward, a feat as immense as raising an anvil.

From the corridor that threatened to devour him, standing at the top of the banister, was Mikaela ‘Octavus Sator’ Illustrious.

Unlike their first encounter, his attire was nothing short of overwhelming.

Except for the occasional gold trim and cuffs, everything was a pure, spotless white: boots that rose to his upper-thigh garnished with diamonds, a hooded cloak flowing to his heels and fading away at the tip, as if a languid phantom draped itself over his shoulders, milky gloves, an ivory jacket with decorated buttons…

Coupled with his fair skin and locks, he was brightness in itself.

But the harsh polarity of his crimson eyes worked his slowing heart even harder.

“I trust you had fun at the coronation, my master, but it’s past your bedtime. I’ll dress you for the night after I’ve entertained my guest.”

Ferid spoke, but he didn’t understand a word, besides a few verb endings.

He thought he heard ‘dominus.’

Mikaela lifted his chin in contempt. Yuichiro couldn’t get a good look at his face (and thanked God for it), but the air grew colder.

“How could I stay in my room with such noise?”

“My most humble apologies, but come, appease a dying man and speak his language.”

Only through instinctive recognition of eye contact did he know Mikaela stared at him.

As he descended the steps, his cloak appeared even more ghost-like.

The tip of his boots stopped right at Yuichiro’s open palm.

“Very well.”

In a single glide, Ferid stepped next to his ‘master’ and gave him a slight bow.

“Is this the human I heard approaching? You should have disposed of it—”

“Y…”

It was gross to speak, painful to form words with his tongue.

He tugged at the end of Mikaela’s overgarment, though it felt like he held nothing at all.

“Yu… Yuichiro…! I have a name! Don’t you dare look down on me you vile—!”

With the last of his energy, blood gushed from his mouth and brought everything into a haze.

Either the world fell silent in interims, or Yuichiro’s brain refused to take in any more stimuli.

He knew this crushing fatigue wasn’t sleepiness.

His life force was depleting.

There was a sudden lift of his skull, and when it landed on something softer, his lidded eyes rolled back.

He was pushing against the weight of oblivion, but in a moment either cruel or merciful, his vision came into focus.

So warped were his senses that Mikaela transformed into a gentler kind of beauty, one immensely kinder to his psyche.

How ugly, he mused, that the face of a monster would be his last comfort before darkness took him forever.

“Even with the body you possess, you threw yourself into a situation this dangerous. Why is that?”

“Sh… up…”

“Hurry! It will turn sour once it dies!” Ferid laughed.

With two fingers, Mikaela stole a sample of blood from his waistcoat.

The pain in his ribs no longer registered.

Yuichiro’s cheek fell into a palm that kept it in place, and to blink once was a seconds-long ordeal.

“Ahaha, the poor dear. I can’t remember the last time I tasted a human on the throes of death. I’m so jealous, my—Master?”

It appeared the monster whose lap he rested on removed the skin of his hand, but his bit of consciousness told him it was a glove.

Although the volume depleted in their voices, its clarity remained.

“… What are you doing?”

After an abrupt movement that resembled a snap, blood oozed from Mikaela’s bare fingers.

“You can’t be serious…”

In the tradition of all their interactions he’d witnessed, Ferid’s master ignored him.

A ring finger pried open his teeth, and the middle pressed onto an eyelid that had given up on lifting.

“You forget yourself…”

The more he faded away, the more dying became a comfort.

“Forsake him. You don’t have to show any consideration for that blockheaded, spoiled brat.”

The bloodsucker’s words went from nauseating and frightening to the subtle white noise of a wind chime.

“Just drink him dry and finish it.”

His thoughts grew dispassionate.

Everything coaxed him into slumber.

“Or better yet, let me—”

“Silence, Ferid Bathory.”

Right as Yuichiro submitted, apologizing to his caretaker a final time, something chilled and wounded entered his mouth.

It pressed into his tongue and massaged a coppery wetness into his taste buds. A mysterious liquid trickled down his throat, inciting a reflex to swallow he didn’t think he had left.

Upon his third, a merciless, unbearable sensation roused him in entirety.

An intense heat doused every inch of him. It stung and pulled, and he was positive his skin was melting. Buzzards feeding on his flesh, ripping and tugging it from his bones, was the only way he could describe it. They cracked open his abdomen so they could yank out all his entrails.

And he burned to death all the while.

Once he became an empty carcass, each organ devoured in flame, he collapsed into himself.

‘Everything’s all right, Yu. Everything’s okay.’

His father’s last words echoed in his mind until the world went black.

                                                                                                         
                                                                                                   

Yuichiro awoke not to his mother welcoming him, but to a mysterious, unmitigated beauty.

Resting on a bed whose mattress swallowed half his body, he gazed upon the rain pattering against a skylight. The dark clouds had a peculiar fluffiness about them, pregnant with deluge that promised to be heavy and dirty. He could distinguish each drop from one another if he focused, bring them into slow motion, or make out their spherical shape as the surface tension manipulated them. Their sounds differed depending on where they hit the roof.

Together they formed a symphony.

Wherever he was, it couldn’t have been the regular sky he was watching.

Wherever he was, he couldn’t have been alive.

His form was too still; his thoughts were too at peace.

So enamored was he with the view outside, it was hours before he took it upon himself to investigate his surroundings.

To find himself in a underwhelming bedroom was rather shocking.

It was plainer than the space he occupied at Guren’s chateau. A vanity and armoire were the only items accompanying him. Like the monster who took his life, everything around him was devoid of color.

The afterlife looked boring.

“… Is this it?”

“Gooooood morning, newbie!”

“Ack!”

Yuichiro flailed off the side of the mattress, and his neck bent upon impact. The subtle pain that reverberated through his spine, however, disappeared as soon as it came.

To adjust his position was more disorienting than the fall. While he appeared to be all 59 kilograms of himself, he moved like he was five.

Yuichiro pulled himself up using the comforter as an anchor.

A young woman, rather short and with a humorous smile, leaned against the wall. Her candid little face complemented the bouncy, violet locks framing her chin.

But what astounded him most about her was the fact he could tolerate her presence at all. There was no doubt she was a vampire. The hint of a fang peeked from her curled upper lip, and her irises had the same plasma-like consistency of all the others he had seen.

How was it, in a room as illuminated as the prince’s chamber, did she evoke less discomfort than Ferid in candlelight?

On second thought, his final glance at the prince had been similar.

Death, it seemed, was the only phenomenon powerful enough to bring magnanimity to a bloodsucker’s face.

“Who are you?”

“Chess Belle!”

Her skirt floated to the cuff of her black stockings as she twirled, and her toe pointed like a knife when she curtsied.

“My progenitor title is ‘septimus decimus.’”

“Oh… Do you know where we are?”

Besides purgatory, of course.

The rain, the jarring, feathery-feel of his movements, and the otherworldly phenomenon of a vampire being nice to him could only mean he was in another state of reality.

“The Illustrious Estate!”

“Huh!?”

With the clumsy, newborn-freshness of his being, how was he still alive?

After such a traumatic injury, through what means did he survive?

His mother had beckoned him during (what he thought was) his final moments with a gurgling laugh, welcoming him to a peace she’d known since they tumbled down the stairs.

But her pressure on his fingers had lifted.

When he raised his palms to confirm their solitude, the left was smooth and untainted, while the right had an old blood stain that evoked a bizarre giddiness within him.

He inspected his waistcoat at once, tugging at the stringy bits of fabric.

The stitches were mutilated beyond repair, burgeoning from a slit whose origins could only be a thin and sharp weapon.

“Ferid…”

“Hm?”

“Damn it! I shoulda punched him when I had the chance! Forget that! I’ll kill him—!”

He raced for the exit, but a steadfast yank on his collar brought his face into the carpet.

The end of a heel tapped his shoulder blades.

“Woah! You’re not going out looking like that!”

Yuichiro spat out tendrils of fabric and, rather than landing on his side as he expected, found himself on his back through excess momentum.

“Who cares how I look!?”

“Horn does!”

“So!?”

She scrunched up her nose.

“You don’t know her! She’s sooo stuffy! I kept telling her, ‘if taking care of him is so important, you do it!’ Lord Crowley dumped you on her, not me! And—”

“Why would any of you care!?”

Mikaela’s frigid gaze intruded his mind’s eye. The disdain, the indifference—he gave him the same regard as seeing an insect’s carcass on the road.

Being the object of interest for any vampire was unfathomable.

From Chess’s newfound expression, a cross between sardonic and understanding, she must’ve seen the validity of his point.

“Sure, I’d rather study a human,” She said as if he had any knowledge of her interests.

“But you’re special enough for Horn to have her way!”

Rather…?

How did he deviate?

Yuichiro sat up without a word, chin tucked into his chest, and gaped at a stomach that didn’t rise and fall. Despite his conscious attempts to breathe, air never traveled through his nostrils. Panic began to seize him, but not an inch of him shivered. He fingered through the hole of his waistcoat, past the black film of his shirt, and nestled the injury-free skin under his sternum.

Nothing stirred beneath the fingers against his artery.

He lifted his tongue with apprehension, and a needle-like, elongated bone punctured the tip.

The wound disappeared the second he pulled away.

“Newbie? You all right…?”

Yuichiro threw himself at the vanity.

A demon replaced his reflection with its own, and at any moment, it’d reach out and place him in its mouth. Its ghostly pallor shone through his tanned skin, its ears elongated. His irises remained the green they always were, but vampirism had stolen their iridescence. What manifested as a whirlpool of blood for Mikaela was a sickening, foreign substance for him, forever churning about his own sinkhole-like pupils.

His throat wouldn’t tangle into knots, his heart stayed relaxed, and if he wasn’t staring at himself, his welled up eyes would’ve escaped his knowledge.

His scream was a tormented experiment.

To prolong his outburst was to search for a limit, praying the dam inside his head would burst and his body would take his distress once more. He drew his fist in preparation to crush the devil looking back at him, but the small doors of the vanity folded over the mirror.

Chess looked at him in silence, her face knowing yet devoid of any real sympathy.

“Who turned you…? Where did you come from?” She said at last.

Yuichiro rested his forehead against the ash wood.

“I…”

He closed his eyes, scavenging through the haze that was his death on the grand staircase.

Ferid raised his voice.

A spotless white blinded him.

A frigid object invaded the cavern of his mouth.

Like his father, his body engulfed in flame.

Liquid poured down his esophagus.

Back then, its texture was unpleasant, and it left a metallic aftertaste.

But its memory brought a languid heaviness in the pit of his stomach—an unbearable, sickening ecstasy that overshadowed all his other thoughts. His mind went blank, wiped clean by insatiable desire. Instinct put a name to it, commanded he search for the pleasure only its consumption would provide.

When he broke free of his recollection, however, every physical sensation died with it, and emotion ceased to flow into his body once more.

His sigh was empty.

“… I need to speak to the prince.”

“You think he might know?” Chess said, holding her chin between her fingers.

“Yeah… okay!”

She nodded twice, then unfastened the brass buttons of Yuichiro’s waistcoat.

“W-What are you doing!?” He cried, jumping away and shielding his abdomen.

“Dressing you for breakfast! Prince Illustrious always greets us before he drinks! Now hold still!”

Chess anchored herself to his white ribbon yanked off his waistcoat.

“N… No way in hell!”

In a frenzied panic, he grabbed her defenseless torso and flung her away. Upon impact, deep-set cracks fanned out from her body, and drywall fragmented onto the carpet. The garment remained in her fist, and Yuichiro, having underestimated his ability once more, rushed to her assistance.

“Woah! I’m sorry! Are you okay!?”

“Not to worry, newbie!”

Sharper pieces of the wall scraped against Chess’s forehead, healing as fast as the wound on his tongue.

Face aglow, she waved the tattered cloth like a flag.

“The only thing that arouses me is all this blood on your clothes! It smells so good!”

“Thanks! Keep it! I think I’ll dress myself, though!”

He approached the wardrobe that nearly collapsed after Chess slammed beside it, but his outfit was puzzling. The long shirt donning an inscription and its matching pants were fine, but the assortment of straps, the band, the detached collar, and the random decoration of red and gold had no perceivable role.

Why wasn’t one belt enough?

He took the least confusing item and surveyed it in all directions.

“…How in the—”

“Need help?”

“Absolutely not!”

A teasing grin brightened her face, and she pointed to the full foot tights hiding in the corner.

“Those first!”

“R-Right!”

Minutes passed, and Chess, patience depleted of his inspection, pushed him aside.

“Augh! Hurry, hurry, hurry!”

As Yuichiro pivoted, there was a tight grip on his shirt, and in one yank, he stumbled out of all his clothes.

Another stagger backward, and the black tights covered his total lower half.

He was certain his form-fitting attire, and the two belts that hugged his hips, would’ve brought great discomfort if his lungs still functioned.

The assortment of materials he found useless were a careful network of neck and shoulder pieces, fastening a UV-band on his arm and keeping his cape afloat.

His view of Chess was blurry during the whole ordeal, and she didn’t regain clarity until she gloved his hands.

“There!”

“What the—How did you—!?”

She caught his hand, with fingers that lacked the prince’s corpse-like stillness, and threw open the door, further destroying any notion he was in the afterlife.

The hall they entered was frightening not in its splendor, but in its perfect, inescapable reflection of himself. The demon who stole his body returned, donned in clothing far too pristine to belong to him. He squeezed his eyes shut, for his hearing was more than enough to get around.

“We’re late already, but not too late for a quick glass!”

Yuichiro returned the grip on her fingers.

The lustful convulses in his stomach took considerable time to disappear.

The insinuation alone had the power to arouse, and it flared the farther they walked.

With each step, the pungent, mouth-watering scent intensified, and to mask his nose was a futile endeavor.

As they traveled down the stairway, euphoria rose within his breast.

The sound of large double doors met his ears, his hand became free, and the sight before him set his mind and body ablaze. At a table in the design of a horseshoe sat close to 70 vampires, blood sloshing about in shimmering glasses. A joy akin to nostalgia took hold of him, of encountering something he’d always known and had always belonged to him.

It smeared against their chins, dirtied their napkins, and tainted the pearliness of their fangs.

Not since Ferid had Yuichiro seen laughter climb from the throats of those whose eyes looked so empty.

“C’mon! There’s still a human taking orders!”

She installed him into an elbow chair of beechwood and plopped into the seat next to him, waving to a young servant in the corner.

Her approach was slow yet urgent. She curtsied upon meeting them, but her gaze lingered on the scarlet flooring.

“Welcome, Lady Chess.”

A girl of five-and-twenty, whose beauty mark, Yuichiro noted, was in the same place as Narumi’s, removed a writing pad and utensil from beneath her arm.

There was a practiced avoidance to her eyes he identified at once.

After all, he used it himself while dining with Ferid.

“A man’s, please. Not too young. Someone who’s in his thirties, or however old you’d guess Lord Crowley was!”

“And you, my lord?”

He searched around until an elbow jabbed him in the arm.

“Oh! Uh…”

“Make it two!” Chess added with haste, shooing the woman away.

The girl’s head lifted only when she faced the corner once more.

He was a repugnance, like every other bloodsucker among him. To glance at him would be to look at a threatening, infected wound.

What would Guren do with an apparition for a son?

He, a monster, whose flesh carried no warmth? Who couldn’t tolerate his own reflection in the gilt bronze of a candle holder?

The woman had stimulated him, not from her style or elegance, but the life flowing through her veins.

Anywhere was safer than him.

Death hadn’t taken away his home, but the vulgar cravings did. His vampirism traded his family for a stomach full of hot blood.

When a cup was set before him, he despised how it mollified his despair, stimulating and revitalizing him like a drug.

He sat up in defeat, giving Chess the attention she requested with a light tap on his arm.

“What’re you waiting for? You gonna drink that?”

Yuichiro’s face darkened at her almost-full glass.

“… No.”

He knew nothing of its source.

Chess ordered the blood of a man in his thirties. The likelihood of said donation being Guren’s was small, perhaps minuscule, but it was large enough to decline.

He mouthed his rejection once more (this time to himself) and drew his lower lip between his teeth.

He held his gaze above eye-level, above the monsters consuming the life force for which he pined.

Installed on an indoor balcony was a magnificent organ flanked between rich velvet, gold leaf, and cherubim. Its precious stones made a light display on a table for two, adorned in similar fashion to a throne canopy.

“That’s where His Royal Highness drinks! And Her Majesty, if you’re lucky,” Chess said, pulling him out of his reverie.

“… I don’t get it. Shouldn’t breakfast be at night?”

“Why? Humans aren’t awake then—”

Like all those around him, she cut herself off and stood from her seat at once, yanking up him as well.

“Hey! What’s going on!?”

“Shh! Be quiet! He’s coming!”

“Who is!?”

She joined the female vampires in a small curtsy without answering.

The men gave a simple bow of their heads.

Yuichiro’s, on the other hand, remained upright, looking around until the prince and his aide made their appearance.

They greeted them in unison.

“Good morning, Prince Mikaela ‘Octavus Sator’ Illustrious—”

“ Hey! You!”

He thrust his index finger toward Ferid, who carried the ends of Mikaela’s cloak like a wedding veil.

The former smiled, inciting more anger within him.

“There you are, you smug lying bastard! You think you’re so clever, don’t you!? How dare you do that to me!?”

Awe transformed the other vampires’ faces, who kept their bows yet glared as if he committed sacrilege.

Chess seized his arm before he could step forward.

“What are you doing!?” She hissed, “That’s Lord Ferid! His Royal Highness is right there!”

“I know who that is! And I’ll die before kneeling to some filthy, evil bloodsucker like—Mmph!”

The death grip over his mouth was so tight her nails dug into his flesh.

“I’m so so so so so sorry, Your Royal Highness! A million apologies! He—He doesn’t know to whom he speaks!”

Mikaela’s unaffected expression didn’t surprise Yuichiro, but it aggravated him further.

Peeling her fingers off his face, he shouted, “I know ‘to whom I speak!’ You’re not special you—Mmph!”

“You are not to address the prince with such familiarity!” Another vampire said after Chess silenced him again.

“His name is Mikaela ‘Octavus Sator’ Illustrious! Call him as such and beg for forgiveness!”

Uproarious shouts of agreement followed from the crowd.

Once the upheaval died down, Yuichiro uttered his non-apology as loud as he could.

“My bad, Mika Something-Something!”

Bloodlust rose in the audience, and Chess moved her grip to his throat, raising him off his feet with a terrified grin.

“I-I can throw him outdoors when the sun comes out!”

“No you won’t! Put me down!”

He kicked his legs in no particular direction, for his lightness remained a novelty.

Mikaela approached him.

Had he been unaware of the prince’s disinterested mannerisms, Yuichiro would’ve taken his flat tone as an insult.

“Tell me your name.”

He treated it as one, regardless.

“Whaddya mean ‘my name!?’ I told you already! What? Didn’t matter when I was human you stuck up—”

Thud.

His nose reunited with the floor, and Chess’s heel found its way to his back.

“I know! I’ll cut off his head and bury it in the garden! How about that!? Is that okay with you, sir!?”

Yuichiro raised his chin with a scowl.

Twice now he lied at the prince’s feet.

Ferid set down the ends of his master’s cloak and leaned into his ear, whispering Yuichiro’s name with the thrill of exposing a life-ruining secret.

“I see. All of you are excused.”

“Yes, Your Royal Highness!”

The vampires took leave with glasses of leftover blood, and Chess abandoned him with a blown kiss.

A sense of longing struck him the moment his gaze met Mikaela’s. Never would he have imagined the vampire of his night terrors, whose illustration alone plagued him with chills, would be this soft to the eyes. The prince he saw while knocking on death’s door was supposed to be a fever-dream, a trauma-induced distortion.

“Dine with me, Yuichiro Ariadust.”

His stare wasn’t that of a bloodsucker to a human, teeming with vulgar bloodlust and scorn.

It was so neutral it bordered on vacant.

Yuichiro gave a short, mirthless laugh and rose to his feet.

“No way! You’re used to everyone just obeying you, huh!? Well I’m not like those other kiss ups! You’re gonna tell me something!”

“As you wish.”

His lackadaisical compliance was more annoying than any refusal.

Despite his graduation from dinner to peer, that air of ‘anger is meaningless because I could extinguish your life with ease’ remained.

‘I’ll humor your question,’ his expression read, ‘you can’t do anything to me anyway.’

“I drank your blood, didn’t I? Is that why I’m a vampire?”

“Yes.”

“Your servant tried to kill me! Isn’t that what you wanted!? Why did you save my life!? What’s the point of turning me!?”

He ignored Ferid’s laugh, how clean it was of the disquieting ring it had prior.

Mikaela’s answer lacked any hesitation.

“Your blood. I liked it.”

A dreadful recognition dawned on Yuichiro’s face.

His word choice was far from accurate. His ‘rescue’ was a mere act of preservation, giving his meal an eternal ice box so he could feast on it later.

“So you thought I’d just… give it to you!? That I’d offer myself like some stupid pet!?”

“Did you wish to die?”

“As opposed to being a bloodsucker like you!? Of course I did!”

Hands balled into fists, Yuichiro stormed off with Ferid’s silvery laugh buzzing in his ear.

His stroll was as aimless as it was brief. His mind filled with images of his precious family, and to enter the ballroom’s kitchen was the fault a flustered appetite.

There was no collection of brass pots, no stoves or match safes. A cruet set and mixing bowl were also absent. There were only iced bottles, crates labeled with age and gender, and a group of ‘cooks’ to organize them.

Their attire was closer to that of nurses, with heavy gloves and cotton kerchiefs covering their hair.

Upon his intrusion, they cowered into a single corner.

The youngest of all women fanned out her arms, motioning the others to stay back and gripping a ladle in her hand.

Yuichiro desired nothing more than to reassure their safety, but how could he when the mere sight of them roused his hunger?

Their blood sent a lustful, gluttonous pulsation he could’ve mistaken for a heartbeat.

He should’ve been the one backed against a wall.

He should’ve been afraid, protecting his friends while tears spilled down his cheeks.

In the presence of humans, he was just a monstrosity they prayed would disappear.

And his entire family would feel the same way.

Wrecked with desperation, he raced to a small table of cream molds. He tore through the protection of a packed lunch, scooped roasted pine nuts into his palm and forced them into his mouth.

They tasted of air, and specks of ash fell onto the tile.

Rosemary and saffron disintegrated past his teeth, the cinnamon cloves he hated since childhood failed to reach his hard palate. Sugared lemons, dates soaked in oil, everything became a handful of dust.

He was already ruined.

Beyond saving.

Shame returned him to an empty room. Mikaela and Ferid occupied the higher balcony and didn’t spare him a passing glance. He pulled out a chair, rested his head on the table, and fought the urge to lick the stains.

Until his tears speckled the cloth, he didn’t know he was crying.

While his body prayed for a morsel of blood, he wondered what his family ate for breakfast.

What mean-spirited quips were Mitsuba, Narumi, and Kimizuki exchanging between sips of black tea?

Did Lady Ariadust already make her rounds to everyone’s legs and request (she was far too proud to beg) a morsel or two?

Whatever excuse Yoichi came up with, he hoped it explained his absence forever.

 

Chapter Text

Yuichiro knew not the time, nor had he any sign of how long he’d been all alone. He, who once couldn’t bear to be without company, found no use in allaying his boredom. His hunger pangs were the most alive sensations within him, and who besides those he swore to protect could satiate that?

Lacking any desire to partake in vampire society or explore his ‘new home’ left him one option: wallowing in grief as the enthralling blood stains promised mind-splitting temptation for the rest of his life. 

The lights were dimmer, but the room reserved its clarity. 

Night and day lost their meaning. 

Such phenomena always prompted glimmers of nostalgia for his human days, for the most basic of actions, such as sharing a candle with Yoichi as they crept into the cellar and stole a snack when study sessions bled into the early, moonlit morning. 

The inescapable horror of his own reflection brought his mind to every blasé event where he’d adjust stray locks of hair, a consequence of going to bed with his hair wet. He’d stop in front of the Chateau’s window before tutoring and fidget until he’d exhausted Kimizuki’s patience.

Tragic, intolerable artistry warped his original features into something he’d never accept. 

Vampires paid him no mind and maids passed by his seat, no doubt elated to skip the sight of a bloodsucker’s face. 

Their neglect was a godsend. He didn’t even want blood—

That couldn’t be farther from reality. 

To lift his head and watch those indulge would throw him off the edge. How thankful he was they paid him no mind.

The congregation came and went three times that day. 

Despite Guren’s teasing about his neglected vampire related texts, he recalled a sentence below the header that bloodsuckers only required a drink every three days. To consume in such excess was a mark of a lustful, exquisite indulgence whose urge he knew intimately. The thought would make him sick if he wasn’t trapped in a body that wretchedly empathized, sickening him with envy. 

To call them ‘spoiled’ was mere lip-service to the humanity he no longer had. 

He amused himself the only way he could since vampirism took hold of him—admiring the unmitigated splendor his vision afforded. 

He centered his gaze on subtle hues and shades, such as the intricate gleams bending reflections on each arrangement of silverware. A single rose never looked so intricate. Arranged into a spiral, their color bore resemblance to the only thing that made his body tremble. 

But it didn’t matter.

Nighttime was for sleeping, so the side of his face pressed against the tablecloth.

Perhaps if he resisted their schedule, stood against the eternal flow of time he was to assume, his heart beat could return.

If he closed his eyes and prayed hard enough, he’d drift into slumber and awaken to a gentle yet desperate knock on his door from Kimizuki, chastising him for sleeping in to avoid conjugating Latin verbs.

Strange… He remembered the vocabulary easier than before. 

“Rise and shine!”

Across the table skidded an entity that resembled a black snake, tearing through the cloth and causing the entire wing of the table to rumble. 

Yuichiro found himself on his back at once. 

“Hey! What the hell was—”

The aforementioned ‘black snake’ had been a tightly coiled whip, whose owner was none other than the friendly source of his irritation since he awoke. 

Her grin sparkled, and she gave a pose she thought darling, holding the back of her neck and batting the lashes of her doe-like eyes. 

“Ugh… it’s you again.”

“I beg your pardon! I have a name!”

She repeated the twirl and curtsy of their first meeting, albeit with a darker expression.

“I’m Chess. Septimus. Decimus. Sator. Belle!” 

A moment passed in silence, and he replied with a roll of his eyes, “Chess. Got it.”

“You’re so rude!”

Having displaced him rather barbarously, she took to surveying the tiny space he once occupied. She lifted the torn cloth, fingered through the soil of toppled over floral arrangements, and with a final poke and prod of a random stain, she returned her dazzling gaze to Yuichiro.

“You’ve been sitting here all day!?”

“So what!?” Yuichiro countered, bashful and defensive of her correct deduction.

What else was there to do but curse the prison of his own flesh?

The sudden, unequivocal disappointment coloring Chess’s face, coupled with kicking his chair in such a way it returned to its original position, inspired the urge to both laugh and ask if she needed help.

“Lord Crowley said your being here was ‘special...’ She began, her eyes glittering with vexation.

“From what I’ve seen, you have no manners, you’re a total weirdo, and you’re not even grateful to His Royal Highness for turning you!”

She assigned each of his failures a finger and shook them in his face.

“Like I care!” He swatted them away. “And who said it was him!?”

Her expression softened, and gracing her features was a culpability (or embarrassment, the former was too strong a sentiment) of which he didn’t know she was capable.

“Ahaha… Horn yelled at me for threatening to throw you in the sun.”

In a breath’s time she invaded his person, inspecting the stray lock on the crown of his scalp to running her fingers down his cape.

He jerked backward to no avail.

“What’re you doing!? Hands off!”

“What did he see in you?” She asked more to herself as she bent his wrist back and forth.

“Are you just some riot he likes to watch up close?”

Snatching his hand away before she could remove his glove, Yuichiro cried, “I don’t think ‘His Royal Highness’ thinks at all!”

“There you go, being ungrateful again!”

“What’s there to thank!?”

The floaty manner in which he rose felt more natural each time.

“What do you want anyway!? Leave me alone if I’m so boring!”

Realization dawned on Chess’s face as though his quip were a groundbreaking counterpoint.

“Oh, right! I’m here to pick you up!”

“You actually forgot!?”

She hooked their arms together, and declared with a beaming grin, “It’s playtime!”

Her whip cracked against a candelabra, splitting it in half before it toppled onto the floor.

“That’s why I got this!”

Skepticism scrunched up his face.

“What kind of ‘play time’ needs a whip?”

“It’ll be fun! Lord Crowley will be there!” She replied, not answering his question.

He might as well have been talking to himself, but festering within him was a germ of relief. With every moment he spent at his lonesome, that haunting cognizance that part of himself was dying grew stronger.

That yearning to resist his death, however faint, quickened his pace only slightly.  

Their journey to another set of gilded double doors, more massive than the dining hall’s, seemed to escape his memory. If one asked him to connect a corridor to the next, or to retrace his steps, he doubted his ability to do so. Chess, for what it was worth, navigated them with that confident yet absent-minded leer of hers, betraying nothing on her mind that inspired such a look.

The eyes of the appropriate species transformed the Illustrious Estate as if the breadth of its grandeur required an unworldly lens, and all it marked inferior received only its haunting disdain.

What awaited him, however, was a place that tossed him violently into his memories.

The room was his favorite in Guren’s abode, a promise of action and fighting Kimizuki for playful sport or out of genuine irritation, whatever suited their mood that morning.

The measured-out platform, the skids across the polished floor, Mitsuba sitting bitterly to the side after kicking during a fencing match, the pleasurable clang of sabers…

“We’re… sword fighting?”

“Yep!”

Where he and Kimizuki made idle conversation, Guren having benched them for one corps-à-corps too many or refusing to comply with their respective target areas, vampires aligned without saying much of a word to each other.

His question bore repeating.

What did Chess need with a whip?

“Now, let’s find you a sparring buddy!”

Like each room he‘d witnessed prior, the fencing area’s grandiose architecture held a theatrical air. The pews were stacked in tiers, with horseshoe-shaped balconies that befit a concerto hall and promised an unobstructed view. Wooden structures, from the floor to the benches, all emitted an inviting gleam.

The quality of every footstep was a testament to its acoustics.

She sheltered her eyes from the light as she glanced about, a useless accommodation he attributed to her left-of-center mannerisms.

“Just so we’re clear,” He started, though he put no resistance in his step, “I’m not making friends with any of you—”

“Aha!”

“Listen when people are talking!”

They approached two vampires who, to his surprise, spoke with a flair of companionship. One rested his knee on the bench, prattling on how he found the blood of girls too mild, preferring that of boys’.

The other, without looking up from a biological text on veins and capillaries, preferred that of middle-aged women.

Was that how their small talk worked?

Regardless, he was more accessible than anyone busy sparring or resting in the pews, and no one else could dull his contempt anyway.

“Lacus!”

‘Lacus’ betrayed the same exasperation of his own face when in Chess’s company.

“So noisy… who’s that?”

His reference to Yuichiro harbored an emphasized annoyance as if he were another project of hers to inflict on an unsuspecting public.

Or perhaps that’s how he received anything that didn’t suit his immediate taste.

“This is Yu Ariadust!” At this, her palm met his back with a flamboyant slap. “He’s gonna be your partner today!”

“I told you I don’t want a buddy—”

“Agreed.”

“Huh!?”

Lacus gave a dismissive, condescending scoff as if he had any basis to share Yuichiro’s aversion.

“You’re not dumping some newbie onto me. Giving handicaps is boring.”

“What was that!?”

Chess’s sudden hand was all that forced a distance between the two.

“Ahaha, now, now—”

“You heard me. You’d just slow me down.”

A smirk betraying his eagerness to provoke blighted his ireful tone.

“Wanna bet, loser!?” Yuichiro cried, obliging to his physical invitation and sandwiching her fingers between their chests.

“I’ll take you on right now!”

“Are you stupid!?”

An elongated halberd leaned by his side, and Lacus thrust its needlepoint blade at his neck.

“With what weapon!?”

This did nothing to the latter’s assertion, and his posture remained deathly obstinate.

“Don’t need one!” He spat, “I can always deck you in the face!”

He joined their foreheads with a forceful slam, causing a brief falter in Lacus’s balance.

He recovered with enough speed to feign resilience but not enough to escape Yuichiro’s attention.

“Sure about that!?”

“Try me!”

“Well, you two certainly are lively.”

Entering the chamber came a vampire whose name, Yuichiro could only assume, was as excessive, unnecessary, and complicated as his exterior.

“Something good happen?”

The locks crowning his skull and framing his brow differed in color, and a violet cloth draped over his left shoulder for no apparent reason besides hiding his prominent scabbard behind a dramatic veil. His freer arm appeared dipped in ink, and only his exposed chest and loosely platted braid matched his serene, jovial expression.

His visage was an impossible cross of Mikaela’s ever-present apathy and Ferid’s permanent amusement.

Yuichiro narrowed his eyes, deliberating on which of his many features he’d rest his gaze.

“… Who’re you supposed to be?”

“Lord Crowley!”

Chess’s voice was a squeal, and she jumped into his arms at once, much to the irritation of the older woman at his side. Given her rather elegant form and strict posture, she must’ve been the ‘stuffy’ Horn to which she alluded.

“Chess dear, please assume the decorum of a progenitor.”

Before she could make a rebuttal, she silenced herself at the clap of Crowley’s hands. Every vampire around him hushed themselves in eerie unison.

They congregated to their seats, and even Lacus abandoned their impending duel with a begrudged “whatever.”

“You there! Sit!” Horn cried once Yuichiro was the only one left standing, mesmerized by the swift choreography of those surrounding him.

Wondering how such goofiness and authoritarianism could occupy the same court, to his profound irritation, it was only Lacus who created space for him, and he patted the area with that same smirk.

He obliged by shoving him off the bench.

“Everyone! Along with the exquisite weather, this evening bears another gift for us all!”

Yuichiro stiffened, readying his lips in snide protest, but he gave up once he made the connection.

A rainy day would be a bloodsucker’s haven.

“His Royal Highness, Prince Mikaela ‘Octavus Sator’ Illustrious will bear witness to our sparring tonight!”

As if on cue (and knowing Ferid Bathory, he must’ve stood there awaiting such a signal), from the second-tier balcony arrived he and his master.

Perched on his shoulder was the little, black cyclops, faceless and wings twitching like the day they met.

His spectators came to life in hushed amazement and inquiry, then each vampire rose, necks and legs bent in bows or curtsies.

Each one except Yuichiro.

“Hey,” Lacus said under his breath, “What’re you—”

“Not bowing!”

Mikaela folded his hands primly against the banister, and his presence transformed every voice into an unnerving chorus of acclamation.

“Good evening, Prince Mikaela ‘Octavus Sator’ Illustrious.”

What about staring at them was that worthy of praise?

“As you were.”

With newfound permission, Crowley continued to speak, but his words were sheer white noise next to Yuichiro’s new object of interest. His enemy’s servant handed him a saucer, balanced upon it a fragile teacup, and poured a vial of blood.

If the estate spoiled every bloodsucker with excessive intake, then the prince was the worst of all.

Mikaela acknowledged his gaze at last, despite sensing his glare, he was certain, the moment he received it.

He returned it with the passivity of any inconsequential, harmless moving object.

That same, newfound softness only deepened his insult, and Yuichiro felt the need to darken his scowl in compensation.

At this, Mikaela merely took a sip from his teacup.

“At least frown back at me you spoiled brat!” He whisper-yelled.

Just as he prepared another round of provocation at his one-sided adversary, his newer one elbowed his side.

“What now!?”

Lacus gave a quick gesture toward the balcony.

“… Why’d he stare at you like that?”

“Huh?”

That germ of resentment in his sour face, with a particular wariness on the ‘you,’ gave way to an easy interpretation on Yuichiro’s part.

“Who knows!?” He scoffed with folded arms, “Cause he turned me, I guess?”

“You!? Prince Illustrious turned you!?”

In place of the respect he thought inches from his grasp, so amused was Lacus that he threw his head back in laughter.

“You’re hilarious! Maybe I’ll keep you around after all!”

“What’s so funny!?”

He shrank into himself in the futile hope the sidelong glances would stop.

If he knew it’d fail to give him any leverage, he never would have confessed.

Besides, despite his monarchical status, he wasn’t that below Mikaela.

He wasn’t below him at all.

“What’d he want with an idiot like you!? A human idiot no less!”

“Forget Ferid!” Yuichiro cried, losing control of his volume and exploding from the bench.

“I’m killing you first!”

This time, the delicate hand of a smaller vampire didn’t come between them, but a massive lance the likes of which he’d only seen in storybooks.

It graced both their foreheads, stealing a few locks of hair, but the attack was too precise for that to be a mistake.

“You two! Silence!”

Thankful no warmth in his cheeks could betray his embarrassment, he exchanged a begrudged look with Lacus and returned to his seat.

“You should be ashamed to interrupt Lord—”

The surrounding vampires shared the vexation that chilled Horn’s features, but with a single hand on her shoulder, Crowley melted her irritation into that of ardor and quelled the bloodlust in the room.

How was he weird compared to this bunch?

“It’s okay.”

He gave Yuichiro a quick once over.

“He must be eager to spar. Well then…”

The unsheathing of his blade was a performance in itself. From the curtain of his sleeve, his rapier appeared, displaying a mirror-esque gleam.

“Which of you’d like to challenge me?”

“Me!” Yuichiro shouted at once, so agitated from excitement his mortal body would’ve collapsed.

“Let me fight you—!”

“Ah! I know…”

The entire group underwent his scrutiny until, at last, he glanced over his shoulder and right where Mikaela stood.

“… How about you, Your Royal Highness?”

An uproar of hushed whispers came from his audience, taking to so much chatter he could have mistaken them for human, or the phantom of human curiosity had possessed their every tongue.

“Has he gone mad!? Challenging an Illustrious!?”

“Does he wish to die!? A fool knows better!”

“Hasn’t he any awareness!? The mere offer deserves punishment!”

The crowd soon grew still, all eyes on their monarch.

Mikaela, as if his invitation didn’t need a prompt response, finished his teacup of blood, exchanged it for a red cloth, and handed it to his servant after he blotted his lips.

He enlivened his audience with a soft, laconic phrase.

“Very well.”

“He agreed! Did you hear that!?”

“Everyone heard!”

“He’s not even fazed! He truly wants death!”

“But he mustn’t! What of the progenitor who visited a century ago!? Who’d challenge him after such an ordeal!?”

“That’s what it means to a noble…”

“Hell yeah!” Lacus said, rubbing his hands together. “I’ve never seen Prince Illustrious fight! This’ll be good!”

They piqued even Yuichiro’s curiosity.

“Hush! Hush all of you! Lord Crowley…” Horn whimpered, giving her lord’s upper arm a tender squeeze.

“Are you sure?” Chess seconded, reflecting her loving worry.

“Sure! It’ll be fun! And I bet he could use the playtime! Right, Your Royal Highness?”

Without confirmation or refusal, Mikaela leapt over the banister and landed gracefully on a single foot.

His jump retained that effortless paradox of fluidity and power Yuichiro observed as a human, despite it unnerving him less. His cloak followed suit with equal smoothness, while Arcanu descended on the crown of his head, eye bulging at Crowley.

“Excuse me,” Said the latter, motioning towards Mikaela’s designated spot with the pinpoint of his sword.

“Would you be so kind as to forbid your pet from interfering?”

“All right. Do not protect me, Arcanu.”

At this, it snuggled into his hood, and Crowley motioned his own attendants to stand a few paces back.

They obeyed in regretful anticipation.

“Sword…”

His words were a spell, breathing life into its grip.

“Drink my blood.”

At this, a series of spikes arose and thrust themselves up the palm and through his knuckles. The weapon was bestial. As it filled its stomach, it dyed itself in stark crimson.

“Um, Lord Cr—”

He exploded off his right foot, causing a blowback so strong it knocked Chess off her feet and sent her cascading into Lacus’s arms.

“Phew! Thanks!”

“Move it! I can’t see!”

No one could. Not without serious concentration.

Crowly’s speed transformed him into an indiscernible blur.

He was light on his feet, in contrast to his powerhouse build. No movement was wasteful, and from the flying lunge he himself got scolded for by Guren, his fencing style was…

Quite familiar.

He thrust and cut in an efficient and clean fashion, making use of the back of his sword as well as the cutting edge.

Unlike Chess, who inflicted collateral damage without foresight, he absolved the platform’s glossy finish from the skids and marks of messy footwork.

Concurrently, the prince offered no technique of his own. Save for his darting eyes, following Crowley as though he stepped in slow motion, not an inch of him stirred.

A swing to the neck prompted a tilted head, nothing more.

A lunge to the heart received a minor shift to the side.

If he calculated the blade wouldn’t land, he remained still.

“He’s dodging without a sweat…” Yuichiro thought aloud, utterly fascinated and hanging off the edge of his seat.

“Duh…” Lacus agreed, mesmerized enough to forget their previous quarrel.

Adding to their incredulity was the fact Mikaela stayed on his designated line. When Crowley’s blade hurtled toward his waist, he turned with his left foot anchored to the floor, his toes locked on an invisible axis.

“Lord Ferid really wasn’t exaggerat—hey!”

“Oh no,” Chess cried, squeezing her arms around Lacus’s neck like a stuffed toy, “Who do I root for!?”

“Who cares!? Get off!”

A minor shift, a push against his hilt by the finger, and a carefree half-step must have exhausted Crowley’s patience, for he made a sudden leap backward.

“You’ve gotta be kidding! At least humor me! Use your sword!”

“As you wish.”

The two leapt at once, though Mikaela’s didn’t cause the blowback of his adversary’s. When they landed on opposite sides of the platform, Yuichiro couldn’t make out a blade. Only a silver gleam as faint as it was brief caught his eye.

“Stay still, Crowley Eusford.”

“‘Stay still,’ he says! Come now, it’s unlike you to ask for accommoda—”

His preparation to lunge forward, however, showed the purpose of that command. His torso slid off his waist, as did his left forearm. So perfect was the cut that no blood amassed on Mikaela’s sword, and no entrails seeped from the wound.

“Lord Crowley—!”

With a gleeful laugh, he held himself with his right hand, motioning for Chess and Horn (for they had cried in unison) to be at ease.

Yuichiro only caught a glimpse of Mikaela’s blade returning to his scabbard.

‘When did he…?’

“That’s the prince for you,” Lacus whistled as if answering his thought.

The crowd watched with bated breath as Crowley hummed to himself, tapping his foot as his severed flesh reconnected, cells reformed, bone reunited with bone.

“Are we finished?”

Mikaela asked without a shade of mockery. He spoke in his usual tone of clueless disrespect, further solidifying how not mutual he and Yuichiro’s ‘rivalry’ was.

Such disregard wasn’t even exclusive to him.

It bordered on offensive.

“Not yet!”

Crowley raced toward him, and Mikaela kept his word. Red and silver met with a thunderous clang, which his newly sensitive hearing gave special weight. He moved in a style Yuichiro could only describe as ‘aggressive defense.’ His every move was a parry, intercepting Crowley’s sword with a rapturous, deadly rigor that never appeared on his unassuming face.

He was an unequivocal épeé fighter. Where Crowley reflected a saber style, a monstrous upgrade of his own moves, his monarch displayed that of his caretaker’s.

From the style’s design to puncture where more blood flowed, to their heavier blades reflecting a more traditional rapier…

It fit him too well, altering it into something cold-hearted and monstrously refined.

Not once did his noble, despotic resolution waver.

He found no use in counterattacks. He was so sure of himself that pride was useless.

Out of a petty desire to test his skill (and be a nuisance), Yuichiro cupped his hands around his mouth and cried: “Hey! Mika!”

He expected nothing from his trick, but Mikaela gave him full attention as if no duel was taking place.

He even lowered his blade.

Crowley was moments away from a flawless lunge, from a clean slice lopping off his arm.

“Got—cha…?”

Without looking back, Mikaela took hold of his wrist.

And with the ease at which he’d pluck peaches off Guren’s trees, he ripped Crowley’s arm from his body, sword in hand.

The tear differed from the pristine cuts of his weapon. He macerated the bone, blood splattered onto the platform, and the sound of torn skin, of lacerated muscle, echoed through his audience’s sensitive ears.

He returned it at once, however, his gaze never deviating from Yuichiro, and received a jovial “Thank you, sir!” he didn’t acknowledge.

“Yes, Yuichiro Ariadust?” Mikaela asked with chilling serenity.

Amidst uproarious praise and servile flattery for the prince, so over-the-top he could’ve confused it with begging for mercy, that ruthless dismemberment replayed in his head.

How soon he forgot every instance where he and Mikaela were sheer inches apart was a moment he toyed with death.

Having seen enough of her Lord’s pain, Chess jumped off Lacus and drug her nails across her flesh.

“Lord Crowley! You need to heal! Please!”

He raised her hand in offering and lapped its blood clean, earning the envious glare of his other attendant.

“Let me have—I mean, allow me to help you as well, my Lord…”

Small moans escaped Horn’s lips when he obliged, all the while Mikaela’s sole ‘aide’ popped out his cloak and hovered about his face.

A reclaimed spot on his shoulder was its only request.

“Oh dear.”

Hopping over the pew in a fashion equally graceful was Mikaela’s other servant, who rushed to fuss over his person.

“You did an excellent job restraining yourself, but do avoid rough-housing.”

Yuichiro narrowed his eyes.

He cradled the hands that tore off Crowley’s limbs as if the bloodstains were his master’s own.

What about that bore ‘restraint?’

“And your gloves…!”

In an act Mikaela gave a shocking amount of tolerance, his servant herded him to the exit with a firm grip on his shoulders.

“Come, I’ll prepare you a nice, hot bath for your trouble.”

“Um…” Crowley waved his newly attached arm. “I was the one injured.”

“Oh, hush. Who told you to challenge an Illustrious?” Ferid replied, eyes fixed on the towering double doors. “You only have yourself to blame.”

“Got me there.”

Whatever he whispered into Mikaela’s ear, it prompted from him an uncharacteristic farewell.

After a jovial and uncanny “Good night, Prince Mikaela ‘Octavus Sator’ Illustrious,” he didn’t spare even a half-nod before abandoning his subjects.

The two left as they entered, master ahead and servant lurking in his shadow.

“Let’s see… You!” Crowley said, thrusting his finger at Yuichiro, “The loud idiot over there!”

“That’s not my name!”

And furthermore, that could’ve easily applied the bloodsucker next to him, rocking his feet and sober from Mikaela’s disappearance.

“I don’t know, newbie. That one suits you pretty well.”

“Like you’d know! I’ll—”

“You’ll be training with me!”

“What!?”

“Ha!”

It didn’t matter if such favoritism brought him no joy, as long as it angered his rival.

“Everyone else, divide up into pairs!”

As the congregation readied their blades and dispersed across the room, after childishly sticking his tongue out at Lacus, he approached the ‘stage’ dirtied with his instructor’s own blood.

Even if he lost, he still held his own against him with dignity and amusement.

Mikaela didn’t give it his all, but who could manage such a feat, anyway?

He couldn’t even make him frown.

If he could reach Crowley’s level, at least…

Boyish joviality lighting up his features, Yuichiro exploded off the bench and rushed toward him with vampiric speed.

While Crowley returned his infectious grin, Horn received him with the distaste of holding something dirty.

“… This is the progeny of Illustrious?”

“Yeah! I am! So what!?”

Chess gave him a consoling pat on the shoulder, contradicting this action immediately with, “That’s how I felt, Horn!”

“I anticipated someone more…”

“Dignified?”

“Courteous.”

“Definitely less loud—”

“Augh! Shut up, shut up!”

Yuichiro pushed them out of the way with ease, took hold of Crowley’s lapel, and craned his neck upward.

“Make me stronger so I can beat up Ferid!”

The disdain he expected never ruined their Lord’s subtle grin. Instead, he grabbed a fistful of Yuichiro’s locks and massaged them into his scalp, a horrid rendition of hair-ruffling that surpassed Guren’s in discomfort.

“Well, aren’t you interesting!”

“Cut it out! I’m not a kid!”

Crowley obliged with a laugh, and out of his scabbard came his blade once more. The moment Yuichiro jumped back, however, he received not an attack but an offer of its hilt.

“You’re in luck. I tire of him myself.”

The sword appeared weak, almost brittle from afar, but he soon realized that was only by its adversary’s skill. It was hefty, commanded a powerful, steady wielder. Adorned with a strapping knuckle guard of intricate design, it could easily accommodate both hands.

“Someone turned by the prince should have no trouble handling my weapon. But first, we’ll discuss—”

“Got it!”

Before he could finish, Yuichiro made a sudden thrust at his torso.

“I’m gonna cut you in half, too!”

“Woah-ho! Not bad!” Crowley said, jumping to another platform line.

“But you’ll need to activate it!”

A mischievous smile stretched his lips, and with a single command of “Sword,” the grip throbbed beneath Yuichiro’s fingers.

“Wha—”

“Drink his blood.”

The same series of spikes impaled his hand, bursting forth from his knuckles, and he yelped more from surprise than pain.

As his body fluid drained, a rush of vigor flowed through him. His instincts, a voice in the back of his head, linked its pleasure with blood consumption.

A small gasp escaped as an unbridled lust to run wild surged through him. It enlivened his every nerve, his senses sharpened even greater than before, and with a jubilant cry, he continued to slash toward Crowley’s neck.

“Follow saber, eh?”

Part of Yuichiro didn’t expect to slice his limbs with Mikaela’s effortlessness, but it still angered him when he failed.

His attacks were off by centimeters. Hairs shifted out of place, or the smallest cut blemished his cheek and closed up in a heartbeat’s time.

“Oops! You’re fast!”

“So get hit already!”

“No can do! Sorry!”

At this, Crowley’s fist went straight for Yuichiro’s temple, but the latter caught it by reflex.

“Ha! Nice try!”

His fingers dug into his gloved hand, and when he couldn’t tug it off from the wrist, his adversary laughed at his indignant pout.

“You have talent. I’d expect nothing less of his progeny.” He dodged a swift jab at his forehead. “Little by little, your blade is getting swifter. Unfortunately, though…”

His leg slammed into Yuichiro’s side, sending him flying, sword in hand, toward the pews. His fall appeared in slow motion, giving him enough “time” to land on his backside with a resounding thud.

“Ooow…”

The soreness of his neck and spine was momentary, but he rubbed the back of his skull out of habit.

His opponent, sprinting over with that same grin, finished with:

“My sire and the prince’s are equals.”

He spoke with patronization that bordered on syrupy, as though his defeat was such a given there was no need for malice.

“May I?” He asked, reaching for the hilt of his sword.

Yuichiro paused for a moment, then sliced off his extended hand, which the former caught like a game of catch.

“C’mon, that wasn’t nice.”

“If they’re so ‘equal’ then why’re you weaker!?”

“Hm…”

Crowley feigned hesitancy as he watched his flexor tendon repair.

“That’s easy. ‘Cause I’m an alpha.”

As though his words were mere trivialities, they escaped his lips, and Yuichiro fell into a dismal silence.

Images of his old textbook came to life again in his mind’s eye. Vampirism afforded him no privilege under the Latrodectus food chain. He only traded one category of danger for another, replacing his poison with venom.

“Sword.”

The thorns receded from his flesh, leaving unsightly puncture wounds until every muscle, bone, and cell mended.

“Can’t rile him up too much or it stirs his appetite, you know?” Crowley added, slipping his weapon gently from Yuichiro’s grasp.

Of course.

Regardless of how neutral Mikaela’s disposition was, the frequent consumption of blood was all that quelled his aggression.

“I’ll take that as thanks,” A familiar, disquieting voice called from behind.

From his rolled-up sleeves and a towel draped upon his forearm, Ferid must’ve returned from running his master’s bath.

“For what?”

“I fed him before sparring!”

“Right, right.”

Satisfied, he cast a sidelong glance at Yuichiro, eyes trailing up and down his body and a hint of fangs peering from his smile.

Resting an elbow on Crowley’s shoulder, he asked, “Well, what do you think of my master’s new chew toy?”

“Chew toy!?”

“He’s studied fencing as a human, that much is evident.”

“I’m not a toy!”

“He’s just as cute as I remember, too!”

Exasperated of their attention, Yuichiro threw a punch that Ferid caught without trouble.

“Damn it!”

“And just full of energy, it seems!”

“I’ll say,” Crowley said, installing his palm on Yuichiro’s scalp for another round of condescending affection.

“Don’t take it to heart. Challenge someone weaker than us and you’ll see how gifted you are.”

“How is that a comfort!?”

Before he could shake off the revulsion from his touch, there came Ferid’s hand to pat his shoulder.

“There, there. I know what will help.”

“Staying away from me?”

“I have a gift waiting for you!”

“Not interested!”

“How cruel! I worked hard on it.”

His request was too sugary, too embellished, like Yuichiro thought him capable of genuine attempts at friendship.

“No!”

And at that moment, his true intentions made themselves known.

“I know! What if I said it’d help rescue Guren?”

That name, that magic phrase, was persuasive enough to set him aglow with curiosity.

“There we go,” Ferid cooed, a sly grin crossing his face.

The garments in Yuichiro’s hands, though lacking in complication, rivaled his current attire in brilliance. Reminiscent of the prince was that same spotless white and lustrous assortments of gold, a ribbon of silk and an off-shoulder cape that would fall to the knee. The neck insignia reflected him with absolute clarity.

At the heart of Mikaela’s chamber, he sat in a quintet of side chairs, made of gilded wood and upholstered in the same crimson damask as the bloody backdrop of curtains. Their formation was that of buzzards, encircling the corpse that was a table veered in ebony.

“The traditional vampire garb doesn’t suit you,” Ferid hummed.

He had left Yuichiro to his own devices as he fetched his master for bedtime. Between the angelic columns framing him like a painting, holding back the bed’s tapestry and putting their owner on display was Mikaela himself.

His gaze rested at nothing while Ferid groomed his bangs with a miniature, ivory brush, a single finger lifting his chin.

“You need something better for your future.”

Yuichiro grimaced.

“… What does this have to do with Guren?”

“Ah, yes!”

He withheld his answer until he finished adorning Mikaela’s nightshirt with a ribbon around the neck.

“I hope you don’t think I’ve forgotten our alliance!”

Just when Yuichiro thought he had his undivided attention, he retrieved a bottle of nail lacquer out of a small, mahogany box.

“Stop ignoring me!” He cried, yanking it from his grasp.

The complete disinterest from the party between them only worsened his embarrassment.

“Why wouldn’t I think that!? You tried to kill me!”

“I only stabbed you,” Ferid laughed, retrieving a vial of oil to massage into Mikaela’s skin.

“To kill me!”

As his fingers ran from his calves to his feet, thumbs encircling his flesh, the eerie lack of resistance on his master’s part, coupled with the deathly stillness in his features…

“Do you do this every night? It’s kinda—”

“Your eyes tell me you’ve never drunk human blood,” Ferid observed.

His observation, wholly divergent, was a verbal dismissal if he ever heard one.

Backing away and casting him a dirty look, Yuichiro replied, “Yeah, and I won’t.”

A stillness came over the gentlemen, during which Arcanu’s fidgeting wings and little hops were audible.

“When you become the thirteenth, it’ll be your guardian too.”

“… Thirteenth what?”

“Yuichiro ‘Tertius Decimus Sator’ Illustrious.”

The sweet temptation Ferid poured from a kettle, warmed and thick and with the mouthwatering consistency of syrup, kindled Yuichiro’s tortured lust anew.

‘My body hurts…’

“It’s your rightful place in the world of vampires. And you can drink to your heart’s delight,” He said as though reading his mind.

Or perhaps his suffering etched itself into each pained detail of his face.

'It hurts. Please.'

That never-ending loop in the depths of his psyche grew louder, harder to suppress.

Focus.

What did Ferid say?

That long name. It started with his own.

His eyes escaped to his lap.

“… That’s why you gave me these.”

In the back of his throat was a plea, a whine to beseech him for the teacup undoubtedly, inevitably, for Mikaela.

In rebellion, he drew his bottom lip beneath his teeth.

“See?”

‘Blood.’

“It all worked out.”

‘Not enough blood.’

“You’ll have more swaying power than me as a full vampire.”

‘I want blood.’

“Including the power to save your precious Guren—”

“I don’t care!”

His fingers trembled, his stomach quaked without mercy, and each lustful, torturous wave set his brain on fire.

“Why ever not?”

His nails dug into the arms of the chair.

He had only one rebuttal, one mocked by the incessant bloodlust that promised the only place his beloved family belonged was anywhere he dropped their lifeless, drained carcasses.

But even so…

“I’m… I’m still an Ariadust!”

He wouldn’t abandon them.

“And I can save him as one!”

Once his sire’s cup was in hand, Yuichiro found safety in raising his eyes.

In an act he wasn’t foolish enough to consider merciful, Ferid blocked his line of sight from Mikaela’s meal. The scent engulfed him as mercilessly as ever, but the familiar bundle in his arms captivated him.

“I thought as much.”

Replacing his royal ensemble was the one Guren demanded he wore when shipping him off to the estate. His shirt was free of blood stains, and he stitched his shredded waistcoat to perfection. Its refurbished state brought him to the morning their tailor, his smile brimming with joy, bestowed it in celebration of his “big day.”

It was more formal than he preferred, but Mitsuba and Yoichi’s eyes lit up when he entered the room, and that alone meant the world.

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Ferid continued.

“You may have lost your family, your home, but you have your name. As expected of an Ariadust.”

***

A ‘thank you’ couldn’t have left Yuichiro’s lips. Indeed, he could only mumble some feint nonsense resembling gratitude. He brought the bundle to his chest, snuggling into the waistcoat, but this was out of affection for his loved ones.

Not its tailor.

He scurried out the room, his downcast expression more than making up for the lack of blood rising to his cheeks.

“Amusing isn’t it?” Ferid asked to no avail.

Mikaela didn’t respond, but what good would replying do?

What appealed to his tastes more than the offering under his nose?

With an empathetic laugh, he took to cleaning his workshop for the night. His master wasn’t as pampered as he’d wished, but that was of no consequence.

The prize of Yuichiro’s discomfort was his.

Wafting from the rug of elaborate embroidery was a faint hint of clover, for he swiped its contents with no consideration of its loose cap.

Impulsive. Reckless. Greedy.

“He really hasn’t changed a bit.”

His every statement was the death of he and Mikaela’s conversation, a series of observations met with disinterested swallows.

No matter.

His master spent the majority of his time in his own head.

‘Five.’

One by one, his oils returned to his little box with meticulous spacing, organized by color, scent, and ingredients.

‘Four.’

“Don’t forget, your sponsor cancelled your meeting with the progenitor council tomorrow.”

‘Three.’

Saucers, a teapot, a cream and sugar set for show—each was laid carefully on his tray of stainless steel.

How superfluous his aesthetic was! Such utensils weren’t necessary for blood.

‘Two.’

“Her Majesty wants to see you instead. She misses you with such passion!”

‘One.’

Another swallow.

“I tease! It’s a trivial matter, really—”

At that moment, two sounds echoed about the chamber: the teacup slamming onto the floor, and Mikaela, collapsing against the mattress.

Strewn across the canopy, a sliver of blood dripping from the corner of his mouth, there was nothing to distinguish him from a corpse.

In place of his searing, red irises were a raw, harrowing black, and his fingers curled in such a way they appeared to shrivel into his palm.

“Come now…” Ferid sighed.

Kneeling at his side, he gave his arm a gentle shake.

“It’s been centuries. I returned your darling princess. How long are you staying in there?”

Not that he blamed him.

What did he anticipate besides despair, boredom, and crushing, hopeless solitude?

He’d awaken in seven hours—plenty of time before his commitments.

As he straightened up the rest of his items, an inquiry crossed his mind: did Mikaela himself wonder about his lapses in consciousness? Did his blackouts appear out of nowhere?

Or was he too busy drowning himself to notice?

“What a pity…”

Never had he seen a vampire so desperate to cling to his own curse.

In any case, his partner would enter town soon.

To learn they had to get deeper, pry more, shake his world further…

“Why, she’ll be delighted!”

With the air of a perfect attendant, he raised his tea set and took leave in stride, affording himself one last glance at his master.

“Wake up soon, Mikaela.”


Yuichiro didn’t know.

For two days, perhaps weeks, months, seconds, he closed himself up in his bedroom, hands gripping the sheets as vampirism bestowed the pleasure of yet another sensation: the exquisite torture of thirst.

The overbearing fever created a third person delirium. He existed outside himself. His thrashing and screaming must’ve belonged to someone else. How could he speak when the entirety of his insides were melting, stinging?

The nails clawing his neck weren’t his own. His body couldn’t be striking him with such self-terminating wrath. A sense of cruel abandonment washed over with each involuntary swallow. No blood doused the rawness of his throat. All that filled it was his own, oozing from his blistering esophagus.

His instincts were a perceptive, rebellious monster. It met any movement that wasn’t to latch onto a human with hot, searing pain shooting up his limbs.

He answered the knock on the door with the only exclamation he could muster: a crumbling, shaky outburst.

“Yuichiro! Are you in there?”

He knew that voice.

Gnashing his teeth into the comforter, he stifled his cries in the hope a refusal to speak sent him elsewhere.

To his dismay, Ferid let himself in regardless.

The footsteps were explosive to his sensitive ears.

But upon the third, a tantalizing scent drove him upright. His agony melted away. His head went numb, and pervading his sinuses was the grace every inch of him desired.

“I brought you something to drink,” He said with gentle malice, with the knowledge he was his savior.

Transfixed, Mikaela, as placid as usual, was but a haze in his peripheral vision.

“You’re not faring too well, are you?”

A single drop.

That was all he needed to stem the craving—to ease the unbearable misery.

“Ah…”

As he slipped off the mattress, taking a pained step forward, he could feel tears spilling down his face.

“Poor thing.”

Ferid refused to approach him, for his tortured stagger must’ve been quite the amusing sight.

But Yuichiro was too desperate for pride.

“No one will blame you. Even your family needs food.”

The little cup, that sweet trophy, quivered in his hands. He studied it for only a moment, inhaling its decadent scent. Its promise of comfort lured him with such understanding.

Moments from ecstasy, an unendurable horror caught his ears.

“I believed a man in his 30s befitted your palette.”

Yuichiro paused.

A choked sob parted his lips and deepened the curve of Ferid’s own.

“I had the maids prepare it special. From the house of Ariadust.”

His head spun. Bestial instinct implored him to throw away such ‘trifle matters’ like the owner.

This was his sole reason for living. The only thing that could ever bring him solace.

Should he fall, a joy unbeknownst to him would redeem however evil his act was.

Betrayal of loved ones was a human concept.

Tears streamed down his cheeks once more, over his chin, his collar, his shirt.

They burned at the touch and smelled of his own blood.

“Well, if you won’t have it, I’m sure my master is thirsty.”

At this, the world moved in slow motion.

Using the seductive pull of his own caretaker’s life-force, he summoned its energizing lure and hurled it against the wall.

“Yuichiro! What a waste!”

He knew that.

Watching each drop mix with the carpet’s tendrils, he could’ve wept for what went to waste.

But the sliver of his humanity cried in relief.

Both sentiments colored the outburst that ruptured his throat. He ignored every rebellious sting in his extremities as he shoved Ferid past the threshold, pushed him out the room, and slammed the door.

The attractive nightmare he’d feast on Guren’s blood had ended, and his stomach mourned with paralyzing affliction.

But he wasn’t alone.

His instincts sensed another.

There to meet his gaze was the very founder of his curse, whose decision to torture him with vampirism operated on the cruelest, most arbitrary of impulses.

“Why…?”

That he pushed a word through his burning lips was a feat in itself.

Mikaela made no answer, staring with an expression wholly impenetrable, as though his agonizing loss meant nothing or next to nothing.

“No, I get it… ‘my blood,’ right? That’s all you wanted…”

If he focused enough, he could pretend the pain corroding his body, a punishment for denying himself his family’s, was toward the vampire before him.

“Every time I see you, you’re drinking blood! What made me so special!?”

His hands burned with the desire to choke him, but such an action would be futile.

“You could’ve finished me off when I was human!”

To search for an inkling of sympathy in his eyes was trying to force open a lock.

“I… I don’t want to be a monster! I can’t even go home!”

So overwhelming was the utter uselessness of his cries, that all his despair evoked nothing from its originator, he collapsed to his knees.

His fingers grabbed fistfuls of Mikaela’s cloak, tugging on it like a lost child.

“You’re stronger than me…” He whimpered, burying his face into its ethereal cloth.

He’d never look up.

He never wanted to see him again.

“You could kill me whenever you wanted… and I—I’m never giving you my blood! So why not drink me dry and get it over with!?”

That torturous hush remained.

“That’s what you want, right!? Just kill me!”

He hoped, prayed for his cruelty, that within him was amusement as sickening as Ferid’s.

Anything but bleak, unforgiving apathy.

“Please…”

His instincts agreed wholeheartedly.

If he couldn’t consume blood, he was better off dead.

“They’ll hate me… I don’t want to drink my… I can’t go home…”

He repeated those words like a mantra, and with the death of his pride he wept:

“I don’t want to be alone…”

He greeted Mikaela’s customary silence as an admission of his suffering, but in a breath’s time, he found his sire kneeled before him.

His expression remained unreadable, and in an act that aroused his utmost confusion, he unfastened his cloak.

Cast his ivory jacket aside.

Unbuttoned his shirt until it fell past his shoulders.

Removed his pristine glove.

With painstaking attention did he watch him undress.

The nail of Mikaela’s index finger made a precise incision into his carotid artery, and he slowly dragged it downward.

Sullying the junction of his neck and shoulder was blood that bewitched Yuichiro at once, whose appeal was more overwhelming than any human’s.

“Drink from me. Then it will all be over.”

A wretched gasp escaped Yuichiro’s throat.

It welcomed him like a hot meal, breathed life into the shambles that was his will to continue on Earth.

Its scent forced out a moan for which he was too enamored to have shame.

Thoughtlessly, desperately, he tackled Mikaela until they slammed against the side of his bed, but the resulting injury was nothing compared to how much he yearned to devour him.

He scrutinized the wound, let out a despaired whine when it, in the nature of vampirism, healed.

The depths of his elongated teeth throbbed, informing him of his own means to break the skin.

His lips traced his sire’s flesh, high on the euphoria of what awaited him.

‘It’s here…’

He observed in awe, remiss of the humiliation, careless of his downfall, thankful for the prince’s lack of input.

‘If I bite here…’

When a hand graced the small of his back, he allowed his fangs to pierce into his neck.

He swallowed, and he was gone.

Filling him was something mind-numbing, fresh and vibrant, cleansing his insides. Not until drinking Mikaela’s blood did he feel the contamination festering in his person, how it stirred with the inhuman suffering of being a monster.

As it traveled down his esophagus, his stomach, his every cell cried out in reprieve, begged him to deepen their connection, to consume until he died.

Shame was a human concept.

Everything he held dear was inside him, and he basked in the afterglow of each swallow.

As his horrid gluttony seemed unsatisfied, he swore in delirium that the taste would never be washed away with another’s.

He moaned tenderly into his flesh, withdrew only to lap up the blood dripping from his wound, then returned to his sanctuary.

His fingers, clinging to Mikaela’s back, had relaxed, and he melted into his arms to drink in a childish embrace.

The memory of his blood would stay flat at the roof of his mouth, under his tongue, ingrained in his taste buds as an ever-present reminder.

***

Time lapsed again, he was sure, but the duration was of scant importance.

If morning succumbed to evening, or midnight to sunrise, he didn’t care.

He found sanctuary buried in the prince’s shoulder.

He had long since withdrawn his teeth. Appetite developed into a longing to stay in his arms, to never stray too far from his sustenance.

As the bite wounds healed, Yuichiro pressed his lips against his neck and cleaned the blood that dried against his skin.

Its remnants alone sent shivers up his spine.

In his eerie delirium, he hadn’t a clue of Mikaela’s state. Reality itself was up for dispute, so ethereal was the mind-numbing pleasure of his meal.

He rose, toppled ever so slightly, and felt that immediate support on the small of his back.

The doorknob rattled from the outside, but Yuichiro was too sedated, too busy studying Mikaela’s features, searching in the depths of his eyes for words he’d never receive, to pay it any mind.

Crushing delirium held his tongue, and his savior only returned his gaze.

Silence reigned, but never had it been so comfortable.

“Master?”

That was, until he heard Ferid’s voice.

A glance over his shoulder, and his mental faculties restored at once.

The compromising position in which he found himself could be nothing less than mortifying—straddling Mikaela’s lap, mouth stained with his body fluids. At one point, to get a closer glimpse at his person, he’d rested his palm on his cheek.

Mikaela was in no better state. His shirt tugged to his shoulders left their action incapable of misinterpretation.

A wide smile stretched to Ferid’s ears.

“Upon my word! What is this?”

“No, I—! I’m not—!” Yuichiro cried, throwing himself off the prince.

But this teasing acknowledgment was all he received. Seconds later, his existence became as minor as air.

“Her Majesty wishes to meet you about our upcoming guest. She wants you to host him,” He said, arranging his master's uniform into place.

Mikaela rose.

“His title?”

“Ky ‘Quintus Sator’ Luc. Do you remember him?”

“Yes.”

Without a single farewell, master and servant took leave from Yuichiro’s chamber, leaving him to his dumbfounded lonesome.

At closer inspection, the skylight allowed the amber of sunset to flood indoors, but that didn't mean anything.

He didn't even know the hour he locked himself up.

‘What just happened…?’

One minute he was sobbing over the thought of drinking his family’s blood, the next…

More than shame, the reverie of his sire’s blood brought an odd pulsation.

After a long night alone, attuning his ears to detect a semblance of a heartbeat, only to find nothing…

He gripped his throat, and against the warmth of his thumb was a newfound, yet very soft, throbbing beneath his flesh.

True, it was barely perceptible compared to his human pulse, but at its discovery, it intensified.

It couldn’t be thirst, for he was beyond satiated, giddy from his shameful indulgence.

Peeling off his glove with the carefulness of touching his own skin, he dragged a nail across his palm like his sire.

“Ouuch!”

It healed at the same speed, but his sense of pain had deepened.

His eyes trailed to his vanity, untouched since Chess invaded his bedroom.

He taunted himself, cowered, then dared himself once more.

Nevertheless, that heartbeat reverberating in his chest was just the encouragement he needed.

And to his surprise…

“It’s me…”

The demon relinquished him.

His pupils recovered from their sunken wreckage, and the amorphous sludge reverted to the vibrant green he’d always known. The ghostly pallor diminished to a simple undertone.

Though his ears remained pointed to a tip, the person looking back at him was none other than Yuichiro Ariadust.

His awkward, stupefied grin exposed his fangs, but the tears threatening to fall no longer smelled of blood, nor were they stinging and heavy.

They were clear, light, and undeniably human.

“That bastard had a point…” He laughed, words crumbling and tugging at his uniform’s insignia.

“These really don’t suit me…”

He approached the wardrobe where he stuffed his original clothes, a place he considered their eternal resting ground.

Such dissonance between his monstrous image and his clothing from home would’ve destroyed him.

But now, having fought out of his bloodsucker attire and dressed the day he arrived, the mirror greeted him with equal benevolence, welcoming his return.

He felt no more threatening than Lady Ariadust.

At the corners of his mouth were stains of Mikaela’s blood, deflating his excitement to a contemplative lull.

Crowley had drunk from his attendants, and they from him, but they remained inextricably jarring in their supernatural beauty.

Then why…

Whether trusting him was the correct move, he didn't know. But the prince helped him again, and he needed an answer for that.

He threw himself out into the hall of mirrors, and projected on each pane of glass and crystalline fixture was his newfound, pseudo-humanity, the reclamation of his personhood.

Savoring each passing reflection, despite the thirst he knew anchored him to the estate, deep down he wanted to see his family, to gauge their tolerance of his presence.

And at that moment, he slammed into the answer to his question.

A splash met his ears, along with the shattering of a teacup to pieces. Its owner was a young woman, rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed, and donned in a servant’s attire.

“Damn it! Would it kill ya to watch where you’re… uh oh.”

Moments passed as they held each other’s gazes, then she shook her head as to release herself from a trance.

Yanking the apron off her waist, she sponged up the blood while giving him tiny bows.

“I-I’m sorry! Really sorry! I-I didn’t notice you were a—If I knew, I'd never—”

“You looked at me…”

“Huh…?”

Her voice softened, and to Yuichiro’s bewilderment, she surveyed him once more.

The scent wafting from the tile was indistinguishable, and yet, not once did his appetite stir.

Nor for her own blood, undoubtedly warm and pumping through her veins.

“How are you doing that!? I couldn’t look at vampires this closely! Ever!”

She forced her lips into a nervous grin.

“Uh… erm—”

“C’mon! Help me out! If you can stare at me, then that means—”

“Wait, wait!”

In an awkward gesture, she waved her palms before her face, and out of her pocket came a folded sheet of paper.

Yuichiro tilted his head as she read off its print.

“Can’t… understand!”

“Understand what?”

His question earned an exasperated sigh, and she tapped her fingers on her forehead.

“Geez, hold on!”

She ran an index finger across the sheet and, having discovered whatever sentence she needed, cried at last:

“A ha! Can’t… understand… Latin! Know…” She snuck another peek. “Not? Little!”

Yuichiro batted his eyelashes.

Chess, Lacus, every vampire who had threatened his life that one morning… none of them showed they had spoken out of their native tongue.

They wouldn’t have greeted Mikaela in his language, nor would Crowley address an entire congregation of vampires.

“Mr. Vampire?”

“Have I been speaking Latin this whole time!? How the hell do I turn it off!? How does it turn off!?”

At his spectacle, she offered an apologetic shrug.

“Oh…”

He squeezed his eyes shut, recalled every argument with Kimizuki, his gossip sessions with Narumi, the times he’d laugh with Yoichi or played pranks with Mitsuba…

“… How ‘bout now?”

The servant’s face lit up, and when she gave an animated nod, he squeezed her hands.

“Thank you! Thank you so much! I—” He paused, and realization dawned on his face. “That’s right! I need to find…”

What would he even call his sire? Not that obnoxious mouthful with which everyone else addressed him.

What’d he name him at some point?

“… Mika! I gotta find Mika.”

“Who’s Mi—”

He released her hands from captivity and dashed toward the prince’s bedroom.

“Hey! Hold on!”

The young woman, a considerable distance from where he stood in seconds, rushed to approach him.

To his further surprise, after catching her breath, she thrust out her palm in greeting.

“Akane! Akane… Iida!” She gasped, “Wanna be friends!?”

“What!? Why!?”

Regardless of whether she could tolerate his presence, what good came from befriending a vampire?

Having guessed his inquiry, she snagged his hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.

“Because…” Akane replied with a reaffirming, almost sullen laugh.

“You’re the first vampire I’ve seen who isn’t scary.”