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Down till You Fall

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Chapter 9

A Spark of Divinity

July 1st, 2017: Sanguinem

Hashirou Minami set the tuba in its case with the same care as one preparing a corpse for burial.

“Don’t apologize,” he said, raising a hand to forestall Yuu’s speech. “You’ve done the best you could in the time you were given.”

They had been in Hashirou’s personal practice room—an average-sized room with a few chairs and stands along with a piano—for the remainder of the previous night and all day as well. Yuu’s tuba was normally stored here as well—it was not like he had ever been motivated to practice outside of his tutoring sessions. But before he knew it, the sun had set once more. Now, it was almost ten-thirty, and Yuu was out of time.

“If anything goes wrong, it’s my fault,” Yuu said. “I’ll make sure the queen understands that.”

Hashirou shook his head. “Do you remember what I told you when you first chose that instrument?”

Yuu thought about it. “‘If you have your heart set on it.’”

“Not that,” Hashirou said. “The tuba is a bass instrument. Not really intended for solo work, though it can, of course, shine in such situations. The tuba’s most effective place is often as a member of an ensemble.”

“Oh,” Yuu said. “I know that.”

Hashirou managed an exhausted smile. “It is the music’s heartbeat,” he said. “Should the tuba stray from its course, the rest of the ensemble will soon be lost. Please keep that in mind.”

You say that, but in the end, I’ll still be playing by myself…

In deference to the fact that Hashirou had been quietly going insane the moment he heard the news, Yuu decided to take his advice with a nod and a smile.

***

Case in hand, Yuu ascended the three central flights of stairs and stilled before the imposing doors to the throne room. The area appeared to be deserted, but after a moment Lia Fierro materialized into his field of view. Not a single hair on her head was out of place.

“Lady Seneschal,” he greeted her.

“Yuuichirou Hyakuya,” she said. “There is a side room that musicians often use to warm up in situations like these. I will lead you there.”

Yuu couldn’t resist setting his better wisdom aside and taunting her. “Sure you don’t regret putting your name to my ‘literature project?’”

Lia’s demeanor was serene. “It does no harm to indulge in the occasional spontaneity. I cleared it with Queen Krul afterwards, naturally.”

“Of course,” Yuu said.

Whether she was covering for herself or not, Yuu couldn’t tell. He supposed he should expect nothing less from someone who dwelt in the heart of Sanguinem politics.

As it turned out, the room she referred to was no more than a few steps down the hallway to the right. Yuu unlatched his case and did as he was bid.

***

When he had done all he could, Yuu left the side room and stepped into the throne room. As the doors slid shut behind him, he was shocked to see Arukanu flying towards him. Dropping his case, he put his arms up as a defensive measure, but the familiar merely hovered in place a meter in front of him.

“For a musician to treat his instrument so—how careless.”

Yuu loathed to take his eyes off Arukanu, but to ignore Krul would be equally foolish.

“My apologies,” he said, trying to gaze respectfully in Krul’s direction while also tracking her familiar’s movements.

As before, Krul’s frame dominated the throne despite her lack of size; the intensity of her eyes could pin even the most confident onlooker in place. The black fabric of her knee-length dress looked light, almost gossamer. As she shifted, silver thread embroidered within it caught and hid from the light in its turn. In contrast, her hair accessories were matte black and spiked like the wings of her bat, placed above her ears to keep the longer strands from falling into her face.

“He is not trying to attack you,” Krul said. “If that were my aim, do you not think I would have been more discreet? Or perhaps more efficient.”

Her right hand made a dismissive gesture. “Blood calls to blood. Nothing more. You may touch him, if you wish.”

As if her words were an understood command, Arukanu dared to come nearer. Yuu held out his left arm, and Arukanu preceded to alight upon it. With the lightest of touches, Yuu stroked the soft fur on his head. His lone, dark eye stared up at Yuu.

Blood calls to blood, hm? I don’t plan on doing your mistress any harm tonight, so for now let’s get along.

His earlier caution felt a bit excessive to him now, but all the same, he had no knowledge of Arukanu’s capabilities. No amount of prudence was too much when one’s opponent was the queen of vampires.

With that in mind, Yuu slowly rotated his arm. Instead of flying away, however, his passenger held on, leaving Yuu to stare helplessly at the upside-down bat.

“You’re very cute,” Yuu praised. “And powerful! Immensely powerful. It is an honor beyond measure to be favored by your presence so.”

“I see you’ve learned from someone in your time here,” Krul said. And, with a tilt of her head: “You may return.”

Arukanu obliged her, flying back to Krul’s side.

She waved Yuu forward. In front of her was a chair—a helpful aid for a performer. Plucking his abandoned case from the unforgiving ground, Yuu approached, bowed, and took his seat.

Setting up his instrument and getting into position was a matter of habit at this point. Yuu did so without thinking about it; instead, he focused his mind, trying to calm himself as much as possible.

Even so, Yuu couldn’t resist glancing upwards at Krul.

“At your convenience,” she said.

He played.

Out of all his education, it would be fair to say that Yuu counted his music lessons among the least stimulating. He read music sheets, painstakingly transferred their contents to muscle memory, and tried to play each song with the most technical skill possible. He not only had to hit the correct notes, but also had to do so with the proper tone and breathing. It all required intense precision that often moved him to frustration, even while contending with his not-inconsiderable attention span.

The selected three pieces together took around twenty-five minutes to get through. When faced with the life- and career-threatening prospect of failure, Hashirou had decided to keep things simple.

Yuu was sympathetic to his tutor’s plight. When it came down to it, he’d rather his fate not rest in the hands of another’s ability. The waiting must be like standing beneath the jaws of a lion, unknowing when they would retreat—or snap shut.

At last, Yuu’s right hand stilled upon the keys and his lips parted from the mouthpiece. He made no further motion.

Krul raised her hands and brought them together for a few seconds. The claps echoed through the vast hall.

“I see I was mistaken,” she said. “You are no musician. Your treatment of your instrument was only natural.”

Alarm and dismay filled his heart, brutal in the swiftness of their arrival, but his face didn’t move from its placid indifference.

“Your skill was more than adequate, but it’s clear your spirit was elsewhere,” she said. “I must apologize to Hashirou for giving him a thankless task, indeed.

Nevertheless, it is good for a child to cultivate discipline,” Krul concluded. “It’s fine for you to continue on as you have been. If you evince no higher interest in the subject, it is no great loss for the world.”

“Thank you,” Yuu said. He would have bowed, but his tuba hoarded the necessary space.

Krul leaned back against her throne.

“Last time, there was a barrier between us as well, I would recall,” she said softly. “This time, you should have no compunctions against…removing it.”

Treating his tuba with more care than he had when he first entered the room, he wiped the mouthpiece with a cleaning cloth before returning the tuba to its case. He closed it up and, after a moment of hesitation, placed it slightly behind him on his left side.

“Your eyes haven’t changed,” Krul said. “You’ve managed to resist far longer than most. Do you find it an easy task?”

“No,” Yuu said. “But it’s what I have to do. There’s no other choice.”

“Hold fast to your resolve,” she said, “if it pleases you.”

“I shall,” Yuu said.

“Fearless,” Krul said.

“What?”

“Blunt. Direct. One who takes not the meandering road. Do I give you the impression that I do not listen to many grievances, Yuuichirou?”

Yuu considered his reply carefully. “I would imagine that you hear many of them whether you would like to or not.”

“Even a queen of vampires cannot do all she wishes,” Krul allowed. “Well then. Have you thought of airing yours to me?”

The absurd question knocked Yuu off balance. What could he say?

“…I decided against doing something like that for two reasons. First, there was no reason to, and second, because I was told not to meet with you unless it was an emergency.”

“True enough,” she said, “but that does not preclude contacting me, as you are aware.”

“Yes,” Yuu said. “I know.”

“Contacting me,” she said, “about potential…reassignments.”

“Oh,” he said.

She studied his expression. “I genuinely don’t believe it occurred to you.”

“I get what you mean, I just don’t see what the point of that would have been.”

“Elaborate.”

“From an outsider’s perspective, you’re already being generous by assigning some random vampire of unknown pedigree—um, no offense meant—so much talent. Even if I am the first new vampire in over a century. Furthermore, they are all well established at court and can be presumed to have a certain amount of goodwill with you. Having even one removed based on something so trivial as a…’personality clash’ would be unwise, and thus extremely unlikely.”

“A personality clash,” she said, looking at him intently. “That is all?”

“I’m not really a big fan of the curriculum or the way it’s taught,” Yuu said, “and those are symptoms of personality, yes.”

“I see,” Krul said. “Yes, I’m beginning to understand. To settle this via my authority would be unacceptable, so you did not even conceive of it. Your pride would accept nothing less than a public arena: one that would validate and vindicate you in the eyes of others.

Of course, I could end this crusade here and now if I so choose. But I think not.”

“Your majesty?” he prompted.

A smile flashed across Krul’s face.

“To the child of a third progenitor, a common vampire is like a worm. Something that wriggles and writhes for your amusement before you crush it beneath your foot.”

“Do you believe that?”

“I enforce it,” said Krul, “and thus I make it so. I’m afraid such a child can no more do all he pleases than a queen, however, especially when his proper title is not yet free to claim. For we are not all children and worms, but rather players in a game of a complexity you cannot even begin to imagine.

Yes, I am content. The sides are as even as possible, given what there is to work with…”

“I am deeply grateful for your approval of my actions,” Yuu said. Understanding Krul was a futile task; at times like these, it was best to fall back on platitudes.

“I am ever entertained by the tapestry of your life,” she said. “I can only foresee one element spoiling the situation, and that is an excess of stupidity.”

Yuu wasn’t allowed to be affronted, so he refrained.

“Let me be clear,” she said. “In the conflict to come, you’ll find no interference from me—either in your favor or against you. I will watch it unfold; nothing more. All I will do is correct that which I find most intolerable. You have a fleet of fine tutors, as you said, but surely a lesson from your sire wouldn’t go amiss.”

Yuu stared at her. “A lesson…?”

“Consider this your crash course in Sanguinem politics,” Krul said. “Do try to keep up.”

“I will—I will do my best,” Yuu said.

She raised her arms up in a languid stretch. “I tire of sitting. I shall walk about. You may stay there.”

As Krul rose, her familiar spread his wings and left the resting place of her body. Instead, he fluttered back over to Yuu, settling on his right shoulder. Yuu gave him a few tentative strokes.

Meanwhile, in order to pay Krul the proper amount of attention, he was forced to jerk his head back and forth while he watched the queen pace like a jungle cat.

“Let’s begin with internal affairs,” she said. “Nominally, every vampire in this country swears their allegiance to me. Setting aside such paper-thin vows, what do we have left?”

“Those who are actually loyal to you,” Yuu said.

“For a given value of such. That is a very select few; a useful group, certainly. More broadly, there are my active supporters: those who compose my faction.”

Krul’s foot ground into the marble flooring, causing hairline fractures to spread through its surface. “Then there are the supporters of that swine—Ferid Bathory’s so-called faction. It is only natural for those seeking to counter me to turn to the second-highest ranking noble in Sanguinem, although I can’t imagine how further acquaintance doesn’t send them running.”

Her eyes burned into his. “Can you imagine the attraction?”

Dredging up Ferid Bathory’s “good qualities” felt like drinking sludge. “He’s sneaky. And smart…I guess.”

“That unfathomable charisma…he’s an incurable eccentric, but there are those who believe he’ll end up getting what he wants. Those who question why I have not removed him.”

“Is that my fault?” Yuu said, sudden understanding coming to him. “Because he knows I’m your child…is he using that against you somehow?”

It was Krul’s turn to stare at him. “Oh, no. It’s much worse than that. Did I not tell you?”

“‘He is the only one outside of my trusted circle who is aware of your status, but he has his own incentives for keeping quiet,’” Yuu parroted dutifully.

“I understand the confusion now,” she said. “Lia, Vinícius, and Agi—and your seneschal—know you’re my child, of course. There are countless others who may suspect, but certainly haven’t heard it from me. Ferid Bathory knows that much and worse.”

Storm clouds crossed her face, but she continued. “He knows you’re a seraph. And I have not yet managed to ferret out his sources.”

“He knows?” Yuu said. “About…Mikaela, too?”

“Oh, yes,” she said. “I have no doubt that stage production back in October was merely a pretense. Its real purpose was to sell Mikaela Hyakuya to the Order of the Imperial Demons. Why that rat desires to curry such favor with an informant in the Japanese Imperial Demon Army, I decline to speculate.”

“That…that’s treason,” Yuu said. “Definitely treason, right?”

“Most definitely,” said Krul. “And I would gladly have his head on a spike—were it not for the threat of turning me into the Council. An outcome that ends with both of us very, very dead. I trust you have not forgotten that.”

“No, your majesty,” Yuu said. “…My family died for something like that…no…for scum like that…?”

“I have no doubt that he enjoyed the process,” she said. “Do not work yourself into a lather, Yuuichirou. Mikaela is alive and safe, regardless of the nature of his transfer into the Order of the Imperial Demons’ care.”

“Back then, you said ‘pray that they don’t know what they have in Mikaela,’” Yuu said. “But if Ferid knows, then those people could as well!”

“As far as I have been able to determine, the Order at large is in the dark as to his true status. He is not being experimented on. Therefore, you have no reason to panic.”

“You—”

“Cease this line of questioning at once.”

—liar, his heart screamed, but at Krul’s admonition Yuu merely clicked his jaw shut and crossed his arms. He couldn’t afford to lash out, no matter how much he wanted to.

“There are those,” she said, resuming her lecture as if nothing had happened, “who remain neutral. People who benefit from the status quo and care not what it looks like, for the most part. Some can be converted or swayed, of course, but others aid no one but themselves regardless of circumstance.

There are many other powers in Sanguinem, but they can largely be folded into foreign influence of one kind or another.”

“What about the Royal Council?” Yuu asked.

“Ah, my beloved snake nest,” said Krul. “Perhaps I’ll tell you who’s in whose pocket another night. It’s not relevant to what you’re about to face.”

A part of Yuu was curious, but her words were true enough.

“I will elaborate a little,” said she, “on the subject of foreign powers. Japan is not the only country under vampire control. In name, the entire world is ours.”

“In name?”

“Practically, there are pockets of human resistance,” Krul said, “as well as the occasional defection from our ranks. The authority to rule and the assignments I and my peers are granted are nominally derived from the Progenitor Council; to defy the Council is to upset the unified foundation of vampire society, so naturally it cannot be borne.

To be a child of the First Progenitor is to have a seat on the Council. I often wish that he had been more sparing with his gift, but alas, we must all work with what we’re given. Arrogant, power-hungry vampires that they are—there is no way such as them could resist meddling in the affairs of their brethren. That is the situation to this night.

The most powerful outside factions in Sanguinem are Second Progenitor Urd Geales’, Second Progenitor Verthandi Asketill’s, and Third Progenitor Lest Karr’s. Of those, Lest’s is the most aggressive in its efforts.

Third Progenitor Farah el Sayed and Third Progenitor Nix Parthe are worth noting as well, but their personalities tend less towards interfering wretch and more towards due diligence. Of course, Third Progenitor Natalia Brónach has her contacts as well, but she’s tied up at the moment.”

“So do you have people keeping tabs on all of your—fellow Council members?”

“Just so,” said Krul. “I have much to deal with here in Japan, but to lose sight of the bigger picture would be foolish beyond compare.”

She stopped pacing and looked at him.

“To know how to act,” said Krul, “you must know from where you begin. Where does the incomplete vampire Yuuichirou Hyakuya fit in? You are a member of my faction by default, considering that I am your generous benefactor whom you owe so much to. But you’re also young; you could easily choose differently and distance yourself from me when you’re older. Or so others might think,” she added. “Aside from being your sire, you quite literally have my blood in your veins—a complicating factor. You have no choice but to remain on good terms with me, at least for now. Am I wrong?”

“No,” Yuu said. “You’re right.”

“And so I am,” Krul said. “That is as much as I feel like telling you for one night. How to proceed from here is something you must determine for yourself.”

She turned her back on him.

“You are dismissed.”

Yuu felt the gentlest pinprick of claws through the cloth covering his shoulder as Arukanu spread his wings and returned to his master. Krul held out her arm, providing a place for him to land, and gave him a few strokes of her own.

For his part, Yuu simply stood up, bowed, and departed.

***

Yuu barely had time to recover from his strange audience with Krul before the demands of social obligations forced him to leave his chambers once more.

“It’s been an entire night,” Fionnuala said.

“Not enough time,” Yuu lamented.

“You like interacting with people.”

“Well, yeah,” Yuu said. “But hanging out with people I like and going to stressful meetings are two very different things. Minami-sensei almost died last night!”

“I don’t think things were ever quite that dire—probably,” she said. “And in any case, you should have been more worried about yourself…anyway, this is business. You would do well not to waste the opportunity that has fallen into your lap.”

“I won’t!” Yuu said, injecting a generous amount of complaint into his tone.

Fionnuala shooed him away, so he left. He should have known better than to expect sympathy from that quarter.

As he walked, he contemplated what Krul had told him once more, one night having been far from enough to properly organize his thoughts. It wasn’t exactly news to him that vampires weren’t a monolith, but thanks to being in-the-know about the seraph business, Yuu was probably one of the only people who knew how much stress Krul was really under.

More importantly, her words at the end…how should he interpret them? To admit that he was functionally a member of Krul’s faction was only logical; the ties of blood and obligation bound them ever closer together.

However, the idea clashed with something fundamental deep within him. Krul hadn’t failed to live up to his expectations his first meeting with her had set. She was arrogant, domineering, controlling—she viewed Sanguinem and its inhabitants as toys for her amusement. He had wondered why she hadn’t stepped in to discipline him—it seemed that he wasn’t even worthy of that much respect. And if this were the way she treated her fellow vampires, then surely to her, humans were less than ants…

He understood now, at least a little, the personality who could order the mass enslavement of children without a shred of remorse. The hierarchy of blood—blood supremacy?—considered not the prey that lay at its feet.

If he were forced to answer the question of where he fit in, then he’d say that he’d fight to achieve his own desires and protect those he cared for at all costs. If the queen of vampires felt like being generous, then who was he to stop her? He’d take every piece of information she offered, hoard it greedily, and turn it into weaponry.

If a show was what she wanted, he would give her something worth remembering. Yuu had no intention of losing—not to Peter Paole, not to Krul, not to anyone.

And then, when the time was right, he’d find a way to cut himself loose from this web he’d been entangled in, and free himself from the condescending gaze of the vampire called Krul—for good.

***

His second visit to Crowley’s mansion was turning out infinitely more pleasant than his first.

“Yuuichirou!” Chess crowed, having evidently been waiting by the front door.

“Lady Chess,” Yuu said, and held out the box in his hands.

“A present? Such a gentleman,” she said, whisking it away from him. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the vampire custom to open one’s gifts then and there, but Yuu was sure she’d be happy with the sparkly silver bracelet Fionnuala picked out anyway.

Tonight, she was wearing a black dress; the top was plain with a modest V-neck while the skirt flared out, showcasing the large, flashy pink roses. Her head was adorned with a headband dotted with tiny flowers, paler in color; real ones, Yuu noted with some surprise.

Compared to Chess, he felt a tad underdressed, but after a moment’s thought he decided it would be fine.

“Well,” Chess said, setting her present aside, “would you follow after me, please?”

“With pleasure,” Yuu said, and so they set off. Ascending a flight of stairs, they traversed the rich, oppressive hallways until they reached a set of double doors leading out to a balcony.

Maybe she just likes sitting outside? Yuu thought as he took in the scene. Below them was a view into a courtyard he hadn’t seen last time, neatly-trimmed flora and all, while the immediate area was lit up by a string of golden fairy lights. There was no guardrail, so one could jump to the ground with minimal fuss, if one so desired. A circular white metal table rested in the center of the space, with two matching chairs beside it, their backs sculpted to resemble a wing of a butterfly: one left, one right.

With a sweep of her skirt, Chess sat down, and Yuu did the same. A teapot rested in the center of the table along with two adjacent teacups. Chess poured her own cup with elegance, a telltale red liquid emerging from the spout.

Yuu looked down at the rosebuds in his teacup with wry consternation; it appeared his host was aware of his dietary restrictions.

“Thank you so much for inviting me,” Yuu said.

“Nonsense!” Chess said. “It’s always nice to have an excuse to discuss my work with an interested audience! That is what you’re here for.”

“Well…”

“Lord Crowley and Horn never want to listen to me,” she lamented. “‘Heard it all,’ indeed. We’ll show them! The fate of far more powerful vampires than Peter Paole has been decided by our humble committee. Not to say that this case will be child’s play. I’m expecting quite the match…”

“You’re not the only one,” Yuu said. “…I’m not asking you to do anything, but if there’s anything you’d like to share with me, I would be…most attentive.”

Chess made an excited squeak that sounded a lot like “so cute!” which Yuu politely ignored.

“Let’s start with the lost causes, shall we?” she said once her recovery was complete. “Lord Kylian detests you, I’m afraid. It can’t be helped.”

“I gathered as much,” Yuu said.

“Josefina will vote against you as well,” she said. “She’s a proponent of free speech; I can count on one hand the amount of times she’s gone against an author.”

“What a horrifying and radical position,” he said.

“Oh, most certainly,” Chess said. “Everyone else is not utterly impossible. Although I wouldn’t count on Franc; he finds the whole concept of a consulting expert demeaning.”

“That seems—”

“—imbecilic? Yes. Come to think of it,” she added, “all of the queen’s usual sycophants will be in a tizzy. What will they do in such a situation, I wonder?”

Yuu folded and unfolded his hands. “I’m sure they wouldn’t go against someone in the queen’s favor.”

“Surely not,” she said. “It’s determining who that is which will provide the challenge. Of course, it’s a grand opportunity for you! All of those votes, yours for the taking!”

“Maybe,” he said. “Whose votes would that be, exactly?”

Chess merely smiled at him.

“Right,” he said.

“Don’t look so down,” she said. “It’s really not as simple as all that. She has her staunch supporters, certainly, but everyone has their deviations from the party line. Even Meheitav’el must have done it at some point.”

“You’ve talked about those who are against me,” Yuu said. “Do I have any supporters?”

“No one who absolutely couldn’t be persuaded otherwise, I suppose,” she said. “But many think favorably of you, yes. Prakash, Suzume, Blanchard—and myself, of course! Though I won’t make you any promises; I must see how things go first. I have a policy of never guaranteeing anyone my vote. Oh, and Aýnabat likes you as well, though it’s her mother who’ll decide for them both in the end.”

“Really?” Yuu said. “She’s an adult, after all.”

“I couldn’t possibly decipher the intricacies of the sire-child relationship,” Chess said. “That’s simply how things are with them! Best to just accept it.”

“Alright,” Yuu said slowly. “Are you willing to talk about who you think would be most amenable to persuasion? Either beforehand or during the trial.”

“A good question,” she said. “Ken, Susumu, and Abhijit will decide at the trial; there’s no point in bothering with them. Everyone else is fair game, really. Except for Joni.”

“Why is that?” Yuu asked.

“It depends on a lot of factors,” she said, “including what the queen would want, what would be best for Sanguinem as a whole, what would be worst for Sanguinem, Joni’s judgment of and interpretation of those factors—and the king of Russia’s personal opinion, if he deigns to stick his nose in directly. Joni’s been in his pocket since the beginning. Whatever the precise nature of the situation, his vote isn’t yours to control.”

Yuu conceded the point. A spy…well, it would be fine to ignore it for now. “Is he the only one?”

“Hm,” she said. “Who can say?”

“I’m sure someone with your wit could venture a guess,” Yuu said.

“Oh, you!” she said, a hand flying to her chest. “Alas, I think that will do. Yes…there’s no need to suck the fun out of the proceedings! A bit of mystery heightens the tension, don’t you think?”

“I’m having a certain amount of fun,” he said diplomatically. “It will be even more fun when the outcome is decided in my favor.”

“Is that so?” she said, her bright eyes fixed on his face. “What drives you, Yuuichirou Hyakuya? Why did you embark on this journey in the first place?”

“You could say,” Yuu said, hesitating, “that I’m just doing what I think is right.”

“One could!” Chess said. “Delightful.”

When Yuu looked down at his teacup, he saw that the rosebuds had fully bloomed, red petals spilling out onto the plate below.

***

At first, the notion that Yuu would have to interact with his literature tutor before their showdown had been a minor footnote in the rhythm of his life.

But before he knew it, Wednesday came and found him slinking into his seat. Guilt was entirely absent from him, but Yuu couldn’t deny the palpable awkwardness in the air.

At length, he broke the silence.

“Good evening, Mr. Paole,” Yuu said.

“Mr. Hyakuya,” Peter Paole said quietly.

He stared, vacant, down at his desk before lifting his gaze upwards.

“I do not know what I have done to draw your ire,” he said, frost creeping into his voice, “but I trust an explanation will be forthcoming.”

“I guess,” Yuu conceded, crossing his arms. “I don’t mind admitting that I dislike you. Always have, really. So…I’m not expecting you to believe me, but I’m not doing this because of a grudge.”

“Is that so,” he said.

“It’s the truth,” Yuu snapped. “The vampire you are, the things you write—we could never have gotten along.”

“Your regard—or lack thereof—is unimportant,” Peter said. “I was ordered to teach, as you were to learn. Nothing more.”

“You’re an awful teacher,” Yuu said flatly. “Not once have I ever been happy to show up here. I haven’t learned anything of value this entire time.”

“I had hoped otherwise,” he said, “but I see you’re still far too immature to appreciate what I’ve been trying to convey to you.”

“I would be overjoyed,” Yuu said, “to ensure that no one ever read a single word you wrote ever again. But since I can’t do that, then at the very least, stopping this book from being published is a public service.”

“A public service,” Peter said, derision dripping from every word. “I understand now. You’re using my work as an excuse to go on some sort of moral crusade and discredit me in the bargain. Vole Hunt is just a scapegoat.”

“I’m sure worse exists in this world, if that’s what you mean,” he said, “even if that’s hard to believe. But I’m only one person, and I have to start somewhere. You are not just an average vampire; you’re an honored member of Queen Krul’s court. ‘Discrediting’ you sends a message.”

“If you think your radical politics will get you anywhere with the Literature Committee, you are much mistaken,” Peter said, clenching his fists. Yuu noted with a touch of vicious satisfaction that he’d extended his claws. “I have no doubt your true colors will shine through; everyone will see you for what you are.”

“And what is that, exactly?”

“You are no vampire, Yuuichirou Hyakuya,” he said, “despite the dedicated efforts of your betters. You may look the part, you may even act the part, but at heart, you’re nothing but a miserable former human who would like nothing better than to see us all burn.”

“If being a vampire means turning into a racist bastard,” Yuu said, “then I’ll wear that label with pride, thanks.”

“You won’t even deny it?”

“I’m perfectly capable of getting along with vampires,” he said. “I even like some of them. It’s you who I can’t tolerate for a second longer.”

Peter took several deep breaths.

“We have our orders,” he said, “so it cannot be forever, but for now…”

“What?”

“Get out.”

***

On Saturday, Yuu received his regular visitor. What was not regular, however, was the fact that it was two hours after dawn.

“What do you want?” he complained, rolling about on his bed.

“Sorry to disturb you,” Agi chirped, “but great news! The queen gave her permission at last—we’re going outside! So you better get up and at ‘em, young man.”

“Go away,” Yuu said. “Wait out there or something…”

“Sure, sure,” Agi said, slamming the door behind her.

Just like that, Yuu was left with no one but himself and the cunning eyes of the queen’s portrait. He glared at it for good measure before getting dressed, strapping on the second-class katana that Guistino had forged for him.

Leaving his room, he sighed and shook off the last of his fitful trance. After a quick trip to the bathroom to brush his teeth and check his appearance, he went on his way. He found Agi near the exit, almost vibrating with impatience.

“Sorry, but do you mind waiting for a second?” he asked her.

She gave him a thumbs up. “No problem!”

As soon as she finished speaking, Yuu darted into the pitch-black side room that served as his seneschal’s quarters. He gave the solid, heavy wood coffin a sharp kick.

With the soft whir of a mechanism, the lid slid open and Fionnuala sat up.

“What do you want?”

“Agi just waltzed into my room,” Yuu said.

“You like her. It’s fine.”

“Well—I know that,” he said. “That’s not the point! Whenever you’re resting or not here, anyone could just walk in here with no one to stop them! I could be assassinated.”

Fionnuala mulled this over. “Is this an immediate concern?”

“If I were Peter Paole, I would totally try it,” Yuu insisted. “He knows I’m going to win, so cheating is the logical strategy.”

“You heard the door opening, did you not?” Fionnuala said.

“I suppose,” Yuu said sullenly.

“Then there you have it,” she said. “Rest with your weapon by your side. It wouldn’t be a bad habit to form.”

She reached up and slammed the lid of her coffin back down, signaling the end of the conversation.

Yuu trotted back over to Agi.

“Business concluded?” she said. “Then take this.”

She pulled a piece of cloth out of her pocket and handed it to Yuu. As he turned it over in his hands, he realized it was an armband.

“We’re really going there, aren’t we?” Yuu said, stunned.

Agi winked. “The sun’s pretty bright up there. Alright! You’ve got it on? Let’s go.”

***

The radiant blue of the sky blinded him.

He had thought the night sky was beautiful, but the light of day proved more than its equal. The occasional puffy cloud drifted across its surface, soft enough that Yuu imagined he could reach out and grab a handful, like cotton candy.

His sharpened eyes canvassed every inch of the sight, overwriting the hazy human memories of years past. It was still early, but summer’s heat was beginning to gather strength, an almost throbbing warmth suffusing itself into his bones. Yuu closed his eyes for a moment, basking in it.

This sight…hadn’t he once dreamed of seeing it with his family by his side? Mika and Akane’s happy smiles, the laughter of the children…such a vision had once consumed his thoughts, but it seemed so long ago. The echo of old longing warred with his grief.

“That’s my favorite color,” Yuu explained to Agi. “The sky…I always loved looking at it. I haven’t seen it in so long, I’d nearly forgotten…”

“Ah,” Agi said. “I’m glad.”

If they were alone, Yuu might have taken off his shoes and felt the grass with his bare feet, but a distance behind them trailed two guards, there to act as lookouts and backup in case some unforeseen disaster should befall them. They weren’t here to go on a relaxing stroll, after all.

Agi put a hand above her eyes, shading her vision from the sun’s glare. “Let’s see…oh, good. I didn’t want to get too close to Kyoto proper. See that blob on the horizon? We’ve got ourselves a target.”

Yuu straightened up. “One of the Four Horsemen of John, right?”

“That’s right,” she said.

As if the virus weren’t punishment enough, when the apocalypse began four years ago, vampires weren’t the only creatures that emerged from the bowels of the earth. Whether they were of mortal or divine make—or perhaps demonic—was uncertain, but their purpose was clear: the destruction of humanity. Any vampires who came within their range were simply ignored. That didn’t mean vampires were always inclined to let them be, of course.

“They’re mindless brutes, really,” Agi reassured him. “Big, yeah, but easy enough to take down. And remember: they won’t attack you until you start attacking!”

“I know,” Yuu said, his hand straying to his hip. “I’m ready.”

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s move!”

The run over to the Horseman seemed to take no time at all. They halted when they were about a hundred meters away, giving Yuu the chance to take in the creature’s appearance more thoroughly.

The Horseman was two stories tall; the majority of its body was white, with the occasional black accent breaking up the uniform coloring. It had six legs, four of which it used to scuttle across the ground while two were higher up, declining to touch the ground, almost like arms. A pair of massive wings protruded from its upper body; folded inwards were two smaller wings positioned beneath its glowing red eyes. A muscular tail lashed back and forth, but overall, the Horseman seemed disinclined to make any threatening moves.

“Can they fly?” Yuu asked.

“No,” Agi said, “or at least, I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“Great,” Yuu said under his breath. “One less thing to worry about.”

She looked at him encouragingly. “There’s nothing to it, I swear. Just get up onto its back and start slashing away at it. It’ll go down eventually!”

“If you say so,” he said.

As Yuu inched his way closer to the Horseman, he drew his katana and held it at the ready.

At his approach, it began to move, much to his surprise. It took a few steps closer to him and collapsed its legs, sitting down. It turned its head towards Yuu and gazed at him. It was strange, but he thought he almost heard some sort of whine coming from the Horseman; the sound existed at the very edge of his hearing. It could have been real or imaginary and Yuu wouldn’t have been shocked either way.

The overall presentation killed what little fighting spirit Yuu had managed to raise.

“That’s super weird,” Agi said from a good distance behind him. “Not normal behavior.”

Yuu crept closer.

If I touch it…will it bite me?

He decided to go for it. The flesh felt cold and yielding beneath his hand, almost rotten, but Yuu interpreted the rumbling coming from the Horseman as happiness. It didn’t seem worried at all about the blade Yuu held loosely in his right hand, tip pointed towards the ground.

“This is seriously weird,” Agi said.

“It…really attacks humans on sight?” Yuu murmured.

“Without a doubt,” she said. “Ugh…why is it being so friendly? Is it defective? Well, they’re not sentient, so it doesn’t mean anything…”

“I’m going to do it,” Yuu said, marshalling his courage. “If it could save someone’s life, then…I can definitely do it!”

“Hurry up, then; it’s really freaking me out.”

Circling around to the other side of the Horseman, Yuu bent his knees and jumped onto its back.

When Yuu plunged his katana into its back, it didn’t fight him. It stayed in position, trembling, as he carved off chunks of its flesh and began to hack away at its neck. Yuu stared, mesmerized, as the—

—holy—

—light left its eyes. The shine of blood on metal alone gave voice to his betrayal.

On the ground, Agi was clapping.

“Go, Yuuichirou!” she shouted. “You did it!”

“I guess?” Yuu said, hopping onto the ground. The experience left him more unsettled than anything else.

In the end, they headed back to the underground, leaving the corpse to bake in the heat of the sun.

***

After his semi-successful attempt at gaining some fighting experience aboveground, Yuu was more than ready for some routine, normal social interaction. Armed with a sizable tin filled to the brim with fudge-striped cookies (and a thank-you note that said “sharing is caring!”), he set off to visit Hotaru.

When he arrived at his destination, peace was the last thing he found. The sound of shouting was clearly audible, leading a few passersby to crane their necks in its direction.

Yuu slipped inside the building as quietly as he could and tried to ascertain the situation. Several people were standing in the right side of the room, either staring worriedly at the source of the din or plugging their ears and ignoring it. One of them was Kimi, wringing her hands and teetering on the edge of intervention.

On the left side of the room, Hotaru stood with her arms crossed. Across from her was a boy, his face red with anger.

I’ve seen him before, Yuu realized. It was the kid he’d seen Sakuma and his goons harassing months ago.

“You…” The boy’s face twisted. “Why won’t you give me what I want?”

“You’re frightening the kids, asshole,” Hotaru said calmly.

“I need that power to defeat the vampires!” he insisted. “You’re human. We’re on the same side!”

“Wrong,” she said. “I’m on my side. And even if I were inclined to help you, I can’t give you what I haven’t succeeded in doing myself.”

“Then show me what you have so far!”

“Don’t feel like it.”

Of course, Yuu’s luck didn’t last forever. The boy’s large, expressive brown eyes widened as he finally took notice of Yuu.

“Vampire!” he sputtered.

“That’s Yuuichirou,” Hotaru said. “Say hi, would you?”

“Kimi,” Yuu said. “Can you hold this?”

He passed the tin into her arms. She hugged it tightly against her chest.

“I should have known,” the boy said, sneering. “Everyone knows that vampire comes here. I honestly thought you were biding your time, waiting for the right moment to kill him, but I see now that’s not true. You just threw yourself on the nearest vampire who would have you, blood-whore.”

“Do you not know what an incomplete vampire is, moron?” Hotaru said. “One who doesn’t drink human blood. Idiot. Besides, that kind of thing’s not my style. I actually have a sense of self-worth—unlike some people.”

Yuu’s mind flashed fleetingly to Mika, but now wasn’t the time.

“Anyway,” she said, “if that’s what you thought was going on, then who’s to say I wouldn’t sic my vampire boyfriend on you for insulting me? Hm?”

Yuu wasn’t sure whether to take the teeth out of her threat or not. Hotaru seemed to have things in hand, at least for now, so he settled for glaring menacingly at the little punk.

“Are—are you crazy?” he said, his face paling.

“Listen up, Sugiyama,” Hotaru said. “I’m going to teach you a life lesson. Just because we’re members of the same species doesn’t mean that we’re all going around holding hands and singing about love and peace. Everyone else gets that, so why cling to your delusion? If you want to survive here, you have to look out for yourself.”

Her eyes were pitiless. “Your friend’s dead and he’s never coming back, so I suggest you forget about him. Keep your head down—unless you want someone to take it off your shoulders.”

“You’re wrong,” Sugiyama said in a whisper before raising his voice once more. “I—I wasn’t sure at first, but there’s no way a human killed him! The only way we’re going to get out of here is if we band together. And when we do, I’m going to take every last vampire down with me!”

Sugiyama stormed out of the building, allowing its inhabitants to breathe a sigh of relief.

Kimi dropped the tin. Yuu dove and caught it.  

“That absolute jerk!” Kimi fumed. “That awful stuff he said about you—”

“People have said worse,” Hotaru dismissed. “By the way, nice timing, Yuuichirou.”

“I wish I’d gotten here sooner,” Yuu said, frowning. “I’m just glad it didn’t come to a physical fight.”

“That wouldn’t have been pretty,” Hotaru agreed. “I didn’t want the children to have to watch that loser crawl out of here. Then we would have had to clean up the blood, too…well, this was a neater ending all around, really.”

“That guy…” Kimi muttered. “He seemed scared of you, Yuuichirou-san, but not scared enough, maybe…oh, I just hope he doesn’t cause any more trouble! Or get in trouble himself.”

“I wouldn’t hold out hope for that last one,” Yuu said. “He seems like the stir-crazy type. Who was he, anyway?”

“Gou Sugiyama,” Hotaru said. “Apparently, he’s the kind of person who thinks contracts with demons are handed out like candy. One of the stupidest people I’ve ever met, no contest.”

“The scary guy is gone now, right?” Nozomi piped up, apparently done with hiding in the corner. She was pretty brave for a six year old; Yuu admired her turnaround.

“That’s right!” Kimi said, switching into damage-control mode. “He’s gone, everyone! Everything will be okay now.”

“That reminds me,” Yuu said. “Anybody want cookies?”

No less than five children swarmed him. He popped off the lid of the tin and let them at it, backing away from the chaos immediately afterwards.

“They’re technically yours, Hotaru,” Yuu said, “but I did mean for you to share them. I hope you get to have one before they vanish.”

“You’re a saint,” Hotaru said. “When’s your birthday, Yuuichirou?”

“What?” he said, unsure how to reply to the non-sequitur. “October sixteenth.”

“I’ll get you something good,” she said, patting his arm. "If we’re all still alive by then.”