Golden-haired Goddess

Hate is a magnificent sensation. To hate someone or something has such a constructive effect on the mind and soul; it is a tell-tale sign that we, as sentient beings, must experience the extremes of emotion—love at one end, hate at the other—before appreciating the finer shades in between. It is a reminder that we do not find everything amenable, and that we all have enemies. Like joy, love, and fear, hate is a human emotion that cannot be denied. Even after death. For that I am grateful, to whatever power or force that allowed my kind and I to exist. For me, the feeling of hatred is a stark reminder that part of me is still very much human.

And so I hated Milovan.

That night after the hilltop murders, the elder vampire had me forcibly confined to my former chambers, within the vaults below the pagoda. For nights I seethed and stewed with fury and thoughts of revenge. Milovan and his circle could not go without retribution. Those peasants…they did not deserve to die. Horribly, in absolute fear without even the slightest hope for salvation or rebirth. They knew they were damned, long before their spirits left the cooling corpses…all except the small boy. And then his tiny, lost eyes would appear in my mind. Through the sadness and the anger, I swore that I would avenge his murder and that of the others.

What was to stop Milovan from doing it again? Perhaps he would conjure up some other appalling endeavor to lure the vampire hunter out. In the end I would try; no one else would stand up against him.

The deaths, I knew, fell by the same token on my worldly rival, Dark Jade. His sudden appearance within Edo, after all, had precipitated the events that followed. Milovan murdered those peasants simply to lure the vampire hunter out in the open. I knew the boldness that characterized Dark Jade—any man, for that matter, who actively hunted demons—and so knew that he was no coward. Obviously, the hunter possessed more intelligence than to fall for Milovan's taunting bait. Yet the fact Dark Jade did absolutely nothing to stop the murders still infuriated me. My desire to destroy him as well returned in full.

However, despite the rage I felt toward both Milovan and Dark Jade, I came to hate my own weakness even more. A simple task it is, to blame others. But was it not my own weakness that allowed the murders to happen? Had I been able to kill the vampire hunter those few nights ago in Edo, wouldn't I have stopped the cycle of slaughter and therefore saved those peasants' lives? I cursed my limitations and I cursed my vampiric youth. When? I would find myself asking. When would the arts of magic stir within my blood and allow me to command them at my whim?

I longed for the moment when I possessed power of such magnitude that not even Aurelia herself could stand as my equal…

And so Milovan left me imprisoned underneath his estate for a number of days. Free to move about in my chamber, for sure, but feeling helplessly bound all the same. My rage, at its pinnacle those first few nights, gradually diminished. The shouting, the pounding on walls soon gave way to silence and deep meditation. Down that path of mindless, raw emotion would inevitably release the dark beast within me again; remembering what I had learned from old Eichi, I resolved to cull my scattered thoughts and keep my anger from gaining control. Images of Izumi, peaceful villages, mountainous ranges, the roaring seacoast-anything that would take my mind from the horrors surrounding me.

The hatred, of course, had remained. Knowing Milovan, he would likely free me on his whim for some devious purpose. I pondered what I would do once I confronted him. Could I destroy him, as young and weaponless as I was? No, at least, not yet. Could I flee from Edo, taking Izumi with me? Again, improbable. My options were few and my chances of success were non-existent; I hated my weakness even more. Especially now that I knew Milovan would never release Izumi from servitude to come away with me. He knew of the love between Izumi and I; how he found out is difficult to say. In any case, the situation spelled disaster. Milovan, being the calculating manipulator he no doubt was, could use Izumi against me to do anything he wanted. I sought after every scenario, every possible solution around the problem, but could find no way out. I was trapped no matter what I would do, as long as the elder vampire had control over the one I loved.

Gods, but what I would have given to see Izumi again during that ordeal! In my composed despair, I only hoped that my open defiance of Milovan had not brought some sort of punishment upon her. Since the return of her Master, I had found it difficult to speak with her mentally; now I realized that somehow we must have been prevented from doing so. There was no way for me to tell if she was all right. I hoped—no, I prayed for her safety. Yes, indifferent as I was to religion during those times, I prayed to the gods to keep Izumi safe. They had to. All the motivation I needed was to see her again.

At last, the head servant of the house, Evgeny came to see me. I saw him often enough during my captivity, when he provided me with nourishing blood. Often two or more of Milovan's brood would accompany him, but on that last night of my confinement he stood there alone.

"My Master has decided that you have been caged long enough," Evgeny sneered in open contempt. "You are free to leave these vaults. However, you are requested not to leave the estate just yet. My Lord has some matters to discuss with you before he will allow you to leave."

I rose from meditation, feeling a chill shudder through my body. Allow me to leave? Had he, then, accepted the fact that my time with him was now over? "Some matters? Am I to see your master now, or when he pleases?"

Evgeny only glared at me with those familiar, glassy indigo eyes. "When he pleases. A word of caution, samurai. You have already angered my Master with your brazen insolence. I advise you not to incur his wrath further. Now follow me, if you please, I will show you to your new quarters." Evgeny's dislike of me once again showed through and through, as expected. It was almost commendable, really; at least here was something else, besides Izumi, that remained steadfast and constant.

He led me upstairs from the vaults to the main ground-floor rooms. At the two exits to the pagoda—both the main entrance and the doorway to the rear garden—stood a member of Milovan's circle. The guards were larger and more formidable vampires than I, ensuring that I could not leave the grounds on impulse alone.

To my surprise, I then saw Izumi cross the hall in front of us and enter the parlor room. She wore her usual cerulean kimono, her usual geisha hairstyle, and in her hands she carried a tray of green tea. My thoughts froze solid at the sight of her loveliness; apparently, she was in no danger that I could see. Izumi kept her head bowed low, as always, but for a brief moment our eyes met. I saw in them elated relief and anxious worry all at once. My mind reached out to her, to communicate and try to assuage her unease. I do not know if I had been successful, for she had already glided from sight into the next room.

Evgeny led me farther toward the eastern wing of the pagoda, finally to a room guarded by two more vampire sentries. To my dismay, the room intended for me did not look so inviting. Instead of the usual wafer-thin, paper shoji doors and walls typical of Milovan's pagoda and all of Honshu's homes, this room had thick stone walls and a heavy iron door. No windows or openings that provided any hint of what lay inside. For all I knew, all the raging fires of Hell could have been behind that door.

"From one prison to another, is that it?" I asked in a mocking tone. "At least now I see Milovan no longer pretends to trust me."

Evgeny scowled slightly. "See it as you wish; my Lord meant what he said about not having you leave prematurely. All in all, you will find the accommodations satisfactory."

Inside, I found his words to be true. A simple tatami mattress, a tea table, some old books, paper and writing utensils, and a lantern. Satisfactory indeed, for one expecting not to stay long. I heard the heavy door lock behind me, leaving me alone in my new confinement with my thoughts.

Come, Milovan; come and see that I have still yet to bend to your will. Your time will come soon enough.

I waited.

The next night I awoke at a gentle knock at the door.

"Kagi-sama? Are you awake? I am coming in."

I recognized Izumi's voice immediately and sprang to my feet. The heavy door unbolted, and my eyes came alive when Izumi floated in. I wanted to hold her and never let go, to take her hand and run away from this nightmare. Alas, there was no way she could have known what I was thinking. She flashed me a fleeting, cautious smile, but refrained from touching me.

"How are you, sir?" she asked, telling me in her subtle way that others were listening outside.

"I am all right, Izumi-san." I kept myself from saying more intimate words to her. "Evgeny has told me that your Master has some matters to discuss, yet all this waiting leads me to believe that perhaps these matters are not so important."

Izumi bowed low. "Ah, so sorry, Kagi-sama, but Lord Milovan will see you soon." She smiled at me again nervously before continuing. "Kagi, there is someone else here who wishes to see you now. Alone."

My own smile disappeared. "Who?" I asked, but soon realization dawned upon me. Short-lived curiosity suddenly gave way to dread. Who else would see me but none other than Aurelia, whom I had all but forgotten about? Aurelia, who had been living in this very pagoda while all these tribulations have been happening to me! I cursed myself for falling into such a trap. My life currently in upheaval, what better time for Aurelia to come back and cast my existence into further chaos? I had no need to see her at that time, and I did not wish to see her. I could feel my anger rising from within.

Izumi answered simply, "The Lady Caelina wishes to speak with you." When she saw my confusion, Izumi's own face look puzzled. "Your maker," she added emphatically.

Before I could inquire or refuse, a shawled woman stepped into the shadows behind Izumi.

My mind whirled wildly at the sight. Aurelia.

Or at least, she looked like Aurelia.

"Thank you, now leave us," she spoke to Izumi, her tone feminine yet imposing. Her grasp of our language sounded flawless. Without so much as a last glance, Izumi obeyed and left us, with the guards bolting over the door again. We were alone.

Silence stood between the two of us, as concrete as a wall of unscalable heights. Though her face was partially hidden by the shawl, she was the same woman I saw at the banquet table by Milovan's side, the night of Dark Jade's butchery. She had to be Aurelia, then. Yet something inside of me told me that she was not. I felt a new, different kind of presence, distinct from my maker's yet just as strong. Confused, I decided to settle it once and for all.

"Aurelia? Is it truly you?"

The woman immediately stepped into the light, pulling back her cloak to reveal…that face! It was Aurelia! Or was it? Standing before me was a young, Western woman of astounding beauty. Golden curls adorned her head in a crown of rich silk. Her pale face had remarkable femininity and magnificence that rivaled the first glimpse of my maker, with soft dark eyes and full opulent red lips. So familiar to me, that I could fall in love with her again, yet something so different about her…

"No, child," she spoke softly, stately as a noblewoman would. She gazed into me with stern, austere eyes. "I am not your beloved maker."

Now that we were so near to each other, I soon saw that in fact the woman standing before me was not Aurelia. There was no real need for her spoken denial. I knew it now, and I felt it. If not my maker, then she was a veritable mirror image. Perhaps even a twin, though now I could notice slight differences in facial features and bone structure. She wore on her slender body a thick white robe with peculiar writings and symbols etched into the fibers of the arms and torso.

So entranced by her presence, I hardly noticed when she came forward and began caressing my face with delicate hands, her touch sensing my every characteristic, her eyes scrutinizing my every attribute.

"Yes," I heard her say to herself. "She chose a fine successor. So strong and so handsome…you would have made for her a great mate."

Carefully, I took hold of her wrists and gently pushed her away. I saw that she felt just as surprised at my boldness as I felt for committing such a rude act. Especially toward a vampiress who, I knew, must have been extremely powerful. "Who are you?" I demanded without passion.

The woman raised her head high, liking me with her eyes. I could see the tips of her white fangs barely protruding as she spoke. "I am Caelina, young one. I knew your maker, Aurelia of the Granius clan, well. You have, during your stay here with Milovan, no doubt heard of me?"

I raked through my mind for any information. Caelina? The name sounded familiar. Caelina…yes! Memory came rushing back. In my readings of Milovan's personal histories, I recalled the episode involving Lady Aurelia and a companion named Caelina, in their battle against a young Milovan. So that must be it! The woman who I had thought my own maker was really Aurelia's ancient companion. They both bore such a striking resemblance that I had mistaken one golden-haired goddess for the other. That also must have explained Izumi's bewildered expression upon introducing her earlier. Izumi thought that Caelina was my maker, when in fact I had mistakenly believed it to be Aurelia all along.

Apprehension suddenly seized me. Aurelia and this Caelina had been Milovan's enemies; indeed, Milovan himself had sworn vengeance on them. Why, then, was Caelina here as an apparent ally of the damned devil himself?

"I have heard of you," I answered, doing my best to conceal my alarm and puzzlement. An apologetic bow. "Please forgive me…your likeness to Aurelia is remarkable."

She smiled at me, but it was not a genuine smile as Izumi's or even Aurelia's might have been. More a patrician, aristocratic smile. Her pearly fangs looked threatening and comforting at the same time. "Your flattery and manners impress me. Child, tell me your name."

"I call myself Kagirinai, my Lady. Those close to me may call me Kagi, as Aurelia had."

"Ah, Kagirinai, as in 'eternal.' Did you realize that the word 'kagi' in your language could also mean key?" Caelina asked in a cryptic manner.

I nodded. Though 'Kagi' had been Aurelia's intimate epithet for me, it had on occasion crossed my mind that my shortened name could also mean 'key.' True, the coincidence was there, but…

"Let us sit at your table," the Lady Caelina suggested at once. We knelt down and faced each other, with only a bare tabletop between us. With a deft motion, she unclasped her bundled hair to let long, golden waves cascade down past her shoulders. "I have been waiting to see you ever since that night of the hunter's moon. To do so would have aroused Milovan's suspicion, however. I would speak with you tonight, yet you yourself must have many questions, my child."

Looking at her profound beauty, I saw glimpses of Aurelia again, as though the two goddesses flickered in and out of existence within the same physical body. Caelina possessed elements of splendor not found even in Aurelia herself, and vice versa. But taking control of my senses again, I broke free, as if Caelina's very presence was a hypnotic enchantment. I would not let myself fall under her spell, lest I should be manipulated against my will.

"You have nothing to fear from me, child," Caelina abruptly spoke, apparently sensing my thoughts. "You are of Aurelia's blood, one of but a privileged few. It is my duty to guide you, if only for a short time."

My eyes shot back toward her cold, expressionless face. "Guide me? I have heard the same offer before, only Milovan did so with honest self-interest."

Caelina took on an amused expression. "Do you believe I am here to deceive you as well?"

"Your motives are difficult to perceive. Frankly, I am troubled, Lady: why are you here at all? Your very presence in this room, in this pagoda, confuses me. From what I know of you, Milovan is your sworn enemy. Yet when you first saw me, your hand lay clasped in his. I do not understand—"

Your curiosity thirsts for knowledge, as you have an avid mind. But my goals are mine alone, child. Have patience, and you will come to see everything.

The mental voice was so brief that I barely heard it.

Caelina merely nodded to me, as though nothing had happened. "How has Milovan treated you since you have known him?" she inquired, changing the topic.

I answered, "…as well as can be from a host with such strange foreign tastes." A pause ensued as I chose my words truthfully, yet tactfully. "At first Milovan welcomed me into his house as an old friend might. He promised to guide me and teach me all there is to know about our race. The next moment, he disappeared for nearly a year. And now his return brings much heartache to me. Though at times I wish I had never set foot back here in Edo, I know that I have changed for the better. Here I have found peace, content, knowledge, unforgettable joys, and even…"

"…and love?" Caelina asked without emotion.

"…Yes. Even love. But…I still have not discovered my purpose in this second life. My existence passes from night to night, without aim, without direction."

"All newborns of our kind struggle with that question," Caelina stated. "In time you will come to know your destiny, whatever that may bring. I am sure Aurelia has told you this and more."

I nodded solemnly as I gazed at this newest acquaintance of my life. What of you, I thought to myself. What is your purpose here, speaking with me like this and, presumably, without Milovan's knowledge? Why are you here?

Caelina then smiled, somewhat warmer than I thought she could be. Her fangs glistened. "Good, you are persistent as well as cautious," she said, obviously hearing my thoughts. "Remain as you are, with all of your qualities, for you will survive longer by keeping a cautious eye on your neighbor rather than in turning a friendly back to him."

"And I was raised to rely on the sharpness of my blade, rather than on the counsel of others."

Another smile. "Your words ring true. Nevertheless, I shall tell you the purpose of my visit." Lady Caelina then retrieved from her robe a small, opaque black pouch, made of material I could not guess. She laid it on the table between us, letting it be, and addressed me directly. "Young one, the reason I have come to your land is that I am looking for Aurelia, your maker. Word came to me that Aurelia had awakened—prematurely—and had traveled to the Far East to slake her renewed thirst for blood and knowledge. I arrived as quickly as worldly travel allows, but alas I realize that I am too late."

"Yes, unfortunately. She retired to her sleep some years ago." I decided not to bring up the complicated matter of my abandonment; no use in gouging open old wounds. It certainly didn't appear that we had a long time to discuss it, in any case; despite her calm, deliberate manner, Caelina seemed to be in a hurry.

She continued, her eyes now more earnest and seeking. "Now Kagi, I must ask you to recall from the recesses of your memory those times with your maker. Did Aurelia ever convey to you where or when she would sleep next? Perhaps some hint of a time or place? It is vitally important that I find her before the turn of the millennium. Think slowly, but carefully."

Perplexed as I was, I did my best to obey. A time and a place for her next ages-long slumber? I found no trace of such information in my memory, none. Aurelia, in her tragic secrecy that kept me from loving her even more, had never told me anything about her next cursed sleep. Just scant, subtle warnings. "She told me nothing of the sort," I replied. "So sorry, my Lady."

Disappointed, Caelina continued. "Do you remember if she carried any jewelry, such as a necklace, tiara, or a bracelet? Any precious stones?"

I pondered this. Aurelia did in fact own that strange crystalline necklace with the peculiar engravings, but I could not remember the details. "She did wear a necklace," I answered simply. "But I can tell you no more than that. The designs etched into the stones looked foreign to me." I attempted to picture it; since Caelina possessed the ability to read thoughts, it came as a surprise that she could not see the image in my mind.

Caelina took hold of the black pouch resting on the table. With a careful hand, she emptied the contents and spread them before me. Small, glittering jewels of different shapes, all of three colors: ruby, emerald, and sapphire.

"Did they resemble these stones?" the lady asked calmly. With but a gesture, the jewels suddenly began to float in the air before me in a circular ring. Truly, what a wanton display of magic! They rotated slowly before me, allowing me opportunity, I suppose, to make some choices. As my eyes raked the jewels over, I tried to comprehend them. All were oddly shaped, no two were alike. Some looked most familiar; I remember speaking to Aurelia at times and finding myself caught in the necklace's sparkling shimmer.

"Were they in any specific pattern that you can remember?" I must find out which alignment Aurelia invoked before Milovan does! Her role is now more crucial than ever…

The silent words I heard startled me; I could feel the raw, yet patient, power emanating from the vampiress sitting before me. What was going on? "I regret to say no, my lady. I cannot remember any patterns."

No emotion showed on her face. A sweep of her hand, and the jewels danced back into the soft pouch that guarded them. She placed that mysterious purse back into her white robe. "How unfortunate," she said more to herself than to me.

Caelina seemed lost in thought, staring down at the table and an unknown image, until I spoke up. "Forgive me, lady, but one other matter puzzles me. I now know you are looking for my maker. But why Milovan? Why ally yourself with him, a cruel wretched devil that lives only for his pleasure and others' suffering?"

A small laugh escaped her. "Ally, young one? If you only knew. We are more like associates, working toward a common goal through very different means. I require his help, and he mine. But no, not allies."

"Will you help me destroy him then?" I asked without thinking, excited that perhaps I could gain a supporter. I could not defeat Milovan alone; a powerful, experienced vampire would be needed. If there was a chance that the vampiress before me could be persuaded, I would try. "You must know why I am held prisoner on the estate like this. I objected to his needless desire for death and bloodshed. Milovan took away innocent human lives! He is a monster thinking that he cannot be stopped, but justice will be wrought from my hands. Will you help me?"

Caelina looked hard at me with her dark eyes. In them I saw both approval and pity. "You do not know what you speak of, Kagi. One cannot simply destroy Milovan."

"But you can!" I exclaimed, beside myself. "You are more powerful than him, I read it in his histories! You and Aurelia defeated him once. True he has grown stronger though the ages, but you must have as well!"

Lady Caelina averted her gaze past me. "You do not fully understand," she spoke quietly. "Milovan is not like us."

"What?" I felt astounded by yet another revelation. "What do you mean? He is a vampire, is he not?"

"Yes, Kagi, he is a vampire. But not created as we were." She paused; the magnitude of what she spoke hung thick in the air. "True, like us Milovan had once been mortal. However, his bloodline is not of this world. Do you know anything of his history? His maker and master is called Demitri, a being that dwells not of our realm but in a place ancients regarded as the Demon Realm. Demitri is a Dark Vampire, or True Vampire; never mortal, a creature of pure malevolence and Chaos. Like other beings within the Demon Realm, Demitri desires to cross over into our physical realm freely as he wishes. However, he cannot; long ago, the seven Old Ones bound and sealed him away within that cursed world, forever damning him from entering our plane.

"But Demitri remains mighty and ageless. Thus, you can see why you are speaking foolishness. Demitri's bloodline confers immense power, power that is great within Milovan. It is not known how Milovan came to be enslaved by Demitri, though his purpose is clear: he wishes to welcome his master into our world. Yes, Aurelia and I defeated him with ease, centuries ago. But he was young and inexperienced. Even then he commanded great strength. Now, his potential nearly matches our own, if not exceeds. His blood is potent and allows him to grow in strength much more rapidly than earthly vampires such as we. Do not underestimate him, Kagi. You will not stand long against him."

I never felt more dispirited than after hearing Caelina's words. Milovan, spawned by a creature from the Demon Realm? I recalled that old Eichi, my Shinto priest mentor, had mentioned such a place and the beings that inhabited it. Devils, evil spirits, succubae, dark forces, indescribable supernatural beings. Gods help me, if all this were true! So Milovan possessed even more power than I had imagined; underneath the jovial veneer lay a damned soul who craved destruction. I remembered seeing the strange blue aura surrounding that foul elder vampire, that night of Dark Jade's butchery here in Edo. And I remembered that for a second, in Milovan's place flickered an immense muscular form with large leathery wings, with the hideous face of a man-beast. Was this, then, Milovan's true form?

"How can I defeat him then, my lady?" I asked nearly in total desperation. For me, the task had not changed. Despite this new knowledge, I almost felt that I was destined to stop Milovan. Stop him, because he was a murderer or because he wished to bring eternal darkness to our world, it did not matter one way or the other.

Caelina met my eyes, and I briefly saw Aurelia staring back at me. "Patience, young one. If it truly is your destiny to destroy Milovan, you will find a way. All I can say is this: I feel your own strength growing within you. You, Kagi, are also unlike other vampires. You possess magic as I do, but it is not human magic learned from books. Ancient magics, bound to your bloodline. Aurelia is your maker, and Maeonius hers. Trace your bloodline far enough, and it will lead directly to the fabled Maeon—the only of the Old Ones bestowed with the gift of sorcery. In time you will rival us all, perhaps one day even Maeonius himself. Feel it for yourself, young one. Feel it stir inside of you; when the moment is right, you will find release."

I pondered over her words; the information overwhelmed me. I could say nothing, really, in response to Caelina's fantastic stories. Yet they were more than just stories, weren't they?

Abruptly, Caelina stood. "For now, I must go. I sense Milovan approaching, and he has much to discuss with you. With all of us."

"Wait, please!" I called out. "You claim to know Aurelia well. Will you tell me more about her? About my bloodline? There is so much I want to learn…"

"All in good time, young one." And in another surprising action, she laid a tender hand on my shoulder. "Remember, Kagi, you are not alone."

And with that, Lady Caelina left.

For one more night, I brooded over the disquieting information and the circumstances that now made up my existence. One more night, and my world shattered yet again. Otherworldly demon creatures, strange realms, arcane magics, ancient vampires, Aurelia gone for certain now, and finally the magic inherent in my own blood and body. It was all too much to bear. If given the choice that night, I would have chosen my sanity's requiem over the hardships that would follow in my life from then on.

The nightfall after, I was told that Milovan had sent for me.

Prodded by his associates, I found myself in the great dining hall of the pagoda. Only this time, no feasts, no social gatherings, no dancing lords and ladies. Evgeny and Izumi, faithful servants as they were, stood at attention near the doorway. I could not read anything on Izumi's well-trained, disciplined expression. Lady Caelina stood alone, looking out of a nearby window. And at the end of the long table, like a king lording over his castle, sat the Master himself.

Milovan, dressed in his fine European tunic and indigo cloak as usual, did not appear pleased. Sitting upright in the grand host's chair, resting his chin on an arm, his other large hand sloshing a goblet of warm wine. If anything, Milovan looked bored out of his mind.

"Leave us," he bellowed, once I had been placed before him. At once, both Evgeny and Izumi left with the guards and closed the heavy doors, leaving only Milovan, Caelina, and myself behind. We were alone.

More curious than anxious or angry, I observed the two of them—both seemed lost in their own thoughts—for some time in silence. Milovan's red eyes stared into his goblet, his purple lips protruding and pouting at some unseen displeasure. Much different from the all-powerful portrait that had been painted to me beforehand; he looked almost human. Caelina herself remained by the window, wearing a beige-colored gown, her hand pressed to the night window. Before long, she silently floated to the seat beside Milovan, who didn't even appear to notice her presence. An odd scene, now that I look back on it.

At last, the villain spoke to me. "You understand why I was forced to hold you here against your will, samurai?"

"Of course," I answered as politely as possible. Inwardly I wished that I could snap his neck with my bare hands. "We do not share the same worldview, generally speaking."

"You wish to destroy me?"

"In a word, yes."

The Master of the house chuckled in a fiendish manner. "You are a flea pestering a charging rhinoceros. You are the withered underbrush lying in the path of a raging inferno! You are…"

"Milovan!" Caelina chided suddenly. Her beautiful face bore unmistakable contempt. "We have no time for this. Now go on."

Milovan snarled at me. "Since it is obvious to me that you are ungrateful for everything that I've done for you," he started spitefully, "and since you will never come to understand our ultimate destiny as vampires, I no longer wish to waste my time on you and consider you my charge." He paused to take one last gulp of wine from the glass, then set it carelessly on the table. "Therefore, with much consideration and thought, I have decided to be done with you. You are free to leave, both from my estate and from my sight. Begone!"

I could not believe my ears. Milovan, who had spent so much time and effort trying to mold me into his minion, now allowing me to leave? It must have been a trick.

"I do not believe you," I replied bluntly. "Your games tax my strength."

"No games, troublesome fledgling. You may leave as you wish. No one will try to stop you. Seek out vengeance upon me in the future if you wish, but it will not occur in my house!"

Despite the sincerity I felt in his words, I felt trapped. Yes, I was free to leave. But Milovan said nothing about Izumi, and he was sure to know about us. If I left, I would without doubt never see her again. If I stayed, who knew what might become of me under his manipulation…

"What about Izumi?" I finally spat out. "I will not leave without her."

Then I saw. Milovan's gloom immediately transformed into his infamous, toothy grin. So he had planned to trap me all along. "The servant girl, as part of my household, will stay in my household. Her allegiance is mine, not yours. She will obey me and only me, and do what only I order her to do, go where I order her to go…"

I knew what Milovan was getting at. "What do you want of me?"

A laugh. "There is a way that allows the girl to leave with you. Can you imagine that, samurai? The girl who loves you so, will do anything you ask, will copulate with you anytime and anywhere you wish, in any manner—"

"What do you want of me!" I demanded again, growing furious that Izumi's honor had been insulted. The blinding hatred returned, that most wonderful of sensations.

Milovan relaxed in his chair, smiling a knowing smile that I abhorred. He had me in his palm. He had trapped me, and we both knew it. "A simple task, really. In exchange for completing it, I will allow the girl to go with you. Live your lives free from my influence. Never would you hear from me again."

"What is this task?" Weary and desperate, I submitted. I could not live without my cherished Izumi. Amusing, in a way, what unspeakable things that love will force one to do.

Milovan grinned even more, and continued. "You have no doubt heard of Shogun Iesada's sudden departure from our world. And you have also no doubt heard that his most senior advisor now rules in his place. I know you dislike foreigners in your country, Kagi, especially myself. It must trouble you how your land's government welcomes Westerners so openly." He paused, suddenly looking older. "You and I do see one thing in common, at least. I also do not wish the gaijin to ruin your land's beauty with their greed. Ah, it pains me to even imagine what might happen to Edo, the same fate that befell Rome when she was sacked and raped. If you do not believe my sincerity, then ask yourself: why am I in your land at all? I come to your land because for me it is an escape; here on these serene islands I am able to think idly, plan my goals patiently. Life here is much more refined and enjoyed than in Europe. I want to preserve your culture, not exploit it.

"Therefore, I propose a solution. Though the common mortals are too impotent to prevent the coming of the West, we as immortals are not; we exist above their laws. The leadership of the Shogunate must be destroyed in order to save the land from the West. What better way to stop the Shogunate's welcoming of the Westerners than to annihilate the Shogunate itself?"

I reeled, shocked and disgusted at the same time. Destroy the Shogunate? The military government that had kept peace in our land for 300 years, after millennia of civil war? It was unthinkable!

But for Izumi, I would move the Heavens and the Earth. "What would you have me do?"

Milovan grinned once more, this time in triumph. He had won. "I want you to exterminate the current dictator that has usurped power from the rightful rulers. I want you to assassinate Ii Naosuke, the tyrant and Lord over all the Japans…"