The Agony of Memory
Despite all we learned of the culture in Edo, there had still awaited a whole country for Lady Aurelia and I to explore. The two us swept northern Honshu in less than three months. We learned of local legends and customs of the peoples from village to village. We left behind a few mysterious deaths in each one, leaving the local authorities to figure it out. To my surprise, word of the deaths spread to neighboring provinces much more quickly than I had anticipated. With each new town we visited, the peoples were growing more and more cautious of new arrivals.
As I had suspected before, my mistress did indeed command magical powers. To cast off any further suspicions on her part, Aurelia decided to conceal her true form and to take on an appearance more suitable against prying eyes. Gone were her golden locks, replaced by jet-black strands. Her European dresses gave way to traditional kimonos. Even her height had been shortened. In my mind, my mistress still remained the same, no matter what guise she had chosen. On the other hand, if Aurelia had the power to change her appearance, then how would I know her true form?
I asked her why she had attempted to conceal her sorcery from me before.
"Those of our kind who command sorcery are especially hated among the undead," she replied, her hand involuntarily gripping the hilt of her rapier. Her face was solemn. "I am despised even by my own race. It was better that you not know the true extent of my abilities."
When I asked her what she meant by this, Lady Aurelia only dismissed the matter. I began to suspect that my mistress intentionally kept me from knowing facts pertaining to my own safety. Have others of our kind declared a price on my mistress' head, just as my samurai peers had declared one on mine? Was I myself in danger by knowing her, by being with her? I cared not then. I only loved her more, empathetic to her sense of loneliness.
We did encounter a few vampires while traveling in the north. Most were fledglings native to the East, having migrated from as far away as Siberia and Mongolia. They trembled in fear at the sight of my mistress; Aurelia had but to look at them, sending them on their way.
However, we had a particular encounter with an experienced vampire, one that my mistress apparently knew. We were crossing the bridge at Usuitoge Pass on our way to Oiwake, when Lady Aurelia suddenly stopped in her tracks. I looked around, quickly drawing my katana. I knew that she sensed danger, but I also wondered what it could have been.
After a few moments of tense silence, she looked toward the darkness that lay at the bridge's other end. "Show yourself, Milovan," she muttered, her voice firm and unshaken.
I strained my vampiric eyes to see what she saw, but found nothing. Then out of the thick evening fog came the shadowy figure of a man. He stood tall and vigorous, his mannerisms appearing quite polished. On his head rested a European traveler's top hat, the brim of it concealing his face. A majestic indigo cloak swirled around his elegant attire. In his hand was a traveling cane, which he tapped lightly against his boots before finally speaking.
"What a pleasant surprise, my lady." His voice was thick with a Slavic enunciation, much different from the Frankish accent that I had grown used to hearing from my mistress. However, there was a hint of some otherworldly tones in his speech. From his voice alone, I knew that he commanded great power. "I had not expected you to awaken so soon," he continued.
Aurelia remained steadfast as the vampire I knew now as Milovan approached. I stayed alert, with Maru steady in my hand. He then stood before us, his face now visible in the moonlight. Eyes glowing red against a rough, tan complexion, his lips just as full and healthy as ours. In an overt act of defiance, he neglected to remove his hat in the presence of my mistress. I peered at him and his unappealing face, feeling slight repulsion. He was not as beautiful a vampire as we were.
"In fact," he continued with a bemused grin, "I had not expected you to awaken at all."
"Why are you here?" was my maker's response.
The vampire Milovan remained grinning, his sharp white teeth gleaming. "I travel to the Far Orient once every century, all know this. It appears that we both were fated to meet here this night." He then glanced at me. "Ah, I see that you have missed the delight of male companionship. Tell me, Aurelia, does a lowly samurai pleasure you as well as a Roman centurion?"
"Be silent!" Aurelia hissed, her eyes flaring with rage. "Leave the fledgling be! Since we meet like this, Milovan, you would do well to make yourself useful. Answer me, dog of Demitri, what news of my family since I last slept?"
He sighed. "I have not traveled to Briton for several years. Last that I heard was this: your lover Mercurinus, that wretched magus, lives well although he nevertheless misses you and the children terribly. Your young ones continue to enjoy their thrice-blessed lives. Still no one knows what became of your brother Aurelius. I know not what your sisters are up to, nor do I care. Frankly, your life interests me no longer, and I have found other affairs to entertain me."
My guard, which had remained unwavering as they spoke, quickly subsided upon hearing his world-shattering revelations.
My mistress, my Lady Aurelia…she had a lover and children?
Lady Aurelia nodded. "Very well then, Milovan. Now…we both had best continue on our way, do you not think?"
"Yes, my lady, I agree. As a courtesy to you, I inform you that there exists a new hunter in the Kyoto area, a very successful one I might add. Be wary, for your sake." He bowed stiffly, his face locked in a smirk like no other. "Till next we meet, Aurelia." With that, he glided past us and gradually mingled into the gloom of nightfall.
We continued on our journey. Aurelia remained silent, clearly contemplating the information this Milovan had just imparted. I also took measure of the words, but likely not in the same frame of mind as she. I felt a jealous fury build within my undead chest. Vampires are thought not to possess human emotion. This is true, only if the vampire chooses to relinquish its former humanity. Aurelia had saved me from that. Thus, my resentment festered like a parasite. I dared not speak of the subject, as she was lost in thought, for fear of her terrible wrath. And why would I not be angry? I had given her my love, my life, and my very being. But to hear of another love was too much for me to bear. Was it all for nothing?
"Let go of the troubles in your heart," my mistress spoke suddenly. I knew that she had heard my thoughts, as she nearly always did. She turned to me, her soft hands caressing my apprehension away. "My poor child…you know not the whole story. The lover Milovan spoke of is my maker, whom I no longer care for. My only love now is you." After that, she kissed me deeply.
I sensed that there was much more to her story than she cared to speak of. Yet I could not subside my pain. I knew how to conceal my thoughts from her when I concentrated. So I played along. "What of your children?" I asked.
She smiled sweetly at me. "They are well taken care of in my absence. That is all I ask. For now, I wish to drink and revel with you, Kagi my love, here in your homeland."
I smiled when she spoke her shortened name for me. But for myself, it was not a joyous night. The unbridled devotion, the complete and intimate trust I had given her since my rebirth, vanished that very evening.
Central Honshu fell to us within three months. We carried on as usual: going from town to town learning, buying treasures and keepsakes, and sampling the blood of the youth. I learned that young blood was more invigorating than that from older humans. Our vitality would remain with us longer, and we would need to feed less often. And for me, the feeling of fullness became a blessing. The more we traveled south, the more I realized how familiar the faces of our victims became.
In the back of my cursed mind, I knew that we would soon return to the lands of both my birth and banishment. It was only a matter of time. But traveling then with my mistress, I chose to ignore it. We were caught up in our whirlwind of bliss and bloodlust.
At last, we reached Ishibe, a town some miles outside of Kyoto. Here was the home of my father and where I was brought into the human world. Had I still been human, I would have fallen to my knees and wept with joy.
Aurelia found the town quite charming as I led her through my former village. I related to her how I used to run through the streets as a child with my companions, brandishing my short sword at merchants and officials. Sons of samurai were given weapons at an early age, I explained, to provide a solid foundation for battle readiness. But everything was as I remembered it. The buildings, the people, the scent of cedars. The market reeked of fish and octopus; so wonderful was the smell again!
We soon approached the house of my birth. I dared not go inside, for fear of what my bloodlust might do. Indeed, I was still largely human after all, wasn't I? I stood from without, peering in and hoping to see what had become of it. A new family had occupied it, of course, likely after buying it from my uncle who inherited the estate after the death of my parents.
My father, Gouken, was a low-ranking samurai who maintained a dojo near the center of town. When his service was not needed by the shogun, my father would spend his time training the young boys into brave and disciplined warriors. I remembered how he had told me that I was one of his best students; with the memory, my heart longed to see him again. But he had passed away suddenly, during my service in Kyoto to Lord Goda. We never had a chance to say our farewells; this was a foremost regret of my human life.
My mother, Asako, was the daughter of a poor carpenter. From her I experienced tenderness unmatched even by the Lady Aurelia. I was a single child and thus attentions had been showered upon me for the whole of my upbringing. From her I learned the value of hard work and determination. She died peacefully in old age some years ago. I had rushed home to be by her side, and was able to catch the last hours of her life.
The memories of that house proved to be too great, so we fled from there. At the tavern I recognized the proprietor, Hikoshiro. He had been one of my friends from childhood, but we had grown apart during my years in Kyoto. I was hesitant to approach him, but he recognized me and welcomed us over.
"We haven't seen you here in ages!" he exclaimed, offering us a drink. "I see you've still kept busy with the pretty ladies though, eh?"
"Of course," I replied. "Hikoshiro, this is my new wife, Yumei."
"A great honor, my lady." Our host bowed and Aurelia answered with a silent smile. "So, word has it that you were banished from Lord Goda's household! They say you loved his daughter, is it true?"
My face fell low, full of shame. Even as an undead vampire, I could not live with what I had done in my former life. "It is true. But I have been away from southern Honshu for many years."
"Perhaps you have not heard of this then," he spoke. "Lady Mariko is now married."
"What!" I exclaimed with total surprise, immediately looking up at him. I felt a warm surge of blood in my undead veins. My former love, Mariko? It couldn't be!
"Three years ago, she was wed to a nephew of the Tokugawa shogun," Hikoshiro continued. "His name is Tokugawa Hojimura. He is supposed to be a highly skilled warrior."
I felt enraged. Highly skilled, was he? I thought. My sword Maru and I surely wished to test that claim! All I could think of was Mariko in another man's arms. All else in the world fell away from me, even Aurelia my beloved maker. But she knew what would happen had my rage gone unchecked. Before I could kill and destroy all within the tavern, my mistress took control over my body and led me outside.
"Release me!" I cried out. The anger I felt clouded even my surprise at her actions.
Aurelia pressed against me, her head shaking. "Who is this Mariko you care for so dearly?" There was no emotion in her voice, only a stoic curiosity.
After a few moments of struggling, I finally surrendered. "You already know the answer, Aurelia! A lover of mine, lost to me long ago."
She smiled tenderly and kissed me. "I would very much like to meet this girl Mariko," she spoke. "But that can wait. We have other matters to tend to."
My mistress then waved her right hand across my face. Immediately, I felt the fury drain from my body. I knew she had used her vile sorcery to ease my mind, to rid me of the pain of my memories. Perhaps, it was for the best.
I was not ready to see Mariko, or deal with her husband, that miserable night.