Masato cradled Sakuya’s head in his arms as she shivered, lips trembling against his chest. “What’s happening, Masato? We - we’re one family now, aren’t we? Why is your family - “
“Shh, shh. There’s no reason to be worried, alright? Everything will be dealt with. Everything will be fine,” he said, trying to project confidence he didn’t feel. Truth be told, he was even more shaken than her. This marriage was a pivotal point for the future of the Syndicate - what was Junichi thinking, pulling a stunt like this? Why would he have spent years negotiating and planning with the vampires, only to turn around and stab them in the back?
“Explain yourself, Ikeda.” That dry, authoritative voice, cutting through the din of battle, filled Masato with dread. As he looked up, Lord Li’s sombre, severe gaze made him wish he hadn’t. The head of House Li was a stern man, with a reputation for ruthless determination that he’d earned over years - decades - of bloodshed. By marrying Sakuya, Masato had also married into House Li, thus committing himself to Li’s command, much as though he were one of the House’s vampires. His life was Li’s to direct, now.
“I apologise deeply for this situation, my lord. I swear to you that I have no part of this. My loyalty belongs only to you and your house.” Masato rose to his feet and bowed deeply, presenting himself as the humble servant that he was. This, too, had been part of the training he’d undergone in preparation for today. Men of the Tachibana Group might have rankled at the thought of prostrating themselves before anyone but their oyabun, but Masato had been taught to show the vampire elders only the utmost respect, lest he invite their displeasure.
“Be that as it may, this mess does not reflect well on you.” Li’s body language was opaque as he stepped closer to their table, motioning for Masato to rise. His eyes held Masato’s for a long moment. “I expect a member of House Li to be in control of his affairs at all times.”
Masato couldn’t help but jump slightly at that. Was Li officially acknowledging him as a member of his house? There was a world of difference between being accepted into the fold on a technicality and being personally acknowledged by the head elder himself. “My lord, I… regret that I have been remiss in my duties. I will take full responsibility for my oversight.”
“I daresay you will. It would be a damnable shame if you were to let an incident like this tarnish your distinguished record with the Auditorial Board.” A trace of amusement played across Li’s otherwise grim features for a moment. “You have shared vis with Sakuya before, have you not?”
At Masato’s side, Sakuya stiffened, her body growing tense. This was going into dangerous territory - it was as though Li had asked how often they made love. From anybody else the question would have been shockingly inappropriate, but as their sire and master Li had the right to know. Masato cleared his throat, trying not to avoid Li’s gaze. “Yes, my lord.”
“And you have practiced fighting with her strength?”
“Yes, my lord.” Masato could sense Sakuya’s discomfiture at this line of questioning, and while it pained him to ignore it, he couldn’t afford to show disrespect to Li.
“That is well. You are of my house now, Ikeda, and I would see you prove your worth.” Li’s expression remained cool amidst the chaos, but the force behind his words was palpable. “Join the fray. Entry to our ranks is reserved for those who deserve it, and I can think of no better opportunity for you to show me that you do. Put an end to this debacle, and bring your oyabun to me alive.”
Masato swallowed hard as he shot a quick glance at the battlefield. Junichi was leading from the back, protected by ranks of his men - men that Masato would have to cut through in order to get to him. Men he’d called his brothers. Li hadn’t mentioned his work with the Auditorial Board merely by way of praise - as an Auditor, Masato’s duty had been to ensure that the Syndicate’s various branches and subsidiaries stayed in line. An unsavory task, but a necessary one considering how atomized and secretive the Syndicate’s organizational structure was. Managers who skimmed off the top. Dealers who adulterated the product to line their own pockets. Wherever loyalty to the Syndicate wavered, he was there to put an end to it.
“My lord, I…”
“You will do as you’re told, Ikeda. Either he gets called to account or you do.” Li turned away, joining the rest of the Syndicate elders as they hastily evacuated before the situation escalated even further. After the decimation of House Scarlet, there was an unspoken fear amongst the vampires that even the most ancient and powerful of their number might be felled by a mortal. There would be a private car on standby to take them to a safe house while the conflict was dealt with.
Masato sat in shock for a moment, struggling with the enormity of what Li was asking. It was terrible enough to contemplate striking down his sworn brothers, but working as an Auditor had taught him to compartmentalize, to carry out his duties regardless of whatever personal sentiments he might hold about the case at hand. Sakuya, on the other hand…
After they’d first formed their bloodbond, Masato had been careful not to use the inhuman strength it granted indiscriminately, and doubly careful not to shed blood with it. By ingesting her blood, he took on some of the inhuman vitality that vampirism granted, inhabiting a fraction of the twisted unlife that Sakuya herself was bound to. He remembered reeling from the rush of alien sensation that her blood brought, the sudden attunement to vis, the essence of life itself, the feeling of invulnerability that suffused every muscle in his body. Power enough to break down walls, to run up buildings. Enough strength, enough speed packed into his body for him to tear through the defenses of any quarry.
On the first case he’d worked with her blood in his system, the crooked trust fund manager he’d been investigating had tried to make a break for it. Masato had confronted him in his office about some of the suspect investments he’d made with the Syndicate’s money and gotten two bullets in the chest in response. By that point, he’d learnt two things: first, by the Syndicate’s standards, such conduct typically sufficed for an admission of guilt. Second, with vampire blood, you were basically invulnerable. His flesh spat the bullets out, and he took advantage of his target’s shock to leap across his desk and smash his face into it. The next few moments were a red blur. Protocol was to subdue the target and bring him in to Syndicate headquarters for a thorough debriefing, but protocol was the last thing on Masato’s mind once the scent of blood - living blood, rich with vis - hit him.
Need rode him, formless lust alloyed with insatiable thirst, guiding his thoughts, his hands, his heart. When the world came back to him, he became aware of the shattered remnants of the man’s ribs, flayed free of flesh to expose his innards. Masato’s hands clutched a cooling scrap of flesh that had once been a heart, wringing the last drop of life from it. On reflection, he knew that he should have felt horror, or disgust, or something similar. Everything would have been easier if he had. Even now, though, all he could remember was the satisfaction, the sense that everything about this was good, was right, was the way it should be.
That night, Sakuya nearly died. He’d returned to find her violently purging, retching up gouts of black-tinged blood, her pale face streaked with crimson tears. She hadn’t been able to look at him, let alone talk to him, until he took her in his arms, using the last of his unnatural strength to still her uncontrollable shaking.
I hate being a killer, Masato. And to have made you one, too… I just -
Through their bloodbond, Sakuya had been able to sense his whereabouts and actions no matter how far apart they were. At first, it had been nice to be with him as he went about his day, coming to understand better how he worked and behaved in his daily life. But when he’d drawn on her power to kill, to spill blood… the thirst that possessed her, the impulses that she feared and hated, that she spent every moment trying to suppress, came flooding out. The look on her face, horror and disgust and hurt, shook him to his core. He’d seen innocence die before. Never again.
Slowly, he’d coaxed her into a semblance of composure, apologizing profusely, begging her forgiveness as her blood left his system, leaving him human again. He held her head to his chest as his heartbeat started back up, letting its familiar rhythm lull her out of her delirium. She’d admitted to him once that she loved its sound, that constant reminder that you were alive. She hadn’t realised how much you could miss that until it was too late. He’d picked up on the silent implication behind that - but it’s not too late for you, Masato - and sensed the burden she must be carrying, the guilt she felt at being the one to initiate him into this hideous, bloody business. She hadn’t asked for her curse, and he hadn’t asked for his duties - yet here they were, caught in the worst of both worlds.
Perhaps that was when he’d first begun to love her. Perhaps that was why they’d sent her to him. The trap had been laid perfectly, and its teeth had closed around him long ago.
All of which was to say that he now faced an intractable dilemma. On the one hand, Li’s orders were absolute. On the other, Sakuya…
“Masato.” Her cool hand gently closed over his, cutting through his reverie.
“I can’t put you through that, Sakuya. Never again.”
Uncharacteristically for Sakuya, her expression was resolute. “Do it. Don’t worry about me.” Her grip grew firmer, and she drew him closer to her, forestalling any further refusal on his part with a kiss on the lips. He could feel her trembling minutely against him, betraying her anxiety, but her voice was clear and determined. “I’m sorry, Masato… I should never have allowed my weakness to put you in this position. If this is what it takes for the House to recognise us, I will gladly endure it.”
His heart clenched at her words. It wasn’t right that someone as pure as her should have any part of this, wasn’t right that she should blame herself for being human. But duty called. “Sakuya…” Stroking the gentle curve of her face, he leaned in for another kiss. “I’ll make it quick.”
She nodded, her cheek against his. Then she slit her throat.
Tilting her head sideways to bare her throat to him, she drew a razor-sharp fingernail across the tissue-thin skin over her jugular. Vampires still had veins, arteries, and most of the anatomy that humans had - it was just that none of it functioned the same way. Instead of spurting out, Sakuya’s blood pooled slowly around the cut, as if awaiting his lips. Though the two of them were outranked by the other guests at the table, the vampires politely directed their attention elsewhere as Masato brought his lips to Sakuya’s neck - the bloodbond was as intimate as it was taboo, with shadings of significance that Masato had hardly begun to grasp. All he could think of was how much it hurt Sakuya to be used in this way, and how much he hated himself for being an accessory to her pain.
But he drank nonetheless, swallowing his self-loathing along with her blood. If this is what it takes, Sakuya, I will slaughter every last one of them.
She shivered, unconsciously cradling his head as he drank deep of her power. He had, after all, promised to make it quick. Not for their sakes, but for hers alone.
Rising, he turned towards the unfolding battle. The euphoric rush that usually hit him after ingesting Sakuya’s blood was muted today, the sweetness of her essence tainted by the bitter bile that seemed to be all he could taste at the moment. He scanned the battlefield quickly, the ballroom’s dimness fading away as her blood worked its way through his system, enhancing his senses beyond reason. He often thought that this must be how predators see the world, prowling the wilderness with their prey always in their sights.
Oyabun. He identified Junichi amidst the chaos, passing out ammunition to his men. Silver - and plenty of it, from the looks of it. He felt a chill creeping towards his core. How long had Junichi been planning this betrayal? The union, the marriage - had it all been posturing, a complex maneuver to set up this attack? Being a pawn he could accept, but being played like this, sent to Sakuya to deliver the Judas kiss… that was unforgivable.
Fortunately, he didn’t need to forgive Junichi. He just needed to bring him in.