Through the full-length glass walls of the nineteenth-floor penthouse, the waning moon spilled its light. No electricity dueled with its brightness, only long taper candles in sconces of silver filigree. The most elaborate was a five-branched candelabrum set on the room's single focus point, a glossy black grand piano. That the room was spacious enough not to be dominated by the instrument said a great deal about its owner's success.
From the piano, a gentle melody floated, harmony weaving in deftly to create an image through the music, soft and relaxing. Suddenly, with a furious scream, two small fists crashed down on the keys to send up a blaring discord.
"It's all wrong!" exclaimed the player. She was a slender woman in her early thirties whose hair just brushed her collarbones. She had long, slender fingers, the kind most people associated with gifted artists, but they were clenched so tightly they were turning white. "I try and try, but nothing comes right!"
The man rushed forward. He set the cup and saucer he held down on the piano, using a coaster placed there so it wouldn't mar the surface.
He put his hands gently on her shoulders.
"I don't know what's wrong with me, Seiichi," Hanae cried, tears beginning to form in her eyes. "I can play, but whenever I try to create something new, it is as if my soul is empty. There is no spark, no passion, nothing of myself to put into the music!"
She pounded the keyboard again; Seiichi gently turned her away from it towards him, then slid his hands down her arms and urged her fingers open. This wasn't the first such occurrence he'd experienced, and it always worried him. He was afraid that Hanae would hurt herself in one of her passionate outbursts.
"Hanae, you're brilliant, you know that," he told her.
"Once, maybe. Once I was able to take my soul and make it sing. I would sit at the piano on moonlit nights and music would come spilling out of me. My hopes, my fears, my dreams, all of it given voice."
The tears started to flow as Seiichi held her, acutely aware of his own helplessness.
"Now there's nothing. My heart, my soul haven't changed, but I can't do it any more. I can't get my feelings out. I...I don't know what I'll do if I can't create any more, Seiichi. I have to get it back."
-X X X-
"I must admit, Riho, that you surprise me," Tatsuhiko Shido said. "I wouldn't have expected Hanae Matsuura to be to your taste."
The statement meant more than it seemed on its surface, because very little surprised Shido any more. That was one of the side effects of being a centuries-old vampire; after a few dozen decades, one felt that one had seen it all.
Then again, Riho always found ways to surprise him. Most of all, she surprised him almost daily just by being there. She was a vampire, too, changed by Shido himself as she lay dying. It had taken him quite some time to recognize that she had not begged him to make her like him out of a fear of death, a panic brought on by the moment, but from the desire to be with him. What he'd dismissed as a schoolgirl crush while she'd been alive had been a much deeper feeling. After her conversion he'd tried to hold her at arm's length, to reduce her emotional dependance on him, but it had finally been brought home that all he was doing was to ignore her feelings, her needs.
In short, that he was making the exact same mistake that his own vampiric sire, Cain, had made. Cain had ignored Shido's feelings, tried to define the relationship between them based on his own ideas of what was good for Shido, and it had driven the former lovers apart. Shido had even thought he'd killed Cain, a belief that had proven erroneous.
Cain had brought home to Shido just how wrong the younger vampire was. In a way, Shido supposed he ought to be grateful, but he wasn't. The thought that Cain was still out there in the night was too frightful for ironic humor.
"Yayoi lent me some of Ms. Matsuura's albums," Riho explained. "She'd been playing them on her car stereo one day when she gave me a ride. That's how I first heard it."
Shido had a point. He fit in well with the stylish jazz club. Tall and handsome with long silver-white hair tied back behind the nape of his neck, his looks, his apparent age, and the slightly archaic three-piece suits and string ties he favored all suited the mood, the history of the music. Riho, on the other hand, would not only look like a high-school girl throughout her eternal life but had been undead for only a year. A girl her age would be expected to be enthralled by the latest rock or pop idols, or something indie-flavored if her tastes ran to counterculture. She wouldn't be expected to be eager to join him in the small, intimate surroundings of a jazz club, let alone to have suggested it.
She looked lovely, he thought as they were shown to their table. Her brown hair was tied up in its usual foxtail, knotted by her trademark bow at the top of her head and then falling to her waist, but her formal indigo-blue dress and white gloves looked elegant and beautiful, though with a hint of the schoolgirl-dressed-up-for-the-prom. In the low lighting it was hard to spot the unnatural paleness of her skin. They looked for all the world like a normal couple out for a date.
"She's really great, though," Riho continued. "It's like every song tells a different story, even without words. I never thought I'd like this kind of music, but Ms. Matsuura is really incredible." She looked up at Shido, her soft brown eyes wide. "Thank you so much for taking me, Mr. Shido. I...I know it must seem silly to you, going out on a date like this..."
"Not at all. I enjoy spending time with you, and I'm glad to make you happy however I can."
As a vampire Riho couldn't actually blush, but she did everything else but. She was spared having to respond by the dimming of the house lights and the glow of the spotlight on the club's stage. A round of applause greeted Hanae Matsuura as she seated herself at the piano. Without a word or even a look in the audience's direction, she began to play.
Riho was right, Shido decided. Hanae was an exceptional musician and songwriter. In his long years of wandering he'd heard music of all levels of ability, from works of genius to worthless noise that spoke to no one. This woman was undeniably an artist. While her music might not suit everyone's tastes, the talent behind it was obvious, its force inescapable.
Yet to Shido's keen senses, something seemed wrong. Hanae's slender, delicate fingers were almost too slender, her body too frail. Even in the dark the vampire could see where cosmetics had been applied to hide shadows beneath her eyes, and the tension in her face that was at odds with the emotions expressed so clearly in the music she played. Something was wrong. But then, pain and suffering were part of having a human heart. Only a monster, unable to love or to feel, was immune to tragedy.
"It's strange, though," Riho mentioned during a break between songs. "Everything she's played so far is from one of her albums, at least two years old. I wonder why she hasn't played anything new."
"Maybe she doesn't have any new music," Shido said with a shrug. It seemed the most obvious answer to him.
"Usually a musician goes on tour to promote a new album, Mr. Shido. That's why I thought there'd be new songs." Riho sighed, then smiled. "It's really great seeing her play in person, though. I shouldn't let my expectations get in the way."
With that she followed her own advice, and leaning forward with her chin propped on her palms proceeded to enjoy the rest of the performance. When it was done, Hanae stood, bowed, and left the stage to a round of enthusiastic applause. Riho hopped to her feet as soon as the artist disappeared through the stage door.
"I have to get her autograph, Mr. Shido!" she exclaimed. Shido smiled indulgently.
The two vampires slipped through the club to the stage door. A tall man in a suit, not quite a bouncer but near enough, barred their path.
"Sorry, folks, but this area's for employees or Ms. Matsuura's people only."
"Oh, but please, I really wanted to meet her," Riho said, her eyes wide as she looked up at the doorman and her lower lip trembling. "She's one of my very favorite performers!"
"Well, I..." The doorman rubbed the back of his neck, obviously wavering. The club probably didn't cater to many girls Riho's age, so he wasn't used to chasing them off. "Oh, hell, a cute girl like you, why not? I'm sure she'll be glad to meet a fan."
"Thank you!" Riho exclaimed. "Come on, Mr. Shido, let's go see her." With that, she sailed past the doorman with Shido in her wake.
"That was very good," he said when the door closed behind them.
"Ms. Hanae's autograph is worth hard work," she told him. "Even if I have to act cute!"
"You are cute, Riho," he said, lightly caressing the back of her head. She looked up at him, surprised. Shido supposed he wasn't the best at putting his true feelings into words. Too many years alone could do that to a man.
The stage door apparently led to the same back section as the office door on the other side of the club, where a couple of corridors led to the private areas. There was a bend in the corridor almost at once, then a long stretch of hall. A door was open about halfway down, and raised voices coming from it made Shido and Riho stop before barging in.
"We're not running a charity here, Hanae," a man barked. "You're not a pop star who can fill a stadium with ticket-buying, merchandise-hungry fans. It isn't worth our time and energy to keep subsidizing you if you aren't going to deliver on your contract."
"Mr. Ohta, I've told you--" This speaker was female.
"Yeah. You've said it again and again. 'I'll be writing some new songs soon, Mr. Ohta.' 'Just a little more time, Mr. Ohta.' Do you know how long it's been since your last release? One year and seven months--and that was just a collection of new arrangements to old songs! It's been nearly three years since you've written any new music!"
"Why don't you just leave her alone, Ohta?" roared a second man, his voice a bit higher-pitched than Ohta's, whether by natural tone or from his excitement. "Hanae is an artist. She can't just crank out work like a factory assembly line. It takes time!"
"At this point, it appears to be taking more than just time!"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Just what it sounds like. The company doesn't care about artistic sensibility, Mr. Iwadare; it cares about money. Money that it's throwing away. Money that it's not seeing by way of profits."
Shido and Riho glanced at one another. It was obvious that if they kept on, they'd end up in the middle of an ugly scene.
"Maybe we'd just better go," she said quietly. "After this, Ms. Hanae won't want to talk to fans anyway."
He was about to agree with her when it became too late. Another person rounded the bend at the far end of the corner, a college-age girl with reddish-blonde braids and square-framed glasses.
"Oh! Are you here to talk to Ms. Matsuura?" she asked, calling out to them.
"What's that?" Ohta's voice called from within the room. "Meiko, is that you?"
A moment later, he came out of the dressing room, a tall man in his forties in a neatly tailored, expensive suit and gray peppering his dark hair. He glanced around himself, taking in the presence of others.
"Meiko, who are these people?" he barked.
"I--I don't know; I just got here myself, and--"
"Reporters?" Ohta snapped suspiciously, swiveling towards Shido.
"Not at all," the vampire answered smoothly. "We were in the audience for Ms. Matsuura's show and wanted to pay our respects."
"Apparently, people don't understand the concept of private around here. What's the point of putting someone on the door if he isn't going to do his job?"
By that time Hanae and another man, probably the one Ohta had called Iwadare unless there was someone still in the room, had come out to see what the fuss was. The man was about Ohta's height but younger and not so broad. He wore slacks, a plum-colored shirt and a sweater vest, the kind of dressy-casual outfit that tended to fade into the woodwork, but he wasn't lacking in spirit.
"What's that, Ohta? Afraid that people will find out how your company treats Hanae?"
Ohta rounded on him as if he was going to strike the other man, but held his temper, though his hand flexed threateningly.
"I'm tired of putting up with you," he growled. "You're her boyfriend, Iwadare, not her agent or even her husband. Play the heroic prince rescuing his lady from the ogre with someone who cares." He whirled back to Shido and Riho. "As for you two, this area is off-limits to the public. There's a time and place for everything and this isn't it, as I'm sure you can tell."
Shido nodded politely.
"Of course, we have no desire to intrude." He turned to Hanae and said, "I'm sorry if we disturbed you, Ms. Matsuura. We both enjoyed your performance very much."
He took Riho's hand and led her back up the corridor. The raised voices started almost immediately behind them.
"Oooh, that Mr. Ohta makes me so mad!" the girl erupted. "Treating Ms. Hanae like that! If I was Mr. Iwadare, I'd have knocked him down right then and there!"
"He was certainly rude," Shido said distantly, "though I suppose he may have had cause. We don't know what the previous dealings of those people have been like."
"Mr. Shido, there's no excuse for treating an artist as if she can produce great works on demand, then holding it against her when she doesn't."
"Perhaps not," he allowed.
"Doesn't it bother you at all?" There was a hint of a whine in her voice.
"There's something else that bothers me a lot more." His eyes narrowed. "I caught the scent of darkness coming off those people."
"You mean...a night breed?"
"Yes. I don't know which one--or ones--of them it is, or how far things have gone, but at least one of those four is being drawn into the darkness."