Title: Moon Over the Tower: Chapter One
Warnings: het (IchiHime), blood, scariness. Should be read with the lights off.
Disclaimer: These characters belong to a lot of Japanese people, namely people like Tite Kubo and Shonen Jump. You'll notice how none of those are me. This will probably (never) be updated weekly, until I eventually drop it like every other project ever. Not responsible for epileptic seizures or allergic reactions. May contain eye-and-brain-bleeding levels of radioactive ANGST and/or peanut products. Please sit a reasonable distance from your computer screen.
Author's Notes: Sorry I've not been writing at all lately! I've been really swamped with work and feeling under the weather, so it's been bleeding into my writing to the point that I don't want to anymore. I've also been taking on other projects (like playing video games and making shimeji) that have been sucking my time out. And then I even decided to neglect my other fics to start a new one (that hopefully I can plow through for a little while before I get back to the others). Don't hate me for it! I'm just trying to get out of my writing funk!
Also, as a note, I don't know the proper forms of address for this time and place, so I'm defaulting to standard English titles.
The wind whistled through black branches, shaking them and causing them to jostle together. The bony, leafless fingers of the trees formed a canopy over the cold forest trail. The late November night had already settled over the rustic countryside, depositing a chill deep in the bones of anyone brave enough to venture outside.
One such person had found her way into the black forest after sundown. The unfortunate had lost track of time in her work and found herself pushed back into the barren woods as the moon rose. Currently, her feet pounded the leaf-littered trail, running from a phantom pursuer.
The worst part was that she couldn't hear it. Whatever was chasing her, it was completely silent. The only sign of pursuit at all was the flying leaves springing up from either side of the trail. The fleeing person knew of a surety, however, that if she stopped running, she wouldn't have another chance to get away.
This was the rumor that had been circulating through the village. This creature, whatever it was, had been picking wayward villagers off for months. The villagers had gotten wary enough that very few dared venture out after dark anymore, and those were usually only in case of emergency. Still, the creature did not go hungry.
Panting, the villager looked over her shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of her pursuer in vain. Was she even running the right way? Panic seized her as she realized she was running deeper into the forest instead of out of it.
Tears spilled from her eyes, blurring her vision for a moment before she impacted into something hard and unyielding. Her head whirled for a moment, trying to get her bearings. What had she run into? There was nothing there a second ago!
No. Oh no.
Her eyes widened as she gasped for breath, seeing for the first time the pale visage of the creature that had been chasing her. He was all sharp teeth and bright burning eyes glistening in the full moon's light. She felt her determination wilt as his cold iron grip wrapped around her wrist.
"Just where d'ya think you're goin'?"
The only response she could give was a quickly stifled scream.
The sound of a howl sent a shiver down Orihime Inoue's spine. It was already well after dark and she just couldn't relax. Not with the recent rash of killings. Not until she knew Rangiku was alright.
Even though Rangiku was the older of the pair of adoptive sisters, she was hardly the responsible one in the family. That had been Orihime's older brother Sora, until he passed away two years prior. Now the mantle had been passed to her, it seemed.
Before he'd been taken from them, he had looked after both girls warmly. Rangiku was particularly fond of him and Orihime had fancied quite often that she would become her sister in actuality as well as just in name before much longer. But a similar rash of killings then had quashed that hope.
But this was nothing new for their quaint little hamlet. Nestled deep in the Carpathian mountains, the town rarely saw travelers or outsiders. Yet every few years a wave of deaths would strike as though out of the blue. Many of the villagers were widowed or orphaned, often banding together with others like them for companionship and protection.
That was how Rangiku had come to join Orihime and Sora. The two blood siblings had lost their parents early, and Rangiku's only family had disappeared when she was six. Sora had stepped up to the role of father and big brother for the girls, earning a living by cutting wood and had managed to even secure them a house. And it had continued in this vein for a good ten years before his death.
Now, at sixteen, Orihime helped out around town where she could, tending sheep and chickens for the villagers and trying her best to keep the wolves from the forest away. Rangiku worked in the local tavern, serving food and drinks to the woodcutters and farmers. Between the two of them, they managed to keep their household afloat.
But lately, Rangiku had been staying out after dark, even knowing the risks. Orihime had no questions as to where she was or who she was with. She had been very friendly with the local blacksmith lately, a taciturn, black-haired fellow around Rangiku's age with scars all down his face. And while Orihime liked Mr. Hisagi very well, she did worry that people might start to gossip.
Which brought her to this point: sitting listlessly at their large, oaken dinner table and fidgeting as she waited anxiously for Rangiku to return home.
The cheery voice was accompanied by the sound of their heavy wooden door scraping against the floor and slamming back into place. Orihime looked up at her older sister briefly before standing and rushing over to her. She flung her arms around the taller girl's neck to give her a tight hug. As Orihime leaned into her, though, she could feel Rangiku slump just a bit beneath her weight.
"Ra-Rangiku?" she asked doubtfully, leaning back to get a good look at her dazed sister, "What's wrong? You seem kind of weak... and pale..." And it was true; the normally vivacious blonde did seem a bit weaker, a bit slower. There were light bags under her eyes and her normally peachy skin was pale. Orihime thought she looked very fragile just then, probably for the first time ever.
"Eh? Nothing's wrong, silly," Rangiku responded quickly, injecting some energy into her previously tired demeanor, "I feel as good as I ever have!" She even made a muscle with her forearm. Somehow, Orihime wasn't convinced, and after another moment or two she decided on the most likely cause of Rangiku's sudden lack of energy.
"Rangiku!" she exclaimed, scandalized, "I hope Mr. Hisagi knows! He had better take responsibility!" Rangiku blinked for a second before latching onto Orihime's cheek and pulling.
"It's not that," she said curtly, "And you aren't supposed to know anything about that until you're married, anyway." Orihime winced beneath her big sister's onslaught.
"Oww! No fair!" she complained, "And you know about it, and you're not married!" Rangiku was unfazed.
"That's different," she chided, "I'm older than you, and who says I'll be unmarried forever? Anyway, I'm just a little tired is all. I've probably not been sleeping properly."
Rangiku finally released her little sister's cheek, allowing Orihime to rub it vigorously before moving to get Rangiku her supper. She ladled the blonde a generous portion out of the stew pot in the fireplace and handed her the wooden bowl.
"Oh, what did you make?" Rangiku asked eagerly, peeking curiously into the bowl. Orihime offered it to her with a smile.
"It's lamb with vegetables!" Orihime replied proudly, "I didn't have any apples or pears to go in it, but I think it turned out alright anyway!" Rangiku thoughtfully took a bite before favoring her little sister with a smile.
"It's wonderful as usual, Orihime," she gushed, before digging into the bowl with gusto.
Orihime watched her sister devour the soup as though she hadn't eaten in days, a small smile playing across her face. Her happy thoughts were interrupted by a sharp knock at the door, causing her to jolt upright.
"Who could that be?" Rangiku asked from behind her spoon. Orihime looked apprehensively at the door.
"I-I don't know," she said hesitantly, "We don't get visitors out this late, do we? Who would come over after dark? Mr. Hisagi, maybe?" Rangiku shrugged.
The knock came again, causing Orihime to jump out of her chair and untie the apron from around her full, brown skirt. She flung it over the back of the chair before scurrying away from the warmth of the fireplace towards the door.
"C-Coming!" she called, before dragging the heavy wood door open. What she saw behind it knocked the breath out of her and made her cold all over.
On the other side of the threshold stood a man dressed in the fine clothing of the nobility. He had sharp, icy blue eyes, the left one covered by a monocle. His black hair was slicked back behind his ears and nearly shone blue in the firelight. Orihime thought his pale skin looked quite cold; perhaps it was a trick of the light, but it almost seemed to have a bluish undertone to it as well.
Orihime watched him in silence for several awkward moments, wondering what in the world someone like this was doing in their small town. Perhaps he was a wayward traveler who had lost his way? Orihime could see a coach, complete with coachman and lantern before their house. It would certainly explain why he was out after dark.
"The inn is just down the way here, if you follow this..."
She trailed off as the strange man regarded her with a confused expression. Was he not lost?
"Inn?" he asked skeptically, "I am not looking for an inn. May I enter?" Now it was Orihime's turn to regard her guest quizzically.
"Eh? Oh, of course!" she replied with a small blush, "C-Come right in!" The man finally moved forward, crossing the threshold and casting a wary eye around the large, open living space. Of course it was sparsely furnished, but Orihime had never thought to be embarrassed of it before now. This man seemed too far above her in station.
"Orihime!" Rangiku chided from her place at the dinner table, "Don't invite strangers in! This isn't the inn!" Orihime fretted, worried that their guest would find them ungracious.
"It's okay!" she said nervously, "I'm sure he's just lost! Right, Mister..."
"Ishida," the man cooly supplied, "Uryuu Ishida. I am afraid I am not visiting. I am here on business." Both Orihime and Rangiku cast each other a curious look.
"What business do you have with us, Mr. Ishida?" Orihime asked politely, pulling a chair out for him, "Please have a seat! Would you like something to eat or drink?" The black-haired man waved off her courtesy.
"That won't be necessary," he said shortly, "I will only be here a moment." Rangiku folded her arms over her generous chest and regarded the stranger skeptically.
"Well, what is it you need, Mr. Ishida?" she asked bluntly. Rangiku was never one to beat around the bush, and Orihime could already tell she was critical of the newcomer. The man seemed unfazed as he adjusted his monocle.
"I've been sent here by my master," he began, "To find a woman of a very specific description. I was told she could be found here, and I see I haven't been misled." Rangiku smirked, uncrossing her arms.
"Well, if you're looking for a specific woman, you've found her," she said airily. Ishida's eyes narrowed as he regarded her.
"Not you," he sniffed before turning back toward a confused Orihime, "Her. She fits the description perfectly." Orihime startled, her amber eyes widening. Rangiku looked somewhat flustered.
"Ehh? Me? What description?" She pointed to herself as she spoke, blinking innocently.
"It doesn't matter," Ishida replied, clearing his throat, "All that matters is that the Count has requested your presence at his residence, effective immediately."
Orihime froze in place. She had never heard of anyone venturing up to the tower on the hill overlooking the hamlet. No one seemed to go in or come out, either. And as for the Count, no one in recent memory had even laid eyes on him. Some of the older folk in town claimed to have seen him in their own youths, but it had been many years since then. He had been a handsome, affable, middle-aged, black-haired man back then; Orihime figured he must be absolutely ancient by now. In fact, if it hadn't been for the few lights the townsfolk sometimes saw in the windows, they'd have just assumed the castle was empty and that the nobility had abandoned them.
"Now hold on just a minute!" Rangiku exclaimed, standing from her place at the table. She slammed her hands on the table in the process, rattling the wooden dishes. But almost as soon as she had stood, she swooned, bringing a hand to her face. She leaned heavily against the eating surface with a groan as Orihime rushed around the table to her.
"Sister, you're not well," Orihime chided her, "I'll just go see what he wants. It can't be that bad!" Rangiku leveled a steely glare at the black-haired man in the fancy waistcoat.
"If your decrepit old master wants a young mistress, tell him to look elsewhere!" Rangiku proclaimed, leveling an accusatory finger at Ishida. He attempted to hide a sickly blush behind his hand.
"That is hardly the case, madam," he murmured, causing Rangiku to ruffle at the form of address.
"Madam? I'm hardly nineteen!" Orihime patted her back; she knew these two should be separated as soon as possible. Ishida was only going to exacerbate Rangiku's strange new condition.
"In any case," Ishida continued undeterred, "He only needs the lady to spend the next month in his residence. After that, she will be free to return. She will also be generously compensated for her time."
That was all Orihime needed to hear. She always hated how Rangiku worked so hard for the both of them, doing work that Orihime could tell she didn't really want to do, and being unable to help. Sure she brought in a little from tending sheep and picking carrots, but Rangiku did the lion's share of the work.
"I'll do it," she answered succinctly, surprising Rangiku and causing Ishida to nod.
"Orihime, are you sure?" Rangiku asked, not caring that Ishida could hear her, "That dirty old man could do anything to you! Then how will you find a good husband?"
"It's alright, sister," Orihime answered, nodding with determination, "If he tries anything funny, I'll be sure to fight him off and come straight home!" Ishida cleared his throat as if to remind them both he was still there.
"The master is not a dirty old man," Ishida said dryly, "Now if you would be so kind as to gather your things, I'll inform the coachman that we're leaving." Orihime blinked owlishly at him.
"All I have are my clothes," Orihime thought out loud, "How many changes should I bring?" She could swear she saw Ishida wrinkle his nose.
"That will not be necessary," he began before being interrupted again by Rangiku.
"See?" she pointed an accusatory finger at the black-haired man, "He's going to keep you naked, or in some wicked, lewd outfit for his pleasure!" Orihime blushed to her toes while Ishida sighed in exasperation.
"It will not be necessary for her to bring clothing because the Count will provide her proper clothing to wear while in his residence," he ground out, "Now if you're done with your baseless accusations, we really must be on our way." Orihime noticed the concerned look Rangiku was giving her and smiled to reassure her.
"It's okay, Rangiku," she said softly, "It's only for a month, and I'm sure he's harmless. And once I do this, you won't have to work as hard!" Rangiku still looked doubtful, but acquiesced nonetheless.
"Alright, Orihime," she relented, "But if he tries anything strange, come home straight away." Orihime nodded with determination and headed towards the stairs leading to her loft.
A few minutes later, Orihime dashed down the stairs, her scant personal effects contained in a small bag. Ishida quirked an eyebrow.
"Is that it?" he asked skeptically, looking somewhat confused. Orihime returned the confused look in kind.
"I don't own that much, sir," she said innocently. Ishida looked down to adjust his monocle again. Orihime idly wondered how it stayed in place.
"Very well, then," he replied, leading her toward the door, "We'll be off."
As they reached the door, Orihime cast one last look over her shoulder at Rangiku. The older girl still looked worried, and Orihime was sure Ishida had done nothing to help that. She cast her a sad smile and waved a bit to reassure her.
The carriage ride to the castle on the hill took roughly half an hour and was mostly uneventful. Orihime spent the bumpy ride shivering from the cold and looking outside the carriage. She knew there were terrifying, murderous creatures outside at night; the other villagers rarely ventured outside at night and never traveled after dark at all.
When asked if he was aware of this, Ishida dismissed Orihime's concerns with an airy wave. He simply said there was nothing for her to fear and the subject was dropped. She figured it might have something to do with the carriageman.
He was a giant of a man, standing well over two heads taller than Orihime. His shaggy brown hair fell into his eyes, capped with a black velvet top hat. Although he said hello to Orihime with a kind nod, he was distant the rest of the trip. Orihime figured he just didn't like to talk. She also figured that he would look intimidating enough to frighten off any wolves or specters that might want to attack their carriage.
Upon asking, she was told by Ishida that the driver's name was Sado and that he was from Spain. Orihime thought briefly that this explained why he was so taciturn; perhaps his Hungarian was not very good. Or perhaps he was just mute. Either way, he seemed like a fine driver.
Still, as she peered out the fine glass windows of the carriage (her own house didn't even have glass windows!), she could swear she saw movement in the bushes along the roadside. She would have simply attributed it to the wind had it not been for the two glowing embers she saw following the carriage. When she turned to ask Ishida if he saw them, however, they had already disappeared.
In due time, they reached the looming parapets of the castle on the hill. Orihime was awestruck; although she had often seen the dark architecture from down in the village, she had never been quite brave enough to venture very close to it. As the carriage pulled around to the front walk, she could tell the castle was even more impressive up close.
As she alighted and was brought into the main hall, even more splendid sights met Orihime's eyes. The large room was only sparsely lit, candelabras flickering at the corners of the room. Even in the dim light, she could see rich tapestries along the walls that seemed to be hundreds of years old, vases and urns glinting at the corners, a crystal chandelier that looked like it belonged in an opera house in Vienna, and much more. And the centerpiece: a large painting of a family, looming above an even larger, unlit fireplace.
It was striking for its beauty. In the back were a stately, black-haired man and an elegant woman with golden brown hair and a kind face. Before them were three children - two girls and a scowling little boy with bright red hair. Orihime noted the odd hair color; hers wasn't much different. It had caused her no end of grief when she was younger. But it was his stand-offish expression she found most charming.
The oddest thing about the portrait, though, was that it looked as if it had been painted several decades ago. Orihime wondered idly if the man in the portrait was the Count who was rumored to live here. If that was true, then the little boy standing with him would also be an old man by now.
But before Orihime could think any more about this, she was being ushered up a staircase off to the side of the room by Ishida.
"Come now," he said neatly, "We've kept the master waiting well long enough."
Orihime nodded dumbly, following as she was told. As she ascended the staircase, she cast one more look at the family portrait above the empty fireplace. Finally, noticing the chill on her own skin, it dawned on her that someone should have built a fire by now.
"Excuse me, Mr. Ishida," she began, rubbing the arms that she only just realized were cold, "Shouldn't someone build a fire in the fireplace? It's a bit chilly tonight..." Ishida's eyes went wide, and for a brief second Orihime thought his monocle might pop out altogether. But then he exchanged looks with the Spaniard and the moment passed.
"The... The great hall is usually unoccupied this time of year, so we don't waste fuel on it," he hurriedly explained, causing Orihime to blink. Well, it did make sense; she wouldn't bother heating her loft with a fire when she could just take a heating stone with her to bed.
So it came as little surprise to her when Ishida then plucked a candelabra from a nearby table and lit it from some nearby candles. The passageways ahead were also unlit, owing to a lack of use, Orihime figured. Then again, if the Count knew they were coming, shouldn't they already have been lit for them? Perhaps he was low on staff and that was what she'd been called here for?
Ishida led the little party down the wide, winding stone hallways. Orihime looked side to side, taking in all the sparse furnishings around her. There was, of course, a rug running the length of the hallway, and some unlit sconces, but past that, there wasn't much of note. And this place was even draftier than the great hall, although that was to be expected.
Finally, Orihime found herself standing behind Ishida before a large set of oaken doors. Sado stood to her left, although the large man seemed hardly interested in her. After three heavy raps with his knuckles (who knew such a slight man could hit so hard?), the doors swung inward to reveal a large living space.
"Count Kurosaki, I have brought the village girl, as requested," Ishida said. Orihime was so absorbed in taking in the new surroundings that she hardly heard him.
Just like the great hall, this room was also scarcely lit, a candelabra on the desk being the only real source of light. And there in the corner was another unlit fireplace. The room itself was richly furnished with a large mahogany desk, a stately couch and armchairs, several fine paintings, and tapestries along the floors and walls. There were large bookshelves yawning with heavy volumes; Orihime wanted to pick through and open them and see if she could read them. And there before the window was a tall, thin figure with spiky, disheveled orange-red hair.
Orihime briefly wondered if this man was the son of the boy from the painting downstairs. There was no way the boy in that painting could have been less than fifty years old, but that hair color was so unique it couldn't have been a coincidence. As he turned to look at the newcomers, Orihime was taken with how identical he looked to the red haired boy. His eyes, his creased brow, his mouth, it was all the same.
More than that, though, the chill of the room began to fully settle on her. Goosebumps were rising all along her arms and her teeth clenched to keep from chattering. Even worse, as the Count turned his dark brown gaze toward her and began sizing her up, she could feel her nipples starting to harden beneath her thin white blouse. Orihime inwardly cursed the cold and covered her chest self-consciously. If no other part of her body was warm, at least her cheeks would be now.
The Count himself seemed unmoved as his eyes flickered over her face and down her body and back up again. He was tall and lean, but more muscular than Ishida; Orihime was sure she only came up to his shoulder at most. Aside from the shock of reddish-orange hair, he had a strong, handsome face. His eyes were keen, his nose was straight, and his jaw was firm. As he turned, she could see the grace and fluidity of his movements; his fine clothes only helped to accentuate the beauty in his motion. Orihime felt she wouldn't be mistaken if she said he was the most impressive man she'd ever laid eyes on.
As he moved closer to get a better look at her, Orihime felt her knees weaken. All thoughts of the cold dampness of the castle fled her mind as he drew near. Instead, her eyes were drawn to his; as he stepped towards her, she could see better their color. They were the most vivid brown she'd ever seen, a rich woody color with a cinnamon undertone; gold flecks accentuated the color, making his eyes almost glow. Orihime tore her eyes away from his face, dropping her gaze to the fine oak floor in a hurried curtsy.
"Th-Thank you for the invitation, my lord," she said softly, not daring to look up for fear of staring. After a few more moments, presumably of him studying her, the Count finally spoke.
"Thank you, Uryuu," he said firmly, his rich voice sending a pleasurable little tingle up Orihime's spine, "She'll do well." At this, Orihime peered up at him curiously from beneath her long lashes.
"U-Umm, e-excuse me, my lord," she said softly, trying to keep her teeth from chattering, "D-Did you need me for a servant? O-Or a cook?" The Count regarded her imperiously, as he gazed down his nose at her.
"Nothing like that," he replied, "I need you to pretend to be my fiancée."