Ciel Phantomhive and his butler stood out like a pair of peacocks in a chicken coop. The boy was wearing a top hat and a woolen cloak, blocking out the chill air and covering the rest of his attire save his shining leather boots. His companion was dressed in the simple tails of a butler, though covered by a dark coat. His presence seemed to create a ward against the surrounding peasantry, discouraging any ill-intended approach. The boy did not seem concerned, despite the looks they were receiving. A few nasty calls were the only verbal response to his fine dress, and several women bobbed in mocking curtsies as he passed them by. The lord of this place had made sure the boy would not be bothered on his visits, but there was always the man drunk enough or the newcomer with a bone to pick against the upper class.
The slums were teeming at this time of night. Prostitutes waved and lifted their skirts suggestively in the butler's direction, while the working men drank and found their paramours to help forget the day's labor. The raucous noise of a pub ahead made the child in the lead hesitate, but the sensation of the man's eyes on the back of his neck made him move forward once more as he shot a spiteful, one-eyed glare over his shoulder.
The stairs to the opium den were lit as dimly as they always were, though the business seemed to be good. Lau's girls were taking care of their customers with their usual acts of naivete, slipping valuables from pockets and resupplying opium as they went.
Ciel made a disgusted sound as he saw a girl sitting inappropriately in a man's lap, the two engaging in some carnality he did not care to have specified. Sebastian's polite smile gained an edge of amusement as he watched the boy's reaction, but any silent commentary was interrupted by the softest of female voices.
"Oh! Mista Phantomhive!" These petite chuugoku never ceased to fascinate Sebastian; though they were without a doubt as human as any other, Lau seemed to have gathered a collection of dolls who had eerily feline mannerisms. The girl who greeted them- Xi-wei, Sebastian recalled- looked abnormally flustered by their appearance, hesitating before speaking and shifting the tray she was carrying between her hands several times. "We didn't have word y' were coming, sir."
Ciel glanced straight through the girl, tone dismissive. "Please tell Lau I need to speak with him."
Xi-wei's voice lowered slightly, her mix of light Cockney and heavy Chinese lilting her tone. "He's gone out this evening, m'lord. There's a grand ball at the Minista's manor, and 'e left not two hours ago with Mista Mi-"
Ciel's irritated sigh cut her off, earning the girl a mildly apologetic look from his butler. "Fine, fine. I'll simply have to go find him." He turned on heel, starting up the steps once more with a swirl of his cape. Sebastian's soft replies to the boy's barked inquiries echoed even as they reached the street, and Xi-wei watched the dark doorway for a long while after they had gone.
"Xi-wei! What did the little earl want?" Kai-ying came up behind her with a soft giggle, offering her pipe to Xi-wei as she leaned on the girl's shoulders. Xi-wei inhaled slowly, letting the opium fill her lungs and head before exhaling.
"He's looking for Lau. Think it's what Lord Mikk was talking about before?" She clicked disapprovingly at the sound of breaking glass, though she still didn't look away from the door. "Something's amiss, with all these men coming in and out."
Kai-ying playfully slapped her arm, shaking her head with no small amount of exagerration. "Lau would tell us if there was a reason to worry! We serve Qingbang's Executive, remember?"
Xi-wei was silent for a long moment before shrugging, taking another puff of opium and calling over her shoulder in harsh Mandarin. "Xiao-Xiao! Clean up that mess!"
"Shi de, shi de!"
This particular party had been announced a month prior, and the city had been abuzz with excitement since the delicate, gold-leaf invitations had been delivered to every worthy door. Ciel had refused the invitation, despite Sebastian’s recommendation that he attend. His declination had involved some excuse of business, and so the doormen seemed quite surprised when he swept through the entry.
Ciel didn’t bother with the airs of taking the stairs slowly as his name was announced, briskly descending with little care for those watching him. Sebastian followed, as near as a shadow, providing some sign of the young earl’s approach as he moved through the crowd of guests.
“Do you see him?” Ciel kept his voice low, though his tone betrayed his irritation at his inability to see over the adults surrounding him. Sebastian was scanning faces, however, and he did not reply until he was certain of his answer.
“They are not in here.” He glanced upward at the sensation that he was being watched. Sebastian locked eyes with a child no older than Ciel, sitting on the banister of the upper level and watching the dancers below her as a princess watching her kingdom.
She tilted her head to the side slightly, granting Sebastian the smallest of sweet smiles.
“Odd,” Ciel remarked, still trying to gain some sort of vantage point. “Where might they be?”
Sebastian watched the girl for a moment longer, until she finally broke their gaze to look at a door across the room. The glance was meaningful, and she nodded in that direction. The butler, courteous as ever, gave a little bow in return. She seemed quite delighted by this, smile brightening in the instant before a woman who Sebastian presumed was her governess manhandled her onto solid ground and away.
“Well? Where are they!” Sebastian felt some level of annoyance at his master’s tone, but he put on his mild smile and directed the boy where he was to walk.
The room they found themselves entering was apparently a gentleman’s retreat; The air was clouded with the smoke of cigars and cigarettes, and a decanter was being floated around by a servant to the various guests. It was a dark-wood room made for entertaining, with a billiards table and several other varieties of sport lying about. A fine chess set had been set in a corner to discourage its use this evening, though another had taken its spot near the fireplace.
Ciel coughed a bit, eyes watering at the sudden strength of the atmosphere. Even Sebastian had to admit the air was noxious, though it was more the scent than the smoke that bothered him. Tobacco was never a smell he had found pleasing. As he spotted the group of seated men in the next parlor, the butler placed a hand at the small of Ciel’s back- A slight motion to draw his attention to the grouping about the card game there.
There had always been word of Minister Kamelot’s father entertaining a mistress. In earlier days, it had been nothing to concern society at large. The rumored bastard child had been sequestered somewhere far from the public eye, and that was how such things were to be dealt with. When the gentleman had appeared, following the elder Kamelot’s death, he was well-darkened from a long stay in the East, and still recovering from some wound he had managed to incur while there.
Sebastian had paid no attention to such whispered scandals, but his recollections came together as he watched two similar yet very different men exchange verbal darts over their chips. Minister Kamelot was as pale as any proper Englishman should be; His brother had skin dark enough to pass him for a Spaniard, and the facial structure to support the theory.
Very classically handsome, dark, and nonchalant, Lord Mikk leaned back in his chair, contemplating his hand and puffing almost nervously at his cigarette. “Now, see here, Cyril. If you keep bragging so, good old Lau here shall win out of principle and poor Trisha will have to spend the night drying your penniless tears.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Kamelot tapped his cards with one finger, radiating confidence. “This hand is unbeatable. Save the money you inherited and fold, brother!”
Ciel had made his way through the mess of observers to stand just beside the table, watching the men argue and waiting for the slightest pause before trying to speak.
“Minister Kamelot, I-“ The boy was completely ignored, overpowered by the sheer gusto of the men before him.
“Full house, my boy!” The Minister slammed his hand to the table, spreading the cards with gusto. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Mikk looked troubled for a moment, rolling his cigarette between his lips before slowly tossing his cards down. “That is a shame, brother.” The cards were quite shocking, apparently, because Kamelot was sputtering and speechless. “Straight flush, sirrah.”
The sly Oriental laid his hand out with his usual ceremony and grace. “It seems I have been extremely lucky this evening, as well. A straight flush.”
“Now, Tyki, you should be nicer to your brother,” the fourth member of the party laid his cards down with a slightly sheepish shrug. “Not everyone can move fast enough to shift the cut and palm cards at the same time.”
Mikk scoffed, feigning injury. “Now, Cain, I wouldn’t start that sort of argument unless you have the proof of it.”
Lau’s smile didn’t fade a bit as he glanced down at the table once more. “Ah, Lord Mikk. I will confess to doubting such luck if it hadn’t befallen me, as well. Perhaps it is jealousy?”
“Or perhaps you’re cheating the Earl.” Ciel’s voice finally managed to cut into the conversation, and all four men at the table turned their attention to the boy. Sebastian was beginning to wonder if he ought to interfere before the young boy imploded with rage at being dismissed, but the angry flush creeping up the back of the child's neck began to fade as the Minister finally addressed him.
“Hullo, Ciel, my boy!” Minister Kamelot could barely contain his enthusiasm to see the young earl, losing interest in the game immediately in favor of this new guest. “You’ve gotten so much bigger since I last saw you! I daresay you should meet Rhode, she’s just your age, and she’s such a lovely little dear! You two would get along just famously-“
“She was the one to direct us here, my lord,” Sebastian interjected, bowing slightly to the men. “My master has something he would like to discuss with Mr. Lau, if it would not be too much trouble.”
Lau brought his hands together within his sleeves, looking up to the ceiling with his usual, complacent smile. “It has been far too long since I heard such words from you, Ciel. And with something so important, I had expected you sooner.”
Cyril glanced at the rest of the company, most of whom were leaning over to try and hear the conversation between the men more clearly. “I suppose it’s time we give the table to someone else, lads. We’ve been here all night and nobody else has had their turn!”
Tyki leaned forward, grinding his cigarette butt into a convenient ashtray as he stood. “Your office, Cyril?”
Ciel stiffened slightly. “This is a private conversation, I’m afraid.”
“Lord Mikk has word you would like to hear, I believe.” Lau was as charming as always, and Cyril just stood there expectantly with a smile on his face. Ciel and Sebastian simultaneously looked to the silent fourth player, who was watching the exchange with interest apparent in his gold-green eyes.
“I won’t try to join in where I'm not wanted, Cyril.” He laughed a bit, standing and holding out his arms. “I have business of my own at home. Thank you for the lovely evening, Minister.”
"Don't leave so quickly! I'm sure the young ladies Tyki has abandoned would enjoy your company." Cyril reached out to shake his hand in farewell, all the same. "Thank you for coming tonight, Cain. It's a pleasure to have you. You need to come have tea soon! I'm sure Rhode and Merry would love to play."
A butler that Sebastian had failed to notice moved forward, placing a coat onto the young man’s shoulders and straightening it carefully. His hair was as white as ash, and the eyes that met Sebastian’s held a protective flair of loyalty. Sebastian found himself nodding minutely, acknowledging the silent fellowship, before watching the pair take their leave.
Cyril finally moved away from the table, physically pulling his younger brother into his entourage with a hand around his arm. “Well, then! Right this way, gentleman. It’s just off in the north wing.”
Ciel and Sebastian followed silently behind Lau.
“Rhode! You certainly surprised me, jumping out like that!”
“I was trying, I was trying! Did I scare you?”
“Very much, my dear! I nearly jumped through the wall!” The Minister swung the girl around, setting her on the ground at last with a soft noise of exertion. “Well, then! Earl Ciel Phantomhive, I would like you to meet Miss Rhode Kamelot!”
The girl looked Ciel over with alarmingly blue eyes, seeming to critically analyze each part of him before meeting his equally analyzing gaze. “Hullo,” she held out her hand with a confident expression, little nose in the air as she waited for his response.
Ciel seemed to have missed his cue, however, for he reached out to shake it. Sebastian couldn’t quite think of a way to amend this social error quickly enough, and Rhode saw the boy’s hesitation. “Haven’t you ever been introduced to a lady before?”
Her tone was dripping with condescension, bringing a rush of heat to Ciel’s face. Tyki, who had settled down in one of the room’s chairs, made a warning sound in her general direction.
“I beg- your pardon.” Ciel let the apology out through clenched teeth. “I was distracted by- your charms.” He wanted to throw something very hard at Sebastian right now, especially for teaching him that line to use in just this kind of situation. It was beyond asinine, but the girl seemed quite flattered. She held out her hand once more, and when Ciel finally managed to rest his own palm beneath hers and brush his lips against her hand, she tightened her fingers just a bit. The adults were moving to arrange the chairs before the fireplace, and Sebastian was being cajoled into light said fire. It was only a passing moment, but Rhode’s grip sent an odd chill through Ciel’s body.
“I didn’t know you had a daughter, Minister.” Ciel spoke a bit too loudly as he released the girl’s hand, or rather, managed to release his hand from her.
“Call me Cyril, boy! We’re in private company now.” He glanced at Lau as if doubting whether his words applied, but the moment passed. “Trisha and I adopted her several years ago. She’s our little angel!”
Rhode ran over to her uncle, delighted as she jumped into his lap and started chattering excitedly at him. Tyki’s pained expression as she accidentally elbowed his ribcage set off a round of rapidfire questions, which only seemed to put the man in more pain.
“What’s this?” Rhode’s hand had found something inside the sleeved arm Tyki had just wrapped around her waist, and after a very brief struggle that she barely managed to win, she had a card in her hand and a very flustered uncle underneath her. “Oooh, Tyki, you’ve been cheating again. The Earl won’t be happy to find out about this!”
“If you tell him, Rhode-“ Tyki grabbed the card back with an angry snatch, pulling her back into his lap and whispering something in her ear in a tone low enough that even Sebastian couldn’t hear it. Whatever it was, it made the girl settle down.
Ciel settled into the chair Sebastian pulled up for him with an impatient air, one leg crossed over the other and chin resting on one hand. "What is it you know about these illnesses?"
Lau took his sweet time before answering, shifting until he was perfectly comfortable. "Now, now. Illness..." He trailed off, looking upward with a thoughtful expression before smiling. "What is it you have come to ask me about?"
"You had no idea what I was talking about-" Ciel started, reigning himself back with a deep breath and a soft growl. "The illnesses, Lau. They've been reaching the slums, and the Queen is worried for her subjects' welfare."
"Not just the slums, boy." Tyki was pulling a fresh cigarette from his pocket as he spoke, holding it carefully between two fingers as Rhode produced his lighter. She knew exactly how to produce the flame, setting the end of her uncle's cigarette aglow with the efficiency of an expert smoker. "Last week, the Duchess Benfleet suffered an attack of the 'vapors' that put her in bed for two weeks." He held up four fingers, taking a deep breath of smoke and exhaling before continuing.
"She went into hysterics. Screaming, throwing herself about, trying to harm herself." He put one finger down, leaving three in the air. "Then, she began speaking in tongues, according to the doctors," another finger down, "and after that, she-" Tyki paused, putting his cigarette between his teeth and covering one Rhode's of ears, blocking the other by pulling her against his shoulder. "After that, she tried to seduce the surgeon, in front of her own husband. He caught them in bed later, and not in the proper manner. As dry as the Duchess is, I never imagined she'd even be able to bend-"
Cyril cleared his throat before Tyki elaborated, keeping the man on track as Ciel tried not to show his complete disgust for the man's descriptions. Sebastian seemed mildly amused by his master's reaction, turning his face aside in an attempt to hide his growing smile. "As it were, she seemed to have lost her sense completely. Tried to convince her husband to kill himself, that it was all his fault that she was ill, and then-" He put the third finger down, holding the fourth as if it were especially important.
"She started crying black tears. Two days straight, and then..." Everyone seemed to lean forward slightly in the silence, waiting for the climax to the story. "She died!"
"How unexpected," Ciel couldn't keep all of the cynicism out of his tone.
"I don't believe that kind of nonsense, Tyki." Cyril sounded rather cross with his brother's tale, resting his head on one hand. "Benfleet would have mounted a celebration for the woman's passing. You know as well as I do that he was keeping a mistress in London."
"That's the strange thing!" Tyki sounded a bit excited, leaning forward and ignoring Rhode's sound of protest. "Benfleet killed himself the very next day. He hung himself, and all of the money and titles went to his children." He sat back in his chair, looking quite satisfied with himself.
"And how do you know all of this?" It was obvious that Ciel didn't believe a word the man was saying.
"From the mistress, of course." His smile was cocky enough to make lesser men ache with inadequacy. "I've been keeping her company in the Duke's absence. She's had to pack up all her things from the city house and go back to her family in Wendover."
"Tyki Mikk, you should not be allowed in polite company with such vulgar habits," Cyril's disapproval was scathing, with a tone quite reminiscent of the beginning of a preacher's sermon. "Even if Ciel is an Earl, he isn't at any age to hear about that kind of thing. After all, he's no older than Rhode, and you still cover her ears!"
"I believe Mister Lau has something to contribute." Sebastian's voice was onobtrusive, slipping into the conversation as if he had belonged there all along. His young master's face was shadowed, but Rhode could see the shadows of a scowl. Doesn't like being treated like a child, she noted, before wrapping her arms around Tyki's neck and snuggling in to stifle a giggle. The smile she flashed at Ciel a moment later was glowing with pride, though the boy seemed to ignore it completely.
"I have heard rumors of such an illness, but the word came from the few who spend time in the farthest of hamlets." Lau shrugged slightly, as if discounting the origins completely. "They were nothing more than superstitious rumors, as any witch or demon. First it was a sorceress, then a curse, and then the plague returning through the rats. I doubt it will move beyond city borders, if the Queen can keep the gates shut and her subjects from panicking."
Ciel's frustration was apparent, fingers tapping slightly at the arm of his chair as he thought. "I don't see why the Queen would ask my assistance if she believed it was only a plague. There's something missing in your stories, gentlemen, and I would like to know what it is."
Tyki sighed, tapping the ash from his cigarette with no care for his brother’s flooring. “I thought you were looking into those disappearances on the End, Earl. Solve the case already?”
“Don’t avoid my question, Lord Mikk.” The boy’s tone was harsh, his gaze challenging.
“Now, Ciel, I don’t see why there is any reason to doubt Tyki’s account. Despite his tasteless habits, he does have a way with information.” Cyril gestured in the air with his hand as if soothing an invisible cat.
“I don’t deal with vapors and suicides, Minister. If the Queen wished to stop a plague, she would call on one of your number, or Parliament. I need to hear facts, not ridiculous fancies from a wronged mistress…”
Rhode stiffened a bit on Tyki's lap, pushing herself up to stare at the wall as if she had just heard something.
Sebastian watched her slight motions with interest, saw her calculations, the decision- All in a single moment. The demon was catching an odd sensation, putting his senses on high alert. There was a feeling that some silent transmission was occurring on a channel just beyond Sebastian's frequency; He could feel its presence, but the grasp of any content was beyond him. All the same, he was at the ready when the girl pushed herself out of her uncle's lap.
"Something is happening downstairs." Rhode spoke loudly, her voice echoing slightly in the dim light. "Someone's going to die in the ballroom."
They rushed to the ballroom, silent as they tried to catch words in the screams they could hear. Ciel felt his heart in his throat as they came to the banisters of the ballroom's second floor, looking to the grand staircase to view the scene laid before them like a board game.
The gentleman who had been involved in the earlier poker game was standing halfway up the stairs, staring in horror at a writhing, shuddering figure at his feet. It was a man, but there was something wrong with his face; the lower half obscured by something dark, and his eyes bulged grossly from their sockets. His suit was as fine as any other guest's, and if it were not for his strange behavior, he would have been nothing more than another face in the crowd.
As the guests watched, the man rolled down several steps, spasms wracking his frame once, twice, three times before he stopped moving altogether. The screams started again, and Cain moved to check for some sign of life before a strong hand caught his arm from behind.
“You alright, Hargreaves?” Tyki kept his voice low, eyeing the body on the stairs warily. Standing just behind the pair, Lau didn’t seem terribly perturbed by the entire situation, though his smile was absent.
“I’m fine,” Cain responded, though his tone betrayed how unnerved he was.
Cyril came striding down the stairs with Rhode following just behind, motioning to his servants to continue their duties as if nothing were wrong. He knelt carefully beside the prone figure, checking gingerly for a pulse and finding nothing. The minister bowed his head slightly, long hair falling forward over his shoulders in the moments he took to compose himself. The black haired man seemed ready to cry, but finally steeled his visible emotion, wiping a nonexistent tear from the corner of one eye.
At last, he looked up, expression heavy with sorrow as he looked at the guests gathered all around. “Poor soul. His heart must have given out,” Cyril began, though he found himself interrupted by a hysterical woman’s shriek.
“It’s the Earl! He killed him!” The woman stood out from the crowd on the staircase, a finger pointing at the startled Earl Hargreaves. “As soon as he touched him, he fell!”
Ciel and Sebastian made their way to the others as the accusations began to fly. “Did you see the way he jerked around? I heard he keeps a collection of poisons-“
“Oh, come off it!” Tyki’s tone was sharp, though effective. The entire room fell silent, and Cyril suddenly started to his feet.
“My guests! I am very sorry for this trouble. I had hired a display of acrobats for your entertainment this evening, and they are waiting out on the veranda at this very moment. I shall have to tell them to leave, if nobody intends to watch them.” The crowd hesitated, but began to move out the large glass doors as the sound of some foreign music drifted indoors. Cyril's gaze dropped to the body once more as they dispersed, blue eyes showing none of the emotion his expression was conveying.
“Daddy, I thought you weren’t going to invite him to any more parties if this happened again!” Rhode seemed quite cross, looking at the body as if it were a rat someone had crushed on a walkway. “If people die every time he attends, people won’t come anymore!”
“This happens often?” Ciel’s question made Cyril shift almost uncomfortably, a fist held to his mouth as he cleared his throat.
“Now, now. It doesn’t happen often, merely an accident. It has happened once or twice, at the most-“
“At your parties, Cyril. Once or twice at your parties.” Tyki clapped Cain on the shoulder as he spoke, as if signaling his words were not meant to insult him. “This will be forty-five, if I count my 'Cain-did-it's correctly.”
“Tyki! I apologize, Earl, my brother is forgetting his manners.” The Minister was flustered by the younger noble's remarks, granting the lord a chastising glare.
Ciel leaned close to the body, covering his face with a handkerchief as a stench hit his senses. “What is this? This mess, here,” he gestured to the gooey substance trailing from the man’s mouth, spilling out onto his shirt and the carpet.
“Something that causes a black stain on fabrics, I see.” Lau was already on the scene, crouching down to watch it move into the carpet in a slow trail. “It appears that Minister Kamelot will need to replace the rug.”
“It’s a wonder they haven’t hired you on at the Yard, Lau,” Tyki finally released Cain, and the pair knelt on either side of Ciel to get a closer look at the prone form. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say poison. Look at it, still coming out of his mouth and-“
“It’s not any poison I’ve heard of.” Cain’s voice was brusque as he looked the man over carefully, doing his best to avoid actually touching the corpse.
Rhode whistled, hands on her knees as she leaned over to gawk. “That’s saying a lot. You’ve got every poison there is.”
Cain smiled softly, but the others were not quite so receptive to her behavior. The look Ciel gave the girl was one of pure disdain. “Are you calling your dog?”
Tyki hid his scoff with a cough, nodding tactfully. “That’s right, Rhode, ladies don’t whistle.”
“Or stand like they’re digging for clams,” Cyril added absently, rushing off to intercept several overly curious guests.
Rhose looked fit to spit as she settled down to sit a safe distance from the growing stain, watching the liquid as it continued to bubble from the man’s mouth. Despite the large number of people shoving to get a better look at the body, she refused to move, rewarding the few legs that neared stepping on her with a sharp tap. Shoving some of her hair from her face, she watched the men poking about with a sulky glare. Rhode would have loved to get in there and see what was going on, but with so many nobles she knew she had to be as proper as could be. It wouldn't do to put the Minister's good name in jeopardy, but all the same...
The girl sighed loudly. She wished she could do something besides sitting around acting prim and stupid. No matter how ladylike it was, pretending to faint like those ninnies she was supposed to be friends with was out of the question.
Cain slipped his gloves on, pulling back the man's eyelids and checking the color of the flesh within expertly. "Perfectly healthy. Not a single discoloration or burst vessel," he muttered, and the shadow of his butler acknowledged the fact with a soft sound of affirmation.
Ciel found himself watching his fellow Earl from the corner of his eye. The man was younger than he had seemed at first, with his brown hair falling in his face. He had the sort of hair that Ciel's future mother-in-law would deem unacceptable, roaring and menacing about it before slicking it all back with her omnipresent comb. That would make the Hargreaves Earl look absolutely juvenile, Ciel mused, and then realized he had made eye contact with the subject of his thoughts.
Cain's eyes were made of an odd mixture of colors akin to hazel: gold and green, a metal and forest moss. His features were almost delicate, giving his unguarded expressions a feeling of naivete. The moment he felt the younger boy’s gaze, however, Cain’s expression shifted to the no-nonsense look that added years to his appearance. Though the older boy looked back to his butler after a long moment of their silent gaze, Ciel kept watching him.
I wonder… Ciel almost dared to ask the man’s age, but Sebastian caught his attention with a soft-spoken word.
“Master,” the butler reached out carefully, picking lightly at a piece of paper protruding from the man’s coat-front pocket. He had been hovering over the boy's shoulder, present but unnoticed, looking over each detail of the scene until he had found that small anomaly. The man unfolded the paper delicately. Sebastian stared at the paper for a long moment before passing it on to Ciel, eyes narrowed slightly at the odd nature of the find.
There was a strange script on the thin page, a series of lines and dots scrawled in a loose hand. Ciel turned the paper several directions before furrowing his brow, failing to notice that Cain and Tyki were hovering over his shoulders in Sebastian’s stead. The butler didn’t seem to care that the curious pair had displaced him, instead walking around to the other side of the corpse as he looked for any other interesting articles. When Ciel shot him a questioning look over the page, Sebastian nodded minutely. He had memorized the page, as always. Understanding what it meant, however... The butler shook his head in response to a second glance.
The Minister had rushed off, presumably to summon the police, and so Lau was the next to come into possession of the page. He hummed and hawed over it for a few moments before rising to his feet, ignoring the momentary protest from Ciel. The Chinaman only went a short distance, though, stopping beside Rhode. He bent to pick her up like an oversized kitten, hands tucked just beneath her arms before sitting down on the steps with his usual grace, holding her up until he could settle her petite frame comfortably on his lap. Leaning back against him, Rhode made a noise of contentment. She was thoroughly enjoying the attention, especially after the criticism she had received earlier.
Drawing the linen paper from his sleeve, Lau held it before them both, as if he were about to read the girl a bedtime story. “What does the young Miss Kamelot think of this, hm?” He looked down to her with his usual smile, watching her expression. Sebastian saw what the man had almost certainly been looking for as the girl’s eyes scanned the individual marks on the page. It was as if she were reading poorly written words, going over each series repeatedly before moving on to the next. It took her a long minute to finish, and she went over it several times, as if attempting to memorize the notations.
The girl knew how to read the symbols on that page.
Her expression remained quite puzzled, however, and she shook her head, looking up at Lau innocently. “It’s just scribbles, Lau.”
The Chinese man nodded, expression fading to one of mildly exaggerated resignation. “Ah, well. We shall have to turn this over to the policemen from your Scotland Yard. Perhaps they will know what it means.”
Rhode shifted uncomfortably, glancing around as if looking for her father. Tyki was too distracted by his conversation with Cain to notice her dilemma, and so she reached up and took hold of the paper with a stubborn tug. “It… might be a picture!” She turned it so the torn edge was upward, and the lines were directed vertically. “See?”
“Aberline!” One of the guests called the name out with relief, and Ciel stifled a sigh. The Yard was here. There would be no more opportunity for their party to examine the body.
Sebastian dipped the palm of one glove in the black mess before the detectives approached, turning the stained fabric inside out and slipping it into his pocket as he rose. He saw the quick movement of paper from Lau and Rhode’s direction, and as quickly as he turned, the note had disappeared. The two were smiling as benignly as a pair of waving cats, Lau holding the child steady with a hand on her tiny stomach as they looked out over the assembled gawkers.
Sebastian made a silent note of the paper he had memorized, turning to see Ciel, Tyki, Cain, Cyril, and the Yard officers meet just in front of the body.
“Earl Hargreaves; Earl Phantomhive,” The sergeant acknowledged the pair with a nod, though his tone communicated more intense dislike than respect. “I was unaware you two were acquainted.” He made it sound as if their relationship were on a level with meeting his wife and her lover in the same room, eyes sliding across them and finding the body. Both boys were a nuisance to the law on their own, and finding them together in such a place was comparably unpleasant. “What happened here?”
“That gentleman touched Cain and fell over dead,” Tyki was smoking yet another cigarette, standing beside the detective and looking over his shoulder as if he were some sort of assistant detective in his fine vest and trousers. “Or so the witness said.”
The sergeant seemed annoyed at the man’s comfortable stance. “Witness? Where is she?”
Tyki smiled, shrugging slightly as if he truly felt bad about his news. “She had to leave early, unfortunately. It seems her sensibilities were offended by the whole affair.”
“Who was it?” His face was turning an odd shade of purple, rage swelling the veins in his neck as he tried to contain his temper.
Cyril stepped in before his brother earned a fight, hands out as if he were hoping to avoid any conflict. “Please feel free to ignore Lord Mikk, sergeant. He’s been drinking far too much this evening, and it seems his manners have been affected.”
Ciel tried to recollect how many times the Minister had said similar lines throughout the evening, concluding they were somewhere around three. Tyki’s attention had shifted to his niece and friend, however; a police officer was ushering the other guests from the area, and as the people cleared away and the noise from the people faded, he could see the pair were sitting in their own world. Both had their eyes closed, and their smiles were identically content. Rhode was humming softly, a rather strange tune, but Tyki could only catch bits and pieces.
“Excuse me, Lord Mikk. I need to ask you some questions about what happened here, if you’d help our case along.”
Tyki inhaled deeply from his cigarette, raising a brow as a detective came up to question him. Not bothering to turn away, he blew smoke full into the man’s face, expression a bit smug as the detective coughed harshly.
“Beg your pardon; I wasn’t here when it happened.”
By the time the evening was over, Rhode had fallen asleep in Lau’s arms, and the guests who had been detained by the policemen were invited to spend the few hours left until morning in one of the Minister’s spare bedrooms. Ciel and Sebastian planned to decline the invitation, until the young Earl’s yawns convinced the butler to accept, despite his master's pride. The boy ended up in one of Tyki’s large shifts, and fell asleep as soon as he’d been tucked into bed.
Sebastian was the only person left awake in the house as he walked down the stairs to the scullery. The corridors were dark, and he settled himself on a seat beside the kitchen window without lighting a single candle to break the black night. The butler pulled his soiled glove from his pocket, placing it on the countertop and carefully turning it right side out once more. The consistency of the fluid had thickened, though it was still blacker than ink. It still carried the stench that had bothered Ciel so much earlier, and Sebastian lifted it to his nose to take a deep breath of the scent. It flooded his senses with familiarity. He couldn’t resist a smile, eyes glowing slightly in the darkness.
“Shouldn't you sleep?”
Sebastian barely glanced over his shoulder, already recognizing the voice. The girl sounded tired, but he had a feeling these nighttime wanderings were a habit. “I have no need to. What of you?”
Rhode padded carefully across the kitchen floor, bare feet making almost no sound on the tiles. “I don't want to sleep. It's boring, and there's always something else I can do.” She sprung up to sit on the counter with almost no effort, settling down with her legs crossed beneath her long shift. Her hair was mussed from sleep, sticking up every which way to make her look like a little black hedgehog. She shook a few bothersome pieces from her face before she continued. “No matter what time it is.”
“Do your nightmares trouble you often?” He had caught a glimpse of an odd color to her eyes, and he watched her carefully as she spoke.
Sebastian’s knowing smile seemed to bother the girl far more than his implication. Her slight bristle was well disguised, however, tone as sweet as could be. “Nightmares? I don't have nightmares.”
There it was: a flash of gold. Her eyes had been quite blue earlier in the evening. “All humans have nightmares. You seem to be well acquainted with them.”
“What is that?” Rhode’s tone shifted from defensive to naïve as quickly as she switched topics.
Her change in subject made the butler smile, but he lifted the stained glove to just below her nose as if offering a bloodhound a trail. “A piece of evidence from our little mystery. What do you think that smells like?”
The girl sniffed delicately, flinching at the strength and pushing it back a few inches before smelling it once more. It seemed she would be ill for a moment, but she swallowed harshly. He could hear her stomach turning, her little heart beat faster as she maintained her composure and shook her head. “Rotten eggs- er, sulfur. Burnt meat, burnt hair,” another quick inhale was followed by a sneeze. “Something else. I don’t know, I don’t remember.”
Sebastian drew the glove back before she had the chance to push his hand away, resting his chin on the palm that was still covered. “Remember? Have you smelt it before?”
Rhode seemed at something of a loss, staring at him silently.
“You said you don’t remember. If you remember something, you recall it from some time before the present,” he began to explain with a certain level of condescension, though it was well hidden by his demure posture.
“I know what remembering is,” Rhode retorted, “and I don’t know. I just know that I’ve smelt it somewhere.”
“I don’t know.”
“And yet you say you do.”
“It was years ago, how should I know?”
“Indeed. How many years does it take to forget such a thing?” He seemed to find this conversation quite droll, watching her with a sidelong glance and the ghost of a smirk. The little angel's facade cracked, revealing something painful, dark, for the smallest of moments. As he watched, her entire body grew taut; her nails dug into her palms until he could smell the blood that welled from the tiny cuts. He half expected tears, or some pitiful gasp of injury, but her reaction managed to surprise the butler.
“You’re not tricking me with your games, demon!” Rhode’s voice was sharp and far too loud, echoing in the kitchen painfully. Both man and child fell silent, waiting for any sign of life or awakening in the rest of the house.
Long minutes passed, and nothing stirred. Sebastian’s expression had fallen slightly, his smile earning a darker edge. “I beg your pardon.”
“I can smell it on you.” Rhode’s voice was low, tone carrying the weight she was obviously used to using with her own servants. “It’s stronger than any other I’ve met.”
Sebastian didn’t seem very impressed, looking to the girl with an amused raise of his brow. “And what does a demon smell like, miss?”
Rhode swallowed her words, letting the silence reign for a painful stretch of time before she finally spoke.
“Tragedy, sorrow, pain, and a machine.”
Her sense of smell was far superior to what he had anticipated; it was no wonder she had recoiled from the vile substance on his glove. The butler almost laughed, an uncharacteristic soft chuckle escaping his lips. “Really, now.”
“You don’t smell like a machine, though.” Rhode’s voice was flat, cold. “But even so, you’re not human.”
“Are you?” Sebastian’s tone was almost amiable, eyes giving off a dim, crimson glow as he spoke. He had underestimated this little girl, and the game was becoming more interesting.
Her gaze flashed gold, and no answer came. After he deemed her silence beyond the point of simple obstinance, the demon tossed the soiled glove toward her lap. The girl jerked backwards, some invisible force flinging it away before it even made contact with her nightgown. It was all in her mind, this power, and he could almost taste the strength behind this small show of force. It was only a hint of what she was capable of, and they both knew it.
Rising to his feet, the butler stepped forward, closing the distance between them swiftly. Sebastian placed his gloved fingers beneath the girl's chin and tilted her face to see her inhuman gaze all the better. It was indignant, spiteful, hateful- and beyond that, some strange fear seemed to reside.
Rhode was frozen beneath his touch, some force of will breaking his spell on her after long, silent minutes. She reached upward, tiny fingers brushing down his temple, hand coming to rest on his cheek. The butler felt a warm pressure at the edge of his mind as she tried to explore, but she found no entrance to the demon's heart. He let down his guard to a small degree, letting her reach only the bare sensation of his power. It was far stronger than any of her pet demons'.
The girl was not one to let such opportunities pass her by. She tried to force her way in with a sudden rush of strength, but the demon's defenses did not budge. He caught hold of that power, and for a bare instant she was hostage as he felt the strength behind those golden eyes, drawing on it to get a taste of her origins.
He felt positively dizzy as he released her power. She was an absolute monster- a delightful, tiny fiend.
"I thought as much," Sebastian breathed the words, fingers twitching slightly as though tempted to take a full grip on her delicate jaw. His control was impeccable, however, and he withdrew gracefully. Rhode let her hand fall from his face, though she did not look away from him. She was trying to puzzle him out, put the pieces together, just as he was trying to define her. His eternity far outlived hers, though, and he had far more experience to draw his guesses from.
The butler's smile was almost demure as he held out his left hand, as if waiting for the darkness to pass him something. If you would be so kind.
Rhode stared at him for a long moment, expression unreadable. He didn't wonder if she had heard the thought. She was simply weighing her options, and deciding if she felt like playing along. The evil of recent ages was so childish in comparison to his own, but at last, she grudgingly complied. It lifted from the floor, not a wobble disturbing its line of travel.
The glove floated to Sebastian's open palm, hesitating for a moment before slapping into his grip as if being surrendered by a petulant brat. There, Rhode sniffed, indignant even in her thoughts.
Sebastian tucked it into his pocket once more, bringing a finger to his mouth and licking the mess as if savoring some delicacy. I would offer, but I doubt lucifugus suits your tastes.
Rhode's sickened expression seemed to support his remark; she couldn't quite suppress her disgust. I don't know.
The butler's sharp canines were visible as he smiled.
Lau was very fond of his private quarters within his establishment. It was as if he had stepped into his homeland once more, with rich brocade hangings and black wood furniture he had brought with him over the vast continent to this little island. The room lacked the scent of opium that permeated the rest of the building, with a soft blend of jasmine and sandalwood wafting from some hidden place.
Tyki had always remarked on the mystery of that smell, asking what it was. Lau always smiled and answered vaguely, but when his guests had left, he would always open that small cabinet across from his bed and light a fresh stick of incense.
The tiny Buddha behind those black doors smiled at him no matter what crimes he had committed that day. Lau would smile back before locking him away once more, along with his moral ponderings and qualms. The ancestors had always been pleased by his ambition when he was a boy. He had prayed for his success, offered the best he could afford, and worked his way through the ranks of the Shanghai mafia to reach his throne. Though he would not give all the credit to the power of forces he could not see, the man did not enjoy tempting his luck. The three-legged frog remained beneath his bed, a pair of qi’lin stood guard on either side of his door, and Lau would honor his predecessors every morning and night.
He had been engaging in this small ritual when a disgruntled Tyki Mikk came knocking at his door, not bothering to wait for a response before letting himself in. Lau had difficulty hiding his annoyance at the man’s intrusion, but he carefully closed the door on his secret when he saw he expression on his friend’s face.
“Lord Mikk,” he started, erring on the side of polite caution. “You seem troubled.”
The title only seemed to irritate the noble more. “Cyril’s at his tricks again, and I’m getting tired of the Yard pecking on my doorstep whenever I try to pay a call to Hargreaves. I was barely over the threshold on the way here before some sniveling detective tried to follow me.”
Lau made a sympathetic noise, clicking disapprovingly as Tyki nervously ran his hand through his hair. “Tyki, perhaps it would be best for you to remain home for several days. With the poor marquis’s death, we have all been labeled suspects.”
“I wasn’t even in the ballroom! If anyone should be getting pressured, it’s Cain!” Tyki sighed the instant he’d finished, shoulders sinking in defeat. “That’s not fair at all.
Stepping forward, Lau put a comforting hand on the noble’s shoulder. “It sounds as if you are in need of some leisure, my friend.” Though his smile was as benevolent as always, the man was mildly concerned for his companion. He was aware of how dark Tyki’s moods could become. “It just so happens that I have everything necessary for such an evening- that is, unless you would prefer a homely English girl for your pleasures.”
Tyki laughed, humor improving already. “You know my tastes, Lau. One of your lily-footed beauties will always be my first choice.”
Ciel Phantomhive was in a foul mood.
Sebastian kept his composure as his master threw his fit, sweeping up the remains of a vase that had become a projectile weapon and stepping aside as a flurry of rather heavy paperwork came flying at him.
“There is nothing! This man, this entire party, the note- It’s entirely useless!” Ciel looked frustrated enough to cry, though his eyes were shining with rage rather than tears. His superior investigations had found no leads, and the only physical clue had disappeared with the arrival of Scotland Yard on the crime scene. Sebastian kept his benign silence, following orders and answering questions, but not once did the boy inquire after the whereabouts of the paper they had found on the man’s person. Assuming the police had taken it, they had gone to find it in the evidence of the case; their search produced nothing.
“Perhaps, if the young master would control his temper, something more productive may be done.” Sebastian’s smile didn’t even twitch as the boy simply began ripping papers in half, throwing the torn pieces into the air like so much rubbish.
“Scotland Yard has no information on the man. He has no name, no scars, nothing particularly unique. Just an average old man of average height and average weight.” Ciel crumbled one sheet into a ball, tossing it aside. “He was not accounted for on the Minister’s guest list. None of the guests recognized him. The black mess has been written off as some bubonic bile and the rugs and body burned.”
Sebastian picked up the papers dutifully, face betraying none of his indulgent fantasies of teaching his brat master some temperance.
“The paper is gone as well! That was the only, the absolute only thing there was!” Ciel had run out of paper, not to mention things to break. He balled his fists in the bedspread, breathing heavily and trying to sort out some new method of attack.
“Are you quite finished, young master?” Sebastian’s tone was quite polite, watching the boy for any sign of a new tantrum. He would answer nothing until asked.
Ciel was silent for a long moment, finally nodding in response. “I should like my evening tea.”
The butler bowed slightly in acknowledgment. “As you wish.”
Several miles away, Rhode Kamelot was up to her nose in bathwater. The scent of roses wafted ever so lightly from the surface of the tub, mixing oddly with the lavender soap the maid was using to scrub her lady's skin. Though Rhode usually enjoyed her evening bath, she was in a rather impatient mood this particular night. Her uncle had promised her that Lau would be visiting her home today, but after the excitement of a visit from the Earl of Millennium it had been forgotten entirely.
“Don’t sulk,” Wisely was in his bedroom, opposite the bathroom he and Rhode were sharing while the décor was refurbished. He was letting one of the servants undress him with a rather grudging air. The boy still wasn’t quite used to the finer aspects of his new life, but Cyril was being quite strict with his new son’s education in nobility.
“I’m not sulking.” Rhode replied sharply. “I’m getting a bath. There’s a big difference.”
There was a long pause as the servant dressing Wisely was quietly shooed off, and he pulled on his own shift. “I can hear you moping from here. You can see your Chinaman tomorrow, you know.”
“Hmph.” She stepped out of the tub with the maid’s help, closing her eyes as a vast, fluffy towel was wrapped around her and began to rub her dry.
Wisely came across the hall once the maid had tugged Rhode’s nightgown, and started combing out her hair. Leaning in the doorway, he watched the girl as she waited for the maid to leave before messing her hair up once again.
“What?” Rhode snapped, putting her hands on her hips and staring the other Noah down.
He smiled, looking over his shoulder and down the hallway before answering. “The twins and I are going on an adventure once the adults are asleep. D’you want to come with?”
“An adventure?” She repeated the words rather blankly, not sure what he was trying to say.
Wisely’s grin widened. “We’re going to the East End.”
“No!” Rhode put her hands to her mouth, seeming quite shocked by the idea. As quickly as it came, however, her surprise was replaced by sheer enthusiasm. “Yes! Yes, I want to come!”
Tyki Mikk was naked, and it felt absolutely wonderful.
Lau had encouraged him to have just the smallest bit of opium; it was quite relaxing, and a little bit would do no harm. It was the chain smokers, the laudanum drinkers, who ended up addicted, not intelligent men such as Tyki.
Half a pinch later, he was dizzy, lightheaded, and being undressed by one of Lau’s girls. It was a rush of silent, hot sex, breath heavy, the scent of opium clinging to their skin and hair. Tyki would have sworn that reality evaporated when he climaxed. The surreal sensation lingered as they lay on the bed, tangled together and panting for breath.
The heat was nearly unbearable, even once the sheets had been thrown aside to leave their flesh bare to the open air.
“Damn,” He breathed, for once at a loss for words.
She smiled, tracing the lines of his scarred chest with her carefully filed fingernails. Either she didn't speak English, or she was just a quiet girl; Tyki was not much of one for pillow talk, either way. Even as she began to rub at his shoulders, he was starting to sit up, running a hand through his hair and wavng her off gently.
"Thank you," Tyki swung his legs off the bed, reaching for a spare robe that Lau had left draped across the bedside table. It was rather surreal, sitting in this Chinese room, in a Chinese robe, with a Chinese girl- Almost as if they were not in the midst of Victoria's London. For a few hours, he was a lord of the Orient, spoiled with the spice of a life so far from his norm.
The mirror against the wall broke the illusion, displaying the contradiction of his wildly Portuguese hair and dark skin. He was nothing but a man playing dressup, a figured roughly hewn from earth and sweat that was simply draped in fine brocade.
He felt a strange indifference at the thought, examining the contradictory image as he fixed his hair. So long and unruly; Tyki would have cut it in an instant, if it were not for his temperamental niece. Perhaps he would do it anyways, endure her whining and sniffling for the sake of his own pleasure.
That was an idea.
The girl had slipped out of the room while he was preoccupied, and Tyki could see Lau approaching in the mirror.
"Gold suits you," the Chinaman remarked, a smile on his face as he slid his hands into his sleeves.
"Not well." Tyki adjusted the robe, drawing it forward and tying it loosely at the waist. His chest was still bare, scarred flesh gliistening with sweat. "I'm not made for the finery of the East."
Lau seemed to find that amusing. "And you say you aren't made for the finery of the West. Where do you suppose that leaves you, Lord Mikk?"
Ignoring the silence that followed, Lau drew a pale, gold ribbon around his friend's long hair, tying it back with deft fingers.
"I have some wine, if you wish to stay."
Tyki nodded, letting Lau lead him out of the room with a hand on his shoulder.
They waited, ever so patiently, for their opportunity.
Cyril came to wish them goodnight, kissing his precious daughter on the forehead and tucking her in, fluffing Wisely's pillow and affectionately calling him 'son', and patting the twins on the head. He changed into his shift and kissed his wife, settled into bed and sighed softly as he closed his eyes.
His adopted son could sense the exact moment he slipped into his dreams. It was time to set things in motion.
Wisely slid out of bed on thieving feet, steps making no sound as he crept down the hallway to rouse the others. The twins were already up and dressing in their borrowed breeches and shirts, laughing silently as they helped one another tug on the stable boys' coats. Beneath their mattress, Wisely had slipped a few of his own stolen garments. Retrieving his loot, he led the twins to their smallest cohort's bedroom.
The groom's apprentice was small enough to match Rhode's sizing, and the boy had willingly given up a set of clothes in exchange for a bit of coin. They helped her out of her shift and into the unfamiliar breeches, buttoning and straightening until she was perfect picture of a common boy. Her wild hair, however, presented a problem.
"We can just leave it," she insisted, tousling it as she looked at herself in the mirror. "It's not like I've got ringlets or something."
Wisely scoffed, bending over her and examining their reflection critically. "It's not just the hair. You've got such a girl's face." He buried his fingers in the mess, trying to arrange it in some way that could be even slightly more masculine.
"We could shave her," Debitt suggested, shushing his brother's squeaks of laughter immediately. Rhode shot her cousin a deadly glare.
"A hat." Wisely finally declared. "We need one of those funny caps the newsboys wear."
"Where do you think we're going to find one of those?" Debitt sneered, unimpressed by the idea. "They don't sell newspapers on this side of town."
"But they do outside the End." Jasdero finally piped up, earning himself a glare from his twin.
"Exactly," Wisely patted Rhode's hair down before straightening and putting his hands on his hips. "We will just have to find one on the way."
The hardest part of their adventure was getting out of the house. Wisely had learned on several occasions that it was physically impossible to get out the front door without being intercepted by a nosy servant, and had spent a few weeks searching for an alternate escape route. A rose-covered trellis beneath Rhode's window had turned out to be the perfect ladder, despite the thorns that covered the vines. The climb down was far from easy, but the agile adolescents managed to scramble down with almost no problems.
Getting Rhode over the garden wall was an entertaining obstacle, accompanied with quite a few curses and tumbles on the part of the little lady. Finally, quite tired of bothering with it, Wisely just had the twins climb to the street and catch the girl as he heaved her over the wall. Of course, they fumbled and dropped her, but after some cursing and gutpunching, all was forgotten in favor of clearing the way for Wisely to jump down.
As he jumped down onto the cobblestone walkway, Wisely looked around for any sign they had been observed. The street was empty, nobles and servants cozily cloistered behind their grand doors and safe gates. In a few windows, the glow of fireplaces and lanterns could still be seen, providing light to the late working and sleepless husbands, but there were no visible witnesses to their escape.
"Nobody saw us," he finally breathed, turning to face his companions. Theynodded in acknowledgment, and followed with hushed whispers as he started off toward the Thames.
Standing in one of the darkened windows of his townhouse, Cain Hargreaves watched the motley crew of adventurers struggle across the wall and set out into the dark world. He couldn't quite suppress a smile at their antics, but he had a nagging sense that this was an ill-fated expedition. The Kamelot boys slipped out of the house on a regular basis, of course- They simply had never taken Cyril's daughter along for their fun.
"Riff," he said, hearing the butler's movement as he entered the room.
The servant turned from where he had been prepared to stoke the fire, waiting for the rest of his lord's request.
Cain was silent for a long while, contemplating his course of action. It was a fanciful idea, and possibly entirely pointless. However…
"We're going for a walk. My coat, please."
London's East End was a crush of humanity's undesirables. Filth filled the gutters, spilling out into the narrow cobbled lanes and staining the soles and skirts of those who passed. Whores lurked at the mouth of every alley, luring the gentlemen with coy words and low cut gowns. Rhode found herself gaping at the sight of a woman pleasuring a man in the shadows, unable to look away despite the disgust that welled in her gut. Her arm was grabbed and she was tugged along, however, further down the maze of streets.
The night was broken by the multitude of lanterns in their path, illuminating a path of sin and seduction to the heart of the city. Noblemen were visible in the doorways to unsavory establishments, leaving and entering with pleased smiles on their faces. A broken window one story above the street let a child's scream escape into the open air, and the mistress of the whorehouse looked up with a disapproving glare. Rhode was too busy watching that window as the twins towed her along to see the sharp black coats seated at a rundown café, barely three yards from the road.
"Stop getting distracted," Wisely snapped, getting a firm grip on his sister's hand. "The last thing we need is you wandering off."
Rhode jerked out of his reach, shooting him a particularly nasty glare. "I'm fine. I don't need daddy's charity case coddling me like a child."
Dominic Crehador was thoroughly impressed with the rate at which his odd companion was devouring a small pile of meat pies. Certainly, the train ride to London was long, but judging by the quality of his clothes and coat, Dominic had assumed he would be well fed. The boy's voracious appetite was of little consequence, however; Dominic was not paying for the meal, and this was simply a companionship of convenience and coincidence.
After meeting one another on the train and finding themselves walking in the same direction from the station, they had ended up dining at a relatively famous shop. Even Crehador had to admit these were some of the best pies in London.
Rather suddenly, the white haired boy turned around midbite, looking at the crowd of people walking past the café with a curious expression. Dominic watched him for a moment before speaking.
"What are you looking for, Walker?"
The boy looked back to his food, brow knit in a troubled frown. "Nothing, I suppose." He glanced down at the pie, as if considering something. "I just thought I heard a familiar voice."
Dominic looked over his companion's shoulder at a rather peculiar confrontation between several young boys; one was barely a child, one was nearly a young man, and two were just old enough to be considered teenagers. The child and the light-haired young man were facing off, hands on hips and glaring at one another as obviously nasty words were exchanged.
After a few minutes of this, the young man grabbed his companion's arm, starting to walk off and trying to tow him along. The child had other ideas, however, sitting back and digging his heels into the cobblestones. Despite the large contrast in size, the child was managing to win the struggle- At least, until the older boy forcibly picked him up and slung him over his shoulder. With no small amount of kicking and shouting from the smallest of their number, the group moved off down the road. Dominic wasn't quite sure whether or not he had just witnessed a kidnapping of some sort; either way, it wasn't really his business.
"Yes, well. You can run into all sorts of people in this part of town," Crehador remarked offhandedly. The clergyman was already working at his food again, though, and didn't seem to be paying attention.
Rhode pulled her hat down tightly on her head, following her cousins and brother with a very grudging slouch to her shoulders. She had come along on this little excursion to enjoy herself, not be dragged along like a leashed dog.
After a few minutes of looking at the people on the sides of the street, the girl dropped her gaze to the street beneath her feet. The stones here were far more uneven than those outside her father's house, and there was more than dirt staining the street. Every once in a while, there was a strange black spot, and on one occasion Rhode had to step around a freshly dried mess of blood and teeth. When she looked back up at the surrounding buildings, she realized they had entered an even worse set of streets. There were loud arguments going on outside a bar they were passing, and the noise of glass breaking was audible from the interior.
"Wisely," she started, eying a man who was watching her hungrily. "Where are we going, again?"
He opened his mouth to respond, but was interrupted when a large man came slamming into his side. Wisely went sprawling onto the cobblestones, completely unprepared for the impact. While he was recovering from his fall, the twins were intercepting the man who had brought the altercation into the street.
Debitt shoved the stranger, shouting something about watching where he was going; Jasdero backed him up with his usual fervor. The man was obviously not having any of it, however, and he swung his fist into Jasdero's face without further preamble. That set off Debitt, who hurled himself at the man with murderous intent and a shouted curse. The noise was drawing spectators, and Rhode watched with mute fascination as dirty drunks came stumbling out of the bars to join the brawl.
Wisely was dusting himself off and getting to his feet when the fight really started up, mouth set in a line of irritation. He could handle himself in a fight, but he hadn't come to the End in search of trouble tonight. With the practiced air of a scrapper, he uppercut the man who had started it all, knocking him out cold. It was far too late to avert events, and the street was already a broiling mess of aggression and brutal beatings, bottles breaking on stones and heads while men roared. Rhode realized with sudden clarity that she needed to get out of harm's way. Stepping back, she kept her gaze locked on the mess of men in front of her.
Debitt shoved his way to the top of the pile, turning to see Rhode standing in the middle of the street with a dumb expression on her face. She was too close to the fray for his taste.
"Back up, stupid!" Debitt roared as loudly as he could, elbowing a grabby brawler in the gut. Rhode looked at him as if she'd only just realized he was in there, and started to turn to move out of the street. As if on cue, a massive man went flying backwards out of the fight. Before Debitt could open his mouth to warn her, Rhode disappeared beneath the man, hitting the filthy cobblestones hard enough that bystanders winced.
Before she lost consciousness, Rhode saw her blood draining into the cracks beside her face.
The holding cells at Scotland Yard were not a terribly appealing place for anyone, let alone the miscreant sons of noblemen. Usually, a bit of extra coin and the mere mention of their esteemed parentage would be enough to earn their release before things progressed this far, but since Wisely was a relatively new addition to the Kamelot family, and Debitt and Jasdero were nothing short of rude, the three young men found themselves sitting on a filthy bench in a filthy cell beside some filthy criminals, waiting with no small amount of anxiety for some news of their fate.
"We're nobles. We can't be in a common cell like this!" Debitt snarled, kicking the grease-blackened bars angrily before resuming his pacing.
Wisely watched his cousin's fit with a very unimpressed expression, doing his best to control his temper.
"Perhaps they would have been easier on us if you hadn't run your mouth like a bratty noble to the officers."
"Don't act superior at me, you bridge-dwelling tramp--!" He whirled on the other Noah, ready to start another fight then and there. Wisely was already on his feet, however, taking a few steps forward to shove the smaller boy back into the bars he’d kicked only moments before. Debitt let out a howl, grabbing at the bars to right himself as his twin tried to get into a position to hit Wisely where it would actually cause some pain.
The noise of footsteps and talking in the hallway interrupted the attack, however, and Debitt found himself in the rather unfortunate position of being closest to the door when the constable unlocked it for the esteemed Lord Kamelot.
“Thank you, constable. Lady Kamelot has been worried sick about these little scamps all evening,” Cyril sighed, stepping into the cell and reaching for the dark-haired boy who was trying to put some space between himself and the Minister. He wasn’t quick enough, unfortunately. The shout he put up when Cyril grabbed him by the ear was dreadful enough to summon stray cats, but it was clear that the older man had absolutely no intention of releasing him. The glare that Cyril gave Jasdero and Wisely made up for any words, and the two rose to skulk after the Minister like a pair of beaten dogs.
"Would you happen to have a room where we can have a moment, officer?" Cyril's tone was cool, professional, even as the grip of his fingers on Debitt’s ears tightened. He was smilng politely when the constable led them to an empty little office, thanking the officer as he herded the young trio inside.
Wisely had a very bad feeling about this, and from the looks Debitt and Jasdero were shooting one another, they shared his fears. They were obviously justified in their cowering, since the moment the constable was shooed away and the door closed, Cyril was swooping in on Debitt like a hawk on a rabbit, pinning him to the wall with the sheer intimidation of his looming form as he grabbed his shirtfront with one hand.
"Where is Rhode?" He practically roared the words, leaving the boy in a state of such shock that he couldn't even find the words to answer. Cyril gave him a good shake, however, and that seemed to shake the words out of Debitt’s mouth.
"B- Back at home, of c--"
Cyril interrupted him with a slap to the side of the head. "Don't take me for a fool, Debitt! I checked her bed when the messenger first came. Where is she? Did she use her door? Did you use her powers? Did any of you use your powers in front of that crowd? Where's Rhode?"
"J- Jasdebi doesn't know!" Jasdero attempted to help the situation, failing miserably as the older Noah simply turned on him.
"You lost Rhode?" He looked ready to punch the trembling boy's head into the wall, but Wisely quickly stepped between them.
"Calm down, mister!" Wrong choice of title, he noted; the vein in Cyril's forehead looked ready to burst from rage. "Coo', we didn't use any of our powers at all, see? We came along nicely when the crushers dragged us out, keeping up appearances nicely. Rhode didn't use her door or nothing, but I didn't see what happened to her after Debitt started shouting at her."
"You'd do well to stop using the cant of the gutters we dragged you out of when addressing me, Wisely Kamelot." His voice was much calmer, suddenly, but the chill in his tone was unmistakable. "And you, Debitt? When was the last time you saw Rhode?"
The boy looked a bit uncomfortable, glancing to Wisely with an almost desperate expression. The blonde Noah responded with a minute shake of his head, offering no help.
"I... I saw her getting knocked over by a man. She didn't get back up."
"A cove. A big one. I saw that, but we thought she was up and around after.” Wisely interjected, suddenly unsure of his story. "She wasn't there the next time I looked!"
"She wasn't in the crowd, either! I called for her when we were being pulled off, so she could get help or something, and she wasn't anywhere in the mess.” Debitt looked to Cyril with a hopeful grimace, waiting for any sign that their account had garnered his approval.
It took Cyril a few moments to rein in his temper, with Wisely’s face right within striking distance. After a few deep breaths, he took a step back.
“You are in serious trouble, young men- But you will have a much larger problem if she is not at home when we return. Do you understand?”
The door opened before the boys could even manage a solemn nod, admitting Tyki Mikk and Lau, one looking far less put together than the other.
“You called?” Tyki straightened out his jacket as casually as he could manage, only managing to make his mussed clothing even more unkempt.
“Yes, I called. These little fools managed to get into a brawl on the East End, and lose Rhode in the process. And where have you been? Smoking opium in some den, spending my money on that Oriental filth?”
“Now, now, Lord Kamelot!” Lau stepped in before Tyki could retort, cutting off his miffed friend physically to prevent any further conflict. “Let us focus on the issue at hand. You say you have lost your daughter on the East End?”
“Yes, in some-”
“Well, then. Simply tell me the last place she was seen, and I shall find out where she is before the sun is up.”
Cyril hesitated for a moment at the Chinaman’s smile, glancing between him and his brother before nodding deliberately.
“Don’t stand there looking stupid, boys. Tell him where you last saw Rhode.”
The first thing Rhode saw when she opened her eyes was canvas- Stretched across some kind of frame, far above her head. It was rather disorienting, to say the least, and it took her several minutes to get her bearings. She was in a tent, somehow. In a bed- if one could call a mattress stuffed with straw and a scratchy, dirty sheet a real bed- with a bandage on her head.
That was unnecessary. Even if she had managed to hit her head hard enough to make her physical form lose consciousness, the injury would have healed in a matter of minutes. Of course, that also meant that she couldn’t have been unconscious for very long. Whoever had picked her up, they had obviously brought her somewhere within the East End. They couldn’t have gone far from the street where the dreadful brawl had occurred in the first place.
The bedding was practically burlap, she noted, flinching at how badly it chafed at her arms and hands as she pushed herself up to a sitting position. The rest of the tent wasn’t in much better condition: the floor was dirt, covered with some worn rugs, and the bedside table was some rough wood construction that hardly seemed capable of holding itself upright, let alone supporting anything else.
As her eyes scanned the rest of the space, she realized that she wasn’t alone. At the end of the bed on a crate, chin supported by one gloved hand as he dozed, sat a funny-looking man with fiery red hair and some odd sort of makeup on his face. Rhode’s first reaction was panic; had she been kidnapped? Was he put here to keep her from escaping? But no: he was dressed like some sort of performer, and the fact that she was lying in a bed instead of in the hold of a ship headed for China made it marginally likely that the people who had picked her up were trying to help her.
She had to get out of here. That was obvious. But with him sitting against the bed, any movement would--
Wake him up, exactly the way he did when she tried to ease her weight even slightly to one side.
“Hullo,” he spoke quietly, as if she would startle easily. Even at that low level, she could hear the Cockney accent to his greeting.
“Hello.” Her reply was short, cautious, and she turned to one side as he began to move, ready to dash for the exit if he made any movement she didn’t like. “Who are you?”
“Joker.” He smiled, holding out his hands as if to show her that he didn’t mean any harm. “I saw you had a bit o’ trouble in that fight. It just didn’t feel right, leavin’ a nipper like you in a fix like that.”
“What on earth is a nipper...?” Rhode frowned, reaching down to push the sheets away from her legs. This mattress was probably rife with pests. Heaven forbid, she likely had lice or something after sleeping in it.
“A child. A little ‘un. A gixie like you. Though most gixies we find in the End don’t speak so nice, and if they do, they aren’t wearin’ a boy’s clothes.”
“I’m not a child. Or a gixie. I need to go home.”
“And where might that be?” Joker gave her a bright smile, all trustworthiness and friendliness.
Rhode didn’t answer right away, though- There was something in his eyes, something about the way he smelled. Something wasn’t right here. And when she reached out with her powers for his mind, felt that edge of guilt behind his amiable expression, she knew that telling him that she was the Kamelot girl would not end well.
“... I’m one of Lau’s girls.” She felt a rush of relief as his smile fell ever so slightly at the name, pressing on. “He sent me on an errand and I got caught up in the fight. He’s going to be wondering where I am soon, I imagine.”
Joker was quiet for a moment, processing what she had just told him- Probably trying to figure out how a little girl with a high-class accent ended up in league with Lau. At last, he simply put his hands up again, as if throwing them up in helplessness.
“I s’ppose we’ll have to get word to Lau that you’re here, then.”
Rhode smiled slowly, putting a hand up to her bandaged head.
“I suppose you will.”
“I believe I may need to call in a favor,” Lau mused as he stepped out of a squat little building that served as a thieves’ nest, looking up to the smoky sky as Tyki fumbled around behind him, checking his pockets.
“I think something’s missing, but I can’t tell what. Lau, do you have my lighter?”
They had been throughout the streets, finding word of what had happened to Rhode from various sources. The accounts were conflicting, however, and Lau seemed to be growing discontent with the speed of their progress. This had been something of a last resort, and after the den of pickpocket children had chorused out the same three stories they’d heard previously, Lau had simply shaken his head, thanked them for their help with a small bag of coin, and walked out.
“Ah, here it is-- And what is this mess? A man with hair the color of ginger. Two noblemen. A clown?” Tyki grumbled, finding nothing missing and deciding to pull out a cigarette instead. “I know the End is supposed to be odd, but this is getting ridiculous.”
“But the fact that we keep hearing the same stories means that somehow, all of them are true.” Lau hummed thoughtfully, turning down the alley and starting off again into the maze of backstreets that formed his kingdom’s arteries.
Nearly half an hour later, Lau came to a halt outside an establishment with an oddly clean stoop, in comparison to the surrounding doorways. A lantern hung on a hook beside the entrance, illuminating a rickety sign that appeared to have some frightening animals carved into the wood; a bird, perhaps, as well as something that looked like a wolf and some wild cat. Tyki was squinting up at it, trying to discern the original design from the flickering shadows cast by the nearby flame, when his companion started down the steps.
“Please wait out here for a few minutes. Things are sure to go much faster if I have this conversation alone.”
Lau was inside before Tyki could even reply, though he hadn’t really planned on arguing. He wasn’t exactly worried about Rhode, but it was certainly unlike her to disappear for such a long period of time without some sort of notice. Perhaps she was just surrounded by normal people. Unable to use her powers, lest they find out she wasn’t quite so human as she appeared...
“Are you tired, my lord?”
Tyki jumped at the sound of an unfamiliar voice behind him, spinning around to find himself face to face with an extremely effeminate Chinese man, dressed in a traditional outfit that stood out like a sore thumb in the filth of this part of town. He held a birdcage in one hand, a rather large and ornate construction, with soft little chirps emitting from inside.
“Uh. Beg your pardon?” Tyki didn’t really know what else to say. He didn’t even know who the man was.
“Ah, you managed to beat me out!” Lau was the one behind Tyki, now, taking a moment to catch the cigarette his friend dropped in mid-air when he jumped in surprise yet again. “Count D, this is my dear friend, Lord Tyki Mikk. You’ve likely heard of his brother, Minister Cyril Kamelot?”
“Of course. I doubt anyone capable of reading the newspapers has not heard of our fine nation’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.” The Count smiled graciously, though Tyki had a distinctly uneasy feeling about the expression. “I imagine he’s quite busy these days, with impending war on so many fronts.”
Tyki accepted his cigarette from Lau, taking a moment to light it before responding. The tip glowed hot in the dim lighting of the alley, and as he glanced to the Count, he saw that gold glow reflected in one of his mismatched eyes. Bizarre, he thought to himself, suppressing a shiver that tried to crawl up his spine.
“I don’t pay much attention to my brother’s affairs, unless they involve me directly. I’m not a man of politics.”
For some reason, his response seemed to please the Count, and with a smile and a nod, he turned his attention to the cage in his hands. Tyki caught a glimpse of small birds moving about inside as it was lifted to eye-level, the Count’s slender fingers working to unlatch the door.
“Perhaps I’ve missed something, but what’s a cage full of birds got to do with finding Rhode...?” Tyki glanced to Lau for an answer, flinching as the flock took to the sky with a rush of tiny wings.
Lau simply smiled, placing a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “It’s far easier to find something quickly when you have a birds-eye view of an area. The Count will simply have his friends look for Miss Rhode, and we will be able to retrieve her the minute we know her location.”
This was going to be hard to clarify without coming off as rude, Tyki just knew it. He took a few minutes to try and compose his question, soothing his nerves with a few puffs of tobacco smoke.
“But, uh. How are you planning to ask the birds where she is?”
Lau and the Count exchanged a strange look over Tyki’s shoulder- He could feel it, even if he couldn’t see Lau’s end of the exchange- before the merchant patted his shoulder several times.
“It’s an ancient Chinese art. Perhaps I’ll explain it to you someday, when we have more time.”
“Are you certain that he passed this way?” Cain scowled at the incoherent grumbling he got in reply, shaking his hand full of coins as if reminding the man what was at stake. “I shan’t give you a pence if you aren’t telling me the truth.”
“Wouldn’t be mad enough to make up somethin’ so odd!” The drunk’s words were thick, slurred from years of liquor and bad fights in backstreet pubs. The tremor in his hands made it clear that he’d been separated from a bottle for far too long now- Or at least, long enough for him to see what Cain wanted to know about. “Black n’ white waistcoat, burns all o’er the face. As if th’ flesh melted right off ‘is bones!” He tried to genuflect, but the shaking turned the motion into a grotesque fumbling gesture.
The earl took a long minute to study the man’s face, searching for some sign of deception in his eyes. He seemed appeased by whatever he found, however, drawing back and flipping a pair of copper coins into the man’s lap.
“Thank you for your help,” Cain called, but he was already off, walking briskly down the road with Riff tagging along faithfully at his shoulder. There was a menacing air in this part of town, though the fields on the outskirts of town were far closer than the dense misery near the docks. There was a permeating sense of desperation in the street, women leaning in doorways and men watching the intruders from their seats on the stoop with cold eyes.
“Perhaps it would have been wiser to undertake this search in the daylight,” Riff suggested quietly, catching the gaze of a particularly dirty woman pouring a pail of swill into the gutter. “Wandering the East End at this time of night, especially the way we are... attired, as it were–”
“And let Miss Kamelot be put on a ship for the Orient? What manner of neighbors would we be if we let that sort of thing happen to Cyril’s precious daughter, Riff?” Cain flashed his charming smile over his shoulder, seemingly quite oblivious to the anxiety his butler was trying to impress upon him. He was a stubborn man, however, and trying to sway him from an endeavor in progress had never been a very productive undertaking.
“Just like the rest of the neighbors, my lord.” Riff said it quietly, glancing down a particularly dark alley as a scream echoed against the stone walls. Someone was probably being murdered somewhere, and nobody would likely run to save the poor soul.
Someone else was running, though, and before Riff could react, Cain was reaching out to intercept a sprinting little boy in filthy clothes, snagging him by the back of his collar and picking him right up off of his feet.
“Where are you off to in such a hurry, young man?” Cain smiled at him, ignoring the line of curses being spewed at him. “Calm down, now. I have a few pence for you if you tell me what I want to know.”
The boy stilled at the mention of money, glancing toward the earl’s pockets as if gauging how easy it would be to pick his reward out of them without giving up answers.
“Don’t do anything stupid. I’m a friend of someone rather powerful in this part of London, and I don’t imagine he’d be very happy if I told him that you made a mark of me.” Cain set the boy down at last, smiling as the child shoved his hands into his pockets.
“M’carryin’ a message to Mistah Lau and I can’t tell you nothin’. You’d best lemme go.” The boy mumbled, not making eye contact with the earl or his butler.
“Perhaps I should go with you.” Cain glanced around to make sure there was no imminent danger before dropping down into a crouch, getting on the boy’s level and looking up into his face. “Maybe Mister Lau will be able to help me find what I’m looking for.”
Riff slipped his pocket watch out of his waistcoat, checking the time silently as his master tried to charm the young boy. After a long silence and some uncomfortable shifting around, the boy gave Cain a reluctant little nod.
“If y’know where ‘is place is you c’n meet me there. I won’t lead no constables to ‘is place.”
Cain laughed aloud at that, straightening up and brushing his coat back into place.
“Well, that’s reasonable enough, since we don’t want to lead any constables to him, either. If you would just point me toward the river, young man? These streets are terribly confusing, especially in the dark.”
God, this only took me a year and a half to write. I am so sorry, everyone. I'm making a commitment to start writing again, so while I can't promise a specific date for Chapter 5, I'm pretty certain it will take much less than a year to write it.