First there was pain, a howling eternity of it, and he knew Hell in it as Lucifer himself knew it, knew why Sebastian had insisted he read Milton and Dante, and knew as well that all the stories of Hell were poor metaphors for a thing that could not be spoken. Then there was a long climb upward, through blackness and fire, rock and burning air, and through all that climb he understood that the legend of Orpheus told this truth: he dare not look back. And after some measureless time there was a place where the air turned sweeter. There was softness under his feet, then all around him, and he fell into it as oblivion.
After that – how long after, he neither knew nor wondered – there was light. Sunlight, beating through his closed eyelids, the way it did on summer mornings in his own bedroom when the curtains to the east windows were drawn back. The bedsheets were crisp and familiar around him, and when at length he ventured to open his eyes the carved canopy of the bed was his own, as he had seen it on that last morning before their departure for Paris. (Had they gone to Paris? Or was that the nightmare?) There was a thing in his past that he could not, must not, think of, not even for the instant needed to recognize its shape and dismiss it, but he was not unaccustomed to that.
Only, it was unusual for him to wake alone. He let his eyes fall shut again and spoke to the empty air. “Sebastian?”
“Good morning, young master.” The voice came from across the room, and when Ciel opened his eyes once more there Sebastian was, turning from the windows as he did every morning, inhumanly perfect in his black and white and house badge, with the tea trolley by his side. “This morning's tea is a Darjeeling, and for breakfast there is a brioche, an omelette, and a selection of smoked fish. Since the household is somewhat disordered at present I have taken the liberty of arranging for you to be served in this room.” He poured as he spoke, and Ciel took the tea from him automatically, raised it to his face to breathe in the aroma (for what kind of a master would he be, if Sebastian brought him Earl Grey and called it Darjeeling, and he let the substitution go unremarked?). Then he stopped and looked again. There was something . . . disturbing, a ghostliness that hovered around the edges of his perception, about his butler's left arm.
So Paris had been real, and London after it, fire and death and endings. He could think about that, about the angel and its dreadful crippling blow, about the ferry and the island, about Sebastian kneeling to him as to a king at the last, before he touched Ciel with his bared fingers and his eyes went red. And there was a mystery here, for beyond Sebastian's touch was the place where there was no Ciel, and an end to all mysteries.
Demons cared for aesthetics, his butler had told him; and melodrama would be unbecoming. “This tea is very good,” he said, making his voice as casual as he could. “Sebastian . . . I must tell you that I am feeling remarkably un-eaten. Perhaps you would be so good as to provide an explanation?”
“Can you have forgotten the terms of our contract, young master?” The voice was faintly reproachful, but the corners of Sebastian's mouth curved in his rare smile of approval. “Those terms are fulfilled, and your soul is mine. The contract runs no further. Delicious though you undoubtedly would be, there is nothing in our agreement that requires me to eat you.”
It was the old game between them, irresistible still. Ceil let his eye run consideringly over the immaculate figure of his demon. “You look hungry, Sebastian.”
“I am hungry. But I have been hungry for a very long time, young master. There is other food in the world, and I can wait.”
“Will you take another contract, then?” The idea was surprisingly displeasing, and it was an effort to keep his voice cool and indifferent, as appropriate to a discussion of a small matter of business.
“Certainly not, young master.” Now Sebastian sounded faintly surprised, as though Ciel had asked him whether he planned to perform a sword dance on the dining-room table. “Not at once, and not without some greater inducement than common hunger.”
“Common hunger, Sebastian? The angel said you were starving.”
“And has our time together not taught you that an angel is a liar? Really, anyone would think you wanted to be eaten.”
It was not quite a denial. “Not particularly, no,” Ciel told him. “I would have more confidence that I was not about to be eaten if I knew your reasons, that's all. Don't you want to do it?”
The demon's laughter was like velvet against his skin. “Ah, young master, if you could know how much I want to eat you up, blood and bone and marrow, mind and soul. You would be a feast to crown long centuries. And yet. The meat of dogs is a particular delicacy, when well prepared. Would you therefore have eaten Pluto, to ease a passing hunger?”
“No, I suppose not.” It made sense of everything, in its way: this room, this house, that Sebastian still played at being his servant. Sebastian loved cats: sharp teeth and sharp claws; and a cat always believed itself to be the master. “What will you do for food, then? If you're going to keep me as a pet, I suppose it's your responsibility to go on feeding me. So I don't want you getting too hungry to do it properly.”
“For now? If it troubles you so much, young master, it occurs to me that I have yet to discharge one final obligation incurred during my time in your service. I still owe Greil Sutcliffe some demonstration of my ability to tie cherry stalks with my tongue.”
“Greil Sutcliffe.” Ciel felt himself smiling into his teacup; it was hard not to let it become a laugh. “Will you kill him?”
“No. Shinigami are gods; the life and soul in them is regenerated continually. Killing him is unnecessary, and there would be complications.” Sebastian's hands were busy as he spoke, the solid right and the insubstantial left alike, setting out dishes before him, adjusting warming flames and covers. “The experience will leave him quite thoroughly exhausted, but since he will find that gratifying he will not look too closely at the cause.”
“But, Sebastian.” Ceil let his smile broaden and lounged back into the pillows. “I thought you found his attentions revolting?”
“Food is often revolting, young master, if you look too carefully at its origins. That is why Agni and his gods invented curry. It is not a dinner I am particularly eager for, but it will suffice.”
“It had better.” The food before him was splendid, aroma and flavor both. “As I said, I don't want you incapacitated. – This is very good, by the way.” He stopped, considering, and stretched out his right hand before him, as if admiring his claws. “In fact, I don't want you getting hungry at all, it's annoying. Go away and eat something, Sebastian.” He let a minute pass, calculated and deliberate.
“That was an order, Sebastian. Why are you still here?”
The demon bowed, and when he straightened his smile was like the sunrise, like all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. “Yes, my lord.”