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Those Gentle Slopes that Lead to Hell

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The second letter from the Queen came a week after the ceremony, and Ciel stared at the text in confusion, unsure if he understood everything correctly. Feeling lost, he raised his eyes and found Sebastian’s questioning stare.

“Is everything all right, Young Master?” Sebastian asked, and Ciel shrugged, looking at the letter again.

“Yes. It is just…” he hesitated, studying the curved letters once again. “There has been a series of murders. Apparently, the Queen wants me to participate in the investigation.”

“What do you find so startling about it?” Sebastian raised his eyebrow in the expression of polite interest that Ciel started to find incredibly annoying. “From what you told me, I understand that the members of your family have served as the Queen’s Watchdogs for decades. What a distasteful byname,” he added, and Ciel rolled his eyes, annoyed even more.

“No one asked for your opinion,” he grumbled. “And yes, the Phantomhives have always been known as the Queen’s Watchdogs. But my age… What I mean is—” Ciel fell silent when Sebastian just continued to look at him blandly, as if he had no idea what Ciel could be getting at.

Letting out a frustrated sigh, Ciel hid the letter and rubbed his forehead tiredly.

The damned demon. He probably didn’t understand that being twenty and controlling the underworld differed significantly from being eleven and doing the same. Ciel had thought that the Queen must surely be aware of it, so he found the letter shocking — unpleasantly so.

However, complaining about it aloud would imply that Ciel considered himself a child, and he would never allow himself to even hint at something like that, no matter what.

He could worry about his inexperience in his thoughts. The most important thing now was to hide his anxiety and insecurity from Sebastian.

Sebastian couldn’t see him as weak, or at least weaker than Ciel had already shown himself as. If he lost all respect for him, all his interest…

“Make me a chocolate cake,” Ciel commanded. “And prepare a carriage. We will be leaving in two — no, three hours. Tanaka is going to return from the hospital in two weeks and I would like to be done with this case by that time.”

“Certainly,” bowing, Sebastian disappeared, and Ciel leaned against his armchair, taking a deep breath.

Make me a cake. Prepare the bath. Clean up this room. Get rid of the visitors. For this last week, their conversations were based on this only — Ciel gave the most crucial orders and refused to summon Sebastian for anything else, even though a part of him was withering from strange, repugnant feeling of heartache every time he sent Sebastian away.   

No prolonged contact. No actual conversations. No closeness. Ciel couldn’t always maintain such new routine — there were alarming holes in the icy wall he was so carefully constructing, but he hoped… no, he knew that with time, there would be no holes left. With time, he would look at Sebastian and marvel at how he could ever see him as something more than a demonic pawn.

If only Sebastian wasn’t making things so much more difficult… it seemed like the colder Ciel became, the more closeness Sebastian craved. Now, unless Ciel gave him an order, Sebastian chose to stay in the room with him, sometimes overly close, and whenever Ciel barked at him to move away, all he got in response was a slow, intrigued smile. Sebastian did follow his orders, but he moved back in his proximity whenever he could, and it was driving Ciel crazy.

Did this demon find coldness alluring? He couldn’t care about the distance Ciel was trying to put between them, so the only other explanation was that Sebastian saw right through him, and that he was deliberately trying to make Ciel’s life difficult. Everything was a game to this creature.

And now this letter… Ciel had no idea how to even approach the murder case. He wasn’t an investigator — his fath… his predecessor had never shared any details of his work with him, so Ciel only knew the basics. According to the letter, four people had been found dead, poisoned by something known as Abrus precatorius. Ciel supposed it was some kind of plant, but he wasn’t sure, and with the distance that he had been trying to put in between himself and Sebastian, he was hesitant as to whether he should ask his demon anything.

Four poisoned people.

Where to start?  

When Sebastian brought him his chocolate cake, Ciel still hadn’t come up with anything. He ate his dessert slowly, stopping after every bite to recall the tiniest bits of information he had heard from his predecessor. There had to be some connections left, people who would agree to work with him. If the fact that he was eleven didn’t matter to the Queen, then it wouldn’t matter to these people, too — and if it did, Ciel would make sure to change their minds quickly.

There was something that was stopping him from enjoying his cake properly. Something other than his thoughts.

Looking up, Ciel frowned, seeing that Sebastian was still standing in his study room, watching him attentively.

“Why are you still here?” he asked.

“You haven’t given me any order, so I decided to stay with you. Is the dessert to your liking?”

“It is all right,” Ciel put away his fork, curious at how Sebastian frowned at the sight of it, as if he found Ciel not finishing what he’d cooked offensive.

At times, Sebastian’s strange desire to achieve perfection in everything he was doing was funny. Ciel would have let himself smile before, but not now, when the memory of Sebastian’s treachery was still so fresh in his mind.

The darkness emanating from Sebastian as he reached to touch him… his clawed hand that sought to grab him by the shoulder, in one and final touch… knowledge that if Ciel hadn’t turned then, he would be dead right now — soulless, non-existent, condemned to having only darkness as his company because he had no chance to meet those he loved again…

His heart clenched miserably and Ciel lowered his head, staring at the half-eaten cake with fury that it didn’t deserve.

“Take it away,” he said coldly. “I have lost my appetite.”

Sebastian lingered, still frowning, but then he took the plate reluctantly.

“Was something wrong with the cake?” he asked. “It is your favourite. This time, I wanted to enhance the flavour, so I’ve added…”

“I don’t care!” Ciel exploded. “Just take it away, I don’t want it!” 

Sebastian pressed his lips together tightly, in a way that Ciel knew spoke of his desire to grab him like he had done during the first night they spent together. Ciel tensed, wondering if they were going to repeat that experience, but all Sebastian did was disappear with the plate wordlessly.

Ciel relaxed as the tension left his body now that he wasn’t in the danger of being touched. He looked at where the letter was lying, knowing the text written there by heart, and stood up abruptly.

He wasn’t going to wallow in his misery, not again. He wouldn’t let the name of his family, his name, be sullied by his own incompetence.

If the Queen wanted the case solved, then Ciel would do everything in his power to ensure it.

 

 

***

 

 

By the time they arrived to London, Ciel had finally realised what he had to do. As soon as he walked into his London house, he hurried upstairs, to where the office of head of Phantomhive’s family was supposed to be. The majority of correspondence his fath… predecessor had was destroyed, burnt in the fire, but there had to be at least some letters — something that would tell Ciel where to start and whom to contact. 

It took him a while to find what he needed, but when he finally discovered boxes upon boxes of letters, he froze in indecision.

He wouldn’t be able to do it alone. And — well, he didn’t have to, did he? After all, he had a servant who was supposed to assist him in whatever Ciel needed.

“Sebastian,” he called and started to wait. One second. Two. Three. Then the door opened, and Ciel continued without turning, “I need you to help me to sort through the letters. They might be useful in this investigation.”

“Of course,” Sebastian replied politely. “However, first, please try this.”

Ciel finally turned and his eyes widened as he saw Sebastian holding a plate of some chocolate dessert.

Not that he minded, but…

“What is it? I don’t think it is time for dessert,” he said, frowning.

“You didn’t like the cake I prepared back at the mansion, so I decided it is my duty as a butler of the Phantomhive family to offer you an alternative. Please, try it and tell me if you like it better.”

“If I hadn’t liked the cake you’ve made at home, I would have made you eat it,” Ciel drawled, staring at the plate in concentration.

What a ridiculous demon. Ciel had indeed wanted him to be perfect, but who knew Sebastian would get downright obsessed with corresponding to the standards Ciel had set for him?  

He had no desire to eat any kind of dessert now, but it seemed like at least one foolish part of him survived the betrayal because Ciel suddenly found it difficult to deny Sebastian. He imagined him rushing to the kitchen as soon as they arrived, getting everything ready, changing the recipe and preparing a cake that he thought Ciel would like…

Ridiculous. That demon was crazy.

And yet, Ciel nodded and went to sit at the table, waiting for Sebastian to set and serve everything. When it was done, he tried the first fork and closed his eyes briefly in pleasure.

“It is good,” he said shortly, and saw how Sebastian smiled in satisfaction.

This time, Ciel forced himself to finish the entire portion. Sebastian was positively glowing at the sight of it, and hiding an answering smile was getting more and more difficult.

“Clean it all up and come back,” Ciel ordered instead, trying to keep his voice strict. “As I said, I will need your assistance.”

“Yes, my lord,” Sebastian gathered everything in less than a second and disappeared — only to reappear again, still radiating the absurd amount of pleasure.

“Here’s the letter that I received from the Queen,” Ciel offered him an already torn envelope. “Read this.”

Curiosity flashed across Sebastian’s face as he accepted the letter and started to read. When he looked up, Ciel thought his eyes looked redder than usual.

“I have never participated in investigations before,” Sebastian noted. “What is it that you would like to know? Perhaps the origins of the poison Scotland Yard has managed to identify?”

Ciel could have agreed — if not for the condescending notes he recognised in Sebastian’s words. It made him immediately defensive, so he scoffed.

“I will find out about it by myself,” he said confidently. “You, on the other hand, search through these letters and give me those that you think will help me to establish connections with the underworld. My fa— the previous Earl had many useful people at his disposal. I need to know who they are and how to contact them.”

Sebastian lowered his head in a nod, hiding an indulgent smirk, and fury that flooded Ciel in response was so strong that his temples began to throb with it, urging him to step to this demon and to hit him until that smirk disappeared, until an expression of respect and wariness replaced it instead.

Breathing through his nose slowly, Ciel left the room and walked toward the library, hoping that it would have some books about different kinds of poison.

He would stay up all night if he had to but he would find an answer. Without asking Sebastian.

He could do everything by himself.

 

 

***

 

 

As it could be expected, Sebastian had finished his task sooner than Ciel, so in an hour, they were already travelling to someone known as the ‘Undertaker’. He was the most prominent figure mentioned in the letters, even in those that didn’t include him as a writer or an addressee, so Ciel decided they should visit him today, without delays. Now that he started studying the books about poisons, he was getting strangely excited. The thought of being defeated, disappointing the Queen, and embarrassing his family’s name still made his blood go cold with dread, but instead of letting it stop him, Ciel chose to transform everything into a challenging game.

He would find the perpetrator, no matter what. Now that he had an initial course of actions in mind, the task stopped seeming impossible and anticipation was pushing him forward.

When the carriage stopped, Ciel jumped outside before Sebastian could open the door for him. He stormed into the tall building without knocking and stopped at the threshold, his jaw dropping open.

A funeral parlour.

He should have guessed. Who else would call himself an ‘Undertaker’?

Sebastian followed him inside, looking around curiously. The silence in this place was piercing, heavy with something that Ciel couldn’t identify. He cleared his throat, hoping to attract the attention of the owner if he was here, and jumped when someone suddenly grabbed his hand.

A tall man with long grey hair stood next to him, staring at him expressionlessly. Ciel opened his mouth to protest against being grabbed like that when Sebastian snatched him from the stranger’s grip and jumped away, holding him close, his hands wrapped around Ciel’s middle protectively.

A rush of something warm washed over Ciel, sending shivers down his spine, but he shook his head, clearing it from unwanted sensations, before focusing on the owner.

“Are you the Undertaker?” he asked grimly, and a small smile touched the man’s lips.

“Yes, I most surely am. It is a pleasure to meet you again, Earl Phantomhive,” the small smile grew into a wide grin and Ciel shivered once again, this time from a disturbing feeling he couldn’t properly identify.

There was something unnatural in that grin. Something inhuman. 

“‘Again’?” he repeated. “I have never seen you before.”

“Oh, but memory is such a fickle thing,” Undertaker stepped toward them and Ciel felt how Sebastian’s grip around him tightened.

“I would prefer it if you kept your distance from my Master,” Sebastian uttered, his voice, usually amused, now hard with unmistakable threat.

“Oh, and you would be..?” for a second, Ciel saw a flash of the man’s strange greenish eyes, how they flared with malice, before the long bangs covered them again.

“This is my butler,” Ciel said aloud and tapped against Sebastian’s wrist, signifying that he wanted to be let go without attracting attention to it. When Sebastian continued to hold him, Ciel gritted his teeth, annoyed, and then forcibly removed himself from his grip.

Later, they would have to devise a system of signals that only the two of them could understand. It could be useful in the future, during other investigations.

If there would be anything after this. If Ciel didn’t fail.

“I came to you because I know you worked with the previous Earl,” he announced, satisfied with how confident and calm he sounded. “I have taken his place now. The Queen has given me the task of investigating the recent series of murders. Four people have been poisoned with—”

“The Queen, hmm?” Undertaker let out a strange, giggling noise. “She doesn’t lose any time, does she? And neither do you. You are lucky, Earl, at least today, as I have the latest body in this humble home of mine — would you like to see it?”       

“The body?” for a moment, Ciel felt confused. What would he need the body for? And seeing the dead… again… After…

No. He would never let himself be weak — he wouldn’t! Not to mention that he needed to show this bizarre person that he was made from stronger stuff.

“Yes,” Ciel said confidently. “Show me the body.”

“Are you sure?” Undertaker’s grin widened to the point of being crazed, and Ciel glared at him.

“I do not like to repeat my orders,” he warned, and flushed when the insufferable man only laughed at him. However, he walked to the set of big grey boxes and started to open them one by one, muttering something under his breath.

“Usually, I require a certain payment for my services,” he noted. “But today, I will share the information with you for free, Earl. This is indeed your lucky day. Oh! Here he is!”

Without warning, Undertaker pushed the box right at Ciel, and a rotting body that was lying there jumped from the impact. The wave of sickening, unnaturally sweet smell filled Ciel’s nostrils immediately, and when he saw the yellow skin with deep, ugly spots, nausea and a primitive fear spiralled, rising to his throat and blocking his airways.

Gasping, Ciel turned and threw himself at Sebastian without thinking, hiding his face in his stomach and breathing in his calming, soothing scent. A moment passed, and then he realised what he had done.

And he realised something else, too.

Sebastian wasn’t holding him back. He stood motionlessly, cold and indifferent, probably waiting for Ciel to unhand him.

Mortified, Ciel recoiled, feeling an even more humiliating blush travel up his neck. He was still afraid to look at the body, but he was even more afraid to look at Sebastian. Not after this terrible display of weakness.

How could he lower himself to something like this? After everything! Sebastian would despise him again. Who would want a soul of a weakling?

“As I thought,” Undertaker drawled, and even though Ciel felt too ashamed to look at him, he forced himself to raise his head. “A good butler would know that children shouldn’t look at such morbid things. It might traumatise their fragile, unstable minds to the point where they would no longer be themselves.”

Risking a brief glance at Sebastian, Ciel noticed a displeased frown on his face.

Well. Maybe it would distract him from Ciel’s disgrace, at least for a while. Sebastian hated being accused of not fulfilling his duties properly.

But he would remember it. He would remember how Ciel had gotten scared of someone’s dead body like a small, witless child. He would remember that he was the one who Ciel turned — no, clung to, for comfort. He would remember, and he would consider him pitiful.

No!

Clenching his fists, Ciel turned to the body and stepped to it bravely, fighting nausea that instantly welled up in him again.

“Nonsense,” he said carelessly. “I just didn’t expect the body to be in such a bad shape. If he is the latest victim, then he was killed yesterday. The degree of…” Ciel paused, desperately trying to recall the word he needed. “…of decomposition, is starling. It is the end of March, so it’s rather cold outside, and the body had to look fresher.”

“What an insight, Earl!” Undertaker exclaimed, and Ciel narrowed his eyes, attempting to determine whether he was being mocked or not. Carefully, he looked at Sebastian again and relaxed at the sight of the usual curious expression on his face. “However, some people are so distasteful that they continue to be so even after their death… if you know what I mean.”

“I don’t care,” Ciel interrupted him sharply. So far, the visit here had been a waste of time. “Is there any relevant information you can share with me? If you need payment, I can—”

“Oh no, I’ve already told you — no payment is needed today. Not from you, my Earl,” another crazy grin blossomed on Undertaker’s lips. “I am truly so happy to see you… I would celebrate our meeting but I’m afraid there is no time for that today. Do you know the new café that opened three streets from here? It has a very un-delicious name, “The Flowers of Mary”. But it serves the tastiest desserts and many young ladies frequent it. Sometimes their husbands come in, too. Four of them have been found dead after their visits, though, so if you choose to go there, I advise you to be careful.”   

Ciel, who had been feeling more and more annoyed at the irrelevant story, perked up.

“All victims visited the same café?” he clarified, and Undertaker shrugged.

“They are all dead, aren’t they?” he asked. Ciel had no idea how it was related to his question, but he had gotten more than he could hope for.

If what Undertaker had told him was the truth, of course.

“Thank you,” Ciel said mildly. “If the information you provided turns out to be valuable, I will not forget your cooperation. I’ll be seeing you again. Come, Sebastian.”

Without waiting for an answer, Ciel left the parlour, still embarrassed because of his mortifying lapse of judgement, but hopeful.

If all victims had visited one and the same place shortly before their deaths, it could only mean one thing. But…

Ciel stopped abruptly, realising he didn’t know how to proceed. To go to that café today? Or to leave it for tomorrow and write a report to the Queen instead? Did he have to write the reports in the first place, or should he do that only after he finished the case? What about Scotland Yard? They had to have some important files on the victims. Were they aware that Ciel was participating in their investigation, too, or did he have to inform them by himself? And… if Undertaker knew such a crucial piece of information, why did he not share it with anyone?

A strange sensation of someone violating his personal space broke into Ciel’s thoughts. Blinking, he refocused and flinched as he saw Sebastian inches from his face, staring at him with inscrutable expression and… smelling him?

“What the hell are you doing!” Ciel shouted. Sebastian, clearly taken aback, frowned.

“I was merely checking if you are all right,” he said. “You stopped moving without any apparent reason and didn’t answer me when I called you. Your smell is the only other thing that can indicate what feelings you are currently experiencing — not all of them, but it can give me a hint as to what—”

“Never do that again. This is an order!” Ciel hissed, looking around to make sure no one witnessed this humiliating scene. “You cannot just smell people like that. Have you ever even formed contracts with humans, or am I the first unfortunate soul you have encountered?”

 To Ciel’s immense satisfaction, Sebastian’s mask cracked, and for a second, he actually looked affronted.

A new look on him. And tremendously pleasing one at that.

“Indeed I have,” he uttered. “Many times.”

“Then how can you not know that people don’t smell each other like that?!”

“I never had to do that before as my previous Masters—” Sebastian stopped and narrowed his eyes. “In the end, it does not matter. I apologise for inconveniences and I promise to never do that again if it offends you.”

“It offends everyone,” Ciel growled. “I can’t believe you didn’t know about that. Aren’t you supposed to be smart?”

Sebastian’s lips tightened, filling Ciel with a rush of vindictive satisfaction.

At least he wasn’t the only one acting like an idiot today.

“I believe I owe you another apology,” Sebastian said, and Ciel sent him a suspicious stare.

“What for?” he asked warily.

“For letting you look at that body. The Undertaker was right. Children shouldn’t look at such disturbing things.”

That hateful, ugly blush returned, and Ciel felt his face burn in the way he utterly despised.

“I am not a child!” he protested vehemently. “Not anymore! And I am fine with looking at the bodies. It’s just that one was too… its colour, the spots on it—”

“Ah, I understand it now,” Sebastian smiled innocently, and the already familiar desire to hit him was so strong that Ciel barely stopped himself from acting on it. “You are fine with fresh bodies, but you do not like decomposed or mutilated ones.”

“Mutilated might be fine, too,” Ciel stated haughtily. “I haven’t seen them yet. And least not that well.”

Sebastian pressed his hand to his lips, probably hiding a grin, and Ciel turned away from him in a huff.

Stupid demon. Instead of doing something useful, all he did was try to provoke him.      

“We are going to that café,” Ciel announced. “It’s not late yet, so it must be still open.”

“As you wish,” Sebastian agreed.

They spent the rest of the way in silence.

 

 

***

 

 

The café was small and the choice of desserts was not that big. Ciel studied the menu carefully, trying to guess which of the meals could contain the poison, but without knowing anything about its taste and flavour, there wasn’t much he could do. To be on the safe side, he ordered a chocolate cake that he knew of personally. If there was anything wrong with its taste, he would notice it immediately.

Sebastian seemed distracted, staring somewhere at the wall, but Ciel decided to leave him be for now. Slowly, he watched the small room, taking his time to remember the customers and the smiling girls who carried the trays between the tables.

Nothing seemed amiss. An ordinary place, with a rather boring menu. Sebastian had cooked him more kinds of desserts than were presented here, even though two months ago, he had no idea how to make the basic pie without his demonic tricks.

When his chocolate cake was served, Ciel eyed it critically before tasting a bit. It was bland — as bland as he could expect from a place like this. Sebastian’s chocolate cake was superior to this pale copy.

Sighing, Ciel pushed the plate closer, cut his piece into several large chunks, and began to eat. At this moment, he didn’t care how he looked — he just wanted to finish this tasteless dessert quickly and to go home. It was a mistake to come here today — he had learned more than enough already and he needed time to sort through all pieces of information he received.

When the last chunk disappeared, Ciel sighed in relief and turned to his cup of tea, hoping that it would soothe the strange, unpleasant sensations in his dissatisfied stomach. He looked at Sebastian, wondering if he stopped finding the wall so interesting, and nearly choked when a pair of very red, very displeased eyes stared back at him.

“What?” Ciel blurted out.

“Did you truly enjoy this,” Sebastian pointed at the empty plate, “more than the chocolate dessert I have made for you?”

Oh no. This again?

“Why would you think that?” Ciel asked, and Sebastian’s eyebrow twitched, signifying that he was even unhappier than Ciel had thought initially.

“You didn’t finish the morning cake and you have spent eleven minutes on consuming the one I’ve made in the afternoon. You finished this one in less than four minutes. What was so special about it? Based on the flavour, both cakes I’ve made smelled stronger and thus better.”

“Stronger doesn’t always mean better,” Ciel replied automatically, wondering if they were actually having this conversation. He couldn’t decide if he found this Sebastian’s obsession funny or annoying. “And I didn’t like this one better. I just wanted to finish it quickly. Let’s go, I’m tired and I don’t think we will learn anything else today.”

Sebastian started to say something, but then his eyes snapped open to the door behind the counter. Ciel followed his gaze and frowned, seeing a middle-aged woman with bright red hair. There was nothing special about her, so he opened his mouth to ask Sebastian, but Sebastian was already bending toward his ear, whispering, “This woman uses the kind of poison that killed those four men whose death we are investigating.”

“What? How can you tell?”

“I know how this specific poison smells like. It clings to her as the second skin, subduing all other smells in this place.”

Ciel looked at the woman again, more intently this time. He still didn’t see anything amiss, but he had no reason to doubt Sebastian — not in this. And if this woman was indeed a killer…

Disappointment crashed into him, followed by irrational anger.

What kind of investigation was this? Undertaker had told him where to look and Sebastian pointed out the culprit. What a boring, unfulfilling experience!

Frustrated, Ciel stormed outside, his fingers itching with desire to hit something — or someone. He headed toward their carriage, but suddenly, the three chocolate desserts he had eaten today swirled up all at once. Letting out a choked sound, Ciel bent over, vomiting right onto the ground.

“My shoes!” he groaned as he saw ugly brown smudges staining his legs. 

“Oh-oh,” Sebastian reached for him with a handkerchief, wiping his face with half-amused, half-annoyed expression. “It seems like I have neglected all of my duties today, Master. From now on, you will not get a dessert until you eat something substantial, and certainly no more than two servings per day.”

“I only asked you for the first one,” Ciel grumbled, grimacing as he looked at his shoes again. Noticing it, Sebastian crouched down with a sigh and began to clean his shoes with another handkerchief, and Ciel could almost hear the thoughts in his head.

A child. A helpless brat. A burden.

When they returned to the London house, Ciel was so upset he felt sick with it. Darkness and misery, his oldest company, devoured each of his half-baked thoughts, not letting him get a grip and make a plan to redeem himself — if not in Sebastian’s eyes, then in his own.

He had been showing himself from his worst side today. He panicked like a child at the funeral parlour; he failed to find a murderer without the demon’s help; he vomited like a drunk who couldn’t hold his alcohol — only in Ciel’s case, it was chocolate.

And Sebastian had witnessed each and every of his humiliations. He might be already regretting forming a contract with him.

“Make me a dinner,” Ciel ordered, trying to keep his voice steady. “And after that, don’t bother me until the morning. I’ll be busy.”

“Of course,” Sebastian answered, lowering his head and not raising his eyes. Probably to hide the mockery in there.

Even more upset, Ciel went to the library, to the books about poisons that were waiting for him there.

They still had to know how and why that woman was poisoning her customers, and this time, Ciel would be the one to establish that. As his studies with Sebastian had shown, he was quite good a critical thinking, so figuring out the motive of the murderer shouldn’t be all that difficult.

 

Ciel spent the next five hours studying the books, seeking any mentions of Abrus precatorius and finding none. The clock had already struck midnight when he finally opened the book titled Detective Footprints, and to his astonishment, the first pages he looked at had the poison he was researching.

The heavy feeling of sleepiness melted into excitement, and Ciel pushed the book closer to his eyes, greedily studying the chapter. It took him a while to read the text and analyse what he was reading, but when he did, he jumped from his place, almost trembling with the need to go and do something. 

 For the poison to gain strength, the seeds had to be cracked and consumed. The cases described in the book mostly revolved around using Abrus precatorius to make a deadly weapon, but now, knowing about its properties, Ciel could easily imagine its effects in other forms as well. There were sketches of those seeds in the book, meaning that he visually knew what he was looking for. All he had to do was search through that woman’s things.

Considering that she was poisoning her customers, she could store the seeds right at the café. In any case, it was worth checking. If he found the seeds there, he could call Scotland Yard officers and the case would be closed, and he would deserve at least a small part of the credit he would receive.

Carefully, Ciel crept out of the library, to where his coat was hanging. He didn’t know how good Sebastian’s hearing was, but as Ciel had asked him not to bother him until morning, he could hope that his walk would remain unnoticed — for some time at least.

A more rational part of him protested, whispering that he was making a mistake. Going by himself in the middle of the night, to a place belonging to a murderer… The whispers got so loud that Ciel stopped, hesitating, but the moment of weakness disappeared as quickly as it came. Snorting at his own cowardice, Ciel went to the kitchen first, looking through the knives he had there.

He would have to acquire a gun for such situations. For now, though, a simple knife would have to suffice.

The streets were empty and the air was so cold that it reminded Ciel of late autumn. Shivering, he wrapped the coat tighter around himself, looking around suspiciously.

He remembered where that café was. It wouldn’t take him long to get there.

Since Sebastian didn’t catch up with him to ask where he was going, Ciel relaxed, hoping that it would stay this way. He didn’t always need Sebastian’s protection. He could do such basic thing as searching through one’s things by himself.

As he’d expected, the café was silent and dark. Ciel stood motionlessly for several minutes, staring through the window and making sure that there was truly no movement inside. Then, he focused on the lock, examining it carefully and trying to figure out how to open it.  

Well. Opening it was out of question. Breaking through the window, on the other hand…

Ciel was in luck — the window wasn’t closed properly. He hastened to slip inside, wincing when it was accompanied by a horrible, cracking noise. Sweet smells engulfed him, and while he would have found them mouth-watering recently, now the mere thought of chocolate and sugar made him nauseous. 

Ciel moved to the kitchen, recalling the number of personnel he had seen here earlier today. Three people, including the murderer. Not much. There couldn’t be an abundance of personal things here, so it was possible that he would be done quickly.

Boxes. Shelves. Strange tubes. Vials. Ciel inspected everything attentively, without taking his gloves off, wanting to minimise any chance of contacting the poison himself. A small vial attracted his attention, one with the word ‘Chili’ written over it.

Chili? In a place that served desserts? Ridiculous.

Licking his lips in anticipation, Ciel opened the vial and nearly crowed in victory.

There they were. Small, reddish seeds, just like on the picture he had seen in his book.

Excellent.

Ciel put the vial back, thinking. As he finally decided and reached out to pocket his finding, something heavy landed on his head, instantly dimming the rest of the lights around him.

 

 

***

 

 

When he came to his senses, his first thought was that he had imagined these two months. There was no Sebastian, no opportunity for revenge — he was still locked in his cage, destined to be touched against his will, slaughtered when his executioners decided it.

Terror crawled up his throat, blinding him through the burst of sheer, overwhelming panic, but the scream that was gathering itself on his tongue remained subdued. Blinking rapidly, Ciel realised he was gagged, sitting on the floor next to several other people — three men and one woman. They were all chained to one another, with Ciel stuck in the middle. 

Now the memories returned, but confusion remained.

If he was dealing with a deranged woman who had decided to keep poisoning her customers, what were all these people doing here? Why were they all chained?

He had to call Sebastian. Ciel still wasn’t sure how the contract between them worked — technically, Sebastian was supposed to find him anywhere, but could he do that if Ciel failed to say his name? Could he sense him when Ciel was unconscious, or did he feel him only when he was in immediate danger?

Ciel jerked his hands, trying to free himself from the stinking piece of cloth pushed into his mouth, but the chain was too short, so he just growled in frustration.

“Don’t even try that, kid, it’s hopeless,” one of the men said, and Ciel glared at him. It was easy for him to talk — he wasn’t gagged like an animal.

The man must have interpreted his glare wrongly because he continued talking, as if Ciel encouraged him to converse.

“How did someone so little get tangled up in smuggling? I didn’t know Martha was accepting children to work for her. Though you are dressed nicely — perhaps you stole something from the passengers?”

Ciel let out an ambiguous sound, his mind working overtime.

Smuggling? What did smuggling have to do with poisoning?

“We should have waited,” a woman chained right next to him whispered, her voice heavy with regret. “It’s a new business, a new route, so of course the control is tighter. If we waited—”

“I told you to wait!” another man exclaimed. This one, on the contrary, was shaking with fury. “I told you, didn’t I? But none of you wanted to listen to me! They transport the poisons with one ship and the medicine with another. We had to focus on one of them, and only after the business had gotten steady!”

With supreme effort, Ciel finally managed to get the cloth out of his mouth and coughed, disgusted, trying to get rid of the nauseous flavour.

“Explain,” he gritted out. “What medicine?”

He could feel the eyes of everyone on himself, which only added to his frustration.

“Well?” Ciel demanded.

“You are too bold for a child,” the woman noted, a small smile lighting her face. “How did you even get here?”

“I was investigating the cases of poisoning.”

A startled laughter was his answer.

“Oh, boy, you are really unlucky, aren’t you?” the man who had been shaking with anger asked, shaking his head in mirthless amusement. “Poisoning is just a tip of the iceberg. Martha and her people have found a way to smuggle stuff from Bengal. They decided to set up a sort of medical business — make people sick from herbs and seeds they smuggle from Bengal, and then sell them the herbs and seeds that would make them feel better. They have been studying plants of Bengal for years and they tested them on animals. The poisoned people weren’t supposed to die, it’s just Martha started to test the smuggled stuff on the customers from her dinning place and she failed to calculate the dosages of one of her poisons correctly.”

“She should have dropped that kind of poison,” the woman added. “I warned her but she became obsessed with making it work.”

“This is absurd,” Ciel scoffed. “Sooner or later, people would realise they started feeling badly only after visiting that café.”

“It was only one of many places,” the man explained. “Martha wasn’t supposed to attract attention but—”

“But she started to view a potential business as a playfield and got lost in her foolish ambitions. Pathetic,” Ciel concluded, the gears in his head turning rapidly.

This was much better than he’d thought. Now, he had a chance to expose a whole smuggling ring, not just find a single murderer. If the underworld of London heard about it, they would be forced to realise that despite his age, Ciel was someone to be taken seriously.    

It was his way in. His way to establish a name for himself, to prove himself before the Queen and the underworld.

“What can a child like you understand?” another one of Ciel’s neighbours joined the conversation. “Martha’s business will bring her thousands! The entire underworld of London has respect for her now that she has found a new route for smuggling. The authorities have no idea about it, still — if you told us the truth, then they are only investigating the cases of poisoning. It just proves how brilliant Martha’s smuggling strategy is. Yes, there were some incidences, but in the end, it will prove to be beneficial for her. By fatal poisoning, she diverts attention from the real thing!”

“If you admire her so much, then what are you doing here?” Ciel asked coldly.

“They stole from me,” a new voice sounded, and Ciel’s head snapped in that direction. The same woman he and Sebastian had seen in the afternoon entered the room, followed by two tall men.

“Martha, I presume?” he asked, trying to appear calm. He felt no fear — without the gag, he could call for Sebastian at any second, and then everything would be over.

“I don’t know who you are,” the woman turned to him, narrowing her eyes. “Perhaps I should have let you touch the thing you have been trying to steal from me — I would have had a good laugh at how your small body convulsed in seizure. But fortunately for you, your end will be less painful. I have no time for games.”

“He’s dressed too well to be a thief,” one of the newcomers noted, but Martha shrugged indifferently.

“I found him in my kitchen, at night, after he had broken my window to get inside. I don’t care what he wears — he could have stolen these clothes. All thieves deserve only one end. Take them and get rid of them while it’s still dark”.

“Sebas…” Ciel started to call out, but one of the men moved with surprising speed, pushing the gag back into his mouth. Shocked, Ciel tried to spit it out, but all he managed to do was get another blow to his head. Moaning silently in pain, he closed his eyes, clinging to the shapes of consciousness that tried to slip away from him.

Dimly, he understood that he was being led up the stairs, to the cold, dark street. Someone was begging for something right into his ear; another person was crying, getting louder and louder. When all shapes around him finally gained form, Ciel realised he was still chained to those other people, and they were standing in front of the Thames, on a small hill.

They were going to be pushed from it? When still chained?

A new wave of terror flooded Ciel, larger and more intense than anything he had experienced today. Jerking in a futile attempt to free himself from the burden of other people, he groaned in distress, understanding the extent of his helplessness.

Sebastian. Sebastian had to come. Sebastian had to save him! Yes, Ciel hadn’t managed to utter his name in its entirety, but surely Sebastian could find him based on the contract? He couldn’t die like that, on a foolish case, the very first one that was assigned to him. He couldn’t die without completing his revenge. He couldn’t die without giving his soul to Sebastian.

It will serve that demon right if I die and it will turn out that he has served me all these months for free,’ Ciel thought darkly, and then all thoughts left his head as he was pushed right into the icy water, in a mess of limbs and cries of others. Someone’s leg crashed into his ribs, making him gasp, and his mouth was immediately filled with water.

Terrified, Ciel tried to move, but the chains were holding him tightly, and everything around him was plunging into thicker and thicker darkness. He was cold, and hurt, and scared, and there was absolutely nothing he could do.

As he jerked once again in his chains, he managed to see a pale face of a woman he had been talking to, twisted in horror and agony. Ciel turned away from her, resenting the fact that he was going to die like this, chained to smugglers and thieves he didn’t even know, all because he wanted to prove to Sebastian that he wasn’t helpless and useless. What an irony.

Ciel’s vision started to turn black. Eventually, the only sound he could hear was the thudding of his own slowing pulse, and he closed his eyes, unwilling to accept this reality.

Everything changed suddenly. One moment he was drowning, going down, and down, and down, and the next, familiar hands grabbed him, tearing him from the trap of the chains effortlessly, as if they had been made from paper. Heavy locks were still binding Ciel’s hands together, but at least now, he wasn’t chained to others.

The second they reached the surface, Ciel was engulfed by a coughing, choking fit. He spat back the water, and then spat some again, and it seemed like his entire body consisted of it at this point because it kept coming and coming, stealing his ability to breathe. When he finally managed to inhale, his teeth were chattering and he was trembling so badly that he could barely see anything.

He could see Sebastian, though. Sebastian was sitting next to him, on the ground, staring at him with the eyes so crimson that Ciel felt lightheaded from both fear and relief. But no, not just from this — his consciousness was slipping again, and this time, he knew he wouldn’t wake any time soon, not after what he’d experienced.

He had to give Sebastian an order.

Save the drowning thieves, or secure a place for himself?

“Sebastian,” Ciel choked out, not recognising the hoarse sound as his voice. “This is… an order. Kill the men. Leave the woman alive. Go to the café before the police arrive — there is… a vial… ‘Chili’. Take the seeds. Put them into the woman’s pocket. We have to present… the evidence… if she doesn’t talk. The poison… her people might take it away before…”

For a brief second, Ciel could see something akin to admiration and surprise flare in Sebastian’s eyes, and despite his situation, he suddenly felt warm.

“Yes, my lord,” Sebastian whispered, and there was such a deadly promise in his words that Ciel shivered, not sure if it was from cold or anticipation.

From his place, he saw Sebastian straighten and turn to Martha. Two of her men stepped forward, shielding her, but Ciel wasn’t interested in them. His eyes were glued to Sebastian. He opened his mouth to add that he wanted the thieves to be saved, but all he managed was a deep cough that almost tore his lungs out.

His vision was dimming, again, but Ciel still saw the shadows that separated from Sebastian as if they were living entities, gliding toward people in front of them. Several black feathers fell, and suddenly, the goal of Ciel’s life was to grab one of them. He rarely saw Sebastian in such form, and who knew if he would ever see him like this again.

  Gritting his teeth, he pushed himself forward, crawling to the closest feather. He threw all his strength into these several movements, and when his fingers finally closed over it, securing it in his hand, all power left, plunging Ciel back into darkness.