The Earl Grey stood to the side, fighting to keep a scowl of boredom off his lips. Beside him, her Majesty’s attendants stood stone still, Victoria herself trailing down the carpeted path. And at the end of her path knelt the foreigner, his oriental robes folded elegantly about him, his head a cascade of smooth black.
Perched on his shoulder was the strangest bird the earl had ever seen. Large to a fault, its wings remained at rest, the plumage red and yellow in turn, as if the creature had come out of a painting made from golden flames.
“You are the count, I presume,” Victoria said warmly, giving him permission to rise with a gesture of her hand.
The foreigner stood, adding another delicate bow to her Majesty. He was pretty, Charles would give him that- smooth china skin, long straight lashes, golden amber eyes. I hate him already.
But it was not for the count that Victoria paused, a small gasp escaping her aging throat. Her eyes were stuck to the bird’s own beads.
“It is a gift, your majesty. On behalf of the Baron Montcroix, as he has promised,” the count said in a clipped accent. “He is a golden pheasant, hailing from my native China.”
“Why… this is-” Victoria said, at a loss somehow, “this is…”
Charles stared on uneasily. It’s just a stupid bird. It was bizarre, but nothing worth crying over and that seemed to be exactly what the queen was doing.
“Amazing,” Victoria concluded tearfully, “the Baron has my deepest gratitude.”
“I am glad he is to your Majesty’s liking.” The count met her eyes, then, those too-red lips curling even further, into a smile that both warmed and frightened. “I mean no disrespect. But if her Majesty would forgive my intrusion, there are three conditions the palace must agree to in order to care for him…”
To my dear little boy,
You are no doubt aware of the newest trend in the gossip monger. You and I both know how many dismiss it as sensationalist nonsense, but I trust you would not be so quick to jump to conclusions.
I will admit that Lord Ansbury’s death (the Times has written about it better than I could) left me most disturbed, and so soon followed by Lady Kensington and the Marquis Upperton. My, my, we just had tea with them last month. Surely you remember.
It seems that all of these recent deaths have something to do with the animals they purchased. Lord Ansbury was reportedly found with his eyes gouged out by the very parakeet he kept, after all. The purchases come from a shop the Yard has traced to the East End- I have included the address.
One Count D is the proprietor. He gave me Albert-that lovely pheasant- quite recently. Never mind what the press says; Albert and I are very happy together. But it seems my friend is selling more than friendly pets. Rumours of birds turning into women and dogs into children abound from his shop. Could it be narcotics? Slave trading? Or dare I say it, homicide?
I will rely on you for my answers, dear boy. And I entrust you with putting a stop to these crimes if they be so. Besides, I hear the Count is rather fond of teatime.
P.S The count is a charming man: do not let appearances deceive you. I know you are made of stronger will than this, but I cannot help worrying for my little boy.
Setting the letter back aside, the young earl Phantomhive flicked his way through the attached news clippings, all mindless drivel for the masses. The boy reached for another biscuit from the plate on his work desk, lone eye never leaving the articles before him.
“You might want to pay more attention to this article, Sebastian,” Ciel quipped, “would teach you a thing or two about cats.”
Said butler was busy refilling his charge’s cup with tea- Oolong in the morning. Sebastian placed the pot back on its cart.
“Miss Rothchester died an honorable death, young master. One really could not ask for a better one.”
“Blanche Rothchester was torn to pieces by her cat, whereupon it feasted on her entrails.” Ciel huffed. “I’d hardly call that an ideal death.”
“The cat must have had her reasons.”
“Her? How would you- nevermind. I don’t want to know.”
Sebastian flashed his lord that infuriating smirk Ciel had come to know so well, and as always, the young master ignored him. Sipping his tea, the earl’s index finger tapped the second article.
“Carter Galashiels, aged twenty-seven years, the nephew of Viscount Handen. They say he married a woman last December. It was a bloody parrot- the fool fell in love with a bird.”
“And took his life soon after; yes, I know the story, young master. Finny has been raving about it for some time (too long in my opinion).”
“Even her majesty is inseparable from her new pet. Rumor has it Baron Montcroix is looking for power in England through that gift- ha, as if someone so low-ranked can infiltrate the palace with a bird.” Why she named it after her husband is beyond me.
Ciel looked back down at the articles, the accompanying images more than a little graphic. He pursed his lips in contemplation. “Either there are more perverts in London than I was aware of or… her majesty did say these pets take human form, whatever that means. Are demons the only things that can shapeshift?”
“The answer to that question would be too long for your trouble, my lord. But don’t forget how humans act-” the butler’s eyes slid toward Ciel’s eyepatch, the boy suppressing a shudder at the hint, “when placed in desperation.”
I should know. Bloody devil. Ciel sighed. “Well, it looks like I have no choice. Put Lau on the phone. Let’s get this over with.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Count D?” said the other line, Lau’s chippy tone accompanied by some strange noise in the background (which sounded suspiciously like giggling women). “It does sound familiar… let’s see, d, d, D-”
“He owns the pet shop in Limehouse,” Ciel interrupted. I don’t have time for your games today.
“Oh! Yes, I know him, earl. Well, I’ve seen him around. Oh, Ran-mao!”
“What are you even doing!?” Ciel snapped.
“I’ll tell you when you’re older, earl,” the other laughed. Damn you!
“Yes, Count D hasn’t crossed paths with my people yet. I intended to wait and see how his business fares. We met last Thursday, but it was more of a greeting than anything else. He’s been popular, you know.”
“His business is doing well, for some reason I can’t understand. You read the news, didn’t you?”
“Of course! The one with the cat was scary. I wouldn’t want to die like that.” I didn’t ask you.
“I’m on orders to investigate the count. Do you think he has ties to other mobs?”
“He seems like a clean person to me. But he set up shop in the most dangerous part of that area- even I wouldn’t go there! And he did it overnight too. No warning. Just like that!”
“So it’s possible he has triad ties.”
“Then I suppose I’ll have to look into his shop. Have you been there?”
“I’ve seen it from the outside. It’s nice, but I don’t think it’s as impressive as my establishment to be honest. Don’t tell him that though.”
“Are you free by noon?”
“We’ll have to let my party decide that.” Another set of strange giggles.
“Clear some time!” Ciel ordered, trying not to imagine what was happening on the other side of the line. “One last thing- do you know the count’s real name? What the D is for at least?”
“No idea. Sorry.”
“I’ll see you soon. We have a suspect to investigate by then.”
“Eh? Suspect? Who?”
“But who’s the suspect-”
Ciel hung up, resisting the urge to smack himself in the head. He glared up at Sebastian, the demon’s amusement plastered all over that pale face. “I take it that went well, young master?”
“As well as you’d expect. Fetch my cloak.” The boy smirked. “Count D will have a new customer today.”
“Count D is the suspect?” Lau gasped in surprise.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to say for the past ten minutes,” the earl griped.
“Come to think of it, he is a shady person.”
“You just said he was clean!”
“You have to be doing this on purpose.”
At that, Lau gave a nonchalant shrug, serene smile in place. Ciel tsked and turned from him, casting his gaze out the carriage window, the squalor of Limehouse passing in view. The red and black buildings of opium dens, crimson lanterns, the ink of Chinese characters, and a myriad of foreign faces graced the glass panes.
“I heard there was a fight here last night,” Lau said, “such a shady place.”
“We’ll be fine. If you’re so worried, we have Sebastian.”
“At your service,” the butler added from his place beside the earl.
When the hansom stopped at last, Sebastian was the first to leave, opening the door and helping the earl step down. Lau followed suit and after the driver had been paid, the trio walked onwards.
Ciel had considered disguising himself as a more common boy, but better judgment took hold. The upper classes seemed obsessed with Count D’s pets and it would be best for Lord Phantomhive to act the part as well. Cane in hand and tall hat in place, he walked on in spite of the stares that followed his figure.
“‘Pet shop’- this must be it, earl,” Lau said, pointing at the horizontal sign strewn across what appeared to be a Chinese temple to Ciel.
In comparison with everything else in the area, it did look like a temple. Not a speck of dirt lined its shining red columns or the oriental windows. Even the creamy walls seemed to cast a heavenly shine. His eye darted toward the vertical sign hanging off of it- COUNT D’S.
“You’ll have to introduce us.”
“Not a problem.” And with that, Lau took the lead, hands folded behind his sleeves.
Ciel followed, glancing back at Sebastian. “What is it?”
“I was simply wondering if… no, it’s nothing, young master. Please carry on.”
“You better not be hiding anything from me.”
“I would never.” But that condescending smile said I always do.
The inside was no less impressive than the outside, and if it wasn’t so preposterous, Ciel would go as far as to say the shop was bigger on the inside, much roomier than he imagined. Paper lanterns lined the walls, delicate patterns carved here and there. Jade ornaments, Asiatic statues, velvet tresses were all about him, as was yellow and red, right down to the Persian rugs. Robins stood perched in bamboo cages.
“Ah, the smell of incense is strong here,” Lau commented, “very sweet.” Those eyes opened a fraction. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was the intoxicating scent of…”
“Beautiful,” Sebastian said, awestruck, “that fine coat, those amethyst eyes.”
“What are you on about?” Ciel turned to look, only to let out a yelp of surprise. What he had mistook for a stuffed figure was a real, breathing tiger, and it was currently being molested by his embarrassment of a butler.
His eye widened at the revelation. There were no stuffed figures—all the animals were alive. Eagles, penguins(!?), possums, raccoons, falcons, and-
The boy sneezed. How had he missed all those cats?
The sneeze recaptured Sebastian’s attention at least. The demon reluctantly left the tiger’s side to return to the human’s. He blinked in surprise at the animals.
“This is interesting,” he muttered, barely loud enough for Ciel to hear, “I’ve never seen anything of this sort before. I wonder if it’s the incense.”
“Hello, count!” Lau greeted.
The earl never got the chance to ask what Sebastian meant. Because another voice interrupted them.
“Welcome to Count D’s pet shop. Here, we sell anything you so desire.”
Ciel immediately looked up at him. So this is Count D.
He was the most beautiful Chinaman the boy had ever seen. No, he could very well be the most beautiful man he had ever seen. There was a clouded radiance about him, one that made Sebastian’s beauty too shadowy in comparison. The only other figure that had ever exuded such radiance had been the Undertaker on that ship…
The count was dressed fit for an emperor and his features were chiseled to perfection, framed by silky dark hair. Bright golden eyes met Ciel’s blue, and the count’s mouth quirked into an expression far too familiar to the earl. Do not fall for his charm, her majesty said. But Ciel was no fool- his own demon had worn that smirk far too long.
“The little earl would like to buy a pet,” Lau said.
“Little wasn’t necessary,” Ciel hissed. He addressed the count. “I am Earl Phantomhive. This is my butler, and Lau is our friend. Do you have anything exotic? I only buy the best.”
“Welcome, earl,” D said with a polite bow, “we have many. Have you any preferences, Lord Phantomhive?”
“As long as it’s not a cat.” He sensed Sebastian tense at that.
“And this pet- you will agree to care for it until the contract’s end?” As polite and pleasant as the count’s voice was, Ciel picked up on a nasty undercurrent. I’ll open you like a book, count.
“Oh, you were not aware, earl?” The same disguised disdain.
“Would you care to explain?”
“I would… over tea.” The count’s expression lit up, for a moment, mirroring Sebastian’s face when it comes to cats. “It is teatime, after all. Come, earl- we’ll discuss then.”
The aroma of teacake and buttery desserts enticed Ciel more than he let on. Poison be damned, these sweets were good. If they did have to get rid of the count, Ciel would at least mourn the taste of these desserts.
“You don’t want any, butler?” Lau asked between bites of red bean custard.
“I shouldn’t presume,” Sebastian replied from his crouched spot, fondling several kittens, “and between the count and the young master… there doesn’t seem to be much of it left.”
Ciel was too distracted to chastise his butler. He must have cleared out an entire platter of those delicate treats, but it really felt like one bite, maybe two. Across, the count poured more tea from his porcelain pot, the china covered with intricate blue patterns.
“These are as good as Sebastian’s desserts,” Ciel remarked.
That perked the count’s interest. “Then would you consider a change in transaction?”
“How do you mean?”
“Have your butler make some for me as payment for your pet.”
“I would take a good sweet over money any day, Lord Phantomhive,” D said, dabbing at his mouth with a silk napkin, looking far too excited at this proposal.
“It’s done,” Ciel said.
D clasped a hand over his chest. “I do so look forward to it.”
His nails were long, razor and claw-like. Sharp. They could pierce skin if they so wished, just like those black nails that had cupped his cheeks so long ago. No, this was not the time for reminiscing.
But there was a sinking suspicion welling within the boy, that even their newfound bond over sweets couldn’t cover. That perhaps Count D was no more human than Sebastian…
"I'n curious, count," the boy said, "your title is European and yet you hail from China."
"Do tell," Lau added, "I'm rather curious too."
"It's nothing fantastic," was the calm response, "a European monarch bestowed it upon me some time ago and I have used it since. In this day and age, I've found its use to be rather convenient."
Ciel popped another miniature cake into his mouth.
“Now, let us discuss the contract,” D said. “It is a lease all my customers sign, pledging their responsibility, you could say.”
Ciel smiled. “Contracts, eh? Those, I am far too familiar with.”
The count stood. “Then, earl, if you would come with me. I do believe I have just the thing for you in the back.”
D glanced at the butler. “No, you come alone.”
Sebastian set the cat in his hands down. “My lord?”
“I’ll be fine. Wait here with Lau.”
“Very good, sir.”
Ciel stood and followed the count’s lead, noting Sebastian’s unsettled gaze on their backs. When they reached the threshold of the backroom, D’s eyes fell on Ciel, catlike and waiting.
“But I must warn you, earl,” he said darkly, “should you violate any of the contract’s terms, we cannot be held liable for the consequences.”
One promise after another, bit by bit until Ciel Phantomhive had nothing left to give. When one’s soul had already been forfeited, a body already wrapped in thorns, there was nothing more to be ransomed. And he knew all too well the consequences of breaking a contract, of the harsh burning pain and eternal fear as obvious as the mark on his right eye.
“I don’t intend to,” Ciel stated.