Title: Veritas Diaboli Manet in Aeternum
Rating: R (bordering on NC-17)
Characters/Pairings: Agni, Soma, Sebastian, and Ciel; Sebastian/Agni (Arshad).
Warnings: AU. Vaguely explicit sexual content.
Word Count: 16,381
Author’s Note: Post Curry Arc of the mangaverse. AU begins towards the end of Chapter 23: His Butler, Intermingling; in other words, this takes place shortly after Soma and Agni begin taking care of Ciel’s townhouse in London, with no references made to the Noah’s Circus Arc.
Agni had learned not to question his prince.
It was not his place to challenge a man who had mercifully spared his soul, a soul that had been filthier than the grime that clung to the soles of his bejeweled sandals. This man—no, his prince, his master, his god—had somehow managed to kindle light from a burnt candle wick, had given him a new life and a reason to live. So when Prince Soma had told Agni that they were going to England in order to find his beloved Meena, Agni had assented humbly; and when Prince Soma had decided to stay in London because he wished to become a great gentleman like Earl Ciel Phantomhive, Agni had agreed without protest.
But now, as his prince stood before him, possessively clutching some sort of book to his chest, having just finished making the bold accusation of, “Ciel’s butler is not human,” Agni had to bite down on his back teeth to keep himself in check. His eyes darted about quickly, surveying the townhouse, making sure that earl and butler had not yet arrived to hear the slanderous remark. They were expecting them shortly. (Sebastian had sent word earlier in the week that his master wished to make “a most perfunctory visit to the townhouse,” giving Agni the suspicion that Ciel did not trust Prince Soma’s skills as a caretaker.)
“Forgive me, my prince,” Agni managed to stay without sputtering. “I seem to not have heard you correctly.” Or at least he hoped. “You believe Mr. Sebastian is, ah—?”
“He’s not human, Agni,” Soma insisted, a lock of violet hair falling over his shoulder as he leaned forward intently. “There is no way that an Englishman like him—a butler, no less—could make a curry to rival yours in such little time! You have The Right Hand of God.”
Well, no, he hadn’t thought of that, but… “With all due respect,” Agni started, hoping to placate the prince with a polite smile, “you told me that you helped Mr. Sebastian when he was experimenting with the curries. I imagine your critiques played a large part in making the curry successful.”
“He learned how to make the perfect curry in one week,” the prince said shrilly, “and he came up with the idea of stuffing it into a naan to make some sort of…westernized pastry. He doesn’t have The Right Hand of God, yet he made a curry that beat yours.” In spite of himself, Agni felt a twinge of guilt.
“He’s just as skilled as you are in fencing despite him being a butler. He performs ridiculous feats with the grace of the divine, and when we ask him how he’s able to do it, he says it’s because he’s”—here, the prince tuned his voice to mock the cadence of the butler’s voice—“‘one hell of a butler.’”
Agni bit his lip. How was he going to say this without incurring the wrath of his now petulant prince? “Sir, if I may be so bold, I think you’re taking this a little too far,” he said slowly, carefully watching his prince, ready to stop if he sensed any hostility. “Mr. Sebastian takes his title as butler of the Phantomhive family very seriously. I am sure his exceptional skill is due to his dedication to Master Ciel—”
“Agni,” Soma cut in wearily, “Why do you trust Sebastian so much?”
Because I consider him a friend of mine, Agni wanted to say, which instead came out to be, “I—er—well, my prince…”
Soma gauged his reaction and waved his hand dismissively, as if to say, Forget I said that. He launched himself into a nearby armchair and placed his feet upon the coffee table before promptly removing them, evidently remembering that slouching was not in a gentleman’s aesthetics.
“It’s not like I don’t have proof,” Soma drawled, recovering quickly, sitting up straight as a right angle. Agni looked down at the insistent finger the prince was drumming against the book he still held to his chest.
Soma must have read the question in Agni’s pale eyes because he said, rather matter-of-factly, “This is a western play I found in the library upstairs.”
Agni didn’t know what to be more surprised of—the fact that Prince Soma had been reading a western play, or the fact that Prince Soma had been reading to begin with. (One heartbeat later, Agni bit his tongue in chastisement for his demeaning thoughts.)
Agni debated on what would be a proper response to such a declaration—a play? a fictional western play?—before reluctantly settling on, “A play, my prince?” He succeeded in keeping the fatigue out of his voice only through extensive practice done in the past.
Soma held out the volume bound in hardcover, grinning like he had made a discovery worthy of a hefty award. Agni took it, albeit haltingly, and passed an inquisitive hand over the smooth cover; there was no title, no indication of what was inside. He felt his master’s attentive gaze boring into him, urging him to look inside, and Agni hesitated a moment longer before prying it open.
The opening page served to be as plain and unassuming as its cover; the type was gray—Agni suspected that only black ink could fade into such a dingy color—and unimpressive, the words scrawled about the page haphazardly, like an artist who had flung paint onto a white canvas on impulse; the letters jutted out threateningly, and in a sick, eerie way resembled broken bones, sharp and crooked.
Agni repressed a shiver that had little to do with the darkening sky, and glossed over the title, trying his best not to let the jagged letters distract him. “The First Part of the Tragedy of Faust,” he murmured slowly, trying to get the pronunciation down. Soma nodded enthusiastically, hazel eyes gleaming brightly, and Agni felt like he was under the limelight.
“Sir,”—how was he going to put this gently but rationally at the same time?—“this is fiction. It’s…well, it’s fake. I don’t think this can be considered proof.” Agni flipped through the pages to get a glimpse of something that could relate Sebastian to not being human, but was deterred by the strange, poetic language. He was adequate in reading English, but this language was—well, truly characteristic of a western play.
Soma huffed and shot his butler a very distinct frown. “It’s about a scholar being charmed by evil,” he announced rather proudly. Then, as an afterthought, he quickly muttered, “At least that’s what I understood. I was taught English in the palace, but this text is truly something else. It amazes me that Ciel can understand something so wordy...”
Agni sighed inwardly and willingly handed the play back to his prince, no longer wanting to look at the haunting, helter-skelter text.
The prince’s gaze abruptly became appraising. “Ciel isn’t stupid. I don’t think he would’ve hired Sebastian if he knew about his, um…” He gestured with his hand, reaching for the right word, before poorly settling on “…inhumanness.”
“Besides,” he went on, narrowing his eyes in contemplation, “I don’t see why Ciel would want to sell his soul to evil.”
Agni began fiddling with the bandages binding his right hand: a nervous tic. Soma was still watching him, still appraising him with a look of fierce, no-nonsense determination that made Agni hesitant to meet his eyes. It was amusing, in a strange, bizarre way how the prince wore his naivety like an invisible cloak that could be discarded or donned as he see fit.
“You’re wondering why Ciel hired him then.” The prince was being unusually perceptive. It was a statement, not a question. Agni nodded, once; he still couldn’t believe he was actually having this conversation with his master while they lived under the roof owned by said “child.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Soma asked him, gesturing towards the play like the answer was written on the cover. “Sebastian—and that’s assuming his name really is Sebastian—must have done something to Ciel, tricked him somehow. Ciel’s a child no matter how he carries himself, or what being the Queen’s Watchdog demands of him. He’s an earl, but he’s a child first. Plus, Sebastian is crafty. I wouldn’t be surprised if he managed to seduce Ciel somehow.”
If he had not already given the play back, Agni was sure he would have dropped it then and there. Seduce? The word put an all-encompassing picture of Sebastian, Ciel, and the tiny earl’s fingers knotted into his butler’s devastatingly black hair into Agni’s head, prompting him to cough despite having no real need. His face suddenly felt very warm.
The prince was watching him with wide-eyed curiosity.
“Sir, you seem to have, um, put quite a bit of thought into this,” Agni observed. He rubbed the back of his neck to relieve some of the tension there. “But I hardly think the play is enough to prove that Mr. Sebastian is definitely not a human, even with all his miraculous feats. I admit that he is unlike any human that I have ever met before”—he recalled the time Sebastian had managed to knock him down with the cork from a champagne bottle—“but that doesn’t mean he’s not a human.”
“Agni, Agni, Agni,” the prince intoned, shaking his head like a mother who was disappointed by her child’s behavior. He beckoned his butler closer with a finger. Agni leaned in, watching with raised brows as Soma glanced around furtively.
“Sebastian writes with his left hand.” He whispered it like it was secret.
Agni blinked. “Left hand?” he echoed uncertainly. “I’ve seen him write with his right hand before. Perhaps he uses both? Does it make a difference?”
By the way Soma sighed heavily and sat back in the armchair, Agni was sure he had said something he should not have—or should have said something that he didn’t. “Do you remember when we first came to England, and there was an old woman standing next to one of the Christian churches, preaching about evil?”
It took him a moment, but Agni recalled the wrinkled woman with the oddly bent back. (It reminded him of the sharp lettering from before, twisted and bent this way and that.) She had been dressed in black from head-to-toe, her gloved hands clutching a crucifix close to her chest, wailing something about “The Evil One.” (At the time, Prince Soma had referred to the woman as a religious lunatic, but Agni didn’t bring that up.)
Soma was still assessing him.
“Yes, I remember,” Agni told him.
“Well, she said that anyone who is evil uses their ‘unclean hand,’ which is the left hand,” the prince explained, taking on a schoolmasterly tone that he must have picked up from his professors in Bengal, “and Sebastian happens to be left-handed.”
Agni shifted uncomfortably on his feet. While living in Bengal, he’d heard stories about how criminals were punished for their crimes by having their right hands cut off. He hadn’t understood the significance of it at that time, but if the left hand was truly believed to be the “unclean hand,” then having their right hand severed would be the ultimate punishment; they would be forced to use that other hand for everything, tainting anything they touched.
But Agni had seen Sebastian use his right hand, so the man was clearly not quite as evil—
—and since when did his fellow butler, his friend Sebastian Michaelis, fall into the category of “evil” to begin with?
Agni shook his head to clear it, and though he didn’t voice his thoughts, wondered if Prince Soma’s sudden misgivings about Sebastian’s humanity stemmed from whatever grudge he seemed to be holding against him. Agni didn’t have to be especially alert to know that his prince and Sebastian were at odds with one another, despite the latter’s cheerful attitude. He suspected the altercation had occurred while he had been away from the Phantomhive Manor, while staying with West and preparing for the curry battle; the possibility of the rift being his fault—he should have been there; it was his job to take care of his god, but things had gone so, so wrong at West’s estate—made Agni’s stomach knot into a lump.
“Have you noticed that Ciel hasn’t attended church once while we’ve been here?” Soma suddenly asked, bringing Agni back to the present. “I find that odd, don’t you? There are many churches in England.”
“Perhaps Master Ciel is not very religious,” Agni suggested quietly.
“Ciel doesn’t own a copy of the Christian Bible either, but he owns”—the prince held up the play like it was evidence—something like this, where evil corrupts the good.” Agni did not like the direction this conversation was taking. I wonder if Sebastian has something to do with this went unsaid, but was understood nevertheless. Agni had to admit that the prospect of Sebastian forcing his master to abandon all religious affiliations was disconcerting—but unlikely, because why would that benefit him?
“Sebastian doesn’t take care of Ciel as seriously as he should, either,” Soma continued. Again, he had changed the subject, and Agni’s mind was rapidly derailing with his efforts to keep up. There were too many loose ends, too many things left unsaid.
“Remember when Ciel got a stomachache right after the curry battle?”
Agni remembered this in vivid detail—the tiny earl doubled over, his sweat-drenched hair hanging close to his face as he vomited pieces of the half-digested chicken onto the marble floor. He nodded grimly.
“Sebastian put him to bed, and the next day Ciel talked Sebastian into letting him out of bed,” Soma reflected bitterly. “Ciel said he had to take care of businesses expenses, that he was feeling perfectly fine. Well, he hadn’t looked perfectly fine. He’d looked pale and sickly, and Sebastian—his butler—had agreed to let him walk around.” The prince brought his hands down hard against the sides of the armchair, raking the cushion with his nails. Agni flinched a bit at the sound.
“You, Agni.” The prince shook a finger at him to emphasize his point. “You would never have allowed me to get out of bed if I was sick. I know you think he’s a better butler than you are, but that’s a lie! Sebastian will never be as good a butler as you are, and you won’t admit it because you’re too humble.”
Agni held up his hands in front of him and quickly shook his head. There was no way that he—he, who had once been a sinner, basking in his own iniquity—could ever be compared to someone as perfect as Sebastian Michaelis: Sebastian, who made even the most mundane tasks seem extraordinary with his own unique grace; Sebastian, who worked flawlessly, excelling in any area of expertise; Sebastian, who was the quintessence of what it meant to truly be a butler.
“Oh no, my prince,” he murmured, smiling weakly, feeling utterly unworthy of the praise. “Please don’t say that. Perhaps Mr. Sebastian just didn’t think on it because Master Ciel was too insistent on getting up. I really do believe he is a much more talented butler—”
“There,” the prince cut in, nostrils flaring like he had just heard something repulsive. Agni closed his mouth, dumbfounded and a little confused. “See what I mean? You’re too humble, Agni. No, actually, I take that back. You’re kind.” Soma smiled a little, gratefully.
“Sebastian may seem to be perfect, but you have something that he doesn’t have. You have a heart.” And Agni prayed he meant that figuratively. “Sebastian is…insincere. I don’t think anything he does—whether it be cooking, cleaning, or waiting on Ciel—is genuine. It looks and feels forced.”
Prince and butler lapsed into silence. Agni paused to consider what his prince had told him. Sebastian is insincere. He should have dismissed the thought already, but Agni wasn’t so sure anymore; now that he really thought about it, he got a nagging feeling that there was more than meets the eye.
Of course, he was not questioning Sebastian’s expertise as a butler (expertise?—that went without saying) but there were a few things that bothered Agni, like the times when Sebastian actually appeared to be enjoying his master’s discomfort; he masked it well by keeping his face impassive, but the smug satisfaction never failed to dance across his scarlet eyes, darkening them momentarily before they stilled and hardened into the perfect pretense. Other times, the corners of his lips would curl just the slightest bit, forming a sly smirk that questioned where his true loyalties rested.
And Agni had to admit that Sebastian’s speech occasionally took on an air of superiority. There was something he’d said absently after Agni had brought up a cup of green tea for the earl to drink: “Green tea is said to be particularly healthy for humans.” Agni hadn’t thought about it too much until now. He remembered in alarming detail the haughty smile displayed across Sebastian’s face; the unnatural flicker in his eyes as he had looked at the tiny body of his afflicted master; and the cool, matter-of-fact edge his voice had taken on—nearly hinting that he was not referring to himself as a human, but merely observing.
“Do you think he’s inhuman, or do you think he’s corrupt?” Agni heard himself ask in a faraway voice. He tacked on a hasty sir after a moment’s pause, mortified at having been so forward.
He’d spoken before his mind had had a chance to catch up with him; this wasn’t what he had wanted to ask—not like this, anyway. He’d only wanted clarification, but in the process had made it sound like he had become suspicious of Sebastian’s mortality, too. It was true that there were a handful of things about Sebastian that failed to add up, but Agni hardly felt these misgivings proved that Sebastian was not human. Deception was not limited to otherworldly creatures, after all.
“I think he’s inhuman and corrupt,” Soma corrected, just what Agni had been afraid of. “To be honest,” the prince hesitated, biting his lip, looking upset, “he reminds me of the rakshas. You know, the demons from Hindu mythology? He could be one. They play with their food before devouring it.”
Agni was taken aback at that; the prince must’ve been incredibly serious to liken Sebastian to one of the rakshas—to a demon who was the epitome of evil; who was incredibly strong; who relished in bringing disorder, terror, and total panic to innocent human beings before feasting on their flesh. The thought of Sebastian wanting to consume his master’s pale skin put a horrible image in Agni’s head—of broken, bloodied bones with bits of flesh still clinging to them; the sickening chomp of sharp teeth biting into skin and grazing against bone; the slurp that came from the consumption of warm, red blood from torn and bruised skin; that mind-numbing scream of agony, of “No, it hurts! Sebastian, please stop—”
“Agni?” It was Prince Soma’s voice, clear and real and a godsend that dispelled the gruesome image festering in Agni’s mind. He blinked and passed a hand over his forehead, forcing the image out of his head altogether.
The prince looked wary. “Are you…? I didn’t think you would take it so hard. Sorry.” He shifted in the armchair, looking a little remorseful. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said it outright like that. It’s just occurred to me that I’ve never seen Sebastian eat.” Of course, he meant human food.
“Have you ever seen Sebastian eat or sleep?” Soma inquired quietly. “Your room is next to his in the servant’s quarters, so you would know better than I do. Back at Ciel’s main estate, Sebastian didn’t take meals with the rest of his staff,”—Soma paused, and then admitted, grudgingly, “but that’s probably because he’s the head butler. I’ve seen him eat a few times, but only when he needed to taste something, like curry for the battle.”
Well, no. Agni did not once recall seeing the butler eat anything, save for the occasional sampling while preparing meals for the earl. But surely Sebastian took his meals sometime during the day; perhaps he preferred eating alone, content with his own company rather than the company of others. (Agni suspected that Sebastian did not find the Phantomhive staff to be as enthusiastic and charming as he did. Quite the contrary, actually.)
Agni wracked his brain for a way to respond. “I can’t say that I’ve seen Mr. Sebastian sleep, my prince,” he said, deflecting the subject away from Sebastian’s eating habits, “as he doesn’t retire until the help has went to bed. When we were living in Master Ciel’s main estate, Mr. Sebastian put the master to bed and prepared what was necessary for the next day.” The ambiguity was not intentional; this was the succinct explanation Sebastian had given him. “By the time he would retire to his room, I was usually asleep.” He felt a little ashamed and he didn’t know why. “He always woke up earlier than everyone else to prepare breakfast, too.”
“I see,” Soma snorted.
Agni hid his hands behind his back so that Soma could not see him fidget. He had, admittedly, been to Sebastian’s room once. It had been well after midnight, and Agni, restless and unable to sleep, had noticed the oil in his lamp needed to be replaced. (He’d made it a habit to sleep next to lamplight—a reminder of his rebirth from a sinner to a new man with a new life, a humble servant to his master and god.)
So Agni had crawled out of bed and quietly tiptoed to Sebastian’s room, feeling guilty (and a bit foolish) for having to wake Sebastian up to get more oil for his lamp. Sebastian had opened the door before Agni had had a chance to knock, not looking the least bit surprised, and had motioned for him to come in with a gesture that, well, had looked too grandiose to be sincere, now that he thought about it.
Upon entering, he’d found himself standing in a room of pitch black darkness. The curtains had been drawn shut, not permitting even a crack of moonlight, which Agni had found strange, but not unheard of. Sebastian had seemed amused, chuckling softly, teeth gleaming white against the stark darkness as he’d murmured an apology and crossed the room with remarkable grace, movements fluid and catlike as he lit a candle with a single flick of his pale wrist.
Agni had been quite confused to see Sebastian still wearing his uniform, save for the tailcoat that he had draped across his bed—a bed whose covers had not even been lifted. “I am not tired tonight,” Sebastian had informed him in a clipped tone that hadn’t matched his cheerful expression. Agni had not stayed long, feeling awkward standing there in a tunic with tousled hair while Sebastian had looked as sharp as ever. Instead of showing him where the spare oil was kept, Sebastian had lit his own lamp and given it to Agni, insisting that he not worry about changing the oil until the morning, and had proceeded to bid him a polite but somewhat curt good night.
“Damn it,” Soma muttered. Agni looked up quick enough to see his master throw the play at the farthest corner of the room with surprisingly good marksmanship, earning an unceremonious thud as the volume met the floor.
“Agni, come here.” It was an order, clear and concise. He made no eye contact with Agni, only glared at the play like it was some kind of unholy abomination.
The severity in Soma’s tone surprised him. But Agni obeyed and dutifully knelt in front of his prince, as reverent as a knight before his king or a clergyman genuflecting before an altar. He stared solemnly at the jeweled sandals adorning his master’s feet, wavering slightly as he felt the prince finally turn to look down at him.
“You will help me protect Ciel,” Soma instructed. Agni met his prince’s gaze and succumbed to the intensity in his hazel eyes. “You may not believe what I said about Sebastian” (Agni swallowed guiltily) “because you consider him a friend. That’s fine. I don’t care if you consider Sebastian a friend because first and foremost you are my butler, Agni,” he marked his words by leaning forward so he was eye-to-eye with Agni, staring at him intently, “and you will follow my orders.”
Agni didn’t know to respond, at a complete loss for words under the ferocity of his master’s gaze. His legs felt weak, and he reached out a hand to balance himself. The prince must have noticed because he sighed heavily, like he was torn and suddenly very, very tired. “I just… I want to protect that boy from him, and I need your help to do so. Agni…” His voice lost some of its earlier vehemence and softened into something more imploring than aggressive, but the intensity in his eyes was still there, reminding Agni of the flame burning in his oil lamp.
“You have always remained by my side even though I took you for granted. You put the well-being of a foolish, bratty prince before your own.” Soma grinned then, slowly and deliberately. “I want to do that for Ciel. I want to be there for him because I know—don’t ask me how or why, Agni, but I know—that Sebastian is not what he needs. That boy needs a friend. I want to rescue Ciel from loneliness like you rescued me. I want to make him smile.” His voice was firm with purpose.
“Help me, Agni.” The prince reached over and grabbed Agni’s hand, his Right Hand of God, and held it securely, almost reverently, in both of his hands. Agni looked on in a daze, trying to figure out what to do as all the loose ends from before suddenly seemed to come together. “Help me watch over Ciel. Help me try to sever whatever hold Sebastian has over him. Do this for me, Agni. Please.” His grip on Agni’s hand tightened, his nails digging urgently into the bandages at the back of his hand.
How could he say no? How could he possibly refuse such an earnest request made by this avatar, his savior, who was looking into his eyes with alarming desperation? He may not have believed everything—not fully, at least—but if agreeing to help protect the earl would put his master’s mind to rest, then…
“Jo ajna,” he vowed, nodding once. He didn’t know what he was promising or what protecting Ciel would entail, much less if he could do it. But he could not say no. “Your wish is my command.”
“No.” Soma brought Agni’s hand up so it was held possessively over his heart. Agni could feel his prince’s heart hammering unsteadily under the fine silk of his kurta, and it made him uneasy. “I want your word. Promise me, Agni.”
“I promise.” (Could he match Sebastian? And if he couldn’t, would that be a sin?) He brought his left hand up to give his master’s arm a reassuring squeeze; it was too forward, too bold, not proper and certainly not in a butler’s aesthetics, but the prince looked so frantic… “I swear to it,” he murmured solemnly, bowing his head, “my prince, my master…” …my god.
And there came that lilting voice, calm and collected, forcibly polite with a hint of artificiality and a touch of amusement for balance. Agni could have swore he felt a cold finger trace down the column of his backbone, a sharp nail grazing against his skin. He carefully pulled away both his hands and straightened, turning his attention over to the master-and-servant duo standing in the doorway.
“Are we, ah, interrupting something?” Sebastian inquired.
“I was having a word with my butler,” Soma snapped back with alarming ferocity, visibly miffed.
Sebastian looked mildly surprised. “Forgive me,” he apologized smoothly while Ciel inspected his townhouse carefully, his one visible eye glossing over every nook and cranny. He appeared faintly surprised, if not relieved, that the house was still standing, as pristine as ever; he poked the corner table with his cane, like he was expecting it to collapse in on itself.
“We did not hear you come inside,” Agni explained hastily. He added, with forced cheeriness, “Welcome!” in hopes of alleviating some of the tension; he looked askance at his prince, who was still glaring daggers at the other butler.
Sebastian smiled mysteriously but said nothing, instead proceeding to remove the overcoat from his master’s tiny shoulders. Ciel sneezed, his head jerking forward with such force that it threw locks of his ash gray hair into his face. He brushed them back quickly with a gloved hand, looking annoyed and put-off.
“My, my,” Sebastian intoned, clicking his tongue in disapproval. “The young master must have his hair trimmed. Such a shabby appearance is most unsuitable for a count.”
At this point, Agni didn’t know what to make of Sebastian’s tone; he sounded concerned, but it was more of a snide concern than anything, like he was mocking his master. While Sebastian busied himself with hanging Ciel’s hat and cane on the coat rack in the foyer, Agni snuck a glance at the prince master; his eyes were sharp, and Agni worried what would happen if the prince acted out.
“Just cut it tomorrow,” Ciel said offhandedly, appearing entirely too indifferent at the whole affair. “I’m tired, and I just want to go to—”
“Cieeeel! I’ve been meaning to tell you some of my ideas for your company,” the prince interrupted in an energetic flurry of words. His eyes had softened considerably, sparkling with childlike charm. Agni blinked, watching in bewilderment as Soma bounced up from the armchair and all but hopped towards the earl, throwing an arm across his shoulders with a friendly grin.
Sebastian looked more amused than Agni considered appropriate when Ciel’s eyebrow twitched; he shrugged the prince’s arm off his shoulder. “What ideas could you possibly have for my company?” he inquired blearily.
Soma appeared undeterred by the earl’s obvious lack of interest. “Since the English seem to be so taken with our culture now that the Anglo-Indian murders have been put to a rest”—Agni’s right hand twitched, and Sebastian turned the full intensity of his gaze upon him, smiling pleasantly—“why doesn’t your company start selling more Indian products? Like…” Soma rolled up his sleeve, revealing an arm decorated with elegant peacocks, delicate lotuses, and long-winding leaves. “…this!”
“You have tattoos,” Ciel deadpanned, clearly making an effort to look unimpressed. Agni smiled inwardly. “I doubt the good people of England would appreciate their children getting tattoos done. They would have my head, and I am rather fond of where my head is situated at the moment, thank you.”
“These aren’t tattoos,” Soma corrected haughtily. “This is mehndi. It’s not permanent. It’s temporary.” Cue the schoolmasterly tone once again. “You see, a paste is made from a special plant called henna, and that paste is painted onto the skin. The color darkens depending on how long you choose to leave the paste on. If you leave it on overnight, you usually get a color like this.” The prince turned his hand palm-up so the burnt sienna color showed more prominently. “It can remain anywhere from a couple weeks to a few months.”
Ciel looked skeptical, but Sebastian leaned in for a closer look. Soma seemed close to flinching. “May I ask who did this for you, Prince Soma?”
“My butler,” Soma stated with a possessive edge. “Agni has incredible attention to detail.”
Agni was sure only he could understand the double meaning behind that, the subtle way his master had emphasized the word my, but he thought he saw a mixture of humor coupled with awareness in Sebastian’s piercing eyes.
“Ah,” Sebastian observed coolly. Again, the too pleasant smile. “This is very well done, Mr. Agni.” Agni smiled unconvincingly, too distracted by the foot his master was tapping against the floor to conjure up a suitable response.
“Can we stop with the pleasantries?” Ciel asked wearily. “The point stands that the lords and ladies will not want this done on their children. It’s an allergic reaction and a disaster waiting to happen.”
“It has a dual purpose and serves as a dye. The English women can use it in their hair,” the prince suggested enthusiastically, rolling down the sleeve of his kurta.
Ciel looked at Soma like he had just sprouted another head. Sebastian cleared his throat, obviously trying not to laugh.
“I am tired, and I want to go rest,” the earl said emphatically, and perhaps to avoid any more discussion, added, “My decision still remains.” He took a few steps towards the staircase and cast an annoyed look over his shoulder.
“Well, aren’t you coming, Sebastian?”
“The young master did not ask,” Sebastian pointed out cheerfully.
Agni had a feeling Ciel’s patience had been worn thin, too thin, and was teetering precariously on the edge of a hysterical fit; he didn’t understand why Sebastian was testing his master’s patience like this.
“But I still have other ideas!” Soma insisted.
“Later,” Ciel dismissed.
Soma looked insulted. “Fine,” he muttered in a huff, “we’ll just discuss it tomorrow.”
Ciel was a fourth of the way up the stairs, Sebastian following close behind. “Whatever.”
“I would like to remind the young master that Marchioness Middleford and Lady Elizabeth will be visiting tomorrow,” Sebastian said calmly. “I have already made the necessary arrangements for their arrival here in London.”
Ciel’s expression went from intensely annoyed to fiercely distraught. “The Marchioness is visiting tomorrow? She’s coming here?—but she’s supposed to come to my main estate!”
“Ah, yes,” Sebastian conceded, “but as you requested to come to London, I had to rectify that. The Marchioness was adamant in her request to personally congratulate you on receiving the Royal Warrant.”
Ciel gritted his teeth together. “Why didn’t you check with me first?”
“But I did, Young Master,” Sebastian told him, his eyes flashing an alarmingly bright shade of crimson. “If I recall, you waved me aside and told me to do whatever was suitable. I was merely following orders.”
Agni looked on feeling worried and helpless, wanting to do something to help though he knew it was not his place to do so. Soma seemed curious more than anything, actually looking pleased at the altercation.
The earl whipped his head around fiercely, all but snarling as he said, “You should have taken the initiative to mention this before we left.”
Sebastian smiled smugly. “I regret to inform the young master that he did not—”
“Shut the hell up.”
Sebastian bowed deeply and placed his right hand over his heart, the hallmark of elegance. “Pardon me, my lord.” He did not look the least bit contrite.
Sebastian’s irreverence left Agni unsettled…but this man was his friend, so he deserved the benefit of the doubt, didn’t he? Agni went through the possible reasons in his head: perhaps he was not feeling well—or it had been intentional altogether, possibly the result of a poorly executed joke; and there was always the possibility that his patience had become strained (because Sebastian was a human after all, and a human’s patience was not limitless)…
Even Agni knew that his rationalizations were second-rate at best, but he wouldn’t admit it to himself—not even when his prince looked over at him with a grim expression that read See what I told you?
“So,” Soma started conversationally, eyes flicking back and forth between the furious earl and his complacent butler; the two were staring at each other intently, engaged in some kind of wordless conversation that made Ciel’s cheeks flush to match the red of Sebastian’s irises. “Who are those people? Do you know them, Ciel?”
Sebastian was the first to look away, the corner of his mouth twitching as he seemed to relish in his victory. “Marchioness Middleford and Lady Elizabeth are the young master’s relatives,” he explained curtly. By the way he pressed his lips into a thin line and darted a glance over to Ciel, Agni suspected there was more to it than Sebastian had admitted.
“Relatives?” Soma repeated, looking absolutely delighted. “Agni and I must meet them! It’s only appropriate, since I am your best friend—”
“You are not meeting the Marchioness,” Ciel declared with absolute finality. “You two will stay in your rooms and not make any trouble.”
Soma scowled and crossed his arms. “We’ll see about that, kid.”
Ciel exchanged smug looks with his servant, the rage apparently having come to pass; the relationship between the two was more complex than Agni had thought. “Sebastian will make sure of it,” Ciel countered confidently, smiling mischievously; his butler stood with both hands clasped behind his back, eyes narrowed but smiling smartly.
“Please don’t underestimate Agni,” Soma retorted, tilting his head towards his servant; Agni was again shoved underneath the limelight. “He’s more than a suitable match for your butler.” Agni met Sebastian’s unnerving gaze, keeping his face expressionless even when the other’s smile became a smirk.
The smile promptly fell from Ciel’s face. “I don’t want a repeat of what happened with Scotland Yard,” he warned, eyeing Agni sharply. “Keep your babysitter in check, Soma.”
Agni looked away; the embarrassment of Sebastian thwarting his efforts to turn himself into the authorities threatened to stain his cheeks red.
Soma was smiling merrily, like a child who was about to get his way. “I’ll try,” he said unconvincingly.
Ciel glanced up like he was hoping an answer would fall from the ceiling, like anything would be better than having to negotiate with the prince; after a pause, he conceded with a sigh. “If I agree to let you prattle on for a few minutes about your ideas for my company, will you both”—his gaze momentarily came to rest on Agni—“leave us alone tomorrow?”
The prince was absolutely glowing. “Promise.”
Ciel crinkled his tiny nose, obviously displeased that he was being forced to compromise. “You have thirty minutes.”
“Thirty minutes?” the prince echoed incredulously. Agni murmured his name respectfully, trying to placate him while also trying to ignore the smirk plastered onto Sebastian’s face.
“At least an hour or two,” Soma tried again.
“Thirty minutes,” Ciel maintained.
Soma put a hand on his chin and considered this for a moment. The silence was taut enough to be sliced with a blade. “One hour,” the prince settled on; he rushed on when Ciel opened his mouth to object, “One hour and Agni and I will leave the house tomorrow morning. We’ll return at dusk, when your relatives have left. That sounds fair, doesn’t it?”
It did; it sounded surprisingly fair, though Ciel did not seem willing to admit this. He appeared rather close to sulking, or wanting to hit something—or both. “Fine,” the earl relented grudgingly. “One hour, and then you leave me the hell alone tomorrow.”
Soma grinned triumphantly and bounded up the stairs two at a time, golden earrings clinking and twinkling impressively. Sebastian stepped aside to allow him to pass, now smiling politely. Agni did not fail to see the suspicion that passed over his master’s face as he moved past the butler. Ciel looked utterly apathetic, yawning idly and wearing an expression that asked Can we get this over with?
“You won’t be disappointed,” Soma promised, ruffling Ciel’s full head of hair affectionately. Agni smiled a little.
The earl pulled away and made a feeble attempt at rearranging his hair before giving up with a sigh. “Tch,” he grunted noncommittally. “Just make it quick. Your hour starts now.”
“If I may add,” Sebastian started, smoothing into the conversation; he glanced apologetically at Soma, who clamped his mouth shut resentfully. “I will bring the young master a cup of warm milk once I finish straightening up downstairs.”
“And a muffin,” Ciel added.
Sebastian was still smiling, and there was a faint glitter of fondness (yes, that was fondness and fondness alone) that put Agni at ease. “Certainly, my lord.”
Ciel waved a hand flippantly and began trudging up the stairs, idly glancing behind him to see Soma still transfixed near the banister; he shrugged and proceeded undeterred, wearing a trademark look of indifference.
“Agni.” The boyish cadence of Soma’s voice could not belie his call for his butler’s full and undivided attention. “Please stay here and help”—he faltered, visibly—“Sebastian with the cleaning.”
This, of course, all translated out to: Agni, keep an eye on him. I am counting on you.
“I will, my prince,” he reassured him, finding it remarkably easy to smile this time around. And it was at that instant, when Prince Soma’s eyes glittered like gold dust and his smile became the embodiment of all that was pure and holy and good, that Agni saw with perfect clarity the god his master kept buried inside. Agni etched that smile into his memory like it was a woodcarving.
“You’re down to fifty-eight minutes,” Ciel droned apathetically from the top of the stairs.
The saintly image wasn’t dispelled when Prince Soma swore and dashed up the stairs, wearing a pained expression as he told Ciel, “That’s not fair.” And when Ciel snorted and haughtily pointed out that it was the prince’s fault for dawdling, he found the voice obscure and faraway—irrelevant, like a blade of grass catching the breeze. But when he finally tore his gaze away from the banister, Agni found himself immersed in a fiery gaze so unlike Prince Soma’s. The finger was against his back again, unrelenting this time as it crept underneath his skin, raking its nail against the very bone of his spine.
“The townhouse has been kept well,” Sebastian observed, mercifully releasing Agni from his piercing gaze. He ambled down the staircase with the grace of a gentleman, his gloves ghosting over the railing.
There was no tangible reason for Agni to have still been watching him, but he was (and he told himself he really, truly could look away when he wanted to; being attentive was what Prince Soma had wanted him to do). There was something oddly fascinating about the way Sebastian carried himself, Agni realized, perhaps not as surprised as he should have been. It didn’t just stem from Sebastian’s perfect posture—not merely from the way he stood with squared and confident shoulders, chin held high enough to be bordering on audacity—but rather the way he never seemed to be perturbed, not even marginally flustered. Sebastian was never frantic because he had absolute confidence in his abilities to get things done on time, without fault. This was a trait that Agni, as a fellow butler, should have envied more than he admired.
“This makes my job much easier, you know,” Sebastian remarked cheerfully, now leisurely making his way into the parlor room.
Agni wasn’t sure how to respond to that. “I’m glad,” he tried, the strain ringing clear and true in his tone. He winced at the sound of his own voice.
Sebastian’s lips lifted into a somewhat dark smile. He leaned against the opposite wall of the room, uncommonly casual as he folded his arms across his chest. He regarded Agni with a look that could have meant anything. Or nothing at all.
“I am under the impression that I have upset Prince Soma somehow,” Sebastian said, though he hardly looked troubled.
Agni clenched his jaw but managed to keep his face blank. “Please rest assured that you have not upset Master Soma,” he responded promptly, telling himself it wasn’t a lie. You haven’t upset him. He just thinks you’re inhuman, a demon hell-bent on driving your master mad and then feasting on his flesh. “I’m sorry if it seemed that way.” He bowed his head, raising his hands and bringing them together in a compulsory, too severe apology.
When Sebastian didn’t respond right away, Agni peered up at him over his fingertips. His posture was relaxed and somehow elegant at the same time, casual but compelling. “You apologize far too much, Mr. Agni,” he chided, neglecting to address the matter about the prince altogether. Agni nearly apologized again, but caught himself and held his tongue.
Sebastian was still smiling when he pushed away from the wall with his elbow, angling his shoulder towards Agni subtly enough to be a distraction. He inspected the surrounding area with speed that could only have been achieved through time and practice. Agni shifted on his feet when his eyes happened upon, and then lingered curiously on, the play that had been cast aside by Prince Soma.
“That is…” His curiosity had peaked; he arched a slender eyebrow, walking towards the distinctly out-of-place item with long and perfectly measured strides. He tucked in his coattails before stooping down to retrieve it, favoring, Agni noted with a glimmer of surprise, his left hand over his right. He ran a gloved forefinger over the cover, a strange look passing over his face.
“This is from the young master’s library,” Sebastian murmured absently; for a moment, his eyes seemed to flicker from their usual red to a pitch black. A lock of dark hair came loose from behind his ear and fell with stark contrast against his pale skin. Sebastian did not brush it away, and Agni almost wished he was close enough to sweep it back himself.
He flexed the fingers of his right hand and cleared his throat. “Yes,” Agni agreed easily enough. “I hope you don’t mind. Master Soma was reading it earlier today.”
Sebastian finally tucked the strand of hair behind his ear. (Agni exhaled a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.) His gaze touched Agni’s as he stood with the book in hand; he cocked his head to the left, one finger pressed to his temple. “Prince Soma was trying his hand at reading this, was he?” Sebastian inquired with poorly disguised disbelief; in fact, he seemed overly amused and dangerously close to chuckling.
Agni visibly stiffened at “trying his hand.” Naturally, Sebastian did not let this go unnoticed; he grinned slowly and with entirely too much audacity. “I did not mean to offend,” he clarified, somewhat gently. Agni found this hard to believe. “I was merely surprised. I had no idea Prince Soma enjoyed reading western tragedies.”
He didn’t enjoy it. He’s using it as proof that you’re diabolical. Agni lifted a hand to rub the back of his neck; he stopped at the last instant, realizing it made him look a little dodgy. “Master Soma found it quite…interesting,” he commented vaguely.
“Did he then,” Sebastian remarked; he regarded the play with an odd look. “It‘s one of the most renowned works of German literature, written by the late Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.” The name rolled off his tongue expertly, with a brand of ease and perfection that Agni knew he would never be able to emulate.
“Out of curiosity, how did this end up in the corner?”
This was the question Agni had been dreading. He smiled, discomfiture on clear display. “The prince dropped it,” he said quickly—a little too quickly, he realized when it was too late. The cover-up was terribly unlikely; there was no way Prince Soma could have dropped the book so that it landed directly in the corner—unless he was reading it in the corner, which was ridiculous in itself.
Sebastian’s eyes flicked to the corner and back. “Ah, is that so?” He obviously didn’t believe him, but he didn’t press for information either. Agni didn’t know what was worse—the distrust, or the forced politeness.
“Have you read it before?” Agni asked, hastily changing the subject, trying to keep their conversation from going awry. “The play, I mean?”
Sebastian traced Agni’s profile with his eyes. “I am quite familiar with the story,” he admitted cryptically. Agni had to look away from his probing eyes, feeling more and more uncomfortable by the minute. A simple “Yes, I have,” would have sufficed. (There was an instant where Agni thought he’d caught a whiff of burning flesh, of broken bones drenched in coppery blood, sticky and as brightly colored as Sebastian’s irises—)
“Did Prince Soma happen to mention the story to you?”
The question sounded innocent enough, purely conversational, but… “No.” Agni coughed, trying to keep his voice from cracking. “Not really.”
“It’s quite a tale,” Sebastian acknowledged with a single nod, “with an underlying message that you, of all people, would find rather interesting.” His eyes were ablaze, the flames licking first at Agni’s ankles, and then his calves, slowly, mercilessly creeping upwards.
“You see,” Sebastian went on, completely impassive to the growing terror that Agni knew was creeping into his expression, “the play begins with the devil—Mephistopheles, as he is called—striking a bet with God.” There was something sinister about the way Sebastian’s mouth hardened around the word God, something that made Agni’s legs feel like dead weight. “Mephistopheles insists that he is powerful enough to lead astray God’s favorite and most faithful follower, a scholar named Faust. Mephistopheles proceeds to pursue Faust, who is battling his own inner demons”—Agni’s eyes widened slightly at this; Sebastian’s eyes gleamed in return—“for lack of a better phrase, of course.”
“Of course,” Agni muttered grimly. Since coming to Europe, he and Prince Soma had learned the basics of Christianity—of the devil being the embodiment of all that was evil in the world. Hell was the devil’s domain. Unlike their idea of Naraka, Hell was not a temporary purgatory where the wicked were cleansed of their sins; it was a realm where those unworthy of salvation suffered for their sins in an endless cycle of pain, agony, and the “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
“Faust is confronted by Mephistopheles,” Sebastian continued, the corner of his mouth curling, “who promises to show him the unimaginable, and pledges his loyalty. The two make an arrangement. Mephistopheles agrees to do the scholar’s bidding on Earth, but in return Faust must serve Mephistopheles in Hell.
“‘Here to thy service I will bind me—
Rest and repose I’ll sacrifice for thee;
And when in Hereafter I shall find thee,
Why thou shalt do the like for me.’”
Sebastian did not have the play opened; he was reciting the passage from memory, in a voice colored with the polished sophistication of an aristocrat. Agni was more startled than impressed; Sebastian looked far too comfortable—as if he knew the meaning of the excerpt and everything that it encompassed all too well, like he was an expert.
“Faust adds an additional clause: if Mephistopheles gives him a moment so satisfying, so inexplicably perfect that Faust wishes for it to last forever, only then will he die and give his soul to the devil. And thus, the contract is formed—signed in Faust’s own blood.” Prince Soma’s explanation had been vastly simpler, so much less troublesome. Agni pressed his knee into the side of the armchair to steady himself, his discomfort exceeding all bounds.
Sebastian gauged his reaction, gaze flitting over Agni’s trembling hand; he instinctively hid the hand behind his back, trying to keep his features rigid but aware he was failing miserably. Sebastian raised his eyebrows, looking somewhat surprised.
“I had no idea this was troubling you so much, Mr. Agni,” he said apologetically. “I did not mean to talk for so long. I merely thought you would be curious. Forgive me.”
“I… It’s not—” Sebastian had not glanced away once since his narrative of the play had started, and Agni was beginning to feel flustered. “Not at all, Mr. Sebastian. Really, it’s just…”
“Just?” Sebastian prompted calmly.
Truthfully, Agni wasn’t sure what to say. There was a small part of him that wanted to know how the tale ended—if this Faust had found salvation, or if his soul had been bound to the devil for eternity—but a larger part that didn’t want to provoke Sebastian.
“I find it difficult to believe that the scholar could’ve been led awry so easily,” Agni said quietly. “If he was as faithful as you said, how could he have been turned away from good completely?”
“Temptation,” Sebastian answered meaningfully, like the word should have been explanation enough. “Time and time again, temptation has been the downfall of humanity. Humans are weak creatures, easily susceptible to being lured in by false promises and crafty manipulations. They only want answers that can satiate their morbid curiosity. It’s this weakness that leads to sin.” Again, the purely observational tone with the myself excluded undercurrent that Agni was starting to dread.
“Pride, envy, wrath,” Sebastian began listing without provocation, “sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust.” Agni forced himself not to read into the subtle stresses Sebastian had chosen to put on a few words. “Christians refer to them as ‘The Seven Deadly Sins.’”
Sebastian’s eyes were too aware, too piercing, like he could see into every hidden part of Agni’s soul—back to his so-called “life” before Prince Soma, when he had spent his days seeking solace in his drunken stupors and his evenings murmuring sweet lies to dirtied women. Agni passed a hand over his chest in a vain attempt to hide a hole that wasn’t there.
Agni looked at him with some uncertainty. “How can you be positive that everyone has felt each of these emotions?”
“Oh, I can’t be positive,” Sebastian said equably, with a close-eyed, indulgent smile, “but from experience, I can tell you that the chances of a human not having experienced one of these sentiments—in some form, at some point in their life—are highly unlikely.”
Experience? Agni thought to himself uncertainly. Despite what he’d told him, Sebastian’s tone had implied that he’d seen this enough times to be reasonably certain. But how could he have? Sebastian appeared to be in his early twenties, nowhere near old enough to be at this level of “experience.”
“What do you think, Mr. Agni?” Sebastian inclined his head to the right, cloaking half his face in darkness and giving it a cruel, pointed sharpness that Agni had not noticed before. “Is a god’s most faithful disciple impervious to all temptation?” He took a step towards him—slow, calm, and calculating; it would have looked purely innocent if not for the telltale smirk that flitted across his lips, the way his eyes narrowed just the slightest bit. “Can he really not be led astray?”
Agni knew the question concerned him directly; there was no mistaking the artful cadence of Sebastian’s voice. He should have been on his guard after all that his prince had warned him about—corruption, evil, demons—and everything he had observed since then. Sebastian had not tried especially hard to make a worthy appeal for himself either; if anything, he had only made matters that much more difficult for Agni with his too casual posture, distracting gestures, and intense gazes. Sebastian’s knowledge of the play, which had wavered dangerously between mere familiarity and absolute expertise, and his alarmingly descriptive account on sins and their link to temptation had not shed light on the subject either. It was almost as if he was encouraging the doubt—relishing in it, even.
And now Sebastian was walking towards him, each step laced with a dark and haunting purpose, the two-inch height difference between them suddenly inconsequential.
The nature of the questions should have wiped away the doubt Agni still clutched protectively to his chest like a badge of courage. But he could not believe Sebastian Michaelis was evil. He wondered what the prince would make of his indecisiveness. Prince Soma had already resigned himself to the fact that Agni didn’t agree with him completely, provided that he help protect Ciel and keep an eye on Sebastian. And so far, Sebastian had not posed a direct threat to anyone or anything, so technically his uncertainty was justified, wasn’t it?
But Agni knew, deep down, that this was just vain justification for something he didn’t understand (and didn’t want to understand). Agni didn’t know why he still trusted Sebastian; perhaps it was because of his unparalleled expertise as a butler, or his brilliant sparring abilities, or his culinary skills—
Sebastian had stopped in front of him, the armchair the only thing between them; and at this unnervingly close angle, Agni could see each defined feature of Sebastian’s face: the slant of his nose, the sharp prominence of his chin, the thick black lashes that framed his too red eyes, and a smirk that drew attention to his painfully white teeth.
—or maybe Agni simply didn’t want to believe Sebastian was evil. He didn’t want to believe Sebastian’s clean-cut appearance was a front for something sinister. He didn’t want to believe that something ominous lurked behind Sebastian’s gaze. He didn’t want to believe someone so perfect was ungodly.
Sebastian breathed, his cool breath brushing against Agni’s neck. Agni shivered—not unpleasantly, he realized. “You have not answered my question.” And he should have listened to the voice of reason that was screaming at him to look away now instead of silencing it. Sebastian’s sudden nearness was making Agni’s heart pound erratically against his chest; and for a fraction of a second, he had the absurd desire to grab him by the arm, pull him forward roughly, and…
Sebastian smiled knowingly, the lock of black hair falling loose once again.
Agni closed his eyes just as Sebastian began undoing the carefully stitched threads of his self-control.