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Kuroshitsuji: Book of Cipher

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Ch 1: The Game is Afoot 


  

   {Cielle's POV} 

     I imagine decent, upstanding aristocrats hailing from nobility circles would seldom find themselves in such compromising states—bent over and down on their knees, crawling among the shadows like some marauder. But I, being the Queen's guard dog, welcomed these singular predicaments. 

     Shifting my eye-patch under the counter, I held up the anonymous telegram wired to Scotland Yard, the cryptic words lit by a sliver of moonlight. 

     'NRWMRTSG YFITOZIB. QVDVO SLFHV. GLDVI LU OLMWLM'  

     Given the Yard's usual state of incompetence, it hardly came as a surprise those bunglers had failed to decipher so simple a message. It wasn't particularly difficult to see the words formed a simple substitution cipher of reversed alphabets: A’s replaced Z’s, B’s replaced Y’s, C’s with X’s, and so forth. The decoded message bluntly stated:

                           'MIDNIGHT BURGLARY. JEWEL HOUSE. TOWER OF LONDON'                              

     A small part of the Tower of London, the Jewel House where the Queen housed the Crown Jewels. Though the warning telegram had been wired to Scotland Yard, as Queen's loyal guard dog, this task fell in my jurisdiction. Tonight I'd catch the swindling culprit who'd dare trifle with Her Majesty—and consequently me.

     The showroom clock began striking the hour. I stuffed the slip into my frock-coat and flattened myself against the woodwork. My pulse sped up with each chime. After the twelfth sounded, a heavy silence hovered in the air. I waited and waited, the seconds passing by at a glacial pace. Then I heard it. A tight knot formed in my chest as the windowsill’s rusted hinges screeched in the darkness. Given the undersized windows of the showroom, I suppose it was small comfort to know some rat-like man had just clambered in instead of a beast.

     Light scuffs on the floorboards proceeded without an inkling of hesitation. The rogue flitted past Her Majesty's royal regalia, past the sceptres, imperial state crowns, and other priceless items that stood hundreds of years of monarchy.    

                                                                                                                          

Then he stopped, as if he finally found what he came here for. A hand over my revolver, I rose slightly from my hiding place and blinked. The silhouette in front of me hardly belonged to a man at all but rather a woman—that too, one I recognized. 

       Irene Diaz . . . ?

     The opera singer I had invited to a banquet along with Mr. Wordsmith. What the deuce was she doing here?

     I narrowed my vision. With her back to me, Irene hovered over a nearby counter, her long, blonde hair spilling over a glass display. Through her curtained hair, I caught her hand fishing a delicate artifact out of its confines.

     The Queen's diadem.

     "I'd advise you to stop right there, Miss Diaz.” I kept my voice soft as I sprang from the counter. “If you don't, I’m afraid you’ll be in for quite a vamp.”

     At the sound of my voice, the woman tilted her head in a cataleptic manner. Like a mesmerized puppet, her dull, glassy eyes locked with mine, and a vacant smile crept her lips. A chill crawled over me. "What the deuce you think you're doing?" 

     And just like that, she completely dismissed my words and returned to her plundering. I stared at her in disbelief until a series of barks emerged in the distance. The Scotland Yard terriers. The moment I heard the barks, so did she. The woman's queer expression began to morph before me. Her face convulsed; her clouded eyes turned hard.

     "A . . .dog?" Irene whispered to herself. She whirled to her side, and her face blanched at my sight. "I-it's you . . . " Her trembling hands dropped the diadem with a clatter. She slowly backed away from me, her lavender irises wildly darted around the showroom—until they landed on the half-opened window. 

     "Don’t be foolish," I whispered.

     The opera singer didn't heed my words. Like a frightened deer, she bolted, her long dress swishing with every step. Just as her fingertips reached for the windowsill, I extended my foot, causing her to lose her footing and stagger backwards. Seizing my chance, I grasped the train of her dress and brought her to the floor.

    At that very moment, the two Scotland Yard officials who had stood watch outside the entrance burst through the doorway. Lord Randall Delacourt, Commissioner of Scotland Yard, swooped down on her like a hawk after a rabbit. She released a cry as Inspector Abberline seized her wrists and cuffed her. Once she was detained, the Commissioner wheeled around to face me, his voice sharp as glass. “What in blazes do you think you are doing here?”

     My gaze drifted at the restive terriers that circled him before I pointedly caught his eye. “I merely came to tidy up after the lumbering dogs, Commissioner.”

     Delacourt's jaw clenched.  “You were meant to find the Yard a lead, not blooming follow it.”

     "Au contraire," I replied with a demure smile. "While it is true that trivial cases like burglary fall in the Yard's jurisdiction, given that theft was attempted in the Queen's Jewel House, this falls completely in my vicinity, wouldn't you say? I daresay, it is you who is infringing here."

     Delacourt pursed his mouth to retort when Irene let out a strangled plea. “U-unhand me. I’m innocent, I tell you.”

     “If we had a shilling for every time we heard that," Abberline scoffed.

     “But, it’s true, I swear to you it is the truth!”

     “Then exactly why are you here, miss?”

     “I don’t know. I-I must have been sleepwalking.” As soon as the words left her mouth, Irene stared at her mid-calve heels and her bustle gown. Her cheeks deepened in color, matching the pink silken fabric of her attire. I casted her a disbelieving look. Surely the woman could concoct a better story than that. If she was prepared to lie, she could, at the very least, make it a convincing one.

     “In day wear?” Abberline’s question dripped with the sarcasm. “State your name, miss.”

     The opera singer's lips trembled. "Irene Diaz."

     The Inspector reached for his notebook. “And how did you happen to bypass the main entrance’s security measure?”

     “I . . . don’t know," Irene whispered. She gazed at her quivering hands.

      "She entered through there." I pointed to the window in question. Irene stared at it with worrisome eyes as I strode past her. December air seeped through the crevice, submerging the room in coldness that made my breath materialize. As I tried to shut out the irksome draft, something moved in the shadows. I jolted, my hands still gripping the windowsill.  That blasted-

    “Something the matter, Lady Phantomhive?" The commissioner's eyes narrowed at me.

     “It's nothing.” I murmured. “Just some slipshod bat . . .”

      Slowly, I returned my attention to Abberline who was wrapping up with his unsuccessful line of questioning. His eyes flickered to the diadem lying on the floor. "And now perhaps you’d care to explain the most important bit of all. Why did you attempt to steal Her Majesty’s diadem in the first place, Miss Diaz?"

     Irene bit her rose stained lip though her eyes shone bright with resolve.  "I told you. I didn't steal it. I don’t know anything about the—"

    "Enough of this claptrap, Abberline.” Commissioner Delacourt stared at his watch with palpable irritation. "It’s past decent hours, and I have to be up at Imperial Academy in the morning. Proceed with the arrest. We shall resume her questioning when she is feeling more cooperative." Irene blanched.

     “Yes, sir.”

      The Commissioner grabbed the terrier’s leashes as Abberline towed Irene outside. Curtains of black clouds unveiled a quarter moon, the silvery light falling upon us. I trailed the group from a measurable distance, my eyes searching the dimly lit alley. Where the devil was he? And then the two terriers that flanked our party broke my thought. They gave a little growl, their leashes pulling taut.

     "Well, don’t just stand there, you dolt—check it,” the Commissioner ordered. “I’ll keep an eye on this one."

     Abberline grunted his assent as the terriers broke free, their feet thundering all the way to the back of the London Tower. I followed behind him. A chorus of moans intermingled with the barks. The hairs on my arm stood up. I hastened behind Abberlines’s trail until he came to an abrupt stop. In front of us sat three men, bound and gagged, their faces etched with horror. 

     Recognition filled Abberline's eyes. "Hold on just a moment, you lot are-"

     "The French smugglers the Yard failed to arrest last month," I said—emphasis on failed.

     The men made muffled sounds through their gag. I removed one of them when the burliest man lunged at me. I careened out of the way, leaving him to cling to the Inspector's collar through his chain-bound hands. "Il avait un visage de bête comme!"

     "Pull yourself together man!" Abberline yanked his uniform free.

     The mustached man next to him whimpered. "L-lesus naturae . . . m-monstre . . . Je l'ai vu un f-f-antôme avec un visage blanc."

     "Beg your pardon?" the Inspector asked.

     "A phantom." I narrowed my eyes into the dank, shadowy alley. "They say a white-faced phantom attacked them."

      "Z-ze girl es right," the smallest of them said in a thick French accent. "It vas h-horrible."

     With a small sarcastic-laugh, Abberline replaced the thin chain around their wrists with handcuffs. "What utter poppycock."

     Commissioner Delacourt led a stricken Irene Diaz to the scene. "Heard all the commotion. Do you not have this under con—" He stuttered at the sight of the band of cowering smugglers. "Are they who I think they are?"

     "Ay," said Abberline. "I expect they were in cahoots with this young lady here, attempting to steal the diadem in another one of their smuggling operations.”

     “Is that so?” Delacourt eyed the men coldly. “How unfortunate their rendezvous ends here.” He shot Irene a disapproving look. “For all of them."

     "I swear I don't know any of them," she cried. "You have to believe me! I beg of you." When she found no sympathy from the officials, she turned to me in desperation. "Please, you can vouch for me! Grimsby and I were guests at a banquet you held last year at Phantomhive manor."

     "Hold on a minute." Abberline stared at her hard. "Now that you mention it, I do recall something about that event. A few officials from the Yard were dispatched to Phantomhive estate to collect Georg Von Siemen who had been sacked most mysteriously. To date, the Yard never figured out who was responsible for that unfortunate event. If I'm not mistaken, I believe you were present when this all took place, Miss Diaz." The opera singer recoiled as though she'd been drenched with a glass of wine again.

     "What are you insinuating?" she whispered.

      I raised a hand to prevent this drivel from going further. "Are you lot really that thick-headed, or is this the typical manner you conduct your investigations?" 

     "Lady Phantomhive," Delacourt began in frosty accents, "while we are obliged to your small assistance with the earlier telegram, I must ask you to stop with this insufferable interference, and leave the rest in our capable hands."

     I balled my fist up. Insufferable interference?

     Abberline sighed. “Seeing as it is rather late, do you need someone to accompany you back to Phantomhive manor?”

     I spoke through grit teeth. “I am exceedingly grateful for your offer, Inspector, but my butler shall see to it instead. I left him near the corner.”

     “Very, well,” Abberline said. “In that case, we’ll take our leave.”

     "Please do."

     I watched the little party fade in the distance. Irene Diaz stared at her cuffs, her face crestfallen and perturbed. Only when they reached the corner did she chance looking over her shoulder. She held my gaze in desperation; her lips beseeched me, mouthing words so clear and unmistakable.

     Help me.

     I frowned as I returned to the showroom. Something about this simple theft was off. Pressing my fingers against the glass display, I committed the diadem to memory. Framed in silver, it was elegantly inlaid with twelve tiny gemstones: diamond, sapphire, emerald, moonstone, amethyst, aquamarine, garnet, sardonyx, ruby, topaz, opal, and zircon. Expensive though it was, it certainly wasn’t the priciest item in the Jewel House, and Irene Diaz certainly wasn’t in any need of coin. The woman after all came from High Society and probably possessed countless of pricey trinkets herself. She had no real need to engage in this petty theft.

     Then, why did she engage?  

      I paused, my theorizing interrupted by a silhouette that crept fluidly across the wall. Its shadow loomed behind me, growing larger on the floor until it finally engulfed my own shadow.

     I smiled to myself. "Well, you sure took your time." 

     "My apologies for the delay, young mistress." Sebastian eased in from the shadows, his sculpted features and obsidian hair spotlit by the moonlight. He dusted off his satin gloves. "I fear I had gotten a bit caught up eliminating the rats scurrying about. I trust I haven’t missed anything of importance?"

     "Not particularly. But if you must know, I caught the swindler."

     "Is that so? In that case, permit me to commend you. It is refreshing to see the young mistress being self-sufficient." His graceful tone hardly veiled his impertinent tongue.

     I gave him a biting stare. "The plunderer turned out to be Irene Diaz.”

    “The opera singer from Lyceum Theatre?” Sebastian lifted a brow. “That is a touch curious.”

     “Yes, curious. Though not as much as the scene that followed.” I looked him straight in the eye. “Three men, bound with restraints, bumbling like a pack of imbeciles about some horrid monster that came upon them."

     "A monster you say?" A frown marred his elegant visage. "My, that sounds rather frightful."

     "Quite so. In any case . . . " I held up the long, thin chain that had bound the men and deposited it in Sebastian's gloved hand. "I believe this belongs to you."

     Sebastian chuckled as he reattached the chain to his pocket watch. "Much obliged, young mistress."

     My lips curved. “Come, Sebastian. Let us return to the manor. I've had enough of staying awake at this ungodly hour—”

     A deafening crash rippled through the air. I wheeled around. Panic frosted my skin. A blizzard of glass shards hurtled in midair, heading straight for me. Before I could think to shield my eyes, a band of steel encircled my waist. I grasped a fistful of a fabric as the glass showered down, its discordant tinkling filling my ears. When it finally tapered to silence, only the sound of my shallow breathing remained.

      Wisps of silky, black hair brushed against me. I snapped open my eyes, and my breath caught. Sebastian's face hovered above mine, his demonic eyes blazing as they bore into my own.

     "What . . . the dickens just happened?" 

     "It would appear someone has broken the showroom windows, young mistress."

    "Thank you for your scintillating input,” I snapped.

     "Pardon my simple answer for a simple question. In any case . . ." He paused, his gaze traveling across my face, then lower.  "Are you quite unhurt?"

      I might have been alright, but the weight on top of me was considerable. Little by little, I became aware of the hard form pressed against mine and to my mortification—my vise-like grip on his uniform. My shaking hands clung to his white shirt so fiercely that one of the digits had slipped into a fold between two buttons. I uncurled my fingers from the lapels of his suit at once.

     "A bit flattened,” I said quietly.

     "My deepest apologies. It slipped my mind how delicate the young mistress is." I eyed him tetchily as he rose to his full height and inspected his tattered uniform with a sigh. "Remarkable how my attire never seems to stay intact when I am in your presence for too long."

   "Surely, your clothes are used to such trifles by now." I curled my lip in distaste as he helped me to my feet. Carefully to avoid the glass shards, I flitted past him to the broken window. As I inspected the windowsill, something fluttering on the floor caught my attention: a flower petal? Cerulean blue, velvety, and of a spring variety too rare to find during the coldest month of the year. Immediately, I pocketed it.

      "Peculiar," came a murmur. I spun around. Sebastian knelt on the littered floor, his eyes gleaming as he freed a scrap of paper underneath a glass shard.

     “And what may I ask is so peculiar?”

     “Perhaps you ought to see for yourself, young mistress.”

     He held out the scrap, and my gaze swiveled at the handwritten words in deep blue ink. “That's . . . my name." I stared hard at the spot that read 'Cielle Phantomhive.'

     “Indeed,” whispered Sebastian. “But that is hardly what makes it curious.”

     When I turned over the scrap, I understood why.

'Dec 12th

1325 205125718113. 791812 9141415351420. 2085 71135 919 16151520

25152118 522518 231203862112 61895144,

- 7891011 12'

     Another blasted cipher.

     I scanned the first string of numbers: 1325. If the numbers corresponded to the alphabet, 1 = A, 3 = C, 2 = B, and 5 = E. But that hardly made any sense, unless 'acbe'  was a word in the English dictionary. I considered it again. Perhaps the cipher consisted of double digits as well. If 13 referred to 'M', and '25' referred for 'Y'. . .

     My.

    "Sebastian, a quill," I ordered. 

     Sebastian promptly retrieved one and deposited into my unsteady hand. I began marking up the paper like a tempest, decoding word after word. In minutes, I had unraveled the entire message, save the last line. My fingers dented the paper.

     "Well?” intoned Sebastian.

     “She was telling the truth,” I whispered darkly. "Someone is playing me, Sebastian. Look for yourself."

     Sebastian leaned in close, his fuchsia orbs flickering as he read aloud the text:

 'Dec 12th

 My telegram. Irene innocent. The game is afoot Phantomhive.

Your ever watchful friend,

-7891011 12'

 

 

Chapter Text

                                                                                              

                                                                                                                            

     "Bring in the tea service," I ordered. "Make it strong."

     “Yes, young mistress.”   

      I fixed my gaze on the carrom board. Cerulean eyes reflected across the wooden surface, glinting like chips of ice. The unsettling incidents from last night replayed in my mind: the fake warning telegram, the band of smugglers, Irene Diaz’s innocence, but most of all, that taunting cipher.

      The game is afoot, Phantomhive. 

      Who the deuce could have sent it? 

     A soft giggle snapped me out of my frustration. Securing blond sprigs of hair to her chest, Lizzie leaned over the carrom board gifted by Prince Soma for my birthday.  “I must say, your game is rather off today, Cielle.” 

      I stared at the lone coin on my side of the board, then the towering stack on hers, and murmured, “A first time for everything I suppose."

     “Might I propose a stake to motivate your spirits? If you win, I shall give you this cute little trinket—in addition to your birthday gift.” Lizzie held up her hand. A charm bracelet adorned with a dozen precious stones dangled from her wrist. It was fashioned similarly to diadem Irene Diaz had attempted to thieve from the Jewel House. Perhaps multi-stoned ornaments were an emerging trend.

      Lizzie lowered her hand and parted her in a playful smile. “However…if I am the victor, you have to accompany me tomorrow to a dress fitting for the academy's masquerade ball.”

     “You know those sort of outings aren’t my cup of tea, Lizzie,” I muttered. “Don’t you have someone else who'll tag along?”

     Lizzie's smile faltered.  “Well, I was going to ask my friends, Arwen and Astoria instead, but oddly, neither of them showed up to the academy today. In any case…what do you say to my proposition?”

      “I say it is mighty considerate you to spring up a reward when you are already at such a vantage point in our game.”

     “Then you refuse?”

     “Hardly, Elizabeth.”

      Smiling widely, Lizzie reached for the striker, when Sebastian strode through the doorway, wheeling in a trolley cart filled with small sherry trifles, blackberry crumpets, scones, leftover birthday cake, and, of course, the customary Twinning’s tea.

     “Today’s tea is a blend of Darjeeling, Ceylon, and Assam,” he announced before pausing. His gaze drifted to my side of the board, no doubt taking note of my abysmal score. Then his eyes flickered to the Queen in the center. “Perhaps I should return once you’ve have finished playing your games.” He caught my eye. A trace of amusement flickered across his features. "Young mistress..?"

      I shook myself. Forcing myself to meet his stare, I lifted my chin and made my voice stiff as possible. “That won’t be necessary.”

     With all the lesser valued coins unwittingly cleared by Lizzie, I positioned the striker in the unobstructed path of the prized Queen and struck hard. The striker glided across the board like a lynx slinking towards its prey. In one fluid move, our game had ended.

     The Queen was mine.

     Lizzie’s lips went agape as I reached out to collect her charm bracelet. Slipping it on my wrist, I languidly leaned back into the Queen Anne armchair as Sebastian handed me a teacup, filled to its brim. I inhaled the muscatel scent, humming. 

     “I see it is to your liking, my lady.” Sebastian retrieved the Daily Telegraph from the bottom rack of the trolley cart. “Perhaps now would be an apt time to give you this.”

     Without another word, he dropped the newspaper on my lap. His crimson eyes held my gaze, steady and gleaming, watching me unroll the paper. With a forceful clink, the teacup clattered against the Royal Doulton china, nearly splashing tea over the rim. I sat bolt upright in my armchair.

     A startled black and white face met mine, and underneath it, in stark, bold letters—a warrant for Irene’s arrest. My eyes flitted across the front page.

     'Lyceum's very own opera singer and actress, Irene Diaz, was found amidst a band of smugglers last night. The young woman was caught in the act of thieving a diadem from Her Majesty's Jewel House in London Tower. Fortunately, the attempt was prevented in the nick of time due to the estimable efforts of Commissioner Randall Delacourt and Inspector F. Abberline of Scotland Yard.’

     "Estimable? Tch." My fingernails dented the paper, but I pressed myself to read on.

‘However, soon after her detainment, Diaz went missing around the early morning hours, the only key to her cell taken. The Yard believes she escaped from their custody due to mounting evidence that would sentence her to Brixton's Female Convicts Facility. A small search party has been dispatched. If anyone has any knowledge on Diaz’s whereabouts, we urge you to come forth and contact the authorities immediately.’

      “Matters have gotten a touch more interesting, haven’t they, my lady?” Sebastian collected the paper.

     “A touch perhaps . . . Still, to think all this fuss over some petty diadem.” I frowned and reached for a scone off the cart when Lizzie made a brusque grab for it instead. She sunk into the chintz upholstered armchair and slathered a dollop of clotted cream on it, glowering at me as she assailed her pastry. 

     “Is the tea-service not your liking?” I said dully.

     “Don’t try to fool me, Cielle. You played me.” 

      “A lady would never do such a thing.”

     “Exactly.”  With a bitter laugh, Lizzie sprang from her armchair with the fistful of coins I’d let her win and threw them over her shoulders onto the board.

     “Watch it—” I started but froze as one of the thick, wooden coins soared high into the air and plunged into my cup with a loud splash. I yelped, bracing myself against the scalding drops of tea to hit my face. Oddly, they never came. I cracked a lid open, and my breath stilled. Glowing orbs of fuchsia pinned my gaze.

     Sebastian tsked.  “Goodness, all this to win some inconsequential game . . .” He slowly lowered his wet, tea stained gloved hand from my chin and pursed his lips on the precipice of speech when, to my relief, a twinkling of a bell interrupted him. With a bow to the Lizzie, the butler excused himself to attend to the visitor.

     Lizzie collapsed back into her armchair, arms crossed, and looked as though she wanted to wield a sabre at me. "Playing me as a sport... You're horrid, Cielle. Is this how you reciprocate my affections?" My cousin was still the same exuberant girl in our childhood days, but she no longer concealed her true sentiments behind smiles. Now older, she had grown more bold and expressive in her opinions, a trait unmistakably passed down from Aunt Francis. 

    "Affection?" I mused. "You know that overwarm gestures aren’t my forte. However, I will say that I am rather affectionate in regards to you."

    "How so?" she demanded.
     
    "Well, for starters you sneak jam-rolls out of the kitchen pantry every visit, yet I still ask Sebastian to stock them in the same place.”

     A light blush coloured her cheek. The blonde fell uncharacteristically silent but made no motion to uncross her arms. My brows twitched. Honestly, the girl could be hypersensitive as a barometer. Still...if Aunt Francis caught wind of this little debacle, I'd receive quite the earful. I heaved a sigh.

     “Be here in the afternoon,” I said, before I could change my mind. “We’ll have the coachman take us to Nina Hopkin’s boutique. I presume that will–”

      Without warning, Lizzie flung her arms around me, toppling over me in my armchair. “Oh, Cielle! I knew deep down you couldn’t refuse me.”

     “Let . . . me go . . . now . . . Elizabeth,” I said through her chokehold. 

     A rap sounded the door, and Sebastian flitted past the doorway, somewhat briskly. "Young mistress," he ejaculated. "You have a—" He paused upon noticing my awkward position. “Please pardon my intrusion.”

     Lizzie released me with a giggle. I sat upright in my armchair, my cheeks aflame at his ill-concealed smirk. “What do you want, Sebastian?”

      “I simply came to inform you that you have company. Someone you likely do not wish to see.”  

     “Well, that could anyone. Who is it?” I said sharply.

     “Lord Randall Delacourt—Commissioner from Scotland Yard. And . . . a guest.” I raised my brow at the inflection in his tone. 

      What was that glock from the Yard doing here?  I stared hard at the closed door.  “In that case, please see Elizabeth out, and prepare some tea service. I will be downstairs momentarily.”

     “As you wish.”

     Concern knitted Lizzie’s eyebrows, but she reluctantly took her leave. Then, gathering all the enthusiasm I could muster, I clambered downstairs. Forcing a pleasant face, I threw open the parlor curtains to find not one, but two gentlemen seated under the chandelier.  “Commissioner, how delightful to see you twice in one day.”

     My words were not lost on him. Commissioner Delacourt rose from the sofa and contorted his face into a pained smile. “My sentiments as well, Lady Phantomhive.” 

      I sniffed and eyed the gold plated watch, set an hour forwards, his posh navy coat, and a satin cravat tied around his thick neck. Atypical of his usual Scotland Yard garb. “Not on duty today?”

     “Er, no. I only work part-time at the Yard these days. Have a new post, you see–as headmaster of an international academy I’ve recently acquired.”

     He paused, as if waiting for my congratulatory response, but instead, I shifted my attention to his thin framed acquaintance. “I see you’ve brought company.”

     The wan-faced man spoke in a feeble voice. “Mr. Ashton.”

     With a noncommittal nod, I ran a quick glance at the man from head to toe. Mismatched buttons, fingernails bitten down to nubbins, sunken and red rimmed eyes. Having made my assessment of the matter, I gestured them back to their seats. It was safe to assume that this would be a tiresome afternoon . . .

      “What brings you here this time, Commissioner? Were your hounds not able to track Irene Diaz?”

      His eyes flashed. “Save your breath, Lady Phantomhive. I do not come to you with such trifles. I merely came to deliver some paperwork to fill.” The Commissioner curtly handed me a document. “It concerns matters from last night.”

     I briefly scanned over the document. It contained an eye-witness account regarding Irene’s arrest, but nothing of urgency. Nothing that warranted an unannounced visit . . . Very well. I would humour him.

     I motioned to Sebastian for a pen and proceeded to fill it out. A tense silence befell the room, punctuated with the occasional scratch of pen to paper and Delacourt’s restless tapping on his armchair. As if sensing this was a good time to bring in the elevenses, Sebastian bowed and excused himself from the room.

     The Commissioner cleared his throat. “I have heard from social circles your new publishing company, FunTomes, is on the rise. I expect it must be most taxing for a chil–er, someone of your age to manage.”

     “Au contraire, Commissioner. I find it rather easy to manage. After all, aren’t children the best judge of stories?”

     “Er, yes, of course.”

     The Commissioner’s eyes wandered around the room as if trying to find some topic of small talk when Sebastian returned into the parlor, holding a three-tier platter stacked with lemon tarts, English sandwiches, and the leftover blackberry crumpets.

      “I must say these look rather palatable.” The Commissioner brought a crumpet to his eye-glass. “My deepest compliments to your chief.”

     Sebastian bowed. “Your compliments are well received, sir.”

     “So you who made this, did you?” He turned from Sebastian to me. “I see you’ve acquired quite a skilled butler with exquisite tastes, Lady Phantomhive.”

     Sebastian’s eyes glowed with humor. I fixed his gaze through heavy-lidded eyes. “Yes . . . very exquisite tastes.”

     "Of course," said Delacourt. “I suppose that should be expected when one visit the distinguished Phantomhive manor—”

     “I confess I’m not particularly fond of toadying, Inspector,” I said softly. "Or stalling."

      Every muscle in the Commissioner's face tensed. “Pardon . . ?”

      “Do not gammon me, Commissioner. I doubt you’ve come all this way as a courtesy visit to drop off menial paperwork or assess my butler’s culinary talent. Pray tell, do you require my assistance again?”
      
      "I wouldn't quite phrase it like that."

      "If you need my help, I suggest you phrase it exactly like that." 

     Suddenly, Mr. Ashton jumped, cutting off our cut and thrust. Anguish clenched his features. His mouth teetered on speech and his body shook as if some paroxysm of hysteria had seized him. He stood up and yanked a mound of his straw colored hair in a violent fit. 

     “Arwen!” he screeched. “Astoria!”

     I froze. Lizzie’s friends.

     The man let out a loud, pitiable wail and bellowed the names over and over again. My eyes flickered to Sebastian, who gave me a cursory nod. In one fluid move, he pushed the thin framed man back into his seat.  “Pray compose yourself, sir.”

     “I think I shall speak on Mr. Ashton’s behalf seeing he is in no condition to do so himself.” Delacourt's face tempered like steel, as if he was swallowing the last remnants of his pride. “As you’ve guessed, there is another reason for this visit. I fear there is no easy way to ease into this delicate matter, but the state of affairs at Imperial International Academy has been most pressing as of late. It concerns some of the students at the academy . . . namely, our daughters.” Mr. Delacourt clenched his fist, his knuckles turning white. “We think that they’re . . . they’re –”

      “T-they’re g-gone,” Mr. Ashton finished hoarsely.

     I exchanged dark looks with Sebastian. “What do you mean gone?

     A shadow crept the Commissioner’s face. “It all began last night, soon after Irene Diaz’s arrest. When I returned to my estate, my daughter Isabelle, also an academy student, was nowhere to be found. She had a small row with me earlier that day so naturally, I thought she had went over to a friend’s house to cool off and dismissed her absence. However, today when she still never showed up, my fears started to take seed.”

     He paused, a hard line appearing between his eyebrows. “I was notified by Mr. Ashton this morning that when he had come to collect his daughters, Arwen and Astoria, from the academy, they did not answer his call. Someone was immediately sent to their shared dormitory at the academy, but there was no response. Upon seeing the door was locked, we had no choice but to force it open. There, we found a shattered window, packed belongings, but the young ladies were nowhere to be found.”

      “Any signs of struggle?”

     Mr. Ashton paled. The Commissioner drew in a deep breath and continued. “The girls looked as though they were taken by surprise as they were finishing decorating their christmas tree. See for yourself." He showed me a photograph of the scene. Among the beautiful gilded ornaments gracing a miniature tree, were small silver birds that looked like partridges. Half of them adorned the tree; the other half lay scattered on the floor alongside some books and academy uniforms with broken glass on top of them.

      "Clearly, the room was broken into and ransacked," said the commissioner, "though it didn’t seem like anything was stolen.”

      “Any other points of singularity?”

     “Well, other than a small spool of thread found outside their door, none.”

     “A bobbin, you say?” I pressed forwards, narrowing my eyes. "Did either girls do handiwork?"

     "Rarely," whispered Mr. Ashton. 

     “Was there anything else singular you noticed?”

     The Commissioner shook his head, but a frown edged along Mr. Ashton's features. He stuck his hand into his waistcoat. “There was something else, though I fear it may not be worth mentioning. I found this on Arwen’s dresser.” He brought out a blue flower; its stem contained a sender tag titled ‘7-12’

      My pulse sped up. Sebastian donned an aura of intense concentration. His eyes glowed faintly before locking with mine. I held his gaze, unnoticed by our audience, and stared darkly at the delicate cerulean blooms. “Do you have any ideas who might want to sabotage your Academy, Commissioner?”

      “Surely not. Just the mere idea of that is unfathomable. I have no enemies, you see.”

     “Everyone has enemies, Commissioner.” I slowly uncrossed my legs. “Even the most principled of men are bound to possess a few. Afterall, one can easily assess the character of a man by the type of enemies he has acquired in life. It is a rare circumstance to not have even a single enemy –unless of course, you’ve been living the dull life of an ass.”

     Scarlet flickered across Delacourt’s eyes.

     A smile crept my lips. “Pardon my rag manners, but you really can’t think of a single person who’d benefit from the disgrace of your academy?”

      “I don’t think there is…unless you consider the headmistress of Eton.”

     “The headmistress?”

     “Yes. Uppity sort of woman who has given me a rather cavalier treatment since we first met at the Emeritus Teaching Assembly some months ago. When I told her I had secured an old building to renovate into an all girls school, the woman did not take to that well. However, to be fair, she has reached out to me recently to arrange some sort of masquerade ball at Imperial Academy where students of both schools will meet and socialize. Of course, I agreed to this, seeing as it would help put any petty rivalry aside.”

     I lowered my eyes.  “And what exactly does the Yard make off all of this?” 

     “They, er, know nothing of the matter.”

     “And why is that?"

     Delacourt shifted in his seat. “Well, you see, being a member of Scotland Yard, I have come to find that perhaps the Yard’s methods are a bit, er, lacking.”

     “You flatter me, Commissioner, but surely that is not the real reason why you come to me.”

      “Beg your pardon?”

     “Come now, Commissioner. You know better than anybody that Scotland Yard has a propensity to make their investigations known to the public.” I pointed to nearby newspaper with last night’s break in. “If you involved the Yard, I expect you’d find the news of your academy in every single newspaper by morning, which of course, would create bad publicity for a school you’ve only recently acquired.”

     The Commissioner’s fingers knotted like a cord. “It’s . . . the enrollments. If word of these disappearances were to get out, we will be forced to close our doors. But, I expect you’ll be able to shed some light on this situation. I’ll have provisions made for you tomorrow when you come take a look at the academy.”

     “Commissioner, I never said I would accept your case.”

     Delacourt blinked. “Surely, I heard wrong. For a moment I thought you said—”

     “You heard right. I fear I may not the best person to help you. My interference, as you’ve made it very clear last night, is insufferable.”

     His eyes steeled. “For once your blasted interference is welcomed. Do you not care that Imperial Academy will go to ruins? And what of our daughters? His voice shook. “It is only a matter of time before another girl will be targeted.”

     Before I could reply, he roughly stuffed a hand into his coat pocket and drew out a fat coin bag, throwing it before me.

     At the sight of the bribe, I threw my head back in laughter. Sebastian’s eyes flared in surprise; Delacourt simply stared at me, his face writ with alarm . . . and then outrage. His stood up with force, his watch dropping to the floor.

     “H-how dare you laugh at my plight. You act as if this is all some game to you!”

     “Sit down, Commissioner. Did you truly think I’d bribed by coin?”  My amused gaze drifted around the gilded furnishings of the rococo styled parlor and the Italian marble that gleamed like melted chocolate and vanilla underneath our feet. Following my gaze, the man lost the fierce determination on his face and shrank back in his seat.

      “The Yard would be disappointed if they saw their colleague act in this manner. Keep your money, Commissioner. Material rewards do not interest me.”

      “Then . . . what is it that you want?”

      “Truthfully, sir there is nothing I could possibly want from you. The reward is in the game itself.”

     “Does that mean you accept the case?”

     I stared at the watch lying on the Persian carpet long and hard. After a few moments of deliberation, I faced him. “I have some few pressing matters of my own I must attend to, Commissioner, but I suppose I shall come down to your precious academy tomorrow evening and conduct a brief investigation.”

     The headmaster exhaled. “Thank you. It is some relief to here that.”

     With that, Sebastian and I lead him and a shaken up Mr. Ashton to the main entrance. I watched them settle inside a well-appointed carriage awaiting for him. Once the four wheeler departed, Sebastian shut the door. I whirled around; my plastered smile faded away. 

     “Afterall all the cases I solved for that ingrate at the Yard, how does he thank me? The blasted muttonhead goes off and lands himself in one." I roughly fingered the gold watch off the floor. "Such a pain in the ars–”

     Sebastian clapped his gloved hands together. “Language, young mistress. As your butler, I cannot have you spewing such coarse words about our guest –even if it is deserved.” He leveled his gaze and searched my face. “That was quite a show you put on, my lady. Most unusual of you not to accept a case outright.”

     “Given all the points of singularity, it is not prudent to delve headfirst in a case as convoluted as this.” I walked over to the window and pressed my hand against the cold glass. Cerulean eyes reflected at me, dark and calculating. “That bobbin found outside . . . ”

     “Can easily lock a door from the outside,” finished Sebastian. “A similar incident as Georg Von Siemen's locked room that Mr. Arthur Wordsmith elaborated on. One merely needs to affix the latch using a threaded needle, run the thread under the door and pull it out from the outside –leaving behind a locked door with no fingerprints. A cliché trick used in mystery novels, if I do say so.”

     “Indeed,” I said darkly. “But the perpetrator isn't trying to write a book—more like, trying to create a ruse. That ruse becomes even more apparent if you introduce the shattered window into the mix. The Commissioner and Mr. Ashton noticed glass pieces on top of the ransacked knickknacks. Had the glass been underneath, it would indicate an intruder broke the window and then ransacked the place. However, if the glass pieces were found on top of all the items, it becomes quite clear that culprit made the place looked ransacked, then broke the window. In other words, a poorly staged a break-in, wouldn’t you say?”

     “Quite so, but I daresay you are not being completely honest, young mistress. That little ploy isn’t the real reason you didn’t accept the case outright.” Sebastian held my gaze with a quiet, but smoldering intensity. I fought the need to retreat from his stare.

      “I am sure you’ve noticed as well as I, young mistress. The other singular points in this case—one of them being this.” Sebastian brandished the blue flower and idly twirled it by its stem. “The inscription in the sender tag, ‘7-12’ is nothing more than 7-8-9-10-11-12 expanded, coincidentally matching the numerical signature 7891011 12 from last night.”

      “There is no coincidence about it. The cases are connected. That blue flower in the girl's dormitory matches the petal I found in London Tower last night. But even more than that . . . ”

     I took a step towards Sebastian. His vermillion eyes glistened as I reached for his gloved hand.

     “Sebastian, the flower in your hand is a Dentelaire du Cap, of the rare variety known as Bleu Ciel. From that matters are clear. Someone is challenging me to a game.”

      “Then what do you intend to do about it, my lady?” he whispered.

     A Cheshire smile crept my lips. “Well, I intend to play the game, of course—until I hear the word checkmate.”

     Sebastian chuckled and kneeled, raising my hand to his lips. “In that case, I shall be the Queen's pawn and knight. So then . . .” His voice dropped to a silken whisper. 

     "Move me into place, my young mistress.”

 

Chapter Text

                                                                                       

Ch 3:  The Headmaster’s Letter

 

     Inside the cage, I encircled my arms around my knees, and glanced up. The air sounded with deafening moans and laughter. A hooded figure smiled and dragged a pair of twin girls from their confines. My chest constricted. I clamped my hands over my ears when another voice, a fluid and powerful one, droned over the rest.

     Call my name.

     Sebastian.

     Louder.

     Sebastian . . . Sebastian . . . Sebastian!

     An unearthly chuckle dissipated through the darkness, drowning out the moans and laughter. I wheeled around. Through the bars of the cage, a pair of piercing fuchsia orbs fastened on me. A silhouetted hand reached through the bars. I desperately met it with my own; the moment I gripped it, my eye blazed fervently, the contract now forged. In a flash, I was out of the cage—and placed in a new one.

     Trapped with the very beast that just saved me.

     I froze, my back pressing against the metal bars as the beast curled its lips into a ghastly smile, a tongue lapping across them. Tainted desire flickered in those slit-like eyes, making my heart stutter, and yet, beneath that, I sensed raw, unbridled hunger. A hunger only I could satisfy. My palms went damp as the the beast drew near, its sinful lips about to ravage.

     I had become prey. 

     I woke with a sharp intake of air, and my body spasmed at the concerned face hovering above my own.

     “That must have been quite the night terror, my lady.” A cashmere shawl, scented with sprigs of soothing rose-hip, drifted around my shoulders. 

     An uneven laugh escaped my lips as I sat up from the tangled linens and faced Sebastian. “What makes you say that?”

     “Young mistress, please do not insult my intelligence. I could hear you screaming your head off from the hallway. You were moaning in your sleep . . . calling for me over and over.”

     Heat swiped my cheeks at the inflection in his tone, but more so at my own imprudence. To his credit, Sebastian pretended not notice. He gestured to the breakfast tray laid out on the nightstand. The carte du jour for today consisted of Devilled eggs Brioche Buns with Hollandaise sauce, a side of cherries, and Earl Grey tea, all served in Royal Doulton. Sebastian handed a cup to me, his long, gloved fingers brushing mine. I nearly dropped  the teacup. Sebastian lifted a brow, and in a quick attempt to cover up my fumble, I reached for the fruit.

     “Some cream for your cherry?”

     He drew near, and like a reflex, I careened away from him, the cherry dropping onto the duvet. Sebastian lowered the decanter filled with Devonshire cream. His gaze washed over me, brows knitted, searching my face in scrutiny. Then something in his expression changed; his eyes flickered.

    “Is something the matter, young mistress?" His voice lilted like caramel and honey. “You seem a trifle done up.”

      I threw him an irascible glare. “No. Everything is perfectly fine.”

     “Glad to hear," he said smoothly. "In that case, I should remind you have quite a long day ahead of you. The investigation at the academy, perusing crinolines alongside Lady Elizabeth for her academy's ball—not to mention, the director of Hinds & Noble has requested a meeting with you last week regarding FunTomes's funding, which you have yet to respond to.”

      I exhaled. “I know all that. I had planned to spend this morning in hopes I’d procure a decent manuscript that I could present to the director this week.”

     Sebastian cleared his throat. “My lady, the reason I bring up the director in the first place is because, well, the man showed up moments ago on the doorstep. In fact, he is waiting for you in your downstairs study as we speak.”

     I choked on the tea, spraying drops of Earl Grey all over the coverlet—and Sebastian. He stared at his soiled glove with mild irritation. 

     “Why didn’t you inform me that sooner?” I snapped. Leaving the half eaten breakfast on the nightstand, I hastily threw on a tartan coat, crammed my feet into the persimmon slippers, and fumbled with the ribbon at the collar. 

      A resigned sigh sounded.  “Goodness gracious, cannot even tie a knot properly.”

     Without my acquiescence, Sebastian's long, capable hands reached for the loose knot. With a gentle tug, the ribbon came undone. I stared at the floor, our feet almost touching. If anyone witnessed a butler and his mistress on such familiar terms, no doubt, they’d deem it improper—perhaps even scandalous. But with Sebastian, such familiarities had grown commonplace. Expected. Ever since that day he had arrived to Phantomhive manor three years ago. That day he had become a part of my shadow.

     Sebastian crossed one hand over the other in steady, fluid movements. When his fingers brushed against my sternum, my lips went taut. His fingers briefly paused. "Something the amiss, young mistress?"

    "Yes," I murmured. "Your hands are moving at a snail's pace."

    Vermilion eyes widened a fraction, then narrowed. "My apologies, young mistress." The demon feigned a servile voice as his gloved hands moved faster, a dizzying white blur that rendered me almost breathless. Once he firmly double knotted the ribbon, Sebastian gestured to the corridor and accompanied me to my study. Just as I reached for the knob, a slippery smile touched the butler's lips. “I wish you good luck, my lady.”

      I raised a brow at him suspiciously. When did Sebastian ever offer spurious niceties like wishing me 'luck' in my business ventures? I peered through the window of my study, and my stomach dropped. 

     A dark mustached man sat in a gilded armchair before my desk. With his back to me, I couldn’t make out his front profile, but studying his facial features wasn’t required to deduce his current mood. The director’s hand said it all. He gripped onto the faceted glass handle of his derby cane with such force that his knuckles took on a whitish tinge. Blast.

     I drew in a deep breath and turned the knob. As soon as the door creaked open, the director flitted his hard, steely eyes at me. I could see the disapproval gleaming in each one of them.  

     “Good morning, Mr. Noble. What a pleasant surprise to see you here.” I offered him a saccharine smile that, of course, went unreciprocated.

      “Lady Phantomhive,” he said, his voice laden with displeasure. “I presume you know why I’m here…or perhaps all the letters I’ve sent to you have gone strangely undelivered.”

     My mouth went dry. “Mr. Noble, please allow me to explain for the lack of correspondence. I was preoccupied with assisting Scotland Yard and—“

     “Hum! I did not come all this way to hear your excuses for disregarding my letters! I merely came here to collect the manuscript you were supposed to give me for the upcoming book festival competition.” He paused and lowered his lids. “You do have it by now I take it? Or perhaps I need to take my funding elsewhere . . .”

     Elsewhere?  My mind raced, though my external facade remained unruffled.  “Of course, I have it, Mr. Noble.”

     “You…do?”

      I nodded with feigned enthusiasm. “I came upon it after sifting through scores and scores of manuscripts–truth be told, I finished it in one sitting.”

     Mr. Noble pressed forwards. “That good –is it?”

     “Oh very.” I gathered more bravado. “I haven’t the slightest doubt this manuscript will not disappoint the judging panel at the book festival. I’d wager it shall more than appeal to the masses once FunTomes has secured first place.”

     “The . . . masses?” The director’s eyes shone, and I could’ve sworn I caught a faint smile underneath that ridiculously combed mustache of his. At this rate, my white lies would cover an entire mountain with snow, and yet I couldn’t bring myself out of this taradiddle. I was in too deep waters to back out now.

      “In that case, allow me to commend you, Lady Phantomhive,” said Mr. Noble. “This is the exact sort of thing I was looking for when I offered to fund your publishing venture.” His eyes darted around my desk. “Well, where is it –the manuscript?”

    “It’s er, not here at the moment.”

     “And why blooming not?” 

     The cogs in my head clicked fast. “The thing about that, you see…the novelist was keen on making a few adjustments to the first three chapters before I showed it to you and assured  me those changes would be finished by the end of this week.”

     “Is that so?” murmured Mr. Noble. “I suppose I can make an exception for a manuscript that promises to be exceptional. Can expect the submission on my office desk, say first thing next week?”

     “Of course,” I said with another manufactured smile.

     Mr. Noble nodded and picked up his derby cane. A part of me marveled that someone could be dense enough to buy that cock-and-bull-story. I suppose a lie wrapped in detail went down with ease. Just before the director took his leave, he paused and turned, his eyes lowering at me. 

     “Lady Phantomhive, I truly hope that for your own sake that this story is as exceptional as you claim it is.”

      I stared back at him, unfazed. “I give you my word. Mr. Noble –the manuscript will surpass any novel I've brought you before.”

     “Well, then, good and remember . . . first thing next week.” With that, Mr. Noble tipped his hat and finally left. When I heard the front door close, I grumbled aloud and collapsed on my desk.

      “My, what a tangled web you weave, young mistress.”

     I slowly raised my head to see Sebastian standing before me. “I take it you heard that whole train wreck?”

     “Unfortunately,” he said with a resigned sigh. “I know conniving has long been a specialty of yours, but I must confess, even I am agog to see how you’ll scheme your way out of this one, given the others tasks at hand. Shall I inform Lady Elizabeth you are too busy to accompany her this evening?”

      “No. A well balanced life finds time for everything—work, social engagements, missing girls. And tea.”

      Sebastian merely lowered his lids. "Coming right away, young mistress . . ."

                                                                                       *     *      *

     For the next few hours, I cooped myself in my study, rejected manuscripts strewn all around me. After going through fifty submissions, I couldn’t understand how I could find something wrong with every one of them. I rummaged through the pile and mechanically, picked the next.

     I read the title aloud. “Dusk.” A simple yet intriguing title. But a few pages in, I scrunched up my face. What a waste of literary ink. A weak willed protagonist pining away for her vampire lover. Tch. Those stories were a pence a dozen. With a grumble, I tossed it to the reject stash and choose another. This one was hardly any better—overwritten, prose-like, and too flowery. Perhaps, I should put in a word to the bloke who wrote this that FunTomes took novels, not ill-written poetry. I rubbed my temples and suppressed the urge to chuck the manuscript into the dust bin. There had to be something in this blasted pile that was decent.

     I blew a strand of hair out of my eye and glowered at the ticking clock that continued to mock me. Only one manuscript remained on the desk. I closed my eyes and held it up. “Please, please, give me something exceptional..." Slowly, I opened my eyes to see what my hand held. A memoir. My breath caught as I skimmed through the contents. This one by far the most exceptional manuscript I’d seen all day... in the most awful way possible.

     I turned to a page where the author listed the names of all her 16 horses her father had purchased for sixteenth birthday: Princesse, Beau, Bellismo, Maximilian...I just couldn’t read on. I flipped the manuscript to its cover page and eyed the author’s name in disgust: Angelica Develigne—also the title of the book. 

      My fists shook. With lack of proper sleep, an impending manuscript deadline, and a case of missing girls on my plate, I could no longer conceal my irritation. I sprang up from my desk, raised my arm high in the air, and chucked the abomination across the study. It flew in midair and missed the dust bin by centimeters.

     The sound of clapping tore through the air. 

     “Simply bravo, young mistress, I see you’re coming along wonderfully.”  Mortified, I slowly turned to see Sebastian standing inside the doorway, vermilion orbs glistening with mirth. “I hope I am not interrupting something.”

      “No…I was just...”

    “Yes?”

     I turned away, my cheeks aflame. “What do you want, Sebastian?”

     “I’ve only come to give you the daily post.” He brandished the items and let it drift onto my desk. “A letter from regarding Funtom Toys, an invitation to another one of Viscount Druitt’s soirees—I shuddered at the horrid flashback—another package of new FunTomes manuscripts, an early birthday card from Prince Soma and Agni—and one, you may be interested to know, comes from the Commissioner.”

     I grumbled. “I’ll see to all the letters in a little while. Besides, I am supposed to meet the glock at the academy in an hour anyway.”

     “Yes, well, that’s the only reason I came down here…I’ll, ah, leave you to whatever it is you were doing before.” His lips twitched as he turned to leave.

     “Hold on.” Ignoring his mocking demeanor, I narrowed my eyes at him. "I have an another blasted pile of manuscripts to attend to. Hence, I need you to cancel my engagements with Lizzie before she starts from her residence. It would take a normal carriage an hour to reach her in this snow. However…I presume thirty minutes is plenty enough for someone of your stamp to run her a quick message. That is, thirty minutes—to and fro.” I laced my fingers under my chin and gave him a demure smile. “Surely, you could do that…?”

     As if sensing the challenge in my voice, Sebastian leaned on my desk in a casual manner. “I fear I may not return by then–but in twenty.” He spoke in a drawl, his warm breath trickling against my face. A shiver ran down my corset lacings. “Do make the game atleast a little challenging, young mistress.”

    I backed into my Queen Anne armchair until I couldn’t anymore. A dratted flush rose to my face. Once more, the lines of authority had quickly became distorted. Blasted demon. Like I'd let him get away with that.   

    “Cease this woolgathering. Return no later than fifteen minutes, Sebastian—that's an order.”

     “Very well, young mistress,” he said smoothly. With a curt bow that bordered incivility, Sebastian exited my study. I resumed back to my work and ripped open up a brown paper package that contained a batch of new manuscripts for FunTomes, when I paused. Standing up, I swiped a curtain aside.

      There in the snow blanketed ground stood Sebastian. I watched, almost transfixed, as his eyes changed from vermillion to that familiar fuchsia glow. He kicked off on his legs and effortlessly passed through the ice laden trees like a sleek phantom. His tailcoat billowed in the wind as the branches supported his long, lithe legs. Slowly, I returned my attention to his full silhouette, now no more than a black speck in the distance. Within seconds, the cold, misty fog engulfed his person from my sight.

      I wrapped my arms around myself and glanced up at the dark, overcast skies that pressed heavily upon the wintry landscape. My brows knitted, and something inexplicable pulled deep within my core. I drew the curtain close. 

      In need of distraction, I ambled into the music room and picked up the violin. My fingertips pressed down on the strings. Sharps, flats, naturals –an arpeggio of tingling strings filled the space, blocking out the low rumbles and claps outside. I jerked my bow harder, playing with verve, the fast tempo of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue wrapping around me, clinging to every nook and cranny. I swayed to and fro; my hands coaxed and cajoled the dark, rich notes of the fugue as I practiced once, twice, thrice. Then somewhere, a pull of a bell brought me out of my reverie, and my bow tripped. A discordant fourth pierced the air.

     I glanced up at the grandfather clock. Fifteen minutes had elapsed. Lowering the violin, I peered past the window. Sebastian had reappeared in front of the manor, true to his word, his expression raw as the song I had just played.

     I felt my brows crease. I went to the main entrance and paused. Sebastian met my gaze, his eyes dark and intent. He appeared none too pleased to see me as he stepped inside, his sodden tailcoat dripping a steady trail into the main hall. Despite his unseemliness, he still somehow looked...seemly. His dark locks, disheveled and drenched, accentuated his alabaster visage; his wet tailcoat clung to his frame, revealing the outline of a lean, toned torso. When my gaze drifted lower, my cheeks grew warm.

       "Young mistress...?"

       I forced my wandering eyes to his face and made my voice tart. “Well, did you deliver my message?”

       “I did,” Sebastian said in low murmur. “I had given it to Paula, her chambermaid, who said she’d give it to Lady Elizabeth once she returned back from her…engagements.”

       “Engagements?" I said slowly. "What engagements?”

        Sebastian faced me, the fog clouding the window behind his dark silhouette like a ghost. Light from the hearth flickered across his vermilion orbs. My chest tightened as we stared at each other for several moments. Then, the hearth crackled, breaking the strange silence between us.

       “Young mistress, it appears her chambermaid is under the impression Lady Elizabeth is out in town—at Nina Hopkin's Boutique. With you.”

       I felt all the color drain from my face.  “What the bloody hell do you mean by that?”  

        Sebastian’s face creased as he procured a damp slip. “The maid also gave me this. She said she received it this morning and was nearly about to throw it away, thinking it was some schoolboy joke. I believe it will be of interest to you.”

      I snatched the note from his hand and swore aloud.

 

                                                                               'LET US SEE IF WE HAVE CHEMIST R Y: 13 6 2 M 39'

 

     “'Bollocks!”  I collapsed on a nearby armchair and rubbed small circles on the sides of my forehead, the queer cipher barely registering. Surely, I was mistaken. Lizzie could have very well been elsewhere. I stared hard at the dainty charm bracelet dangling off my wrist. Perhaps she traveled to Nina Hopkin's by herself because she still harbored a grudge over our carrom match. Or perhaps, she had found someone else to accompany her last minute. As I contemplated on a plethora of other poorly thought out excuses for Lizzie’s absence, an image of a forgotten letter sitting on my desk snaked into my mind. My insides turned to ice.

     “Sebastian, the letter from Delacourt—”

     “Understood, young mistress.”

     In seconds, Sebastian had deposited the article into my unsteady hand. I ripped open the envelope and yanked out a handwritten letter secured on top of a wad of papers. 

     “Dear Lady Phantomhive,

     As you know, the affairs at Imperial International Academy have been very pressing of late. Just when I thought the matter could not worsen, today five girls, whose names appeared on the roll call of morning classes, did not appear in the roll call of the afternoon classes. A thorough check of the academy grounds was conducted with no sign of them.

     I fear the same thing has occurred once more, which is why I must impress upon you to come down to the academy immediately. We cannot afford to wait longer, given these new developments. To expedite your investigation, I have enclosed a copy of the student records of all the young ladies who have gone missing till date.

     I scavenged through the enclosed papers. Arwen Ashton, Astoria Ashton, Isabelle R. Delacourt, Mina Singh West, Victoria Alice Macmillan, Avril Alouette Chateau. When I flicked the last page, I felt as though someone had drenched me with a bucket of ice-cold water.

     My fingers shook as a familiar bright face smiled up at me and under the photograph, the words that paralyzed my limbs, 'Elizabeth Ethel Cordelia Midford'.

     “L-lizzie…”    

 

Chapter Text

                                                           

      The clip-clop of hooves thundered around us. We sped through the frozen outskirts of London, the white, undulating moors stretching over the expanse. I held fast to my seat as the carriage rattled, attuning to my own whirring mind. Emerald orbs sparking with light and ardor consumed my every thought. 

       “I wonder what that detective of your Mr. Wordsmith would say in such a circumstance,” Sebastian mused softly.

       I stared at him hard. “If you’re referring to Sherlock Holmes, I imagine he’d say emotional qualities were antagonistic to reasoning.”

      “Quite so." Sebastian lowered his gaze to the slip of paper in my hand. “Perhaps you ought to take a page out of his book. It does not do well for the head of the Phantomhive to become so overwrought, so . . . affected.”

       I clenched my fist. As much as I loathed to admit it, he was right. It took all my resolve to block out the warm, seraph smile that flashed relentlessly in my mind. I regarded the cipher in front of me with cold, calculating observation.

        'LET US SEE IF WE HAVE CHEMIST R Y: 13 6 2 M 39'

     I skimmed over the discernible numbers and fixated on the disconnected ‘R’. Judging from the precision of the strokes and pressure of the quill, I suspected that move had been deliberate—to make the letter stand out among the rest. As to why, I couldn't ascertain.                                                   

      “Let us see if we have chemistry,” Sebastian recited. A trace of distaste tinge his voice. “A rather forward line if I do say.”

      “Not particularly, unless aluminum and carbon constitute words of coquetry.” I glazed over the second line. “I’m sure you’ve noticed it as well I have—the numbers stand for numbers. Atomic numbers to be precise. The 13 corresponds to aluminum, abbreviated formally as Al. The 6 is Carbon—C, the 2 is Helium—He, then comes M which is given. Figures, there aren’t any chemical elements with the symbol M. And finally 39 refers to Yttrium—Y. If you string the symbols, Al, C, He, M, Y, together you’re left with nothing but alchemy.”

       “It would seem that is not the only thing you’re left with, young mistress . . .” 

      I followed his glowing line of vision to the scrap in hand. My pulse quickened. Aware of Sebastian’s heightened sense of sight, I flicked the message over but only to be met by a blank space. I held the paper under a wisp of light and strained my eyes. Then, I caught it. A scrawl of letters in faint penciling: NOFNeNa Mg.

      I exchanged a dark look with Sebastian. “Do you know what this means?”

      Sebastian's voice dipped low. “The symbols undoubtedly stand for Nitrogen, Oxygen, Fluoride, Neon, Sodium, and Magnesium, which, if I’m not mistaken, lie next to each other in the periodic table."

      "Precisely," I said. "In other words, consecutive atomic numbers.” From the inflection in my tone, I knew he had figured out what this signified. “Sebastian, the chemical symbols refer to the 7,8,9,10,11, and 12th element– the numerical signature ‘7891011 12'  from the previous cipher.”

      Sebastian went silent as I crumpled the note into a little ball. What was the note sender playing at?  Moreover, what the blooming fish did alchemy have to do with any of it?

       Flopping back in my seat, I leaned my cheek against the cold window and fiddled with Lizzie’s bracelet. The white outskirts had faded, now replaced with snow covered buildings. Our conveyance pulled into Whitechapel. We past milliners, guttersnipes, perfumeries, and questionable lithograph vendors. Snowflakes wafted down, thick and incessant, accumulating onto the passing roads. Onto nearby tramcars, onto Nina Hopkins’s Boutique, onto . . . I held my breath. My eyes flashed back through the frosted glass.

     “Stop the carriage!”

      The coachman pulled on the reins, rendering the vehicle to a screeching halt. I lurched forwards from the violent movement. Instantly, a heady scent of eau de cologne, Earl Grey, and silver polish invaded my lungs. To my mortification, I found my face on the crook of Sebastian’s neck, my legs across his lap; satin clad fingers surrounded my waist, lifting me to glowing fuchsia orbs.

      "What’s wrong, young mistress?” he whispered. My breath caught under his penetrating stare. 

     “Move,” I blurted. I disengaged myself from our entwined form and thrust the carriage door open. A chilly draft swept into the compartment. Sebastian appeared nonplussed as I hiked up my attire to my knees and without a word, took off.

      Adrenaline barreled through my veins. The frigid wind blasted my face as I practically skated through the streets, the cobblestone slick with ice. A narrow alley, tucked away from passerbys, came into view, I swerved into it, my body fagged and panting. Almost fully concealed by the shadows, a slim young woman in a cloak stood pressed against a back wall—but she wasn’t alone. I ducked behind a crate.

      “Why so scar’d lassy?”A burly man slurred in a cockney accent. “I won’ ruffle ye up . . . much.”

       I ran a quick glance at him. Green eyeshades, counters from St. James, and an Ace of Spades peeking out from his gaspipe pockets –a gambler.

       “S-stay back,” the young woman whispered. “I have no valuables on me.”

      “Then ye won’t mind me checkin’ ye out-eh?” The gambler fixated on her with opium glazed eyes. Without warning, his hand plunged through the opening of her cloak. She gasped as his hand groped around and then paused. His slowly drew out a leatherette bag. “Well, well what do we ‘ave ‘ere?”

      He roughly shook her knapsack upside down. Out tumbled a loaf of stale bread, cheese, a map, and then a small glinting object. The man scrambled to the ground, but as he held the silver piece up, his sneer faded into a disappointed frown.

       “Damme, not even a shillin’.” 

      He flung the silver object over his shoulders, and it landed in a pile of snow near my feet. I narrowed my eyes at the object—a familiar key engraved S.Y.

      The man returned his attention to the young lady. “No mat’er. I’m sure der boss will pay me handsomely fer bringing back another vixen fer him –once I’m dun fanning ye, o’course.” He grimaced, revealing two sets of yellow, crooked teeth.

      “Y-you keep away from me else I'll report you.” The young woman gripped her cloak tighter around her and stepped back until her elbows grazed the wall.

      The man guffawed and gripped her wrist vice-like. His other hand reached out to stroke her hooded face. Immobilized, she watched on helplessly, her body trembling as his meaty fingers neared a centimeter away.

      “I wouldn’t if I were you.”

      The man spun on his haunches. “Who said tat?” 

      “I did.” A sudden shadow swept over the alley. Once it passed by, there I stood, arms crossed, fixing him a cool gleam. “The likes of you aren’t fit to even scrap the dirt under her shoes.”

      At the mere sight of me, the gambler exploded in laughter. “Well, well, if it ain’t another lolita. Wot say ye join us? More, the merrier I ‘ways say.”

      “I think I’ll pass on that tempting offer. But if you’ll hand her to me, I’ll take my leave. I’m in something of a hurry.”

       “Ye think yer in a position t’make demands, rabbit? Me thinks ‘erhaps, yer not altogether der.”

      “Au contraire, I’m perfectly sane.”

      “Ho, really? Then surely yer realize yer overpowered? Yas hardly half o’ me.” He flexed his massive arm at me in a threatening manner.

       My brows knitted. “I confess I find being confronted by someone of your substantial stature somewhat problematic.” I cocked my head and considered his bulky size. “Too much imbecility in one place.”

       “Why ye bricky little . . .” He cracked his knuckles and raised a fist, but I cut him off by raising my own hand, making sure his black beady eyes caught a full view of Lizzie’s charm bracelet.

      “See this? These charms here are genuine precious stones—worth more than a month of wagers you attain from your gambling house at St. James. This trinket can be yours if play a game with me.” I peered at him through my thick lashes and coiled a strand of hair around my finger. “A game of cards, that is.”

       “A game eh?  The gambler guffawed. His breath smelled just as he looked, foul and repulsive, a mixture of Absinthe, bad cheese, opium. And other unspeakable things. I held my nose as he jabbered. “What’re yer rules, rabbit?”

      “Simple. We shuffle the deck and place five cards face down. We then guess what lies under the cards without flipping them.” I provided him a brief demonstration and laid out five cards, face down. “Now, I shall guess with a Queen, Six, Nine, Three, and a Jack. Let us see if I’ve matched any.” I flipped the cards over. None of the five cards matched my call. I felt my brows crease.

      The drunk barked with derisive laughter, but I continued in a tart voice. “Whoever makes more correct guesses is the victor. If I win, you’ll release her.” My gaze flickered to the young lady. “However, if you win, you can keep this charm bracelet—do you accept the stakes?”

      “Make it der trinket –and her. Then I’ll ‘cept.”

       “Suit yourself.” The young lady drew in sharp breath and faced me as though as I had lost my marbles. The drunk grimaced and whipped out a pack of cards from his pocket. As he shuffled it, I stopped him. “Do you mind if we used my cards instead?” I made my voice rich and smooth as I pulled out a Funtom’s deck of cards from my pocket. “I’d like a fair game –preferably using cards without indentations along its sides. If you would just shuffle my cards first . . . We can do the body shuffle later if you win.” My lips lifted into a demure smile.

       “Heh, fine, but I’m goin’ first.” He placed five cards face down and announced his call: Ten, King, Jack, Seven, Eight, and Nine. When he flipped the cards over, two of his numbers matched.

      The man’s mouth curved into a nasty smile. “Let’s see ye beat that, rabbit.”

      “Let's.” I placed five cards face down and contorted my face in concentration. “I shall proceed with Nine, Ace, Jack, Six, and . . . a Queen.” When I flicked the cards up, all five matched.  The man gave a violent start and snatched them up, scrutinizing the fronts, backs, and sides.

      “I’m afraid you won’t find any physical defects like amateurish nicks on them. I’d even lend you a magnifier if you doubt my words.” A honeyed cadence colored my voice “Perhaps a mere fluke was all.”

      “Bloody hell it was,” he snarled, shuffling the deck thrice. “Go again, and clamp yer eyes. I’ll draw yer cards for ye this time.”

      “Do whatever you must to put your mind at ease.” I closed my eyes. As he laid the cards face down, I pinched my trembling lips together, suppressing the laughter that threatened to erupt from them.

      “Why the devil are ye—”

      “An Ace, Two, Five, Queen, and then –a Fool.” My lashes fluttered open. I watched in relish as he fanatically flicked the cards up.

       All the cards matched.

      “Impossible.” The man swiped at the cards, his fist shaking. “Ye bloody tricked me.”

      "If you fall for the same thing over and over, you have no one to blame but yourself." A languid smile spread my lips. "Afterall, if you can't spot the trick and can't beat the game, then you're nothing but a loser.” 

      The gambler's eyes flickered scarlet as he lunged at me. I careened out of his path, but only to feel Lizzie’s bracelet slid off my wrist. Before I could recover it, the man snatched it off the ground and crammed it into his gaspipe. Then his black beady eyes shifted to the young lady. A menacing grin slithered across his mouth. 

       Damnation. I almost forgot about her. Almost of their own accord, my hands plunged into the ground, scooping up to massive handfuls of snow. Mustering all my strength, I hurled them straight ahead. The massive snowballs smacked the side of drunk's face.

       He whirled around, swiping the snow away.  “Y-ye bitch.”

      “I prefer the Queen’s guard dog.” 

      His eyes flashed with malevolence as he stalked forwards to the young lady in the cloak. More snowballs made contact, but this time, the man didn’t even bat an eye as he viciously grasped the train of her dress, tearing it, and reeled her in like a caught, flailing fish. With his other hand, he yanked the hood backwards. I knew the young woman’s identity even before her disheveled blonde hair spilled out. Before the man wrenched the edge of her corset. Before he pressed his hands around her neck. Before a shrill scream escaped her rose stained lips and fell silent. 

      Irene Diaz.

                                                                                                               *  *  *

      The man dragged the unconscious opera singer in one hand and stumbled towards me. "It's ye turn. I wonder what ye have underneath ‘em daisy roots.” He lunged at my leg, but I jerked backwards, permitting him to wrench off only my boot.

       He slurred in rage. “Stop sodding moving around, little quim." The drunk raised his massive arm high above, about to slam it down, when all of a sudden, his body went rigid. "W-wot's happening?"

      The cold atmosphere stirred around us. The nape of my neck prickled, my fear now replaced with a frisson of anticipation. The air quivered as though brimming with a powerful presence it could no longer contain. I felt him before I even saw him.

      “No one lays a finger on my mistress,” whispered a soft, deep voice. "Or addresses her so crudely."

       “W-wot? Who said that?” The drunk gambler's eyes darted around the alley. "Show yerself."

      "As you wish." Sebastian descended like a sleek thoroughbred. He lithely landed in front of me, an overwhelming aura pervading from him. His eyes smoldered at the man with latent ire, but then they swept over at the playing cards strewn across his feet, and a hint of amusement and exasperation suffused them. “Goodness, aren’t you apt at playing the damsel in distress?”

      “Shut up. If you care to make yourself useful, you’ll rid me of this eye-sore.” My contracted eye blazed at him.

      “Understood, my lady.” Sebastian’s eyes glittered dark. I felt his body grow taut and ready beside mine.  Like a dark horse restive to unleash it's harnessed energy, he stalked towards the vermin. Slowly, but with perverse eagerness, he bite off his glove, finger by finger.

      The man quaked, his eyes darting to the glove Sebastian unceremoniously casted to the floor. “Wot-wot’re ye doin’?” As if he could foretell his providence, the gambler scrambled against the wall almost as though he’d melt into it. My mouth twisted. Unfortunately for him, he wouldn’t be that lucky.

      “Do pardon me,"  Sebastian said with a sigh. "I only fear my gloves might get a bit . . . besmirched.” 

      Before the man could protest, in the blink of an eye, Sebastian stood behind him, pinning the his wrists against his shoulder blades, while his free hand placed Irene safely down.

      The man let out a guttural cry. “W-who the bloody hell are ye?”

        A deep chuckle escaped the butler as he began to shift into his unearthly form. Darkness bathed him like the backdrop of a starless night. Sebastian raised his free hand, exposing our contracted mark.  Slit-like pupils blazed at the vermin's colorless face without mercy. My lips curled.

        "I am . . . merely one hell of a butler.”

 


 

***A brief preview of the next chapter: Sebastian goes beast-mode, Cielle succumbs to an asthma attack (watching the elite trash take out the non-elite trash), and Irene Diaz reveals some vital info that connects to Lizzie's disappearance. The SebaCiel romantic subplot takes off from the next chapter—oh, and this time, it's from Seb's POV. ;]

Chapter Text

                                                                   

                                                                                                {Sebastian's POV}


 

                              

            

     A maelstrom of feathers shrouded the dastard. “I-impossible,” he breathed. “Ye…ye can’t be real.”

     “Oh, he’s quite real,” said Cielle. I could discern a smile in the mistress’s velvety tones.  “In fact, Sebastian, why don’t you show him how real you truly are?”

     I chuckled. “It would be my pleasure, but first…” I released him and held out my hand. “I believe you have something that belongs to my mistress.”

      “W-wot?”

      “The trinket you pilfered.”

      “Take it –take everythin’.” He threw Miss Elizabeth’s bracelet and all his counters to the floor before raising his hands in surrender. She collected all the items and stood in front of him, Cheshire-Cat complacent.

     Slowly, Cielle turned to me. Something wicked flickered deep within the sapphire irises. Her lips curved at me like a hellion delighting in a game or a mischievous kitten up to no good. “Sebastian…why don’t you do as you please with our depraved friend here. I imagine a starving demon like you would enjoy ravaging him—wouldn’t you?” Smoldering cerulean eyes fixed my own.

     That little imp.  

     As if I’d actually relish some vermin on a platter. While blood could portray the essence of a soul, the essence from the man reeked of him –vile and despoiled with corruption. Hardly a comparison to the tempting, intoxicating essence that stood before me…I stared at that creamy, unblemished neck.

     A sudden pang of hunger pierced through me.

     “Well?” prompted Cielle.

     I straightened my tie, regaining myself. “I’m afraid I do not find the essences of half-rats palatable, young mistress.”

      “How dull. Then, I suppose the prudent course of action is to see that he won’t dare to lay his grimy hands on a lady.” She spoke in dulcet accents, but her eyes blazed at me like cold fire.

     “Of course, young mistress.” I bowed to her, concealing a serpentine smile at her consent. In the blink of an eye, I grasped the half-rat’s wrists from behind and hummed in a sing-song manner. “You seem rather attached to these.”

     He glanced over his shoulders in horror. “No –no please…not that.”

     Chuckling, I gave his arms a gentle tug and increased my force, little by little, until I found myself wrenching his sinews. The man released a guttural plea and writhed like a helpless fly caught in a spider’s web.

     “S-stop it. Y-yer going to break ‘em…”

      “My, I fear I’m not feeling that generous. You should consider yourself most fortunate if I do not rip them from your person.” A deep throaty laugh escaped me.

     I yanked his sinews harder, breaking the skin. Exhilaration barreled through my veins, my restraint slipping away with it. The shadows cloaked my transformation as I fully succumbed to my true form. My fangs lengthened; my eyes tightened to slits, hellfire blazing within the fuchsia orbs; smoky tendrils enveloped my full length – the graceful butler no more.

     All my senses heightened. Every essence around me grew sharper. The saccharine essences of debutantes at the dress shops blocks away, the man’s fetid essence of debauchery that rolled off his skin in waves and then…another essence. One that prevailed over them all. My head swam.

     I greedily drank it in—a delicious contradiction of flavors. Strong, musky, tart, all masked in an outer Elysian-like sweetness. I could feel my slit-like pupils constrict. The tantalizing essence overwhelmed me…consumed me… invigorated me. “Yess,” I hissed. I fastened my eyes on my mistress and wetted my fangs, hardly paying attention to the crack and snap of tendons. Unbridled hunger surged through me with intensity unlike ever before. Veiled in the shadows, I raised my dark silhouetted hand at Cielle, excitement coursing through every nerve. 

     “That’s enough.”

     Cielle’s voice rang sharp, breaking me out of my disgraceful reverie. The dark tendrils retreated like a wave from the unconscious man. Breathing hard, I ran my tongue over my lips and tilted my head back. What on earth had spurred such a reaction? My unseemly features began to fade as I regained myself though a deep frown edged my face. I couldn’t recall the last time I had lost control in such manner. I stared contemplatively at my hand. Oh dear...I had been a moment away from breaching my impeccable aesthetics. 

      Frowning, I stepped out of the shadows, reverted to the prim and proper butler. “Young mistress, I— ''

     “Just like a beast,” Cielle whispered, eyeing me with revulsion.

     “My apologies, my lady.” I felt my forehead crease. “I suppose I had gotten a touch carried away.”

     “Well, I guess I shouldn’t expect anything else from your kind –should I?” A brackish laugh escaped her. I lowered my lids as the mistress doubled over in laughter and then choked out my name. “Sebas…tian.” 

     Cielle’s body went rigid as an ice sculpture, save for a trembling hand outstretched towards me. Her breath grew labored. Then, an uncomfortable wheeze escaped her. In the blink of an eye, I was by her side as she succumbed to her asthma. My hand curled around her small waist. With the other, I angled her face to mine and loosened the eye-patch.

     My eyes reflected in her large, dilated pupils. Concerned orbs of fuschia, but deep within them, the slits flickered with excitement.

     "S-sebas…tian.” Cielle clutched my cuff links and panted my name like litany. I reveled in those pitiable, sputtering gasps, a rich, cadence that aroused my senses. “Sebas…tian.”

     I rubbed my finger along her flushed lips and whispered, “Young mistress, I am here…You only need but to call my name.” 

     “Sebastian…” Cielle’s contracted eye illuminated and bore into mine. I felt the mark on my naked hand, surging hot and stronger than ever. Slowly, the coughing fit subsided into soft, shallow breaths. When her breathing slowed at last, Cielle managed to stand upright.

     “Are you quite alright, young mistress?” I held out my hand for support, but Cielle rejected it.

     “I’m fine.” Cielle feigned a cough and avoided my stare. “The weather is atrociously cold.”

      “Indeed.” I removed my overcoat and tightly wrapped her within the much-too-large attire. “Perhaps, this will prevent another episode.”

     “It’s…warm,” Cielle said in strained voice, pulling it tighter.

     “Most fortunate it clads the young mistress’s petite frame completely.”

     “Tch. Just get me my boot.”

     “Yes, my lady.” I retrieved the fallen boot off the ground and bent to her feet. “Shall I?”

     Her eyes narrowed with a cat-like inscrutability, but she nodded. Cielle raised her skirt up, revealing small, creamy white ankles. I slid the boot on, one at a time, cupping the ball of her foot. When my fingers grazed the graceful arch of her foot ever so slightly, she jumped to her feet.

     “I’ll do it myself,” Cielle said in a tart voice. As she fumbled with the laces, a troubled look marred her delicate features.

      Sensing the tension in the air, I collected the cards off the ground near her. “Permit me to commend on that entertaining trick back there. You scented the cards remarkably well –Queens with rosehip, Kings with myrrh, Jacks with lavender, the Jokers with –”

     “Wait a minute.” Cielle’s expression shifted as the realization hit her. She grasped my tie and pulled on it—hard.“How dare you?”

     “Beg your pardon?”

     “Don’t beg-your-pardon me, you slippery demon. You witnessed that entire charade without intervening. I take it seeing me in peril provides some sport for you.”

     “Though I cannot deny that . . .” I disengaged her hand, a faint chuckle escaping me. “As the head butler of the Phantomhive, is it wrong to see that the young mistress flourishes into a proper and self-reliant lady of nobility? However…” My voice dropped an octave. I lifted her chin up, my thumb trailing her jaw. “Had you been in real danger. I’m sure you're aware I'd intervene. After all, I'd never permit anyone to fondle my mistress so crudely . . .”  

     Cielle paused, that troubled look washing over her once more. Then her face hardened. She swatted my hand away. “Enough. We’ve tarried on here far too long. Come.”

     I followed her to where Miss Diaz lay. Cielle gave me a sharp side-long glance. Nodding, I stuffed a hand into my pocket, brought out some strong scented camphor, and waved it under Miss Diaz’s nose. Slowly, the opera singer came into her senses. At the sight of me hovering above her, her face blanched.

      “Fancy seeing you again, Miss Diaz,” Cielle said softly. “Though shouldn’t you be someplace else right now?”

      “Brixton,” the woman breathed as I helped her to her feet. “The Yard threatened to place me in Brixton’s Prison for Female Convicts. They didn’t believe a word I said. I’ve been in hiding since—” She drew in a sharp breath and swayed.

     I caught her before she hit the floor. “Young mistress, perhaps we should resume this discussion elsewhere.” I glanced meaningfully at a small tea shop in the distance.

     Cielle frowned at the opera singer, then sighed. “Very well. Carry her, Sebastian.”

     We made our way to the tea shop. Under the mistress’s instructions, I purchased a cup of Bohea tea, stale Seville Orange Biscuits, and currant teacake (rather poorly prepared) from the High Tea menu. I handed the paltry provisions to Miss Diaz who began devouring the meager bite. Once some of the color returned to her face, Cielle launched into an interrogation.

     “Care to tell us how exactly you escaped, Miss Diaz?”

     The opera singer went stiff, her fingers tightening in her lap. “The Inspector dropped a key after he placed me in the holding facility. I had no other choice, but to steal it. I couldn’t go back home since they would check for me there first…so I’ve been hiding on the streets since. Hiding from the Yard and those…awful, awful men.” She stared, brows pinched, into her tea as if reliving her escape from the whoremongers that loitered in the alleys.

      “Well, your escape is really nothing more than a trifle to me," Cielle murmured. "I’m much more interested as to why you attempted to thieve Her Majesty’s diadem in the first place. “Why don’t you tell us what really occurred last night, Miss Diaz?

     Miss Diaz exhaled a white puff and nodded. “My Grimsy has been away on the Continent the past few months working on Venus in Furs. His correspondence with me has dwindled since. Of course, I'm sure he has a rather cumbersome schedule. I figured it'd be best for me to go about my own pursuits and thus, I began taking on more opera performances at the Lyceum Theatre. I had a performance last night—a 7 o’ clock showing of The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night. After the play had ended, I headed back home alone. Hardly a few minutes passed when I noticed a figure shadowing me.” Her voice grew quiet. “I hastily picked up my pace and just as I turned the corner, the person called to me—by my name. When I spun around, I saw it was only a young man.”

     “What did he look like?” Cielle demanded.

     “A bit of an Adonis. He seemed a few years older than you...but much taller." I smirked at Cielle whose lips went taut as bowstrings. "Rather proper fit fellow, though he possessed effeminate features. He had sea-green eyes, flaxen hair, and an air of self-assuredness about him.” Her brows pinched. “I knew I had never met this gentleman before, and I asked him how he knew me. Apparently, he had he attended one my opera performances and has been an ardent admirer of mine every since.”

     “But then our conversation drifted." A subtle wistfulness tinged her voice. "After Grimsy left, I've had not many to talk to. The more we conversed, the more I realized we shared many interests apart from theatre. He spoke of his terriers at home, and I of my Pekingese dog. We spoke and spoke, losing track of time until Big Ben tolled eight. Since it was rather late, he offered to escort me back home. I accepted the gesture–in retrospect, a bit imprudently.”

     “And then?" I inquired.

     “The young gentleman led me to the front door of my quarters where we both wished each other a goodnight. And then…” Miss Diaz’s voice turned sheepish. “We, er…that is to say, he…”

     The young mistress scrunched up her face, her voice smooth but distasteful. “You need not go on. It isn't difficult to deduce what happened from there, Miss Diaz.”

     I suppose I couldn’t blame Cielle’s frosty demeanor. Afterall, she was hopelessly bereft in those matters. In the few years I had resided with her, I had never seen her glance at any gentlemen. At soirees, Cielle studiously averted all of them like a wallflower, until forced to engage in a waltz—wherein, she wouldn’t even attempt to hide her disinterest from her dance partners. Though hardly my business at all, a part of me mused if perhaps young men simply weren’t her cup of tea.

     Cielle sniffed. “I presume this sporting gentleman—and I use that term loosely, Miss Diaz—atleast gave you his name before he...”

     The woman shook her head and bit her lip, chagrined. “He did. A Mr. Sette Adodici.”

     A half-stifled gasp cracked the wind. My attention pivoted to Cielle. Cerulean eyes flared wide, and I could practically see the cogs in them racing. Miss Diaz gave us both a quizzical look, and seeing the young mistress absorbed in her calculations, I diverted the woman’s attention. “Pardon me, Miss Diaz. I fear we still fail to see how the diadem connects to this.”

      Miss Diaz shuffled her feet under the table. “I don’t quite understand that part either. After Mr. Adocici led me to the main entrance, we spoke a few private words." A tell-tale flush crept to her cheeks. "Then he told me to close my eyes. We shared a few… meaningful exchanges. I had my eyes close till then, but when I opened them, I found myself inside London Tower's Jewel House –the terriers barking around me—all while holding onto the diadem like some phantom thief!”

     I blinked. Was the woman jesting us?  “Surely, you have something more to add to your account, Miss Diaz.”

     “That’s just it,” she whispered. “I don’t.”

     Cielle exchanged a dark look with me before turning to the woman. “Miss Diaz, do you mean to tell us you cannot recall anything that happened after seven—ahem, after Mr. Adocici dropped you at your residence and before you found yourself inside Jewel House?”

     “That is exactly so.” Miss Diaz bit her lip. “When I told the Yard my account, they thought I was playing them fool. One of them even laughed in my face!”

     “The Commissioner,” murmured Cielle. “You’ll have to excuse them, Miss Diaz. However, despite the Yard’s usual incompetence, even I must agree with them on the absurdity of your statement.”

     “I know it sounds absolutely ludicrous,” she said exasperatedly, “but I swear, I can’t remember the rest. It’s all a blur to me.”

     “Truly—all of it?” I inquired.

     “Yes, I haven’t any recollection of anything else.” I couldn't detect an inkling of a lie in her statement. I locked eyes with the young mistress and shook my head.

     “I see.” Cielle fell mum and stared at Miss Diaz, impassive and unblinking for an uncomfortable ten seconds. What on earth was she— Suddenly, her frustration unfurled like tempest. Before I could intervene, she grasped Miss Diaz by the shoulders and shook her with a violent start. “For goodness sake, do you hear how unconvincing your story sounds, Miss Diaz? Give me something to work with here. Think harder. It isn’t only for your own blasted sake! My cousin Elizabeth is—”

     My hand tightened over the mistress’s shoulder. Cielle flinched at my touch. “Compose yourself, my lady. I realize tact has never been part of your virtue, but you’re making a spectacle of yourself.”

     Cielle glared daggers at me as though I weren’t the right person to be lecturing on composure. And given what occurred moments ago, well…perhaps I wasn’t. Nonetheless, I turned to the opera singer and spoke in smooth, even tones. "You'll have to excuse her impoliteness, Miss Diaz. That's simply her personality. Are you quite sure you recall nothing else at all?”

     A curious shadow swept over the opera singer's radiant face. “Well, perhaps there is…one thing, but I fear it’s only a trifle.”

     Cielle’s voice went sharp. “The art of deduction is founded upon trifles. What did you see?”

     “I recall, very vaguely, a dark shade of…blue.”

     Blue? I raised a brow and leveled my gaze at Miss Diaz’s sapphire colored cloak. When she noticed me staring, she blushed.

     “I’m well aware it could’ve been merely my cloak,” said Miss Diaz, “though I fear other than that, there is truly nothing more I can add to my account.” She chewed her lip. “If the Yard finds me out here, they’ll undoubtedly send me to Brixton’s. I can’t go home either –they’ll look for me there first, if they haven't already.” Her eyes grew wider. “And my Pekingese dog is still at home, with no one to—”

     “Miss Diaz, regain yourself. Your dog is the least of your problems.”

     Despite Cielle's bluntness, I quite agreed. Goodness. The woman’s fondness for the canine persuasion was a bit much, wasn’t it? I could never understand the appeal of such ghastly creatures.

     Miss Diaz clasped and unclasped her hands. “What’s going to happen to me now?”

     Cielle pinched her nose-bridge and then with a resigned sigh, reached for the woman’s wrist. “Come here.”

      “Where are we going?” The opera singer’s voice rose in panic as Cielle dragged her into the streets. “You’re…you’re not taking me to the Yard, are you?”

     “No. I have a more suitable place to keep you confined.”

     I trailed the two behind. Cielle scanned the vicinity for a minute until she spied our carriage parked in front of a closed tea shoppe. Our hired coachman sprang out of the curricle when he saw us approaching. “Is everything alright? I had thought—” He paused, noticing Miss Diaz behind us.

     Cielle looked at me and nervously licked her lips. “This here is…er.”

      “Miss Mary Sue Houndsworth,” I said with a smile, deciding to go with the character she played in The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night.  “An acquaintance of the young mistress’s that she had the good fortune of recognizing on the streets. Miss Houndsworth will be staying at Phantomhive manor until her own manor’s refurbishments are complete.” I made a silent reminder to procure some wainscoting on the return journey.

     “Right,” murmured Cielle. “Hence, I’d like for you to return her back to the manor this very moment.” 

     “I shall gladly oblige your request, Lady Phantomhive. but what of you and your butler? There is still some distance from here to Imperial Academy.”

     “Please go ahead. Sebastian and I will take some hackney. Now, if you would just step inside Miss Di—Houndsworth.” Cielle opened the compartment door and paused. “I suppose I shall also see to it that your pekingese dog is taken care of.”

     For the first time, Miss Diaz broke out a smile. She threw her arms around the young mistress and hugged her tightly. “Oh, I simply can’t thank you enough. You truly are generous, Lady Phantomhive.”

    "Think nothing of it, Miss Diaz. It would be my pleasure." Cielle caught my eye and donned a devious smirk. Simply marvelous. Now I had a mangy dog to play nursemaid to. 

     Giving the opera singer a pleasant, but forced smile, I took her hand and assisted her into the four-wheeler. Once settled, she waved her hand to the mistress, who awkwardly waved back. With a snap of the reigns, the carriage plodded away through the snow, leaving us alone. I turned to the mistress. “Are you sure housing a potential convict is a prudent decision?”

     “Of course not. It’s a terrible idea. The Yard would be at my neck if they found out, but there’s not much of an alternative.”

     “Surely, you must have strong conviction for Miss Diaz’s innocence if you are offering her your quarters?”

     “In fact, I do.” Her eyes darkened. “If she truly was guilty, I doubt she is foolish enough to accept my offer to stay at the manor knowing that I can easily hand her on a platter to the Yard at any moment. Moreover…” Her voice lowered. “Miss Diaz’s account elucidates several other points.”

     “Like the curious Mr. Adocici?” I supplied. “I surmised the gentleman had given Miss Diaz an alias for the name ‘Sette Adocici’, despite sounding Italian, seems too peculiar for an authentic Italian name.”

      “Actually, that name isn’t peculiar at all. In fact, it is a rather common in Italy.” Cielle’s pupils grew darker yet. “‘Sette’ is the Italian word for seven, Sebastian.”

     Without listening to the rest of her deduction, I knew what this signified. I narrowed my vision. “That numerical signature from before…”

     “The very one,” Cielle said darkly. “Sette Adocici can be broken into ‘sette a docici’, which in Italian translates to ‘7 to 12’.”

     I traced a finger along my chin in contemplation. “Then this would imply that the gentleman who escorted Miss Diaz to her residence is connected to the attempted diadem theft and responsible for Lady Elizabeth's disappearance.

     “Not to mention, he's probably the cipher sender,” added Cielle, staring distractedly at my finger.

     “The case grows curioser and curioser.” I prodded the alchemy cipher in my pocket and frowned. I hardly could imagine how that tied in with this. Goodness, what a tangled web this was turning into.

      “Well, don’t just stand there thumb-twiddling. We’re already running behind schedule.” Cielle lifted her chin, shaking the snowflakes out of her hair, and trundled ahead away from the paved roads and towards a secluded area filled with trees and undisturbed snow.

     “Since you sent away the carriage, I presume I am your mode of transportation?”

     An impish smile tugged her lips. “Your presumption is correct.”

     I sighed. The trials of a butler.

     We walked side by side, soon coming into a clearing. After double-checking the vicinity and making sure only our presence remained, I turned to my mistress and offered her my gloved hand. “If you would…”

     Cielle gave a stiff nod and laced her bare fingers through my satin-clad ones. The moment she did, I drew her close and slid my arms under her knees. Without giving her a warning, I kicked off on my feet. Cielle gasped, wrapping her slender arms around my neck.

     Snowflakes and gusts of frigid wind buffeted our faces. We passed the ice laden trees at such a speed that the branches blurred. Exhilaration coursed through me. I jumped from branch to branch effortlessly even when the snowflakes began coming down hard, thick and ubitiquous. Though the cold hardly bothered me, from the petite form that shivered against my gloved fingers, I knew the young mistress was putting on a farce. Cielle’s breathing hastened. Her muscles clenched tight under me. I spared her further pretense.

     "Young mistress, forgive my impropriety, but might I suggest you to lean into my overcoat? To provide you with a little extra heat, of course.”

     With palpable reluctance, she buried her face against my chest. Nestled in the thick fabric of my attire, she curled against me childishly, clinging to my warmth. Still, her cheeks possessed a pinkish tint—almost flushed. I frowned. The sooner we arrived at the academy, the better. The last thing I needed was a sniffling mistress to attend to.

     I increased my speed. Cerulean hair blew wildly, the long, silky strands taking on a life of their own and wrapping us in partial darkness. All of a sudden, amidst the flurry of untamed hair and snowflakes, I caught it—that essence.

     Sweet and tart, delicate and musky—a paradoxical array of flavors that whetted my palate. But these nodes transcended to much more. Cleverness and foolishness. Innocence and prurience. A pleasant shiver stole over me, contrasting against the hot, pulsating force that traveled across my arms and extremities. Repressing a strange carnal urge, I gazed at the young mistress and licked my lips.

     How troublesome.

     While I always found the mistress’s essence pleasing before, it had never roused such strong reactions in me. I might have been starving before, but now I was ravenous. The essence of her soul had changed in some way . . . but what?

     Unable to contain my curiosity, I tuned myself to Cielle's emotions. In an instant, they resonated within me. Strong and powerful, as if they were my very own. Her frustration on the case, her unwavering resolve to rescue Lady Elizabeth, and then a trace of self-consciousness I couldn’t quite place. Could it be . . ?

     Subtly, I tightened my fingers under her knees. Color raced to her cheeks, and her emotions soared from her–tenfold now and poured into me like a vessel.  I closed my eyes, avariciously taking them all in. Her deviant impulses, her reprehensible desires, and then a distinct image of . . . My eyes widened a fraction, then narrowed.

     So young men were her cup of tea afterall. No, not young men, I amended.

     I was her cup of tea.

     The few years I had resided with the mistress, dalliance with her had never crossed my mind. Or rather, I had never entertained the thought. I suppose in humans such closeness over the years would inevitably breed feelings of familiarity. But this went much beyond the lines of familiarity. This was almost . . . dissolute.

     The mere idea of consorting with Cielle now was preposterous, utterly improper, and yet . . . tempting on every level.

      So this was why my restraint had slipped earlier. The sweet essence from her childhood had matured to something musky and more potent. Till now, Cielle’s soul had been seasoned by various murky, traumatic experiences. Each had lent a flavor to her soul, however, this new flavor was solely due to . . . me. Small wonder it had incited such a strong reaction. My mouth curved.

     The delicious irony that my young mistress, so cold and unfeeling, could become so affected. To think she was even capable of such illicit feelings. Least of all about me. While our contract remained, I wouldn't consume her soul. However, I could easily encourage this foreign musky flavor to grow richer yet. To take her essence to a new height. A ghost of a smile touched my lips.

     Very slowly, my hand migrated a few inches above her knee. A white puff of breath escaped Cielle. “Young mistress, is everything alright?” My voice lilted sticky as a spider web.

      She glanced up from my chest and glared at me, her eyes mingled with desperation and foolish pride.  “I’m fine.”

      "I am glad to hear." I masked a smile. 

      What an interesting game this had turned to.

     I leaned against her and slowed my pace. Her fingers tightened around my neck. “Why . . . are you stopping?” she said in a breathy voice.

      “Because, young mistress,” I whispered against her temple as we alighted onto the snow blanketed grounds of Miss Elizabeth's academy.

     “We've arrived.”

 

Chapter Text

       {Cielle's POV}

     Sebastian eased me to the snow-covered ground. Through the endless swath of snowflakes, I made out diamond paned windows, turrets, and balustrades fashioned in Versailles style. The academy towered before us, tall and white, exuding majestic serenity. The irony of its aesthetics given the ongoings within. 

     "Shall we?" Face like chiseled marble, Sebastian leaned to my side. His eyes bore into mine, the depths nearly glowing from the reflected snow. An unfamiliar sentiment stirred in my belly. Squashing it away, I edged away from him.

     "Let's hurry this up. The sooner we finish this, the sooner I can return to the manor."

     "Indeed. And attend to that little project for Mr. Noble."

     I groaned and trudged through the snowy entryway alongside Sebastian, his suited arm occasionally brushing my shivering one. My breath clouded the frosty air. Blast. He was so insufferably close. I ambled beside him to the entrance, focusing on the crunching sound of snow. Calmly, Sebastian reached for the knocker and brought down the gilded handle. Not even a minute had passed when the door opened with a flourish.

      A slender woman greeted us. Every inch of her spoke of severity. Wearing a monochrome walking dress with long, puffed sleeves and black ribbon at the blouse, she raised her chin. Through her pince-nez, her eyes flitted from me to Sebastian, then me again.  "May I assist you?" she asked in a voice that conveyed precisely the opposite.

     Sebastian bowed his head. "Pray forgive our intrusion. Lady Cielle Phantomhive has come here to oblige Lord Randall Delacourt's request concerning . . . a peculiar matter troubling the academy."

     The impatience in her tone evaporated. "Oh, it's you. Do pardon me." She gave me a taut smile though I sensed the underlying tension behind it. "The headmaster did not inform that the assistance he sought for would be so young . . . or female."

     Before I could quip back, Sebastian took over. He smiled this time, in that particular manner that made so many feminine heads blush. "Not unlike yourself, miss . . .?"

     Crimson stained her cheeks. "Calypso. Calypso Hulda. Former governess and secretary of Imperial Academy." 

     "A beautifully enigmatic name," Sebastian murmured. "Did you know, it means 'she who conceals' in Greek?"

     Nodding, she swallowed and smoothed her hair—a pointless gesture since she had done it in a tight, unrelenting bun. Suppressing an eye-roll, I cleared my throat. The woman collected herself and promptly went back to looking both interested and disinterested at him all at once. "Do come on inside, Lady Phantomhive," she said in more obliging tones. "Dreadfully cold weather, isn't it? Perhaps you two would care for some tea." She gestured us inside a faux-marble foyer. "Allow me to show you the way to the headmaster's quarters."

     We followed behind her heels, taking in the the greco-roman styled furnishings. Impressionism and neoclassicism paintings of young women lined the walls. Grecian statues of similar subjects littered the hallway. When the secretary noticed me staring at a sculpture of nine goddesses, she beamed. "Those are the muses—the goddesses of arts and sciences. They served as my inspiration. The headmaster assigned me the task of furnishing the academy. I take great pride in the design."

     "The space is truly a Palladian masterpiece," remarked Sebastian.

     I had to agree. I rather found the ambiance refreshing in a society so stifling for women. As I past a bust of Venus de Milo and turned the corner, I gaped. The hallway overflowed with young ladies—those unmistakably of an international stamp. Oriental, European, Indian, and other ethnicities I couldn't place. It was as though all the foreign young ladies residing in England had congregated in one place.

     "Not the usual sight, is it?" Miss Hulda mused. "The academy offers the finest of education to host of international students. Some of the young ladies commute; the majority, most of whom have more ethnic roots, reside in dormitories. We are the first academy to offer this, which have young ladies from High Society flocking to us from all over England. Though we do take the occasional Scholarship students as well."

     "That is quite progressive for a school in England," I replied honestly.

     "Yes, our establishment trains young women for a place in society. It is one of a kind. A blossoming rose in a garden of poorly kept flowers. Other institutions would rejoice if scandal befell the school."

     Just then, a group of book-bosomed girls spotted Sebastian and did a giggle-whisper in each other's ears. I lowered my eyes. "I presume the students aren't aware of the recent happenings?" It wasn't a question.

     She gave me a pointed look, brows tensed. "It is not in my place to discuss that. Well, here we are." Relief flooded her face as she stopped in front of a door that contained large, grey letters engraved HEADMASTER. Hulda turned the doorknob and poked her head inside. "Mr. Delacourt, I have—"

     The commissioner jolted up from his seat at the sight of me. "Heavens, about time you came. Well, don't just stand there. Come in, come in."

     I sniffed and entered inside. Furnished with old, leathery tomes, a grand desk covered by a slew papers in French, and a Chinese vase of wilting flowers, the study smelled like antiquity and black tea. I seated myself in front of the man. Lord Randall Delacourt faced me intently behind his desk. Despite his usual hard angles and controlled composure, his craggy eyes betrayed a wild, desperate fervor. 

     "I presume you have read the contents of my letter," he began.

     "I have."

     "Most troubling news. First my daughter and now more." He threw himself against his chair and grunted through a sip of tea. "To account, they have been six disappearances so far."

     "Yes," I murmured. "My cousin, Elizabeth, in the mix."

     The commissioner choked on his tea. "Your . . . cousin?" He racked his little hair and stood up, his composure flying out the door. He paced the room, face convulsed, his clenched hands raving in the air."Bloody hell! What a muck this is turning into. For once, you have my sympathies, Lady Phantomhive. I'm sure you must be overwrought as I am with my Isabelle . . . " He paused, eyeing me through his quizzing-glass. "Though I must say, you contain your distress rather well."

     I pressed my lips tightly and kept my tones clipped. "I see little point in wallowing like a watering pot or rampaging like a blundering fool. Since when has that ever provided a solution to one's dilemma?"

     Delacourt stared at me hard. After some time, he released a long, exasperated sigh and returned to his seat. "Perhaps one could take a page out of your book, Lady Phantomhive." 

     I waved a dismissive hand at him. "Might I see a copy of the student records?"

     "Of course." He rummaged through the muddled papers on his desk. "Ah, here it is. Perhaps this will shine light on things."

      I sifted through the documents he handed me. Each page contained the girl's picture, full name, address, family background, and birthday. Substandard information. When I flicked to the photograph of Lizzie's bright, innocuous face, my breath caught. Without being aware of it, I had reached for her gemstone bracelet on my wrist. Commissioner Randall cleared his throat. "Well?"

     I forced myself to turn the page. The cogs in my mind clicked away, trying to glean some connection—any connection—between all the girls. Nothing. Frustration taking over, I thrust the papers in Sebastian's direction and faced the headmaster. "Perhaps a tour of the grounds would prove more fruitful—"

     "Oh, I'm so sorry. I did not mean to interrupt your meeting."

     My head jerked around to the deep, honeyed voice. Winsomely coiffed, an arresting creature of sixteen stared at us. Or rather, me. Exceptionally tall and willowy, the older girl possessed a classic beauty, the type that beautified all those in the room and the drab room itself. With striking sea-green eyes and long, amber curls, she covered a hand to her mouth in ladylike fashion. Yet for all her artless radiance, I could tell she relied heavily on enhancers for the effect. A dusting of rice powder on the face, Spanish papers on the cheeks, and a carmine stain on her smiling lips. 

     "I was not aware you had visitors," she said demurely. 

     "You've arrived in good time, Miss Greyling." Delacourt faced me. "Allow me to introduce you to the headgirl of the academy. She delivers the weekly memos to the faculty and oversees the other students."

     "Jane Greyling." The young lady curtsied and extended her hand to me. I met it. "And you are?"

     "Cielle Phantomhive."

     "The pleasure is all mine, Miss Phantomhive." A gracious smile edged her lips. Her fingers, much longer and larger than mine, held my hand for a few seconds longer than necessary, when her other arm accidentally brushed a vase of snapdragons and foxgloves beside her. It began to spin in place, then toppled.

     "Oh!"

     I watched in disbelief as Sebastian watched on with indifference, only attempting to salvage the situation when he knew it was already too late. The vase shattered to the ground, spilling water all over the head girl's sleeves. She stifled a yelp.

     "Miss Hulda!" the headmaster sniped.

     "Coming, sir." Kneeling, the secretary hurried to clean the area. She handed Jane a handkerchief.

     "A thousand apologies. I should have acted sooner." Sebastian gave a stoic bow. "Please, at the very least, allow me to assist you." I glared at him retrieving the snapdragons and foxgloves from the mess. When was Sebastian, the paragon of elegance and grace and infuriating perfection, ever out of step like this? If I didn't know any better, I'd say he'd allowed the blasted thing to happen on purpose. 

     The head girl hastily rolled up her wet sleeves and dabbed her arms. "I think I shall excuse myself if you don't mind. Change into something more . . . dry." Giving us a slight curtsy and not making eye-contact with Sebastian, she pivoted on her heels. A strange disquietude marked the butler's face.

      Watching her retreating figure, I shifted my attention back to the headmaster. "You have informed the students aware of the recent happenings?"

     "Well, er, not quite . . . But all the faculty and headgirls are aware. In fact, Jane has agreed to discretely watch over the other students under my request."

     "How considerate of you," I murmured. "And yet, you fail to inform Scotland Yard for fear of enrollment numbers."

     The headmaster grumbled. "Scotland Yard has not been doing too well as of late. If word of these disappearances were to get out, the academy would close and—"

     "And your finances would plummet?"

     "Lady Phantomhive," Delacourt said coldly, "My personal matters are none of your concern. Perhaps I can humour you with a tour of the academy instead?"

     "That'll do."

     "Miss Hulda, please see to it."

     "Of course." The secretary gestured to us. Before I stood from my seat, Delacourt interjected, "Lady Phantomhive, for everyone's sake I do hope I made the right decision in calling you."

     "My track record speaks for itself. Also . . ." I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out a fine, gold plated watch set an hour forwards. "Do you plan everything in advance?"

      "Where did you get that?" he said sharply.
      
      "I should think that hardly matters." I tossed the trinket onto his desk and rose from my seat. "I am sure this would provide a little help to said finances." With that, I turned my back on his bruised face and flitted out the door.

      "Was that quite necessary, my lady?" Sebastian murmured. I didn't reply.

     The secretary beckoned us to follow through a maze of corridors. We past by a sea of whispering faces, most of them focused on Sebastian. Hushed voices in foreign tongues settled around us. A sharp pang twisted my insides. An emotion I didn't care to name. I suppose seeing a uniformed gent, well-proportioned and proper fit, would have an over-warm reception at an all-girls school. Well-proportioned? I mentally slapped myself. 

     Irate, I snuck a glance at the butler. His lids were low, and though he didn't even look at me, I discerned that familiar smirk begging to grace those ever parted lips. An aureole of light from a gas-lamp flickered across his fuchsia eyes, making them look luminous . . . as if lit with with some renegade thought. His lips parted. His long tongue lapped his sharp canine. My heart beat faster. A odd tingle raced through me. I was reliving my nightmare. When we past the gas-lamp, I blinked. Sebastian's eyes were the usual muted vermillion. He looked . . . normal. Every inch the proper butler. This time, Sebastian was looking straight at me. Face marred in concern, the butler tilted his head. "Is something amiss, young mistress?" 

       Confound it. "No . . . it's nothing."

     "This here is the music room." Hulda gestured us inside a palatial space. The hall was filled with violins, cellos, harps, and a grand Steinway piano in the centre. "This is the largest room in the academy. Hence, we will be holding the masquerade ball here in a few days. You'll find the acoustics here work rather well."

     "I can see that." The clicks of my heels reverberated through the auditorium. I inspected the floorboards with each step. Sebastian lifted the hood of the piano and peered inside. After several minutes, we still found nothing. I moved along to the large windows while Sebastian inspected the large mechanical clock in the corner.

     Ennui taking over, my gaze drifted to the snow covered balustrades and garden outside. In all the whiteness, my eyes flicked to a moving dark spot on the roof. Long, dark hair blowing from her hooded cloak, a girl precariously ambled along the roof like a tightrope performer. I rubbed my eye and stared in incredulity. Hands straight apart for balance, she walked through a gusty wind, her cloak billowing around her. Her every movement, no matter how slight, came off stiff—controlled. Just like a marionette to a puppeteer. 

     "Lady Phantomhive, is everything all right?"

     I spun around, my voice sharp. "Do you see that black speck?"

     "Where?

     "On the rooftop—" I paused. A sense of unease crept over me like rising fog. There was no girl. 

     Miss Hulda regarded me warily through her pince-nez. "Maybe a bird was all?"

     "Perhaps you're right . . . An addled mind can do as much." A bird my foot. Granted, it made little sense, but I clearly had saw a girl—hadn't I?

     As I mulled over what I had just seen, the secretary's expression changed before me. First from pity, as though she thought I regularly suffered from hallucinations, to cool disdain, like I had contrived the whole thing to compensate for my lack of clues. I groaned, glancing at a large marble grandfather clock Sebastian eyed. With silver paint and intricate design work, both its hands pointed to twelve.

     "Goodness, half an hour passed by so quickly." The butler retrieved his pocket watch. "Or so one would think."

     "Don't pay mind to that." Hulda tapped the floorboard in loud, impatient clicks. "That clock always reads as noon. It's broken but kept more as a showpiece now." Seeing how fruitful my results were here, the secretary didn't mince another word. She whisked us out of the space and through a set of mullioned doors that led into an English garden. Keeping a measurable distance between her, I slowed my pace.

     "Back there," I whispered, tugging Sebastian's sleeve. "I wasn't going insane, right?"

     "I do not believe so, young mistress," he murmured. "However, I regret to tell you I could not sense any unusual presence outside." He paused. "Compared to the inside."                  

     "Inside?" I narrowed my eyes. "What do you mean?"

      "The broken clock I had been examining. Though it looked ordinary enough during my inspection, it possessed a subtle, yet distinct energy. It is difficult to say more, however, with the essences of these many academy students clouding my perception."

       "So you're saying there's a chance whatever you're sensing might be insignificant?"

       "...Possibly." Tch.

      "This is the atrium," interrupted Hulda. "The centre of the academy." I took in the glittering snow covered flora and rustling trees outside the greenhouse. Holding my cloak tighter around me, I passed a line of topiaries when—My eyes flared wide. Brief as the flicker of candlelight, a phantom-like Spector, lanky and vaguely masculine, hovered against the glass of the furthest window. I blinked, and the shadow in the hothouse vanished. No, there was no mistaking it this time.

     Sebastian dragged his gaze away from the greenhouse and to me. His eyes darkened with a hint of warning. He had seen it too. I licked my lips. Someone had been watching us.

     "Miss Hulda," Sebastian began in casual tones, "perhaps you will be so kind as to show us inside the hothouse."

      "The hothouse?" I could read the confusion in her face, but to her credit, she did not press on. She sauntered ahead and opened the green tinted door for us. I flitted in first. My eyes narrowed at the recently watered hothouse flowers. A half-opened window at the back end. And then a petite girl emerging behind a topiary next to me. Seeing us, she stifled a gasp.

     Sporting an emerald dress of trimmed serge and ribbons in her ebony hair, the girl placed her hands behind her. Her fingers fiddled with an almost petal-less flower. I surmised she had been preoccupying herself with a charade of loves-me-loves-me-not. Casting a quick glance over her small stature, I knew she couldn't have been the mysterious Spector.

     "We have company, Miss Sullivan. This here is Lady Cielle Phantomhive and her butler." Hulda paused. "They are, er on tour."

      "Phantomhive," the girl repeated in a thick German accent. Her eyes fastened on my hair, my face, and my patched eye. Her face brightened. "Oh! You must be Lizzie's cousin. She speaks a lot about you."

     "You are friends with my cousin?" I inquired.

     The girl flushed at her small heels. "Not friends exactly. An acquaintance," she said in a small voice. "We only spoke twice, that is when she came here to collect flowers. But I often see Lizzie in the halls—hard not to notice a girl like her—though I've always been a bit of a trottel to say much to her."

     "I see. Did—does she frequently visit the hothouse?" 

     "Lizzie only comes in when we have blue flowers. She must really like the color." Sullivan smiled at her feet. "I expect she'll make another trip soon once she sees the latest addition. Would you like to see?" She beckoned me forwards and swept aside some shrubbery to reveal a flowerbed. She clasped her hands. "Isn't it such a unique shade of blue?"

     Like a snap of a reigns, I quelled a gasp. 

     "Are you quite certain you're fine?" Miss Hulda flicked her eyes to me and squinted.

     "A seasonal cough is all." I fixated on the flowerbed. Dozens upon dozens of Dentelaire du Cap. I reached into my pockets and pulled out a dried petal I had pocketed from the Jewel House break in. It was a perfect match. They both came from the same variety. Bleu Ciel. 

     "Such a lovely scent." Sebastian stroked a petal in between two gloved fingers. He inhaled the flower deeply, his eyes fastened on me. An unbidden shiver ran through me. "If you don't mind, Miss Sullivan, perhaps you could tell me where I could procure this rare variety?"

     Sullivan frowned. "I'm afraid I do not know. I found them just sprouting one day and have been tending to them ever since as keeper of the hothouse." Sebastian narrowed his eyes at her.

     "Will that be all then?" Hulda tapped her foot and regarded me like I was an insect. Bother, the woman couldn't even maintain a facade of civility.

     I raised my chin, unfazed. "Perhaps we can speed up this tour by heading to the actual scene of the disappearances?" 

     "Of course," she said curtly. She led us to the dormitories in the North West quadrant of the academy. We climbed a marble staircase that floated upwards in an elegant spiral and found ourselves into a hallway of rooms. Gaslight sconces lined the path, bathing the damask wallpaper in a soft glow. We arrived to the missing twin's room. The door creaked, and we followed in its wake, silent as shadows. The bobbin had remained undisturbed near the doorframe. Glass pieces were scattered underneath piles of clothes and books. The scene looked every bit as the Commissioner had described. Staged.

     "I hope you'll excuse me momentarily. I have a brief errand to run," said Hulda. "You may investigate as you please." She gave me a withering stare paired with a forced smile.

     "I think we can manage without your assistance, Miss Hulda. You've already done so much." I flashed her a poised smile of my own. The woman's ears turned crimson. She pivoted on her heels Once she left, I spun around to Sebastian, my voice low. "Search every nook and cranny. I know the culprit didn't make a clean job of it."

     Sebastian searched. And searched and searched. Under the four-posters, inside Arwen and Astoria's armoires, inside pillow covers. I moved to the ground, carefully retrieving various artifacts from the glass littered floor when my fingers brushed gloves ones. My head jerked up. Vermillion eyes pinned mine. Warm fingers lingered against my cold ones. It was a mere whisper of a touch, and despite myself, I found myself breathing harder than normal. Like a reflex, I snatched my hand away.

     "My skittish young mistress," Sebastian whispered as he retracted his own hand.

      "Check the dust-bin," I said, struggling to gain mastery of my voice. 

     "Very well." On bended knee, Sebastian rummaged through the contents, tilting it to a side. I vaguely made out some scraps of fabric, parchment with neat, practised lettering, and a small rectangular card. No, an envelope. Sebastian pulled it out. His expression grew dark.  

     I glimpsed at the address on the envelope. "Twelfth Notthingham Street. Does that address even exist? And no sender name either. "What—"

     Sebastian flipped the letter to the other side. I froze at the black sealing wax. That symbol. A nauseating sense of panic seized me in its grip. My entire body began to shake violently. The room around me skewed. It was as if someone had pulled a rug under my feet.  

     "T-that imprint on the seal," I said, staggering into something solid.

     "Depicts a staff entwined with two snakes." Sebastian's brows slanted into two hard lines. "It appears to match . . . the same brand mark on you, young mistress."

     "It can't be," I breathed. The haunting memories poured in against my will. I clutched my cloak, succumbing to my past demons. A ring of hooded figures surrounded me; terrifying white faces and masked eyes laughing at me. Their verminous hands gripped me, ravaging me. A silent scream froze in my throat. No. Please. L-leave me alone. Don't touch me . . . In my struggle, I managed to look up. An unmoving figure, pale as birch with cerulean locks, lay sprawled on the altar . . . The figure's hair began to change colors, the cerulean tresses turning into blonde ringlets. I felt sick.

     "Lizzie!" I screamed.

     Head thrown back in menacing laughter, a cloaked figure hovered above her. Over and over, I screamed Lizzie's name, my litany blending into the cackles. Then came a voice which drowned all else. Young mistress. Beyond my outstretched hand, Lizzie's outline blurred, only to be replaced with sharp vermillion eyes.

      "It's them. T-they're behind this." Unable to choke out the word, I groped at the air, panting. "They t-took her—" 

     "Shsh." Sebastian reached for the gemstone bracelet on my hand. "Such a dainty, delicate trinket, but fashioned of a strong materials most humans would find difficult to crush." Gloved fingers slipped under Lizzie's wristlet, sliding against me. "Just like her, young mistress." His gave the wristlet a slow, forceful tug. Stinging, the pressure made my skin flushed. 

     "S-Sebastian," I breathed. "Sebastian."

     "You are exerting yourself too hard." He raised my face to his, gently cupping the sides of my chin with a single hand. "You have nothing to fear as long as I am right beside you, young mistress. Now breathe slowly. Hold it in and release." His breath tickled my earlobe. "In and release. In and release . . ." 

     Lips, fingers, legs aquiver, I leaned against him, borrowing his strength. I rode the rise and fall of his chest. Following the lilt in his rhythmic voice, I inhaled and exhaled. In and out. In and out. In and . . . An strangle prickle raced over my skin. Sebastian's fingers circled my wrist. The gloved tips had slipped into my own glove, intimately touching my bare digits. My body still shook but this time, from something other than fear.

     A frisson of heat replaced the cold. His touch felt hot. Scorching. Akin to the intensity he was staring at me with. His body tilted towards mine. He was close, closer than he needed to be. Moistening my lips, I pressed my legs together. Dark, silky locks curtained his face, framing his languid and burning eyes. Eyes that constricted and swept over me like a morsel he longed to have a taste of. Serpentine lips parted. I had seen that look before. In nightmares. In unspeakable dreams. 

      Breathless and disgusted, I spurned him away. 

     The focus in his eyes shifted. He frowned into his gloved hand, brows tensed.

     "G-give it to me," I said shakily.

     "As you wish." Preserving the seal, Sebastian deftly ripped into the envelope. An enclosed letter waited for me. Gathering my wits, I snatched it up.

     After scanning the contents, I swore. "What in blazes . . . Look at this-this gibberish!"" 

 

 

Air the radical novel house the evidence? R ealize lady of they Pick such they sure. The advocate you jams pick the mythological power a from

Lies telescope amazes a hell contained my education. Rogue dozen as hearts by garret. Have will a gay melody flooded Calculus flowers your

Chemistry seven From outside until dozen famine! Its smoked ingredient by circus preceding satin. When will theatre pretty flowers friend

Hat the by leisure. An orthodox ladybird curls the tongue.The lonely by debugger the nine  tools an opera. Friends on a break lovers seven

Enigma moon tarot the ship creepeth. An award northward the ten locked room. Else the bow full sweets despairs beside the shoppe eight

Map winter the resident advances eleven t he celestial light divide from him she'd sixth violets. They're lights, gathered. Appear dress nine 

Yin twelve air Spirit creature the our likeness face also it the signs horoscope prolific merry angelic balsams contained laud advise space ten

blank education mesmerism Greek vulgar as will hearts by garret. Renaissance determination to be no forfeited he.  Contrasted face eleven

space Depraved child cloaked light darkness neglected but supported hothouse doom midnight stars tick tock Halves of whole twelve

 

     A gloved finger along his lip, Sebastian hardened his gaze. "The missive looks a mere touch of grotesque wit or perhaps . . ."

     "Another bleeding cipher," I groaned. 

     The door burst open. Sebastian and I jerked around. The secretary stood at the entryway, shaking all over and pale as a ghost. 

      "Miss Phantomhive," she whispered. "It's happened again . . . "

     

 

 

 

Chapter Text

  

     The door burst open. I jerked around. Pale as a ghost, the secretary stood at the entryway. "It's happened again," she whispered.

     Narrowing his vision, Sebastian stuffed the letter into his overcoat. Miss Hulda whisked us into hallway. Following the sound of muffled sobs coming from the far end, we poured into one of the dormitories. I rushed inside with such haste that my feet caught on the fringes of a Persian rug. I gasped in a sharp breath. Sebastian steadied me by the waist, the full of his hand, warm and strong, spreading over my belly. In the blink of an eye, he withdrew his arm, leaving me with both feet planted firmly on the ground though my insides teetered erratically. I calmed my quickening pulse. 

     My gaze darted across the shared space. Two desks, one containing a nosegay of violets and the other, of white gardenias, faced a large window. Following the yin-yang color scheme of the rest of the room, two beds lay at opposite ends. One with rumpled sheets and pillows of dark Chantilly lace, while the other, a nary a wrinkle in sight in the pastel linens. A watercolor of Sapphos embracing her fellow poet Errina bridged the space between the four-posters. The art vaguely mirrored the two other girls in the room. Hunched over in a damask settee, a girl attired in soft peach muslin, covered her face with both hands. She looked delicate, as if a gust of wind would blow her away. The headgirl draped an arm around the frail girl. Face drained of colour, Jane Greyling held the other girl's trembling shoulder and offered words of reassurance despite her own visibly shaken state. Jane glanced up. "Miss Phantomhive . . ?"

     "Please tell us what just happened, Miss Greyling."

     "Ah, I fear Joanna—that is, Miss Harcourt has become fraught that her roommate, Miss Violet, has not returned to their dormitory since this morning. After searching the school grounds, she believes she has reason to worry after finding an, er, unfinished piece of writing on Violet's desk." Jane gestured to a mahogany desk facing a half-opened window. "It seems Violet was in midst of translating a poem from Ovid's Metamorphoses when . . . well, best to look for yourself."  I took a gander.

Iphis to Ianthe:


Equal the flame, but unequal their flare;
One filled with hope, one filled with despair.
The mind of Iphis suffers a greater grief;
Her flame fiercely burns, with no relief.
Her despair adds fuel to the fire;
Another maiden, the girl's desire.
A strange love simmers within,
Should she extinguish the feelings therein, 
Thus love-sick Iphis in her passion mourns;
With equal fervour fair Ianthe burns.

Tears followed words while Iphis spoke,
But Juno listened, and her altar shook:
The strength of Iphis suddenly grew, 
And her long, curling tresses withdrew. 
Her doe eyes narrowed and shone, 
Deep was her voice, bold was her tone. 
The reveal of latent parts soon began 
It lengthened and burnished into man. 
The fair Goddesses from above 
Descended to bless their happy love; 
The Gods of marriage showered their aid; 
And Iphis enjoyed his lovely maid  e

     "They say handwriting can reveal one's true nature," Sebastian mused as he inspected the writing. Long, florid curves and loops came with every stroke, but the words jerked up, then down, then up again, each line resembling tumultuous waves. "Though I must say your friend has a rather . . . interesting fashion of writing. Does Miss Violet write like this often?"

     "Always." Joanna gave a small, sheepish nod. "Violet was never one to write very straight."

     "I see," I murmured. "Despite the eccentricity in the handwriting, the last word written is rather jarring." I pointed to the word 'blue', which contrasted starkly from the rest of the poem. Rendered in heavy strokes, it had a knife-sharp quality, which suggested the last word was written in duress. "Is this your friend's handwriting as well?"

      The flaxen haired girl rubbed her eyes and squinted. "Yes, it is. Though it looks like she wrote it in a hurry, doesn't it?" She bit down on her delicate, pale lips. "It's strange. It feels like Violet wrote it but also didn't write it. Gracious, that sounds silly."

     "What a queer thing to write." The secretary adjusted her pince-nez. "Then again, the girl possesses some rather . . . queer habits."

     A pained expression washed over Joanna. Her head sank to her chest. Jane patted her back, her deep contralto voice turning soft. "There, there, Joanna. Even you must admit that the last word is written rather queerly. Even for Violet's standards." The girl rose and strode towards me. Her skirts brushed against my leg. She fixed me a gaze, and I retreated a step back. "Why, look at the force Violet used. Her quill indented through the next two pages! She must've been in quite a state of mind." Jane glanced in my direction again. "Don't you think so, Miss Phantomhive?"

     I didn't reply. I couldn't divulge my suspicion in front of everyone like this. Could the cloaked girl on the roof have been Violet? Though only a conjecture, I had more solid theories. The bleu ciel flowers, the word blue. Undoubtedly, the culprit was trying to get under my skin. But on the off chance, the color blue meant something else . . . My eyes flared wide. 

     I recall, very vaguely, a dark shade of blue.

     Sharp as a blade, Irene Diaz's words cut through my speculations. That night she had been caught thieving from the Queen's Jewel House . . . Despite her queer, amnesiac bout, she had remembered that minutia of a detail—the color blue. Was there a connection between that and the disappearances? Noticing Jane was awaiting my answer, I diverted her question.  "I'm not sure if that is enough evidence to assume ill fortune befell Violet. For all you know, she may have been taken by a sudden fancy and decided to resume her writing lat—"

     "No!" Everyone in the room stared at Joanna's outburst. She flashed me a look that was anything but timid. Her eyes gleamed with unshed tears, shining like the sun amidst a rainstorm. "I know Violet better than anyone here," she whispered. "She would never leave that behind."

     Brows knitting, Sebastian frowned. "Leave what behind, exactly?"

     "That . . . " Voice aquiver, she pointed to a silver ring beside a tiny vase of violets. "She never takes it off, unless she's writing. She would never abandon it on her desk like that."

     "A special momento for Violet, is it?" Sebastian's gaze drifted to a matching silver ring lying on the crumpled sheets. Joanna flushed.

     "I think it'd be best to leave Miss Harcourt alone." Hulda face's finally softened at the flaxen haired girl. "You've been through much in one morning. I'm sure Violet will turn up, dear. In the meantime, Jane, will you keep her company?" 

     The headgirl nodded solemnly. "You need not even ask, Miss Hulda." She reached into her long skirts and withdrew a pack of playing cards. "Games often stave off gloom. Care to have a match with me, Joanna?" The other girl hiccuped a tear away and nodded.

     "Good," Hulda remarked. "Now then, Allow me to escort you both out. I doubt there is much else to be gained here." The secretary's voice had grown considerably cooler. I could tell she thought of me as some foolish girl playing detective. 

       Before I spun on my haunches, Jane caught my hand. A card drifted to the ground. Her thick, sooty lashes fanned out as she peered down at me from her tall height. "I do hope we'll meet again, Miss Phantomhive." 

      "...likewise," I said, feeling somewhat self-conscious from her touch.

     At my discomfiture, I caught Sebastian's low-lidded stare. He studied me slowly before his gaze drifted to Jane. The little gesture did not go unnoticed by the headgirl. Color rising to my cheeks, I retracting my hand from hers and mumbled an adieu to Jane. I swept out of the dormitory, the shuffling of cards soon coming behind me. We made our way back to the headmaster's office. I had barely crossed the threshold of the study, when Delacourt pressed me for what I had discovered. Not wanting to divulge the cult's reemergence, I reported I had found nothing of significance to his case.

     His mustache bristled. "I bet if this was a case for the Queen, you'd put some effort into it!"

     "Need I remind you my cousin is missing."

     "Oh, I'm aware of that. In fact, I'm beginning to believe you really are that soulless."

     "Pardon?" I said coldly.

     "Seems like you don't give a damn even for your own fam—"

     "Lord Randall," said Sebastian, raising a hand, "pray do compose yourself." Delacourt's face deflated. "I assure you the young mistress cares a great deal for Miss Elizabeth's return." 

     "Very much so," I mumbled. "Else I wouldn't have bothered wasting my time here."

     The older man grunted. "Apologies for my outburst. I fear I have become rather addled with my daughter's disappearance." He looked up at me, with something imploring in his stare. The expression suited him. "Perhaps . . . you could investigate the grounds more thoroughly as a student? That is if you wish to. "I can understand if you prefer to leave matters to someone else. It may be hard to distance sentiment when investigating when one has a personal stake, especially when that someone is of the fairer sex." The glock drew his brows together. "Believe it or not, Lady Phantomhive, I am a gentleman. Guard dog or not, to involve someone of your kind in these sorts of matters is the last thing I wish. " 

      Jaw clenched, I smiled at the patronizing fool. "From my experience, I find the fairer sex can often assist in detective work in ways her masculine counterparts cannot." As if recalling the Scotland Yard fiasco from the other night, he looked away in chagrin. 

     "Let me speak plainly, Lady Phantomhive," he said at last. "I am at my wits. Your cooperation in this matter is paramount."

     "That much is evident." I heaved a sigh. "I suppose I don't have much of a choice. What's my time table?"

     Relief flooded his face. "You shall receive your schedule and dormitory arrangements shortly."

     Clearly enjoying my reluctance to attend an all-girls school, Sebastian smiled at me. A trace of amusement flickered in his eyes. "When will the young mistress begin her classes?"

     A sliver of light flashed against Delacourt's spectacles. "She has already begun them."

     The headmaster drew up a schedule of morning and evening classes—Music, Etiquette, Literature—with my occasional input of classes I preferred—Astronomy and Latin, unusual offerings for an all-girls academy in England. Miss Hulda briefly stepped out of the study and returned later with a list of assignments that were due tomorrow. I eyed the pile she handed Sebastian. Wonderful, I grumbled inwardly. Not only did I have a heap of missing girls to find but now I had the droll task of analyzing Carmilla on my plate.

     After requesting Delacourt for a copy of the students records and exchanging a few curt words concerning dormitory arrangements—I would move into a single dormitory tomorrow morning—Sebastian and I left the academy. Once outside, I grasped the arm of his sturdy black coat. "The letter in the dust-bin. Maybe we can make sense of it now."

     "Indeed." Sebastian retracted the missive from his pocket. We stared at silently for several moments until the butler gave a hum. "The idiosyncrasies of a man’s typewriter can offer profound insight."
     

     "Do you mean the R's? They are lined rather straight compared to the other letters—" Realization struck me like a wave. "Sebastian, the other missive and this . . . " The butler curved his lips. "They've been written on the same bloody typewriter."

      "It would appear so, young mistress."

      I swore under my breath and re-read the letter for the umpteenth time.

 

Air the radical novel house the evidence? Realize lady of they Pick such they sure. The advocate you jams pick the mythological power a from

Lie telescope amazes a hell contained my education. Rogue dozen as hearts by garret. Have will a gay melody flooded Calculus flowers your

Chemistry seven From outside until dozen famine! Its smoked ingredient by circus preceding satin. When will theatre pretty flowers friend

Hat the by leisure. An orthodox ladybird curls the tongue.The lonely by debugger the nine  tools an opera. Friends on a break lovers seven

Enigma moon tarot the ship creepeth. An award northward the ten locked room. Else the bow full sweets despairs beside the shoppe eight

Map winter the resident advances eleven t he celestial light divide from him she'd sixth violets. They're lights, gathered. Appear dress nine 

Yin twelve air Spirit creature the our likeness face also it the signs horoscope prolific merry angelic balsams contained laud advise space ten

blank education mesmerism Greek vulgar as will hearts by garret. Renaissance determination to be no forfeited he. Contrasted face eleven

space Depraved child cloaked light darkness neglected but supported hothouse doom midnight stars tick tock Halves of whole twelve

 

       I gave Sebastian a long, side glance.  “Strange, the need to provide a fake address rather than nothing at all. I do not believe that was a mere coincidence. If there was no name, the sender clearly wishes to remain anonymous. Why provide an address at all then? Or better yet, why not do the whole thing properly and provide a fake name to match the fake address? This singularity can only mean one thing.”

     Sebastian lowered his gaze to the address. "That the fake address—Twelfth Street, Nottingham—contains the key to unraveling this message."

     “Twelfth Street, Nottingham,” I said to myself. My eyes darted between the envelope in one hand and the nonsensical letter in the other. “Twelfth Street . . . Twelfth—” My fingers tightened around the envelope. Twelve. Could it be that simple?

     “Sebastian, a quill, quickly.”

     A glint in his eye, Sebastian handed me one. I marked up the letter, pulse hastening with each circle drawn. My chest rose sharply as the cult's message unraveled. "Bollocks!" I gripped the letter, trembling with rage.

     “So every twelfth word forms part of a hidden message.” Sebastian leaned in behind my shoulder and read the words circled in green ink.

     'Pick a dozen flowers by the full moon,

      Else the violets, the balsams will face doom.'

     "Undoubtedly, the flowers in the poem refer to the missing girls. Violets seem to refer to the most recent missing girl, while balsams. . ." My voice shook. "Are associated with the name Lizzie." I balled up my fist, a turmoil of emotions assaulting my mind. My vision went red. Unbridled rage undulated through me in waves. I refused to have the only wisp of light from my past snubbed out. 

     "We only have until the full moon to save them, Sebastian," I said coldly. "That's twelve days."

     "Yes . . . twelve." Sebastian eyed the envelope on the ground and picked it up. "What a peculiar fixation the sender has for the number twelve."

     “Don’t ask me how some rogue's mind work.”

     Sebastian parted his lips in a bare whisper. “Well, the young mistress would know.”

     I smothered a snort. "Whatever....though I do agree it is a little strange they had chosen Twelfth Street instead of Third, Fourth, or Fifth Nottingham Street as the key."

    "Perhaps the cult centers itself around the number twelve.

    "A mathematical cult?”

     Ignoring my sarcasm, Sebastian tilted his head and hummed. "I had the opportunity of witnessing the formation of Pythagorus's cult in the 6th century. Most fascinating group. Some of Pythagorous's followers had discovered the square root of 2 was irrational, which muddied up other's theories. Instead of accepting the existence of irrational numbers, they were ordered to keep it a secret. Those who dared to reveal this knowledge were killed."

    I gave him a withering look. "Are you serious?"

    "Very, my lady . . ." Sebastian trailed off, his eyes slanting. "Oh my."

     "What is it?" 

     "I fear we made a miscalculation, young mistress. The sender has left their name after all."

     "What the devil are you talking about?"

     "If you will allow me." With a long, sculpted gloved finger, Sebastian slowly trailed the end of each line until his pointer grazed my thumb. "If you take the first letter of these sentences, it spells 'alchemy'. Moreover, if you string the last word in each sentence, it reads—"
     
     "I can see it," I hissed.

 

Air the radical novel house the evidence? Realize lady of they Pick such they sure. The advocate you jams pick the mythological power a from

Lies telescope amazes a hell contained my education. Rogue dozen as hearts by garret. Have will a gay melody flooded Calculus flowers your

Chemistry seven From outside until dozen famine! Its smoked ingredient by circus preceding satin. When will theatre pretty flowers friend

Help the by leisure. An orthodox ladybird curls the tongue.The lonely by debugger the nine  tools an opera. Friends on a break lovers seven

Enigma moon tarot the ship creepeth. An award northward the ten locked room. Else the bow full sweets despairs beside the shoppe eight

Map winter the resident advances eleven t he celestial light divide from him she'd sixth violets. They're lights, gathered. Appear dress nine 

Yin twelve gems loch creature the our likeness face also it the signs horoscope prolific merry angelic balsams contained laud advise space ten

blank education mesmerism Greek vulgar as will hearts by garret. Renaissance determination to be no forfeited he.  Contrasted face eleven

space Depraved child cloaked light darkness neglected but supported hothouse doom midnight stars tick tock Halves of whole twelve

 

      Damnation. I ripped the letter and envelope to shreds. And then the shreds into shreds into shreds. How deplorable for a Phantomhive to be toyed like this. Chest heaving, I poured my anger and frustration in every move. Lids low, Sebastian watched on impassively as I did violence to the message.

     Breathing unevenly, I blinked in the icy air through burning eyes. This time, I refused to let my past repeat. I'd retrieve Lizzie by any means necessary.

     I crushed the seal under my heeled foot.

     Any means. 

Chapter Text

Cielle and I had arrived back to the manor. She had uttered not a single word throughout our return journey. Offering her my hand, I led her through the snow covered entryway.  

"Perhaps a cup of tea will alleviate your mood—"

Cielle gasped as I opened the door. Frowning, I looked away from her and to . . . oh dear. Before us, the entire manor had been decorated with violet. Violet ribbons, violet lambrequins, velvet cushions of the same colour, violet Japanese lanterns that swayed above our heads, and clusters of actual violets.

"What-what is this?" Cielle looked at me for an explanation, though I was searching for one myself. 

"It's the young mistress!"

"Mister S-Sebastian."

The three servants presented themselves, cowering.

"What," I said calmly as I could muster, "is the meaning of this?"

"Ask her," griped Bard.

I looked beyond him. A moment of deju vu took over. Irene Diaz, resplendent in a lavender muslin gown, scuttled downstairs. At the sight of Cielle and I, she clasped her hands. "There you are! I've been busy all day sprucing up the manor. Consider it as a token of my gratitude." She gave the young mistress a deep bow. "Is it to your liking?"

"It is . . . different. But I appreciate the thought." I could hear the strain in her voice as she choked the words out. I couldn't blame her. Though I never held prejudice against the colour, standing under the frilly, purple draperies made me reconsider greatly. Brows pinched, I stared at the violet confetti littering the recently cleaned carpet. This was worse than the incident with Lady Elizabeth.

Miss Diaz seemed not to notice her obtrusion. She jovially pointed upstairs. "I've also done the same for your room, Lady Phantomhive. I hope you'll like it."

"M-my room?" Cielle contorted her face into a pained smile. "You really shouldn't have, Miss Diaz."

Irene's eyes gleamed. "But I must. It is the least I can do for one who has welcomed me into their home under such circumstances. Well, don't just stand there. Do take a look." The woman shooed Cielle upstairs. "Did you know lavender is currently fashionable? I was surprised that you had few attire with that colour, so I took the liberty of adding some into your armoire."

Cielle stopped. "You . . . went through my personal belongings?"

Irene waved her hands. "Nothing like that at all. It is only us ladies, after all." Suddenly, she leaned close to the young mistress and whispered into her ear, thinking I could not hear. "I had little idea that Lady Phantomhive possessed a secret stash of pretty little things. Judging from the wear of them, I'd say a few are new purchases." She gave Cielle a conspiratorial glance. "I added a violet one to your collection."

The young mistress went scarlet.

I raised a brow. Restocking the armoire only yesterday, I had seen nothing of that sort. Perhaps, I did not know my mistress as well as I thought. I always considered she had a distaste for such articles given her unpleasant reaction to one during an investigation. Though it was no business of mine, I wondered how long she started to conceal these items. And then another thought crept my mind. When a person conceals one thing, they often conceal other things. What else was my mistress hiding?

Catching my ruminating stare, Cielle snapped her head away. Her lips trembled slightly. Goodness, she was a flustered mess.

"Miss Diaz," I said in a calm tone, "Perhaps you'd like a carriage ride for some fresh air. Preparing all of this must have been straining on someone of your delicate sensibilities."

The opera singer nodded. I quickly motioned to the three servants to take care of her. Once they had left, I turned to Cielle. She didn't look at me. There were many things I could have asked in the moment, but I decided to spare her the embarrassment and settled for the safest one. "Tea?" I inquired.

"Please," she murmured.

I gestured to the dining space where I brewed a cup of darjeeling, using leaves from the Autumn flush for a deeper flavor. I decided the mistress needed something stronger today to calm her nerves.

The mistress sat quietly in her Queen-Anne chair, watching my preparations. Her eyes fixated on the steady stream of liquid filling her favourite Royal Doulton cup. I deposited the floral glazed cup into her open hands. "Careful, young mistress. It is rather hot."

"Good," she murmured. "Maybe it'll rid me of the numb coldness inside me." She brought the teacup to her mouth and closed her eyes. A satisfied sigh escaped her lips. "It's . . . nice, Sebastian." Reluctantly, she glanced up.

I fixed her gaze, letting only a shadow of a smile touch my lips. The girl had always been stingy with compliments, especially where I was concerned. Save for obligatory ones reserved for Lady Elizabeth, Cielle rarely gave compliments to anyone—including herself. 

"It greatly pleases me to hear that, young mistress. Perhaps you'd care for a croissant while you await Madame Hopkins's arrival."

Cielle scowled at my reminder. She grabbed the pastry from the plate I set before her and pressed back into her seat until the cushioned seat swallowed her small frame. As the mistress was set to attend Imperial Academy tomorrow, it was my responsibility to see that the transition occurred as smoothly as possible. Books, parchments, and quills were purchased. Winter clothing was packed. The only thing that remained was uniforms. She loathed Madame Hopkin's visits as the woman's temperament often entailed the mistress wearing some unconventional fashion, but on short notice, she was the only seamstress who would deliver the items. 

"I'd rather borrow Elizabeth's old uniforms than be fitted by that woman," she said bitterly.

"An undoubtedly good idea, if only the young mistress was a little taller and fitted her dresses more."

"Tch." Her scowled deepened. She tore the croissant off in mouth size bits, but made no means to eat it.

"Young mistress, please stop playing with your food."

At my comment, Cielle gave a derisive laugh and rose to her full height. "Inform me when Madame Hopkins arrives." Abandoning her unfinished tea and defiled pastry, she descended upstairs to her bedroom. I discerned a slamming of a door that was likely reserved for my ears. I sighed. The girl rarely passed up an opportunity to engage in the satirical banter which had grown commonplace to us both. In fact, I often suspected she enjoyed them. Why, then, was she taking it to heart now, after all these years?  

The door-knocker sounded.

I strode to the entrance and opened the door. An amicable faced man in a common red uniform tipped his hat. "A parcel fer Lady Phantomhive," the postman said in an Irish brogue. He presented me with a package that contained the mistress's name. That handwriting . . . My eyes narrowed. I collected the package, bid the official a good day with a shilling, and closed the door. What ever could it be now? I could have opened it, but recognizing the petite, curlicue handwriting, I thought it prudent that Cielle should open it.

I made my way up the stairway, frowning at the odious purple decor wrapped around the handrails. The sooner this investigation came to a close, the better. Parcel in hand, I strode upstairs. Despite the silence which hung in the air, it did not mask the small, curious sound coming within the young mistress's quarters. I neared closer and glimpsed the door slightly ajar. I raised my hand to rap her door, then paused.

Through the crevice, I saw Cielle, face strained. One hand grasped the bed linens while the other clutched the small of her back. My eyes travelled to the flushed skin that exposed her shoulder blades. Her slender fingers toyed with the strings of a violet corset. Panting, she struggled to lace it single-handedly. I watched her bend over the four poster, trying to better angle herself. She closed her eyes and pursed her trembling lips, murmuring a soundless word under her breath.

"Might the young mistress require assistance?"

Cielle jumped at my voice. "Confound it, announce yourself, Sebastian!"

"My apologies," I said, still behind the door.

Cielle threw on a shawl and sharply addressed me, "Well, don't just stand there." I opened the door and casually strode inside, setting the parcel on the nightstand. Lids low, Cielle crossed her arms over her chest. Despite her forced indifference, I could tell was she anything but. A rosy tint stained her cheeks, and she was trying hard to slow her breathing. 

What a pretty little mess she was.

"I'll have you know," she said, not looking at me, "that I was merely putting this blasted thing on so that the fitting would consume less time. I rather not spend more time in Madame Hopkin's presence if I can help it." She pulled the shawl tighter around her, poorly concealing the strings of the unlaced corset.

My eyes traced the outline of her face. I could read her shame, her frustration, and a secret she was stifling deep within herself. I edged closer to her four poster. "Why not ask for my assistance?" 

"I don't need your assistan—"

A sharp gasp escaped her as my gloved fingers grazed her back. "Let me help you," I said in a lilting voice. I traced a finger along her spine, languidly and purposefully, until I came upon the loose corset strings. My fingers played with them, teasing a reaction out of her. I waited for a protest, a quip, a harsh reprimand. Curiously, none came.

"Bend over, young mistress," I whispered into her ear.

Cielle arched her back as I tugged at the strings. The shawl fell to the floor, soon to be forgotten. Bit by bit, I undid the corset. With a provocative slowness, my deft hands began to re-lace it. I pulled with force, then slowed into a gentle pace. Over and over, I alternated the movements. She shuddered, twisting her hands into the linens.

"Leave yourself in my hands," I murmured against her skin. I gazed at her rising and falling shoulders, the flush that spread over her creamy skin, and her trembling legs. Her lips parted and moved, whispering a soundless name like a litany. Seeing her in such a susceptible position, I could not resist tempting her into her own dissolution. My lips curved. The young mistress was like clay in my hands. I could sculpt her into a beautiful, chaotic masterpiece. I could transcend her soul. I could satiate it.

I gave the corset a sudden, rough tug, and Cielle held back a strangled sound. "My apologies."

Cielle swore at me under her labored breath. My hands lingered over the base of her spine. "Does the young mistress like this?" I whispered over her back.

"What . . . what are you saying?" 

"I think you very well know." A silky timbre coloured my chuckle. "I wonder why the young mistress has a sudden interest in collecting unmentionables. Does she enjoy putting them on?" My breath tickled her earlobe. "Or does she imagine someone else putting them on—like this?"

"Hng . . . don't be revolting," Cielle whispered breathlessly as I pulled on the strings. 

I trailed my hand along her corseted abdomen until it rested on her hip. Her breath came faster, a wondrous euphony to my ears. Her essence grew unbearably pronounced. Sweet, musky, and intoxicating, it cloyed my senses into an excruciating height of ecstasy. I shivered. How long had this seed of desire laid dormant in my years of service to Cielle? No matter. I had every intention of cultivating that seed now.

I took in Cielle's vulnerable position. Eyes clamped, back arched to its fullest, hips raised. How easy it would be to revert to the days when I was a wild demon, sampling souls without a contract. I often mused if she thought the contract protected her in some way. Did she not know the one who had given her this power could just as easily break it? The contract were a mere game to me, and like every game, what fun would it be if rules weren't followed?

"S-Sebastian," she said under her breath. I could discern her quickening pulse, the quiver of each exhale, tension mounting. The forbidden emotions within her spilled onto me like an overflowing sea. I greedily drank them, revelling in her release. Deeper and deeper, I sank under the tumultuous, churning waves until I was drowning in her essence. I ran my tongue over my lengthening fangs, my control slipping. Waves of exhilaration rose and crashed within me. A pang of feral desire seeped into my veins, teeming to my core. My gloved fingers curled around her middle with force. The sound of ripping fabric filled the air. So consumed in my tempestuous fervor, I hardly noticed my shadow growing larger until it cast its darkness upon Cielle's exposed flesh. I could have her like this.

"L-let go now, Sebastian!"

I released her, breathing hard. At once, the dark tendrils of my true form retreated. It had happened again? Regaining my control, I stepped away from her and glanced at the torn corset strings lying on the floor. I took in my slightly shaking gloved hand. The aesthetics I had always prided myself was suddenly pulling apart at the seams.

Cielle spun around, her cerulean tresses whipping me. A sheen of sweat glistened along her forehead. Her dilated eyes flashed me an acrid stare, one filled with revulsion—at me or her own reaction, I could not tell.

"Get out," she whispered. 

I gave her a deep now, using those seconds to salvage the situation. As a I rose, the distraction presented itself at once. "If my mistress desires my absence, I shall comply, of course. I only came to deliver a parcel and thought it fitting you should open it." Her eyes flashed at me, then landed on nightstand. She took in the handwriting on the tiny parcel, and her face went white as a sheet.

"Is that . . . from Lizzie?"

I brought her the parcel to her. "Only one way to be certain."

With shaking fingers, she ripped the wrapping. Inside lay cogwheels and a torn, musty parchment. "What in the devil . . ." She pulled out the silver clock gears and ran her fingers over the cogs. "I suppose things like this shouldn't come as a surprise anymore." Giving in to her frustrations, she hurled the gears to the floor, then snatched the half torn parchment. On it lay zodiac symbols, paragraphs written in allegorical text, and a queer illustration of humans engaging in what appeared to be some hermetic ritual.

Cielle ran her fingers over the torn edge which had a tiny, faint page number. "Clock gears and a page out of a book. Why on earth would Lizzie send me these?" 

"Why indeed . . . " I studied her handwriting on the wrapping Cielle had strewn on the carpet. Every word on the address was written smoothly, deliberately, so unlike the writing by Miss Violet. I lifted a brow. How curious . . . If Lady Elizabeth had indeed written this, her demeanor when writing did not reveal a hint of duress.

Cielle fixated on the torn page before her, devouring every word and symbol with her eyes. 

      VII Clavis - Cibation - After the matter in the vessels dries, wet it until a mild heat emi

       VIII Clavis- Sublimation - Extraction by distillation. Release attachments and free the soul  

      IX Clavis - Fermentation - Add the precious metal to the elixir until the dark night of the 

        X Clavis -Exaltation- Regain purity of the soul and transmute the substanc

       XI Clavis - Multiplication - The solar light shall dawn and awaken thee, raising amounts 

     XII Clavis - Projection - Behold the work of transmutation, merging of ego and Self, the prized elix
 

"It looks like some bizarre experiment," Cielle muttered to herself. "What the deuce are they up to?"

"I believe the above steps describe . . . alchemy."

"Alchemy?" Cielle exchanged a dark look with me I picked up the torn wrapping on the floor. "Go on . . ."

"Alchemy was quite popular during the 15th century, young mistress. Practitioners thought it could grant immense power to those who performed it. The alchemical process of transmutation was believed to purify, mature, and perfect the body and soul."

"You seem rather knowledgeable in this pseudoscience," Cielle said sardonically.

"Call it what you may, it has given rise to branches of science practised today. Moreover . . ." My mouth inched upwards. Serving previous contractors who partook in alchemy has supplied me a useful repertoire in the subject."

"Tch." Cielle studied the page again. "Clavis is latin for key. And the page starts with roman numeral seven, all the way to twelve." With a click of a tongue, she turned on me. Her voice rang sharp. "Sebastian, I want you to find out the name of this book. Bring me everything you can find—that's an order."

"Very good," I said, picking up the last bit of wrapping besmirching the carpet. "Is that all?"

Cielle paused in thought. "Actually . . . no." A resentful expression marred her dainty features as she stared at the torn violet strings below her feet. Slowly, she returned her gaze on me with indifference. Her face unreadable, she placed her steepled fingers under her chin. 

"I have a matter concerning Miss Diaz I want you to take care of." She kept her tones clipped, business-like as if I were suddenly nothing more than a stranger. "We want to show Irene Diaz the Phantomhive hospitality now that she's staying at the manor, don't we?" 

I frowned. "Of course, but I am not sure I foll—"

 "You'll watch over her dogs," said Cielle, without looking at me. "Since she cannot return home at the moment, you'll be responsible for feeding, walking, and cleaning them everyday until further notice. Does I make myself clear?"

"Perfectly so." Lids low, I glanced through the mistress's window. If this was her ridiculous reprisal at me, then so be it. "I shall start the task as soon as I permit our visitor inside." Just before I closed the door, I flashed Cielle a sangfroid smile.

"Madame Hopkins has arrived for you."

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 


                                                                                                  
                                                                                                   


 

The carriage halted in front of Imperial Academy. With its snow covered towers and tall, white Italianate styled turrets bedecked in frost, the building exuded an air of elegance and dominance. At the sight of the looming institution, my stomach knotted. Nerves frayed, every inch of me on edge, I felt like I had over-caffeinated myself. Perhaps demanding an extra cup of tea this morning wasn't such a prudent choice.

 "Shall we then, young mistress?"

"Do I have any other choice?" I groaned and took Sebastian's outstretched hand.

I stepped out of the carriage, meeting a blustery draft headfirst. The gale pelted snowflakes against my face. I took a lungful of biting, winter air as coldness seeped through my skin. My gaze drifted beside me. Poised as ever, Sebastian appeared ever unaffected from the elements. For a moment I envied him.

Sebastian retrieved my carpet bags and strode purposefully towards the academy. I tried to keep up with him, trudging through the snow less gracefully. Thick and unyielding, the snow sank past my ankles. When it took my foot as prisoner, I stumbled and groped for Sebastian's coat to steady myself. Before I grasped it, Sebastian had my hand in his.

"Careful, young mistress," he whispered above my ear. The sound of his lilting voice travelled along my spine as though a gloved finger had traced it. Scant inches away, Sebastian had transfixed his eyes on mine, his fingers still secured round my wrist. Only last evening were his hands elsewhere... The memory of the corset burned in my mind. A single gloved digit touched underneath my own glove. Then it crept deeper. Waves of tingles stole across my goose pimpled skin. The sensation spread through my body, tantalizing and invigorating, like the heat of brandy chasing away the cold. The tingling blazed a fiery trail, pooling lower and lower...Sebastian's eyes took on a feral glimmer. Drawing in a sharp breath, I snatched my hand away.

You mustn't succumb to the devil's intention.

"Young mistress, is everything all right? You seem... rattled."

"I'm perfectly fine," I snapped, discerning the mock concern in his tone. "Don't just stand there, you idiot."

"Apologies...shall we knock then?" A gloved hand brought down the knocker. 

My cloak billowed in the brumal wind as we waited. My eyes wandered above the archway. Tiny figurines in a white stone pediment that marked the academy's entrance. Upon closer inspection, I could make out nine clocked women—the Muses undoubtedly. The Greeks had always invoked the Muses at the beginning of their works, beseeching the goddesses for luck and assistance. Though I seldom relied on luck, I found myself silently doing the same. For her.

For Lizzie. 

Suddenly, the doors in front of us opened with a flourish. There stood the head girl, wearing her signature congenial smile.

"The headmaster told me to collect you," she said, gesturing me inside. "Do come in. Ghastly cold, isn't it?"

I fought my chattering teeth. "Quite."

The head-girl's eyes crinkled at the edges. "If there is anything at all I can do to make your stay more pleasant, just say the word." 

"Er, thank you for your hospitality, Miss Greyling."

"Please, call me Jane."

"Yes, well, Jane..." I turned to Sebastian, then awkwardly back to the head girl. "Might we have a word?"

"Not at all, please go ahead."

I waited. The older girl made no means to leave, but pretended to find something of interest in a nearby Aubusson tapestry of a winged serpent curling around Psyche. I tore my gaze away from the phantasmal image and focused it on a real life one. My lips parted and closed, then parted again. Damnation. What was wrong with me?

Sebastian sank into a bow and raised my hand to his face. His breathing, light and controlled, bristled against my knuckles. I shivered from the warmth of his expelled breaths.

"I suppose this is farewell for now, young mistress." He tilted his head, his glowing irises fixed on me. "If you require anything, I am but a stone's throw away."

"I know that." I shuffled my feet. "Don't forget your earlier assignment," I said, referring to the half torn pages Lizzie had sent yesterday. I kept my words terse since Jane was in the room. "And I expect you to write to me everyday... informing me about the progress on case, of course."

"Of course," he replied smoothly. "Is there anything else you require of me?"

My breath hitched. Once more, I could feel the heat of his gaze on my face. It seared to my core, jumbling my thoughts. But one thought, however faint, remained consistent. Don't fall in the trap. I tore my gaze from his parted lips. 

"In addition to your usual duties, I expect you'll see to Irene Diaz."

“Consider it done, young mistress. Will that be all?”

An uncomfortable silence hung in the air. Our exchange was insufficient, lacking something I could not define properly.

 “I… take care of the manor.” I could hear the strain in my voice.

“Yes, my lady," Sebastian whispered.

My lips parted once more but not a word came out. I could feel the muscles in my face growing stiff. Steady and trailing, the butler’s carnelian eyes took in my personage as though he could see right through my frivolous orders. As though he could see through my very soul. I fought the stirring within me. It almost looked like he wanted me to voice the unspeakable thoughts addling my mind. No. I would not—could not give in to them. My hands slacked at my sides. Not ever... 

“Shall we go inside then? It is getting a bit chilly, and I'd hate to see you catch a cold.” Jane's breath clouded the air between Sebastian and me like a barrier. She stepped towards the butler. “Let me spare you the trouble. I shall be more than happy help Miss Phantomhive with her carpet bags and assist her in your absence.”

Sebastian’s eyes narrowed a fraction as he watched Jane gather my belongings.

"Sebastian..." I drew out every syllable in his name, as if that would prolong his presence.

"Yes?"

"That...that will be all. You may go now."

 “Very well. Good luck, young mistress,” came his murmur before the sound of wind swallowed it up.

Jane had opened the main door again. It took all of my restraint to maintain an impassive demeanor. Putting my tumultuous emotions at bay, I forced a curt nod at Sebastian. The demon butler released his cold hand from me and took his leave. Slowly, the door creaked closed, letting only a wisp of chilly vapor inside.

"If you will kindly follow me, Miss Phantomhive," said Jane, "I shall show you to your quarters."

"Thank you."

I trailed a few feet behind Jane. An inexplicable sentiment stole over my body; it was akin feeling hollow and heavy all at once. My brows drew together. I couldn't recall the last time Sebastian had left my side for more than a day. Even during investigations, his shadow never strayed too far from mine. I shook myself and pulled the cloak tighter around me. Stop this foolishness at once. You have a crucial task to complete. I heaved a sigh. With one less distraction that I refused to name, perhaps I could better execute my duties as the Queen's watchdog. Despite myself, I chanced a glance at a nearby window. A dark silhouette vanished into the falling snow, stark and unholy against the pure white. A strange sentiment welled within my chest. A sentiment I dared to detect only in its absence. 

Focus... 

Waving away my asinine thoughts, I redirected my attention in front of me. Fleur-de-lis adorned the rose gold wallpaper, complementing the paintings of female subjects lining the hallway. Consisting of a rococo colour scheme, the paintings possessed soft, delicate colours and hues of gold. I made an attempt at conversation. “These are paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard?”

“Yes.” Jane's eyes trailed the picturesque pieces of art. “A Young Girl Reading, The Birth of Venus, The Stolen Kiss, Sherperdess, The Goddess Aurora Triumphing Over Night, and perhaps the most provocative of Fragonard’s works and my personal favorite—The Swing.”

I surveyed the colourful painting.

                                                                                       

A teenage girl in layers of lace swung exuberantly, as an old man pushed the swing behind her. Her small, dainty slipper flew through the air. Below, a young man stared up at her, as though he was looking right up her frothy pink skirts. His arm outstretched, he made a pretense of catching the frippery.

I crinkled my nose in disdain. “How quaint.”

Jane laughed. “Uncouth as it may be, do you not see the symbolism beyond it? It is a conspiracy of the two lovers whose flirtatious little game goes unnoticed by the elderly man, but not to the keen reader. As per 18th century French paintings, a woman’s bare foot symbolizes nudity. And if you look closer, you’ll see the god of love and desire in the background. I squinted. "Behold Cupid with his bow.” Jane’s eyes glistened as she took in the discreet imagery almost with a hungry look. “He watches the clandestine affair between the two lovers with an all-knowing smile and implores the viewer’s silence.”

I arched a brow. “You have quite a sharp eye to detail."

Jane tore her attention away from painting and blushed. “Since I was a child, I have always had a fascination with analyzing motifs in art and literature and….well, anything involving symbolism." She winked before resuming her pace. "You should see my artbook.”

One by one, we passed the dormitories. I eyed the numbers on the golden plates on each door. 708, 709, 710, 711, 712. "How many students attend the academy?"

"About 500, give or take. Half reside at the dormitories, which consists most of the international ladies. The other half commute from their homes which are well within the radius.” The head girl suddenly stopped in front of a tall wooden door at the end of the hallway. "Well, here we are. This one is my dorm—opposite to yours. If you ever need anything, feel free to knock. . ." She trailed off as my eyes settled on the golden name plate under the room number.

"Jane Jason Greyling?" I inquired.

Brushing a long strand of hair behind her ear, she gave me a chagrined smile. "I am constantly teased by the other girls for it. I know the middle name is an uncommon appellation for a female."

My lips twitched. "Au contraire, it is rather nice to meet one with a similar appellation. I doubt Cielle Vincent Phantomhive is any more common of a middle name.”

Jane laughed in her signature contralto voice. "I think we shall get on rather well." She shuffled her feet, and I sensed her hesitation for a moment. "I am a rather private person, but would you like to come in?"

Nodding, I watched Jane open the creaky door. I sidestepped the beautiful glass marbles littering the entry and glanced around. Immediately, I took a liking to the room. A deck of Funtom cards were arranged in triangles and stacked upon each other. Spinning tops, quoits, clockwork trains, and kaleidoscopes peeked under the bed. Small flasks and a bunsen burner stood on the windowsill. Ada Lovelace's articles on mesmerism, phrenology, and mathematics were scattered on a rosewood desk among other scientific periodicals. But nothing in the room caught my attention as the grand, antiquated chess game sitting in the corner.

Seeing my fixation with it, she inquired, "Do you play?"

"Some might say too much for my own good."

"Oh, how splendid." She seated herself on a damask settee. "I often find myself bored for lack of players. It is most bothersome that society considers chess an improper hobby for young ladies."

"I understand your sentiments entirely."

"Care for some tea?" she asked, gesturing me to sit on her four poster. "I recently received a lovely gift of Twining teas from an unlovely fellow. Have your pick - Chamomile, Darjeeling, or Lady Grey."

"Lady Grey then, please."

Her eyes crinkled. “I usually stick to Darjeeling, but I suppose I'm in the mood to experiment with something stronger...” A demure smile touching her lips, she prepared two cups of Lady Grey for us. 

My gaze drifted to the flasks perched on her windowsill. "You appear to have some intriguing pursuits other than chess."

"I am rather fond of conducting experiments. I try to keep it away from the other girls and staff by working late at night once they have fallen asleep." She sipped her tea in poise and sighed as she gazed at the beakers and flasks. "It has long been a little dream of mine to manufacture my own line of perfumes. Father hates all of it though. He wishes me to use my skills for more suitable things." Her voice grew quiet. "Things I could never be happy with."

I waited for her to go on, but she didn’t. ”Strange, isn't it?" I said. "Many parents will do anything for their children—except let them be themselves."

"You know what is even stranger, Miss Phantomhive? I cannot remember the last time I got on with someone this well. You remind me of a kindred spirit." She rose from the settee and seated herself next to me. The corners of her eyes crinkled. "I don't share this with many, but would you care to see my artbook?"

"Of course."

She retrieved a small, unassuming book under a stack of scientific periodicals. "I presume you're familiar with the works of Michealangelo and Da Vinci?"

I nodded. "I hear both artists incorporated several hidden references in their paintings." 

Her eyes brightened. "Oh, their works are riddled in symbolism. I could go on and on about them." She flipped the pages of her book until it landed on an image from the Sistine Chapel. I was well acquainted with the popular fresco—The Creation of Adam. The image of the near-touching hands of God and Adam was iconic. But the most peculiar facet of the painting was a thick outline edging the swirling cloak of God. How had I not noticed the detail before?

My eyes widened. "Is that... a brain?"

                                          

Jane looked amused. "I like to think so. Michelangelo did, after all, perform several human dissections. He incorporated anatomical elements like this throughout the Sistine Chapel. Given the Church's disdain for science, I believe he liked to depict the long-standing clash between science and religion in his art."

"Hah...the pope commissioned Michelangelo without realizing that he was thumbing his nose at the Church."

The head girl smiled. "Precisely. If you like that, wait till you see this." She flipped a flurry of pages and stopped. "Here! This one is rife with hidden symbolism."

"The Last Supper," I remarked. Arguably, the most renowned work of Da Vinci, it featured the twelve apostles, with Judas holding the emblem of his betrayal—a tell-tale bag of silver. Though I had seen replicas of the painting countless times before, I had never seen one quite like this. Yet again, Jane had drawn upon the image. Besmirching the artwork, dark inky dots blotted the hands and loaves of bread.

                                                             

                                                                 

A cryptic smile crept Jane's lips. "Care to guess?"

I studied the image, frowning. "It looks like there are five spaces horizontally that the dots are placed on."

Her smile broadened. "Go on."

"The dots themselves are not exactly circular, but rather elliptical...just like..." I stifled a breath. "Notes. They're musical notes."

Jane clapped her hands. "Very good! If you draw a staff, place the notes on it, and read it from right to left, you attain a 40 second requiem. Many consider it a mere coincidence, but perhaps they wouldn't be quick to dismiss it as much if they knew of Da Vinci's finesse as a musician and that he who wrote his notes from right to left, just like the composition. This piece is one of my favorite pieces to play on the harp."

                                               

 

"My, a symbologist, a chemist, and a talented musician too?" I smirked. "You seem just as much as a renaissance woman as Da Vinci was the renaissance man."

Jane's complexion went rosy. "You flatter me. My mind grows restless at stagnation. Preoccupying myself with these queer pursuits is my way to cope." She trailed off, her eyes lit with mirth. "Miss Phantomhive, do you dance?”

I jerked up, almost dropping the art book. "Pardon?" 

"Don't you know? The academy's masquerade ball is merely days away. It's not mandatory, but it is expected for us—especially head girls to attend. I should be greatly relieved if you were in attendance."

I avoided her gaze. "I avoid dancing like the plague if I can help it. Balls have never suited my fancy, and I tend to avoid them whenever I can. And the boys themselves, well, they do not particularly interest me either...”

A demure smile touched her lips, and she drew closer. “Then…what does interest you, Cielle?”

I blushed at her implication.

She chuckled, backing away. "I only jest. That is really too bad as I was hoping we might attend together. It would make some nice company to complain about those monstrously tight corsets and the dandies who sneak a look through young ladies' bodices." She leaned in, her weight pressing against the mattress. "I cannot bear attending by myself. Or worse . . . attending with a partner from that wretched boy's school.”

"They are in attendance?"

"Unfortunately." She gave me a withering look. "The faculty is encouraging us to be accompanied by the gentleman from Eton. Something about encouraging camaraderie between the two schools. Of course, I presume it's all for show." She waved a dismissive hand.

Her words piqued my interest. "Are there warm feelings between the schools?"

Jane let out a derisive snort. ”I doubt that. The headmistress despises her enrollment numbers. With her passionate ambition, I wouldn't put it past her to resort to any means to..." Jane’s arresting eyes flickered at me.

"To...?"

“Obtain what she wants.” Long, slender fingers covered my smaller ones in a more than friendly gesture. Her thick, sooty lashes fanned against her powdered skin. The head-girl was close, closer than she needed to be. Something inside me thrummed, but I didn't inch back. Jane's connection as head-girl could provide valuable information on the case. Moreover, her presence might rid me of the other distractions ailing my mind. 

"I feel the same," I murmured.

"Hm, about what?” Her eyes went heavy-lidded.

"Kindred spirits. I often wonder if souls kindle in some inexplicable way before the bodies meet?"

Jane laughed, the rich chirrup teasing my ears. "A thought rooted in romanticism. I did not think you a romantic.”

“I suppose it takes the right person to bring it out.” I lowered my eyes, giving her a coy smile. 

Slowly, the girl's hand drifted to my lap. She paused briefly, gauging my reaction. Don't blow your cover. I glanced up slowly to meet her eyes, hoping my lashes conveyed an invitation. Surprisingly, it took little effort on my part. A demure smile graced her flushed lips. I turned my head until I felt her warm breath ghost across my face. Yes... A sharp knock sounded.

Jane and I sprang apart. 

“Jane? Are you in there?"

The head girl swore. "I'm coming, I'm coming," she muttered, trying to gain mastery of her voice. She weaved through the path of marbles and opened the door. Two young ladies stood at the foot of the entrance. One, with loose strawberry blond curls around her chignon, while the brunette sported a headdress of velvet pansies in her coiffure. Behind them lagged a small raven haired girl with simple plaits. I had seen her before. The girl from the hothouse—Sullivan.

"May I help you?" asked Jane.

“Napkins and belt," Angelica said stiffly. She lifted her chin to cover her visible embarrassment. "For Alice. She needs them right away."

"What? No I—Oow!" The brunette’s elbow made a jab at Alice who was growing pinker than a flamingo.

Jane heaved a sigh. "No need to be flustered. It's only us ladies after all. I will send the items to your room momentarily after placing these carpetbags in Miss Phantomhive's dormitory. Oh, have you introduced yourself her? She will be starting classes today."

"Pleasure," drawled the brunette as Jane exited the room. She extended her hand. "Angelica Develigne. And this here is Alice."

My eyes twitched. Angelica Develigne. Angelica. That name… Where had I heard it before? An unpleasant jolt of realization struck me. That abomination of a manuscript I had the misfortune to read earlier...it belonged to her. If the book was any indication, I suspected her vain arrogance wasn't confined to only the pages.

"Nice to meet you," replied the strawberry blonde with a slight curtsy. "You may call me Alice."

"Likewise then, Alice."

"Since you're new and all, you ought to come riding with us," chimed Sullivan. "We are all going together this afternoon."

"Oh, I'm afraid Alice and I won't be able to," said Angelica.

“But… why not?” asked Sullivan.

"Fitting for the upcoming masquerade ball. I wouldn't be caught dead in last year's outfit. Alice is accompanying me."

Her face collapsed. "What about me?"

"I have a special task for you." Angelica smiled. "It's been days since I walked Bellismo. If you will attend to her, I shall be greatly obliged."

"I... very well." Sullivan forced a smile of her own. "I hope you find the perfect dress, Angelica."

"Same, my dear Sullivan, same.”

With that, the brunette traipsed down the corridor, Alice in tow. The small raven haired girl quietly watched them.

I raised a brow. "Save for Elizabeth you have most questionable tastes in friends, Sullivan."

"I-I don't know what you're talking about." She flitted to her own dormitory, a few rooms away.

"I think you well do." I pointed at her nail lacquer. "All three of you wear the same colour. The coating on theirs is thick and smooth whereas yours are nearly translucent." My eyes drifted inside her room as she opened the creaking door. A tiny bottle in a nearby bin contained few drops of blush pink liquid. "I presume once they finished priming themselves, they offered you the last remnants... how generous."

Sullivan bit her small, pink lips and gripped her frock. Seeing her unease, I sighed. "Since you no longer have plans with Angelica and Alice, perhaps you would escort me to the stables? I've never ridden before."

Her face slightly brightened. "I'd be more than happy to show them to you now if you are free."

"Lead the way."

'Please follow me..." She strolled into the corridor, a spring in her step, then suddenly paused. 

"Something the matter?" I asked.

She cracked a small smile. "A trifle really. That is, a library book I borrowed which is due today. Knowing myself, it shall slip my mind if I put it off, and that gigglemug of a librarian won't let me take out anything unless I've returned it. "If you don't mind, will you wait a moment?" I nodded. Smiling, she skittered back into her dorm. A simplistic Spartan room, the space contained minimal furnishings. A small bed, desk, and an overflowing bookshelf. Eyeing her impressive tomes, I came to an interesting conclusion about the book-bosomed girl.

Sullivan retrieved the book and clutched Great Expectations to her chest. A sheepish grin tugged her mouth as she closed the door. "I shall return shortly."

"Or perhaps I can meet you at the stables?"

She clasped her hands together. "That sounds perfect. I will see you there!" Waving, she scuttled off into the winding corridor until I lost sight of her. I sighed. At least, this would give me some time to investigate the stable grounds alone.

I wandered into the courtyard outside and passed the straggling rose gardens with frosty buds. A chilly draft blew against my face. Ignoring my chattering teeth, I approached the stable. Loud brays sounded inside. It seemed the horses had already sensed my presence.

Slightly out of breath, a slender young man with mussed flaxen hair and striking sea-green eyes meandered out of the stable. "So you are the cause of the commotion." His steady gaze took me in. I couldn't place it but there was something about the boy. A pang of instinct gripped me. I knew I had never seen this boy before, yet why the deuce did he seem so familiar?

The boy's brows pinched. “Can I help you miss...?"

My eyes narrowed. "Who are you?"

"Shouldn't I be asking you that?" His mouth twitched before curving into a crooked grin. "I am the caretaker of the horses, of course." He patted a chocolate speckled horse who licked his hand fondly. "You must be new here. The horses bray at all the newcomers. Do you ride?"

"Er, I'm afraid not."

“Then we ought to fix that.”

“I don't think that is such a—“

“I won’t let you fall.” His eyes, gleaming and mischievous, met mine. “New things can be scary, but from personal experience, I can tell you they're always more fun at the end.”

I lifted my nose, taking his challenge. “I’m not scared of a horse.” In three wide strides, I walked up to a beautiful, dark stallion. Sleek and fit, the creature let out a deep bray and pressed its nose against my hand. I held him by the muzzle. With my other hand, I stroked his midnight black fur. I couldn't explain it, but something about the creature calmed me.

A quizzical expression stole over the groom.

“What it is?” I asked.

“Black diamond is peculiarly picky about who his rider is. I’ve known him for years, and he gives even me a hard time.”

“Guess I must be lucky.”

The caretaker grinned. “Allow me to assist you." Before I could protest, long, slender fingers grabbed me by the waist and lifted me up. I scrambled over the stallion and clung to the reins.

“Relax your fingers,” he instructed. “You do not want to be a clothespin to your horse.”

My face blossomed with chagrin. Reluctantly, I loosened my hold on the reins.

"Better,” said the groom. “Now, don’t ram your feet into the stirrups, bend your knees slightly, and keep your upper body balanced. The key to proper riding is balance over grip.”

I followed his instruction to the letter. It took a few tries, but after several minutes, I managed to guide my horse to a light trot on the snowy path. A stark contrast to the whiteness, the black stallion was a deft rider. Taking in the sleek thoroughbred underneath me, I resisted the urge to drop the reins and stroke its luxuriant fur.

"Beautiful," came a whisper.

“He is," I replied.

The young man chuckled. ”I wasn't talking about the horse."

Heat swiped my cheeks.

He grinned. ”I meant your riding form.” 

"Of course." I lowered my eyes, not amused in the slightest. The effrontery of this cad.

The boy's eyes wandered to his horse as he ran a hand through his mussed hair. I could tell his was trying to find a subject of interest.

"You are attending the masquerade ball?"

I heaved a sigh. "Seems like that's all everyone is talking about."

"You can't blame them." A gleam of mirth flickered across his handsome features. "I'm certain it will be the event of the season, ah..."

“Cielle Phantomhive."

“Cielle." The name rolled off his tongue like velvet. "A beautiful name. Did you it means the heavens in French? ”

“So I’ve been told."

"It suits you," he murmured, meeting my uncovered eye. Unnerved, I looked away. "What an exceptional shade of blue. Why, it's the precise match to this." Slowly, the boy stuck a hand into his pocket and brandished a medallion fitted with a considerably sized midnight blue stone. "If you plan on attending the ball, I don't mind letting you borrow it."

"How generous of you." I fixated on the glimmering medallion and took in every detail I could from my distance. "Where did you procure this?"

The boy's eyes glinted. "A little known place nearby that houses some of the most unique jewels. I should think you'd enjoy visiting it."

I continued staring at the stone, barely registering his words. The stiff muscles around my eyes started droop. My vision blurred, and the stone multiplied into two. Black Diamond brayed under me, sensing my sudden imbalance.

"Alright there?"

I tore my eyes away and blinked rapidly. My fingers curled tighter around the reins. I must be exerting myself too much.

“I still haven't caught your name."

The boy's sea green dimmed slightly, though his pleasant smile was ever present.“Septimus Adouze at your service, but you can call me Sept.”

“Sept,” I repeated, halting my horse. 

“Yes?” 

Slowly, my lips curved. "Were your parents mathematicians like Fibonacci?"

A forced laugh escaped him. "Whatever do you mean?"

I smiled again and peered at him through my lashes. "Sept is French for seven..."

"Touché." The boy's eyes flashed with roguery. With a harsh yank of the reins, he prodded his horse in the opposite direction of the stables. In seconds, he sped off, leaving nothing but a blur of colour and tinkering laughter behind. 

No...he wouldn't slip away from me so easily. This time, I'd rein him in. 

"After him, go!" I gripped the reins of my own horse and pulled hard. One fierce neigh, and Black Diamond sped off like an arrow released from a bow. My long hair billowed behind me against the wind. As an inexperienced rider, I fought to keep balance. The creature didn't show any intention of slowing down; rather Black Diamond increased speed. The clopping of hooves thundered in my ears. I broke out into cold perspiration. Bit by bit, I felt myself slipping. As if the stallion sensed this, the creature bucked and kicked off on its hind legs. Rather than unseating me, the horse pushed me closer to the front. I threw my hands around its neck for support.  

Taunting laughter pierced the air. "Can't keep up? You'll have to do better than that, Lady Phantomhive."

I yanked the reins tighter, and Black Diamond galloped at a terrifying speed. At this rate, I would lose control of the horse and myself altogether. Gauging the far distance between the two horses and my erratic breathing, the logical thing was to slow down. But I didn't. Black Diamond was only a few inches from the other horse now and closed in. I seized my chance. I snagged the boy's cloak streaming behind him and held on with all the strength I could muster. The boy jerked upright, startled by the hindrance. Quickly, he slithered out of the cloak and sped onwards. 

A panting mess, I was forced to slow down the black stallion. Taking quick, shallow breaths, I watched the cad melt into the backdrop. Before he disappeared into a silver storm, a glitz of blue dropped to the snowy ground.

Black Diamond gave a loud bray.

“Cielle?”

I spun around. Atop a small, vanilla coloured pony, Sullivan trotted beside me.

Sullivan smiled. "Look at you! You ride rather well for your first time."

"I had some help from the caretaker a few minutes ago," I said in short breaths.

Sullivan reined her horse to a halt and climbed down. The girl's face turned chalk white. "I am the caretaker."

"In that case, it looks like you have an unwanted visitor."

"What did she look like?" Panic gripped Sullivan's voice. 

"He looked a few years older than us. Tall, well dressed for a caretaker; disheveled flaxen hair...sea-green eyes..." My voice trailed off.

Confound it. So that was why he seemed familiar. His appearance matched the opera singer's description of the mysterious fellow she had encountered before her strange trance-like state. So I had just come face to face with the culprit who tried to thieve from the queen's Jewel House.

Sullivan tilted her head. "Cielle?"

I shook myself. "Are you quite certain you've never seen him before?"

"Positive." Deep in thought, she paced in a small rectangle. "The academy has given me the task to see to the horses, and I've never seen a stranger like that here before."

"He wasn't a stranger, Sullivan. At least not to the horses. They didn't bray at him like they did me. In fact..." My brows furrowed. "They looked rather comfortable with him."

"What?" Sullivan flared with nerves. She stopped pacing. "We ought to report this to the headmaster, Cielle. We simply must."

"Very well. But first..." I trudged through the thick snow, feeling cold wetness trickle into my boots. A glint of blue in the white blanketed ground. I pocketed the medallion.

Sullivan frowned. "What is that?"

I retrieved the gleaming object and scrutinized it in my hands. "See for yourself."

Sullivan held it to the light and inspected it with the curiosity of a scientist. "What a pretty shade of midnight blue. Judging from the colour, the clarity, cut, and angular growth patterns inside, I'd say it's not only authentic, but quite valuable. I wonder if one of the girls dropped it while riding."

"No, it was him," I said lowly. "That boy didn't even realize it fell from his coat."

"Did he say his name?"

"Sept," I replied darkly. "Apparently it's short for Septimus Adouze."

"What a funny name," Sullivan. "Sept in French is seven while a douze translates—"

"To twelve," I whispered darkly. "It makes the full name 'seven to twelve." 

"Exactly so."

Slowly, my gaze travelled across the blue stone. Irene's voice rang sharp. I vaguely remember a shade of blue... 

My blood chilled. It couldn't be... 

"Bollocks," I hissed, staring at the medallion Sullivan handed me. The last wisp of Irene's memories had included this very stone. Even the recent disappearance of Violet seemed to overlap. Hadn't the girl scrawled 'blue' hurriedly in her unfinished poem? 

My hands shook violently. I was so close to entangling the knot...

"Cielle, is something wrong—"

 "Nothing." Everything, I whispered internally. A torrent of interconnected thoughts addled my mind: the missing girls, alchemy, the medallion, the numerical alias. I stared at the delicate charm bracelet slipping off my wrist. Hang in there Lizzie. 

 My fingers curled around the blue stone until my knuckles turned white. Bile rising in my throat, I gripped the strange medallion and held it to the winter light. My gaze pierced through it. Tilting it, turning it, I fixated on the object's smooth surface, it's deep, rich colour...it's brilliant sheen...I staggered backwards. Out of nowhere, a dizzy spell overtook me. Like a puppet cut from its strings, I collapsed to the snowy ground. 

"Cielle! Cielle, are you alright?"

Sullivan's pale face swam into focus. "I'm...I'm fine. Just a short spell." I said through shallow breaths. Damnation. Of course, I wasn't. How could I when I had met '7891011 12' in person? Like sand, he had slipped through the cracks. For the first time ever, I was stumbling.

Face knitted in concern, Sullivan heaved me upright. I allowed her to drape my arm around her shoulder.

Sometimes one must succumb to small defeats to secure a bigger victory. 

I pointed to the snowy ground. "Give me that stone, Sullivan."

She hesitated. "We should get one of the faculty to see to this."

"You will not tell anyone of this. Especially the faculty."

Before she could protest, I snatched the blue stone and stashed it into my coat with new resolve. Two could play at this game. With the medallion in my possession as leverage, I would soon give the culprit a taste of his own medicine.

 

 

Chapter Text

Sullivan looked at me like I was mad. "How can we not inform anyone of this medallion? What if it's stolen? Moreover, it might help us find out who was masquerading as caretaker!"

"Sullivan, please just do as I say," I said, closing Black Diamond's stable door. "I do not say things out of reason." 

"Are you sure you're sound of mind?" she bristled. "You truly believe it is best to do nothing."

 "To do nothing is not at all what I am suggesting. Rather the opposite..."  I debated telling her about Lizzie's disappearance and the other missing girls. No, it would rouse unwanted attention. One wrong step, and I might further endanger Lizzie from the cult. Secrecy was best in this matter, especially if I wanted to single-handedly apprehend that rogue cipher sender. 

"The situation is delicate, Sullivan." 

"What situation?" Her emerald eyes shined with fresh suspicion. "Is there... something you're not telling me? Rather odd for a student to join in the middle of the year. What is the true nature of your visit?"

I needed to put an end to her incessant questioning. I lowered my gaze at the dogmatic girl. Perhaps I was cruel to expose her like this, but it couldn't be helped. “You will tell no one of this incident, Sullivan," I said calmly. "I do not wish to extort someone of your nature. I imagine it would make your stay at Imperial Academy... unpleasant. "

"Are you blackmailing me?" She barked with laughter. "Oh this is real rich!"

"Quite the opposite, wouldn't you say?" I whispered. 

Sullivan fell silent.

"You are currently a scholarship student, are you not?” I inquired.

"I..."

My eyes travelled down her petite form. “Your uniform is well kept but faded compared to the other girls."

"So what of it?" she demanded. 

Did she really want me to continue? I sighed, admiring her false bravado.  "It means you cannot afford multiple pairs like the other girls so you wash the same one everyday. If that's not conclusive enough, we can look to your book collection. Most of the spines look worn and tattered."

Sullivan sniffed. ”Well, if you can’t enjoy reading a book over again, then it’s not a very good book is it?”

"No, but the books on the top shelf with crisp and pristine pages, have the library stamp. I suppose you brought the older books from home. You must've reread them over and over because you could not afford new reading material." A rustle came from Bellismo’s corner. I dismissed it and refocused my attention on Sullivan. I didn't need to go on. I shouldn't have gone on. But deducing Sullivan so thoroughly gave me a sense of wretched satisfaction that distracted from my frustrations. "There’s also the way you walk...”

“My walk?”

 "The gait of a man or woman can reveal much. When deep in thought, you pace a few feet to the right, straight, then come back, making a vague rectangle. It appears you do so out of habit. I wager your quarters at home was terribly smaller than the dormitories here. Were you kept in... something like a storage closet?" Sullivan's face deflated like a balloon with each deduction. I pressed on. "Considering your aptitude, it would seem the academy has taken you as a scholarship student and views you as a charitable cause. Take a poor girl with promise, fill the required quota, and assign her chores that no girl from High Society would do, like feeding and cleaning the horses... Am I mistaken?”

Her small, pink lips trembled. She squeezed her eyes shut and in pitiable whisper confirmed my deductions. “All of it... I-it's true. Without the academy… it's my only chance for my education. If the other girls knew...”

"They would treat you like an outcast."

The raven haired girl gave a feeble nod. 

"Say nothing of this matter, and I promise not to tell a soul. Else, I'm afraid you force my hand."

“Too late for that,” came a snarl.

 I jerked backwards. Damnation. 

 Angelica and Alice emerged from Bellismo's stall. They stood side by side, their faces drenched with betrayal.

“I knew you were different," said Angelica. "There was always something peculiar about you... "

"You lied to us, Sullivan," said Alice.

 “I-I didn’t, Alice. I mean you never asked if—“

 “I'm afraid you lost the privilege of calling us by our first names. You will address us as Miss Kingsley and Miss Develigne herein.” With cold indifference, Angelica stepped towards Sullivan and snatched the blue jewel from the petite girl. "Who did you thieve this from? It hardly suits a sewer rat anyway."

 A single tear streaked down Sullivan's cheek. I pressed my lips into a taut line and held out my hand, creating a barrier between Sullivan and Angelica. "Care to wager a bet?"

 "What are you on about?" Angelica snapped. 

"A game of chance," I replied, fixing her a cool stare. "We'll play with this deck." I pulled out a Funtom box of cards. "If I win, you'll leave Sullivan alone."

Her eyes glimmered at the medallion I held. "Very well. And if I win I'll inform the whole school about that little blowse and take this pretty stone." 

I scowled. "I rather publish your rubbish manuscript before giving you that medallion."

Angelica's mouth dropped. "You...read my manuscript?"

"Unfortunately," I said with a sigh. "It was only a few pages. I could not assail my mind further."

Angelica went red in the face. "I had Harold deliver it to local publishers. Never thought it'd get into your hands."

"I've decided to expand my toy company into FunTomes publishing. Though I'm questioning if that was a prudent choice after stumbling across obscenely pretentious manuscripts like yours."

 "Why...you...you bi—"

"Now, now, don't jeopardize this wonderful, possibly one in a lifetime, opportunity for yourself."

"If I win I'll divulge Sullivan's secret, get that stone, and have my manuscript published," she snapped. 

"You drive a hard bargain, Develigne... I accept."

"Cielle, what are you doing?" Sullivan regarded me with pink rimmed eyes. 

"Seeing this debacle is partly my fault, I figured I'd make amends." I murmured into her ear, "Watching Angelica carry about like this makes my moral fibre unravel a bit."

Sullivan sniffed. "I did not think you had a moral fibre. You better not lose."

"I have never lost a game." I graced Angelica and Alice with my most charming smile. "Shall we start? I'll be dealer."  I showed Angelica the rules of our game. "Here are three cards—two Queens and a Joker—that I'll place face down. Now, choose a card, but don't turn it over."

                                                     

Angelica selected the one in the middle.

"Now," I said, turning my attention to the other two face down cards. "Since I know what's under all 3 cards, I'll reveal one of the Queens." Angelica raised her brow as I flipped the card over. "And now..." I pointed to the face down card Angelica selected and the other face down card. "Clearly, one is a Queen, the other is an Joker. If the your card is the Queen, you'll get a point. We'll do this ten times. If you select more Queens than Jokers, you will be the winner." My lips slowly curved. "Moreover, you may also choose to switch to the other face down card if you wish."

Angelica smiled. "Fine. It's simply a game of 50/50. Nothing to it."

"Exactly so." The girl was already playing into my hands. Of course, I would play fairly. No cheating. I wouldn't need to resort to such elementary tactics for someone of her caliber. 

"I choose my card, of course," she said, gazing at the two face down cards.

"As you wish." I turned up her pick. A queen.

As Angelica tittered, Sullivan flashed me a nervous look.

We moved to the next round. Again, I placed the three cards face down. This time Angelica selected the one on the right. Like before, I gave her the option to go with her chosen face down card or switch with the other face down. Not surprisingly, she chose her own.

Queen again.

I lowered my eyes as Angelica and Alice balked with laughter. 

Amused, I made a show of frustration. Furrowing my brows, chewing my lip, curling and uncurling my hands. The key to a convincing performance was to make it believable. Judging from Sullivan's stricken face, I was doing the job quite nicely.

As our game progressed, Angelica's winning streak declined. "You can't win them all naturally," she said to Alice. Two more turns passed, and her composure unraveled. She grew angrier and angrier with each loss. I tightly pressed my lips together, controlling the laughter that threatened to spill from them. 

"You're doing something!" Alice accused.

"Yes, I'm merely enjoying how horribly this game has gone for your friend."

Angelica threw her cards into Sullivan's face and stood up with force. Her fists trembled at her sides.

I lazily collected the blue stoned medallion. "Looks like no one will have the ill fortune of reading that horrendous manuscript of yours."

"This isn't over. You'll have your comeuppance. Come, Alice!" Angelica practically yanked the other's girls arm as the duo fled from the game.  

When they went out of sight, I released my pent up laughter, almost forgetting Sullivan's presence.

"Cielle!"

I laughed long and hard. The last time I had done so seemed like eons ago. I wiped a tear from my eye. "Ah...that was excellent. I truly needed that. Thank you, Sullivan."

Sullivan looked disgusted. "It is unbecoming to take such pleasure in someone's loss after cheating." 

I put a hand to my chest. "It wounds me that you think of me so lowly. I did not cheat. I merely used probability." 

"You didn't?" Sullivan stared with great intensity at the cards. Her hand flew to her mouth. "You really did play fairly. Or at least...mathematically. To the mere observer's it appears to be a game of 50/50, but in actuality, the player only has 1/3 chance of winning if they don't switch their chosen card... not 1/2." Her grin broadened. "In other words, instead of a 67% chance of winning, Angelica only had 33%."

"Precisely."

"But how did you know that she'd keep her card and not switch? That could have ruined everything."

"Human psychology is a curious thing, Sullivan. Do you honestly believe that an egotistical person like Angelica, who believes she and her choices are always superior to others, would select the card I offered her over her own hand-picked card? It simply goes to show you that following logic and rationality is far preferable than following one’s blinded intuition."

"I don't know if I should be amazed or horrified of that gamble." 

"Be both," I said as we exited the courtyard through one of the four doors permitting entrance inside. Stepping on the raised floorboard, I turned to face Sullivan with a puckered smile.  "Though a part of me is sorry that my mental abilities were wasted on the likes of—"

"Cielle, look out!"

I tripped on the floorboard and collided headfirst into a tall frame.

"Are you blind?" came a stern voice.

"I didn't see where I was going, okay..." I muttered. Pushing the hair out of my face, I glanced up into the displeased face of... a faculty member. The man looked to be in his thirties, with broad shoulders and thin streaks of grey gracing his chestnut coloured hair. Sporting a light dusting of a beard, he looked passably attracted for his age.  

It took a moment to find my voice. "Sorry, professor," I blustered. "My friend and I were just heading to... " I caught Sullivan silently waving her hands at a nearby entrance. "The library." 

"The library you say?" Disdain riddled his features as he spoke. The professor removed his blue steeled spectacles, and my vision met his. Gleaming, his dark eyes held the warmth of the swirling arctic sea. For a brief instant, I felt strangely disoriented.

"Frankly, I do not mind the lie," he said crisply. "It is the insult to my intelligence that bothers me."

My cheeks must've went scarlet. 

"I suppose I'll overlook your misstep if you truly are going to the library now," he said. "Heavens knows, it might do you wonders." 

That...foul...

"Of course. Please excuse us, professor." Sullivan gave a bow to the vile professor. "It won't happen again."

Before my anger could get the best of me, Sullivan dragged me through the library entrance.

I balled up my hands. "Who the bloody hell does he think he is?" 

"Language, Cielle!" she whispered, stealing a glance over her shoulder. 

"Whom the bloody hell does he think he is?"

Sullivan smacked my arm. "You ought to be more careful here, Cielle. The professors are extremely strict. A few even believe in flogging." 

"A pity. I could think of far better ways to use a riding crop." I ambled into the library, greeted by the comforting smell of musty pages and quiet rustle of pages.

 "While we're here, perhaps we can check out a few books?" Sullivan crossed her arms and crinkled her nose. "If you are to blackmail me, it is the least you could."

Rolling my eyes, I suppose couldn't refuse the hopeless book-bosomed girl this simple request. Especially after I subjugated her to my distasteful deductions earlier.  "Fine..."

While the raven haired girl scampered into the Shakespearean aisle, I placed my bags on a desk and took my seat. My gaze drifted to a newspaper on the desk. I read the front headline.

Her Majesty's Diadem Stolen from Jewel House.

I sat up straight and skimmed the article. To complicate affairs, the Yard revealed that Irene Diaz has escaped from their custody, substantiating she is likely the culprit of this theft. The Yard has issued a warrant for her arrest and urges anyone who may have leads on the stolen diadem to come forward. 

Incompetent as ever. If only the poor lot knew I had housed the so called thief at my manor. I smirked and lowered the paper.

Between tall tomes of books, I glimpsed a librarian pacing towards the Commissioner Randall's—that is, the headmaster's secretary. An anxious look marred her features. Grabbing a random stack of books from a cart, I made my way to them, concealing my face behind the books. When I had neared enough, I disposed of the books and hid behind one of the bookcases, peeking through the shelf.

"Miss Hulda, it's happened again."

"Another missing book?"

"I'm afraid so. It's from another collection that is not in circulation. Just like before."

Hulda swore. 

"Cielle?" Sullivan whispered behind me. I jumped.

"Don't do that!'

She spied the two women from my vantage point. "Now what are you doing?"

"Eavesdropping clearly," I hissed.

"Anything good?" Sullivan crouched beside me and took in the curious scene.

"The headmaster won't be happy to hear that," Hulda murmured. "I still haven't told him about the other missing book."

The librarian looked unnerved. "You won't need to. That book... was returned today."

"What? Do you think this is some practical joke by one of the students?"

"Maybe. If they access to the key to the back room."

"What's in the back room?" I whispered to Sullivan.

"That's where they keep the books that are not in circulation. Books with objectionable content, valuable items that are irreplaceable, or old books need to be handled delicately. Some came with the old building before the headmaster refurnished it into an academy. Students aren't allowed to take such books, of course." A bitter tinge filled Sullivan's voice. "I've tried."

I returned my attention to the two women.

Hulda crossed her arms. "Well, which one has this book thief taken now?"

"See for yourself."

"This one? How peculiar..."

The two women huddled over a sheet of paper that I presumed had the title of interest.

"May I help you ladies?"

Slowly, Sullivan and I turned. A stern librarian's face hovered between ours. Blast. She regarded us through her spectacles hanging from her neck, disapproval gleaming in her eyes. 

"Just, er, looking for a book," I said lamely. 

"You don't say."

"We'd like to check these out," Sullivan said, pointing to the stack of books she had placed on a nearby cart.

The librarian eyed us with with wariness but gestured to the front desk. I gratefully accepted the half a dozen books Sullivan handed me. As the librarian stamped Sullivan's book, I eyed the key set near her wrist. Perhaps I could pocket it. One of them had to open the back room.

"Well?" The librarian had finished stacking Sullivan and caught me staring at the key set. Eyeing me with distrust, she took the keys and placed them into her pocket. Then, she motioned to me. So much for that... 

As I pushed the books towards her, I caught a fellow walking towards me, his pace brisk as though he was late for something. He balanced a tall stack of tomes which blocked his face. He brushed past me, skimming my shoulders. I flinched on reflex. My pile of books teetered dangerously along the edge of the desk and spilled upon the desk... and the floor. My eyes flashed to the horrid professor from before. He had turned behind his shoulder for a fleeting second. I could've sworn I saw a shadow of amusement tinge his lips. 

"Foolish girl!"

"We're terribly sorry," Sullivan squeaked to the librarian.

I swept down to retrieve the fallen tomes. Quickly recovering, I made my way back to the desk, eager to be out of this space. I reached for my bag when I stopped in my tracks.

"Cielle?"

I narrowed my eyes. "Someone's been through my bag."

"How can you be sure?"

"As I'm left-handed, I always leave my bag on the left side of my desk, not the right." I snatched the bag and rummaged through it. My books were out of ordered. Moreover... I pointed to an silver pencil box that was open a crack. A tiny scrap peeked out of it. Not another bloody one.

Sullivan squinted at the slip I pulled out. "What does it say?" 

"C12P666P2."

"If I didn't know better, I say it looks like a book cipher. The P likely refers to a page number, C the chapter, and the other P might reference a paragraph."

 A book cipher? I recalled the concept being introduced in a recent Sherlock Holmes story by Dr. Arthur. Could it be...? I stared hard at the slip. Whoever had written this knew me. The incident of Von Seimens played itself in my mind. Everyone in that circle most certainly knew of my admiration for Dr. Arthur's detective stories. The thought that someone at that party sending me this cipher unsettled me deeply.

Sullivan kept her voice low. "Given what occurred with Angelica and Alice moments ago, do you think they put it there?"

"Do they read?"

"Hardly."

"Then no. I do not think it was their doing." Still...Sullivan had a brought up a valid point. The scrap didn't contain the usual signature—'7891011 12' like the previous ciphers. Had whoever simply forgotten to add that...or were there multiple cipher senders involved in this?

My steeled gaze wandered across the library, skimming over book-bosomed girls and landing on the vile professor. The librarian had just finished checking out an impressive stack of books for him. Carrying it in his long, steady hands, he caught a glimpse of me over the top of the books. I jerked my head away, but not before I caught a flicker of something unbidden flit across his features. Pretending he didn't see me, he resumed his pace, heading for the exit.

"Who exactly is that?" I asked acridly.

"Judging from the stack of music theory books, he must be the new music professor," said Sullivan. "The old one quit and teaches at the rival school now."

"You don't say." 

Sullivan shrugged. "Quite a few professors left and teach at Eton now."

"Is that so?" I scowled at his shadowy silhouette leaving the library's entrance. 

Helping Sullivan carry her stack of books, I meandered through the hallway in pensive thought. When we passed the headmaster's office, Sullivan stopped in her tracks.

"We really ought to tell, Cielle."

Groaning, I peered through the thin glass of the office. The commissioner of Scotland Yard sat hunched over his desk, his face haggard. His eyes shifted restlessly, glancing at some paperwork while he ran both hands through his grey hair. He was worried. No, terrified.

"Fine," I said lowly. "Inform Headmaster Delacourt about the rogue boy but make no mention of the blue medallion."

"But why not?"

"Criminy, do you always ask these many questions?" 

"You can't solve a problem if you do not ask the right questions." Her voice wavered. "Maybe you can't answer me now... But I hope you will. You can trust me, Cielle."

"Trust?" I said with a laugh. "Others will let you down in this life. Just look at how your so called friends betrayed you, Sullivan. Promises will be broken. Lies will be told. I've learned the hard way that the only person you can truly trust is yourself...and sometimes barely that."

"Oh, Cielle..."

 "Don't poke your nose where it doesn't belong." Stepping towards her, I gazed hard at her face. "And do not ask questions that you do not want answers to."

"Tell me what's going on," she whispered.

I didn't reply.

"Does it...have something to do with your cousin?" She searched my face and then focused on Lizzie's gemstone bracelet circling my wrist. "She hasn't shown up today either...along with a few other girls."

"I-I have literature soon. I must go." 

"Cielle, wait!"

Ignoring her, I hurried to my class and heaved a long breath. Damn her observance. I didn't know how long I could dodge her incessant questions at this rate.

I was almost eager for literature to begin and provide me distraction. The distraction that did come, however, wasn't one I had in mind. We had the droll task of reading J. Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla. A tale of a beautiful female vampire who preyed on a teenage girl named Laura.

Jane sat a few desks away from me, diligently taking notes as the professor lectured. After the awkward incident that occurred in her room, Jane had said nary a word to me. I didn't particularly care.

As the professor droned on about symbolism of the piece, I made a pretense of taking notes in my notebook. In actuality, I was scribbling various ciphers of my own. If the culprit wanted to play with ciphers, fine. I'd give him a cipher of my own to toy with.

"Why Miss Phantomhive," said the professor, "you seem to be writing a novel back there."

Bollocks. I quickly flipped to a clean sheet of paper.

"Since you seem so keen about the material, perhaps you can continue reading Laura's narrative for us. Take it from chapter four please."

"Of course." I cleared my throat. "I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust. I had no distinct thought about her while such scenes lasted, but I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence... " A sick feeling gnawed at me. "This I know is paradox, but I can make no other attempt to explain the feeling..."

"Nicely emoted. Can anyone tell me what is the significance of this scene?"

Jane's hand shot up. "I think it means... while Laura has conflicting emotions for Carmilla, the narrator can’t deny her fascination and attraction towards the monster. This scene illustrates Laura's desire—and hesitance—to engage in a taboo relationship. Meanwhile the vampire seeks a physical consummation of her love and ends up falling for her victim, Laura. Carmilla implies that for them to become one, Laura must die. To drink Laura’s blood is to become one with her forever."

"Yes, exactly so. Thank you for that analysis, Miss Greyling. If you would continue, Miss Phantomhive. Same chapter, page 100." 

I swallowed a wave of nausea. "Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast... It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet over-powering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her…” I stopped reading, my breath quickening.

"Miss Phantomhive, is everything all right?"

"I...may I use the lavatory? I suddenly am feeling unwell."

"Yes, please do so. Would you like someone to escort you?"

"I'll go with her." Jane stood from her desk, a concerned expression on her face.

"No... that's alright. I can manage." I needed to get away from this class. From her. From him. 

When I made it to the lavatory, I clutched the sides of the sink and panted sharply. I despised that story of Carmilla. How Laura was sucked in by that creature's beautiful and terrible mask. How the monster pursued its prey to no end... I abhorred it all. Partly because Laura's sentiments resonated as though they were my very own. 

 


 

After visiting the dining hall for a light supper—Vienna pudding and a semolina soup— I closeted myself in my dorm. Due to my episode in literature, I did not attend the rest of my classes for the day and was forced to spend the next few hours finishing my missed assignments.

A soft knock disrupted my pluperfect conjugations for Latin. I sighed. "Come in."

Jane.

"I came to check if you are feeling better," said the head-girl. "And give you the notes on Carmilla you missed in class."

"How considerate of you," I said, veiling any sarcasm in my tone. "Yes, I am feeling much better. Would you like to take a seat?" 

"I really shouldn't." Jane's gaze drifted to my bed, and a tinge of pink suffused her cheeks. "But if you insist..." She ambled into my room, a sweet floral scent cloying behind her. To my surprise she seated herself on my four poster and crossed her long, shapely leg over the other, beckoning me. "Since you weren't feeling well, I took the liberty of collecting your mail," she said. "A letter from your estate. I thought I'd personally see to its delivery."

"Thank you, Miss Greyling."

"Jane," she corrected as I sat down beside her.

"Jane."

"Better." She leaned in and deposited a crispy, cream coloured envelope on my lap. "How goes the case?"

"Found some points of interest, but nothing conclusive," I replied vaguely. 

Her lashes fluttered. "I wonder if Carmilla abducted those poor missing girls."

"Pardon?"

"I hope this doesn't sound too forward of me," she started. "But you seem like you really hated that story in literature." She laughed. "Why, It's almost as if you met Carmilla in person."

I furrowed my brows at the envelope. "I've met worse than Carmilla."

"Have you now?" Her pupils dilated, she eyed the smooth, elaborate penmanship on the paper. "Who is it from?" 

"...My butler."

"I see," Jane whispered. Her eyes darkened at the blue postage stamp of Queen Victoria. She looked like she regretted the gesture of collecting my mail. As the uncomfortable silence lengthened, I found a means of changing the subject. I stared at the hem of her skirt.

"You've a stain there."

She sighed, the moment passing. "From one of my experiments, no doubt."

"And that?" I pointed to her inner forearm which had a small, purplish bruise I had not noticed before.

"Also from my experiments. It is not the first time a bunsen burner has done me in." She rose from the four poster. "Well, I best continue on before they make us turn off our lights." 

I forced a smile. "I have no doubt you'll conjure up a perfume that's one of a kind."

The head-girl brought a finger to her lips and winked. 

I took some relief when the door closed behind her. I stared at the familiar signature on the letter, my saliva thickening. Just open it already it. My fingers ripped into the envelope, and I scanned the missive.

To my young mistress,

I trust your first day has gone without too much trouble. As per your instructions, I have investigated the rival academy. The headmistress seems consumed in her preparations of the masquerade ball that is days away. She is intent on making this an eventful occasion. It may interest you that she used to be in the gemstone business prior starting her school and has an impressive personal collection of gems. She pays the faculty quite handsomely as well, though I believe it may be a ploy to recruit faculty from Imperial Academy. It is as Commissioner Randall implied, she seems to have personal agenda against him. Perhaps it is something from their childhood as I've discovered her last name prior marriage was Delacourt. The records suggest the headmaster of Imperial Academy and headmistress of Eton are siblings.

My eyes widened. The commissioner conveniently forgot to mention that detail. Was there that much bad blood between them now? So much so that the headmistress would be involved in the kidnapping of Isabella Delacourt, her own niece? Madame Red's wild eyes flitted in my mind. That night in the alley...a knife in hand... She had attempted to attack her own niece, hadn't she?

Somberly, I read on as he listed the mundane errands he had completed pertaining to Funtoms, Mr. Noble, and the estate. My fingers tightened on the parchment. I searched in between the lines for a single drop of emotion. I failed to find it. Each sentence was written with professional indifference. Of course. What were you expecting—? My heart thumped as the letter neared its end.

"...otherwise, the manor has been dull without the young mistress. It is with reluctance that I admit that I was a touch vexed when I left you at the academy. I ask your forgiveness in the light of recent events, especially if I have given you any displeasure. I do not wish for you to see the form that speaks badly of my reputation. Until the day truth becomes lies, I devote my entire being to please my mistress. I should very much look forward to your presence soon and regaining your favour."

Yours,

Sebastian.

Something stirred deep within me. That feeling that was equal parts exhilaration and abhorrence which Laura spoke of. His words struck some chord within me that resounded beautifully for a fleeting moment before transforming into a harsh tritone. How easy it was to be swept away by beguiling words like sweet poison. He would do anything for me, and yet he would be my demise. Even more problematic was the fact that he was...different these days. At first, I attributed to a figment of my imagination, but I knew better. I was no simpleton. Bits and pieces of his demonic nature were seeping through the cracks. Hellfire eyes and the image of a ripped corset made me shudder. How long would it be before that carefully crafted mask cracked altogether?

Despite this troubling knowledge, I devoured those few lines he had written over and over, as though I would find something anew in them. And when I held up the envelope again, my foolish mind thought it found that something. The blue postage stamp was affixed on envelope at the top right corner with a peculiar tilt. I was no stranger to postage code. In private affairs, a sender could use stamps to encode messages to the receiver. My cheeks burned. This mode of communication was particularly rampant among clandestine lovers.


                                                         

This particular stamp relayed, I am longing to see you.

He had done this on purpose. He wanted to drive me mad. To tease me, to tempt me, to make me react. He knew that I'd either chalk out this gesture to be nothing at all. Or everything. 

"Damn demon," I whispered. Like a moth to flame, I trailed the florid signature with my finger. I brought it to my trembling lips and repeated that cursed name like a litany. "Sebastian..."

Control your heart, whispered a treacherous voice in my mind. 

I swallowed the lump in my throat and drew in a sharp breath. I couldn't allow sentiment to cloud my reply. No, that's exactly what he would have wanted. 

Sebastian,

Asking my forgiveness for such matters is unnecessary and a moot point. We both know you've given me much displeasure since the moment I've met you, but I've grown quite used to it by now. I confess I am curious about that last bit—how exactly do you intend to regain my favour?

My first day at the academy has been... interesting to say the least. Wagers, spying, blackmail, racing stallions, encountering 7891011-12 in person, and reading Carmilla are all in a day's work. You've reported some intriguing information on the case, though I'm afraid we're missing the bigger, more tangible pieces. Like the ripped pages of alchemy Lizzie had supposedly sent. Keep at it. Speaking of gems, I trust Miss Diaz has not left the manor. The same multi-stoned diadem she attempted to thief that night has gone missing. Investigate that in addition to your other duties."

That would do. The tone was casual, business-like. And utterly lacking. A restlessness came over me. Reluctantly, I unfurled the letter I had just written. Against my better judgement, I added one more line.

In other news, I rather confess I am missing teatime at the manor. The sweets here are none like yours—Cielle."

Before I could have a change of heart, I stashed the letter inside the envelope, placed the stamp at the same angle as his, and delivered it the mailing room that was seen to each morning.

By now, night had come down, and Hulda started making her rounds, ensuring all lights were out. When her footsteps sounded past my door, I paused my writing and waited an extra twenty minutes for good measure before putting my plan into action. While I waited, I finished my cipher and strategically placed the scrap of parchment in the crevice of my door.

With the blue medallion in my possession, I was certain that the mysterious boy would return for it and do a thorough search of the place. Sooner or later, he'd stumble upon my pigpen cipher. I had already placed one in the lavatory, one in the courtyard, the library, and other places I had visited today. The cipher stated:

  

      - 

Used by freemasons in the 18th century, the tic-tac-toe-like cipher was a geometric simple substitution cipher. Letters were exchanged for symbols which formed fragments of a grid. Any serious cipherist worth their salt would know of it, yet it was uncommon enough that if anyone else noticed the paper, it would simply look like some innocuous school girl game.

I used the same code the freemasons used to encrypt the code:

                                              

When decoded, my message simply read: I have the stone. Let us meet—CP.  

Somewhere an old clock chimed twelve times, heralding the witching hour. Lamp in hand, I crept out of my dorm, pushing the door centimeter by centimeter to avoid loud creaks. A dim light emerged from Jane's room. It appeared she had stuffed the crevice of the door with clothing, but a silver of candlelight had escaped. Faint tinkering sounded behind the door, and I caught a sweet floral fragrance and a subtle burning scent that often accompanied bunsen burners. Jane must have been up to her so called unladylike pursuits of fragrance making.

I returned my attention in to the quiet hallway. The flickering candelabras provided me sufficient light to wander. Cloaked in the shadows, I stayed close to the walls, walking in tune with my shadow. With each room I passed, I discerned light snores, pages flipped in secrecy, soft giggles and telltale whisperings followed by the creaking of bed springs.

Taking the short cut to the library, I used the outside pathway. Though the night air chilled me to the core, I wouldn't run into any faculty on nightly rounds by this route. Despite the snow that had recently fallen, the night skies showed bright clusters of stars that hung like fruit on a tree. I passed through the frostbitten rose garden, and my ears pricked up. Was that a crack of a twig? I whirled around and narrowed my eyes. Snow covered trees bent together in a wind as though whispering secrets, but all else was still. 

Shivering, I continued through the courtyard and slipped into the hallway that led to the library. Adjusting my cloak so that it covered my head, I furtively crept through the library's main entrance. Save for the small sphere of illumination from my lamp, darkness claimed the space. It was strange being here. I had never stepped foot inside an empty library when the rest of the world had fallen fast asleep. When books became the rightful owners of the library and bibliophiles felt like trespassers. I raised my lamp in front of my face, the glow bathing tomes upon tomes in a flickering light.

I followed the light in front of me as it led me to the back room. Raising the lamp, I turned and twisted the door knob with my other. Of course. Locked.

Stealing a glance over my shoulder, I fished a bobby pin out of my tresses. Nimbly, I bent the pin to a 90 degree angle and then twisted it into the lock. It took a few tries before I heard a click. Never underestimate the power of a good accessory. Satisfied, I cast aside the dented pin and pushed the creaky door open. 

Moonlight from the small diamond paned windows spilled upon hundreds and hundreds of prized, archaic books. I groaned. Locating the right book would be like finding a needle in mountain of a haystack. I scavenged through spines with flaking gold letters, old newspapers in Cyrillic, atlases of vanished countries, and Bengali poetry books with delicate rosettes. A sweet earthy smell billowed from the archaic pages, and I coughed. Half an hour went by like this, and I still found nothing of interest.

"For Pete's sake." I unceremoniously shoved a signed first edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray back into the shelf. Rubbing my temples, I recalled the cipher from memory. C12P666P2.

The only information that I gleaned from it was that I was looking for a thick book—one that had at least 666 pages. As I scrutinized the page number I frowned. That's odd. What was the need of including a chapter number if one already had the page number? Unless...C12 didn't refer to a chapter. 

I raised the lamp against a bookshelf. At the very top, the number '5' was etched into the wood. I surveyed the nearby bookcases. All of them were all numbered. My heart skipped a beat. If C12 referred to 'Column 12', then I might stand a chance of finding that book. I located the column with '12' and skimmed the shelves. My eyes wandered along the length of the bookcase and stilled. Only one book looked thick enough to fit the bill. The book in question lay an inch forward than the surrounding books. It was almost as if someone wanted to make certain I'd pick it up.

I stretched my arm. Blast, the book was too high. The culprit was mocking me dearly.

Glad no one else could see my pitiable display, I jumped into the air. Missing my mark, I jumped again and grabbed the book, then blundered to the floor. I swore under my breath. Irately, I stared at the filigreed book in my hand. It was heavy and thick, though the vellum binding felt delicate and soft. I traced my hand along the emerald cover, taking in the gilded hermetic illustrations and spidery gothic styled title—The Mirror of Alchemy. A sliver  of moonlight spilled upon the author's name. I blinked hard, my hands freezing in place. No... it couldn't be.

Baselius Phantomhivus?

The latinised name stared back at me. My surname. I took a strangled breath, the question burning in my mind.  

Was one of the Phantomhive descendants. . . an alchemist?


  

 

Chapter Text

I flipped through the musty pages slowly, as though they might crumble in dust. My eyes scanned the alchemical text. So the book's author, Basel Phantomhive, had practiced alchemy. I vaguely recalled Aunt Francis once mention how her great-great grandmother was rumoured to be a prodigy chemist in her day. If alchemy provided the framework of modern chemistry, perhaps the connection could be made. Maybe the descendant in question had gained knowledge that was passed down the Phantomhive lineage as alchemy evolved into chemistry. The notion seemed utterly absurd, yet I couldn't dismiss it. This couldn't be a mere coincidence... Phantomhive was an uncommon name after all.

"Damn it," I whispered under my breath.

Hoping to put some order to my reeling thoughts, I flipped to page 666 encoded in the cipher. From the long, arduous Latin lessons under Sebastian's tutelage, I knew Clavis 1 translated to the 'first key'. Titled "The Twelve Keys", the page contained a continuation of Basel Phantomhive's twelve keys. Each 'key' started with a zodiac symbol, but that wasn't the most curious bit of it all. Half the page was ripped.

  VII Clavis - Cibation - After the matter in the vessels dries, wet it until a mild heat emi

  VIII Clavis- Sublimation - Extraction by distillation. Release attachments and free the soul  

  IX Clavis - Fermentation - Add the precious metal to the elixir until the dark night 

  X Clavis -Exaltation- Regain purity of the soul and transmute the substanc

  XI Clavis - Multiplication - The solar light shall dawn and awaken thee, raising amounts 

  XII Clavis - Projection - Behold the work of transmutation, merging of ego and Self, the prized elix


Instinct gripped me at once. I reached into my pockets, and with a shaking hand, retrieved the jagged edged page Lizzie had sent in the parcel earlier. I flattened out the wrinkles and pieced the torn page into the book. It fit perfectly like a jigsaw puzzle.  

I read the sentences now.

 VII Clavis - Cibation - After the matter in the vessels dries, wet it until a mild heat emits and mix it with the salt of the philosophers.

 VIII Clavis- Sublimation - Extraction by distillation. Release attachments and free the soul into the night. 

  IX Clavis - Fermentation - Add the precious metal to the elixir until the dark night returns the reconverted soul to the body.

  X Clavis -Exaltation- Regain purity of the soul and transmute the substance using the heat of Venus. 

  XI Clavis - Multiplication - The solar light shall dawn and awaken thee, raising amounts of the precious liquid until soul and body are united. 

 XII Clavis - Projection - Behold the work of transmutation, merged are the ego and Self, and the prized elixir is created.  

 

The 12 keys described here clearly referred to traditional alchemy...Calcination, dissolution, separation, conjunction, putrefaction, congelation, cibation, sublimation, fermentation, exaltation, multiplication, and projection. As I read the twelve steps which spoke about transmutating the soul, I gathered the text spoke of a spiritual alchemy as well. As I turned the next few pages, I saw that each of the twelve steps was elaborated into a paragraph with distinct alchemical drawings. 

                                                                                   

                                                                                  

                                                                                  

 "What on earth...?" I said breathlessly. 

A foreign language of symbols assailed me. Clavis I featured a King on the left, holding up three fingers, a Queen on the right, holding a stem with three flowers, and a peacock feather fan. In the front was a creature that looked like a dog or wolf jumping over a triangular crucible and an old man with a scythe and crippled leg. The second key was no less baffling. A winged Mercury held a caduceus in each hand and stood between two men in a sword fight. Approaching from the left was a man with a serpent twined sword, while from the right featured another man with a sword, upon which a bird had perched itself. In the background, the Sun hovered at the left and the and Moon to the right. I knew it was pointless, but I looked to Clavis III, the third key, hoping to glean some clarity. To my disappointment, the image had even more perplexing imagery. A winged dragon stood amidst a backdrop of high mountains. Behind the dragon, was a wolf-like creature holding a bird in its mouth while being attacked by the cockerel riding on its back.

Damnation, what did it all mean? I felt like I was slipping on black ice. Spinning out of control. What a pitiable display for a Phantomhive.

A part of me wanted to call on him, but my ego wouldn't let me dare. I closed my eyes, my mind conjuring a phantasmagoria of dark tendrils. I could hear his voice, a serpent's hiss, as if he stood a mere foot away. His gloved finger tilted my chin up until I saw eyes glowing with equal parts amusement and disappointment. "What is it?" he whispered, his tongue a scarlet snake. "What?"

I drew in a sharp breath. Break it down to something simpler.

Alchemy was nothing but chemistry mixed in with discrete symbols, I reasoned. I took a crack at the first key. The King and Queen juxtaposed the sun and moon. I considered the chemical elements, one by one, trying to find a suitable match.. The King and sun evoked a brilliant color of nobility—like gold. Perhaps . . . the King and sun symbolised gold while the Queen and moon signified silver? I studied the King who held up three fingers next to the Queen’s three flowers. It was a stretch, but maybe it described some chemical step that had to be repeated three times. Honestly, I felt like I was grappling with straws. Maybe Sullivan or Jane could elucidate some of the chemistry and symbolism.

Near the margin of each step was not only the small image of a zodiac symbol, but also a small crystalline structure of some sort. How peculiar. The first key had a brownish red solid, then a purple solid for the second, a clear one for the third key, a deep green for the next, then a milky white stone, followed by crimson, etc. The hairs on my neck prickled.

"It can't be..." The connection whipped me in the face. Irene Diaz...  the multi-stoned diadem found in her possession described all of these colors: a garnet, amethyst, diamond, emerald, a pearl, ruby, carnelian, sapphire, opal, topaz, and zircon. That meant someone had used the opera singer to procure these 'ingredients' - albeit unsuccessfully. As to why they had thieved from Her Majesty's Jewel House, I surmised they sought after the highly desirable cut, color, and clarity that royal gems could offer. 

Any if there were twelve steps and twelve stones...My stomach curdled. Twelve girls will go missing.

"Not if I can help it," I hissed under my breath.

I continued skimming the page. "The 12 keys must be performed when Selene visits the earth on Winter Solstice." Tch. Alchemists... why couldn't they write in the Queen's English?"

I knew well enough one could never take alchemical texts at face value. Everything was cloaked in symbolism and metaphors. From Greek classics, I recalled Selene, the moon goddess who  'visited' the earth during full moons to consort with her beloved prince Endymion. Despite the romantic story, a sinking feeling settled in my stomach. The full moon that occurred on Winter Solstice was mere days away—Christmas to be precise.

I swallowed hard. The hourglass of time stood imperiously before me, the grains of sand slipping faster than quicksand. I needed to save Lizzie and the other girls before the full moon.

I tried to decipher more about the ritual for the twelve keys. The very last line on the page read "For every action there is an equal and opp—" The rest of the sentence was discolored by dried liquid, but being familiar with basic scientific principles, I surmised the complete statement read "for every reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction." How does that help? 

I flipped the next dozen pages but could find nothing more on the twelve keys. With nearly 1000 pages describing other alchemical experiments, I wouldn't even attempt the dreadfully dull task of reading them all. It would be like drawing nectar through a sieve. A smirk touched my lips. Unless... I'd delegate that legwork to him. 

A gut-wrenching sob pierced the air. "What on earth...?"

I shoved the book into my cloak and escaped like a marauder into the shadows. I stayed close to the walls and followed the trill of voices outside the library. As I neared closer, I heard an explosive exchange.

"H-how dare you—" 

"It's not what it looks like," cried a voice. 

My brows furrowed. Jane Greyling and Miss Hulda. 

"Then what does it look like, Miss Greyling?" Her voice cut the air like a knife.

"I...I can explain."

"Save it for the headmaster tomorrow morning. I'm quite curious to hear what story you'll concoct."

"No... don't." Her voice rose an octave. "I beg you, please, please, do not tell him." I could hear fear coat her usually dulcet tones. "I-I apologize for my transgressions." 

"Hah! No use in apologizing after being caught like a wagtail. I'd wager these trysts have been recurring... well not anymore! If those two students hadn't spotted that disheveled young man sneaking out of your dormitory, you might not be facing expulsion."

Jane hiccuped a tear and fell silent. 

"What distasteful behavior, especially for a headgirl. If I were you, I'd start packing tonight."

"It was only a boy from Eton." Jane's voice trembled. "He's asked me to the academy ball."

A sharp, hysterical laugh escaped Hulda. "Miss Greyling, attending the ball is the least of your problems. Consider yourself fortunate if you are still attending the academy tomorrow."

"I'm s-sorry." She swallowed her tears. "Truly, I am."

"So am I. This is out of my hand. Foolish girl, what were you thinking?"

The footsteps grew louder. Bollocks. I blew out the flame in my lamp, and the hall plunged into darkness. I hid behind a long drape that matched the colour of my cloak. The duo arrived into the hall. Closer and closer they walked toward me. Still as a stone, I held my breath as they neared me, a mere foot away from my hiding spot. When the clatter of footsteps tapered, I breathed out in relief. They were nearly out of the hall now.

My hands went slack at my sides, and I felt something slip from my wrist. A cling resounded as Lizzie's bracelet hit the marble floor. 

I mentally swore.

Hulda whirled around. "What the dickens is that?"

The din of heels increased their pace. I braced myself as the curtains were drawn with a flourish. Face shadowed by the glow of a candlelight, Hulda glowered at me. I quickly made myself appear catatonic, imitating how I had found Irene Diaz during the thievery incident. 

"What is the meaning of this?" Hulda shouted, the veins in her neck rising.

With my eyes heavy-lidded, head slightly lolling to the side, and vacant expression, I gave no answer.

"Miss Phantomive!" 

When I still didn't answer and continued my blank stare, the woman shook me by the shoulders.

I blinked rapidly and gasped as I took in my surroundings. Feigning disorientation, I caught my head. "What...what am I doing?"

"That's what I'd like to know," she demanded, arms crossed.

"Oh dear, I fear it's happened again. I'm, er, am prone to somnambulism."

"You sleep-walk?" she said with incredulity. I thought she would berate me when instead came a exasperated sigh. "Oh bother, my nerves cannot handle anymore of these midnight escapades. Follow me back to the dormitories. Both of you."

I suppose my whatever shenanigans Hulda thought I was up to paled in comparison to Jane's scandalous rendezvous. If Jane hadn't been caught, I might've gotten the cane. The headgirl eyed me as I snatched Lizzie's bracelet off the ground. Jane's tear-stained face was as pale as wax, her long tresses in tangles as though she had just risen from bed. She purposely avoided looking in my direction as Hulda shepherded us back to the dormitories. 

Intrigue burbled within me to discover who Jane's paramour was. I confess I had expected him to be a her. Replaying my earlier encounter with the head-girl, I felt my face redden. Perhaps... Jane's tastes were not gender specific. Judging from how Jane refused to look my way, I wager she wouldn't give much away. But Miss Hulda has mentioned two other girls spotted the boy... I made a mental note to question them tomorrow. If an Eton boy could discretely enter the academy, then perhaps it wasn't that difficult for that fake stable boy, i.e. Mr. 7-8-9-10-11-12, to leave and enter as he pleased.

Hulda stopped in front of Jane's dorm and intently watched her enter. Then she pointed to my dormitory. "Well off you go Phantomhive."

I swallowed. My pigpen cipher under the crevice was still there. Please don't notice, please don't notice.

"Well?" Hulda eyed me sharply. "Aren't you going to pick that up?" 

 I reluctantly grabbed the scrap.

"Give that here." Pulse quickening, I handed it to her while thinking of a dozen poor explanations as to why it was there. To my amazement, Hulda simply ran a glance over it and gave it back, her face dismissive. "Throw it in the dust-bin. I won't stand for untidy students mucking up the dormitories I work so hard to maintain."

"Of course," I said with a saccharine smile.

Eager to be out of her presence, I closed the door behind me and inhaled a deep breath. When I stared at the slightly crumpled scrap in my hand, I blinked. This wasn't my pigpen cipher.

A rush of satisfaction flooded through me. For a brief moment, I felt like I held the reigns once more. So the mystery mastermind had taken my cipher. If they hadn't decoded it yet, they would soon enough. With the knowledge that I had the blue medallion stone in my possession, they would surely agree to my request of meeting in person. When I stared at the scrap left in the door, my confidence dwindled.

In return the cipherist had left me... nothing. Literally nothing. No symbols, no cipher, not even a measly line. It was simply a blank scrap of paper. Bewildered, I flipped it back and forth, squinting hard. I almost threw it in the aforementioned dust-bin when, in the far corner of the page, I saw three distinct letters. Handwritten in a size so small, they were barely visible. I squinted harder until my eyes hurt from exertion.

C.V.P. 

"Blast..." Those initials. Cielle Vincent Phantomhive. 

Was the dratted cipherist mocking me? I couldn't see the point in leaving a blank scrap with my initials. No... I gritted my teeth. This was part of the game. Like diamond cut diamond, I found myself sparing with someone of formidable wit, deviousness, and one who equally enjoyed playing games. I was supposed to receive this cipher. I was supposed to solve it. And I was supposed to follow this breadcrumb to Lizzie.

 I licked my lips and stared at the utterly blank slip. The only question was how.