Words, Strings and Butterfly Wings
Chapter 8: The Very Long Night
After Tanaka had reassured her that she must have dreamed about hearing a loud crashing sound, Lizzie got back into bed, nestling gratefully under the covers that were still toasty-warm. She had almost drifted back into sleep again when she heard a knock at her door, and a moment later heard it opening. She quickly sat up just as Sebastian came in, with a candelabra in hand and his brow creased with concern instead of his usual placid smile. "Lady Elizabeth? I deeply apologize for disturbing you..."
"Sebastian, you're back! Then is Ciel back as well?" she said excitedly as she started to get out of bed—and then froze for just a moment, as realization turned her excitement into growing apprehension. Ciel wouldn't have her woken up in the middle of the night just to tell her he'd returned home; something must be dreadfully wrong!
"Yes, my lady; we've just returned. And unfortunately, we must ask a great favor of you..."
Sitting at the desk in his study with the phone receiver pressed to his ear, Ciel found himself starting to yawn, and bit it off violently. Agents of Her Royal Majesty simply did not yawn like sleepy toddlers while on the telephone! But he'd been awake for over eighteen hours, judging by the clock on the mantle, and that had included several hours of vigorously practicing his circus routine before they'd finally gotten the break they needed in this case, and gone hunting for Baron Kelvin and the kidnapping victims. But he had to put the delightful idea of going to sleep in his own oh-so-comfortable bed off for a few hours more; there was so much that needed to be done before he could rest...
It took over a dozen rings for the telephone to be picked up on the other end of the line at Buckingham Palace, and it was all Ciel could do to not snap at the man who finally answered it. For heaven's sake, didn't Her Majesty employ someone to mind that line around the clock?! This was supposed to be a private line that went straight to Double Charles, the Queen's own butlers; no one would dare use the line for trivial matters like invitations to ribbon-cutting ceremonies!
He tried to be civil, but the lateness of the hour and his irritation at being kept waiting so long made it rather more terse than polite. "This is the Watchdog. Please inform Her Majesty that the Pied Piper is dead, and most of his known minions either dead or captured. Regrettably, a few of the Piper's kidnapping victims were killed before their rescue, but the rest were found alive... and there were three times as many victims than were listed as likely 'Pied Piper' kidnappings in the police reports."
"Th-three times as many?" gasped the butler on the other end of the line—clearly not either Charles Grey or Charles Phipps, who would not be so rattled at the news. Ordinarily Ciel would have wondered why they had left some under-butler to answer their line and where they had gone to, but this was not an ordinary night.
"Yes; a total of eighty-seven children were pulled out alive before their prison was burned down with their captors inside it. But most of these children are in a deplorable state, more dead than alive, and it's doubtful that many of them will recover completely from their ordeal. Still, all 87 children are currently at Phantomhive Manor, and we'll try our best to keep them alive, warm and fed until other agents of Her Majesty can come to collect them... but please arrange for that as soon as possible." And then he hung up while the sputtering fool on the other end was still trying to decide what questions to ask; he was in absolutely no mood for dithering, not when there was so much left to do tonight.
As he left the study, Lizzie came running up to him wearing a robe over her nightgown and a worried expression. "Ciel! Sebastian told me you just freed dozens of children from a vile captivity and brought them here, and now you need to bathe and clothe some of them!"
"That's right. I'm truly sorry to ask it of you, but we need to borrow any clothes you can spare," Ciel told her as he led her down the hallway, towards the stairs.
"I told Sebastian to just take everything but the clothes I'm wearing now," Lizzie said as they stepped out onto the grand staircase—and then she stopped in her tracks and gasped with dismay at the scene spread out before them in the great hall below; rows upon rows of children sitting or lying on the floor, with Finny carefully setting down another one in the seventh row before dashing outside for more.
After descending the staircase, Ciel faced the first row of children, all of them wearing servants' clothes; Sebastian and Finny were separating out ragged from decently clothed children as they were brought inside and sat down. They were all staring blankly at him, with sunken eyes and hollow cheeks from continual lack of sufficient or sufficiently nutritious food; their expressions unchanged from how the children had all looked back at Baron Kelvin's manor, despite their circumstances being different now. He heaved a great sigh, feeling the press of duty bearing down on his thin shoulders, before he started at the head of the row and walked a few paces, tapping heads as he went. "One, two, three, four. You four that I just tapped, on your feet and follow me; bring the blankets you were given."
The four boys he'd tapped rose obediently if sluggishly to their feet, and once they were all standing, Ciel gestured for them to follow him upstairs. He climbed the stairs at a slow pace, glancing repeatedly behind him to be sure none of the boys were lagging behind, or stumbling and falling to their deaths; the sight of that boy splattered at the base of the stairs back at Baron Kelvin's mansion was still fresh in his mind's eye. Keeping pace with him, Lizzie asked anxiously, "Is there anything else I can do to help?"
"If you really want to help, watch what I'm doing, and then do the same with girls in groups of four," Ciel told her as they climbed up to the second floor and proceeded down the hall, passing Tanaka on the way; the elderly man's arms were piled so high with quilts from the linen closet that it was doubtful whether he could see over them.
Ciel advised Lizzie, "The best thing for the moment is to assume they have no minds of their own, and have to be told every little thing; their free will was entirely beaten out of them by their captor. I'm quite serious; you must tell them every little thing, including this," as he stopped to line them up outside the water-closet, and then pointed at the first in line. "You, get in there and tend to business."
The boy obediently walked into the lavatory, while Lizzie blushed and turned away to look at a hall painting. Ciel joined her in inspecting the painting for several seconds, but when the sounds that started coming from the lavatory weren't the ones he expected, he hesitatingly turned to peek through the slightly open door... and then buried his face in his hand and groaned through his fingers, "I didn't mean, start polishing the fixtures with the washing-cloth! I should have guessed by your clothes, you were on cleaning duties... Dammit, just sit on the loo and void your bladder and bowels! Go pee and poo; is that plain enough?!" And with that he turned back around, ranting, "You see, Lizzie? Every little thing!"
But soon enough, he had all four boys through the water-closet and trooped them down to the last bedroom at the end of the hall. The room was freezing cold, having been shut up for the last few years, but that couldn't be helped at the moment, and Tanaka had already spread thick wool blankets on the bed; that would have to do until they could get the fireplaces stocked with coke fuel and burning to warm the rooms up. He'd have to have more coke brought in immediately, as well as contact Abberline at Scotland Yard, and contact the managers of his Funtom Company to either delay or find a new venue for the board meeting he had scheduled for three days away (it would be impossible for them to meet here while the manor was so packed with refugees); one more thing to take care of in the morning, and the list in his head was already entirely too long...
"All right. All of you shake out your blankets, and drape them over yourselves like tents, to hold in the heat," Ciel ordered. And once the four boys had done that, he told them, "Now undress, down to your smallclothes. When you are done, wrap the blankets around yourselves. Leave the clothes on the floor, just this once." Sebastian would probably have fits later, when he found out that clothes had been strewn about so many rooms of the mansion, but Ciel simply couldn't find the energy to care; he just wanted to get this lot in bed as soon as possible, so he could start on the next.
Once all four boys were standing before him with their blankets wrapped about their shoulders, Ciel gave them their last orders: "Keep the blankets with you while you get into bed and under the covers; you two take the middle, you get the left side, and you're on the right side. No wiggling about once you're under the covers; at four to a bed, there's not a lot of room, but there'll be no shoving others out of bed." Once they were all lying in bed, he told them firmly, "Now stay there until someone comes to fetch you in the morning! Someone will be along soon with some warm milk for a snack, but it's fine if you fall asleep while waiting for them; you'll be woken up just long enough to get your share."
Once they were all in bed, he closed the door behind him and walked with Lizzie back to the great hall, to start the whole process over again with another group of boys. "I'll do just what you did, with girls in groups of four," Lizzie said quietly and with the most serious expression he had ever seen on her face, "but before I do, let me use the telephone in your study. I want to tell my parents what's happened, and ask them to send over as many servants as we can spare to help your people out while they're all here. I don't mean to insult you or your staff, Ciel, because Sebastian is truly amazing, but caring for so many children... you're simply going to need more help. I'll also ask Mother to send over all of my and Edward's old clothes for the children to wear; she went through our wardrobes just last week and pulled out several items we'd outgrown, but I don't think they've been given away yet."
"I'm not insulted at all, and thank you for the offer," Ciel said just before he smothered another yawn with his hand. He was so very tired now, having gotten up before dawn for breakfast duty back at the circus, but there were so many more children to deal with first...
It had been a long time since Bard had ridden a horse bareback, or ridden at night. But with close to a hundred kids suddenly showing up at the manor and in a helluva state, he wasn't in the mood to slow down for niceties like saddles. Thankfully, there was a full moon lighting up the night, and the bay horse 'Righty' (named that by Finny because he was always hitched to the right side of the carriage) seemed to catch his mood and was not only agreeable to being ridden with nothing but a bridle and reins, but broke into a steady canter the second they were clear of the stables. Not nearly fast enough to take Bard's mind off the sight he'd seen when he'd stepped briefly into the main hall before leaving (Christ, all those poor kids, their faces; no wonder the young master called 'em half-dead!) but plenty fast for a cross-country ride at midnight.
In less than ten minutes he was hammering on the door to the dairy farmer's cottage, bellowing, "Open up! Earl Phantomhive's got an emergency!" It took too damn long for the farmer to get his arse out of bed and answer the door, and Bard was damn tempted to blow it open with the explosives he always kept handy, but he refrained—barely. Instead, the second the door opened he barked in the blinking man's face, "The earl wants every damn cow you have milked right now, and all the milk brought to the manor as fast as you can get it there!"
"What, right now? But it's hours before milking time!" the famer protested. "Doesn't the earl understand how much such a huge schedule change will upset the cattle?"
Bard growled back, "Do you understand that right now the earl doesn't give a shit for schedules?! Not when we just got damn near a hundred children brought into the manor, all of them rescued from some really nasty characters, and most of them looking starved half to death!"
The farmer stared at him in shock for a second. "Are you jo—"
"No, I'm not joking!" Bard snapped back at him before he could finish. "For Christ's sake, who would joke about this?!"
The farmer spun around and shouted into the house, "Martha, wake the boys! And Nellie, too!" Less than ten minutes later the farmer, his wife, two strapping teenaged boys and a little ten-year-old girl were all heading out to the dairy barn with lanterns in hand and with their coats thrown on over their nightclothes.
Bard went with them and rolled up his sleeves, figuring that milking couldn't be that hard. But after he told the farmer honestly that he'd never milked a cow before, the farmer asked him, "Will you give our Nellie a hand, then? The cows will take more kindly to people they know disturbing them at this hour, and Nellie knows all the equipment we use for collecting and carting the milk but she's not strong enough to lift some of them yet."
In short order Bard found himself taking instructions from a little girl half his size, and whose attitude flipped every few seconds between bossy and apologetic towards him; good thing he was already used to being ordered around by a kid. He paid close attention, and once he'd sussed out with her help how to wrangle all the equipment they used, he told her, "I can take it from here, if you can pitch in and help your folks with the milking; we've got lots of hungry kids to feed."
With nothing else she could do at the moment, Lizzie fretfully twiddled her fingers while she counted eleven rings before someone picked up the telephone at home. "Midford Hall," she heard in a deep male voice, one that sounded decidedly grumpy. "May I ask what is the emergency? Because surely it must be an emergency, to call at this hour..."
"It is an emergency, James," Lizzie fervently told the Midford family butler.
"Lady Lizzie?" James gasped. "What's happened—oh heavens, is Phantomhive Manor being attacked again?!"
"No, it's not that, but Earl Phantomhive needs our help! Go wake up Mama and Papa, James; I need to talk to them!"
"At once, my lady!" Lizzie heard him set the telephone receiver down, and the rapid beat of his footsteps running away.
Perhaps two minutes later, she heard a clicking sound and her Papa's voice saying urgently into what must have been the receiver in his study, "Lizzie, what's happened? Are you hurt? Is Ciel hurt?"
"We're not hurt, Papa, but Ciel needs our help! He just came back from some case he was on for Her Majesty, with dozens of children that he rescued—maybe a hundred of them! I couldn't count them all, there are so many—and there's something so wrong with them; they're so—they're like wooden dolls, their faces are so lifeless! They just sit there, or stand there, and they only—"
As she spoke, she heard a fast clatter of footsteps echoing down the line, and swift rustling and clunking sounds before her mother said urgently into the receiver outside the servants' quarters, "Elizabeth, what's happened? Who's hurt? James said you and Ciel need our help..."
Having finished carrying all the children inside, Sebastian picked the grimiest-looking child and took him into the downstairs bath while Finnian went to get hot water from the kitchen. Coming back with two buckets of steaming hot water, the gardener told Sebastian, "When Bard left to wake up the farmer, he told me to tell you that he already added honey to the milk he put in a pot on the stove, so it would be ready to serve as soon as it was warmed up. I just felt the pot while I was in the kitchen, and it's nice and warm now; it looks like a whole gallon's worth, too, but I guess we'll need lots more than that. How many more buckets of hot water will we need?"
"You've brought enough for this bath, but we'll need plenty more hot water throughout the night. Given the deplorable state of these children, we shall need to drain and change the bathwater for each one," Sebastian said grimly as he finished stripping the dirty clothes off the first boy, to reveal the skin underneath; not only was his skin just as filthy as the rags he'd been wearing, but it was riddled with sores, some of which began bleeding anew as the clothing that had been sticking to them was peeled away. "And we will likely need to bandage each of them as well; fetch me the first aid basket from under the sink in the master's bathing room. Then fetch the first aid basket that Bard keeps in the kitchen, and give it to Mey-Rin for her use."
Finnian nodded and turned to leave, but Sebastian had more instructions for him; "And then go find Tanaka, and tell him that milk is ready for serving to the children already in bedrooms; I think it best that I remain on bathing duty. I have far more recent and frequent experience with bathing young boys, as part of waiting on the young master." And when no other servants were looking, he could change the water between each bath and dress the youngsters in borrowed clothes far faster than Tanaka could. Given that they had thirteen boys to bathe and clothe tonight, bursts of demonic speed were definitely called for.
"Yessir!" as Finnian ran off to fetch the first aid supplies, and relay his instructions to Tanaka.
After he'd finished putting quilts and heavy blankets on all the beds in the west wing, Tanaka was heading for the downstairs bath to take over bathing the male children when he ran into Finny, who advised him of Sebastian's suggestion. Tanaka nodded his agreement with the idea, since in truth Sebastian did have more experience with bathing children than he, and then followed Finny into the kitchen.
While the young gardener emptied two pots of water into his buckets and refilled them before putting the pots back on the stove, Tanaka took the pot of milk that had been slowly heating (on the stove's lowest setting; goodness, Bard was actually capable of heating with something other than flamethrowers) poured milk into a row of teapots he'd lined up, and fetched a set of matching teacups from the cupboard. Mm, not the Wedgwood; plain china would do for serving tonight. Guests to the mansion always received the full measure of Phantomhive hospitality regardless of their station in life, but children weakened from exhaustion and deprivation would be prone to dropping and breaking the delicate wares.
His fingers lingered for a moment over a tin of digestive biscuits, before he shook his head. Most of the children would have to be served just warm milk with honey, as the young master had ordered. They did not have nearly enough biscuits on hand, including both plain digestive and the fancier shortbread, to feed all the children. And from what he'd seen of the poor creatures lined up in the grand hallway, it would be wise to save the few they had on hand tonight for those in the most desperate stages of starvation, which would likely be the ones who had reportedly been found locked in cages like animals.
Tanaka knew well the signs of starvation, from when he'd been a mere footman in the Phantomhive employ; he could still remember the gaunt faces and limbs of those desperate Irishmen who had come to London during the years of the Potato Famine, those who were too poor to afford passage for emigrating to America. He also remembered the faces of those that he had helped the young master's grandfather free, while breaking up that child slavery ring back in 1853. He would look over the rows of children dressed in rags to determine the worst off of the lot, and slip them each a simple digestive biscuit to tide them over while waiting for more of the warm milk that Bard would be bringing soon.
Come the morrow, they would no doubt be very busy in the kitchen indeed, working to feed so many children. Tanaka might even have to forego his tea in favor of preparing other hot beverages for their guests, a thought that made him blanch and shudder in anticipated horror. But the duty of a Phantomhive servant always came before personal comforts; he would bear up under the strain, just as he had done back in 1869 during that dreadful affair with the Red Nuns.
With the milk and tea service set on a trolley and a few items tucked into his pockets, he set out to distribute the sweetened milk they had on hand in the west wing, nodding in passing to the young master as the earl led a group of four children to the water-closet. "I take it Sebastian decided to stay on bathing duty?" the young master asked, and when Tanaka informed him he was correct, he muttered something under his breath before nodding to the teapots while asking, "How much do we have on hand?"
"Roughly three and a half quarts altogether, my lord," Tanaka said with a bow. "But I am quite sure that Bardroy will be able to procure much more."
"Right, then; give what we have now to the boys in the two bedrooms at the end of the hall. Two cupfuls each or close enough," the earl directed, with a glance at the six-ounce teacups Tanaka had set on the trolley. "After that, you can take over for me in putting children to bed."
"Yes, my lord," Tanaka said with a bow, and served the lads in the last two bedrooms as he'd been bidden. After all the milk had been served, he returned to the grand hall and took a few moments to inspect the children sitting or lying in rows, giving close inspection to the ones dressed in rags and filth that were lying instead of sitting. As he'd suspected, two of them were considerably worse off than the rest, perilously close to death from starvation. Perhaps because they had been captive longest, or perhaps they had refused to eat from despair, but the reason why scarcely mattered now.
Murmuring reassurances, he carefully propped them upright and hand-fed them each a plain digestive biscuit from the tin he'd tucked into a pocket, softened beforehand and washed down after with water from the hip flask he'd tucked into another pocket. There, that small bit of food should begin the process of restarting their failing digestive systems, and should keep them from passing on for at least the next few hours.
The young master came back for another group of boys just as he finished feeding the second child and laid her back down. The master frowned and furrowed his brow at Tanaka for a moment, before opening his eyes wide in realization. "They were that close?" was all he asked.
"Indeed, young master," Tanaka said as he rose to his feet and bowed. "But now they should survive long enough to be tended in their turn with the rest. However, we shall have to take considerable care with their diet over the next few days; only one small cupful of milk to start with, followed by another in a few hours only if they can keep the first cup down."
The young master nodded his gratitude, before turning to frown at Finnian as the lad rushed up to them with empty buckets in hand and his features creased in worry. "Master? I'm very sorry to bother you, but Sebastian's already busy with bathing the boys, and I think Mey-Rin's having problems…"
Ohhh, this was dreadful! The young master was counting on her, and these poor little girls needed her help, but Mey-Rin couldn't see! The steam from the bathwater kept fogging up her glasses; she kept pausing to wipe them off so she could work, but it only took seconds for the lenses to fog up again. But if she just left them off, then all she saw with her terrible farsightedness was a flesh-colored blur on white instead of a little girl in a bathtub… how could she properly clean these children and bandage them, if she couldn't see the grime and the sores that needed tending?! Whimpering under her breath, Mey-Rin told herself this was absolutely not the time to burst into tears of worry and frustration; that would only make her vision worse…
"It will be all right, Mey-Rin," she heard Tanaka say soothingly from off to her right, and then his silver-and-black blur stood next to her, nudging her more towards the head of the tub. "Here, give me the sponge; I can bathe and tend to these young girls, if you will remain as chaperone."
Mey-Rin gratefully passed the sponge and soap over to Tanaka, and when he made a suggestion and put the shampoo bottle in her hand, she washed the child's long brown hair while he bathed the rest of her. Washing hair was easy; she was used to doing that on herself and didn't need eyes for it, just her sense of touch. Oh dear, this girl had dreadful tangles matting up her hair; it would take some time and care to comb them out…
An hour after they'd started work at the dairy farm, Bard helped the farmer Josiah Vale and his sons load the last of the five-gallon canisters of milk onto their wagon, while the farmer's wife Martha hitched their donkey to the cart, and their little girl Nellie came running out of the house with extra blankets for the farmer to bundle up in, as they were all still wearing nightclothes.
"Gee up, Jenny! There's hungry kids waiting for this!" Josiah barked as he slapped the reins, and the donkey grunted as she began pulling the wagon. As Bard hopped back onto Righty to ride alongside, the oldest son Dan worried aloud, "But Da, what if bandits are out tonight? Remember, we heard that the baker's family got robbed on the road just last week!"
"Any bandits we see tonight, ain't gonna live to rob anybody else," Bard grimly promised the teen, whose eyes went wide as Bard briefly showed him one of the guns he was carrying. "Right now that milk's more precious than gold to the earl and those kids. But thanks for speaking up about the bandits; we hadn't heard there were any in the area recently. I'll let the earl know, and we'll see about doing something about them once the kids are all taken care of and back with their folks; Earl Phantomhive doesn't stand for any of that on his lands."
Finny finished bringing Sebastian and Mey-Rin the hot water for another set of baths, and returned to the kitchen with empty pails just as Bard came in from outside, lugging a big steel container with handles on it. "Here, give a hand hauling the rest in, so the farmer can go home," Bard grunted.
Finnian dashed out and picked up the other three containers all at once, with two hanging from the fingers of his left hand; the nice dairy farmer who'd brought the milk gaped at him for a moment before blinking, shaking his head a little and getting back into the seat of his cart to go home. Finny didn't mind the stare (much), he was used to people being surprised by his strength.
After going inside with the milk, Finny told Bard what everyone was doing now as the chef poured some of the milk into two of the water pails, since those were easier for normal people to carry, and stirred in lots of honey. When they went into the great hall, the young master looked up from where he was just gathering another group of four boys and grumbled, "It's about time! How much did you bring?"
"Just under eighteen gallons, your lordship. The farmer said that they can give you just as much and at least six gallons more for the evening milking, and the same again tomorrow morning," Bard added.
"That's enough for two teacupfuls per child tonight, with… ten gallons left—no, eleven, Tanaka already took care of some of the boys—eleven gallons left over serving with breakfast and for cooking tomorrow's meals," the young master muttered while rubbing tiredly at his face. Then he seemed to catch himself and straightened up while ordering, "Here, give these four their supper before bed, two cupfuls each."
Finny and Bard each filled teacups for handing to the silent children, while the master continued, "All the children, both down here and already abed, will get the same amount. Bard, take care of the children still in the hall, and then you'll be hauling water for the baths while Finny makes the rounds of the bedrooms. Also, ask Tanaka to step out here long enough to identify the two children that should receive only half as much, because they've been starved too long and their stomachs will reject too much food, even if it's just milk."
"You want me to give milk to the children in bedrooms?" Finny asked, surprised that the master had that much trust in him. He was always breaking things on the grounds outside, because he didn't know his own strength—and all these poor children looked so fragile, so easy to break!
"You carried them inside the house without breaking any of them, didn't you?" Master demanded. And when Finny said he was right, he nodded while saying firmly, "You can feed them milk without hurting them either. These days you mainly break things when you get too happy or excited and forget yourself. Well, nobody's happy about this turn of events, and there's nothing exciting about serving milk. Now in the west wing, start with the second bedroom from the end on either side; Tanaka already fed the boys in the last bedrooms. Wake them up if they've fallen asleep while waiting, but don't let them get out of bed for supper, either; understand? You'll have to be careful to not let the milk spill, but just this once, they're allowed to dine in bed; it's better than letting them get chilled while standing about in unheated bedrooms."
Finny said he understood, and after helping Bard feed the first four boys and seeing how it should be done, he carried a pail, a dipper and a teacup with him up the stairs. The master trailed behind him with the four boys in tow while muttering under his breath, something about a dairy budget. Finny felt a little sorry for the young master, who looked so very tired now; when he himself was tired, thinking was really hard, but right now the master had to do so much thinking...
Finny was very, very careful as he opened the door and didn't quite tiptoe into each bedroom, roused each group of children with his very gentlest shakes and taps, and helped them sit up in bed long enough to drink the milk he'd brought, filling the teacup twice for each of them. He was really worried about spilling the milk, because it had taken him a long time to learn to eat and drink without making a mess. But all these children must have had teachers just as good as Mr. Sebastian, because none of them spilled even a single drop.
When each bedroom full of children had had their supper of sweetened milk, Finny very carefully tucked them into bed again, using the same words that Mr. Sebastian had told him after giving him his very own bed in the servants' quarters. "Now you go to sleep, and stay under the covers until I come for—I mean, until someone comes for you in the morning."
And then, because these children had probably come from families instead of from laboratories and Finny remembered one of the children's books he'd been given explaining what normal families did at bedtime, he sang a lullaby before leaving each bedroom. Finny knew, because Bard had explained it to him the first time he'd seen the word, that a lullaby was a special song that was sung to help children go to sleep. But he didn't know any of those special songs; nobody had ever sung him a lullaby before. So he improvised, saying in a singsong as he turned the lights back off, "Go to slee-eep, you're all safe now. Go to slee-eep, things will be better now..."
Sebastian had already bathed, bandaged and dressed nine children in borrowed clothes, and was still washing the hair of the tenth when Bard came into the bathroom where he was working, carrying a nearly emptied pail of milk, a dipper and a plain servant's teacup. "Supper's served," he announced with an attempt at humor, though the grim expression on his face ruined the effect. "I already gave some to each kid still in the hall. Finny's making the rounds of the kids already in bedrooms."
Sebastian looked at him sharply at the last sentence. "What is Tanaka doing now, if not serving milk?" Soon after they'd begun their contract, when the master had brought Tanaka home from the Royal Hospital, he'd made it clear that Tanaka was on the books as a steward but unofficially retired, and no one except the master himself could order him to do anything. But immediately afterwards, Tanaka had quietly assured Sebastian that when situations were particularly tense or urgent, the former butler would pitch in with no need for orders and give his best effort right along with everyone else.
"He's helping Mey-Rin give baths to the girls that need 'em; told Finny that he's too old to care even if they were prime beauties in perfect health, and right now I don't think the girls are gonna complain either." Bard shrugged. "Finny said he heard Mey-Rin fretting that her glasses keep fogging up on her, and if she takes them off she can't see what she's doing either."
Sebastian gave a small frown and shook his head as he commented mostly to himself, "I should have realized that at the start." Mey-Rin had been hired on his recommendation, and he knew of her eyesight issues better than anyone. For the first time in a very long time, the question was not rhetorical but self-castigating: how could he be the Phantomhive butler, if he didn't anticipate and compensate for the other servants' human shortcomings in a situation like this?
"Hey, nobody can think of everything all the time," Bard said with another shrug, as he set down the pail and used the dipper to fill the teacup with warm milk. Sebastian held the boy he'd been washing upright and steady as Bard carefully brought the cup to his lips, crooning, "Come on, suppertime... this is fresh from the cow, and sweetened with honey; can't get better than that! Good stuff, right? Let's put some meat back on those ribs..."
After the still-nameless boy drank two teacups of warm sweetened milk, Bard set the cup and pail down and rolled up his sleeves. "His lordship put me to hauling water for baths, but that leaves me some time to spare. How about I take over washing kids for you, so you can take over for the young master? You know I've got experience with bandaging too, and it looked to me like he's just about sleepwalking now; don't reckon he had any sleep at all before you came here with the kids."
"No, he had not. Thank you, Bard," Sebastian said as he stood up and dried his hands. As he rolled down his sleeves and put his tailcoat back on, he almost commented on how surprisingly competent the soldier-turned-chef was being tonight, but refrained at the last second. Instead he picked up the pail of warm sweetened milk and took it to the kitchen, to be poured into a more appropriate container for serving the earl.
When he found his young master, who was indeed stumbling with fatigue, the little earl still stubbornly insisted on seeing through his self-appointed task of putting the current group of four boys to bed. But the very moment those four were under the covers and the light in their room put out, he turned to Sebastian and all but fell into his arms. "Bed," was all he mumbled, but that was command enough for them both.
"Yes, my lord," Sebastian said, and then carried the young master to his bedroom, aware that he must make quite a sight; it was not unheard of for servants to carry tired children to bed, but one did not normally do so while balancing a loaded tea tray on one's head. Under the circumstances, however, exceptions had to be allowed. Indeed, they passed Finnian coming out of another bedroom with a milk pail and teacup, and all the gardener did was nod a drowsy greeting to them without even blinking at Sebastian's unusual chapeau.
Once in the master's bedroom, he set down first Ciel and then the tea tray, and gave the boy a cupful of warm sweetened milk to drink while he swiftly and skillfully divested him of all his clothes and got him ready for bed. Ciel barely seemed to notice, his eyes fixed either on the teacup or on nothing at all, automatically switching his grip on the cup from one hand to the other as Sebastian gently tugged his jacket and shirt off of him and slipped his nightshirt on.
Sebastian said as he deftly buttoned the nightshirt, snaking his fingers up between the boy and the teacup, "I do apologize for not drawing you a bath before bed, my lord, but under the circumstances..." The young master made only a grunt of acknowledgment in response before draining the last of the warm sweetened milk, handing the now-empty cup back to the butler and turning to gracelessly flop into bed. With an affectionate tsk at his lack of manners, Sebastian tucked him in properly and bowed himself out of the room, aware that the young earl had fallen into dreamless sleep even before the light had been put out.
Next Sebastian tracked down Lady Elizabeth, who was also quite tired from lack of sleep... and at first just as determined to see to the finish the task her fiancé had asked of her, that of putting all the female children to bed. He very gently rebuked her with, "But my lady, to see you doing the duties of a servant, when a servant stands here ready for orders; surely your mother the Marchioness would not approve."
"But it's not proper for a man to put girls to bed," Lizzie said stubbornly, before covering a yawn with her hand.
Sebastian gestured to the current group of four girls who were crawling into bed as he said persuasively, "When the girls in question are keeping themselves well-covered with blankets, my lady, surely that satisfies propriety."
"Welll..." Lizzie almost visibly wavered before finally giving in. "All right; there are only a few more girls left anyway, and two of them still need Mey-Rin to give them baths first."
"Quite so, my lady. Do allow me to escort you to your room and serve you a nightcap of warm sweetened milk."
As he walked her back to her guest bedroom, Lizzie said between yawns, "Sebastian, my parents will send over some of our servants in the morning, to help out for the next few days that all these children are here. And Mama said she'd have some more clothes brought over, too."
"They will all be most welcome," was all Sebastian said in response. After they reached her guest room, he served Lizzie some warm sweetened milk before bidding her good night and returning to the great hall, where more children awaited.
As he trotted down the grand staircase, he met Finnian coming back down with an empty pail and a tired but pleased expression. "All the children have been given warm milk, Mr. Sebastian. And I only spilled one time, and it was just a few drops!"
"Well done then, Finnian," and Sebastian was mildly surprised to find that the praise was actually sincere, and not the near-meaningless flattery he occasionally doled out to the boy and to Mey-Rin to get them to stop weeping or howling about their inadequacies. The task of dispensing warm beverages to dozens of children, when Finnian himself was operating on less than adequate sleep, must have taken prolonged concentration on the boy's part. To complete the task with only one minor spill was far better than Sebastian would have expected of him; really, nearly the entire staff was being far more competent than usual tonight. "Now do resume hauling hot water for baths, while I take care of putting the remaining children to bed."
He put two more groups of boys to bed, and then the last group of four girls after Mey-Rin and Tanaka had finished bathing and dressing them (three of them in clothes borrowed from the young master's closets, after they had completely exhausted Lady Elizabeth's travel trunk.) Rather than stand in the bedroom giving directions, he undressed them himself and re-wrapped them in blankets at his top speed, which was considerably faster than any of the children could have managed. Lady Elizabeth would have protested if she'd known, but as Bard had pointed out, the girls were really not in any state to complain about his methods, particularly since it got them under the covers faster.
The last girl he put to bed didn't need to be undressed, since all she had on her was Lady Elizabeth's spare nightgown; a blue flannel affair with many colorful butterflies printed on the fabric. But since it suited his butler aesthetics to spend an equal amount of time with each child, he produced a small hairbrush from a pocket and spent a few seconds brushing the child's hair before tucking her in with the others already in bed.
The girl gave him a weak but clearly grateful smile, and whispered "Thank you." When she spoke, Sebastian abruptly recognized her; this was the same girl who had said "Please" to the young master a few hours ago, back in Baron Kelvin's mansion.
He smiled back at her, approving of her good manners; he neither needed nor asked for expressions of gratitude for doing his duties for the young master (which was just as well, because the earl hardly ever said them), but he did appreciate them when they were given sincerely. "You are quite welcome. Now sleep, child; you're safe here." After she'd obediently closed her eyes, he put out the light and returned downstairs.
Returning to the baths, he took over for Bard so the chef could go to sleep, and sent Finnian tottering off to bed as well once he'd brought the hot water for the final bath. After the last group of three boys had all been bathed, bandaged and dressed in clothes borrowed from the master's closet, he led them all through the bedtime routine and tucked them in. Checking his pocket watch, he frowned at the time it displayed; well past four o'clock in the morning. But now that everyone was asleep, he could stop acting quite so human and be more efficient.
The master had given him permission to use his full abilities 'just this one time', and Sebastian chose to interpret 'this one time' to refer to this entire, unprecedented and still ongoing situation. Lady Elizabeth had informed him that members of the Marquis Midford's serving staff were coming on the morrow, and while he would admit that more people would be needed to properly tend so many children, he would not have the Marchioness Midford or anyone else thinking that more servants were needed to tend to the estate itself; the Phantomhive reputation was at stake.
First, stocking the pantry and larder. He went downstairs to the kitchen and storerooms, and swept a hand over the shelves as he summoned and bent aether to his supernatural will. In short order every shelf was laden to the groaning point with sacks of flour and other baking essentials, jars of honey and preserved fruits and vegetables, and dozens of cured hams and smoked fishes. Then he restocked the root cellar in seconds with plenty of potatoes, onions, turnips and the like, and after a moment's thought he conjured four bulging sacks full of lemons, limes and oranges from the Americas; good for treating scurvy, which he'd seen signs of in nearly all the boys he'd bathed.
As a final touch, he left two haunches of venison and an entire side of beef hanging in the chilled air of the meat-smoking shed. Sebastian made a note to advise his young master of the full restocking, to give the earl time to come up with a plausible lie if anyone should ask how they'd acquired so much on such short notice. Perhaps the master could say that they'd raided the baron's mansion for supplies as well as children, before burning it to ashes.
Now, the fuel for heating. He stocked the coal cellar to the brim with high-quality coke, before stepping into a shadow—and stepping out again in the east wing's furthest guest room. Traveling through shadows eliminated the possibility of children being awakened by the creaking of little-used doors opening and closing.
In that first guest room as in all the other rooms occupied by the recently freed children, he silently created a suitable supply of coke in each fireplace, set it ablaze with a gesture, and put the steadily burning results behind a metal screen that would both block the light from sleeping eyes and prevent stray embers from setting the floor or throw rugs alight. And before leaving each room he took an instant to neatly fold all the clothing that had been discarded for sleep, and set each tidy little pile at the foot of the bed.
Now, the general tidying up. After dropping the corpse back through the broken window in the hallway by Lady Elizabeth's guest room, Tanaka had tacked a thick wool blanket over the shattered glass; now Sebastian converted the blanket into new glass for the window, and made the bloodstains on the hall floor vanish. Then he rebuilt the damaged grand staircase, replaced the statues Finny had tossed as ammunition (except for the bust of Aristotle; the master had mentioned before that he didn't like the looks of that one), and swept the floor clear of even the smallest speck of rubble.
That took care of the interior; time to deal with the house exterior and grounds, with maximum efficiency. Dropping his corporeal form entirely, the demon swept over the outside of the mansion in seconds, searching out every bullet hole and cracked surface remaining from Mey-Rin and Finnian's battles and seamlessly filling them in.
After finishing the mansion's exterior, he fetched back the bodies of the three performers that had been killed, and he instantly shredded them into bloody fertilizer, which was mixed into the root soil for the new trees he set in place of the ones that Finnian had knocked down. Only Finnian would be apt to notice the replacements, but Sebastian had schooled that one well, and knew he would say nothing to anyone. As an afterthought, he put the leftover fertilizer into the flowerbeds for the master's prized white and Sterling roses; they would surely benefit from the bloodmeal as well.
And one more errand: flitting across the countryside and into the heart of London, Sebastian retrieved the master's violin from the townhouse. Once the children were awake, he was sure they'd be far too busy at the manor for carriage rides to the city for quite some time, but the young master would need his violin to keep up his lessons. As an afterthought, he picked up the box of marbles as well; he was rather sure that the master would agree that they now had a far more destitute group of children on hand to give the marbles to.
After returning to the manor and to corporeal form, Sebastian took a moment to haul the large hay wagon he'd created around to the back of the barn on the off chance that it would be needed again for transportation while the children were here, though they would need every coach horse in the stable to pull it when filled to capacity. He checked his pocket watch again as he returned inside, and nodded to himself in satisfaction. Not quite 5:00 a.m.; he still had time for one last task before going to the kitchen to start the day's baking.
Trotting down to the wine cellar with lantern in hand, he checked in on the three circus performers he'd stashed down there until the young master had time to decide what would ultimately be done with them. Still tied up and gagged, they'd gone so far as to wriggle towards each other, and Dagger and Beast were currently lying in awkward back-to-back positions, trying to undo each other's bonds. He tsked at their lack of imagination before he advised them, "If you'd thought to work to loosen on each others' gags first, one of you could have then used your teeth to begin chewing through the ropes. Not that you likely would have succeeded with that either before I arrived to put a stop to it. But you'll be free of those bonds soon enough, now that I finally have a little time to provide you with more suitable accommodations. If you'll excuse me," as he stepped past them and around a corner of the cellar to where the racks of champagne were resting, well out of sight of the trio.
He created and then dragged out of that corner, one or two sections at a time, the walls of an iron cage that was just the same size as the cages that he'd pulled twenty-two children out of a few hours ago. It was but the work of moments to bolt everything together, and then he ripped the bonds and gags off the prisoners even while tossing them into the cage one-two-three. Lunging as best he could on just one leg, Dagger tried to scramble out but just got the cage door slammed in his face as Sebastian locked them in. "Bastard! Treating us like animals, after we took you and Smile in as friends!" the boy shouted while grabbing at his now bloodied nose.
"On the contrary, it is not my intention to treat you as animals. You are being treated just as the children that we rescued tonight were treated by your patron," Sebastian informed him pleasantly. "I did say suitable accommodations, did I not? It seems quite suitable, for you to be treated in the same fashion as the children you kidnapped." He would have to inquire from the master later as to how they should be fed as well as how often. Given the signs of scurvy and general malnutrition he'd already seen in the children, he suspected the usual diet consisted of one meal of gruel per day, but how should it be administered? He rather doubted decent china dishware and silverware were involved.
The cage was far too small for any of the three to stand up in; they ended up sitting on the cold metal floor, lined up in a row and glaring out at him as he tidied up their torn bonds and the hand tools he'd created and used for bolting the cage together. Beast growled, "You could at least give us back our prosthetics!"
"Ah, yes, the prosthetic limbs that the late Doctor provided for you," Sebastian said as he walked over to the heap of prosthetics he'd left by the base of the stairs.
"The late... ye killed him?!" Joker cried out in outrage, lunging forward to grip one of the bars of the cage with his remaining hand. "Ye soulless bastard, how could ye?! Th'doctor was a good man! He had nothin' t'do wi' the kidnappings; he wouldna' harm a fly!"
That got Sebastian to turn and blink at him in surprise. "You really didn't know? He duped the lot of you?" He chuckled as he held up Beast's leg, admiring the handiwork by the lantern's light. "Liars who've been lied to; my, that is amusing!"
"What're ye talking about?!" Joker demanded.
"Why, I'm talking about the use that 'good man' made of the children you brought to the baron's mansion. The 'special ceramic' that your artificial limbs are made out of? Were you really entirely unaware of what made them so special?" as he tapped the limb with a gloved finger. On a whim, he inhaled deeply, to see how much of a scent of the original person or persons remained. Ah, yes; when it had been attached to Beast, her scent had overwhelmed everything else, but now he could ever-so-faintly detect traces of the bones used in its composition. A male child had gone into this limb's making... no, make that two different children.
He told the three performers what their doctor had said and done right in front of his and his master's eyes back at Baron Kelvin's manor, savoring the looks of growing horror on their faces. He'd grown to enjoy playing the perfect butler, but he could not deny that it was also enjoyable to be a source of horror now and then; quite refreshing, really.
"N-no! It's all a lie! You're lying!" Dagger screamed, his face gone completely white.
"I don't tell lies," Sebastian informed him rather frostily. In point of fact, he couldn't tell lies, as that was one of the restrictions his master had set when they'd formed the contract. And dealing with that restriction, one of the more challenging aspects of this contract, was part of what made it the most interesting contract he'd ever had. He admitted to the prisoners, "I will occasionally prevaricate, mislead or misdirect. But every word that comes out of my mouth is indeed true!"
He tossed the prosthetic limbs into the cage at their feet with a genial, "Here, by all means, re-equip yourselves with the remains of some of the children you once kidnapped." But the performers shied away from the limbs as if they were poisonous serpents, instead of scrambling to put them on. Sebastian left them there as he turned to head back up the stairs, consulting his pocket watch again. Hmm, he'd best get started baking the day's bread; they would need quite a few loaves to feed so many...
"Wait!" Joker cried out suddenly. "We've more to tell ye; more that ye an' Smile need to know about!"
Sebastian turned to him with a dash of impatience. "Such as...? I can spare you exactly one more minute, so whatever information you have, say it quickly."
"There be more children involved than ye know about; th' children at Renbon Workhouse! Th'baron owns th' workhouse, he's patron of all the children there, our lil' brothers 'n' sisters! 'Tis why we did as Father wanted, kidnapping other children for him; he tol' us if we didn't, he'd cut the workhouse off an' let them all starve t'death!" All three prisoners stared up at him imploringly as Joker begged, "Ye can hang us, aye, we deserve it an' we know it, but they's innocent children too; don't let them starve!"
"I shall inform the master when there is time for him to deal with them, after we have properly dealt with the children we have just rescued," Sebastian informed them, before proceeding up the stairs to the kitchen. He estimated that they would need at least sixteen loaves of bread for the morrow—ah, no, Lady Elizabeth said that the Midfords would be sending staff over to assist in caring for the children; make that eighteen loaves of bread, to feed the adults as well... He'd best bake a full twenty loaves, to be on the safe side.
Once the first batch of bread was baking in the oven, Sebastian loaded the stove with pots of water for preparing porridge. But he paused just before lighting the burners, when his supernaturally sharp hearing caught a sound from outside; someone approaching the manor, riding a horse at a fast canter. And the sun wasn't even up yet; who could it be at this hour?
Next: The Cavalry, Or...?