Trading Farewells

There is a man who walks by the church every day, precisely at two o’clock in the afternoon. No matter what the weather, he always come by, dressed impeccably all in black: someone’s butler, perhaps, striding off with purpose. He never looks at the church, but he walks like he is deliberately ignoring it.

Behind him, shadows trail long and wide, like the flaring of wings.

+++

Sometimes, on particularly nice days, the Father lets her play in front of the church when he’s busy with other things. He likes to pretend that he’s a considerate guardian: he fusses over the state of her hair and cleans smudges from her cheek with his own fine silk handkerchiefs. The rare times she falls and scrapes her knees, he tuts like a concerned parent — once he even tried to kiss the scrape. She’d pushed him away with both hands before he could actually touch her like that.

Rosalie arranges herself on the steps of the church and smooths her skirt around her, with her stuffed bunny in her lap. Sometimes she pretends they are having tea, though there is nothing to sustain that but her imagination; more often, she simply watches people passing, and the tiny demons that nip and frolic at their feet. They’re small and cute, and their chattering sounds more like laughter than anything else. It makes her smile to see them, playing tag among passing footsteps: once in a while they get stepped on, only to pop back up a moment later, unharmed. She’d like very much to pet them, she thinks, or hold them to her cheek. They look nothing like the creatures from the books that the Father keeps everywhere in his cramped little office.

(But they are demons, the Father says; too small and petty for the attentions of the church, but demons regardless. Nothing that his dearest automatisse needs to concern herself with.)

Everyone has at least one or two, perched on their shoulders or nestled in their hair. Rosalie watches them and thinks, at least they are not alone.

Yet every time the man in the black suit walks past, nothing follows in his wake but his shadow.

+++

Their eyes meet once.

She thinks of the dead that howl and gibber mindlessly whenever the Father summons them, and of the cringing lower-level demons that lick their claws and clack their teeth and aren’t even strong enough to hold human shape.

The man smiles politely at her. His eyes are red as blood and his face is lovely. When the wind moves past him and into her hair, she smells sulphur.

Rosalie clutches her bunny harder and stares at him without blinking. He breaks his stride long enough to turn to her and bow, then continues on his way.

+++

One afternoon, the Father comes out to fetch her as the man in the black suit walks past. The Father stops, his hand hard and heavy upon her head. Rosalie wants to shrug it off, but if she moves, his fingers tighten in her hair.

“Well, well,” he says. “So the stories are true.”

Rosalie watches the man go by, and doesn’t question the Father. He goes on anyway, and she can hear that awful smile in his voice, serenely amused as always: “Did you know that our mausoleum holds nobility, my dear automatisse? Even though we’re such a small church, there are noblemen sleeping in our walls.” He tugs at her hair, until she is forced to at least turn her face towards him. “It was a long time ago, my darling. Before you were born, in fact.” He chuckles. “A nasty business. Men who summon demons must always know there are consequences, in the end.” He tugs hard until she stumbles against him, pressed to his leg. “It’s unfortunate that they don’t have our working relationship, right?”

She stares at him without blinking. The Father’s expression never changes, however; he simply turns and pulls her into the church. With his hand in her hair, she can’t even look over her shoulder, though she thinks that, perhaps, the stranger is watching.

+++

“You see,” the Father says that night, as he pants symbols on her back and she cringes away from the wet feel, “they say that ten years ago — longer than you’ve been alive, poppet — the last of the Fantomhive family walked into this church to confront an evil that threatened not just Queen and country, but the entire world.” He laughs, drawing her hair back so he can paint a last sign on her neck. Around them, hungry ghosts wail and scrabble, anxious for the host being prepared for them. “He walked in, but never walked out. People searched and searched, but he was never seen again.”

+++

At two o’clock, the man does not walk up: he is simply there, by the church gates, though he remains carefully on the other side of the property. He leans one shoulder against the stone pillar and smiles as Rosalie gets to her feet and brushes off her skirt. She walks up to him, though not close enough that he could reach out to grab her, and curtseys to him.

“Oh my,” he says. He bows to her, and then he says, “I haven’t seen such lovely manners in a child in quite some time.”

Rosalie tilts her head to look at him. It has been overcast all day, but his clothes and hair are perfectly pressed and completely dry. She hugs the stuffed bunny to her breast. His smile grows wider.

“You know what I am, don’t you,” he says. His teeth flash white against the red of his mouth (and how very red, so peculiar for a man). “You can see it.”

She nods and looks at her feet. This close to him, the smell of sulphur is almost overwhelming. She takes a delicate breath and holds it.

He tsks. “You’re quite young, aren’t you? Terribly young.”

“But that’s how you like them, isn’t it?” says the Father, and Rosalie tries not to jump when his hand comes down on her head. She wonders if he planned this, then decides he must have: she saw how he opened his eyes to watch the stranger go past. “Too young to know better, strong enough to give you too much of themselves, and knowing just what you are …”

“Hmm,” says the stranger. Rosalie peeks up through her lashes at him and sees that he’s smiling. “It sounds almost like you’re propositioning me, sir.”

“Stranger things have happened.”

“But from a man of the cloth?”

The Father laughs. “I’m a practical man,” he says. “There is a young man I have been in correspondence with — a rear admiral from the Japanese navy — who would be terribly interested in meeting you.” His hand tightens on Rosalie’s hair until she winces, and she sees something in the other man’s face change: it becomes a cross between hunger and alien pity.

But then: “No,” he says, politely regretful as a shopkeeper turning away a customer. “I’ve had my fill of children.”

Have you?” The Father’s voice is equally polite in its disbelief. “And yet here you come, every day. What are you hoping to see? — Or, rather, should I say, who?”

The man goes inhumanly still. The sulphur stink picks up. Rosalie feels a sudden sharp pressure at her throat and bearing down on her shoulders that tastes in the back of her throat like rage. She’s well-acquainted with many different sorts: the Father’s training is rigorous and meticulous — but even now, she cannot move away from the danger she knows is building.

“… No,” the man says finally. It sounds like it costs him. “I am not waiting for anyone.”

“No one at all?” asks the Father. His smile is more strained than Rosalie ever remembers seeing it, but still remains firmly fixed in place. “Really.”

“As tempting as your offer might be,” the man says, “I must regretfully decline.”

“What a pity,” the father says. He pulls Rosalie close to him, and some of the pressure on her ceases. She knows better than to be grateful, though: she can feel the tension in him, and she knows he’s furious. He’s terribly fond of the smiling Japanese man who comes to visit now and then; she’s heard them go on for hours about demons, and humans, and names — and the power a human might exert over a demon if only he names it …

“Good day,” the man says. He bows again — only to Rosalie — and walks away without looking back. The Father watches him go and clucks his tongue.

“It is a shame,” he says thoughtfully. “He would have been good practice for the Admiral. But, ah, you’re not strong enough to name him without making a contract first, and we can’t have that.” He licks his thumb and swipes it across her cheek, chasing away invisible dirt. “There are more important things waiting for you, my dearest automatisse.”

Rosalie hugs her doll and says nothing.

+++

In the bowels of the church, where the Father communes with ghosts and consults with demons with her as the vessel, there is a battered top hat, like those that were popular about a decade before. Wrapped around the hat, like a mockery of a ribbon, is a scrap of black cloth that might have been an eyepatch. For someone who has the eyes to see, faint lines and circles are imprinted on one side of the cloth, like the giant symbol she currently sits within.

While the Father makes his notes for the night, Rosalie takes it and slips it into the pockets of her dress.

+++

At precisely two o’clock, again, the man comes walking by. Rosalie is waiting.

As he passes her, she reaches into her skirts and pulls out the cloth. She holds it out to him, watching him stop and turn to look at her with burning eyes. Quick as thought, he drops to one knee before her, and his breath is hot and heavy with the metallic tinge of blood.

“What do you want,” he says. She knows he wants to take the offering, though he refrains through sheer force of will.

Rosalie shakes her head. “I want. To leave,” she whispers. “I don’t. Want to be here. Any more.”

That alien pity moves in his eyes again. “I cannot help you with that,” he says, almost gently. “You and I have no contract, and that priest won’t let you go so easily.”

She looks at him steadily. “I want to leave,” she says again, a bit more strongly, then gestures again with the cloth.

He takes it, and she feels a fission pass from him and into her. She knows that the match of the sigil imprinted on the cloth is somewhere on his body, that he was called and could not enter the church grounds just before–

“There’s a man visiting,” the stranger says, in a low voice. “He’s a folklorist working as a translator for the army right now. In his heart, he worries that he is growing too old to attract the woman he wants, and that he’ll never have a child. At five o’clock tomorrow, he will walk by the church. Wait for him.”

Rosalie considers this. She nods and lets go of the cloth, watching the man stand and tuck it into his breast pocket. He seems less real now, like there was some final compulsion that helped keep the shape of him from bleeding out of the lines of a human form. On the ground beside him, his shadow stretches and contorts and then resettles.

She does not say thank you; neither does he. He bows to her again, elegant as a gentleman, and turns to walk away: only this time, before he reaches the corner where he always turned before, he vanishes.

Rosalie knots her fingers in her skirts. Tomorrow, she thinks in hope and fear; tomorrow she’ll leave.

Tomorrow, she’ll be gone.

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