Content warning: a brief scene involving cruelty to animals, though nothing is shown on-page.
Duke Leonard was enjoying burning letters from the prince enormously when Brownie came to tell him that there was a child outside waiting for him. He scoffed at first, and said, “what does he look like?”
“Kinda poor. He hasn’t got good clothes on, and he’s real dirty.”
“Why the hell would a street urchin be asking after me?”
“I dunno, sir.”
“Don’t call me sir, Brownie, I can tell you hate it. Did he give a name?”
Oh no. Not Volac the grand president. How terrifying he was, especially when dressed up as a child. Leonard was shaking in his shoes. He sighed, and put the letters down. “Tell him…” An idea entered his mind. “Tell him he has to bathe and wear a suit to have the privilege of seeing me. I don’t want his filth in my house.” That would be a good way to get him out of his element, and teach him who was in charge on the surface.
Brownie shuffled his feet. “Er…”
“Pardon, lord, but I don’t want to talk to him again. I’m scared of him.”
Leonard was sympathetic. He’d been frightened of the others before, back when he’d still cared what happened to him. “Get someone else to tell him, then.”
Brownie ran off, and it was another half-hour before Volac appeared. The grand president, personification of pride and malice, stood before him in the form of a small child, no more than twelve years old. The boy’s curly red hair was usually left to go free, but it had been combed back after his bath. His rags had been exchanged for a nice shirt, jacket, and pants, and his usual smirk had turned to a glower.
“Good morning, dear president!” Leonard said.
Volac glared at him.
“Did you have a nice bath?”
Volac sat down in the chair opposite him, still staring daggers. He lifted a hand slowly, and snapped his fingers. A mere moment later, he was back in his original clothing.
“Would you like something to eat?”
“You have to come back,” Volac said. “He says so.”
“What’re you going to do, drag me there yourself?” Leonard sat back in his chair, smiling.
“No, but he will.”
“You’ll have to convince me. I don’t see anyone with you, so I’m rather unconcerned that you’ll drag me kicking and screaming back to my dukedom.”
Volac stood up, looking extremely petulant. “You have to!”
“I don’t think I will.”
Volac stomped his foot. “Yes!”
“No.” Leonard turned, and rang a bell for his servants. “Please escort this young man back out onto the street.”
“Should we leave him with anything, m’lord?”
“Oh, no, he won’t need anything. He has a talent for finding what he needs.”
Volac kicked a servant when the man tried to grab his arm. “I’m not leaving until you come back!”
“Hell no,” Leonard said. He chuckled, realizing the pun, and waved the men coming to restrain Volac away. “Don’t make me call the police, dear president, because I will.”
“What could the police do against me?”
Leonard stood up. He towered over the boy, and was able to glare down at him. He smiled, put his hand on Volac’s shoulder, and whispered, “they can do more than you would think, especially with me helping them. They have a new captain, did you know? One Gabriel Arch.”
There was no more struggle after that, and Leonard was able to peacefully sit down in his chair again. There were more letters to burn, but that would be no fun now that he was on edge from meeting that over-inflated child. Leonard scowled, and rang the bell again.
“Fetch my hat and cane. I am going out.”
The servant looked uncomfortable. “Well…”
“Is there someone else to see me?”
The woman handed him a calling card, which Leonard regarded with suspicion.
William D Sallos
666 Rue Des Devil
“Absolutely not.” Leonard threw the card over his shoulder, put on his hat, took his cane, and took the back stairs out of the building.
666 Rue Des Devil. Not obvious at all.
He would call on Johann, who unfortunately did not live at 123 Madscientist Avenue, though the fact that the name of his street was Temptation didn’t help things.
The building was only a swift walk away, and Leonard made quick time. The thought of Sallos sitting in his parlor put him in an even better mood, even made him whistle. Perhaps he would call on Richard, as well, or even invite him out tonight.
Leonard tipped his hat to the landlord as he climbed the stairs of Johann’s building. Johann lived on the very top floor, in what was essentially the attic, due to the fact that he didn’t have much money to rent out a better room. Leonard knocked on the door, which opened almost immediately to reveal Johann.
Johann Faust was a slight man, with darkish skin, darker hair, black eyes, and a blacker set of morals. He beckoned Leonard into the dimly lit ‘room.’ “Sit down, my l- I mean, Leonard.”
Leonard crossed the threshold and sat down in an armchair under a small, grimy window. “Have you been making good use of your powers?”
Johann bounced across the room and held up a cage. “Look at this!”
Inside was a monkey that seemed alive, at least except for the fact that its neck was twisted at the wrong angle, and its beady eyes had no light behind them. “That’s… very good?”
“I tried to buy it when it was alive, but the salesman refused to sell it to me. When I went back to, ahem, dig through his trash looking for empty glass bottles, I found that someone had wrung its neck and tossed it in the back. It doesn’t eat, it’s loyal to a fault, it scares off unwelcome visitors – it is, I should say, the perfect pet.”
The monkey chittered at Leonard, who grimaced. “Are you sure it’s safe to keep this creature around?”
Johann gave him an irritable look. “Did you miss the part when I called it ‘loyal to a fault?’”
“Yes, but how do you know that it’s loyal to a fault? Have you done research, tests, controlled experiments, that sort of thing?”
“Do I look like someone who had the time for that? Besides, it’s only a monkey, Leonard. I could throw it across the room with little exertion.”
“Alright, I’ll give you the monkey. But, what about the people you bring back? Are they loyal?”
“No, they-” Johann gave him a dirty look. “You know they aren’t. I wrote to you and told you about it.”
Leonard swallowed hard, and pushed his various concerns to the back of his mind. It was time to change the subject. “Of course. I was only making sure you had told the truth. What else have you been doing?”
Johann put down the monkey cage and went to stand by the other window, so that he was silhouetted against the light. “I have grand plans, Leonard, grand plans. I’m going to release some of my knowledge to the general medical community, see how that goes over, and then I’m going to claim myself as the long-lost son of some dead noble. It’s not true, of course, but with everything I know it shouldn’t be too hard to lie. I’m going to manufacture my own medicines, too, medicines that will actually help people. And besides all that, consider my work here. I can draw anyone back from death itself!” Johann grinned. “That alone will be sure to make me one of the most celebrated men ever to have lived.”
“A fine job you’ve done with those plans so far.”
“I have! I have discovered the secret to life, haven’t I? Besides, men like me can afford to wait to achieve our goals.”
“Men like you?”
“Great men! Men who have already done great things despite their unfortunate circumstances.”
“You’ve resurrected a monkey.”
Johann scoffed. “And twenty-four people. By tonight, it will be twenty-five.” He paused, and looked at Leonard strangely. “You already know that.”
Right. He was supposed to already know that. “But other than that, you’ve achieved none of your grand plans.”
“So? You gave me this power to do with it what I will. You said that I could do whatever I wanted, no strings attached. If I want to do nothing, then you can’t stop me!”
Leonard sighed. “I can stop you in less than you would think.”
“Shut up! You’re trying to tell me what to do. In the contract, you said specifically that you wouldn’t do that.” Johann drew a paper out of his pocket. “See? I have it here.”
“I don’t need to see the contract.” Actually, that would be most useful, but he couldn’t let Johann know that. “Clearly, I’m impeding your great plans. I’ll be going now.” He stood, giving Johann one final glare, opened the door, and walked down the stairs. He needed to talk to someone, to confess what he’d done.
Luckily, one of his good friends was outside waiting for him.
“Duke Mephisto,” Camilla Chambers said.
She was American, from Massachusetts, with a mother who was a member of a Native American tribe that Camilla had named once and then never again. Her dark hair was long and wavy, often unbraided, and her skin was light brown. She had a mocking smile, a high voice, and a habit of deliberately trying to get a rise out of people with her antics. Camilla was romantically inclined to members of her own sex exclusively, and could therefore sympathise with Leonard’s own preferences – he liked both.
Leonard hooked an arm around hers. “My dear friend.”
“What happened to you today? You didn’t look very well when you came out of that building.”
“I messed up so badly.”
“I want to hear the whole story. Spare no detail.”
“Can we go somewhere?”
“Mrs Elizabeth Baker’s strange theater opera house hybrid is putting on a performance just about now.”
“Ah, well, it would be fitting for me to tell you how my arrogance has led to an utter mess to that backdrop. I read a penny dreadful the other day I wanted to show you, too. It’s trash.”
They hailed a carriage and rode to Mrs Baker’s theater, a grand building of marble in one of the better parts of the city. The opera had not begun by the time they took their seats, so Leonard had time to take out the copy of a badly printed penny dreadful he’d taken from Brownie that morning. The cheap ink was smudged, but they still had a good time looking at it. The hero was one ‘Enoby Darnkess,’ a vampiric schoolgirl, and the plot line involved gratuitous sex, violence, gothic youths, some kind of time travel, and chewing. There were spelling mistakes abound, too, some of which made it hard to read but most of which added to the hilarity.
It was edition 15 of the series, and they hotly debated whether or not it was satire.
“Surely someone wouldn’t unironically write something that terrible,” Camilla said.
“You’d be surprised by some of Richard’s friends.”
In the background, the opera began, so Leonard put away his penny dreadful and turned to half-watch the beginnings of the show.
“So,” Camilla said before the second aria had begun. “How did you mess up this time?”
Leonard sighed. “Well, I’ve told you about the, er… deals… that me and my ilk make?”
“Taking souls in exchange for some kind of petty power? Yes, you’ve told me.”
“Have I ever told you about the specifics?”
“No, not really.”
“Well, a deal generally goes like this: you have a mortal who really, truly desires something. They don’t just want it, they don’t just covet it, they desire it, and they would do anything to get it. Someone like me contacts them, usually in a letter or through a dream, and we get them to agree to a deal that gives us as many souls as we deem worthy in return for granting their wish.”
“Back up,” Camilla said. “Souls?”
“Well, yes. Depending on the enormity of the wish, we sometimes ask for multiple souls. You’ve heard of Napoleon, right?”
“What? Of course not. I’ve never heard of the man who was becoming the Emperor of France when I was born, who fought half of Europe and nearly conquered Russia. I share his birthday, Leonard, of course I’ve heard of him.”
“You share his birthday?”
“Yes. I was born on the exact same day as him, in fact.”
“Impossible. You don’t look any older than I am!”
The two of them stared at each other for a few moments, then burst out laughing. When they’d regained composure, Leonard resumed his speech.
“As a child, Napoleon Bonaparte sold his soul and the souls of every man who would ever fight under him in exchange for greatness and military success. And, do you know what eventually stopped him?”
“A general gave the souls of every man Napoleon had ever killed or ever would kill, as well as his own and those of every single person who had ever even vaguely assisted Napoleon’s rise to power.”
“Indeed, but it did the trick. Understand this, though: to sell one’s own soul is a grievous sin, something almost impossible to come back from. Almost. However, to sell the soul of another, to knowingly condemn another person, no matter how foul, to an eternity of damnation to further one’s own goals, is the worst.”
Camilla was nodding. “That seems right. After all, it’s impossible to consent to having your soul stolen if you don’t know that it’s happening to you.”
“Precisely,” Leonard said. “Now, back to my original point. We have the mortal sign the contract. After that, we still retain complete control over the powers and the mortal – we can take the powers away, reverse the effects, amplify them, add on to them, and do nearly anything to the mortal. At least, the one who made the contract can.”
“It was a bookkeeping error, I swear. I didn’t do it on purpose. Just a bookkeeping error. My earthly name, Duke Mephisto, is too close to Oswald Janson’s true name, Mephastophilis. Some idiot thought that it was I who made the pact with Johann Faust, and I’ve been trying to avoid going back down to my dukedom anyway, so when they contacted me and asked ‘is this you?’ I said ‘of course it’s me! And, by the way, that means I can’t be coming back.’ It’s a free pass of sorts. I don’t have to go back for two years. Well, twenty-three months now, but let’s not dwell on semantics.”
“So, you’re officiating the deal, but you have no control over the power or the mortal?”
Leonard lit a cigar, something forbidden inside the opera house. “But, you see, Camilla, he cannot know this.”
“Why don’t you just tell the bureaucracy from Hell that they made a mistake?”
“I can’t do that! Janson is my rival, he would never let it go if I admitted to such a mistake. Besides, I still believe that this is very much a sound decision. So long as Faust doesn’t find out, he’s still completely under my thumb.”
Camilla shook her head. “You can never be dissuaded in anything, so telling you off is pointless, but I still think this is a monumentally dreadful idea. Oh, look, here comes your wife with your lover and his weird friend.”
Leonard rolled his eyes. “Duchess Emelia is not my-”
“At what point did I mention her?”
Leonard turned around. Coming down the hallway were artist, scientist, and fish lover, his wife, Serena, and his two best male friends: painter, horror writer, and grave robber Richard Golson, and poet, madman, and extreme hedonist Cesare Sabia.
“Who were you referring to as my lover?”
“The black haired one.”
“They all have black hair, Camilla.”
“The one wearing black.”
“Still not narrowing it down at all.”
“The one with the hair.”
The newcomers took their seats. Leonard kissed Serena as she sat down next to him, nodded to Richard, who was busy taking off all of the various clothing that protected him from the sun, and shook Cesare’s hand.
“I see the celebration has already begun,” Cesare said.
“It’s not a celebration until you bring the lover of the week,” said Camilla.
Cesare glared at her. Richard untangled his scarf and sat down. Leonard threw his arm around Serena and sighed to see his friends quarrelling again.
“If I don’t eat something soon, I may die,” Cesare said.
“Quickly, Cesare, I don’t think you’re being dramatic enough. Maybe spice up your speech with a few threats to faint. Ooh, or actually faint, that would do nicely to prove your point that you’re on your deathbed after having not eaten for a full hour and a half.”
Cesare glared at her. “I hate you.”
“I aspire to be hated. Being liked by an idiot is my worst nightmare.”
“I’m not an idiot, and that’s not profound.”
“Oh, shut up. Go write a poem or something.”
Richard, the eternal peacemaker, broke up the argument by leaning over to the two of them and saying, “Would anyone like to see the dancer sketches I made earlier?”
“It’s in preparation for a painting, is it?” Serena asked. She had a light Scottish accent, since that was the country of her origin.
“Yes, one of a ball that’s going to go along with my latest story. I need to paint dancers, and a grand, domed ceiling like this one.” Richard pulled out his sketchbook and showed them a page full of charcoal drawings of ballerinas. He pointed to one in the middle of the page. “This one’s my favorite, here. She’ll work as the main character of my story.”
“Don’t the main characters of your stories all die in horrible, gory ways?” Camilla asked.
“Well, yes…” Richard paused for a moment. “Don’t yours do that, too?”
“Absolutely not! I write romance!”
“Except for that one random horror novel.”
“Well, yes, except for that. But, remember, I was as high as the moon when I wrote it and had also spent several weeks locked in a house with you four, Elijah, Vera, and Daiyu.”
“That’s a fair point. Is that why almost all of the stories feature some kind of an artist or writer dying in a horrifying way?”
“It was an expression of my hidden rage against all of you.”
“No, not you, Richard. Though your moping did sort of tick me off after a while, you had nothing on Cesare and Daiyu.”
“And Serena,” Cesare said. “She made the entire kitchen constantly smell of fish.”
Serena sniffed indignantly, and Leonard laughed. He pulled part of her coat that was falling off of her shoulder back onto her. That coat was very important to Serena. In fact, they’d met when he’d shown up at her house the night after a wild party he’d hosted to return it to her.
Leonard shifted in his chair. Camilla seemed to have forgotten about the situation with Johann, though more likely than not she’d remember it later. Still, as long as Camilla didn’t go straight to Johann and tell him everything, there was hardly any danger. Johann wasn’t exactly an expert on this kind of thing, after all, and there wasn’t anyone who would easily tell him. With luck, the danger was past.
Besides, mortals were easily corrupted. Should Johann try anything, Leonard would simply tempt him back into obedience.