Manga, book-verse. A midwinter fairy tale -- bargains with demons and the value of loyalty.
For many months after the angel's disappearance, the people of his lordship's domain were content. The harvest was bountiful, and when in due time the butler married Luka in the rebuilt church, all agreed that never had a truer love been celebrated, in all the land. And though his lordship mourned the lost opportunity, and people would later say that the shock had begun his final decline, the young master blessed the union and gave lavish gifts to both the bride and groom.
All was well in the land, until the midwinter night when the young master fell ill. The air was crisp and cold, and a swollen, crimson moon hung low in the sky over the frosted ground where he had fallen: and when the butler lifted him to carry him gently inside, the young master's clothes ere torn, and a smudge of scarlet blood discolored his fair face.
The sudden malady left the young master weak and flushed, slowly wasting away as though some evil was feeding on his very life. The alchemist tried every remedy at his command, to no avail -- though his most heroic efforts might ease the young master's suffering momentarily, still the sickness advanced. His lordship, in despair, commanded the butler to find someone, anyone, no matter the cost, who could cure the young master before he joined his mother in death's too-hasty embrace.
The doors to the manor were thrown open, and all manner of quacks and charlatans came to demonstrate their skills, to win his lordship's favor with a cure. Yet one by one they failed, until the grand hall was nearly emptied once more, save only the young master, wrapped in blankets; Luka, tending him; and the butler, wondering where he could find the remedy for the young master's ills.
Once more the door opened, and there stood a man dressed all in white, with hair like platinum and eyes like ice, and skin as pale as milk. "If the others have had no success, may I examine the boy?" His voice was dark as the night outside, and Luka shuddered at the sound of it. The butler felt a chill down his spine, but the young master needed help, and perhaps the stranger knew of some medicine they'd not yet tried.
"Who are you, stranger?" the butler asked. "How might you aid us?"
"I am a wandering physician," the stranger replied, with a smile as cold as the snow. "I can help you, for a price."
The butler narrowed his eyes. "You will be fairly paid, if your advice is sound. His lordship has commanded me to reward any successful efforts quite handsomely."
The physician laughed, silver eyes flashing. "I have no use for your gold. I would ask a favor, for my services." He paused, polishing his spectacles with his handkerchief. "I will tell you what ails the boy, in exchange for a kiss."
Color rose to Luka's cheeks, and the butler glared. "Luka is my wife, and she would never --"
"You mistake my request," the physician murmured. "Certainly she is fair, for a woman, but that would not be to my taste even if she were not with child." Before they had even recovered from that shock -- for she was early, yet, in her term, and had not yet told her husband she was expecting -- the physician went on, "No, I would ask a kiss of you, butler."
Luka went red and her husband went white, both of them shocked. Even his lordship, who was accustomed to taking whatever struck his fancy, had never asked anything as debauched as this.
"Sir," the butler began, and the physician interrupted him:
"Without me, the boy will die. Nobody else will even be able to tell you why he suffers." His eyes glittered coldly in the lamplight. "Is it really such a price to pay, a mere kiss?"
The butler bowed his head. He knew to whom his happiness was owed. "I will pay your price. What ails the young master?"
The physician stepped forward, and Luka turned away as he claimed his prize. His lips were smooth as the finest silk, and cool, though surely that was merely the effects of the winter night. A faint scent like dying roses clung to him, and his terrible eyes sparkled with amusement as his tongue brushed the butler's lips with infinite gentleness.
The butler was distinctly flushed himself when he drew back from the kiss. "You diagnosis, sir," he murmured.
The physician nodded, as if to acknowledge a worthy opponent, and smiled. "Your young master has been cursed," he pronounced solemnly, "and if the curse is not lifted, he will die." Luka gasped and the butler drew himself up angrily, and the physician withdrew, still smiling. "If you still need my services tomorrow, perhaps I can aid you further."
He left as he had come, in a swirl of white robes in the frigid wind.
The efforts of the doctors the next day were to no avail. No pharmacist they found could brew a palliative even as effective as the alchemist's draughts. Toward evening, in despair, the butler sent for a priest, in case there was some truth to the physician's outlandish diagnosis.
When the priest laid hands on the boy, scarlet ribbons of pain blossomed on the young master's skin, and he screamed, thrashing in the bedclothes. The force of his struggles knocked the poor priest unconscious, and left the young master panting and flushed. Luka hurried to tend him, as the butler bent to examine the fallen priest.
"Your little church mouse has not the fortitude for a curse like this," the physician declared from the doorway.
The butler's eyes narrowed as he looked up. "Have you a solution, then?"
The physician smiled, shaking snowflakes from his pale hair. "Of course I do. Will you listen to my terms here, in front of your lovely wife?"
"Come with me," the butler said calmly, with perhaps a touch less warmth than was polite. "We will discuss your...terms...in the parlor."
The physician offered him a little bow, and followed him noiselessly out of the hall. His footsteps made no sound on the oak floor, and try as he might, the butler could not make out his shadow among the flickering shapes on the wall.
"What would you demand, then?" the butler asked, when the door had safely latched behind them. "More kisses?"
"You sound hopeful," the physician smiled. He tugged pearl-gray gloves from hands equally pale. "I will give you a potion to banish your young master's suffering -- in exchange for the chance to see you spend yourself in pleasure."
The butler glared, flushing scarlet. "You depravity, sir, is unmatched."
The physician laughed. "Untrue -- it's matched quite well by my skill." he reached out and stroked the butler's face with chill fingertips. "Is it such a difficult thing to ask?"
"You ask me to betray my marriage vows," the butler said calmly. His eyes were cool as the blue ocean, and as turbulent.
"Not at all," the physician smiled. "I ask you to be loyal to your lord." His lips were bloodless, barely darker than his marble skin.
It had been, after all, the young master who protected them from his lordship's ire, when the butler and Luka wished to marry. How could he now turn away a chance, however despicable, of repaying such an extravagant kindness? Looking away, his face flushed with shame, the butler nodded. "I will pay your price."
He heard the physician's hum of pleasure, but did not look up, keeping his face turned resolutely to the window as dying roses and cool silk overwhelmed his senses. The physician was like a vampire, draining him of heat and life and passion with long fingers, soft lips, and wet tongue. When the butler spent himself at last, it felt less like a climax than like a collapse, a surrender, the only relief the fact that it was over.
"Your loyalty is most admirable," the physician murmured, licking traces of seed from his fingers with a pale pink tongue. "Would you have your payment now?"
"Of course," the butler said stiffly. "I have given you what you bargained for."
"That you have." The physician reached into his coat and produced a cut-glass vial full of some pale, shimmering fluid. "May you always be so...compliant."
He left as the butler straightened his clothes and composed himself, and a chill draft followed through the hallways in his wake, extinguishing the flames of the lanterns.
Luka looked up as her husband returned. "Did he help you? Have you found a solution?"
The butler nodded. "I have, though the cost was higher than I would have liked." He unstoppered the flask and let the potion dribble between the boy's parched lips, and -- haltingly, in awkward phrases -- confessed the price he had paid.
"I will stand by you," Luka said softly when he had finished. She kept her eyes downcast, smoothing damp hair from the young master's brow now that the boy finally slept peacefully. "After all," she continued, her cheeks flushed, "it is no more than I would have done, to save my father."
The young master slept peacefully through the night, and woke in the morning weak but lucid and no longer in pain. His lordship declared it a miracle, and praised the butler for discovering the palliative that had so restored him.
The whole household thought to celebrate that evening, with the finest wines from his lordship's cellar and geese culled from the flock that very afternoon in their prime. The warmth and light of the dining room was a welcome change from the chill of fear that had seized the manor for the previous few days.
And then, perhaps an hour past sunset, the goblet slipped from the young master's fingers to shatter on the floor as he cried out in pain, his slender limbs trembling as the curse returned in full force. Mad with grief, his lordship ordered the butler out of his sight, declaring that he must leave the house by noon the next day, and that poor gentleman withdrew with his wife to await what they now knew was inevitable: the return of the monster who had authored all their pain.
He arrived in a swirl of snow and darkness, throwing open the glass doors that led from their quarters onto the balcony. His silver hair shone as coldly as the moon, and his mismatched eyes glittered with delight. "What's this?" he asked, in a tone laced with false sympathy. "Has your lord cast you aside, despite your loyalty?"
"Demon," the butler said angrily, rising to his feet, "this curse has been your work all along. Undo it, and be gone from this house."
The false physician laughed, the sound resonant with the terrors of hell. "Bargain with me once more, and perhaps I will."
The butler hesitated, remembering the caress of cool, silky lips, the touch of knowing white fingers -- and Luka took his hand, offering him her warmth, her faith. "You know what I want," he said, meeting the demon's eyes without flinching. "What will it cost, to lift the curse?"
"I offer you a choice," the demon told him, "for you have amused me. For the same payment you made last night, I will give you another potion, one that will banish the boy's suffering for as long as he lives. He will awaken, and you will once again secure your lord's favor."
"And my other choice?" asked the butler, for the demon's first offer left him wary.
The demon smiled, cruelly beautiful. "Give me this night to satisfy your flesh, and win that loyalty for my own. In the morning, the boy's curse will be lifted, though none will know your part in it." He tossed his head, pushing pale hair back from strange eyes. "And you will be free to come with me."
The butler narrowed his eyes, holding tight to Luka's hand. "And if I choose not to? If you cannot win my loyalty?"
"You think you can resist me?" the demon purred.
"If I can," the butler repeated, "what then? Will you still lift the young master's curse, and leave this place?"
The demon shrugged. "I have bargained for it."
"Your word, demon," the butler demanded, for he knew that whatever other treachery the demon might plan, if he truly gave his word he would be bound by it.
The demon hissed, annoyance marring his finely sculpted features. "I give you my word, mortal. If you give yourself to me tonight, I will lift the curse at sunrise -- whatever else transpires." Then his expression calmed, the wicked smile playing across his face once more. "Now, my prize -- strip yourself bare for me."
Luka drew away, averting her face in shame. What the demon asked was -- was horrifying, an affront against all human decency. "Should I leave you?"
"If you wish," the butler began, at the same moment that the demon said, "Stay. I insist." Oddly reptilian eyes glittered by the light of the lanterns. "I want you to watch, while I show him ecstasy."
The butler met his wife's eyes, read the compassion in their violet depths. Truly, it was no accident that the angel had worn a face identical to hers. His hands moved to the buttons of his waistcoat, his movements slow and measured, giving every appearance of calm as he disrobed.
The demon's hands were as cool as they had been the previous nights, and the same scent of half-rotted roses still followed him. His lips were soft, his tongue wet, and he explored every inch of bared skin with a slow and terribly thorough sensuality, wresting unwilling shivers and tormented moans of pleasure from his victim. The butler had never looked so delectable as this, spread out across the sheets, fair skin flushed and glistening, long limbs trembling with each sensation that played across his overwrought nerves. He gasped when the demon swallowed him down, and sobbed when the demon first took him, his back arching at the cold invasion of his body. The night wore on, oil guttering in the lanterns, and yet the demon allowed him no rest, forcing yet more unholy pleasure from his flesh, coaxing him to renewed arousal even when he had long since passed the point of exhaustion.
Without Luka, he might have been lost, might have surrendered his soul willingly to the demon in exchange for a respite, for the chance to catch his breath and rest too-sensitive flesh -- but when he felt his resolve near to breaking, when the cruel bliss of the demon's touch became too much to bear, he would look up to find reassurance in her face, and the unshed tears in her eyes reproached him. He could bargain with his flesh, but how could he surrender his spirit, in the face of her faith?
At the first hint of gold against the dawning sky, the butler pulled away. "Enough," he cried. "My bargain with you is done, demon. Pay me now what you promised."
A cold wind whipped through the room, lashing at the poor couple's skin and hair, coming to heel at the demon's call like a hunting dog. "Can you say you will be satisfied, without me?" the demon asked, his hand settling possessively against the butler's lean hip. "Can your little bride give you such pleasure as I have?"
"She cannot," the butler allowed, drawing himself up straight, meeting the demon's eyes with no trouble. "But I do not need what you have offered. I will not miss what you have given me," he said, and it was almost true. "Certainly it is not worth the loss of all I love," and that was true indeed, true enough that even the demon could hear it, and it made him shudder with distaste, for no demon can bear the power of a love both pure and true.
"Then I will leave you," the demon spat, drawing contempt around him as a mantle. "Let your love console you when you remember me, and when you have no place to go, for your lord has turned you from the door."
He disappeared as the sunlight reached them, as the first rays struck the window to their room. In his place a few delicate feathers of snow drifted down to melt, slowly, into the carpet.
Luka and her husband found no words to say to each other, in his absence. The butler washed himself clean of the demon's fluids as best he could, and dressed in silence. Without the security of his lordship's house, they would be once again as impoverished as they had been as children, hungry and cold.
The summons caught them unawares, but they made their way to the young master's chambers in due haste; surely, if he was calling for anyone, that was a sign that he had recovered -- and indeed he had, sitting up in bed, the red marks of the curse gone from his flesh like they'd never been. The butler smiled, weakly, and Luka took his hand.
"I dreamed that you did battle with the demon who cursed me all last night," the young master said softly. His eyes were green as midsummer, and far wiser than his years should allow. "That you struggled with him, for my soul."
The silence stretched for several long seconds before the butler could find it in himself to nod. "I am glad to see you well," he replied.
The young master smiled. "You have saved my life," he said. "I could hope for no more loyal a servant. I pray that you will remain with me, despite my father's harsh words."
And the butler bowed low, for it seemed a miracle that he should have such a chance, and agreed that he would.
And it would be a lie to say that all in that land lived happily for ever after -- for no man on earth is as fortunate as that. But their lives were rich and blessed, and Luka's child both beautiful and strong, and no man of his lordship's domain ever saw the white demon again.