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Last time, Edmund was reunited with an old friend and lost himself in the pleasures of the Moorfield ball. But all is not well for our confused nobleman …
‘Edmund, you must come.’
Suddenly cross at the interruption, at the spoiling of my moment of triumph, I tried to shrug him off, but his grip persisted and something about his face made me pause.
‘What is it?’
‘There has been an accident.’
His voice dropped so I struggled to hear it above the clomp of feet.
‘A terrible accident.’
For a moment I seemed lost again, uncertain of what was reality and what fiction, my logical mind struggling with what I had seen and experienced. Under the hard gaze of a thousand candles, the finest flowering of London society had cavorted, pleasuring themselves with no more thought to their decency and reputation than lunatic swineherds and deranged milkmaids at a common bacchanal.
Now this dark Moravian had hold of me, his fingers like hot pincers nipping my flesh, and for the first time of our acquaintance I realised I knew nothing certain of the man or his supposed credentials as a Prince and nobleman. Could I even know if Slatina was his real name?
Still, his fixed scowl, his agitated state – his very grip – impressed on me the urgency of the the matter and so I left the life and sparkle of the ballroom and followed him.
Soon we were away from the hubbub of guests, through the entrance hall, heading in the direction of the servants’ quarters, finally passing through a blank grey door which I did not recognise and could not be certain I had ever seen in all my years of living there.
From somewhere Slatina had procurred two candlesticks, one of which he handed to me as we reached the top of a dark, dusty stair. ‘Take care,’ he said, ‘the way is treacherous.’
And so it was. The treads were shallow – hardly deep enough to place the whole of one’s foot – the height of each step uneven, varying from one to the next to such a degree, that I had to bring my entire mind to bear merely on walking. More than once I tripped, thrust out my hand to save myself from falling headlong, the terror of taking Slatina with me, dashing out our brains on the floor below, all consuming.
The way was low and narrow, strung over with webs and crumbling, ashy mortar and I wondered again whether I was indeed asleep and in the grip of some fantastical dream. Finally, we reached the bottom, a flagged space just a few feet square and ahead a lime washed door.
Above us, casting a shadow like a crooked finger in the candle light, was a large hook, the type a butcher might use to hang meat. That hook disturbed what calm was left me, turning my head to thoughts of blood and pain and sightless staring eyes. It was with relief that we passed beneath it, through the door to the chamber beyond.
And now a most surprising thing, for we did not pass into the cramped and blinded cellar I was expecting, but into a vast space, the ceiling vaulted in great arches of stone and plaster with noble columns in every direction and all with the look of the finest Gothic undercroft.
For a moment, I was lost in pleasure at the sight, for someone had placed candles in the sconces so that walls and floor, arches and columns flickered, dreamlike. How, in all my childish wanderings, had I never discovered such a glory as that? I thought to share this with Slatina when I realised he was no longer by my side.
Then I remembered his sense of urgency, the seriousness of his expression and hastened to find him. There he was, standing a few feet away, staring at the base of a broad column that was as twisted as a cane of barley sugar.
‘Why have you brought me -‘ I followed his gaze, saw what had brought us to that place.
I discerned their faces first, heads tilted towards each other as if exchanging a whispered secret. Two sleeping princesses as in a fairy tale, their eyes closed, skin pale and waxen, fair, curled hair, ringlets intertwining. One wore a gown of shimmering oyster pink, the other was the pale blue of a duck’s egg, the cloth dusty but neatly arranged about their limbs. They were so alike, a glass might have been placed between them, only the colour of their bodices and over skirts showing one was not the reflection of the other.
My mind could not grasp the sense of the scene, nor why two young ladies should permit themselves to be lain on the flags, dirtying their attire. I was about to force Slatina aside, to offer my hands to help the fallen maidens to their feet … When I noted again the waxen tone of their skin, their stillness. One was missing a shoe.
‘Slatina.’ My voice was hoarse. It echoed oddly under the arches, seeming to return louder, hoarser still. ‘Slatina, what has happened here?’
He crouched, placing the candlestick on the flags by the barley sugar column. The flame danced over their faces, bringing a glow to their cold skin.
‘They are dead.’ His words were plain, brutal in their honesty.
And so the spell was broken. The fairy princesses were banished to sleep eternal in their magical kingdoms but we remained, the Moravian and I.
In a crypt, in my home, two slain young women at our feet.
Slatina rose, black silhouette smothering all warmth and light from the candles. ‘We must think very carefully on this,’ he said.