Frances is gravely ill. Are Edmund’s dreams of happiness to be snatched away before they’ve had a chance to flower into reality? Read on.
And if you’d like to catch up with the story so far, please do here and happy reading.
Samuel was hunched in the corner of the room, a brandy bottle clutched in his hands. ‘Coral Flitting was not refined or genteel. But she was a kind soul. Ever willing to laugh.’ He sobbed, the saddest, most desolate sound imaginable.
With a heart of lead, dreading the answer, I asked, ‘What happened here, Samuel? What has become of Miss Flitting and this poor child?’
He merely stared at me, as if lacking in sense or comprehension. Then he said, ‘When I was a child I read tales of creatures who could bewitch a man, take his life hostage and twist his mind until the threads of it spun apart like a rope undone. I never believed such tales, Edmund, even as a child.’ He fixed me with a desperate, haunted expression. ‘Now I know such creatures move among us. That they are closer than I ever considered -‘
I went to ask him what he meant by this, but he looked up suddenly. Slatina had crept, silent as a corpse to stand in the doorway. Samuel shot me a look then stared at the bottle in his hands.
Suddenly terrified at Frances’ poor state, disturbed by Samuel’s slump into self pity, I leapt towards the Moravian. ‘I demand to know what has happened here.’
His lip curled into a cruel smile as he said, ‘You are the most pathetic of men. You bluster and shout, believing you have a right to things you do not.’ His face set hard as he said, ‘Every thread of clothing you wear belongs to me. Every coin in your purse. The bed you sleep in. Every part of your life you enjoy at my indulgence. Do not fool yourself otherwise.’
He was right, of course. I had gambled away my own fortune and almost my every possession had appeared since Slatina’s mysterious arrival.
Still, my heart was breaking to see how frail Frances had become and all I could think was how I could possibly save her. Swallowing what little pride remained me, I said, ‘I beg you, allow me to call a physician to see to her.’
He laughed then, a hard, cold, mirthless laugh that sliced at my heart.
‘This ailment cannot be cured by leeches or bloodletting or any ridiculous tincture to balance the humours. This ailment can be cured by Miss Frances alone.’
I grew suddenly furious at the man’s insensitivity, for it was clear Frances was but hours from death. ‘You are a beast!’ I cried, lunging at him. ‘A man not fit to live in her sight.’
I rushed at him then, my hands raised to take him by the throat. I did not care what happened to me, my senses had fled clear away. All I thought was to choke the life from the heartless animal that mocked the passing of such a beautiful, faultless creature, that the world would not miss me in it and would be far the better for the hole that Slatina would leave behind.
As I went to grab him, something extraordinary happened, something I have dwelt on through long, sleepless, tortured nights since, a thing that makes no earthly sense but happened all the same. For as I drew within reach of him, Slatina leapt upwards, his body twisting as he jumped, his arms bending backwards to a sickening, unnatural degree until he gripped the ceiling. I lost my footing, falling to the floor and there I stayed, helpless to move, unable to tear my gaze from the abomination occurring above me. For like a spider, Slatina crept across the plaster as if it were the ground, holding himself aloft with the merest touch of hands and feet.
None who I have told have believed what I saw to be true – not the constable, not countless physicians employed to judge the state of my shattered mind, not my own barrister. But I swear in this final testament that what I say is true – that Slatina crept across that ceiling as easily as a fly grips a window pane. As easily as a serpent crawls on its belly.
For this is the truth – he was not human. He was not of this world.
Having traversed the room from one corner to the other, he dropped to the carpet onto his feet, light and agile as a cat.
I regained my tongue only enough to stutter, ‘What kind of creature are you?’
Smoothing his hair, he smiled. ‘Some have called me Shedu but I have many names – Asura, Vetalas, Shaitan. Jinn.’
‘Demon!’ hissed Samuel.
Slatina’s smile broadened further as he bowed graciously. ‘Another world, another name.’
I could hardly swallow, could hardly breathe as I said, ‘What do you want here?’
He stepped forward then, pulling me to my feet with a force so strong three men could not have withstood him. ‘To live, Edmund. That is all. Come, walk with me a while.’
He tried to lead me to the door but I resisted, gazing at Frances, her eyes now closed, her breath laboured.
As if reading from my mind, he said, ‘You may yet save her. But first you must understand what sickens her.’ He held me at arms length, staring deep into my eyes. ‘Though I warn you. Once you know the truth, you may not wish to save her.’
I dismissed his words as ridiculous. For I loved her so purely, with such a passionate heart, I could not imagine her capable of anything so awful I would not forgive her in a moment.
It was all I could do to nod, to allow myself to be led from that dark chamber and once more onto the hall beyond.
As if we were old friends reacquainted after a long absence, Slatina laced his arm through mine. ‘Allow me to tell you how I met your love.’