Finally, Edmund is learning the truth about Slatina and tragically about his love Frances too. But can he save her and himself from the Devil of Moravia’s clutches?
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‘… But I can take take this puny clay and make it last at least a little longer than its usual span. Sadly, there is a price to pay for my generosity.’
The dead child, the locket that had hung so guiltily about my love’s neck – her sudden illness. Finally, realisation shattered through me. ‘Frances has become your creature.’
Again that laugh, parched as a sealed tomb. ‘Yes, Edmund. Frances is mine. Frances, Samuel … And yourself.’
Slatina slammed the larder door, sending the black specks flying into the air. He pulled a kerchief from his sleeve, wiping his hands as if keen to rid himself from any possible contagion.
Still my thoughts buzzed, flitting into confusion as if they were the same dots of rank insect life. There was so much I failed to understand. ‘What have you done to her? How can she be so close to death, when last I saw her she was so well?’
His lip twisted into a bitter curl. ‘It seems your Frances has had a change of heart. When first I met her, she had sunk so low, I believe I might have convinced her of any depravity and she would have leapt at it like a hound at the kill. But now …’ He scowled. ‘Now she has some fancy that she might still live a good and decent life.’
He stared deep into my eyes then and I held his gaze, I think seeing him clearly for the first time. The whites of his eyes were not pure white or even yellowed with age, but crazed over with red veins, the network so complex and knitted, one might say they were more blushed than not. The irises were not brown as I had previously believed, but reddish, the colour of an oft-used butcher’s slab, of liver, of ox’s blood.
Gripping my wrist, he pulled me close to him, I unable to resist. ‘Believe me, Edmund when I say – the lady has gone too far to return to needlecrafts and homemaking. She imagines running from me, does she not? I found her skulking about the house like a light fingered maid pilfering bread and blankets. She imagined she could slip in and out without my knowing. She imagines she can begin life anew – with you.’ He laughed then, low and rumbling like storm water through a culvert. ‘She. Can. Not.’
I confess the presence of the man – those liverish eyes – had left me for a few moments incapable of speech, robbed me of all fight and movement. But at his disdain, the open mockery of our hopes now crushed in his clawed hand, some courage returned to me. ‘Who are you to deny us our future? She is a free gentlewoman. She has a right to leave this hellish pit and come away with me now. In fact I demand it.’
He smiled then, his flaking lips stetched so wide I felt the skin were like to snap, revealing the flesh beneath. ‘Ah, Edmund. Your childlike hopes have been a pleasant distraction.’ The smile snapped closed, quick as a trap on its prey. ‘But they will be put aside. Hear me. Frances is a creature caught between two worlds. She is not a human woman anymore, neither is she made of eternal flesh as myself. You yearn to make her well again, to return the roses to those dear cheeks? She must do but one thing.’ His eyes flicked to the horrid larder and its festering contents. ‘Feed.’
One word. It was but one word. And yet in its utterance all my hopes shattered about me, falling as shards, each with a dagger point sharp enough to pierce my foolish heart. I had entertained escape, freedom, a future filled with love, sweet industry … children. All had been turned against me, each fancy pressing into my soul creating the most keenly felt of wounds.
I felt my body sag beneath the weight of my reality. ‘What must I do?’
The smile returned, merriment flashing in those offal-coloured eyes. ‘It is simple. Go out into the night and procure your love a fresh meal.’
Finally he released me, smoothing my sleeves, picking specks from my coat. ‘You are of a class used to getting whatever you wish. You must know the stews, the boroughs, the narrow alleyways running with filth where a gentleman may hire his fancy for the night.’
I dropped my head in shame, for of course he was right on every count.
‘Go forth into London and find meat.’
‘What of Frances? How I can I be sure …’ I dared not voice the dark thoughts that had begun to boil in the back of my mind, but I did not need to. It was as if he could read them imprinted on my face.
‘You think I would hurt her while you are trawling the squalid haunts of the city?’ He raised his finger. ‘Edmund, I could kill her – I could kill you all – with one touch of my finger. You live through my indulgence.’ The room seemed to heat then, as if a furnace had been lit beneath our feet. In the deep wells of his eyes seemed to burn coals, red hot, sparking with the potential for destruction, for the destruction of the whole world. ‘Your every breath, your every movement is permitted because I wish you to exist.’ The coals dimmed a little then. ‘Fortunately, I enjoy the company of you and your friends and wish to keep it for a long, long time. So go and I shall watch your Frances. Take Samuel with you. I would not wish you to come to any harm and the man is so wonderfully useful in matters of violence.’
And so it was Samuel and I went forth on our dreadful mission. To entrap an innocent to their bloody fate so that my love might live.