A demon wields despair like a sword, cutting deep into the afflicted human.
— The Doren Scrolls
It was odd, Emily thought, that she could so calmly receive the news of her twin brother's impending death; her hands did not shake, her lips did not tremble. She remained still, at once proud and saddened the physician's prognosis had not evoked in her an overwhelming, incapacitating grief. Surely Colin deserved such a reaction, but it would do him no good right now.
"Are you absolutely certain? Nothing you can do will cure him?" And yes, those were her words, spoken without the hint of a sob—her voice, serene and composed, as if she were discussing the weather instead of the death of her sibling. When the fire had taken half her family, she had wept for days. But now, despite her bond with her twin, despite a lifelong tendency to be swept away by her emotions, she could not summon a tear. Fear, she imagined, did that to a person.
Dr. Johnson folded his hands, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. The whiskers along his cheeks and jowls undulated as he seemed to search for words; Emily supposed he was torn between his need to reassure a member of the fairer sex and his professional duty. All the physicians who had examined Colin had been similarly conflicted, particularly upon realizing the extent of the manor's—and Emily's—isolation.
The lack of servants had apparently escaped Dr. Johnson's notice, however, and as Emily was the only family member with whom he could consult, duty prevailed. "Regretfully, I do not believe any other outcome is possible," he said. "His condition worsens daily, and the poison within him has not seemed to decrease, despite the bloodlettings. And the leeches…" He trailed off, shaking his head in puzzlement. "I have never read of a sickness having that effect."
Emily smoothed her fingers over her bombazine skirt, willing away the memory of the leeches lying, pale and withered, against Colin's skin—as if his body had sucked the lifeblood from them. "How much time does he have?"
"As always, these matters are difficult to judge, but I would predict no more than a week. Days, perhaps."
"Days," she repeated softly and shivered. She could survive the days—surviving the nights was less certain.
She had not told the doctor everything she knew of Colin's condition: his sharp, frightening hunger after the sun had set, the unbelievable strength his emaciated form possessed, and the speed at which his injuries had healed. Nor had she told him—or anyone else—the truth about the assault leading to Colin's sickness, nor the method of their escape; it had not been a dog that had bitten him, but something far worse.
Something that, try as she might, Emily still couldn't quite believe—but she knew if she shared her memories of the attack, they'd be dismissed as grief-induced hallucinations—or worse, considered a sign of madness.
No, trusting the doctor with complete information was impossible; if she had only herself to think of, she might have told him, but she couldn't risk Robert's future by exposing herself. She was fortunate her reputation in society had remained as unscathed as it was, considering her romantic… indiscretions.
Sorrow and regret rushed through her. She could have confided in Anthony; he might have thought her fanciful and silly at times, but he had never doubted her word. If a treatment for Colin could be found, Anthony would have braved Hell itself to locate it.
But Anthony had been dead these eight months, and soon Colin would join him.
Unaware of her thoughts, Dr. Johnson rose. Clutching his bag, his expression sorrowful, he said, "I shall return next week, my lady, after I consult with my colleagues in London."
She nodded agreement and walked with him to the foyer, but she knew there was nothing he would find, nothing that could be done. Colin would likely be dead before he returned.
Emily pushed the heavy door closed behind him and then turned to lean against the wood with a sigh. Dr. Johnson had been the fourth physician from London to examine Colin in as many weeks, and his conclusions had been no different from the others'. She'd hoped one of the doctors would have recognized Colin's illness for what it was, instead of what she'd told them—but it was either too rare for them to have seen or heard of it before, or as horrifying and as unnatural as Emily feared.
If it was the latter, then God help Colin—and her.
Deliberately delaying her return to Colin's room, Emily returned to the front parlor and began clearing the tea service. The pale green walls and the peach damask upholstery on the sofa and chairs were bright and fresh; ten years had passed since Catherine, Henry's wire. had decorated the room, but the fabric showed little sign of wear, as if untouched by visitors or family.
If I had come, alleviated her loneliness instead of playing the whore, perhaps they would not have been in London when the fire struck. I should have roasted with them.
The thought rose unbidden, and Emily determinedly shook it away. She'd had similar macabre ideas over the last several weeks, brought on, she assumed, by the fatigue and stress of caring for her brother under such unusual circumstances. Her tired and frightened mind had been giving truth ghastly twists: Colin and Emily had been infrequent visitors to the manor, each preferring the excitement of London to the dullness of country life—but Henry and Catherine had been in town for the end of the season, not because of loneliness, and certainly not because they'd discovered that Emily had taken lovers.
Though she had once wanted her father to discover her indiscretions, to feel the same bitter disappointment in her that she once had in him—to feel anything for her—now she was grateful that her family had not died amidst a scandal. Except for Colin, her family had never known what she'd done. Emily had thought she would never forgive herself for being in the arms of a man when the house had caught fire. Nor had she thought she could live up to the trust Robert had bestowed upon her when she and Colin had found him, saved by his nurse taking the rear stairs to the exit.
Yet she had.
After the fire, for Robert's sake, Colin and Emily had remained in the country for the summer; except for the brief trip to London that had ended in attack and catastrophe, they hadn't intended to return to the city until the next season.
"To find a wife for me, and a mother for Robert," Colin had laughed. Emily had been amused then; but now, looking around the room that should have been comforting instead of sterile, its springtime motif an ineffective respite from the dreary Derbyshire winter, she wondered if any wife of Colin's choosing could have made this a true home for Robert.
Or now that he would never marry, if she could provide the support Robert needed. She had never imagined herself a mother, yet circumstances were forcing her to become one.
The delicate teacups rang sharply against silver as she set them down. She lifted the heavy tray—then nearly dropped it when her housekeeper appeared silently beside her.
"Mrs. Kemble!" Emily gasped, laughing at the startled jump of her heart. The silver tray wobbled but then steadied under the older woman's sturdy hands. Emily gratefully passed it to the housekeeper. "I thought you, Sally, and Mr. Davison had already left for Hartington for the evening."
"No, ma'am," Mrs. Kemble said. Emily felt the other woman's concerned—and slightly disapproving—gaze upon her face. The servants had accepted Emily's order that they leave the manor at night and to return only after dawn, but they felt the sting of her demand—particularly Mrs. Kemble and the other servants who usually lived in the house. Emily paid their lodging expenses at a Hartington inn, but they were not pleased at being forced from their home, even temporarily. "Mr. Davison was delayed in the north field, and he has only just returned. We are leaving now, unless your ladyship would prefer we stay?"