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A Crown of Asphodels

This story is a collaboration written with Alby Mangroves under the penname Mal and Alby for the Beyond the Pale 2 Contest. Be warned, there are *Dark Themes.* We hope you enjoy reading our story — many thanks to LJ Summers for her Beta expertise, and to LightStarDusting for pre-reading support.

Hysteria — A once common medical diagnosis made exclusively in women and widely discussed in the medical literature of the late 19th century. Sufferers exhibited a wide array of symptoms including faintness, nervousness, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, and loss of appetite for food or sex. Sigmund Freud famously tended to numerous patients afflicted with the above issues in addition to neurological symptoms such as numbness, weakness/paralysis, loss of speech, fainting (syncope), and gait problems (Astasia-abasia) with no neurological cause. His theory that psychological distress transforms into physical symptoms, gives the condition it's current name: Conversion Disorder.

Laudanum (aka Tincture of Opium) — By the 19th century, laudanum was used in many patent medicines to "relieve pain, to produce sleep, to allay irritation, to check excessive secretions, to support the system, and as a soporific." Laudanum contains all derivatives of opium including morphine, heroin, and codeine, causing it to have a profound vomit-inducing effect. Innumerable Victorian women were prescribed the drug for relief of menstrual cramps and vague aches. Nurses also spoon-fed laudanum to infants and children, primarily as a cough suppressant. The Romantic and Victorian eras were marked by the widespread use of laudanum in Europe and the United States.

Pharmakon — A Greek term meaning both poison and elixir; it is that which wounds yet also heals; the cause and the cure. It is a complex term meaning sacrament, remedy, poison, talisman, or intoxicant. The modern day word "pharmacology" stems from the same root.

Gramercy Park, New York, Spring 1884

"Do try these eclairs, Isabella, they're really quite delicious." Her mother drones, and Isabella's eyes lower demurely to her plate to prevent an inappropriate display of spirit.

She is far too upset to eat, and regards the sticky-looking pastries with what she hopes is polite detachment and not the revulsion she actually feels.

"Young Mr. Newton has recently accepted a position of some prestige with the Bank of New York, my dear," her mother continues. Apparently, she aims to fill the morning with incessant appraisals of Michael Newton's credentials as a proper suitor for her prized daughter.

"Please, there's no need for all this formality, Renée. Let us call him by his Christian name, Michael."

Abigail Newton titters, and Isabella's blush rises against her will, knowing it will be misconstrued. She can feel all eyes on her, measuring and calculating.

"Yes, of course, Abigail." Renée defers while under the table Isabella pinches the fleshy webbing between her thumb and forefinger to stop herself from crying. She can't bear to look at either of them right now, busy as they are assessing her like livestock.

Sitting stiffly erect so as not to crease her cream silk morning gown, she quietly endures the remainder of Mrs. Newton's visit. As protocol demands, her eyes remained downcast, her conversational gambits polite and appropriate, and she is sure that Mrs. Abigail Newton sees her as the pinnacle of virginal humility and, therefore, a good match for her only son.

Inside, Isabella is screaming.

"I find the entire process humiliating! It's so. . . so. . ."

"As if it is any different for me! Or any one of us! Mother keeps up a constant parade of 'eligible' suitors through our parlor. Most of them are old, fat, balding, boring, or worse, simper like a girl. Disgusting." Rosalie picks at an invisible piece of lint on her ample skirt. "I fail to see how it is any worse for you."

Isabella pauses, mouth open with a retort on her lips before sagging in defeat with a sigh. "You are right, as always. At least your mother allows you some say in the matter. Mine has her sights set on Michael Newton and my heart is to follow her eyes."

"Michael Newton? He of the pudgy face and sweaty palms?" Rosalie laughs without humor. "Horrid dancer as well. Pedantic rhythm and heavy step."

"Rose! You're not helping."

Rosalie tries in vain to stifle her giggles. "I'm sorry, Bell. I'm just remembering the Christmas Masquerade."

"Don't remind me of that dreadful evening. I wish to wipe it from my mind entirely."

When Mary, Isabella's maid, knocks on the door a moment later, they're glad for the interruption to the unhappy subject.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Miss. Your mother is asking for you and Miss Hale to join her down in the parlor. She said to tell you you have an important visitor and cannot hide yourself away. I am to help you freshen and change before joining the others downstairs."

Isabella's eyes momentarily flash with hard defiance. "Did Mother also give instruction on the dress in which I am to appear?"

Pink tinges Mary's cheeks as her eyes remain glued to the floor. "Yes, Miss. The pale blue silk with ivory lace."

Isabella mutters under her breath as Rosalie rises, squeezing her hand in sympathy. "I will join the others and leave you to your primping." Catching Isabella's eye, she gives her a sly wink. "I know well how long it takes a lady to prepare for her swain."

A spark of understanding flits through Isabella's eyes and Rosalie swishes out of the sitting room, closing the door behind her.

Isabella's hands shake.

She looks at them hovering above her knees, fanned out like bloodless white stars against the satin of her gown.

Behind her, Mary gently brushes out her dark tresses, one hundred strokes to bring out the sheen.

The late afternoon sunshine lights up the mahogany with rich, auburn highlights, warming her cheek, but not her spirit.

Here, at her toilette, Isabella treads water, despite the weight of an anchor dragging her down to the parlor below. She stares into her own brown eyes in the vanity mirror and looks for acceptance, but finds only resignation.

She dared to have hopes, once.

When she excelled at her schooling, she thought she might be allowed, even encouraged, to take up a suitable career. Her mastery of three languages, she thought, would aid her one day in traveling the same world she'd read and learned so much about.

Now, her hands shake because her parents' master plan shall soon be revealed, and it's unlikely to include either an occupation to exercise her mind, or the freedom to feed her soul.

It was ridiculous to hope.

Mother has been doggedly pursuing a good match since her debut, and Isabella knew it was only a matter of time. Still, she had refused to oblige Michael's obvious interest.

Willing away tears, she watches Mary set her hair in an elaborate up-do, sweeping the dark brown ringlets into an attractive coiffure and setting it with mother-of-pearl combs.

As time drags on, she hopes that the courtship is a long one, and the marriage itself far off in the future, as she knows nothing of men or marital intimacy.

All too soon, Renée appears in Isabella's chamber, pouting and annoyed. "I sent for you three-quarters of an hour ago! It is impolite to keep our visitor waiting so long."

Startled out of her stupor, Isabella blanches.

"Yes, Mother. But were not your instructions to change and freshen? The blue silk you requested required a more intricate hairstyle and a different set of jewels. Mary and I were just completing the finishing touches when you appeared." She smiles tightly and rises from her vanity, displaying the end result.

"Yes, well. . . ." Renée huffs. "You do indeed look lovely. Come along. We mustn't keep young Mr. Newton waiting a moment longer."

Entering the formal parlor behind her mother, Isabella isn't prepared for the scene that greets her.

Rosalie stands rigid before the window with her back to the room, annoyance written into every line of her fine physique.

At the fireplace, Michael and Isabella's father are engrossed in a most convivial exchange, their stance familiar and at ease, in direct contradiction to Rose's stiffness.

The moment his eyes fall on Isabella, Michael stands at attention, his hands nervously adjusting his waistcoat.

What little color had been in Isabella's face fades at the sight of him. He hurries to her and takes her hand.

"You look exceptionally lovely this evening, Isabella. That color is most handsome on you." He presses a quick wet kiss to the back of her limp fingers.

"My apologies for keeping you waiting." Isabella replies demurely, slipping her cool, dry hand from his warm damp one.

"Oh, it was no bother at all." He makes a dismissive gesture with his hand. "Your father and I were enjoying a lively conversation."

"Good evening, Father. How nice you were able to return home at such an early hour."

"Anything for my Pearl." His moustache twitches upward slightly at the edges, the closest he ever comes to a smile.

Isabella returns his small smile with her own when she realizes he is dressed for dinner, as is Michael, and suddenly feels faint at the implication.

"Isabella? Are you all right?" Michael reaches out to steady her by her elbow without actually touching her.

Feeling as though she can't draw breath, she frantically scans the room for a sympathetic face.

"Rose?" Isabella begins to sway as the room spins around her. Before Michael can steady her, she crumples to the floor.

"Miss Swan?" A strange voice speaks. "Miss Swan? Can you hear me?"

Isabella stirs slightly before her eyes flutter open, her gaze unfocused.

"Ah, as I thought. Only a swoon." The stranger speaks to the room before turning back to her. "Isabella? I'm Dr. Cullen. Your mother sent for me."

"Am. . . what. . . ?"

"It would seem that you swooned. Your pulse is a bit weak. What have you eaten today?"

"Oh. . . tea and toast for breakfast. A bit of fruit at luncheon, and some tea with Rose."

"I see. I'm about to ask you a delicate question, one which may well cause you discomfort, but as your doctor, ask it I must," Dr Cullen says, his voice resolute, though quieter than before. "Have you tightened your corset lacings recently?"

Isabella's eyes drop in modesty, her face coloring slightly. "Yes. Mother insists on it weekly." Her voice is but an embarrassed whisper.

"There's no need to worry," the doctor reassures softly, patting her hand. "You must eat more than that, child, and do not increase pressure in your corset lacings for at least a fortnight — it restricts healthy airflow. And I should think a turn in the park every fair afternoon would do you good as well."

Dr. Cullen again turns to the room. "See, Mrs. Swan? Nothing some food and fresh air won't cure."

"Yes, of course, Doctor. I will be sure she follows your orders to the letter. Thank you for coming so quickly."

"It is my pleasure. Send for me again should she swoon or show any other signs of illness or unusual behavior."

Dr. Cullen turns back to his patient and smiles, patting her hand once more before rising from her side. It is only then that Isabella's eyes focus on the handsome man attending her. She finds herself wondering, yet again, why her mother presses an unwanted husband and marriage upon her. Still, a suitor as intelligent and worldly as the doctor would be more readily acceptable. They would at least have Latin in common.

"Thank you, Doctor," Isabella murmurs softly.

"It was my pleasure, Miss Swan. Please do eat something as you rest this evening."

"I will try, I am of poor appetite in recent days."

"In that case, I will have some herbs sent round for your maid to steep for your afternoon tea. Honey or milk may be added if the cannabis brew is not to your liking. I will call in two days time to see how you are getting on."

Retrieving his hat and coat from the butler, Dr. Cullen accepts their effusive thanks with a gracious smile. "My pleasure," he murmurs, and picks up his bag. "Until two days hence."

Watching Dr. Cullen politely bow and make his exit, Isabella can't help but feel cast back into the sea in which she's drowning, and from which she can see no escape.

The next two days pass uneventfully as Renée keeps a close eye on her daughter, even insisting on brewing Isabella's herbal concoction herself. While Cook tempts the girl with all of her favorite foods and treats, Rose reads to her in the afternoons, in one of the Park's bowers, attempting to lighten her friend's melancholy.

On the third day, Isabella rises refreshed for the first time she can remember, and asks Mary to open the windows so that she can enjoy the early spring breeze as she bathes and is dressed for the morning.

While her mother entertains visitors with lively chatter and gossip, Isabella sits passively, decorating the room with her pretty presence and keeping her hands busy at her embroidery. Dr. Cullen's visit is the only event to give some respite from the quiet monotony.

"How is the patient today?" he asks as soon as the customary pleasantries are exchanged.

"You can see for yourself, Doctor. It's practically a miracle!" Renée enthuses as Isabella blushes prettily, agreeing to an examination.

Dr. Cullen checks her pulse and breathing, and looks into her eyes and mouth. Stepping back, he asks, "Has your appetite improved any, Miss Swan?"

"Indeed, it has. The tea is exceedingly unpleasant tasting, but it is relaxing, and I find I am decidedly hungry by the dinner hour."

"Excellent. Just the result I was looking for. No more feelings of faintness or swooning?"

"No, Doctor. I am feeling much improved and am very grateful to you."

"I am most pleased you are so well. I shan't call again, but please summon me if ever there is a need." He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small piece of paper, handing it to Renée.

"Here is a script for the cannabis tea. It may be obtained at any apothecary, although by the looks of things, I doubt you'll need more than the quantity I had sent."

"I can't thank you enough, Doctor. Won't you please join us for luncheon?"

Please, please, please? Isabella thinks, keeping her head bowed lest the doctor see her desperation for a change in company.

"No, no thank you, Mrs. Swan. I must be on my way, but I am grateful for the invitation and your hospitality." Isabella's heart sinks as he bows once again, though externally, she's the picture of an attentive daughter. "I bid you ladies good day."

She watches him leave, fervently wishing he had a reason to stay — this man, this stranger who seems to see the person within her, if only for a moment.

"If it were between marriage to Michael and remaining here forever, I think I should like never to leave this place." Isabella sighs, as she and Rosalie stroll arm in arm through Gramercy Park, admiring the new flowers and budding leaves.

"It is quite lovely, but wouldn't you like to see more of the world? Or at least more of the city?"

"What I want doesn't count. I will be leaving the Park soon."

"What makes you say that? This is one of the most elite addresses in town!"

"Yes, well, that may be now, but it's not good enough for Mother. Now that that new building for multiple bourgeois families is being built in the neighborhood, she will settle for nothing less than the Upper West Side."

The women walk on, united in their silent struggle to reconcile themselves to expectations placed upon them by their parents and society at large.

"We are but adornments in life, Rose. Raised to be beautiful, gracious, a perfect hostess, wife and conversationalist, all while running a household smoothly and bearing children." Isabella makes a dismissive gesture with her free hand, her eyes sparking with defiance. "I wish to be more than simply a bauble."

"You are more than a bauble, and anyone who doesn't see that is a fool."

"Then my parents are fools. I wish to travel, to study, to do something more than embroider linens!"

Rose sighs deeply. "I know, Bell. But it is not to be, and there is naught for crying over it. Just think, we are among the lucky few of class. Consider those poor girls on the Lower East Side who have no home, no money, and no prospects. Their life is short and brutal."

"My head knows you are right as always, Rose, but my heart does not agree. I should almost wish to be one of those girls than to endure a lifetime of stultifying expectations, weighed down and sucked dry by a husband I don't love!"

"Love? Who said anything about love in marriage? The best we can hope for is amity. The worst we'll get is animosity. I'll take either over walking the streets or begging for a meal." Rosalie shudders violently.

Isabella's shoulders slump as her step slows. "I am suddenly tired, Rose. I should like to return home. Will you then read to me for a bit?"

"Yes, of course. I've been foolish. There is a chill breeze today and we have walked far. Please forgive me. I will be happy to read to you once we're settled in front of the fire."

They have not gone far when Isabella abruptly sags against Rosalie's side.

"Bell? Are you all right?" She looks down to see her friend washed of all color. "Here, come, sit. We'll rest here a minute until you feel you can walk on."

"Yes. . . good," Isabella gasps as she staggers to the nearby bench and flops down ungracefully.

"Bell? What has happened? You were fine just a minute ago."

"I. . . I don't know. I was fine when all of a sudden everything went grey and began tilting from side to side. Your voice was very far away." Isabella's eyes are wide and unfocused, her hands trembling slightly.

"Have you felt like this before?"

"No. I. . . I don't think so."

"How are you feeling now?"

"A bit better, but simply done in — as if my strength is just. . . gone." She waves her hand weakly.

"Do you think you can make it home?"

"No, it's too far to my house. But I think I can make it to yours. I would be most pleased to see your mother," Isabella offers weakly, grateful that they're closer to Rosalie's house than her own. She is in no hurry to return to her own gilded cage.

"All right. Shall we?"

"Not yet. I'm not sure I can stand just now. My legs feel so heavy."

"Bell, I don't know what to do. I can't leave you here, but you need help."

"No, Rose. I'll be all right. I just need a moment to catch my breath. I'll be fine." She offers a feeble smile that is more of a grimace.

Gathering all her strength, Isabella allows Rosalie to support her weight as she lurches and stumbles all the way to Hale house.

"Mother, Mother!" Rosalie cries as soon as they are close enough to be heard.

"Yes, Rose, what. . . . Oh my goodness! We need help! Quickly!"

Finding themselves surrounded by the servants, Rosalie allows them to carry pale, limp Isabella inside. As she and Rosalie discuss the events leading up to Isabella's collapse, a piercing scream splits the air and they rush into Mrs. Hale's private sitting room.

"Bell? Bell! What's wrong?" Rosalie kneels on the floor at the side of the slipper chaise.

"Oh, Rose! Please call for Dr. Cullen, I can't move my arm!" Isabella wails.

Rose reaches for Isabella's arm and finds it rigid, bent as if it were still linked with her own.

Isabella gasps and turns to Rose, eyes wild. "I. . . I can't feel your hand!"

"Isabella? Look at me." Mrs. Hale's commanding voice cuts through the air, as the parlor maid appears with a tray laden with tea, soup, and bread. "Dr. Cullen is on his way and he is a fine doctor. Do not fear, he will have you right as rain in no time."

Rose helps Isabella to drink some of the hot liquid with trembling fingers. Before long, Dr. Cullen and a Mr. Masen are announced.

"Dr. Cullen. Thank you for coming so quickly. Isabella seems to have taken ill while the children were walking in the Park."

"Thank you for sending for me, Mrs. Hale. Allow me to introduce my colleague, the apothecary Mr. Edward Masen. Luckily, we were attending a patient nearby, allowing us to arrive post haste."

Turning, he takes in the two young women. "Miss Hale, may I supplant you there by Miss Swan's side? I should like to examine her."

"Yes, Doctor, of course." Rose moves away on shaky legs and drops onto the nearest chaise, tears sliding unchecked down her cheeks.

"Now, Miss Swan. I wasn't expecting to see you again. What has happened? You were out for a stroll, and. . . ."

"I was suddenly done in. Everything turned grey and tilted from side to side. Rose helped me to a bench, but I don't know how I got here. Rose?"

"We staggered here together. The servants carried you to the chaise, and then you screamed. Remember?"

"I screamed? No. That can't be right, can it?" She turns imploring eyes to Rose, Mrs. Hale, and finally, Dr. Cullen.

"Well, let's see." Dr. Cullen begins his examination by reaching for her arm. "Isabella, please relax. I need to check your pulse like I have before."

"I. . . I. . . I am unable to feel or move it, Dr. Cullen." Isabella's lip trembles as tears spill down her cheeks.

"It's all right, Miss Swan. I can work around it." He reassures her before glancing up and catching Mr. Masen's eye. They share a wordless exchange before Dr. Cullen continues his examination.

Pulling a hatpin from his bag, he prods several places along Isabella's rigid arm and then uses a small mallet to test her reflexes, only to be met with no response to anything.

"Doctor?" Mrs. Hale finally breaks the heavy silence.

"The paralysis of her arm in combination with her inability to walk with proper gait and fainting spells would indicate a diagnosis of Hysteria. It is not uncommon, but I have not seen this combination of symptoms before. Mr. Masen and I have been working on several formulations that have proven efficacious."

"Is it. . . catching?"

"No, Mrs. Hale. Hysteria is not contagious; have no fear."

"What do you recommend? Shall I ring for the carriage to take Miss Swan home?"

All present hear Isabella's sharp intake of breath, and the two men notice the change in her pallor.

"Not presently. I believe it would be harmful to move Miss Swan prior to her treatment. I hope this isn't an imposition. . . ."

Isabella looks at the doctor gratefully, realizing that his request is a direct result of her reluctance to return home, back to her cage. If she thought him sympathetic before, now she begins to regard him as her friend.

"No, Doctor, not at all. Isabella is like a second daughter to me. Anything I have is at your disposal."

"Miss Swan, when was the last time you ate?"

"I had light luncheon at the usual time."

Dr. Cullen and Mr. Masen consult their watches before sharing another communicative glance, giving Isabella an opportunity to study Dr. Cullen's associate. Mr. Masen is a very handsome man. Tall and broad through the shoulders, he moves with confidence.

Isabella does her best to answer all the questions put to her, and welcomes Dr. Cullen's request that the familiar herbal tea be prepared for herself and Rosalie.

"Miss Swan, the tea that is brewing for you now is somewhat different — with dill, mint, and caraway added to the cannabis. This tea will ease and relax you and Miss Hale. You've both had a rather distressing afternoon." He turns his attention to Rosalie, who is clutching her mother's hand tightly, and smiles reassuringly to both women.

The parlor maid slips into the room with a fresh tea pot and pours a cup for each girl. She hands the first cup to Isabella and waits to see if she needs honey or milk. She makes a face upon tasting her first sip, but waves everyone away impatiently.

A quarter of an hour passes and Isabella has noticeably relaxed into the soft cocoon surrounding her. She watches the men as Dr. Cullen speaks and Mr. Masen works. The apothecary's hands are lovely with long, slim, almost delicate fingers. He is sure and steady as he measures the medication. Isabella is captivated by the way he handles various items, and sighs aloud when he reaches into his pocket for his watch.

"Mrs. Hale? Might I trouble you for a glass and some clear spirits?" His voice is polite and assured. He does not play the timid supplicant as Newton does. The contrast between the two men is striking.

"Yes, certainly, Mr. Masen."

The parlor maid is gone but a moment and returns with a crystal stem glass and a heavy decanter on a tray. Mr. Masen pours a measure of the spirit into the glass and then begins placing drops of a deep red tincture into the glass with a dropper. The red liquid swirls and eddies within the clear, slowly dispersing itself, making it appear as if the glass is filled with rich wine, or thin blood.

"Miss Swan, you will need to consume the relaxing tea daily, half an hour prior to the draught I will be administering. Please eat a bit of bread or toast with your tea as I'm afraid the laudanum-based tincture can turn the stomach."

A final stir with a glass rod, and Mr. Masen crosses the room.

"The pharmakon is naturally bitter, and I have taken the liberty of sweetening and flavoring it. I hope it is to your liking," he explains, holding the crystal goblet by its elegant, slim stem. His green eyes are vivid and kind as he smiles at her with warmth and reassurance.

She returns his smile tentatively, while being very careful not to allow their fingers to touch as she takes the glass lightly from his grasp.

He discreetly turns from her to put away the instruments of his craft and allow her some privacy as she consumes the elixir.

"Miss Swan should not be left alone nor moved for several hours, until she has adjusted to the tincture, and Mr. Masen will remain here to observe until he is satisfied with the result." Dr. Cullen instructs Vera. "Miss Swan, is there something you enjoy that might comfort you?"

"Yes, Rose has a lovely voice and I find it quite soothing when she reads to me. It was our plan for the afternoon but with such fair weather, we decided on a walk in the Park instead."

"Miss Hale?"

Rosalie is slow to respond.

"Miss Hale?"

"Wha. . . huh?" She looks at Dr. Cullen with glassy eyes.

"I would read to the girls, but my eyesight isn't what it used to be." Vera admits.

"I shall be pleased to read aloud, and hope you will remain and enjoy the story yourself, Mrs. Hale."

"We would be most grateful for your service, Mr. Masen." She smiles at him in undisguised relief.

Dr. Cullen turns to his friend and murmurs, "Good man, Masen," before turning back to the room and offering a slight bow to the women. "I'll inform Mrs. Swan about Isabella's treatment on my way to the next appointment. Good day."

The apothecary turns his gaze to Rose, then Isabella, where it lingers a moment before slipping away. He clears his throat in the suddenly silent room.

"Is there something specific you would like for me to read, Miss Swan?"

Isabella doesn't have to think long. She names the book which has been her favorite since she was a girl. "Alice. Please, Mr. Masen, would you read from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland?"

Mr. Masen's voice is soothing, a fluid, blue ribbon of sound that permeates her ears, her skin, and her thoughts. She listens to the wonderful cadence of his speech with eyes drowsily half-open to the bay window. Its pretty white lace curtains flutter on the lightest breeze from outside, where the Gramercy Park brownstones stand proudly amongst alleys of elms and chestnuts.

". . . In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again. . ."

Mother would have Isabella take root, too, as Michael Newton's wife, and stand mute and immovable like the brownstones, imprisoned in a white limestone mansion.

She would sit in the parlor with her dead mind and her busy hands darting over some needlework.

Occasionally, he would set her to help entertain his banker friends in the evening. Then, in the dead of night, he would take her in his spousal duty and manly want, and she would let him like the women of her class are expected to do.

They would live like this, day by upstanding day. She would be the paper, and he the weight, crushing her flat.

Reclining back on Mrs. Hale's slipper chaise, Isabella's eyes slide from one slate roof to another, along that blue ribbon of Edward Masen's voice. She floats so pleasantly on the chaise, scant inches from the man himself, wishing at once for more of the pleasant meandering, and less. It is frightening to be out of control this way.

". . . Presently she began again. I wonder if I shall fall right THROUGH the earth! How funny it'll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downward!. . ."

On the periphery, she is aware of Rose and her mother, both of them silent, listening, as she is herself. The apothecary's voice is as calming as the tinctures he prepares.

Isabella feels herself sinking into the chaise, growing over it like moss. Her arm rests precariously on the edge, threatening to tumble to the floor.

Watching silently, she admires his steady hands holding the book from which he reads aloud. They are lovely hands, strong and sure, and quite graceful, though masculine.

". . . How she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains, but she could not even get her head though the doorway. . ."

She, too, is trapped, unable to find her way out of the dark hall, wishing for a potion to make her so tiny that she might slip through the cracks in the floor.

". . . and she had never forgotten that, if you drink much from a bottle marked 'poison', it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later. . ."

As her eyelids grow heavier than gravity, she directs her last glance at Mr. Masen's eyes, disappearing into their lovely green depths even as she falls into the dense ether of dreamless sleep.

The next several days pass in a pleasant haze of tea and tinctures, Rose and Mr. Masen, Alice, and Dr. Cullen while Renée hovers like an annoying gnat. Isabella's arm remains locked into a bent position, but the feeling is gradually returning, and with it some small amount of movement.

Seven days after the aborted dinner, Michael Newton sends Isabella a nosegay of iris, bellflower, celandine, gardenia, heliotrope, white lilies, and red tulips intertwined with strands of ivy. Accompanying the bouquet, a simple white card that reads:

My Dear Miss Swan,
The news of your illness lingering is most distressing.

I hope this message finds you much improved.
I should like to call on you on the morrow or day following.
Please reply in kind.
Michael Newton

"Such a lovely tussie-mussie, and an unusual combination as well." Rosalie touches the petals lightly as she bends to smell the arrangement. "Are they from the esteemed Mr. Newton?"

"Yes, they are. It was very sweet of him." Isabella cannot keep the surprise from her voice.

"So, he is sending you a message that he's thinking of you, with joys to come, devotion, purity, a declaration of his love — as if there were any doubt about that — all interwoven with fidelity. That's quite a statement. How will you reply?"

"I am not sure what to say. What would be your reply, Rose?"

Rosalie hums in response. "Something simple — perhaps thankfulness for his regards, and lasting friendship. Campanula or Canterbury bells? Solid blue carnations?"

"Mmm, yes. Blue carnations, agrimony, and pear blossoms, I think."

"Yes, that will do nicely."

The afternoon sun two days later finds Isabella and Michael sitting on a bench in the Park with Renée a discreet distance away, carefully chaperoning the couple while giving them the semblance of privacy.

"You are looking well as ever, Miss Swan."

Keeping her eyes lowered and blushing slightly at the genuine warmth in his tone, she replies, "Thank you, Mr. Newton, for your concern and well-wishes."

"Please, may we dispense of the formalities now that we are officially courting? May I call you Isabella?"

Her eyes lower further, staring at her hands clasped in her lap. Wishing she could grip them together until her knuckles turn white, but knowing he would see, she restrains her desire and slowly nods her assent.

"Isabella?" Here he lays his hand lightly upon her forearm, his trembling voice betraying his nerves. "I. . . I want you to know that I find myself nervous in your presence. You are so beautiful, my words simply fly away and I find I can only stare at you like a dullard. You are so delicate, I fear I might harm you with the gentlest touch."

Her eyes lift to his, the surprise showing plainly on her face.

His words touch her heart and soften her features. Perhaps there is more to Mr. Newton than I had before considered. She can not deny to him his fear of rejection, nor can she confirm his suit. She suddenly realizes she simply does not have enough information beyond their mothers' praises of him.

"I should like to court you properly, Isabella, if you would but allow me. I know you do not return my ardor, but perhaps at least warm feelings might blossom forth should we spend some little time together. Is there some place you long to go that I might escort you?" His eyes full of warmth, fear, and hope look desperately into hers.

Isabella shifts her eyes from his gaze, looking into the Park beyond his shoulder. His honesty has taken her completely off guard, and she finds to her surprise that she cannot prevaricate in return. "Mr. . . Michael." The name feels foreign to her tongue. "I find I can say nothing on the matter of your suit, as we are but strangers. Therefore, I can but agree to spending time together."

Michael beams his pleasure.

Thus begins the delicate courtship of Isabella Swan and Michael Newton.

Weeks and months pass in a blur of outings, picnics, dinners, and the dances of the spring season, all the while Isabella continues her daily treatments. She feels an affinity toward Mr. Masen, even though they are never left alone together. It would be unseemly for a lady such as Isabella to be left alone in the presence of a gentleman, even one with such an untarnished reputation as the honorable apothecary Edward Masen.

But by the way his eyes sometimes linger and his fingers brush her own when he hands her the tinctures, her tender feelings are perhaps reciprocated.

Reclining once more, Isabella hovers between the real world and the one hiding within the tincture, only for her to see.

She instinctively knows to keep it safe inside her, never telling a soul of her experiences here in her personal Wonderland. It becomes easier with time, and she slips between worlds without so much as a whisper of protest on either side.

Mr. Masen's reading has become the conduit to her medicated relief. Having requested that he read to her after each ingestion of the tincture has proven to be a very effective way of embracing the treatments.

In placing herself completely in the apothecary's hands, she has somehow regained her freedom.

Like Alice, she travels in whimsy. It is the greatest freedom she has ever experienced, and quite naturally, she cares not to go back.

". . . but Alice had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way. . ."

On her mother's lounge, she allows her lids to grow heavy to the tune of Mr. Masen's melodic voice, and for her whole body to hover on the edge of consciousness. She embraces this state of in-between as though it were a windowseat in the sun, and she a luxuriating cat.

Isabella's essence travels, reaching out to the world around her, especially to the apothecary, whom she has taken to calling Edward, if only inside her own thoughts.

Awkward at first, the probing tendrils of Isabella's essence refine and elongate, anxious to make contact with his skin the way his voice makes contact with her soul, touching down lighter than feathers onto Edward's wrist. They disperse under his sleeve, pulsing with the beat of his heart and bleeding out over his forearm, hovering over him like second skin.

She can see her golden essence glowing beneath his shirt and lifts her drowsy eyes to Mr. Masen's face, wanting to send her pulsing tendrils to glide over his handsome, masculine features once more.

". . . Poor Alice! It was as much as she could do, lying down on one side, to look through into the garden with one eye; but to get through was more hopeless than ever. . ."

His voice is as smooth as midnight. When she looks up, he seems to be looking right through her external shrouds, and into the depths of her as she floats in her in-between. When he speaks, it's directly to her, but the words that fall into her ears are not those he is reading aloud.

"I see you," he seems to say, without moving his lips to form the words."I see you, Bella, in all the glory of your soul."

And all the while, he's reading to her from her favorite book, making her wonder what it is that he sees of her beneath the surface to have him saying these odd words.

". . . But if I'm not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, THAT'S the great puzzle!. . ."

The glowing curls she sends over Mr. Masen caress him more intimately than anything Isabella has ever witnessed — she has never seen physical affection displayed this way. It's arousing and disturbing at the same time.

Isabella's essence delights in every cord of lean muscle, every projection of bone from beneath his skin, even as her sense of propriety is appalled.

She circles his Adam's apple like a starving vulture and sends her essence to alight on his head like a halo.

She has never noticed a man's ears before, but Mr. Masen's ears are perfect, delicate as pink seahorses peeking from beneath bronze hair and sideburns. Smiling in wonder, she sends her glowing cirrus to follow the curves and hollows the way trickling water follows a dry riverbed.

Such intimate touches are making a blush rise over her skin and she feels it glowing from her face.

". . . Everything is so out-of-the-way down here, that I should think very likely it can talk: at any rate, there's no harm in trying.' So she began. . ."

"I don't understand what is happening," she whispers in her quietest voice, so quiet that she doesn't even hear it herself.

But Edward hears her, and though Mr. Masen keeps his eyes on the page, Edward'sphosphorescent green eyes glow like fire and burn into her own dark brown ones.

"You are, my dear Bella, you are."

His answer makes no sense whatsoever, but she smiles, thankful that he sees her underneath all her pretensions and coverings and speaks directly to her.

"I wish to stay, Edward," she continues, lips barely moving at all, but Edward simply laughs throatily even as Mr. Masen's mouth continues to read from the tome in his hands.

She wants to ask more, but the green fire from Edward's eyes is so hypnotic that she just stares instead, her eyes growing until they're bigger than she is herself, her glow encompassing them both, flowing in bursts from her pinked skin.

When eventually the tendrils of her essence begin to recede, she is almost spent from the delicious, illicit contact and from the prolonged state of arousal she is completely unaccustomed to. Her hooded, dark eyes drink in the sight of Mr. Masen reading for as long as they can, until she begins to feel the weight of her own limbs again, and settles back into her bones.

The lounge is her anchor once more. Too heavy for her own body, Isabella seeps through into the ether and sleeps like the dead.

More and more Isabella finds herself torn between the two men. While most of society flees the city during the heat of summer, it is decided that she and Renée will remain in order for Mr. Masen's treatments to continue. Dr. Cullen only calls on Isabella once a fortnight now that her symptoms are less severe and more transient.

"Dr. Cullen, Mr. Masen, how much longer do you anticipate these treatments continuing?" Renée asks them imperiously.

Isabella colors at her mother's rudeness. It has only been a few weeks since Rose and her family left for the summer. The end of September seems like a long way away, and Isabella misses her friend dearly. Rose would surely speak for her at times like these.

"That all depends upon Miss Swan." Dr. Cullen looks at her kindly in hopes of lessening the sting of their words. "We have discussed that the treatment will last at least through the rest of the summer."

"Yes, yes. You've already said that." Renée waves impatiently, her displeasure radiating outward.

"I want to know about the upcoming fall season. Isabella needs several new dresses and will need a new fitting if she remains at her current size. Can we not at least cut back on the cannabis tea that has her eating every minute of the day?"

Isabella blushes scarlet in her shame and anger. She has tried to eat less, knowing that Mary can no longer draw her corset tight enough to fit most of her wardrobe, but she never dreamed her mother would speak of her so with the two men. It's indelicate if not indecent! How dare she say such things in their presence!

"Mrs. Swan! I am disquieted to hear you speak of your daughter so, especially with her present. She is still recovering from her illness, and is finally blooming with health. The shape of her figure is perfectly normal and becoming to a girl of her station. Which is more important to you: the state of her health or the shape of her figure?"

Isabella has never seen Dr. Cullen's eyes flash with such anger. Nor has she ever experienced someone standing up to her mother in such a way. Even Mr. Masen's usually calm countenance is darkened with displeasure.

Renée is clearly flustered by the men's response to her. Her hand flutters aimlessly until it lands at her throat, her mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water, which she clearly is.

A strange soft whistling noise suddenly surfaces — it sounds as if it were wafting in from a distance on the sultry breeze. The two men and Renée are drawn to the French windows overlooking the Park seeking the source of the strange tone. It grows louder slowly, but it is only when a loud thump resounds behind them do they turn as one and realize the origin of the whistling was not outside but within the room.

Isabella is slumped on the floor, unconscious, her breathing shallow and labored, her corset clearly restricting her ability to breathe.

"Masen! Let's get her up to her rooms. Mrs. Swan, have your daughter's maid join us. We must loosen her corset immediately." Dr. Cullen's voice is calmly urgent and commanding.

He turns to see that Mr. Masen already has Isabella in his arms and is rushing out the morning room door. Dr. Cullen pauses long enough to grab both their bags, leaving Mrs. Swan standing in the middle of the room with her hand at her throat looking properly chastised.

Upstairs, Mr. Masen lays Isabella carefully on her bed as Dr. Cullen sets their cases on a nearby side table. Mary rushes in moments later.

"Mr. Masen? Dr. Cullen? What can I do?"

"Mary, Miss Swan's corset is clearly restricting her ability to breathe. We must loosen it immediately."

She hesitates, working up her nerve to speak. "Well, Sir. . . I hate to think of Miss Isabella's embarrassment to be so exposed with you gentlemen present." Her cheeks are bright red and her eyes steadfastly glued to the floor at the end of her speech.

"Yes, of course." Dr. Cullen answers distractedly. "We will await you just outside the door. If there is any change, you must speak immediately and allow us to return. Miss Swan's life could be in peril. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Doctor."

The two men quickly quit the room as Mary turns to her charge and begins undressing her with shaking fingers. As soon as the dress is open enough, Mary unties and unlaces the restricting undergarment, tutting over the blue patches spreading their unsightly discoloration across her charge's ribs. Isabella's breathing deepens and eases immediately though she doesn't return to consciousness.

Mary lays her hand over her pounding heart in relief before removing the dress and corset completely and replacing them with a modest sleeping gown and her favorite crimson robe. She removes the pins from Isabella's hair and does her best to make her comfortable and well covered before opening the door to the two gentlemen waiting just outside.

"Her breathing eased as soon as her corset was loosened. I've taken the liberty to make her as comfortable as possible. She has neither stirred nor wakened."

"Are there bruises, Mary?"

She lowers her head but doesn't respond; her silence signals confirmation.

"Thank you, Mary. You've done a fine job." Mr. Masen's warm, gentle voice expresses his gratitude. "Would you please remain with us? I think all concerned would be more comfortable with that arrangement. And we may be in need of your services again."

"Yes, certainly, Mr. Masen. Whatever you need."

Leaving the door ajar after the men enter Isabella's rooms, Mary sits in a corner, observing the two men compassionately examining her charge while murmuring to each other.

"Miss Swan? Can you hear me? Squeeze my fingers if you can hear me, Miss Swan."

Isabella's face creases in protest, but otherwise there is no response.

"What of the nausea, Cullen? If it is stronger. . . ."

"I do not think there is time for the tea. It is a risk we must take."

Mr. Masen looks displeased but doesn't argue, and begins mixing the tincture.

"Perhaps simply more of the same mix?"

"No, I think increase the pharmakon by one-eighth measure at minimum."

"That's only a drop or two."

"Reduce the spirits then, and make it three drops." Dr. Cullen sighs and runs a hand through his hair, a most unusual gesture for him and unwittingly revealing that he is at a loss. He turns back to their patient and tries his smelling salts.

The apothecary catches Mary's eye and signals silently for the spirits and glass he knows are in the connected sitting room. She returns quickly with both, and shaking his head while following his colleague's instructions, he measures somewhat less of the spirits than usual.

As he is counting the drops, Isabella stirs and her eyes open. He pauses in his labors and gazes compassionately upon her face with relief clearly written in his green eyes.

Isabella's eyes circle the room, her fear and panic clear. "What. . . ? How?"

"Miss Swan. You're fine now. Your corset was so tight it restricted your breathing too much and you lost consciousness."

"Where's Mother?" She whispers, feeling no heat in her cheeks despite the rising blush, her eyes remaining downcast.

"I asked her to stay downstairs, the better we might tend to you unhindered. You gave us all a bit of a fright. Do you remember our conversation?"

Isabella frowns slightly in concentration. "I remember greeting you as you joined us in the morning room and the next thing I know, I'm waking here."

"I know this will be uncomfortable for you, Miss Swan, but I must insist on seeing your ribs. Simply listening to your breathing today will not do after the whistling sounds you were emitting just a brief time ago." Dr. Cullen's tone brooks no argument, "Mary is here, and she will ensure that your modesty and virtue remain intact."

Isabella's shoulders slump and she meekly submits to exposing a sliver of her midsection. She cannot bear to be so vulnerable and exposed, so she turns her head and squeezes her eyes closed. Dr. Cullen's fingers are warm and gentle as he probes her tender ribs.

"Miss Swan, is it painful when I press here, here, or here?"

She gasps and winces in answer as he presses each spot.

Mr. Masen shifts his gaze back to his hands, unable to bear the ghastly marks upon her pale skin. He finds he is no longer absolutely certain of the number of drops of tincture in the glass, and in his disconcerted state, he adds three too many.

Dr. Cullen draws the sheet up to Isabella's chin. "Miss Swan, how long have you borne marks thus?"

Her eyes still screwed shut, she merely breathes her answer as shame burns through her. "I. . . I don't know. A week, perhaps a fortnight? Mary had to use her knee yesterday to pull tight enough my dress would fasten."

"I see." Dr. Cullen rubs his face with his hand in frustration. Women and their insane desire for a hand-spanned waist! I shall never understand placing fashion or looks before health! He notices the tears leaking out from between Isabella's closed eyelids and sighs.

"Miss Swan, you will be fine. The over-tight corset has bruised your ribs. I want you to spend the next several days in bed resting. Mr. Masen and I are adjusting the dosage of the pharmakon to aid your body's own healing response. You are not to wear a corset or a restrictive garment of any kind until you have my permission. Understood?"

"Yes, Dr. Cullen." Isabella's voice is nearly soundless, and her head remains resolutely turned away.

"I will go downstairs and speak to your mother while Mr. Masen administers the tincture."

She nods to acknowledge hearing him before burrowing deeper into her pillow, the thought of facing gentle green eyes simply more than she can bear.

Mr. Masen clears his throat. "Mary, I believe Miss Swan would prefer a moment to compose herself. I shall wait in the hall." Light footsteps mark his exit from the room.

Cracking one eye open the tiniest amount, Isabella looks about the room to confirm she is indeed alone with Mary before turning to her maid and allowing her to feed her sips of the drink. She can taste its strength and feel the bitter burn in her throat. Mary helps her readjust her gown and robe around her body.

Before the glass is half empty, Mr. Masen returns to help her consume the rest, her head lolling before the final mouthful.

The beating of her own heart is so loud and felt so deeply, she is sure her body is driven rhythmically into the soft pillows beneath her by sheer force of it.

Isabella fists handfuls of her crimson dressing gown to steady herself, fingers bloodless.

The acrid taste on her palate is stronger than before and she finds she is holding her breath, waiting for the intensity to reach its peak, but the pressure keeps rising, the room tilting on its axis around her.

Isabella squeezes her eyes tightly shut but it doesn't help steady her, plunging her into the void instead. With a gasp, she opens her eyes to get her bearings, surprised to find herself still on her bed with Mr. Masen sitting on a chair beside her.

He has removed his cuff links, and the sleeves of his crisp white shirt are rolled up to his elbows, exposing sinewy arms, lightly dusted with reddish-gold hair.

It's astounding to note that she can see his pulse. His heart beats along with hers in a unified concerto, drumming to an exotic pulse like music from a strange land.

Isabella becomes a cartographer, and he the uncharted land. There are his big hands with their long, graceful fingers, hanging limply from bare forearms braced on his knees as he keeps vigil at her bedside. He is slumped forward, and heavy locks of thick, bronze hair have fallen over his temple. Without thought, Isabella lifts her arm and brushes a lock aside with her pallid hand.

Startled, the apothecary looks into her eyes, and any semblance of sense flees from her head, for his phosphorescent green eyes are those of Edward. There is nothing he can't see, and she lies exposed, breath stolen from her lungs, her hand falling limply back to her side.

Directing her gaze down at herself, Isabella notes that her lovely crimson robe is pulsating with color. The crimson brocade has turned to a rich, dark plum, throbbing like her heartbeat into the still and quiet room.

Soon, it is all she can see and feel, the vibration ebbing over her skin, making her strangely anxious, fervently wanting something, though she has no idea what.

"I feel feverish. What is happening?" Isabella whispers.

In answer, Edward's smile slowly grows wider and becomes rapacious. His straight, white teeth gleam in the darkness. He is the Cheshire Cat, watching over her.

The sheen of the plum robe is so rich and thick that Isabella feels as though it's an extension of her, just like the tendrils of her sleeve were the extensions of her hands. The length of her body is cloaked in this pulsating aura, which travels in glowing waves embracing Edward where he sits beside her.

Her red pulse clings to him, embracing and probing, and she gasps at his cold, smooth essence beneath the tentacles of her burning heat.

She murmurs, "Edward, I feel. . . everything!" She is entranced by the glowing green of his eyes.

Little by little, those eyes dilate until they're smiling, iridescent cat's eyes, seeing her, seeing into her soul. Her own eyes are huge with amazement when she realizes that Edward also has an aura, and it is pulsing in time with hers, though his is bright green to contrast with her crimson red.

She feels the fresh green tendrils of Edward carving a path through her deep red pulse, her real fingers splayed taut at the intensity of coldness invading heat.

The pounding of her blood becomes a deafening storm in her ears and she writhes on the bed, helpless to restrain herself, unwilling to lose connection with those probing ghostly fingers.

She digs her own fingers into her skin, bunching the nightgown in florets, and watches Edward's eyes widen at the motion of her hands kneading and pressing into lush crimson brocade and the soft flesh beneath.

Mr Masen's eyes widen too, as he sits beside Isabella, stunned into silence as he witnesses her unexpectedly passionate behavior and sensual sounds. He has not even the presence of mind to call Mary in from the next room where she is folding linens.

Isabella's body is not her own to control as it squirms and thrashes under Edward'swispy caresses, the pulse of her crimson essence becoming more intense as the heat rises in her blood and begins to boil over.

As before, she waits for the crux of intensity, frightened to reach the peak of the incredible wave she is weathering while buoyed by Edward's glowing green eyes.

The pressure inside her rises steadily like built-up steam until It's wrested from her with a lament — half a cry of longing and half unearthly, unbound pleasure.

Slowly, softly she falls, until finally she rests in her own body once more.

It's only as the red pulse recedes back to her own body that she begins to retch uncontrollably.

Snuffing out the color and beauty, the stabbing pain and lack of breath send her spiralling into opaque darkness.

Upon waking in the darkened room, Isabella realizes she is not alone. Opening her eyes, she finds Mr. Masen across the room, reading by lamplight in a comfortable armchair apparently brought in from her sitting room.

In the corner, Mary mends quietly, stifling a yawn.

For several minutes, Isabella is only able to move her eyes, her body too heavy and lethargic from her drugged sleep. Her mind, slow and fuzzy, replays bits of her recent vision as if they were memories and she finds herself confused between what occurred with Edward and what the apothecary had seen or not seen. It is only when she attempts to swallow and chokes slightly do the others in the room become aware she is awake.

Mr. Masen is instantly at her side, cool fingers at her wrist, while Mary stands at the foot of the bed in readiness.

"You. . . you're still here." Isabella's tongue feels thick and focusing takes a great deal of concentration.

"Yes, of course. I had to ensure you're all right," he replies quietly, gazing down at her with earnest tenderness. The fingers at her wrist tighten a little.

"My. . . my throat hurts," she rasps huskily, squinting up to see him in the dim light.

"I would imagine so. You retched and, before it could be prevented, you aspirated and choked. How is it to speak?"

A short coughing fit wracks Isabella before she is able to reply. "It burns." She gasps between spasms.

"I suspected as much. Bile is an acid and burns soft tissues most painfully. Without the relaxing, stomach settling tea, your body had a not-unexpected reaction to the tincture. I am sorry Miss Swan," he says with genuine regret.

A knock at the door interrupts him and he turns to see Mary admitting an unknown woman into the room, followed closely by Renée.

"You must be Mr. Masen, the apothecary. Dr. Cullen sent me. I'm the night nurse, Shelly Cope." Her voice is firm and confident, her bobbed curtsy perfunctory, her Scottish accent heavy. "And this is the patient, Miss Swan, I presume?"

"Yes. She's just woken." He turns back to Isabella and smiles reassuringly. "Because of your reaction to the dosage of pharmakon this morning, Dr. Cullen and I feel it would be best to administer slightly less than your usual dose twice daily rather than an increased dose once. Thus, the services of a night nurse have been engaged for administering and monitoring the second dose."

Isabella looks apprehensively between them all, clearly confused and overwhelmed by Mr. Masen's words.

Nurse Cope reaches over and pats her hand with a warm smile. "Don't you worry about a thing. You'll be right as rain, soon. I would trust Dr. Cullen with my very life."

Mr. Masen turns to the three women. "With the damage to her throat from the aspiration, no hot liquids or hard food of any kind. Only cool, soothing nourishment for the next two days."

Turning back to Isabella, his expression softens and he continues in a much gentler voice, "It would also be best if Miss Swan spoke as little as possible for the next day. Her vocal chords are irritated and need a chance to heal as well."

Isabella thinks she saw him wink at her as Edward would do, but Mr. Masen's eyes remain open.

"It is late, and I must be off. Miss Swan, I will see you in the morning. Nurse Cope, I will go over dosing instructions on the morrow; tonight, all that is required is to monitor and observe the patient. Remember, no hot liquids or firm food."

Casting a final glance at her, he is gone and Isabella cannot stop the tears that trickle down her cheeks, much less understand why they are there in the first place.

The rest of the summer passes quickly. The dressmaker is sent for only a few days after the choking incident. New undergarments are needed and a dress or two made over, to be ready once Isabella is given permission to rise and dress. Once done, the seamstress would begin creating a new wardrobe for Isabella in earnest.

Michael fills her rooms with flowers and nosegays, and visits as often as Isabella allows. She appreciates his kind thoughtfulness, and finds his company amiable, but she knows in her heart she has no interest or attraction to him at all.

At Rosalie's urging, she tries to tell her mother of her feelings about the match, but Renée refuses to listen. An uncomfortable silence settles over the house as the chasm between mother and daughter widens.

A fortnight after the aspiration and at Renée's insistence, the night nurse is discharged so the treatments are reduced to once daily again.

Without the evening dose, Isabella is overwrought, pale and sweaty, and regurgitates her dinner each evening despite imbibing the stomach calming tea.

She wakes in the night wailing, scratching at invisible insects that she swears are swarming over her body. Shaking her arms and sweeping off the nonexistent parasites, she yells that she can see them there, right there! out of the corner of her eye, twisting and lurching in Mary's grasp.

Growing increasingly desperate, Mary is finally forced to tie gloves to Isabella's hands before bed to prevent her from injuring herself in her sleep as she scratches at herself relentlessly.

On the fifth morning since the evening doses have ended, Isabella is absolutely desperate for Mr. Masen's arrival and the relief he brings. She waits impatiently in her mother's morning room, unable to sit still for the itching of an army of ants crawling up and down her arms. When he finally hands her the draught, she drinks it down greedily and waits for sweet release.

It does not come.

When the shroud of drowsiness doesn't descend the way she expects it to, the way she needs it to, Isabella begins to wring her hands.

She forces herself to lie awkwardly propped on the chaise, feeling like she is perched on a bed of nails.

She closes her eyes tightly, willing the euphoria to descend. Little by little, she manages to relax but stubbornly, her body refuses to achieve the state of bliss she craves, and she grows more restless by the minute.

She senses the apothecary nearby and chances a look, hoping to find Edward'sgreen fire but she is disappointed. Her body lies quivering and sweating on the chaise while Mr. Masen looks on, his eyes lovely and kind but not Edward's.

Isabella feels her desperation rising, and knows it's plain on her face. She dies little by little, while the godforsaken tincture refuses to work, and Mr. Masen sits calmly beside her as though nothing were wrong.

The crawling on her skin turns to a creepy roil, and she shakes with the effort of keeping still, when all she wants is to dislodge the columns of insects marching over her with thousands of itchy, irritating feet.

She waits and waits, but there is no respite from the awful sensation.

Finally, she can take no more. Rising up on her elbows, Isabella attempts to dampen her desperate frenzy. She finds Mr. Masen's eyes trained on hers, his expression one of concern.

"Mr. Masen, you must help me! It isn't working!"

"You must lie down and allow it to take, Miss Swan, I cannot dispense more without Dr. Cullen's advice," he explains, brows drawn together with sympathy.

"Oh, but you must! I shall go mad if you don't," Isabella implores, voice breaking under the strain of holding back her despair. "My skin, I feel tiny feet scratching me all over, I cannot bear it, please!"

"I cannot, Miss, it would be too much! I must consult with Dr. Cullen to change the dose. . . . "

"Please, Mr. Masen! Please, you must!" She exclaims, finally bursting into tears. Advancing on him, she reaches for his leather bag. Stunned, he watches her wrestling with the lock while her hands shake as though with palsy.

"Miss Swan! You must stop at once!" he shouts, instantly remorseful for having raised his voice at her, but thankful that the surprise of it has stopped her frenzied fumbling.

With a horrified, "Oh!" Isabella covers her face with her hands and sobs in earnest, breaking his barrier of reserve. He reaches out to her, awkwardly trying to comfort the distraught young woman.

Standing ramrod stiff, knowing it's highly inappropriate, he enfolds her in his arms. When she brokenly sobs her pleas into his tense embrace, he finds he cannot refuse her. Aware he is crossing a boundary, Mr. Masen rubs gentle circles over her back while fighting the urge to inhale her essence.

Assisting her back to the chaise and ensuring she is comfortable, he places another, much smaller dose in her shaking hand.

As soon as she is adrift, he calls for her mother and summons Dr. Cullen. The evening doses and accompanying night nurse clearly must be reinstated immediately. He will accept no refusal from the vapid, insensitive mother, and he knows Cullen will stand firm alongside him.

Only the thinnest veneer of politeness exists between the three, with Renée feeling usurped in her role as caretaker and decision-maker by the two men.

Isabella is the lost battlefield, torn between them.

The opening gala of the fall season is traditionally held on the first Saturday in October, at the Strong residence across the Park. For at least two weeks prior, the Swan and Hale women exist in a tizzy of dress fittings and shopping, experiments with elaborate hairstyles, and learning how to gracefully accommodate the new, larger bustles just coming into vogue.

Everyone who is anyone will be there and Renée fusses over every detail, having her daughter model dress after dress in her indecision. Settling on three, she then has Isabella show her multiple pairs of shoes and jewels and hairstyles in every combination.

"Enough Mother! I cannot bear this a moment longer! It is as if it is my debut and it is not! It would not do to outshine those being introduced! You have settled on my match have you not? I do not understand why you fuss so!" Isabella splutters in a rare display of temerity.

"Child, you have no idea what's at stake here. Only I know what's best for you." Renée draws herself up to her full height. "The first ball of the season is always of the greatest import and you will do well to remember it!"

Her eyes flash dangerously and Isabella cowers before her dominating presence.

"You will wear the blue and gold, the cream floral shoes with heels and bows, the sapphires, the most intricate of the new English hairstyles draped with pearls, the sapphire clips, and the gold roses," she orders imperiously.

Renée is fairly seething at this point. She looks forward to the upcoming nuptials, having secretly planned most of the wedding in the hopes of having her daughter firmly ensconced in Michael Newton's manor before year's end.

Isabella's head is bowed in submission, hiding her own angry eyes. "Yes, Mother. As you wish." She turns in silence and quits the room, her meek posture belying the temper flaring beneath the layers of skin and cloth.

The day of the event arrives and the women remain cloistered in their rooms, bathing, primping, and readying themselves for the grand evening.

Preparations continue well into the evening, with Nurse Cope only able to administer a half-dose as there is not enough time for Isabella to slumber, and she must not be in a stupor at the ball.

Isabella is glassy-eyed and docile as Mary rolls on the silk stockings, ties on the lovely cream floral shoes, installs the enormous bustle in place, and carefully encases the life-size rag doll in her finest gown of blue velvet and gold brocade.

Walking her carefully across the room, Mary holds her upright before the full-length mirror. Isabella reaches a shaking hand to her face, her hair, her dress.

Her figure is curvier now, made more womanly thanks to the hunger-inducing tea. Her exposed skin is as translucent as the finest porcelain — almost with a bluish tinge — thanks to her protracted illness, while the heretofore dark circles are erased thanks to the restful slumbers of the pharmakon tinctures. As she watches, a sparkle lights her eyes and a pretty blush colors her cheeks as her excitement over her appearance grows.

"Oh Mary!" Isabella cries in wonder and gratitude, wheeling around and drawing her handmaid into an embrace. "Thank you so much. . . for. . . for everything!"

"Oh now! 'Tis my job and my joy. Be off with you. Your young man is waiting."

Isabella's joy dims ever so slightly, though Mary doesn't notice.

Downstairs, Michael hears Isabella begin her descent and, impatient, enters the foyer only to be frozen into stillness by the vision of loveliness before him.

The bodice of Isabella's dress is rich deep blue velvet, fitted close, then flaring slightly over her hips and draped in diagonal waves. A golden brooch closes the gown at her throat, a triangle of tender exposed skin framed beneath.

The skirt is a lightweight gold silk brocade, ruched in flattering, angled rows above wide, vertical box-pleats, while a small train of brocade and deep blue pleated chiffon peeks out from behind her at every step.

Her silhouette is the perfect hourglass, the colors and fabrics she is swathed in rich and tasteful, but in the end, all Michael can see are her enormous, warm brown eyes.

Snapping his mouth closed as she joins him, he extends his arm and smiles down at the fragile beauty before him. "Shall we?"

With a shaky breath, she responds, "We shall," and takes his arm.

They enjoy a lively evening of champagne and dancing together with other young couples. Several hours later, Isabella finds herself warm and shaky from exertion and the reduced pharmakon dose. Seeking cool, refreshing air, she and Michael slip quietly from the ballroom.

Standing just a few feet beyond the open French windows on the rear terrace while remaining within the light glowing from inside, they breathe deeply of the crisp night air.

Realizing it is the first time she has been alone in the presence of a man, Isabella cannot repress the joy that wells forth. It's her first moment of true rebelliousness and giggles escape around the hand pressed to her mouth, her eyes glittering in merriment. Relishing this moment of freedom from her mother and from her recent ailments, she grins in delight.

Michael, having been waiting for his moment all evening, drops to a knee in front of her and grasps her free hand in his own.

"Isabella Marie Swan? Your radiant smile and shining eyes mean the world to me. I wish to care for you and protect you all of your days. Will you do me the very great honor of becoming my wife?" His eyes look up into hers with pure devotion, love lighting up his entire countenance.

Isabella's smile slips from her face, like rain down a window pane. The effervescence of her giggles turn flat and sour in her throat.

This is it.

The moment she'd been dreading for months.

Now I understand why Mother fussed so, she must have known he would propose this night.

Having no illusions, Isabella understands that she is expected to accept. Indeed, her acceptance is taken for granted, their mothers having already arranged this between them.

Her heart and soul scream an agonized no! even as her lips form and breathe the word yes.

That one syllable seals her fate and she is limp in his euphoric embrace.

She arises the next morning shaky and frightened, chased from her sleep by the demons haunting her dreams. She does not realize she is unable to speak until Mr. Masen arrives at his usual time, finding her still sleepy-eyed and not yet dressed. Ever the gentleman, he averts his eyes before they can linger on Isabella's feminine curves draped so fetchingly by her dressing gown.

"Good morning, Miss Swan. How does this day find you faring?"

Isabella opens her mouth to speak, but makes not a sound. She attempts to clear her throat to no avail.

"Miss Swan?"

Isabella tries once more to greet Mr. Masen, but no sound issues forth. Her hand flies to her throat and she tries to swallow and finding it difficult. She raises huge, terrified eyes to him, her mouth opening and closing, her breath coming in gasps.

"Miss Swan!"

He is instantly at her side helping her to sit on the nearest lounge. She stares in wordless horror, first at Mary, then Mr. Masen.

"Miss Swan, are you able to speak?"

Slowly, Isabella shakes her head.

"Mary, bring pen and paper."

"Yes, sir. Right away."

As Mary gathers writing implements from the desk across the room, Mr. Masen moves a small side table to within Isabella's reach.

"Miss Swan, what has happened?"

I do not know. Isabella answers in her lovely, elaborate script.

"Are you able to make any sound at all?"

No. It's even difficult to swallow.

"Does your throat hurt? Is it sore or scratchy?"

No, stiff and hard to move.

"May I look?"

Isabella nods and obediently opens her mouth wide and Mr. Masen peers in, but sees nothing obvious.

"Was there any trouble last evening?"

We arrived home in the early hours. I was waking when you arrived.

"I see." Mr. Masen smooths his hand over his face, betraying his consternation. "I must consult with Dr. Cullen. I shall seek him out and we will both return shortly. Please attempt to break your fast and drink the relaxing tea, but be careful of choking."

When Mary returns with a breakfast tray, they quickly discover it is fruitless for Isabella to try to eat any solid food. She is simply unable to swallow it, so Cook purees a hearty drink for her as she sips her tea.

It is several hours before Dr. Cullen and Mr. Masen return, and Isabella paces her rooms anxiously, her dreams of the previous night haunting her as she sweats profusely, scratching absently at her body.

Dr. Cullen's sharp eyes observe and record her behaviors as he sets down his case and prepares to examine her. She struggles in vain to hold still as he checks her pulse, listens to her breathing and heart, looks into her bloodshot eyes, and finally inspects her throat inside and out thoroughly.

"Miss Swan, Mr. Masen tells me you woke unable to speak this morning. Is that true?"

She nods in reply, face pale and clammy, eyes seeming to take up most of her face.

"Miss Isabella is unable to swallow easily. She was only able to choke down part of the drink Cook prepared for her, although the relaxing tea appeared to be easier," Mary reported.

"Would you agree with Mary's appraisal, Miss Swan?" Dr. Cullen's eyes are gentle but keen.
Isabella nods in answer.

"Did anything happen last night that might have upset you?"

Her eyes slide away and she looks over his shoulder to the door. As the silence in the room stretches, Isabella's reticence to answer becomes clear.

"Please answer the question, Miss Swan."

Isabella picks up her pen with a shaky hand, takes a deep breath and holds it as she scratches out her answer.

Mr. Newton proposed. We are betrothed.

Dr. Cullen senses she is hiding more. "Most young women would be hard pressed to stop talking at such an occasion." He would chuckle but Isabella looks so wan and pitiable, his heart goes out to her and his voice softens. "What else has happened, Miss Swan? You look as if you've had a terrible fright."

It clearly takes all Isabella's willpower to merely hold the pen as tears begin to slide down her cheeks. Her hand shakes so powerfully, the word she scrawls is nearly illegible and it takes a moment for Dr. Cullen to make it out.


"Nightmares? They must have been remarkably disturbing for you to be so distraught."

A tiny nod confirms his statement.

She begins I do not. . . . before crossing the words out and beginning again. I cannotspeak of it. Please do not make me. Her eyes finally meet his and they are heart-wrenching in their sadness and distress.

"Of course you needn't speak of it, Miss Swan. There is no need to cause more anguish."

Turning away, he motions Mr. Masen to join him in the far corner of the room as Mary fetches a fresh cup of the calming tea.

"Masen," Dr. Cullen speaks in an undertone to keep the others from hearing their conversation. "I don't like the direction this case is headed. Every time she improves and we reduce the tincture, there is another episode, each one worse or more life threatening than the last!"

Mr. Masen exhales a long sigh. "I agree with you, Cullen. Unfortunately, the signs of her dependence on the pharmakon are clear. What would you have me do?"

"You've been reducing the dosage?"

"I have tried. Even the slightest reduction in dose diminishes the effectiveness, causing the severity of her symptoms to rise."

"Have you tried any of the other pharmakon blends?"

"She seems to no longer tolerate the additional ingredients in the admixture. For the last seven to ten days or perhaps longer, it has been only laudanum and clear spirits."

"Oh, yes, I remember you mentioning that in your last report." Dr. Cullen sighs deeply and the two men look at each other in silence, each acknowledging the full extent of Miss Swan's condition and ramifications of her continued treatment.

Dr. Cullen breaks their silence at last. "We can only hope that her upcoming nuptials provide an invigorating distraction, and that her marriage bed quickly brings the demands of children."

Mr. Masen drops his eyes briefly as he hears these unsettling words.

"Increase the treatments to three times per day. Reduce the dosage by half. I will speak to Mrs. Swan about adding an afternoon nurse for the midday dosing."

"I do not envy you that conversation, Cullen. I can only imagine Mrs. Swan's displeasure at the news."

Dr. Cullen makes a soft noise of disgust in his throat as he mutters, "Mrs. Swan. . . wretched woman. . . ." The rest is too low for even Mr. Masen to hear.

To no one's surprise, Renée refuses to engage the services of an additional nurse, and Mary is pressed into duty to administer the mid-afternoon dose.

After a week of careful nursing, Isabella's voice is nearly restored, and she and Mary are ensconced in the drawing room once more. Afternoon shadows fall over Renée's perfect decor, elongating dramatically beneath the ebony bases of Tiffany glass lamps.

Isabella waits anxiously, wishing for Mr. Masen's comforting presence. Instead, Mary prepares the tincture, appearing awkward and unfamiliar among the glass vials and stirring rods. She fumbles and mutters under her breath, until finally a familiar tinkling fills Isabella's ears. She swallows nervously, anticipating the taste of her euphoric relief.

When she holds the pharmakon tincture at last, she pauses, wondering how best to take it. Should she savor it, sipping slowly? Or swallow it down in great unladylike gulps as quickly as her damaged throat will allow?

Bringing the glass to her lips she takes a miserly sip, luxuriating in the familiar taste — the bitter flavor of the laudanum a trademark of the tincture. Repugnant no longer; now it is a flavor she covets.

Tipping the glass back little by little, Isabella's eyes wander around her room, realizing that nothing she sees is hers — everything here is her mother's. Isabella has never had the freedom to choose — indeed, she has never been aware there were choices to be made.

"Mary, I wish to be alone," she quietly requests, and her maid dutifully curtsies and leaves Isabella to her silent musing in the embrace of her medication.

Isabella had no idea that choice was important to her, until she realized she's never had one.

The tincture begins to take effect, and Isabella's mouth relaxes from a thin, stern line into the easy caress of a smile.

A thought wanders through her mind. If choice was never given to her, her feelings and opinions must be entirely inconsequential.

How liberating.

"Explain yourself," whispers Aphrodite, whose marble bust stands on a pedestal near the window.

Isabella giggles under her breath and sighs her response, "I can't explain myself, I'm afraid, because I'm not myself, you see."

Aphrodite does not dignify Bella's silliness with a response, but her hair is no longer arranged in a neat, classical bun at the nape of her neck.

Now it seems to waver in the gleam of the afternoon sun.

Isabella slowly turns her head to the window, savoring the warmth of light that caresses her face and makes her brown eyes glow like gold.

"I do wish Edward was here," she whispers to the empty room, thinking back to how cool and soothing his presence is, as well as how wonderful he makes her feel.

She doesn't really know when she began thinking of Edward as a person, a man.

Untainted and naïve in the extreme, she nevertheless recognizes latent feelings of desire within herself, and though she cannot focus them on Mr. Masen, she can certainly do so with Edward. He is her secret, after all.

Hearing a rustling, metallic sound, she looks around the room and casts her eyes back to Aphrodite's marble bust, only to see it looking back at her with opaque black eyes. A spike of adrenalin spears through her stupor — this entity is not at all like the benign and attractive Edward.

Malevolence radiates from Aphrodite's beautiful head, along with rippling white hair that now coils and curls out into the room winding around itself as it fills the room with its brilliance.

Isabella's fright turns to horror as Aphrodite's marble beauty transforms into the decrepit, pitted decay of hideous Medusa. The vines of hair become spitting, writhing snakes, snapping at each other in a tangled mass around her head, sending out fetid tongues to absorb Isabella into brackish decay.

Isabella screams, cramming her fist into her mouth in terror. The smell of filthy, swampy rot fills her nose and she whips her head around feverishly, trying to find a place to hide, a way out of this room where she is trapped, the way she is ensnared in her life.

A sudden flash of green draws her eyes to a black traveling chest in the corner. The green flash comes at her again through the keyhole, and before she knows what she's doing, Isabella lunges from the chaise to the brass-handled case. She flings it open, searching for the source of that verdant beacon.

"Edward, oh please Edward," she keens, throwing aside linens and blankets, sending them floating out behind her like shrouds. No matter how hard she looks, there is no green light, no Edward, nothing except fine lace and cotton.

Startled by a hand on her shoulder, she screams and recoils against the trunk, looking up into what Isabella imagines Death to look like, with a yawning maw full of putrid, rotting teeth and bony eye sockets so huge that worlds of terror exist in their depths.

The dead thing reaches toward her with withered, bony talons and Isabella pitches backward, tumbling inside the chest. Unable to find her way out of its depths Isabella makes herself small, balling her hands against her eyes to keep out the horror.

When at last bursts of green flash beneath her tightly-shut eyelids, she can scarcely believe it, sobbing with relief. She follows the wonderful phosphorescence further into her head, finally emerging on the other side, somehow unscathed. In Edward's green fire, she is safe and cherished, warmly comforted.

Desperately alone and in a terrible trance, she finally loses consciousness right there in an old traveling trunk while Mary stands over her, crying tears of utter helplessness.

Renée Swan preens like a peacock.

All of New York's finest society are gathered in her ballroom celebrating the engagement of her daughter to the scion of one of the oldest families in the city. Inside, she is very smug as she notices mothers of other available young women eyeing her with envy over the match, while outside she looks as though butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.

Other women are noticeably in awe over the flowers, food, and decoration that spill over every available surface. No expense had been spared — she has even hired the best quartet in the city at double the price to cancel a previous engagement.

This is her night and she isn't about to let anything spoil it.

A collective gasp filters through the room causing conversations to cease and all heads to turn to the ballroom entryway. Isabella stands on the threshold on Michael's arm in the finest gown anyone has ever seen.

The neckline bares Isabella's shoulders and arms completely, the revealed skin creamy white and lustrous, perfectly set off by the brilliant blue of the dress.

A delicate crystal and jewel beaded lace fringe is suspended from the neckline, shimmering and swaying with her slightest movement, sparkling radiantly in the light reflected from countless chandeliers.

The bodice, of velvet and satin damask, is fitted through her torso, flaring gently over her hips and dropping from gentle gathers over her bustle in back. The skirt, of heavily embroidered tone-on-tone satin, flows smoothly to the floor.

Overall, the impression is one of understated elegance — the lines clean and simple, cut from luxurious cloth, all combining to display the beautiful lace and lovely young lady to their best effect.

Out of the corner of his eye, Michael can see the elaborate lace trembling with Isabella's heartbeat, with every breath she draws, and uses all his willpower not to stare openly at her décolleté. He flexes his bicep slightly in order to squeeze Isabella's hand in what he hopes is a comforting gesture while standing a little taller, proud of the way Isabella is displayed on his arm.

With all eyes on them, Michael escorts Isabella further into the room to an appointed place so they might stand and receive their guests.

Before long, Isabella turns and whispers, "Michael, I am feeling faint."

"Isabella, we must greet our guests." He catches the eye of a passing servant and asks for a chair for his betrothed.

One is brought immediately and Renée frowns from across the room. Isabella glances up in that moment to see Medusa's horrifying head on her mother's body. At the terrifying vision, she cannot stifle her gasp as her hand flies up to her throat.

"Isabella? May I present to you my employer and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Weber."

Michael's proud voice startles her from her trance and she looks up at the couple with a false smile painted on her face.

"How do you do." She extends her hand to Mr. Weber only to see a tentacle slide from the sleeve of his evening jacket and wrap around her hand. As he raises their joined appendages to his lips, a grey-green slime covered tongue slithers from his mouth extending toward her knuckles.

Suppressing a shriek, she looks at Michael, eyes wide and frantic. He, in turn, is gazing fondly at Mr. Weber and his wife as if what is happening were commonplace.

Isabella ungraciously wrenches her hand from Mr. Weber's grip causing Michael to look at her in astonishment. When she turns to Michael, it is not the pasty face of her intended she sees, but the dark and threatening Minotaur, smoke curling from his oozing nostrils, horns polished and threatening.

Her scream shatters the polite murmurings buzzing around the room. Using all her strength, she pushes herself to her feet and away from Michael and his employers. Glancing around the room desperate for a friendly face, Isabella sees only leering men and laughing women distorted as if in a poorly made looking glass.

"Isabella. . . ." Michael reaches for her arm.

"NO!" She shrieks, backing away from him and crashing into another man who attempts to steady her. Spinning as the room whirls around her, Isabella spies the entryway and hurls herself toward it. Running in a most unladylike fashion, she throws off hands that would detain and confine her, unknowingly screaming until she finds herself outside in the street.

Hearing pursuit, Isabella dashes frantically to the nearest carriage.

"Will you save me, sir?"

The driver tips his hat. "Yes, Miss. Whereto?"

"I do not care! Just drive! Take me away from here!" Lurching herself into the carriage, the driver cracks his whip before the door is closed, and Isabella sinks into the plush upholstery, sobbing uncontrollably with relief.

After driving aimlessly for a quarter hour with no further instruction, the driver pulls to the side of the road and stops.

"Miss, where might I take you? I must return to pick up my Master and Mistress now."



Sighing, he climbs down from his seat and opens the carriage door. Isabella is slumped over on her side, dead to the world. Not knowing what else to do, the driver returns the sleeping girl to whence she came.

Weeks pass underneath Isabella's feet without her feeling either.

The backlash from the engagement party debacle has not reached Isabella's ears, but Renée has had to work hard to placate some of the more notable guests who were appalled by Isabella's outburst.

In a complete torpor, she is propped at Rosalie's side allowing Renée to take complete control of the wedding preparations. No longer does she keep up the charade of waiting for Isabella's approval or disapproval of the innumerable details.

Rosalie and Michael do all they can to lift Isabella from her stupor while Cook tries everything in her power to entice Isabella to eat.

All efforts outside of Mr. Masen's are for naught and she seems to be withering away before their very eyes. The nearer the wedding date draws, the further away Isabella disappears into her mind with Edward.

"Miss Swan, 'tis fashionable to have a tiny waist, but the breeze from a feather could knock you to your knees!" The dressmaker, Mrs. Makenna, tuts at one of her final fittings.

Isabella can only giggle hysterically in response. I think I should like a feather to wave before me so that I might disappear completely.

The wedding is less than a fortnight hence, and Isabella is nearly catatonic. She has taken to her bed, refusing to get up except for the hours Mr. Masen is there administering the tincture and reading to her aloud.

It is the poorest of all possible outcomes, and one neither Dr. Cullen nor Mr. Masen in all their combined years of experience have ever seen before.

Trapped in her head, Isabella floats between worlds in a tenuous state of fragility. Doggedly refusing to eat or rise, she's completely unresponsive except when Edwardcomes to her, calming her with his smooth midnight voice and cool emerald presence.

Somewhere in her lucid mind, she recognizes that Mr. Masen has become a fixture at her bedside, but she's no longer the blushing girl who cares about the unseemliness of such details.

Isabella likes the apothecary's presence. He brings her the lovely, numbing tinctures and Edward, and she smiles at him with relief while he does his best to hide his hopeless affection.

She watches with hooded, heavy eyes as his lips shape the words of her beloved book.

". . . What's in it?' said the Queen.

'I haven't opened it yet,' said the White Rabbit, 'but it seems to be a letter, written by the prisoner to–to somebody.'

'It must have been that,' said the King, 'unless it was written to nobody, which isn't usual, you know. . ."

Mr. Masen is so lovely to look at, all manly angles and hardness. Despite his hair being neatly combed back at the beginning of each visit, his fingers make short work of turning it into a winsome, winter-fire hued, boyish mess.

Isabella knows that her mother tolerates his presence better than her screaming, scratching outbursts. She is most careful to be still and quiet, just as Mother likes her, when the apothecary, and Edward, are with her, ensuring that his appointment as her practitioner stands.

When he leaves, she tries to doze, becoming lucid again once the day wears on.

In the distance, Mary prepares the afternoon dose, and all is quiet and calm. Aside from the tinkle of the stirring rod in the glass as she mixes, no other sound intrudes on the silence in her mind.

She is aware that everyone takes for granted that she is too ill to stand by herself, and they tiptoe around the fact that she is to walk down the aisle in just a few days.

Renée is completely in denial, telling herself and anyone who will listen that Isabella is simply saving her energy for that most important day. She has placated Newton with false news of Isabella's gradual recovery, and refuses to let him see her on the grounds of Isabella's modesty.

"She does not want you to see her ill, but only looking her best on her wedding day," she says so convincingly that the anxious bridegroom can do nothing but acquiesce.

Aware that she is regarded as too ill to be lucid, Isabella is not surprised to note Mary has become rather casual about leaving the pharmakon ingredients in the room after administering the dose.

This particular afternoon is no different, except for one fact.

Today, Isabella is watching, and waiting.

She observes through slitted eyes as Mary tidies away the vials and glasses, and when the opportunity arises, she takes advantage. When Mary moves on to chores in another room, Isabella lurches on unsteady feet to the tray which holds her salvation. Silently, she pours straight laudanum into an ornamental crystal bowl and carefully secrets it under her bed.

There it waits with her until Edward returns.

"You're very pale, Miss Swan," the apothecary says with tender concern; she smiles at him weakly.

Raising her hand, she studies her pallid complexion, flexing her fingers this way and that.

"I do not think to carry on much longer, Mr. Masen," she whispers matter-of-factly.

"Why do you say such things, Miss Swan?" he admonishes softly, his fondness for her written on his countenance. He hands her the glass, allowing their fingers to touch, though not to linger.

"I think my heart is broken," Isabella muses sadly, gazing at her lovely red poison swirling inside the glass like diluted blood. "Though the state of it matters not to anyone else."

Masen swallows hard, blanching. Circumspectly, he looks to see if they are observed, but Renée is momentarily absent, and Mary has just left with Isabella's dinner tray. They are all less concerned about the lady's virtue and security these days, as he has so obviously proved his conduct above reproach.

He reaches out to her with gentle words. "That is simply not true. It matters greatly to your fiancé!"

"He hardly knows me," she scoffs.

"Oh, well. . . it matters greatly. . . to me," Edward Masen whispers, daring to raise his eyes to hers, pleading for understanding.

Isabella's answering smile is gorgeously genuine, though tinged with sadness and she reaches her hand out to him. "You are dear to my heart, Mr. Masen. You have ever been a friend to me, of that much I'm sure."

She does not say what is truly on her mind. She cannot, and they both know it.

He looks at her with intense abandon, and for one brief, spellbinding moment, Isabella thinks he will utter that which lies unspoken between them or kiss her at last.

Releasing a tortured sigh, he hangs his head instead, and when he looks at her once more, the very professional visage of Mr. Masen is firmly in place, just in time for Mary's re-entry into the room.

"Here you are, Miss Isabella, the evening's dose to see you safely off to sleep," he murmurs for the servant's sake.

Isabella smiles at him, a dim echo of before, and takes the first of her last sips, craving that sleep like never before.

She understands now, this is the first time she has had a choice, and she makes it with relish.

"Would you continue with a little more Alice, Mr. Masen?"

As though he knows that this is their eleventh hour, he smiles lovingly, offering her all that he can. "Yes, I would," he murmurs for her ears only. "Nothing would please me more."

Isabella sinks back into her cocoon of pillows with a contented smile.

". . . Begin at the beginning,' the King said gravely, 'and go on till you come to the end: then stop. . ."

Feeling her blood rush through her veins, she revels in the apothecary's voice and the beauty that surrounds him. The experience is almost holy; it transports her, cementing her resolve to carry out her plan.

The words that fall from his mouth aren't just recitations of Alice, they're private messages meant only for her ears, and she's listening more intently than ever.

". . . For this must ever be a secret, kept from all the rest, between yourself and me. . ."

When her essence travels and meets Edward's, it's as explosive as ever. He comes at her like a fire-clad knight, and she allows him to sink into her bones like liquid green flame. All the while, his beautiful voice falls like the whisperings of seashells into her ears and over her skin.

". . . So she sat on, with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality. . ."

Not this time.

She will make sure of it.

Isabella feigns sleep, allowing the voice of her impossible love to take her to that warm, dozing place where cats spend most of their hours. When darkness falls and he leaves, believing her to be peacefully slumbering, the gentlest of stolen caresses burns on the skin of her hand, where he has covertly left a fleeting imprint of his fingers.

Bringing the marked hand to her mouth, she presses her own kiss upon it; the closest they will ever come to intimacy.

She has held on until this moment and now reaches beneath her bed for the bowl that holds her true release, the unadulterated taste of the laudanum more bitter than all her tears.

In the hand that bears Mr. Masen's touch, she clutches a letter absolving the apothecary of responsibility, confessing to the theft of the poison that is about to storm her veins, and apologizing to Michael for being unworthy of his love.

She imagines herself standing in a meadow and picking wildflowers as a great, shimmering portal opens before her. Still wrapped in Edward's verdant love, she is safe, even here at the door to the Underworld.

"Edward," she whispers, tasting his name. A crown of pale, star-shaped flowers burns on her head, flames of that pulsing, green ardor now shaped like a wreath that winds between them.

It scintillates against her brow like a living halo and she smiles, walking boldly to the gates of the abyss, singing Edward's name like a benediction.

Winter 1885

It is but late afternoon, and already twilight descends on the city. Mr. Masen steps from his carriage into the gloaming light. Slowly he walks through the iron gates, the day's snowfall crunching loudly under his boots.

He seems untouched by the piercing wind swirling around him as he walks unhesitatingly to the mound of freshly turned earth dusted with a sprinkling of white. He removes his hat and carefully lays a large wreath made up entirely of asphodels at the head of the grave, touching the soil gently. A single tear sparkles on his long eyelashes.

"My dearest Isabella, my sweet beloved. My regrets follow you to the grave."

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