So the esteemed Dr. Nevil sits across my shiny, new desk and explains the situation.
“Large-cell undifferentiated carcinoma. There is a mass in each of his lungs. Inoperable.”
And still, it doesn’t sink in.
“I see.” I nod, folding my hands on the desk. “And what is the treatment?”
Silly, stupid, foolish, fucking girl.
Dr. Nevil snaps his eyes to mine.
“There is no treatment, Your Majesty.”
“I don’t . . . I don’t understand. How will the Duke recover without treatment?”
The doctor’s face blanches with sympathy. And something else—an emotion that’s not often aimed in my direction, but I recognize it straight away.
My stomach roils, and I think I may vomit on the spot. Because finally, I understand that something is terribly wrong.
“The Duke of Anthorp’s condition is terminal.”
The word ricochets around my skull, before embedding in my brain like shrapnel.
“He’s twenty years old. Twenty-year-old titled, upper-class boys do not get terminal conditions.”
Dr. Nevil’s voice is gentle, but certain.
“Sometimes they do.”
I breathe slowly through my nose, in and out. Contemplating this information. Processing and planning. Strategizing how to control this, fix it. How to bend the situation to my will.
Because I am the Queen now and that’s what queens do.
“You are dismissed as the Duke’s physician. Another doctor will be appointed to take charge of his care. You can go.”
This seems to shock him. “May I ask why?”
I stand. “One does not charge into battle waving the white flag and expect to win, Doctor. Good day.”
He stands and bows, then leaves the room.
And I pace behind my desk, twisting my fingers together, brimming with unspent energy and urgency. I buzz for Cora on the intercom and she enters the room while the sound still lingers in the air.
“Yes, Queen Lenora?”
“I need specialists—oncologists—the best in the world. Make a list. We have to keep it out of the press, but I need them here straight away.”
“Yes, ma’am.” She writes it down.
“Clear my schedule as much as you can, cancel any upcoming engagements and have my bags packed. I’ll be conducting all government business from Anthorp Castle and I wish to leave as soon as possible.”
She doesn’t ask why; she only nods. “How long do you expect to stay at the castle?”
I glance out the window. There’s a doomsday sky above us, with gathering clouds the color of ash and not a glimpse of sunlight to be found.
“As long as it takes.”
Late that night, when I arrive, I find Thomas in the library, in light blue pajamas and a black robe, staring into the mouth of the stone fireplace from a leather chair that seems too large for him. He glances at me in the doorway, then his eyes return to the golden glow of the flames.
“Have you spoken with Dr. Nevil?”
He bobs his head in a nod, bringing a glass of amber liquid to his lips.
“Promise me you’ll look after Michael. This is going to be hard on him.”
“And for fuck’s sake don’t bury me beside my father. I don’t care where you plant me, as long as it’s not there.”
I rush forward, still in my coat, and kneel down beside his chair. I don’t think about the impropriety of it—that I’m not supposed to kneel to anyone. Because he’s my sweetest, dearest, truest friend, so I’ll kneel for him.
“I’m going to save you.”
It’s not a promise—it’s a solemn vow. I swear it because I believe it.
The fire casts dancing shadows on Thomas’s glasses.
“Lenora . . .”
“I couldn’t save Mother, I couldn’t do anything for Father . . . but I can save you. I’ll use every resource I have. I won’t let you die, Thomas.” I hold his hand in both of mine. “I’ll fight this with everything I am. Please fight it with me. Please.”
He gazes down at me for several still moments, and I can feel his affection and caring and love. They wrap around me like a soft, safe blanket, warming me inside and out. Then the corners of his mouth inch up, and for the first time since I walked in the room, he looks like the Thomas I know.
“I’d fight next to you any day of the week and twice on Sunday. You’re small but you’re plucky. And that pissed-off, determined look that you get on your face,” he points at me, “that’s the one, there—absolutely terrifying.”
I laugh softly, even as my eyes go wet. I kiss the back of Thomas’s hand and he presses his palm to my cheek.
And then he’s making vows too.
“We’ll sort it out, Lenora. And whatever happens, I promise it’s all going to be all right.”
For a time, things don’t get significantly better or worse; it’s just steady as we go. Doctors come to see Thomas and appointments are scheduled. I have breakfast with him every morning, pushing him to keep up his strength and eat his porridge. Sometimes I plead sweetly for him to take just one more bite, and if that doesn’t work I tell him I’ll have Winston hold him while I shove it down his bloody throat.
That’s what friends are for.
The rest of the days are filled with calls and briefings, reports and legislation, and meetings here at the castle because the business of government stops for no man . . . or queen.
Late one afternoon, I’m on a call with Prime Minister Bumblewood, who has the temerity to ask about the rumored upcoming betrothal announcement. Inquiring minds want to know, he teases in a tone I’m sure he believes is charming.
I end the call and push back from the desk, rubbing my eyes and stretching out the knot in my neck. I walk through the grand hall to the stairs and up to Thomas’s room, where I intercept Michael in the outer sitting room.
“How is he?” I ask.
“Sleeping.” Michael forces a tight smile, cracking open the door behind him. Thomas lies on his back, pale and still, in the center of the big canopy bed. His breathing is labored, in spite of the oxygen tubes in his nose, and despite my best efforts to get him to eat, he’s lost weight—his lively face now gaunt, with cheekbones too prominent.
“Good. He needs his rest.” I swallow past the lump in my throat. “I think I’ll go for a ride—get some air.”
Michael nods kindly. “That’s a fine idea.”
After changing into my riding clothes—snug black jodhpurs, a white shirt, a black riding jacket and high leather boots—I walk out the back toward the stables. The air is cold enough to see my breath and my lungs expand with icy invigoration every time I breathe it in.
Winston, as always, is just a few steps behind me.
“I want to ride alone,” I tell him.
I can feel his frown boring into the back of my head.
I stop on the path and spin around.
“Is the perimeter secured?”
“Then I’ll be fine. I’ll stay on the property. Don’t worry so much, Winston—it’ll give you wrinkles and I’ll have to fire you because you’ll be too ugly to look at.”
He doesn’t smile exactly, but his scowl softens—like he’s smiling on the inside.