Foxwood Hall, Yorkshire, 15th December 1537
The sky was dark as Isabel glided through the door, her face anxious. Thomas had been unable to rouse himself from his bed, and he could feel what little strength he still possessed draining from his body with every movement he made.
Conor walked in behind her, glaring as he noted Isabel's concern. A warning look flashed in his eyes, and Thomas felt himself stiffen, the fear exhausting him further.
Isabel was all-seeing. The concern in her eyes deepened. "You're dying with every breath you take," she said. Her tone was clinical, but her face belied her true feelings. Her fingers took his, and he thought of that first touch, that first night. The night which had sealed his fate.
"I'm scared," he told her, the thought of his demise making him honest. There was no point in hiding anything from her, no more reason for futile acts of bravado. What would any of it matter when he was in the ground? In the end, no-one would care whether he had been brave or not, no-one would remember his courage. He was inviting her to comfort him, to make everything better.
But there was something else. Thomas knew, on some level, what she was. He didn't understand it all, but he did know that she could take away his pain. He thought that she was an angel. His whole body ached, so that he welcomed death. He wanted to be released. But humans are tenacious creatures, and he fought the inevitable with every costly breath drawn into his burning lungs. Even as he lay dying, he knew in his heart of hearts that he was resolved not to die. He wanted to make it stop, to take the pain away, it was true, but he didn't want to die, for what did death really mean? Was it truly the end, or just the end of everything he had ever known? He feared death as humanity feared all things unknown. "Please," he beseeched. "Don't let me die. Not here, not like this. I don't want it."
"You don't know what you're asking of me, my love. If you truly care for me, don't say it." Her lips pressed against his, silencing him.
He pulled back, his hand on her cheek, beseeching. "What poison has he whispered in your ear? You wanted this. You begged him for my soul and he denied you. Yet I will give it to you, gladly. But in return, Isabel, you have to save me."
Her eyes flashed, unnerved by his plea. She was hesitant now. "This isn't salvation, Thomas. It's not even life," she snapped, pacing across the room with the stalking fury of a caged lioness.
"You cannot do it, can you? You would have me commit a crime which you yourself have no stomach for." Conor propped his booted feet on the table, his chair leaning back on its legs. He watched her every move, her dance around him, around Thomas, around the subject, around the death which she would have him execute, around the soul which she would steal.
"If you truly love me you would pay the price I would exact."
"If I truly love you?" Conor laughed harshly, and snatched her hand out of the air, pulling her forward and into his lap. The chair came down on all four legs, yet Isabel still tensed. When he made for her neck, she swivelled away, turned her head. "Go to her grave, Issy," he murmured in her ear. "Go and ask her how much I love you, that I am here now, willing to forgive you."
"You offer me a monster's affection. Give me the gift of a man's. Let me teach him to be as I am." She did not deny the finger which traced a path between her breasts, but instead took Conor's hand and kept it there.
His free hand tugged at a stray curl. "When you were a woman, did I not give you a man's love? But you are a monster now, too. It would seem that only a monster can love another monster, my heart. Is that not why I still love you?"
"You love me again for the present," she allowed, her thumb brushing against his lower lip. He nipped it there, sending a visible shiver down her spine, promise in his eyes. "But what of the future?"
"You will never be alone. You will always have your beloved Ari."
"Yet every day since your return has marked one more step he takes away from me." Her mouth drew near to his, and his pupils dilated in excitement. "Are you really so selfish that you would have me all to yourself?"
And she let him pull her close, her legs slipping open to straddle his hips. Thomas wished for nothing more than to possess her for his self, to sit where that demon sat. Conor's tongue was demanding - everything of him seemed to demand, as Isabel's words had demanded. His hand moved slowly up her thigh.
"Ah!" Isabel reached down, smacking his hand away. "None of that now. Not until you have given me what I desire."
Conor's gaze flashed sharply, and he laughed quietly. "So we play your games once more. Then you must take him," he snapped. "Have him. Use him. Claim your prize. But first, he has to understand, Issy. We have to tell him everything, because if this is really what you want I'll do it, but it has to be his choice. If he is not reviled when he understands what we truly are, then he is damned already, and damned he shall forever be."
Isabel slid off his lap, like a cat spilled from a warm knee. She looked at him warily, distrustfully, accusation in her eyes. "But you said…"
The seduction, the charm, the manipulation, all were gone from his voice. There was no sentiment, only flat honesty. "I couldn't bear to hurt you again. I desire your happiness above all else, and if this is the only thing that will make you happy then how can I refuse? If I do this, if I do what you want, you have to promise that you won't hate me for it. I can stand his hatred, but I cannot bear yours."
Crimson tears welled in her lovely eyes, her beauty horrific. She moved to the window slowly, every movement tentative, and stood with her arms wrapped tightly around her body. She looked so vulnerable, hugging herself as she desperately sought reassurance. Conor stared back at her. Their eyes locked together, both hesitant and unsure. Then Isabel ran to him, and his arms were around her, hugging her tightly to him. "Thank you."
"But, Isabel, remember this; I have chosen you above all others," he whispered into her hair. "Time and time again, I have chosen you. Is it not reasonable for me now to ask the same of you?"
"I don't deserve your love," she said hoarsely, her hands gently stroking his hair.
"You have it anyway," he whispered back. "Do you think that I would desert you again? Am I so changeable?"
Her laughter was harsh, and a lesser man might have flinched. "You are the most changeable man in the world, and I am the cruellest of women." She darted behind him, laying her hands on his shoulders, her teeth at his neck. "We cannot help but hurt each other, time and again, and so you must give me my consolation prize. Give him to me, Conor, and I promise that I will choose you, only let me have him too."
Conor nodded, tears in his eyes, and angrily disentangled himself from her fierce embrace. He walked to the side of Thomas' bed, crouching on the floor next to him, and bared his sharp canine teeth, causing a tremor of fear to shake Thomas' body. He thought that it was time, for death or salvation. But Conor didn't feed from him. He placed his own wrist against his mouth, using his sharp teeth to cut a crimson slash down his alabaster skin. "There's not enough time. Death is coming for you even as we speak. You have to drink."
The thought repulsed Thomas, horrific and alien, as he watched the scarlet rivulets drip. He shook his head in revulsion. Had he gone mad? Conor placed one hand on the back of his head, entwining his strong fingers in his hair, and forced him into a sitting position. Thomas fought against him, though the struggle made his body cry out. Conor wrenched his head back. His resistance was futile, for the demon was stronger than ten men. He pressed his bleeding wrist against Thomas' mouth, so that the blood flowed, wetting his lips and tongue.
It was the most divine nectar he had ever tasted: the flavour was sweet, the texture viscous. He was floating again, though this time it was different. It was as if he was imbibing Conor's emotions - he could hear his thoughts as if they were inside his own head, he could feel everything that Conor felt. The intimacy of the experience was raw and shocking. Thomas knew everything there was to know about Conor; he had seen into his very core. The experience seemed to go on forever, yet all too soon he was taking his lifeline away.
He had closed his eyes rapturously, and when he re-opened them it was to see a different world. He had been blind before, but now he could see: every thread of the cotton which his pillowcase was made from was startlingly clear; he could see every splinter in the wooden bed post. He had been deaf, and now he could hear: the sound of the servants gossiping in the kitchen was as easily discernible as if they had been stood beside him; every raindrop was as loud as thunder as it bounced on the windowpane. Strength flooded through his body. Thomas had never felt more alive.
"Am I cured?" he said in wonderment.
"No." Isabel's voice was sad and broken. "You're still dying, Tom. We cannot fix you. But we can offer you something else. It has to be your choice - and you have to understand everything. If you still want it when you have heard all that we have to tell you, then it is yours. You need only say the word, my love, and we can spend eternity together." She cupped his cheek in the palm of her hand, cold as ice against his burning skin.
Though his brain was infused with preternatural blood, he still could not understand what she was saying. He loved her with every fibre of his being, and she was offering him forever to be together. What could she possibly reveal that would stop him from wanting what she offered him?
"Thomas, you must to listen to everything we have to say. We can prolong the inevitable, but we can't stop it. We can buy you tonight, maybe even two or three nights, but we can't save you. What we are offering you isn't life - it's something else entirely. We have much to recount, and little time in which to do it. Some of it may seem trivial, or unimportant, but everything we will tell you, every choice we made, made us what we are today."
Conor sat on the other side of the bed. He took Thomas' face in his large hands so that he was forced to look at him. "Listen to me. I need you to focus."
It was so hard, when everything around him was new and beautiful. And they were the most striking thing of all. Before, they had seemed like perfection personified, but now he noticed how truly wonderful they really were. Their porcelain skin was clear and unmarred. Their eyes burned in their pale complexions, and their lips were a deep scarlet against the ivory backdrop of their faces. Every inch of them was divine. He imagined that they were Adam and Eve, for surely God himself could not have created a more perfect pair.
Conor tapped Thomas' cheek with his hand, interrupting his thoughts. "Please, you have to try and focus."
He nodded, concentrating with all of his might on listening. Conor's voice was fast-paced and melodic, ringing in his ears. He had not noticed how charming he sounded until that moment.
"Tom, please," Isabel begged. She placed her arms around him, holding him close, as if she was trying to hold him together, to keep him from drifting away from her.
Thomas nodded again, turning his head towards Conor. He was ready.