Foxwood Hall, Yorkshire, 15th December 1537
"Ironically, it was death that brought us together. Our relationship was shrouded in misery from the very beginning. My father died, Thomas. He was a soldier to the last, but it was not battle that killed him, but a malady called love. He died in a village in Normady, the place where his forbears hailed from, a place he had neither known nor prized, though his one true love had been with him, in his thoughts, to the very end. He had died for her."
And Conor had been there, she remembered: it had been his arms around her when she most needed to be held; his lips against her ear when she had most needed to hear whispered endearments. But later, when she had needed him again, he had abandoned her. Twice, he had turned from her. Twice, he had destroyed her.
The first time had been a cruel folly, but on account of his ignorance she forgave him. But his second betrayal could not be so easily pardoned. Four thousand two hundred and sixty one letters she had written to him, each beseeching him to return to her. Four thousand two hundred and sixty one letters had been returned to her, the seal broken, read but unanswered.
She still recalled writing the first. Thrice she had crossed out her title. 'Your Issy', struck through one, two, three times in ink. Finally she had signed it 'Lady Isabel Devereux', for Lady Isabel Devereux was the only self left to her. Isabel FitzAlan had died long ago. Issy had perished in Conor's black gaze, with a dying woman resting in her arms. Conor had left her only what she had been before him, and before him was not a countess or a lover or much of anything at all, only a lost, frightened child hiding behind an imposing name.
In those first months, she had dressed in black, slept on black silk. Her appearance had been sombre, ghastly, and Ari had clenched his fists to see her so upset, and showered her with gifts of coloured silk and damask, and bolts of cloth-of-gold, as if to entice her with their beauty, encourage her to cast off her grief as easily as she could cast off her dark gowns.
But more ghastly still was her victim's corpse, hastily hidden by layers of dirt. In her victim's slender arms lay cradled the soul of the girl who had loved Conor, the girl he had loved, the one he had named as his. Isabel had wept for her with even more devoted melancholy than she had wept for her rival, for Conor would mourn the other woman, but if Isabel herself did not mourn the girl she had once been, then nobody would. That child had died in the arms of a golden haired man too many decades before, and yet none who loved her now mourned the girl she had been.
But Ari had mourned with Conor, though he did not love the one she had killed, though he had committed far darker deeds himself. He lifted his eyes to her bloodstained hands, and something inside of him shrank away from her, withered and died at the sight of her pale flesh and the memory of those long fingers coated in scarlet. For as much as he may whisper and snarl over Conor's cruelty and cowardice, tell Isabel that he, Ari, could love her despite her mistake, he missed Conor - and he understood him. Conor was his black son, his dark creature. They had been monsters together. They had loved despite their monstrosity, their callous cruelty. They both had lost one they loved at the hands of another who they had loved more deeply.
Yet even as his gaze condemned her, Ari had held her in his arms as she cried, as she had held her rival. Isabel had cradled her like a babe, for she had been as weak as a dying butterfly, her heart beating in a final, futile attempt to live, as the wings of a dying Red Admiral had once beat against the inside of her closed fist. So very weak. There was a beauty in such fragility. A poetry. And oh, Conor had been so beautifully bereft when he saw their fatal embrace, her pretty face like marble turned to the ceiling, like their dead countenances. He'd played the widower then, the sorrowful lover, gathering her weak little body in his strong arms and shouting bloody vengeance at Isabel. He had berated her for a crime far less grievous than his own.
She had imagined herself in her rival's place more than once. It would be wonderfully tragic to be the doomed lover, with Conor crying over her prostate form, calling for the head of the one who had laid her low. He would have wept for her then, clung to her memory, cleaved to his love of her. He had not abandoned her rival as easily as he had abandoned her.
For a long time, she remembered, he had not cried, and when he did, she wondered whether it was over his lover's death or Isabel, who had put her there. She knew that he would miss her rival, but rage in him always overtook his sadness, and he had been so very angry with her.
Often, in those first months, her dreams had been animated by morbid visions of the worms eating their way through her rival's lovely skull. When she woke, she would buy more prayers for the other woman's soul, though her victim was surely blameless, and so did not need their prayers at all. It was Isabel who must seek redemption, and yet, for herself she did nothing. There were no prayers, no confessions, no apologies, not even to him. She would let Conor smear his heart with the ashes of those she had slain, but she would take no part in it. She would wear black, for the girl who had died that night, but she would do nothing to redeem Lady Isabel Devereux, the monster who had replaced her. There was no redemption for what she had done.
Later, Ari had decided that she was alone too much, and so he had surrounded her with maids whose lowly births meant that they would not question their nocturnal habits, so long as their mysterious benefactors continued to line their pockets with gold and swathe them in black damask. They had asked her sweet-voiced questions, but she had been rude and unkind, wanting to punish them for Ari's insistence that she share their honeyed company. Her words were so sharp as to deliver the same cruel thrill as raking her long nails across their pale cheeks, and yet still she hungered to taste them, to draw their blood. She envied their sweet innocence. They seemed so much younger than she had been at their age, for they had never worn the collar of her family, nor donned the mantle of a doomed lover. It would have been so easy to take their souls into her own, to trade their untouched youth for years more of her own. But Ari had forbade it, and Ari she loved.
And he had been right, when he had come to her, dressed in his finery, and bowed low before Isabel in her mourning gown. He had taken her hand, their flesh separated only by the leather of his glove, the memory of those fingers on her body still fresh in her mind. He had pressed his lips to her forehead, made a promise to her: "This, too, shall pass."
She couldn't understand his words, though of course they made perfect sense. There had been tears on her cheeks, blooming with the crimson glory of a rose. This: her grief? This: Conor's betrayal? The bile that rose within her at the thought of her dark lover, or the pain she felt as being deprived of his love?
It was Ari, too, who had encouraged her to love again. Conor had been her other half, but he had been gone from her for so long that Isabel had almost forgotten how it felt to love and be loved. Until Thomas. Thomas was as beautiful as Conor, with all of his charms and more. Tall, lean and comely, with a swordsman's grace and a courtier's wit, Isabel had found herself wanting to kiss the shy smile from his lips. She had delighted in his black curls and his dark eyes, so like Conor's. But more, she had delighted in his personality, so unlike Conor's. He was well-mannered, gentle, civilised - and he adored her above all others. He would give his soul to her. He would devote himself to her for eternity. She would take him, and she would leave Conor as he had left her.
"And it was death which tore us apart again," she told Thomas, her hand curling around his. His elegant fingers, which had once brought her such delight, were skeletal now. He was ruined. But she could fix him still. She imagined tracing his lifeline as she had once traced her father's. Would she see herself written there, as an abrupt end? Or would she see a break, and then a long life, a second life, flowing almost seamlessly from the first? She could try and read it there, but why bother? The game was hers. His future was whatever she wanted it to be. And for him, she would choose life. Afterlife. Immortality. An existence stretching into eternity.
But did she truly want him? For when Conor looked over his shoulder, looked at her in her jewels and her finery, she was stripped bare. She shed her skin, and another woman emerged, a woman only he recognised, who loved only him. He stared into her eyes, and she felt something great and pulsing within her, like a second heart that swallowed hers, dominated all. If she chose life, she chose Thomas, whatever she promised Conor. But when Thomas had slipped his fingers beneath her skirts, and she had looked down at his ebony curls, met his dark gaze, she had thought of her savage lover, and loved the boy only as an extension of the first man who had touched her there.
"Death is a strange master. His choices impact the living as much as the dead, pushing people together and tearing them apart. He seems to choose his victims, the living and the dead, indiscriminately, yet at last we wear black together, Isabel. Playing the mourner has always suited you well, far better than the other roles death has cast you in."
Ari had never wanted her in black, but Conor preferred her this way. Whether it was because of the way it looked on her - the red of her hair against dark silks - or because of what the black meant, she doubted he cared. Conor rarely pondered why he wanted things: it was more a matter of taking them, expecting the die to fall as he wished. He expected the same of her, wanted her to fall as he wished. He had taken her, claimed her, and then he had left her, and expected her to live as though he had never awoken the part of her which felt most alive. And now he had returned, and he expected to reclaim her again, effortlessly, simply because he desired that they should be together once more.
"When tonight is done, I will have no cause to mourn."
He pressed a kiss to her palm, lips brushing the eternity ring she still wore. "You look sad, Lady Isabel Devereux. Would you not be happier if I could make you my Issy once more? I could restore her to you." With the snap of his wrist he held her close. The heat of his body pressed against her. There was a promise in the dark eyes which bored into her, seducing her, tempting her - and Thomas was forgotten. "You could throw his love away for one much, much greater."
"Greater for me, or for you?" Her finger, ungloved, traced his cheekbone. Her talon nails were a thing of beauty, scarring a crimson line across his porcelain skin.
His face was calm, ice cold, as he met her gaze, as though she already knew the answer: for both of us. As though to say the words would render the truth of them less absolute. They were sides of a single coin: two facets which could not exist apart from one another, whose destinies would forever be entwined. But to accept her own darkness, to embrace loving him, would be to become a monster once more.
"Would you like that?" she murmured, her hand resting against his throat. She liked the feel of his blood beneath her fingers, of holding his life in her palm. "Watching your rival die when you wanted them to."
"Stop it, Issy."
But he needn't have admonished her so, for she had known the cruelty of her words before she had spoken them. She knew then - knew always - what Conor felt, how he was affected. She had wanted to hurt him.
He caught her hand in his, squeezed her fingers so tightly that it pained her. "You frighten me so when you talk like that. I lose sight of you again. I see only the monster which I despise, the one I cannot love, and I fear that I will never be able to forgive your betrayal."
But he had frightened her, too, with the spectre of losing him, and never apologised for it. In those early days, it had seemed as though he would never again glimpse the woman he had loved, never forgive her for the curse he had so cruelly inflicted upon her. But when his condemnation had driven her to tears, her breathy gasps were a siren call to Ari's ears, drawing him to her side, arms spread protectively against the one from whom she needed no protection. And when Ari stood as the barrier, the wall that separated Isabel from her dark lover's pained condemnation, tempered still by a desire to love her, she had looked over the shoulder of her golden-haired protector and smirked. Her eyes had spoken, whispering come and get me, then. And he had come, in time.
"Do you play at mourning still?" she asked, stroking the black velvet of his sleeve.
His lips curled, her beautiful lover set to monstrosity. "Not as well as you do, but you always did play a better game than I. I will gladly concede defeat, my love, if we can end this charade now. I need you. I want us to be together again."
"You need me as I need you." Her skirt slid along the floor behind her, her great shadow. "You ask a great boon of me, to forget the last three hundred years, my love. Yet I would do anything for you," - she pledged, playing with her crucifix - "as you would do anything for me."
His gaze darted to Thomas, then back to her. "I would. I promised you so." She could hear each one of his breaths perfectly timed with hers. "Yet the scar which parted us has healed. I have forgiven you, Issy. Now you must show me the same charity. Do not seek to punish me further, I beg of you."
"Your forgiveness, your love… They mean nothing to me anymore. You cannot save me, nor bring me back - not the way I was. You will redeem the woman you condemned? You will awaken the humanity of one you made a monster? No. I do not think so." Her nails raked across his cheek before he could react. But the blood spilled might as well have been her own, and for that she laughed. They were sired by the same creature; cursed by the same blood; enslaved by the same urges. "If you had left me alone, as you promised, I could have been loved again. If you had only been satisfied with the life you had chosen for yourself… but you never are." Her fingers grasped his throat, her other hand pounding against his chest, a drum over each word. "You could have had me. Only…"
He looked at her as he had always looked at her; as if he would like to tear her apart and swallow the pieces. He would consume her whole, take her into him if he could. "Only?" He wiped his fingers over his cheek, looking at the blood they yielded, still wet and glistening.
"Only not the way you wanted. And, my darling love, things must always be as you want, mustn't they?"
"What I want, you want. We were meant to be, Issy. You have always known it."
She pushed him away, though the step back he took was more his will than hers. "When we were human, perhaps. But we have lived many lives since. I have heard all of your hopes, the ones which you whispered in Ari's ears, like a sweet poison to soothe his pain. You promised him all that he desires, but I no longer desire the same."
"Of course you have heard. He is your creature still." Beneath his amiability there was an edge, the old familiar rivalry still provoking him.
She shivered at the thought of them competing for her: grabbing her, pulling her, desiring her. She wanted him to spill her blood, to taste her, to see inside of her, her doubts and her lies, for she was too proud to reveal them to him, or to acknowledge how artfully he had played them both.
"I knew that he would run to whisper in your ear. I wanted him to, for I knew that you would surely listen to him even if you tried to silence me."
She stood on her toes until her lips were a ghost's breath from him. "And I knew that he would send word of Thomas. I knew that you replied to his letters, even though you chose to ignore mine, my heart. You will say that you returned because you could not exist without me, but I'll always know that you're weak and envious, a pathetic man who could not bear for one who he had once possessed to find happiness with another." She laughed at him. "Look at you." Her nails sunk into his flesh as she held his face in her hands. "Look at you. You cannot bear the thought that I could love another. But you should know that I ceased pining for you centuries again. You like to believe that I will always choose you, that Thomas is a consolation prize. But Thomas had me because I wanted him to, not because I desired to provoke you, not because I wanted you to return to me."
"I know you, Issy." His hands were too rough at her waist, her neck. If she were not immortal they would leave bruises, though once he would have wept at such sacrilege. "He had you because he amused you. The second you grow bored - and you will - where will Thomas be?" His hands travelled to her wrists, squeezed where the pulse lay before dragging them apart. "Cast aside like the others. Ari has told me of the others, all driven to an early grave by their thwarted affection. What of your other handsome lords? Did you wear black, or cry tears, for any of them? Or did you simply smile and move onto the next one, knowing that eventually I would come? For I cannot stand the thought of you loving anyone else, as you well know. Well, I am here now, and even if I were not, you would tire of him. Think long on your request, Issy. One of our kind is not so easy to cast aside as a tired mortal heart. Would you condemn him to an eternity of solitude when you decide that you can no longer abide his company?"
Each time, she had cried out when she had heard of their deaths, fist pressed to her mouth. Each time, she had wept a little when she thought of her actions driving them to despair, and soon enough to death, too. But they had been passing fancies, and Ari had been there, then, his hands in her hair, his soothing words sweeping the memories away as though they were no more substantial than dust. But Thomas meant more to her. He was not so easily forgotten.
"You must leave me again, for your eyes condemn me for acting so. You want me to show you something sweet and sorrowful, a part of me which mourns them. But I am exactly what you say I am. I cared little for any of them. I was as cruel as I always told you I was."
"Acting so is beneath you."
"Beneath us," she corrected. She licked her bloodstained fingertips, tasted him and herself. The scratches would have left scars, if they were mortal still. "Yet death smote such obstacles from this world, as if he wished to push us together once more. It is life which has always torn us apart. Which will prevail this time? The choice rests in your hands now, my love."