THEY COULD AT LEAST TIDY UP THE PLACE A BIT.
Death, as a rule, was not the most fastidious of beings. But given how much he saw this particular anteroom, he could not help but be a little critical.
They thought they were so clever, humans. Each new generation, believing that they had found something new, reinvented the architecture of capital punishment. And yet, staring about the Tower of London, Death found nothing that different from the olive tree, the rock, and the scythe upon the plains of Ur.
Death was getting really sick of midtown London, if it came to that. Henry Rex, 8th of his name, was not the first ruler of this foggy little island to come repeatedly to Death’s attention. But he was one of that special class, the ones who seemed to take pleasure, personal and professional, in the art of enforcing mortality. (Edward Longshanks had been another, though that had been primarily on the battlefield rather then the scaffold. Apart from that one unfortunate defenestratation.)
Yet, here it was, that time again. Henry was nowhere to be found. The young man, Cromwell, was on his own, this time. Death glanced down at a tiny bound volume.
OH DEAR. LONGER THAN SCHEDULED.
He turned his baleful blue stare out the slender window again. Nevertheless, he was perfectly aware of the three nearly translucent figures who had appeared behind him.
EVERY TIME. EVERY TIME IN THIS TOWER, SOMEONE IS HERE TO ACCOMPANY ME. IT SEEMS TO BE THE NATURE OF THIS EDIFICE.
The first figure, a portly but dignified man of some advanced years looked aside, as if to avow all knowledge of this phenomenon. The third was a young woman, pale skin, dark hair, fiery eyes; she simply grinned. But the second had a most peculiar look on his face; as if he wanted to argue, but wasn’t quite sure how.
YES, MR. MORE. I AM WHO YOU GUESS ME TO BE. AND NO, YOU HAVE NOT BEEN DAMNED. IT SIMPLY PLEASES YOU....OR SOMEBODY ELSE....THAT YOU BE HERE AT THIS MOMENT.
More was about to speak more; but at that moment, a thunk and scream pierced the overwhelming quiet of the Tower chamber.
IT HAS STARTED.
Once more. Twice more. 3 times, until at the last it ceased. The three figures said nothing.
As expected, a fifth figure now joined the congregation. (Death never punned, per se, but he was somewhat pleased by the irony in that term.)
It was Mr. Cromwell. Not drawn up to his full and lanky height, which Death had been aware was impressive. But knelt on the ground. Curled into as small a ball as seemed possible. Keening; though it was only a impression, a facsimile, since he no longer possessed vocal chords. Screaming, though none of them could hear it.
THE PAIN IS GONE, MR. CROMWELL. ALL OF IT. WHAT YOU FEEL IS NOW ONLY WHAT YOU WISH YOURSELF TO FEEL.
The man startled; turned, quickly, stumbling until his ghostly back was against the stones. He looked at the line of figures in turn, yet said nothing. His eyes were as wide as dinner plates.
The eldest of the ghosts stepped forward first. Smirking; that was Death believed the expression to be called. He was never good at it himself.
Cromwell bowed his head; old habits did not die at all, apparently.
“Tom. You learned my lessons well, I see. All except the last one.”
“The last one?” Cromwell’s voice trembled.
“Oh, I never taught it, my boy. I was the lesson itself, you see. Object lessons are nearly as important as the ones you learn by rote. I saw you celebrating; wrapped in those red ribbons.”
Wolsey tsked, and started to legitimately smile. “You and I were of a kind, my boy. Surprising it took you this long to realize it.”
The older man stepped back; Cromwell curled in upon himself again.
The second figure stepped closer; eased his middle-aged phantasm down against the cold walls, next to Cromwell. He said nothing; seemed to simply wait for Tom to make the first move. Cromwell could not even look at him.
More gave a sad little smile. “ ‘You don’t need to believe it. You just need to say it.’ “
Cromwell laughed, harshly.
“Are none of my utterances to be considered private any more?”
More smiled even broader, and motioned around the room.
“Look at our company, my friend.”
Cromwell obliged; than his face crumpled. He shut out the world again.
Death moved towards the third figure, and whispered.(Though it had never been considered one of Death’s many talents.)
I BELIEVE IT IS WHAT MIGHT BE TERMED, ‘YOUR CUE’.
A flash of....something, was visible across her face. But still she obliged.
(Death had seen many phantasms in his time, but none as remarkably dressed as Anne Boleyn. Not clothed in the demure gown in which she had died. But a bloody red ballgown, trimmed with green velvet and snow-white ermine.)
However, she moved in anything but an eye-catching manner. Softly, slowly, she knelt in front of Cromwell. Ghostly hand catching ghostly hand.
“You never visited me, Thomas. At the end...at the very end, I missed you, and you were not there. We, who had shared so much; I’d have at least thought I merited one last vision of of your face, even if it was for you to gloat. Seeing how you’d survived at the cost of me.”
That accusation seemed to rouse him; looking him, he steadily held her gaze. This pleased her, and her pealing laugh once more echoed around the stone walls.
“But I blame you not, Thomas. For what were we both, but survivors? Clawing, scratching, fighting for what we wanted, for what we loved, or thought we did. Two too similar creatures, you and I. It is not surprising that for a while, you triumphed. For there was really only ever room for one of us at his side. Only one.”
The words were said lightly, but the speaker and the hearer were far from that happy mood.
Cromwell leaned forward, almost bowing before Anne, as he had never really done in life.
“I’m so sorry....I’m so, so sorry, my lady.”
Death and the two Thomases watched as Anne stretched a ghostly arm around his shoulder.
“You need not be sorry, Tom. You have paid dearly, as have I. But now we no longer serve at his pleasure. Only at the pleasure of one slightly less capricious.”
Anne Boleyn, in any realm, would not be denied her humour; she shot a mocking look at More and Wolsey as she rose.
She rose, and extended one hand to Cromwell.
“Come with me, my friend.”
“Where do we go?”
A DESERT. MOST FACE IT ALONE. BUT YOU, MR. CROMWELL, ARE IN LUCK. FOR YOU TRAVEL IT WITH THREE WHO HAVE KNOWN THE ROAD BEFORE.
A bell pealed over the streets of London, even reaching the confines of the Tower.
The four ghostly figures all looked reflexively in the same direction. Then faded.
Death tarried a while longer, shaking his head in one of those long-acquired mannerisms.
IF I AM TO RETURN HERE....ANON? ANON, THAT'S IT. THEY COULD AT LEAST PUT IN SOME CURTAINS.