The worst thing is the loneliness.
She's never been lonely before, never truly understood the meaning of the word, always surrounded by people who'd entertain her and fuss over her and make her feel like she was the centre of the universe. But now, no one cares or even pretends to, no one sits with her or makes her dance and smile and buzz with life. Now there's only her and those cold, grey, lonely walls that surround her, silent and faceless like lowly servants.
She's not alone, of course. The Tower is full of ghosts, ancient ones and those she used to know in life, but she doesn't care for any of them: More and his righteousness, Fisher with his scorn, George who looks at her with such accusation that she can barely bear it, Mark who shies away from everyone living or dead alike.
What am I doing here? she thinks, even asks the question aloud a couple of times, hoping against hope that there might be an answer.
She wonders if anyone out there is mourning for her. If Henry regrets what came to pass. If her father does. But she knows better.
It doesn't matter, though. She is mourning herself enough for all of them.
"Most gracious prince, I ask for mercy, mercy, mercy," Cromwell writes.
Anne looks over his shoulder as his shaking hand fumbles with the pen, wondering how a man once so proud can allow himself to lose his dignity like this.
"He won't," she tells him loftily, momentarily forgetting that he cannot hear her. "Have mercy, that is. Just as he did not grant mercy to me – or More, or Katherine, or any of the others he proclaimed to love and then sent away to die. Mercy is not in Henry's nature."
The words remain unheard, as they have to, but then he suddenly turns around. And for a moment – one precious, frightening moment – it seems as if he's looking straight at her. There's a little frown on his face and something akin to panic flashes in his eyes, like recognition, like meeting an estranged friend at court and being unprepared how to react. Like seeing a ghost. For this one short moment, she dares to hope that he can actually see her.
"Mr. Cromwell," she calls, her excitement unseemly, yet she cares not a bit about decorum.
But he doesn't react at all, and the moment passes. His gaze shifts and becomes unfocused. He briefly shakes his head, as if to clear his mind, and he rubs at his eyes like he's trying to drive away an illusion.
Anne feels anger flaring up, and disappointment, and she wants to throw something at him until he cannot help but notice her. But the anger passes, quicker than it used to when she was alive.
"Be assured, Mr. Cromwell, it won't be long before you will be able to see me," she whispers into the silence of the cell as she watches him sign his letter to the king. There is little maliciousness in the thought, despite its implications.
She's only stating a fact.
More and more ghosts come to join them. Others disappear, though Anne is never sure whether they have managed to move on or if they're only hiding in some remote corner, and neither does she care enough to find out.
Thomas More tells one of the newcomers, a young man who cannot seem to stop shaking in a quite undignified manner, that he has to walk as a ghost among the living to pay for his sins and that he, More, is there to offer guidance.
"He really believes that, does he?" she asks Cromwell, who watches the scene with what almost looks like amusement. "That he remains here solely for our spiritual welfare whilst the rest of us cannot move on because we have sinned."
It's easier to talk to Cromwell than it ever was to talk to the others. She thinks it shouldn't be, seeing as he was the one who tore her from her throne and made the executioner's sword fall, even if it was another hand that guided it. But somehow, that seems of little importance now that he shares her fate. He appears to have come to the same conclusion, because their conversations are devoid of guilt and accusation and loathing, except for those rare moments when she catches him looking at her with something unfathomable and intense in his gaze that makes her wonder. But whatever she thinks she sees flashing in his eyes, it never lasts long enough to manifest, replaced by a casual familiarity that may be out of place but, at the same time, feels oddly refreshing. Cromwell does not talk to her like to a queen, but at least he treats her like a person, which is more than she can say of More and Fisher and even her brother.
"Of course he does," Cromwell says. He shrugs, casually dismissing More and his outlook on their existence. "But if he needs to believe that there is a purpose to this, who are we to shatter his illusions?"
Thoughtful, Anne watches him turn and go. She does not necessarily agree – either about leaving More to his illusions or to the idea that there is no purpose in their being here. She just doesn't think it's the sort of purpose More imagines, some sort of punishment for the wrongs they've done in life. From across the room, More glares at her, as if he can read her thoughts. She pays him no attention.
It doesn't feel so much like punishment now, she thinks.
Anne doesn't need to breathe anymore, but during the two months when Elizabeth, her Elizabeth, is sent to the Tower, it feels as if she's holding her breath.
Maybe this, finally, is her punishment. Seeing her daughter sent to the same prison that was her own place of execution. Being so close to her child, and yet unable to touch her, to talk to her, to offer comfort and solace in those dark days of uncertainty.
It tears her apart in ways her own imprisonment never did, in ways she never thought possible. She rages at the world, the kingdom, at God, at that horrible, awful Mary who should have died together with her wretched mother instead of rising to the throne like a bloody harpy.
"This is your fault," she hisses at Cromwell. "Mary should have been disposed of when we had a chance, but Henry and you, you were too cowardly to act."
She hits him in helpless fury until he catches her wrists and holds them with tight fingers that would have left bruises if she were alive.
"Will you compose yourself, my lady?" His voice is sharp, but his grip eases until his touch is gentle and almost comforting.
"She's hurting my daughter," Anne says, and her voice breaks. She will not cry in front of him, she tells herself. She will not.
She takes a deep breath and draws herself up proudly, shrugging off his hands. "If that bastard child does any harm to Elizabeth, I swear to God I will find a way to make her pay now and until the end of days."
Within the walls of the Tower, everything goes on the same, but the world outside is changing. Elizabeth ascends to the throne and all Anne can think is: My little girl.
There's pride in that thought, but also something akin to sadness. She remembers a time when she assumed her children (oh, the sons she and Henry would have had!) would wear the crown, but that was long ago and the years between and the blows fate dealt her have humbled her. And now Elizabeth, her own flesh, is Queen, and people speak of her with awe and admiration and fear in their voices.
"You must be proud of her," Cromwell says, sitting with her. "The country is flourishing under her reign."
Anne remembers the child Elizabeth used to be: the carefree laughter, the way she ran through the royal gardens waiting for Anne to catch her.
"I wonder if she's happy," Anne replies at last.
Cromwell hesitates, as if he's trying to gauge her mood, wondering how honest his answer is allowed to be. "I don't think monarchs can ever be truly happy. Not for long, anyway. They are not born for happiness."
Though she cannot see his face from this angle, she knows his expression: the small frown, the solemn look in his eyes. It's the one he always wears when he has uncomfortable, inconvenient truths to share.
She knows he's right; she felt it herself: the brief, overwhelming excitement the rush of power brings, and the price you have to pay afterwards, how it sucks all the life and joy out of you. She wishes she could have spared her daughter that fate.
"I could have been happy," she says, more to herself than to Cromwell. "If it hadn't been for Henry, I would have married someone else and had a son and I would have been happy!"
Cromwell turns his head towards her and smiles a wry, sad little smile. "No, you wouldn't," he tells her.
Anne thinks of Thomas Wyatt's soft kisses and his passionate vows of love, summer days spent in each others' arms in the meadows, and she knows it would never have been enough.
"No, I wouldn't," she echoes resignedly, hating her need to always have more than her dues.
Cromwell surprises her by pressing a brief, dry kiss to her forehead, the way you'd kiss a distraught child or a sibling. Anne closes her eyes and tells herself that wanting more, now, would be foolish.
The country is mourning its Queen, but Anne... Anne is mourning her child, and she mourns her as only a mother can.
Of all the children she lost, this loss is the most bittersweet. She comforts herself with the knowledge that, unlike her stillborn and unborn sons, Elizabeth at least lived a full life; she became a more powerful ruler than Anne had ever thought possible and saw the kingdom prosper under her reign. And yet, even now – even when Anne has heard countless prisoners and ghosts utter her name with dread and loathing, even when she's overheard guards and nobles recount tales of her accomplishments and triumphs – even now she remembers the little girl she once knew so well. The baby she suckled at her breast, the child whose hair she braided, the girl who would spin around and dance with her mother until she fell asleep in Anne's arms.
For the first time since she died, Anne enters the chapel and prays. She doesn't look at the Spanish wood on the roof that marks St. Peter ad Vincula as Katherine's, just as she tries not to look at the plate next to the altar where her own mortal remains are buried. (Of course, she does look. She even touches the grave plate, once, and for a small, passing moment she forgets that she's here to mourn Elizabeth and mourns herself instead.)
Later, it is she who seeks out Thomas – for he has become Thomas to her now, at least in the privacy of her thoughts, the decades having bred an odd sense of familiarity.
She finds him in a far corner of the White Tower, bent over a book.
"There you are," she says, forcing a smile.
He looks up, regarding her like he's cautiously gauging her mood. She wonders what he sees. "I wasn't sure whether you wanted company."
"I did not. Now I do."
His eyebrow rises. "Well, in that case, I shall be at your service, my Queen." He adds a smooth little bow for good measure.
She should be angry that he's mocking her – on this day of all days – but for some reason, his effusive, fake humbleness actually turns the smile on her lips real and she laughs for the first time in weeks. "As you should, Mr. Cromwell," she counters lightly. "As you should."
But when he offers her his arm and she takes it without second thought, she wonders how much truth was hiding behind the teasing banter.
There's a fierce argument going on between More and Cromwell when she enters the upstairs chambers of the White Tower to escape the noise and the brawling down in the yard. It feels crowded these days, Parliamentarian soldiers everywhere, reminding her uncomfortably that even if they cannot harm her now, she is still, in so many ways, a prisoner within these walls.
Both men turn towards her when she walks through the door. She feels herself bristling under the weight of More's disdainful gaze. All those years, and he still treats her like she was the snake invading his paradise, the one who turned his precious utopia sour.
"I'm sure even Mistress Boleyn will agree that these people are a menace and must be stopped," More says, turning back to Thomas, whose eyes remain focused on her. "Such an attack on the Crown is a sin that must be punished swiftly and severely."
'Mistress Boleyn', she hears, and her hands clench into fists at the insolence.
You're nothing, she thinks, trying to fight down the surge of white-hot anger. I was England's Queen. I had Henry's love and trust when you had long since gambled it all away. You're just a jealous, angry dead man clinging to your outdated grudges as if they keep you alive.
And yes, of course she agrees. Of course she believes in the sovereignty of the Crown. Of course she despises the Parliamentarians and their garrison who came and invaded the place, acting like an uncivilized bunch of brutes. Just not quite as much as she despises More and the way he treats her, the way he uses her to win an argument with Cromwell, all the while plainly displaying how little he respects her.
"Oh, I don't know, Mr. More," she replies loftily. "A new age is dawning. Maybe it is time to do away with the monarchy."
It seems ridiculous to her even as she says the words, almost blasphemous, but it's worth it to see More's head snap back around towards her in shock.
"But then, I suppose you don't share that opinion. After all, you've always been known to cling to antiquated beliefs. That is what got you here in the first place, isn't it?" She delivers the killing blow with a small, cool smile, watching More blanch at her words. For a moment, she almost feels sorry for him.
More hurries off without a further word, leaving her alone with Thomas, who's regarding her appraisingly.
"You don't believe that," he finally says, more a statement of fact than an actual question.
Anne rolls her eyes and walks past him, taking a seat on one of the chairs. "Of course I don't. That does not mean that I will let myself be used by someone who despises me just so he can make a point."
She feels Thomas' eyes heavy on her. Turning around, she sees him trying to hide his smirk behind a disapproving expression, and she laughs. "Don't look like that, Thomas! It doesn't really matter anyway. The politics of the living don't concern us anymore, in case you hadn't noticed."
She probably shouldn't have dismissed it like that, because he frowns at her. "That doesn't mean that it's not important," he admonishes her.
"Of course it's important." She sighs. "But we are not."
She's surprised that he hasn't realised this yet. That death has, in fact, rendered them insignificant. That all their grand plans and ambitions, all their morals and ideas, cannot change anything anymore. That this parody of life might have kept them from obliteration, but at the same time has completely removed them from society and left them on the outside looking in.
It's hard to believe that this is news to him, but maybe she's underestimated the power of denial because he looks a little lost, as if he's only now grasping that they're frozen in time while the world keeps on turning, ever changing.
She thought she had forgotten what it meant to be afraid, but there's so much noise that it's as if the air will explode. The shrill ring of sirens, the blast of bombs, people screaming and crying everywhere, and she fears it'll never, ever stop anymore.
Maybe, she thinks, this is the end of the world More has been preaching will come, a punishment for the sins of humankind. Maybe he's been right all along.
The others are hiding somewhere. More himself, no doubt, is praying for salvation. Thomas is probably just waiting for that horrid, ghastly noise to stop, one way or the other.
Anne, though... Anne stands under the open sky, right on Tower Green, her bare feet touching earth that should, by all means, be soaked with the blood of the dead but is merely brown and dry and cool. She stands and listens, and watches as smoke clouds the horizon and turns the bright orange of the afternoon sky grey and ugly.
The world keeps on turning, as it always does.
Later that night, after the sun has long since set and the moon is but a pale shimmer of light barely visible through the clouds, Thomas finds her in the exact same place. "What are you doing out here?" he asks, as if the significance of this spot eludes him.
"This is the place where I died," she reminds him.
Even in the darkness, she can see him flinch back as violently as if she'd struck him. She wants to tell him that it wasn't meant to be an accusation, that it's all right, that he has long since paid for it. Except she doesn't think that a man like him wants or needs anyone's forgiveness but his own, and she cannot grant him that.
And anyway, this isn't at all about him now. "Strange, isn't it? That I should feel more safe here than anywhere else within these walls."
She sits down on the grass and motions for him to join her. With movements so rigid that they could either be cautious or awkward, he accepts her invitation, uncomfortably stretching his legs on the ground. It's like he's holding his breath, waiting for her to say something cruel, cutting his guilt wide open with a sharp tongue. Once upon a time, she wouldn't have wasted this opportunity. But there's nothing to be gained from hurting him now, and she's so, so tired of destruction and pain.
She puts her head lightly against his shoulder and waits, watching as the wind clears the sky and the moonlight finally escapes its cloudy prison.
The tourists have stopped bothering her, though she wishes they would not come into the chapel. Whenever someone looks at her grave, she feels a chill coming over her, and she doesn't like it.
It's a Sunday in May, a beautiful, bright day, and crowds are streaming in, the air filled with chatter and laughter that makes her long to be one of them, only for one day.
There's a young couple standing apart from the others, kissing. By the looks of it, it's the kind of kiss that makes you forget the world around you, wrapped in your partner and the softness of their lips against yours, the warmth of their skin against your fingers where your hands are touching their neck.
Anne watches, a wistful smile on her lips. "I remember what it's like to be like this. Young and carefree and in love. To think it will last forever."
She's almost whispering, as if not to disturb the lovers.
Behind her, Thomas snorts derisively. "Do you? Then I'm sure you remember where it got you and that 'forever' usually ends rather quickly, and rarely happily."
His cynicism is hardly unexpected and it's not like he isn't right, but his words make her irrationally furious. She spins around to face him with her lips pursed and her eyes burning pale blue fire. "That's not to say that it wasn't worth it while it lasted. Given the chance, I would do it all again. Can you say the same for yourself?"
It's the closest they've had to a fight in centuries, and she wants nothing more than to turn her back to him and walk away with her head held high, but his hand on her wrist stops her. His grip is like an iron shackle, tight and unbreakable, and she remembers how she used to wish to be able to properly feel another's touch again.
Careful what you wish for, she thinks to herself, and yet part of her revels in the sensation of being touched even as she tries to twist her wrist from his grip.
"No," he says, and there's enough anger in his tone to make his voice shake with it. "No, I would not do it all again. And neither do I understand how you can say that you would."
She wants to quote that phrase back to him she once heard a sad, tearful woman tell a friend, how it's better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. She wants to say that the brief happiness she had with Henry was worth all the anguish and the pain and the death. She wants to say that she cannot ever regret following her heart, even if she crashed and burnt. And any of it would be true. But instead, what comes out when she speaks is the one truth she is not prepared to share.
"But I would," she says. "I would not change a thing. Whatever I've done, whatever was done, it turned out all right in the end, don't you see? I am—"
She stops herself, just in time, and takes a deep breath. "I am not unhappy," she concludes, which isn't quite like saying I'm happy, but it's close enough. "Here, now."
Before Thomas has the chance to reply, she wrenches herself free and hurries away. He does not call her back, nor does he follow her, and she isn't sure whether it's because he didn't understand what he was saying or because he did.
Fireworks light up the dark sky and the streets down below them are abuzz with people, celebrating the turn of a decade. But what's another decade after you went through four dozens of them? It's so easy to forget why time is important, why the passing of another year, another decade, another century should matter.
"Do you ever feel like we're wasting our time?" Anne asks Thomas, who's standing next to her, high up on the battlements, watching red and golden sparks fall like a rain of fire from the sky over the Bridge.
He favours her with a brief sideway glance and a little frown. "I never really thought of it like that." Then, after a pause that stretches so long that she thinks he already moved on from the topic, he adds, "There is a difference between wasting time and biding your time."
Anne purses her lips, trying to figure out what he's talking about. There are moments when she thinks they could be soul mates, her and him, when every thought they have is so in tune that it almost scares her. And then, there are moments when she has no idea what's going on in that stubborn, brilliant, scheming mind of his. Like now.
"Biding our time? Until what?" she asks, all too well aware that frustration gives her voice a petulant edge unbecoming of someone like her, someone who saw centuries go by and who should be above petty notions like impatience. But she was never good at hiding her impulses and emotions, and if she hadn't learned it in her lifetime, when she still could have benefited from that sort of diplomacy, she's not going to start with it now.
The side of Thomas' mouth that's turned to her lifts a little – just the tiniest fraction – in what she knows is a lopsided, wry smile, the one that says he knows something she's not privy to. He doesn't deign to give her a verbal answer, of course.
You're the single most frustrating, headstrong, infuriating man I've ever met. I understand why Henry had you beheaded, she thinks spitefully, but she doesn't actually speak the words. Maybe she's adopted some sense of diplomacy after all. Or maybe it's just stubbornness on her part, not wanting him to see how much he can get under her skin.
Well, then, Mr. Cromwell. Two can play this game.
She turns away from him and returns to watching the fireworks. A gust of wind tousles her hair. Somewhere, down in the crowd, someone is shouting something she cannot quite make out. Faintly, in the distance, she hears the bells strike midnight and the people's voices get louder.
When she first feels the touch of a hand against hers, she almost jerks away in surprise. She freezes instead, her entire body going rigid as his fingers gently lace through hers. When she turns to Thomas, he's still not looking at her, facing the river with a concentration that's just a little bit too focused to be real. She looks at him, then down at where his fingers are lightly wrapped around hers, and smiles a little as she turns back around to watch the night.
His hand around hers feels warm and solid, more alive than anything she's touched in a long time. She thinks she can almost feel the beat of his pulse – almost, but not quite, like a phantom echo of life.
The fireworks turn the sky into all the colours of the rainbow and more, and the people's cheers fill the air. The start of a new decade, she thinks, acutely aware of Thomas' fingers tangling with hers. The century is young, and so is the millennium. So many things to do, so much time left when you know it's not running out for you.
But now, right in this moment, she doesn't want to waste a single more minute. She's tired of biding her time, waiting for something to happen. She never had to, when she was alive. If anything, she had to stall: dodge kisses and eager touches, say things like not yet and we should wait and playfully dance out of reach. She's tired of that, too.
She gives Thomas' hand a little tug until he turns towards her with an expression of mild curiosity that turns first into confusion, then bewildered understanding when she takes a step toward him, and another, until she'd be close enough to feel his breath if he was breathing. And then, when she reaches out to slide her other hand through the short curls at the nape of his neck and stands on her tip-toes, finally, he smiles.
It's an open, honest smile, almost a little shy, and there's so much relief in it – so much 'at last' – that the tight knot that's been sitting down in the pit of her stomach for all these years finally begins to uncurl.
There's a voice in the back of her mind that reproaches her for doing what she does, tells her that no lady of her standing would ever lower herself to be so forward, and never, ever, with a man so far beneath her. It sounds a bit like her father's voice. She delights in ignoring it, and moves to close the last few inches between them.
He meets her halfway.