Authors: AJ Krafton,Ash Krafton
She dressed him, fully and carefully, and folded his arms over his chest before rolling him back onto his side, just as he’d fallen sleep. A gentle sweep over his eyes to close them, a final kiss on the lips that no longer responded.
Burial rites. The very things she spent years evading. The desolation that gripped her was a gaping maw, deep and bottomless and full of jagged empty promises.
She smoothed his hair, lamenting his lack of wings. He was no angel, now. He was simply an empty shell, the remnant of what had once been a life. All that heat and love and potential—now, he was just another fragment of the past.
A sob choked her, an ache that squeezed her throat and burned her chest. It leaked out in a whimper, abandoned, without a single tear to grant her absolution. No tears would ever grace the eyes of so wicked a woman. The instinct to weep was as violent as her realization that there could be no more love for her, because love was made for those who were destined for Heaven.
She was a thief and a killer and a destroyer of dreams and hope and all that was simple, all for which life was worth living.
She backed away from the body and stepped out into the sunshine, its golden sheen misleading. The morning was as cold and as still as Gehring.
Just be your cool arrogant self
, Knell had once said. A chill seeped down though her limbs, a stillness that damped the vestiges of life. All that Gehring had stirred within her fell lifeless as if the air around her had been cut off.
Turning her back and walking away from his body was easier than she feared it would be.
Her bags, packed and ready, sat on the wooded trail. She hadn’t put them there.
Then again, she never did.
Poking out of the side pocket was a paper. Instead of the usual scrap of parchment and new address scrawled inside the journal, she found a travel portfolio. Train tickets, a ferry across the Channel. Passage to Surrey.
Knell was sending her home.
And she knew why, knew it with a dread certainty that stilled the remnants of her distress. Gehring was lost. Her single moment of passion, of love and belonging, fading like a shooting star that had been dislodged from its secure perch in the heavens.
In Surrey, night was falling, and there was but one star left to fall with it.
Senza made her weary way home to Henry’s estate, draped in a faded aubergine long-sleeved gown, a mourning cap with several layers of veils and a pair of long gloves in her handbag. During the course of the journey, she prepared to meet her brother’s family by acting the part of the elderly woman they expected her to be.
She practiced a soft creaking affectation that mimicked, at least, a woman past eighty. London had been full of the long-lived aristocrats, thriving on the science and miracles of modern medicine, so she’d had plenty of examples. By the time her train arrived in Woking, she’d perfected the voice.
She’d switched carriages during one of the stops, ducking into an empty cabin to don her thick veils and her long satin gloves before emerging an old woman. She chose a seat near a young couple, engaging them in a lively albeit sometimes confusing conversation.
She could not, however, disguise her laugh. Her laugh was the sound of cultured appeal, of crystalline amusement. No matter what she did, she could not apply her costume to disguise it. A fortunate thing that she had very little left to laugh about.
When she did laugh, she did a lot of coughing to cover it up. That much was so convincing that the young man helped her out the carriage so gentle a hand that anyone would have thought she was as brittle as the last leaf on an oak tree.
Sometimes, that was the view of the world afforded to her on her lofty perch. High above the world, alone, the last of her kind, stuck on a branch, knowing the winter would never come.
Her extended family greeted her with warmth and deep regard. Auntie Senza, the great traveler, the most beautiful woman in the world. They’d kept her bedroom just as she’d left it and urged her to take a rest after so long a journey.
She just shook her head. Her niece took her straight to Henry, where he sat on the back veranda.
He struggled to stand but she hurried to his side, pressed him down, leaning to kiss his cheek through the safety of her veils. Oh, how he’d aged. Another rift opened in her war-torn heart. His hair had thinned, white as snow, his eyes a blue so pale as to be nearly transparent.
“My dear Bess.” His hands dwarfed hers and he held onto her as if he were afraid she’d float away like a dream. “I’d wondered if my letters had reached you. You never seem to stay in one place for very long.”
Henry adjusted the blanket on his lap. He’d become quite susceptible to chills, and his daughter-in-law was absolutely vehement about keeping him warm. At the moment, Henry sat in his wheelchair on the veranda in the full sun, wrapped in wool.
Henry. Her brother. She hadn’t seen him in so long. She struggled to recall exactly what they’d last said to each other but it was as difficult as picking one voice out of a multitude. So many words, so many people.
But Henry—his face, every face he’d ever worn at every age, shone as clear and bright as a flower in glass. Preserved forever in its perfection.
To see him now—more than seventy-five years old, and fading more each day—this couldn’t be the face that matched his heart. She had a very difficult time reconciling the two.
Senza had selected a shady chair close to the house, someplace where the breeze or the sun would leave her veils and her secrets undisturbed.
Senza never removed her veils when in the company of those who knew her, wearing long gloves and heavy scarves to hide the creamy perfection of her youthful skin. They undoubtedly attributed her wardrobe to an eternal vanity, the once-impossibly beautiful woman who could not bear the sight of time’s cruel ravishing.
No one ever said as much within her hearing, but she heard the whispers of the indiscreet children.
, they’d say.
Auntie Senza must be so terrible old, she’s practically ancient—
“Of course, I got them,” she lied. “But I never seemed to find someone reliable enough to return the post.” She bit her lip to keep from saying what was truly in her heart. Perhaps to him it seemed like it was never very long, but after so many awakenings, so many resets and rebirths, with nothing to show for it—no accomplishments, no posterity—Senza knew what eternity truly felt like because she lived an eternity every day.
“And, besides.” She rubbed her hands, tugging up her long gloves, re-securing her scarf around her neck. Her voice held a measure of gaiety, as false as the creaking she worked hard to maintain. “There is a whole world out there.”
“And you must tell me all about it.” He sighed. “I haven’t seen much more than this.”
He gestured to the grounds. But that’s not what Senza saw.
His grandchildren played in the field, his grown children chatting over their tea. His family, all their joys and triumphs and adventures and disappointments.
“And this, dear Henry…” She reached for his hand and grasped it firmly. “This is bigger than any of the world I’d seen.”
“But I’d never even seen London properly—” He began to cough, a dry choking that stole his words. Irene, with her keen ears, alerted at once and hustled over to him, helping him drink his tea.
“In the spring, when you are stronger,” Senza said. “We can visit London then.”
“That would be lovely, Father,” Irene said, smoothing the blanket. “Spring sounds like a nice time to go.”
“Of course.” His voice restored was much raspier. Smiling, he looked back down over the fields, listening to the children at play, a glow in his filmy gaze. Perhaps he mused hopeful plans for the long-off spring.
Over his head, Irene passed a significant look to Senza, who only nodded.
Spring would arrive, but not for him.
Henry was for the winter.
“Henry.” Senza smiled as she said his name, knowing it would warm her voice. “You’re awake.”
He’d been failing over the last week, the last month taking a wearying toll on him. Henry lived with his oldest son Charlie, who had called her Aunt Bess.
Senza kept a constant vigil over her brother, who slept most of the day away. Although it had been a lifetime ago, she felt as if she were sixteen again, sitting on Grandmother’s bed. The same familiar pain, the same counting of breaths, the same worry when he became too quiet.
But she was there, always there. He wouldn’t be alone in his last days. No one should ever be alone.
Henry stirred with a weak cough and she put down her book, reaching for his hand. “I’m here, brother.”
“Bessy.” After all this time, he still called her by his pet name. “Ah, my girl. You’re still here. I always said you’d outlive us all.”
“Shh. Rude talk. You being the baby—”
“Babies no longer, I fear.” He struggled to sit up in bed.
It made her ache to see how weak he’d become. She adjusted his pillow behind him, quieting his struggle.
“We’ve had good lives, sister. I wish we could have spent more time together but…You’ve been my best friend. Always. It’s hard for me to say goodbye to all this.”
She nodded. That word was always the hardest for her to hear, and she heard it from everyone she’d ever loved. She squeezed his hand, sending a warm pulse of love. It was all the embrace he could comfortably endure.
He squeezed back, a dim echo. “Indulge your old brother’s dying wish. Let me see that pretty face of yours. You’ve hidden in these veils for so many years I forget what you look like.”
“I cannot, Henry.”
“But please.” His eyes were rheumy with tears. “You’ve always been the prettiest girl I know. Send me off with a smile and let me wonder why you never married.”
“Oh, Henry.” He lay in the large bed, a pale shadow of the man he’d once been. His broad shoulders had thinned and stooped over the years, his once lush blond hair now winter-white, what little was left. His eyebrows, thick and unruly, seemed to weigh his eyes and his skin was wrinkled and folded and spotted like mushrooms from the west woods. Aging was a terrible thing to happen to a body.
When was the last he’d been shown a mirror? Did he see the harsh trail that time had left in its wake? And what would he say if he knew the poisonous truth, that his own sister had harbored a sinful, selfish secret these past sixty years?
Her dearest brother, her favorite person, her closest friend. If he died not knowing, it would weigh her conscience. She could not let him pass without granting her absolution.
With a heavy sigh, she drew back her hand from his thin grasp. Already that familiar distance was growing in his eyes.
“All right,” she whispered. “Just this once.”
Gently, she lifted the filmy lace, folding the layers back over her bonnet, revealing the alabaster skin, apple blush of her cheeks, the stray ruby curl that escaped her cap, the fiery green eyes. For the first time, she looked upon her brother’s face without the blur of a veil between them.
His expression lightened with a gentle smile. “Oh, Bess. God is too kind to an old beggar like me. He allows me to see you with my heart. You will always be beautiful.”
“And you, Henry.” Her voice was crowded by tears. “I can see you laughing on the dock, the July sunlight scattered in your mussed hair. You’re going to pitch me into the water. We’ll always be children, won’t we? We’ll always be together.”
“No, Bess, not you and I. But you will never be alone, I promise.” His eyes drifted closed, his smile quivering and growing faint. “I see that now…”
His voice slipped off on that final exhale, his bright flame guttering and puffing away on a wisp of smoke, stranding her in the darkness of her agony.
She’d prepared for this moment for decades but her resolution failed, disappearing completely. Panic tightened every nerve. She wasn’t ready. She wasn’t ready for this goodbye, never this goodbye.
“No, Henry, wake up.” She sat on the bed, trying to rouse him. “It’s me, Senza. Your Bess. Just wake up.”
She put a hand to his shoulder and shook him. “Henry, you can’t leave. I’ll be alone, I’ll be all alone. Henry, please—”
His features relaxed and a long soft breath escaped him. She squeezed his hand. This time, he did not squeeze back.
Her grief was too great for tears.
“Oh, Henry.” She leaned over his chest and held his still-warm body. “Goodbye.”
She reached for the bell cord and gave it a sharp pull. Her fingers numb, she reached for her veils, tugging them over her face just as the maid came in and began shouting for Charlie and the doctor.
So. That was it. Senza removed herself from his bedside, taking one last look at her brother’s body before drawing the door closed.
She’d said goodbye.
She vowed it was her last time.
The days that followed were once again a blur or preparation and services and arrangements and she took full charge of them. No one dared oppose her. After all, she’d had the most experience. Senza had mastered the art of burial, dispatching the last of her kin with business-like efficiency.
Immediately following the burial, she packed her bags herself, ordering them carried down to the same carriage that had taken her to the graveyard. Senza posted a stack of letters. She’d spent the days preceding Henry’s death creating her will, making sure that her family received her property, each with a personal note of all the good fortune she wished for them.
Miss Fyne herself would be withdrawing from public life, with plans to remove to her former home in the North. Her family’s families expressed their regrets at her departure and urged her to write.
Which, of course, she did, and with great frequency. She had so much to share about her darling young namesake, who had inherited her much-older cousin’s legendary beauty. To whom the girl actually belonged had always been a bit vague, but no one questioned. No one was alive who could possibly know the answers.
Eventually, news of Miss Fyne’s quiet passing finally reached the family that remained. Senza hired a young man to write the dictation, because it would have been most inappropriate to write about her own death with her own hand.
Even as she handed the coins to the protesting young man—he was glad to do a service for such a lovely young lady, he couldn’t possibly accept a farthing for what was obviously his duty as a gentleman—she imagined that the news would be sadly received, with much agreement that Great Aunt Senza had lived a long, charmed life, made comfortable in her old age by the companionship of the young Senza Fyne. It was no wonder the young woman had inherited her elderly cousin’s estate.