The stag lay upon the ground. Its chest still rose and fell, blood and steam gushing from its lolling mouth, its great pronged head resting on the ground. The legs jerked and kicked sporadically, as if it were still trying to run.
Rudolf clung to his hunting rifle, staring at it.
“Do not approach yet, your Majesty,” his trainer advised.
“I know that,” Rudolf said, haughty. “I have hunted before.”
Peter inclined his head contritely, and bowed at the waist. “Your pardon, Majesty,” he said, stepping back.
Rudolf ignored him and watched the stag wheezing its final breaths. It was the largest thing he had ever brought down, and the first stag. It would make Papa proud to see those great antlers mounted upon the wall at the house in Bad Ischl.
He stepped carefully closer. Twigs and branches snapped and cracked underfoot. It was all the more impressive that he had managed to hunt when the ground was dry and nature conspired to make it more difficult.
The stag’s dark, liquid eye rolled weakly as he neared.
“A masterful shot.”
Rudolf’s eyes rose immediately from the stag.
His friend was crouched there, at the beast’s shoulder, and he laid his hand on the tawny pelt. Dark eyes met Rudolf’s. It was strange to see him by daylight. He seemed barely to be visible, a glittering outline on the very edge of sight. “Will you not respect your prey?”
“It’s only a stag,” Rudolf said, then immediately felt foolish when his friend gazed placidly at him.
“Killing or being killed,” his friend murmured, “would you ask for less respect?”
Tongue-tied, Rudolf shook his head.
“Then bow.” It was a command. Rudolf did not like to be commanded, but his friend’s quiet tone compelled him and he lowered his head politely. Though his friend did not smile, when next he spoke, it had the feeling of approval: “Good.”
The semi-transparent hand brushed over the stag’s eye. When it moved away, the light was gone from the creature’s eye.
Rudolf drew a shivering breath and looked up. His friend was gone, the rest of their party was approaching, and he could see blood from the stag’s last breath spotted on his boots and trousers.
The bloody feathers were warm and damp on his skin.
The shot had not been his, and the death was not of his making, but the bird lay in his arms all the same. The golden-brown and white feathers were dashed here and there with red, but even in death, the bird’s head had a proud cant.
They were amazing creature, eagles. He loved to watch them soar, circle and then, without warning, drop in for the kill. They were lethal and beautiful, a rare combination of elegance and deadliness, which he found fascinating.
He stroked the plumage of the still breast gently. It was not yet starting to cool despite the coming chill of the evening. It would be dark soon, and his chaperone was already stamping impatiently, wishing to return to the palace and to supper.
He hardly needed to look up to know his friend would be there. The amusement in his tone was hardly unfounded: for every beast Rudolf hunted, for every bird he felled and every rabbit he snared, his friend would come.
All the same, he looked up with a smile. “I don’t ask for you to be there.”
“But you know I shall be.” A pale hand overlaid his on the eagle’s still breast. “You have learned to respect the fallen.”
Rudolf looked down at the long, thin fingers. The skin was pale, more opaque in the twilight, and seemed to glow with an inner, unnatural light. His friend was no normal man, of that Rudolf was certain, but then, who would wish for a normal, mortal man when he could speak with the ender of all things.
“Do others see you?” he asked quietly, looking up at the narrow, sharp face. The dark eyes reminded him of a bird of prey, the way he canted his head, the way he watched, waited and was there in the instant of the end.
The man who was Death gazed at him. “Others?”
The strange light-dark lips curved in something not quite a smile. “All do,” he murmured, “when the end is come.”
Rudolf shook his head emphatically. “I don’t mean like that,” he said tersely. “Others like me. Do other people talk to you?”
The thick-lashed eyes half-closed. “Perhaps,” he replied. Rudolf looked away sharply. “Is that displeasing to you? That you may not be alone in my attentions?”
“No,” Rudolf replied sullenly. “I don’t care.”
A long finger tilted his chin up. “Few seek me out,” Death said, barely a whisper. He was fading into the darkness. “You hunt me, child, where you know I will be found, only to speak with me. If you profess that you do not care, I believe you lie.”
“How dare you!” Rudolf cried out in indignation.
His chaperone turned, startled, and Rudolf felt colour rise in his face. He lurched to his feet ungainfully, cradling the fallen eagle.
“We return,” he said tersely, stalking past the man, wishing his friend was not right.
The palace was quiet and dark, even more so than usual. The servants seemed to be aware of the solemnity of the occasion. A few flitted here and there in the halls, but none noticed the Crown Prince making his way on light feet through the halls.
It was not easy to escape the attention of his supervisors and chaperones, but he did not want them looking over his shoulder. They crowded in on him when he had visited his grandmother last, which was not how he wished to bid her farewell.
He wondered if she would even know him any longer. She was thin and frail now, so unlike the proud matriarch who had ruled his childhood with an iron fist in a velvet glove. Her eyes often wandered, and he had been horrified and shocked to see tears of pain on her face.
Hidden in the shadows, he ran lightly through the halls towards the doors of her chambers.
To his surprise, they were slightly ajar, a slit of light cutting across the floor.
He edged closer and peeked cautiously in. He could barely see Grandmother. She was lost in her bed, covered and wrapped in blankets until all that was visible was her lacy nightcap. Her face was so pale it was almost lost against the pillows.
A chair creaked and he leaned back quickly, then drew a startled breath. Mother!
The Empress herself was there, seated by Grandmother’s bedside. She looked almost as pale as Grandmother, dressed in dark clothing with her slim, gloved hands resting one upon the other in her lap.
Rudolf clutched the polished door handle. It was cold against his palm. He wanted to bid Grandmother a private farewell, but if Mother was there, how could he dare to confide how much he loved Grandmother?
Mother looked up suddenly. She looked beautiful, but weary, dark shadows beneath her eyes. How long, Rudolf wondered, had she been sitting there? She was not looking at Grandmother, and he was surprised to see a small half-smile touch her lips.
What he saw next made his heart tighten: his friend stepped into his line of sight and sat down on the very edge of the bed.
“I knew you would come,” Mother said softly. “I waited.”
Death looked at Grandmother and touched her small, shrivelled hand. “You know I come to all,” he said quietly. He turned to look at Mother, his expression cool and grave. “Your reasons for being here do not become you.”
Colour marked Mother’s pale cheek. “You come to me often enough,” she said quietly, and Rudolf’s heart wrenched in shocked pain. “Why should I not seek you?”
Death’s black eyes fixed on her face. “Her passing should not be used so lightly,” he said, the slant of his lips serious. “She is of your blood.”
“And I will mourn her,” Mother said, rising from her seat.
Rudolf’s friend tenderly laid his hand over Grandmother’s eyes. “Some would love her,” he said. He turned his head and looked towards the doors. Rudolf stifled a gasp at his discovery, and concealed himself quickly behind the doors. There was the softest of rustles as Death rose. “But I will not deny that it is pleasing to see you.”
Mother made a soft sound. She sounded almost content, and Rudolf dared a glance.
Death’s pale hand cupped her cheek tenderly and for a terrifying heartbeat, Rudolf thought his friend may lean down and claim her lips.
“Not in this time,” he said, low and warm, “not in this place, not before the eyes that see.”
He faded from sight and Mother sank into her seat. To his surprise, Rudolf heard her stifle a quiet sob.
Rudolf drew the door closed carefully. There were things that he knew he was never meant to see. He wandered instead, through the palace, until he found himself in the silent, deserted Hofkapelle. Faint moonlight filtered through the narrow windows, casting strange shadows, but shadows held no fear for him.
He lit a candle by the door and approached the altar to kneel. He folded his hands together and bowed his head in a prayer for his Grandmother. He did not weep, for it was not done for a man to weep. She had told him so many times and he wanted to respect her wishes.
Though he heard no footsteps approach, he was sure he felt a broad hand touch the top of his head, and in the silence, he was certain he heard the softest of murmurs of approval.
Rudolf paced back and forth between the window and the fireplace. He doubted his attempt at subterfuge had been efficient, but he knew he could stay silent no longer. As long as Mother was bent on embarrassing them all, he would not stand for it.
The door of the chambers opened, a maid showing the Empress in.
Elegant and unruffled as always, she gazed at him, his inscrutable Mother. “I had no notion you were to come to England,” she murmured, taking a seat without waiting for his leave to do so.
He sat, as the servants provided refreshments. “I am here only briefly,” he said. “I trust your travels are… enjoyable.”
She accepted a glass of wine. “Well enough,” she said. “The hunts here are quite exciting.”
“Yes.” He took his own glass. “I hear that you have been enjoying them.”
Her lips turned up in that closed, careful smile. “I hope you have not been listening to idle gossip, Rudolf,” she murmured. She cradled her glass between her gloved hands, neither moving nor drinking.
“I may not be listening, Mother,” he said, keeping his voice even, “but others are.”
She said nothing, merely gazing at him, as if daring him to continue, to call her the names he sometimes heard in the street. “If you believe the thoughts of others are worth a moment’s notice to me,” she said quietly, “then you do not know my mind well.”
He looked at her, with her perfect, porcelain skin, her dark eyes, the tiny, delicate waist, and the hair that he had never seen untended. “You hear them,” he said. “You know what they say of you. You care enough to spite them.”
One hand moved dismissively. “I care enough to do as I please,” she said evenly. “I will speak to any I wish to and be a friend to any who is a friend to me.”
Rudolf fixed his eyes on her. He remembered once seeing her with someone she clearly considered a friend, smiling as he had never seen her smile before. He doubted that Father had ever seen such an expression on her face.
“There may be scandal,” he said slowly.
“Do not fear for my reputation, Rudolf,” she said, quietly dismissive. “Even if I were a nun, cloistered away in some forest somewhere, they would still find some slander to lay at my feet.” She set down her untouched glass of wine. “I have other friends who many would find much more intriguing, if they knew of them.”
“I know,” he said quietly.
Her eyebrows drew together minutely, suspiciously, over her dark eyes, then she rose. “Middleton is an entertainment,” she said, smoothing her skirts around her. “Nothing more.”
“Is there someone who is more?”
She did not condescend him with a response, though he saw the same flush of colour he had seen in her face at Grandmother’s bedside years before. “Farewell, Rudolf,” she said, sweeping towards the door. “I trust your stay will be restful.”
He rose and remained so until the door closed behind her.
Only then did he sit, sagging into his seat. He had long suspected, but had never truly believed that his friend and Mother would be anything more than passing acquaintances. It should have shocked him, and yet…
He remembered mother, her poetry, her fantasies, her dreams.
It was no wonder she looked to his friend as he did.
It was raining, dark and bleak, mud spattering from the freshly-turned ground.
Rudolf ignored the muted complaints of his companions some paces away. They did not need to care, only stay within distance to protect him. He crouched down to touch the temporary grave marker.
The grave was several days old already. Less than three weeks had passed since he last saw her, buried his hands in her dark hair and laughed with her. Less than a dozen days since her father had come to his quarters and spoken quietly to him of his daughter’s choice to leave Prague. Less than nine days since she had taken poison and been found by her mother.
He lowered his hand to the ground, so cold and wet and chilling.
He could not be sure whether he had believed her father or not. Perhaps her choice had been made knowing he could never make her an honest woman. Perhaps it had been because her father had tried to force them apart. He wished he could ask her, wished he could have held her in her final moments, known her mind and intentions.
“You are late.”
Rudolf raised his head. On the opposite side of the grave, framed by darkness, his friend’s pale face was barely visible. “Why are you here?” he asked dully. “You have no reason, unless I am set to be slaughtered by friends.”
“I am here,” Death said, watching him, “because I was there.”
Rudolf turned his face away. “Of course you were,” he whispered.
“She spoke your name.” There was no emotion in Death’s low voice, no sign given that he was pleased or displeased.
Rudolf flinched. “I did not bring her to this end,” he said, his voice strained and shaking.
“You did not,” Death agreed quietly, “but you did nothing to prevent it, when her father came to you.” The pale face tilted quizzically, black eyes unblinking in the darkness. “Did you care for her?”
Rudolf’s temper blazed. “How dare you question me,” he hissed.
“I ask because you were not there when she called your name,” Death replied quietly. “Is it not so that one must come to those one cares for when they are in peril?” Rudolf’s shoulders shook violently. “You knew she would not wish to depart.”
“I knew nothing.”
Death’s pale hand covered his on the cold dirt of the grave. “Have I taught you nothing?” he said, his eyes fixed upon Rudolf’s face. “Would you lie, even where she lately rests on your account?”
Rudolf looked down at their joined hands, dirt-smeared. “She would not want to depart,” he agreed quietly, “but I hardly imagined she would care so much, to follow this path.”
“Sometimes,” his companion murmured, “it is the only path that will allow for peace, even for happiness.”
Rudolf’s hand turned slowly and he clasped Death’s. “Then, I hope she is happy,” he said.
Death inclined his head in a brief nod. “Let her rest,” he said quietly. “Mourn her and find solace, but let her rest.”
Rudolf withdrew his hand and rose at once. Death remained where he was, a shadowy figure crouched over the new grave. “Come,” he called, his voice clear and his voice surprising him with its steadiness. “We should return.”
Before he even turned away, Death was gone.
Rudolf set the skull down on the desk and stared broodingly at it.
The shift in the air was barely tangible, but he was too familiar with the presence of the man to not be aware of his arrival.
“You are troubled,” Death said quietly, circling his desk and tracing his fingertips lightly over the polished skull. He gazed at the scatter of papers on the desk, then raised his eyes to Rudolf once more. “This disturbs you?”
Rudolf cast his eye over the reports of mediums and charlatans touting their skills. “I doubt there is a single one of them who is truly worthy of their title,” he said with contempt. “Stephanie was entertained by a palm-reader. She believed every word the wretched woman said to her, of happiness and children.”
Death picked up the skull and studied the empty eye sockets. “Do you wish for them?”
“Children?” Rudolf said, startled.
“And happiness,” his friend murmured, “for even this eyeless head could see that you are not content.”
Once, perhaps Rudolf would have been indignant over such supposition, but his friend knew him, and this was the one person to whom he could be honest in all things. “She loves such simple things,” he said. “It was charming at first, but now, it grows tiresome.”
The skull was carefully set on the desk once more.
“So you spite her entertainments by studying these charlatans, as you call them?”
Rudolf smiled tiredly. “Tell me,” he said, “have you ever spoken to any of them?”
Death’s black hair slid like silk against his shoulders as he tilted his head. “None whom I have spoken with will speak of it,” he said. He touched the papers, spreading them across the tabletop. “Few truly see what is to be seen.”
“I do,” Rudolf said quietly. “So does Mother.”
Shadowed lips turned up in an approximation of a smile. “Your blood,” he agreed. “There is strength in sight in your family.”
Rudolf sifted through the pages. “People should not speak of what they do not understand,” he said quietly.
“You understand,” Death murmured.
Rudolf looked up at him. “Some things,” he agreed.
Death sat on the edge of the desk and surveyed him. “You write of nature,” he said, “of birds and wild things and travels and places. You have a reputation of knowledge. Can you not write things that will be heard?”
“I doubt that many will care about my thoughts on these frauds,” Rudolf said with a rueful laugh.
“Let it be a start,” Death suggested, one side of his mouth turning up. “You are intelligent. This is something you can use. Your country is old and tiring. If you cannot bring important matters to the eyes of the people, then who can?”
Rudolf looked at the scattered pamphlets around him, then up at his friend. “You believe I can make a difference.”
Death smiled. “I know it is so,” he said. “You need only try.”
Heartened by this, remembering the supportive murmurs of Menger and Szeps, Rudolf nodded. “I will,” he decided, taking up a pen. Long, pale fingers slid an inkwell across the desk towards him before fading out of sight.
The glass smashed on the grate, small flames leaping where the alcohol landed. Panting, Rudolf leaned against the mantle, shaken and furious. “Get out!” he snarled, turning a vicious glare on his servant.
The man scrambled to obey, pulling the doors fast behind him.
“I need you!” The Prince called out to the empty room. “Come! Please!”
There was a long moment of nothingness, then footsteps before anyone was present.
So great was his relief that Rudolf clasped his friend’s shoulder, even as he emerged out of the air. He wanted to scream and cry out his frustration, but he knew his friend would know the cause and would understand without him speaking.
“They did not listen?”
Rudolf nodded bitterly. “They cannot see that if they do not make a stand, then we shall falter,” he said. “Kálnoky insists we should maintain relations as they are, despite the latest actions of the Prussians. Would it be so terrible for us to straighten our backs and show some pride, instead of grovelling for their approval?”
Death grasped his shoulder and squeezed it firmly. “You cannot lose heart,” he said. “You are not the only one to know that the Empire is growing stagnant,” he said. “I have watched many Empires rise and fall. Your must rouse your land to strength once more.”
Despite his words, Rudolf sank back and down onto his couch. “They did not listen when first I wrote,” he said quietly. “They do not see that they are tangled up in old traditions that are pulling the Empire into ruin.”
A long-fingered hand spread on his head, a benediction. “You must seek others who believe as you do, who share the fire and the resolve that you bear,” he murmured. “There will always be those who oppose what you say, but with a loud enough voice, you will be heard.”
“Like Mother,” Rudolf said quietly. “The Hungarians hail her their saviour.”
Two fingers tilted his chin up. “Not all of them,” Death told him softly. “But it is as I have said: with a loud enough voice in support, you will silence those who would stand against you.”
“I would not know where to look,” Rudolf admitted.
Death’s smile was barely visible. “Who would know best where to find those who dare to speak?” he challenged.
“Taaffe? He would know where to find any who have spoken out against my father, but I do not think he would tell me of it.”
“Then do not ask.” His friend's dark eyes gleamed. “Take what you require. You are the Crown Prince after all.”
“It would not be impossible,” Rudolf mused.
“Your words inspired many of them,” Death said simply, laying his hand on Rudolf’s shoulder. “They will follow a leader who wishes to bring his country glory and dignity once more. Let this be your goal. Your mother began this revival. Now, it is your legacy.”
Rudolf clasped his arm and nodded.
Rudolf neither raised his head nor turned towards his guest.
On the far side of the room, flames crackled in the grate, dancing and snapping, and keeping the brisk late-winter chill at bay. The golden flicker reflected off the goblet in the Prince’s shivering hands.
“It will not help.”
The chill in his friend’s voice was worse than the pronunciation of the doctors.
“How could I have known?” Rudolf whispered, staring at the concoction in his goblet. He was almost certain he could see the mercury shimmering at the bottom of the cup. “You do not expect to be infected.”
Death stepped into the line of vision of his lowered eyes. “You do not, if you do not seek satisfaction with a different woman from the pleasure houses every night.” His voice was low, even. “If you expect otherwise, when they welcome to their beds daily, then you are more foolish than I had realised.”
Rudolf flinched. “My private relations are nothing to you,” he said tightly. “What say should you have in my affairs?”
“Your affairs will destroy you,” Death murmured.
Rudolf’s head jerked back and he stared up at the shadow-man who stood above him, shimmering with starlight. “You know?”
“Nothing is certain,” Death said quietly, turning away from him. “You know you will not have a son. Your legacy will be your daughter’s alone.”
Rudolf turned the goblet in his hands slowly, watching the liquid swirling. “I know,” he said quietly. As much as he had grown to despise Stephanie, there could be no forgiving the curse he had afflicted her with. He looked up gravely. “I will still reign. My hand will guide this country.”
“Your hand is easily distracted,” Death observed.
Rudolf wished he had the energy to protest, but he knew it to be true. The company he kept, while vibrant and eager for his reforms, also brought much drink and merriment with it. The damage to his well-being brought on by his lifestyle had only culminated in his most recent and humiliating diagnosis.
“I do not deny it,” he whispered.
“Then you are not a liar,” Death murmured. He rounded the couch and took Rudolf by the shoulders. “You have much you must do. Do not let yourself become diverted again.”
“You make it sound simple,” Rudolf said with a tired, helpless laugh.
Death looked down on him. “If you must love, love one,” he said quietly, “let her bear your affection and your attention when you are not labouring, and when you are at labour, let your mind be utterly upon your country.” His hands squeezed once more and released him. “Do what you were born to do.”
“Why are you not my chief councillor?” Rudolf asked, but there was no response from the empty room.
The letters blurred and swam before Rudolf’s eyes. He rubbed them with his forefinger and thumb, and grimaced. The lamp was turned low to stave off the ache in his head, but his ever-weakening vision was suffering for it.
He lay down his pen. It would have to wait until daylight, once more. His writing was frail and spider-like on the page before him, but he was determined to finish. For too many years, his interventions in politics and his attempts to draw his country forward into modern times had been quietly smothered by his father and the sycophants who surrounded him.
With effort, he rose from the desk and made his way through to the comfortable gloom of his Turkish room.
Little Erszi had been brought to him earlier in the day. She was a delight, one of the few genuine pleasure he still had, and he had her tell him tales and dance for him. She remained for a light repast, then her nurse had taken her to bathe, leaving him to return to his writing.
Now, with his paperwork tended, the evening was his own.
He rang the bell, summoning his attendant. No words needed to be exchanged, and the servant withdrew to fetch his master’s drugs. They had tried many kinds of tonics and powders, but none eased the pain as much as the morphia syrup.
Rudolf laid himself back against the padded couch, resting his arm on the bolster. It was only at night, when he was nearly always alone, that he would take respite. Outwardly, he tried to appear strong, for it would not do to be seen as weak. A moment of weakness now would follow him like a shadow for the rest of his life.
His attendant returned with the syringe. Rudolf turned his face away and closed his eyes on the dull, familiar pain of the needle breaking his skin. It would be but a moment, then it would not matter any longer. He felt the spread of the toxic delight in his veins, felt the ache in his head recede, the stiffness in his joints ease, and he let his head fall back with a sigh.
A minute gesture dismissed his companion, and he lay there, not quite slumbering, his lips slack.
The peace the drugs brought was not long-lasting. His thoughts meandered, but too often into dark and bitter paths. Though the pain was gone, his mind swam with thoughts of the latest news from Prussia, of that imbecile Prince now an Emperor, doing as he willed and forcing the country to hear him.
They listened to him, acknowledged him, and even let him choose his own political stance. It was a painful and sharp contrast to the Crown Prince, and it only made him feel more angered and humiliated that Taaffe could still twist Rudolf’s life to suit the politics that were so stale that even their allies sneered at them.
He rolled onto his side, closing his eyes. His stomach churned and for a moment, he thought he might be sick. The delirium could be pleasant, but sometimes, when the tonic was not as pure as it might be, it could be hellish. He shuddered, drawing one of the rich throws about his body, suddenly chilled.
A cool hand touched his brow.
Rudolf whispered, “Do not speak of your disappointment.”
The hand remained still for a moment. “I will not,” Death said quietly. “You are sickening.”
Rudolf laughed bitterly, the sound quaking. “I do not know how I can stand it,” he said lowly, his tongue loosened by the poison in his blood. “They tie my hands, they stop my mouth, they give me false titles in place of positions that would let me act. Were I permitted, I would show them what Austria needs.”
The hand on his brow moved and touched his cheek with a tenderness that startled the Prince. His eyes flew open and he stared, unfocussed, at the man above him, pale-faced as always in the soft gloom.
“Why do you come?” he demanded, capturing Death’s hand, holding it with desperation. “They all see me as worthless and my mind as useless. I am a source of shame, you know. A drug-adled, whore-poxed embarrassment.”
“You have done nothing that your predecessors have not in some manner,” his companion replied. “And you know that they rein you in because you are not as they wish you were.” The black eyes were shadowed. “You have ambition, focus, idealism, all the things that they cannot understand and that they fear. They have worn themselves a path that they do not dare nor wish to stray from.”
“It will destroy the Empire,” Rudolf whispered. “It will, and I have tried to prevent it. Why do they not listen? Why does no one listen?”
“I listen, child,” Death murmured. “Have I not guided you? Aided you?”
Rudolf nodded mutely, his grip deathly on Death’s thin, bony hand. “You never told me why,” he said, his voice shaking. “Why do you speak with me? What have I done to earn your favour?”
Death was silent for several long moments. “Because,” he said quietly, “you listen when I speak. You ask little of me, and when I come, you welcome me. You do not fear me.”
“You came when I called for my Mother,” Rudolf remembered quietly. “We were both left alone.”
Death said nothing, but lowered his dark head.
Rudolf clasped his hand more firmly. With his tongue loosed, he felt no shame in confiding, “I am glad that you are my friend.”
The lamp had gone out.
Rudolf sat in the quiet darkness, not daring to turn. What little moonlight there was in the room would only reveal what he had done. His hands closed convulsively around the pistol. It was not hot, nor cold, warmed by his hands.
She was not moving, and her breaths were fainter.
It should have been a clean shot. She had offered her head, closed her eyes, and trusted him, her Master Hunter, to dispatch her cleanly as he promised. It had not been so. His hands had forsaken him, trembling, and she still breathed, slowly, terminally.
He cradled the gun against his chest. His shirt was sticky with blood, clinging to him. He should not have asked such a thing of her, not such a child, who would have blindly walked into the gates of Hell if only to earn approval and a pretty bauble from him.
He nodded slowly.
“This is your doing?”
Reluctantly, the Prince turned to see Death standing over the motionless girl. His hand was resting lightly over her gore-spattered face, and his gaze rested on Rudolf alone.
“I asked her,” Rudolf whispered. “I asked her, so I would not be alone.”
Death closed the girl’s gaping eyes. “Alone?” he asked quietly, walking around the edge of the bed to the Prince’s side. “Are you not alone now? Here?”
Rudolf shook his head. It ached to do so. “You told me once that sometimes, there is a path that will let us find peace,” he said, his voice shivering. “At the grave.”
“In Prague,” Death murmured in acknowledgement. “But what of your life?”
Rudolf shook his head. “What life?” he asked brokenly. “I am a puppet in the hands of politicians. I carry a contagion that weakens me by the day. My parents turn away from me. My daughter, beloved as she is, will inherit naught but my reputation. I am nothing.”
“You will be Emperor.”
“I will be a figurehead,” Rudolf said quietly, turning the gun over and over in his hands. “A face that will be forever bound to a failing Empire. Mine is the name that will be murmured when they speak of our ruin.” He looked at his friend. “There is nothing for me in this life. I have nothing left to give. They have crushed every part of me that I have offered.”
He tilted his head to look back at Mary, still and silent for the first time. “It was not going to be her,” he admitted quietly. “I asked Stephanie. She told me I was run mad. And Mitzi.” He lowered his head. “They do not see.”
Death touched his brow softly. “They have shackled you too long,” he said in a solemn murmur. “Trapped you with no way to go.”
“She said she would go with me to the ends of the earth,” Rudolf whispered, looking up at Death. “I want peace, but I was afraid to go into the unknown alone.”
“You will not be alone,” Death said softly, laying one arm around Rudolf’s shoulder. With the other, he lifted Rudolf’s hand and guiding the muzzle to his temple. “I will be there.”
Rudolf smiled, a true smile for the first time in so many years. He pulled the trigger without hesitation or remorse.