Sophie opened her eyes and faced the same swirling lights and shadows as before, the same head-splitting noises. She had hoped it would be the end already. She was tired. She had served her time, and there was so much pain now. She didn't know how long it had gone on. Too long.
She didn't try to focus her eyes. She knew she'd see the same shapes around her bed, including Elisabeth, sitting there as if it would make up for all the years that had happened. The Empress had, perhaps, finally understood something, but it was late, far too late, and Sophie knew there was no way to tell her so, she would give her a dying woman's blessing and hope it would carry her through all the troubles she had brought on herself and those near her, some unwittingly, some through conscious selfishness and indifference. Sophie wondered vaguely why they had never been able to understand each other when in some ways they had been so alike. And yet so different. But it was too late now, and it didn't matter. Sisi was trying now, it was all that mattered, and all that Sophie cared to know anymore. She had done her duty. She had a right not to care anymore. Rebellious as that thought was.
She was too tired to think of Franz, who seemed like he wouldn't know what to do without her, though he had learned to do without her for many years. She had taught him all she could and he would do as well as he could be expected. She had wondered in the previous days and months and years if he would ever be happy, but now she had ceased to think about it. It had to be left up to God. She wished Max had been there, then remembered that he had been dead for years.
Suddenly, in midst of all the blur, a clear shape appeared. It had to be someone from beyond, come to take her there. She felt a flicker of happiness, finally there would be an end, peace.
First it looked so much like the Duke of Reichstadt that she thought it was him, coming to take her beyond the final border. But it wasn't him. It was someone far more powerful. She sensed the power, trembled.
Suddenly she could speak, or maybe it was only that he heard her thoughts. "Have you come to take me away?"
"Yes," he said, gently, nobly and calmly, like he should. He had a bearing every prince and emperor should envy, even Franz. "I've come to take you home, Sophie."
"Good," she said. Suddenly it was easy to lift her head from the pillows, to sit up to face him. Like she was feather-light.
She looked at the crowd around her and smiled ruefully. "Suddenly, I feel sorry to leave them after all."
"They'll get by," he said. "You've done all you can for them." He gave her a faint smile.
She studied him carefully, sensing that he knew far more than he would tell. "What will happen when I'm gone?" she suddenly asked.
"Do you want to know?" His gaze was steady, his voice hinting at nothing.
She considered. "No. Not now. Perhaps later. Now, I just want to find my peace at last."
"I have done my duty for this country, haven't I?" Still, there was a nagging insecurity, a sense that she should have done better.
"The world you fought for may be dying, as everything in the mortal world does," he replied, "but that doesn't make your battle any less formidable."
Sophie could sense if people truly respected her or only pretended to, and she knew he respected her. It made her satisfied. Even happy. She lifted her face to meet his kiss, not like a lover's, but like a friend who came when he was needed.