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The Dance of Mirrors

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There were ghosts in the Hofburg, at midnight.

Rudolf couldn't recall where he got the idea. Mother, maybe, in one of the rare times he saw her. A night like this, maybe, wandering the corridors at night. He grasped at the memory. The year after Valerie was born, when he had been bold enough after the days in Hungary to talk to Mother directly. Sometimes she answered, and sometimes she talked to mirrors. At least he heard her voice.

This evening, she hadn't said a word. He'd tried so hard for one, a small Christmas eve miracle of his own, but it was easier to get the ox in the manger to speak than the Empress. Mother. A statue of alabaster, with Heine's poems, Rudolf's gift, lying at her feet.

There was a memory there, too, reading poetry on a night like this, long ago. Heine's tales of the North Sea, with snow outside, as the bells tolled twelve. Wasn't that when she told him there were ghosts in the Hofburg at midnight?

It was midnight, and he saw neither men nor ghosts in the corridors. He told himself he was just looking to clear his head before sleep. Alone, a concession to Stephanie and Father and little Erzsi, and everyone else who was now at Midnight Mass in the Augustinerkirche. Even the servants, so that it was just him and the memories.

He walked up the stairs, on a roundabout circuit that would eventually take him back to his rooms. The higher he was, the colder the air. The better windows were in the downstairs rooms, but then even there it was cold in winter. Rudolf liked his rooms warm, and his baths scalding, now.

A gust of wind swirled white powder around him, and he held his lamp higher. Up a narrow stair, a door was hanging open, snow piled on the upmost step. No wonder it was so cold.

When he climbed the stair, he saw footsteps in the snow, half-erased by something heavy, like a woman's trailing skirt. They were only going one way, and he wasn't about to close and lock the door on whoever thought it was a good night to be out on the roof of the palace.

Outside, the wind quieted down. The new snow crunched under his feet, muting even the sound of his breathing. He set his lamp down by the door; there was light enough reflected from the city gaslights below the walls.

She was standing on the edge of the roof, her hands braced against the balustrade next to the stone flags. She didn't move as he approached, and for one piercing moment he couldn't see if she was breathing.

Then she exhaled, the air misting in front of her. Rudolf shed his jacket, one button dropping into the snow, and wrapped it around her shoulders.

"It's cold, Mama," he said, praying for her to hear him. "Come inside before you catch a fever."

Her arm was rigid under his hand, her eyes fixed on the white facade of the church on the other side of the square. The golden sword and shield of the archangel, victorious.

"Do this for me?" Rudolf put his arms around her, for warmth, his chin on her shoulder. "Mama, if you can't speak to me, help me, at least let me take care of you."

He thought her grip on the railing softened.

"I know it's complicated," he said quietly. "But I'm not asking much. Just come inside with me. It - it won't do for the Empress to freeze."

She took a deeper breath then, her back shifting and straightening.

"I'd look beautiful," she said, in the voice he longed to hear. Unrestrained by manners, lower, and very sad. "It's ending, Rudolf. I'm ending."

He closed his eyes, pressing his face against the lace and embroidery of her dress. "You're still beautiful, Mama..."

She moved her fingers on the railing, one by one, elegant white spiderlegs. "It's ending. My hair is growing grey. Valerie's engaged, and my special child will be married and mother soon, as my beauty dies."

"Not to me," he murmured.

"That's my only weapon. My beauty. It got me the crown of Hungary, and my special child, and now it is over. There is only court ceremony left, and each step of the court dance brings me closer to the grave."

Little by little, he wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her further against him, away from the railing. "No, Mama. You're the only one here who's free. You've got your travels and your poetry. Valerie's getting married, but maybe you could take Erzsi travelling, I'll talk to Stephanie..."

She turned abruptly in his arms, and even though her face was in shadow, he could see her eyes shining. How could she think she wasn't beautiful?

"I can't write," she said. "I can't write anything that matters, anything that means something. I can't be what I wanted be. I can't be free, and I'm no longer beautiful."

And he'd given her Heine's manuscript, the words of a genius. Rudolf closed his eyes, cursing himself.

"That was the only thing I held against him," she murmured feverishly, prayer-like. "The fact I could choose my own time and place to dance. That was my only barrier, the fact I had things to do, and now he'll come and I have nothing to say to him..."

"He?" Rudolf caught to the strangest of her words. "Who is he, Mama?"

"My dark angel," she said, and she was smiling. "Heinrich Heine. Death, and I turned him away three times, and now I won't be able to turn him away again..."

Rudolf lifted her in his arms, stumbling as the heavy train of her skirts wrapped around his legs. Her words retreated to a mumble, her face buried in his shirt and just as white. He kicked the door shut behind him, leaving the lamp burning to light the tracks in the snow. Two sets of footsteps leading out, only one coming back.

The Empress's waiting women were grateful to see them, and they bundled off the unprotesting Elisabeth to a hot bath. Rudolf accepted their vague, sleepy thanks and let the door of her chambers close behind him, cutting out the light and the heat.

After thirty years of hide and seek, he could find his way around the Hofburg in the dark. He took a shortcut through a shuttered enfilade, minor ballrooms no longer in use. Slivers of light from the streets caught on chandeliers and mirrors. A gold reflection in one of them. The archangel's avenging sword?

Rudolf caught the next reflection out of the corner of his eye. He almost dismissed it as memory, the dark hair and mysterious smile of Mother as she had been in Hungary, triumphant and powerful. He knew these images, sometimes behind him, sometimes on very desperate nights turning to voices. He always told himself not to pay heed to these dreams but-

But Mother saw him too.

Rudolf knew better than to pray, but he whispered the names to himself under his breath, all the ones he knew. German, Hungarian, French, English, Czech, Latin, Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew...

Then he turned and caught the Other's eyes.

Death smiled, and there was something familiar about that expression, something that made Rudolf want to kneel and let those slim white hands touch his hair. An old memory, and a more recent dream, of crowds and a crown.

Instead he nodded, as if they were equals. "Have you come for her?"

There was that smile again, just a twitch of pale lips, and a shadow of a nod.

Rudolf took a step towards the mirror. "She has life ahead of her. She's just weak right now, because it's winter, and because Valerie's getting married, and because she had to come back to Vienna. In the spring she'll go on to Greece or England and she'll be better."

"She's ready." Death's voice was clear, cold. "She has defied me three times. Now she calls out to me."

"She won't," Rudolf said, wanting to believe his own words. "She won't take her own life. She's too stubborn for that, you know it."

Another of those fleeting smiles. "A chill will be enough. A touch of influenza, and she'll be in my arms before the twelve days of the feast are through. I grow lonely, my Prince."

For a moment, Rudolf could almost see it. A simple casket, because she hated the gothic monstrosities in the Kappuzinergruft, there at the end where there was space enough, room enough for her and Father, eventually, and would he last without her, without the one person he strove for when she wasn't even looking? Would Rudolf?

The world without Mother would be always cold, he knew.

"Why her?" he whispered.

Death lowered his head, dark eyes holding Rudolf's. "She has called to me, since she was a child. As did you, but it's rare that she both remembers and defies me. I would make her a true queen by my side, not this puppet Empress, the living portrait."

Rudolf had to smile. "I wanted that, too. Hungary, for her and for me, and freedom, an empire of our own where all she wished for would come true."

"You are alike."

"She's never seen that," Rudolf said. "I feel like I'm her mirror, just as trapped, but when she looks at me she only sees herself."

"Her mirror," Death repeated.

In those words, there was hope.

"Let's strike a deal," Rudolf said quickly. "Like the bargain of Alcestis. Can't I keep you company, until she dies of old age? Can't I be her mirror in your land?"

Death leaned forward, pressing slim hands against the glass. "Why this choice?"

"Because the world falls with her," Rudolf said. "I'll never have another child, I'll never be trusted with the government, not after everything that happened this year. Without me, Father can have Karl Ludwig inherit, and Franz Ferdinand after him, they're good people. Stephanie can be happy. Erzsi can have a normal life. And Mother, Mother can be herself. Each year she lives is worth it."

"For love?" Death asked.

"For love."

Rudolf raised his hands to the glass. Instead of a hard surface, he touched cold fog, then warm flesh. Death's fingers were soft.

"Now?" Death asked, smiling like a lion seeing prey. "There is a gun in your study, next to the skull. If you aim it well, there will be no pain."

Rudolf faltered, a shiver shaking him. He would have fallen, if not for the hands grasping his. "Now?"

One of his hands was released, and these long fingers cradled his cheek. "You want another bargain?"

"A month?" he tried. "I have - things to say, things to put in order."

There were rings on Death's hands, and one was cutting into his cheekbone. "A month. But you will bring me a handmaiden as well. Company for both of us. Choose well."

Rudolf nodded quickly. Mizzi, Mizzi would follow him anywhere, and she has no life to hold her here, just like he didn't. "A month. And you won't lure Mother again."

This close, Death's smile was even sharper. "Not if she begs me to take her."

Those dark eyes shone with their own light, larger and larger, the shadows in them engulfing the whole world.

Rudolf came to himself in the shuttered ballroom, among dust covers and mirrors that were all covered in cloths. There was no-one else, and no reflections. Of course.

He turned towards the stairs to his rooms. There were things to do, as soon as the sun rose.

He had a month.