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Finality

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Kovacs, Györgi. Eliminate.

The death sentence was a chicken-scrawl on the edge of a printed form. A name, followed by an order, a coda to the details that filled the page.

Another file lay across it, and Prince Rudolf reached down for it. A moment, and he could hide the report before the order was passed along. Buy Gyuri time to get out of Austria-

"Your Highness," Taaffe said. The man spoke like a desiccated corpse, and wrote like a hen. "To what do I owe the honour?"

The Crown Prince brushed a speck of dust from the seam of his trousers. "The Berlin court requested copies of the summary report on anarchist groups. I gathered you had new mentions of the Italians."

Taaffe moved his hand in dismissal. "Of course. Good neighbourly relations, we must approve of them."

* * *

Taaffe kept him in the office for hours with reports on every single madman with a drop of Italian blood. It was night, a warm April evening. Gyuri would be drinking in that little shop across the street from the printing press he owned, the one they never used for meetings because Gyuri liked it and had a big mouth.

Rudolf stopped at the palace for only long enough to get rid of the uniform. The raven that lived in the attic cried at him as he climbed out to the roof, then across to his own staircases.

He caught a fiaker cab three streets from the Hofburg. A heavy carriage passed them a little later, with bars in the windows.

The police were always arresting people, breaking up the places where people whored and gambled and didn't pay up. But this wagon turned into the right street.

Rudolf nudged the fiaker door open and jumped down in the traffic, dodging a horse going the other way. He slipped and fell against a lamp post. There were screams.

When he turned the corner, the policemen were herding out the women, the men protesting. The policemen were in uniform, so he ignored them, ducking under a truncheon. They wouldn't be the ones who'd know anything. There was another exit from the bar, to the alley behind it. He went into the gate to the courtyard of the next house instead.

The screams were muffled, but there was another sound. A meaty thump. A moan. Rudolf climbed the stack of old boxes, then pulled himself up to the wall.

There were two of them, black coats of the secret police. Their victim was pinned to the wall, collar snagged on a lantern's hook. They were taking turns, hitting Gyuri in the stomach, throat, face. Gyuri's face was a mask of blood.

"The others!" one of the agents demanded. "Tell us the names and we'll let you go."

Gyuri laughed, and spat something out. A tooth. "You can't touch me."

"In the name of the Emperor!"

"He's not my emperor," Gyuri hissed. "There'll be a new one, a better one, a Hungarian one-"

No, Rudolf thought. Not like this.

"-and his name, his name is-"

The bullet took away half of Gyuri's face.

The gun was warm. Rudolf's hand shook from the recoil.

One of the secret agents yelled, but Rudolf's ears were ringing too much. The man had to be deafened, too, because he ran to the other end of the alley, shouting about pursuit.

The remaining man in his black coat leaned towards Gyuri. What was left of Gyuri. Then he looked up at Rudolf, and his lips were covered with blood.

"You can come down now," Death said.

Rudolf took a step and fell. The gun rolled somewhere, but he had to get up. One of Gyuri's eyes was still open, staring. The eyelid was pulled tight, taking long to slide down.

Death's hand rested on his side, under his jacket. "How does it feel?"

"It- it was necessary," Rudolf said. He remembered Gyuri teaching him Hungarian songs, one night when they'd stayed up printing his articles. "It was the only thing I could do."

"Was it?" Death was standing behind him now, the breath of those words ruffling Rudolf's hair.

"He knew too much of what's to happen. He knew all the names, he was there when we came up with the plan. I couldn't endanger everyone."

The hand moved lower. "Is that what you think?"

Rudolf turned with a growl. He struck, and his hand was caught. He wished he had the gun.

"I had no choice!"

"Rudolf." Death said it just like his mother, always so surprised. "You could have shot the cop."

He screamed then, or started to. Death backhanded him before the sound could escape. It turned to tears instead.

Tears were wrong. He scrambled back, stumbling against the wall. He tried to wipe his eyes, but the gunpowder stung.

Death caught him again, suddenly gentle. They were on their knees, Rudolf's chin tilted up by two pale fingers.

"Isn't it good?" Death whispered. "Don't you feel better?"

Rudolf felt the tears stinging his eyes again. "You're trying to drive me mad."

"I am."

Rudolf closed his eyes. Cold lips touched his cheeks, drying his tears. They were bitter, he knew.

When he opened his eyes, he was alone. Just him and Gyuri.

* * *

Taaffe, of course, came to report on the death of a known anarchist. Sometimes Rudolf wondered if the anarchists existed at all, or whether the secret policemen of the world had just invented them. The best of scapegoats, madmen all of them.

When the chief policeman left, Rudolf took the newspaper off the stack of letters. The plot was moving in wider and wider circles. He would have to make a decision soon. So many people would have to be ready at the same time. So many would have to die.

His chair creaked, making the raven croak in protest on his skull perch. The night turned the window into a mirror, reflecting Rudolf's dull eyes, his white shirt.

He tried to imagine a crown on his hair. Saint Stephen's crown.

Pale hands wrapped around his shoulders, pulling him back into Death's embrace. He let his head fall back to Death's shoulder. It felt like firing the gun. A moment without any decisions at all.