Nearly thirty years ago she’d realized that he used mirrors to watch her. Subtly, of course - she would expect nothing less from someone who claimed to be the incarnation of Death itself. Just a little hint, every so often. The briefest glimpse of his arrogantly smiling face overlying her own as she gazed at her reflection. The mirrors had not been the main reason she’d started traveling, but they had been a reason. Those little hints cam more seldom if she kept moving, as if he had to track her down, a persistent wolf on her heels. But if she kept moving, she was free of him, for a time at least.
But things had changed after Rudolf’s death, since that moment at the funeral when, in a moment of weakness, she’d tried to throw herself on Death’s mercy and he’d rejected her. Since then she’d not seen him, not sensed his presence, even when events kept her at the palace for weeks at a time. Caught up in her own mourning, she’d not realized it at first. She’d been too caught up in her own grief and guilt, her mind circling how she could have, should have been able to prevent her son’s tragedy. Even Valerie’s wedding the next year had only been a brief moment of light. Dull gray against the blackness. It was only months after that, when she’d set off again, desperate to escape the claustrophobic feeling of Vienna, that she had realized he hadn’t been there. Hadn’t been watching as she mourned her son, hadn’t been there to make snide comments as she watched her youngest daughter walk down the aisle.
She continued traveling, of course. With or without his presence, the walls of the imperial palaces were too confining, too filled with memories she was desperate to escape. And Vienna held Franz, dear sweet, devoted Franz, whose love for her she’d never quite been able to return. Traveling was easier for both of them. The distance eased the strain, let their lopsided relationship settle into the sort of friendship she found herself wishing they’d had years ago, when it might have changed things.
Travel was the only time she’d ever really been able to feel at peace. It continuously reaffirmed he freedom - from her husband, from her title, from everything. As she watched the countryside pass outside the window of her train, she could relax, she could put the expectations and requirements of an Empress behind her. Travel had always been her escape, but it felt different now, left her feeling hollow. Something was missing.
He was missing.
There were times, as the years passed, where she caught a glimpse of him, but it was always just a trick of the light. She would hear his voice, only to realize it was just a normal voice in the crowd. She realized, with a certain amount of revulsion, that she was looking for him, for the first time seeking instead of running away.
“A time will come when you wish to die,” he’d told her, years ago. She’d thought hat moment had come, at Rudolf’s funeral; thought she’d passed that test of her resolve. Sometimes she wondered. Traveling made her feel free, but was she, really? There were still demand, still expectations for how she was to act and behave. The luxuries that allowed her to travel and travel in comfort - her maids, her ladies in waiting, her custom train car were all trappings of her inescapable status as an Empress. Trappings she enjoyed, of course, but still reminders that she was not, could not, be completely free.
Alone in her suite, she traced a gloved finger down the cool smooth surface of her mirror. Traced along the reflection of her jawline, fingers ghosting across the marks of aging she’d not been able to keep entirely from her face. Still beautiful, yes, but undeniably older. Perhaps that was why he had abandoned her - he was eternally young, after all, and she was inevitably aging. She should be grateful for the absence of his regard; one less person to see how her beauty had faded. But in these quiet moments, these rare times when she was utterly alone, she felt his absence as an aching in her chest, a feeling she couldn’t put into words. The sentiment was much like longing, but unlike any longing she’d felt, for any other person. She tried to ignore it, tried to bury it in the dark recesses of her mind. But it was there, traitorous feeling that it was, drawing her back and back again to her mirror, making her search her reflection for any hint of night-dark eyes, of bone-white hair, of that arrogant smile overlying her own.
A realization overcame her as she gazed at her reflection, a realization unwelcome, unwanted, making her breath catch in her throat. She did have words for the feeling, for the aching that kept her gazing at her reflection far longer than even her renowned vanity could account for. He had been right. That arrogant, self-centered scoundrel had been right. She loved him. She had always loved him, and he had abandoned her.
“You bastard!” she whispered.
A knock on the door forced her attention back to the present, as much as was required to grant permission to enter. It was, unsurprisingly, Countess Sztáray. As much as Elisabeth was fond of her lady-in-waiting and constant traveling companion, the woman seemed always to need her approval for something just when Elisabeth most wanted to be alone.
“Forgive my interruption, Empress,” the Countess said with a deep curtsey. “The conductor wishes to inform you that we will be arriving in Geneva within the hour.”
Geneva, of course. She had almost forgotten where they were heading, her mind lost in contemplation. “I must change,” she said, with a slight nod to the Countess. “I wish this to be an unofficial visit. Anonymous.” That was the one benefit of being older, and having been so very careful to avoid record of her current state. Few recognized her as the Empress any more.
“Of course,” Sztáray said with another curtsey. “I’ll send a maid in at once, Your Imperial Majesty.” She stopped at the door way and turned, hesitating until Elisabeth raised an eyebrow at her.
“Was there something else?”
“Forgive me, Your Imperial Majesty. A moment ago. I thought I heard Your Imperial Majesty say something?”
“It was nothing,” Elisabeth said, shaking her head. “Just an idle thought.”
“Of course, my lady”
The door slid shut behind the Countess, with a soft hiss that sounded like Elisabeth’s own name. Her gaze snapped back to her mirror, seeking desperately for any sign of him, even as she hated herself for it.
The mirror held only her reflection.