There was a superstition in the line of the Wittelsbachs, though it went unspoken from generation to generation. One only learned of it when one had experienced it, and even then, it was greeted with muted nods and knowing looks. No one raised the question of why they could see, or what it may mean. The only warning ever given was that if perchance you saw, be sure never to look again.
Princess Sophie was thirteen when she first saw.
It was no great wonder: a man thrown from his horse and wounded on a hunt. He was borne into the hall, grey-faced and still. There was such a frantic rush around the man that it was small wonder the stranger slipped unnoticed by all but her.
Sophie watched, bewildered and not a little fearful, as the stranger approached. He was slender, pale, clad in black clothing only marked here and there with gems. He did not seem to notice her, nor seem to care for the presence of any save the man upon the ground.
He knelt smoothly, dipping his hand beneath the man’s neck to tilt his head. The fallen man sighed, a low, rattling sound. The stranger’s lips turned up in an expression which was not wholly a smile, and he claimed the last breath from the wounded man’s body.
Sophie cried out in surprise and alarm. Though she pointed at the stranger, none could see him. He tilted his head, ghostly hair spilling on a fading shoulder, and blinked his dark eyes slowly. For a brief moment, as he vanished, she was sure she saw the shadow of wings about his shoulders. A chill touched her, terrifying and awesome, and she knew what it was that she had witnessed.
She told no one but Maria. They nestled together beneath their blankets that night, and spoke in whispers of what she had seen. Her sister pinched her, calling her a liar, but Sophie swore a promise on their shared blood.
Her sister, her mirror, stared at her in wonder. “Truly?”
“Who else could he be?” Sophie whispered. “Who else would come to the bedside of a dying man and take his last breath?”
Maria clasped her hands. “Pray that you never look upon his face again,” she whispered, “for surely, that will bring great misfortune upon you.”
Sophie understood, for the fall under the eye of Death would mean that Death would always behold you and yours. Should she chance to see him again, she knew it would be best to look the other way.
Alas that but two years later, her father lay sickening. She crept to him in the night, when he was alone, to make her private farewells. His hand was frail in hers, and she could follow every line of his heart’s blood through the delicate skin.
Despite the chill of the evening, she sat with him, whispering tales of her schooling. He breathed low and rasping, ever quieter. It was only when the rasp quieted that she came to know she was not alone. Another stood by the bedside, less than an arm’s length from her.
Close to, Death gazed at her. His head was to one side, curious, black eyes bright. She drew a breath to cry out but stifled it just as briefly. None would believe her. They would think her run mad, as they did many of her kin. He blinked again, with reptilian slowness, as if such a gesture took great consideration.
Sophie clasped her father’s hand to her lips once more. Her hand trembled, and she turned from the bedside, unable to watch. She heard the soft whisper of wings, and pressed her eyes closed as if it might undo what was to be done.
A tear was caught from her cheek and she gasped, her eyes flying open.
Death gazed at the tiny, glittering drop on his gloved fingertip. It seemed to fascinate him. His pale lips turned upwards.
“That is mine,” she whispered. She struck at his hand, but her fingers swept through his as if he were naught but smoke and air.
“Mine.” His voice echoed like a tomb.
He was gone before the whispers faded.
She fled from the chamber. The door closed, leaving no one behind.
The Wittelsbach legacy was borne in blood, not in name.
Princess Sophie of Bayern became Archduchess Sophie of Austria, of the line of Habsburgs.
It should have ended there. The young Archduchess prayed and wished it would be so. It was not to be, as blood calls out as strongly as tears.
Death walked beside her often in those early years of marriage. His unseen touch upon her carried the infants from her womb, leaving naught but blood and sorrow. Only once her firstborn lay in her arms did she truly believe she might at last have some peace.
Instead, it seemed that his eye had only been diverted by her beloved little Eagle.
Franz, who was so unlike her husband in look and manner, took ill. They thought it but a chill. All too soon, he coughed blood. Even in the heat of summer, he trembled, though his flesh was flushed and warm.
Even as she was put to her chambers as the birth of her second child approached, he too was closed away by physicians. She was forbidden from Franz’s side in her confinement, but her thoughts lingered with him. Even the birth of Maxl, her second son, did little to distract her.
She was still bound by ritual to stay abed until the appointed day, when it was fitting for her to rise. In any other case, she would have obeyed, but on the fateful day, she knew above all else that she had to see him. Some deep foreboding, her very blood, knew what was to come. She barely reached the doors of Franz’s chambers when she saw his shadowed form enter, wings spread.
Wings for the little Eagle.
She could not move, dread and grief already gathering about her.
Death emerged as silently as he had entered. Gems glittered on his dark gloves, as her tear had so many years ago. He paused there, watching her. The doors opened, and the servants spilled out, around him, even through him, but he did not move.
The Archduchess felt the world closing about her. Her dear little Eagle, her companion and friend, taken from her already. Her maidservant caught at her arm. The Archduchess drew free with a shake of her head.
Death took a step closer, then another. He was watching her, keenly, dark eyes fixed on hers, expectant. One hand rose, as if to touch her still face.
“No,” she whispered, blinking back tears.
Death’s wings unfurled, making all darkness about her. The back of his fingertips brushed her cheek, seeking a tear that she could not, would not allow to fall.
“No,” she repeated, louder, sharper.
With great strength of will, she stepped back. His hand lingered, and his expression did not change, but she knew he was displeased. He drew back, fading into the shadow of his wings, and into nothing.
There, she sank to the floor as servants thronged about her in distress and concern. Her heart raced in terror, and yet she wished it would be turned to stone. She dared not enter the chambers of L’Aiglon, for fear she would break apart.
She was borne thence by servants, returned to her confinement and the child. Maxl slept sound in his cradle. She gazed down at him sadly. He would forever remind her of the handsome youth who had diverted her from the constraints of the life at court. Franz never had the chance to even see the child.
She pressed her fingertips against the edge of the cradle.
Death’s eye was upon her. He took the lives of those around her, and waited for her tears to fall. Perhaps this was why it was never spoken of, save as grim warning. Death’s interest was keen, and should you give it cause, it would linger.
She raised her hand, using her sleeve to dry unshed tears from her eyes.
She would not weep, not for his pleasure.
Any emotion, be it sorrow or joy, would be contained, until his eye moved to another.
Archduchess Sophie was not alone in the line of Wittelsbach.
By closing her heart, she succeeded in diverting Death’s eye. Though he claimed two more of her children, she turned her back on him. She ignored whispers of the servants that she was cold and uncaring.
It was thought unseemly that she shed not a tear for little Maria Anna. When her fourth son was born lifeless, she rose from her confinement bed the very same day, pushing aside the black wings that closed about her. Better to hide her heart than give cause for his eye to linger.
All at once, Franzl was elevated to the position of Emperor. Though it was at the expense of her own place as Empress, Sophie took great joy in it. He was a clever boy, and he listened well to guidance. Duties became her great ally, and all care or sorrow was forgotten until she encountered his hand once more.
It was a great shock to realise that while she had succeeded, others of her bloodline were less victorious.
Dear Franzl was meant for a Wittelsbach bride. Ludovika had her share of daughters. It was all in hand: Nene had been educated properly, and was ready to be moulded in her aunt’s image. Yet Franzl chose the younger, wide-eyed creature. It was true that the child surpassed her sister in beauty, but there was a haunted air about her which concerned Sophie as much as the child’s country manner.
It was only at the wedding, when mirrors reflected a swirl of a shadowed wing, that the Archduchess knew. She did not see his face, but she knew that he was there, and that he now haunted another of her line. Ludovika, so wilfully blind, would not have warned the child of the danger of seeking Death’s graces.
She kept a close eye on the child. Perhaps it was cruel, but it was necessity. With the child’s mind occupied with protocol and manners, she would have less time to think on the shadow-figure who haunted their family. Her own schooling had been no less harsh.
The child was stubborn and wilful. Sophie was too often reminded of her own temper in her early days in the Imperial court. Yet, unlike the Archduchess, the young Empress conceived quickly. To the delight of Sophie, the child was born without complications, healthy and beautiful. She was named for her grandmother. A sister followed soon thereafter, and all remained well.
It was so simple to tumble into a false sense of peace.
Franzl took wife and children to Hungary. It was a mission of duty. Sophie continued to hold the reins of the Empire in her son’s absence. It was all well until word from the south east brought news that the children had taken ill. The Empress, it was said, was distraught, while Franzl sought to end the diplomatic meetings as quickly as possible.
Sophie showed no response, though terror knotted about her heart. Little Sophie was as dear to her as her own children, and Gisela showed such spirit for such a little one. To lose either of them to his attentions was unbearable. She bent her mind towards duty, yet dread directed her thoughts to the little ones in Hungary.
In truth, she was unsurprised when the fatal news reached Vienna.
Little Sophie had been stolen from them.
Franzl and Sisi returned when Gisela was recovered enough to travel. Franzl was heartbroken, but did his utmost to conceal it. His wife, however, did not. Sisi’s pale skin had taken on an unnatural translucency, her dark eyes larger in a face drawn by grief. Sophie remembered the loss of beloved Franz, and of her own children. Sisi was far more fragile. She would not be able to bear it if Death returned to claim another.
Sophie took little Gisela into her care that very day. When the Crown Prince was born the following spring, he too was taken from his mother’s care. It was better, Sophie knew, that Sisi was distanced from them, lest Death bend his eye to them to rouse their mother.
Sisi rose in anger against her mother-in-law and aunt. She spoke out, daring to contradict the Archduchess’s orders. Colour returned to her cheeks, and her eyes flashed with ire. There was some strength there, Sophie had to admit, but it was wild. All the same, it was enough to provoke it, and urge it to burn bright.
Perhaps that would be enough to keep him at bay.
Time made many things clear.
To Sophie, it became very apparent that while Sisi was strong of will, she was also fragile enough of mind to be unable to resist the presence of her unnatural shadow. The Empress did not stand her ground, nor show the defiance she oft directed at Sophie. More often than not, she would flee. She fled from Vienna to Corfu, Madeira, Britain, anywhere that was not the Imperial capital.
Some part of it was fear to confront her troubles in the Hofburg directly. Sophie knew she made the child’s life difficult, but the child was now a woman and a mother thrice over, and rarely did it show. Like a child, she would still storm away from her troubles, but like an Empress, she would take refuge in far beyond her chamber walls.
Though it should have been a small relief that Sisi was elsewhere, and the creature that haunted her likewise, Sophie’s concerns were for the children. Gisela was hardy and bright, very much like her father, but Rudolf, the little Crown Prince, was very like his mother. He had the same hunted look, which filled his grandmother with apprehension.
As heir to the throne, he could not allow himself to be caught by the eyes of one who should not be seen. The boy had not witnessed the end of any man, but Sophie knew of his delights in the hunt. He often drew pictures which he brought to her of his exploits in the field, bloodied sketches. Sometimes, he even brought back his prey for her approval.
Surely, she thought, he would not come for something so simple as a fallen rabbit.
She sought to distract Rudolf with education and discipline, something his mother was sorely lacking, to prepare him for his Imperial role. It was her hope that being raised in a stricter manner, the boy would turn out more conservative and sensible than the Empress, but it was a hope that was in vain.
For once in her life, Sisi surprised Sophie in the concern she showed for a child she was all but estranged from. Rudolf’s schooling was eased at her request, much to the Archduchess’ ire, and as soon as she had returned, she was gone again.
The boy was bright, that much was true. He studied and turned his mind to science, and yet, many of his studies returned to the hunt. He was captivated by death in every form. He hunted each species, documenting them all.
Sophie could not contain her growing consternation, as he lost himself in carcasses of all shapes and sizes. Yet, she could not forbid him to hunt any more than she could forbid his father. It had been a tradition for generations, though one her grandson immersed himself in to an alarming degree.
To assuage her fears, she attended a hunt though only as an observer. She was certain that only her concerns for her family and their well-being, to say nothing of the well-being of the Empire, were making her think the worst.
Her stomach coiled upon itself when she saw the familiar pale face among those present as her son and grandson gathered in their kills. She approached with the other followers to laud them for their expertise, and she saw Rudolf turn to the pale stranger. To her horror, she saw a gloved hand touch her grandson’s shoulder.
Worse still, she saw her grandson smile in response.
The earth felt that it had shifted beneath her feet, her breath catching. Rudolf turned his proud smile to her in turn, and she could do naught but return it. All the while, she was aware of the dark eyes on her face once more.
Despite her own fears, she let her eyes meet his.
Death tilted his head minutely, and his lips moved in the not-smile that had haunted her nightmares for years. He touched his hand to his breast and bowed slightly before fading from her sight.
To have one draw the eye of Death was dire enough. To have three was seeking disaster. It crept like a shadow across the Hofburg, though the Archduchess dared not speak of it to her daughter-in-law or grandson. How does one broach the matter of being in the favour of the End of all things?
Sophie spent nights in the Hofkapelle, praying against any misfortune, but the damage was already done.
The Empire she had guarded so carefully through her son was fraying at the edges. They had barely recovered from the Crimean, when there had been the uprising in Italy and now, even Prussia was tugging at the borders.
Even within the Imperial household, there were divisions still. Sisi’s tempestuous nature was at odds with Franzl’s devotion to his duty. Her fascination with Hungary was threatening to become politically unwise, and yet she insisted on devoting her time to the language and the country.
To make matters worse, further afield, Maxl’s rule in Mexico was growing more tenuous by the day. Sophie had never approved of the move to reinstate the Mexican throne, especially with her favourite son. It was unbearable for him to be so far away, and if anything were to happen, she knew it could be weeks before news reached them.
Everything was falling apart, a piece at a time.
With frustration, she watched Franz Josef sign away Hungary. Perhaps he had gained the crown, but giving the country its own rights and privileges was not what she had imagined. She remembered their bloody reprisals against the 1848 revolution. The worm was turning, and the Empire was slipping like sand between their fingers.
Barely a dozen days after the crown was set upon Franzl’s brow, the worst news imaginable reached them: Emperor Maximilian of Mexico was dead, executed by firing squad.
Sophie felt the familiar, crushing ache of her heart breaking anew. She loved her children, but Maxl, precious Maxl, was the one who reminded her most of her proud young French eagle. He was always a determined and enthusiastic child, and now, he lay in Mexico, riddled with the bullets of a firing squad.
She closed the door to Franzl. The last thing she could bear was to see the face of one who was not Maxl looking at her with quiet expectation. He would trust her to be strong, as she always was, but this time, she could not be.
Her chambers were quiet. She had her maid draw the drapes, deepening the twilight to near darkness, then dismissed her. Taking her seat by the table, she folded her hands on the surface. Her skin was pale through the delicate lace of her gloves.
She did not move, even as a tear seeped from the corner of her eye. She did not sob, nor make any sound. She only sat quietly in the dark and waited. He did not disappoint, emerging from the shadows, his face a pale oval.
He drew closer, until she would swear she could feel the shadowy wings brush against her gown, closing about her once more. His black-gloved hand came to her face, and she closed her eyes as he caught the stray tear from her cheek.
“Why?” she asked in a whisper.
“Why?” he echoed. His voice seemed to ripple around them, as if they were in the depths of a great cavern.
“Why do you torment us?”
His lips brushed her ear, and her spine felt as if it were turned to ice when he whispered, “Because you and yours wish it so.”
When one is standing on the edge of a crumbling cliff, and to take a step may mean you lose stable footing, it is better to stand still, even if the end will be the same.
Sophie had no strength left to fight. The Empire was bound up utterly with its coming end, and she knew that nothing they could do would stop it. Dark eyes watched from the shadows and waited for it to tumble like a house of cards.
The coming of another child made no difference. No matter how she guarded the infant, it was too late. Sisi and Rudolf both had looked to often and too eagerly into the face of the one who would tear down all that they held dear. The Archduchess was too tired. Let the Empress raise her child for all the good that it would do. The end would still come all too soon.
Even Franzl noticed the change, and spoke to her of it, wondering at her sudden apathy. She looked up at him, and remembered a time when her words had been the only ones he would heed above all others. Now, she had no advice left to give him.
He held her hand, as if she were ill, and spoke quietly to her of his concerns.
“You are the Emperor, Franzl,” she said quietly, wearily. “You must rule as you see fit.”
Her son whom she had elevated rose, then, left her to her solitude. He came to her often, but always was greeted with the same response. She was spent, and it was only a matter of time before she could rest and let her closed heart still for the last time.
Time had no meaning any longer. It always the same. Sisi was absent. Rudolf was studying matters of death. Franzl was alone.
When the headaches came, it was almost a respite from waiting for the inevitable ruin.
The physicians provided potions and capsules of varying types, though one by one, the ache in her head overcame them. Her vision grew weaker, and sometimes, her memory wandered back to bygone days.
She woke from a brief rest one afternoon to see Ludovika by her bedside. “You should have warned her, Ludovika,” she murmured. Her sister took her hand gently. “She should have known better.”
“What do you mean?” Her sister’s voice sounded different, quieter. “What warning would she need?”
“The danger of looking upon the face of him,” Sophie said. Her voice trembled. “He haunts her every step because she dared to look at him.”
The hand holding hers was pulled away abruptly. “You speak in riddles.”
Sophie closed her eyes. Her head ached unbearably. “You always ignored the secrets, Ludovika,” she whispered. “Our family has better sight than most. A little gift from father’s blood. I have seen him watching.”
Sophie opened her heavy eyelids to look at her sister, but it was not her sister who sat by the bedside. Sisi, flushed and trembling, stared back at her. “Sisi?”
“Your mind is wandering, aunt.” The Empress pressed a cold compress to her brow, which did little to ease the pain. She laughed, but it sounded brittle and false to Sophie. “I think you are remembering someone else.”
The Archduchess laid her head back against the pillow. “I remember well, Sisi,” she said in a whisper. “Do not trust him, for he only seeks to bring grief to any who looks upon him.”
“Not to me,” Sisi whispered.
“Oh, Sisi,” Sophie whispered. Every word was a labour. “Think on your daughter. Think on little Sophie.”
Sisi turned her face away. “You should rest, aunt,” she said quietly.
Sophie smiled quietly, the corners of her lips barely rising. “No,” she murmured, looking past Sisi. He was standing there, silent and waiting. Sophie lifted her hand slowly. Such a small gesture was so wearying. She held it out as she had for countless nobles and dignitaries to kiss. “I am ready.”
Sisi gasped, turning.
Perhaps the foolish child saw him, perhaps she did not.
Sophie only knew the touch of those gloved fingers beneath hers as her hand was lifted to pale lips. Death kissed the very tips of her fingers, as his wings unfurled, making all about them darkness.
When he claimed her lips and her life, she caught the scent of frost and sunlight.
“Welcome, Empress,” he murmured, drawing her from her deathbed.
“I am no Empress,” she said, drawing her hand from his.
He tilted his head to one side, gazing at her. “In your heart, you are,” he said. “It is what is in the heart that makes the man.”
“And what,” she asked quietly, “is in your heart?”
His lips turned up. “Humanity.”