The Emperor glances back one final time as the heavy oak doors close behind him to shut off the crypt that entombs so much that he once held dear. Gone. She is gone. After so many years, so many hurts, so many heartbreaks, she has gone to join the son they could not love enough in life. He stumbles, and Valerie catches him before he falls, her gentle hand settling on his arm as she helps him along to the carriage.
What am I supposed to do now? He thinks. What is he to do, without her. Apart or not, Sisi has been – and will forever remain – the light of his life, the one thing for which he would (and has, and would again) put everything aside. A star in the night sky, brightening his life even from afar. And now she is gone. Taken from them so cruelly, without warning. Taken from him so many years prior by his own stupid mistakes. His daughters help him into the carriage, and in their faces he can only see those that he has lost. In Gisela’s troubled eyes her brother is reflected back at him. In the curve of Valerie’s mouth he can only see her mother’s smile. Carefully, he holds them both, afraid they too will disappear, and take with them what is left of the dead.
The Hofburg, he thinks, is a palace of ghosts. In the empty banquet halls he can still hear the music of long ago, still see her, in her starlit dress, dazzling the world. In every shadow he sees Rudolf, with his sombre eyes, imploring him for help that he never thought to give. Never understood his son needed. The sound of her dogs barking seems to echo through the halls.
His mother looks down at him from her portrait in his office, eyes full of judgement for the work he knows he is no longer fit to do. They are all gone now. His mother, his brother, his wife, his son… and his daughter. Little Sophie. Taken before she even got to know the world. Perhaps it was better, that way. Perhaps she was spared the pain that has afflicted the rest of them. The empty corridors, his hollow heart.
He grows old. Older than he ever thought he would. The world changes, time passes, he makes so many mistakes. His heart remains hollow. An empty shell of what he used to be. He is waiting. He was never meant to grow this old. He wonders what judgement he'll face, at the end.
From the shadows, a figure watches, a little girl kept safe in its arms. Shrouded in shadowy robes, with hair the colour of ash and a face pale as bone, it stands as a memento mori to all who see it. The figure holds her, stands still as a statue, and watches the Emperor wander the empty halls of his palace, searching for something that cannot be found. It is waiting.
“And what do I do now? Now that we’re here?” The little girl ask quietly, her voice like the wind through the halls of the Hofburg. The figure sets her down, looks at her face, her smile, so much like her mothers. Gently, it touches her cheek, gives her a small push towards the Emperor’s bedchamber.
Now you fetch your father, it whispers in the otherworldly echo as a ghostly smile stretches across pale cheeks, so his heart can be weighed against the truth and he may face the judgement of the dead.
The little girl nods, and steps out of the shadows to the strange frail man that she doesn’t know lying in the large empty bed. The man sees her, and smiles. She doesn’t know why.