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The Last Song

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The sound of the zither strings woke him.

Max lay still, gathering strength. Someone was playing the zither, plucking at the strings without any single melody. Sisi, perhaps? She played that way sometimes. She never practiced her music properly, but when she visited, she picked up the zither.

He opened his eyes. It was night, but to his right there was a candle. He saw the light with his right eye, the first thing he'd seen clearly with it since the second stroke.

He tried flexing his right hand. It gripped the edge of the bed, and the strength startled him. He was sitting upright before he was aware of moving.

"Maxl," the zither player said.

She was a woman. She had Sisi's long dark hair, but the voice was so warm and low. Sisi hadn't spoken to him in years in anything other than a monotone or a piercing shriek.

"Come closer?" Max asked. "I can't see you."

She rose from the armchair, the zither in her hand. Her feet made no sound on the floor, though her long dress rustled. She was dressed like the ladies he had watched as a boy, in the flowing skirts that started just under their breasts, their arms almost bare.

He hated the later fashions, the ones that hid women's bodies behind corsets and bone.

She was holding his favourite zither.

"Where did you find it?" he asked. "I lost it... I lost it in Paris, years ago."

She smiled. Her eyes were dark, and the nose between them curved just a little. With that smile, she could stop hearts.

"I can't play it," she said. "Not properly."

"Give it to me," he offered. "I - I can try."

She sat on the edge of the bed and put the instrument over his knees. He leaned back against the pillows. It was easier to concentrate on the music now that he was old.

His hands were listening to his mind again, the same way the words had come out the way he wanted.

He played a waltz for her, slow and circling.

"It's beautiful," she said.

"For a beautiful audience," Max said. "Just for me?"

Her smile was the same. "For now."

He let the music fade. "Can I see Sisi? My Sisi? Where is she now?"

"She's in the Hermesvilla. She's writing again."

"She's writing, but she's not living," he said. "Take me to her. Let me try one more time."

She leaned over him. When she kissed him, he put his hand on her hair. His fingers were strong now.

"Thank you," he said. "Thank you for letting me play that song."

She took him by the hand, the room fading around them. The only light was in her skin and in her dress.

"Wittelsbachs." She sounded amused. "You never do the expected things."