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Closer To The Veilby Beth
1. Prague, 1880
Oh, it was not good. Not good at all.
The police had rifles and they were aiming at the crowd. Not that there was much of a crowd - the ranks were thinning with every second, and a safe place in the middle was closer to the front line now. No, definitely not good, Rudolf thought.
An elbow nudged him. "Rudi, run!"
He'd only known Jan for two days, but the guy was smart, and the advice was good. Even if, Rudolf thought as he started running, Jan didn't know he was talking to a prince of the blood. Would the policemen know they were shooting at one?
He could die here.
So simple - a bullet, a fall, his head against the wall, his blood on the stones. Or not die, get captured, dragged to Vienna, to the Emperor, with yells and demands and court ceremonies. He would be told how stupid he is. He was always being told how stupid he was. Nothing, nothing could change the Emperor's mind on that.
No help, not from anywhere. Only his old tutor knew he was here in Prague, he should have been still in St. Petersburg, not marching in a demonstration of workers and liberals. No help here, not from the people he knew for a day or two, all lost in the crowd. No old friends to turn to.
Everybody was running now, and he didn't know Prague, so he just ran and turned and ran again. The heavy boots had to be policemen, or soldiers, like he was supposed to be, should have been. Just behind him, their arms reaching out, dragging him back, to Vienna, to the cage, help, dear God, somebody help-
Then a hand closed around his arm and pulled him into an alley, off his feet, stumbling into a wall that drove the breath from his lungs.
For a breathless moment he thought that was the end. Secret police, arrest, would he face torture or would they have portraits on the walls, the Emperor and Mother and even, even him?
Then he realised that a policeman, even a secret one, would never have hair that long, unfashionably falling to brush the shoulders of a dark blue coat with a fur collar. The crowd rushed past the entrance to the alley, and then the man turned to face Rudolf. He knew him. Oh, he knew him. So many childhood nightmares, lonely hours, eased in these arms...
He was a man grown now, but Rudolf still rushed into the arms of Death as trustingly as he had as a child. He trembled, the fear and the running catching up with him, and he let himself be manoeuvred back, the wall and Death's own body lending him support. Outside the crowd was frozen mid-step, the colours mute and faded, leaving only them.
Rudolf leaned his head on Death's shoulder, breathing in the familiar scent of dust and burning candles. Of all the pains that his mother's Wittelsbach blood brought him, this was his favourite. His broken mind or touch of fate, no matter. Even if he truly was holding Death himself in his arms, being held by him.
A cool breath touched his ear. "A smart boy like you shouldn't do things like that. You're too intelligent to throw it all away that simply."
"What would you have me do?" Rudolf whispered.
A strand of blond hair was sticking to his lips. When he moved his head to dislodge it, his ear brushed something that couldn't, wouldn't be teeth, and with an indrawn breath the hair touched his tongue. It tasted of ash.
"Get help. Men to disguise your presence. Others to assure an escape route. Trustworthy men."
"Whom can I trust?"
The hands on his back moved, one drifting lower, one higher, both pressing him closer. He leaned his head back against the wall, closing his eyes rather than look at Death's face. He swallowed convulsively and heard a stifled sound like a gasp.
"Those who follow you of their own heart's desire." Death's voice was lower now, rumbling in the chest that was pressed so closely to Rudolf's own. "Make them like you. Make them love you."
"You make it sound so simple..."
This, this was undeniably the pressure of teeth gently nipping his earlobe. "It's that simple."
The teeth moved on his ear, teeth and lips, over his cheekbone, cheek, jaw. Rudolf's eyes snapped open.
Death's face was an inch from his. The pale eyes were gleaming in the dim light. "Or there is me."
Rudolf opened his mouth, then closed it. His rapid breathing didn't seem to help at all, his head spinning, his body as tense as coils in a watch.
"You need time, don't you?" Gently, Death leaned in and pressed his lips to the dip between Rudolf's eyebrows. "Let me show you what I offer."
Hands slid to his wrists, his body still pinned by the weight and power of Death's own. Rudolf's hands were directed outwards, spreading against the wall, brought to protruding bricks that provided purchase for his fingers.
Then Death gripped two sides of Rudolf's shirt and tore it apart, the sound deafening in the stillness. Rudolf gasped and clutched at the wall. At that moment, he could swear no heritage of madness had anything to do with his very real fear.
Teeth again, on his shoulder, collarbone, chest. A shudder ran through him at a deeper bite, and he tried to pull his whirling mind together. Somewhere there was the voice of his confessor admonishing about evils of the flesh, and some worse than others, but this wasn't a man, a despicable bougre. This was Death, with his hands on Rudolf's body, so far removed from anything in the waking world that surely those rules did not apply.
Rudolf could no longer tell whether he was standing or lying, naked or clothed, sane or mad. There were not only teeth and hands now, but lips as well. His eyes were closed. What would he see if he opened them? Death on his knees in front of him? The image was so fantastical that his curiosity got the better of him.
Once again his breath stuttered. The blond head shifted and rose until pale eyes were looking up at him. Then Death smiled and brought his mouth to Rudolf's body again, where his fingers had been busy.
Oh, this might not be good, but it felt too pleasant to be a sin.
2. Schloss Tegernsee, 1888
Some would say it was insensitive of her to retire when guests had to be seen to, but the Empress Elisabeth was of delicate structure. And she had eight siblings to take over the duties of hosts at the wake of the Duke Max, the beloved Bavarian lord, the musician, writer, rider. Father.
Papa, she thought. Papa, where are you now?
There was the crypt below, with its rows of bones of monks and aristocracy. Little Max would be there, little Max who barely took his first breath. Maybe she should have brought Sophie here to keep Max company. Sophie had been older when she died, but she was Max's niece, but for little children such relations meant nothing...
Oh, not down that road. No more remembering the chains of dynasties and duties. She had shed them and forgotten them. She was her own woman now. Elisabeth.
Her own orphan. Elisabeth, weeping for the man who'd read her first stories and taught her to shoot.
The room was, had been her father's study. She remembered some of the hunting trophies on the walls, though others were new. She thought she still remembered how to play the zither. But instead of reaching for the instrument, she slid gracelessly onto the chaise by the bookcase. It was new. No memories came as she leaned back, staring at the ceiling.
She waited for him, and perhaps he sensed it, because for once he did not call out her name. Instead fingers slid onto her shoulders, catching on the lace that adorned her dress.
She wondered if Death was always by her side, only choosing the moments when he would lift the veil from her eyes.
"I wanted to be like him," she said softly. "He taught me so much, but I got lost in my own life. Now he'll never read my next poem."
Through almost closed eyes, she could see his blond hair above her head. She wondered whether he was smiling, or was it just an illusion created by her wet lashes?
She smiled back. "Would you still like me then? If I were a male? If I were not Empress, but a carefree Duke, travelling and hunting and writing under pseudonyms?"
That did get her a wide smile as he leaned closer, his fingers still massaging her shoulders. "You would care for nothing and risk your life daily. You would see much more of me."
In more pleasant circumstances, Elisabeth thought. She knew she should send her visitor away, but for once he was company, any company on a day when none dared approach her. Even Nene was reserved now, busy with troubles in her own house and family. Her eyes drifted to the zither again. She turned her head towards it, resting her brow on the back of Death's hand.
"I could take you to him," Death purred almost in her ear. "Elisabeth-"
It was easier to press her fingers over his mouth than to rage and scream at him. She took his hands in hers and drew him around the chaise until he was facing her. Puzzled, unsure, he looked almost human.
She had removed herself from her husband, children, even siblings, but no matter how many times she told him to leave, Death always came back.
"What I don't destroy of my life, you do," she said. "I was expecting you, and that is what terrifies me."
His eyes closed, then opened. "You know how this will end, Elisabeth. I always win."
"And I'm always my own woman." She turned her head away, hiding her face in the back of the chaise. "My pain is all my own."
She never heard his movement or breath. For a moment she wondered if he had left, but then she was gathered to a wide chest, strong arms cradling her like they had during that first meeting. He was cold, not unpleasantly cold, and he smelled like old books and cold stone hallways, incense and candle wax.
She shifted in his arms and the movement must have encouraged him, because his lips touched her hair, then her brow. His hands stroked her arms and back, drawing out a little of the tension. It had been such a long time since anyone had touched her.
His lips moved down her face and to her own, but she caught his jaw again and pushed him downwards. He understood. He always understood her.
"Elisabeth," he whispered against her skin. "Elisabeth..."
The lights were fading, but that was only the twilight. One of his arms sneaked around her waist, lifting her for a moment, and she knew her waist was thin enough for that arm to encircle her completely. Her skin was pale, reddening now as Death's teeth nipped at it. She wondered if it was only the kiss of lips against lips that would seal her fate. No: he wanted her willing in every way, and this was more than she had given him before.
Oh, she felt old, but not now, not here, with his touch so reverent on her. He knew she needed this worship, a reassurance that she was still a beauty, still an idol. Still Elisabeth.
As Death's hands and lips moved on her skin, Elisabeth smiled.
3. Meyerling, 1889
When she died, he found a beauty in her. She wasn't giggling anymore. She just lay on the floor. He spread her long dark hair around her. If he covered her face with it, she would almost look like his mother.
Rudolf crossed Mary's arms on her chest and rose to his feet. There was something final, freeing about the blood on his hands. He had no choice now. Nothing held him back but the emptiness of his own thoughts.
Even his despair had disappeared.
No going back now. Not even if his mother came through that door, promising her support and love, promising to fight the Emperor for him. But she wouldn't, because Elisabeth was Elisabeth's and she changed for no-one.
He could almost feel her presence as he took a step back from the corpse. The smell of her perfume, the rustle of her skirts. She would take the gun from him, she would enfold him in her arms and guard his sleep like she never did.
Her hand would touch his elbow, then slide down to his wrist, slowly, trying not to scare him. He could hear the rustle of her hair and the clatter of the many pins that held it. They would be together always, because he was the male version of her, wasn't he, and they would be so happy together. Mama could be the queen of Hungary when he was king.
The fingers were encircling his wrist now, softly, gently. With a sob, he turned and hid his head in a shoulder covered by the black lace that Mama always wore now. A kiss touched his hair.
Blindly, crying, he twisted his head, trying to seek her face. He had never been kissed as a child, so would she not kiss him now? Since they were starting over, just the two of them? But she would and did, for she stepped back, tugging him with her, turning, turning.
A waltz, he realised with a stuttering laugh, and that was another dream. He had watched Mama from afar as she danced, the few times he was allowed to, and he wanted to dance with her. Now he did, and he followed eagerly. The back of her dress was cool under his palm, her hand still holding his wrist and helping him bear the weight of the gun. The tears covered his eyes completely.
Turning, turning, turning until something barred his way. He stumbled to his knees, his legs caught in snares - wires - Mary's hair. But Mama still held his wrist and she pulled him up, so close, raising their joined hands above their heads.
Their hands lowered slowly, his elbow guided outwards. She kissed him then, on the mouth, and he saw it wasn't Mama at all.
Then he pulled the trigger.