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Liebestod

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Richard Hornig rises in the gray of dawn and dresses, shivering in the cold. The king will be asleep in the royal chambers for some time yet, and there is work to do and a long day ahead.

He checks on the horses: reminding the groom that the grays are to be used this evening, with livery in Bavarian blue; polishing the bridles until they gleam; saying good morning to the maids and stableboys he meets.

By the time he returns to the castle the sun is above the horizon. He enters the royal chambers with a discreet knock to find the king tangled in the sheets, dark hair askew on the pillow. Hornig lays out the clothing for the day: the white silk ascot with the moonstone pin, the damask waistcoat, the black breeches. He fetches heated water and scented soap, and only then does he allow himself the luxury of gazing his fill at his king's long body, the legs nearly as pale as the linen wound around them, the curve of his hips and buttocks half-hidden from Hornig's greedy eyes.

How softly and gently
he smiles,
how sweetly
his eyes open -
can you see, my friends,
do you not see it?

"Hornig." The king's voice is amused and sleepy, and Hornig wrenches his gaze upward, flushing at being caught. But the king is in a good mood and simply smiles, sitting up and stretching. "I had such a beautiful dream. How I wish I could stay there forever, free from this sordid world." He sighs, and yet his eyes are clear and bright, free of the shadows that so often haunt them. "Come here."

"Your majesty--"

"--Here, Hornig. Yes. Like that."

How he glows
ever brighter,
raising himself high
amidst the stars?
Do you not see it?

The king takes his lunch late, and the Royal Equerry whistles as he goes about his work through the afternoon, ignoring the knowing glances of the rest of the staff.

In the sunlight, the castle is nearly cheerful. Hornig loves the days full of brightness, the afternoons when his king might walk in the gardens in the clear full light, his gaze grave and present as Hornig brings him some new bloom to admire. How he cherishes the daylight times together.

"Dress well, Hornig," says his king as they turn back from their walk. "For tonight we go to see Tristan und Isolde." His eyes go distant and starry. "Wagner," he murmurs. "Too much beauty for this world."

"Your majesty," Hornig murmurs, and bows.

Hornig's darkest secret, the one he prays his king never discovers, is that he hates Wagner. Oh, not the music, but its effect on his king. The nights after Wagner are hard: the king becomes distant, erratic, by turns tender and violent. Sometimes he doesn't seem to see Hornig at all, his gaze fixed on some private vision, oblivious to voices or touch. Oblivious to weeping.

And so Hornig does not watch Isolde as she approaches her dead love, does not watch her bend over him in grief. He watches his king's face, the reflections of pain and yearning that chase across it. He does not hear as her voice rises in maddened passion, as love and death entwine in her song. He hears his king's breathing, shallow and rapid.

They ride home in silence through the starry cold night, and in silence Hornig undresses his king and bathes him. The king closes his eyes and groans as the sponge touches his body as if it pains him, and Hornig hesitates. He whispers, "My Lord--" and his wrist is seized, the king's hand tightening until the sponge drops from nerveless fingers.

"Silence," hisses the king. "How can I bear anything but silence after such beauty? How dare you break the spell, how dare you summon me back to this world of filth, this--"

His swing is wide and erratic, aimed more at the world than at Hornig. The motion causes him to slip and Hornig catches him, steadying him. Wet hands claw at his clothes, at his hair, and Hornig is relieved: this is one of the good nights, one of the nights when he can do something, when the king is aware of him and can take what he needs from him.

The world falls away and he is lost in the bliss and the flame of giving, giving, giving.

Do I alone hear
this melody
so wondrously
and gently
sounding from within him,
in bliss lamenting,
all-expressing,
gently reconciling,
piercing me,
soaring aloft,
its sweet echoes
resounding about me?

"Love and death," whispers the king's voice in the darkness much later. It is hoarse as if from screaming. "And madness." He is trembling. "Such beauty."

Hornig strokes his hair, kisses his shoulder. The king allows it, and Hornig is happy. The happiness of the dark is a very different thing than the happiness of the day: a dark joy, an ecstasy close to pain. But it is happiness, and Hornig savors it. As the king's breaths even out into sleep at last, he whispers: "Kind dreams, my Lord, my Majesty."

And a long time later, in a voice as low as a confession: "Sleep, my Ludwig."

He lies in the dark and envies Isolde with all his heart, for she was allowed to share her lover's madness, allowed to follow him into death.

In the darkness, Richard Hornig knows there will be no such mercy for him.

to drown,
to founder -
unconscious -
utmost rapture!