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It was, as usual, the clocks that woke her. Three quiet chimes that reverberated through her, distant echoes unheard by all but her. Marie Theres sighed, a soft sound that was lost in the rustle of sheets. Her bedfellow barely even shifted, face still and full of a nameless innocence that made her heart clench. Moonlight painted ivory skin even paler, and she resisted the urge to reach out to touch, to reassure herself that what she saw before her was real. No - her companion needed rest; sleep took the ravages of life’s cruelties from her face, rubbed soft the harshness of a society that asked far too much of her. Reverently Marie Theres ran her gaze over her companion’s still form, savoured the shadows cast between stark collarbones. How could one so slight, so singular, bear so much pain, so much hurt, and with so much grace? Such fragility, such mortality; all contained in a body so beautiful, so tender. A faint murmur escaped her lover as she shifted, arm coming to rest across Marie Theres’ chest, a strangely possessive gesture. Even in sleep Rosina was affectionate, and Marie Theres’ heart clenched at how it must have hurt, for Rosina’s deepest affections to be betrayed so. She had thought he loved her, and for a time, he probably did. But as all men, he turned upon what should have been most precious to him, showed only cavalier regard for the depth of emotion suffered by her, for him. A lesser woman would have quailed, would have broken in spirit, taken it as her lot in life. But not Rosina; her heart was too full, too proud, to suffer such slights. Vengeance was to be had, somehow, and Rosina was never one to stand idly by. The slight swell of Rosina’s belly was evidence of that, pressed lightly against Marie Theres’ side. There lay proof that Rosina did, indeed, understand the deepest politics of emotions, knew to strike where it would hurt most, the silent viper in the grass. For men like her husband would find nothing so injurious as a blow to their pride, to their very manhood; that a mere boy had been Rosina’s choice of weapon could do nothing to lessen the sting. How ironic, how poetically, perfectly cruel that Rosina would choose to reward such callousness with something quite so precious as a new life.

Marie Theres smiled, wryly, and gently reached down to place a hand upon that new life, growing silently within her lover. In a way, Rosina’s decision to come to her was a gift in itself. Marie Theres knew she was never to be with child; that she would be privy to the beginning of the life of another was the greatest honour she had ever been given. The flutter of two heartbeats coursed beneath her hand, and Marie Theres hummed softly under her breath. Such life; such potential. What would the child become? For there was none so perfect as a blank canvas, plagued not by the demands of people, too many people that asked too much. Had the boy that Rosina chose to father her vengeance been quite so innocent? Had he seen none of the quiet fury, the veiled madness that lurked within Rosina as she seduced him, made him come willingly to her bed again and again in silvered moonlight, all to aid his mistress’ finest act of vengeance? Marie Theres thought on the times that Rosina had spoken of the father of her child. There was a wistfulness there, always, and Marie Theres could never tell if it was because Rosina saw so much of her younger self in him, or if it was because Rosina had loved the boy, in some fashion. Perhaps she did; but she could not trust him with her heart – she would not entrust so precious a thing to a gender so recklessly cruel towards the most noble of emotions. And so it came to be that she sought refuge with Marie Theres, away from her husband, away from the anger and the jealous guilt that coloured her former life.

Now, with the Marschallin at her side, Rosina was determined that the innocence growing within her would be cherished, and in time born to a mother that was not quite as bitterly broken as she had once been. They had not needed to become lovers, but Marie Theres understood the deep longing that ran in Rosina’s veins, understood that sometimes Rosina only needed to be held in the deep dark of night. They were both women prey to the ravages of fate, and if they found the salvation of their souls in each other, what of it? To learn to love again, to trust, to know that only tenderness could bloom – such longing was only human, and sometimes, on nights just like this, Marie Theres remembers all at once how mortal they were. It had been a night like this, cold and desolate and altogether bleak, that Rosina had first shared Marie Theres’ bed, a fit of melancholia prompting haunted, frightened stares and nameless shivers. And so it was that Marie Theres had drawn her lover for the first time into her arms, pressed her own warmth against pale skin to tell Rosina that she was safe, that she was loved, infinitely treasured. Neither of them had the heart to pull away when their lips had first met, had not the will to return to the mantles they were expected to bear, to apologise, to blush prettily, to lie that they had not meant for their desires to come to fruition. Because at the very marrow of them lay the same echoing loneliness, the same nameless fear of isolation that kept them from true peace at night. The passion that bloomed between them was unlike anything Marie Theres had ever known; there was such tenderness, such awe at what it meant to simply watch one another, content in the knowledge that another could be feeling as quietly happy as one did. Such perfection in the silvers of light that fell through snow frosted windows, in the shadows dancing in the hollowed dips and curves of collarbones, of sternums and of wristbones, ever so delicate and ever so treasured. And when completion was upon them both it came with eyes clear and hungry, glittering strangely in the muted light as they whispered each others’ names, ardent as any prayer. They had watched moonrise and starfall together then, in the comfort of a bed no longer too lonely. Reverence unspoken had danced in Marie Theres’ fingers as she traced the curve of Rosina’s belly, felt the gentle pulse of an unblemished life flare as she rested a palm, warmly. She was aware of the great sorrow that watched her, constantly, the great weight of a gaze that knew too much of her deepest desire, destined to be ever unfulfilled. She would never be so blessed as Rosina, would never have the chance of redemption of her soul in the creation of another as Rosina did. Tears must have fallen unbidden then, for Marie Theres will always remember the gentle hands that came to rest upon her crown, soft words that meant nothing whispered, a salve to her soul; the greatest gift she could have given to the world never was to be. All she could do now was to wait, cursed to watch herself diminish in the mirror as the clocks laughed, a constant tattoo reminding her of her fate, her cursed fate. Those same clocks that had woken her as they had every night for the past two decades. And then Rosina had come, and Rosina had learnt to fight Marie Theres’ demons, tried to banish them alongside her own. Marie Theres had come willingly then, had trusted Rosina as she had never before, for if you could not trust a soul so kindred to your own, what could you? She still suffered moments of that familiar darkness, thought on the inexorable decay of all things mortal. Fear still gripped her, at times; every tick meant another victory she had won over death. And yet every tock measured another step closer to death, a welcome salvation that she had once longed for. It was this constant fear, this constant oppression that sometimes rendered her mute; how could one, even mantled as finely as her in the graces of all who surrounded her, escape the force of so primal a thing as Time itself? An involuntary shudder coursed its way through Marie Theres, and Rosina stirred in her arms, warm breath fluttering against Marie Theres’ ear. She looked down, and found eyes of the deepest blue watching her. Marie Theres moved to apologise for waking her lover, but Rosina’s fingers gentled themselves upon her lips. Voice husky from sleep, Rosina spoke.

“I will not say to forget your fears and sorrows, for I know them to be too close in your heart for you to ever truly be rid of them. What I will say is that you are loved, and love in equal measure.”

A sleepy smile, and then Rosina drew closer to Marie Theres, pressed a little more firmly against her side.

“Let that be enough for now, and still your despairing heart. There is hope to be had yet, and a thousand tales of joy you have yet to come to tell. Rest easy, dearest, for the new day will always bring much to nourish you.”

Solemn sincerity rang in those words, and Marie Theres could do nothing but swallow her reflexive protest, draw breath, and hold Rosina ever closer. Yes – Rosina was as good for her as Marie Theres had been for Rosina. The sheer understanding, that shared knowledge of the deepest motivations that lay within them – therein lay something as close to perfection as they were to achieve upon this mortal plane.

And for the first time in a long time, Marie Theres let the clocks sing her lullaby, and trusted herself to sleep in peace.