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“Your highness.”

 

Marie Theres paused, fork midway to her mouth. She exhaled once and composed herself, setting her food primly down. Her dinner companion grimaced in sympathy even as she took a sip of her own wine. Marie Theres sighed.

 

“Yes?”

 

A single folded note, written on familiar pale green stationery.

 

Marie Theres reached for it, dismissing her staff with a flick of her eyes and a nod of her head. She tried to ignore the tremors that came. For a moment, she simply stared blankly at the note.

 

“Are you alright?”

 

Her dinner companion’s voice was kind, laced with an understanding that she almost resented. She gave a curt nod even as she set the note down, unread. There was nothing then but silence, charged with the weight of a curious gaze and the silent despair of her own soul. In the absence of the lightness of their earlier conversation Marie Theres found herself willing her guest’s gaze to turn away, for her to look upon something else. She needed time to recoup, to resume the mask she’d been parading the whole night. Deep within her something suddenly ached keenly, a newly dealt bruise that blossomed upon her soul. She knew it in her bones – tonight; tonight was to be the night where she would curse the promise she made to herself, and to him.

 

The note sat innocently by her right hand.

 

“Marie Theres - ”

“No. Don’t.”

 

She raised her head, the pity she heard in her guest’s voice steeling her own. Steadily she gazed across the table at the woman before her, marvelled once more at how she seemed to be staring at her own future. The Contessa Almaviva acquiesced and fell silent once more, but the dancing sapphire of her gaze never did leave Marie Theres’ visage for a moment. The younger woman let out a sigh.

 

“Rosina, I’m sorry.”

 

Ruefully she met her guest’s eyes, and was not surprised to see nothing but compassion and understanding there.

 

“There is no need to be.”

 

A smile from the older noble, a wry twist of the lips that pooled dread in Marie Theres’ heart of hearts. In that instant, Marie Theres knew; knew that Rosina had long known how the story ended; she knew, she knew what it was like to lose someone like him.

 

Oh God.

 

No.

 

No.

 

Rosina bowed her head once, a quiet nod.

 

Yes.

 

“Come. Let us return to our meal. Everything else - ”

 

The quickest flicker of blue towards the innocuous piece of paper that rested by her hand.

 

“ - can wait.”

 

Rosina’s voice was gentle, and Marie Theres found it strangely simple to follow the older woman’s command. Trembling fingers grasped cool metal as she forced herself to eat, mechanical motions of knife, fork, knife, fork, fork, mouth - too soon, too soon – it cannot be this soon.

 

The food before her faded from view, mere shadows of colour as the tears came. Still she continued hacking at the meat before her, kept carving neat little slices as if those little instances of order were enough, enough to keep the world as she loved from crumbling about her.

 

A sudden shriek of metal against china; the sound of a heavy chair being pushed back; a warm hand on her own.

 

“No - Marie Theres. Stop.”

 

The knife clattered to the plate.

 

“Why?”

 

She was wretched, she knew, even as she raised her eyes once more to regard Rosina.

 

“Why?” She repeated, a ragged whisper torn from her throat even as she clutched at the hand gently holding hers.

 

“Because everything changes; everything ends; everything dies.”

 

The answer came readily, in a voice so steady it could only be practised. For a brief moment Marie Theres wondered – how many times had Rosina told herself that, consoled herself with empty words whispered in the silent company of nothing but a mirror and the emptiness that came with longing for something lost, never to be had again.

 

More tears came, and for the first time since she was a child Marie Theres found herself being shushed. There was a rustle of fabric as Rosina knelt before her, peered up into her blurry gaze.

 

“Shhh shhh shhh… Listen to me. Listen.” The older woman’s hands were gentle as they brushed the tears from her cheeks. Mutely Marie Theres nodded; anything – anything to distract her from the reality she refused to let herself believe.

 

“The universe has to move forward. Pain and loss, they define us as much as happiness or love. Whether it’s a war, or a relationship… Everything has it’s time.”

 

Tears glimmered in those blue eyes now, and Marie Theres watched mystified as they seemed to echo her grief, only deeper, so much deeper.

 

When Rosina next spoke, it was in a voice as broken as Marie Theres felt.

 

“And everything ends.”

 

The two women held each other’s gazes for a long moment; in that moment they reached a new understanding, a shared grief that only a woman scorned and betrayed would know, and they knew that bond would bind them forever; not just them, but the women before them, and the women that would come after them. The daughters of the world, and then their daughters after them, a ceaseless cycle of betrayal and so much emotion because they were all of them only too human enough to love.

 

“What do I do now?”

 

It was Marie Theres who broke the silence. Rosina smiled, a rueful gesture that shaded her gaze with regret.

 

“Let him go with all the dignity you can muster. It is the least you can do for yourself, and for him.”

 

I promised myself to love him in the right way, to love him, even to love his being in love with another.

 

Let him have his happiness.

 

Remember your promises.

 

Remember your promises.

 

She drew a breath; reached for the note on the table. Steady blue eyes watched her, Rosina the sole witness to the beginning of her happiness’ end. The words summoning her to the tavern seemed distant, each syllable in her mind another echo reminding her of the end that was to come.

 

Folding the note once more she stood, regality suffusing her as she raised her head. Rosina, too, rose to her feet, no small amount of compassionate awe colouring her gaze as she beheld the dignity that Marie Theres now exuded. There was tragedy to be had, no doubt, but it was to be met with the quiet pride of one who would never surrender, would let her heart be slit open, but only on her terms, dignified to the last.

 

For the last time that night Marie Theres met Rosina’s gaze.

 

“Thank you.”

 

Her voice was quiet, sincere. Once again Rosina nodded, a single dip of her head.

 

“Godspeed.”

 

One last smile, melancholy as always, and Marie Theres turned, moved to exit the room newly mantled with all the grace of a widowed queen.

 

After all, would she not be just that, after tonight?

 

A sudden thought struck her and Marie Theres paused, did not turn.

 

“Who was he?”

 

Her question was met by silence at first, and then a murmur so quiet she almost did not hear it.

 

“He was a mere boy; the most beautiful, with a soul so brilliant i never thought I’d fear the dark again, not with him by my side.”

 

A slight tilt of her head as Marie Theres considered Rosina’s confession, the lingering fondness that coloured her voice.

 

Rosina answered the unasked question.

 

“He no longer walks this earth.”

 

The clock on the mantelpiece counted the seconds that passed. A harsh breath was taken, a rattling sigh. But when Rosina spoke again her voice was quite steady, the same artificial lightness from before not quite masking a bitterness and a sorrow that sang deep within the both of them.

 

“He was not yet twenty when war and death claimed him for their own.”

 

The clock continued ticking, a steady metronome reminding them of Death’s imminent arrival; if not by another’s hand, then by the hands that witnessed the passage of each day.

 

Marie Theres bowed her head. Still she did not turn, allowing Rosina the privacy of her memories. In the silence the clockwork was deafening.

 

“Goodnight, Contessa Almaviva.”

 

The moon gleamed quicksilver through the window, and Marie Theres took the first steps of a journey to heal a broken heart.