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The cream stationery was a familiar weight in her hands now, the single missive upon it etched as cleanly upon the heavy parchment as they were in her mind.

“You know where to find me.”

Was she wrong to have refused the invitation then? Was it still open to her, now? For she had been foolish to have ignored the wisdom in those sapphire eyes, stupid to have carelessly disregarded the warning that had been issued to her.

Marie Theres frowned, sighed; absently she ran a finger across the crease of the note, tapped it against her lips. It had been three months, and she still had not heard from the countess, the woman who had so nobly tried to prepare her for what to come.

(for Rosina had recognised the mantle that Marie Theres had rushed headlong into assuming , and had not wanted her to learn heartbreak the same way she had to)

Too late.

The note fluttered to her blotter, and Marie Theres snatched up pen and paper, poised to commit word to page. What would she say to the countess? What could she say? Meaningless platitudes and expressions of gratitude chased themselves about Marie Theres’ psyche, each and every one of them inadequate. She understood now, was thankful for the retrospective lesson she had been given. For hindsight informed her now, steered her actions as she built herself a bulwark of loyal nobles, men and women both (for now she understood the power of a woman’s quietest murmur in the right ear, the efficiency of a glance cast just so, just so) who swore fealty to her and her alone. Deftly she had danced across court, picked these men and women as strategically as any general would have directed his army. For war was coming, she knew it; the Feldmarschal (her husband) had fired his opening salvo with that maid, and the daughter of some lesser family so eager to rise to court. She had not done more than rant at him, cast angry words and aspersions on his honour at him. And he had laughed, and grinned at her, a breed of malice known only to men dancing in his mocking gaze.

What else could she have done?

The pen slipped from her grasp, and Marie Theres sighed once more, pressed her forehead to a cool palm. The table clock (a gift from the Empress herself) by her elbow ticked resolutely by, and a harsh giggle tore itself from Marie Theres’ lips when she read the time in flickering candlelight.

Just past midnight.

Her birthday.

Warily, she reached out and touched the smooth wood, picked it up. What a quietly insidious reminder of the world’s vagaries it was, she mused. For there was nothing as cruel as the inexorable crawl of time, its slow conquest of her beauty, her youth. She was diminishing; each slow tick of the heart of time was another beat in the funeral march of her dignity, her value. Each slow tock was another step away from happiness, as memories of springtime flowers and cries of “Little Resi, look how beautiful she is!” grew ever dimmer.

The clock was a heavy weight in her hand, and she raised her gaze, looked out onto the moonlit estate. For a brief, hysterical moment she considered hurling the Empress’ gift through the window, wanted to rid herself of the obscene reminder of the other war she could not hope to win. She glanced down at the clock face again, traced the gilt edges of the piece with curious fingers. There was an inscription at the base of the clock, and she frowned, shifted closer to the window to read it by moonlight.

“Tempus fugit”

Time flies.

Had the Empress understood, then? Did she stand as Marie Theres now stood, listening to the diminuendo of her vitality? She sighed once more and replaced the clock on her table, wandered with soft steps to her bed. Ticking still reverberated about her as she slipped under her covers, pressed her face to cool linen. It was with a troubled mind that Marie Theres allowed the rigid rhythm lull her to sleep, dreaming of moonlit mirrors and unanswered letters.

 


 

“Your grace? Your grace? Good morning, your grace.”

Her maid’s voice was a warm murmur, her hand a comforting touch as she gently shook her mistress awake. Marie Theres managed a wan smile as she blinked into consciousness, shuffled to sit upright in bed.

“Good morning, Elsa.”

“Good morning, your grace.”

The customary breakfast tray was placed across her lap, and Marie Theres smiled, genuinely.

 

“Thank you for the flowers, Elsa. How very thoughtful of you.”

“It was no trouble at all, your grace. And may I just say… Happy birthday.”

The maid blushed and curtsied, prettily, and Marie Theres smiled wanly once more.

“Any messages this morning?”

“Yes, your grace.”

A heavy cream envelope, so familiar to Marie Theres’ touch now, was pressed to her hand. She inhaled, sharply. So Rosina had received her reply, had sent one of her own.

“Thank you, Elsa.”

Marie Theres nodded absently at the girl, dismissed her with a nod. With trembling fingers she raised the letter opener, slit it open. A familiar fragrance drifted to meet her, and she smiled, a genuine, relieved smile. For what the letter itself said was irrelevant; that Rosina had sent it telegraphed a singular message, one that Marie Theres found filled her with some unknown measure of hope.

She was not alone.

A pause to sip at her morning coffee, a bracing bite of toast, and Marie Theres unfolded the letter, read the flowing script contained within.

“Your Grace, thank you for your letter. If it pleases your Grace, I will be in Vienna come winter, and I hope to pay your Grace a visit. I would appreciate if your Grace would write to me as soon as possible, so I can make the requisite arrangements.”

Marie Theres smiled, triumphant. She was not to be alone in her misery, was to be joined in her campaign against her husband and his ilk by a most stalwart ally. She smoothed the letter out, re-read its contents, smiled at the post-script she had missed before.

“P.S. Happy Birthday, Marie Theres.”

So Rosina had waited, had thought of when exactly she wanted her missive delivered. Marie Theres allowed a small chuckle escape her; for Rosina was the true general here, the mastermind that understood all too well how society and the human heart worked. She had wanted Marie Theres to think long and hard about what had happened to her, what was to come. Had wanted her to make the decisions herself, did not want to impose. For it was to be a lonely battle, in a way, for them as women to take on their husbands and the trappings of their titles.

Marie Theres set down the letter, picked up her coffee cup, began composing a reply in her head. She would have Rosina with her, this winter. Together they would be the architects of the keenest vengeance a woman could deliver, would smite their men where it hurt most. Pride was a dangerous thing to have in abundance, as all men invariably did. And that was where they were to hammer home their blows, Marie Theres thought. There was where they were to strike, for there was never a humiliation so complete as when a man was stripped of that which he was most proud of keeping.

Yes, Marie Theres mused, as she bit into her breakfast. The Feldmarschal thought that she was bound, that she was his to keep in his gilded cage as she withered. She would shatter those bonds, would forsake the vows of faith she had taken.

Because she was a woman spurned, and never was a woman more powerful than when she had been so scorned.