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Der Untergang

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The sound drained out of the world first. There was no great sloth to it; the cry of the horse was there, before it rapidly faded away into nothingness.

Then went colour, not so much leaving as becoming muted almost deferentially, as if the entire world stood on ceremony.

Elisabeth could no longer tell where she was. She could still see what was once the Bretagne shore in the distance, but there was no movement, no lapping of the waves. She thought of how often she ran down the beach in order to bathe there, and how uninviting it looked in this half-grey haze.

She also thought of how pleasant it was not to be running for the moment.

The horse was nowhere to be seen. She noted wryly that whatever had spooked the mare had clearly sent it galloping off without much concern for anyone else; the irony was not lost on her in the slightest.

There was not much to do for the moment except look, and think. Elisabeth was nobody's fool. She already knew he would be there, and that she would not be heading back to the chateau until he let her.

She just didn't know why. Hadn't the last time been her final chance? He had said so himself, after all. Once more, it seemed terribly ironic - she had a French malady of a very different kind now, more a malaise if anything.

She heard steps behind her on what must have been grass. A morbid whisper of feathers, the careful rustle of immaculately tailored clothing. She turned with as much regal bearing as she could muster, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of seeing the surprise she felt.

The angels moved in front of him, fanning out to form a circular auditorium; he always did like to grandstand. As the last angels parted way he came forward serenely, yet severely, his face inscrutable. This was odd. She always knew what he wanted, but this time she wasn't sure, and as he began to pace around the circle of angels she grew agitated.

"Come for another dance?" She hurled the words at him, daggers quivering with barely suppressed nerves, beckoning him with what she hoped was a mocking hand by which he might lead her on. "You remind me of the younger noblemen I meet at functions. So eager to have your way, but so lacking in execution." She knew he would see this for the lie it was. Not only did he almost glide around the circle, but she did not remember any younger noblemen.

"Elisabeth..." The black wings of Death's angels rippled with the name. It reminded her of one calm night on the boat to Madeira, when she had stolen away to gaze out into the comfort of nothingness and instead had watched the rippling waves of the dark ocean glinting in the moonlight. "Elisabeth..." His voice seemed disinterested, his flowing gait more measured than usual.

"What?" She lowered her hand sharply and dared to take a step forward without his bidding, a defiance that even she found thrilling. Greyness oozed around her as she turned to keep up with his pacing. "Am I no longer yours to toy with? I rebuke you still. Go!"

Death laughed, a soft chuckle filled with scorn. "Only your words deny me, or else I would be gone already. Besides, do you think I would let you choose a moment like this - a simple accident, to be left forgotten in the annals of history? You know me too well for that, Elisabeth." He gestured around him, past the ring of angels. "There are no witnesses. There is no significance. To die in a foreign land, to be discovered only when one of the retinue you so despise finds your horse alone? How pointless. No, Elisabeth. You no longer deserve the choice." He spoke with sadness now, strangely warm in this cold place.

She was intrigued. "Significance? What do I need with significance? My life to lead as I choose is all I have ever asked, and it is the one thing you cannot give me." There were so many things that he could give her, she had realised some time ago; things that Franz-Josef could not. Like faithfulness.

"I never said it should be significant for you." He slowed, his weight shifting briefly as if he wished to cross the circle to her side, pull her to him, show her just how much she meant to him, before he moved on again as before. At least, that was what she thought. He was probably just playing with her again, stalking round his prey.

"Fine. If there is no significance, then why have you deigned to grace me with your presence?"

"It was not my choice. You're the one who wants me here. Otherwise you would have dusted yourself off and be home by now - wherever home is today." His hands moved in vague, formless gestures as he spoke. Although she followed them, she could not work out what they were tracing. "A few days of mild pain, a few weeks of bruised pride, and this whole incident would become an anecdote to regale those you meet at your next port of call with."

"I no more want you here than I want to return home to Austria." She was never sure who won these encounters. He normally seemed so physically dominant, but she had always driven him away before - or had she just escaped? "You took my child, my father, my very health from me. Why should I want you here?"

"Familiarity, perhaps? You are always close to me, Elisabeth. Even here, far from home, far from your husband and children, the wandering fairy queen still wants something she knows - or someone."

"I do not want Franz-Josef or the children with me. I have things to accomplish."

The tiniest of smiles was permitted to cross Death's face. "Rudolf is seventeen now, almost a man. He is of an age where he is so confused that he barely knows himself, let alone his own mother. His only comfort is when I am with him -"

"Keep away from my son!" An unexpected rage filled her, and she strode across the circle in vast steps, unmindful of her torn and bloodied clothing, her hand raised to strike Death itself. "You will not have him! Was one child not enough for you?"

He roared at her then, all trace of calm gone as his own fury overtook him. "YOU MADE ME BEG!" he bellowed at her, stopping her in her tracks. If there had been wind in this place the shout would have boomed around them, but instead it fell flat. Dead, even. "NO-ONE MAKES DEATH BEG!"

Silence. She found herself holding back sobs as if from nowhere.

The anger left him. "No-one," he whispered, "except you."

She looked at him, mere steps away from her. She saw the same intoxicating, terrifying creature she had always seen. She had never seen him truly hurt before, though.

She took several moments to think and calm down. The angels watched them both. He made no move.

Every single part of her warned her against it. So she did it.

She offered her right palm. "May I have this dance?"

He was clearly conflicted. Excellent. "What?"

"A dance."

Something flickered behind his eyes, but she had no idea what. He tentatively began to reach for her hand as if unsure whether to believe it.

She chose to seize the moment. As his hand gently brushed hers, his icy fingertips sending a shock down her arm, she grabbed him firmly and pulled him towards her. "This time, on my terms."

Elisabeth had not been taught how to lead a waltz as a child, although she had watched her father enough times to know the basic steps. She did not want to think about how Death learnt ballroom dance. Nevertheless, there was neither the awkwardness she had perhaps expected nor the ferocious dominance she had feared. The moves came naturally, easily, swiftly. She whirled him around the circle in a blur of greys and blacks, both clinging to each other intently as they abandoned themselves to the silent music that drove their steps. She did not even think to ask whether he was enjoying himself. She did not really care.

She had no idea how long they danced. She knew it was a long time before she realised that she was no longer leading. His arm was tender around her waist, and she was resting her head against his chest.

They were still for an endless moment before he broke away, suddenly expressionless and inhuman once more. "I have been here too long already. Remember, it is my choice, and mine alone. You will come to me when we are both ready. Now is not the time."

"I never intended it to be." She found herself smiling. "You will not have me. Yet."

He did not linger. Sense rushed in, and Empress Elisabeth fell down.


The Empress Sissi was brought back to Sassetot-le-Mauconduits after she fell off her horse with all the care due to someone as significant as she was, no matter how heavily concussed she might have been.

Wild Rumour flew amongst the inhabitants of the Chateau, and sped on wings of night all the way to Vienna. Some said she was pregnant, but this was just idle malicious chatter. Elisabeth was nothing if not a magnet for gossip in her long absence.

One local legend sprang up, however. A man, shrouded in a cloak, was said to have come to visit Elisabeth a few days after her fall, and stayed with her constantly as she lay convalescing and convulsing through her illness. The Austrians, ever quick to concoct romantic fantasies about their darling Empress, believed that Franz-Josef had spirited himself to Bretagne to be at his wife's side.

You should know differently, though. Una grande amore, after all.

And she does have grey hairs now. Death will wait, but time does not.