Franz smiled as he watched his cousin chase after an orange someone had thrown in his direction. The young girl was adorable, with the makings of a true beauty, too. Even now an ordinary man might have a hard time resisting her cheerfully wild, untamed spirit. He knew what the old men at court would say, how they would look at her, what they would want to do to her.
He himself couldn’t bring himself to be interested, even knowing all of that. Franz had wondered time and again if he was somehow broken, cursed to be incapable of that apparently paramount human desire. Was he sick, to not want to “love” women, or anyone for that matter?
And yet, he did want to love. Just not in the physical sense, even if he had accepted long ago that he would have to at some point. The thought made him slightly sick to the stomach, as it had since one of his teachers had explained the matter to him. Still, he was Emperor and the Emperor needed heirs. Franz would do his duty, no matter how unpleasant, just like he always had.
An unpleasant sound from his mother startled him out of his contemplation of Sissi. She had been occupied for the last half an hour, catching up and making small talk with her sister and Franz had enjoyed the reprieve from her stern gaze and guiding fan. Now, she had spotted Sissi, crouching close to the ground to not be spotted as she snuck past her to return to her seat. He feared that she would chew the little one out for her bad manners and got ready to help her escape his mothers clutches, but it turned out he needn’t have worried. Sophie was quick to dismiss the child. Instead, she turned to him.
“Well, Franz? Tell me, what do you think of her?” Only years of practice kept Franz from flinching at her harsh tone. His mother had beaten the fear of her into him, but had also beat out any sign of it on his face, as “an Emperor does not show weakness.” Still, he hadn’t been paying much attention to the conversation around him, instead opting to watch Sissi entertain herself, so he was a bit confused.
“Who?” he asked, hoping to get some more hints what he was supposed to say.
“Your lovely cousin, of course!” his mother exclaimed, pointing her fan in Sissi’s direction. Actually, on second glance, not Sissi, but her older sister, Helene. The girl hadn’t actually said much, either, and so he hadn’t taken much notice of her. She was plainer than her little sister, meek and quiet. Now that he looked at her properly for the first time it was obvious to him that she was struggling with the heat, and he wasn’t surprised considering the dress she was wearing. It was truly atrocious, meant to make her stand out and yet only seeming to eat her alive instead. He felt a little bad for her, to be quite honest.
“Franz?” his mother prompted him sternly. He could only sigh. After all, he could tell what she wanted from him. She had mentioned it before they left, “Happy Austria marries,” she had said, and of course she would pick a girl she would have an easy time guiding around.
“She seems nice, mother. I would like to walk with her through the parks, if possible,” he answered as diplomatically as he could. A girl like Helene wouldn’t make for a very engaging bride, he feared, but also seemed like the most merciful choice. Sissi, with her bright personality and cheerful manner, would just be caged at court, conforming to what an Empress was to be. Helene seemed like the type to endure instead of fight against those constraints. He could only hope that she hid a steel core behind all the ruffles and shyness, so she wouldn’t break underneath the pressure.
His mother nodded at him with an unkind smile on her face. He didn’t think he had ever seen the woman make an honestly joyful expression before, and he would feel bad about that if she hadn’t been such a harpy. Instead he just found himself shamefully hoping she would mercifully die soon, though he always caught himself before he could finish those thoughts. Dwelling on dreams and flights of fancy didn’t befit the ruler of a nation.
“Though, not right now. I’m sure the ladies are tired from the journey, so they should take a moment to rest, and maybe change into something more fitting. Before dinner, at 5, maybe?” he suggested, hoping he wasn’t offending anyone. However, his cousins and aunt seemed too relieved to argue, and his mother only seemed faintly displeased and didn’t comment.
Swiftly, the coffee round was dispersed, and Franz found himself alone in an empty meeting room, not at all hiding from his mother’s sharp questions.
He stood at the window, looking out over the gardens without any specific thoughts in mind, as the door suddenly opened and closed again, hurried steps of small feet carrying someone in. When he turned to see who it was, expecting a maid or something similar, he found his younger cousin, Sissi, standing there grinning triumphantly instead, a sheet of paper and a piece of charcoal for sketching in hand. When she turned to face the room, she spotted him at the window and froze. She gasped and spent a good few moments gaping at him before she seemed to remember her manners and curtseyed clumsily.
“Your Highness! I’m sorry, I was just-” she started hurriedly, but was interrupted by someone calling her name from the hall. She winced and lifted her skirts, leaving coal stains on the pretty fabric with her right hand, hurrying across the room to duck behind one of the lavish chaises in the middle of the room. Not a moment too soon, as the door was opened by a woman Franz recognised faintly as what must be Sissi’s governess. He hesitated for a moment but then made a decision and stepped forward.
“Yes?” he demanded, putting a harsh tone in his voice that made the woman flinch and curtsey so deeply she was almost sitting on the floor.
“Your Highness! Oh my, I’m sorry to have disturbed you, I didn’t know you would be here. I was just looking for my ward, Elisabeth...” she explained in the sort of submissive tone that Franz hated but many people took on when talking to him. Oh well, it suited him just fine in this case.
“Well she clearly isn’t here, so leave me,” he ordered sternly and the woman immediately fled the room with many apologies, not looking back. Franz sighed. He hated using his station like that. Then he turned to the seating area.
“You can come out, she’s gone,” he called, in a much gentler tone of voice. Sissi peeked over the backrest of the sofa and then stood up fully when she saw it was just him in the room with her. She made a lacklustre attempt at straightening out her dress, before noticing she was just leaving more coal stains on it and giving up. Instead, she turned to him, giving him a careful look.
“... Thanks,” she mumbled. “You aren’t going to rat me out?” Franz couldn’t help but chuckle.
“No, of course not. I don’t begrudge you wanting to run away every once in a while, I tried to do it too when I was younger,” he admitted, turning back to the window. He expected her to leave and go do whatever she had run away to do, but apparently her curiosity had been piqued.
“But, surely, an Emperor can do whatever he wants?” she asked, taking a step closer. He could see some of her reflection in the glass, her nose was scrunched up cutely in confusion. Franz felt himself smile a little sadly.
“You forget that I wasn’t always Emperor, and that with great power comes great responsibility. There are so many lessons to learn, so many rules to study, so many trappings of the court and it’s airs... One can barely be a person while being a ruler, Sissi. It isn’t half as glamorous as one might think, just looking at it from the outside,” he answered her, though he wasn’t sure if she would understand it. She was only a young girl, after all.
When she didn’t answer for a moment he turned back to her, only to find her frowning in thought, gaze unfocused on the ground. Apparently, he hadn’t given her intelligence enough credit. After another few moments of her looking into the middle distance like that, she seemed to come to a decision and turned her face back up to him.
“Well, maybe it’s good after all that it’s Helene who will marry you. She has always been much better with all the rules and such,” she declared, her displeasure at said rules “and such” clear on her face. He gave her a little smile.
“Maybe,” he answered noncommittally. Still, Sissi wasn’t done yet.
“Still, if it’s so dull over in your palace I ought to visit to liven up the place some time!” she declared, taking another step closer and, after a moment’s hesitation, grabbing his hand.
“Come on, you clearly haven’t had enough fun lately, let’s see if we can shoot off the other antlers of that statue!” she tugged him along, and he let her, an incredulous smile on his face. He knew this wouldn’t last long, that his mother or Sissi’s governess would discover them and that they both would get in trouble, but at this moment he couldn’t bring himself to care.
Maybe, just maybe, they could be friends. He hadn’t ever had a real friend, being heir to the throne made that sort of thing hard, even if he had had time to get to know other children. She wouldn’t be able to be there all the time, but with him married to her sister he was sure that she could visit every once in a while and steal him away. Surely, that could be forgiven.
“And mother keeps throwing all these men at me! As if I haven’t made perfectly clear that I don’t plan to marry any of them, yet she seems to hope if she just keeps them coming I will fall in love with one of them and change my mind!” Sissi exclaimed, a deeply offended expression on her face as she sipped her coffee. Franz smiled.
“Ah, Sissi, you really shouldn’t be so harsh, Mama just wants you to be happy and save, after all she and Papa aren’t getting any younger,” Helene suggested quietly. While she had become quite a bit more self-assured under his mother’s harsh tutelage, she had never really lost her quiet nature.
Sissi wrinkled her nose and snorted. “Well, I don’t care for it and I don’t care for any of those men. You might be alright with being married off to some man you barely know, no offence Franz, but I certainly am not,” she bristled.
“If I may, Sissi, why are you so offended by the idea of marrying? Don’t you want a family, to have children of your own?” Franz thought briefly of his own children, two girls and one boy. Luckily his mother had died shortly after Rudolf had been born, leaving his upbringing to Helene, who had quietly but firmly told off anyone who had suggested bringing him up the traditional way, with beatings and harsh lessons, instead choosing to focus on his education, hiring a stern but kind teachers for him that would also teach him manners instead of giving him to the military. Franz hadn’t commented, so nobody had dared defy her. No matter her kind nature, she had still become known as a woman not to cross, something she had picked up from Sophie, he thought. His mother had liked her, something he hadn’t anticipated when she took his bride under her wing.
Sissi turned away to look out of the window at the grey skies outside.
“I’m waiting for someone,” she replied softly. Franz couldn’t help but stare at her, this was the first he heard of this.
“Who?” he blurted out, setting down his cup on the table to and leaning closer. Sissi opened her mouth as if to reply, but then seemed to decide against it and closed it again, shaking her head minutely. Franz saw Helene straighten beside him.
“Oh Sissi, this isn’t that mysterious man you saw in when you fell off the rope again, is it? We told you, he was just a hallucination you had because you hit your head!” Sissi shook her head more vigorously.
“No, he felt too real to be a hallucination! He has to be out there somewhere, I’m sure he will come to me with time!” she exclaimed, glaring at her sister, motioning with her hands harshly as if to underline her statement. Then she stiffly rose from her seat.
“Anyway, I have to prepare if I am to go riding with you, Franz. Excuse me,” she rushed to say and left before he could say anything else. Helene deflated beside him as he stared at the door Sissi had disappeared behind. He turned to his wife.
“What was that, then?” he asked her and she gave him an apologetic look.
“Oh, I’m sorry about her, she always reacts this way when someone brings it up. See, she fell off a rope as a child, not long before we first met you, and was unconscious for a bit. We feared the worst, but she woke up again, talking nonsense about some black prince or something saving her. It was just a fever dream, but she still seems to believe it was real, no matter how many times we tell her to let it go,” she explained, taking his hand in hers and smiling sadly. He smiled back at her, squeezing her fingers to comfort her.
“Well, who knows? Your sister has always had the oddest adventures, maybe she met death himself and stared him down until he let her come back. It wouldn’t surprise me, knowing Sissi,” he told her and Helene tittered a little, her smile growing more genuine.
Franz glanced at the clock, then stood. “I need to finish some work now, you don’t have to come if you want to find Sissi instead,” he told her, but she just shook her head an followed him as he headed to his private office. There was no slacking off for the royal couple after all, and with the revolutionaries becoming louder and louder and the international tensions currently brewing, there was more work to do than ever.
Not a month later, Sissi was found dead in her rooms after having been told that her mother was planning to marry her off against her will, finally having given up on getting her to agree to a match. She had apparently used a knife to cut her own throat, bleeding out slowly. She left behind a note with only a single sentence on it:
“My only love, is Death.”
Franz couldn’t find time to go to the funeral, too swamped in work, but Helene went to mourn at her sister’s grave. When she returned, Franz went to comfort her in the evening, and lying in his arms she told him, “I hope her black prince came to get her after all. Maybe she will be happy, with him.” Franz didn’t know what to say to that, so he only kissed her on the forehead and held her close through the night.