On his sixth birthday his mother manages to steal him away for a while. She takes over his letter writing lesson and teaches him to address and sign a note himself. He finishes and holds up the unsealed letter uncertainly.
“What am I supposed to do now?”
She smiles gently. “Now we seal it, see?” She guides his hands over the stamp for the wax. He’s delighted to see the finished result. They send it with the courier together; it’s only a simple note addressed to his father, but the excitement of sending a letter for the first time cancels out the mundane nature of the task.
He doesn’t see her for weeks after that, and every day feels far lonelier than before.
At fourteen he lets his mind wander from his study during his lessons and is startled by the tutor cracking a rod down harshly across his knuckles. From her looming post beside him Sophie shakes her head coldly.
“You are to be emperor one day; how might it look to your people if you attend to them in the way you attend to your studies?” She gestures at his neglected writing.
He opens his mouth to protest but stops. To try and defend himself now would be like pleading his cause with the cold stones of a tomb. Instead he swallows back the lump rising in his throat and sits up straighter.
“I apologize. What am I to do now?”
“Very good.” The tutor smiles, and his grandmother’s terrifying expression recedes to stoicism once again. “Start again from the beginning; forty lines.”
Rudolf remembers perfectly well all he’s been taught about death—fire and horror wait for the wicked, exaltation for the lawful and good. He knows the fearful way most people speak of the looming unknown of the end—but his own fear faded long ago—and he thinks, sometimes, that in moments like this the ideas of eternal rest and eternal damnation seem equally inviting.
At twenty it feels more difficult every day; he isn’t given much power, of course, but he begins to see the deep-rooted rot of the monarchy in every shadowed corner, every starving face in the street. Is this the glory he will inherit? How can they all sit idly by in the face of this obviously crumbling disaster? The question of what can be done chips away at his mind day and night. He wonders what his mother would say. She is a beaming light in his mind, glowing bright against the approaching darkness with sympathy for the people he knows she must have, but every time he speaks to her the question dies in his throat.
His only refuge is his oldest one. Whenever the world becomes too much he closes his eyes and imagines strong, cold arms around him and sobs into a chest that isn’t there. He imagines pale, comforting lips on his, and everything slipping away into merciful nothingness. Oblivion, he thinks, is kind.
A short time later oblivion is truly all he can see before him. He's always felt alone, felt the weight of his future, his family and a thousand lives on his back, but this is different. Even that last light has been snuffed out, and he knows at last everyone has deserted him save one. The only companion on earth who has stayed steadily at his side since his boyhood.
He spends some time paralyzed, staring into the void opening before him. Inevitable, the voice of his companion whispers kindly from the darkness. You have fought long enough.
When his tears are spent, he curls in on himself and finally speaks the words he had kept back for so long. "What am I supposed to do now?"
The arms that envelop him give him his answer without a word.