Birds had always fascinated Rudolf. It amazed him how such tiny creatures could carry themselves through the sky and soar higher than the mountains. To be weightlessly free and boundlessly light, he thought. He could never be like them able to fly free and go where he wanted. He used to dream as a child that he could fly like the birds, sometimes flying with them, and he would travel the world every night. London, Paris, Prague, Budapest and the entire world was within in his reach for those few hours. But he only wanted Vienna. His beautiful Wien, full of coffee houses, museums, theatres and parks. No words could describe its beauty or the pride he felt when he thought of his beautiful city. He could fly past the St Stephen's Dome or the Hofburg and wave to his father during his meetings. His father would always wave back and smile, then excuse himself from the meeting to be with his only son. They would fly together, laughing through the air and waving down to the people below them. It was nice to dream then when there was nothing to be scared of; nice to dream about a kind father and a beautiful city. When he dreamed now - if he could get to sleep - it was never of Vienna. He tried to not think of the city that would one day be his, he had no power over it now so how could it be any different in his subconscious?
In dreams you can be anyone, he mused. Many poor men yearned to be a prince but he longed to be a poor man like them. Perhaps a farmer or a small business holder, maybe even just travelling like his mother. He could marry whoever he wanted and be free from the bitter Belgian wife who glared when he entered the room. He could have a child with no pressure for a son (although his daughter was precious to him), but he could have them when he wanted and not be forced to just because he was married, but because he and his wife felt they wanted a family. Secretly he knew who he wished to marry but that could never be. They came from different walks of life so it would never be allowed. His relationship with Mary was frowned upon even though she was a baroness, so how could marriage with a Viennese prostitute be permitted? He sighed inwardly at the thought of Mitzi being alone in the world. How could he leave her with no form of protection? He had left her money but it wouldn't get her far in these times. His note should explain everything to her…
The teenager in his arms stirred in her sleep. He smiled down at her sleeping figure and brushed his lips against her dark head. Ten months had passed since they had been introduced, neither of them knowing the path they would be taking. At first he had found her infatuation with him endearing and was suitably flattered. He had smiled politely as she'd curtsied and seemed interested in their small talk. She meant nothing to him then but that had all changed now.
She was still as small as she had been back then, still at the tender age of seventeen, but the way in which she held herself made her seem older and more experienced than others of her age. Her eyelids covered her large light blue eyes and her lashes rested on her cheeks, curling at the end. Her face was pale, contrasting with the loose dark brown hair that hung on her shoulders running past her waist. Her mouth under the snub nose was pulled back into a small unfathomable smile. It was excited but nervous, either about to cry or burst from pure joy. She was beautiful. Her features belonged to another time. They seemed out of place from the world in which they lived. She looked too experienced and used to life, almost bored of it.
Just like him.
He hugged her closer to him, smiling. He didn't love her but a sense of warmth came over him whenever he looked at her. She was so tiny and young and she wanted only him. Seventeen years of life were in this small body and most had been spent in longing for him. He should be happy; isn't this every man's dream to have a beautiful girl wanting to spend the rest of her life with you? Willing to sacrifice her life for you? It was the stuff of books not reality; the stuff of romantic fairytales and lovers' poems. And it should remain so.
Sometimes late at night he questioned Mary's part in this plan. He should be brave enough to go through with it himself. He shouldn't ask a child to help him cope. She had so much life within her and he would take it all with one pull of his finger. How he wished Mitzi were here. She would know how to talk to him, convince him it's the wrong idea, kiss his forehead and hold him like she always did. He would nod agreeing with her wise words, kiss her back and run away with her far from Austria's borders. He smiled as he pictured them married in a small church; she would walk down in a white dress, like an angel sent from above and meet him at the altar where their lives would begin. They would travel the world together, seeing every sight the universe had to offer. There was no limit they couldn't overcome and no wall would separate them. They would maybe start the family Rudolf dreamed of and live happily with their children. He would teach the boys fishing, hunting or maybe the natural sciences whilst Mitzi would teach the girls sowing and they would sing while they cooked. They would welcome the boys back and praise them for their prize catches, asking how their day had been. The children would maybe argue playfully or sit and talk together while Mitzi and he would sit and watch their family lovingly, and thank a God who had made them lucky.
But he knew it could not be.
It was not Mitzi that lay in his arms snuggled close to him, and it was not Mitzi with whom he would leave this world. It was not Mitzi who he would marry or have a family with, and it was not Mitzi who he would grow old with and watch their family grow. No one could replace Mitzi, he realised. But he could not think of Mitzi now. It was bad enough he had spent last night with her before meeting the love struck child that lay in his arms.
That reminded him: Mary.
She still lay sleeping in his arms, having no idea of the treacherous thoughts running through his mind. The guilt surged through him and he stroked her hair as if it would make amends.
"Mary?" he whispered her name.
She stirred and rolled her head looking up at him and smiled. She pressed her lips to his and whispered 'I love you'.
"Es wird zeit," he whispered and brushed his lips to her head.
She sighed and looked out the window into the twilight, her eyes brushing past the letters on the desk and the pistol that lay on top. Her last morning, she thought. May God help my family and protect them. Make them understand... Make them see why it happened... No. I shouldn't think of them now, only Rudolf matters now. They have brought this upon themselves, she tried to convince herself.
But have they really? Her conscience had always had a different opinion on this whole situation, but she could only trust her heart. It had brought her to Rudolf. Only her heart matters; only her Rudolf matters.
Four months they had properly known each other and in the space of four seconds it would all be over. She kissed his lips one more time.
"Ich liebe dich."
Two shots were heard that night.
In the morning fog, two birds flew through the clouds.