Between the worlds of the living and the dead is the place where the Four Aspects of Fate weave the tapestry of the world. The First spins the threads, the Second weaves them into the tapestry, the Third cuts them, and the Fourth watches the pattern emerge and guides the threads into their proper places.
No matter what arrogant humafnity might think Fate cares nothing for the people whose lives she affects in her task of creating the Tapestry of life, only that they serve her purpose.
On one particular day, in the twenty-first century of Earth, the Fourth stood silently for several days, watching the patterns emerge and walking backwards to look at the past before finally making an announcement that shattered the usual silence of Fate's Realm.
"There is a wrongness in the pattern."
"A wrongness?" echoed the other Three, hands and eyes never leaving their vital work.
"A wrongness," replied the Fourth in a decisive tone. "I cannot quite see it in the pattern but it is clear that it must be repaired or the entire fabric will descend into chaos."
"How could such a wrongness have entered the pattern?" asked the Third, shocked.
Fate was, after all, supposed to be infallible, in fact it was the very cornerstone of her fourfold existence that nothing could cause the pattern she Wove to be wrong – the course of lives could be changed from what she originally intended but such changes as were allowed to happen were always able to be properly placed.
"It appears to begin before the twentieth century, as they measure time there," meaning on Earth. "Yet I do not recall anything happening that could have caused this wrongness."
This was another grave matter for Fate, in her Realm, knew all that had been in the world and anything able to cause the wrongness she spoke of should have been obvious…
"It occurs to me that while we know all that has passed we do not see the events themselves, only the Threads that represent them."
"So it has always been," agreed the Third, whose shears sat idle for a very brief moment.
"It is not enough," interjected the First, her concern over the problem causing a number of mothers to be to endure longer labours.
Only the Second did not comment out loud, her hands and concentration always required to remain on the Pattern she Wove, but she was able – by virtue of their fourfold nature – to make her opinion known.
"A consensus has been reached," said the Fourth formally. "Let Father Time be summoned to Realm of Fate."
No sooner had the request been sent then a tall man, white-haired, dressed in a velvet jacket of a style long past in the world Fate now watched over, appeared before them. He bowed deeply to the Fates, the Three smiled but did not look up from their work, and the Fourth returned his bow with one of her own.
"How may I be of assistance, Lady Fate?"
She though briefly of teasing him, a habit of hers on the rare occasions that spoke to each other, but decided that the situation was far too serious for such levity.
"We require a favour and, depending on what results from it, perhaps some advice and assistance as well."
"It is rare that you require my help and I know you do not ask it lightly, ask."
"We have discovered something that can only be described as wrongness in the Pattern, an event or events that we should not have allowed to exist yet somehow did not see. They now begin to corrupt the Weaving and we must know what they were so that we may attempt to repair them. We had hoped you would be able to show to us, or see for yourself if you prefer, what people and events the contaminated Threads represent that we might be able to reverse the effects before it is too late."
Time, existing in all places, had the power to replay the events of the past, as easily as a twenty-first century human might watch a film.
"The tapestry must not be allowed to continue wrongly," he agreed immediately. "Of course you shall have my assistance."
"Come with me, I will show you where the wrongness began."
"I am not the expert you are but I can see no wrongness here," observed Time, when they reached the point in the tapestry that she wished him to see.
"It took me days to find it," replied the Fourth. "The changes are subtle, at first, and seem like they were supposed to be part of the Pattern. It begins rightly but the rightness leads to wrongness and I cannot see what has done this, only that it stems for the most part from this Thread here and those directly intertwined with it."
With Fate's permission Time had the power to touch the Thread She indicated and allow both of them to see the life and events it represented.
They watched in silence as the life of Empress Elisabeth played out before their uncaring eyes.
"I see nothing to explain the wrongness yet these events match it perfectly!" snapped Fate, raising her voice in frustration – an emotion she was hardly used to feeling for she was a being of little emotion indeed.
"I can trace each Thread; they all lead back to…yes, there. We can tell that the Thread was almost cut then continued unharmed, not an unknown occurrence even in times more primitive than the present we now Weave. And yet there is something elusive…"
"Something…beyond our combined powers," realised Time.
"That is absurd, the only thing that is beyond our power to see is the world of the dead!"
"Just so," agreed Time, "and if you would look very closely it seems to me that in parts of this woman's life there is a shadow that could well be an echo of the presence of the other one of us."
"What business could he have had with a mortal life, beyond taking it past its end?" protested Fate.
"A question well worth asking, if I thought for a moment he would deign to answer."
"Not he but perhaps…" Fate fell silent in thought and Time wait patiently until she was ready to share her thought.
"Perhaps…?" prompted Time, when she had spent several hours – apart from those moments where she directed the Pattern – in silence.
"You are aware, I think, of where the souls of the dead are taken once they pass from mortal life – and their Thread from my Weaving?"
Though the Dead were beyond the jurisdiction of both Time and Fate both immortals were aware that the souls were taken to the Underworld where they were offered a choice; to be Judged and sent on to Heaven, Purgatory, or Hell (in the latter cases with the possibility of eventual redemption); to have their soul reborn into another life, with the understanding that it would eventually be judged; or to wander the Underworld as a spirit alone, unable to see any other denizen of the Underworld, until they simply faded away.
"Of course," agreed Time, "but what has that to do with anything?"
"When a soul is reincarnated there is a new Thread but, if one knows where to look, it carries an echo of the old Thread with it and, of course, the soul within is the same…"
Now he understood her meaning, the Empress had been reborn in the new century on Earth.
"If we approach while her soul wanders in dreaming we should be able to make her recall who she was and find out what happened in her life that we cannot see."
"Just so, my Lord Time, and once we have that answer to our question we will better understand how this wrongness might be combated."
Fate touched the Thread and they both followed it into the world of mortals where Time made sure they arrived during the night-time, when the mortal they were seeking was more likely to be asleep. Once they found her body it was obvious, at least to them, that the soul was already about its night of dreaming. A silver threadlike substance led the way to where the spirit was to be found, not the mysterious Place of Dreaming that none of them could control but a very real and quite magnificent garden.
They were standing so close behind the soul of Elisabeth that they saw quite clearly the moment when she shed the appearance of her current incarnation, whose name was also Elisabeth but her appearance quite different, and stood in front of them as she had looked on the day she was crowned Queen of Hungary.
She, a mere mortal, couldn't see them when they wished to conceal their presence from her but still they both froze for a moment when she glanced behind her before stepping out into the garden. The moon was full that night and the garden, wherever it was, was far from any signs of civilisation so the moonlight was all there was to see by.
"My lord," she called softly. "Are you here, my lord?"
From the shadows created by a hedge and a tall tree stepped a figure well known to Fate and Time.
"My lady," said Death, the Lord of the Underworld, and bowed to her. With a smile and a curtsey in response she offered him her hands and uttered a delighted gasp when he used them to pull her close to him for a kiss.
A kiss that, much to the surprise of the unseen observers, did not appear to be intended to take her soul from the world of the living. As they drew a little apart and began to dance in the moonlight, both smiling at some private joke, Time turned to Fate who returned them to her Realm with a sharp gesture of one hand.
"Well," said Time, his tone flat with incredulity. "Now we know what business he had with a mortal's life."
"I could not believe it if I had not seen it…but let us watch her life again and see if this new revelation lends any assistance to us in this problem."
"As you desire, of course," agreed Time, making a gesture of his own that served a similar purpose in channelling his will.
They watched in silence again and neither of them spoke for awhile.
"I must ask you a favour," said the Fourth suddenly, sounding decided unconfident about the possibility of his agreeing to help.
"You may always ask."
"Would you go forward, as far as you can, and ask us how we resolved this wrongness?"
"To know the future is to change it, I cannot tell you what will be."
"It does not change these things for you to know them and you need not tell us unless you wish to or, I would suppose, if we tell you that you did."
"I agree," decided Time, after due consideration of the matter – about three days as mortals would measure it and Fate had continued her work while he thought.
"Then we shall speak to you at the time when this Tapestry is almost complete," replied the Fourth, inclining her hear towards him then returning her attention to the Weaving and the Pattern.
To his surprise Time, automatically measuring the passing of the years as he travelled, found himself in Fate's Realm thousands of millennia before he expected to – something had changed dramatically since the last time he consciously considered how long it would be until Fate's Weaving was complete.
"My Lord Time," said the Fourth, not turning from her direction of the Pattern – such as remained of it. "We have been waiting for you."
She sounded tired, something he had not thought possible, and her once midnight dark hair was now completely grey.
"My Lady Fate, you do not look well."
"You did not know it was possible? Such is your element's effect even on us. Tell us, my Lord, do you come here from speaking with us in what was known as the twenty-first century of Earth?"
"Yes, my Lady, I have come to ask how you resolved the wrongness in the Pattern you spoke of at that meeting."
"We found no resolution," replied the Fourth, in that same tired voice. "And you see the result before you. Tell us, my Lord Time, are we not correct in thinking that our Pattern is coming to an end much sooner than it should?"
"I had that selfsame thought as I arrived here," agreed Time. "But there is not help for it, what is Woven cannot be undone."
"Are you so certain of that, my Lord? I have thought upon the matter these long millennia and I believe there is a way you could make an attempt to fix this."
"I can fix this? How?"
"Change the past, remove the wrongness before it starts."
"Such an action is not permitted."
"It is not action but reaction," countered Fate. "The action was Death's, when he altered the Pattern by interfering with mortal lives on more than one occasion. Think of it as correcting another's mistake rather than interfering of our own accord."
"I can see you have thought about this argument quite thoroughly."
"Surely you believe we have done everything in our, not inconsiderable, power to alter the Weaving and return it to the correct Pattern?"
"Yes," agreed Time thoughtfully. "I do know that you would not ask for my assistance in such a way if you did not believe that it was the only way. So I will at least listen while you tell me what you would have me do."
"We have studied the Threads involved carefully," explained Fate, who had done little else for centuries. "We also spoke with Lord Death who, as you may well predict, seemed to care little for the fact that his past actions have had such devastating consequences. That told us that asking you to speak to him in the past would be a futile effort."
"What about stopping the girl from dying so that Death does not have the opportunity to meet her?"
"That event is immutable," replied Fate. "We thought of asking you to speak to him before it happens but based on his recent reaction…"
"Yes, I would try if you asked but I do not believe there would be any point to it. Forgive me, do you already have some plan in mind that you wanted to speak of?"
"There is a slim chance we may be able to repair the Pattern but it requires your cooperation and continuing assistance."
"The circumstances are so dire that I would grant it unconditionally."
"I would wait to hear what we ask of you before you make that promise."
"Speak then and I will judge whether I will rescind my offer."
"Before I do I would ask if you can see any way that history might be changed, based on what we saw?"
"The human element is too much involved, there are many possibilities and I have not your power to see where they will end or what they will cause along the way."
"That was our conclusion also, from which we realised that we must change the human element involved."
"You mean for another girl to die and return in her place?"
"No, that will not work, it must be the same yet not."
"It would be appreciated if you would hasten your explanation."
"When does Time not have time?"
"When Fate insists on wasting it with riddles."
The Fourth inclined her head in apology, eyes still fixed on the Weaving in progress as she spoke.
"Do you recall how we saw that Elisabeth had been reborn in the twenty-first century? I watched that Thread unwind, out of nothing more than idle curiosity at the time, and saw that it almost came to an end not long after the moment we observed. As you know when a human dies but is returned to life the soul leaves the body but is not taken to the Underworld. It is a narrow window of opportunity that only you can take advantage of."
"I believe I begin to see the shape of your plan but please, tell it to me in detail so I can be certain of that."
"This girl who is Elisabeth reborn, she has already lived through the life of the Empress and her soul remembers its past life even if the conscious self does not. Knowing this the first part of the plan I propose to you is an exchange; the soul of the girl in the twenty-first century taking the place of the soul in the nineteenth. Neither of them would remember but the difference may be enough to begin to alter the Threads."
"That is not possible!" protested Time. "It cannot be done."
"But it can," countered Fate. "The theory is sound; the soul is the same and so if it is moved between times it will naturally attach itself to the body of its incarnation in that time. Neither of them would consciously remember their past lives but neither would they be quite the same person as before."
"I accept that the theory is indeed sound," conceded Time. "But surely you must have the permission of the souls in question?"
"I do not see why, unless you mean to say it is necessary for you to be able to make the exchange?"
"Just so and, if your theory is correct, I suppose we only need the permission of one of them."
"In that case I would definitely suggest that it be the first incarnation, the child in the eighteenth century, and I would speak to her that I might show her what future awaits her if she does not agree."
"As you wish then. Now you mentioned that this was only the first part of your plan to repair the Pattern?"
"Yes and the second part I would ask you to help me with even if the first part is unsuccessful. I would like you to bring me, the Fourth, from the time Elisabeth was born in to this Realm and take me there."
"To what purpose?"
"To watch the Pattern change in this time while I, knowing what has already been, attempt to repair the Pattern in the past."
"Would I be correct in assuming that taking such a drastic action means you are completely certain that nothing you do in the past will make this," he gestured to the Tapestry in its current state, "any worse?"
"Of course we would not take such risks if there were no other options open to us."
"Very well then, tell me how you wish to proceed and we shall do so."
"First I would speak to the child, Elisabeth, in the nineteenth century."
One moment Sisi had been climbing a tree, to walk the tightrope her brothers had set up for her, and the next she found herself standing in an empty and strangely featureless room. Empty, she realised, except for a tall grey-haired woman who was watching her impassively.
"Good day, Your Grace," said the woman, inclining her head slightly. Out of painfully ingrained habit Sisi curtseyed to the woman who was obviously her social superior.
"Please, my Lady, would you tell me where I am?"
"You do not wish to know who I am?"
"I would not presume, my Lady."
"I am the Fourth Aspect of Fate, who Weaves the lives of all mortals into the great Pattern."
"My Lady," said Sisi, this time dropping into her lowest curtsey.
"There is something you must see," said the Fourth, accepting the obeisance without comment.
She took the girl's hand and shared with her the vision of her future, as it was at that moment. It took only moments for decades to play out before Sisi's eyes, the Fourth stopped the vision at the empress's assassination and did not (could not) show Death's involvement. As soon as the woman released her hand Sisi fell to her knees crying out in horror at the vision.
"Why are you tormenting me with this knowledge?" she exclaimed. "Why not leave me in ignorance of my fate as everyone is?"
"I brought you here to offer you hope."
"Hope?" repeated Sisi, sniffing and standing up cautiously. "What hope is there?"
"A different life, in a future where a woman can freely live any life she chooses. That is what you want, isn't it, Elisabeth? To live a free life?"
"More than anything! But how?"
"You simply have to agree."
"Agree to what?"
"To let another girl take your place, while you take hers."
"And this other girl has agreed?"
"Yes," replied the Fourth, which was technically true since the other girl had once been Elisabeth as well.
"But my family…"
"They will not know the difference and you would not remember them. I know it is a difficult choice, but remember what you saw."
"I suppose if I do not remember them it will not hurt not to be with them," said Sisi slowly. "And I could do whatever I wanted with my life? None of the unhappiness I would suffer in this life?"
"I cannot guarantee that you would not be unhappy, all people are sometimes, but your unhappiness would not be caused by your meeting with him."
"I agree," said Sisi, more sure of this than anything in her life so far.
"Then it will be done," said the Fourth. She gestured to the shadows and a man stepped forward. "This is Lord Time, watch for him and go with him when he comes for you."
With that she made a sharp motion with one hand, sending the girl back to her current body for a little while longer.