In an earlier age, the Gloriette would have been a watchtower. The large pavilion was perched on top of the hill at the far end of the Schoenbrunn Palace Gardens and offered a perfect view of the land between the palace complex and the city of Vienna on the horizon. From the top of the Gloriette, where Death had perched himself, he could see Elisabeth and her lady-in-waiting approach long before they reached their destination.
Death found himself gritting his teeth. He willed the horses to move faster, their slow trek was an excruciating sight. Unfortunately, he did not have the power to force a creature to move faster than nature had commanded it. It seemed like an impossibly long time until the two horses reached the peak where the Gloriette was situated, their legs brown from trudging through inch thick mud and mouths edged with white, frothing saliva.
'I do not care for the look of these clouds, you majesty, and there is nothing to see here,' said Elisabeth's lady-in-waiting as they halted and they dismounted. 'We should hasten back.'
'The horses need rest,' replied Elisabeth.
Nevertheless, Elisabeth seemed to consider the iron-grey clouds drifting towards Vienna and the hundreds of bare trees of the Schoenbrunn Palace gardens that had already fallen under the shadow of the heavy clouds. The Schoenbrunn looked grim in this weak autumn light, the palace was empty and the colourful flowerbeds were withered. The Viennese court had returned to the Hofburg, the Habsburg winter residence, months ago and Elisabeth must have ridden from there to the Schoenbrunn. Death was not surprised at this, Elisabeth spent as little time as she physically could at the Hofburg; it had been so for many years now.
'Not all the beauty in the world lies in blooming flowers and picnics in the sunshine. The wind, the rain, the hail - it is all magnificent,' replied the empress.
Death smiled at Elisabeth's words. Although many years had passed since they first met, Elisabeth had not changed at all. She was still his Elisabeth and the twilight world under the dark clouds suited her far more than the gilded halls of the Hofburg.
He abandoned his post at the top of the Gloriette and climbed down so that he could be closer to her. The seat he chose was at the top of the side stairs, by a large sculpture of a faceless warrior, one of four that guarded the Gloriette. Of course, no one could see him sitting there; he had made sure his uninvited presence would go unnoticed. Elisabeth and Death had not spoken since that disastrous conversation in the crypt, when she had asked him for release, begged really and he refused her. Even now, he grimaced at the memory. Damned pride.
He had stayed out of Elisabeth's sight since that day, uncertain of how to mend the distance and hurt. Yet his longing was insatiable, a need almost as potent as the human need to breathe. Elisabeth, of course, knew nothing of his constant, obsessive watch.
Even now, as she climbed the stairs and walked right past him, she had no inkling of how her perfume called to him. Death could not resist. He abandoned the parapet he had been seated upon and followed Elisabeth, walking only two steps behind her. He tried to ignore the bumbling lady-in-waiting, who followed Elisabeth like an unwanted stray.
'The hair on the back of my neck stands upright whenever I come here. It does not quite fit the rest of the palace, does it?' said the lady-in-waiting, largely to Elisabeth's back. 'These sculptures – all swords and fine armour, but no faces! And then there are the snakes and the ram heads. And up there one can see a pattern of cow skulls!'
Death glanced at the row of carved cow skulls that decorated the exterior walls of the Gloriette. Dusty and cracked, their empty eye sockets were full of shifting shadows; it was as it they were watching those yet living. They did not seem so terrible to him.
Moreover, the lady-in-waiting was an ignorant fool. The now long-departed Empress Maria-Theresa had erected this Gloriette in the Eighteenth Century as a monument to the power of the Habsburgs and to the glory of just war. Not that justice had anything to do with death. Still, had she known the Gloriette's history, she would not have dared to criticise the architecture.
'Death is part of life too, Irma,' replied Elisabeth as she too appraised the decorative motifs. 'One should not find be frightened of it.'
'You are right, your majesty,' responded the lady-in-waiting. Death was happy to see that she looked appropriately chastised.
While Elisabeth spent a few minutes admiring the view, Death relished the moment. Hidden, he moved to stand just behind her. He was mesmerised by the delicate skin of her neck, exposed between her beautifully styled hair and her scarf. That hair alone was something to behold. There was one strand, however, that had escaped the skilled hands of Elisabeth's maids. He wanted to lift it gently and set it into its place. He wanted to brush his hand against the skin of her cheek and whisper sweet words in her ear. He wanted... so many things.
'Your majesty, rain clouds approach. We must turn back soon,' came the unbidden voice of the lady-in-waiting once more.
Elisabeth's face fell slightly. She turned to look at the younger woman and said:
'Yes, that we must. Go to the horses. I will follow you in a moment.'
The lady-in-waiting hesitated; it was not customary for a member of the royal family to be left without a guard or at least a servant. Would be assassins were everywhere and could strike at anytime. Yet, like Death, she seemed to sense that Elisabeth was not to be argued with on this matter and after a short bow, she headed back to the horses. Death's grin at that moment would have frightened a thousand devils. Elisabeth had so few moments to herself and there were far too few opportunities for Death to observe her unwatched and uninhibited.
Except, Elisabeth had truly meant that she would stay a moment. Perhaps the possibility of getting soaked under the coming rain truly did not appeal to Elisabeth as it had in her youth. Whatever the reason, Elisabeth took one last look around and headed for the stairs.
A moment later, she stumbled.
Death reached out his hand to steady her before he so much as thought about it. Elisabeth clasped his hand firmly; the warmth of her flesh against his was such a surprise it felt almost like a burn. Elisabeth too was startled to grasp something she could not see and recoiled in shock. Thankfully, she caught her balance without injury.
'It is you, is it not?' said Elisabeth. She turned around, searching for him.
Death did not reply. The last time they spoke ended so poorly that the heated words spoken between them had sat at the forefront of his thoughts for months. He could not bear such an argument again.
'Where are you?' she said in a sterner tone. 'What are you doing here?'
Death pressed his lips together, unwilling to emit a sound and shook his head in despair. What was he to say? Where to start?
Elisabeth, for her part, now stared right at him. She paused there for a long moment with an expression on her face that even Death could not comprehend. Then, she turned away, shaking her head and muttering to herself:
'It must be the fasting again.'
'Your majesty?' asked the lady-in-waiting softly.
'It was just the wind, my dear,' replied Elisabeth.
Death was still as he watched them leave, as if suddenly frozen in one position. He still did not know what he ought to say.