Death shifted a tray of wine glasses in his hands and snuck a glance at the palace courtyard. Outside, everything was blanketed by the first snow of the season and although it was dark, the snow glimmered wherever the light spilled out from the palace windows onto the fresh, powdery snowflakes below. It was the image from a thousand postcards. To Death, it signalled the end of another year.
In the history books, this past year, 1887, would rarely inspire a comment. Most people in Europe would remember it as the year when they celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Queen Victoria's reign and the year the construction of the Eiffel Tower began. The coming year would prove more interesting for Europe that the previous, Death knew that well. Kaiser Wilhelm I was due to dance with death one last time, Jack the Ripper would rampage through Whitechapel and Nietzsche would write 'The Antichrist'. Of course, 1889 would be something else entirely, bringing with it death and a birth that would set Europe on such a course that the entire world would tremble.
However, as the Habsburg family gathered in the drafty hall of the Hofburg Palace on Christmas Eve, few of them had any inkling of the noose tightening around their Empire. When Death stepped into the large audience chamber, he saw that the family had already finished dinner and most of them were already there, talking quietly as they waited for the stragglers. As per custom, the men of the Habsburg family wore stiff military uniforms, which seemed at odds with the intimacy and the festive air of the occasion. Certainly, the topic of their conversation was hardly about regiment formations and logistics of troop supply. Their attention was on the chubby child in Franz Josef's arms. No one could suppress a smile at the boy stretched his clammy hand and pulled sharply on the emperor's beard.
'Shall I take him, sir?' asked the young man to the left of the emperor.
Death, who was playing the part of a palace servant for the night, did not recognise the speaker by voice. He leaned forward so that he could have a better view of the group around the Emperor. Otto, the twenty-two-year-old nephew of the Emperor, was already reaching for his son. Franz Josef shifted the child in his arms, turning somewhat to the younger man and answered:
'Karl is hardly the first in the family to have a fondness for my beard; in fact, Erzsi once took a handful with her. Do you remember, Rudolf?'
Rudolf, as Death was quick to note, stood at the edge of the room with his older sister, Gisela, rather than with the main group. They appeared to be content with their own quiet discussion and Rudolf's face fell the moment Rudolf heard his father address him.
'I would certainly advise Otto to refrain from a beard until all your children have grown through this stage,' replied Rudolf and noting the way Gisela shook her head, he added. 'Of course, long hair of the mother suffers far more indignity than the beard of the father.'
Death realised that no servant would stand in the middle of the room and listen to the conversations of royalty unless he wished to be thrown out of the palace within the hour. He turned his back to the main group, while they continued to dispense parenting advice to the first-time father, and offered wine to the rest of the gathered. These were mostly wives and unmarried youth, all with a wealth of gossip to exchange. When Death reached Rudolf and Gisela, she lifted a glass off the tray with hardly a glance at him, but Rudolf caught his eye and stared at Death for a long moment. Death cocked his head, uncertain whether the crown prince had recognised him or not. In the end, Rudolf turned away without acknowledging Death in any way.
'I think it is time I looked for Erzsi and Stephanie,' said Rudolf to Gisela.
'They are with Valerie,' answered Gisela. 'Wait for them here.'
'Is that so? All the same, I ought to rescue my daughter.'
Rudolf was spared the need to mount a heroic rescue, because at that moment his wife, Stephanie, stepped into the room, holding her daughter by the hand. It appeared to be an attempt to curtail the girl's over-enthusiasm; Erzsi looked ready to dash over to the Christmas tree at the other end of the room and tear into the presents beneath.
Rudolf's younger sister, Marie-Valerie, was right behind Stephanie, but her demeanour was the antithesis of Erzsi's. She was nineteen now, a grown woman, but she had never grown out of her shyness. She walked with a slouch and always looked about with wide, uneasy eyes as if she waited for some attacker to spring out of the shadows. Death had to shake his head. Elisabeth's almost excessive fondness for her youngest child had brought out open resentment from her other children and served only to embarrass Marie-Valerie. Even here, surrounded by her family, she crept toward her father.
'Mama is dreadfully tired this evening,' Marie-Valerie said softly. Her gaze jumped from one military clad relative to another. 'She bids us to continue without her and will rejoin us at Mass.'
'Thank-you, Valerie,' replied the emperor.
Death caught himself in a frozen stupor once more. Evidently, he made a terrible servant. It was simply too entertaining to observe the interactions of this large, exorbitant family. If one watched carefully, one could catch flashes of personal insecurities, hurt feelings and the rare, smug moments of triumph. Even now, while Death made a conscious effort to appear as if he was working, his attention remained on Rudolf and Gisela's vicious glares at Marie-Valerie and Stephanie's pointed glower in reply.
If the others in the room noticed the behaviour of the emperor's children, they were wise enough not to comment on it, but Death doubted that anyone had. The conversation grew louder and laughter more high-pitched. The young Karl von Habsburg held the attention of most of the family, even as he was finally placed back into his father's arms. Erzsi, however, was not prepared to be upstaged by a drooling infant. She wrestled herself out of Stephanie's grasp and ran over to her father, who instinctively lifted her into his arms.
'What is it?' he smiled.
'Can we open the presents now?' said Erzsi. 'Please?'
'Father?' said Rudolf.
Conversation in the room quietened and the gathered family waited for the emperor's reply. Franz-Josef motioned towards the well-decorated Christmas tree behind Rudolf and Gisela, underneath which was a formidable number of wrapped gifts.
'Most certainly, Erzsi,' said the emperor.