The universe bellowed. Death wanted to tear out his ears, there were hundreds of speakers and each one howled at him through a loud speaker. All the familiar truths were crumbling and the well-rehearsed speeches that had once defined the course of history were a shrill scream. He had no means of stopping it. The sound itself was pain. He found himself gasping, unable to draw enough air, and stumbling towards the nearest couch. He never made it there, but slumped to floor in defeat and let his head fall between his knees.
Then, for a moment, there was silence. The world had gone dark and his vision was hazy, as if he now stood at the end of a long tunnel and peered into the distance, trying to make sense of the world far on the other side. Death started to pull himself up right, only to find that his relief was short lived.
This new cacophony was no less terrifying. The sum of a new world spun past him; Death's eyes struggled to follow the flicker of figures and places that danced about him. This was not some exotic creation of an over-active imagination, but largely a future that Death had known before and yet, it was utterly wrong. He shook his head at disbelief at the image of Otto and Rudolf walking along a Parisian boulevard, at Franz Ferdinand holding his granddaughter, at Gavrilo Princip smoking a cigar on a side street in Chicago.
He did not know how long it took the chaos to abate. Death had no desire to move, he was light-headed and nausea threatened to overtake him. There was no chance to analyse the wealth of information he had just seen, but as Death saw it, there was little need. From what he had seen, this future was twisted, decadent and all together putrid.
For the most part, the thread of human history was as flexible as death was permanent. A myriad of changes and minor manipulations passed unobserved every day. There were, however, rare moments that tolerated no hint of alteration. This, evidently, had been one of them. Death knew the moment of divergence; he even knew the cause – himself. It had all begun to unwind the moment Rudolf turned and introduced Death to Otto. The prince should have left with his brother and Rudolf should have spent his night without any further interruptions, but Death's presence had compelled Otto to stay. Now, he was too involved and unable to turn away without trying to help his cousin.
Death sighed. In coming to Rudolf's aid, Otto could rouse him out of his misery and prevent Rudolf's murder-suicide in Mayerling. Death was tempted to let Otto do as the young man wanted, he had always been fond of Rudolf, but unfortunately, Rudolf's survival would twist the future entirely.
It would be a strange world where Germany turns to Communism, the United States becomes a formidable colonial power and where the Habsburg Empire survives to the second half of the Twentieth Century, but ends in a bloodbath to rival the French Revolution. Self-determination and decolonisation would be replaced by racism, fascism and eugenics. If someone had asked Death an hour ago to imagine a Twentieth Century more putrid than the one the world was happily rushing towards, he would have been unable and yet, there is was.
'I cannot let this come to pass,' he muttered. 'I am sorry, Rudolf, Elisabeth.'
Death groaned as he rose to his feet, but he had no time to lose to moaning. Without bothering to straighten his clothes, he raced after Otto. He was easy to find, in the dark and empty palace, Otto's footsteps were like thunder. Death caught up to Otto just in time, the prince was metres from the doorway to Rudolf's apartments.
Death grasped Otto by the right shoulder pulled the man backwards, away from Rudolf's apartments.
'Let me go!' snapped Otto.
'Your rooms, Otto. Take me there and I will not harm you,' said Death.
Otto gritted his teeth, pointed towards the stairs to the left of them. Death pushed Otto towards the stairs, never relaxing his grip on the young man. At the bottom of the stairs, Otto motioned towards an ached passageway behind the stairs.
They proceeded in this manner through the older, labyrinthine parts of the Hofburg complex, until they reached an inconspicuous wooden door. Otto took the key out of his pocket and unlocked the door. Just as the door swung open, Death pushed Otto through the doorway with such force that he landed on the floor.
'Leave me alone!' yelled Otto as he picked himself up off the floor. 'Get out of my rooms.'
The fire was nearly extinguished, it had been at least an hour since anyone attended to the fireplace and the room was filled with flickering shadows. Death doubted that Otto could see much. He, on the other hand, could make out Otto's wide eyes and slightly opened mouth as he seized the prince once more and pushed him against the wall. It was a very vulnerable position for Otto; Death already had a hand pressed against Otto's throat. He could end it all now. He could simply reach in and give Otto a soft kiss. The prince would barely notice.
'Don't give me orders, Otto. And stop your yelling,' said Death, he released the grip on Otto's throat. 'We need to talk.'
'We have nothing to discuss.'
'Quite on the contrary. Earlier on, you were desperate to know who I am and I believe it is well past time I told you. I usually recite a nice monologue here, but I do not have the patience today,' said Death. 'You should have questioned not who I am but what I am. In most simple terms the truth is, I am Death.'
'What is this nonsense? I am not Rudolf, I do not care for your games,' said Otto.
'I am no human and you know this. Doesn't your hair stand upright at the back of your neck? Don't you wish that you could turn your back to me and flee as far away as you possibly can? Except you are too frightened to turn away,' Death said and watched Otto's frozen face grow paler. 'There is no shame in it. Men rarely make friends with their own mortality.'
'You are a lunatic,' muttered Otto. His voice was no louder than a whisper.
'Are you certain?'
Death stepped closer to Otto and pressed himself against the prince's torso. If possible, Otto's eyes grew wider. Death reached out and slid his hand down Otto's cheek and towards the prince's stiff collar. Standing so close to Otto, Death could count the racing beats of the man's heart and smell the sweat glistening on Otto's brows.
'Stop. Please, sir...stop.'
Death pulled back to give Otto some space to breathe and answered:
'There is no need to call me sir. There is only one thing you can do for me.'
'Anything,' replied Otto. Even as he spoke, he appeared to be trying to press himself deeper into the wall.'
'Do not go near Rudolf's rooms.'
'Is Rudolf to die?'
'All men must die, but not tonight.'
At these words, something in Otto's mind released and he seized his attempts to resist. Death released his grip. He moved further away and waited while the prince composed himself. In truth, he also needed time to think. He had stopped Otto for the moment, but there was nothing to stop Otto's interference in the future and Death could not watch him day and night. Something more drastic is required. Unfortunately, Death had little clue about how he should proceed.
'The truth of the matter is that Rudolf has been troubled for a long time. For a man such as him, the end of his life will be a release from suffering. There are times when it is kinder to let a person go,' said Death.
'When will you to take him?' asked Otto.
'Are you interested in the date?' responded Death.
Otto shook his head and a silence fell between them. Death watched Otto search for a handkerchief in his jacket. Otto appeared to calm once he wiped the sweat off his face. Of course, a Habsburg did not dare to look like a vagabond even when chatting with Death in the middle of the night – that would be a sign of weakness.
'Do you wish me to leave my cousin to his misery?' said Otto. 'That would be unconscionable. Either take him now or allow him a shred of happiness while he still walks this earth.'
Death had to smother his grin. Perhaps this was why Death was so fond of this family, despite their stubbornness and utter inability to see the world in front of them for what it was. Only a moment ago Otto had been a quivering mess and now he demanded Death to find a conscience. That kind of brazen attitude was rare to find.
'You might find me callous, Otto. However, I do my work only because I must and there is no pleasure in it for me,' said Death. 'There are rare times when I become distracted and interact with humans, even befriend them. Rudolf was one such person. I have been a friend to Rudolf since he was a young child and frankly, I know him better than anyone else does. If there was any there choice, I would not do this.'
'No, of course not,' replied Otto. His scepticism was palpable.
Otto pushed himself away from the wall and careful never to turn his back to Death, made his way around the room. One by one he lit the lamps in the room and revealed an utterly unremarkable space furnished from the palace inventory. The few things that belonged to Otto were standard army issue, dedicated to function and devoid of personality. There was, however, a small photo frame of Otto holding his infant son standing on an end table. Death could see traces of Otto's fingerprints on the glass; he must have handled the photo frame very often.
'You have been guiding him to his doom since he was a child,' said Otto.
'I guided him towards nothing. Rudolf is the product of his family and his upbringing. A lonely and tortured childhood created a tortured and lonely man you now see, even my friendship did little to mitigate the damage,' replied Death. 'For what it is worth, he will not die alone.'
'Will it be an assassination?'
Now that Otto had the comfort of light in the room, he positioned himself tactically behind a couch and well out of Death's reach. In response, Death sat himself down behind the small writing desk in the room. Although that now put another piece of furniture between them, Death had also taken Otto's chair and in doing so, silently proclaimed himself the master of the house. Death waited for Otto to respond to the provocation, but the man just fiddled with the buttons of his jacket.
'So, yes, it is an assassination?' pressed Otto.
'Something of that kind.'
'Do not talk nonsense, it is either an assassination or it is not,' said Otto, largely thinking aloud. 'Although the way he looked tonight, I would have thought a suicide would be the way he would choose to go. It just seems right.'
'That is – '
'No. I can see the answer on your face. So Rudolf will kill himself,' Otto concluded and shook his head as if he was still trying to deny what he now knew. 'I will pray for his soul.'
Death had to stifle half a dozen curses. He had had an opportunity there and he had missed it. It should have been a simple lie – Rudolf would find love and be assassinated, end of story. Otto would not have chased him down with a pitchfork for deceiving him. No, Death was too distracted playing mind games with Otto's furniture. Now the little Habsburg knew too much and his bleeding heart would not give him rest.
'A suicide is a wretched this for a family to suffer, there is no question about that, but some will benefit,' said Death, as he searched for a way to remedy the situation. 'Your brother will be the heir presumptive.'
'Am I to let Rudolf kill himself to give my brother the opportunity to become emperor? That is not something I am willing to do.'
Death cocked his head and drummed his fingers against Otto's writing desk. What would Otto be willing to do? Without realising it, Otto had just given Death the solution he had been searching. Everybody could be bought, if the price was right.
'What about your son?' asked Death.
Otto's eyes widened and his face paled, which proved to Death that his instinct was correct. That was no surprise, the fingerprints on the photo frame were evidence enough of Otto's fondness for his son, even if Death had not seen Otto with Karl earlier in the evening. Death smiled at Otto's panicked words:
'Do not... Please, Karl is not even walking yet.'
'I have no interest in your child right now,' replied Death. 'The fact of the matter is this, your brother will never be emperor. Franz Ferdinand and his wife will be assassinated. It will become one of the famous assassinations in history, because it will spark a war between all the major European powers and the outcome of that war will determine the history of the next century.'
Otto had no immediate reply to that piece of information, but his face visibly fell. Death guessed that Otto was one of the few people who genuinely like Franz Ferdinand. Of course, he was probably one of the few who truly knew the man. Sometimes, Death could only pity this family.
'Why are you telling me this? Is this your version of Cassandra's curse? I will know how everyone in my family is to die and unable to change a thing. Even better, I now know that it is only a matter of time until Europe tears itself apart. Lord help us, a war across the entire continent will be the death of us all. Modern warfare is a monstrosity, a meat grinder from the deepest circles of Hell. And where does my son fit into this?' said Otto. 'I am not sure I even want to know.'
Death watched Otto fiddle with the buttons of his jacket, while the prince's eyes were fixed on the floor. Despairing and defenceless as he was at that moment, Death thought that Otto looked very much like Rudolf. Fortunately, unlike with Rudolf, Death knew the exact words that would improve Otto's mood.
'You must consider the facts I have given you and their logical consequences. The emperor will not live forever, his heir apparent will kill himself and your brother, the heir presumptive, will be assassinated. Who precisely would be the next in line for the throne of Austria-Hungary?' said Death. Otto glanced at Death and frowned.
'My son,' muttered Otto.
'That is right.'
Otto shook his head and broke into a smile. 'But that's... wonderful! My son will be emperor; I had never even dared to dream.'
At that moment, Rudolf's plight was forgotten. Otto was clearly overwhelmed. He stared into the distance, still reflexively playing with the buttons of his jacket, and let his mouth hang slightly open. For the father of a future emperor he looked rather wanting. Death, for his part, felt no need to say anything further. Otto's thoughts swept down their own paths and made all the necessary conclusions.
The correction in timelines was mild compared to the raging torrent that had overcome Death earlier. Unknown to Otto, voices swirled around the room and distant vistas flashed before Death's eyes. One by one, the threads readjusted themselves to their earlier positions and Death sighed in relief. It had been that simple with Otto in the end. Habsburg ambition led them from an insignificant domain in Switzerland to a great European empire that encompassed a dozen nations, now it had set history on its proper, if bloody path even as it condemned Rudolf to death. Whether it was a fair price for a crown of Austria-Hungary, Death did not know, that was for the Habsburgs alone to judge.
'It is time for me to leave,' said Death. He rose from his seat. 'Merry Christmas, Otto.'
'Wait,' said Otto.
Death raised his eyebrow. Otto bit his lip and then asked:
'Will he be a good emperor?'
Death struggled to compose an appropriate reply. Emperor Karl I would be become emperor in 1916, at the height of the war, and would reign for only two years before the Austria-Hungary Empire would be dissolved. There would hardly be opportunity for Karl to prove what kind of ruler he was. Otto, of course, did not need to know that his son would die an exile merely six years after becoming emperor. In the end, Death gave him a curt, but honest reply:
'Do not worry about that. In time, the Catholic church will beatify your son as a saint.'