"He came to see me many times," Charlotte explained to a stunned Rudolf. "And I talked to him. About everything. But I never trusted him."
Rudolf looked over at his friend. All this time, Charlotte had been conversing with him just like he had. They had even met him within days of each other.
"Rudolf, death is not the answer," she said firmly, telling him what she had always told Death as well. "It is never the answer. There is always another way. You cannot do this. Because if you do…then I can never tell you how I truly feel about you."
"What do you mean?" Rudolf asked hesitantly.
"I am in love with you."
The prince felt his heart skip a beat at the confession, and he couldn't find words to answer her.
"I've been in love with you for years now. I just didn't know it until recently. I couldn't tell you because…I was berated just for talking to you. To confess that I was in love with you…not knowing if you would respond the same way? It was too much of a risk for me. But I cannot hide how I feel about you from you any longer."
Rudolf lovingly put his hand to her cheek. "Charlotte…"
"I know that I cannot be by your side as your wife, but I shall always be there for you. Whatever it is you are going through that makes you feel you must go to Death, I will help you through it."
Rudolf smiled little. "You always were stronger than me."
Charlotte smiled back at him.
His hand gently caressed her hair. "I am in love with you as well, my beautiful Charlotte. I think I always have been."
Rudolf leaned in close to her and kissed her for the very first time. Charlotte put her arms around his neck so that the moment would never cease.
The kiss became more and more passionate as the two of them realized just how much they had been wanting to kiss each after so many years of friendship.
"What is this…?"
The two of them reluctantly broke apart to see who had caught them.
"Mary?" Rudolf asked in surprise.
"Lady Vetsera?" Charlotte said.
The two of them stared at the Baroness who had visited the palace on a few occasions and become good acquaintances with Rudolf.
"You…you loved me…" Mary whispered.
"I never loved you, Mary."
"No!" she screamed in hysterics. "All those times I came to the palace and we sat down to tea and talked for hours must've meant something to you! You said that any man would be lucky to have me as a wife!"
"And I meant that. But that doesn't mean that I love you. And I'm sorry that I led you to believe such a thing."
"How could you betray me like this?! And with a servant!"
To their shock, Mary held up the gun that Rudolf had planned to shoot himself with only moments ago.
The Baroness looked at Charlotte with hatred. "You stole my love from me. You, a lowly servant girl, stole my Rudolf's heart."
"Please, my Lady, I mean no harm," Charlotte said in an attempt to appease the hysterical Baroness.
"I will make you pay for this!"
Charlotte flinched and closed her eyes when the sound of a gunshot echoed into the air. She waited for the pain to hit her. But it never came.
She looked in front of her in horror, unwilling to believe what she was seeing.
Rudolf had taken the shot himself to protect her.
"No…" Mary cried.
Charlotte caught Rudolf and sank down to the ground with him.
"No!" the Baroness wailed.
She ran away from them in tears. Charlotte heard another gunshot and a small thud.
"Why did you do that?" Charlotte cried as she held the dying prince in her arms.
"I couldn't just let her kill the woman I love, could I?"
"But you're the prince! Your country needs you! What is more important? The life of a servant or the life of a prince?"
"In my eyes, you are more important than I will ever be."
"No…Rudolf, what about your mother?"
Rudolf smiled sadly. "She needs you more than she needs me."
"She needs her son!"
"You'll be there for her."
Rudolf pressed his hand to the side of her face, his fingers gently wiping tears away. "Your face is too beautiful for tears."
Charlotte caressed him as his breathing became more and more labored.
"Charlotte…my whole life…you have been the only constant thing. You have been my dearest friend and the woman I love more than any other. My life was worth living just because you were in it."
Charlotte smiled through her tears. "I love you, Rudolf."
She placed a gentle kiss to his lips before his body stilled.
Charlotte held his body close to her and sobbed over him.
She could feel Death's lingering presence next to her.
"You took him," she whispered harshly.
"He gave himself to me long before tonight," Death responded.
Charlotte couldn't answer.
"Come with me, child. Then all of this pain you have been constantly feeling will end."
"No," the servant answered firmly. "Because if I go with you now…his sacrifice will mean nothing."
Death smirked. "His sacrifice?"
"Yes. He may have given himself to you, but he did it to keep me from doing so. And I will not forget it."
She kissed Rudolf's forehead and laid him down on the ground.
Then she stood up and faced Death. "Now leave me! I will not go with you until I am left with no other option! I will never give in to you before my time to live has come to an end!"
Death smiled at her in that infuriating way he did when he was amused with someone. Then he lifted up his arm in some kind of signal.
Several shirtless men with dirtied blond hair and black pants slowly approached Rudolf's body.
Charlotte watched sadly as Death's angels gently lifted Rudolf onto their shoulders and carried him off.
When she looked behind her, Death was gone.
Elisabeth watched the young woman in front of her as she served her her food.
Ever since the news of Rudolf's death, Elisabeth had barely found the will to go on. In fact, she had even asked Death to take her, but this time, he refused her. She still didn't understand why. All this time, he had wanted her to go with him, and when she finally agreed, he rebuffed her.
What was strange was that her servant had become much less lively as well.
Charlotte had been her most favored servant for several years. Her usual cheery and respectful disposition had quickly charmed the Empress.
As she looked at the girl now, she only saw pain.
"You loved him, didn't you?" she asked bluntly.
Charlotte looked over at her in surprise. "I beg your pardon, my Lady?"
Charlotte swallowed another lump in her throat. "With all due respect, my Lady, it would not be appropriate of me to have romantic feelings towards the Crown Prince."
"That doesn't answer my question."
Charlotte sighed heavily. Finally, she told the Empress quietly, "Yes, my Lady. I did love him. Forgive me for exhibiting such inappropriate feelings."
Elisabeth looked away from her. "We don't always choose who we fall in love with."
The tone she used made Charlotte wonder if the Empress herself had had a similar experience.
"I wasn't there for him all these years."
"I wasn't, Charlotte. There were so many times I could've spent much more time with him, but I chose my own needs over his. That is the exact opposite of how a mother should be. He tried to talk to me. He tried to reach out to me. And I just pushed him away." Elisabeth sighed heavily before looking over at Charlotte. "Did he love you as well?"
Charlotte hesitated in answering, not knowing how Elisabeth would feel about her answer.
"It's alright, Charlotte."
"Yes, he did, my Lady."
Elisabeth smiled sadly. "He deserved love. Thank you for giving it to him."
"I am not worthy of your thanks, Your Majesty."
"Charlotte, you were there for him all these years when no else was. You made him happy. That was something he couldn't get from his life here at the palace."
Charlotte's eyes watered at the Empress's words. It was astounding that the Empress would approve of her love for her son. But hearing that even the Empress could see that she made Rudolf happy hit her in the hole he had left in her heart.
Elisabeth's own eyes filled with tears. "Thank you for giving him what I failed to give."
Charlotte curtseyed. "Thank you for your kind words, my Lady."
Since Elisabeth knew that Charlotte could not touch any of the royal members of the household without their permission, she stood up and went over to the girl.
Her arms came up and encircled Charlotte.
Charlotte's eyes widened in surprise at the Empress's sign of affection. She slowly raised her arms to return the sorrowful hug.
Elisabeth's body shook as she began to cry.
Charlotte forbid herself from letting the Empress see her cry as well. She needed to be strong for her. She already knew full well that the Empress was never going to be the same again after her son's death.
The servant gently rubbed the woman's back and let her cry in her embrace.
Oh, Rudolf, she thought. If only you could know how much your mother truly loves you…
French Riviera, 1890
Elisabeth went on another trip away from the palace. Knowing that Rudolf would never again walk the halls was far too painful for her.
She brought Charlotte along this time, wanting her closest servant with her at all times. She was the closest thing to Rudolf she had left.
As Charlotte walked along the roads of France, something felt off. She glanced around her, looking for anything that might alert her to danger.
Someone approached from the left. Metal glinted in the light.
"Empress!" Charlotte cried.
She quickly stepped in front of the black-clad woman just as the stranger made his move.
Pain shot through her body.
A knife sank deep into her flesh before ripping out again.
"Charlotte!" Elisabeth screamed in horror.
The stranger ran away before Charlotte could make out any definable features.
She sank to the ground in agonizing pain.
"Empress, run!" she ordered.
"I can't just leave you!" Elisabeth told her desperately.
"Please, my Lady, go!"
Charlotte knew she should never order the Empress, but when her life was in danger, the rules could be forgotten as long as she stayed safe.
Elisabeth thankfully took off.
Charlotte thought she heard her saying she would come back with help, but she wasn't sure.
Charlotte took ragged breaths as the pain stretched throughout her. "I knew you would come."
Death slowly walked towards her.
"I saved her," Charlotte whispered.
"Yes, you did."
Death was irritated that Elisabeth had once again failed to come to him, but if it made the girl happy that she was alive, he would hide his irritation from her.
Charlotte gasped again and held the wound on her stomach.
Death knelt down next to her. Then he took her up into his arms.
She met his cold eyes once again, but something about them was not so terrifying this time.
He gently stroked her cheek where tears of pain rested.
Charlotte reached up to grasp his shoulder.
"Come now, child," Death said softly. "You have been denied your love in this world. But the time has come for you to be with your lover."
Charlotte did not feel any fear when she saw Death leaning his head towards hers.
Death's cold lips pressed against her own.
Charlotte went limp in his arms.
Charlotte looked down and saw that she was wearing a thin white dress that reached down to her feet.
She then turned around and to her surprise, there stood Rudolf.
He was dressed in white pants and a loose white shirt.
She slowly walked up to him, and he smiled broadly at her.
As she reached him, he took her hand in his. Her hand reached up to caress the side of his face.
She smiled at him, seeing him for the first time in almost a year.
Rudolf leaned his head down and kissed her passionately.
Charlotte happily returned the kiss, treasuring every single moment his lips touched hers with more love than she could ever know.
When they parted, Charlotte smiled again.
They both looked off to the side and saw Death standing near them. He gestured for them to follow him.
Rudolf held his hand out for her.
Charlotte smiled as she took it.
The two of them followed Death away from where they were standing.
As they walked away, Charlotte knew that perhaps…just this once…death was the answer.