Never before had she seen the young master in such a state of fury.
It had all started when he and his troops had stormed through the palace doors, vanquished in battle. His pristine white uniform was torn, drenched in blood, his habitual light-hearted gaze replaced with one of steel and ferocity. A crude frown twisted his thin lips as the glass of his spectacles flashed in the sunlight, the red and white flag of their country, which normally flew proud over the heads of the soldiers, clutched in his clenched fist. Bandages were wound over his forehead and torso, both soaked and matted with crimson. The once triumphant warriors cowered behind him as he strode, his face a mask of vehemence, along the hallway, obliviously leaving behind a trail of blood on the tiled floors where he walked.
She watched in bewilderment as the military force, stripped of their victorious façade, made their way past, their clothes ripped and bloodied, with fresh wounds opened upon their flesh. Their faces were the very picture of defeat: despondent, downhearted, tainted with failure. She wanted to reach out, to comfort them – after all, they were fighting for the country and to her, there was no greater honour. Of course, she could not intervene. She was merely a lower-class worker, along with a handful of other men and women – people who were responsible for keeping the mansion clean, keeping the bellies of the authorities full, making sure the people who they served were kept satisfied.
The young master happened to be one of those people. No one was quite sure of his rank, nor of his relationship to the Archduchess, with whom he frequently conversed. All they knew was that he held a position of power, and as they had been told, that was all they needed to know. He always seemed to take their losses in battle personally, although he never responded with disappointment, never seemed to show any emotion at all, at least not on the surface. The only communication of his sentiments were through gestures: a twitch of the eye, a clasp of the hands, a downturned corner of his mouth. It was as if he had been keeping it all suppressed on purpose, repressed inside, only to be unleashed in a torrent of intensity sometime later.
Later happened to be today.
He had almost made it out of her sight before he was approached by a young messenger bearing a letter. Stupid fool, she thought inwardly, brow furrowing in concern, you should know better than to approach him in a state like this. The messenger, however, did not heed the warning looks she was sending his way, instead reaching to tap the man on his shoulder and handing him the small sheet of paper as he turned around.
Soldiers and helps alike watched with bated breath as the man’s violet eyes scanned the written letter, flicking left and right, back and forth. The messenger stood with his back straight, unfazed, much to the surprise of those observing. A moment – it was no more than ten seconds, although it seemed like ten hours – passed before it happened, before she noticed the sudden rage overtake the young male’s classically beautiful features, the twist of his lips becoming more cruel than dissatisfied and the pallor of his fair skin flushing a beet red. Rage is not a fine expression on him, she thought fleetingly, only an instant before an animalistic cry of anguish escaped the dark-haired man’s lips, almost as if against his will, as he crumpled the piece of paper into a ball and threw it fiercely onto the floor.
The messenger was grabbed by his shoulders and slammed into the wall, the sheer force of the impact knocking the air out of his lungs. The young boy’s pale blue eyes widened as the older male began to yell at him, spitting out the words in a livid, enraged tone so fast she could barely decipher them. There was not only pure wrath in those lilac orbs, she noticed – there was insanity. The insanity of a man driven to lunacy by war, by suffering and pain and conflict, and by God knew what in that fatal letter. She could only watch, frozen in horror, as the refined, polished frontage of the man they had all held in reverence crumbled.
No one knew how much time had passed before the torrent of his severe speech ceased, before his shoulders slumped and the light died from his eyes, once again a man like any other. Realisation finally dawned – she could see it, see the recognition sweeping across his weary countenance – as he beheld the sight in front of him: the messenger boy quivering, beads of sweat trickling down his pale face, the troops and the assistants petrified, rooted to their spots with terror. She could see the fear in his own eyes, fear at what he had done, what had become of the once respected young master, as he turned tail and ran down the hallway, his footsteps echoing eerily in the silence.
Roderich Edelstein wrenched open the door to his music room, banging it shut – the resulting energy juddering the wooden door frame – as soon as he stepped across the threshold. He flinched at the noise, inhaling sharply. Sometimes he forgot his own strength, forgot the kind of power he held – just as he had done back in the foyer. Grabbing locks of russet hair in his gloved hands, he staggered blindly towards the nearest seat in sight, letting loose a tormented wail. He was foolish, he realised, foolish to believe that battle meant certain victory. Foolish to let innocent bystanders risk their lives for him, die for him.
Foolish to hurt that boy the way I did.
Pulling the blood-stained, white gloves off his thin fingers, his hands trembling with every movement, he looked down at the floor in shame. What had happened to him? He had worked so hard to build up his image – image was everything in politics and war, really – and he could tell that he had been successful. He had drawn stares as he walked, created a hush in rooms into which he stepped. He was not formidable, anything but that; those days had passed. No, he was simply someone who commanded attention, someone who was esteemed but not feared, honoured but not scorned behind his back – and one act had demolished his carefully built exterior.
The nation of Austria was a mighty force, a winner of wars, an intimidating opponent in battle, but Roderich thought himself nothing but a coward, hiding behind walls and evading the blame. Now, with his secrets exposed, he ran away.
Ran away like the coward I am.
Wiping a smear of red off his cheek as his eyes, blurred by self-pitying tears, finally regained their focus, he realised that he had taken a seat on the stool of his piano. How ironic that he turn to music at such a time, when music was his pride and joy. Chuckling bitterly to himself, he lifted the fallboard, setting it carefully into place, and began to play.
His fingers flew across the keys with the expertise of someone who had many, many years of experience, light as silk and gentle as the wind. He started off with a simple, uplifting melody, improvising as he went along. The music floated through the room, almost seeming to lighten the gloomy ambience and lift his shattered spirits. He kept to the high notes, using them tenderly yet swiftly as to not render the tune piercing and harsh. From there, he moved to the midrange, playing slower this time, more careful in his selection of keys and notes, drawing out some and shortening others. Gradually, he brought in the low notes, his slim, pianist’s fingers moving faster now, more frantic and urgent and desperate. The once joyful, heartening harmonies became dark, thunderous. Roderich’s eyes were closed, his hands moving across the keys out of instinct. This was him playing now – not his training, nor the responsibility he felt he held to music. It was purely him, and him alone.
He had become so involved in the music that he did not notice the pair of eyes watching him from the doorway. He did not notice as she stepped silently into the room, her tread as light as a cat’s, watching him cautiously as he played. He did not notice as she sat right beside him, her shoulder almost brushing his, so close she could feel his breath on her skin. He did notice, however, when she placed one of her hands atop one of his. His lightning-quick movements did not cease straight away, instead progressively coming to a soft halt as he ended the extemporised piece. She smiled at the way his fingers moved artfully across the keys, at the way he opened his eyes as he did, lavender orbs staring straight into her (e/c) ones.
He was not surprised by her sudden appearance, did not say anything at all. Nevertheless, his eyes did ask one question: do you play?
She set her own hands upon the keyboard and gave him his answer.
Roderich watched, mesmerised, as she played – not creating the piece as she went along, not like he had done. A small part in the back of his mind commented on the technical aspects of her performance. He could tell, by her furrowed brow and the biting of her lip, that she was concentrating. She did not play with the precise, well-rehearsed movements of a professional, either; her hands moved as though she was mirroring someone – hitting all the right notes but not in the right way. She had learnt through sight, he recognised, through witnessing someone else play and committing their actions to memory.
Although she does have talent.
As the pedantic side of him receded, he began to marvel at the simple details about the way she played. They way that, with no past tuition to guide her, she seemed to move in a very naturalistic way, unrestricted and freed from all the boundaries. The way her (h/c) hair fell over one side of her face in a sheet, how her shoulders moved up and down with her hands and her foot tapped rhythmically on the floor, keeping pace with the music. The way she, unlike him, never seemed to lose herself in the music; she stayed focused, trying not to make any mistakes. The way she finished off the song with a flourish unlike the original piece of music which ended quite modestly, building up to a fast tempo before abruptly ending it to create a dramatic effect – her own personal touch.
She looked up at him after that, her (e/c) eyes wide in expectation and her head cocked to one side, questioning whether he approved of her little presentation. He smiled slightly, just one corner of his lip turning upward, as he gave her a small nod. She beamed in return, and in that one expression, that one gesture, he felt his problems recede into the distance because all he saw was her, just her. She seemed so human, so alive, with such genuine emotions – something that he could not help but envy. But it was not just that; she smiled as if she did not have a care in the world, as if her status in society mattered little, as if she did not care who he was or what he was, only that she had gained the appreciation of the one pianist that no one in all of Austria could surpass.
He barely noticed as she reached to undo the sash around his waist and take off his white, although now mostly scarlet, coat, dropping it unceremoniously at their feet. He did not speak a word of protest as her hands reached up to caress his face, and neither did she as he pulled her into a tight embrace, his breath tickling her neck. He closed his eyes and she closed hers as they sat there, two people intertwined, once contained in their own little universes with their own large problems; but now, with someone else to share the burden, those problems did not seem so large after all.
Here lies Roderich Edelstein, defeated once again.
He laughed, but it was a sound of no humour. A trickle of blood ran down the side of his face, robbing him of vision in one eye, the other obscured by the shattered lens of his glasses. He was blinded, unable to witness his own demise. A sword was clutched in the grip of his right hand, although the arm was useless, broken a long time ago during the heat of the battle. His body lay crumpled on the rubble of what was once the main hall of the palace and its walls, the grand chandelier that once hung on the high ceiling fragmented into pieces that glinted in the sunlight and the exquisite wall hangings ripped and torn to shreds. His legs were crushed under the wreckage, pinning him into place as he panted and heaved what he thought – hoped, almost – were his last breaths.
Another man stood above him, his pale hair whipping around his face with the wind, his burgundy eyes alight with arrogance and victory. He laughed, taunting and jeering at the damaged nation at his feet, as his black and white flag flew triumphantly behind him. How satisfied he must be, Roderich thought, his eyelids fluttering as his eyes made a weak attempt to see once again, to have defeated me once more. How satisfied he must be to see me crumpled beneath him. How satisfied he must be to know that my last image will be of his smug face, of his haughty grin. How satisfied he must be to be the winner.
He heard Gilbert call his name as if from a distance, but paid no attention. He had given up, no longer caring about his fate. He would die here and be remembered as a weakling, a quitter. Not as the noble, stately man he had once been, but as this. He felt as though he should care about that – image is everything, isn’t it? – but he could not bring himself to do so. The fight had left him, along with the will to live. He had never descended so low before, but what was a man at the brink of death to do?
But there was a part of his conscience, a part buried so deep he could barely detect it, that reminded him of who he was. Of life. Of the joys of living. Of humanity and music and beauty, beauty that one could not see or partake in from the grave.
With one last ounce of willpower, he opened his eyes.
He saw Gilbert raise his sword, ready to deliver the final blow. He saw the light behind him, framing his light hair with a holy glow. He saw the blade descend, and readily welcomed death.
But death did not come.
A woman did.
A woman struck by the knife-edge of a sword, whose mouth opened slightly as she looked down at the red blossoming upon the thin fabric of her dress. A woman who fell, whose body was weighed down by gravity, beside the dying man on the mounds of debris. A woman whose (e/c) irises were no longer filled with light, with ecstasy, with images of the piano and the palace and one of Roderich’s rare smiles.
A woman who died by the side of the nation she had dedicated herself to.
Roderich descended into darkness, wishing he had not seen at all.