The coachman knows his place, so he stays outside, even though the music swirls in his head and tries to draw him into the ballroom, with all its vibrant colours and beautiful dancers — glamorous, graceful people whirling around the floor in complicated patterns, not needing to look where they’re going because they fit so perfectly into the shape of this grand, wonderful design; people who belong, who follow their steps and play their roles and smile so gloriously because they know, they all know, that they are precisely where they are meant to be.
And he knows it too, the coachman, even as he presses his face against the window and tries not to breathe so that it won’t cloud his view; he knows his place is outside, with the horses, stroking necks and smoothing manes and whispering soft nonsense to soothe the restless shivers of these strong, magnificent beasts that gleam like snow in starlight and draw the coach along the winding, uneven path to the palace with unerring, sure-footed speed. They know their place, their role and function, just as he does. Just as they all do. Carriage, driver, horses, footmen: a perfect, integrated team. All this he knows to be true.
How did he come by his knowledge? His skills? Where did he train? When? What else is there in his life, what else has there ever been, apart from this night and this place and the duties he is here to perform? His purpose is clear and bright and beyond question: he is to drive the beautiful coach and its even more beautiful occupant to the palace, to her destiny, and back again before midnight — and that, oh, yes, that he understands, more keenly than anything, is essential; they must be away, they must be gone, before the clock can strike twelve. But why? Why does he stare, now, at the clouds covering the moon and feel, in his heart, in his blood, the movement of those clock hands and the pull of the pendulum? Why is he suddenly so afraid?
The crushing weight of each tick is shortening his bones and coarsening his skin, dimming his eyes even as he sees his Lady, his beautiful Lady, come running along the darkening path too late, the chimes of midnight speeding beside her, past her, ahead of her, into the shrieking horses and the collapsing carriage and the trembling, terrified footmen, and he wants so much to help her as she stumbles, as she falls, but he cannot; the chimes have stolen his strength and his purpose and his certainty, and all he knows now, all he will ever know, is that time has run out, and the forbidden hour has come, and with it has come the darkness, and the diminishing, and the end of all things.
This story originally appeared in Daily Science Fiction.