It was a haunted nation, the blood of slaves below iron lands, perpetual cloud of lies above, and pockets of gaunt, hopeless masses huddled together against one another. Where the fields had been, there were the scars of war. Famine had replaced food, scorched fields the harvest, muddy ruts the roads, and still for the last month, Ryland had felt the energy of the land diminishing as he journeyed further and further out. Wherever this was, whatever this land had once been, it was entirely desolate and the residue of loss, grief, death, and destruction hung heavy. He awoke at dawn out of trained habit, grunting as he rolled over and elbowed his body upwards. After so long, this was no longer an easy task to his young body but it would not do to let his surroundings diminish his purpose. In the light of a new day, he did his best to see the land for what it had been and still could be even as the sun rose and once again boiled the stench of decay and the nearby bogs, which had dissipated with the winds the prior evening, into a sickeningly humid stew. It was best if he got going before the air became too exhausting. He needed to keep his strength, needed to hoard for survival, and as he rolled the thick blanket he had slept on, he continued his ritual. He meditated. He stretched his tired limbs. He cracked his neck. He was thankful that the war was over. He reminded himself that this was what it meant to repair the land. Even the sadness was a testament that he still felt connected to it, and that was no small thing. Weeks had gone by since the last battle; the stench of the land was becoming bearable, bleached by many suns since then. Lament was a form of healing and healing was often ugly. If one focused too much on the pain of it, the memory of the loss, it could turn the stomach and send someone to their bed with grief. In this land was an opportunity. The prairie was like the sea and forest; whether alive and delightedly waving into the far distance or desolate and savaged, a person could be shown their own meager importance and significance lost to the immensity of the savagely transcendent.
Closing his eyes and rolling his shoulders, hearing the muscles tightly snap, he stilled his mind and felt flickers of life nearby. The land and seas were places to either befriend and make a mark or, as it often did, crush and drive one mad. He could either use his imagination to feel capable of handling it or, like so many who had succumbed to their dark and impassible grief, he would fall apart. He had chosen long ago which one he would do.
Packed now, he wrapped his face with cloth, gathered himself, and set out. Retching and gagging on stench had a way of disrupting the noblest of philosophical intentions. He could see grasslands and trees across the range, sense them scavenging and burrowing, measuring him from afar, ears twitching in anxious expectation. There was no threat here anymore in the wasteland except him. Scavengers had come through long ago, taking what they could to survive. There had been wreckage, abandoned forts, bodies half-eaten by carrion, sun-bleached bones in his journey, and little else except torn lands trying to grow again. The armors and satchels, anything of worth that could be sold, scrapped, salvaged, smelted, or sewn had already been collected from the bodies. Many still hung in the bazaars beside the meat of animals pulled from bone or hung as decoration in the saloons and settlements he had left behind. Surely, there were more ahead. When he had laid down last night, there was a distant glow to the sky, a sign that another settlement was not too far but where exactly he could not see or even sense when he reached out through the land. Perhaps it was another abandoned settlement or the fire of another traveler. He no longer exerted himself in trying to determine the difference. He could convince raiding parties that he wasn’t there, could kill them just as easily. It made no difference anymore. Trying to save lives often required him to end the life of another. It made no difference, really. The war was over, but that did not mean there was peace.
He set out in what he thought was the right direction, quietly thinking through how far he had already come and measuring how far he thought was left until he made it through. He knew this was what he would find, the barrenness and ruin. Perhaps there was a small measure of happiness in the knowledge that he had expected the worst, had prepared himself to see the land still on fire, find someone still holding on out here and that it might fall to him to mercifully end their life, but it wasn’t the fear of death that had braced him. After the last three years, he had tired of death, had tired of killing which had become easy and routine. He had exchanged the title of champion for ascetic and chosen to walk this distance rather than ride or fly to have time to think, to order his thoughts, and to process the toll the last few years had taken. He wasn’t sure when he had left the boy inside of him behind, the one who had been so wrought over whether people liked him and what it would take to get back home. Now, after all that happened, he felt nothing but shame and disappointment that he had ever been so naive. War had a way of killing even after you continued living.
The day stretched on. He rested twice and stopped beside a small river in the late afternoon under a small grove. The fruit was out of season, to his disappointment, but he could see the promise of small patters of color in the grove across the bank. Good. He decided to cross, anticipating the sweet fruit. Where there were trees, there would be water and where there was water, surely there would be life. If anyone or anything had survived, they would be within a half-day’s journey. The river was not powerful, which made his crossing easier, but the fruit was not abundantly ripe once he had crossed. He stripped and laid each piece of his garb beside one another beside the water’s bank to dry, then grazed sparingly. The fruit offered a tart reprieve as he closed his eyes and slept in the shade of the grove. Dimly, exhasutedly, he reached as far out as he could, filtering the recognizable chirps and squawks of animals, the familiar sound of the river’s movement and the crackle of branches. This was an auspicious beginning, out of the nothing. There was reason to hope after all. The castle would not be far. He felt life all around, but could not locate anything specific. It was as though there was a dome around him. He must be more exhausted than he recognized.
When he woke, he dressed and filled his canteen and bathe in the afternoon sun, then unfolded the map and marked himself on the far side of the river. He must have been closer than he thought this morning, the war having changed the topography and landmarks. Finally, finally, he was leaving the ruin of the last several days – six? Had it been more? – behind him. Putting the guide away, he began following the stream upwards toward the source. There would be a missing mountain, he was told. Having counted the peaks from the map, he once more grabbed his satchel and began walking toward the valley that didn’t appear on the chart, by rights which shouldn’t even be there.
The nap had been generous, allowing him to regain his strength. He had almost reached where he was going and it was possible, he assumed, to reach the castle by nightfall if he wanted. His quarry would sense him afar off, he knew. He did not want there to be any sense of threat and, though the castle was still afar off, perhaps he would be there by night. Waking, he relieved himself and fished in the cool shade of the day. It was somewhat surprising that there was not a nearby settlement to take advantage of the river’s waters. There was no hurry now. Stronger and rested, he felt himself being watched through all of this. Focusing, he could almost see the Count as though through a curtain. So here it is, he thought, we finally begin. He sensed the spectre the way one could sense a voyeur observing even in the quiet of solitude on an inky night. It wasn’t what you saw but what you felt intuitively. Ryland wondered, amused, how long the Count had been observing without him noticing and whether his grace had looked away when he had begun removing his clothes. The man was a legendary diplomat who had hidden himself away and, if the legends were true, was able to hide an entire palace. But then Ryland knew that already. He knew the Count was powerful, perhaps so powerful that this entire effort had been for nothing. The Count was his superior in every way, he knew, he could be certain. The Count had stayed out of the way because his power had been too great, too powerful and wonderful, to advantage either side the war. His head began to swim with intimidation. The Count’s benevolence was a gift to all. When Ryland bowed before the Count, he must apologize for disturbing him and beg forgiveness.
Whether this was a thought of his own or an impulse by the Count meant to deter him, he was not sure, but the thoughts continued unbidden, becoming wilder and more passionate. As the terror and wonder crescendoed, Ryland basked in the majesty and glory of a man he had never met. The thoughts became so ludicrous, though, that he could not help smirking with incredulity. Unlike the Count, he had not sat out the war. He knew what he was capable of. However powerful the Count may have been once, he would find Reyland an equal. Returning to himself, Ryland felt pity. These insistent, repetitive thoughts were those of an aged and scared man, the bluster of someone who had not known anyone outside of his thrall for some time. Surely, he would want to know what legends, if any, remained of his accomplishments and talents.
He stopped to unbuckle the canteen behind him. He paused now to take a drink and then another, licking droplets away. He took his time and pushed back. This flattery and awe were not his own. He knew who he was and what he had come through. Alternatively, he knew what the Count was not and had never been. The Count was a diplomat, or had been once. Powerful and wise, yes, but none of the terrifying things these wild thoughts insisted. He was old and would die. Ryland was not here to threaten or force him away from his beloved haven, but to meet and learn.
The unbidden thoughts stopped and turned, searching and measuring Ryland again. He continued walking, without even breaking his stride. Let the Count watch. Ryland expected no less. But, he felt the swell inside of himself now, I have come through rain and wrack and storm. I have come through war. I will not be turned aside without doing what I came for, no matter how hopeless it may seem.
And then, all at once, he saw the floating mountain, crowed with a castle. This was how the Count had survived the war. It hadn’t made sense until now, actually seeing it, but of course the explanation was there all along. He took it in, aligning what he saw with what he had thought impossible, allowing it to make sense in his mind. He consciously took a deep breath and held it, waiting to see if there would be more. There was. Now, he could feel the Count’s presence, hear his deep and sonorous voice within himself, asking who he was and why he had come to be here.
Reyland respectfully declined. “Allow-” he broke off, his voice sounding strange to him after going so long without using it. He spoke loud enough as though the Count were in front of him because it broke them both away from playing more mind games. “Allow us to speak, your grace? I imagine you would prefer to entertain and even enjoy the company after so long, perhaps wish to know about the end of the war.” As an afterthought, he added, “I mean no harm. I am here on a mission of my own to learn how you survived the war and,” now his tone was almost conversational, as though he and the Count were friends, “It has been many days travel by patient, penitent foot to meet you.” He waited and awkwardly adjusted the satchel on his back. “I would like to know about my grandmother, who you knew some time ago, I am told. And I would like to learn from you, if you would allow me, to hear your wisdom and understand how you came to be here.” There was the feeling again of eyes watching him, seeking for something within him that he had secured, pressing against his inner walls. He could feel the Count from this great distance as though he were right there, standing in front of him.
The Count would get nothing from him without sharing in return. At a not unfriendly stalemate, Ryland looked up at the underside of the mountain above him. The castle hovered unmenacingly though he could feel the charms and protections which held it aloft. Ryland had not seen anything like it before; though he had worked his own careful wards before, there had been nothing of this magnitude, nothing so complete and thorough. It was impressive in a simple, even clean way to him. Whatever intentions or malice the Count may be found to have, Ryland still respected the craft of the illusion.
When he heard nothing more, Ryland looked around for a flat place to set camp and wait. He sat underneath a tree and made a small fire. He ate a light meal of fish he had caught earlier that day with berries he had foraged, then wiped his hands and began to read by the flickering light.
The order had fallen. That was why he had come. The Count had abandoned the war even as it began and returned to his family palace, the one which blocked the moon from view even now. Many saw it as an act of cowardice, but Ryland felt it was exhaustion with the politics and warcraft the Count had known his entire long life. He had been one of the last central figures to know the world as it had once been and, understanding the passions of youth which led to war, simply chose to sit it out. It was as uncomplicated and characteristic of who he was it appeared. Many suspected the Count continued to help himself through the worst of things, pitting rumor against ever-increasing rumor, amassing an even greater fortune pitting side against side, offering his company and legitimacy as well as his craftsen, forgers, armorers, but no one knew the truth of those tales. If they had, they hadn’t been allowed to live long enough to verify any of it. Ryland’s mother believed the Count had wanted to bring an end to the cycles of violence he had delighted in as a young man, but Ryland wished to know the truth of things.
The young man realized he had read the same page three times already and, sighing, looked up. There he was, an elder stooped with age, standing uncertainly outside of the firelight, imperially dressed. He even wore a cape. “Well?” the old man extended his hand and gestured upwards, bidding Ryland to get up. “It wouldn’t do to have the heir of Amidala sleep outside in the dirt.” The old man exhaled as though it pained him. Blinking wet eyes, he croaked, “Come along. There are beds and you must bathe. We can talk tomorrow.”
Ryland was grateful for an actual bed and blanket that evening, to say nothing of a hot bath. Rest came easy and deep. The Count had encouraged him to sleep as long as he needed, servants would be waiting for him in the morning and so they were. In the morning, he ate and was allowed to roam the castle as he wished. There were no secrets here, he was told by the servants who seemed confused by his questions. Most were cheerfully dismissive, somewhat pitying him for his ignorance. “The Count came back to save our lives. We survived because of him.” He felt the earnestness and honesty in them. Their understanding of the Count and the one he had been given were entirely at odds with one another. He ruminated on all of this in the Count’s library when he recognized he was already in conversation with the old man.
“I expect that’s because I am still considered a turncloak,” the Count quietly offered. “Turncloaks are hardly ever as simple as the legends of them would have you believe. One does not simply decide to turn their back on a way of life and kill their friends because it is convenient or profitable.” Ryland hadn’t felt him approach and it made him cautious, wary, perhaps even anxious. The old man seemed amused, as though his reputation was of little value. “I didn’t abandon the Empire. My loyalties were always here, with my people. When it became clear that nothing would be done and we were going to war, I herded as many as I could into my walls and,” he paused for effect, “Well, here we are,” gesturing all around him. “They’re alive. The Empire can imagine whatever they wish of me.” There was a sober finality to that, the joke told and finished. “My people lived and, I may add, thrived here above petty jealousies. Our daughters and sons are fed and have had sons and daughters of their own. Our women are healthy. Our men have traded plowshares for weapons. We are at peace. For all of this peace I have provided, son of Amidala, you have been told to either capture or kill me, if I am right?” He chuckled at this. “Well, you may indeed be able to do that, but mark this and test it: if you do, you will have become everything your mother wanted so desperately to prevent. You, my boy, will be the turncloak” He sat, the brief lecture having given way to something else.
It was Ryland’s turn to laugh, to lighten the tension between them. “I can’t imagine killing you would be an easy thing. If the legends are true or even if I am to believe my own eyes, you would not go easily. You say correctly why I am here, but you already know I am persuaded of the truth of your words.” He had more to say, to meet the lecture with his own, but the Count stopped him.
“How is your mother? Is she alive?” he croaked. The question disarmed Ryland and, for a moment, he felt his defenses slip. The Count clucked his tongue and exhaled, saddened. “I’m sorry. I am old now and forget my manners. I suppose I no longer care about manners and civility. A shame, that. My parents would,” he trailed off, losing himself to the past again. When he looked up again, he was measuring Ryland. “Well, let’s see what we can do about that. I will not have it said that I was inhospitable to my executioner, at least.”
In the days that followed, Ryland heard an entirely different version of the legends he had grown up on. At times, it was unsettling and disorienting but the Count was patient and genuine. He listened to Ryland and remained open, not defensive when Ryland pressed him. Passions were often strong, especially as it regarded the war, and he would need to stay calm, focused if he would convince the Count to return with him.
As he passed into sleep each evening, he felt the count slipping into the liminal with him as they continued their conversations. They both seemed to realize, without ever actually saying it awake or asleep, that the Count was giving Ryland the entire store of his knowledge, helping him catalog the mysteries of their abilities and explain other manifestations of their powers. There was another here, a female, and when he could no longer endure the curiosity at odds with so much else that had been freely given, Ryland asked who she was one evening while they relaxed together, sharing a bottle of wine.
The Count hesitated, then collecting himself, proceeded with apologetic politeness as though the conversation were not about to come to a very definite end. “I wanted to explain some things first, you know,” he set his glass down gently, to punctuate a point he hadn’t made yet as much as to steady himself. Ryland could feel the Count withdrawing, not as giving as he had been a moment before and it alarmed him. “I wanted you to understand things as they are before you met her. She’s like us, you see. She’s not of this world or the next, I suppose. Special and talented in ways you have never experienced. Magnificent. You see, you’re going to have to kill me one day and I thought it best for you to be fully aware of that before you met her.” The Count let his words linger there for a moment before adding, “She’s quite a lovely woman, once you meet her. Absolutely splendid. I think perhaps I just wanted you to myself for a while before all of this came tumbling down because she’s going to take it personal and try to stop us.”