The march back to Schloeffelonia was a rapid one, as the army was anxious to get through the canyon before snow rendered it impassable. They did make it, though just by a day or two, as heavy snows nearly kept the war wagons in the possession of the mountains, and only by luck a warm afternoon stopped the grasping, cold hands of canyon snow long enough for them to escape.
The mage was never out of the sight of the overlord, who guarded him and his health with a jealous possessiveness bordering on fury that everyone quickly learned not to arouse, and it wasn’t until they finally began the descent from the mountains into the valley of Schloeffelonia that Fang became less like a coiled spring ready to strike and more composed like his former self.
The castle came into view, lovely, comforting, and conflicting. For Fang this was home, but he hated it and loved it in a way that would never come to terms with itself. Still, after a very long campaign, being home was a distinct pleasure.
It was quiet, and Fang had sent the bulk of the army away to the barracks, removed and beyond a hill from the castle proper. Regnar stayed with him, as always, walking with a large polearm like a staff, and Zedwig, feeling better than usual today, rode beside him. As the sunlight passed through the Schloeffelonian branches above him and played across his face, and as the cool alpine breeze carried with it the scent of sage, Fang felt one of the closest things to happiness than he had for a very long time, and wondered if there was something about his homeland that he did not realize he had always taken for granted. It was at this moment that things began to go wrong.
They approached the castle, and as they did, Camilla emerged, strangely, and behind her was the palace guard. All of them, Fang realized, from the looks of it. They were in the posture of guarding her zealously, and as Fang dismounted and turned his mind in an attempt to discern what exactly was going on, she approached him, her features looking very distant and cold. He couldn’t help musing over how it suited her mysterious beauty to behave like this, even as he wondered what she was about.
“You’re certainly not behaving like a prisoner,” Fang said to her.
“That’s because I’m not one,” she replied. “Not anymore.”
“Then what are you?”
“I’m in charge, actually,” she said, and then her voice filled with silken timbre and she addressed the guards who had come with Fang. “You take orders from me, now.”
Following this, the guards shifted, and began to lose coherence. “Come along, then,” she told them, and they fell in with her. Fang watched her, watched the guards, and found it all oddly bemusing.
“What do you mean to accomplish, Camilla?” he asked her.
“I mean to end this war,” she told him. “Our country was never meant to be an empire. You’re exhausting our strength with your fancies of conquest, and we will not endure it any longer.”
“And so you’re going to take control of Schloeffelonia from me with your voice?”
“I believe I already have,” she replied.
He could feel Zedwig shift; slightly brushing his arm, and Camilla regarded the mage.
“You have not,” said Fang. “Zedwig can kill all of these men before you can voice your next order.”
Her brow furrowed and she glanced at Fang.
“Come with me,” she compelled Zedwig, whose mind, it was immediately apparent, could not be shifted from its solid attachment to Fang’s.
“No Comtesse,” he told her mildly. “It is useless to try, although you’ve made an admirable effort.”
Zedwig truly did look sympathetic towards Camilla, whose face began to reflect outrage and fear.
“Will you condemn all of these men to death, and become my prisoner again?” Fang asked her. “Or will you come quietly and let them live?”
Something snapped within Camilla, and she rushed at Fang, physically attacking him in her fury.
“Curse you, Fangline!” she cried. “For what you have done to the world, to our country!”
He subdued her, held her, grasped her wrists, and she struggled in her desire to hurt him. She turned her fury onto Zedwig.
“How can you help him!” she demanded of Zedwig. “He destroys everything! There is nothing he loves!”
At this, she began to cry, and he heard Zedwig draw a breath and turned to watch him look away.
“Release them,” Fang told her.
“I want to see Al’bert again,” she said, weeping.
“Release them, Camilla.”
She cried for a moment, and then said brokenly, “You are released.” At the sound of her voice, the guards appeared startled, and they all, regaining will, tried to surmise how they had come to be in this situation. Some glared at Camilla, and some regarded her with fear.
“Regnar,” called Fang, to which the guard, looking very ashamed, approached Fang with intense penitence. “Find a deaf man who can follow instructions.”
“Yes, your worship,” he bowed, and immediately began sending guards in every direction in a flurry of compliance.
Within Fang’s grip was still Camilla, who was weakly sobbing and occasionally muttering about her brother. He considered her, and truly didn’t like her proud beauty reduced to such incoherence.
“Camilla,” he told her quietly. “Pull yourself together.”
She caught her breath twice, in the way of sad hysteria, and said, “My father will stop you.”
“No, he will not,” replied Fang, and began to pull her with him into the castle. Zedwig followed as Fang began to lecture her. “There is no possibility that your father could do anything but kill himself challenging me, and if he is a smart man, which I have faith he is, he won’t try. You, Camilla, are a Comtesse, and are behaving like an injured schoolgirl. It doesn’t become you, and your beauty and station requires far better of you.”
“You are killing our country!”
His grip tightened on her wrist as he pulled her down the cool, shaded stone hallway. “I am not. I am making it stronger!”
“If you think what you are doing is for the good of Schloefflonia, then you are a fool, Fangline!”
He stopped and faced her at this, and her back was against the corner of the hallway and an opening that led to a great, narrow, winding stairway of stone. Her eyes were full of defiance, as if she was resigned to whatever her fate might be and had lost all hesitation in speaking freely.
“To think of all the time I knew you, I could never know that you would become this. I used to think great things of you. I even loved you, Fangline, and I have never loved anyone but Al’bert! But now… how could this have happened to you? How could you be what you are? I can not stand what you are!”
“I am the most powerful man in the world,” he informed her.
“What does that matter,” she cried, looking away from his face.
He hated her condemnation and pulled her up the stairway, down another hallway, higher and higher within the castle to the top of a vastly high spinet where there was a circular room with a window. He thrust her inside, and she allowed herself to be left there in the middle of the room while he lingered at the arched doorway.
“The only reason you aren’t dead is because I once loved you, too,” he told her, and then bolted the door.
He stayed there for a long moment, flushed, his mind racing, his back to the door, and wondering why he would have said that to her. Zedwig observed him carefully, quietly, and from a sufficient distance to keep him from feeling cornered in his emotions.
“Oh depths, did I love her?” he whispered to himself and to Zedwig and to the stairwell, which wound twistedly downwards in shadow. He saw another pathway in which his life might have gone, one where he became king in the way he had been expected, and in which Camilla was his proud, beautiful queen. It seemed compellingly simpler in the way memories of times past or fantasies always appear, without the persistent nagging details and complications that are always in the present. The thought briefly shot through him to open the door and go back inside, for her. Zedwig only watched him, still with his back against the wall, his weight balanced between two steps.
“But what does it matter, now?” he sighed, his voice lacking hope. “What difference would it make?”
Zedwig shifted and raised a step, closer to him. Fang closed his eyes, feeling an agony he never knew he would, and said, “She despises me.”
He opened his eyes to find Zedwig was near and he focused upon the mage. “And you despise me, as well.”
Zedwig’s amethyst eyes shifted away, then back. “No, Fangline,” he admitted. “I don’t.”
Something hung in the air, and there was silence between them for a time.
Zedwig continued almost too quietly to hear in the silent stone stairwell. “But I once did.”
Fang reached for Zedwig with one arm, pulled him and kissed his temple softly. “Why don’t you?” he whispered, holding him near.
“It’s what I always feared, from the beginning,” said Zedwig quietly. “That, should I allow myself to get too close to you, I would grow so attached I would not be able to pull away again. I suspect…” and he paused as if searching for a way to put the vague, soft concepts of the mind into strict blocks of words. “It was the same for Camilla, or even for Al’bert. You are a compelling person, Fangline, and horrible, and brilliant… and… an enigma.”
Zedwig sighed and Fang brought his other hand to the mage’s arm. “I suspect she still loves you,” said Zedwig. “Perhaps she always will. Perhaps it is drawn up in what you are: a magnifier. Maybe that is what makes those who love you, love you to the point of morbid fascination, to their own detriment, to the detriment of those around them,” and the last he whispered, “To do things they never imagined they would.”
“She tried to take Schloeffelonia from me,” Fang objected.
“Did you not see what was on her face when she saw you, Fangline?”
He looked down into Zedwig’s face, as Zedwig was a step below him and their height was no longer equal. “I saw nothing.”
“She thrilled to see you again, I saw it plainly, and, should you have relinquished control to her, she likely would have given it back if you had asked for it.” Zedwig gripped his sleeve. “She attacked you because of her frustration, partly because she hated to lose, but partly because she wanted you, and you are wholly inaccessible to her.”
Fang stared at Zedwig. “How did you perceive all of this?”
“I- I don’t know. I just did.”
“I thought that was supposed to be my forte, and yet, here I am clueless while you noticed every nuance. Are you…” and Fang paused briefly. “Are you …?”
He merely stopped, unable to consider this sort of thing, because it scared him. “No, I can’t possibly,” said Zedwig of it.
“You’re not taking my ability… are you?”
“No, it can’t be, unless…”
“Unless when I draw power from you, I somehow absorb it, but it would most likely be only temporary, or a lingering effect.”
“But what if…” Fang began slowly. “You were to eventually absorb all of my ability? I would no longer be able to control you, or even use this artifact. I would be entirely at your mercy, Zedwig.”
“You would,” replied Zedwig.
Fang looked into his eyes and tried to discover what would happen, and what Zedwig would do, and in a sense, he felt as if he were already at the mercy of Zedwig. This was why he had never allowed himself to belong to anyone, ever, because he knew, somehow, if he showed any level of vulnerability to anyone that this would happen. He could hardly stand it, but at the same time he longed to be able to release Zedwig if it didn’t mean that he would lose him. Zedwig perceived all of this, it seemed, because he pulled him downward and pressed Fang’s forehead against his own.
Here, held by Zedwig, Fang could not steady his breathing, regardless of the calming sound of the mage’s voice. “I have been at your mercy for some years, now, Fangline,” he said. “You have been cruel and horrible, and I have seen and done things under your control that caused me suffering beyond anything I had ever imagined previously.” He went on, his hands touching Fang’s face gently. “I hated you, I loathed you and everything you did and made me do, but above all I wondered what I had done to deserve this abject misery and horror. My students have died; I have killed my friends, and all because of you. I have used that which I love above all other things, magic, to kill, maim, and destroy. You used me, and worse yet, you seemed to get a perverse pleasure from ruining me and seeing me do what I would never have done unless compelled by your force.” The tip of Zedwig’s nose brushed his cheek and he whispered, “You have taken everything from me, everything, and in so doing, you left me with only one thing… you. And then one day, I understood you. I knew you, and, most importantly, I knew why. And now… there is only one thing in the world that I can completely understand, and that is you.”
Fang pulled away, and Zedwig only looked into his face and continued. “But how tragic it is, Fangline. Should I have left like I did, fearing you and my attachment to you when I taught you long ago? If I had stayed, and had come to understand you completely back then, would I only delay the inevitable, or could I have changed all of this?” He pulled Fang and said as if rhetorical and begging for answers at the same time, “Could I have changed you?”
“Yes, Zedwig,” replied Fang. “You have changed me.”
“But I am too late,” said Zedwig, and the sorrow on his face grew.
Fang was struck with the sudden impulsive desire to kiss his face, because it seemed everything Zedwig said or did drew him in some way he couldn’t define. He loved him; he loved him, he realized, and it changed his soul like a tightly closed fist that opens in relief, or like a curled and shrunken dormant flower whose petals unfurl and spread at daylight, drinking thirstily from the light that shines upon it. He loved him though he had never loved his father, or his brother, or any other man he had ever known and it was a vast sea of boundless and uncharted waters; it had always been there, perhaps forever, but never realized, and it possessed a depth that surpassed any love he might have felt for Camilla, and it was impossible for him to imagine anything more consuming than the despairing urgency that he now suffered with this knowledge.
Nearly as quickly as Fang realized it, Zedwig perceived it as well, as if it were a warm, spreading hue that filtered across the colors which made Fangline, and once it had spread through him, he would never be the same. He was changed forever. Zedwig’s eyes widened and he drew back, and he caught his breath. The mage said nothing, but turned and left, descending the stairs and leaving the presence of Fang for the first time in weeks.
As for Fang, he didn’t know whether despair or exuberance was in order, he didn’t know whether he wanted to die or live, but he began to realize, at last, that power wasn’t everything and that life was possibly far more multifaceted and brilliant than he had ever suspected.