Nearby, atop the massive walls overlooking the courtyard, Skip stood between two stones and blew a long stream of smoke into the gentle afternoon air. Spicy aromas filled the air, along with snatches of music and laughter wafting from the square where a play was in progress. “You said it,” he said, “truly an inspiring view. Do you come here often?”
The Count, standing upon a worn stone block so he appeared almost as tall as Skip, shook his head, contentedly puffing his cigar. “Not nearly often enough, but I do like heights.” He smiled. “I appreciate the lordly view, especially when it allows me to do things like this.”
In the ivy-shrouded courtyard below, children were playing a game of hide and seek. As they watched, one blonde girl, stuck behind a statue, was afforded an escape route by her pursuers when they left a path unguarded. But she could not see it. The Count whistled and the child looked up, and Roland pointed. Smiling, she waved before sneaking away. The Count waved, smiling.
“So it’s power you seek,” Skip said as he exhaled. “To help the underdog? I can’t fault you that,” he admitted. “Who wouldn’t do anything to aid his chil–”
He was interrupted by another whistle. One of the searching boys looked up, and Roland pointed where the girl had gone. Within seconds, they were chasing her and the Count laughed.
“The lordly view has its uses, no?” he said. “Oh, don’t look at me like that. Both of those children are mine: just like God, I treat them exactly alike, and they know it.
“You see, power, though it is a greater insulator than distance,” the Count said philosophically, smiling with satisfaction, “gives such strategic advantages that having it changes everything. From its lofty perch, it’s easier to see connections, the sizes and scope of everything. But it’s not just the altitude as much as the attitude. Achieving the heights by one’s own efforts steels the will to wield influence as well as lending the vision needed.”
“What of rights and responsibility?” Skip asked. “Your giddy high could be from lack of oxygen, deluding you. We can’t live among the clouds like gods. We dwell upon the earth, surrounded by people as well as the dark jungle.”
“True,” the Count said. He leaned against a stone, coolly regarding his guest. “But with power harnessed to perspective, you can do anything; change the world for the better.”
“Is that what you just did? I wouldn’t know,” Skip said. “I’m just a simple climber.”
“Don’t be upset, Charles, if I may call you that,” the Count smiled a vulpine grin. “Youth must learn to depend on themselves, yes? Has life not taught you must possess a strong vision, iron will, and stubborn endurance to succeed? It must have for you to film in air too thin to breathe. Those experiences have surely changed you.”
“Triumph is just surviving a moment of terror, especially lately,” Skip admitted, looking toward invisible peaks far beyond the hills of Maureven. “I’ve had several brushes with death. Each time saps vital confidence on which I depend, because I know I’m getting older and weaker.”
“You need something to believe in,” Roland said. “Your sister asked why I collect those old trinkets if I don’t have faith.” He leaned upon the parapet; head thrust forward like a gargoyle’s.
“My faith is in faith itself: commitment, not doctrine. Which is why I, and my associates, seek the Maundy Grail. Not to destroy faith in it as superstition, like Fatamorgana would, but seize the will to believe and utilize it as a powerful tool for good.”
“Is that so?” Skip asked with a cynical snort. “Why not leave it to the Church? You know, your fine talk could easily justify turning the Maundy Grail into the ultimate tourist attraction or fanatic’s tool. Either of which, by the way, you are ideally positioned to exploit.”
“Jesús said your brother was suspicious,” the Count chuckled. “I see it runs in the family. How did you ever come to join Sir Gordon’s chivalrous order?”
“What do you think made me so wary?” Skip said bitterly, grinding out his cigarette.
“Ah, I see,” the Count said. “I count the Chevalier as an old friendly competitor, but I understand. I have many acquaintances, you know, also seeking the Sacred Basin. A few would study it forever and a day; others, like the Knightly Guardians, would use it to puff themselves up as grandly you seem to think I might. Understandable but mistaken.”
He turned to face Skip. “Those I closely associate with are practical. We call ourselves the ‘Secret Seers.’ We seek access to the Holy Tub for the ultimate benefit of all. If we found it, I assure you we’d use it as a lever to move the masses, a force for improving the world. If it requires giving the people what they want, grand shows like the Templars’, so be it.”
The Count checked his watch. “There are things I must attend to; the Grand Ball starts just a few hours from now. Remember, Charles, we’re always looking for people of vision without axes to grind, men like you. Now go in peace, my friend, and I’ll see you at the party this evening.”