On his three-hundredth birthday, Count Benjamin Solo arrived at the shores of Chandrila aboard a luxurious three-masted ship...and fell in love.
The journey had been arduous, to say the least, for though his kind could withstand the daylight well enough to not be viewed with suspicion by his fellow passengers, the sun still depleted him of energy far quicker than what might be viewed as normal for a human being.
Thus, the Count had been forced to postpone his sojourn to the Lake District of Naboo, so as to recuperate for the long carriage ride which lay ahead. As such, with its mild climate and refreshing winds, the venerable seaside resort of Chandrila would prove to be an adequate solution for the few days he intended to rest. Most importantly, the sun was less harsh in this part of the world, allowing for a leisurely stroll along the waterfront as dusk neared, painting the skies in hues of orange while the Count went on in search of sustenance.
Much to his delight, sustenance was not scarce here. As he wandered along the waterfront dressed in all black, from his Hessian boots to his breeches and thin overcoat, the raven-haired nobleman caught the attention of several marriage-minded mothers who had dragged their daughters across the country to take the waters in Chandrila, a thinly veiled excuse to play matchmaker in the months following the end of the Season.
Indeed, the youthful looking Count was a striking presence amidst the numerous clusters of ladies clad in white empire-waist dresses, and frilly bonnets held together by pastel colored ribbons. And, just like the people who surrounded him, the Count paid close attention to his surroundings - though not for the same reasons as the mere mortals who sought to catch a better glimpse of him; a tall and pale figure with long legs and broad shoulders, and a countenance that was both aloof and melancholy.
After a brief stroll, he stopped halfway across the waterfront to sit on a wooden bench, closing his eyes for a brief moment as he took in the refreshing smell of the ocean breeze.
With his eyes closed, his senses became more attuned, and the Count's shoulders relaxed as he registered all the smells and sounds in his vicinity: dainty slippers and sturdy boots pacing across the pavement, laughing children as they clung to their parents, flowery smells carried over by the salt-filled wind.
And the distinct sound of pencil on paper, sketching at a furious pace.
Intrigued, the Count opened his eyes, scanning around to find the source of the sound. It was not unusual for someone to come to this place and sketch the ocean at dusk. He knew that well-enough, having dabbled himself in art just one hundred years before in this very place - though Chandrila at the turn of the nineteenth century had changed significantly since he’d first graced its shores all those decades ago. The sound persisted, but what attracted his attention most was the labored breathing he heard in between this artistic endeavor, as if the owner feared not being able to complete their sketch on time.
He did not have to look too long to find her .
Nose buried behind a large sketchpad, the lady sat on the bench to his left, face scrunched up in deep concentration. Though he could not see her face completely, the Count had a good view of her dress, a simple, white muslin that hung loosely around her lithe frame, as if she had not had enough time to request that a modiste alter the fabric to suit her needs. Her hair was brown, based on the few errant curls he glimpsed from beneath her bonnet, as well as the color of her eyebrows - the latter furrowed in deep concentration.
Her eyes, however, were her most striking feature - a shade of hazel that he believed had certainly burned bright once upon a time, but had now dulled down for reasons which, despite himself, the Count found himself intrigued by.
Then, much to his surprise, the mysterious lady glanced up from her drawing, looking straight into his eyes.
A small gasp left her lips at once, as if she’d been caught doing something she should not have, and the Count immediately realized why she had been so eager to complete her sketch.
She was drawing him .
A ghost of a smile formed itself on his lips, widened as he observed the young lady close her sketchbook and turn away, looking to her left in a poor attempt at pretending she had not been observing him all this time.
Her hands gripped the sketchbook, and he was certain her laboured breathing had intensified when he stood up and gently paced towards her, arms behind his back in a relaxed stance.
“It seems I have interrupted your activities, Miss…” he spoke, strangely eager to make her acquaintance.
Her hold on the sketchbook loosened, and he tilted his head so that he could catch a glimpse of her profile, concealed as it was by her bonnet. A small nose and a pale cheek that had once been sunkissed greeted him, the latter now tinted by a delicate shade of pink.
When she tilted her head to finally look him in the eye, he was certain he had forgotten how to properly breathe for a few precious seconds.
The tip of her tongue darted out to wet her lips. “Miss Reyna Kenobi,” she said at last, her voice gentle, yet pained, as if speaking required much effort. “But everyone calls me Rey.”
She was, simply put, exquisite . A beautiful and firm jawline, a curious and emotional gaze, yet her elegant features bore a pallor of hardship that he knew was unnatural in the case of someone so obviously young. As the Count took in her appearance, he estimated she was around eighteen or nineteen years of age, yet, though human, she had the air of a being with an old and weary soul.
So alike, yet different from his own nature.
He introduced himself, and the mention of his title sparked no interest beyond mere curiosity, no ambition that needed to be fulfilled through his position.
“You may call me Ben,” he then added, unaware why it had occurred to him to shorten his name for her pleasure. Perhaps, he surmised, it was because she had done the same, inviting an air of informality that was unusual in the society she most certainly frequented.
The corners of her lips curled up in a weak smile. “It seems you have caught me, Ben,” Rey said, adjusting the sketchbook in her hands and flipping through the pages. “I had hoped to be more surreptitious, but it seems you are remarkably observant for someone so young.”
Letting out a chuckle, he gestured towards the bench she occupied. “May I join you?”
Nodding, she scooted so as to give him enough room.
“I am not as young as you think I am,” he said after sitting down. “I am but nine and twenty.”
The words slipped out easily from his lips, for that was when he had stopped aging altogether, living for centuries under the guise of eternal youth.
“That is not old at all,” she said, flipping the sketchbook over so that he could gaze at its contents. “Even in my drawing you are the epitome of youth and good health.”
Looking down, he observed the sketch she’d made, a remarkable likeness, from his aquiline nose to the rounded ears peeking out from beneath his shoulder length hair – the latter unfashionably long, he knew, but essential in order to cover the feature he was most insecure about. She'd even included the dark circles under his eyes, vestiges of the long boat ride he'd only just concluded.
He should be embarrassed or offended to glimpse his appearance recorded so bluntly on the page, but, oddly enough, he found the attempt charming and wholly welcome. She had drawn him as he was, without any pretense or intention to fix his obvious flaws.
It was refreshing.
"I did not do you justice," she said and gave a dissatisfied sigh. "I can only hope I have not offended you."
"You could never offend me," he told her, gently gripping the edge of the sketchbook. "In truth, I am in awe of your talent. May I?"
Blushing, Rey nodded, giving him permission to look through her drawings. "They are not much," she said. "We have only been in Chandrila for a fortnight, and my health does not allow me to venture far from our lodgings."
Her health. The thought stayed with him, and he would have inquired further had society's norms been less restrictive, a strange surge of protectiveness washing over him like a wave. Instead, he flipped through the pages, admiring various intricate drawings of flowers which he assumed were from the garden that belonged to the lodgings she spoke of.
"Your attention to detail is remarkable, Rey," he spoke, glancing up to see her sweet blush deepen. "You have a great gift."
He continued his perusal, studying a set of sketches depicting the waterfront and ocean, as well as a few children running on the beach nearby.
"Do you draw as well?" she asked, leaning forward in rapt attention.
He closed the sketchbook, letting his fingers dance across the leather cover. "On occasion, yes, but not as well as you do."
Fiddling with the ribbon which secured her bonnet, Rey glanced down at her lap. "You are too generous with your praise towards me, and far too modest regarding your own accomplishments."
Ben chuckled. "I could say the same thing about you."
Her lips quirked. "Then I should see your sketches as well, to ensure I do no not exaggerate with my praise."
Upon hearing her words, his smile widened, inexplicably excited by the prospect of seeing the enchanting lady again. "Will you allow me to call on you tomorrow, then? You will have the opportunity to critique my work at length."
Biting her lower lip, Rey nodded enthusiastically, eyes widened as if she'd been yearning to socialize for a very long time – another intriguing aspect about her the Count committed to memory. It intrigued him how she appeared to be such an odd mixture of outward innocence and inner turmoil – for even though she appeared visibly enthusiastic about seeing him, there was a certain weariness concealed in her gaze that never left her.
She gave him the direction to her lodgings with haste, her labored breathing relentless until, at last, she coughed covering her mouth with her left hand.
"I am so very sorry," she said, now launched into a full blown coughing fit.
Concerned, the Count produced an unused handkerchief from his coat's pocket, urging her to take it.
"I shouldn't," she said in between coughs, glancing apologetically.
"Please," he insisted, pressing the fabric into her other hand.
With a trembling hand, she accepted the offering, pressing it to her mouth as she coughed heavily.
Tightening his grip on her sketchbook, he could only watch as Rey struggled, the reason for her visit to Chandrila becoming all too clear. Having lived for three centuries, he knew all too well what her ailment signified, even when it was not yet apparent to those of her kind.
And, for the first time in his three hundred years, Count Benjamin Solo, began to believe in fate.
"You said you arrived in Chandrila two weeks ago," Ben resumed when her cough subsided.
Rey nodded, fiddling with his handkerchief. "I do not yet know how long we shall stay here. The physician believes the air and waters of Chandrila will benefit my health." She paused then, rolling her eyes slightly. "My companion, Mrs. Kanata, agrees, and here I am."
He regarded her with a gentle look, one he hoped would not be mistaken for pity. Her suffering could not disguise the strength that lurked beneath. "And what do you believe?“
Her beautiful mouth curled up, but her smile was sad. "I believe I ought to enjoy the time I have left as much as I can." Biting her lower lip, she continued. "It is why I do not bother with formalities and protocol. We have so little time in this life that it seems pointless to waste it by not being ourselves from the beginning."
Time… indeed, it was the one thing Ben knew he would always have in abundance. When one lived forever, a year was nothing but a second. A drop in an endless ocean.
But for her…Ben's heart pounded as he took in her sunken eyes, for her time was as vital as water.
The openness with which she'd introduced herself finally made sense, and now, she looked into his eyes, her gaze searching, as if he were an enigma she wished to uncover.
The warmth in his chest was as new as it was frightening. "Protocol dictates that a chaperone must accompany you in outings such as this," he said instead, a weak effort to brush aside the strange emotions nestling inside him. "It seems that in your attempt to eschew formalities, you've abandoned poor Mrs. Kanata."
She rewarded him with a soft chuckle, placing the handkerchief to her mouth for a moment to prevent it from becoming a full fledged cough. "All formalities except this," Rey amended. "Mrs. Kanata has been looking after me since I was born. She has merely gone to retrieve my shawl."
"Your family must be happy to have her."
"My family is dead," she said in a matter of fact tone, the voice of someone who had experienced loss a while ago and was used to it. "Claimed by an outbreak of scarlet fever when I was very young. Indeed, Mrs. Kanata is all I have left."
He swallowed heavily. "I am sorry to hear that," came his reply, voice lowered, otherwise he was certain he'd be unable to prevent it from shaking.
Placing her palms on her knees, she neatened her dress with slow, yet precise movements. "You needn't be sorry for something you have no control over, Ben. Dying is inevitable. I only wish we had had more time together. Enough for me to have reached an age when I could remember them effortlessly."
As spoke, he regarded her with rounded eyes. It puzzled him exceedingly to see her speak so casually of her hardships, the tragedies which had plagued her family delivered as a footnote on a page. However, as her lips went up into a half smile, he wondered if her apparent detachment was simply a method to cope with everything she'd experienced up to this point – a way to minimize the impact of she'd endured, and anticipate the inevitability of what was to come.
"Tell me about your family," she prompted after a brief pause, placing the handkerchief on her lap in a neat square.
And so he did. How could he not obey when Rey gazed at him so prettily, tucking an errant curl beneath her bonnet? He told her only what he could reveal, glimpses into an aristocratic family that lived in a place so remote, her eyes widened with youthful fascination.
His own castle, Mustafar, bequeathed to Ben from his grandfather, was even more isolated, nestled deep in the Carpathian Mountains and beyond the Borgo Pass. Indeed, traveling to such a faraway place required patience and determination.
His fingers brushed the corners of her sketchbook, idly picturing Rey's lithe frame strolling across the battlements, armed with pencils and paper.
"You speak of your home with such fondness," she said, a wistful expression etched on her countenance. "It surprises me that you would leave it to travel this far. Indeed, I am certain that the charms of Chandrila and even the Lake District of Naboo pale in comparison to your majestic mountains and untamed forests."
He could not prevent the wide smile lit up his entire face. "When you live in one place for too long, sometimes you yearn to see more of the world. To see how others live, to see what they eat and how they spend their days."
"You are only nine and twenty, yet you speak as if you've been alive for a long time," she pointed out, her gaze becoming more pensive.
"As do you," he told her in response.
It was vital not to arouse her suspicion, he knew. His kind were the stuff of legends, frightening tales shared by the fireplace during a stormy night.
She opened her mouth, yet her reply remained unspoken.
A small figure appeared by her side, carrying a yellow shawl and a disapproving expression.
"I don't believe we've been introduced," Mrs. Kanata said with a serious tone, glaring at him through her thick lenses.
Standing up, Ben nodded in greeting. "It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Kanata."
He introduced himself then, and though he took care to mention his title – lest Mrs. Kanata think he were a penniless fortune hunter – she still regarded him with suspicion, her palm resting gently on Rey's shoulder.
With a sigh, she sat down, looking at him as she handed Rey her shawl, wrapping it around her lithe frame. Resuming his seat, Ben noticed he was still clutching Rey's sketchbook, and, feeling self-conscious, he returned it to its rightful owner.
"I believe my artistic endeavors are to blame for the sudden introduction, Maz, " she said, accepting the object with a smile. "His lordship didn't have much of a choice in the matter."
He nodded, wanting for a strange reason to win the older woman's approval. For the life of him, Ben could not understand why this need overtook him, the knowledge that he was visiting Chandrila in passing at the forefront of his thoughts. The need for sustenance had merely delayed his inevitable departure for a few days, and he sensed his meeting with the enchanting Rey was destined to be cut short – not necessarily because of his great desire for further travel, but more so because he was certain her ailment would curtail any attempts to plan for the distant future.
Yet, as he gazed at Rey's elegant profile, deeply absorbed as she was in explaining the circumstances of their sudden meeting to Mrs. Kanata, and the enthusiasm with which she spoke of his homeland, he found that he wished to linger.
"His lordship has generously agreed to call on us tomorrow," Rey announced, covering her mouth with his handkerchief to stifle a cough.
"We ought to go inside. It is getting dark, and the cold air cannot possibly be good for your health."
Rey's free hand gripped the edge of the sketchbook in quiet defiance. Her gaze narrowed.
Mrs. Kanata was right, Ben knew all too well. She was right about the weather, as well as her charge's precarious health. She was right to keep Rey away from the likes of him – for as his gaze lowered to admire Rey's slender throat, he knew his immediate need could only be quenched in one way.
Shaking her head, Mrs. Kanata regarded him with a curious look. "Perhaps you ought to rest first, my lord. We do not wish to inconvenience you while you are in transit."
She was a woman with sharp instincts, and though he was aware Mrs Kanata had no way of suspecting what he was, she could sense his interest in the young woman she had sworn to protect.
Still, outrage simmered in his chest. Though in poor health, Rey was of sound mind and in possession of wants that he could sense she wanted satisfied. Her eyes glistened as the sun shone its final rays upon her countenance, alight with fire and the desire to savor every second she had on this world.
"It is no inconvenience," he responded, straightening his back as heat bloomed across his cheeks. "As a matter of fact, my schedule is quite flexible, and I promised Miss Kenobi to continue our artistic discussions."
Mrs. Kanata's mouth formed a grim line, yet he knew well that she could voice no disagreement in the face of two people who were too set on finishing what they had started.
"Then we must depart, Rey," she said with a heavy sigh. "Unless you wish to catch a cold and be unable to receive our new acquaintance."
When faced with such a prospect, Rey nodded, wrapping the thick shawl around her shoulders even further. "I will see you tomorrow," she said, her gaze widening with the need for reassurance.
Ben nodded immediately. "Of course."
He stood up then, observing as Mrs. Kanata rushed to steady Rey, as if she were worried he would intervene before she could. Letting out a gentle sigh, the young lady stood up and pressed her sketchbook tightly to her chest, gifting him with a secret smile before she turned around.
As Ben watched the two figures depart, his gaze lingered on Rey, admiring the gentle sway of her hips and her elegant nape. The ocean breeze ruffled the hem of her dress and shawl, and her brown curls yearned to escape the confines of her bonnet. He pictured her asleep in her bed, dressed in a nightgown of lace and silk – her hair unbound, falling like a waterfall across her pillow as her chest rose and fell with each breath.
Then he pictured her pale neck, exposed and smooth to the touch.
He would visit her tonight.