Clark Gillian

The Devious Dragon and the Fall of the Emperor


Chapter 24.
The Fool's Delirium.

The Fool retreated to his room, tucking the Horn of Plenty safely beneath his bed. It felt like the greatest, most beautiful gift he could imagine, his own personal treasure. But he hadn't anticipated the watchful eyes beyond the glass, the silent observer in the mirror who missed nothing.

Unease tugged at him, though he couldn't pinpoint the source. He found himself drawn back to the icy surface, the silence amplifying as he approached. It was as if... something there beckoned him closer, something lurking unseen within the reflection.

A voice, a whisper and an echo at once, slithered into his mind, "Do you see me?"

He scanned the mirror, his reflection staring back blankly.

"Do you see me?" the voice persisted, echoing through his skull.

Again, he searched the mirrored surface, finding only his own image. Yet, something was off. The youthful face staring back had matured, etched with lines and angles he hadn't noticed before. His clothes seemed more somber, his hands calloused, the once carefree shoes replaced by sturdy boots.

An unsettling dissonance played within him. To feel unchanged yet appear different was unsettling.

"That's it," the voice murmured.

"That's what?" the Fool stammered.

"It," came the cryptic reply.

"What is it?" he pressed, frustration mounting.

"Me," the voice breathed.

"Who are you?" the Fool demanded, his voice tinged with fear.

"Look," the voice instructed, amusement lacing its tone. "Don't you see me?"

The Fool strained to see beyond his reflection, searching behind, beside, above, below – anything but his own image. But the mirror held only him captive. It was maddening; he was literally in his own way.

A chilling laugh resonated within his head. "Look and see," the voice urged.

With renewed determination, the Fool locked eyes with his reflection, peering deeper than ever before.

The voice echoed within the mirror, its whispers resonating like secrets from forgotten depths.

"Do you see me?" it breathed.

The Fool, drawn by an unseen force, could only stammer, "I see it."

But the question hung heavy in the air, demanding an answer he couldn't grasp. "Who am I?" he whispered, the question echoing back at him in a maddening loop:

"Do you see me?
I see it.
Who am I?
Is it me?"

With a desperate certainty, the Fool shook his head. "No, it cannot be me, for I am already myself."

"Who?" the mirror queried, its voice chillingly calm.

"When I look in the mirror," he insisted, clinging to his identity, "I see myself. Myself."

A satisfied hum seemed to emanate from the glass. "Then you see me."

The Fool, confused and unnerved, could only manage a hesitant, "Yes... my own me."

"I'm sorry," the mirror's voice twisted, laced with a playful cruelty. "Who is it who sees me?"

"I," the Fool answered, his voice barely a breath.

"It's the I that looks," the mirror continued, its words echoing in his mind, "And me is what you see."

The Fool stared at his reflection, searching for answers in the familiar yet unsettling image. "Yes, I see it... I see me."

His voice trailed off, met only by the silence that had returned to the mirror. "Hello?" he called out, the emptiness amplified by the lack of response.

He sank onto his bed, closing his eyes and replaying the cryptic exchange. "It is I who sees me," he repeated over and over, the words twisting and turning in his mind. "Am I going mad?"

Suddenly, a jolt threw him upright. Below him, at the foot of the bed, nestled in his red blankets, lay a shimmering serpent. Its voice, surprisingly smooth and unthreatening, filled the room.

"Who are you?" the Fool exclaimed, a mixture of fear and curiosity in his voice.

"Don't be afraid! I am your friend," the serpent replied. "I was the one who gifted the Princess those books. It was I who guided you back to the human world."

Relief washed over the Fool. "Was that you?"

The serpent slithered closer, its scales catching the moonlight. "The one and only," it proclaimed, its words carrying a strange weight.

The Fool stared at the serpent, processing its words. "Well," he finally said, "we are back. Now what?"

"Patience, patience," the serpent hissed, its forked tongue flickering playfully. "Let's celebrate your return! Think of the life you'll have as King and Queen – a delightful prospect, wouldn't you agree? Consider it my special gift."

The mention of the Princess sparked a joyous warmth in the Fool's chest. "I miss her dearly," he admitted.

"A natural sentiment," the serpent purred, its voice dripping with understanding. "And what a joyous reunion your wedding will be! But before that grand occasion, allow me to voice a concern. Your...frequent visits with the elves and fairies who reside between realms? Those 'special toys' of theirs might not be the most...kingly influences, wouldn't you agree? Distractions abound, especially with your wedding on the horizon."

The Fool frowned, a flicker of uncertainty clouding his joy. "I do enjoy their company," he mumbled.

"Of course you do! They're amusing, I'll grant you that. But are they truly beneficial?" the serpent pressed, its voice soft yet insistent.

"I..." the Fool stammered, unsure. "Don't you think so?"

"Consider this," the serpent replied, slithering closer. "Just now, after your visit with the elves, you were muttering strange things to yourself. 'Who am I?' 'Who sees me?' Unnerving pronouncements, wouldn't you say?"

The Fool's eyes widened. "Did I say those things aloud?"

"Indeed," the serpent confirmed, its smile widening. "Questions with no easy answers, and even if you found them, what good would they bring? The answer is clear, isn't it? You are destined for greatness, the King of Hearts! Doesn't that ring pleasantly?"

With a graceful motion, the serpent coiled itself around the Fool's arm, its scales cool against his skin. "But isn't it equally strange," the Fool countered, a hint of defiance in his voice, "that a talking snake suddenly appears from the shadows, offering advice?"

"As strange," the serpent chuckled, its smile widening further, "as a giant talking deer, wouldn't you say?"

The Fool hesitated, the weight of the serpent's words bearing down on him. "That's... right, like a giant talking deer," he conceded, his voice laced with unease.

"Now, let's reframe the questions," the serpent urged, its voice deceptively soothing. "A new chapter dawns, a fresh start. The next act of your life begins. Are you ready, my friend?"

"True," the Fool mumbled, a gnawing anxiety creeping up his spine.

"The future beckons!" the serpent declared, its tone turning theatrical. "But what awaits...?"

"What awaits?" the Fool echoed, a tremor in his voice betraying his growing fear.

"The beginning of the end," the serpent announced, its forked tongue flicking playfully.

The Fool gasped, air seemingly ripped from his lungs. "The end?"

"Ideally!" the serpent chuckled, its smile stretching impossibly wide. "It's what you desire, no? To continue this path, to remain who you are and claim your destiny."

The Fool remained speechless, lost in the serpent's cryptic pronouncements.

"You've carved your place in the human world," the serpent continued, its voice slithering into a seductive whisper. "But to hold onto this position, to continue reaping the rewards of your achievements,, tasks, and duties are necessary, Your Majesty."

The Fool's gaze fell upon the daunting book gifted by the Burgomaster, detailing the endless list of obligations. He buried his face in his pillow, overwhelmed by the prospect of a lifetime bound by such burdens.

The serpent, oblivious to the Fool's despair, chirped cheerfully. "Oh, no need to read that tome," it said, feigning ignorance. "Those were my handiwork, you see! Don't fret about memorizing them. I'll be your guide, your oracle. Consider it a perk of our...friendship."

A wide, unsettling grin stretched across its face. "And let me offer you your first piece of invaluable advice..."

The Fool, more confused than ever, managed a weak, "What advice...?" His identity seemed to waver, caught between who he was and who he was expected to become, and the path ahead remained shrouded in unsettling ambiguity.

The serpent's smile widened even further, its forked tongue tasting the air hungrily. "Simple, really," it hissed. "First, you must wear the mask of the king. Shower them with their desires, fulfill every whim. Then," it added, its voice dropping to a sly whisper, "the rest will fall into place, oh so seamlessly."

The next day, the rotund Burgomaster waddled into the hall, arms laden with a mountain of parchment. "Nothing special, Your Majesty," he chuckled, his eyes gleaming with avarice. "Mere formalities. Just sign here, there, and… everywhere, really."

The Fool, haunted by the serpent's words, readily inked his name on every page, ignoring the creeping unease in his gut.

Day two saw the arrival of the City Guards, weary from their cramped barracks. "Kind King," they petitioned, "grant us homes of our own. We tire of city life, longing for a taste of village comfort."

Again, the Fool's memory echoed the serpent's advice. "Build your houses," he declared, granting their wish without a second thought.

On the third day, the cattlemen swarmed the palace, anxiety etched on their faces. "Your Majesty," they pleaded, "our herds grow, yet our barns overflow. Might we erect stables… within the fertile fields?"

The Fool, his head heavy with fatigue from this ceaseless cycle of demands, felt a flicker of resistance. But the serpent's insidious counsel silenced his doubts. "Do as you see fit," he mumbled, dismissing them with a wave of his hand.

By nightfall, exhaustion weighed heavily on the Fool. Yet, amidst the chaos, he had forgotten the Horn - nestled beneath his bed, a forgotten promise of wish fulfillment.

That night, the serpent slithered into the room, its scales gleaming in the candlelight. "Magnificent! A true king in the making!" it hissed, its voice dripping with false praise.

The Fool, exhausted but relieved, glanced at the unread stacks of books, the Burgomaster's responsibility lifted from his shoulders. "One less burden," he thought, sinking back onto his pillow.

Yet, sleep wouldn't come. Shouts and commotion filtered through the hallways, shattering the fragile peace. Descending the stairs, he found a heated exchange - farmers arguing with servants.

"We need help slaughtering the animals today!" the farmers bellowed, faces creased with worry.

"Why today?" the Fool asked, apprehension creeping in.

"Winter weakens them," one farmer explained. "Not enough meat to sustain the village. Better cull them now, more to store."

"Seek help from the village men!" a servant interjected, "Don't trouble the King!"

But the farmers ignored him, pleading with the Fool. "King of Hearts," they said, "you spoke to animals in the Enchanted Deer's realm, like the Princess. Use your magic to send them to us! Twenty men wouldn't be enough. Your power could save lives!"

The Fool's heart sank. "I have no magic," he confessed, guilt gnawing at him. "What words could I offer that lead them to their death?"

The serpent, ever present, hissed its poisonous advice. "Give them what they want. It all falls into place, remember?"

With a heavy heart, the Fool followed the farmers. He spoke to the animals, his voice thick with sorrow. They obeyed, following him, trusting his lead. One by one, he led them to the slaughterhouse, each step a betrayal of their innocence.

As the last animal fell, a tiny mouse, witness to the tragedy, scurried away, its heart filled with fear and grief. It would never return.

Days stretched into weeks, then months, each night haunted by the echo of the slaughter. Sleep offered no solace, no escape from the gnawing guilt that coiled around his heart. The more he sought peace, the further it seemed to slip away. Finally, exhausted and consumed by despair, he retreated to his chambers, locking the world out.

The Burgomaster's persistent knocks, accompanied by ever-growing stacks of papers, were met with a weary, "Sign it all. It's good. I trust you." Every signature chipped away at his remaining resolve, fueling his longing for the fairies' company in the abandoned castle. "Once I rest," he whispered, a flickering hope in his eyes.

The serpent, ever present, slithered closer, its voice dripping with honeyed words. "Isn't it delightful, having someone handle everything? See how smoothly it unfolds?"

The Fool sighed, a hollow sound devoid of true conviction. "Yes," he mumbled, his gaze locked on the window, yearning for the days filled with adventures, not responsibilities. "When I'm well, I'll visit the old fisherman again," he mumbled to himself, clinging to the memory of genuine connection.

Days bled into nights, spent between the confines of his bed and the pages of countless stories. Food arrived at his bedside, its aroma a poor substitute for the joy of sharing a meal under the sunlit sky.

"See how wonderful it is?" the serpent purred, its forked tongue flicking. "No need to rise, no need to strive. Everything you desire delivered to your door."

"Convenient," the Fool conceded, his voice monotone. Yet, his mind drifted back to the vibrant days with the Enchanted Deer, days bathed in pure, unadulterated joy.

"When is the wedding?" he finally asked, a desperate plea for some semblance of a future.

The serpent's laughter filled the room, cold and chilling. It grew larger, its scales sharper, reflecting the darkness settling within. "Don't you see, my guidance has freed you! Riches beyond imagination, yours for the taking, even in your sleep!"

"Rich?" The Fool blinked awake, the word snaking into his consciousness. "What's so important about being rich?"

The serpent's laughter slithered through the room, laced with a sharp hiss. "Such anger you harbor, my friend," it mocked, "when I only seek to help. Why deny the people their wishes, if not for your own?"

"Because I want to be a good king," the Fool declared, his voice firming despite the gnawing doubts.

"And what worth is being 'good' compared to being rich?" the serpent scoffed, slithering out of the room.

Alone, the memory of the horn sparked under the bed flickered in the Fool's mind. "Wealth can wait," he whispered, retrieving the forgotten treasure. With closed eyes, he placed it on his chest, his hand gently entering the cool curve. A celestial melody filled his ears, painting dancing rainbows across his closed eyelids. As the music swelled, something materialized in his grasp.

Emerged from the horn was a magnificent necklace, crafted from gold intertwined like entwined branches, cradling seven stunning gemstones. Each gem, held close to his ear, hummed with a hidden song, a whisper of stories untold.

"Oh, wonders!" the Fool exclaimed, slipping the necklace around his neck. As if fueled by magic, his weariness vanished, replaced by a surge of joy and renewed purpose. He strode to the window, flinging it open. In the distance, the abandoned castle near the well beckoned, a promise of friendship and solace.

"Thank you, Fairies," he whispered, gratitude filling his heart.

Days later, a curious glow emanated from the Fool, his entire being radiating with vibrant energy. His necklace, with its shimmering gems, became a topic of endless chatter. Some saw in it the seven cities of his future kingdom, others a reflection of his inner light.

Meanwhile, the Sorceress, her watchful gaze fixed upon the events through her enchanted mirror, relayed news to the grand Imperial Throne Room. The counselors, unaware of the brewing storm, argued about rebuilding efforts after the catastrophic earthquake.

"This is getting convoluted, even for me!" the serpent hissed, its forked tongue flickering in frustration. "But fear not, dear counselors! The trickier things get, the more my pockets jingle, a delightful side effect, wouldn't you agree?"

His words, laced with sardonic humor, offered little comfort to the worried advisors. His thinly veiled threat hung heavy in the air, leaving them scrambling for solutions.

Seeing their distress, the serpent feigned concern. "Of course, I speak figuratively!" he chuckled, a sly glint in his eyes. "Now, Sorceress, tell me, what troubles you so?"

With a grave expression, the Sorceress relayed the news: the Fool had emerged from his self-imposed isolation, the Horn of the Fairies granting him renewed vigor and purpose. His joy and strength were unlike anything she had witnessed before.

"Joy? Strength?" the serpent hissed, its facade crumbling. "Preposterous!"

Slithering out of the chamber, it muttered to itself, aware of the Sorceress trailing him through her network of hidden mirrors. "This requires immediate action!" it spat. "The sooner they're wed, the better! Every moment they remain unchained is a chance for them to see… the truth. No, no, marriage was meant to bind them, not empower them!"

The Sorceress, ever pragmatic, offered a chilling solution. "Eliminate them," she rasped, her voice devoid of emotion.

The serpent coiled, scales glinting in the dim reflection of a hidden mirror. Eliminating them was tempting, but the backlash of a public execution couldn't be ignored. "Wedding invitations already adorn every corner of the Empire," it hissed. "Cancellation would spark rebellion. No, we need a swifter solution. Fetch the High Priest immediately."

"He's currently tending to earthquake victims," the Sorceress informed him, her voice flat. "Performing an early ceremony isn't on his agenda."

"Then make it so!" the serpent commanded, its voice hardening. "This union happens, no matter the cost."

The Sorceress, ever the strategist, offered an alternative. "Why force a union with this...Fool, obsessed with his fairy escapades? Another suitor would serve just as well. As long as she's wed and under our control, who she marries holds little consequence, wouldn't you agree?"

The serpent's forked tongue flickered, its smile widening into a cold, reptilian grin.