Clark Gillian

The Devious Dragon and the Fall of the Emperor


Chapter 23.
Doing the work until it doesn't work anymore.

Haunted by the Delegate Envoy's words and the chilling image of the slithering serpent, the Countess found herself trapped between two formidable fears. On one hand, the Princess's switch magic filled her with unease, and on the other, the serpent overlord and its Imperial Council inspired sheer terror. With no clear escape route, she knew she had to confront one of them.

Trembling, she steeled her nerves. This was her duty, her burden, dictated by the serpent's will. Her husband had readily complied with the creature's demands, securing advantages for their family. Why shouldn't she? Besides, the serpent had promised her continued status as a countess, essentially the same life she already knew. So, she chose to face the Princess once more.

Taking a deep breath outside the Princess's chambers, she straightened her attire and rapped on the door. The cheerful chatter within ceased abruptly. As the door opened, the Princess's laughter died on her lips, replaced by a wary silence. Huntress, who had been conversing with the Princess, turned to greet the Countess, their gazes filled with unspoken questions.

The Countess, opting for formality, bowed slightly before taking a seat. Huntress, sensing the need for privacy, excused herself with a brief nod, leaving the Countess and the Princess alone.

The silence stretched, thick with tension. Finally, Huntress's question hung in the air: "Princess, everyone is wondering... why, when you are already Crown Princess of the entire Empire, would you consent to becoming Queen of Hearts?"

The Princess sighed, her youthful face etched with worry. "It's to help my parents," she revealed after a moment's hesitation. "They're imprisoned in the Imperial Dungeons, and their release hinges on my coronation and marriage."

Before the Princess could elaborate, the Countess, her curiosity piqued, said, "Excuse me, but what might you be talking about?"

The Princess, avoiding eye contact, stared at the dancing flames in the fireplace. It was Huntress who took the reins, her voice grim, "Disasters are plaguing the land, Countess. You know of the Proud City of Flowers, reduced to ashes by falling stars."

The Countess's face hardened into a mask of composure. "Indeed, Huntress. A tragedy known to all."

Yet, the Princess saw past the facade. With piercing green eyes, she studied the Countess: the tremor in her hands, the tightly clasped fingers, the sharp features oddly at odds with the opulent, ill-fitting gown. "There's more," Huntress continued, her tone heavy with news. "Mad Meg and John Cook spoke of the City of Bridges, consumed by fire, and the City of Sheets swallowed by the sea, all within a short span."

Silence from the Countess. Huntress, sensing futility in further engagement, opted to speak, a rare occurrence for her. "Charming conversation, wouldn't you say?" she addressed the Princess, a veiled sneer twisting her lips.

"And curiously," Huntress added, her voice laced with suspicion, "these catastrophes seem confined to the outside world, never reaching the ears of us in the City of Acorns."

The Countess cleared her throat, a tremor betraying her controlled expression. "Some," she began, her voice strained, "choose to focus on happiness, to avoid dwelling on sorrows."

"Is that why you never speak of your late husband," the Princess countered, her voice sharp, "the Count of the Proud City of Flowers, buried beneath the ruins of his castle?"

The Princess, her brow furrowed, voiced her growing unease, "It's like these disasters never happened, Duchess. No word from the Council, no murmur from the Burgomaster... surely you realize the gravity of this, don't you?"

The Countess, ever the diplomat, offered a reassuring smile. "Perhaps the Council seeks to comfort the people, Princess, with the joyful prospect of your upcoming wedding! Think of it as a beacon of hope amidst the darkness."

But the Princess remained unconvinced. "A maybe," she stated with a hint of steel in her voice, "is just that – a maybe."

Turning towards Huntress, who had been a silent observer until then, the Countess finally acknowledged her presence. "And pray tell, Huntress," she inquired, her voice laced with feigned curiosity, "where does one acquire such intimate knowledge of governance?"

The Huntress, tall and unwavering, rose to her feet. With a swift motion, she slung her bow and arrow over her shoulder, her voice devoid of pretense. "Ladies and gentlemen are not my forte, Countess. But my instincts sharpen when I see the milk valued more than the milkman, the hunter forgotten over the meat, the farmer's toil lost in the shadow of the grain, and the baker and carpenter reduced to mere tools of their crafts."

The Countess, unable to meet her gaze, shifted her attention back to the Princess, a strained smile playing on her lips. "Unsurprising observations from someone who solely concerns themselves with survival, wouldn't you agree? Your vision extends only as far as yourself, not the needs of an entire nation."

But the Huntress stood resolute, her silence more powerful than any retort. Encouraged by her tacit support, the Princess spoke up, her voice gaining strength. "It is a shame," she declared, "that the Council chooses silence on these widespread tragedies!"

The Countess, sensing the shift in power, adopted a conciliatory tone. "Of course, child, such suffering is deplorable. But we must maintain normalcy, lest we unravel ourselves. Work continues, ensuring the necessities of life are met. We must remain united."

The Princess, still possessing traces of her witch powers, could keenly sense the dismissal in the Countess's words, echoing the dismissive tactics of the Sorceress. With newfound firmness, she repeated the Countess's words, each syllable weighted with meaning, "Making the things we need..."

"Do you think knowing about these tragedies would stop people from creating?" The Princess's voice, once hesitant, now held a spark of defiance.

The Countess, flustered by the shift in momentum, stammered, "I... I wouldn't hope so."

"But wouldn't it?" The Princess pressed, her gaze unwavering. "What if the milkmaids, the farmers, the hunters, the very backbone of this land, felt their labor was in vain? That a calamity could erase their efforts in an instant, rendering their toil meaningless?"

The Countess, ever the politician, carefully navigated her response. "Perhaps, in the face of such despair, they might falter. Their work, the very foundation of our society, could grind to a halt. Imagine, the baker refusing to knead his dough, the carpenter abandoning his tools... chaos would ensue."

A sardonic chuckle escaped the Huntress. "And what," she scoffed, "does a Countess know of true work, of the sweat and callouses earned under the relentless sun?"

The Countess, stung by the pointed remark, squeezed her eyes shut, hoping to silence the Huntress with childish defiance. But the Huntress, unfazed by such tactics, had witnessed similar petulance from many adorned in finery.

"Yet the threat of another disaster looms," the Princess interjected, her voice laced with concern.

"Indeed," the Countess conceded, her eyes remaining tightly shut, her posture rigid.

"The people of the City of Sheets, of the Proud City of Flowers," the Huntress continued, her voice echoing in the hushed room, "their labor too was devoured by calamity."

"A tragedy, to be sure," the Countess finally opened her eyes, her expression hardening. "But until that fateful day, their work sustained them, did it not?"

"Is that the plan then?" the Princess's voice boomed, echoing off the ornate furniture. "Work blindly, until the inevitable destruction arrives?"

An oppressive silence descended upon the room, broken only by the distant squabble of unseen cats and dogs.

"If you ask me, Princess," the Countess finally ventured, her voice strained, "that is the most prudent course."

With a decisive movement, the Huntress rose to her feet, her bow and arrow secured upon her shoulder. She dipped her head briefly towards the Princess, who offered a grateful smile. "Hunters," she declared, her voice ringing with conviction, "when a storm approaches, we warn each other. We huddle together for shelter, our unity our shield against the tempest."

The Huntress' resolute departure left the Countess with a faint, almost sinister smile playing on her lips. But the Princess' cold stare pierced through the facade.

"It's all well and good to preach self-reliance and freedom from obligation," the Countess remarked, her voice dripping with faux sweetness, "but tell me, Princess, have you ever heard of a kingdom built solely on hunters?"

The Princess, clearly unimpressed, stood up to leave. However, the Countess, determined to press her point, continued, her voice rising in urgency. "No such kingdom exists! Imagine the chaos if everyone simply took what they needed from the wild, unconstrained by responsibilities. A true, functioning nation requires a King and Queen, shouldering the burden of two hundred and twenty-two responsibilities, two hundred and twenty-two duties, two hundred and twenty-two tasks - a system where everyone contributes to the collective good."

The Princess, overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks mentioned, shook her head in bewilderment. "You always tell me about this story, this system, however I have yet to see it doing what you say it does in reality."

"Very well, Princess," the Countess sighed, her voice laden with weary defeat. "Before you go, I wanted to ask you something."

The Princess raised an eyebrow. 

"Would you," the Countess's voice trembled slightly, "accompany me to the Proud City of Flowers? To see the ruins of my home, my castle... the remnants of my family?"

Amazement flickered across the Princess's face. She couldn't help but recall the Countess's seemingly stoic response to her husband's passing, her refusal to participate in the mourning rituals. Was this grief finally surfacing?

"That..." the Princess began, then paused. "Of course," she said firmly, "I will come."

The Countess reached out, her unexpected touch startling the Princess. "Thank you," she whispered, her voice thick with emotion. "You are doing me a great kindness."

The Princess didn't see it at first, but a subtle flicker in the Countess's eyes betrayed her. A shadow detached itself from the corner, slithering smoothly into the room – a white snake, the same one that had offered her a gift and whispered promises. Surprise washed over the Princess.

"You!" she exclaimed, "I'm here, just as you asked!"

"Indeed you are, child," the snake's voice slithered into her mind, laced with amusement. "Welcome back."

Frustration gnawed at her. "Then why can't I see my parents?"

"Ah," the serpent chuckled, a sound like rustling leaves. "It's not quite so simple, is it? Remember, you came to learn, and learning demands patience. You'll soon discover complexities you never imagined."

"But I'm ready to learn! Why wait?" she pressed, impatience bubbling like a spring thaw.

"Patience, little one," the snake purred, its forked tongue flicking playfully. "But let me offer a compromise. I shall personally ensure your reunion. Consider it a gift, from one learner to another."

"Thank you!" cried the Princess, relief washing over her.

"Soon," the snake hissed, vanishing into the shadows.

Suddenly, a strangled sob echoed from a nearby room. The Countess emerged, her eyes red-rimmed and swollen. A servant scurried past, whispering something about cries heard from the ruins of the City of Flowers.

"What is it?" the Princess asked gently.

"News... from the city," the Countess choked out. "They heard cries under the rubble... I long to help with the search, but..."

"Then let us go!" the Princess declared, her voice ringing with newfound purpose. "No more waiting. Why should we, when people need us?"

The Countess stared, stunned by the Princess's sudden fire. A hesitant smile touched her lips. "Yes," she breathed, "we shouldn't wait."


With the wind in their hair, the Princess and the Countess, flanked by her five loyal knights, raced towards the Proud City of Flowers. The once smooth road had been ravaged by the starry rain, transformed into a treacherous path of yawning craters. The Princess found herself staring nervously at the deep cracks, imagining their horses tumbling in, but the Countess remained focused, urging her steed onward with relentless determination. Blinded by desperation, she pushed her mount too hard, the horse frothing at the mouth in protest.

"Faster!" the Countess cried, her voice laced with frantic hope. "Who cries beneath the stones?"

But the exhausted horse could take no more. Its eyes rolled white, and it veered dangerously towards a gaping abyss.

"Stop!" the Countess screamed, yanking on the reins.

The panicked animal ignored her pleas, thundering towards the edge. The Princess and the knights spurred their horses, desperately trying to reach the runaway steed, but it was too late. With a chilling scream, the Countess flung herself off just as the horse plunged into the abyss, its final roar swallowed by the depths.

Trembling, the Countess allowed the knights to help her to her feet. Dusting herself off, she offered a wan smile. "Apologies," she murmured, her voice barely above a whisper. "Grief can make one reckless."

The Princess, speechless, simply nodded.

They entered the Proud City of Flowers, not to a festive welcome, but to a landscape of devastation. The once vibrant city lay in ruins, the central castle, once a symbol of the Countess's lineage, now a mere mound of rubble.

Tears streamed down the Princess's face as she beheld the shattered remains of the castle, once a symbol of power and prosperity. With the Countess clinging to her arm, she navigated the treacherous landscape of broken stones, her ears straining for any hint of a familiar voice.

One of the knights, their faces grim, scaled the peak of the rubble and planted a banner emblazoned with the Count's coat of arms, a poignant reminder of what was lost. Witnessing the devastation and the suffering etched on the faces of the survivors, the Princess felt a spark ignite within her. This was her calling.

"Hear me all!" she proclaimed, her voice ringing out with newfound conviction. "I swear to rebuild this city, brick by brick, starting with this very castle – a monument to the Count who rests beneath its rubble. We shall call it the Count-in-Stone, not with statues of cold stone, but with a living memorial, a city reborn. This castle will rise anew, grander and more magnificent than ever before!"

The crowd erupted in cheers, their faces alight with hope. But the Princess wasn't done.

"And let it be known," she continued, her voice rising further, "that this castle shall be no mere edifice of stone. It will be a castle with flesh and blood in its foundations, a beating heart that nourishes lives and fosters a brighter future!"

The cheers thundered anew, reaching a crescendo. No one cheered louder than the Countess, tears glistening in her eyes.


The endless lecture droned on: kingly tasks, duties, works. Enough to make any Fool's head explode. "One more word," he muttered, grabbing his fishing gear, "and I'm out of here!" He stormed out of the City of Oaks, seeking solace in the quiet companionship of the idle fisherman and the elusive fairies of the ruined castle.

By the water's edge, where silence usually prevailed, the fisherman surprised him. He spoke of a bygone era, of a forgotten kingdom he once ruled. A kingdom teeming with knights and damsels, overflowing with meat and endless barley-wine.

One hunting expedition led him and his knights astray, deep into the heart of the forest. There, they stumbled upon a breathtaking castle, home to enchanting fairies. Thrilled by these strong visitors, skilled in action and story, the fairies offered them the bounty of their hidden realm.

But most importantly, they offered a Horn of Plenty. A magnificent, gleaming vessel promising to conjure any desire. Yet, the Fisher King was already swimming in wealth. His kingdom lacked nothing. The horn, to him, held no allure. Instead, he and his men coveted something else: the fairies themselves.

They abducted the most beautiful, dragging them back to the human world to become their wives. But the fairies were creatures of the wild, unable to survive outside their forest home. One by one, they withered and died.

This transgression triggered a cascade of misfortune. Cattle perished, crops rotted, blossoms remained barren. Their kingdom was cursed, a direct consequence of their greed and cruelty.

The Fisher King's remorseful search proved fruitless. No matter how long he traversed the land, the well and castle remained elusive. His kingdom crumbled into famine, his knights abandoning him. Alone, pockets empty, he resorted to fishing in a meager stream.

Then, whispers from the well. He leaned close, straining to decipher the faint voices. Nothing but whispers. Driven by desperation, he confessed his sins, begging forgiveness and his kingdom's restoration.

Silence followed. Fear of the tyrant king and his past transgressions kept the fairies and elves at bay. Their reply, a lesson etched in patience: "Learn to fish, King. Live by its bounty. Appreciate what you earn, not what you crave. Become a fisherman, not a conqueror."

He fished. He lived with his mistakes.

The Fool, captivated by the story, spoke, "I have that horn."

The idle fisherman, neither joyful nor mournful, remained lost in his past. Finally, with vacant eyes, he mumbled, "Did you catch anything?"

"No," replied the Fool.

The Fisherman King simply uttered, "Oh," and fell silent.

Later, whispers danced from the well. As the Fool approached, he saw elves flitting out, fairies gathering around the ruined castle, now shimmering with their ethereal light. It was alive again.

"Why wouldn't you show yourselves to the Fisherman King anymore?" the Fool inquired, concern lacing his voice after a time spent with the playful Fairies. "He's terribly alone."

The Fairies exchanged knowing glances, their ethereal laughter subsiding into a soft rustle like wind through leaves. "He was always the lonely fisherman, even when adorned with a crown," they explained, their voices like tinkling bells. "From that loneliness he allowed his kingdom to crumble beneath his feet."

The Fool frowned, unsure if he truly grasped their meaning. Yet, a new layer of pity settled within him for the seemingly idle fisherman. Because, the Fool realized, the Fisherman King had never truly believed in what ruling meant. He hadn't cared about losing his reign... until it was gone. And then, the responsibilities, tasks, and burdens the Burgomaster had described suddenly held some weight.

"Maybe they're not so bad after all," he mused to himself. "Perhaps being a king is simply about giving thought to things. But, more importantly, learning to think about things that matter to me, things that allow me to matter to those I cherish."