Clark Gillian

The Devious Dragon and the Fall of the Emperor


Chapter 5.
Sealed Fate.

In the heart of the sprawling Empire, the City of Stars gleamed, a monument to power. From its heights, the four kingdoms bowed: Spears, Coins, Swords, and Cups. Beyond their borders lay untamed forests, whispered-of free villages, and the mysterious unknown.

But such whispers held no solace for the prisoner chained to the dungeon wall. Cold stone bit into his bare feet, echoing the chill that had replaced his former grandeur. Gone were the finery and power, replaced by matted beard and soiled rags. Five finely attired figures loomed above him, their noses pinched beneath perfumed handkerchiefs against the dungeon's stench.

The Emperor, a shadow of his former self, sat imprisoned. Emaciated, his once-proud features gaunt, his beard a tangled mess. The finery of the ball had become threadbare velvet clinging to his form. 

One counselor knelt, seeking eye contact. "More Counsel Halls than ever rise across the lands," he declared, "Villages, towns and cities you had never conquered or besieged are now building them. Our Empire thrives without you!"

The Emperor remained silent, gaze fixed on a faint glow in the corner. A ghostchild, its ethereal form shimmering with mournful light, peered through the barred window.

"I want to see the Empress," he rasped, his voice echoing in the cold stone.

A ripple of cruel laughter echoed through the damp dungeon, bouncing off the cold stone walls. The counselors, faces contorted with amusement, watched the Emperor remain motionless, his head bowed. "Aren't you going to beg?" one sneered, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "Perhaps even a 'please' wouldn't go amiss, Your Majesty."

Silence. The ghostchild, a shimmering wisp of sorrow in the corner, spoke softly, its voice barely a whisper. "Daddy, can I go outside? It's so beautiful out there..."

Guilt twisted the Emperor's gut. Shame burned in his eyes, hidden beneath the tangled mess of his beard. "I should have taken you more often," he rasped, the words heavy with regret. "If only I'd known..."

The counselors exchanged smug glances, their laughter dying down to snickers. "Lost his mind, hasn't he?" one remarked, his voice laced with disdain.

Suddenly, the Emperor's head snapped up, his gaze sharp and cold. "How many villages?" he demanded, his voice surprisingly strong.

The confident smirk slipped from the counselor's face. "Well, estimating precisely is..." He cleared his throat. "Let's just say, our valiant soldiers have persuaded all conquered villages to build council halls. Quite the expansion, wouldn't you agree?"

The Emperor stared at him, a flicker of something dangerous glinting in his eyes. He shook his head slowly, a barely audible murmur escaping his lips.

"Mumbling again?" the counselor scoffed. "Speak up, Your Majesty. We can't quite decipher your wisdom."

The Emperor's voice, though low, echoed in the oppressive silence. "No free villages," he said, each word dripping with ominous finality.

A tense silence descended upon the chamber. The counselor's smile faltered, replaced by a flicker of unease. "New kingdom, indeed," he finally choked out, his voice losing its earlier bravado.

The Emperor's gaze drifted back to the corner where the ghostchild hummed a mournful tune, its tiny fingers manipulating a crude puppet. "Daddy," it chirped, a spark of hope in its ethereal eyes, "when I grow strong, can I conquer kingdoms too, like you did with your knights and horses?"

Grief constricted the Emperor's chest. Guilt gnawed at him. "If only your illness hadn't taken hold, my child," he rasped, his voice hoarse with regret. "I would have shown you all the wonders I conquered, just for you."

The counselors exchanged knowing glances, their lips pursed in amusement. One, adorned with glittering necklaces that clinked with his movements, leaned closer. "There's something we need to ask," he murmured, his voice laced with veiled intent.

The Emperor remained silent, his jaw clenched tight. He knew their games. Greed, not virtue, fueled their actions.

"How much," the counselor drawled, his words dripping with calculation, "would you give to see your daughter again?"

A jolt of pain lanced through the Emperor's heart. His eyes, filled with longing, met the counselor's cold gaze. "Everything," he growled, the word laden with desperation.

The counselor chuckled, a hollow sound that echoed in the dank dungeon. "An admirable offer," he purred, "but for a man who owns nothing, 'everything' holds little value."

An angry retort burned on the Emperor's tongue, but he swallowed it down. He knew their game. Bribery, not justice, was their currency.

"Do you think the whispers will die down?" the counselor continued, his voice turning sharp. "The Princess and her Knight have left their mark, not just on this city, but on the entire Empire too, just like your council halls."

"Spare us your theatrics," one counselor sneered, the glint of jewels mocking the Emperor's misery. "We wrote your speeches, remember? You really believe your daughter will remain beyond the veil, when she has shown us she will use her witching powers to take the throne?"

The Emperor's jaw clenched. Grief gnawed at him, but defiance flickered in his eyes. "She's safe," he growled, his voice laced with steel. "Unlike me, a rotting reminder of your treachery."

"Not quite," another counselor purred, his voice smooth as silk. "We have a... peculiar offer. Your daughter's life hangs in the balance."

A jolt of fear ripped through the Emperor. The elven gate, an ominous whisper, echoed in his mind. "What do you know?" he hissed, the tremor in his voice betraying him.

The counselor leaned closer, a chilling smile playing on his lips. "We seek an artifact," he murmured, "one that unlocks the gate and leads to... her. We shall find her, regardless of your cooperation."

The Emperor's fists clenched until knuckles turned white. His daughter, trapped in an unknown realm because of his failures? Despair battled with fury within him.

"But," the counselor continued, his voice dripping with false generosity, "we offer a choice. Sign this document, acknowledge our newfound kingdom, and she might live. Refuse, and..." he trailed off, letting the unspoken threat hang heavy.

With a shaky hand, the Emperor dipped the quill and scrawled his signature, the scratch of the metal echoing his defeat. As the red wax cooled, leaving an official imprint of his betrayal, the counselors erupted in triumphant cheers. Yet, even amidst their celebration, a tense silence descended when the Emperor spoke.

"A kingdom?" he rasped, his voice laden with suspicion. "Why not simply imprison her? Why this... farce?"

The lead counselor smirked, his eyes glinting with cold amusement.

"She must be seen to take her place," he drawled.

"Beneath us."