Clark Gillian

The Devious Dragon and the Fall of the Emperor


Chapter 18.
The feast and the cloud.

The tension between Mad Meg and John Cook hung heavy, their bickering filling the air with discord. The Fool and the Princess, fresh from Fairy Paradise, observed the spectacle with wide eyes, captivated by the sheer volume of words used to convey the same point, the animated expressions mirroring the heated exchange, and the strange silence that spoke louder than any outburst. For them, it was a fascinating display of human interaction, a world apart from the ethereal realm they had just left.

Finally, the Fool shivered, breaking the silence. "Well," he murmured, "Back to reality."

The Princess, unable to stifle a chuckle, gestured at her oversized dress. A quick spell and a snap of her fingers later, it fit her perfectly. "Indeed," she said, delight sparkling in her eyes. "My magic hasn't lost its touch."

When the Countess arrived, her deep bow surprised them both. Without a word, she instructed her four horsemen to equip the Fool, now known as the Knight of Hearts, with their own armor. Each rider contributed a piece: arms, chainmail, legs, and finally, a helmet. To cap it off, the Countess presented him with a sword, its history etched in her somber words. "This belonged to my husband," she said, her voice heavy with grief. "Count of the Proud City of Flowers, he is now, unfortunately, Count of the stone beneath which he rests."

The Fool hefted the sword, its weight grounding him in the moment. "Thank you, Countess," he said, his voice filled with newfound resolve. "I promise to honor this blade and the memory of the Count beneath the stone."

A sudden shift in his perception startled him. A tiny voice, barely a whisper, tickled his ear. On his shoulder, a small mouse perched itself, its beady eyes twinkling.

"Nice sword," it squeaked, adjusting itself in his collar. "But let's be honest, nothing beats crusty bread and raisins."

The Fool chuckled, surprised by the talking rodent. "Speaking of food," he mused, feeling a pang of hunger, "I could certainly use a bite."

As if cued by his words, the Countess chimed in, oblivious to the mouse's presence. "Marvelous timing, Fool! A messenger has just returned from the City of Acorns, bearing news of a grand banquet awaiting us."

The messenger cleared his throat, his eyes darting nervously between the excited faces and the Countess's impassive expression. "Ahem," he began, "The Burgomaster... well, he was quite insistent I emphasize... the meat situation."

A ripple of confusion ran through the crowd. Mag Meg's brow furrowed. "The meat situation?"

The messenger gulped. "Yes, well, he said you wouldn't believe the... quantity. Mountains of meat, he said! So much you'd be exclaiming, 'I never thought I could consume such a vast quantity of meat! Verily, it is a meaty mountain! A glorious, meat-laden mountain!'"

He finished with a flourish, a bead of sweat trickling down his temple. The silence that followed was thick with awkwardness. The messenger shifted uncomfortably, wondering if he'd somehow mangled the message.

The Countess, however, merely smiled faintly. "Thank you, messenger," she said, her voice betraying a hint of amusement. "That does sound... substantial."

A collective cheer erupted, even from the usually grumpy John Cook. "Finally, some decent food!" Mag Meg boomed, wiping away a fantastical tear. "My cooking could use a challenge from real chefs!"

The messenger, emboldened by their enthusiasm, continued, his voice thick with excitement. "The Burgomaster himself promised mountains of meat! So much meat, you'll be saying, 'I never thought I could eat so much meat! Verily, it is a mountain of meat! A glorious mountain!'"

The Countess, her brow furrowed, cut him off with a curt nod. "Thank you, messenger," she said, her voice laced with amusement. With a wave of her hand, she dismissed him.

The messenger, his message delivered, bowed deeply before collapsing against a nearby tree, drained from his sprint.

Amidst the merriment, the mouse on the Fool's shoulder piped up again, its voice barely audible. "I do enjoy a good helping of meat myself," it remarked. "This Burgomaster fellow sounds promising, doesn't he? Sounds like he has quite the stockpile of meat."

The Fool nodded cautiously to the mouse nestled in his armor collar. "Indeed, but a banquet seems odd. Why a banquet?" he muttered, a spark of curiosity flickering in his gaze.

Meanwhile, the Princess, unaware of the miniature conversation, captivated the travelers. At the Countess's request, they offered their carts for a grand entrance into the City of Acorns. With a flourish and a whisper of magic, the Princess transformed two ordinary carts into a magnificent carriage, its elaborate carvings seemingly flowing from the wood itself.

"Impressively efficient," the mouse commented, nuzzling deeper into the Fool's collar.

The crowd erupted in applause as the Princess led the Fool into their fantastical chariot. The travelers, dazzled by the display of sorcery, showered them with even more adoration.

Later that day, the peculiar procession entered the City of Acorns. Beyond the bridge, a wave of cheers and a shower of flower petals greeted them. Flanked by the Countess and her mismatched horsemen, the Fool (with a talking mouse as his unexpected companion), John Cook, and a beaming Mad Meg, they paraded down the boulevard, waving to their enthusiastic audience.

At the central square, beneath the towering oak trees, the Burgomaster awaited them in his full regalia: Burgomaster's garb, Burgomaster's chain, Burgomaster's rings, and the crowning glory - the official Burgomaster's sash. A small orchestra serenaded him as he stood by the market kiosk, anticipation building for the arrival of his unusual guests.

Sweat beaded on the Burgomaster's brow, not from the warm clothes or heavy chains, but from the unnerving gaze of the High Priest's envoy. The gaunt, stern man stood sentinel in the reception committee organized by the Imperial Council.

Earlier, the envoy had delivered the Council's decree: The Fool and the Princess were to be wed immediately, crowned as king and queen of a new kingdom gifted by the Council. The announcement fell to the Burgomaster, and the envoy's watchful eyes added to his growing anxiety.

Long tables on the square groaned under a feast fit for royalty – everything except the promised boars, pheasants, and hare stews. "Where in the world is the Huntress?" the Burgomaster muttered, his mind flitting between anxieties.

Then, cheers and applause erupted as the procession reached the market square. Once the Countess and her riders, along with the Fool and Princess, dismounted, the Burgomaster, drenched in sweat, bowed deeply.

"Welcome!" he boomed, his voice solemn. "Welcome to the City of Acorns! We are honored and overjoyed to welcome you, Daughter of the Emperor, Knight of Hearts, and the Countess of the Proud City of Flowers. Such an honor rarely graces our humble town. Be most welcome!"

He gestured to the small orchestra, their music filling the air as he bowed again, deeper this time, to kiss the Princess's hand. He repeated the gesture for the Fool, offering a firm handshake, all the while aware of the High Priest's envoy watching like a hawk.

"It is an absolute and complete honor that you have chosen our city to announce your return from the Elven world!"

The Fool blinked, speechless. Deep down, he couldn't fathom his arrival being a momentous occasion anywhere in the human realm.

Unfazed by the Burgomaster's anxieties, the Princess stepped forward, her voice warm and gracious. "Dear Burgomaster," she said, "your welcome is truly magnificent! This is a moment I shall certainly cherish."

Relief washed over the Burgomaster as he bowed deeply. He stole a glance at the High Priest's envoy, whose frown now seemed etched in stone.

"And we eagerly await your wedding," he blurted, bowing again to avoid their eyes.

"Wedding?" The Fool echoed, confused.

"Indeed," the Burgomaster rushed on. "As the future King and Queen of a new kingdom – a gift from the Imperial Council, of course – marriage is a prerequisite."

The Princess's mind drifted back to the serpent's words – a throne, a kingdom, a queen's rightful place alongside a king. A knowing smile played on her lips.

"Oh dear, haven't you two said your vows yet?" the Countess inquired, her voice velvety smooth.

"Is that... an issue?" The Fool blinked, bewildered by the sudden urgency.

"Not at all!" the Burgomaster hastened to assure them. "A mere formality, a minor requirement for any aspiring king and queen. Naturally, everyone knows yours is a deeply woven bond, forged in the hearts and souls, as it were! Blessed by the Enchanted Deer itself, who would dare question its decree?" He cast a pleading glance at the Princess, hoping her approval would appease the envoy.

The Princess, however, seemed delighted. "Certainly," she declared, "my Knight and I were sadly deprived of a proper ceremony in the human world. We shall rectify that oversight, as becomes us."

The Countess's eyes widened. Delightful butterflies fluttered in her stomach, mingled with a fierce determination to be of service to her future queen. The wheels of fate were turning, and she was determined to play her part, whatever it may be.

The Countess, her voice brimming with enthusiasm, seized the Princess's hand. "Allow me the honor of orchestrating your wedding celebration! It would bring me immense joy."

The Princess faltered, glancing at the Fool, who stood overwhelmed by the whirlwind of events. "I..." she stammered.

Taking a deep breath, she composed herself. "Of course," she declared, a hint of excitement blooming in her voice.

The Burgomaster's relief was palpable as he caught the approving nod from the High Priest's envoy. "What a joyous occasion!" he proclaimed, beaming at the surrounding crowd.

A wave of bows rippled through the welcoming committee and spectators. The Fool, however, remained distinctly uncomfortable, despite the Princess's hand still clasped warmly in his. Overcome with emotion by the unexpected reception, a single tear welled up in her eye, unnoticed by all but him.

Suddenly, a jarring shriek pierced the jubilant atmosphere, echoing from beyond the city walls. Someone was shouting frantically, the words indistinguishable from afar.

"Now what?" the Burgomaster muttered, his brow furrowed in concern.

"Is that... someone on horseback?" the Fool asked, squinting towards the source of the commotion.

"I can't quite make it out," the Princess replied, uncertainty lacing her voice.

The shouts grew louder, clearer with each passing moment. "A hunter!" the Countess declared, her eyes widening.

The Burgomaster's heart plummeted. "Dear heavens," he thought, a sense of foreboding gnawing at him.

"Take cover!" a woman's panicked voice cried out, galloping closer on horseback. "Everyone, take cover now!"

The crowd remained frozen, bewildered. As far as they could see, nothing out of the ordinary disturbed the clear blue sky, save for a gathering of ominous clouds on the horizon.

"That woman's lost her mind," Mad Meg scoffed, rolling her eyes.

"Take cover, I say!" the rider shrieked again, this time launching an arrow into the seemingly empty air behind her.

The High Priest's envoy shuffled anxiously towards the Burgomaster. "What in the world is she doing?" he hissed.

An astonishing sight met their eyes. The arrow, instead of disappearing into the cloud, seemed to strike something unseen.

"That's no cloud," Mad Meg murmured, a tinge of awe replacing her earlier ridicule.

Too late. The menacing cloud chasing the huntress cast a chilling shadow over the town, blotting out the sun's warm rays. An unnerving screech echoed from the darkness within, sending shivers down everyone's spines. Helplessly, they watched as the huntress, still shouting warnings, vanished into the inky depths of the cloud.

Then, it became horrifyingly clear. The cloud wasn't a cloud at all, but a swirling mass of dark birds, creatures of shadow unseen for centuries, emerging from their forgotten caverns deep underground. Like a malevolent plague, they descended upon the City of Acorns.

Claws glinting like knives, they tore through everything in their path. No shelter offered complete protection. Birds ripped through windows, their frantic flapping filling the air like a cacophony of terror. Panic seized the crowd. Those who couldn't find refuge huddled together, offering flimsy protection against the relentless storm of razor-sharp beaks.

Even the Fool and the Princess were swept away by the swirling dark tide, flung onto the cobblestones of the square as if by a cruel wind. Disoriented and battered, the Fool cried out, his voice lost in the chaos.

The Princess struggled to rise, limbs heavy with fear. "What's happening?" she cried, desperation echoing in her voice.

Seeing her stumble, the Countess's horsemen intervened, throwing themselves around her protectively. "Stay down!" the Countess's voice pierced the pandemonium.

Unable to see amidst the swirling feathers and frantic shadows, the Princess clawed her way free of the armored knights. With a snap of her fingers, a burst of white and yellow flames erupted from her hand, momentarily mesmerizing the birds into an eerie stillness. The city held its breath.

"Go away!" she commanded, her voice ringing with newfound power. Rising to her feet, she threw out her hands, and the white flames danced outwards, driving the darkness back, scattering the terrified birds like smoke.

The princess echoed her own cry, "Ha!" unleashing another wave of white flames that chased the last stragglers from the city. Exhausted but victorious, she stood alone amidst the wreckage the flock had wrought. All eyes were on her, wide with stunned silence.

Then, like a dam breaking, the silence shattered. A thunderous cheer erupted, applause washing over the Princess as she stumbled into the Fool's arms, drained but resolute. He looked around in awe, the image of the Princess, beautiful and powerful, wielding magic to save them all, etched into his mind. Now, she lay against him, her breathing catching up, a stark contrast to the raging inferno she'd unleashed moments ago.

Slowly, hesitantly, people began to rise, the initial shock giving way to the grim reality of the devastation. None had been spared by the avian onslaught – mothers cradling injured children, fathers surveying the wreckage of their homes, elders clutching at shattered memories.

"We are so fortunate you arrived!" the Burgomaster boomed, clapping his hands in forced exuberance.

"So fortunate," the Fool echoed silently, but a shadow of doubt lingered in his mind.