Clark Gillian

The Devious Dragon and the Fall of the Emperor


Chapter 21.
The lackey and the pigeons.

Amidst the lingering tremors of the City of Stars' earthquake, invitations fluttered out like oblivious butterflies. They announced a grand wedding – the Princess and her Knight, united before the world, about to be crowned King and Queen of Hearts. This new kingdom, dreamt up by the Imperial Council, would rule over seven free cities: Bridges, Sheets, Acorns, Trousers, Lovers, Proud Flowers, and Hazels. All without a word to the Princess or the Fool, the very individuals this "new kingdom" supposedly celebrated.

Messenger doves, burdened with the weight of expectations, took flight. They carried golden invitations to barons, marquises, and graves, urging them to attend this birth of a new era, preferably adorned in their most dazzling regalia.

Two such pigeons, one bearing a hefty golden letter, the other a humble scrap, landed weary at the Castle of Spears. The Pigeon Master, ever dutiful, carefully housed them and presented their packages to a nervous lackey, who shuffled off towards the royal quarters.

The castle hummed with the quiet of late hours, the candlelight dwindling down long corridors. Reaching the heavily guarded doorway to the King and Queen's chambers, the lackey took a deep breath and rapped his knuckles against the oak.

The Queen, clad in her nightgown, answered the door. "A dove, your Highness," the lackey stammered, thrusting the two letters into her hands.

"At this hour?" she questioned, her brow furrowed.

With a swiftness that almost sent the lackey tumbling back, the Queen snatched the letters and slammed the door shut. Laughter danced in the eyes of the nearby guards, barely concealed behind raised hands.

The Queen, perched at her writing table, remained silent, her brow furrowed in concentration. This unspoken tension gnawed at the King, who shifted uncomfortably on the bed.

"What is it, love?" he finally asked, his voice laced with concern.

"I... what on earth," the Queen mumbled, more to herself than to him.

"Darling, you're worrying me," the King pressed, reaching out to touch her hand.

"A royal wedding!" she exclaimed, finally breaking her silence. "In one of the free cities, apparently."

"Which city?"

"The City of Lovers."

"But who could possibly be getting married there, and still call it royal?" the King questioned, genuine confusion painting his face.

The Queen, however, seemed lost in the depths of the invitation, its contents utterly bewildering. "The Princess... the Emperor's daughter... she's back! But they're to be... King and Queen of Hearts? Of a new kingdom? It makes no sense!"

The King shot out of bed, disbelief etched on his face. "This has to be a joke!"

"It seems real," the Queen countered, her voice heavy with unspoken thoughts. "The free cities and their lands, all united as a new kingdom."

"And why not wage war on the City of Stars to free her parents?" the King demanded, his fierce nature clashing with his usual practicality. "Wouldn't that be more fitting?"

"Perhaps," the Queen mused, "but maybe a kingdom is the key to freeing them."

"And who is this knight she's marrying?" the King continued, tossing the discarded letter aside.

The Queen, gazing out the window with a melancholic air, answered in a soft voice, "Probably the young man who fell from the sky at the ball. The one who took her to the fairy lands."

"Ah, him," the King replied, a hint of understanding dawning on his face.

A spark of light flickered in the Queen's eyes. "Do you remember what it felt like, that fleeting glimpse of the fairy kingdom? As if everything shifted beneath our feet?"

"Who could forget?" the King said, a nostalgic sigh escaping his lips. "Nothing has been the same since."

The Queen sighed, the heavy weight of their confined reality settling back upon them.

The news in the golden letter was grim: the Emperor imprisoned, their son a fugitive, and all royal families, including themselves, held captive in their own castles by the tyrannical Imperial Council. The situation seemed utterly hopeless.

"Locked up," the King mused, bitterness lacing his voice. "Like puppets waiting for the next scene in their farce of a play." He thought of the upcoming wedding, the Princess and the Fool, pawns manipulated by forces unseen.

"Or staging our own performance, perhaps," the Queen countered, a wry smile playing on her lips.

Suddenly, the King remembered the second note. "What of the other message?"

The Queen, lost in thought, had momentarily forgotten the smaller parchment. Retrieving it, she unfolded it, her expression shifting from grim to surprised, then softening into a smile – the first genuine smile the King had seen in a long time.

"Our son," she whispered, handing the note to him.

"Shhh!" the King hushed her, mindful of the watchful guards. He read the note, then reread it, astonishment etched on his face.

"He's back!" the Queen exclaimed, unable to contain her joy. "He's nearby, at the Oblique Castle of Astronomers!"

"But now is not the time," the King cautioned, worry clouding his features. "It's too dangerous!"

"That was his favorite place as a child," the Queen replied, her voice carrying a familiar resolve.

The King joined her, taking her hand in his. "My love," he said gently, "bringing him here would be foolish. This castle is a hornet's nest."

"He won't be coming here," the Queen assured him, pointing back to the note.

The King reread the message, his eyes widening. "He wants us to... This is unbelievable. He's asking for..."

"We shall do it," the Queen declared firmly.

"Will it work?" the King questioned, doubt lingering in his voice.

"It doesn't matter," the Queen countered, her gaze resolute. "If we, as King and Queen, refuse to stand against this tyranny, what purpose did our crowns serve?"

A slow smile curved the King's lips. "You're right," he said, a spark of defiance lighting up his eyes. "Perhaps it's time to taste freedom again, to act like true rulers once more."

"Then let's do what he says," the Queen agreed, pulling him into a warm embrace. "Our son needs us, and we will not disappoint him."

Summoned back into the King and Queen's presence, the young lackey braced himself for another reprimand. Instead, a far graver task awaited him.

"A perilous mission burdens you tonight," the King declared, his voice heavy with urgency. "The fate of many hinges on your success. We would have entrusted it to others, but circumstances bind us. You, young man, must carry the torch."

Three missives, penned by the King and Queen themselves, materialized in his trembling hands. Each letter, attached to a carrier pigeon, held a message destined for the royal courts of neighboring kingdoms. Delivering them undetected before dawn was paramount.

Fear gnawed at the young man, clad in his modest green-red garb. Yet, the knowledge that so many lives rested on his shoulders ignited a flame of courage within him. This was his moment, his chance to etch his name in the annals of bravery.

With a solemn reverence, the King and Queen pressed kisses upon his forehead, their silent gratitude a heavy weight on his heart. He knew failure meant not just his demise, but theirs as well. Sleep was an unknown luxury that night.

First, he feigned slumber, leaving his bed undisturbed. Then, when the castle settled into a deceptive quiet, he donned his darkest attire – a cloak, shoes, trousers, and hat, all the color of ink. As the hour reached its peak of blackness, he crept out, the three letters clutched tightly in his grasp.

Meanwhile, oblivious to the unfolding drama, the Imperial Council's guards patrolled the castle. Their strutting patrols offered little protection, more concerned with grand appearances than diligent scrutiny. Yet, their eyes were still sharp, and a lone figure cloaked in midnight hues would surely draw suspicion.

With a pounding heart, the young lackey navigated the labyrinthine corridors. He dodged past reveling marquises, their laughter echoing in the halls. He skirted around pipe-smoking writers, their musings blending with the night's whispers. He tiptoed by stargazers, their instruments aimed at the heavens, unaware of the drama unfolding beneath their feet.

Reaching the pinnacle of the pigeon tower, the young lackey's breath caught in his throat. Moonlight cast long, eerie shadows, but resolve steeled his nerves. With nimble fingers, he attached the first message to the leg of the pigeon known for its swift flight to the Castle of Cups. He repeated the action with the next two, entrusting messages to the Castles of Swords and Coins respectively. Each bird soared into the night, carrying precious seeds of rebellion.

He exhaled, the weight of his responsibility pressing down. But the task wasn't complete. Now, he had to create a diversion.

With a swift movement, he flung open all the pigeon cages. The startled birds erupted in a flurry, feathers rippling through the air as they circled the tower in a chaotic symphony. Their frantic cries pierced the night, echoing through the castle and jolting its drowsy inhabitants awake.

The young lackey flung open the tower door and raced down the stairs, feigning panic. Confused voices of guards boomed as they hurried towards the commotion. He doubled back, weaving through corridors, joining the growing throng of curious onlookers emerging from their chambers, disheveled and bewildered.

"What's all this ruckus?" he exclaimed, feigning astonishment, hoping to blend in.

"Pigeons! All gone!" someone cried, bewildered.

"Must be some trickery," another muttered.

Sensing a nearby stare, the young lackey excused himself and slipped away, adrenaline pumping through his veins. He navigated the castle's back passages, his heart pounding a frantic rhythm against his ribs. He had to reach the stables, mount a horse, and disappear before suspicion fell upon him.

At the stables, the frantic commotion had stirred the horses, making them restless. Unaware of the young lackey's presence, a cunning guard lurked in the shadows, observing him as he saddled a stallion. Just as he swung his leg over the mount, the guard's voice cut through the night.

"Planning a late-night ride, are we? Particularly curious behavior, considering the...unusual events of the evening, wouldn't you say?" She stepped into the moonlight, the glint of her drawn sword unmistakable. "Over the years, I've learned that those responsible for such oddities are often found amongst those fleeing the scene."

The lackey's heart hammered against his ribs. His clever ploy was unraveling. "Not at all!" he stammered, his voice betraying his nervousness. "Urgent matters demand my immediate departure."

"Leaving the castle requires prior declaration and approval," the guard countered, her tone sharp. "Do you have permission?"

Panic gnawed at him. "I...I forgot," he admitted, his mind racing for an escape.

"And perhaps you also forgot," she pressed on, a smirk playing on her lips, "that this castle is under house arrest? Or was that another slip of memory?"

He desperately considered a daring move, grabbing his dagger and striking at the guard before she could react. But one misstep, and his mission, his freedom, everything would be over. The guard's amusement fueled his defiance. He drew his dagger, a primal snarl escaping his lips.

With a swift motion, he struck, the blade finding its mark on the guard's arm. A cry of pain filled the air. He followed it up with another thrust, this time connecting with her leg. Blood welled, staining the moonlight red. Horrified, he dropped the dagger, his body trembling. But hesitation meant capture. With a desperate cry, he scrambled onto the horse and galloped into the night, clutching the final message entrusted to him by the King and Queen.

The young man's desperate escape was cut short as his own dagger, flung with deadly precision, lodged deep in his back. The terrified horse, spurred by the unexpected pain, thundered through the castle gates, across the bridge, and onto the path leading away. Each hoofbeat resonated with the lackey's fading hope.

He slumped to the ground, a groan escaping his lips. Moonlight spilled over the scene, casting an eerie glow on his struggle. He could hear the frantic pounding of hooves as the city guard pursued him. His end was closer than his pursuers could suspect.

His senses swam in a dizzying cocktail of ringing ears, hammering heart, and blinding flashes of light – moonlight glinting off the very pigeons he'd set free. "Fly free," he rasped, a final plea echoing his own yearning. "Fly where I can't go."

The approaching guard cast dark shadows on the beach as they dismounted. They roughly seized him, but found his eyes already distant, fixed on the vast expanse of the sky. Their shouts and questions bounced off him like waves on a shore, his spirit already halfway across the sea, riding the effervescent waves of the night.

A strange solace washed over him. The final note, secured in the horse's reins, carried the King and Queen's message in secret. He continued to gaze at the twinkling stars, their brilliance the only witness to his sacrifice. He slipped into the infinite silence, embraced by a peace unknown in life.

Meanwhile, the forsaken horse, unbidden and loyal, had not stopped its frantic course. It galloped toward the castle in the dunes, where the Knight of Spears and the Bard awaited, their hopes pinned on a reply from the imprisoned King and Queen.

From his vantage point atop his cherished tower, the Knight of Spears had kept a watchful eye on his childhood home all evening. First came the sight of three pigeons, each taking a distinctly different course from the pigeon tower. Soon after, they witnessed the chaotic flurry of all the other pigeons taking flight, released as a clever distraction.

"Brilliant!" the Knight exclaimed, a rare smile gracing his face. "That bought us invaluable time. The city guard won't be sending any messages to the capital anytime soon."

But the Bard remained oblivious, his attention fully captured by a delectable blueberry tart. "Marvelous!" he declared, crumbs dotting his beard as he savored each bite. "The texture! The sweetness! The sheer symphony of blueberries within..."

"Could you just focus for a moment?" the Knight interjected, a hint of exasperation creeping into his voice.

"Focus?" the Bard inquired, mouth still laden with pastry. "Focus on what, pray tell?"

Undeterred, the Knight kept his gaze glued to the castle through the narrow loophole. "On... on everything!"

The Bard's brow furrowed in surprise. "Everything? I haven't truly done that in quite some time."

"You truly are impossible," the Knight grumbled, his eyes still tracking the cloud of pigeons soaring from the tower.

"Oh, look! A horse!" the Bard exclaimed, his gaze shifting towards the loophole over his shoulder.

"What?" the Knight spun around, his curiosity piqued.

"A horse," the Bard repeated, excitement lacing his voice. "Riderless. Quite intriguing, wouldn't you say?"

Unable to contain his curiosity (and well ahead of the lumbering Knight), the Bard scurried down the stairs towards the main gate, eager to meet the riderless horse. The Knight, breathless from his hurried descent, caught up just as the beast galloped through the gateway.

"Easy now, Bard!" he puffed, exasperated.

"No time!" the Bard countered, extending a hand towards the frantic animal. With surprising agility, he vaulted onto its back in a single fluid motion, instantly calming the panicked creature by a combination of whispered words and firm commands.

The courtyard erupted in cheers as the Bard, ever the showman, dismounted and led the horse to the water trough, bowing graciously to the gathered soldiers. All except the Knight, who scowled.

"Did I stutter about taking it easy?" he grumbled.

The Bard, however, was preoccupied. His fingers had discovered a small note hidden beneath the reins. He unfolded it with trembling hands, and the Knight snatched it away, reading it aloud with increasing disbelief.

"The Fool... is back," he announced, his voice thick with shock.

"The Fool?" the Bard echoed, his eyes widening. "Returned from the fairy realm?"

"Indeed," the Knight confirmed, his jaw clenched. "And set to marry the Princess."

"Marry?" the Bard exclaimed, bewildered.

"Yes, and crowned by the High Priest himself," the Knight continued, his voice grim. "As King and Queen of Hearts."

The Bard fell silent, the gravity of the news washing over him. "King of Hearts..." he murmured, repeating the title as if tasting its implications.

"All four Kings will be present at the wedding, Bard," the Knight pointed out, a glimmer of hope flickering in his eyes. "Wasn't that precisely what we desired?"

But the Bard's frown deepened. His face, once jovial, now reflected a newfound seriousness.

"Four Kings gathered," mused the Bard, his usual joviality tinged with concern. "Yet, even that might not be enough. We need more. It's time."

With newfound determination, he strode to the center of the square, facing the castle soldiers. "Look upon your Prince!" he boomed, gesturing towards their future leader. "See the grime of persecution on his brow, the weariness from dodging the Capital's relentless hounds! Is he not your Prince? When your King falls, who else will stand in his stead? I, the Bard, have graced the courts of countless Kings, yet never have I met a Prince so just, so brave, so unwavering! Do you not see his worth? Does your pride lie in cold, lifeless coin, or in a life led by a noble soul, a leader who values your dignity and seeks to build a world worth living in? Look to him! Stand with him, soldiers! Fight for him, fight for yourselves! He is one of you, raised amongst you, understands your every jest and struggle, has shared your joys and sorrows. Is there another who embodies your spirit more? Does he deserve to be hunted like a beast in his own land? Raise your spears for your Prince, soldiers! Raise your voices, fight for your freedom! Restore honor to this land, let it shimmer with the spirit of liberty that ripples on your shores!"

His words struck a chord. The soldiers, inspired by the Bard's passionate plea, raised their spears high, the metal gleaming in the moonlight. Cheers erupted, echoing through the night, carrying the message of resistance far beyond the castle walls. The Knight of Spears, a silent pillar of strength at the Bard's side, watched with a flicker of hope in his eyes.