Clark Gillian

The Devious Dragon and the Fall of the Emperor


Chapter 25.
The silence of the wise.

Meanwhile, in the City of Stars, the aftermath of the earthquake loomed large. Guards diligently monitored the last free-flowing fountain, rationing water and maintaining order with a fee of one silver per bucket. The temple had emptied, its priests and even the High Priest himself tending to the wounded and trapped civilians.

He knelt beside a survivor, a man trapped under debris for a day and night, now babbling incoherently with relief. Half his house lay swallowed by the gaping chasm that scarred the city's heart. "First the Emperor overthrown, now this… what does it all mean?" the High Priest muttered, a tremor running through his own heart.

The scale of the devastation was overwhelming. Helping hands were far too few to answer the desperate cries for aid. Bound by their vows, the temple brethren worked tirelessly, and it took the High Priest nearly a day to reach the man by the chasm's edge. Two cats, one black, one white, watched silently as the Priest bandaged the man's wounds.

"Everything shook!" the man exclaimed, fear and confusion etched on his face. "It all shifted… sideways! My street… gone, swallowed by a black hole!"

"Yes," the High Priest murmured, gently wiping blood from the man's face with a damp cloth. The white cat, drawn by the scent, sidled closer, sniffed the rag, and let out a startled sneeze. The Priest chuckled softly, nudging the feline away with his elbow.

"So I scrambled for the back door," the man continued, his voice trembling. "But the floorboards were already tilting, slipping beneath my feet. By the time I made it outside, the front of my house… gone!"

This tale, a grim echo of countless others, was etched into the High Priest's memory. He examined the wound, his calloused fingers moving with practiced ease. A nearby disciple offered him a vial of elixir, and clean bandages materialized for closing the gash. Meanwhile, the two cats, seemingly oblivious to the chaos, began grooming each other, an unspoken ritual of comfort amidst the pandemonium.

"Then everything collapsed," the man muttered, lost in his own narrative, barely acknowledging the ministrations of the Priest. "Dust and debris rained down, burying me. All I could think was… how do I get out? How do I reach the door?"

The Priest nodded patiently, his face etched with a compassionate smile.

"The door… the front door was gone," the man repeated, his voice fading into a whisper.

With a silent exchange, the Priest signaled the disciple, who settled beside the man, offering a calming presence as the words looped endlessly – "The front door was gone."

The Priest, taking a moment to collect himself, finally approached the chasm's edge. He peered into the abyss, its depths so inky black that it seemed to defy reality. Yet, an unsettling presence lingered there, an ancient chill emanating from the depths. It reminded him of the well… ominous and dangerous. The two cats, sensing his unease, arched their backs and hissed in unison.

Lost in contemplation, he was startled by a tap on his shoulder. City guards stood aside, clearing a path for a group of counselors, their pristine attire a stark contrast to the surrounding devastation.

"High Priest," one of them addressed him, his voice laced with urgency. "We need you."

The Priest looked at them, his gaze questioning. "More than these people?" he asked, gesturing towards the wounded and displaced citizens.

The counselors exchanged a calculated glance. "As a matter of fact, yes," one replied smoothly. "We have a critical task for you."

Despite the constant clamor that had filled the City of Stars since the quake, the High Priest managed to achieve a moment of quietude within himself as he faced the counselors.

"Come with us," they demanded, their eyebrows raised expectantly.

"Necessity takes precedence over any mere task," the Priest countered, ready to return to the rows of sickbeds where his disciples tended to the wounded. He held the firm belief that counselors held no authority over priests. Or so he thought.

"Caution, High Priest," one of them warned. "This is a matter of utmost importance, one that concerns the entire Empire."

The Priest paused, turning to them with a composed expression. "And what might that be?"

"The impending marriage of the Emperor's daughter," they declared, their voices laced with urgency.

"The Emperor's daughter?" The Priest repeated, surprised.

"Indeed," they confirmed, "in the City of Trousers."

"But isn't the ballroom there still under repair after the violence you used to arrest the Emperor and the Four Kings?"

The counselors exchanged amused glances, but remained silent.

"Why on earth would the Princess willingly leave fairy paradise for this?" the Priest gestured towards the devastation surrounding them.

"This?" they scoffed. "Merely temporary. It will all be resolved, you'll see!"

"Resolved itself?" the Priest muttered skeptically.

"Spare us your sermons," one of them snapped. "We're here to remind you of your duty as High Priest – to officiate this marriage. The future of many hinges on it, not just the Princess's."

"This has nothing to do with helping the people," the Priest countered, his voice hardening. "It's about self-preservation. Why involve me? Surely, a delegate could perform the ceremony."

The counselors' revelation hung heavy in the air, its implications sinking in like stones in a still pond. "Crowned?" the High Priest echoed, his voice laced with disbelief. "As what? Kings and Queens of a new kingdom?"

"Indeed," they confirmed, their voices smug. "The Kingdom of Hearts, formed from the union of the seven free cities."

They fell silent, their message delivered, waiting for the Priest's reaction. His face paled as he grasped the truth. "If the Princess has truly returned-"

"She has," they interrupted, their tone brooking no argument.

"Then this marriage isn't just a union, it's a leash," he stated, his voice hardening. "A means to bind them to your contrived council."

A flicker of annoyance crossed their faces, quickly masked by forced smiles. "Precisely," one admitted, unashamed.

The High Priest let out a heavy sigh, his chin rising in defiance. "The last emperor I crowned, I did so in the name of the heavens and the earth. Yet, you tossed him aside without a second thought," he reminded them, his voice echoing with righteous anger. "What meaning does a crown hold for you, if not mere power?"

"Matters of state are beyond your purview, Priest," they dismissed him with a wave of their hands.

"But you forget," he countered, his voice firm. "I haven't crowned any of you emperors, and yet you rule in his stead. You haven't sought the blessings of the heavens, the earth, or the people you claim to govern." His gaze locked onto theirs, sharp and unwavering. "And none of you truly hold their support."

"We don't need your permission," one of them scoffed. "We take what is rightfully ours."

A silence followed, pregnant with tension. The Priest stood tall, his eyes locked on their arrogant faces. Then, with a quiet dignity, he spoke. "Let the heavens remain above, the earth beneath, and the emperor on his throne. Let the counselors offer counsel, not rule with an iron fist."

He turned to leave, his disciples following in silent support. But the city guards, at the counselors' command, blocked their path. A chilling order rang out – drag the wounded to the edge of the abyss, the gaping maw that swallowed half the city.

"What are you doing?!" The High Priest's roar echoed across the chasm, his voice laced with fury and despair.

The counselors, momentarily startled, waved a dismissive hand towards the guards, halting their macabre task. "Crown the Princess and her knight as King and Queen of Hearts," they commanded, their voices cold and unwavering.

The Priest stood stunned, the weight of their cruelty threatening to suffocate him. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words formed.

"Spare their lives, High Priest!" they added, their voices dripping with false piety, gesturing towards the terrified faces peering from the beds, inches from the abyss.

"Don't threaten me with innocent lives!" The Priest finally found his voice, his anger fueled by their barbarity. "Release them and we can talk!"

Ignoring his plea, the counselors issued another chilling order. Two beds, precariously balanced at the edge, were sent plummeting into the inky depths below.

"You are monsters!" The Priest's cry reverberated with grief and outrage. "Inhumane!"

One of the counselors, his face devoid of any emotion, approached the Priest. "If you could calculate individual lives for the greater good, like we do, you'd understand. We do what's necessary, at the least cost."

"Necessary for whom? At what cost?" The Priest's voice trembled with righteous fury. "Why this heartlessness?"

"Calculations," the counselor spat, his voice laced with disdain. "Reasoning. These are mere sacrifices for the benefit of the many. You wouldn't risk everyone for a few, would you?"

"Endanger?" The Priest scoffed. "You are the danger! Stop this madness!"

"The danger," the counselor countered, his voice flat, "is you refusing to crown the Queen of Hearts."

The Priest closed his eyes, drawing a deep, shuddering breath. He knew their cruelty ran deep, that reasoning with them was futile. He opened his eyes, his gaze unflinching.

Silence stretched between them, thick with tension. The counselors, used to unquestioning obedience, awaited his response.

The Priest did not speak, nor did he offer his hand. He stood tall, his silence a powerful statement in itself.

The counselors' laughter was a hollow sound, devoid of genuine mirth. Wisdom, it seemed, held no currency in their world of calculations and cold realities. "Silence is consent," they declared, their voices flat and empty. "That is the only wisdom we need."

The Priest, though outwardly acquiescent, remained silent. His eyes remained closed. Hustled onto a carriage, the Priest found himself hurtling towards the City of Trousers, not as a defiant figure, but as a pawn in their twisted game. Yet, beneath the facade of submission, a fire burned within him.