Clark Gillian

The Enchanted Deer and the Dreams of the Fool


Chapter 25.
You are going to want to take this dance

The long-awaited ball had finally arrived, transforming the imperial city into a vibrant spectacle. Musicians danced in the streets, their melodies weaving through the crowds. Acrobats leaped and tumbled, defying gravity with every spin and somersault. Makeshift stages dotted the cityscape, each bursting with plays and farces that drew roars of laughter.

Inside the opulent palace, the festivities were no less grand. In the heart of the bustling ballroom, the maestro, already perspiring before the first note, readied himself to conduct a symphony of sound – four orchestras positioned strategically at each corner, poised to fill the air with their combined might.

An air of anticipation crackled as guests were announced with booming pronouncements: the Count and Countess of the Proud Flower City, the King and Queen of Cups, the Baron and Baroness of the City of Bridges, and so on, a parade of nobility filling the expansive ballroom. Even the King and Queen of Coins, along with their heir, the Prince of Coins, had graced the occasion. Laughter drifted from the Marquess and Marquise of the City of Trousers, while murmurs danced on the lips of the King and Queen of Swords. The very air hummed with anticipation, fueled by lavish costumes and glittering jewels.

Yet, one crucial presence remained conspicuously absent – the Emperor and Empress themselves. Their delay, while unusual, paled in comparison to the sight unfolding just outside the palace walls. Unseen by the revelers within, two tardy guards escorted a mysterious figure – the Prince of Coins, no less – his head shrouded in a bag.

As the maestro's signal sliced through the air, a hush fell over the throng. All eyes swivelled towards the grand entrance, anticipation crackling like the jewels adorning the elaborately dressed guests.

And there they were, the Emperor and Empress, resplendent in a breathtaking display of wealth and power. Diamonds and gemstones cascaded over their attire, shimmering in an array of colours unseen before. Their garments, crafted from the finest materials, bore intricate, ornate designs that whispered of unmatched artistry.

In reverent silence, the crowd parted, allowing the Imperial couple to glide across the ballroom floor. Hand in hand, they ascended their thrones, a picture of quiet contentment.

With a flourish, the maestro raised his baton, unleashing a triumphant melody that filled the air. On the dance floor, men and women formed elegant lines, their faces alight with joy. A collective bow marked the start of the dance, a graceful ritual where gentlemen extended their hands and ladies placed their delicate palms within.

With synchronized steps, the dancers glided across the floor, a mesmerizing spectacle of coordinated movement. Left, right, left, right, followed by a click-click-click of heels – their magnificent costumes swirled in a kaleidoscope of colour, gold chains catching the light like a thousand captured sunbeams.

Amidst this harmonious display, two figures cut a discordant note: two guards, tardy and clad in heavy, cumbersome armour, lumbered into the ballroom. Their clumsy movements, oblivious to the delicate dance unfolding, sent ripples of discomfort through the crowd as they bumped into the elegantly attired dancers.

From his eagle-eyed perch on the throne, the Emperor observed the entire scene with discerning gaze. The clumsy intrusion of the two guards in their heavy armor amidst the swirling elegance of the dance did not escape his notice. Setting down his wine glass, he summoned a footman with a sharp inquiry: "Why have city guards entered the ballroom without my permission?" His tone brooked no argument, and his lackeys swiftly scurried to bring the guards before him.

The King of Swords, engaged in conversation with the Emperor just moments ago, now turned his attention to the unfolding drama as the guards were ushered away.

"You know, there's something I truly appreciate about the Kingdom of Swords," the Emperor remarked, his gaze fixed on the departing guards.

"The... swords, I presume?" the King of Swords replied, a hint of jest in his voice.

"Indeed!" the Emperor chuckled, "but more than that. Yours was the most formidable foe we faced during the conquest. A fierce and challenging battle."

The King of Swords' expression sobered, a shadow of wartime memories flitting across his face. "A long and arduous campaign, for certain."

"We had the advantage of meticulously planned strategy," the Emperor continued, "while you possessed sheer force in numbers."

"A conflict that taught us both valuable lessons," the King of Swords interjected, "emerging stronger for it."

"And ever since, we've sought to share the best aspects of our kingdoms," the King added, raising his cup in a toast.

"To the Emperor," he proclaimed.

"To the King," the Emperor echoed.

"To the Empire," they declared in unison, the clinking of their glasses resounding through the ballroom, a temporary truce amid the underlying tensions.

As the guards tumbled to their knees before the throne, fear radiating from their every tremor, the weight of the Emperor's gaze settled upon them like a physical force. Even the King of Swords, a seasoned warrior, couldn't help but shift under the intensity.

"Invitations?" the Emperor demanded, his voice deceptively cool.

"Forgive us, Your Majesty," one guard stammered, voice barely above a whisper. "We... we don't have any."

"Your duty is to guard this celebration, not crash it," the Emperor rebuked, his tone hardening. "And for such insolence, dungeon cells should be your reward."

Just then, emboldened by desperation, the other guard blurted out, "Our apologies, Your Majesty, but we must find the King and Queen of Spears, it's urgent!"

A flicker of annoyance crossed the King of Swords' face. "You dare address the Emperor without his permission?"

"And what concern does a mere city guard have with my esteemed advisor, the King of Spears?" the Emperor echoed, his voice edged with suspicion.

The second guard, now stuttering incoherently, managed to stammer, "T-the witch... she..."

Before he could finish, the Emperor reacted with lightning speed. He lunged from his throne, grabbing the guard by the collar, his eyes blazing with fury. The King of Swords, mirroring the Emperor's panic, placed a calming hand on his shoulder.

"Do not utter that word within my halls!" the Emperor thundered, his gaze darting towards the dance floor where, thankfully, the Empress twirled carefree amongst the nobility. Relief washed over his features, but the tension remained palpable.

The guard's frantic apology hung heavy in the air, punctuated by the Emperor's iron grip on his collar. "Your Majesty," he stammered, "we brought a prisoner claiming to be the Knight of Spears! He alleges witnessing the Witch on his way here, but the Gatekeeper of the Blue Gate warned he might be a magician, too dangerous to blindly trust. Hence, the bag."

"And why, pray tell, did you take such liberty?" the King of Swords cut in, his voice sharp as a honed blade.

The guard, squeaking under the Emperor's hold, blurted, "He insists only the King and Queen would recognize his voice!"

The Emperor's gaze turned to the shrouded figure, a flicker of recognition in his eyes. "I am familiar with the Knight of Spears," he declared, "but even the keenest eye can be fooled by magic. Only a mother's intuition can discern truth from illusion."

"Exactly!" the guards chorused, relief laced with fear. "We couldn't risk a shapeshifter's trickery."

The Emperor exchanged a knowing glance with the King of Swords, who inclined his head in agreement. "Take him to the nearest ante-chamber," the Emperor commanded, "and await my arrival."


Amidst the glittering tapestry of the ball, the Empress, resplendent in her finery, basked in the glow of compliments. Yet, a new spectacle soon drew attention: the Countess, her outlandish attire a whirlwind of clashing colors and textures.

"Can anyone truly deem that... beautiful?" the Queen of Coins remarked, her voice laced with disdain.

The Empress, ever the diplomat, seized the opportunity to spark a deeper conversation. "What defines beauty?" she posed, her voice arresting the ballroom's hum. "Words, for instance," she continued, her gaze sweeping across the expectant faces. "What qualities make them resonate, strike a chord?"

The Queen of Swords, known for her sharp wit and courage, ventured the first reply. "Their relevance, their ability to connect with the speaker, the audience, and the language itself."

"Precisely!" the Empress exclaimed. "And so it is with attire. Does it dance with the occasion, resonate with the audience, and please the beholder's eye?"

A ripple of laughter spread through the crowd as the Queen of Coins, ever the outspoken one, quipped, "Well, the Countess's garb doesn't please my eye, it assaults it! If I knew such fashion would turn heads, I'd have donned my jester's attire!"

Her venomous words elicited guffaws, except from the Queen of Spears, whose solemn black attire stood in stark contrast.

With a thoughtful air, she interjected, "What does it truly matter? Not everyone possesses an innate sense of these things. Can we truly expect universal agreement on what constitutes 'good taste'?"

The Empress, always seeking to bridge divides, nodded in agreement. "Everyone, surely," she noted, "possesses their own unique perspective, shaped by their experiences and preferences. Beauty, therefore, becomes a kaleidoscope, its colors ever-shifting with each beholder."

"Indeed," chimed in the Queen of Cups, her voice laced with empathy. "What one finds enchanting, another might deem grotesque."

"And so it is," the Empress concluded, a gentle smile gracing her lips. "For beauty, like a prism, refracts differently for each soul, enriching the world with its multifaceted brilliance."

"Elegance," the Queen of Coins countered, her voice sharp yet measured, "transcends language barriers. It's the delicate dance between the appropriate and the unexpected, the art of expressing your true self while respecting the occasion. The Countess," she declared, her gaze sweeping towards the outlandish attire, "seems consumed by the desire to appear as someone she's not."

"And its antithesis?" inquired the Queen of Spears, her expression devoid of amusement.

"The antithesis? When self-expression runs roughshod over context, disregarding both propriety and consideration for others. That, my dear Queen, borders on brutality."

A beat of intrigued silence followed, then the Queen of Spears pressed on, "And one who perpetually masks themselves, their words forever discordant with the setting?"

A playful glint lit up the Empress's eyes. "Why, that, my friend," she teased, "would be a counselor."

Her quip ignited immediate laughter, even eliciting a rare smile from the usually stoic Queen of Spears.

Suddenly, the Emperor reappeared, his gaze settling on the Queen of Spears. "May I have the honour of a dance, Your Majesty?" he inquired, his voice surprisingly gentle.

The Empress and the surrounding Queens shared a look of surprise. It was unexpected, to say the least, for the Emperor to choose the seemingly melancholy Queen for a dance. Yet, protocol dictated compliance, and the Queen of Spears, though surprised, offered a polite smile, regal and laced with a hint of intrigue.

"Of course," she replied, her voice holding the graceful lilt expected of royalty.

As the applause roared from the crowd, the Emperor and the Queen of Spears descended to the dance floor, their movements poised and enigmatic.

The Queen, sensing the Emperor's unspoken command through the signal to the maestro, offered a hesitant reply. "Your Majesty, I wouldn't dream of offending you, but I confess my mood isn't suited for an extended dance. I hope a quick whirl around the floor will suffice to honor your request."

The Emperor's enigmatic smile deepened. "Just wait, my dear Queen. Let me take the lead this time. Trust me."

Intrigued yet apprehensive, the Queen of Spears raised an eyebrow as she took his hand. The dance began, their steps soon evolving into graceful circles around the lively ballroom. As they twirled, the Emperor's voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper.

"My dearest Queen, I bear good news."

The Queen's heart skipped a beat. "News? What kind of news?"

"One of your sons has been found," he revealed, his eyes twinkling with anticipation.

The Queen's breath hitched. "You... you what?"

"Well," the Emperor tempered his enthusiasm, "we have reason to believe so. But we require your confirmation before we can be certain."

"A mother knows her child instinctively," the Queen declared, her voice regaining its composure. "Yet, given he's resided at the Imperial Court for over a year, I'd have thought you'd recognize him too."

The Emperor chuckled, his gaze lingering on the Queen's surprised face. "Indeed I would, dear Queen, if I could see his face."

The Empress gasped, her composure shattering. "See his face? What do you mean? What's happening?"

The Emperor's smile remained unfazed. "You must identify him by voice alone, for security reasons. He currently wears a burlap sack over his head."

"A burlap sack?" The Queen's steps faltered, the weight of the revelation threatening to throw her off balance. Yet, the Emperor's firm lead kept her moving, the dance becoming a whirlwind of confusion and mounting tension.

"This man," the Emperor continued, his voice low and urgent, "is either your son or a cunning magician attempting to infiltrate the palace. The choice lies with you, Your Majesty."

With each turn, the music seemed to fade, replaced by the pounding of the Queen's heart.

For a moment, the Queen was speechless, their dance carrying them across the floor in a surreal silence. Finally, she managed a hoarse whisper, "Where is he?"

"In a nearby chamber within the palace," the Emperor replied, his voice laced with urgency.

"A magician..." the Queen muttered, her mind grappling with the impossible. "Take me to him!"

But the Emperor held her back with a gentle grasp. "We must leave as we arrived, my Queen," he murmured, his gaze flitting across the ballroom. "Whispers of the witch must not reach curious ears."

"The witch?" she echoed, fear and confusion battling within her.

"The man who claims to be your son," the Emperor explained, his eyes filled with unspoken worry.

Taking a deep breath, the Queen squared her shoulders. "One word," she declared, her voice firm with newfound resolve. "That's all I need to know my son's voice."

"And that word is?" the Emperor prompted, his curiosity piqued.

A sly smile played on the Queen's lips. "Let me lead this dance, Your Majesty, and you shall hear it soon enough."

With a newfound purpose, she took charge, their steps weaving through the throng of dancers, a silent language passing between them.

In the dimly lit chamber, the Prince paced restlessly, the burlap sack a suffocating symbol of his confinement. The guards, ever vigilant, bowed low as the Queen and Emperor entered, followed by a flurry of summoned footmen.

With a graceful movement, the Queen lifted her veil, her eyes shining with unshed tears. She knelt before the shrouded figure, her voice thick with emotion. "Child..."

A muffled sob escaped the young man as he moved towards her, the sack slipping as he cried out, "Mother!"

And just like that, they fell into each other’s arms, knowing even without seeing.

"Off with that wretched sack!" the Emperor roared, his fury echoing through the chamber. The bumbling guards stumbled over themselves in their haste to obey, the burlap falling away to reveal the Prince's tear-streaked face.

Mother and son met each other's gaze, a wordless exchange overflowing with relief and long-pent emotion. "My son!" the Queen cried, her voice thick with joy. "Where have you been? What trials have you faced?"

"Searching for my brother, Mother," the Prince responded, his voice tight with exhaustion. "Didn't you receive my messages sent by carrier pigeon?"

The Queen nodded, her eyes glistening. "Each arrived, a beacon of hope that you still lived. But alas, your brother..."

Shame etched itself onto the Prince's face. "Forgive me, Mother," he whispered, pulling her into a tight embrace. The warmth of their reunion filled the room, a stark contrast to the chilling news that loomed.

As he drew back, his expression hardened. "Why are you cloaked in black, Mother?"

The Queen faltered, a lump forming in her throat. The Emperor stepped forward, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. The Prince, catching sight of him, straightened and bowed respectfully.

"Son," the Queen began, her voice trembling, "your brother never returned. We found his spear..."

"Where?" the Prince demanded, his heart sinking.

"Deep within the forest," the Emperor interjected, taking over the narrative. "In a tower that vanished as soon as we approached. All that remained was the spear, discovered by a hunter near a field of pumpkins..."

The Prince's mind raced back to the cryptic drawing etched by the Witch on their journey – a coat of arms and a tombstone adorned with a pumpkin. A strangled cry escaped his lips.

"The Witch!" he roared, grabbing the Emperor's arm. "She's coming! She's headed here!"