Clark Gillian

The Enchanted Deer and the Dreams of the Fool


Chapter 23.
Choosing isn't losing.

Seeking refuge from a threat that, unbeknownst to them, wasn't aimed at the Alchemist at all, the Count and Countess of the Proud Flower City retreated to one of their numerous outlying castles. This particular fortress, situated near the famed City of Stars, offered a comfortable distance from the Imperial Palace where the upcoming ball would be held. They loathed the obligatory courtesies required to mingle with royalty and nobility, and this temporary exile provided a welcome respite.

While the Count engrossed himself in a lengthy missive from the King of Coins, a trusted advisor and source of his vast collection of castles, the Countess retreated to her private quarters. Burdened by her own concerns, she summoned the Alchemist and her chambermaids, seeking their assistance in deciphering reports detailing the attire and fragrances of the four visiting queens.

"Alchemist," she finally greeted him upon his arrival, her gaze still fixed on the documents in hand.

"I think light blue, wouldn't you agree, Alchemist?" the Countess announced, excitement blooming in her voice. "It's all the rage in the Kingdom of Cups, with a touch of Spearish lace for elegance, of course. Underneath, imagine fiery red shoes from the Kingdom of Swords, and my hair styled in the free plait favored by the Coins. Don't you just love it?"

The Alchemist struggled to hide a flicker of boredom. "Indeed, Your Excellency," he responded cautiously.

"No, no, no!" she countered, her voice laced with impatience. "That's precisely why I summoned you! What is your honest opinion?"

He sighed inwardly, wishing he could simply return to his aromatic concoctions. "Well," he stammered, "frankly, it feels like you're trying to assemble pieces from four different kingdoms and hoping they'll somehow work in harmony." He met her gaze, a touch of sternness entering his voice. "Such endeavors rarely, if ever, succeed."

The Countess sank into a plush chair, frustration etched on her face. "Oh, Alchemist, you are truly hopeless! These are the finest elements from each kingdom, I assure you!"

"But Your Excellency," he pressed, his tone gentle yet firm, "what is it you truly desire to achieve with this amalgamation of styles?"

The Countess hesitated, uncharacteristically unsure. "I simply want...well, I want to exude an aura of brilliance, to rival the most stunning guests at the ball."

The Alchemist nodded slowly, understanding dawning in his eyes. "Ah, I see," he said. "Defense alone won't win the game, Your Excellency. To truly dazzle, you must step outside the expected, set your own mark. Let your outfit tell a story unique to you."

He rose, selecting a vibrant bloom from the bouquet brought by the Count – a constant reminder of the Proud Flower City. Delicately, he tucked it behind her ear.

"Show the world the essence of the Countess," he murmured, his gaze lingering on her reflection. "That is something only you can do."

A spark of excitement lit her eyes as she caught her image in the mirror. Yet, it quickly flickered out, replaced by a despondent sigh as she cradled her chin in her hand.

"The Empress does," she whispered, her voice barely audible. "She embodies the entire realm."

A hush fell between them, broken only by the Alchemist's quiet inquiry. "What was that, Countess?" He had never heard her so lost in thought.

Briskly, she shook her head. "Nothing," she said, her eyes meeting his with studied nonchalance.

Undeterred, the Alchemist unveiled a vial containing his latest creation. "A new perfume," he announced, holding it under her nose. "Allow me to present its subtle magic."

A single drop, carefully placed on her wrist, sent a shiver down her spine. Hesitantly, she brought her wrist to her nose, inhaling deeply.

Gasps of delight escaped her lips. "This is...divine!" she exclaimed, her eyes wide with wonder. "Magnificent!"

She closed her eyes, savoring the complex fragrance as it unfolded like a symphony. "Perfect for the ball," she declared, her voice brimming with renewed enthusiasm. "Alchemist, you are a genius! How do you do it?"

He inclined his head in a small gesture of acknowledgement. "Merely fulfilling my craft," he replied, his eyes twinkling with a knowing glint.

"But how do you choose the right ingredients?" the Countess pressed, her curiosity piqued.

The Alchemist paused, his brow furrowing in thought. "It's not always a conscious choice, Countess," he admitted. "Sometimes, the ingredients choose themselves. I experiment, try one combination after another, sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes out of a need for a change." He chuckled wryly. "And sometimes, simply because I've grown tired of the familiar."

The Countess's skepticism lingered. "I find that hard to believe, Alchemist," she said, her voice laced with doubt. "This's perfect. Every note seems to belong, perfectly balanced."

The Alchemist smiled warmly, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "Perfection is indeed the end goal, Countess," he agreed, "but the path to get there is rarely a straight line. It's a journey of exploration, of trial and error, of learning what works and what doesn't."

"But how can you choose one thing and not the other?" she persisted, more to herself than to him. Her gaze swept over the room, filled with dresses, accessories, and scattered options. "You choose one, and the rest...they simply cease to exist?"

The Alchemist carefully placed the perfume bottle on the table, amidst the other choices laid out by the chambermaids. "Not exactly," he corrected gently. "When I choose one flower for a perfume, one bark for a specific note, one spice to add a unique touch, the others still exist. They are simply waiting for their own time, their own purpose."

"But then you have to wait too," the Countess pointed out, a hint of frustration in her voice.

"Precisely," the Alchemist replied.

The Countess bristled at the Alchemist's response, detecting a schoolmasterly air she found patronizing. "Choosing is losing," she declared, her voice laced with defiance. "Each selection discards possibilities, leaving behind a path not taken. You, with your humble experiments, cannot truly grasp the weight of such decisions. A Countess understands this all too well." She added pointedly, "But I appreciate your efforts in presenting this perfume before tonight's momentous event."

However, the Alchemist, undeterred, folded his hands and countered, "Imagine I choose the olive's humble leaf over the vibrant cherry blossom. Does the cherry tree cease to exist simply because it wasn't chosen? Does its potential vanish?"

The Countess, seemingly energized by the intellectual sparring, responded with renewed force. "Indeed not! But what holds meaning is what I hold in my hands – the chosen olive leaf."

He pressed on, his voice calm yet firm. "The olive remains the olive, the cherry the cherry. Their essence exists regardless of choice. The act of choosing grants the illusion of possession, not true ownership. What we desire may linger in thought, but it never truly materializes."

Her irritation flared. "Yet I choose to own! When I buy a tree, plant it, it becomes mine! My choice excludes all others."

The chambermaids exchanged nervous glances, witnessing the building tension. They worried the Countess might unleash her infamous temper on the Alchemist.

“Well, tell that to the trees. They don’t grow their blossoms especially because you bought them. They also don’t stop growing leaves because you didn’t buy them. Whether you bought them or not, that’s just an idea you live by. The blossoms and the leaves, they are real in and of itself,”

the Alchemist wheezed, a cough escaping his lips.

The Countess flushed with anger. “What on earth did I do to deserve being lectured like this? Is this what you’re reading in all those books you study to turn lead into gold?”

“Actually, yes,” said the Alchemist, “it is.”

“Maybe so,” said the Countess. “Possibly so. But right now, I have enough on my mind. You’re making things too complicated for me. These dresses are all mine. They are not of their own. They’re mine. I have to choose one of them. And then I need to choose the shoes to go with them, a collar, and jewelry to look good tonight.”

“If you want to look beautiful in their eyes and not your own,” said the Alchemist, “then let them decide whether you look good.”

The Countess, meanwhile, was trembling in her shoes with rage.

“That is exactly what I’m trying to tell you! I want them to! Only I want them to decide I look the best!”

“Then why don’t you choose to adorn yourself in something no one can take from you?” asked the Alchemist calmly.

“And what is that thing that no one can take away if having something is just an idea that doesn’t exist?” shouted the Countess red as a tomato.

The Alchemist said, “Self-esteem.”


A satisfied smirk slithered across the Snake's face as he observed the throngs flocking to the Imperial Palace. Each face, a potential ear to whisper his seductive lies. With silent grace, he slithered through shadowy corridors, his keen eyes missing nothing.

He had witnessed the King of Coins' joyful embrace with his tearful son, the latter declaring his desire to be Emperor, a wish the King readily echoed and prepared the way, talking to the many counselors within the Imperial Palace. He had observed, with bored amusement, the Alchemist's cryptic conversation with the Countess, known for listening intently to the serpent's whispers in her dreams. But now, a new wrinkle in the tapestry piqued his interest.

"Another tremor?" he hissed, his forked tongue flicking in annoyance. This thinning of the veil, this unwelcome intrusion from the elven world, was becoming a nuisance.

With renewed purpose, he slithered deeper into the shadows, seeking the epicenter of the disturbance. Finally, peering through a crack in the rock face, he found himself overlooking the Waterfall Cave. His eyes widened in horror at the sight that unfolded before him.

The Fool, his innocence radiating like moonlight, stood face-to-face with the terrible Witch. And between them, bathed in an ethereal glow, stood the majestic Enchanted Deer. The Snake felt a tremor, not from the veil this time, but from a primal fear stirring within him.

The serpent recoiled into the shadows, but not fast enough. As he withdrew his head from the curtain of cascading water, the Enchanted Deer's gaze pierced the gloom. A shiver slithered down the serpent's spine, echoing a long-lost memory: his existence in Faerie before the Deer fractured the worlds.

The Deer held the serpent's gaze, silence stretching taut between them. Then, a voice resonated within the serpent's mind, the Deer's voice, clear and ancient. "Quite some time, serpent."

"Not long enough," the serpent countered, his voice raspy.

"What brings you here?"

"The same question I ask you," the serpent hissed. "This is not your realm."

"Neither is it yours."

"I find humanity...interesting. Is that so wrong?"

"Indeed, a curious fascination. A shame you have little regard for its inhabitants."

"You cannot dictate my preferences."

"I do not," the Deer replied, its voice unwavering. "It simply is."

"You accuse me of meddling, yet witnessing your actions..." the serpent trailed off, a spark of defiance flickering in his eyes. "It eases my conscience considerably."

"A conscience you've never possessed," the Deer countered calmly.

"Why do you always have the perfect retort?" the serpent hissed, frustration lacing his voice.

"Because I speak truth."

"You are the most loathsome creature ever to exist," the serpent spat. "You built the Elven Gate to shield your precious realm, and now you dare trespass?"

"The time has come."

"For what?"

"For their return."

With those cryptic words, the Enchanted Deer vanished, fading back through the shimmering veil. The serpent remained alone, the weight of the pronouncement sinking in.

"That confounded Deer!" the serpent hissed, venom dribbling from his fangs. "As vile now as he ever was. Looked at me with the same judgmental glare when I was a young, foolish serpent, implying I knew better...or rather, that he knew better."

Fury coiled around him, tight and suffocating. His meticulously woven plans for the human realm were unraveling at the Deer's whim. Escape from the Deer's scrutiny, so close, now seemed impossible. And now, an heir to the Imperial throne munculated from thin air? Unacceptable!

He had spun countless whispers into the ears of court nobility, advisors, and servants alike, a symphony of discord designed to tear them apart upon the Emperor's passing. He couldn't let this heir disrupt his masterpiece.

As the Fool and the Princess embarked on their journey across the aqueduct towards the City of Stars, the serpent plunged into the water. He slithered and undulated, his speed far surpassing the boat's gentle glide.

"A slight alteration," he hissed, bubbles escaping his fanged mouth. "A little disruption to this human game? Then, allow me to introduce a twist of my own."

Beneath the City of Stars, a darkness lurked, an ancient entity of immense power. Perhaps, the serpent mused, its presence could be coaxed upwards.

With renewed purpose, he wedged himself between the stones forming the bridge across a gaping ravine. He swelled his form, loosening them one by one, until finally, with a thunderous crack, the bridge gave way.

"What's that?" the Princess exclaimed, startled as the water surged in a new direction, plummeting downward instead of flowing forward.

"What is happening?" the Fool cried.

The aqueduct shuddered, groaning like a wounded beast. Cracks raced across the ancient stone bridge, spewing plumes of dust and despair. Before the Princess could even scream, the world tilted. The bridge gave way with a deafening roar, sending them hurtling into the churning torrent below.

The Princess clung to the Fool, his grip surprisingly strong despite his apparent cluelessness. Loose stones pummeled them, the water an angry maw swallowing them whole. Fear choked her lungs, but above the roar of the water, she heard the snake's chilling whisper: "Good riddance!"

Below, the darkness was no mere absence of light. It pulsed with an unnatural energy, a living entity waiting to consume them.