Clark Gillian

The Enchanted Deer and the Dreams of the Fool


Chapter 24.
Screws and bolts, scents and colors.

The princess surrendered to the plunge, arms outstretched as if diving into a lake. She conjured a protective violet fire, but the fool clung to her, his panicked cry swallowed by the rushing water.

"Silence!" she hissed, focusing on the spell.

Beautiful purple light streamed from her palms, condensing into a cloud bed as she snapped her fingers. They plummeted through it, the impact with the water broken but not entirely spared.

They surfaced amidst wreckage, gasping for air. The fool clutched floating wood, coughing as they waded towards the unseen shore.

Darkness pressed in, broken only by the rhythmic drip-drip-drip of unseen water. Echoes bounced off unseen walls, amplifying their whispers into a chilling chorus.

A deeper fear echoed too, a low growl resonating from somewhere far below. It was close, sending shivers down their spines.

"Where are we?" the fool rasped, startled by his own echoing voice.

"Near the City, hopefully," the princess replied, her voice firm despite the tremor in her limbs. "But for now, escape from this cavern is all that matters."

"Agreed," the Fool replied, shivering uncontrollably. "Staying here is no good."

The Princess gestured him closer to the crackling fire she'd conjured from damp wood. It smoked heavily, but offered some respite for the Fool's blue-tinged lips.

Glancing at her own waterlogged attire, she sighed. "Can't very well enter the Capital like this, even after all these years, can I?"

The Fool, his gaze landing on her disheveled witch's garb, silently concurred.

With a flick of her wrist and a muttered spell, the Princess grabbed her wet clothes and ripped them away. In their place materialized a pristine outfit: a stark white tunic, a leather jerkin, a short, woven coat with velvet accents, and sturdy trousers, complete with clean shoes.

"Your turn," she commanded, gesturing towards the shivering Fool. "Before you turn into an ice sculpture."

He shuffled closer, teeth chattering. Another snap of her fingers, another forceful tug on his collar, and voila! – a stark white tunic materialized, paired with a silky shirt, a long wool coat, snug green tights, and stylish purple shoes. The Fool looked down, pleasantly surprised.

"I have to admit," the Princess remarked, a hint of amusement in her tone, "you pull them off surprisingly well."

"This is incredible!" the Fool exclaimed, awestruck.

"But," she added, peering into the debris-filled water, "something's missing. Our arrival at the palace won't be a walk in the park. We need... more protection."

With a snap of her fingers, metal flew from the water. Screws and bolts transformed, clanging onto the Fool's shoulders, forearms, and calves, forming a makeshift suit of armor. A beautifully crafted breastplate materialized around the Princess as well.

A sharp sound split the silence, snagging the Princess's attention. She clamped a finger to the Fool's lips, eyes narrowed. "Did you hear that?"

The Fool, muffled by her touch, mumbled, "Not a peep. Just the fire crackling, maybe? You mean that?"

"Hush!" the Princess hissed. "There it is again."

The Fool strained to hear, but the cavern remained stubbornly silent. "Honestly, I hear nothing," he whispered back.

Suddenly, a loud "MEOW!" shattered the quiet, making them both jump.

"A cat!" the Fool exclaimed, eyes wide.

Another "MEOW!" echoed deeper in the cave.

"Cats?!" the Princess exclaimed, surprised.

A chorus of "MEOWS!" bounced off the unseen walls, filling the cavern with feline pronouncements.

Without thinking, the Princess mimicked their call, a single "MEOW!" escaping her lips. The cacophony abruptly ceased, replaced by an eerie silence.

"Think you scared them off?" the Fool asked cautiously.

"I doubt it," the Princess muttered, already striding into the inky darkness.

"Wait for me!" the Fool cried, scrambling after her.

"Who dares create such smoke in my domain?" A gruff, surprisingly distinct meow reverberated through the darkness.

"We did!" the Princess called back, a hint of defiance in her voice.

"And who is this 'we'?" the voice demanded.

The Princess spun on her heel, a purple flame swirling on her fingertip to illuminate the surrounding gloom. "I am the Imperial Princess," she declared, "and this... is a friend... of the Enchanted Deer!"

"A friend of the Enchanted Deer?" the voice echoed in astonishment. "But if he's a friend of the Deer, why can't he understand our language?"

The Princess glanced back to see the Fool gaping at her, fingers jammed in his ears. The shrill meows clearly overwhelmed him. She rolled her eyes. "He's known as... the Fool," she explained dryly.

"No need for introductions," came the gruff meow. "His attire speaks volumes. But you, are you also an ally of the Enchanted Deer?"

"One could say that," the Princess replied vaguely.

"Only humans with magical prowess, witches or magicians, can comprehend and speak our tongue these days," the cat's voice continued, suspicion lacing its meows. Others yowled in agreement.

"And your point?" the Princess challenged.

"That would make you a witch."

"And what of it? A girl can be both princess and witch," she retorted. "Now, how about you introduce yourself, feline?"

As if on cue, dozens of eyes gleamed out of the darkness, followed by cats of all shapes and sizes emerging from the shadows. The Fool stumbled back in alarm as a sleek black cat adorned with a tiny crown was carried towards them on what appeared to be a miniature feline throne. He rubbed his eyes, disbelieving.

"I am the Cat King," the crown-clad cat announced with a regal meow.

"What's happening?" the Fool whispered to the Princess, who bowed reflexively, nudging him to follow suit.

"Bow! It's the Cat King," she hissed.

"What is a cat king?" the Fool sputtered, but before the Princess could answer, the feline monarch continued, his meows now tinged with amusement.

"Looks like you two are stranded in my humble cave. Quite the predicament, wouldn't you say?"

"Indeed," the Princess admitted. "The aqueduct collapsed, and we..."

The Cat King simply stared, his expression unreadable.

"Thankfully, I, the Cat King, am here to offer assistance," he finally declared. "Lost, are you? Allow me to illuminate the situation. We stand directly beneath the very heart of the Imperial Capital, though here, the Emperor's influence fades. This territory belongs to us."

The Princess listened, astonished.

"Follow me!" the Cat King announced, setting off with regal poise.

He led them through dripping tunnels until they emerged into a vast, cavernous hall. Towering pillars held aloft by unseen forces shimmered with light filtering down from the City of Stars above.

"Welcome to the Cat Capital," the King purred, a hint of pride in his voice.

Endless shafts of light stretched further than the eye could see, each column teeming with feline activity. Cats of all shapes and sizes scampered up and down crevices, playing in miniature houses, towers, and squares.

"Unbelievable," the Fool whispered, wide-eyed.

"Indeed," the Princess replied, her initial surprise giving way to intrigue.

The Cat King turned to face them, his gaze settling on the Princess. "A Princess, you declare?"

"I am," she confirmed, offering a respectful bow.

"An honor!" the King meowed, returning the gesture. "Likewise."

"Forgive me," he continued, "but my throne room is tailored for feline anatomy. Perhaps we could convene in the central square for a conversation?"

With a wave of his paw, cat servants scurried forth, presenting an array of enticing feline treats: bowls of milk, glistening sardines, fish cakes, and even patches of fresh cat grass.

Laughter bubbled up from the Fool as cats thrust plates and trays of exotic treats in his face. Hesitantly, he nibbled a crunchy biscuit – a truly awful experience. Next, a miniature cup of milk was offered. A cautious sniff, then a hesitant sip under the scrutiny of countless feline eyes. The watery, salty liquid made him sweat, but he maintained a polite smile as he placed the cup down.

"What brings you two to my domain?" the Cat King inquired, his tone regal. "Crossing the city walls by aqueduct isn't exactly common practice, unless, of course, you enjoy plummeting into bottomless pits." He flashed a mischievous grin.

"We were headed to the grand ball," the Princess replied, her voice firm.

"Ah, the annual festivity indeed," the King acknowledged with a nod. "An unorthodox route, I'll grant you, but with the aqueduct closed, options were limited. Its sudden collapse remains a mystery."

The assembled cats, wide-eyed, hung on every word of the exchange.

"However," the King continued, his regal demeanor shifting, "a question lingers. As Cat King, my knowledge of the empire is vast, encompassing mountain peaks and lowland lakes, rulers and residents alike. Yet, your identities remain shrouded in..." He narrowed his eyes at the Princess. "From which kingdom do you hail, Princess?"

Her reply was direct: "I am no princess of a kingdom. I am the daughter of the Emperor, the Princess of the Empire itself."

This declaration seemed to spark a fire in the Cat King's gaze. He leapt from his pillow, stretching to his full height, and sauntered towards her with deliberate steps.

"Do you see that grand castle behind me?" he rumbled, his voice laced with newfound intensity.

"Indeed," the Princess affirmed, her gaze fixed on the towering castle.

"See how its spires pierce the very ceiling?" the Cat King pointed with a regal paw.

"I do," she replied, her voice tight with controlled excitement.

"Know ye where it leads?" he purred, his eyes narrowing intently.

"No, I..." she began, uncertainty flickering across her face.

"The Emperor's Palace," the Cat King declared, his voice booming through the cavern.

The Princess gasped, squeezing the Fool's arm as a thrill shot through her. "He said... the Emperor's Palace is right above us?"

"What's he saying?" the Fool whispered, his brow furrowed in confusion.

"The palace... it's right there!" the Princess exclaimed, gesturing towards the dizzying network of stairs and bridges connecting the cat castle to the wells above.

"I told you we were close!" she said, relief and excitement mixing in her voice.

"Indeed, you were," the Cat King interrupted, his gaze fixed on the Princess. "But I was closer."

"What do you mean?" she asked, her curiosity piqued.

His words dropped like bombshells: "The day the sorceress stole you, Princess. I was in the tower, present at your birth. Nestled beside you in the crib, entrusted by the Emperor himself to keep you warm. I witnessed your first breaths, and though my time with you was fleeting, I assure you, I was there."

The Princess's eyes widened in astonishment. "You... you're the Emperor's cat?"

"Aye," he confirmed, his voice resonating with quiet pride. "But my knowledge extends beyond that night. I was there when the Empress fell ill, when the sorceress saved her life - a secret known to few. And I saw, with my own eyes, how the sorceress, in a twisted act of mercy, spared your life instead of ending it. Another truth hidden from most."

A heavy silence descended upon the cavern. The Princess met the Cat King's gaze, her mind reeling with the weight of his revelations. "And few know of my return," she echoed, her voice barely a whisper, "but it is true."

"I have witnessed it all," the Cat King rumbled, his voice heavy with experience. "Through scents and sights, I've observed the Emperor and Empress, forever haunted by the absence of their stolen child. I longed to tell them she lived, but alas, they lack the gift of understanding our tongue."

He moved closer to the Princess, his gaze intense. "Her scent," he continued, "distinct like none other, remains etched in my memory."

Understanding dawning, the Princess offered a respectful bow. "If that's what it takes," she said, "then sniff."

With a dramatic flourish, the Cat King extended his paws, gently cupping her head and inhaling deeply. The silence stretched as he savored the unique aroma, finally breaking it with a declaration. "Indeed! You are the Princess, daughter of the Emperor!"

Cheers erupted from the assembled cats, their meows echoing through the cavern. A spontaneous feline dance party erupted in the square, pulling the Princess and the Fool into the joyous swirl.

Meanwhile, the Cat High Priest, a figure of authority wielding a tiny staff, approached the King. "Your Majesty," he intoned, "this is no coincidence. The arrival of Princess and Fool from the monster's lair within the depths... it holds greater meaning."

The King acknowledged him with a nod. "I know," he rumbled. "And let us celebrate the Princess's presence, not the lingering shadow of the beast."

"Yet, your esteemed Majesty," the High Priest pressed, "whispers of change stir in the wind. A transformation awaits, both blessed and burdened, like gears straining against each other, ready to shift the very fabric of reality."

"Explain yourself," the Cat King demanded, his gaze sharpening.

"Fate beckons, Your Majesty," the High Priest intoned, staff tapping lightly against the cavern floor. "The Book of Seven Seals demands its unveiling, and you, oh great Cat King, are destined to ring the Cat Bells to herald its opening. So it has been prophesied!"

The King watched his feline subjects frolic with the Fool and Princess, their joyful meows bouncing off the cavern walls. "Perhaps," he conceded, "but not tonight. This night is filled with merriment. The Princess reclaims her throne, the prodigal daughter returns to her parents, and I shall ensure every meow of celebration rings true!"