Clark Gillian

The Enchanted Deer and the Dreams of the Fool


Chapter 18.
The two tardy guards.

Two city guards scurried to join the thronged reception party gathered at the Star City's harbor. One, ever the stickler for order, hissed at his partner, gesturing furiously at the scattered positions of the flagbearers. "The whole guard out here? Can't we leave a man guarding the city walls, just in case?"

His companion, more concerned with the spectacle unfolding, nervously chewed his lip. The array before them was indeed magnificent – nobles and knights, counselors and ladies, all standing in expectant silence. Flags and pennants, more than twice the usual number, swayed gently in the harbor breeze, held aloft by an army of nervous flagbearers.

The crown jewel of the gathering, however, was the Empress herself. Her presence, in stark contrast to usual protocol, whispered of the importance of the incoming guests. And no wonder, the guards thought, exchanging knowing glances. For aboard the approaching vessel sailed none other than the Empress' sister, the enigmatic Queen of Cups.

Five steps behind the Empress stood the first ranks of the welcoming party – knights in gleaming armor, counselors adorned in opulent robes, all in their most extravagant finery. The air crackled with anticipation, broken only by the gentle lapping of the waves against the pier. Every eye strained towards the horizon, awaiting the first glimpse of the House of Cups' emblem on the distant sail.

The harbor bustled with anticipation, a sea of faces turned towards the horizon. The entire welcoming party, seemingly every noble and official in Star City, had gathered early – or rather, at the Empress's subtle instruction. The gentle harbor breeze carried whispers of excitement, tinged with the faint scent of salt and brine.

Amidst the throng, the Empress stood tall, a beacon of sunshine in a vibrant yellow gown adorned with intricate lacework. Her eyes, closed momentarily, savored the serenity of the moment, a rare stolen pleasure amidst the weight of her crown. Her serene smile, as radiant as the afternoon sun, spoke volumes of her hidden yearning for peace.

Two young guards, stationed at the edge of the crowd, struggled to maintain their decorum. One, ever the perfectionist, hissed at his companion, "Eyes front! Don't let the officer catch you gawking, or I'll be stuck scrubbing the stables again."

"Sorry, sorry!" the other mumbled, quickly straightening his posture and raising his flag with newfound zeal. "What flag is this, anyway?"

"Silence!" the first guard snapped, his eyes darting nervously towards the imposing figure of the first commander. "Do you want another punishment? You're more distracting than a juggler with six bowling pins!"

"Distracting? Me?" the second guard scoffed. "I was the one who remembered the right direction when we got lost in the barracks, remember? You wanted to keep searching for your precious candy stash!"

Their faces flushed crimson as they both scrambled to face forward, hoping the officer wouldn't notice their hushed squabble. "If we hadn't been late leaving the barracks," the first guard grumbled, "we could have joined the rest of the division. But nooo, you had to drag me on your wild goose chase!"

"My special candy stash was hidden under my pillow! How did anyone find it?" the second guard protested, then abruptly stopped, realizing the futility of their argument. "Honestly, what does it even matter now?"

The whispers turned to startled silence as the entire committee, Empress included, whipped their heads towards the two guards. The tension was palpable as the commanding officer, maintaining his impeccable posture, launched into a silent tirade of frantic gestures that spoke volumes of impending punishment.

The culprit and his accuser froze, faces locked straight ahead, not daring to even twitch a muscle. The question, however, hung in the air: "Was it you who stole my candy?"

A fiery blush spread across the accused guard's face, so deep it threatened to consume him entirely. Even his fellow guards braced themselves for an imminent explosion.

But just then, a hush fell over the crowd as the magnificent vessel of the House of Cups glided into the harbor. Its sails emblazoned with the loyal kingdom's proud coat of arms, it presented a stunning contrast to the usual vibrant hues of Star City.

From the ship emerged the King and Queen, their descent as elegant as the vessel itself. The assembled committee nearly forgot its duties, mesmerized by the House of Cups' royal party, adorned in a breathtaking shade of deep blue, unlike anything ever seen in the city.

Finally, they arrived before the Empress, bowing deeply. Their lips brushed her hand, then looked up to meet her loving smile. Arms open wide, the Empress embraced them like long-lost siblings.

While the Master of Ceremonies summoned two exquisitely decorated horses for their journey to the Imperial Palace, the Queen of Cups took a moment longer, squeezing her sister close. Tears welled in her eyes as she whispered, "Oh, how good it is to finally see you again."

"I'm so, so glad you're here, sister," the Empress echoed, her voice thick with emotion. And as the Queen let out a choked sob, the scene unfolded amidst a web of unspoken history, hidden affections, and the promise of a reunion fraught with complex emotions and, perhaps, even secrets waiting to be unveiled.

A wistful sigh escaped the Queen of Cups, "Too bad the distance between our kingdoms is vast. Sailing between islands for friendly visits proves quite the challenge."

"Indeed," the King of Cups agreed, turning back towards the sisters. "Yet, the sea also serves as a bulwark against dangers unseen. A matter I must discuss with the Emperor, urgently."

The Empress nodded knowingly. "And he welcomes your input, undoubtedly." With a gesture, she allowed him to mount a waiting horse and depart towards the Imperial Court.

Turning to her sister, the Empress offered a warm smile. "Care to walk to the palace with me instead of the horses?"

A spark of joy lit up the Queen's face. "Nothing would bring me greater pleasure," she replied.

And so, amidst the bustling harbor, the two sisters began their walk, arms linked, followed by a discreet retinue of fifty guards. Their conversation flowed effortlessly, catching up on lost years and unspoken thoughts. The hustle and bustle of the harbor seemed to fade away as they glided through the throngs, their elegance and grace commanding respect.

Finally, they reached the palace gardens, a tranquil haven away from the city's energy. Settling onto a secluded bench amidst manicured hedges, they dismissed the Master of Ceremonies with a gesture.

Just then, one of the tardy guards nudged his companion. "Look, up there!" he whispered, pointing towards the sky.

As one guard stared skyward, his panicked whisper pierced the calm conversation between the queens: "Do you see that?"

His companion rolled his eyes. "Yes, a bird," he muttered, clearly unimpressed. "So what?"

But the dove was no ordinary bird. It glided closer, faster than any pigeon they'd ever seen, its white wings cutting through the air with chilling purpose. Panic surged through the first guard. He tossed his flag aside, snatching a nearby bow and arrow.

"A poisoned dove! Sent to infect the Empress!" he hollered, loosing three arrows in rapid succession. Two missed, but the third found its mark, sending the dove plummeting at the queens' feet.

"I got him!" he screamed, chest heaving with a twisted sense of accomplishment.

But the other guard, aghast, grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him violently. "What are you doing? Are you mad?"

"Fulfilling my duty!" the panicked guard spat, struggling free. "Poison! Treason!"

His accusation sparked chaos. Officers, guards, and knights swarmed the queens, weapons drawn. Yet, the Empress, unfazed, motioned them back. As she picked up the lifeless dove, a small note tied to its leg caught her eye.

"There's no danger," she declared, her voice calm despite the commotion. "Just a messenger, poor creature."

But her reassuring words did little to soothe the officer's fury. His eyes bulged, red with rage. With a roar, he grabbed the errant guard by the ears and dragged him away, leaving behind a trail of startled gasps and hushed whispers.

"Execute him!" roared the officer, face contorted in fury. "A disgrace to the Imperial guard! How dare you attack an innocent messenger!"

His outburst sent shivers down the spines of the surrounding guards. But the Empress remained calm, raising a hand to quiet the commotion.

"Hold, officer," she said, her voice firm yet gentle. "While the guard's actions were rash, they stemmed from his desire to protect me. We can understand his concern, albeit misplaced."

The accused guard, still trembling, stammered, "But Your Highness, it could have been poisoned! I… I felt it in my gut!"

A resounding slap echoed through the air, delivered by the officer's own hand. "Silence! Do not address the Empress directly!"

The guard immediately bowed low, shame burning his cheeks.

The Empress, however, chuckled softly. "There's no need for such severity. While I appreciate your vigilance, guard, your imagination seems to have gotten the better of you. This was a harmless pigeon, carrying a message, nothing more."

A ripple of awkward laughter spread through the ranks of guards, quickly stifled under the officer's stern glare.

"Perhaps, Your Highness," he conceded, his tone clipped. "However, such reckless behavior is completely unacceptable."

The Empress met his gaze, a flicker of something hidden flashing in her eyes. "Indeed, officer. But instead of punishment, perhaps a lesson learned is enough. What say you?"

The officer bowed deeply, understanding the unspoken warning. "Your mercy knows no bounds, Your Highness. You are gracious and wise."

A mischievous smile tugged at the corner of the Empress's lips. "Very well, all of you are dismissed. Except you, guard."

As the others melted away, she turned to the accused guard, her voice barely a whisper. "Good aim, I must say. Perhaps too good for just paranoia. Take the dove. Have it tested for poison. If your instincts truly guided your arrow, this may be more than just a bird."

The guard, surprised and bewildered, cradled the dove as if it held a weighty secret. "As you command, Your Highness," he stammered, a knot of apprehension tightening in his stomach.

As the dust settled from the dove incident, the Empress resumed her seat beside the Queen of Cups. A tense silence hung in the air, broken only by the gentle rustling of leaves. Then, the Empress unfolded the note, her face betraying a flicker of concern.

"A pigeon trained to bypass the dovecote and fly directly to its recipient," she murmured, her voice laced with apprehension. "This can only come from the House of Swords."

A knowing nod from the Queen confirmed her suspicion. The Empress scanned the note, her brow furrowed in concentration. Finally, she folded it with a practiced hand, a polite smile gracing her lips.

"Everything is fine," she declared, her voice a touch too polished.

The Queen, sensing the hidden undercurrent, met her gaze with an unwavering stare. "Sister, you know I can sniff out trouble like a hound does a fox. Don't hide behind pleasantries with me."

The Empress let out a heavy sigh, her facade crumbling. "The Queen of Swords," she began, her voice barely a whisper. "She confirms what I've been dreading for months."

"What is it?" the Queen pressed, her eyes searching her sister's face.

"The Empire… it's shifting beneath our feet," the Empress explained, her voice laced with worry. "Though life appears unchanged, there's a subtle dissonance in the air. Familiar words have acquired new meanings, actions bear hidden motivations, even laughter rings hollow."

The Queen's own brow furrowed in understanding. "I've felt it too, sister," she admitted. "A sense of walking on a razor's edge, growing sharper by the day, ready to claim any who lose their footing."

"It's not just a feeling," the Empress continued, her voice gaining urgency. "The Queen of Swords confirms it. Something is brewing, a storm gathering on the horizon."

The two sisters exchanged a look, their unspoken bond solidifying in the face of shared concern.

The Empress' sigh resonated heavily in the air, carrying the weight of unspoken anxieties. "In the past," she began, her voice laced with nostalgia, "the Emperor united the kingdoms, creating a shared table where every voice was heard. The four kings, alongside him, fought for the right to speak freely. But now, a gnawing fear consumes me… it feels like everyone is perpetually…"

"Fighting to be proven right," the Queen of Cups interjected, completing her sister's thought. "Sadly, in the relentless pursuit of being right…"

"…Someone must be wrong," the Empress concluded, a tremor of apprehension evident in her voice.

A moment of poignant silence descended, punctuated only by the gentle rustling of leaves. In that quiet communion, the unspoken bond between sisters transcended words. They understood each other on a level few ever could, anticipating thoughts and emotions with intuitive ease.

With a quiet sigh, the Queen of Cups inquired, "What does the message from the Queen of Swords reveal?"

"She anticipates war," the Empress replied, her voice heavy with concern.

They sat in silent contemplation, the distant chirping of birds a stark contrast to the weight of their thoughts.

"War seems inevitable," the Queen of Cups murmured, her tone laced with somber acceptance. "However, I sense a conflict that transcends borders. This feeling within me doesn't resonate with kingdoms clashing in battle."

A knowing nod graced the Empress' lips. "Indeed. While I also anticipate war, it feels… different. I fear it's not kingdoms warring against each other, but…"

"…A war within each kingdom," the Queen finished, her eyes wide with dawning realization.


The Prince, his regal bearing momentarily forgotten, sputtered, "A seal and a stamp? Since when has such nonsense blocked the path to the Imperial domain?"

The guards, stoic sentinels clad in gleaming armor, remained silent, their gazes fixed ahead as if oblivious to the queue snaking ever longer behind them. "But we are invited!" the Prince boomed, his voice echoing off the imposing gate. "By the Empress herself!"

A gatekeeper, his polished armor the brightest in the line, turned his hooded head. A glint of amusement flickered in his eyes. "Then show us your invitation, Prince, and you shall pass."

"Lost, alas," the Prince sighed, his annoyance evident.

"Then," the gatekeeper declared, his voice laced with finality, "I cannot grant passage."

"But whose orders are these? Surely," the Prince pressed, his pride ruffled, "they must recognize me! I am the Prince of Spears, a resident of the Imperial Palace itself!"

The gatekeeper's smile remained unwavering. "The orders, Prince, are clear: no entry without a seal and a stamp. Special Imperial security measures, you see, for the upcoming ball."

The Prince's face contorted in disbelief. "Utterly absurd! And where, pray tell, does one acquire these… seals and stamps?"

A disarmingly crooked laugh escaped the gatekeeper's lips. "Why, in the Capital City, of course!"

The Bard, the Prince, and the Fool exchanged bewildered glances. The statement hung in the air, an absurdity defying logic.

"But how on earth do you get a stamp and seal in the City of Stars if they won't let you in to get one?" The Fool's voice echoed the collective bafflement.

"It's deliberately impossible," the Bard muttered, his brow furrowed in suspicion. "A bureaucratic sleight of hand to deny entry without admitting it. Cowardly, ugly, and beneath the Emperor, that's for sure."

The Prince, his initial outrage simmering, nodded in agreement. "I wouldn't think so either."

"Something's rotten in the state of the capital," the Bard declared, his voice laced with unease. "And I don't like the stench of it." His nostrils flared, his gaze darting across the crowd. "But strangely enough, this gatekeeping charade isn't the most unsettling thing I sense here."

"What could be worse than this farce?" the Prince exclaimed, his frustration mounting.

The Fool, oblivious to the escalating tension, piped up, "Where's the Witch? I haven't seen her in the line."

A flicker of realization dawned on the Bard's face. "That's it! If the Witch hasn't blasted her way through…"

"She must have found another way," the Fool finished, a mischievous glint in his eye.

The Prince scoffed. "Nonsense! There's no other way through the Blue Gate. They must have let her through!"

Before the Bard could complete his thought, the Prince's fury exploded. "They let her through?!" he roared, charging forward like a bull towards the guards. The Bard lunged to grab him, but the Prince was already a whirlwind of indignation.

"How dare you!" he bellowed, thrusting the tip of his spear at the guards. Panic rippled through the crowd as they cowered back. Unflinching, the guards drew their swords in unison, forming a chilling steel wall against the enraged prince.

The Fool shivered, clutching his small, useless dagger. Unlike the Prince, he had no grand weapon to brandish.

Ignoring the Bard's desperate pleas, the Prince pressed his spear against the guards' blades, their cold clanging resonating through the air.

"Arrest them!" boomed the head gatekeeper, his voice laced with cold authority.

In a horrifying blur, dozens of guards surged from the Blue Gate, engulfing the Prince and the Bard like a ravenous wave swallowing a hapless ship. The Fool scrambled onto the Prince's horse, desperately trying to see through the sea of armor. Swords flashed, shields gleamed, and the clank of shackles filled the air.

Then, amidst the chaos, a glint of movement caught his eye. The Bard, disappearing into the sea of iron, flung something towards him. It arced through the air, landing with a soft thud before the Fool could even blink.

The Fool fumbled. The Bard's offering, a small orb, hadn't reached him. It bounced on the cobblestones, landing near the panicked horse's hooves. Then, with a flash and a boom, it detonated in a cloud of smoke.

Terror seized the steed. It snorted, whinnied, and bolted, hooves pounding a frantic rhythm against the ground. Adrenaline surging through the Fool, he clung to the reins for dear life as the world blurred past. The horse leaped, swerved, and reared, oblivious to the Fool's panicked pleas. Squirrels and rabbits scattered before them, while badgers, boars, and deer peeked curiously from the dense forest.

But amidst the chaos, the Fool glimpsed something else. Movement, stillness, then large, watchful eyes staring back at him. They weren't alone. These weren't the frantic scurries of small creatures, but the deliberate gaze of something far larger, more powerful. Towering legs, massive hooves, and antlers that rivaled the mountain pines themselves emerged from the foliage. A creature of legend.