“Absolutely not.” The Lord Protector of Raethe shifted on an oversized metal throne, located at the center of Petition Hall. He wondered again if his father found the ugly seat as uncomfortable as he had. “I will not allow the Fair, or any general merriment in Raethe, not so soon after…” Courtiers waited politely for him to finish the thought.
“My father hasn’t been dead two moon cycles. There will be no public spectacles during the time of mourning. Application denied.” He motioned to the clerk, who stamped the parchment with red wax and reached for the next scroll.
“A difficult day, Elan?”
Trey was ancient, already an advisor when Elan’s father inherited the title. He alone still called the new Lord Protector by his given name.
“It’s the accursed throne. An afternoon of holding court and my body feels as though I’ve been trampled by horses.”
“Ah, but your ancestors were wise,” smiled Trey. “A Lord needs to be both attentive and expeditious when presiding over the fate of his subjects.”
“One of many things my father never told me.”
“Your father’s sudden passing was tragic,” said Trey. “There was much he hadn’t taught you, many secrets he never got the chance to reveal. For instance, he wouldn’t dream of canceling the Fair.”
“And why not,” Elan asked. “A bunch of nomadic charlatans descend upon us every few years. They dazzle the townsfolk with cheap parlor tricks to relieve them of their coin. I’d barely tolerate them elsewhen. To have them ply their trade in a time of mourning is outrageous.”
“Your father would disagree. He would say that a young, unproven Lord Protector shouldn’t risk denying his people a popular diversion. But that isn’t the true reason to invite them into town. This is one of the secrets your father never got the chance to pass along. The Fair isn’t what it appears to be.”
“Oh? What is it then?”
“The Fair guards our kingdom against the Cloud Dragon.”
“Cloud Dragon is a myth, a fairy tale women use to scare their children into behaving.”
“I assure you, it’s real; an enormous beast that hides above clouds to mask its approach. I once visited a town devastated by the Cloud Dragon — it lay in ruins and there were no survivors. The Fair didn’t make it there in time, delayed by heavy rains and a flooded river.”
“You believe that a band of performers have the power to defeat a dragon?”
“They have weapons enough to drive it off. Their clairvoyants track the Cloud Dragon, to see where it might strike next. This is why their visits are erratic — they come when they’re needed and perform their duty under the cover of a traveling show. Please, Elan, allow them to protect Raethe.”
“I studied at the finest schools of the capital. I may be young, but I know better than to fear a ridiculous superstition. My edict stands. Oh, and Trey? In the future you will address me properly, as Lord Protector. You may go now.”
Elan watched with some satisfaction as the clerk pulled one of the last remaining petition scrolls. His new throne, soft and comfortable, was no deterrent at all from getting things done. He replaced Trey and several more of his father’s geriatric advisors with young capital-educated men of modern thinking and sharp wit. Government meetings became far more tolerable since then. They were already planning a slew of reforms to make Raethe stand out among the kingdom’s many towns.
A messenger rushed into Petition Hall, interrupting the clerk’s monotonous recital of the next case.
“It’s the Fair,” he reported. “They’re setting up fairgrounds at the edge of town. Already many of your subjects are making their way over there.”
“How dare they challenge the Lord Protector’s authority,” said one of the young advisors. It was not entirely clear if he meant the Fair or the townsfolk.
“Summon the constables,” ordered the Lord Protector.
Elan and his men arrived at the Fair by dusk. Stalls were set up and doing brisk business. A large crowd of gawkers gathered at the edge of a field, waiting for the Fair’s main and free attraction — a fireworks display.
“Who is in charge?” Elan demanded of the first nomad he could find. He was directed to a large tent at the center of the encampment.
“You’re not welcome here,” Elan hissed at the Fair master. “Shut everything down, or I will have you all in chains.”
“We are outside the town limits, and outside your authority,” the nomad responded, nonplussed. “This is the king’s land, and I have his decree, allowing us to set up anywhere on it. Do you wish to challenge your king?” He produced a fancy parchment with an elaborate seal that could not be mistaken. “It is beginning now. You should stay and watch, and perhaps gain some wisdom.” The nomad turned and walked away from the seething Lord Protector.
As if on cue, the first fireworks were shot into the air. The crowd cheered as they watched bright flowers of flame color the evening sky. Elan saw grim men fiddle with mortar-like devices set up well behind the garishly dressed nomads launching the fireworks. The men aimed their cannons at the clouds and fired repeatedly, the booms almost but not quite drowning out the sound of the fireworks. The clouds were being shredded one after another by the missiles. Elan could almost swear he saw a giant shadow shift directions above the clouds. He could faintly hear a bellow of rage lost in the cacophony of charges, music and cheer.
“Come,” he told the constables, “we ride back to Raethe. When we return, find Trey and tell him that he is reinstated as an advisor. It appears he may still have much to teach me.”
As they prepared to leave, a few heavy raindrops began to fall from the torn clouds. In the evening light the water seemed tinged with streaks of red.
Alex Shvartsman is member of SFWA and Codex Writers. His short stories appeared in Daily Science Fiction, One Buck Horror and many other venues. His adventures so far have included traveling to over 30 countries, playing a card game for a living, and building a successful business. Alex resides in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and son. His published fiction is linked at www.alexshvartsman.com.
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