The next morning, the High Council assembled around a huge olive wood table in the Great Hall, tucking into jugs of iced coffee, stacks of fresh croissants and plates of fruit. King Emmanuel’s specialty was breakfast; unlike most teenagers, Amelia had great enthusiasm for getting out of bed.
After Amelia’s great-great-times-something grandparents won their war, the Crown rescinded absolute power to a publicly elected High Council of eleven people plus the monarchs—or ten people, if there was only one reigning monarch. An uneven total of councillors ensured there was always a tiebreaker… and someone to referee impromptu football matches. The citizens of the Kingdom of Mirrors lived, peacefully, for generations… until the Sapphire Dragon arrived and the fairytale ended. At present the High Council had four members, only three of whom held Amelia’s respect. The other eight members travelled south to slay the dragon the previous year and were now incapable of leaving either their hospital bed or their coffin. The kingdom hadn’t held elections to replace them yet, because they were running out of suitable candidates; some muttered that Prince Nicholas should be bullied into returning to royal life. Still, Amelia called them to the richly decorated hall because she felt the occasion warranted pomp and circumstance. Her parents sat in the spare chairs, watching their daughter carefully.
Most of the morning’s pomp and circumstance was supplied by Lord Donald Fitzpatrick, who earned his title by saving a young Prince Nicholas from drowning in the harbour on a day out. In the seventeen years since then, Lord Donald had done little else to distinguish himself except wear spectacularly expensive clothes, which he purchased from the Valley of Dreams with sales of a book written about the twenty seconds he spent hauling three-year-old Nicholas out of about two metres of water. Amelia would never understand how he had been elected four times without ever venturing to the south coast to help slay the dragon.
‘Thank you for coming,’ Amelia began when they were all assembled. Next to Lord Donald sat Baroness Theodora Rosewater, a businesswoman elected to the council after years of running the most successful fishery in the kingdom, employing six hundred people. These days she oversaw the entire kingdom’s fleet of fishing boats. Next to her, sipping glasses of orange juice, sat twin sisters, Ladies Elisa and Beth Montague. They had inherited an ailing olive grove forty years previously and within a decade they trebled olive oil production, invented a new type of olive press and married, then buried, a total of four husbands between them. Amelia could never remember if Elisa had three husbands and Beth one, or the other way around. Amelia took a deep breath. ‘We have a new plan to slay the dragon.’
She outlined her idea, and when she was finished her parents nodded encouragingly. The twins looked faintly impressed and Baroness Theodora was tapping the hilt of her butter knife against the table thoughtfully. Only Lord Donald appeared uninterested.
‘Your Majesty, apologies for not understanding…’ he did not sound particularly sorry. ‘But surely it is too dangerous to take simple musicians into the war zone?’
‘Well, my lord, we’ve tried slaying the dragon the traditional way.’ Amelia deliberately slowed her speech. ‘Or some of us have, anyway. Clearly it has not worked. So we are embarking on a new strategy, employing the wonderful skills of regular townsfolk. Who will of course be trained in self-defence. And heavily guarded. As we can’t bully the Sapphire Dragon into leaving our lands, we will persuade him to go using more peaceful means.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘I know you don’t.’ Amelia’s mother coughed into her serviette. ‘I know you don’t understand yet,’ Amelia corrected, ‘but you will. You might want to take notes, my lord, because I have quite a detailed plan…’
Explaining plans, it turned out, was quite boring. Over the next few weeks, Amelia went through her idea with every council member at least twice, then got the kingdom security services involved. Eventually, after weak points were highlighted and second opinions asked for, back up plans formed and every potential situation analysed with surgical precision, the council voted anonymously on Amelia’s plan. It passed; three votes to one. Amelia smiled tightly at Lord Donald and asked him to have signs drawn up:
‘TWENTIETH ANNIVERSARY WAR RELIEF GAMES AND FESTIVAL STAFF WANTED.
Are you a chef, baker or greengrocer? Are you a skilled plumber, carpenter, blacksmith, surveyor or architect? Visit the Royal Castle immediately. YOUR SKILLS CAN HELP OUR TROOPS! Volunteers must be able to reach the south coast in good health and be willing to stay there for a minimum of two months before the war relief festival begins, then a further three months for the duration of the festival. Volunteers are welcome to bring their families and loved ones to enjoy the festivities and will be given an allowance of gold to do so.
PS No one will have to live within two miles of the Sapphire Dragon. There will be armed guards. We promise.’
Uptake was slow at first, but gradually a queue began to form outside the castle. Amelia could hear Harry flogging crystals to visitors: a few chefs, some construction workers, a couple of olive farmers. Amelia saw Sarah the pastry vendor with her daughters, signing up eagerly. Some families had fled twenty years ago and were more than willing to return home; others just wanted to get out of the city before the summer heat set in.
After a week or two, once Amelia was sure people were willing to consider returning to the south, she designed another sign:
‘TWENTIETH ANNIVERSARY WAR RELIEF GAMES AND FESTIVAL: ENTERTAINERS NEEDED.
Have you got a set of skills or hobbies that could entertain our troops? Visit the Royal Castle immediately. We are especially interested in: jazz musicians, circus performers, opera singers, musicians and actors. Volunteers must be able to reach the south coast in good health and be willing to stay there for a minimum of three months. Volunteers are welcome to bring their families and loved ones to enjoy the festivities and will be given an allowance of gold to do so.
PS No one will have to live within two miles of the Sapphire Dragon. No, really. There will be armed guards. We absolutely promise.’
Harry flogged more amulets while both the marching band and the orchestra signed up, shooting one another filthy looks as they queued. Within two weeks, Amelia counted about five hundred entertainers, plus their families.
Finally, Amelia designed another sign and sent it to the army camp at Scavenger’s Ruin:
‘INTRODUCING THE TWENTIETH ANNIVERSARY WAR RELIEF GAMES AND FESTIVAL!
In this 20th anniversary year, by order of the High Council, Scavenger’s Ruin is holding a festival and sporting games to honour you, our brave troops, and your efforts to slay the Sapphire Dragon. All troops will be given four months’ leave, effective immediately, to train and participate in sporting events and to enjoy the festivities.’
Word came back almost immediately. The soldiers were delighted to have some time off, and could the castle please send a list of participating sports? Would duelling be allowed? Amelia smiled and wrote back that yes, duelling was absolutely allowed.
‘Come on you lot!’ Amelia called from her horse a week later. ‘We only have three more weeks until your group leaves for the south! I heard a dud note there!’
In front of her a ninety-piece orchestra, most of its members hand-picked from that first orchestra in Market Street, sweated underneath a canvas shelter. Their conductor sipped iced water and asked nervously, ‘Your Majesty, I must ask again. Why are you holding a festival?’
‘We’re doing something nice for our troops!’ Amelia explained for the thousandth time, to the thousandth bewildered entertainer. ‘It’s about time we had some life in the south of the kingdom, and life means music! The Kingdom of Mirrors used to be famous for our festivals, and we deserve to be famous for them again.’ The ninety-piece orchestra looked like it disagreed. ‘There is a dragon on the south coast,’ she heard one flautist whisper to another. She tried not to imagine outlawing the flute.
‘After you’ve gone through your music, I want you to practise Emergency Plan F Sharp,’ Amelia reminded the conductor. ‘We might need it if things go wrong.’ The conductor nodded and wiped sweat from the bridge of her nose.
‘They’re not going to like it, Your Majesty,’ she murmured with a glance at the flautist.
‘Well, I don’t like ninety-piece orchestras, but here we are!’ Amelia beamed, gritted her teeth and trotted off to the next group of volunteers: a fifty-strong group of surveyors, architects and builders, enlisted to create temporary concert venues and housing for the entertainers.
‘Ladies and gentleman!’ Amelia began, tossing her hair over her shoulder.
‘Actually, Your Majesty, we’re all gentlemen,’ muttered a blacksmith near the front.
‘Really?’ Amelia asked, ‘how awful. No wonder there are so few women in the construction industry. When this is over, I want an apprenticeship programme set up in schools to encourage participation in science, technology, engineering and maths. Anyway!’ she continued, ‘I have an important job for you all. In one week’s time, you will move to the tip of the south coast to discern which buildings can be used for the festival, and design new concert halls, arenas and accommodation. Your new buildings will be temporary as we plan to rebuild the original town eventually, but for the purposes of the festival we need Scavenger’s Ruin to look like a proper town again!’
‘Your Majesty,’ asked the smith who’d spoken earlier. ‘No disrespect, but why are we relocating so close to the Sapphire Dragon? Couldn’t we just move the troops further out of the town for the festival so it’s safer for everyone?’
‘Good question.’ Amelia had discussed the exact location of the festival with her council at length and decided that the workers, of all people, deserved an explanation for the insane levels of danger she was asking them to walk into. ‘Look. Scavenger’s Ruin is where the dragon first arrived all those years ago. It’s where our troops are based. They live there all year round. It’s only right that we’re based there too, to show our respect – and so we can offer proper relief and entertainment. Everything will be at least two miles away from the Sapphire Dragon, but at the centre of the town. We’ve trebled the number of safety charms on Scavenger’s Ruin, and we’ve doubled the number of security workers. I can’t tell you that it’s completely safe,’ she looked the blacksmith in the eye, ‘but I can tell you it’s as safe as we can possibly make it.’
‘It’s a suicide mission,’ someone muttered. Amelia took a deep breath. It was tempting to explain that the real reason the festival needed to be so close to the dragon was to annoy him into flying away, but the less the general public knew of her plan, the less they would complain if it went wrong. If her idea didn’t work, there would be serious calls to bring Prince Nicholas back from Traveler’s End Mountain and reinstate him as crown prince, goat farming predilections or not. There was no way she would give her title back to her irritating, duty-abandoning brother. She would never live it down at family parties for one thing, and for another she wanted to get him back for that time he told her girls were terrible at running the country. He was about thirteen at the time, but still.
Her plan had to work.
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Copyright © 2019 by Francesca Burke
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