Legends of Liria: Part One

The curtain rises. Six hooded figures file on to a dark stage, each one carrying a tall, lit candle. They place the candles on the ground and vanish into the shadows. The flames form a bright circle, sending flickering patterns across the faces of the watching
audience below. From high above, like a waterfall, a thick strand of silver silk tumbles to the floor.
A drum beats as a girl swarms up the fabric, looping it round her feet, and pulling herself up with ease. Once at the top, she loops it around her waist, and then spreads her arms wide. Her dark hair swings as she sets her body spinning, slowly at first, getting
faster and faster until she is a shining cocoon. Below,
the spectators clap and cheer.
She is Svila, star of Zoran’s mystic show, ready to make her audience almost faint with fear as she whirls, twirls, swoops, and dives in the air. But this is to be her last performance
for some time... In public, that is.

Petra watched from the wings, waiting for the signal. Svila opened her arms wide. Now.

With a shaking hand, Petra picked up her juggling rings, took a deep breath, and began to throw and catch them one at a time as she headed toward the stage. Her heart pounded. Would she remember the sequence? Would she drop any? No, she told herself. She had practised long and hard. She simply wouldn’t let disaster happen.

Svila slid gracefully back down the silk.

It was an impossibly fine strip of fabric, the length of the palace ballroom, looped over a rope stretched between two balconies high above the courtyard. As Svila tied it back out of the way, Petra reached the stage and continued throwing the rings two, three, then four at a time, twisting her wrists and catching them deftly. Some of the audience clapped as she did a circuit, lobbing them behind her back, plucking them neatly out of the air. After threading them all back on one arm, she bowed and made it back out of sight, slightly out of breath, but jubilant. She’d dreaded falling off the stage or tripping over her own feet, but her routine had all gone well. Not one mistake!

“Well done!” someone whispered in her ear. Zoran himself stood there, smiling, his silvery beard gleaming.

“Really?” Petra loved juggling—but not in front of an audience.

“Really.” He ruffled Petra’s spiky brown hair. Hauling on his embroidered cape, he swept onstage to introduce the next act. As manager of the troupe, he doubled as the host, narrator—and sometimes bodyguard if the audience got out of hand.

A stocky figure in a pinafore bustled up. “Now, let’s get those rings tidied away.”

“Thank you, Broda.” Petra handed them over to the stage manageress, Zoran’s long-term partner. She stacked them in a corner.

“Off you go and watch from the wings.”

“Just don’t get in the way.” It was Svila who spoke. She had slipped backstage to rest before her grand finale. At fourteen and two years older than Petra, she was already a master of the silk arts, skilled in the most dangerous of moves, either dangling by one foot and swinging in crazy circles, or executing the gravity-defying ‘drops’—rolling her body up in the fabric, and then letting go, tumbling down to the ground in a sparkling flurry.

“But I never—”

Svila ignored her and checked her costume.

Sighing, Petra settled cross-legged on the dusty, marble floor next to a pillar and peeped through a gap in the threadbare curtain. It wasn’t much of a stage—just some planks laid across crude wooden
boxes at one end of the open-air courtyard. Still, at least it was in one of Liria’s most ancient palaces, the Villa Nobilita, owned by Duke Rotoka, head of one of the oldest families, and grand in its way.

Through the arched windows she could see the dark green spikes of cypress trees and a blue stretch of ocean. Inside, the walls were painted with the faded crest of the old queen, who used the palace as her summer residence—before the neighbouring empire of Bura had invaded a century ago.

Over the decades, imperial governors had come and gone, leaving the Lirian nobles’ coffers empty and the peasants’ cupboards bare.

Like Liria itself, the building remained, but only just. It was still beautiful, Petra thought, with its soft pink stone, chequerboard floors, and high, painted ceilings. But the paint was peeling and the plaster was cracking.

Glancing up, Petra could make out a row of overhanging balconies. Earlier, Zoran and Broda had tied the ropes for different acts to the pillars on each side and looped them through the metal railings, forming a strange trellis across the night sky. Broda worried the pillars would crumble and the ropes break free, but Svila had tested them all. “They’ll be fine.”

Petra shuddered. The idea of being suspended mid-air, upside-down, did not appeal at all. She liked her feet firmly on the ground.

She shifted out of the way as Broda hurried about, tidying up stray props and chivvying the youngest performers out of the way. “Anyone seen Mirko?” she muttered, not expecting a reply. “Oh, that man! He was supposed be fetching the ropes for the next scene. If I find out he’s wandered off to the tavern again…” Tutting, she trotted off.

Petra hugged her knees and made herself as small as possible. There wasn’t much room backstage, just a tiny strip of narrow corridor, with barely space for a small stool. Still, they had been given the use of a large chamber at one side where they could keep the boxes of props and costumes. Petra peered at the audience. Half a dozen dukes sat in front of a handful of lords and a smattering of viceroys with their wives, plump as the cushions they lolled upon, facing the stage.

At the back, clustered under the supporting arches, were the servants, their drab clothes blending into the shadows. Zoran’s shows were legendary, and they’d slipped in to get a glimpse of the spectacle, hoping not to be sent back to the kitchens or the stables with a clip round their ears for their trouble.

So far it seemed to be going well, although the show that night was really a dress rehearsal. The following evening, Grax, the new governor of Liria, was due and was to be the guest of honour. Carpenters spent all day making a wooden platform in the centre of the courtyard in preparation—amid much arguing about how big it should be, how high, how wide...There were rumours that Grax travelled with his wife and their family—would there be enough room for them all?

Petra tried to imagine what an imperial family might look like, but she couldn’t imagine what any family was like. Her own mother and father had died when she was a baby. So, like the other youngsters, she was an orphan. Zoran and Broda took her in as they travelled around the tiny coastal country of Liria, performing their shows. The manager and his partner were more than substitute parents. They taught the children everything they knew about performing. Trapeze, rope-climbing, juggling, acrobatics, balancing, and contortion. People said Zoran’s troupe was the best. Better even than the performers from Bura itself.

Petra shifted to get comfortable. She wondered what Bura looked like. All she knew was that it was a vast and powerful empire stretching to the east and north. It was odd to think its borders were just a few miles away.

A mountain pipe started to play. “My cue.” Svila reappeared and stretched. “Time for the ‘Bells of Morenija’.”

She was so light-footed, thought Petra, more than a little envious. So in control. She sighed.

“Wait!” A stooped figure in a rough, grey tunic pushed his way backstage. He had a lopsided, rolling gait like an old sailor.  “It’s Duke Rotoka!” he whispered urgently to Zoran, face lined with worry.

“What about him, Mirko?”

“He’s put in a special request, that’s what!”

“Halfway through the show?” Zoran narrowed his eyes. “Well, I’m not going to change it now, not for him or his lazy, good-for-nothing friends. And after all rehearsals and bell-ringing practice? No, no, no.”

Mirko threw up his leathery palms. “I know, I know! But those are his orders…”

“What story does he want?” Broda joined them, a coil of rope across her shoulders.

“ ‘The Missing Crown of Liria’,” said Mirko. “You know, the one about the old queen and the spy. He’ll pay extra!”

Zoran grunted, but nodded to the piper who started another tune to keep the audience’s attention. “I know it’s one of our best acts,” he grumbled, “but why should we do what they say? Anyway, even if we did switch, it wouldn’t be the same without the fire act in the battle scene. Young Luvak’s arm’s still not right after his fall the other week.”

“But Zoran!” hissed Broda. “We can’t argue with Rotoka. He owns the palace, after all. Besides, we could do with the money—for when we get married.” She dropped her voice further. “You don’t want to upset the nobles again, do you? We had no work for six weeks last time you refused to perform for Viceroy Tuzi.”

“So?” Zoran’s tone was dangerous.

“It’s the children who’ll suffer, poor mites.”

“Broda, my dearest love. I’d be only too happy to do it for some villagers up in the mountains, keep up their faith, remind them Liria could be great once…” He stopped mid-flow on seeing Broda’s expression. “All right, no speeches, but the story is all about how Bura is our mortal enemy. It could be risky. What if the new governor turns up… ”

“He’s not due until tomorrow. And you can do a different tale for him. He’d like the ‘Bells of Morenija’, I’m sure. It’s safer.”

Zoran grunted. Broda smiled and patted his massive forearm.

Svila looked up. “I think we should do it. I can start with the ‘Ring of Stars’ to give everyone a chance to prepare, Zoran can do the story, and Petra can do the fire juggling.”

Petra jumped. “I can?” She actually meant, did they think she was capable, but it came out sounding as if she were keen to volunteer. She wasn’t.

There was a heavy pause, and then Zoran nodded curtly to Mirko, who visibly wilted with relief and loped off to deliver the news.

Quickly, Svila tied a braid of silver ribbon around her head like a crown and scooped up a wax taper. She ran onstage—much to the piper’s relief. He was running out of tunes. Sliding the taper between her teeth, she bent over backward, forming a perfect arch, and lit the taper from the nearest candle. Then she straightened up and climbed the silk once again, forming loops round her ankles, and then stood on them to haul herself up. The audience held its breath as the tiny flame went higher and higher.

At the top, Svila suspended herself upside-down by one ankle and began to spin the silk until it spiralled in a wide circle all around the courtyard. As it nearly brushed against the edges, Svila leaned out and lit a ring of candles already placed on the balcony railings. When she had made a shining necklace of light, she waved the taper like a magic wand. The audience applauded, their eyes fixed upon her. The ‘Ring of Stars’ was always a crowd-pleaser.

Petra edged forward to see better so she didn’t miss her cue, although she knew the running order well. Magic crown…happy queen and country…greedy enemy…big battle …crown stolen…crown rediscovered…treachery…queen’s fateful choice…queen vanishes.

Above, Svila placed both feet in a special foot-lock, one ankle in each strand. Then, letting go and raising her arms,  she sat upright and stretched out her long legs in perfect splits, suspended high in the air, and waved like a queen to her people. The audience applauded. Petra shook her head in admiration. The air was Svila’s kingdom, where she revelled in this tall corridor of nothing, performing her magic spectacle, bathed in a sparkling light, defying gravity itself.

Below, in the centre of the courtyard, Zoran started to retell the tale of ancient Liria, a tale they all knew by heart. His deep, rumbling voice was comforting and Petra loved the stories. She felt her pulse settle as she listened.

Liria was a peaceful kingdom,” Zoran said. “When Queen Tilsama came to the throne, it blossomed with the help of its famous Crown of Fortune until a nearby ruler grew greedy. He planned to invade Liria and steal the Crown for himself.”

In the shadows beneath, some of the older children played the parts of the nameless greedy enemy, hands scrabbling upward toward Svila, their faces covered by dark hoods.

Broda shuffled past, putting the handbells back in the props box. “I’m beginning to wonder if I was right to agree with Mirko.” She chewed her lip.

“Oh?” Petra asked.

Broda pulled a face. “I can’t think why the duke asked for it. Tonight of all nights!”

“Perhaps the duke and his friends are just enjoying a night of freedom. While the cat’s away, the mice will play…They’ll have to be on their best behaviour tomorrow.” Petra smiled and did a fair impression of Zoran’s pet phrase: “You worry too much.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“Anyway,” said Petra. “It’s just an old fairy tale.”

Broda gave her an odd look. “Come on, let’s get you sorted.”

Petra nodded and followed her to the corner where two separate chains, each the length of her arm, hung from a hook. At the end of each was a bundle of fabric scrunched into a metal cage the size of a fist. Petra checked the chains had no kinks; then, grasping the handles, she did a few test twirls.

Broda nodded, satisfied, and tipped lamp oil out of a glass flask onto the rags until the two knotted bundles were soaked. Then she picked up a lit taper and touched each bundle. The fabric crackled and soon both fire poi were lit, flames flicking out of the metal.

Back onstage, Zoran continued the tale about how Liria had been betrayed. “So,” he cried, “fearing an invasion, the queen called up her generals. ‘Should we fight?’ she asked.”

“Yes,” roared Duke Rotoka, draining a goblet of wine. His wife scowled and gestured for a servant to take the jug away.

Quite so!” agreed Zoran. “Of course they would fight! In possession of the lucky Crown of Fortune, they knew they could defeat any enemy that came along. But unknown to all, the enemy had sent a spy into the royal household, where he lurked, like a poisonous snake in a basket of dates.”

Beneath, young Luvak enjoyed his role as the spy and tiptoed menacingly across the stage, looking this way and that, a knife glittering at his belt. Then he drew a length of silver ribbon from his sleeve, letting it gleam in the candlelight.

Yes, a spy,” boomed Zoran. “With a fake crown!”

“Boo!” agreed the duke, nudging his friends to join in. By now, many were rather flushed and rowdy. Luvak stalked around the stage, hamming it up rather, in Petra’s opinion.

Above, Svila slid noiselessly down the silk. As she landed, the ‘spy’ whisked the crown from her head and did a switch, quickly holding up the ribbon from his sleeve as though it were the real one that had fallen. Regally, Svila inclined her head and secured the fake crown to her head.

A drum beat started up from the wings and became more insistent. “Little knowing she had been tricked, the queen faced the day when Liria was due to fight its enemy in battle.”

“Go!” whispered Broda and shoved Petra onstage. She stepped across the stage, twisting her wrists, swirling the fireballs through the air, leaving a pattern of red circles like the wheels of a terrible war machine.

Everyone fought bravely,” continued Zoran, “but the enemy army was too vast and the Lirian forces began to fall back. Many died in battles on the plains, in the mountains, in the deserts, and on the water.” As he spoke, Petra stood centre stage and made larger and larger loops with the fire poi, criss-crossing them in front of her, weaving a pattern of crazy zigzags in the dark like flaming arrows being fired at a besieged castle, shooting through the dark sky. Even when she blinked, she could still see the scarlet arcs, as though they were seared on to her eyelids.

The wide-eyed audience “oohed” and “aahed”, wriggling in their seats, as sparks flew. Rotoka beamed happily, basking in the apparent success of his evening.

Petra started circling the stage. Above her, Svila climbed back up the silks, performing a slow-motion series of tumbling, twisting, and turning to avoid the advancing hooded figures, but just as she was almost overpowered she climbed even higher out of reach.

Zoran wended his way around the scene like the angel of death, sweeping his cloak. “Queen Tilsama fled for safety with her daughter and the royal household, but her servant had vanished.” The fire poi began to flicker and Petra made for the wings, leaving a trail of smoke. Above, Svila tied a knot in the silks, forming a swing, and glided to and fro, looking around in despair at her lost kingdom. The atmosphere was tense.

Heavy of heart, Queen Tilsama took off her crown, and then stared at it in horror, realising what had happened. It was a fake! She had been tricked. The imperial spy had swapped her crown for a false one. She acted quickly, and sent out a dozen of her best men to find the crown, along with the wretched thief and drag him back to face her.”

He paused dramatically, as Svila pointed down accusingly from her aerial throne at the skulking spy, eyes burning with hatred as her soldiers seized him, wrenching the real crown from his hand, holding it aloft in triumph.

Backstage, Broda was dousing the flaming rags in a bucket of water just to be safe and patting Petra on the shoulder. “Good job!”

Petra smiled in relief as Zoran raised his voice. “But the enemy was still closing in, so she called her six most trusted guards,” he said, stalking across the stage, “and in one thunder-stroke, split her crown into six charms and one bracelet.”

In the wings, Broda beat a metal sheet with a hammer to make a sound like thunder in the mountains.

The audience jumped.

Svila removed the plait from her hair and unwound it, dropping six single strands of silver down to their awaiting hands. “She told her guards to hide one charm in each city, to stop the royal crown falling into…ahem…the wrong hands...” Zoran swung round and glared at the audience as the six figures dashed across the stage, criss-crossing in mad cartwheels and backflips, before disappearing offstage. “She made them promise to keep it secret, yet hide clues to be found when the crown could be restored.”

There followed one of those mystic dramatic silences that happen every so often during a good performance, as audience and actors are all drawn together into a moment. Petra realised she’d been holding her breath and let it out slowly.

Six charms!” repeated Zoran, breaking her train of thought and she turned back to watch the show.

One bracelet. Of course, the bracelet was magic. Enchanted. One day, she knew, one day, someone would find the bracelet and attach all the charms, one by one, starting from the beginning. Only this could awake the magic and turn the bracelet back into the Crown of Fortune.”

Then Queen Tilsama herself disappeared, never to be seen again...and so, the crown of Liria vanished forever. Until…” He bowed and backed to the edge of the stage.

Svila had already tied the silk around her waist, and as Zoran spoke, she let go, performing her famous death-defying drop they called the ‘falcon swoop’. With a flourish, she loosened the knot and seemed to plummet to earth as the silk unravelled…but, of course, it was tied to her waist and she halted just a few inches off the floor. The audience gasped. Someone even screamed, but Svila merely smiled, and stretched out, her body horizontal, arms and legs straight, seemingly hovering, safely held in the fabric. Then, with a smile, she arched her back, freed the silk, and backflipped away into the shadows, silent as an owl.

Rotoka led the cheering. Some courtiers and guests stood and stamped their feet. Even the servants forgot they weren’t supposed to be there and whistled and waved. Zoran stood and waved back, inviting Svila back to take a bow. That particular story was always a favourite in Liria and tonight was no exception.

Suddenly, there was a mighty bang and the huge wooden doors of the courtyard burst open. Scores of soldiers, dressed in grey leather armour and black helmets stormed in from three sides and took position around the edge of the courtyard, metal swords and axes glinting in the candlelight. The cheering faded into silence. Petra jumped up, clinging to the curtain as the ranks peeled away and a tall woman with gleaming black hair and clad head to foot in a scarlet tapestry cape appeared, flanked by a dozen bodyguards, weapons at the ready.

She lifted her arm slowly and pointed a wiry finger at the stage. “I am Kurova Grax. In the emperor’s name, I hereby command Zoran to be arrested immediately. For treason!”

End of Chapter One

Find the rest of Legends of Liria: Part One, Cloud Pearl, on Amazon and Smashwords

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