The festival grounds were located in a large field at the center of the long, sloping city. The center-most point of the field, and by extension, the city, was occupied by a grandiose statue of a dragon with a snake coiled around its body. It had been commissioned in honor of the treaty signed to end the species war, and the meaning of it depended wholly on who you happened to ask. Throughout the year the field was host to whatever events the citizens of the city fancied, all scattered among the rolling green. Today the entire field was united to celebrate the anniversary of peace across the country. Hundreds of delighted citizens milled about in finery and costumes; local farmers came up to sell their wares; travelling troops from far flung lands set up in the green to entertain and sell foreign and exciting items. These were strange creatures who were neither naga nor dragonian, and who called themselves “human.”
The field was bustling with the early throws of the festival. Families and friends gathered in the afternoon heat to partake in a variety of foods and activities. Down one fairway, a line of stalls boasted the excitement of the leaps and bounds of technology and science. Steam engines, clockwork dolls, flying machines, and more glinted and danced and came alive to the delight of children and adults alike.
“Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and see the wonder of modern science before your very eyes!” A well-dressed man barked from the front of a striped tent. He gestured to a contraption on a table next to him. “This little beauty will replace the need for coal, steam, and even turnkeys. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, what I have here will be a revolution of life itself!” He pulled a lever on the contraption and it came to life with whirrs and buzzes. A light within the contraption sparked into existence and two wheels at the top began spinning. The effect was a bright kaleidoscope of color. “I give you the power of the stars themselves! I give you Aether power!” The crowd erupted in sounds of excitement and curiosity. A number of nagas came forward and fought with each other to invest in this new technology. The man graciously accepted the praise, calmly adjusting his spectacles and talking contracts.
Inside the tent a gentleman wearing a white double-breasted suit leaned heavily on a cane and watched the manic crowd. “So this is what he’s been working on,” he said.
“Yes. It’s his pride and joy,” responded a woman wearing a long blue dress with bustle and deep purple trim. She fanned herself lazily while lounging on a settee. “I must say, I’m proud of my brother, even if he can be an annoying twat sometimes.”
The man smiled and made his slow way to a chair closer to the back of the tent. He picked up a leather mask from the chair and turned it over. Small jewels and elegant white paint detailed the leather into a tangle of glittering swirls. “You really went all out for this, Cathy,” he said.
“Only the best for you, dear,” Cathy replied lazily. She watched Jack tie the mask on, covering every inch of his face save for his dark beard and darker eyes. He looked back to the opening at the front of the tent, with tis throng of people, then to the smaller flap at the back that led out to the edge of the grounds. He seemed uncertain of what to do. Cathy bit her lip. This wasn’t the same man she’d known before. Fond memories of festivals past lingered promisingly in her mind; the dances, punch, antics, and laughter, all with him. He was confident, even brazen, last year. This uncertain and hobbling man was nearly a stranger. Still, he was her friend. Cathy rose from the settee. “Shall we go see what the vendors have?” she asked.
Jack looked at her, and the confusion seemed to fade a little from him. “Sure,” was all he said.
Cathy wound her arm around Jack’s and led him out the back of the tent. The hum of the festival was less oppressive, but still very present on the outskirts of the grounds. Smaller tents were clustered around carts and wagons from the traveling troops, and various performers and workers could be seen lounging or milling about, presumably on break from their assigned duties. Cathy smiled and gave pleasantries to anyone they passed who made eye contact, while Jack focused on the ground, leaning heavily on his cane. Most of the travelers returned pleasantries or ignored them, but one woman stared intently at Jack from her seat by a fire pit. Jack could feel her eyes on him, but focused only on the task of walking. Any stray stone could be his downfall, as he realized on the journey to the grounds that morning. For so long he’s prided himself on his ability to move quickly, quietly, and efficiently. Now he was stumbling and awkward, and one stray moment of overconfidence had left his splayed on the ground. From a window above him, someone had laughed and called him an old drunk. He would not let that happen again.
The woman’s eyes were still on him when the pair turned a corner onto the main fair way. The crowd was loud, and densely packed into the spaces between stalls. One could not move an inch without brushing against someone else, but unlike in the dark alleys or the upper city, no one seemed to mind here. Dragonians, nagas, and humans mingled within the rolling press of the crowd, taking in sights, sounds, and smells of the celebration around them. At least half the festival-goers were in some amount of costume, and all were the best that each individual’s money could buy. The effect was that of glittering foam on a sea of linen and leather.
Jack stood at the edge of this sea. His heart was pounding in his chest, and he could not focus. He didn’t know what was wrong, but he was terrified to go into the crowd. The noise of people seemed to grow louder, coming to drown him. He needed to leave, to go where it was quiet and dark. He had to escape the sound before it got him. The heartbeat got louder. It was trying to fight the crowd for dominance, but the people were louder still. The edges of his vision began to darken. Why couldn’t he move? He needed to move. He needed to leave. It was so loud.
Something touched his arm. He jumped, and only his cane kept him from falling. Cathy was looking at him. She looked concerned. Jack suddenly felt angry at her for looking at him like that. She gently said, “We don’t have to go yet if you don’t want to.” Jack’s anger flared. How dare she talk to him like he needed her help. But he needed to be away from the noise, so he turned and started walking away from the crowded fairway. He must have done it suddenly because Cathy let go of him and stepped back quickly. The uneven ground made his hurried steps difficult, but he could not focus on the task of walking now. There was nothing but the need to get away. At one point he stumbled, and a hand took his arm to steady him. It took all his effort not to lash out at the person and allow them to lead him to an empty seat by a dying fire. The noise of the crowd was faint, but his heart was still beating loudly in his ears. Under it he heard Cathy tell someone, “thank you,” and a tankard was being offered to him. It smelled strongly of liquor, so he accepted it and took a large swig. The drink was liquid fire down his throat, and he didn’t feel safe to breathe until he set the tankard down on his lap. Soon the pent up energy of terror faded away, and the world became solid around him once again. Cathy was in the seat next to him, her hands neatly folded in her lap and a smile on her face, but the hands were gripping each other rightly, and her eyebrows were bunched close together. Across the fire pit was the woman who had been watching him.
“Thank you,” Jack said.
The woman smiled kindly at him. “Do not worry, Dragon King. It has been a long time since you’ve been in the world, but you are strong, and will not be in peril from the people of this city.”
Jack gave the woman an unfriendly expression. “I am no king.”
“Your son is the prince. Therefore you are the king.”
Jack scoffed and looked down at his drink. Then he looked back up at her. “How do you know that he’s my son?”
The woman just continued to smile. She reached into a satchel at her hip, pulled out a medallion, and held it out to him. “Keep this with you, and you will always be welcome in my camp, but remember my people when the time comes.”
Jack cautiously reached out and took the medallion. The metal was cold, though the day was very warm. He examined it, but the symbol it bore was one he did not know.
Cathy said what he was thinking, “What is it?”
The woman answered, “It’s a token of friendship from the land of the old gods.”
Jack and Cathy looked at each other. The old gods she spoke of were a new concept to their land, and the native gods here were long dead. Jack looked again at the medallion, then slipped it into a deep pocket of his jacket. Though he did not believe in the gods himself, the symbol of treaty with the humans could prove useful.