NOTE: An old story of mine, written sometime in the 1990s. I still like it. - DCT
Once upon a time, on a planet far, far away, barely visible in the most powerful of telescopes, orbiting around a huge red sun in its final, gasping stages of life, spinning so slowly that a day lasted three years, and a year was longer than a lifetime, there lived a king, with his beautiful daughter Calliope.
Like the sun, the king was old, red, and bloated, and did not have long to live. And as the sun was unstable, and occasionally would flare up half again its size and sear the planet with unbearable heat, so too the king had a mercurial spirit and a scalding temper before which his subjects would cower.
Orbiting the planet, which was called Prath by its inhabitants, was a large, creamy moon named Perthtar. The moon was half as large as the planet, and they orbited each other once a day, which as you remember lasts three years on Prath.
After countless years they had settled into a comfortable pattern, as old acquaintences do, and now both moon and planet had slowed their spins to match their orbit; thus they presented always the same side to each other, ever to waltz face to face in their orbit around the sun.
And so it was that the moon did not move in the Prathian sky, but hung suspended in place like a great pearl, never rising nor setting.
Of course, this did not seem so strange to the Prathians, who had never known anything different, and in fact some of their philosophers brought forth convincing proofs demonstrating that it could not be otherwise.
Like the moon, the king’s daughter was pale and beautiful. Her creamy skin and pearly smile were treasured by the Prathians, and her presence cast soft rays of hope in a bitter land ravaged by a cruel sun and a bilious king. In the midst of the king’s worst ravings, Calliope was an island of calm, never losing her composure nor loving her lord less. To the Prathians she was like a goddess, benevolent and longsuffering, more loved than the king was despised.
But as the long Prathian day wore on (the Prathians measure their age in days, not years), it became clear that their beloved Calliope was slowly declining, and they began to fear she would not make it to the mid-day festival.
The mid-day festival was the second-most important of Prathian holidays, and lasted a full week of our time. It celebrated the beginning of the fiery sun’s descent in the sky and of cooler weather under which crops could again grow. Planting usually began shortly after the festival, the first crops breaking the soil when the sun was at the one o’clock position, and the first harvests collected at “five o’clock.” These crops had to last them through the long, cool night until the next growing season which commenced shortly after sunrise.
The nighttime was the season of cool weather and soft, milky light from Perthtar. As the night wore on, Perthtar became more and more full, and the people would begin preparing for Prath’s most important holiday, the midnight devotions. For the Prathians were a devout people, and were grateful to the God who helped them survive such a difficult existence. It would begin with a period of fasting and prayer, followed by a reverent meal and then exchanging of gifts.
The previous midnight devotions had been interrupted by a vast flare from the hidden sun which colored the moon red and brought hot winds. This was considered an evil omen for the day to come. When the sun appeared that morning it had seemed redder and angrier than usual, and several great flares had nearly destroyed the morning crop.
The king, too, had seemed more vitriolic than usual. A mistimed remark had cost three aides their heads; even Calliope had been seen with unsightly bruises imperfectly concealed.
As the decline of Calliope became more evident, a small group of Prathians banded together and took a vow to assassinate the king, who was seen as the source of all their troubles. They met in barns and silos and secretly laid their plans while others slept. And the time came when they were ready to carry it out.
The sun was by now nearing its crest, and the morning harvesting was nearly complete. Perthtar was a thin wedge in the sky, all but obliterated by the angry, pulsing sun. The assassins had chosen to act on Merzar, the time of day on which the king’s birth was celebrated. This was over the objections of several astrologers, who expected a terrible solar flare near that time. A parade had been planned, to take place entirely under a string of tents to protect everyone from the searing heat. Soldiers had gone door to door to rouse everyone for the occasion, for attendance was mandatory.
Soon the parade began. First to pass were the baton twirlers and tumblers, followed by junior regiments of every school and grade. Several fainted under the oppressive heat and were discreetly removed.
After much delay, accompanied by scuffles caused by heat-shortened tempers, the royal chariot finally made its way through the throng. Each group it passed gasped at both the splendor of the display and the exceptional pallor of the princess. The king himself did not look at all well, his face reddened even more than usual by continual racking coughs.
Suddenly a shout rang out near the king’s right, and a violent tussel ensued, drawing the attention of everyone including the king’s guards. A microbow of the kind used to launch deadly poison-tipped darts was quickly confiscated, but not before a second dart from the left slammed into the wooden throne, narrowly missing the fleeing king. The princess, too, rose and headed back after her father, but stumbled and was momentarily lost from sight. The sight of the king fleeing to safety enraged the crowd, which surged forward with a frenzied roar, stopping the carriage with its mass. More darts scattered about the throne. Several spectators nearby were hit and fell, to be trampled by the mob. Rocks were now pummeling the locked room at the back to which the king had retreated, and the carriage was being rocked to and fro. A chant had arisen: “Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!”
Suddenly Calliope rose and sobbed, “Please stop! Stop!” A rock sailed from behind and crashed into her shoulder, causing her to stumble and cry out. The crowd gasped and quieted for a moment; righting herself, Calliope screeched “Stop!” once more, and all fell silent. The only sound was their beloved princess’s sobs.
She made her way unsteadily back to the throne and collapsed in the chair. All eyes were on her still, though she said nothing. She leaned over the railing in front, gasping air. Presently she looked up, and with effort squared herself. “My people,” she began, slowly scanning the crowd. “This is not good. We must never allow ourselves even a moment of evil, no matter how much evil is endured at the hands of others.”
Strengthened, she looked them in the eyes, one by one; none could return her gaze. Overhead a small cloud had momentarily blocked the sun, and a breeze had begun to stir. All was silence. And then one by one the Prathians turned and headed home, until not a soul was left. The carriage quietly returned to the castle.
Despite the astrologers’ predictions, no flare occurred, and the sun remained cooperative though the midday festival and afternoon planting. To the peoples’ surprise, no executions followed the Merzar Riot, as it was coming to be called. They could only assume that gentle Calliope had interceded to prevent any further escalation, and they wondered how long that could last.
But as the period of peace grew longer and longer with no official appearance by the king (although there were rumored sightings), it began to dawn on the Prathians that perhaps the king had died. (Now the Prathians are rather ashamed of death, so a loved one’s passing is politely ignored and never referred to until many days later - and, as you remember, a day lasts three years on Prath).
This was finally confirmed when Calliope appeared alone before them, still pale but without bruises, at two-thirty in the afternoon.
An adoring crowd had assembled, and the princess spoke of peace and harmony, honest toil and just rewards; the people, however, listened not to her words but their import: deliverance from a brutal and evil king, and the beginning of a new, benevolent reign.
And they would, of course, have gone on to live happily ever after, except that there was still an unstable, dying sun to contend with (and in any case, that only happens in fairy tales). But the final stages of a sun’s life are measured in years, rather than days (and you doubtless recall the exceptional length of the Prathian year), and under the princess’s all-too-short reign a flowering of knowlege began which ultimately led to the discovery of how to survive and live beyond the sun’s demise, using Perthtar as a shield against the impending explosion.
Thus began a glorious age on Prath which continues to this day. But as for Calliope, she never fully recovered, and all of Prath mourned her heirless death, as their descendants would mourn the cataclysmic annihilation of the soothing, creamy Perthtar. This illustrates the principle that with the destruction of evil, some good is also inevitably lost.
And that is the point of this tale.