A gleaming sword made from truth,
Lies hidden in ravaged lands.
A single blow to the fiercest foe,
Crumbles the vanquished into shifting sands.
Warriors arrive from realms afar,
A mad scour for this mythical blade.
Their eyes doused with the frenzy within,
The light of reason has started to fade.
Wary of the crazed,
I tread these bloodied lands.
My shield luminous with courage,
My destiny steady in my hands.
The Gods of power frown upon my march,
For theirs isn’t the counsel I seek.
My hunt for the sword continuous,
But my motives aren’t so bleak.
Only a drink of truth is what I look for,
And the wisdom it may speak.
We all share a world,
And yet sometimes we’re worlds apart.
Have similar eyes,
Yet some perspectives worlds apart.
Speak the same tongue,
Yet some words worlds apart.
How often do we recognize,
These worlds apart from our own?
How often try to understand a life,
Lived differently from ours?
How brave are we,
To smile at unfamiliar sights?
And how different would this world be,
If our worlds truly saw each other?
The red door creaked open with a light push. Jermiaani canvassed the deserted street and its somber silence before casting his eyes back to the house. It was dark inside, covered in shades of brown, with light streaming in through a single musty window, making vain attempts at illumination. He pushed the door further and stepped in.
There was nothing odd about the contents of the house. It was all commonplace, all too familiar for Jermiaani – a house of poverty. “I have been expecting you” the voice said from behind. Jermiaani turned to witness the terror of the Burnt Market, the person who had led so many lives astray. His eyes fell upon a frail, elderly person, worn down by time, yet with a face full of sanguineness and optimism. Fjor Manar looked nothing like his reputation made him out to be. But Jermiaani knew better than to get deceived by appearances. He smiled back and sat in the chair Fjor had been pointing to. “Really? Expecting me for…?” he trailed off.
Fjor himself sat before answering. His old frame took time to land itself onto the chair. Jermiaani didn’t bother to help. Fjor sighed, once seated, and uttered: “This is regarding the investigation I assume.”
Jermiaani nodded. This was going to be a slow game of chess. “The death in the Burnt Market the other day. During the procession”
Fjor shook his head. “Most unfortunate. I am always shocked when the Gods take away someone so soon in their lives.” Jermiaani found rage boiling inside of him. It wasn’t the Gods that took her. It was you.
“She was young, wasn’t she?” Fjor continued when he got no answer. Jermiaani nodded.
“Such a shame” Fjor shook his head. “I hope she did not suffer. I am so sick of suffering myself. It’s my age. My bones. I am weak. The Gods of time have defeated me. Unfortunately, I have no other option but to bear the suffering. My only hope for the world is that no one else suffers the way I do.”
Jermiaani said nothing. The shot was ringing in his mind, the scampering of people, the chaos. He knew that Fjor had been involved. Restraining his anger to his inner self, Jermiaani asked. “What can you tell me about that day?”
“I was there in the market myself. The procession was unlike anything we had ever seen. So many nobility, all at once – and that too in the Burnt Market?” Fjor smiled. “Now that is a sight you don’t often get to see.” He paused. “In fact, in my eighty-three years of existence, I have probably interacted with the nobility twice.” He smiled now. “Do they not like the dirty streets of Carane?”
Jermiaani sensed the pain behind the sanguine face. The inferiority, the desire for attention, the jealousy. He was wary of the game that they were playing. Kerii was the one skilled at verbal negotiations. The Sovereign should have probably sent her.
“I am a lowly person myself” Jermiaani said. “I am not the nobility to know their likes or dislikes”
“But you do work for them” Fjor said immediately, his eyes glinting with a shrewdness that had been absent thus far. “You are – what is the right word – the Sovereign’s hatchet man. You are not part of his established government, and you are sent for handling the more disagreeable tasks, that his government isn’t equipped to handle. I have heard other names for you – pet dog, traitor, murderer…”
Jermiaani sneered but turned it into a smile just in time. He couldn’t afford to lose his cool.
“So tell me something” Fjor continued “Why do you continue to work for people who continue to think they are superior to you?” He leaned back in his chair. “These people don’t understand poverty. They don’t understand you. To them, you are just another puppet. They will cut the strings off your back the moment they are done with you.”
Fjor had paused, expecting to elicit the reaction out of Jermiaani. Jermiaani was genuinely smiling now. Fjor’s vehemence was so misplaced, that Jermiaani couldn’t help but notice his own underlying frustration beneath. “The nobility of Carane has taken care of this country for ages” Jermiaani now answered. “They have been working to improve the lives and the livelihoods of the entire nation. And they have succeeded to a large extent. The country’s welfare is always taken care of – the poor are always ensured food and shelter, a place to learn, a place to pray. Labor is granted to them when needed, they are given umpteen opportunities to earn the living that they would want for themselves. I was poor too, when they found me” Jermiaani continued. “But they have not made me feel it.” He paused. Something tells me you have felt it though.
“Shall we get back to the investigation?” Jermiaani asked. “You were describing the day of the death.”
The door opened and another person stepped in. “This is Gaspare” Fjor introduced the young man to Jermiaani. “He is a carpenter by profession. He works with me.” He pointed to the room beyond. “We make the furniture back there” Jermiaani turned around and nodded. “So, the day of the procession -”
Fjor continued to stare at the room beyond though. “I have always believed in carpentry” He smiled. “It’s the perfect way to earn an honest living. I am over eighty now, I have stood the time of three empires. Armyan the III, Averrincin’s and now your Sovereign’s. You know what I have realized? They all have something very much in common. You know what that is?” he asked Jermiaani, madness in his eyes.
He didn’t wait for an answer though. “In each of the empires, there has always been a working class society and an elite society. Now – the elite have always put forth promises that working class may be able to join them in the ranks through hard work.” He paused. “I am old, about to die any day now. And still here. What does that tell you?”
“That you are a failure. And you are pinning it on the society because you see no hope for any change of fortune. And you are amassing the poor of the Market, filling their head with delusions of your own. Attempting to be victorious at least once in your life” Jermiaani paused. “Who would want a vain death after all”
Fjor laughed; a mad, rabid laugh. “I will not deny that. Although you have no proof to tie me with any of it. I would be rotting in Carsanion prison otherwise.” He said. He continued to nod at Jermiaani for several more seconds, without saying anything. Jermiaani had noticed too many of his kind to get perturbed.
“Do you know what I want?” Fjor said finally, his eyes wide, his frail body trembling with purpose.
Jermiaani had had enough. “You want an empire where the weak and the desperate like you don’t have to work, where opportunities are brought to you on a silver platter, where you get to become nobility without having either the intelligence or the grit for becoming one…” It was Jermiaani’s turn to laugh now. “No empire can accommodate this. Because what you’re asking for isn’t equality – you want a preferred status without having to earn it. This can never happen.”
Fjor looked at Jermiaani with the wide, frail eyes, unblinking. “Fine then – be a good dog and go tell your Sovereign that the nobility will continue to suffer their current fate. The death in the procession was the first one – until the poor of Carane become more powerful than the elite, I shall not rest. Let me see how long it takes for the Sovereign to wash their blood off his hands”
Jermiaani knew better than to kill him then. Even though he truly wanted to. He is just a pawn. We need answers. “The poor of Carane don’t share your vision” Jermiaani then said. “It’s a handful of desperate, miserable people – like yourself, that you have managed to amass. And a handful of naïve others. If you think that together, you can bring down an empire – you are mistaken”
Fjor smiled, still unblinking. “I might be. But I have nothing to lose”
Jermiaani rose from his chair. “Enjoy your time in this house Fjor. I shall be paying you a visit even if I hear rumors of another death.” He looked at the far end, the other room where the youth had started to work. “For your sake, I hope it doesn’t happen. Because proof or not – I will make you pay” And then he added as he was leaving. “Everyone has something to lose.”
Fjor considered the statement, and then burst into long, hysterical laughs, his fragile form quivering with excitement.
The procession had been slow-moving right from the start. It had been a long column of people filing through the tortuous and snake-like street, their faces full of optimism and joy. Ignorant of the scorching afternoon sun, the nobility had proceeded on, elucidating their cause to the locals, gathering their support. The onlookers at the Burnt Market had gazed with their eyes wide open, for they had never seen such flair, felt such privilege or known the possibilities of leading such lives before. Jermiaani had smiled to himself as they had marched on. He had stood at the head of the procession, not with the intent of leading it, for such a thought was beyond him. No, he had had a simpler task at hand. And he had failed.
The shot had thundered through the prevalent hum of the procession, dissembling the joy and laughter that had been so prominent just an instant before. Jermiaani had looked around, trying to fight the commotion that had ensued, trying to track the murderer, even before he had consciously realized that a person had indeed died. The assailant could nowhere be seen. Jermiaani had turned back, knowing the value of every passing second, but it had already been too late. From between the gaps in the scampering people, he could faintly see the pool of red already spreading. The victim had moved away from the clutches of this world. She lay there expressionless, the shot having released her before any comprehension had dawned.
Jermiaani had taken her to the Sovereign, who had sat beside her unspoken, even as time had passed and people had come and gone, having paid their respects. Jermiaani had not noticed their fear, as the Sovereign had. The grief had consumed him whole. Later, after they had all departed, he had dared speak to the Sovereign.
“I have failed you” he had said. “You had tasked me with their protection. But…” his voice had trailed off.
The Sovereign had considered for a long moment before speaking. He had then replied, his eyes still on the cold, lifeless figure in front of him. “It will pass. We will see the true light of things. But now – we must focus. The enemy shall strike again, and soon enough. We need to be prepared”
He had nodded then, his mind still in the Burnt Market, still amidst the scampering people, his ears still ringing with the shot. This time as he had reached the victim, she had been alive, gasping, choking in her last moments. She had attempted to raise her hand, and had barely succeeded. It had been enough for Jermiaani, who had dashed in the pointed direction, a deluge of rage in his mind. But then the crowd had dissolved away, as had the cries of the commotion, and there had stood only one figure in front of him.
“So what you seek – is your own self?” The voice cut through the image, shredding the memory for now. Jermiaani looked up, distracted. It was afternoon again in the Burnt Market. There was no commotion though, no thunder, just the simple existence of the local vendors. The shopkeeper who had uttered the words stood in front of him, looking curiously.
When Jermiaani hadn’t responded, the shopkeeper spoke again. “You have been staring at the mirror for the past few minutes. You are either looking at the street behind or you are fascinated with your own self.” The shopkeeper guffawed at his own intelligence. Jermiaani gave him a weak smile. He had indeed been looking at the street. Looking for what, he couldn’t say. Clues, perhaps. Either to unravel the death. Or for the sake of his own sanity. He wanted to believe it were the former. But the mirror showed him the reality of his true self just as many times as it showed the street behind.
“I am actually looking for a specific vendor” he told the shopkeeper. “Can you help me find him?”
The sanguineness of the shopkeeper evaporated when he heard the name. With a somber expression he pointed. “The seventh lane to your right at the far end of the Market street. Look for a red door”
There are strong undercurrents in the Burnt Market these days. Lot more happening than the common eye can fathom. I see treachery building, the fear rising. A powerful foe is emerging from the shadows. This death is only the first. Their cause is much bigger, their ambition much stronger.
The Sovereign’s words spun in Jermiaani’s mind as he reached the alley he was looking for. The shops had already been thinning as he had moved closer and closer to his destination, replaced by houses instead. The people that saw him approach hurriedly skulked away. This part of the Burnt Market was clearly not a welcome destination. Their lives have changed, the words echoed again. Festered this past year with the onset of this man. The Market isn’t what it once was, full of optimism and camaraderie. On the surface, you may still see the resemblance, but if you look closely, you will see it for what it truly has become.
The voices and the clamor of the market had also been progressively dying out, and as Jermiaani stood at the entrance of the desired alley, he could scarcely hear anything. Occasionally he thought he heard faint callings, voices from places left far behind: a woman looking for her child, the creaking of wooden trading carts, the echoes of a gong.
A door opened somewhere directly behind him. And before he could turn, it had slammed shut. Fear has truly become pervasive here. Regardless, he stepped forward, avoiding the scampering crowd, avoiding their cries and their yells, his mind focused on the only thing important, even as he saw the pool of red widening…
Remember – this man is not the key to the problem. He is merely a pawn. Albeit a pawn that has progressed considerably. We need answers, not deaths.
Jermiaani nodded, even as the red door of his destination appeared closer and closer, and he felt the answers coming. He raised his arm to knock.
Death, by itself, is meaningless… The long-lost words emerged from the black abyss, growing strength to strength, fighting a flood of countless other thoughts, memories and emotions that surged within, strangely captivating the Sovereign’s wrecked mind, even as he sat absently on his knees, crushed and defeated, clutching the pale, cold and lifeless body that lay in front of him, hoping that his presence would breathe some life back into it, hoping that he indeed had some of the godliness that the Carsanions attributed so often to him.
The body remained cold however. Waves of thoughts crashed on the shore of the Sovereign’s mind, now disbelief, now shock, now anguish, now rage – each subsiding to give way to the other, each carrying with it numerous flashes of reminiscences, which now lay strewn on the desolate shore, waiting to be discarded. Faint murmurs brought the Sovereign back from his mind and shackled him to the reality that lay before him. He was vaguely aware that he was not alone, although his mind was elsewhere – linking the past occurrences with the present reality. Death by itself is meaningless… The words came again and then vanished, fading away as the murmurs approached nearer. Voices around the Sovereign, both known and unknown, expressed their sympathies, and he nodded in acknowledgement, each time detecting a shared pattern – the whiff of fear and uncertainty in the words; a new addition to the blatant hollowness that the Sovereign had grown so accustomed to hearing. Not that it was unexpected – the Sovereign understood where the fear stemmed from; it was a fear of their own safety – in an empire where the death loomed so high even above the people with the most power. It was a selfish fear, Sovereign knew, but he nodded silently to their sympathies, unmoved, processing every person’s manner and filing it away for later use.
Outwardly stoic and pondering, he was back on the shore now, looking among the reminiscences that lay scattered, searching desperately for the key that would release his shackles. The one memory, which had the answer to his great pain, still lay forgotten somewhere in the crevices of his mind. It couldn’t be seen on the shore, but then again, he had miles to travel to cover its expanse. He didn’t have much time, he knew. He had to be functional once again – and the grief was weighing him down, killing him slowly yet steadily. The murderers were currently formulating the next plan of assail, he was quite sure of that; he had to have his wits about him if he had any hope of foiling them.
Death by itself is meaningless… he recited the key to himself, as he sat on the shore, looking beyond the setting sun, even as the waves of rage and misery continued to lash at him. His breathing soon became irregular, and he started shuddering, the weight of the circumstances falling down on him, crushing all his will and determination. Strangely however, he wouldn’t give up. The setting sun then started to change course, rising higher and higher, until it was morning again. The shore vanished and so did the waves, replaced by the encampment where death was so familiar. The Sovereign was walking through the rocks and the artillery now, sidestepping the bodies that he saw – the product of war, the souls that the rebellion had claimed. “So many deaths…” a voice said beside him. He turned to see Jermiaani inspecting the mutilation. The Sovereign had nodded to him, distressed at the outcome that lay in front of him. He had started down the path for justice, brave and knowledgeable of the price, but the massacre was proving to him that he had much to learn. For knowing and living were two different things – and while he had known, only now was he getting to live death.
The encampment then vanished, replaced by the long halls of the Tower of Dawn. And then the Sovereign heard the voice, oddly like his own self, but stronger and surer. “Death by itself is meaningless. Always look upon it in the context of greater things, disassociated from every emotion. Always question “why”, for it is the reason that defines death, that unveils its true nature. And once the cause is understood – all that remains is to stand up to that cause, with every piece of strength left, until it yields to you; until you prove to it that you are beyond the miseries of life. Logic trumps all. Dissociate every emotion from logic – and you will see life for what it is. And then – you will have risen.”
The Tower of Dawn faded away, as another voice was heard. “My Sovereign?” Vyanaar was back now, back in the reality, back to the present, but unconstrained and unshackled. He turned to see Jermiaani beside him, his voice full of pain, clearly still grieving over the terrible loss. The Sovereign looked at the body that lay in front of him, the countless memories and emotions still swirling inside but not drowning him anymore. “It is a matter of time, Jermiaani. We will all get over this. But now – we must focus. The enemy shall strike again, and soon enough. We need to be ready. We need to think the scenarios through. The conflict has only just begun.”
Jermiaani looked at his Sovereign. He saw the colossal strength, unfazed and unperturbed even under such trying circumstances. He couldn’t understand how such strength could be possible. He bent his head low. “Orders”