The music came in first – soft, flute-like, although the Sovereign couldn’t really place the instrument. Probably because he had heard this tune just once before – but it had been carved deep in his mind. Why, he wondered. He got no answer. His eyes closed, he decided to listen intently. One by one, the senses trickled in: the creaking of a wooden wheel, the smell of oranges, quick padded footfall, a child’s laughter, the bustle of the street, the bright sunshine he felt on his face, a scream… The Sovereign shook his head, distressed. No… This was a happy place. He continued on his journey: the musty smell of carpets, the bells of the licorice carts, someone tugging at his leg…
He opened his eyes. A child was looking intently at him, probably no older than five, her palm opened, the other hand pointing to the cart with the bells the Sovereign had just heard. Comprehending, he reached inside of his pocket and placed the coin in the child’s open palm. Giddy, she raced towards the cart, which was developing its own tiny crowd around it. The Sovereign laid his attention back on the street.
This was decidedly many years ago, much before the Sovereign had come into his true self. Much before the command of an empire had alighted on him. The Sovereign today was wide-eyed, his bare feet boiling in the sands of Carane as he stood at the entrance of The Burnt Market, watching the hustle with a keen eye, taking in everything – the overpowering aroma of spices and perfumes, the countless people that thronged the busy street, their voices and their noises, children running about. The Sovereign breathed in deep and beamed, his mind soaking in the optimism around him. This was decidedly a happy place.
Now that he understood where he was, he searched for his purpose. Why had he been brought here? He looked around, trying to find answers. The sights gave him none. He decided to move forward nevertheless, hoping that in due time, the answers would present themselves. As he moved, he inspected the carts and the stalls, while each vendor used his own flair to persuade a purchase. The Sovereign smiled, and ended up buying a souvenir – a timekeeping device, golden in nature, with umpteen dials that neither he nor the vendor could understand the significance of. Not that it stopped the vendor from inventing a story around it. But it was exquisite looking, unlike anything the Sovereign had ever seen. And so it had landed with him. He moved on – the Burnt Market was a long-winded street, perhaps the longest in Carane, and something told the Sovereign that he did not have much time.
Contrary to its name, the Burnt Market did not have a tragic past attached to it. It had been named so by its benevolent customers and fellow travelers – who jested that all the goods sold in the market were either ‘burnt’ or of poor quality. In no way did that hinder its popularity of course. It was ever one of the most crowded streets of Carane, not just for purchases, but for camaraderie – the streets had multiple inns and alehouses, where people met on a whim to discuss philosophy, politics or art and mostly ended up fighting each other.
The Sovereign stopped dead in his tracks. The thought had trigged something in his mind. He tried to fish it out – the key to him being here. It wasn’t such a discussion that had brought him here – but something of that nature – a sermon, he thought. Or a speech. The answer floated to the surface from the depths of his mind. The podium.
He glanced at the local time keep. And just in time too. It would start in a few minutes. He raced, knowing every turn of the serpent-like street and reached just as the man had climbed the pedestal.
The speech was interesting but incorrect. The man had been talking about freedom, of the nature of dynasties, of suffering, of change. Clearly, he did not know anything about any of these. But then what would one expect from the Burnt Market? It was full of false goods and false opinions. For some reason though, beyond what the Sovereign could fathom, the speech exasperated him. Before he realized, he had told the speaker to shut up, and had begun explaining to the crowd on the true nature of empires. The crowd had been amused at first, then intent, then amused again as more and more had started gathering. Everybody in the Burnt Market loved a scene and they could see that they were about to get one. The Sovereign had gone on and on – really he could have spoken about the dynamics of the realms for weeks, months even – if given a chance.
The woman had been observing the Sovereign for some time now. Her eyes were impassive and the Sovereign never saw the knife coming. He looked incredulously as he fell backward with the impact, understanding what had happened but not really understanding the why behind it. He looked at the wound – it was minor, but a stab wound just the same. Strangely, he didn’t stop talking. He continued on and on…
And then a fight ensued. The Sovereign saw several daggers go up in the air and several more hands to stop them. The crowd was fighting among themselves – some to destroy him, others to protect. He heard faint sentences cutting through the overpowering din of the bells of the licorice cart. “You killed my son”, “My children are dead because of the war”, “Your desire to make change has ruined our lives”, and even fainter sentences from the ones protecting him “Change is necessary”, “There will always be casualties in war – but the Sovereign has changed things for the better and forever”, “We believe in the Sovereign”, “Long live the Sovereign”. He was still on the ground babbling about the righteous things in life, how sometimes there needed to be a price paid for achieving lasting change, and how metamorphosis was difficult but fruitful in the end… The woman nearest to him, kicked him, shielding an incoming dagger. The din of the bells was too overpowering now. The Sovereign barely heard her. “Run”.
He got up, struggling as he did so, and watched the market wilt in the moonlight. It was several more seconds before the room slid into focus. “What’s wrong?” asked Palmeida beside him.
The Sovereign shook his head, now logical and calm, as the world expected him to be. “My dreams… The happy ones are getting interspersed with more…” He looked at her. “…tragic memories. We should have another look at the mind tomorrow. We need to re-compartmentalize. I cannot keep doing this.”
Palmeida smiled. She wasn’t worried about the Sovereign, knowing the strength and the courage that lay beneath. “So… not a God after all” she said teasingly.
The Sovereign dropped his head back and closed his eyes once more. “Not yet” came the reply.
Copyright 2016, Vaibhav Thombre