Sanidar could hear the footsteps of the pursuers.
He had blindly turned into an alley and had run as fast as he could. He hadn't looked back to see if the older man was following, though he could make out his footsteps just behind him.
He didn't know where he was. He was in the Hind Quarters — that much was sure but which sector? He didn't know. The henchmen were very close now. He swerved into a side alley. But alas!
It was a dead-end.
Sanidar slowly turned around. His heart caught in his throat. The men were on them — there were three of them.
One of them ran towards him with a cudgel in his hand. Ghal kicked him in the stomach, and he dropped like a sack of flour.
Majri's Ears! The old man was strong, Sanidar had to admit.
The goon on the left held a sword. He swung it at Ghal. Ghal swiftly sidestepped and hit him in the arm with full force. The man cried and let go of the blade. Ghal was deft enough to catch it and chop off the offender's head. In a split second, he had it thrust into the stomach of the last attacker.
The fight was over in just a few moments but Sanidar had never felt moments pass so slowly.
"Who were these men?" He panted, leaning on the wall. All the chaos and running had exhausted him. His head was throbbing from the hit he had gotten earlier.
"Some Rangoot fools," Ghal dropped the sword. "So Shair Singh has unleashed the war upon us. I thought he was wiser. It's a shame that I was wrong." There was sadness in the old man's voice. He suddenly looked too old and weary. His legs shook. He sat down on his haunches and looked at the bloody sword in front of him.
"Who are the Rangoots? Who is this Shair Singh?" Sanidar could not contain himself.
"You will soon find out, boy. Soon, this entire city will find out," he laughed mirthlessly. The old man was acting strange.
Sanidar took a quick survey of his surroundings. It was a trash alley — he could tell it from the smell of rotten vegetables, urine, and feces. He stood up and went to the mouth of the alley. He gave a wide berth to the three bodies on the ground. The mere thought of those men made his stomach curl.
This had to be some Bazaar. The place would have been full of shopkeepers, street vendors, customers, and wayfarers from the eight kingdoms' length and breadth during the day. Right now, it was ominously empty — not a soul in sight. He heard a quiet swish-swash behind him.
Ghal was checking the bodies. He found some money and put it in his pocket.
"What?! You are robbing them?!" Sanidar cried.
"So? What else should I do? Pray for them? Should I wish that the Almighty have mercy on their souls and put their sins on my back? These men were going to kill us! The right thing to do is to loot them of all the worldly possessions they had. It will only bring honor."
"What? Where did you learn that? This is in no way honorable!" Sanidar was aghast.
The old man looked intently at him. His gaze was piercing. Sanidar felt that eerily familiar discomfort rising again.
"What?" he asked.
"You really know nothing, do you?" Ghal said.
"What even?! Where did this man come from?!" Sanidar's mind whirled.
At last, Ghal stood up and came out of the alley. They started walking.
"Do you know where we are, boy?"
"This part of the town is unknown to me," Sanidar said, looking around.
Ghal shifted his gaze to the sky. Sanidar followed his eyes. The sky was moonless yet breathtakingly beautiful. So many stars, dim and bright, some making shapes — it was a tapestry with its own stories and mysteries. He was enraptured.
"You should really spend more time outside, Sanidar." He chided himself.
Someone touched his shoulder.
"Come on, boy. Let's go this way," Ghal said, pointing his finger in the direction of the pathway.
After half an hour, they were on the King's Road. Ghal turned towards the Habsh Quarters in the west. Sanidar would have to go straight on the road, towards North. He lived in Roum Quarters, near the Palace.
He stopped. Ghal kept walking until he was far away.
"Goodbye, old ma- uh! Goodbye, Ghal."
"Here is your share. One quarter, since you did not fight." Ghal said in a firm voice as he threw a clinking bag towards him. He turned and entered the alley ahead.
"Our meeting is not over, boy." He heard Ghal saying.
Then he was gone.
Sanidar was alone now — alone with his tiredness. The aches with all the chaos of the night pranced in his mind.
This was a strange night.
He started strolling back.
It was midnight when he reached his room. And before he knew it, he was fast asleep.
Someone banged the door. Sanidar groggily opened his eyes and looked at the windows. Majri's Ears! It was almost noon. He threw the sheets away and jumped off the bed.
He winced. His shoulders felt cramped. His legs were stiff. He stumbled towards his cupboard to change. Aamuzgaar would be furious. He knew it.
Then he remembered He had an entire week to himself, didn't he? He was soon to get his first Tera. He sat down, letting out a sigh of relief.
Why did his body ache so much?
The memories of the previous night flooded his mind. — the food shop, the chaos, and that old man, Ghal. For a moment, he wondered if it all had been just a dream. But then, his eyes caught sight of the small old bag that was lying on the table.
The door banged again.
"Open the door, for heaven's sake!"
It was Jamish.
Sanidar opened the door, and Jamish burst in. He stared at the empty bed. Jamish aggressively threw the sheet away.
"Okay. So there's no woman here."
"WHAT?!" Sanidar replied, stunned.
"I mean, you are going to get your first Tera with the world-famous Aamuzgaar, aren't you? Any sane person would seek some worldly pleasures on such an auspicious occasion." He placed unusual stress on 'auspicious' — not so unusual for the theatrical Jamish. "But you are not sane, are you? You are not normal."
Jamish always maintained that Sanidar was not like the rest. Perhaps, he was right. Sanidar didn't socialize much, although he could have easily. He was connected to a man who had direct access to the King. He was an influential person in the view of people. However, he was always absorbed in his work. Even during his spare hours, he did something useful — and according to him, talking to people was seldom useful. People wasted time. He was different, but what could he do?
"Remember, today's lunch is on you. Where are we going to eat?" Jamish's chatter interrupted his thoughts.
"Oh, wherever you want," Sanidar replied in a bored voice.
"Okay. Let's go." Jamish caught his hand and pulled him towards the door.
"Let me change, at least."
"You are practically ready."
He was right.
With a sigh, Sanidar stood up, and they left the room.
It was an expensive place. But Sanidar could not have cared less. He wanted this lunch to be over with. Jamish, like always, kept talking incessantly. Sanidar remained silent for the most part, occasionally slipping in a word or two.
He kept mulling about the previous night. The events played over and over in his mind — the chaos, Ghal, all of it. "Who was this man?" He thought.
The next few days passed in a flurry. He had bought a book a few months ago and hadn't found the time to read it. Now, he indulged himself.
It was a history of eight kingdoms from their inception when Aladar conquered the eight Great Cities to Aanunja Hegemony some two hundred years ago.
From time to time, he would think about Ghal and that night. Who were those men? He remembered Ghal saying something about a Shair Singh and Rangoot men. But who were these Rangoots? Who was Shair Singh? He even thought about going to Ghal's place to ask him, but then he remembered he didn't know where Ghal lived.
He kept reading the history book. He scoured it for 'Rangoot' and 'Shair Singh.' Despite the idea of them etched in these pages being far-fetched, it was an exciting task.
It wasn't before the last day of the week that he thought about going back to the food shop. The alley looked the same as it had before — dingy and old. He could smell the food from the entrance of the passage. It was the same rice dish. His mouth watered as he stepped inside. Tables and chairs were arranged as before, and the same boy was serving dishes. He sat down on a table to the left in the first row and ordered rice. It was noontime. Half a dozen people were eating at different tables. All were Hind except a single Roum man at the very back.
The boy served Sanidar his steaming plate of rice. He swallowed a mouthful and felt instantly gratified. It was delicious as before. He started eating, and all other thoughts left his mind.
Someone coughed near him. He looked up and saw an old man — the same old man, in the same worn-out clothes. Ghal!
"I was waiting for you," Ghal said with a smile.
"How did you know I was coming?" Sanidar said incredulously.
"I have learned many mysteries in the long years of my life. Consider it one of those."
"Is this some magic?" Sanidar said. He could not keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
"Nothing like that. It is one of those things that you see around all the time, but you never pay attention to." Ghal was smiling again.
The next moment, Ghal stopped smiling and straightened up. The Roum man at the back was coming towards them. Ghal's back was facing the man. How did Ghal know he was coming towards them?
The man sat down beside Ghal and casually reclined on the chair.
"I suppose you two know each other." He said.
"Sort of," Sanidar said.
"And you too were present this same day last week, I presume." He continued, albeit stiffer.
"Yes?" said Sanidar tersely.
The man leaned back in his chair as he poured a glass of water from the pitcher and drank slowly. Two other Roum men Sanidar had not seen in the alley before were coming towards them.
He finally spoke. "You two will have to come with me to the Nizamgah. We have some questions we would like to ask you privately."
What have you gotten yourself into, Sanidar?! Worry engulfed him. Though he had never been to the Nizamgah, he had heard stories about it from other people. Most of what he had heard was far from delightful. He recalled that people were sometimes ducked in there for months, on mere charges of suspicion.
The two other men were now standing behind their chairs.
"You don't know who I am. I am one of Aamuzgaar's apprentice. When he hears of it, the King surely will know."
The man laughed.
"Of course, boy. And your father is a very rich Najeeb, I guess." He looked meaningfully at Ghal and laughed.
Ghal had remained silent throughout the conversation.
"Gentlemen. Perhaps, you are confusing us with someone else. We only acted in self-defense that day." Ghal said, his tone mild.
The man in the chair suddenly stood up and snapped manacles on Ghal's hands. Ghal didn't defend himself. He looked deflated — but relaxed.
"So gentlemen, to the Nizamgah."
Someone put manacles on Sanidar's hands, but he was too dazed to react.
He was going to the Nizamgah as a criminal.
Edited by Darshini Poola