By Archit Joshi
In the desert city of Akhmenrah, peace was finally settling after a ferocious battle between King Gohäd and King Dahemòn. The battle had raged on for a decade, causing pitiable destruction of infrastructure and resources. That’s the thing about war. Willing or unwilling, each life is affected, be it a peasant’s or a nobleman’s. The only silver lining was that King Gohäd had emerged victorious, forcing King Dahemòn to flee to some distant land.
King Gohäd immediately began work on rebuilding his kingdom. He regretted the unnecessary casualties, but that’s the manner of life in turbulent times.
He distributed all possible wealth and amenities amongst his subjects. He commissioned the establishment of better schools, so that young ones might study and grow up to be prosperous. He facilitated better services for the farmers, and discovered new pathways for the merchants to trade their wares with others from faraway lands. Through goodwill and poise, King Gohäd rose again like a phoenix, to be the all-powerful emperor.
Amongst other wondrous deeds, the King did something that had never been done before: he started sending his own little pixies to his subjects, so that they may help commoners to regain wealth and prosperity.
The King’s pixies were quaint little creatures, with wavy golden hair and sparkling white wings. It was rumored that once a person was touched by these mystical beings, their life would be changed forever, for better or worse, depending on the person’s choices. Everyone in Akhmenrah knew these pixies by their more common name: Opportunity.
It so happened that in such transitory times, an unexpected friendship was beginning to bloom between two children living near the banks of River Soleni.
Amir was the only son of a mill worker. Born into poverty, he watched his father toil away under the command of the mill owner day and night to bring food to the table. His family had been unable to earn the necessary money to put little Amir through schooling. Amir would spend his days, learning through life what he could.
Not permitted to enter classrooms, his zeal for learning wouldn’t let him sit idle. Sometimes, he spent his days with his father when he could, learning from the mill owner how the mills were operated. On other times, he would spend some time with Abbu Raheem.
While most people were snatching opportunities to work under emerging powerful landlords, Abbu prided himself on being a farmer, a hard worker. He was respected throughout Akhmenrah for his tenacity and determination. Soon after the rehabilitation of the city, Abbu had sweated his way to respect and prosperity. Amir wanted to learn all he could, from working in the farms with Abbu and his son Surhud.
Surhud was roughly the same age as Amir. Growing up, Surhud had watched his father work with utmost honesty and grit. He respected his father and wanted to be like him when he grew up. He was sent into one of the finest schools King Gohäd had helped set up, and helped out at the farm whenever he could, with Amir by his side.
Amir and Surhud became steadfast friends. Each had equal respect for the efforts of the other’s family. Their monetary differences failed to create a rift between them. Change was still working its way in, and everyone was doing the best they could to adapt. There was no right or wrong, just a burning desire to rebuild their lives.
On the sixth day of every week, an elderly man with flowing white hair, clad in saffron clothes, would visit their bustling town. He would sing ballads of the great King Gohäd, inspiring amongst the people an awe of the battle recently fought. The songs would always praise valor and courage, the percussion instruments the old man brought sometimes aiding in building up the rhythm. Gradually, playing on the naivety of the people, the old man changed tack and used his lyrical prowess to instill fear among the King’s subjects: fear of the King. He portrayed the King as a vengeful man; one could either offer him alms or face his wrath. Out of fear, love or respect, people of Akhmenrah would offer up alms for the King.
Amir watched Surhud and his family offer up alms for the King, and felt guilty for not having enough to pay tribute to the King.
Years went by, and a sense of normalcy settled gingerly on the city like dew drops on leaves. Amir and Surhud’s friendship became stronger and stronger, until the town jokingly called them brothers attached at the hip.
They grew into lean, hefty young men, learning chivalry and discretion through the trials of life. Soon, it was decided that the two youngsters had finally come of age. Akhmenrahian tradition says that when children of the desert come of age, they must take responsibility for their families. This ceremony had little to do with age and more to do with their preparedness to step out into a harsh world. The actual ages would differ from person to person, thus taking any injustice out of the equation.
Here was Amir, having learned many things from practical life. He’d spent time with local street-smarts and peasants, farmers and mill owners, and had learned the tricks of many professions. Although armed with real, practical knowledge, he’d never gotten the conduciveness to grow prosperous. The town felt he was owed the opportunity to have a proper ceremony to commemorate the beginning of his new life.
On the other hand was Surhud, equally thirsty for knowledge, always being a good student and making his parents beam with pride. Always in awe for King Gohäd, offering alms and singing the ballads of the King’s Greatness. Thus, accustomed to following rules and traditions of his people, and with fear of the King in his heart, Surhud, too, came of age.
Seeing as they were the best of friends, the city decided to gift them both a grand coming of age ceremony. There are only two occasions when society tends to forget its differences and comes together: grief and joy. People of Akhmenrah were eager to cherish any respite they could find from their days of exhaustion, and this ceremony would offer a fresh change of routine. Thus, the city became one and started preparations for the largest, most lavish ceremonies of all time.
Akhmenrahian women are much respected; they represent the goddess of wisdom. At the coming of age ceremony, the son and father assume position on a raised dais with a sage who performs the ceremony. The ceremony takes place in a plush green garden, decorated with a plethora of flowers. Guests seat themselves around the dais on comfortable rugs and mattresses. Then, the child’s mother blesses them both with holy water, all the while chanting the King’s Scriptures. Then, the son lights a sacred fire and makes a promise to those gathered that he would devote his life to the betterment of them all.
The ceremony the city arranged for Amir and Surhud was a majestic affair. They’d performed the rituals together. Hundreds of guests attended to give their blessings. After the traditions were carried out with due diligence to the elders, both Amir and Surhud were handed a flaming baton. They walked up to a giant bundle of twigs and branches gathered from the sacred oak blossoming by the river. Together, they lit up the auspicious pyre to a thundering applause from the guests.
Now it was time for fine lunching, with delicacies including at least fifteen different varieties of sweets, freshly baked pies, savory, spicy curries, five different kinds of salads and sweetened milk to wash it all down. Amir and Surhud acted as the perfect guests of honor, greeting everyone with polite how do you dos and engaging in respectful conversations. After a long, tiring day, guests finally began to disperse.
When all was done, Amir and Surhud embraced each other and set off for home. Just as they were freshening up, the banks of the Soleni were lit up with golden light and bells began to toll in the distance, making each of their dreams come true. Both children heard muffled noises at the doors of their respective homes.
They were at a pivotal point in their lives, and Opportunity had knocked on their doors.
Amir ran to the door and flung it open. And there was the pixie with stunning blue eyes and fluttering wings, its golden hair dancing with the wind. Amir held out his hand, the pixie grasped it. As if touched by magic, the scene around him changed. The house disappeared, and his world began whirling. Soon, he found himself amidst breathtaking snowcapped mountains and lush green trees, a sight to behold for a deserter.
Amir’s Opportunity let him enjoy the change; the scene that engulfed them was surely a delightful change to a deserter. Then, it began fluttering about him in circles.
“A poverty stricken lad… A noticeable passion…” the pixie had the voice of a child, a rather high pitched one at that.
“Beg your pardon?”Amir was bewildered.
“I can take you to greatness. Will you take my hand?” The pixie demanded.
“Of course I will!” Amir was excited. “My whole life I’ve been waiting for a chance to prove my worth. I want to show my mother that her efforts have not been wasted. I will make something of myself!”
“There’s a heavy price. I demand sacrifices. You will have to travel to distant lands and stay away from everything you’ve ever known. You will have to work tirelessly until your efforts bear fruit. Do you accept?”
“I do.” His entire life had led him to this point. Amir grabbed the Opportunity by its hand, knowing that his life was about to change.
The pixie transported Amir to a big town outside of Akhmenrah, with camels for transport and a new piece of land gifted to him. Amir was given complete ownership of this, so he could build his own trade. Soon, before the sun set that day, his family was brought to live with him, and thus began the beginning of a new phase in the driven lad’s life.
Meanwhile, Surhud had also experienced a similar journey to distant mountains. His Opportunity too had flown around him, judging him.
“Studious child… Hunger for learning… And what is that I sense, a respect of the King? Or is it fear?”
“A little bit of both. Our King Gohäd is great. He has been kind to us, and has never let us down.”
The pixie’s deep blue eyes stared at Surhud’s amber ones. At length, it said:
“I can take you to greatness. There’s a price to be paid. Will you accept?”
“What is the price?”
“I demand sacrifices. You will have to travel to distant lands and stay away from home. You will have to work day and night. Do you accept?”
Surhud thought long and hard. They didn’t tell stories of the price the pixies demanded! For the first time in his life, he felt an inexplicable fear. Fear of the unknown. What would this new life entail? Would he get hurt in the process? Better not take the risk.
“I am humbled by the offer, but I do not accept. My life is beautiful as it is. I have to pay my parents back for what they’ve done for me. I choose to stay where I am and devote my life to King Gohäd.”
“Your will be done!”
Instead of taking him to his promised gift, the pixie carried Surhud back to his home instead.
Amir and Surhud conversed through letters. Amir excitedly recounted his tale and said he would soon start off working on his own. Surhud was happy in replying with his decision to stay.
“Why did you decline?” a surprised Amir asked in his response.
“I want to stay here and make my parents and my town happy.” Surhud’s next letter explained. “I plan on making them proud one day. I will become the son they want me to be!”
Amir wrote back saying he intended to do much the same.
“I feel I can do that even by walking my own path, by protecting my own ambitions.”
Each respected the other’s decision. Soon, the toll of a busy life stopped the steady flow of letters. With the hope of being reunited one day aflame in their hearts, Surhud and Amir began their separate journeys.
Surhud started working at his father’s farm. He toiled away in the fields. His father and mother made no secret of their growing pride for their son. Very regularly, Surhud paid alms to the King Gohäd. He was grateful for the life he had been given. He thanked the King – deep in his heart – for everything. Many days passed. More and more Opportunities began knocking at Surhud’s door, and he politely declined each one.
Just as he thought all was going well, he felt unease creep in, a sense of distant sadness. He tried to ignore it, and offered even more alms for the King, with hope that good deeds would be rewarded. And rewarded they were! He started bringing in plenty of money and richness home. He became a celebrated member of the society. He began throwing feasts, and he was the perfect host at each one of them.
And yet, the strange dissatisfaction persisted. He found that he no longer enjoyed his work. Sleep eluded him, and his health deteriorated. His dreams — his innermost, secret dreams — began to slip farther and farther away from his reach.
If anything brought him satisfaction, it was the knowledge that he was utterly loyal and faithful in his devotion to the King. He pushed through on that sentiment and got through most days. But on others, he wondered…
What had gone wrong? He had taken every decision correctly, keeping his parent’s happiness in mind. Were they truly happy? They weren’t. All the money they could want, Surhud would bring. But something was missing in their lives, though just what he couldn’t quite understand. On countless dismayed nights, he wondered about his childhood friend. What must have happened to dear Amir?
Amir was enjoying every challenge life brought in the town of Sazekh. The people there spoke different languages and followed different traditions. At first, settling in with new faces and building a trade of the grains and spices had been very difficult. Times were tough. He had thought of giving up and returning to Akhmenrah again, many times. But the darkness of his poverty stricken days pushed him on. And his grit paid off: things began to ameliorate. Trade flourished. The money took time to generate, but he got by.
He too, found newer Opportunities hovering outside his doors regularly. Remembering how saying yes the first time had radically changed him, he grabbed hold of each of them. And they took him to a variety of places, through beautiful mountaintops and dark valleys. His life became seasons of pain, followed by periods of ecstasy. But above all, he felt satisfaction. He reveled in the joy of saying yes to taking risks. The happiness at being able to do what he loved.
Had he been selfish when he had taken the decision to leave for his own dreams? Perhaps a little bit. But it had been worth it. And, as he had told Surhud in his parting letter, his family was also proud.
Amir, who had been too impoverished to pay alms to King Gohäd, now had more than ample wealth. But still, he wouldn’t send tributes, not out of contempt, but simply because his mind was preoccupied with work. He sent enough money home, so his father could quit working for the mill owner and enjoy the rest of his days.
Home. Akhmenrah. He missed it. And he missed his childhood friend Surhud.
One day, two identical letters dropped into two different places: one at Akhmenrah, the other at Sazekh. Two people opened it in their own respective homes. And both people froze; it was a higher calling. The letter talked about the Day of Judgment; the wise old King Gohäd had summoned them.
The Day of Judgment. One of the final tests the King took of his subjects. People would travel a long journey to His Highness’s kingdom. There, the King would weigh in on the person’s life and either grant him eternal salvation in his court, or punish him with punishment he deemed fit. All over King Gohäd’s kingdom, people were anxious about receiving The Letter.
Surhud became fearful. Had he done enough? Had he worshiped the King with enough devotion? Had his offered alms been enough? He didn’t know.
Trembling, he offered the letter to his family. There was a mixture of emotions. After setting his affairs in order, Surhud set off the very next day, without any of his belongings.
One didn’t carry any baggage to the King’s kingdom.
Far away in the city of Sazekh, Amir strove to drive fear out of his heart. He didn’t care about the King’s judgment. In his heart, he knew he had lived a fulfilling life. He had dared to leave behind the comfort of the known and travel the world. He had welcomed suffering. He had performed good deeds. He might not have been fearful of the King, but each day, before he went off to sleep, he offered up a silent prayer of gratitude for Him. He would face the consequences of his choices without guilt.
Amir was the first to reach the sprawling kingdom of the Great King Gohäd. At the gates, he was welcomed by a few noblemen who escorted him to the throne room. Once inside, Amir immediately fell to his knees and bowed before the King.
The King was dressed in impeccable golden robes and a humongous crown sparkling with diamonds adorned his head. His eyes reflected the kindness in him, yet an onlooker could easily discern the steely conviction in them. His face revealed through its hardened complexion, that he was a man who had faced many a storms, and emerged victorious.
The King ordered Amir to stand up. In a booming voice, he asked:
“Are you afraid?”
“No, Oh King. I will receive whatever judgment you have reserved for me with grace.” And Amir bowed.
“Did you offer me alms?”
“Excuse me this atrocity, Your Highness. But I come from very humble beginnings. When I was young, we had barely enough for one full meal a day.
“After I came off age, I set off on a journey for personal redemption. I have worked tirelessly day and night, night and day for many exhausting years. And when I had enough, I took very little for myself and sent my fortunes to my parents who needed it more than me. Amidst my toiling and charity, I once again found myself in scarcity and couldn’t send Your Highness the tributes He deserves.” Amir stooped his head, ashamed.
“Do you not respect me?”
“Of course I do, Your Highness! Bear no misconception in Your heart! You were in my prayers, in the good times and the bad. Every day I was grateful for you and in awe of you for winning the battle against the formidable King Dahemòn.
“However, my path has been strewn with thorns, and I have been tested to my very limits. In my battle to continue living, I’ve failed to offer alms. And for that I will now received whatever punishment His Highness will give.”
The King grew silent for a moment. Then, he asked:
“Did you venture out of the known?”
“Yes, myriad times. My decisions have taken me on a turbulent ride. And I have endured it all with your blessings behind me.”
“Did you help others?”
“Yes, Sire. I did. I helped my parents earn their place in the society. I helped the peasants incapable of finding work by proffering jobs in my trade. I offered food to every beggar who came my way.”
Amir fell again to his knees, and started sobbing.
“I now realize I’ve failed none but You, Oh King. Forgive me for my sins, and punish me as you will.”
Here was a man, who didn’t worship him as others did, yet fulfilled the role bestowed on him. He had faced his fears and a felt a lot of pain. Whatever benefits he reaped, he gave away for the betterment of his people.
Did this man deserve condemnation simply because he didn’t contribute gifts for the kingdom?
“I already have enough wealth to last nine lifetimes, sir. I do not need alms from my subjects. I need people to be like you, brave and bold. You will not be punished in my kingdom! You will receive eternal salvation. Blessed be you!” The King spread his arms wide, even as Amir’s tears turned to surprise and awe.
“Thank you, My King! I am forever indebted to you!”
With that Amir was escorted to the high gardens behind the kingdom, to be given his due rewards.
The next day, Surhud reached the castle of King Gohäd. He was taken to the throne room in front of the King. He too, fell to his knees. The King scrutinized the new arrival carefully. This was the same man who had disrespected the Opportunities. The King was more curious than angry.
“Are you afraid?”
“Yes, My Lord. But such is your power. I am blessed to be in front of you.”
The King was not too pleased by the answer. He did not need his subjects to be in fear of him.
“Did you offer me alms?”
“I did, Your Highness, regularly. I even erected your statue in the middle of my farm,” Surhud replied, expecting praise.
“But pray tell, my pixies inform me you refused to take their hand. You refused your chance at greatness. Why?”
“The price was too steep, my King. I couldn’t leave behind your rule, my parents and everything I have known since childhood.”
“Did you do anything out of your comfort?”
“Comfort, My Lord? I have lived a tedious life, worked hard at farming, and did everything my parents asked of me. I respect your rules as well, and have followed a righteous path to your glory.”
The King was dismayed. Why did his citizens fear him so much? Were they foolish enough to think he would condemn them simply because they walked a different path? No! If they did, he would be the happiest. He needed his empire to flourish. He needed his subjects to understand the brevity of life, the importance of making it worthwhile.
“Did you enjoy farming?”
Surhud thought deeply, honestly. He’d taken up farming to fulfill his parent’s wishes. But, and he lied even to himself about this, he had felt the joy slowly seeping out of his life. He had not wanted to live his life out on the farms. And what had it all brought him? His parents had been initially proud of him, but later, as he himself was miserable, his parents had also caught his infectious gloom.
He now realized that his unhappiness had sprung from living a life not of his choosing. Right then, in front of the King, he spilled out one of his innermost secret:
“I’m afraid not, My Lord. I despise farming. I want to write poetry.”
The King was hurt. This man had wasted his life trying to please him, and had scurried about to fulfill the wishes of his parents. He realized, as he gazed at the broken man in front of him, that he’d become an anomaly to his subjects. Everyone feared him rather than love him. He needed to bring about change. And scriptures have been the most thought provoking ways to alter a person’s thinking.
“You will receive punishment!” the King announced.
Surhud was shocked.
“But, Your Highness, I have been nothing but devout! I did so much for-“
“You fool! I do not require my people’s gifts, or their fear. I need only their love and their faith that I will guide them on their path.”
“How do we humble servants show our appreciation, if not through alms?”
“Through your conviction of me. You need to nurture my presence in your hearts. You need to believe that no matter what happens your King is there to protect you. And in times dire, you need to look for me within, not at some carved statue outside. I have deep love for my subjects, and help is offered to all those who ask.”
Surhud staved off blurting out more idiotic words. After a few long moments, he asked in a subdued tone:
“What is the atonement to my sin?”
“You will go back to your lands! And you will write beautiful poetry to instill love in people’s hearts. You will write heartwarming prose to remind people that they are the kings of their own destinies, and I am but a guide to the courageous traveler. Your words will help inspire people to make decisions that scare them. From now on, nobody will live with fear of me in their hearts!”
Surhud was humbled. King Gohäd was full of kindness and empathy. He was truly an exemplary King. And it was then that he realized: true heroes need only be revered, not feared.
Yes! He would write poetry. He would write words that transformed, and he would make that his life’s mission. No more living in fear and no more saying no to the pixies.
“Before I go, My Lord, would be you spare me the squirming and the wondering?” Surhud asked, mustering up courage. “Where did I go wrong? I did everything that was expected of me, I never broke any rule, I never did anything to upset my family, and I sang praise of you daily! What was my sin?”
“You lived in trepidation, of me and life itself. You weren’t willing to pay the prices for your dreams, convincing yourself that there is modesty in living within the boundaries I created. You thought it would make me proud but it does not. I want my people to challenge what I’ve created, and leave their footprints when they’re gone.”
He paused, observed his humbled subject.
“You only marveled at the gift of life, my good man,” the King finally said, “but you never used it.”
Archit Joshi is a published author who loves writing character-driven stories. He also works as a content writer, and is eager to add more and more writing styles to his arsenal. His fiction has found a home in many reputable anthologies and online magazines, with works ranging from short stories to drabbles (100-word stories) to 10-word micro-fiction. Until now, he has over 45 short fiction pieces published traditionally. Archit had zero regard for coloring between the lines as a kid.