Beelay had always known he was special, even when he was a very young boy.
After all, as far as he knew, no other child in the Thirty Cities had ever been raised as he had, by the Temple. No other child, no matter how high-born, had been given the advantages he had been, not even the Princes of the Blood. The Temple did help educate them, but they weren’t raised by it as one of its own.
Beelay didn’t even know who his parents were, had never heard anything of them, and as long as he’d known, Sister Smita had fulfilled the role of his mother. She was a tall, spare woman with a hooked nose and heavy eyebrows, who seemed to be severe and forbidding until she smiled, and then her face lit up like the sun.
Beelay adored Sister Smita. He didn’t adore Brother Khazan, thick-bodied and jowly, who was in charge of his education. Brother Khazan was humourless and intolerant of any kind of distraction, but he did know a tremendous amount, so that Beelay grew to imagine that he was the most knowledgeable person in all the Cities, if not all the worlds.
As Beelay grew older, and got to know more of the world, he came to hear about things which puzzled him, things he hadn’t been taught about. One day he came back to Sister Smita, frowning perplexedly.
“Who was the Tyrant?” he asked.
Sister Smita stared at him. “Why, who told you about the Tyrant?”
Beelay shrugged. “I heard the Princes talking. They were arguing about which of them hated the Tyrant the most.”
“Oh. Well.” Sister Smita put down the book she was reading. “The Tyrant – you’ll get to know about him in time. He was a very, very bad man, who did a lot of evil things. That’s all you need to know for now.”
But, of course, that didn’t satisfy Beelay. So when Brother Khazan came along at lesson time, he repeated the question.
Brother Khazan frowned severely. “The Tyrant,” he said, “was the worst curse the Thirty Cities have ever had to suffer. He was the worst curse all the worlds ever had to suffer.”
“Curse?” Beelay asked, confused.
“I suppose you’ll have to know sooner or later, so you might as well know now.” Brother Khazan sat down and stared at Beelay. “You know about the war, don’t you?”
“Just that there was one, a long time ago,” Beelay said. “And the Thirty Cities lost it.”
“Yes, we aren’t much inclined to talk about it,” Brother Khazan said. “Actually, it wasn’t that long a time ago, less than twenty years. And we didn’t so much lose it as we were practically annihilated by it. In fact, at the end of the war, there was only Capital City left, and it was a sea of ruins, too.” He paused, looking past Beelay at the window. “And the Tyrant was all to blame for it.”
“Who was the Tyrant?” Beelay asked.
“I’m getting to that. About forty years ago, there was a great drought. There was famine in the Thirty Cities. The common people were worst hit, of course. There was no work, thousands were starving, and what little food there was...” Brother Khazan looked quickly over his shoulders, as though there might be somebody listening. “”What food and water there was, the nobility and the royalty kept for themselves. The Temple too – at that time it was run by evil, greedy men. Instead of helping the people, it hoarded food to sell when the prices rose further. It was a bad time.
“It was at that time that the Tyrant began walking among the people. At the time he was just another junior officer from the Navy, like a thousand others, but instead of remaining in the barracks and being grateful for his regular meals and employment, he went out among the seething slums. And he began to talk.
“It must have been convincing, what he said, but of course the people were in a mood to listen. In any case, what was, till then, a fragmented and leaderless mob rallied behind him, and quickly became a formidable army. Armed with farm implements and obsolete weapons it might have been, but it was huge, and it was everywhere.
“At first the royals, the nobility and even the Temple all ignored them. The poor had always been downtrodden and had accepted their fate – why should it be different now? They sipped their fragrant wine, and they held their costumed parties, and they laughed. But they did not laugh long, because the Tyrant ordered a march on the palaces.
“They came from all over. From the slums, from the farms, even from the barracks, because the soldiers had relatives who were suffering, too, and because the Tyrant was one of them. They came, and the King and the nobles ordered the army and navy to crush them. But they refused.
“So the King worked out a deal. He didn’t have a choice in the matter, really – it was either that or be overthrown. He agreed to install the Tyrant as his premier, and hand over all but formal power to him. In effect, the Tyrant became dictator of the Thirty Cities, with full authority to do whatever he wanted.
“Now, of course, the drought and famine didn’t go away just because the Tyrant had seized power. In fact, they actually worsened, so that though the Tyrant had all the nobles’ and the Temple’s hoarded food and money confiscated, it began to run out in time. And it became obvious that soon the people would get restive again. And in the meantime the other worlds were overflowing with the food we needed so much.
“So then the Tyrant decided on war as the only option.
“You know, of course, that the Thirty Cities have a strong army and navy? Well, they’re only a shadow of what we had then. At that time, our armed forces were the strongest in all the worlds, so much so that the rest had a military alliance against us. But they also had the food we lacked, the food we needed. The Tyrant decided to seize them by force.
“Could he have acted differently? Undoubtedly, he could. If he’d asked for aid, the worlds would have responded. If he’d offered favourable trade terms in return, they’d have responded with enthusiasm. Who wouldn’t have wanted to trade with the Thirty? But he was too proud, and, besides, his experiences had taught him that violence works. And, of course, he had absolute power, so he didn’t have to listen to anybody. So he went to war.
“It was a terrible war. I tell you that it’s a measure of the ability and the bravery of our army and navy that, alone, they fought all the Alliance to a standstill. They might even have won – in fact, it’s almost certain that they would have won – if it were anyone else but the Tyrant in control.
“What did he do, you ask? He ordered the wholesale extermination of people in the conquered territories, to take their lands and resources for ourselves, and as a measure to strike terror among the enemies.
“Of course it did no such thing. It only served to strengthen their resolve, to make them determined to defeat us. And, also, many of our generals and admirals refused to obey that order. They said it wasn’t part of war to be killing unarmed civilians. And the Tyrant responded by having them arrested and executed as traitors.
“I need scarcely tell you what followed. With the best military leaders executed, and the army busy killing civilians instead of fighting, the Alliance mounted offensive after successful offensive. And the Tyrant, by now completely surrounded by sycophants who told him what he wanted to hear, thought anyone who didn’t agree with him was a traitor. So, as the war turned against the Thirty Cities, he increasingly turned against his own people – against us.
“He even turned against the Temple, and eliminated the Head Priest and the top leadership of both the Brotherhood and the Sisterhood. As a matter of fact, that wasn’t a bad thing, because they were the people who were completely corrupt. But he didn’t do it because of that, but because the Temple didn’t obey his authority unquestioningly, as he wanted.
“Even then, it might not have been too late to achieve some kind of peace. But the Alliance now developed a weapon against which we had, at the time, no defence, and against which we had no chance to develop a defence. One by one, our bases and fleets were wiped out, until we were left with only the cities themselves. And then, of course, the enemy attacked the cities, and began to destroy them one by one.
“By this time, of course, the people had turned completely against the Tyrant, but were helpless against his troops. Even at the last, when the Alliance’s forces had surrounded Capital City, more of his men were busy arresting and killing people who were suspected of plotting against him than were fighting the enemy. And it was only at the very end, when Alliance armoured crawlers were rolling down the avenues of Capital City, that the people finally rose up, beat off the Tyrant’s remaining soldiers, and stormed his palace, determined to exact vengeance before the chance was forever lost to them.”
“And did they?” Beelay asked, fascinated.
“No,” Brother Khazan sighed, shaking his head regretfully. “If they had, the people might have had closure. No, the Tyrant had the last laugh. All that was found was his partly charred corpse. He’d killed himself and had his body burned, before the people could lay hands on him.”
“I don’t understand,” Beelay said. “If he died, that was the end of it, wasn’t it?”
“I see you don’t understand.” Brother Khazan shook his head reprovingly. “It’s about punishment. The Tyrant deserved to die for his crimes, true, but as the result of a proper trial, so that he could fully answer for his crimes. By killing himself, he escaped that.” He glared at Beelay. “Do you understand now why the princes were competing to hate him?”
“I think so,” Beelay ventured. “But that would mean that all of us would have to hate the Tyrant eternally, because he’d escaped punishment? Isn’t that rather sad and dark?”
“You’re probably right,” Brother Khazan acknowledged. “Anyway, the upshot was that the war was blamed on the Tyrant and his regime. The royal family was, of course, completely discredited too. In fact the only remaining authority was the Temple; and the new leadership of the Temple, and of the Brotherhood and the Sisterhood, stood completely and unambiguously for justice. The Alliance knew it, and knew, too, that the Temple hated the Tyrant. So they handed over the reins of power to the Temple, and the royal family and the nobility remained as they were, mere figureheads.
“In any case, remember this: the Temple stands for justice as much as the Tyrant stood for evil. And it’s our duty – all of us – to see that justice is done. Do you understand?”
“Of course,” Beelay said, wondering if he did understand.
“Good,” Brother Khazan nodded approvingly. “Tomorrow, we’ll go and visit the Tyrant’s palace.”
“Is this it?”
“It is,” Sister Smita confirmed. “Are you disappointed?”
“I don’t know.” Beelay tilted his head back to look up at the ruins, which looked disconcerting and ugly on one side of the Great Square. “It seems rather a pathetic place, really. Just stone and broken walls.”
“Don’t be fooled by appearances,” Sister Smita said grimly. “From here, the Tyrant spread his evil over the worlds, and then over his own people, the Thirty Cities who had suffered for his sake, believed in him, and done him no harm.” She turned to look at Beelay. “The Temple decided to keep this in ruins so that it would stay as a reminder to everyone of the price we all had to pay...and as a warning.”
Brother Khazan appeared at the top of the rubble-strewn steps and beckoned. “Not that there’s much to see,” he said. “Watch your step there.”
“The Tyrant’s corpse was found there,” Brother Khazan said once, pointing, as they passed through a room the roof of which was open to the sky. “He’d ordered his men to burn him after his suicide, but they didn’t make much of a job of it.”
“Still, he escaped what he deserved,” Sister Smita said grimly.
“Is there a picture of him somewhere?” Beelay asked curiously. “I’d like to know what he looked like.”
“No,” Sister Smita said brusquely. “We’ve destroyed them. The Tyrant used his likeness to create a cult of personality, so we destroyed the pictures. Now come, it’s time we went home.”
So they did.
Years passed. Beelay grew into a fine young man, and one day decided he wanted to join the Brotherhood.
But Brother Khazan shook his head decisively. “The Brotherhood isn’t for you,” he said. “You wouldn’t be able to submit your personality to it like we all have to do. You have too much spirit to be able to confine it in the life of a Brother.”
“But...” Beelay began to protest, but Sister Smita also chimed in.
“You don’t really know what a Brother’s life is like, Beelay. Whatever he thinks or wants doesn’t matter. What he would like to do doesn’t matter. He has only one – just one – duty, and that is to the Temple. All other considerations...including his own happiness...aren’t even secondary. They’re merely immaterial.”
“It’s the same for the Sisterhood,” Brother Khazan added. “It’s not the sort of life you could adjust to.”
“He’s right. You have other things to do, better things. With your personality, you’d be perfect as a soldier. You’re by nature an officer, a leader of men.”
And Beelay thought about this, finally perceiving that they were right. So he joined the military academy as an officer cadet, and soon distinguished himself, so much so that his instructors all commended him in their reports. Finally, he was commissioned as a junior officer, and it was the proudest day of his life when Brother Khazan and Sister Smita watched as he saluted along with the other new officers and pinned the rank badge on his collar.
And so more years passed, and imperceptibly grew into over a decade; and Beelay rose through the ranks, slowly but steadily, until, on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, he was unexpectedly made a general.
It happened that he had been ordered to the office of the Generalissimo himself for a special briefing. “There is a revolt brewing,” the senior man said, toying with his chestful of medals. “The rebels are organising in the countryside, and getting ready to strike at the cities. It’s up to you to stop them.”
“I, sir?” Beelay was flabbergasted. “Why me?”
“I know you’re young for the job. You’re the only officer I know with the talent and the energy, though, which is why I chose you.” He had fumbled in a box and brought out a general’s badges. “Here’s your new rank. It’s temporary for now, but when...not if, when...you succeed, I’ll confirm the promotion.”
So Beelay went out to the countryside and took command of the troops there, only to discover that the rebellion was far more widespread, deep-rooted and dangerous than he had ever imagined. More and more, the violence spread, forcing him to respond with even greater violence. And then, one day, the rebels took a city.
It wasn’t a large city - one of the lesser of the Thirty. But the rebels had taken it by storm, held it completely, and threatened now to sweep on to capture others, and in time perhaps strike at the Capital City itself. Beelay pondered what to do.
There was only one thing to do, actually, and finally Beelay forced himself to do it.
He ordered the destruction of the city, along with all the people and the rebels in it. And so, after bitter and prolonged fighting, it was done.
By then, though, the rebel forces had attacked another city, and when they were beaten back from it, they attacked another. Step by step they grew formidable, until Beelay realised that unless he could destroy their base of support, the Thirty Cities might fall.
So he turned his attention to the villages and farms, the hamlets in the woods, which had spawned the rebels and which now seethed with their fanaticism. Using the same techniques he had perfected in the destruction of the cities, he began to wipe them out one by one, without pity. He destroyed the villages, killed the people, used the livestock to feed his army, and burned down the crop. Before finally moving on, his army poisoned the wells and the land to deny even the possibility of their use to the rebels.
And at last, after many years of brutal fighting, victory was his. Small numbers of rebels still fought on, but the devastated countryside was pacified, as were the ruins of eleven of the Thirty Cities. And Beelay was summoned to Capital City, for his reward. And so, one day, he found himself stepping out of his vehicle on to the Great Square, for the first time in many years.
Sister Smita was there, much older and wizened, but with her back still straight and the jut of her jaw just as he’d remembered it. And Brother Khazan, now walking with the aid of a cane, but with the same pugnacious expression on his face as always. Beelay hugged Sister Smita and shook hands carefully with Brother Khazan.
“It’s nice of you two to meet me,” he said.
“It’s not nice,” Brother Khazan said. “It’s necessary.”
“Yes.” Sister Smita took him by the arm. “Come along,” she said. “We have a couple of things to tell you.”
“What things?” Feeling the familiar grip of her still strong fingers, Beelay allowed himself to be drawn along the side of the Great Square until they stood in front of the ruins of the Tyrant’s palace.
“It won’t take long,” Sister Smita said. “But you need to hear us out before you go to the ceremony.”
“Yes,” Brother Khazan nodded heavily. “Beelay, do you remember how you grew up with us in the Temple?”
“Why, yes, of course I do.”
“Did it ever occur to you to wonder why you were the only child the Temple ever chose to raise as it did?”
Beelay shrugged. “Many times. But I was afraid to ask, I suppose, at first. And later it just didn’t seem to matter anymore.” He paused. “Why? Is it something about my parents? My...real parents?”
“Well, in a sense, yes,” Sister Smita said. She tugged at his sleeve again, and he found himself following her up the Tyrant’s steps. “The only thing about your real parents was that...there were none.”
“What do you mean?” Beelay asked. “How can I have had no parents?”
“Because,” Brother Khazan said, behind his shoulder, “you are a clone.”
“A...clone?” Beelay felt as though something inside him had turned to stone.
“Yes, a clone,” Sister Smita said. “I bore you in my womb, and brought you forth, but you were a clone, not my baby. We have to do a lot of things we don’t want, in the Sisterhood, as I believe Khazan told you once a long time ago.”
“Then whose...whose clone am I?”
“Whose do you suppose?” Brother Khazan asked. “We found the Tyrant’s body right here, as I once told you. It hadn’t been destroyed completely...and it was still quite fresh.”
“And he hadn’t paid for his sins,” Sister Smita said, a diamond edge in her voice. “He’d escaped his punishment. Remember that.”
Beelay opened his mouth but nothing came out.
“So the Temple decided to create a clone. Not immediately, but only after things might settle down. A clone, which would, being of the Tyrant’s tissue, be part of the Tyrant himself. And so it was done.”
“You’re a very accurate copy,” Brother Khazan said. “I saw the Tyrant with my own eyes. If the two of you stood side by side, people would think you identical twins.”
“But don’t think the Brotherhood is ever unmerciful,” Sister Smita said. “We didn’t condemn you out of hand. We let you choose your own destiny. And when you had the chance, you acted just as cruelly as the Tyrant, and with equally little cause.”
They were approaching the central chamber of the ruined old palace. Their footsteps clicked on the stone, accompanied by the tapping of Brother Khazan’s cane.
“Today,” the old monk said quietly, “You are hated precisely as much as the Tyrant was in the last days of his rule.”
“Here we are,” Sister Smita said, tapping on the central chamber’s sagging bronze door. “You can go in now.”
Beelay took a deep breath and shrugged off her hand. Throwing his shoulders back, he straightened his uniform and stepped forward.
As he pushed open the door behind which his reward awaited, he did not forget to smile.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013