Dhaani, Capital of the Mandalan Empire
Year 5025 of the Emergence of Mandala

“Your Majesty, my Emperor, my liege.” The Prime Minister bows low, his gaze resting on the sun metal sandals of the bearded man he addresses. The assembly that stands behind the Prime Minister bows in unison. The Emperor Tanit Mahabeyan, from his seat on his throne of polished stone, with veins of moon metal running through it, smiles benevolently as he looks at the people gathered in his court.

“May I be the first to congratulate you on the 25th anniversary of your accession to the throne of Mandala?” says the Prime Minister. He pauses for effect, then adds, in a deeply sonorous voice, as if reciting a poem. “Blessed was Mandala the day you became Emperor, my liege,” he says. “Blessed are its fields, blessed its mines. Blessed its people who call you Emperor, blessed more than when the jijits helped our land emerge from the deep seas –”

He is cut off by the Emperor. “No, Prime Minister,” he says brusquely. “No. It is blasphemous to compare me to the mystics. They were incomparable, and what they did for Mandala cannot be matched by anyone else, ever.” The Prime Minister’s smile has slipped briefly at this admonition, but he regains his composure soon enough. He smiles again in a benign way and says, “If further proof was needed, there it is, of Your Majesty’s goodness and selflessness. You are great, indeed, my Lord!”

The crowd behind echoes this last sentence, and the strains of it waft out through the windows and into the street outside. The sound travels faintly to the adjacent hill, atop which a man sits. He is a broad-shouldered, muscular man, middle-aged and battle-scarred, with a deep scar across one cheek. He sits on a flat boulder, the very picture of patience, listening and watching. Beside him, on the rock, lies a flattish package wrapped in rough sacking. The man’s eyes are piercing, his gaze riveted on the gates of the palace.

The skies are overcast; fresh snow threatens. But in the streets of Dhaani, there is a mix of jubilation and quiet emotion. After the courtiers have dispersed from their audience with the Emperor, a solemn procession sets out from the palace. It is a large procession, with many horses, all uniformly white, a few horse-carriages, and many people on foot, but there is no fanfare and pomp. They move down the main road of Dhaani, the Emperor’s Way, its entire length paved with dazzling white lunarstone. At the head of the procession rides the Emperor himself, his robes regal and the beautiful golden-maned rishya he is mounted on as tall and proud as the Emperor it bears, its single horn gleaming like a well-polished sword.

The procession makes its way to the magnificent Terrisan Sanctuary, whose vast grounds stretch for more than two miles on each side. With its solid stone walls thick and seeming to hug the land, its façade decorated with clay and minerals of different colours, the very look of the Sanctuary is a reminder that the Terrisan people who worship the Land Spirit venerate it in all its forms: as clay, a rock, as mineral. Beyond the massive mica-plated gates of the Sanctuary lies the Sacred Ground, a huge field grown over with short shrubs and grasses. At this height, on the plain, an oblivious onlooker would see nothing extraordinary about this field. But to the scarred man who watches from atop the hill, the Sacred Ground shows itself from the perspective that has given it its name. At precis intervals, the vegetation of the field is punctuated by perfectly circular patches of bare ground.

“The footprints of the Land Spirit! Hail to thee, Land Spirit!” A group of people, all clad in robes that echo the colours of the land – tan and brown, ochre and deep red and black – move forward to the front from amidst Tanit Mahabeyan’s entourage. In unison, they fall prostrate, their foreheads pressed to the ground, their hands lifted, palms up, in supplication. By the time they rise up, the Terrisan priests have emerged from within the Sanctuary building. Along with the Emperor’s Terrisan group, the priests lead the Emperor into the Sanctuary, the rest of the procession following silently in. While the devotees hum a low, wordless tune, the Emperor, guided by the Terrisan priests, offers prayers and lays handfuls of many-hued sand at the stone altar of the Sanctuary.

The priests of the Terrisan Sanctuary bless the Emperor, marking his forehead with a paste of yellow clay. “Thanks be to the Land Spirit,” they intone. “Live long and prosper, O Emperor.” Then, still solemn, the group emerges back on to the Emperor’s Way and takes the road to the river at the point where it enters the hills surrounding Dhaani. The Aaboneer Temple, its façade glittering under miniature waterfalls that cascade down its outer walls, stands on the riverbank just opposite a spot where the water seems to flow uphill.

From the procession, a small group comes forward, its members all clad in long, shimmering robes of silvery grey. Without uttering a word, they link hands and move forward, down the bank and into the water, wading through it till they reach the point where the river defies gravity and begins to flow up rather than down. All of these people are obviously deeply moved by what they are experiencing; they are weeping now. As one, they kneel, submerging to let their tears mingle with the water. Then they emerge, dripping, out of the river and make their way up to where the Emperor stand.

They are the ones who lead Tanit Mahabeyan and the rest of the procession onto the long pier jutting out from the Temple over the river. Here stand the high priestess of the Aaboneer and the other priests of the Temple. As they guide the Emperor in presenting votive offerings and thanksgiving to the Water Spirit, the Aaboneer devotees bring out moon metal flutes, each a yard long, from within their robes. Together, they begin playing, but no sound audible to the human ear emerges. They sway, their lips and fingers move, their eyelids flutter shut, but there is silence. The only thing that moves is the water in the pool that acts as an altar at the end of the pier: it shimmers and eddies, forming concentric circles, waves that move endlessly, round and round...all with the same rhythm that makes the Aaboneer devotees sway.

Just as the Emperor is turning to go back down the pier to the riverbank, a loud sound, between a whoosh and a whistle, fills the air. Instinctively, everybody looks up. From the nearby hill, the man who has been watching the Emperor and his procession also looks up as a ball of fire, about a yard across, comes flying out of the clear blue sky. Down below, there is consternation and dread, dismay and fear: a collective gasp goes up from the crowd surrounding the Emperor. Some of the more nervous panic and try to run; others, perhaps of a more spiritual bent of mind, begin an ululation. But the ball of fire is too swift: barely has the first note of the ululation been uttered than the meteor has hit the river, causing a loud splash and a sizzle. The steam from the impact of the fireball causes a mist over the river, and the water bubbles violently.

“The spirits themselves rain gifts and benedictions down on Your Majesty,” says a sycophantic courtier in an oily, wheedling voice.

Excerpted with permission from The Pledge: Adventures to Sada, Madhulika Liddle and Kannan Iyer, Speaking Tiger Books.