Kohra ambled through the market, smooth cobblestones cupping her bare feet, the air a song of shoppers and shopkeepers, donkeys, and children’s laughter. The general din was occasionally punctuated by the squawking of a hilariously uncouth parrot, who either delighted or dismayed passersby with his repertoire of off-colour phrases.
The parrot had lived here, under the shade of the sprawling-branched maple tree that dominated the center of the marketplace, for a long time. It seemed to the locals that the parrot had been “welcoming” people to the Market Square forever, a sentinel to local commerce and community.
Hanging around the bustle of the Square was one of the more enjoyable, and possibly useful things to do these days. There were usually no shortage of people to talk to or play with. There were far more kids rambling around now, their families split by war, or their parents off working for the industries that had sprung up.
It was definitely a “boom time” for the Kingdom, a gold rush of sorts. For those who were willing to brave the dangers of the forests and mines, a year’s regular wage could be made in a week. Or so the story went. The young and ambitious were heavily recruited into Anthor’s army, the Legions of the Spear. There were also countless spin-off industries: construction and security companies, transportation and shipping, even food, lodging, laundry. As sure as the pink sky, if you can name it, you can make money from it in war-time. If, of course, you are into making money from war.
For an unattended 15 year-old, it was surprisingly fun, if you ignored the backdrop of terror that everyone knew was lurking, like an as-yet invisible tidal wave, slowly swelling in the sea as it prepared its eventual walloping.
At least the market still felt like “normal life.” People shopped, gossiped. Kohra would while away the hours with whomever happened to be there on a given day, listening to the buzz. It might have looked like wasting time, but in fact it was the opposite. For one, it was a great way to let her imagination soar, stimulated by the ever-surprising diversity of people and all the mysteries of their secret lives that she imagined as they passed by.
But the chatter of the Market was also the most reliable source of news, the “independent media” as her father called it. It was mainly because of the Market that any of them knew what the heck was going on, unless you believed the official pronouncements of the King. Which of course nobody did.
The Kingdom of Anthor had, in recent years, been sabre-rattling along its Southern border. Every week the Criers would come with news of atrocities committed by the fanatical Scarves. Kohra didn’t know much about it, but it had something to do with the Scarves moving in and threatening the farmers of the Vaalderman Flats.
So, it “made perfect sense” then, that the Legions of the Spear were “preemptively-securing” the Scarves’ homeland.
That was the Official Story.
Kohra’s father had told her quite a different version, and it was…challenging…to reconcile their diametrically opposite “truths”.
But the rapidly-disappearing history that any of the older folks could remember, was that the Scarves had been a peaceful, if somewhat mysterious people. They were legendary for never showing their faces, or revealing the inner workings of their society to outsiders. But they had apparently always been pacifists, working openly with all the various governments and principalities of Eden, for mutual prosperity and learning.
Anthor, of course, explained all that away as “propaganda”. But to Kohra anyway, it sure seemed more likely that the Scarves were merely the next unlucky souls to be flattened in the name of Empire.
So, “the war” was always lurking in the background. But it was pretty far away. They talked about it at school a bit, and fruit had become more expensive. Other than that, life stayed pretty much the same.
Until it changed. And when it changed, it was over almost before it had begun.
This is one of the Big Delusions that most people hang onto, which she could see clearly after living through its palpably obvious disconfirmation — the belief that before something truly horrible can happen, people will see it coming; they’ll take action “before it’s too late.”
Ensconced in this comforting belief, they wait for The Sign, the irrefutable proof, ignoring the first, tiny clues that, were they only acted upon, would prevent the escalation to disaster.
The far more terrifying truth is that by the time the evidence is clear, it’s too late. And even though “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” it is terribly difficult to convince people to take action against the as-yet-unseen.
When the Big Delusion was disconfirmed, their world fell apart so fast that the sheer pace of change outstripped people’s ability to resist. What had been taken for granted as “the way things work”, burst like soap bubbles in the breeze, and soon, the people’s overwhelm suffocated their outrage.
After that, all that was left, was to resign yourself to “the way things are now.”
This is how the Bad so often overtakes the Good. Kohra watched it play out over the course of her own childhood, barely comprehending what was happening, and wanting to believe it wasn’t.
Just like everyone else.
The few who did speak out, the sensitive ones who tried to warn of the storm clouds on the horizon, were generally disbelieved, ridiculed, or simply ignored. After all, it is a rare person who befriends a prophet of doom.
Besides, everybody had been told, for all of their lives, that they were living in an enlightened age, an age of peace and abundance. The Age of Kings.
But underneath the blaring claxons of Anthor’s sprawling might, could be felt, by those open enough to be attuned, a subtle vibration of doom, an undercurrent of Something Wrong, a whisper of “this is all a lie,” whittling away at the solidity of their minds.
The very air seemed tinged by anxiety, laughter undercut by uncertainty. Anything you wanted to feel was solid, like family, like love, like the belief in one’s own future, seemed to rest on sand. The only constant was the Kingdom’s reassurance that Everything Is Under Control, and this siren song of Power crescendoed while all other voices were muted by the white noise of forced unanimity.
Kohra had tried to describe her disquiet once in a school presentation. She’d thought maybe being poetic would help. (It didn’t seem to.)
“It’s like trying to have a picnic when you keep hearing Something moving in the woods.”
“It’s like a cozy evening by the fireplace, but the dog won’t stop barking, even though you see nothing when you peer into the darkness.”
“It’s like a lover coming home and knowing, intuitively, that it’s over. Something feels wrong. Something smells wrong. Something looks wrong in the subtle way his face moves when he tells you about his day, or the lack of a twinkle in her eye when she smiles, or the fleeting down-curve of their lips when they think you don’t notice. But every time you ask, you are told ‘No, no, everything’s fine.’”
She wasn’t sure if the other kids understood her or not. But when you grow up in a house of deceit, you identify it instinctively, like a tuning fork that cannot help but resonate to a certain frequency.
The longer you spend living in states of fluctuating dissonance, the more you start to wonder what’s real and what isn’t, who can be trusted and who can’t. You start to question your own perceptions, doubt your own reasoning, but then cling to that reasoning like a lifeline because at least it’s yours. You start to disbelieve it when people say good things, while bad things are much easier to accept.
You start to close, because it hurts too much to open when you don’t know what is Real.
Then you stop believing that you even have the ability to open.
Then you feel you don’t deserve it anyway.
Then you forget how.
And eventually, you forget it is even possible.
Kohra knew that if it wasn’t for Ms B, she would never have had a chance. The buzz of idle gossip and the Royal proclamations that these were the Good Times, would have become her morphine, and she would have closed her eyes more and more firmly to the terrible truths taking shape around her.
But this bright spring morning, surrounded by the familiar bustle of shopkeepers and the off-colour squawkings of the parrot, Kohra smiled. No matter how weird the world became, there was always the Market.
I wonder what’ll happen today….