Ali lay quietly on his jute rope woven cot in the garden. It was a quarter after 10, and the neighbourhood was quiet. He had dinner and was looking for a nap before his shift started at 2 a.m. He was the Chief of the Elite Patrol of the Police force of a town in Arabia. Ali was once a Palace guard, and was entrusted with the security of the princess herself. As he lay down that night, looking at the stars and dozing off, his neighbour’s 12 year old son Amin came and poked him on the shoulder. Ali slowly turned his head and looked with a big smile at his best and only friend.
“What do you want, shehzade (prince)?” he asked.
“How about a story, bhai jaan?” Amin asked with big starry eyes.
Ali sat on a side of the cot, cross-legged, and Amin sat facing him, cross-legged and with his chin resting on his palms and a twinkle in his eyes.
“Our story begins with a teenage boy, let’s call him Ali. Ali was an orphan and wanted to join the royal guards. He was strong for his age and was a good swordsman. He always won every sword-fighting competition he took part in. In one such prestigious competition, he was defeated in the final round by the prince himself. Watching Ali fight the prince, the prince’s coach recommended his name to the Chief of Security and took him under his wing. Ali’s dream was fulfilled. He started training with the prince himself and soon grew in reputation as the second best swordsman in the entire kingdom, bettered only by the prince.”
“The prince had a younger sister and over time, the prince, princess and Ali became very close friends. Ali was made the head of the princess’s bodyguard unit, as the prince trusted no one else with the security of his beloved sister. So everywhere the princess went, Ali took responsibility of her security and well being.”
“Trouble started when Ali fell in love with her. Though Ali never told her about her feelings, he had a hint that she felt the same way for him. But Royal blood demands its equal, and Ali knew it was an impossible mission to wish the princess for himself. So the loyal servant that he was, he went about his duty faithfully.”
“But why didn’t the princess find out a way through this? she had the means to do it!!!”, Amin said, with a hint of confusion in his voice.
“Nahi shehzade, remember she was a girl. Even if she was a princess and her father, the great emperor had a heart of gold; such behaviour from a girl was against the customs of the great kingdom of Arabia.”
“But the worst was yet to come. The prince of the neighbouring kingdom visited the Emperor. He and the princess met briefly and she knew instantly that he was the man of her dreams…”
“But this is not fair!!! She loved Ali!!! What about him!!???”, Amin was getting impatient.
“Easy boy! Ali misread the signs, and assumed where none existed. The princess was attracted to this royal prince and the more they met, the deeper they both fell in love. A moment came in Time, when the princess forgot Ali and could not think of anyone else but the prince. It was then that it was decided that the royal lovers be united in the holy alliance of nikaah.“
“Two days before the nikaah, the princess summoned Ali to her garden and said, ‘ Ali, you have been the rock I could lean on when my brother or father couldn’t be there for me, and I don’t mean that in an insulting way. But I must leave now. My heart is with a man who has sworn to make me his life, and I in turn have sworn to make him mine.”
“Ali saw the last pillars of his world crumbling.’ I wish you both every happiness princess. I am sure the crown prince will care and protect you like no one else.’ He bowed in respect and left the place as quickly as possible, fearing the princess would see his eyes moisten and he be betrayed by them.”
“Ali got himself transferred to the chief of Elite Patrol. His eyes turned indifferent to every emotion that his heart dared feel. He retained his good character, but lost the human being within himself. He became the sentinel in the shadows.”
“Why did Ali end up like that?” said Amin with tears in his eyes.
“Because he broke a rule his mentor once taught him.’ Every man should be aware of who he is, Ali.’ he said. ‘A fool, who is otherwise, is bound to fall in the depths of misery, from which there is no escape.’ “
Ali smiled at the confused look on Amin’s face. “Have you seen the guards in the marketplace when you go to buy fruits?”. Amin nodded. “You feel safe when you see them don’t you? And yet, have you ever seen anyone offering them fruits, or a glass of water on a hot afternoon? Have you ever seen them play with any children on the street? It is so because they are there to protect the citizens, not entertain them or roam around.”
“Ali forgot that he was just a sentinel. A sworn protector of the king and all that belonged to him. He had sworn to protect the princess. He was her first line of defense. And her last.”
Amin listened with questioning and confused eyes, and Ali saw a glimpse of sadness pass through them. Without a word, he lifted Amin in his arms and carried him to his neighbour. Amin was fast asleep by the time Ali put him to bed. He returned to his cot and star gazing.
And then, perhaps for the first and last time, the heartbroken man within him shed a solitary tear in memory of his love, before the sentinel took control.
Amin just said a silent prayer for his best friend’s tormented soul.