A fantasy serial by Siri Paulson
Another town, another floating market. Payut settled his conical straw hat more firmly on his head and paddled closer, already planning what he would say. The market thronged with narrow boats, hawking fruit and rice, fans and sarongs to the townspeople on the docks. Every town market smelled almost the same, with small variations if one went far enough up the waterways – a different spice mixture here, a different oil there. This one smelled of incense and fresh fish and deep-fried bean curd. His stomach gurgled.
As he brought his boat in to an empty spot on the docks, children were already crowding close. “It’s the charms man!” they shouted, overlapping each other in their excitement. “What did you bring us?”
Payut smiled. “Dolls and toy soldiers, fans and tops. I even have an emperors-and-footmen board for sale.”
A little girl called down, “Don’t you have any charms?”
Payut kept his smile in place. “Of course. Love charms, schoolwork charms, charms to make you faster at martial arts or steady your hand at weaving sarongs.”
An older girl, who looked very like the first, frowned at him. “What about health charms?”
Here it came. “You don’t need any health charms, Little Sister. You’re the very model of the five harmonious elements.”
The little one shook her head vigorously. “It’s not for her. Mama is sick.”
Payut felt his throat tighten. “I’m sure she’ll be fine.”
The older girl said, “Her elements are all out of balance since Papa died. There is too much earth in her – she won’t move or smile, and I keep telling her to cry but she won’t do that either. She hasn’t eaten so much as a bowl of rice in days.”
“Does she still drink tea?” Payut asked. The girls nodded. “Then she’ll be fine. You’ll see.”
The older girl fastened her eyes on him. “She will not answer me anymore.”
She wasn’t the only one staring, he realized abruptly. All the children had stopped their clamouring and were watching him with big eyes, and other eyes were on him as well, though the adults were not so obvious about it.
The younger girl started to cry.
Payut reached for the still waters inside him and brought them to the front of his mind with an effort. Then he beckoned the girls to lean closer. “I might have one health charm left,” he said. “But only one. No telling all your friends to send their grannies and aunties to me, understand?”
The sisters looked at each other. The little one smiled through her tears, and the older one dug in her waist pouch to hold out a fistful of coins. “This is all I have,” she said. “Please take it.”
He picked out three small coins and closed her fist over the rest, ignoring her protests. “Lead me to your mother,” he said.
Maybe the imbalance would be a minor one.
The girls’ home lay deep in a maze of tiny, twisting waterways behind the market, the channel overhung with vines. Payut could still hear the temple gong calling people to prayer over the sound of the moving water, so the centre of the village had to be close by. Even so, he had lost count of the turns that the girls’ boat had made by the time they halted at a wooden dock.
Payut tied his own boat to one of the pilings and climbed out. The little house looked pleasant enough, its wooden walls covered in flowers as big as his hand, but under their scent was another, darker smell with sour undertones. For a moment it turned his stomach and he wished to be somewhere, anywhere else. But the older girl was already at the doorway, waiting. He could not turn away from her eyes.
He left his sandals outside and stepped barefoot onto smooth warm wood. In the corner, someone moved on a sleeping mat, a body curling tighter about itself as if for protection.
“Mama,” the older girl said, barely above a whisper, “we’ve brought you someone who can help. You remember the charms man, Mama?”
The woman turned her head away from her daughter. “Leave me,” she whispered to the wall.
The little girl plopped down cross-legged by her mother’s head. “Do it!” she sang up at him, confidence in every syllable.
Payut let out a long breath. “Ai, Little Sister, it is not so easy as that.”
“But–” she started, before her older sister hushed her. “Let him work.”
He sat down by the mat, mirroring the girl’s position, and examined the mother with gentle hands. She did nothing to help him and would not meet his eyes, but she also did not resist. The flow of the energy lines through her body was weak, and in a few places it was blocked altogether, the excess of earth that the girl had spoken of. But he was no healer, only a seller of charms. His mouth tightened.
“Older Brother?” said the older girl, watching him.
“I had hoped…but no.”
He spoke half to himself, but the girl’s arm went around her sister protectively. “Is there nothing you can do? Have you no charms that will help her?”
Payut looked away. “Death is a natural part of life, Little Sister. If she will not accept that, there is nothing I can do.”
Tears spilled down the girl’s cheeks, but her voice was steady. “But Papa fell ill so suddenly, after eating a bird, it was such a shock, I thought maybe you could shock her back to us…”
“A bird?” said Payut sharply.
“There was a flock from the east, they came down to rest and our snares caught one. It didn’t struggle when I netted it, and its feathers were dull, but we hadn’t had a bird in so long…”
Still waters, Payut reminded himself. “What kind was it?”
“A stork of some kind, Older Brother. Not one I’ve seen before. Black and white, with a red ring around its throat.”
He closed his eyes. Feathers swirled in the darkness behind his lids, an immense flock of black-and-white birds lifting off another river, winging their way over bell-shaped domes painted gold and red and blue. Below the domes spread the market streets, clogged with monks in their gold robes and water buffalo pulling fruit carts – then he shied away from remembering too clearly. Still waters, he told himself. But the waters inside him roiled and would not calm.
The room came back, warm wood and sickly scent and the rushing stream outside the windows. The little girl was tugging at his sleeve. Her mother seemed to have fallen asleep, though she tossed her head from side to side and murmured words he could not catch.
Something was wrong, something worse than one grieving mother in a little village.
He opened his robe and reached inside, sifting through pockets by touch. Chopsticks, a smattering of coins, little pouches…there. He drew out one of the pouches, opened the drawstring, and tipped the bag. A tiny ivory elephant tumbled into his cupped palm. He crumpled the pouch in his other hand, but it was empty.
Both girls watched closely as he threaded it onto a piece of twine and tied it around their mother’s neck. Then he closed his hand around the elephant. The ivory warmed against his skin. When it no longer felt cold, he let go.
The woman opened her eyes, clear now, and possessed of a sadness they had not shown before. “Hungry,” she said, surprise in her voice.
The girls’ arms went around their mother. The younger one was crying. The older one looked up as Payut stood, but she made no move to stop him as he slipped away.
Back on the water, Payut was astonished to hear that the temple gong was still ringing. He had only been inside for a few moments. He set his back to the sound as he paddled. Waterways, however narrow, always looped back to the main channel. And he had some thinking to do before he rejoined the bustle of boats and stronger currents that would demand all his attention.
He’d used his last earth charm back there. That bothered him for two reasons. One, he needed to obtain more charms before anyone else with tears in their eyes asked him to help their mother. Two, if he was using that many charms, something was making people sick.
And the answer to both lay exactly where he did not want to go.