A fantasy serial by Siri Paulson
This is Part 2 of a longer story, but it’s written so that you can start here and go back to read Part 1 afterwards if you prefer. Enjoy!
The shallow waters of the stream, thick with reeds, stretched as far ahead as Payut could see. He sank his paddle into the muddy bottom and pulled. His little boat slid forward along the bottom a few hard-earned handspans and stopped again.
Payut glanced up at the sun, already twinkling in and out of the thick jungle trees as it began to sink, and sighed. He’d lied to himself, thinking he could take his usual back route to the monastery through the waterways at this time of year. The monsoon wasn’t due for days.
And if he hadn’t lied to himself about his supply of earth charms in the first place, he wouldn’t be in this predicament.
Reluctantly he nosed the boat around, back the way he’d come. He would have to take the river, the mighty Tao Phree. A ripple ran through the still waters in his mind, and he smoothed it down. There was nothing to fear, not this time. Not after so many years. The ripple vanished and his mind was clear again.
Little by little the stream grew deeper, until he could paddle again instead of poling his way down the channel. He reached the spot where he’d turned into it, a confluence of three waterways. This was as close as he ever came to the river…until now. To the left lay the maze of backwater routes he knew so well – a string of villages, each with docks for even the smallest hut, a little temple tended by a few gold-robed monks, and a market wharf where travelling pedlars like himself could tie up. The waterways he had called home for thirty years.
He turned right.
A day later and some distance west, the blue waters of the larger stream met the milky tea-brown of the Tao Phree River. Payut’s little boat shot out into the stronger current. This far upstream from the city at its mouth, the river was narrower and less powerful than it would become. Even so, Payut shivered at the familiar/unfamiliar strong tug of the river water on his paddle.
He didn’t recall so many boats on the river, even at the height of the trading season. As his narrow boat shot downstream, he leaned on the paddle, weaving in and out of the oncoming boats, where conical straw hats bowed over the labour of working upstream.
He was exhausted by the time dusk fell. He grounded on an empty beach and wearily started a fire. A hot supper of rice noodles in spicy vegetable broth revived him, and he was squatting by the coals waiting for his green tea to boil when he heard the crunch of another boat on the sand next to his own.
A lean grey-haired woman jumped out of a boat piled high with bright sarong fabrics. “Spirits be kind to you,” she called across the sand. “Mind if I join you?”
Payut eyed her carefully: she was clearly a pedlar like himself, but carrying goods so different from his own that she would pose no competition or danger of theft. “And to you,” he said. “Tea is just ready.”
“Thank you for your kindness.” She hauled up her boat with wiry arms and came to squat next to him by the fire. He handed her a cup, which she took with a nod and a smile that deepened the creases around her eyes. He was the elder, he judged, but not by much. “Didn’t think I could fight that current any longer.”
He glanced over at her load again, frowning. “You’re not taking that to the city, Younger Sister?”
“I was. Didn’t get that far. Everyone’s leaving.”
A realization fell into place with a click. He hadn’t noticed while on the water, but since he’d made camp, he hadn’t seen any other boats going downstream. Of course he should have passed some, or been passed, during the day. But he hadn’t. “Why?”
She shrugged. “Didn’t ask. From the look in some of their eyes, and the amount of housewares they were hauling, didn’t think I wanted to know. You’re not going to the city, are you?”
To the city. Within him, still waters stirred, threatening to rise. He pushed them down. “Not all the way. Only a few days downstream.”
“Be careful,” she said. “Never seen so much jungle on these banks. Looks like a lot of the rice paddies have been untended for a good while.”
The trees around the beach seemed to lean in a little further. In the backwaters, jungle was normal. He’d forgotten that the river was otherwise.
He wondered what else he’d forgotten.
“What brings you here, Older Brother?” she asked.
“Resupply,” said Payut. “I sell charms, and I’m out of the ones that balance the elements.” He’d given away his last earth charm days ago, and his supply of the other four elements was running low. Too many people were getting sick, unbalanced. The monks would sell him a fresh supply. If the spirits willed it, they might also have answers.
The other pedlar looked over at his boat, curiosity in her eyes. He said, “And your load? Where will you sell it now?”
She glanced at him quickly, but did not challenge his change of subject. “Thought I’d try one of the cities upstream. Don’t suppose they weave sarongs everywhere.”
“They don’t wear sarongs everywhere, either.”
Her eyebrows went up.
“At least, I don’t suppose they do,” Payut added awkwardly.
She put down her teacup. “Where are you from, Older Brother?”
A flash of bustling streets rose in his mind, the sound of rumbling ox-carts and sizzling meat and the slow crash of the enormous gongs from – from a place he did not wish to remember. He studied the dregs at the bottom of his own cup, reaching for calmness. There, at last. “A little place. You wouldn’t know it.”
“As you wish,” she said, and got up. She started to turn away, then hesitated. “Older Brother, don’t go near the city. Whatever you had there is gone.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Payut, staring hard at the fire.
The older woman sighed. “May you find balance.”
The words were rote, but Payut swallowed. “And you,” he managed, but she had already turned away.
She was gone the next morning by the time he woke. He had his breakfast and morning tea, then paddled on downstream. At midmorning, he came around yet another almost-familiar bend in the river. Above the treetops of the next bend, still far in the distance, light glinted here and there off something shiny. He didn’t need to see them clearly to know them – the golden spires of the Grand Temple.
His heart clenched. For an instant he was a young man again, paddling hard upstream, fear lying as thick as sweat upon his skin. Looking back for one last glimpse of the city.
A narrow channel opened up to his right. Staring ahead, he almost missed it and had to plunge his paddle deep into the water to turn in time. The boat turned sharply and glided in between the trees. The spires vanished once again, and Payut drew a long breath. He was paddling upstream now, but the current was weak and posed no trouble. Trees drew close on either side, vines hanging over the stream. The backwaters again. Home.
The channel was overgrown, but Payut hadn’t come this way for years – maybe that was normal. Birds whistled and flew away as he paddled. The water dragged at overhanging vines. A rustle in the dense curtain of leaves made him look over quickly, but it was only a wild pig come to drink. It, too, vanished when it saw him.
He passed a rotting dock almost lost under a tangle of leaves. The only reason he saw it was because a boat still lay alongside, half full of stagnant rainwater. Abandoned. Had he missed other docks? He began to look, and soon spotted another. The path leading away from it was buried in undisturbed leaves, and the hut it belonged to was invisible, lost in a grove of untended rubber trees.
Something was very wrong.
The boat rounded a curve in the stream. Ahead, a carpet of bright green algae lay undisturbed. Nobody had come downstream from here in at least a season, maybe more. That meant nobody had traded with the city from upstream – from the monastery.
He glanced at the empty bag of charms in the bow. There was no point in pressing on upstream now. The monastery would be low on supplies, maybe deserted altogether. If he wanted more charms, let alone answers, he’d have to go to the city.
“No,” Payut said aloud. Not even for the people he served with his arts. Not for the mother he’d saved with his last earth charm. Not for all the others whose elements were unbalanced. He’d meet them in his travels, that was certain, and he would have to look them in the eye and tell them he could not help.
But he could not make himself turn the boat around.
The monastery stood in a clearing in the jungle. At the edge of the clearing, Payut stopped to pay his respects at the tiny house built for the land spirits who had lived there before the monks. Cut flowers lay at the hand-sized door, only a little wilted.
He turned to the monastery itself. Inside, the courtyard was eerily empty, but oil lamps burned before each of the statues sitting in meditation. He eyed the doors to the temple and to the monks’ quarters, hesitated, and settled for going over to the row of bells that worshippers could ring for luck. When he pulled the rope under one of the bells, the bong echoed around the courtyard and bounced off the walls in a way it never had when the place was full of monks and worshippers.
The echoes died away, leaving the monastery even quieter than before. Payut held his breath.
Finally, the slap of bare feet on stone reached his ears, and a tall wrinkled monk in gold robes appeared. Payut smiled. “Greetings, Abbot.”
The monk shook his head. “The abbot of an empty house is no abbot.” Then his eyes narrowed and he peered down into Payut’s face. “Younger Brother. Why have you come back?”
Payut shook his head. “I did not know…all this…had happened.” His wave took in the empty courtyard and the clearing beyond.
The monk frowned. “News is slow, but surely you have not been so far away?”
“I heard rumours,” Payut admitted. “Never dreamed it would be this bad.” No – he had just not wanted to believe. He pushed the thought away. “Do you still sell charms?”
“There are none left here, Younger Brother. And nowhere else to buy them. I am sorry you have come all this way for nothing.”
Payut nodded and began to turn away. Then he stopped. The words threatened to choke him, but he forced them out. “Something is very wrong at the Grand Temple, isn’t it?”
The monk nodded. “There is no way to tell what, from here, but the effects are clear.”
Payut swallowed. Waters roiled inside him. “Is there anyone left here who could help?”
“I am the last one. The caretaker of this holy place.”
An untended shrine was unthinkable, but Payut shook his head. “If you don’t go, the imbalance will spread. The city will die, and the whole countryside around it. There must be a way.”
“Yes,” said the monk, regarding him steadily. “You.”
City scents rose around him: incense, garbage, lemongrass, excrement. He felt his body tremble in remembered fear. Dark water rose, blotting out the memories that threatened to come to the surface. “I cannot.”
“There is no one else. Master your fear.”
“Find the calmness within you. The city needs you.”
“I’ve been calm for years!”
The monk’s eyebrows went up. Payut realized he’d been shouting. He shook his head. “I meditate sometimes, just as you taught me. The still waters cover everything.”
“That’s not what I taught you, Younger Brother.”
Payut’s first impulse was to argue, but he stayed silent.
“You must feel the stillness all the way to the bottom of the pool that is your mind.”
A flash of fear ran through him again. “How?”
“Acceptance. And practice. Nothing else.”
The monk held up a hand. Payut went quiet again. “There is no secret.”
Payut glanced in the direction of the city, though he could not see it for the trees that crowded thick around the clearing. “I’m afraid,” he admitted.
“Do you think I was not afraid when I chose to stay here alone? I never said that you must not feel fear. Only that you must face it.”
Payut felt his heart pounding in his chest, sweat trickling down the small of his back. He fought the urge to curl up small – where had that come from? Instead he took a breath and nodded. “I will go.” His voice trembled. He swallowed and tried again. “I will go to the city.” This time his voice was steady, stronger than he felt.
The monk touched his shoulder lightly. “May the spirits guard your boat in the stream and lend strength to your paddle, Younger Brother. All of our hopes go with you.”