Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. My first year in the Novitiate House was a time of great learning, but also a time of sorrow and death …
Girl is kneeling, about to pour yet more tea for the foreign trader, when he slips from his cushion and slumps against her.
The other traders jump to their feet, exclaiming loudly. The priestesses of Wisdom and Truth rise more elegantly, quietly worried. Unmoving, unmoved, old skinflint Dhanash, who invited himself to the negotiations, demands to know if Master Jin is dead.
Girl tries to remain calm, supporting the trader as she sets the tea-kettle down, then carefully lowering him to the devdar-wood floor. She touches his throat, seeking the pathways of his life force, but finds only clogged and stagnant channels.
A priestess kneels beside her, considers the man’s harsh breathing, his rank breath, then presses a point of confluence at his neck. “I fear it’s the honeyed disease. Fetch a healer, Kalpana. Go your quick way.”
Girl runs from the Teaching Hall. The proper way to the House of Healing is down the four storeys of the Novitiate House, then through, across, along and past the many courts, open alleys, covered passages and buildings winding their way around the monastery. But the roofs of the two Houses are connected. It’s a simple climb even in formal robes, and she knows which window shutters open easily from the outside.
For Girl is no stranger to the House of Healing. She lost Sukhbir there.
Sukhbir’s loss was a tiny bruise for most people, soon eclipsed by other concerns, not least whether the monastery could survive without the tea-traders’ money. For Girl, it’s a great gaping wound, raw and bloody, that she knows will never heal. She still often finds herself rushing to the House of Healing to tell him the latest news; still often does tell him, whispering into the darkness before she cries herself to sleep.
So when she visits the healers to see how Master Jin is recovering and she discovers they’ve placed him in the same small room where Sukhbir lay, she’s powerless against old habits.
“Dhanash is hateful,” she tells him. “He’s trying to persuade your friends to carry on negotiating without you. He’s guessed that though you favour us, they want the warehouse sited in the township, despite the enormous rent he’ll charge. All that talking they did of the restrictions Revered Mother would impose here, and of independence and security and the thick walls of the compound down there. I’m convinced they’re really thinking of the brothel next door.”
She pauses, hoping Sukhbir will laugh. But it isn’t Sukhbir lying there, silent, his face turned to the wall; it’s Master Jin, the head tea-trader, who lies in the coma of honeyed disease. He doesn’t know about Sukhbir. She must tell him.
“His body healed quickly. All save his eye, which was too damaged. But he didn’t want to live because he blamed himself for the priestess dying. But how could the rockfall be his fault? He did all he could to save her, digging her out, crawling on his poor bleeding hands and knees for miles and miles with her on his back, to return her to the monastery. He said he’d failed her. He hadn’t. But I failed him.”
“No, you didn’t,” says a soft, sweet voice in her ear.
But Girl doesn’t believe the Lady. She leans close to the man on the bed. “Don’t die,” she whispers, as she’s whispered so often in that room. “Don’t die, I need you.”
For two days Master Jin remains in the House of Healing. On the third evening, as Girl makes her way there – the proper way – the calm of the monastery is shattered by the blast of horns, the clang of metal and the hollow thump of drums. She’s been expecting the noise, but still she wants to weep.
She continues to the last covered passage. In the courtyard tea-porters and muleteers bang and blow on makeshift instruments as they follow a bier to the mortuary room. Despite all the healing mantras, all the elixirs dripped into his mouth, all her pleas, Master Jin has died. Even in her grief for him and for herself – another loss, another failure – she recognises his death means so much more. Dhanash will get the traders’ warehouse, and the monastery will lose the money they’ve paid for the use of the old kitchens – money the monastery needs to survive. If it doesn’t survive, what of all its people? What of her and her dreams of becoming a priestess?
“But you can’t!” Dhanash’s voice, raised in protest. Girl peers around the corner. He’s standing with a trader a few yards away.
“The negotiations …” he continues.
“Are over. Master Jin appeared to each of us in our dreams. He wishes us to formalise current arrangements with the monastery. We respect his wishes. Our warehouse shall be built here.”
“But you can’t trust these women,” says Dhanash. “Was Jin’s death really chance? Perhaps poison was in the food and drink they gave him.”
“Food and drink they gave also to us.”
“They could’ve poisoned his tea bowl. Everyone knows the girl who was serving him is strange. She hears voices.”
“That girl showed Master Jin great honour. All the healers have our thanks for their work and kindness, but she gave more to him. Confiding, comforting, gossiping … Just as his own daughter would.”
“Discussion is ended. We protect Master Jin tonight with our noise, honour him tomorrow, and the day after we take him and the monastery’s sealed agreement home.”
“Take him home? Not a sky burial here?”
Girl knows the traders’ death rituals are different, but she isn’t prepared for the look of revulsion on the man’s pale face. He walks quickly away. Dhanash watches him for a moment before scurrying off.
Girl sags and sinks to the ground. She should be pleased the monastery is safe and the traders speak well of her, but it’s Dhanash and his lies that revolve in her mind. “Should I tell an honoured one what he said?” she asks Sukhbir, who isn’t there, who never will be there again. “I don’t trust him. He looked thoughtful, like Aprakash when he realised how to hurt someone. I can’t let him hurt the monastery.”
“I don’t trust him either,” says the goddess. “And if he lies about my servants again, I’ll have him thrown down the mountain. But I won’t let him hurt us, so there’s no need to fret. Enjoy the evening with your friends.”
Girl nods but remains there, listening to the musicians’ clamour. “It’s the way of the tea-traders,” she tells Sukhbir. “They believe a person’s spirit lingers in the body for hours after death, where demons might catch it and carry it off to eternal torment. But the demons are frightened away by loud noise. A pity I don’t still have my flute. I could help with the din.”
The flute he bought her, which summoned him to kill the demon-husbands. The flute she cast aside. Perhaps if she still had it, and blew on it hard enough, Sukhbir might hear and come back to her.
Girl doesn’t fret, but next day she contrives to find errands which take her to the guest quarter and the old kitchens where, for years, the traders have informally stored the tea they bring over the mountains to trade in the lowlands, and the spice from the lowlands they take back to their homes.
Dhanash appears in the late afternoon, making preparations to leave, which mostly involve his two men arguing while repeatedly loading and unloading the packhorses – heavy sacks suggest he’s struck deals with the traders.
It’s dusk before they’re finally ready, and though Dhanash loudly debates whether to wait until morning, it’s summer, a full moon, and they go. Girl watches from the monastery wall as they take the road down to the township. But once out of sight of the guard at the gates, the three men leave the road, double back and head up the mountain.
Girl’s heart races – she feels suddenly alive, as if for months she’s lived only a half-life – she was right to be suspicious of Dhanash. She runs to the gates, slips unnoticed past the guard, and hurries after the men. But the night’s shadows confuse her, and as she follows them down an unfamiliar path, she loses all sense of direction.
“What are you doing here?” demands the goddess.
“Following Dhanash,” she whispers, “though I don’t know where. I’ve never been along this road.”
“You wouldn’t. I don’t allow children at the Field of Silence.”
Girl knows of the excarnation site, where the dead are dismembered and given to the vultures. But why’s Dhanash heading there?
“He can’t have!” snaps the Lady. A pause, then anger. “He has. The mortuary room is empty.”
Girl’s stomach lurches. She recalls the disgust on the trader’s face at the thought of a sky burial. Dhanash will say the monastery – those untrustworthy women – took the body. He’ll get the warehouse.
“He’ll pay for this,” the goddess says. “I’ll raise the monastery, but it will take time for the guards to reach you. Do nothing foolish.”
Girl continues after the men, but all too soon they stop and drag a large bundle from a pony’s back. Moonlight glints off a blade, a knife rips into the poor, broken body of Master Jin.
“No!” she cries, startling herself as much as the men.
Their confusion lasts only moments. “The girl,” calls Dhanash. “There. Kill her.”
One man stalks towards her. Paralysed with fear, she can only watch as he approaches, as his knife scythes towards her and—
—and she’s the other side of the stone field, by a boulder, watching as the knife slashes naught but air and darkness.
“I said do nothing foolish, idiot child!”
Shocked, dazed, Girl can’t speak. The men are shouting, arguing, for real this time.
“I can keep you here a good while,” says the goddess. “So be still.”
“They’ll cut his body to pieces,” Girl whispers.
“Better his body than yours.”
“But the traders think it’s wrong. I was like his daughter, they said. His daughter wouldn’t allow it. Can you keep moving me, Lady?”
“You’ll get sick and weak if I do. And your life-thread remains tied to the spot where I first took you up. Before I can move you somewhere new, I must return you to it. If they realise, one man will wait there to kill you.”
Girl doesn’t argue, just picks up a stone and flings it, hitting Dhanash’s pony, making it bolt. The men charge at Girl; the goddess whisks her away.
So it continues, a deadly game of cat and mouse, until finally, sick, dizzy, trembling, Girl falls to her knees before the astonished traders as the monastery guards race past her, kukris thirsting for the blood of Dhanash and his men.
The traders leave at dawn, taking Master Jin’s body and the sealed agreement for the warehouse. Girl watches them go. She’s saved the monastery, saved herself. She should be elated.
She means to go back to the Novitiate House, but her feet take her to the House of Healing, to the room where she last saw Sukhbir. It’s empty now. But on the bed there’s a small parcel. It’s battered, as if it’s come a long way. And it’s addressed to her.
Bewildered, she sits and opens it. Inside there’s a bamboo flute. Her flute.
“Sukhbir kept it for you all these years,” says the Lady softly.
“Is he safe?” Girl asks as tears flood her cheeks.
“Yes. He’s reached his old village, where he’s being treated as if he’s a god himself. Thanks to you. Because you didn’t fail him, little mouse. You saved him when even I couldn’t. I’m very good at persuading people to do things by sending them messages in their dreams, yet he ignored all I sent him. He only decided to live because you needed him.”
“But he left me,” she wails.
“For now. Read what he says.”
Girl pulls out the note tucked beside the flute.
When you need me, little one, truly need me, I’ll be there.
She holds the flute close. The tears still come. But she hasn’t lost him after all.