Legend was told of a god, many eons ago, who would fly around the world, watching man and animal go about their business. As this god flew, the draft from his wings would spread gusts of air across the land. Shin-Jen didn’t put much stock in with this particular myth, but one thing he did know for sure – he was glad for the wind.
The inn was stifling, a combination of the unnaturally hot summer day and too many people. Some patrons lazily fanned themselves with anything they could find as they tried to stay awake. Others had given up and sat slumped over on tables, dozing in pools of their own perspiration. Serving boys and girls, already frantically buzzing back and forth carrying and relaying orders, gritted their teeth as they fought the dull lethargy that sapped away at their strength. They didn’t have the time – or the energy - to wipe away the rivulets of sweat streaming into their eyes as they negotiated their way between throngs of sweaty, stinking customers.
And yet, for all the crowd and for all the moment, the inn was quiet. Not temple-like quiet, of course, but the noise level never rose above a respectably quiet murmur. Shin-Jen supposed that the suffocating heat of the day robbed everyone of the will (and for that matter, the ability) to talk loudly. It was just as well. It had been a long day, and his throbbing head was in no condition to deal with a deafening, over-packed inn.
When that magical, heavenly gust of wind blew through the open door and windows, everything in the inn seemed to stop. The low murmur of conversation dropped altogether, leaving a rare moment of blissful silence. Every face turned towards a door, or a window, relishing the reprieve from the suffocating heat, and almost hoping – expecting, even – to see a god with wings fly by. Even the serving boys and girls, normally oblivious to anything that would distract them from their jobs, stopped and gazed. Across the inn, hair fluttered, skin cooled and lungs were refreshed.
The moment passed; conversation resumed, the serving boys and girls returned to serving, and Shin-Jen started picking at his plate again. For how crowded the inn was, patrons gave him a wide berth – no one wanted to sit next to someone who had cleaned out the pigsties all morning, and this served Shin-Jen just fine. Cleaning pig crap didn’t pay well, but it paid enough for a decent meal – more food and money than Shin-Jen had seen in a long time. This was his first real lunch in a while – rice, leaves and chicken – and Shin-Jen wanted no distractions or interruptions as he enjoyed himself.
He was so engrossed in his meal that he didn’t see the man who sat down at the table opposite him.
“Hell of a day, isn’t it?”
Shin-Jen’s head jerked up, fork frozen on the way to his mouth, as he stared at his unexpected company. A plump face, covered in sweat, smiled back at him. Shin-Jen got the impression that this man smiled a lot.
“I – yes..,” Shin-Jen started. “Do you mind, I’m – “
“Oh no,” the man said genially, waving a hand. “I don’t mind at all, go right ahead and eat. I just needed a place to sit.”
One of the serving girls came over, a dirty, scruffy thing who couldn’t have been more than nine years old.
“Get me a cup of lumice,” he said, tossing a couple of coins at the girl. They had barely left his hand before they vanished, the girl already moving towards another table.
“Lumice should hit the spot today, don’t you think?” the man said, returning his attention to Shin-Jen, who was still frozen in the act of looking at the man.
“Yes,” said Shin-Jen slowly. He remembered that his fork was still in mid-air, a piece of chicken embedded on it. Embarrassed, he brought it up to his mouth and ate, hoping the man would stop talking; failing that, having his mouth full would buy Shin-Jen some time to think of a way to get rid of his guest.
The first idea didn’t work. “Yep, can’t remember when we had a day this hot. I hate it, myself. I’ve always preferred the cold weather.” As though to demonstrate this, he drew his hand across his glistening forehead, and then flung it away. Shin-Jen could hear the splat of sweat on the wall.
“Yes,” said Shin-Jen again. “Look, I don’t – “
“Of course, where are my manners!” said the man, beaming. He opened his mouth to continue, but stopped as the serving girl brought him a filthy cup of lumice.
Raising the cup at Shin-Jen, the man smiled again. “My name’s Kwan-Lai.”
“I’m heading back home to Lekeda. It’s been too long since I last saw my family.”
As he cleaned his plate off, Shin-Jen began to think that Kwan-Lai wasn’t the worst person to have for company. The man talked, talked, talked more and talked again, and he seemed to have no interest in Shin-Jen. Shin-Jen had no complaints – the less was asked of him, the less chance he might let slip something which would force him to leave the town (and the job he was lucky to get). Listening to Kwan-Lai talk, Shin-Jen allowed himself the luxury of picturing someone else’s life as his own. He could almost imagine coming home after a long time to an overjoyed wife and delighted children. He could almost imagine having normal, simple problems, to be able to talk about his past with such freedom and transparency as Kwan-Lai was doing now.
A dull ache settled in his heart. For as friendly as Kwan-Lai seemed, and as attractive as the daydream of a normal life was, Shin-Jen had given up all hope of settling down with a family, with land, with friends, with a future. He didn't know if he was condemned to be a wanderer and a nomad for the rest of his life, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not genuinely see himself in Kwan-Lai's shoes. That kind of life was for other people, people who didn't have a past that stalked you like a sandstorm.
"I have six children, you know," Kwan-Lai was saying. "Six! Can you believe that? The in-laws and the parents loved it, but my wife, oh - " he made a face - "she had had enough after awhile. Don't get me wrong! Kalai-Shala is a wonderful mother, and the kids adore her. That's her name, by the way - Kalai-Shala."
Shin-Jen nodded, the obligatory smile on his face.
"She was probably glad to get me out of the house for awhile. Shan-Kal and Rana-Dai - my eldest - they're old enough to help with the young 'uns, so Kalai-Shala can finally get some rest without having to take care of me on top of everything!" Kwan-Lai laughed, then shook his head a little sadly. "Strike me dead, though, I miss them. All of them. Even Twan-Lok." He laughed softly to himself.
Shin-Jen felt compelled to say something, but had no idea what would improve Kwan-Lai's mood. For all the talking the man did, Shin-Jen still barely knew him.
Abruptly, Kwan-Lai shook his head and straightened up in his chair. "Listen to me!" he said, his jovial demeanor returning. "Here I am, telling you my life story. My mother would kill me. Enough about me."
Imperceptibly, Shin-Jen's eyes widened. Oh no, he thought.
"Tell me about yourself."
Caught without time to concoct a lie, Shin-Jen shrugged and tried a smile. "Not much to tell, honestly. I'm a bit of an everyman."
"No family?" Kwan-Lai sounded incredulous.
"No land. Well, no land yet. Same for the family - no family yet." Shin-Jen curled his toes, trying not to let the lies get too elaborate.
Kwan-Lai sat back in his chair, almost aghast. "No family and no land. Gods alive!"
Shin-Jen smiled, this time more naturally. "Someday, undoubtedly. Someday."
"Where are you from?"
****. "Tamala," Shin-Jen replied, voicing the first city name that came to mind.
"Tamala!" Kwan-Lai exclaimed. A few weary patrons turned and scowled at him. "I was just there!"
Shin-Jen's smile stayed plastered on as he felt the blood drain from his face. He tried to say something, but almost on cue, his throat tightened.
"Did you go to the Emerald Temple?", Kwan-Lai asked, leaning forward.
Shin-Jen knew the Emerald Temple was in Tamala, but having been in Tamala only once or twice, he never visited it. Also, not being particularly religious, he knew next to nothing about the Temple.
"Yes," he mumbled. As though the heat wasn't already bad enough, now he felt like he was positively burning.
"Oh, it's beautiful, isn't it?" Kwan-Lai said. "I wish I could have taken the kids and my wife there. I almost envy you, growing up in the shadow of the Temple. What was it like?"
Any feelings of friendship Shin-Jen might have had for Kwan-Lai had by now melted. "It was… interesting."
That was the best you could do? he chastised himself. "Interesting"?
But Kwan-Lai was so excited, he barely paid attention to Shin-Jen's answer. "I visited it again when I was just there, of course. Pilgrimage and all. I've been a follower of Emerata all my life."
Shin-Jen nodded. Of course, Emerata - the Emerald Goddess, so-called because of ancient emerald carvings found years and years ago. After many attempts at thievery (and a couple of wars), the remaining artifacts were kept under secure lock and key in the Emerald Temple. Only the Temple Custodian was allowed to see what was left of the carvings - one day a year, and without touching them.
"It's fascinating, really," continued Kwan-Lai. "To think that there's been so much done to destroy her name and her followers."
Shin-Jen had his own thoughts on the persecution of Emerata’s followers – there had been plenty of blood shed in her name – but the last thing he wanted to do was get in a religious debate. Especially now.
“It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” Kwan-Lai mused, almost to himself. “That there are people out there who would do that to a faith.”
The silence that followed Kwan-Lai’s observation became so tangible, Shin-Jen had to stop himself from squirming. At length, and very reluctantly, he said, ”It’s pretty bad.”
“Pretty bad?” echoed Kwan-Lai, his eyes widening. “Pretty bad? It’s downright evil!” More annoyed looks from patrons, but Kwan-Lai paid them no heed. “I tell you, Shin-Jen, there are schools of thought out there that make me shudder.”
This conversation was rapidly heading in a place Shin-Jen had no intention of going. Casting a hurried look outside, he said “I should really – “
“There's something about evil, isn't there?”
Something – Shin-Jen was never sure what, but something about Kwan-Lai’s words – maybe it was the way he said them, maybe it was what he said, maybe something, maybe anything, maybe everything – but something made him stop. He was just about to get up and indicate to Kwan-Lai that the conversation was over, and leave before he caught himself in any more lies, but something about Kwan-Lai’s words stopped him dead.
Kwan-Lai continued, his eyes distant. “To think that there are people out there who would want to destroy you, and everything you hold dear. And they don’t care about any consequences or effects. They’re so consumed by their hatred. They completely give into that, you see? The evil that I mentioned earlier. It feeds on them, devours their hearts, their minds, their souls.” The eyes were still distant, but now they burned with an intensity that made the inn, the tired patrons and buzzing servants, fade away. “Can you imagine that, Shin-Jen? Can you imagine that kind of evil?”
Without knowing why, Shin-Jen was scared. He didn’t think Kwan-Lai posed him any threat, but this was not the same man who, not five minutes earlier, had been talking about how much he missed his six children.
“I’ve seen that, you know,” said Kwan-Lai, his voice dropping to a husky whisper. “I’ve seen that kind of evil. I’ve seen people killing their own brothers and their own kind because of what they believed. That’s evil, my friend. It just rages and twists and turns, looking for blood, always hunting for its next kill. It's not some abstract concept, or a theological idea. It's real, Shin-Jen. It exists. It walks and breathes, just like you and I. I’ve seen it.” Sweat dripped off Kwan-Lai’s face and collected in a pool on the table.
Shin-Jen could barely feel himself breathe. Worse, he found it impossible to break Kwan-Lai’s stare.
And then, bizarrely, grotesquely, Kwan-Lai cocked his head. “So have you, haven’t you?” he said softly.
Shin-Jen was sure his heart stopped beating. Now the inn and all its customers hadn’t just faded away – they had vanished, fled, leaving him and someone who was obviously mad (or possibly possessed), talking over empty plates and cups on a table. Talking about evil.
“No,” Shin-Jen said hoarsely, maybe the first true thing he had said since Kwan-Lai sat down at his table.
“But I think you have,” Kwan-Lai insisted in that soft, curious voice. A drop of sweat streaked across his angled face, dangling off his eyebrow. “You, the man of no home and no family. You, the man who lies – badly. You, the man who didn’t know about the Temple. And now, even now, that hunted, haunted look in your eye – what are you running from? What are you afraid of?”
Shin-Jen had long wished for someone he could confide in, someone he could unburden his soul to. But not like this. Carefully, he lowered his hand down to his staff, at his feet. A fight would result in him being beaten, imprisoned and kicked out of town, but anything was better than this. Anything was better than this.
Slowly, Kwan-Lai leaned forward. Shin-Jen could see decades-old acne scars in that plump, wet face, and eyes that were so far away, but so focused. Focused on him.
“What did you do?”
When the plate hit the ground, Shin-Jen almost jumped out of his skin. Had the table not been in the way, he would certainly have brought his staff up to protect himself. But with all the patrons looking at the sheepish-looking serving boy and the shattered remains of the plate he was carrying at his feet, no one noticed Shin-Jen's tense muscles and his taut face.
"Out of my way, move!" barked a voice. The crowd cleared and the owner of the inn stepped forward, a surprisingly young and attractive woman dressed in rags and with her long, dirty blonde hair tied up like a beehive.
The serving boy, about twelve or so, stood in the middle of the clearing. Biting down on his lip to fight his tears, he surreptitiously tried to cover the broken fragments of plate on the ground with his bare feet.
"Sorry, Misha-Khana," he said, his voice quavering. "Only my hands were so wet." He held out trembling palms, little rivers of sweat running in each line.
Misha-Khana grimaced. It had been a long day, she felt terrible, and the heat was getting to everyone. "Clean that mess and get out of here. You're done for the day. Your mother probably has chores for you, anyway."
The serving boy, scarcely believing his good fortune at being let off so lightly, mumbled a prayer and a blessing before disappearing into the crowd. With the show over, the patrons returned to their mumbling and stupor.
Releasing his grip on his staff, Shin-Jen turned back to Kwan-Lai, relieved that something had happened to break the -
"Will that be all, sir?"
He stared at the serving girl who had brought Kwan-Lai his lumice as she cleared away the cups and plates where Kwan-Lai had been sitting. Of Kwan-Lai himself…
"Where was the man who was here?" Shin-Jen asked.
Wiping the table with a rag tethered to her waist, the girl replied, "The customer left just after Shon-Lak dropped his plate, sir."
Then she stopped wiping, a frown creasing her dirty face. Shin-Jen wondered if she had ever considered herself pretty. Once, maybe.
"He was running, sir. Nobody paid him any attention because they were all looking at Shon-Lak. But he ran."
Without quite knowing why, Shin-Jen asked her one more question: "Did you see the expression on his face?"
The girl remained frozen. Slowly, so slowly, she raised her face to stare into Shin-Jen's eyes. His heart seemed to tighten. Suddenly, he wished he was holding his staff again.
Abruptly, she swept the cups and plates onto a tray she whipped out from nowhere, and vanished into the crowd.
Shin-Jen remained rooted to his seat for a long time.
A few hours later, under cover of darkness, he left town.