The celestial orb blazed down brightly on the blessed town of Yuzinguau, bathing it in the light of the divine.
Lop Sur shaded his eyes with his hand to glance up at the unruffled blue sky and give thanks to the Gods for their beneficence that day. He could feel his Ancestors’ well-wishes in the morning breeze, platitudes blowing in his ear. He walked with a swagger in his step on the way home from a hard day’s work in the gold mines. He had had a good haul that day, digging up a large vein. He had handled pounds of the glittery stuff, more than he was ever likely to earn. He had felt his spirit shrivel when he had handed it off to the overseer to be carted away, though. A lifetime’s wages gone. He had received a pittance at the end of the day, scarcely enough to keep a roof over his head.
He made an obscene gesture at the largest houses in the town as he passed them, marble monoliths belonging to the mine owner and his family, and then sprang into a sprint when one of the guards by the gates spotted him and shouted at him.
Seeing the man was not following, he soon slowed, laughing at himself. “Ah, just can’t resist making trouble for yourself, can you, Lop?”
Still, life was good. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the dove trees were rustling in the wind and all was well with the world. Lop Sur could not wait to get home to his young wife.
Sauntering through the sun-glazed town of Yuzinguau, slipping through the lively crowded markets and waving to friendly faces, he spotted a new stall fronted by vermillion banners. “Huh, never seen that one before.”
Sidling through the masses of golden-skinned folk thronging the streets and pushing past the sonic wall created by their yammering, he approached the stall. Once close, it was easy to access; it almost seemed as though everyone else was avoiding the stall like the plague, or like they could not see it at all.
“Good day, my friend!” Lop shouted to make his baritone heard over the crowd’s chorus. “Are you new in town? What wares are you selling?”
The old man at the stall grinned at him toothlessly, the rotting dregs of his dark hair dangling down to his shoulders like rat tails while at the same time failing to obscure his scalp. He looked like he could use a shave and a bath, Lop thought, resisting the urge to pinch his nose. The man’s dark robes, incongruous in the bright sunlight, were smeared with filth. Lop told himself that there must be horse droppings near by; the smell could not possibly be coming from this man … could it?
“Good day, young man,” wheezed the stall-owner. “As you can see, I sell the finest ofuda in all the land, charms and enchantments for every hand. Take a peek, take a gander, take a look and you’ll see that I have something for everyone, even something for thee.”
Lop smiled; the archaic language made a passable rhyme that was evidently the man’s tried and true sales pitch. “Very good, I’ll take a brief look. I have to get home to my wife, you see. She’s very ill. The season doesn’t agree with her.”
“Ah, remedies for maladies I have by the dozen,” replied the old man, holding up a knobbly finger. “What ails your precious flower?”
“It is a wasting sickness,” Lop explained, a lump in his throat. “Every day, she withers away before my eyes just a little more.”
“Ah, I have just the antidote!” cried the old man, throwing his bony arms up in the air in triumph so that an unspeakable waft was sent Lop’s way, making him stagger back as if struck.
Taking no notice, the old man rummaged through the bright red banners hanging up in his stall, each emblazoned with exquisite calligraphy. At last, he found what he was looking for and proffered up a banner.
Laying sceptical eyes on it, Lop said, “But that’s just paper and ink. That won’t help her. I have money here to buy healing herbs for her. I cannot spend it on a banner.”
“But this is no mere banner, young man,” breathed the old man, “no mere paper and ink, no! This banner – all of these banners – have basked in the glow of a Wyvern’s fire, been doused in Faery dust and Qilin souls and enchanted by the most wondrous Wizard in Quing Tzu, for you see I come to Yuzinguau from Xi’Ping where the streets are paved in gold and Wizards command the very elements themselves. Anything can be achieved through magic, young man ... for a price.”
“How did you come by the ofuda?” Lop asked, intrigued despite himself.
“Ah, now that is a tale to tell! Not so long ago, I was lucky enough to be given the chance to become the servant of a great man, a Wizard by the name of Fu Min Chao.”
“Wasn’t he famous for running off to live in the woods after going crazy because he was sick of humanity?” Lop butted in.
“He is a powerful Wizard,” replied the old man, frowning, “and yes, he took some solace in solitude, but what is wrong with that? I don’t think crazy is the right word. I think fed up might be closer to the mark. Regardless, Chao – he bestowed on me the honour of calling him Chao – Chao took me on a trip across Quing Tzu to the swamps in the east. There, we found a beast replete with magic, a fabled Qilin, and we slew it and bottled its essence. Then, we soaked the paper for these banners liberally in its juices, giving them their red colour. After that, we found a portal to another world, where the lime-skinned folk of the Fae used all of their sorcerous arts to imbue the paper with power, sprinkling it with their storied dust. The final step was the Wyvern fire. This was not easy. But, taking a ship across the ocean, I was able to – my master and I were able to – find the Archipelago and the legendary island of the little people. They would not let us onto their island for fear of us, but I – my master – was able to barter from the Pygmies a breath of Wyvern’s fire in return for several of the ofuda it would be used to create. With the Wyvern’s breath, the ofuda were complete, the most powerful charms in all the world. There is only one of each and each can only be used once, but each can change your life.”
“Wow!” gasped Lop. “So ... how much is this ofuda that will cure my wife?”
“Only eight silvers.”
“But that’s almost my entire daily wage! If I spend that, I’ll have only two silvers to feed my wife and I tonight and I won’t be able to afford herbs for her.”
“You won’t need the herbs,” wheezed the old man.
Lop tapped his chin with a finger thoughtfully. “How does it work?”
“You hang the ofuda above the bed of your beloved and she will be cured with one night’s rest.”
“Do you promise it will work?”
“I promise, on the souls of my Ancestors.”
“What is your name, friend?”
“My name is Lu Sin Mao.”
“Hmm. Very well, Lu. Here, take the money. But you had better be right.”
Lop handed over the money and took the ofuda, reasoning that anything was worth a try. The herbs had not been working thus far and he could not bear to watch his beloved die.
When he returned to his ramshackle home and passed through the rickety door, he was greeted by the sight of an unswept room with his wife bundled up in a blanket on the bed in one corner.
“I’m home, Harumi.”
“Thank the Gods!” she coughed. “Bring me my herbs and water at once or I’ll die of a parched throat!”
“It’s nice to see you too,” he said, stroking her hair and kissing her sweaty head.
“Just fetch me the water!” He fetched her a clay cup of water and handed it to her. “Now where are my herbs?”
“I did not buy the herbs, my love, but I bought something better. I bought an ofuda, a magical charm to cure you.”
“You cursed fool! Why would you do a thing like that? Tell me it was not expensive. Tell me you can still buy my herbs.”
“It cost eight silvers.”
“Eight silvers!” Harumi exploded up out of the bed, blanket hitting the ceiling. An ample woman, she towered over her fine-boned husband. “So you mean to tell me you didn’t buy the herbs I need to keep me alive?”
“The ofuda will keep you alive,” Lop said meekly. “The vendor promised me it would cure you.”
“Oh, he promised you, did he?” Harumi’s voice rose to a shriek. “And you believed him, you nitwit? You paid some imbecile eight pieces of our hard-earned silver for a scrap of paper because he promised you it would work? A complete stranger?” She broke down into a coughing fit.
“Well, yes,” said Lop, scratching his nape. “The herbs didn’t seem to be working ...”
“You are going to march back to that vendor right now and get your money back!”
“I can’t,” said Lop. “The market will be closed by now. Everyone will have gone home. Look, let’s just try it out for tonight, eh? Maybe it will work. And if not, perhaps I can return it tomorrow.”
“Well, we may as well try it since you spent all our money on it like a fool and now cannot return it!” Harumi snarled, before curling up once more, spread across the entire bed. “Now, make me some dinner! I’m starving.”
Lop sighed. “Of course, honey-cakes.”
That night, they ate dumplings together, which tasted delicious.
The next morning, Lop was jostled awake by Harumi who was shouting, “Lop! Lop! Wake up! Praise the Ancestors, I’m cured! I feel fit as a fiddle! No snotty nose, no unnatural lumps, no blood in my stool! Not a tummy ache or a migraine in sight! It’s a miracle, Lop, I’m cured!”
Rubbing his eyes, he gaped at her. “Ancestors be praised indeed! Thank the Gods you are well again, Harumi.”
“Do you know what this means?” she asked, jittering with excitement. “It means the ofuda worked! That scrap of paper you brought home worked, Lop! It cured me overnight! It means the magic of the ofuda is real!”
“Huh, that vendor was not a fraud after all,” Lop mused.
“What other ofuda did he sell?” Harumi demanded. “What other spells can we buy?”
“I don’t understand,” said Lop, yawning. “I thought you said you were well again. Why would we need another ofuda? What would you want to buy?”
“You’re not thinking big enough, Lop!” Harumi cried, throwing her hands up in the air in exasperation. “Just think of all the things we could achieve with magic. All the improvements we could make to our lives. We are always saying we want more money and a nicer house for our future children. Perhaps magic could help us!”
“I don’t know if it works that way,” Lop said dubiously. “I don’t know what else he was selling, but I can have a look on the way home from work if you’d like. I don’t think we need any more ofuda, though. Our lives may not be perfect, but we have each other and we have enough. To ask for more would be greedy. In time, we will accomplish our goals by the grease of our own elbows. We do not need magic for that.”
“Yes, yes,” said Harumi, waving a hand. “Just check to see if he has any ofuda that will bring us more money. With more money, we can buy anything we want.”
“Very well, honey-cakes. I will check.”
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