The Palace of Leaves

Master stirs the tea leaves, trying to coax the future loose.

Head bowed, back aching, I hold the cup before him as I have done every morning for the past two hundred years. Truth be told, I’m a little tired of this ritual. Our future’s small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, so why ruin what few surprises remain to us?

Master snaps at me, demanding I still my trembling hands.

I snap back, demanding he keep his long beard out of the cup.

After two hundred years together, the roles of master and servant are as blurred as our sight. There are no orders left to give, no privileges worth having. We’re slaves to ancient rituals, shackled together by our long history. We’ve made a prison of our palace.

Master sighs, shaking his head. The leaves haven’t spoken to us in twenty years, and they’re not starting today. I leave him to brood, passing through the overgrown courtyard to the kitchens, the cutlery rattling on the tray. Not so long ago, servants swept these paths and picked leaves out of the ponds, gardeners sculpting the huge Ginko trees at the centre. Unable to reach the high branches, they’d sip the tea in their flasks and float upwards with their shears, snipping and shaping, before descending once more.

It was an everyday miracle, one of many. Within these walls my master researched the curious interactions of tea and chi while dozens of servants arranged the world beyond his window – just in case he should ever decide to look up from his work. He rarely did, now he rarely does anything else.

Difficult to believe, but I miss the man he was. Impatient, brash and quick to temper, but at least he had purpose. We saw the future in him. The first time we met, he just looked me up and down before mixing leaves from four different sacks into a cup and adding hot water.

“Drink!” he demanded.

It was brown, brackish. The sort of thing you pour over injuries.

“What will it do?” I asked.

He shrugged. “That’s what you’re here to help me find out, drink or leave.”

So I drank it. It was either that or let those who’d chased me up the mountain drag me back down.

At first, I thought the tea had no effect. I felt nothing, heard nothing. But then I saw my master’s excitement as he scribbled notes into his ledger. He wouldn’t tell me what had happened, waving impatiently towards the pond in the courtyard.

The tea had given me golden eyes, the same golden eyes I have today.

I’m proud to say that blend became a best seller, emissaries from the seven kingdoms jostling at our gates on behalf of vain emperors. Of course, they sent armies first – a bargaining stance they quickly abandoned when their warriors were overrun by six gardeners with pruning shears and rakes… oh and rock skin and the ability to belch fire.

Outwitted by our defences, they began bringing tea leaves from distant lands as payment – and soon our discoveries were blossoming into realms we’d never imagined. The ability to see the future was the last blend master ever created, and the most terrible.

The first time he tasted it, he gathered us in the courtyard, under the blood red blossoms of the Ginko trees, and described a world in turmoil, wars fought with the miracles made in this palace. No more, he’d said. From now on, he’d focus all his efforts on brewing peace. No more frivolous blends, no more trade. We were to close the gates and dedicate ourselves to eradicating war. Immortality would be our reward for endless servitude.

Master’s wisdom may be vast, but it’s also shallow. Over the next fifty years he watched the servants leave one by one, unable to understand that their loyalty was to the miracles, not the man behind them. After all, what use is peace in a world where men no longer fly?

And now there’s just the two of us, unending but withering.

With our great store of leaves almost at an end, master is loath to experiment. Instead, he peers at our future each morning to see if this is the day he cures war. If not, he simply sits in his chair and waits for tomorrow, staring at a garden nobody tends.

And I wait with him, bound by loyalty and love, and the hope of one more miracle.

The Palace of Leaves

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