Hari and Rav stepped through circles of offerings and prayers spread around the tree. Hundreds of dip candles flickered in the green shade. Aromatic smoke curled from incense sticks jammed into the rough bark of its branches and trunk.
‘You could leave the book here,’ Rav said.
‘I have to explain how I came by it,’ Hari said. ‘I have to explain my debt.’
He joined a small queue of penitents and paid a fee to a steward, who told him that he could have exactly ten minutes in the holy presence, inclusive of the time it took to climb up to him.
‘Those of true faith fly up the tree,’ the steward said. ‘Those who are merely curious find the way harder. So balance and harmony are achieved.’
‘Do you also count the time it takes to climb back down?’ Rav said.
‘Of course not. But do not overstay your allotted time,’ the steward said. ‘Many want to see the master, and I control drones that will persuade you to leave more quickly than you thought possible.’
Another steward tried to sell to Hari a medal that would absorb the blessing of the hermit’s holy presence. Rav was delighted by this, and told Hari to buy as many as possible. ‘Think of the armour they’ll make.’
Although there were ladders and ropeways strung up the tree’s broad trunk, it was a hard scramble in Ophir’s deepened gravity. Hari was slick with sweat and his heart was jackhammering in his chest when he at last reached the crux between two high branches where the hermit sat cross-legged. A slender man dressed in a multicoloured patchwork coat, black hair hanging in ringlets around his thin, calm face. His eyes were closed and he was chewing leaves, plucking them one after the other from a broken branch he held in one hand, milling them between strong yellow teeth and spitting out the pulp. He did not open his eyes or in any way acknowledge Hari’s presence while Hari explained how the dead hermit Kinson Ib Kana had saved his life, a debt he hoped to pay by passing Kinson Ib Kana’s book to one of his fellow ascetics.
After Hari had finished speaking, he became aware of the small sounds around him. Wind moving through the drifts of leaves and bright red flowers. The buzz of an erratic traffic of live drones his bios identified as bees, the mingled noise of the city beyond. The hermit spat a dribble of green pulp and plucked another leaf and pushed it into his mouth. At last, a bell rang far below, signalling that Hari’s time was up, and he set the book in a hollow near the hermit’s feet, and climbed down to the deck, the ground.
‘Did you learn anything?’ Rav said.
‘Only that I am a fool,’ Hari said. ‘But it’s done.’
‘We should have bought medals,’ Rav said. ‘I know I’ll regret it later.’
From Evening's Empires