The Root of the Problem
Buana smiled out at the small pond behind his house. Small soreen fish swam along the surface, making little bubbles appear. Small shadows of ghoti passed over the deep, cool bottom, and Buana's own lutra, Kuntum, sprang to the surface. Smiling, Buana slipped her a red bean dumpling from his lunch.
“Keep looking for those roots,” he told the little blue creature as she licked a bit of bean off of the treat. “White Squid root is selling for a lot nowadays.” He patted Kuntum on the head and headed back into the bamboo hut. On the woven floor mat lay a knapsack filled with his wares. There were prampet leaves, carefully dried, tins of black cherry tea, and a few hand-picked talon roots. Lotus roots that he'd grown in his pond were wrapped painstakingly in rice paper, and the soothing stones that had been carefully selected from the river out in front were stacked in neat piles.
Buana sealed the sack shut and grabbed a wooden green board that was leaning against the wall. Cherry petals fell like snow as he made his way to the wide river outside of the house. He inhaled deeply. Spring meant more herbs for him to collect and sell. It meant happy times in the forests with Kuntum. Spring was, well, spring.
Buana tightened his robe around him, staring into the churning waters of the river. They were menacing, but he took a deep breath and leaped onto the river with his board. Instantly, the small Aisha was caught up in a whirling rage of waters. Cold waves lashed over his small body as he clung tight to the river rush board, hugging it ever tighter. He was glad he hadn't brought Kuntum on this run. The snow in the mountains had just recently melted, releasing a huge surge of water from the Shenkuu peaks.
Normally, Buana wouldn't be out this early in the year. The waters were still cold, and the harsh winter had brought him hardly any good cures to sell. However, he had some important errands to do in the main city. He would have to check the lunar calendar, for he had heard that there were patterns in the movement of Kreludor that reflected the herbs that should be harvested. He had a few extra neopoints which he planned to spend on a nice jade staff for defense when he was harvesting herbs. He might even pick up some good food if he had the money. Buana's mouth watered at the thought of a shell of delicious urchin surprise. If he could get all of this done, it was certainly worth it to go a little earlier than the month of Relaxing.
Shaking his head free, Buana concentrated on the river ahead. He could see the skyline and nothing else; the biggest waterfall on his route was coming up soon. He squeezed his eyes shut and gulped. Opening them a little, the Aisha saw something that startled him. He was racing straight toward a huge log that was barring the waterfall. Just in time, he launched himself into the air, but his board smashed into the log and fell down the waterfall as a pile of splinters. As the little neopet fell, his backpack flew off of him. He looked sadly down at all of his hard work as it floated down the river, along with shards of river rush board. He collided with the water of the river with a large splash, knocking him straight out.
Buana awoke to the sound of the rushing water. He opened his eyes slowly, and the scene of a small island came into focus. He slowly wiggled all of his legs and arms. They all moved fine, although his robes were torn and waterlogged. They had been his good babaa wool robes, too.
Fuming, Buana emptied water from all four of his ears as the memory of the past events came back to him. He couldn't believe it. His board had smashed into a million bits, and he wouldn't be able to go back up the mountain without it for fear of not being able to come back with the next load of herbs. Even if he did get a board down in the main city, it would just smash to bits when he came back down again. Every single bit of herb that he'd harvested was probably destroyed.
Slightly downriver, he could see the point where the tins of black cherry tea had burst open, dying the river purple. His dried prampet leaves were now soaked. The more Buana thought about his situation, the worse it seemed. He looked down the river. The city was far off, but it was within his view. Sighing, Buana pushed himself into the river and began to paddle diagonally to the shore.
After a long, tiring hike, the small white Aisha was standing on one of the long winding paths of the main Shenkuu city. Neopets chatted and walked past him, not even glancing his way. The crowds were loud and it hurt Buana's ears. He loved all that the city had to offer, but he didn't like walking through the crowds to get to it. He gulped and looked up the path to the lunar temple. It seemed much too far for him to bear after such a long walk. Instead, he began to walk toward the medicine shop. It would be nice to see what was in demand this year, anyway. He was still in a rotten mood from the accident with the log. He could work on river rush techniques so that he could jump the log next time, but he had things to do besides mess around with surfing, especially since he'd lost the wares he'd collected over the winter.
“You look troubled,” an old man's voice interrupted his moody thoughts. Buana looked up to see an elderly Gnorbu with fur even whiter than his own looking at him.
“Well, I am in a bit of a fix,” Buana admitted.
“Come with me. Maybe I can help you,” the old man said, and Buana followed. Perhaps this man could offer some advice.
The Gnorbu led the way into a small building made of bamboo. Buana noticed that it was heavily scented with incense and lit with orange rice paper lanterns. There were lunar charts hanging around the walls, but the only real piece of furniture was a polished cherry wood table in the middle of the room. He explained that his name was Utara, and he was one of the pets who studied the lunar chart.
“Take a seat,” the Gnorbu said invitingly, and Buana sat down in front of the table. The man disappeared into a side room. He came out in a few minutes with a tray of purplum buns and steaming hot green tea. He poured some into a china cup decorated with blue flowers for Buana, and another for himself. He then pulled a box out of a corner.
“Care for a game of Kou-Jong?” he asked politely. Buana was beginning to be annoyed at this man. He was being a good host, serving tea and buns and bringing out Kou-Jong tiles, but he had promised to at least try to help out.
“About my problem,” Buana started, trying not to be too impolite about it.
“Wait, young one,” the Gnorbu said, opening the box and pulling the tiles out. Buana looked at the tiles as the man placed delicately in formation. They were different from ordinary tiles. There were other things, like river rush boards and brilliant draik flowers. He noted with satisfaction that there were quite a few medicinal herbs on the tiles, carefully hand-painted.
“You go first,” the man said, breaking his trance. “Put all of the matches you find on the table, in order of when you find them.” Buana observed the board. The only free move was two trees, which he placed together on the edge of the table. The old man pulled off two unidentifiable roots and stared intently at Buana. The Aisha plucked two herb cutting knifes out of the stack, and the Gnorbu removed a pair of crumbling fungi. There was a match revealing slimy tree bark, which Buana took, and the Gnorbu pulled out a set of river rush boards. Finally, Buana pulled a pair of clear, beautiful waterfalls out of the stack.
“It's getting late,” Utara said, looking out the window. “You had better be going.” He took every match that had been drawn in the game and arranged them in order. Then he took a small brush out of his pocket, dipped it in a pot of black ink and numbered the tiles. He placed them into a box and handed it to Buana. “Take these with you.”
“But you said you would help me...”
“Don't worry, young one. You will find your answer soon.”
“Fine.” Buana took the tiles in his paw and bowed. “Thank you for the grace of your service,” the healer said as was customary.
“Thank you for being my guest. I bid you farewell, and have a safe journey home,” Utara replied, bowing in return. Buana walked out of the door and onto the streets of Shenkuu. The night was getting dark, and it would be a while before he would get home. Sighing, the Aisha began to walk along the path out of Shenkuu's main city.
It was late at night when Buana finally stepped into his small hut again. The wind howled outside, and a cold rain had begun to fall in the middle of his walk. Groaning, he put the box Utara had given him onto the mat. The old Gnorbu hadn't even helped him! All he'd done was offer some food and play some Kou-Jong. Buana unlatched the old box and pulled out the tiles. He gasped.
Under the pile of hand painted Kou-Jong tiles was a black silk bag. From it drifted delicious scents that made Buana's ears perk up. He hurriedly opened up the sack and pulled out a leaf of lotus rice, a dish of hot mustard sauce, a ceramic container of jug juice, and a shell filled with urchin surprise. Two steaming hot purplum buns were buried in rice paper. Beside all of this food were nestled a pair of bamboo chopsticks, finely polished.
“Urchin surprise...” Buana said happily, looking down at the feast before him. “Oh, delicious!” He grabbed the chopsticks and began to slurp down the buttery tentacles. Kuntum, smelling the pile of food, had wandered into the hut, and she began to nibble at the lotus rice. The two didn't stop until not a single crumb was left. After all, such food would have perished quickly, Buana reasoned. They couldn't waste it, could they now?
“I'll never be hungry again,” Buana sighed, lying back on the floor mat. Kuntum purred contentedly, rubbing her stomach.
“I suppose that Utara isn't such a bad guy after all,” Buana mused. “I guess I'll check out those tiles now.” He lined up the tiles in order on the mat. “Now what are these supposed to tell me?”
“Mao,” Kuntum said, pawing at one of the river tiles.
“Kuntum! Leave that alone!” Buana took the tile away from her. “It looks a little like ours, doesn't it?”
“Well, that's the last one. The first one is this tree,” he said, looking at the tile. “I'm sure the order has something to do with it, or he wouldn't have done it that way. But what?” These tiles don't mean anything? An herb cutting knife? Do I need to cut something up?”
“Mao!” Kuntum mewed furiously.
“I guess that's what it must mean,” Buana said, taking out his herb knife. “One of those crazy lunar teachers would say to look at the root of the problem, but...” He stopped short, looking down at the tiles. He quickly arranged them in order again. “The root of the problem! That tree is the tree that's blocking the waterfall...” he pointed at the tree tile, “And it's still attached by its roots! That's what we need to do, Kuntum! We need to cut the tree free by its roots!”
“Mew?” Kuntum pointed her paw at the crumbling fungus tile.
“I've no clue what that one means, or any of the other things. But I do know that we have to cut the roots of the tree.” He settled down onto his bed roll with happy thoughts of taking herbs down to the city again in his mind. Maybe he could even get that jade staff....
Kuntum awoke the little Aisha early in the morning, yowling her head off.
“What is it, Kuntum? It's early...” He sat up in bed and saw the Kou-Jong tiles, which were still arranged on the floor. “That's right! We need to get rid of that tree!” He grabbed a new robe from a bamboo chest on the floor and slipped it on as quick as possible. He picked up his herb knife from the floor and placed Kuntum carefully on his shoulder.
“Are you ready, little blossom?” he asked.
“Okay, we'll go.” He began to hike through the mist down the long hill.
Sure enough, when they reached the log, the roots were keeping it attached to the ground.
“Well, here we go, I suppose,” he said triumphantly, taking out his knife and making a shallow cut in the main root of the tree.
“Mao!” Kuntum jumped off of his shoulder and ran along the fallen log.
“Kuntum! You silly tomamu! That log is going to be falling into the river soon!” Buana screamed as his beloved petpet ran along the tree. “Come out!” Kuntum simply mewed and kept on running. Buana leaped onto the log and began to follow the little blue lutra. The log shifted slightly under his weight, but he was a small neopet and it didn't fall quite yet.
“Mao!” Kuntum finally stopped running in the middle of the log. Buana gulped and tried not to look down. He clung anxiously to the tree trunk as Kuntum headed back toward him. Looking up, he saw something green in the petpet's mouth.
“Crumble fungus!” he exclaimed. “Trust you to find something like this, little blossom. Can you get the rest of it? I'll hold off on cutting the log free.”
“Mao.” There was a streak of blue as Kuntum dashed back along the trunk to the crumble fungus patch. Buana turned carefully and began to crawl back to the root end of the log. As Kuntum appeared and disappeared, dropping crumble fungus in a small pile at his feet, he pulled out the tiles again.
“So if the crumble fungus tile means that there's crumble fungus, does the slimy bark mean...?” He ran his fingers along the trunk of the tree. “Yes!” Immediately, he pulled out his knife and began to strip the slimy tree bark off of the trunk. By the time both he and Kuntum were finished, there was a reasonably sized pile of each waiting on the ground.
“That's all we need, Kuntum,” Buana said cheerfully, lifting the little lutra onto his shoulder again. “I wonder how that Utara guy could have known all of this, though. He was way too old to walk all the way up here to see.”
“Well, I won't dwell on it, I suppose.” Buana raised his herbal knife and ceremoniously chopped through the main root. There was a huge creaking noise, and the tree slowly slipped into the river, falling down the waterfall and splintering to bits. The little Aisha smiled and made to head home.
“Mao!” Kuntum leaped off of him and ran to the edge of the river. Her paw gestured to a piece of wood wedged between a pair of rocks.
“That's odd...” Buana thought of the tiles from the Kou-Jong game as he looked at the flat splinter of tree. There had been the waterfalls, the root, the knife, and the medicine... and one more. A smile slowly formed on his lips. “It's just the right size and shape for a river rush board.”