Chapter 3: Speaking with Spirits
Early in the morning, before sunrise, Mehli's servant awakened us. We untangled ourselves, and I returned to my room, where the servant assigned to me helped me get ready for the journey. I was happy to have her dress me in the borrowed clothes, which had been mysteriously tailored overnight and now fit me perfectly.
I love this clothing. It is so beautiful, and soft. The thin silken layers slide over each other, and they are both warmer and cooler than you might expect. They are very formal, yet comfortable. They consist of unstructured and loose robes layered in strict order, and kept in place by a simple and wide fabric belt. My clothes differ from the Lady Miyara's, and small subtle differences in how clothing is put together and worn signal the identity and status of its wearer. I cannot read these signs very well, only recognizing the larger differences.
These clothes hint at the complexity of the Nipponese. Outwardly, they are cool and formal, rigidly following an intricate set of rules and customs. But underneath, they are a hot-blooded and passionate people. Quick to anger, quick to take offense. All carefully concealed under the veneer of civilization. I have seen no hints, but I expect their love lives are equally passionate and complicated. I smiled to myself, thinking of Mehli. These things don't need to be so complex, really. Just accept and enjoy. But then, I walk a different path than they do.
We ate a quick breakfast in the rosy pre-dawn and then joined two wagons and at least ten servants (it was hard to count them, as they kept moving around). To my surprise, Donku, who had been the cook on the ship, was now travelling with us as well. Still our cook. The sun just peeked over the horizon as we pulled out.
My servant, and I assume everyone else's, too, had packed a chest for me, filled with my things and whatever else she thought I would need on this mission. Most of the others had put their own clothing back on, as poor as it is. I was disappointed to see Mehli in her own clothing again, but she assured me there were kimonos and such packed in her chest. Even if I hated this clothing, the way Mehli looked at me when she saw me in it was reason enough to wear it.
We walked on well-kept roads, through farmland and small villages. There is no wilderness here, in the heart of Phoenix territory. The farmers and villagers seemed well, and happy. I saw no signs of the grinding poverty I saw in places in the Empire. Of course, so far I have seen little of Nippon and only a portion of Phoenix lands. Miyara said that we would camp along the way instead of using inns, because of the beautiful weather this time of year. I was glad: I like the open air better.
On the second night out, Mehli came to some sort of decision. For months, she had been watching Grieg with mistrust, muttering about albatrosses and criminals. On this evening, she finally determined that he is one of us, and that she must deal with him one way or another. She said that she needed to speak with Grieg, and she idly wished she has some way of being certain whether he spoke truth to her. Mehli forgets herself sometimes and thinks like a mortal instead of a spirit.
I was so happy that I could be of service to my Mehli. I gladly told her that indeed, some of the spirits, if I ask them, do tell me just such a thing. And so she collected him quietly, and the three of us gathered a small distance from the camp, although not too far.
Mehli explained to Grieg, at great length, carefully, and repetitively, that she merely wanted to ask a few questions and that it was important that he speak the whole truth and not hide anything. And that I was there to confirm what he said. He looked nervous and a little angry, and kept trying to figure out what she was after, but he finally agreed, and she finally asked her questions, which were much simpler than he had feared. I think her offer of the same courtesy eased him somewhat.
She asked what sort of criminal enterprise he was involved with in the Empire and what his role was. He answered readily enough, that he merely carried small goods from one person to another. Mehli asked sharply, "Goods only, and never people?" He confirmed that he merely moved small items of great worth, and never people. Ah, so that was my Mehli's concern.
She looked at me, and I asked the spirits. Sometimes it's a little hard to hear clear answers through the constant buzz of the spirit world in my ears, but they were clear here. He had spoken only the truth and was not hiding anything. Mehli relaxed a little.
Then she asked if he was really just an errand boy with a talent, or if there was more to it than that. He explained that he looked for proper customers, and knew what he was looking for. This job was short-term, just to gather enough money to start up his own proper trading busines. He said with anger that his uncle had stolen his father's business from him. Mehli said that was more than she really cared about; his ambitions were his own affair. I couldn't hear the spirits' answer this time, but I believe he spoke truth. And Mehli seemed to believe him as well.
Her last question was why he had to leave in such a hurry. What was he really running from? And she reminded him to tell her the entire truth, not to to hide anything.
He answered. "The last thing I was transporting was an illegal substance. The purchaser died the night before I was to arrive, which I didn't know. The fool had been updating his journal with the latest information, including the illegal stuff, and including the name I used in that town. Of course, when the man's servants called the magistrate, he read it and knew I was coming, but not how I was arriving. I appeared inside the house to find a houseful of guards and panicked, and jumped as far away as I could. And to my surprise, I found myself half-drowned on a ship a long way from where I had been."
The spirits were clear: he spoke only the truth. Mehli was satisfied with his answers, and now trusts him a great deal more. I reminded Grieg that he could now ask her any questions he wished, but he said he didn't have any. Mehli, always fair, told him he could hold them against the future.
Grieg took his leave, leaving me and Mehli to return to camp alone. She thanked me for my help, and I reminded her that this is simply what I do, what I am here for. She praised me, saying I "do it so well". How lucky I am, in my path and in this spirit companion, who is so appreciative of the smallest services I can give.
Nippon is a storybook land, especially when compared to the prosaic Empire. The spirits are close to the people here, the people close to their spirits. I haven't yet taken the time to feel a place, but I hardly need to. The spirits buzz around me thickly.
We met a Nipponese spirit on the fifth and last day of travel. He appeared as an old man, a peasant travelling along the same road. Generally, a peasant will be treated by nobles as a non-entity. It is his role to get out of the way, and the nobles will accept his deference and move past. This was a spirit, though, and he tested us to see if we were worthy of his time.
I didn't realize that at first. I was walking next to Mehli, and my mind was far from the road. I was thinking about something she'd said and not really paying attention to much else. I vaguely knew another was in the road and he scrambled to get out of our way.
But a loud splash caught my attention, and I snapped my head around to see that an old man, dressed as a peasant and carrying a chest, had slipped off the edge of the road into the marsh, and he was struggling weakly in the reeds. Without another thought, I raced to his side, where Peter and Mehli and I all carefully picked him and set him back on his feet.
He thanked us profusely and smiled at us gently, and offered to perform a tea ceremony for us in return for our efforts on his behalf. Lady Miyara had shown us a tea ceremony on the ship once. It is a very formal ceremony, with layers of deep meanings, and it is a way to find tranquility, and to open yourself to the spirits. It is, in short, sort of an equivalent to our shamanic dancing and drumming, except it does not have to be performed by a shaman, or a priest. As I said, the Nipponese are closer to their spirits and need less assistance in reaching them.
To my joy, Miyara immediately accepted and joined us, as did everyone else. We knelt around the old man, who knelt himself on a carpet out of his chest. This was my first realization that this was not merely a man but a spirit. Peter, Mehli, and I were dripping wet. The old man was as dry as if he had never touched water, let alone fallen in face first. I then recalled something I hadn't noticed at the time, being busy.
There were many cranes standing still in the marsh. When he fell in, not one stirred. Yet they flew away in a feathered flurry when the three of us splashed our way in to save him. We were on our way to a Crane castle. This was a spirit, and I thought he well might represent the Crane clan. Was he to offer Miyara his support? A warning? I sat back on my feet and settled my mind. I needed to stop all this thinking and simply be, entering the spirit of the tea ceremony, and accepting anything this Nipponese spirit offered.
He first requested Peter to go into his chest and bring him the tea set, which Peter did. He then asked my Mehli to mix the powdered tea and to fill the pot with water from the marshy river. She did so. When she set the pot down, the water boiled on its own.
The spirit then performed the ceremony, solemn and quiet. We all played our parts correctly, and I felt the peace, and when I closed my eyes, we sat at the very edge of the veil that I could almost see, overlapping both worlds.
At the end, the spirit spoke to me. He had no task for me to perform, as he had for Peter and Mehli. Instead, he offered me a gift: my choice of either the katana he carried in his chest, or a box that was also in the chest. In my tradition, one does not question the gifts of the spirits, one simply and gratefully accepts what they give. I almost did so, when I remembered something that the Lady Miyara explained to us a couple of months ago on the ship. Gift-giving in Nippon must be done carefully, and there is, of course, an intricate dance to follow. One must not simply accept a gift, but refuse politely and allow the giver to prove his sincerity in offering the gift at all. To accept at once implies that you don't believe the giver means his offer, and is an insult. Also, once having accepted a gift, you must immediately offer one of similar value. And one must never offer a gift to a person who cannot match its value.
And so I refused his gift. "Oh, spirit, you need grant me nothing more more than your presence." He offered the gift a second time, and again I refused. "Spirit, your tea ceremony was gift enough." And a third time, he insisted. And this time I bowed my head and accepted his gift.
Of course, I had to offer him a gift in return. It is little use to offer a thing to a spirit, and I had no things of enough value in any case. But I could, and did, offer him a spirit-dance. What better gift is there, to acknowledge his presence, and to bring the two worlds closer to each other? He declined twice, of course. His second refusal was that I should save my spirit-dances for the spirits, and I of course countered by recognizing that I was doing exactly that.
I granted him my gift first, dancing for joy, and peace, and thanks to the spirit before me. Then I accepted his gift, choosing the small box. I had no interest in a sword. What would I do with one? I'm certain the box was what he meant me to have, of course, because after both the tea ceremony and the spirit-dance, he must know who I am.
The Lady Miyara had been silent, but now she offered him a gift as well. She offered our escort to him, to see him safely to his destination. He refused not twice, but three times and she seemed unsurprised by the complete refusal of her gift. I assume this is something Nipponese spirits expect but never accept. His third refusal was his gift to her. He told her, "Our paths diverge, but they will cross again, I am sure." And so the Crane Spirit, if that is what he is, assured us that we walk on a path he approves, and that he will return when it is time.
Lady Miyara stood, and we all stood with her, and prepared ourselves to resume the journey. At last, she bowed to the man and said, "Farewell. I look forward to meeting you again." He bowed deeply to her, and she bowed even more deeply to him. He picked up his chest, and stood out of our way, this time not falling into the marsh.
As we resumed our walk, I looked carefully at the gift from the spirit, certain that Mehli would not let me walk astray. The box was not large, perhaps about the same size as the box that holds all my decorations, although it was obvious that was not its purpose. It was made of fine mahogany, lacquered in the Nipponese style. It was plain, with no carvings or other marks on it. Having studied the box itself, I opened it. Within were nestled two rice paper scrolls. I did not want to try to manage them and the box while I walked, plus I was certain whatever was written on them would not be in a script I could read. So I placed the box carefully into the wagon with my other things, to look at later.
Tonight, I will try to divine the spirit of the box, and then I will ask the Lady Miyara's help in reading the scrolls.
For now, I walk in the sun beside my Mehli, and that is enough.