Phoebe's Journey Part 4
Chapter 14: Gardening
Despite the late night, everyone but Peter was at breakfast. I wondered what we'd be doing today. Furedu took care of it: Lady Miyara had a a bunch of merchants waiting for her to sign travel papers for them. It has been many months since there was anyone to take care of that. So she'd be in her office all day, and Toni with her.
In an instant, I made my own plans. Mehli didn't say anything, and I said nothing to her. I rather thought she might start on finding bandits.
I slipped outside after breakfast, alone.
Well, that was my intention, anyway. I hadn't hardly left the gate before I had four guards leading horses following me at a discrete, but close, distance. Damn. On the other hand, although I didn't expect to be abducted in broad daylight, the chances of any funny business were even slimmer.
I walked to Asako Kinto's house, four guards and their horses trailing slowly behind me. Interestingly, about five minutes into my walk, a man wearing the gear of a Thunder Guard approached from the other direction. As soon as he came into view, one of "my" guards mounted and moved forward. He kept himself between the Thunder Guard and me the whole time. The Thunder Guard nodded politely to me as he passed. When he disappeared from sight, "my" guard dismounted and resumed his position behind me.
I suppose they feel they must make up for my abduction the other night, though not all these guards were even part of the household then. I walked with a light heart the rest of the way to Lord Asako's house. I wasn't certain this was quite the proper way to do things. Perhaps he wouldn't see me without an appointment. But I had a contingency plan, anyway.
However, I was told at the gate that Asako Kinto was both available and happy to receive me. They welcomed me in, and my guards disappeared wherever guards go when their charge is busy.
He appeared shortly, greeted me warmly, and asked what I wanted of him. I told him I wanted to speak with him about the spirit of the ancient snake in his garden. That seemed to surprise him. It surprised me that he didn't know of that ancient spirit in his garden. He offered me tea, and of course I accepted.
He escorted me into his garden, and showed me around it again. He introduced me to some of his plants, which I found charming. A servant showed up with tea, and we sat at a small stone tea table surrounded by lush plants. He asked me to tell him about the spirit in his garden.
I told him about the plant, and that I sensed something behind it, and that I entered a trance, crossed to the other side of the veil, and then what I experienced there.
At first, I saw snakes winding everywhere through the garden. Their bodies writhed and slithered up and around and through the plants and paths. With a snap, the forms came together and I realized instead I was looking at one huge, long snake twining through the garden.
The snake's body was far too large to be held up by the plants: it should have been crushing them.
Ancientness. Power. Intelligence.
Somehow when the vision of multiple snakes became a vision of one, great snake, I was thrown back across the veil and out of my trance. But the feelings remained.
The sheer age I felt was overwhelming, as was the power that went along with it. And the intelligence I felt from the snake was far beyond human comprehension as well.
He seemed excited, and he told me a story. When he talks about history and his plants, he's very clear and focused. Otherwise, he's vague and somewhat doddery.
He purchased his house some ten years ago. He was doing some initial repairs out here in the garden, and in digging he discovered some statues -- artifacts he called them -- from the time before the kami fell. I've heard a lot of stories about the kami in the last months. That's what they call the spirits that founded Nippon. It's a really interesting history, and ... but not here. I'll write that story later.
Anyway, they were statues of men and women with human torsos and snakes below the waist. He spoke with excitement and wonder and awe, "I realized immediately that these were Naga and I had uncovered an ancient Naga temple." He paused for effect, but it was kind of lost on me. Naga? More stories to come, I hoped.
"What did you do with the statues?"
He pointed to a building -- a temple? -- in the garden.
"What kind of beings were the Naga?" I asked him.
"Extremely intelligent, very powerful and magical." He gave the impression not of magic like at the Setsuban Festival, but much more, like beings able to create mountains and trees and new forms of life.
"What happened to them?"
"Our history has them going to sleep, long ago." A thousand or more years, I think, guessing by the Nipponese history I knew, "But I have begun to believe that they only went into hiding, waiting for the time when humanity has reached a level of advancement to join them."
"May I see their statues?"
He thought about that for several breaths. Weighing me or the Nagas. I wasn't sure. "Yes," he decided.
Out of respect for him, I didn't jump up and down and squeal.
We wound slowly through the garden from the more public parts to the more private parts, to the temple at the back of it. Really, it had to be a temple. He unlocked the door, and ushered me inside. We stood just inside, and I peered into the gloom of a small building with no windows while he lit some lamps.
As the golden light from the lanterns crept into the building, I looked around in wonder. Lord Asako stood silent and let me look all I wanted. Unlike almost all the buildings I've seen so far here, it was built of solid, cut stone rather than wood. It was small, maybe 20 foot square, and just one open room. The floor was wood, and the stone was covered with wood paneling. The effect was warm and inviting.
To my left was a large wooden chest. In the center of the wall opposite the door was some sort of shelf that I realized was almost a shrine. In the shelf were five statues of Nagas, around two and half or three feet tall.
"Did the spirit you saw in the garden look like this?"
I explained again. The veil, winding snakes turning into one huge snake, the snap back. I didn't see them very long.
"The Naga teach us that the spirits that we see in the world around us are simply reflections of our own selves."
I smiled at his wisdom. "Of course, that's true in a manner of speaking. We're all spirits and live on both sides of the veil."
"What do you think it means, that you saw a snake spirit in my garden?"
"I think that the spirits of the Naga are still here."
"I think the spirits of the Naga are in you."
"That is partly true. My purpose is to be an intermediary between this world and the spirit world." I paused a moment. Would he grant my request, or would I go too far? I asked, "Would you allow me to sit down and try to contact them again?"
I sat down right there, figuring their spirits must be drawn strongly to their temple. He asked hesitantly, "Wouldn't it be better done in the garden?"
It turned out that he'd built the building. It wasn't theirs. So we returned to the garden. He locked the door behind us, and gestured me to go ahead and find a spot that felt right to me. He sort of understood! It wasn't hard to find a good spot. I sat down and made myself comfortable. I hadn't planned on using my drum, although I'd brought it with me, almost without thinking. And it felt right, so I played for myself, for the veil, for the spirits, for Naga. Maybe even a little for Lord Asako. The world fell away from me, and I found myself in a different garden. Well, it's the same one, really, but from a different perspective. Like how the land looks different if you peer up at it from beneath the water.
The garden on the other side was tranquil, quiet, serene. The spirits were very quiet. There was nothing wrong, just ... quiet. Not like the stoned spirits in the street. No, I had to reach farther back for this feeling.
Like the forest when a wolf passes through. Birds cease flying and calling. Small creatures find places to hide themselves. No fear, just a sense of waiting, for something more powerful. I felt no danger, but of course I took that sense of waiting seriously. Something was coming. I stayed where I was, joining the garden in its waiting.
Then I felt something different. Something was watching me. Certainly not Lord Asako, not on this side. It felt nothing like him, and it was a spirit. Power was in front of me, looking not directly at me, but over my shoulder.
Power was right in front of me, although I couldn't see it, or hear it. I couldn't directly feel it, even, but somehow indirectly I felt the presence of more power than I ever had in my life, anywhere.
Knowing I couldn't read it directly, I felt around it. The air, the currents of power. The mysterious spirit was reading me, paging through my soul like a book. There was no threat, merely a weighing. Slowly, I got a little more feel from it, though I never saw it or sensed it. But it gave me the impression of something huge and serpentine.
I waited patiently and let it learn me. I couldn't have stopped it anyway, but I left myself utterly open, so it could know who and what I am. When it was finished, it slowly receded. It didn't travel away, but its presence faded slowly into nothingness.
Still, I waited. I wasn't ready to move yet, and I was still an integral part of the garden. Gradually, one by one, the spirits of the garden -- the plants and the insects and the birds and the lizards and everything -- came back to life.
Once everything was normal again, I came back across. I sat silently while the feeling of the garden on this side filtered into me. That might have been the most awesome experience I've ever had.
I explained everything I experienced to Lord Asako, who listened with fascination. "They are certainly here, and waiting for something."
"What do you think it means that you can see them?"
"That's what I'm for!" I don't think he quite understands. He seems to think of both stories of my crossing over the veil as a vision, not as real events. So he wondered what it could mean, that I had these visions.
"I lead a small group of people here in the city who study the history and technology of the Naga. I think that you are meant to join us. What do you think?"
"Certainly. I can speak with spirits, at least those who want to speak with me. I don't know anything about history and technology, but I'm always happy to do what I was made to do."
"We're meeting tomorrow evening."
"When and where?"
"Here, at 6."
"I'll be here."
"Thank you very much."
The visit wound down quickly, and I took my leave. I thought perhaps I'd been gone days, or just minutes, or maybe both. Turned out it was slightly before lunch, so I -- and my escorts and their horses -- returned to the house.
Toni and Lady Miyara ate lunch in her office, Peter was gone, Mehli was gone. So I ate lunch by myself, and I figured I could spend the afternoon on my second errand.
I walked back out to the outer courtyard, and my faithful guard reappeared. I felt like such a troublemaker, that I couldn't be allowed out into the city without escort lest I wreak havoc. I almost giggled. They asked me where I was going this time, and I told them I wanted to go to the garden out on the island.
The guard who had put himself between me and the other man this morning -- who was obviously the leader either by design or default -- said, with a lot of deference in voice and manner, "It has a dangerous reputation." No fear from him, of course. "If it's not necessary, perhaps one of the other many gardens in the city would be suitable." He suggested a few.
I wanted to see the island in daylight, and I was pretty sure none of his suggestions would give me what I wanted. So I said, "I'm drawn to its wildness. It's gone to seed, neglected. Not neat and planned down to every last pebble on the path, everything in its place, sparse."
He seemed taken aback. "I don't believe there are any other gardens that have gone to seed a well as that one."
"So, what sort of dangerous reputation does it have?"
"It's used by disreputable and dishonorable persons to carry out disreputable and dishonorable activities under cover of the magnificent ... seediness? ... of the garden." Poor man. He already knew he'd lost.
"Am I likely to be assaulted in some way?"
"No, ma'am!" The undertone of not while we live! was unmistakable.
"Would I bring dishonor to Lady Miyara by going there?" That was a worry, and if so, I wouldn't go without her let.
He struggled mightily to come up with the right answer to that question. Finally, he admitted, "No, ma'am, I'm sure you could never bring dishonor to a Miyara."
"Then, that's where we're going."
"Yes, ma'am. Carriage or ride?"
"Ride." So five horses were brought out, and we rode through the city to the docks where the little boats took travelers between the island and the city. Again, I kept my little knife when we passed through Gate's Gate.
Until we stepped out onto the island on the other side of Gate, my guards always stayed behind me. Once our feet hit the island's ground, though, they boxed me in, one at each corner around me. Not close, but obviously guarding me. When we entered the garden, they produced long, wicked-looking knives hidden somewhere on them. They maintained that bristling box around me every step of the way.
I disregarded them as much as possible. They were there to do there job, and I was there to ... well, just to be, really. I walked through the wild garden, communing with it, drumming, dancing to its spirits.
The garden was almost empty this time of the day. The few people I saw, fleetingly, moved away quickly when I approached. Dangerous little me.
The garden was remarkably seedy. Run down and uncared for and sad in a way. Neglected and ignored. I tried to cheer it up. By the time I left, it did feel a little happier.
On the way back, the guards seemed a little more relaxed and actually spoke with me. I asked where they're from. They're all Crane. That's south of Phoenix and the capital, and stretches a long way down the coast. I remembered the gist of the map. They draw pretty maps here, with their writing and little pictures all over the place, and pretty inks and colors.
The three shadows gave short, simple answers, but the head guard felt more conversational. He mentioned that he was from that separate Crane area that's cut off by Lion lands. It's more north and close to Phoenix lands. Grassy plains, from the look of the map, to my best guess anyway. He said, "If you don't mind ma'am, can you tell me what you were doing?"
"I'm from a small village at the edge of a wild area. I miss that wildness. Everything is so carefully manicured around here." That was mostly it. The visit to Lord Asako was for the spirits. This one was just for me.
We talked companionably all the way back. He was from a small village and traveled to Ryoko Owari as a guard for a caravan. Once here, the merchant ran into some kind of trouble -- he didn't say what happened -- and there was no return caravan. He -- his name is Saburo -- might have found another caravan to leave with. Instead, he found himself a job as a guard for the Emerald Magistrate. I think he liked city life better.
I return in time to change for dinner. Lady Miyara and Toni and finished, and Peter's returned. Mehli's downstairs, too. I look forward to hearing what she did all day.