Yumi | Chapter Four
The local steamwell erupted right as Yumi was passing—at a safe distance—on the way to the place of ritual.
A glorious jet of water ascended from the hole in the center of the village. A furious, superheated cascade that reached forty feet at its highest—a gift from the spirits deep below. This water was vital; rain was scarce in Torio, and rivers . . . well, one can imagine what the superheated ground did to prospective rivers. Water wasn’t rare in Yumi’s land, but it was concentrated, centralized, elevated.
The air nearest the steamwells was humid, nourishing migratory plants and other lively entities. You often found clouds above the steamwells, offering shade and occasional rainfall. The water that didn’t escape as steam rained down on large bronze trays set up in six concentric rings around the geyser. Elevated from the ground to keep them cool, the metal funneled the water down the slope toward the nearby homes. There were some sixty of those in the town—with room to grow, judging by how much water the steamwell released.
The homes were built a good distance back, of course. Steamwells were vital to life in this land, yes, but it was best not to fraternize.
Farther out from the city were the searing barrens. Wastelands where the ground was too hot even for plants; the stone there could set clogs afire and kill travelers who lingered. In Torio you traveled only at night, and only upon hovering wagons pulled by flying devices created by the spirits. Needless to say, most people stayed home.
The loud pelting of drops against metal basins drowned out the murmurs of the watching crowds. Bathing finished, prayers proffered, Yumi could now be gawked at officially, so her attendants followed with fans withdrawn.
She kept her eyes lowered, and she walked with a practiced step—a yoki-hijo must glide, as if a spirit. She was glad for the sound of the steamwell, for though she didn’t dare mind the whispers and murmurs of awe, they did sometimes . . . overwhelm. She quickly reminded herself that the people’s awe wasn’t for her, but for her calling. She needed to remember that, needed to banish pride and remain reserved. She most certainly needed to avoid anything embarrassing—like smiling. Out of reverence for her station.
The station, in return, did not notice. As is the case with many things that people revere.
She passed homes, most of which were in two tiers: One section built upon the ground to benefit from the warmth and heat. Another built on stilts, with air underneath to keep it cooler. Imagine two large planter boxes built against one another, one elevated four feet, the other resting on the ground. Most of them had a stocky tree or two—about eight feet from the tips of their branches to the bottom of their wide, webbed roots—chained to them, riding the thermals a few feet in the air.
Lighter plants hovered high in the sky, casting variegated shadows. During the daytime, you found low plants solely in spots like gardens, where the ground was cooler. That and places where humans worked to keep them nearby, so they didn’t float away, or get floated away. Torio is the only land I’ve ever heard of with tree rustlers.
(Yes, there’s more to the flying than the thermals alone. Even in Torio the trees are made of heavy wood. So they need specific local adaptations to float. But we’re not going to get into it right now.)
At the far side of the town was the kimomakkin, or—as we’ll phrase it in this story—the place of ritual. A village usually had only one, lest the spirits get jealous of one another. A few flowers floated nearby, and when Yumi entered, her passing caused them to eddy and spin in her wake. They immediately shot up high into the sky. The place of ritual was a section of extra-hot stone, though not nearly on the level of the outlands.
(If you’ve ever been to the Reshi Isles, where sand lines the beaches on bright and sweltering summer days, you might have a frame of reference. The stones in the place of ritual felt the same as walking across that beach sand on a particularly sunny day. Hot enough to hurt, but not so hot as to be deadly.)
In Torio, heat was sacred. The village people gathered outside the fence, their clogs scraping stone, parents lifting children. Three local spirit scribes settled on tall stools to sing songs that, best I can tell, the spirits never noticed. (I approve of the job nonetheless. Anything to gainfully employ more musicians. It’s not that we’re unable to do anything else; it’s more that if you don’t find something productive for us to do, we’ll generally start asking questions like, “Hey, why aren’t they worshipping me?”)
Everyone waited outside the small fenced portion of ground, including Liyun. The songs started: a rhythmic chanting accompanying a percussion of sticks on paddle drums, a flute in the background, all of it growing more audible as the steamwell finished relieving itself and stumbled off to sleep.
Inside the place of ritual was only Yumi.
The spirits deep underground.
And a whole lot of rocks.
The villagers spent months gathering them, setting them throughout the city, then deliberating over which ones had the best shapes. You may think your local pastimes are boring, and the things your parents always forced you to do mind-numbing, but at least you didn’t spend your days excited by the prospect of ranking rock shapes.
Yumi put on a pair of kneepads, then knelt in the center of the rocks, spreading her skirts—which rippled and rose in the thermals. Normally you did not want your skin that close to the ground. Here, there was something almost intimate about kneeling. Spirits gathered in warm places. Or rather, warmth was a sign they were near.
They were unseen as of yet. You had to draw them forth—but they wouldn’t come to the beck of just anyone. You needed someone like Yumi. You needed a girl who could call to the spirits. There were many viable methods, but they shared a common theme: creativity. Most self-aware Invested beings—be they called fay, seon, or spirit—respond to this fundamental aspect of human nature in one way or another.
Something from nothing. Creation.
Beauty from raw materials. Art.
Order from chaos. Organization.
Or in this case, all three at once. Each yoki-hijo trained in an ancient and powerful art. A deliberate, wondrous artistry requiring the full synergy of body and mind. Geological reorganization on the microscale, requiring acute understanding of gravitational equilibrium.
In other words, they stacked rocks.
Yumi selected one with an interesting shape and carefully balanced it on end, then removed her hands and left it standing—oblong, looking like it should fall. The crowd gasped, though nothing arcane or mystical was on display. The art was a product of instinct and practice. She placed a second stone on the first, then two on top at once—balancing them against one another in a way that looked impossible. The contrasting stones—one leaning out to the right, the other precariously resting on its left tip—remained steady as she pulled her hands away.
There was a deliberate reverence to the way Yumi positioned rocks—seeming to cradle them for a moment, stilling them like a mother with a sleeping child. Then she’d withdraw her hands and leave the rocks as if one breath from collapse. It wasn’t magic. But it was certainly magical.
The crowd ate it up. If you find their fascination to be odd, well . . . I’m not going to disagree. It is a little strange. Not merely the balancing, but the way her people treated the performances—and creations—of the yoki-hijo as the greatest possible triumphs of artistry.
But then again, there’s nothing intrinsically valuable about any kind of art. That’s not me complaining or making light. It’s one of the most wonderful aspects to art—the fact that people decide what is beautiful. We don’t get to decide what is food and what is not. (Yes, exceptions exist. Don’t be pedantic. When you pass those marbles, we’re all going to laugh.) But we absolutely get to decide what counts as art.
If Yumi’s people wanted to declare that rock arrangements surpassed painting or sculpture as an artistic creation . . . well, I personally found it fascinating.
The spirits agreed.
Today Yumi created a spiral, using the artist’s sequence of progress as a kind of loose structure. You might know it by a different name. One, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen, twenty-one, thirty-four. Then back down. The piles of twenty or thirty rocks should have been the most impressive—and indeed, the fact that she could stack them so well is incredible. But she found ways to make the stacks of five or three delight just as much. Incongruous mixes of tiny rocks, with enormous ones balanced on top. Shingled patterns of stones, oblong ones hanging out precariously to the sides. Stones as long as her forearm balanced on their tiniest tips.
From the mathematical descriptions, and the use of the artist’s sequence, you might have assumed the process to be methodical. Calculating. Yet it felt more a feat of organic improvisation than it did one of engineering prowess. Yumi swayed as she stacked, moving to the beats of the drums. She’d close her eyes, swimming her head from side to side as she felt the stones grind beneath her fingers. Judged their weights, the way they tipped.
Yumi didn’t want to simply accomplish the task. She didn’t want merely to perform for the whispering, excitable audience. She wanted to be worthy. She wanted to sense the spirits and know what they desired of her.
She felt they deserved so much better than her. Someone who did more than she could, even at her best. Someone who didn’t secretly yearn for freedom. Someone who didn’t—deep down—reject the incredible gift she’d been given.
Over the course of several hours, the sculpture grew into a brilliant spiral of dozens of stacks. Yumi outlasted the drumming women, who fell off after about two hours. She continued as people took children home for naps, or slipped away to eat. She went on so long that Liyun had to duck out to use the facilities, then hastily return.
Those watching could appreciate the sculpture, of course. But the best place to view it was from above. Or below. Imagine a great swirl made up of stacked stones, evoking the feeling of blowing wind, spiraling, yet made entirely from rock. Order from chaos. Beauty from raw materials. Something from nothing. The spirits noticed.
In record numbers, they noticed.
As Yumi persevered through scraped fingers and aching muscles, spirits began to float up from the stones beneath. Teardrop shaped, radiant like the sun—a swirling red and blue—and the size of a person’s head. They’d rise up and settle next to Yumi, watching her progress, transfixed. They didn’t have eyes—they were little more than blobs—but they could watch. Sense, at least.
Spirits of this sort find human creations to be fascinating. And here, because of what she’d done—because of who she was—they knew this sculpture was a gift. As the day grew dark and the plants began to drift down from the upper layers of the sky, Yumi finally started to weaken. By now her fingers were bloodied—the calluses scraped away by repetitive movement. Her arms had gone from sore to numb, to somehow both sore and numb.
It was time for the next step. She couldn’t afford a childish mistake like she’d suffered in her early years: that of working so hard that she collapsed unconscious before binding the spirits. This wasn’t simply about creating the sculpture or providing a pious display. Like a fine-print rider in a contract, there was a measure of practicality attached to this day’s art.
Too tired to stand, Yumi turned from her creation—which contained hundreds of stones. Then she blinked, counting the spirits who surrounded her in their glory—in this case they looked a bit like a series of overly large ice cream scoops that had tumbled from the cone.
She’d summoned thirty-seven.
Most yoki-hijo were lucky to get six. Her previous record had been twenty.
Yumi wiped the sweat from her brow, then counted again through blurry eyes. She was tired. So (lowly) tired.
“Send forth,” she said, her voice croaking, “the first supplicant.”
The crowd agitated with excitement, and people went running to fetch friends or family members who had fallen off during the hours of sculpting. A strict order of needs was kept in the town, adjudicated by methods Yumi didn’t know. Supplicants were arranged, with the lucky five or six at the top all but guaranteed a slot.
Those lower down would usually have to wait for another visit to see to their needs. As spirits typically remained bound for five to ten years—with their effectiveness waning in the latter part of that—there was always a grand need for the efforts of the yoki-hijo. Today, for example, had begun with twenty-three names on the list, though they’d expected only a half dozen spirits.
As one might imagine, there was a fervor among the members of the town council to fill out the rest of the names. Yumi was unaware of this. She merely positioned herself at the front of the place of ritual, kneeling, head bowed—and trying her best not to collapse sideways to the stone.
Liyun allowed the first supplicant in, a man with a head that sat a little too far forward on his neck, like a picture that had been cut in half and then sloppily taped together. “Blessed bringer of spirits,” he said, wringing his cap in his hands, “we need light for my home. It has been six years that we have been without.”
Six years? Without a light at night? Suddenly, Yumi felt more selfish for her attempt to escape her duties earlier. “I am sorry,” she whispered back, “for failing you and your family these many years.”
“You didn’t—” The man cut himself off. It wasn’t proper to contradict a yoki-hijo. Even to compliment them.
Yumi turned to the first of the spirits, who inched up beside her, curious. “Light,” she said. “Please. In exchange for this gift of mine, will you give us light?” At the same time, she projected the proper idea. Of a flaming sun becoming a small glowing orb, capable of being carried in the palm of her hand.
“Light,” the spirit said to her. “Yes.”
The man waited anxiously as the spirit shivered, then divided in half—one side glowing brightly with a friendly orange color, the other becoming a dull blue sphere so dark it could be mistaken for black, particularly at dusk.
Yumi handed the man the two balls, each fitting in the palm of one hand. He bowed and retreated. The next requested a repelling pair, as was used in the garden veranda, to lift her small dairy into the air so that it would stay cooler and she could make butter. Yumi complied, speaking to the next spirit in line, coaxing it to split into the shape of two squat statues with grimacing features.
Each supplicant in turn got their request fulfilled. It had been years since Yumi had accidentally confused or frightened off a spirit—though these people didn’t know that, and so each waited in worried anticipation, fearing that their request would be one where the spirit turned away.
It didn’t happen, though each request took longer to fulfill, each spirit longer to persuade, as they grew more detached from her performance. Plus, each request took a little . . . something from Yumi. Something that recovered over time, but in the moment left her feeling empty. Like a jar of citron tea being devoured spoonful by spoonful.
Some wanted light. A few wanted repelling devices. The majority requested flyers—hovering devices about two feet across. These could be used to help care for crops during the daytime, when the plants soared out of reach of the farmers and needed to be watched by the village’s great crows instead. There were some threats the crows could not manage, so flyers were a necessity for most settlements. As always, the spirit split into two to make the devices—in this case a machine with great insectile wings, and a handheld device to control it from the ground.
One could make basically anything out of a spirit, provided it was willing and you could formulate the request properly. To Torish people, using a spirit for light was as natural—and as common—as spheres are for you, and candles or lanterns are on other worlds. You might consider the Torish wasteful of the great cosmic power afforded them, but theirs was a harsh land where the ground could literally boil water. You’ll have to forgive them for making use of the resources they had.
Getting through all thirty-seven spirits was nearly as grueling as the art itself—and by the end, Yumi continued in a daze. Barely seeing, barely hearing. Mumbling ceremonial phrases by rote and projecting to the spirits more with primal need than crisp images. But eventually, the last supplicant bowed and hurried away with his new spirit saw. Yumi found herself alone before her creation, surrounded by cooling air and floating lilies that were drifting down to her level as the thermals cooled.
Done. She was . . . done?
Her sculpture would be allowed to fade with time as all art does, and eventually would be taken down before the next visit of a yoki-hijo to this town. The power of the devices created in the ritual would eventually weaken, each spirit’s bond remaining in effect for a different length of time. But in general, the more spirits you bound in a session, the longer all of them would last. What she had done today was unprecedented.
Liyun approached to offer congratulations. She found, however, not a magnificent master of spirits—but an exhausted nineteen-year-old girl, collapsed unconscious, her hair fanning around her on the stone and her ceremonial silks trembling in the breeze.