Yumi | Chapter Two
Yumi had always considered the appearance of the daystar to be encouraging. An omen of fortune. A sign that the primal hijo would be open and welcoming to her.
The daystar seemed extra bright today—glowing a soft blue on the western horizon as the sun rose in the east. A powerful sign, if you believed in such things. (An old joke notes that lost items tend to be in the last place one looks. Conversely, omens tend to appear in the first place people look for them.)
Yumi did believe in signs. She had to; an omen had been the single most important event in her life. At her birth, a falling star had marked the sky—indicating that she had been chosen by the spirits. She’d been taken from her parents and raised to accomplish a holy and important duty.
She settled down on the warm floor of her wagon as her attendants, Chaeyung and Hwanji, entered. They bowed in ritual postures, then fed her with maipon sticks and spoons—a meal of rice and a stew that had been left on the ground to cook. Yumi sat and swallowed, never so crass as to try to feed herself. This was a ritual, and she was an expert in those.
Though today she couldn’t help feeling distracted. It was nineteen days past her nineteenth birthday.
A day for decisions. A day for action.
A day to—maybe—ask for what she wanted?
It was a hundred days until the big festival in Torio City, the grand capital, seat of the queen. The yearly reveal of the country’s greatest art, plays, and projects. She had never gone. Perhaps . . . this time . . .
Once her attendants finished feeding her, she rose. They opened the door for her, then hopped down out of the private wagon. Yumi took a deep breath, then followed, stepping out into sunlight and down into her clogs.
Immediately her two attendants leaped to hold up enormous fans, obscuring her from view. Naturally people in the village had gathered to see her. The Chosen. The yoki-hijo. The girl of commanding primal spirits. (Not the most pithy of titles, but it works better in their language.)
This land—the kingdom of Torio—couldn’t have been more different from where Painter lived. Not one glowing line—cold or warm—streaked the sky. No apartment buildings. No pavement. Oh, but they had sunlight. A dominant red-orange sun, the color of baked clay. Bigger and closer than your sun, it had distinct spots of varied color on it—like a boiling breakfast stew, churning and undulating in the sky.
This scarlet sun painted the landscape . . . well, perfectly ordinary colors. That’s how the brain works. Once you’d been there a few hours, you wouldn’t notice the light was a shade redder. But when you first arrived, it would look striking. Like the scene of a bloody massacre everyone is too numb to acknowledge.
Hidden behind her fans, Yumi walked on her clogs through the village to the local cold spring. Once at the spring, her attendants slipped her out of her nightgown—a yoki-hijo did not dress or undress herself—and let her walk down into the slightly cool water, shivering at its shocking kiss. A short time later, Chaeyung and Hwanji followed with a floating plate holding crystalline soaps. They rubbed her once with the first, then she rinsed. Once with the second, then she rinsed. Twice with the third. Three times with the fourth. Five times with the fifth. Eight times with the sixth. Thirteen times with the seventh.
You might think that extreme. If so, have you perhaps never heard of religion?
Yumi’s particular flavor of devotion, fortunately, did have some practical accommodations. The later soaps were only such by the broadest definition—you would consider them perfumed creams, with a deliberately moisturizing component. (I find them especially nice on the feet, though I’ll probably need them for my whole body once I arrive in the Torish version of hell for abusing their ritual components for bunion relief.)
Yumi’s final rinse involved ducking beneath the water for a count of a hundred and forty-four. Underneath, her dark hair flowed around her, writhing in the current of her motion as if alive. The compulsory washing made her hair extremely clean—which was important, as her religious calling forbade her from ever cutting it, so it reached all the way to her waist.
Though it wasn’t required of the ritual, Yumi liked to gaze upward through the shimmering water and see if she could find the sun. Fire and water. Liquid and light.
She burst out of the water at the exact count of one forty-four and gasped. That was supposed to get easier. She was supposed to rise serenely, renewed and reborn. Instead she was forced to break decorum today by coughing a little.
(Yes, she saw coughing as “breaking decorum.” Don’t even ask how she regarded something truly onerous, like being late for a ritual.)
Ritual bathing done, it was time for the ritual dressing, also carried out by her attendants. The traditional sash under the bust, then the larger white wrap across the chest. Loose undergarment leggings. Then the tobok, in two layers of thick colorful cloth, with a wide bell skirt. Bright magenta, her ritual wear for that day of the week.
She slipped her clogs on again and somehow walked in them, natural and fluid. (I consider myself a reasonably adroit person, but Torish clogs—they call them getuk—feel like bricks tied to my feet. They aren’t necessarily hard to balance in—they’re only six inches tall—but they grant most outsiders the graceful poise of a drunk chull.)
With all of that, she was at last ready . . . for her next ritual. In this case, she needed to pray at the village shrine to seek the blessings of the spirits. So she again let her attendants block all view of her with their fans, then walked out and around to the village flower garden.
Here, vibrant blue blossoms—cuplike, to catch the rain—floated on thermals. They hovered around two feet in the air. In Torio, plants rarely dared touch the ground, lest the heat of the stone wither them away. Each flower was maybe two inches across, with wide leaves catching the thermals—like lilies with fine dangling roots that absorbed water from the air. Yumi’s passing caused them to swirl and bump against one another.
The shrine was a small structure, wood, mostly open at the sides but with a latticed dome. Remarkably, it also floated gracefully a few feet off the ground—this time by way of a single lifting spirit underneath that took the physical shape of two statues, each with grotesque features, facing one another. One vaguely male crouched on the ground; one vaguely female clung to the bottom of the building. Though divided once made physical, they were still part of the same spirit.
Yumi approached among the flowers, the soft thermals causing her skirt to ripple. Thick cloth didn’t rise enough to be embarrassing—merely enough to give shape and flare to the bell of her outfit. She removed her clogs once more as she reached the shrine, stepping up onto the cool wood. It barely wobbled, held firm by the strength of the spirit.
She knelt, then began the first of the thirteen ritual prayers. Now, if you think my description of her preparations took a while, that’s intentional. It might help you understand—in the slightest way—Yumi’s life. Because this wasn’t a special day, in terms of her duties. This was typical. Ritual eating. Ritual bathing. Ritual dressing. Ritual prayers. And more. Yumi was one of the Chosen, picked at birth, granted the ability to influence the hijo, the spirits. It was an enormous honor among her people. And they never let her forget it.
The prayers and following meditations took around an hour. When she finished, she looked up toward the sun, slots in the shrine’s wooden canopy decorating her in alternating lines of light and shadow. She felt . . . lucky. Yes, she was certain that was the proper emotion. She was blessed to hold this station, one of the very fortunate few.
The world the spirits provided was wonderful. The sun of vivid red-orange shining through brilliant clouds of yellow, scarlet, violet. A field of hovering flowers, trembling as tiny lizards leaped from one to another. The stone underneath, warm and vibrant, the source of all life, heat, and growth.
She was a part of this. A vital one.
Surely this was wonderful.
Surely this was all that she should ever need.
Surely she couldn’t want more. Even if . . . even if today was lucky. Even if . . . perhaps, for once, she could ask?
The festival, she thought. I could visit, wearing the clothing of an ordinary person. One day to be normal.
Rustling cloth and the sound of wooden shoes on stone caused Yumi to turn. Only one person would dare approach her during meditation: Liyun, a tall woman in a severe black tobok with a white bow. Liyun, her kihomaban—a word that meant something between a guardian and a sponsor. We’ll use the term “warden” for simplicity.
Liyun halted a few steps from the shrine, hands behind her back. Ostensibly she waited upon Yumi’s pleasure, a servant to the girl of commanding primal spirits. (Trust me, the term grows on you.) Yet there was a certain demanding air even to the way Liyun stood.
Perhaps it was the fashionable shoes: clogs with thick wood beneath her toes, but sleek heels behind. Perhaps it was the way she wore her hair: cut short in the rear, longer in the front—evoking the shape of a blade at each side of her head. This wasn’t a woman whose time you could waste, somehow including when she wasn’t waiting for you.
Yumi quickly rose. “Is it time, Warden-nimi?” she said, with enormous respect.
Yumi’s and Painter’s languages shared a common root, and in both there was a certain affectation I find hard to express in your tongue. They could conjugate sentences, or add modifiers to words, to indicate praise or derision. Interestingly, no curses or swears existed among them. They would simply change a word to its lowest form instead. I’ll do my best to indicate this nuance by adding the words “highly” or “lowly” in certain key locations.
“The time has not quite arrived, Chosen,” Liyun said. “We should wait for the steamwell’s eruption.”
Of course. The air was renewed then; better to wait if it was near. But that meant they had time. A few precious moments with no scheduled work or ceremony.
“Warden-nimi,” Yumi said (highly), gathering her courage. “The Festival of Reveals. It is near.”
“A hundred days, yes.”
“And it is a thirteenth year,” Yumi said. “The hijo will be unusually active. We will not . . . petition them that day, I assume?”
“I suppose we won’t, Chosen,” Liyun said, checking the little calendar—in the form of a small book—that she kept in her pouch. She flipped a few pages.
“We’ll be . . . near Torio City? We’ve been traveling in the region.”
“And . . . I . . .” Yumi bit her lip.
“Ah . . .” Liyun said. “You would like to spend the festival day in prayer of thanks to the spirits for granting you such an elevated station.”
Just say it, a part of her whispered. Just say no. That’s not what you want. Tell her.
Liyun snapped her book closed, watching Yumi. “Surely,” she said, “that is what you want. You wouldn’t actively desire to do something that would embarrass your station. To imply you regret your place. Would you, Chosen?”
“Never,” Yumi whispered.
“You were honored, of all the children born that year,” Liyun said, “to be given this calling, these powers. One of only fourteen currently living.”
“You are special.”
She would have preferred to be less special—but she felt guilty the moment she thought it.
“I understand,” Yumi said, steeling herself. “Let us not wait for the steamwell. Please, lead me to the place of ritual. I am eager to begin my duties and call the spirits.”