"So, you have questions." The elderly woman with olive skin and liver spots on her face handed her guest a cup of tea. Her nearly white hair was pulled up into a bun on the back of her head, and she was wearing an old local form of dress rather than the blacks that modern Tang-jians commonly wore. The tea cups were in the Tang-jian style, tall and straight without handles, and they, together with the teapot, were decorated in a pink on white design of flower blossoms and snowflakes. She and her guest sat at a round table, slightly lower than her guest was used to, and their chairs had wide seats, backs, and no arms.
The guest was a young man who was not Tang-jian. He had white skin, brown hair, and he was still, unfortunately, pimply. His clothes were cheap and generic northern clothes, bought off the rack or even second hand. "Yes." His Tang-jian was poor, his accent atrocious, but he was trying. "What are the differences between-. No, how do spirits differ from humans? Why might they choose to," he looked at a piece of paper and carefully pronounced what was written there, "incarnate?"
"Drink a little tea," the old woman told him, "and then tell me why you want to know."
He sipped his tea, and then drank some more with enjoyment. "I'm a folklore student, and -."
"The truth, thank you," she interrupted him briskly.
"I've been having dreams," he confessed. "I didn't just come here. I've been dreaming about Xuxinzhu since I was a child. The Lotus Pavilion and the tea house on the Old Road are places I feel like I've been to, I've dreamed about them so much. And then there's the girl...." His voice trailed off then he added, "She says that she's my sister and that she's coming to find me."
"Do you have a name in your dreams?" The old woman sipped her own tea.
"Dan. Sometimes Dan Ling." He shrugged. "My name is Guy Simpson."
"Interesting, Gai Si. I remember Dan Ling. He used to live here, and the teahouse on the Old Road burned down fifteen years ago." She smiled. "As for why spirits incarnate, there can be a number of reasons. Being a spirit can be a very narrow thing. You live in a particular place. Time passes and you are aware of that, but a spirit is always in the moment. Minor spirits, in particular, pass through the world in a tunnel of now, even though they may participate in seasonal festivals and undertake various tasks and activities. Humans, on the other hand, have minds that flip forward and back between events past, present, and expected, barely staying in one timeframe long enough to know what's happening. They can train themselves out of it, but it takes practice and it's not a thing that becomes automatic to them."
She poured out some more tea for both of them. "Well, it wouldn't of course. Too much in the moment and you can't learn from the past or plan for the future. Minor spirits don't need to. Humans do."
"But why incarnate?" He said the word more confidently this time.
"Because the spirit wants more from their existence? To be more? Some fall in love." She smiled. "Some are even asked to by higher powers."
"Higher powers?" Guy drank some more tea.
"The Celestial Court and their equals. Beings to whom the world is the moment with humanity moving across its face, each soul leaving a personal trail behind it, and the minor spirits are landmarks and sign posts." She smiled and added, "It is their duty to...curate the world, you know."
"These are not things people in my homelands -. No, people in my home culture do not talk about these things. We don't believe in spirits, or reincarnation, or sorcery you see." He smiled sadly. "It can make things deadly awkward or awkwardly deadly if you get found out."
"Found out as what, precisely?"
"A reincarnation." He sipped his tea. "It's considered a mental illness where I come from, believing that you are one. Did you know that the southern hemisphere members of the International Psychiatry Association had to vote as a bloc to stop it getting into the diagnostic manual for the next decade? If that had gone through, then nowhere would have been safe. The southern nations had to threaten schism of the Association to keep it out, even then. Some of the northern nations' representatives on the Association's Committee were heavily invested in the change getting in."
"Dan Ling was not so interested in the background to what happened to him in his homeland," observed the old woman gently.
"Daniel Ellings lived in a different time," remarked the young man, "and as you remember him, I am beginning to remember you, ma'am. You look much the same now as you did then. I take it, ma'am, that you speak of minor spirits and humanity in the third person for a reason?"
She put down her tea cup and laughed. "Oh, my. You are good. What are you going to do if I confirm your suspicions, young man?"
"Thank you for your gracious hospitality and good advice to both myself and my previous incarnation and stop at the temple in town to make suitable offerings." He bowed in place, clumsily as if his body was untrained in a gesture he was familiar with. "If it helps, between Daniel and Guy, I was Brian. Brian died when he was ten - I'd slipped up in referring to something that had happened before I was born and there was a psychiatric intervention." His Tang-jian, if not his accent, was improving. "They managed to overdose him when they put him into an induced coma for the fashionable treatment of the time - deep sleep therapy. He deserved more, better. And I don't say that because I was him."
"So why ask about spirits?" She picked up her cup again and drank some more tea.
"Before I was Daniel, Laurence before him, Bede, David, Richard or Benedict, I was something else. Someone very different. I lived among trees with other beings like me, and I might have had a sister...." He sighed. "I have been dreaming about her, even before I left home to come on this trip. Sitting here with you is helping these memories. Thank you."
"Not at all." She gestured dismissively at her own contribution to events. "You realise that if you stay here, then your sister who is still a spirit can't get to you? Land-based spirits don't do well travelling over oceans and most minor spirits don't travel at all. When they do it tends to result in their elevation into the hierarchy of the Celestial Court."
"She has sharp teeth," he replied quietly, "and I don't think she approves of me being human."
"You can't go back to what you were," said the old woman calmly. "You could, of course, be elevated into the hierarchy of the Celestial Court and that would allow the two of you to be reunited, if she were also elevated. Mind you, the Solar Emperor demonstrates that one can be both human and a member of the Celestial Court's hierarchy."
"This person does not claim to be suitable to be mentioned in the same sentence as the Solar Emperor." He ducked his head awkwardly in an embarrassed fashion. "You know, I know he keeps being born in the same swathe of territory, and I keep being reborn in the same general area, which is why I could tell you about the changes in Yawlsmouth Psychiatric Hospital over the last five generations in intimate detail. Why is that so?"
The old woman smiled slowly. "Now that is an intelligent question." She sipped her tea. "Every object that has gi has an ambit. Your ambit is, depending on how you look at it, the surface between the object's gi and the background energy of the universe, or the outer limit of the object's gi."
Gai questioned, "Object?"
"An object in this case can be a person, a planet, an animal or plant, a made thing or artefact, or even a collective awareness of self. By the way, be very wary of anyone or anything you might meet that has no gi. The thing with ambits though is that gi artefacts, which are the things that most people call spells, or other ambits can become tied to them. Every ambit is capable of multiple connections. If, as a human, your ambit connects to the planet's ambit, then you become someone who reincarnates. Because of the way that connection works, you will reincarnate in the same area every time. The Solar Emperor's reincarnation, for instance is always conceived within the track of a particular solar eclipse. The Cornflower Empress appears to be linked to the totality track of the eastern Fire Ox lunar eclipse from a few years ago."
"Wait, the Cornflower Empress has been found?" He put his cup down. "That's...enormous news. I really am a folklore student and that's on my professor's radar. He wants me to do the footwork here for a paper on the development of belief in her coming."
"She has been born. She walks the world, and gossip tells me that she has been told who she is, just short of saying, 'You are the Cornflower Empress!' Apparently, her reaction is to continue to conduct her life as she would if she wasn't someone of importance. As she is still under twenty and Tang-ji is not what it once was, I am among those who consider this to be wise of her." The old woman smiled. "I understand that others find it amusing."
"I think that perhaps I will not pursue that line of research too deeply," Guy conceded. "Of course, I'm not sure that I will be returning home. I may, quietly, claim asylum from persecution for my personal beliefs about myself while I am here."
"I thought you said that Brian's death was accidental?" The old woman looked at him quizzically.
"Brian's death was, but the issues with the way he was treated remain endemic. Daniel fled here to escape a threat of frontal lobotomy," Guy told her. "I don't want to know how they carry out the procedure these days, but back then it involved sticking an ice pick into your brain through the inner corner of the eye and stirring."
She looked at him for a moment then said quietly, "Dan Ling never told me that, and we had many long conversations. If you have a notebook and something to write with, then I can give you some names and contact details. They're all people who can help you stay here legally, if you decide that you want to stay." She laughed in an odd, dry way and added, "Staying here legally is the route that I recommend - it actually gives you protections against being seized by your countrymen and dragged out of the country."
"Thank you, I will take them. May I also know to whom I should address my thanks at the temple?" He sat down his teacup and pulled out a notebook and pen.
“Certainly.” She smiled and added, “So, Gai Si, have you ever considered joining the priesthood?”
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