Maeda made a strange sight. Robed in rough-spun ochre, she wore a conical hat of beaten copper, a symbol of her order and her rank as aspirant pilgrim. And she rode an elephantling, white as cream and garmented in beads and fool’s jewels. Despite the silliness of her and her mount’s tableau, there was a seriousness about them, a palpable dignity of purpose perceived by the merchants, messengers, and porters she passed on the snaking Seven Brothers Road. Though they could not say why, such rudelings often bowed as she and her elephantling passed unspeaking.
Indeed, Maeda’s purpose was of the highest importance. The Walk of Contemplation was one of her order’s oldest and most sacred rites. It began at the Single Bell shrine in the saltmarsh by the fishing village of Paral, and it wound a mazy, snaky way through the wheatful plains of Dornask, the forested hills of Pel, and, finally, the snow-capped peaks of Non upward to the peak shrine of Deepest Knowledge.
Maeda had spent seven years preparing for her journey, meditating, fasting, studying the sacred scriptures, gentling her elephantling, reciting the mantra, training the forms that bridged mind, breath, and body. Her dedication proven, she had earned her right to the Walk of Contemplation, and had taken it so long ago, one year and a day ago, in fact, when her guru, Sri Vandar, plaited her hair and pulled it through the copper cone as he placed it on her head.
Her elephantling trumpeted as they came to the snowy shrine. All around flakes fell silently and the white sky whirled with rock and snow. Ahead was a rustic circle of icy stones, the shrinekeeper—a gray-haired wiseling woman robed in white—and an unoccupied mat of woven reed fibers, soft for a tired aspirant’s tread. But there was no fire. For the shrinekeeper, and Maeda, exuded their own heat to themselves, and some light now. Where they walked, the snow eased into water. When Maeda dismounted, removed her conehat and sandals, and took her place on the mat—legs crossed, high backed, mudra fingers—the mist rose with a strange melting. By and by, the shrinekeeper greeted Maeda silently with a nod, and touched her face, and slowly unplaited her long hair, and removed her garments. Disrobed, arrived, and calm, Maeda exhaled and closed her eyes, just as the misty small gods began to arrive with their sparkling gifts.
— Jason Ray Carney