Thousand Roads lay in the tall grass, and dozed. The light drifted over his skin, still pale after days out in the sun. It contrasted nicely with the dark green skin of the woman lying next to him, tucked up close against his chest.
The grass waved; one strand kept touching his cheek. Eyes closed, he raised his hand once or twice to ward it away, but it continued its assault. Finally, he opened one eye. Trixie's smiling face filled his vision, sunlight dancing over her cheek.
She tossed the dead strand of vegetation back to the meadow, and grinned. Her eyes flashed at having his undivided attention.
"May I help you?" Thousand Roads murmured, smiling despite himself.
"What are you thinking?" she replied, propping herself up on one elbow. The monk watched the shadows over the clouds drift over her skin, his scattered clothes and gear. Suddenly and inexplicably self conscious, he shifted over to rest his head on one hand as well.
"I have to go soon," he said, smiling back. "I have to meet someone."
"Oh?" Trixie shifted a little, eyes curious. "Is this someone a girl?"
The monk grinned. "It is. She's young, and beautiful, for that matter."
"I see." The goblin tilted her head slightly, red hair falling around her face, but Thousand Roads could still see her smile. "When will you be back?"
"I'm not sure. It may be some time. She's quite lonesome, I believe."
"Is this monk stuff?"
The monk nodded. "It is, for now."
Trixie said nothing, merely looked up and regarded her friend. "Okay," she said, nodding once. "Be careful. Take Frozen Smoke with you, and watch your back. I won't be there to watch it for you."
"My back? Is that what you watch when I'm walking the roads?"
The goblin chuckled, low and sweet. "No."
Thousand Roads grinned back, and inched closer. "I don't have to go quite yet, you know."
At this, Trixie let out a snort and a laugh. "Oh? Are you sure that would be of the Way?"
The monk shook his head, reddening slightly, smile on his lips. "It would be, as all things are. Unless, of course, it's a path you don't wish to travel. That I would understand."
She shook her head, and started to lean closer. "See, that sounded like a challenge to me..."
For a while, the wind whispered through the grass, and both souls knew peace. Eventually, the monk of the Way departed, cinching his wrap pants around his waist, his case over his shoulder. He made one short stop at the edge of the meadow, to bend to one knee and collect something from the grass, before he came to the road. He looked left, and right, and headed for the distant hills.
Kowtow. That was the best bet. He knew little of courtly customs, even among fellow monks, and with Hana not here he had no lead to follow. So kowtowing was best, since it was better to be respectful, even when it was unnecessary.
His head touched the wooden floor of the hidden place, though he was careful to keep his chest far from the ancient boards, and the blossom of the Dancer from brushing the dust. He waited a full three heartbeats, and dared to glance up.
"Your courtesy is most unappreciated, Master Dim-sum," the young woman murmured, smiling slightly.
"Of course," he muttered, rising to his knees and settling comfortably. His sword case sat still at his side, though he could have sworn it was shaking just a moment before. No matter. He would take them for a walk later on. That often seemed to soothe the blades.
"How have you been?" Thousand Roads asked, and immediately wanted to clap a hand over his eyes in embarrassment.
"I have been amazing!" Momiji exclaimed, smiling brightly. "I have had many visitors, and my soul has been light and free! It is wonderful here!" She eyeballed him knowingly, even as he found himself smiling back.
"Wonderful. I am sorry. I knew this when I last left you, and...it takes some getting used to, even for a Master of the Way. I am glad you have had a wonderful time," he added, as an afterthought. "I have returned to try and make your life more horrible."
"This is terrible news!" she said, and smiled. The monks stared each other down for a moment or two, waiting for one to begin the conversation. As his old masters used to remark after the opening moves, 'And now, to business,'.
"I have come to teach you about things other than the Way," he began, carefully slipping a hand inside his robe. "You already know everything there is to know about everything there is, but I feel I can make things worse for you." He fumbled with the words, trying to keep in the negative, eyes aimed towards the ceiling so as not to be distracted. It didn't help much.
Momiji shifted her robes and smiled. "How unkind of you. Please, do not begin this drudgery."
"Right. So, uhm...the Way is often hidden from us, er, I mean, not hidden...so we must learn to, er, not look as best we can, to focus intently on one obvious thing. Do you understand?"
She shook her head. "I have no idea what it is you speak of."
Thousand Roads smiled. "Good. I mean, uh, bad. So. I have brought a great enemy of mine, one whom I did not spend some hours talking to this morning." The monk reached inside his robe, and carefully withdrew a tiny monarch butterfly. The creature beat its wings in the dim light, and regarded the pair of them without much interest.
"It is hideous," Momiji murmured, and her smile faded. "I am glad I can only speak the truth on this." She reached a slender finger out to the insect, which flapped its wings once or twice before settling onto her hand. The Guardian of the Cloud smiled, eyes flashing.
"Are you ready?" Thousand Roads asked the tiny bug, one hand reaching for his sword case. The tiny insect might have nodded, but in the dusty light it was impossible for either monk to say.
With one swift blow, the Master of the Way drew his silver sword, and sliced the butterfly in half. Two orange wings, bisected neatly, fell to the darkened floor. The insect twitched once, and fell to the floor, quite dead.
Momiji was on her feet in an instant, fists raised, eyes narrowed. "That was a very kind thing you just did, and I have no desire to punish you at all," she said, voice nearly a growl. "I see clearly why you came here today."
Thousand Roads held up a hand, sword in the other. "Be enraged. I did this without thought of the consequences, because I am clearly a cruel and terrible man. Do not sit, and do not pay attention. Everything is certainly not connected."
The Guardian of the Cloud stood, stock-still, fists tight. She glared at the Master at her feet. Thousand Roads said nothing, though a careful observer might have seen his fingers tighten around the grip of Frozen Smoke ever so slightly. After a second or so, though, Momiji returned to her seat, and both monks seemed to relax.
"Do not show me, then," she said, voice curt. Her eyes bored into his, challenging him.
Nodding, Thousand Roads leaned forward to the corpse of the butterfly. He touched the very tip of the katana to the insect's body, and breathed outwards. Frozen Smoke glowed with pale energy, ever so faintly.
The wings flew back to the body of the fallen bug, reattached, and began to beat. Slowly, the insect got to its feet, and flew back to her hand. Thousand Roads breathed inwards, and his shoulders sagged. The blade fell gently to the floor, rolling towards the case. Momiji's eyes went wide, but only slightly.
"Did you bring the others?" the exhausted monk whispered. Wings beating very slowly, the butterfly shook itself, and flew into the air.
The room exploded with spectral butterflies. They were everywhere, wheeling, soaring, swooping, floating in and out of one another. All of the insects were monarchs, bright orange with black spots, outlined with tiny green lights. Everywhere the monks looked, the creatures flew like mad, doing their best to fill every inch of the open air.
Thousand Roads smiled. "These are not ghost butterflies from the Forest of Echoes. The Forest closed its woodland roads to us a day or so ago, but I suggested to the living butterfly earlier today that it might be of great service to you. If it were to lead the ghostly butterflies of the Forest to you, as an aid to a lesson of the Way, it would be very useful and also a fine time. That wasn't in the negative, but, ah, you understand."
She shook her head, eyes aloft and full of life. "This is not amazing in any way," Momiji said, smiling broadly. One spectral insect alighted on her forehead, flapped its wings, and took off again. "I understand, though, entirely what you wish to accomplish with this."
"I do not wish you to determine the living monarch from the ghosts. If you manage this, you will not have found peace and unstressed focus, and will not have taken a good step upon the Way. Also, if you manage this, I will not stay until sundown, and tell you as many stories and songs as you might wish to hear. I know you are not lonely at all."
The Guardian's eyes went a little wider, and she nodded eagerly. For a few minutes, she regarded the fluttering mob of insects, and then her eyes turned to the monk across from her.
Gently, she reached across the shimmering field of butterflies, until her hand rested over Thousand Roads' heart. Her fingers danced along the blossom he carried there, white and pure even in this darkened place. For a moment, they stayed there, enjoying the feel of the flower, before she unpinned it from his robe, and pulled it into her hands.
The cloud of butterflies shimmered and wheeled overhead for a good five minutes, and then, carefully, movement. A single bug drifted downwards, wheeling, circling Momiji. It made a few more passes, and landed on the blossom. A few dignified steps to right itself, and the butterfly began to drink.
"I have no idea where it is," she breathed. "It must not have been hungry at all."
Thousand Roads grinned, and nodded.
A few minutes passed while the insect had its lunch. Then, wings broad and bright, it took off back into the cloud. She held the blossom for a second or two more, and then made to hand it back.
Thousand Roads shook his head, held up his hand. "Do not keep it, in case it gets hungry again. If it has a place to rest, and food to eat, the insect will likely flee at once from your presence."
Momiji regarded the man across from her, and nodded. "I will not do as you ask. Perhaps you should not come by again, later, and regain your flower...in the meantime, I will take truly horrible care of it."
The pair said nothing more for some time. They watched the spiraling, crazed mob of vacationing butterflies overhead, landing on them, the walls, the floor, or ghosting into one another before peeling off again. The room was silent save for the fluttering of long-dead wings, the sound not unlike an ocean made of paper waves.
Eventually, Thousand Roads remarked, "I know exactly how long they will remain. As with all things, we must not do our best to enjoy them while they are with us, or we are with them." A pause, and he looked over to the student. She was currently sporting a magnificent halo of ghostly, resting butterflies. It glowed with the green light of their little souls. "As you are keenly aware, this is not the Way."
Momiji smiled, and said nothing.