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Delicate morning sunlight leaked through the windows carved into the stone. The walls of the circular room were soft and curved with light. An active breeze gently churned the air. In the center of the room, Wake lay on his side, fast asleep on a low-lying mattress. A healthy dribble of drool hung like sap from his open mouth. Every now and then, he snored and shifted his body, only to stretch, reposition, and fall back asleep. Hunter perched on the windowsill, contently basking in the sun.
Grace leaned against the wall at the far end of the room. She wore a silk sash that draped over her shoulders and an orange robe that made her feel light as a feather and. Earlier that morning, she had taken a long bath. The hot water had seeped into her aching joints and washed away the stress built up from weeks of survival at sea. Gradually, the steam had filtered into her breathing and caused her to doze off. When she finally mustered up the mental will-power to get out of the water, her fingers and toes had long shriveled into sea-prunes. She had taken the liberty to comb out the knots in her long, white hair that now shimmered and floated in the breeze. Her eyes were soft in the silence.
"Do not worry. He will be fine."
Monk Sidd stood in the doorway.
"May I come in?" he asked quietly.
"Sure," said Grace, never taking her eyes off Wake.
"Just don't wake him up. He needs his rest."
Wake snored audibly and mumbled something in his sleep. Hunter turned his head towards Wake, pondered for a moment, and then went back to scratching through his plumage with his beak.
"It does not seem like he will be waking up anytime soon," said Sidd with a grin.
Grace didn't respond. Instead, she continued to lean against the wall with her arms crossed. The monk didn't mind.
He spoke softly to Grace.
"You have not slept since you arrived late last night. Someone as young as you needs rest."
"I'm not tired."
The dark wrinkles beneath her eyes told otherwise.
"It is crucial that one takes care of both the body and the mind. Give your mind time to rest. Let your wandering thoughts settle."
"I will watch over your friend."
Grace looked away from Wake and turned to the monk. His eyes were tender and understanding. She immediately felt calm. Something about the monk's presence made her feel inexplicably young and mature at the same time. While he was years older, somehow he spoke to her as an equal, his words carrying a simple, ageless wisdom.
"I'll be back later," said Grace.
"Of course," said Sidd. "Take your time."
She exited the room.
The stone walls of the temple held within them a reverent type of silence, one which Grace felt guilty to disturb. For that reason, she walked quietly past the open dormitories. Back on the Island, her home had been the nicest out of the entire village. After all, she had solid wood floors, multiple rooms, and even furniture. Sliding her hands across the smooth stone, she found it hard to believe such a place existed. Precise craftsmanship was put into each and every tile of each and every hallway. The stones themselves were hand-selected and refined.
Sounds echoed and reverberated through the tunnel-like corridors. Voices melted and harmonized all around her. For a moment, she stopped and listened. The voices ebbed and flowed like the ocean, not the chaotic ocean she was so familiar with but the ocean on a calm, cloudless day. When she listened hard enough, she could pick out specific voices, but eventually they always hummed back into the sea from which they came.
In the back of her mind, she felt like Wake, entranced by the sound of unknown voices. She followed her ears to the source.
Her searching brought her through the hallways, down a spiral stairway, and out to a large open space. She could tell by the massive pillars that supported the high-arched ceiling that she was at the bottom floor of the temple. Mosaics of people, men and women, adorned the walls and ceilings. The people were of many different shapes and sizes. Some sat cross-legged on clouds, others in the center of radiating flower buds.
Grace gazed wide-eyed at the walls and ceilings. Each person was completely different and unique. Some wore jewels, others completely naked. Some surrounded themselves with fire, others with water. Some wore golden braces on their arms, and others wore golden earrings. Some were young, others ancient.
And there were colors.
There were colors Grace had never even imagined, colors she thought were impossible to create even in nature, much less by the hands of man. She felt blind, as if for so long she'd failed to see the world in all of its vibrancy. Her pallet of sight had been so narrow. Vivid, intricate colors curved and winded through the mosaic, connecting all of the people etched in time.
Out of all the things that were different, out of all the variations of colors, one thing remained the same. Each person, male or female, young or old, wore the same expression. Their smiles held an indescribable knowing, an awareness of both the world and themselves. The smiles radiated inner and outer contentment, a realization that they are part of a dynamic world that continues to flow for eternity.
No matter how long she stared, Grace could not understand how they smiled in such a way. When she tried to replicate it, she always felt a bit off, as if her smile was either forced or unnatural.
She continued her walk.
Rows and rows of monks in orange robes sat lotus style on the floor. It was their voices that had resounded throughout the corridors. It was their voices that had lead Grace to the mosaic. Hundreds hummed in unison, their eyes closed shut, their palms facing upward and outward. At the periphery of the room, Grace felt like an outcast, a piece of driftwood in the sea that was their collective voice. The colors, the synchronization, the balance was so perfect: everything was balanced except for her being there. As to not upset their perfect balance, the newcomer left the meditation pavilion and walked out into the light.
She craned her neck up at the tower. Her eyes traveled from where the spiral staircase would be to where the window ledge where Hunter still sat, basking in the sun.
She whistled to get his attention.
In his avian way, he cocked his head directly to the source of the whistle. When he saw Grace, he effortlessly glided down from the perch to meet her. Though he was large, he was also light. Grace let him perch on her shoulder.
She ran a hand through his head feathers.
"I wish I were an osprey-dove like you," she said. "That way, I could see the entire temple with one flap of my wings and a little gust of wind."
Grace thought back to when they flew in the night before. She had clung to the sky bison's fur like a barnacle on a boat, holding on for dear life, but she had forgotten momentarily the balance of life and death when the temple loomed into view on the side of the mountain. The enormous, towering spires rose through the clouds and scratched at the dark night sky.
In all her life, she never thought she'd see a city built in the sky. The reality of where she was had not yet settled; often, she took moments to make sure her physical surroundings were, in fact, real. And now that she had time to explore the breath-taking city, she had no idea where to begin.
Grace walked along the stone paths beside the towers of the temple. With Hunter on her shoulder, she passed giant statues of people she did not know. There were no names or inscriptions. Their eyes were closed, and they stood peacefully. Grace reckoned that they were very wise. In the quiet of her mind, she paid them her respects; and, in a way, she felt lighter, as if some kind of weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
The statues carried with them an eternal silence. Grace stood amidst the tranquility for some time. Her facial features relaxed, and her thoughts were simple. After some time, Hunter flew off, but she remained in the presence of her motionless company. They were arranged in a circle, and she stood in the center. Grace didn't say anything, but she felt they had reached a wordless understanding.
As quietly as she arrived, she left.
She arrived at a bridge connecting the mountains. When she reached the middle of the bridge, she looked over the stone ledge. Her stomach dropped like a rock and her jaw went slack. The cliffs opened up into a dangerously steep free fall. A dense, white fog masked the bottom of the chasm. Meanwhile, forceful gusts of wind rushed over the bridge, whipped through her hair, and streamed like waves over her orange robes. Then, without stopping, she crossed the rest of the bridge.
On the other side, she stumbled into a lively world. Women in identical orange robes carried everything from ceramic pots to small children in and out of multiple doorways that led into the tower. Aromas wafted through the open windows, and she could hear something delicious sizzling from the inside. Everybody seemed to be moving as part of an elaborate, efficient system. The women walked with direct purpose; nobody stood still.
Grace stood puzzled in the middle of the complicated enigma that was midday at the Eastern Temple. She turned around, looked this way and that, and tried to find her bearings, but she became hopelessly lost in the sea of orange robes. Each time she tried to take a step, she somehow got in somebody's way. She didn't want to bump anybody either because more often than not they were carrying some type of load.
As sisters passed the confused newcomer, they smiled warmly. Word had spread that travelers had arrived in the night. It was not often that the Eastern Temple welcomed guests, but when it did, it was customary that the guests receive great hospitality. To house a stranger is one of life's greatest gifts.
When she finally weaved her way through the maze of orange robes, Grace found herself on a path that separated the temple from the forest. The leaves rusted over in a blaze of crimson and brown. The wind raced between the trunks of the trees and left a trail of leaves in its wake. These fluttering leaves floated through the air and into the clear, cloudless sky. The autumn air was crisp and sweet.
Grace felt a light tug at the sleeve of her robes. She looked down to see a little girl staring up at her with wide, brown eyes. Behind the little girl stood a group of eight to ten children watching intently.
"We were wondering if you wanted to play hide-and-seek with us," said the little girl, blushing.
Grace smiled warmly and knelt on one knee. She spoke to the little girl eye-to-eye.
"I would love to play, but I think you would find me too easily. If I was a bit smaller then it would be more fair."
"Oh, okay," said the little girl, slightly disappointed. "If you see Sikhi, can you tell us where he is? We've been trying to find him all morning."
"Of course I will," said Grace as she patted the little girl gently on the head. "If I see him, I promise I'll come to you as fast I can so you can get him."
With a hop in her step, the little girl turned and ran back to her friends. For such a little girl, her hair was long, and it jumped up and down with each of her prancing steps. In the back of her mind, Grace imagined herself running along the trails while in the woods with her father. She couldn't have been so different from the little girl she now watched. The group of children huddled together, whispered in scheming voices, and ran off in the opposite direction.
Grace smiled. She had always loved kids. She understood them because they never had anything to hide. When they tried to lie, their naïve eyes always reflected the truth. Her childhood had been full of happiness, discovery, and love. There was a time when her worst fear was that her parents would catch her climbing trees outside.
She remembered fondly the nights when she would follow her mother through the tunnel of rice stalks to the starry clearing. She remembered how each new sword lesson had enchanted and wrapped her mind in knots. She remembered how she would lie awake in bed until her mind couldn't retrace its steps any longer, only to wake up to sunlight filtering through her open window the next morning.
The world had seemed so new and exhilarating then. Now she saw the world for what it was. She could wish with all her might, but she would never be a child ever again.
"Sorry about last night."
Grace whirled around in surprise to see that no one was there.
She looked up into the treetops. Sikhi stood in the branches and leaned against the trunk of a tree. The leaves concealed him perfectly like camouflage. Nimbly, be swung down from the branch and landed softly on the forest floor.
"It was never my intention to hurt you," he said. "After all, I have no idea what you've been through."
He rubbed the back of his neck.
"I guess what I want to say is that I wish you'd give me a second chance to introduce myself because we definitely got off on the wrong foot."
He held out his hand. "I'm Sikhi, and I'm an idiot."
Grace couldn't hold back her grin. She shook his hand.
"I'm Grace, and yes you are."
She glanced back at the treetops.
"How did you manage to get up there anyways?"
"Over many years of playing hide-and-seek, I have cultivated a particular talent for climbing trees," he explained proudly. "I have yet to be found."
"Congratulations," said Grace, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "By the looks of it, you have quite the competition. That little girl seemed like a master of seeking."
He ignored her tone, and yawned. "I've been getting a bit bored of hide-and-seek nowadays."
"Why, because it's too easy for an incredible tree climber such as yourself?"
"Yeah pretty much," he replied. "But I've also been thinking a lot lately, about the world and stuff."
"Ever since the sky bison flew in, I began realizing there's a whole world out there that I've never even heard of. I've been living at this temple for my entire life. I've had the same friends my entire life."
Inside, Grace shivered at his words; they reminded her so much of her own past life.
He continued. "And then I met Hava. It was so unexpected. I was just walking at night, minding my own business and then he literally attacked me from the forest."
"Sort of like what you tried to do last night," he added.
Grace rolled her eyes. "What are you trying to say?"
"I guess I just want you to know that I'm not some dumb kid. I may have come across that way initially, but it's just not true."
He thought back to the look in Grace's eyes when she had lashed out at him. He couldn't forget the intense severity in a face so young. It was like nothing he had ever seen before. While he had been partially terrified, he also wondered what had happened to make her that way.
"I've never met somebody like you," said Sikhi. "Not because you're from another place but because you carry yourself differently."
Grace raised an eyebrow. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"You're unique, and I'd like to get to know you better," he said. "I think we can be friends."
Grace sighed and peered out into the clear blue sky. The air was still and quiet. It truly was a beautiful place.
Her expression was sincere.
"You don't want to know about me."
The excitement faded from Sikhi's eyes. Crestfallen, he looked down at the stone path.
Grace laid a firm hand on his shoulder.
"You saved our lives," she said in a firm voice. "I can already tell you are brave, caring, and wise beyond your years."
"You don't trust me," he said bluntly.
She looked into the boy's eyes.
"I do trust you. If I didn't, then I wouldn't have climbed on back of your flying bison and flown through the clouds in the dead of night," she said. "But this is not a matter of trust. What happened to Wake and me is separate from your life."
"Just look around you," she said as she pointed to the towers and balconies of the temple.
"You come from an amazing place, a place that I still have trouble convincing myself is real. I will never be able to understand the intricacies of your life, what you've been through. We come from two different worlds. We are separate."
An air of silence passed between the two. Sikhi examined the girl and thought about what she had said. More than anything else, he felt sad.
"Grace," he said, "I've only just met you, and I can tell you are intelligent and that you understand the world, but you're wrong. We live in the same world."
"A wise monk once told me that if you listen hard enough, you can hear every living thing breathing together. The rain that falls from the sky melts into the ground only to rise through the roots of the trees. The fruit from the tree nourishes us and gives us strength. Everything is connected."
He turned to the forest and the trees.
"We are all branches of the same tree; to say otherwise is a lie."
Grace was silenced.
"I am here to listen," he said. "I promise I will listen with all my might so that I may understand where you come from and who you are."
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