Summer: 17 years at the Monastery, one month after the duel
Sunar lay in the meadow at the top of the temple. He had wrapped his wings around himself and Meesha so that they could enjoy the cool summer winds on the heights, stare at the stars, and have some time to themselves.
At length she spoke with a soft, playful voice. “So, my brave warrior, do those stars seem different now that you have walked among them?”
He kissed her cheek and pondered for a while before he replied. “They feel warmer, more alive. Knowing that so many of those stars have life around them is different from being out there, seeing it, touching it, staring up at different moons. I always thought of those stars as cold, distant things, but now my mind imagines the lines of travel and information that flows between them.
“It is like that meditation we do where we sit atop the Gazeebo and reach out to feel the connections between the valley, the mountain, the plains, and all of the life within them. There is so much out there, so many people, so much life.
“Now that I have felt another of those worlds, and felt how it is and isn’t different from ours, it is easier for me to imagine more. Now that I have sat in the black of space and felt the void, and felt what the pulsing of life feels like against that backdrop, it is easier for me to imagine the dots of ships: massive little pockets of life flitting in and out of existence across the void between stars.
“The great web of life that we come up here to meditate on? We have always thought about it in terms of this world, but it extends so much farther. Now, when I meditate on the Web of Life, I look up, much as I do down, and I gain new understanding of why Master Getnor makes it a point to teach that meditation at night.”
Meesha shifted to put her cheek against his chest and stare at the stars. He heard her breathing slow as she went into a light trance. “With your description I think I can understand it, at least some. Yes, there! I have seen faint lines going out from the ground from time to time, but never given them much thought. They go up and disappear. Now, though…” She trailed off and slowly scanned the sky, “Now, I can see it. The lines disappear, but they can be followed. Little dots in the sky between where they leave space, and skip in and out of the universe from here to another star. It looks like a rock skipping on a pond. I… yes, I can see it!”
Sunar chuckled deep in his chest as she got too excited and came up out of the trance. They locked eyes, then lips. When they finally came up for air he spoke. “You were always better at that than me. I can only barely sense the patterns of life as they venture into the void, and here you can follow them.”
She giggled. “I could never follow a single ship, or anything like that. There is so much travel between worlds, though, that impressions are left in some of the more heavily used routes. Those skipping stones? I would guess they are the marker beacons that ships use in the deep black to get their bearings after a teleport. A lot of ships will be translating in and out of those areas.”
Sunar kissed her forehead, “Still, to have an impression of that, from so far. Half of what I sense is my imagination filling in the gap between what I know is there and what I can really feel.”
She gave him a demure smile, “That is kind of you to say, my love. With all you can do, and you concentrate on showing me what I can do that you can’t, even now. The boy I grew up staying away from might have said what you did, but he would have felt like he was admitting weakness. The young man I fell for knew better, and the new strength in you knows nothing can diminish it.”
He felt his stomach clench, and he suddenly felt as if he were falling off the world and upwards into the void, cut loose from Meesha, the temple, even himself. Taking a life still haunted him in some of his quiet moments, and her assurance that he had not been changed had been a rock upon which to stand.
Now that rock was gone, and he felt she’d been telling him what he needed to hear. His entire being recoiled at the idea. Meesha’s head moved away from him and alarm flashed in her eyes, then they grew soft and she reached up to caress his face.
Somehow that touch grounded him, briefly, and helped him process her words, “You have not changed, my dear heart, not from what happened. You are as true, as morally unshakeable, as you ever were. Your ki has gained in strength from your ordeal; that is all I spoke of. But, you know well that your ki is not you, it is a part of you, like your arm or your foot.
“Who you are, what you are, that remains the same as when you left. I have not been telling you what you wanted to hear to make things easier, I would never do that to you, to me, or to us. If you’d been truly changed, I would tell you so that we could work through it. This new strength, though?” She gave him a playful grin and a peck on the nose, “I do think I like it.”
He closed his eyes and took a slow, deep, centering breath. He felt the rightness of her words, and concentrated on pulling himself back together. If a few words can send me in such a spiral, it seems I am not as well through this as I thought.
Meesha spoke as if she’d read his mind, “Yes, you still have some work to do. You are too strong to simply be done with something this big. Even your vaunted strength needs a rest, though, and you were right to put this down for a few days.
“I can only help you so much, it is your path and your struggle, but I am here, I love you, and I will accept whatever you need to say.”
He looked deep into her eyes, saw her acceptance, honesty, love, and … pain? That pain echoed back through him, and found the cause: He would be leaving the temple. When did I choose this? When did I decide? I guess some part of me always knew, and Meesha could always see, even when I hid it from myself. I had to convince myself I would stay in order to be with here, yet she has always known, and here she is. Women are confusing.
“Yes, my Sunar. I have always known you will leave. Maybe one day you will come back to me, maybe not. Maybe I will find another man to marry, maybe I will leave one day to find you.” She pulled away from him a little to stare into his eyes, “Regardless, you are my friend, and you will ever be. I will write you regularly, and I expect to hear replies. If ever you don’t reply, I will gather Iron Roses and Titans, and we will find you!”
He gave her a lopsided smile and kissed her forehead, “Very well, my Meesha. I promise that I will stay in touch, with you and the others here. I don’t know how well, we will see, but I will do as I can. Email is a wonderful thing, it seems.”
Satisfied, she nuzzled into his chest again and gave a contented sigh. They stayed there through the night. He felt as if a great weight had been lifted from his heart: He hadn’t realized so many things about himself, and how much he felt pulled in one direction by his love, and the other by what he knew he had to do. What is it I have to do? Why do the stars call to me so?
The question chased him into sleep.
The next morning he woke with the first rays of light which kissed their sleeping forms. He carefully extricated himself from Meesha’s embrace, and launched himself into the air to perform his morning katas. I feel so much lighter than I did before, but still a great weight nags at me. Something Meesha said… My ki is stronger. I do not like the implications of that. Is that how power is gained, by killing? I won’t have it. I wish to leave because somewhere, somehow, there are opportunities for me to improve the Empire; to make life better for people.
I must be honest with myself, however; that is not the only reason. I wish to test myself against the wide Universe, to see what I can do, what I can become, and how I can grow. I will not grow that at the cost of lives, however! I must talk to… ah, there he is, in his favorite morning meditation spot. Probably been there since before dawn.
Master Ikthan sat in open-eyed meditation. Sunar saw that the Master was watching him, so he completed his katas before joining his mentor.
After some time Master Ikthan turned his attention to him and quirked an eyebrow in an invitation to speak.
“I am troubled, yes. Meesha spoke last night about how my ki has been stronger since I … returned. I know that you spent time outside the temple, and can only assume, from the things I saw, that you spent at least some of that time adventuring. Is that how you amassed such power? By killing opponents? Is that how the universe works? I don’t want to believe that! I don’t want to be that sort of person! If that is the way to gaining strength, then…”
“Then I would never have left the temple when I was young, or I would have raced back here as soon as I figured it out, and I would be doing everything in my power to keep you here now. No, Sunar, you have some sense of the shape of things, but you’ve made a common mistake.
“It is not killing your foe which made you stronger. Sit, close your eyes, ground and center. Go back in time, to the young man who woke one morning ready for his first duel against that drow. Look carefully at yourself, look at your ki. Now, move to that evening. Look at yourself again. Was your ki stronger?”
“Yes, a little.”
“So, what would you surmise? One might look at this and believe it is victory which provides the strength; That you somehow take something from your opponent and add it yourself. That would be closer to the mark, but still not correct. Do the same exercise twice more: The first two times you tried to fly. Tell me what you see.”
“I… wow. There was an increase in strength both times. Even when I failed, even though I contested no one. I don’t understand. I mean, I see that the gains do not come at the expense of others, and that is a relief, but I still don’t understand where the power does come from, then.”
“Cast your mind outward, Sunar. To the strands of life and energy that flow round us, between us, and through us. What would you say is the limit of that energy, of that potential, of that power? What is the source? Where does it come from?”
“I… I do not know. It simply exists, that is what you taught us. Every living thing creates energy, draws it from the boundless pool of the universe.”
“Hmmm yes, you have learned the words, and I know you have some understanding of their meaning. Now, go deeper.”
“I see! It is the contest, the test, the trial. This generates energy, pulls it into you, makes room to expand.”
“Very good, my student. You are closer, but not there yet. Every breath we take, every moment we live, our ki expands. Every experience, every sight, every sound. But, not all experiences are created equal. Intensity matters, what you do with the experience matters. Growth comes in two parts: drawing the energy into your ki to expand it, and learning new things to fill up the space. Some only learn by practicing enough to expand their ki, which fills the open space at the same time.
“What some few learn is to expand their ki with intense action, then practice a little to learn. You have found the new techniques I gave you lately easier to master, yes?”
The question, and the revelation, brought Sunar out of his trance with a start. He blinked a few times to process, then turned to Master Ikthan with a smile, “Yes, I believe so. I had wondered at that as well, but put the question away. Now I understand the urge to go out and test myself against the universe, and what I hope to gain. This feels much more balanced than only understanding what I hoped to give.”
He heard Meesha stir behind him. He stood, bowed deeply in thanks, and turned at Master Ikthan’s nod to join her for another round of katas.