"There is someone here to see you." When Wu did not look up from her scrollwork, the monk added. "He is from the Imperial City."
Wu put her ink brush down. Peasants from the villages closest to the Temple sometimes came to seek her guidance but no one came from the Imperial City unless they were here on official business. "I heard no flier."
"He said he walked, Abbotess."
Wu nodded, as if a man walking to Dirge was done every day. "He has been offered refreshments and a room?"
The woman bowed lower. "Of course, but he has refused. He insists on seeing you immediately."
Wu wondered what new trouble had befallen the Empire. The Empress did not have enough faith in herself at times, but Wu would listen to this messenger and then she would send him back. The Empire was only her concern very rarely; she had the dead to watch over now.
The man was ushered into her presence, his head lowered; Wu sent her monk away. He fell to one knee before she could see his face. He removed a scroll case from his back and presented it to her. "Abbotess. From your agent in the Imperial City."
She took it from him. There was a scroll from her agent and other papers. She read the message from Li Zuan first. "It says that you sought out my agent and that you asked to come here."
Her lip crooked; no one would mistake it for a smile. "And is it everything that you imagined?"
"Dreamed," he corrected, though he did not look up from the floor. "I dreamed of Dirge."
She paused and looked at the other papers. They were drawings in charcoal, but they were good and frighteningly accurate. It was as if he had sat at the bottom of the mountain, sat in their courtyard, sat in her office and done these.
She frowned. Dreams were important sometimes. Gods never had the manners to just say what they wanted outright. But if the Water Dragon had a use for this one, she would have told her. That was their arrangement.
She glanced at the scroll again. "And yet you have no abilities that can be spoken of; at least, none that would be of use to our Order here. Or so Li Zuan said that he told you. And yet you insisted on making this journey."
"He said that I could come to Dirge, but only if I showed proper deference."
"Yes, you have shown a sufficient amount of humility, young man. Walking all the way here? That is humility enough for one lifetime."
Perhaps he did not see how threadbare his clothes were with travel and if he'd had any soft flesh when he started the journey, he certainly had none now. Perhaps he did not see or perhaps he knew too well. "We are not a fighting school and we are not a monastic order. I can allow you to stay here for awhile, but unless you manifest some talents that we can use, you will have to return to the Empire - though I will not make you walk home."
She lifted his chin with the scroll face, so that she could get a better look at his face. "So what has brought you to Dirge, young - "
The scroll fell from her hands and she took a step back.
"Abbotess?" He said it so innocently.
She had lost her composure for a moment, but she willed back her serenity. It was the hardest thing she had ever done. "What is your name?"
His eyes went to the floor, but now and again they flickered up to look her in the face. She wanted them to stay on the floor, but she couldn't get her tongue to order him to do so. "Wen. Iron Wen from Phoenix Gate. Please do not send me away, Abbotess. Not yet. I've dreamed of this place all my life and I do not know why. I did not even know what it was called until Li Zuan found me sketching and told me what I was looking for. But even now I do not know why I'm here, only that I must stay until I have my answer. Do not make me leave."
"Your entire life, you say." She felt so very tired now. "How old are you, Wen?"
"Twenty years this month."
It would be about right. "If this dream of Dirge has been occurring all your life, then the Gods are involved and I would be remiss to make you leave. You may stay as long as you wish."
"Thank you, Wu."
Her voice cracked like a whip. "What did you say?"
"Thank you, Abbotess!" The boy – for he seemed only a boy – averted his eyes again but he did not cower, even though Wu knew she could mantle herself in the power of her goddess. "Thank you for allowing me to stay."
"You may not thank me later," she said, allowing scorn to tinge her voice. "And I hope your life in Phoenix Gate was not simple. We work hard here and you will be expected to do the same."
He had the audacity to smile at her and it broke her heart, this smile from a man long dead. It came easier to the boy though. "I was training to be an Imperial soldier," he said. "I am used to work."
"You will find that being a soldier is much easier than being a monk, Wen. It involves significantly less thinking, for example. Now find Xitou and ask for a robe and a room. Your morning will be early. Very early indeed."
This boy could not cower, it seemed, but concern did crease the corners of his mouth. He bowed deeply then left her office. She sighed, partly in relief and partly for someone long dead.
The gods were not kind. Or perhaps they thought this was the greatest kindness of all. Wu would help this boy with the eyes and smile of a man who had died many years ago. She would not dwell on possibilities. She would not think of the future. She would do as duty demanded, even if tore her mind to shreds. That is what it meant to be the Abbotess of the Spirit Monks.
She looked out her window. The years had not changed the landscape much; it had not become more hospitable or welcoming in the many years that she had lived here, but she thought she felt the ice thaw, just the slightest.
And she smiled.