The temple stealthily insinuated itself into his perception as he approached out of the thick woodland. First was the smell of incense, seeming to grow out of the resinous scent of the trees which had accompanied him every step of the way from the landing site. It was gradually joined by the music, which also seemed to rise from the gentle cadence of nature: the wind sashaying lazily through the trees; the creatures calling to each other in voices of every pitch; the streams providing a modest, rippling counterpoint. Without the barely-perceptible addition of human voices to this humble symphony, it would take someone with highly-attuned hearing or a lifetime of experiences in that temple to be able to distinguish the monks' instrumentation woven carefully between the natural melodies. He happened to have both.
Finally, he saw the temple itself standing on an outcrop from a cliff rising out of the surrounding forest. Most of it had simply been hewn from the rock itself, and the rest built with great skill to be virtually invisible at anything more than the shortest distance. He ascended the narrow stairway which was the temple's only access route, unconsciously making the customary subtle gestures which would ensure his safety from the hidden sentries. His old bones ached by the time he reached the gateway to the main courtyard, but he pushed it from his thoughts; he would deal with those feelings at a more appropriate time.
He was alone in the courtyard, and he sat in one of the recessed seats set into the wall, letting the familiar sounds and smells soak into his mind. It was blissfully soothing after the harsh blackness of space and the even harsher humans he had encountered: unrefined barbarians for the most part, blundering through life unaware of the greater truths of the soul or the true capabilities of their human bodies. If his mission had not been a vital one, he would have resisted leaving the temple more strongly than he had done.
'If you had resisted, good Alma, we would be without an apprentice when the time of succession came.' The master of the temple, a monk older even than Alma himself, melted into sight as he spoke. It was a testament to his tremendous skill that Alma had not heard him approach, as he had the seven students who had passed unseen through the courtyard since his arrival. He rose to greet his master with a respectful bow, which was returned by the older monk. 'I need not ask if your mission was successful, of course; only when we can expect our new arrival.'
'The woman is in her final weeks of pregnancy, master. If they do as I have instructed, the child will be here within a month.'
'You please me, Alma. You may spend the meantime as you wish; the students will see to the necessary preparations.'
- - - - -
Yù Yán eased herself into bed, and sought her husband's hand with her own. It was cold, but gripped hers firmly in response. Neither spoke, each thinking only of the old monk's words and what they would mean for them. Great sorrow was tempered with pride, but any comfort that pride could bring would be tarnished by the necessity of keeping it secret. Your child is of great importance, the monk had told them. But to fulfil her destiny, she must be sent to the Temple of Stone during her first day of life. She would never know her child, and her child would never know her. What the monk asked was such a terrible thing, but she did not want to contemplate the consequences of defying his instructions. If her child was to have a great destiny, she could do incalculable harm by preventing its fulfilment.
So she would bear the child, give her life, and then only hours later Chèn would take her up in his ship and return without her. They would tell everyone that their daughter had not survived birth, and would never speak of the old monk, of grand destinies, or of the Temple of Stone - just as they had been told, and just like dozens of other couples living on Xinmuchang had done before them. The monks of the Stone Temple would have another student, and the parents took solace in the tales of prophecy; the only thing that separated this couple from the others was that this time, unknown to Alma, his words had been more prophetic than he could have known.