It is all very well to copy what you see, but it is better to draw only what you still see in your memory. Then you reproduce only what has struck you, that is to say, the essentials—Edgar Degas
Kai-jing struck the ground with his walking stick, crushing the brittle autumn leaves. The air was clear and crisp, the chill it carried pleasantly stinging and not bitterly harsh. The trees clustered around him, towered above him. He didn't know their names, but they were familiar and comforting. In summer they were green and glossy, waving in the balmy summer breeze. In winter they were black and bare, stark against the dull gray sky. Now, in autumn, they were a riot of colors, a fire that blazed against the horizon and flickered as the wind blew. Their leaves floated down, embers that settled so thickly on the forest floor that no dirt was exposed; and for as far as Kai-jing could see the brittle carpet stretched out.
He only paused a moment to catch his breath and take in this scenery in one sweeping glance. Then he moved on again, his staff clearing out a swathe of leaves and leaving an easy path for him to stride along. He had somewhere to go today: a ring of trees, a space in the forest unobstructed by foliage. Quiet, isolated, and ideal for training with his sword.
There was something in that clearing, a sensation that stole over him as the sun shone down—the light touched the tops of the trees; it touched the leaves, the twigs, the branches, the trunk, the gnarled roots that shoved themselves up through the rich earth. It touched the good earth itself, and the grass that it nourished. It glided along the surfaces of leaves that littered the ground, all along the length of the clearing, until it touched Kai-jing himself. It made the blade in his hand glitter; it surrounded his dark, unruly hair with a halo of golden particles, it suffused his face with a glow, it made the sweat that stood out on his forehead shimmer with sharp, piercing little flashes. It melded everything in the clearing together, from the tree to the earth to Kai-jing and his blade. It was his secret.
But today, it seemed he had a guest.
She was clothed in red—a simple dress with short sleeves, and slits up the legs. Her pants peeked through the fluttering cloth, flaring out over sturdy black shoes. The material of her clothes was cotton, strong, durable, and of fine quality. Something maybe a well-to-do merchant could afford. But she couldn't be a merchant's daughter. Girls like that didn't carry swords.
It was the kind of sword a master might carry. The hilt was white and smooth, and the blade was thin and sharp. So simple, and yet Kai-jing knew that it could have easily cleaved his body in two with one stroke.
She was probably a swordmaster's daughter then, come up here to train away from the hustle and bustle of the town. Kai-jing studied her features carefully, trying to match her with one of the masters he knew. But since his father's death, he had removed himself from the town—it had now been more than a year since he had gone to visit his father's friends. On the few trips to town that he had made, he had merely ducked into the grocery store, bought a copious amount of food, and retreated back to his mountain home.
He didn't know if he could have placed her even if he did remember the faces of the masters. Their faces were misty and blurred in his memory, but a jumble of details remained: a collective image of the masters that consisted of bulging muscles and booming voices. Neither of which described the girl before him.
She was his age, give or take a few years. Her black hair was bound back in a tidy braid that reached past her waist. Her skin was tanned, a delicate shade of gold that lent a glow to her brown eyes. Her features were delicate and clear-cut: a pointed chin, long sloping nose, and slanted eyes that were more like a rich man's daughter's than a swordmaster's. Kai-jing let his eyes linger a bit on her slender figure (it got a bit lonely on the mountain by himself…) but smirked when she flicked the sword to the other hand. His sharp eyes had picked out blisters and calluses, a mark that indicated hard work, if not skill.
So the sword wasn't just for show. And he was about to find out what exactly she could do, for she had just burst into motion. A kata, he thought. She was performing a kata—a series of choreographed movements designed to imitate a fight. She lunged forward and swept her sword down as if to strike an opponent. Her feet followed the complicated steps—backwards, forwards, left, right, twisting in a tight circle.
Kai-jing knew that she was still untrained. There was a rawness to her movements. But here in this place, that rawness seemed to fit. It was something about the air, so cold and brisk. It was something about the clearing, isolated and cut off. It was something about the autumn leaves, rasping together and making a rustling kind of music. It was something about her, dancing in clothes of red and black—a spark from the fire burning against the horizon that had fallen down to the ground.
Later, as he sat in front of a blank canvas in his house, he remembered her. His hand dipped the brush into the paint, and he paused a moment, recalling how she had moved, how she had looked. Her hair: a black whip as she whirled around and it followed in an arch behind her. Her eyes: glowing amber with the exertion and the pure exhilaration of movement. Her arm: a red streak with a silver pointer melded with it. And the trees above her: a red-gold tapestry.
With every stroke, he remembered.
A/n: One day, I will look back at all my work and think, "Boy I sucked at writing." Ahhh, somebody teach me how to read and write critically. Be a sieve, not a sponge! Oh, yes, and the title is adapted from Robert Frosts's poem, "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening." No, I do not own it.