Late one autumn evening, two good friends sat on the deck behind the Lazy Turnip Inn. Below them slumbered the quiet farming town of Halfhill. The midnight air was cool to the skin. A thin misting fog had begun to coat the rolling green hills of the valley below with dew, and the spire of the Imperial Granary stood out as a dark shadow against the brilliant canvas of stars overhead.
An evening of good food and many hours smoking the native herbs had put the two friends in a contemplative mood.
Zhi - the younger and more tightly wound of the two companions - suddenly asked a very pointed question: "What if none of this is real?"
His old friend Ri, who until now had been leaning back with his hat over his eyes, lifted up the straw brim to peer at his friend. "A serious question?" he said, his brown eyes gleaming intently.
Zhi swept his arm over the horizon, indicating the whole of the valley. "What if we are just images, drawn into someone's painting?" he asked. He touched the side of his face, gasping. "What if we are characters in a book!?"
Old Ri hugged his belly with both hands and bellowed a deep, contemplative laugh. He took the smoking pipe from his friend Zhi and set it aside.
"Behind the eyes sits a person's soul," Old Ri answered at last. "Their essence: the thinking, loving, emotional core of being. My soul makes me real, as does yours."
And now Old Ri rose to stand beside his friend. He put his arm around Zhi's shoulder and drew his attention to the valley below. "See there below us, to our right? The farmer's market?" In the cool autumn darkness, the Halfhill Market was like an island of warm yellow light amongst the dark undulating hills. Colorful flags rippled in the chill breeze, and figures could be seen moving amongst the stalls, buying supplies or bartering the fruits of their labor. The sound of their voices and laughter, indistinguishable from one another but unmistakably alive, could be heard all the way to the inn.
"Those figures moving about, each of them has a soul," Old Ri continued. "And together, we share this space. Millions of souls, sharing one place together. Our place! Halfhill is real, so long as you and I are here together to enjoy it." Satisfied, Old Ri returned to his seat and motioned to the innkeeper for another drink.
Zhi lingered at the edge of the patio, resting his weight against the rough timber of a pillar. He breathed in the cool air, and watched fireflies dart amongst the waving starlit grasses of the fields below. "Ri," he said at last. "Painting or no... if our souls are to share a place, I would share no other with you."
Old Ri tipped his hat back over his eyes and answered with a warm rumble of agreement.
The sound of crickets mixed with the lively bustle of the market below lulled the two friends back into a blissful silence.