It had been three months.
The Month of Flame marked the onset of summer's end, and the rising of the next dawn would bring an important day. An auspicious day. The Fifth of Flame would be one year to the day since the moment Jin Algara's life truly began. One year since it began. Three months since it ended.
I did not even make it a year, Jin thought.
She sat in the boughs of a lone oak tree in the midst of a savannah, her back braced against the trunk. As the stars began to fade with the coming of dawn, Jin watched the horizon to await the sun. The air was warm even at this early hour, though it was dry enough in the west that the summer heat never truly grew unbearable during the day.
It was quiet in the Miracle Expanse. No nearby settlements. No people. Very little in the way of fauna. When the wind settled and ceased to blow, the land was gripped in such quiet that Jin could actually hear the beat of her heart. Silence unimaginable.
She waited in that peaceful silence, watched as the flat expanse of the eastern horizon brightened by slow degrees. Time lost meaning as stalks of tall grass were struck by the light, one by one. The first rays of sunlight touched on Jin's pale skin and burst within her eyes.
Blue eyes. Eyes of a beast. With the infamous killer's gaze of a royal assassin, Jin Algara watched dawn arrive and allowed herself peace.
Her brow furrowed. Fifth of Flame... Winds take me.
It was an important date. It was not, however, the anniversary of the day Jin first danced with her sky woman and kissed her within a wellspring cave. That had been the Nineteenth of Flame. The Fifth was Jin's elder sister's birthday.
Jin exhaled and closed her eyes. She brushed a strand of black hair from her face and tucked it behind an ear. Reaching inward, concentrating on the ether flowing through her veins, Jin called upon her sorcery and cast a spell.
"I seek Maya Algara."
From a point two hands away from Jin's face, a small cluster of ether formed within the Weave. Out of the sending spell, a voice returned.
"...of hellfire! Jin?"
"Congratulations. Another year, Maya. May the next bring you happiness."
"Ohh no. You did not give a sending just to pay birthday respects! Jin, where are..."
Jin ended the sending and cut short her sister's reply.
With that, and her reflective moment effectively spoiled, Jin leapt down from her high perch. Throughout her fall, Jin wove spellcraft. She crafted a multi-layered translocational ward to thwart the scries, dousings, and various other divination spells Maya was surely scrambling to cast. It prevented sendings, interpersonal teleportation, even oneiromancy. Jin hit the ground in a three-point landing. She pushed off with her hand and stood straight, secure in the knowledge that no matter what methods of spellcraft were used, she would not be found.
Wards were Jin's specialty. Spells from the abjuration school of magic came naturally to her. That familiarity came from long years of tireless drilling and repeated castings, until manipulating the threads of the Weave around her at the correct frequencies of essence was as natural as drawing breath. Sorcerers, rarest of the five kinds of arcanist, required diligence and will to cast their spells.
The sun remained little more than a sliver in the east, but night was near enough to gone for Jin to break camp. She hadn't unpacked her saddlebags, so it took hardly any time at all for her to prepare her horse for the day's ride. Before saddling Scorpion, Jin went through one of the many rituals the blustering diva required of her.
Scorpion tossed his head and made disgruntled noises as Jin brushed him down. She did so each morning and each evening. Scorpion was something of a pampered brat and demanded frequent brushings.
Jin hummed tunelessly as she got the loose hairs out of Scorpion's black coat and silver mane. The humming was a habit she'd picked up from her cousin. Scorpion used to be Dashar's preferred mount, and Jin felt like he was put at ease when she hummed to him like Dashar would often do.
Scorpion tossed his head again. Not fidgety or impatient. Scorpion was too much of a professional for that nonsense. He was as much a warrior as Jin was. This was a warning.
As she hummed, Jin took in air gently through her nose. She closed her eyes and listened to the quiet.
She counted four of them.
It was an unfortunate reality of a new frontier. For every six honest settlers, there was a seventh looking to take what they had, and Jin had seen far too many innocents murdered for their boots and coin since she came to the Miracle.
"Easy now, lass," one of the men growled. By the sound of his footsteps as he tried to approach stealthily, he'd be one and a half paces behind her. Jin allowed him to get that close while she made certain he didn't have more friends than she was already aware of accompanying him. "Just be stepping away from that nag. No need for you to get hurt, is there?"
Jin kept humming. Her brush continued to make tracks in Scorpion's summer coat. She patted Scorpion's neck, letting him know she was aware of their visitors. The horse calmed and looked straight ahead.
"Oy, you hear me?" The voice came louder. Nadian accent. Not the roughest Jin had ever heard, but certainly not genteel.
"What, she deaf? Grab 'er and take what she 'as." said another. Youthful. Nasally. Likely ill. His was also a Nadian accent. Six paces back. Anxious. Impatient.
"Take her, too. A bit tall for my liking, but she'll sell just as fast as her horse." A third. He was between the first two in distance and stood off to Jin's right.
Final one, to her left. They were spreading out, not to surround her, but in case Scorpion bolted when their victim screamed.
Eyes still closed, Jin stopped humming. She heard the boot of the closest bandit raise off the ground.
Armed assailants first, she thought, more impression and image than actual words. Closest will have a weapon drawn. Disable wrist, disarm, crush trachea. Disregard sick man; will be too slow to pose immediate threat. Right side second. Expecting no trouble, reaction time minimal. Lateral slash at inside thigh before he pulls steel. Left side, will have drawn by then. Thrown dagger? Chances of fatal hit low. Spellfire. Controlled burst towards the face. Distract and conceal approach. Straight thrust to center mass. Sick one will attempt retreat. Reassess threat once his allies are eliminated.
The boot of the nearest bandit came back to the ground. "I'm talkin' to..."
Jin opened her eyes.
She pivoted to the right on her left foot, her right hand already grabbing for the bandit's wrist. A poorly maintained knife was in his grip, point aimed for her lower torso.
He may have been a hand taller and a foot broader, but Jin's arms were thicker than his. Her body was a honed and battle-tested weapon, each muscle defined beneath her pale skin. She was stronger, and the gulf between them was wide. Seizing his weapon hand, she twisted, applied leverage, and felt the bone snap.
"...yo-aahh!" He dropped to one knee as his command became a squeal. The bandit was a dirty scoundrel and Nadian as expected. Patchy scruff covered his chin and neck, the left side of his head shaved to the stubble. A patch on his right eye. Head uncovered in a lady's presence. That last part was reprehensible in even the rougher parts of Nadian society. Jin was scandalized by his impropriety.
Jin snatched the knife as it fell from his grasp. She struck for his neck with the pommel. Cartilage cracked and deformed inward. The man's cry of pain became a gurgling wheeze. Jin left him to choke.
The knife was balanced poorly. An impoverished butcher's tool, not a weapon. Useless. Jin let it drop to the ground.
Her inside pivot when she turned around positioned her legs for a swift spring of motion towards her second attacker. By the third step, her weapon left its scabbard. She gripped the hilt with both hands. Her sword was a long, single-edged blade with a slight curve.
The second bandit wore a wide-brimmed fedora and stood with his arms crossed. Clean-shaven. He'd been wearing a cocky smirk as he looked to the third man. Distracted, and the patch over his right eye obscured Jin approach. He didn't look back towards her until the first bandit's cry of pain. The bandit was allowed a single moment to see Jin coming towards him. His uncovered eye widened and his arms began to uncross. Jin slashed from right to left at just below hip height. Her sword sliced across the inside of his right leg, and a spray of blood from the severed artery coated the grass beneath him. He dropped.
Jin pivoted at the waist and thrust her left hand towards the third bandit. Sorcery touched upon the Weave between them, forcing the threads to pulse to the swift and staccato tune of Fire essence. Spellfire curled around her fingers and erupted from her palm, crossing the distance between her and the bandit before she got a clear look at him.
Mistake. Moved too quickly and blocked own vision. He may be armored. Attack from high angle. Improvise.
Jin darted straight towards him. From the corner of her eye as she ran, she got a look at the fourth and final bandit, the one who spoke like he had a cold. As expected, he was young. Darker skin than the rest. His head was covered by a fedora. She could see little else at this distance in the poor early morning light. He'd gone stiff now that two of his comrades were down.
At her fourth step, Jin jumped into a running leap. By the time she was in the air, her spellfire dissipated. She'd been half-right to change her tactics. The third bandit wasn't armored, but he carried a round, wooden shield. A pitted and notched short sword, also. He'd raised the shield by reflex to deflect the worst of Jin's pyromancy, but the rim of his bowler hat was smoldering and embers glowed along the cracked, splintered, and now blackened wood of his shield.
He saw her jumping towards him and kept his shield between them. Jin abstained from striking against the shield, instead landing just short of him in a crouch and slashing at his ankles. His left foot was severed by her blow.
Stumbling forward— and likely still unaware that he was down one foot— he pushed his shield at Jin. Dodging the poorly executed shield bash took little effort. He overcorrected, missed wide of Jin, and landed face first on the ground.
Jin stood straight and reversed the grip on her sword. She stabbed it down into the bandit's back, cutting between the fourth and fifth vertebrae. He'd be dead inside ten seconds.
As anticipated, the fourth and final bandit tried to flee. He tripped over his own feet and landed on his backside. Scrambling with his hands and feet, he gained little ground with his frantic efforts.
By Jin's internal count, it was over in six seconds.
Jin paused to take stock of the field. The first bandit was still alive but suffocating. The second clutched his leg wound in a desperate attempt to staunch the spurts of blood that erupted with every heartbeat. The third couldn't move and had little time left to him. Jin resumed, stalking towards the last bandit and taking her sword into fourth stance. She held her weapon above her head with the blade aiming into the sky, the preferred posture for striking a target on the ground.
"No, p-please." The fourth bandit held out a warding palm. It shook like a leaf.
He could see Jin's eyes now. In the spare light, they would be glowing softly. Her slit pupils, like that of a cat or viper, would be plainly visible.
"Stones save me," he whimpered. "You're her."
Jin planted her boot on his chest and pinned him to the ground.
"We didn't know it was you."
Her sword point turned downward, poised for a killing blow.
"Empress Enfri's betrothed."
The gurgles of the first bandit stopped. The second's blood no longer spurted, and he slumped over his leg. The third died five seconds ago. The fourth was the last.
She listened for the forms and tactics drilled into her by her training. She was to reevaluate the threat at this point. But she couldn't. The forms had always come before, rapid and immediate, but they didn't come now.
Jin couldn't think.
Her body was shaking. Once the initial surge of adrenaline passed, not even the most hardened soldier could stop the shaking. Yes... adrenaline. Nothing more than that.
The tension left Jin's arm muscles, and she let the point of her sword rest against the bandit's chest. Aimed for his heart, still an open threat, but the intent to kill was gone for the moment.
"Explain yourself," Jin said in a low voice. Steady. "Why did you attempt to rob me?"
The bandit licked his lips nervously. "We... We saw your 'orse. A Gaulatian 'orse can sell for 'undreds of marks. 'Specially out 'ere. Folk settlin' the Miracle would give its weight in silver for a good animal like that."
From behind Jin where she left him, she heard Scorpion give a haughty whinny. A vain horse if there ever was one, and Gaulatian breeds were too smart for their own good. As complex as people.
"You cannot have him," Jin said.
The bandit gave his head a vigorous shake. "Aye... Aye, Highness. I see that."
"You know who I am," she stated.
Jin's eyes narrowed. The tip of her sword traced up his chest, past his face, and pushed the brim of his fedora off his head.
The growing light revealed his short, golden hair. Combined with his brown skin and green eyes, there was no mistaking which race of humanity this bandit belonged to. He wasn't Nadian. He was Aleesh.
Jin stopped breathing. She glanced over either shoulder towards the corpses she left behind and searched her memory of the encounter. Dark brown hair, olive complexions, dark eyes. She started breathing again and pulled her sword away from the bandit. She gave it a swipe to clean it of the greater part of blood staining its length, then returned it to her hip. Her limbs continued to shake, and she needed two tries before the sword point found its way into the scabbard.
She would not kill this man.
"Go home," she said, cocking her head sharply to the east. "If you cannot find honest work in Shan Alee, you cannot find it anywhere."
Jin turned her back and walked away.
"Ain't my 'ome," the bandit muttered, his voice growing angry.
Jin stopped in her tracks and looked back.
The bandit's lips curled into a snarl, his eyes clamped shut and his head bowed. "She ain't my empress."
"Where was she?" he asked with sudden volume. "They say she'll save the Aleesh, but where was she? Why now, after you black hounds already took everythin'. She came too late. Why now when there's nothin' left of us to save?"
His voice broke and became a throaty wheeze.
The Miracle Expanse drew all kinds. This land, once the most inhospitable wasteland on the Continent and now rejuvenated into an untouched paradise, drew people from every imaginable walk of life. Some came hoping for a new start. Others came seeking their fortune. A few came to learn of the hidden, ancient history kept secret from the Five Kingdoms for the last six hundred years.
And there were those who came because they had nowhere else to go.
Jin went back to the bandit, a desperate man who had everything taken by the royal assassins of Althandor. She stood over him, though he didn't seem to see her as he wept into his hands.
"This will come as no comfort to you, but for what it is worth, I am sorry."
His hands dropped from his face, and he stared at the ground in front of him with a numb expression. "What do you care? There's no one in the world who don't know what you did. You betrayed 'er, too."
"It is as you say."
He looked up to Jin's face. "Why?"
"Because I loved her." Her voice was cold and empty. It carried no semblance of the emotion she claimed to once hold. That part of her was dead, a sacrifice to the ransom she had to pay for loving Enfri Page.
The two young women who shared a dance in that wellspring cave nearly a year ago... Neither existed anymore.
The Aleesh bandit squinted. He didn't understand, and Jin believed there were few who would. But oaths needed to be kept. Even the oaths she wished had never been asked of her. No matter the cost, they had to be kept.
Jin turned away once again and returned to Scorpion. She picked up the fallen brush, scraped it clean against her arm, and resumed humming amidst the bodies of fallen men. She offered no comment as the bandit went to his former comrades and rifled through their pockets. He avoided the one with the crushed throat, likely because of the proximity to Jin and Scorpion.
After he'd taken what coin and gear there was from the bodies, the bandit ran off into the empty savannah of the Miracle. Before long, silence unimaginable returned.
Brushed and pampered to his satisfaction, Scorpion stood still as Jin fastened his saddle and gave him his bridle. No bit on his bridle; Dashar didn't like putting bits in his horses' mouths, and Scorpion didn't need one. His rider's knees were enough to tell him where to go.
Jin looked down to the corpse at her feet. His face had gone purple before it waxed to white. Jin bent to look through the pouch tied to his belt. Before she took what possessions he'd carried with him on his banditry, Jin absently brushed her hand down his face to shut his eyes.
The bandit by no means had been a rich man. His coin purse contained a handful of scubs and shiffs, which were pennies minted from copper and silver, respectively. He also had five marks on him, four silver and one gold. It was all-together the equivalent of perhaps two months of an honest goodman's wages. Jin dumped the contents of the coin purse into her own. Opportunities for trade were scarce in the Miracle, and Jin generally avoided contact with the settlers who regularly set out from New Sandharbor to expand the Dragon Empress' domain. Nevertheless, better to have the coin and not need it than need it and not have it.
She mounted Scorpion and clucked her tongue to urge him onward. It would be advisable to leave the area as quickly as possible. The scent of blood would soon draw one of the roving prides of scale lions that roamed the Miracle.
Jin had a destination, and now that she'd realized her mistake about the importance of dates, there was time enough. Before the Nineteenth of Flame, Jin would reach the ancient sentinel city of Marwin.
Marwin, where the life and love Jin abandoned began.