"This is no way to live. Let this work. Please, just let us all make it through this."
Jin jolted upright from her blankets. She lay in her own bed in her own chambers, wearing a nightdress, and with no memory of when and how she got there. It was dark, long past nightfall, with no way to know if there had been a sunrise or two since she was last awake. Jin put a hand to her forehead and found it damp with sweat.
Already, the voice she heard faded. Jin would've thought it to be a hallucination, a bad dream mocking happier times, but her situation with Ranton suggested otherwise. Jin brought her knees to her chest and held her head in her hands.
"She prays to you," Jin whispered. "Even if she doesn't know it, she's praying to you."
There was no response from her patron god.
"You make sure I hear it, too. Why? What do you get out of reminding me?"
There was a sense that she'd been heard, but for whatever reasons divinity had for such things, the Warding Light didn't reply.
The last Jin recalled, she'd been directing the crowds fleeing Arcrest Tower, then… nothing. Not even a misty forest. There had been, however, the voices. While Enfri's distant prayer faded, others were always there to take its place.
How am I still alive? one of them asked, then others came. So many. Where could so many fiends come from? He's gone. It killed him right in front of me. Is that what's going to happen to everyone? What if it happens again? Those monsters are still out there. Please, let my family get out of Eastrun. We're safe now, because she saved us… thank you.
Thank you, Your Highness.
Curled into a pitiful ball in her bedroom, Jin rested her forehead on her knees. "I didn't do anything."
Her sense of the voices began to recede. Whether fewer sent their prayers to Ranton, or the Warding Light granted his saint a reprieve, Jin couldn't say. Whatever the reason, Jin felt better able to breathe. With the voices gone, she began to hear other sounds, ones more connected to her surroundings.
Someone moved about on the other side of her bedroom door. It might've been one of the maids. By the sound of it, there was only one person. Probably not the village girls, in that case. Jin could only hope both were alright.
Jin was at a loss for what she should do. Too exhausted to even consider leaving her rooms, too anxious to get any sort of rest. Inactivity had always been difficult for Jin, so something had to be done. Anything.
It was hard to say why, but her thoughts went to Tarlus. She wouldn't have minded if her thoughts could have inexplicably summoned him, because her cousin seemed to always understand her. Even when she herself didn't.
Jin tried to calm herself. Clearing her mind, finding her center, and seeking serenity in the midst of chaos was often difficult, but Jin could usually manage with effort. She sat up in her bed and got her posture into order. Back straight, legs crossed, hands braced on her knees. Long and deep breaths. Jin willed the threads on the Weave around her to thrum to a slow and steady tune, and sooner than she feared, she began to dream.
It was a relief to find herself in the hazy darkness and surrounded by distant points of light. Her first instinct was to seek out her cousin, but Tarlus' light was absent. It came as little surprise that he would still be awake; no doubt, all of the other assassins were needed for things more important than meditating on dreams. Others, she did find. Gillwyn and Cana lived, and they dreamt. Jin wouldn't have been an oneiromancer if she didn't brush lightly against their dreams, and she wasn't surprised to learn that the girls dreamt of each other. Unwilling to intrude further, she withdrew.
There appeared to be fewer lights around her than she was accustomed to. Perhaps it was her imagination, a manifestation of the fear that death tolls climbed across Althandor. More likely, it was due to fewer people being able to find rest in such times. Jin let her mind drift, and before she realized it, she had gone far to the west. There, she found the lights of more dreams she recognized.
Ban slept, but the dim and fitful light of his dream spoke of it being a restless one. Jin nearly brushed against his light but hesitated. Not for fear, but because of another dream she found close to his. Jin felt a wistful smile creep onto her physical body as she instead touched against the dream of Nikos Karst.
She had never touched the dream of an infant before, and the experience was, for lack of a better word, revelatory. Jin had never considered what a feyling so young must dream of, and it made perfect sense once she felt it for herself. Familiar, in a way, though her own dreams from that age were so far behind her.
Nikos dreamt in terms of feeling and sound and smell. He dreamt of the warmth against his mother's chest and of her wild, untamed scent. Then there came a rough touch against his hand, followed by an immediate scent of ink, dust, and blood. Such joy came into Nikos' heart from that scent that Jin felt tears on her cheeks. This scent was safety, laughter, a promise that both those things would never run short, and a burning need to have this scent close for always.
"You have a good father," Jin whispered into the dream.
The small giggle she heard in reply carried a tone of wholehearted agreement.
Reluctant, Jin withdrew from the child's dream. It was made all the more difficult as Nikos' dreaming mind held fast to her, no different than if he got a grip on her hair as she passed him from her arms back to his parents.
Jin peered at the other lights in Shan Alee. She couldn't admit to herself which it was she searched for, but it didn't matter in the end. The Dragon Empress either remained in the waking world, or she'd resumed taking her dream ward potion. Jin suspected the latter.
Adrift once again, Jin let her awareness of the lights fade. She simply… existed. It brought peace.
A moment later, hours perhaps, awareness returned. With a sinking heart, Jin recognized Gara's misty forest. The ghostly figures appeared, alighting through the boughs and melting into the silver mists all around. Jin braced herself, certain that the fiend would not be long behind. She raised her eyes into the distance, but Gara already stood before her, no further than arm's reach.
"You've done well, daughter."
Jin averted her eyes. "I accomplished nothing."
"Not so," Gara said. "You fought. That isn't nothing. For an assassin, that's everything. Rise and fight. Resist the inevitable, or else it truly will be inevitable. Fate is meaningless compared to a defiant heart."
Jin let out a heavy breath. "Without the skills to back it up, defiance won't save anyone. It won't kill our enemies. I could do neither."
"Oh, shut up," Gara said with a sneer. "I didn't wait centuries among the dead to listen to whining."
Jin wrinkled her nose. "Excuse me, whining?"
"Whining," Gara said with a firm nod. "Listen now, girl, and listen well. Stop doubting your ability. Are you suggesting I dreamt you training halfway to death? Did I imagine all those sword forms getting carved into your flesh and engraved in your bones? The hours upon days upon years of drilling until your blood burned, of pushing beyond limits, of forging a soft and pampered princess into tempered steel? Was it all a lie, your first kill? The second? The tenth or the hundredth? Am I wrong to think that cultists, thralls, traitors, slavers, fiends, and half the blustering Crescent Legion lay dead and broken behind you?"
Jin frowned, unable to answer.
"You are a deadly weapon," Gara said while jabbing a finger against Jin's chest. "More than just that, you are a weapon with the will to wield herself. But, that will is not yet honed to the edge you need for what's coming. You moan about your deficiency in magic while ignoring that you've surpassed all but the arcanists on the absolute pinnacle. You are ashamed of the handful of opponents you can't defeat while giving no thought to the countless numbers of those you can. I don't need my heir to be the best. I need you to have the will to challenge the best!"
Jin stepped forward against the finger pressed to her. "I have the will," she said. "You needn't worry. Even should it mean my life, I fight the enemies of Althandor."
Gara's eyes grew more intense, a pleased light within them. "That's what I like to hear."
A wind blew through the forest, carrying a swirling mass of the misty figures with it. They passed around Jin and Gara, as close to them as they could without making contact. Jin had been trying to ignore them ever since first stepping into this place, and Gara had never given them so much as a glance. Now, however, Gara's gaze tracked them as they swirled closer.
"What is it?" Jin asked. "What are they?"
Gara's eyes darted all around. "You don't know? You should, daughter. They didn't arrive here until you did."
Jin scowled and tried stepping aside and out of the figures' path. They followed. "What do you mean?"
Gara sighed. "They're spirits, and it's you who draws them."
"Spirits? You told me this was the Beyond, where no spirit can go."
"Don't take me so literally," Gara said with a roll of her eyes. "I was trying to get you to snap out of your foolishness and admit you're still alive, but no, you accepted the idea you were standing in the land of the dead as if it were only natural. I get that a little fatalism is unavoidable in our line of work, but you take it too far. Like some… foolish teenager!"
"Stop calling me a fool!" Jin demanded. "I'm not an idiot."
"You don't have to be an idiot to be a damned fool. Biggest fools I ever knew were the smartest men of my era, and the stupidest were usually the wisest. There's a big difference between intelligence and having your head on straight."
"Then enlighten me," Jin snapped. "If these things are spirits, why do they follow me?"
"Because you're not just my descendant, you're Jira's. You're partway an elf, and spirits recognize their own."
Jin eyed the misty figures as their surge of numbers abated. They stopped pressing in on her so closely and once again limited themselves to moving among the surrounding trees.
"What manner of spirit?" Jin asked. "The elven kith spirit, ambition?"
Gara's eyes returned to Jin. "Similar, but no. That Aleesh god that follows you named them as devotion spirits. Doesn't take an augur to see why they flock to you. They embody your greatest strength, binding yourself to oath and ideal."
"The Ethereum," Jin murmured, watching the spirits more closely now. "That's where we are. Oneiromancy brings me close as I dream, then you pull me in the rest of the way." She frowned and faced Gara. "But that doesn't explain you. How are you here?"
"Does it matter?" Gara asked.
"It does," Jin said firmly. She advanced on Gara, reminding herself that she stood an easy two hands over the Queen Founder. "What are you? A specter? Hallucination? Or are you one of the departed bond forgers, masquerading as my ancestor?"
"It's less about what I am," she said, unintimidated. "More about what you are. As I said, you're Jira's. The elven blood in your veins comes from fey. You're mortal, but you're also of the spirits. That allows things unlike anything the world has ever seen before, and I doubt you've even begun to test the limits of that." Shorter she may have been, but Gara could still loom beyond Jin's ability. "There is a reason the demon's sought feylings out, and it's more than being a simple key to Fate's prison. There is a reason demons wish to use them to bring back the firstborn. There is a reason the demons were so furious that they had half our family under their nose, and they never realized the truth of osteomancers." Gara poked Jin in the chest again. "There is a reason Vintus is so powerful, and it's not just because he's undead."
Jin rubbed her collarbone. "Being a feyling grants power?"
"No, it grants a potential for power other mortals lack."
"How do I attain this power?"
Gara shrugged. "I don't know. I was never a feyling."
"Jira," Jin said in a thoughtful tone. "Was that what you called Jiranthis?"
A hint of softness came into Gara's expression, one that vanished as soon as it appeared. She nodded. "You didn't hear everything my husband had to tell you. He knows things I can only guess at, things even this Aleesh god of yours won't tell you. You must listen."
Jin nodded in acceptance. "As you say. He mentioned the ward you used to defend against the death curse and that he may be able to show me the manifestation you used."
"Yes, you'll need it. Otherwise, Althandor will meet the same fate as Shan Alee when the demons rip open the Beyond."
Jin frowned. "I'll see to it that it never comes to that."
Gara nodded. "Good. Stop them. Kill them all. You're an assassin, and death is your trade."
"You still haven't answered my question," Jin said. "How are you here with me?"
Gara smiled darkly. "Because you're my heir, or you can be. Once the fiend stalking you is dead and gone, you will be."
It occurred to Jin that she hadn't felt the creature's presence since arriving. She carefully turned her head a scant movement to the side, but still she felt no sign of it. "Is it gone?"
"Dormant, it seems," Gara reported. "It's still around. You've not yet destroyed it, but it will return. When it does, it will be stronger than before. Be ready. Stay strong. It is a creature of fear, and only your courage can fight it back."
"Courage isn't the opposite of fear," Jin said without thinking. A pain struck her chest when she remembered the last time she said that to someone in a dream. Unlike then, Jin finished the old axiom as it had been told to her countless times throughout her training. "Courage is fear's heir, that which must rise and surpass its predecessor."
"As you say," Gara said proudly. "Now, daughter, rise and surpass me."
Jin closed her eyes and willed herself to wake. She opened them again and found herself back in her physical body. The smooth silk of her nightdress enfolded her, the air carried a pleasant warmth from the hearth in the next room, and all was silent but for the presumed maid still moving about in the main chamber. Jin felt refreshed— sore from her healed injuries, but refreshed nonetheless. There came an urge to begin her exercise routine as she was struck by a surge of restless energy.
It was about then that Jin realized how hungry she was. Thirsty, also. It looked like no one had thought to leave a water jug by her bedside as she recuperated, so Jin saw no choice but to climb out of bed. Leaving her blankets, Jin felt the strength in her limbs. She decided that she must not have collapsed and been carried back to the palace, rather she'd simply been too exhausted to recall getting from there to here. That came as a relief, because Jin didn't like the idea of being changed like an invalid while unconscious.
After taking a dressing robe from her armoire and pulling it around her shoulders, Jin left her bedroom. The main chamber of her suite was well lit by a crackling hearth fire, though the gaslights burned low. It filled the room with warmth, more than she was used to. Almost stifling, in fact. Jin made a mental note to speak with the maid about going easy on the coals.
Jin made her way towards the water basin and took a long drink from a silver ladle.
"Ah, so you're finally awake."
Jin hummed, too focused on quenching her prodigious thirst to give more of an answer than that.
"You were out since I got here. I gather it's been two days since you went down, and those handmaidens of yours keep coming through to check on you."
Jin lowered the ladle and sighed with relief. She raised another drink of water to her lips before a tickle in the back of her brain suggested something was off about the situation. Disregarding it, Jin continued to drink.
"Winds and flames, girl. You could drown a fish with all that."
Jin spat out the last mouthful and whirled to face the intruder in her room. She goggled in shock at the silver woman in a wispy, green dress who knelt in front of her hearth. "Deebee!"
The dratted dragon waggled her fingers in greeting. "Hello."
In hindsight, Jin would later suppose there were important things she should've considered first. In the moment, none of that seemed to matter. Without a single thought to the contrary, Jin rushed to the hearth and threw her arms around the dragon she loved above all others.
"Oh my," Deebee chuckled, receiving Jin into an embrace and stroking her hair. "You know, this is a far better reception than you gave me the last time I popped in here."
Jin buried her face into Deebee's shoulder and did her best not to start blubbering like a fool. "You weren't my mother of the heart back then."
Deebee's arms tightened around Jin. "You mortal girls, always spouting things like that and making my eyesight get all blurry."
"You're not naked this time, either."
"Tragic, I know." Deebee swallowed, as if to choke back a lump in her throat. "Winds show mercy, I was afraid you'd call the guards when you saw me."
"Never," Jin whispered, and it was important enough that Jin felt it necessary to say again. "Never on you. Why are you here? How?"
"Unfortunately, 'how' will take a fair bit of telling, so I won't bore you. As to 'why', that should be obvious."
"But you…" Jin pulled back from the hug to peer into Deebee's eyes. "You left Shan Alee?"
Perhaps it was because of the hopefulness in Jin's tone, or it may have been troubles she couldn't possibly know of, but Deebee averted her gaze. "Only temporarily. I'm sorry, Jin. I'm so, so sorry. I can't leave her."
Jin understood. She didn't feel like she had the right to be disappointed. It was also a topic she wanted desperately to avoid, so she changed the subject. Blatantly, but Deebee was kind enough not to shine a lantern on it. "I think I should hear the 'how', even if it does take a 'fair bit of telling'."
Deebee got up to her feet, assisting Jin to rise along with her. "Alright, if you insist. I had something of a logistical quandary. Your family's palace has all manner of translocational wards over it, and they've been modified to block teleporting since I last observed them. I also couldn't just fly here because of that dratted mist ward your father erected. Dreadfully clever spellcraft, but also something of an obstacle. Though, I suppose that's the point."
Jin furrowed her brow. That was the second time she heard something of a "mist ward" over the Spired City. She still didn't have the faintest idea of what it referred to. An explanation would have to wait until it wouldn't derail Deebee's story. They went to the armchairs facing the hearth and sat down more properly.
"Therefore, I found a happy medium. I became rather familiar with the libraries in Northrun a few decades ago— before meeting Yora— so I was confidant in my ability to teleport into one of the stacks. That upset the custodians there something awful, all those loose papers flying about, and I'm afraid I didn't make matters easier for them to swallow when I became an arkathon on my way out."
Jin reeled underneath that mental image.
Deebee sighed. "I forgot the time difference between the desert's edge and the capital, so I'm afraid I may have panicked a tad. It wasn't early morning as I hoped but right when the doors were opening to the public. I'm sorry to say I caused something of a stir. Next thing I knew, people were calling me a fiend and hailing guardsmen. Good thing I came out of the library close to an alleyway. I ducked in, risked an invisibility spell, became my true self, climbed up the spires, and glided my way here." Deebee shook her head as if it had all been an unavoidable bother. "Is it just me, or are the goodfolk here a little more jumpy than usual?"
Jin didn't know where to start in answering that. "They are, and for good reason."
"Ah, silly of me. Of course. The war."
"More than that," Jin said. "Eastrun was attacked. By fiends. Hordes of them."
She spent the next few minutes informing Deebee of how Algol and Vintus unleashed their creations on the Spired City. Jin omitted the part where she was supposedly revealed to be a blessed saint for the Warding Light. She did, however, tell Deebee about the Gladiator's timely arrival.
"So that's where Grimdar went off to. I tried finding him the other day to ask after you, but he was nowhere to be found. Everyone got so used to him being absent, he managed to slip through the cracks with everything going on back home. Strange, how a male his size can sneak about so well."
"Oh," Deebee said after noting her confusion, "oh, and I guess I'm shocked at his desertion, too."
"It almost sounds as if you're not surprised."
"Hmm? Does it?" She scratched at the back of her head. "I can't imagine why."
Jin frowned, suspicious. "What is going on in Shan Alee? Deebee, why are you here?"
Silver hands wrung together into knots. "I… There are many reasons. One of them is that…" Deebee swallowed, then she set her jaw determinedly. "It's not often I get the urge to slap my daughter, but let me tell you, I nearly gave her a real cheek-tenderizer after you left. I could've spun her head around. I was livid. I still am!"
Jin stared down at her hands, folded in her lap.
"Ah, but you don't want to hear about that," Deebee sighed. "I can't imagine what's going through your head or how you feel."
Jin bit her lower lip before replying. Her voice was small. "I've found it to be easier if I… do not feel at all."
"So like you," Deebee said quietly. "Instead, you focus on your duty, as you see it. Selfless to a fault." She raised a finger to forestall Jin's inevitable protest. "Ah, ah. None of that. You are selfless. Distressingly so, in fact. I'd wager my hoard against a walnut you were about to claim selfishness in your actions, so let me tell you one thing for a certainty. Your measure of selfishness is wildly different from that of the rest of the world."
Jin narrowed her eyes. "Explain."
"You're the sort to think it's selfish to get yourself dinner without first seeing to it everyone else has already eaten. Foolishness, Jin. Utter foolishness. That's not— oh, I don't even know what you'd try to call it— discipline, or… or… whatever. It's self-destruction when taken too far, and you take it too far. If I didn't know any better, I'd get it in my head that you don't much like yourself."
"I like myself just fine," Jin said defensively.
"Of course you do, because you're not an idiot. But you don't have to be an idiot to be a blustering fool."
Hearing Deebee say something similar to what Gara often said bothered Jin for reasons she couldn't articulate.
"Clearly, you're amazing," Deebee continued. "You're skilled at most everything I've ever seen you attempt, you possess the most awe-inspiring combination of devotion and fury in your personality, those cheekbones are to die for, and I haven't even started on that body of yours. Winds and storms, girl, have you any idea of the centuries dragons go through before they craft a form half as gorgeous as yours? And you only needed twenty years to do it!"
Jin blushed and pulled her dressing robe tighter around her chest. She felt like she was being ogled. "I'm twenty-one," she muttered.
"Still? When is your birthday? I don't think I ever asked."
"Fifth of Ice." She shook her head to clear it. "Deebee, what are you getting at?"
Deebee put a finger to her lips and looked off to the side.
"I got distracted!" Deebee crossed her arms and pursed her lips into a pout. "Halfway through, I started thinking I should shape my bosom like yours, but that would throw the whole ratio off. I've always aimed for slender over voluptuous."
"I am hardly…" Jin rubbed her temples and calmed herself before she could get drawn into yet another asinine spat with Deebee.
"Well, maybe you aren't with those shoulders, but if I put your rack on my chest, it'd be a different basket of figs, now wouldn't it! Proportions, girl!"
Despite all efforts to the contrary, Jin was drawn back in. "Copy someone else's, please."
"Winds, but I tried Enfri's the other day. I looked ridiculous. Like a weasel holding cantaloupes."
Jin groaned. "Deebee…"
The atrocity of a dragon rubbed her forehead. "Yes, yes, of course. I let myself get sidetracked again. Where were we?"
"I legitimately have no idea."
Deebee had a disapproving look about her. "Hmm. I feel like I was on the verge of something important, but as you say. I will focus."
Jin thanked every spirit on the wind for that. "You're in top form. What's gotten into you?"
"More like what's gotten out of me," Deebee said with a flippant twirl of her wrist. "Egg-laying leaves its mark on a new mother for a good while, and it's only gotten worse since the hatchlings started hatching. I'm sorry to say I'm something of a bubblehead lately in addition to a blabbermouth."
"So long as you're aware," Jin said with a rueful shake of her head, but then what Deebee revealed struck with full force. "Hatching?"
Deebee nodded eagerly with a broad smile, but it wasn't reaching her eyes for some reason.
"That's…" Jin was at a loss for words. "Anura, Dayja, Darja, and Sooji? And Shaia?"
"I'm impressed you remembered them all," Deebee said, blinking in surprise.
"How could I not?" Jin exclaimed. "Answer, woman!"
"The girls are well," Deebee said quietly. She folded her hands in her lap.
Jin felt something dreadful appear in her chest. "And… Shaia?"
Deebee's voice dropped to a whisper. "Not so well."
Jin left her armchair and went to Deebee. "What's wrong? Tell me."
Deebee kept her eyes shut, a tear welling up from underneath her eyelids. "He's so small in his egg. He's grown weaker by the hour. It was all I could do to…" She opened her eyes, allowed the tear to fall, and she turned towards the hearth. "I didn't know what else to do."
Jin followed her gaze. The hearth was roaring, far brighter and hotter than it rightfully should.
"All I could think of was that he needed his family. To see him through this. To welcome him. We all tried to ignore it, to distract ourselves from it however we could, but Shaia could tell. I'm sure of it. Our family… It isn't complete without you, Jin."
Staring at the hearth with eyes wide open, Jin slid across the floor on her knees. She reached out and nearly neglected to enshroud her arm in a fire ward before putting her hand into the flames. Her palm met eggshell, and she ran her hand across the rough surface.
"You brought him here," Jin whispered.
"If nothing else," Deebee said haltingly, "I wanted him to meet you before…"
Jin felt wetness on her face. Fear clawed at her heart. This hurt, to be denied a brother before ever having the chance to know him. To be denied again.
"Can you help him?" Jin pleaded. She spoke under her breath, the words not meant for ears in this world.
The old forms must be heeded.
"Please," she begged.
I've done all I can, Ranton said. I sent him to you.
"What can I do?" Jin asked, but she didn't have anyone in mind for who she wished to answer. "I'm just a killer. I'm not an heir nor a saint. I'm…" She swallowed and sniffed back her tears. Her eyes hardened. "I'm tired of losing."
Jin reached both hands into the fire to grip Shaia's egg. Behind her, Deebee rose to her feet but didn't approach.
"You listen to me," Jin said. "I didn't get to meet my twin."
A weak and pitiful rocking came from the egg in her grip.
Her voice rose in volume. "Killers took him from me, so what's your excuse?"
The egg went still again.
"You've two mothers, six sisters, and whatever in Hell's name Ban is waiting for you, but you don't get to meet us for nothing. No one is going to crack that shell for you, because that's your task. You have to do it. We're worth fighting for, so fight! Fight, my Gambler, and…"
The eggshell burst open.
Flames caught the fluids rushing out of the shell and raced inside. Strengthened by fire, Shaia the Gambler cast off the final shards of his egg and tumbled out onto the coals. Soot and embers coated his silver scales as he rolled out of the hearth and into Jin's arms.
Jin clamped her mouth shut and looked down in shock at the little bundle of silver and soot she held. Her surprise faded to something else when Shaia opened a pair of bright, amber eyes to stare back at her. The Gambler chirped, and if Jin didn't miss her guess, it had a haughty tone to it. He seemed to say, "There, I did it. Happy?"
Deebee gave a wordless squawk and dove to her knees beside them. Jin handed Shaia over without argument and watched the mother dragon burst into tears as she nuzzled her son.
Jin's lips pressed into a line as she met the hatchling's eyes again. Despite getting mothered over by Deebee, he watched Jin. His head tilted to the side, curious and inquisitive. He blinked his large and bright eyes slowly before chirping at her once again.
"You lout," Jin muttered. "Don't tell me you were only late hatching because you're lazy."
Shaia yawned. It displayed rows of razor-like teeth and was accompanied by a puff of dragon fire.
His mother was inconsolable and didn't seem to hear any of the exchange. Deebee pulled a cloth from her holding spell and began wiping Shaia's scales clean of soot and traces of egg fluid still burning all across his little body.
Deebee looked over Shaia to Jin. "I can't believe it. Jin, you…"
"That one will require a firm hand," Jin said, getting to her feet. "Mark my words."
Shaia's attention turned finally to Deebee, and he gazed at her with plain adoration. With each word his mother burbled at him, his recognition of her was strengthened. Shaia happily nuzzled her in return and chirped his appreciation for her affection.
"Winds take me," Deebee whispered. "Winds and flames. I didn't dare dream…"
Jin helped Deebee to her feet. She put an arm around her and scratched Shaia under his chin. The hatchling closed his eyes and purred.
She was happy. It was difficult to contain the warmth and joy fighting to burst out of her as Shaia had done from his egg. However, Jin was all too aware of the world outside this moment, and of what it required of them all.
"You have to take him home," Jin said. She lay her head on Deebee's shoulder as she looked at Shaia and patted his scales. "He still has to meet everyone else."
Deebee gasped. "Winds, Kimpo's going to lose her mind! And Enfri will…" She sobered and took a step away from Jin. The heartache on her face was undisguised. "Jin, I'm sorry."
Jin brushed bits of soot from her nightdress' sleeve. "It's alright."
"No," Deebee cried. "No, it isn't. Nothing about this is alright. It feels like I'm… Like I'm choosing!"
Looking away, Jin couldn't bring herself to answer. She couldn't give voice to the words of how Deebee had every right to choose. She'd known Enfri longer, had invested far more into her, and had named her a daughter of the heart for so much longer than she ever looked at Jin as anything more than a threat. It was absolutely clear and obvious that Deebee could and should choose Enfri over any other.
It still hurt.
"Whatever happens," Jin said, unable to look Deebee in the eye, "whatever comes, I need you to know I love you."
A hand touched her cheek. Lips pressed to her forehead. Deebee pulled away again but held on to Jin's hand. "Whatever may come," she said, "I will always love you, my daughter."
Deebee let go of her. Jin opened her eyes, and Deebee and Shaia were gone. The balcony door hung open and allowed in a nighttime breeze. The fire within the hearth burned low until it was little more than embers. The light and warmth that filled the chamber before had faded.
A breath passed through Jin's lips. She approached the balcony door and slowly pushed it closed. Thoughts of battles yet to come filled her head, ones she wished would never need to be fought. Jin swallowed past a lump in her throat and turned back to face her empty room.
"May we never meet again."