“…Do you know what they call a grouping of dragons?”
The remnants of a half-forgotten conversation floated around in time with the clicking of metal tracks underneath, bumping a gentle rhythm into the quiet whistling of wind. Yun blinked, her eyelids dragging heavily along the burning friction of early waking. She couldn’t remember what it was that had her dreaming so soundly, but she wanted desperately to return to it. She closed her eyes again only to find the cloying heat of summer sticking to her skin.
Giving up, she climbed down from the bed and sat by the window, letting the wind cool her face. Her hair, cut haphazardly below her ears, was clearly reflected in the window, and she noticed how much she’d have rather it have been left an inch or two longer and not hastily dyed black. Not like she had much of a choice in that regard. Outside, she could make out the lights of New Moon Port in the distance, breathing like fireflies against the darkness. A lantern rocked in time with the movements of the train, hanging off the end of a worn wooden staff. Yun snapped, a dim light flickered inside the lantern then spilled out, casting the cabin in shades of shifting orange.
She pulled the journal out of her bag, flipping through its tattered pages once more. Though not more than a couple years since she last wrote in it, she couldn’t escape the feeling that its contents were written by someone else. Its entries were sparse enough as is, spaced strangely and consisting mostly of resupply lists or notes about restaurants, but even now she felt there was something missing here and there, in the edges of her perception. Still, it was the only record that remained of her journey, so she couldn’t help but fret over its pages.
More vexed than when she awoke, Yun sighed, shutting the book and replacing it in her bag. With a snap, the lantern went out once more, inviting faraway lights to reappear in her vision. Though there were certainly better places to get a view, the darkness of the water surrounding the tracks provided a stunning mirror of the spilling purples and pinks of the Star Sea above. For a moment, the rapid movement of the train over the reflected stars evoked the feeling of riding further and further into the infinite depths of the galaxy.
Yun arrived two hours before sunrise, in the transient hour before the promise of dawn brings coffee stands and fishermen hustling past each other in the lamplit streets; the lanterns holding as steady as the nighttime sun. She came upon the last noodle shop hanging up its equipment and couldn’t help but stare longingly at the empty stockpots being thrown into the sink. Even if she hadn’t arrived just as it was closing, the dwindling pouch of coins in her pocket might not have stretched over dinner and an inn stay anyhow.
There was certainly an urgency to her travels, one that would have been much easier to address had her coin purse not sprung a leak that left her trailing gold for hours. At the point she noticed, it was much too late to salvage any of the fallen gold and she decided to cut her losses then and there. It wasn’t ideal to have to pick up jobs between stops in order to continue on, but it reminded her fondly of the day to day living of adventuring. She sighed, setting to find an inn for the night, walking along the cascading streets, taking note of the streetlamps reflected in the inky-black water below.
The smell of breakfast, or more precisely lunch, was enticing and Yun found herself unable to resist getting up only a couple hours after going to sleep. She draped herself in her traveling robes and walked down the solid wooden stairs, the warmth of the dining hall seeping into her bones. A melody of scents hung in the air accompanied by the sizzling of frying eggs. Charcoal grilled fish, the heavy aroma of garlic and onions being sauteed, and, most importantly, the smell of fresh bread being broken.
She sat down, ordered, then closed her eyes to listen to the ambient sound of people going about their day. She could make out conversations about work, home, romance, and more. Little snippets, enough to pique one’s interest. Then she began to see the threads open up before her closed eyes. Golden ropes woven across the room, some taut and some loose. Some intertwined and knotted, and others just beginning to fray.
The man sitting two tables over was having family troubles due to the uncharacteristically poor weather ruining his crop yield. His thread was taut and shining, though, and Yun guessed he would encounter some good fortune soon enough.
The woman sitting in the corner sounded like she was bragging about her inheritance, but her thread, while thick, was wound with the kind of tension that could snap at any moment.
The sound of a plate being set down cleared the visions away, causing Yun to open her eyes, a sparking golden tinge in them fading quickly to a dark brown.
“Oh. Thank you.” Yun bowed her head slightly.
“No problem, dearie. You enjoy now,” the server grinned.
She tucked into her food, taking care to rip open the bread. The aroma that burst out was of warm nights spent gently milling grain. If not for the abundance of people around, she might have wanted to just press her face directly into the bread and go to sleep. Instead, she dipped the bread into her soup and began to eat, letting the rich, fatty broth ease her thoughts away for just a moment. It had a deep, savory flavor that coated her tongue, permeating the soft, airy bread with resounding satisfaction.
She picked at the charcoal grilled fish next, letting the beautifully charred, crispy skin melt in her mouth, followed by beautifully juicy, tender flesh. It was hot enough that she had to intersperse each bite with a moment or two of intaking sharp breaths. Chasing it all down with a cup of bright coffee was exactly the kind of thing she woke up in the morning for.
After successfully wolfing down her breakfast, Yun gathered her belongings and checked out, leisurely strolling the streets. There was some time until she needed to be anywhere so she decided to look around. New Moon Port was the kind of place she liked: lively, full of diverse sights and sounds, and, most importantly, home to many, many different kinds of food. Though it was much larger than the coastal town she came from, it instilled in her the kind of nostalgic attachment that attracted her to all trading cities.
Of course, there were just as many things to find off-putting about such large places. Like the people on the street corners evangelizing about how such and some will cause the destruction of all civilization. It was always a little different everywhere she went. Yun listened for a second or two, but couldn’t really make heads or tails of it. She sighed, and walked to her destination.
Tucked between two larger shops was a small building constructed primarily of wood. Despite there being plenty of business in the surrounding area, the shop staring Yun down had no indication it was even open. Were it not for the smoke coming out of the chimney, it was possible to think no one was inside at all. It was that sort of place, after all. She slid the door open and was greeted by a wave of heat and incense that mingled oddly with the warming summer air. The inside was dimly lit and the sunlight refused to penetrate into the back of the shop, giving the impression of walking into a dark cave.
Sitting near the back of the room, near a fire pit dug into the ground, was a slender woman wrapped in an excessive amount of layers. Sheer white hair cascading down the entirety of her back and highlighting the sickly pale tone of her skin. A deep, dark blue cloth draped over her left eye matched the tone of her jacket, embroidered in subtle constellations of golden thread. She looked up, holding a long metal pipe with perfect precision, a steady tendril of smoke curling and undulating out of it like a living creature. When Yun got closer she could smell tobacco mingling with the incense.
Yun looked at, tried not to look at, Tsukimi’s thread. It was well-braided, shining ominously red, and coiled all around her body, tightly. It pressed against her clothes to accentuate her curves. It always felt invasive, but it was even harder to not see it considering the power that ran through those threads. Tsukimi was courteous enough not to mention the rapidly increasing blood flow rushing to her cheeks.
“Ruinbringer.” A low, deliberate voice cut through the air, caressing Yun’s ears. Her eye twitched as a reflex.
“Tsukimi.” Yun responded, staring at the composed smile that never quite reached her eye.
“You wish to know the whereabouts of the man formerly known as the Demon Lord, yes?” Her speech was always meticulously paced and listening to it had an effect unsettlingly not unlike claustrophobia. It paced around her, closing surely but ever so slowly.
Yun didn’t really know how to respond, wondering how, exactly, she projected that air of clairvoyance.
“For what other reason would the Ruinbringer send a letter to one of her former companions after so long? Certainly not to make small talk, I would imagine.”
“Perhaps not with you.”
“Certainly not with the others.”
Of all her former companions, Tsukimi was the only one who seemed to find her company even tolerable, owing likely to her own status as an outsider, even though she was well considered one of the heroes. A mechant wasn’t exactly the easiest role to fit into an expedition party; it was seemingly a miracle she made it out alive at all.
“I have prepared what you have asked for. As promised I will ask no questions. However, I will simply ponder out loud that perhaps your situation is a little desperate.” Tsukimi said, taking out a small, lacquered box.
“You could say that.” Yun said, tucking it into her bag.
”You are searching for answers.”
“How did you-?”
“You did not slay Nari Han.”
“You would believe the words of an outlaw?”
“I believe in my own judgement.”
“Nonetheless. You seek the Valley of Khine, to the northeast. I take it you know the way.”
“Surely. You will be needing companions, yes?”
Yun shook her head, Tsukimi twitched her eyebrows ever so slightly.
“Done with companions?”
“You and I both know-“
“That would be a shame. I have a knight looking to head to Khine as well. I imagine a good child like her could use the experience of a seasoned adventurer to get there safely.”
She sat still as death, slowly breathing in the last wisp of smoke from her pipe. She exhaled.
“Consider it a job, then. Since you cannot take them from the Guild.”
Yun stared, trying to read anything that belied her motivations. Even with her strained relationship with the other heroes, Tsukimi was the greatest mystery of the bunch. Utterly unreadable, nary an explanation, she couldn’t even be sure about what her gift was. She sighed.
“Fine. It won’t be cheap, though.”
“I will send only the finest.”
“Tomorrow morning. Earliest train out of here.” She felt her spine tingle in anticipation of a proper drink.
As she walked back to her inn, the closing of the daytime was signalled by the lighting of lanterns. Their flames kept the streets lit against the darkness, long throughout the night, and contributed to the epithet “The City of Starlight.” Strings of lanterns were dangled high above each street in dense lattices, suggesting the faraway lights lost when in the city’s midst.
It was at moments like this when Yun felt the most taken with the movement of people. The sounds of people heading home mingling with the smell of meat grilled over charcoal nourished her in a way she always cherished. Even ostracized as she was, the passing connection she felt to all those around her, as the gentle threads of fate brushed against her skin, reminded her always of why she went on the journey.