1860, the Year of Magia
"So, all set?" A large man asked, standing by the front door of Ayami's home. He had a thick grey beard and the look of someone who had seen far more than most other people but hadn't let it bother him.
"Yes, yes. Just a second." Ayami replied, her kind voice echoing in the mostly empty home. She folded her last shirt and stored it away in the large bag on her wooden table. "Done."
"Good. Everyone else is ready."
"How many?" Ayami asked. With short raven hair tied into a bun, she made sure her long-sleeved white shirt had no dirt on it as her father replied.
"Maybe a dozen, counting us." Then, an uncomfortable look appeared on his face and he scratched the back of his head. "So… Is he coming or not?"
"No." She closed her eyes for a moment before nodding to herself. "He has too many responsibilities."
"One of them being his wife, and yet he's not coming." The old man replied.
"Father, stop," Ayami said. "We've been over this. I'm not going to force him to stop working just so he can come on a month-long vacation."
"Wouldn't it be possible for him to set aside some time?"
"You know how the higher districts work. No, it isn't." Ayami clarified.
"Eh, I know how they work, doesn't mean I understand them, though." Her father lamented. "I've walked through those districts so many times and it still feels like I live in a different world from the people who live there. All I know are the best ways to swing an ax."
At that, Ayami smirked.
"You sure about that? Been a while, hasn't it?"
"Ah, those kinds of lessons never go away, 'Yami. Levels are neat but skills and techniques? Those are eternal. Those are what make the difference."
You would know, I guess.
Indeed, her father's level was one that many who saw it would stand in awe of.
A warrior, through and through, he'd never bothered putting any points into his Intelligence stat or his Wisdom. Personally, Ayami had always disliked how the deities who conjured up this world chose to tie magic to those attributes, as they were completely arbitrary names.
In other words, just because his Wisdom and Intelligence were so low didn't mean anything. He was one of the wisest men Ayami knew.
As she was a regular person, her own stats were nothing anyone would be impressed by. After all, the only way to gain attribute points was to kill a living creature and level up or perform extensive amounts of specific training, and she hadn't done either.
The Luck attribute had always intrigued Ayami. It was said that the attribute governed the affection that the gods held for you, but for most people, it was at a static 5 and would never be increased.
Some of the more nihilistic philosophers over the years had always taken this as proof that humanity was secretly hated by the gods. And, with how dangerous the world was, Ayami had a hard time disagreeing with that.
With that, he turned around and started heading out of the house. "I'll tell them you're done."
Just as her father was about to exit, someone else opened the door and accidentally slammed it into his face. Ayami cringed when she heard the smacking sound that came with the incident. If it were someone else, someone of a much lower level, she'd expect the person to be knocked out. But, as it was her father, a wise old veteran of Jade's army, he didn't even take a step back.
"AYAMI!" A thin man called out. "O-Oh, sorry, Kazu, uh, sir!"
Her father grumbled and said:
"'Yami, your husband is here."
"I noticed." Ayami sighed. Her father exited the house and when Ayami turned around, she saw a thin, clumsy young man with just a few hairs on his chin and bright blue eyes. He was wearing his usual ji, a combination of long white/gold robes, white pants, and golden shoes, as he walked up to her, exhausted.
Ayami couldn't help but chuckle a little. A part of her wanted to be mad, but this sort of thing had been a consistent part of their relationship over the past five years. Try as she might, she simply couldn't remain angry at him.
"I, oh goodness, I ran." He coughed, breathing heavily. Ayami shook her head, turning away to hide a smile. "UGH, I'm exhausted."
"I can tell," Ayami responded as she bit back a chuckle.
"U-Uh, well, I mean, you… Uh…" Finally, he took a second to calm down and said, "are you mad at me?"
"Maybe." Ayami turned around, before holding her index finger up at him. "I'm glad you're here now though." At that, he gave a relieved smile and straightened his back up. Ayami walked up to him and planted a small peck on his lips. "I have to go, though. They're waiting on me."
"Can they wait a little longer?" He asked, countering with his own kiss and Ayami shook her head, laughing.
"No, I don't believe they can."
"Alright." He took a step back. "Walk you there?" He asked, and Ayami grinned.
The pair walked out then into the buzzing streets of Jade, the capital of Nova's Jewel Empire. It occupied a central spot in Nova's geography and presented a cosmopolitan culture that mixed together most of the elements of the empire. From the artistic and expressive side of the western city of Pearl, which was seen in the lackadaisical clothing and blasé attitude of the younger members of society, to the cold grey stone in the architecture that was reminiscent of the honorable and old city of Onyx to the east.
People of all walks of life lived here. In a city like Sapphire, up north, a visitor would likely understand that the vast majority of people they met would be impoverished low-class colonized citizens. Here, however, anyone a visitor spoke to could be rich or starving.
Ayami felt her husband's left hand ensnare her waist and she adjusted her own pace to match his.
"I'm going to be awfully lonely for a while huh?" Her husband asked.
"Not too long. Just a month."
"I'd bet a lot of money that it's going to feel like an eternity."
"… You'd likely win that bet. On both our ends."
Ayami gave him a bittersweet smile. He returned it and lifted his chin as his eyes scanned the area around them. He was a few inches taller than her, but when his eyes gained the determined glint that they held in this instant, she felt like he was a giant. Before, when she first met him, her friends and family hadn't understood why she liked him, but it was moments like these that showed the man's true self. A determined individual who took what life gave him in stride.
"We should visit the Spirit Gardens District," he said suddenly, "when you come back, I mean."
"I'd love to!" Ayami agreed. "It's been so long since I've seen the spirits. You must be tired of it by now, working so close to that place."
"That sight," he replied, "it's the kind that you never get tired of. No matter what."
Looking up at him, she replied:
"Yes, I agree."
A few minutes later, they were standing just a bit of distance away from the Lantern Pass. Jade's western gate led to the Valley of Lanterns, a road illuminated by those special objects which glowed brilliantly at night. Ayami's husband placed a slender hand on the small of her back and she glanced at the caravan. Several men and women were boarding the grand wooden vehicle as Ayami approached. The driver spotted Ayami and, as he knew who she was, nodded to her with a greeting.
"Ah, so the time's already here." Her husband said with disappointment plain to sense in his tone. They looked into each other's eyes. "A month, right?"
"Yes." Ayami sighed. "It'll be over before you know it."
"I sincerely hope you're right."
With one last kiss, the two separated.
"See you soon then," he said, and Ayami pecked him on the cheek one more time before walking away. It's always fairly lonely when he's not around. She thought as she neared the vehicle.
"Hello! I received your payment already, feel free to hop on."
She walked up the wooden steps and into the spacious vehicle. The smell of lit duskweed and the sounds of festive chattering hit her ears almost instantly. Oh no, please tell me these people aren't the energetic types. With a light-hearted sigh, Ayami continued into the vehicle. She smiled and politely waved at the other passengers, though many of them didn't pay her much attention. They were all impressive in their own ways though.
At the front sat the guards. Four young Jade knights, who likely took this job as a means to make a few easy crowns, and her father, the oldest of them. Of course, his level was the highest as well out of anyone in that caravan. That was a fact Ayami was fairly proud of. However, as proud as she was of her father, she could not sit next to him. He had once told her that she had a bad habit of turning him softer when she was around, and in front of the knights, he needed to be the picture of stoic duty. So, she walked past him.
Eventually, she found an empty seat near the back and placed her bag on its cushioned leather. Well, now what? She asked herself as a woman in a black and gold business ji walked into the caravan.
"Good morning everyone." She said, her voice smooth and comforting. Ayami didn't doubt that was why she was hired for this position. "We will be departing now. Please, remain seated for the duration of the trip. If you have a question, do not hesitate to call out to me. We will stop to make camp at night, so you may all eat and take care of any business in the wild. Any questions?" The woman asked. No one said anything. "Alright then. Have a wonderful trip."
With that, the caravan soon began moving. And, along with it, Ayami's comfort remained in Jade. She looked out the window, watching as citizens gawked at them and she smirked.
Yeah, yeah. Everyone wants to travel but no one really knows what it means. Leaving your home, and your loved ones behind. It's an activity for the empty of heart, really. But, well, sometimes it's necessary.
She leaned her head back on the chair and took a deep breath.
Hopefully, my mother will be alright. It's been some time since I've seen her.
When the caravan officially left the city, the land changed. The Valley of Lanterns, which was just outside of Jade, came into view. A street decorated with hundreds of small lanterns carrying dim golden flames that never burnt out. It was said those were the spirits of repentant criminals, given a task by the gods to keep the streets safe.
Or maybe they're just little torches put there by mages, Ayami said to herself as she chuckled.
Though, it was hard to dispute that the gods had blessed the world around her. The Jewel Empire was evidence of that. Ayami had also been lucky enough to be born and raised in Jade, one of the most beautiful cities in all the land.
As the caravan picked up a little bit of speed, occasionally bumping due to the rocks and dips in the dirt road, Ayami pulled out a small notepad.
As a child, she'd wanted to be an artist. Everyone around her had grown up admiring the heroes of Nova, those high-level vigilantes that fought off the nightmares and monsters that plagued the lands. She'd even seen a few of them, of course, since her father was a knight and would often invite such warriors home for dinner. Yes, she'd seen all manner of talent. But, it was the painters and sculptors who tended to impress her. Instead, she settled for the life of a housewife, but sometimes, she still felt that itch.
Well, why not. It'll be a while anyway. She decided and pulled out a small brush she kept in her bag for exactly these kinds of occasions. The only paint she had was black but that was all she needed.
Hopefully, the trip would be over soon. She was already missing the quaint walls of her home city.