The flames danced in the breeze.

Ling watched the line of birth-day candles beside her. She remembered the day she’d made them. As soon as Xiaoshū had announced her pregnancy, she’d hopped to work: collecting the lotus flowers, infusing the beeswax, decorating the candles. Then they’d burnt them halfway, the day Yuling was born, to welcome her to the realm of the Earth Dragon. As was their Duty.

A candle went dark, and Ling stood up to relight it. It was crucial that every candle ran its course, for the candles guided one’s Dragonheart away from this world, back to the Water Dragon. And so it was Ling’s Duty to stand vigil tonight.

She drifted back over to her cushion and looked out toward Lake Sui-ming. It was beautiful tonight: its waters crystal clear, the ripples shining under the half-moon, the stars standing vigil. If nothing else, this was the perfect place to leave this world.

Yuling had been the sweetest darling: full of life and ambition, always wanting to help the village. Once she’d started her training, there was never any hog-play with her. And when she’d become Prefect, they’d all thought she’d gotten her chance.

She … certainly had died in the course of her Duty. They will say it was Honourable. But it hadn’t been a death in combat, a risk of Duty; it had been a meaningless death at the hands of a barbarian.

She’d had so much potential, so much energy. Her life could have refined her Dragonheart.

Now she was gone.

Ling knew she should be praying. But she couldn’t. Not tonight. Tonight, she could only watch the candles and tell herself they caused the moisture in her eyes. It was all she could do not to cry.