Assassins. Instead of pistols, the red-robed horsemen wore broad curving swords at their sides. Men from the Pennant Cities, across the Deep Straits from Chayan. Desert warriors, but in the wrong desert.
The conductor approached the three assassins with obvious caution, gun held with a bent elbow but not aiming at anyone. The cowboy and cook followed. Jimmy Fu angled away from them to place himself directly between the strangers and the passengers. He eased into the shadow they cast from the fire and sat in the dust between two flagstones.
“Mind if I ask you gentlemen what your business is here?” the conductor squawked.
“¿Qué te becarios quieres?” the cook asked, just to be thorough. After all, they were in Chayan.
“If yer looking to rob the train,” the cowboy planted himself beside the conductor, “you oughta know that this part of Léxico State is the territory of the Lodge Gang, and they won’t like—”
“There is no Lodge Gang,” one of the strangers spoke through the red shawl covering his face. He turned to the assassin on his left and spoke words in a language none of them understood. “Ra mahmula.” The man spoken to tugged his reins and rode off toward the rear of the train. The passengers watched him in silence.
Behind them the passenger cars popped in the flames. The sound of hungry coyotes howling and yipping in the distance, the passengers gasped and whimpered, as if greater dangers were not standing before them.
Jimmy Fu carefully took in the gathering of souls around him. The second of the three assassins nudged his white horse toward the train engine. They were flanking the survivors. One of the eighteen passengers is pregnant, so nineteen in all? The girl had sweat on her forehead like beads of dew. Another life for him to protect.
His fingers found grooves in the flagstones lying in the dust at either side. He glanced down. The grooves were writing. Names, dates. He realized they were fallen tombstones. Emblems of death. Of fate. Like large Sparrow tiles. He stood.
The lead assassin drew his curved sword and swept it through the air in an arc down the train’s fallen length. The freight cars burst into flame.
The passengers murmured and shrieked.
They went silent as the lead assassin spoke again: “We are the Tufáh, and you are unfortunates in the way of our cause.”
The assassins, now in a triangle around the passengers, called back and forth in their foreign tongue. Jimmy Fu did not understand their language, but he understood the gestures. There were to be no witnesses, no survivors.
Lu Long was never far from Shou Yan’s side. The odd, nauseating scents of Jackland were held at bay by the sweet aroma of her perfume, the rattling noise of Lighchester diminished to a whisper by the song of her voice. She carried the comfort and grace of the Shou court with her wherever she set her feet, and Lu Long felt at home in her presence as if he had never left the familiar pleasures of the Imperial Capital.
The soft curve of her cheek was the gentle sweep of a silk curtain bending in a warm breeze, the bleached pearl cloth of the Festival of the Horse. The gentle tilt of her eyebrow was the sheltering angle of a temple roof, smooth clay tiles catching the cool summer rain of the hills of Tsaodi. The rich, dark tones of her braided hair were a vision of the fertile, turned earth of the valleys of Du.
All the savage pomp and pedigree of Jackland faded like a winter dream, the lordly titles of their hosts and complex imagery of their flags glancing off of his mind like arrows deflected by an iron shield. His heart was enamored and armored.
Then, he saw a train.
The pale-haired phantoms of Jackland brought the Princess to a “rail station” that stank like oil and a strong charwood. It smelled like a forge. The warm humidity of steam lingered in the air. Lu Long’s mind was drawn from the Princess to his own anvil, where he had found his sword in the burning wood, the quickening fire, the shielding bricks, the metal ore, and the cooling water.
They waited on the platform for several minutes before the train arrived. The sound of it came first, a heaving grunt of metal and fire, like the pulse of the bellows and the clank of the hammer against steel. Down the tracks Lu Long watched it approach, a shaft of iron and heat and steam and smoke, the great Huoche of which he had only heard legend and rumor.
The persistent cloud of Jackland parted, and the sun poured its light and warmth on him as the train screeched to a stop before him, the sound like a great sword being sheathed after a long and bloody battle.
He boarded the train like a man stepping into a sacred precinct, a respectful step behind the Princess, his duty to protect. The wood and iron closed around them, and he was rendered moot. What could he do for her that this fortress, this weapon could not? If the train was broken, what good would his sword be, even whole?
They rode the train round the circuit of Jackland, spending one night in the north at a Royal hostel near the damp Marches of Cartley before returning to the port of Lighchester. In the chill of the night, the Princess had summoned him to tea. Lu Long begged her forgiveness, pleading weariness from the journey.
The train was the greatest work of metal Lu Long had ever seen, strong yet flexible, and driven by flame. As it moved through the gray-green countryside of Jackland past the overgrown ruins of barbarian castles and ancient cairns, its engine growled like a holy dragon and its wheels sang on the rails like the sweetest blade.
Despite his great victories on the sea journey from Shou, Lu Long felt a sting in his heart as he had stung the hearts of the vikings in the icy waters off Vexillor. He had shredded the red robes of the assassins of Kital, but now the illusion of his own mastery was shredded. He had cut the sails of the pirates in the waters off Huandu, but now the sails of his pride were cut from their masts. His hand weakened around the hilt of his sword.
Even so, he thought, the trains of Jackland were bound to their small island, moving round it in a circuit like a child’s hoop toy. The guardian of the Princess of Shou regained his strength, his pride, and his certainty.
I am Lu Long of Du Province, he told himself, the greatest swordsman in all of the Empire of the Banner and the escort … the fiancé to the Princess of the Banner, Shou Yan.
As the Imperial flotilla pulled away from Lighchester on a heading for the port of Gorham in the Flag Republic, Lu Long stood at the stern, watching the industry of Jackland slip into the fog like a string of lanterns. Shou Yan stood beside him, holding her empty embroidery frame, in silence.
Jimmy Fu lifted his hands from the fallen tombstones and dug his fingers into the dry earth of the desert. The flames crawled along the arc of the derailed train, spreading their red glow across the wastes of Chayan. He looked up to the Torch Star, the wandering bat.
And, with the bat filling his body, he flew.
The assassin leader swung his curved sword too soon. Jimmy Fu kicked it aside with one foot, set his other foot against the saddle, dug his fingers into the throat, and tore away the flesh of the man’s breath.
Hooves beat against the dust, the whistle of a sword through the cold night air. Iron tore through meat and one of the passengers fell. His head fell a moment later.
The conductor and the cowboy fired their guns weakly into the night air. The second assassin rode on, his sword flinging blood.
Jimmy Fu relieved the lead assassin of his sword and sent it spinning into the second assassin’s chest. The horse bolted under his feet, and he cartwheeled to the desert sand.
The third assassin tore into the passengers, gutting three of them with his spinning curved sword. The kitchen boy and the pregnant girl cringed at his approach.
Shots rang out from the cowboy and the conductor. The assassin’s arms flagged, his horse stumbling in its trot. Bloom blossomed darkly in his scarlet robes.
Jimmy Fu squatted and dug his fingers into the sand around a carved flagstone.
The conductor fired again, but shot wild. The assassin’s horse stomped to a halt between the Chayano boy and the girl with the swollen belly. There was a pop and a curse as the cowboy’s gun blew up in his hand. The curved sword rose over the hunched passengers.
Jimmy Fu spun three times. He opened his fingers and the grave marker flew through the air.
There was a sickening crunch as the stone collided with the last assassin’s skull.
One of the freight cars exploded with a ball of fire rising into the empty night sky. The passengers fell against knees and elbows in the desert night. The conductor fired a stray shot into the night as he fell onto his back. The coyotes had gone silent, but the surviving passengers were whimpering and crying.
Jimmy Fu walked over to the cowboy. The man’s hand was bleeding, but not shredded. He would be okay. Jimmy calmly moved among the survivors, stepping over fallen bodies, gathering up the reins of the three assassin horses.
He led the mounts to the conductor, who had regained his feet. The man’s eyes were on the burning train and took a moment to notice the monk.
“Use these to find help for your passengers,” Jimmy Fu said.
The man wiped sweat and dirt from his face.
Jimmy handed the reins over. “The Huobu cannot own a horse.”
The man nodded and took the horses. “But still. We owe you our lives.”
Jimmy Fu stared off along the tracks, to the north.
“I am Huobu. What I gave you, give back another day.”