The Gentleman of Weapons
Chapter Twenty: The Ashes

Or,

Hope is the Thing with Feathers.

I wake.

This is unexpected in itself.

I hurt. A hell of a lot.

That, after accepting that I am not dead, is hardly surprising.

I have lived with hurt a long time, though. So I open my eyes as soon as I am able, and pay no heed to the many valid protestations of my body.

It is loud.

It is dark.

It is warm.

Primary observations. So far, I could be any number of places. I could be on the Island, but I could just as easily be on a Fire Nation Dreadnought. I could be dead, if some of the more exotic depictions of the afterlife are correct.

I do not... think I am dead. But it's always wise to consider all the possibilities.

I try to lift my head up, but a wave of nausea and dizziness hits me like a hammer, slamming me backwards.

So, no way to tell if the spinning of the room is my own head or the swell of a ship.

Another moment of lying, trying to filter out all the indistinct but unmistakably human noises all around me, and I open my eyes again. This time I look to my right.

I see another bed, pushed up against the wall.

It's occupied.

The girl it holds has been shed of her armour, leaving her clad in a light shirt that has been pulled up, exposing a mess of blood-soaked bandages over her stomach. Her legs are covered by a blanket.

She is unconscious.

Abruptly, her entire body jerks upwards, a hacking cough propelling her upwards for a fraction of a second.

Flecks of blood spurt from her lips, dark and viscous, staining her facepaint.

Her left arm flops outwards, escaping from the confines of the bed.

Unconsciously, my hand reaches for hers.

There is no life in it.

It's easy to look away.

It is significantly harder to wrench my head up from the pillow and shout.

Nevertheless, that is what I do, and I pray my cry will be heard in the cacophony of the underground medical centre.

"Medic!"

It's too late for her. A healer rushes, too slowly, and forces a plume of water down the child's throat.

She was not coughing. She was retching. Something internal was bleeding, and her body was trying to expel it.

An hour ago, the treatment she now receives might have worked. But there are so many, so many that might have died if left unattended long enough to heal this one fully. So her skin was sealed, and she was given a place to rest, and a brief prayer that that would be enough.

It was not enough.

She is dying, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

I hold her hand, in the darkness, as the healer frantically tries to do something, to stop the shaking that has taken her. Sometimes, that's all we can do.

Sometimes all anyone can do is be there.

It is not until it is too late- not until the waterbender stops, slowly, and shakes her head- that I see it. Not until the healer reaches out and places a hand on the child's forehead that I recognise her.

Oh Kame. You would have been safer amongst the healers.

I no longer wish to be here.

So I leave.

Every muscle in my back hates me as I rise. Every bone in my body screams at me as I stand on the warm earth floor but I barely notice it over the fire consuming my legs and back and and I am master of it, for just long enough.

Someone tells me I should rest.

I cannot rest here.

I am too much a coward to rest here.

I do not... recall how I left the medical cellar. My next memory is sitting, facing the sea. My back leaning against what remains of a wall. The gutted village behind me.

The sea seems clear of ironclads. The wreck of the Coiling Dragon is there, though. It will probably entertain the Unagi for months.

In my current state, I do not hear the man walk towards me. I have no knowledge of his existence until he speaks.

"The tides have washed you back up onto the beach, I see."

I exhale, slowly. Everything I do I am forced to do slowly.

"If by that you mean I am still alive, then... yes. I think so, Chief Hakoda."

He does not make his response in words. Instead, he takes a seat beside me.

After a while, I find the strength in me to continue.

"Of course, I find myself wondering exactly how this is possible."

"You don't remember" he asked, almost amused. I didn't see the joke.

"The last thing I recall is... falling from the ship." I raised my arm, vaguely pointing to the wreck. "Then... nothing more." My hand dropped down, exhausted by the mere effort required to keep it upright.

He shakes his head, softly amused.

"You have my father in law to thank for that. I'll admit he moved faster than I thought possible after your boat was hit."

I think I may have missed a page or two, because I cannot fathom what on earth the man is talking about.

"Father in law"

Does he seem surprised at my ignorance"

"Did he not tell you" Master Pakku and my mother are to be married." He frowned as he said it, as though he would rather have found some other way to put it.

It takes a moment for his words to sink in.

Pakku.

Married.

Father in law.

I pat the chief on the shoulder, as a sign of commiseration.

"I'm very sorry."

His features harden, and I know instantly that my semi-conscious and ill-thought out attempt at levity has failed.

I never was good at lightening the mood, and I regret trying. It's the wrong time for such things.

"Pakku is a good man, and a good friend," I elaborated, hoping to ease his mind. "His sense of humour is... abrasive, although I am sure you have already seen that, and he can be a cantankerous old goat at the best of times."

Hakoda nodded.

"He seems... intense."

"Oh yes. He is a teacher at heart, one with the highest of expectations. He never switches off, never stops teaching, and more importantly, never stops evaluating. He is one of the greatest friends I have left, but I could not stand him for more than a few months a year. Perhaps married life will mellow him out somewhat. If not, I hope you can get used to him."

I'm aware that I'm rambling, letting my brain drift somewhere where all the sharp edges are dulled and unimportant. I'm going to have to start paying attention again soon, and I appreciate this moment all the more for it.

Hey, Pakku's going to be married. Good for him.

I wonder if I shall be invited to the wedding"

I wonder when the wedding shall be" Traditionally, as I recall, the most auspicious time for weddings among the Water Tribe would be the Winter Solstice, and in fact that date was the only time Chiefs and sons of Chiefs could marry. I don't recall the rule for mothers of Chiefs.

It would be quite the scandal in the Fire Nation, you know. For the Chief's mother to remarry.

Not that we have Chiefs. But remarriage is considered something Not Done, and if the couple are unlucky it could be used as an excuse for excommunication.

Excommunication doesn't hurt as much as the name makes it sound, though. I never put much stock in the Fire Sages. After all, I've seen their headquarters.

But anyway. The Winter Solstice. That's a little bit of an awkward time, right now. A little far away.

Perhaps they will waive the date, this time. After all, Pakku is going to war, and that has always served as an excuse in these sorts of situations.

Perhaps not, though. Pakku has always been something of a stickler for tradition.

Hakoda clears his throat, interrupting what passes for my thoughts.

"I, well," he sounds awkward, but his face betrays nothing "I want to apologise."

I blink. What the Inferno is the man talking about"

"For my behaviour, before. I should not have allowed my... prejudices to cloud my judgement."

Oh right.

"If suspicion of a man who shows up at just the right time with what looks like all the answers is what you would call clouded judgement, then I think one of us has badly misunderstood the meaning of the phrase."

"If I had been more logical about it, I would have been a good deal more tactful. And then told Bato not to let you out of his sight."

We both shared a not-laugh at that.

"Fine. For the sake of not causing a fuss, apology accepted."

We sat for a while, I watching nothing but the clouds behind my eyelids. I do not know what Chief Hakoda was looking at.

Suddenly he spoke again, jerking me back from self-consciousness.

"You know, it never occurred to me before. You must have left a lot behind."

I blink, trying once again to follow the man's train of thought. Once again I fail.

But he's right enough.

"Almost everything, actually. House, most of my money, friends. Church." Never had any family to speak of- I could have found them easily enough, but didn't seem worth it after all this time.

Although it would have been nice to know if I had a sibling.

"I'm sorry," he says. Of course he says sorry. Everyone would say sorry in his position, because there's really nothing else to say, and saying nothing would be rude.

"Don't be," I tell him. "I walked into this with my eyes open, you know." Sure, I didn't really have many options, but I knew what I was getting into. "It hasn't killed me yet."

"Hah. That's something, I suppose."

I sighed. "Perhaps," I conceded.

It was the next morning, and I was feeling rather more clear in the head. Unfortunately.

I had been persuaded to rest in one of the many tents that were housing those who did not need instant medical attention.

I had only allowed the healers to give me the most cursory of examinations, so as not to take up their unimaginably precious time. My left arm was broken, of course, in two places, and was now in a sling. I had been badly burned in several places, and my ankle had been twisted. My back was a mess of bruises, and dotted about my upper body were patches of angry purple flesh.

Not as bad as it could have been, and certainly not as bad as I have suffered in the past.

I do not want to go outside. I do not want to go outside because I am used to the pain now, sitting like this, a pillow supporting my lower back, my head resting lightly against the thick fabric of the tent, and if I get up I will aggravate my injuries.

I do not get up because I do not wish to hurt.

Suddenly the tent flap is brushed aside, and the sun glares momentarily before being obscured by a figure sticking their head into my tent.

"Master Piandao" I was told I could find you he- oh I'm so sorry I'll let you get up but I really must speak with you Master-"

I hardly catch a word, but her tone lets me know that I am needed again.

Sighing, I let my hand drop to the shirt by my side, and wrestle with it,freezing every few seconds as a strained muscle warns me not to use it.

Eventually I manage to dress. It's a good thing I slept in my trousers, since I don't think I would be able to put them on otherwise.

"Enter," I said, preserving my voice by speaking as little as possible.

Commander Suki walks back in, as businesslike as you please.

"Master Piandao," she says, and bows. For a second, she seems unsure of how to proceed, but it's smothered by a look of desperate professionalism.

"I'm sorry I have to ask you this, but we couldn't think of who else to ask," she says, trying to remain disaffected. I just wish she would get to the point.

Then she does, and I'd really rather she danced around it a little more first.

"We want to know what we should do with the- the dead. The Fire Nation soldiers."

I close my eyes again. My face remains perfectly blank.

"A pyre. A funeral pyre. Try and get people to sort them, if you can."

she seems nonplussed.

"...Sort"

"Yes." I can't help snapping at the wrong target. "We do not simply heap our soldiers like the carcasses of animals, Commander."

The moment passes, and I try to soften my features. "I apologise, Commander. I should not have raised my voice."

"It's alright, Master," she replies, utterly controlled. "How should they be... sorted"

"By unit, typically. We honour the bonds forged in life. Look for marks on their armour."

She nodded. She probably thinks that she seems as blasť as can be.

"...What in particular should -we look for"

Most people would have missed the hitch in her throat before 'we'. She is dreading this. That makes two of us.

I could get away with staying here. Hide behind my injuries.

I do not want to do this. I do not wish to go out there, to attend the funeral pyres, to hear the last rites (but who will say them" Who will pray for them"), to watch the smoke curl upwards into the heavens. I do not wish to because it was I who led them to this end, who plotted and planned and manipulated the battlefield to multiply their numbers.

I am a coward, sometimes.

I raise my hand.

"I shall accompany you."

"-Oh, you don't have to-"

No. I am afraid I do. "I know the words, at least. You should be with your unit."

I should perhaps have suggested she go and wrestle a porcupine-skunk. Yes, she does not wish to be with her comrades yet. Not until she can stop seeing the ones that are not there any more.

"I think I am needed more here," she replies, without the barest hint of inflection.

"As you wish."

I do not wish to get up, because I do not wish to hurt.

I get up anyway.

Well.

That was an education, if nothing else.

I learned that I can recite the funeral prayers perfectly, and without prompting.

I wonder why I find it in myself to be surprised at that.

It has been some days. I have moved in to the Town Hall. It escaped much of the flames, and after its structural integrity was assured, people were allowed into it. It sits at the top of the street, surveying a charred mess that used to be a village.

It's like this whole fucking island is trying to depress me.

Not that it has to try hard right now. But anyway.

I am sitting in the small room that has been set aside for me. There is little for me to do- I have no applicable skills once the battle is over, and really no one wants to associate with me right now- but I am not healed enough to consider leaving just yet.

I seem to be making everybody intensely uncomfortable just by existing right now. Even Chief Oyaji has given me that look- the one that so eloquently says 'Right. You've done our fighting for us, and a jolly good job you did of it too. I'm sure you've got places to be, let me help you down with that suitcase.' It's mostly those that did not participate in the fighting, or those that fought in the forest, where I did not, that give me that look.

I'm just waiting until I'm healed enough to leave, frankly. The sooner I am away, the better.

The only one I have seen with any regularity has been Chief Hakoda. We have been discussing Jeong-Jeong's Plan, and the part the men of the South can play in it.

His men took casualties, of course, but more wounded than killed- they were heavily armoured, and more naturally sturdy than- than- than some. So they will be a viable force again within two months. This suits our purposes quite well, actually.

They are going to be joining Pakku and his waterbenders in the first attack on Fire Nation soil in over seventy years.

The target is nothing more than a symbol, now. Prisons, constructed for the waterbenders of the South. A more charged target would be hard to find in the southern hemisphere.

It's not about freeing captives. I very much doubt that there are many left to free. It's a symbol. Striking back at oppression, and all that. Pakku seems to be looking forward to it, in a grim kind of way. Hakoda is more interested in the sequel.

The annihilation of the Southern Raiders.

That is the real battle. That is the one we shall be saving for our Big Day. Word has been passed around to the men of the South- discreetly, of course, and omitting several key details, such as the exact date. It's had a wonderful effect on their morale.

Do I sound a little bitter" Perhaps.

I am finding it harder to detach myself from the distasteful nature of my job at the moment. It shall pass.

One morning, following a brief meeting with Hakoda, finalising details that would not be put into action for months, I was alerted by a sharp rap on my door.

"Enter," I said, stepping away from the window, where I had been enjoying the sunshine.

Commander Suki stepped through the door.

We have seen little of each other in the past few days. Both of us have had our duties, and we had never established much of a rapport in any case. I wonder why she is here"

She stands At Ease- not at ease, you understand- in the centre of the room, looking at a point a few inches behind my left ear. There's something... unwholesome lurking behind her eyes. A storm beneath the surface, if you will.

I'm about to say something polite when she interrupts the silence.

"Master Piandao, I just wanted to let you know that the forces of the Kyoshi Warriors are entirely at your disposal. Wherever you need us to go, whenever you need us."

Oh.

Ah.

I see, now. I think I understand what is happening behind her eyes.

"Thank you, Commander. But I believe that your forces would be best suited to defending the Island."

She looks at me, suddenly angry.

"I disagree, Master. Our training extends far beyond guard duty."

Of course it does. As an institution, the Kyoshi Warriors were never meant to guard the island. They were a threat of retribution.

In the old days, there were two forces on the island- the Kyoshi Warriors, and the Civil Guard. The guard were the larger force, and their purpose was to guard the villages. The Kyoshi Warriors existed to strike back at those that would attack them.

So the Commander is correct- using the Kyoshi Warriors as guards is a waste of resources. Which is missing the point.

The point is she is fifteen years old, and if there is one thing I am still sure of it is that I do not want any more children to die.

"Be that as it may, we cannot afford to allow the Island to fall. It was, and must be again, a haven for refugees, those who do not wish to fight. It must not fall."

There. I've pandered to her sense of importance. Maybe that will distract her from-

"Then why are the Water Tribes leaving" she snaps.

Damn damn damn.

A pox on teenagers and their infuriating questions.

"Because they must. As you and your Warriors must stay."

I will not allow her room to argue. Not because I believe she will sway me in any way, but because it is putting me in a bad mood.

"If we are in such danger of being attacked, Master," she grinds out "then we had better start running now, because we won't survive another attack."

True.

"And you know that."

Again, true.

"So I don't think that you're being entirely honest with me."

That's three in a row. You win a rebuttal.

"I am never entirely honest, Commander. Not with anyone."

"Stop it!" she shouts, frustrated. "Stop dancing around and tell me! Tell me why you won't let us fight! It's what we're for, it's what we all worked for, to fight them and- and-"

"This is why," I said, softly. "Your grief has been poisoned. You are resentful, full of fear and anger and guilt" she flinches at the word, but I harden my heart and press on "and you are not thinking straight. You want revenge, and you are going to throw your life away in search of something you will never find."

"I don't care!" she almost screams, anger and frustration lending weight to her voice.

"No. You don't, do you" I sigh, slowly. "I know what you are feeling. Believe me, I know. Everyone I left behind, everyone I failed, every time I watched the funeral pyres burn, I felt as you do now. And I continued to fight, because otherwise their deaths had no meaning, do you understand me" I continued to fight, I continued to aid Azulon and his dreams of dominating the world, because I did not want to think I had given up on my friends."

She is listening. Not accepting, not agreeing, but listening.

"And it never helped. I carried around that feeling every day, loosed it every time I fought the Earth Kingdom, or the Water Tribes, and it never helped. You don't believe me, I know. I would not believe me, in your shoes.

But nevertheless, it is true."

She stands, still as a statue, for a long time.

Then she releases a long, shuddering breath, and for the first time, she looks her age.

"What did you do" she asks, softly, not meeting my eyes. I turn away, to look out the window. Anything to make it easier for her.

"I made my peace with their memories. I made my peace with my enemies. And someday, Agni willing, I will be able to make my peace with myself."

"I see," she says, in a small voice, and then draws herself up, the soldier draping around her like a cloak.

"I shall relay your directions to the rest of the Warriors. Good day, Master Piandao."

"Go with peace, Commander Suki."

A few minutes later, Pakku slopes into the room.

"You know, for what it's worth," he says, after a minute or two of silence, "I think you made the right call there."

I really wouldn't have given a damn if it had been the wrong call, but it's always nice to get a second opinion. Especially when they agree.

"Yes. They would have just got underfoot anyway," he continues. "What would I have done with a bunch of girls under my command" Ordered them to sew" No, let them play at soldiers on their island, I say."

He's trying to lighten the mood. I think. It's hard to tell with Pakku.

"So," I say, determined to think of lighter matters," I hear you are to be married."

His features brighten, suddenly, and he smiles widely.

"Yes, you are correct."

"Congratulations. I shall have to give you a bottle or five of rice wine, once I have access to my cellars again."

"Ha. I'd call you generous, if I didn't know that you'll be the one to drink it all at the reception."

"Am I really that transparent" This bodes rather ill."

He smirked at that, then suddenly seemed to remember something.

"Oh! I think you dropped this."

He produced the handle and snapped blade of my sword.

I feel ...a strange reluctance to take it.

Of course I ignore the feeling, and my hand curls around the familiar hilt.

"Thank you." I don't mean for the sword.

"Huh. You're welcome," he says, gruffly. "It wasn't so hard, really. Went a good deal faster once I ditched what was left of the boat, but you're lucky the moon was waxing, that's all."

I nodded in silence.

"So, what's the tally, then" It must be about seven to three, now."

He splutters. "Seven"

I nod, gravely.

"That was my last count, yes."

"I had it at two," he counters.

"Oh" Surely you cannot have forgotten Whale Tail Island."

"I have forgotten none of it, although I really rather would."

"Then surely you recall the forest fire" And how I dragged your bony old carcass out of that"

"I could have gotten out of that," he grumbles. "I just needed a little while to draw some more water from the air."

"It was a forest fire, Pakku. By definition, they're rather dry."

He scowled at me, and changed the subject.

"So, you've been rather vocal in telling everyone else what they're going to be up to for the next few months. Care to tell me what you plan to do"

I pause, for just a second. I had hardly thought about it, but then again it hardly needed thinking about.

"I am going to go home."

You run.

You turn tail and flee, feet kicking up the sand, but you slip. and

FALL.

Slipping and tumbling down, slipping down into the whirlpool tumbling head over heels and you land hard but force yourself up and you keep running, running from everything and everyone you FAILED.

The forest calls to you. Darkness. Shadows. Places to hide. Fitting, for one such as you, to seek out the lowest places.

You run into the woods, seeking absolution, seeking escape, seeking oblivion, but all you find is darkness and screams and hands grasping at you, raking fingers through your hair, ripping and tearing you down and apart and you drop to your knees, a scared little CHILD and you are too weak to do anything and you can do nothing but look up and see him.

He stands alone, battling against the forest, and for an instant you are allowed to hope that he will save you from your own ineptitude.

You were supposed to be the one saving him. But you were too weak.

And so you do nothing but sit and watch.

Watch the lightning illuminate him all over again.