It was long past dawn, now, and looking to be a fine day. Half the village, it seemed, were still here, crowded in the field, recovering from an evening of some excitement.
"I have to thank you, Master. Damn good of you to raise the alarm like that."
Ping. A local farmer; it is his field we had worked to save from the blaze. Good man, respected in the community.
"I'm just thankful I was able to see it in time." It's been a dry evening in the area, and a blaze unchecked could have engulfed the town before anyone even woke. "Still, it was touch and go for a while there, wasn't it"
"Too right," he grunts, into his moustache. "T'was a miracle no-one got killed. Still, I imagine that thing must have been a sight to see, huh" Fire from the sky." He gestures with one hand toward the source of the inferno, now sitting, gently cooling, in a large crater.
"You're right there," I said, and he was. It had been... startling.
The meteor shower itself had been breathtaking, but... relaxingly so. You couldn't think of doing anything but standing and watching as the universe turned around you. But that meteor had spoiled the mood. A screaming trail of fire, it had inspired not so much breathless awe as busy terror, especially once it had dawned on me that it was about to land.
All I had thought to do was run into the village as fast as I can and ring the bell. Someone else had taken charge from then- nobody needed to be told what was happening, not with the glow of a bush-fire on the horizon. They aren't uncommon in the Fire Nation, not away from the humidity of the jungles, anyway, and generally people know how to deal with such an occurrence.
Still. Touch and go, just for a while.
Someone is handing out large mugs of water, and I take one gratefully. I'm dehydrated from working in the bucket chain, and while it's not as bad as I have experienced, and I didn't actually receive any burns this time, it's still not a pleasant feeling.
"So," Ping says, as he wrings water from his moustache. "You're back in town."
Well, no sense in denying it. "I arrived yesterday evening."
"Huh. Lucky for me that you did, I suppose. Staying long" he asks, abruptly. And not entirely politely.
"I... do not anticipate staying. Not for long."
"Work" he asks, pointedly, his eyes flashing.
It's no secret that I am, in the Fire Nation, Public Enemy Number Two. By order of the Fire Lord, these people should either be attempting to detain me or running for their lives. But Shu Jing and the surrounding areas have been hit hard by the economic toll of the war. The ground isn't good for staple foods- even by Fire Nation standards- and the main economic basis of the area was in speciality items. They grew tea here, before higher-quality cheaper stuff from the colonies drove them out of business. They make things. Statues. Tools. I tried to help, while I lived here- I made swords, and sold them to the local weapons dealer for a pittance- but that was only for a short while.
This part of the country has been steadily sliding into abject poverty for many years, and that has made a lot of people very angry. Angry enough that they stood aside for me, ten years ago.
I hardly imagine the situation has improved since then.
"Yes," I answer, eventually. "You know how it is."
"Can't rightly say I do, I'm afraid. Still. Going well" he asks, with deliberate nonchalance. Shu Jing has not openly rebelled. It will never openly rebel. If anyone were to ask, the residents of Shu Jing would be the most loyal servants of the Fire Lord you could ever hope to meet.
But they will stand aside for me, if they think it means an end to their troubles. Which, I hope, it will.
"On balance, I'd say so."
He just nods, apparently to himself, and shrugs.
"Still, you've done me a service, and I don't know how I'm going to pay you back."
Not with money, certainly. He could ill-afford any drain on his finances at the best of times, certainly not enough to satisfy the debt he now feels he owes, and certainly not with one of his fields unusable for I don't know how long. Besides, I don't need money, in any case. Traditionally, I could marry one of his daughters, I suppose, but I believe he only has the one, and she's already married.
An oppressive silence falls, and we both turn back to stare at the newest addition to his field.
It's an impressive rock. Black as obsidian, with none of the gleam, it squats in its crater, indefinably and unmistakably alien. On a sudden impulse, I step forward, half striding half sliding down the edge of the crater until I find myself right in front of the meteorite, close enough to touch it.
It's still warm, my fingertips tell me, but that's not what I'm thinking about. My suspicion has been confirmed.
It's an ore. It's a lump of metal ore.
I feel a tingle up my arm- the hairs standing up in tandem, electricity running up my veins. I don't believe in destiny. I don't believe that each man has some allotted role to fill, a script somewhere governing every day of his life, every mile he walks traced before him from the moment he is born.
But if I did believe in that, then it would be as good an explanation as any for this. I break my sword, and the very night I return home, a lump of metal ore falls from the sky.
Ping is standing next to me, staring at the rock. He doesn't seem as interested in its composition as I.
"I believe," I say, clearing my throat- we both kicked up a great deal of ash making our way to the meteor- "I know how you might pay me back. Allow me to buy this rock from you."
He cocks his head.
"You think you can make something of it"
"You know, I just might."
Azula was not sure she liked flying. At least, not flying on the bison.
It was... dangerous. Oh, she was certain that the method of transport was safe enough, and it definitely had advantages over walking, but the fact remained that she was trapped in a very small area with four near-strangers with absolutely nowhere to hide and no way of retreating. Should they turn on her, there was no way she was going to make it out alive.
Not that they had given any indication that they were about to turn on her. But then, if she were about to attack them, she would make sure she didn't give it away beforehand.
Still, she supposed, at least she wasn't the earthbender, cut off from her element and completely helpless. A small mercy, but at least she could fight back if she were attacked.
And then there was the other problem. She had no control over the direction. If they had been walking, she could have, hypothetically, walked away at any time. Not so up here, surrounded by clouds. She was entirely at the mercy of the Avatar and his band.
The situation was less than ideal. And the saddle was uncomfortable and she was getting hungry.
The smelting took the rest of the day.
It took six men the better part of two hours to move the meteorite from the field to my forge, and from there it took nearly three hours to extract the ore from the rock. Eventually, there was enough for one longsword. Actually slightly too much, for which I was thankful- I do not know what I would have thought, had the ore been exactly sufficient for my needs.
Then there was the matter of actually smelting the ore. Fat manned the bellows, and I kept the forge fed with coal. We worked for hours, the fire glowing hotter than I had ever seen it before, so hot that I almost expected the stone of the forge to melt and crack from the sheer heat of it, and finally, finally, the ore melted, and I could cast an iron bar.
The tongs were searing, even through the thick gloves, and I felt my eyeballs shrivel from the heat as I removed the metal from the fire, and poured it, thick and viscous, into the sand cast.
What kind of blade was I making"
Night had fallen, and they were still flying. It made sense to keep going, as long as the bison could stand it, but Azula would have preferred that they land. For one thing, with the setting of the sun, it had become unpleasantly cold. For another, it was exceptionally dull. None of the Avatar's party were what she would call fascinating conversationalists, and so all she had found to amuse herself was pondering small problems.
It was one such intellectual exercise that occupied her attention now. Everyone bar the boy had gone to sleep, and he was paying her no attention, sitting at the front, keeping hold of the reins. She was supposed to be getting some sleep, but of course she couldn't. Instead, she was trying to figure out the answer to a problem that had niggled at her since she had first realised what was wrong.
Azula peered over the lip of the saddle with a sceptical frown. It just didn't make any-
She looked up, sharply. The boy was the one who had spoken, twisted around to face her from his seat at the reins. "Don't try to figure it out, I mean. How Appa stays up."
Azula blinked, slowly. How had he-
"Everyone gets that look when they try to work it out. Trust me, it's not worth the effort to try. You'll just get a headache."
"Nope. Don't try. It's not worth it," he repeated, emphatically. "He doesn't have any kind of propulsion I can figure out, there's not even the tiniest explosion involved- all I ever managed to get straight out of Aang was that he manipulated air currents somehow but I have no idea how that's supposed to help when he weighs at least two tonnes, he's not jumping, he's not gliding, all he does is wave his tail about every now again and bam! Sustained flying! It'll hurt your head, and you won't figure it out, so don't try."
Azula coughed, after a while. "Well," she said, in what she hoped was a placating tone, "you've clearly put some thought into it."
"Yeah," he said, apparently the picture of calmness again. "Well, what else is there to do up here" Abruptly, he yawned enormously, interrupting any answer Azula might have cared to give to his rhetorical question, and turned back to the horizon.
Azula shook her head, and drew her cloak around her, against the growing chill of the night.
Every few minutes, she shuffled, shifting her weight, trying in vain to find a comfortable spot on the wood of the saddle. It was that or prop herself up against the waterbender's sleeping back, and although Azula had endured a truly nightmarish amount of indignities in the past weeks, she was in no hurry to add to their number.
"Can't sleep, huh" the boy asked, and Azula's head jerked up.
Well. There was no use denying it. "No," she said, defying the boy to make a point of it.
"Awesome," he replied, surprising Azula somewhat. "Wanna take over" he suggested, gesturing to the reins of the flying bison.
"What" I have no experience piloting bison." She couldn't be sure, in the gloom, but he might have shrugged.
"So" Gotta start some time. Come on, it's more comfortable than the saddle, and if you're not gonna sleep then I don't see why I have to be up."
She couldn't argue with that logic, and started to shift. He extended a hand to guide her towards him, and she took it. There was such a thing as pride, and there was such a thing as not falling hundreds of feet to her death. Eventually, she was sitting in the warm, comfortable nape of the bison's neck, and the boy was handing her the reins.
"It's dead easy. Ever driven a cart"
"Huh. Well, that's fine, I guess. Appa knows what to do, all you gotta do is sit here and hold these." He thrust the reins into her hands, and started to make his way back into the saddle.
"Wait- that's all"
He shrugged. "Pretty much. Like I said, Appa knows where he's going. Sure, there's more to it when we're not flying straight, but Aang'll be up by the time we're landing. Just, I dunno, make sure we don't hit anything or something."
Azula blinked. "I... see."
The boy stared back.
"That was a joke, by the way. We're in the air. So how could we ever hit anything."
"Oh. Oh I see."
"Feel free to laugh now."
Azula ignored him.
"Fine, whatever. Look, if you start getting tired, wake Aang or someone and turn in. G'night."
The forging took all night.
It had been years since I had made a sword, but it was a process I could never forget. Folding the steel, hammering out the blade, until my arm screamed and my shoulder ached, never letting the strikes vary, always controlled, always steady, no matter how much it hurts. There was a satisfaction to be found in it. Then, finally, as the dawn began to break, applying the strips of clay to the spine of the blade- to prevent brittleness- and quenching the weapon in a salt bath.
The blade I withdrew from the solution, brine sloughing from it, was jet black.
I am not opposed to decoration on swords, as long as they do not interfere with the weight, balance, or strength of the blade. A little pride in ones craftsmanship is perfectly natural. But I choose an understated hilt for this weapon. The blade seems too sombre to suffer any gaudiness.
The sun has risen, and I am about to test the blade with a simple kata. I used all the ore, in the end, and so the blade is slightly longer than I might be used to. It is certainly heavier in my hand.
I close my eyes, and inhale. And I bring the blade around, in a simple strike.
It does not sing through the air. It doesn't catch the sunlight. It doesn't sparkle. There is a heavy whum as it carves an arc through the air.
It is heavy. I shall have to get used to that.
I reverse my grip, and swing the sword back the way it came. Another low whum. A curved sliver of midnight briefly flicks before my eyes.
Right. Let's pick up the pace.
I swing again, this time letting momentum do the work, allowing the blade to curl almost all the way behind me before altering my grip and completing the swing in a circle, the sword briefly swinging around my head like a black halo. I close my eyes as I speed up, the blade whirling and whipping around me, at times dragging me with it before I learn to accommodate the increased weight, but I'm getting the hang of it now, and I can afford to pick up the pace a little, and now I really begin to move, crouching and leaping and I think I'm starting to get a feel for this blade when my foot snags on an unexpected crack and I almost trip.
That should not have happened. The training ground is a flat surface. I checked.
Crouching, I take a look at what my shoe caught on.
It's a groove, deep enough that shadows obscure any indication as to its depth. It looks... like a fresh cut.
I glance at the blade.
No. Surely not. There must be another explanation.
Experimentally, I run my finger along the edge of the cut on the stone. It's sharp enough to draw blood.
I have to test.
I heft the blade in two hands. Fat, some distance behind me, is serving as my witness. We are going to be scientific about this.
"Ready, Master" In three, two, one-"
I swing. The blade shears through three bamboo stalks without even slowing. Fat counts under his breath.
"'-three elephant-seal, four elephant-seal, five elephant-seal-"
It takes seven seconds for the bamboo to start to fall.
"Hmm. I believe we shall have to test some more."
"Observe. We have one (1) silk handkerchief; one (1) swordsman- that would be you, Master, and one (1) sword. If you would, Master."
I held the sword out flat, blade edge vertical.
"Thank you. Right. Then here we go." And he dropped the handkerchief, letting it fall down onto the blade.
Two halves of a handkerchief dropped onto the floor.
"Well," Fat said. "How nice. Perhaps, though, Master, you could devise a test that doesn't destroy any more good silk. It does cost money, you know."
Here we are. The third and final test. If the blade doesn't perform as I expect, then it will be damaged, possibly quite badly. At this point, I would almost be relieved. This sword is starting to unnerve me.
I take a deep breath, ready the blade, and lunge.
It sinks into the block of stone with hardly any resistance. Right up to the hilt.
The block of stone cracks, and splits in two.
Just what have I created"
I have heard all the tales, you know. All the stories that feature blades of myth. These swords always sing in your hand, the sunlight refracting in rainbows off them, lighter than air.
This sword is silent. Light barely glints along its surface, like it can hardly escape it. It is heavy. Heavier than a normal blade, even accounting for the length.
Swords of myth move almost on their own, turning the battlefield into a dance. Some are said to speak.
This blade does not speak. It ...lurks, like a crocodile on the riverbed. Languid and lazy. I... find myself reluctant to disturb it.
After all, if I can sink this blade up to the hilt in a block of solid stone... what will happen when I send it against men"
Azula blinked. Someone was shaking her awake. This was not a wise course of action.
Blearily, she opened her eyes.
"Azula, wake up! Come on, we're here!"
The Avatar. Damnit. The one person she was a hundred percent certain she didn't want to get into a physical confrontation with was the one waking her up after two hours of fitful sleep. That was just unfair.
"Here" she asked, blearily, and peered over the side. The sun was out, and there did indeed appear to be geography to speak of, instead of just clouds. A huge spire of rock, jutting out into the sky, wreathed by clouds. It was probably spectacular, but Azula wasn't awake enough to care.
Actually, now her eyes opened, she could see that it wasn't just a mountain. Carved into the rock, she could make out windows, and high, vaulted pillars. Paved walkways and snow-capped towers, even this late in the year.
And... pipes, now they were getting closer. And what looked like steam vents. And as they got closer still, and banked into a landing site-
People. Lots of people. Walking on high pathways above them, peering out from windows, stepping out from under the shadows of archways, hundreds of people, all staring transfixed at the bison and its passengers as they swooped down to land on an open space presumably built for just that purpose.
The Avatar did not look pleased. Azula wondered why.
A crowd had begun to gather within seconds of the bison touching down. Earth Kingdom, Azula noted, without surprise, but it was interesting to see that many of them seemed quite finely dressed. For the Earth Kingdom, anyway. Velvet, mainly. She supposed the material was practical for the colder climates, but it just didn't have the same effect as silk.
A delegation was bustling towards them- two uniformed men that looked like guards, and a youngish looking bureaucrat in between. When he was twenty feet from the bison, he stopped, and bowed low.
"Avatar. As a representative of the King in Exile, it is my honour to welcome you to the Northern Air Temple."