The Gentleman of Weapons
Chapter Eight: Incense

Or,

Be All My Sins Remember'd.

The reports came flooding in. Across the world, this shudder had been felt. After the twentieth, it seemed to me that a pattern was falling.

After the thirtieth, I was sure there was a pattern. So I did the logical thing. I threw my sleeping bag to one side, and arranged all the reports by point of origin, from northernmost to southernmost.

And there was my pattern, an ever-increasing wave. The northernmost point- a tiny village on Narwhal Island- reported unexplained headaches in benders. Further south, on a level with Ba Sing Se, benders were going into violent fits. Ba Sing Se itself was almost consumed by fire (again). Further south again at the capital, and things start going wrong. Heart attacks, psychotic episodes, temporary insanity.

A few miles south, into the villages in the Fire Nation and wilderness of the Earth Kingdom, and firestorms burn towns and villages to the ground. Someone's grandfather drops dead on the spot.

And then it just... stops. With such precision that with a ruler and a map I could draw you a straight line just where it ends.

Strange. And I haven't received any report from Pakku.

Nearly a week passed, and no word from the North Pole. People are asking what happened, worried, confused, angry. We were lucky. If it hadn't stopped...

Things could have been worse. That's worth remembering.

Word did come, however, from our man in the Palace. Iroh is... displeased. And when the Fire Lord is displeased, things happen very quickly. Fortunately for the Court, most of his anger is directed towards Admiral Zhao, but they seemed ...subdued, apparently. Perhaps they had gotten a little used to the idea of having undue influence, and forgot who exactly the Fire Lord was.

Apparently, he is the kind of man to send two warships of Palace Guard to drag his Admiral back to the Fire Nation for a court martial. I'll say this for him; when he decides to take action, he doesn't hang around. I'd be surprised if Zhao ever survives to get to his trial.

Of course, that depends entirely on the assumption that Zhao is still even alive. Which is far from certain.

The report from Pakku arrived today. It was... unhelpful. Only two people were near Zhao when he committed this atrocity, and neither of them are talking. One of them is dead, and the other is Sokka. The Avatar and the siblings are planning to leave the North Pole. Pakku requests permission to take waterbenders south, to aid his sister tribe.

There was another report, too.

I spent the rest of the morning helping on the strips of farm land. It was a cold day, but the hard work warmed me fairly well. The ground I was working needed tilling- the cabbages had grown well, and been harvested- and the ground was cold. It was pleasingly difficult.

Some hours passed in this fashion.

Until I was interrupted by a tremulous voice.

“...Master Piandao"”

I paused, looking over my shoulder. It was a young girl, about twelve years old. She looked ...sheepish.

“Yes"”

“Well, everyone's stopping for lunch now, an' I was told to tell you, so, I am. It's lunchtime.”

“Hmm" Oh, so it is.”

So I stopped.

Lunch was soup and bread.

I sat alone at a busy table, eating (drinking" I can never tell which is right with soup) my soup. It was too hot, but I had it anyway.

It was colder than usual in the afternoon. It wasn't the sun's fault- it was trying it's best. And the cold is only an added incentive to get properly warmed up.

Today I was teaching my students to... to...

Damnit. This isn't right.

“...Master Piandao"”

“...Master Piandao"”

There's some muttering. How nice.

“He's been standing there with his eyes closed for five minutes. What should we do"”

“...Take a swing at him"”

“Shujuan! Be serious!”

“I was.”

“Well, you do it, then!”

“...Fine! I will!”

I duck the fist and nearly break the girl's arm before I realise what I am doing.

I opened my eyes. The girl who's arm I had locked was trying to keep her (surprisingly green) eyes from watering. I quickly released her.

“I apologise,” I said.

“It's nothing, Master,” she replied. “Are you alright"” I could hear fifteen pairs of ears surreptitiously straining.

“I... practise amongst yourselves. Groups of three, one point rotation until you feel ready, then two against one, two point rotation. I will return presently.”

The students looked uncomfortable, but none of them said anything. I began to walk away.

The one who had tried to hit me dashed after me once I had got a few feet away.

“Are you alright, Master"” She had the audacity to grab at my shoulder. I let her. I suppose attempting to break my nose gets rid of some social awkwardness.

“It's nothing you need to worry about,” I told her, truthfully.

She wasn't convinced. “Have you had some bad news, Master"”

Perceptive. I told her to make sure that everyone was training, then retired to my crude shelter.

It was dark, with only an oil light to potentially illuminate the room, once I had shut the door. I ignored it, and dropped the sword haphazardly on the floor, before descending on my pack. There was something I needed.

A small block of wood, and four sticks of incense. I lit the sticks, sat down cross-legged in front of them, and closed my eyes, drinking in their woody scent. It reminded me of home.

The night the moon died, the Spirit of the Ocean joined with the Avatar, and together in their rage they smashed the blockade of the North. This is one of the most decisive victories for our rough coalition in over twenty years.

Today, I received a report from the Fire Nation. The estimates of the death toll have arrived.

Roughly four thousand of the men and women of the Fire Navy died that night.

Agni, I wish I could say I'm having a little trouble understanding my life right now.

I prayed for forgiveness. The usual words were no use to me- they were written with a mind to accidental sin, so I was forced to improvise slightly. It's probably not right; my knowledge of the Old Tongue only goes so far; but I think it works.

“What I have done with my hands or feet, or speech, my body and my actions, what I have heard and seen, and thought, all my mistakes, both knowingly and unknowingly, please forgive them all, Great All-Seeing Agni, Lord of the Undying Light.”

It's not enough, but the mantra is soothing. I have been told I have a pleasant singing voice.

The thing that gets me, though, the thing that hits home" I bought the incense sticks. I prepared for this. I was waiting for this.

And it's true. I had expected something like this. Perhaps not as soon as this, but I knew that the Blockade would have to be broken. And I am not so much a fool as to imagine that could be resolved without a great slaughter.

I will do what I have to, to ensure peace. I do not like it, though.

I spent the rest of the day in meditation.

It was night when I ventured outside. The moon was there, waning but still strong.

Was it just me, or was there something... different about it"

Huh. I'm just looking for differences.

I wonder if there's anything to drink in this place. For the first time in months I find myself really wanting a drink.

The urge will pass, I'm sure.

I sat on a log, staring upwards at the sky. I remember nights like this, the stars so clear and defined it's like you could just reach up and snatch a handful out of the air, up in the mountains of the southern Fire Nation, when I was younger. I was a boy the first time I saw stars like that- the instructors in the Boys' Camp thought we should get experience hiking and camping, and so took us on a trip- and I have always enjoyed just watching them.

“Hello" Is someone- oh! Master Piandao!”

I turned to see who it was. Oh, it's that Shujuan girl.

“Good evening,” I replied.

After a few moments, I glanced sideways. She was still there.

“Do you mind if I stay for a while" It's just that I could use some company and-”

“Of course,” I replied, cutting off what I could tell would be a long speech, and she exhaled gratefully, and flopped down on the log. She was quite close. Closer than would be a casual seat from her initial standing place.

I glanced her way again. She was fairly attractive, in a subdued way. She had shoulder-length black hair, her figure didn't seem to be much to speak of either way, but her face was pleasingly composed, and I have mentioned her eyes before, but they really were her best feature.

I ran that sentence again in my brain.

Make that probably her best feature.

I thought she might be early twenties. Roughly half my age.

I wondered why my thoughts were taking this direction. They haven't, not for a while.

That was probably the reason, actually.

“Are you alright"” she asked.

“I'm-” I'm what" Tired" Yes. Cold" Yes. Hungry" Yes. Guilty" Yes. Unhappy" Yes. Lonely" Yes.

“I'm homesick."

“Oh.” She processes this, while I wonder when I started telling the truth. “You are from the Fire Nation, aren't you"” she asks, more as a matter of course than from any curiosity. She knows the answer.

“Yes, I am.”

“Why did you leave"”

I exhaled, and told her.

“I was a young man. Not even thirty. I was successful, I was cocky, and I was brilliant. What I wasn't was particularly interested in fighting this war any more. I figured that that would only get me killed. So I deserted, and decided to take a little tour of the world. I had money to burn, so I got a long way. The first thing I did was find the finest swordsmaster in the Earth Kingdom, and challenged them to a duel.

“She beat me hands down. But didn't kill me. She asked me if I wanted to learn. I told her I wasn't particularly interested. She told me too bad, she wanted to teach.”

She laughed a little at that.

“So she did. For two years, she taught me everything she knew. She didn't let me leave until I could beat her in a fight. It took me two years, but I managed it in the end. Two years before I would have killed her without a second thought. I didn't, when I had the chance. Something had changed, a little, but enough.

“For the next eight years, I travelled the world, looking and learning, not just swordsmanship, but everything I could. Art, music, food, anything and everything. I even sneaked into the Northern Water Tribe to learn there.” Of course, by then I was a junior Order member, so it wasn't as hard as all that.

“One day I climbed a mountain, and entered the Southern Air Temple.”

She gasped. “What was it like"”

“It was a tomb. There was nothing there but bodies and the carvings on the walls.” That came out more bitter than I intended.

“So you joined the fight against the Fire Nation"” she asks, and I can see the story playing out in her head, the dramatic hero, faced with the atrocities of his country, is left with no honourable recourse but to take up arms against them.

“No. I went home. I was tired, and I had no taste for warfare. I just wanted to go home, close my doors, and only come out when I ran low on food.

“But it didn't work out that way, obviously. Azulon, now elderly and infirm, decided that I was deliberately taunting him, and sent an entire company to ensure my arrest.”

“And so you fled"”

“No. I killed them. Most of them. The ones that left that day carried my message to the Fire Lord. I wanted to be left alone.

“But his son didn't get that message, it seems, and as soon as his father was carried away by illness and he was Fire Lord, he demanded that I be brought to justice.”

“So then you fled,” she suggested, thoroughly tired of my defying her expectations.

“Yes. I had barely survived the last time, and had no wish to repeat the gamble on much shorter odds. I fled, and Bumi took me in. And the rest, as they say, is history. I told Bumi to fight, and Omashu paid the price.”

The night was quiet.

“My story isn't as interesting,” Shujuan said, after a while. “I was born in Omashu. My father was a potter. I had a brother. My mother died in childbirth. My father and brother were killed in the siege of the city.” She was quiet, and very composed.

There's only one thing to say. “I'm sorry.”

“Don't be. I knew them both as well as I knew anyone. They both would have agreed with you. Sometimes you have to fight.”

I shook my head. “Fighting then was a mistake.”

“At least you took the chance. Who can say what difference your choice meant"”

I shrugged, which looks strange sitting on a log. “Perhaps you are right. And now you have joined the rebels.”

“Yes. You think I'm out for revenge.”

“I didn't say that, and I wasn't going to. But yes, a part of me was thinking that.”

“Maybe I am. Does it really matter" I mean, does it matter why I'm here" I'm here, and I'm going to help any way I can. My reasons don't matter, really.”

I shook my head. “Reasons are important.”

“Then why did you choose to fight"”

I blinked.

“Were you deliberately being hypocritical in order to set that up"”

She smirked, in a way that could only be described as coquettish.

“Maybe.”

“Huh. Do you play pai sho, by any chance"”

“Once. I hated it. Why"”

“Just an idle thought.”

I probably could have slept with her, if I wanted. But I'm afraid I was starting to grow fond of her. Oh well.

I left the rebel stronghold in a week. I had to move on. I had things to do.