I raised my cup in a salute to my host, and drank. I felt revitalised, a new man. A bath, a change of clothes, and a haircut went a long way to restoring my equilibrium, although I had not pulled my hair back into it's topknot, instead letting lit flow away down the back of my neck, something that is less of a social faux pas in the Earth Kingdom society than in the Fire Nation. Fire Nation upper classes take their hair seriously.
Across from me, High Chief Oyaji raised his cup in reply, as did the girl on his right. Her name was Suki, and she was the commander of all the Kyoshi Warriors. Oyaji was her uncle, but he had no part in her selection for the post- the High Chief has no control over the Kyoshi Warriors, and they swear allegiance to the island and it's people, not the ruler. It's a fairly sensible method of balancing power.
This is one of the perks of being a Grand Lotus (acting Grand Lotus, actually). You're never at a loss for information on almost anything.
“It seems Kyoshi Island is indebted to you, Master,” Oyaji said. I raised my eyebrow inquisitively at his use of the title, and he smiled through his beard. “No one with the levels of talent you displayed could possibly be anything less.”
I politely ignore his attempt to stroke my ego, and simply incline my head.
“Although, we would like to know the name of the man we are thanking.”
I smile, a little, and look at the floor. I suppose I should tell this man something. But how much"
“My name is Piandao.” That will do, for a start.
I have never thought of myself as famous, yet I wasn't surprised when Oyaji nodded in recognition. I suppose he must have been narrowing down the possibilities of my identity as he spoke. I was, however, a little surprised to see comprehension dawning on the Commander's face as well.
“The defector"” she blurted out, surprised. I blinked. Defector" Is that what they're calling me these days"
Well, I suppose it isn't too surprising. I wasn't exactly covert at the fall of Omashu.
“I... suppose you could call me that,” I admitted. “Although I would prefer it if you used my name.” Jeong-Jeong might accuse me of stealing his shtick.
Actually, no, he wouldn't, actually. He would probably just glare at everything, say something that sounds intelligent until you realised that he's not being enigmatic to illustrate a point, he's just being enigmatic because he is an ass, then sit in silence in the corner until everyone felt intensely uncomfortable. I cannot stand that man.
“Of course, Master Piandao.” Oyaji shifted, almost imperceptibly. I think I may have flustered him a little. “Tell me, do you plan on staying here long" I am sure we could provide better accommodation than the inn for you.” He sounds hopeful, and I realise with a sinking feeling that he thinks that my staying here will mean Kyoshi Island will be safer.
I have to disabuse him of that notion, I am afraid.
“I am afraid I must be moving on soon,” I said. “I had planned to stay longer, but... things have gone differently.”
“I understand,” he sighed. I think he does. But I cannot afford to take the chance.
“With your leave, I would speak plainly,” I said, and waited for the nod of his head to continue. “The world is about to change. Forever. At summer's end, Sozin's Comet will return, and any resistance against the Fire Nation will be crushed, everything coming under the supreme and absolute authority of the Fire Lord. That is what the Fire Lord wants.
“In fact, it is what the Fire Lord needs. He needs a decisive victory, this year, or his reign will come to an abrupt and likely unsavoury end.” The Commander at the very least showed surprise at this, and I turned to face her.
“Although the Fire Lord is the supreme ruler of the entire Fire Nation, a united court can do untold damage to his rule, should it so choose, and as of late, he has been having great difficulty keeping control. The Fire Nation has been bled dry by this war. Every day, hundreds of tonnes of foodstuffs are sent to the blockade of the North alone, and the average death toll amongst Fire Nation soldiers stationed in the Former Earth Kingdom is seven men per day. Support for the war has never been lower, and he knows it. The Fire Lord needs to remove all his external enemies in one swoop, or his internal enemies will destroy him. I am one of his enemies. Kyoshi Island is another.” And a far higher priority than me, actually. I can destroy a company of men, but Kyoshi can inspire countless resistance movements.
“So I will not stay here. Doing so would not prevent an attack. It would only ensure that the Fire Nation arrives with enough force to destroy us all.” They don't look like this is what they want to hear. Sorry. “A storm is coming, Chief Oyaji. None of us will survive it un” scathed" no. “changed. But hold on to your hope, tighten your defences, and we all might live to see an end to this war yet.”
Oyaji looked up, for the first time in the conversation. “You believe that the Avatar can end this war"”
I had to smile.
“He might just.”
“Hmm. You have given me a great deal to think about, Master Piandao.”
“I hope it helps, Chief.” I stood, and bowed. “And now, if I may, I will take my leave.”
“Of course. Go with peace on the path you choose.”
“May good fortune mark the path to your door,” I replied in the customary style. We were both moments away from choking on the irony.
I made my way out into the mid-afternoon, and stood to my full height, stretching my back. The winter sun was bright in the cloudless sky, reflecting off the snow, making everything bright and pure. It seemed that they had gotten rid of the bodies already, but where the blood had stained the stamped-in snow at the side of the road, the reminder remained.
I stepped down the steps from the main hall, heading toward the inn. I still had that letter to deal with before I left.
I turned to see the girl behind me. I raised an eyebrow.
“May I help you"”
“I just wanted to thank you. For Kame's sake. She would be dead now if it wasn't for you.”
Kame" Oh. The Kyoshi Warrior, I suppose.
“You don't need to thank me,” I replied. I have never really been sure how to take thanks like that.
“No. I think I do.” She seemed insistent, so I left it at that.
“Very well, then. Are the rest of your warriors...”
She sighed. “We were lucky. We didn't lose anyone this time.” She didn't need to say anything else. The responsibilities of her position were beginning to crush her. Looking at her, I see clearly the legacy of a century of war. Teenagers, children, taking on responsibilities of life and death, making choices that no one should have to make, fighting and dying because if constant war has taught us anything, it's that everyone is expendable. And so, as soon as a boy can wield a sword, he is sent into battle, and if he survives, he gets the privilege of dying on a different field. When all the men are dead, it is the boys who have to take up arms. The war our fathers started is grinding our children into the dust.
Without thinking, I seek to reassure her.
“Take heart. When the battle comes, Kyoshi Island will not stand alone.” It is cold comfort, but that's the only kind we can give nowadays.
In any case, she bows, and I return the gesture before she turns to her duties.
I had made preparations to leave tomorrow morning. I had authorised the use of a messenger hawk in order to get everything ready in time, a dangerous move these days. Officially, only the Fire Nation military are allowed to use messenger hawks now, but time was of the essence, and there were very few other options for getting messages off the island.
So another gamble taken, and I was weighing the odds for another roll.
This letter I had taken from the spies. It was bothering me.
Should I send it, carefully edited" Should I remove the pages I didn't want the Fire Lord to read, and send it off" Should I use the spies' hawk to send a direct message to the Fire Lord, telling him that I was moving, and daring him to follow me" Or should I just take the letter with me, or destroy it"
The last choice sounds the most sensible, but it's hard to say how the Fire Lord will react when faced with complete silence from his agents. Perhaps he will make a covert investigation. Or perhaps he will simply invade the island. Trying to predict what he will do at the moment is hard. Politically harried as he is, he might use this as an excuse to assault the island.
No. No, that's underestimating him. He won't act rashly, not yet. His people may be tiring, and there may be rumblings in his court, but he will not act rashly. He will weigh up the options, make what concessions he can afford, and twist it his advantage if he possibly can.
Put like that, he almost sounds familiar.
So, what to do with this letter"
Take it with me. It's good to know what the enemy is saying to each other. And it'll give me something to read tomorrow.
The morning came, bright and early, and I stepped out into the street. The village was already alive, and I drew more than a few interested stares as I made my way to the grocer's.
The shop was small, but well organised. Elegant; every item and every piece of furniture was given equal thought when it was being positioned. It's an art form.
The shopkeeper was a wizened old man, with startling eyes. They glinted at me, and he grinned as I intoned my head.
“Good morning. I would like to buy four apples, if I may.”
“Of course, sir. Would you like to choose them"” he asked.
“I think your judgement is better than mine.”
He grinned, and selected the fruit. I dropped two copper pieces on the counter, and touched two fingers to my collar. The man nodded in response, and tapped the counter. I followed his finger, and stifled a smile. What had at first glance seemed to be a knot in the wood was actually a stylised picture of a rose. Very clever.
I reached into my pocket, and placed three tiles next to the counter. The rock, the wheel, and to the man's surprise, the white dragon. The combination had one specific meaning: stay here, keep alert, and prepare for war. When he nodded, I placed three more down. The boat. The chrysanthemum. The white jade. Allies will come soon.
He nodded, curtly, and I pocketed the tiles and my purchases, and left the shop.
That man is one of the old guard of the Order, a remnant from a more peaceful age, when the Order was nothing more than a Pai Sho club. I disliked having to use him in this way- he was chosen for the Order for his wisdom and his wit, not his martial prowess- but we did not have a choice.
The Order has changed, in the last few years. We have a more... direct way of doing things. I suppose that is my fault, really. When Bumi was Grand Lotus, he had managed to keep the Order effective without compromising any of the conventions. I don't know how to think like him, so I had to work differently. I invited several much younger people to join the Order, for example, although some of that might have been my being sick of being the youngest man in the room whenever we convened.
Some days I wonder why I was chosen as Bumi's replacement. Until Omashu, I was the most junior of the Masters, and certainly not fit to lead. But Bumi named me as his replacement, and until he is freed, I will fill his shoes to the best of my abilities.
My ruminations lasted until I arrived at the northern hamlet of the island, where the dock was located. I wandered in, relatively unnoticed, which I appreciated, and sought out the dock. It's in a small, hidden bay, less convenient than the one on the west coast, but without the giant monster.
I was looking for a particular boat with... oh. Well, never mind. It seems that there's only one boat left anyway. Hmm.
I made my way over to it, hoping that this might be the one. If he's already gone...
There was a wizened old man standing in front of the fishing boat, looking irate. He glared at me as I made my way over to him.
“You the feller who wants a lift to the elephant koi"” he snapped.
“Yes. And may I say-”
“Well, yer late! Look!” One calloused hand shot upwards, a finger extended towards the early morning sun. “Ye see that, boy" Ye see that"”
“It's the sun,” I hazarded. “And I'm forty-two. I am not a boy.”
“Yer damn right it's the sun, boy. And you know what that means" It means yer late. And you may be forty two, but I'm old, ye hear me" You know when yer a kid, yer folks always say te respect yer elders"”
“Actually, my parents abandoned me when I was six.”
“Well I'm the elder they was talking about! Now git yer ass on board!”
Oh, Agni, are you doing this on purpose" I'm sorry, but it's just hard to get incense sticks for sacrifice here.
I climbed aboard, the fisherman grumbling at dangerous speeds behind me. I had a feeling I was in for an entertaining trip.
“Say, what you want to go see the elephant koi for anyway" You'd better not be thinking I'm gonna give ye a lift to Chin. We don't go to Chin,” the man said, ominously.
“So what you want to go for" You ain't no fishing man, that's fer sure. A fishing man would have been on time.”
Oh, give it a rest.
“I have a burning desire to give you a gold piece, and I need to find a way to justify that to myself.”
That shut him up.
I sat on the floor of the boat, my back pressed up against the side, trying to read the report I had stolen. It was uninspiring stuff, for the most part. I had deciphered the code- it was simple enough, once you got a hang of the metaphors and rhyme scheme- but really, it was hardly worth reading.
But at least it gave me something to do, and the old man and the younger one that made up his crew kept out of my way as best they could, seeing that I didn't want to be disturbed.
Hmm. The section on me is actually quite entertaining. They were taken in by my act, it seems, and they had been scouring all the information they had on me for a defined reason for my apparent descent into alcoholism.
Oh look, here's a section requesting an agent be sent to investigate my love life.
I had to stop at that for a moment.
Anyway. Moving on.
The report on the Avatar was detailed, but nothing I hadn't already surmised- the boy's status as a master airbender, the girl being a waterbender from the South, all that. The only new thing on that page was reports of an apparent rift between the girl and the Avatar. I hadn't noticed anything of the sort, and hoped that it wasn't as serious as the report made out.
Then I turned to the next page, and saw the report on the third member of the party. 'Mid-late teens, male, Southern Water Tribes. Non-bender.' And that was it.
I grinned to myself. Typical bender prejudice. But, if the boy was worth anything at all, the attitude on display here would only help him. It certainly helped me.
“Um...sir"” I looked up to see the young assistant looking nervous. “We're here, sir.”
“Oh. Excellent,” I said, stowing the notes in my bag as I stood. “Tell me, what time is it"”
“'Bout an hour 'fore noon,” a crotchety voice from the stern of the boat replied grumpily.
“Perfect.” I glanced towards the sea. The clouds were turning grey. Perhaps we would be in for rain.
“What you thinking, boy"” the man demanded. “I told you, we don't go to Chin.”
“We don't, you know,” his assistant parroted.
“I know.” Oh come on, where were they"
Oh. What's that"
“Captain!” the boy said, pointing to what I had just seen, moving fast towards us. “Fog"” He pulled out a spyglass and peered into it.
“It's not fog,” I told him. He ignored me, peering through his spyglass. Suddenly, he started, jumping back in surprise and fear.
“There's a ship coming out of it!”
The fisherman scowled. “What's it look like" Fire Nation"”
“No, it had sails! I think it might be pirates!”
Both men turned to me, and I sighed.
“Get us closer to them.” They stared at me as if I had declared myself to be a pushmi-pullyu (a ridiculous idea on it's face- the pushmi-pullyu has been extinct for centuries). I sighed. “It's not like I can do anything from here, and they could outrun you easily.”
They conceded the point, and we were soon heading for the ship looming in the pseudo-fog. As we got closer, my companions got more and more visibly nervous, but their course was steady, until we were sliding along next to the huge, dark ship.
It was silent, ominous. Two huge cannons at the back belched out smoke, creating the trail we had seen. I turned to my companions, and handed the old man two gold pieces.
“Thank you for your time,” I intoned. “Have a good day.”
“...You too, I suppose,” he replied, warily. “But what are you gonna-”
I didn't catch the rest of his sentence, having leapt the gap between the boats. My feet latched onto a small lip in the wood, and I propelled myself upwards, using the portholes and the slats of wood as an impromptu staircase. It was a very efficient way of climbing, as long as I ran as fast as I possibly could and didn't look down.
As my right foot hit the railing, I pushed as hard as I could, flinging myself into the air, and hitting the deck, absorbing the blow with a crouch.
I was completely surrounded. Pirates on all sides. A colourful bunch, to be sure.
“Well, look who we got here,” a voice intoned, and I turned to see a man dressed all in grey and black, steel-grey hair and a fantastic hat. He was older than me, but looked as solid as oak, and was a clear half a head taller than me.
“Captain. Using the smoke machines are you"”
The man grinned. “Well, I've got a reputation to maintain, Piandao. How are ye, you old lunatic"”
I shrugged. “Keeping busy. Yourself"”
“Oh, I get by,” he smirked. Suddenly, he turned. “Barker! Where are you, you lazy dog" Show yourself!”
A scrawny man stepped forward, a grin permanently affixed to his face. “I'm here, captain. Afternoon, Piandao.”
“Barker, is our guest's room ready yet"”
“Did it this morning, captain. Like you told me,” he added, pointedly.
The Captain harrumphed. “You actually did something when I told ye to do it" Have I died or something"”
The crew dispersed, and I was left alone after a few moments, as the captain and his lieutenant vanished through a door, arguing all the while.
I met the Captain some years back, before Omashu. He had picked me up from a shipwreck (another story, some other time perhaps), and offered to take me to shore, should I be able to pay. I gave him an impromptu sword lesson, and in return he agreed not to slit my throat and throw me overboard. Since then, we have kept in irregular contact. His crew have proved invaluable on more than one occasion, and we have in return lined his pockets. He's a man of his word, and so if you ask him not to tell anyone else what we are doing, he will immediately ask for double his initial price. I admire that kind of honesty.
Of course, he has no idea of the existence of the Order. He thinks I'm just a very busy troublemaker. Which I am.
I spent the remainder of the journey in meditation in the guest room that had been thoughtfully provided for me, and when I moved again it was early evening.
I paid the Captain the usual rate for travel- ten gold pieces per person- but didn't give him the extra ten, which meant that as soon as I was out of sight, he was going to send a runner to the nearest barracks to sell them my whereabouts. No matter. I don't intend to head to a town anyway.
I shook the Captain's hand, and headed into the forest.
One thing that has always marred my relations with that man is the fact that I don't know what his name is. Somehow, he never got around to telling him, and after a while it just became to awkward to ask. Calling him 'Captain' seems to work, but it always seems a little awkward to me.
Oh well. Now, which path is it"
It was long after sunset when I found The Tavern. Yes, that is the name of the establishment. Yes, I am sure that there is a colourful and hilarious story as to how it got that name. No, I don't want to hear it.
The Tavern is the largest and most infamous of thousands of dives. If you want to buy it, and it's illegal, from opium to women to murder to pretty much anything, you can find someone selling it here. And this is where I'll find her.
I walked up to the door, warily. Now, last time it was the door, and the time before that it was the window. So this time it should be the-
Ah. Top floor window.
Stepping around the comatose body, I made my way inside.
It was exactly as I had remembered. Tall, warm, and loud. A lot of people were crowded around a table in the middle, and I knew exactly what I would find there.
Fighting my way through the press of people, I saw at the centre of attention a woman dressed all in black, smirking at a hulking muscle-bound man, who was straining to keep what little pride he had left. Personally, I think that if he was serious about preserving his reputation, he would have ditched the headband by now.
And he's lost. What a surprise.
“Anyone else"” she asked, her eyes scanning the crowd, widening just slightly when she saw me. “Anyone else got the balls and the cash"”
I pulled out two silver pieces and placed them on the table.
“Oh, we have a contender,” she practically purred, as I slid into the vacated seat.
“Evening,” I replied, and readied my arm.
We clasped hands, and the contest began.
I had forgotten exactly how strong June is, and it was all I could do to keep our hands level. I glanced at her. She was smirking. My hand started to shake. Her smirk widened. As she went in for the kill, she was sporting a full grin, and the back of my hand slammed into the table.
I shook my head as she raked in her winnings, and flexed my fingers.
“I'll get you next time.”
“Oh, Piandao,” she said, mock-despairingly. “You always say that. You're all talk, and a girl gets tired of that after a while.”
“A job for me. Why else would you be here"” she asked, with a roll of her eyes, as we moved away from the middle of the room, towards a small side table near the wall.
“Forgive me. I don't have the luxury of making social calls any more,” I replied.
“I suppose I can let you off, this time,” she replied. “So, what are you drinking"”
She shook her head, her hair flowing. “You're stuck in a rut, Piandao. So predictable, so boring.”
I just shrugged, and she laughed at me as she went to the bar.
Very strange woman, that.
She returned quickly, with two ceramic cups and a flask of sake, same as every time we did business. I'm not boring, I just think that sake is the right drink to discuss work over if we're going to meet in The Tavern.
“Alright, so what's the deal"” she asked, as I poured for both of us. I passed her a cup, and raised mine to her before I drank.
Aah. That's better.
“I want you to keep an eye on someone for me. Not exactly your usual line of work, but we can make it worth your while.”
She smiled. “Well, I can't deny that your people give me all the interesting jobs. So, what'll it be"”
“I want you to follow the Avatar.”
“Well, that's something you don't say every day. He's really back, then"”
“Any word on where he's been this past century"” she asked, almost harshly.
“Nothing yet. Listen to me, June. This is going to be dangerous. The Avatar has returned, as a twelve-year old. He's got to get to the Northern Water Tribes as soon as he can, and he's got a long way to go. I'm sure I don't need to tell you that the Fire Nation are going to be trying to catch him. He's going to need help. It would be ideal if you could be clandestine, but keeping the Avatar away from the Fire Nation takes priority.”
June raised an eyebrow.
“Let me get this straight. You want me to protect the Avatar from the Fire Nation as he makes his way across the entire Earth Kingdom"”
“Yes. Now, I-” A black-clad finger touched my upper lip, silencing me.
“Shush. I'm trying to figure out how much this is going to cost.” Her eyes glazed over. “Ooh, I'd say at least Nyla's weight in gold.”
“Done,” I said. We can afford that.
“Oh Piandao, you always know just what to say.” She drained her cup, and stood up. “Got anything for me"”
“Will this do"” I asked, and pulled out a tuft of bison hair that I had picked up off the stable floor this morning.
“That ought to do it,” she said, and we both walked outside, where she showed her mount the hair.
“June, remember, if you ever need anything, use the tile. The Order will help you.” The tile was a white lotus tile that I had given her. It granted the bearer some authority within the Order, although since June did not know the passwords it would be clear that she wasn't a member. “You really should have joined us, you know.”
“Ha,” she snorted. “Like I'd ever join a club based around board games. You'd have to have something to do with Pictionary before you caught my eye.” She mounted her shirshu in a smooth bound, and turned the beast to the wind.
“Be careful, June. Zhao himself is leading the chase. You know what he's like.”
She laughed at me.
“Why, Piandao, if I didn't know better I'd say you were worried.”
With that, she punctuated her riposte with a crack of her whip, and in seconds she was gone.