Story [Avatar: The Last Airbender] The Fall of the Fire Empire Revised (Complete 10/19)

Discussion in 'Non Star Wars Fan Fiction' started by MasterGhandalf, Oct 25, 2013.

Moderators: Mira_Jade, NYCitygurl
  1. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 18: The Underside of Power

    Jiazin was roused from her bed by servants much later than when she usually rose, but after the general excitement of last night she felt that was probably a blessing. As they helped clean her and changed the rumpled clothes she'd fallen asleep in for a fresh set, her mind ran back over the events of the previous night, still unable to fully wrap itself around them. Surely there'd been some kind of mistake- she, Jiazin, couldn't be really supposed to replace the Empress, could she? But no, the High Minister had said that he had selected her specifically, and the fact that her whole body still tingled slightly with electricity (not to mention the fact that she had fallen asleep in her clothing) attested that it hadn't been a dream.

    After she was fully dressed, the servants bowed and withdrew and as they left a man in the rich crimson robes of a minister entered the room. "Lady Jiazin," he said, bowing respectfully but not as deeply as the servants had. "My superior the High Minister has informed me of your special position. I am to begin your instruction today."

    "Where is Qing Xi?" Jiazin asked. "I was under the impression that he was going to be handling my… instruction personally."

    "The High Minister," the man said with emphasis on the title, "is a very important man, my lady. It is his task to concern himself with the day-to-day running of the Empire. Do not think that you are so important he can focus on you to the exclusion of all else. He will check in on our progress as often as he is able, but for now you are in my hands." He motioned with one hand. "Come with me."

    He swept from the room, Jiazin following closely behind him. They walked in silence until they came to another door, which the minister opened and gestured for Jiazin to enter. She did so and found herself in a small office, the walls of which were lined with books and scrolls. Her companion seated himself behind a desk in the middle, motioned for Jiazin to sit on the floor in front of it.

    "I am the Keeper of the Imperial Archives," the minister said. "Today we shall discuss the names and deeds of Fire Lords past."

    "I already know that," Jiazin told him. "My tutor taught me all about the history of the dynasty and the founding of the Empire."

    "You need to do more than know it," the Keeper said. "You must internalize that knowledge- make it a part of you. Remember, from now on to you the history of the Fire Lords is not only that of the rulers of your nation, but of your own family as well. You must know them as well as you know your own name."

    It was at that moment that it truly hit Jiazin just what assuming Azula's place would cost her. True she would become Empress of the world, but the person she had been would be erased utterly. Her subjects would not even truly be aware of her, except for the chosen few who were in on the secret. They would see only the Dragon Empress, apparently ageless and eternal. For a fleeting moment Jiazin wondered how the High Minister would explain her own disappearance when the true Azula finally died- true, most wouldn't be aware of it, but her parents would, and her father was a powerful man in his own right. Would he be allowed to know what had become of his daughter, or would he simply be told she was dead, or away on some secret mission? Would Jiazin ever truly see him again?

    "My lady?" the Keeper of the Archives said, and she realized he'd asked the question several times. "Are you well?"

    "I am," Jiazin told him, shaking her head to clear it. "Please, let's begin."

    And so for what felt like hours he quizzed her regarding the history of the royal line, correcting her where her information was incorrect and filling in any gaps. They started with the legendary reign of the first Fire Lord, said to be the son of the spirit Agni himself, and went from there through the seemingly endless lists of monarchs until at last they came to the Four Great Lords, whose names and deeds all children in the Fire Empire learned by heart. Here, the Keeper did not need to correct Jiazin at all as she told of wise Sozin, who first conceived of the Fire Empire, though he never saw it formed within his lifetime; his son, grim and canny Azulon, who preside over the bulk of the Great War; the Phoenix King, mighty Ozai, who made Sozin's dream a reality; and finally Azula herself, the Dragon Empress.

    When Jiazin finished her recitation, the Keeper nodded, seeming pleased. "You do know your history, my lady," he said. "I think that is enough for today. Tomorrow we will practice again, until you have committed them all to memory. Then I will give you over to other hands."

    Jiazin stood and gave him a respectful bow, which he returned. She turned to leave the room, but then stopped and looked back over her shoulder at the Keeper. There was one question she had that he might be able to answer. "Tell me," she said. "There's a name I ran across recently, and I can't find it anywhere in the histories. Do you know anything about a Prince Zuko?"

    The Keeper looked genuinely baffled. "There is no one in the history of the Royal House that I know of by that name," he said. "Perhaps he was of the Earth Kingdom? Only fragments of that history survived Ozai's purge, unfortunately. But in any event, that is beyond my knowledge. I cannot help you."

    "Well, it was worth a try," Jiazin muttered under her breath. Thanking the Keeper again, she left his study and shut the door behind her.

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    The next several weeks passed like a blur to Jiazin. She spent more time with the Keeper being drilled about the history of the Royal House until she could recite the name and deeds of any given Fire Lord, Prince, or royal cousin without even having to consciously think about them. From there she was sent to a group of elderly servant women who fussed over her as they took her measurements, apparently content not knowing why they had been commissioned to copy the Empress's robes precisely in her size. The knowledge of how to carry herself with dignity and give orders in the tone of one who knows absolutely that they will be obeyed had already been hammered into Jiazin by her aristocratic upbringing, but an old minister whose name she never caught insisted on having her read famous speeches the Empress had given to him so he could correct her inflection. What time she had left over was spent with Zhi, the Chosen who was the Empress’s personal bodyguard and, it seemed, sparring partner- she expressed the guarded approval that was all her order ever gave to an outsider about Jiazin's fighting skills, but corrected her posture and motions so they more closely resembled the way Azula fought. Though Zhi, like all Chosen, was a nonbender, she appeared to be intimately familiar with the Empress’s techniques and style.

    "It's a pity you never learned how to produce lightning," the Chosen said one afternoon, regarding Jiazin’s bending with a coldly critical eye. "The Empress is well known for it. Still, I suppose we have time for you to learn." The Chosen could correct firebending moves she was familiar with, but couldn't teach Jiazin completely new ones, especially not one which had been the province of the Royal House and the most ancient firebending schools for millennia.

    Applause sounded from the edge of the sparring field, and both women turned to see a young man in scribes' robes standing among the seats. "Forgive my interruption, ladies," he said, "But my lord the High Minister requests the presence of the Lady Jiazin in his office as soon as possible. He wishes to discuss the progress of her training."

    Zhi looked him up and down. She was not required to obey any commands save the Empress's alone, but even the elite warrior women had to treat the High Minister's requests with a certain amount of respect. "Very well," she said. "She may go with you."

    Jiazin followed the scribe along the familiar pathway to the High Minister's office. Within, Qing Xi was sitting at his desk reading a scroll, but when he heard Jiazin enter he looked up and smiled. The scroll he tucked into a box beneath his desk. "Jiazin," he said warmly. "I simply wished to check in on you. I've heard that you've been progressing quite well, but I wanted to hear what your own thoughts were. I know that this must be a bit much."

    Jiazin launched into a description of her activities of the previous days, taking care not to mention her fears and doubts. The High Minister had been kind to her, but she didn't completely trust him- his friendly exterior was at odds with the cunning and ruthlessness she knew the highest official in the Empire possessed, and that made her uneasy. She was just describing her sparring sessions when the scribe slipped inside and whispered something into Qing Xi's ear.

    He rose suddenly. "Forgive me, Jiazin," he said, "but something has come up that requires my immediate attention. It shouldn't take long- you can wait here until I return." He and the scribe swept from the room.

    Jiazin waited calmly for several minutes, but the High Minister did not return. Finally she couldn't sit still any longer, and not desiring to offend Qing Xi by leaving, she stood and began to pace around the room. After several laps, her eyes fell on the box where he had tucked the scroll he'd been reading- it was plain brown wood, seeming very out of place in the Imperial Palace, save that it was marked with the Imperial Seal. Her curiosity piqued, Jiazin picked the box up and sat it on the desk, opening it so that she could see its contents. It was filled with scrolls, and she selected the first one, which seemed have been recently replaced, and began to read.

    As she took in the meaning of the characters on the paper, Jiazin's eyes widened in horror. Here at last she found Prince Zuko, and she sank down into the High Minister's chair, heedless of propriety, as she read his story. According to this, he had been the Empress's older brother, and it had been he, not she, who had captured the Avatar. That mission had been given not in honor but in shame, and his reward had been death at the battle of Ba Sing Se. The scroll did not say how he had died, only that someone in the Royal House had arranged it, a fact that the writer did not seem to find either surprising or shameful. After death he had been completely written out of the histories, made so that he never existed at all, and what glory he had had gone to his sister. The true story of the ill-fated Prince had been recorded only here, so that only the highest in the Empire might read and know of it. Jiazin didn’t recognize the name of the woman who had affixed her signature and seal to the bottom of the scroll, but based on the title and date she had given, she had been High Minister during the last days of the reign of Ozai and the first of Azula. It was possible this was a forgery… but no, that didn’t seem likely. These documents were kept in a private case belonging to the High Minister- why would they not be real?

    Casting the scroll aside, Jiazin began to tear through the others, wishing she had never seen them but somehow powerless to ignore their meaning. Here were stories of civilians massacred, histories eradicated, and even a brief reference to spirits chained, all in the name of ultimate order. When she was through, she clutched the scrolls to her chest and stared wildly around the room, half-expecting some menacing figure to leap out at her at any moment. The young woman’s mind was reeling, but there was one thing she was certain of- she had not been meant to see these scrolls, the private accounts of the atrocities her people had committed.

    Her first, wild thought was to run to the Empress, tell her of these monstrous actions being comitted in her name- but her heart sank as she realized Azula must already know. The histories said that Prince Zuko's death had been arranged by a member of the Royal House- that had to mean either the Empress or her father. Every account, Jiazin was certain, told of a deed that had been done with the blessing- or at least the tacit approval- of the royal family. The Empress would be no help at all, at best- at worst, she would roast Jiazin alive for daring to read the secret histories.

    But she had to tell someone, or these terrible secrets would eat her out from within. Closing the box quickly, she slipped it back into its hiding place and stuffed the scrolls beneath her black vest. Clutching her arms tightly around her so they wouldn't fall out, she hurried from the office, desperately hoping she’d be able to reach the one person she was sure could help her make sense of these revelations without being intercepted.

    -------------------------------------------------------------

    As the sun sank below the horizon, High Minister Qing Xi sat in his litter on the palace steps and listened to the reports of his agents of the Hidden Flame. "My partner and I tailed Jiazin to the harbor, sir," one of them said. "She used the authority of the nobility to commandeer a warship, and he stayed to infiltrate the crew. We overheard her tell the Captain she needed to go to Long Du Shi as fast as he could take her."

    Qing Xi steepled his fingers. "Interesting," he said. "So Jiazin runs home to her father."

    "It isn't too late for us to stop her, sir," the agent said. "You can give us the authority to override her position, and we can send a fast ship to intercept Jiazin before she gets far from the homeland."

    "No," the High Minister said softly. "Send a message to your partner and tell her to keep me informed of Jiazin’s movements. That will be all." The agents bowed deeply and departed to their various homes or cover occupations, save for one old woman who had stood silently near the back the whole time, hooded and cloaked, her face concealed by a scarf. When they were alone- truly alone, for the courtyard had been cleared by order of the Hidden Flame- she glided forward, and Qing Xi stepped down from his chair and went down on one knee.

    When he was alone with his Empress, he was not required to make the full bow, but certain formalities must be observed nonetheless.

    "It would appear Jiazin took the bait, Majesty, as you knew she would," the High Minister said as Azula seated herself on the litter. She removed her mask from where she'd stowed it in a compartment beneath the chair and fitted it over her face. "Though I must confess, this plan makes me uneasy. It leaves too much to chance."

    The Empress chuckled softly, the sound echoing weirdly from behind the mask. "You were always cautious- it is your one failing as a schemer. I have learned that sometimes one must gamble in order to succeed, but if you know your target well enough, that gamble will almost certainly succeed.

    "Jiazin is loyal, but she is too naïve- too trusting. She believes in our cause, but she does not know the depths to which a true leader must often sink. Now she has learned of them, and of our deception. She runs home to her father, seeking to expose to him the "corruption" of our Empire- imagine the look her face when she realizes he already knows the bulk of it! Then she will be lost, confused, the bonds of trust broken- and that is essential if she is to become me, for I do not trust- and she will realize that our way is the only way. Then she will return, ready to take up the true burden of Empire."

    A sardonic smile passed over Qing Xi's face. "Do you not even trust me, Majesty, after all my years or loyal service?"

    Now the Empress did laugh, long and cold, a sound that was utterly devoid of mirth. "Of course not, my dear High Minister. I understand you far too well to trust you. But because I understand you, I know full well that you will never betray me unless you are certain you would win."

    "And I understand you, Majesty, well enough to know that day will never come," Qing Xi said. "I suppose a partnership like that is in some ways better than one founded on pure trust."

    "Indeed. It is better to have cold knowledge than simple faith in another's inherent goodness." The Empress snorted, as though she found such an idea ridiculous. Still, despite her words, the High Minister still thought that this latest scheme relied too much on her assumptions about what Jiazin would do. Personally, having spent a great deal of time with the girl, he agreed with Azula's assessment of her, but he was at heart an administrator before anything, and he hated to leave anything to chance.

    Something of his thought must have shown on his face, for the golden dragon-mask turned towards him, and he felt the Empress's gaze boring into him from within those dark and hollow sockets. "Remember, High Minister," she said softly, "you are but one piece upon the board. You know much of my thought, but I allow no one to see the complete picture of my designs, for Jiazin or as a whole. Not even you."

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    This chapter marks one of the key turning points in Jiazin’s character arc- her realization that the Fire Empire, the civilization she has loved and been loyal to her whole life, is built on a foundation of lies, cruelty, and death. She’s an interesting character for me because while she’s certainly been aware that the Fire Empire has done ruthless things- she lives in a city built by slaves, after all- it’s always been a distant thing for her and she’s never really had to stop and consider the implications for her society. Now it’s been shoved directly into her face, and she’s, more-or-less, panicked. Jiazin isn’t a religious person, per se- the Avatarverse doesn’t really deal in explicit religion, except for things like the Fire Sages and the Air Nomads’ quasi-Buddhism- but I’d certainly say she’s having a crisis of faith.

    Azula, of course, planned the whole thing, and I think Qing Xi is right to worry. Even as a teenager Azula was usually several steps ahead of everybody else, and as an old woman she’s had decades to perfect her plotting. Still, as of right now Jiazin is still dancing on Azula’s strings even if she’s fled the capital, and though her time training to be the Empress’s replacement was short, don’t think it won’t be without ramifications for her character arc.

    Yes, all the Chosen are nonbenders, by the way. Though most of them get recruited as young children before their bending manifests, those who do turn out to be firebenders are trained to suppress it- Azula, after all, doesn’t want to run the risk of creating someone too much like herself. Neither Shiyan nor Cheng would have been a firebender, though I did have some ideas for what being forced to suppress your bending might do to a person mentally and spiritually. Maybe I’ll use them someday.

    -MasterGhandalf.

  2. Mira_Jade The NSWFF Manager With The Cape

    Manager
    Member Since:
    Jun 29, 2004
    star 4
    This story is just amazing as it spins on. Keep up the good work. =D=
  3. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 19: Hunters and Prey

    Kanoda awoke to find sunlight streaming in through the mouth of the cave. He sat up and looked around- Yue was standing off to one side, already awake and pulling her dark cloak back around her. When she saw that he was awake, she smiled but didn't speak. Pulling more fruit out of her pocket, she gave him some and let him eat. "Are you ready to begin?" she asked when he was finished.

    "As ready as I'll ever be," Kanoda said, standing. "But before we get started, I have one more question- where are we going? I mean, I know you're being guided in your dreams, but are they specific enough that you know exactly where you need to be?"

    Yue was silent for several moments, a distant look in her eyes- lost in memory, apparently. Finally, she turned her full attention back to Kanoda. "You know of the great city of Ba Sing Se?" she asked.

    "I know there was a city called Ba Sing Se. It was supposed to be the capital of the Earth Kingdom, a wonder of the world. Last we heard of it in the Southern Tribe, though, it got leveled a hundred years ago. Is there something in the ruins that we need to find?"

    The ageless waterbender shook her head. "The city has been rebuilt. Unlike my home, which few outsiders ever saw, Ba Sing Se was a symbol to the whole world of the Earth Kingdom's power and history. The Dragon Empress decided to make that symbol her own, and so Ba Sing Se was rebuilt in the image of the Fire Nation. It's called Long Du Shi now, and it's the center of Imperial power on this continent."

    "And you want us to go there, right?" Kanoda asked. "When I left home, I half-thought I could take on the whole Empire myself, but now that I've seen just a little bit of it, I know that's crazy. But at the same time, I saw you do things back at that village that I didn't think were possible anymore. It's like in my grandfather's old stories, where the hero realizes what he's up against and almost gives up, but then decides to press on anyway, because whatever his quest is, it's something that needs to be done." He stood up. "I'm still with you. Let's go."

    They had just exited the cave when the young hunter stopped suddenly and groaned. "I forgot," he said, half to Yue and half to himself, "I left my weapons buried outside that village- they were pretty obviously Water Tribe, and I didn't want to give myself away. Now there's no way to go back and get them, not with the soldiers on the prowl."

    Yue paused and reached into her robe, rooting around before pulling out a small object, which she then handed to him. Kanoda looked at it closely- it was a steel knife, decorated but still functional, in a black and gold sheath. "I took it from an Imperial officer who tried to capture me, years ago," she said. "I admit I was never very good with it- I don't like hurting people, and if I have to fight I'd rather rely on waterbending. Still, I imagine it will be useful for you, at least until we can find you something better."

    Kanoda examined the knife a few moments longer- he'd never seen such fine workmanship up close before, unless one counted the Chosen's swords, and as those had been immediate threats to his life and limb, he hadn't been able to take a good look at them. Finally he sheathed it again and stuck it in his belt, then looked up at Yue and nodded. “Thank you for your gift,” he said quietly, and she gave one of her sad smiles in return.

    Together, they set off towards the north.

    -------------------------------------------------------------

    Truly, Shiyan thought, this village was a wretched little place. She'd never been to a town like it before- the Chosen generally operated in large population centers where the Empress might have need of them, and she herself could count on one hand the number of times she’d left Empress Island- and she quickly decided that she never wanted to go to another one again if she could avoid it. It was squalid and run down, and it stank of unwashed peasant, and beyond that, it was clear that the place wasn't run with any sort of order or discipline. Shiyan, who valued both, found that both offensive and annoying.

    She wouldn't have to be here at all if only that incompetent fool Jiang had bothered to inform her earlier that he'd been too busy freeing himself from the waterbender's ice to notice in which direction she and the spy had gone from here. Fortunately peasants, for all their flaws, could generally be counted on to be highly aware of their surroundings and there was a handy supply of them nearby, but Shiyan's temper was still frayed near the breaking point.

    She, Cheng, and their escort of soldiers now stood in the center of the village square, the fearful eyes of the inhabitants peeking out from upper story windows. Motioning for the younger Chosen to fall into step behind her, Shiyan stepped forward until she stood directly before the door of the ramshackle inn where Jiang said that the informants who'd tipped him off about the spy lived and worked. Raising a hand, she knocked loudly on the door.

    It swung open immediately to reveal a lean old woman standing there, a muscular younger man at her shoulder. She took in Shiyan's uniform, weapons, and facepaint in a glance, and fear and greed both shone out of her canny eyes. The Chosen too appraised the peasant woman, and was mildly impressed. If anyone in this wretched village had the information they needed and would be willing to give it up, she did.

    The old woman wrung her hands and spoke, falling into a fawning and servile manner. "Good day to you, your ladyship," she said. "How might we assist you? Everything in our little village is at your disposal, we assure-"

    Shiyan cut her off. "I am a member of the Empress's Chosen here in pursuit of two fugitives. I believe you know them- a dark-skinned young man and a white-haired woman in a cloak." She jangled the money-pouch at her side. "All I require of you is information as to which way they went when they left here yesterday morning. I am willing to pay."

    The old woman seemed to consider whether she should try and get more money out of Shiyan, and wisely decided against it. "Well, your ladyship," she said, "I saw them both at the south end of the village, where she stole the spy your soldiers had justly captured, and then she turned and went around the village and headed away to the north- no, north-east. Yes, that was it. North-east."

    Mentally reviewing her geography, Shiyan wondered why the waterbender was going that way- there wasn't anything that way but empty plains, forests, then mountains for quite a ways. Deciding it was unimportant- her prey would never reach its destination anyway- she counted out a handful of coins and gave them to the old woman. If she was at all disappointed by the amount she didn't show it, but her companion thought differently.

    "Now see here," he said, pushing his way to the front, "this information is obviously important to you, and I think we're owed-" Before he could say precisely what he felt he was owed, Shiyan launched herself into a flying kick that struck him directly in the center of his chest, sending him crashing headlong into the inn's wall. He collapsed, groaning, and the old woman went down on her knees beside him.

    "The Empress's Chosen are not common soldiers, peasant," Shiyan said coldly. "We do not bargain with your kind. Feel fortunate you received any compensation at all."

    "You killed him!" the old woman shrieked. "You killed my poor son!"

    "He's not dead," Shiyan said with a sniff. Surely any fool could see that corpses didn't groan! "But he needed to be taught a lesson in respect. I will not hold it against you, but when he wakes up, tell him that in the unlikely event that my order visits here again, he should behave with more respect." The old woman nodded fearfully, and Shiyan turned and walked back towards her men.

    "You heard her," she said. "The fugitives went northeast. We follow."

    -----------------------------------------------------

    High Admiral Yuan sat at the table in his cabin aboard the Eye of Agni, contemplating his family's history. It always gave him strength on occasions like this to remind himself of all the things that his grandfather had accomplished- and then to add that soon he, Yuan, was going to do the old man one better. Picturing the look on that surely must be on Zhao's face in the next world when that happened warmed him in a way that even firebending never could.

    The door to his cabin slid open, and the captain stepped tentatively inside. "Another message arrived from General Yi, sir," he said, holding out a scroll. "I haven't opened it."

    "Give it here!" Yuan snapped, snatching the note from his subordinate's hand. Unrolling it, he read it twice over and then snarled in inarticulate rage, throwing it against the wall and igniting it with a well-aimed fireblast.

    "Sir?" the captain asked. "Is something wrong?"

    "Wrong?" Yuan mocked. "Wrong? I'll tell you what's wrong! We've got competition. Two Chosen-in-training have set out from Yi's base, and if we don't hurry, then before we get there they will have caught my waterbender!" He slammed his fist down onto the table, sending sparks flying.

    "If I may, sir," the captain said, "losing to the Empress's Chosen isn't a dishonor. But if you keep up this pursuit and get in their way, there would be consequences, even for you. You may be High Admiral, but they can speak with the Empress's voice and authority. They could-"

    "I will not be bested by two teenage girls!" Yuan roared. "Get out of my sight, and tell the helmsman to push the Eye as hard as he can. I want to be in the former Earth Kingdom in days, do you hear me?"

    "Aye, sir!" The captain saluted and left the room. Yuan watched him go, and then turned to face the map of the world that hung on one of the cabin walls. His grandfather had helped to make that world, leaving little for his descendants but to stand in his shadow. The High Admiral intended to change that, to succeed at the one task where Zhao had failed and stand apart from him, respected as his own man at last.

    And nothing, not even the high-and-mighty Chosen, would stand in his way.

    --------------------------------------------------------------

    After several hours of walking through the rocky countryside, Kanoda and Yue came to a paved road that curved away towards the north. It wasn't in the best condition, but it was certainly easier to travel on than the barren ground. Yue said that it ran for some distance from the base on the coast, but this far out was seldom patrolled.

    They travelled along it for some time as the ground around them became ever wilder. Short, twisted trees began to sprout up among the rocks that themselves were becoming more and more common and jagged. Finally, as the sun was beginning to sink towards the horizon they came to a place where the trees grew much larger and thicker- the beginnings of a true forest. Kanoda had never seen one before, unless you counted the thinner woods on Empress Island, but he'd heard them described often in his grandfather's stories, and didn't like the look of this one at all. In stories, forests were always places of adventure and danger, and he wasn't in the mood for either.

    Yue put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry," she said. "The forest isn't dangerous, and we don't need to go much farther tonight. We'll make camp a little way in."

    Regardless of what the waterbender said, Kanoda still thought that the forest was creepy. It was already dark under the trees, and there were sounds of strange animals scurrying among them. He wished he still had his boomerang or spear with him- he was getting sick of fruit and was certain that something out there was good to eat. Still, he had to admit that he knew nothing about the animals in this part of the world, making hunting them difficult even if he had the right tools at his disposal. With just a knife, it would be pointless.

    Suddenly he tensed and put a hand on Yue's arm. He thought he heard something snap out in the darkness- there it was again. Even if it was an animal, if the sound was anything to go by it would still be big enough to cause problems. "There's something out there," Kanoda whispered, eyes darting back and forth.

    "I know- I heard it too," Yue said, tense as well. Kanoda's hand went to his knife, and the former princess of the Northern Water Tribe pushed her cloak back so that she would have access to the waterskins hanging from her belt. Another crack sounded, and then a creaking sound- this time it sounded like it was coming from overhead….

    Three figures in dark green tunics jumped down from the trees, bows trained on the travelers. From the shadows of the forest emerged another half-dozen, armed with swords, knives, and in one case a large club with spikes protruding from it. The man with the largest, sharpest sword stepped forward.

    "Now then," he said, eyes glinting dangerously, "this doesn't have to be difficult. Give us everything of value you have on you, and if we like what we find, we might possibly be willing to let you go."

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Ah, Shiyan, ever the people person. Her attitude towards non-Chosen is interesting to write because it’s more complex and layered than just contempt (though there’s a fair bit of contempt there, of course). Essentially, Shiyan is someone who was raised under a set of extremely strict values- order, loyalty, and militaristic efficiency chief among them- and was never given an opportunity to be exposed to the idea that any other values might possibly have merit. As a result, she judges everybody by the Chosen’s almost impossibly strict standards, and finds them wanting- the villagers in this chapter are really just a community of poor farmers and craftsmen struggling to make ends meet under an oppressive regime (even the innkeeper and her son, treacherous and greedy as they seem, are really just struggling to keep themselves afloat using one of the only methods that they have) but Shiyan could never recognize that. All she sees are a bunch of slackers who can’t even manage a properly organized community.

    Yuan, it should be fairly obvious by now, is not entirely stable- his need to prove himself superior to his grandfather is the driving obsession of his life, and he really doesn’t care what he has to do to make that happen. He’s also not someone inclined to respect some random Chosen just for being Chosen- sure, there are individual Chosen he knows and would tread carefully around, but so far as he’s concerned most of them are just Azula’s lapdogs who have done nothing to earn their status, while he clawed his way to the top of both his family and the Fire Navy. Things will certainly get interesting now that Yuan and Shiyan are chasing the same quarry, to be sure.

    There’s not a whole lot going on in the Yue/Kanoda sections of this chapter, but we’ve left them on a cliffhanger to be sure. In particular, I felt that a bandit attack would be a good way to show off how Yue handles herself when threatened by hostile people who aren’t Fire Empire. But that’s something to be resolved (and discussed further) next time we roll around to these characters.

    -MasterGhandalf
  4. NYCitygurl NSWFF Manager

    Manager
    Member Since:
    Jul 20, 2002
    star 9
    Catching up!

    First of all, I know I said this last time, but I seriously love the first line of this story. The entire Prologue gives me chills, but that in particular. I also love "oppression breeds heroes" amd "My blessings and those of all the spirits be with you, whoever you are. You will need them." Seriously, chills. One of my favorite prologues ever!

    Chapter 1: I love Jaizin, I really do :D This is a great way to introduce us to her! I think my favorite takeaway, though, was the depths to which Azula altered history--Jaizin recited that she was the "only" child of Ozai. Also, Jaizin is my favorite character [face_love]

    Chappter 2: "If any time needed heroes it was now, but heroes didn't seem to exist anymore except in Grandfather's stories." I love that line! It's so heartbreaking, but I think it's powerful, too.

    "I was sneaking away in secret!"

    "Hardly. The whole village knows what you're up to. Did you really think you could keep a secret in a town of less than sixty people?"


    Also, this is hilarious :p

    I'll catch up on more sonn--but until then, keep posting! :D
  5. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 20: The Trap

    The rebels crept quietly through the forests, toward the supply convoy that was heading for Long Du Shi. Chaiy led the group- her father was considered too important to risk on a mission like this one- and she seemed quite in her element, bow slung over her back and a look of intense concentration on her face. Tong followed close behind, along with about twenty other resistance fighters. It wasn't a huge number, but Chaiy had explained that due to the Fire Empire's arrogance, the supply convoys weren't usually heavily guarded, and in any event they would have the advantages of surprise and earthbending. Most of the rebels carried bows, but a few, like Tong, went unarmed- at least to the naked eye. These were the team's strongest earthbenders.

    Chaiy stopped at the base of a tree, and then waved to the others behind her. Silently they spread out- Tong following the lead of the warriors around him- and began to climb up into the branches. Perched up high, they could see that the road was nearby, cutting through the forest. At the moment, it was empty. Chaiy settled herself on the branch that held her and fixed the road with a hard stare. "Now, we wait," she said in a voice so soft it could barely be heard.

    They did not have to wait long. As the sun had fallen below the horizon Tong had no way to tell time, but he guessed that less than half an hour had passed before the sounds of something large coming down the road from the north could be heard. Soon a line of large wagons came into view, pulled by the Fire Empire's fearsome war rhinos- apparently this shipment wasn't important enough for the steam-driven vehicles Tong knew the Empire possessed. Several red-armored soldiers marched alongside each wagon, along with a handful that rode on the backs of the rhinos and wore the skull-masks of elite firebenders. Chaiy had been right- the convoy was small and under protected. From what he'd seen of the rebels so far, he doubted they'd have trouble with it.

    Something about that made him uneasy. Glancing over at Chaiy, he saw that her brow was furrowed as well, as though she was trying to put a finger on something that hovered just out of reach. Finally, though, she held out one arm and made a swift chopping motion.

    Arrows shot from the treetops, striking down into the convoy with deadly force. Some struck the rhinos and bounced off their thick hides, serving little purpose but to enrage the volatile beasts. Others lodged in the soldiers' armor, doing little serious damage. Some, however, found their marks, striking the soldiers in their unprotected neck or underarms. Five of them collapsed, dead or dying.

    Chaiy motioned again, and the earthbenders leapt from the trees and landed lightly on the ground, Tong following them. The Imperial soldiers pulled up, drawing their weapons or falling into bending stances, looking warily between the earthbenders on the ground and the archers in the trees. Then Chaiy herself leapt from her perch and landed in between the two sides, holding herself with an air of casual cockiness that reminded Tong somehow of the portrait of Toph Bei Fong he'd seen in Shu's quarters.

    "As you can see," she said, "you're in a bit of a bad situation. You've just been attacked, several of your men are dead, and if you make one threatening move towards me, my men will make sure you're starting a new career as a pincushion. You can easily get up and walk away from this- but you've got to give me something first." Her eyes hardened. "Specifically, whatever you've got in those wagons."

    "I don't negotiate with bandits!" one of the soldiers- apparently the leader- snapped. Chaiy shook her head disapprovingly.

    "See, first of all, we're rebels, not bandits." She spread her legs apart slowly, centering herself over the earth. "And second of all, you're not in a position to negotiate. I'm just offering you the chance to live through this. You can do it the easy way," she tensed, and the ground rumbled beneath her feet. Several men stumbled back, and one of the rhinos snorted and reared. "Or the hard way."

    "Earthbender," the commander muttered. "You know my superiors will pay handsomely for your head after I tell them about this."

    "Oh, I quiver," Chaiy said, shaking the earth again for emphasis. The soldiers looked fearfully at each other, and then began to slowly back away from the caravan. "Good men. All right, people, let's do this." She motioned with one arm, and the rebels moved forward to loot the wagons. The Imperial commander looked mutinous, but said nothing.

    Tong hung back, shifting nervously. There was something off here, and now that he was down on the ground again the feeling was stronger. It was too easy- and more than that, there was something about those wagons. He concentrated on them with his earthbending, and with difficulty was able to feel the vibrations they made in the ground. Admittedly he'd never had much experience with military supply wagons, but something still felt wrong about these- as if something was shifting inside…

    He walked up to Chaiy and leaned into her ear. "There's something wrong here," he said. "We should leave."

    "Something's bothering me, too," she admitted, "but I can't see anything definite that's wrong, and we always need more supplies and weapons. Still-"

    She never had the chance to finish her thought. Ahead, one of the rebels had just peeked inside some of the supply wagons, and then stumbled back, cursing loudly. He fell into an earthbending stance, but before he could attack a blast of fire shot from inside the wagon, spinning him off his feet and sending him burning to the ground. More fireblasts followed, striking the trees where the archers waited before they had time to react, and then the soldiers poured from their hiding places.

    There were dozens of them- they must have been packed incredibly tightly inside the wagons. These men all wore the armor of elite firebenders, and they pushed forward as one disciplined unit, burning the rebels and forcing them back up the road. The archers leaped from their burning trees and landed on the road, firing off their arrows, but while a few struck home, most were burned from the air by sheets of flame. Most individual firebenders may have lacked the skill to strike a single arrow from the sky, but working together they could produce enough flame to serve as a sort of blanket shield.

    "It's a trap!" Chaiy shouted, rather unnecessarily. "We can still win this, people. Earthbenders, to the front! Let's give those Imperials something else to worry about." Tong and his companions hurried forward, then knelt and pulled. This was a basic earthbending maneuver, and one that every slave knew by heart- make a wall. Now, however, it served the purpose of protecting the rebels from the firebenders, rather than serving as a base for a new building. The fireblasts impacted on it, some of them cracking the wall, but the earthbenders worked to reinforce it. The archers raised their bows and fired over the wall, their arrows less accurate because they had lost direct line of sight with their targets, but even going by sound alone they still struck some of the enemy.

    "All right," Chaiy said, "time to strike back at them." Dropping into a crouch herself, she joined her earthbenders and pushed on the wall with all she had. It shot forward, tearing up the ground in front of it and striking the firebenders. Some of them managed to duck out of the way, but most were caught by the onrush of dirt and stone and were slammed backwards, along with their wagons and rhinos. They lay beneath the rubble, groaning feebly.

    The rebels cheered, and several of them shouted taunts along the lines of "that's right, scum, see what free earthbenders can do!" Chaiy, however, hung back, still wary, while Tong paused in his shout as he felt something stir behind him. He spun and knocked Chaiy to the ground, ensuring that the fireblast that would have struck her unprotected back soared harmlessly overhead. Pulling themselves apart, both rebels looked up to see another group of soldiers advancing along the road from the north, where apparently they'd been lying in wait.

    "I'd say I owe you for saving my life," Chaiy said softly, "but it looks like I'm going to get to repay you any time now."

    "If we make it that long," Tong replied. "Look!" he pointed along the southbound road, towards the city, where another group of firebenders was marching out of hiding. Both groups of newcomers, along with those who'd been in the wagons and were now pulling themselves from beneath the rubble, came to surround the rebels, who bunched together, archers in the middle and earthbenders in front.

    The soldiers who had come from the north parted, and a man stepped out from between them whose armor, while red and black, wasn't in the same style as the formal uniforms. He was middle aged, and his face- which might have once been handsome if it hadn't been heavily beaten and scarred- was vaguely familiar to Tong, though he couldn't place it. The man smiled triumphantly at his opponents.

    "You’re a slippery bunch, you Lake Laogai rebels," he said in his rough voice. "But you couldn't run forever. Be sure you take some alive, men- we need someone to let us in to their lair. The girl, if you can- she looks like she's in charge." His eyes scanned the rebels, finally settling, to Tong's surprise, on himself. "And that one. He matches the description of a slave who killed his overseer and ran a little while back. He'll be wanted for an example." The man's tone made Tong shiver- he didn't seem to relish the idea of pain, like some overseers he'd known, but neither did he shy away from it. This was a man to whom nothing was too horrible, so long as it served a purpose, and that was if anything more disturbing than simple cruelty. The rebels’ lives meant nothing more to this man than numbers on a page.

    "I don't know who you are or why you work for the Empire," Chaiy said defiantly, "but you're a fool if you think I'll break. I'll die before I help you, and the same goes for everyone here with me. You have no hold on us anymore- we're not afraid."

    The man pulled his lips back in what might have been a smile. "We'll see about that, girl. But know that I am Gian, mercenary and bounty hunter, and I've seen ones with more spirit than you break. Still, that's not my concern. My concern is capturing you and your young friend there, and I've never failed a job before now."

    Gian. Now Tong knew where he'd seen this man before- all the slaves at Long Du Shi knew Gian. A mercenary who often worked as a bounty hunter, he was often the one who brought slaves back when they ran, and then stood by emotionlessly as they were brutally killed as an example for the others. Hate blossomed in Tong's chest, stronger than fear- how he wished for a chance to hurt that man, who along with the overseers embodied the Fire Empire's oppression.

    Gian stepped back and motioned to his men. They dropped into crouches and released their fireblasts, with Tong and his fellow earthbenders barely getting their rocky shields up in time. Again and again the soldiers fired, cracking the earthen barriers and giving the rebels no time to strike back. Some of the archers tried, but between the rocks and the fire their arrows were almost completely unable to find their targets.

    The shields began to crack, flames slipping through. Occasionally now one would break completely and the earthbender who created it would fall back, burning and screaming. Tong poured all of his concentration into his shield, making absolutely certain that it would not break, until he heard a familiar voice scream behind him. Chaiy had been with the archers, trying to hit the soldiers with her arrows, when a fireblast got through and struck her side. She collapsed, in obvious pain.

    The sight of the girl who was both his trainer and his only true friend among the rebels fallen caused something to snap within Tong. He felt his will harden to crystalline sharpness, and he felt the whole area beneath his feet vibrate with unusual subtlety and intensity. Snarling viciously, he pulled himself to his feet and shouted at the top of his lungs, forcing all of his strength into the ground.

    Waves of earth shot out in rhythms from beneath his feet, growing stronger as they moved farther from him. They crashed into the ring of firebenders and knocked them off their feet, upsetting their aim and sending fireblasts careening off at wild angles. Some struck other soldiers, while others struck the trees and set them ablaze. Some of the soldiers tried to stand, but they were kept off-balance by the shaking earth. Some began to crawl away towards the city.

    "Get back here!" Gian shouted, steadying himself by holding on to a tree. "You can take him- he's only one man, and he can't do this forever." Clearly he wasn't a firebender himself, a fact for which that part of Tong that was still rational was secretly glad. If he had been, he at least would have been able to keep his head and his aim amidst the chaos- of that Tong had no doubt.

    Behind Tong, Chaiy pulled herself to her feet, using her own bending to steady the ground under her. Drawing her bow back, a pained expression on her face, she took careful aim and let her arrow fly. Gian saw it coming and he lunged away from it, but he wasn't quite fast enough. The arrow struck his cheek, digging into it and leaving a wound that would surely result in another scar before continuing its flight. He collapsed, cursing in rage and pain.

    As he fell, Tong felt his rage and clarity seep away, replaced by sheer exhaustion. The earth stilled and he began to collapse to the ground, only to be caught by Chaiy's arms. She was still weak and in pain from her own injury, but together they supported each other. The rebels gathered their wounded and retreated towards the forest as fast as they were able, the firebenders too dazed to stop them.

    ------------------------------------------------------------------

    Gian hadn't lain on the shaking ground long, but it was enough to leave him bruised and battered all along his body, on top of the arrow-wound that was bleeding profusely from his cheek. He could only imagine what the other men who'd been on the ground far longer felt- he wasn't about to drive them after the rebels in their current state. Hunting with men who weren't up to the job, he'd found out long ago, was a path to disaster.

    Clearly he'd underestimated the rebels- particularly that girl and the runaway slave. Gian wasn't used to losing- his boast about having never failed a job wasn't entirely true, but it was close enough- and the fact that he had now was deeply rankling. That it had been a couple of teenagers who'd bested him, and managed to leave a new scar on him, no less, was even more infuriating. But he wasn't completely defeated yet- far from it- and now this was personal.

    "You'll regret this night, rebels," he muttered under his breath. "It was a mistake to let me live, because I never forget a job or an insult, and I will finish what I have started." As he pulled himself back to his feet and began checking his body for serious damage, he even allowed himself a tight smile. "Besides- I know where you live."

    ----------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Well, this is the first time since Tong was rescued that we’ve really seen the rebels in action, and this time it was a premeditated action. Chaiy’s threats were fun to write, and she was very much in her element here. In many ways, Chaiy is as much Jet as she is Toph, though she’s not completely fallen off the slippery slope the way he did. That said, there’s definitely something dark in Chaiy that enjoys taking the fight to the Fire Empire, and she’s not someone I’d want to cross.

    Tong is definitely the most powerful earthbender in this group, and probably the most powerful in the entire rebellion (though, it should be noted, “power” is not the same thing as “skill”). He may not have a whole lot of fancy techniques at this point, but when he has the opportunity to cut loose with as much power as he can- like he does here- there’s not a whole lot that can stand up to him head on.

    Of course, Gian is not exactly a graceful loser, and his hate runs cold rather than hot (like Yuan’s does) which makes him particularly dangerous- Gian uses his anger, not the other way around. Now he has a personal grudge against both of our main Earth Kingdom characters, and he’s not exactly going to be the type who pulls his punches when it comes to revenge. Also note that Gian is not a firebender, and keep it in mind- foreshadowing!

    -MasterGhandalf

  6. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 21: For the Fire Empire

    Jiazin stood near the prow of her commandeered warship, a dark cloak wrapped tightly around her to stave off the chill night breeze. The scrolls she had taken from the High Minister's office were concealed beneath it as well- she wasn't going to let them out of her sight for any time longer than absolutely necessary. The men on this ship were Imperial sailors and therefore loyal to the authority of the nobility, but that very loyalty meant that if they discovered what Jiazin had and were she had taken it from, they would most likely take her captive and bring her back to the Empress in chains. That was something she couldn't let happen, at least not until she had spoken with her father.

    She spun as she heard footsteps behind her, relaxing as she realized it was only the ship's captain. "Forgive me for startling you, milady," he said, raising his hands and backing up slightly. "I've never seen a noble as jumpy as you are! Anyway, I just thought I should inform you that we're going to be arriving at Long Du Shi tomorrow."

    "Thank you, captain," Jiazin said. "That will be all."

    Bowing, he turned to leave, then looked back over his shoulder at her. "Now, I don't mean to pry, milady, but the men have been wondering about why someone of your stature would appear on the docks without warning and demand a ship that could get her to Long Du Shi in a week. What I mean to say is, something must be happening, and we want to know if we're in danger- either this ship, or the whole Empire."

    Jiazin drew herself up and gave the captain her best imperious stare, learned from years of noble upbringing and perfected by her short time in the Imperial court. "My business is none of your concern," she said stiffly. "I won't punish you for asking questions, but neither will I reveal Imperial secrets to common sailors." Her eyes narrowed. "Now, leave me before I change my mind about punishment."

    The captain bowed again and hurriedly retreated. Jiazin watched him go and then slipped down to the deck, clutching the scrolls to her. In less than a day she would be home, and then she could give them to her father and let him make the corruption that lurked at the Empire's heart his problem. He was a good and honorable man, and a highly influential noble- Jiazin knew that if anyone could make things right, he could.

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    High Minister Qing Xi sipped his tea as he read through a report that one of his underlings had submitted to him dealing with food supplies in the capital. Normally such matters would be beneath his notice, but recently the underministers had been noticing something odd- only a fraction of food the outlying farms had produced over the last year had actually arrived in the city. There were no mentions of outlaws or rebels, and the reports showed that the farms had both produced the food and shipped it out- it just hadn't shown up at its destination. Oh, there was still enough to feed the population, but any surplus had simply vanished. Qing Xi was a man who liked his world logical and orderly, and this error- if that's what it was- was vexing him greatly.

    He was taken away from his work when an underminister poked his head in through the door and bowed. "High General Xia here to see you, milord," he said.

    "Finally," the High Minister muttered- he had sent for Xia hours ago, but the man had kept him waiting. True, their ranks were theoretically equal and therefore the High General would have been within his rights to completely refuse the summons if he was so inclined, but it was still annoying. Qing Xi was not used to being kept waiting, and he disliked having unpredictable elements in his schedule. "Send him in."

    The underminister withdrew, and moments later High General Xia strode into the room, looking around himself with an air of guarded disdain. He was a skilled leader and a great soldier, Qing Xi knew, but also was possessed of an old-style sense of honor that made him uncomfortable with certain measures necessary to ensure the stability of the Empire, not to mention difficult to deal with. Though he and the High Minister both had great respect for each other's abilities, neither man could be said to be particularly fond of the other.

    "Please sit, High General," Qing Xi said. "We have certain matters to discuss."

    "I will stand," Xia replied. "I'm not in the mood for any of your games- why have you brought me here?"

    "To talk about certain issues pertaining to a colleague of ours. Tell me, when was the last time you saw High Admiral Yuan?"

    Xia snorted- he disliked Qing Xi, but he hated the High Admiral, considering him a disgrace to the Imperial military and a man who had only risen as far as he had due to familial connections and a fair bit of backstabbing. "I last saw him the same time you last did- when we met on the palace steps so you could introduce us to your young protégé. Yuan's company is not something I seek out if I can at all avoid it."

    "An understandable attitude," Qing Xi admitted. "So then, you can shed no light as to what would possess him to sail off straight for the former Earth Kingdom at full speed within the last few days, informing no one of where he was going or why?"

    "I don't have that kind of personal information, but going off of what I know of the man, it could either be that he has finally gone completely mad and is sailing off in search of the ends of the world or some other nonsense," the High General leaned in and lowered his voice, "or else it has something to do with the service his family performs for the Empress." Even among themselves, the elite of the Fire Empire were reluctant to speak of the captive Moon and Ocean spirits.

    "That would have been my belief as well, except that I know where the High Admiral's… prisoners… are kept, and he is not sailing in that direction. That means that either his action is completely beyond reason, or there is a piece here I am not seeing." Qing Xi's eyes narrowed. "I do not like being unaware of what passes in this Empire."

    High General Xia allowed himself a small smile. "Then perhaps it will do you good to return to the world of common people for a while, milord High Minister. In any event, I cannot help you, and must return to my own duties." Turning he swept back towards the door. Qing Xi watched him go, but just before the door shut behind him his eyes fell on the scroll he had been reading before the High General had arrived.

    "Xia," he said conversationally, "your men wouldn't happen to have been requisitioning a large amount of food lately without filling out the proper paperwork, would they?" If they had, Qing Xi didn't expect him to admit it, but he knew that Xia was a terrible liar and hoped his reaction would give something away.

    But the High General's look of befuddlement was disappointingly genuine. "If they are, it is without my authority," he said. "If I find out it has been happening, I assure you those responsible will be punished. Good-bye." Xia left the room, pulling the door shut behind him. Qing Xi was left alone with his growing unease. Vanishing food, unpredictable Yuan, the Empress's plans for her successor hinging so much on chance- these were things that smelled uncomfortably like the kind of chaos that could easily tear his orderly world apart.

    The High Minister had no intention of letting that happen.

    ----------------------------------------------------------------------------

    The warship arrived at Long Du Shi the following evening. As soon as it had docked and lowered its ramp, Jiazin slipped ashore and hurried along the docks until she came to the station where the train waited to transport new arrivals into the city. Still hooded and cloaked to conceal her identity, she boarded the train quietly and found a seat alone near the back of one of the cars, waiting for the machine to rumble to life and begin moving.

    She didn't speak to any of her fellow passengers- though this late in the day there were few enough of them- her attention being focused completely on her destination and what she would say when she got there. Finally the train came to a stop at the station nearest the Governor's Palace, and Jiazin slipped out and made her way silently towards her home.

    Two guards moved to block her path as she approached the entrance to the palace, forming fireballs warningly in their hands. "Who goes there?" one of them demanded, stepping forward. Jiazin didn't speak, but simply reached up and removed her hood. The guard gasped as he recognized her face, and quickly bowed. "Forgive me," he said. "I didn't recognize you. Of course you may enter here, milady." Both guards stepped aside, and Jiazin entered.

    She knew where her father would be at this time of day- his office, working ceaselessly to manage one of the greatest cities in the world. She met no one along the way except for servants who bowed and ducked out of her way. Finally reaching the office door, Jiazin ignored protocol and simply opened it and stepped inside.

    Sure enough, Father was there, engrossed in some document. He looked up irritably at the interruption. "Didn't I give orders that I wasn't to be…" he began, and then stopped, staring as he took in exactly who had interrupted him. "Jiazin?" he whispered in shock. "What are you doing back here? Why didn't you send us a message that you were returning?"

    Jiazin pulled the scrolls out from inside her cloak and placed them on his desk. "Read these, Father. Now."

    "I don't understand. Jiazin, tell me what this is-"

    "Read them," she said in a tone that brooked no argument. "You have to."

    Father looked perplexed, but something about Jiazin's tone seemed to convince him that this was important. He read through each of the scrolls in silence while his daughter paced around the edges of the office, and when he was through he looked up at her intently. "Where did you get these?" he whispered.

    "I found them in the High Minister's office," she told him. "I… I know I shouldn't have taken them, but somebody needed to know, and that was the only way I could prove I wasn't lying or crazy. Father, these scrolls contain record of terrible things done in the name of the Empress, corruption in the very heart of the Empire. Somebody needed to know- somebody who could do something about it."

    Father looked at her with sad, tired eyes. "Jiazin," he said quietly, "I already knew."

    She stood still, staring at him. "What?" she said in a tiny voice. "What do you mean?"

    He stood and walked forward, putting a comforting arm around her shoulder. "You are young, Jiazin," he told her, "and you have been raised as a child of great privilege. You did not have to experience the harsher realities of life at a young age, as children of the lower classes do, but that does not mean you can remain innocent forever. Your birth means that someday you will be a leader of the Empire, and there are certain things you will need to learn. The Fire Empire is a great thing, my daughter- it brought order and peace to a war-torn world- but no great gift comes without cost. To preserve order, sometimes… sacrifices must be made."

    "Sacrifices?" Jiazin echoed. She pulled out from under his arm and grabbed up one of the scrolls. "This records entire villages slaughtered because they refused to hand over earthbending children to be slaves- and you call that a sacrifice? What about Prince Zuko, who was killed and then had his whole life erased- was that worth it because it helped cement his sister's rule? Did you know about him before tonight too?"

    Father's eyes hardened. "I did not know about the prince, though I had heard rumors that Azula had a sibling who had been expunged from the historical record because of some shame he brought on the family. In any event, Prince Zuko lived and died more than a hundred years ago, and nothing can be done for him one way or another. This world is ruled by Empress Azula, and that is the world we have to deal with. I have learned to live in it, and you must do the same." His expression softened. "Jiazin, whenever I give an order that I know will lead to deaths, don't think that I don't feel any guilt or pain. I do not want people to die, but sometimes a few deaths are better than the alternative- unrest, rebellion, war. For the greater good, peace and order must be maintained."

    "Peace and order," Jiazin repeated darkly, torn between anger and tears. Father stepped forward and put his arm around her shoulders again.

    "I know it's uncomfortable to hear these things," he said. "I felt the same way when I was your age. But we cannot change this world- we must work within it to ensure fair and just rule. " He smiled weakly, but didn't meet her eyes. "I will admit that some of the fault here is mine. Your mother and I kept you shielded from the ugly side of our position, and it is obvious to me now that we should not have tried to coddle you. I know that I’ve not been an ideal father, but I wanted you to keep your innocence for as long as you could. Now, come. It's getting late- I'll have the servants prepare your room for you. I know you probably feel like hating me right now, but when you've had time to think things over you'll realize it has all been for the best." He gestured at the scrolls on the table. "We'll send those back to the High Minister tomorrow with full apologies. He's a ruthless man, I’ll admit, but a reasonable one- he'll see that no lasting harm has been done."

    But as Jiazin watched Governor Yan Li, the father she had loved and admired all her life, though often from a distance, and who now she felt like she didn't know at all, she reflected on the evil deeds done by "reasonable" men, and decided that this was something she could never accept or understand, no matter how long she had to think about it. She was the daughter of a governor, a member of the high nobility, and (though few knew it) the heir apparent to the Empress, but now Jiazin realized what it was to be a stranger in her own home.

    ---------------------------------------------------------------

    Jiazin’s crisis of faith continues in this chapter, as yet another of the pillars of her world- her belief that her father is a good and noble man, if emotionally distant- gets pulled out from under her. As compared to my other two main characters, she hasn’t ever really been in a position to see the Fire Empire’s evil and has felt no need to challenge the system, but now she’s forced to confront how deep the rot runs, and how close to home. Of course, by knocking away her previously held beliefs and support system, Jiazin has also been provided with the impetus to change dramatically as a person and find a new role in life beyond taking on whatever government position the Empire might find for a talented young noble-born firebender. Of course, she’s still got a very long, bumpy road ahead of her before she becomes the person that, in the end, she’ll need to be.

    It’s been observed that the Avatarverse has more than its fair share of evil fathers, though I’m not so sure that I’d go so far as to call Yan Li “evil”. I think that term implies a certain degree of active malice that he simply doesn’t possess- rather, he is someone who goes along with an evil system because he believes that system can’t be fought and there’s no point trying. I think that in his youth he was probably more than a bit like his daughter, but ended up getting the idealism ground out of him until being a loyal noble of the Fire Empire was the only thing left he could bring himself to do. Of course, I also think that Jiazin is a stronger person, at least in pure will, than her father, so she’s not necessarily doomed to share his fate.

    Yes, Xia’s still around. It’ll be a while before he becomes a major player, but I wanted to make sure readers didn’t forget about him. Also keep an eye on the Qing Xi POV sequences when they show up- he’s just now in the process of stumbling on to something that’ll ultimately be key to unravelling the whole story, even if it’ll be a while before it’s apparent to QX (or, hopefully, the reader) just what his data is telling him.

    -MasterGhandalf
  7. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 22: Healer

    Kanoda backed up and raised his knife, the weapon feeling inadequate and tiny in his hands as the bandits circled around him and Yue. The waterbender's usual aura of sad serenity hadn't broken- yet- though there were signs of strain in her expression nonetheless. She wasn't afraid, Kanoda realized, so much as she was frustrated with this delay.

    "I'm gonna ask this one more time," the apparent leader of the bandit gang said. "Give us anything of value you've got on you. We're not here to hurt people, but if we don't get something shiny real quick, we might get a little… antsy. And believe me, you don't want that." He swung his sword lightly through the air to emphasize his point.

    Yue held up her hands calmly. "We don't have anything that you would find of value. Harming us will do you no good. It will be easier for us all if you just leave us in peace and let us go our own way."

    The bandit grinned nastily. "The ones that say that are always the ones who are hiding something. Whatever you've got, lady, cough it up." He stepped forward and leveled his blade at her throat.

    "Please," Yue said. "I don't want to hurt you."

    "Listen to that, boys and girls!" The bandit said, laughing. "She doesn't want to hurt us! Well here's what I have to say about that!" Raising his sword, he swung it swiftly down, aiming to hit Yue across the head with the flat of the blade- at this point, he clearly wanted to teach her a lesson without killing her. Kanoda prepared to lunge forward with some half-baked notion of tearing the sword from the bandit's grip with his bare hands, but the blow never fell. Yue stepped lightly back and raised her hand, and a tentacle of water snaked from her waterskin and wrapped around the blade, lifting it into the air and hurling it against the ground several dozen feet away.

    "Waterbender," the bandit breathed, his eyes wide. Behind him, several of his band, who had previously been watching the proceedings in obvious amusement, now shifted uncomfortably. "Your kind was supposed to be extinct."

    "I am the last," Yue said sadly. "But now you see why attacking me would not be wise. I do not wish to hurt you, but I will if it is necessary to defend my life or that of my companion."

    I can defend myself! Kanoda thought irritably, then realized that it was rather ridiculous for a teenager armed only with a knife to think he could handle a well-armed bandit gang as well as a master waterbender. First I get captured by Shiyan and then saved by Yue. If there's one thing I've learned from this quest, it's that girls can be a lot more dangerous than the Water Tribe gives them credit for…

    The bandit leader scowled. "You're still only one woman, and there's more than a dozen of us." His eyes brightened as an idea seemed to occur to him. "You know, the Empire would probably pay a hefty sum for you. Kill the boy, but take the waterbender alive."

    The bandits raised their weapons and began to tighten the circle, some grinning viciously, others with faces that might have been carved from stone. Kanoda's little dagger was suddenly feeling more inadequate than ever. Suddenly a gloved hand seized his arm, and he almost twisted away before realizing who it was. "Stay close to me," Yue whispered in his ear.

    "What are you going to…" Kanoda started to ask, but before he could finish speaking the first bandit lunged forward, sword raised. Yue released her grip on his arm and raised both of her arms high, and twin streams of water burst from the skins at her side. They struck the ground and formed a pool at her feet, and just as quickly rose up into a ring of watery tentacles that surrounded both the waterbender and her companion. One of the tentacles seized the lunging bandit and threw him against a tree, where he lay breathing but still. The others shot out and swept several other attackers off their feet, in the process disarming them and hurling their weapons away. Kanoda was no bender, but it was obvious to him that Yue's control was incredibly fine.

    Of course, that came when one had almost a century of practice…

    The rest of the bandit gang fell back, shooting confused looks at their leader. Snarling, he unslung a small bow from behind his back and fit an arrow to it, a handful of his followers doing likewise. They loosed their projectiles with practiced accuracy, but they had little more effect than the attempts at close attack. The watery tentacles snatched each arrow as it flew and dashed it against the ground.

    Kanoda was amazed that anyone would have such quick reflexes, but as he looked at Yue's face he realized the truth. Despite her air of sad wisdom, her physical youth made it easy to forget exactly what she was- a human being who had been touched by a spirit and permanently altered. She had been alive longer than the Fire Empire itself, held a power like few others save the Avatars had, and it had changed her. Though her appearance was no different than it had ever been, as she lost herself in her bending there was an alien cast to Yue's features, something of the other about her. It vanished as quickly as it appeared, but Kanoda was shook, forcibly reminded that he'd gotten himself involved in something that was far more than what he'd bargained for when he'd left home.

    For a brief moment, Yue had frightened him.

    "What does it take to bring you down?" the bandit leader snarled after his third arrow was plucked harmlessly from the air.

    "I don't know," a skinny, dark haired woman at his side said, "but let's see how she handles this!" Reaching into her shirt, she pulled out a handful of small throwing daggers and hurled them towards Yue in rapid succession. If she thought the smaller projectiles would prove more difficult to deflect, she was profoundly mistaken. One of the tentacles easily reached up and batted them away. Kanoda's eyes still followed them absently- and then widened at what he saw.

    The bandit leader's eyes widened as he realized that the knives were now hurtling in his direction with far greater force than if any human hand had thrown them. He quickly hurled himself to one side, but not fast enough- two of the knives missed him, but the third embedded itself in his side. He collapsed, a stunned look on his face and a pained cry barely escaping his lips.

    Those bandits who still stood ceased their attacks and hurried to his side. The woman who had thrown the knives knelt at the leader's side, eyes wide in horror at what she'd inadvertently done. The leader himself pulled his back up against a tree and leaned there, holding on to the knife in his side tightly.

    "They're distracted," Kanoda whispered. "We should get out of here, now." Running wasn't a very heroic thing to do, he thought, but neither was picking a fight with a man who was down and beaten. Neither option was appealing, but getting away with both their lives still intact certainly seemed like the better to his mind.

    But Yue was staring at her opponents with grief and pity in her eyes. "I did not mean to do that," she said in a quiet voice. "Sometimes, when I'm bending, I lose myself in the power and do things that I didn't mean to. I told you that I hate killing, and I do- even if the person is my enemy. The Moon Spirit is not human, and… does not always share my concerns."

    "But you've killed Imperial soldiers, haven't you?" Kanoda asked. "They were enemies- this isn't any different."

    She regarded him with blue eyes that hardened to chips of ice. "It is different. I will kill those who chose to walk the path of oppression and murder if I must, but these people, I have seen their kind before. Some of them may be truly evil- I do not know- but most of them were forced into this life after losing everything to the Fire Empire. They are desperate, and desperation can make people do evil things." She lowered her head. "I know that- there are times I have felt it myself. But I do not believe they are evil people at heart."

    "They threatened to sell you to the Fire Empire!" Kanoda said, disbelieving.

    "Because they will do anything to get the money they need to survive. They are not admirable people by any standards, but they deserve our pity, not our hate. At any rate, I am still responsible for his injury." Stepping forward, Yue held both her hands up before her. Several of the bandits tensed and brandished their weapons, but they did not attack yet. "Let me see him," she said. "I might be able to help."

    The woman with the knives laughed. "What, help him quicker into his grave? Sorry- I don't think so."

    "Yes, I am responsible for what happened to your leader, but I didn't want it," Yue told her. "Waterbenders have healing powers. Please- let me help you."

    The woman looked about to argue again, but the leader held up his hand. "What do I have to lose? I know I'm dying, Song Li- I know all about the sorts of things you put on your knives. It was stupid of you to use them on someone we wanted to take alive in any event." He coughed heavily, and then looked up at Yue with flecks of blood on his lips. "Heal me, or kill me quicker- either way, it doesn't matter to me." The look on his face showed which possibility he considered most likely, but also that he was beyond caring. There must be something very nasty on those knives, Kanoda thought as he followed closely behind his companion. She may be a century old, but if she thinks these people aren't evil, she's not seeing them clearly.

    The bandits stepped aside, looking murderous, and Yue approached the leader. Kneeling beside him, she raised her hand over the wound. He stopped her with a gesture, and then winced as he pulled the knife from his side and nodded. The waterbender pulled some water from her skin and wrapped it around her hand, then lowered it onto the wound. She closed her eyes, and the hand began to glow with a soft, clear light- like moonlight, Kanoda thought, but brighter. The bandits shifted uneasily but made no move to attack Yue, clearly as fascinated by the healing as the young hunter was.

    Finally the glow faded, and Yue raised her hand to reveal the bandit leader's side, clean and uninjured. He felt along it and then looked up at her, eyes wide. "Be careful," she said to him. "I healed your wound, but the poison on the knife was difficult to deal with. I think I stopped it completely- I know it won't kill you now- but you'll probably be weak for a while."

    The leader stood. "And I shall remind my subordinates to be more careful with their weapons in the future," he said, shooting Song Li a dark look. "You have my gratitude, waterbender, though I am confused as to why you did what you did." He laughed bitterly. "After all, I was doing my best to capture you just minutes ago!"

    Yue shrugged. "My quarrel is with the Fire Empire, not you. I meant it when I said I didn't want to hurt you."

    He looked at her shrewdly. "In any event, Dai pays his debts. Don't think you've converted me to your cause- and if you come this way again with something worth stealing, things might be different- but for now, you and your friend can go in peace."

    Yue bowed. "Thank you, Dai," she said. Turning away from the bandits, she walked back to Kanoda. "Come on. I think we should get away before one of the others changes their mind." That was something with which Kanoda agreed completely.

    They made camp among the trees once they were a good distance from the bandits, and Kanoda gathered dead wood for a small fire. After lighting it, he sat across the flames from Yue and didn't speak.

    "You seem troubled," she finally said.

    "Yeah," Kanoda replied. "I came from the South Pole because I wanted to be a hero- I thought I could do great things. But when those bandits attacked, and you fought them off all by yourself, I wasn't able to do anything. Then I didn't want you to heal the leader, and you did anyway, and he let us go. And that's the second time you've save me." He sighed. "I'm just starting to feel less like a hero and more like something that you're dragging around for no reason, getting in the way."

    Yue got up and sat down next to him. "Listen, Kanoda," she said softly. "You're brave, and you're driven, and from what I've seen you never give up- you will have your chance to do great things. But not everyone can be a hero all the time. Don't let it get to you. The Moon Spirit led me to you, and the spirits always have a purpose. Your time will come." She smiled.

    "Thanks," Kanoda said. But deep down, he found her words to be small comfort.



    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    The bandit fight scene in this chapter serves several functions, narratively. The first is to give a chance for Yue to show off her waterbending against a group of enemies who have the drop on her- note her use of the Octopus Form, which Katara uses in the show. However, this scene also shows Yue’s compassion- she may have been forced to be a warrior by necessity but she isn’t one by nature, and she doesn’t like being forced to hurt or kill. I think it’s important to show her willingness to heal her enemy and make peace with him rather than continue fighting, even if she probably could have defeated the entire bandit gang had she really cut loose.

    Of course, there’s also some internal conflict with Kanoda here, even if he doesn’t get to do much actual fighting. He left home wanting to be a hero, and now he’s stuck playing the sidekick, and it’d be a lie to say it’s not somewhat galling for him. He also sees the whole fight as a very black-and-white affair, in contrast to Yue, who sees more of the shades of grey. Of course Kanoda, like Jiazin, still has a lot of growth left to do on his hero’s journey.

    The bandits, for their part, are something of a take on the Freedom Fighters, though they represent a darker side than the earthbender resistance does. They’re ultimately a bit part, but this isn’t quite the last we’ll be seeing of them…

    Also, this is the last chapter that will stick strictly to the rotating formula we’ve previously established. Starting next time, the storylines are going to start getting more tangled.

    -MasterGhandalf
  8. Mira_Jade The NSWFF Manager With The Cape

    Manager
    Member Since:
    Jun 29, 2004
    star 4
    These last few updates were just wonderful to read. So far, Yue's story line is becoming one of my favourites - I love her compassion and ability to see shades of grey . . . Just, keep up the good work. =D=
  9. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 23: Live With Honor

    Jiazin came awake slowly the morning after she had returned to Long Du Shi. She had returned to her chambers at her father’s prompting but lain awake on her bed for what felt like hours, her mind constantly turning over the revelations of the past days and trying unsuccessfully to make sense of them. At last she had fallen into a fitful sleep, still fully dressed. Now she woke, with the angle of the sunlight that poured through her window suggesting that the morning was half gone, to find that her mother was sitting on the end of her bed.

    “Jiazin,” the older woman said softly. “Your father told me you’d come home.”

    “Did he tell you why?” Jiazin asked, unable to keep the sullen edge from her voice.

    Her mother sighed. “He did. I understand that this is hard for you to accept – it was for me when I was as young as you are. You grow up believing the stories that we tell about our Empire and that it can do no wrong, only to find that it has committed terrible crimes on its path to power. It’s good that you aren’t comfortable with this, Jiazin- it proves that you’re still human inside- but, unfortunately, it is the way the world is, and we have to live with it.”

    “We won, and they lost,” Jiazin muttered. “Are you saying that makes it right?”

    Mother regarded her levelly. “Tell me, Jiazin,” she said, “what the very first thing I taught you about firebending was?”

    Jiazin sat fully upright and cupped her hands in front of her, forming a small flame between them. “Fire is not like the other elements,” she recited. “Earth is stable, water fluid, and air all around us, but they do not move themselves. Fire has a life of its own. It always wants to grow and consume, and the firebender must take care that she uses it wisely, because if she doesn’t, it will grow larger than she can control and burn everything in its path.” The young noblewoman looked up from her flame at her mother’s face. “Why did you want me to remember that?”

    “Because,” the older woman said, “Empire is like fire. Its nature is to grow and consume; you cannot have an empire without conquest, any more than you can make fire that doesn’t burn.” Reaching out, she placed an arm around her daughter’s shoulders. “I’m sorry, Jiazin,” she said quietly. “I know it’s not always a pleasant world, but it’s the only one we have. Your father and I have learned to live in it. I’m afraid that sooner or later you’ll have to do the same.”

    ----------------------------------------------------------------------

    "So, you didn't get any weapons or supplies, then?" Shu Bei Fong asked, rubbing his eyes with one hand.

    "Dad, we were lucky to get away with our lives," Chaiy told him. "It was a trap all along- they had us surrounded by soldiers, and I'm talking good ones, not the incompetents they usually assign to caravan duty. More than that, I'm pretty sure that the guy in charge was none other than our old friend Gian, working for the Empire again. I'd bet my bow that he was the one who planned the whole thing. It was clever, quick, and brutal- his style."

    Shu raised his head, eyes going hard at the mention of the mercenary's name. "I should have guessed it was a trap, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I expect that was the point. I'm not angry at you for failing, Chaiy, just angry that we both let ourselves be had so easily. Leave me for now. I need to think."

    Chaiy bowed and left the room, wincing only slightly at the pain from her now-bandaged side. Tong, who had been standing silently behind her, turned to follow but was stopped by the rebel leader's voice. "Would you stay a moment, please?" Somewhat surprised, but figuring that he was about to find out why Shu had wanted him to be present, he turned to face the older man.

    "Was there something you wanted to tell me?" he asked after several quiet moments passed .

    "Yes," Shu said, sounding weary and older than he had before. "According to Chaiy, you were the one most responsible for saving our warriors from the Fire Empire. For that- and for keeping my daughter alive- I thank you."

    "I didn't do anything that the others wouldn't have done," Tong said. "If I'd been a real hero, I wouldn't have let her get hurt."

    Shu snorted. "Real heroes are far more fallible than people give them credit for. You did the best you could under the circumstances, and that saved a number of lives. Against the likes of Gian, that's quite impressive."

    "Do you know Gian?" Tong asked. "You seemed to react strangely when Chaiy mentioned his name, is all."

    "Know him? Not personally, but I'm very well acquainted with his reputation. He's been a thorn in the side of the rebellion for a while, though normally his employers don't give him much free reign- apparently they either don't trust a mercenary, or they don't want to let him take the glory. If this trap was any indication, that seems to have changed." Shu looked up at Tong darkly. "Gian isn’t like most of the ordinary imperial soldiers. They fight because they’re conscripted, or because their society expects it of them, but no one knows for sure where Gian came from or what his origins are, only that he fights entirely of his own free will.”

    "Then why does he fight at all?" Tong asked. "The slaves work for the Fire Empire because we're forced to, but I can't imagine why anyone would choose to work for them willingly when they didn’t have to!"

    "Gian's only loyalty is to money, and the thrill of victory. Men like him only care about themselves- his type would think nothing of selling out their own families if it helped him get ahead. They are more common than you might think, though they don't generally trumpet the fact."

    Tong hung his head and clenched his fists. "I can't understand that," he growled.

    "I hope you never do," Shu said. "You should go get some rest, then. The rebellion needs warriors who are fit and alert."

    "I'll do that. Thank you." Tong bowed and departed.

    -----------------------------------------------------------------

    Jiazin walked among the earthbender slaves that worked along the edge of Long Du Shi, seeing them for the first time in her life. True, she'd always been aware of them, but that had been a distant thing, lacking any real power. The earthbenders had been dangerous, backward savages- the Fire Empire had tamed them, and was gracious enough to allow them to work towards its glory. That was all the information her tutors had ever volunteered about them, and Jiazin had seen no reason to inquire further. What more was there to know?

    Now, however, in light of the revelations of the Empire's crimes and her father's complicity in them, the young woman felt that her whole world had been turned inside out. Everything that she had believed about herself and her place in the world was, if not quite a lie, hardly what she had believed it to be either. Now the earthbenders held a strange fascination for Jiazin, perhaps because their enslavement was the subject of Imperial propaganda that was closest, and therefore easiest to investigate. If the slaves were what the Empire said they were, then perhaps everything was not a twisted as it seemed and there was some justice in the Empress's reign.

    So far, Jiazin hadn't found the validation she sought. Quite the opposite, in fact- the slaves were miserable and downtrodden, staring at her with expressions of mixed fear and hatred. Every so often a taskmaster would crack a flaming whip over their heads and force them back to their heavy labor. Those who were aware of Jiazin's presence seemed to strike harder than those who were at a distance, as though harsher punishment might earn more favor from her. It made her feel sick inside.

    She was alone, without servants or any kind of armed escort. She hadn't told anyone where she was going- certainly not her father, who thought she was still resting in her rooms- and felt that in the unlikely event she was in danger from a rebellious slave, it would be something she could handle. Looking at them now, Jiazin thought that the very idea of any of these broken people rebelling was absurd.

    Able to stand it no longer, she turned and began to make her way back towards the city. Before she had gone very far, however, a grinding sound caught her attention and she turned to see a ragged earthbender woman trip over a jagged piece of loose stone and fall to her knees, as the block of stone she'd been moving slid out of her control and into a half-built wall, demolishing both. Before Jiazin had a chance to so much as move, a burly taskmaster rushed to the slave's side, hauled her to her feet, and readied a fire whip in one hand.

    At the sight of the slave woman's terrified eyes and the taskmaster's brutal expression, something inside Jiazin snapped. Hurtling herself forward, she shoved herself between the taskmaster and his victim, inadvertently sending the slave toppling back to the ground. "You will leave her alone, now," she hissed, bearing regal and eyes cold.

    "Out of my way, girl, or you're next!" the soldier snarled. Jiazin's stare became incredulous.

    "It would seem you don't recognize me," she told him, "but if you so much as lay a hand on me, my father will know about it- and what do you think the Governor would do to the man who hurt his daughter?"

    The man's eyes widened and he backed up, bowing repeatedly. "Forgive me, my lady," he said hastily. "I honestly didn't recognize you! I only wanted to discipline this inept slave properly."

    "You are dismissed," Jiazin said. "Continue with your work elsewhere. I will handle this one." He bowed again and hurried off. When Jiazin was satisfied that he was gone, she turned and held out a hand to the cowering slave. The woman's –no, the girl's, on closer inspection she couldn't be more than a few years older than Jiazin herself- only reaction was to pull herself farther away, eyes wide and frightened.

    "I didn't mean to, I didn't mean to do anything wrong, please don't hurt me," she was repeating frantically. Between the words and her expression, Jiazin felt a part of her heart break. I just saved her, and she's still terrified of me, just because I'm an Imperial noble. Is that what the Fire Empire means to people like this?

    "Listen to me," Jiazin told her. "I'm not going to hurt you. I just want to help you stand up. I said what I did to the taskmaster so he wouldn't get suspicious."

    The slave hesitated for another moment, then took Jiazin's hand and pulled herself to her feet. "You saved me," she said in a soft, disbelieving voice as she realized she wasn't going to be punished. "Why?"

    Why indeed? Jiazin's mind was such a confusing whirl that right now even she wasn't sure she understood it. How could she explain her reasoning to this person, and even should she? "Because what he was doing was wrong," was all she finally said.

    "Wrong?" the slave said, giving a short, bitter laugh. The implication that hung in the air was that she had never expected to hear a noble talking seriously about right and wrong, though she didn't dare voice it aloud. Jiazin caught it, though.

    "Listen to me," she said. "Go back to your work crew and act like nothing was wrong. I'm going to go have a little talk with my father." Jiazin turned and hurried away from the other girl, who stood there for a moment with a perplexed expression before scurrying back towards her work crew. The governor's daughter's pace picked up to a run as she made for the nearest train station.

    The eyes of the slaves followed her.

    --------------------------------------------------------

    Jiazin marched through the palace halls, eyes blazing, until she came to one of the soldiers of the guard. "You," she said, calling him over. "Where is my father?"

    "The- the Governor is in a meeting with some of his ministers right now, in the main hall," the surprised guard told her. Jiazin nodded in thanks and hurried off in that direction. "He told us he didn't want to be disturbed!" he called after her, but she ignored him.

    When Jiazin finally came to the grand doors of the main hall, she paused only briefly before thrusting one of them open and sticking her head inside. Sure enough, her father sat inside at the head of the table, other men and women in less elaborate red robes along both sides. One of them was standing and currently speaking. "I tell you, these rebels are becoming a major concern!" he was saying. "Gian assures me that he can capture them, but he requires more money and resources than I alone can offer him. If your office was to provide me a loan, I assure you that it would be well spent!"

    "I'll consider it, Underminister Qang," Father said, and the man sat. The governor sighed and looked out over the table, and his eyes widened when he saw Jiazin there. "Excuse me, gentlemen," he smoothly, standing and making his way around the shocked ministers before coming to the door. He thrust Jiazin back out into the hallway and pulled the door shut behind him.

    "What are you doing?" he asked in a distinctly irritated tone. "You know better than to interrupt me while I'm working. Or are they getting lax about etiquette in the Capital?" He studied her more intently. "And why are you all covered in dust?"

    "I went out to see the slaves, Father," Jiazin said coolly. The governor's eyes widened slightly and then he shook his head.

    "Jiazin, you can't right every wrong in the Fire Empire," he said sadly. "No one can. Some things- the enslavement of the earthbenders among them- are necessary evils. If we did not work to contain the earthbenders, they would rise up against us. And enslavement is certainly a better fate- and more productive- than simply imprisoning them or executing them!"

    "I just saw a taskmaster who would have beaten a girl for tripping if I hadn't stopped him," Jiazin said. "It may be a better fate than some, but I can't see how it could really be called a life, either. I did what I could for her, but I don't have any direct authority over the taskmasters. You do. I want you to come out there with me, right now, and look into their eyes. If you don't at least order their working conditions improved after that, then you have a heart of stone."

    Father's face was darkening now. "I have seen the slaves many times- and you will not tell me how to run my city. I am willing to accept advice if I feel it is sound, but I will not take orders from my own daughter."

    Jiazin stood still for a moment, torn between anger and tears. Finally her hand went to her side and she drew her sword in a single fluid motion. Father stepped back, but she made no move to attack him, merely holding the sword up in front of her face. "I remember when you gave me this," she said softly. "You told me that it was an heirloom of our house, and I should keep it well. But more than that, before I went to my first lesson with this blade, you took me aside and told me something. Do you remember what that was, Father?"

    "Remind me," he said in a soft voice, full of some emotion she couldn't identify.

    "You said that I should always remember that to wield a sword was to use power, but also to exercise restraint. A true warrior, you told me, doesn't just fight with honor- she lives with it." Jiazin lowered the blade and stared intently at her father. "I can't believe that the man who taught me that is standing here right now, trying to justify a system he knows full well is vicious just because he's afraid of change."

    "Jiazin, what are you saying?" her father asked her. "You were always loyal to the Empire- you believed in it! What changed?"

    "Maybe because I found out that the Empire I believed in- and still do- was a lie?" Jiazin replied. "The Empire I believe in stands for law, truth, and justice, but there's not a lot of that around here, is there?" She sheathed her sword and turned to go, echoes of what she'd overheard at the meeting running through her head. "But maybe I know a way to make you see reason." Without looking back at her father, she hurried down the hall.

    "Wait, Jiazin!" Yan Li shouted, but she didn't stop until she turned a corner and was out of sight. He couldn't muster the strength to follow her, but simply leaned against the wall and looked down at the floor. "Oh, girl," he whispered, "what are you getting yourself into now?"

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Gian's home was a small, sparsely furnished place midway between the palace and the wall in Long Du Shi, decorated only by trophies of successful jobs. He could have afforded something much richer if he'd wanted to, but really saw no reason to do so- he really spent little time here, preferring to be out fighting or tracking. He was here currently only because he was trying to figure out a way to bore down into the rebel base without resorting to an unreliable slave or a drilling machine the rebels would here from a mile away, though he claimed to be stalling for more pay. So far, he had turned up a handful of ideas, but none was foolproof enough that he would be willing to trust his life to it.

    This wasn't a job he was about to give up on, though. Every time he so much as thought about it, the new scar on his cheek tingled and reminded him that they'd made it personal. No one marked Gian and lived.

    The mercenary was torn from his contemplations by a sharp rapping on the door. Idly wondering who it could be, he stood slowly and rested one hand on the knife that hung from his belt before stalking over to answer it. Opening the door slowly, Gian was surprised to see a young woman dressed as a noble warrior standing there, one hand resting on a fine sword and eyes intense. It took him a moment to recognize her as the Governor's daughter, a person about whom one of his spies had already reported some very interesting things. A new plan began to take shape almost at once in his nimble mind.

    "You are the mercenary Gian?" Jiazin asked imperiously. She had presence, he’d give her that, but Gian was too old and wily to be caught up in it; he could see the uncertain girl behind the cold mask. He didn’t know what was eating at her, but he had no doubt he could turn it to his advantage.

    "Indeed," he said. "I must confess curiosity as to why one so highly born as you would seek me out personally at my humble home."

    Jiazin paused for a moment, drew a deep breath, and spoke. "I want to hire you," she said. "There is a group of rebels I believe you've been fighting. I want you to help me find them."

    Gian smiled as the last pieces of his plan fell into place. This foolish girl was exactly what he needed- it was almost enough to make him believe the spirits actually cared about what happened in his life. "I don't work for free," he said, beckoning at her. "Come inside, and let's talk about payment."

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    The scene at the beginning of this chapter with Jiazin and her mother is entirely new to this version of the story, added because I’d not included as many scenes of them interacting in the original version as I’d have liked. In my earliest ideas for FotFE, Jiazin would have eventually learned she was descended from Zuko and Mai through her mother’s side, but it seemed too improbable that Azula would have missed something like that and the idea got scrapped, with Jiazin’s relationship with her father taking a more central role in her story to replace it. Unfortunately, that meant a lot of Jiazin’s relationship with her mother ended up less focused on than I’d have liked. If Jiazin’s mother’s analogy feels a little forced, almost as if she’s trying to convince herself as much as her daughter, that’s entirely deliberate.

    Another early idea was that Jiazin was going to kill the antagonistic taskmaster here. I scrapped that for two reasons- one, because it was a little extreme for where Jiazin is at this point (she’s not quite ready to start killing imperial soldiers yet), and two, because there was simply no way to do the scene without it coming off, in my opinion, as way too “Moses”. Jiazin’s not Moses J.

    With both Jiazin and Tong POVs in this chapter, and Jiazin hiring Gian at the end, the rotating chapter system has begun to break down. The storylines are about to start getting a lot more interconnected.

    -MasterGhandalf
  10. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 24: Power and Purpose

    The bandit Dai leaned against a tree, one hand rubbing his side where it had been injured just days ago. It still stung a bit, but there was no longer any trace of the wound apart from a faint scar, and even that looked like it would soon fade. The white-haired waterbender had been both a blessing and a curse, he thought- if she hadn't come, then he wouldn't have been injured in the first place, but if she hadn't stopped to help, he would have died. It was a puzzling contradiction- especially for a man who liked his world neatly divided into His Band and Everyone Else, with the latter existing primarily as targets- but he was still satisfied in having let her go. Dai doubted his group could have brought her down under any circumstances after what he'd seen, but in any case, a healer that powerful deserved to live. One never knew when such skills could come in handy, after all…

    Of course, that didn't change the fact that he hadn't gotten any loot from her either, and therefore the band was currently hungry and irritable. They needed a big catch, and soon, or else to move on to richer hunting grounds.

    Dai heard footsteps approaching and looked up to see Song Li and some of the others coming towards him. The knife thrower still had the decency to look ashamed whenever she saw him, though the fact that her weapon had nearly killed him hadn't seemed to dull her cockiness any. Now there was a familiar gleam in her eyes. "What is it?" Dai asked, standing. "You look like you've found something."

    "We did, boss," Song Li said. "There's a group of Imperial soldiers coming up the road."

    Dai cursed. "How many?" he asked. If it was a sizeable patrol, that meant he'd have to move his band before he was ready or else risk getting chewed up and spat out. They were skilled at stalking and ambush, but no match for trained soldiers in pitched battle.

    "That's the thing," Song Li told him, the gleam in her eyes brightening. "There aren't that many of them- only about seven. I think we can take them."

    "Take them?" Dai asked incredulously, but then he stopped and considered. His band was going to need to move on soon anyway, and it would certainly be helpful wherever they went to have the extremely well-made swords and armor the Imperial military used. And if there were just seven of them- something he suspected was true, as few soldiers were skilled enough to hide themselves from his men in a forest- then it would indeed be possible to defeat them. "Yes," he said finally. "I do believe we could. Were these just standard infantry, or were any of them benders?"

    "Four looked like ordinary soldiers, plus an officer in a bender's mask," Song Li said. "There were two others with them, but I've never seen uniforms like the ones they were wearing."

    "Maybe I have." Dai walked forward and motioned for the rest of the band to follow. "Show these bold soldiers to me."

    The bandits followed Song Li through the trees, moving among the branches like silent ghosts. Finally they came to the edge of the road, and looked down at the Fire Empire soldiers who were gathered below, apparently deciding whether to make camp or press on. Four, as Song Li had said, were ordinary soldiers, plus their officer. The remaining two caught Dai's attention almost immediately- like his subordinate, he'd never see that jet-black armor with golden trim, and he knew of no division of the Imperial military that demanded its members paint their faces gold, or that recruited obviously adolescent girls, for that matter. But he had heard the stories of the fanatical female warriors who served the Empress directly, and he had a fair idea of what he was looking at.

    "Well, boss?" Song Li whispered from beside him. "What do you think?"

    Dai's brow furrowed as he looked at the soldiers, trying to make up his mind. On the one hand, the stories all said that the so-called Chosen were peerless fighters, but these two looked barely of age- probably apprentices or initiates of some sort. That meant they lacked experience and could be taken down. He didn't think the other soldiers would be much trouble at all.

    "We attack," he told her.

    -------------------------------------------------------------

    Shiyan decided that she hated this forest. It wasn't like the one on Empress Island at all, she thought- that one was small, neat and orderly. It had been tamed by first the Kyoshi Warriors and then the Chosen to use as a training ground, and it was theirs. This forest was strange and wild, full of odd sounds, and all that it seemed to accomplish was to set Shiyan on edge. That more than anything was why she wanted to press on further tonight, to prove to this place that she did not fear it, that she could conquer it. Captain Jiang's protestations that his men were tired did little to sway her. She was tired too, but she could master it and expected those who travelled with her to do the same.

    "I'm only saying, Chosen Shiyan," Jiang was saying, his tone the absolute minimum necessary to be respectful, "that we aren't going to catch up to the waterbender today no matter how far we go, and my men need their rest- you probably do to, for that matter. So I think-"

    "You will not presume to guess what I do and do not need," Shiyan told him coldly. "And I do not particularly care what you think. We go forward." She turned away from him dismissively and began to march along the dark forest path, motioning for the silent Cheng to follow her. If Jiang and his men didn't want to be brought before their general for dereliction of duty, they would just have to keep up.

    Something rustled in the trees above, something that sounded far too large to be a bird or squirrel-monkey. Shiyan stopped in her tracks and focused all her senses towards her surroundings; behind her, she noticed Cheng doing the same from the corner of her eye. For all her faults, the other girl did have Chosen training, and under pressure it showed. Both of them stood silently, scanning the treetops- there. Something moved behind the leaves, something approximately the size and shape of a person.

    An arrow shot down from among the trees, aimed straight for Shiyan's heart- but it struck only bare ground. She had noticed the movement of the leaves just in time, and her lightning-quick reflexes had saved her. Looking up, the Chosen warrior saluted the treetops mockingly. More arrows came shooting down, directed at both herself and Cheng, but both girls were able to dodge them with light and easy grace. One did come close to striking Shiyan in the face, but with a single swift motion she drew her sword and sliced the arrow in half. It was back in its sheath before the pieces hit the ground.

    Once it was clear that the Chosen were the primary targets, Captain Jiang took a step back and breathed in deeply, then released the energy from his hands in the form of a long wave of fire. He lacked the power or the skill to sustain the wave for long, but it struck the trees and set them alight with dancing flames. Angry curses came from above, and then figures began to drop towards ground level, men and women in crude forest-colored clothing, all armed.

    A tall, bearded man with a longsword hanging from his belt stepped forward. "That was a pretty fancy trick you pulled their- I'll give you that. But as you can see, there's quite a few more of us than there are of you, and there's no way your firebender could kill us all without frying you as well. I think it would be easiest for all of us if you would just give us your weapons, armor, and any money you have on you, and then we might be willing to let you go." Something about the man's tone suggested that might here had the meaning of never.

    "And if I refuse?" Shiyan asked, raising an eyebrow.

    "Then we'll bring you down through sheer weight of numbers and take what we want anyway," the bandit said, his tone equally cold.

    "Then come and take it, if you can," hissed. Shiyan drew her blade and dropped into a crouch; beside her, Cheng did the same. Behind them, the ordinary soldiers drew their own swords and gathered protectively around their captain, who was breathing deeply as he prepared his bending for another strike.

    "Take them," the bandit leader ordered. Instantly his band sprang forward, various weapons at the ready, making the two Chosen seem ludicrously small and helpless before them. Shiyan allowed herself a feral smile as she anticipated shattering that illusion. Then the battle was upon them.

    A huge man with a great broad-bladed sword came at her first, swinging his weapon with such strength that it was clear that if he managed to land even one blow on her, it would be fatal. Brute strength, however, was no match for speed and dexterity- Shiyan dodged each swing effortlessly, allowing herself to hover tauntingly for a moment just out of reach each time. When the bandit was thoroughly frustrated she struck back with lightning quick jabs at his joints. As he began to totter and collapse, a final surgical strike through the ribs finished him.

    Despite having trained as a warrior all her life, Shiyan had never killed before. As she watched the huge bandit's body still, a strange feeling of power and purpose rushed through her. This was what she was made for; to face the Empress's enemies in battle and vanquish them with this same, cold efficiency. It was something she had known for as far back as she could remember, but now she fulfilled that purpose for the first time, and she found herself fulfilled. A smile, cold and full of satisfaction, worked its way onto her face.

    Stepping away from the dead body, she lightly ducked beneath the swing of a bandit's club and brought her sword up again, adding a second kill to her list of victories. From behind she heard the sounds of another attacker approaching; she spun and lashed out with a flying kick, sending him tumbling unconsciously to the ground. Feral grin broadening, she leapt away from him and looked about for another target. There, facing her across the road, she saw one- a bandit woman armed with a beaten sword and a grim expression. Shiyan raised her free hand and beckoned; the woman's features contorted in rage and she lunged forward, weapon raised. The two traded blows back and forth beneath the burning trees, but it soon became apparent that the bandit was a skilled brawler, but simply no match for one of the Empress's Chosen. Feinting towards Shiyan's head with her sword, she kicked at the Chosen's legs, knocking her off balance. She took advantage of the opportunity to run, but didn't get far before Shiyan pulled her sword back and threw it with all her strength and deadly accuracy. The woman fell, the blade in her back.

    Suddenly a metal projectile whizzed past the Chosen's face- she could barely make out that it was a dagger. Spinning, she saw that her assailant was another woman, skinny and with an unruly mop of dark hair, who held more knives poised in her gloved hands. One by one she threw them, and Shiyan's body bent frantically as she dodged them. Only one struck, and it lodged harmlessly in her armor. She plucked it out and held it up for a moment, studying it, then dropped it contemptuously to the ground.

    The knife-thrower's eyes widened and she, too, turned to run. Charging forward, Shiyan leaped into the air and slammed bodily into the other woman, knocking her against a tree. The Chosen bared her teeth in a ferocious snarl and grabbed her opponent's head, slamming it back into the wood. She collapsed against the trunk, out cold.

    Shiyan climbed to her feet and studied the battlefield. Cheng, she saw, was fighting a bandit swordsman- she might not have been as skilled as the older Chosen, but it was clear that she was more than a match for her opponent, and they both knew it. Still more of the bandits lay dead, felled by Jiang and his soldiers. Their leader, however, stood with his back against a tree, sword held out in front of him and eyes hard. For a moment Shiyan wondered why he hadn't run, but then she realized the truth- he knew that whatever happened, it was over for him and his band, and he intended to face his death with some dignity. She found her respect for him rising.

    Stepping towards her final foe, Shiyan stopped to retrieve her sword from the body of the fallen bandit and raised it in a salute that was only half mocking. The leader nodded and returned the gesture, and then she was on him. This warrior was good- he was by far the best of the bandits she had faced today, which presumably was why he was their leader- but her skills still surpassed him. Every time he lunged, she was able to parry; every blow, she deflected. Shiyan had fallen into a state of absolute concentration and refined skill- she was no longer even consciously aware of the battle, acting entirely on instinct. In that instant, the Chosen warrior called Shiyan ceased to exist. For a brief moment, she became the weapon of the Dragon Empress, the pure expression of her will.

    The bandit leader lunged forward again, and this time Shiyan brought her blade slicing down on his wrist. Sharp steel met flesh and bone, and then the bandit stumbled back, his sword and hand both gone. The Chosen caught his throat with her free hand and slammed him back against the tree.

    "If you cooperate with me," she hissed, "I may be inclined towards mercy. Tell me- have you seen a white-haired woman pass this way recently, accompanied by a dark-skinned boy? Answer!"

    "Yes!" The bandit choked. "I saw her… waterbender…"

    "Excellent," Shiyan said, smirking. "And where was she going, this waterbender?"

    "North," he replied. She smiled more broadly and let him drop, then motioned for Cheng, whose own opponent had fled after seeing his leader fall.

    "Yes, Shiyan?" the younger girl asked.

    "Get some cloth and bind his injury," Shiyan told her. "When it is no longer bleeding, send him south to the Imperial fortress. He can live out the rest of his life as a beggar there, rather than perish as a one-handed man in the wilderness. I am not without mercy to those who serve well." The bandit had only confirmed what she already knew, but the Empress taught that all knowledge had power, the more certain the better.

    The bandit looked up at her hatefully, but made no attempt to fight Cheng as she bound his wounds. Shiyan turned away from the proceedings and walked over to Jiang, who was staring at her in undisguised awe. "I've been a soldier for more than ten years," he said softly, "and I've never seen anyone fight like you did tonight. I have… questioned the Chosen before tonight. Forgive me."

    "If you will continue to serve me, then you are forgiven," she told him. "The bandit saw the waterbender and the spy here- he told me that they were going north. We must follow."

    "We are with you," Jiang told her. "Wherever this hunt may lead, we follow."

    --------------------------------------------------------------------

    Several days later, High Admiral Yuan stood atop the Eye of Agni and looked to the north as the great warship docked at General Yi's fortress. Those cursed Chosen now had a lead of many days on him, but he refused to allow the waterbender to slip through his grasp. The grandson of Admiral Zhao scented glory, and he would not give it up lightly.

    "The vessel is docked, sir," the captain said, coming up just behind him. "What are your orders?"

    Yuan's eyes narrowed. "Prepare the pursuit."

    A short time later, the High Admiral and a full squad of his elite firebenders descended from the warship, mounted on the backs of quick-footed riding lizards. He pulled his mount up and paused, looking to the north and his quarry once again, and then dug his heels into the creatures' flank and sent it running at full speed, his men following close on his heels.

    The Chosen had a lead; the waterbender had a greater one. But it was a lead that Yuan now intended to rapidly shrink.

    _________________________________________________________

    Well, that wasn’t creepy or anything! When I was first writing FotFE, I worried that I was talking up the Chosen too much without giving them a real chance to show off what they could do, and so I decided to rectify the matter. The bandits from a couple of chapters previous return, this time faced with an enemy far less merciful than Yue. Seeing Shiyan finally having a chance to really cut loose is a reminder of just what she’s capable of, and her reaction to killing is a deliberate counterpoint to Tong’s. Not everyone’s a born killer, even with Chosen training- I don’t think Cheng is, for example- but Shiyan? There’s something very dark in Shiyan.

    That’s not to say Shiyan doesn’t have principles, because she does, and holds them very strongly. Here we see again her value of order and efficiency, and I also do believe that in her own way she was trying to be merciful to Dai after he gave the information she wanted. Shiyan’s problem isn’t that she lacks morality, but the opposite- she holds her principles so strongly that if the world doesn’t match up to them, she’ll force it to change to fit. And the only way Shiyan knows how to change things is with her sword.

    But of course, she’s not the only warrior of the Fire Empire out there, and with his mounts (larger versions of the lizards Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee rode in “The Chase”) Yuan’s getting ready to break down her lead. Things will get very interesting when those two very different, but equally extreme, personalities meet…

    -MasterGhandalf
  11. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 25: Descent

    The slave Ji Lin knelt and pressed her hands against the large boulder that lay in the path of the current construction, focusing her earthbending as she prepared to move it. She could feel the eyes of her new overseer on her back, a powerful compulsion to complete the job as quickly and efficiently as possible. New overseers were always unknown quantities- you could never tell what would set one off, so it was best to be as inoffensive as possible when they were around. This was especially true in Ji Lin's case, considering what had happened to her yesterday…

    No. She shook her head and focused herself back on her work. She didn't know why the governor's daughter had saved her from a beating, and probably never would. She needed to concentrate on the work she was doing now, not on something that would most likely never affect her life again and had served no purpose in the long run other than to make her an object of attention.

    Planting her feet, Ji Lin shoved with all the strength of her muscles and bending. The boulder was sent rolling away, and as she stood panting the other members of her work crew hurried up and began to stamp the ground flat in preparation of putting in the new extension of the docks. The overseer scowled and nodded, then stalked off to menace someone else, apparently satisfied. That was lucky- he seemed to be one of the few who actually cared more about getting his job done than about lording it over people who couldn't fight back.

    A shadow fell over her, and she turned to see two men in unmarked armor staring at her. Their gazes were cold and pitiless; she felt a chill run up the back of her spine. "I'm not lazing, I'm just catching my breath, you don't need to hurt me," Ji Lin heard herself saying very high and fast, but the two men ignored her. One of them stepped forward slowly, looked her up and down, and grabbed her by the wrist. Nodding at his companion, he moved to haul her off.

    The overseer came hurrying over, anger etched on his brutal features. "What are you doing?" he snarled. "This slave is part of my team- I need her to make my quota. Are you trying to sabotage me, or what?"

    The second man leaned over to him and whispered into his ear- Ji Lin caught only one word, a name- Gian. The overseer's eyes widened and he stepped slowly backwards, then turned and hurried back to the work crew, cracking a fire whip over his head to signal them to work harder and faster.

    The two strange men paid him no heed but continued on away from the direction of the city, dragging Ji Lin with them to an unknown destination.


    Jiazin began tapping her foot impatiently after she had waited for what felt like hours in the forest just north of Long Du Shi. Gian was leaning against a tree nearby, seemingly asleep, though the governor's daughter had seen his eyes flicker open and quickly scan the area every few minutes. Even if he was genuinely resting, he'd figured out a way to do it while maintaining a state of absolute alert.

    She had remained in the city after hiring Gian to take her to the rebels- he said that he needed a day to have some other mercenaries gather a resource they would need. Jiazin didn't know what he meant by that, but he'd insisted on that condition before taking the job and she hadn't been in the mood to argue with him. Having no desire to confront her father again so soon, she'd taken a room in an inn in the city for the night and then met the mercenary at his home the following morning. They had travelled out into the forest together and then stopped- Gian said that the final thing they needed would be coming to them. After some time of this, Jiazin was growing impatient.

    "So tell me," Gian said suddenly, "exactly why the daughter of the most influential nobleman in this part of the world wants to seek out a bunch of scruffy rebels, anyway. Do you want all the glory of taking them down for yourself?" He chuckled darkly at that.

    Jiazin regarded him stiffly. "It isn't your concern. I hired you to take me to them, not to speculate on my motives."

    "Indeed. It's just the sort of thing that makes a man curious, is all." He shrugged casually, but the governor’s daughter thought that the gesture seemed affected and that everything he’d just said and done had carried purpose.

    "You're not here to satisfy your curiosity," Jiazin told him sharply. "But while we're on that topic, mine needs satisfying as well. What exactly is it that we need so badly to find the rebels? And don't try to dodge- I am your employer, and I am entitled to answers."

    Gian chuckled again. "As you wish, milady. The rebel fortress is concealed beneath the ground- the only way to access it is through earthbending. That's the reason I haven't cleared that nest out myself- no way to get inside. So, to get you in, we need…"

    "An earthbender," Jiazin finished for him.

    "Exactly," the mercenary said. "Smart girl." He paused for a moment, then his eyes flashed open as he came to full alertness. "And I think my friends are coming with one right now."

    Jiazin turned in the direction he was facing and saw two men- also mercenaries, she thought- coming towards them, one of whom was dragging a dirty, wiry girl along by her arm. Jiazin's eyes widened as she recognized the slave she'd saved yesterday.

    "Captive earthbenders can be hard to control if they scent freedom," Gian whispered into her ear. "I thought it best to get one who is already in your debt."

    "You knew about that?" Jiazin asked, incredulously. Gian only shrugged.

    "Knowledge is power, milday," he said. "I learned that long ago. You'd be surprised at what you'll hear if you just listen for it."

    The slave girl seemed to have noticed Jiazin and was now staring at her with wide, disbelieving eyes. The young noblewoman glanced at the mercenary holding the slave's wrist tightly and then marched forward, eyes hard. "Release her," she ordered in a cold voice.

    "Milady, that would not be wise," Gian told her, but she ignored him.

    "She's here to help us, and she won't be able to do that with you bullying her like that. Let her go, now." Jiazin said more firmly. "I'll keep her under control."

    The mercenary released his grip and stepped back. The slave rubbed her wrist and stared at the governor's daughter again, still disbelieving. "You're not like the others," she said softly. "Not cruel. Why are you different?"

    Jiazin thought back to the scrolls at the Capital and her parents’ calm explanation of why vicious, ruthless things were necessary to run an empire. "I don't know," she said softly, finding herself unwilling to articulate her thoughts even to herself, "but I'm going to put things right. I need your help." She could tell that the girl had suffered during her life- if she tried to command her like she did the soldiers, the slave would just see her as another tormentor. Kindness would lead to trust, and therefore loyalty. She hoped.

    "All right," the slave said in her quiet voice. "Tell me what needs to be done, and I'll do it." Whether she said this out of genuine gratitude or just conditioning to obey orders Jiazin didn't know, but she'd take it for now.

    "Follow me," Gian said, stepping off the path and into the forest. The two mercenaries moved to do so immediately, with Jiazin behind them, hand resting lightly on her sword. The slave girl followed close at her heels, eyes darting about warily.

    After what felt like another hour of walking, they emerged above the shore of a vast lake- Lake Laogai, Jiazin knew. This was where the rebels were supposed to be holed up- beneath the ground somewhere, if Gian was to be believed. The mercenaries stalked down to the lakeshore and stopped near a rocky outcropping. Jiazin and the slave came up behind them and stared around. The governor's daughter scowled- there wasn't anything here.

    "Girl," Gian said sharply, motioning for the slave. "There's a hidden door buried here beneath the lakeshore. You will use your bending to bring it to the surface. It's what the lady wishes."

    "Do it," Jiazin said more gently, seeing the baffled look on the slave's face. "If you do, it might help me get the chance to have a better life for your people." For both our peoples, she added silently. There is no more honor in being a tyrant than there is in being a slave, and far less honesty.

    The girl looked unconvinced, but she stepped out to the edge of the water and slammed one bare foot down. The blue surface rippled and something moved in its depths; she slammed her foot down again, and a long spit of brown rock rose to the surface, ending in a stone door.

    Jiazin walked out along it and knelt by the entrance, looking down at the long shaft that cut deep into the earth and the metal ladder along one side. She didn't like the look of that, and briefly considered using jumping and using her firebending to slow her descent- she was light enough that she could keep that up for a while- but decided against it. Using firebending might inspire the rebels to simply kill her without waiting to hear what she had to say, and that was hardly a fate she wanted. The ladder it was, then.

    A shadow fell over her, and she looked up to see Gian. "I would be remiss in my contract, milady," he growled, "if I did not offer to accompany you."

    "This is something I need to do alone," she told him. "And isn't generosity a little out of character for you?"

    He smiled thinly. "Think of it rather as preferring not to lose my head, which is the most likely fate your father would have planned for me if I got you killed."

    "No matter- I don't want you coming with me." Jiazin glanced over at the slave. "Keep the entrance open- I might need to come back up in a hurry." She glanced at Gian. "If I'm not back up by sunset, leave. I probably won't be." He nodded curtly, and she began to climb down into the rebel lair.

    The first thing she noticed as the sky shrank to a small circle overhead was that this tunnel, while rough and unadorned, was also extremely well-made. No fearful rebel did this, but someone with plenty of time on their hands and no fear of discovery. This fortress was a relic of the old Earth Kingdom, something the Fire Empire had done its best to stamp out. Jiazin didn't quite know what to make of such a place still existing almost exactly underneath the heart of her father's power.

    Despite her misgivings, she did not share the rebels’ cause completely- she had lived among the Fire Empire’s power all her life, and did not believe it could be overthrown, or even that overthrowing it would be desirable if anarchy was the alternative. There had to be another way to put things right in the world. But she knew that the Empress and her ministers would never see a reason to change so long as their power remained unchallenged- if she wanted to force them, her father first of all, to see reason, she would need to shake things up a bit and prove that leading through fear just lead to more problems than it solved. The rebels would serve that purpose well, and advance their own cause to a degree on top of that. After all, Jiazin thought, in a truly just Fire Empire they would have no reason to rebel at all.

    She heard scrapings from below her as she approached the bottom, and looked down to see two rebel guards standing there with arrows pointed straight at her, clearly ready to fire if she made a single wrong move. Jiazin finished her descent slowly and when she reached bottom turned to face them, unbuckling her sword and letting it fall to the floor. She raised her hands palm-outward in a gesture of surrender.

    "What do you want here, Empire swine?" one of the guards snarled. "You can't think can take us all single-handedly!"

    "I know that," she told them. "My name is Jiazin, daughter of Governor Yan Li." She held herself straight and spoke in a voice ringing with authority. "Tell your leaders that I want to talk with them. I think we can make a deal that will benefit us all."


    Gian sat on his haunches on the shore of Lake Laogai and waited. The girl ought to have reached the bottom now and met the rebels, though he thought it best to allow a few more minutes to make certain she had their full attention. Then it would be time to make his move.

    The slave girl sat on the rocky spur she had pulled up from the lake, head down and arms wrapped tightly around her legs. Despite the power Gian knew she had, she seemed a fragile thing, emotionally more than physically. Almost involuntarily, he felt his lip curl in contempt as he watched her; he had no patience for those who would allow themselves to be so fully dominated by other wills, but sometimes they proved useful. Most slaves he wouldn't bring within a mile of this place- scent freedom and they'd turn on you like feral rhinos- but this one was different. She'd been chosen for a special task by the daughter of the governor himself, a daughter who had risked her own life to protect her just yesterday and who she now thought was trying to find a better deal for the slave peoples. No, this one wouldn't turn; there was enough incentive for her to do what was asked, even if freedom and more of her own kind were in sight. Gian's lip curled further. They were so pathetically predictable, Jiazin and the slave both. Decent people were like that.

    Something rustled in the brush nearby, and Gian looked up to see elite firebenders- more of the underminster's soldiers- approaching, accompanied by more mercenaries. Soon more than two dozen stood gathered on the beach, hardened killers all. Gathering them together, not wasting time looking for the stupid slave girl, was what had taken Gian all of last night, but the effort would be worth it. The rebels either destroyed or driven from their base and the governor's daughter "rescued" from their vile clutches. Oh yes, this job would pay well, and add another chapter to the legend of the fearsome Gian.

    The slave girl looked up, eyes widening in terror at the sight of the approaching soldiers. She scrambled to her feet and backed slowly away, and Gian approached her alone and apparently unarmed. She glanced from him back to his allies, and he smiled at her- and then pulled a knife from his sleeve and stabbed her in the back, kicking her off into the lakewater dismissively. He watched the small body for a moment, and when it was obvious that it wasn’t moving again he motioned for the soldiers to follow him.

    "Will we be safe down there?" the commander asked as he approached. "If they have earthbenders, they could collapse the tunnels on us- kill us all."

    Gian scowled at him. "This is war, man, and war is risk," he snarled. "But in this case, your fears are unfounded. They could not bring the roof down without collapsing the whole compound and killing themselves as well. They will have to face us directly, and we will crush them."

    The soldier nodded, reassured that he wasn't walking to his doom. Gian swung over the edge of the ladder and began to climb down into the rebel fortress. The Imperial soldiers followed behind him.

    ___________________________________________________________________________________

    Well, events are certainly moving to a head here- this is far from the end of the story, but we’re coming up on the end of the first act! Poor Ji Lin was set up to look like she might be a recurring character to make sure it was a gut punch when Gian killed her, I’ll admit, but her death also shows that the stakes are high- Gian isn’t playing around anymore.

    Jiazin’s outlook at this point is interesting to write because she’s still caught between the person she was and the person she’s becoming. She knows in her heart that the Fire Empire is in the wrong, but can’t bring herself to turn against it completely, so instead she’s kind of caught between extremes, dealing with the rebels- and bringing her storyline and Tong’s closer together- in the vain hope that she’ll be able to use them as leverage to force her father to change his policies. Gian, unfortunately, is able to make use of her conflicted feelings to manipulate her into doing what he wants her to. I think it’s important to note that, unlike a lot of villains, he has at least a basic understanding of why good people do the things they do- he just thinks it’s incredibly foolish, but also a something he can exploit.

    The next few chapters are going to be a key pivot on which the ultimate direction of the story will turn. Strap in!

    -MasterGhandalf
    Last edited by MasterGhandalf, Feb 20, 2014
  12. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 26: Whispers of Danger

    "Report," the Empress's voice hissed through her mask, softer than the flames that crackled around her and yet carrying such a weight of authority that it was audible nonetheless. Qing Xi didn't know how she accomplished that particular trick, but he had to admit it was impressive. Theatricality could be a powerful tool for a ruler, he knew, and the absolute head of the Fire Empire was a master.

    "Majesty," the High Minister said from where he knelt before the throne, "I received a hawk today from the Governor of Long Du Shi. Normally I would not trouble you with such a trivial concern, but since you requested to be kept informed of the movements of the Governor's daughter, Jiazin, I felt that this was an exception."

    Azula's silhouette shifted from behind the wall of blue flame, causing the reflections on her golden mask, the only clearly visible part of her, to dance and flicker. "Has the girl arrived home yet? I trust she is not damaged."

    "She had just reached Long Du Shi and spoken with her father as of this writing, which would place it at a few days ago," Qing Xi replied. "According to the letter, she is in fine physical condition, but her father is… worried for her state of mind. It seems she acted very strangely during their conversation, at which point she showed him the documents I allowed her to steal from my office. He fears that whatever we are doing with her is damaging her emotionally, and he wishes to have my assurance that she will be all right before sending her back." He inclined his head towards the throne. "Of course, he speaks in this manner because he believes he is addressing me alone- his direct superior. If he knew that you yourself had taken a direct hand in the matter, I have no doubt he would not attempt to make such a presumptuous request."

    Though he couldn't see it, the High Minister felt Azula's eyes narrow as she looked upon him. "Spare me your flattery," she said. "You will compose a reply to the Governor and assure him that no future damage will come to Jiazin. I do not need my loyal nobles questioning the competence of my government now. As for the girl herself, she will emerge from our training stronger and more competent than she could have imagined, and should count herself lucky to be so honored. If she must suffer for our goals to be accomplished- well, some things must be broken in order to be remade." Her voice trailed off quietly and she seemed to gaze intently into the flames for several moments before fixing her attention on Qing Xi again. "You are dismissed."

    He rose and bowed at the waist. "Majesty," he said, and then turned and departed the throne room, nodding at the expressionless Chosen guard, Zhi, as he passed them. The High Minister moved deliberately through the labyrinthine halls of the palace towards his quarters, head bowed as though in deep contemplation. Within minutes he was joined by a quiet, unremarkable-looking man who followed along silently by his side- one of his best Hidden Flame agents.

    "You have news?" Qing Xi asked softly from the corner of his mouth. He had sent this man to investigate the disappearance of supplies from the outlying farms. His reappearance either meant he'd found something or been stymied, and considering the short amount of time that had passed, the latter was highly unlikely.

    "Yes, milord," the agent replied in the same quiet voice. "I questioned the overseers of several of the farms regarding the shortages. They did not wish to talk, but through a combination of invoking your name and using… other methods, I was able to convince them otherwise."

    "What have you discovered?"

    "The supplies have been requisitioned, milord. It seems that certain highly placed individuals have been ordering large quantities of meat and produce to be shipped to divisions of the Imperial army and navy in distant parts of the world. Given time, I will be able to discover the precise locations, but I felt that what I had now was important enough that you should know immediately."

    Qing Xi scowled. "Is this Xia's doing? I must confess he doesn't seem the type, and he knows full well that no one has the authority to give orders to the bureaucracy unless they are part of it, or have my express permission."

    "Ah, but the Empress's Chosen can bypass many rules," the agent said, clearly having waited for a dramatic point to unveil that information. "It was difficult, but I finally managed to get one of the overseers to describe the person who had made the requisition- a warrior woman in black armor and golden facepaint."

    The High Minister stopped dead in his tracks as he processed that information. "Leave me!" he hissed to the agent. "Continue your investigation, and report your findings to me." The agent bowed and departed, and when he was gone Qing Xi leaned against the wall for support. There were only three possibilities that could explain this new information. The first was that the Chosen, or at least some of them, had gone rogue; the second was that someone was impersonating a Chosen. Both were unthinkable, considering the intense conditioning the elite warriors went through and the heavy penalties for wearing their uniforms unlawfully. That left only the third option- that the Empress herself was doing something so secret that she trusted knowledge of it only to her most fanatical followers.

    "What are you planning, Azula?" Qing Xi whispered to himself. "And why do you feel the need to hide it even from me?"

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------

    Kanoda shielded his eyes as he and Yue emerged from the forest and into bright sunlight. They had been walking in the darkness under the trees for several days, and the young hunter had begun to greatly miss the sun, but now that he was under it again he found that his eyes desperately needed to adjust. Once they were clear again, he saw to his surprise that they were standing only a short distance from a rocky coastline, and beyond that he could see the ocean.

    "I though this continent went on practically forever," he said softly, feeling rather foolish.

    Yue turned to him. "It does," she said, "but here the ocean cuts into it. We need to reach Ba Sing Se as quickly as we can- traveling overland would be too slow. Travel by water is faster and harder to track."

    "You didn't tell me you knew how to sail," Kanoda said to her. Yue smiled.

    "I'm as much Water Tribe as you are," she told him. "I may have been a princess, but I do know how to operate a boat or ship, and after I became a waterbender I was able to create my own currents and make things easier for me. I have a boat hidden in the rocks nearby." She glanced over at him again. "It will be good to have someone else along who knows the ocean- that will free me up more to concentrate on my bending and speed our journey."

    The path curved along the coastline and continued north, but here Yue departed from it and continued on straight towards the sea with Kanoda following. When they came to the rocks along the shore, she began picking among them until finally they found a small inlet concealed between two large boulders. There, half on the beach, rested a small, graceful ship that seemed similar in design to the vessels of the Water Tribe, though it was made from wood rather than bone and hide.

    "Where did you get it?" Kanoda asked.

    "A group of villagers along the north coast of this continent made it for me years ago," she said. "I healed one of their elders of an infected injury, and this boat was their way of repaying me. They recognized me as Water Tribe from my looks and my bending, so they tried to make it as close to a traditional design as possible." Climbing up the boat's side, she rummaged around a bit on deck and pulled out a blue sail with a silver moon design on it. "The sail I made myself, though I use a plain white one whenever I know imperial warships are near."

    Kanoda climbed aboard after her and looked around. "This is a very well-made ship," he said quietly. "Those villagers knew what they were doing. Are they still there now?"

    Yue shook her head sadly. "No," she whispered. "They resisted the Fire Empire longer than most, because they were so remote, but they were wiped out years ago."

    "Oh," Kanoda said, feeling foolish again as Yue stared off over the waters, her mind seemingly once again in some far-off place or time. He felt a sudden stab of pity for this person who had lived unchanging for more than most human lifetimes, only to have everything she had ever loved or cared about taken from her.

    Finally she looked back at him. "You must help me get the boat ready to cast off," she said. "I don't know what it is, but I can feel a threat nearby and coming closer. The spirits whisper of danger, and we must be gone from here before it arrives."

    "Those bandits?" he asked.

    "I don't think so," Yue told him, "but whatever it is, either the spirits don't know or can't tell me."

    As Kanoda grabbed the sail and prepared to run it up, he decided he could do the spirits one better. From what the soldiers the waterbender had saved him from days ago had said, he guessed that the danger that was coming had a face that he would be able to put a name on easily- a nasty name, to boot.

    Shiyan.

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------

    Shiyan stopped dead on the forest path, holding up a hand to stop Cheng and the soldiers as well. She could hear something behind her- a faint pounding, but getting louder each time it sounded. Something was coming up behind them on the path.

    "What is it?" Cheng asked in her ear, hand on her sword. The younger Chosen was somewhat more confident and poised after their encounter with the bandits- Shiyan herself had to admit she felt that way as well.

    "Trouble," she replied, turning around and drawing her own sword. Cheng followed suit, but before either of them had time to react beyond that before six giant lizards came barreling down the path, each of them bearing several riders on its back. Their leader spotted the soldiers standing in the road and raised a hand to call for a halt- the beasts stopped just shy of running Shiyan and her companions over.

    Looking more closely at them, she recognized that they were Imperial Navy marines, and that each wore the skull mask of a firebender. The only exception was the man who sat alone on the lead lizard, who wore the most elaborate armor and an arrogant sneer. "Well, well, well," he said, looking down at them. "I wonder what two little girls and their keepers are doing wandering around a dark, nasty forest like this?"

    Shiyan gritted her teeth, but took the insult- in theory her position as one of the Chosen meant that she could kill any of the Empress's subjects at will without consequence other than some rather tedious paperwork, but in practice antagonizing an officer as highly ranked as this one appeared to be would be trouble. Therefore, she would at least try to be civil, even if he wouldn't return the favor. "I am Chosen Shiyan," she said coolly. "This is my partner, Chosen Cheng, and our men. We are tracking an escaped fugitive, and I suggest you not interfere. To whom do I have the honor of speaking?"

    "I am High Admiral Yuan," the man said, and Shiyan winced- she'd seen the man only once before and then from a distance, but from what she'd heard her earlier assessment about him being trouble was decidedly accurate. "I too am seeking a dangerous fugitive, and it is a matter of personal honor that I be the one to capture her. If you make way for me, I can guarantee the Empress will understand."

    "Do not presume to speak for the Empress," Shiyan hissed, her ingrained loyalty briefly overcoming common sense. Then the full import of his words struck her. "You said "her". You seek the waterbender alone?"

    "Yes," Yuan said impatiently. "Who else is there?"

    "A spy who escaped from Empress Island several weeks ago and we have been tracking ever since. He seems to have recently joined forces with the white-haired waterbender you are hunting." A sudden thought struck her. "It seems we seek different quarry after all, but that they travel together. Perhaps we can join forces and aid each other with no loss of honor on either side?"

    Yuan laughed, but then quieted and looked at her with narrowed eyes. "Well, perhaps if you Chosen are as good as you make out, that idea might have some merit after all. Anything that makes my job easier is fine by me. I accept your offer. My men aren't going to take it on foot, though, so get on the lizards. We'll all be faster that way." Shiyan nodded curtly and motioned for Cheng and the men- they each jumped up on the lizards' saddles behind the other riders.

    "We'll work together until we have our prey," Yuan said, kicking his lizard into motion, "and then we'll each claim the one who is ours, and let the other take theirs. Agreed?"

    "Agreed," Shiyan said as the lizards took off running again, but her mind was filled with thoughts of the look on this arrogant excuse for an officer's face as she took both captives to herself, for the honor and glory of the Chosen and their Empress.

    Yuan, she imagined, was no doubt thinking something very similar.

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Schemes within schemes were always the order for the day with Azula, and now that she’s an old woman with decades to hone her art, she’s become even more of a labyrinthine plotter than she was in her youth. It should be becoming obvious by now that the Dragon Empress has plans that go far beyond what Qing Xi explained to Jiazin, and now the High Minister himself is discovering that as well. It’ll be a while before QX manages to piece together exactly what’s going on, though…

    The Yue/Kanoda scene in this chapter was a quieter one, intended to give them a chance to make some more progress on their journey and develop their relationship a bit more. They may be different in age, gender, social status, and geographic origin, but they’re both Water Tribe and that means that they share many values – including, in this case, a keen appreciation for a good boat.

    Shiyan and Yuan have now met, and, perhaps surprisingly, teamed up. Don’t think that this means their relationship isn’t going to be an adversarial one, though. In Book One of the show, Zuko and Zhao had a very open rivalry despite both being villains (or rather, a villain and an anti-villain) and I deliberately wanted to go a different route here. Shiyan and Yuan being technically after different fugitives who happen to be travelling together provides enough of a buffer to their competition to allow them to work together, but let’s just say that these are not the kind of personalities that will interact comfortably with each other, and the coming subplot with them is one of my favorite parts of FotFE.

    -MasterGhandalf
  13. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 27: Traitor

    Tong sat at one of the long stone tables in the chamber that served as the resistance's dining hall, eating his evening meal. The food was better than what he'd been used to as a slave, but not by much- the rebels were more concerned with feeding their army than catering to taste, and the cooks were limited by what supplies had been recently stolen in any case- but the fact that Tong was able to eat of his own free will rather than at the commands of the taskmasters made the bland stew infinitely more appetizing. Around him sat dozens of other rebels who discussed future raids or made idle boasts of how many Imperial soldiers they could defeat single-handedly, but the former slave ate quietly, taking it all in.

    Suddenly the door to the hall swung open, and a rebel Tong knew was called Hwon, one of the earthbenders from the failed raid he had been on, stood there. "Come on, people!" he shouted. "On your feet. Our guards just caught an Imperial noble, and they're bringing her in to talk to the Bei Fongs! They're bringing her this way- if you hurry, you can see!"

    Not all the rebels got to their feet, but a great many did, desiring to see one of the architects of their oppression brought low. It was a rare event that a noble was captured- they tended to hide behind their soldiers and peasants, and those who didn't were generally military officers themselves or otherwise dangerous in their own right. As he joined the group that moved towards the door, however, an uneasy thought occurred in Tong's mind. Hwon said that it was the guards who captured her, not a raid. That means she was near here. How did she find us?

    From the looks he saw on the others' faces, he doubted he was the only one to come to such a conclusion.

    The rebels packed the doorway tightly, but Tong was able to get himself into a position from where he could see the hallway relatively clearly. The two guards who had been on duty were coming along the corridor, flanked by several of the most skilled earthbenders. Between them walked a slender figure in plain but well-made clothing, head held high and golden eyes imperiously surveying the rebels around her. Though she was a captive, she held herself like a queen; an empty scabbard hung at her side, while Tong now saw that one of the guards held a fine sword that he had apparently taken from her. She was younger than the former slave had expected, and as she came closer, he was surprised to find that he recognized her. He could hear mutterings from beside him that proved he was not mistaken.

    Tong's mystification increased. What, in the name of the fallen Earth Kingdom, was Jiazin, the Governor's own daughter, doing here?


    Jiazin was amazed by the underground complex in which she found herself, though she was careful not to let it show. Though hardly beautiful or elegant, the tunnels were clearly well made and durable- she knew that most of the earthbender slaves were builders, but it still seemed impossible that they could have made this without the Empire's knowledge. The complex must predate the Fire Empire then, an artifact of the old Earth Kingdom. Jiazin wondered who built it, and why.

    The rebels glared at her as she walked past, and some of them spat or shouted insults, but she ignored them. She had not come here to be taunted by peasants and footsoldiers- her business was with their leader, whoever he or she or they might be. Fortunately, the fact that Jiazin was surrounded by guards and looked well and truly captured was apparently enough to keep things from turning physically violent- she was thought she could probably firebend and escape her immediate captors if she had to, but she didn't like her odds of making it all the way out of the compound. In the back of her head, a small but growing part of her was saying that this had been a bad idea from the start.

    Finally they came to a door at the end of the corridor, and one of the guards stepped forward to open it. "Our leader wants to see you, noble," one of the earthbenders rumbled. "He's in there, with more guards- so don't think about trying anything. If you do, you'll be dead before you cast your first flame."

    "If you're so worried about my trustworthiness, why let me see the inside of your fortress?" Jiazin asked, brow raised.

    "Because if Shu doesn't like what you have to say, you're not leaving," the earthbender replied bluntly. "Now, in." Jiazin gave him a curt nod and strode through the doorway. It swung shut behind her.

    She found herself in a long, narrow room with a fireplace at one end, and a portrait and some weapons- of Imperial make, she noted sourly- hanging on the wall. A plain looking middle-aged man sat in a chair facing her, his expression mild but his eyes interested. A girl a little older than Jiazin herself stood behind him, glaring daggers at the young noblewoman and with a bow and quiver slung over her back. Several more rebel soldiers lined the walls as well, their gazes fixed directly on Jiazin.

    The noble girl straightened her back and stared directly at the seated man. "Are you the leader of these rebels?" she asked. "If you are not, I request that you convey me to that person. I have business with them."

    The man smiled mildly. "You're hardly in a position to make demands, child," he said. "Were our positions reversed and I in your father's court, I have no doubt he would have me killed out of hand for speaking to him like that, or at the very least imprisoned until I showed myself to be more tractable. He certainly wouldn't bother to listen. But I am not an Imperial noble. My name is Shu Bei Fong, and I am the leader of the resistance. I believe you wanted to see me?"

    "How do you know who my father is?" Jiazin asked. "For that matter, how do you know who I am?"

    "It is difficult for someone as highly born as yourself to keep a low profile, even in a city so large," Shu said. "Several of our people have been in the city recently and recognized you by sight. They merely passed their information on to me ahead of you."

    "Then if you know who I am, why aren't you simply taking me hostage now?"

    "Don't think I haven't considered it," Shu said, eyes suddenly hard. "And I may do it yet. However, I don't think that you would go to the effort of tracking us down and surrendering yourself into our power unless you thought you had something to tip the odds in your favor. That makes me curious enough to be willing to hear you out. What do you want to say?"

    "Father," the girl by the rebel leader's side said, "I don't think this is wise. What if the thing that tips the odds in her favor is an army she's led right to us? I think we should lock her up now and interrogate her later."

    "Chaiy," Shu said warningly. "Let the girl talk. I must admit I'm curious."

    "All right, then," Jiazin said, mentally steeling herself for what she was about to say. "I'd like to propose a deal."

    "A deal?" Shu sat forward, looking interested. "What kind of deal?"

    "Dad, don't listen to her, it's a trick!" Chaiy hissed.

    "A trick? Maybe, but I don't think so. The risk to her is greater than the potential returns; even if she betrays us, she must know she won’t live to see any victory. I believe that she’s genuinely trying to offer us something. Go on, young woman. What do you offer?"

    "I'm the daughter of the Governor of Long Du Shi," Jiazin said. "I know… things… about the city, secret ways in and out. Things only my father, his highest ministers, and his family know. Using them, you could sneak into the city and seize control."

    "And why exactly are you offering to help us overthrow the Fire Empire?" Shu asked. "Honestly, you don't seem the type."

    "I'm not," Jiazin said. "I have no intention of helping you "overthrow" the Empire. I don't think it can be done. The Empire is far too strong, too powerful even if you gathered all the rebel groups together from around the world. Even if you could, I would not help you- the world needs peace and stability, and the Fire Empire provides that. If it was to collapse, it would mean chaos and death on a global scale. I don't want that, and I don't think you do either."

    Her eyes hardened. "But neither can the Empire continue as it is. The highest reaches of power are corrupt, and they have committed terrible atrocities to maintain their power. I have seen your people beaten and enslaved, and it is wrong. The Empire treats its subjects like that because it believes they are beaten and cannot fight back. I can help you show the Empress and the High Minister that this is a lie. If you take Long Du Shi, you will rock the very fabric of the Empire. I have met High Minister Qing Xi- he is a ruthless man, but a cautious, logical one. I also have a degree of… influence… with him, if I choose to exercise it. Between that, we can put pressure on the Empire to force it to reform itself."

    The words sounded less grand to Jiazin as she said them than they had in her head. The very idea of putting pressure on an Empire that had stood for a hundred years seemed absurd, and she could see the image of the Dragon Empress rising in her mind, blue fire gleaming off a golden mask, eyes like black pits. No, whatever Qing Xi might do, something told Jiazin that Azula would never compromise, never give in. She would rule absolutely or she would die. Jiazin's plan had been one born of desperation and pain, but this was one time when her noble birth would not make certain things worked out in her favor. She’d let that desperation cloud her vision. She should never have come here.

    Slowly, she began to back towards the door, breathing deeply as she prepared her firebending. Shu, however, simply stared at her appraisingly, then shook his head. "You really believe that," he said softly. "Or at least, part of you does. The rest of you just seems scared, but I don't think you're afraid of me." He leaned forward. "But I must admit I am interested in this idea of secret passages beneath the city. My warriors have looked, but we've never found the entrances. Perhaps if you can give me something solid…"

    Before Jiazin could reply, the door slammed open- the young noblewoman barely had time to duck to avoid it and spun around, hands blazing. Behind her, Chaiy strung her bow and fit an arrow to it in a single fluid motion, but whether her attack was aimed at the firebender or the door couldn't be said. Rather than an attacker, however, it was one of Shu's rebels who stumbled through, eyes wide.

    "Commander Shu, Chaiy!" he gasped. "We're under attack. Imperial soldiers- coming down through the main entrance. They took our guards by surprise, and they have firebenders!"

    "You!" Chaiy snarled. Tossing her bow aside, she dove at Jiazin with her bare hands and took the firebender off her feet. "You led them here," she hissed, pinning the younger girl against the wall.

    "I didn't!" Jiazin said, kicking out and forcing Chaiy back. "I don't know how they got here, but I had nothing to do with it!"

    "I think she's telling the truth, or at least thinks she is," Shu said. Chaiy backed off, glaring at the other girl. "But I also don't think she's told us the whole truth. It would have taken an earthbender to open our entrance, and a highly competent tracker to lead Jiazin here in the first place." He looked hard at the young noble. "Who? The time for secrets is over. Give me the name, or I'll let my overeager daughter have you."

    In a flash, Jiazin understood what was happening, and she cursed herself for a fool. She spat a single name like it was itself a curse. "Gian!"


    Gian smiled thinly as he wiped the guard's blood from his sword. One of the others had escaped his men, but that didn't matter. The rebels would know he was coming soon enough- and even if this raid didn't succeed, he'd sent one of the mercenaries back to Long Du Shi with all the information the Governor would need to finish them. After today, the rebels would either be crushed or smoked from their hole. Either way, Gian would be paid handsomely for his services. That the rebels were, in some ways, more his kin than his Imperial employers mattered little to him- he'd long ago learned that in a hard world, a man's only allegiance was to what profited himself, and the Fire Empire rewarded competence well indeed.

    "Find Jiazin and make certain she is unharmed," Gian ordered. "I don't think the Governor will be pleased if his daughter is killed for our incompetence, even if she is most likely a little traitor. I'd like the rebel leaders alive too, if you can manage it."

    He gave a cruel, thin-lipped smile. "Everyone else is fair game."

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Not a whole lot to say here, actually. This chapter is mostly set-up for the next one, which is one of the major game-changers of the entire fic. Jiazin’s plan is supposed to have been not terribly well-thought out, by the way – she’s pretty intelligent, but she’s not coming from a good place mentally or emotionally right now, and it led her to make several mistakes. Surrendering herself to the rebels with no guarantee they’d let her go was one. Trusting Gian was a bigger one – and now he’s ready to put his own plan in motion.

    Strap in – next chapter is a big one, for Jiazin, the rebels, and Gian. I hope it’s worth the wait.

    -MasterGhandalf
  14. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 28: Blue Flames

    Tong could hear the screams coming from down the tunnel, and the clash of steel on steel and occasional blast of flame. Around him, the rest of the rebels milled around in confusion, some of them heading in the direction of the attackers to engage them head-on, others attempting to form into some kind of order. Desperate to make some sort of sense out of what was happening, he grabbed a nearby earthbender by the arm. "Do you have any idea what's going on?" he asked. "I mean, besides the fact that we're being attacked?"

    "Not a clue," the older man said, "but if you want my opinion, that stinking little noble was a spy, and she led them right to us! Now then, are you just going to stand there talking all day, or are you gonna help fight? If you're who I think you are, I've heard you're pretty good."

    "Yeah," Tong said, "that's what they say. Let's go." The two earthbenders nodded at each other, and then began to push down the corridor through the crowd. Rounding a bend, they came to the source of the sounds- several of the guards clustered together, fighting with bending and weapons against a group of soldiers, some in Imperial regalia, most wearing the more drab and scavenged-looking armor of mercenaries. Some with open helmets and blades in their hands stood in front, but their chief purpose seemed to be to keep the rebels away from the skull-masked firebenders who crouched behind them, sending arcs of flame over their heads and down onto their enemies. Usually the earthbenders were quick enough to intercept the blasts with walls of rock or thrown boulders, but every so often they failed and a rebel fell, screaming in flames.

    Tong spun and looked and the other earthbender, and a handful of others who'd followed them. "Are you all benders?" he asked, and they nodded. "Good. Now, follow me!" Taking command of the situation felt strange to the former slave, but something fundamental deep within him had awoken at the sight of the Imperial forces in his new home- what he had thought was a secure sanctuary. He was not going to die today or go back to slavery, and neither were any more of his fellows!

    Dropping to one knee, he placed a hand on the earth and felt it as he had before, sensing the shape of the rock and the movements of those who stood on it. Gritting his teeth, he motioned for the other earthbenders to join him and then pushed forward as hard as he could, feeling them do the same behind him.

    In front of him the earth buckled, and the rebels in front stumbled as a wave shot under them. What they felt, however, was nothing compared to that which was directed at the enemy soldiers. The floor beneath them shot upwards in sudden jagged waves, sending the swordsmen in front stumbling forwards into the waiting arms of the rebels. The firebenders in back had it much worse, as the force of the strike slammed them against the walls and ceiling and left them laying in broken heaps, unconscious or dead.

    Before either side could react, however, the floor heaved violently and shards of rock began to fall from the ceiling. "Whatever you're doing, kid, stop it!" the voice of the first earthbender who'd spoken to him said from behind Tong. "You'll bring the whole fortress down!"

    "I'm not doing anything!" Tong gasped as he stumbled backwards. The ground shook again, and then the whole area of ceiling over the skirmish simply caved in. Some of the rebels who'd been fighting managed to pull away in time; many did not. "I'm sorry," Tong whispered. "I didn't mean for that to happen."

    Looking up, he saw the rocks finish falling, and briefly he saw beyond them. There he caught a glimpse of a familiar, brutal face, and suddenly he found someone else who was responsible for this death and misery.

    Gian.


    "Gian?" Shu asked, his voice colder than ice. "What do you have to do with that monster?"

    "I hired him to bring me here," Jiazin said, her tone weak. Against Shu's sudden anger and intensity it never occurred to her to lie. "I'd heard that he'd found a rebel stronghold, and I wanted to talk to you, but I didn't know where you were…" her voice trailed off, and then her eyes hardened. ”This isn't what I was paying him for. I'll have his head for this!"

    "Spoken like a true Imperial noble," Chaiy said mockingly. "Always thinking that if you just execute the right people, all your problems will go away. I still think you brought him down on us deliberately."

    "If I did that, do you honestly think I'd have risked myself by coming down here alone to talk to you?" Jiazin demanded.

    "Enough, both of you!" Shu said. "I agree with Jiazin- if she wanted to unleash Gian on us, she could have done so without endangering herself. But I think you'll find having his head to be rather difficult. I know the man quite well, if only be reputation, and I know that he never takes action unless he's certain someone is paying him for it. Someone who can pay even better than the governor's daughter, in this case." He looked at her shrewdly.

    "My father," Jiazin whispered in sudden realization.

    "Or a member of his government," Shu reasoned. "I imagine that helping you in the short term was just another way Gian saw of lining his pockets while he advanced his previous business."

    "Enough talk," Chaiy said impatiently. "My warriors are getting killed out there, and I'm going to put an end to it."

    "I'm coming with you," Shu said, rising to his feet. "This is my home, and I will not cower here while others fight for it."

    Chaiy didn't look happy about that, but she nodded anyway. The two Bei Fongs moved towards the door, Jiazin following behind them. Before they got far, however, Shu turned to face her, expression unreadable. "You are going to have to stay here," he said. "I don't think you're our enemy, but that's not a risk I'm willing to take." He motioned to two of his warriors outside. "Watch her closely- do not let her leave."

    The two rebels nodded tightly and entered the room as their leaders exited, shutting the door behind them. Jiazin stared at them expressionlessly as she listened to Chaiy rallying her troops outside. Silently she cursed the rebels, the dead Earth Kingdom, the Fire Empire itself, and most of all, Gian. He had betrayed her and used her, just like her entire culture seemed to have done. Unlike the world-spanning Empire, however, Gian was just one man, and that meant she had an opponent who she could strike back at.

    Setting her will, Jiazin stepped towards the door. One of the guards stopped her. "You can't go out there right now," he said stiffly. "Shu or Chaiy will come and release you if they decide to do so. Until then, you stay here."

    Jiazin did her best to look highly uncomfortable. "You will get out of my way," she said stiffly. "There are… personal matters that require me to attend to them, and unless you want me to do them in your leader's office, you would be served to conduct me to the nearest washroom."

    Now it was the rebel soldier's turn to look uncomfortable- clearly the rebels weren't used to taking prisoners, or this man in particular wasn't used to guarding them, or maybe they just weren’t used to doing either in their leader’s personal quarters with a battle raging outside, and that worked to Jiazin's advantage. As he attempted to determine how to delicately deal with the matter, the young noblewoman shot forward and seized his wrist, pulling it tightly behind his back and then slamming him face-first against the wall where he collapsed in an unconscious heap. Spinning around, she saw the other guard lunge at her, but she ducked under him and slammed her feet up into his stomach. He collapsed, gasping, beside his partner.

    Jiazin knelt beside the rebel, and she saw that he had a sword at his side of similar design to her own, straight-edged and medium in length, though of far lesser quality. Blessing her good fortune, she drew it from its sheath and pulled it through a few practice swings. She preferred her own weapon, but this one would serve for her purposes now.

    "Sorry," she said quietly, looking down at the two rebels, "but there are personal matters I have to deal with, and I can't let you two get in my way." Holding her sword lightly in one hand, she slipped the door open and crept out of Shu's office and towards the direction of the fight.


    Gian cursed every spirit he'd ever heard of and a few he'd made up on the spot as the roof caved in. Most of his men had been farther back up the corridor and were still alive, but the fact that the central passage was now blocked was going to make making headway far more difficult. For a moment he almost wished he hadn't killed the earthbender girl. Almost.

    One of the mercenaries stumbled up to his side, coughing and waving rock dust away from his face. "This is a mess, Gian," he rasped. "These earthbenders could bring the whole place down. I say we get out of here now, report this place to the Governor, get paid, and let him and the army handle this."

    Gian grabbed the other man by the collar and slammed him against the wall. "Are you questioning my judgment, Leng? I wouldn't recommend it. I'm going to kill as many of these cursed rebels as I can- especially the girl who marked my face- and then I'm bringing the Governor's daughter out of here so I can get paid more for the privilege of saving her from her own self-righteous delusions. Stick with me, and you can profit too. Don't, and… well, there are a lot of ways to die down here, don't you think?"

    "I'm with you, Gian," Leng gasped. The other mercenary smiled tightly and let his colleague go, and then turned and began to stalk down the tunnel. "But how are you going to get through the rubble?"

    "I'm not," Gian shouted back, sticking his head into the various doors that lined the walls. "This place is a labyrinth- there are ways to go around. I'm going to find them, and then hit them from where they're least expecting it." Opening a door that led to a long, curving tunnel, Gian smiled. "And here we are. Follow, if you've got the guts!"

    He disappeared down the tunnel. Leng swallowed, nodded, and followed him, the other mercenaries and soldiers close behind.


    The chaos in the tunnels died down as Chaiy's voice restored order. There had been no further fighting since Tong brought down the corridor, and while many hoped that Gian and his warriors had been crushed by the falling rocks, everyone knew on some level that it wasn't a certainty, and they could expect another attack at any moment. No one was willing to count Gian as dead until they'd seen the corpse with their own eyes.

    In place of chaos, an oppressive silence seemed to descend, as the rebels shuffled from one foot to the other nervously, all expecting another strike and knowing that their stronghold had been compromised. Tong hung back, trying to keep himself in the background. Though some congratulated him on swiftly and decisively beating back the attack, he didn't feel he'd earned their praise. He'd killed several of their own warriors as well as the enemy, and the only thing he'd accomplished was to delay the inevitable.

    Shu Bei Fong stood quietly beside his daughter, head bowed as he blamed the attack on himself. He'd trusted the secrecy of the Lake Laogai fortress to protect the rebels, but that had failed- he imagined numerous ways in which he could have prevented this attack if he'd simply put his mind to it. What it all came down to, he told himself darkly, was that he was a skilled leader and competent earthbender, but a poor man of war.

    Both rebels were torn from their dark thoughts by the sound of screams from deeper in the tunnel system as the guards that had been assigned to them were killed. The entire rebel force fell into ranks and turned in the direction of the sounds as the Imperial mercenaries came charging out of the tunnels, taking their victims from multiple directions. Earthbenders dropped into crouches and prepared to resist, but here so deep beneath the ground it was difficult to use their powers effectively without damaging the fortress and potentially endangering everyone there, as Tong himself had discovered. The firebenders, by contrast, had no such weakness- earthbenders raised rock shields against them, but well placed fireblasts shattered them and the mercenaries were among them.

    In close-quarters fighting, the attackers now held the edge. Many of them were either current or former Imperial soldiers and had much better training than the rebels, and their benders were able to fight much more effectively. Perhaps the Dai Li who once lived here had been able to earthbend with enough subtlety to fight off attackers without bringing the fortress down, but the secrets of that mysterious order had died with them. Shu cursed them for their elitism and arrogance.

    Behind the firebenders came mercenary swordsmen, and leading them was Gian himself, a cruel smile playing across his brutal features. He dove into the rebels and began to slice his way through them, a more skilled opponent than any of them were prepared to face. At his side, his minions cut a path for him, and he drove with purpose straight towards Chaiy.

    Shu's daughter saw him and bared her teeth in a fierce snarl. Drawing her bow back, she fired an arrow directly at the mercenary, but he ducked beneath it and kept on coming. Before she could fit another to the string, he leaped at her and struck down on the bow with his blade, splintering it.

    "You'll pay for that!" Chaiy shouted at him, jumping back and calling a large rock into her hand. "That was my favorite bow!"

    Gian shook his head. "No, girl," he said, "you're the one who's going to pay." He motioned to his face. "You marked me the last time we met- I don't let something like that go unpunished. It's bad for my reputation, and what's bad for my reputation is bad for my business."

    "Try this!" Chaiy said, drawing back her arm and hurling the rock at him. Gian's hand snapped up and caught it; with a snarl on his face he squeezed tightly and it shattered into powder before Chaiy's wide eyes.

    "I may not be a bender," he said, "but then, I never needed to be. Having that kind of power can make a man soft, but I'm not." Lunging forward, he caught Chaiy by the throat in his free hand and slammed her against the wall, tightening his grip. "You're not why I came here, but killing you- it's a nice bonus."

    A rock struck Gian from the side as he tightened his grip, spinning him around and nearly knocking him from his feet. Scowling, the mercenary turned to face Shu, who was readying himself for another attack. "You made one mistake, mercenary," the rebel leader said softly. "You hurt my daughter. That's something I won't let go unpunished."

    Gian laughed. "You don't scare me, old man. You're no fighter- I can tell that just be looking at you. You're nothing but the sad leader of a bunch of rabble too stubborn to admit that their world ended a hundred years ago." Before he finished, Shu launched another rock, but Gian ducked under it and rushed forward, blade at the ready. The rebel leader's eyes widened for a brief moment, and then the blade struck into his side. It was not a fatal wound- Gian's disappointed scowl was proof enough of that- but he could feel the pain lancing through his body as he slid to the ground, bleeding.

    Gian stood over him, blade raised for the killing strike, when a fireblast suddenly arced over him and struck against the wall in a shower of sparks. The mercenary turned to face in that direction, a look of annoyance crossing his features, when a clear voice rang out that made both he and Shu widen their eyes in surprise.

    "Gian," Jiazin, the governor's daughter, said clearly, "this ends now."


    Fear such as Jiazin had never known coursed through her as she threaded her way through the battle, ducking away from strikes from both sides, but mostly using a wave of fire in front to keep the warriors at bay. When she got to where she could see Gian, she pooled her flame into a flare to get his attention before shouting out her challenge.

    The mercenary's look of surprise turned to a satisfied smile as he saw her approaching. "Well well," he said. "Just the person I was hoping to see. We'll be leaving now, my lady, if you don't mind. I'm sure your father will be overjoyed to see you returned safe despite your rash actions, and his troops can clean out the rest of this mess."

    "Gian," Jiazin said coldly, looking him squarely in the eye, "I hired you to bring me to the rebels, not to attack them. As your employer and the daughter of your Governor I order you to stop this attack at once. Am I clear?"

    "Very," Gian said, "but what you don't understand is that I have an outlying contract against these scum, and I never leave a job unfinished. Now then, come along like a good little girl, and this won't hurt." He made a grab for her arm, but Jiazin ducked back and brought her sword up, point in his face.

    "I'm not going anywhere," she said. "I still have business down here, and you are the one who's leaving, one way or another."

    "It seems our little nobleman's daughter has claws," Gian said, laughing. "But you're still a fool for thinking you can best me, and you were a bigger one for trusting me in the first place. I betrayed my own people because I recognized the winning side- did you really think I wouldn't betray you for a better offer?"

    "Betray…" Jiazin suddenly found herself wrong-footed and cursed herself for it, guessing that this had been Gian's intent all along. "You're an Earth Kingdom man, aren’t you? You sold out your own nation!"

    "That's right," he said. "They say there's nothing lower than a traitor, but you should know that as well as I- you've betrayed your own people by treating with these filth. Why your father would even want a daughter back when she's sunk as low as me is beyond my ability to understand." His grin widened. "No- you're worse than I am. I betrayed my people because I was strong enough to see the truth, but you've betrayed yours because you're too weak to have the stomach for what must be done!"

    Jiazin howled in anger and lunged for him, stolen blade at the ready. All around them, a hush seemed to fall over the battle as combatants paused to watch the duel between the mercenary leader and the Imperial noble, both sides seeming uncertain as to who they hoped would be the victor. Jiazin brought her sword up in quick, precise lunges, but while Gian's style was far less sophisticated, it was backed up by years of experience and guided by a pitiless and cunning mind. Jiazin found herself forced back, unable to match his strength, reach, or skill, and finally he sent her blade spinning from her hands and forced her back against the wall. She briefly saw that she stood beside a groaning Chaiy, and briefly considered the irony that the two of them, so different in so many ways, would go down in defeat together.

    Then Gian smiled viciously as he seized her arm and pulled her to her feet. "Come along, girl," he said. "This is over."


    Tong saw Jiazin go down, and a whirl of emotions passed through his head. Part of him was more than content to see a noble beaten in battle, but another part, a stronger part, said that Gian shouldn't have that satisfaction. Besides, at the moment, Jiazin wasn't an enemy. Tong didn't know if she was a friend or not either, but it seemed that somehow she and the rebels shared a common foe in the Fire Empire.

    It wasn’t much, but at the moment, it might be enough for him.

    A mailed fist struck his face- lost in his thoughts, Tong had forgotten the mercenaries. As he went down, he looked up at saw the man standing over him, raising his sword to strike the killing blow. Lying against the earth, however, the former slave suddenly saw a way in which he could save himself, Jiazin, and possibly the whole rebellion. It wasn't much, he knew, but sometimes the small things were what mattered.

    Clutching his fingers on the hard stone, he reached down with his will into the earth.


    As Gian began to drag Jiazin forward, the tremor struck, rocking the mercenary from his feet and allowing the noble girl to slip free of his grasp. All through the corridor the battle ground to a halt as all the combatants lost their footing, and Jiazin herself fell to her knees, hands on the ground to steady herself. Looking up, she saw Gian standing over her, eyes cold and hard. On the ground, one of her hands brushed something solid- the hilt of her stolen sword.

    At that moment, fuelled by thoughts of Gian's betrayal, and her father's, and her whole culture's, and the fact that her desperate attempt to force reform should end so ignominiously, something crystallized deep in Jiazin's mind. All her life seemed to come down to this one moment, and it forged itself into a steel-hard arrow of raw concentration and will as she wrapped her hands around the sword and pulled herself to her feet. Called by her unspoken will, flames wreathed the blade, and fuelled not by uncontrolled passion but by a focus so complete and utter that it allowed for no doubt or weakness they flared brightly before changing color, from a warm orange light to a cold, steady blue that some detached part of Jiazin's mind noticed was the same as those flames that wreathed the Empress's throne. Gian's eyes widened and shock and fear, and he mouthed the word “impossible” as Jiazin felt herself give a strange, cold smile, somehow knowing that she had become the very image of the young Azula before her ascent to the Imperial throne. Then, with the absolute precision and speed of one of the Empire's mighty war machines she struck, and all the world seemed to slow as her burning blade sank deep into Gian's body, and the mercenary's eyes widened and his face twisted in agony and horror as he opened his mouth as to scream, but only flames shot out, and then they guttered and died, leaving the smoldering wreck that had once been one of the deadliest warriors in the Empire to fall forward and lay unmoving at Jiazin's feet.

    She came back to herself slowly, looking down disbelievingly at her fallen foe, barely believing that she had been the one to strike the killing blow. Looking up, she saw that the whole battle had fallen still as the mercenaries stared in horror at their fallen leader, while the rebels simply seemed stunned at the strange display of firebending. They all looked at her like she was some sort of feral beast that might strike at any moment, or worse, like a horror out of some ancient story that disguised unnatural power behind a false human face.

    Suddenly Jiazin seemed terribly frightened and weary, and the tunnel swam before her as she felt her eyes roll back in her head. She could feel herself falling, and then darkness claimed her.

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    So ends the mercenary Gian, and with him, a chapter of life both for Jiazin and the earthbender rebels. The idea that Jiazin would develop blue fire was an early one, though I can’t recall when exactly I decided to implement it here (and in this rewrite I’ve taken out some foreshadowing that was, in hindsight, too heavy handed for what is supposed to be a major wham moment). Gian’s death is one of those things that is too brutal to have ever made it on the show, one of the few times I’m explicitly going that far, but I felt this scene deserves it. It’s supposed to be shocking, both to the audience and the characters. I also deliberately included an overabundance of run-on sentences in the paragraph that pertains to it, to emphasize the creepily detached nature of Jiazin’s thought process here.

    Gian is (well, was) of Earth Kingdom heritage as well, something I decided on relatively late in the creative process for the original fic, but it fit extremely well with the character I wanted to depict. Gian isn’t a fanatic like Shiyan, nor a tyrant like Azula, nor yet the product and perpetrator of an oppressive system, like Qing Xi. He is simply heartless and mercenary, and his heritage reflects that – I wanted to emphasize that he has absolutely no loyalty to anyone or anything beyond his own profit. Well, at least until this chapter, where he received his just reward. It’s often easy (maybe a bit too easy) to feel empathy for even the most evil character when you write them enough; I understand Gian, but I feel no empathy for him, because he never had it for anyone else. He’s one of the only major characters I’ve written who I’ve felt no sadness to kill off.

    I do wish I could have involved Tong more here; unfortunately the scene with Jiazin and Gian ended up in such a way that he kind of fell by the wayside (a hazard with that kind of quiet, unassertive character, alas). He probably ends up with the least development of my three leads, but he’s still got some key roles to fill before all is said and done.

    -MasterGhandalf
  15. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 29: The Moon Spirit

    The hunting party emerged from the forest and stared out over the shore, Shiyan feeling foolish as she was forced to crane her neck around Yuan's head to get a better vantage. It was not a feeling she liked, and she hated the High Admiral all the more for forcing it on her. Something more he would owe her for when this distasteful partnership was concluded.

    The path continued along the shoreline, and Yuan motioned for his men to continue riding along it. After a short distance, however, a pair of tracks departed from it and moved on towards a rocky outcropping. "That's them," Shiyan said, regarding the tracks intently. "They've left the road."

    "I know that, girl," Yuan snarled. "I've got eyes. Men, follow me." He kicked his lizard into motion, forcing Shiyan to cling to his back in order to stay on as they followed the footprints among the rocks. There, on the edge of the water, they suddenly ceased. Yuan pulled up into a stop, the other riders bunching up behind him.

    "What's going on?" he demanded. "Where'd they go? They couldn't have just vanished, and even a waterbender can't walk across the sea." Shiyan considered making a sarcastic comment about the High Admiral's knowledge of an art that had been all but extinct for almost a century, but decided antagonizing him now would probably only start a fight- and while the Chosen was certain she could take Yuan one-to-one, she was equally certain his men would rather violently object, and she couldn't take all of them at once. Instead she concentrated her efforts on scanning land and sea for any sign of a trail.

    Surprisingly it was Cheng who provided the clue. "There- I see something!" the younger Chosen's voice rang out, and Shiyan and Yuan both spun in the direction to which she'd been pointing. There, near the horizon, was a sail.

    "A ship," Yuan breathed incredulously. "That's how she always moves around so fast- she's got a ship! And now she's getting away!"

    Shiyan gave a tight, predatory smile. "For now, maybe. But not for long."


    Kanoda stood at the side of the small vessel, watching the sea racing past. Yue was sitting in the stern with her legs crossed, moving her hands through a series of gestures that seemed to be creating and sustaining the current that was carrying them along. Feeling it was best not to disturb her while she was bending, he simply looked over the side and watched in fascination as the water bent itself along the boat's sides and propelled it forward without a need for much wind in the sail. Yue had said that she wanted to be far from their starting point before she relaxed her power and allowed the winds and natural currents to do their work.

    Looking backward, the young hunter saw something strange that seemed to be moving along atop the waves- little black dots that were coming steadily closer. Shading his eyes, he looked at them more intently- and then his eyes widened as he made out what they were. Giant lizards, running across the sea on their hind legs, each of them bearing at least two riders in Imperial armor.

    "Yue!" he said, spinning to face her. "I think we're about to have trouble!"

    "I see them," she said as she turned to look in the direction he pointed. At that moment, one of the lizards moved ahead of the others and one of the figures on its back suddenly leaped into the air, spinning in a high arc and then landing lightly on the boat's prow, sword in hand. Kanoda barely had time to register Shiyan's black armor and golden facepaint before she struck, slamming into him and knocking him against the deck.

    "You're not going to escape this time, spy," the Chosen hissed. "I'm not some barely-trained girl you can trick into setting you free."

    Before Kanoda could reply, Shiyan suddenly jumped back, dodging blade-sharp shards of ice that were flinging themselves at her. The young hunter turned towards their source and saw Yue with her hands raised. "And I am not a child you can defeat without effort," the waterbender said. "I don't want to hurt you, girl. Give up now and you can go. I won't follow you."

    "Give up?" Shiyan snarled, her voice utterly incredulous. "The Empress's Chosen never give up, and we don't cut deals with waterbenders and rebels!" Switching the grip on her sword, she brought it up and hurled it in a single fluid motion. Yue dodged to the side, but she wasn't entirely fast enough- the blade pierced her sleeve and cloak, pinning both to the side of the ship. Shiyan gave her predatory smile again as the waterbender brought up an ice shard to cut herself loose, and then she turned back to Kanoda.

    "Pretty stupid of you," the water tribe boy observed, "throwing your sword away like that. Now there's two of us, and you don't have a weapon."

    "I've got reinforcements coming to help me handle the waterbender," Shiyan said. "And I don't need a weapon to handle you!" Darting forward, she grabbed Kanoda's neck and slammed his head back against the ship's wooden frame, leaving him hurting and dazed. He tried to bring his hand up to strike her, deciding that what traditional Water Tribe honor had to say about going soft on girls could slide in this particular situation, but she only caught his wrist effortlessly and bent it back, sending another stab of pain shooting through him. Still holding onto his arm, Shiyan pulled Kanoda up and spun him around, slamming him face-first against the railing as she drew a length of cord from inside her armor to bind his hands together. The whole fight had happened so fast that the Water Tribe boy could barely register it, but it had been enough that he could see the giant lizards clambering over the other side with their warriors. It looked like Yue was about to have some serious problems of her own- he couldn't count on help from her.

    "Did you really think you had a chance?" Shiyan asked as she tied Kanoda's wrists together. "I am an elite warrior trained since I could walk to outrun, outthink, and outfight any man or woman in the Empire, and you're just a barbarian peasant who thinks he can be a spy. There isn't one thing that you can do that I can't do as well- and better."

    "There is one thing," Kanoda said, shaking his head to clear it.

    "Oh?" Shiyan asked mockingly. "And what might that be?"

    "Improvise!" Resting his weight against the boat's side, he raised his legs and kicked out backward against Shiyan's stomach- the maneuver dropped him to the deck, but he had the distinct satisfaction of hearing her shout of surprise and pain as she was knocked off balance herself and lost her grip. With difficulty considering that his hands were still bound, Kanoda managed to pull himself to his feet and began looking around wildly for a sharp object with which to cut the cords- but the first thing he saw was Shiyan herself, leaning against the mast and with a downright murderous expression on her face.


    Yue saw Kanoda's predicament, but even as she freed herself from where Shiyan's sword had pinned her against her ship, she saw the lizards crawling up over the sides. The boat rocked, and then the lizard-riders swarmed aboard- one waterbender now found herself faced with six firebenders, and even surrounded by her element she did not like those odds. They formed a semicircle around her, and she wondered why they did not attack- and then she looked more closely at their uniforms. These were not army benders recruited by the Chosen as part of her hunt- these were Fire Navy elites. She wondered at that briefly, and then their ranks parted and another man stepped between them. At the sight of him Yue started, memories of terror rising unbidden from the depths of her mind.

    High Admiral Yuan's resemblance to his grandfather was startling. It wasn't just physical, though they had the same brutal features and smug smile. Rather, it was in the way the younger admiral carried himself, utterly certain of both his own victory and his own importance, that most strongly echoed that of his ancestor.

    Images flashed through Yue's mind unbidden, images a century old but every bit as painful as they had been when they happened- the city of the Northern Water Tribe in flames as she was dragged through the streets by the soldiers, wanting more than anything to help them but powerless to do so, and then Zhao's gloating face as he told her how he'd fulfilled his life's dream by exterminating her people, and now she alone would live as the trophy of his victory.

    She was brought back to the present by Yuan's voice. "Well, well, well," he said. "Princess Yue, isn't it? You've run my family quite a chase over the years, but now it's done." He scrutinized her intensely. "So the stories are true, then. I thought they were only exaggerations, but to look at you now, I wouldn't say you were over twenty, much less more than five times that." He shrugged. "But that's not my area. Still, I suspect I can find an alchemist in the Capital who'd be willing to take you apart and find your secret. Men, take her into custody, but don't be too rough. I want her recognizable before she's executed."

    "Don't do this, Yuan," Yue said softly. "Your grandfather was an evil man. Do you really want to follow him down that same dark road?"

    "Follow?" Yuan laughed. "I will eclipse him! In years to come, when they speak of Admiral Zhao, Scourge of the North, it will be only to say that his grandson was even greater than he. You're only the first step."

    "Greater? No, you are just alike," Yue said, her voice sad. "I give you one last chance, Yuan. I don't want to hurt you." It was something she always found herself saying every time she faced enemies who sought to do her harm; for all her experience and power, at heart, she was no warrior. They never listened.

    "I don't think that's very likely," the High Admiral told her with a smirk. "Men, take her!"

    As the firebenders approached, Yue's thoughts retreated into the part of her being that had for as long as she could remember belonged to another, a creature at once completely alien and a perfectly natural part of her- the Moon Spirit. Other waterbenders had once drawn their power from the physical moon in the sky above, but the former princess's bending came directly from the spiritual source.

    Do not fear him, my child, a voice as soft and old and powerful as the tides whispered. I am with you.

    Yue opened her eyes and faced the firebenders.


    Kanoda backed up slowly as Shiyan stalked towards him, her whole being seeming at once perfectly controlled and utterly feral- an odd combination, but one that suited her in some strange and terrifying way. "You hit me," she said softly. "Nobody hits me and walks away."

    Just as she seemed about to spring forward, however, the whole boat rocked violently, sending both of them to their knees. Kanoda pulled himself up, seeing the great waves that were now rising over the side- and then he turned to the stern and saw their source.

    Yue's white hair had come free from its braid and was blowing in a wind only she could feel. Her eyes gleamed like gemstones, as solid blue and deep as the seas, and though she hadn't grown, she now seemed to tower over the firebenders who surrounded her. One man in an ornate uniform was backing away, eyes darting back and forth as he looked for an escape.

    "Leave now," Yue commanded, her own voice overlaid with another that was very much like it, and yet far older and more powerful. "Take your warriors, descendant of the Spirit-Captor, and depart this place at once!"

    The officer himself had whistled for his lizard and seemed perfectly content to take her up on her offer, but he had other plans for his men. "Fireblast her, burn you!" he ordered angrily. "She can't fight you all at once."

    The soldiers raised their hands and unleashed searing bolts of flame, but a wall of water leaped from the sea and placed itself between them and their target, causing the bolts to sizzle faintly and burn out as they struck it. Behind the wall Yue motioned and it shot forward, sweeping the soldiers and their commander off the deck and into the sea effortlessly. Shiyan stared for a moment, seemingly captivated by such a display of power, and then the wave struck her and Kanoda as well. The young hunter was amazed to find that he himself was barely wet, but Shiyan was seized and swept away along with her countrymen. He saw her gold painted face staring at him hatefully from the water, and then she was gone.

    Yue groaned and closed her eyes, and when she opened them again they were their normal color and had lost the strange glow. Her hair stilled as well, and then she sank to the deck. Kanoda hurried over to her side. "That was unbelievable," he breathed. "Are you all right?"

    "No, but I will be," Yue said. "Because of what I am, I can summon the full power of the Moon Spirit for a brief time, but I am not an Avatar. My body was not meant to handle that much power, and it doesn't like being forced to."

    "Will you be all right?" Kanoda asked. "Is there anything I can get for you?"

    She shook her head. "I just need to rest, and then I'll be fine. If you could raise the sail, though, I would appreciate it. I think we should be away from here."

    "Any particular direction?"

    "Just head north for now," she said. "I'll take over later and guide our course with more accuracy after I've rested." She looked up at him, eyes suddenly intense. "Be cautious, Kanoda. I think I've defeated our pursuers for now, but I also am quite certain most of them are still alive, and I don't think that High Admiral Yuan for one will give up the hunt easily."

    Kanoda's eyes widened slightly as he realized exactly who the officer must have been, and his equal certainty that his particular nemesis had also survived. "Yeah, and Shiyan's got all the single-minded determination of a shark, and is about as charming" he agreed. "You rest. I'll get that sail."

    ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Kanoda, Yue, and Shiyan’s side of the story comes to a climactic point as well, albeit a far less conclusive one; unlike Gian, whose death came near the end of the first major arc of FotFE, Shiyan and Yuan will be continuing as antagonists into the next act. Shiyan, as is becoming increasingly clear, will be having conflict not only with her enemies, but with her own allies as well. She, and the Chosen in general, represent utter and fanatical devotion to the Empire and its Empress, while Yuan embodies those who are loyal only to their own power and glory while paying lip service to a higher cause. It is perhaps inevitable that two such different flavors of evil would clash, even if they’re working together in pursuit of the same goal.

    This chapter also sees our first glimpse of Yue’s true power, with the unveiling of what one of my readers from the first iteration of the fic termed the “Yue State”. Her ability to temporarily take on the full power of the Moon Spirit, but in a way that damages her body if she uses it for too long, actually turned out remarkably canon-compliant, as “Beginnings” in Korra showed that, unless permanently sealed during Harmonic Convergence, spirit possession is eventually fatal to the mortal in question. Yue has a bit of insulation, being in a sense part spirit herself, but she still can’t sustain such power for long without inflicting harm on herself. Yay for my accidental accuracy! However, I also think it’s important to note that Yue’s first instinct always remains to show mercy to her enemies and give them a chance to escape, even people like Yuan or Shiyan.

    Kanoda didn’t get a whole lot to do this chapter, unfortunately, although he did get in one good blow on Shiyan upon realizing that she’s pretty terrible at thinking outside the box (and yeah, Kanoda, I think you can make an exception for “don’t hit girls” when the girl in question is both a much better fighter than you and is trying her hardest to kill or capture you). His time will come later.

    -MasterGhandalf
  16. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 30: Shadows of Things to Come

    Jiazin awoke slowly, still feeling weary to the bone. The bed she was laying on was remarkably hard and uncomfortable- she was going to have to remember to have a harsh word with her maids about it. Then her eyes opened completely, and she realized that the surface she was lying on was not a bed at all but the hard, rocky floor of a tunnel, and the people surrounding her were not servants but hard-faced rebels. Sitting up, she saw the scorched and barely recognizable remains of Gian lying against one wall, and the memory of everything that had happened in the last few days came rushing back to her.

    "Spirits of flame and sun," she muttered under her breath, "what have I done?" She'd only hoped to use the rebels to put pressure on her father, forcing him to reform- instead she'd ended up throwing in with their cause completely by killing a valuable agent on the Imperial payroll. And where had that strange blue fire come from? Had she really burned a man alive from the inside out? Jiazin wasn’t certain if she should feel sickened, guilty, afraid, or relieved, and so instead, she felt nothing but a dull, empty weight.

    "So," a voice said from nearby, "the noble is back with us." Jiazin looked up and saw a girl a little older than herself standing over her, clad in rough green and brown clothing. A brief pause, and her mind produced a name- Chaiy. The rebel's throat was bruised from where Gian had grabbed her, and her expression seemed torn between admiration and anger. From the looks of things, anger was winning.

    "What happened?" Jiazin asked her.

    Chaiy snorted. "For one thing, we just lost our base," she said. "After Gian died and you went down, the rest of the mercenaries bolted- we caught up to most of them, but a few made it out. If the Fire Empire- and your father- don't know where we are now, they soon will. After what happened here, next time they won't bother with sending troops down- they'll just drop explosives and be done with it. That means we have to move, thanks to you."

    "I didn't lead them here," Jiazin said, her words sounding hollow even to herself. "Gian already knew where your base was- I was just a distraction for him. Besides, after what I did to him, I've got problems too. The Empress will definitely strip me of my title, and I'll be lucky to escape execution as a traitor."

    "Yeah- I really feel for you," Chaiy replied, in a tone that said she felt little of the sort. "But thanks to you the fight fell out the way it did, and my father got hurt real bad- he'll make it, but he's not in good shape. I'll buy this isn't what you meant to happen, but I'm not about to let you off the hook either."

    The mention of the word "Father" set off bells in Jiazin's mind. "Let me go, now," she said quickly. "If I can get to my father quickly enough, I might be able to convince him to delay his reprisal." In truth, she hoped she could convince him that Gian had tricked her and she'd killed him in self-defense. It was the truth, after all, and sorting his daughter's fate out would hold him up long enough that the rebels might be able to get to safety. She didn't think Chaiy needed to know the specifics of that plan, however.

    The older girl only laughed. "Yeah, we've seen how well your plans work out," she said. "And now that you've seen us, letting you go is the last thing I'm going to do. Don't worry- killing Gian is enough of a favor for us that we won't do the same to you." She motioned for a couple of nearby rebels. "Bind her hands. We're pulling out of here in the next few hours, and the governor's daughter here is coming with us, whether she likes it or not."

    The idea of being imprisoned by peasants and rebels rankled Jiazin, but she was too tired to protest or fight back as they hurried forward and began to wrap thick ropes around her wrists. After that, the tunnels were filled with people rushing about for some time, and then they gathered all together in a group and began to head deeper into the underground system, presumably heading for another exit. They bore Jiazin with them.

    / / /

    Governor Yan Li of the great city of Long Du Shi looked sharply at the weary soldiers who had reported the battle at the rebel base to him. He was furious that Gian had conducted the whole operation without his knowledge- and he was going to have harsh words with the underminister who had hired him and given him so much leeway later today- but that paled in comparison to his feelings about how the battle ended. "You are certain that what you have told me is true?" he asked, keeping his voice even and cold.

    "Yes, milord," the soldier who had done most of the talking said. "Every word." Looking at his weary face and haunted eyes, Yan Li doubted he had the strength of will at this point to concoct such an elaborate lie.

    "Very well," the Governor sighed. "Leave me." The soldiers bowed, and then turned and left the audience hall, leaving Yan Li slumped alone on his great chair. How had this happened? He knew that he had not been the most attentive father, but he had cared for his daughter as best he could, hadn't he, and taught her the core values of the Empire well? Had it been Qing Xi who did this to her, breaking her mind as part of some convoluted scheme? Or was the discovery of the Empire's crimes- necessary crimes, the Governor reminded himself as he often did- alone been enough to cause such drastic action? And how had she learned to produce the blue flames that were the hallmark of the Empress alone?

    The world didn’t make sense anymore, and the governor was becoming increasingly convinced that his daughter had become someone he didn’t know.

    Yan Li sat forward in his chair, not wishing to punish Jiazin, dreading what the law and his superiors would command when they learned of her treachery- and he had no doubt that learn of it they would. Qing Xi was not a sadistic man, but he could be ruthless in the extreme, and there was no doubt what penalty he would exact for such a crime. And the Empress… who knew what she might do? For now, the most powerful man on the former Earth Kingdom continent felt weak and helpless, and it was not a feeling he liked.

    "Oh, Jiazin," he whispered, "what have you done?"

    / / /

    Shiyan knew she must look like a half-drowned hawk as she sloshed ashore. She could feel her facepaint running, her headpiece had been washed away, and her hair had come unbound and now hung to her shoulders in wet tendrils. Looking up, she saw Cheng sitting on the beach, having been on the lizard closest to the back and thereby escaping the waterbender's wrath; for once, this left her looking the more poised and dignified of the two of them. Looking at her fellow Chosen, a hint of a smile played around the girl's mouth- Shiyan shot her a glare that promised murder if that smile developed into laughter.

    The Chosen cursed herself for underestimating the waterbender, and even the Water Tribe spy- the boy was a pathetic fighter, but he had managed to get in one solid blow through trickery, and that could not go unpunished. She was considering ways in which to punish both of the barbarians when a hand descended on her shoulder and spun her around so that she looked into the bedraggled, furious face of High Admiral Yuan.

    "This is your fault!" the High Admiral snarled at her, eyes popping.

    "My fault?" Shiyan asked, slapping his hand away. "I was handling my fugitive quite well. The waterbender was the one who undid us, and she was your responsibility. It isn't my fault that you and your men were unable to claim her."

    "Why you-" Yuan hissed, pulling his free hand back and then letting it drop, having apparently considered the ramifications of striking one of the Empress's Chosen in the face and not liking them in the least. "Well then, my Chosen lady, what would you have us do? They are too far out to sea now for the lizards to catch up to them, and by the time we could get my ships here, they would be beyond our ability to track them."

    "Do any of your men who managed to stay dry have hawks?" Shiyan asked. When Yuan nodded in the affirmative, she continued. "Then send a message to your ship, instructing that it come for us at top speed. If it does so, we should only lose about a day and be able to catch up to them fairly quickly. If we don't, then we backtrack and comb the shoreline, looking for where they abandoned the boat and started back on foot- leaving a clear trail."

    "I don't take orders from you, girl," Yuan snapped, "not unless you're relaying them from the Empress, and right now I know you're not, because you just made them up on the spot. So don't think you can tell the supreme commander of the Fire Navy what he can and cannot do, just because you're part of some elite club. Because whatever you may think, you are not Azula."

    "Then think of it as a suggestion, rather than an order" Shiyan shot back, "but unless you have a better idea, it's in your best interests to follow it. Oh, and don't think the Empress won't hear about this."

    Yuan looked hateful, but finally nodded. "Very well," he said. "But the Empress will be hearing about this from me as well." Still scowling, he motioned the officer with the hawk over to his side and began to softly confer with him.

    "Why should we put up with him?" a soft voice said at Shiyan's side, and she turned to see Cheng. "He has no respect for our order, and not much for the Empress. Why can't we just leave him here and finish the job ourselves?"

    "We work with the tools we are given, sister," Shiyan replied in a whisper. "Yuan thinks that his rank gives him leeway with respecting us, and for now it suits us to let him think so, because it makes him more likely to do what we want him to- help us chase the spy and the waterbender." She looked over at the arrogant High Admiral, eyes cold. "But when we have our quarry, then we will have no more need of this particular tool, and he will learn to have proper respect and fear of the Empress's Chosen."

    / / /

    High Minister Qing Xi paced in his office as the sun sank down below the horizon. The reports from his agents of the Empress working behind his back troubled him, as did more recent reports from Long Du Shi that said Jiazin had some sort of breakdown at the construction site and then vanished. They all added up to one inescapable conclusion- his neatly ordered world was slipping beyond his control. That thought left an uneasy feeling in the High Minister's gut.

    On impulse, he turned and swept from his office, barely noticing the surprised guards who hastily saluted as he passed. He moved through the winding hallways with the ease of long familiarity, and finally came to what appeared to the casual observer to be nothing more than a blank brick wall. Checking from the corner of his eye to make sure no one was there to see, he pressed a series of bricks in quick succession and then stepped back as the hidden door slid open. Qing Xi ducked into the passageway, and the door sealed itself shut behind him.

    The hallway led down, ever down, in a winding passage. It led to tunnels that lay deep beneath the domain of the Hidden Flame, into places of which only the Fire Lords were meant to know. He had discovered it after long years of searching- even the Empress didn't know that he knew, but because she never came here, he had no real fear of discovery. The passage led to the secret catacombs of the Imperial Palace- not unlike the ones that lay beneath the former temples of the Fire Sages- and here was housed the last, greatest secret of the Empire.

    The passage opened into a long, low room, and Qing Xi crept down it to the end. There was a section of the room blocked off by iron bars, and behind them was what was unmistakably a prison cell. Within it lay a figure stretched out on a thin bed, short and slender, hands folded and eyes closed. At first glance it looked to be a corpse, but every so often the chest rose and fell- not nearly often enough to keep a living person alive.

    But then, the Avatar had not been truly alive for almost a hundred years.

    Qing Xi had read of the debate among Fire Lord Ozai's ministers as to what to with the Avatar when Prince Zuko had brought him back to the Fire Nation in chains. Some said he should be killed, but that would only mean his spirit would flee to another body, and while it was likely the Fire Nation could find him or her before the new Avatar became a powerful enemy, there were many who did not wish to take that risk. Others, like Prince Zuko himself, had argued he should simply be imprisoned, but that had been too obviously dangerous. Instead, it was decided that the young Air Nomad should be imprisoned beneath the palace, in the forgotten catacombs, and there be broken by deprivation and torture until he became a soulless slave- a living weapon to bring the Fire Nation victory over all its foes.

    When Admiral Zhao had captured the spirits of the Moon and Ocean, however, something had changed. The Avatar, who had been kept heavily drugged and disoriented, fell into a deep stupor and could not be roused. Neither could he be given food or water, and after a few weeks Ozai had given his prize up as dead. But he didn't die. Instead the Avatar had simply continued from that day forward as if in a trance, unable to awaken but also unable to die. Over time, he had been forgotten by all save Ozai, Azula, and now Qing Xi himself.

    After reading the story, Qing Xi had asked the High Fire Sage about what could have caused such a thing (speaking, of course, purely theoretically). "The Avatar is the guardian of Balance," the old man had said. "He is mortal, but holds within him, if the legends are true, the spirit of light, balance, and peace. If the Balance is broken- not merely endangered but truly collapsed- then that spirit too is broken, and he can neither live or die. He will simply wait until the time has come for the Balance to be restored again."

    Qing Xi had wanted to ask the man what would happen if the Balance was restored, but did not wish to seem overly curious. He'd meant to try again later, but before he had a chance the High Sage and his whole order had gone to their untimely deaths, and there were none left with the knowledge he wanted. So instead he simply came here when he was troubled, to think about the state of the world and wonder what secrets lay behind the Avatar's closed eyes.

    And there did seem to be secrets. Looking closer, the High Minister noticed something he'd never seen before- a small smile curving the deceptively young lips. It wasn't a happy smile, exactly- more of a knowing one. "What is it, Avatar, that makes you smile?" Qing Xi whispered to the darkness. "What do you know that we do not?"

    The darkness did not have an answer.

    / / /

    The fires of the Empress's throne room burned low, leaving the room wrapped in shadows. Zhi knelt in the center of the floor, face studiously turned towards the ground as the Empress's robes rustled around her. As a high-ranking member of the Chosen she was one of the few who could look at her sovereign's face if she wished; tonight she did not. She had just returned from a mission, and would show the utmost respect in her report.

    "Speak," the Empress's soft voice said, and Zhi felt the gloved fingers trailing along the back of her neck. She shivered slightly at the touch; not in fear, but in awe.

    "I have been successful. The extra supplies and orders have been delivered to the generals in the outlying provinces- each has been led to believe that they were the only ones to receive them, and have been warned to absolute silence."

    There was a pause. "Did any of them question you?"

    "No, Dread Majesty. They each seemed honored to believe that they were the only ones to be chosen for this task, and even if they did not, they kept it hidden. All know that our order speaks with your voice- they would not cross us or you."

    "There are some that might," the Empress said, "but by this year's end they will not matter any longer." The sound of robes moved away, and Zhi could hear them rustle as Azula seated herself on her throne. "You have done well, my servant. You may rise."

    Zhi stood slowly, looking up at the golden throne barely illuminated by the low and flickering blue flames and further up the Empress herself. Her robes seemed almost black in the darkness, and the gleam of her mask served only to highlight the empty holes that were its eyes. It seemed almost as if she were something other than human, something more, and both the light and shadow in the room had their source in her.

    "Do you have any further orders for me, Majesty?" the Chosen asked.

    "Resume your duties in the palace and await my command," the Empress told her. "There will be more tasks for all of the Chosen in the days to come, but know that we near the end of our labor. All of history has been moving towards this moment- you must not fail me."

    "We will not," Zhi said with pride. Waiting for a heartbeat, she finally asked the question that had been troubling her. "What of the High Minister? I fear he suspects something is amiss."

    The Empress seemed amused rather than angry. "Do not worry about him. Of course he suspects- how could he not?- but he still believes that my plans center around the girl Jiazin, and it is in that direction his attention will lie. He makes a mistake many have- he thinks that because he is a part of the game, he must be a player in it when in fact he is just another piece. He sees only what he is meant to see. He will realize his mistake, but not until it is too late for him to change things."

    "I should not have doubted you, Majesty," Zhi said. She bowed again, then looked up at the one who claimed her absolute loyalty. "If you have no further instructions for me, I will take my leave."

    "Do so. Be alert for my call."

    Zhi rose from her bow and departed from the throne room, leaving the Dragon Empress alone in shadow.

    / / /

    When the girl was gone- Zhi was in her twenties, but to one so ancient as the Empress she was still a child- Azula sat alone in the darkness. When she was certain she was truly alone, she reached up with one gloved hand and removed her mask, relishing the feeling of free air blowing on her face. It was something she didn't get to enjoy often anymore- there was always a chance that whenever she removed the dragon's face and showed her true one that someone would see and think her weak, and strike at her before she was ready. It was a risk she was unwilling to take often anymore. She even slept with her face covered by a different mask of thin cloth, just in case.

    After several minutes the shadows came, as Azula knew that would. She heard their whispering, all-too-familiar voices first, and then they began to dance around the edge of her vision, taunting her with their presence, daring them to look directly at them and see who and what they truly were. She refused- she was the Dragon Empress, ruler of the world. She would not succumb to the taunts of the dead, even a legion of them.

    Tonight, however, she addressed them even as she kept her gaze straight ahead. "You are too late," she said to them. "The time fast approaches, and when it comes you will be banished to the four winds. Soon my destiny will be complete at last." A small smile curved Azula's withered lips. "The final reckoning is at hand."

    END OF PART ONE

    And so we come to the end of the first act of Fall of the Fire Empire. Though one fic, it is divided into three broad sections, though they are not of equal length (part one is equal to parts two and three combined, which means that yes, we’re halfway there). This chapter’s primary purpose was to wrap up some straggling loose ends – and reveal some new threads.

    First, of course, is the fact that Jiazin’s destiny now lies with the rebels, whether she likes it or not; they weren’t about to let her go, especially not with Chaiy in command. The brief snippets we get from Yan Li and Shiyan’s POVs serve primarily to point towards the direction that these characters will be going in as the story moves into its second act. The real meat of this chapter, though, is the last sections.

    All right, did anyone guess that Aang was still alive? It took me a while to figure out what to do with him, honestly – I knew he wasn’t dead (because the Avatar hadn’t reincarnated) but it took me a while to settle on what, exactly, his fate was. I thought that what I ultimately went with was suitably creepy for a use Ozai might try to put his captive demigod to, and also tied into some of the wonky spirit stuff going on with Yue’s backstory (in a way, she’s kind of been acting as a substitute Avatar while he’s been out of it). It’ll be a while before we see him again, I’m afraid, but it was important to establish this plot point at a dramatically significant juncture – the Avatar lives.

    And then we get our first Azula POV. She’s completely insane, by this point, but we knew that. Her insanity is a natural evolution of her breakdown from the show’s finale, though in this AU it took much longer (years instead of days) to set in, and as such she has a better lid on it. What exactly are those things she’s seeing? You can probably guess, though it’ll be a while before it’s officially confirmed. What are the long-term plans she’s alluding too? More terrible than anyone, even QX, has guessed, though he’s a bit more on-the-ball than she’s giving him credit for.

    Bit of trivia – Zhi was actually introduced here in the original version of FotFE, created mainly to give Azula someone to talk to. During the rewrite, I went back and seeded her throughout the earlier Capital chapters in small roles, so she’d be a bigger presence in the story.

    -MasterGhandalf

  17. Mira_Jade The NSWFF Manager With The Cape

    Manager
    Member Since:
    Jun 29, 2004
    star 4
    I liked the Azula POV here. Very chilling, and wonderfully written. This whole first part was an interesting read in so many different ways - and I thank you for sharing! The time and effort you put into this tale really showed. =D=
  18. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 31: Circles

    An iron citadel stands atop the jagged rocks of an island in the storm-tossed seas far to the north and west of the Old Fire Nation lands. The fortress itself is squat and boxlike, devoid of ornamentation, its only distinctive feature being the iron spire that rises from its center as if clawing at the heavens. Apart from the citadel, the island is barren- completely devoid of even the smallest native life. It is little more than a series of jagged rocks projecting up from the waves, the only visible portion of some vast undersea mountain. There is no reason anyone would wish to come to this barren place, save for one- it is remote, and nearly inaccessible. Only the personal maps of the highest officials in the Fire Empire show it at all, and only the Empress's and one other mark it as being a place of significance.

    This, however, is exactly what High Admiral Yuan, owner of the second map, desires.

    For three generations the House of Zhao has maintained this fortress. It is staffed only by elite guards whose loyalty to both the Empire and the High Admiral personally is unquestioned, and they are sworn to an oath of secrecy regarding the place they protect. There are many who wonder at this, though they know better than to question their master's orders. After all, as far as they can tell, there is nothing in this spirits-forsaken place worth guarding. Only a select few, the most loyal of the loyal, know the truth.

    In one chamber near the peak of the citadel's iron spire, there is a steel box which is guarded day and night. An identical box rests in a chamber in its deepest basement. These boxes are the subject of much gossip among the guards (gossip that, of course, never leaves the citadel) concerning what they contain. All know it must be very valuable- some speculate that it must be a great treasure, or ancient scrolls upon which is written some secret lore of the Fire Sages, or an invincible weapon to be used only at the greatest need. None of these, however, explain why the boxes must be filled every so often with water, under the greatest secrecy.

    None of the guards save those who bring the water suspect that each iron box contains nothing more or less than a fish.

    The fish that is held in the chamber deep beneath the fortress is named Tui, and it has been trapped in the steel box for more than a hundred years. It is isolated from the power it once drew from a connection to its home, which still suffuses the Spirit Oasis in the ruined city of the Northern Water Tribe, from its mate, held in another chamber high above, and from the moon that is another part of its being by layers of rock and iron. For the fish is no mortal creature- rather, it is the earthly vessel of the Moon Spirit, stolen by Admiral Zhao from its home long ago.

    Within its prison, the fish circles. Once the circling was part of an eternal dance it played out with its mate, embodying the interaction of all opposing but tied forces in the universe. Together the spun the cycle of the tides, the seasons, and all of the world beyond. Now, however, robbed of its mate, the fish's circling is erratic, nothing more than the empty memory of what once was, and the dance of the ages is stilled. In the world beyond nothing moves, forward or back, and the oppressive reign of the Fire Empire endures without an end in sight. When Admiral Zhao took the spirits Tui and La captive, he did more than merely make a symbolic gesture against the most sacred site of his enemies- he tore two great spirits, once known as Push and Pull, whose endless dance embodied the eternal cycle of the world. Now that cycle is broken, and the world stagnates.

    Zhao might have gone farther- he had entertained notions of actually killing both spirits while they were weak, and thereby etching his name into history for all time- if Fire Lord Ozai hadn't come to him personally the night before he launched his assault and warned him that if he did anything to jeopardize the Fire Nation's hold on the world and survived it, Ozai would make sure he screamed for days before he died. Zhao, desiring glory but desiring more to preserve his own life, had therefore reined in his ambition and merely sealed the spirits away from each other and their elements, locked where none would ever find them again.

    The spirit fish, however, is patient, far more so than the man who is now long dead and burned could have imagined. Though intelligent, it is not human- it does not think of time in terms of years but millennia, and to its perspective history is not the story of human nations but of the shifting of the courses of the world itself. To the way it perceives time, its imprisonment has been little more than an eyeblink, and so therefore it can endure it while it waits for the deliverance it knows will come.

    For there remains one person whom the spirit's power can touch, a person whose destiny it bound to itself long ago, making her both more and less than mortal. Tui knows that she is not the center of the events of this time- but then, the spirit itself is not the center. In the tapestry of the world there is no central thread, but there are some that are woven together to form something greater. The spirit's vessel is one. There are others it does not know.

    The spirit cannot see the future, but it knows with the certainty of the ages that it will not remain in this prison box forever. It cannot say what form its deliverance will take, but it knows that events now move towards a head. Not the head, for there is no single ending point of the cycle of the ages, but a head nonetheless.

    And so it waits, ever circling, performing its half of the eternal dance and waiting for the day when its mate can join in once again.


    In the week-and-a-half since they'd been driven from the fortress beneath Lake Laogai, the rebels had moved several times. No longer able to trust in the absolute secrecy of the old Dai Li base to protect them, they now made certain not to remain in any one place for long and to split their number up so that if one group was found out, it wouldn't doom them all.

    Jiazin sat against the wall of the cave that the rebels who stayed with the Bei Fongs had chosen as their most recent hiding place, keeping distance between herself and everyone else. She wasn't certain exactly what her status was anymore- she wasn't exactly a prisoner in that she was allowed to wander about the hideout as she wished (barring, of course, the cavern further in where Shu and Chaiy were going over their plans) and there weren't guards watching her every movement, but at the same time she was under no illusion that she would be allowed to leave. The rebels as a whole didn't seem to entirely know what to make of her, either- they seemed to appreciate and respect that she'd killed Gian, but at the same time many of them had suffered at the hands of the nobility and they remained deeply suspicious of her motives. To say nothing of the fact that nobody trusted someone who could wield a firebending technique once thought to belong to the Empress alone, something for which Jiazin found she could not fault them. Taken as a whole, their attitude towards her was not entirely unlike that which one might have towards a vicious animal that had killed someone or something who was a threat to you- you were cautiously grateful towards it, but fully aware it might turn on you given the next opportunity.

    "What am I doing here?" she muttered under her breath. She was not one of these rebels- they wanted to destroy the Fire Empire, or at least remove its control of their homeland, but while a part of Jiazin shared that desire, another part still firmly believed that the idea of the Empire was at its heart a sound one, representing peace and order to a world that had been too often torn by war. She only wanted to clear away the corruption that had taken root in it. A little voice in the back of her mind whispered that the corruption reached to the very core- the High Minister knew all about the atrocities committed in the Empire's name, which meant the Empress did as well- but she tried to ignore it. Her world had been knocked askew these past few weeks, and the ideals she'd been raised to were one thing she still had to cling to so she could keep her head above water, even if the people who were supposed to embody those ideals had proven themselves monstrous.

    Jiazin heard footsteps coming towards her and looked up. She saw a young rebel she'd glimpsed a couple of times before, a muscular but quiet earthbender about her own age whose name she didn't know. He crouched down in front of her, and she saw that he was holding a bowl of some kind of porridge.

    "Some of the others saw you hadn't eaten today," the earthbender said. "I thought I'd bring you something."

    For a moment Jiazin simply sat there surprised, but then she felt her stomach rumble and realized that she hadn't eaten anything today. She took the bowl of porridge from the rebel and began to eat it, trying to maintain as much decorum as she could. The stuff was utterly tasteless, but Jiazin realized that she was hungry enough that she didn't care. After taking several bites, however, she felt the sensation of eyes on her and looked up to see the young earthbender still crouched there, staring at her intently.

    "Why are you watching me?" she asked.

    The earthbender shook his head. "Because I don't understand you," he replied. "You were a noble- the governor's own daughter. You lived in Long Du Shi for years- I saw you- and you never did anything to help us. Then suddenly you show up saying you want to talk to our leaders, kill the mercenary who was after us, and then throw in with us. I just want to understand."

    For a moment Jiazin considered simply not answering- she didn't need to explain herself to this peasant rebel- but then thought better of it. For the moment having someone to talk to might help put current events in better perspective, and part of her was admittedly curious about having a conversation with him. Growing up, Jiazin had never had much interaction with people her own age, because she'd been the only child of the high nobility in Long Du Shi; her companions had been her tutors, her sword and firebending sifus, and when time permitted, her parents.

    "All my life," she said softly, "I thought that the Fire Empire was perfect- that it was the best government that had ever been created and the world was better off than it ever had been. I recently learned that there's a rot seeping all the way through it, and someone has to stop it. The Empire has done terrible things-"

    "You only just learned that now?" the earthbender asked incredulously. "You lived in a city built by slaves- how could you not have seen what happened to us and not think that something like that was terrible?"

    "Us?" Jiazin asked. "You're a slave?"

    "Was," he replied. "I killed my taskmaster and escaped- the rebels found me and took me in. Now I'm free, and I'm never going back to the life I knew. Nobody deserves that." He looked at her darkly again. "How could you not know?"

    "We're taught that the Earth Kingdom was barbaric," Jiazin said softly, feeling shame stabbing through her at his quiet, intense accusation. "That it needed to be conquered for its own good. As for the slaves- well, I think for one that I didn't see because I didn't want to. I didn't believe my people were capable of something so horrible, so I convinced myself it wasn't bad."

    "What about your father? You can't tell me he doesn't know."

    Jiazin hung her head. "He knows- I used to think he didn't, but I was fooling myself." She looked up again. "He's not a bad man, not really, whatever you might think. He wants to do good, but he thinks that the only way he can do that is by playing by the Empire's rules. That's what the Fire Empire makes people into- the kind of people who'll do these terrible things, and then pat themselves on the back for being right to do it. It's what it almost did to me." Her voice trailed off. She wasn't about to tell this boy- or any of the rebels- what the High Minister and the Empress had planned for her.

    "You make it sound like the nobles aren't free either," the earthbender said.

    "No. Slave, free, or noble, it doesn't matter- we're all just puppets dancing on the Empress's strings. Sometimes I wonder if even she is truly free. What strings does the Dragon herself dance on? I do not know…" Jiazin shook her head and then looked at him harshly. "Whatever you're doing, stop it. Why am I telling you these things?" But she knew why- because it was true, what she'd known all along, and it was only talking with someone about them out loud that let her put them into words.

    "We're all trapped," she whispered. "There's no way out. I've met the Empress, seen her power, her armies… me, this rebellion, the only reason we're still around is because she doesn't think we're a threat."

    "I didn't think there was a way out either," the earthbender said softly. "But then I realized that our taskmaster was going to beat us- to death, probably- over something we couldn't control, and I just… snapped. I'm not proud of what I did to him, but I realized that sooner or later you can't just lie down and take it any more. You take a stand, and you get free or you die. There aren't any other choices."

    "Yeah, maybe you're right," Jiazin admitted. "But after everything I found out over the last few weeks, I knew that things can't keep going on as they have been. Whether it's me or your people who do it, somebody has to change the world."

    "So does that mean you really are with us?" the earthbender asked. "I'd wondered about that."

    "At some point I think our goals will turn out to be different. I still want to change the Fire Empire, not destroy it, which is what you people seem to want to do. But for now, I think we're going in the same direction." She looked up at him. "So you can go tell your leaders that I'm not going to sell them out. Besides, after what I did to Gian, I'm in this as deep as any of you."

    A small smile twitched the corner of his mouth. "I guess you're right. You know, you're not what I expected. I guess I didn't think a noble would be, well…" his voice trailed off.

    "A person?" Jiazin supplied. "A month ago, I would have probably thought the same about rebels and slaves. But I guess you can't really just sit and talk with someone without realizing more about who they really are."

    "I agree." He stood up. "I've got to go. It's going to be my turn to be on watch in a little bit, and I need to be ready." He turned to look back. "By the way- my name's Tong."

    Jiazin watched him walk away and looked down to finish her meal. Talking to him hadn't solved her internal turmoil, but somehow simply talking with someone- even if that someone was a rebel and a former slave- helped make things a little more bearable. If only she could get her father to see…

    Sighing, she turned back to the porridge and started to eat.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Well, after a short break following the end of part one of FotFE, it’s time to get started on part two. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to note that the Moon and Ocean spirits are going to be a more central element of this part, since the chapter opens with a description of their prison. When the first version of the fic was going up, I got into a bit of a debate with one reviewer over whether removing the fish from the Spirit Oasis would actually be sufficient to break their power (they were arguing that the Oasis was only special because the spirit fish were there). Ultimately, I feel that the Oasis represents a spot where the mortal and spirit worlds are close together, and therefore removing the fish from it would certainly impair them. However, I think that the real problem is that they’re symbiotic with each other, but have been forced apart. They weren’t meant to function like that, and without their being in harmony, the powers they embody – including waterbending – aren’t working either.

    Jiazin is still kind of in shock after killing Gian, and she’s on the verge of a complete breakdown that she’s only barely holding together – hence her somewhat disjointed, contradictory thoughts here. Still, I think that talking with Tong was good for her, since it gave her a chance to work out some of her ideas out loud rather than just bottling them all up inside. I definitely wanted to play those two characters off each other, by the way – they come from the same society, but from completely opposite extremes of power, and neither has had much opportunity in their life to interact with people like then other.

    Anyway, this was all still mostly set up for things that are going to happen later in this part, and the pace is shortly going to start rapidly picking up.

    -MasterGhandalf
  19. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 32: Pursuit

    It was several days after their encounter with Shiyan and the High Admiral that Yue regained the strength necessary to propel the boat with her waterbending routinely. Kanoda watched her with concern- it was clear to him that she hadn't been kidding when she said how hard drawing on her full power was on her body. Though her strength of spirit seemed undiminished, her body seemed very weary, and for once her true age was obvious from more than just her words and the weight of her eyes.

    "Are you sure you're going to be all right?" he asked her the first evening after they had left the Imperial pursuers safely behind them.

    Yue closed her eyes and nodded. "I'll be fine," she said softly. "I've drawn on the Moon Spirit's full power before, and it is always draining. Don't worry about me. Just keep us on course to the north until I'm ready to take over."

    "All right." Kanoda turned and walked away, returning after a few minutes with a waterskin he'd found below deck, which he handed to Yue. "Here- you look like you could use this."

    "Thank you," she said quietly, giving him a soft smile.

    / / /

    It was early the next morning when Kanoda took a brief glance at the seas behind them and saw the pillar of smoke rising in the distance. He squinted at it in puzzlement for a moment, wondering exactly what would be burning so far out in the middle of the sea, and then his eyes widened as a fearful idea occurred to him. Quickly scanning the deck, he found a small spyglass and held it to his eye so he could see the strange smoke with far greater detail. His fears were confirmed- with the added magnification of the glass, he could clearly make out the distinctive smokestack and metal gleam of a Fire Navy warship, not unlike the one that had raided his village so many years ago.

    Kanoda found himself cursing under his breath- it was possible that this was just a random warship on patrol, but somehow he had the feeling that either Shiyan or High Admiral Yuan was on that vessel, possibly both of them, and their presence here was anything but chance. Of all the unpleasant aspects of being a hero that he'd discovered since leaving home, he now decided that a personal nemesis was perhaps the one he could do without the most.

    Dropping the spyglass, he hurried over to the edge of the ship, where Yue had simply curled up to sleep the previous night without even bothering to go to one of the hammocks belowdeck. Bending down, he began to shake her shoulder- he hated to disturb her, but felt that she needed to know that they were pursued. Blue eyes shot open almost instantly and the former princess of the North sat up, looking at Kanoda intently.

    "What is it?" she asked. "Something's wrong- I can tell."

    "Looks like we didn't do as good a job of getting away from the Fire Empire as we thought," Kanoda told her. "We've got an Imperial warship that looks like it’s following us- still a long way away, but closer than I think either of us wants."

    "Let me see," Yue said, getting to her feet and picking up the spyglass. Raising it to her eye, she studied the sea behind them for a moment herself before setting it back down, shaking her head and scowling.

    "You're right," she said. "We're being pursued, and I'm pretty sure I saw a flash of gold on the ship's prow. That means it's the personal vessel of either an Admiral or the Empress herself, and I don't think we're unlucky enough to have attracted the attention of two people in such a high position in such a short time."

    "Then the High Admiral is out there," Kanoda said, "and I'd bet a year's worth of seal jerky that Shiyan's with him. Don't these people ever give up?"

    Yue shook her head. "I knew Admiral Zhao, Yuan's grandfather, far better than I ever would have wanted to, and I've heard stories about Yuan himself. Neither one of them is someone to give up the hunt if their pride is at stake. As for the Chosen, I'm all too familiar with their reputation. Most of them would sooner die than leave a mission unfulfilled." She sighed. "There are few enemies more deadly than a fanatic or an egotist whose pride has been bruised."

    "And we've got both of those on our tail," Kanoda finished. "Any ideas?"

    "I'm still not ready to bend a current powerful enough to carry us to our destination by myself," Yue said, "but I should be in about a day. They're far enough away that I don't think they can catch up to us in that time- we're small enough that it's a distinct possibility they can't even see us yet and are just following what they saw as our course, and the wind is with us. If you can keep us on track until then, I should be able to take over and get us the rest of the way to Long Du Shi safely."

    After that followed perhaps the single most stressful day of Kanoda's life. Performing the tasks necessary to keep the small boat on course by himself was not difficult in and of itself (it had, after all, been designed to be crewed by one person), but the presence of the warship loomed in his thoughts, making all tasks more difficult. Every so often he checked with the spyglass, and it gradually became apparent that the distant smokestack was steadily growing. Even with the wind in its sail, the boat simply could not hope to match the power of a Fire Navy engine. The High Admiral was catching up. Yue sat near the prow in some state between sleep and meditation as she gathered her energies to take over.

    Finally, in the middle of the night, the exhausted Kanoda felt a hand on his arm and turned to see the waterbender standing beside him. "I'm ready," she said. "Get some sleep. You look like you need it."

    He nodded gratefully and slipped belowdeck, his last sight of the surface Yue raising her arms with a look of intense concentration etched on her face.

    / / /

    High Admiral Yuan's eyes widened in anger behind his spyglass as he saw the waterbender's distant boat suddenly pick up a massive burst of speed and a dramatically increased wake. Possible explanations for what was happening shot across his mind, but all of them were overridden by a single furious thought- she was getting away!

    "Is something the matter, sir?" the lieutenant who stood beside him asked cautiously.

    Yuan whirled on him. "Get down to engineering and tell them to pile on as much coal as they can. I want the engines at full power- do you understand me? Full power!"

    The lieutenant saluted as he backed up nervously. "As you wish, sir," he said, and then hurried off to carry out his orders. After a few minutes the smokestack began to belch out even more fumes, and the Eye of Agni began to pick up speed beneath Yuan's feet.

    The High Admiral leaned against the railing and gave a wolfish smile. "You're not getting away from me so easily," he hissed at the distant waterbender. "Not so easily at all…"

    / / /

    Kanoda didn't know enough about the Fire Empire's metal warships (to his mind, propelling a ship with a coal-powered engine seemed more than a little like cheating anyway) to tell how he was doing it, but the High Admiral had succeeded in keeping up his slowly but steadily gaining pace despite Yue's bending increasing the boat's speed. He didn't even want to think about the strain the waterbender herself was under- he managed to convince her to eat every so often, and she slept for a few hours each night, but the vast majority of her effort was going into keeping the boat out of the Fire Empire's clutches and going on course. For several more days the sum total of their world was reduced to the boat shooting across the waves at incredible speeds while the Imperial warship slowly gained behind them.

    Finally they rounded a piece of coastline and passed into what Yue said was a strait that cut deeply into the middle of the old Earth Kingdom continent. Following this course, they would soon come to a bay where there were docks that served the great city of Long Du Shi, formerly Ba Sing Se. They would put ashore before they came too near there and continue on foot, waiting for Yue's spirit benefactor to provide them with additional guidance.

    Unfortunately, the strait was also fairly heavily traveled by both merchant vessels and Imperial warships. For the most part they ignored the small vessel, but Yue was forced to stop using her waterbending for propulsion, as that would attract far too much attention in the event that they passed too close to another craft. It was now a race- would they be able to reach the shore near the city before the High Admiral caught up to them?

    Kanoda didn't know, but he feared he wouldn't like the answer.

    / / /

    Yuan stood atop his vessel's command tower, watching the waterbender's ship grow steadily larger. It was close enough now that he could make it out with his naked eye, and seemed to be steadily veering towards the shore. He imagined that she'd put ashore before reaching the docks of Long Du Shi- which was certainly where she was going- and then sneak into the city to conduct whatever secret business she had there. Well, that was no doubt what she intended to do. He had no intention of letting her accomplish it.

    He turned behind him to where Shiyan and his commander of artillery stood waiting. "Tell me," he said to the latter, "is it your professional opinion that the boat is now within catapult range?"

    The officer stepped forward and raised his own glass, studying the smaller vessel intently. "I would say it is, sir," he said. "It's pretty far out, but I'd trust my men to make it."

    Yuan grinned and clapped the man on the shoulder- his eyes widened at the uncharacteristic gesture, but he was wiser than to comment on it. "Excellent," the High Admiral told him. "Now then, I want you to get an artillery crew ready and blast that boat out of the water."

    "Aye, sir!" the officer said, saluting. As he left to perform his duties, Shiyan spun to face the High Admiral.

    "What are you thinking?" she demanded. "The waterbender is yours to do with as you please- I do not dispute that- but the spy is mine, and I need him alive to interrogate. We still don't know who sent him or why, and as he is an escaped prisoner of my order, it is the Chosen's prerogative to decide what and when to do with him."

    "I'm thinking," Yuan said rather tersely, "that the waterbender is more powerful than I'd previously realized and I have no desire to face her directly again. Have you forgotten how she effortlessly washed away a squad of my top firebenders and you as well? No, this is best- burn her from a distance when she can't see it coming."

    "But the spy-"

    "If the spy bothers you Chosen so much, just take a detachment of soldiers down to the South Pole and wipe out the pathetic remnant of the Water Tribe that sill lives down there." He snorted. "The Southern Tribe is worthless- if they're planning anything, it's no threat to us. My concerns are with the last member of another Water Tribe." He turned to look back towards the small boat, grinning viciously.

    "Very well," Shiyan said reluctantly, seeming to feel either that this plan served her interests or that challenging the highest officer of the Fire Navy aboard his own flagship, surrounded by his loyal troops, would be less than wise. "Your points have merit, and I will recommend your suggestions to my Mistress. But I will also tell her how you have repeatedly failed to treat the Chosen with anything more than the bare minimum of respect. Do not think your actions will not have consequences."

    Yuan made a mental note to find an opportunity to quietly toss Shiyan overboard long before she had a chance to report to her superiors, but his thoughts were interrupted by the deeply satisfying cranking of the catapults and the launch of their flaming projectiles.

    / / /

    Kanoda barely had time to shout out a warning as the giant fireballs arced from the warship and came straight down towards the boat. Yue spun and raised her hands, and tentacles of water leaped up from the sea and intercepted the projectiles, dousing them before they could impact. The effort clearly put strain on her, though, and more fireballs were coming. She spun, water whips twisting to catch the new arrivals, but despite her best efforts one managed to get through. It slammed into the boat's stern and exploded.

    Kanoda could feel the boat splintering under him, and the next thing he knew it was gone and he was plunged into deep water.

    / / /

    Well, there’s a cliffhanger for you! Not a whole lot else to say here, unfortunately, though there are some key bits reinforcing how Yue’s powers work and the increasingly antagonistic “alliance” between Shiyan and Yuan. Also, for those who were wondering, it should be becoming obvious that Kanoda and Yue’s storyline will soon be synching up with Jiazin and Tong’s. That’s when things will really start to get interesting…

    -MasterGhandalf
  20. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 33: The Spirit's Guidance

    Kanoda gasped as his head broke the surface of the water. Looking frantically about him, he saw nothing except for churning water, the wreckage of the boat, and clouds of steam rising from where the fireballs had hit. There was no sign of Yue.

    The sound of something sizzling echoed through the air, and Kanoda looked up in time to see another fireball flying towards him- apparently Yuan didn't feel like taking any chances this time. Drawing a deep breath, he dove down beneath the surface and away from the fireball before it could strike, though he still felt the heat and waves that shot out from it as it impacted. He was about to surface again for air when he saw a gleam of white hair beneath him. Looking down, he could make out the apparently unconscious form of Yue, slowly sinking into the depths of the strait.

    Briefly reflecting on the irony of having to save a waterbender from drowning - could Yue even drown, or would the spirits protect her? Kanoda didn't know and didn't want to find out - he came to the surface again and drew in as much air as his lungs could hold. Diving down deep, he aimed for the place where he had last seen the distinctive white hair. She was sinking slowly beneath him, eyes closed and a deceptively peaceful expression on her face. Catching up to her, Kanoda wrapped an arm around her shoulders and began to swim to the surface, dragging her along with him.

    The going was much slower with only one usable arm and another person's wight added to his own, and Kanoda could feel his lungs tightening and his vision beginning to go dark around the edges before he broke the surface again. Gasping out another deep breath, he shook Yue until her eyes weakly opened.

    "What?" she whispered, looking around at the wreckage and churning water.

    "We got attacked, remember?" Kanoda told her. "One of the fireballs hit the boat and blew it up, and after all the waterbending you'd been doing it was enough to knock you out." He glanced over his shoulder at the distant rocky shore. "At least they're still pretty far off and we're in sight of land."

    Yue closed her eyes, and when they opened again there were faint tears running from them, for the loss of the vessel that had been with her for so many decades. Then she blinked them away and nodded. "Yes. We need to get to land. Swim, now!"

    Kanoda found himself thankful that this water was far less cold and debilitating than that which he was used to at the South Pole. The rain of fireballs had ceased, and the High Admiral's warship was now coming in to inspect its kill, but so far it was still far enough out that he doubted anyone noticed the two small figures struggling towards shore.

    Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of swimming, the two made it to an empty, barren beach. Crawling ashore, Kanoda stood and extended his hand, helping the exhausted Yue to her feet. They turned and looked back out over the waters at where the warship was now pulled up along the spot where their boat had gone down, and they knew that Yuan would soon know that they had not died with it. Turning away, they hurried up the beach and away from the shore.

    / / /

    High Admiral Yuan leaned over the railing of his flagship, staring down at the burnt-out wreckage that had been the last waterbender's boat. At long last, he had accomplished the one thing his oh-so-glorious grandfather had failed to do. "I beat you, old man," he said under his breath, giving a short, triumphant laugh. "I beat you!"

    By his side, Shiyan too stared down at the water, a scowl crossing her fierce features. Finally she turned to look directly at Yuan. "Where are the bodies?" she asked quietly. "If the waterbender and the spy both died, then shouldn't there be bodies?"

    "They're probably at the bottom of the strait by now, Chosen," Yuan told her. "My men obliterated that boat- there's no possible way the two savages managed to survive."

    "No way two Water Tribe savages managed to survive being dropped into water?" Shiyan observed. "True, you're most likely correct, but I don't want to risk it. After all, the Empress reminds us that power is no substitute for thoroughness."

    "I suppose you have a point," Yuan allowed grudgingly. Now that she'd pointed it out, though he hated to admit it, he could feel a certain degree of doubt worming its way into his mind. What if the waterbender was alive? He could certain return to the Capital now and praise himself for his success, but what if she resurfaced later and made a fool of him. No, he needed to be sure, and the only way he could do that was if he saw the cold body himself.

    He turned to look directly at Shiyan. "May I ask what the Empress's Chosen recommend?" he forced out.

    "First, that we check," Shiyan said. Without waiting for further prompting, she undid her armor and let it fall to the deck until she was clad only in her tunic and pants. Leaping lightly to balance on the top of the ship's railing, she dove gracefully into the churning waters below. Yuan watched with an unreadable expression as the minutes she was gone dragged on, occasionally seeing her head surface for air before she dived down again. Finally she swam back to the edge of the ship and the High Admiral ordered a rope lowered for her. She climbed back aboard dripping wet and with her facepaint running, but still looking far more dignified than the last time he'd seen her in this condition. Then she had just been wrong-footed- here, she remained in control.

    "Nothing," she said. "If there are bodies down there, I couldn't find them."

    "Then we should err on the side of caution. If no body can be found, it's best to assume that the person in question is still alive." At Shiyan's stunned expression, Yuan laughed. "You're not the only one who can quote the Empress, girl," he said. "Nor are you the only one capable of making decisions in a crisis. The city of Long Du Shi is near here- we will sail there and recruit their governor and his garrison into our hunt." The High Admiral smiled to himself at the thought of forcing Governor Yan Li into assisting him- he'd never liked the man.

    "Curious," Shiyan said. "I wouldn't have thought you willing to share glory, High Admiral."

    "I'm not," Yuan said. "Don't you know anything about politics, girl? If I order the hunt, I get to claim credit, regardless of who actually succeeds in the capture. I have enough pull to make certain of that, and watch Yan Li squirm all the while. Besides, I'll tell the Governor's men to bring the waterbender in alive, so I can kill her myself. That way I can have my pleasure without needing to overly exert myself." It would also mean that if the waterbender humiliated another group that tried to capture her he could distance himself from it, but he didn't say that out loud. As much as he held her in personal distaste, he'd learned to have a certain respect for her abilities, but didn't want to sound like he was admitting weakness in front of Shiyan.

    The Chosen nodded. "Very well. To Long Du Shi."

    / / /

    Kanoda and Yue didn't stop running until they were out of sight of the shore, amidst a region of dry barren rock. They kept going until they found a crag that seemed to offer a degree of shelter and collapsed beside it in exhaustion. "Do you think… they followed us?" Kanoda gasped.

    "I… don't know," Yue said. "I don't think they… saw us escape, but if someone was careful they might have. That means that… they might come after us. But I don't think anyone saw… where we came ashore."

    Kanoda looked at the barren land around them. "Well, I don't think anyone's going to stumble on to us by accident out here." He turned to look back at Yue. "So, has the Moon Spirit told you where to go next yet?"

    She shook her head. "No. It speaks most clearly to me in my dreams. I'll need to sleep before I can communicate with it directly again and learn what it wants of me. I only know that we're close now to the place it wants me to be- not as close as I'd hoped, but still close."

    "Sleep," Kanoda muttered. "Sleep sounds so good to me right now."

    Yue nodded. "Yes. I think we both need to rest after that. If something did attack us now, I don't think either of us would be in any condition to fight it. Both of us sleeping at once when the enemy might be out there is a risk, but right now I think it's one we have to take." She lowered her head to her knees as she spoke and wrapped her arms around herself. In moments her eyes were closed and her breathing was even.

    Kanoda briefly watched the sleeping waterbender and then followed her into unconsciousness.

    / / /

    Yue stood in an iron fortress surrounded by crashing waves. Her dreams always began here, in the place where the Moon Spirit was imprisoned, though she'd never seen enough details to learn where it was. Then she was rising up above it and flying at incredible speeds, until finally she came to rest on a barren plain that stood before the great walls of Ba Sing Se, which became the iron ones of Long Du Shi.

    High Admiral Yuan stood there, laughing in triumph (or perhaps madness), his face shifting continually between his own and his grandfather's until it became impossible to tell one from the other. Behind him stood a row of figures in identical black armor and golden face paint, their features indistinguishable and their eyes alight with that particular brand of insanity that is so easy to mistake for conviction. Each of them held two drawn swords crossed before her.

    The ringing sound of another blade being drawn drew Yue's attention, and she turned to see a girl in the plain but well-made fighting clothes of Imperial nobility, a long blade in one hand. Behind her stood a row of figures made of stone who stood against Yuan and Long Du Shi, but would surely be overwhelmed by the might of the Empire unless something changed.

    Suddenly blue fire rose up to wreath the girl's sword, and in its flickering light her own features changed- at first they had been proud, but with kindness in the eyes, but now they showed only the predatory beauty of a young Azula. The girl held her flaming sword high and stood back as its light illuminated the coming conflict. She was part of it, Yue saw, but beyond that her role was hidden from the waterbender. The blue flames of the sword flared brighter until all but the girl vanished in their light, and then she herself was consumed.

    The flames swirled around Yue, and then another figure emerged from them, wrapped in the red and gold robes of her high station, face concealed by a fearsome mask. The Dragon Empress stood unharmed amidst the flames and shadowy forms clustered about her, crawling over her robes and whispering into her ear. What they were Yue could not say, except that they seemed to come from the Empress and bore the whole weight of the Fire Nation’s imperial history with them.

    Then Azula fixed the dark eye-holes of her mask on Yue and raised one hand in a casually dismissive gesture. Fire shot from it and struck the princess of a dead people, and then all the world was lost in heat and darkness…

    / / /

    Yue awoke gasping, but with the sense that hours had passed. As usual, there had been much in her dream that made little sense, but through it the Moon Spirit had communicated information into the depths of her unconscious mind. Images swam to the front- the girl with the flaming sword and a young man whose face had been on one of the stone warriors. These two were important- she needed to find them, and now part of her knew where to look.

    She stood and stretched, feeling rested at last. Turning, she bent to wake Kanoda so that they could begin their journey anew.

    / / /

    Prophetic dreams are something of a staple of fantasy fiction, but Yue comes by them honestly, sharing her brain with a spirit and all. This particular one was half nightmare, half foretelling, but it mostly served to start moving our protagonists together. As the dream indicates, Jiazin is about to stand at the fulcrum events, but even she doesn’t know yet exactly how she’ll be shaping history.

    Speaking of converging plotlines, Yuan and Shiyan (and Cheng) are about to meet up with Jiazin’s father. Looks like everything is coming to center around Long Du Shi at least for the moment, doesn’t it? It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out…

    -MasterGhandalf

  21. Force Smuggler Chosen One

    Member Since:
    Sep 2, 2012
    star 6
    Read the original version on FFN. Amazing story.
  22. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 34: The Hunters and the Healer

    "Report," the Governor of Long Du Shi commanded the officer who knelt before his high seat.

    "My men have searched through what we believe to be the entire rebel fortress, milord," the woman said. "It has been completely abandoned- there is no longer any trace of rebel occupation or of their trail. We presume they used their bending to obscure it. After our search proved fruitless, we left the fortress and sealed it using explosives so that the rebels will never be able to return. We now conduct a wider sweep of the surrounding hills, but as of yet have turned up nothing of value. We will, of course, keep you and your advisors appraised of our progress."

    "Thank you, commander- you have conducted yourself admirably. Continue your search- I will not have my lands marred by rebellion any longer." Yan Li lowered his head onto his hands. "Go. You are dismissed."

    The commander rose and turned towards the door, but her lord's voice stopped her before she departed. "I have one more question for you, commander," the governor said, his voice very soft.

    "Yes, milord?"

    "Was there any trace of my daughter?" Yan Li struggled to keep concern and grief from his voice, as it wasn't seemly for his subordinates to see such emotion in him. It slipped out anyway.

    The commander shook her head sadly. "No, milord. We searched, but there was no sign of the lady Jiazin. If she lives, the rebels have her still. I am sorry."

    "Go," the governor commanded, waving his hand dismissively. The officer bowed again and departed, leaving Yan Li alone with his dark thoughts. He wasn't sure how long he sat there alone, part of him insisting that he was the governor and he needed to be doing something, until he was roused by the sound of a commotion outside the audience chamber doors. He sat up stiffly and prepared to call a servant to find out what was going on, when the doors slammed open and a familiar smirking figure stalked inside.

    "High Admiral Yuan," Yan Li said without warmth. "I must confess this is a surprise."

    The High Admiral gave a tight-lipped smile. "Now really, Governor, is that quite the way you should be talking to the commander of the Fire Navy? I know that you don't interact much with those of true importance all the way out here, but I would really expect a bit more friendliness."

    "I answer only to the High Minister and the Empress herself," Yan Li said, hands gripping the arms of his chair tightly. "I do not need to defer to you, and I am well within my rights as Governor to expect warning of your arrival and to know what your purpose here is."

    "Very well- I was intending to come to this anyway. I am currently in pursuit of a pair of dangerous fugitives, and recently lost their trail not far from your fine city. I intend to use Long Du Shi as a base to continue my search, and I request that you order your garrison to assist me."

    "You may certainly operate out of Long Du Shi if that is convenient for you," the Governor told him, "but my garrison is otherwise occupied. I might be able to spare you a handful of scouts who know the area, but you cannot have my soldiers, and you have no authority to overrule me."

    "Are you denying me?" Yuan asked, voice suddenly gone very soft.

    Yan Li gave him a small smile. "Why yes, I believe I am. As I said, I require my garrison for more important tasks at the moment that stroking your vanity and your authority in my city does not extend past the docks." Part of Yan Li knew that provoking Yuan was not a particularly wise idea- the High Admiral was known to be volatile and to hold grudges. The rest of him, though, was feeling great satisfaction at seeing the look of frustration and anger cross Yuan's face.

    Then the High Admiral gave a chilling smile. "Very well. You are, of course, fully in your authority to deny my requests. But there is another with me who would like to have words with you." He stepped aside, and a slender figure in glossy black armor strode into the chamber with a predator's confident, fluid grace. She seemed young, so far as could be told through her golden face-paint, but Yan Li felt a shiver run through his body at the sight of her anyway. All knew that the Empress's Chosen spoke with her voice, and none would deny them. Yuan must have deliberately waited until now to reveal her- whatever his other faults, the man had a powerful sense of the dramatic.

    "I am Shiyan of the Chosen," the girl said – hearing her voice, Yan Li was certain she wasn’t any older than Jiazin. "I am on a mission from my order to capture one of the fugitives the High Admiral pursues. In the name of the Empress you are to provide us with whatever resources we require to complete the search. Failure to comply will be seen as an act of direct defiance against the Empress herself. Am I understood?"

    The governor sat back in his chair and regarded his unexpected guests appraisingly. On at least one level, the situation was absurd- one of the most powerful men in the Empire being lectured to and threatened by a teenager, a girl young enough to be his daughter. Yan Li, however, knew better than to laugh. Shiyan's words were in deadly earnest and the reputation of the Chosen preceded her. Much as it galled him to take orders from this child, in the hierarchy of the Fire Empire he was left with no choice in the matter. If the Empress chose to back her agent – and she almost always did – then any defiance would be met with swift and painful retribution.

    "Very well," he said softly. "Tell me what the Empress requires." Hearing those words, Yuan gave a triumphant smirk, and even Shiyan's lips turned up in a slight smile that didn't reach her eyes. Yan Li once again felt a cold chill rush through him, and he prayed to the spirits that Jiazin, wherever she was, would not cross the path of either of these deadly hunters.

    ///

    "Are you sure you know where we're going?" Kanoda asked Yue as they walked through the barren hills near Long Du Shi. "I don't mean to doubt you, after everything I've seen you do, but there just doesn't seem to be anything out here. Isn't the city off that way?" He pointed in the direction from which they'd caught a distant glimpse of walls and towers earlier that day.

    "The people we seek are near the city, not in it." She turned to look at him, smiling faintly. "And no, I don't know where we're going. I'm following my instincts, and they're following the Moon Spirit's guidance. When we reach our destination, we'll know, but not until then."

    "I believe you," Kanoda said. Several of his favorite legends involved the heroes being given cryptic advice and guidance from one spirit or another before they could complete their task; living it, he found he would have preferred it if the Moon Spirit had simply given Yue a map. He trusted they'd end up where they needed to be, but he would have certainly preferred to know where that place was ahead of time.

    They continued walking for what felt like several more hours, and then Yue suddenly stopped and held up a hand for quiet. Listening now, Kanoda could hear the sound of loose rocks falling nearby as if they'd just been disturbed by someone walking over them. His hand slid to the hilt of his knife. "Do you know who's out there?" he whispered to Yue.

    "The resistance, I hope," she replied, then looked up and raised her voice. "We know you're there. Come out where we can see you."

    Several figures in plain, brown-and-green clothes stepped out from the rocks, several of them holding bows with arrows on the string, one balancing an improbably large boulder in one hand. These didn't look like any kind of Imperial soldier Kanoda had ever heard of, but he didn't relax. Just because they weren't Imperial did not in and of itself make them friendly- his mind went back to the bandits near the south coast.

    "Who are you and what are you doing out here? Are you spies from the city?" the apparent leader asked. "Speak quickly- don't think we won't shoot if you don't."

    "If you're worried about spies from Long Du Shi, then I take it I am speaking to members of the rebellion?" Yue asked, sounding largely unconcerned by the fact that she might be struck by several arrows and a boulder if she made a single wrong move.

    "We're asking the questions here, lady!" the rebel snapped. "Now, talk."

    "Very well." Yue reached up and pulled back her hood, shaking out her long white hair and looking at the rebels directly with her clear blue eyes. "I am Yue, princess and last daughter of the Northern Water Tribe. This is my companion Kanoda. The spirits have led us to this place, and if you truly are with the rebellion, I request that you take us at once to your leader, whoever he or she may be."

    The rebel spokeswoman seemed somewhat surprised by Yue's strange appearance, but her voice remained firm and hard. "That's a wild story for a spy, but I'm not sure I believe it either. If you are who you say you are, prove it."

    "As you wish." Yue raised one hand, and the water leaped from the skins at her side and circled in the air about her in a strange halo. With her hair and eyes, surrounded by the floating droplets, even Kanoda thought she looked strange and otherworldly. He couldn't imagine what the rebels were thinking.

    The rebel leader stepped back, eyes wide. Finally she swallowed and spoke. "It was thought that your kind were extinct- there were rumors, but no one believed them." She motioned to her men, and they lowered their weapons. "I do not believe any waterbender would ally with those who destroyed their civilization. Come with us, Yue and Kanoda. I'm sure that my leaders will be very interested to talk to you."

    ///

    The rebels lead the way through the desolate, rocky landscape, easily finding their way through the ridges and crevices. Occasionally, the earthbender would move obstacles out of their way, or fall back to obscure the path behind them, and thus they made good time, while leaving little trace of their passing. Kanoda watched both the landscape and the people with interest. Though the rebels were ragged, there was a strength and determination to them that he admired, and he found himself hoping that, if any outsider came to the Southern Water Tribe, they would find similar strength in his own people.

    After what felt like hours of circuitous marching, they came at last to a large cave opening where several more people in similar weathered clothing stood guard. The leader of the rebel scouts approached them, and she engaged in a hurried, whispered conversation with one, occasionally pausing to point vigorously at Yue. Kanoda found anxiety growing within him as he watched them, some part of him wondering if this was some trick or trap, but Yue placed a hand on his shoulder reassuringly. Finally, the guards turned to them and nodded, and they stepped inside.

    The cave was larger than Kanoda would have expected, and filled with more people dressed in Earth Kingdom greens and browns. The young hunter found himself watching them intently, trying to pick out the earthbenders – the first he had ever seen – from the rest, though he found it a largely futile effort. He did notice, however, that there were many wounded, and everyone looked exhausted. These people must have seen battle recently, he thought, and he guessed that they’d come off the worse from it.

    One figure who sat alone near the edge of the cavern caught his eye – a young woman whose clothing was finer than everyone else’s, though still dirty, and was colored red and black rather than Earth Kingdom colors. Slowly, she raised her face to regard him, and Kanoda stifled a gasp as he took in features that were paler than most of the rebels, and eyes that were the same deep gold as Shiyan’s. A part of him almost shouted a warning – Imperial spy! – before he realized that she wasn’t trying to hide, and was probably here as a prisoner. For a moment their eyes locked, and Kanoda realized that she was attractive, though there was something cold and wary about her as well. A moment later, he realized that she was regarding him appraisingly as well, and a small smirk curved the edge of her mouth. Suddenly embarrassed, Kanoda looked away, and when he looked back to the girl, she’d turned her face towards the wall.

    A hand touched his arm. “Come on,” Yue said. “The rebel leader is going to meet with us now.”

    ///

    Shu Bei Fong leaned back, rubbing his eyes wearily and wincing at the pain in his side. The wound Gian had inflicted had been bandaged, but it still hurt horribly, and he felt weak and tired al over. Chaiy had told him not to tax himself, but he felt that he had to take an active part in the rebellion after what had happened at Lake Laogai. Others might have blamed Jiazin or Gian for the attack; Shu blamed himself. He was leader- he should have seen it coming. It was his failure.

    He looked up again to see Chaiy looking at him expectantly. "What was that, daughter?" he asked. "I'm sorry- my mind was wandering."

    "You should rest until that wound is healed," she told him reproachfully. "I can run the resistance by myself for a little while if I have to. Anyway, I was just saying that our scouts have seen the Imperial forces finishing their search of the Lake Laogai base- they took a leaf from Gian's book and used slaves to force their way in- and apparently finding nothing, blasted the place with their explosives. Whatever happens, we're not going back there."

    "I see." Shu hung his head as another stab of pain shot through him- emotional as well as physical this time. The Lake Laogai fortress had been his single greatest contribution to the rebel cause, and now it was lost to them permanently. "What are the Imperial forces doing now?"

    "They're broadening their search, but I have scouts watching them. We'll be warned long before they come close to finding us and be able to move." Chaiy closed her eyes and looked away. "It looks like the Governor has his whole burn-blasted army out there- too many for us to take head on, though maybe we could get some of the companies away from the main body and ambush them. We just don't have the numbers for this kind of fight."

    "I know. But then, we were always outnumbered, fighting a losing battle. We knew that we couldn't win that way, barring a miracle." He smiled slightly, hoping to raise his daughter's courage even if he had none himself. "We just need to keep fighting, and know that no matter how hard they try, they can never crush us completely." Still, he couldn't help but glance over at where the portrait of Toph rested against the cave wall and feel a stab of guilt, as though her blind eyes stared at him accusingly.

    Chaiy gave her father a reassuring smile and hugged him gingerly, careful not to press against his injury. Suddenly she pulled back, and straining his ears Shu could hear the sound of commotion coming from the front of the cave complex, near the entrance. Chaiy stood.

    "Dad, stay here. I'll find out what's going on." Chaiy pushed the cloth hanging that blocked off the part of the cave where Shu lived and the leaders planned aside and slipped outside. The rebel leader sat against the rock wall, listening to the distant voices- and then the sound started coming closer. The curtain was pulled aside again, and Chaiy stood there with several of her warriors behind her. With them were two strangers, a boy who looked a couple of years younger than Chaiy and a woman who looked only a few older. Both had unusually dark skin and blue eyes, though the woman’s were somehow brighter and her hair was thick and white.

    "Chaiy? Who are these people?" Shu asked, more curious than afraid. His daughter wouldn't have let them get this close if she seriously thought they were a threat, though her expression was more confused and surprised than anything else.

    "I think you'd better let them explain that for themselves, Da- Father," she said, slipping into the more formal mode of address in the presence of the two strangers.

    "I am Yue, last of the Northern Water Tribe," the woman said. "This is Kanoda of the South, my companion. Are you the leader of the rebellion?"

    "I am. My name is Shu Bei Fong." He studied Yue closely- despite her apparent youth, there was an air of weight and sadness about her that made her seem very old indeed, and also something in the way she held herself that indicated a quiet confidence and power. "Why have you come to us?"

    "I am a waterbender, and the Moon Spirit has guided me to you," she said. "I believe that our destines are linked, though I do not know how. It is my belief that the time has come at last for the peoples of the world to make the final stand against the Fire Empire and its Empress."

    There was much surprised muttering at her words, but sudden hope seemed to pass through the rebels like wildfire. Shu raised a hand for quiet, though he felt that sudden hope himself. He also knew, however, that hope could too easily be cheated. "My heart wants to believe you," he said, "but my head is not yet sure. They say that the waterbenders of old were great healers. I myself was recently wounded in battle, and I am not the only one to suffer. If you are who you claim to be, I ask this of you- heal us."

    Yue smiled at him and glided forward, Kanoda following close behind like a bodyguard. The white-haired woman knelt beside Shu, and as he looked into her eyes, he felt a slight shiver pass through him. Though they were set in a young face, those eyes carried the weight of sorrow and great age behind them. She raised one hand, and water flowed out of a pouch at her belt and wrapped around it, glowing with a faint white light.

    Shu pulled his tunic open, showing his bandaged side. "Here," he said. "This is where the blade struck me."

    "I see it." Yue lowered her glowing hand to the wound and then pressed it against it. Shu found himself filled with a sudden peace, accompanied by a strange feeling of tingling power- and then the pain began to ease. Finally Yue pulled her hand away, and the rebel leader was amazed to note that with it the pain was gone as well. Reaching down to the bandages, he tore them away and ran his hand down his side. There was a scar there, and likely always would be, but the wound itself was gone.

    "You are a waterbender and a true healer," he breathed. Looking up, he saw Chaiy staring with wide eyes and beyond her the rebels doing the same. Shu stood and looked out on his people, feeling rejuvenated not only in body but in spirit as well.

    "Today a figure comes to us out of ancient legend, one I would not have believed still existed in this world," he said to them. "This is a sign to us. Now, at last, we have hope again."

    ///

    First off, I am terribly sorry about the hiatus – I’ve been very busy with grad school and then getting started on my new job, and haven’t had much time for fics the last couple of months. Fortunately, I’m now settled into my new routine, and hopefully can get the rest of the revised FotFE finished without another major hiatus (fingers crossed)!

    We’ve got a lot of plot threads intersecting this chapter. Yuan and Shiyan meet Yan Li, and we now have three very different Fire Empire personalities to play off each other. We also get a bit more insight into how messed up the Empire’s political system can be, though admittedly Yuan is currently abusing it for all it’s worth.

    And on the protagonist front, all three of our plotlines have now come together – Jiazin, Kanoda and Yue, and the earthbender rebels are all in the same place at last! The scene where Kanoda and Jiazin notice each other wasn’t in the first version, but as the original fic developed their interactions with each other became fairly substantial and important for both characters, so I felt that a scene like this should be added for the revised version. Now that the good guys are all aware of each other, though, they’re going to have to figure out what to do before the combined forces of Yuan, Shiyan, and Yan Li come barreling down on them.

    -MasterGhandalf
  23. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 35: Plots Within Plots

    High General Xia's eyes widened in surprise as Qing Xi entered his office. Not only had the High Minister failed to announce his coming, but Xia couldn't remember him ever willingly entering the wing of the palace set aside as military headquarters. Even now he was looking disdainfully around himself at the weapons and old campaign maps that served as decorations- it was well-known that he preferred the more subtle warfare of politics over that of physical combat. Xia knew that something most unusual was going on here, and even his guards were tensed, gripping the hilts of their swords tightly.

    "High Minister," he finally said, trying to sound as pleasant as possible. "To what do we owe the honor of your visit?"

    "A matter of grave importance," Qing Xi replied smoothly. "I have been giving it thought over the past few days and I've come to the conclusion that you should know of it." He glanced at the two guards out of the corner of his eyes. "Dismiss your men, and we'll talk."

    "My guards are loyal. Anything you have to say to me, you can say to them?"

    "Indeed?" the High Minister's voice was politely disbelieving. "Forgive my caution, but I feel that what I have to say should be kept to as few listeners as possible. Besides, what have you to fear? You are a trained warrior and firebender- I am not. Even if I intended you harm, you know that I am not a threat- and besides, in that case I would not have come myself."

    Xia nodded. "You have a point, I must admit." He motioned at his guards; both saluted and stepped outside the door. Qing Xi shut it behind them and seated himself before the High General's desk. "Now then, High Minister," Xia said quietly, "what is it that is so sensitive you couldn't risk my most loyal men hearing it?"

    Qing Xi was quiet for a moment, studying his fingers intently. Finally he looked up and spoke. "You remember that the last time we talked I asked you if you had any knowledge of your forces making secret supply requisitions?"

    "I do," Xia nodded. "I take this to mean you have solved the mystery?"

    "Solved is, perhaps, too strong a word. However, my agents have discovered something that I find most disturbing. The missing supplies were taken by members of the Empress's Chosen."

    "The Chosen?" Xia asked. "What does this mean?" He had a fairly good idea where the conversation was going now, and why the High Minister had wanted his guards dismissed, but he wanted to hear it from Qing Xi's own lips.

    "You understand the penalties for impersonating a Chosen, or for one betraying her oaths, are most severe. Therefore, I can see no other conclusion than that the Empress herself is directly behind this matter."

    Xia shrugged, feigning nonchalance despite his growing unease. "She is the Empress- her will is the law. If she wishes to steal supplies from herself, why is it any concern of ours?"

    Qing Xi gritted his teeth, anger flashing in his eyes. "It is our concern because I control the bureaucracy I have kept it running smoothly for years; my loyalty is unquestioned. The army answers to you, and despite our personal differences I must admit that you have performed your duties competently. Supplying the Imperial forces is our responsibility, and we do it well. What motive does the Empress have for sending her fanatics out behind our backs? I can think of only one- there is something afoot that she does not want us to know about." The High Minister paused to allow that to sink in.

    Xia nodded slowly. "I begin to see your concern," he said reluctantly. "If the Empress feels she can act in this way without informing us, perhaps she will also begin to feel that she no longer needs us." He didn't need to speak his next thought aloud, because he knew that Qing Xi echoed it- those who the Dragon Empress did not need had a remarkably short life-expectancy.

    "I fear the danger may be even greater. You and I both have devoted our lives to maintaining the integrity and order of the Empire. What if Azula keeps her plans secret from her inner circle because she knows we would not approve of them?"

    "And since when exactly has the Empress ever sought our approval?" Xia asked. "We may advise if called on to do so, but in the end she orders and we act. That is how it has always been between Fire Lords and their courts."

    "Perhaps I spoke too mildly. I fear that the Empress plans some form of massive restructuring of the Empire- she clearly requires the services of troops throughout the world for this plan. Whatever it is, I fear that it will render us obsolete, and she knows that we would fight that." Qing Xi shook his head. "I know nothing for certain- I have agents pursuing more concrete information even now. I would desire nothing more than to be proven wrong. But if I am right, then we may need to rely on each other to survive."

    "And perhaps in the meantime I might choose to curry favor by turning you over to the Empress myself?" Xia asked mildly. "Had that not occurred to your scheming? I don't believe it's a secret, after all, that I consider you to be a treacherous, self-serving coward."

    "And I consider you to be a self-righteous boor, lacking in both subtlety and an ability to appreciate the world as it really works," Qing Xi returned in the same mild tone. "But at this point personal like and dislike does not enter into the equation. You fear for your position- and perhaps your life- just as I do. You will not turn me over to the Empress until you yourself know for certain what is going on."

    "Agreed," Xia sighed. "So, then, what is your plan?"

    "To wait and watch until more details become apparent. Only then can I act- or not- based on what I've discovered. I merely thought it prudent to acquire a second set of eyes in high places, and an ally in case I needed one."

    "I see." Xia looked at the High Minister intently. "Do you know if the girl Jiazin has any role to play in this scheme? You and the Empress both have invested so much in her…"

    Qing Xi shook his head. "I do not. In fact, I am beginning to think that she is only a small part of this game- perhaps even a distraction. It is difficult to predict the moves of someone who is both brilliant and… eccentric." Xia knew what was meant the last statement- those closest to Azula knew of her gradual descent into madness, though as it had never seemed to impact her ability to rule they seldom spoke of it, and never to her face. Still, they knew that the Dragon Empress did not look at the world in the same way as others did, and that made her unpredictable.

    "Do you intend to involve the rest of the inner circle in this watching?" The High General asked.

    "I don't believe so, no. The Mistress of the Chosen most likely already knows, and she is as fanatical as her followers in any case- they'd consider this whole idea far too close to treason and would have our heads on platters for it. As for Yuan, he'd either follower your own earlier suggestion and turn us both on for the glory of it, or if he felt threatened enough he'd charge straight into the palace and challenge the Empress to an Agni Kai himself, resulting in her effortlessly charring him to a crisp. Neither situation appeals to me."

    "Nor to me." Xia stood and extended his hand to Qing Xi. "It seems we have a bargain, then- watch our Empress closely and see if your suspicions about it threatening us are accurate, and if they are, to… take what action is necessary."

    Qing Xi clasped the offered hand. "A bargain," he said.

    Xia let his hand dropped and turned away, studying a campaign map from the time of the Great War. "I must admit I have no patience for this kind of shadow warfare," he growled. "Give me an enemy of flesh and blood I can strike with a sword or burn with fire any day!"

    Qing Xi gave a slight, rather unpleasant smile. "Perhaps, High General," he whispered, "the time may come soon when I can grant your wish."

    ///

    Zhi put her brush down and stared at the letter she had just finished- the last of several. All were almost identical, with only the names changed, and all had claimed to have been written in the Empress's own hand. That she herself had done the writing did not bother Zhi in the least- the Chosen served as the extensions of the Empress's manifest will in whatever capacity she required, be it as warriors or scribes. After all, one could hardly expect the ruler of the world to lower herself to perform such a menial task as writing, and in this particular case, only the Chosen were loyal enough to be trusted with the task of putting ink to paper.

    The warrior woman paused to read over her messages again as she waited for the ink to dry. These were similar to ones she had written and ordered delivered along with extra supplies to a number of generals in command of garrisons stationed far from the Capital or Long Du Shi. The primary difference was that these were addressed to the different admirals of the Fire Navy. The only exception was High Admiral Yuan himself, a fact at which Zhi had wondered. The Empress, though, had only said that Yuan did her bidding quite well without prodding, or even his own knowledge.

    "Admiral –" the messages read. "Your record of exemplary loyalty and successful service has come to my attention, and it pleases me greatly that such a one as yourself is in the service of my Empire. It is for this reason that I have selected you for a task of the utmost importance. Rumors have reached my ears of a secret conspiracy that will soon be preparing to make an attempt on my life and seize control of the throne for themselves. I have my suspicions as to the identities of these conspirators, which for the sake of security I shall not put into writing, but I know that your loyalty is absolute. I do not fear for my life, but in the event that the conspirators succeed in slaying me, it is my wish that you return to the Capital and hold the throne until my successor, whose identity is known to my Chosen, may be crowned. Be wary, however, because there are many- and not only the original conspirators- who would use such an opportunity to claim my throne for themselves. They must not be allowed to succeed. I place the fate of the Empire in your hands, for I know that there it will be secure." The message was signed "Azula, Fire Lord of the Fire Nation, Empress of the World, called the Dragon."

    Zhi didn't know why the Empress wanted this same message sent to all of her highest military commanders. On the surface it made little sense, but when it came down to it, she didn't care. Though not as skilled or ruthless as some of her sisters, her loyalty was even more absolute than most, without diminishing her ability to think her way out of problems- that was why she had been chosen over the others to personally attend Azula. Zhi could no more disobey the Empress than she could dance in the heart of an active volcano.

    Seeing that the ink was dry, Zhi rolled up the messages and placed each one in a scroll case. She rang a small bell that sat on her desk and three younger Chosen- girls just out of their training- came hurrying in and bowed to her. She gave each a handful of the scroll cases, along with the names of the admirals to whom they were to go. The girls bowed again- Zhi's position of closeness to the Empress elevated her even above most Chosen- and then they departed on their missions.

    ///

    As one of the young Chosen messengers hurried down the palace halls, heading out into the city and from there to the docks to find passage to her destination, she passed an unremarkable servant who was scrubbing a statue of great Sozin that stood against a wall. The man turned and watched the girl as she passed, and then he whistled for another to continue his work before he slipped after her. Despite appearances, the man was no more a member of the palace cleaning staff than the Chosen herself was- his training had been every bit as intense as hers, but in an entirely different direction. She had been trained for combat and loyalty- he for the ability to gather facts and blend in to a crowd. Like the girl, he too had a mission from his master that he dared not fail.

    The Hidden Flame agent quickly stripped off his servant's robe to reveal a guard's uniform beneath and then, passing his discarded clothes to a real servant for cleaning, he followed her out into the city. Only the most sensitive of messages would be trusted to one of that elite sisterhood, and High Minister Qing Xi was counting on him to find out what it contained, and what it might mean for the future of the Empire.

    ///

    Now that our heroes have all hooked up with each other, we move away from them to return to the Fire Nation intrigue subplot (don’t worry, we’ll get back to Jiazin, Kanoda, Yue, and the rebels next chapter). There was a fair bit of set-up in this chapter, mostly in terms of finalizing the alliance between Qing Xi and Xia and revealing that Azula is obviously manipulating her own forces, but it won’t be too long now before we find out exactly what is going on. Anyone think they’ve managed to put it together yet?

    -MasterGhandalf

  24. Mira_Jade The NSWFF Manager With The Cape

    Manager
    Member Since:
    Jun 29, 2004
    star 4
    I am still trying to put it together, but am enjoying the process of doing so. [face_thinking] This story is certainly moving on awesomely, and I thank-you for sharing! It's always a treat to read. [face_love]=D=
  25. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 36: The Weight of Duty

    Shu Bei Fong shook his head as Yue finished her tale. "Had that story come from someone else's lips, I wouldn't have believed it," he said. "You say that you are over a century old, but you look as young as my daughter, and that the Fire Empire holds the moon and ocean spirits captive in order to prevent new waterbenders from being born. But at the same time you are a waterbender when no waterbenders have existed in this land since the Empire first rose, and on the evidence of that alone, I find I must believe you."

    "Thank you," Yue said, smiling at him. They sat in the small side-cave that had become Shu's home and base of operations while injured- though now healed, he was still somewhat weak from his ordeal and preferred to sit. The rest of the rebels had been sent back into the main cave while their leader conferred with the new arrival and drew up new plans. The small chamber was now empty except for Shu, Chaiy, Yue, and the young man Kanoda from the Southern Water Tribe who was, from what Shu had gathered, Yue's self-appointed bodyguard.

    "So tell me," Shu asked. "Why have you come to us now? What is it that you intend to do?"

    He was not prepared for the ageless woman's answer. "The spirits have guided me to you because I need your help- no, let me rephrase that. We can help each other." She took a deep breath. "I believe that the time has finally come to free the Moon and Ocean spirits."

    Shu realized he was gaping at her and quickly closed his mouth. Today's situation was quickly developing into something surreal, and he was almost convinced that any moment he might wake up and find that his wound was still there and he'd deliriously imagined the waterbender. "Lady Yue," he finally said, "I would certainly be more than willing to provide assistance, but I need my rebels here with me to fight against the Empire, and even if they were free I wouldn't have the slightest idea where or how to begin such a quest."

    "Freeing the spirits would greatly help your cause," Yue told him. "Once the Moon and Ocean have been returned to their rightful place, the cycle of the world will be able to resume. Time will finally catch up to the Fire Empire and its Empress, and I don't think that they will find the experience a pleasant one."

    "Well, now," Shu said quietly, feeling a smile creep across his face. "That does sound like something worth happening. But I still wouldn't even know where to start looking for the spirits' prison- unless you have some idea, of course."

    Yue closed her eyes and seemed to drift to another place, perhaps her own distant past. "Admiral Zhao took the spirits from the Oasis and bound them in great iron boxes," she said in a soft, dreamy voice. "He presented them to the Fire Lord as prize, and was commanded to lock them away in a place where neither man nor spirit would ever find them. He placed the boxes in an iron citadel built on a storm-tossed island in the far northern seas, guarded day and night by warriors sworn on pain of death to secrecy." Her startlingly blue eyes opened again and fixed Shu with their stare. "That is what the Moon Spirit tells me of the place where she is trapped, but she does not perceive the world as you or I do. She cannot reveal its location to me in terms I can understand."

    Shu sighed. "There are probably hundreds of storm-tossed islands in the far northern seas, and without a map to lead us to it, we could search for years and never find the right one. I wouldn't know where to begin such a search."

    "But maybe someone does," Chaiy said. "The Fire Empire has to have records of this place somewhere, if they can keep it staffed with guards. She probably doesn't know where they are, but I bet that girl Jiazin could help point us in the right direction."

    "Assuming her willingness to help us extends to undoing something that is keeping the Fire Empire dominant," Shu said. "I'm not certain she'd like this plan at all."

    A strange look crossed Yue's face. "Tell me," she said, "who is this person you're talking about?"

    "The Governor's daughter- she fell in with us a little while back," Chaiy explained. "She's no friend of the Fire Empire, but from what I can tell she's not overly fond of us either. She's got some idea that she can use us to force the Empire to change without bringing it down completely, but she won't tell anyone more than that."

    "I believe I noticed her on my way in," Yue said. "Perhaps I could talk to her and see if she'll help."

    Chaiy rose. "Follow me," she said.

    ///

    Shiyan paced viciously in one of the guest rooms of the Governor's Palace. She knew that going out there now with the Governor's hunters and searching through territory she didn't know would be a waste of her time and beneath her dignity, but at the same time part of her mind cried out for action. After spending weeks chasing the spy and the waterbender, it already felt wrong after just a few hours to be sitting here doing nothing.

    She turned as the door to the room opened and Cheng slipped inside. "Well?" Shiyan asked. "How is the High Admiral handling things?" One thing she had been happy about was the chance to use this time to get away from the obnoxious man for a little while- every snide comment he made about her order made her hand itch for her sword even though she knew she still needed him- but she hadn't been content to let him completely out of her sight, and had consequently set Cheng to watching him.

    "Mostly, he is using your name as an excuse to force the Governor to give him anything he wants, all saying that it is how the Empress would wish her top Admiral treated," Cheng reported. "As of right now he is lying on a couch on the palace roof, being fanned by servant girls while drinking expensive tea and expositing at length about his future glories. This seems to be more for the Governor's benefit than his own pleasure- there appears to be great dislike between them, and forcing the Governor to cater to his every whim seems to amuse Yuan greatly." Cheng looked quickly around and leaned in closer to Shiyan. "Honestly, I'm not sure the High Admiral is entirely… stable."

    Shiyan snorted. "That much I could have guessed. Later on, I'll have to have a word with him about proper uses of the authority over his peers that traveling in our company grants him, complete with proper emphasis," here her hand brushed the hilt of her sword. "Do you have anything else of interest to report, Sister?"

    Cheng looked uncertain for a moment, to Shiyan's displeasure. "A Chosen should not be hesitant about speaking her thoughts, except in the presence of the Mistress or the Empress herself, for she is answerable to none other. Speak."

    "Well," Cheng said, "I heard one of the servants saying that the Governor had a daughter, about your age, named Jiazin. I thought that… that it might be interesting to talk to a girl who wasn't part of our order, so I asked around for her, but nobody knew where she was."

    "Cheng," Shiyan said darkly, her displeasure rising, "a nobleman's pampered daughter is not a fit companion for a Chosen. Also, we are extensions of the Empress's own will, and seeking out conversation purely for the pleasure of it is not part of our duty. Besides, from what you said, it sounds to me like the girl isn't even here. Do you under… wait." Shiyan paused, a sudden suspicion striking her. "Did you say that nobody knows where this Lady Jiazin is?"

    "Yes," Cheng replied. "I thought it was odd, honestly. Why would the Governor let his daughter get lost like that?"

    "It's more than odd," Shiyan said, tapping her chin with one gloved finger. "But I thought he seemed preoccupied during Yuan's little speech to him. Something strange is happening here, and I suspect that the servants have been sworn to secrecy. That means that whatever it is could damage the Governor, and something that a man that powerful fears could be a threat to the Empire." She fixed Cheng with her predator's stare. "I want you to find out as much as you can about this Jiazin and why she has mysteriously vanished. Even if it leads nowhere, it will keep you occupied and your skills sharp. It might be nothing – but it just might be important."

    Cheng saluted. "I understand. I will find the information you seek, Sister." She turned to the door, then looked back over her shoulder at Shiyan. "So while I'm looking for Jiazin, what are you going to do?"

    Shiyan gave her a fierce grin and stroked the hilt of her sword. "I'm going to have a little talk with our "friend" the High Admiral that he will not soon forget."

    ///

    Jiazin sat in her customary spot in the rebels' cave, away from the others and their discomfort around her (and, it must be admitted, her discomfort around them). The former slave Tong had been back to talk to her a couple of times, but she found even being around him difficult, both because she was speaking as an equal to someone who she'd been taught from an early age was at the bottom of the social ladder, and because he was a perpetual reminder of how she'd ignored the suffering of his people all her life.

    And now you're trying to use his people to help assuage your own guilt, a soft voice that sounded almost like the Empress said in her mind. Even now, you still can't see them as anything more than tools to be used for your purposes. Child, you are more like me than you can ever admit. Remember the portrait in the Capital! Remember the blue flames!

    "I'm nothing like you!" Jiazin whispered, but as she remembered the sense of absolute clarity and purpose she'd felt as she'd called the blue fire and driven her blazing sword through Gian's heart, she wasn't so sure.

    At the sound of approaching footsteps, she looked up to see Chaiy and another woman in a dark cloak, whose white hair contrasted sharply with her otherwise youthful appearance, dark skin, and brilliant blue eyes. This, Jiazin realized, had to be the person who'd been escorted inside with much fanfare a few hours ago, the one they'd called a waterbender. The young noble hadn't been close enough to see any bending, and she was rather dubious of that claim, seeing as the waterbenders had been extinct for a hundred years. Some of High Minister Qing Xi's notes had indicated a possible reason for that, but they’d been vague and Jiazin wasn't sure how much she credited something so utterly fanciful.

    The possible waterbender motioned Chaiy back and sat down across from Jiazin. "My name is Yue," she said in a voice that was quiet and soft, and yet also had confidence and a certain degree of command buried in it. Had Jiazin not known better, she would have sworn from her voice and bearing that this woman was noble-born. "Do you mind if I sit here?"

    "What do you want?" Jiazin asked. Something about Yue made her uncomfortable on some primal level, though she couldn't put her finger on what it was.

    Yue looked at her sadly. "What kind of life have you had, that the first thing you wonder when you meet someone is how they want to use you?"

    "For the most part, my life's been fine," Jiazin told her. "It's only the last few months or so that things have gotten strange. I've been through a lot lately, and I'd rather not talk about it." She certainly wasn't going to tell a stranger about the plans the Fire Empire had for her. Even the rebels didn't know that, and she planned on keeping it that way for the foreseeable future.

    "Only the last month?" Yue asked. "I think you know that's not true. The rebels have told me that you're the only daughter of Long Du Shi's governor- your life would not have been a normal one even had whatever drove you to the rebellion's arms not happened. To be born to power is to carry a heavy duty, and all too often is to be alone. All the more so to be a good person- and I believe you are a good person, or at least you want to be- in a place like the Fire Empire."

    "What would you know about it?" Jiazin asked, eyes flaming. "You're not a noble- how could you possibly know what being born with power is like, or having a special des-" she stopped before she said the word "destiny", fearing Yue would question her about it.

    "I know more than you know," Yue said softly, her sad blue eyes far away. "I was a princess of my people, the Northern Water Tribe, and I had a special destiny too. I was bound up with the Moon Spirit when I was just a baby, and my father and my people always saw great things for me. Then the comet came, and with it the Fire Nation, and I saw my beautiful city of ice fall, my people die…" Her voice fell silent, but Jiazin didn't speak, almost afraid to break the spell. Then Yue looked back at her and raised a hand, palm up. Water flowed out from a pouch by her waist and began to circle above her palm in time with the small movements of her fingers. "The Moon Spirit is still with me- she made me into the last waterbender so that I could help to put things right. But I can't do it by myself. I need your help."

    “Why?” Jiazin asked in a quiet voice after Yue stopped speaking. “Your duty was to your people, but except for you, they’re all dead and gone. What does your duty matter any more? What’s the point?”

    “My people are dead, yes,” Yue said, her voice even more somber than it had been. “They’ve been gone for a hundred years. But they still live here,” she touched her heart, “and they will so long as I draw breath. When the Northern Water Tribe was strong, my duty was to serve my people as best as I could; now that they are gone, my duty is to their memory, to create the world they would have wanted to see. Your people are not dead, but they are not what you believed them to be. But your ideals of what the Fire Nation was –what it could be – lives on too, in you.” Lifting her hand from her own chest, she rested one finger in the center of Jiazin’s. “Do you really want to try and pretend that things can go back to the way they were, now that you know what you know? Would you prefer to just give up and do nothing? Or do you still hold your idea of what your people could be strong enough in your heart to find a new duty to that ideal? Do you want to see a world where the Fire Nation stands for more than a lie? Help us make it! Your life has thrown challenges at you that you didn’t expect, but I don’t you broke. Did you?”

    As Yue finished speaking, Jiazin found herself deeply regretting her outburst. Her family had risen to power on the wings of the Fire Empire, and here was a woman who had been witness to one of that Empire's greatest atrocities, and yet found the strength to endure and find new purpose, and now challenged Jiazin to do the same. She found herself believing that Yue was telling the truth- there had been something about her pain that simply seemed all too real, and her words did not seem like the words of someone as young as she looked- and beside her Jiazin suddenly felt a small and wretched person.

    "I've been trying to put things right in my life," she said quietly. "The Fire Empire is part of who I am, and I can't bring myself to want it destroyed, but at the same time I know that things can't go on the way they are." She looked back up at Yue. "You’re right about me. I do want to change the world, and I’m tired of sitting here and trying to convince myself that I can just make all my problems go away. It’s time to do what I tried to do when I first came to the rebels – make a stand. Tell me what you want from me, and I'll tell you if I can help you or not."

    "In the northern seas," Yue said, "there is an island where High Admiral Yuan's family guards the captive Moon and Ocean Spirits. I intend to free them, but I don't know where the island is. I need someone who can help me find it."

    "I can't help you with that. I just don't know where it is. My father and the High Admiral never liked each other- it's not like he ever came over for dinner and spilled all his secrets. I only met him a couple of times, and we didn't talk much. You need to find someone else." Suddenly a thought struck her. "Or maybe I can. Yuan couldn't keep a place like that completely secret- he'd need to rotate guards in and out, get new supplies and equipment, that sort of thing. More than half the trade and supplying in the Empire goes through Long Du Shi, which means it's in my father's records."

    "Yuan swears his guards to secrecy," Yue observed. "I don't doubt he'd falsify reports as well."

    Jiazin shook her head. "You don't know the Fire Empire government very well, then. Everyone spies on everyone, and my father likes to know where his supplies are going. I doubt he knows what the fortress is, but his spies almost certain know it's there. You just need to look at his private maps to find it. I might be able to get you inside."

    "And you would do this?" Yue asked. "Even if it meant betraying your people?"

    "As far as my people are concerned, I was a traitor the moment I killed the mercenary Gian," Jiazin told her, though she still felt pain as she said it. "And I'd certainly be willing to help bring down Yuan. Besides, there's something you said that you're right about- power comes with duty. If the Empire as it stands right now isn’t worth serving, maybe another cause is. Nobody else in the Fire Empire seems willing to atone for its crimes, but I am. That's why I'll help you- to make up for the evil that happened to your people, not to destroy mine."

    "I can accept that," Yue said. She rose. "Come with me. I think we should tell Shu about our agreement."

    As Jiazin followed her, she felt as if she'd just crossed an important threshold. Unfortunately, the part of her that sounded like the Empress was whispering doubts in the back of her mind. Was this the start of a new purpose, or just the ultimate proof of her descent into treason? Jiazin wasn't sure, and she wasn't sure she wanted to know.

    ///

    Okay, so this chapter was light on action, but big on character development, and several very important things got set in motion here. Yue’s heart-to-heart with Jiazin –a scene that I fairly heavily revised and expanded for this version – is one of the key turning points for our firebender’s character. It was also something that I was very keen on doing, because for all that they bend opposite elements (and Yue’s connection to the Moon Spirit is what’s making Jiazin’s skin crawl, FYI) and come from radically different backgrounds, they were both raised noble, and both take the idea of duty very seriously. I think that Yue, in at least one sense, speaks Jiazin’s language, as it were, in a way that none of the rebels – who are, after all, a group dedicated to bringing down the social order –really do. Jiazin still has her doubts, of course, but this meeting solidified her realization that the Fire Empire has to be stopped and she’s one of the only firebenders willing to do it, which makes it her moral duty to do so. Our once-idealistic Imperial noble has a new cause.

    The theme of duty continues with Shiyan and Cheng, as well. Shiyan’s in a situation where she’s not entirely sure what her role as a Chosen is and it makes her uncomfortable, especially her association with Yuan (who doesn’t feel much of a sense of duty to anything, honestly, besides his own ego and need to be respected). Cheng is a bit more willing to stretch the bounds of what’s proper, and in so doing she’s stumbled on to the Jiazin situation. I did like the Shiyan/Cheng interaction in this chapter, in part because it shows that while Cheng may resent Shiyan, on another level she looks up to her and does want to make her proud. They’re not biologically related, but I do think there’s more than a little “cool, capable older sibling and awkward younger sibling” in their relationship, especially as Cheng sees it. Shiyan might have a somewhat different take…

    Events are definitely starting to move right along, here. All our protagonists and several antagonists are in roughly the same place, and it’s about time for some fireworks to start.

    -MasterGhandalf
Moderators: Mira_Jade, NYCitygurl