The crack of dawn, and knowing administrative work was waiting for him would have been better than what actually did. Instead he had to wake up earlier than usual, interrupt his usual schedule, only to inspect every corner of the city. All this in order to appease a prince, and more importantly - protect him.
One would have expected that on such an important occasion, the new detachment would bring to his city anything but trouble. However, in acting not unlike the ever bothersome peasant rebels that terrorized the common man, his hopes of a peaceful visit were dashed. And now he had to endure the company of such men for the foreseeable future.
First thing this morning he had to meet with Lang-Peng, a gaunt, little man whose green robes stuck out like a sore thumb among the regal red worn by every other person who trailed behind him. Fortunately the man was an arse licker to boot. However for all his often annoying tendencies, Peng served his role as the middle-man between his authority and the locals well. For the past ten years at least, and in his opinion a yes-man was better than the average earthen subject who could either - barely look at him in the eyes because of fear, or just stare at him with eyes filled with contempt.
The meek earthbender’s continuous chatter filled his ears with the comfortable and monotonous tones of bureaucracy. “...And a whole flock of koala sheep for fresh meat along with a shipment of rice-wine just arrived in the early morning sir. Should be enough to satisfy the needs of the Officers for weeks to come!” he announced with a considerable amount of glee, too proud of his meager accomplishment.
The Admiral nodded in approval, at least that was some good news in this awful situation. “Good, take note of that too Ikairo, I’ll review it all when we get back to the office...’’ he said with a glance towards his young adjutant before turning forward once more and continuing with the inspection. “... and what about the fireworks I requisitioned from the Northern colonies Mr.Peng. Have they arrived yet?” The snivelly man’s expressiın visibly turned sour upon the question. “N… No sir.” The Admiral raised a curious brow questioning once more “Mr. Peng?” this time anger had seeped into his voice. making his displeasure very clear to the man. “There has been an… Oversight, a mistake” He said meekly “A mistake you say? Please, do go on Mr. Peng, explain this mistake of yours.”
One of the Officers among the cadre that accompanied him, Captain Ju finally spoke up, disdain seeping from his words. ”With due respect sir, I believe this man might be a threat to our Prince… It’s incredibly convenient that such explosive material go missing under your watch, just before His Highness’s arrival too.”
Peng almost shrinked with all the eyes “It must have been t… the.. thieves, you know how they are Admiral.”
‘’I understand how hard it is to keep such unruly subjects Mr. Peng. I know it better than anyone perhaps. But alas, I doubt the prince will be half as sympathetic as I am with you... So I would advise you to fix this oversight with haste.” “Yes. Of course Admiral!” the man nodded, his eyes fearful, stuck to the ground. “Now Mr. Peng.” and with that the reality of his situation finally set in for the man, and he was gone in a matter of seconds.
“Trusting Earthbenders now Admiral?” The Young captain asked with a doubtful expression, which was met with indifference from the Old Admiral. “Makes the management much more efficient Captain. The locals trust one of their own more than they do us.” “The easing of your duties is of no concern compared to the protection of the prince.“
The Admiral’s eyes shifted towards the young man, his nonchalant attitude giving way to a more serious one “Don’t worry Captain and trust experience for once… I’m as certain as one can be that Peng is as loyal as one can be. Poor man is too much of a coward to actually cooperate with the rebels.”
The Young Captain looked unconvinced “If you think so Admiral. Still the Prince will have to hear about this mistake of your subordinate.” clearly a thinly veiled threat there.
"Of course," The Admiral scoffed. After a few more minutes of checking up on the new shipment the Admiral turned around with a weary face. “Alright, looks like the stocks are complete. Except for the fireworks... Now I just have an entire city to inspect. And a tight enough schedule within which to do so.” he scoffed “What is next on the list, captain?” “The theatre, sir.” “The theatre… Finally something interesting.” If anything else went wrong in the theatre too, he would make sure that they’d have their next rehearsal while he set the stage on literal fire. “I hope they cast someone better for my role this time”
Never in her life has Lua seen so many vibrant shades of red. She’d heard stories that the Fire Nation had a preference for crimson, ruby, bright orange and light brown, but the realization that they blanketed an entire city in these tones (and many more Lua couldn’t put her finger on) was borderline funny. Sure, they were murderers and invaders to her land, but the rigid mentality they applied to something as mundane as what curtains they’d hang over a shanty house tore a chuckle from her throat.
Yeah—Ba Sing Se was an emerald sea with browns and beige's where ever one looked. But you’d find striking golds and yellows or even the obscure blue within the lower rings of the grand city. The uniformity was due to simplicity. The maroon banners displaying a hungry flame were anything but. Lua’s first impression of the Fire Nation and its people was an odd one. They were theatrical, not so pragmatic, as many of her teachers had pounded into the young Avatar’s head, and likely very conscious of themselves.
After all, if they cared this much about how some banners in a no-name city like Hujia (she assumed it wasn’t important—until recently she’d never heard about it!) then how did they dress? Ornate robes they’d set ablaze for the spectacle? Another cheap chuckle came from her chest, drawing a cursory look from passersby as she wandered the streets.
An awkward smile, a cheap wave and Lua ducked behind a cabbage cart for cover.
Not for the first time since she began her journey—one that was entirely authorized by the Earth King, so says her legitimate scroll—has Lua been exceptionally happy for ditching the restrictive gowns forced upon her. As much as she respected Avatar Kyoshi, Lua found it suffocating to be garbed in near identical clothing. The make up? That was fun, the stark paleness hiding her usual desert features was a spectacular game of ‘Guess Who’. The kimono or the battle fan? Less the speed of the desert dweller. It was prone to being caught on branches when she traveled into the brush and was the Fire Lord himself when it came to cleaning.
Not to mention it made her easily identifiable in any crowd. Sure, that was the purpose of it, Lua wasn’t dumb but…
Being able to blend in and being a nobody? It was new and invigorating, something she hadn’t experienced for most of her life. And with a dirty tunic and pants with one too many holes in them? Lua shouldn’t attract any attention!
‘So long as I keep my mouth shut. Who knows what Fire Nation spies could be lurking about?’ It was an exciting challenge. Her first trip—approved by both the Dai Li and the Earth King—alone and her first interaction with the dreaded enemy. ‘And the Prince is going to be here too.’
A far off fantasy of taking on the Fire Nation Prince, beating him in front of his subjects and forcing them all to leave the shores of the Earth Kingdom bubbled in her chest. She couldn’t, or rather, wouldn’t try anything that audacious. ‘Fire Nation cheats anyways. Even if I won, they wouldn’t honor their word.’
‘Damn Scorpiongators, the whole of them!’ Lua pouted as she wandered Hujia.
The trip itself had a specific purpose. One so secretive, Lua herself wasn’t privy to it. She only volunteered her services once she heard a few friends would be sticking themselves in the city for the impending royal visit. As any good Avatar would, Lua took it upon herself to venture the long distance from Ba Sing Se to ensure their objective—whatever it was—would succeed. Without needing to indulge in the sin that her mentor Jia Jin referred to as hubris, Lua understood that she was a strong woman. Strong Earthbender, too. Better than most at the very least.
Her presence alone would help the secretive sortie succeed its standard objectives.
“If only those idiots told me exactly what they were doing here, or where they were.” Lua bemoaned, her voice low and grating as her emerald eyes flew from one end of the street to another. There had to be some signal, showing off the Earth Kingdom’s agents were active, right? Some safe house where the conspirators would hide out at…
“If it were me in charge, I’d probably make a cave underneath the Admiral’s place.” Lee and Yen, however, were not as clever or daring as Lua. They would pick something boring or practical. “Better not be the sewers..” She’d still look there if she had to, but she’d admonish them heavily for such a disgusting base to lurk in.
“Is something the matter, deary?” A voice nearly caused Lua to jump. Frantic, the young woman turned to look at a much older lady. Her back was hunched with years of experience and stress, her eyes thin and vacant looking.
‘Blind? Probably not. Poor of eyes? Maybe..’
She was dressed in red though. So, she was either Fire Nation or an accomplice to their war effort. Lua felt herself tense further, looking for anyone else paying attention to the two. Lua wandered off the main road but was still far from anywhere depopulated.
“Little lost, granny.” Lua responded quickly. She eyed the woman carefully, taking note of any finer features.
The old woman nodded, “It’s such a busy place today. Are you not from ‘round these parts?”
As if the old windbag had deciphered Lua’s identity, the Avatar flashed her palms and shook her head. “Well, yeah! I’m from the colonies and all, but no! Not from here, no sir-Ma’am! Just visiting for the Prince and some friends offered to host me.” A brief silence encouraged Lua to speak up a little more, “Just having some issues finding them. This place is so big.”
The possible Fire Nation spy nodded, appearing almost like a spider-frog in appearance if not demeanor. “Hujia is so confusing. In my youth, we had ten stone houses and three offices for the soldiers to work in.” She agreed with Lua, causing the Earthbender’s heartbeat to drop from frantic to only mildly worried paces. “I’m here waiting for my son. You’re free to sit with me, maybe he can help you.”
Staying still in enemy territory? It sounded dangerous, but it’d allow her to test her egregiously long list of excuses and aliases on whoever this old woman’s son was. Besides, maybe they could help her? ‘If Lee and Yen are here, they could be using an Earth Kingdom code.’ A few sprang to mind immediately. She smiled down at the woman and nodded with no lack of enthusiasm.
“Sure thing granny! I’m Azula Coals, proud Fire Nation Colonial farmer!” Lua gave a salute that would make her mentor cringe or hit her—probably both—and was surprised to see the age addled woman give a ginger laugh. Huh, who knew Fire Nation could laugh?
“Azula Coals is a splendid name.” She echoed, “Atta Fire. Horribly common, I know. No occupation.” The self proclaimed Fire gave an accepting nod at the younger woman before shuffling to the side of the road. “A young woman like you farming? My, that must be horrible for you. At my age, we wanted for nothing but fancy dinner parties and handsome soldiers.”
‘Saucy old woman.’ Lua silently approved. “Well, someone’s gotta pick the cabbage trees.” Lua shrugged off the topic. “By the way, mind if I ask you something?”
“By all means.”
“Know any tea house or spa or… I don’t know, inn called the Jade Lotus or Brown Lion Turtle?”
Atta Fire considered the words carefully before continuing, “They sound familiar but I can’t quite say. My son should know though, he’s all over Hujia these days.” A huff followed the statement, indignation not so much hinted at as broadly advertised. “All over, yet he can’t find a good wife. I’ll be in the dirt before I get grandkids.”
Lua responded with a compliant hum. ‘Alright, so, they could be totally using our old codes! Or, this could be a Fire Nation trap using our old codes!’ Lua felt a rush of excitement over the prospects of conflict. If Yen or Lee were behind either a Jade Lotus shop or Brown Lion Turtle Inn, she’d spot the first signs before revealing her identity. The Fire Spitters wouldn’t wrangle this avatar so easily. She wasn’t Ziah after all.
“So granny,” Lua broke her concentration, grinning down at the diminutive woman. “Mind filling me in a bit on Hujia? Places I should see before heading back to my colony home?”
T A R M O T H E - R E D - W A K E - S O M E W H E R E - I N - T H E - S O U T H - S E A S
The sounds of ice moving in the deep always made him feel unsure at first. The pale, yet crystalline mountains below crashed against each other, their unseen movements in the deep pushing and pulling with forces unimaginable, till sound moved as water moved – within an all-encompassing frigid embrace. Pressing from all sides into what he was… The weight molding water into stone like firmness, against his ears, his face, his eyes, his chest… The burning there not of heat, but rather that shade of near-panic brought on by a body on the edge of death.
One frightful second - one momentary show of weakness and he would be beyond saving. And so, too, would the floor of the southern waters become again… a deathbed.
Would the men he had sent down there all these years be waiting for him? Are they comfortable? Are the seas so turbulent as of late because of his offerings? Are their spirits shivering in anticipation for his joining?
Another deep, cracking echo, throughout the dark around him. The sounds calling forth images of the world being made and unmade. A terrifying cascade of destructive creation, invisible to him in the enveloping blanket of darkness. The ocean had always been a eerie place when deep. Swimming at night, it became infinitely more so.
Floating as he was doing now, far below the surface. Still. Quiet. Alone.
It was cold…
It was unnerving.
And then, like it had been all the times before when he had done this – all together, and suddenly… too comfortable. When his heart would slow, and he could no longer feel the sting of cold against his pale skin. It was dangerous. Here where there was no light to banish thoughts or draw attention, ego fell to the side, and gates frozen shut within his frayed mind drew open in their eager savagery. No mercy. Not even unto himself.
And so, instead of his lungs – his mind was again flooded by familiar fantasies.
Would it be so strange an end? For his lips, blue and firmly kept together, to betray him for that final second? Why not should he die breathing water… For a moment he imagined himself an airbender, his arctic robes, suddenly cast in yellow and orange. His halo of long white hair, in this moment cast black as night, shaved as it is said theirs were. Legend has it they could fly… How comforting it must have been, to exist so entirely… eternally in one’s element. Being and making without fear. Would it be folly to imitate such an intimate symbiosis?
His eyes, futile in their widening, looked around at the nothingness around him. The seemingly endless nothing around him may have been void or filled in equal measure, and the ambiguity should have filled him with terror. He only truly felt it however, and even then - only for a second, as he felt some of the salted water slip past his closed mouth.
It was time.
He could barely remember her face anymore. Was this truly for her? Still?
Out of time, and space - where he could not know up from down, and where every movement towards his freedom might well be another quiet stroke towards the depths of his doom – he closed his eyes, and drew his hands around him. The water responded. From the deep, creation taking form from his mind. The edges of his fingers moved, forming in lethal gestures shards edged as frozen blades. Solidity from liquid.
And then, along with the mountain of ice that formed, he began to rise, faster and faster still, his eyes glowing for a moment, the ocean around him vibrating as it congealed and clung to the rapidly forming structure, elegant in its form, sharp and unyielding towards its uppermost point. A coldness that few others could comprehend radiated from him, his arms, his legs, his stomach, his heart – screaming in tandem with himself, as he felt his lips part, and what little breath remained met the cracking of the forming ice, his exertion motivated scream drowned out as the berg suddenly stopped its violent accent.
More sounds filled the ocean. The sounds of metal tearing.
Above the water, a ship, casting ash into the sky suddenly stopped as if run aground. The tearing sound woke a few of the soldiers, the lookouts panicking, seeing nothing along the surface of the ocean. As an alarm rang over the quiet evening air, shouts of “ICE!” “Land!” came confusedly, as the captain was roused. Below decks, the sounds of screams were cut off, icy water pooling with unnatural speed into the boiler room. Steam suddenly coalescing against the metal roof, condensing in a flash of cold, dark figures slipping through the tear in the wall. The beings all moved in tandem, their hands rising, the breach in the ship temporarily covering over in frost.
They moved then, assembling around a tall figure which had moved to the center of the room, keeping their distance. The figure walked past the corpses of the drowned soldiers who had been tending the furnace, towards the wall he knew stood between him and the resources the ship would be carrying. His arms raised in practiced elegance, water from the floor rising and clinging to the men surrounding him. Another movement of his arms, and the water started to glow. The men took on the visage of spectral, spiritual beings. A celestial ward positioned around the cold figure at their center. As a few of them rushed forward, starting to tear at the wall, the few that remained behind found the cuts and scrapes across their skin healing over, and their vigor restored.
Having recovered from the initial assault, the few that had not started to wail against the metal wall, made their way towards the doorway. Their glowing watery armor started to freeze over in a flash, their arms forming into blades of compacted frost. The door burst open as the first to investigate on the orders of the captain arrived. Their shouts were never heard as their unarmored torsos were pierced by long, sharp, faintly glowing talons, the air in their lungs solidifying, their eyes wide and uncomprehending in their sudden deaths.
Moving with unnerving swiftness they made their way over the collapsed corpses, opening the closest rooms and catching many soldiers in the process of putting on their armor. Their deaths were just as swift and quiet, the tall figure back in the boiler room growing impatient with the ineffective assault on the store. Elegant fingers jerked, the form no longer smooth, resembling talons. The men noticed this only a second before, dodging to the side and away as a line of hyper pressurized water lashed forward, cutting through the ship. The men looked at their leader, his face pale, quiet and calm. They did not need to read more to know his dissatisfaction. Hastening forward, and through the hole that had been cut open, they did not see his ghostly form walking from the room, following the other team.
As the resources were being assembled for transport, the white figure walked past the now quiet rooms. His team, having secured much of the compartment, were waiting at the doorway leading onto the deck. With a barely visible nod, a torrid of water thrust the doors out and open, some firebenders having been alerted to whatever danger had boarded the ship - meeting them. As flashes of red, orange and yellow lit up the shadowed deck, men were heard shouting, screaming and crying out in pain. The group moved as one, with terrifying effectiveness, mist rising around them, obscuring their movements just enough to confuse those who had managed to collect above deck. As the captain finally rushed out, he saw his men covered in water, shivering, panicked, as glowing light radiated from the obscuring fog, driving them away.
Drawing up his courage, the man drew his sword, rushing forward, a pulse of fire bursting into the fray. In the second of illumination it allowed him, he could see it. A man, his eyes cold, his mouth taut, seemingly unfazed by the large burn sported across his chest. The man then came towards the captain, his body covered in light and ice, the captain raising a blade up to counter the blade of ice slashing towards his throat. The parry worked, keeping the blade away from his neck, one of his men sending forth another burst of fire at one of the spirits. Again the light only showed him the dark, hateful eyes of a man seemingly possessed. The captain’s eyes turned again to the wound, only to gasp, as the burned flesh seemed to heal over with unnatural speed. One of the other glowing figures tripped him, having him lose his balance and suddenly become overpowered. The glowing figures, with their long arms, frozen bodies and their unflinching gazes looked to him, before parting almost as one. Between them... stood a ghost.
His sword falling from his hand, the captain could not help but hear the sound of panic rising in his throat, his ineffective backwards crawl not nearly enough to put distance between him and the approaching figure. It spoke then, the long white hair around him seemingly floating... as if submerged, his eyes glinting in the moonlight. The words at first seemed like a foreign language to him. Some ancient tribal tongue. A moment later, his mind, hazed by fear managed to grasp context. Not a language. Names. A list. Who? What? It sounded… Northern Water-peasants?
For a moment, he could see himself. A younger man. A more aggressive man. A man who had killed in a war some twenty years ago. In the north.
It was quick.
Suddenly there was no breath for him to draw. No place to keep it. Pinned to the deck of his ship by spires of ice from the monsters. The spirits. The demons.
In the morning, the ship was gone, long since having reached the seabed. What little remaining proof of what it was remained, saw a few Firenation soldiers, huddled together in a small rowboat. Their eyes wide, sleepless… horrified. Muttering from frozen lips… monster… monster… monster…
There was something in the air today, the young prince couldn't put his finger on quite what it was, but there was definetely something different today. The sea air seemed heavier than usual? Maybe it was the prince's anticipation and nerves of finally reaching the colonies. The prince and his crew had been at sea for a few weeks now and today was finally the day that they would be docking in Hujia. This was the first time that the Prince had been out of the Fire Nation homeland. He had traveled all over his own country, but never outside of it until now. The 15 year old prince was excited to finally see the world, and finally his father, Fire Lord Akaro was giving him some responsibilities besides just training his fire and lightning bending.
Speaking of training "Princo Shozo! Pay attention! If this were a real battle you would have been killed!" The young prince snapped out of his daydream and turned to look at the man who besides his own father had trained him more than anyone. A retired general in the army, known in the fire nation as the great beacon of light, it was General Roko. General Roko was also the Fire Lord's cousin and when he retired from the army he agreed to help train the young prince. General Roko won many great battles for the fire nation, along with the famous battle in which he got his nickname from. His troops were surrounded by Earth Kingdom elite forces, there was a fog that was delaying the fire nation reinforcements from finding the general and his men. The general created so much fire while defending his men and their position that it helped the reinforcements see where they were and come to their aid. In the end with the help of the reinforcements they defeated and either killed or captured many Earth Kingdom Elite Soldiers that day. From that day on General Roko was knows as the great beacon of light. "Alright Prince Shozo hear it comes, be ready to deflect like I taught you before." The general would build up a substantial bit of lightning in his palm's he would look at the Prince to make sure he was ready, he then shot off a lightning strike at the prince!
Prince Shozo took a deep breath as he saw the lightning building in the general's hands. "Let my energy flow. The lightning will follow it out of my body." The prince would take the lightning and redirect it out of his right arm and through his body and out his left arm up into the sky. The prince would stand there panting and sweating as he watched the lightning disperse in the sky. It was a bright sunny day, so for anyone on the water or anyone on land close enough to see them it would be a strange sight to see a bolt of lightning. "Good Prince Shozo! That will be all for today, we will be docking at Hujia soon. You should go prepare yourself." The prince would wipe some sweat from his forehead and would smirk as turned to head inside to his chambers to prepare for their arrival.
Prince Shozo would make his way back to his chambers and start to prepare for their arrival. The prince would freshen up and clean himself off after their training session and then he would get dressed. He walked over to his desk to look at the letter that his father Fire Lord Akaro gave to him to personally give to Admiral Shin. Shozo would look out his window and would smirk as he saw Hujia starting to come into view. The Fire Lord gave the young prince a few missions to do while he was out in Hujia. First and foremost his father wanted the prince to get some experience in the field, two he wanted him to deliver this letter to Admiral Shin. Finally he wanted him to keep an eye on the admiral. There had been some interesting reports making their way back to the Fire Nation about Hujia and Admiral Shin. Fire Lord Akaro could think of no better person to send then his first born Prince Shozo.
The ship would begin to dock in Hujia's port as members of the crew were running around the ship. making sure that everything was set. Prince Shozo would make his way out to the deck of the ship. He would slightly smirk and then slightly frown. "Hmm to get all of this prepared without much warning is quite impressive." He would say to himself as his eyes looked out onto the dock. Admiral Shin had really gotten a lot prepared for the Prince's arrival. It looked like many members of the admiral's staff as well as representatives from the army, representatives from the colonial government and even the military band were there. Not to mention many regular soldiers plus citizens as well.
The ship would finish docking and the Prince would make his way down the ramp and onto the dock. Admiral Shin waiting for him, everyone there saluting the young prince. "Ahh Admiral Shin, nice to see you again. I believe the last time I saw you I was just a little kid. It was one of your last times back home I believe?"
Dim firelight flickered along with a soft melody that drifted throughout the tea house. The serene song the Erhu sang melded into the air like a natural extension of the ambiance. Its soft wail accompanying the light clinking of clay teapots and shuffling of patrons at their tables, drawing the attention of many to its supple source. The various men and women of the Fire Nation colony sipped thoughtfully their beverages as they quietly appreciated the dulcet tones played for them from the far corner of the open parlor.
Atka’s fingers tickled and plucked at the two strings of her instrument, collaborating effortlessly with her freshly rosined bow as it softly slid along them. A soft smile accompanied her music as she swayed gently, a little left and a little right- a fluid motion she simply couldn’t help. It was far from customary in the Fire Nation to ‘dance’ in any form whilst performing music. It was, after all, to be savored.Appreciated. Every culture enjoyed music in their own way. But the colonies were not quite so strict as the homeland of Flame. So while she could respect their customs- it was certainly difficult to abide by them in this instance.
With her body leaning to and fro, the loose silken garb she wore fell from her form like scarlet water, effortlessly moving and bending along with her and the melody she produced. She’d learned from prior mistakes to dress appropriately in certain places. This was no place for her azure robes and fur coats. It was better she wore the bloody shades of the local peoples, in their silks and satins, than to stand out like her native fashion unfortunately often did.
As her bow creaked upward to roll into the next section of song, her head lifted along and her teeth showed as her voice joined in harmony with her instrument.
“On the march to Ba Sing Se
The land we parch along the way,
The Golden grasses burn and sway,
For the masses of Akaro come as he say.
For when we arrive at Ba Sing Se
Our banner shall wave, come break of day,
Upon their wall, unfurled, on display,
For we answer the call, towards Ba Sing Se.”
Perhaps it was not the best translation of the song she’d ever produced. The melody and tone belonged originally to the composition of ‘On the Road to Ba Sing Se’. But the upbeat and boisterous Earth Kingdom song wouldn’t go over quite as well in the Colonies as it did elsewhere on the continent. So with a bit of unsavory revision to the lyrics and the tone of her Erhu itself, she produced something a little more palatable for the locale. Slower, softer and more poised.
Though even if her song was not as flawless as she’d like, her voice delivered it as sweetly as any honeysuckle. Warm and strong, her words fluttered through the tea house and enraptured the already appreciative audience. Though her silver eyes fixed mostly upon the strokes of her bow and the touch and pluck of her leading fingers, they occasionally glanced up at the people who paid her their attention. Her lips stretched her smile broader as she saw some of the women present sway along as she did. ‘Definitely not as strict’ she mused to herself, sparing a thought as she continued with her act.
For a few moments, as she performed for them all before her, she felt herself the center of the world. It was a magical sensation- one that she never yet tired of. Losing herself in a song or story, and feeling as if the entirety of it all was there for her. In the midst of her wailing Erhu or her tranquil voice, it never felt as if there was a war in the world. Nor that there was poverty down the cobbled streets, or sickness in people’s homes. It felt as if all was as it should be. All was right, and balanced. Perfect as it could be. It was a high that never ceased to deliver.
But as her deft fingertips throttled the shaking strings, and her bow slid the tune into a dying drift, that little bit of paradise slipped away. Her warm eyes lingered less on the strings and more on the folks that all watched her. Scarred faces. Hard eyes. Ragged clothes. The signs of the truth were quietly there, staring back at her.
Letting her last note reverberate away, she settled the bow upon her lap and drew her hands together, her left fist tight to the bottom of her right palm as she bowed her head to the crowd in a silent thanks.
A slow and respectful applause came in return, as the gentle murmurs of conversation began to strike back up all around the tea shop, attention escaping her clutches as it always eventually must. Leaning back a little in the stool she was sat upon, she loosed a little contented sigh. She hadn’t been sure she’d be able to find a place to perform in Hujia when she arrived. And while street performing was never above her status, there had been rumors that the city needed to be in pristine order for something. Which meant the beggars and street people’s would inevitably be kicked out or corralled out of sight.
“That was lovely, my dear.” An aged voice croaked from beside her, forcing her attention toward them.
“Ahh, thank you Bo!” She bowed her head to the weathered man who smiled down to her. The owner of the tea shop looked like he’d been old since any could remember. He was shriveled and hunched, his smile not whole any longer. His wispy white hair and loose beard a proud prestige of age. Though his eyes held a spark of liveliness and youth that betrayed his body’s outward appearance.
“You must return for a supper session- I am sure the reception will be just as warm.” Without asking her if she wanted it, he slipped a plate and teacup into her hands and slowly brought the neck of a violet clay pot to its brim, pouring the fragrant tea for her.
“Well if you insist, who am I to decline such a gracious host?” She met his eyes and once more nodded her head in thanks, now for the lovely tea, before continuing, “I do appreciate it though, honestly. You’ve been far too kind so far. It usually takes a few days to find places to perform in new cities.”
“We are a warm people, here! Kindness is just one of our commodities!” A gentle laugh left his throat in an awkward manner and his hand patted upon Atka’s shoulder, “I only wish more like you knew that!" A gnarled finger raised to accusingly gesture toward her with a playful bounce, "Hujia holds much appreciation for the arts. And I am no exception." His finger curled away, moving to better grasp his still heavy pot, "Now enjoy the tea, dear. You have earned it.” With a final smile reflective of his words, the old man shuffled off and left the performer with her thoughts. And tea.
Raising the cup to her lips, she took a slow sip and let it roll over her tongue, warming her from top to toes as the taste came to life. Xu Bo’s little tea shop had been only the second stop since arriving in the city, but it didn’t even take convincing before he eagerly agreed to allow her to play a set for his patrons. That wasn't uncommon in smaller communities, where a little bit of entertainment was hard to come by. But in larger towns and cities, there was always an inherent struggle to finding locations and dedicated patrons.
“This will be lovely. I can just feel it already.” She murmured to herself as she took another sip of tea, optimistic for what Hujia and the Fire Colonies had in store for her yet.
Birds were chirping and children were laughing in the calmer part of the colony as most of the hustle and bustle of preparing for the Prince's arrival was going on in the center, but despite the gentle nature of the morning it wouldn't be so gentle for long in this particular neighborhood. Soon the sounds of a couple of marching Fire Nation boots on the stone street could be heard approaching and soon the children in the street stopped playing and neighbors stopped their conversations to look. It was a group of 8 men marching up the street, two Firebenders, three Spearmen with one of them carrying a Firebender faceplate in his off-hand, one Earthbender belonging to the colonial guard, one clerk who looked well into his 50's and at the head of it all a man in Firebender gear but without his faceplate and calmly eating ramen from a bowl that he was carrying. It was not too uncommon of a sight in recent months as tax evasion was being cracked down upon, hard. Most people went back about their business and just made sure to stay out of the way of the group.
The group was led by Lieutenant Kitai Shu and he was already having a busy morning with this being the third but also last house call for today before he had to carry on to new duties because the royal 'golden boy' had decided to come to this colony specifically. At least he had learned how to eat his food whilst on the move during the Northern Campaign, a useful old habit to have with the current workload. He did enjoy his food though, the stand owner he got his ramen from had gone all out for today's occasion it seemed as it was rich with flavor and well-filled with additional vegetables. His pondering and appreciation for his food didn't make him miss a beat though as he stopped in front of the house they were going to 'visit' and directed the attention of the men under him to the door. "This is the place, knock on the door Wan." He then ordered to the old clerk, the civil approach would be tried first with their target. Wan knocked on the door and they all waited a while but heard no response, nothing. "Maybe they're not home?" The old clerk asked carefully. "Doubtful." The experienced Lieutenant responded as he looked to the roof of the building and noticed a still very active plume of smoke coming from the chimney. "They're home, knock again but harder." Wan then did as ordered and knocked again, harder this time. Still there was no response, no sound from inside. Before Wan could ask about knocking a third time Kitai Shu was already going towards the next step as he gestured the Earthbender in his group forward, Pahu, a collaborator who has proven himself very loyal and dependable even in the Lieutenants eyes. "Break it down Pahu." He ordered before he continued to calmly eat his ramen as the Earthbender procured a boulder with his bending and sent it crashing through the door.
With the door broken down the two Firebenders and Pahu went inside ready for a fight with Kitai Shu close behind them, still eating in a quite unfazed state. The clerk and the Spearmen remained outside to stay out of harm's way but to also keep the neighbors at a distance if they got too nosy. Inside the house the Lieutenant found a downright terrified woman and two dumbstruck children sitting at a table finishing breakfast by the looks of it, no sight of the husband though. "Tell us where your husband is and you'll be free to go and get your kids to school before they're late." He said to the woman as the others moved deeper into the house. "He-He's in the b-bedroom si-sir." The woman replied shakily, which was understandable, a boulder being flung through your front door shouldn't be a normal situation. "Thank you citizen, now be on your way." He replied to the woman who promptly got her children ready for school and left the house.
Kitai Shu ruffled the hair of the oldest kid whilst they were leaving and then chuckled before he walked to the bedroom in the back of the house whilst still eating calmly. His men had already positioned themselves outside the bedroom door and were ready to go on his signal. "Peng, I know you're in there, open the door of your own volition or there will be pain for you." He stated coldly through the door to the coward named Peng on the other side. After a brief moments the door was meekly opened by the scrawny man. "Grab him." The Lieutenant ordered to Pahu and within moments the Earthbender held Peng up against the wall by his collar. "Y-you promised there wouldn't be pain!" The scrawny Peng let out as he looked at Tikai Shu like an animal of prey that was cornered. "Well, you see, I find it hard to hold my promise to people who promised to properly pay their taxes and yet try to not pay their taxes properly." The Lieutenant replied coldly as he walked into the room as he finished the last of his ramen. "Then to add insult to injury you also tried to hide behind your wife and children who you also seem to have instructed not to open the door and now they've had quite a fright." Peng was struggling against the strong hold of Pahu and tried to weasel his way out of the situation. "My w-wife is hard of hearing sir, she probably didn't hear!""Pahu, punch him in the gut every time he spews bullshit." Kitai Shu told his subordinate who promptly punched the scrawny man hard in the gut. "You two, search the premises for any valuables, money or indication of where he keeps his money." He then commanded the two Firebenders whilst he ignored the yelps of pain coming from Peng. He looked at the scrawny man and in his mind he just felt disgusted by the state of the man, if one could even call him a man. How such a specimen of human refuse ended up married and living in a good part of town eluded him and quite frankly he didn't actually wanted to know.
His men returned soon after with nothing found save for a pouch with a few coins inside, likely the wife's spending money. Tikai Shu grabbed Peng by his hair and yanked his head backwards. "Where is the money Peng? I know damn well you have a lot more than this." He then asked the scrawny man whilst staring him coldly in the eyes, he had been told in the past that his cold stare was very unnerving so he liked to use it when he needed to intimidate someone. Peng was sweating but he wouldn't budge. "That's all the money I have, I swear!" He exclaimed and promptly got punched in the gut by Pahu again. "Perhaps we should take a bit of fire to the feet of your wife and children, maybe they'll be more forthcoming with the information." The Lieutenant replied coldly, it was a bluff obviously but often men would break quick when you threatened their family. "Go ahead, do it, I really don't have the money you speak of!" Peng then yelled in Kitai Shu's face, but something in his eyes betrayed he was lying before they changed again to pained as Pahu punched the guy in the gut again. The weasel was willing to let his family undergo torture to hide his money, truly nothing more than human refuse. The Lieutenant's eyes then fell on a solid stone statue in the corner of the room and his eyes narrowed. "Nice statue, mind if I take a closer look at it?" He asked Peng as he approached it and noticed how the weasel was getting very nervous when he got close. "It wouldn't happen to be a hidden storage container for money right?" He added as he noticed there was a groove by the head of the statue as if they were in fact two parts. "N-no of course not sir, that would be ridicul-" Peng replied but then he shrieked with terror as Tikai Shu leaned against the statue which caused it to topple over and as it did the top part slid away from the bottom half and a pile of coins poured from within. "That's a lot of money Peng, but since it isn't yours obviously I will just have to take it to the office for save keeping." The Lieutenant said with a sly smile as he took a handful of coins and just led them slide through his fingers back into the pile. "Just take what I'm due and leave me alone!" Peng yelled, somehow having found his backbone only when his money was threatened.
"Put him in irons." Was all Kitai Shu said and the two Firebenders quickly handcuffed Peng who was then finally let go off by Pahu. "You can't arrest me like this, I am from the Home Islands! I have special rights!" Peng replied angrily as he fought against his arrest. "Do you have your papers proving that?" The Lieutenant asked calmly to which Peng replied whilst gesturing to a desk. "It's in the drawer of my desk." Kitai Shu then walked over to the desk and procured said papers from the desk. He was a Home Islander alright, but not of noble connection and quite frankly the Lieutenant was done with this guy. Embers sparked from his fingers and soon a quick burst of fire erupted from his palm, engulfing the papers in flames and burning it to barely any ash within moments. "Oops, seems like you lack documentation, it's the mines for you." Kitai Shu then said calmly whilst his men acted as if nothing happened and Peng was just speechless at what just happened. "Take him to lock-up, he'll be going on the first transport tomorrow." He then added to which the two Firebenders took the scrawny man away. "Pahu, get the clerk and the others, we're getting this money back to the office." He then directed to the Earthbender who promptly left the room to do as he asked. Whilst he was alone Kitai Shu bent down by the pile of money, took the small money pouch they found earlier and filled it up with coins before putting it down on the desk. He then took a piece of paper and wrote a quick and short note for the woman and her children. 'Leave your husband, find someone who isn't willing to sacrifice you for his greed.' He then hid the note and the pouch away in the desk drawer a few moments before the rest came into the room. "Empty that statue of money and put it into a chest for transport, we're taking all that illicit money back to the office." He ordered the others who promptly got to work and he helped them out as a leader should at times. Soon they were ready to leave with a heavy chest full of coin.
He ordered the quite strong Pahu to carry the chest and procured his faceplate from the Spearman who carried it for him and slid it back into place before they all began on their way back to the office through the city. It had become more busy and crowded since they passed through earlier today but getting a clear path through the crowd was relatively easy with the three Spearmen in front creating a V to disperse people out of the way followed by Pahu and the clerk and finally himself bringing up the rear to make sure not funny business was going to happen. Aside from a few nosy people who had to be pushed back into the crowd the walk back to the office was quite uneventful. The Lieutenant did appreciate the colorfulness of the town as it had prepared for the Prince's arrival, even though he didn't care much for the quite unknown and untested Prince he did like how well and quick the people of the colony had come together to spruce up the city for the occasion. As they finally got the chest to the safety of the administration center he decided he could leave the rest of the work to the clerks. "Get to counting for the missing taxes, all the extra money beyond the due taxes are to be recorded as the fine. Now if there is an emergency I will be with the Admiral." He said to the men as he turned around to leave but he reminded himself of something and said over his shoulder. "You all did a good job today, tonight the first round is on me."
Then he made his way over with some helpful directions from the staff of the governor's palace to the Admiral's current position. "Lieutenant Kitai Shu reporting for duty sir." He said with a salute as he reported to the Admiral for his new duties for the day.
“I… hate… earth… benders…” A dust covered woman mutter before spitting to the side of her Ostrich Horse pulled cart.
It was a peculiar, if not frightening sight to most, as the back of the mud-covered cart carried a large rusty and rattling cage. Between the steel bars of the intimidating prison, was a slumped body of a (hopefully) sleeping man.
“Damaging… my… ride… stupid… jerk…”
Each of the irritable words were followed by a madding, bone jarring bump into her tailbone as the wheeled wooded and steel box lopsidedly rolled down the streets of Hujia. The said cart looked like it had barely survived a sudden and muddy rock-slide. The cracked wheel was the most notable damage and was the main source of the driving woman’s irritability.
Nyla gave a flick to the reigns and knew that as soon as she turned the bounty in that she would have to find someone to repair the wheel and clean the cart and cage. If she tried to go to the next town with this annoying bump that happened with every turn of the wheel or with the clumps of caked mud that smelled worst than her pulling steads; she would go mad.
At a blocky brown building garnished with red Fire Nation flags; Nyla pulled on the reigns of her grumpy Ostrich Horses, halting them and the cart at what she assumed to be the Fire Nation Administration Station. Looking around with a raised eyebrow she noticed that the standing guards and traffic of Fire Nation soldiers were both more numerous and busier than what was the norm for a small colony like this one. Maybe a big shot was coming or something? Whatever the reason, she hoped it wouldn’t get in the way of her turning in her bounty.
The black and red leather garbed woman hopped off her cart and rubbed her lower back with a grimace. After a sigh of relief and a quick stretch of her taunt, tanned limbs she went to the back of the cart, open the rusty steel cage, and pulled the slumped body of her bounty out of the mobile prison cell. He was still paralyzed from the Shirshu venom running through his veins, curtsy of a lick from her whip. She often used the expensive paralysis venom to coat her whip when hunting bounties that were benders. This bounty in particular, would have been difficult to capture and annoying to transport without the Shirshu venom's helpful effects.
He was a younger man (as most of her bounties were) and the posting had said he was a thief and “rebel”. Normally, Nyla stayed away from any job involving “rebels” or “invaders” but the money for this bounty was especially generous and as long as the posting said he was a thief… well that was good enough for her. If he hadn’t tried to bury her and her cart in a mountain of mud and rock, it would have been an easy job.
Turning in the bounty to the young Fire Nation Lieutenant at the station would turn out to be an awkward and painfully long progress. Of course, she had gotten the “new guy” and this was his first time accepting a bounty and giving out payment to a bounty hunter. He also seemed to be very confused that she had been able to take down a “seasoned Earth bending rebel”; asking repeatedly if she was an Earth or Fire bender.
She told him that she was just pretty good with a whip.
After being handed a nice hefty bag of Fire Nation coin, Nyla ducked out of the administration station as inconspicuously as she was able to and continued rolling down the Fire Colony’s streets. Her amber eyes casually wandered around the small town; conscious of anyone that looked her way for longer than a curious moment.
It would be a problem if the bounty she turned in was an actual “Earth rebel” and not some trumped up thief. The last thing she wanted was for some “Earth Kingdom Liberators” to hold a grudge against her for making some good coin. She wanted nothing to do with the War. Other bounty hunters had gotten dragged into it with “non-traditional” bounty postings and after turning in whatever important “Rebel” or “Invader” would find themselves ambushed the next night by avenging “war buddies.” Normal thieves and criminals were much easier to deal with; no one usually cared about avenging them.
While slowly rolling through the streets she did her best to avoid the occasional marching formations of Fire Nation troops. Clad in heavy red armor and carrying steel pikes twice as long as she was. Nyla was glad that she had changed into her “Fire Nation friendly” outfit before coming here. Still, she kept her bounty hunting papers close and turned her eyes away from the stiff leading officers in front of the formations and flashed flirty smiles to the haggard enlisted soldiers as they marched by.
Something was definitely going on in this small town that had the Fire Nation boys busier than normal. She was curious but knew it would be best to avoid whatever was brewing in the colony. It was likely just an old Admiral or General showing up anyway. As long as she didn’t wander into their glorious welcome parade; she doubted that it would be a problem for her.
A half hour of Nyla’s life was wasted traveling around the Fire Nation colony looking for someone to fix her cart’s cracked wheel. She got lucky and found a tavern with a decent stable and spare wooden wheels for just such a traveler’s dilemma. After tossing a smelly stable boy a flirty smirk and a few coins to fix up her wheel, clean her cart, and feed her Ostrich Horses; Nyla entered the tavern. The place was nicer than most, and swiftly Nyla found herself leaning back onto a creaky chair, with a filled mug in her hand, and steaming Fire Nation grub on her table.
The place was run by a middle-aged couple that kept shooting her confused glances. The tavern was simple in Fire and Earth nation décor, but large considering the size of the town. Moderately filled with other traveler patrons; most kept to themselves as they enjoyed their drinks. The smell of spicy Fire Nation styled food filled the air of the tavern and caused Nyla’s stomach to rumble with excitement.
“Another job well done. I think I deserve to splurge a little.” Nyla happily sighed, before downing half her mug and tearing into her food with the manners and grace of a starving wolfbat. As soon as her cart was fixed and ready to go, and nothing unexpected happened, she would be on her way to the next town or bounty.
“Like an eternal autumn. . . .does the Fire Nation gleam. . .” Atka hummed softly to herself the old propaganda hymn of the western Isles as she sashayed through the bustling streets of the colonial city. “With leaves of red. . .on every branch. . .towering high. . .” The song was but to herself as she meandered about, barely audible to another in a small room, let alone the loud streets of the early day.
As she walked along the market stalls and throughout the main avenues that Hujia had to offer, her eyes slid across the landscape, taking in everything. A sea of people filled the highways and byways, as hundreds of citizens flooded from their homes into the metro. Flowing like a river through the spillways of the streets, reds and greens all mingled in fluid dance, swirling around one another as they drifted to their destinations. The green garbed peoples of Earthen persuasion tended to drift towards the outskirts of the city; towards the fields and quarries away from the public’s sight. And in contrast, the ruby robed citizenry of the fire colony tended to make their way inward; towards the government buildings and the sprawling markets.
In the midst of the migration towards daily duties, there was a peculiar air to the city. Her sterling eyes slipped over the walls of buildings and over the rooftops. Gliding along strings of hung lanterns that spread like serpents over the rivers of peoples, and to the gold trimmed banners of the Fire Nation that dangled from the tangerine colored shingles of buildings.
‘Everyone seems so. . .preoccupied.’ She noted to herself, as her busy gaze eagerly took in everything all around her. From the appearances of the businesses and homes she passed, to the faces of the people she slid by. ‘Decorations and street crews. . . No one is taking time to breath.’ The brilliant hues of warmth that spattered the cities’ palette wasn’t unusual- every colonial city she’d been in of the Nation held a love for their scarlet banners and crimson flags. There was always a little dash of color and flair. But strings of lanterns hung about the central roads? Delicate arrays of carefully planned flower bouquets set up on street corners and wreathing the doors of any government building she happened to pass by?
Just about every street looked cleaner and more presentable than when she’d came in the day prior. Even now, there was a noticeable amount of men and women working around the streets with brooms, or shining up the windows that faced the road
‘It isn’t quite festival season yet. . . It’s not the Fire Lord’s birthday. . . What are they up to?‘ Her brows slid down into a concentrated furrow as she continued to hum her tune, lips tweaking toward her right cheek as she tried to rack her brain for the answer. She knew she’d heard talk and rumors of something transpiring- nothing bad. But simply a large event of some sort. ‘Certainly a lot of soldiers out today, too.’
That part had not been quite as warmly curious as the décor and cleanliness the city offered. Seeing soldiers was rarely a reassuring sight. They weren’t after her, she knew. They likely didn’t even notice her. But that never stopped the little inkling of paranoia that settled in whenever she came face to face with one of their soulless masks.
“Don’t need a repeat of last time. . .” She broke her tune to mumble to herself as she found herself staring slightly too long at a duo of passing soldiers. Their vibrant red armor was freshly polished, and their faceless helms were scanning through the crowds with a lifeless, predatory gaze. They seemed particularly alert- shoulders perfectly erect, hands gripping their glaives rather tightly. . .
“Hey, watch it!” A man grunted as Atka’s attention snapped away from the soldiers, and into the grumpy looking fellow she’d just carelessly stepped into whilst her gaze was elsewhere.
“Oh! I’m very sorry, sir! My head was just in the clouds for a moment.” A swift fist swung to her palm as she bowed her head with her apology, her face angling towards the still shockingly immaculate street at her feet.
“Yeah, yeah. Just pull it out of them and watch the damned road. . .” He didn’t linger long, pushing by her rather forcibly to move towards the city center with many others in the crowd.
Raising up with a slight blush on her cheeks, she found herself being eyed by more than a few now, as she stood there in the midst of flowing foot traffic. In a rolling flurry, her silver eyes covered the surroundings once over before settling forward, as she hopped quickly back to matching the speed of those around her and down the current of motion.
‘Honest mistake. Just distracted.’ She reminded herself, shaking it off gently as she carried on, readjusting the Erhu case slung over her shoulder to ensure it was nice and tight after the collision. ‘Hopefully they’ll have made up their mind by now. . .’
“In the bracken’s breeze. . .dost thou love show. . .Under the moonlit canopy. . .” Yet again a song touched her lips as her destination came to view. It was a sometimes unfortunate force of habit she’d found herself in. Traveling for long stretches alone, as she often did, meant she had plenty of silence to fill- and what better time to made sure she remembered all the songs and verses she’d accrued over the years? It was perfect for her, to simply sing and travel, or recount stories with every step.
But that often got her peculiar views here in Hujia. She’d gotten more than one side eye in her travel from the tea shop so far. Even as softly as she sung- or whistled, sometimes- those passing by did hear it. Which didn’t help her blend into the crowds as much as she’d like. There was a time and place for attention.
She wasn’t blind to the fact she stood out a tad from the crowd. Even donned in the silks of the Fire Nation, with her chocolate brown hair up in a high bun to match the local styles, she wasn’t quite a match for their mosaic, so to speak. Her skin a deeper olive tan, her argent eyes far from natural among their populace. But that could all be chalked up as her being just another colonial, from a conquered land of the Nation’s. It wasn’t her appearance, but rather her presentation. The flowing, the swaying, her singing- it fit her mold, but rarely other’s. Especially not of the Fire Nation persuasion.
‘Need to maybe cut out the singing. That’s at least half the problem.’ She mused in her mind, slowing down as she got closer to the tavern she’d been approaching. It was a rustic looking building, made and maintained to Earth Kingdom standards for likely decades, if not centuries. Though what were once clearly moss colored shingles were now a brilliant tangerine color, redone to match the colonial aesthetic of the occupiers.
Strolling towards the entrance, Atka offered a wave to the stable boy along the side of the building, who looked up from some muck covered project wagon as she passed by, returning it with a dusty smile. Though his attention quickly drifted back to whatever part he was trying to fix on the wooden contraption.
Her own came back before her, towards the open door of the tavern. Ornately done, though most would likely miss it, the frame was covered in carvings and etchings of Earthen Culture. From a distance it was hardly even visible, though as she came closer to it, she could make out the different designs. The insignia of former kings. The silhouette of former avatars. The crawling shapes of badger moles. Even a large, delicately carved lion turtle sat at the very top of the archway, looking down at all those who enter from within its mahogany colored shell.
“I’ll have to take a closer look at this later.” She smiled as she passed through the threshold, letting her fingers just barely graze the wooden frame before she stepped into the tavern proper. The atmosphere was certainly a different stroke than that of the tea house. Though this particular location seemed of better quality than many of its kind, a tavern was still, ultimately, a tavern. A place for locals to unwind, travelers to decompress and, with any luck, traveling performers to perform.
It didn’t take more than a few seconds to spot the owners of the tavern, both of whom were moving about the place to attend to their patrons’ needs. It was almost surprisingly busy for this time of day, though taverns tended to exist in their own world of demand and capacity, she’d come to find. Waiting a moment near the entrance, she spied for an opportunity to jump into the flow of their work, noting the way the husband and wife seemed to dance around the floor of their facility. Never quite in the same spot as once, and never making a redundant step as they went.
But after a moment, the woman stopped, seemingly having a brief respite from the wants and needs of her customers. Standing near the entrance to their little kitchen, she didn’t even notice the creeping minstrel until Atka stepped infront of her, a warm smile and brilliant eyes flashing toward her.
“Hello, again! I’m the minstrel from yesterday, and I figured I’d stop by to see-”
“No.” The woman cut her off, dry and direct in her answer to the foreseen question.
“No?” Though her composure stood mostly solid, Atka could feel her shoulders slump at the answer. The Tea Shop was lovely, but it didn’t exactly cover her costs. The more locations she could line up to play, the better off she’d be by the time she left.
“No.” The woman nodded in affirmation, her attention starting to shift back towards the throng of tables that could be serviced.
“. . .Any. . .Any reason why?” The cut and dry answer left much to be desired. Usually there was some form of wiggle room. But this woman seemed quite sturdy in her stance on the matter.
“Yes.” She nodded, looking over the bard’s shoulder and to a table that was rather close to finishing their meals.
“Yes?” Atka once more repeated, her shoulders dropping slightly more at the answer.
“. . .Could you, perhaps, share them? It helps to know these things, on my end.” She could feel the exasperation creeping up from within her as she tried to communicate with the personification of a stone wall before her.
“You don’t play the kind of music our patrons like.” The owner spoke as assuredly as anything she’d said prior, feeling and seeming confident in that assessment towards the musician.
“But- You don’t even know my styling, ma’am! I can play more than the Erhu. The Southern Water Drums, Earthen Banhu, Tsungi horn-”
“Not. Interested.” The older woman raised her hand up to the face of Atka and snapped, glaring at her to end the discussion.
“Alright. Alright. That’s perfectly fine.” Raising her hands up in defeat, she quietly withheld the bubbling irritation warming within her. It never paid to anger a business owner. They all tended to talk with one another. ‘Bullheaded Earthen businesses. . .Every time.’ She loosed a little hot air from between her lips, the sigh hardly audible as she took a slight step back. “Perhaps I could then, at least, grab a table and have an order of your house special?”
“Small table in the back, over there. It’ll just be a few moments.” Sounding slightly less serious now that this was positive business for herself, the matron gestured towards a section of the tavern and turned away immediately to go about acquiring the order.
“My thanks.” Atka spoke with a bowed head before turning back towards the rest of the tavern, beginning to meander towards one of the empty tables. She could feel a few sets of eyes on her- no doubt the discussion was loud enough to be heard by some. It wasn’t anything of real interest, a minstrel being denied work wasn’t great gossip or some big scandal. But a bit of drama, a little bit of something outside the norm, and those who frequented these places would always try to catch an earful.
Coming to an empty and rather small table, she slung her Erhu off her back and let the strap catch on the back of a chair, before she slid it out and dropped into it. The entire thing creaked in protest, a sound she chose to believe was on the disrepair of the seat rather than any alternative.
Leaning back into the wooden rest, she let herself sweep over the tavern while she awaited the coming meal. The crowd wasn’t out of the ordinary for such an establishment. There were men and women alike who were clearly locals, dotting the seats and tables of the parlor. But there were those who clearly were not, as well. A large man with dark skin and angled features. A duo of women in thick gowns and speaking in hushed whispers. A Pai Sho table was crowded with older gentlemen in robes akin to those of monks. They all stood out. None seeming to fit into the norm that the rest more or less complied with.
Looking briefly to her right, she could tell even the woman at the table next to her wasn’t likely a ‘local’ of any variety. She looked gruff yet sharp. Her short cropped hair standing out from most of the local ladies and their well manicured, lifted hairstyles. And the way she voraciously attacked her meal and downed her drink like a starved hyena rat didn’t give off the ‘couth’ manners one would expect from even a Fire Nation Colonial.
‘I’ve worked these crowds before. No different than most.’ She couldn’t help but dwell slightly on the rejection. It was likely just the cost she ran. Even if it wasn’t much, the token fee was considered a show of good faith from owners of such locations- and some just lacked that any longer. Taking her eyes away from the neighboring woman, she sat back and waited.
‘Well even if nothing much good comes from here, at least I’ll have a meal.’
Nyla was tearing into the last strips of spicy meat from the bones of her meal when a slight commotion caught her sharp amber eyes.
Well, her eyes didn’t catch it, it was more of a sudden feeling that something a little different was happening in the tavern. The slight decrease in overall voices as several other patrons listened in, the decrease of free flowing and natural body movement as nearly everyone subtly paused or slowed down what they were doing so they could lean their bodies in closer to the sudden event. Nyla was no different than anoyone else once she felt the slight change in the tavern’s atmosphere and saw what was causing the focus of everyone's attention.
Still face down in her nearly finished meal, she gave a carfule glance up to watch one of the owners of the tavern talking to a bard who was clearly in the wrong place. The bard was pretty, graceful, and feminine. In other words, weak, probably only knew sappy love songs, and likely to cry at a single boo from a crowd. She belonged in a tea shop singing to rich ladies and fat tea lovers. Not at a place where criticism and displeasure for a poor song choice might be communicated through a thrown knife.
It was a funny thought to even think of this flowy bard trying to perform here. Maybe she was new to the gig and didn’t know where to go?
Once thoroughly rejected by the owner of the place, Nyla and several other patrons collectively snickered at the denial for work. Talk about harsh! The old woman that ran the place had grits. Nyla could respect that. Tavern owners were often tougher than they looked; especially the older ones.
As Nyla finished downing the last drops in her mug; she was feeling mischievous and curious. The bard had decided to take a seat at a table next to her. Who was she to reject fate? Nyla didn’t hide the fact that she was staring at the bard once she sat down.
The bard was terribly out of place, put she seemed fairly used to taverns like this. Her eyes looked around at her neighbors in such an open and plain way that if she had been in a rougher place and not pretty, she would have started a fight. A bad thing to do for most, but then again it took a really annoying jerk to mess with a poor traveling bard. It was like kicking a koala-puppy.
When the bard’s eyes reached her, Nyla smirked at her. The red and black clad woman hadn’t really talked to someone that wasn’t “part of the job” for over a week now and she was a little starved for conversation. The flowy bard was pretty different from most of the people she normally talked to as well. Plus, how could she miss the chance to tease the girl from her failed "job interview"?
Quickly, Nyla savagely attacked the rest of her meal so that not a single edible scrap was left and stood up from her small table. The leather clad and dust covered bounty hunter strolled over the bard’s table and plopped herself down on a nearby chair without regard or care for the other woman’s permission.
The chair violently squealed in protest as she sat, and for a moment Nyla was worried that the old thing was going to fall apart right from under her. Maybe that meant she was gaining weight? She was a little proud of that. She wasn’t skin and bones anymore.
“Shouldn’t you be in a tea shop, princess?” Nyla said with a condescending smirk as she waved over for another mug to be brought to the bard’s table.
“Were you planning on singing “The Two Lovers” or maybe you thought “Secret Tunnel” would be the song to sing lovingly for the tavern?” Nyla continued her teasing without waiting for or letting the bard to respond to her.
“”Girls from Ba Sing Se” might work on this crowd. You know that one? It might help you get gigs? I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone get rejected that badly from a job! Hahaha!” Nyla laughed, smirking once she finished and finally paused, waiting for a response from the other woman.
Eyes are very much the windows to the soul. They show more signs of a person’s being than any other aspect. A good liar could sew their words together, with the right tone and inflection, to sing a million falsehoods and never be caught. A conman could master their body language, always coming off cool and collected, even when selling fake goods to a Fire Nation Constable. But the eyes opened right up into someone’s being. They could be steeled, or steadied. They could meet a stare dead on, or wander in a worry. But they told an unmistakable story. The eyes of a soldier were often hard and distant. The eyes of a mother often warm and inviting. The eyes of a gambler still and calculating.
That’s why when she found her stare matched by the gruff woman a table over, she only needed to hold it for a few seconds before looking away with a sigh. ‘Trouble.’ She immediately concluded. The honey-toned amber eyes of the potential ruffian were hungry. Perhaps she wasn’t a stranger to hard times. Perhaps she caused those hard times. Maybe she was ambitious beyond match. She couldn’t tell precisely. It took a lifetime of practice to read the eyes of another perfectly, and Atka was far from a master.
‘Whatever the story, she’s one to avoid.’ Traveling as much as she had thus far in her life, she’d grown accustom to reading rooms. Getting a feel for a character or setting rather quickly. It was a proper ability to have, if that room could go from energetic and boisterous to rioting at the drop of a hat- or a wrong song, in her previous experiences. This tavern, however, was actually one of the more relaxed she’d been in. The time of day probably helped- fewer of the rowdy folks tended to come this early on. But there were still a handful of them. As the woman beside her finished scarfing down her food- perhaps only one chew for every three bites she took- and then proceeded to stand, it was increasingly clear she could be chalked up as one of them.
‘And here we go. Trouble.’ As surely as sure could be, the eyes didn’t lie. The dusty woman sauntered over with the confidence of someone flanked by a legion of soldiers, and dropped herself squarely into the seat across from Atka, eliciting a howl of protest from the ancient chair beneath her. Between her lean, those eyes and the cocky smirk on proud display in the midst of her mug, she gave off the sensation of being able to take on the world. ‘Yet she chooses me. Great. Maybe that foggy swamp gypsy DID put a curse on me. . .’
Straightening her shoulders and sitting up a little, she said nothing in greeting or acknowledgment of the intruder upon her table. Instead she simply gave her undivided attention forward. Her own silver eyes latched onto the gaze of the woman, and one of her eyebrows slicked upward in a silent questioning of her presence.
“Shouldn’t you be in a tea shop, Princess?” The newcomer spoke in a tone that might have been too condescending to use towards a child, let alone an unfamiliar woman. But it seemed a plenty comfortable way to speak towards another, coming from her.
Readying herself to reply, her lips parted for only a second before coming back together as the braggadocios bird leapt into her next comment.
“Were you planning on singing ‘The Two Lovers’ or maybe you thought ‘Secret Tunnel’ would be the song to sing lovingly for the tavern?” While the words brought little amusement from the minstrel, it seemed the woman amused herself enough for them both, as her gleeful smirk grew and her eyes lit up at the chance to taunt and harass. “ ‘Girls from Ba Sing Se’ might work on this crowd. You know that one? It might help you get gigs? I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone get rejected that badly from a job!” Finally her mischievous mirth broke through into a barking laugh, pointed squarely at Atka’s pride.
The bard kept a straight face, her features as neutral as possible as she stared at her new dining partner, reading her over slightly before allowing herself to crack a small smile in return, a genuine toothy grin that grew slightly over the seconds of silence she allowed to follow the taunts and jeers. ‘Perhaps it’s not best to feed into her. . . Simply looking for a reaction.’
“You know, funnily enough, I just came from a tea shop.” Atka spoke in a gentle tone. One that reflected harshly against the rude jeering from the other party, though a minor tinge of growing malice just barely tickled the back of her tongue. “Lovely place. Wonderful service. A real notable lack of dirty vagrants in need of attention.” Her shoulders shrugged at the detail as she relayed it, before giving the woman a very noticeable once over. ‘Well here I go. Feeding into this.’
“A shame the same can’t be said here.” A hand raised to gesture about, broadly and not directly toward the one across from her, though the pointed words were politely spat at their target. She allowed herself to glide right over the attempted abuse by the string of inquiries, instead choosing to nod sagely after a moment, as if lingering upon the titles that were so carelessly tossed towards her.
“But those were all great songs you offered!” She threw up her hands, as if amazed at the suggestions flung her way, “I could probably work them into a set- though if you’re an example of the usual crowd here, they might be just a bit too. . .ah, sophisticated, I suppose?” Her face leaked into a false look of contemplation, as if she was considering something, her fingers drumming on the table as she pretended to rack her brain for a brief moment. 'Oh I'm really going to feed into this.' Her mind rather quickly accrued an idea for taking it perhaps a bit too far. 'Well it seems like she wants attention. I can get it.' Finally, she snapped her fingers and exclaimed “Oh! But perhaps this would work for you- just a little didy I know. More like a bit of a poem, really. Perfect for you. . .”
“Oh look before me, here sits a girl with gall!” Her voice raised up, as if to grab the attention of those nearby.
“A mouth full of sass and an aroma of ass
she seeks to mock! To laugh and jest merrily,
Picking targets so rather arbitrarily,” Her voice was gathering some attention now, as she continued to speak a little louder with every verse. The eyes of patrons began to draw towards her for the second time in minutes as her little impromptu flyting began.
“She uses words not hard for a child,
and finds mockery positively wild,
for she chose a target based on their rejection,
Which begs me to ask her for some introspection.
For you look familiar with such a thing,
dirty, worn and probably can’t sing.
Perhaps you should-”
“I said no singing!” The hostess admonished with a harsh tone as she neared the impromptu duo. Carrying a plate of the house special for the bard, and a mug of ale for the bounty hunter, she nearly slammed them both on the table before throwing a harsh finger towards Atka’s nose. “We do not like your kind of music here! Not one more attempt.” She leaned in, eyes squinting at the minstrel for a moment before she turned around and walked away, leaving Atka to sheepishly clear her throat.
“Right! Well. Perhaps I can finish that tune for you another time. . .” Looking away from the target of her song, she noticed the attention that had been grabbed by her brief peacocking of sorts. Several sets of eyes dwelled on them both, many tables of people enjoying the little bit of drama between the two. A couple laughed gently, either at the song or at the outburst, too hard to tell. A duo of men in the robes of earthen peasants, yet oddly laden with rings of gold and sandals of high quality both glared daggers at the attention seeking songstress. An older man nearby rolled his eyes and slipped back into focusing on his drink. ‘I really am terrible at this avoiding attention thing, here. Second nature.’
“Did you have any real reason to come here aside from the words of discouragement? Or did you just need to take a shot for fun?” She asked rather inoffensively as she admired the food put down before her, though a sigh accompanied her words. “It’s fine either way, rather used to it. Not unusual in this line of work.”
T A R M O T H E - R E D - W A K E - APPROACHING THE SOUTHERN WATER-TRIBE CAMPS The sleds rushed across the ice, leaving parallel grooves along the way in the crisp fallen blanket of snow. On the back of each in the formation, which had at the front someone to steer it, and in the middle a collection of parcels and packages of food and cloth, stood a waterbender whom with elegant manoeuvres had the snow reform, covering the trails of each individual sled. At the head of the caravan was the sled of Tarmo. Lighter in load than the ones following, one of his more trusted commanders – Karta - sat at the front tending to the polar-dogs while Tarmo stood behind him, peering along the horizon.
His face no longer burned despite turning from pale to pink, and his eyes no longer squinted in their steadfast gaze. The burning cold of the air against his cheeks was nothing compared to his more recent midnight swims. The bright light, reflected in the snow-crystals covering all view, had long since been rendered mundane in its spectral glory - through time and familiarity.
Despite the fondness he still carried for that pale space lingering in the back of his mind… the northern home from his youth – this place had had also become a home to him.
His sight dropped from the skies, turning across the sleds following behind, having him reflexively raise a hand - to keep out of his eyes the long white tresses of hair, whipping about the wind like threads of torn sails in a storm.
They had managed to get a good enough haul, but their real prize was secured within the satchel at his side. Plans, documents dictating travel lanes and packages. Names. His eyes again ran across the field of white, narrowing for a moment, his hand gently resting on the shoulder of the commander in front of him - tensing, urging him left. Without word the man adjusted their heading, the entire caravan doing the same, missing the thinly frozen over crevasse that lay directly ahead of them.
It still came as a shock to him, for no matter how eerily quiet and empty this place may seem, it hid behind its calm facade a dangerous and violent temperament. Even when frozen, and solid, the ocean was no playground. One filled with ill attention or lacking in respect would soon find themselves succumbing to it.
When Karta flinched at his direction – despite obviously trying not to, Tarmo lowered his eyes away from the horizon once more, looking at the man’s neck, feeling surprise flush through him. The man had a large bruise across it, as if he had been grazed by fire recently, and only halfway so, healed over. He had been hiding it.
The answer was obvious, and it had Tarmo suddenly feel unsure. More-so than he had in a while. Raising a hand to the sky, making first a fist and then flattening his palm, fingers pointed upward, the procession came to a gradual slow, and then stop.
The polar dogs barked, already begging for rewards while some of the slovenlier ones lay down in the snow for a rest. The men disembarked, taking the few moments they knew Tarmo would allow to stretch their legs, relieve themselves, feed the polar-dogs their deserved treats, and then set about boiling quickly some water for tea.
At Tarmo’s direction some of the men set up a small area for him to be seated, however Tarmo offered it to the commander, preferring to stand some feet away, facing away from the now seated man, who seemed to have developed enough shame to render his usually stern face somber. It was clear he was unhappy, his dark, lined face betraying his inner workings only by the downturn at the sides of his mouth, barely visible beneath his graying beard. It was clear he had insight enough to figure he had been discovered. The rest of the men took the unspoken order, and made sure to give them space enough to talk undisturbed, brewing their tea some distance away, keeping the chatter muted, refraining from the usual joking banter.
“Only a few times, now.” Tarmo, standing with his back to the man felt his shoulders tense, the hands behind his back, clasped, tensing in turn as he felt his nails dig into his wrists. He waited for the man to continue. “Never enough so as to impede our efforts. I swear it.” Tarmo did not react for some time, so much so that one of the aides felt it safe to offer them both tea. The boy handed first to the commander, before offering to Tarmo. They both drank quietly as the youth scattered back to the makeshift camp.
Tarmo refrained from speaking till his tea was done.
“I ask much, do I not?” He kept quiet then, his cold, quiet voice carrying easily along the desolate air, the soft murmurs of the men in the distance not interrupting him. Karta stayed quiet. Whether it be respect or fear of offence, he refrained from saying what he thought. Tarmo did not need to know though. This was not something he had not answered for himself a hundred times over.
“I ask never for anything I would not expect of myself. I had thought this expectation of self, allowed me in the position that I am, the freedom in presuming such expectations of others.” He slowly turned, the wind turning with him, landing his pale eyes on the man, his hair glinting white in a manner not dissimilar to that of the ice surrounding their meeting. The man… was worn. His age, while not young by any account, was not accurately reflected in his form. War had worn at him like the leathery hide of a sea-lion.
A war spearheaded by Tarmo… and his quest.
His eternal duty.
“Was I wrong? Unfair in this?”
Karta looked at him, his blue eyes hardening as he placed his teacup down, making ready to rise up, before Tarmo’s hand rose in opposition, keeping the other seated despite himself. “Never.” His gruff voice was filled with quiet conviction. With reverence… and not hidden from the eyes of his leader… the faintest strain of self-deception.
The man knew he could not hide anything from his leader. His eyes read the stars, and the sun, and the clouds and the winds and the soul with equal acuity. The sort of wary perception that comes only from one made wise through trauma. Deception was a wasted effort.
Karta looked down, biting his tongue. His training as a warrior allowing him to betray no further signs. So many things had come to undermine his own happiness. How could his life have gone so wrong? He did not offer himself the chance to consider his fate, or the fate of his people much. It had proved too often too terrible a stream of thought, and too often threatened to overcome him. They were all frozen in this unwinnable scenario. A once proud people reduced to begging and surviving on scraps. Scavenging for any semblance of dignity among the wastes, leeching of the beast… the predator that brought them low in its voracious hunt… like a parasite.
Tarmo watched the display, his breath escaping him in a quiet deflation, until his shoulders once proud - now hung slightly lower, and to all the world his still teenage form reflected something older, and much too worn. Upon hearing the sigh, Karta looked up, shifting from his makeshift chair, kneeling in front of the boy. His head bowed low. “There is nothing you can read in me that I have not challenged and brought low.” Karta thought a moment later, trying to gather together his words carefully. “Till the very end.” For that was what this was, was it not? The Firenation had done so before, rendered an entire people moot. They would do so again, and again – till they were inevitably alone. With nothing left to burn but themselves.
Tarmo stepped forward, resting a pale hand on the man’s neck, his breathing evening out as the ice rose from around their feet and turned to water, enveloping the wound. The sudden quiet had him look to the men in the distance. Warriors. Each of them. Proud. Tired. Destroyed by what they have lost and may lose still. They stood now, no longer softly talking amongst each other. No longer eating or drinking. Their somber forms fixated only on their leader, and the proud man now knelt at his feet.
A chilled wind picked up suddenly, carrying along the ice towards Tarmo from them. Smelling the wood burning, the seemingly ever present scent of wet dog and seaweed that seemed to hang about him and his men… His eyes resting on the frost lingering along the edges of their furred coats. The hand on Karta’s neck pressed a shade harder, before he felt the cool, soothing light radiate from it. The pain, the mark – it all quickly vanished under the ministrations of the young waterbender, his own eyes closed, his teeth biting into his cheek as memories flooded him. Memories he suffered in remembrance.
Let your emotions flow. Like water.
Karta raised a hand, taking that of his young leader. “I miss her well.” The old warrior’s gruff voice cut through the quiet air. “We are warriors. Soldiers. What we must do and can do and will do, is done with the knowledge that death is at all times a reality.” His scarred, toil and time worn hand held the pale, fair, and gentle hand tighter still. His eyes raising to see the boy. “You cannot save us all.”
It was no wonder his bending was not what it should be. He was losing himself. Healing, that art which Tarmo had turned his mind to since he had restarted his training… that singular art with which no other could dare to hope in matching… It had failed him. Not abandoned him, but his proficiency has waned as of late. His Immortal Formation – where he could keep them all not just healed, but effectively unharmed in combat. The sight that had been the cause of fear and doubt in their enemies for so many years now. It was… slipping.
Tarmo opened his eyes, looking the man dead on. The gaze was piercing, unblinking.
“I don’t have a choice, Karta.”
“You cannot. You cannot continue to unmake yourself to try and stop the inevitable. What fragments we have still… there will yet more be chipped away.” Tarmo tried to pull his hand away, but the elder man kept it firm, forcing the confrontation. “You are not the avatar! She could not save us all. How can you expect it of yourself? How arrogant you must paint yourself now! To think such a thing and believe it!” His voice had raised in his talking, as he rose to his feet, staring the boy in the eye. His body shaking. Tarmo tried again to rip his hand free, pulling more earnestly, his face turned away from the man. “I know, I am not your father. I know, it is not for me to teach you honour. Your mother is gone. But I lo-“
The grip on Tarmo’s wrist went loose, as Karta felt his mouth shut without his volition. Tarmo’s hand arching through the air had the man suddenly rising, hovering for a moment, before suddenly being flung away and falling in the snow. His body was shaking. His breath was quick.
The boy… that had become a man under his eyes, now stood before him, his hand raised as if it were the claws of some beast. Those… eyes… cold and dark with some unknown intent. His breathing heavy. And for a moment Karta felt that he was not seeing that child he had taught how to fish. That boy who could outbend him since the age of ten, but always let Karta win so that his ‘old-man’ ego would not be bruised. No longer the child his… The avatar had given to him to protect.
Instead he saw the thing that lay within. The spirit that shared his form. Peace. War. Patience. Violence. Push and Pull… It was not hard to see which one raged within him.
His mind finally caught up to him as he realised what had just happened. That… something beyond his comprehension had occurred, and rendered him as pathetic and frail an old man as he often felt. As Tarmo walked to him, his steps harsh, his form arched as if some predator – Karta raised his hands above his face, fearing for a moment death. But the boy stood over him, every muscle in his form tense, his face flush with rage and his eyes wide.
“There is nothing. Nothing not given. Every waking breath is spent labouring towards your wellbeing. The prosperity of a people that are measured only for their unbearable cost to me. The cost I am unallowed to ponder at. That I am not allowed to hate you for taking her.” The words were quiet, cold, while Karta watched him. Tarmo’s hands were now clawing at his neck, his face and his form… as if trying to pull away something that cannot be grasped. “You do not attempt to lecture me on my honour. My devotion. The only cause. The last cause. Speeding to death and destruction with such blatant and wanton eagerness should have you realise my conviction.”
Tarmo heard a noise, a bark in the distance, and turned his head away from Karta. He saw the men, in the distance, readied for… combat? He looked down upon himself, seeing his hands still posed like claws. Looking around like a cornered beast for only a moment, he visibly drew in breath, rising to his full height. “You are not my father. That man, who abandoned us to his cause. You…” The words that came then were quiet. “You are not my father. You are a better man. Do not… lessen yourself. I could have asked for more.” He waited for a few moments, gaining some more control over the thing inside him, before extended a hand to the older man.
Karta slowly rose up, having taken the help, standing next to the boy, his legs shaking. He finally placed a hand on Tarmo’s neck. He could still recall the long, dark brown locks the boy had when he was born. How his mother would sit for whatever free time she had, and braid them to the boy’s pleasure. How he laughed. And sang. And played. The boy had not done any of that. Not since the strands now in his hand… had turned white.
It was as if death had come for him after all.
The thought that he was waiting for it... working towards it...
“You can’t think she meant for you to die…” The words fell from his lips, his hand raising to the soldiers in the distance, calming them with a gesture. He ran his hand across the boy’s head, the sign of comfort foreign to them both. As he imagined he might have done for his son. “She loved you.”
“She loved you more.”
Karta felt his heart miss a step.
Only for a moment.
His chest ached in knowing that it was the truth. “She did not save you… to take her place. She did not save you… as insurance. One can love many, in many ways. You were precious to her.”
She was a complicated woman. And some kinds just came second to her.
More than once.
They both stood there for a while more, the wind gently moving about their forms. Both thinking about times long since past.
“If I leave. If I go, to end this war. Not win it. End it. Will you care for them?”
“You are our leader. No matter what the council of the north may say, no matter what the southern tribe may wish you to be. You are the son of the avatar. You are a hero to your people. And you are of us. If you believe this is the path you must take, then I will, with all the power I have – seek to enable it. Even if I wish, more than anything, more than life – that this task had not fallen to you.” The elder remained stern, his eyes steadfastly turned away from Tarmo.
This was goodbye.
Inevitable had arrived.
“You are a good man. I can’t stay. A drawn out war would destroy us. We don’t have the time. I will do what I must. You must ensure they survive. I need time to focus my efforts.” Karta stood at attention, nodding at him. “I will head north. You will not hear from me. My plans are my own. I cannot guarantee that the ire I stir won’t come south. You must prepare.” Another nod from the elder man.
“We will do all we can.” No further words about appeasing councilmen and ensuring the combined efforts of both sides were needed. The politics had never been Tarmo’s strong suit. He would be glad to be free of it.
“Thank you. For everything...” The boy walked over to his sled, pulling off some of the resources, handing Karta the satchel with the information in when he rushed over to help.
His movements were slower than usual. Karta allowed for his unsubtle delay.
And then, Tarmo left.
The sled sped faster now, away and north, away from those he would be leaving behind.
He may have imagined it, but some distance away, he could have sworn he heard through the battering wind, shouts, cheers and the horn of war… sending a soldier of to battle.
Leaning back into her creaky chair, Nyla slowly let the confident smirk that she had started this conversation off with fall from her face and turn into an affronted and offended frown. The bard had more of spine than Nyla was expecting. Her back was straight, her eyes were locked onto her own, and her voice was without fear. Nyla was impressed.
The bard’s voice was gentle, soft, and smooth, as was to be expected from a feminine bard. In many ways the sound of the bard’s voice was the polar opposite of Nyla’s own courser, deeper, and rougher voice that was used more often than not for yelling at fleeing bounties. She could “honey” her voice when she wanted; but it took effort on her part. The bard’s voice was naturally and seemingly effortlessly pleasant.
Nyla listened to her table partner with growing eagerness and fascination as the bard responded to her teasing with her own words of condensation, smugness, and even with a song at Nyla’s own expense. The interaction had not gone the way the bounty hunter was expecting. This had been supposed to be her teasing a lost wallflower that she had only been worried about pushing too far into tears on accident. Now she found that everyone of her own words were being thrown back at her with more force, offensiveness, and creativity.
Nyla’s eyes widened in brief shock when the bard threw her arms into the air, exclaiming (and mocking) her song suggestions. Nyla was able to deepen her frown as the bard continued to mock her lack of smarty-pants “sophistication”. The bounty hunter could only hope that her face didn’t show her entrancement by the bard’s sudden poem. The ditty was funny, mocking, and clearly at Nyla’s expense. She supposed it did make sense for a bard to attack other people with singing.
The character defaming song was interrupted by the annoyed tavern owner and as the (once again) dejected bard asked for Nyla’s “real” reason for coming over, the bounty hunter leaned from her chair and into the bard’s face with an expression she hoped was her usual “I’m threatening you” face.
“The people that talk back to me end up in the back of steal cage…” Nyla said in a low voice as she stared into the bard’s silver eyes.
She wasn’t able to keep up the fake intimidation for long before she lost it and suddenly erupted out into violent laughter. Leaning back, she threw her head back and nearly fell out of her chair as she grasped her stomach; trying to contain the sudden explosion of hilarity. After nearly a minute of honest laughter, Nyla was able to breath again and whipped some happy tears from her amber eyes.
“Name’s Nyla and you’re alright Princess. You seemed interesting and I was right!” Nyla took the liberty of sliding her chair closer to the other woman’s side of the table.
“Hey! I need your fanciest drink over here! For the funny bard Princess. I haven’t laughed liked that in years!” Nyla called out as she took a swig of her own drink.
“Hopefully that’ll cover for the poem, ehh?” Nyla winked at her new friend and threw an arm over her shoulder without permission or regard for personal space.
“So, what’s your name Princess? I’m Nyla. You a runaway from some richy place?” Nyla asked her newly captured friend wondering that if the girl was a runaway, and had a bounty, if she would actually turn her in.