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Previously on The Avatar Rhythm
|""Turn down those stairs," Akata said, pointing to a dark doorway in the end of the room. "And yes, I have been to the Earth Kingdom before. Once. Just to visit my mother's friends.""|
|— From The Fire Nomad|
|""If you can supply us with eleven hundred gold coins, we will stop the executions and go back to our normal punishment policies. If you can't, we will kill every man, women, and child until they give us what we want. You can end this.""|
|— Markale to Shirou in Eleven Hundred|
|"Surviving was harder than they expected. Looking farther down the map, Shirou spotted another dot farther south, which was marked "Argil Village" in Shinji's messy handwriting. The dot lay in between a river and the southern portion of a small mountain range, and it looked as if the duo still had a bit of hiking in front of them if they wanted to ever get there."|
|— From Survivors|
|Royalty and Poverty|
February 21, 2012
This is Chapter 38 in The Avatar Rhythm Series.
The tree line had been broken. The tip of the mountain was no more than just couple yards of grey, worn stone. Shirou and Shinji had reached the peak of their last mountain, and they were exhausted. Not once had they set up another camp since leaving their last one a week ago, the duo had hiked almost sixty miles in the past seven days. Now, the struggling was over. Shirou placed his sweaty hand stained black with dirt onto the rock set in front of him, and managed to use the last of his energy to hurl himself onto the summit of the mountain, recoiling when his body hit the hard rock. When he opened his eyes, an amazing sight was before him, and Shinji, who had now climbed up beside him, thought the same.
Set in front of him, just down from the mountain they sat atop, was a lush green gorge beside the biggest river they had ever seen before. The area was filled with houses and tents, a city hidden in beside the mountains.
Shinji sighed, smiled, and let his tired face fall to the rock ground. "Food, water," he mumbled. "Bathing..."
Chuckling, Shirou looked over at his friend. "Mind not talking with your head stuffed into a mountain crevice? It gets kind of annoying to try to hear."
After a second of hesitation, Shinji lifted his face up, laughing. "We did it. We made it to civilization!"
"See that big river?"
"I can't miss it. That thing must be a mile wide."
Shirou nodded. "Past that river, there's more mountains, and on them is a large town called Argil Village. We're one step closer to finding Asaki and Takumi."
"Let's get going, then," Shinji said, grabbing his backpack.
A couple hours later, the duo were walking through the grassy streets of the town they had come upon, trying to find something to tell them where to go.
One woman, fairly large and carrying a basket of food, walked by them.
"Do you have a map of the area?" Shinji asked, as kindly as he could.
"Stop bothering me!" she grunted, hobbling away.
They looked at each other.
Shirou peered around a corner, but there was no one else in the street but them. "Where is everyone? Are they hiding from us?"
"Well, you have to take into account that our skin is stained black with mud."
Shirou took a walk down the next street, there were a few people strolling down this one. A bulky man to his left raised an eyebrow at him and slowly walked away, and the rest began to do the same. It wasn't because they were mean, they just were afraid of him. Shirou opened his mouth. "Hello... um... Do you guys have a map or-"
"Hey Shirou, get over here."
He turned behind to see Shinji checking out a wall covered with a bunch of town posters and flyers.
"Look at this," he said, unpinning a map from the wall and handing it to Shirou, who unrolled the paper and peered at the intricate drawings, directions, and village names all over its tan surface.
"So, where exactly are we?" Shirou asked.
Shinji placed his finger on a small black dot on the map labeled Jade Glen. "That's here, and," he moved his finger across the large river on the map towards the edge of some more mountains, where there was a larger black dot labeled Argil Village, "That's where we're going."
Shirou began to speak, but Shinji clipped off another handout from the bulletin wall, and shoved it in Shirou's hands. It read, The Northern Earth Kingdom Ferry will arrive to Jade Glen on a regular basis on every half moon. Rides cost two silver coins per days you stay on the ferry. Thank you for your convenience, we'll pick you up soon! Below the advertisement was a cheesy picture of a large green boat sailing across a sea while the sun was setting. "So?"
"So that's our way across," Shinji said. "We wait two weeks till the half moon, which really isn't that long, and then we take the ferry across the river, hike a couple miles and arrive at Argil. All's-"
A high voice cut into his speech. "Hey! It's the Fire Nomad! And Shirou!"
The duo turned around, in surprise, and slowly smiled as they saw a young boy dressed in a green and yellow shirt smiling a row of bright teeth at them. The boy who had saved Shirou's life, who had helped him meet Shinji, who imparted the childish wisdom to him that may have changed his fate.
"Guys!" the child shouted. He ran up to them. "It's you!"
Shirou laughed. "Hey, Akata." He paused for a couple seconds, taking in the rareness and extreme coincidence that the one child who he had befriended in his whole journey throughout the Air Nomad's islands was now in front of him in a secluded valley beside a large Earth Kingdom river. "What are you doing here?"
Akata peered at them for a second. Apparently the strangeness of the situation began sinking into him also. "Where'd you get that dirt all over your face?"
Shirou sighed. "Do have a home here?"
"Yeah," said Akata. "Well, actually it's not my home, it's mother's friend's home but she's letting us stay here because back-"
Shinji cut into the conversation. "Do you have a bath at your mother's friend's home?"
Akata scratched his head. "Yeah."
"Tell you what. You let us stay at your house for a couple nights, and we'll tell you everything - and you can tell us everything."
It didn't take long before Shirou and Shinji were washed, dressed, and sipping weak tea in Akata's home at Jade Glen. The duo sat around a well worn wooden table with one broken leg, along with Akata, his mother, and her friend, a plump woman named Kaede with short cut black hair and a lively smile you couldn't miss.
"I have to say," said Akata's mother, "I was quite frightened of you when you stayed at my home in Autumn. When my boy told me he had shipped you off with the Fire Nomad I was a little relieved." She paused. "So how did your journey go? You said you had to kill someone, didn't you?"
Shirou nodded. "We found her, but didn't kill her."
"That's what I want to hear." She patted Shirou on the back. "Don't kill people, that's the philosophy I live by. It'll bite you back just as hard once everything's done and over with. So how'd you end up in Jade Glen?"
"We're trying to get to Argil Village," Shinji said. "We have some friends there that we need to meet. I could ask the same for you."
Akata's mother shrugged. "This year there were just too many storms, they wiped out our island's whole cropland, we no longer could sustain ourselves. So we came here, and Kaede's let us stay with her for a while."
Kaede spoke in a hearty, chipper tone. "The funny thing is that they chose to come here. We're all poor in Jade Glen. The mountain farming we have can't make us much money because of that darn ferry that can only make it here every month."
Shirou nodded. "We're hoping to board the ferry the next time it comes around."
"You are, huh?" She dug around in her pockets. "How much money do you got with you?"
Shinji took out their pouch of coins in his backpack. "Enough to board the ferry in two weeks."
Kaede slid a gold coin to each of them from across the table. "Take these too. The Procession is going to be coming in a few days to collect our taxes and we don't want to get them angry."
As a sinking feeling fell upon Shirou, Akata's mother looked at her friend harshly. "Kaede! You can't go giving away money like that! You don't have the coins to spare!"
"I'll be broke by the end of this week, but we'll all survive. Did you hear about The Procession's crazy new rule? They're going to kill the citizens who don't pay their taxes! I'll give away gold coins to let my friends live."
"Do I need to pay my taxes?" Akata asked hopefully.
His mother patted him on the head. "You're covered."
"We have to be on our tip-top best when The Procession arrives," Kaede said quietly, with a bit of urgency in her voice. "Lets just say Jade Glen has a reputation for not paying our taxes, and this time the commissioner of The Procession himself is coming to watch us."
"Markale," Shirou whispered in somber and painful realization.
"You know him?" Akata's mother asked.
"Yes." Shirou nodded. "I know Markale."
Shirou couldn't sleep that night. And it wasn't because his sleeping bag was laying on Kaede's hard stone floor. The flashbacks of his meetings with Markale in the North Pole kept escaping into his vision. He saw Markale brutally describe how he had put them in debt and how he had told him his new rules, how he had fought and slid against bones and ice at Blizzard Point, he saw him fall off the hundred foot tall watchtower in angered fright. As long as Shirou stayed awake, he was tormented by the thought that he'd have to reunite with Markale soon, but once he fell asleep, the real nightmares began. It was the same one as before, but worse.
He stood in an eerie cavern, it's walls covered with something.
He couldn't make it out.
Cloudy gray light shimmered onto his body.
Something moved, twisting towards him with mysterious despair.
He drew his sword, and slashed it forward, and pain surged through his body.
Not physical pain, but he felt dazed, he felt as if all of his energy just dropped.
Darkness enveloped his mind once again...
"Shirou, wake up!"
He felt tired, and opened his eyes to see Shinji's face looking down at his, not very visible in dim morning light. "What?" he asked wearily. "Having trouble sleeping?"
"I was having that nightmare again."
"You were writhing around all over the floor. I was a little worried."
A look somewhere between concern and curiosity enveloped Shirou's face. "What did I look like? Did I look scared?"
Shinji shrugged. "I don't know. You were all restless and sweaty, but your face was emotionless. Kinda weird." He paused. "So are you going to get up?"
"Eh," Shirou muttered, sitting up against the back of an old wooden chair. "What time is it? And why are you up anyway?"
"It's pretty early, only me and Kaede are up. I was just helping her cook breakfast when I heard you in here."
"Oh." Shirou stood up, and shook the dust off from his shirt. "Alright."
Shinji got Shirou up and into the kitchen, where Kaede was smiling, cooking up something over a bed of coals in her clay oven. "Good morning," she chirped, quickly turning at Shirou. "I see my fellow cook has woken you up". She smiled a hearty smile. Shirou had never seen a more jolly woman as large as her.
"So," Shinji said. "Do you need us for anything else?"
"Hmm?" Kaede said. "Mind looking in my bottom cupboard for a bag of pine seeds? They'll go great on top of the eggs."
As Shinji bent over and started rummaging through the woman's drawers, Shirou bent over her shoulder, and peered at what she was cooking. Light yellow egg was simmering in her metal pan.
"You want to try a turn with spatula?" Kaede asked, moving over.
"Huh?" Shirou got a bit of queer embarrassment. "Well, no, you know how to do it better than me-"
Kaede handed him the spatula. "Try it."
Shirou let his hand grasp the stone utensil, letting it's smooth surface spin around in his grip. It felt good. He lowered it down, and poked the cooking egg a couple times with it.
"Pay attention," she chuckled.
He got back in focus, and slid his spatula underneath the well cooked egg, moving it onto the ceramic plate Kaede had ready. "Now what do you do?" he asked.
"Now you crack another and cook it."
Shirou reached towards the carton of eggs by his side, and picked up one of the last two, cracking it and letting the white and yolk fall to the metal pan and simmer.
"You're getting the hang of this," Kaede said. "Try doing the last one."
Shinji's voice came from behind them. "I found the pine seeds!" he said.
In only about a half hour of cooking, banging, cleaning and conversation, everyone was awoken and sitting around the same table as the night before, each of them with half a fried egg sprinkled with seeds on a plate in front of them.
Akata was talking with Shirou and Shinji, taking nibbles of his breakfast in between words. "And then what happened, after you destroyed the poisonous plant?"
Shirou laughed. "Then we were sailing, and we got captured by The Procession for trespassing on their property-"
"But we escaped."
"What?" Akata stared, his mouth hanging open.
"Well, we got cornered in their coin vault," Shinji said. "But Shirou sort of cracked open the floor and had hundreds of their coins fall into the ocean, but we got out."
"Really? And then what happened?"
As Shinji and Akata got into a fun conversation about their travels, Shirou looked back as the realization of how much he owed The Procession sank into his mind. It kept coming to him - a curse he couldn't avoid, telling him to watch out what he could not escape. He wished he could just be happy, and why shouldn't he be? He was with old friends, in a home under other's care, Shinji was actually laughing and having fun, with a child! He chuckled a bit to himself about that, still shaking his head. His friends were happy, he had food, a home, warm clothes and a bath, but still a haunting dread managed to keep creeping up on him. Eleven hundred coins! That was a lot of money. The Procession was going to arrive here in just four days, and he couldn't run, literally. There was a river beside him that he couldn't cross without the ferry. The corrupted tax collectors, rich, strolling into one of the poorest places he'd ever seen. They'd kill anyone who didn't obey them - madmen. Was it his fault?
Is it my fault? he thought to himself. Why is it me?
The next half a week that Shirou and Shinji stayed at Kaede's house were hectic and hard. They had to cook all their meals out of the food that was there, which quickly depleted from having to feed five people instead of one. The duo and Akata had to go to the high rock ledges around Jade Glen where mountain streams irrigated the steps of cropland and gave water to the few chickens and goats that lived there, being taught the poor farming life by Kaede, who knew what she was doing in that area. They'd pick the rice, snatch eggs, and retrieve water for cooking. Every once and a while they'd hike the mountains and get the supplies they needed from the forests above.
When they had to come back to cook, it was worse. Having three boys helping at once in a small kitchen made things rather hectic, especially when Akata insisted on cracking every egg they needed, always ending up getting a shell in their dinner. As their meal creativity soon depleted, the "family" was having fried eggs with pine seeds for every breakfast, rice and the occasional chunk of chicken for lunch, and any leftovers they had left for dinner. Days went by, arms got sore, laughs erupted through the house, most of them from Kaede. Sleeping on the hard stone floor got better, and the moon in the sky waned closer and closer to a full half. Each day in poverty was more interesting than the last, but still, one date got closer and closer as they went by...
When the dawn that Shirou had been dreading for all his stay finally came, he awoke in sudden fright. He looked around him. Shinji was still asleep, so it must have been early. He got up, walked to the small bathroom, and splashed some cold water on his face. It was a mix between painful and refreshing. It awoke him - he was fully aware of what was around him. Maybe that was all he needed.
He looked out the window. The Procession was still not here yet. He sighed in relief, but the tension of when he'd have to meet his fate with Markale kept growing larger.
In boredom, Shirou pulled the sword out from his sheath and grasped it's metal hilt in one hand. He tossed it to his other one, watching the silver blade flash in morning moonlight streaming through the window. Through its opening he watched the sun beautifully rise over Jade Glen, beams of blossoming orange haze piercing through the mountaintops.
He must have been up too early, because Shirou had been awake for at least an hour now and still no one had gotten up besides him. I'm not going until I know The Procession is here, he decided.
Shirou sat there for minute after minute, as time passed and morning grew closer, waiting for the tax collector army to arrive.
His fear was too much.
Taking action was his last choice.
With a sigh of stress, Shirou crouched down and found the bag of pine seeds in a kitchen cupboard. About a third of it was full. He brought it outside, and went into the outhouse, closing the door behind him.
When the outhouse door opened, the bag of pine seeds was empty.
Shirou went back inside, put the loose bag on the kitchen table, and propped up piece of notepaper next to it, which he had written on. Then he grabbed his coat, washed his hands, ate a leechi nut, and left out the door towards the mountains.
"Out of pine seeds. Gone harvesting. I'll be back by noon. Shirou."
"That's all he said?" asked Akata's mother.
Shinji squinted at the messy piece of manilla notepaper. "That's all it says here. I was sure we still had some seeds left. Whatever. We'll just have to live with plain eggs this morning."
"Lets get cracking, then. We should eat breakfast before The Procession arrives here in an hour."
Shinji paused for a second, with a thought, but dismissed it quickly. Shirou wouldn't do that to them. He got a pan that he and Akata washed the day before, and set it over the stove which already had burning wood beneath it. Now in routine, he took an egg and struck it against the side of the pan, pulling it away as the yolk fell and started to slowly sizzle.
Suddenly, two bold knocks struck the wooden door to the house.
Akata's mother looked up. "Oh, who is it? Let me go check."
"The Procession," Shinji muttered under his breath. "Wait! Wait, don't open that!"
He ran over to the door, which was already opened. Behind it was a cheery man of sorts, his hand dirty and dressed in a cheap baggy tunic, stained with years of work. Akata's mother was already in a conversation with him. "Shinji," she said, "This is Mr. Sakei, Kaede's neighbor." She turned to the man. "This is Shinji, and old friend of ours who's also staying here. Now what were you saying?"
"No need to say anything now," he said. "The sight on the mountaintops speak for themselves."
She and Shinji looked up and widened their eyes. There, atop the green cliffs, was a parade of men slowly making their way towards Jade Glen - with armor that sparkled in morning sunlight.
"Oh my god."
By now Kaede and Akata were up and also staring at the view above them.
Holding Earth Kingdom flags, a huge line of sparkling green and bronze clanked and chimed down the mountain cliffs to Jade Glen, a magnificent sight to behold. As they turned, making their way onto flat ground, the Jade Glen citizens could see them clearly. Each and every tax collector was clean, dressed in royal armor, and had a noble look on their face. Four of them in the middle of the line carried a large palanquin, which was set to the ground, it's ornate green fabric waving in the breeze. Out from it stepped another man, with a cape, smiling deviously.
He strode through the streets of Jade Glen, past all the poor citizens dying of starvation, broke and uncleaned. A patch of royalty within a world of poverty - he didn't even seem to notice the crowds of farmers staring at him, dressed in rags. Madness. "Citizens of Jade Glen!" he announced. "I am the commissioner of The Procession, Markale of the Earth Kingdom. Today your taxes will be collected, and I have come to oversee this day due to your reputation of being, well," he paused, smiling wickedly, "Uncooperative. Please note that if you do not obey our order, we have the right to kill you."
Shirou watched this chaos from far up above, in the trees of the mountains surrounding Jade Glen. He sat between two branches, and munched on the leechi nuts that hung around him. He was happy, enjoying himself - safe from Markale.
Still, the other half of his morals still nagged him to go back down, telling him he was a coward, ruining Kaede's food so he could run. She was poor - those seeds meant life for her, nourishment.
While all this was processing, he was watching down at The Procession in Jade Glen. They now had split up, and all the tax collectors were walking to different homes, with bags that would be very soon filled with gold coins.
He had to do something, but if he did he'd risk everything he had, he didn't want to face Markale when he had the choice to avoid him. And he was already there. Why would he leave?
When the loud boom of a knock erupted from Kaede's door, she and all her guests walked towards it, and looked at a bulky Procession member through the window.
"Just give him your coins, and get this over with quick," Kaede muttered, before opening the door to the outside.
The tax collector behind it rudely pushed out a green bag towards them. "Four gold coins for all you, please."
Kaede, Shinji, and Akata's mother all dropped their taxes inside the bag.
The Procession member raised an eyebrow. "Four gold coins, please."
"There's only three of us here."
"What about the kid?"
They all looked at Akata.
"You must be kidding," his mother chuckled. "He doesn't need to pay his taxes."
"He lives here, doesn't he?"
"Yes, but children never have to pay their annual taxes."
"The laws are changing nowadays. You need four gold coins."
A deadly realization sunk into his mother's mind. "No, you can't do that! We don't have the money!"
The tax collector looked at her with dull eyes. "Well, you know the rules. Markale was quite clear about it when we arrived."
"You're not killing my son!"
"Not unless you give us what we want."
Everyone looked at Akata's mother with despair.
"Fine," she said. "That gold coin I gave you was for my son. Take me instead."
Akata screamed this time. "What?"
The Procession member nodded in approval, grabbing her by the back. "Say goodbye to your mummy," he said.
"No!" Akata leapt forward, but a hand stopped him in his path towards the tax collector. He looked up, staring at Markale.
"Get out of here, child! This is no business for you!"
"That's my mom!" he cried, tears welling up in his eyes as The Procession began to take her away, all so quickly, everything changed so fast. Akata screamed again, his voice cracking in the highest pitch he could manage in screeching volume. "That's! My! Mom!" He tried running from Markale's grip, but he held him back with a strong arm.
His mother was being dragged away, and could only shake her head towards Akata, her cheeks covered in tears.
"No!" Akata shook his head, and pulled out his last weapon. He opened his mouth, and chomped down all of his teeth into Markale's arm with an unexpected strength.
The commissioner was sent back, shaking his arm off in extreme pain. Akata ran towards his mom, out of the loosened grip.
"Stop it, child! Out! Now!" Markale ran towards Akata once more, grabbing him by the back, as his victim wriggled in anger, crying and screaming. "Stop it now!" Markale clutched the child in the chest, and swept him into the wall by his side. With a cry of pain, Akata was out cold.
As Markale walked away in triumph, Kaede and Shinji only watched in horror from the sidelines.
Suddenly, the tables turned again.
Out from behind a building, jumped Shirou, slashing down his sword in front of Markale. "Shame on you!" he said, slashing his blade sideways against Markale, only stopped by a column of stone that was shot up from the ground out of instinct, smashing to pieces as it collided with the metal sword. Shirou brought his blade up and swept it again, forcing Markale to jump backwards through the dust. "Shame on you, hurting a child, taking away from him his mother!"
Markale lashed out his wrist, sending a ball of stone at Shirou that glanced off of his side, resulting in a quick thump of pain. He rose his sword again, thrusting it forwards, and Markale slid out of the way, out of breath, as he dodged another slice, then another. "Men! Stop this criminal!"
A line of Procession members seemed to come out of nowhere, and sent a wave of rock gloves toward him, too many for him to slash down. They coiled around his wrists, immobilizing him, and as he stood there in defeat the dust settled, and Markale realized that who he thought he was fighting was him.
"Shirou," the commissioner said in a voice of pure poetic hatred. "How unexpected of you to come today. I have something to show you, by the way. I really think you'll enjoy it."
In an hour, Shirou and Markale stood next to each other in a large circular room with a domed ceiling. A light cast down at a stone in the center of the floor, that had an axe beside it.
The Execution Room.
"This is where it happens," Markale said. "This is what happens to those who don't pay what they owe to their country."
Shirou paused, shaking his head. "Why do even pretend this is for The Earth Kingdom? You know that you use more of the money that you collect than the Earth King does."
"You don't get it. I need these coins. You don't take it seriously."
"What do you mean, I don't think you take it seriously," Shirou said in anger. "You're killing citizens for money!"
"And look at the wonders. Today sixty percent more of Jade Glen payed their taxes than last year. That's a good fifty gold coins right there."
"Fifty coins! Just fifty gold coins coins. If you were a kind business, we'd respect you. Fifty coins isn't anything to you. It's just fifty more coins to your everlasting pile of money. You're evil, taking all that away from the world for yourself!"
Markale scowled. "I need this money! You don't understand!"
"For what? What do you need thousands of gold coins for?"
"I'd rather not go over that right now. It's private and if you knew you would most likely be killed."
Shirou looked at him with blank disappointment. "In other words, you have no reason."
"I have a reason!" he shouted. "I just cannot say it."
They waited for a few minutes, until a large knock came from the room's only door. In stepped a tax collector, holding Akata's mother by the throat. She was still alive, but weak.
How did I let them take her away? Shirou asked himself. How did I let this happen to Akata?
He watched in grief as the tax collector shoved Akata's mother's head onto the stone in the center of the room, and picked up the axe.
"How could you do this?" Shirou asked Markale, in a last ditch effort to stop all this madness. "How could you see this without stopping it? Killing a citizen - a mother!"
Markale signaled the tax collector to wait, then he turned to Shirou. "My boy, the question now is not what I can do, but what you can prevent. And my boy, you can prevent this. I've told you before, and I'll say it again. Give me the eleven hundred gold coins you owe The Procession, and our laws will go back to normal, the villagers will be saved. Do you have that money?"
Shirou looked down. "No, I don't."
"Well then," the commissioner said, turning back towards the tax collector with the axe. "Continue with the execution."
Shirou watched the man hold up his weapon, everything in slow motion. He should see this - it was his fault. He was convinced. If he was going to allow his friend to die, he should be able to have the guts to see her go. He stared at the axe being dropped down with speed and strength, but the second that he saw metal hit flesh, he closed his eyes again in fright, only hearing a strained scream and the boom of the axe slamming against the stone below Akata's mother's head.
His eyes were still closed when Markale asked for the next victim to come in.
The rest of the week was solemn and sad. There was no laughter at dinner. Kaede didn't smile, Shinji didn't play, Shirou barely even talked, and Akata just cried.
When the duo boarded the Northern Earth Kingdom Ferry the next week, they said a sad goodbye to Akata and Kaede. As they left out on the river, neither of them talked to each other.
For the collective works of the author, go here.