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|Ba Sing Se (The Kyoshi Chronicles)|
Book 1: Earth
|"You must be the worst Avatar ever!"|
|— Bako to Kyoshi|
Kyoshi's bedroom was bigger than The Smelly Cup all together. Floral wallpaper covered the whole room and her large four-posted bed, covered in satin sheets faced a large window framed with lavish silk curtains. There was also a dressing screen, a desk with a mirror and an upholstered chair to complete the set.
"If you don't want to stay in your room the entire time, feel free to have a look around," Nero told Kyoshi as she fell backwards onto the bed, her arms not even slightly meeting the ends.
"Do you think I could see the markets?" Kyoshi said, examining the detailed ceiling tiles. On them were peacocks and trees and in the centre was the Earth State symbol.
"I think it would be best to just wander around the castle," Nero replied a little forcefully.
"But I'm the Avat-
"Only the castle, Kyoshi. Those are orders." Nero stared down at her briefly waiting for her to give in. Once she nodded, he exited and closed the doors behind him.
"Your things will arrive shortly. Don't get in too much trouble," he added. Kyoshi was left alone in her bedroom. It would be all right to explore the castle if she hadn't already had a tour of the entire thing. Frustrated, she kicked the chair and moved to the window and out onto the balcony. From here she could see the green tops of the houses and could hear people talking and shopping. She had to get out and see it. She looked back at the doors, waited a moment then hopped up onto the balcony railing. She bent her knees then leapt forward onto a thin, white tree branch. She took one last look at her bedroom doors before making the easy step onto the castle walls and scaled them downwards to the street. There were quite a few people about but the street was still quite empty. Kyoshi continued down the street and down many others, examining the houses and the people from a quiet distance. They all looked happy and healthy, they were living the perfect life. She remembered the glimpse she had gotten outside the wall of Ba Sing Se and immediately wanted to have a look at those buildings. With a curious stride and no idea as to where she was going, she quickly walked through the streets of Ba Sing Se. She passed the shopping district, the business region, a few markets here and there and wandered through what she read was called Grand Sing Park until realising she was completely lost.
"Excuse me," Kyoshi said as she approached a tidy looking man. "Can you tell me where I am?" The man looked at her oddly, probably from her dirty dress and wild hair.
"You're in Ba Doji," he replied.
"Where? Sorry, I'm," she remembered not to mention her title, "I'm...I'm on a holiday here and I have no idea where I am in relation to the castle." She put on a fake smile, as innocent and goofy as possible.
"Oh. Ba Doji is the third suburb from Ba Sing Se. It goes Ba Sing Se, Ba Xitang, Ba Lea and Ba Doji," the man explained, suddenly possessing a helpful impression.
"Oh, thank you very much," Kyoshi replied with a bow. "And the train station, how do I get there?"
"The main road is a few streets that way," the man said, pointing. "Follow that and it will take you down all the suburbs. Ba Doji, Ba Nare and then Ba Kuitaran. Kuitaran Station is the main station, it takes you pretty much everywhere."
"Even to the top of the wall?"
"Yes, Kuitaran Station is Ba Sing Se's central station," the man told Kyoshi. Kyoshi was very impressed with the man's goodwill and charity.
"Thank you, sir," she bowed once more.
"No problem, young lady. Enjoy your time in Ba Sing Se," the man smiled before leaving into Grand Sing Park. Kyoshi headed to the main road and followed it down each suburb, soaking up the lively atmosphere. Finally, after almost an hour of walking, she arrived at Kuitaran Station. Rumbles and thundering noises came from the building as carriages took off on different ramps at high speeds. Kyoshi entered the building. The architecture was very prevailing, spirals and interesting formations of smoothened stone and a high ceiling with a painting of a platypus bear on it. The building was filled with bustling crowds and moving carriages – some even moving out of the building and onto the street.
"May I help you?" a receptionist asked Kyoshi as she approached the lady's desk.
"Hi. Is there an express train to the wall?" Kyoshi asked, trying to take her eyes off the captivating chaos.
"Ba Sing Se Wall? Yes, dock three, over there," the lady said with an artificial smile.
"Okay. Can I get a ticket to there?"
"Certainly. That will be 2 gold and one sliver pieces, please." Kyoshi patted herself down and searched her pockets for any loose change but she had nothing on her.
"Um...do you think you could...let me on for free? Just this once?" Kyoshi blushed, avoiding eye contact.
"Sorry. You need to pay a fare," the lady said, frowning, as she turned her chair. Kyoshi paused for a moment, eagerness still pulsing inside her. She smiled and suddenly made a dash for the dock.
"Hey!" the woman shouted shrilly, "stop that girl!" Guards reacted immediately and began chasing Kyoshi. She could see the train drivers at dock three lifting the stone carriage from the ground, ready for departure and she picked up speed, nimbly weaving through the gasping crowds.
"Stop her!" guards shouted from behind her. The carriage began to move away from its dock and Kyoshi, shaking off the firm grip of an armoured guard, soared across the dock and took a hold of an external railing on the carriage. The earthbenders on top took no notice and the carriage picked up speed and left, guards shaking their hands from the dock and masses of people gathering to see the commotion. Kyoshi fixed herself onto the railing as a speedy, warm draught forced her to sway about. Smiling uncontrollably when she got off the carriage, she soon recognised that there was a price for scaling the wall too. She found a cart of fruit and vegetables covered in a sheet and immediately jumped in without any notice. There was room enough to cover her body with the sheet and soon she felt the cart move downwards. As it reached the ground she hoped out, startling the owners and the guards.
"Thank you!" she said as she ran off from further trouble. She stopped once she had come down a few laneways. This part of Ba Sing Se was very crass compared to the suburbs in the circle. The houses were decrepit and much less appealing, the ground was muddy and unpaved and the people inhabiting the streets wore unclean and worn clothes. She could hardly believe she was in Ba Sing Se. The sight of such a miserable and pathetic community was disheartening and concerning to her. She treaded around the place with a lot more caution, the closed doors and window shutters made it seem like an unwelcoming and untrustworthy neighbourhood. The people she saw seemed content, a few appeared sick or threatening, but their attitude and morale seemed a lot more depraved and decadent than their luxurious counterpart. Kyoshi came to a shabby looking store, the windows were smudged and the door hung limply from its hinges. It was called the Ba Minzang Animal Store. Inside, the store was shady and screeches and growls came from undeterminable parts of the building. The animals Kyoshi saw, Haredogs, Vulturecats, all the animals seemed nasty and vicious. In the corner, with a chain around its neck and tied to a post, was a small, dirty, dodo-like bird, fretting about anxiously and squawking painfully.
"Hey, hey. Calm down little thing," Kyoshi said gently as she knelt down to its level. The bird came into her lap and fell down, exhausted. Kyoshi felt so bad for the poor creature. She got up and the bird began chirping, desperate croaks echoed through the room.
"Stand away, okay?" Kyoshi whispered as she lifted a leg. The bird went quiet and braced itself. Kyoshi pulled her leg down over the chain and the golden blade on her boot cut clean through the metal. The bird came up and nuzzled at her shins.
"Come on, let's find you something to eat," Kyoshi said, leading the thing towards the door. From her left, unexpectedly, a knife flew past and landed in the damp wood next to her.
"Hey! You need to pay for that thing!" a daunting old man said from his counter, another knife in hand. Kyoshi sprinted out the door, the bird not too far behind, and the man followed her, throwing his knives at high velocities and screaming. The man herded the scrambling girl into a small alley where the houses had no doors or windows. There was no escape but forward. Kyoshi continued down the narrow alley when she tripped up. A string with balls attached wrapped around her legs and another around her chest, rendering her arms unable to struggle. She could hear the man from a distance. She rolled furiously on the ground to escape the bind, she was fearful for her life. The bird squawked out loud, as if for help. A figure, with features indistinguishable from the sunlight in her eyes, descended from the roof tops and slashed through the snare with two thin, hooked swords.
"Up here," the figure said. It was a male voice, quite young, too. She took the boy's hand with one and picked up the bird with the other and was pulled up onto the rooftops. From this position she could make out the boy. He was about her age and quite fit, broad shoulders, tall and slender. He had short, dirty brown hair and piercing green eyes. His jagged jaw framed a face that seemed weathered with suffering and washed with a harsh sunlight. Nevertheless he seemed very agile and was quite handsome in Kyoshi's eyes. He led her across the rooves as the shopkeeper's angry voice was quickly drowned out by thrilling winds. Kyoshi always loved adventure. She could see the ghetto stretch on around the wall of central Ba Sing Se and knew that something was socially wrong with this city. The boy finally stopped and they jumped to the ground. They came to a ramshackle type house with weeds growing from the corners and windows stained with cooking fumes.
"Are you all right?" the boy spoke, his voice slightly raspy and quite masculine.
"Yes, I'm fine," Kyoshi blushed. There was a moment where the conversation dropped.
"I'm Bako," the boy said quickly, trying to move the conversation along again.
"Kyoshi," Kyoshi replied, shaking Bako's hand.
"Kyoshi...strange name. What were you doing anyway?" he asked.
"I, I saved this bird. It was chained up and looked really sad." The bird shrieked with delight and pecked at Kyoshi's feet.
"Is it yours?"
"And does it have a name?" Bako said as he bent down to pat it. The bird got startled and ran behind Kyoshi's legs. Kyoshi had no intention of naming the bird, let alone keeping it. But, although dirty and scrawny, she liked the little creature.
"Tori. Its name is Tori," Kyoshi told Bako, smiling down at the bird.
"I've never seen you around Ba Minzang," Bako said, "are you from Ba Opik?"
"Actually, I came from Ba Sing Se and went out here to have a look around but-"
"Oh, you're from the city?" the boy interrupted. "I should've known. You seemed to have no idea what you were doing back there." Kyoshi stopped, astonished by Bako's rude remarks.
"It's fine. Really. You needed my help," the boy shrugged.
"What? No. I can take care of myself!" Kyoshi yelled, the boy's arrogance and attitude riling her up quickly.
"It didn't seem like it... but it's okay," the boy said with a mean smile, "if you're from the Inner Circle then I guess it's an exception."
"I'm better than you think!" Kyoshi argued.
"I don't think so," the boy rebutted, turning to his home. Kyoshi grabbed his shoulder, turned him around with force and with anger and desperation she said, "I'm the Avatar so you better watch out!" The boy studied Kyoshi and then laughed. Tori screeched defiantly at the boy in Kyoshi's defence and Kyoshi widened her mouth.
"Hey! What's so funny!" she asked boldly. Bako wiped his face and calmed his laughter.
"You? The Avatar?" Bako said through giggles, "that's impossible!"
"I'll prove it!" Kyoshi said at the top of her lungs, lunging her body forward to intimidate him.
"Fine. Prove it. Bend something," Bako said, brazenly smiling, his eyes glistening with nastiness. Kyoshi, still in a rage, went into a position before realising she couldn't bend. Embarrassment filled her body and she looked around hopelessly for something to distract Bako.
"Well," she began, scratching the back of her head, "I haven't learnt how to bend yet so-
Bako burst into laughter again, this time almost falling to the ground.
"What kind of Avatar can't bend? You must be the worst Avatar ever!" Bako shouted through hysterics. Kyoshi felt his words cut into her skin. Never had she felt so pathetic and stupid. A tear swelled in her eye and she turned around so Bako wouldn't see her defeated.
"Look, Kyoshi," Bako said softly from behind her, realising his cruelty. "Everyone wants to do great things but...the Avatar doesn't exist anymore." Kyoshi turned around, confused by what he said.
"What makes you so certain, though?"
"I don't know. If there is an Avatar, why haven't they come here yet?"
"What do you mean?"
"Look at this place, Kyoshi," Bako replied, insecurity in his voice. "Why is it that the people in there get it better than us?" Bako referred to the wall. Kyoshi understood what he was saying. The suburbs inside the wall were so extravagant and lively compared to the drab, poverty-stricken community outside. On her travel to Ba Sing Se, too, she saw some small towns with rundown houses and little supplies and remembered what Nero had told her.
"Sometimes, one has to sacrifice a lot to a little bit of good," Kyoshi repeated Nero's words. Bako looked up at her.
"You think the Earth State is doing a good thing?" he said. What he said would be treacherous within Ba Sing Se but Kyoshi, only somewhat, felt a truth in it.
"Do you know how brutal the other States have been? They destroy the towns and ransack the supplies of innocent civilians for no reason but enjoyment," Kyoshi explained.
"Don't tell me you believe that!" Bako replied passionately. "How can you believe those things? All the information we get is filtered through the government first and changed to suit the Earth State. How much of it is true?"
"What are you saying? That we're the bad guys?" Kyoshi began, getting fervent about the subject. "The Earth State is set on bringing peace to the four States, and we just have to trust them! They wouldn't do this to you without good intentions! They just wouldn't." Kyoshi stared into his eyes, trying to convince him, but his ideas seemed set in stone. The conversation was getting too complicated for her to handle, let alone understand.
"Let's just agree to disagree, okay?" Bako said, turning to his house.
"Hey, thanks for helping me, Bako," Kyoshi said as he almost entered his house before leaving with Tori, not waiting for a reply.
"No problem, Avatar," he replied from behind her. She turned around and smiled at him.
"I'll prove it to you one day," she said. "You'll see the error of your ways." They both laughed and went their separate ways; Bako into his home and Kyoshi back to the wall with Tori alongside her, chirping contently. It was not until late afternoon that Kyoshi found her way back to the gargantuan wall and here Nero and a pack of guards seemed concerned and agitated. Nero noticed the girl and took her arm with force.
"Avatar Kyoshi! What are you doing out here!" he hissed. Kyoshi felt uncomfortable in his grip.
"I just wanted-
"I gave you orders to stay inside! If you can't be disciplined enough to obey those orders then you are definitely not ready to learn earthbending!" Kyoshi shrunk at those words and kept quiet. It was true; she was disobeying simple orders and she wanted very much to be the best Avatar she could be.
"And what is this?" Nero said condescendingly as Tori squawked in Kyoshi's defence.
"This is a friend. She was chained up and-
"I'm sorry, but we can't have a dirty mongrel bird like that in the castle," Nero interrupted gently kicking Tori away. "Come on. We're going." The bird shrieked as Kyoshi was taken back up the wall and it was left back on the ground. There was a fierce silence. Nero seemed terribly angry and Kyoshi felt bad for him; he only wanted what was best for her and the Earth State.
"I'm sorry," Nero said, smiling down at her. "I just don't want you to get in any trouble. The Earth State is relying on you to do your job correctly."
"My job?" Kyoshi replied nervously.
"All you have to do is master earthbending. Any problems with that?" Kyoshi smiled back at him timidly, still feeling awkward about her misbehaviour. "Once you've done that, we'll make you the face of the Earth State. You will attend government meetings and we'll take into account your views and ideas. We understand you are young and quite intimidated by the responsibility, there must be a lot of pressure, so we'll do our best to make your job as easy as possible." Nero turned back up and looked out across the slums.
"This part of Ba Sing Se, admiral," Kyoshi mumbled sincerely, "I don't understand how it can be so different from inside." The contrast of both communities was confusing and almost unbelievable – if not suspicious.
"I'm glad you have an interest in this. Other than fighting for peace, the Earth State's next priority is funding the less fortunate towns and provinces. We hope to give them proper education and protection. If you're interested, I'm sure we can focus more on that rather than politics," Nero explained, his amber eyes providing Kyoshi with consolation and his neat smile reassuring her of his, and the Earth State's, good will.
"I think I'd like that," Kyoshi replied humbly. She turned her head to the cluttered village. Although excited to learn earthbending and live luxuriously in the castle walls, the decrepit state of the buildings and roads, the worn atmosphere, and even Bako's stubborn attitude inspired a flurry of devotion in Kyoshi – she felt in her, perhaps for the first time, a determination to do good. She had never thought of being a hero before, just as she never thought she'd be the Avatar. The idea of doing good, doing incredible good – not helping an old lady or cleaning Hiaga's dishes good – but making an impact on someone, or something, that would last a lifetime, the idea seemed like it would be very life-changing. Feeling important felt nice, and the idea of doing good sparked stirring, yet powerful emotions in her heart.
Nero spoke again, snapping Kyoshi out from her zealous thoughts, saying, "I know you will be a great Avatar, Kyoshi." They shared a smile.
"You seem to possess a great amount of potential in you. There's something in your eyes, a valiant glint or a noble sparkle, that tells me you are kind, brave and wise. You shouldn't doubt yourself." Kyoshi beamed at the virtuous man with reverence. He was so eloquent and so supportive that just his company would warm the coldest of men. They returned to the castle and Nero bowed down at her.
"We will begin earthbending training tomorrow morning. But for now, do not disappoint me a second time," he said with a raised eyebrow and threatening tones. She nodded and made for her bedroom. She opened the large, jade-coloured doors to find her maid, Po, making her bed.
"Avatar, I've heard you have been out. Quite far out," Po said frankly. Po was short and rectangular in shape with a prominent hunch. She wore a tight bonnet that allowed dark brown stands of hair to fall over her wrinkly forehead. An apron was tied around a dress that bore the Earth State colours and symbol and she had slip on shoes.
"I was just having a look," Kyoshi said shyly, taking a seat on her giant bed.
"Good on you," Po replied with a toothless grin. "Open your eyes to everything the world has to offer." Kyoshi liked what Po had said, even if it had some undertones of caution – but that may have been her tiredness deceiving her.
"Avatar, don't forget to send these out," Po started, handing Kyoshi a bunch of letters. "Nero wanted you to write out some invitations but you were out all day."
"Invitations? To what?" The letters were bordered with golden lacing.
"Tomorrow you will be making your first address to the Earth State," Po explained. "If you know anyone in Ba Sing Se, you can invite them. Goodnight, Avatar." Po left the room with her broom and brushes and Kyoshi sat down at her desk, looking down at the pile of invitations. She stared at them briefly before scribbling Bako's name and address down and sealing it inside an envelope. Later that night she had dinner with Nero, treated to a royal delicious roast and Ba Sing Se's famous Golden Soup – made from caramelised pumpkin and Gingko root – and exotic fruits for desert. They talked lightly throughout the warm night, the thick walls trapping the little cold left in the air and before going to bed Kyoshi went for a walk in one of the central courtyards of the castle. An overgrowth of scarlet orchids grew up a burgundy wall and a koi pond, with stirring fishes, sat at the courtyard's heart. The grass was cut neatly against each pathway or wall and next to the pond was a sand patch, raked distinctively with swirls and geometric patterns. Kyoshi looked up at the sky; it was absent of any milky clouds one would usually see on a warm night and spread over the deep navy blanket was a shining carapace. The starlight shone, as if on purpose, so gloriously over Ba Sing Se and Kyoshi could feel a sparkle inside her. She looked once more around the courtyard and down the imperial hallways.
Many times she told herself today that she was dreaming but as the night drew to a close she felt as if this – Ba Sing Se, Bako, being the Avatar – she felt as though she deserved it. Finally, she accepted the fact the she was the most important person in the world and she could feel herself coming to terms with the responsibility. She got up and went back to her bedroom, content and satisfied. Satisfied. Kyoshi had not felt satisfied for so long and the satisfaction seemed to fill a gap in her soul – a gap she had tried so hard to fill over the years with training and keeping herself occupied. She changed into her nightclothes, slipped under the satin sheets and, in a state of exhaustion, the floral wallpaper seemed to give off relaxing and lulling aromas, sending the young lady into a most comfortable sleep.
Nero was sharply dressed in maroon pants and a faded green shirt. His hair was slicked back and tied into a short ponytail with a golden clasp. The foyer in which Kyoshi was led to was located at the back of the castle grounds, where noise and bustle seemed almost non-existent. The paved floor soaked up the lethargic morning sunlight and Kyoshi, still in her nightclothes and slippers, rubbed her eyes of weariness.
"Good morning, Avatar Kyoshi. A contented first night sleep, I hope?" Nero asked with a perfectly rigid smile.
"Yes, thank you," Kyoshi replied with a yawn.
"Should we get straight into it?" Nero said.
"You mean...earthbending?" Kyoshi asked, her stance flexing upright and her eyes focusing.
"I said we'd train right away. You're ready, aren't you?" Nero studied the girl, smiling at her impractical clothing. "Well. You'll just have to work with what you got." He positioned Kyoshi at the end of the foyer and himself at the opposite end.
"Now. Put your feet in a locked position, keeping comfortable, too" Nero started from away, the acoustics of the open area allowing for him to speak without straining. Kyoshi obeyed and copied what she could make out from his stance. Not a moment later, Nero pulled a wedge of stone from the pavement and fired it to her. The earth moved to her and she avoided it easily.
"I want you to stay standing. Pretend we're throwing a ball to one another," Nero explained. A small, chilling breeze swept through the corridors and across the foyer, Kyoshi could feel her bones numbing.
"As I throw it to you, all you have to do is catch it. Easy?"
"I guess." Nero summoned another haul of earth from in front of him and fired it. Kyoshi obeyed Nero's orders and stood her ground, feeling the force of the projectile increasing as it came closer. She held her arms out in a hope to catch the stone, but instead defended herself, using her plates to split the rock into dust and rubble and skidded backwards from the blow.
"I can't do it! It's not working!" Kyoshi shouted with frustration, kicking some debris angrily.
"Kyoshi. You will not master earthbending quickly, as earthbending is solid and grounded. The weight you feel inside your heart, it can be transported into your bending. Come," Nero said gratifyingly, taking Kyoshi to a large boulder at the side of the courtyard. "This boulder was lifted by our first Earth King in Omashu. Try and lift it." Kyoshi examined the boulder. It was smoothened from age and immensely dark. She put her hands under the rock, finding some crevasses to lift from, and, straining the muscles in her arms, legs and back, tried to lift the ancient boulder. It was impossible. She grunted from the weight of the pull and did not even manage to move the earth.
"Can you feel its weight? With earthbending you can not afford to be fluid – you need to be rigid and grounded to your source," Nero explained, hoisting the boulder up with a lift of a finger. "Go back. And we'll try it again." Nero produced several blocks from the ground and fired them one after the other to Kyoshi; who was growing more and more irritated from her lack of progress. She fixed her body on her spot and a stone impacted with her, punching the breath from her lungs and sending her sliding across the cold concrete. She moaned through gritted teeth and took the same stance and, as another stone came her way, she slithered to her left to avoid additional painful collisions.
"Stop running from it. Remember the weight and catch it!" Nero said, firing the last stone with incredible speed. Kyoshi swiftly jumped up and onto the fluted roof as the earth crashed into the floor – digging up the ornamental flooring.
"What are you doing up there?" Nero laughed, taking a step forwards and manufacturing a large slab. "Avoid and evade, that's not the way of an earthbender."
"Maybe I'm not meant to be an earthbender," Kyoshi hissed as she dodged the attack, the roof tiles splitting and flying about. She returned to the floor, tired and disappointed with herself. Nero took a firm stance, pulling his shoulders back and clenching his fists, and fired one last assault. Kyoshi turned to see the oncoming rock and put out her hands in a bid to protect herself from damage. She could feel the pressure building up on her hands and so flexed her entire body. Her heart rate increased and she could sense the weight of the rock. She tensed her fingers, swivelled her feet, and caught the slab through earthbending. The blow continued through her body and turned her around, the hunk falling from her grip.
"I did it! I felt the weight! I could feel it!" Kyoshi screamed with joy, jumping up and down. Nero came up to her, smiling, as usual.
"I knew you had it in you," he said. Kyoshi bowed to him with her hands together and he did the same. Her training had been successful. She was beaming and her heart was still pumping fast.
"I'll see you at lunch, when you'll be making your speech," Nero explained.
"Today, we announce that the Avatar has been found," he told her. "Nothing too major; a hello, what you plan to do – just think it over a bit and I'll do most of the talking." Nero bowed once more before leaving down a marble corridor. Kyoshi was left, stunned and greatly pleased. Feeling the weight in her body and conjuring control over the element – something about bending was inspiring and empowering. Normally, Kyoshi would've been nervous to make a speech in front of the Earth State capital but, after effectively earthbending, she felt she could do anything.
From the wings, Kyoshi could hear a growing roar. Nero was at a large white podium on top a majestic dark green stage. He held his hands up and the noise silenced.
"Earth State citizens of Ba Sing Se, I speak to you today with much delight and satisfaction. For seventeen years we have been trying to bring peace to the four States – and through out this time we have experienced many cruel and brutal expressions from our neighbours. But no longer! No, we are not declaring war. We are declaring peace, once and for all! For seventeen years we have been searching for the Avatar; our Avatar, an earthbender. And today, we have found her!" The cheering echoed throughout the masses and Kyoshi began blushing offstage.
"May I present to you today; our salvation, our Avatar, Avatar Kyoshi!" Nero held out his arm and, with one last cry from the crowds, Kyoshi stepped out onto the stage. From here she saw many smiling faces and clapping hands – a display of respect and appreciation she had always dreamed of receiving. She grinned down at her people, who, with shimmering eyes full of awe, stopped applauding. Kyoshi took a spot in front of the podium and made her address; a speech she'd been revising in her head all day.
"Hello. I am Avatar Kyoshi," she started softly, the silence and the proud faces unnerving her. "I am the Avatar, and – and I'm hoping to...make Ba Sing Se, the outside of Ba Sing Se, a lot better. That's what I'm going to do." There was no response from the crowd and Kyoshi turned red with embarrassment. From a distance she could see Bako with Tori, staring at her with amazement – the sight sparking a glimpse of confidence.
"That's right. I'm the Avatar. And first, I'm going to help the Outer Circle reach its true potential as part of Ba Sing Se." Again, there was no response – it was as if nobody cared.
"What she is trying to say is," Nero interjected and took the podium. "Although possessing quality earthbending skills, Avatar Kyoshi is still mastering the element and is thus focusing on helping her State capital. Once she has mastered earthbending she will join us in bringing peace to the world. From today onwards, I can assure you, a new era of peace will begin!" The crowd slowly built up into raucous until roaring and cheering filled the streets and the people soon dispersed away.
"Maybe leave the speeches to me," Nero said over Kyoshi's shoulder.
"You said I'm a well-trained earthbender, admiral," Kyoshi said, "why tell them that if it's not true?"
"Sometimes you have to bend the truth a little to win over the faith of your people," he replied before exiting with some State officials. Kyoshi dismissed this call as she was escorted back to the castle. She returned to her room and stood in front of the mirror, muttering a speech to herself and checking her washed dress in her reflection. A screech came from the window and Kyoshi went outside to identify the source of the noise. Below the balcony was Bako, in a dark brown singlet and green shorts, and Tori, chirping curiously.
"How did you get in here?" Kyoshi asked, jumping down onto the short grass.
"Tori led me here. She seemed to know where she was going," Bako explained, smiling. Kyoshi knelt down, Tori running onto her lap, and stroked the bird's greasy, scruffy plumage.
"Kyoshi, I owe you an apology," Bako started, blushing very faintly. "I – I guess I've just been waiting for the Avatar to come along and help us out for so long that I lost hope and...I shouldn't of made fun of you." Kyoshi got up and smiled at the shabby boy.
"It's fine Bako. I felt the same way too but...it's great now! Nero said we're going to start working on the Outer Circle, isn't that great?"
"Yeah, that's good, if it actually happens," Bako mumbled.
"What? What do you mean?" Kyoshi asked, putting Tori down, allowing her to peck at the ground.
"Do you think they'll listen to you? You're just a young girl," Bako said, turning to avoid the confrontation.
"I'm seventeen, Bako. And I'm the Avatar! They have to listen to me!" Kyoshi shouted in rebuttal. "Why do you always deny that good is never going to happen to you?"
"Because, I've been waiting for seventeen years, Kyoshi! The Earth State go around and act like they're doing good but they break up families and send them off to war!" Bako shouted, his eyes glistening passionately. "When people from my village were recruited for the army, including my father, the Earth State promised us support. We were moved from our homes and into the slums of Ba Sing Se and forgotten about. I know they don't care about anything but themselves."
"But that's going to change. I've seen what it is like for you and I'm going to make a difference, Bako. Believe me, it's going to end now," Kyoshi told him tenderly, putting her hand on his shoulder.
"Thank you. I know you're trying but...the Earth State aren't as friendly as they set out to be. Word spreads around the Outer Circle about what they really do," Bako replied.
"Don't tell me you believe stupid rumours from the streets?"
"I don't know what to believe, Kyoshi. But from what I've seen, and from how they've treated us...it's possible that-
"That they're the enemy? Peace-keeping is their top priority. Perhaps they need to use force to complete their aims but, enforcing harmony is better than disrupting it – so they've got one up from the other States."
"That's not what I've heard," Bako said, frowning slightly.
"You don't know what you're talking about!"
"Neither do you! You found out you were the Avatar, what, yesterday? You know just as much as me, if not less, and you're letting the Earth State convince you of their lies!"
"What do you want me to do then? Just waltz up and demand for them to pull out of the war?" Kyoshi hissed.
"That'd be great, Kyoshi. See, now you're on to something. If they pull out, it'd be a demonstration for the rest of the world."
"It would leave them open for an attack, a brutal and animalistic attack. We need to keep our forces out there to educate the lesser States of-
"The lesser States? Listen to yourself, Kyoshi! You're becoming one of them!"
"One of them? What's that supposed to mean, an enemy of the world?" she mocked.
"You know exactly what I mean!"
"Shut up! You say so many stupid things! Just go!" Kyoshi boomed as Tori screeched at the two of them to be quiet.
"Gladly. Anywhere is better than with your chauvinistic, power-hungry friends!" And with that, Bako stormed off around the corner.
"I never want to see you again!" Kyoshi shouted at the last glimpse of his shoulder. She was burning with rage and was deeply offended by his words.
"Ahh! He's so infuriating!" Kyoshi screamed out loud and punched the thin, white tree, its leaves shaking on impact.
"Avatar Kyoshi," said Po from the balcony, "you shouldn't judge others without complete knowledge." Her wrinkled and saggy faced smiled down at the fuming girl who, with Tori in her arms, jumped back up onto the balcony.
"He was saying things about the Earth State that was so untrue. They were just based off rumours and word of mouth," Kyoshi said as Po gestured for her to sit. Kyoshi sat down on her bed and stroked her hair.
"What do you believe?" Po asked her, sitting on Kyoshi's desk chair with her apron displaying the rolls of fat on her stomach.
"Well...I know there's a war and Nero was told me so often that they're trying to end it. That they're trying to bring peace," Kyoshi explained, finding herself exhausted from the previous argument.
"Did you know that it was the Earth State that started the war?" Po said cheekily.
"What? No. I had no idea." Kyoshi sat up. She could not comprehend what she had just heard.
"Before the death of Avatar Kuruk, the States were quarrelling over land distribution," Po started. "Kuruk believed that each State should have equal amount of land but, once he passed the Earth State made the first attack. From then on, the Earth State recruited men for their army, tearing families apart." Po stopped, seemingly to swallow some deep, painful memory. "From what the Earth State government tells us, they are employing a peace-keeping regime to bring the world back into harmony yet, they do not give back the stolen land. To me, it all seems very hazy – I don't know all the information and therefore I cannot judge. But you, the Avatar, you can tell the Earth State what you want, because only you can guide the world back into balance." Po got up and straightened her bonnet. Kyoshi searched her brain for an answer, for a solution to such a complex issue.
"Well...I definitely do not want families to break up," Kyoshi started, looking into Po's aged, orange eyes. "And I do believe that every State should be equal. If the Earth State can continue working towards peace but give back land that rightfully isn't theirs than...than perhaps the effects of the war would lessen and I'd be happy." Kyoshi smiled at her reflection; she was pleased with her outcome, deeming it an appropriate compromise.
"Than you have to tell the Earth King that, as the Avatar, this is what you think is necessary for the balance of the world," Po said, taking Kyoshi's hand and leading her out of the bedroom. "I'll escort you to the Throne Room." Kyoshi nodded and then, in silence, followed Po down hallways Kyoshi had never even seen before. They passed Dai Li agents – guards of Nero who ensured cultural unity inside Ba Sing Se. Po stopped at a giant pair of doors, coloured green and woven with gold and bronze.
"In here is the Throne Room. The Earth King resides here often to carry out his work," Po explained. "However, he is absent in Omashu, a business meeting of sorts." Kyoshi laughed at this. Ever since she arrived at Ba Sing Se, she had never once met the Earth King – it was like he didn't exist at all.
"Instead, you'll be meeting with Nero, is that alright?"
"That's fine." Kyoshi much preferred Nero, for we was kind and understanding. Kyoshi went to enter but Po stopped her.
"The bird has to stay outside," she said, holding out a foot in front of an eager Tori. The bird squawked in defiance.
"Sorry, Tori. We won't be long," Kyoshi smiled at the bird, which obeyed and sat down. Po pushed the massive bronze handles and led Kyoshi in. Nero, who was talking to two Dai Lee agents, turned around.
"Grand Secretariat, Avatar Kyoshi would wish to speak to you," Po uttered before bowing and backing off into the corner.
"Of course," Nero smiled. "Kyoshi, have you heard? The speech was great success."
"That's, that's good. But...I'd like to talk to you about...about everything really," Kyoshi replied, trying to smile. He nodded for her to continue.
"Well, I've been thinking about Ba Sing Se and the Earth State and, I think it's really great that the Earth King wants to restore the world to peace," she started. "And I've learnt a bit more about the war, and how – how the Earth State has taken most of the mainland and I think...to achieve peace we need to retreat and give back the land to their rightful owners." There was a chilling pause as Nero's gratifying smile curved downwards into an unamused smile. Kyoshi could feel a glimmer of fear pricking at her gut. She smiled at Nero for a response.
"I thought you'd come to that decision, from going out to the Outer Circle." Nero took a single, menacing step forward.
"But the Earth State's one priority is not fixing the inequalities within our State but expanding. Without you our State has conquered almost the entire mainland, but with you...Think of what we could achieve!" His eyes disturbingly twinkled and the corners of his quivering lips turned upwards. "With you at the front of our campaigns, the whole world will fall to our feet!" Kyoshi tiptoed back with astonishment. To hear those words come from such a proper and trusted figure of hers, to see him act in such a frenzied way – it was quite sickening. She did not want to hear it.
"What about...what about the peace-keeping?" Kyoshi muttered with as much strength as she could feign.
"Come now! Peace? What will that achieve? If you need something done, you need to take the offensive!" Nero said with sheer cruelty. All his nobility and graciousness was dissolving from him in this moment, as Kyoshi could see the real Nero; a wicked, power-hungry man.
"What about the Earth King? I need to speak with him," Kyoshi said through tremors of fear.
"The Earth King is busy – busy conquering the Fire State. Kyoshi, you are young and uneducated on the matter. I can assure you, by coming with us you will, in time, be able to carry out your ambitions – but the Earth State is in desperate need of you, we are so close to achieving our goal," Nero explained with an eerie courteousness.
"The Earth State is not in need of me. You managed to get this far without my help. I can't go on with what you want, if it is unfair to the other States," Kyoshi said boldly.
"If you do not obey the Earth King's orders, there will be consequences, young Avatar. You will have betrayed your people-
"The entire world is my people!"
"I'm giving you one last chance, girl. Obey your orders or otherwise face the consequences," Nero hissed, taking a stance.
"I'm giving you one last chance; retract your position from the war o-
"Seize her!" Nero interrupted with a grimace. The two Dai Li agents, dressed in black robes, immediately fired stone gloves from their hands, binding Kyoshi arms together. Kyoshi shrieked with fear and suddenly the vicing gloves broke.
"Kyoshi!" Po screamed from behind her. Kyoshi quickly turned around to see the plump, old servant in a low stance. The Dai Lee agents returned again for another attack but Kyoshi swivelled in her position and kicked them across the room. She then made for the door and could hear the footsteps of the agents behind her. She was groaning with terror but Po, who was now in plain sight, moved rigidly forward, moving her arms up and into each other. Two giant vases were hoisted into midair and, as Po instructed, they crashed into each other – releasing gallons of water onto Nero and his two agents, washing them further down the room.
"Hurry!" Po croaked loudly. Kyoshi got to Po and got her hands on the bronze door handles but spires of earth rose from the floor and surrounded Po and Kyoshi's hands and legs were caught by the Dai Li's gloves. Nero took his time to approach the detained women, like a spider to its prey, and got down to Kyoshi's eye level, smiling.
"Take her to Lake Laogai. I'm sure there she will have a change of heart," Nero smiled, not breaking the eye contact.
"No! Please!" Po screamed agonisingly, as Kyoshi – helpless and exhausted – was escorted away by the Dai Lee. Around the corner, Tori saw her friend being taken against her will. The bird followed at a distance and then, after its concerned screech echoed down the hallway, it ran off in the other direction, chirping hastily to itself – the pitter-patter of its tiny toes fading away from where the newly discovered Avatar had made her first, and biggest, enemy.
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