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Kensei makes a living for himself and his sister as part of a ruthless street gang in the Lower Ring of Ba Sing Se. However, when he and the gang rob a certain upscale teashop, Kensei finds that he has bit off far more than he can chew.
Coin and Cabbage
One of Boss Ibaru's men gave the merchant another shove.
"Come on, old man," said Kensei, his dual swords held cross-wise at the man's throat, "that can't be all the money you have on you-check his cart!"
Two of the other robbers gleefully went about the search, upending the entire construction with a crash of stone and splintering of wood. Cabbages rolled out everywhere onto the empty street, but there was no money in sight.
The cabbage merchant sank to his knees. "My cabbages! Why does it always have to be me and my cabbages?"
"Nothing in here, Ken," said one of the thieves, disappointed, "Let's get out of here before the guards show up."
The others nodded.
Ken spat at the merchant's feet, but sheathed his swords. It was getting late. It would be night soon, and the security in the city streets of the Lower Ring would be on the rise. "You got off easy today, old man," Ken glared down his victim, fingering the string of coins now hanging at his belt "But tomorrow you owe us big time!"
The cabbage merchant gulped and gave him a small nod and the thieves turned away, one of them kicking a loose cabbage back at the merchant with an ugly laugh. "Did you see the look on his face," the man with scraggly beard roared "You'd think that those cabbages were his own children or something! How can you move merchandise with an attitude like that?"
A short man with a gimp and a knife scowled. "I hate cabbages. Momma used to make me eat'em all the time till I ran away from home. I say good riddance."
"So, Ken," said Yao, a barrel-chested man with stubby legs, "Word is that the boss is planning a little upscale operation tomorrow night."
Kensei grinned. "Count me in," he said, "Just give me the time and the place."
The veteran street thief nodded. "Usual spot-we'll move out from there at about midnight-it'll make it easier to get into the inner ring when they're changing the guard."
Kensei arched a brow above his black eyes. "The Upper Ring? We've never done an uptown job before."
Yao grinned down at the younger thief, showing a row of rotted teeth. "You've never done a job uptown before, you mean." He said, "Look, I can understand if you're not up to it, you being the new guy and all, but-"
"Of course I'm up to it," Kensei insisted, twirling one of his blades, "I'm just not sure about the rest of these mugs."
The short man gripped his knife. "What's that supposed to mean?"
The bearded man was glancing over his shoulder and did a double-take. "Hey, don't look now guys, but I think we've worn out our welcome in this part of town!"
Kensei and the others glanced over in time to see half a dozen armed men of the city watch barreling after them down the dusty avenue, the cabbage merchant at the head of the line.
Ken tossed the stolen coins to Yao. "Let's split!" he shouted, "We'll meet back at the hideout!" The others nodded quickly and then each thief took off in a separate direction.
Brother and Sister
Kageshiko drummed her fingers on the windowsill as she divided her glance between the sinking sun beyond the wall and the swiftly emptying streets below. She didn't even want to think of the kind of trouble her brother was getting into this time. Some nights when she lay down on her moth-ridden bedroll she feared that her brother would never come back-that he would leave her just like their mother had done when Kage had been born.
Her brother said that their father had fought in the War, that he had been among the first of the soldiers to fall when the Fire Nation had taken the city. Their mother hadn't stayed around long after that-Kage didn't even remember her face, although at night she would often dream about what she might have looked like after falling asleep listening to her brother's stories. Sometimes her brother would tell her the stories their father told him about his adventures as a city guard. Other times he would tell her about how the Avatar and the Blue Spirit came to Ba Sing Se and fought the Dai-Li. Kage missed those stories.
Kageshiko was so lost in thought that she nearly missed seeing the lithe figure in black racing towards the tumbledown wood and stone construction that she and Kensei called home.
Stifling a giggle, Kage waited until her brother was just about to enter the lower level before she gave the stone wall next to her a swift kick.
"Ow!" her brother cried out from below, "Very funny, Kage, let me in!"
Kage stuck her head out of the window and made a face. "Are you going to say 'please'?"
"I don't have time for games," said Ken as he stood glancing up and down the street. "Let me in already-please!"
Kage gave the stone wall another kick.
"I'm serious, Kage!" her brother called up again. The stone barrier she had erected in front of the door was still in place.
"Sorry," said his sister, "I'm still getting the hang of this one." She kicked the wall again-this time with success.
She turned in time to see Kensei clamoring up the ladder that led to the second floor and dive over to the window beside her. "Okay, now close it up again, quick!"
"You don't have to yell at me!" Kage retorted as she closed up the door to the dwelling, making it appear as though it were just another bare wall of the narrow alleyway. Several moments later a detachment of the city guard came rushing past beneath the window, oblivious to the deception.
Kage turned to glare at her brother who laid out his string of stolen coins across the floor. "You know," she said, "Je and the city guards are going to catch you one day and then you'll be sorry."
Ken grinned up at her. "That's why I have an Earthbender for a sister." He said, "as soon as you get into those Earthbending classes at the University, you can become part of the Terra Team and we'll be set for life!"
Kage put her hands on her hips. "And what do you think people are going to say at the University when they find out that my brother is a common street thief?"
"Who says they're going to find out?" said Ken, "It's not like I'd ever tell anybody-or is it the Dai Li you're worried about finding out?" He waggled his fingers in her face. "Ooh! Look out-the Dai Li is watching!"
"Cut it out!" Kage gave him a shove.
Her brother shoved her back. "Don't suppose you have any defense for-" he grinned mischievously, green eyes narrowing, "-The Kensei Triple-Tickle Attack!"
"No!" Kage shrieked, balling over with laughter as her brother barreled into her side, "Not the Tickle Attack!"
"The Triple-Tickle Attack!" Ken corrected.
"Pebble shower!" Kage cried, sending a hail of stone onto Ken's vulnerable backside.
"Hey! No Bending allowed!"
Kage laughed triumphantly. "What was that about having an Earthbender for a sister!"
With that, Ken called for a surrender and rolled onto his back, panting with a big smile on his face.
Kage rolled over beside him and happen to glance at the far end of the little room, towards the nook where her brother kept all of his stolen money. Some days she felt so guilty that she just wanted to throw it all out the window into the streets below but it seemed that every time she got enough courage to do just that her brother would come home with new shiner or a gash on his leg. It made her feel guilty all over again-this time towards her brother-after all, he hadn't asked to become a thief, she told herself.
"You're not doing a job tomorrow night are you?" she asked suddenly.
Ken sat up, no longer smiling. "What makes you say that?"
Kage looked away. "Just thought I'd ask." She said. "I get worried sometimes."
Ken said nothing for several moments, looking out into the coming night. "Maybe." He answered.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Ken looked back at his sister. "It means it's time for you to go to bed. Jon's not going to want his best vegetable-slicer nodding off on the job tomorrow."
Kage rose obediently and crawled into her bedroll. It stank, but it was a familiar stink, even comforting in the coming chill. "You still didn't answer my question."
Ken nodded. "Like I said-maybe." He said with a yawn, "How about a story? The Blue Spirit vs. the Fire Nation Army? You always liked that one."
Kage sighed and rolled to face the wall while her brother drew his father's old cloak up around himself in his favorite corner. "I'm almost nine years old." She said, "I'm too old for stories." A few moments later, she was out like a light.
Eat at Jon's
"Huwyah!" the delicatessen's katana whistled through air and flesh alike-cleaving the slab of seasoned ribs asunder with expert precision and deadly force. No-one was sure why Jon used his katana instead of a more practical butcher's cleaver-but then again, few were bold enough to ask.
Kensei certainly wasn't-and he had known that man almost since he had learned how to talk. His father used to take him to Jon's stand near the inner edge of the Lower Ring every fifth day in the early afternoon when he got off of his shift. The fame of the man's legendary sandwiches were only matched by his fearsome reputation and his vocabulary (or lack thereof)-which consisted chiefly of grunts, growls and the occasional frenzied battle cry.
Two years ago he had allowed Kageshiko to become his apprentice vegetable slicer-paying her in with money as well as in full-sized sandwiches. Also, it kept his sister busy and not worrying about him while he was out with Ibaru's street gang for most of the day.
When Jon caught sight of them, he sheathed his giant sword and bowed.
"Sifu Jon," Kage said, returning the bow.
Ken gave his own awkward bow, to which the proprietor responded with his usual scowl and a curt nod.
In truth, Ken had always been a little bit intimidated by the big man with his mass of dark whiskers, but Kage didn't even so much as blink, even that one time when he had worked himself into a frenzy when a customer changed his order in mid-preparation.
"Looks like the morning rush is earlier than usual," Ken said off-handedly, glancing at a line of approaching figures at the end of the dusty street.
"I don't remember the morning rush carrying weapons and armor like that," Kage said.
Sure enough, six fully-armed city guards were making their way directly towards the sandwich stand.
Jon gave Ken an accusing stare.
"What?" said Ken, "What are you looking at me for? Could be they just want an early lunch-" he glanced at the morning sun peeking over the wall, "Really early."
"Ah, Ken, somehow I knew I'd find you here," said the foremost of the guards, a dashing young man about Ken's age.
Ken folded his arms. "Gee, Je," he said, "Maybe that's because my sister works here?"
Je chuckled mirthlessly. "You were always the funny one, Ken," he said, clapping him on the shoulder, "Now here's one for you: I got a report from a surprisingly knowledgeable merchant of cabbage that a band of thieves has been roaming this part of town."
Ken shrugged him off. "This is the Lower Ring," he said, "this is where those kind of things tend to happen if you're not careful-but of course you wouldn't remember that, would you Je?"
Je narrowed his eyes. "One of the thieves had dual swords, Kensei. What's more, something's got the Dai Li all riled up-they're everywhere nowadays."
"Dai Li getting into everyone's business-sounds about normal to me," said Ken. "Besides, you can't prove anything. All of that fancy training uptown and you still can't catch a few pickpockets."
The young guard nodded. "I'd just thought I'd warn you, Kensei," he said, "You know I'd only do that for an old friend."
Kensei shrugged. "I can handle myself," he said, "And I don't need any Earthbending to do it."
"And I don't need to steal from the helpless," said Je.
"What did you say?" In an instant, Ken's swords were out, but before he could make a move, two of the guards disarmed him with twin blasts of stone to his arms, sending his swords flying away onto the street.
"That's enough," said Kageshiko, glaring at the guards, "Unless you're buying, then get out of the way-we've got customers."
Je and the others glanced behind them-sure enough, an impatient human train had formed up behind them.
"Let's move out," said Je, shooting one last glance in Ken's direction as he gathered up his swords.
When Ken had gotten his bearings he turned to Kage. "Thanks." He said.
His sister didn't even glance at him. "Don't thank me-thank Jon." She said, "Besides, I thought you just said you didn't need any Earthbending."
"There it is," said Yao, pointing down at the broad, tiled roof at the edge of the little stone plaza, "The Jasmine Dragon."
Ken almost didn't hear him. His mind was still on the fight he had gotten into with his old friend Je.
The night was dark and cold, yet the full moon burned bright overhead above the walls of the Upper Ring where Kensei and the other members of Ibaru's gang sat perched and waiting. In one of the nearby guard-houses they had locked the night-shift up where they wouldn't be any trouble while they carried out the plan. The only element missing was Ibaru himself.
"Where's the boss?" said Ken for what must have been the third time.
"Be patient, kid," said the little man with a knife, "You know how the boss likes to make an entrance. He's got a-a what-do-you-call-it-a 'flare for the dramatic'."
Yao grunted. "I don't know," he said, "maybe the kid's on to something. The boss is never this late."
"Hey!" the sudden cry made the three thieves jump.
"Down here-on the other side, you imbeciles!" the familiar cry came again.
Ken and the others looked down the opposite side of the wall, glimpsing a small dot at the bottom.
"I've been listening to you three ladies for the last half hour!" said the dot, "Could someone get me up there already?"
Yao scratched his head. "Sorry, boss," he said, "I guess we didn't hear you."
"Yes," said Boss Ibaru from below, "That's why I'm the boss, and you're all just a bunch of-"
He never got any further because Yao at that moment brought his foot down onto the stone walkway, causing a pillar of earth below to launch Ibaru up to them like a plump cannonball.
"You alright, boss?" said Yao, helping the fat man to his feet.
"Don't you ever do that again!" said Ibaru, his twin black mustachios quivering as he dusted himself off, "Now, do you all of you big galoots remember the plan?"
Kensei nodded. "Me and Yao go in and while you and Knife keep watch."
Knife nodded, twirling his namesake weapon.
"Then what are you two waiting for?" said Ibaru, livid, "Get going!
Without another word, Yao and Ken leapt into action. Yao created a series of hand and foot-holds as he clamored down the wall while Ken followed close behind. "So far, so good," said Ken.
Yao grinned toothily as he surveyed the luxurious avenues of the Upper Ring. "Don't get ahead of yourself," he said, "Last one there's Unagi bait!"
They reached the outside of the teashop without incident. With a bit of precise Earthbending, Yao made a hole in the stone wall of the shop, allowing easy access to the interior. "So what exactly are we looking for," Ken whispered.
Yao shrugged. "Boss said it would some kind of metal box or something," he said, inspecting an exquisite-looking porcelain teacup, "Just look around for something shiny."
Ken nodded and tiptoed into the corridor behind the common room, inspecting every cabinet and closet he came across. There were plenty of valuables that they could have sold on the black market, and yet for some reason the boss was only interested in one particular item-something about it didn't add up for Kensei.
Then, he saw it. It was set on top of a dresser, in plain view, a small, narrow box made of black metal and inscribed with various holes and grooves whose purpose Ken could only guess at. Ken tested its weight. It was lighter than he expected-and hollow. Jingling it up and down, he could hear what sounded like lots of tiny metal parts inside.
"I'm afraid we're closed, young man," said a voice in the darkness.
Ken did an about face, stuffing the metal box into his tunic as he came face to face with a squat old man with an old grey beard.
The old man smiled disarmingly, "But, if you're willing to return my property, I'd be more than willing to brew you a pot of my finest jasmine tea."
For the collective works of the author, go here.