|More from Minnichi||Romance/Angst/Action||PG-13||Very positive|
|Chapter 10 - Peasant Meets Royalty (SHiE)|
Summary of the Last Chapter
The Dai Li headquarters is infiltrated by the Avatar's group after Jet regains his memories. Yuhan feels ashamed that he'd avoided brainwashing him since he might've had a better chance at creating a stronger memory block than Hiroshu. The agents lose badly to Team Avatar, and Yuhan stays behind to convert Jet's remaining friends.
Riya would not cry. No matter how tightly the suppressed sobs constricted her aching chest. No matter how close she was to choking on the lump that clogged her throat. No matter how painfully the tears pinched her eyes, threatening to leak out...
She would not let herself cry.
Crying had not given her the ability to earthbend, so she could play with the rest of the children instead of sitting and watching. Crying did not cure her birth parents of their terminal illness. Crying could not bring her foster parents back from the dead. Crying was only the submission to loneliness. And Riya would not cry.
Slowly, she lit four sticks of incense. The curling wisps of smoke drifted high into the air within her bedroom, the mournful scent seeping into her lungs. Riya quietly stuck the ends of the burning sticks into a wooden, boat-shaped holder. Behind the glowing incense and a few fruits rested four wooden plaques. The girl had no portraits of any of her parents. To fill the obvious void, she had smoothed out and polished the most appealing scraps of wood she could find. As elegant as she could possibly do, she'd carved her family's names into them. Over the years, the carvings had become more and more elaborate. Several embellishments of vines and flowers now surrounded the wooden characters, forming a beautiful frame around them. The whole arrangement lay atop a small folded blanket, which had faded to a dull grey from constant use.
The hazel-eyed girl knelt before her little altar in her plain nightgown, just as she'd done every night for several years. "Mother, Father, Mina, Liu..." Riya called to them as naturally as if they were all standing before her. She leaned back up, resting on her knees. "Mr. Lai's poodle monkey somehow managed to eat through all of his clothes today." Her cheerful tone was betrayed by her shimmering eyes. "But he was really happy with the mending. After I finished patching it all up, I actually got some extra silver pieces from him. Look what I bought for you with them!" She waved a new packet of red and yellow incense sticks before her altar, half laughing and half choking.
"Anyway," Riya added, clearing her throat, "A lot of good things have been happening for me." She reached behind her back and pulled out a fresh flower with curling black and white petals. "He gave me another one! Can you believe it?" She smiled into the distance. "Hiroshu delivered it to me since he won't be here for the week. It's an apology gift for not visiting me. That Yuhan..." Riya's eyes lit up at the thought of him, but her expression became stern again as she gazed back into her wooden plaques. "Well, what I really wanted to tell you today is....that I'm happy." She swallowed back some more tears. "I mean – I'm the happiest I've ever been since...since you all left. A-and, I just wanted to let you know that I've been doing well, and..." Her words became clogged inside her throat. She tightened her grip around the thick stem of the flower and took a deep breath.
"I wish you could have met him. I wish you all could've met him," Riya whispered hoarsely. The edges of the wooden plaques became blurred, the characters illegible. The trembling young woman bit down hard on her quivering lip. She would not cry.
Riya bowed before the burning incense sticks, which had grown considerably shorter. "Anyway...like always...please watch over me...and Yuhan." Her lips smiled a little. "He takes so much of the emptiness away..."
She paused for a few moments, making sure their dead spirits received the prayers. "Also, our neighbors really like him now – and that's saying something. Even you know that!" she somehow managed to chuckle.
Her gentle fingers wrapped around the stem of the panda lily, and her eyelids dropped as she inhaled its scent. "He's coming back. Tomorrow." A wide smile stretched across her face. "And with your blessing, maybe he won't be called back so early this time," she added affectionately. "I hope it's alright with you that I want to spend more time with Yuhan. I can't help it. I just..." she laughed, her voice pure and joyful. "I mean – he always seems uncomfortable, but I love the way he jumbles up whatever he says. I love watching his eyes speak for him instead. I love his rare smiles. I..."
RAP! RAP! RAP! Riya jerked backwards, completely startled by the sudden banging on her door. She accidentally landed on top of the panda lily, tearing apart a few of its petals. She instantly sprang to her feet, however, dashing from her bedroom and leaving the tattered flower behind.
"Riya! Riya!" The muffled voice behind the front door became clearer and clearer as she quickly approached it, the frantic rapping on the wood growing louder and more frightening.
"Oh – Mr. Huang!" Riya's expression relaxed a little at the recognition. "You scared me!" she said breathlessly, clasping a hand over her chest. Her eyes suddenly widened in alarm. Her neighbor had tears dripping from his messy, unshaven chin. "What's wrong?"
Mr. Huang could barely hold himself together as he stumbled into her little house. Riya had to help him into a chair as he struggled to contain himself. His long black hair was badly disheveled and tangled hastily into a topknot, and the stench of his frayed yellow tunic indicated several days of personal neglect. He finally forced out some words out after a few strangled attempts. "Riya...you know my little boy, Shen, r-right?"
She nodded, placing a hand on the middle-aged man's shoulder. She could feel the dread already crawling within her chest. Mr. Huang lived a few houses down from her, and his five-year-old son would always tag along during her daily errands. Riya enjoyed little Shen's company and had shared many laughs with him. However, she had taken note of his absence over the past few weeks. "Did something happen to him?" Her voice shook.
"He's been awfully ill," Mr. Huang managed to say with a bit of composure. "The local doctor told us what he needs. And it's...something that can't be found anywhere in the Lower Ring. So...he's going to die. He has...maybe a few days left," he choked, failing to stop a flood of tears from flowing out of his swollen eyes. He angrily swiped them away with a dirty sleeve. Riya struggled to contain her own tears as she processed the terrible news.
The middle-aged man inhaled deeply, hesitating for several seconds before speaking again. "We've asked the Dai Li, Riya," he said cautiously as he met her gaze. The petite girl immediately jolted at the mention of his organization. "They won't give any of us permission to leave the Lower Ring. It's final," Mr. Huang continued. He sighed, bracing himself for her certain rebuttal.
"No...no, that can't be!" Her face was twisted with shock and fury. "Do they know he's going to die? Were you clear about the situation? Did you -"
"Riya!" Mr. Huang interrupted, his eyes flaring. "We've tried everything. They're not who you think! They could care less if the entire Lower Ring drops dead tomorrow!" His expression softened a little when he noticed the tears welling up her eyes. "Listen to me! I said that we asked the Dai Li...I didn't say that we asked Yuhan."
She looked confusedly back at her neighbor. "But...isn't that the same -"
"No, it's not. But that's a conversation for later. The main problem here is that Shen's going to die..." he almost choked again on the last sentence. "And none of us have permission to do anything about it...almost none of us." Mr. Huang watched carefully as realization dawned over the girl's face.
"You mean...I can go...because of Yuhan?" Riya paused. "Wait, why didn't you ask him though? I'm sure he would've been happy to – oh, he's been gone, hasn't he..." She looked down.
Mr. Huang nodded slowly. "Exactly...But I don't want to waste any more time. Riya, I need to ask you something very important. I've come to you because...my family has no other hope to turn to." He fiercely swiped away another tear.
The young woman looked back at him anxiously. He took in a deep breath. "Did Yuhan ever leave you any means of traveling outside the Lower Ring...in the case of his absence?" He looked desperately into her eyes.
Riya took his trembling hand into her own, clasping it caringly. This man was her dear friend. He didn't deserve this fate, and neither did poor Shen. "Yes...yes, he did!" she whispered. "I know what you want me to do now, and you don't have to worry about anything! Yuhan left me the official seal of his organization. It should work – it has to work. Please tell me whatever little Shen needs, and I'll bring it back to you as soon as I can!"
Her despairing neighbor was so overcome with relief that he speechlessly collapsed against the chair. "Oh Spirits...Oh, Dear Spirits. Thank you – Thank you! Riya, I can't...I...Thank you so, so much – you have no idea how..." In a swift blur, the man was tightly hugging the smaller woman, crying into her shoulder. He owed her everything now.
"Oh my!" He quickly let go. "I'm so sorry you have to see me like this, Riya. I-I don't know how I can thank you!" He was still shaking from the news. "Money's scarce now, but I'm sure I can –"
"Shhh...no need for money. It'll all be okay, Mr. Huang. From now on, Shen will never suffer. I'm sure of it. He's a good boy." Riya soothingly patted his heaving back. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.
The sun began to crawl slowly over the horizon, barely touching the sky above Riya's little house. The girl was already awake, though. She sat atop a pile of blankets on the floor, unwrapping a thick, gold-green package. A fond memory drifted across her mind as she slowly lifted the crisp, embellished edges of the smooth paper.
"My mom made me go shopping with her the other day..." he explained, with a hint of irritation in his emerald eyes, "and well, she kind of made me buy this for you – not that I didn't want to buy you anything! I'm just no good when it comes to buying fancy stuff like this, that's more for someone like...my mom. So yeah, she thought this was pretty – well, I think it's pretty too, don't get me wrong...Anyway...I bought this. For you."
Riya smiled, remembering how he'd nearly dropped the package, catching it in midair and presenting it to her sheepishly. She read the little white card beneath the front flap of the package for the hundredth time.
Yuhan and I want you to have this. I believe that it will bring out the most of your beauty, should you ever visit the Upper Ring (Don't forget about dinner this week!) You probably don't need it in order to look beautiful, but it'll look splendid on you anyway. I hope it's to your liking. Keep taking care of my little Yuhan for me!
From Mrs. Tsen (And Yuhan)
She loved to reread the card...just to stare at his ragged (yet beautiful in her eyes) handwriting. He'd crossed out "Hannie" exactly three times with a scribble, replacing each one with his formal name. Even in their early childhood days, he had angrily stopped her from using the nickname. To her amusement, nothing had changed over the years.
Riya quickly continued to unwrap the package, remembering the important task at hand. The fresh scent of clean, unused linen filled the air. She carefully lifted each piece of an extravagant set of robes from the package, laying them separately onto the floor in front of her.
It was only because she had to travel to the Upper Ring today that Riya even dared to unfold the stunning outfit. It seemed like the dust of the Lower Ring would infect the pristine cloth as soon as it left the protection of its packaging. The girl hesitated before getting dressed. She wasn't used to such expensive clothing...
Yuhan's gift consisted of two layers of clothing draped over a thin, silvery dress of fine silk with tight-fitting sleeves. The first layer was a pure white robe with a high collar and thick bell sleeves, both edged with gold. Its long, flowing skirt swept the floor, only worsening Riya's dust concerns. The second and outermost layer was a sleeveless, deep jade robe with overlapping shoulders. The two ends of this robe met along the right side of her torso and left a long slit that stretched almost to her waist, revealing the snowy skirt below. Each corner was heavily embroidered with brilliant gold clouds and outlined in curling detail with metallic blue. The whole arrangement was tied together below her chest in a wide golden sash, finished off with diamond-shaped beads hanging down the front from its thin tassels.
Riya had ignored one last item in the package. It was a complimentary hairpiece, huge and magnificently painted with even more gold and green. A long, polished wood hairpin was included to attach any desired flowers to the mass. The girl thought for a moment before choosing to pick up only the wooden hairpin. The horribly large and rectangular ornament did not appeal to her at all – not that Yuhan minded, anyway. He'd had enough bad experiences with gaudy hairstyles himself.
The young woman wrapped her long hair high up into a bun, securing it in place with the hairpin. She ignored the tresses that fell back down the sides of her face and walked over to her porcelain flower vase, pulling out a lone chrysanthemum among the panda lilies. ("Sorry. The volcano burned all of the panda lilies today," the attached note had read) She picked off a large portion of the stem, sticking the remaining stub into a specially carved crevice of her hairpin. She was finally ready to leave. Riya struggled to make her way across the room, nearly tripping over her long skirt.
The now appropriately dressed girl emerged from her house carrying two documents. One was, of course, the pass that Yuhan had left her. It granted access to every location in Ba Sing Se, even the royal palace. He had signed it himself, fusing the seal with the document using a strange mixture of black and gold dust; only Earthbenders in the Dai Li were taught how to do this. Riya's neighbors, upon hearing of the document's advantages, had grown excited over the possibility of contacting the Earth King. They very politely asked if she could also take along a second document. It was a signed petition, aimed at improving the disease-ridden environment of the Lower Ring. Her small frame was nearly crushed under the numerous embraces she'd been piled with after she agreed to deliver it.
Riya waved her final goodbyes to her enthusiastic neighbors, blushing from their outbursts of gratitude. The petition was hidden in her robes while she clutched the pass tightly in her hands; her neighbors had warned her not to make their document visible to the Dai Li, "No offense to Yuhan."
With a glance from her hazel eyes, she saw the high separating wall of the Lower Ring approaching and took a deep breath. Still half-tripping over her unrecognizable clothing, her feet somehow managed to take her the way...
Two tall figures in emerald walked in unison along the enormous grey wall of the Lower Ring. Riya couldn't help feeling a little uneasy when they turned their shadowy faces toward her without a single hint of emotion.
It was impossible to tell the two apart as she approached the statue-like pair. They remained silent, watching her until she had stopped less than three feet before them. The Dai Li agents seemed to tower over her, similar to Yuhan but far more ominous.
"Can I help you?" one of the agents finally asked with all the stillness of a corpse. Riya's eyes suddenly became petrified at the horribly familiar words.
Can I help you?
Sir, I beg you...lost parents...starving...just a child...do something!
No...afford...I know...leader...punish you...I swear...worst rebellion!
Very well...Come with me...
The fragmented memory had remained in her mind through the years. Riya could not recall much - only that it had come from a time of unbearable pain. The sudden trigger had caught the young woman completely off guard, and she struggled to steady herself while the agents continued watching her indifferently. She could not think about that. Not now.
"I would like your permission to leave the Lower Ring today," Riya finally stated, her voice surprisingly clear and confident.
She couldn't tell which agent was speaking. "It is the strict policy of Ba Sing Se that the citizens of the Lower Ring remain behind this wall at all times," he replied dully. There was a pause. "It is also the strict policy of Ba Sing Se that any unauthorized possession of Upper Ring merchandise be met with appropriate punishment." He had noticed her outfit – and assumed that she'd stolen it.
Riya tugged at one of her sleeves. "This was given to me by someone from the Upper Ring," she replied calmly, "as was this." She held out the small, emerald-colored pass. It was a stiff, rectangular document with silver thread woven along the edges and tied off with a long tassel at the corner. The seal was a pair of shiny black wings, crisscrossed over a golden Earth Kingdom emblem. The hovering feathers seemed to act as shields – a fine representation of the Dai Li.
The agent recognized the document immediately, swiftly taking it into his stone-covered hands. "Where did you get this?" There was the slightest hint of suspicion in his voice. His finger trailed along the seal as he read the last sentence of the document out loud. "I solemnly vow that this pass has been granted to Riya of the Lower Ring with my best judgment. Signed, Yuhan Tsen." The agent looked disdainfully back at the girl, scoffing. "Well, that's certainly confusing...I didn't know he had the time to hang around peasants these days."
Riya's eyes narrowed. Who did this man think he was, scorning the entire Lower Ring like that? But she forced herself to stay calm, gritting her teeth. "Do I have your permission?"
The agent-clones glanced at each other. Yuhan's pass was completely legit, whether they liked it or not. Riya smugly watched as they sharply turned their backs to her and faced the towering wall. With a crisp, synchronized wave of their arms, the wall sliced open. The two massive sides slid apart, revealing the world outside Riya's poor community.
"Thank you!" The young woman cheerfully waved to the agents as she walked past them. They remained standing in the dust behind her, visibly annoyed.
W-where am I?
It's about time you woke up...We're at the refugee arrival station. Someone here might want you.
Who are you?
An agent of the Dai Li. I really shouldn't have to do this...
You're one of those guys who throw rocks at bad people!
(Sigh) Forget I said anything.
I want my Mommy and Daddy...
If they were still around, I wouldn't have to sit here with you!
Do you like me?
"Hey. Hey! You planning on getting off?"
"H-huh? ...Oh, yes I am. Thank you..." Riya groggily opened her eyes. She'd fallen asleep during the long train ride across Ba Sing Se. The young man who shook her awake wore very peculiar clothing. His dazzling, multicolored robes looked almost regal. Wait...regal? Riya sat back up with a jolt. She was definitely in the right place now. She took one look out the window and gasped.
The young man from the train saw her shifting uncomfortably and took the chance to approach her. "Sooo..." He came up behind her, smiling widely. "Feeling a little lost?"
Riya turned around, surprised that he hadn't left. The skinny boy looked no older than her, though his arrogant grin seemed to indicate that he believed otherwise. His glossy black hair was evidently pampered and combed back with utmost care. "Um...yes, I'm a little unfamiliar with the Upper Ring," she replied cautiously. "Do you happen to know where the local markets are?"
"You mean you don't live here?" The boy was standing too close for her liking, and the weird gleam in his dark brown eyes caused her to start inching away. "In the Upper Ring, we don't have 'markets.' We have shopping complexes. Some of them are almost as big as the Royal Palace itself." He grinned. Riya wasn't impressed. "And if you'd like, I can take you to all the best shops in Ba Sing Se, anddd...maybe to dinner later?" His wink was revolting.
"Oh! Well, I'd love to..." No I wouldn't. "But...I'm already seeing someone. Sorry!" Riya blushed a little at the thought of her beloved agent, who would probably shoot a stony fist at the boy if he'd been standing here now.
The boy completely misinterpreted the blush. He leaned even closer to the young woman, much to her disgust. He didn't notice her hazel eyes narrowing dangerously. "Are you sure about that?" he asked, reaching out an arm to wrap around her small shoulder. "You look like you could use some company out here. Come on, it'll be fun! No one has to know..."
Riya marched along the paved, endless roads of the Upper Ring by herself. If everyone in this part of the city was as shameless and conceited as that horrible boy, today was going to be awful. She would rather beg on the streets of the Lower Ring for the rest of her life than live here. A pang of guilt suddenly wrung her heart. Yuhan's family lived here. No, that doesn't count, she quickly reminded herself. They originally came from the Lower Ring! They have manners. Hmph! She began to understand why Yuhan always seemed irritable whenever he had to visit his parents.
The girl's fuming mood eased a little when she finally found one of the shopping complexes. It was huge, of course, and shimmering from both its polished tiles and its shoppers, who were all draped in priceless clothing. To her relief, the majority of merchants there were courteous and helpful, and she was pointed to a medicine shop in no time. As she sifted through countless packets to find the correct herbs for little Shen, a loud and exaggerated voice from behind made her jump. Riya wheeled around only to realize that it hadn't been directed at her.
"Hello! Where do you keep your wood frog extract?" The speaker was a slender woman wearing a formal yellow dress with green cuffs, and her neck was covered with a darker green scarf bearing a shiny Earth Kingdom emblem. Part of her short brown hair was wound tightly around a narrow hairpiece atop her head.
"Good afternoon, Joo Dee!" replied the elderly merchant. "Spirits, wood frog extract? Should you really be walking out and about today? You seem to have it pretty bad this time..."
"Not at all! I'm perfectly fine. I've just been so busy helping my new guests adjust to the finest city in the world!"
Riya noticed two very disturbing things. One, the woman named Joo Dee looked terrible. Terrible being the way her sunken black eyes forced themselves open, surrounded by dark circles even worse than Yuhan's. Her very skin had grown white, and a few cold beads of sweat ran down her temples. Two...Her smile. Her wide, horrifying, nightmarish smile. The girl was almost frozen in fear just from looking at it.
Joo Dee's face remained plastered with the grin as the merchant sighed and handed her a small vile of medicine. "They must be working you pretty hard lately, eh?"
The woman gave a high, unnatural laugh. "Oh no, it is a great pleasure to serve the Dai Li! They entrusted me with the very important task of guiding newcomers around our wonderful city, and I am deeply honored to fulfill any requests from the protectors of our cultural –"
"Yeah, yeah, I know..." the merchant muttered. "Just...look after yourself a little, okay?"
"Oh, you don't have to worry about me!" Joo Dee laughed again. She finally noticed Riya staring from the distance. "Can I help you?"
The girl became terrified when the frightening smile turned directly to her. This woman had crucial knowledge of the Upper Ring, though, so she'd have to endure it. "Y-yes! You said that you're a guide, right? Well, I don't live here, so would it be possible if you could –"
"Hello, I'm Joo Dee. Welcome to Ba Sing Se!" The reply was almost robotic. "We're so lucky to have our walls to create order."
"Um...yes, I suppose we are?" Riya gave a puzzled glance to the merchant, who shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "Why are you surprised?" She shifted her attention back to Joo Dee, who was still standing and smiling as widely as ever. "Actually, I live in Ba Sing Se," she continued uncertainly. "Just not...here."
"Isn't it just wonderful to live in such a perfect city?" The grin somehow stretched even wider.
"I guess? ...Well, I wanted to ask if you could please give me directions to the Royal Palace. I won't take much of your time. There's something that I want to deliver to the Earth King, and –"
"OH, no!" Riya was beginning to grow tired of that laugh. "One doesn't just pop in on the Earth King!" The sickly woman cheerfully pointed up a finger as she spoke.
Riya was fed up with the rules of the Upper Ring. "Do you think I could 'pop in' with this?" She stiffly presented her pass. It immediately caused a reaction from Joo Dee that wasn't ridiculously enthusiastic for a change. Even the merchant's eyes widened at the sight.
"The seal of the Dai Li..." The woman read through the formal document for a moment, processing the rules that had been programmed into her head. "Well, you must be Riya of the Lower Ring!" she suddenly laughed, the horrific smile returning. "I am happy to assist you to the Royal Palace. Come, we'll take the finest carriage the Upper Ring has to offer! I think you'll really enjoy it."
The confused girl reluctantly followed the forever-smiling woman out the door after paying for Shen's medicine. The Upper Ring was such a strange place...
Riya was once again walking by herself. She'd fled the carriage after the first 10 or so minutes.
Her tour guide had been grinning and giving enthusiastic history lectures about their surroundings, but her delirium became evident as her fever worsened. Joo Dee's words began to slur together, her body began to waver unsteadily – and then out of nowhere, the smile disappeared. She'd suddenly grabbed onto Riya's shoulders in a horrible frenzy, screaming, "How did I get here? Who am I? Tell me!" The frightened girl had pulled herself free as the carriage came to a halt. "Let me take care of her," the driver told her. "She's just very ill right now. I apologize." Riya hurriedly left the scene as Joo Dee continued to scream, "TELL ME!" after her.
The Lower Ring citizen was more than ready to return to her cozy little house. Even sicknesses in the Upper Ring scared her. She knew that fevers often caused delusions – she'd seen it in her own parents – but how did this woman even manage to walk with such severity of illness? Then again, she'd mentioned working for the Dai Li...
Despite Riya's respect for the organization, she had to agree that the Dai Li sometimes had impossible standards. Yuhan himself had almost fallen to illness a couple of times, living on a few hours of sleep per day and always pushing his endurance to its limits. He'd passed out over her kitchen table one afternoon, overwhelmed by fatigue. Riya had been dabbing at his hot forehead with a wet towel when he finally woke up again in her bedroom. His first reaction? "I'M LATE!" ...And he'd bolted out the door after giving her a quick kiss on the cheek.
Yuhan had become one of the most revered agents in the Dai Li – even Riya knew that. But...he was also its prisoner. She'd realized this when it occurred to her one day that he no longer enjoyed earthbending. He had ceased to be creative, and he completely lacked his former spirit. Everything he did with the ground now was so mechanic, so solemn...to compare it to their childhood days would only be painful. How could she ever express this to him, though? The organization was his career, his life, and who was she to stop him from being loyal to Ba Sing Se? The city was safe because of people like Yuhan...but she still hated watching him pay such a terrible price.
A high, girly voice nearby interrupted her thoughts. "...and his eyes are just so dreamy...I wish he'd lift up his hat just a little more so I can see them better..."
It was a group of three giggling girls passing through the same bridge as she. They wore extravagant clothing comparable to her own, complete with giant hairpieces. It was impossible to distinguish their faces beneath all the layers of colorful makeup. Riya tried to ignore their conversation, quickly picking up her pace.
"...and they're the only two who ever talk! It's so adorable. If only I could get closer to him somehow..." sighed the voice again. Its owner wore an olive and gold kimono-like dress, and she appeared to be the leader figure in the group.
"You don't even know his name, Ling..." sighed a second girl. She was draped in a dark green robe over an embroidered beige underskirt.
"Yeah I do! I heard the other one call him Hiroshu! I think. Oh, his voice is to die for!" Ling dramatically placed a hand over her heart.
...What? Riya walked even faster.
The second girl spoke up again. "I don't know what you're talking about, the other one's a lot cuter than 'Hiroshu!' But I still need to find out his name – all I ever hear is 'kid' or 'buddy' whenever they're talking to each other."
Riya tried to cover her scarlet face as she and the girls were nearing each other on the bridge.
Ling giggled again. "You mean the one with the creepy eye shadows? Not my idea of attractive, if you ask -"
"No, I mean it! Haven't you seen his eyes before? They're...Oh Spirits, they're just -"
"You two need to get over this already!" interrupted the third girl, who wore a strange, poncho-like cape over a tight coral qipao. "I'm sure they're starting to notice how you purposely trip and fall in front of them all the time. It's just pointless to keep following them...Can Dai Li agents even date citizens?" Her authoritative front was partially ruined by the hopeful curiosity in her tone.
The girls noticed Riya rushing past them and suddenly stopped to look, much to her horror.
"Hey, great hair!" Ling called out.
It was the last thing Riya would have expected her to say. She turned around, baffled. "W-what? Um, tha –"
"For a peasant!" Ling and the other two girls burst out in laughter. Riya stared back in confusion. Was it that obvious where she came from, or were they just being mean? ...Or was the Lower Ring simply used as a topic of derision in this part of the city? Her eyebrows began to narrow.
"Well, I'm glad you cared to point it out. Thank you." Though she would gladly stand up for her humble community, Riya didn't want to start any trouble, especially with these gossipy girls. She was determined to be polite and to represent her community well. More importantly, she still had their petition to deliver...
"And where have you been shopping? That outfit looks fit for the circus! I really admire you for being brave enough to wear it in public, though." Ling snorted. The girls continued to giggle hysterically.
Riya stopped dead in her tracks. In reality, Ling had failed to convince her father to purchase her that very same dress, due to its price – she simply hated seeing anyone else wear it. Only one thought flashed through Riya's mind, however: Insult to dress = Insult to Yuhan. "For your information..." Her voice was low and dangerous. "I don't care if this dress is fit for the circus or for a three-legged badgermole. It came from someone who cherishes me – and he means the world to me. That's what matters." She suddenly smiled sweetly. "But from what I've heard...that's not something you girls can relate to, is it?"
All three girls seemed to gasp in unison. Ling took a vicious step forward. "Ha! You have a boyfriend? You should really consider looking in the mirror before trying to make up something like that, ugly peasant!"
The sweetness of Riya's laugh was frightening. "Ugly? At least I'm not desperate enough to try covering it with layers of cheap makeup. Anyway, you can believe what you want. I really don't mind."
"Why, you..." Ling and her friends glared furiously through their painted eyelids. "You're nothing but talk! I'd love to see that imaginary boyfriend of yours. Where is he now? Is he handsome?" she taunted, pretending to look around for him. Riya's face hardened. "Oh, what a shame! He isn't -"
"He isn't someone you'd want to mess with," cut in a deep voice. All four girls jumped. An all-too-familiar figure dressed in emerald robes had appeared out of nowhere. "Oh, and I'm assuming you're talking about my partner, of course." He smirked.
The girls had no idea when or how he even showed up behind them – Dai Li agents were skilled at doing those sorts of things, after all. Ling looked like she was about to pass out. "You're...you're..." She pointed waveringly at the agent, staring at his bright green eyes. She had never been so close before...
"Hiroshu. Pleasure to meet you." The agent bowed smoothly, causing the three Upper Ring girls to swoon. He turned over to Yuhan's girlfriend and smiled brightly. "Hi, Riya! I almost didn't recognize you – You look nice today! What brings you out here, anyway?"
"Thank you! Well, I'm trying to deliver something to the Royal Palace..." Riya tried not to laugh at the expressions on the other girls' faces.
"Oh, I can take you there if you want." Hiroshu grinned. "You'll probably get lost on your own. Besides, I need some air before I head back to headquarters. Your boyfriend's still down there, by the way."
The three gossipy girls finally pieced the information together. "My partner...your boyfriend..." The girl wearing dark green twisted her face in horror.
"I'd really appreciate that!" Riya let out a sigh of relief. Finally, someone sane had appeared to help her through the madness of the Upper Ring. "But only if you don't mind, though. I really don't want to cause you to be late or –"
"Spirits, you're just like Yuhan!" Hiroshu chuckled. "That kid throws death threats one moment and apologizes like an idiot the next..." He took note of the fangirls' excitement over learning his partner's name. "And of course I don't mind! We just have to hurry. Shall we go, then?"
"Yes, please. Thank you, Hiroshu." Riya shuffled away from the staring girls to join Yuhan's partner. She smiled ever so slightly during the split second in which she met Ling's fuming gaze.
"No problem!" Hiroshu took one last glance at his fangirls. "Have a nice afternoon, ladies!" He turned his back and gave a single wave of his hand as he left with his partner's girl.
Ling and her friends continued to stare after the two, their expressions mixed between adoration and hate.
"You should really know better than to argue with Upper Ring girls, Riya – they're crazy!" Hiroshu laughed as the two made their way towards the Palace. "But then again, you're the same crazy girl who decided to pick a fight with a bunch of drunk guys in a tea shop." He shook his head. "Still, those rich girls were probably just bored. It's a waste of time to try putting up with them."
Riya looked down embarrassedly. "I know. But they were insulting...Oh, what did I do?" She put her face into her hands. "I can't believe I made such a scene over a dress! I must've sounded horrible!"
Hiroshu smirked again. "He gave it to you, didn't he?"
The girl looked back up surprisingly. "How..."
"Like I said, you lovebirds are too similar. Your boyfriend gets the same way whenever I make fun of him about his precious bracelet," Hiroshu sniggered. "Took a few blows to the face from his stupid gloves, in fact."
Riya couldn't help but laugh a little as she pictured the vision. She instantly felt ashamed for doing so however, considering how grimly Hiroshu had spoken the last sentence. She was about to apologize for Yuhan's violent actions until she suddenly realized that Hiroshu was suffering a far worse injury. The agent walked alongside her with no problems, but he would sometimes wince and grasp at his upper abdomen. "Oh my – are you hurt?" Riya gasped. "I'm so sorry for making you walk this whole time! I should've let you rest!"
"What? The bruises on my face healed a long time ago! Why -"
"No, I mean your stomach!" Riya pointed frantically as Hiroshu winced once more.
"Oh, that..." Hiroshu tried to shrug it off, though his pained expression did nothing to ease Riya's concern. "We had some trouble down at headquarters. Intruders and the like. It was a pretty bad fight, I guess."
Riya's hand instantly flew over her mouth. "Is everyone okay? Is Yuhan –"
"He's fine, Riya!" Hiroshu sighed in exasperation. "He didn't even qualify for a medical examination. The only reason I'm out here is because it turned out I cracked a rib or something, so they sent me to the doctor. I was supposed to return to headquarters right after."
"Stop apologizing!" The agent slapped his forehead. "It's not like headquarters is a fun place to be. I'd gladly take any excuse to stay out of that gloomy prison! And besides, who wouldn't want to take a field trip to the Palace with Yuhan's girl?" He grinned, then paused. "...I hope you're not going to take that personally. I'll be murdered for real if that kid gets the wrong message!"
"Huh? What do you mean?""Never mind..." Hiroshu muttered. The two began to cross the enormous courtyard surrounding the Royal Palace. "Anyway, enough about me getting beaten up. What do you think of the Upper Ring?"
"Um, it's very...interesting." The dullness of Riya's tone caused the agent to start laughing. "And about those girls...I-I didn't know that you and Yuhan have...have..." Her face began to redden.
"Have what? Stalkers?" Hiroshu laughed even harder as Riya covered her face. "Of course we do! We're talented, politically powerful, and have pretty decent looks if I must say so myself. That's really all it takes to attract the average rich girl." He thoughtfully stroked his chin with a finger.
Riya stared. It always amazed her to see how Yuhan and his best friend could be such polar opposites.
Hiroshu noticed her bewildered expression. "Oh, but don't get any bad ideas about your boyfriend!" he quickly added. "He hates stalkers! Personally, I find them amusing since they make themselves really obvious, but he acts like it's punishable by death – typical of him, honestly. But least you don't have to worry about him being unfaithful."
"I wasn't worried about him!"
"Well, whatever you say. I'm just pointing – WATCH OUT!"
Riya screamed. A giant, flat stone disk had shot down from the sky above them, swallowing them in its shadow. Before she knew what was happening, she felt a stony hand shove her body hard. As she flew backwards and skidded across the cold marble of the courtyard, a deafening crash shook the ground, and she saw Hiroshu's emerald robes disappear into a cloud of dust that soon enveloped everything around her.
The dust began to clear as Riya stood back up shakily. The disk lay in scattered pieces around her feet. She looked frantically around, trying to see through the cloudy air. "H-Hiroshu? Hiroshu!"
"What?" The agent was kneeling several feet away. He was breathing hard, with one hand over his abdomen again. He'd shattered the disk just in time.
Riya ran to him, panicking as several more disks came crashing down around them. "Are you okay?" she yelled through the earsplitting noise. "What's going on? Where are these rocks coming –"
"Riya, you have to get out of here!" Hiroshu groaned as he pulled himself to his feet. "I'm fine! It's just my stupid rib again! I wasn't supposed to do anything strenuous, or..." He gritted his teeth as another wave of pain shot through his body.
"W-what's happening? Will you be alright?" Riya tried to help him stand, but he raised a hand to stop her.
"The Palace is being invaded! They're shooting those plates to take down the intruders. It's too dangerous for you to go in there now – Get out of here!" As he shouted, a huge looming shadow floated across the ground towards the Palace doors.
Riya looked up and gasped. "The sky bison..." It was the same one that had appeared to her and Yuhan during the night on the Outer Wall. She was sure of it. Riya had always remembered its presence during that night like a dream...yet here it was again, storming the palace. Wait – there were people clinging to its back this time. What was going on? Her curiosity soon drowned out everything else. She squinted her eyes at the figure riding near the front of the bison. His small figure seemed to suggest a young age, and he appeared to be smashing the stone disks out of the way with a strange rod...
"What are you doing?" Hiroshu yelled, struggling to stay on his feet as his broken rib shifted out of place. "Didn't I say to go hide? Do you want to get yourself flattened under one of those things?"
The girl continued to stare, unable to control herself. "Who is that...?"
"No one – it's no one! Now GO!"
Riya gave a small cry of surprise as a wave of earth suddenly lifted her off her feet and carried her like lightning across the ground. Hiroshu and the Palace disappeared from sight within seconds.
The Lower Ring citizen angrily rushed back towards the Royal Palace, struggling to keep her skirt from getting in the way. She'd been carried horribly far from the scene, thanks to Hiroshu's gesture. What was she supposed to do, run and hide while Yuhan's best friend was barely holding himself up? He would surely be killed at this rate. She had to do something – exactly what, she didn't know yet.
Several minutes dragged by before Riya's feet finally hit the expensive marble again. The courtyard was cracked badly, covered in shattered pieces of rock and distorted by domino-like walls jutting from random spots in the ground – and it was empty. Riya began to panic again. Where was Hiroshu? Did the intruders take him? Was he - No, he couldn't be...She gulped as she made her way through the ruined courtyard, looking around anxiously.
The sudden loud screeching of carriage wheels caused Riya to jump behind one of the jutting walls to hide. She sat fearfully against the cold stone, holding her breath. Were the Palace invaders back? She didn't dare to look.
Riya could hear the wooden door squeaking open and the carriage creaking under the weight of its passengers as they stepped out onto the courtyard. The first voice came from the direction of the Palace entrance. "Thank the Spirits, you're all finally here!" The voice sounded trained and formal – most likely belonging to a royal official. The hidden girl began to relax a little. "Where have you been? We sent the message out over two hours ago! They've probably reached the throne already! Go! Hurry!"
"Wait, slow down! What in the world happened here?"
Yuhan. She could recognize his voice in her sleep. Riya immediately sprang to her feet, an overjoyed smile lighting up her face. Everything else around her seemed to melt away as her dear agent continued to question the situation, his voice being the one beautiful sound she heard. The ecstatic young woman jumped out from behind her wall.
Riya quickly hid herself again before she knew what she was doing. Something about the setting had made her nervous. Yuhan's back was turned to her, and four other agents stood around him, all examining the damage around them. In front of the group was, as she'd suspected, a Royal Guard atop an armored ostrich horse. The girl observed them cautiously as she peered out from the side of the wall. It was obvious that Yuhan had come here for extremely important matters, and the last thing Riya wanted to do was get in his way.
She smiled softly as her man continued to converse with the guard in the distance. Even his hand gestures and occasional shrugs were so easily distinguishable. "I'm still trying to understand what you're saying. Calm down! So basically, the Avatar and three kids wrecked this whole place...and all of your guards were taken out?" he asked in disbelief.
"Yes, that's what I've been saying!" the Royal Guard replied indignantly.
"No it wasn't! All I heard was 'Ruin! Avatar! Palace! Kids!'" Riya stifled a giggle as she listened. Yuhan paused, appearing to remember the more pressing issues at hand. "You know what, forget it...We're late already, and Long Feng's probably getting angry. Round up the remainder of your troops. Make sure no one else enters the Palace." The guard nodded and rode away on his ostrich horse.
The Avatar is in Ba Sing Se? Was that him on the sky bison? Riya wondered as Yuhan and the other agents began climbing up the stairs of the Royal Palace with some difficulty; all of the steps had been flattened out for some odd reason. She sighed disappointedly as she watched his retreating figure.
The girl whipped her head around when a second carriage suddenly came crashing into the courtyard. She was surprised to hear muffled screaming from within it, which grew loud and clear as the door flew open – and as a delirious woman in yellow suddenly fell out onto the ground. The woman was back on her feet within seconds, and she bolted away from the courtyard in frenzy.
"STOP HER!" the carriage driver yelled to the Dai Li agents, still climbing in the distance. "She's gone crazy! You're the ones who control her – do something!"
All five agents quickly slid back down the steps, landing on the ground in perfect synchronization. The woman saw them and screamed even louder, sprinting as fast as she could. Riya took a sharp breath when the figure drew near enough for her to recognize as the tour guide from earlier.
It was Yuhan who gave a single, swift wave of his arm. Joo Dee cried out despairingly as the ground beneath her legs melted into mud. The agent then made a fist, solidifying the earth again when she'd sunken in to her waist. Riya's eyes were glued to the scene with a mixture of shock and confusion. The woman must have committed a crime, she told herself. It was a Dai Li agent's duty to capture escaping criminals. Yuhan's actions were perfectly acceptable...so why did it feel like there was something awfully wrong about the situation?
The agents approached the struggling woman in a straight row and stood before her terrified face. One of them sighed, turning indifferently to the driver. "Did it occur to you that we're running late?"
"LET ME GO!" Joo Dee screeched before the driver could answer. She was still trying in vain to pull herself from the ground, looking fearfully between her captors.
"This is a waste of our time," scowled the annoyed agent. "Joo Dee, the Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai." He was surprised to see no reaction from her.
"That's not my name!" The sickly woman cried, struggling even harder. "It's Suyin!"
Riya gasped silently from her hiding place. She began to wonder if this was a nightmare. Nothing she heard made sense even remotely.
"Dear Spirits, she's so loud..." sighed another agent. "The whole city's going to hear her at this rate. Someone needs to redo her conversion before she goes blabber mouthing."
"But we have no time to take her to headquarters!" cut in the third agent. "Maybe if someone volunteers..."
"Whoever doesn't show up is going to be killed by Long Feng!" the fourth agent snapped. "There's no time! What're we..." He suddenly stopped and turned to Yuhan, the only one who hadn't spoken. "Hey, you're good at dealing with these issues, aren't you? Do something about her!"
The cold, petrifying dread began to drift like ice throughout Riya's body. She wasn't sure she wanted to know what Yuhan was good at dealing with. The girl slowly covered her mouth with both hands as he stepped forward and knelt before Suyin. Was he going to kill her? The woman in the ground began to tremble as he turned his head slightly to address one of the agents. "Do you have anything shiny?" he asked plainly.
"Wait, what?" All of the agents seemed confused.
"Do you have anything that shines? Come on! We don't have any time, like you said." Yuhan sounded irritated, as if he'd dealt with this several times before...Riya could only continue to observe him fearfully.
The agent he'd addressed pulled out a gold tael bar from his pocket. It was fat, boat-shaped, and extremely reflective beneath the sun.
Yuhan took the currency into his stony hands, polishing it a little with his sleeve. He turned the bar around several times until the sun seemed to hit it at the perfect, blinding angle. He carefully held it in the same position as a tiny slab of earth cut itself from the ground, floating upward beneath his hands. Finally, he pressed the bottom of the gold piece into the newly made slab, securing it in place. Yuhan let go, and the shining bar remained floating before Suyin's petrified face.
The trapped woman immediately realized what he was doing when the gold piece began to circle back and forth between their faces. "No, please..." Suyin whimpered. "I w-want to go home..." Her voice was feeble and desperate as she looked pleadingly at the other agents. Riya stared through the hot tears beginning to form within her eyes, her hands shaking over her mouth.
"Listen to me..." Yuhan began, penetrating the woman with his chilling, expressionless gaze. Her eyes began to follow the gold piece unconsciously." Suyin does not exist. Joo Dee is your name. Joo Dee is what others shall address you as. Joo Dee is forever your title. Now, say it with me."
"Suyin...does not exist...Joo Dee...is my name..." The woman's expression slowly softened as her eyes glazed over and as her pupils became dilated.
The hazel-eyed girl resisted the urge to scream. That wasn't Yuhan. That couldn't be Yuhan. That voice – that haunting voice could not possibly belong to him! And yet...there was no mistaking that untidy hair, those emerald eyes, those lips...
The two spoke in frightening unison as they finished the speech. "There is no war in Ba Sing Se. There is no war within the walls. Here, we are safe. Here, we are free."
"Good, good..." His silken tone made Riya shudder behind her wall. "Let's go through it one last time, now."
All in all, the conversion had taken only four to five minutes, but the ordeal seemed to last for years to Riya, who could only continue to watch in tortured silence.
"Alright, I have one last request for you." Yuhan stood back up, pulling the brainwashed woman gently from the ground.
"Yes, sir?" she replied, trance-like.
"Joo Dee, the Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai." The green-eyed agent turned around to join his fellow members.
"I am honored to accept his invitation." Joo Dee stretched her mouth into the widest, most disturbing grin Riya had ever seen.
"Go back to headquarters. Tell the first Dai Li agent you see to double check your conversion," Yuhan sighed. The other agents stared in astonishment as the smiling woman obediently bowed and headed cheerfully back to the carriage.
Riya finally tore her eyes away from the horrible sight, sinking down against the cracked wall with her head between her hands. She failed to control her ragged, uneven breaths. She didn't want to hear any more. She had to get out of here. She had to...
"Wow, so the rumors about you are true..." One of the agents whistled. "Makeshift conversion chambers! Who knew? You're really quite something, Yuhan." The trembling girl behind the wall covered her mouth again to prevent a miserable sob from escaping her lips.
"Whatever," Yuhan muttered, his eyes unreadable beneath his hat. "Problem solved. Off we go."
Riya painfully squeezed her eyelids shut, trying to erase the scarring images from her mind. Yuhan and the other agents finally disappeared into the Palace, and everything was silent once more. She staggered to her feet, leaning against the wall for support as the world spun around her.
The distraught girl circled erratically about the courtyard as she tried to process the impossible. Suyin became Joo Dee. One person BECAME another – Yuhan turned one person into another. It was impossible, and it had happened in plain sight. How? Why? Was she dreaming? No, the cold sweat dripping down her forehead felt too real. And Yuhan...who was Yuhan? The traumatized young woman grabbed wildly at her hair with crazed hazel eyes. Home...she needed to go home. Away from here. Away from him. Riya fled the courtyard, paying no attention to the pin that slipped away from her disheveled hair, dropping quietly to the ground. A single sob shot through her lungs as she sprinted as fast as her legs could carry her.
Riya's neighbors saw her approaching in the distance, trailing clouds of dust behind her dragging feet. They cheered and beckoned their families to come welcome back their local heroine. Mr. Huang was the first to reach her. His smile quickly disappeared when he saw her face. It was clear that something had gone terribly wrong.
The girl's hazel eyes were dull, staring blankly at everything and nothing. Her hair was down on her shoulders again, tangled badly with several strands hanging loosely all over her face. Her skirt had been ripped and stained so severely that it no longer appeared white. Without looking up, she threw out an arm before Mr. Huang's face. Dangling from her limp fingers was Shen's packet of medicine.
The middle-aged man tried painfully to look into her eyes, but she only shook the packet more violently at him without saying a word. Mr. Huang finally took the medicine after another moment of hesitation. "Riya...thank you so much. I- I'll tell little Shen who saved him today. But first..." He placed a sympathetic hand on her shoulder.
Riya gave a horrible cry and shoved the man away, turning around and running with her face covered in her hands. Her neighbors watched in shock as the door of her house slammed shut behind her.
"Mother, Father, Mina, Liu...H-help me..."
Riya barely managed to bow before her alter as she tried to control her trembling. "I don't understand anything! I saw but I don't understand! I just know that...that it's horrible! And wrong! What's happening? What am I supposed to do?" No one answered.
"Please! I need you!" she cried to her wooden plaques. Other than Yuhan, there was no one left in her life that could comfort her. She was utterly lost and alone. The thought of Yuhan shot straight through her heart and caused tears to well up in her eyes, but she fiercely held them back.
The girl tried to steady herself on her knees, taking deep breaths and squeezing her eyes shut. Calm down, she tried to tell herself. But the haunting voices of her neighbors began to seep into her mind. All of their warnings and insults to the Dai Li, which she'd been able to ignore until now, began to fuel her growing doubt. They brainwash anyone who talks about the war...Riya covered her ears to try to drown out the voices, but they continued to echo endlessly through her aching head. They kill anyone who they can't brainwash, but sometimes they just kill people because they don't like them. They can get away with it because they control the city, including the Earth King. Their power - Yuhan's power - comes from people like YOU.
"S-stop it!" Riya shouted to no one, clutching her head between her hands even tighter. She turned desperately to the wooden plaques. "Please...help me find inner peace...help me..."
The girl suddenly froze solid when her gaze shifted to the plaques of her two foster parents. Her breathing ceased. Her eyes stopped blinking altogether. One final set of voices cut through her feeble mind.
5 years ago, when I was 14, some Dai Li agents showed up one day and told me that my foster parents had passed away too.
What were your foster parents' names? I might know some details about what happened to them.
Their names are Liu and Mina. Does that sound familiar to you at all?
I don't think I've ever heard of them. Sorry that I can't do anything to help you.
"No..." Whatever was left of the girl's strength was crushed beneath her heaving sobs. She collapsed onto the hard, wooden floor, curling up into a fetal position as her body shook uncontrollably.
They kill anyone who they can't brainwash.
Ah yes, the first of the 10,000 word chapters. If you made it this far, I offer you my highest gratitude!!!
- This was the first chapter that emerged after Minnichi was educated (cough commanded) about all that is good in writing, by two of her very talented and ambitious Fanfiction.net author companions. The result was a series of crazy comments from her readers about how great the new quality was. It goes to show that yes, seeking to improve your writing and actually taking others' advice really does make a difference ;)
- You might not have any idea what the author is talking about in the last Trivia point, because Minnichi went back later and toiled over every chapter to sound more like this one (and still goes through those cycles every now and then) ^^"
- "Did Yuhan keep going back to the same volcano over and over to get flowers? I thought once might've been enough, but I guess it's his style." -
- (Quoting my reply) Actually no, Yuhan found a different volcano that hadn't erupted yet! To get into trivia details, he wanted to find one in which the flowers hadn't been burned away already xD But yeah, that's his style; he liked going back to replace the old panda lilies with healthy new ones :)
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