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The Castle is the seventeenth chapter of's .
Previously in A Tale of Rebels
Zoruka, Senqok, Shizon and Kabura arrive in Gaoling, disguised, and locate the prison Ranju is held at. The Air Nomad is tortured several times, which makes her change her attitude towards violence, war, love and alike, before she is broken out by the four comrades of hers. To avoid being captured together, the five fly away on her glider, to head to wherever Noki is, for the sake of safety.
Chapter 17: The Castle
"Waterbending is all about redirecting an opponent's strike. You don't face everything head-on like an earthbender, you don't follow the principle "offence is the best defence" like a firebender, and neither do you avoid and evade like an airbender. You take the opponent's attack and throw it back at him like a 'fuck you' of bending." Senqok stood, just like Kabura did, in knee-deep water, wearing only his underwear. His explanation made their companions, Shizon, Zoruka and Ranju, who all had claimed the beach just above for themselves, growl a bit at the mention of their respective elements. "That's why waterbending is all about fluent, sometimes circular motions. You have to be like water itself, swirling around, able to shape anything, to make anything and everything bow, including your opponent. Water always wins, even if it takes millennia, like when rain carves solid rock."
Kabura could only nod, smiling, as the other Water Tribal explained the nature of waterbending to her. She seemed a bit cold, given they were directly on the shore of the South Sea. Nonetheless, she hid her shivering for the sake of learning.
"Now, you're a healer. What can you do without that, what do you have to do to heal?" asked Senqok bluntly, throwing his water skin to Kabura.
"Well... not much... but... " came the unsure reply, but then the healer decided to show it, opened the water skin, and drew water from it to coat her hand with the liquid.
"Good, then you already have a feeling of controlling water for... ordinary purposes." Senqok returned Kabura's constant smile briefly while nodding, before he assumed a bending stance. "This is the waterbending stance. Not that there'd be much of a stance with all these fluid motions involved, but it's simply the starting point of all these moves. Now- " He stopped one of the many small waves from reaching him, and pushed it away from him, and within the same motion, pulled it towards himself again. " -this is the most basic technique. Pushing and pulling the water, it's called. Not much of a fighting technique, but really just to get used to waterbending."
Kabura observed Senqok as close as she could, before mimicking his actions. She gently stopped a wave, and pushed it away from her, before stopping just for a split second. Almost immediately, Senqok dried the path between himself and Kabura, and when he reached her, he demonstrated it once more, encouraging her, "You can do it, it's just hard to start, well, from the start."
She attempted it again, but again, she hesitated a little just after finishing the "push" part. Senqok laid his hand on her shoulder, instantly making her cease. "Look, it's all about fluid motions. Just imagine your arms' joints were made of butter. Hot, weak butter." She snickered briefly at the explanation, before he demonstrated it once more. "Come on, do it, I'll help you."
The healer sighed just before Senqok laid his arms around her from behind as to guide her motions. She blushed a bit as the fellow Water Tribal signalled her to start. She pushed her arms forward, pushing the water forward with it, before she followed his advice and let her hand hang down before pulling her arms back again, all in a single motion. She smiled ever so slightly as Senqok let go of her again to pat her on her shoulder, stating, "Nicely done!" Her blush didn't cease even as he got the distance of some metres between each other, when he started explaining, "Also, this should give you a feeling for moving greater amounts of water. Practice it until- oh dammit!"
The reason for his dismay was someone he could see approaching along the alternately rocky and sandy coast. Despite his vision's faults, something told him the nearing group of people were no good. "Quick!" he commanded the others. "Get in your disguises!"
"Like they're going to know the difference between Earth Empire and Fire Nation underwear... " stated Shizon sarcastically, rolling his eyes as he played a game of elemental solitaire against Zoruka. Senqok, directly followed by Kabura, had finally made his way up the steep beach when the visitors he had initially feared arrived.
"Hey, look, beach folks!" was the first they could hear from these people, whom Senqok deemed very strange, but not trustworthy. They all wore relatively normal clothing and hairstyles, just from all over the world, in bright colours, relatively loose and in unthinkable combinations. "How ya doin'?"
"We're not, uh, beach... folks, as you call it," stated Zoruka as she placed a tile, briefly looking up at the speaker. The fact he now stared at her, she herself only wearing a loose reddish tunic, from about a centimetre's distance made her grasp his face and push him away so she could continue the game.
"Then what kinda folks are ya?" asked the man as he observed Senqok dry himself and Kabura with his waterbending. "Now I've got it! Sea folks!"
"Listen... we're no 'sea folks' either. Now you haven't seen or heard anything, and you most certainly have never met us. Understood?" Ranju poked him with her staff every time she used a personal pronoun and a negation, making him inch back. "Oh, and before I forget, uh... You wouldn't come to know a way to Wa Castle, would you?"
"Oh, we know some ways, folks!" The man began stroking what he had allowed himself to grow of a beard, while he gathered his companions, numbering five, three women and two men, around to do something none of the five comrades had expected: they started singing. Senqok's eyes widened and so he decided to dress himself in the nearby woods, into whose direction he attempted to walk, but he stumbled over his own foot, so he simply stayed in the vicinity of these strange companions. Zoruka and Shizon finished their game, deciding to continue it later, Kabura followed Senqok's example, while Ranju helped to pack their belongings. The man who had thus far been the only one of the strangers to speak to the comrades noticed these, and interrupted the song. He looked a bit reproachful, his gaze wandering between all of the five comrades. "Were you even listening?" was all he said.
"Uh... we were supposed to?" This time, Kabura answered him, genuinely confused.
"Yes. I mean, if you want to get to Wa Castle," stated he, and soon began to trail off. "We know a way there, you walk beneath cherry trees, and they're still blossoming, so- "
"We want the fastest way there. No cherry blossom." Zoruka shouldered a knapsack as she voiced the group's intentions.
"You're far too focussed on the "where to" instead of the "going". The way there is its own destination." The man's dreamy and yet rough voice slowly got on the comrades' nerves.
Again, it was Zoruka who replied to him, slightly annoyed. "I'm sorry, but we have a bit of- "
"-unpleasant experiences with focussing on the way," finished Senqok decisively.
The man rose an eyebrow at first, but then gathered his companions, who had been conversing all the time, around. After a minute, he announced, "We don't know a fast way to the castle, but to Wa Village. Just follow us and our song's tune, it'll make the time pass like... "
The annoyed sigh the five of them let out simultaneously was loud enough to drown out the man's voice as the merry band of his set out to journey onwards.
"Well... I guess my suspicions were unfounded," stated Senqok, receiving a look from Shizon non-verbally saying, "Told you."
"No, no, you were right. Now we're going to bleed to death. Or rather, our ears are going to, at least." found Ranju, covering her ears as far as possible. Thus, the five comrades followed the merry band on their journey to Wa Village.
"I'm not sure what you think, but I expected this village to have a kind of... harbour." Shizon looked around, somewhat disappointed. The village they had arrived at didn't consist of much more than two rows of houses, one at each of the central road's sides, and a small residence for the head of the village at the end of it, the beach laying about a kilometre into the road's direction. "And frankly, for what I heard to be one of the most secure Liberation Alliance holdouts, this is kind of... a joke. The greatest underground army of all time's greatest stronghold is a backwater village."
"Shut up, moron. Do you want to get us into trouble?" shushed him Zoruka, smacking him on the back of his head. She took a few copper pieces and headed to a vendor's small booth. She took a look at the goods the man displayed, and decided to purchase them. Noticing this, Kabura handed her a bag, and so she wordlessly began to pay for whatever she stuffed into it. As she was about leave again, she found it to be wise to find out where the castle they were looking for was, exactly. "Uh, sir, sorry should I bother you, but I've got a question... "
The vendor looked under the brim of his rice hat, and spoke in his rough and hoarse voice. "What's on your mind, miss?"
"Well, we're kind of looking for the castle, Wa Castle, and failed to find it... Could you please help us out, sir?" Zoruka made sure to sound as polite as possible, but her voice decided not to let that happen.
"You can't be serious... " stated the vendor falsely with an unbelieving tone. After the firebender opposite to him had shot him a sincerely inquiring glance, he continued, "Everyone who comes to Yamato- er, Wa Peninsula sees the castle. Are you blind?"
"Well, no, but we're looking for someone who is... " muttered she under her breath, before resuming talking aloud. "Well, we travelled here at the eastern shore. I suppose the cliffs blocked the view."
"Oh well... " The vendor stood up from his seat, and pointed towards the beach. "Go to the beach and take a careful look around. If you haven't found it then, come back. Good day, miss."
Zoruka passed the bag, now full of provisions, to the person nearest to her, who happened to be Shizon, as she went away, with a risen eyebrow. "Well... Let's give it a try, right?"
The others, except the unhappy Shizon, nodded. She made her way down the road, and then followed it through a small forest. After that, they already had arrived at the beach, which stretched, considering the peninsula's size, rather wide. Senqok, who had arrived second, as the first to take a look around, and instantly, his expression changed to one only Skado could else have worn - it combined the expression of annoyance and shame as if he had just been ultimately twitted.
"People... " He got the others' attention almost immediately with his annoyed-sounding voice. " ...I guess that guy was right. We ARE blind!"
As the Water Tribal gestured around, partly to clarify the castle's location, partly to express his shame and annoyance, Ranju was rather unimpressed. "So the Earth people can build fortresses on mountaintops too? Look how big that fundament is! For us Air Nomads, one or two pillars to stabilise it would've been enough. And we would've built it taller and- "
"Only that your version would've been easy to topple, maybe unconquerable, but very easy to destroy." Shizon's statement was only met with agreement. The castle was built on the rocky, almost rock-pillar like peak of a mountain, or rather, hill, overlooking the bay the beach was at, its fundament serving as its defensive walls, and therefore rising up one and a half dozen metres above the peak. It had a big, tower-like structure where its walls were highest, which also was the approximate location of the peak, overlooking what seemed to be a courtyard, or rather, bailey, with structures which were intermediate between houses and defensive towers on its corners, and a similar building, only of lesser height and only one storey, forming a kind of a gatehouse, as it was positioned atop the gate, which seemed to only open to earthbenders. Everyone stared in awe, and also shame for not finding it right away, except for Ranju, who thought practical.
"So... shall we get there or not?" spoke the Air Nomad as she opened her glider to reconnoitre the castle they were soon to enter.
"I've got good news and bad news." The Air Nomad landed right in front of the four of her comrades as they made their way up the mountain through the forest of the peninsula.
"Good news first," stated Kabura as she leaned against a pine to rest briefly.
"Alright then, the good news is: there's a proper, cobbled way up to the castle." Ranju let her gaze wander between the comrades of hers before she delivered the rest of her reconnaissance's fruits. "The bad news is... well, the castle is manned by Earth Empire soldiers."
"Not a problem. We broke out of and into and out of enough Imperial institutions, this shall be no match." Shizon was, for once, truly optimistic, which earned him not only his comrades' agreement, but also their surprise.
"This isn't some prison you can sneak into, nor is it some kind of camp. This is a proper fortress, built to actually keep people out. It won't be easy, but we'll manage." Ranju sat herself at the base of the tree Kabura leaned to, and began cleaning her glider. "We need a plan. I think I even have one... "
"Does it involve explosives?" Senqok's face basically consisted of a smile then, before he was cut off mid-sentence. "Because that'd be my- "
"No, and it also doesn't involve tunnelling into it, nor does it involve enslaving badgermoles." Kabura, Zoruka and Shizon all laughed as Senqok's face shifted to the one of annoyance and shame, while Ranju was herself annoyed by how little thought her comrades put into the plan. "You know what? Once you're finished laughing, we can conduct my plan. It's simple, really. The gate can only be opened by earthbending, so we can't break in there. We don't have time to climb the walls either, I believe. So, we'll just fly there like we flew out of Gaoling. We fly just far enough to land on the wall safely, and from there, we fight our way to Noki. We don't have to kill the soldiers, because they'll let us go, simply because we'll take Noki hostage, threatening to kill her should they not comply. How about that?"
Senqok had, like the rest of them, resumed his seriousness. He narrowed his eyes, determined. "Let's do this."
"The castle's about a kilometre ahead." thought the Air Nomad aloud, continuing with a plan. "If you climb the trees and jump to land on my glider, I can take a good run-up, and start right away once Shizon and Zoruka start flaming it up. Still okay with that?"
The other four exchanged glances, before nodding. Ranju was quick to choose a position from which she would have a clear way, while her comrades climbed up two trees to either of her runway's sides. She started running, enhancing her speed with airbending, while holding her opened glider. Reacting almost too slowly, Senqok and Kabura jumped from the trees to land on the glider, holding on for their dear lives, while Shizon and Zoruka had to propel themselves forward to catch up, and once they had grabbed onto the glider and their comrades, Ranju thrust them off the ground. The glider was hard to steer with such a weight, and even harder when two streams of fire thrust it straight forward, and so, the airbender could do little about the branches in their way, which made them simply break through, much to her comrades' dismay. Once they were above the treetops, they got a clear sight of the castle that lay ahead. All of sudden, after an ascent of less than ten seconds, Ranju found it appropriate to nose-dive, and neither Zoruka nor Shizon reacted fast enough for them to change their course with their streams of fire. A group of soldiers assembled on the castle's parapet walk, preparing to stop them from ever reaching the castle, but the glider was too fast.
"NOW! OFF!" were all the words uttered during the brief flight, shouted by Ranju at the top of her lungs shortly before her impact. Obeying, Shizon, Zoruka, Kabura and Senqok leapt off the glider, each of them striking down one of the soldiers doing so, while Ranju used her kinetic energy to throw three of them away at once. Kabura took her crossbow, Ranju closed her glider, Senqok and Shizon both unsheathed their respective swords, while Zoruka clenched her fists, bending fire daggers, all of them ready to fight. They took a quick look around, and soon realised that the bailey and the lower walls were at an equal level, separated only by some kind of walled stoa that completely surrounded what lay beyond. Without thinking twice, Senqok broke through the wooden sliding door that opposed him, and set his eyes upon what this act of violence revealed to him. A garden, with a small artificial creek and pond, as well as numerous boulders resembling glacial erratics, perfectly trimmed grass and a cherry tree in full blossom, was what the stoa enclosed. In its middle, right next to the cherry tree, stood a girl in a simple, emerald kimono, her straight raven hair flowing down her back, her feet bare. A bell was rung somewhere in the castle, and more soldiers streamed to the parapet walk, hurrying after the five comrades, who now themselves bolted towards the barefoot girl, not daring to set a single step on the grass. They all ran in one group, with Senqok in front, and right before they could reach the girl, he tripped, all others falling on him. The soldiers streamed into the garden as well, but the girl's quick gesture made them stop. She turned around to the fallen intruders with a wide grin, and facing them was rather a courtesy than a necessity, for her eyes were unseeing.
"So... you've arrived, at last. I already expected you." The girl's - Noki's - smile didn't vanish, if anything, it only intensified, before she broke out into laughter, confusing everyone around. "You should've seen your faces! Priceless! One moment you're all like 'I must exterminate all the humans' and the next you're 'Oh no mummy please help me!'. Priceless!"
"What do you mean, 'faces'?" Shizon was utterly and completely confused. "What IS going on here?"
"Well, like you can read expressions to tell about someone's emotions, I do the same with... heartbeat and all that stuff. You know me long enough to know that, I mean, seriously." Noki waited for the five comrades to get up. "Next time, be more careful with my guards. They won't get replaced, so don't hurt 'em. It was hard to make sure I - and not you - struck them first, really."
"You WHAT!?" Shizon had just started boiling with rage.
"I made the guards trip and hit them with small rocks and all that so you wouldn't hurt them," stated Noki, not entirely understanding why Shizon was enraged.
"YOU DID WHAT!?" Shizon turned away from Noki briefly, before continuing shouting at her, poking her into the chest hard enough to make her fall at every word. "WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING!? WE DIDN'T BREAK OUT OF PRISON AND GOT OURSELVES INTO REALLY DEEP SHIT SO YOU COULD PLAY YOUR SILLY LITTLE GAMES WITH US! YOU'RE JUST- "
"Stop it, Shizon!" shouted Senqok. Noki was shocked, and fell to the ground, Shizon helping her up again only so he could continue, ignoring Senqok.
"DO YOU THINK WE RISKED OUR LIVES FOR THIS KIND OF TREATMENT!? WHAT DO YOU THINK WE HAD TO ENDURE TO GET HERE!?" Shizon's pokes slowly became punches.
"STOP IT, SHIZON!" screamed Senqok as he separated the two. "She probably had no idea what we've been through! Just leave her alone!"
"NO! I WANT TO HEAR WHAT SHE THINKS WE HAD TO DO TO GET HERE! I WANT TO KNOW WHETHER SHE KNOWS WHAT WE'VE BEEN THROUGH!" Shizon pushed Senqok aide, while with each poke, or punch, the spot he was poking, or rather, punching, slowly began to genuinely hurt. "SO!? WHAT DO YOU THINK!?"
"Shizon, no. Stop it." Zoruka had joined Senqok's vain efforts to keep Shizon from doing any worse, trying to pull him away.
"I, WE ALL WOULD'VE AND DID RISK MY, ALL OUR LIVES FOR YOU, AND HOW DO YOU REWARD US!?" Shizon's screams and punches had done it. Noki burst into tears and she ran away. Slowly, Shizon's expression of rage, and the emotion itself as well, morphed into shock. "Oh, spirits, what have I done!?"
"A great accomplishment, Shizon, really great. You've made Noki cry. Not many people managed to do that, but you did. Great." complimented Senqok Shizon sarcastically, before he too took off, to follow Noki, screaming, "Wait, Noki! Please, I'll help you!"
The floor was wooden, much to the blind earthbender's dismay. She ran, tears running down her face for a reason she couldn't completely fathom. Behind her ran someone else she thought to be her comrade, someone who claimed to merely intend to help her. She cursed violently under her breath, she was angry at herself for not standing her ground like she should've, and angry at the castle's keep for not being built from wood. However, she was soon convinced that the latter reason was more appropriate, as she hadn't seen the stairs right before her coming, and therefore stumbled, hitting her head and basically every other part of her body, except her feet, which slid out of the way. Warm blood now joined her tears, as the waterbender chasing after her finally caught up.
"Oh damn, Noki! Are you alright?" rang Senqok's concerned voice as he had reached his comrade, helping her back on her feet without hesitation, and answering his own question immediately afterwards. "Of course you're not... come on, sit down, I'll heal these... "
Noki wordlessly obeyed, and let Senqok seal the minor injuries on her forehead, lips, chin and shoulders. The healing water had an oddly soothing effect, and Noki calmed down, her tears too slowly but not completely subsiding. After three minutes of utter silence, Senqok pulled away his water as he couldn't do much more for her, and bent it back into his water skin. Noki was about to stand up when his rough hand stopped her.
"Just because I'm done healing it doesn't mean my job here is finished," stated he as his earthbender comrade found resistance to be futile. "There's still a lot to do... " Although he knew she couldn't see it in any way, he looked deep into her eyes with a stern yet concerned expression, his voice assuming a fitting tone. "Why did- why do you cry?"
Noki's unseeing eyes widened, and tears rolled down her cheeks again, in number not unlike those from before. She attempted to explain something, but the words were drowned in sobs as her crying intensified. The earthbender then fell to the ground, sobbing, or would have, had not Senqok caught her, and pulled her in for a hug. Noki, blinder than ever, simply let it happen, and cried into his shoulder.
"It's going to be okay... " spoke Senqok, almost stereotypically, then adding, "Shizon was a huge idiot overreacting like this... I'm sure he didn't mean all of what he said."
Finally, Noki responded, her sobs briefly ceasing. "You don't know him as long as I do. He meant every word of it. And he's right." Her eyes teared up again, accompanied by sobbing. "And I wasn't earthbender enough to stand my ground!"
"Even if he was right... We would risk our lives for one another anytime, wouldn't we? And we used to make fools out of one another all the time, right?" Senqok held Noki opposite of him now so she could understand him better, despite her continuous sobbing. "We only wanted to get somewhere safe together. And we, especially Kabura and Shizon, had to endure very much so far... He's just, we're all just really exhausted and short of patience. If I were in his position, I don't think I would've reacted all too different, and if you were in his, you would as well, I'm sure. Now... why did you cry?"
Noki gulped and raised her head just barely enough for Senqok to see her eyes, in which tear after tear still formed. "I did- I do cry because... because I should've known better. You were prisoners, and I should've known you wouldn't get treated kindly, I should've known I shouldn't fool you like this, order you around after all of this... And most of all, it hurt to get that brutally shown by a friend of mine." She seemed to feel better already, but still, she cried slightly. "And of course that I didn't stand my ground like an earthbender."
"I see... sorry." sounded a voice from down the corridor. Footsteps came closer through the partially obscured hallway, the wooden floor chirping with each step. As he had arrived directly before the two, he revealed himself to be Shizon, his voice's tone indicating true regret. "I should've known better than to overreact like this."
"It's me who should've known better, who should've refrained from infuriating actions... sorry." Noki had risen from her seated position, and, although having no actual knowledge of his current location, looked Shizon in the eyes, nodding. She then turned around, holding out a hand to Senqok, asking him, "Could you please aid me? Besides, there's something I think we need to discuss."
Shizon's expression was quick to shift from a regretful to a confused and surprised one, and as Noki dragged Senqok away, the waterbender could only answer it with a shrug. Hurrying up the flight of stairs Noki had stumbled at before, the earthbender led her Water Tribal comrade through the corridors with surprising light-footedness and sense of direction, no set of stairs surprising her, not one turn being taken inconsiderately, and not stopping until they were through a door to a room at what seemed to Senqok to be the top of the keep. It was a bedroom, with a massive bed in its centre, with various accessories, ranging from simple chests to a painting depicting a battle scene, being lined up along the walls, except one chest that seemed to serve as a wardrobe. What surprised Senqok the most was, however, that not the huge bed seemed to be where Noki slept, as a dust layer lay upon it, but a simple mat on the floor. Senqok thought he had gotten enough, that was before he could lay his eyes upon the view the windows revealed. However, his mind didn't allow him to enjoy the view of the peninsula, the sea and the slowly setting sun, instead, it found several questions he had come to have in the past minutes more important.
"So... what was it you wanted to tell me, oh and how in Koh's bloody realm can you move around this place without seeing at all?" burst the waterbender out, speaking almost too quickly to distinguish between the words, then adding somewhat dreamy, "And spirits, has anyone ever told you what view you're missing?"
Noki turned towards him, only to rise an eyebrow. "Everything has to have its order, we'll come to that later... " She then turned away again, walking the few steps towards the chest she used as a wardrobe, and opened it. " ...as for the second, well... My mother was born here, I was born here, and I lived here for some years. Explained sufficiently? Good. And yes, I've been told that it's quite something I'm missing out there."
"You have an explanation for everything, don't you." claimed Senqok sarcastically, rolling his eyes. "Just so you know: I'm rolling my eyes."
Noki only let out a kind of annoyed sigh, before she took off her emerald kimono. As she tossed the garment into the chest, Senqok redirected his attention towards her out of boredom, only to realise she now stood there, completely naked. He couldn't help but stare for a few seconds, even if he only saw her back, before he shook his head, blushing, and forced himself to look away.
"I know you were looking," stated the currently disrobed earthbender as she bent down to fetch some piece of clothing out of the chest.
"Well... " Senqok's cheeks approximately were the colour of the Fire Nation's flag by then, and he generally was rather embarrassed. "...yes. I mean... who... wouldn't?"
The slight chuckle Senqok let out did nothing to ease him, while Noki was completely calm. She took the two garments she had chosen out of the chest, and covered the areas of her body that would attract the most attention if left uncovered with these. Then she slightly turned into Senqok's direction, smiling slightly. "Exactly."
"So... what is... the purpose of this?" Senqok slowly won back his ability to speak as his nervousness and embarrassment decreased. Noki faced him with a risen eyebrow as she put on a pair of leg warmers, immediately afterwards covering her lower legs with a combination of greaves and gaiters. She refused to answer Senqok as long as she clothed herself. Next, she put on a long and wide kimono, one that was not unlike the emerald one she had worn before and that, despite its size, didn't hinder her agility, before she put on a kind of armoured sleeves on her forearms. Then came the final part of her attire, a kind of armour in the form of a robe. It was sleeveless, of a dark bluish green colour, stretching down to her knees, and, despite the fact it technically was armour, very flexible. As a last finish, the earthbender took a simple band of black colour and bound it around her waist as a belt. Then, she turned to the waterbender who still awaited an answer.
"Well, you said you merely wanted to get somewhere safe, and to be together with your - our - friends." recalled Noki as she headed for the door again, stopping right before opening it. "This castle isn't safe, in fact, the Empire's sent out a force to conquer it. I know where to go to for all of us to be safe and to reunite with the rest of our not-so-merry band - Whaletail Island."
"Whoa, who thought fish could be this good!" The sarcastic-sounding but indeed frank remark came from Senqok. It earned him confused glances, and so he had a need to explain himself at the dinner table. "Well, in the Water Tribe, we don't have fish too often, actually. Well, we do, compared to the Earth Empire and the Fire Nation, but when we do, we usually have stockfish and clipfish... Not comparable to that!"
The waterbender took another slice of the fish he had been served between his chopsticks and rose it to eye height, marvelling how a simple piece of flesh could develop such a taste. Without a further thought, he shoved it into his mouth, before he decided it was time for the rest on his plate to follow the same path, and shovelled it the same way. Noki too found her meal rather delectable, but didn't express it verbally nor by action, but kept her etiquette and ate slowly, sure to still be able to survey her entire surroundings. The table had been set up in the pavilion in the middle of the castle's garden, with the setting sun's rays tinting the table crimson. Like Noki, Shizon ate slowly, but that had different reason - he distrusted the food, and so was careful about everything, fearing it to be poisoned. Zoruka, however, displayed a different attitude, which consisted of half-heartedly poking into what she had been served, before it had gotten cold, when she had to warm it up herself, and finally decided to eat it afterwards. Kabura originally intended to start a conversation, and had waited for the right moment, but with everyone focussing more on eating, she waited in vain, resulting in her too indifferently poking her food, taking a bite from time to time in a silently angry manner. Ranju had briefly prayed to the spirits before starting the consumption, which was over faster than it even had begun - she wolfed it down at a rate that put Senqok to shame. Once the Water Tribal had noticed this, his jaw dropped, but nevertheless he continued chewing soon thereafter, convinced to do so by the taste. As he had devoured everything that was put on his plate, he emptied all the cups that were in his reach and not directly declared to belong to someone else. That also included a cup full of hot sauce, as he then found out, much to the amusement of his comrades. While Senqok's mouth's inside felt as if the entire worldwide population of firebenders unleashed their power at it, and the waterbender had to somehow cope with it, his comrades, except for Ranju, whose food's mysterious disappearance remained a mystery, finished their respective meals. Just as they were about to do so with the drinks, Noki rose from her cross-legged seat and cleared her throat.
"I thank you all for coming today." Noki had to clear her throat again. "As this place is in no way safe, I fear that, together, we can't stay than one night. Tomorrow, we'll sail to- "
"Madam Noki!" A soldier approached the blind girl, bowing. He then whispered something into her ear, which made her drop the cup of tea she had held. The cup shattered as her unseeing eyes widened and her jaw dropped a bit.
"I fear we can't stay much longer! Get provisions, get your stuff together! We need to leave as fast as possible! The Earth Empire's forces are only an hour, if at all, away now! Hurry!" Noki was quick to pour down the cups' contents into her mouth, Kabura, Zoruka and Shizon mirroring her action, while Senqok and Ranju jumped up to get provisions and basic equipment. Just after they went off, Noki walked out of the pavilion and shot herself up with an earth column, right to the keep's highest storey, where she made a rather harsh landing. Only two minutes later, the six comrades had gathered in front of the pavilion again, all carrying a knapsack each with their equipment. Noki nodded as all had arrived, and, after briefly leaping up, thrust downwards with all her might, forming a tunnel that led down several metres. She jumped in first and deepened it only a few centimetres more, until light was visible for the others, who too entered now. The castle's soldiers hurried to the defences, and sealed up the entrance into the tunnel again once the six comrades were inside. While Zoruka and Shizon let flames hover in their palms to make up for the insufficient light source in the masterly carved tunnel that lay ahead. With Noki leading the way, the comrades made their way through dark corridors directly carved into the surrounding rock, walking around in patterns that Kabura found difficult to memorise.
"Where are we, exactly?" asked the waterbender-in-training, "What is this place?"
"The castle's builders - my maternal ancestors - were very paranoid, apparently." Noki started explaining, "The castle is not exactly a vast, strong fortress, nor is it a lavish palace, it's something in between, on a small scale. And for that last fact, it's hard to defend - only a small force can hold out for long in this castle. Sure, it can only be entered by earthbenders through the gate, but that's exactly who we've been fighting for the past centuries, so my ancestors decided to build a tunnel network stretching from beneath the castle half the way to Gaoling, or so some say at least. The tunnels were built to flee in the case of a siege, and well, one tunnel happens to lead to the harbour, and that's the one we're in now."
Kabura was satisfied with the explanation, and Noki had explained long enough for them to pass beneath half the peninsula. Noki stopped and turned to her right, where a short tunnel shot off, whose end she simply blasted off. She jumped out, while the others simply climbed out onto the grass, only to find themselves on a small cliff, with a small wooden pier built a far metres into the sea beneath, a boat anchoring there.
"Not much of a harbour, but it's something... " remarked Noki as she went to the pier, but stopped right before leaving earthen material, waiting for her comrades to climb out of the tunnel, which she then sealed shut again. Once her five companions were with her, they made their way onto the narrow pier, only Senqok, as the last to reach the wooden structure, returning to help Noki across onto the small junk that was anchored there. Just as they had reached the boat, a soldier, his uniform denoting him as one of the castle's, ran up to the pier, waving his hands and shouting.
"But you can't leave yet! The ship's not fully prepared and- " rang his concerned voice as Senqok cut the ropes binding the ship to the pier.
"It's okay, I can sail... " cut Senqok the man off, just as he had done with the ropes. As he began bending the water currents around the boat for it to drift away, three other of the companions replied to the soldier.
"As do I!" shouted Kabura, adjusting a sail so the gently blowing wind would steer them away from the cliff instead of smashing them against them.
"Me too!" screamed Shizon, only his quick reaction preventing the ship to shatter upon collision with some rather minor rocks between the slight waves.
"And me, to some extent!" Ranju amplified her voice with her bending, and, making use of the same gift of hers, she also accelerated the boat.
Other than these four, and Zoruka, who enjoyed the slight, salty wind, Noki already had begun hating the voyage. She vomited, thanfully overboard, and then sarcastically ordered, "Set course for Whaletail Island...!"
Zoruka led Noki under deck for her to recover somewhere where the ship was more stable, while the others continued sailing the ship, away from the peninsula, where a loud crashing noise could be heard.
"Lads, look... " was all Senqok could mutter, watching a massive cloud of dust rise and boulders fall en masse where only an hour ago, the proud Castle of Wa had stood.
"The castle has fallen... " stated Ranju, and upon recognising a part of some tower-like structure, she added, "Quite literally... "
"Well, no turning back now... " remarked Shizon, then bitterly continuing, " ...as if that were something new... "
"Then stop whining! You heard Noki! To Whaletail Island!" shouted Zoruka in an attempt to motivate them, but failed. Still, Whaletail Island was their destination, and on their voyage, they wouldn't let anything come between them and their destination.
Notes and Trivia
- "Elemental solitaire" is my name for the recurring card game.
- Wa Castle and Wa Village were named after the first recorded name for Japan, and is meant to be located on what later becomes Kyoshi Island.
- A merry band playing songs wherever they go. Yes, this is a pun, and yes, this is a reference to the nomads from The Cave of Two Lovers.
- Wa Castle is basically a motte-and-bailey castle based on Kumamoto Castle, with a keep much alike the one of Himeji Castle.
For the collective works of the author, go here.