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|The Mountain Master's Son|
March 24, 2012
By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is bitterest. -- Kǒng Fū-zǐ (Confucious)
Fire. Air. Water. Earth.
My aunt used to tell me stories about the old days, when the Avatar was a paragon of righteousness and order for all the nations. I used to think that, somehow, the universe always chose a good, moral person to be the Avatar, but recently... I've started to think that maybe the world has just been lucky so far.
Fifteen years ago the previous Avatar died, just as the Earth Kingdom erupted into civil war between a confederation of eastern cities lead by Ba Sing Se and a confederation of western cities lead by Omashu, a development encouraged by the sanctimonious and tyrannical Earth King. Everyone thought a new Avatar would appear soon, to stop the war, depose the king, and return balance to the world with barely a wave of his hand. But the circumstances of this new Avatar's life have lead him to forsake the Avatar's duties for a selfish life dedicated to what he calls "justice," and most would call "revenge."
First, you have to understand the Hei Chaoliu, the Black Current of the Earth Kingdom, because that was the Avatar's world for the first fifteen years of his life. The clans of the Hei Chaoliu claimed to be mutual protection societies for the poor citizens of the Lower Ring, but that was the farthest thing from the truth. The Hei Chaoliu was the collective name for dozens and dozens of clan-based gangs, competing for illegal commodities and territory. By the time the war broke out, one clan, the Ban, was on the verge of becoming the most powerful in the city. A son—Zhengyi—was born to the head of the Ban clan. I can't help but think how much simpler the course of my life—even the course of history—would have been, if the Heir of Ban had not also been the Avatar.
Ban Ti Xi's foot stamped the ground, ejecting a rock from its resting place. He shot his fist out from his hip, sending the rock at one of his sparring partners. The other man quickly erected a wedge of earth and the rock shattered on its edge. The wedge sped toward Ti Xi, but he strongly thrust both his forearms at it, raising a rock wall. His open pao fluttered from the sharpness of his movements.
Two other sparring partners swung their fists upward like weights on a chain, lifting a massive boulder into the air and positioning it above Ti Xi's head. With a crane's beak hand technique, Ti Xi broke a core out of the rock for his body to occupy. Alone for a moment in the core of the boulder, he smiled at how staunchly his retainers obeyed his order to not hold back in practice. With barely enough room to move his muscular arms at the elbows, he struck the rock's interior in several places, producing radial hairline fractures. He sent a barrage of rock sections at his sparring partners. This unexpected move neutralized nearly all of them. Ti Xi exhaled with a bridge hand. Only one of his retainers could still present any real challenge to him, and he wanted a challenge today.
Ti Xi called out to this man, who was leaning against a tree at the edge of Ban Ti Xi's training courtyard, mostly hidden by the tree's shadow, and audibly crunching on an apple. "Hey, Wu! You wanna fight? I need to practice against someone who can actually throw a rock!" Ti Xi said, charismatic as always, playfully clapping one of his exhausted sparring partners on the shoulder. Ti Xi traded a playful smile with his retainer.
Er Shi Wu's only acknowledgment of his boss's request was to step out from the shadow of the tree and toss his apple to the ground. The shadow seemed to lift off him like a curtain, exposing his green shirt on his wiry frame, his bright green left eye, and an eye-patch covering the right one. The patch bore the pygmy puma that was Ti Xi's clan insignia, and it had also prompted Er Shi Wu's nickname: "One-Eyed Wu."
Wu casually strode on to the training ground with a chuckle. "You always win, Ti Xi," he smiled.
"Not true," Ti Xi acknowledged the abilities of this man, one of his top three lieutenants. "Up until a few years ago you used to beat me all the time, remember?"
Wu nodded in assent, taking a horse stance. "Seems like a long time," he said. Ti Xi took a stance in kind.
Wu whipped his fists diagonally across his body, flinging stones at Ti Xi. Ti Xi pecked them all out of the air with his crane's beak hand. They both knew this was just a warm-up.
Ti Xi then dropped to a lower stance, and a wave of earth shot from his foot straight at Wu. Wu anticipated this. He lifted a large chunk of earth out of the ground. As Ti Xi's wave came at him, Wu spun to the side and took a drop stance. His chunk of earth spun with him and he fired it at Ti Xi. Ti Xi sprang backwards and rolled as the chunk flew over his head and shattered on the courtyard wall behind him. He got back to his feet and swung his hand in a circle behind him, raising an arc of earth aimed for Wu. Wu had already created a similar structure and was sending it toward Ti Xi.
"Mountain Master! Mountain Master!" came the winded voice of another of Ti Xi's top men, Xin Kao. He was waving a parchment clasped in the three digits of his right hand. A rival clan had cut off his right pinkie and ring finger many years ago when they once captured him. They had hoped to disgrace him, as amputated fingers were the mark of a traitor among the Hei Chaoliu clans. Ti Xi had too much trust in Kao for the tactic to work, but that was how he had earned his nickname, "Kao the Claw." However, the name hardly fit Kao's avuncular appearance, with his long white beard, deep brown eyes, bald head and big gut.
Wu and Ti Xi broke off the match, allowing their earthen projectiles to melt back into the ground. "Kao, you can call me by my name," Ti Xi said. Kao had originally worked for Ti Xi's father, and Ti Xi always felt strange being addressed so respectfully by a man ten years his senior.
"Apologies, Mou—Ti Xi. But we just got news from Bian Se Long."
"Bian Se Long?" Ti Xi replied. Wu perked up his ears. Bian Se Long was a small port town near Chameleon Bay. Ti Xi had sent one of his mistresses there, ostensibly to keep her safe from rival clans. Everyone in the clan knew Ti Xi's reputation as something of a skirt-chaser, and this particular woman Wu had never met. But he and Kao were the only one's who knew the real reason Ti Xi had sent her away from the city: she was pregnant.
"Yes. I need to speak with you privately," Kao said, still sounding urgent. Wu watched the two move off together into the main house of the Ban compound as he helped the other sparring partners up. The afternoon sun blazed over the Agrarian District of Ba Sing Se and the Ban family compound, and Wu felt it despite the meager shade provided by some of the trees at the edge of the training courtyard.
A couple of the pygmy pumas which were kept around the compound as pets— mascots of sorts for the clan—skittered out of the way as Kao and Ti Xi slid open the shoji and entered the house. Ti Xi nervously ran a hand over his shaven head. "How are they?" he asked. "Are they safe?" Ti Xi looked a little pale.
"Yes," Kao smiled. "Both of them."
Ti Xi huffed in relief. Cao, already twice a father himself, chuckled at Ti Xi's reaction. "The Ban Clan will finally have an heir," Ti Xi breathed.
"Kao, I want you to go there right away in my place," Ti Xi told him. "Make sure everything goes smoothly," he said in an exited fluster. Then he remembered Kao's young daughter, only eighteen months old. "Will Fung be all right without you?"
"Her aunt at the abbey can look after her," Kao smiled at his friend. "Don't worry, Ti Xi. This is important; I want to go."
Ti Xi placed his hand on Kao's shoulder. "You're my top man. I wouldn't trust anyone else with something this important."
Kao gave an assuring nod and walked up the imposing staircase toward his suite in the massive main house of the Ban clan's compound. In order to motivate his men, Ti Xi allowed several dozens of his most senior lieutenants to live in his rather posh compound. The compound was officially a farm in the Agrarian District, but Ti Xi ran it more like a hotel or an army camp. Its several houses, especially the palatial main house, were generally much nicer than anything your average poor Hei Chaoliu gang member had ever seen. Ti Xi even allowed members to keep spouses and children with them at the compound, provided they didn't enter the city-proper. The younger clan members heard stories of it, although they were not allowed to know its location, and the prospect of such a nice living arrangement encouraged them to work up to a rank when they might finally be invited to live there.
Ti Xi stood alone in the foyer, grinning to himself for a moment. "Dà gē...?" came Wu's voice, snapping Ti Xi back to the present. "About the raid on the Du clan's slum tonight: the briefing will be held in the grand dining room in a few minutes."
"Thanks, Wu. I'm prepared," Ti Xi said. "Did you make the maps I asked for?"
"They're ready, Ti Xi. But I don't understand why we need to go to battle over such an insignificant piece of turf. I don't think the men will like it, Ti Xi..." Wu walked past Ti Xi, casually pausing to brush some dust off a table. "We're going to lose people we don't need to waste on something like this," he said casually, not looking up.
"I've seen that place for myself," Ti Xi said, gravely. "The people living there are poorest of the poor, and the Du clan still gouges their rents and charges them protection. If we take it over we'll get the income from all those renters, and just by charging a fair price we'll have their loyalty too. They'll pay the Ban Clan, and be glad to do it." He took a betel nut out of a bowl on the table and popped it in his mouth. "Besides, exploiting civilians—poor civilians—like that...it dishonors the Hei Chaoliu."
"Right, and the chance to play the rescuer to a few impressionable peasant girls has nothing to do with it?" Wu smirked. Ti Xi shot him a mischievous look.
Ti Xi closed his eyes and began stroking his doorknocker beard. "It's just unfortunate we have to do this without Ying Su here. I'm a little worried." Ti Xi closed his eyes and began stroking his doorknocker beard. "I'll never have another lieutenant with the tactical skill she has. She could have been in the army, you know... That's what she should be, not a crime lord's lieutenant." He sighed.
Wu clenched his jaw at the mention of Ying Su's name. She had only joined the clan two years ago after he and Ti Xi had rescued her from the Du clan, but Ti Xi had already made her a lieutenant on the same level as Wu himself. It was true she had a masterful affinity for strategy and planning, but Wu knew the same was true of him, and he hadn't been promoted so fast. He resented her as a newcomer who didn't know her place, and he chafed at the fact that Ti Xi allowed this situation to continue just for the sake of Su's abilities. She was his rival, and Wu was a talented man unused to having rivals. But they were both loyal to the Mountain Master, and neither would want to offend him by bad-mouthing the other. So, Wu bit his tongue and dissembled in front of the boss.
"You were the one who sent Su to Omashu to look for ways to expand the clan. I think you're overestimating her anyway," Wu replied. "I mean, she's is good—probably the best—but you and I don't need her just to take a patch of turf from trash like the Du."
Ti Xi laughed. "True! Go set up and make sure the men are in there."
Wu went off and Ti Xi took a few minutes to collect himself and finish chewing his betel nut before entering his dining room with his men. The betel nuts helped keep him calm. Ying Su said he chewed them too often, but it wasn't as though they were doing any damage.
The briefing went well, and the men retired for a few hours sleep. Just before dawn the Ban clan assembled to carry out the plan. Ti Xi left his compound in the Agrarian District early to meet his men in the Lower Ring and march at their head. Ti Xi was, in all things, a leader. He, Wu, and his other officers bent their way through the inner wall and met his men. They struck out from their own territory in the dim light of the half moon and the odd candle or street lamp.
Knowing of the plan in advance, Ban members of all ranks appeared out of alleys and side streets, forming up behind Ti Xi and Wu. Like a small army, the Ban members of every rank strode down the streets of Ba Sing Se's poor Lower Ring. Hei Chaoliu clans fought over sections of the city like generals in war. The Hei Chaoliu, the Black Current of Ba Sing Se, was the city's criminal underworld. All illegal dealings in the city went through at least one Hei Chaoliu clan, and usually several dozen. However, a clan could only conduct its illegal dealings in areas of the city that it kept the other clans out of. Therefore, the clans were constantly locked in brutal gang warfare. Any Hei Chaoliu member could be murdered at any time, but still their numbers swelled, especially in this era. Violent as their lifestyle was, the citizens of the Lower Ring were so desperately poor that illegal dealings were virtually the only way for them to make a half-decent living.
Ti Xi would cross though his own clan's territory, but when they entered the streets controlled by the Du clan it would be like invading a hostile nation in wartime. Anyone Ti Xi's men ran into might kill them. Gang members wore no uniforms or colors to distinguish them from "civilians"—what Hei Chaoliu members called non-members—although different gangs did often have preferred weapons, unique tattoos, or kept certain animals as mascots.
As Ti Xi marched his men through the streets of his territory, the few civilians awake and about at that time waved or saluted in some way. Some even bowed. Unlike the Du clan and many other Hei Chaoliu clans, Ti Xi did show concern for the people living in his territory. He did not bully them, charge them protection money, or charge them unreasonable rates for loans. The people in a clan's territory were the people with whom the clan did business, and as they say, you catch more beetle-flies with honey than with vinegar. Ti Xi made sure his customers trusted him with their business, and this policy had allowed him to make his clan among the most profitable in the city, though that was a position for which he constantly struggled. He was always fighting other clans as he was tonight.
Ti Xi and his men crossed a single city street and were suddenly in hostile territory. They hit the Du hard, and the raid went mostly according to plan. The Ban had the advantage of numbers. They kept the fights short and quiet. It was brutal fighting, but nothing new to these men. A knife thrust in the dark. A block and counter, then on to the next opponent. That was how the Hei Chaoliu had been for four hundred years.
Ti Xi and his men made it to the Du clan's main office in that area, a bar attached to an inn. The door busted in as Ti Xi bent a rock into it. He confidently strode into the room. Two of the Du fighters in the room rushed him with their kris knives. Ti Xi quickly dispatched them with nothing but his hands and announced himself to the others. "Bring me to the officer in charge here. I have a deal for him." Ti Xi's men flooded the room and One-Eyed Wu took a protective stance at his boss's right hand. Tense moments passed as Ban members and Du members eyed each other with drawn knives. Finally the Du boss—the head Du boss—emerged from a back room.
"Du Jungshi," Ti Xi acknowledged.
The men had met a few times before. Jungshi tended to be a bit more formal than Ti Xi, cutting a trimmer figure in a black changshan. "Ban Ti Xi," he replied. "You'll excuse me if I don't offer you any tea."
"You're as hilarious as ever," Ti Xi said sarcastically. "But that's not why we're here. I have an offer for you. If you agree, I can make you rich."
Ti Xi had not expected the head of the whole Du clan to show up in this small border district. The Du must have detected their approach. Ti Xi intended to simply push a few Du soldiers out of this neighborhood. Now the plan would have to change. He did not move a muscle, not even his eyes, though they seemed to absorb the whole room. Better to show strength now, he reasoned. He laid out an ultimatum.
"I don't like the way the Du clan does business. I will let you and your clan survive if you agree to do things my way from now on. No more protection fees for merchants. You will set the rents and loan rates I give you. You can run the operations and keep a percentage of the money, but everything gets my approval first," Ti Xi told Jungshi.
Jungshi stood up and began to pace the floor quite calmly. Ti Xi reached behind his back to grasp the kukri knife that rested in the sash at his waist, but he did not remove it. Jungshi's sleeves hung down past his hands, and he folded his arms into them.
"Well...I will have to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of your offer." He was speaking slowly, belaboring words unnecessarily. "Although it is said to be dishonorable for a clan to keep its name if ruled by another family... it is also said that profit is the true goal of every clan." Very gradually, he was getting closer to Ti Xi. "My men would not like it...but then, as a leader, it is up to me to make the decisions and keep them in line." He paused. Ti Xi wondered why Jungshi was being so verbose.
Jungshi removed is hands from their opposite sleeves, but the long garment still concealed them. "Oh well. It doesn't matter anyway," Jungshi smiled devilishly.
And then Wu put a blade in his neck.
"He's got a knife!" Wu yelled, referring to the already lifeless body from which he was removing his kukri. Wu had apparently just leapt across the room and drawn his weapon before Ti Xi even realized he had done it. The room exploded in shouting and fighting between the two gangs. Wu lunged at another attacking Du member. Ti Xi was stunned for just an instant, but momentarily he cut down an attacker, kicked another coming at him from behind, and threw his knife into a third. He began earthbending, and between him, Wu, and the rest of his men, all the Du members had been killed or fled within a few minutes.
Ti Xi counted his casualties. "Seventeen," he panted, and then he swore at himself. Although he recognized the necessity of it in his line of work, Ti Xi never liked losing men. Seventeen was pretty far above the normal losses for this sort of raid. "That's too many," Ti Xi said. He swore again and clenched his fists, creating small fissures in the ground at his feet. "Why did you do that?" he yelled at Wu. "I was trying to make a deal!"
Wu glared at Ti Xi but said nothing. He walked a few paces over to Jungshi's corpse and knelt next to it. He pulled back the body's sleeve, revealing some sort of strange gauntlet with a knife extending from it. The Du boss had been stalling, trying to get Ti Xi off-guard so he could stab him. And the Du always poisoned their blades. Even a scratch would have killed Ti Xi. "I saved your life," Wu told him.
Ti Xi was slightly taken aback, but at the moment he had more important things to think about. "Forget it. We'll discuss this later," Ti Xi told Wu. "Everybody outta here!" he called out to the men. He knew the rest of the Du would be out for blood when they found out their boss was dead. "Back to Ban turf!" he ordered.
This time Ti Xi and his men ran, rather than marched, back to their territory. He, Wu, and his other earthbending lieutenants made it back to the inner wall just as dawn broke. They earthbent a door in it and soon they were running through the gates of the Ban compound. When they were safely back on his property, Ti Xi finally stopped running and leaned on his knees, panting. Wu did the same.
"You shouldn't...have killed him," Ti Xi panted at Wu. "Not...like that."
"What should I...have done?" Wu replied. "He was going... to kill you."
"When you attacked...our men were caught...off guard! It's your fault we lost so many!"
"No!" the one-eyed man shot back at his friend as both men began to regain their breath. "I said it looked like a trap, but you went in anyway. What did you think would happen?" Wu did his best to reign in his anger, out of respect for his boss, but he was not very successful. They continued their argument as they walked through the dewy garden up towards the main house. "You have to stop thinking you can fix this city, Ti Xi. It's nothing but one big, worthless garbage pit! It was a pit before you were born, and it'll be a pit after you're dead!"
"The point is, you disobeyed your Mountain Master. You knew the plan was to avoid a fight and you outright assaulted the Du boss. That's a violation of your oath," Ti Xi said, sliding open the shoji for Wu. He paused, wearing a cold, stern look on his broad face. "I would be within my rights if I chose to kill you right now."
Wu looked at his boss with his one green eye. The moment was as heavy as a stone.
"Forget it," Wu said. "What's done is done." He stepped inside, and Ti Xi followed him. Without saying anything else, Wu stalked upstairs to his quarters. Lucky Cho, the clan's bookish accountant, followed at Wu's heels, yapping inquiries about the details of the raid.
Ti Xi, too tired to walk up to the master bedroom, sank onto a couch in the foyer and soon fell asleep. Ti Xi liked his sleep, and it was a joke among his men that he could sleep anywhere.
Ban Ti Xi laid low for the next few months. He did not leave his compound and did not mobilize his men, for fear of reprisals by the Du clan. Most of the rest of the world had currently become distracted by the news that Avatar Maiara of the Southern Water Tribe had just passed away, and a new Avatar would soon be born into the Earth Kingdom, but the Hei Chaoliu clans did not care about such things. The Du would certainly still be planning their revenge. Ti Xi spent most of the time sparring with his men in the courtyard, while One-Eyed Wu looked over the clan's financial records. He came to Ti Xi with unnerving news he had discovered.
"Look at this!" he said, bursting out of the back door to the main house with a scroll in his hand. Ti Xi quickly knocked down his last two opponents in order to turn his attention to his retainer. Wu didn't even pause. He threw open the scroll. "Here, look at these numbers. Look how much money we spent preparing the raid last week! And we didn't even capture the territory! Dà gē, you can't keep running the clan like this!"
Ti Xi just looked at the scroll and shook his head at his cyclopic colleague. "Wu, we have to make the public view us as a good influence on the community." He walked over to the bowl on the table and popped a betel nut in his mouth. "If we had captured that neighborhood all those people would be doing their business exclusively with us. As long as we treat the public well, they'll continue to do business exclusively with the Ban clan."
"I understand that, Ti Xi, but we're a crime syndicate. Do you think we're righteous bandits in a marsh or something, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor? You can't be a Mountain Master and a philanthropist," Wu admonished him. "You counted our losses last week yourself. Can you at least think about being a little more pragmatic?"
Ti Xi spoke calmly, but there was anger on the edges of his voice. "I protect my clan brothers. Don't imply otherwise. And I am the leader of this clan." Ti Xi narrowed his eyes. "So offer advice if you want, but I decide how this clan will operate. Period." Another Chaoliu boss might have killed such an insubordinate underling, but Ti Xi and Wu were friends, and had known each other for years. Ti Xi trusted him and valued his input, but this argument had been coming up between them a lot.
He was about to speak, but at that moment he heard a knock at the compound's main door. Ti Xi nodded to a low-ranking retainer, who moved to open the door. It swung open and standing there was Xin Kao, finally returned from Bian Se Long. He was holding something wrapped in a yellow blanket.
"Kao?" Ti Xi asked, turning toward the doorway.
"Mountain Master," Kao entered the courtyard, "I present to you the heir of Ban," Kao smiled, handing Ti Xi a sleeping baby boy.
The suddenness of this new arrival set off quite a bit of whispered chattering among the other retainers present, especially since none but Kao and Wu had even known Ti Xi was expecting.
Ti Xi, seemingly stupefied by the novelty of so suddenly having a clan heir to care for, unconsciously let his jaw hang slack as he took the child from his friend. The little round-faced baby yawned peacefully.
"Have you chosen a name?" Kao asked.
Ti Xi looked at his friend, then back at his son. He thought. "Zhengyi," he said finally. "Ban Zhengyi...my heir."
"So, who's the mother?" Wu grinned mischievously, craning his neck to get a look at the kid.
Ti Xi laughed. "I don't kiss and tell."
Wu understood the practice of clan heads keeping the identities of their wives, mistresses, or offspring secret from other clans. Anyone close to a clan head became possible targets for rival clans. In addition, Hei Chaoliu families were like royal families in many respects, one of which was the ability to use intermarriage for diplomacy. Of course, that was mostly academic with Ti Xi. He was too much of a philanderer to keep to one woman, even if she was the mother of the clan heir. He's probably hiding her from his other girlfriends around the city as much as from the Du or Tong, Wu thought with a grin. Wu still wondered why Ti Xi couldn't let his own second-highest lieutenant at least know who she was. But if Ti Xi hadn't told him by now, he wasn't going to.
"There is, uh, something else you should know, Mountain Master," Kao said. "I have reason to believe your son was born within moments of Avatar Maiara's death." If anyone in Ti Xi's employ cared to keep track of when the previous Avatar had died, it was Kao. Although he had been born poor and was forced to become a gangster out of necessity, he was still a spiritual person and tried to help Ti Xi enforce a code of honor in his clan. He was a devotee of one of the main Earth spirits, Jian Lao, and his sister was a nun at a nearby abbey dedicated to that spirit. "As you know, there are hundreds of candidates every time a new Avatar is born...but it is possible that this child is the next Avatar."
"Incredible!" Wu said. An heir to the clan was one thing, but this news really set off a din of conversation among the men.
"I'm already in touch with an old spiritualist friend of mine," Kao explained, "but the child can't be tested until he's a few months old, when he can crawl on his own."
"Ah, don't get excited," Ti Xi said, looking over his shoulder at his men. "I'm just glad he's healthy. I mean, do you really think the universe would allow the next Avatar to be born the son of a crime boss?" he laughed.
Ti Xi spent the next long while playing with his new baby, apparently quite glad of the diversion from the usual sordid Hei Chaoliu business. Of course, when it came time to feed, burp, and change the baby, Ti Xi was just as glad to delegate the task to Kao. But then, what good are retainers if you don't use them?
Things went on this way for another few months, until Zhengyi was about seven months old. During the day, Ti Xi left Zhengyi in the care of the wife of one of the clan officers who lived at the compound so that he could go back to business as usual. Ti Xi usually had an audience with his liaison officer, whose job was to bring the boss messages from his customers or other clans in the city. This was held in the massive main dining room, sometimes called the "throne room" by the men, because of the ornate chair the boss sat in whenever he held these audiences. Ti Xi used this room for many functions, including promotion ceremonies and planning attacks on other clans.
On this day, Ti Xi was holding such an audience. Kao stood at the right side of the chair petting a pygmy puma. Wu crunched on an apple at the boss's left as the liaison officer blandly read the requests. "From one Mr. Sheng Bing Nu, of the Lower Ring:" the officer read, his eyes ticking up and down the lines on the paper. "He took out a loan last month...da, da, da"—the officer skipped the less important information—"daughter's fallen ill... herbalists charge so much...da, da, da... ah! He says he doesn't need any more money, but he can't pay on time. He wants a two-month extension." He looked up at Ti Xi, waiting for a decision.
"He had plenty of time to pay," Wu sneered.
Ti Xi raised his left hand to silence Wu. "I'll give Mr. Sheng a two month extension. But no longer," Ti Xi said. Wu rolled his eye and took a large bite out of his apple.
Suddenly, one of Ti Xi's younger lieutenants rushed into the room.
"Dà gē, Ying Su is back! She's back from Omashu!" he announced excitedly. Momentarily, a woman walked past him. She was beautiful, with flowing black hair, a bright, round face, and sharp eyes of brown. Her black qun skirt swayed at her heels as she strode toward the throne. Ti Xi strode over and embraced her convivially.
"How are you?" Ti Xi asked. "How was your trip?"
"Oh...it was fine," the Ban consigliore replied. Ying Su was another good friend and retainer of Ti Xi. The Mountain Master had given her an advisory position because of her preternatural skill for martial strategy. Although she was a beautiful and elegant woman, Ying Su had a general's mind.
"Really?" Wu interrupted skeptically, swallowing a bite of apple. "Because as I hear, the people in Omashu don't really care for people from Ba Sing Se these days. I heard they were thinking of replacing the Earth King with their own guy. We might even be going to war soon. But it was really still fine?"
Wu hoped to draw her out and make her look foolish, as the many gang officers in the room were now watching their exchange. "I used an assumed identity, obviously," Ying Su told him.
"We need you back, Su," Ti Xi told her. "We tried to take some Du territory a few months ago and we completely failed."
"Well, I'm back now. If my Mountain Master wishes, I'll start putting the logistics together immediately. This year we'll wipe them out and make the Ban THE clan in this city!" she said, more to the assembled clan members than to Ti Xi.
Ti Xi smiled at her. "Su, have you met the heir to our clan yet?"
Ying Su gasped. "So we have an heir at last? I'd like nothing more, Mountain Master." They began chatting as Ti Xi escorted her from the room.
As Kao put his puma down and took Ti Xi's place on the throne to see to the remaining requests, Wu took another bite of his apple.
A few requests later, the retainer who had announced Ying Su's arrival came to Kao with another announcement. "Deputy Mountain Master, Spiritualist Kei Guan has arrived, " he proclaimed. Dressed in formal green and white robes, and carrying a large sack, the spiritualist approached Kao on the throne.
"Kei Guan, old friend!" Kao said, rising from the chair with barely-noticeable effort.
"Xin Kao, how are you?" the spiritualist asked, hefting his sack.
Kao approached him. "Old," he joked. They laughed.
"You must show me to this child. I've brought the Avatar relics all the way from Taku. I just tested a newborn there." Kei Guan moved in closer to Kao, lowered his voice. "You know, other spiritualists are going to be quite...er, surprised...if this crime lord's son turned out to be the Avatar. If I didn't know you, Kao, I would have to agree that a future Avatar should not be left to grow up in this environment."
"I'll look out for him. Don't worry, Zhengyi probably isn't even the Avatar," Kao said. "He will be tested this evening. Make yourself at home for now." He motioned to another retainer, "Lucky Cho, show Kei Guan to his room."
That evening, Ti Xi and a few of his friends were assembled in the courtyard, under the setting sun, standing on the bare earth. He had dismissed most of his men, other than Ying Su, Cao and his daughter Fung, Wu (and one of his apples), a few pygmy pumas, and of course Kei Guan and Zhengyi. Ti Xi bounced Zhengyi in his arms as he spoke to Ying Su, but momentarily Kei Guan emerged from the house with his satchel, and everyone fell silent. Kei Guan walked out into the courtyard ceremoniously. He opened his sack and placed almost a hundred toys on the ground. The inside of the sack was in fact an embroidered blanket, and this he placed before the toys. He took Zhengyi from Ti Xi and placed him on the blanket.
Everyone waited expectantly for the baby to do something. First, he spent a few minutes trying to suck his toes. Eventually he noticed the toys and crawled over. He picked up a toy wooden hog-monkey. Then a tiny drum on a handle. Then a toy turtle, and finally a whirlybird toy that flew with a string.
As Zhengyi sat among his chosen toys sucking on the turtle, Kei Guan looked to Ti Xi with wide eyes. "Your son...is the Avatar," he whispered, sinking to his knees to bow to the baby.
Everyone there stared at the child. "Ai-yah..." Su breathed. Wu's apple dropped right out of his hand.
Ti Xi's eyes widened at his son. He found himself with his hand over his mouth, pensively kneading the flesh around his jaw. He was a Mountain Master is the Hei chaoliu. He had killed men and seen friends killed, but right now he was as scared as he had ever been. Would the clan be in more danger because of this? Would Zhengyi? Would they have to keep him hidden from the world? Should they? Would he be taken away from them if word got out?
The Avatar, born into the Hei Chaoliu. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Ti Xi turned to Kao. "What does this mean for us?"
Kao was as surprised as any of the others, but he was mostly able to keep his head. "I think you should take the rest of the night to think. He's your son, Ti Xi. We'll be better prepared to figure things out tomorrow. You ought to put the baby to bed."
"I'll do it," Wu volunteered. Ti Xi casually nodded in assent, still distracted. Su looked at him suspiciously for a moment, but followed Ti Xi inside to attend him.
Wu walked over and lifted the young Avatar under the armpits. He looked at the little baby as he climbed the ornate main staircase up to the nursery room. The sun was just about to disappear and it bathed the room in orange light as Wu entered. "Xiǎo Zhengyi," he said, grinning, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
Ti Xi tossed and turned in his bed, unable to sleep. By this time it was well into the night, and even the rowdy gangsters of the Ban Clan had mostly gone to bed. But Ti Xi couldn't. He left his room and wandered down the hall, hoping to see his son. Even the several pygmy pumas who usually wandered the house were strangely absent, off somewhere. Ti Xi saw only one cub. He picked it up and petted it as he entered the nursery. Moonlight streamed through the window and lit the room well enough to see.
Ti Xi held the puma cub in one hand and placed the other on the edge of the bassinet as he watched his sleeping child. Within one day his life had changed more than he could have imagined.
All of a sudden he heard yelling. Then came the ringing of a large iron bell that stood near the front gate, an alarm signal for the compound. Ti Xi put the puma kitten on the ground and ran into the hallway. "—the compound! The Du found us! They're attacking! Defend the compound!" One-Eyed Wu yelled, running into the foyer below the stairs. Ti Xi ran into his room, threw on a shirt and sash, and grabbed his kukri. He raced down the stairs and straight out the front door, flanked by some of his men.
The Ban compound covered several acres of farmland, but it was all walled in to preserve the clan's privacy in their illegal dealings. Still, anyone who was set on getting in and had the right equipment could get past the perimeter. The main defense of the compound was its location. It was hard to locate because it was outside Ba Sing Se proper, and Ti Xi made sure its location was a carefully guarded secret. Even the lower-ranking members of his own clan did not know precisely where it was. But at that moment there was no point in wondering how the information had gotten out. The Du clan was working its way through the fields surrounding the houses and barns at that very instant.
Ti Xi sprinted through the lawn and garden just outside the house, and entered the forest of high wheat stalks. In the crush of scrambling clan retainers, Ying Su saw him and ran to catch up. "Ti Xi!" she called over the yelling.
"Su? Are you all right?" Ti Xi asked, grabbing her arms.
"I need you to protect Zhengyi. Get to the nursery."
"You need me at your side!"
"I am the Mountain Master of this clan, and I'm giving you a direct order! Protect him!" Ti Xi bent a wave of earth under her, gently carrying her toward the house. "Go!"
Ying Su reluctantly obeyed, slowly turning from Ti Xi and running into the house, her qun flapping with urgency.
Ti Xi entered the wheat field just outside the house and moved furtively through the stalks, hoping to disguise his position. He noticed movement, two men to his left. He bent a three-fingered gauntlet of rock around his forearm, slowly approaching the men. As soon as he saw them and confirmed that they were not with the Ban clan he attacked, firing his rock gauntlet into their chests before they could even react. He took Du fighters out one by one as they tried to approach his house. He surprised them from behind, leaping out of the tall stalks and snapping their arms or necks. He feared for his son and fought much harder than he normally did. He was like a man possessed.
Kao had barely had time to drop his daughter in the nursery before rushing outside to fight the Du. While most Ban members fought with kukri knives, Kao could no longer hold one because of his missing digits. He was also a non-bender, and consequently he fought with a pata, a gauntlet that strapped over the forearm and had a blade built into it.
He put this weapon on his bad hand and tightened the leather strap with his teeth as he rushed into the courtyard. Some of the Du were already climbing over the wall. They dropped to the ground and drew their poisoned kris knives. They rushed at Kao, but he only walked toward them, calmly, probably just to move the fight a little further from the house. "Jian Lao, forgive me this," Kao breathed.
The first man brought his knife down in an overhead strike, but Kao blocked and knocked his weapon away. Kao cut him across the chest.
More Ban members rushed into the courtyard to match the rabble of Du fighters rushing over the wall. There was a ruckus of kukris meeting kris knives as Cao turned to face another attacker.
Ying Su passed dozens of Ban fighters rushing out of the compound. Some were cursing in anger, some were exited for a real fight. All she knew was that she had to protect Zhengyi. She hated to leave Ti Xi like that, but he was right: Zhengyi was more important. Like the Earth King's dynasty, the Ban family needed an heir or the clan they ran would disintegrate. Besides, Su was perhaps Ti Xi's most loyal follower. Nothing could make her disobey him.
She flew through the crowd of people and sprinted up the stairs two at a time to get to the nursery. The moonlight was bright, and as she entered she could see Zhengyi in his crib and hear him crying. She sighed in relief. The Du hadn't made it into the house yet.
She wondered why this attack had happened. There was no way the Du could have learned of the location of Ti Xi's compound. All official records listed it as a farm, and no outsiders knew its location. It was filled with Ban retainers, but they were all high-ranking officers who had proven their loyalty. The rank-and-file members all lived within the inner wall, in their own homes in Ba Sing Se proper. Anyone stupid enough to give it away didn't know where it was. Su's analytic, tactical mind started to kick in. Only the nuns of the Bixia Abbey, which was just down the road, and Ban retainers knew the location of this headquarters. It was highly unlikely that the nuns had anything to gain by divulging the location. But it was not uncommon for Chaoliu clans to use spies. One of the Ban retainers must have been the Du's inside informant. But who?
Su heard another baby in one of the cribs, and saw that it was Kao's daughter, Fung. Su picked up Zhengyi and rocked him to try and calm him down. She could hardly blame him for crying though. Standing there in the dark, surrounded by the screams of dying men and the sound of flesh being cut, she felt very much like crying herself.
One-Eyed Wu rushed out the front door of the compound to where the crop fields began a few yards away. The Du were starting to emerge from the tall stalks. This was the bulk of their force, and many Ban retainers took up positions in the same area to meet this force and support Wu.
Wu himself wasted no time in breaking out his fiercest earthbending techniques. He was one of the best fighters the Ban had. He dispatched Du fighters left and right, hammering them with thrown rocks, as only the finest coating of sweat began to form on his brow.
The next armed attacker approached Kao, making short, quick swipes of his kris as though he were in a knife fight on the street. He lunged with his right hand. Kao took a single step to the left to avoid it. Middle-aged as he was, Kao practiced a very efficient style of fighting so as not to waste any energy. With one thrust, he impaled the attacker's knife hand on his pata. The young man howled. Kicking him in the chest, Kao dislodged his blade.
Suddenly the ground below him exploded, launching him a few yards away. One of these Du was an earthbender. Cao hit the ground and rolled a few times. People were yelling all around him. Dazed but still thinking quickly, he picked himself up just in time to dodge a column of earth zooming across the courtyard at him. He locked eyes with the well-muscled Du earthbender. The earthbender steeled himself. He fired punch after punch, each issuing a chunk of earth. Xin Kao moved no faster than a walk, but he sidestepped each projectile with lighting quickness. He was not shaken as the columns passed within inches of his face. He came perilously close to the earthbender. The bender made a more elaborate motion. Three four-foot chunks of earth rose up, partially surrounding Cao. They raced towards him. Cao stood motionless, waiting. The rocks were about to crush him.
Then he jumped. He went straight up, higher than a man his age should have been able to jump. As soon as the rocks collided together, he landed on top of them. The moonlight glinted on his pata. "Jian Lao forgive me," Cao the Claw breathed again. He launched himself toward the earthbender. Cao somersaulted on the ground just in front of him, uncurling as his blade found its mark inside the attacker.
A last line of four Du members charged at One-Eyed Wu, rattling their poisoned knives. Wu bent tendrils of earth around one of the attackers, pulling him to the ground. Wu moved his foot subtly, and the Du, unable to move, slid into the field of crops. He was concealed by the tall stalks. No one, Du or Ban, seemed to notice that Wu had left him alive.
Noting from their movements that all the rest were also non-benders, Wu decided he would not bother to make the effort of putting up a fair fight. He bent earth around their feet and locked their legs to the ground simultaneously. He lifted his fist, restraining the Du fighters further with collars of rock extending out of the ground. The two men and one woman struggled in vain. Wu watched them squirm.
He drew his fist back toward his body. A column of rock burst out of the ground and struck the first man square in the back. It broke his spine, killing him.
Wu moved to the next Du in line, the woman. She struggled, knowing what was coming, but she was powerless. Wu killed her and the fourth man in the same way.
He surveyed the scene, making sure there were no Du fighters remaining. Many of the Ban fighters around him were injured. A few were dead. Wu looked knowingly at one Ban member in particular, his flunky, Lucky Cho. Lucky Cho nodded at him.
Cho returned to main house, asking after Kei Guan to the retainers guarding it. They pointed him to a guest room inside. Kei Guan was hurriedly packing the Avatar relics back into the sack.
"Kei Guan! Ti Xi sent me to escort you back into the city," Cho told him.
Kei Guan finished packing. "The Avatar Relics must be kept safe," he said, shouldering the sack and following Lucky Cho out the back door.
Baby Zhengyi was wailing, understandably disturbed by the sounds of battle outside. Chaoliu members constantly claimed, true or otherwise, that they were prepared to die at any time, and yet the baby's reaction seemed more appropriate to the violence going on around him, despite the fact that he couldn't understand what was happening. As a crime lord's consigliore, Ying Su did not have a strong knowledge of lullabies, but she thought one might be appropriate now. She could still remember one her father used to sing to her. She looked at the child in her arms. She began:
"Yáo yāh yáo Rock-a-bye
Yáo yāh yáo" Rock-a-bye
Ti Xi threw himself from one Du fighter to the next, taking on every comer with a righteous, protective fury. Ti Xi used his gauntlet of rock to extend the force and reach of his punch, firing it off his arm and drawing it back like a piston. This was a technique particularly associated with the Hei Chaoliu, and not unknown to the Du. One Du bender came at Ti Xi with that tactic. As he fired his punch, Ti Xi bent the stone off of his arm. Ti Xi fused it to the ground. The attacker was pulled off balance. Ti Xi kicked his knee. The bender's leg buckled under him. Ti Xi grabbed his face and smashed the back of his head into the ground.
As Ti Xi stood up, he noticed the flow of Du fighters seemed to have ebbed. No more men with knives were rushing at him. He looked into the night, and a cold wind howled out of the darkness. It chilled him. He did not want to let himself shiver, but he did.
He heard moans and yells all around him, mainly from the direction of the compound. He turned towards them, ready to rush back to his son. Suddenly Wu appeared out of the darkness, placing his hands on Ti Xi's shoulders. "Whoa! You all right?" Wu asked.
"Wu, what's going on? Did the Du go?" Ti Xi barked.
Wu nodded, breathing heavily. "Yeah. I think we beat them back."
"Bǎo bǎo huái zhěng shuì" Sleep, you're safe with me
Zhengyi's crying began to stop. His eyelids fluttered.
Cho and Kei Guan ran briskly away from the Ban compound, weaving through the gaps between crop rows somewhere in the Agrarian Zone.
"Do you think they followed us?" Kei Guan asked, looking around.
"I doubt it," Lucky Cho replied. "I think we're safe. Actually, we can probably rest if you need to."
"Are you sure?" Kei Guan pressed, panting.
"We have enough time to catch our breath. We can take cover in these stalks for a little extra concealment," Cho said, nodding to the wheat row inches to their left.
Kei Guan brushed aside the stalks and entered, placing his pack down. As he turned his back, Lucky Cho lifted his shirt and removed knife from his belt. Its blade glinted in the moonlight. "You'll be safe here," he said.
Zhengyi's crying lessened, and finally gave out.
"Yáo nǐ zhǎng dà" Rock you 'til you're big
"I don't understand. How could they have found out where the compound was?" Ti Xi asked. "Did someone rat us out?"
Wu's expression hardened. He turned his back to Ti Xi and squeezed his knuckles. "Oh yeah," he growled, "and I know exactly who it was."
"Who?" Ti Xi asked, more puzzled than angry.
Zhengyi finally fell asleep, but Su continued to sing.
"Yáo lǎo shì zhuàng" Rock you 'til you're strong
Wu wheeled around. Instantly, there was a blade between Ti Xi's ribs. He looked down, and saw that it was Wu who held it. Wu threw his other arm around Ti Xi, pulling him close. He brought his lips to Ti Xi's ear. "It was me," he whispered. He thrust the knife again. Blood trickled over Ti Xi's bottom lip. Wu withdrew the knife. Ti Xi staggered backwards once, then fell over, dead.
Wu knelt over him and slid his eyes closed. "I'm sorry, dà gē."
"Bǎo bǎo kuài zhǎng dà" Baby grow up soon
Kao was organizing men into perimeter patrols when Wu ran up. "Kao, hurry, Ti Xi's captured one of them! He told me to come get you!" Kao sent the other men off and ran after Wu. "Over here," Wu said leading him away from the compound. Wu panted loudly, and gradually began to reduce his pace. "Go on," he told Kao, waving his hand. "He's just ahead there." Kao moved forward calling out to Ti Xi. Wu continued to make his breathing sound labored. Steadily, as quietly as possible, Wu bent a small, pointed piece of rock from the ground, only a few inches long. He elevated it to the level of Kao's head.
"Where is he? I don't see him," Kao said, focused on scanning the darkness for shapes or motion. He did not turn around.
Wu grinned. "Oh, you'll see him." He thrust his fist out and the projectile sped toward its target.
Su's voice began to falter as she became increasingly unnerved by the silence. She more spoke than sang the song's last line.
"Bǎo bǎo kuài zhǎng dà" Baby grow up soon...
"I found him! Here's the one!" Wu announced to the Ban retainers the next morning. They were reeling from the death of their leader, and still grieving and enraged over the Du attack. Unless someone took charge and organized the clan quickly, it would not survive. The retainers were all looking for the culprit. They didn't know who could have killed their powerful leader, but many of them had suspected treachery.
Now, however, it seemed Wu had found the assassin. The men all gathered just outside the main door, from where Wu's voice came. He was dragging a Du member—the man he had spared and hidden in the field the night before—through that same field. "I caught him trying to escape through the crops," Wu told them, dumping the Du to the ground between the assembled Ban retainers and where the stalks began.
"No, listen, he—" the Du stammered at them.
"Shut up!" Wu said, socking him in the mouth. "Don't try to lie to us, you filthy Du! We know you killed our Mountain Master!" Wu drew his knife and seized the man by the chin.
He couldn't have killed Ti Xi. Look at him, Ying Su thought. She looked at the Du through eyes blurred with tears, but it was obvious to her that someone so weak-looking and scrawny could not have killed Ti Xi.
Su wanted to find Ti Xi's killer, perhaps more than anyone else there. But these men were career criminals, trained to take orders. They would choose the most convenient scapegoat. Su, with her tactical mind, would not allow herself to stop until she ferreted out the truth.
She could not shut down her tactical mind. It seemed to her that, in addition to Ti Xi, all the most intelligent and most loyal retainers—beside herself—had been assassinated too.
Wu moved in front of the man and lifted a knife to his face, obscuring Su's view of whatever violent action he was now taking. The Du retainer howled horribly though, and the Ban members cheered.
There's no way someone like him had the guts to kill a clan head. Besides, Su reasoned, the Du couldn't have known the location of the compound in the first place. If they had an assassination planned they wouldn't have attacked the place head-on.
Wu continued grandstanding for the men. "Let every clan in the city know the fate of those who harm—who think they can harm—our clan!" Wu kicked the man in the stomach. "Because we will move on from this tragedy. The Ban clan lives on! ...Unlike this pathetic Du!" One-Eyed Wu stepped back from the prone man. He got into a deep stance, beginning to earthbend.
Ying Su turned away. She needed to get herself and Zhengyi away from here as soon as possible. Zhengyi was Ti Xi's son, and she had only joined the clan because he had advocated for her. She didn't know what would happen to the two of them without him.
As she entered the house, she heard the Ban retainers cheer again. It drowned out the dying screams of that Du member. And she heard Wu going on: "As the ranking officer, I humbly take on the mantle of Mountain Master of the Ban clan. But the Spirits have been merciful to our clan, and the Ban family line has not been broken. An heir has been delivered to us just in time, and I will only be acting as a caretaker of this position, until our late boss's son is old enough to lead his clan."
Su froze. She knew who had killed Ti Xi.
The group of Ban lieutenants parted for Er Shi Wu as he left the corpse on the ground and strode into the house, brushing right past Su's shoulder. A few men disposed of the corpse while the others walked past the stock-still Ying Su to go about their business in the house. Wu picked up an apple from a bowl on a table and took a loud bite, staring at Su. The two of them were soon left alone in the foyer.
"I know you killed Ti Xi, Wu," Ying Su said in a hushed voiced, marching over to him. Wu could feel the venom in her voice, but he just calmly took another bite of his apple. "I know you revealed the location of the compound to the Du. You used them as a scapegoat while you killed Ti Xi so you could take over the clan and raise Zhengyi. You killed Ti Xi because his son is the Avatar, and you want to exploit his power for yourself," she said, adding confidently, "I figured it all out, Wu."
Wu applauded softly on the heel of his hand, still holding his apple, mocking her. He smiled wickedly. "Good. I know you figured it all out. I expected it. That's why I didn't kill you last night. See, you're a good strategist. I need you in order to keep winning battles with the other clans. That's why you're going to continue to advise me."
"I'll never help you! I'm going to expose you to the men right now," Su spat.
"Do you think they'll believe you? I worked for this clan for fifteen years, you've worked here for—what?—one-and-a-half? And you've been gone for the past seven months. Who do you think they're more loyal to?"
Ying Su dropped her eyes, realizing that he was right. Wu triumphantly took another bite out of his apple. Juice dribbled from his lips. "I know you were devoted to the boss. You looked at him as a father, like a Hei Chaoliu underling should. Now all that's left of him is his son." He wiped the juice from his chin. "So, if you expose me to the men, or sabotage me with bad advice, I'll lose my position, and then I won't need you or the Avatar anymore." He grabbed Ying Su's chin, forcing her to look at him, but he did not raise his voice. "If that happens, I'll kill you, and I'll throw that kid off the Wall." Wu paused, just staring the woman down. "From this moment on, you will do as I say. Am I understood?"
Su was crying for Ti Xi, but with Wu staring into her eyes she hated looking at all weak. She clenched her jaw, almost wanted to will her tears to draw back into her ducts. After a moment, with no other choice, she nodded. Wu took another crunching bite out of his apple, and it seemed so loud to Ying Su that she had to wince at it. "Go clean up the blood around here," Wu ordered her. Just then, Zhengyi began to cry upstairs. "—But take care of that kid first."
Wu walked off, eating his apple, and Su somberly trudged upstairs and into the nursery. She picked up the little boy and rocked him gently in her arms. She saw one pygmy puma cub napping in the corner, and Kao's baby girl still asleep in the next cradle. Su would have to leave her with her aunt at the abbey as soon as she could. She looked back at Zhengyi.
Wu thought he could control Zhengyi, but Su was Hei Chaoliu strategist. She knew something about controlling people as well, and she knew she could counteract Wu's influence. Wu thought he had already won, and Su knew that was why he was vulnerable. As she looked down at the young Avatar, bouncing him back to sleep in her arms, she began to formulate a plan. She would make Wu regret leaving her alive. She would bide her time, staying close to Zhengyi, making sure Wu never controlled him completely. She had missed her chance to save Ti Xi, but she would make sure she took her chance to avenge him, no matter how far in the future it came. She remembered Ti Xi's last orders, which honor and something more bound her to carry out: "Take care of him while I'm gone."
"Zhengyi...You will be your father's justice."
Articles byabout characters and topics appearing in this chapter of
You may notice the "Part" number subheadings to this chapter. Because I tend to write long chapters that have complete story arcs in themselves, I've decided to break them down into shorter, more digestible parts. All the Heir of Ban chapters will probably be formatted this way, and will generally have 3 to 4 parts each.
For the collective works of the author, go here.