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|Drinking the Ashes|
Chapter 24: Benthic Zone
Guifu, not Toph, was the one who ducked into the underbrush like a startled partridge and held the ostrich horses there as soon as they heard the distant creak of a wagon grew closer and closer. The animals tossed their heads in impatience, and Guifu tried to settle them as she crouched in the brambles. But as soon as Toph heard the sound of wagon wheels, or felt them, rather, she strode purposefully onto the pathway, paying no heed to Guifu's worried whispers. And by the time Guifu finally extricated herself, the grey, and the roan from the underbrush, Toph was in a full-fledged argument with the wagon's owner.
"...You could be King Kuei himself, but if you haven't got anything on you to do business with, we can't do business," the wagon driver grumbled bitterly. The wagon did seem to be weighed down heavily with merchandise that spilled out of the back and stuck out of the cover at odd angles, just as the two gangly children and tired-looking woman did. They all seemed distinctly nonplussed with Toph, even as she squared her shoulders and grit her teeth.
"Do you know who I am?" Toph snapped. "Toph Beifong, adviser to King Kuei, the first Metalbender? I'm only going to tell you once more. I fully have the right to seize all of your supplies -"
"And I can't feed my family unless I have something to sell!" He barked back. "My wife's four months along with our third child, so don't tell me that I can just make do -"
"Well, we certainly can't make do!" Toph reached up to pinch at her nose. "Look, I've told you, you'll get a good price for your goods. I'll overpay. Massively. Four, five, ten times market value, and I'll guarantee the money gets to you. The Beifong seal goes a long way -"
He wrinkled his nose. "I'm suuuure it does. But I need something now. Promises won't keep my children's bellies full!"
"I'm saying that you could have all the money you need for the rest of your life, you imbecile -"
A small nervous sound squeaked out of Guifu's throat, and she stepped in-between the two parties, still leading the ostrich-horses. "Please - let's just, ah... keep the negotiations calm, shall we?" She took in a deep breath before meeting the man's steely glare with a calm and diplomatic smile. "We don't have coin on us, sir. But we could perhaps work out some alternate arrangement - as a down-payment, if you will, for the larger cost -"
The trader raised his head to look down his nose at Guifu and grimaced. "Even if my wife weren't here beside me, you're not my type in the least -"
"No! No, not like that!" There was a thread of genuine panic in Guifu's tone but she choked it down and masked it with a nervous twittering laugh. "Not like that at all. The saddles, I mean." She brought around one of the ostrich horses. "As you can see, this leather saddle is of fine make. You'll be able to sell it for good profit at any market along the road, or even use it for yourself, and I can make do riding side-saddle. The bridle, too, if you're willing to part with a bit of rope I can tie as a replacement."
Toph fell silent, eyebrows raising a little underneath her hair. The woman was a natural at the subtle politics of everyday life, apparently, and it only became more obvious as she led one of the ostrich-horses over for the trader to see. "There's tooled leatherwork along this saddle, and the matching bridle, as well. Surely that would pay enough for us to take some basic supplies - well, pay in part, at least, until Lady Beifong can get you the rest of the money." He frowned, stroking his chin. "It's sure to be good money. Especially as a set."
"Well." The man grunted. "I suppose. As long as the rest of the money will be coming in."
"You have my word," Toph said with a nod, and Guifu went about mutely removing the saddle and bridle from one of the ostrich-horses.
Conversation was a bit easier then - Guifu asked the names of the children and shared small smiles with their mother, and the trader checked the spelling of the name of Toph's majordomo in Ba Sing Se at least five times. The mother seemed to notice how Guifu immediately started eating on some of the jerky they had bargained for and quietly slipped in extra rice into their provisions. Within an hour they were off once more, saddlebags on Toph's horse stuffed full while Guifu rode somewhat precariously bareback.
Their pace was pleasantly slow, but steady. Guifu had a natural charm for letting Toph brag without making her feel as if it was bragging; after all, Toph had plenty of adventures to recount, and Guifu seemed to want to hear all of them. The curiosity made sense to Toph. She'd been out of the world for years.
But their pace wasn't fast enough to beat nightfall. Toph went to set up camp mostly out of her own soreness instead of the inconvenience of darkness, and she groaned and stretched as she jerked her hands up quickly in one smooth motion while standing in a clearing just off the road. Slices of stone scurried up, forming themselves into a rather cozy small cottage, complete with windows where the delicate stonework was lacy and thin to let air through. Another grunt and twist of her heel and there was even a small latrine to match.
There were some benefits to camping with a master Earthbender.
Guifu had tied the ostrich-horses up before going to gather firewood, and there was a pleasantly warm campfire just outside the makeshift cabin now. She sat down slowly, breathing a sigh of relief. Toph was apparently happy to be up and walking, and as she felt Guifu try to get up again, she waved the other woman down. "Don't worry, I'll get the foodstuffs out. All dried nonsense, I guess, but tomorrow we'll be in Tien's Landing, and then Pujuhan Bay. Plenty of opportunities for all the stew and rice we could ever ask for, I bet."
"Thank you, Lady -" She paused. "Toph. My apologies."
Guifu took a delicate nibble of dried meat before clearing her throat a little. "I suppose I've exhausted all of your tales..."
"Oh, I still have a few."
"But if you could tell me perhaps a bit more about what's been going on recently - I would appreciate it -"
Toph wrinkled her nose for a moment, sitting down by the fire. "Just things in general? Nothing specific?"
"Well, the Fire Nation, perhaps."
"That's not much more specific. No particular person? Like your friends or your family?"
"Oh, no. I have nothing like that," she answered quickly.
"...But you have to have some family. I might know them." It was a bold question, but Toph was anxious to figure out what was going on. Something was there - making her nose itch, even. She was close. And she had her hunches about the old woman.
"I'm sure you don't, Lady Beifong."
"It's Toph, Guifu. ...Just Toph," she said a bit more gently, reaching out to poke the campfire, making it hiss and spit and give off a fresh wave of warmth.
Guifu nervously played with the tattered scarf wrapped around her shoulders. "...I suppose I do owe you an explanation. About the... detour, at the very least, while we were escaping." Toph leaned in, nearly salivating, ready and waiting for all the predictions simmering in her mind to be proven right. "I used to be a mother. As much a surprise to me as it was to the... the father. I suppose he assumed me to be much too old to bear children." She paused, adjusting her tattered shawl. "I gave birth to her - my daughter - six years ago."
Six years... It took a moment for the wheels in Toph's head to gain traction after spinning. How long had Guifu said she had been imprisoned? A full decade if not more... The subtle realization made Toph's mouth run dry. A vague reference to 'the father', and not anything more definite. It was no lover's tryst, no forbidden affair with a sympathetic guard.
"She lived only a few days." Guifu drew in a deep breath, letting it out as a trembling sigh. "Colic is what they told me. I learned... I learned a few years later that her... father... after taking her from me... threw her into the river, in a sack with several boulders."
Toph gulped solidly, her mouth as dry as the desert. She had expected it to be bad, yes, but with her hunches and suspicions, she was expecting a different kind of bad. A predictable sort of bad. Perhaps she should have listened to all of her parents' lessons on proper manners, because at the very best, she had just stumbled into a massive faux pas. No, this was not what she had intended at all - it was just supposed to be a friendly prodding towards the truth, not stumbling into something like this... A solid knot formed in her stomach as she started to panic.
"Perhaps I'm just not meant to raise daughters."
Guifu's whisper seemed to take up all of the air left for speaking. Toph stuttered a moment before finally feeling compelled to say something, anything, to show that she hadn't meant to stumble into such a subject. "I'm, uh - I'm sorry - I didn't -"
"I know, Lady Beifong." She pulled herself up to stand by the fire, thin and sinewy underneath her ragged clothing. Her voice seemed as threadbare as the shawl she wore, and although she hadn't yet begun to cry, the choked undercurrent ran through her patient tone. Mostly, though, she sounded exhausted. "I'm... suddenly very tired." She bowed low. "I apologize for inflicting my burdens on you, Lady Beifong. Goodnight."
Toph had no words. But she did have the entire rest of the bundle of jerky to herself, so she anxiously filled her mouth with that. After all, it didn't leave any room for more unfortunate questions to slip out if she was stuffing herself with food. Her thoughts still tortured her, leaving her unable to sleep until late in the night.
Because what, really, was there to say?
By noon the next day they were in Tien's Landing, a comfortably middling trading town sprawling out along the shores of a great lake. It was a place neither upper-class nor lower-class, but instead content to be an in-between town of traders who had made their place in the world instead of being born into it or succumbing to it. Market day would be tomorrow, but the air of the place was already contentedly buzzing, conversations swirling around them.
Toph led the way confidently, and Guifu seemed content to follow. Her feet were hurting less than they had, and stabling the ostrich-horses made her seem much more at home. She'd been here, once, not too long ago. A few years, perhaps. Either way, she didn't have to ask for directions to a large building with colorful signs out front. The Golden Catfish. Spirits, food, and entertainment.
The barkeep greeted them as they walked in, and Guifu paced around carefully, nervous in a way that reminded others of an easily spooked dear sneaking through trees. Toph quite confidently went directly to a pai sho table, sitting down in a tired heap and barking out a request for a pot of tea even as she tapped her fingers against the table in an effort to get a better look at the pieces.
Despite hunger gnawing at her, Guifu continued to pace. The place was mostly empty, an unexpected lull in the lunch rush, and those who were there seemed to pay her no heed. On one wall was an elaborate mural, stylized and slightly clumsily done, but it was obviously the pride of the place. Catfish danced around the border, glimmering in gold leaf, splashing in waters of intricate designs. An island rose up from the middle, proud catgators bearing the land on their backs, and figures stood on the small island, bowing to one another. Above them was a date - the signing of the official armistice. Four figures in the middle stood bowing to one another, three facing down one. A water-tribe girl, with her brother beside her, King Kuei with gold-leaf accenting his official robes, and one who could only be the Avatar, his arrow tattoos glimmering in anachronistic gold leaf. They stood across from the red-robed young Firelord, who bowed much more low than the rest, nearly in full kowtow in deference.
Silently, she drew her hands over herself in a half-hug and stared at the mural as if looking for something and not quite finding it.
"I see you favor the white lotus gambit," wheezed the old man who was Toph's unlucky opponent.
Toph couldn't help smiling as she laid down another piece. "You know what they say. Those who do can always find a friend."
He offered her a mostly-toothless smile that she heard much more than sensed. And Toph couldn't help but give a relieved little laugh. Immediately the two launched into conspiratorial whispers, exchanging information and making plans even as Toph soundly trounced the other man in their game of pai sho. He called over a waitress, whispered to her; she whispered to the barkeep, and on it went, until finally the older matron of the tavern swept out from her offices out onto the main floor. She was an elegant woman, hair going grey and kept up in an elaborate headpiece, zaftig and nonthreatening although regal in appearance. She still made Guifu jump when she gently prodded the other woman's shoulder and ended her examination of the mural.
"You're Guifu, yes?" The innkeeper barely gave her time to reply. "Good, good. Lady Beifong is a friend here, and you two will be staying the night. If you'll follow me, I'll make sure that your room has a bath drawn, and -" She glanced Guifu up and down. "New clothing, yes, definitely so. I'll err on the side of loose for the ready-made things."
Guifu tried to back away, looking flustered. "There's no need -"
The matron clucked her tongue. "You're our honored guests now, and there's certainly no way any honored guest of mine is going to remain in such things. Besides," she added with a smile, "Lady Beifong insisted."
She seemed to mull it over a few moments more before nodding once, following the matron upstairs willingly even as the innkeeper talked. "So, what sort of colors? This lovely bamboo-shoot pale green is very in this year. Or maybe you'd prefer more of a jade? Or not green at all? Amber, perhaps, that would suit your eyes, or purple..."
By that evening, the colorful lanterns had been lit inside the Golden Catfish, splashing different hues across the walls and the faces of the taverngoers. The air of the place was affable and friendly, the patrons too content (and too honestly tired from a day's good work) to even think of starting a bar fight. The murmur of conversation bubbled up the stairs to greet Guifu as she made her way down. She was glad, at that moment, that nobody had time for an old woman. Even if she felt more beautiful than she had in years, part of her was still uncomfortable with noticing. The innkeeper had even made sure to purchase a new shawl for her, soft red silk to loop around her shoulders, and it stood out against the soft golden hue of her plain dress.
Toph seemed more at home as well, on her third lager and fifteenth game of pai sho. Despite that she had found time to clean herself up and find a new set of clothes, sturdy and plain but elegant in their own way. Most importantly her hands and feet were now obviously bandaged with some skill, and smelled softly of ginseng and myrrh from the analgesic liniment she had acquired. Her smiles seemed to come easier, now - though the lager might have something to do with that as well.
She hailed Guifu down, and the older woman immediately came over as commanded. "Guifu, this is Zhu, our host here in Tien's Landing. Leader of the local merchant's guild."
"Well. I was until last year." He gave a gummy smile. "Retired, don't you know."
She bowed low in greeting, saying nothing but having a seat only when directed - the very picture of manners. Toph looked Guifu over carefully a moment before deciding that it wasn't worth it to endeavor to tease more truth out of her. Not after the last time, anyway. "So, Zhu. The roads to Pujuhan bay are clear, correct?"
"More than clear. And if you're in a hurry, someone can get you there by boat. I know you don't like the water much, Toph, but it truly is faster..."
Guifu said nothing, instead nursing a cup of strong tea. She was utterly content to sit there and absorb what was around her. After so many years of solitude the hustle and bustle of the tavern was almost overwhelming. Almost. Fortunately it was far more comforting than anything else. Watching the people around her was something she had missed. Seeing them talk, chatter, joke, laugh, even get into the occasional argument. Seeing a young couple across the bar not say anything at all but instead stare into each other's eyes in sheer lovestruck mooniness. Seeing co-workers sitting at a table swapping stories of their day and making plans for next week. She'd always known the world would spin on without her, but it was comforting to see it in motion, and to confirm that good also blossomed in the world along with the bad.
"...All right, all right, it'd shave two days off the trip. That... might be worth it. I suppose. Maybe. If you're absolutely sure about the ferryman..."
"Of course I am, he's my nephew. And there's no better choice if you're in a hurry."
Guifu took another long sip of tea before turning to look over her shoulder. There was a small stage behind her. A woman impatiently tapped at the rim of her large drums before sighing and standing up. "It's no use, Ling isn't even going to be here tonight. No point in playing all these songs for his tsungi-horn solos when there's no tsungi-horn."
"Just as well." A willowy old man was also on the stage, and he stood up slowly, groaning. "Arthritis is bad enough today that I don't need to do any more..."
She turned in her seat, tilting her head to one side. The old man still had his instrument out - an elegant erhu, wood inlaid with patterns and polished until it was gleaming. They were sitting closest to the small, low stage, and tempting as it was, it still took her a moment to steel her nerves and speak up. "Sir?"
"Hmm?" The musician raised his bushy eyebrows.
"I was... I was wondering if I could impose on you, and play a song on the erhu. It's been decades since I saw one so fine, and it seems a shame for it to be brought here and stay silent."
Toph jerked her head up from her own conversation and tutted, dismissively waved a hand. "There's no need to literally sing for your supper, Guifu. Everyone knows the power of the Beifong seal, and we're among friends -"
"I know, Lady Beifong." The older woman smiled, reaching out to one of the entertainers in the tavern. "May I? It's presumptuous of me, I'm sure..."
The musician looked over her carefully, calmly scrutinizing every inch of her before he muttered something in assent, handing over his erhu to her. He was even older than she was, and obviously skilled from how richly he was dressed thanks to his employer's pay. But his fingers were arthritic and bent, surely aching, and Guifu's touch was delicate enough that he seemed to know he could trust her. Gingerly, she placed the erhu on her lap, seeming unused to the golden-amber of her new dress before settling down. "I haven't played since I was a girl. I hope you'll forgive me for my clumsiness, sir, as I thank you for your generosity," she said softly, raising the bow.
Toph braced herself for shrill squeaking, but the instrument only seemed to give a minor whine of protest before cooperating in her delicate hands. Soon it settled into an easy and simple melody, her fingertips teasing the tune out as gently as possible. Almost despite herself, Toph thought it was quite pretty.
And then she began to sing. It was barely more than a whisper, but that seemed to be enough to keep the attention of those around her. Perhaps at the far end of the bar she was ignored, but in her mind that was just as well. At least her singing voice seemed to be more in practice - Toph could imagine all too well that it was the only entertainment her cell could have held.
"So luminous is the moonlight before my bed;
so white, the ground is frosted instead.
I raise my head to see the moon shining bright;
and drop it, thinking of my home tonight..."
((Author's note: Guifu is singing a paraphrase Li Bai's 'Night Thoughts'. Li Bai is a classic Chinese poet who lived c. 701-762. The words are a mix and paraphrase of two different translations by Andrew W.F. Wong.))
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