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July 29, 2012
Fire. Air. Water. Earth. For thousands of years, the Avatar has been a paragon of righteousness and order to all nations. But fifteen years ago, an Avatar was born into the Hei Chaoliu, organized gangs that all but held Ba Sing Se captive. Since then, civil war has erupted between Ba Sing Se and Omashu over which great city deserves to lead the Earth Kingdom, and the influence of the Hei Chaoliu gangs has only increased. Only the Avatar can stop the war, depose the corrupt Earth King, and return balance to the world. But the circumstances of Avatar Zhengyi's birth have lead him to forsake the Avatar's duties for a selfish life dedicated to what he calls "justice" and most call "revenge." The world waits as he struggles to choose between his two roles: the Avatar, and the Heir of Ban. But I believe Zhengyi can save the world...
Ying Su held out a handful of mushrooms to Zhengyi's back. He did not turn around, remaining seated with his knees tucked in and his arms wrapped around them.
"It's all we could find for breakfast," she told him. She paused, regarding him. "...Zhengyi, did you sleep last night?"
"A little," he mumbled. He reached over and scratched the stomach of a sleeping Fu Shan.
"You know, I spent a long time trying to find us some breakfast in these crystal caves. You could at least eat the mushrooms," Fung added, perching her large frame on a rock a few yards away, eating her own mushrooms.
Zhengyi eyed her. "I'm not interested in breakfast," he said. "I just want to find more bending masters and start training. I want to get on my way to killing Wu."
"You need to get safely out of the city before you start looking for masters," Su told him, placing the mushrooms down and dusting her hands on her waist-skirt. "I don't want to stick around to find out what kind of freaks Wu hires to hunt you down."
"But how are we going to get out of the city?" Fung asked, still chewing. "No one's been allowed through the wall without a permit since the civil war started. Zhengyi can't even tunnel us under; earthbending guards patrol all the escape routes under the wall."
Su turned to her. "I know. That's why we're getting a permit." She had clearly already hatched a plan.
"From where?" Zhengyi asked. "The only guy I ever knew who had a pass was Wu."
"Only top city administrators and the very wealthiest nobles and merchants are supposed to have them," Su explained. "But the Chaoliu Mountain Masters all have forged or illegally purchased ones so they can smuggle drugs past the wall."
Fung stood up. "You think we can get our hands on a Hei Chaoliu clan's travel permit?" she asked, rather skeptical. Zhengyi turned around and listened more closely.
"I think it's the best way to get one," Su replied. "Zhengyi, before all this happened you had just spent weeks fighting the Tong clan for Wu." The Avatar's skin prickled at the thought of his past mistakes, and how he had actually helped Wu become so wealthy and powerful. Su took no notice and continued with her plan. "The Tongs hate Wu, and they're some of the only people in Ba Sing Se that he doesn't control. They also have no idea of your identity. As long as we disguise our tattoos, we can hide in plain sight working for the Tongs. Wu would never find us. All we have to do is bide our time until we can get a position moving the contraband, and then the Tongs will hand us passports on a silver platter."
"That must be more difficult than you make it sound though," said Fung. "I mean, can't we just stroll up to the wall, have Zhengyi bend three elements at once, and say, 'Hey, this is the Avatar. Now let us through?'"
"No, if we—" Su began.
"I wouldn't get to kill Wu," Zhengyi said coldly. "They'd haul me off to save people, or fight for Ba Sing Se on the front lines or something."
"Wu has the whole city fooled. No one realizes how dangerous he is," Su said. She seemed very intense. "Zhengyi is the only one who can stop him. Zhengyi would have no chance of getting back to Wu. We absolutely cannot allow that to happen."
"Oh...uh, all right." Xin Fung started to wonder what kind of people she had fallen in with, but she put it out of her mind. The army did have a tendency to appropriate things it deemed useful to the war effort—food, money, men—with little regard for the previous owners' thoughts on the matter. Earth King Jinling would certainly covet something as useful as the Avatar.
"Then we had better get going, right?" Fung said. She started off for the cave exit, an underground tunnel that wound into the middle of Ba Sing Se.
Su started after her, but turned back to Zhengyi. "Are you done with breakfast?" The boy got up and scooped up his mushrooms off the rock as he brushed past her, chewing them as he walked.
Ying Su smiled, looking satisfied.
In the back of an alley in the middle of Ba Sing Se's Lower Ring, an empty crate tipped over, revealing a meaty arm coming out of the hole it had formerly covered. Soon the arm was joined by its twin, and together they hoisted the rest of Fung out of the hole. After she was out, she reached back in to give Su a hand up. While she did that, Zhengyi popped up out of the ground a few feet away, holding Fu Shan. He set the cat down and nonchalantly flicked some dirt from his shoulder. "So what now?" he asked.
"Well, we're in Tong territory now," Su said. Her breath was slightly labored. "But before we can start trying to attract their attention we need to disguise our tattoos. We'll have to buy something...maybe heavy make-up or bandages. Zhengyi will need a shirt."
"Yeah, I should probably get something different to wear," Fung said, holding her arms wide and looking down at her stiff nun's outfit. Her stomach rumbled. "...And some real food. Except we don't have any money," she added.
Su placed a hand to her chin in thought, but Zhengyi already knew how to get money. A man was walking past the alley just then. Zhengyi pulled his fist to his waist and the man slid into the alley on a shifting patch of earth. Instantly, Zhengyi trapped the man against the alley wall by putting spikes of earth through his clothes. "Gimme your money!" he barked. Confused and panicked, the man hesitated for a moment. Zhengyi put one hand on the man's throat and bent a fist of rock around the other. "I said gimme your money!" The man threw a small sack onto the ground. Zhengyi released him and pushed him out of the alley using the same technique with which he had dragged the man in. He scrambled away.
"Did you just mug him?" Fung cried. "I can't believe you just mugged someone!" She wouldn't have believed the Avatar could be so mercenary if she hadn't seen it with her own eyes.
"Here." Zhengyi tossed her the sack of money. "Go buy those clothes."
"I'm not using stolen money!" she railed, flinging the purse back at him. "Don't you understand how...how...how evil that was?"
Zhengyi looked at her icily. "We needed money, I got money."
"I knew you grew up a criminal, but I guess I didn't realize how cruel you really are," Fung said, with an air of curiosity in her voice. She had thought the Avatar would just be naturally benevolent, but the fact that Zhengyi was, in fact, a Black Current gangster had just hit her. As Zhengyi ignored her, inspecting the coin purse, Fung closed her eyes and seemed to cool down. "That doesn't matter," she said. "No matter how you act, you are the Avatar, and Jian Lao has given me the honor of guiding you. I have faith that I can make you a good person, and I'm going to stick with you until that happens, no matter what you do," she said condescendingly.
Zhengyi laughed in her face. "You can make me a good person? Fine. In that case," he laughed, and furrowed his brow. He began dramatically straining his whole body and making a corresponding straining sound. Fu Shan looked up at him curiously. Fung's body tensed with alarm. Was he going to try and fight her? Or bend?
Then Zhengyi made a fart noise with his tongue. There was a beat. "I'm a good person now!" he announced sardonically. "So why don't you go back home and quit following me!" he barked at her.
Fung wasn't amused.
"All right, you two stop it this minute!" Su yelled, breaking up the fight. "Listen, you both better realize—"
"Yo, kid!" A boy a few years older than Zhengyi came striding over with his hands in the pockets of his trousers. He had a coarse mop of hair and wore his green yi open, like a coat. "You just mug that guy?" the boy asked.
"So what if I did?" Zhengyi asked, tough as ever.
"Tsk, tsk, tsk," the boy said, condescendingly wagging his finger back and forth. "Ya' in Tong clan territory. Nobody commits a crime around here unless Tong Suei Sing gives the okay."
Zhengyi noticed the mandrill-rhino tattoos on the guy's forearms. He was definitely a Tong member. Zhengyi furtively grabbed the hem of his vest, making sure it didn't accidentally shift and reveal his Ban clan pygmy-puma tattoo.
"The Tong clan?" Su said. "That's...that's great! We wanted to join the Tong clan, actually."
"Then why'd I catch you tryin' to hustle in our territory?"
The kids looked at her. Su would certainly be the best at making up a cover story. "I'm sorry. We just needed the money. We moved here from the East Side a few days ago. These are my kids, and...and their father just died. I haven't found a job yet, and I heard the Tong clan takes care of people around here. These two would make great clan brothers. They can really fight, and I'm a very good cook, if you need one."
The Tong boy eyed Zhengyi. "Well, I liked what you did to that guy. You really put the fear in 'im," he chuckled. "An' ya seem pretty tough...Sure, I'll take ya for an audience wit' the boss. We can always use new blood. You can call me Tsi." He bowed slightly to them.
Su thought of the pygmy puma tattoo on her back. And Zhengyi's was barely concealed. Why doesn't that idiot wear a shirt? she thought.
"Um, Tsi...we, uh, have a few belongings we'd like to retrieve before we go, if we could," Su told him, buying time. They needed to cover their tattoos somehow, no two ways about it.
Tsi was a little annoyed. "Sure. I got somethin' else I gotta do around here anyway. But I don't come an' go at your convenience. I ain't a messenger boy. If you don't meet me back here in an hour you can forget the offer."
"Thank you," Su said.
Tsi marched off. "One hour," he called.
Su looked to the kids. "I'm not going to use stolen money," Fung said dismissively.
"I know how you feel, and Zhengyi, what you did was wrong," Su said, "but we don't have a lot of choices right now. Fung, it's not like we can give it back. We might as well use it to help our mission."
Fung looked away.
"It's not so bad. We'll get the clothes...some food..."
Fung remembered how hungry she was. She was a big girl, and usually expended a lot of energy training, so she was used to big meals. And she had eaten nothing but a few mushrooms for almost a full day.
"All right," she said. "I just hope this plan works."
"What are we doing in this neighborhood?" Lucky Cho asked One-Eyed Wu, glancing around at the run-down, seedy-looking buildings. Poor citizens peered out of cobbled-together shacks, watching as Wu and his entourage of Cho and Aguta ambled between their homes.
Wu said nothing.
The men came to a "restaurant," which was actually a dai zhiwu den, called "The White Mountain." Wu hesitated a bit, wrinkling his nose at the prospect of entering the place, but momentarily he did.
The only light in the place came from the doorway and a few candles throwing a ureic yellow glow. Addicts lay sprawled on mats lined up over the whole length of the floor, half-clutching pipes and spark rocks in hands with no strength left. There were several loud coughs as Wu crossed between the mats, looking each of the half-conscious junkies over.
Finally it became clear who Wu had been looking for. In the back of the place lay a massive human being. He was at least 6-foot-6, 250 pounds. He was stout and barrel-chested, with a bit of a gut on him, but where plant addicts were usually thought of as being emaciated, this man looked as strong as an ox-sloth. Yet he took a pull of his pipe as Wu approached him, all the same.
"Bi Junren," Wu said. The large man's eyes slowly rolled toward him. "The war hero," Wu grinned with satisfaction, having found his prize. "Five years ago they called you 'the Moose-lion of Guiqaio.' You single-handedly held off a company of Omashu soldiers while the rest of your battalion regrouped and made a wheeling motion, coming back to win the battle...And now look at you." Wu shook his head disappointedly. "What happened, Junren?"
Junren looked quizzically at him, wondering how this stranger knew so much, unsure if it was all just an effect of the drug.
"I've heard your story, Junren. Maybe everyone else forgot you, but I remember," Wu said, in his most sympathetic voice. "I know what happened. You were stabbed at Guiqiao. The surgeons gave you dai zhiwu when they sewed you back up, but they couldn't fix you completely. The tip of the knife broke off in the wound and they couldn't pull it out. Too close to your liver. You couldn't serve anymore with that injury, and everyone just forgot about you, didn't they? ...But you'd had a taste of the plant, and now that's the only thing that keeps the pain away." Wu knelt down next to the reclining addict. "See, I know who you are, Junren. I understand how people treat you, and I know how it feels," he said soothingly. "The question is: do you know who I am?"
Junren looked down and chuckled softly. He looked back at Wu. "No, who are you?" he slurred.
Wu reached into his robe and pulled out a small sack. "I'm the man who can give you more plant than you've ever seen." Wu opened the sack, revealing the dai zhiwu inside. Junren eyed the dried white leaves inside with hunger. "I just want you to do a little job for me. Your strength is renowned, Junren. I want you to bring that strength to bear against someone who thinks himself strong. An enemy of mine. Then I'll give you enough plant to smoke yourself into a coma and back out again." Wu grinned as Junren's bleary eyes stayed locked on the drug.
Tong Suei Sing gulped down a mouthful of saké as the gambler to his right laid down his tiles, chuckling triumphantly. "Bing jiu," the gambler said, naming both his hand and the game he was currently playing. The lacquered pips totaled five on one tile and four on the other, adding up to nine, the highest score possible in most situations.
"Not so fast," the Tong Mountain Master responded, dropping his own tiles. They were a 6-6 and a 2-6. The 6-6 was considered a special tile, allowing Sing to retain his hand's full value of ten. Now it was his turn to chuckle. "I told you, no one beats me in my own house," Sing grinned, scooping the pile of wagered gold pieces toward himself. The other gambler stared at the table in disbelief, then buried his face in his hands. Sing took another swig of sake and wiped his small moustache and goatee.
Sing was like Wu, and all good clan leaders, in that he loved money. But unlike Wu, he positively wallowed in it. His clothes had gold and silver threading, his saké was the most expensive in the city, he ate only the finest foods. He was still somewhat young, and surrounded himself with trophy girlfriends. He considered himself a ladies man, and his wardrobe reflected this: he wore the latest, most expensive fashions. He even used expensive, imported solutions of animal fat and oil to style his hair, which hung shoulder-length and framed his face like parentheses.
He was about to begin another game when his clan accountant, Heung Sai, approached him with Tsi in tow. Sai was a slim man, with thin limbs that tapered into slender fingers. His hair was close-cropped and crowned with the small Earth Kingdom-style bun. He wore half-moon spectacles, a neat beard, and twin tufts of moustache hair that drooped next to the corners of his mouth. "Um, excuse me, sir," he interrupted. Sing put a forearm on the gambling table, twisting around his chair to listen to his lieutenant. "We have a few more prospective recruits," Sai said, cocking his head toward the gambling parlor's doorway where Zhengyi, Fung, and Su stood.
Zhengyi wore his usual stony expression. He now wore a new yi under his vest to be sure his tattoos were covered. Fung was now casually dressed in an olive green yi with the sleeves cut off and brown ku tucked into military-surplus ankle bracers. She tied the yi with a sash, to which she had tied one item from her nun's outfit: a pendant with the symbol of Jian Lao. Her bangs were pulled back over her head and gathered into a messy ponytail, while more black locks were left at the sides, framing her face. Her eyes darted around the room. Su snapped into a bow once she realized the Tong boss was looking at her.
Sing kept his eyes on the three people at the door. "Who vouches for them, you?" he asked, now pointing and looking to Tsi.
"I saw the boy mug a guy," Tsi said. "Seemed tough. He's got the attitude ta be an outlaw, at least. The other two are 'is mom an' sister. Said they wanna join the Tong clan, an' I know your orders was to recruit everyone we could find, so I said I'd take 'em ta see ya."
Sing scowled inwardly. One-Eyed Wu and the Ban clan had won so much turf and drugs over the last several years that they could afford to pay better than any other clan. People generally joined the clan that controlled the area that they lived in, but anyone who could get away with it—that is, anyone who wasn't afraid of reprisals from the clan that claimed the area he or she lived in, should they be caught working for the Ban—joined the Ban clan, and the Ban controlled what was by far the largest territory anyway. Sing had been forced to accept any candidates he could for his clan.
"Yeah, all right," Sing conceded, turning back to the bing jiu table. "Tell 'em I'll swear 'em in tomorrow with the others, then test 'em," he finished, beginning to stack the ceramic tiles into neat piles of four. He took another gulp of booze with his other hand as Tsi and Sai bowed to him, and Tsi moved to relay the news to the new recruits.
Su, Fung, and Zhengyi slept outside that night, in an alley near the gambling house. They had bought a few bedrolls and camping supplies with the remaining stolen money, figuring they would need it soon, once they left Ba Sing Se.
The next day they showed up early at the gambling house that served as the Tong clan headquarters. Twelve other initiates were preparing to be sworn in. Su and the children began preparing themselves as well, because it did take some time.
Tsi met them and let them know everything they had to do in order to get ready for the ritual. Zhengyi and Su were quite familiar with it, and Su had begun explaining it to Fung, but it was nice of Tsi to make sure they were informed. Performing the ritual incorrectly was considered disrespectful, and clans were known to kill initiates for offenses even less than that.
Hei Chaoliu initiation rituals were not as elaborate as they once were, but were still much more sanctimonious affairs than one might expect from a criminal organization. They represented the last vestiges of the honor of the Black Current, back when it was a paramilitary rebel group. Their elaborate and ceremonial nature helped instill respect for the organization in new recruits. As part of the ritual, male recruits were required to strip to the waist, but females were allowed to wear wrappings over their breasts.
Knowing this, Zhengyi had wrapped bandages over his tattoo before he had even shown up at the gambling house, hoping to disguise them as an injury. Fung, of course, had no tattoos to cover, and Ying Su was fortunately able to cover all the tattoos that marked her as a Ban member with her wrappings.
Zhengyi and the others assembled in formation with the twelve other recruits. Most were younger than twenty, and a few were even younger than Zhengyi. One couldn't have been older than thirteen.
Incense and statues had been set up in very specific locations around the large main room, in accordance with feng shui. The bing jiu tables had been temporarily rearranged to one side of the casino floor. Fu Shan perched on one of these, watching his friends. Tong Suei Sing was seated in a grand chair at one end of the room, before which an altar had been set up. On the altar were one bowl of wine and one bowl of water. Between the entrance to the room and the altar three "gates" had been set up. One gate consisted of two Tong officers standing with knives crossed, the next was earth from two pots that had been bent into an arch, and the last was a bamboo hoop painted yellow. The initiates entered and stripped down to their trousers, as the ceremony dictated. They assembled before the first gate, all kneeling on one knee.
A woman in green robes, whose nose was bent noticeably to the left from some trauma Zhengyi could only guess at, began reciting the ceremony to the assembled initiates: "Proceed no further if you are not loyal." Another retainer clapped a set of wooden blocks, once.
"I am loyal," said each initiate successively, as he or she passed through the first gate.
"Before the Gate of the Earth, all are brothers," the woman recited. The wooden blocks were clapped again.
"We are brothers," each initiate said in turn, passing through the gate.
"Through the Gate of the Spirit are born the children of the Black Current." The wooden blocks clapped.
"I take the Tong family as my own. Mountain Master Tong is my father." They passed through the bamboo hoop.
Except when it came to Zhengyi's turn. "Mountain Master Tong is..." He hesitated, forcing himself to say the next words. His tattoo seemed to burn under the wrappings. All eyes in the room fell upon him, waiting to see if he would slip up. "...is my father," he said finally, dropping his head. He proceeded through, followed by more initiates.
They washed their faces in the bowl of water on the altar and were given new white robes to wear, symbolizing their rebirth. Then came the oath-swearing. There were thirty-five ritual oaths each initiate was required to affirm, all written out on a yellow scroll, which the woman with the bent nose presently placed on the altar for the initiates to read. They recited thirty-five oaths about loyalty and courtesy toward their new "family," that they would help their sworn brothers in any situation, that they would never sell out the clan to the law or to rival clans for any reason. Each oath also mentioned a specific form of punishment for the swearer, should it ever be broken. They were the same oaths Zhengyi had heard Shi Hua die reciting only two days ago. "If any of my sworn brothers are killed, arrested, or have departed the city, I will assist their wives and children in their time of need. If I respond to their difficulties with indifference, I shall suffer death by eating of the White Jade. If I should harm my sworn brothers, or otherwise bring trouble to them, I shall be killed by ten thousand knives," Zhengyi intoned dully, remembering Hua's voice. "If I should cause discord among my sworn brothers, I shall be killed by ten thousand knives."
When the oath-swearing was done, the bent-nosed woman burned the scroll and sprinkled its ashes into the bowl of wine on the altar. All of the initiates drank a sip of wine, and when they were done it was passed to Tong Suei Sing. To symbolize their bond, Sing drank as well. He drained it and then held the bowl out before them. "I treat my children justly," he recited. "Loyalty will be met with rewards." He turned the empty bowl upside-down. "Disloyalty will be met with vengeance." He threw the bowl to the ground, shattering it.
"In order for your Mountain Master to measure your fighting ability," the bent-nosed woman continued, assuming a place next to Sing's chair, "each of you will face three opponents in unarmed combat for five minutes. If you cannot at least remain standing, Master Tong will not consider you for the position of a clan soldier. These are the conditions you have agreed to. Children must obey the father," she announced.
In earlier times, no one without at least a modicum of fighting ability would even be considered for a Chaoliu clan, but with Wu around the other clans could no longer be so selective. Sing swore in everyone willing to join, then tested their ability so he could place his retainers in suitable jobs. Poor fighters could always work as cooks or dealers in the gambling houses where the Tong clan made most of its money.
Everyone in the room withdrew to the walls, the new recruits lined up in single-file against the left one. The first recruit stepped into the center of the room, and three more senior Tong retainers advanced on him from the opposite wall. The three grinned as the new recruit sternly took a fighting stance. He wasn't a bad fighter, but he wasn't that good either. He got some hits in, but three-on-one was more than most people could handle. The fight soon degenerated into a beating, but the recruit did remain standing throughout. The test was more or less designed so that the recruit would pass, but just barely. It was intended to be more about enduring a beating than fighting. Even a pretty good fighter would have trouble with three opponents, but the test showed that the recruit was willing to endure pain at the command of his boss. If anything, that was a more important quality.
One by one, the recruits filed through and the groups of three senior retainers rotated out. Most of the initiates did remain standing, but took some bruises. It was really an ordeal for the bad fighters though. More than a few fell to the ground in a fetal position, unable to stand up again or do anything but endure a series of savage kicks.
Of the Avatar and his companions, Fung entered the floor first. She was one of the few recruits who was actually able to dispatch all three attackers. Using her grappling art, she was able to throw one attacker into another. The third one attacked recklessly. He punched her, but only caught a glancing blow off the bony part of her head. His defense was so poor he didn't even see it coming when Fung tripped him and flipped him over.
Two more people went, and then Zhengyi was next. He strolled into the ring as casually as if he were getting out of bed. Sing was not using benders in the test. It took Zhengyi under thirty seconds to take out the three fighters. He waved his hands a few times and three rocks slammed the attackers to the ground. Sing hopped out of his chair, amazed at his luck, that a bender of such ability should join his clan. He already began to realize that with a bender like that on his side he might finally be able to beat back the Ban clan. Momentarily, he restrained himself and sat back in his chair, but Zhengyi noticed his excited reaction and smiled to himself.
Su's turn was a different story. She knew how to fight, certainly, but she couldn't take on three young people. Now she realized she probably would not pass the test, but had forgotten to factor this into her plan. She stepped onto the floor as her opponents did the same. She blocked the first punch and struck back lightning quick. The man faltered, but stayed up. She blocked a punch from the second attacker, then the third one. Su struck the third one but the first one came back. Anticipating a punch from him, she failed to block a punch from the second one, then took a kick from the third. She couldn't keep up her defense anymore and threw up her hands to block her face. The third opponent tripped Su and she went down. Her opponents were more merciful than some of the others, leaving her be after just a couple of kicks for good measure.
Fung took a step to help her, but Zhengyi placed an arm out to block her way. He didn't like seeing Su get hurt, but he knew how clans worked. Helping Su could mean serious trouble. Fung looked at him, then reluctantly stepped back against the wall.
Su stayed still for a moment. She certainly wouldn't be going with the smuggling caravans now, which might complicate her plans. On top of that, she could feel her ear starting to swell up on her. Slowly, she got up so the next person could take the floor.
Shuurai held up the slip of paper with the address scrawled on it, then glanced up at the palatial compound in front of her. The men who had contacted her told her this place was farm, but anyone could tell it was much too richly appointed to be a farm. But they also told her they could pay ten times what the Ba Sing Se military paid her, and a mercenary always went where the money was.
She entered the main building of the "farm". A retainer showed her to the main dining room and she strode in confidently. The room was ringed with Hei Chaoliu retainers, who looked at her suspiciously and kept their hands near their knives.
A man with an eye-patch rose from a large chair at the head of the room. "What do you want?" Shuurai said, in no mood for games.
"I heard you're a pretty good firebender," the man said, picking up an apple from a bowl next to the chair. "Show me."
Some of the retainers now pushed about five frightened-looking men into the center of the room. An equal number of knives were haphazardly tossed before the men. Tentatively, these men picked up the knives. Shuurai also noticed the men were glancing around at the others who ringed the room. They were being made to be her victims, she reasoned. They must have run afoul of the clan. But she detected no differences in their appearances or bearings from those of the other clan members. Probably traitors then, she thought. It didn't matter a whit to her either way.
In a flash she pulled up her sleeve, showing a concealed manriki wound around her arm. Before the fighters could get close, Shuurai became a dervish of blue flame and screaming metal. Her technique was to firebend and swing her chain to keep opponents at a distance, entangle them in her chain, then deliver her special coup-de-gras.
The Ban members were forced back. The manriki caught one in the face, leaving a gash. He fell to his knees, screaming. The others dropped their guard momentarily and Shuurai seized the opportunity, blasting a blue fireball at one and wrapping her manriki around another. A fourth fighter got close enough to swipe at her with his kukri, but she threw up her free arm to block. He struck low and she blocked again, this time striking back with a fireball to his ribs. Another attacker rushed at her, screaming. She took two steps to the left and clotheslined the fighter on her manriki.
But one man was still left standing, wrapped in her weapon. Her right foot slid out a bit. She began making a circular motion with her arm. A grin spread across Wu's face as sparks gathered at her fingertips. Right at the moment that she had to release the lightning, she grasped the chain. Blue electricity sped down its length and wrapped around the hapless Ban fighter just as the manriki itself did. The fighter convulsed violently for several seconds, and finally fell to the ground. Smoke curled off his unconscious body. Shuurai pushed him with her foot, rolling him out of her chain. With a flick of her wrist she wrapped the manriki fully around her arm again and pulled her sleeve back down. She lifted her hands and looked at Wu, her amber eyes glinting. "Satisfied?" she asked.
"I'm a businessman. I always check the merchandise before I buy," Wu said, chewing his apple. His tone became congratulatory. "But you did good," he said, "so I've got a job for you."
"Your men said you would pay me ten times what the army does. I want a written guarantee," Shuurai said.
"Of course," Wu smiled. He turned away from her, taking another bite of his apple as he started to muse. "I think mercenaries are really my favorite people. All they ask for is money, and if there's one thing I have more than enough of, it's money. Just a few hundred gold pieces and a merc will do anything you tell him..."
Shuurai was starting to rankle at Wu's tone. "What's the job?" she barked.
"I want you to track someone down for me. A certain specific earthbender..."
Ying Su scooped the leek choppings she had just cut on the flat of her knife and scooped them into a pot of broth. Of all the luck, she thought. I get away from Wu only to become a cook for another bunch of thugs. She adjusted the sack of ice that had been bound against her swollen ear. Su knew it would be much harder to get Tong Suei Sing to let her into a smuggling group now. Fung and Zhengyi had been separated from her, given an assignment out on the streets that would demand their fighting skills, though they had been hurried away to this first assignment and Su didn't know what their exact orders had been. She didn't know whether they'd gone with the smugglers or not. She'd have to find out when they came back to the gambling house...if they came back. Su knew how dangerous the gang lifestyle could be.
"Hey, new meat! Order up!" A large man with a scar called, bustling past Su with a large pot in his hands. That was her new supervisor.
Su picked up the pace of her vegetable chopping. Working in the kitchen of the gambling house was more like working in a large restaurant than as a private chef. The Tong gambling house was not just a gang headquarters, but also a fully-staffed casino and the main source of the clan's income. There were several other chefs, and they were expected to serve not just clan members, but all casino patrons.
Su needed to correct her plan. She had to find out about Zhengyi, Fung, the smugglers, and the passport. She continued chopping vegetables, looking furtively around the room for any possible source of information. There were a few other chefs around, but they all looked very gruff and tight-lipped.
Then she noticed a boy. His overall look was timid and mousy. He was about Zhengyi's age, scrawny, with big eyes. He wore a dark brown sleeveless kùzhé over an off-white yī. The sleeves of the yī were a little too long and dangled comically past his knuckles. A yellow ochre headband was wrapped around his hairline, lifting his bangs into twin curtains hanging above his eyes. The rest was pulled into a typical Earth Kingdom-style bun at the crown. He also had a small tassel of paper in either nostril. They were reddened, demonstrating that he had probably recently had a bloody nose. There was also a slight bruise on his cheekbone. A small drum hung over his shoulder by a cord. He was playing with a set of gambling tiles very intently on a counter a little way down from Su. He would turn two over, mumble something, turn another two over, and mumble again.
"Excuse me," Su said. It took a moment for the boy to look up at her.
"Huh? What?" he asked. Su thought maybe he sounded a little scared.
"Are you in the clan?" Su asked him, politely as anything.
"Oh, umm..." he said, as he broke eye contact in thought. "Well, not really. My dad works for them. I hang out around here while he works, but I'm not formally sworn in or anything."
"Oh. And who's your dad?"
"What does he do?"
"Oh, I'm sorry," Su said, laughing a little. "I forgot to introduce myself. I'm Ying Su." She bowed.
"Heung Chu." He returned the gesture.
"Heung Chu, do you know anything about how the clan works?" she asked.
"Maybe...well, not much...I don't know. What do you want to know?"
"My kids and I were sworn in today. I didn't pass the combat test, but they did, and I don't know what they were assigned to do? Do you have any idea?"
"Oh...well kind of, but...it could be a lot of things. Suei Sing has a lot of guys out collecting gambling debts. They could be muscle for one of our loan sharks, or for one of our guys who runs the numbers games. Or they could be fighting to capture dai zhiwu from another clan..." He trailed off.
"Oh. I see. Thank you," Su said sadly. She hoped the kids would be okay, but could do nothing but go back to cutting vegetables.
Heung Chu stared at her for a minute. His awkward stare was appropriate to the sudden silence. "Uh, I'm sorry," he said quickly, and went back to shuffling his gambling tiles.
There was a pause as each of them went back to their respective activities. But Su kept hearing the clack, clack, clack of the boy's lacquered tiles, and she realized she should ask about another piece of information that might come in handy. "Um, Chu," she asked, "what's this domino game everyone plays around here?"
"Do you mean bing jiu? Don't you know how to play bing jiu?" Chu was genuinely surprised someone hadn't heard of it.
"No, but I love games. And I should probably learn it if I'm going to work in a gambling house. Can you teach me how to play?"
Chu's face lit up. "Sure, I'll teach you! I love games too. Do you play pai sho?"
"Pai sho's my favorite," Su replied.
"Oh, cool," Chu said. "Maybe you can give me some tips for that...Anyway, bing jiu, right," he said, focusing his mind again. "It's super-easy. If you can count you can play it." He shuffled his tiles to demonstrate a game.
"Each player and the dealer get four tiles to make two hands with. Each hand has two tiles." He dealt four tiles to her and four to himself. "The object is to get the highest score your by combining the tiles in the best way. In most cases the score is the total of the pips on your tiles, but you drop the tens digit. Go ahead, show yours," he told her. Su complied. "See, you got a 5-5 and a 4-6. The total is twenty, but you drop the tens place so your actual score is zero. I have a 1-3 and a 2-3, that's nine, and there's no tens place so my score is also nine. Nine's usually the highest you can get." It was a good thing the game was so simple, or else Su wouldn't have been able to keep up for the speed at which the boy talked. He sounded so excited.
"So I win that hand," Chu continued, "but the to win the bet you need to win both hands. If I win one but lose the next then I only get back the money I bet. And of course if I lose both I lose the pot. Now, the strategy comes into play in determining which distribution of tiles between the two hands," he continued, gathering the tiles into another pile as he spoke and dealing them once again, "is going to give you the best odds of winning both bets. See, here I have a 2-2, a 1-5, a 5-6, and a 4-5. Every set of four tiles can be combined three ways to make two hands," he said, speaking faster and faster as he became absorbed by the calculations. "Put the 2-2 with the 1-5 that's 10 and 20 both score0putthe2-2withthe5-6that's15and15bothscore5putthe2-2withthe4-5that's—"
"Woah! Slow down!" Su exclaimed. Again, it took a moment for the boy to look at her, as though his brain were waiting to come to a full stop before changing gears.
"Oh, sorry," he finally said, smiling apologetically.
Su was amazed. "How can you even count that fast?" she asked.
Chu shrugged dismissively. "I'm kinda good with numbers. I guess I get it from my dad. Whatever." His tone shifted back to excitement. "Anyway, nine's not always the highest score you can get. Let me tell you about pairs and the special tiles..."
"Stick wit' me, guys," Tsi told Zhengyi and Fung as they edged past pedestrians on the busy streets of Ba Sing Se. "I like ta take care a' the new guys. I'm tryin' ta make the clan life more invitin', ya know, get more recruits. I'll make sure you don' get killed or nothin'," he laughed.
"Umm...thanks," Fung said. She saw Zhengyi sidestep a barrel in her periphery. "Where are we going anyway?" Back at the casino, the only orders that she and Zhengyi had received were that they were going to work in a ten-person crew under a mid-level lieutenant named Guxi, which happened to be Tsi's crew.
"We're collectin' debt," Tsi answered. "Guxi's got a whole list a' guys who made the mistake a' tryin' ta stiff the Tong clan. We're gonna pay each of 'em a visit."
"Uh, cool, cool," Fung said casually, though she was very apprehensive on the inside. Zhengyi was glad to overhear that news. He had done this kind of work before.
Fu Shan looked up, seeming to regard Tsi, but soon settled back into his resting place across Zhengyi's shoulders.
Then the group stopped. Zhengyi looked to Guxi. Guxi wore a green bandanna tied over his head. He looked tough, with a commanding air about him. Zhengyi guessed he might be ex-military, which was becoming a more and more common backstory among Hei Chaoliu members. Guxi was looking at another man and threw up a hand sign, a type of Tong clan greeting. Zhengyi recognized it, having learned it from the Ban clan spies in order to identify Tong members. The two men then began talking in hushed tones.
"What are they doing?" Fung asked Tsi, stepping forward.
"Dunno," he replied.
Suddenly Guxi motioned Tsi over. Tsi looked at Fung, then obliged his superior. Guxi placed a hand on his shoulder and said just a few words to him, but Tsi exploded. Tsi smacked Guxi's hand off his shoulder and started swearing loudly and stumbling almost manically. It was like a mental breakdown had hit him out of nowhere. Civilians hurrying past on the busy street stopped to stare, but none of the Tongs seemed to pay them any mind. "Who did it?" Zhengyi heard Tsi scream. Then Guxi said something else and Tsi began screaming and ranting curses again. He ran his hands over his head and through his hair over and over. Guxi tried to lay a hand on him again, but Tsi pulled away violently. Some men who had come with the other Tong restrained him. As Tsi struggled, Guxi grabbed his head and said a few more things to him. After a few more moments Tsi seemed to calm down. Guxi said something else to the other Tong and Tsi went away with him.
"All right, fall in!" Guxi called. "Tsi's goin' back to H.Q.! The rest of us got a schedule to keep, so let's go!" There were a few murmurs, but the group immediately resumed walking through the busy market streets. As they walked Fung hurried up a bit so she could talk to Guxi. "Hey, uh, dà gē," Fung asked Guxi, calling him as Hei Chaoliu subordinates were supposed to call their superiors, "what happened with Tsi?"
"Not your business," Guxi responded, without even looking at her. "Don't poke your nose where it don't belong, new meat." Fung paused. She fell behind until she found herself walking next to Zhengyi.
They walked for a while more, mostly in silence. Fung didn't want to talk to Zhengyi after the way he had acted the day before. Guxi brought the group to a halt in front of a dai zhiwu den. "All right boys, we're lookin' for a guy named Lang. He's from the Lui clan, so he's got a wolf-bat tattoo on his chest, and the back of his left hand's all scarred up. He's supposed to have a long ponytail and a goatee. Spread out, find 'im, make 'im pay up." They all popped their golok knives out of their sheathes and entered the den. Zhengyi and Fung followed suit. The clan had issued them goloks as well, at a nominal cost to be deducted from their earnings.
This dai zhiwu den was no different than the hundreds of others throughout the city, except perhaps for the fact that it had more tables and a better selection of alcohol than most. Almost immediately Guxi found this Lang person at one of tables. He was having a casual drink with a few other Lui clan members. Apparently he hadn't known anyone was after him.
"Yo, Lang!" Guxi barked, approaching him. Lang barely had time to look up before Guxi grabbed his hair and slammed his face into the table. The goons on either side of him, as well as several other people in the place, suddenly stood up. Without releasing Lang, Guxi moved his foot and tripped one of the goons with a block of earth.
So he's a bender, Zhengyi thought as Fu Shan hopped from his shoulders to the ground, in anticipation of a fight.
"I'm from the Tong clan, Lang. You borrowed quite a bit of money from us. You got it yet?" Guxi asked angrily, grinding Lang's face into the table even harder.
"Yeah, I got it," Lang said. "I got yer money right HERE!" With that, he stamped his foot and the earth under the table rose up and smashed it on to Guxi. Other Tongs scrambled out of the way. The Lui members—which were most of the people in the place, it turned out—immediately took out their meteor hammers. The place exploded in fighting. Meteor hammers wrapped around goloks. Swinging goloks forced fighters back. Punches to the jaw. Kicks to the chest. Zhengyi and Fung were too far back to get into the action. The den was not very large and the other Tongs boxed them out. But that soon changed when either Lang or Guxi blasted a boulder through the wall.
The bustling street outside came to a halt. Civilians gawked or ran for cover as Guxi and Lang rolled out of the hole, grappling with each other. Lang kicked Guxi off him with both feet as they somersaulted backwards. Guxi landed a few feet away, but kipped up into a fighting stance. Fung, Zhengyi, and the other fighters flooded out of the hole and the doorway just in time to see Guxi and Lang face off. Guxi wiped some blood from his lip and brandished his cleaver. "C'mon! C'mon!" he goaded Lang, gesturing him in with his fingers. "Let's go, you jelly-boned wimp!
As Lang rushed at Guxi, the collections of Tong and Lui fighters followed suit. Unfamiliar with his new weapon, Zhengyi threw it back into the holster and instead bent a rock at an oncoming attacker. The attacker had been smoking dai zhiwu in the den just minutes before, and was too high to be any help in a fight, as were several of the Lui members. He barely lifted his eyelids as the rock caught him in the stomach.
Zhengyi was in his element now. Fighting was what he had been raised to do since he could walk, and with his fight with Wu only a few days past, he was as eager as ever to hurt someone. These guys picked the wrong day to mess with me, he thought. He began raising boulders and crags left and right. It was a bit of a challenge, since the sober Lui members were pretty quick, and the meteor hammer was perfectly suited to smash incoming rocks. Still, he handily tripped them up with outcroppings or flipped them into the air with bulges of earth. He spun and flung out his fist, smashing a rock into someone's side, then stepped forward and struck with two crane's-beak hands, hitting a Lui in the legs and then striking him with another crag before he had hit the ground. With every blow he imagined Wu's face. He thought of how he had been deceived since he was born, how everything he had been told had been a lie, how it had all been constructed by Wu to suit his master plan. And he remembered how it had been he, Zhengyi, who had made the plan succeed. And each of the Avatar's blows became successively harder.
On the other hand, Fung was doing her best not to hurt anyone. She noticed that several of the combatants were high on plant, so she easily flipped them over her shoulder on to the ground. Better to be knocked unconscious, she reasoned, than have a golok embedded in your side.
Suddenly she felt a tremor under her feet. She looked over and saw Zhengyi, in a massive display of power, lifting a slab of rock several yards square in area. He was in the process of pulling it out of the ground, about to drop it on fifteen Lui fighters. Fung gasped, immediately moving to stop him. Zhengyi's whole body strained under the weight and effort of bending that much earth, but it was a strangely delicious sensation for him. To him the pain in his body seemed a manifestation of his anger, bursting out as horrifically as it felt inside.
Some onlookers actually had to scramble off the slab as it was yanked from under their feet. Zhengyi brought it several feet off the ground. All he had to do was lurch forward and it would go crashing into the Lui members. He shifted his weight. His arms tensed in anticipation.
He was about to throw it, but suddenly his arm was pulled out from over his head. A leg snaked inside his and turned him around, bringing him face to face with its owner, Fung. The slab crashed back into the ground, loudly but harmlessly. Fung held his wrist fast.
"What are you doing?" she yelled above the din.
"Let go!" Zhengyi cried, trying to wrench his wrist away with brute force. He knew how to break wrist holds, but he wasn't thinking clearly right now.
"Why are you so intent on hurting people?" She wasn't crying, but her voice cracked with sadness. "Stop acting this way!"
"Get off!" Zhengyi screamed, raising a small block of earth to make her stumble. Fung fell over and Zhengyi backed away a few paces. Things became quieter as they stared at each other for several moments. The silence was almost complete when they heard Lang scream.
They both looked over just in time to see Lang turn and run off, following the other Lui fighters. "Pay up, or I'm comin' for the fourth finger tomorrow!" Guxi goaded him. He turned to his own fighters, gingerly probing a new black eye with his pinky. "We lose anybody?" Guxi asked. He seemed to look at them a moment, perhaps taking a head count. "No? Good. Then we got a schedule to keep. Let's go!" And off the Tong fighters walked. There were no congratulations, victory celebrations, medical examinations, splints, or casts. Fights like that were an everyday occurrence in the Hei Chaoliu. The nine fighters just holstered their cleavers and headed off to put in more work. Zhengyi and Fung walked silently in the back.
Zhengyi and Fung returned to the Tong gambling house with the rest of their unit that evening. Guxi gave them their cut of the money they had made that day. It wasn't much, but it was more than either of them had earned on their own before.
Su and the kids were still staying in the alley, but the gambling house had food drink, and they needed a dinner after the day they had just had. They also had to meet back up with Su. Fu Shan, catching her scent, hopped off of Zhengyi's shoulders and ran ahead to her. They looked around until they found her in the kitchen, kneading dough. She was moving and sort of bobbing her head in time to a beat, which came from the drum of a boy playing nearby on a counter. The sound couldn't be heard too far away in the bustling kitchen, but as the kids got close they could hear it. When Su saw them she ran over to greet them, and the boy stopped playing and hopped off the counter. "Zhengyi! Fung! Are you okay?" she asked, hugging them. "What did they have you doing?"
"We were support for a loan shark. Mostly we had to collect people's gambling debts," Fung explained. "We got in a few fights, but we're okay."
"Who's this guy?" Zhengyi asked of the strange boy.
The boy bowed to him in greeting. "Hi, I'm...uh...my name's Heung Chu."
Zhengyi looked at him for a moment, and did not return the bow. He might have intended to, but Su interrupted. "This is my friend Chu. He told me a little about the clan and taught me to play this bing jiu thing everyone plays. He knows just about every game you can think of." Ying Su was trying to hype him up to Fung and Zhengyi, but she did it in that embarrassing way usually reserved for aunts and grandmothers.
Chu almost blushed. "Well," he mumbled "I live in a gambling house, so..."
There was a moment of silence. "Sorry, but is dinner ready, Su?" Fung said. "I'm hungry."
"Sure, dear. Go find a seat outside and I'll bring you some."
"See ya, Chu," Fung said, walking out of the kitchen to find a table in the dining area of the main hall of the gambling parlor. Zhengyi followed wordlessly.
"Oh...see ya," Chu replied. He sat back on the counter and began tapping slowly on his drum.
Su picked up three bowls of hot-and-sour soup she had made and brought them to the kids. She returned to the kitchen for a plate of dumplings and found Chu still sitting there, playing his drum. Su had assumed he would go to eat dinner with his father, but maybe she had been wrong. Su brought the food to the kids and returned once more to the kitchen to pick up the main course, rooster-pork and noodles. But Chu was still sitting there. He looked so lonely Su couldn't ignore him again. "Chu, aren't you going to eat dinner with your father?"
"Oh, well, uh...see, I usually don't have dinner with him," Chu explained.
"Why's that?" Su asked with concern in her voice.
"He's, uh, doing something else right now," Chu said. He walked over to the kitchen door and peered outside. The tone of voice was very casual, as though he didn't mind at all, but Su could tell that his father's behavior made Chu feel abandoned. "Yeah, I can see him from here. He unwinds everyday after work by gambling. I mean, I don't really care. I can feed myself." He resumed tapping his drum. "No big deal."
"I see." Su thought for a moment, then said, "Well, if you have nowhere else to be anyway, would you like to eat with us tonight?"
"Oh, um...s-sure, I guess." They both went over to the table and Chu took a seat.
"Change of plans," Su told the others. "Chu's going to be eating with us tonight. Is that okay?"
"Sure," Fung said. Zhengyi just looked up from his soup and made a sort of shrug.
"Great," Su said. She took her seat and they all began eating.
Fung noticed the small bruise on Chu's cheekbone, but thought it would be rude to ask about it. "So, what kind of games do they play in this place, Chu?" she asked instead.
"Oh, lots," he answered, chewing a dumpling. "Bing Jiu, Fox Dice, Tai Sai, Odd-Even, Kap Tai Shap..."
"You really know all those games?" Fung asked.
"Sure. I have my own set of tiles. The hard thing is finding people to play with, not learning the rules. I mean, I know a ton of other games too, games you don't bet on: Pai Sho, Slant Nail, Weiqi, Pig's Tail—"
Fung snickered a little. "Pig's Tail? I used to play that at the abbey—" she trailed off as she noticed Ying Su staring at her and trying to make an "X" gesture as subtly as she could. Fung had forgotten they were using a cover story! She quickly tried to recover. "—abbeeeean farm. A bean farm, yeah...where, uh, my uncle lives." She flashed a sheepish smile.
Chu looked at the girl, not knowing what to make of her behavior.
"But why do you play Pig's Tail?" Fung asked. "That's a kid's game; I haven't played that since I was, like, twelve."
"So?" Chu smiled. "That doesn't make it not-fun. I mean...if you want, we could play it after dinner. I got a deck of cards right here," he said, producing them from a pocket inside his kùzhé.
Fung and Chu went on discussing games they used to play as kids. Ying Su joined in the conversation, and there were many laughs to be had. But Zhengyi just brooded silently as he ate. He was done with stupid kid's stuff like games. He was done with innocence. He wanted to kill One-Eyed Wu, and nothing else. In order to do that he prepared his mind to throw away his last shreds of childhood innocence. A few days ago he had refused to kill that Tong member at the warehouse, but today he had been prepared to kill those Lui. He told himself he was now prepared to take life. His childhood in the Black Current had taught him a point that Wu's betrayal had driven home: the world was full of killers, as many human predators as animal ones, and the only way to survive was to kill the other guy before he killed you. That was natural, after all, so why should Fung or anyone else care what he did? He had already resolved to kill Wu, and he knew in his heart he would. He was sure he had already shed his inhibitions about killing, so what did it matter if or when he acted on the absence of those inhibitions? Fu Shan sat under the table flicking his tail, and Zhengyi fed him a piece of rooster pork off of his chopstick as he reflected on his thoughts.
Just then, Tsi and Guxi walked by Zhengyi's table. Tsi was speaking very harshly in low tones, and Guxi seemed to be trying to comfort him. Just as they walked past Zhengyi, Tsi said, "The next Ban I see, I'm 'onna cut his tattoo off, man."
Zhengyi took notice of the word "Ban." He jumped up and walked hurriedly after the two men. "Where's he going?" Chu asked.
"Eh, ignore him," Fung replied, swallowing. "He's always got some issue."
Zhengyi tailed Guxi and Tsi nonchalantly for a few moments. "I'm 'onna cut it off slowly," Tsi was ranting through clenched teeth, "with a dull knife."
"Yeah," Guxi agreed, "and when we catch him I'll hold him down for ya. And that's a promise from a brother," he said, invoking the Hei Chaoliu "second family" principles. Then the two embraced, but in a decidedly tough, masculine way, thumping each other on the back to complete it.
Zhengyi walked over as they sat down at a vacant table. "Yo, Tsi, what happened, man?" he asked, trying to make his concern over what Tsi had said about the Ban clan sound like concern for Tsi himself. "I haven't seen you since this morning. Where you been?"
"The clan..." Tsi was somewhat choked up, masking his grief with anger. "The clan had this dai zhiwu warehouse up past the East Market, and the guys guardin' it didn't report in yesterday..."
The warehouse I helped Wu attack two days ago, Zhengyi thought.
"They didn't report in to the Mountain Master," Guxi jumped in, speaking for Tsi, "so he sent some guys to check it out. They found everybody dead. Tsi's brother Kang had been dragged off from the warehouse. They found lying in a pool of water with slashes over his whole body. That's how we knew it was the Ban: the only guy in the city with that M.O. is One-Eyed Wu's psycho lapdog Aguta." Aguta's favorite waterbending technique was to create a sort of claw made of razor-sharp ice around his hand, or otherwise use knives of ice to lacerate his victims. "Have you heard of that guy?" Guxi asked.
Dragged off...Zhengyi thought. His mind flashed back to that day, to the lone Tong member who had identified him as the Avatar. Could that guy...? He must have been Tsi's brother! Now that he thought about it, that man did look somewhat like Tsi.
Zhengyi remembered how he had implored him for help: "Avatar, help me! He's going to kill me!"
"Hey!" Guxi called, snapping Zhengyi out of his trance. "I asked if you ever heard of Aguta."
"Oh, uh, yeah...I'm familiar," Zhengyi said. He looked as Tsi stewed in his rage.
Guxi called Aguta a pejorative term for Water Tribe people, modified by the word "psycho." Then he pinched the behind of a passing female clan servant who was working as a waitress. "Two èrguōtóu, honey," he ordered. "Leave the bottle." She hurried away.
"By 'brother,' you mean his brother by blood?" Zhengyi asked, just to make sure.
"Biological brother, yeah," Guxi answered. That explained why Tsi was so distraught by this. They weren't talking about just any clan "brother."
"Tsi, I..." Zhengyi started to say. He could only stare into the grief-stricken man's eyes, searching for what to say. Deep down, a small voice cried out for him to confess everything, but Zhengyi remembered his cover. All he could do was breathe "...I'm sorry." He was struck by the irony of those words. "I'm real sorry."
"Hey, it ain't your fault," Tsi sighed.
"Yeah...Well I gotta finish dinner, so..." Zhengyi awkwardly excused himself. "See ya."
"See ya, kid," Tsi replied, taking a shot of the delivered liquor.
When Zhengyi returned to his plate he found the others in the middle of a game of Pig's Tail. He watched as they laughed and goofed around, moving cards in and out of the circle formed of cards, Chu and Fung laughing because they bumped heads when they both reached into the circle at the same time, Chu jokingly trying to shove his cards under Fung's so his hand would not be on top, as the object of the game went. Fortunately for Chu, Pig's Tail involved very little math or probability. If they had been playing bing jiu or odd-even he would have probably won so quickly and completely it would have been offputting to new friends, and Chu usually got so engrossed in games he was unable to purposely refrain from winning. But as it was, they had a great time playing the children's game.
Zhengyi looked on, almost becoming angry at the frivolity of games like that when people like he and Tsi had to live such hard lives.
At one point as he watched though, Zhengyi noticed Chu's bruise. He rudely interrupted Chu in the middle of a play. "Yo, Chu," he said. Fung gave Zhengyi a cross look, but Chu just looked up attentively. "Where'd you get this?" he asked, pointing to the place on his own face where Chu's bruise was.
"Oh, uh, I got in a fight," Chu said. "You know, Hei Chaoliu. It happens. 'Outlaw's life' and all that stuff," he smiled.
Zhengyi nodded. The others went back to their game.
"This don't look like a doctor's office," Aguta said as he and Lucky Cho entered a run-down row house with several separate living units above it. It had a hanging sign that said simply, "Acupuncture."
"Wait 'til you see the doctor," Wu grinned. He entered the place, knocking on the door frame. "Knock, knock, Dr. Teng," he called playfully.
Lucky Cho looked around the room, noticing several jars of acupunture needles and grim-looking surgical instruments. Soon a man emerged from the back room, toweling something off his hands. He looked to be in his fifties. He was bald on top, but had long gray hair on the back and sides. He wore glasses and a black bandana covering his nose and mouth, presumably for sanitary reasons. He was clothed in a white zhíshēn.
"It's your old chi blocking student," Wu said of himself, grinning at Dr. Teng. Teng remained motionless. His mouth was covered by the bandana and his eyes could not be discerned through the glare on his glasses. Wu's tone quickly became lighter. "Dr. Teng, I have a little job for you, if you're interested." Wu removed a sack from a pocket of his zhàoshān. "A hundred thousand gold pieces to find one kid. Sound good to you?"
Dr. Teng only crossed his arms.
"Okay," Wu admitted, "the catch is, the kid's the Avatar. But that's why I came to you. You're the best chi strike master in the city. He may be the Avatar, but all he has is bending. You can take it away. If anyone can get him, it's you."
Everyone was silent for a moment. Then Dr. Teng held out his hand.
"Oh, an advance?" Wu said. "You're a smart man. I like that. Be at the Ban compound at sunrise tomorrow and you'll get the money."
As they left, Cho, who was thoroughly creeped-out by the doctor, asked Wu, "Hey, why doesn't that guy talk?"
Wu grinned, laughing a bit. "Because he doesn't have a tongue anymore."
The next day passed in the same way: Su worked in the kitchen, Fung and Zhengyi went around collecting money under Guxi, and in the evening they hung out with Chu. He taught bing jiu to Fung and even Zhengyi, who was feeling a little better that day.
They did not see Tsi again.
The day after that, Zhengyi and Fung found themselves gathered around a doorway in the Lower Ring with eight other Tong members, watching as Guxi pounded on the door. Fung casually finished off some dumplings-on-a-stick she had bought, hearing the tunk, tunk, tunk of Guxi's fist on the wood. She was getting more and more uncomfortable working with criminals, but she was trying to be optimistic. Since they had only fought fellow criminals and other undesirable types, she had not had much of a problem. In fact, the debtors almost always paid up without the need for any violence.
"Open up!" Guxi called, loudly but flatly. "It's the Tong clan! We're here to collect!" He waited for a short moment. Then he bent a rock into the door.
His men immediately swarmed in. The house had two occupants, a preteen girl and a man in late middle-age. Another Tong restrained the old man. Fung noticed a girl almost run past her as she entered. "Grab her!" Guxi barked. Without thinking, Fung obeyed, holding the girl's arms fast behind her back.
Guxi marched up to the man, cracking his knuckles. "Do you have our money, Mr. Mu?"
"Please," Mu pleaded, "I'm just a carpenter. I don't have the money. I don't have any way to get it."
"Oh, you're breakin' my heart," Guxi mocked him. "If you can't pay," he said, punching Mu in the stomach, "don't gamble!" He punched him again.
"Daddy!" his daughter screamed, struggling to break out of Fung's grip.
"I'm sorry!" Mu rasped. "We're very poor. I just wanted to make some fast money. Please, leave us alone. Hurting me won't get you your money."
"I'm not hurting you because it'll get me my money," Guxi said. "I'm hurting you because I love my job," he said happily, socking Mu in the jaw. Then he grabbed Mu by it, forcing the man to look at him, his tone turning threatening. "And because you need to learn that no one holds out on the Tong clan."
Guxi threw Mu's head out of his hands like trash. "I realize you don't have the money," Guxi said. He turned and grinned wickedly at Mu's daughter. "...But you do have collateral." He placed his hand under her chin and lifted it up. "We're taking your daughter. She's going to work off your debts until they're paid."
"No! You can't!" Mu begged, almost crying. He struggled to break free from the big man who held him.
"Take her away," Guxi commanded, turning to leave.
"No," Fung breathed. Whether or not Jian Lao had chosen her to aid the Avatar, whether or not they needed that passport, she was sure Jian Lao did not want her to continue compromising her beliefs. She was absolutely not going to sit by and watch a criminal syndicate kidnap and exploit an innocent girl.
Guxi turned to her and paused. "What did you say?" he asked, narrowing his eyes.
"I said 'no'," Fung replied. She stood her ground. "I can't do it. I won't do it!" She looked to the girl she held, and released her. "Get out of here! Run!
"Stop her!" Guxi ordered the rest of his men. The Tong were crowded so thick between the daughter and the doorway that running was just a futile gesture on her part. She was soon grabbed and restrained again.
"No! Xiang!" Mu cried.
But Guxi turned to Fung, not Xiang. "What's wrong with you, girl?" he barked. "Do you not remember the oath you swore to obey your Mountain Master? I have orders from him to kidnap this girl if her father is unable to pay." Guxi got right in Fung's face. "If you disobey, that makes you an oath-breaker. And didn't you swear 'if I should dishonor my Mountain Master, I shall be killed by ten thousand knives'?" Indeed, that was how the Hei Chaoliu initiation oath ran, and Fung had said those words. "You do realize that's not in there just to make the oath sound more poetic, don't you?"
Guxi pulled away from Fung, turning his back to her but continuing to talk. "I'll give you one last chance to prove your loyalty." He turned to another subordinate. "Block the door," he ordered. The subordinate complied and Guxi grabbed Xiang by the arm, yanking her out of the other Tong's grasp. He thrust her toward Fung. "Hold her," he growled.
Stupid girl, Zhengyi thought. Why's she risking our escape on someone she doesn't even know? Just do what he says, Fung. Zhengyi had to get out of the city and start training after all, didn't he? He had already decided: if she started trouble, he was going to stick by the Tongs.
Fung hesitated, but finally obeyed.
"You will escort her like this all the way back to headquarters," Guxi ordered gravely, "or this clan will consider you an oath-breaker and your life will be forfeit."
Again, Fung hesitated as though in thought. Then she began walking toward the door with the Xiang in her grasp. Guxi smiled.
But as Fung passed the large fighter blocking the door, she placed her foot behind his ankle. Instantaneously, in one motion, Fung shoved the girl out of her grasp and into the street, reached around the fighter's shoulder, and flipped him. "Run!" she called to Xiang. Xiang took off even as the other Tongs rushed Fung.
"Get her! Get them both!" Guxi cried. Fung tried to bottleneck the fighters in the doorway, tripping one on the left, flipping one coming from the right. But they were too many, and they distracted her as Guxi bent the earth around her, trapping her from the neck down in a conical formation of rock before she scarcely realized it.
At that moment, Zhengyi blew past her out of the doorway, in pursuit of Xiang. Several other Tongs followed, but he bent earth around his feet and went gliding after Xiang as though he were ice-skating. He soon caught up to the girl and encased her in a rock formation identical to the one that held Fung.
Zhengyi walked her back down to Mu's house, floating the slab with his bending. "Nice work," Guxi congratulated him.
"Zhengyi, you have to let her go!" Fung pleaded. "How can you do this? Don't you realize what they're doing?"
Zhengyi was silent, but he didn't look particularly sympathetic. Guxi turned to Fung. "Your brother knows where his loyalties are." Fung spat at him, but Guxi dodged it. "Let's go," he ordered the men. They returned to the compound, escorting both girls inside their stone cages.
As soon as Guxi dismissed him, Zhengyi ran to the kitchen to find Ying Su. "Su! Su!" he panted, "We gotta get outta here. They captured Fung! We have to get outta here before she rats us out!" Fu Shan leapt off of his shoulders and on to the counter.
"What do you mean, 'they captured her'?" Su asked, dropping her knife on the cutting board. "Who captured her?"
"The Tongs," Zhengyi explained, his tone urgent. "We had to take this girl 'cause her dad owed them money, but Fung disobeyed. She tried to help the girl escape. They're keeping her locked up in the abandoned apartment next door. We gotta get outta here before she sells us out, or they'll find out we're Ban clan and kill us too!"
"We need to get that passport, and save Fung!" Su said.
"We can get the passport somewhere else. And it's Fung's own fault she got captured. We don't have time for this! Let's go!"
Zhengyi had to escape the city, train, and come back to kill Wu. Nothing else mattered to him, particularly not a goody-two-shoes nun who would rather get killed than keep her pet morality to herself.
"No," Su said. "We have to save her. Fung has done nothing but help you since you met her, and she gave up a lot to travel with us."
"I thought you said we couldn't be prevented from killing Wu!"
"Fung is the daughter of your father's best friend—his real best friend," Su scolded. "Think about what your father would want. Do you really think letting her die is the proper way to honor him?"
Zhengyi tried to sputter a protest, but he realized Su was right.
"Fung saved us at the abbey, she helped us escape Wu, she joined a Black Current clan that forced her to do things she clearly didn't agree with just so she could have a chance of helping you get out of the city..."
Zhengyi paused. Images came flooding back to him. He remembered the nuns fighting armed gangsters so that he could escape. He remembered how Fung had come to his room in the abbey. He was injured, as vulnerable as he had ever been in his life, and she helped him. He remembered her leading him away from the fighting, and how much he wanted to run into the fray, charge back to the compound and kill Wu. But Fung had persuaded him against it. He had since realized that he would have been killed if he tried to take on the whole Ban clan in that condition. Fung had really saved his life, hadn't she... And then he remembered more: the lumps Fung took during the Tong initiation ceremony, how she fought beside him against the Lui clan.
"She's brave and self-sacrificing. Those are good qualities for an ally," Su continued. "Avatar or not, you need people to help you. Two heads are always better than one, and Fung has knowledge and skills that you don't have. You're much more likely to be successful if we take her with us."
But Zhegyi was still remembering. He remembered the hand on his arm, as he was about to hurl a slab of earth onto the Lui fighters that day. Fung was always trying to change him, but... Tsi, he thought. And his brother. He couldn't shake them from his mind, no matter how much he told himself he wanted to. Would it have been the same with the Lui members?
Zhengyi was silent that whole time as he thought. "All right," he said finally. "Let's go bust her out."
"Bust who out?" came a voice. Zhengyi and Ying Su turned to see Heung Chu. "That girl Fung? Did she get captured?" The concern rose in his voice. Zhengyi and Su hesitated. They didn't know whether they could trust him, since his father worked for the Tong clan. But Chu realized what they were thinking. "Don't worry," he said, "just between us, I hate this clan."
He could be lying, Su thought, but he already knows what we're planning anyway... "Chu, we're your friends, right? If I tell you our plan, will you come with us and help us?"
Chu was, in fact, telling the truth. Even though he'd only known them a few days, Chu was much more inclined to help them than the clan. He was beaten up by the aggressive other retainers almost everyday, and his father was too busy gambling and sucking up to Tong Suei Sing to notice. But helping traitors would mean his life, and probably his father's too. Even if Heung Sai was neglectful, he didn't deserve to die, and Chu wasn't the type to be brave in these situations anyway.
"Uh, well," Chu mumbled, "I don't think that's a good idea really. I mean, I can't do anything to help. I can't fight. Like, not at all."
"That's okay," Su said. She didn't actually care what Chu did, she just needed to keep him close until they got Fung out, so she could make sure he didn't run off and warn the guards or bring reinforcements. "You can still help us," she lied. "Just stay behind us and stay hidden. Please, Chu. We need all the help we can get."
Chu murmured uncomfortably, flicking his fingers in indecision. He did want to help them...Well, he assumed they'd be trying to sneak into the place. Maybe he could stay hidden, and no Tong people would see him. "Ahhhhh...okay," he agreed finally.
"Thank you, Chu," Su said. She turned to Zhengyi. "Now, Zhengyi, you saw where they took her?" He nodded. "Take us there."
Zhengyi led them out the back of the gambling house to an apartment building next door. The clan used it as a makeshift boarding house and prison. One-Eyed Wu had kept a few buildings elsewhere in the city for the same purpose. It was a dark night, but Ba Sing Se was a densely populated, very built-up city, and as always, several lanterns and torches scattered around the street were throwing light.
As they approached the building, Zhengyi saw two guards at the entrance. He stopped to let Fu Shan off of his shoulders, then bent a rock several yards down the street, hoping to distract them with the noise. It leapt into the air and thudded loudly to the ground. The guards stepped over to investigate and Zhengyi, Su, Fu Shan, and Chu quickly stole into the building.
"What are we going to do now?" Zhengyi asked. "Check every room?"
"If I remember, they use the top floor to hold prisoners. The rest of the building is a boarding house for clan members," Chu informed them. "I don't think they mix prisoners and regular members on the same floor. But...but there might be more guards."
"We can handle it. Let's try there first," Su said, already climbing the stairs. Fu Shan chased after her. They all ran to the top floor, only to round a corner and come face to face with another guard. Chu, the last in line, stayed on the landing below that floor. He saw Su and Zhengyi enter the corridor, but was unwilling to risk being seen by a guard.
Indeed there were an additional two guards for the prison level. "Stop!" one of them barked. "This floor is off-limits. What are you doing here?"
"I'm, uh, delivering a prisoner," Su said, grabbing Zhengyi by the shoulders.
"He's a prisoner?" the guard said skeptically. "Isn't he the new earthbending prodigy who joined the clan a few days ago? Zhengyi, right?" He turned to Su. "And you're the new cook, aren't you? You're not qualified to transport captives."
"Oh, but he just disobeyed an order today," Su lied.
"Ha," the guard laughed. "I doubt it. There are only six people in the clan who can designate a prisoner, and I don't admit anyone to prison unless I'm personally informed by one of them." Both guards drew their goloks. "But you're both prisoners now," the one said.
Zhengyi punched one guard in the face as Su kicked the other in the knee. She quickly twisted his arm, forcing him to drop his weapon, and put him in a hold. The other guard swung at Zhengyi, but he dodged and kicked him in the ribs, then delivered a sharp uppercut. As that guard went down, Su swung the one she held into the wall.
"We would get the one guard who's actually intelligent and good at his job," Zhengyi said, looking at the unconscious bodies.
"Not that good," Su quipped. "We'd better hurry. Someone downstairs must have heard that."
They heard banging coming from two of the doors. Fung and that girl Xiang had heard the fight, and were letting the others know where they were. Zhengyi picked up the guard's keys and flung open a door. Fung was right there. "Let's go," Zhengyi said. "We're getting out of here."
Fung ran into the hall, overjoyed at the fact that Zhengyi had chosen to save someone, not to mention the fact that she was no longer going to be killed. But that feeling soon left. "Quick, let Xiang out and we'll go!" Fung said.
Zhengyi was still going for the door. "No time," he said, not looking back.
Fung stopped in her tracks. "What?" she cried.
Zhengyi turned to her. "That guy's daughter isn't my problem! There's an army of vicious criminals on their way up here right now!" he yelled. "We just threw the whole plan away for you! We gotta find another passport, and now we have two clans who wanna kill us!"
"How can you leave her? Just unlock the door!" Fung screamed.
The banging on the other door continued. "I can't be looking after her while we try to escape! I don't owe her anything!" Zhengyi snapped. "I—"
"Stop arguing!" Su cried. "That's what's going to delay us!"
On the landing, Chu could hear the argument going on in the corridor above, but he also heard many people below him. Reinforcements were coming. He wondered if he should go stand with his new friends, but...he couldn't. He sprinted down to the fourth floor and hid in an empty room, hearing the Tongs rush up the stairs.
It was too late for Zhengyi and the others to get out now. Tong fighters flooded the corridor. Fu Shan hissed at them. The ground was several yards below Zhengyi and he couldn't easily fight in this confined corridor. He hesitated to use any other sort of bending, since revealing that he was the Avatar was bound to complicate the situation even further. By the time he decided he might really need to use firebending it was too late. There were just too many Tongs. They swarmed over him, Fung, and Su, restraining them all. One of them grabbed Fu Shan by the scruff of the neck and shoved him in a sack. The Tongs tied them up, along with Xiang, and brought them before Tong Suei Sing.
"This is your fault," Zhengyi said to Fung, just before they were all thrown in front of the big boss.
"So," Sing said, setting down a bottle of huángjiǔ on a tray held by a servant, "I heard you guys got a problem takin' orders." Sing motioned away two scantily-clad young women hanging about his shoulders, rose from his chair, and strode toward Zhengyi. He grabbed the boy by the lapel of his yi, yanking him close. Sing drew his golok and raised it high.
He slashed open Zhengyi's yi, revealing the pygmy puma tattoo on his chest. "I shoulda known!" Sing cried. "There ain't no benders as good as you in this whole town who ain't hooked up with a clan before they're thirteen! So what are you, spies?" he asked, pressing his golok to Zhengyi's neck.
Tsi stood in the middle among the clan members who had assembled when they heard some traitors were going to be executed. Most of the dozens of Tong retainers who had captured the three blended into them. Tsi watched the whole thing as Sing exposed Zhengyi's Ban tattoo, and when he saw that ink it was like throwing blasting jelly on a campfire. This boy, like a younger version of himself, whom he had taken under his wing, had been deceiving him the whole time. For all he knew Zhengyi might have been the one who killed his brother! He just about shoved the people in front of him out of his way as he advanced to the front of the crowd.
"Boss! Boss!" he cried "Lemme kill 'im!" Tsi bowed on one knee before Sing. "Please, give me the honor of killin' 'im."
"Yes..." Sing said pensively. "It was your brother, wasn't it? All right. I'll deal with the other three."
Zhengyi struggled to escape his bonds. He couldn't bend without the use of his arms, and without bending he couldn't hope to fight so many people. Tsi drew his cleaver. Sing did the same. He grabbed Fung by the hair. "All of you assembled now," he announced, "bear witness to the fate of those who break the oaths of brotherhood!" He raised his golok, and Tsi pressed his against the edge of Zhengyi's tattoo.
"Wait!" someone in the crowd cried. Once again, the interrupting voice was Heung Chu's.
"Chu, what are you doing?" his father, standing near to Sing's large chair, asked angrily.
"Master Tong, you say no one can beat you at bing jiu in your own house. I..." Chu was shaking. He didn't know whether he was being brave or stupid, but those people Sing was about to kill had shown him more kindness than anyone he could remember, certainly more than his own father. They were the first friends he had had. Something inside him told him to keep talking. "...I challenge you to a game of bing jiu. The stakes will be the lives of the people before you...as...as well as my own."
Chu and his father had lived with the Tong clan for many years. Chu knew that Tong Suei Sing was a compulsive gambler, and he knew that Sing had gotten bored with winning only money, but couldn't resist a game where people's lives hung in the balance. "And if I win, I also want safe passage out of the city for all of us."
"Chu, stop it!" his father yelled. "Do NOT do this!"
A grin spread across the clan head's face. "You're betting their lives?" He chuckled. "The highest stakes possible...But their lives are already forfeit. They ain't yours to bet. Their lives will be my half of the pot; what about yours?"
"Master Tong, no!" Tsi cried. "You promised I could kill—" Sing raised a hand to silence him. Tsi grudgingly closed his mouth.
Chu thought. "I...I don't know...I could work for you. I'll work in the gambling house, winning money for you."
"All right," Sing said to Chu. "That could work. And hey, maybe if you can win me some real money, I won't even kill you...I'll just make you wish you were dead," he smiled. "By the way, you should add you're dad's life to the pot," he said turning to face Heung Sai. "I intend to make him pay too, for raising such a disrespectful son."
"F-fine then," Chu stammered. "Two-out-of-three hands. Those are the terms. D-do you agree?"
Sing laughed again. "I agree. Let's begin."
The crowd parted like the sea before a master waterbender. Chu and Sing walked over to a bing jiu table in the middle of the floor. Zhengyi and the others were roughly escorted over to a position behind Chu's seat.
"What are you doing?" Fung whispered to Chu as she passed him.
"I'm helping my friends," he said. "I may not be able to fight, but I can play dominoes like nobody's business."
The bent-nose woman from the initiation ceremony approached with a stack of tiles. Sing took them from her. As the challenged party, he had the right to act as dealer. He dealt four face-down tiles to Chu and four to himself.
Chu picked his up, and within seconds he had separated his tiles into two hands. Sing mulled this over for a little longer, but soon he separated his hands too. "Ready?" the bent-nosed woman asked Chu. Chu nodded. She turned to Sing. "Ready?" she asked him. He nodded as well. "Show!" she barked, raising a hand. Each of the players flipped their tiles.
Sing had a 5-5 and a 3-4—a score of 7—for his low hand and a 5-6 plus a 6-1, scoring were both pretty high scores. But Chu's low hand was a 2-2 and a 1-3, which scored 8, and his high hand scored a 9, consisting of a 6-6 and a 5-2.
"Eight beats seven! Nine beats eight!" the bent-nose woman formally announced. "Round...Heung Chu!" she said, raising an arm over his head.
Zhengyi watched the game, wishing he had paid closer attention when Chu had explained the rules to him the other day. It had gone too fast for him to follow along and count all those pips. At least he knew who had won.
Sing looked icily at Chu, showing him an emotionless expression perfected by decades of bing jiu. Chu almost started to quake again, but he closed his eyes, took a breath, and stared calmly back at Sing. One hand had passed, and now he had a much better idea of the probability of the tiles he would receive.
Sing did not alter his gaze as he dealt the next eight tiles. Sing looked at his immediately, but Chu closed his eyes and began tapping his fingers on the table in an odd manner. Sing wondered what he was doing.
Inside Chu's mind the probability figures were running a mile a minute. He could see the numbers clearly, as though they were painted on the inside of his eyelids. They were moving, shifting, dancing as gracefully as the finest geishas in the Fire Lord's court. His strategy was shifting with them.
Chu picked up his tiles. He separated them quickly. "Ready?" the woman asked. "N-not yet," Chu said.
The woman turned to Sing. "Ready?" she asked. He nodded. She waited a moment or two, but Chu was not allowed to take much longer. "Ready?" she asked him again. He nodded. "Show!"
Chu placed his low hand, scoring an 8. Sing's low hand only scored a 4. Chu's high hand was a 5-5 and a 4-5, for another score of 9. He had been sure he would win that round, but when Sing placed his high hand Chu unconsciously opened his in dismay. Sing had a 3-6 combined with a special 1-1 tile, which meant the hand scored 11, not 1.
"What happened?" Zhengyi whispered to Su. "I thought nine was the highest."
"Some tiles can form special combinations," she whispered back. "A 1-1 or 6-6 played with a tile that totals eight or nine lets you keep the tens place when tabulating the score."
"This is so confusing," Zhengyi whispered.
Under normal circumstances, when the dealer won one hand and the player won the other, each party simply retained their original wagers and that would be that. But this was a special circumstance. It wasn't as though either of them could take back what they had bet. In this case, Chu knew the official would give a tied round to the dealer, which she did.
"Eight beats four!" the bent-nose woman announced. "Eleven beats nine! Tie round...dealer!"
Chu was not in a position to argue over rules. He could only keep playing. He still had a chance to win.
"So it all comes down to this," Sing said. "A tied game. One hand left. You lose, and I'm gonna cut up all your little Ban clan friends...No pressure or anything," he laughed.
Chu bit his lip in anxiety. He took another deep breath and closed his eyes. After a moment, he opened them, staring right at Sing. Chu knew he could beat Tong Suei Sing. "Are you gonna tell jokes, or are you gonna deal?" he asked defiantly.
Sing laughed harder then ever. "You got some guts, kid," he laughed, dealing the tiles.
Chu picked up his tiles and stared at them for several minutes, breathing heavily. Sing grinned as he picked his up. He held a 2-2, a 1-5, a 3-3, and a 6-2. His best possible hand was a 4. He knew this kid was good. He knew Chu could certainly beat a 4. But Sing's expression never changed, because he was never really nervous. He leaned forward, knocking his right elbow gently against the table. A 6-6 tile, another "special" tile, slipped out of a hidden pocket in his sleeve. Unnoticed by anyone, Sing deftly let the tile slip down his sleeve and into his hand, while simultaneously concealing his 2-2 tile in his left sleeve. In doing this he barely moved at all. Only the slightest flutter of his fingers was seen by the few people in the room who were paying attention. He was a very experienced cheater.
"Ready?" the woman asked Chu. Chu was looking intensely at his tiles. His eyes flashed up to her and he nodded. The woman turned to Sing. "Are you ready?" Sing nodded calmly, still grinning. "Show!"
Sing laid out his low hand, the 1-5 and the 3-3, for a score of 2. Chu put down his low hand, a 3-2 and a 5-5, for a score of 5. "Barely won that hand," Sing said. He placed his high hand down. It was the 6-6 plus the 6-2, which made his score 10. Only a few hands could beat it.
Chu laid down his high hand. It was a 6-6 and another 6-6. A pair.
He grinned broadly. Pairs scored 14 points. Besides that, there were only two 6-6 tiles in a deck. "Looks like you've been cheating," Chu smiled knowingly. He had lived and gambled at the Tong compound for years, more than long enough to figure out that the Mountain Master seemed to win an abnormally high number of games.
Sing started to clap in a slow, condescending way. "Congratulations!" he said. "You beat me fair and square. Good game." He looked up at the bent-nosed woman. "Kill them anyway," he ordered her, as casually as anything.
"What?" Chu cried, standing up and slamming his palms on the table.
"Kill him too," Sing said, pointing to Chu. "And bring me some booze," he added.
"But...but I won," Chu stammered. "What about your honor? You're breaking an agreement!"
Sing shrugged. "Look, I ain't about to let a bunch of spies walk out of here just 'cuz their friend won at dominoes."
"But you cheated!" Chu said. He looked to the assembled clan members. "You all saw it! He cheats! Tong Suei Sing's been cheating all of you out of your money!"
Sing laughed out loud. "I pay all their wages, you moron. I pay for their food and lodging. Nobody cares if I cheat a little. It's the First Rule of Gambling, boy: the house always cheats. And this is my house." He turned to the men holding Zhengyi, Xiang, and the others. "Now, if you please..." he said tersely.
Guxi took out his knife, as did the other men. Before he did anything though, he gently ran his fingers down Xiang's face and around her chin. "It's really too bad," he said. As his fingers approached her mouth, she saw a chance and took it. She clamped her teeth down on his first two fingers.
He swore loudly and started to shake his hand, but Xiang headbutted him in the stomach. He dropped his cleaver. The other Tongs were momentarily distracted by the incident, and Zhengyi also headbutted the one who held him. Fu Shan had already mostly clawed his way out of the bag in which he was trapped. Thinking quickly, Chu leapt over and snatched Guxi's knife. He cut through the cloth that bound Xiang's hands.
"Over here! Free Zhengyi!" Su called.
"Yeah, free Zhengyi!" Zhengyi added.
Chu ran over and cut the cloth around Zhengyi's hands and feet. With that, he was able to move his hands enough to simultaneously erect three spikes of rock to cut the few layers of rope around his, Fung's, and Su's upper arms. As Zhengyi was bending one fighter advanced on him with a knife, but Fu Shan leapt on to the Tong's back, clawing him. As soon as Fung and Su were free, they wasted no time in tripping and throwing the fighters who were holding them a moment ago.
All the other clan members attacked. Zhengyi bent a rock into one of them. "Let's get outta here!" he called, bending a rock into another.
Chu remembered his father. "Dad! Come on!" he cried. Heung Sai ran for the door, still cradling a scroll that had Tong clan financial records on it. Chu turned to do the same. One Tong fighter blocked Sai's way, brandishing his golok. Sai was no fighter either, but his fear caused him to instinctually dodge when the Tong swung at him. Wincing, Sai swung the scroll at the man, landing a lucky shot on the top of his head. The fighter's tongue lolled from his mouth and he fell over.
Tong Suei Sing was now thoroughly annoyed. He cursed the situation. "Forget it!" he yelled to no one in particular, then turned to Zhengyi. "I'll kill you myself!" He stomped his foot and a rock crashed up through the floor. He kicked it at Zhengyi.
Zhengyi set up his stance and used a crane's-beak-hand to shatter the rock before it even reached him. He shifted his feet, taking control of the shards. He blasted them back at Sing and they pinned his clothes to the wall, immobilizing him. Zhengyi raised an earthen formation under his feet to launch himself toward Sing. He removed Sing's own knife from his belt and pressed it to the man's throat. "My friend won safe passage out of the city too," Zhengyi said. "Got any of those passports?"
Sing glared at the boy, defeated and angry about it. "My right lapel pocket."
Zhengyi reached in and removed it. "I should have done this three days ago," he muttered.
Zhengyi made for the door, calling "Su, Fung, I got it!" But Tsi was hot on his heels. Tsi caught up, and was about to drive his knife into the Avatar when suddenly the earth underneath Zhengyi exploded and Zhengyi was thrown against the side wall of the casino. He raised himself up and shook his head, seeing Guxi standing before him in a bending stance. Guxi snarled as he sent a rock careening toward Zhengyi. Zhengyi dodged and sent a crag gliding across the floor at him.
Su punched out a fighter, but behind her the woman with the bent nose was lining up a thrust of her golok. Su heard her just in time, and sidestepped while grabbing the bottom of her right sleeve with her left hand, pulling the cloth taught. As the knife entered the sleeve Su used her left hand to wrap more of the sleeve cloth around it. She twisted her body sideways, pulling the other woman off balance. Su spun with the woman, delivering a roundhouse kick to her back. She fell forward, crashing through a bing jiu table, spilling credit chips and dominoes all over the floor.
Guxi dodged Zhengyi's rock and returned a barrage of three more. Zhengyi shifted his stance sideways and windmilled his arms, calling an earthen wall out of the ground. It swung in an arc, blocking the three stones even as it sank back into the ground. Zhengyi conjured another boulder and spun 360 degrees, adding force to the boulder from his momentum. Guxi raised his own wall, a stationary one. It stood up to Zhengyi's rock, and then Guxi bent the straight wall into a wedge, with the point facing Zhengyi. Guxi fired a strong punch and one half of the wedge sped across the floor toward the boy. Zhengyi barely dodged it, turning his body horizontally as he jumped, making a full rotation in the air. He channeled his momentum into his upper body as he landed, windmilling his arms again, sending another, faster crag crackling out of the ground toward Guxi. This time he couldn't dodge, and was knocked out cold.
Xiang had no formal martial arts training, but she came from a bad neighborhood and knew a thing or two about how to throw a punch. She wasn't strong enough to do much to these thugs, but she was able to take down one with a knee to the groin. Another, a young woman who had been sworn in with Fung and Zhengyi, came at her with a knife. Xiang fought like a tiny crocodile-dog that only shows its teeth when cornered. She landed a light jab on the other girl's face, but it hardly fazed the Tong.
Another fighter stabbed at Fung, but she twisted inside his arm, grabbed it, and flipped him. She turned just in time to see the girl coming at Xiang. Tsi caught sight of her as she ran over to Xiang. He decided he would take care of Fung first, since she was closer.
Just as the female fighter raised her cleaver to strike Xiang, Fung hit her from he side with a simple bull-rush. The fighter fell over and Fung grabbed her wrist, twisting it to force her to drop the knife. Fung yanked her up and swung her face-first into the wall. That Tong was neutralized, but as Fung reflexively swung her arm behind her, due to the recoil of the impact, she felt someone catch it. She turned her head only see Tsi clutching her wrist. She thrust her leg behind her blindly, hoping to hook it on his and trip him, but it was too little too late. Tsi was already violently yanking on her right arm while pressing down on the other shoulder blade, clumsily trying to force her to the ground. He pulled her shoulder too far across her back. There was an audible noise as it dislocated.
Zhengyi had just watched Guxi fall when he saw Fung crash to the ground, crying out in pain. "Fung!" he cried, rushing to her.
He knelt next to her. "What happened?" he asked urgently.
"Girl...save her," Fung panted, gritting her teeth against the pain.
Zhengyi looked to Xiang. Tsi was holding her by the wrist, his cleaver held out to the side and poised to strike. But the Tongs were regrouping, and Fung would be much harder to move now. There wasn't much time. Fung's so serious about helping that girl, Zhengyi thought. She's in so much pain, just because she was trying to help her...
Just as Tsi tried to swing his arm, he felt rock trap his wrist. He was stuck in almost the same position he had caught Fung in. He turned and, seeing Zhengyi had bent the stone around his arm, exploded. "You!" he cried. He threw Xiang out of his other hand and used it to grab his knife. He slashed once at Zhengyi, but Zhengyi trapped his other hand. Tsi struggled in vain to kick him, but Zhengyi was too far away. He screamed and thrashed in his fetters, spraying spittle as he roared curses at the boy. But Zhengyi didn't move. He looked at Tsi for a long moment, saying nothing. All he could see was Tsi's brother, the man from the other day. He saw the resemblance now, and Tsi was in almost the same position as his brother had been, trapped in rock like that.
"Let's go!" Xiang implored him, tugging him away from Tsi.
Fung lay next to them, still howling. "Help me lift her," Zhengyi said. Zhengyi tried to pick her up by the back of her robe while Xiang lifted her good arm. They did their best but still jostled her shoulder a bit. She let out a sharper cry. "Sorry," Zhengyi apologized half-heartedly, more concerned with getting to the door.
Fung could walk on her own but the pain in her shoulder was very intense, so Zhengyi and Xiang still had to help her hustle to the door. As they rushed out they were joined by Ying Su, and Heung Chu and his father. Fung moaned in pain. They made it through the door and as soon as Zhengyi's feet felt the ground again he laid Fung down. "Watch her, Xiang," he said.
"What—" she started to ask, but Zhengyi was already bending. He raised a large square area of earth underneath their feet and sent it gliding over the deserted street like a magic carpet, swinging his arms as though he were jogging.
He whipped the vehicle into the nearby alley where they had been sleeping and he and Su snatched up most of their camping supplies. Zhengyi scarcely stopped the vehicle.
"Where are you going?" Su called over the rumbling of the makeshift vehicle.
"Outta this city!" he called. He turned his head to look at Fung, moaning and squirming in pain. "But first we're going to pick up Xiang's father."
Back inside the gambling house Guxi had regained consciousness. He stood up and saw Tsi thrashing in his stone handcuffs. He broke the fetters apart with a swing of his arms, but as soon as Tsi broke free he pushed Guxi out of the way to get out the door. He just caught a glimpse of Zhengyi's earthen carpet and took off after it. Guxi ran to the door and watched Tsi sprint down the street until he was out of sight, but he never caught up with it.
Zhengyi turned the vehicle sharply. Chu knelt over Fung. "I'm so sorry that this happened to you," he told her. "I...I did my best, but I guess it didn't matter. But I, uh, saw what...what you did." He smiled. "That was really brave."
Fung wheezed through her teeth, but managed vocalize a "thanks." Maybe she even tried to smile.
Then Su crouched next to her. "Can you sit up?" she asked. Su didn't wait for a reply, because she knew Fung could sit up, but she might be worried about the pain and not want to. Su gently lifted her torso. "Fung, Fung, look closely at my face," she said, focusing the girl off of the pain. Su put her hands on both of Fung's upper arms, and stared into the girl's eyes. Suddenly, she pointed off to the side. "Hey, what's that!" she cried. Reflexively, Fung whipped her head in the same direction. She heard a loud pop and the pain in her arm spiked. She screamed as loud as she could, but it was brief.
"What was that?" she yelled at Su.
"I relocated your shoulder," Su said.
"That hurt!" Fung cried.
"Of course it hurts," Chu said pedantically. "Your arm just got yanked out of the socket and jammed back in." Fung glared at him. "...Sorry," he said sheepishly.
"You won't regain full use of it for two, maybe three months. You'll probably need some kind of painkiller for a while."
Fung gritted her teeth as the pain surged again. She supposed Su was right.
"Don't worry, we'll take care of you," Su said. She gave the girl a gentle hug. "Your father would have been honored," she whispered.
Zhengyi brought the earthen carpet to a stop outside Xiang's house. "Xiang, get your father," he said. "Do we need anything else?" he asked the others.
"I need a blanket to make a sling and anything in there that can possibly be used as an analgesic of any sort," Su said.
"What?" Xiang asked.
"Anything to deaden pain," she explained. "Fu zi, dit da jow...if jiǔ is all you have then bring it!" Su called after Xiang, who had already rushed into her house. It was several minutes before she came out again, but no one could blame her father for taking his time, since he would be leaving his home for the foreseeable future. Her father emerged with a satchel slung over his back. He handed Su a blanket and a jar of medicinal liniment. He had had a couple around the house to treat his own bruises from Guxi.
As Zhengyi started his earthen carpet up again, Su applied the liniment to Fung's shoulder and proceeded to tie it in the sling. The medicine started to take effect as Zhengyi sent the earthen carpet down another street, straight toward the Inner Wall of Ba Sing Se.
He brought it to a stop just before a transit station, and all seven people on it walked over to the guard station slowly, the weariness from their exertions weighing on them.
The earthbender guards at the station had never seen such a disheveled group of people show up at his station, especially this late at night. Zhengyi's shirt was cut up and he was sweating bullets, panting, doubled over with his hands on his knees. That earth vehicle had taken a lot out of him. It wasn't something he could keep up for long. Su helped Fung along, and though her pain was under control it was still hard to ignore, and her face was contorted from the effort of suppressing it. Su and Heung Sai had rips in their clothes from the fight, Xiang's father still had a large bruise, and the rest of them had dirt splattered on them from the trip.
Rising up from his knees, Zhengyi removed the passport from his pocket. "Let...us...through," he panted.
"Please?" Su added with a smile.
One of the guards took the paper and examined it. The guards looked quizzically at them, then each other. "Umm...well, this is in order," one of them finally said with a shrug. Entering a synchronized bending form, they broke a small arch out of the wall and sank it into the ground. It was only large enough for one person to pass through at a time.
Zhengyi's entourage passed through, but they weren't safe until they passed through the Outer Wall too. It would still take them the rest of the night to walk through the Agrarian District. Su thought the Tong clan might send people after them, and One-Eyed Wu probably still had agents about, but the chance that one of these people would find them was slim. Any agents of the Tongs would have to pass through the Inner Wall, and no one had a reason to look for them in a field of rice paddies in the middle of the night. She couldn't ask anyone to hurry too much anyway. Zhengyi was dead on his feet from the getaway, Fung had a serious injury, and everyone else was worn out from the fight and lack of sleep.
Most of the walk was painfully silent, but after a while Heung Sai decided to speak to his son. "Well..." he sighed. Chu closed his eyes, sensing what was coming. "You really did it this time, Chu. We had a good thing going," Sai said, sounding disappointed and sardonic at once. "I made good money, we had a place to live, and you just go and throw it away for some strangers. You know, I try to provide for you, I try to be a good father, but I guess you don't care about any of that, do you?"
"Yeah, guess not," Chu said in a quiet and dismissive tone, not turning to face his father. Fung could detect a distinct note of sadness in his voice.
"Don't brush me off!" Sai said, even angrier. "Do you even realize what you've done? Our lives in this city are over!"
"I don't want to have this argument right now, dad," Chu said.
"Why don't you explain to me just where you think we're going to live now?" Sai replied. "What am I going to do for work? We certainly can't go back to the Tong clan!"
Chu stopped in his tracks. He had already been through a lot for one night, and maybe all the stress had made him a little crazy, but he figured he might as well make another dramatic gesture. He turned around to face his father.
"You wouldn't even understand," Chu said, slowly opening his eyes, "if I did want to discuss this with you. You haven't paid any attention to me since I can remember, since mom left, at least. This argument we're having now is the most we've said to each other in two years! So we're not going to discuss anything. When we pass that wall," Chu said calmly, gesturing to the looming Outer Wall, and noticeably not stammering or stuttering like he often did, "I'm done with you. We're going our separate ways. And that's it. I'm done." Chu spun around and continued walking.
The others exchanged uncomfortable sideways looks, silently acknowledging the awkward situation.
The short remainder of the walk was silent, and the group passed through the wall the same way. Mu Xiang and her father said they would go and stay with relatives until they could get back on their feet.
Sai went off on his own. "Well, I guess I'll see you," he let out a breath. "...later," he finished.
"I guess so," Chu replied bitterly. His father turned and began walking off.
Tears started to form in Chu's eyes, but he wiped them quickly. He had had a very stressful night.
"Uh...listen, Ms. Ying...I don't want to...to be rude or anything..." he muttered. "I mean, it's okay if you say 'no' to this, but...uh...can, uh...can I come with you guys?"
Everyone else was mildly shocked. "Are you sure you want to come with us?" Su asked. "I mean, are you sure you weren't too hard on your father?"
"Well..." Chu said, "Maybe. I mean, I was speaking from emotion. I'm sill angry. Maybe he deserves a second chance in the future, but I need time away from him first. I just can't stand to be around him right now. I don't want to live with him anymore, at least not for a while." He brushed another tear.
Su sighed. "Well, then—" she began, but Zhengyi tugged at her shoulder, calling her to the side for a private conference. When they were out of Chu's earshot he said, "Look, he's nice and everything, but I don't want to drag another kid around with us everywhere!"
"But he'll make a great ally," Su protested. "He's very brave, you know. You saw what he did back at the casino."
"Uh, I saw him play dominoes," Zhengyi replied sarcastically. "This journey is going to be dangerous. He probably won't even want to go once he finds out I'm the Avatar. And he can't fight, so how's he going to help us?"
"He can do math better than anyone I've ever seen," Su explained, sounding excited.
Zhengyi's jaw dropped in annoyance and he stared at Ying Su with a look that asked how she could be so stupid. "You want me to take him because he can do math?!"
"Math is extremely useful, you know," Su replied. Her tone became more serious. "I really think we should take him."
They both looked up at Chu. He was giving a nervous, toothy grin. Zhengyi decided that he did kind of like the guy.
"Fine," Zhengyi sighed. "At least we know he can win money."
They walked back over to the boy. "Chu," Zhengyi said, "you can travel with us, but first you need to know something. My journey is going to be more dangerous than you realize."
"Wh-why's that?" Chu asked.
Zhengyi hesitated. "Look, if you decide not to come with us you can't repeat this," he said. Zhengyi raised a rock with his left hand and ignited a small flame in his right. Chu's eyes widened. "I'm the Avatar." Zhengyi stopped bending, returning the rock to the ground. "Look, Chu, I know you're a meek person, so you gotta be really sure before you agree to come with us, cuz it's gonna be dangerous."
Chu thought about it. Historically, there were many cases of Avatars being hunted across the world by evil people. The friends of the Avatars were almost always in danger too. Chu did not want to sign up for that, but... Zhengyi, Su, and Fung were his friends. He was standing out in the open plain outside the wall of Ba Sing Se, with no home, no family, no attachments to anything anymore. He could do anything he wanted to now. Chu realized this, and he thought very hard for several minutes about what he really wanted to do.
He knew he wanted to help his friends. He knew he should go.
"Well," Chu said, "that's true, but you can look out for me, right? Isn't the Avatar's company the safest place to be for a coward like me?" he smiled.
Zhengyi sighed. He looked at Ying Su. "I guess so," he said.
The three turned west and started out.
After a few moments, Chu spoke up. "Hey, Zhengyi, is it true that you can grow a full beard in three hours if you want, cuz this guy once told me the Avatar could do that, and I thought it sounded weird but then I was like, well, why would he lie about that?..."
Zhengyi sighed. "I need to go to sleep," he said to himself, dragging a hand over his face.
At the gate to the Ban compound, Shuurai gathered her gleaming black hair into a bun and stuck it with two silver pins to keep it in place. She hefted a pack on to her back. Dr. Teng silently counted out a number of acupuncture needles and placed them into a compartment on his belt. The needles were part of his fighting arsenal. As always, he wore a black bandana over his mouth. Aguta finished bending water out of a koi pond into three skeins he carried. He capped the three, gleefully smiling at what he would do with that water. "Let's do this," Junren said in a calmly decisive tone, clinking his chui together. He holstered them as Wu strode over to his assembled team of assassins.
"Before you leave," Wu said, "I just want to remind you of a few things. First of all, I know none of you are afraid of fighting the Avatar."
That was true. Wu had done his research on all these people before he hired them. Junren was one of the most physically strong people Wu had ever met, as well as a serious dai zhiwu addict. He had nothing to live for except the next hit. Shuurai was a master of the lighting technique of firebending, and a mercenary to the core. She fought for money, pure and simple. Only Wu knew Dr. Teng's story, but suffice it to say that the only thing he had left to live for was to inflict the pain he felt on others. Aguta had been in Wu's employ for eleven years, and all that could be said about him was that he was insane. He had taught Zhengyi waterbending, but he was bored with wasting gang lackeys. Wu knew he had a psychotic compulsion to test himself against someone who wasn't just his former student, but by most estimates the best bender in the world.
"But I still want to remind you," Wu continued, "that the Avatar can be captured, neutralized, even killed, just like anyone else. He's nothing but a kid who happens to be able to bend more than one element. I chose you for your specific skills, and I know some half-trained musclehead teenager is no match for you, Avatar or not."
Wu paced before them, slowly making eye contact with all five of them as he spoke. "I prefer you take the Avatar alive. However," he paused for emphasis, "if he gives you the opportunity, you have my permission to kill him. When you face him, do not hold back." He paused again as he turned and paced in the other direction. "I believe he is traveling with at least two companions. Them, I want killed. Kill anyone who appears to be travelling with the Avatar on sight. Do you understand?" Junren nodded seriously, acknowledging the order the like the soldier he was. Aguta's devilish grin spread wider. Dr. Teng's expression was as enigmatic as ever beneath his mask, and Shuurai did not change her bored, icy stare.
Wu stopped walking and faced his four hunters in the middle of their line-up. "Aguta can tell you that I don't make idle threats, so this is the only thing I'm going to say to you: If that kid ever makes it back to this city I will not only not pay you, I will personally see to it that all four of you are killed. I don't care how good you think you are, I will make it happen." Shuurai just about rolled her eyes at his, despite Wu's added admonition.
Wu turned to address Aguta specifically. "Aguta, even though you failed at the abbey, I'm going to move on and give you a second chance," Wu said. Again, he sounded sympathetic and compassionate, but it was a feint. "I'm an understanding guy. I believe in second chances." Wu grabbed Aguta by the chin and glared at him, lowering his voice again. "But that doesn't mean I believe in third chances. Am I clear?" Aguta nodded. "I want reports by messenger hawk at least once a week, so don't do anything stupid out there. My contacts at the Wall Guard tell me they left the city early this morning through the Fai Zu Transit Point, so get going," Wu said dismissively.
They turned to go. Lucky Cho walked over to Wu's side and spoke up, watching them. "Uh, dà gē," he asked, "why don't you just go with them?"
"Because," Wu smiled, "I still have work to do here."
"Hey, what are you doing up here?" the wall guard asked the shadowy female figure who rested a booted foot on the very lip of Ba Sing Se's Outer Wall. A cowl and cloth mask obscured most of the girl's face, but the guard could see that she wore glasses. She carried a bow and quiver, but she looked to be no more than sixteen.
She lifted an official-looking paper without looking at him. "I have special dispensation from the Ba Sing Se City Guard to be here," she said flatly.
The guard shrugged and walked away.
Far, far below her and half a mile distant she could see the forms of four people as they walked steadily westward. She narrowed her eyes.
"Ban Zhengyi," she whispered, "prepare to die."
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