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|The Daughters of the Black Current|
October 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...
Fung was concentrating on the warm feeling in her healing shoulder as the rock she lay on transferred the bright sun's heat into it. It had been a week since her injury, with very little to heal her. Ying Su had been able to gather some herbs to deaden the pain, but those only worked so well, and could only help her deal with the pain, not really reduce it. But when she got the chance to heat it like this, she took it. It helped, especially since they had not yet come to a town and had had to subsist on their own while camping outdoors.
Nearby, Zhengyi grunted. He lay on a bench of earth he had bent, lifting kettlebell-shaped weights that he had also shaped from the rocks. Sweat beaded on his head as he pushed the weights up with effort.
A few feet away, at a curve in the river, Chu and Su washed some fruit they had found, while Fu Shan fished intently. When he had finished, Chu took a bite out of the fruit and brought the basket with the rest of them over to Fung and Zhengyi. Zhengyi used his head to raise a set of earthen holders for the weights and slid off the bench while Su helped Fung sit up. They sat down to eat together, passing the fruit around. No one said much at first, but soon Chu voiced a concern he had been having.
"So, you said this would be dangerous," Chu said to Zhengyi. "How dangerous are we talking, exactly? I mean, what are we up against?"
Zhengyi sighed. "Well, we don't know. With One-Eyed Wu after us, it'll be the entire Ban clan at the least." His tone was casual. He had already come to terms with this reality, but, being the Avatar, it didn't intimidate him much.
Chu's eyed widened in fear, but Su interrupted. "Actually," she said, "if Wu wants to maintain his positive public image, he isn't going to start moving twenty thousand criminals all over the world. Besides, he sent all the clan members at his disposal to capture us at the abbey, and they failed. Wu's not going to use a failed strategy a second time. He's more likely to bring in a small group of mercenaries or some other kind of fighters from outside the gang. Maybe use spies, too. And since there's virtually no limit to what Wu can pay, they're going to be the best fighters around. We have to be very careful about who we trust from now on," she said, making eye contact with each teenager individually. "He won't have the whole clan after us, but in many ways, mercenaries will be worse."
"Pfft," Zhengyi scoffed. "I'm the Avatar. How bad could some mercenaries be?"
"I don't know how bad they might be," Su replied, "but overconfidence is a weakness for anyone, even the Avatar."
Zhengyi mumbled under his breath.
"We'd better keep our friends close then," Chu said, looking at the others.
"What, us?" Zhengyi responded. "We're friends all of a sudden?"
"You...What, you don't think we're friends?" Chu said.
"I've only known you guys for a week," Zhengyi said. "You two are nice and everything, but 'friends' is different than just 'people you hang around with.' "
"That's a little dismissive" Fung said. "You know he saved your life, right? I did too."
"Yeah, and you also constantly argue with me!" Zhengyi barked.
Su rolled her eyes. She decided to let them argue. Unless things started to get out of hand, it wasn't worth it to try and stop them.
"Listen, I'll take whatever help you're willing to give, but Su and I are from the Hei Chaoliu, and you can't understand what that's like. You two can't understand what my life is like or what I've been through. You're just a goody-two-shoes nun. You're around so we have another fighter when things get hot," he said, turning to Chu, "and you can't even fight. You're only here 'cause Su thought we needed someone who could do math." Zhengyi's tone was very matter-of-fact; he wasn't particularly trying to offend them, but that was how he saw the others. He wasn't used to thinking about other people's feelings.
Chu looked hurt. "We do, you know," Su noted calmly.
"Whatever!" Zhengyi barked, standing up. "Look, you two can tag along and help me and stuff, but I'm out here to become a better warrior so I can fight the baddest man in the world for control of my father's clan." He turned away from them, looking at the river. "I'm not out to make friends. If you slow me down..." he paused for a moment, then began walking toward the river.
"You know," Su spoke up, pouring some water for herself, "your father was an excellent warrior and he had plenty of friends."
Zhengyi chuckled lightly. "Yeah, and that worked out really well for him."
"Your father had a lot of friends besides Wu. Fung's father Kao, Shou Tu, Chen Da, Fat Yuh..."
"Chen Da and Fat Yuh were around after Wu took over. I used to play with Yuh's daughter. How loyal could they be?" Zhengyi challenged, wheeling around.
"Wu played on the gang's loyalty to Ti Xi to maintain power," Ying Su reminded him.
Zhengyi was silent for a moment. "Wasn't Fat Yuh sent to someplace around here to expand the gang like—what was it?—six years ago?"
"Chen Shi Wan. It's a village at the mouth of this river," Su said. "No reason for us to go there though."
"But Yuh was an earthbender, right? I remember he knew some magnetism techniques. Wu doesn't know magnetism. I should find him and see if he'll teach me!"
"You don't need to go to Chen Shi Wan," Su stifled him. "Magnetism isn't that rare of a skill."
"So? Why put it off?" he replied. "I need to start learning this stuff as soon as possible. You said that yourself."
Su's face became very hard suddenly. She looked at her young charge, appearing to study him. Then she softened. "All right. Let's go to Chen Shi Wan and see what we can find."
Zhengyi's face lit up, excited at the aspect of finally training. "Finally! Let's go!"
"Can I finally get my shoulder looked at there?" Fung asked.
"It's probably the closest place with a proper doctor," Su nodded.
"Fine," Fung said, laboriously standing up on one knee at a time, trying not to jostle her shoulder. "But get this straight: I'm proud to be a goody-two-shoes nun," she said, approaching Zhengyi, "because that means I have principles, unlike you. And if Chu and I start to 'slow you down',"—she made finger quotes to add a mocking effect—"you can go ahead and leave us behind, because you need us more than we need you. Don't forget, I volunteered for this." They glared at each other for a moment. Zhengyi was nearly smiling, completely cavalier to Fung's comments. "And I'm not going to find anybody with you 'til you wash off your nasty weightlifting sweat," she grumbled, walking away. "You stink like a wet hog monkey."
"Zhengyi, Fung needs a new ice pack too," Su told him. Over the last week, they had been treating Fung's shoulder by having Zhengyi bend water around it and freeze it into ice every so often. It helped reduce the pain and swelling. Grudgingly, he did this again now, using water from the river. He also bent some into a skein for later, as he always did.
"Thanks," Fung snapped sarcastically.
"You're welcome," Zhengyi replied in exactly the same tone.
Chu was the only one actually hurt by what Zhengyi had said, but he didn't want to say anything. Well, he wanted to, but he didn't.
As the four of them passed over a ridge, the town finally came into view. Chen Shi Wan was located at the fertile delta of the Shi Wan River, and the river itself cut a gorge through the nearby mountains, so the town was surrounded by cliffs except for where the delta met the sea and the small mountain pass created by the river. The pass was walled off and gated, and recently so, from the looks of the wall.
"Chen Shi Wan is one of the top producers of rice and fish for the eastern Earth Kingdom," Su told the kids as the approached, "especially for the Ba Sing Se war effort."
"What's that huge mansion there?" Fung asked, pointing to a large complex in the distance. It was by far the largest building around. In fact, the rest of the town was almost nothing but huts and hovels.
"The ancestral mansion of the Yumsoon-Hans," Su answered.
"The Yumsoon-Hans? Really?" Fung asked. Everyone had heard of the Yumsoon-Hans. They were one of the richest and most aristocratic noble families in the Earth Kingdom. They had always been major supporters of the current royal dynasty and had many representatives in the Earth King's court.
"I thought they lived in Ba Sing Se," Chu added.
"Some of them do, but this is the land they own," Su replied. "They're the proprietors of the whole town. They run it as their own personal fiefdom...which I guess is what it is."
"Looks kinda run-down," Zhengyi noted as the four drew closer.
"Yes, well, the Yumsoon-Hans are pretty corrupt," Su answered. "Seems like all the nobles are these days. They gouge the rents of the people here. They're all poor farmers or fishermen. Although, actually, the Yumsoon-Hans aren't too bad compared to some other landowners I've seen."
"Ms. Ying, how do you know all of this?" Chu asked.
Su shrugged. "I read. I like to be informed," she answered. "Plus, I did spend some time here several years ago, when I was helping Ti Xi scout places where we could expand the clan."
They noticed guards at the gate, but didn't expect what would happen when Su was suddenly stopped by one of them as they tried to enter. "Hold on there! Mandatory strip search!"
"WHAT?!" Su, Fung, Chu, and Zhengyi cried, almost in unison.
"We've had a lot of problems with dai zhiwu smuggling around here lately. By order of the Yumsoon-Hans, everyone entering and exiting the city is required to submit to a strip search," the guard explained.
"Ew! I'm not getting naked!" Fung cried.
"Gross!" Zhengyi said.
"Hey, it wasn't my idea! You think I like looking at every old hag and fat, hairy guy who comes to town?" said the guard. "Trust me, you're better off if you just get it over with. And anyway, you can keep your underwear on. Go behind the screen there and take off your clothes," he said, pointing to the folding wardrobe screen that had been situated parallel to the wall.
"I'm not doing this," Zhengyi said to Su.
She shrugged. "You wanna learn magnetism or not?" she asked flatly.
Zhengyi grudgingly marched behind the screen. The first guard followed him with severe indifference, followed by the second. "Please remove all loose-fitting garments personal belongings and money and place them on the table thank you," the first guard said mechanically. Zhengyi's head disappeared from view as he bent down to remove his pants. He placed his things on the table, then stood up and spread his arms. The first guard patted him down while the other rifled through his clothes, checking for hidden pockets or any other places he might have hidden a packet of plant. "Turn around," said the first guard again. Zhengyi complied with annoyance, and the guard patted him down more.
While the guards were busy checking Zhengyi, Su realized they would probably confiscate weapons. Since Zhengyi did not like using the golok the Tong clan had given him, he had given it to Ying Su so she could have a knife to use. She discreetly dropped it by the side of the road while the guards were checking Zhengyi. She had no wish to give them an extra reason to be suspicious.
"You're clear, go ahead through," the guard said finally. Zhengyi gathered his things and put his clothes back on. The rest of the group was searched with just as much mutual annoyance. In Fung's case the guard even had to reach under her sling to check for hidden drugs.
When they had all finally changed back into their clothes and entered the city, Chu asked them, "Can we all agree to never talk about that again?" Everyone nodded and agreed.
"Let's find a doctor now, please," Fung said, frustrated. "And some food, too."
Hungry as they were, the four of them sat down for a nice meal at the first decent-looking eatery they came to. They paid with the money they had made while working for the Tong clan, which wasn't much, but far more than the meal cost. Then, after asking around a bit, they found the address of a good doctor and took Fung to see him.
The doctor touched Fung's arm in various places, moved it manually to test where it hurt, showed her some stretching exercises to help it. "It should heal well if you keep doing what you're doing," the doctor told Su, tying a stronger sling around Fung's arm. "I know summer just ended, but if you have any way to get ice you should try to ice the shoulder."
"I think I can find a way," Su said. "When do you think she'll be fully healed?"
"Eh, about two months."
Can you give us anything to help with the pain?"
"Sure. I have some imported herbal remedies here," the doctor replied, going over to his cluttered wooden shelves as Fung sat up. "I can give you a month's supply. After that it won't be fully healed, but it should only hurt if the shoulder itself is hit or jostled or something."
"Thank you, doctor," said Su, bowing.
"Thank you," bowed Fung. The doctor smiled and gave them the medicine, but its cost, plus the cost of the doctor's services, used up almost all the money they had remaining.
So they wandered the town, looking first for a place to spend the night, and second for any sign of Fat Yuh or the Hei Chaoliu.
There was some conversation about Fung's shoulder but it was mostly a silent trek. Chu broke the silence with an observation. "Have you noticed how many kids are flying kites today?" he said. It was true; the others hadn't realized it yet, but almost every kid under twelve or thirteen they saw that day was flying a kite.
"That is odd..." Su said.
"Huh. Must be popular around here," Zhengyi said.
After a few hours they were wandering through a rice paddy out in the middle of the delta, when Fung sat down in exhaustion. "Ugh! I'm so tired!" she groaned. "What are we even doing? We haven't found anything."
"Heh. We agree for once," said Zhengyi. "We can't just wander around with nothing to go on."
Su lifted her hands. "Well, does anyone have a better idea?" Everyone fell silent, trying to come up with a strategy.
A traveler in a conical paddy hat was coming down the road the opposite way. Su and the kids hardly noticed her, expecting her to pass by. But she stopped just in front of them, obscuring her face with her hat. As soon as she caught their attention, she spoke. "I heard from an associate of mine that you have a particular tattoo. Show it to me."
"Who are you?" Zhengyi asked defensively. Almost instinctively, he had taken something very close to an earthbending stance.
The girl—she was about Zhengyi's age—reached for her sleeve. She flipped it up. A pygmy puma roared across her bicep. It was a tattoo very similar to Zhengyi's, but a bit more amateur-looking.
"Watch out!" Su cried. She attacked, while Zhengyi sent a rock at the girl. She dodged, creating an earthen tremor to trip Su. "Zhengyi, stop it!" she cried. "I don't want to draw attention!"
"Yeah, I bet," Zhengyi spat, shifting to a waterbending stance and gathering a water tendril around his arm from the paddy. He lashed at the girl from the left, then the right, but she blocked each strike with a small rock pillar. Fung tried to get a good angle to drive in and attack the girl, but it was difficult because of her shoulder and the narrow road.
"No, I mean I don't want to fight you!" the girl cried. She ripped off her hat and threw it aside to look directly at Zhengyi. Her hair was dark brown, tied in twin braids that fell over her shoulders. Her eyes, too, were a handsome shade of brown. She had lips and cheeks of just the right plumpness, and showed them all off in a cocky sort of half smile.
Zhengyi had to look at her for a minute, but he still recognized her before she gave her name. "Heng?" He asked, almost squinting. "It is you!" he cried, embracing her.
She hugged him back, laughing slightly. "Well, I ain't the Earth King."
Zhengyi backed off from the embrace. "I haven't seen you since I was nine." He turned to introduce her to the rest of the group. "Guys, this is Fat Yuh's daughter, Louen Heng. Heng, you remember Ying Su," he said.
"Hello ma'am," Heng said, bowing.
"And this is Xin Fung and Heung Chu. They're traveling with us."
"Hello," Heng said. She was a little preoccupied though, and as soon as she had greeted them she turned to Zhengyi with a quizzical look. "What are you traveling around for? Are you looking for someone?"
"We're looking for your dad, actually. Can you show us where he is?"
Heng looked down, sadly, and stepped away. "Dad...he was...he was put in jail about a year ago."
"I'm sorry, dear," said Su.
"Yeah. That sucks," said Zhengyi. Fung thought that was a poor choice of words to console someone, but Zhengyi's tone was genuinely sympathetic.
"It's okay," Heng said. A gust of wind rustled the plants in the paddies and chilled her slightly. She put her hands on her arms, but her tone suddenly became lighter, even as she shivered slightly. "We shouldn't stand around out here anyway. If you guys are out of money, I have a place you can stay. Come with me." She turned and began leading them down the path out towards the delta and the sea. "We can catch up when we get inside."
Between the footprints and trail of displaced foliage his friends left, and the reports of travelers on the road along the river, it wasn't hard for someone with Cai Fa's skills to track them. She knew they were in Chen Shi Wan. That made sense, she thought, since anyone who knew anything about contemporary criminology knew that tons of the dai zhiwu funneled to the Hei Chaoliu was grown in Chen Shi Wan.
Of course, Cai Fa anticipated the border check, but she would attract the least attention by simply submitting to the strip search. She had no wish to relinquish her weapons, but she couldn't fault the Yumsoon-Hans for instituting the checkpoint. I't might be inconvenient, but laws exist for everyone's benefit. If this checkpoint stops one ounce of dai zhiwu from getting to an addict, that would be worth any amount of embarrassment, she thought as she approached the gate. And if these guards get fresh, I'll just break their fingers.
As she approached, a guard called out. "Hold on, miss! You'll have to check that—" Cai Fa anticipated what he was going to ask, and placed her bow and quiver of arrows in his hand before he had finished speaking. She would submit to the search, but she did not like being held up. The guard stared a bit at Cai Fa's distinct haircut—at least, it was distinct for a sixteen-year-old girl: a very short military-style cut, as though her head had been shaved clean only a few weeks ago. Fa only looked back over her half-moon spectacles with an annoyed glare, as if to urge him to get on with it. She was used to people staring when she was forced to remove her hood, and this guard remembered himself pretty quickly. "Yes, uh, thank you," said the guard, handing the weapons to another guard who put them away. "If you'll give us your name, I can return these to you when you exit the city."
"Not necessary," Fa replied, staring at the door to the room in the gate house where her weapon was placed.
The guard paused, not knowing why she wouldn't want her weapons back, but that wasn't his concern, so he didn't really care. He went on with the process. "By order of the Yumsoon-Hans, everyone entering and leaving the town has to submit to a mandatory strip search. If you'll just step behind the screen there..."
Cai Fa complied. She removed her cloak first, then a bolt of black cloth draped around her shoulders. Next she removed her brown qípáo and her large Ba Sing Se city guard's boots, fully disassembling her odd ensemble. The guard shook out everything, checked it thoroughly for concealed drugs, and finally gave it back to Fa. She redressed quickly but thoroughly. Looking as though her original outfit had never even shifted, she brushed past the guard and entered the city.
She knew the Avatar was here. Now she would have to figure out how to get close enough to kill him.
As the sun began to set, Louen Heng and her followers began to approach a cluster of thatched huts far out by the delta. This was probably the poorest part of the town, and just about the farthest from the Yumsoon-Han mansion. Although they looked primitive, there were several of the huts, and they were somewhat large for single-family dwellings.
As they trudged along on the network of creaky wooden piers that served as a road out in the marshy delta, Heng asked, "So what did you want to see my dad about anyway?"
"He was a master of the magnetism techniques of earthbending, right?" Zhengyi said. "I'm on a journey to, uh...refine my bending. I was hoping he could teach me but, uh, I guess not."
"He taught me everything he knows!" Heng grinned. "I can teach you!"
"Really? Oh, thanks! That's awesome!" Zhengy said, extending his open hand.
"No problem," Heng said, slapping his hand, catching it and pulling him in for a half-hug thump on the back. "Ban Clan. We're brothers, right?"
At the back of the group, Su grinned.
They came to hut and Heng opened the door, letting them all enter.
Inside there were two boys about Zhengyi's age playing with a baby boy who was maybe eighteen months old. As they entered, the taller boy scooped up the baby and approached Heng. "Hi baby," he said, giving her a peck on the lips. "Are these the ones you were looking for?"
"Yes," she said. "Tieh, this is Ban Zhengyi. He's the Avatar."
The boy's only reaction was to raise his eyebrows, and incline his head a little, as though he had done more interesting things today than just meeting the Avatar. "Really?" he asked. The shorter boy bowed, however.
Zhengyi didn't know what to do but shrug. "Uh, yeah."
"That's pretty sweet," the boy chuckled. "I'm Chang Tieh, Heng's boyfriend." Tieh was fairly handsome, as much as Heng was pretty. He had nice cheekbones and a mop of black hair that was just messy enough to look good, a lean frame that still showed off the nicely subtle V-shape his torso had.
"This is Tieh's friend Fu An" Heng said, introducing the other boy. "And this—" she said, lifting the baby from Tieh, "charming young man is my half-brother Shen Kuo. I take care of him now that dad's in jail."
Zhengyi introduced his whole group, and the conversation turned to what Heng had been doing since she and Fat Yuh left Ba Sing Se. "Dad was able to establish a small branch of the Ban clan here, with Master Wu's sanction," she explained. "We'd been shipping dai zhiwu from here to Ba Sing Se for a few years, but dad thought it'd be better and cheaper to control it at the source. The soil here is great for growing plant, and they grow so many different kinds of crops here it's pretty easy to disguise it as something else. Everything was okay for a while, but last year they caught dad while he was shipping plant up the river. That's when this big crackdown with the strip search and everything started. The Yumsoon-Hans think they're being real tough, but they don't know anything. I took over the smuggling operation in Chen Shi Wan and we're moving more plant then we ever—"
"Wait, wait—you're the head of a drug smuggling ring?" Fung asked, shocked.
"Well, yeah," Heng said, not realizing why Fung seemed so upset. "I'm the Mountain Master as far as this town is concerned, and smuggling's our main job."
Fung got up laboriously and walked past Heng and Tieh toward the back of the hut. She prodded package in a large, neatly ordered pile of dozens of identical packets. It was something soft and crunchy wrapped in paper and string. "Is that what this is? This is all dai zhiwu?" she said.
"Yes..." Heng replied quizzically, holding her brother.
Fung prickled with anger, but then she just sighed. "I'm not doing this again." She turned back to look at Su and the others. "I'm not going to continue to actively help criminals. I'm not going to associate with a drug dealer."
"Augh! Come on, Fung!" Zhengyi grunted, lolling his head. "Why is everything a problem with you?"
Su knew what would happen next. She could sense Fung poising herself to deliver a comeback, so she interrupted, throwing her arms up between them. "All right, all right, all right, all right," she spattered tersely. "It doesn't matter anyway. All this dai zhiwu ends up in the Ban Clan's hands," she said, looking right at Zhengyi, "and none of us are going to let this stuff keep going to One-Eyed Wu."
"What do you mean?" Heng broke in. "We're Ban clan. This is the Mountain Master's plant."
"Wu killed my father," Zhengyi explained with a deadness in his voice.
"What do you mean? Ti Xi died fifteen years ago," said Heng.
"Wu murdered him fifteen years ago. Zhengyi only found out about it a few weeks ago," Su explained.
Heng's eyes darted around. She couldn't believe it. "No, my dad told me the Du clan killed Ti Xi," she said.
"He had the whole clan tricked. He still does," Su told her.
"But Dad would...would've known..." she looked up to Zhengyi.
"Heng," he touched her shoulder, "it's true."
Heng swore in a whisper. "...And I've been supplying him this whole time." She shook her head.
Zhengyi grunted. "How do you think I feel?" he muttered.
"Don't worry, Heng," Su continued, "That's why we left Ba Sing Se. Zhengyi is on a journey to improve his bending so that he can take revenge on Wu and restore the Ban clan to the Ban family. So there's no need for Fung to leave because you can't ship the dai zhiwu anymore, and once you teach Zheng—"
"Oh, I can't stop shipping the plant," Heng said. "I'll tell my contacts to make sure it doesn't get to Wu, but if we don't sell plant we don't eat."
"It's going to get to Wu anyway," Su said, suddenly more grave. "Any plant dealer you know in Ba Sing Se, Wu knows too, and he can apply a lot more leverage to them than a sixteen-year-old. I've lived with Wu for fifteen years. I know what he's capable of. Unless you want to keep handing money to an oathbreaker who murdered your Mountain Master, you need to stop shipping the dai zhiwu."
"Look, it'll be fine," Heng assured her. "I can make sure it doesn't get to Wu, but if I don't get that plant into the Ba Sing Se everyone in this village, the people I look out for, they're gonna go hungry. Shen Kuo won't have anything to eat," Heng said, letting the child in her arms wrap his fingers around one of hers, still looking pleadingly at Su. "I can't do that to them."
"Yeah, Heng's really smart," Tieh added. "If she says she can do something, she can do it."
Heng looked to Zhengyi. "Actually you guys came at a good time. The big monthly shipment will be soon. We could use some help with that, especially from someone with skills like yours. Maybe you can stay and work with us while you train."
"I'm sorry, but unless you cancel the shipment we can't stay. Kids, let's go," Su said, already heading toward the door.
"Hey!" Zhengyi interjected. "Don't order me around like that. Heng's a clan sister, and she needs our help! I trust her." He crossed his arms. "I'm staying."
"The Avatar is really going to help this girl peddle drugs?" Fung said, less plain angry than she was unbelieving and exasperated.
"I'm the true Mountain Master of the Ban clan," Zhengyi declared. It was the first time he had actually said this out loud, and he couldn't quite suppress a quaver in his voice. It sounded a bit strange to him. But it's true, isn't it? He kept a strong gaze on Fung and Su though. "And I'm helping my sworn brothers and sisters, no matter what you two think."
Fung just shook her head and stepped out of the hut. Ying Su continued to stare at Zhengyi for a long time, but her countenance softened, became contemplative. "You'll do what you think is right, I'm sure. But I saw what it did to you, finding out how you had been used by Wu. Just understand, you may have volunteered to be used again."
"I trust Heng," Zhengyi repeated.
"Thank you, Zhengyi," Heng said. She looked sadly to Su as she continued to gently bounce Shen Kuo.
Zhengyi turned brusquely to Heung Chu. "And what about you?" Chu looked to everyone in the room. His expression conveyed a mild anxiety. He was unsure. After a moment he walked out of the hut to join Fung, followed by Su.
"Fung, go on ahead," Su told her, once she had descended the hut's ragged wooden steps. As Fung complied, she turned to Chu. "Chu, listen. I think Zhengyi's pride has gotten the better of him. I'm concerned he might act without thinking and get into something over his head. I think maybe you should stay with him, you know, just to look out for him." Su gave him a pleasant smile.
As usual, Chu was hesitant. "I know you want Zhengyi to accept you more," Su continued. "He'll respect you if you show that you're willing to commit a crime and help a clan sister." Chu liked Su. He found himself a little hesitant to deceive Zhengyi though, both because it seemed a poor way to start a friendship, and because from what he had seen Zhengyi had a bit of a violent streak. "Better yet, tell him you defied me to go back and help. He'll read that as you being tough and strong-willed."
Chu did want to prove, on some level, that he could be an outlaw as much as Zhengyi was. Hey, I was in the Chaoliu, just like he was, Chu thought. But Su's other point was just as important to him: it honestly made him uncomfortable to have Zhengyi alone, without someone from their group. Chu had known Zhengyi for a little less time than Su and Fung had, but he had learned his backstory, and he could tell Zhengyi was displacing feelings about Wu's betrayal into helping this girl. He understood Su's desire to protect her charge. Chu sighed, but finally agreed.
"Good," said Su. "Fung and I will stay in town; we can't leave without Zhengyi anyway. We'll stay near that group of storefronts near the entrance, where the doctor's office was. Just stay with Zhengyi and find us if something happens."
Su joined Fung and Chu reentered Heng's hut. Zhengyi spoke Chu's name, surprised to see him. "I just, uh, went outside to tell Su that she should...should have more faith in her sworn brothers and sisters. I want to help Heng too," he said. "I know I wasn't a soldier for the clan, but I was in the Hei Chaoliu, kind of. I don't have a problem shipping dai zhiwu." Another lie. When he was with the Tong clan, Chu had seen people throw away their life savings on the stuff, leaving their families without income. Like deceiving his friend, Chu felt uncomfortable with it, but Zhengyi was the first friend he had had in years, besides Su and Fung. He just cared more about looking out for him. And he could respect Heng's position. For as many people as he had seen squander their money on plant, he knew just as many for whom the sale of the stuff was their only way to provide for their families. Of course, those people were Tong clan toughs. Usually the same ones who shoved me or smashed my drum or pantsed me and threw me in mud, Chu conceded to himself, with inward sarcasm.
Heng looked to Zhengyi. The boy returned the look, then nodded. "Okay," Heng said. "You're in. Let me show you how we run this operation."
Cai Fa knew the Avatar was in this town. The Ban clan was known to have a small presence in this town, ever since Louen "Fat" Yuh had moved here five years ago to take over the clan's dai zhiwu production at its source. Yuh was known to have a daughter of approximately the Avatar's age.
Fa knew all this from city guard reports, the likes of which she had been reading for as long as she knew how. Her father's friends in the Ba Sing Se city guard had given her access to them some eight years ago, after prolonged pestering on her part. Using the same tactic, she had succeeded at prying archery, infiltration, unarmed combat and detection lessons out of them. Before too long, however, Fa had become such an accepted presence at the guard station that her father's friend, Lt. Chang Ah Ping, had told her he was worried about her when she started showing up less frequently in the past few years. She'd been fourteen years old at that time, and had wanted to begin observing Hei Chaoliu operations. "Uncle" Ah Ping had objected, concerned about the danger such an activity posed, but Fa was not one to be dissuaded from something she had put her mind to. No, she certainly wasn't that type.
It was a matter of course that the Avatar and his friends would stop here eventually. They had been passing through several small villages southeast of Ba Sing Se, and Fa had kept hot on their trail, inquiring after them. Her detection skills were serving her well.
As she searched the town, Fa took note of everything even the slightest bit out of the ordinary. She had trained herself to observe her surroundings keenly, based on a methodology her father had developed and left for her in a series of note pages. Her mind had been sharpened by constant practice, to the point where now it would seize upon potential clues and traces of her goals like a hunter's snare.
The children of Chen Shi Wan were the first thing she noticed. She had seen poor farmholds in the Agrarian District, and moreover she had read enough about how agriculture functioned in the northeastern Earth Kingdom to know that at harvest times even very young children were expected to help. Yet she saw at least a dozen sets of children flying kites. There were adults in sight of the children, milling about in the town square and even stooped over, planting, in the nearby rice paddies, but there wasn't a word of disapproval from them towards the children. And all of the children seemed to be playing at kite battles, not just a portion of them. In most settings in which children were given free reign, they would not break into so many separate groups just to play the same game. This kite battle pastime was inordinately popular.
The whole thing was decidedly suspicious. Fa decided she would investigate. If it's suspicious it could lead to crime, if it leads to crime in Chen Shi Wan it will lead to the Ban clan, and the Ban clan will lead to the Avatar, she reasoned. Realizing she would need to make a prolonged observation in order to determine any sort of patterns related to this kite activity, she decided to get some tea at a stall and sat down to sip it as she watched.
The object of the game was to cut the other person's kite string with your own. Cai Fa was familiar with the basics of the game. Children played it in Ba Sing Se, particularly during festivals, but not in these proportions. During the second match she watched, between disheveled boy and a girl with mud on her shoes and dress hem, Fa thought she noticed a glinting on the boy's kite string. Their brightly-colored kites fluttered and dived overhead, but Fa watched the strings intently. The strings began to entwine in response the kites' movements. Fa watched them strain against each other for a few moments, then the girl's string snapped and her kite drifted off in the wind.
Fa observed eight matches, all within a few hours. Each time she looked for the telltale glimmer on one of the strings, and although it was sometimes faint, it was there on the winner's string each time. The kites also seemed to always drift off in one direction, towards a single escarpment in the western mountains that bordered the town, but Fa checked the wind and decided this fact could just be chalked up to the wind patterns in the area. There was indeed some kind of hidden pattern or system to this kite game.
The matches were frequent, and Fa noticed one set of girls, who looked about ten years old, left after one match and actually returned with new kites for a second. They couldn't have the disposable income to buy a new kite that quickly, and it would take much longer to build one, Fa noted. She let them finish their game—yes, the winning girl's string seemed to shine again—and with that in mind she walked over as the girls watched the loser's kite drift toward the nearby wooded cliffside.
"Wow, you guys are really good at kite flying," Fa said, putting on a veneer of relatably-childlike enthusiasm as she walked over. She might have been overdoing it a bit for girls this old, but she wasn't exactly used to dealing with children. "I like kite battles too, but I don't think I'm as good as you guys." The girls smiled. Fa returned it, realizing she was on the right track. "Can you give me any advice on how to win?"
"The kite game doesn't have winners. My parents just gave me the good kite this time 'cuz Wen-Wen got the good kite last time."
"So...you know who will lose her kite ahead of time?"
"Yeah. The one without the sand on the string is the bad kite." The sudden insight was like a flare going off in Fa's head. That's what the shine was, she realized. This was a huge break for her investigation. But the girl didn't pause, because of course she didn't find anything she did to be out of the ordinary. "Flying kites is part of our chores. We don't get our allowance if we don't fly the kites and make sure the bad ones get cut."
Fa needed to investigate where these kites came from, and it was clear the children of the town didn't know where their parents got the kites. But just bolting away would definitely tip the girls off. So she tried to end the conversation casually, saying the girls must think this was their most fun chore. She asked them a little more about their other chores—reminding herself that it never hurts to get more information—and concluded by buying them each a sweet. Fa didn't have a ton of money to travel with, but good guardsmen knew that informants were always good investments.
"Zhengyi, Chu, meet Mr. and Mrs. Ru," Heng said, ushering them into one of the brick masonwork buildings on the far side of the market square. These sorts of buildings were much less common in Chen Shi Wan than the thatched huts most families lived in, but there were several dozen bunched around a market square. This building was supposedly a tea house owned by the Rus, but there were very few customers or normal tea house accoutrements.
Zhengyi and Chu bowed to the friendly-but-haggard-looking middle-aged couple. "The Rus are some of my best processors," Heng explained. Heng pulled the lapel of Zhengyi's vest aside to reveal his tattoo. "My friends would like to see the cellar," she said.
Mr. and Mrs. Ru led them down a trap door behind the counter. A large cellar had been dug out underneath the tea house, perhaps twenty feet long by eight feet wide. In the center were several long tables placed end-to-end at which about a dozen village peasants were working to process the plant. The place was set up like a craft workshop, with different people working on different phases of a finished product. Several workers stripped the leaves off of recently harvested plants and put them into glass jars. "The plant is grown out in the marsh in small thickets hidden by other wild plants, so they can't be found by those Yumsoon-Han lackeys," Heng explained. "Each family in my organization is responsible for a few of these thickets, and only they know how to locate them. They bring them here after harvesting. We strip the leaves off and put them in jars for curing. Curing takes six or seven days."
Shelves with glass jars of curing leaves lined the walls, with leaves in various states of readiness. A few workers would remove those leaves that had been fully cured and measure them into even units on balance scales. Then they would tip the scale's contents on to a sheaf of rice paper for the next worker in line. This person would wrap the leaves securely in the paper with very precise and skillful folds, almost like origami. The packets were very small when finished; two or three could fit into a closed fist. Still, Zhengyi knew that each of them was worth several dozen gold pieces on the streets of Ba Sing Se. "We package the dai zhiwu into even units for uniform pricing, and because it allows us to smuggle them more easily," Heng continued. "Now wait until you see how we get the kites past the guard," she grinned. "That's the cool part."
Fa felt the vibration of the last tumbler clicking out of place. She applied torsion with the other chopstick she had obtained and the lock slid open. As expected, she thought. She entered the gate house. No guards. There was probably a barracks with sleeping guards somewhere in the gate structure, but this room was just an office. The confiscated weapons were just sitting around a storage room. Obviously, these Chen Shi Wan guards weren't as dedicated as they might be. Fa retrieved her bow and quiver and left, locking the door behind her.
It was dark, almost midnight before Fa had attempted to retrieve her weapon. She now had to make her way down to where the farmers lived, in the huts near the marsh, in order to find out where their children got the kites. Fa had become nearsighted from spending so much time reading while growing up, but with the spectacles another of her father's friends had made for her she had crystal-clear vision. She was an exceptional marksman, as long as she had the spectacles. She had been lucky to get them, too. Optics technology was new, and spectacles could be quite expensive. It was a good thing her father had been so well-liked.
She had also spent time purposely cultivating her night vision, so she could move in the dark with minimal chance of being detected. If a night was relatively clear, like this one was, with a good amount of moon and starlight, she could get around well enough. She was glad to have her weapons back too. She had felt vulnerable without them.
After about a half an hour she got down to the marsh. She moved more carefully now, as she could still hear a few voices and saw lights in some of the huts. She stole towards one of the darkened ones and listened for a sign of habitation, perhaps the breathing of a sleeping family, but no one was there. She grabbed a nearby reed stem and deftly stole inside. She lit the stem with spark rocks she carried, carefully shielding the flame with her opposite hand to obscure it further. The room contained all the raw materials for kites: bamboo tubes, silk squares, adhesive. Most curiously, there was a pile of small, marble-sized rocks on a table. The rocks seemed to become highlighted as Fa took notice of them, filing them into the space in her mind reserved for out-of-place things, things likely to be clues.
Fa reached out to touch one, but her fingers slipped off it. She felt the rock resist as she tried to pull it away from the others. With a slightly harder tug, she was able to get it away from the pile. She experimented with it, moving it farther and closer to its mates. She let it go an inch or so from the pile, and it flew back into place.
"Lodestones," she whispered. Why are they putting lodestones into kites?
Her thoughts were interrupted by the voices of three young men approaching the hut she was in. She blew out her makeshift torch and slipped out the door, moving around the hut in the opposite direction from which she had heard the voices.
"Hey, did you see something?" one of the voices said. Fa's muscles tensed. Adrenaline shot through her body. She might or might not have been able to take out these three, but it would completely ruin her plans if she were to be found out now.
"Was someone in the hut?" another said, and Fa heard them break out into a run. She searched for something she could use. Thinking quickly, she bent and scooped up a fist-sized rock on the ground. She tossed it into a nearby marsh pool, a few feet in front of the door to the hut.
"He's in the water!" one of the men cried, and all three went sloshing into the water. They cried out and roused other people in the proximate huts. "Heng! Tieh!" they called. Fa hurried up the road as silently as she could for several yards, then slid off it into the swampy, waterlogged paddies along its sides as more of the smugglers came out to search. A moment later, Fa heard a female voice say "Zhengyi! There's an intruder!"
"I got it!" the Avatar replied. Fa recognized his voice. She saw twin glows from small reddish lights bloom into life in the distance. The Avatar had produced flames to help search the marsh. Her target was only a few yards off...so close...her hand seemed to itch to draw one of her arrows. But it would be imprudent to strike now. The Avatar was formidable enough without a village full of criminal allies. She might get one shot at best, and if she missed, she'd be caught for sure, and then she might never get a chance to kill him.
But she had located him. That was definitely enough for the time being. What she had to do now was get him alone, get close to him. Even as she slogged through the marsh, back towards the main square of Chen Shi Wan, as silently as she was able, her mind went back to her observation of the kite battles the previous day. She saw the kites in mind, how she had noticed that they all drifted off to the same cliff face. The Avatar, the kites, the stones. They all had to be connected somehow...
That's it! she realized. That's what the lodestones are for!
So let me get this straight," Zhengyi said. "The lodestones get packed into the kite skeletons with the plant packets, and we're going to where they end up after the strings get cut and they float away?"
"And the guards don't suspect a thing," Heng added.
Zhengyi whistled. "Heng, you are one smart bean-puff. Wish we had found whoever was creepin' around last night though."
Heng sighed lightly, partly from disappointment, partly from the effort of climbing this hill with her brother in a baby sling on her back. They'd left the town a few hours ago, taking a boat through the coastal swamps and completely bypassing the checkpoint, so that Heng could show Zhengyi to her favorite spot to practice earthbending. It was on top of a cliff overlooking the town, and they had been hiking for a while, but they had almost made it to the top.
"It's okay," she said. "I got men on it."
"You think Tieh needs back up to go meet with the contact?" Zhengyi asked. Tieh and Fu An had left town with them, and in a few hours he would rendezvous with the Ban Clan contact to permanently cancel the order. As Heng's lead enforcer it was his job to handle things like that. "That intruder might have been one of Wu's men."
"How would Wu know we're planning to change buyers already?" Tieh said. "The five of us are the only ones who've even discussed it."
"They only ever send one old guy with a wagon to make the pick up from us anyway," Fu An added. "Usually we have to help him haul the plant halfway to Ba Sing Se."
"Yeah, these two can handle it," Heng said.
Zhengyi was assuaged. "So you're taking us to where the kites end up?" he asked.
"Yeah," Heng said. "When I came up with the idea to use the kites, I brought some of the local earthebenders that my dad had trained up here and we magnetized a fifty-yard radius of the earth on this cliff side.
"So when the kites are cut and float away, the magnetized stones in their bamboo skeletons make sure they end up here?" Chu asked.
"Almost always," Tieh said. "Once in a while we might lose one to a really strong wind or something, but it doesn't impact our profits. And we ain't had one found by the guards yet."
"I gotta hand it to you guys: that really is a clever idea," Chu said. "How'd you come up with that?"
"We had to do something different after my dad was caught," Heng said, grabbing a low branch to help lift herself up the slope. "He was caught smuggling on the water, and after that the Yumsoon-Hans beefed up their security and patrols. My dad's people turned to me to run the operation, but we couldn't keep smuggling the same way. My first idea was underground tunnels, but those have been the standard method for smuggling in the Earth Kingdom for centuries. It's too obvious. First thing the guards would think of. So we did the opposite of smuggling through the ground—we smuggle through the sky."
On the last word, Heng misstepped, causing some small rocks under her foot to slide downhill. Her body pitched backward. Zhengyi thrust his elbows back to create a solid platform of rock under his own feet. He placed a hand gently against the curve of Shen Kuo's body in the sling. His other hand found Heng's hip, and he carefully set her on right footing again.
Heng let out a deep breath. "Whew! Thanks," she said, looking over her shoulder and casting her brown eyes toward Zhengyi.
"I can't let you go bouncing down a mountain just when I was about to get a lesson out of you," Zhengyi joked, grinning. Perhaps there was a bit of bashfulness in it. Suddenly, they seemed to realize in unison that Zhengyi's hand had remained on her thigh. He jerked it away as though some force had been holding it there.
Tieh noticed this. His eyes narrowed.
"Let's get up there," Heng said, turning her gaze forward again.
When they arrived at the top, Heng showed off the view. It was certainly a scenic spot to practice earthbending. It was shaded by trees overhead, but butted up against the cliff overlooking Chen Shi Wan, offering a sort of window on the whole town and delta. "Nice up here," said Zhengyi, placing a foot on the large boulder that formed the lip of the cliff.
"Part of the reason I picked this spot," Heng said, a little proudly. She untied the baby sling that held her brother and asked Tieh to hold him. Tieh, Chu, and Fu An took Shen Kuo off to the side while Heng approached Zhengyi. She fished a few copper pieces out of her pocket and scattered them on the ground. Normally the copper pieces should have rolled and clattered around, but each made a sharp thud and held fast.
"Do you know what makes magnets stick together?" she asked him. Zhengyi shrugged. "Qì," she replied. "Yīn and yáng. Actually, I remember my dad saying it was kind of like the lightning techniques of firebending, or healing in waterbending. You're the Avatar—does that make sense to you?"
"I don't really know anything about that stuff," Zhengyi replied. "I mean, Aguta was my waterbending teacher. You remember him, right?"
"Oh yeah," Heng recalled. "Definitely not a healer," she chuckled. Zhengyi laughed too.
Tieh scowled at Zhengyi and Heng. "Hey, it's your turn," Fu An said, prompting him to return his attention to their and Chu's game of koi-koi.
"All right," Heng continued to Zhengyi. "Well, I don't know much about bending theory. All I know is when you do this—" she flipped her arms and a small rock sprung out of the ground -"a rock moves. But I can tell you what I remember from when my dad was training me," she said. "Just like there are qì pathways in your body, there are qì pathways in the earth. Normally qì in the earth just kind of swirls around at random." Heng bent two fist-sized rocks out of the ground and levitate them in front of Zhengyi. She made a short sequence of smooth, swirling motions and the rocks moved around her body. As she finished, she tossed the rocks to Zhengyi. He caught one in each hand. "Those are no longer magnetized," Heng said. "Feel how they don't attract? Now, if we can align the qì in the earth, or a part of the earth, so that it doesn't just swirl around but all flows in one direction—" she bent the rocks out of his hands and entered a deeper stance. She seemed to be concentrating harder. Her motions were now equally smooth, but more direct. She swirled her hands back towards her center and then thrust them out again in a spearhand, taking a step each time. Again the two rocks followed her motions in the air before her. She let them go and they fell to the ground as the copper pieces had done. "Pick them up," she instructed him.
Zhengyi moved forward to lift them with his hands, but he found it much more difficult than he expected, as though the rock was stuck to the ground with invisible glue. As he went to pick up the other one, he found it just as hard to lift from the ground, but he was really taken by surprise by how strongly the two rocks were attracted to each other. As soon as he had pulled the second rock from the ground it zoomed right into the other one. It took a good amount of exertion for Zhengyi to pull them apart and keep them that way. "Whoa," he said. He found himself excited and enthused by the sight of an application of bending he hadn't seen before. He had never had any first-hand experience with magnetism during the whole time he had grown up with Wu. And if he hadn't seen it, there was a good chance Wu hadn't either.
"The energy flows from yáng to yīn," Heng explained. "Yīn is receptive and yáng is active, so when the qì paths are aligned the areas of concentrated yáng are attracted to the areas of concentrated yīn."
"Why are these rocks more attracted to each other than to the ground?" Zhengyi asked, moving them together and apart so he could experiment with the force between them.
"As you become more advanced with this technique, you'll be able to alter the magnitude of the force as you choose," Heng replied. "The magnitude of the ground around here is relatively weak. I made the magnitude of those two rocks stronger. The magnitude of the lodestones in the kites is very strong, even though the stones themselves are small. That's why the coins I brought up didn't fly out of my pocket as soon as we got up here." She paused. "Anyway, let's see what you can do. Why don't you try and demagnetize one of those rocks?"
Zhengyi levitated the rocks, but he couldn't do much more than that. He tried to imitate Heng's movements, but he only succeeded in revolving the rocks around his body almost once before they clunked back together in midair.
Heng gave a little chuckle as Zhengyi shrugged in mock-humility. "All right," she said. "Better start with the basic stances."
A few hours passed. Tieh and Fu An, both non-benders, had concluded the card game and were now training at knife-play and fist-fighting. Zhengyi took Tieh to be the more capable fighter, since Fu An continuously deferred to him, and he doled out harsh corrections to the other boy. Zhengyi had begun to get the hang of magnetism, but his technique still had plenty of holes.
"No, not so loose. You're not waterbending," Heng corrected him as he tried to pop off a sequence of magnetized rocks from the ground and throw them at a nearby tree as projectiles. "Here. Start in a Rising Platypus-Bear stance." Heng got into the stance and Zhengyi did the same. They had both learned this basic earthbending move years ago under Shi Hua, and they both thought they knew how to do it. But they immediately saw that their stances did not match.
"Your other toe is supposed to be facing forward," Zhengyi told Heng.
"Um, who's the teacher here?" Heng replied. "That toe faces out."
"I'm telling you, it faces forward," Zhengyi said. "Otherwise your balance is all screwed up."
"No, don't you remember when Shi Hua taught us this?" she argued back. "And he put incense sticks under our heels to make sure we didn't put them on the ground?"
"And I kept putting them out with—" Zhengyi started to grin.
"—with firebending!" they said in unison, all but laughing at the antics of their shared past.
"Yeah, until he picked them up to see what was wrong with them, and you blew them up when he had it like two inches from his face!" Heng laughed, clapping her hands. "And he was all sooty! Guy looked like seared possum-chicken! Just two eyes like," she laughed again, and imitated a humorously staccato blinking pattern.
Zhengyi smiled as well, but his expression was clearly less enthusiastic. He enjoyed sharing these fond memories with Heng, and even though he had never actually hurt Shi Hua he felt badly for having treated him like that, in light of the circumstances of Hua's death.
Heng noticed this. "What's the matter?" she asked, her smile fading away.
"Shi Hua was killed helping me...helping me escape."
Heng put her hand on his back. "Zhengyi, I believe what you said about Wu before. I won't let any of our dai zhiwu get to him."
Zhengyi huffed a breath out his nose resolutely. "I know," he nodded. "Thanks."
"Come on," Heng said more cheerfully. "We'd better finish the lesson." She gave him a playful punch in the arm.
He grinned. He gave her a punch back, causing Heng to laugh even as she rubbed her arm. Heng lobbed a few easy rocks at him, giggling. Zhengyi zoomed past them and grabbed Heng's wrists, escalating the play fight. Heng half-laughed, half-shrieked in protest. Zhengyi got behind her and wrapped his arms around her torso, lifting her up off her feet.
Zhengyi was laughing, and the next thing he knew a fist had struck his face. He dropped Heng and brought his hand to his nose, taken completely by surprise. Tieh had positioned himself between Zhengyi and Heng, and apparently had clocked Zhengyi in the face. "Get away from my girlfriend!" he roared.
Zhengyi cursed. "I wasn't doin' anything, you psycho!" he yelled, checking his hand for blood.
"Tieh!" Heng yelled.
"I don't care if you're the Avatar or not! You touch my girl and I'll beat you down!" Tieh swung at him again.
Heng screamed her boyfriend's name again, and burst a lump of rock out of the ground below him, knocking him over.
"Zhengyi is my friend!" she barked, as Tieh propped himself up on his elbows. "We were just playing!"
"Yeah, sure," Tieh spat as he hauled himself up, obviously sarcastic. "You been makin' goo-goo eyes at this jerk since he walked into town."
"I told you Tieh, we're just friends!" Heng said.
Tieh looked back to Zhengyi. "I want him out of here by tomorrow," he said, jabbing his index finger at Zhengyi.
Heng knitted her eyebrows, almost in confusion more than anger. "You don't make demands of me like that," she scoffed. "I run the smuggling operation. You work for me."
"Well your friend and I are gonna have a problem if he stays around much longer," Tieh glared.
Zhengyi raised his fists. "Why don't you try something?" he goaded. "I won't use any bending."
"Zhengyi, please," Heng said sternly. "Let me deal with this." She turned to Tieh "It's almost sunset," she told him with an icy voice. "You're starting to make me mad, and if you don't want me to get any madder just do what I asked you to and meet with the contact."
Tieh continued to hold his angry gaze for a moment, then turned from Heng and Zhengyi. "Fu An!" he called to his friend, who had watched the whole exchange along with Chu. Fu An hastily got up and trotted over to join his friend as they walked away. They started back down the mountain.
Normally this would have given Zhengyi cause to smile, but then, Tieh had just expressed a pretty strong disliking for him. "You sure you trust him to do this?" Zhengyi asked. Normally Zhengyi would have been glad at the fact that Wu was about to ose a supplier, but then, the person in charge of that deal had just expressed a pretty strong disliking for him.
"Tieh has a temper, and he can be a pretty big jerk," Heng said. "But he is loyal. He's worked for my dad and me for years. He's okay. I'm sorry he hit you though."
"It's all right," Zhengyi said. "I want to finish the lesson."
"Can't believe Heng wants the order changed just 'cuz that guy asked her," Tieh huffed as he and Fu An headed to the rendezvous point a few miles from the town.
"At least we don't have to drag four bushels of plant with us like usual," Fu An joked, but Tieh remained humorless.
"The Ban clan pays good for our stuff," Tieh continued. "I don't know what Heng's thinking sometimes."
Fu An paused. "You think maybe we should...let the order stand?"
Tieh seemed to think it over for a minute, but finally said, "No. I shouldn't disobey Heng. It's that Zhengyi guy I'm mad at, not her."
The two walked on, and Tieh continued to complain about Zhengyi's sudden intrusion into his life. They reached the rendezvous point after about half an hour, but something unexpected met them there. The contact from Ba Sing Se they normally met was a single Ban clan member named Lai-fo and his covered cart. This time Lai-fo was there, but he was talking with four other people.
"Who are they?" Fu An whispered as they approached.
"I don't know. Be careful," Tieh replied in kind.
"Ah, Chang Tieh," Lai-fo said, turning to the boys. "And Hu Fu An. Good to see you again."
"Who are they?" Tieh asked unceremoniously, nodding his head toward the four strangers. He rested a hand on the pommel of the knife holstered at his side.
"They're Ban clan brothers, like us," Lai-fo smiled.
"We're looking for someone who crossed the clan," one of the strangers, the only woman, said. "He's a boy, about your age, kind of short, tattoo on the left side of his chest, probably wearing a green vest."
The woman caught the brief flash of recognition in Tieh's eyes as he realized Zhengyi was their quarry. As Tieh vacillated over this chance to expose his romantic rival, the woman shot a quick sideways glace at Lai-fo.
As much as he wanted to hand Zhengyi over to these strangers, he was sure Heng would never forgive him for it. And besides, they might come after her next for harboring him. "Sorry. I haven't seen anybody like that," he said coldly.
"Why don't you have my shipment like usual, Tieh?" Lia-fo asked, anger creeping into his voice. "What is Fat Yuh's daughter playing at?"
Tieh and Fu An realized that these people knew something was up. They hadn't anticipated four intimidating strangers to accompany Lai-fo. Lai-fo was never going to go away empty-handed unless they made him, and there was no way that was going to happen with these four backing him. Tieh had hoped he might be able to talk his way around Lai-fo, get away and maybe come back with more men, but the strangers had obviously clued him in to what was going on with Heng and Zhengyi. Tieh started to panic, and he could sense Fu An was doing the same. His eyes darted among the imposing strangers. There was no way out now.
Tieh whipped out his knife and swung at the woman who had spoken before. She produced a chain and wrapped it around his arm, intercepting the blow. In a flash, she wrapped another length of the chain around his neck, forcing him to the ground in a combination choke-hold and arm-lock. She placed a foot on the back of his shoulder, straining the joint. Tieh never expected these people to be so well-trained. He had been out of his league from the beginning.
Fu An had drawn his weapon, but had seen his friend get taken down before he had even advanced a step. He turned and sprinted for help, but one of the strangers, an odd-looking man with facial piercings, fired water from the skeins strapped to his back, trapping Fu An in rings of ice. The boy tumbled to the ground in mid-stride. The man formed a fearsome-looking claw out ice around his hand and advanced on Fu An.
"Aguta! Wait!" the woman barked. The man shot her a venomous look, but obeyed. The woman tightened her chain around Tieh's neck. "Tell me where the Avatar is, or I'll turn this guy loose on your little friend," she hissed.
Tieh wasn't about to risk the life of one of his real friends—or his own—for someone he didn't even like. It wasn't like he even had a choice at this point. He was sure this woman was about to strangle him.
Shuurai loosened her chain as she heard him trying to rasp something out. "Yuh's daahter," he wheezed. "With Yuh's daughter. At the Shi Wan delta."
Shuurai released him. "Take us there."
Tieh rose to his knees, propping himself up with one hand while he rubbed his neck with the other. "Wait," he panted. "I can get you close to him." He gulped, still recovering. "But you have to leave Yuh's daughter alone."
Shuurai eyed him. Then she turned to Aguta. "Let the other one go," she said. "We can use them." Aguta grumbled, but liquefied the rings trapping Fu An's body and bent them back into his skeins.
"It's been almost two days," Fung complained to Su as they walked down a market street near the town square and the sun began to set. "We need to do something. I don't want those drugs getting to Ba Sing Se. Not when I could have done something to stop it," she said. "Come on, I thought you were the one with the plans."
"I know, I know. Wu doesn't need any more money either," Su said, appearing to browse the stalls, though she was actually deep in thought. "Zhengyi won't listen to either of us. He's loyal to Heng because he remembers her fondly, and because of how drastically his life has changed recently, he clings to those memories and feelings. We can't leave while he insists on staying here, but we can't just play along with him and deliver a few hundred taels-worth of gold pieces right into Wu's hands. What we need is a way to make him see that Heng can't help him. That girl thinks she's a righteous outlaw, but if she had spent any time around people like Wu and the Mountain Masters in Ba Sing Se she would realize she's just playing gangster. She's powerless against Wu at best. The question is, how to make that clear to Zhengyi?"
Fung almost wanted to just come right out and suggest that the two of them move on to the next town, maybe meet with Zhengyi later when he was done doing...whatever he was doing. Fung could tell Su was right about Zhengyi wanting to relive memories with that girl. She was sure he was staying for that reason at least as much as to learn magnetism. He's probably trying to get with her too, that jerk.
"Do you know who I am?" a voice suddenly roared from a teahouse they happened to be passing by. An old man stumbled out, spilling a tray of food to the ground. A young man wearing expensive-looking clothes and a decorated sword emerged, followed by two other well-dressed men. "You think you can assault a member of the Yumsoon-Han family and get away with it?" he screamed at the crawling man.
"Please, I didn't mean to!" the old man stammered. "It was an accident, young master, I swear! I didn't mean to spill the tea on you!"
"How do you intend to make amends, old man?" the Yumsoon-Han member sneered.
The man kowtowed, pressing his forehead into the dirt. "My most abject apologies! I can only—"
"Grab him," the Yumsoon-Han told his cohorts, not letting the man finish.
"Have mercy!" the old man whimpered as the Yumsoon-Han retainers each grabbed one of his arms and dragged him back towards the teahouse.
"All right, all right," the Yumsoon-Han man said calmly. The old man sighed in relief. "I'll just take a finger." The old man's expression dropped again. The two retainers pressed his front against the side of the teahouse, while one of them also pressed his left arm and hand against it, splaying the fingers. "I've been wanting to try this sword out," the Yumsoon-Han said, drawing the blade from its scabbard and admiring it.
As he raised the sword, he felt his arm twist behind his back until the torque forced him to drop his weapon. He found himself flipped backwards over someone's back with his arm as the lever. Fung stood over him. She had flipped him without using her injured arm. "You're going to cut off his finger for spilling a drink on you?" she asked, almost more surprised than outraged at his arrogance.
The Yumsoon-Han didn't answer, but just pushed himself up and began throwing punches at Fung. She stepped around two, careful of her shoulder. As his momentum carried him forward she spun and kicked the inside of his knee as she hit him in the neck with her good forearm, sending him to the ground again.
One of the Yumsoon-Han retainers grabbed her good arm, but she twisted it inside his and kicked him in the chest, pushing him away. However, the second retainer threw a roundhouse kick right into her hurt arm just then. It caught her several inches below the shoulder, but jostled her arm enough to hurt badly. She fell to her knees, but the retainer quickly grabbed her ponytail and yanked her up again.
Ying Su gave a disappointed sigh, then rushed into the fight. She would have preferred to avoid a problem with the Yumsoon-Hans. She had seen worse things in the Hei Chouliu than an old man losing one finger, but of course Fung wouldn't let an injustice like that go.
Su ran into the fight, first feinting by swiping her sleeve across the face of the man holding Fung, then following up with a real spinning chop with her other and, and then a spinning kick. He went down.
The other retainer drew his sword and lunged at Fung. Her arm hurt so much she could barely fight. She could only back away from the swipes of the sword.
Su stepped over, drawing the retainer's attention. He thrust at her but she sidestepped it and caught the pommel, twisting it out of his hand. She disarmed his right hand, but he was smart enough to drop the sword and throw an elbow with his left arm before she could twist his arm too much. Su took his elbow in her chest. She fell, but rolled and recovered quickly.
Unfortunately, the Yumsoon-Han man and his first retainer had recovered too. Both had taken back their swords and were holding them out in a guard stance, advancing on Fung and Su. They were trapped, unable to do anything as the second retainer picked his sword up as well. "If we get out of this," Su whispered to Fung, a bit condescendingly, "remind me to have a talk with you about why you shouldn't act as a defender of the weak when you have a serious shoulder injury and no one to help you."
Suddenly, and arrow struck the guard of the Yumsoon-Han's sword, forcing him to drop it. More arrows immediately struck the ground in front of each of the retainers, stopping their advance. A cloaked figure rushed forward, brandishing a recurve bow like a staff. She struck one of the retainers across the face with it before he knew what hit him. She followed up with a knee to his stomach and an elbow to his back as he doubled over. The other retainer swung at her, but she parried with the bow and struck him in the throat and philtrum with a small object in her other hand. He fell over, coughing roughly.
She moved to the Yumsoon-Han, disarming him with strikes to his wrist and elbow, and then twisting him into a kneeling hold. She pressed the object—which Fung and Su now saw was a five-inch wooden cylinder like a dowel—into the man's neck just behind the collar bone. He winced in pain. He attempted to reach for his sword. "Don't," the girl warned, pressing the dowel harder and forcing the man to growl in pain. "Don't."
"Do you know who you're messing with, you little brat?" the man snarled through gritted teeth.
"You are Tu Mo Haishi Yumsoon-Han, son of Ma Su-an Taiming Yumsoon-Han and nephew of Shibu Dingfeng Yumsoon-Han, one of Earth King Jinling's royal censors," the girl stated. "You live in the Yumsoon-Han ancestral manor in Chen Shi Wan. Your personal suite is located in the second side house back from the gate on the left. Some of the latticework on the second window from the left on the front of the house is rotted at the corner. It could easily be broken and an intruder who knew her way around could silently fire a poisoned dart into anyone occupying the bed in that room." Tu Mo's eyes had widened and drifted up to the hooded figure who stood over him. "Now take your men and go back there. And don't bother these people again." She removed the dowel from his neck and released him from the hold. He gave her a dirty look, but ran off after a moment, followed by his cohorts.
The girl turned to Fung and Su. "Thank you," Su bowed. Her eyes were narrow when she raised her head. "Who are you?"
"Call me Fa. I'm here because I can help your situation with the Avatar." She spoke quickly. "You may remember Louen Heng's boyfriend, Chang Tieh. She sent him to break off her organizations contract with the Ban clan of Ba Sing Se, but I happen to know that he failed to do this upon encountering Ban clan agents." She made eye contact with Su. "Meaning you were right about Miss Louen being incompetent. Now, I can expose her to the Avatar, but I need you to help me get close to him."
"How do you know all this?" Su asked suspiciously.
"I'm with the Ba Sing Se city guard," the girl replied. "I've been investigating Chen Shi Wan and the smuggling operation for months. Now I'm ready to shut it down, but I need the Avatar's help."
"Aren't you a little young to be a city guard?" Su asked. Her tone was much less cheerful than it was when she had first thanked the girl.
"That's why the smugglers would never suspect me," Fa said.
"So why would a member of the city guard assault a member of one of the most prominent families in Ba Sing Se?" Su pressed further.
"Because you're more useful to me than he is. My goal is to stop the smugglers, not to let the nobles run amok."
"You put your duty to the people above sucking up to the nobles? Doesn't sound like any guardsman I ever heard of," Su quipped.
Fa rolled her eyes. "Very funny. Now do you want my help or not?"
This girl didn't miss a beat in concocting these cover stories, but still, Su was sure that's what they were—stories. But she knew nothing about this girl yet. The girl was obviously well trained in different forms of combat, and apparently had some sort of training in memorization or observation—perhaps not unlike Su's own skills. Su knew this Fa would be a dangerous enemy either way, but just refusing her help would turn her against them and make her an enemy anyway. But if they allowed Fa close to them, Su might be able to figure out the girl's real motivations, which would give Su leverage against her if she proved to be an adversary. And where this girl fought with arrows and wooden pegs (apparently), Su's weapon of choice was leverage. If she had an ulterior motive it might be dangerous to allow her around Zhengyi and the others, which seemed to be her goal. But this girl seemed be just as dangerous from a distance, and if Su accepted her help it would at least let her keep an eye on Fa. Su knew first-hand the truth of the old saying about keeping enemies close.
Plus, there was the remote chance that she honestly wanted to help. But Su knew never to count on that.
"All right," Su said. "We need to get Zhengyi away from the smugglers. Fung," she said, turning to the injured girl, "we're going to have to pretend we've changed our minds about helping the smugglers, but before any drugs actually ship Fa will show Zhengyi that Heng broke her promise and didn't change the order. Is that right, Fa?"
Fa nodded. "When Mr. Chang returns, he's going to try to get Zhengyi alone. They're particularly going to try to separate him from Heng. If we press them on why they want to do this in front of the others we'll catch them in a lie."
"Why are they going to try to do that?" Fung asked.
"There are four assassins sent by the Ban clan on their way here right now," Fa replied, "including a man you may know by the name of Aguta. Tieh agreed to sell Zhengyi out to them for Heng's safety."
Su and Fung's faces flashed into urgent expressions. "All right, we need to go now," Su said. She and Fung took off in a rapid walk. With a quick adjustment of her quiver and some other gear, Fa followed.
"Zhengyi!" Su cried, arriving at the threshold of Heng's hut. "Where's Zhengyi?"
"Su?" Zhengyi asked, walking around from the back of the hut. "Relax," he said curtly. "I'm right here. Why'd you come back? Gonna lecture me again?" He stopped in front of her and crossed his arms.
Su was comforted by the sight of Chu and Heng following Zhengyi from behind the hut. Zhengyi hadn't been left alone.
Su calmed herself. "We've changed our minds about helping Heng."
"That was fast," Zhengyi said, incredulous. "Why do you want to help all of a sudden?"
"I realized, as much as it would hurt Wu to have his main source of income completely removed, it would be more of a blow if he were to find that income spread among his enemies in the other clans. Even if Heng just went into business for herself, I'm sure it would drive him crazy if he found out he was outdone by a little girl—no offense, Heng," Su said, throwing in an apology for the reductive term. "I just weighed our options. Fung agrees."
Fung nodded resolutely.
Zhengyi thought it did seem like something Su would do—weigh options, take time to plan and then decide. He was less sure about Fung, but from what he had seen she tended to defer to Su's judgment, even more than he did.
"So who's this?" Heng asked of the unknown girl beside them.
"This is—" Su began.
"Fa," Fa interrupted. "I'm just a traveler looking for work here. I ran into Miss Ying and Miss Xin and they said they could introduce me to someone who could give me a job."
Heng noticed Fa's bow. "What do you do, security stuff?"
Fa grinned. "Pretty much."
Fa, Heng, and Su suddenly took notice of the tamping of feet coming down the road. They all looked to see Tieh returning. He was hustling down the road, slightly out of breath. "Hey Heng," he said as he approached. He tried to peck her on the cheek, but she moved her head, having none of it. "You broke off the contract?" she asked sternly.
"Of course," Tieh smiled. "Me and Fu An had to smack him around a little. And of course he threatened reprisals, but I doubt that'll happen."
"I'd like to see them try to get Ban fighters past the Yumsoon-Han patrols," Heng said, softening her expression toward Tieh. Su could barely restrain herself from clapping her palm over her face in exasperation at the girl's naïveté.
Tieh turned to the three women. "What are they doing back?" he asked.
"They changed their minds about working with us," Heng told him. "We were about to decide whether to let them into the organization." She looked to Zhengyi.
"It's up to you. It's your operation," he replied.
Heng was mainly concerned with what would please Zhengyi. She liked having her old friend around, and his skill and loyalty were a great boon to her organization. Even though he seemed to be annoyed with them now, Heng thought letting them in would be a good conciliatory gesture toward Zhengyi. Besides, they already knew a lot about her operation, and it would be better to keep them close.
"Well I trust you," she told Zhengyi, "and I think you've known them long enough that we can trust them." Heng wrapped her hand around her opposite fist as she faced Su and the others, but bowed only slightly. "I know you might still feel a little uncomfortable, but please believe me that you are helping a lot of people in this village by working with us."
Su returned the gesture. "Well, we hope so," she said earnestly.
"Now to figure out where to put you guys," Heng said. "We can always use more enforcers, so Fa, you can work with Tieh. Now, with you two," she said to Fung and Su, "I'd like to use your experience with the Ban clan somehow...."
Tieh turned to Zhengyi as she spoke. "Hey, Zhengyi, look," he said, sounding sheepish, "I wanted to apologize for hitting you. I was a jerk, and I shouldn't have hit a clan brother."
Zhengyi was a little surprised. He hadn't really expected this, from Tieh, especially since he had begun to acknowledge to himself that he might actually be developing feelings for Heng. He still didn't like Tieh, but Zhengyi liked to think he knew a thing or two about girls, and he was confident that he could let Tieh drive Heng into his arms with his boorish behavior sooner or later. That is, as long as he didn't look like a bigger jerk by doing something like refusing an apology. He had seen how their fighting had upset Heng earlier, so he wasn't about to instigate another one. He kept his aloof expression, as though he were doing Tieh a favor by accepting his apology. "Okay," Zhengyi said, "just don't do it again. That hurt, ya know," he said, conceding a little smile and touching his nose.
"Yeah, I'm real sorry," Tieh said. "But I'm pretty much Heng's bodyguard too, not just her boyfriend. I'm not used to having new people around her all of a sudden. Well, that's no excuse, but I hope you can understand."
"Yeah, okay," Zhengyi conceded. "But like she said, we're just friends," he lied. "We've known each other for a long time. Sworn brothers aren't supposed to fight over girls anyway."
"Exactly," Tieh said. "How about you and I go up the Rus' place? I'll buy you a drink."
"Yeah, okay," Zhengyi said. "Let's see what Heng says."
"Uh, I actually meant just you and me. If we're going to be working together, I think we oughta try hanging out without her around, you know?"
Zhengyi didn't think Tieh would try to pick a fight against the Avatar with no backup. And he could definitely take him if he did. He didn't see a problem taking him up on his offer. "All right, sure," he agreed.
"Cool," Tieh said. "Hey Heng," he addressed her. She was still talking with Fung, Fa, and Su about how they could help. "I'm taking Zhengyi up to the Rus' to patch things up. We'll be back in a few hours."
"Oh, good," Heng smiled. "You two ought to get along. Chu and I will talk with Su and Fung about how to deal with the Ban clan."
"Why don't you go with them, Heng?" Su said. "We'll be fine here. Chu can catch us up."
"Well, they sort of had a fight earlier," Heng explined. "No one got hurt, but I think Tieh's right. They ought to talk without me around."
"Nah," Su said, waving a hand. "Go with you're friends. It's fine."
Tieh clenched his jaw unconsciously. He felt he might start sweating. "No, I want to discuss things with you two," Heng said. She turned to Zhengyi and Tieh. "Hey, you could take Fu An though. Where is he anyway?"
Tieh shrugged casually. "Went home," he said.
"All right, don't worry about it. You guys go ahead," she said, turning back to Su, intending to begin a conversation about the Ban clan.
"Why do you want him alone, Mr. Chang?" Fa said pointedly, bringing everyone else to a halt.
"What?" Tieh replied. Fa was already sensing shifts in his tone, eye movement, and breathing that gave away his deceit.
"Why are you so insistent that you and he go alone?" she asked again, icily.
"Heng told you. What, do you think I'm tryin' to kiss 'im or something?" Tieh protested, trying a joke.
"Tell them what really happened when you met the Ban contact," she pressed him further.
"I beat him up and sent him packing!" Tieh shouted. "Who do you think you are anyway?"
"Tell them about Aguta and the other mercenaries," she said.
"Aguta?" Zhengyi interjected.
"Tell him, Tieh," Fung added. "We know." This was anther instance where Su might have preferred a less direct confrontation, but she couldn't have let Zhengyi alone under any circumstances. She thought she might have to rethink her decision to hang around unstable teenagers so much though.
"Who's Aguta? What are you talking about?" Tieh roared.
"You never broke off the contract," Fa said. "You and Fu An encountered four Ban clan mercenaries when you went to meet Lai-fo. You offered to bring the Avatar to them in exchange for Heng's safety."
"Oh, right," Tieh sneered. "Meaning Heng doesn't know how to run her organization, which is conveniently what you two said in the first place," he said, pointing to Su and Fung. "See, Heng? They're lying. They don't want to help us. They never trusted you. They just made up some story about me helping the Ban clan. They just want Zhengyi back with them. They're trying to break up the smuggling operation."
Before any of the women could protest further, Zhengyi broke in. "I knew it!" he said. "You guys never trusted Heng. You never even gave her a chance. You judged her," he said to Fung, "and you flat-out dismissed her," he told Su. "Heng runs her clan just fine! Wasn't it enough to just turn your backs on a clan sister? You have to come back and lie to my face about her? Just leave or go back to Ba Sing Se or whatever you want to do. I'm staying here with my real friends. At least Heng and the Chen Shi Wan smugglers understand loyalty."
Su was frightened for Zhengyi's life. She dropped all pretense. "We're not lying! You're in danger! Wu sent assassins, just like I said! They're in the town now!"
"Then I want my real friends at my side, not people like you! Just get out of here!" Zhengyi said, waving his hand and stomping into Heng's hut. Fu Shan looked up the three women sadly, but turned and followed his friend inside.
Heng remained outside. She looked angry, and a little hurt. Perhaps something in her did care what Su thought of her. "I think you should leave," Heng said calmly, "before I have to call my enforcers to escort you out of town."
Heng had a lot of people at her disposal. The three women knew it was no use to try and fight the whole town. Su knew Fa and Fung were already thinking about how to progress with their original plan of waiting elsewhere and keeping tabs on the Avatar. Before they turned to go, Su made eye contact with Chu in a very grave stare and nodded twice, slowly and deliberately. Chu made a brief nod of acknowledgement back to her. "I—I'm with Zhengyi!" he announced, and bounded into the hut rather hurriedly.
Heng and Tieh watched the three head back up the hill. "Well..." Tieh sighed. He put an arm across Heng's shoulder. "Forget it, babe," he said, stroking her arm. "We have the Avatar on our side now. Everything will be okay from now on."
Heng turned and gave him a brief but soft kiss. "Thanks," she said.
Heng went and collected Shen Kuo from behind the hut where he was playing, and then joined the others inside. Zhengyi was just sitting at the table, pouting with his chin in his hand. He does brood a lot, Heng thought briefly. "Are you all right?" she asked him.
Zhengyi grunted, then puffed out some air. "Yeah..." he sighed.
"Shen Kuo, big brother Zhengyi is sad," Heng said enthusiastically to the toddler in her arms. "Cheer him up. Do nice-nice," she urged. Shen Kuo reached down and started touching Zhengyi's head with an open palm, something between a pet and a slap. Heng giggled. "Do nice-nice," she repeated. Zhengyi chuckled lightly. Chu and Tieh smiled too.
"What do you think?" Tieh asked. "Still want that drink?"
"Eh..." he muttered, toggling his hand to indicate his indifference.
"That's okay. With them gone, I need to talk to you guys about setting up contacts in Ba Sing Se," Heng said, setting Shen Kuo down to play with Fu Shan. "Got any ideas?"
Zhengyi looked at Chu with a cocky smile. "Think we have any ins with the Tong clan?" he joked.
Chu chuckled a little. "Not likely," he said.
"Well that sounds like a story," Heng said. "What happened with you guys and the Tong clan?"
Zhengyi and Chu recounted the story to them, each adding bits of their own point of view by turns. Zhengyi had some choice things to say about Fung and Su, after what had just happened, but Chu tried to ameliorate their images in the story. They helped each other form the narrative, and Chu even got in some jokes that made Zhengyi and the others laugh. It was the first time he had really seen Zhengyi soften this much, and the first time he thought his decision to stay with him in Chen Shi Wan was starting to pay off. Zhengyi took Fu Shan in his arms during the course of the story and comforted himself by stroking his animal guide. He started to feel better about an hour later, when the story was finished.
"I'd better put Shen Kuo to bed," Heng said, noting the fading light outside. The sun had almost set.
Tieh seemed impressed by the exploits Zhengyi described in the story. "You know, that got me thinking," he said. "You might be able to help with something I noticed about the formation of the delta," he told Zhengyi. "It could make the huts here vulnerable. Let me show you. Maybe we can figure out some kind of defense with your help."
"Is it far?" Zhengyi said, standing up. He didn't relish the awkwardness of spending time alone with his romantic rival, but Heng would definitely like it better if he acted cooperative.
"Not really," Tieh replied. "Maybe fifteen minutes."
"All right," he said, following Tieh out the door. Fu Shan scampered out after his friend.
Tieh made conversation with Zhengyi as the walked past the water, mostly about fighting. He asked several questions about bending and fighting against benders, explaining that he might expect the Avatar to have some special insight. "You got a lot of enemies being the Avatar though, don't you? The whole Ban clan, now the Tong clan... Boy."
"Yeah, it's not all it's cracked up to be," Zhengyi replied.
"Do you ever worry about your friends?" Tieh asked. "That you're bringing trouble to them?"
Zhengyi grunted. "Heng's my only friend. Chu and that girl I came with can leave whenever they want. They probably ought to."
"I was talking about Heng," Tieh said. His tone became slower, more serious. "You know, I don't like you that much, but I could have tolerated you for Heng's sake. But I can't let you put her in danger."
Zhengyi barely had time to wonder why Tieh had started talking like this when a geyser of water burst out of the river and struck him. It threw him to the ground. He opened his eyes just in time to roll out of the way as a chúi held by a massive man smashed down where his head had been. Zhengyi delivered a sharp kick to the man's hand and struck the earth under his own body with both his hands, causing it to incline until it pushed him up to a standing position. He threw a punch right into the side of Junren's face, but it seemed to have no effect. In fact, Zhengyi was surprised to find he had hurt his own hand, and he shook it in pain as he withdrew it. He felt several small pricking sensations in his arm, and looking down saw several needles sticking out of it. He brushed them off as an old man wearing spectacles and a bandana over his face lunged at Zhengyi, striking with his second knuckes, the way Wu had done before when he had blocked Zhengyi's chi. Zhengyi was flustered but dodged, warding the man off with fire blasts. He spun and saw Aguta fire off a barrage of icicles. Zhengyi erected a wall of earth just in time. The icicles stuck in its surface. "Fu Shan, get help!" he cried. Fu Shan skittered off, back towards Heng's hut.
"Where's Fu An?" Tieh said.
"We tied him up and left him on the road, just north of the gate. I'm sure the guards will find him before any animals do," she grinned, sprinting toward Zhengyi.
She ran past Aguta and scaled Zhengyi's improvised wall using the icicles as steps. She vaulted over it and blasted fireballs at him as she leapt through the air. Landing, she produced a whipchain and struck at him with it. Zhengyi avoided its lash, and let it wrap around his forearm to gain control of it. As he struggled with her Junren came at him from the side. He quickly popped a large rock out of the ground and kicked it at him. The woman continued the tug-of-war over the chain, and Zhengyi quickly realized she was winning. He called two more rocks out of the ground and dropped them on to the chain, preventing her from pulling on it. Zhengyi freed himself. He was already exhausted, but Aguta was already beginning another attack. Zhengyi called out to Tieh, cursing him, but Tieh had already retreated, waiting in the distance for Wu's hunters to finish the Avatar.
"You know, that story got me thinking," Heng said to Chu as she finished bundling her brother down for the night, "that you could really help out with keeping the inventory count straight. The revenue numbers too."
"I guess I could do that, but how are you keeping track now?" Chu asked. "You must have someone doing that already."
"Yeah, we keep our records okay, but most of my people can't even read. Even I only know basic arithmetic. But with you on the team we could restructure our inventory and pricing system as needed to compensate for daily changes in the market back in Ba Sing Se."
Suddenly Chu's ears pricked up. "Do you hear rumbling? Like earthbending?" he asked Heng.
"Tieh said he might ask Zhengyi to show him some techniques or spar. It must be that," she said, shrugging it off. Then she snapped her fingers. "Oh, actually you should teach my people math. Then we could have a bunch of people keeping the books instead of just one," Heng said, smiling at the sudden insight. Chu was barely paying attention to her at this point, sure something was going on with Zhengyi. Heng continued to be awash in bright ideas. "And you could teach their kids too. Oh, the parents would like that. That would reinforce their loyalty. You know, the Yumsoon-Hans don't make any effort to provide education to the peasants, so if I—"
Suddenly Fu Shan appeared in the hut, pacing and making pained mews. Momentarily it bit Chu's pant leg, tugging him.
"Zhengyi's in trouble!" Chu said. "I knew it! Fu Shan wouldn't leave him otherwise!"
Heng hadn't even considered the possibility Zhengyi could be in danger in her town. Chu had kept his guard up a bit, but she had paid absolutely no mind to the claims that girl had made about Tieh. She was very surprised by this turn of events. "What?" she said
"Something's wrong. You go find him, I'll get Su and Fung," Chu ordered, zipping out of the hut.
Chu ran up the road toward the town square as fast as he could, trying to keep pace with Fu Shan. Fortunately, Su and Fung had been expecting this and had not gone far. Still, Chu was panting by the time he got to them.
As soon as Su saw the frantic, winded boy, she knew what had happened. "Chu? Zhengyi's in trouble, isn't he? Tieh got him alone, right?" Chu nodded. "Where are they?"
"I don't know," Chu huffed. "They're on the bank somewhere, past Heng's hut."
"It's gotta be some of Wu's people. Let's go," Su said, taking off.
For a minute, Fung caught herself thinking Why should we help? But there was no time for a debate like that. Zhengyi had treated her badly, but if he really was being attacked by assassins sent by Wu, like Su had predicted earlier, then he could be in serious danger, and she wasn't about to let him die. She took off after Su.
"Where's that other girl?" Chu asked, running alongside Su.
"She just left. Said she had to see to something," Fung answered.
Heng ran down the bank of the delta in the direction Zhengyi and Tieh had gone. She saw Zhengyi fending off four people. Tieh was walking away from the scene, coming towards her. She ran up to him. "What's going on?" she cried.
"It's all right," he said, taking her hand. He took her hand as though he were going to hold it, and Heng thought he was going to try to comfort her. But spun behind her, forcing her arm behind her back and kicking her in the back of one of her knees, dropping her into a kneeling position. He immediately produced a sash and bound her hands together behind her back.
"What are you doing?" she screamed, thrashing.
"This is for your own good, Heng. I'm doing this for you."
"You did make a deal with the Ban clan!" Heng realized. "It's just like that girl said!"
"I did it for you, Heng!" he yelled back. "Look!" He grabbed her head, forcing her watch Zhengyi battling the four hunters. "The Ban clan sent them! You want to mess with the Ban clan? You want to cut off their main plant supplier just 'cuz some stranger asked you to? This is what happens! And that's just four Ban clan agents. Do you think you could stop them if they wanted to shut us down, or kill you? I had to make a deal with them to undo your mistake!"
Heng thrashed more and swore at him. "Once they kill Zhengyi they'll leave us alone. You'll thank me for this later, Heng," Tieh said. He pushed her over and grabbed her legs, attempting to bind them with another piece of cloth.
Heng couldn't move her wrists, but she flexed her fingers, calling a small mass of rock out of the ground to strike Tieh. As Tieh recoiled, Heng rolled and moved her leg, summoning another sharp mass of rock. She sat up as it burst through the ground, cutting the sash that tied her wrists. She leapt up. "Thank this!" she spat as she stamped the ground and kicked a rock right into Tieh's chest. He hit the ground and rolled. Heng rotated her stance ninety degrees to one side as she swung her fists in a circle in front of her. A mass of earth rose up and fell on Tieh, pummeling him to the ground. Heng rotated her feet the other way and repeated the motion, burying Tieh up to his neck in another wave of earth. Tieh struggled to free himself, shaking his head and cursing Heng. Noticing his head was now conveniently located at foot-level, Heng kicked him square in the face and ran to help Zhengyi.
Heng rushed over, calling Zhengyi's name. As she ran to get to him she leapt in the air and executed a forward flip. She called three rocks out of the ground with her landing, and quickly sent them each toward a different attacker with three separate kicks.
"Heng! Watch out!" Zhengyi called, riding an earthen wave as he blasted flames at the large man. "They're Wu's guys!"
Heng noticed the woman making a circular motion with her hands just in time. She somersaulted away just as a flash of blue lightning leapt toward her. "Woah," she breathed. She sent a column of rock speeding towards the woman. Shuurai shattered it with the whipchain she wielded. Heng fired several more at the woman, only to have them all shattered.
Suddenly Aguta swore as an arrow caught him in the arm. A barrage of arrows fell near the other three hunters, stifling their movements. Fa emerged from the nearby reeds, with her bow drawn and an arrow nocked. She held her weapon in a way Zhengyi had never seen before: she held a bundle of eight arrows in the pinky of her left hand, against the bow itself. She held the bow drawn with the thumb of her left hand.
As Fa stared down the hunters, Shuurai noticed shouts coming form the direction of the huts, barely a half-mile away. She could see them in the distance, and the villagers gathering near them and starting to mobilize. "They're flanking us!" Shuurai barked to her comrades, assuming Fa also had some backing her up. Shuurai knew she and the others were powerful, but they would have a hard time fighting dozens of armed villagers as well as the Avatar. "Stay on them! I'll trash the huts to make a distraction!" She took off running, leaving Fa, Zhengyi, and Heng to the others. Heng immediately chased after Shuurai, realizing her people were in danger.
At Chu's urging, the villagers were arming and beginning to gather outside their huts, preparing to help Heng and Zhengyi. Shuurai fell upon their homes before they could react, firing balls of flame into them. In a matter of seconds several of the wood-and-straw huts were burning, and the villagers panicked at the sight of their homes being engulfed. Heng caught up to Shuurai just as she lobbed a fireball into Heng's hut through the door. "Shen Kuo!" Heng shrieked, redoubling her speed and bounding straight into her now burning house.
Zhengyi, with fireblasts of his own and help from Fa's bow, was able to put some distance between himself and the other hunters and rush after Heng, with Fa following. He shouted her name as he saw her rush into the burning hut. The fire crackled loudly as a piece of the straw roof tumbled down. Just in time, Heng burst through the doorway in a flying leap. She landed in a crouch, slowly uncurling her body to reveal Shen Kuo, crying emphatically, but safe in his sister's arms.
As Zhengyi took in the destruction around him, he started to realize that it was all because Wu's people had tracked him to Chen Shi Wan. He had brought them here.
Fa, catching up behind Zhengyi, looked around and noticed some of the small punt boats beached nearby. "Zhengyi, they're after you," she said urgently, giving voice to Zhengyi's own concerns. "Get in one of the boats; we'll draw them off." Zhengyi took notice of the boats as well. He yelled curses at Shuurai to get her attention, adding a sarcastic invitation to try and fight him again.
Heng saw Zhengyi about to depart and leapt into the boat with him, still carrying her brother. "Go!" she said. Zhengyi began to rotate his arms at the shoulders, bending the water at the stern of the boat in order to propel it forward at great speed.
Shuurai jumped into another boat, joined momentarily by Aguta, Dr. Teng, and Junren, who had caught up to Zhengyi. Aguta did the same as Zhengyi, driving the boat forward with waterbending.
The two crafts were now engaged in a high-speed chase, flying down the Shi Wan River. They were moving so fast their bows constantly kicked up a light spray. Zhengyi attempted to navigate the boat around the curves and twists of the river. Heng helped him, crying out "Left! Bank more!" Shuurai stood at the prow of the hunters' boat, launching a barrage of fireballs at her fleeing quarry, hoping if not to hit them, at least to throw off their steering and make them crash. Fa returned fire with her arrows.
Zhengyi whipped the boat around a curve and the river suddenly grew more narrow, the banks steeper. He almost fell off as the keel barely scraped some obstruction under the water and jostled all aboard. Heng caught notice of a tree hanging over the river, some of its roots emerging from the steep bank. "Fa, hold him!" she called over the whipping wind, handing Shen Kuo over to the other girl. "I'm gonna end this!" She carefully stood up in the boat. As the hunters' boat rounded the curve, Heng took a deep stance and reached out her arms, drawing them back toward her body with great effort. The earth slid out from under the tree, bringing it crashing down on to the hunters' boat. Zhengyi saw them scream and dive off, so he did not stop propelling his own boat for several minutes.
Finally exhausted, he landed the boat on a sandy bank. He stumbled off of it and collapsed on to his hands and knees, panting. Heng did the same, taking a seat on a rock. She saw that this one of the places where her people secretly grew dai zhiwu. Clusters of the plants were scattered all along the bank. Fa placed Shen Kuo on the ground, and he scampered over to Heng, burying his head in her side to calm himself. Heng patted his head.
Fa took a few breaths herself, then whipped another cluster of arrows out of her quiver and fired straight for the Avatar's head.
Heng raised an earthen wall just in time. The arrow thudded into it. "What are you doing?" she cried.
Fa wheeled and fired at her. Heng raised shielding rock formation to cover herself and her brother. Fa bolted around the wall toward Zhengyi firing one, two, three arrows at him. Due to her unorthodox method of holding the arrows she was able to fire them incredibly fast, every two seconds or so. Zhengyi sprang out of the way, rolled, and fired off a rock that caught the third arrow.
"My name is Cai Fa," she announced, nocking her next arrow and circling Zhengyi, "daughter of Cai Di of the Ba Sing Se City Guard. My father's life's work was to bring the Ban clan to justice. In order to do this he developed a new method of police work. He joined the clan under an assumed identity, and worked his way up until he joined Ban Ti Xi's inner circle." The girl was glaring at Zhengyi venomously, but spoke coolly and directly. His eyes locked on to hers at the mention of his father's name. He had never before heard of any such incident as the one Fa described. "But he was found out," she continued. "His identity as a guardsman was exposed. So the clan eliminated him." She paused, drawing in a deep breath. She saw the Avatar down the shaft of an arrow, but still looked deep into his eyes. "Ban Ti Xi tied my father to a chair and cut his throat." She loosed her arrow.
It flew off in a curve to the left. It hit the ground and skittered across a few feet to a spot on the ground where Heng's fingers penetrated it. She was kneeling over the ground with her hand thrust in. She rose with a grin.
"Magnetized the ground," Fa observed.
"Ya like that?" Heng sneered.
"Not really," Fa huffed, putting the rest of her arrows, now mostly useless, into her quiver. She rushed at Heng with her bow. Heng sent a tremor towards her, but Fa sprang off it expertly. Heng was already firing off a rock at her. Fa knocked it away with her bow, whipped the bow around her body like a staff and knocked away the next rock. She landed a side kick on Heng's hip, then spun around to throw a reverse kick. Heng caught her leg and threw her to the ground. Fa fell, but quickly swept Heng's own legs out from under her, dropping her to the same position. They began to grapple, rolling back and forth over each other. Heng pressed her palm into Fa's cheek, grinding the other side of her face into the dirt. Fa freed her arm and smashed her fist into the side of Heng's face. As Heng recoiled Fa was able to stand.
Fa's fight was with the Avatar, and she needed a way to get this girl out of the picture. She saw her way in Heng's young brother. Fa sprinted over and grabbed him by the front of his shirt. As Heng and Zhengyi advanced carefully on her, Heng held the screaming toddler aloft. "Louen Heng," she called, "stand down or I'll throw him in the river!"
Heng froze. "Don't hurt him," she pleaded, keeping her voice calm, since she was unsure of what Fa might do to her brother. "He's just a baby. He's not a threat to you." She slowly extended her arm. "Please don't hurt my brother."
Fa looked at the boy she held. She turned to Heng. "The Ban Clan is very selective as to whom they show mercy." She heaved Shen Kuo into the river.
Heng screamed his name and immediately dove in after him. Fa and Zhengyi locked eyes again. Fa leapt at him and swung her bow. Zhengyi sidestepped it and threw a flaming punch. Fa flourished her cloak across her body, dissipating the flames. Taking advantage of the brief visual distraction of the cloak's movement, Fa hammered her foot down on the side of Zhengyi's knee. He sank to his knees and in a flash she had the concave side of her bow pressing on his throat. She was garroting him with the bow. A brief acknowledgement of this girl's sheer speed crossed his mind. He had fought some hard-core Hei Chaoliu fighters in the past few weeks, not least of which were those assassins he had been tangling with minutes ago. So far, Fa had hurt him worse than any of them.
Zhengyi's fingers fumbled around at the bow on his throat, but quickly realized it was useless. Fa only pulled the bow tighter. Zhengyi could hear Heng splashing in the river. He could only hope she would be able to save her brother. He was unable to turn his head to see, but behind him Fa plucked an arrow from her quiver and held it in her fist, ready to plunge it into Zhengyi's neck.
Zhengyi knew he had to free himself, but also decided Fa ought to pay for bringing Shen Kuo into this. Feeling his anger, he gathered the earth next to him in a hard shell around his fist and swung behind him, hoping to hit Fa's legs.
Fa leapt back just in time, but was forced to let go of her bow. Zhengyi took one gasp of air, but quickly realized he had no time to recover. Fa rushed back toward him, brandishing the arrow like a dagger. Zhengyi exploded a rock underneath her, but again she sprang away expertly.
"What do you want with us?" Zhengyi roared, throwing another rock.
Fa dodged it. "I've been watching you for a long time, Ban Zhengyi." She glared at him. "I know how you were raised in the Hei Chaoliu. I know how you think. You're willingness to help drug smugglers just confirms it more. An evil Avatar is the worst threat the world has ever seen." She pulled a second arrow out, wielding it in her other hand. She spoke directly, her voice low-key. "I'm going to save the world from you." She lunged at him.
Zhengyi grew angrier, whether it was because of what she had done to Heng and Shen Kuo, or just the threat she had made, he didn't know. He fired off more rocks, but she continued to avoid them and close the distance. She was remarkably agile. Zhengyi transitioned to waterbending, aiming a torrent of water from the river right for her. She rolled to avoid it, but he circled it around and back, turning it into a small loop that began to close around her arms. As fast as he could, Zhengyi compelled the water to freeze. Fa was faster still, breaking the stream with a crescent kick just before the ice could extend from Zhengyi to her. Continuing with the kick's momentum, she spun and nearly drove an arrow into Zhengyi. Just in time, he somersaulted backwards. He noticed she had changed grip on the arrows from forehand to backhand seamlessly. He and Fa had now almost exactly changed positions from where they were a moment ago.
Suddenly they both heard a splash and gasping. Heng had recovered Shen Kuo from the river. The toddler was bawling, but Zhengyi was relieved to hear it, because it meant he had full use of his lungs. Heng was heaving and coughing, but Zhengyi's eyes stayed locked on Fa. He was determined to protect Heng from her.
Immediately the sound of the Avatar's name being called reached them. "Zhengyi! Zhengyi!" It was Su's voice. Those of Chu, Fung and others from the village soon joined it. They were calling for Heng as well.
"Here!" Heng cried, barely finishing the word before she coughed violently. She called back to them again before her voice gave way to a hacking sputter.
Fa looked Zhengyi dead in the eyes again. "Avatar Zhengyi," she addressed him. He realized something obliged him to listen when she spoke, maybe because something in him had hooked on to this incident with both of their fathers. He couldn't be sure at the moment. "I am going to kill you," she said.
Zhengyi's friends and several others landed another of the smuggler's boats a few feet away. Without a waterbender, they hadn't been able to travel nearly as fast as the other two boats.
Mr. Ru was the first one to step off. Hoping to deter the rest of the crowd from pursuing her, Cai Fa whipped an arrow into Mr. Ru's shoulder like a dart. Fa threw the other one into her quiver and sprinted up the river bank. Zhengyi growled and threw one last fireball in her direction. It missed and dissipated, but he thought he discerned some of her silloughette in its light. He turned to tend to Heng, as those villagers who weren't already helping Mr. Ru were doing. One or two tried to follow Cai Fa, but Zhengyi could already tell they would tire long before they caught up to her.
Zhengyi and his friends returned to Heng's hut, to help take care of her and Shen Kuo. The villagers had been delayed in putting the fires out, but apparently they had managed to control them. Many of the huts were in various states of disrepair, like Heng's with its missing roof, but most of the structures were still intact. A few villagers had also stayed behind to hide the incriminating evidence in the huts, and explain to the guards who came down to investigate that the fire was merely an accident.
Heng and her brother both seemed to be okay, but Zhengyi was concerned one or both of them could have swallowed water. If nothing else, they were both exhausted. Shen Kuo didn't stop crying for a while, and Heng was mostly concerned with him. She was fighting sleep, but Zhengyi was kept awake, harrowed by guilt. She finally dozed off when Zhengyi offered to watch over her brother. The rest of the group was staying in Heng's hut as well, and even Fung and Chu had fallen asleep by this time, but Su remained awake like Zhengyi did. She sat on the floor with her back against the wall, directly across from Zhengyi. Zhengyi tried not to meet her gaze, but at one point he noticed her staring at him.
"The plant is still going to Wu," she said, her voice barely audible. She didn't need to be loud. "Next time, you should listen to me."
Zhengyi stared off, but made a very subtle nod that he understood.
"And you realize those bounty hunters are going to continue to come after you," Su said.
Zhengyi looked over to the sleeping Heng and Shen Kuo.
The next morning, Zhengyi told Heng that they had to go. It was almost the first thing he said to her.
Heng did not protest. She understood Zhengyi's reasoning. "I don't know what we're going to do," was her only response.
"I put you in too much danger already," Zhengyi said. He and Heng shared the same sad, resigned tone. "Those people were after me. But you can't stop the shipments to Wu." He understood that the people of Chen Shi Wan needed her, and she couldn't leave to go with him.
"I don't want to keep selling to an oath-breaker," she said. Chu, Fung, and Su were making ready to leave a few yards off. Heng caught a glimpse of them. "Su was right. I don't know what I'm doing."
"Don't put yourself and all the villagers in danger over that," Zhengyi urged, although he couldn't muster any enthusiasm for the order. Obviously they both wished Heng didn't have to keep supplying Wu. "Just keep the shipments going. No one can blame you."
"I think I'll have to keep the shipments going so I can keep a low profile with the clan in Ba Sing Se, but I'm going to try everything I can to find a way around this."
Zhengyi gave her a weak smile. "All right," he said. "What are you going to do with Tieh?"
"He's tied up in the Rus' basement right now. My guys are going to put a few packets of plant in his pockets and leave him outside the guard station tonight. I'm sure they'll take good care of him," she joked half-heartedly. "I heard they picked up Fu An too, so Tieh will still have him to kick around. He'll be getting out of jail around the time I think I'll be able to stand to see his face again."
Zhengyi managed a very small laugh. "After I kill Wu, and his hunters, and I can stay in one place for a while, I'll come back and see you."
Heng nodded. Zhengyi gave her another, stronger smile. He shouldered a pack of food the villagers had given them and turned to get on a boat with the others. He tapped on his leg for Fu Shan to follow after him.
Heng watched them go, poled along in the punt boat by one of her enforcers for few moments, but suddenly ran several steps after them down the riverbank. "The Ban Clan of Chen Shi Wan will serve our true Mountain Master!" she called to Zhengyi, curling her left hand around her right fist in a promissory gesture. Zhengyi stood up and returned the intimation.
Soon the enforcer dropped his five passengers off a short way down the river. Following this tributary, they could get further west, into the Earth Kingdom's interior, and there were a good number of villages along the river in case they needed to resupply.
Fung saw that the place where they had been dropped off was still within the purview of the Chen Shi Wan smugglers, as it was thick with dai zhiwu plants. Trudging through them made Fung bristle with contempt for that reprobate of a girl who had more influence over the Avater than she—a devotee of Jian Lao, practically a spiritual expert—did. As they stepped out of the last of the plants, Fung took her pack off of one shoulder and pulled out a pair of spark rocks. She made two attempts to light them before Zhengyi noticed the clicking noise and turned around to see what it was.
"What are you doing?" he barked.
Fung didn't pause, striking the rocks together again as she growled, "I'm going to burn this crop. You can help your girlfriend sell poison to murderers all you want, but I'm not going to stand—"
Zhengyi snatched the rocks from her hand and with his earthbending, he crushed them to dust in his fist.
Su was already continuing to walk on. Chu sort of looked at the ground sadly, and then followed her. Fung and Zhengyi glared at each other for a moment, but Zhengyi wheeled and followed after the others, flinging the dust of the spark rocks out of his hands like trash. Fung continued to glare at the back of his head, even as she began to walk after him, but no one had the energy to say anything.
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