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This chapter isn't the most exciting, but I hope you'll get a kick out of a few lines.
Everything was pitch black, but I could see faint images of Ming struggling to escape the clutches of Fire Nation soldiers. She stumbled just as she was breaking free and cried for help, but I couldn't move. My muscles were frozen, and I felt sweat dripping down my face as her horrified, tear-filled eyes met mine.
"Ming!" I shouted. The bodies I saw before me vanished, including Ming's, and then I was alone in a cloud of utter darkness.
"Nalia!" I heard my father's voice call. "Nalia, can you hear me? Nalia!"
"Dad! I shrieked back. "Dad, where are you?" I spun around, but the only man I saw was Fire Lord Sozin, about fifteen feet tall with flames blazing around his image. He laughed maniacally and lifted his hands. Before I could get out of the way, he shot a bolt of lightning straight at me.
I woke up screaming. Sitting upright, I panted and wiped sweat from my face, trying to ignore the burning pain in my back. Before I had a chance to calm down, I was immediately caught off guard by my surroundings. I was in a room, not a cell, not an interrogation chamber, but an actual... room... a nice one too. Under me was a soft, inviting bed with a majestic, red, velvet comforter. Across me stood a proud, golden chiffonier with an elegant mirror on the beige wall above it. What stunned me the most was the person I saw in the reflection.
"Is that me?" I asked aloud, astonished. "Damn." I gazed at a woman who underwent a complete transformation from a beat-up prisoner. There were metal braces around my forearms and waist, and I was sporting some sort of athletic jumpsuit. My hair, which I usually let do what it wanted, was braided to look as though I could whip people with it. Did those bastards play dress-up with me? I must have been knocked unconscious by the pain of the branding. I wanted to check the design they scorched into my skin, but there was knocking at the mahogany door.
"Come with me please," said an Imperial Firebender when I swung the door open.
"Wow, we've evolved to say 'please' now have we? That's a step up." He didn't find my comment amusing. Instead, he proceeded to guide me down an ornate corridor, decorated with paintings and various Fire Nation symbols. "Where are the chains?" I asked. "Does this mean I'm allowed to travel while conscious now?" It still took everything in me not to end the man's life right then and there. It killed me on the inside to be helpless, without a choice.
I was escorted into yet another meeting room with a desk, where I was told to sit down before the Imperial Firebender left me alone.
I had no idea who would walk in and plant himself in the other chair, but I was terrified that it would be Long. It wasn't that I was scared of the Commissioner himself, but rather that I would be overrun by rage and attack him, consequently having both myself and Ming killed. I'll be damned if I never get to see my sister again, I thought.
A much darker subject entered my mind. What if freedom isn't the light at the end of my tunnel? Why should I trust Sozin when he said I could earn my way out? The Fire Lord strikes me as the kind of person who doesn't use people unless he can throw them away afterwards. The interesting thing was that I actually held less disdain for Sozin than I did for Long, perhaps because I was focusing every bit of my intense hatred on the snake who murdered my father.
"Good evening, Sweetheart." Just my luck. War Commissioner Long. He conducted himself in his practiced snobbish manner that made me sick. He was never this way when I was a little girl and friends with his daughter. No doubt he was just like everybody else you meet these days: wearing a mask and putting on some charade to impress, intimidate, or seduce others. In a world where everyone's so carefully reinventing themselves, what I liked about my father was that he didn't even pretend to change.
Long frowned sarcastically. "I'm disappointed. You haven't given me one of your classic threats yet."
There are no words to describe how much I wanted to leap out of my chair and rip his eyes out, but a reaction was exactly what he wanted out of me... so I decided that I would withhold one as a way of torturing him. "Evening, Commissioner. How are you?" Saying anything even close to polite was nearly impossible, but I had to... for Ming... for myself.
"I'm doing fine," answered Long. "I just had a fabulous fish dinner. Would you like to know where I got the fish?" He was alluding to the barrel of seafood my father purchased yesterday.
"Maybe you picked it up while you were sucking Sozin's dick?" I couldn't hold it in.
"You insolent child!"
"Please, I can smell the cock on your breath from here! It's just too bad that the only thing you'll ever get from him is cum on your face." That's when I realized something. Long had no real power over me. He couldn't touch me so long as Sozin felt my services were still required. "What are you going to do? Tell on me?"
"No," he said without getting flustered. "I'm going to send you off into battle and either laugh at the news of your violent death or anticipate sending you off again."
Okay, he won. I admit it. "What battle? I thought the Shepherds reported directly to Sozin."
"The Fire Lord or myself," he replied. Well shit, there went my "no power over me" theory. I couldn't stand remaining silent as the man who killed my dad gave me my marching orders, and so I made a promise to myself. Long would die at my hands. I didn't know when, and I didn't care how, but I was determined to one day hear my name on his last breath. "So... where exactly are you sending me?" I asked quietly.
"General Quang and General Chang direct the programs of the northeast and southwest training facilities, respectively. Their main responsibility is to ensure that the camps are shipping out men who are as prepared as possible for war in the Earth Kingdom campaign. Unfortunately, we have reason to believe that they are both involved with the Crimson Wolves."
Allies of my father, I thought. "So do I just... kill them? I mean, what's the deal here?"
"I'm getting to that."
"Well you people sure like taking your sweet time."
"General Quang sends a report to Chang at the end of every month, but we've learned that a messenger left his base a day ago, in the dead of the night, two weeks into the month, and followed the same path the reports to Quang would go."
"So what?" The Fire Lord must have been incredibly paranoid to jump to conclusions over a simple deviation from messaging protocol.
"We were already suspicious of both men, and now this mysterious, irregular message is sent from one base to the other in secret under the moon. There are too many oddities to ignore, and that's is where you come in."
"I'm hunting a mailman?"
"No! Well... yes. Our current location is in between the two bases. Your task is to intercept the letter at... this point." He handed me a map marked by several red dots. "You'll then rent room seven at this inn, where you will read the message. That night, an older woman will knock on your door. She will ask you if you have any salt to spare. You will answer "no" if you found nothing in the letter that indicates treason or affiliation with the Wolves, but answer "yes" if you did. Should you respond affirmatively, she will hand you a paper with your next instructions."
None of that seemed necessary at all, but I was even more surprised that Long could even conceive of an idea so complex with his minuscule brain.
"And that's all there is to your first task," announced Long as he stood. "Congratulations, Nalia. You just received your first commissioning."
One might expect that I would have trouble sleeping after such a traumatic day, but my exhaustion after both the physical and mental abuse I suffered won out in the end. I passed out for the night on the luxurious bed provided to me. I still had no idea where I was, or what the future held, but I understood I just had to take it one day at a time.
The next morning...
"If these guys are good at anything, it's sneaking into my room while I'm asleep."
That morning's surprise consisted of a sack of coins on my nightstand, a dagger with the Fire Nation insignia on my dresser, and a black robe hanging on the back of the door. I slipped it on, and it wasn't long before I noticed that it was equipped with numerous tools of death, ranging from darts which I assumed were poisonous to... some sort of pen. When I clicked a button, a short needle extended from the tip, and something told me that I wouldn't want to find myself on the other end.
Outside my room, I was met yet again by an Imperial Firebender, and he led me outside to the same courtyard I was branded in. This time, fortunately, I didn't stop to receive another masterpiece on my back. Instead, I was brought to the front of the building where I had been kept, and chill ran down my spine when I realized where I was: the Fire Nation Royal Palace! I guess the least Sozin could do after burning down my house was let me stay at his, and I just hoped he'd understand when the time came for me to give him a taste of his own medicine.
I was shown by a few guards a long, slimy creature that didn't look the least bit friendly.
"This is a mongoose dragon," declared one of the guards. "It will get you where you need to go- fast too. They're pretty easy to handle."
"Does it have a habit of eating those who ride it?" I inquired.
"You'll be fine. Do you have the map?"
I nodded, awkwardly taking my place on the animal's saddle.
"Take this." He tosses me a small bag packed with clothes and a canteen, and then he strolled off.
The palace gates unlatched as I threw the knapsack over my back. "Is this it?" I found it strange that they were just going to throw me from the nest like that. They didn't really even test my abilities. How could they be sure that I wouldn't die in an instant? And how did they know that I loved Ming enough not to go incognito and never deal with any of this again?
Ahead of me, the grandiose gate was wide open, clearing a path for me to ride off of the palace grounds and into the Fire Nation capital city. "So I just leave? No training? No more instructions?" The guards weren't listening to me. "I'm not just carrying out some daily chores! Am I just supposed to figure everything out as I go along?"
Before I knew it, not a single person was by my side, and I wondered if the other Shepherds suffered the same lack of preparation. If so, that would explain why Sozin needed more; he must have been losing them left and right. With nothing else to do, I grabbed hold of the mongoose dragon's reins, and it sneered before proceeding forward. It was hard for me to process everything that had happened. In less than twenty-four hours I had gone from a privileged general's daughter to an orphaned assassin on her way to possibly kill someone. With all of that came an overwhelming amount of shock.
You may be wondering why I wasn't mourning my father at every waking moment. I missed him, I really did, but I couldn't think about him. What happened happened, and I had to remained focused. It's not that I was going to forget him, quite the opposite actually. I was going to gain freedom for him and, one day, avenge him. Taking a deep breath, I examined my new weapons one last time before riding through the gate. One day, however far away from now, War Commissioner Long and Fire Lord Sozin are going to regret the day they made me an orphan.
- Nalia's line "Evening, Commissioner" was inspired by The Dark Knight.
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