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Book Two: Success and Failure
This is the first chapter of Book Two and the eleventh overall. Unfortunately, it is not quite up to the author's usual standard.
Lin confesses some of her origins to Chong; Po leaves Kung in a state of reform for a neighboring country; Hanta returns to Omashu to rethink his strategy.
stood in the center square of Kung City, admiring the new, optimistic atmosphere. He watched as various citizens puttered about, cleaning windows, greeting their neighbors, and doing their shopping. His gaze then reached the former-Lord Qin's mansion. Yinsu was draping a green banner with a gold circle inlaid with a square over the railing of the balcony. A man old enough to remember the days of the Earth Kingdom had unearthed the large flag from his home just that morning; apparently he had saved it for more than fifty years, despite the regime's orders to burn remnants of the Old Days. "What's going to happen to Qin?" a voice whispered in Po's ear. Po turned to see Xia standing just behind him, her face curious. "That's up to you," Po responded. Qin was currently awaiting a trial and sentencing after three days imprisoned. His stand-in, and a much fairer leader, was his disfranchised daughter, Yinsu. "I suppose your mother will have a lot to say about his prospective punishment," he added. "Speak of Koh," Xia mumbled as Yinsu approached the pair. "What do you think she wants?" "I guess we'll find out," Po offered, slightly irritated. He had been hoping to spend time alone with the blind Earthbender. "Once again, thank-you for relieving us of Lord Qin," Yinsu said once she was in front of Po and her daughter. "It's only my duty as the Avatar," Po said sheepishly, trying to keep his expression modest. Xia, however, sensed his true feelings and elbowed him in the ribs. "What do you know about the Avatar's duties?" she hissed once Yinsu had walked away. "Almost nothing," Po admitted, "but it's time for me to leave Kung. I think I know what I should be doing." "And what's that?" "I should be freeing the world of oppressive dictators; I'm going to Tai to lead a revolution against their ruler." "Not without me you're not," said Xia with a smirk. "What?" Po said, taken off guard. "Don't you want to help Kung rebuild? Don't you at least want to learn Earthbending from a proper master?" Ruon had opened a makeshift Earthbending academy the day before, saying it was about time benders began to do their thing. "I'd love to," said Xia cheerfully, "but I'd much rather see the world change than fix this place up. Besides, it's already halfway done, and I'd much rather be with you. Now kiss me so I don't have to grope for your lips." Po consented, allowing himself to relax slightly, ignoring the tension brought with his newfound goal. When he drew back, he told Xia, "You could've just listened for my lips." "I know," she admitted, "but I felt lazy. So are you taking me willingly or will I have to stalk you to Tai?" Po sighed but said, "Let's go pack."
East of Omashu
Lin couldn't help but feel light and cheerful as she and Chong trekked through the forest. She was reunited with her father's sword, and she was free to do as she pleased! She reveled in the shade of the trees and the feel of her unhurried pace. There was no more rice to be planted or harvested, no more antagonistic Tang to deal with. Now, it was just her, her thoughts, and her beloved sword. And Chong. They had been traveling in silence for almost an entire hour, both concentrating on not tripping over thick, gnarled roots or stepping on dried leaves. But now, Lin was compelled to break the relative stillness. "Thanks for sticking around," she said in a quiet, humble tone. Chong, who was walking a little ahead of her, shot her a glance over his shoulder. "I had nothing better to do," he commented, shrugging slightly. "That makes me feel so much better," Lin mumbled, immediately irritated. Then, in a louder and curious voice, she asked him, "Why did you help me?" Chong instantly appeared startled. He halted walking and shuffled his feet slightly, staring at the leaf-strewn ground. "I don't know," he replied. "You were just a person in need. My father always taught me to help those in need." He then continued walking as if nothing had happened. Lin blinked as she continued to follow him. His response surprised her, as he had never spoken of his family before. But neither had she. Suddenly, memories that she had been suppressing flooded her mind. She saw her mother, Song, telling her about her engagement to Jing Lee. She saw her father's bloodied body. She saw her sister, fleeing, screaming. . . A plunking sound jolted her out of her reverie. She shook her head to clear it, and saw Chong set down a pile of kindling he had gathered along their path. "I think we should stop here," he said, putting down his pack. "I'm hungry, so I suggest we light a fire." He raised his eyebrows suggestively. "Fine," said Lin, setting her own backpack on the ground and plopping down beside it. "Go for it," she told Chong. He grinned mischievously and said, "Actually, I was thinking that since I gathered the firewood, you could light the fire." Lin narrowed her eyes suspiciously. She knew precisely what he was getting at, but she wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of her "confession". "All right, then," she said haughtily. "Do you have any matches?" Chong shook his head, his grin turning smug and his eyes twinkling slightly. "If neither of us has matches or spark rocks, then I guess you'll have to rub two sticks together and see what happens." He leaned back a bit, apparently intent on enjoying watching Lin squirm. As he expected, Lin appeared uncomfortable. She debated with herself whether or not to say something, opening her mouth several times without saying anything. Finally, after some considerable hesitation, she admitted: "Okay, fine, you caught me. I'm a Firebender from the West. Happy?" Chong's brow furrowed, his smirk disappearing and being replaced by a surly expression. "It's about time," he said. Then he sighed and asked, "Why didn't you tell me you were from the West?" "You didn't ask," Lin responded. "Yes, I did," commented Chong. "Remember? I asked you where you were from, and all you said was 'Far away'. What kind of answer is that?" "Why are you complaining now?" Lin demanded with an exasperated tone. "Well, at first I thought you were a fugitive Earthbender after you were arrested in Omashu," said Chong defensively. "Now, you've offended me. You didn't even bother correcting me when I mentioned your supposed talents." "Well, I'm sorry I didn't trust you!" Lin turned her back on him, irritated. There was no point to this conversation. What was done was done; he now knew she was a Firebender. However, she could only wonder what he would do with that information. Would he turn her in? He couldn't; he had helped her break free of bondage. Taking her to the authorities would be moot. As she fumed, Chong pulled out a book of matches, revealing that he had lied about their existence. This caused Lin to gnash her teeth, and a very narrow stream of smoke emerged from her nostrils. He ignored her, instead striking a match and lighting their campfire. After he set a raw slab of possum-chicken over the fire to stew, he said morosely, "I wouldn't turn you in, you know." "Well, I didn't know that, now did I?" Lin countered defensively. "I guess not." Then, after a moment of listening to the crackling of the fat in the meat, Chong added, "My sister was an Earthbender." "'Was'?" "I don't know," Chong said, sounding exhausted. "Maybe 'is'." He shrugged in a seemingly nonchalant way. Then, he changed the subject: "So who taught you to handle a sword?" Lin didn't press him about his sister. Instead she responded to his own question, "My father, whenever he was. . . rational." She rubbed her left forearm self-consciously. Chong pretended not to notice Lin's hesitation; he assumed there was something she wasn't ready to put into words, especially when he caught sight of the rather haunted expression on her face, something that hadn't been there a mere moment ago. "Maybe it's time to sleep," Chong suggested. Lin just nodded, unrolling a blanket she extracted from her pack. Chong made to put out the flames, but Lin stopped him. "I'll do it," she said, a trace of a smile on her face. She stood over the fire and gently enveloped it with her hands, compressing the flames without allowing them to touch her skin. As their supply of oxygen dwindled, they shrunk, eventually snuffing out completely. "Wow," said Chong, clearly impressed. "I know," Lin said softly.
The following morning, Lin and Chong packed up their campsite without speaking. As Lin rolled up both their bedrolls, Chong covered the ashes from their campfire with dried leaves, effectively covering any trace of their night spent there. Then, as they stood "admiring" their handiwork, Chong extracted a map from his pack and unveiled a small compass from his pocket. He opened the map and pointed to a point east of their current position. "I think we should head here," Chong told Lin as she looked over his shoulder. "What's there?" she asked, feeling skeptical as she eyed the geographic features of that particular area. It seemed particularly barren, as it was colored pale brown rather than the green of the woodland. "Because we can't just wander aimlessly," he retorted with a hint of annoyance. "I can," Lin shot back, her brow furrowed, implying sudden anger. "I don't even know where I'm headed!" She said this with a surprisingly passionate tone, and her glower became mournful. "I don't even know what I'm doing," she said somberly. "Well, you might not know what you're doing, but you might find out if you go here." Chong once more prodded the map. "Besides, don't Firebenders like the desert? It's hot, you know. . ." he trailed off, then finished lamely, "like fire?" Lin crossed her arms, her despondent expression turning amused. "Actually, the West is mostly tropical jungle," she said. Then she added as an afterthought, "But a desert might be a nice change. . ." "So east it is? You know, since you have no idea where we should go." Chong crossed his arms in irritation, although he couldn't keep a smirk off his face. "Yes, let's go." Lin began walking away from the shadows with Chong in tow. Then, she began whistling a low, solemn tune. Chong, recognizing the song, slowly sang, "Leaves from the vine, falling so slow, like fragile tiny shells drifting in the foam. Little soldier boy come marching home. Brave soldier boy comes marching home. . ." "You have a nice voice," Lin said shyly as Chong stopped. "Thank-you," he said. "How do you know that song?" "My father used to sing it to me," she responded sadly. "Especially after my sister died." "You had a sister?" When Lin merely nodded, a look of misery on her face, Chong added, "But you don't have to say anything about it." Lin said nothing, instead choosing to stare ahead, her eyes glassy. "I'm glad you trusted me with your secret last night," Chong stated, trying to cheer her up. "Me too," she commented without emotion as they continued marching towards the sunrise.
The assassin couldn't believe his luck. He would never hire an insider again, and he would never hesitate to kill his target! When he found that Firebender, he would tear her apart before murdering her. . . What was happening to him? Was he growing soft? Was his seeming unwillingness to act a sign of softening, of, spirits forbid, weakness? He couldn't be weak; he had always prided himself on his ruthless, unrelenting nature. That was why he could afford to feed himself! Of course, his life hadn't been like that before his wife died. . . But he had been drifting in the direction of mindless psychopath ever since he found her with that man. Hanta narrowed his eyes, attempting to banish the resurfacing unpleasant memories as he trudged through the damp Omashu street. The rain, uncharacteristic for this time of year, had halted, but its traces still lingered in puddles and the dripping of water from rooftops. He shivered as a drop of the fluid slid down his back. He contemplated his next move. He knew Lin wouldn't return to Omashu, especially after she let that idiotic farmer live and find out she was a Westerner. But where could she possibly go? Now, he had nothing to go by. Once more, he felt himself slip into doubt; he was unsure of his ability of tracking suddenly. . . Hanta could vaguely remember when someone had first scoffed at his career choice. Incidentally, it had been the twelve-year-old daughter of one of his employers. At first, he had been shocked that such a young girl could be so aloof, especially the offspring of a nobleman; as it was, he would've expected a girl of her stature to be sheltered and naïve. He had also been slightly disgusted that the nobleman had seen fit to allow his daughter to come to their meeting. "Why do you kill people, sir?" the girl had asked. "Because it's the only thing I know," he had replied. Taking away the lives of others hadn't always been his sole occupation. He had once been like most people. He had a family, taken an education, enrolled in the army, and fallen in love, but the differences between himself and most people began the moment he was born. And his life had begun to fall apart the very second his grandfather died. His maternal grandfather, a man he seldom thought of anymore, had been the catalyst of misery for his entire existence. But these thoughts were for another day, for he saw Mr. Shao, the rice farmer that had kept his target as a laborer, standing beneath an overhanging roof. And best of all, he was quite alone.
Tai, former western Earth Kingdom
Po and Xia journeyed for two days before they arrived at their destination, the capital of Tai, a small country neighboring Kung. They had easily jumped the border between the two nations and made it to the capital, the center of their prospective operation. A surprising number of people were wandering around the small market at the town square. "They seem more courageous than your fellows were," Po whispered to Xia as they mingled with a cluster of persons milling outside a shop having a sale. "I don't know," Xia said doubtfully. "This could be a façade of some sort." "Or maybe the ruler doesn't have a firm grip on his people?" Po ventured. But then, he caught sight of a set of gallows in the center of the square; he swallowed anxiously, immediately making him reluctant in following through with his plans for this small country. "Oh, no," Po said worriedly. "Xia, I think you should go back home." "What?" Xia hissed in response. "Why?" "There's something in the square. . ." "What is it?" she asked with some irritation. "All I sense is an oddly shaped structure." "It's a gallows," Po pronounced. "Oh," said Xia with a tone of relief. "That's all you can say?" Po wondered, astonished. "If it's a gallows, then it's for public executions; it's meant to scare potential criminals." "Public executions?" Po intimated incredulously. "It would appear so," said Xia solemnly. Then, after some hesitation, she added, "That's how my father died. He was hung for everyone to see." Xia grabbed Po's hand and tugged him towards a cart selling noodles. The woman standing behind it smiled at them expectantly. Po, wondering at Xia's intentions, merely told the seller, "Two bowls, please." The cook filled his order and said, "That's four coppers." Po dug through his pocket and extracted four copper coins, which he had received from Yinsu, who had assured him that much of the East used the same currency. He handed the noodle-seller the coins. "Thank-you," she said as she dropped the coins in a jar. Po turned away with two bowls in hand. He passed one to Xia, then inquired, "Why did I just buy noodles?" "Because I wanted to read her mood," she whispered to him. "She's afraid of something; all of them are." Po glanced between the faces of others, and that was when he saw what he hadn't before. All of them had shifty eyes, and they seemed to gaze warily from person to person. He watched as an elderly man stared at a young woman suspiciously; the woman glared back with a similar expression. "They're all afraid of each other," Po said thoughtfully. "They seem to suspect that everyone's out to get them." "What does that mean for us?" "It means it'll be difficult to unite them," Po replied, disappointment flooding him. "The leader here must be spreading rumors that he has spies among his people." "Well, we still have to do something; we didn't come all this way for nothing." Xia crossed her arms stubbornly. "I know," said Po determinedly. "We have an objective, and we're going to fulfill it."
- "Speak of Koh" is based on the expression "speak of the devil".
For the collective works of the author, go here.