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Book One: Rise and Fall
This is the seventh chapter of. One of the three main characters does not make an appearance in it.
Lin begins her tenure as a laborer; Po and Haku have a run-in with New Wave warriors.
East of Omashu
Upon reaching his rice farm, Shao, my new "master," unlocked the shackles on my wrists. I had been chained to a metal loop in the trunk of his motor-cart, forced to sit in a rather uncomfortable position. He grabbed my arm and half-dragged me to a small, dingy shack with a rusted, metal-sheeted roof. He opened the door and pushed me in, then closed the door and departed without a word or half a glance.
It was dark inside, the only light streaming from the moon and stars through a bare window. Nevertheless, I could sense that the shack consisted of only one room. I remained standing, unsure what to do as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. I heard a soft scraping sound and a flame flickered to life. At first, I knew nothing but the feeling of the heat, however miniscule, emanating from a candle. I hadn't seen an open flame since my ill-fated break-in of a general store, when I met Chong.
I looked past the rather dazzling light to see a young woman with a sad face holding the source. "You must be the new laborer," she commented. She stood up from a cot and approached me carefully. She touched my shoulder, as if to comfort me, as if she knew that I was unsure of myself at the moment. She pointed to the corner of the shack farthest from me. "That's your bed," she told me. "There's also an outhouse behind our cozy shack if you need it." She smiled slightly, but her attempt at cheeriness didn't reach her eyes. "I'm Ming, by the way. I hope you won't be here for long."
Without another word, she returned to her cot and placed her candle on the ground. She silently watched as I lay on my own cot, then she blew out the flame, plunging the tiny room into darkness once more.
The following morning, I was rudely jolted awake when the flimsy door of the shack swung open. I opened my eyes groggily to see that a tall, sturdy woman was standing in the doorway.
"Time to get up!" she barked at us, even though, to my surprise, all the slaves except for myself were already standing. The woman glared at me. "You too, newbie," she said with irritation apparent in her voice. "If you're not all outside in two minutes, you'll all be working until midnight today!" With that, she spun around, slamming the door shut behind her.
"Hurry up, new girl," said an annoyed-looking young man with untidy brown hair. "If you're late, it'll be on our heads as well."
I flung my worn blanket off me and stood up. Then I realized I had nothing to wear but the very clothes on my back, which were the pale green of the prison I had spent time in.
Ming, seeing my confusion, pointed to the ground under my bed. "There's a basket under there," she said. Then she turned and left the shack, five others following her.
I quickly changed into worn, brown farmer clothing and pulled up a pair of rubbery boots, then I sprinted outside to join the others.
"Look who decided to join us," said the rude, untidy-haired boy. "Not a moment too soon, either, yellow-eyed foreigner." I tried not to flinch. If he could tell I was foreign, then surely the others would be able to as well.
The girl standing next to me noticed my sudden tension and said, "Don't mind Tang. He's unbecoming to everyone." She smiled sweetly and added, "My name is Niga; what's yours?"
"Lin," I responded, relieved, but before either Niga or I could speak another word, the large, threatening woman reappeared.
"Impressive," she said without actually sounding impressed. "Time to work." She turned towards the rice terraces as the others said in unison, "Yes, Mrs. Shao!"
My new "master," I now realized, had neglected to impart even a grain of knowledge on harvesting rice. While the other six began transplanting the crowded greens, I stared at them confusedly.
Yin, whose name I'd learned on the way to the field, glanced at me as she pried a plant from the marsh. "Just pluck out the superfluous plants," she said helpfully. "The rice won't grow properly if the field is overcrowded."
"Thank-you," I said as she turned back to her work. I then took a deep, bracing breath as I plunged my hands into the marsh water, hoping none of the others noticed my discomfort. No Firebender, however mediocre, enjoyed getting wet.
The day passed by relatively uneventfully. During our first break, I learned a little about all six of my companions.
My fellow slaves all had unique backgrounds. Surprisingly, only one of them was an Earthbender that had remained hidden for far too long. I got along with most, and we began to develop a sense of camaraderie.
There was Ming, who was a mother of sorts. She was only twenty-one, though, but she had a child before her arrest. She had been caught stealing food, a necessity since she and her son were alone and impoverished. She looked after the rest of us, although both Hanwei and Tang were older than her. Whenever she was silent, though, she had a wistful expression on her face, and it wasn't difficult to guess she was thinking of her small son.
Lo was nineteen and, as he put it, a "dishonorably discharged" soldier from the army of Omashu. He was an Earthbender and his parents had been forced to give him up at birth due to his ability. He refused to tell anyone why he'd been booted from the military, but he wasn't bitter. In fact, his temperament was extremely easygoing for someone in his situation, and he was notorious for making the other slaves laugh when they were most unhappy.
Hanwei was the eldest at forty, and he had been a field laborer since he was twenty-two. He was once a border-hopper from a country adjacent to Omashu, and upon discovery, rather than being deported, he was imprisoned and eventually enslaved. He spoke little, but what little he said carried enormous weight.
Niga, the youngest at thirteen, was also an Earthbender. She was also the newest, except for me, having been brought just a year earlier. She had been discovered while practicing her skill; a pair of burly Omashu soldiers had kidnapped her three years prior. She had spent two whole years imprisoned, waiting for the High General, the second-in-command in Omashu, to decide whether or not she should be forced into the army, as most Omashu Earthbenders were. Niga was soft-spoken and treated everyone as her friends, even the sour Tang.
Tang stood out from the other slaves. He was dour and arrogant, despised by most of his companions. His past was a secret (something we had in common, incidentally), and he refused to reveal anything about it. He only spoke to insult, which he usually did through sarcasm that he seemed to think was amusing. Hanwei suspected he was a rat for Shao due to a beating a slave named Yin received a month before my arrival.
Yin once had a boyfriend in a nearby village that she would sneak out to go see; all the slaves knew about it, including Tang. Then, she had a disagreement with Tang over a trivial issue of forgotten details. The next day, Shao called her out and asked her to explain herself; she'd had no choice but to confess.
Tang was already my special rival. While everyone was in the fields with water up to their elbows, Tang would glare at me. I didn't know why, for I had not yet trodden on his toes. He made comments about my unusual appearance, and he seemed aware that I was a foreigner. He despised me.
I was eager to return the favor.
Po opened his eyes to see the bright morning sky, blue and cloudless. He remained in his bedroll, however, thinking of his dream. Had he really visited the Spirit World, or was it just a figment of his unconscious imagination? He knew that the Avatar was the bridge between the physical world and Spirit World, but the adventure just seemed too far-fetched. He recalled a conversation he had once had with his grandfather: "Po, are you all right?" "Yes, Grandfather; I just dreamed I was Airbending like an ancient master." "So?" "It's wishful thinking, Grandfather. It wasn't real; it was all in my head." "Of course it was in your head, Po, but why on earth should it not be real?" A voice interrupted his thoughts. "Look who's finally woken up," said Haku. He sat nearby, stirring a pot of five-flavor soup. "Sweet dreams of a girl you left behind?" he asked teasingly. "No," said Po as he sat up. He frowned. "Ah, now you feel guilty that you weren't dreaming of a girl you left behind," Haku commented knowingly. "No," responded Po rather irritably. "So who'd you leave behind?" "No one." Haku made a noise of skepticism, then used a small wooden ladle to scoop soup into a bowl, which he handed to Po. "You're upset about something," Haku observed. "Am not." "Are too," Haku shot back like a small child. Po raised an eyebrow, apparently slightly amused. Then Haku said, "Don't worry about your Waterbending; you've just about gotten it mastered. In record time too, I'm sure!" "All thanks to you," Po complimented. He blew on the soup, trying to cool it as smoke continued to rise. He began to sip the hot soup slowly, but his and Haku's meal was interrupted when a whoosh came from behind Haku. An arrow embedded itself in the frozen ground. The arrow was followed by an uneasy silence. Po and Haku exchanged glances and stood up after placing their still-full bowls of soup on the ground. They faced the direction the arrow had come from. Po then realized how misty it was; it would be simple for an enemy to be lurking nearby. He longed for more proficient Airbending skills, something that he would surely be able to use to disperse the fog. Suddenly, five burly, blue-clad, apparently from New Wave, men carrying various weapons stepped forward. One of them, presumably their leader, said, "That was a warning, rogues. Either you pack up and leave, or we attack." Haku warily gazed at these new adversaries and bent down to roll up his damp bedroll. Meanwhile, Po kept a close eye on the threat, making sure they didn't break the deal that had just been made. A man wielding a spear then stiffened and pointed at Haku. "He's a Waterbender!" he exclaimed while carrying his weapon in a lofty way perfect for throwing. The leader then said, "You leave us no choice, rogues." He took out a bow and notched an arrow on the string, aiming it straight at Haku. Haku was caught off guard, despite the spear-wielder's accusation, and couldn't shield himself. Po, however, acted quickly and expelled a gust of air to throw the arrow off course. Then, the real fighting commenced. Two of the New Wave men rounded on Po. They tried to prod him with spears while Po repeatedly dodged; he was unable to bend due to the close combat and he felt himself losing the fight. Haku, however, was faring much worse. He had managed to form an icicle, which he used as a spear for himself, but three against one was an unfair fight. One of the men knocked him upside the head with the shaft of his spear. Haku fell to the ground, landing painfully on his side with a sudden, throbbing headache. Stars danced before his eyes as he fought not to black out. Po saw all this and, in a final gasp of fury, melted all the snow beneath his and his enemies' feet and used the water to freeze his adversaries' legs up to their knees. All five of them flailed, keeping their balance only because the ice supported them. Po sprinted to Haku and began to help him up. Haku stood shakily, but he was able to regain his balance quickly. Unfortunately, his triumph was short-lived when a spear point protruded from his chest. Po gasped as his friend and teacher fell to his knees, blood spurting from the new wound. Haku touched the spear head, which was soaked red. He then turned to Po and said softly, "You'd be surprised how little this hurts." Then, he collapsed and died before Po's very eyes. Po ignored the jeers from the five warriors that still had their feet frozen to the ground. He felt cold and empty, and it had little to do with the winter chill of the northern air. He picked up his pack and his great-grandmother's glider-staff and turned away, trying not to dwell on Haku's sudden death. "Hey, Waterbender!" yelled one of the trapped men. "You can't just leave us here!" "Watch me," Po said so quietly they couldn't have heard them. He continued to walk away. Now, he could do nothing but head back south.
Su stared at the abandoned hut. She let her gaze wander up to the small chimney, where smoke had once risen during winters. She then glanced at the door, half-expecting it to swing open, to see the hut's occupant smiling solemnly, like he always used to. . . Po had been gone for over a month, yet to Su it felt like so much longer, especially since he had left without saying goodbye. There had been not even a hint that Po would leave. Unless, of course, she counted the death of his grandfather, which she didn't. Su missed Po so much it made her soul ache. If she didn't know any better, she would think she was in love with him, except love, she thought, was for fools. She sighed and turned to go home, her feet crunching in the fresh snow. She shivered as a breeze drifted over her, further awakening her memories of Po. "What if I was to tell you I am an Airbender?" Su had questioned him curiously. "Then I would say, 'No way! Me too!'" he had responded with a grin. "Now you're mocking me," Su had said with a scowl. That conversation had taken place shortly before Po's grandfather took ill, about a year ago. They had accidentally locked themselves in a wood shed and been forced to wait for someone to go searching for them. Naturally, they had let their guard down trying to keep themselves entertained; bending, or even speaking of it, in public was considered a death wish. Had Po been joking at the time when he'd claimed he was an Airbender, or had he been serious? She shook her head slightly; she had always had the distinct feeling that Po was never entirely honest with her, and now that hunch was back and more acute than ever. "Su, are you all right?" someone nearby asked. Su looked up to see her mother standing in the doorway of their home. She then realized that she had been standing outside for several moments. "Yes, I'm fine," Su said distractedly as she stepped inside into the warmth. "I was just. . .thinking." "Okay," said her mother as she slid the door shut. She then walked further into the small house and turned into the kitchen. Su remained in the entryway, though, and thought a little more. Po had run away from Gust for some reason; she was sure of it. But why? And why did she feel such a compelling urge to go after him? That was when she decided to leave.
Su pulled her black scarf to cover her face, shielding herself from the brutal wind, one of the drawbacks of living on a mountaintop. She patted a quiver of arrows on her back, then half-turned back to her home. Was she sure she wanted to do this? Could she even do this? She didn't even know where Po had gone, let alone how to find him. Furthermore, she would be leaving everything she had ever known behind. Strangely, though, she had lost her attachment to her home the moment she had discovered Po's absence. Perhaps she would find it again once she found him. As she traveled down the mountain, she wondered how her parents would react upon finding her bed empty and cold. They would be upset, she was sure, but they would eventually move on, as everyone that had ever lost someone had. Even so, why could she not forget Po? Why was she even bothering to go after him? It's not love, she told herself. Anything but that. When she reached the bottom of the mountain, she suddenly felt a wave of uncertainty. Spirits, I don't know what I'm doing! She deliberated for a moment, not sure if she should turn back or pick a direction at random. Then, logic prodded her south. After all, who would head north in the winter?
- A "motor-cart" is just a pick-up truck.
- There's an unintended pun in there. Did you catch it?
- My thanks go to Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore for being his usual wise and quotable self.
- The section about Su was a last minute addition; it only seemed fitting since she was vaguely alluded to in the second section.
- Comments would be nice.
For the collective works of the author, go here.
|Fleeting Peace Chapters|
|Book 1: Rise and Fall|
|Disagreements - Handle with Care - Glimpses - Alliances - Curses - Idle - Half-Empty - Addition and Division - The Snitch - Revelations|
|Book 2: Success and Failure|
|Explanations - Omens - Looking Back - Factors - Ulterior Motives, Part 1: Jealousy - Ulterior Motives, Part 2: The Grandson - Shifting Tides - Repetition|
|Book 3: Cause and Effect|