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Chapter 15: Liung
The airship dipped a little closer to the ocean as it passed by the island of Shu Jing, and Sukan and Yoriko stood toward the front of the flying machine, with the latter peering over the short wall that lined the outer viewing platform. The wind flew past their faces, whipping through their hair, and the sun peeked over the horizon, casting an orange glow on their faces. Yoriko grinned and gripped onto the wall.
"Is that it? Is that Caldera City?"
Sukan smiled. "Nope. That's the island of Shu Jing. We're a ways out from the capital yet. Having fun?"
She nodded energetically. "Yeah! I've never been on an airship before!"
"It's good to see that you're enjoying yourself, Yoriko," Moro said as she approached. "Are you two doing okay? No one's afraid of heights, I hope?"
"I'm okay," the Avatar replied as the wind tugged at her ponytail. Her brown eyes were alight with joy, and Sukan couldn't suppress her own smile.
"I'm fine, too. I don't have much experience in the air," the officer said, "but it's nothing I can't handle."
"Good to hear," Moro replied. "When we get to the capital, Yoriko, we'll be going to the Royal Palace."
She gasped. "Really?!" she asked.
"Yeah. Fire Lady Saitei has invited all of us to stay in her home, so be sure to thank her, okay?"
Yoriko grinned. "Okay!"
As Moro reentered the airship, Sukan glanced at Yoriko. "Did you sleep well last night? No nightmares?"
"No, not last night..." She pursed her lips. "I don't wanna have any more bad dreams; it feels too much like..."
"Like what, Sweetie?"
"Like when that bad spirit sent me away..."
Sukan suppressed a shudder. Two nights prior, she'd seen Yoriko's eyes glowing and feared the worst, but when they'd returned to normal instantly, she'd assumed it had been a fluke.
Now I'm not so sure.
"Well, Yoriko," she said as she rested a hand on the little girl's shoulder, "you won't have to worry about the nightmares if I'm around. I'll protect you; I promise." I need to be able to keep that promise...somehow.
Taiko sat at one of the tables in Avatar Korra Park as he watched a group of children playing by the frozen pond. The statue of Avatar Korra loomed over the ice and snow, and he let out a sigh as he leaned back in his chair and stroked his black and gray beard.
"So, you're people have taken to calling me 'The Owl'?" The other man sat down across from him with Xai Bau's journal in-hand.
Taiko's gaze left the kids and their snowball fight for a moment to appraise the face of the man who'd killed four of his friends. The man before him had short brown hair and blue eyes, but he was built like an acrobat at a circus.
"And how would you know that?" he asked.
The man smiled sadly. "They are very good at what they do, but I've simply been taught better. I know you've had people following me."
"So what are you?"
He inclined his head. "Some circuses are quite small, and I played a great many roles."
Taiko cocked his head. I was right, after all. "That would explain your skill, but not your intent. Tell me, why do you kill?"
"Because I was attacked," the assassin said. "I would've thought that was obvious."
"But you kill easily. You've done it before; I want to know why."
The man across from Taiko smiled sadly. "Is this a test? Are you determining if I'm worth the risk?"
"You read the journal, and since you tried to take it, I imagine that its contents interested you."
He nodded slowly. "They did indeed; I was not expecting to discover that my employers wanted to dramatically alter the social and spiritual order."
"So now you see my—"
One of the children, a young boy, came running up to the two of them. "Come a play with us, Daddy! The other kids want to see an Airbender in a snowball fight!"
Taiko grinned. "But you're an Airbender, too! I bet you could show them a lot!"
The boy shook his head. "Not as much as you! Pleeeease?"
"Sorry, son, but I'm a little busy right now." When his son's shoulders sagged, Taiko leaned forward. "Tell you what, when I'm finished here, we can go and get some ice cream."
Taiko's son laughed. "Dad, it's freezing out! Why would I want ice cream?"
"How about mochi with custard, then?"
The child nodded. "Awesome!" As he ran back to continue the snowball fight, he whirled around. "Don't take too long!"
"You brought your son with you?" the assassin asked. "Isn't that a bit risky?"
Without facing the man across from him, Taiko responded, "You would attack me in front of so many people? This is a public place."
"He would still be in harm's way," the assassin said.
The Airbender frowned and glanced at him. "I would kill you before you touched a hair on his head."
The man cocked his head. "Of that I have little doubt. Empty threats aside—"
"You are bold; I'll grant you that."
Ignoring him, the assassin pressed on. "What is it, in your words, that you want to see happen?"
"I want a world that is free," Taiko replied. "A world where spirits and man can live in harmony and progress."
"Harmony." He chuckled. "If you'd actually met some spirits, you might have a different impression. Some do very much wish us harm, and how would your world deal with that?"
"The Order of the White Lotus is not entirely wrong in their approach. We would be vigilant, and we could defend ourselves and the world, if need be."
"Without the Avatar."
Taiko furrowed his brow. "What?"
The man leaned back in his chair. "Xai Bau counted the Avatar as a relic of a bygone era in his journal. They are as much an obstacle as monarchs and governments. Yet who managed to defeat not one, but two powerful spirits in the last fifty years?"
"Do you truly believe the Avatar to be the only solution to beings like Susanowo?"
"I'm asking what you believe," he replied.
"I believe we no longer need the Avatar. The bridge is unnecessary when we have the portals open to us."
The assassin's right hand slid off of the table and brushed against the blade strapped to his thigh. "And you want to take the Avatar out, then."
A puff of vaporous air left Taiko's lips. "Not yet. She is young and weak, but the Order surrounding her is not. We need to wait until they've backed off. Given recent events, they're hyper-aware. We have plenty of time to think on such things as it is."
The assassin relaxed. "Interesting...then what is your next move?"
"That depends," the Airbender replied as he leaned forward, "on whether or not you're willing to join us. Has our cause ignited your curiosity?"
"Curiosity is only a part of the greater whole." He stood and slid the journal across the table into Taiko's waiting hands. "I want a chance to grow, to become a force beyond myself."
Taiko grinned. "We can offer you the chance to help mold a new world, one where curiosities can be sated by learning at the feet of spirits themselves!"
It seems you have questions you'd like answers to, then. Taiko of the Red Lotus. The assassin inclined his head. "So this is really an offer?"
He smiled, "Even after what I did, you still deem me worth the risk?"
"I believe you are sincere. There was never any reason for you to try and take the journal beyond sincerity, as material gain from it is next to impossible, apart from those who know what it contains."
The assassin leaned forward. "Then I accept."
"Good," Taiko replied. "Now, what is your real name?"
"I like the name you've given me," he said. "The Owl is perfect."
Saitei approached her throne, and her knees ached as she did so. The fire that wove around the room was a diminished orange, due to her absence. When she finally made it to the chair, she sagged down into its metal embrace. However, the fire lit up, burning with a white-hot intensity. The Fire Lady sat up a little straighter as a tall man with slicked-back hair and a full beard walked in.
"How was your trip to Republic City, Aunt Saitei?" he asked as he bowed.
She sighed. "Troubling. The young Avatar is dangerous to herself and everyone around her, and the worst part is that it isn't even her fault. I might not be as in tune with spiritual matters as you or the Airbender, Shen, are, but I can feel darkness' grip on this world well enough." Saitei allowed herself a small smile. "How have you been settling in, Jogi? I noticed that the Fire Nation did not burn down in my absence."
Jogi chuckled. "It did not. Although I wish ruling didn't include so many taxation laws. I can't tell you how much fun that will be to deal with when I take over."
A long, gray, reptilian form snaked its way into the throne room before flying up and lining the roof above Saitei's throne. "It always amazes me how complicated human customs are. Dragon hierarchy requires no paperwork."
"Dragon hierarchy is much simpler, Galba," Saitei replied, "but do try to imagine what you would do if dragons were as numerous as any other nation."
"We would overrun the planet," the dragon said, and both humans could feel the humor in his thoughts. "Perhaps the status quo is best, after all."
Jogi smiled warmly. "Funny to hear of the status quo from an overgrown lizard."
Galba's lips curled back over his fangs, and a rumbling growl emanated from the pit of his stomach. When he heard that, Jogi winced.
"I hate it when you laugh; it's...unsettling."
"Then maybe you shouldn't try to make me laugh, young one."
"Not that I'm unhappy to see you, Galba," Saitei interjected, "but have you gathered the hatchlings like I asked?"
The dragon dipped his head. "Indeed, although most of them are understandably nervous. The honor of being the Avatar's companion is not an honor taken lightly."
Jogi's brow furrowed. "You told them what they were being gathered for? Is that wise?"
"I'm of a mind with my nephew on that point, old friend," Saitei said. "Who's to say that they won't just try and use Yoriko for their own purposes?"
Galba snorted. "You act as though we are human; I can assure you that this is not the case. They know their duty, and they know what being chosen means." His reptilian eyes narrowed. "Well...almost all of them. One of the hatchlings has left the Sun Warriors' city, and we cannot find her."
The Fire Lady nodded slowly. "Thus why you are here now."
"An escaped hatchling with little knowledge of human customs is a dangerous creature indeed. I would rather not see anyone hurt, so she must be found."
Jogi and Saitei both nodded. "Agreed," the Fire Lady replied.
Sukan, Yoriko, and Moro stepped off of the airship as the Fire Lady and her entourage came out to meet them. A warm breeze hit their faces as they moved down the ramp, and it ruffled the orange shirt that Yoriko was wearing.
"It's nice here," she said. "Republic City's always kinda cold."
Sukan glanced down at her. "You think so? Even in the summer?"
"Well...maybe not in the summer. But even at night, it gets chilly." Her gaze moved up and down the palace just ahead, and her eyes widened as she took it all in.
"Welcome to my home, Avatar Yoriko," Fire Lady Saitei said as she approached. "I hope you'll find the Fire Nation, and Caldera City in particular, to your liking."
The little girl nodded, all the while mouthing a silent "wow" as she continued to stare at the palace.
"Pay attention to the Fire Lady, Yoriko," Sukan chided. "She's really being nice by letting us stay in her home."
"Oh...sorry," the Avatar replied before looking at the Fire Lady and giving a short, awkward bow. "Thanks!"
"Don't thank her yet, young Avatar," the man on Saitei's right stepped forward and bowed low. "She's a tough teacher. My name is Prince Jogi, but you can just call me by my name."
She nodded vigorously. "Okay! Nice to meet you, Jogi; my name's Yoriko!"
He chuckled. "So, do you like the look of the palace so far?"
"Yeah!" she replied, her brown eyes widening once more, even as her smile did. "It looks so pretty!"
"Just wait until you see what it's like inside," Moro said as she came up beside them. She offered a small bow to Saitei and Jogi. "Fire Lady. Prince."
Saitei inclined her head and smiled. "Moro Kenshi. Good to see that you've come, too. If you don't mind my asking, where is your husband?"
"Shen is busy dealing with some unrest caused by a...difficult...element of the Air Nation."
The Fire Lady's smile disappeared. "Is it cause for concern?"
Moro pursed her lips. "It's not like what happened with Petrine, no, and he's trying to make sure it stays that way. I'm sure he'll let everyone know when he's gotten a handle on it."
Yoriko glanced from one woman to the other. "What are they talking about, Officer Sukan?"
"I'm...not quite sure, Honey."
Saitei waved her hand. "Just the past. At any rate," she glanced back toward the palace, "I have another friend of mine that I'd like you to meet, Yoriko, if that's alright."
"Sure," she said as she cocked her head.
"Don't be alarmed when he comes out, alright? He's a friend."
Yoriko furrowed her brow. "What—?"
Before she could even finish her thought, a long, gray reptile slid through the doors and lifted further off of the ground, flying toward them in a swirling mass. When it landed, Yoriko saw it clearly. It was a dragon.
First, she gasped.
"His name is Galba, young Avatar," Saitei said. "He won't hurt you; he's actually quite friendly."
"Like the stories..." she breathed as she took a tentative step closer. "Can he talk? Can I pet him?"
Jogi knelt down and offered his hand. "You'll need to establish physical contact as a sign of trust. It's a way for Galba to know you aren't a threat."
Her eyes widened, but she slowly offered her hand, which Jogi took. Without moving too quickly, he pressed it against Galba's snout.
"At last we meet, little one."
"Wow...you can talk...but in my head!"
"In a manner of speaking. I was a good friend of your past life. Avatar Argho and I knew each other well."
Yoriko grinned. "My name is Yoriko! It's nice to meet you, Galba! Are there other dragons like you? Can they fly? What colors are they?"
The dragon before her shuddered and rumbled, and Yoriko didn't notice Jogi shivering. "Easy, little one. One question at a time. I'm not a young lizard anymore."
"You'll outlive me, at this rate," Saitei interjected.
Yoriko's gaze shot to the Fire Lady. "You can hear him without touching him?"
She nodded. "I can. We've been partners for so long that our link is far stronger than most. That's what happens when you live with a friend who's a dragon for decades."
"To answer your questions, little one, yes, there are many like me. We have thrived thanks to the Royal Family's help. And we can indeed fly."
The Avatar grinned. "Really?"
Saitei took a step forward and laid a hand on Galba's scaly body. "We can continue this conversation inside while we get something to eat. Galba can answer more of your questions there, Avatar Yoriko."
The ocean passed beneath her as she flew toward the massive island in front of her. Her reptilian eyes narrowed; she had already passed smaller islands minutes before.
I don't want this! Why are they making us do this? Liung thought as she spread her wings to slow her flight. The other dragons wouldn't know to look for her anywhere but near the Sun Warriors' City, and that would give her time to hide.
At least until the Avatar goes away.
She couldn't let the others find her, but at least Galba was with his human. He wouldn't be out looking for her, then.
Liung shook her head as her mind wandered back to the moment where she had decided to run away. She needed to concentrate on flying; the wind was almost too much for her young wings to combat. But still, her thoughts wandered.
"You eight hatchlings will meet the Avatar, and I one off you is chosen, you will be the Avatar's companion for life."
Liung growled as she approached the massive island in front of her. The others might be crazy enough to throw their lives away, but I'm not gonna be stuck with a stupid human my whole life! Not like Master Galba...but... A thought occurred to her. He does speak about the Fire Lady fondly...
She shook her head again. No...I'm not like the others; I...I don't wanna give everything up...
So many delicious smells floated from the table in front of Yoriko, as a veritable banquet had been laid out in front of them.
"Oh my gosh!" she gasped. "So much food!"
The Fire Lady waved her hand. "Eat as much as you like, all three of you. Let it never be said that Saitei was rude to her guests."
"Realistically, if Rioku were here, he'd say that you do challenge them to duels," Moro replied as she smirked.
Saitei frowned. "That young fool forgets himself! He challenged me."
"Um..." Sukan raised her hand. "Forgive me, but what kind of duel did you two have? I thought that Rioku was an Earthbender."
"He is," the Fire Lady replied. "I'm still surprised that Shien Kais aren't more widely known."
Sukan shrugged. "Well, in Republic City, at least, anyone caught dueling outside of a pro-bending arena or martial arts school is getting arrested, so that might be it."
"Ah yes, Republic City with its fancy police force." Saitei took a bite of gemsbok-bull. "You've forgotten what it's like to live in the rest of the world, it seems."
While cutting into a giant fish in front of her plate, Sukan nodded. "Maybe. But we do enforce the rules; that's how it is."
"And let men like Shingen take advantage of those who have lost much."
Sukan let her utensils clatter against the plate, but before she could do more, Moro was already on her feet.
"Fire Lady, that was a bit uncalled for, don't you think?"
Yoriko simply sat in her chair, watching the exchange unfold with eyes widened.
"Yes," Saitei replied, "I suppose that could've been a tad more tactful, especially since Officer Sukan really had nothing to do with the whole incident." She turned her gaze on the officer. "I apologize."
Picking up her fork and knife again, Sukan sat down slowly. "No problem. To be honest, I still don't know what to make of the Councilman, but I do know he ordered the Chief to have Yoriko brought to City Hall."
All of a sudden, she felt a tug on her shirt-sleeve. "Officer Sukan, can we stop talking about it...please?"
"Sure, Honey," she said. "I'm sorry; I didn't mean to bring up bad memories."
Saitei stood slowly and sighed. "I do have some administrative duties to take care of, but you three have free reign of the palace halls. You can even go and explore the city if you want. We can discuss business later this afternoon."
"Leaving already?" Moro asked. "We'll have to catch up this evening, then."
She smiled. "Indeed, Moro, we should."
Sukan wiped the edges of her mouth with the napkin that sat beside her plate. "Well, Yoriko, what do you feel like doing?"
The young Avatar raised an eyebrow and pointed to herself. "You're asking me?"
"Yep! I figure since you'll probably have to sit through some boring stuff, you might want to choose how we spend our free time."
Yoriko grinned. "Okay! Then can we go explore Caldera City?"
"Sounds like a plan," Moro interjected. "I hope you two don't mind if I tag along?"
"Not at all," Sukan replied.
Yoriko nodded vigorously. "Sure!"
Liung's yellow eyes widened as she realized that the massive island was home to a lot of humans. She saw them in increasing numbers, and it seemed like they noticed her.
No...no, they can't find me yet!
In order to make herself less visible, she flew low to the ground, all the while trying to pull away from the more crowded areas. Even as she did so, the dragon noticed the large building looming nearer and nearer. She folded her wings close as her paws touched the ground, and she also dipped her head slightly. There weren't any humans immediately around, but she knew it was only a matter of time.
If that's what I think it is, Master Galba's gonna be angry with me! The humans know I'm here...he'll try to come for me himself!
Liung shuddered. The prospect of having to be the Avatar's pet terrified her. I don't want...the Avatar won't understand! They'll treat me like an animal; they'll want me to...want me to follow them around like some kind of trophy! She gritted her fangs, something she'd seen Galba do so many times before. I want to be free!
She could hear the footsteps; they were getting close.
"The dragon was spotted in this direction. If we see it, we wait for the Fire Lady and her dragon! Do not engage!"
Her dragon?! Liung growled. I knew it! They'll just treat me like I'm nothing! Why can't the others see it? Why am I the only one that's afraid!?"
With that, she opened her wings and launched into the air, ignoring the cries of the humans below. As soon as she was above most of the buildings, though, she saw movement—and a long dragon—in the courtyard of the large building.
No...too late... She slowly began to lower her body to the ground. Her life as she knew it was over.
- Well, Saitei and Sukan seem to disagree on methodology just a little bit, and Moro's playing peacekeeper.
- Yoriko's first meeting with Galba went a lot better than Shen's back in It All Ends, that's for sure!
- I chose to give dragons limited telepathic communication because of how I interpreted the scene with Ran and Shaw in A:TLA. It seems to me they were doing a bit more than simply breathing rainbow fire. Just my interpretation, though.
For the collective works of the author, go here.