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Book Two: Success and Failure
This is the twelfth chapter of Fleeting Peace and the second chapter of Book Two. It may not be up to the author's usual standard.
Lin and Chong encounter and unusual nomad; Po engineers a plan to topple the dictator of Tai.
Misty Palms Oasis
Xian Jian Zhe was a nomadic herder of pig-sheep. He wore an eye-patch over his left eye and he was dressed in the garb of the independent Sandbender Tribes of the desert. He wandered alone, having only his companion-hawk, Tuyur, and his flock of pig-sheep for company. He made his living by predicting the sales of traveling merchants, although he occasionally consented to theorize at noneconomic topics. In fact, he was quite adept at seeing into time both gone by and yet to come, although he preferred to offer vague advice instead of true fortunes. Currently, Zhe sat outside a bar at the Misty Palms Oasis, and he was offering a stray bearded cat a cup of pig-sheep milk. The cat's unnaturally fuzzy whiskers twitched as it sniffed the thick, white liquid, then it stuck its tongue out to lap at the milk. As Zhe watched the creature satisfy its hunger, he reached up to his shoulder absentmindedly to stroke the feathers of his hawk. A shadow fell over him. "You'll regret offering Hirah that milk," a masculine voice said. Zhe smiled and looked up to see a tall, muscular young man in the dress of the Sandbenders. "Why is that, Shinto?" he asked. The young man scoffed, "You already know the answer to that, Zhe." "I do," Zhe admitted, still watching Shinto fondly. Shinto was the son of one of the Sandbender chiefs as well as a member of the Hami tribe, the group that Zhe was an honorary member of. "And yet you still feed her?" Shinto wondered exasperatedly. "She's hungry," Zhe said simply. He reached down and stroked Hirah on the head, startling her. She spun around and snarled, irritated that he had interrupted her snack. "I'm sorry, cat," Zhe intoned apologetically while Shinto rolled his eyes. "How long are you staying at the Oasis?" Shinto inquired conversationally. "I don't know." "Yes, you do!" Zhe rolled his eye, a gesture strange to see in his lined face. Instead of satisfying Shinto's curiosity, he said, "Some things are better left a mystery." Shinto shrugged and said, "Well, I'm here until I finish trading." "Two days, then," said Zhe, closing his eye, but he opened it when Tuyur clacked his beak. "What is it, Tuyur?" Zhe asked the hawk. Shinto, apparently growing bored, waved to Zhe and ventured into the bar as Zhe identified the source of Tuyur's distress. A pair of disheveled adolescents, a boy and a girl, slumped towards the Misty Palms Oasis through the nearby barren landscape. Their gait was slow; they were clearly exhausted. Tuyur screeched directly in Zhe's ear. The one-eyed seer flinched and snapped at the hawk, "I see them! But why do you want me to?" Then, moments later, the two youths stood in front of the bar. Zhe could hear snatches of conversation. "No," the girl, a foreigner by her appearance, said in a stubborn voice. "Why not?" the boy queried in a tone of mock patience. "What do we have to lose?" "Some money," the girl replied, frustrated. "We can't spare it." "Well, we have to buy supplies if we're to travel through the desert." "And why in the Spirit World would we even want to go through the desert?" "I can answer that question," Zhe interrupted the quarreling youngsters. They both glanced at him sharply. The boy was curious yet annoyed and the girl looked angry yet complacent. "Why would you?" the girl asked with eyebrows raised. "You might be curious," Zhe responded. "Go on and tell us then," she challenged. "Wait here," he told the two teenagers, who merely exchanged glances. Then, he nudged Tuyur, who took flight and perched on the sign hanging over the bar. Zhe strolled through the open door of the bar, leaving the boy and the girl outside, both of whom gaped at him.
I stared after the old, one-eyed man, dumbstruck and confused. "What was that about?" I wondered out loud. "Your guess is as good as mine," Chong answered; true to his words, he looked as perplexed as I. "Crazy old man," I muttered to myself. To Chong, I said, "Let's go before he comes back. We don't need to go into the desert." "Of course you don't," said a voice from the doorway of the bar. I watched as the man emerged with a fruity-looking drink in his hand. A hawk swooped down suddenly and perched on his shoulder. The hawk stared at me with its piercing yellow eyes; it clacked its beak in a seemingly curious fashion. I glared back, accepting its gaze as a challenge. "Tuyur likes you," the grizzled man told me, his free, rather glazed eye fixed on my face. "So what do you want?" I asked haughtily, ignoring the man's statement. Chong elbowed my stomach in response to my rudeness. "I want to introduce myself; my name is Zhe, a lone herder and honorary member of the Hami Sandbender Tribe." "Well, I'm Chong and this is Lin," said Chong, jumping in before I could say anything. "So why should we travel into the desert?" I asked, glaring at Chong out of the corner of my eye. "You don't have to go too far in, if you're worried about getting lost or dying of thirst," said Zhe with a bemused tone. "A trip, however, to the edge would help you cleanse yourself of your past hardships."
"The past can never be undone," I told him grudgingly. "No, but you can learn to accept it," said the old man wisely. I eyed the psychic suspiciously. What did he know? Had he any idea that I had seen my sister die, watched my father crumble before my eyes, ran away from home, and been enslaved? What did this goon know, and why should I just accept it? "But be careful," Zhe continued after a pause. "I'm always careful," I scoffed. "Then be extra careful," he retorted. "Keep your friends close"—he glanced sideways at Chong—"and your enemies closer." "What enemies?" I inquired skeptically. "I've left all the enemies I have far behind. They're no danger to me anymore." "Not all dangers to you are accounted for, young Firebender." "How did you know I'm a Firebender?" I questioned him suspiciously. I glared at Chong from the corner of my eye, but he looked as astounded as I. Zhe ignored me, instead looking at Chong. "You should guard your mind and your heart," he told him sagely. He placed a seemingly comforting hand on Chong's shoulder and whispered so softly I almost didn't catch it, "That girl may be the death of you." As Chong's eyebrows rose in surprise at his words and I tried not to roll my eyes skeptically, Zhe waved to a tall, broad-shouldered man speaking to a merchant a little ways behind him. "Go with Shinto," he said as the man approached them. "He'll give you a place to spend a night." I eyed the man named Shinto suspiciously. By his dress, he was a Sandbender, but his demeanor was friendly and unassuming. His hair was hidden beneath a simple headdress, but his face was dark with a tan. "What is it, Zhe?" Shinto asked after he reached us. "Lin and Chong are two travelers that would like to shelter in your tent for the night," said Zhe. "They will not elbow leech; you have my word." He glanced sternly at us. "And your word is enough, Zhe," said Shinto, inclining his head respectfully. Then he turned to me and, holding out his hand, said, "I'm Shinto." "I could tell," I replied with raised eyebrows, grasping his hand in greeting. "You didn't shake my hand when you met me," Chong muttered in irritation. "Never mind that," I told him absentmindedly. Then I glanced at Shinto, who I now realized was quite attractive. "So where is this shelter?" I inquired, ignoring the sudden heat I felt on my face. Zhe chuckled and I heard an exasperated sigh from Chong, but Shinto replied, "It's not far; I'm actually camping near the Oasis until morning." "That's when we should be on our way," said Chong before I could respond. Shinto nodded in agreement and gestured for us to follow, but before we did, Chong told Zhe, "Thank-you, sir. We will value your advice." "That is all I can ask," said Zhe. "I hope, when it is most needed, you will remember it."
"It's very simple, rice-man. Tell me what happened!" "I don't know! I was unconscious half the time!" Hanta squeezed slightly, causing Mr. Shao's face to turn a deeper shade of purple. The two men were hidden in a dark alley after Hanta had stolen a sack of rice to entice the farmer to pursue him. There had been no witnesses to see Hanta grab Shao by the neck and pin him to the wall of a building. "You'll soon be unconscious again if you don't talk!" Hanta yelled in response. "The slave girl ran away, then the others attacked me!" "I don't care about 'the others'," Hanta said in a much calmer voice. "Why was she even brought to you in the first place?" "Lin (which was her name) was a convicted Earthbender, only she herself admitted she really wasn't." "Go on," Hanta prodded when Mr. Shao hesitated. "She was also a foreigner!" recalled the frightened farmer. "I know all that," Hanta said in a rather exasperated tone. "I think she ran east," said Shao. "Really," Hanta said, feeling slightly relieved. He now had some idea of where he should be headed. With a sudden streak of mercy, he allowed Shao to fall to the ground, where he stayed on his hands and knees, panting. "Thank-you," said Shao as he stood on his feet. He then began to shuffle backwards, towards the market where his wares still were. After hesitating, he added, "I know Tang was spying on your behalf. Were you the one that killed him? And what do you want with that girl anyway?" Hanta narrowed his eyes, surprised that the farmer had been so sharp. "Yes, I killed him, and I'm going to kill her too," he stated nonchalantly, ignoring the shock that spread across Mr. Shao's face. "But why?" he wondered. "It's a business deal," Hanta said simply. He turned away from Shao, determined to leave and continue to pursue Lin. He walked down the dark alley rapidly, wary that the farmer could still alert policemen or soldiers to his presence; he was eager to reach a crowded place, where it would be more difficult to locate him. He finally emerged into a busy residential street. He spotted a man allowing his cat-dog to "take care of business", and a woman was supervising a small child playing with chalk. Everyone in this neighborhood looked completely nondescript; it was easy to blend in. Hanta's eyes quickly fell on a pair of boys, brothers judging by their similar appearance. They seemed to be fighting over a stuffed badger-frog. "Let go, Shin!" yelled the smaller brother. "It's mine!" "No way, Lee!" exclaimed the much larger brother. "This was mine before Mom gave it to you!" "It was not!" retorted Shin. "Was too!" "Not!" Hanta tuned out the argument between the two boys, his mind automatically flooding with remembrance of the disagreements he had once had with his own brother. What a bastard he was, Hanta thought, suddenly feeling miserable as he contemplated his childhood. And still is, always commanding people around, thinking everything he has is superior to what everyone else has.
He felt his head hit the ground with a jarring impact; he snapped his eyes shut reflexively. Upon opening them, he peered fearfully into the face of his elder brother, who was holding his wrists to the ground. "I win again, Hanta," his brother hooted triumphantly as he stood up. Hanta also stood and glared at his brother as he straightened his crooked shirt. "I'll win someday," he retorted, irritated with his loss. His brother rolled his eyes. "Sure you will," he stated skeptically. "I'll always be stronger than you, little brother." He then turned away and strolled casually towards their nearby home. As Hanta watched him go, he bitterly thought, You may be stronger, but I've got the lion-turtle's share of the brains.
The assassin gritted his teeth as he recalled his brother and all the fights they had gotten into, both physical and verbal. He couldn't remember the amount of times their mother had been forced to pry them apart, or their grandfather had finally snapped at them in impatience and annoyance. But it didn't matter anymore. The jealousy and hatred that had existed between the two brothers no longer fueled Hanta's life. Now, it was the relishing of the chase and the desire to bring his targets down.
Po and Xia wandered through the square after eating their small meal. They were at a loss, without any means to accomplish their goals. The elation Po had felt leaving Kung had deserted him, and Xia was no different. Then, a brightly colored poster attached to the side of a building caught Po's attention. Po grabbed Xia's hand, dragging her towards it. He then saw it was an ill-drawn portrait with a short description. Po inspected the poster inquisitively while Xia kept her ears peeled for anyone potentially approaching them. "This guy is a wanted criminal named Yun Hu," Po whispered thoughtfully. "So what did he do and why hasn't he been nailed yet?" Xia wondered without letting her attention waiver from her surroundings. "Apparently he spread vicious rumors about Lady Ono, the dictator here. He's an ex-special agent, although nothing is said about what he did to cause him to be 'wanted'." "Probably so none of the ordinary citizens here get ideas," Xia said suspiciously. "I want to find him," Po announced. "He might be of help." "Are you crazy?" the blind girl hissed in response. "What if this poster is a hoax to lure unsuspecting revolutionaries?" "What's the likelihood?" Po countered. "Besides, that's a risk I'm willing to take." "Fine," said Xia, "but if something awful happens, just know it'll be on your hands." She turned away from him in irritation, but she immediately stiffened. "Someone's coming directly for us," she said. But before either she or Po could react, a burlap sack was slipped over both their heads. Po's head was thrust forward roughly as his wrists were tied behind his back; he was unable to resist due to his being taken off-guard. He heard Xia grimace and an attacker grunt. "You know, idiot," Xia stated through teeth gritted with anger, "this sack over my face is useless. I'm blind." "We take no chances," her attacker replied neutrally as he placed a gloved hand on her shoulder, leading her forward into a deserted alley. Another man shoved Po into the same side street. As Xia and Po were dragged and pushed down the road, an unknown person slid upon a door that was concealed in the stones of a building. They signaled for their two companions to "escort" their hostages inside, then slammed the door shut. Po heard the clicking of a light switch, and then the sacks were removed both from his and Xia's heads. He was finally able to see his abductors, slightly surprised that their faces were uncovered. One, presumably the leader, stood in front of the other two. She was a tall, imposing woman with impressive muscles and a rather harsh, disapproving face. Her companions were identical to each other, shorter, and male, although no less physically adept. "You're wondering why you're here," stated the leader as she eyed Po and Xia, who was shifting her footing into an Earthbending stance. "We don't deny it," Po replied. "We know you're the one responsible for the overthrow of Lord Qin of Kung," the leader replied, staring at Po with piercing bright green eyes. "Well, I wouldn't say I was the only one. . ." "Po, it's not the time to be modest!" Xia snapped in irritation. "What do you want, anyway?" Po asked the leader, ignoring Xia. "We want you to help us overthrow Lady Ono." Po blinked several times in shock; even Xia stared at the leader of their kidnappers blankly in astonishment. "I see you're surprised," the intimidating woman commented. Then, she smirked. "I saw you examining my wanted poster." "Your wanted poster?" Xia said, continuing to look flabbergasted. "Yes. I'm Yun Hu, traitor of Tai," the leader announced proudly. "But that poster was of a man," contradicted Po, clearly confused. "Well, that portrait really doesn't do me justice," said Yun Hu in a surprisingly good-natured voice. Then she gestured to the men on either side of her. "These are my brothers, Yao and Mao." "Why are twins' names always so similar?" Xia muttered to herself, although she earned glares from both Yao and Mao. "Never mind that," Yun Hu said diplomatically. "So, young revolutionary, are you with us?" "Yes," Po replied without hesitation. "My name is Po, and I am honored to offer my service to a notorious traitor such as you. I am, after all, the Avatar." Yun Hu blushed slightly while Xia rolled her eyes. "Thank-you," she said in a voice only moderately impressed. Then, in a business-like tone, she continued, "A straightforward revolution such as the one you conducted in Kung will not work in a place like Tai. It would not gain support; the people here are too frightened and far too ignorant to rebel." "I'm all ears," Po said, inviting the ex-agent to continue. "I suggest a coup d'état against Lady Ono." Po squinted his eyes thoughtfully, but Xia immediately expressed doubt. "Yun Hu, how do you expect to storm Lady Ono's mansion without being detected or halted?" she inquired. "A fine point, blind one," Yun Hu said rather condescendingly, "but I, as an ex-government agent, know of every hiding place there is in Ono's mansion." Xia still looked uncertain, but Po said, "You have my approval." "Excellent," said Yun Hu as Yao and Mao exchanged cheerful glances and Xia crossed her arms in blatant annoyance.
"It's a bad idea," Po heard from within his mind that very evening. "What is?" Po internalized. "Your coup d'état, of course. I hate to tell you this, Po," said the snide voice of Avatar Nuo Fu from inside Po's head, "but the world is stuck in its status quo. You can't change it." "Don't try to dissuade me, Avatar Nuo Fu," Po intoned with irritation. "Besides, why don't any of you ever answer my questions properly?" "And what questions are those?" "What powerful figure helped prop up the Anti-Benders?" he queried. "And why doesn't Avatar Zhong want me to seek advice from you?" "Some things were not meant to be known," replied Nuo Fu evasively, giving Po a sense of foreboding. "Now, if you choose to follow through with your plan, you will pay the consequences alone." "So be it," Po said as the echo of Nuo Fu faded from his mind. However, despite his confidence, he couldn't help but worry that the following morning would bring forth disaster.
Po watched anxiously as Xia neatly rapped a side door of Lady Ono's mansion. As they, along with Yun Hu, Yao, and Mao, waited for the door to be opened, he shifted his tea-maker's hat nervously, hoping this simple disguise would be enough. That morning, Yun Hu had assured them that Ono had a soft spot for tea and would often admit anonymous tea-servers to her home if she was feeling particularly cheerful. However, Po was not feeling too confident, especially after receiving Avatar Nuo Fu's warning the evening before. The five false tea-brewers tried not to fidget when the door swung open, revealing a short, elderly man with a bushy gray mustache. "How can I help you?" he asked politely. "Hello," said Xia, smiling cheerily at the man, making eye-contact so as to conceal her handicap. "We are the Kocha tea-brewers of this city, and we would like to serve the great Lady Ono if she would accept us." Xia bowed, and Po could detect a look of disgust on her face as it was hidden from the mustached man. "Come in," mustache-man said, stepping back to admit the five of them and their cart into the mansion. They entered a rather dimly lit kitchen. "I will go to Lady Ono and see if she will receive you," the mustachio said as he left them alone. A few moments after he left, Po opened his mouth to say something, but he quickly snapped it shut, unsure whether or not they were being watched. He glanced at Xia, who was once more staring at the ground; he noticed that her lips were curled in a scowl of concentration. "Do you detect anything?" Po whispered to her. "That man is coming back," she replied quietly. Po inhaled as the mustachio approached. This is it, he thought unhappily, premeditated feelings of failure creeping up his spine. "Lady Ono will see you," the man with the mustache said. He gestured for Po, Xia, Yun Hu, and her brothers to follow him into a chamber just off the kitchen. As they stepped into a small, sunlit chamber, Xia grabbed Po's arm and squeezed. Po could literally feel the alarm radiating from her, although by the time he registered it, at least fifty armed, darkly-clothed men and women had filled the room. Behind them was a well-dressed woman, a malicious smirk distorting her otherwise beautiful face. The ragtag team of conspirators was instantly and completely surrounded by the dictator's agents. Po felt his face flush with the humiliation of failure, and he realized that Avatar Nuo Fu might have been right: perhaps the world was too ingrained with its current status to change. It didn't matter, because as disappointment crept through his being, Po cursed without inflection, "Monkeyfeathers."
- "Zhian Jian Zhe" means "seer" in Chinese.
- Zhe is much like a lonely Bedouin (who aren't usually lonely).
- "Tuyu" and "Hirah" are the warped pronunciations of the Arabic words of "bird" and "cat", respectively.
- "I've got the lion-turtle's share of the brains" is a quote derived from a line spoken by Scar in The Lion King.
- The ambiguity of Yun Hu's gender on her wanted poster parodies the ambiguity of the author's own gender based on her choice of user name.
- "Kocha" is "tea" in Japanese.
- "Monkeyfeathers" is, of course, Aang's preferred swear.
For the collective works of the author, go here.