|By Indeedy03||Part of thecontinuity.|
|Rumors and Spirits|
Rumors and Spirits is the first chapter of Fanon:Of Silk and Fire and an introduction to the two major fanon characters that will drive this story. It is purposefully vague and eventually will be more fleshed out. The origin of this chapter was a piece written a while ago and recently expanded upon.
A Heavy Weight
There had once been a time for soft hands and even softer silks, but those times were long gone. In a small village about three weeks travel from the great walls of Ba Sing Se, a young woman lamented the passing of a time when the calluses that roughened her hands didn't exist. She had been young then, barely eleven, but she remembered with brilliant recollection her life before this village. A heavy sigh escaped her chapped lips, but the bucket of water she was carrying back to her home was heavier still. A bead of sweat rolled down her forehead before narrowly missing her eye and lazily slinking down her cheek. The sun had been especially brutal these past few weeks as if even it were on the Fire Nations side, slowly wearing away what little resistance remained.
Zetian shuffled along, trying not to slop water over the sides of her bucket. The damn thing weighed a ton it felt like. If only there were more men in the village other than the elderly to help with these chores. It had been a long time since Zetian had wished for servants. Doing so only made her feel petty now, but still, a helping hand would be greatly appreciated. When she wasn't careful, her mind would drift to the men and woman who had waited on her so devotedly. She prayed the Dai Li had been kind to them after the Earth King's death, especially those that had been close with her mother. The older woman was too conniving for her own good, often dragging others into her games.
Lixue was probably gardening again, a much more innocent hobby than her previous ones. At times, Zetian was certain Lixue cared more for those plants than she cared for her own flesh and blood. With each step, Zetian grumbled a little bit louder, but at least she was making progress, and the bucket was mostly full. As long as the water was going to a future meal and not into those weeds in the back of their home, Zetian could rationalize the effort. Water was quite necessary to life as it were, and Zetian couldn't deny that fact. It would also be excessively disrespectful to demand her aged mother help her in the task, but still. Water could be as heavy as it was necessary.
After another few minutes, the further irritation of her calluses and many a bead of sweat, Zetian finally reached her home nestled into the small cluster of other small buildings. The simple farming village was composed of a few Earth Kingdom citizens who found no solace in the poverty stricken distract in which they'd be forced to live in Ba Sing Se. There was a notable lack of young men, and the old men who still lived had a look of loss about them. They could no longer fight to protect their nation. All they could do was wait with the women and children for the War to finally reach them.
Her mother, as expected, was on her knees and covered in dirt in her garden. Once, during the same time that Zetian's hands were not calloused, Lixue had been pale as the snow she was named for with hair black as the charcoal that had once lined their eyes. Nearly fifteen years in exile and her skin had darkened far past sun kissed and there were gray streaks intertwining in the long hair Zetian once loved to brush with the childlike fascination and admiration a daughter has for her mother. No one could say Lixue was not a handsome woman, but there had been a time when she had been the most beautiful woman in all the Earth Kingdom.
Or at least, Zetian thought so. Before the bitterness sank in, Zetian adored Lixue with every fiber of her body. Now, things were different. Her daughter was still loyal, but resentment coiled around the young woman's heart. If only Lixue had not been so stubborn, if only she had not angered the Dai Li. However, it was entirely possible that bitterness was misplaced. Even Zetian knew that Lixue had never been entirely forthcoming about the details of their forced departure. Still, there were so many 'if onlys' that Zetian lost count of them all.
If only the bucket of water hadn't just been used to water the plants and wash Lixue's dirty hands. The coil tightened just a little bit more, but Zetian only sighed. What else could she do? She knew her mother loved her, and part of that love was wanting her to see the realities of the world instead of being sheltered like Kuei, but was knowing the truth worth the sacrifice of a lavished life? Lixue would argue that until the day she died, therefore, Zetian never brought it up. It wasn't as if Zetian alone could return to the city. She, too, was still branded a danger to the tranquility of Ba Sing Se.
Zetian lingered a little, watching her mother garden. The older woman was so content with this life it astounded Zetian sometimes. They hadn't been royalty, but they had lived with all the benefits. She missed them and wondered if her mother ever did as well, but Zetian knew better than to ask now. Lixue had only responded with a stony look and a sharpe change of subject to previous questionings.
"I was thinking of starting dinner soon..." Zetian thought aloud, fiddling with the sleeve of her tunic. They were just so scratchy and the color – what a horrid shade of brown.
"Mmm...we'll need more water for the rice," Lixue commented absentmindedly, glancing up at Zetian expectantly. "I'll just finish up here, and we'll have fresh spices. Perhaps Shang will trade for fresh tofu. That would be nice, wouldn't it?"
"I'll go get more water," Zetian replied quite begrudgingly, but nevertheless, with a quick bow. Her mother nodded before returning to the garden. After retrieving the bucket, Zetian made her way back to the main road through the village that would take her to the river. Whoever planned the village's location did so poorly in Zetian's opinion, but at least the surrounding forest sheltered them or so the villagers hoped. The Fire Nation had not yet advanced so far in their conquest, but there were troubling rumors.
And those rumors were exactly what came to mind when Zetian saw the gathering crowd of what seemed like the entire village out. The crowd quivered with movement, and as Keyu drew closer she could hear the hushed whispers of disbelief turn into shouting. Her knuckles turned white as she gripped the bucket's handle. "Wen! Wen..." Zetian grabbed at her friend's arm, "What's going on?" The question stumbled out of her mouth even before Zetian could process asking it; although, deep in her gut, Zetian already knew the answer.
The woman turned to look behind at Zetian, fear so clearly written across her face. Zetian had never seen Wen's eyes so big or so full of apprehension. "They're coming. The Dragon of the West is coming to take Ba Sing Se. The neighboring village sent a messenger to warn us," Wen nearly broke down into tears, now clutching at Zetian as if letting go would be certain death. "What are we going to do? They'll burn down the village! Do you think they'll take us as captives or just kill us?" She babbled on, now nearly sobbing into Zetian's shoulder.
Zetian let the younger woman cling, even going so far as to wrap her spare arm around Wen's trembling shoulders. They had all lost so much to the Fire Nation, and the myth that surrounded the so-called Dragon of the West carried with it the weight to send normally sound minded people into a panic.
"Shush, Wen, Rong is trying to speak," She cooed, trying to sound calm while every instinct told her to run and not stop until she could no longer move. Zetian could only recall one other time when she had been so frightened. Soon, the frantic debates among the villagers settled and all eyes were on Rong, a weathered man who'd been aged by loss and time. There was a long silence as the entire village held a collective breath.
"We must go seek refuge behind the Great Walls of Ba Sing Se. Gather what you can. We leave at dawn," So Rong declared with sorrow in his hoarse voice. At once, the crowd broke apart, another frenzy breaking out as families went to evaluate what was worth saving and what would have to be sacrificed.
Zetian hurridly walked Wen back to her home, quickly hugging the shaken woman before running back to her own home. "Mother! Quickly, we must pack. The Fire Nation is coming. The village is evacuating to Ba Sing Se. We are leaving in the morning," Zetian tossed the bucket aside on the porch, almost forgetting to take off her outdoor shoes but not bothering to slip into slippers after closing the front screen door.
As if there was no turmoil outside and as if Zetian had not brought that turmoil into her very home, Lixue continued to tune the pipa in her lap. "Did you get the water?"
"Mother. Did you not hear me? The Fire Nation is coming. The Dragon of the West is coming. Why is that out? Now is not the time for music," Zetian rubbed her temples out of frustration. Why did her mother decide to act senile now of all times? Did she not understand they were about to be in the middle of a war zone? Lixue didn't seem troubled at all, still casually plucking at the pipa's strings.
Once Lixue was satisfied with the tune of her instrument, she glanced up at her daughter, "There is always time for music, and also, where will we go?" Such a simple question, in such an innocently patronizing tone. Zetian bit her tongue for a long moment before regaining the composure to address her mother.
"To Ba Sing Se, honored mother, along with the rest of the village," Zetian didn't even attempt to hide her growing frustration and mounting panic. "Why aren't you taking this seriously?"
Lixue sighed, placing the instrument carefully on the floor and folded her hands in her lap, "have you forgotten we are not welcome there? Or have you made the fatal mistake of thinking Long Feng has forgotten this as well? Or perhaps an even more dire error, do you think Long Feng would not know we had returned?"
"It has been almost thirteen years," Zetian slowly placed one knee on the ground followed by the other so that she was half kneeling, half prostrate before her mother as if she was begging for confirmation of her dismal hope, "surely things have changed in such a long time." Her pleading expression broke Lixue's heart, a feat her daughter wouldn't think possible.
Before further breaking her hope completely, Lixue held her daughter's face between her hands. Zetian still remembered when their touch had been like the caress of a fine silk kimono instead of the sandpaper grasp they were now. "Things have not changed, my beloved. We will stay here, and we will do what must be done to survive. Do you understand, dear one?" Her voice was gentle, even though the message was not.
Sadly, she did understand. Tears pricked at her eyes as fear got the better of her. No, not fear, as terror got the better of her. Zetian felt her heart pounding in her chest, and now that there was no one to comfort, she began trembling. "So we are to be at the mercy of the Fire Nation?" Zetian's voice was not much more than a stammered whisper as her stomach clenched at the thought. She could already smell the fires that were to consume them, hear its crackling like angry spirits.
Lixue shook her head, tilting up her daughter's chin with a finger so that Zetian could look no where else, "no, child, we are at the mercy of our own cunning." She released Zetian's gaze and picked up the pipa, once again plucking it, "Now, before we starve to death waiting for the Fire Nation to conquer us, go to the river. We still need water for the rice, and don't forget to ask Shang about the tofu if he isn't too busy running about like a headless chicken."
Knowing there was nothing left to be said, Zetian bowed quickly and left her mother to her music while the rest of the village chaotically dismantled itself. She walked swiftly, head down. Zetian didn't want to witness the chaos. The ground beneath her was much more stable than the world around her. Someone brushed against her, jostling her slightly as she walked but no apologies were made. There wasn't time. Soon enough she was out of the village but did not take the path towards the river. Dinner could wait. If her mother was hungry enough, she could get her own bucket of water or simply eat a cold meal. Zetian understood her mother's reasoning, but that didn't make it any easier to bear. Lixue's utter indifference about the impending danger angered Zetian all the more.
The path quickly grew more difficult to maneuver. Thorns and branches scratched at her ankles and face but Zetian pushed onward. At last, she reached her destination – a small clearing in the woods where an abandoned shrine stood defiantly against time. Zetian slowly approached the statue of the forest spirit, hand clasped in front of her. The bucket was left at the edge of the clearing. She sank to her knees in front of the nine-tailed creature carved from jade, resting her forehead against the delicate, lifelike paws.
"Huli Jing...please hear me now..." Zetian did not bother to hide the sorrow and terror in her voice. There was no need to lie to a spirit. "Again, I am afraid. Again, I am helpless. I need your guidance and strength. It has been ten years since I found you. I have done what I can to preserve your memory and shrine. I beg you. Protect my people from this onslaught. Protect me for I cannot protect myself or my mother. I do not know what to do or even if I can do anything...please..." She allowed herself to dry sob, shaking uncontrollably for what was lost and what would be lost. Zetian was afraid of what would have to be done in order to survive, but death frightened her more.
Twilight came and went. Zetian hadn't realized how much time had passed but the dull ache in her knees along with the setting sun suggested it had been hours. Her mother would not be pleased when she finally returned home. In the back of her mind, Zetian hoped Lixue was hungry. Then, upon realizing the thought, felt guilty and felt a pang of her own hunger. Still, she remained at the feet of the statue, lacking the motivation to move.
"Zetian..." A voice murmured from the shadows that surrounded the shrine. "Oh, little Zetian...what has the world done to you? What unfairness have you known...and now this?"
She could see no one despite her frantic search and the voice sounded as if it came from all around, like a soft echo. Zetian tried to stand, but her body revolted against the fast movement after the long hours of kneeling. Before she could collapse against the ground, Zetian was enveloped in lavender scented silk. She gasped sharply, nostrils flaring at the strong perfume.
Up until this moment, Zetian thought her mother had been the most stunning woman she'd ever laid eyes on. No comparison could be made between this woman and any others. It didn't take long for Zetian to realize this was Huli Jing. "Honored spirit, I...you're here..." She sounded like a child in disbelief, eyes filled with wonder. Zetian was most fixated on her eyes. They were paler than the palest of greens, but most fascinating, they were the color of her own eyes.
"Indeed, I am, and I see you have noticed we share something. Your mother hasn't lied to you about everything, sweet child," Huli Jing smiled with lips that had yet to move despite the words being spoken. The smile quickly faded, "However, I'm afraid I cannot do much for you. This war is beyond the control of the spirits."
"Then the Fire Nation will win. Ba Sing Se will fall to them. We will lose everything..." Zetian closed her eyes in despair. The spirit tightened the embrace.
"Enough of your sniveling, Zetian. You have clearly forgotten your upbringing, but I will forgive you," The face of the spirit twisted into an expression that was almost frightening to behold. "Dragons may be powerful, but they are not the most cunning of creatures. Even they can be felled by a carefully laid deception, especially when the heart that beats within their chest is human. Do you understand?" Huli Jing traced a finger down Zetian's nose, gently tapping the young woman's lips then cupping her chin.
Her very human heart pounded in her chest; she was sure Huli Jing could hear it, but Zetian managed to nod. "I understand. I will do what I must."
The beautiful woman smiled again and craned her neck to kiss Zetian on the forehead. "Good. Now, awake, little Zetian, the Dragon and his son draw near. You and your mother must ready."
"Awake? I don't... " Zetian tilted her head in confusion. The sun shone down on her and only her. Sometime during the night she'd rolled over into a fetal position, but she was still at the base of the statue with her head near the paws. Zetian jolted up, almost falling over again but steadied herself against the statue. It had only been a dream. Huli Jing hadn't really come to her, but then as she was sullenly wiping the dirt off her clothes, a stiff breeze brought the scent of lavender with it.
The way back to the now empty village was much easier than anticipated but it was as if someone guided her footsteps. She slipped quietly into her home and wasn't really surprised to find her mother waiting for her.
"I saved you a rice cake. I thought you might be hungry," Lixue spoke mildly before gently rising from the floor. "I'll be in the garden."
Zetian bowed to her mother in response, waiting for the older woman to leave the room before straightening. Both were grateful that neither commented that the other was still in the clothing from the day before.
For the collective works of the author, go here.