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22th November, 2014
The water lapped gently along the banks of the Nan Shan river. The moon was covered by thick clouds that brought not only darkness, but also the promise of rain. It was under this thick veil that a small, metal boat sailed.
It travelled slowly downstream, three of the four occupants searching the inky blackness for any sign of their destination (although the word was far too simple for what they had in mind). The current picked up, a smooth transition from slow to swift that caught the sailors unaware before they became used to the change and fell into the steady rhythm. The boat rounded a slight bend in the otherwise straight river, and the shortest of the group cried to the fourth occupant in a hushed whisper.
"I see it, Sifu!" she cried softly, sitting down to remove her fur-lined shoes. Amidst the cries of doom and dark poetry, a cheshire smile emerged.
The two guards weren't supposed to be looking at the wispy messenger by the name of Yao. They weren't supposed to be tracking his movements with practised eyes, nor theorising exactly what news he brought. They knew he would be pacing a while as Grand Secretariat Long Feng 'prepared' everything. The poor messenger must have been trembling in the hallway for half a candle before Long Feng permitted him inside.
The guards strained their ears to hear the exchange; at first, it seemed as though whatever discussion was taking place was too quiet. It soon became apparent, however, that the messenger had just been too terrified of punishment to speak at first.
Eventually, though, he had to open his mouth and give the boss something. "T-There's been another one, sir. The small plains village just north of the Southern Mountain Range was just attacked. They're heading towards Gaoling."
Don't stutter. The first rule of speaking to Long Feng and he had broken it on the first word. The second rule was 'always have good news', but really, that was entirely up to the Grand Secretariat's discretion. If he didn't like you, there was no way that the news of breaking 'rehabilitated citizens' quota would satisfy him if you let even one person break through their 'reconditioning'.
At the sound of Yao's voice, Long Feng glanced up at the agent, his desk being the only object that stood between them. There were no chairs for guests—it was more respectful to stand when addressing the advisor to the Earth King. Long Feng did not say a word, and after several beats (and several gulps) the young man—boy, rather—took it as a sign to continue.
"They seem to be moving south, sir, though they're being extremely slow about it. We managed to ferret out a few hidden benders in the search, but thus far, we haven't found them. The locals haven't yet noticed, but this... group... has significantly weakened our forces in the area-"
He was cut off as Long Feng slammed his calligraphy brush down. Ink flew everywhere, a few drops landing on Long Feng's cheek, and several even reaching the messenger. The Grand Secretariat took a breath and pulled a lime-green handkerchief from his sleeve. He dabbed at his cheek with a scowl. "How many casualties?"
His clear voice carried through the entire room to the messenger, who wasn't entirely sure whether he should be shaking or not.
"Uhh.... none, sir," he answered, gulping when his superior levelled a glare at him. Long Feng interlocked his fingers, tucking them underneath his chin.
There was a brief pause. Long Feng smirked from behind his fingers as the messenger positively trembled under the intense glare. It took a few moments of watching the young man squirm before the seasoned earthbender began to speak once more.
"No casualties? And yet he just walked out with- how much was it again?"
The messenger gulped, glancing down at his notes before paling. "It was... twenty-thousand gold pieces, your Grace." Long Feng nodded slowly. "And- they also took the..." he paused. "The men's underwear, Sir."
Long Feng almost let out a snort. If his men were incapable of protecting his—the King's—taxes, they deserved to have their panties stolen.
"That will be all," he said after a few moments. The messenger bowed, a look of relief on his face. He moved forward to place the documents on the Grand Secretariat's desk. He had made it all the way back to the door when Long Feng spoke once more.
"I think it's time you had another look at Lake Laogai, don't you?"
The messenger paled, even as the shivering began again, and he only just managed to bow to the earthbender before he had high-tailed it out of the room. Long Feng completely disregarded it as he picked up the papers that had been left on his desk.
"Significant damage to barracks... training grounds in need of repairs... blacksmith completely destroyed... loss of-" He had to pause a moment to peer closure. The green light was wonderful for intimidation tactics but it certainly left him with a headache before long. "Loss of Army livestock." He put the paper down with a sigh. This was going to be painful to recover from. The Lower Ring was being taxed as much as possible—any more and they would have a riot on their hands. It was a delicate situation. Standing up, we went to the guards standing outside his office. They straightened immediately when they saw him, hands tucked behind their backs.
"Bring me the Avatar," Long Feng said, his voice strong despite the weariness that had settled in his head. "Tell him that the Blind Bandit has struck again."
They found him on the roof of the Royal Palace. Of course they did. The young Avatar spent little time anywhere else. Earthbending training, under the strict eye of one of Long Feng's more superior subordinates, didn't take up much of his day—usually only one or two hours, tops. His firebending master was a little stricter, but then again, people were allowed to firebend in the Fire Nation. It was a little different here, where earthbending was a monstrosity and unnatural. Where it could land you in prison, or worse. He was lucky, he had to learn how to bend—he was the Avatar. The spirits would go berserk if he was forbidden. Sometimes, though, Aang wondered why other people couldn't. Why they were told not to. Honestly, he loved being the Avatar, but it was the freedom to do whatever. If he wanted to fly, he could fly. If he wanted to relax and just flow along like the river, he could do that. If it was power he wanted (and, considering his position, needed), well, that was always open to him, too. It just seemed like standing his ground was out of his reach. It just... wasn't possible for him, and it made him wonder if it had something to do with the Dai Li's training program.
It was for this reason that he found himself playing soldier to Long Feng. The Grand Secretariat claimed all his missions were in the name of the Earth King, but after living in the palace for the last two years, receiving his earth- and firebending training simultaneously (he had almost mastered the latter. Not really the former) he had never even met the ruler of the largest nation in the world.
Still, he had to be respectful. Despite many questions, Aang never sought to have them answered. It would do no good. Even if he thought he was ready for actual earthbending (surely he should be allowed to move rocks now?), he knew that questioning his teachers was a big no-no. They knew what they were doing—they had done it before. He just couldn't help that niggling sensation at the back of his head sometimes, telling him that he had done it before, too. He should be out helping people, bringing balance. He wasn't Long Feng's pet!
... But, he also knew that was mostly wishful thinking, and if he actually wanted to master earthbending, he needed to stay and do as he was told. Where else would he find another teacher, if not here? All the other earthbenders in the nation were either hiding their abilities or in prison for using them. A bad teacher was better than no teacher at all.
That was why he agreed to meet with Long Feng. The name 'Blind Bandit' meant nothing to him beyond a few desecrated army barracks and broken weapons, but apparently, he was a bender, and he was dangerous.
Long Feng had begun the meeting the same way he always did; with a flourish and foul-tasting tea. He gave a forced smile, one that Aang mimicked perfectly, before taking a seat on the other side of the desk and clasping his hands in front of his mouth, elbows resting on a thick file.
"Aang, the Earth King needs your help."
You mean you need my help, the boy thought bitterly, but kept his mouth shut. Long Feng heaved a sigh that Aang supposed would sound tired coming from anyone else—coming from the Grand Secretariat, however, he just sounded like a frustrated dragon.
"There is a dangerous enemy ransacking the land—taking what they want and leaving destruction in their wake. They're attacking the smaller villages, obliterating the army personnel stationed there before terrifying the villagers—destroying their homes and lives."
Without looking, he picked up the file and handed it to Aang. "These are just some of the sketches done of the aftermath." Aang took the file, opening it carefully. He flicked through pictures of destroyed barns and homes, family pictures of sad faces interspersed throughout.
"These... renegades... are damaging our nation. Their damaging the people and their lives. The Earth King needs you to stop them, Avatar. They can't be allowed to tear down the order we have built."
Aang wondered why Long Feng even bothered asking. He couldn't say no—he owed his servitude to the Earth Kingdom, at least while they were training him. The only reason the Grand Secretariat went through such formalities was probably because of the close eye his former water- and firebending teachers kept on him. He may be working for the Earth Kingdom at the moment, but they still wanted him to be able to leave it behind at some point. He was the Avatar, and his duty was to the world, not one nation.
So, it was with a forced smile that he nodded his head. "Why is he so dangerous?" he asked. "Why can't the army take care of him?"
Long Feng's expression turned into a sour frown, "The Blind Bandit is a dangerous man, Aang. We call him that because he robs people blind, without a thought for those he is stealing from. Unfortunately, we can't catch him because the army can't track him. Only you can do it, Aang; the nation needs you."
The Avatar's expression of pure confusion and disbelief was more than enough to cause Long Feng to sigh again, and he folded his hands in front of his mouth. "He is an earthbender—he has the upper hand due to his callous disregard for the law and lives around him. The army can't work within the law and capture this.... rogue. That's why we need you, Aang."
The young Avatar felt his heart sink a little. So they wanted him to do their dirty work? "What will I do when I've captured him? Will he get a trial?"
If he hadn't been watching so closely, Aang would have missed the way Long Feng's lip twitched at the corner, and the double-blink.
"Why of course, Aang!" He gave a smile, but it looked too hungry, too sinister, for Aang to feel completely at ease. The smile was also a warning, though, and though his heart rebelled, in his head he knew he had only one option.
"Where can I find him?"
Aang was once again found sitting on a rooftop. He always loved the height, feeling the wind blow around him. Sometimes he manipulated it to do his bidding, but generally he left it alone. He could tell where Zhang and Kuai—the Dai Li agents who had accompanied him to the large city of Gaoling—were stationed, and he knew that they would be keeping a close eye on him.
His presence was a secret. Of course, people knew of him—the Avatar—but they had no idea that he was the Avatar. Long Feng insisted on keeping it that way, making sure that Aang's hair was long enough to cover his tattoos, and that he always wear either a hat or a bandana (sitting on the roof, Aang had decided to go with the first option that day). Long-sleeved shirts were a must, and he absolutely could not show any indication of bending. He wasn't prolific enough at earthbending—even the most unskilled native earthbender was better than him—and of course he couldn't show he had control over any other type of element.
The day wore on slowly, though Aang was in no rush. He liked watching the people going about their lives, completely oblivious as to his presence. It made him feel... right. Like he was doing something he should be doing. Even when not paying attention to the comings and goings of the residents, there was still plenty to entertain him. The wonderful smells—fruit custard tarts and tangergranate salad for lunch—were enough for a while as he airbent the wind to carry the smell directly to him, intent on mapping out each and every ingredient. If the agents noticed, they didn't say anything (although he doubted they did). He was pretty sure that at least one of them was asleep.
By late afternoon, Aang was dozing off himself. The sun was warm, and though his face was a little red, he had been spared an awful sunburn by his hat and clothes. Just as he was about to find peace, he was jolted awake at the sound of a small shriek.
Peering over the edge of the roof, he could see a young girl—wow, really young. She must have been only thirteen or fourteen—being harassed by a group of soldiers. The sheer amount of sunlight reflecting off their armour almost blinded Aang, and from the lack of a weapon, he deduced that they were earthbenders. Okay, so, Earth Soldiers—probably stationed in the town to do... what did Long Feng say? To make the people feel safe? Aang almost snorted—he would have, had it not given his position away. This girl obviously didn't feel very safe. She was holding a small coin purse to her chest as though covering herself, eyes wide and fearful. A quick glance told him that Zhang or Kuai had witnessed the disruption, but they made no move to go and help. Aang hissed through his nose. Of course not—they were too good for menial work like save a young girl. With silent movements, he dropped from the roof onto the fence of the adjoining property. No one noticed him, and he was able to get a better look at the scene.
The girl wasn't as young as he first assumed; she actually looked to be a few years older than hs first guys, and probably around his age. She was wearing a fine, white silk dress, though the hem was becoming filthy as the dust around her feet was kicked up.
Suddenly, one of the soldiers took a step forward, and she stumbled back, losing her balance. It was too much for the poor Avatar when one the men followed her, pushing her up against one of the stalls. Aang jumped from his position to the street, and marched up to the group. He watched from the corner of his eye the Dai Li agents mimic his actions, though they were far more subtle about it. They always seemed to go by unnoticed by everyone unless the agents' presence was already known beforehand.
He was brought back to the present as an old lady pushed past him; the scene had been noticed by the regular street-goers, and they were all moving away to avoid what seemed like a regular occurrence.
Jumping forward, Aang tapped one of the soldiers on the shoulder. "Excuse me, Sir," he said, "but I can't help noticing this young lady's distress. Might I be of service?"
Standing close to the girl, he was struck by how... well, how pretty she was. Being the Avatar didn't leave a lot of time for socialising, and all his masters (and their students) had been male. He didn't have a lot of experience around girls (but man, he wanted experience with her).
Her hair was a striking ebony, the sunlight making it shine as it sat wrapped atop her head in a loose bun. She was wearing a smidgeon of kohl that made her eyes stand out spectacularly against her pale skin—flawless skin, like crystal. Or, diamond. Yes, that was more appropriate. There was hardness in her features, but he couldn't place just what made him feel it. By all rights, she should seem... soft. Rounded cheeks belying a pampered lifestyle, there were, but there was something in the corners of her mouth, in the flare of her nostrils that had Aang watching her even more closely.
"No, you might not be of service," one soldier sneered, his uniform slightly more embellished than the others'. "As a captain of the Earth King's army, I'm entitled to take whatever our great nation has to offer. And being such a wonderful man, I'm choosing to share with my men."
The other men sniggered, and when their arms appeared from nowhere to hold him in place, Aang was powerless to stop the captain as he took a step forward, completely blocking the young girl from view. There was complete silence for a moment when, without warning, the captain backed away. Aang watched curiously as the other man gulped deeply several times.
"Come on, boys," he said finally. "We can get better looking ones somewhere else. Who wants a whore unless she performs well?" With a wave of his hand, he commanded the soldiers to release Aang, who was pushed promptly to the floor. Coughing at the dust that had suddenly infiltrated his lungs, by the time he looked up, the girl was also gone. Looking around, he almost missed the strip of white fabric as it disappeared into an alleyway. Aang took another moment to look around, checking who might be watching, before he catapulted himself onto a roof. The Dai Li agents that had been tasked to 'guard' him were conspicuously absent, but that didn't worry him. On the contrary, Aang felt... almost relieved.
The people had absolutely deserted the town, making it easy for Aang to listen to the wind and find the girl scurrying about in the alleys. He hopped from rooftop to rooftop, following the sounds and glimpses of white against the brown dirt road. The streets were getting filthier, more unkempt; even the houses had turned to little more than shacks. This girl would stand out like a sore thumb, he thought for a moment, before coming to a stop along a gutter.
Creeping forward, he watched as she sat down in the middle of a small... well, Aang would call it a clearing if he were in a forest. It was just a yard, closed in on three sides by tall, dilapidated wooden buildings (hardly houses), barely ten feet across. The girl didn't move for the longest time—Aang wondered how anyone could be so still and so patient. Barely ten minutes in and he was half-hanging off the roof, the heavy sun beating down. He was drowning in his own sweat when a sudden movement caught his eye.
From down the thin alleyway the girl had come through, two small shapes emerged. Slowly creeping along the roof, Aang moved only far enough for the girl's face to come into view. Spirits, if she was pretty earlier, when she smiled she was positively stunning. There was an unfamiliar heat, simmering just below his skin as she turned her face to the two shapes.
Aang still hadn't had his fill of surprises, it seemed, when he peered closer and realised that they were... children? A boy and a girl, perhaps five or six. They were holding hands, and Aang wondered whether they were related (and if they were, where their parents were). His questions were answered as she reached into her sleeve and pulled out the same coin purse she was holding earlier. It was noticeably fatter than he remembered, and when she pulled out a handful of gold pieces, handing them to the children. The smile Aang saw erupt on their faces was absolutely heartbreaking, and he ducked his head down as the little boy and girl leaned in, hugging the woman in the silk dress.
She had stolen the money from the soldiers—that much was obvious. But, how? How had she gotten away in the first place? Did she know what would happen? Why was she giving it to children? And, if she was rich enough to wear fine silk, why did she need to steal in the first place?
Slowly, Aang's eyes widened as realisation dawned on him. What were the odds of something like this happening in the same town he had been sent to help?
He wasn't thinking when he launched himself from the roof and onto the floor. As soon as he struck the earth, he felt a rumble, and suddenly was encased in rock up to his chest.
"You're an earthbender!" he managed to cry before the girl leapt up, smashing her hand over his mouth. Aang watched as the two children ran back down the alleyway, even as the girl's other hand closed itself around his neck.
"Don't you even think of saying another word," she hissed. Spirits, even her voice was delicate, like flower petals brushing his cheeks. Perhaps roses, thorny but beautiful, even with the harsh command.
Nodding, Aang sucked in a breath, smelling sweet iron on her fingers as she slowly removed them from his mouth. The one at his throat remained, and she reached her free hand into her dress, revealing a small shiv that promptly replaced her hand.
"Who are you and what are you doing here. Are you a spy, Twinkletoes?"
There was silence as Aang gulped, his Adam's apple bobbing only millimetres away from the sharp blade.
"... Well?!" she cried softly, her crystal voice echoing in the small space.
Aang gulped again. "You told me not to say anything," he whispered hoarsely. The girl put her knife away, and Aang could have sobbed in relief.
"I'm uh... I'm just a kid. I saw you helping those two kids and wanted to know if I could do-"
"Don't lie to me!" she roared, stepping closer. She brought her hand up in front of his face, squeezing the claw-like fingers for a moment. The pressure on Aang's body suddenly increased ten-fold as the earth encasing him tightened. It was an unbelievable burning sensation, crawling through his blood and scraping at his skin.
Then, her hand dropped and it was gone.
How did she know I was lying? he asked himself, but her fierce glare told him to hurry up with his answer. He wasn't sure what to tell her.
Aang had his suspicions about this girl, and he wasn't quite prepared to tell her he was the Avatar. Not yet. Maybe if he played his cards right, she would open up and actually teach him some earthbending? The thought caused a small smile to erupt on his face. And he could pay her so she could help more people without stealing!
"My name is Aang. I was sent here by the Earth King to do some reconnaissance," he ended up telling her. She didn't need to know what type. "I really did see you helping those kids. I just wanted to get a closer look."
She frowned, an expression that seemed out of place on her fine features. She didn't seem to know what to do—she couldn't leave him there, though. That would raise an alarm for a renegade earthbender, something that no one wanted. Whatever Aang expected her to do, it wasn't to crumble the earth prison, nor for her to step forward and suddenly cling to his arm like a little lost poodle-monkey.
He didn't have time to actually formulate a question as echoing footsteps carried towards the pair from the alleyway. Within seconds, the two Dai Li agents tasked with guarding the young Avatar appeared, their hands splayed open in an offensive position.
"Separate. Now!" one called. The girl visibly shook at his harsh yell, and tightened her grip.
"Who-who's there?" she cried out, bottom lip trembling. "Are-are the bad men back, Aang?" she asked, angling her head towards him.
Aang looked at her, almost too dazed to speak. This girl was all over the place. First she had held a weapon to his throat, and now she was holding him like a lifeline? True, the Dai Li were rather intimidating, but from what he had seen, he thought they had more cause to be scared of her. The closeness distracted him in other ways, though; the feel of her warm skin pressed up against his, was one. What truly captured his attention, though, were her pale jade eyes, staring sightlessly at him. She was blind.
The girl whimpered again and, emboldened by his discovery, Aang put his arm around her and began to stroke her side in what he hoped was a soothing motion. "It's okay. The Dai Li are good guys," he said, not quite able to believe it. She seemed to pick up on his hesitance, and the agents dropped their stance, even as she tensed up.
"Please, Sir, we are on a mission," Zhang said.
"Don't leave me!" the girl cried out, her eyes filling with water. "I just wanted to- to get away from the bad men," she hiccuped shakily, the first tears falling. "I don't- where- I want my Baba!"
Aang would forever be amazed at how fast a woman could be reduced to tears, and even though she had threatened him earlier, he couldn't hold it against her as she buried her head in his chest and sobbed brokenly.
"Come on, Kid," Kuai sighed, rolling his eyes. "We'll help you find your father."
At once, the girl's head snapped up, and she shot the men a pathetic look, watery-eyed and vulnerable. "Really? Thank you!"
Aang noticed that she never let go of his hand as they trailed behind his guards, though she was certainly walking more assuredly than a blind person had any right to. Leaning close, he smelled jasmine as he whispered in his ear.
"Who else is on the agenda today?"
She turned her face to him, eyebrows raised in questioning. Aang shrugged lightly, though his next words were anything but carefree.
"Well, the Blind Bandit doesn't usually stop at only one."
The way she stiffened was frightening—it was though a metal rod had suddenly been inserted in her back. Aang watched as she narrowed her eyes before turning her head away.
"I'm sure I have no idea what you mean," she huffed.
"I'm sure you do," the Avatar responded. "And even if you don't know where he is, all I have to do is tell my guards that you're an earthbender."
The girl's eyes actually widened at this. "You wouldn't dare."
Aang smirked. "Oh, hey! Zhang! Kuai!"
He felt the girl's short fingernails press deep into his skin as the agents turned around, twin frowns on their face. This time, the fear on the girl's face was completely real, though they weren't looking at her.
Aang had never felt so powerful. It wasn't often that one held another's fate in their hands, and truth be told, he didn't like it. Who was he to say that this girl had to be imprisoned just because she was born a certain way? There was no telling if those children she helped could bend or not, but it hadn't mattered; she helped them regardless.
There was also the matter that she had essentially admitted to knowing the person he was hunting. So, she was probably working with him. He was probably robbing some poor family senseless while everyone was distracted. Aang could have punched himself.
"She really isn't feeling comfortable here," he lied instead. "That tussle with the guards frightened her. I think it would be best if I took her home."
Zhang shrugged his shoulders, but Kuai looked at Aang through slitted eyes.
"I'm sure that we're able to get her home safely, sir," he said, eyes flashing. "You are here on a mission from Long Feng; it would reflect poorly if you weren't able to complete it."
"The safety and security of this girl is more important," he retorted, surprised to find that he actually believed it—even if the girl didn't ask for help in the first place. Glancing at her, even she looked surprised, with her eyebrows furrowed the barest hint. "I will return to the mission once she is home."
And with that, he walked away.
There were no sounds that the agents were following him, and the duo passed a corner unstopped.
"You could sense when they were coming," Aang murmured to her as soon as he was sure they were out of earshot. "Tell me if they're following us."
The girl shook her head. "They turned around. I don't know where they went."
There was silence as they left the alley, the sun sinking towards the horizon. Aang hadn't even noticed the time passing, but he was grateful for the lessening heat. The sunset would be rather pretty, he knew. It always was in the south. There was no smog like in Ba Sing Se, the dust kicked up from the wind, travelling north from the Si Wong and the farmers ploughing in the Agrarian Zone. It was... clean at the bottom of the kingdom, the temperature more mild and the people more friendly. Not to mention, it was surrounded by mountains to the north and the sea to the south.
"Why did you send them away?"
Aang was shaken from his thoughts at the question—yet another secret he was hiding. He couldn't tell her that he wanted her to feel comfortable with him so she would take him to the Blind Bandit. It was far easier thinking up an excuse this time, and he shrugged.
"I like you," he said—not even a lie!—"and it was just luck that I saw you, you know. I..." Here was the tricky bit. He had to convince her to let him meet the Bandit, but he couldn't lie. "His work interests me."
"His work..." the girl mused.
"Yeah. I mean, how many benders freely roam the country anymore? And to do what he does..."
"And what do you do, Twinkletoes? Besides creep up on poor, defenceless girls?"
Aang rolled his eyes with a grin. "Please. You're probably ten times stronger than me—and that's saying something."
He hadn't been watching where he was going, intrigued by the girl as he was. He didn't notice her leading him towards the docks (and he really must ask her how she sees with such clarity) until she brought him to a stop at the edge of a pier. Aang glanced around, wondering why she had led him here of all places, when he noticed a girl—probably only 8 or 9 years old—running towards them.
She turned to him, showing her pearly white teeth as finally he grip on his arm dropped and she put her hands on her hips. "You wanna meet the Blind Bandit?"
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