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|The First Leaf Falls|
One: Hushed Mystery
January 28, 2013
Previously in Tempests
Sohyon has a strange meeting with one of the two feuding leaders, Empress Ichihara. Meanwhile, Eizo and Kanae get into trouble when they retaliate against Lord Eiichi Mashita--the son of Emperor Mashita--and Sohyon is blamed for it. After these accusations are placed on Sohyon, paired with the fact that he has only met Empress Ichihara, people suspect he is not so unbiased...
The tone shifts when the first leaf falls
A large field lay before him. Sohyon breathed the fresh air in deeply, relieved to finally have a break from the stress of trying to create a peace between the two Earth Empires. The wind blew against his face, just cold enough to make the hairs on his face prickle a little bit. He looked behind him, over his shoulder in a small, hasty glance, to see the city in rubble. His leaving had left them with no way to solve their issues, and as a result the entire city crumbled.
Sohyon is an airbender, and not even the Avatar. Technically, it is not his obligation to help those people. But when he closed his eyes, all he could see where the bodies of those he had met going up in flames. All he could hear were their screams, piercing through the air despite the fact that they were long dead. He sighed a little bit. Since he was young, Sohyon had been taught that you can't go back on decisions. With a decision like this, no matter how much he regretted it, there was no way for him to fix it.
Sweat coated Sohyon's face when he awoke. Since he had arrived at Ishi Sentō, his dreams had seemed more... vivid than ever before. He rubbed the salty beads from his face with his blanket, noticing that his facial hair stubble was starting to poke through the fibers. There was no escaping it anymore: this morning, he had to shave.
Warily, he staggered into the washroom they were sharing to find Eizo already up and scraping away small, invisible hairs from the side of his head. He turned to greet Sohyon with a wide grin, only for the grin to immediately dissipate when he saw Sohyon's face. Slowly his jaw fell, until he was literally gawking at his friend's appearance. Then, when Sohyon picked up the razor Eizo had just left there, rubbing his face over with shaving cream before setting to work.
"No! Stop it!" Sohyon dropped the razor as instructed before even beginning to shave. Eizo slammed both his hands on Sohyon's shoulders, staring intently into the latter's eyes. "Your beard is beautiful! Don't get rid of it!"
"Eizo, I look like a slob—"
"I have been trying to grow a beard like that since I hit puberty! You grew such a fine beard in just a couple of nights?!"
"It's not even a beard, it's just—"
"Just no." Eizo turned away sadly. "If I'm going to be jealous of your ability to grow facial hair, you should at least embrace it! Don't waste your gift."
"I'm shaving, Eizo. I look like a beggar." After saying this, Sohyon picked up another razor as if to symbolically avoid another encounter with his friend and once more pressed it against his skin. As soon as the blade made contact with his skin, Eizo began weeping hysterically. "Really?"
"It's just... so... sad..."
"Say goodbye to my beard, Eizo."
Shaking his head with a teasing smile on his face, Sohyon resumed the process of shaving until his chin was once more perfectly smooth. Eizo "recovered"—if it could even be called that since his entire charade had been in jest—and the two exited to find Kanae up and about as well. She had a piece of paper spread out on a low wooden table, seeming to mark rigorously with a pen.
When Eizo and Sohyon entered, she looked up and beamed a little. "You two are finally up! I got a map of the city from the Mashita messenger who has been waiting outside and have been planning out how we're going to interrogate the locals and find out about the Empress's scar."
"I guess that means I should be off," Sohyon remarked. "Try not to beat up any nobles today."
"No promises, friend!"
At this point, Sohyon seemed to have realized that it was pointless to hold Eizo and Kanae to any high standards in terms of keeping out of trouble. Maybe it was his weird dream, or maybe sleeping on the issue of Eizo chucking Eiichi Mashita had made the whole thing kind of funny. One way or another, Sohyon stepped out of the door feeling rather lighthearted. As Kanae had said, the messenger was waiting outside and all Sohyon had to do was follow him.
After Sohyon closed the door behind him, Kanae turned to Eizo. "So I think we go back to the marketplace and try to start conversation with the busybodies."
"What makes you assume there are gossipers at the marketplace?" Eizo inquired, tilting his head sideways.
"How else would the rumor have spread so quickly? Sohyon knew that you airbended that asshole before he even got home. The only solution is that there were some people at the marketplace with far too much time on their hands who spread false information that the Tiáotíng Zhě fancied himself taking sides and beating up the other side."
"I guess I can see that," Eizo folded his arms defiantly. "You seem to be making an awful lot of leaps of faith, though, Kanae. This isn't some children's story and we can't just fake our way to answers."
"I see your point, Eizo." Though Kanae said this, it was apparent that she wasn't going to agree with him. "But quite frankly, we don't have much more than what we can fake through ridiculous assertions."
"I just have this feeling..."
"Who's like a children's story now?" Kanae retorted with a sly smile.
Eizo chuckled. "You're right. Let's just go with your plan."
After seeing the Empress's house the day before, the Emperor's house was nothing too spectacular. Of comparable size, and the only difference Sohyon could notice was that the flags and symbols were that of a different nation. Then again, he wasn't an architecture person, and assumed that the messenger—who appeared to be talking—was going on about something of that nature. Undoubtedly he wanted to convince Sohyon that Emperor Mashita's outrageous mansion was somehow better than Empress Ichihara's outrageous mansion.
Upon entering the Emperor's mansion, however, Sohyon noticed a clear difference. Contrary to the Empress's mansion, where there were remarkably few people to be found, the Emperor's house was bustling with activity. Everyone seemed in a hurry to get places, all rushing past Sohyon and the messenger as if they were just a part of the horrendously expensive-looking furniture which lined the walls. The messenger lead Sohyon through winding passages until they finally arrived at intricately carved gold doors. Once they were near the doors, the messenger bowed and opened them, gesturing for him to enter.
Another surprise awaited Sohyon on the other side: instead of seeing the Emperor alone, Sohyon saw a mass of people, with every seat at the large banquet table filled. Several conversations filled the room; however they all were silenced when the door opened. A man seated at the opposite end of the room stood when Sohyon entered, and Sohyon immediately presumed that this man was the Emperor. "Tiáotíng Zhě! What a pleasure! Please have a seat." He gestured to the empty seat at the opposite end of the table.
Sohyon complied, and the Emperor sat as he did. "After I heard about what happened with my son, I was even more eager to meet you." He laughed heartily. "My son is a spoiled brat, and deserved just that." As he said this, Sohyon noticed that Mashita's son was actually sitting next to him.
"I appreciate the sentiment, Emperor, but it was not I who attacked your son."
"Then it was one of your friends?" Sohyon turned to the next speaker, immediately recognizing Lord Saromi. A shiver went up his spine, but he hid it well. "They seem to enjoy getting themselves into trouble, don't they?"
"Be nice to them, Genkei." Seated next to Saromi, Sohyon noticed his wife, who now draped herself over his shoulder.
Saromi smiled as his wife spoke, and the sight of Saromi smiling only made Sohyon sicker. This was the person who had attacked his friends and left them for dead, and now Sohyon had to act as though he knew nothing. "My dear, these are simply politics, you shouldn't concern your pretty little head." Saromi kissed his wife's head as he spoke.
"You've met the Tiáotíng Zhě's friends, Genkei?" Mashita asked of Lord Saromi.
"Indeed, I greeted them just after they landed in the city..."
It was still morning, but Sohyon noticed that they were all drinking alcohol. This was the same at the brunch with the Empress, and Sohyon was beginning to wonder if there was some sort of trend or apparent issue in the Earth Empires with alcohol consumption. Saromi continued jabbering about Sohyon's friends, seeming to not notice or care that Sohyon had long since stopped listening. "Dae-hyun." The mispronunciation of Sohyon's name by Saromi caught the Airbender's attention.
"Actually, my name is—"
"I was just telling the Emperor about my party two nights ago, and he asked you for more information about your encounter with his son," Saromi declared with a smile. It was clear that he was trying to force Sohyon into a situation where he would admit some sort of bias and be dismissed. Though why Saromi was trying to do this was beyond Sohyon.
"Yes, I met him," Sohyon responded simply, not willing to fall into any sort of trap.
"Genkei was just telling me it was quite the thing to see." Emperor Mashita laughed as he said this. His deep belly laugh seemed to highlight the Emperor's deep and bellowing voice.
"I am not sure what Lord Saromi means. Your son was intoxicated and I simply avoided a confrontation."
"Like a half-ass, you did!" Eiichi Mashita quickly interjected.
"Be quiet and let the grown-ups talk, son," Emperor Mashita snapped.
This reply caught Sohyon off-guard. He had assumed that Emperor Mashita pampered his son, to account for the usual spoiled-ness of the teenager. The fact that Mashita was being so short with him was surprising, to say the least. They continued chattering, and Sohyon eventually tuned it out again as well.
"What did I say, Eizo?" Kanae and Eizo found themselves once more among the crowds at the marketplace. As she said this, the female Air Nomad pointed towards a group of whispering, well-dressed, middle-aged women. "Let's go ask them about Ichihara."
Before Kanae could move, Eizo put up his arm to bar her way—making what seemed like a pass at the same time—and spoke, "Wait. Let me handle this. The older women love a charming young man."
Kanae rolled her eyes, but when Eizo walked toward them she still watched to see how badly he failed. She couldn't hear what they were saying, but within a few moments she could see a few of them blush, one fan herself, and the others swoon a little. All the while, Eizo seemed to change very little, if at all.
Less than five minutes after he left, Eizo returned. "They say that Ichihara's bodyguards would be the people to talk to, and that they hang around the local bar when they're not on duty."
"To the bar, then?"
"Might as well."
If anything they had seen so far at Ishi Sentō was the epitome of what they were taught not to do as Air Nomads, it was the bar. Drinking and eating meat aside, there appeared to be a sort of fight ring happening in a back corner, with loud shouting and drunken mischief happening throughout the entire establishment.
Almost immediately upon entering, Kanae disregarded her safety and waltzed over to the barkeep. "Do you know of any of the Empress's bodyguards happening through here?"
"You must mean Isitoq," he nodded over to the fighting ring. "He's one of the people fighting right now, and probably the one who's going to win in a few seconds." Sure enough, just after he said this there was the sound of a body hitting the ground hard along with groans and cheers together.
Before Kanae could hurry over to the fighters, Eizo intervened. "Kanae, my sweet lily—"
"That's where I'm drawing the line, Eizo." Kanae interrupted bluntly at the addition of her new nickname.
Eizo seemed to ignore what she had said. "These guys are brutal and bloodthirsty. Let me talk to them."
"You might be able to charm housewives, but I really think I should deal with this."
"Really," Eizo gave this vague one-word response before approaching the crowd. This time, Kanae followed closely so that she could interject as necessary.
A group of men made a circle around two men on the inside. One looked to be a normal, unconscious Earth semi-noble. The other, upon closer examination, appeared to be of the Water Tribes. His skin was as dark as that of some of those of Earth, but he had fierce blue eyes and his medium length hair half tied back into what both Eizo and Kanae recognized as a warrior's wolf tail. He wasn't wearing a shirt, but since the unconscious man wasn't either, it could be assumed that there was some rule about this dress code obligation while fighting.
"Isitoq?" Eizo asked tentatively.
The fighter turned his head at the sound of his name, quickly looking the Air Nomad up and down. "Who's asking?"
"We're—uh—the Tiáotíng Zhě," Eizo quickly lied. Though unimpressed by his supposed persuasion, Kanae could tell that this situation would quickly become very amusing, so for the moment she did not intervene.
"You are? The Empress met him yesterday and you don't look like him."
Beads of sweat appeared on Eizo's face. "Uh... there are three of us."
"Who would have thought? Why are you asking of me, oh great and powerful mediator?" Isitoq's voice dripped with sarcasm as he spoke, though he did not change his expression at all. Not long after speaking, the crowd was beginning to chant for another fight.
"Uh, we, um, need to know about Empress Ichihara's scar."
By this point, the chanting had grown to the point where Eizo was barely audible over it. "I might tell you, if you fight me."
With that simple remark, Isitoq stepped back into the circle. Eizo turned to Kanae for support, but all she gave was a little nudge forward and a sadistic grin.
"Mediator? Wake up." Sohyon woke with a start, wondering if everything had just been a dream again. However, he found himself dozed off in a chair in the dining half of Emperor Mashita and knew otherwise. "The brunch is over." It was a timid servant, who was in the middle of cleaning up after the rather dirty guests.
"Ah! I dozed off." He shook the fatigue out of himself a bit and stood, bowing to the servant out of habit. Feeling uncomfortable, the servant bowed in response. "Thank you for waking me, I suppose I should be on my way."
Departing from the mansion, Sohyon made his own way back to the house. Somehow, he had already taken to calling this place of residence "the house", though he and Eizo and Kanae had only stayed there for the past few days. But Sohyon seemed to be able to generally find his own way around the city at this point, and thus it was quickly beginning to feel like they all really lived there. He could hear someone inside as he neared the door, and opened it casually under the assumption that either Eizo or Kanae would be found within.
To his surprise, neither Eizo nor Kanae was on the other side. "Tiáotíng Zhě! I was waiting for you." Lady Saromi said in the same tone which she used with her husband.
"Lady Saromi?" Besides saying her name, no words came to Sohyon's mind.
"Please, call me Hiroko. I don't want to be bound by my husband's name right now." She swaggered towards him. Sohyon noticed that she was wearing a peculiar lack of clothing... "My husband always mispronounces your name, so what is it really?" Lady Saromi ran a hand down Sohyon's chest as she spoke.
"It's Sohyon, but I have to ask—"
"Sohyon." Lady Saromi emphasized each syllable of his name when she said it. Her hand was now slipping further and further down his body...
Sohyon quickly escaped from Lady Saromi, as he was now feeling incredibly uncomfortable. "Lady Saromi, what are you doing here?!"
"Isn't it obvious, Sohyon?" She emphasized his name in the same way when she spoke. "My husband is getting less and less fun, and here you are: a fancy new toy for me to play with."
"Um, Lady Saromi, you should lea—" Despite having made a decent distance between them, Lady Saromi made another advancement, slamming her right hand just next to Sohyon's left ear. He looked at it out of surprised instinct, but Lady Saromi quickly grabbed his chin to pull him into a forced kiss.
Seeing little other option as Lady Saromi continued to advance, Sohyon created a gust of air just forceful enough to push her away but also light enough that he would not hurt her to put more distance between them. She staggered backwards, falling to her knees to stare up at Sohyon in disbelief. "Lady Saromi! Please leave!" Sohyon couldn't think of much else to say, and was hoping that she would get the message.
"Oh Sohyon, I can tell you want me—"
"I really don't, Lady Saromi! Please leave now!"
"Is there something wrong with me?" Sitting on her knees, Lady Saromi pouted her lower lip a bit. "Just give in a little; no one has to know—"
"Leave! Get out, Lady Saromi!" For the first time since arriving at Ishi Sentō, Sohyon really shouted at Lady Saromi, rather than his former slightly-louder-pleading-cry. She seemed almost as confused by this Sohyon did, and she even seemed a little scared. Without pushing anymore, she grabbed her robe from the floor nearby, put it on quickly, and hurried out of the door. He could see tears streaming down her face as she left, smearing the omnipresent makeup which covered her face.
Now, it appeared Eizo had no choice but to fight with Isitoq. Hastily, he removed the top part of his robe and nodded his head in agreement. A nearby member of the circle had some bandages, which they wrapped over Eizo's hands in a similar manner as Isitoq's hands looked wrapped. "No bending," someone said, and Eizo was pushed into the circle.
Isitoq took what Eizo guessed was a trained fighter's pose, a stance with his strong leg back and where his weak fist was slightly lower than his strong one. In the case of Isitoq it was opposite of what most others would be, with his right hand leading. Not entirely sure what sort of stance to take, Eizo lifted his hands so that the back of his right hand faced Isitoq and his left hand was just below his right elbow.
"What the hell kind of stance is that?" Isitoq asked with a smirk as they circled each other in the ring slowly.
"Traditional airbending stance, asshole."
"We're not bending here, pretty boy." With this retort, Isitoq quickly stepped in. His left hand was pulled back into a medium upper that—on any opponent except Eizo—would have connected exactly with his solar plexus.
But Eizo was far from any typical opponent. Airbenders are trained to dodge, and Eizo's instincts immediately kicked in. When Isitoq first moved, Eizo moved backwards at the same time so that Isitoq's punch cut through nothing but air. Isitoq smirked a bit and went in for a quick jab with his right hand. Eizo tilted his head so that the punch just barely went past his ear. Then, Isitoq continued with a few more punches, all of which Eizo dodged before he took a great jump backwards to increase the distance again.
"Your fancy footwork isn't bad," Isitoq admitted, "but this fight isn't going to go anywhere if all you're going to do is dodge."
"Plant your feet and actually fight, Airbender!" Someone from the crowd shouted.
Reluctantly, Eizo complied and mimicked Isitoq's stance. This appeared to amuse the Water Tribe warrior, who resumed using the same stance. Since he was copying, Eizo's stance looked leagues more awkward, and Isitoq seemed to have immediately seen an opening. Like a raging saber-tooth moose lion, Isitoq suddenly charged forward, apparently having abandoned his stance completely. He collided with Eizo, grabbing the airbender around the waist and hurling him over his shoulder.
It didn't take long for Eizo to overcome his surprise and land gracefully on his feet. Though encouraging Eizo to stand and fight, it didn't appear that this fight would be fair by any means. "Try this, ponytail." He took the fighting stance again, and it seemed that Isitoq would fall for the trap. As the Water Tribe warrior charged, Eizo quickly shifted his stance and sidestepped around the warrior. He ran into the line of people, who roughly shoved him back into the circle. While his balance was off, Eizo bent down close to the floor and extended his leg, sweeping Isitoq's legs out from under him and knocking the man onto the floor. Eizo put his foot against Isitoq's throat, and the latter tapped out to signal the end of the fight.
"Not bad. Next time I know I won't have to hold back," Isitoq retorted with a smirk. They exited the circle and two more fighters entered to start some new combat trial. "What do you want to know, mediator?"
"We need to know how Empress Ichihara got her scar," Kanae spoke quickly.
Isitoq held up a finger silencing Kanae. "Hold your tongue, sweetie. I'm speaking to the one who beat me in the ring."
"We need to know how Empress Ichihara got her scar," Eizo repeated what Kanae said, but not without shooting her a smug look first.
"Not many really know about that," Isitoq said with a sigh. "It's really quite an embarrassing story for her bodyguards..." He paused, as if rethinking whether he would actually tell the two what happened. "In truth, there was an assassination attempt about a year ago."
"Someone tried to kill the Empress?"
"Yeah... She was with her sister, and whenever she would spend time with her sister she would always ask me and Hajin to wait outside. We never thought anything would actually happen, but..." Isitoq sighed again. "The assassin was good. He threw three daggers," as Isitoq spoke, he held up three fingers, "one of them grazed Empress Ichihara's side," he pointed one finger at Eizo's side, "one of them the Empress caught," Eizo got the drift of what Isitoq was doing and held up his right hand when Isitoq pointed the second finger, "and the last lodged itself in the Empress's sister's chest," the third finger he pointed right at Kanae's chest. "Three daggers, three hits. The Empress's sister died slowly, but there was nothing we could do."
"So she got the scar on her hand from catching a dagger thrown by an assassin?" Eizo asked in confirmation.
"Mhm. It tore right through the flesh in between her thumb and index finger. I'll be surprised if she ever regains full strength in that hand."
"What I don't get," Kanae added, giving a glare that told the others they would listen to her, "is why the Empress is alone right now? What are you doing here?"
Isitoq shrugged. "Sometimes she just wants to be alone, or just wants to be with Hajin or just wants to be with me. She doesn't much like needing a security detail, which is why we're so short in numbers and honestly why her sister died. Earth Empires aren't much for fighting, in case you haven't noticed by how long this argument is dragging out."
"Wait, if you're a Water Tribe warrior, why are you serving as muscle for a pacifist Earth Empress?" Eizo asked inquisitively.
"I didn't agree to talk about myself, Airbender." Isitoq replied shortly. "If that's all, I should be on my way. It's just about the time when the Empress wanted me to return."
Eizo and Kanae returned to the house to find Sohyon sitting on the floor in meditation. However, as the door open, he jumped and his friends were immediately concerned. "Something up, Soh?" Eizo inquired.
"The strangest thing just happened..." Sohyon could only shake his head and stare off into space in disbelief.
"Wait a minute! I smell a female presence." Eizo sniffed the air as he spoke, receiving an alarmed look from both Kanae and Sohyon.
"I was just joking, but this is female nail polish scraped on the wall here," he said, pointing to a scratch on the right wall.
"Yeah. Lady Saromi was in here acting awfully strange."
"Strange how?" Kanae asked, though Eizo seemed to have something in mind.
"Well, she was kind of draping herself over me—"
"You're saying that a hot girl was in here hitting on you? Please tell me you—"
"Kicked her out? Yes."
"Femme fatale!" Eizo and Sohyon turned to look at Kanae when she spoke. "You made a good choice in kicking her out, Sohyon. Lady Saromi is clearly a mysterious temptress! We just have to find out why."
"We need to find out why Lady Saromi was trying to seduce you, Sohyon! Obviously she was trying to gain something." Kanae nodded affirmatively.
Sohyon rubbed his head in disbelief. "I really don't think she was, she just kind of seemed off."
"Never mind that, no one is a mysterious temptress unless they hope to gain something or distract you somehow."
"Kanae, your mysterious knowledge base on femme fatale just gave me an idea." Eizo turned to Kanae when he spoke.
Suddenly, Kanae blanched. "No..."
I wanted to do more with the femme fatale, but just because I wanted to do more with the femme fatale...
- For the next few chapters, some meaningful dreams will be at the beginning; they are not italicized so as to emphasize the haziness Sohyon (whom the story is currently following) feels between the reality around him and these vivid dreams
- The interaction between Sohyon and Lady Saromi is based on a scene in the novel Brave New World
- Isitoq is basically angsty Water Tribe cross between of and Geralt of The Witcher series
- The fight between Isitoq and Eizo is the first "real" fight of the series
For the collective works of the author, go here.