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11 October 2015
"Nightmare! You're okay!" I couldn't help but tear up when I fell on my knees and threw my arms around my mongoose-dragon.
It was late morning by the time I was being dispatched by the asshole who assaulted me, and for a moment I forgot he was behind me- until I heard his deep, unsettling voice.
"You will be permitted to take your animal with you to Taku, but you must check him in with the stable near your building."
I reluctantly rose to my feet and barely faced him as two Fire Nation soldiers approached, one carrying a black bag.
My captor thanked the soldiers, took the bag, then instructed them to leave. Turning to me, he extended the mysterious gift. "In this bag is everything you'll need to complete this mission: your uniform, Earth Kingdom apparel, twenty gold coins, your official documentation as a citizen of Taku under the name Tu Lin, and- most importantly- a flask of Gu. It is an incredibly deadly poison with which you will carry out the task."
I chuckled. "Poisoning her? Could you have come up with anything less predictable?" Sozin could probably see my eyes roll from the Fire Nation.
"It isn't glamorous but it's the most efficient," the man retorted frankly. "It will get the job done."
"And when Uma is taken out," I started with a feigned tone of interest, "who will replace her?"
"That would be a Fire Nation general named Zhang."
"Sounds intimidating," I mocked. "Will I meet this Zhang?"
"You're looking at him."
I was escorted by the same Fire Nation soldiers I saw earlier through the town of Kun Island. It consisted mainly of decently-sized homes, market places, an amphitheater, government offices, and a lively town square. I had to admit, the town itself was quite charming, and if it wasn't named for my father in exchange for his apparent conquering of Taku, I would've considered a place I'd like to live. Ming would've loved it, with all there was to do and the endless children her age I saw running about.
But who I saw at the center of the town plaza made me stop in my tracks. It wasn't a live person, but a statue. A statue with a face I saw nearly every day of my life. My father. He stood proud and confident atop a stone pedestal, looking over the people, the rest of the island, and the small inlet between it and Taku, his eyes beaming at the city he supposedly conquered in the name of Fire Lord Sozin. He had one hand authoritatively placed on his hip, the other extended with a flame floating above his palm. The statue gave the appearance that he was leading the way for the Fire Nation to Earth Kingdom territory, a heroic deed depending on your perspective... a tragic crime for others.
"What?" I snapped back to the present.
"Let's keep it moving," ordered one of the soldiers.
"Wait," I clambered. "Who is that?" I pointed at the statue, my finger trembling.
"Oh, that's the famed General Kun. The Great Lion! He was the hero who conquered Taku."
"The Great Lion?" I stuttered. "Why is he called that?" I couldn't help the demanding tone of my question.
Confused at my demeanor, the other soldier answered. "They say he wore a golden lion mask during his campaign to take the city. It's on display in the museum in Taku if you want to take a look when you get the chance. Now let's keep going. We have to catch the ferry."
I followed, but I wasn't paying attention to where I was walking. It was like I was in a dream, the idea that my father was immortalized for his horrific actions proving too much for my brain to digest. It wasn't until I was loaded onto the ferry, and the salt air permeated my senses, that I was brought back to reality.
It was a short ride to the mainland, but it gave me an opportunity to mull over my mission. I was to impersonate an Earth Kingdom woman named Tu Li- her current whereabouts undisclosed- who was recently "hired" as a maid to Uma, the governor of Taku and mother-in-law to the late Jirou. For a moment, I wondered if she knew he was dead, but I supposed it didn't matter. My task was to snoop around her mansion, spying and collecting as much information as possible about her affiliation with the Crimson Wolves or anything else the Crown would find dissatisfying. Then, on the fifth day, I was to drop the Gu poison into her food before she ate. The technique of assassination was eerily familiar to my first mission as a Shepherd. I only hoped it would go smoother.
Zhang becoming governor was not an idea that settled well with me. If the Shepherds want Uma dead, she's doing something right, I thought. Part of me honestly thought it would be better if she stayed in power, but that wasn't what was best for Ming and me. It concerned me that the Shepherds were starting to come out of the shadows and outright place themselves in positions of political authority, and I could tell a city run by Zhang was no safe haven for me, but I clung to the promise that if I completed the mission, I would victoriously breathe my next breath- as Zhang himself phrased it.
In a word, Taku was stunning, for reasons good and bad. Most of the city rested on a single, gorgeous mountainside, with various stacked levels of homes, buildings, and monuments. The stone houses were unlike anything I'd ever seen before. It was just a shame that the beauty was marred by Fire Nation flags. That's something that will decrease your property value tenfold.
Still, I couldn't help but gawk in awe at the magnificent archway I passed through on my way into the city, or the colossal marble badgermole statues that greeted me. They were so elegant and majestic, and posed in such a way that made me think they were the first line of defense for the city from invaders.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. "You'll be on your own from here. Good luck." Just like that, the two soldiers left me and went back in the direction of the docks.
One way or another, I made it to Taku.
As I hustled to the stables at which I would leave Nightmare, I walked through a bustling city that boasted both disgruntled, miserable-looking Earth Kingdom natives and a few wealthy Fire Nation colonials. It was a bizarre mix I never thought I would witness. Although those in green outnumbered the red, it was clear the balance of power was tipped heavily in the Fire Nation's favor. The socio-political dynamics of Taku were summarized for me when I saw a wealthy woman in red garments traveling leisurely in a carriage steered by a frail coach driver sporting ratty green cloth. The original people of the Earth Kingdom settlement had been completely subjugated.
I made sure my black robes concealed any red I was wearing, as to not reveal to which nation I belonged. No one paid much mind to Nightmare, which I found odd but figured that the people there were somehow familiar with his species.
When I arrived at the stable, I asked the man I assumed to be its manager where I could leave my friend.
He squinted and rubbed his belly. "Uhhh, do you have any documentation I could check?"
For a split second, I was nervous, but I recalled the parchment I received from Zhao and presented it. It was a full Tako document with my fake name, place of residence, birth date, and my status as a non-bending Earth Kingdom subject.
"Allllright," the man said as he stamped a blank part of my paper. "Just show us this when you come back to pick him up. How long is he staying with us?"
"Um... five days I guess."
"Okay, that'll be... two gold pieces now and a third when you get him."
I tossed the man my payment, hugged Nightmare goodbye- I must admit leaving him at the stable was not something I was anywhere near comfortable doing- and went on my way. I would miss him dearly, but I wouldn't be traveling a long distance in a while, and maybe it was best that he got a break from the action.
My building wasn't too far away. It was a large, stone structure with the appearance of a house, not unlike every other building I saw on the block. When I walked inside, I noticed that it was not a hotspot for Taku's wealthy. It stank of raw fish and poverty, but I've smelled worse.
After climbing a set of stairs and finding my apartment number of a door, I checked out my new residence. Immediately, my eyes were drawn towards the bugs swarming over... well, everything. Then, my ears perked up when I heard a couple in a shouting match down the hall.
"Oh boy," I sighed in disbelief. The Shepherds do not set up their assassins well. Tight budget I guess.
Those inconveniences barely phased me, though, as my mind was occupied by digging into the truth about the "Great Lion" that was my father, Kun. My first objective, before I even thought about the mission to take out Uma, was to change into my Earth Kingdom disguise and visit that museum the soldier told me about.
It felt unnatural, pretending to be someone who at that point was most likely dead. I resented putting my clothes on her bed, washing in her sink, and using her cracked mirror to change into traditional Earth Kingdom apparel for the first time in my life.
My new identity as Tu Lin included a plain, dark-green, long sleeve, shallow v-neck robe with white linings and cuffs, as well as brown pants that only went as far down as my knees and dull green shoes: nothing fancy.
What was special was the small bag I found wrapped inside my clothes. It contained two bottles, one with a black liquid I recognized as hair dye and the other a curious bottle with a pointed lid and instructions. I followed the steps on the label, lifting the bottle above my face and pointing into my eye. A drop of liquid came out, and when it hit my eye I was taken back... but I repeated the process with my other eye.
Unsure what all of that was for, I stared at the hair dye. The Shepherds were asking me to alter my appearance, and that brought about conflicting emotions. I didn't want to let the Fire Nation take away who I was, but at the same time I didn't want to be Nalia when I was carrying out the mission, so I complied.
I applied the dye to my hair, essentially painting it a dark black. It was an emotional moment for me, erasing my own identity as I took up this false name and false nationality- but it was for the best. I also noticed that my outfit came with pins for my hair, and I decided I would wear a big, messy bun for my time in Taku.
But I dropped the bottle and shrieked when I looked in the mirror, my hand instinctively covering my mouth. "My eyes!"
Not only was the hair on my head foreign to me, but the sharp, golden color that once defined my eyes and my face had dulled and faded. I was unrecognizable. My most noticeable physical feature was gone... but that was probably the point. I stared myself down with my vaguely gray eyes, which were no longer a dead giveaway of my Fire Nation heritage.
I stood for a moment, motionless. Shocked. Red, gold, and light brown were replaced by green, gray, and black. It was only physical change, but somehow it felt like more. Nalia wasn't dead, I reassured myself, just in hiding. It was Tu Lin's time to shine.
Before I left for the museum, something in my brain told me to equip lightly. It's not like I'm one to start a fight, am I? But I thought a couple poison darts and my small dagger might come in handy.
I only had to walk about a mile until I reached a massive building with shining, clear windows that covered most of its face. The inscription on it read TAKU CULTURAL MUSEUM: PRESERVING OUR CITY'S PROUD HISTORY. Interestingly, it appeared to be an Earth Kingdom museum despite the Fire Nation occupancy.
It was located near the coast of the city, but what stood between the museum and the ocean struck me at my core.
Right across from the stone steps up to the museum was a wooden platform with a frame and six rope nooses hanging from it. Gallows. At first, it was shocking, but then it all made sense. What better place to execute rebels than right in front of a building that represents their heritage? I also understood why the front of it was so heavily comprised of glass. From within the Taku museum, one could witness an Earthbender be hanged by the Fire Nation. It was utterly disgusting. Brilliant, but repulsive in every way. I suppose that's a good definition of the Fire Nation government, actually.
My shoes made a pitter-patter noise while I hurried up the steps to the Taku Cultural Museum, but they stopped right before I entered through the front door. One deep breath, and I was ready to learn more about my father.
"You here for a tour?" I looked awkwardly at the young woman, around my age, grimacing at me with a peculiar disdain in her eyes. I noted her red scarf, then quickly scanned the museum to see that although most of the people inside were Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation soldiers were posted throughout.
"Miss? Tour?" she asked again, flatly.
"Uh, no thank you. I'm good."
I was followed in by a Fire Nation family, and the receptionist became an entirely different woman.
"Good afternoon!" she smiled sweetly. "Would you all be interested in joining a tour that starts in ten minutes?" It certainly was not the same rude tone that greeted me.
Why is an Earth Kingdom cultural institute run by the Fire Nation? I pondered, although it didn't take long for that thought to transition to Why wouldn't the Fire Nation take over their historical preservation. Perfect opportunity for propoganda.
I hastily made my way through the various exhibits, lazily scanning over blurbs about ancient artifacts and history. I stopped by a painting of Avatar Kyoshi bending the same two badgermole statues I passed on my entrance to the city, marveling at her pose and technique. Now that was one woman. I may have a license to kill, but she had an all-out license to be a badass.
Other lessons were less fascinating. Multiple explanations about how the Earth Kingdom forces "gave up" after light battles against Fire Nation conquerors, an exhibit demonstrating how life in the colonized town of Yu Dao and other colonies had greatly improved with Fire Nation presence, and even paintings of the destruction of the Air Temples, perhaps as warning. Almost everything else was genuine Taku history, but the people in the museum could hardly enjoy it with all the enemy soldiers waltzing about.
Then I saw it, in the back. Mounted on a stage, in full display like a god before mortals, stood a proud statue. Behind it, a portrait of-
..of my father. The idealistic, brave, soldier of a man who raised me, with a Fire Nation banner on either side.
My heart stopped, and my feet trembled as I took step by small step towards the exhibit. My pace couldn't have been any slower. It was like there was a magnet drawing me closer that was only slightly more powerful than my tremendous fear that held me back like tar. I stood still when I found myself reaching over the ropes that blocked off the actual display.
It was just a painting, but it took my breath away. He was so young, so confident, so intelligent. He must have had that portrait made twenty years ago. His was the face of a man meant to lead, his expression so eager and hopeful, yet reserved and wise. He had the same scar on his left cheek that he had the day he died, the same scar I'd never seen his face without.
His apparel was unusual, an elegant vest of black, gold, white, and maroon. It was nothing any common man in the Fire Nation would wear, but was the sign of someone who had earned much honor, wealth, and fame. His blue eyes, such a unique trait that sparked both interest and suspicion wherever he went, only made him more different from the monsters he spent his final years preaching against in the home. That face- I just knew what the soldiers said about him couldn't be true. I knew it in my heart.
My eyes drooped below the glorifying painting to the statue, not dissimilar to the one I saw in the Kun Island plaza, except for one thing: the mask.
It was much grander than I anticipated. A mask is something flat that covers the face, but this was more of a helmet, a golden head of a lion sitting on my father's shoulders. There were holes for his eyes, and it's jaw jetted out, flashing shimmering gold teeth. He looked ferocious, yet dignified, like a warrior who fought with both spirit and grace. His stunning figure was complete with a narrow but thick, dark red cape and, in his left hand, a glowing sword made from a steel that still looked like it could slide through a tree trunk.
I could barely speak, or think for that matter. "The Great Lion..." I muttered incredulously.
"Great indeed." I hadn't even noticed the old man sitting on a bench right behind me.
I spun on my heels. He was nearly bald, but the hair he did have was thick and white, just like his eyebrows. His tunic was as green as his eyes, and his boots were muddy- probably from working a field if his hunched back and callused hands were any indication.
He was just sitting there, content, a subtle grin stretched across his face. His eyes showed the same admiration for my father that I'd imagine mine did, but why?
"Why would an Earth Kingdom citizen appreciate the conquests of a Fire Nation general?" I inquired dubiously.
The man folded his arms, crossed his legs at his ankles, looked down at the floor, and chuckled. "Yeah that's what they like to tell everyone. A conqueror. In Taku, we know the truth."
I must have lunged at the man. "The truth! What's the truth?" I was nearly breathing on him.
"The Great Lion is great because of what he did for Taku! he declared, his voice raised but just slightly. "When the people of our city saw the Lion, they knew their hero had arrived, and that the Firebenders bothering them- well, they wouldn't be a problem anymore. He was a legend, some say a myth, who bravely defied the invaders in the name of the Earth Kingdom."
The words warmed my heart, but they were almost too good to be true. "Why does the Fire Nation insist he was with them?"
"Ha! I bet the fools who came up with that lie didn't even believe he existed. All they knew was that The Great Lion was a symbol of hope and pride for Taku, so they turned his image against us!"
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a weary guard strolling towards us. "Then who was the man who conquered Taku?" I whispered demandingly.
The man looked me dead in the eyes. "General Kun was there, aye, but I know for a fact that he put on the mask, and with his sword he defended the true inhabitants of this city!"
I knew it! My mind raced. They were just the words of a stranger, but I knew they were true!
"What's going on here?" The guard, his stature triple the old man's, stood over him intimidatingly.
"I'm not scared of you," the old man insisted.
The guard only moved in closer. "You better go home, old man," he threatened, "before things get ugly."
Observing the confrontation silently was my only option. I couldn't expose myself, and I was on a mission after all, but I could tell the man who had just restored my faith in my father was glaring at me through his peripherals. Sorry pal, trust ain't always a two-way street.
Luckily, I was never actually tested. Before the situation could escalate, the people in the museum seemed to cause a commotion. The three of us shifted our attention to the entrance, where a crowd was gathering to watch some sort of ruckus outside.
To get a closer look, hordes of people poured out of the museum and spilled onto the street, clearing my view through the window. I hopped a few steps and hopped up on a bench to try and see what was going on.
At first, all I could make out was a wave of horrified faces, but as the frightened civilians flocked away from the scene, I could see all too clearly what was taking place. Mothers scurried away with their children, and those brave enough to remain looked on with fear. An execution.
The gallows that had been prepared earlier were about to be put into action, the six nooses occupied by six different blindfolded heads. Beneath those heads were blue tunics, robes, belts, and shoes. Waterbenders... the ones who set the mines!
They were hanging the people who sunk Jirou's ship, I was certain of it. Why else would they be executing Water Tribe citizens in front of a place for Earth Kingdom pride unless to suppress any ideas of rebellion?
I could tell there wasn't much time before twelve feet would be dangling just above the ground, attached to lifeless heroes. If I was to save them, I had to act right then. A quick survey of the museum showed me that most of the guards were distracted by the event, watching with satisfaction through the window. The old man to whom I was speaking had disappeared, and the guard that was harassing him was observing the commotion with another. They were the only two near me, with everyone else closer to the front of the museum.
The two darts I packed ended up being a good idea. Both in one hand, I thew them like a disk. They floated through the air and stung the two guards in their necks. I dove towards them to break their falls, and while I couldn't catch the weight of two grown men, I was able to lessen the impact and sound of their thumps on the floor. I glanced up, and it appeared that no one had heard or noticed.
There was an insane idea spinning through my mind, but if what the old man told me was true, then maybe it was destiny. Maybe I was meant to take it. I looked back, unsure, staring down the mask of the Great Lion. Then, it was as if the golden head of the beast called me. I felt compelled to approach it, to reach out, and to take it. Placing it on my own head instantly sent a shot of adrenaline through my veins. It was heavy, but somehow lifted such a weight off my shoulders. I had never felt so invigorated, so alive. I ripped the sword out of the statue's hand and used it to break free the red cape. I tied it around my own shoulders, and I suddenly had a feeling that I had never been more ready to go to battle.
I blacked out between there and the entrance of the museum. How I got through the crowd is just as much a mystery to me as it is to anyone. To my knowledge, I didn't hack anyone down with my sword. It was just a sheer rush that propelled me through the wall of bodies. The front doors of the museum were blown open by my inexhaustible energy, and I soared down the front steps as people gasped, screamed, and ran. I didn't think about it; it was instinct to retrieve the dagger from my side and fly it with full force into the skull of the man who stood on the stage, seconds away from pulling that fatal lever. My father had always told me to neutralize the most imminent threat, and he was the one who, if I waited a moment more, would have ended the brave people who put me on my way to reaching my full potential. Consider the threat neutralized.
There was more screaming, more fleeing, but a few sorry individuals ran towards me instead of away. Such a fine line between courage and stupidity.
One Fire Nation soldier, flames on his fingertips, attempted to strike me from behind. I wheelhouse kicked away his wrists, and then my sword cut through his gut like butter. I blocked a fire blast from the right, and, careful to not expose myself as a blue Firebender and therefore Nalia, I sprung forward and slashed out my blade, skimming his throat just deep enough to finish the deal.
A backflip landed me on the execution platform, where the prisoners waited blind, confused, anxious, and excited. With my sword, I cut the man on the far right free of the noose, and then his blindfold and wrist bindings. He said nothing, but without missing a beat he drew water from a nearby puddle to free his friends with one clean slice. I protected them, swatting away incoming balls of fire with my sword.
An uncontrollable flood of raw energy coursed through my body, and I couldn't help but yell out. "I am the Great Lioness!" I bellowed, "And like my predecessor, I will fight for justice!"
What I didn't notice were the Fire Nation reinforcements that had arrived to the scene. It wasn't long before they proved to be a tough match, too tough for the weakened Water Tribe rebels, most of whom were not benders.
I fought hard, I swear to all the spirits I did, but it wasn't enough. I saw one ally after another get cut down at the hands of the soldiers, until there was just one left. She was the only woman out of the squad, and she was nearly burnt to a crisp when I chopped down the two Firebenders pursuing her.
"We've lost this battle!" I declared to her.
It was so unlike to give up, and I hated the idea of retreating, but we had no choice. At that point, there must have been more than twenty soldiers against us two, and if she lost her life, then I would have accomplished nothing by interrupting the execution. By getting her out safely, at least I could say I prevented one innocent death that day.
"No!" she cried back. "These men deserve to pay!" She jumped and spun in the air, sending the water from the fountain behind her through a loop and at handful of her enemies. They were all knocked down, but not killed.
"You'll gain nothing if you die today!" I pleaded. "Please! Don't let your comrades fall in vain!"
Her grimace could have scared off a pack of platypus bears, but she eventually conceded. "Let's go!" she barked.
Just then, I had to push her away from a downward line of fire. It plummeted into the ground just ahead of us, providing a wall of smoke just long enough for us to stumble to our feet and run down a long alley. On the other side was an unappealing collection of rocks, trash, and sewage.
The Waterbender pulled my arm. "Let's head to the coastline. There are some secret caves we can hide out in!"
I had no counter-arguments to that, except my skeptical fear that the Fire Nation had in fact discovered those caves... but I kept it to myself.
We ran what must have been four miles through sewage-filled blocks, over a fence, down a dirt path, then straight down a narrow, grassy hill, until we eventually hit the rocky beach. The cave I was led to was, in fact, empty of Firebenders, at least for the time being.
At first, it was silent and uncomfortable. Naturally, the woman was grieving, mourning her friends. She had barely survived a traumatic experience, something I was far too familiar with.
"Thanks for saving my butt back there," she said coolly. "I'm Sentoki. I guess you can just call me Sen. Everyone else did, anyway."
I nodded, then looked down at the ground. "I'm so sorry for what happened to you. I-"
"You did everything you could. You saved my life." Her voice was so monotonous, but I understood why. Some people express sorrow through a complete lack of emotion.
There was a pause, but I had to know one thing. "Were you behind the mines that blew up that ship coming in?"
Sentoki made brief eye contact, then turned away. For whatever reason, she didn't want to tell me.
"You can trust me," I gasped, placing my hand over my heart. "You know I'm on the same side!"
"I don't know anything," she spat. "The Fire Nation pulls all kinds of shit."
I stood silently, dumbfounded. Of course I sympathized with her, but I had to know.
She rotated to look back at me. "Are you and Earthbender?"
At first I was confused by her question, but then I recalled that she never saw me block any Firebending attacks with my own body because she was blindfolded.
"No," I replied. "I can't bend. But I was born and raised in Taku." I wanted to kick myself. If she lived in Taku, she could easily realize I was lying with just a few questions.
"Okay." The answer was so indefinite, meaningless.
"I, um, I don't think this cave was safe. The Fire Nation found you guys out. They could come here. I have place! You should-"
"You should leave. Please go wherever you call home and do not return."
"What?" I was flabbergasted. "I saved you!"
She stood abruptly. "Leave! And I swear if you bring any Fire Nation scum here, it will not end well for you!"
I was enraged... for a few seconds. But, I completely knew where she was coming from. Paranoia was only a symptom of the disease that was my homeland. "Very well," I sighed. "I will leave. I promise I will never bring anyone back here to harm you."
I walked to the mouth of the cave, but turned just before I left. "And Sentokia..."
She didn't acknowledge me, but I knew she could hear. She just sat in silence with her long, braided black hair, her olive skin, and her dark blue eyes, her head drooped.
I sighed, then continued. "I haven't had a friend in a really long time, and I hope we see each other again."
With that, I was gone. I walked a ways before I felt I was far enough to stop. I then dug a hole in the side of the hills separating the coastline from the rest of Taku, and in it I laid the mask, sword, and cape. There was no way I could bring those things back into the city, but I wanted to be far enough from Sentoki that if I were to retrieve it, she wouldn't see me. It felt like the perfect hiding place.
I walked home, really too exhausted to contemplate the events that had taken place that day. My exhilaration and pride was beaten down into defeat and an unusual sense of disappointment.
It wasn't humbling, it wasn't a victorious feeling either. I was tired. Tomorrow is a new day, I suppose.
- Gu was a common poison in ancient China.
- The portrait of Kun was provided by , as a prize for a writing competition she held over a year ago. I couldn't find the right time to use such a masterpiece until now.
- Sentoki is Japanese for "fighter."
|Prologue - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -|
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