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Chapter 13: The Owl
Sukan's gaze moved from one end of the small room to the other, where Moro, Shen, and the Fire Lady stared at her. "No, I don't know why she wants to stay with me," she said.
"She obviously feels safe around you," the Fire Lady replied. "And if what we've been told is accurate, you've consistently put yourself in harm's way for her sake."
"It's my job, and if you hadn't noticed, I'm not very good at protecting her."
Moro smiled warmly. "But you do care."
The officer frowned. "...yes. That girl has been through far too much in her short life, but as much as she feels safe with me, she's not."
"That's really what we're trying to determine, Officer Sukan. You're right when you suggested that Shingen didn't care about Yoriko as a person, and I doubt he would have thought of her needs and desires when he was deciding her fate."
Sukan grimaced. "I told you: she isn't a pawn."
"What else would you have us do?" the Fire Lady asked. "According to your records, she has no immediate family, and if we can't track down anyone—"
"What are you saying? You'd send her to an orphanage? Put her up for adoption?"
Moro shook her head. "Absolutely not. But we have to maintain a delicate balance. We need to know that the people that raise Yoriko do so because they care; they need to love her. She's lost so much, and the last thing she needs is a family who will only take her because they know she's the Avatar."
Sukan nodded. "Which you would be obliged to share because of the danger."
"Correct," Shen replied.
"So why am I even here?"
The Airbender leaned against the wall and sighed. "Our children are all grown up, out of the house and living their lives. Moro and I can, and will, take Yoriko in if need be. But we want to make sure we accommodate her desires as much as possible."
The officer's eyes widened. "You're not serious..."
"Before you go and get the wrong idea, we are only advocating that she stay with you temporarily, however—"
Sukan ran a hand through her hair. "This is a little sudden, don't you think? Besides, I'm single, and that's not exactly going to change any time soon. Plus, I don't—"
Saitei held up a hand. "Calm down, Officer. We aren't demanding anything of you, and we will not tell Yoriko about any of this. You are simply the best option as far as temporary housing. The Order of the White Lotus will provide you with what you need."
"If you're absolutely against the idea," Moro said, "we won't press the issue. But...at least for now, wouldn't it be easier for Yoriko to be with someone she trusts?"
"You don't seem to get it," Sukan replied in a choked whisper, "It's not that I don't want to...I can't protect her! I've tried twice and failed twice. I can't fail again!"
The Fire Lady frowned, and she closed her eyes as she sighed. "I have an idea about that, actually."
Yoriko clicked her heels together as she and Lyre sat on a bench waiting for Sukan and the others to finish, while Lyre glanced at Nana, who rested against a pillar.
"Yeah?" she replied.
Yoriko bit her lower lip. "Whaddya think they're talking about?"
"I don't know, Sweetie."
The young Avatar pulled her knees to her chest, and tears began slowly rolling down her face. "Sorry...can't cry..."
Lyre pulled Yoriko into a hug. "Sometimes it's okay to cry, Yoriko. You don't have to hold it in."
Yoriko buried her face in the Waterbender's shoulder. "I'm no crybaby...I'm not."
Lyre struggled to keep from breaking down herself as the young Avatar quietly wept. "No, you're the strongest little girl I've ever met. You have nothing to be ashamed of; your parents would be proud."
She gripped the fabric of Lyre's cloak even tighter. "I want them back. I don't care about being strong; I want them back..."
The Waterbender finally let her own tears fall, and her resolve tightened along with her embrace.
Snow blew all around the three men as they stared at the anomaly in front of them. The energy bucked and arced, and the man in the middle slipped a mask over his face.
"What's that for?" the one on the left, Mr. Yao, asked.
The middle man glanced at him, revealing that the mask was a sleek bronze replica of a barn owl's face with red glass lenses for eyes.
"It will do me no good to be recognized by any spirits who come looking for us after this, Mr. Shu," he replied as he pulled the black hood of his cloak up and wrapped the cloak tighter around his body.
The man on the right, Mr. Shu, swallowed. "You really think that'd happen?"
"Well, we've been hired to steal from the spirits; they won't take that kindly, I'd imagine." With that, the man in the owl mask stepped through the anomaly.
"Don't you guys think that there's a reason nobody's done this yet?" Yao asked.
The man in the owl mask stepped toward the portal. "It'll be worth it when we return with the documents."
As he crossed over into the Spirit World, he glanced around and took in the surroundings. The sky was an odd mixture of orange and a sickly yellow, and he could see the building in the distance, a massive, tan structure with multiple jutting towers.
"Wan Shi Tong's Library."
"Is that what that is...?" The other men gawked at the library as he and his companion entered through the portal. "That's where we're stealing from?"
"How are we supposed to find anything in there?" Shu asked.
"Simple," the man in the owl mask said, "We go in, we search, and we get what we're being paid to find."
Nana noticed Lyre comforting the Avatar, and for a moment, she wished she could go back to the way things were. Her sister noticed the attention and seemed to tell Yoriko that she'd be right back before making her way over.
"So..." she began, "how'd it go?"
The Airbender frowned. "Did you expect me to forgive him after that? I can't just forget what he said to me, Lyre! He...I..."
Lyre sighed and folded her arms. "Did you even ask him what actually happened a year ago, what he's been through?"
"What—? No, I...I didn't," she replied softly.
"Ask him. Seriously, I'm tired of seeing you two like this; you haven't spoken in a year."
Nana gritted her teeth. "You hated him just as much as I did!"
Lyre winced. "I never hated Jing...Karuta—"
"They're the same!" she cried, paying no mind to the man who was walking up behind her. "Stop making excuses for him!"
"Then will you let me explain?" Jing asked. When Nana turned around, he fought the urge to close his eyes and look away. "Please...?"
"No...Jing..." she backed away. "I can't."
Before he could say anything else, she turned and ran out the front door, leaving everyone in the room to stare at him.
"I'm just glad Dad didn't see that," Lyre said as she smiled and laid a hand on Jing's shoulder. "She'll come around; I know it."
"Not like this," he replied. "She hates me, and I need to set it right."
The Waterbender sighed. "She doesn't hate you; Nana's just...afraid. Like I was."
Jing furrowed his brow. "No, it's different. She and I were...involved."
Her eyes widened. "You aren't serious?!"
"Just before the—the incident. Which is why she's taking it worse than you ever did." He leaned against the wall and slid to the floor. "I wish I could take it all back. I wish I'd never put that armor on in the first place! I can't imagine how much she hates me...after all that, I tell her that she doesn't matter..."
Lyre knelt down next to him. "You and I both know that you weren't yourself; Karuta manipulated you."
"That doesn't make this easy, but I have to do something." He stood and sighed. "I...I want us to be like we used to."
The man in the owl mask dusted off a book as the last of his partners, Yao by the sound of it, was killed by the spirit that lurked through the halls. He didn't know how Wan Shi Tong found them so quickly, but he had to find what they had come for.
As he flipped through the pages, he heard the flapping of giant wings down one of the corridors.
"I know these men did not come alone, human! I will find the rest of you, and I will kill you! No one is allowed in my library!"
The man reached into his belt, and his fingers wrapped around a dart in one of the pouches just as the flapping grew louder.
"You cannot hide from He Who Knows 10,000 Things! My talons will tear your fragile body to shreds!"
He dropped the book to the floor and turned to face the Spirit of Knowledge, Wan Shi Tong. The owl spirit took a step toward him.
"Time to die, trespasser," he said, but he hesitated when he saw the mask.
"Great Knowledge Spirit," the man began as he bowed, "it is good that we finally meet. I require your assistance in locating something for my employer."
Wan Shi Tong charged forward with a screech, and the masked man jumped to his left and kicked off of the shelf in order to vault over the spirit. When he landed, he positioned the dart in his hand so that he could throw it at a moment's notice.
"Is your mask meant to insult me!?" the spirit cried as it whirled to attack again.
The masked man let the dart loose from between his fingers as the Spirit of Knowledge charged again. It struck its mark, but the spirit was still moving. As he dove out of Wan Shi Tong's way, the spirit tumbled over the barrier and fell several stories to the floor below.
He pulled two slightly curved daggers from sheaths on the back of his belt and jumped from his position on the floor above. He landed with his knees bent and immediately made his way over to the struggling owl.
"My respect for what you represent is boundless, Wan Shi Tong, but I have a job to do," he said as he pointed one of the daggers at his fallen foe.
"You can keep this information as payment for what I'm going to take. I've administered, via dart, a special poison made by combining shirshu toxin with the ground up petals of a panda lily. The flower itself is harmless unless used in conjunction with the saliva of the animal. When combined, it makes a poison that can kill five camelephants."
"A camelephant? Clearly. Which is why you survived and are even able to speak. You might be a spirit, but you have a physical form. Thanks to you, I know my poison is at least moderately effective on your kind."
"Save your curses for someone who isn't standing over your paralyzed form, Knowledge Spirit. I am after a book, Xai Bau's journal, and you know where to find it." He knelt down on the spirit's chest and pressed the dagger to his heart. "You will tell me where it is, or I will show you what my feathers can do."
Yoriko watched as Lyre's sister screamed at Karuta before storming away.
Er... That wasn't right. Lyre would get upset if she called him Karuta.
The Avatar chewed on her lower lip and swung her feet back and forth while she waited. The bench she was sitting on was uncomfortable, and she couldn't stop looking down the hall. What was taking the adults so long?
"They'll be done soon, Yoriko," Lyre said, having noticed where her attention was focused.
"Do you think they'll let me stay with Officer Sukan?" she asked as she wiped the tear residue out of her eyes.
The Waterbender sighed and sat down on the bench next to her. "I don't know. Why do you want to stay with Officer Sukan?"
Yoriko's brow furrowed, and she brought her legs up onto the bench in order to sit cross-legged. "I dunno. She makes me feel brave."
Lyre smiled. "Why is that?"
"Well...she protected me; she saved me from...from him." She shuddered, and Lyre offered the girl her hand.
"Yeah, she is pretty brave and strong, huh?"
The Avatar nodded and smiled as she took the Waterbender's hand. "Uh-huh."
Lyre leaned against the wall. "You said you didn't care about being strong earlier. But you want to know what I think?"
"You're going to be the strongest of us all someday."
- Only a chapter or two before the end of arc 1. Haven't decided which yet.
- Who is the masked man, and why is he after Xai Bau's journal?
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