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23 February 2014
I had never dreamt of one day traveling to the Earth Kingdom. According to my schoolteachers it was a sad place inhabited by unsophisticated ingrates wallowing in mud, without any modern advancement or bright philosophical thinkers to lift it to the heights of progress achieved so easily by the Fire Nation. According to my father, it was a country of tough, willful people who minded their own business. He felt strongly that the most beautiful parts of foreign lands ought to remain unscathed.
Or so he told me.
He told Ming and me that Earthbenders were a good, noble people, perhaps without the genius inventors and philosophers found within our shores, but harboring an everlasting sense of hope and pride that is unmatched and deserving of our utmost admiration.
That's what he said he believed.
There was so much I didn't yet know. How could he have gone to war for Sozin? How could he have led a campaign? What really made him resign? Why did the Crown come for him? I only imagined I could hope to find answers to half of these questions on my journey, but it would be worth it. It had to be. I was putting everything on the line.
I convinced myself that Jirou's proposed solution was a lie, that it was an unworkable plan, that I couldn't even trust he had my interests at heart. That was the truth, mostly, but I had to keep reminding myself.
The man loading supplies onto the Kun Island-bound vessel said it was departing in the evening, which made sense as they'd be traveling against the Sun. It was interesting that what appeared to be a private ship was delivering supplies to the military, but nonetheless I assumed they wouldn't be too happy to have me on board as a passenger.
Once again, I left Nightmare on his own, this time on the other side of the town, and I made my way to the part of the harbor I first encountered the crew to map out my plan to sneak on. The ship still being anchored told me I wasn't too late, but the position of the Sun in the sky warned me that if I didn't hurry I would be. The loading dock was empty, and from what I could see there was no movement on the deck of the ship. The lack of commotion was peculiar, but when I glanced to my right I noticed laughing and enjoying each other's company over a meal at market far enough from the ship that I figured I could go unnoticed.
Nightmare was waiting patiently for me when I hustled back to retrieve him. Time running out, I quickly undid his bind and led him back to the harbor. I specifically remember two small children who stopped playing to gawked at us, and I laughed at how strange I must have looked.
I approached the vessel from the opposite direction as to stay out of the sailors' lines of sight. From the markets and townspeople to the loading dock, there was only a few second-stretch, and we dashed across as rapidly as possible. Then shielded by the boat, we climbed on board. The deck was vacant, but I did spot one crew member on the crow's nest above. Scanning, I saw what I was looking for: an open passage to below the deck. I cautiously approached and led my pet down the creaky wooden set of stairs, emitting out an enormous sigh of relief when I saw that I had entered the cargo hold.
"Look, Nightmare," I said out loud, "our home for the next-" Shit! How long will this trip take?
Footsteps from the deck above me whipped my head around towards the stairs. No one was coming- yet. I ushered Nightmare deeper into the Hold, mapped by tall stacks of boxes that seemed endless. It was a labyrinth, and I was going to be the monster hidden deep in the bowels.
In between two columns of crates and just before the wall laid a long, flat chest, containing only some coiled-up rope and a few folded tarps. They were easy to remove and place in between the chest and the wall where they wouldn't be noticed, and the then-empty box had just enough room for me and Nightmare to squeeze into should there be a need.
There was a need. A glow slowly poured into the room from the same set of stairs I descended, and I had to get me and my scaled friend in the chest before whoever was wielding the lantern saw us. It was a snug fit, but it worked, and I overheard the voices of two men:
"Everything's loaded and ready for departure, Sir."
"Good." The responding voice belonged to the scrawny man I encountered earlier. "It better be. I would hate to have my premier voyage as First Mate to the Captain marred by the poor job of my deck cadet. Do I make myself clear?"
He certainly wasn't any friendlier.
"Yes, sir," squeaked the timid cadet.
"Excellent. Prepare your seamen for our departure. I want the anchors up immediately. Unless you have an emergency, any issues for the next couple hours can wait. I do not want my meeting with the Captain interrupted."
"Yes...Sir. Aye aye."
"Wonderful. You'll make a good Second Mate some day."
Four feet stomped back up the wooden steps, and when I heard the metal gate to the cargo hold swing shut, I popped open the top of my new bedroom for a breath of air. My quarters were far from comfortable.
I sat upright and sighed. I'm really doing this. But was it the right decision? Only time would tell, I supposed. I reached into the pocket of my robe and retrieved the last of my fruit, a modest assortment especially when divided up between me and Nightmare. When the latter's stomach growled all I could offer was a sympathetic glance. "Hang in there, buddy."
The ship began moving, and I knew I was embarking on an adventure into the unknown, but one that, hopefully, will make the unknown known, if that makes any sense.
I yawned and slumped against the wall. The day had taken quite a toll on my energy, and the emotional distress I suffered was so exhausting. I could barely stay awake...
My eyes shot open when the gate to the upper deck screeched, and my body sprang up straight as chills infected my whole body. My focus narrowed in on the stairs across the large bilge, but no legs emerged. Something must have distracted whoever was about to come down, but not for long. I jumped up to shake Nightmare, who had also fallen victim to sleep. Groggy, he refused to re-enter our chest, no matter how hard to tugged at his neck.
"Come on!" I muttered, frustrated.
That wasn't going to work, so I grabbed one of the tarps I had removed from the chest and unfurled it, ordering Nightmare to go in the space between the chest and the wall so that I could conceal him. He obeyed just in time for me to dive back into the chest and close the top before I heard the creaking of the stairs.
It became clear that the same two men, the First Mate and the deck cadet- whatever the fuck that means- had re-submerged to the ship's bilge. I- the bilge is the basement of a ship, in case you weren't up-to-date with your seafare terminology.
"Your meeting was productive, Sir?"
"It was, Cadet. Although I'm not sure the Captain has placed his full confidence in my abilities, seeing as how he wants me to recheck the cargo hold. It's stifling down here."
"Recheck for what?"
"Who knows? Damage... animals... missing supplies... huh, stowaways, maybe."
"I'm sure everything is as it should be, Sir. I only needed to come down for a a line."
The First Mate grunted. "There's some rope in that chest over there."
My heart sank. I couldn't see the man point, but I cringed harder and harder as the footsteps approached.
Shit... shit... shit... shit... SHIT!
I flinched when the top of the chest was lifted, but to my surprise, I didn't hear a reaction. I gradually opened my eyelids to see the deck cadet glaring down on me, but completely silent. It was astonishing at first, but then I made sense of it. The man's position was resting on the fact that there was not a stowaway on board.
It was obvious from his expression that he was in contemplation, thinking of what to do. He looked as though he was about to reach for the rope, only to see that it was no longer in the box. Instead, what he was looking for was cuddling with my deadly lizard. Puzzled, he reached for the tarp behind me, but I shook my head frantically as a warning.
"What's going on over there?" called the superior.
"It's uh... it's not in here. Are you sure you got the right chest?" With that, he closed the lid on my hiding place, and I could finally breathe again.
"Yeah, I'm sure. You just aren't looking heard enough."
I panicked internally a second time as the First Mate marched over and exposed me.
"What the-" He gawked back and forth at me and his underling. "Who is this woman?"
"I, uh, I don't know her, Sir! I just noticed her now!"
"And you didn't say anything?"
"I- I knew we couldn't have- I didn't want you to know!"
I remained silent for their entire spat, observing helplessly.
"Ugh!" The First Mate wiped his brow angrily. "What am I supposed to do, huh? If the Captain finds out, we'll both lose our jobs!"
"Then keep me a secret," I piped up. "Look, no one wants you to keep your positions more than I do right now."
The First Mate narrowed his eyes. "Wait a minute! You're the girl from today! Who are you?"
"I'm just someone who wants to get to Kun Island," I answered simply. "And you're someone who can't report me to your superior. I'm not hurting anyone, and it benefits both of us if you let me get to this ship's destination unnoticed."
He shook his head vigorously. "No. No, I won't allow this!" Turning his cadet he raised his voice. "I want her gone! Have her thrown overboard and don't let anyone important find out about it!"
With that, I knew I had no choice but to defend myself. I leapt from the box and pushed the cadet into a stack of boxes with a kick to his chest. Then I swung down and kicked out the First Mate's legs, bringing him to the ground underneath my ablaze fist.
"This is the part where we make a compromise," I spat. "Right now, you don't answer to your Captain. You answer to me. Is that perfectly clear?"
The pathetic man nodded rapidly with his mouth hung open.
"I want a cabin. I want to live comfortably on this voyage. I want to be left alone and unharmed, and I want you to understand that if I sense any threat I will kick and scream and bring as many of your men as I can down with me. If I don't set you on fire, I will make sure that your secret is exposed. If you can meet my requests, you'll keep your job and your life."
The man got to his feet, never breaking my gaze. "Fine. But I'm putting you to work. If you don't comply, I'll notify the authorities as soon as land on Kun Island."
"Alright. Looks like we have a deal."
"My name is Ryon, by the way." I think he expected me to share my name as well, but I left him hanging.
Ryon walked over to his cadet, apparently named Alzer, and whispered in his ear, then Alzer gestured for me to follow him up to the deck. I did my best not to look back as I abandoned Nightmare, alone underneath the tarp.
Once on the deck, I received a few curious looks, but most men were too busy tending to their responsibilities to notice. One man whistled, but I pretended not to hear. I was overjoyed when I saw the cabin I would be staying in, and shocked to see that I would be sleeping on an actual bed for once.
"You will be in here for all times with the exception of your work," Alzer instructed sternly.
I saw no problem with that. "Very well."
"You will report to the chief steward in the kitchen at dawn." With that, he left me alone and closed the door behind him, allowing me to finally relax for the first time in months. The room was much larger than I had anticipated. Ryon must have given me a nice, private cabin out of the need to keep me out of sight. I wondered if he ordered Alzer to give me his own quarters...
My body flopped onto the bed, and I sunk deeper into the mattress by the second, slowly surrendering to comfort for the first time since I met Jirou. That was another thing: I was thrilled to never have to see his mug ever again. That meant that for once, just maybe, I could have a sweet dream.
I was forced awake by a strange cacophony of loud noises, momentarily unsure of where I was and beyond confused. As my mind slowly came back to life after a long night's sleep, I recognized the sound of a horn coming from a distant place outside my cabin, and when I sat up I realized there was a bell ringing above my bed. This, mixed in with the thunderous stampeding of men outside my door made for an irritable morning.
Slowly transitioning my feet from the bed to the rug, I spotted that clothes had been slipped underneath the door. It was a uniform, turns out. A man's uniform. At first I wasn't pleased, but then I came to the conclusion that, given what appears to be a lack of any women on the ship, I'd rather not stand out. I wrapped my hair up and covered the back of my head with my Fire Nation bandana in an attempt to at least appear as a skinny male from behind, with the hopes of drawing as little attention as possible.
The first thing I wanted to do was check on Nightmare, but at a time as busy as the morning seemed to be, I couldn't risk it. Besides, I was to report to the kitchen immediately. So, I took a deep breath and found myself in a corridor with no idea how to find where I was going other than to follow the rush of sailors. I kept my head down as I walked, unsure of how many, if any, men noticed that a woman was walking amongst them. That's when I heard a couple of female voices, and when I glanced up to find their source, I saw two older women in uniforms similar to mind looking right back at me and giggling to each other.
I guess I was the new girl who hadn't given up yet on trying to blend in, but I was also about 30 years younger. Certainly those two women didn't face the same kind of torment I would with the men on the ship.
The kitchen was hot, and it was hectic, but a few of the male cooks momentarily ceased their work when I walked in... only to be scolded by the short, fat, old man I presumed to be the chief steward: my new boss.
"You must be the girl I was told about," nodded the man as he limped over to me with a purpose. "I apologize for my staff's, uh, behavior. Here is obviously where we prepare the food for the entire crew, including the Captain and his staff. You'll be responsible for doing whatever I tell you to, which for now will be standing by that window over there and serving the men."
The chief steward gestured to a counter and a window separating the kitchen and what appeared to be a mess deck.
"You'll take those bowls on the counter and use the ladle to give every bowl two scoops of the stew, and then you'll add a slice of bread. After that, it's good to go. The men don't need to talk to you, and you have nothing to say to them. Alright?"
"Sounds good," I feigned a slight interest.
I had my instructions, and I began work. Scooping the ladle into the pot of stew, pouring into a bowl, repeating, and then adding a slice of bread. Simple enough. The very first in line were the two women who gossiped about me earlier. I gave them genuinely sweet smile as I handed them their bowls. If I was going to be stuck on that ship, I was very open to the possibility of making some friends. They thanked me politely, one of them adding "Nice to see such a beautiful young woman mixing it up with all these men," and then they found their table.
"Oh, what do we have here?" I instinctively rolled eyes when I heard the voice of a misogynist. "I don't believe I've seen this pretty face before."
A clean-shaven sailor and his friends snaked closer to me. "How is it we've never met, darling?"
I could feel a vein popping in my forehead. The chief steward told me I had nothing to say to the men, but he was dead wrong. I had so much to say to that douchebag.
I opened my mouth, but closed it again, remembering that staying out of trouble was more important that putting some prick in his place. The group accepted their breakfast and let me be, laughing to themselves. At that moment, I figured I was in for a long trip.
At least sexism and body odor will be the worst of my troubles.
One of the younger cooks came up behind me.
"Listen, the Captain just walked in. See him over there? Make sure you give him extra portions!"
I looked up to identify the Captain.
And then I almost fainted.
No! No! No, no, no. I don't believe this. There's no way!
My heart sank to the pit of my stomach as the other cook continued.
"Yeah, and make sure to address him properly as Captain Jirou."
|Prologue - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -|
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