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26 February 2015
I couldn't believe what I was seeing. My mind raced to a million different worlds, but my pupils remained transfixed on the muscular, handsome, arrogant Firebender that I had come to know as my fellow Shepherd, my partner, my lover, and my enemy.
Under no circumstances could I let him spot me or even get the suspicion that I was aboard his ship. How he could possibly have been its captain, I never could have guessed, but it wasn't important.
I instantly turned my back to the mess deck and tugged on the young cook's shoulder. "I need you to cover for me and serve the Captain," I pleaded.
"Why?" he stammered back. "Don't be nervous. You won't make a bad impression. He probably won't even remember you." It was an ironic piece of advice.
"I, uh, I'm feeling really sea sick." I was about to vomit, but it wasn't because of the ocean. "Please, can you just cover for me for five minutes?"
The cook rolled his eyes and chuckled. "Fine, newbie. Go puke and then wash your hands. You need to finish chopping those onions for me when you get back to make this a fair trade."
"Fine, deal." I ran out of the kitchen door and found myself at a railing overlooking the shining crystals of the sunlight reflecting off the dark blue sea. A magnificent sight that was then contaminated by whatever I had in my already empty stomach.
I couldn't understand why the spirits that my father so regularly honored would curse me like that. Nothing was ever going in my favor. My house burned down, my sister was kidnapped, my father was murdered, and I couldn't even catch a break on a boat ride!
"It's not fair!" I bellowed out loud for all the spirits to hear.
I gasped when I heard the loud crack of thunder roll over my head, and I was shocked when the clear day became darkened by a sudden invasion of black clouds. Seconds later, a downpour of torrential rain began pounding on the ship and mimicking the sound of the sailors' footsteps.
On the deck above me, I heard a door slam open.
"Where'd this storm, come from?" shouted a clearly-furious Jirou.
"It rolled in suddenly from the east, Captain."
"Then change course for the west," ordered back the man whom I was trying to avoid. "Hopefully we can outrun it and then loop back to the original course."
"Report back to me at the Bridge when you have changed direction."
With that, the two men went their separate ways, and judging by the fact that Jirou said he was headed to the Bridge meant that he was no longer in the deck hall, and I momentarily felt safe enough to return.
When I reentered the kitchen, the chief steward and his staff were cleaning up, and I walked deliberately over to the onions to proceed my chopping.
"Girl," I heard the chief steward call out. "Don't bother with those. We're all cleaning now. Throw those out. They'll be bad by the next meal anyway."
I could tell that the onions were nowhere near going bad, but I honestly didn't care whatsoever how wise of a chef the man running the kitchen was. I nodded and followed orders obediently, sure to do a superb job with my cleaning so as not to be reprimanded again. For a ship, I was actually quite surprised with the effort put in to sanitation. I expected a bunch of men to be wallowing in their filth.
Then I remembered it was a ship run by Jirou. To that man, presentation is everything. I should have at least seen his presence on the voyage coming, as he did say his ultimate goal was to reach Taku, the closest mainland city to Kun Island.
Perhaps it wasn't so awful that Jirou was on the ship. Perhaps our destinies were simply intertwined. My biggest fear obviously was that he would try to kill me, although admittedly I couldn't think of a reason he would... but I learned long ago to never operate under the assumption that others will behave rationally.
As I was scrubbing the counter hard, you know, putting some real elbow grease into it, I was greatly perturbed by the man I heard enter the kitchen.
"That was an excellent meal today, Flevus." Jirou's voice made my spine tingle, but I was sure to keep my back to him.
"Captain!" my boss was eager to see his. "You haven't visited the kitchen before. Is everything alright?"
"I promise I won't disturb you or your staff at work again, but I know you're a well-traveled man, and I was wondering if you had an answer to this old Earth Kingdom riddle I received at the bottom of a letter."
"What riddle?" inquired the chief steward, Flevus.
"How does one devour an Unagi?" Jirou grunted as I smiled. He was stumped by an old saying my father used to bring up every so often.
Flevus was also unsure. "Well, the Unagi is a great serpent that inhabits Earth Kingdom waters, but I've never heard this one before. My apologies."
"Well, I guess I'll have to find out when we get there. Keep up the good work."
"Will do, Captain."
Moments after I wiped the nervous sweat off my brow, the chief steward approached me.
"Hey, kid, are you doing alright? I saw you run off earlier during breakfast."
I had no time or patience for people concerned for my wellbeing at the moment, but I decided it would be advantageous to manipulate the man's apparent care.
"It's just that I um," cue the shaky voice, "I felt very shamed and objectified by the men. They made me feel so embarrassed about my body." I gestured at my magnificent breasts, which were big enough to even be noticed in the baggy uniform.
"I told you not to let the men get the better of you."
"I never responded. I just think... I'm a distraction. They slow the line and lose focus because of where I'm working."
Rubbing his chin, the old man grunted in agreement. "I see. Well, I could situate you in the back over there where we cook the meat. It's very hot and the work is tiring. Do you think you can handle it?"
It was the first time I laughed in a while. "Please, whatever kind of meat you throw at me, I can handle it." Somehow I made cooking sexual, but I moved past that. "And since I'm doing it for no charge, you have nothing to lose."
Getting a hardy belly laugh from my boss felt very satisfying. "Alright, very well then. You'll start in your new position for lunch. Why don't you go get some rest now?"
"Thank you, Sir," I bowed. Some people are so easy to manipulate.
Never show your desires to anyone. It's even worse than letting your opponent see you bleed. If you let anyone know what you truly want, like the First Mate wants his position or the chief steward wants money, they will use to control, or even destroy you. I suppose that's something Sozin learned before I did.
On my way out of my workplace, I snatched a small bunch of bananas, and I made my way to the main deck. I found the gate to the bilge and submerged down into the cargo hold before sprinting over to where I left Nightmare.
"Please be under here."
When I pulled the tarp off, a set of ferocious teeth launched forward and snapped a foot away from my face. Then they recoiled. When Nightmare recognized me, he growled out of what I assumed was a combination of anger and frustration.
"I know. I'm sorry." In an attempt to offer consolation, I peeled the bananas and left them by his feet so that he could devour them instantly. Unsure of when I could next visit him, I knew I had to find a more adequate source of food. So, I scoured the maze of cargo, never opening a box to the point that my interference would be noticeable, but searching everywhere for what I needed. Finally, I came across four boxes of some round, orange fruit I had never seen before, and I took one. The fruits needed to be peeled, and it was more difficult than I thought it would be- but it was worth it for Nightmare. I sat beside him, singing one of Ming's favorite lullabies from hen she was an even smaller child.
Racing the wind and chasing the Sun.
Take the long way around back to square one.
Today we're just outlaws out on the run.
There'll be no regrets, no worries and such
At that point, I felt my throat swell up. I could barely croak the last few words.For children like us.
I peeled the remaining orange fruits in silence. Occasionally they squirted at me when I punctured them too hard, and the juices stung the cuts on my hands, but when I was done, I was happy to present Nightmare with enough food to last him a few days. He typically only ate until he was no longer hungry, so I trusted him to pace himself.
Before I climbed back to the main deck, I spotted what appeared to be a cage-like trap for mice. Without knowing or caring how mice got on the ship to begin with, I happily removed the dead rodents and carried them over to my only friend before finally petting him goodbye and leaving.
A couple of the crew turned their heads when they heard me close up the gate, and one of them momentarily cleated off his line so he could come over and bother me.
"You know, some people have no business being on this deck. This isn't a place for the girls."
I shot him a quizzical face. "Really? Then what are you doing here?"
The asshole's face turned as red as mine used to get whenever my mother would break out the wooden spoon of discipline, and he grimaced as his friends rolled over laughing at him.
"Listen, sister! You don't want to mess with me!"
"What are you going to do? Cry and hope I slip on the tears? I feel bad for whatever sorry woman you'll go home to."
Almost everyone in earshot shut up and dropped their jaws in amazement, with the notable exception of the man I had just pissed off, who came barreling over to me.
It was like a staring contest. I glared at him and him at me, only breaking my gaze when Alzer, the "deck cadet"- still not sure what that is- came physically in between us.
"Hey, break it up!" he barked, pulling me aside.
"Ryon told you not to get in any trouble, girl!" he whined in a hushed tone.
"Then keep your men on a leash!" I snapped back. "If you don't want me exposed then let me be in peace."
"You should be in your cabin. Every time you show yourself, you're extending the possibility of someone getting suspicious. There aren't a lot of women here, you know, and word travels fast."
"I was just on my way."
"Hey!" he grabbed hold my wrist, only for me to quickly readjust it's position so that I had his hand bended backwards.
"If you ever try to stop me again, you'll need to find a job that doesn't require a left hand, got it?" I spun and left for my cabin.
Fifteen days went by, and land had not been spotted. Supposedly, the original trip was intended to be two weeks, but the first major storm set us on a detour, which was followed by another unexpected storm. As it turns out, Jirou was not that great of a captain. That didn't surprise me. He was a Shepherd working a mission and assigned to lead a normally-private ship to a quasi-military island next to the city he hoped to conquer from his own mother-in-law. It was bizarre, certainly, but rather straight forward from my point of view.
I only managed to get small tidbits of what was happening through conversations in the kitchen, grab what I could at the end of my shift and bring it to Nightmare, and then return to my cabin for the remainder of the time. I was never again interrupted by Alzer or Ryon, and the most shit I received from the crew was an occasional whistle or holler. Jirou was apparently never seen on the main deck, with the exception of the short time after meals in which I was busy cleaning the kitchen. In that way, it worked out so that I wouldn't have to try too hard to avoid him.
There was only one other time I almost caused an incident. I was working in the kitchen when one drunken sailor stopped the mess deck to give a speech:
"Men, may I just say I proud I am to sail with the likes of such fine gentlemen!" The other crew members banged their tables in approval.
"Soon, we'll win this war. And we'll do it together! We'll put those mudslinging ingrates in their place! We'll make them eat their own dirt!"
The crowd became rowdier.
"We're going to end their shitty world with flames, and I can only think of one possible consequence: Earthbenders smell like shit when they burn!"
Almost the entire room jumped at once and cheered, but I had never been so disgusted with an ideology in my life. It was truly horrific, and something I was certain my father would abhor.
That night, I was anxious. It had been more than two weeks since I walked on land, and I felt as though I wouldn't be able to sleep. That in mind, I volunteered to work late in the kitchen after dinner, taking everyone's cleaning responsibilities for myself and assuring Flevus I would prepare everything for the morning.
I worked late, indeed, but it felt good to be alone, doing something. The kitchen was flawless when I finally snuck two raw steaks out of the cooler and slightly cooked them with my own palms. Per my usual routine, I visited Nightmare for about twenty minutes and watched him eat while stroking his back. When he was done, I said goodnight and left.
There was no one on the deck that night, as there was no wind and therefore no reason to work the sails. Instead, we were relying on a primitive invention called a "motor" which apparently was at the bottom of the hull, using the little coal we had on board to somehow function. The boat would then be steered by someone in the Bridge, who, at that hour, was likely to be someone underneath Jirou. It seemed like nonsense to me, yet the vessel moved forward.
My vision darted for the starry sky, as a winged figure swooped down onto the railing on front of me. At first I didn't move, but as I cautiously walked over, I saw that it was a messenger hawk. As I got even closer I realized it had a tube tied to its back. I looked over both shoulders before I proceeded to retrieve the rolled up parchment from the tube and shoo the bird away.
I wanted to read the message there, but it was too dark, and I didn't want to risk being caught. So, I hid the note in my sleeve and hurried back to my cabin where I lit a candle and peeled the Fire Nation insignia off the folded paper.
URGENT MESSAGE I read in the blue glow:
Water Tribe mines surrounding Earth Kingdom territory.
DO NOT APPROACH SHORE
Change course and await further notice.
The message said that if the ship approached the Earth Kingdom shore, it would likely hit an explosive set by the Water Tribe. I sat down, as it was a lot to take in. There was no way of knowing how long prior to the delivery of the message that the bird had been sent, and therefore no way of knowing how close the ship was to its demise.
I ran back out of my room and onto the bow of deck, where I tried to narrow my vision as best as I could. I gasped when, under the light of the stars, I saw a dark landmass not too far in the distance. We can easily hit that before dawn, I thought to myself, and my immediate reaction was to find Ryon or Alzer and tell them.
Who am I kidding, I realized. I'll tell my Flevus. Or maybe I'll find the women I saw on my first day!
Or maybe I shouldn't tell anyone.
It was a thought that, once it crossed my mind, I couldn't let go of. In a matter of hours, the ship was to sink. That was a fact, but when I peered over at the lifeboat attached to the starboard side, I realized that who was on the boat when it sunk was up to me.
The mines would be a good distance out from the beach, so I had to be quick.
The first step was to retrieve Nightmare from the cargo hold and reposition him on the small, wooden lifeboat, securely tied to the main vessel. It was an easier part of the plan that I thought it would be. Nightmare complied and still no one else was on the main deck. Luckily, it wasn't a military ship or there probably would've been guards.
I did notice something as I was guiding Nightmare out of the bilge, however, something I thought would be useful...
First, I had to find Jirou's quarters. Ironically, I found it on the level above mine. Directly above my cabin was a door marked "Captain's Quarters," and I when I saw it I smiled and rushed back down to the cargo hold to get what I needed and then returned.
Two quiet knocks. I found those to be sufficient before I welcomed myself into Jirou's quarters.
When I closed the door behind me, I heard him sit up right. A small ember jolted out of the dark and stopped when it hit a candle, illuminating the two of us just enough so that he could make out my face.
"Nalia!" he almost jumped out of his bed. "What are you doing here? You're supposed to be in the capital! Why are you on this ship? Nalia-"
"Shhh," I put my finger over my mouth, and then I brought that finger down to my uniform, slowly peeling it off layer by layer. Jirou said nothing. He watched in silence as I slowly walked over to him, letting my garments fall to my ankles. I didn't want him to worry about what was going wrong. I needed him to worry about his desires.
"Did you miss this?" I asked quietly.
At first, he stammered, astonished. "I- yes," he conceded. "I missed it so much."
We both smiled, and I made my way onto his bed, sitting on his chest. Without another second going by, I leaned down to kiss him passionately, and he responded by placing his hands on my body and feeling his way down.
He was wearing a light shirt, which I quickly pulled over his head.
And then I grabbed his wrists.
Before he knew what was happening. I reached down for the chain I left on the floor and bound his wrists to his bedpost.
"What are you doing?" he asked nervous.
"I want this to be rough," I woofed. "I want you to know everything about what I want."
I again reached down, but he had no time to react to what I was about to do. He screamed after two rapid jabs, but then he was relaxed. I had impaled both of his thighs with a poison dart from my equipped robe that I received to be a Shepherd, and as hard as he struggled, he couldn't move his bound hands or his quickly paralyzed legs.
He snarled. "Someone! Hel-" I shoved his shirt so deep in his mouth that he gagged twice, and then I left, but only for a few seconds.
"When you left me to die, you didn't do a proper job in ensuring that I would. That's a mistake that's going to cost you," I taunted as I reappeared, "and a mistake I've learned from."
His eyes shot wide as I wheeled in a platform bearing three barrels.
"Your First Mate was stupid to put blasting jelly with the rest of the cargo. That's just careless."
At that point, I could see the beginnings of tears rolling down his eyes, but I didn't stop. I brought in two more barrels, and I put one next to him on his bed, opening the lid and reaching my hand into the explosive material.
"You asked for the answer to a riddle today," I started, rubbing the blasting jelly on his legs and stomach, then his face. "It's an answer I know, and one you're about to learn."
I smothered one end of his gag with the jelly.
"This is how you devour an Unagi: one bite at a time."
I took one last look, disgusted with the man, yet so satisfied with my own work, and then I left him. Left him to rejoin Nightmare on the lifeboat and cut the two ropes holding it to the ship, letting us plunge into the water.
On the boat were some paddles, and I used them to create as much distance between myself and the ship as possible. I couldn't approach the shore myself, as I wouldn't want to risk detonating the mines, so I had to let Jirou clear the path for me.
It took almost an hour of following behind at a safe distance, but then it started.
The first explosion hit the port side, then the starboard, then a burst of flames shot straight throw the center of the ship.
The motor, apparently still running, pushed it even deeper into the sea of bombs, which began to go off in every direction until the entire vessel was consumed by fire.
As it sank, I had only one burning thought: those men smell like shit when they burn.
You may think differently of me now. You may think I'm just like Jirou, just like Sozin, perhaps. You may think I'm a murderer.
But I'm not.
I'm a survivor.
- "Children Like Us" is a slight lyrical adaptation of "Cowboy's Like Us" by George Strait.
|Prologue - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -|
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