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Meili and Otan formulate a plan to rescue Seippa from a family of Fire Nation merchants, but things don't go quite as expected when the merchant's daughter and Otan began to develop a mutual attraction.
"Otan, wake up!" came Meili's voice in the Airbender's ear. "There's a ship here. They're coming ashore right now."
Otan leapt to his feet. "The Fire Nation?" he said, "They're here?"
Meili restrained him. "In a manner of speaking," she said, "Come take a look."
Otan followed the old woman through the tropic brush to the shoreline, where he could see the ship that Meili was talking about. It flew a Fire Nation banner, but it wasn't the ship that had attacked them the previous day. It was civilian, probably a merchant or cargo ship, judging by the cluster of people and crates carried by a fast-approaching dinghy.
The two Airbenders proceeded silently and cautiously until they came within sight of the landing party; several coolies, bodyguards as well as a rotund man in rich-looking robes that Otan assumed was the merchant as well as a skinny, pinch-faced woman that must have been his wife.
Then, without warning, a flash of red silk and black hair blazed past the two of them towards a nearby Sulfurcrab. "Crabby!" the girl cried out, embracing the surprised crustacean, "I've missed you and your friends so much!"
Holding their noses, two bodyguards had to forcibly separate the girl from the Sulfurcrab.
"Really, dear," said the mother, "Those things are dangerous. They've been known to attack small children."
The girl stood up and brushed the sand from her robes, "I'm not a little girl, anymore, mom. Besides, Crabby's harmless-he'd never attack me."
The merchant stepped between them before the mother could reply. "All, the same, we have to be careful in these waters. General Ghef said that he spotted some Airbenders here yesterday, and those pirates-the Seahounds have gone on a raiding streak-Four ships in a week!"
"I wonder if that beast we found floating in the water yesterday has anything to do with that," said his wife, "Aren't Airbenders supposed to ride those things-those Flying Bison?"
"Seippa." Otan whispered amid the bushes, "Did you hear that? They have Seippa on their ship!" He turned around to see Meili with a broad grin on her face.
"Take of your shirt." She said.
Otan jumped back. "What?"
"You can keep your pants if you tear them up some, but the shirt and everything else has to go," said Meili. "Trust me on this one."
Several minutes later, Otan was sprawled spread-eagle on the beach while Meili packed his clothes into her pack. "Now, for the finishing touches," she said, raising her staff over her head, "Just hold still and this'll only take a minute."
Otan's eyes widened. "W-wait a minute! Ow!" he cried, as Meili brought the staff down on his shin, and then across his chest, "Ow! Ow! What're you doing?"
" When I'm done-" said Meili between strikes, "Just pretend you're knocked out-like you're a sailor who's been through a big storm and you're the only one on your ship who survived and got washed up on shore-girls love that sort of thing."
"What are you talking about?" Otan cried as he tried feebly to avoid the old woman's staff, "What ship? What girls?"
Meili clamped a hand down over Otan's mouth. "Quiet, she's coming! Just pretend like you're half-dead." With that she rushed away into the jungle, leaving Otan battered and broken in the sand as the merchant's daughter approached. Otan snapped his eyes shut instantly.
The girl didn't seem to notice him at first, but kicked off her thongs, laying back into the sand and letting the grains flow over her robes and between her toes. Otan remained as still as a statue, eyes still closed. It seemed that Meili's plan wasn't working after all.
"You know," said the girl, "you could get a sunburn if you stay like that for too long without a shirt on."
Slowly, Otan opened one eye, finding the girl laying on her side beside him, her face right next to his own. "Augh!" he jumped backwards in surprise.
"What are you doing out here anyway?" the girl asked, rising to a sitting position "My father owns this island, you know. You could get in trouble if he finds you here."
Otan stared at her, trying to remember the story Meili had given him, his face growing red as the girl approached him.
"Don't worry-I'm not going to tell him," said the girl. "I'm the only one who knows you're over here."
"I-I was a pirate ship on the way to a sailor who got attacked by a nearby port!" Otan blurted out.
"Wait, wait, wait, slow down," said the girl, "It looks like you've got bruises all over your body. You should probably see a doctor about that. Wait a minute, Zedo! That's it-I'll take you to see Doctor Zedo-he'll to fix you up in no time!" she grabbed Otan by the wrist on the spot where Meili had struck him, causing him to yelp in pain.
"Oh, wait-what am going to tell my parents?" she said, "Help me think of something, okay?"
Otan struggled for several moments to free himself from the girl's vice-like grip when she cried out, "I've got it! You can tell them that you were a sailor on the way to a nearby port who got attacked by a pirate ship!"
Otan nodded weakly in agreement.
"Oh, and my name's Zisa by the way," said the girl.
"Otan." The other managed before being all but dragged through the sand by the trader's daughter.
A Company Girl
Otan spent the rest of the day trying to keep down several bowls of Sulfurcrab stew in the ship's sickbay, despite insisting repeatedly that he was a vegetarian. "I really shouldn't be eating this," said Otan for what must have been the hundredth time.
Dr. Zedo, a balding man in a long white robe just laughed. "Oh, don't you buy none of that nonsense about vege-vege-" he said.
"Vegetarian," said Otan, "I don't eat meat."
"Whatever," said the Doctor, shoving the spoon into Otan's open mouth. "Like I was saying before, I had this brother Nedo once who was a vege-whatzit-one of those folks. Worst constitution I've ever seen, and I'm a doctor!" he grinned, showing Otan his crooked, yellow teeth, which were possibly even less appetizing than the soup, which tasted like rotten eggs more than anything.
Right as the good doctor was about the ram down another spoonful, the door to the sickbay burst open to admit Zisa and her parents.
"This is the one I was talking about," said Zisa, "He was pirate who got attacked by sailors-I mean, he was a sailor who was attacked by pirates!"
The merchant smiled and bowed. "My name is Jiran, founder and president of the Western Sulphur Trading Company, perhaps you've heard of me?"
Otan shook his head.
The merchant bowed his head. "Well, we're not really that well known yet outside of the Fire Nation, I guess," he said, "But one day, the name "Western Sulfur Trading Company" will be a household name all over the world, just you wait!"
"You see," said Zisa, interrupting him, "My dad had this crazy idea of breeding Sulfurcrabs to get sulfur for things like fireworks and all that. Sulfurcrabs live at the bottom of the ocean most of the time, but once a year they migrate to the surface to mate and give birth and when they come, they have sulfur crystals on their limbs and shells, so we just scrape it off and send it to the Fire Nation Capital-that was my idea!"
Jiron laughed. "That's my Zisa," he said, "a real company girl if I ever saw one."
Zisa's mother was the only one who didn't seem to share in her family's good spirits. She leaned in over Otan, eyes narrowing like he was a bug waiting to be squashed. "Where did you say you were from again?"
Otan's mind raced for an explanation. "Um-I was a soldier on a Fire Nation ship," he said, "We were attacked and the ship was destroyed, and I ended up here."
Zisa's mother considered his words for a moment, "My daughter said that you were a sailor."
Otan sucked in a breath, "I was a sailor-" he said, "-and a soldier."
"So you're a Firebender then," said the merchant's wife, "Unless our Fire Lord has revoked the mandate that only Firebenders can serve in the armed forces, then you are either Firebender or a lying crewman."
"I heard he was thinking about revoking it," said Jiran helpfully.
Zisa put a hand on her mother's shoulder, "Of course Otan's a Firebender," she said, "Isn't that right?"
Otan felt his face going red again, "Y-yes, that's right."
Jiran let out a laugh. "Maybe you can teach little Zisa here a thing or two then, she's been working on her Firebending for years." Zisa gave him a shove. "Don't tease me, daddy, not in front of our guest!"
The merchant's wife rolled her eyes and began ushering the other two out of the room. "Now, now," she said, "Why don't we leave Dr. Zedo's patient alone, I'm sure we don't want to cause one of the Fire Lord's finest to go into relapse, do we?"
Dr. Zedo bowed vigorously, "Much obliged, ma'am, much obliged. Now where'd I put the rest of that stew?"
Otan was exhausted by the time the doctor finally left him alone, but he did not sleep. His mind wandered back and forth from worrying about Seippa and the others who were depending on him to the girl Zisa and her family. He had always heard stories-mostly from Meili during her visits to the north-about the Fire Nation and its cruelties and had certainly witnessed as much first hand as a boy. Yet nothing he had seen of these people seemed to suggest any sort of malicious intent, expect for Zisa's mother, of course.
There was a sharp rap on the porthole to his little room just before it blew open. "Otan." Meili stuck her wrinkled head through the porthole, "Thank goodness I found you! Are you alright?"
Otan nodded, "Yeah, it looks like your plan worked after all."
"Good" said the old woman, "Now, meet me on the deck in five minutes, I think I've found out where they're keeping-"
She was interrupted by a knock on Otan's door.
"Otan? Are you awake in there?" it was Zisa.
"Five minutes!" Meili hissed, then closed the porthole.
Quickly, Otan dressed in the clothes Zedo had laid out before them. Like everything else in the Atoll, they smelled of sulfur, but they were at least comfortable.
"Hi," Otan said, answering the door.
"Hi," said Zisa, looking over his shoulder, "I'm not interrupting you am I?"
"Uh, no," said Otan, "I just-I couldn't sleep, I guess. I was going to go out on deck for a walk."
Zisa drew closer to him. "Mind if I come?"
Otan could feel sweat pouring down his face. He couldn't meet Meili with Zisa in tow. "Um, maybe that's not such a good idea-it-it might be cold out there."
Zisa smiled. "Okay, lets stay inside then," she said, "There's something I want to show you in the hold." Taking his hand, she wrenched him forward down the metal corridors and stairwells of the vessel until they came to the lowest level, where Zisa stopped him at the door to the ship's hold. "Okay, you're going to have to be very quiet," she said, "And promise you won't scream."
"Okay," said Zisa, and opened the door. The inside of the hold was pitch black, illuminated only by moonlight slipping through an overhead grate on the main deck. Otan could already see the familiar shape of something large and hairy.
"Let me get the lights," said Zisa, "you may want to stand back."
"Ow!" Otan said when the girl elbowed him in the ribs.
"I said to stand back," Zisa said, "Hiya!" in an instant the entire hold was illuminated by torchlight.
The eight-legged Sky Bison howled in surprise and fear until Zisa came up and tried to calm her with cooing noises. Otan grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her away as Seippa lunged, only to be caught in mid strike by the massive manacles around her legs.
"Be careful," Otan warned, "Can't you see that she's angry?"
"She's also in a lot of pain," said Zisa, "The poor thing must have gotten caught in that fight between the General and those Airbenders. Dr. Zedo and I spent all of yesterday fixing her up. She had at least three broken ribs and she landed pretty hard on her side, too. It'll be a while before she'll be able to fly again."
Otan examined the bandages around Seippa's flank. "You did this?" he asked.
Zisa crossed her arms. "Of course," she said, "It's not like we're at war with the Air Nomads or anything. Just because some of them go rogue and attack the General's ship doesn't mean they're all bad."
Otan was about to say that the Fire Nation had struck first, but kept his mouth shut.
"She seems comfortable around you," Zisa observed after a few minutes, "Almost like she knows you."
Otan stepped back. "I-I have a way with animals, I guess." He said.
Zisa yawned, "Yeah. Well, I think I'm going to bed now. Daddy's an earlier riser, so I've got to be in tip-top shape for tomorrow."
Otan nodded and turned back to examining Seippa's wounds. Moments later, he saw that Zisa was still standing by the door.
"Um, Otan," she said, "I know that you're a soldier and all, and that you probably want to get back with the army, but-"
"I want-If you want to-I was wondering if you'd like to stay with us," she blurted out, "Only for a few days-until we get enough sulfur to head back to the Fire Capital with."
Otan thought for a moment and smiled. "I'd like that," he said, bowing.
Zisa returned the bow and gave him a small smile. "Goodnight, Otan." She said, "Don't forget the lights when you leave, okay?"
"Yeah," Otan said as the girl left the room.
"I thought I said, 'five minutes'," came Meili's voice from above.
Otan looked up in time to see the deck's grate swing and Meili land on the hold floor with a grunt.
"At least we know that Seippa is alright," said Otan.
Meili poked one of the manacles with her staff. "Is this what you'd call "alright"? We have to get her out of here now, help me with these chains."
"Look at her," said Otan, "If Zisa and her doctor hadn't come along, I don't know if she would have made it. She's in no shape to move."
Meili gestured wildly. "That's exactly why we have to act now," she said, "If we move quickly we'll be able to take the ship out to sea without alerting the men on shore." "What about Zisa and her family?"
"As far as I can tell, that girl's the only one with any skill in Firebending and we should be more than a match for their bodyguards. The only thing I'm worried about is if that General Ghef shows up before we leave."
"No," said Otan, "There has to be another way. There has to be a way to do this without a confrontation; without anyone getting hurt."
"I'm not asking you to do this," said the older woman, "As a Sister of the Eastern Council of Air Nomads and Airbending Master, I'm ordering you."
Otan ran his hand through is hair. He was getting desperate. "Just-just give some time," he said, "Just until the merchants leave. By that time it'll be easier for Seippa to move and we'll be able to fly to another island."
Meili sighed, looking towards lanterns around the hold. "Alright, Otan, we'll do this your way," she said, "I just hope that it's your morals as an Airbender talking."
Otan bowed. "Thank you, Sister Meili."
Meili scowled at him. "Don't thank me yet," she said.
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