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Book 1: Kisah
13 September 2012
Amber writhed in an unbearable pain. Her entire body was sore beyond belief and her knees were bleeding after spending the entire day on all fours, scrubbing endlessly in the palace of the Angkara family. Her master, Kriyel, decided that she would need her "favorite" maid's assistance the entire day, not just in the night shift like usual. Every now and then, the loathed woman felt that her grandiose home was not up to perfect standards in terms of cleanliness, and that the only way to fix the problem was to have a few of her servants work overtime- without payment. There was really no justification for this, other than that Kriyel, in her infinite generosity, had not yet executed the maids performing the laborious tasks. That was something the Princess constantly held over her thralls, but one particularly rebellious girl had had quite enough.
Kriyel, garbed in her typical lavish and suggestive apparel, strut through the palace's glowing corridors, her heels tapping the floor louder and louder. She stopped, however, when she noticed that someone was following her. She turned slowly to see Amber, humble as ever, scrubbing the tiles directly behind her.
"What on Earth are you doing?" She looked down on her servant, casting a reproachful stare.
Amber timidly looked up at her master, her innocent eyes as wide as they could be. "Did I do something wrong, Madame?"
"I would like to know why you are following me, girl."
Shaking her head and giving a sweet smile, she replied. "You told us to make sure the palace was spotless, but you walked in from outside. I didn't want the dirt from your shoes to get all over, so I've been cleaning up behind your steps." For a brief moment, both of them were quiet, until Amber asked a simple question that wreaked of sarcasm. "Would you like me to wipe off your shoes? Possibly your feet too?"
Kriyel was infuriated, but she had always recognized Amber as one of her better, more efficient workers. This was her only saving grace, but it was enough for the Princess who chose not to punish the girl too severely. "You need to work on your attitude. Your father had an absolutely atrocious demeanor. Wouldn't want to end up like him now would we?"
With that, the woman continued her arrogant march through the halls, and Amber couldn't be more satisfied. She wondered what her life would be like at the moment if the Iluna Rebels had been caught on their mission to rescue Sakura. Luckily, they escaped without notice, and Amber was able to resume her job undisturbed, but she was still greatly saddened by the news of Sakura's death. It was something that she vowed to avenge.
Zhang, the Governor of Kisah, sat broodingly on his father's embellished throne. It may have been Wang Chao who held the title of King, but it was Zhang who was responsible for executing the city's law, as well as those who defied it. He was flanked to his right by his wife, Kriyel, who stood beside him with an appearance equally as menacing. Before them were four people, two parents and their twin children, a boy and a girl. The father stared helplessly at his ruler as the mother hugged her kids close, trying with all her strength not to cry.
Zhang was approached by a palace official and received some kind of document. Scanning it, he read aloud. "Do you, Sir, accept the charges being brought against you?" He looked up at the father briefly, awaiting his response but not caring what it was.
"I do." The man spoke with confidence in his voice, his posture straight and his spirit unwavering.
"Then I find you guilty, and by the power vested in me, I deliver your sentence. I order you to receive instant and immediate death, administered by our captain of executions."
The man was more surprised to hear that they had a "captain of executions" than he was to learn his fate. Without resisting, he allowed two guards to take him closer to the throne where he waited for his punishment. His wife, having no say whatsoever, did her best to shield her children from the horrid view. The boy shut his eyes and buried his face at his mother's side, but the girl didn't look away; she watched it happen right before her eyes. When it was over, the wife anxiously waited for her to be ordered home, hoping that she wouldn't be thrown in prison with her family. Unfortunately for her, what Zhang did decide was much worse.
"The same punishment will be delivered to the man's wife." His voice was cold and unforgiving. Hearing this made Kriyel flinch, but just for a second. The mother was shocked, and her face turned white as a ghost. She clung on to her kids, now weeping hysterically. "You can't take me away from them!" she pleaded. "They have nowhere else to go! They'd be alone... they'd die!"
"Well Miss, you should have considered that before committing high treason." Zhang gestured for two guards to apprehend the poor woman, who squirmed and fought with all her might. She dropped to the ground, grasping for her children as she was dragged to the throne. "You can't do this! Please no!" her distraught protests did not even phase the governor. He simply sighed because she was holding up his day. Finally, the woman was roughly forced to her feet, where she looked into her crying kids' eyes, wishing that there could be some way to ensure their safety. Her entire body shook, overwhelmed by all sorts of emotions. The woman took a deep breath, and then she did it. She swung her right arm into the face of one of the guards, scorching him. She then kicked out at another, sending a blast of fire his way. The first to react was Kriyel, who intervened with a whip of fire, striking the woman in the leg and causing her to scream and fall to the ground. With one final breath, she yelled for her kids. "I will always love you!" she cried.
That was the last time Amber saw her mother.
Ohk had been sick since the previous day, but his condition worsened overnight. The monk was bed-ridden, and if he wasn't captivated by his book, he was falling in and out of naps. Shen used this opportunity to sneak out, betting that the other monks neither noticed nor cared that she as leaving the Monastery. She was excited to meet up again with the Iluna Rebels, who had officially welcomed her into their group after she took out two Angkara Sentries on their way back from the last mission. When she got to the jetty, she merely plopped herself back through the secret entrance to join her friends. At the moment, they seemed to be discussing something important.
Komin looked up and smiled. "Hey Shen! We didn't expect to see you today."
"I had a chance to get out, and who knows when I'll have another one so..."
"Gotcha. Why don't you come over here, we have some interesting news."
She sat next to Tenang, who acknowledged her with a smile and then went back to reading something. Hu Li got up and moved himself right next to Shen. This made her blush, though she tried her best to hide it as he explained what was going on. "A few weeks ago, Amber and I stole some tax records from the Senatorial Budget Office. We copied down all of the tax revenues from the city's sixth district, where we are."
Komin laughed. "And guess what? We took the time to ask every single residency how much they paid in taxes, and the numbers don't add up. In fact, they're not even close. The amount of money collected is far more than the amount received by the government according to these documents."
Shen made a funny face. "I don't get it. What does that mean?"
Hu Li elaborated. "It means that our district's tax collector, Pajak, has been pocketing some of the money he's taken. He's been secretly taking some of the money that was supposed to go to the government and keeping for his own profit."
"Whoa! That's genius!" Shen was actually impressed with whoever this Pajak guy was.
"No... it's greedy and wrong," Komin corrected.
Shen was puzzled. "But I thought we hated the government, so why are we so mad that they aren't getting all the money?"
"Because Pajak is a terrible, evil man, and if it weren't for him, the people would be paying less in taxes."
"Plus," inserted Hu Li, "it gives us a reason to cause some trouble."
"Now we're talking!" Shen got up to go put on her special suit crafted by Tark. "What's the mission?"
"If Pajak was depositing a huge sum of money at the government-run bank, the Angkaras would know that something's up," Komin explained. "This leads us to believe that he's been keeping a good amount with him at his home. On top of that, in Pajak-time it's still relatively early in the morning, which means he's passed out on a couch somewhere in his house. We should be able to sneak in and out without him waking up."
The tax collector's home was rather isolated, sitting by itself on a poorly-maintained hill with brown spots all over the grass. The house itself looked pretty nice, certainly much better than the shacks Shen walked by the other night to get to Tark's house. The four kids ventured around to the back of the building, where they found an open window conveniently not to high up off the ground. It was too easy. Komin, Hu Li, and Shen each made their way through from atop Tenang's shoulders, and the Earthbender managed to climb up on his own. The interior of the place wasn't too shabby either, and it was almost laughable how the intruders could simply waltz around without meeting any threats. Hu Li and Shen were actually having a blast, even doing a few silent dance moves in the hall ways or taking off their shoes and sock-skiing. Every time they goofed around, they received dirty looks from Komin, but it was impossible to sense any danger at all. They couldn't even find Pajak until they came across a small den. It was a bit awkward, sneaking past a fat, shirtless man snoring on a sofa just a few feet in front of them, but it was a fun at the same time, and quite exhilarating. The group took about ten minutes to find what they were looking for--a safe. It an odd sight, and appeared to be a metal door with three hinges that would only unlock after the correct combination was entered... or if it was smashed open.
"I can use Firebending to melt part of the metal and make it more malleable," Hu Li offered. Komin, however, had different plans. "That would take too long," he said. The leader then froze each of the hinges, made a fist, pulled his arm back, and shattered the first one into bits. He pulled his hand back in pain and shook it, but insisted that he was okay to continue. After the third, his knuckles were bleeding, but he refused any assistance and instead ordered the others to withdraw the coins into animal-skin sacks they brought with them. Speedily and quietly, they then exited the room to leave through the same window they came in. On the way out they saw Pajak getting up slowly from the couch with his back to them. As a way of saving her team, Shen lashed out -- sending a dart straight past her target and into a vase. Gasping after she missed, she attempted once more and hit Pajak in the neck as he was spinning around in shock. His face shook a bit as weird noises came out of his mouth before he fell to his knees and then the ground. He was unconscious, but breathing.
"Let's get out of here! Now!" Komin pushed the other three in front of him and commanded that they leap through the window. It wasn't a very far drop, and none of them appeared to receive any injuries. They sprinted down the hill as fast as they possibly could, not looking back even once. It was an incredible adrenaline rush, but they had to slow to a walk when they reached town to avoid drawing attention to themselves.
"I've never done anything more exciting in my life!" declared an enlivened Shen.
Komin was catching his breath. "You're going to say that a lot more as long as you stay with us! Now, let's go return all this money to the people it belongs to!"
"Please, Sir! My brother didn't mean to do anything wrong!"
The strict Sentry wasn't buying a thirteen-year-old Amber's argument. "Oh really? I suppose he just stole from this merchant by accident!"
At that point, the merchant himself stepped in. "Really, it's okay! He's just a boy. Please don't punish him, I forgive him!" The scrawny salesman was angry with Hu Li, but he knew what would happen to him if he didn't do something to help.
The guard merely pushed the man aside and stared into the boy's eyes, determining his judgment.
Amber was frantic. "Please! I'll- I'll work for you! Take me as your servant in exchange for my brother's life!"
Four years later, Amber had matured and was in the middle of clipping her master's toenails, a task she had intentionally been set aside for. Her next assignment was to feed and bathe Shivi, Kriyel's pet dragon.
"My Princess!" A sweating, nervous aide rushed in through the door into the woman's private room.
She glanced at him with fire in her eyes. "This better be something important!"
"It is Madame," he assured. "I've already alerted King Wang Chao and Lord Zhang. Pajak, the tax collector for the sixth district was just robbed, and now some kids are throwing money around in the streets. We believe the two incidents are related, but even though our Sentries are chasing after the culprits, they're so evasive! We can't catch any of them, and we've even lost a few lives!"
Amber did her best not to show any excitement, and she simply continued with her chore as if she wasn't paying attention. Suddenly, she was kicked in the face as Kriyel flailed in anger, falling back onto her butt. It was a kick the maid remembered all too well.
"How do you feel now, filthy trash! You're worthless! Lower than dirt to me!" Amber was being dealt a series of blows from the city's cruelest woman after she mistakenly dressed her bed with the wrong sheets.
Her face still stung, but she couldn't be happier. She always felt a special, dark kind of joy whenever Kriyel was upset.
Never before had Amber been charged with working a full 24 hours, but that had now changed. It was the even later than the time she arrived at the Palace to work the night before, and she still had not been dismissed or even offered a break. The sky was pitch black, and an array of thick clouds covered the moon. Exhausted, Amber sluggishly entered Kriyel's sleeping quarters to dust her ornate dresser. She yawned and dragged her feet as three fear-striking women surrounding Kriyel's bed stared her down. They were known as the red-skirts, and each one was a master bender of a different element. They were not to be trifled with, and everyone in the city knew that. Used to their intimidating stares, however, Amber hardly felt threatened. In fact, a thought ran across her mind as the Earthbending one exited the room for a brief moment.
It was suddenly possible. Amber had a chance to end Kriyel's life just as she ended her mother's. If she spun around and shot a fireblast at both of the remaining red-skirts, she could finish off Kriyel as she was waking up. She placed her duster down, and took a deep breath, knowing that she had to decide quickly.
- Kriyel's dragon, Shivi, is named for the Hindu god of destruction.
- It is meant to be unbelievable how the Iluna Rebels so easily snuck through Pajak's house.
For the collective works of the author, go here.