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|Young Gangs and Old Games|
Avatar: Centennial Embers
Book 1: Earth
Avatar Kuruk 1
Young Gangs and Old Games is the fifth chapter of Avatar: Centennial Embers.
Team Avatar learns that the Fire Nation has more power in the Earth Kingdom than they thought. Zuko and Mai continue their search for Ursa.
Northern Earth Kingdom
Team Avatar was in a large town preparing for the next leg of their journey. The streets were crammed with vendors selling their wares, and shoppers anxious to buy them. Unlike the crowded streets of Ba Sing Se, this city had a much lighter feel, and the crowd was enjoying life, not despairing over it.
"I like it here," Aang said cheerfully. "It's so much nicer than other places we've been. It really shows that things will be better now that the War is over."
"You're right, Aang," Suki agreed. "This place really is happier." She picked up an apple and smelled it, smiling. "Even the fruit smells fresher."
"If you say so," Katara said. She was examining a watermelon with a questioning look.
"I told you, Katara," Aang said to her, "swishing means it's ripe." Katara put the melon down and walked to another stand, a little embarrassed. Aang continued to look through the produce. "Hm... I wonder if Sokka would like these. Wait, where is Sokka?" He looked around, but didn't see Sokka anywhere.
"Where'd he run off too?" Suki asked, also noticing his absence.
Only Toph wasn't concerned. "Where do you think?" she asked, and then pointed to a nearby street corner. As Aang followed her gesture, he saw she was pointing to a meat cart.
"Same old Sokka," he said before running over to catch up with him. When he got their, Sokka was drooling over a cut of roast pork.
"Must... Eat... Meat," said Sokka, almost as if in a trance. The pure sight of the food was making him hungry.
"Come on, Sokka. This stuff looks expensive." At this point, the others had just caught up with the two.
"Maybe just one piece," said Sokka, slowly reaching out to touch it. However, just before he did, a small pebble struck his hand, snapping him back into reality. "OW!" He screamed, grabbing his throbbing hand. He looked around to see where the pebble came from.
Then, a small but tough voice could be heard. "What do you think you're doing, stealing food in this town?" Sokka and the others looked around, and found that the voice came from a group of about five kids, no older than ten each.
"What do you think you're doing?" the one kid asked again. "The Boulder Bash Gang protects this town, and we don't put up with theft from people like you."
"The Boulder Bash Gang?" said Toph, with a slight, mocking smile.
"Very cute," Sokka said, dismissively. "Now run along and play." He turned back to the meat. "Now which one should I pick?" He reached out again, but was answered by another pebble, this time to his face. He looked back angrily.
"You all don't look like you're from around here. Is that maybe because you're from the Fire Nation?" The kid began to talk with a very accusatory tone.
"No, we're not!" Sokka yelled, becoming increasingly bothered. However, this just prompted the kids to throw even more rocks at him. "That does it!" Sokka shouted.
He got ready to get out his boomerang, but before he could, the leader of the small group yelled out to his friends. "Boulders, ATTACK!" he cried. His friends responded, not with little pebbles, but with fairly large rocks. Apparently they were Earthbenders, and could easily become a problem for Sokka, who promptly took off running. The Boulder Bash Gang chased behind him.
"Sokka, wait!" Suki called, but he couldn't hear her. She and the rest of the team ran off to follow him as well.
Sokka ran up and down streets, dodging in and out of shoppers and stands. He knocked over several fruit stands, and what appeared to be a cabbage cart, much to the dismay of the owners, who yelled at him as he ran by.
However Sokka ignored them all, still running from the group of kids. He turned down one street, only to find that it was a dead end. He turned around and saw that the Boulder Bash Gang was rounding just rounding the corner, with the rest of Team Avatar close behind.
"Alright," he said. "Listen, I'm not from the Fire Nation."
"I don't believe him," the kid said. "Let's get him!" Sokka cringed and prepared for the hit, when a voice from behind him spoke up.
"Hiroshi!" the voice said. Sokka turned around to see where it was coming from. He saw a woman standing just outside a house along the side of the street, looking very frustrated. "What did I tell you about this little gang of yours? The Fire Nation is gone. We don't need you to go around pestering every traveler that comes through here. Now go and play."
The boy named Hiroshi let his head drop. "Yes, Mom," he said glumly, before sulking off with his friends.
The woman then brightened up. "I'm sorry about that," she said to Sokka. "Would you and your friends like to join me for some tea?"
"Where are we going now?" Mai asked, extremely bored.
"I told you," Zuko replied, tired of answering this question. "We're going to a pier. I know you think we should just go back home, but you could at least try and listen to what I say." He began to rub his forehead. He had been feeling nervous all morning, making him extremely tense. One of the only leads he had to find his mother was this port, so all of his hopes were riding on what he would find. He thought back to the day he confronted his father.
"Where - is - my - mother?" Zuko asked. He said it slowly and firmly. Ozai just glared at him, but said nothing. "I don't think you understand," said Zuko. "Three years ago, I became a fugitive, a banished prince. I lost any trace of honor I had, while you sat on your throne, worshiped by our people. Now, it is you that has lost your honor. I will be known as the Fire Lord that saved our nation - the world - from destroying itself. And what will you be? You'll be remembered as the tyrannical ruler that was defeated by the very son he banished.
"Do you think you have nothing left to lose? Let me tell you that you're wrong. I'm not afraid of you. I have nothing to prove to you. I can make your life more miserable than you can imagine. So, when I ask you again, think hard about how you're going to answer. Where is my mother?"
Ozai looked down at the ground and sighed. For a moment, Zuko thought his expression softened, and looked almost regretful, but it may have been a trick of the light. The moment passed, however, and Ozai's harsh expression was back.
He looked back up at Zuko. He had never seen his son like this. "Those three years away really have changed you," he commented, and then looked back down. "I suppose I'm in no position to bargain, however."
"That's right." Zuko wasn't in the mood for banter. He let Ozai continue.
"I should tell you honestly that I don't know where your mother is." When Zuko heard this, his heart sank. The thought of not being able to find her after all of this was to much to handle. "Nevertheless, I'll tell you what I know. The night your mother left, it was for her own protection, and yours. Had she stayed, you both would have been killed. I personally ordered a small ship and crew to be given to her. They were to escort her far from the Fire Nation, never to return." Ozai looked at his son once more. "I assume you understand the lifestyle."
Zuko just stared back at him and said nothing.
"The ship was going to take her to a small port in the Earth Kingdom not too far from here. They accept Fire Nation ships there, so there shouldn't have been a problem. From there, she was going to live in exile. A new name, a new identity. After that, I don't know where she went. I gave her the freedom to choose, so long as she never returned."
"So where is she now?"
"You still don't listen! I just told you. I don't know."
"We're landing, Zuko," a voice said. Zuko looked up. He was so deep in thought that at first he didn't remember where he was. He then looked beside him and saw Mai, and it came back to him.
"Sorry," he said. "I was just thinking."
"You think too much."
Northern Earth Kingdom
Hiroshi's mother poured hot tea into cups for the team. "I'm sorry about my son. He and his friends have been a little paranoid ever since the Fire Nation left."
"That's alright," Aang said sincerely.
"Alright?" Sokka asked loudly. "Speak for yourself!"
"Sokka, be quiet," Katara scolded him.
"But I don't see why they should be afraid," said Aang. "The war is over, and Fire Lord Zuko is setting everyone straight."
"Well that's how it should be," Hiroshi's mother said. "And that's how it is now. But it wasn't as easy to get to that point as it should have been." This caught everyone's attantion.
"What do you mean?" Aang asked, not sure if he really wanted to hear the answer.
"Well, the Firebenders here didn't leave immediately when we found out that the war was over. In fact, we had to fight them off. I'm just thankful that our Earthbenders had the courage to fight now that the Fire Lord was on their side."
"So the Fire Nation didn't leave right away from this town either?" Suki asked.
"No. It took them about a week to finally be driven off. Why, I think we haven't even had a chance to clear out the General's office yet!"
Sokka was interested to hear this. "You mean all of his things are still there?" he asked hopefully.
"Yes, I think they are."
"Can you show us to the office? I think it would be helpful to everyone if we take a look." Hiroshi's mother led them down the street to the town hall. When they got there, Sokka explained what he had in mind.
"If this is where the General stayed, maybe he had something that could give us a little more information." He then ran inside, while the others waited outside.
"What's going on?" Hiroshi's mother asked, concerned.
"We think that the Fire Nation might be refusing to leave from colonies all over the Earth Kingdom," Aang answered. This is the second town that we've seen with a similar situation in under a week. If that's true, the General might have left something in his office that can help us put an end to it." After several minutes, Sokka returned holding a stack of papers.
"I think I found something," he said. Aang, Katara, and Suki went to look. "Look at these maps. It looks like they show locations of colonies and troop movements."
"There are dozens of towns marked on this map," Katara pointed out.
"Are all of these still controlled by the Fire Nation?" asked Suki.
"I don't know," said Sokka. "But we have to do something about this." He looked at Aang. "Aang, it's your decision, but I think this has to take priority over the Earth King."
Aang thought for a moment before answering. "I think you're right. But we can't forget about the Earth King. Going all the way to the Fire Nation to talk with Zuko about this would take too long and take us too far off track."
"Speaking of Zuko," said Suki, "you don't think he's behind this, do you? I hate to say it, but he does have control over the military now, so I can't think of anyone else."
"No," said Aang. "That I'm sure of. These soldiers must still be loyal to Ozai in some way. I know Zuko's changed."
"Aang's right," Sokka agreed. "But if we can't go to Zuko, what do we do?"
"I think all we can do is travel to all these places and try and set them straight," said Aang. "We can look for the Earth King on our way."
"Okay," said Sokka, "but as soon as we find Kuei, we're going to see Zuko."
Once they all had reached a consensus, they thanked Hiroshi's mother for her help. Then, they returned to the market to finish preparing.
Seedy Merchants Pier
When Zuko and Mai got off the airship, they weren't exactly sure where to start looking. They had landed in a field nearby the port, and so they were on the very edge of town. As they walked further into the commotion of things, the chances that they would find Ursa began to seem very slim.
"How do expect to find out anything here?" Mai asked. "Where do we even begin?"
"I'm not sure. I know that I'll think of something, though."
They walked through town for hours, but didn't make any progress. At one point they found a passport checking station, but the receptionist was very unhelpful and rude. She said that there was no way of finding someone from three years ago, and that they should just give up. The local hotel was just as discouraging.
It began to get late, and the sky was turning to a warm, orange glow. When they were about ready to give up, they walked into a tea and souvenir shop. They sat down at the counter, Zuko ordered some tea. He asked Mai if she wanted any, but she replied with a dry, "No."
Zuko ended up wishing he had done the same, for when he tasted the tea, he spit it out in disgust. His uncle's words rang in his head. "This tea is nothing more than hot leaf juice!"
While looking around the shop, thinking of his uncle gave him an idea. He noticed an old man sitting at a small table with interesting carvings on it in the back of the room. He thought back to a similar situation he was once in with his uncle, and an idea came to him.
"I think I've just found our answer," he said to Mai. He walked over to the souvenir counter, and took out some silver pieces from his pocket. Mai didn't know what he was thinking, and wondered if he was even going to bribe the man behind the counter. She saw him purchase a small pouch, and then go to the man at the little table.
Zuko sat down opposite the old man. He wasn't so sure about what he was about to do, and didn't know if it would work, but he decided to try. "Would you care for a game of Pai Sho?" he asked.
The old man smiled. He was pleased to see someone from a younger generation taking an interest in such an old yet magnificent game. "I'd be delighted. Not many that come by here recognize these markings." He gestured to the game board carved into the table. "The guest has the first move."
Zuko opened up his pouch that he just bought, and empty its contents - Pai Sho tiles - out onto the table. Hoping desperately that this would work, he picked up the white lotus tile and placed it in the center of the board.
The old man raised an eyebrow, curious as to whether or not the young man before him new what he had done. "I see you favor the white lotus tile," he said. "Not many still cling to the ancient ways."
When Zuko heard this, he lit up, feeling completely certain that he had made the right move. Imitating what he heard his uncle say months before, he responded. "But those who do can always find a friend."
The old man smiled again. "Then let us play." He placed a tile on the outer edge of the board. Zuko placed his in the opposite square, being careful not to make a mistake. The old man followed up with his next piece in the next spot in the sequence. Zuko matched this again. As they went, Zuko became more confident with his placement, until they were putting pieces down one after another so quickly, it was almost simultaneous.
When they had finished, the pieces formed the familiar image of the White Lotus. When Zuko saw that he had successfully completed this, he let out a sigh of relief.
"I must say, I'm a little surprised," the old man admitted. "Please, come with me." He looked over Zuko's shoulder toward Mai. "I suppose you want your girlfriend to come to?"
Zuko couldn't keep his face from turning a little red, but he nodded and motioned for Mai to come with him. They followed the man out the back door and down an alleyway. Despite her effort to maintain a constantly bored disposition, Mai couldn't help but be curious as to what was going on.
"So what now?" she asked, still sounding bored as ever. "You two play a little game and now we find your mother? Who is this anyway? An old friend of yours?"
"No," said Zuko. "He's a member of the Order of the White Lotus. It's a secret society that-"
"Could you be any louder?" interrupted the old man. "I find it hard to believe that you're a Grand Lotus, not just because you're young, but because you seem to be incapable of keeping quiet. Ah, we're here. Come inside." He led them through a door into a small, dark room.
"Actually, I'm not a Grand Lotus."
After thinking a moment as to if he could trust this man, Zuko decided he could. "Really, I'm not even a member. I just followed what I saw my uncle doing once."
"Your uncle? Wait, you must mean Iroh. That would mean you're...." His voice trailed off.
"Yes, Zuko," Mai finished impatiently. "Now that we've met, can someone please explain to me why I'm standing in this place that smells like rotten Boarcupine meat?"
"Allow me," the old man said. "The Order of the White Lotus is a secret organization that crosses the boundaries between the Four Nations. It reaffirms the belief that we are all one people, despite any superficial lines we may draw."
"So what does that have to do with us?"
"I think that they can help us," Zuko answered. "Can you?" he asked.
"I'm not sure."
"Listen. About three years ago, my mother was forced to flee from the Fire Nation. My father forced her to. I think she might have come here first."
"Ah. I see. I think you'll be happy to know that I have seen your mother."
"You have?" asked Zuko, suddenly filled with hope.
"Yes. It's been a long time, but she actually came to the Order for help, just like you did."
"Was she a member?"
"Not at the time, no. But she had heard of us. She sought out our guidance, and we supplied her with it. We gave her some fake documents, and other odds and ends. The Order has members scattered throughout the entire world. She was going to travel South, along the coast. We helped her make plans to eventually go to Ba Sing Se, making stops along the way where the Order could assist her."
"So she's in Ba Sing Se?" Zuko couldn't believe that all the time he was in the city, she could have practically been his neighbor.
"I'm sorry, but as for that, I don't know. But I do know that she was in good hands. From what little correspondence I've had with other members, I know that she made it to the southern mountains of the Earth Kingdom. She stayed with some nice family that owned a pig farm."
"So she is alive?"
"As far as I know, yes." The man stopped talking for a moment, and opened up small shutters on a window. He saw it was getting dark. "It's getting late. If you'd like, you can stay here tonight. I'd be happy to send you off tomorrow with some maps and such."
"That would be great. Thank you. What do you think Mai?"
She stared at him, and gave him a small smile. "I think that would be nice." She knew how this must make him feel, and wanted to let him know. "I'm happy for you, Zuko," she said simply. He could tell that she meant it.
- The Cabbage Merchant appears in this chapter.
- Various references to previous episodes/chapters are made.
- The pier Zuko and Mai visit is the same one visited in The Waterbending Scroll.
For the collective works of the author, go here.
|Avatar: Centennial Embers Chapters|
|Book 1: Earth|
|Unrest - Escalating Danger - An Unsettling Detour - A Lingering Flame - Young Gangs and Old Games - Embers Unearthed - Reunion|