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Author Topic: Gambler and Vagabond - A Pai Sho-centric Adventure! [3/26/2014][T]  (Read 16501 times)
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« on: Feb 19, 2012 07:56 pm »

A story of Pai Sho and the people who played it.

Lesson One: The White Lotus Gambit


As his silhouette disappeared as dawn approached, leaving her trembling over a board of scattered Pai Sho tiles, there came a period of reminiscence, a recounting of all that had happened in the last year.

After all they had gone through, when all was said and done, Hana still remembered their meeting.

It was a summer, an abnormally colder one. Some said Avatar Kyoshi's tensions with Chin the Conqueror had escalated to the point where the spirits had calmed the sun down in an effort to cool negotiations. Other self-proclaimed scientists believed the poles of the world were reversing, and that winter would be hotter than ever before. Many even considered the possibility that the infamous Wu Jian, a band of ruthless mercenaries hired by barbarian warlords, had sent Waterbenders across the Earth Kingdom to freeze settlements still loyal to terrorize the country side.

But to Hana, none of these concerns really meant anything to a poor young waitress in Omashu trying to make a living. Matters of political infighting and geographical disputes flew above her head, replaced by the sounds of lecherous men constantly shouting their orders in her ears. These mobsters had come to the shop more than just for the free tea and nightly alcohol. Hana's boss was a powerful man with great links to crime bosses living in Omashu, and he had turned the shop into a gambling ring for his customers and a brothel for himself.

It was one of the busiest parts of the day when the Airbender came. Left and right, drunk men were reaching out to grab a piece of Hana's elusive clothes. Laughs and the occasional brawl rung through the large room, metal clanged against metal as gamblers threw gold coins over Pai Sho tables.

He came in wearing the robes of the Airbender nomads, though they were considerably dirtier than the bright orange colors that other nomads passing through Omashu had been wearing. A long elongated staff was strapped to his back, intricate spiral designs sketched onto its wooden surface. He bore the look of a wanderer, a foreigner, an outsider. The men in the bar all cast him an intrigued gaze before returning to their drinks and games.

He sat at an empty table at the front of the shop. He ran a hand through his short hair, an oddity for the normally bald nomads, and motioned for Hana, who was the waitress closest to him, to come to the table and take an order.

"Get me a cup of ginseng tea," he said as she approached. His voice was soft and light. Hana had heard of Airbenders who had become so powerful that even their voices were loved by the wind. His voice flowed into her ears like a lullaby. Perhaps it was because all she got to hear all day were the drawls and drunk slobbers of mercenaries and villains, but whoever this man was gave her a breath of fresh air. "And if you have rice, get me a bowl too."

It was a strange order, and it was one that told her that this man had never been around to Omashu before. No one came to this shop only to drink tea, especially if they were expecting any good tea. The façade of a tea shop was only to fool any remaining police officials who got in the way of organized crime that couldn't be bought.

The Airbender ate the food quickly, wolfing down large balls of rice at once. Hana wasn't even done setting down the hot tea before the monk had already gobbled down every last grain with a hunger that Hana hadn't seen from her usual customers. Yet, despite this, the monk treated the tea in a much different fashion, taking his time to enjoy the fragrance of the ginseng before taking delicate sips of the drink.

"That will be a single silver coin," Hana calculated when the Airbender had finished, standing over the monk as he reached into his sleeves for the money.

He fished around in his left sleeve and then frowned. He thrust his other hand into his right sleeve, and he wrinkled his forehead. He pulled his hands into the inside of his robes and felt around the side pockets, and his lips tightened, his cheeks turning pale.

"That pickpocket," the nomad whispered just loudly enough for Hana to hear.

It was then that he eyed the table in the corner and a Pai Sho set resting on it. A few men were crowded around the table, where two middle aged men assembled in the last throes of a game. Aside from the board and the pieces spread across it, there also were four pots sitting on the table. Two of them were filled with additional tiles and the other two filled with gold coins, bets that the observers had thrown in. Hana recognized the two players as copartners in a local gang. These were dangerous men, and they were regulars here.

The nomad stood up and faced Hana. "I will have your payment shortly," he said, and walked to the table as the game finished. The smug winner folded his arms, his lips curved in a lopsided smile. Half of the crowd cheered and swept the earnings from the pots. Their hollers ended abruptly when the Air Nomad entered the circle and faced the winner.

"May I have this next game?" he said, his attention directed at the winner.

"Boy," was the response from the heavy bearded man sitting lazily at his seat. He leaned forward, placing his elbow on the table. "Do you know who you're dealing with? I'm Tau, master of the tiles in this city. Nobody has beaten me in the last month, and the last person to do so cheated his way to get it. Had to cleave his hands off to teach him a lesson."

"It doesn't matter," was the Airbender's response. For a moment, Hana's heart skipped a beat, scared that the strong bulky looking men around the table would take that statement the wrong way. Tau's face turned grim as he eyed the monk with caution. "Pai Sho is Pai Sho. I don't need to worry about who I'm playing."

"Do you even have money to bet with, boy?" Tau frowned. "No money means no play."

"You can have this if you win," he pulled his staff from his back and leaned it against the table. Immediately everyone eyed the nicely carved wood and exquisite designs. "Airbender weapons are priceless at antique shops are they not?"

Tau seemed enticed by the offer. He silently consented by throwing his just won earnings back into the pots. The crowd, excited by the newcomer, threw their money disproportionally into Tau's pot. Surely the master of the tiles in Omashu must have meant something against an unknown overconfident challenger.

The monk sat down and gave a quick bow to the man on the other side. Tau scoffed and laughed with the other observers. They cleared the board of pieces and placed them back into the pots. Hana stepped forward, trying to get a better look. She was usually never allowed near the Pai Sho tables. Her boss had done whatever he could to keep any of his women from the boards, but at the moment Hana noticed that he wasn't around.

"Hey you," Tau gave Hana a cold stare as she approached, a clear sign that he knew that she shouldn't be watching. "Don't you have some men to attend to? Or are you one of those waitresses that Pan is trying to 'ripen' up for us? Whatever it is, no women at the gambling tables. You should know that."

"He's my customer," Hana pointed at the nomad. "I need to ensure he pays, so I'm staying here."

"Let her stay," said the Airbender, a conclusive tone to his voice. Again, Hana's heart skipped a beat as the animosity amongst the confused crowd began to grow. There was a certain air of superiority in the Airbender's voice that must have annoyed half of the restaurant. "After I pick my earnings, I'll pay and leave immediately."

"So that's what this is about?" Tau grinned, flipping a few tiles in his palm. "I guess after this you'll be left without a staff and a debt to this restaurant. And you know what they do to people who have debts at this place don't you?"

The observers snickered again, the clinking of metal swords and daggers surrounded the two competitors.

"Guest gets first move," his opponent waved over the board. "As an Airbender, I assume you open with the Nomad's Path? Go ahead and try. I should warn you before you do though, I've beaten plenty of monks with my Pai Sho style."

The nomad was completely silent. All he did was place a tile in the middle of the board. Hana knew little of the game, and much less about any of the rules in place. Still, she did recognize the tile as a White Lotus piece. When he placed the tile down, a few members of the crowd laughed even more, Tau gave a quizzical look at his opponent, and the Airbender did nothing but await for his opponent's next move.

"My, my," said Tau, rubbing his chin as he scrutinized the board carefully. "An Airbender that doesn't follow the Nomad's Path and one who throws a White Lotus tile on the very first move. I think we have someone who seriously wants to lose here."

"Your move," said the monk, his eyes carefully scanning over the board, his mind thinking of all the possibilities in the next play. He drew a deep breath and exhaled, smiling as he took a look at his opponent. "I have no intention of losing on the second turn."

In response, Tau placed a tile inscribed with wooden wheel at his end of the board, directly lined up in front of the Airbender's White Lotus piece. Hana recognized this as the Wheel tile. The crowd seemed to nod in approval, as if victory was assured in the very next turn. Hana scratched her head, not understanding these moves at all. Then again, she was barely even aware of how the Wheel tile moved.

The Airbender then placed a Wheel tile of his own on the opposite side of the board, so that the two wheels would, had it not been for the White Lotus piece, be facing each other. Tau then frowned, and looked up at his silent opponent, who appeared deeply engrossed in the tiles and nothing else around him. Tau looked back at the board, his eyes glancing around curiously, as if he was slightly taken aback that he had not realized something.

"Aren't you a sly one?" Tau growled, before laying down another piece. This tile had an orange arrow inscribed in a white oval. The Sky Bison piece, Hana recognized. This piece was placed at one of the corners of the board, at the point where two red triangles intersected. For some reason, Hana had always seen the Sky Bison tile placed at these exact locations. "Let's see how you deal with this."

"Simple," the Airbender muttered and threw a tile in front of the Sky Bison. The tile's surface was a beautiful flower with an abundance of petals. A chrysanthemum.

Tau seemed to be growing frustrated as he placed another Wheel tile into play, only to have the Airbender place his own wheel time opposite Tau's. The crowd looked on at the match, whispering to themselves quietly as the restaurant seemed to hone in on the match. For Hana, all these whispers and frustrated remarks came off as strange and foreign. For all the courage it took to tell the men that she wanted to watch, it really didn't do her any good not knowing any of these rules.

Still, she was amazed, watching this Airbender play. His composure, his piercing eyes, his delicate fingers wrapping around the tiles like a mother to a mooselion cub. For the first time since she had started working here, Pai Sho seemed more like a ferocious gambling arena. It appeared more than just a board with pots of gold coins spilling from the table. It drew her curiosity for the first time.

She wanted to learn how to play.

After a few more moves, Tau's face grew angrier and angrier. His frustration seemed to steam from his pores, his subordinates taking small steps away from him in case he lashed out violently with the rapier parked at his waist. He took rapid looks up and down, staring unbelievably at the board and glaring angrily at the Airbender, who did nothing but respond to his moves seemingly without another thought.

Finally, after a little over two dozen moves, the Airbender placed a final tile upon the board. The White Dragon tile, its tile denoted by the White Dragon flower crafted into its wooden surface. Just from the gasps from the crowd, Hana could tell this tile was one of the most powerful tiles yet.

The monk then looked up from the board, his eyes staring straight at Tau, and opened his mouth to speak. "You have yet to place your White Lotus tile. As there is no appropriate place for you to now place that tile, I win by default. I believe I deserve whatever is in your po-"

"You cheated!" cried Tau loudly, pulling his rapier from its scabbard. He pointed it directly at the monk, his eyes burning with anger and fire. His subordinates and comrades slowly took their hands to the sword as well. "There's no way that I could have lost. The only explanation is that you pulled an illegal move! White Lotus first? Who wins that way? There must have been a trick. Take him and his staff too!"

It all happened so quickly that she barely remembered the exact details. The mob closed in around the Airbender, swords drawn, teeth clenched, shouts rang. Hana was too struck by shock to even look away. Her eyes were widened, locked at the scene developing in front of her.

He grabbed at his staff as the swords came uncomfortably close to his clothes. In the next second, mercenaries and gang members were blown away in a tremendous torrent of air. They fell back against tables, knocking around Pai Sho tiles, gold coins, and food all over the establishment. The few who stood firm against the first burst of air were next, and a second a round of wind sliced through the room, cracking doors, breaking down chairs, and smashing the pillars that held up the restaurant's ceiling into bits.

Hana herself found herself bracing against this furious current by holding onto a column holding up what was left of the roof. Bits of dust and wood flew past her face, and she closed her eyes in fear of being blinded by the occasional sharpened spike that thrust past her. When the attack had ended, Hana opened her eyes to a restaurant completely torn apart. Men from all corners of the room were moaning, few of them were still standing, and those who were stayed clear of the Airbender, who stood at the middle of the room.

His back was to her, and in the evening sun, his silhouette stood bright and almost angelic to Hana. She gazed onward, her mouth slightly open at this powerful man, standing eyes closed in the middle of a destroyed whorehouse. A powerful bender, a strong master of culture and the arts, a soft and calming personality. It was a powerful sense of awe that consumed her, followed by a realization.

He's the one, Hana thought. He has to be the one.

With what strength was left from her body, Hana sprinted towards the Airbender and gripped his arm firmly. The nomad turned to her as if ready to strike, but he paused the moment he realized it was the waitress that had served his food. Hana looked at the monk with strong determined eyes and, without a word, pulled him away from the rubble of the shop and raced into the streets.

She ignored the cries of "Hana is escaping! Hana is escaping!" She kept running, her bare feet crunching against the uneven rocky road. Strange eyes that she had never seen before glowered at her while she raced down the next block, recognizing her face at Pan's infamous whorehouse. There was no use in remembering those times. All she could do was hold onto the Airbender's arm and run.

"Where are you taking me?" the monk instantly demanded as shouts from Tau and the rest of his crew boomed through the city streets and grew louder and louder.

"Anywhere but here!" Hana pulled the Airbender along, her small hands tightly gripped around his strong forearm. "Forget about the bill. Forget about this place. Forget about everything that's happened. Just make sure you're taking me with you too!"

"I want to learn Pai Sho from you!"

Those fragile hands held onto that arm for a long time.

To be continued...
« Last Edit: Mar 26, 2014 07:33 am by guyw1tn0nam3 » Logged

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« Reply #1 on: Feb 25, 2012 07:43 pm »

Lesson Two: The Nomad's Path

Summer showers were rare in the Earth Kingdom, but given the abnormally cold weather at Omashu, Hana felt no surprise when the raindrops started falling on her nose.

If anything, she was more surprised that she was scaling up the slopes of a rocky mountain with a bowl of rice in her hands. It was only a drizzle, but Hana still kept the bowl close to her small chest, her face dipped to prevent any water from hitting those soft grains. The combination of cold water tapping her neck, the numbing feeling of bending her neck over the bowl for hours, and jagged rocks scraping against the soles of her feet made her more than uncomfortable.

"What am I doing here?" Hana whispered to herself, bitterness and frustration laced through her words. "That stupid Airbender, sending me on this useless errand. It's impossible."

That's right. It was the Airbender, who hadn't even bothered telling her his name, who had sent her climbing up the tricky roads of the Kolau Mountains all night. By the time Hana had stopped running, they had already been miles away from Omashu, evening had come, and the Airbender had the wildest and most confused expression that Hana had ever seen.

They had arrived in a town at the foot of the mountains. There were no homes, and the only buildings that lined the streets were small trinket shops, a lone motel, and food stands for passing travelers. Hana and the Airbender stood in the middle of the street, panting as they shook off the exhaustion from having run all the way from Omashu. The monk had gazed down at her, split between asking her if she was crazy or if her feet hurt.

"You don't need to say anything," Hana had smiled, and finally let go of the man's arm, which she noticed had gone crimson red from having been clenched by her fingers. "You've already taken me away from that place. I am very grateful."

Hana bowed, but when she stood straight to face the Airbender, he had already started walking away. He seemed to be scratching his head in confusion, his eyes scanning the night sky for which direction he should be heading next. After a moment, he nodded his head and tapped his staff on the ground, revealing a pair of orange flaps that flipped open from a hidden compartment in the staff.

"Wait, wait, wait!" she had shouted after him, and held onto his arm again, her eyes wide. "Where are you going?"

"Somewhere else," the Airbender tried shaking the strong grip Hana had on his arm. "Could you let go of me?"

"Take me with you," Hana pleaded. "Are you just going to leave me here?"

"That's the idea," the monk replied.

"But didn't I tell you to take me with you?" Hana held his hand firm on his arm. Her eyes glared back at the monk. "I told you didn't I? That I wanted to learn Pai Sho from you."

The Airbender sighed, folded his glider, and turned back to face the young girl standing almost a head shorter than him. She had amber colored eyes, a trait uncommon among Earth Kingdom denizens, and they stared back at him with a blazed intensity. He could have run, and she would never have been able to catch him. But perhaps the exhaustion from an afternoon filled with running compelled him to stay and rest before leaving this strange girl behind.

"I never said anything about taking you with me," the Airbender responded, folding his arms. "I also didn't say anything about teaching you Pai Sho either. You just said those things. I never agreed to them."

"But won't you?" Hana bit her lip. "You didn't pay the bill at the restaurant, and you destroyed it too. Don't you think this is good enough payment? I won't be a burden. I can cook food pretty well if you can catch it. I can even make money."

"No," the monk put it bluntly. "I don't need another person accompanying me. And besides, I don't owe anyone anything. They attacked me after I won a fair game. It's their fault that I destroyed their establishment after trying to pull a trick on me."

"But," Hana looked down, grasping for words of reason that weren't there. Suddenly tears burst into her eyes, and her determined face broke into an expression of anger and regret. "But…you…me…."

"Why do you even want to learn Pai Sho?" the Airbender took a deep breath, trying not to cause a commotion on the streets, as a few people passing by already were giving him strange glances. "It's a hard game to play, and even harder to master. It's not for people who simply say that they want to play."

"I, well," Hana wiped away her tears for a moment. Perhaps there was hope after all that he would teach her. "I saw you play, and it was inspiring."

"That's it?" the Airbender shook his head, his forehead creased, and his eyes narrowed. He looked insulted all of a sudden. "Look, Pai Sho isn't a game where you just look upon someone and suddenly realize you want to play it. Pai Sho is a game of expression, culture, and above all, an inner look at the self. If you just want to learn Pai Sho because you saw me putting down a few tiles and beating down some garbage commoners, then no matter how hard you cry, I will never teach you."

The girl seemed taken aback. Perhaps the Airbender had appeared too harsh, but for the amount of trouble that she had caused him, he certainly didn't regret it.

"I'm tired, I recommend you try finding a place to sleep tonight, seeing as how both of us have little money and no place to go back to," the Airbender murmured, and turned around again, finally shaking the weakened grip Hana had on him. "I don't mind if you stay with me tonight, but tomorrow morning you're on your own."

"What can I do," Hana whispered, her fists clenched, her eyes still staring fiercely back at the monk. "What can I do to convince you to teach me?"

The Airbender stood silent. This time, an immediate response eluded him. He thought about it for a moment, and he concluded that it would be best that the girl realized how much he didn't want to teach her on her own. If he gave her an impossible task, then she would figure out that it was best not pursuing his tutelage and move on. He looked towards the mountain, then back at the girl. He pointed at the top of the slopes.

"Tame a badgermole and bring it to me," said the Airbender. "And I'll consider giving you a shot."

And so, Hana had spent what little was left of her money on a hot bowl of rice and had spent her night wandering about the mountains, searching for any trace of the legendary badgermoles. Morning was arriving, and the dark clouds turned grey as the sun undoubtedly shined behind them. Hana's stomach grumbled, her mouth drooling at the cold rice.

"What am I doing here," Hana repeated. "I'm not an animal tamer. I don't look for badgermoles. I am…I am…"

She couldn't finish her sentence. Irritated, Hana sat down and leaned against one of the large rocks littered on the mountain. She took a ball of rice and popped it in her mouth, noting the sour taste that colored her tongue. She lifted her face towards the morning clouds, and felt cool drips of rain clean away her sticky skin.

Then, out of the corner of her eye, Hana spotted a tiny black nose poking out from the other side of the rock. It sniffed at the air curiously, sensing that food was nearby. Hana grabbed another ball of rice and flung it towards the nose, and sure enough, a creature instantly jumped into view, grabbing up the rice in its clawed paws and devouring it. White stripes lined its back and tail, its eyes small and blind. It looked exactly like the pictures drawn on the Pai Sho tile named after it.

"A real life badgermole," Hana gazed curiously at the creature, which looked around cautiously with each bite of rice that it took. She threw it another ball of rice and it came closer, noticing that someone was feeding it. "Couldn't you have appeared sometime earlier last night?"

The creature whimpered in response, coming close to Hana and rubbing its soft fur against her body. It must have been asking for more food, so Hana dumped the rest of her rice on the floor and watched as the animal gobbled up the remainder of her money.

"I wonder," Hana reached out to the pet the creature, who, though reluctant at first, soon allowed Hana's soft pale fingers to stroke its head. "Why you're out here. Where are your mom and dad? It's not nice for parents to leave their children in the middle of nowhere."

The badgermole was quiet.

"Yeah," Hana stroked her new acquaintance under the chin. It seemed to like it. "I wouldn't have much to say to them either."

Suddenly, the badgermole froze. It pounded its paws on the floor, as if it was trying to confirm something. It turned towards the rock, then without a single warning, sprinted down the mountain.

"Hey, wait!" Hana shouted after it. For a creature that was supposed to grow a hundred times its current size, Hana was surprised at how quickly the little critter covered the ground. She looked at the half eaten bowl of rice next to her. "What was its problem? What was it looking at?"

She stood up, turned around, and her nose touched a very slimy muzzle. Her eyes met a narrowed angry glare, her mouth almost kissing a sharp tooth sticking out from the beast's mouth. Two large antlers, presumably for impaling its foes, towered over her.

The next thing she knew, Hana was screaming full force down the mountain after the badgermole as a giant saber-tooth mooselion chased after her.
« Last Edit: Mar 01, 2012 10:13 am by guyw1tn0nam3 » Logged

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« Reply #2 on: Feb 25, 2012 07:44 pm »

It was morning, and Shijin found himself leaning against an abandoned food stand, with the canopy over the stand covering him from the rain. The Airbender noticed that the girl had still not returned, so he assumed that she had finally given up and left.

The town seemed a lot more filled than it did the night before. Residents from the local motel had come out to barter with clerks at the trinket shops, and despite the rain, food stand owners were happily serving their cooked food. It was then that Shijin realized again that he was completely out of money after having been robbed by a pickpocket.

"Time to make some money," Shijin rubbed his forehead and eyes, slapped his cheeks, and headed over to a few outdoor tables under the cover of a wooden roof. There, several men were enjoying their mornings with a handful of Pai Sho games. Their gambles were smaller than the ones that Shijin had seen in Omashu. None of them ever exceeded a silver coin, and winners never took more than half of the winnings.

But money was money, and Shijin waited his turn at the tables. Like usual, he threw down his staff as substitute for his lack of coins, and once the men had confirmed with trinket shop owners that his glider was real, Shijin was allowed to play.

They were easy games for Shijin, who quickly racked up enough bronze coins to exchange for a few silver coins. The men who were playing realized that they were dealing with more than just a casual Pai Sho player, and they left the table to Shijin, who continued to offer his staff to anyone who was willing to challenge him.

It was at this time that an older gentleman dressed in traditional Airbender attire walked over to Shijin's table. The two bowed to each other, and Shijin's newest opponent spoke.

"May I have this game?" said the Airbender. A bag of Pai Sho tiles was strapped to his waist. "It is good to see a fellow monk in the distant realms of the world."

Shijin merely gestured toward the empty chair on the opposite side of the table. The monk sat down and fished around his bag for the pieces that he was going to play. "Guests have the first move," Shijin said, and moved a hand into his bag of tiles as well.

"From the Southern Air Temple," the Airbender pulled a piece from his hand and kept it hidden in his fist. "The host is allowed first move. Are rules different at the other temples? I may appear old, but this is my first pilgrimage to the other temples, believe it or not."

"No," Shijin replied. "You get used to the rules in the Earth Kingdom rings after a while."

"I haven't heard of a monk who participates often with the Earth Kingdom commoners, let alone copy their rules and strategies," replied the Airbender, who laid a hand on his chin. "I always found the Kingdom's Pai Sho players to be lacking in strategy."

"How so?" Shijin asked. It was the first time he was genuinely curious about what the monk had to say.

"Pai Sho is a game of movement," the old man answered. It appeared when he was given a chance to speak his mind, the words spewed from his mouth like a geyser. "It's a game of ebbs and flows, which is why the Nomad's Path has been the staple opening in Pai Sho in the last hundred years. The Earth Kingdom strategy, most typically known as the Badgermole's Defense, is too rigid and open to vulnerabilities."

"Those who are more versed in the style would argue differently," Shijin countered, pulling a tile out of his bag. The wooden tile was inscribed with the face of a badgermole in the middle. Shijin smiled and flipped the coin in the air. "Would you like me to show you?"

"The Badgermole's Defense has inherent disadvantages against the Nomad's Path. You, as an Airbender trained at the temples, should know this well." the old monk frowned, shaking his head as if he was disappointed that his opponent today wouldn't be very good. "Why would anyone considering using it as an opening?"

"Like I said," Shijin tapped the board and beckoned his opponent to start. "Maybe I can open your eyes."

"Very well," his opponent nodded, and placed the first tile on the board. It was a Sky Bison tile, and it was placed in the small triangle at the top left corner of the board. "But don't say that I didn't warn you that the result was inevitable."

Shijin's response was instantaneous as ever. He slapped his Badgermole tile in the middle of board. His opponent sighed, before placing another Sky Bison tile on the other corner of the board. Shijin responded with a Chrysanthemum tile, placing it in front of the first Sky Bison.

"A common response to the Nomad's Path," his opponent nodded. "Is to disable one of the Sky Bison tiles by placing a Chrysanthemum tile at the exit. However, most Air Nomads are aware of this, and can win easily with one movable Bison tile on the field. Of course, the other Bison tile is not disabled forever once I've captured that tile."

The Airbender pushed his sky bison tile forward five spaces onto the middle of the board.

"You see, that's the problem with all of you," Shijin placed a white lotus tile at the bottom left corner of the board, where the smaller triangle attached itself to the center platform. "You rely too much on the Sky Bison to do everything for you."

"I don't think that's a problem," the monk calmly responded. "The Sky Bison is arguably the most flexible piece in the entire game. It moves slower than the wheel and white dragon, true, but those pieces are much too rigid. On the other hand, what can you do with the Badgermole's Defense? You're confined to defending your own tiles without ever being able to catch a single flower."

The monk placed a wheel adjacent to the Chrysanthemum tile, preparing to capture the tile next turn.

"And that's where you're wrong," Shijin responded as quickly as ever. He moved his Badgermole diagonally to his Chrysanthemum tile. "I'd argue that the Badgermole's Defense can be just as mobile. It's just no one ever deploys correctly."

"If you're so intent on overturning what Air Nomads have dominated for years," the Airbender raised an eyebrow at Shijin's move, slightly impressed but nonetheless unsurprised by what he perceived to be a pointless move. "Then why don't you go teach it? Teach students your false beliefs and see how they fail against generations of proven Pai Sho strategy?"

It was almost on cue, but a high pitched scream could be heard from the top of the mountain. Shijin heard it, and in an instant, the owner of the scream registered in his head. The yell echoed throughout the small village, and its denizens looked at the mountain tops with alarm.

"That idiot," Shijin whispered. "Did she actually go and try to tame one? What kind of girl…"

"It's your move," his opponent motioned to a frozen Shijin as he placed a white lotus tile on his side of the board. "I wonder who is making such a racket this early in the morning."

"I forfeit," Shijin declared suddenly, grabbing his glider and making his way towards the mountain. "You'll hear from me again. I guarantee it!"

The monk wanted to form a response, but by then Shijin was already out of earshot.

Shijin popped open the wings of his glider and threw it into the air. The glider arced in a circle before spiraling back towards him. As it got close, Shijin twirled and placed his feet on the staff, balanced himself, and used his Airbending to propel himself towards the mountain top. The monk behind him stood, dumbfounded and mouth agape, finally realizing the identity of the Airbender he had just played.

The Airbender mouthed a few words, but no one listened to him.

It was easy to just follow the screams. Shijin found her running frantically down the rocky road, a giant saber-tooth mooselion close behind her. When Shijin dived in closer to see what had happened, it appeared that the girl was following what appeared to be a baby sized badgermole. The mooselion roared and took a bite at the girl, but she was lucky enough to hop over a giant rock and avoid the animal for now.

"Doesn't she know," Shijin talked to himself. "That badgermoles and mooselions never get along? What in spirits is she doing?"

"Hey! Girl!" Shijin swerved down and yelled at her over the sound of rain and wind. He leaned back and slowed down his glider enough that he and the girl were travelling at the same speeds. The mooselion, noticing him now, roared more aggressively as it prepared its next attack. "Over here!"

Hana looked up, her face an expression of shock and relief. "You!" she shouted at the top of her lungs. "Why are you here?"

"That's my question," Shijin snarled, and held out his hand. "Come on. Grab my hand."

"I can't," Hana hopped over another rock, her hands not reaching for Shijin's but for the body of the badgermole just outside of her range. "I have to show you this badgermole first. Then you'll teach me Pai Sho right?"

"Forget about that," Shijin wanted to smack his forehead, but almost lost control of his glider in the process. "What good is learning Pai Sho if you're in a mooselion's stomach? Now hurry up! It's going to catch you if you don't grab my hand now."

The mooselion was indeed close and charged with renewed ferocity. It snapped open its jaws, and Shijin was forced to intervene. He twirled his arms and shoved a current of air in the beast's face. The mooselion skidded back, but bore the brunt of the attack with ease. It reoriented itself, caught sight of the Airbender that had attacked him, and charged again.

"I realized something," Hana yelled when Shijin returned to her side, holding out his hand for her. Hana simply shook her head and turned back to the fleeing badgermole. "I realized something when you sent me on this stupid badgermole hunting trip."

"You can tell me after we get away from that thing," Shijin was almost angry. Did this girl want to get chased down and killed? He reached out with his hand once more, only to see Hana ignore it again. "Now hurry up and take my hand!"

"I'm nothing," Hana focused her gaze on the badgermole. It was within her reach now. Her fingers could feel the soft fur on the badgermole's back. Just a little bit closer. "I realized that there's nothing I've done my entire life. If you asked me now, who am I? What are my goals? What are my dreams? I don't have an answer to any of them."

"I don't want to be the same Hana anymore," both of her hands were stretched towards the badgermole now. Shijin turned frantically at the mooselion, who was gaining speed as they got closer and closer to the foot of the mountain. "I don't want to be someone who never does anything her entire life, who withers away and dies without having achieved anything."

"Airbender," Hana called after Shijin, who turned away from the mooselion to look at this girl, both arms stretched towards a wild frantic badgermole. "You said if I tame a badgermole I can learn Pai Sho from you right? I can't tame it as I am now, but will you give me a chance if I can just catch him?"

The Airbender didn't say a word, but he pulled back his hand and watched.

The mooselion stretched open its mouth.

She flung out her hands, her eyes burning, and she yelled as every fiber of her being concentrated on the tips of her fingers.

The mooselion stumbled over a pile of rocks made slippery from the rain. It fell over on its side and roared after Hana, who had already blocked out every sound but the soft tapping of the badgermole's feet on the rocky road. She breathed heavily, ignoring the hunger in her stomach, pressing down the pain screaming from her feet, blocking out the sight of anything that wasn't a hairy critter sprinting as fast as it could.

"Now!" Hana screamed.

Shijin's eyes widened.

The badgermole leapt.

She clenched her hands.

The sun came out. It burst through the clouds, illuminating the sky and earth with a majestic light. The darkness peeled away in fright. Shijin threw his sleeve over his eyes and looked away. From below, he could hear a squeal and the sound of someone tumbling down the slope.

When he looked back, the sun revealed a sparkling girl, lying dead tired near the base of the mountain.

A badgermole was hugged tightly to her chest, and she held onto it as if her life depended upon it.

It took a few more moments for Shijin to realize that her life did depend upon it.

To be continued...
« Last Edit: Mar 29, 2012 08:10 pm by guyw1tn0nam3 » Logged

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« Reply #3 on: Mar 01, 2012 10:12 am »

Lesson Three: Basics

A few hundred years before the Fire Nation burned half of it away, the Earth Kingdom was an agrarian paradise. There were few who wished to live confined in the walls of a city, but countless were forced and suppressed by the rule of barbarian warlords unchecked by the 46th Earth King, Mei Yong. It was the countryside they longed for, where freedom meant a life filled with lavishness and adventure. There were always dangers of living outside the protection of the warlords, yes, but many would take their chances.

The long roads connecting city to city were lined with an abundance of terraced fields and meadows, a summer mixture of a beautiful blue and green blur and a winding auburn brushstroke in between. In the fall and the winter, the green turned a bright orange, and the blue turned crystal clear and occasionally powdery white. Farther off the road were luxurious forests and tall mountains, braved by only a few, and bested by even fewer.

During the day, the fields were a cacophony of activity, the neighing of ostrich horses and padded sound of hundreds of farmers stepping on and off the road. The night was more tranquil, and one could hear the soft chirping of blue jays, marvel at the soft glow of fluttering fireflies, and feel the warmth of roadside campfires.

It was on this road that three out of place companions walked side by side. One was dressed in orange monk robes, his hands folded in his sleeves, and an Airbending glider strapped to his back. The second was a small creature curiously sniffing the ground, pleased at the fresh smell of fallen pollen that had blown in from the strong winds. The third was a girl in a dirty kimono a head shorter than the Airbender she trailed behind, and she was gazing at a pair of wooden pieces in her right palm.

"I was wondering, Shijin," Hana rolled the two tiles in between her fingers. It was a trick that she had seen from a performer on the road. She had gotten quite adept at it. In her other hand was Shijin's Pai Sho bag, filled with all of his tiles and a rolled up makeshift paper board. "Why are there only seven tiles in Pai Sho?"

"You want to memorize more?" the Airbender gave an incredulous look to the girl behind him, but he did place a finger to his chin as if he remembered something. "Now that you mention it though, I have heard of a few Water Tribe players who added a tile or two in the Water Tribe circles. The tiles themselves are favored towards Water Tribe players, so nobody really bothers using them in competitive play, but I could have you memorize those if you really wanted to."

"No," Hana pouted, flipping the tiles right side up. It was a Badgermole and a Sky Bison tile. "Just curious. Why are there only seven tiles? That seems so few."

"Who knows?" Shijin shrugged. "Seven in the ancient tongue is pronounced qi, which I guess sounds surprisingly similar with chi. Maybe it has something to do with that."

"That's what it's supposed to mean?" Hana creased her forehead. "I mean, I guess it makes sense, but are all Airbenders that lame?"

"That's only what I was told," Shijin replied. "Legend says that Pai Sho was invented by a group of wandering Air Nomads who had too much time on their hands. It wouldn't be shocking to find that they decided to humor themselves when they made up the game."

"Do you believe that's how the game started?" Hana asked.

"Who knows?" Shijin said again, raising his hands in question. "It makes sense sometimes, but I don't think too much about it. I just play the game. Now could you please stop asking trivial questions and get back to memorizing the tiles? We're going to be in town soon."

They had taken a trail that led them northward. Hana didn't ask where her new teacher was going, but if she had, Shijin wouldn't have had a good answer anyway. As they walked, Hana rummaged through Shijin's Pai Sho collection, rolling different pieces around her hand, reciting their names as she walked.

Of course, they weren't alone. The road was a common path taken by farmers. All along the road, they wore their short cotton pants, bamboo straw hats, and leather gloves. Some of them walked to and from the field, buckets filled with water or wheat balanced on their sweaty backs. Others stood knee deep in water, pulling out weeds and loading new crops onto their ostrich horses.

"Sky Bison," Hana pointed at the tile with an orange arrow inside an oval. She turned to the next tile; a flower that Shijin had told her grew quite commonly in the Fire Nation. "Fire Lily."

Memorizing the name of the tiles was easy enough. Hana had seen them before in Omashu after all. What was a little more difficult for her was remembering how the pieces moved, what special properties they held, some of their counterparts. Shijin had only gone through a rough explanation once and hadn't bothered to repeat the lecture, much to Hana's chagrin.

"The Fire Lily is a flower tile, so once it's placed it is not allowed to move," Hana turned her attention to the Sky Bison. "The Sky Bison tile needs to be placed at one of the corners of the board before it can be used. After it is placed, the bison is allowed to move six spaces in any direction, turning in any direction it wants so long as it moves a maximum of six times."

"What stops the Sky Bison?" Shijin called over his shoulder.

"A Chrysanthemum tile, another flower tile," Hana answered, and pulled out a tile with a flower with countless petals attached to its stem. "A Sky Bison can't move so long as a Chrysanthemum tile is placed next to it. Why is that?"

"The Air Nomads learned a long time ago that the reason their temples were covered with chrysanthemum flowers was because the flying bison would often care and nurture the things," Shijin explained. "The animals are really attracted to the scent of the flower, but they refuse to eat anything with chrysanthemum in it. This is probably just a reference to that."

As they walked, there were also occasionally men draped in light green and beige robes standing quiet and still along the road, swords hanging from their waists. Each of them had their hair tied up in a ponytail, which gave Hana a slight sense of amusement. They bore serious looks, scanning the road and giving a narrowed glare to suspicious passing travelers. When they were around, Shijin always slowed down, and whispered fiercely for Hana to stay close.

"Don't say a word, don't make eye contact, and stay close to me," Shijin would hiss at her. "Put the tiles away for now."

"Who are they?" Hana pointed her face toward the floor. She quickly wrapped the Pai Sho tiles, stuffed them in her pockets, and tapped her foot twice to signal the blind creature behind her to keep up with her.

"Wu Jian," Shijin's fingers twitched around his staff. "Trained mercenaries that work for the warlords. They're probably just here to watch the roads, but you can never be too sure. From the looks of these guys, they probably work for Chin."

"The Conqueror?"

"That's the one."

The three of them walked quietly then, and Hana recited the tiles in her head until the silhouettes of the mercenaries were far behind them. It was only then when Shijin walked a little faster and allowed Hana to pull out his tiles. By then, the morning was already over, and the outlines of short but sturdy buildings could be seen on the near horizon.

They arrived just as the sun passed its midway point in the sky. Like most settlements in the Earth Kingdom, the town was just two rows of buildings set on each side of the road. Food cart and trinket owners set up shop outside their homes, and the town gave off the faint smell of nicely cooked meat and fresh produce. Today, there were no clouds, and it appeared that heat of the summer was finally settling in.

Shijin used a few of his coins to buy a small meal for Hana and her new pet. It was a simple treat, fresh corn and rice from the fields along with an assortment of steamed vegetables. Hana offered some food to the badgermole, which she had come to call Kupo. She dug in herself, and after a moment, looked back at her teacher, cheeks red with embarrassment.

"Shijin," Hana twiddled her thumbs. "Is it okay if we have some meat?"

"Meat's expensive, usually a silver coin a piece. I bought everything here with only a few bronze coins," Shijin frowned, shaking an almost empty pouch of coins in his hand. From what she could hear, Hana could tell that there were no more than three more coins left. "We don't have the luxury of buying any, especially at the more remote villages, where the meat is even pricier."

"If you want to buy meat though," Shijin pointed at the bag of Pai Sho tiles and the makeshift paper board inside. "This might be a good opportunity for you to see how much you've learned."

"Go ahead and quiz me then," Hana grinned, folding her arms and holding her head high. "I've memorized all of the tiles anyway, so I'll pass any test that you can throw at me."

"Great," Shijin pointed at the floor next to the nearest vendor that sold meat. "Set up my board over there, and play some Pai Sho. You can use one of my silver coins to bet with. If you can make enough money from gambling, then I'll let you buy some meat."

Hana's look could only be described as flabbergasted. Her jaw dropped open as she too pointed at the floor next to the food stand. The owner of the street shop eyed them curiously, quite amused.

"You want me to play? Right now?" Hana suddenly tensed up, her heart was racing with a feeling she couldn't describe well. "I mean, I've barely memorized the tiles, and you haven't even taught me any strategies."

"Didn't I tell you already?" Shijin tapped Hana's on her head before pointing a finger at her chest. "Pai Sho is a game of expression, culture, and an inner look at the self. Traditionally, I would've been forced to spend the entire afternoon teaching you strategies and having you memorize them over and over again, but that would just be a waste of both of our times. I want you to try it out on your own first."

"So you're just going to throw me against of bunch of people who all know how to play the game more than I do?" Hana protested. "How is this going to help me learn?"

"You don't know that," Shijin countered. "There are a lot of players who know just as much as you do right now; what the tiles are, how they move. Some of them also haven't properly memorized the special properties of each tile, so they can't take advantage of the opportunities they create unknowingly."

"And where will you be during all this?" Hana grumbled. It seemed she wasn't getting away from playing the game after all. "You're going to be behind me at least helping me out aren't you?"

"I came to this town because there's someone I want to see before we set off to the other parts of the Kingdom," Shijin shook his head. If he was disappointed at not being able to watch the first game of Pai Sho his student was about to play, he didn't show it. "Besides, it wouldn't be you playing Pai Sho if I was around."

"And what happens if I lose all of your money?" Hana tried a last attempt at reasoning with the Airbender, but knew from the Airbender's emotionless expression that it was hopeless.

"Who knows?" Shijin shrugged, and turned his back to Hana. He gave a nonchalant wave and walked off to the far end of the town. "I won't be gone for long, so I don't expect you to waste all of that silver coin before I come back. Just make sure you bet in small quantities. Just remember that a hundred bronze coins is a single silver coin. Since this is your first time, you probably shouldn't be tossing in any more than five bronze coins into the pot."

Hana sighed and turned to the badgermole, who gazed curiously back at her. "You don't think you could help me with a strategy or two can you?" Hana asked. The creature cocked its head in confusion, and Hana threw up her hands in defeat. "I guess I might as well set everything up."

She set down the board, making sure that she turned the board so that none of the triangles on the corner of the board were facing her. She set an unmarked tile at four points on the paper to ensure that the board didn't blow away with the wind. Afterwards, she divided the number of tiles in Shijin's bag in two. There were enough tiles in Shujin's bag to suit two people.

"It's common courtesy when you equip your own set to have enough tiles for two people," Shijin had explained. "You can't expect others to always have their own set on hand."

She then proceeded to ask the vendor for an exchange of a hundred bronze coins for her one silver. After she had done so, she tossed five of the bronze coins onto the middle of the paper board and waited.

Her first opponent came less than a minute later. He was a farmer, and from the look of his empty buckets, he must have just sold his crop to the market for the day. It was out of the corner of his eye that he noticed the Pai Sho board, and he was quick to wander over.

"You don't often see a girl gambling with Pai Sho. In fact I've never seen it before," the farmer scratched his head, but fished around his pockets for his earnings. "But I can't pass by a game when it's right here in front of me."

Hana's heart beat as quickly as the flapping of a butterfly's wings. The farmer sat down cross legged on the other side of the board and graciously accepted his share of the tiles. He looked over the wooden pieces and nodded, his eyes wide with surprise. "You don't see wooden tiles that often anymore," the farmer commented in astonishment. "This is a nice design too."

"G-guest gets first move," Hana stumbled, extending a shaking hand over the board. "You may begin when you are ready."

"Then," the farmer happily picked through the tiles for the right piece that he wanted. "Don't mind me then."

He laid down his first piece.

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« Reply #4 on: Mar 01, 2012 10:12 am »

Shijin pushed open the door to the house. As he had suspected, it was unlocked.

When he entered, he was greeted by a room abundant with flora. Native Earth Kingdom flowers from the panda lily to the jasmine flower were pushed against the sides of the room, portraits of ancestors hung on the walls. In the middle were three unique flowers placed in three separate pots on a dusty wooden table. A rare blossoming fire lily sat directly to Shijin's right, a flourishing and recently watered white lotus flower in the middle, and a dead chrysanthemum to his left.

"So he finally passed away didn't he?" Shijin muttered, staring at the dead flower on the table. He stroked the petals. Unsurprisingly, the petal he touched withered and broke off, falling into the dry pot. "Well, that's not surprising. He had been sick for quite some time."

"To what do I owe the presence of someone like you?" said a voice from the room directly across the table. A woman, who appeared much older than the monk Shijin had encountered the other day, walked into the room. She was limping, supported by a cane. "But to answer your question, Gao passed on earlier this year after you left. Poor thing. By the end of it he wouldn't even sniff the chrysanthemums I had grown for him. He was too ill."

"Do you want me to brew some tea?" Shijin offered politely.

"I'm a little too old for tea," the woman waved him off. "I'd rather spend my good days sleeping in, and tea is what keeps me from doing so."

They stood in silence. Pleasantries were over, and without them, the two had very little that they really wanted to say.

"What are you doing here," the woman finally sighed and looked up with sorrowful eyes.

"Thought I'd stop by and say that this is a final goodbye," Shijin said. "I probably won't be coming back here again. Now that Gao is gone, there's no real need for me to come back here."

"It is an appropriate farewell. Probably more appropriate now than never," the woman shrugged. She had been expecting this for some time. "The Wu Jian are all over here now. It won't be long before the warlords living in Omashu bow to the Conqueror. Where are you headed?"

"Who knows?" Shijin replied. He had been using that phrase a lot today. "Maybe I'll try my luck up north. The rest of the nomads will probably be migrating south, so I should be fine."

"Are you going alone?" said the woman. "The north is different from the southern Earth Kingdom. You might want to pack yourself a native. I hear the towns up there get pretty ugly."

"I have a noisy companion," Shijin frowned at the mere thought of it. "She's outside playing some Pai Sho at the moment. She's a native alright, but she's pretty useless as far as the Earth Kingdom is concerned."

"A noisy companion," chuckled the woman. For a person her age, her laugh was rich and deep. "She must be something if she managed to grab your attention. You always said that you would have preferred living out the rest of your exile alone."

"It's not what you think," Shijin put up his hands in defense. He creased his brow in frustration and irritation at the mere thought of Hana being a suitable companion. "I was more or less coerced into teaching Pai Sho to her. I had no choice in the matter."

"And yet you're still with her," said the woman, who nodded to herself as if she understood everything. "Well, is that all you came here to say?"

"Yeah," Shijin turned his back to the old lady and prepared to leave. "Take care of yourself now."

"Pay some respects to my husband on your way out. Spirits knows that he never stopped talking about you ever since he picked you up that cold rainy night," the old lady nodded her head and waved before heading up the stairs. Her raspy voiced echoed in the room. "I wish you a safe journey. Yi lu ping an."

Shijin stepped outside and breathed deeply. Next to the door, framed on a window was the painting of an elderly man standing next to a large bison. He was smiling, his arms wrapped around the bison in an affectionate hug. The painter had drawn the bison with eyes that showed no emotion, but Shijin knew that it was happy, right until the very end. Incense was burning from a tiny pot, flakes of burnt pieces of paper hanging over the sides. The old woman must have recently relit the memorial. Shijin gave a quick bow.

"Thank you for everything old man," Shijin whispered.

He stepped away from the window and turned back to the market, which had grown busier in the short time that he had been away. Farmers from the road flooded into the town with some of their freshest foods in tow. Merchants and buyers shouted and waved at farmers whom they recognized, and brought out their tipping scales to begin exchanging their goods.

"I wonder how she's doing now," the Airbender said to himself. He fumbled with his bag of coins in the moment. He was down to two. "Well, I can always just assume that she lost everything and plan accordingly."

He walked over the vendor where had left Hana to her own devices. As he approached, he snuck around the meat stand and hung around underneath an overhang that blocked out the afternoon sun. From there, he watched Hana from behind, who bent over the board, pointing at each tile and moving her finger to possible places for that tile to move.

"You never do that," Shijin made a note to tell her that later. "You never want your opponent knowing which piece you're considering to move."

Her opponent was unsurprisingly a farmer, one who had just sold his crops and was on his way home. It would've been a good catch for Shijin, who could have gambled more money off the joy that the farmer was feeling from selling his merchandise. But for Hana, who still had a long way to go, nothing was more dangerous than a farmer who might have pressured her to throw more of her money onto the board.

Hana's set up was a mess, and Shijin wanted to gag at the very sight of how she had placed her tiles. She had set way too many flower tiles, and they were awkwardly scattered throughout the board, some of them even on her opponent's side for no reason. As a result, she had too few non-flower tiles that could capture pieces. Her Sky Bison had yet to move out of its corner of the board, and it must have been at least five turns already since she had placed it.

Her opponent wasn't much better, but that was no excuse. Hana looked into her bag, and flipped two tiles out, a Badgermole and a Wheel tile, and she contemplated which ones she wanted to place on the board.

"You need a Wheel with that kind of set up," Shijin rubbed his temples with his two hands as he watched helplessly. "The Badgermole can only move one space in each direction unless you have a flower tile in your line of sight, in which you are able to directly jump to that tile. Your flowers are too scattered, so it's useless to have one."

"I think I'll place this tile down," Hana's shaking hands slapped a Badgermole tile on the board, just as Shijin's shaking hands slapped his forehead. She looked up, appeared satisfied with her play and turned to the badgermole sitting besides her. She rubbed its face. "I've played you on the field Kupo."

That's your reason for putting down the tile?

Shijin pinched the bridge of his nose, his eyes closing for a moment. He wanted to stop watching and just run away. If anyone with an iota of experience in Pai Sho knew that he had been teaching this girl, he would become known as the one Air Nomad who would have failed to produce a fine Pai Sho player. Perhaps it was a little early to be thinking of such things, but Shijin couldn't block the thought from his mind.

Yet, even though Hana slowly buckled underneath her poor deployment and lack of movable pieces, Shijin could tell that she had at least remembered everything that he had taught her. Her play was indeed short sighted, too focused on defense, passive. Had she known how to properly position her tiles and place her Badgermole, then perhaps she could have pulled off an upset.

To many other Pai Sho teachers, such plays would have required admonishment. To Shijin, it showed she was learning, experimenting with pieces that she had never played with before, and defending her tiles because she still needed to figure out how to properly utilize them. She even caught the farmer off guard a few times, moving the Sky Bison piece that she had forgotten about outside of the corner of the board and capturing a Wheel tile that had moved too close.

But the game's outcome was inevitable, and a few turns later, Hana was caught unaware that her opponent had captured her White Lotus tile with a Sky Bison tile of his own, effectively ending the game. The farmer smiled at her, took the five bronze coins from the side of the board, and bid her farewell.

From his perspective, Shijin couldn't see Hana's reaction to the game. He pushed himself away from the wall he had been leaning on, unfolded his arms, and walked up to his student. He stood beside her, looking at the tiles that she had placed on the board.

Then, a drop of water hit the paper board, followed by another, and Shijin noticed that Hana was rapidly wiping drops of tears from her eyes with her dirty sleeves. The Air Nomad didn't know how exactly to respond, so he just cleaned up the tiles on the floor and rolled up the makeshift board so it wasn't soaked by Hana's sobs.

"I thought," Hana sniffed. "That it would be cool if I won my first game of Pai Sho."

"Winning would be a miracle given how little you know right now," Shijin explained. "I was surprised to find that you had stayed in your first game for so long."

"I know," the girl stood up and shook her head rapidly to shake herself up. "But losing doesn't feel very good."

"Your opponent was decent, and he obviously knew more than you did," Shijin reasoned. Hana's frown lessened with the statement. "Don't get too ahead of yourself. You're going to feel that way a lot more times before you win. Now hurry it up. Let's get a move on. I want to head as north as possible before we make camp."

"It would've been good if you had helped me a bit if you were just going to stand there," Hana pouted. When Shijin didn't respond, she let out a big exhale. "Yes, yes, I get it. You wanted me to play by myself. Who were you visiting anyway?"

"Just a family friend," Shijin shrugged, before pointing at the far end of town. "Wait for me there. I have some business to finish up, so just wait a minute or two for me."

Hana nodded and walked off, her badgermole friend trailing closely behind her.

"Maybe we'll win next time right, Kupo?" she laughed as they walked away. The badgermole made a noise, and Shijin wasn't sure if it was merely burping or acknowledging its name. "Maybe next time I'll play you later in the game. I should've moved that Sky Bison earlier…"

The monk now turned to the street vendor, who had been watching the entire time. He smiled at the Airbender and bowed slightly.

"A Pai Sho teacher who leaves his student unattended," the vendor mused. "Must have enormous faith in his student, am I not right?"

Shijin raised an eyebrow at the store owner. He pulled his pouch of coins out from his pocket. He then threw his last two remaining silver coins into the man's pot and fetched the best two pieces of barbequed fox antelope ribs from the stand.

Shijin turned to face the shop owner again and shrugged.

"Who knows?"

To be continued…
« Last Edit: Mar 29, 2012 08:10 pm by guyw1tn0nam3 » Logged

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« Reply #5 on: Mar 20, 2012 07:07 pm »

Lesson Four: Rules

They headed north until they reached the Wei Lin Jiang, a river known for its abundance of fish. All along the wide muddy stream were sampans, flat bottomed boats that sat quietly all day and night. There were fishing nets and rods leaning over the sides of the boats, tied down by rope. The fishermen could often be seen lying against the small cabins fixed on their small ships, an oar lying in their arms and a smoking pipe between their teeth. White and grey feathered birds were perched over the boats, eyeing the fish that filled the buckets on the crafts.

The river ran for miles until it met the ocean farther to the west. When they had first caught sight of the sea, Shijin had noticed that Hana had spent that early morning at the beach. She had stood idly along the coast, the water splashing against her bare feet, her sandals in her fingers, her amber eyes staring off beyond the vast expanse of crimson skies and foaming waters. Kupo was standing beside her, rubbing his soft fur against her ankles. Her lips were parted, but no words were ushered from her mouth. She merely stared at the rising sun for a long time before returning to camp.

The source of the stream lied in the east, where it was divided into two tributaries that small towns surrounded. In the middle of the stream was a small island, where a red shrine was built in honor of the spirits. When Hana had eyed the monument, she could make out the outlines of a mysterious golden fish statue curled around a fishing rod sitting in the center of the relic.

"Shijin," Hana said when she saw these fishermen for the first time. One of them yelled excitedly over a large catch that had fallen unknowingly into his nets. He wielded the large fish over his head, and nearby fishermen cheered in response. "I've never seen a fisherman take his food to sell at the markets. Do they have some special place where they sell fish around here?"

"No," Shijin explained. "Most of these fishermen will live and stay on their boats almost their entire lives. They rarely even leave their boats to restock on supplies. There are many merchants along the river who specialize in selling their things to fishermen."

"What?" Hana exclaimed, rapidly switching her attention back and forth between Shijin's calm expression and the fired up fisherman, who immediately threw the fish into a pot and climbed into his cabin. He returned with a knife and charcoal, and he began skewering the fish. "All their lives on those little boats? How do they deal with that?"

"This is the Earth Kingdom," Shijin turned to the river. "This is how the people of the Earth Kingdom live. Whatever the hardships, whatever the burdens, the people of the Earth Kingdom are destined to bare it all their lives. It is a way of life, and it is what makes the Earth Kingdom strong and eternal."

"You seem to know a lot," Hana flipped a few tiles in her hands. "About the Earth Kingdom I mean."

"One tends to know the places he's traversed for the last few years," said the Airbender. "And it's customary for most monks to journey across the Earth Kingdom during their pilgrimages to the other temples. Of course you won't see many nomads on this road."

"Why not?" Hana asked, realizing for the first time that Shijin was the only Air Nomad that she had seen since she left Omashu.

"Because we're travelling north," Shijin noted, pointing far off into the distant mountains that appeared only as tiny bumps to his eyes. "The Northern Air Temple is much too far to get a glimpse of any of the nomads who live there, and most monks who embark on a journey from there tend to turn southeast toward Ba Sing Se. The monks call it the wen hua zhong xing, or the cultural center, of the kingdom. So few will ever turn west and cross into this part of the kingdom."

"I'd like to see that city one day," Hana said dreamily. She had been told stories of Ba Sing Se many times. It was a city filled with beauty, the divine, where the spirits converged to endow the kingdom with all of their charms and blessings. "Are we ever going to see it?"

"Ba Sing Se runs a few famous Pai Sho rings and tournaments in the winter time, and I haven't been to the city in a while" Shijin noted. "Perhaps if you've learned enough by the time the first snowflake falls, I'll consider taking you there."

"Then it's a deal," Hana grinned and pulled out a few tiles and began reciting their movements aloud. "Wheel, moves forwards, backwards, left, and right…"

It had become a routine for the two of them to play a few games each morning and each night. If they were on the road, Hana spent her time trying to remember the critiques that Shijin had offered her after each game, piecing together the games that they played the morning of. When they were in town, Shijin would leave for the Pai Sho circles, bringing back a few silver pieces, while Hana sat next to shop vendors on the streets asking for games with passerby strangers. She never won, and Shijin's winnings were the only thing that kept the two from starving.

"Why do you keep sending me out there when you know I'm just going to lose?" Hana complained once, returning a lighter bag of coins with a red face. "Can you at least give me some strategies now? If not because I want to get better, then because I don't want to always be losing us money. I even saw a bookstore today selling a few Pai Sho scrolls. Can't we get one of them?"

Shijin hadn't looked back at her. He stowed the sack of coins into his pockets and motioned for Hana to follow. The girl reluctantly followed behind him as they left that town, and it wasn't until the town's noisy and crowded atmosphere was behind them that Shijin began talking.

"Pai Sho is unique in the fact that it's a game that's been relatively figured out but is still a game of infinite possibilities," Shijin explained. "Most masters you run across these days will know most of the famous openings, but are still often taken aback by moves played in the seventh to eighth round of deployment. Do you know why that is?"

"No," Hana sighed and, as she usually did when Shijin was about to say something wise, puffed her cheeks.

"It's because unlike most standard games where pieces are premade and setup," Shijin continued. "Pai Sho is a game where deployment is just as important as moving your tiles. There are seven different tiles in Pai Sho and two hundred fifty six spaces to place those tiles. For all intents and purposes, there are too many different variations of an opening to count in a sane span of time."

"The reason we have openings, however," Shijin explained, right as Hana opened her mouth to interrupt. "Is because there are bound to be certain deployments that are better than others. People who have become well trained in these openings can, as a result, take advantage of their superior openings and win games handily."

"You, on the other hand," the Airbender said. "Are much too inexperienced to even start understanding how you're deploying tiles, why tiles are deployed as they are, and what to do to make best of your tiles. You barely even understand the basic understanding of trading pieces or defending objectives. For now, just stick to the critiques I've been offering you. They're more helpful than any strategies I can offer you."

Those critiques came in a variety of fashions. That was a bad decision to exchange tiles here. You shouldn't have backed away from this flower. Why did you let me control the board so easily? On one hand, Hana was quick to recognize her mistakes, but on the other, she was completely clueless as how to exactly fix it.

"Experiment," was Shijin's response when Hana brought the issue up. "The key to becoming a great Pai Sho player is to be aware of every possibility that a player can make. The only way to do that is to test out every different way to use the tiles yourself."

A few days later, they arrived at one of the larger settlements in the north. It sat at the source of the river they had been walking along, surrounded by short earth walls. Around its perimeter were Wu Jian mercenaries, keeping a watchful eye on the farmers walking to and fro from their city. When Hana looked to the east, she spotted a few men on a hill, standing beside their ostrich horses as they spotted the local town. These men, like the Wu Jian, dressed in robes different from the casual farmer. Their clothes, however, were of a darker green hue. A pair of flags was strapped to their steeds.

"They ride with the Earth King's banner," Shijin said when Hana pointed them out. "How dangerous for them for them to be riding this deep into Chin's lands."

"Who are they?" Hana asked.

"Imperial scouts," Shijin explained. The men took another look at the town, before hopping on their horses and leaving. Their flags waved in the wind, and a few hecklers could be heard in the distance. "Messengers and spies of the 46th Earth King. They wear the flags to show the commoners around here that the Earth King still cares about this part of the kingdom. The cold hard truth is that he doesn't. The King would much rather focus on Omashu, where he at least retains a small bit of control."

The riders rode off towards the falling sun and the mountains, whose peaks formed the back of winding snake. Their faces were hidden by dark mushroom shaped hats. Some of Chin's mercenaries pursued them, arrows in hand, rushing across wet farming fields, screaming at them at the top of their lungs.

"Will Chin be stopped?" Hana thoughts meandered back to her former home, where some of her acquaintances must have still been tending to men.

"Unless Kyoshi acts, probably not," Shijini folded his hand behind his head. "The Earth King doesn't have enough of a standing army to even sally forth beyond Ba Sing Se's walls. The nomads stay out of it because they don't care so long as they get to keep their precious pilgrimages to other temples. The Water Tribe sends healers before they realize they're not helping anyone, and of course the Fire Nation is waiting to see who comes out on top before they throw their pieces in."

"And what about you?" Hana looked up at the Airbender, whose eyes were rested on the riders in the distance. "What do you want?"

Shijin was silent as he contemplated the question. It was one of the few times Shijin didn't give a rapid fire answer. They approached the gates to the settlement, and the guards opened the doors to allow them to pass. Inside, scattered mercenaries and soldiers stood guard at every building and stand. There were no children on the streets, and those doing business had noticeably shifty eyes, moving their eyes back and forth between their locked chests and customers.

At the far end of the town, towering above the walls was a three storied structured. This building hosted the most guards, and it looked newer than all of the rundown and dirty buildings below it. Its walls were clean, its roof lined with glittering jewels and well-designed animal sculptures. A banner was hung at the front of the building, with the words zheng fu gong shi, government office, spelled across it. Shijin gave this particular building an odd eye, before turning a corner and heading to what appeared to be an inn.

"As long as I have Pai Sho," Shijin answered finally. "I don't care who's in power."

"This game is special to you," Hana moved her fingers over Shijin's tiles, keeping track of every fine detail on the drawings on the tile. "Isn't it?"

"Not really," Shijin said simply. He closed his eyes and smiled. "It's just how I make my living."

"Old man, you're short a silver piece," a sneer broke their conversation. Both Hana and Shijin turned to see three Wu Jian agents standing at the door to someone's house. Inside was an elderly man, who shook with fright as he fished around for a silver piece that he didn't have. "Don't tell us that you want the governor to starve?"

"He's already taken all of my money," the old man widened his eyes. "And we don't have enough travelers to keep up with all of these fees and tributes. Can you please tell him to come back later when I have had time to get more? This is unreasonable!"

"Complaining about Governor Tu Fei are we?" the lead man grinned. "That's sedition if I ever heard of it. I think we ought to give you a bit of a lesson."

The three men proceeded to forcefully drag the feeble man onto the street, where they brandished their batons and beat the man's hands and feet. Everyone passing by looked away, covering their own scarred and bruised faces with their wounded hands.

"Shijin, we have to do something," Hana hissed, brushing up her sleeves. Kupo, who had stayed quiet the entire time, growled alongside. "We can't let them do this."

"Don't," Shijin's voice, to Hana's surprise, was calm. He had already turned away from the violence, looking around for the appropriate inn. "Ignore them."

"What?" Hana's voice was full of disapproval. She held onto Shijin's arm as he attempted to walk away and stared at him with the eyes of an angry panther. "How can we do that? That poor old man is getting attacked. Why don't you go fight them? You can, can't you?"

"Just watch," Shijin sighed.

When Hana turned back, another man, presumably the old man's son, burst out to cover for his father.

"Look here," the mercenaries laughed. "Someone protecting a seditionist?"

They instantly turned to the son too, and after a few more seconds, the man was unconscious and bleeding. Both of them were then promptly picked up and dragged to the big building at the end of the town. As they disappeared into it, one of them women on the streets ran to the house and closed the door before rushing away.

"Kindness doesn't get you anywhere here, unless you want to end up like them," the Airbender kept walking, dragging along Hana's weakening grip. "Now pull yourself together. Let's first just find a place to stay for the night. I don't intend to keep you here for very long."

That night, they ate only steamed rice and gave Kupo a small slice of their salted fish. Hana was quiet, softly chewing away at the sticky balls of rice in her mouth. The badgermole finished its meal quickly, before rolling away to a corner of the room to play with a few unmarked tiles that had been left by the room's previous owners. When Shijin and Hana had both finished their meals, Shijin unwrapped his paper board and set aside the tiles on each side.

"Come on," Shijin offered a hand to Hana. "Let's play a game. I want to see how much you've learned."

"I'm not in the mood," Hana moved her hands around the tiles. They swirled around her hands. It was the only sound in the wooden room lit only by oil lamps and candles. "Let's not play today."

A crescent moon was out today, and there was a small wind that diminished the humidity of the summer air. They were staying the night on the second floor of the cheapest inn Shijin could find. Below them, guards and soldiers patrolled the streets, occasionally knocking on doors and yelling to keep down the noise. Across the street was a local bar, and soldiers there tired from day duty gathered and yelled themselves, a gathering of hypocrisy, smoke, and drinks.

"How do you expect to get better if you don't practice?" Shijin frowned. "If you're not in the mood because some old man got beaten for not paying his taxes, then that's no excuse to me. This kind of thing is pretty common in most of the cities up here in the north."

"Then why did you take me here," Hana's demand came out as a whisper. "Why didn't we go south, like all of your other Air Nomad friends?"

"Chin's army is headed south, and I would much rather brave this territory then risk running into the middle of battle," Shijin defended. "And for the record, I don't follow most Air Nomads because they're not too happy to see me as it is."

"That's pretty selfish if you ask me," Hana bit her lip. "Bringing a girl to a place like this."

"I had no intention of bringing anyone with me," Shijin's eyes narrowed. "You should probably remember that part first."

"You could've helped them," Hana choked back on tears. "I've seen you fight. You could've taken out all of these soldiers, all of these mercenaries. I don't know why you didn't."

"I didn't want to get involved," Shijin folded his arms, his hands a little bit too tight on his tiles. "Why would I even want to get involved?"

"Because it's the right thing to do. You don't even need to fight," Hana pointed at the board. "You could have just challenged the governor, that Tu Fei guy, to some Pai Sho match. And if you won, you could tell him to never bother any of these townspeople ever again."

"That's the most ridiculous idea I've ever heard," Shijin put his hand on his forehead. "Okay, let's have it your way. Let's say I fought, or I gambled everything and won against the governor, which in all honesty I might not be able to. What makes you think that the minute we left, they wouldn't return to normal and continue terrifying the town?"

Hana was silent, her lip almost pierced by how fiercely she was bringing her teeth against them. She put her head down, her hands also gripping tightly on a few tiles. Suddenly, with a squelched cry she flung a Sky Bison tile to the wall. It made a small clang against the wooden surface before rolling back to its original place next to Hana.

"Forget it," Shijin sighed. "Look, I'm sorry, but we're stuck here for now. We'll try this again tomorrow. Like I said, this is the Earth Kingdom. People have always lived like this, and they neither hate it nor enjoy it. It is a way of life for the commoners here. No matter what we do, their lives will never change."

Shijin folded up his board, placed the tiles back into the bag, and threw them onto a stand next to the two person bed. As usual, he then walked over to a corner of the room and lied down, his head pressed against the walls. He yawned and then closed his eyes.

"Get some good rest," the monk said. "It'll help."

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« Reply #6 on: Mar 20, 2012 07:08 pm »

When Shijin awoke, one of the oil lamps had been relit, Hana was missing, and his set of Pai Sho tiles and board was gone. He looked out the window to see the white crescent moon still hanging over the sky. The hollering from the bar had ceased, but there were quite a few lights still lit in the dead night. Kupo groaned at the doorway, scratching at the wooden door.

"That girl," Shijin muttered, shaking himself awake. "Don't tell me…"

He headed downstairs, confirmed with the innkeeper at the front desk that a young woman had left the inn not twenty minutes ago, and then left in the direction of the government office. A few strange glares came his way as he walked, but the monk ignored them as usual. He approached the massive structure at the far end of town, where he was yet again met by the guards and their suspicious glares. When Shijin mentioned a fairly young lady, the guards smiled deviously at him and prompted him to enter.

The halls of the office were lined with gold, its ceilings well painted with fine Earth Kingdom art. Imported paintings from across the sea and from around the land hung on the walls. To Shijin's knowledge, many offices across Chin's lands were like this. The Conqueror would confiscate the arts and cultural heirlooms and take them to his halls and palaces. It was his way of telling the Earth Kingdom that all would be united under the banner of Chin.

"Quite a beautiful way to announce such a thing, in some ways," Shijin said. "Of course, you would have to count out the murders, thefts, and briberies that it took to take all of these from their respective owners and families."

They headed farther up a flight of stairs, and it was at this point that Shijin heard a rather loud voice coming from upstairs. It was a girl's voice, and from the sound of it, she was getting angrier by the second. When they reached the next floor, the guards brought the Airbender to a door at the far end. Inside, Hana was standing, face filled with rage, and Shijin's board and tiles were spread on a table in the middle of the room.

A man around Shijin's age was seated at the back. His hair was longer than Shijin's, long enough for his hair to be tied into a topknot. He was grinning at Hana; his hands carelessly perched on his chin. He was dressed rather lavishly in a silk sleeping gown.

"So," Hana pointed at the tiles. "If I win, you release that old man and his son that you imprisoned today, and you stop terrorizing them."

"And if I lose?" the man, who Shijin figured to be Governor Tu Fei, raised an eyebrow. "Because miss all you've been talking about is you winning this Pai Sho match against me. What if you lose this match? What happens then? Should I turn you over to the Wu Jian, let them have their way with you? Or perhaps I can turn you into a day laborer? I could always do a brothel as well."

Hana visibly flinched.

"Do what you will with me if you win," Hana said finally. "As long as you keep your end of the deal."

"What are you doing," Shijin rushed to Hana's side before she said anything else out of line. Hana seemed shocked that Shijin had followed The Air Nomad turned to the governor and knelt on his knees. "I apologize for her reckless behavior. I shall take full responsibility for everything. Now if you excuse us, we'll just leave."

"Then take responsibility when I beat her at this game," Tu Fei stepped off of his seat. He approached the round table in the middle and sat down, motioning for Hana to come join him. The guards around Shijin blocked the exits. "I think an Airbender would make a fine slave under the right conditions."

The monk growled. He reached for his staff before he realized that he left it in the room. Quickly, he counted almost a dozen enemies, half of them of the infamous Wu Jian in the room. There didn't look to be a reasonable escape opportunity. There was no choice. Hana had to play and win.

"Shijin," Hana said, looking at the Airbender, coming to a similar conclusion. "I-"

"Don't say anything," Shijin sighed, and gave her a gentle nudge toward the table. "It's a bit too late for it, and I can't say that it's not my fault for putting myself into this. Just play like you always have. Don't worry too much about me."

"But this is different," Hana insisted. "This isn't just money this time. I could lose my teacher too."

"A teacher is always willing to sacrifice things for his student," Shijin flicked the girl on the head. "Like I said, don't worry too much about it. You've been practicing quite a lot. Just stick to what you know. This was your idea wasn't it? If so, stop being such a baby and get on with it."

Hana didn't look convinced, but nonetheless she stepped toward the table.

"Guests receive first move," said Tu Fei, waving his hands over the table. "If the Airbender is your teacher, then I assume you're going to open with the Nomad's Path."

Hana was silent. She didn't know the Nomad's Path. Shijin hadn't taught her after all. Instead, she reached into the pot of tiles and slapped a Sky Bison at the corner of her board. Tu Fei seemed pleased, as if he knew it was coming. Shijin himself was a little surprised.

"Ironically enough," the monk allowed himself a chuckle. "That's actually how you open the Nomad's Path."

"The famous opening engineered by the Nomads hundreds of years ago," Tu Fei scoffed. "I've seen the opening, and there's no doubt that it's impressive. But it falls on its face when you block it right at the start. I wonder what happens when you can't use any of your bison tiles."

The governor placed a Chrysanthemum piece in front of the Sky Bison tile, effectively keeping it from moving out of the corner of the board. Hana said nothing, but placed another tile at the other corner of her board. Tu Fei blocked again.

"And there goes your two bison," Tu fei smirked. "Is this not a genius way of blocking the most groundbreaking strategy in the history of Pai Sho?"

Shijin smacked his forehead, partly out of anger and partly out of relief. Tu Fei's strategy was so straightforward, ill-conceived, and simple minded that the governor must have only spent the last few days actually learning how to play the game. If the monk had actually played the governor, beating him with the common response to this idiotic counter plan would have been a cinch.

"At this point," Shijin said to himself. "The governor has already wasted two moves in deploying two of the most useless tiles in the game. They serve no purpose if they're taken, so they're essentially deadweight tiles. In other words, if she plays correctly, she'll have two more movable pieces going into the later stages of the game than Tu Fei will. This counter assumes that the Nomad's Path is useless without the Sky Bison. This assumption is laughably incorrect, so it sacrifices late game power for nothing."

Hana, on the other hand, seemed more flustered with the fact that her Sky Bison couldn't move. She looked over her remaining tiles, then slapped a Badgermole tile onto the middle of the board. She seemed satisfied with this, took a deep breath, and waited for her opponent's next move.

Tu Fei frowned, and Shijin grinned.

"This could be your chance," the nomad said under his breath. "You're playing like a completely inexperienced player, and since he's not any good himself, there's no way he'll recognize weaknesses in your deployment."

After a moment of hesitation, the governor decided to be aggressive and placed a Wheel tile his side of the board. Hana recognized this tile. It was a tile that Shijin used many times to dismantle and trap her tiles. It could move forwards, backwards, left, or right as many spaces as it wanted. This particular wheel piece was directly aligned with the Badgermole tile.

"Trust your instincts," Shijin said. "Places pieces in a position where you can satisfy two objectives at once."

Hana responded with a Wheel tile of her own, placing it on the left side of the middle square so that it was directly in line with her Badgermole tile and Tu Fei's leftmost chrysanthemum tile. Tu Fei, not too concerned about the Wheel tile that was threatening his chrysanthemum, placed his White Lotus tile behind his own wheel.

Shijin's student, knowing that she now had the obligation to place a lotus tile as well, deployed it on the right side of the middle square, so that it was lined up with Tu Fei's rightmost chrysanthemum tile. When Tu Fei placed another Wheel tile in the same line as both his and Hana's White Lotus tile, Hana moved her Badgermole directly to the lotus's side, protecting it from danger.

It was at this point that Shijin could see the plan forming in Hana's mind. It was a rather clever one, Shijin had to admit, which forced Tu Fei to focus on one side of the board, while completely ignoring the other. The governor moved the wheel tile in front of his White Lotus tile to his left, aligning it with Hana's Badgermole tile.

Then, Hana moved her leftmost Wheel tile up so that it was in direct line with Tu Fei's White Lotus, and the governor knew how much trouble he was in. Forced to move his White Lotus tile, the only flower that was able to move, down towards him, Hana moved her Wheel tile to capture Tu Fei's wheel on the other side of the board. Trying to find some way to trade pieces, Tu Fei moved down and captured the Badgermole tile with his other wheel, threatening Hana's White Lotus.

Hana moved the lotus diagonally to the right, and when Tu Fei placed a badgermole of his own to protect his lotus, Hana swiftly moved down with her wheel to take the rightmost Chrysanthemum tile to free the first Sky Bison she had played at the beginning of the game.

It was a downhill battle from there. Hana's Sky Bison was free to move the minute Hana moved her wheel out of the way, so Tu Fei's only response was to try to take Sky Bison tiles as well. Of course, when he placed down both of his bison, Hana placed chrysanthemum tiles at the entrances to block them.

Tu Fei, in a desperate attempt at freeing his bison, moved his wheel to capture the flower tiles in front of the Sky Bison entrances. Before he could do so, however, Hana had already deployed her other wheel into position to take out the governor's Badgermole.

The town leader was distraught as he realized that there was nothing else that he could do. He looked at Hana's, whose eyes showed signs of drooping but nonetheless were completely focused on the game. He clenched his teeth, his neck tensed, and Shijin smiled as he folded his White Lotus tile over in defeat.

"And this," Shijin finally spoke aloud to Hana, walking up to her and padding her on the shoulder. "Is why I didn't need to teach you openings."

"I won?" Hana could barely accept it. She turned to Shijin with a beaming glare, as if all of her exhaustion had washed away. "I won. My first victory."

"Yes, yes, you won," Tu Fei waved his hands dismissively. "Now will you please stop talking already? It's almost morning, and I haven't had any good sleep because of you and your excessive hollering. Hurry up and get out of my city."

"Not until you keep your promise," Hana grinned. "I won, so that means you have to uphold your end of the deal. You are to release the old man and his son. You are not to terrorize this city and its good people any longer."

"Not happening," Tu Fei replied. "Now leave."

"W-what?" Hana's victorious tone shattered after hearing just four words. She was flabbergasted. "B-but…you said…"

"Get. Out," Tu Fei didn't look like he was going to repeat it. The guards and mercenaries around Shijin turned threateningly at him. The Airbender quickly cleaned up his Pai Sho set, before grabbing Hana's frozen hand and pulling her out of the room.

As they headed out, Hana said nothing. Her eyes were still wide with shock, her face drained of color, the rising sun the only thing that illuminated her slightly tanned face.

"Don't think too much about it," Shijin tried consoling her when they got back to the inn. "It was bound to happen anyway. These warlords toy with their subjects all the time, and I'm surprised you didn't suspect that the man would lie about such a large request."

Hana was silent. A few minutes later, Shijin paid the fee for the night at the inn, and called Kupo out of the room.

"This is at least something we should celebrate," Shijin tried again when they were at the city gates. Hana took a final look back at the home of the old man and his son. "It is your first victory after all, and against a governor of a town no less."

"For some reason," Hana mumbled before stepping outside the gates. "It doesn't really feel like a victory."

Hana's eyes were drooping, her exhaustion a combination of lack of sleep and colossal disappointment. Shijin didn't really know what to say. To compensate, he just squeezed the girl's hand, and then he knelt down to allow a tired Hana to sleep on his back.

"Get some good rest," Shijin said as she dozed off to sleep, her soft breath on his neck.

"It'll help."

To be continued...
« Last Edit: Mar 29, 2012 08:10 pm by guyw1tn0nam3 » Logged

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« Reply #7 on: Mar 29, 2012 08:08 pm »

Lesson Five: Origins

Summer was ending, and the people of the northern Earth Kingdom were quick to being preparing celebrations. It was at this time that Hana first spotted children toiling over the fields. Young boys and girls, working alongside their mothers and fathers, sang cheerfully from sunrise to sundown. They collected not only wheat and vegetables, but the boys often went with their fathers to the distant forests to retrieve large pieces of firewood.

"They use those to build torches at the end of the summer," Shijin explained during a small break they took in the afternoon. "After they light them, they often sing songs dedicated to love or the huan zhi, the badgermole. Your animal friend is revered by the northern commoners more than any other part of the Earth Kingdom."

"Why is that?" Hana asked, looking down at Kupo, who walked oblivious to their conversation. He sniffed the ground as usual, flicking over rocks with his paws and snatching up running insects.

"There are many parts of the north where the farmland is scarce," Shijin pointed at the large hills in the distance. "The mountainous regions, for example, almost have no good soil at all. The people there often pray to the badgermole spirits to grant them a strong harvest for what little land they do have."

"Are we going to see one of these festivals?" Hana asked, excited.

"That's the idea," Shijin stood up, brushed the dirt off his robes, and picked up his staff from the nearby tree. "We're visiting one of the first villages I came to when I crossed this place alone eleven years ago. It's been a little over a year since my last visit, and I might still have a friend there. I have some business with him."

"You came all this way eleven years ago?" Hana surveyed the land as she asked, trying to imagine a young Air Nomad walking along this road by himself. "How old were you then?"

"Ten," Shijin answered. "Well, it's not like I had a choice anyway. Besides, I had company, so it wasn't all that hard. Nobody wants to fight an Airbender with a stingy Sky Bison at his side, no matter how young he is. I managed somehow, and like I said, I made a few friends along the way."

"An Airbender, huh? And a badgermole baby too," a young man interrupted. He was walking next to them on the road. He appeared slightly older than Shijin, but that could have just been because of his unshaved beard. "Well, it must be my lucky day. They say an Airbender brings fair winds for a safe journey home. Master Airbender, do you know if that's true or not?"

"I've never heard of it," Shijin turned to the traveler. "Are you on your way home?"

"You bet I am," he laughed. He was carrying a bamboo pole in his two arms, with buckets hanging from both ends. In one bucket, there was food, and in the other there was water. "I've been stocking up some food for my family before the autumn hits. They say there might be a drought this year, so I'm being extra careful."

"I haven't heard of a drought," Hana butt into the conversation. "It's been raining quite often, even during the summer time."

"That's what everyone's scared about," the man said. "It's been raining too much. The spirits must have something in store for us, and I think we're in for a poor fall harvest. All the more experienced farmers are talking about it too. But enough of this more depressing talk. What's your business here? You don't often see Airbenders in the north."

"Are we really that rare here?" Shijin asked. "I hear nomads from the Western Temple often follow the winds to come to the Earth Kingdom. The Northern Gale I believe it's called. The fastest way into the Earth Kingdom from the Fire Nation is through that path, and it leads straight here."

"I haven't seen any," the man shrugged. "Though I'd love to see those Air Nomad maidens one day. I hear they're some of the loveliest and dangerous Airbenders out there. Maybe that's why the last Avatar from the Air Nomads was a girl. You haven't happened to meet any have you?"

"I've never been to the Western Temple I'm afraid, and while I have visited the Eastern Temple, my memories of the place now slip my mind," Shijin shook his head. "I'm sorry I can't give you any more details than what you've just said."

"What a shame," said the man, looking quite disappointed. "If I was a travelling Airbender those would be the first places I would go."

They partook in small talk for a little while longer before the man left at a fork in the road. By then, it was early afternoon, and more and more travelers were streaming in from even off the road. At the intersection, a trio of Wu Jian guards lied underneath a tree, keeping watchful eyes in the shade.

"My name is Ai," said the man. "Good day."

"Shijin," The Airbender bowed his head. "The legend may not be true, but I hope you have a safe journey home."

"Is it customary to give out your names like that," Hana asked when the man had walked off and the growing travelling mob obscured him. "You probably will never see him again."

"Probably not," Shijin agreed. "But a land like this, a few kind words to travelers can always go a long way. These are tough times, and there is nothing more that people want on long journeys than a person that they can talk to."

"And is it true?" Hana asked, changing the topic suddenly. "You've never been to the Fire Nation?"

"You mean the Western Air Temple?" Shijin corrected. "Yes. It's the only temple I haven't visited out of the four. I have, however, been to the Fire Nation once, but it was different. It's definitely not a place that's suited for someone like me."

"Too hot for your monk clothes?" Hana joked.

"No," Shijin replied, a little more serious. "Too fast."

"Tell me stories about the Fire Nation, Shijin," Hana looked dreamily at the sky. "What is it like there?"

"Aren't stories about the Earth Kingdom already enough for your small head?" Shijin raised an eyebrow, brushing his hand over Hana's hair. "I doubt that there are any worthwhile stories I could tell you about that country. The people there are respectful but also have great pride in their country. They are a powerful people, but I was not there long enough to meet many of them."

The village Shijin had been referring to lied to the northwest of the settlement run by Tu Fei. After their little squabble, Shijin no longer stopped in towns he knew were guarded heavily by Wu Jian mercenaries. He began favoring the smaller communities mostly unchecked by the agents. Even there, however, he could rarely hide Hana's eyes from the atrocities committed by Chin's soldiers.

When they had arrived, Hana found that the village was different from most of the square shaped towns that Hana had grown accustomed to. The stores and houses formed circles, rings that surrounded the center plaza, a meeting place for friends and a market place for local merchants. There were more animals here than the other villages, and Hana found it a bit difficult to keep Kupo from aggressively chasing the chicken pigs around.

"As you can see, the farmland is a bit scarcer. The land is much more rocky and difficult to tend to, so many northerners are used to eating a more meat heavy diet," Shijin explained. "Amusingly, this also explains why many of the men in Chin's army are on average stronger than others from other parts of the land."

"It sure looks good," Hana's mouth watered at the aroma of cooked fish and venison. Over a dozen shop vendors were selling different types of meat, seasoned and spiced in a variety of ways. After looking at the money that the villagers were giving to the vendors for the food, however, Hana puffed her cheeks. "I'm sure it's a bit too expensive for us, though."

"I wasn't intending on buying any food today," Shijin pointed at a house in the middle ring of the village. "I actually wasn't even thinking of buying a room at an inn. I was hoping a friend of mine would let us stay for the night. He's quite the experienced Pai Sho player too, so perhaps you can learn something from him."

The house was a tad bit larger than the inn standing next door to it. It was two storied, with smoke rising from a red brick chimney. Its roof seemed to be just recently fixed with patches of hay and straws. The earth walls also looked recently refurbished and repaired. When they were on the front step, Shijin knocked on the wooden door twice and then waited.

A few moments later, a man with broad shoulders and a slightly pudgy face answered the door. Upon seeing the Airbender, this man's eyes widened and he instantly grabbed at Shijin with his large arms. Shijin's friend embraced the nomad in a crushing hug, his smile a mixture of joy and relief.

"It's been way too long," said the man when he let go. He examined Shijin from top to bottom, especially keeping his attention on the Airbender's unshaved head. "To think I missed your visit last year! My, how you've grown over these years. I don't look too shabby myself right?"

"Not at all, Hong," Shijin laughed. "It is great to finally be back here."

"Well there's no use in standing out here all day long. Come in, come in. We can talk more once we're inside," Hong beckoned Shijin inside, before catching sight of Hana. "Shijin, I didn't know you were bringing a girl along with you."

"My name is Hana," Hana said immediately. She bowed as deep as she could. "I'm Shijin's newest Pai Sho student. He's taken very good care of me."

"Pai Sho student huh?" Hong looked at Shijin dubiously, who shrugged as if he had no say in the matter. "I certainly didn't see that one coming. Well, who am I to challenge the decision of this town's best Pai Sho player? Now come in. Your badgermole can come in too. You've caught me at a rather nice time. I was just about to make some of my special brews. Great for the muscles!"

Hong trailed off into his world of beverages and herbal concoctions while Hana and Shijin stepped inside. A warm feeling washed over Hana, and she spotted a stone bot boiling over a fireplace at the backend of the house. Kupo immediately rushed to it and rolled around on the carpet next to the fire. An aroma of fish stew came from the pot, and it mixed with the fragrance of flowers hanging from the ceiling. Kupo stared at the pot and sniffed, his mouth slightly open.

"This is a nice house," Hana mentioned when they were introduced to the living room where the hearth burned hot. Four fluffy leather chairs formed a circle around a real wooden Pai Sho board. "Better than the places that Shijin and I stay in at least."

"Frugal as ever I see," Hong chuckled, lifting the pot lid and sniffing at the bubbling soup inside. He sighed happily. "Well, that's how it is when you try to play Pai Sho for a living, especially if you're always travelling from place to place. You never make much do you Shijin?"

"I lost all my money because it got stolen in Omashu," Shijin sat down and unpacked his bag. "Playing Pai Sho has nothing to do with it. I'll have you know I still have some stashes hidden in the village."

"Is that why you're here," Hong imitated the look of a hurt dog. He grabbed a pair of mittens from the mantle above the fireplace. "And here I thought you wanted to give your old pal a rematch. Well, that's fine and all. I haven't played Pai Sho since you left. I've probably lost my touch by now. Are you two staying for dinner? There's the festival to be thinking about too."

"I was hoping we could stay with you until tomorrow, when the festival ends," Shijin explained. "Of course, I don't mean to impose. If you don't have room we could always book an inn."

"Anything for an old friend," Hong brought over a few bowls and served the soup. He set aside a small bowl on the floor for his badgermole guest. "Try it out yourself. It's got some special flowers I picked from the forest. People usually use them for tea, but they add a nice flavor if you mix and boil it with the local fish. Anyhow, you three can stay for however long you like."

"Thank you," Shijin bowed. "I knew we could count on you."

"Now that that's out of the way," Hong turned to Hana. "I'd like to hear this story right here. Shijin, I thought you were content with living the rest of your exile alone. What's with the sudden change of heart?"

"Forced participation," Shijin poked a finger at Hana's cheek, who glared back at him. "If I hadn't brought her with me, who knows what would've happened to her by now. She's a fool in every way, and I thought that I might as well teach her how to make money before journeying anywhere else."

"I at least won one game," Hana protested.

"How long have you been teaching her for?" Hong asked.

"About a month. It was around the time when it was raining south near Omashu," Shijin answered.

"And do you intend to let her enter in any tournaments?" Hong looked Hana in the eye, who had a difficult time maintaining his stare. "Of course, she's new to the game, but if you're taking her on a student, then there's no limit to how much she can improve."

"You have that much faith in my abilities?" Shijin laughed. "We'll see. I was hoping to train her until she was ready for some of the rings in Ba Sing Se."

"That's tough, but I see you're taking this quite seriously," Hong leaned back and whistled. He smiled and patted Hana on the shoulder. "That's a pretty nice goal you've set for yourself there, Hana. You be sure to train hard. There's no one I know better suited to teaching this game than Shijin."

"That's because the only person you know that still plays this game around here is me," Shijin pointed out.

They laughed together, while Hana sat beside them, slightly confused as to why they were talking so much about her. She had nothing to really contribute, so she just sat and drank her soup.

That night, Shijin slept in the living room. Hana was in the guest room that Hong had prepared for her, which left the fluffy armchair all to the Airbender. It was getting late, and Shijin was still staring at the embers underneath the firewood. Kupo lied just in front of it, a small nasally snore coming from his tiny mouth. The crackling in the fireplace mixed with the chirping of the crickets, an exotic drumbeat supporting a quiet moonlight melody.

The nomad leaned forward in his seat, and he brushed his hands over the wooden Pai Sho board. Realizing that sleep wasn't going embrace him in its arms just yet, he reached to the left of his chair to grab his bag of tiles. Holding the bag in his lap, Shijin reached inside, feeling for the pieces just based on the sketches carved into the pieces.

"She opens with a white lotus in the center," he whispered, placing a piece on the board. "Her opponent instantly jumps in and takes the bait."

"She responds with a wheel here," Shijin slapped down another tile. "He keeps up the pressure, but little does he know that he's falling deeper and deeper into a hole. She has now set the trap. It is up to her opponent now to spring it."

"Sky Bison placed. She ignores it and just places a bison of her own," Shijin slid the pieces around. They moved along the surface of the field like a board skidding on ice. "Where is her badgermole? Where is her favorite tile?"

By now, Shijin's narrative turned to less than coherent mutterings. His hands shifted rapidly between the board and his bag, outpacing the commentary streaming from Shijin's lips. The two hands moved simultaneously, capturing, moving, deploying. When his hands finally stopped, there were no more than four pieces left on the board.

"It's over," Shijin said. "And she wins again."

"I'm surprised you still remember that game to every small detail," said Hong, arms folded at the doorway. "It's been such a long time since then, but a birthday is a pretty good day to remember."

"Every game is a valuable reference," Shijin looked up. "My mother's games are no different."

"How long ago was it, that she became master of the tiles here? Ten years almost, when she beat my grandfather for the spot," Hong smiled, nodding his head. "Then you took over. The talent for this game must run in the family."

"Except I use my talents to gamble," Shijin said. He yawned. "Unlike me, my mother never took a cent for her winnings. Even in exile, my mother looked at the world as if everything was a field of chrysanthemum gardens we had back home."

"Gambling implies the game you're playing is dependent on luck," Hong scanned the board. "There is no such thing as luck in Pai Sho."

"Maybe," Shijin lied back in the chair. It appeared a bit of reminiscence had gotten him quite tired. "But perhaps I wasn't talking about gambling with Pai Sho."

"But what would you be talking about then?" Hong asked, a little vexed. "Certainly you don't mean-"

"Good night Hong," Shijin snuggled into the chair. "I'm going to need you to watch over the girl tomorrow, because I have a few errands to run. You're the only one I know that can teach her, because spirits know I don't want to talk about it."
« Last Edit: Apr 18, 2012 07:30 am by guyw1tn0nam3 » Logged

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« Reply #8 on: Mar 29, 2012 08:08 pm »

"What do you mean I'm not allowed to go? I want to see the festival too," Hana complained the next day, puffing her cheeks in her usual pout. It was midafternoon and the festival was starting. "Why can't I go with you? You said we were coming to see the festival didn't you?"

"There's a lesson that I want Hong to teach you today," Shijin explained. "Unlike me, Hong's more of a self-taught scholar in Pai Sho, so I expect you to pay close attention. Some of this stuff is something you might not even be able to learn from me."

"Oh come on," Hong feigned a blush. "You don't have to embarrass me."

"My first chance to actually attend a summer festival and it's gone like this. I didn't even get to find out what it looks like," Hana sighed. Kupo jumped on her lap and looked at her like he wanted to know what was wrong. She took a few moments to relax, before turning to the large man standing next to Shijin. "So, Sifu Hong, what are we learning today?"

"Let's start with a game," Hong motioned towards the Pai Sho board. Shijin nodded in Hong's direction and left through the front door. "I want to first see how you play. How much has Shijin taught you about territory control? Exchanges?"

"Shijin just gives me a lot of critiques," Hana said. "But from what he's taught me, Pai Sho is all about controlling the parts of the board that you need to control and ignoring the parts that you don't need. Since the board is really large and you don't have that many pieces to play, you should be trying to keep your pieces nicely concentrated unless you have some other kind of plan."

"That sounds about right," Hong nodded. "Well, I don't want to explain too much, so let's see what you've got. I'm a little rusty, so go on easy on me please."

Seven turns later, Hong held his hand up. His squinted eyes shifted back and forth between each of Hana's pieces. He creased his forehead, placing his hand on his chin to think. After a moment, he picked up his own pieces and began placing them back in his bag.

"What's going on?" Hana said. "Did I lose already?"

"No," Hong answered. "I think I've done enough analysis to know what lesson Shijin was referring to when he asked me to teach you something."

"But nobody has even won yet," Hana pointed out. "And Shijin says that most deployments don't even end until the tenth turn, and even then pieces get deployed in the next dozen turns or so until both White Lotuses have been placed on the field."

"I only need a few pieces to learn what kind of player you are," Hong pointed at the four pieces on Hana's side of the board. "And from this deployment, I can tell that you're not playing with any purpose in mind."

"What do you mean by that?" Hana didn't understand. "I did have a plan. I was going to concentrate on your left flank with my wheels and then force you into a corner by placing my white lotus tile in the right. I did it once against –"

"Not that," Hong snapped. "I mean you're playing as if the game is just what it is: a board with a couple of pieces on it. You move them around without feeling, without a hint for what the game is supposed to be about. Hana, this game is a lot more than just a couple of wooden sketches and rules. It's got an entire history behind it."

"Isn't it just about capturing the white lotus tile?" Hana asked.

"The white lotus is more of a symbol than anything else," Hong explained. He looked outside the morning window, listening to the chants and yells of people outside. The festival was in full swing. He wondered if Shijin had found his stashes. "Come on. I think a little fresh air can help me explain this to you a little better. You can bring your badgermole with you too."

They headed outside, and instantly Hana was overwhelmed with the sight of hundreds of people crowding around the little village. Kupo jumped excitedly and ran towards the masses of people, smelling the different aromas of food spread throughout the rings of the village. Hana was about to call after her pet, but a hand fell on her shoulder.

"He'll be okay," Hong reassured. "A badgermole may be blind but they navigate through these crowds like a cat gator in a swamp. They also never forget the vibrations of a footstep when they choose to, and it seems to be growing more and more attached to you. It will come back."

Hong led Hana through the streets, skimming through the different foods and treats that each vendor had to offer. There were exotic foods that Hana had never seen before. Foods were shaped in intricate designs, drinks that were poured in coconut shells, and small jewels strung from rare leaves and flowers.

"Let's get some lunch first. I want to take you to the hill behind this village," Hong looked around the stores. "These are all nice, but this village is best known for its yan mian, or steamed noodles. It's a very nice dish, very simple too. I ate it when I was a boy and I never forgot its gorgeous taste. Oh! I found one!"

"You don't have to pay," Hana insisted when her caretaker asked for a bowl for her. She held up her bag of coins. "Shijin left me with some money, so I can pay for myself."

"I don't know what the rules are at other villages and cities," Hong smiled, placing his coins on the table before Hana could open her bag. "But here, we respect our guests with hospitality. Besides, Shijin's a longtime friend, and I probably owe him more money than my life's worth. Paying you is a small slice of a bigger egg tart miss Hana."

After grabbing a steaming bowl of yan mian, Hong led Hana up the hill, away from the village. Along the way, Kupo ran back to them, his face stuffed with miscellaneous bits of food, and Hana wondered what the storekeepers would say if they found that a little thief had been sneaking through every stall.

"Would you get in trouble?" Hong repeated Hana's question when she asked. "Of course not. Kupo's a badgermole! This entire celebration is dedicated to them. If a shopkeeper found out that your little friend has been chewing on his merchandise, he might just die in happiness. Just listen to their songs!"

Hana listened. As they scaled the hill, a band of children marched down the road besides them with bundles of food. None of them could have been older than twelve, yet their bodies, even the girls, were stronger and fitter than all of the young boys that Hana had seen in Omashu. As they marched, they sang, and the youngest child stood in the back beating on a makeshift drum.

What will tomorrow bring?

A bountiful bucket of rice, a net of fresh fish, or a season of nil?

Our backs hurt in the month of harvest and yet we still sing,

Sing to the huan zhi, so our pains do not go unfulfilled,

Badgermole, badgermole! Bless our soil,

May you water this dry paradise,

Let our torches guide you!

"It's a nice song," Hana admitted, bobbing her head in accordance with the slow drumming. She reached down and tapped Kupo on the head. "To think someone like you might bring these kids a big harvest this season is hard to imagine. I guess every place has its culture."

"This place especially," Hong agreed. "That song must be centuries old, and it's a pretty artistic piece. You see, if you lined up the lyrics and centered them on a parchment, the words form a picture of a bowl of rice. The people in this village, and many around the north, are very superstitious like that. "

"I'm wondering though, what do they mean by guiding the badgermoles with torches?" Hana turned to Hong as the children repeated the stanza they had just sung. "Badgermoles are blind right? They can't see any light."

"You'll see," Hong smiled. "Here we are!"

They stood on a tall grassy hill. A lone tree stood at the hill's center. The pink blossoms rustled on the branches, occasionally breaking off and falling to the large roots at the trunk of the tree. Hong and Hana sat beneath this tree, their faces lit pink by the sunlight overhead.

From the top of the hill, Hana could see the entire village, along with miles and miles of road stretching in every direction. She could see the tips of the mountains to the northwest, their bodies forming a line of dulled spears. The fields stretched for miles, appearing like squares of green and brown. The water that flowed through these farms sparkled like the brightest of crystals. Beyond the fields lit by a shining sun, from the maps that Hana had perused through, were lakes and rivers that flowed into the tips of the kingdom.

"What a view," Hana whispered. She smiled. "For a while now, I've thought that this place was just a land ruled by a bad man who did nothing but hurt his people. But seeing this. This is incredible."

"The people of the kingdom draw their strength from the earth," Hong explained, his hands motioning toward the vast land around them. "As long as Chin doesn't burn this land to the ground, which he will never even consider, then the people who live here will always be strong. It might sound cheesy, but our lives are tethered to the soil, its bounties, and even the smallest of insects peeping out of the ground. It may not surprise you then that Pai Sho was invented in this very land."

"Shijin told me about it once," Hana said. "That Pai Sho was made by a bunch of Air Nomads who had too much time on their hands."

"Did he now?" Hong mumbled. "That one has always had a strange mentality toward his Air Nomad brethren. He would never tell me why though. Anyhow, the story is a lot deeper than just a few nomad friends creating a game like this. That's the lesson I'm going to teach you today."

"We're not learning any new moves today?" Hana asked.

"Pai Sho isn't just about playing the game," Hong explained. "At least that's not how it's played at a master level. Pai Sho is a story of relationships, and everything you do on the board is a reflection of who you are as a person. When you become good enough at this game, you will be able to learn more about Shijin in a single Pai Sho match than you will ever in a conversation with him."

Hana liked the ring to it. She scooted closer to the muscled man next to her and dipped her chopsticks into the warm bowl of noodles. As she took her first bite, Hong started his story.

"It starts with a journey between two men who promised to draft a map of the world together."

According to legend, their names were You, pronounced in the ancient tongue as "yoh", and Ji. They were brothers of the Xi family, a rather ironic name for a family that started in the Eastern Air Temple. Their father died when they were little, and their mother always told stories of his journeys from one temple to the next. Their father, she said, was a cartographer who drew maps for the archives in the Southern Air Temple. However, he died of an illness before completing his work.

The two brothers, You and Ji, were inspired by the stories of their brave father, who even in sickness, fought nature and beast, climbing the highest mountains and the most rapid of streams to imprint the world in his sketchbooks. At a young age, they decided that their dream was to finish their father's last project and draw a completed map of the Great Continent, the name of the Earth Kingdom before a line of kings united the lands as one country.

When they had grown older, the two brothers were acknowledged as two of the most powerful Airbenders in any of the temples. At the time, the Avatar had yet to learn Airbending, and both You and Ji were given the greatest honor to teach the young Avatar how to master Airbending. However, the two refused, saying that it was not their duty to teach the Avatar, but instead to traverse the world to finish their father's legacy. Outraged by their decision, the two were stripped of their master statuses, their bison, and were exiled from the temples.

"Leave us," the Council of Elders told them. "If you so wish to do duty to yourselves than to the world, then you may as well never walk the halls of these temples again. Be gone from our sight. You are no longer welcome among us."

Free at last from the constraints of the temples, the two brothers wished their tearful mother farewell and began their plans to forge a map.

"We should learn from our father's greatest mistake," said You, the older of the brothers. "The world is much too strong, even for a man like our father. However, if we were to divide drawing this map in two, then we achieve our father's goal faster and without risking our lives."

"This is a good way," Ji was quick to agree. "In that case, you can walk along the shore to the northwest, while I take the road to the south. If all goes well, then we shall meet each other once again on the opposite end of this kingdom."

They packed their bags and left on their separate ways, but not before clapping their hands in a sign of respect and bowing to each other. In the ancient language, this was known as Pai Sho, or clap hands.

For an entire year, the two carefully stayed along the edges of the kingdom, painting the scenery they found with their thin brushes, while cataloging the outlines of the kingdom in a separate sketchbook. They met many new people, saw many new things, and ate a lot of food. They sang the songs of the people, spread the ways of the nomads, and fought when there were innocents in harm's way.

Many people, even Airbenders, began hearing stories of a man walking along the shores of the Great Continent. However, the stories were muddled. Some of them said that the man was traversing through the north, others heard that he was in the southeast. Some said he saved a group of villagers from an oncoming flood, while others said that he returned water to a dry riverbed. When You and Ji began hearing these rumors, they grew joyous that the other was still alive and well.

A year passed, and the time for the two brothers to combine their works came and went, with neither of the brothers meeting the other on the road. It was then that the brothers realized their fatal mistake. In their hastiness to finish the map as quickly as possible, they had forgotten that they would have no idea what the midpoint of the kingdom looked like, nor was there any established road for them to wait on. It was a rather foolish mistake, but such can happen when one is blinded by a grand dream.

It was at that point that You remembered a game that the two had played when they were younger. It was a game that they had used to practice their map making skills. Since they were restricted from using parchment for any leisurely activities, the brothers used a white lotus leaf to draw on. One would tie a leaf to a pillar on the temple with a map to his hiding place, and the other would use the map to seek him out. They repeated this many times until they could read maps as well as they could read the ancient Airbending scrolls at the temples.

And so, desperate to send a message to his brother, You bought many pieces of parchment and cut out a massive white lotus leaf. On it, he drew his entire side of the map, labeling cities, mountain ranges, and even writing an occasional caption about his adventures there. He hung this piece of parchment to the highest tree he could find along the shore of kingdom and proceeded on his way, hoping that one day his brother would find it and use it to complete the map their father had worked so hard to draw.

Not wanting to stay in one place too long, You left the shores of the Great Continent to journey inward and experience what else the lands had to offer. Little did he know, that Ji had also done the same thing, tying a large white lotus made from pieces of parchment to the highest tree on shores not too far from You. When both discovered this, the two would spend the rest of their lives searching for the other, and their dreams of a full map of the Earth Kingdom would be fulfilled with other map makers who found their drawings.

As the story goes, the two brothers never faced each other to finish the ending of their Pai Sho ritual. Some said that they each died on the road in the middle of their journey to the center of continent, fallen from the same disease as their father. Others say that they continued to live joyous lives, their times as Airbenders forgotten.

Regardless, to both those in and out of the Air Nomad circles, they knew of You and Ji, along with their great journey across the land.
« Last Edit: Mar 30, 2012 06:24 am by guyw1tn0nam3 » Logged

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« Reply #9 on: Mar 29, 2012 08:09 pm »

When Hong was finished, the sun was falling. Kupo was sniffing at the air, the sounds of the festival growing softer. Something appeared to be happening at the village below. Hana wiped a small tear from her eye and took a deep breath to calm herself.

"That was a pretty sad story," Hana said. "Though I don't get where all these other pieces come in. Like the bison? Or the wheel?"

"The game was made by a group of Airbenders who wanted to make the story a little more dramatic," Hong explained. "They started by making the game with just a few pieces, like the Sky Bison and the wheel. Influences from the Fire Nation and later the Earth Kingdom added in more and more tiles until you have the game today. Even the starting points where the Sky Bison start is heavily influenced by history. The corners of the board are meant to represent the four Air Temples. Back then, the nomads believed that their temples rested on the corners of the world."

"This is so much to take in," Hana felt a cool chill run through her body. "Pai Sho just always seemed to be that neat game that Shijin was always winning money with. Now, it seems so much more than that. It has a story to it. Every game is an adventure. Who will find the other's white lotus first? Who will finish the map before the other?"

"Now you understand why so many people spend half of their lives trying to become masters," Hong shook the girl's shoulders playfully. "Maybe with this, you can become a master yourself too one day."

"Me? A master," Hana laughed. "Please, I'm far from it. Shijin hasn't even deemed me ready to teach me any of his fancy deployments yet."

"Shijin has more faith in you than you know," Hong frowned, staring now straight into Hana's eyes. "I can understand now why he would call himself quite the gambler, and I can also understand now why he's so adamant on choosing you as his first student."

"What do you mean?" Hana shifted uncomfortably because of Hong's stare. A slight blush rose in her cheeks. "First student? That's pretty special."

"Miss Hana, if you don't mind me asking," Hong's tone was different now. It was more cautionary, even scared. "Your amber eyes. Are they your father's or your mother's?"

"My…" Hana jumped at the question, reluctant to give a straight forward answer. But when he stared back at Hong, she relinquished her fears. The man could be trusted, she thought. He was Shijin's friend, and she trusted Shijin too. "They're from my father."

"I see," Hong sighed. "You're quite the heavy baggage to be carrying around, Hana. Shijin must really have some faith in you if he's planning on taking you all around the Earth Kingdom like this. Well, he's quite the baggage himself. Now, let's forget about all of that and watch this. The final ritual of the festival."

At the end of the village, a small crowd gathered with torches lit in their hands. Standing at the entrance to the village was a large torch made from the firewood that Hana had seen being gathered by sons and fathers. The villagers lit this large torch ablaze and cheered as its smoke rose higher and higher into the evening sky. In the distance, another large was lit, and another, and another. They formed a long road heading south, until the fields looked like there was a red line burning through the middle.

"It's the road for the badgermole," Hong patted Kupo on the head. It snarled a little bit, but relaxed when Hong rubbed its fur a bit softer. "They might not be able to see, but the villagers hope that the warmth of the torches will bring them through here to bless our fields. It's the final warm feeling of summer."

Hana watched as more and more torches were lit into the distance.

"Here's to a bountiful fall," Hana whispered, standing up.

She clapped her hands and bowed.

And just like that, summer came to an end.

I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
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« Reply #10 on: Apr 15, 2012 11:22 am »

I have only read the first chapter so far (you have so many chapters!), but it's a good start. I like the mysterious airbender character, even if blowing apart the shop seemed like a bit of an overreaction. You have a very nice writing style, with just enough description to make things easy to follow but not boring.

I'll be sure to read the rest later. Smiley

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« Reply #11 on: Apr 16, 2012 09:53 pm »

I just want to say, I've been following this on fanfiction.net, and it's good stuff. More people should be checking it out, it's well written and refreshingly original.

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« Reply #12 on: Apr 22, 2012 12:16 pm »

Thanks for the response guys. I'm glad you all like it. Cheesy

Lesson Six: Adapting

One day, as Hana was stewing some fish outside of town, Shijin returned wearing a different set of clothes. His usual Airbender robes were tucked underneath his arms, and he had donned the brown robes of Earth Kingdom commoners. Hana's immediate reaction was to stifle a chuckle at the sight of an Airbender wearing farming attire.

"Don't laugh," Shijin mumbled as he gently placed his robes in a newly bought duffle bag. He took a seat next to his student and threw aside a sheet of paper that was mixed in with his robes. Kupo, who was seated next to Hana, turned and sniffed at the sheet of paper and recoiled at the smell of ink. "There are a few things I need to tell you."

From the bag where they usually kept their Pai Sho set, Shijin brought forth an old map underneath the paper board and wooden tiles. Shijin rolled the parchment open in front of Hana, revealing lands covered with thick ink symbols and scratch marks. On it, Hana could recognize a number of places they had already visited, most recently Hong's village.

"You've been to all of these places?" Hana tried to count all of the small circles on the map, which seemed to indicate small villages. There were also a few other ink marks and characters that Hana couldn't recognize.

"Most of them. I travelled a lot as a kid," Shijin explained. "This map belonged to my mother, so if there's anyone who knows everything about this map, it would be her. She's gone now though, so some of these markings are still a bit of a mystery to me."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Hana said, shifting her shoulders back and forth. "Did you ever try to go to the places you never explored with her?"

"Some, but there are still many left, most of them, as you will notice, are in the north," Shijin pulled an ink set from another bag and put a brush in between his teeth. He pointed at the map. "Now, let's get down to business. We're currently here, a little ways from The Serpent's Lake, which is adjacent to this narrow strip here called the Serpent's Pass. We're heading farther north, across this lake, and into the northern mountains."

Shijin pointed at the large water mass in the middle of the Earth Kingdom, and Hana could kind of tell why it was named after The Serpent's Lake. There were a number of rivers that snaked outwards towards the north and to the west of the lake. The Airbender dotted a spot on the map above the lake with his brush.

"My mother and I hid a small stash of coins in a village on the northeastern side of the lake here, right by the river," Shijin showed. "If it's still there, you'll find it in the local cemetery, under the grave marker named Fang Jin. Don't worry about finding a dead body. My mother and I just made up that name and grave as a reminder. The amount of coins should be enough to last a full season if you use it sparingly."

"Next," Shijin pointed at a different circle, this time at a village further north up the river. "There's a fishing village here. A man by the name of Lao Yu lives there. He is an old friend of my mother's, as he ferried her across The Serpent's Lake once. An excellent Waterbender and an even more excellent cook. If you need his services, just tell him that he can find his payment inside the castle in his fish tank."

"There are also a few roads that you don't want to be taking at this time of year," Shijin placed his hands over the large landmass that formed the northwestern side of the Earth Kingdom. "This land here is completely crawling with Chin's soldiers. We're a bit too close to the place ourselves, so crossing the river into that land is ill advised."

"There are many roads to Ba Sing Se, which is where I hope we end up by the end of fall," Shijin tapped the map. "From Lao Yu's village, it's a simple walk across the plains. From here, it's about a three week journey on foot. Once you're inside, you should use whatever money you have left to take the monorail to the Middle Ring, since the Lower Ring is filled with thieves and bandits. Once you're there, ask around for Bao Qian. He's kind of a hermit. He'll appear intimidating, but just let him know that I want him to repay his debt to me. He'll understand."

"Wait a minute, wait a minute," Hana stopped Shijin as he was about to continue. "Why does this all sound like you're leaving me?"

"I'm not," Shijin rolled the map up and placed it back into its bag. "These are just some things that I thought I'd go over with you now that we've come this far. It's something my mother always used to do in the off chance that we became separated. Besides, take a look at this."

Shijin snatched up the crumbled sheet of paper that he had tossed aside and showed it to Hana. Immediately, Hana recognized Shijin's face on the front page. Her face was also there below his, though she personally thought that they had slightly exaggerated how tiny her ears were.

"What does it say?" Hana looked at the characters scrawled on the paper. To her they just appeared like pretty lines connected and swirled together. "I can't read it."

"You wanted me to buy Pai Sho books for you, but you can't even read this?" Shijin was taken aback. "It's a wanted poster for us. Your little stunt at that settlement a few weeks ago is probably what caused this. The groggy governor must have woken up later to realize that a girl had openly challenged his and Chin's authority and now wants your head to settle his pride."

"That's why you changed into new clothes," Hana realized.

"Under most circumstances I would've left you long ago in a village inn near Omashu," Shijin sighed, sniffing the food in the boiling pot to see if the food was ready. "But as your teacher, I feel that I have some responsibility to keep you safe. Still, you've put me in quite the position."

Shijin scratched his hair, his eyes closed. When he opened them, he scooped some of the fish from the pot and flung it towards Kupo, who happily chomped away with its teeth. The badgermole had been growing larger recently. What was once a small critter the size of a flying lemur had experienced a spurt that made him the size of a medium grown fire ferret.

"Let's finish this meal and get moving," Shijin decided. "The Wu Jian are fierce pursuers. If there are already wanted posters for us this far from the settlement, then I can only imagine that the governor spent little time before mobilizing his men to track us down. We can resume our lesson at nightfall."

And so, the fall season began. When the pair had left Hong's village, they had been met by a cool wind that swept across the countryside. The grassy plains appeared like blurs of swishing green lines. Already, the breeze had flung leaves off of trees, leaving crunchy shrubberies lying on the main road. They had yet to change color, but Hana suspected that it was only a matter of time. She wished her short hair would grow a little longer for some warmth.

"This is natural here in the north," Shijin explained. "Unlike Omashu, summer doesn't linger at all when fall comes. The north suddenly turns chillier, almost overnight. There's a myth that says that the only time summer stayed here in the north, it scorched the earth barren and drained the lakes dry. There doesn't seem to be much truth to it though."

"Have you ever fought against any?" Hana asked, paying little attention to the wind. "The Wu Jian, I mean."

"They are the type of people that you would be happy to never meet," Shijin said. "Many don't survive the first encounter, because the Wu Jian more often than not are looking for you. As for me, I've had the opportunity of meeting them in battle twice over the years."

"What were they like?" Hana pressed further. "I've seen a few on the roadside before, but I've never seen them doing anything but sleep and talk."

"They are powerful soldiers," Shijin replied with glowering eyes. "Even an Airbender has a hard time running away from them. It's a battle of a lifetime when you run into them. These are people who have realized that their only talents in life are the talents in spilling blood."

"Were they were chasing you?" Hana said.

"No," Shijin said. "They were chasing my mother."

They didn't talk much further about the subject after that. By then they had reached The Serpent's Lake, an enormous mass of water that Shijin said was about as large as the Middle Ring of Ba Sing Se. Countless numbers of boats and fishing villages were built along its shores, and the people here were lively as they herded buckets of fish onto their oxen. It was colder here than anywhere else that Hana had been before, and she realized that many of these people were fishing with the knowledge that a vast portion of the lake would freeze over by the end of fall.

That evening they made camp on a hill that overlooked two rivers, one that flowed towards the Northern Water Tribe, and a thinner one running along towards the outer Fire Nation islands. Small leaves dropped into the fire from a tree above them. Kupo was lying quietly next to the campfire, inching closer and closer to it as the temperature grew colder. When the aroma of cooked fish entered his nose, he circled around the pot hovering over the campfire, his mouth watering and his eyes glittering from the flames.

"Selfish animal," Shijin murmured, stirring the pot with his Airbending. "At least help us make camp every once in a while. You're at the age where you can start Earthbending now, you know that right? And we go through all the trouble to buy exclusively fish for you too."

Kupo cocked his head, and then gave a tiny whine as he rolled over to show his belly. Shijin grudgingly threw a few pieces down, and then turned to Hana, who was staring at the river that flowed towards the setting sun. It was times like these where Hana was completely quiet, no curious expression on her face or questions to ask. Shijin gave little thought to what his student was pondering, but this wasn't the first time that Hana was staring off towards the sunset.

"Hey," Shijin called. The girl flinched, and then turned to look back at him. "The soup's ready."

He scooped the food into a bowl and handed it over to Hana. It was rice porridge with cooked fish and sour vegetables mixed in. They had been buying a little more food than usual, because Shijin had picked up a stash of extra silver at summer's end. He had said that they needed larger meals as winter approached, which was why they would be spending more time outdoors instead of wasting money on expensive northern inns. There was no telling what kind of food they would find up in the north, Shijin had said in passing.

Hana stirred the meal back and forth with her wooden chopsticks, prodding away at the fish and rolling over the vegetables. She bit her lip and looked to the sky, and then finally put a ball of wet porridge into her mouth. The taste of fish, enhanced by the saltiness of the vegetables, filled her mouth with a delicious taste. She rolled the food around in her mouth, chewing slowly before swallowing.

"Shijin," Hana said after another bite. "When are you going to leave me?"

The Airbender paused for a second, and then shrugged.

"Not now at least," Shijin said. "As you are now, you might be able to score at most a little bit under a thirty percent win ratio in pub games, depending on which pubs you choose. Winning money with Pai Sho becomes profitable once you hit above the halfway mark because you begin earning for the amount that you lose, and since pure probability dictates that you win half of the time, most people can never make a living with this."

"So, as much as I hate to admit it, you're under my care for now, and I don't see that changing any time soon," Shijin thrust a piece of fish into his mouth. "It'd be bad if I left you all alone to fend for yourself, especially now that the Wu Jian are pursuing both of us."

"Am I a burden to you then?" Hana put down her food.

"Do you want the honest answer, or do you want me to say no?" Shijin put a hand on Hana's shoulder. "Don't think too much about it. Would you rather be here talking to me over a nicely cooked meal or back in Omashu serving both body and tea those men? You'd definitely want to be here wouldn't you? Then, what's there to complain about?"

"But if it's inconvenient for you," Hana muttered. "Then maybe I should…"

"Leave?" Shijin chuckled, shaking his head. "Cherish the times you are able to act selfish. Those days will come to an end for you soon enough. Now hurry up, before the food gets cold. I want to fit in at least two practice games before it gets too dangerous to leave a campfire on."

"We've had no problems playing late into the night before," Hana noted. "Is it because of the Wu Jian again?"

"It would seem a little suspicious, yes," Shijin pulled out the Pai Sho set and began spreading out the paper board. "Now, quickly. Eat your food."

I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
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« Reply #13 on: Apr 22, 2012 12:17 pm »

Afterwards, Shijin spread the paper board over the dirt floor, where the embers from the crackling campfire landed just a few inches away. He divided the Pai Sho tiles into two sets, removed the badgermole tiles from one of them, and then placed that stack on Hana's side of the board.

"Recently, your play is much too aggressive," Shijin rolled the two badgermole tiles in his hand. "You've been much too reliant on these tiles to defend you when the going gets tough and ignoring the fact that your wheels and sky bison have defensive capabilities as well. Tonight, I want you to play without the badgermole tiles."

"What's wrong with just using the badgermole to defend?" Hana asked. "That's what the tile is made for, right?"

"Wrong," Shijin shook his head. "Most people make the mistake of thinking that Pai Sho and its pieces are divided into different types. Attack, defend, control. This is the wrong philosophy to have. Pai Sho is a game of flow, where your tiles work together to achieve multiple goals at the same time. Now, let's try it. To make things fair, I'll refrain from using badgermole tiles myself."

Without a badgermole to play, Hana tossed a wheel tile onto the board, placing it in the middle of the closest of four triangles that made up the center square on the board. Shijin tossed a sky bison tile on his leftmost corner, and Hana responded with a chrysanthemum tile to block the exit. Her teacher placed another sky bison on the other corner of the board, and Hana placed a bison of her own diagonally across from Shijin's.

"Oh?" Shijin smirked and pointed at Hana's bison. "Can you tell me why I think that's a good move?"

"Because I didn't waste my time placing anymore chrysanthemum tiles?" Hana speculated. "Or is it because there's a good move I can make next turn?"

"Not exactly," Shijin pointed at Hana's chrysanthemum tile. "A common follow up to blocking one of the sky bison is for a player to place a wheel tile adjacent to the chrysanthemum tile. Then one would place a white lotus tile the following turn, because you can't take any flowers until your white lotus has been played, and you can't take any non-flower tiles until both white lotuses have been played."

"Both players would then start placing more tiles around the chrysanthemum, whether it is to take the tile or to defend it," Shijin explained. "The end result of this situation is often that the chrysanthemum becomes abandoned, because other sky bison tiles are moved onto the field and both players are forced to turn to other objectives rather than focusing on defending a tile that already served its purpose. It might seem useless, but this is a common method in deploying one's tiles in formation."

"However," Shijin pointed at this second sky bison. "I did not follow the common opening, and instead placed a sky bison to move out the very next turn. Therefore, trying to place wheels to defend your chrysanthemum would be useless, because the sky bison can easily bypass all of your wheels and prepare setting up for your lotus deployment. You need a sky bison of your own to zone out my tile."

"Zone?" Hana asked. "What do you mean by that?"

"Sky bison are territorial animals," Shijin said. "They travel together as families, and they don't very often allow other herds of bison in unless under special circumstances. In Pai Sho, the same idea applies. Your bison has a territory the same size as the spaces he is allowed to travel in. The rules state that no other bison is allowed to step in that zone once the bison is outside of its corner. It's a way to limit the sky bison's mobility and power on the field."

"This is new," Hana looked at her sky bison with renewed interest. "Then again, I've never come across another player who used the sky bison so quickly."

"It's because the wheel is a lot more powerful in the earlier stages of the game," Shijin pointed at the outline that formed countless squares on the board. "The wheel is able to jump between the spaces to the other lines and move accordingly, but the sky bison is only allowed to move on these lines. In the later stages of the game, when all tiles are on the board, wheels lose their effectiveness because their movements are easily predicted and blocked."

"Well, in other words, intentional or not," Shijin finished. "Putting a sky bison here as a counter response to mine is a good move. Your bison is just as good a defensive tile as any other. If you move it out properly, I won't get in any position to touch your wheels at all."

It was always like this. Shijin would occasionally stop Hana to comment on just one move before carrying on with the game. The comments were brief and often bore a lot of good insight, but aside from them, Shijin rarely ever talked until the game was over. His eyes were fixated on the board, one hand perched over a piece he would play next, and the other hand curled up in a fist that supported his chin.

Hong had said that when Hana learned the story of the Xi brothers, then she'd be able to understand Shijin a lot more just by watching his tiles. But even now, his moves were a mystery. His play appeared like nothing more than play aimed at victory. Hana felt nothing from the tiles as they were placed on the board, and she couldn't tell if it was because of her own misunderstandings or if Hong had been wrong all along.

They continued. Shijin slapped down a wheel tile to the right of Hana's chrysanthemum, forcing Hana to deploy a wheel on the left most side of the center square. Shijin added another wheel tile, this time setting it on the other side, a space below the sky bison exit on the top right corner of the board. Hana then set her white lotus tile behind her wheel tile.

"It's a bit too early for that," Shijin noted. "If you had badgermoles in this game, it would make more sense. But you have to look out for things like this."

Shijin set his own white lotus tile behind the wheel that sat adjacent to the chrysanthemum. Hana, not understanding what Shijin meant, decided to place her second sky bison tile on the right hand side. When she looked back, expecting Shijin's stoic face, she saw a wide grin beaming back at her. Shijin pushed his sky bison tile that wasn't blocked by Hana's chrysanthemum out of the corner and down five spaces.

It was then that Hana realized how dangerous of a position she was in. Her white lotus tile was completely exposed to the sky bison tile, while her own bison was stuck inside the corner, trapped by her opponent's sky bison and its zone. Her wheel tile wouldn't be enough to defend against the sky bison, and since she didn't have a badgermole, she couldn't protect the flower. In retaliation, Hana threw a late chrysanthemum next to Shijin's recently deployed sky bison, freezing it in place.

Shijin's next move was instantaneous. He moved his wheel tile on the right side one step to the left so that it was aligned with the chrysanthemum that was blocking his sky bison. At this point, the wheel would take the chrysanthemum next turn without contest, because Shijin's sky bison would be there to defend the wheel when it took the flower. Hana's only chance was to move out with her first sky bison. She slid the tile out its corner and moved it to the right four spaces, placing her own white lotus and wheel tile in the bison's protective zone.

The Airbender slid his wheel on the left side to the right so that it was threatening Hana's recently moved sky bison.

Hana put her hands behind her and leaned against the dirt. Every important piece of hers was under attack. If she moved her sky bison out of its current position, Shijin could move his sky bison to further zone out her bison, which would put her white lotus tile back in immediate danger. If she didn't move her bison, it was gone the very next turn, and Hana would be out of options. If she attempted to defend with her wheel tile, it was clear that she would lose the exchange, as Shijin still had control over the chrysanthemum tile blocking his first sky bison.

"I concede," Hana chuckled, folding her white lotus tile over in defeat. "I can't do this without a badgermole to help me defend."

"You overextend a lot," Shijin motioned over Hana's half of the board. "Look at how spread out your pieces are. In some games, the center is important, but in a game like Pai Sho, where pieces can maneuver around it easily, it's less so. Look at my setup. Concentrated areas on two sides of the board, completely impenetrable, while your lotus is way out in front."

"This is what I mean by too aggressive," Shijin continued. "You place a wheel in the middle and then your white lotus there a few moves later. Strategically speaking, this would be fine if you had badgermoles, but since you don't, you trying to control the middle would be pointless, especially since you allowed my sky bison to roam free."

Shijin returned all the tiles to their positions before he had moved his sky bison out of the corner.

"You wasted a move here by placing the lotus too early," Shijin held up the tile. "What you should have done is predicted where I would've taken my sky bison with, and moved this wheel accordingly."

The nomad took the wheel in the middle and moved it to the right.

"This way," Shijin moved his sky bison out onto the board, this time towards the center. "I'd be forced to move here, which allows you to move out your first bison tile and help secure your second. Now you have more control over the center, which lets you play your lotus tile with little worry. You need to play defensive when you're down pieces."

"But what's the point of telling me this," Hana asked. "If all of these problems can be fixed when I play badgermoles?"

"The point of this lesson wasn't just to show you that other tiles could defend and fortify your formation," Shijin replied. "It was also to show you how important every move is. Notice how if you had just changed one move, the game would've taken a completely different turn. The game moves quickly, and timing is important. You need to learn when to move your pieces at the right time. Come on, let me show you in this next game. I'll let you use your-"

Shijin fell silent. In the far distance, the sound of quickly beating hooves reached the hill. Shijin twirled his wrists and used his Airbending to extinguish the campfire. He used another gust to dissipate the smoke. The hooves grew louder, and under the moonlit sky Hana could make out the silhouettes of men riding on ostrich horses. Their faces were masked by their conical hats, their arms covered by long dark green sleeves. Some of them had quivers and bows strapped on their steeds, others with spears hanging from their backs.

"Looks like our next game will have to wait till morning," Shijin quietly wrapped the tiles and board together and placed them back in the bag. "Get some rest. They shouldn't be able to spot us here."

After brushing aside some prickly leaves and rocks, Shijin and Hana lied against the tree. Opening his new duffel bag, Shijin brought out a pair of blankets and wrapped them around him and his student. Kupo crawled underneath and wrapped himself in a small portion of the sheets.

"It's not much," Shijin closed his eyes. "But it should keep us warm."

"Shijin, what do the Wu Jian do to the people they find," Hana snuggled into her covers, covering her nose and mouth. "Do they-"

"Get killed?" Shijin looked up. There were a few stars out tonight. "That's the idea."

"I'm scared," Hana was shivering, and she was pretty sure it wasn't because the weather was freezing. She leaned a bit closer to Shijin and held tight onto his arm. "You really aren't going to leave me right?"

"There's nothing to be scared of. I'm here, and the Wu Jian are more likely to check the inns for us," Shijin watched the five men in the distance. They rode into town, first stopping at a street vendor selling nightly snacks. "Just sleep. There's no point in frightening yourself to death and not be able to move in the morning when it actually matters."

"And what if they come here during the night?" Hana asked.

"You really are one to despair aren't you?" Shijin sighed, then lifted the blankets off of him and wrapped them around Hana. "Fine, I get it. I'll keep watch. Now just get some rest."

After grabbing his Airbender robes from the packs surrounding the unlit campfire, Shijin hopped onto the tree branches above Hana. He placed the robes around him for some extra heat and then situated his eyes on the Wu Jian soldiers. The girl below him, shivering just a little bit less now, finally closed her eyes.

"A selfish badgermole and a selfish girl," Shijin rubbed his shoulders. "I guess my time to be selfish truly has come to an end."

A few hours later, Hana was sleeping soundly below him, with Kupo making occasional snoring noises. The lights in the town down the hill were still partially lit, and with his ears, Shijin could barely hear the neighing of ostrich horses as the Wu Jian moved from one inn to the next. There were dozens of inns strapped to the coast of the Serpent's Lake, and since Shijin had not visited any of the villages, he suspected that the Wu Jian would travel east when their search was over.

"That way, they'll head towards Ba Sing Se," Shijin mumbled. "And we'll lose them by taking a boat across the river."

As the horses grew softer, a sign that the Wu Jian were moving to inns further and further from them, Shijin turned his attention to the rivers that Hana had been watching that afternoon. Though his eyes were drooping ever so slightly, Shijin himself didn't feel the lure of sleep. It had been a while since he had been forced to stay up during the night time, but the ability came back to him quickly.

"An Earth Kingdom girl with amber eyes whose stare is eternally facing the west," Shijin snatched a twig from a nearby branch and put it in his mouth. Without the moon, it would have been difficult to spot the small river coasting towards the Fire Nation. "I think it'd be unsafe to abandon someone like her anywhere in the Earth Kingdom."

He pulled out the map that he shown Hana that afternoon. He traced the route that he had intended for the two of them, across the lake, up the river, then deep into the mountains. His fingers stopped at the very peak of the Earth Kingdom, at the Northern Air Temple. His other hand tapped the landmass to the west.

"Still, there's no real point in bringing her along for something like this," Shijin whispered. "I could leave her at Lao Yu's place, and he'll ferry her to Ba Sing Se. She'd be safe with Bao Qian for a while, though she might have a heart attack when she founds out who he is, not that he'd ever reveal it though."

The sound of the horses vanished. The Wu Jian were finally gone. A gust of wind blew leaves out of the tree, many of them falling on Hana's hair. After the rustling of leaves ended, it was dead quiet. Not a cricket chirped in the middle of night. Even Kupo's snores had ended. In the midst of this tranquility, Shijin put a hand to his forehead and frowned.

"Then again, if she's already this worked up over the mere thought of me leaving her," Shijin leaned back and took a deep breath. "What must it be like when it's time for us to actually part? Besides, I don't want to say it, but with her around, there are actually things to do."

Shijin closed his eyes, his decision confirmed. Almost instantly, sleep embraced him.

That morning, Shijin awoke once again to the smell of cooked fish. He shook his head a few times, groaned at a minor headache he had sustained from leaning hard against the tree, and then hopped down. Scratching his messy hair, he stared at the restarted campfire. Hana was humming a tune while stirring the pot with a ladle.

"I don't remember buying any leftover fish," Shijin rubbed his eyes. "Where did you get the fish?"

"When I woke up this morning, they were lying next to Kupo," Hana shrugged. "He must have gone off in the middle of the night and took some."

"Stole some sounds a lot more like it. This sly mole," Shijin corrected. A little too groggy to scold the badgermole, who paced anxiously around the pot, he sat down next to Hana. "Whatever. Let's just eat. We still have to continue our lesson."

Their morning continued like it always had. It was one thing the Wu Jian didn't change. Their banter in the morning, their discovery of new food that was expertly taken by a sneaky badgermole, the games that they played before continuing on their journey.

That all didn't change. Shijin found himself surprised to find that he didn't want it to.

To be continued…

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« Reply #14 on: May 06, 2012 09:32 pm »

Lesson Seven: Concealed Deployment, Part One

That night was a full moon, the end of the first month in fall. There were many clouds drifting in the sky, and when they covered the moon, it was like a lighthouse flashing its lanterns on and off to signal ships that land was close. That light shined on two people facing one another on flat grassland.

The breeze picked up speed, and the smell of grass and weeds flung from their weak roots filled the air. The wind turned into gusts, and from the hill overlooking the plains, Hana could see the air take the shape of sharp blades. They crashed into one another, cut open flowers, and flung dirt into the air, but none of them touched the two silhouettes standing ever so silently.

Gusts turned to gales, and the entire field of grass looked like it would be flattened by the torrents of air swirling around. Hana held Kupo close to her, afraid that if she didn't, the howling winds would sweep the badgermole away from her. The tree branches above her shook violently, and Hana closed her eyes to prevent anything from falling into them.

Then, everything fell silent. The winds stopped their violent rampage, and the grass, dirt, and flowers that had been thrown recklessly into the air slowly drifted back to the earth. Hana opened her eyes, and stared at her teacher, who was standing across from a woman with Airbender tattoos traced over her body.

She had never seen such a grave expression on Shijin's face. Behind his close lips, Hana could tell that his teeth were clenched as tightly as they could. His closed eyes, while not bearing a semblance of anger, concealed the feelings of a man about to make a regrettable error. His forehead was creased, as if he desperately reached for a way out of his predicament.

"You brought this on yourself," said the woman with tattoos. She twirled her staff and then struck into the ground. With a deep breath, she bent her knees and put her palms forward in a fighting stance. "Don't worry. In accordance with the customs of the Western Air Temple, justice shall be dealt swiftly."

Hana looked at Shijin, and then at the staff that was leaning on the tree behind her. Her hands shook, her heart pounded, so much so that Kupo began whining and struggled until he was out of her palms and lying next to her. But even Kupo, when touching the ground and feeling the presence of the woman standing face to face with Shijin, began to growl.

Shijin's eyes remained closed.

"I am the third council member of the Western Air Temple," the woman proclaimed, her eyes aflame with fury. "Seigi Nohito."

"Here I come!"

A week earlier...

"I don't think I'm suited for this kind of travel."

Hana leaned over the side of the boat, her mouth wide open as she gripped the wooden edges of the small gondola. It was only now that she was thankful to Shijin for starving her before they set sail across the river. She gagged a few times, but that was the worst of it. Kupo lied down beside her, choosing to sleep away the journey across the river rather than stay awake and feel the fear of not being able to see.

After their near encounter with the infamous Wu Jian, Shijin had decided that the safest course of action was to turn west and take a boat into Chin's homeland. This time, however, Shijin decided that it would be best to stay for at least two days in each village they visited along the coast.

"Nothing says suspicious more," Shijin had said. "Then two people jumping from one village to the next too quickly."

At first, Hana had questioned Shijin's sudden decision to cross into the northwestern Earth Kingdom.

"I thought we were heading north," Hana noted, staring at the shore on the other side of the river. "Didn't you say that this was a dangerous place for me to come to?"

"As long as you're with me, it shouldn't be a problem. Besides, either way we're heading north once we land," Shijin said. "It's not like the Wu Jian will expect us to head deep into their own territory, so it'll throw them off for at least a few days as they search the eastern border for us. Airbenders travelling from the Western Temple also come through here before roaming into the Earth Kingdom. It'll be hard for them to search for us."

"Why is that?" Hana asked. "Why would they come here when they could just travel south?"

"There are a few reasons," Shijin replied. "Chin doesn't give much attention to the Airbenders, since they've done nothing to provoke him. The winds also make it easy to travel here, whereas the winds are less favorable southward and take more effort for less experienced nomads, especially ones without bison. Finally, there are some, not many, but some Airbenders who come here to travel north instead of south. About as close to an adventurer as a nomad can get."

They were crossing one of the narrower rivers that stemmed from the Serpent's Lake. It flowed towards the Fire Nation and isolated a large portion of the Earth Kingdom. For Hana, though, the half of an hour of sitting in a boat seemed to take forever. She wanted to ask the ferryman to speed up, but the man appeared old and feeble, barely keeping the boat stable against the currents of the river.

Even so, there was no time for rest when they arrived ashore. As soon as Hana set foot on land, before she could even take a look at the land that gave birth to Chin the Conqueror, Shijin had already motioned for her to start walking. He flipped a pair of silver coins to the ferryman, whispered something in his ear, and then gave a deep bow as the old man watched them leave with widened eyes.

"We're going to make our way toward the first major city you'll have seen since Omashu," Shijin stated before Hana could even ask about the Airbender's conversation with the old man. "The city of Taku, the jewel of this part of the kingdom. It stands in the middle of that mountain range there, and is a bustling stop for merchants, and if we're unlucky, Air Nomads."

"You always talk about them like that," Hana noted. "The Air Nomads I mean. You are one too right?"

"I guess if you consider 'Air Nomad' as a particular nationality or race, perhaps," Shijin replied. "But as someone who's been exiled from the temples and stripped of all previous statuses, I guess you could say that I'm not really an Air Nomad anymore."

"Well, you've said it quite a few times now, so if you don't mind me asking," Hana couldn't deny that this question had been on her mind for a while now. "Why were you exiled?"

"It's complicated, and I don't say that because I don't want to tell you. It's just not worth the effort to tell," Shijin shrugged. "All you need to know is that my people suffered because of me, and because they couldn't deal with that, they cast me out. It goes much deeper than that, of course, and there are also the stories by the nomads who will probably depict me differently."

"Will any Airbenders confront us if they find out who you are," Hana asked. "We haven't met one yet, but you make it sound like something really terrible happened. Are we prepared?"

"If there are any who pose an immediate danger," Shijin thought about it. "It'd have to be the Airbenders from the Western Air Temple. It's the birthplace of Yangchen, who was one of the few Avatars from the Air Nomads who did more than just spread the word of peace and nonviolence. Their council members are into petty ideals that Yangchen dealt with. Justice, righteous punishment, things like that. One of them is particularly fierce. Now, enough of these questions. Let's get a move on before the Wu Jian catch us because we're lingering for too long."

In the end, Shijin didn't answer her, and Hana was left with the same questions as they walked the long road towards Taku. She didn't mind too much, of course. After all, she hadn't told Shijin anything about her past either.

Along the way, Hana took in the sight of Chin's lands with great detail. It was different from the wasteland that she had imagined the warlord had grown up in. It was a land of rich farmland, especially along the rivers that Shijin and Hana followed towards the mountains lying in the north.

Here, there were far fewer trees than the mainland, and much more grasslands and prairies for animals to live on. Every day, Hana would see the local farmers herding cattle across the yellowing fields, fattening up their livestock in preparation for the winter. Hana also saw more women here than before, sometimes even managing the wild animals on their own.

"Naturally," Shijin once looked at one of the women, who covered her face with a straw bamboo hat as she watched a pair of cow pigs grazing on her fields. "Most of them have either watched their husbands leave for war, or are helping those that are too wounded to keep the farm running. The few men who work alone are more often than not retired soldiers who have already served their part in Chin's war."

"I thought Chin would have them fight until the war was over," Hana said. "He seems like the type of person to do that."

"Chin might be cruel in war and battle, but he knows what he's doing at home too," Shijin replied. "You'll find that there are plenty of people here who either care little about Chin's little war south or are even satisfied with his rule."

Sure enough, in the towns that they visited at the foot of the mountains, there was no sign of the death and famine that many people in the mainland seemed to be suffering from. The spoils of war, Shijin put it bluntly. Those at home prospered from the riches that Chin conquered and took from those that opposed him.

It took them another five days to journey through the mountains. The road was comfortable, if one could call a mountain road that. Often times Hana and Shijin would sleep with travelling merchants who brought along large carts of things to sell. During the day, these same merchants would stop at noon to lay out a blanket and place all of their merchandise on it. There must have been dozens of them that lined the roads, and Hana found that this way of life was much different from the one in Omashu.

However, when they arrived at Taku, Hana realized how closely it resembled her former home. It was built into the landscape, a city as tall as the mountains themselves. While the city wasn't barricaded with massive walls like Omashu, there were multiple levels to the city, separated by terraces that had been carved out of the mountain. There were a number of winding stairs that led to the top of the mountain, allowing people to freely move from one level to the next.

It was a city teeming with activity, and it reminded Hana almost too much of home.

"The city's levels are divided in such a way that there will never be a problem with crowding," Shijin pointed at each terrace. "The lower levels are all regular shops and homes, whereas the middle and upper terraces are mostly government offices, antique stores, and higher quality inns. We happen to be going to be heading over to one of those antique shops now."

After a strenuous climb that left only Hana out of breath, they found themselves standing in front of a wooden door, a golden plaque with the characters Gu Wan Dian carved on it. Red curved tiles lined the roof, supported by wooden buttresses and earth walls. Shijin knocked three times and waited for an answer.

Moments later, a young girl's voiced shouted from the inside.

"Come in," said the voice. "The door's unlocked."

When they entered, they came across dozens of little trinkets lining the shelves. Kupo immediately ran to a little badgermole statue and began poking the nose with its claws. Plates lined with silver, crests of earth kings long passed, and even priceless Airbender staffs lied on shelves and leaned against the walls. In the corner of the room, a cat was drinking milk from a plate.

At the counter at the back of the shop, the owner of the voice was cleaning off dusty statues with a brush. She was wearing a pair of glasses as she inspected the statues, and her body clothed by an old brown apron. There was a strange white streak on the left side of her black hair whose shape almost resembled a sword's blade. She looked far too young to be running an antique store.

"Wow," said the girl, who looked up from her work momentarily. "Never expected anyone to visit the shop during this time of day. Usually they all come at night because they're scared of carrying too much money during the day. Are you looking to buy anything, or maybe you want to sell that staff of yours?"

"I'm looking for Ji Zhi," Shijin said. "Do you happen to know him? He runs the shop here."

"He's my father," the girl took off her glasses. "I'm his daughter, Huang Gua. I'm sorry, but he died quite a few years ago. I assume you're an old friend of his? Sorry about that. What did you need him for?"

"I came here to collect a debt that he owes," Shijin rubbed his eyes as he heard the news. "Though I assume that since you were still a child back then, you probably wouldn't remember what exactly happened."

"My father had no debts to anyone upon his death," said Huang Gua. "I'm afraid you've mistaken the wrong person. Perhaps there is another Ji Zhi in this city who was not as responsible as my father was with his money."

"No need to make it personal," Shijin held out a hand in concession. "The debt I am referring to isn't about money. It's more of a life debt."

"Explain," the girl narrowed her eyes, as if she was ready to kick the two of them out.

"If you want me to, please stop your cat from drinking from the plate," Shijin pointed at the animal in the corner, who hissed at Kupo whenever the badgermole tried to get close to drink. "Then I'll show you what I'm talking about."

"I'm not understanding where this is going," Huang walked over to the cat, grabbed a ball of yarn from one of the shelves and rolled it away from the plate. The cat quickly licked up the last drops in the plate and chased after its plaything. She showed the plate to Shijin. "Here."

"This is actually an Airbending training tool," Shijin flipped the plate upside down to reveal a small hole on the bottom. "Airbenders are trained to concentrate and keep their bodies in a constant state of balance. As a result, they put their fingers in like this and see how long they can keep the plate spinning with it flying out of control. It's a fun exercise for kids."

"Your father saw me practicing with this one day and begged my mother for it," Shijin continued. "When asked why, he said that his lady friend loved the Air Nomad culture after they had visited Taku once. He said that it would be the perfect wedding proposal."

"My mother agreed to sell, not by coins," Shijin placed the plate in front of Huang. "But by obligation."

"What obligation did my father agree to?" Huang felt the frame of the plate, suddenly mesmerized that she hadn't noticed the artifact before.

"To protect me," Shijin answered. "When I called for it. Well, since he's dead there's not much reason for me to ask for a favor from his daughter, who has nothing to do with the pact. Though I must say that if it wasn't for this, you might have not been born at all. Let's go Hana. We'll just have to do this like we usually do."

"Wait!" Huang Gua shouted after them as they headed for the door. They turned around. "It might not mean much, but if you're looking for a place to stay, you can use the room that my mother and father left behind. I can also cook a nice dinner. It's the least I can do after showing me this."

The Airbender contemplated the offer for a few moments. The girl placed the plate on top of a shelf with what appeared to be some of the shiniest and most recent artifacts that had come through the shop. She turned back to Shijin, put her glasses back on, and awaited his decision.

"Hana," Shijin dropped one of his bags on the floor. "Unpack these for me. I'll be back in a few hours."

And with that, Shijin was out the door, his usual bag of Pai Sho tiles strapped to his waist. Hana picked up the blankets and clothes in the second bag and followed Huang, who led her up the stairs to a large bedroom. There was a large window with a view of the entire mountainside below. The color in the room was calming beige, with different types of fur hanging from the wall.

In the middle of the room was a large bed, enough to fit two people. A fluffy chair stood next to the bed, and Kupo immediately found it and jumped on it, feeling the soft surface before closing his eyes to sleep again. He had been sleeping more recently, and Shijin suggested that perhaps it was because the creature was preparing to grow even more.

"Is he always like that?" said Huang, who brought out a few blankets from a nearby wardrobe. "Or does he just not like me?"

"Who, Shijin?" Hana replied. "I wouldn't say that he doesn't like you, but I can't really say much beyond that. Sorry, I'm still not quite sure of what he's really thinking."

"How long have you been travelling with him?" Huang asked.

"A few months now. Around the middle of summer I would say," Hana answered, helping Huang spread the sheets over the bed. "I've been learning Pai Sho from him this entire time."

"Pai Sho?" Huang looked surprised. "Now that's a game I haven't played in quite a long time, and it's the first time in a long time that I've seen someone around my age other than an Air Nomad pick up the game. How old are you by the way?"

"To be honest," Hana chuckled, her cheeks red. "I actually don't know. I was taken to a brothel and forced to work there at a young age, and nobody ever told me when I was born. If I had to say though, I guess sixteen or seventeen would be my closest guess."

"You were kidnapped?" Huang put a hand to her mouth. "Spirits, that must've been horrible."

"No," Hana shook her head. "That's not what happened. It was more like my parents left me there."

"I'm sorry," Huang looked away. "I don't know what to say."

"There's nothing really to say," Hana shrugged, her eyes calm. "They cried as they left me there, as if they didn't know that they were leaving me in one of the foulest places in Omashu. A few years later, I'm told by the store owner, who he said knew my parents very well, that my mother had died and had left me a few things. I never bothered opening any of it though. Come to think of it, it's probably still in that house."

There was a short silence between them, where Hana thought about the destroyed whorehouse and wondered if her room was still intact, while Huang wondered if she should just leave. The stillness in the room didn't last long though.

"Speaking of which, you were talking about Pai Sho. Do you play? If you have a set, we can play a few games," Hana suggested. "It'll help break this awkward tension we've built up."

"No, no, no," Huang laughed, waving her off. She led Hana down the stairs toward the kitchen. "That's a game I gave up playing quite a long time ago. I'd much prefer if you helped me with the cooking. Nothing calms the soul more than the nice smell of cooked food."
« Last Edit: May 06, 2012 10:08 pm by guyw1tn0nam3 » Logged

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« Reply #15 on: May 06, 2012 09:32 pm »

Shijin headed down to the bazaar at the bottom of the city, where shop keepers and traders advertised their merchandise. There were a few animals and food stands carted around from place to place, but the wares were mostly related to pottery, equipment and currency exchange. There were merchants with scales placed on the floor, along with coins that came from the Fire Nation.

"Get your best exchange fees here at Kamal's Vintage Exchange," called one merchant. "Cheap and easy exchange for just one copper Fire Nation piece."

Shijin ignored this part of the plaza and moved to the other side, where the animals and food shops were located. Seating himself in an open space between two animal traders, he spread a green sheet over the stone floor and pulled out his Pai Sho tiles. When he placed a pot of Pai Sho tiles on his opponent's side, people immediately began to surround the Air Nomad and began seating themselves, one after another, for a few rounds of the game. Shijin's first opponent matched the silver piece tossed on the side, and the games began.

Like always, Shijin won the games handily. Casual merchants and farmers willing to spare a coin would never match up to a player of his caliber after all. As his earnings grew, Shijin reduced the silver piece he was betting down to smaller copper pieces, as there were people becoming wary of betting a silver coin against a player that seemed impossible to beat.

The afternoon wore on, the heat from the sun diminished by the air that cruised through the wide open marketplace and the clouds above. Many traders brought umbrellas or set up a canopy above their stalls in the event that it rained. As for Shijin, his only preparation was the hood attached to his robes, and that wouldn't last very long if it rained hard.

By the time evening came, the clouds had gathered in full force, and occasionally Shijin would feel a drip on his forehead. Many of his opponents had come and gone, either returning to their stalls to continue selling after a short break, or packing up their things and leaving. Shijin too, as he looked at the setting sun, casting an orange glow in the grey skyline, thought about leaving.

Then, a staff dropped on the ground in front of Shijin. Its thin wooden frame, spiral symbols, and hidden compartments suggested that it was an Airbender's glider. A young woman, no older than Shijin, dropped to her knees in front of him, her eyes closed and her hands steady. When she opened her eyes, the flare in them betrayed the tranquil expression sketched everywhere else on her face.

"Of all the people to find me here," Shijin's left hand moved cautiously towards his staff behind him. "I would've hoped to not see you again until the end."

"An old nomad who was on his first pilgrimage to the temples," she said, picking up the Pai Sho tiles. "Told the Western Council that he had played Pai Sho with an Airbender using his glider the way Waterbenders use boards to surf the tides. I can only imagine who the only Airbender to use his glider like that was doing here in the north?"

"Sightseeing, and as you can see," Shijin flipped a few tiles around. "Playing Pai Sho."

"Liar," she snarled.

"You want to know the real reason?" Shijin raised an eyebrow and flashed a crumbled wanted poster he had kept in his pack. "It's because I've been on a little journey with an obnoxious girl who's gone and infuriated the Wu Jian. I would've taken her to Ba Sing Se, but they headed down that road a few days ago. I've had no choice but to come here."

"You're being chased by the Wu Jian?" her eyes widened. "That's ironic."

"Enough with the jokes," Shijin sighed, his hands finally relaxed and returning to their original position. "Why are you really here? The Western Temple doesn't send anyone from the council unless it's really important. What are you up to?"

"I've come of my own accord and judgment," she said, and finally slapped a tile down on the board. It was a wheel tile placed one space to the right of the center of the board. "Even if I were to believe that you were travelling with a girl across the Earth Kingdom for spirits knows what reason, there's no doubt in my mind that you wouldn't come this far north without a good reason."

Shijin contemplated his opponent's move for a second. It was a strange move, but experience told him that his opponent had prepared a specific strategy and wasn't just haphazardly placing tiles. He decided to play defensive and lay down a badgermole immediately on his side of the board.

"So?" Shijin lifted his finger off the tile. "Why do you think I'm walking around the most dangerous place on earth?"

"Shijin," she said, placing another wheel tile, this time one space to the left of the center of the board. "You're headed to the Northern Air Temple aren't you? You're going to see your father?"

"And?" Shijin frowned at the strange tile placement. He definitely hadn't seen this tile deployment before. Perhaps a new strategy created by the Air Nomads? "What if my intention was to go see my father, who I haven't seen since my exile?"

"An exile isn't allowed to enter the temples," she clenched her fists. "You know this. We may view the world through the eyes of pacifism, but our traditions are absolute. If you intend on going, I will render you incapable if you insist."

"Are you sure this isn't about," Shijin paused for a moment, then slapped down a sky bison tile to his right corner. "Your promise to avenge-"

"That's in the past," she cut Shijin off, slapping down a chrysanthemum tile as she did. "Do you want to know how I recognized you, Shijin? You look different now. You've grown since I saw you five years ago. Your hair grew even longer than before, your body has fitted itself to the land, and you've grown taller too."

She and Shijin locked their stares. He set down a wheel tile one space above his badgermole. She placed a white lotus tile in the center of the board. He laid his three spaces behind his badgermole. She responded with a sky bison, and he responded with one of his own. When she moved out, so did he. She placed a badgermole behind the white lotus, and he moved his wheel up the board so that the badgermole was in the wheel's line of attack. She placed a chrysanthemum tile right next to it, which was in line with the wheel at the center of the board.

Throughout this, their eyes never seemed to drift away from the other.

"It's your eyes," she said. "Those eyes that look at nothing but revenge. As I thought, even now, that's all that's left of you, those eyes that only have a single goal, a single sight. To think that I used to…to think I still…"

She bit her lip, her eyes breaking the stare, as if she was embarrassed.

"You say you're travelling around with this girl," she tried restarting the conversation. "What is she to you?"

"Am I really that terrible of a person that I'd pull some outsider into my own affairs?" Shijin snapped. "What if I told you that I'm just teaching her how to play Pai Sho until she can use it the way I do?"

"I'd say you're lying," she replied. "Besides, I've always been a better Pai Sho player than you have been. I can rid you of your burden right now. I'll take her on myself and teach her."

Shijin's hand stopped, his fingers rubbing the second wheel tile he was about to put into play. However, what was surprising to Shijin was how much reluctance he felt about the idea. The feeling was so strong that he felt almost inclined to tell the tattooed lady in front of him to just leave.

"Either way," as if she had read Shijin's mind, the Airbender stood up before Shijin could place the tile. "You're going nowhere near the Northern Temple. Not on my watch. If you decide to head there, don't think my past with you is going to keep me from dealing justice when needed."

She picked up her staff, strapped it to her back and began to walk off. Then, she remembered something, turned back to Shijin, and pointed at the board.

"My victory was guaranteed the minute you attacked my badgermole by the way," she said. "Bring the wheel protecting my chrysanthemum down, then the sky bison down to zone your bison. Then move my second wheel on my right down. You'll notice that none of the moves you make afterwards matter. It's a concealed aggressive tactic that gives the ruse of a defensive deployment. I came up with it."

When she was gone, Shijin quickly moved the tiles around to confirm. He moved her first wheel tile down to threaten his badgermole, then after responding by defending with his second wheel, he sent her sky bison closer to the middle of the board, where its zone now overlapped with his sky bison. He then moved her second wheel down to assault his white lotus, and realized that there were no feasible moves to defend against the attack.

"This is an interesting diversion," Shijin murmured. "She purposely left her badgermole ill defended because it wasn't even part of her plan. Then, since I'm down a wheel tile since I sent it up to attack, she now has one additional tile in her attack, which means every trade with her pieces is unfavorable for me."

Shijin clucked his tongue, and then began cleaning up his tiles and board. When he stood to leave, the Airbender was out of his sight, but Shijin knew that she couldn't be too far from him. By the time Shijin was done and walking the stairs back up the mountainside of Taku, rain had finally begun to drizzle. When he reached the doors to Huang Gao's shop, the rain had begun to pour.

"Where were you?" Hana puffed out her cheeks when she answered the door. She looked at Shijin's slightly wet clothes. "We almost had to skip dinner without you!"

That night, while they ate, Hana and Huang laughed over a variety of things. Huang told stories of her childhood, often recollecting on the memories that got her interesting in the field of selling rare and ancient artifacts. Many times she referred to Ji Zhi, her father. Hana seemed excited by every story, and urged Huang to always continue.

Shijin, on the other hand, sat quietly, rarely even listening to the two of them. All he could think about was how he had been tricked so thoroughly by her play and her threat to face him should he continue to head north. By the time Shijin finished his food, he had spent so much time meandering through his thoughts that the bottom of the nicely cooked stew had turned cold.

"Huang is such a great person," Hana said later that night as the two sat in the room provided to them. "If only I was born to a father like Ji Zhi, then I wouldn't have had to put up with everything that happened as I was growing up. Shijin, aren't we practicing tonight?"

Shijin was already lying on the fluffy chair next to the bed, a blanket wrapped around his body, his eyes starting to close.

"Shijin," Hana pointed at the bed. "You know that this is a bed for two people right?"

"Hana," Shijin muttered wearily, ignoring her previous comment. "What if there was someone that was better than me at Pai Sho?"

"Isn't that natural?" Hana asked. "There's always someone better than you right? And there's always someone better than that person. It'd be strange if you were the best Pai Sho player ever."

"Don't you want to learn Pai Sho from the best?" Shijin lifted his head, raising one eye to look at Hana, who was looking down at him, her hands on her waists. "It'd be so much better that way. You'd improve a lot more, and you'd win a lot more too."

"That's true," Hana nodded her head. "But in the end I guess I'd rather like a teacher who can lose and at least learn from his mistakes. My mother always said that being the best was just about not learning anything until someone beat you with something new."

"Your mother sounds like a smart person," Shijin nodded, relaxing a little. "I'm sure that's something my mother might say too."

"If she was smart she wouldn't have left me in that place," Hana shrugged, and then hopped onto the bed. "She would've known that I could help her out, or I could've travelled with her. Did you know that my father…hey Shijin? Are you listening?"

When she looked up, she saw that for the first time in their journey together, Shijin had fallen asleep before her.

"He must be really tired from today," Hana walked up to Shijin and pulled the blanket over his exposed shoulders. "I should tell him that he owes me an extra game of Pai Sho tomorrow morning for missing out on a lesson."

With that, Hana closed the lamp that lit the dim room. Rainwater tapped against the window, the only sound in the night.

Hana looked at the bed for a moment and tapped the comfortable mattress.

She then slipped under the blankets covering Shijin and let herself rest on his shoulders.

To be continued…
« Last Edit: May 06, 2012 10:08 pm by guyw1tn0nam3 » Logged

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« Reply #16 on: May 28, 2012 11:07 am »

Lesson Eight: Concealed Deployment, Part two

The road to Taku was surrounded by mountains and forests. Years later, many would see the city as a geographical miracle, a remote place of the kingdom that shouldn't have been a trading hub of Chin's time. It was only the people and the rich resources found in the mountains that made Taku a popular site for traders of all places.

While the mountains provided rare gems and raw materials, the forests provided more than just firewood and animals. There were a lush variety of wild flowers that florists and herb specialists collected and traded. Some were beautiful marriage gifts and others were said to be cures to poison and old age. There were even rumors that an herbalist and his carpenter wife were starting to build an institute of learning at the tip of the mountains.

That morning, Shijin trekked into that very same forest. He had donned his Airbender robes again, and he found himself in an open clear, where the forest seemed to avoid. The trees formed a crooked circle around him, and while the morning sun had yet to reach to the clear sky above, Shijin could feel the occasional warm feeling when sunlight burst through the swaying branches and leaves.

In front of him was a tree that stood alone at the center of the clear. It was still growing; its leaves appeared weak and fragile, even for the fall season. Birds and animals avoided clinging to its shaky branches and took refuge in the veterans of the forest.

Shijin bent his knees, put out his hands, and in a smooth motion, thrust his open right palm towards the tree.

He heard a large boom, but the rest of the forest did not seem to mind. After the heavy winds subsided around him, Shijin stared at the weak tree, which remained standing after his attack. While anyone else would have been disappointed that an attack of such caliber had not blasted the tree to smithereens, Shijin smiled at his result.

"Are you really going to train for this," said a voice from a tree behind him. When Shijin turned around, the woman from yesterday was sitting on a branch, her hands folded around a bottle of wine and a basket of fruit. She hopped down and tossed the basket in front of Shijin. "Here, some food that they were selling early at the market."

"If you intend on getting on my good side, forget it. It's been years since then and we're both different now," Shijin kicked open the basket's cover and grabbed an apple from inside. "But thank you. You always knew how to pick out the best fruit."

Shijin turned back to the tree and sent another gale at the tree. The speed that was unleashed from Shijin's hand threw leaves all around high into the sky. The weak tree still stood.

"I'm stronger now," the woman said, sitting down against the nearest tree and bringing her knees to her chin. "You won't beat me with just your mother's techniques."

"They said the same thing about my mother's Pai Sho strategy," Shijin said. "But in all of my years travelling with her, she was only defeated once, and that was by someone who didn't even challenge her to a game, let alone the Airbenders who thought her play style was foolish."

"I beat you yesterday," she protested. "That should be proof enough."

"I showed you everything you know about me," Shijin dropped his hands, and flung the apple in the air. With a few cuts of his hand, the apple burst into five clean slices. "But that doesn't mean I showed you everything."

"That's exactly like you," she sighed. "Holding secrets like this."

Shijin didn't respond. He just returned to the tree in front of him. He circled around it, treating it as a human opponent.

"Will you try to kill me in order to get to your father?" she called as Shijin unleashed a barrage of kicks. "Are you willing to go that far to break our laws?"

"That's why I'm training," Shijin said. "It's the only way my student and I can move forward after all."

"Have you even considered my offer at all?" the woman said. "The girl that you're teaching. What will she think when she sees this? An Airbender training to kill another Airbender? What will she think when she sees the real you?"

"I think, that when the time comes," Shijin wiped the first traces of sweat on his forehead. He looked at the weak tree again, and thrust another punch in its direction. "I'll let her decide for herself if she wants to stay with me."

When the gust subsided, the tree was standing.

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« Reply #17 on: May 28, 2012 11:07 am »

Hana woke up on the bed. She was lying on top of the sheets already sprawled out over the mattress, and the blankets that Shijin had been using the night before were draped over her. She felt a cold tingling sensation near her feet, where her exposed toes wiggled at the touch of a soft wind brushing past the open window. The chair next to her looked like it had never been slept on, so Hana assumed that it had been at least an hour since Shijin woke.

When she headed downstairs, Huang Gua was busy making breakfast in a room behind shop while reading a book in her free hand. Held over the fireplace was a stone bowl and inside, set on top of a flat wooden board were an assortment of buns, some with filling, others without. Like always, the smell of food brought a certain badgermole to the fireplace, who hopped from left to right next to the antique shop owner.

"Good morning," Hana yawned, searching around for her teacher. "Where's Shijin?"

"He left early this morning," Huang looked up from her book. "Said he was going to back late again, though he didn't really say why. Do you want some buns? Now that the Airbender's gone, I definitely won't be able to finish all of these by myself."

They ate on a small round table. Some of the buns had traces of pork and lettuce inside. Others were filled with a soft creamy and sugary spread. They all went well with some grape juice that Huang had made by plucking grapes from a vine in the backyard. She had said that the grapes had been grown by her father, and the pomegranate tree sitting across from the vines was her mother's.

"I take turns switching between the grape and pomegranate juice," Huang explained. "My mother and father used to take turns making dinner, though it was usually my father needing to help out. He was always the better cook and he got a lot of his experience from some ancient recipes he had drawn up in his excavations with his friends."

"That sounds amazing," Hana said. "I don't have much memories of them, but all I know is that my mother often brought back food from restaurants, so I never knew if she could make food or not."

When they were finished, Hana helped Huang clean up the dishes and wipe the tables. It was then that she noticed that Shijin had left his bag of Pai Sho tiles and board on top of the table.

"If he's going to be out all day," Hana murmured. "Then why didn't he take his Pai Sho tiles with him? Come to think of it, he didn't even do his morning lesson with me today. What is he thinking, leaving me here all alone with nothing to do?"

"When I saw him this morning, he had a blank expression on his face," Huang said, placing the last of the dried dishes in a nearby cabinet. "Every once in a while, he would mutter a few things to himself, and then look at his hands. I'm not sure what he was doing, though he did ask for a brush and ink. Maybe he left a note for you?"

Next to the Pai Sho tiles was the bag that Shijin would use to store the coins. After a quick shake, Hana found that there was an abundance of pieces jingling inside. On top of the bag was a slip of paper that Hana had never seen before. After flipping the small note over, she saw a few characters written on it, swirls and symbols completely foreign to Hana.

"That Shijin," Hana scowled. "He already forgot that I don't even know how to read."

"I can help with that," Huang took the note in her hands. "It reads: 'Huang, tell Hana that there should be enough coins for her to go out and try to earn some money on her own. Tell her to bet in the same quantities of five copper pieces each. Remind her to remember what I taught her. I'll be back again. It's possible that it will be very late.' See? He did know you couldn't read."

"I don't know if I should take that as a compliment anymore," Hana took the piece of paper in her hands, wondering how Huang could read what only appeared to her like either scribbles or fancy swirls. She smiled. "But it's been a while since I've been told to go out and try to earn some coins. Come on, Kupo. If all goes well, I'll buy some nice food for you."

After Huang packed her a little box of sandwiches, Hana walked out the door and headed down the steps of Taku. The sounds of the marketplace grew louder and louder with each passing step. When she reached the bazaar, she did what Shijin did every time he sat down to play: she picked a spot closest to the food vendors and began setting up her board and tiles.

When she was finished, five copper pieces in a pot and her opponent's tiles laid out on the other side of the board, Hana sat on her knees and waited for someone to accept her challenge. It took a while, but not before long, there was a nice line of people in front of Hana who were busy waiting for business to pick up in the early stages of the morning. None of them seemed bothered by the fact that the one who issued the challenge was a girl. If any were bothered, they didn't seem to show it.

Her first few games went well, better than Hana had expected. The time that she spent with Shijin appeared to finally be paying off, as she held her own against farmers who had little understanding of a number of the game's simplest mechanics. There were many that she lost, yes, and Hana found that she was quickly running a deficit with a win every three games. But one in three was much better than the consistent losses that Hana had suffered during her first few months of training. And even then, after a few games of shaking off the initial nerves and warming up, Hana was winning more and more.

It was at that point, though, when Hana began winning more than just one out of every three, that she remembered what Shijin had told her not too long ago.

As you are now, you might be able to score at most a little bit under a thirty percent win ratio in pub games, depending on which pubs you choose. Winning money with Pai Sho becomes profitable once you hit above the halfway mark because you begin earning for the amount that you lose.

And then, a fear crept into her heart, like a bad worm finding an open pore in a fresh apple.

"Why did Shijin ask me to come out to make money when he could have done it himself? Sure he's asked me to do it before, but not for the entire day, and even then he was always close by," she began asking herself. "Was it to find out if I could win on my own now?"

A game flew past her before she even realized it, and by the time that Hana saw that the game had been easily within her grasp, her opponent had already grabbed the five coins out of her pot.

"What if I bring home more money than there was originally?" Hana whispered. "Did Shijin count the pieces? Is he planning on leaving me here if he finds out I can win a lot more now?"

Another match lost. This time, the farmer in front of her waved a hand in her face before she reacted and allowed him to take her money. She couldn't concentrate, but for some reason, the players kept coming and Hana allowed them to sit without a moment's hesitation. Kupo crawled onto her lap and began whining at her, but even that didn't catch Hana's attention.

"So what if I start losing games intentionally?" Hana asked herself finally, throwing a tile senselessly into her opponent's obvious ploy. "If I come back with less money than before, Shijin will have no choice but to keep teaching me, right?"

Before she started the next game, a hand fell on her shoulder and broke Hana out of her silent monologue. When she turned around, Hana saw the outline of a beautiful Airbender maiden. The Airbender knelt down beside her and looked at the tiles that Hana had been haphazardly placing all over the board.

"Hey, can't you guys see that she's not feeling well right now? Why are you taking advantage of her," she asked the men who were lining up for a game. They all seemed intimidated by her presence. "Go find someone else to play with. Shoo, shoo!"

As the crowd dissipated, she helped a confused Hana clean up the tiles and board. Kupo helped too, scooting pieces towards the fingers of the Airbender, making it easier for her to stack the pieces together.

"What were you doing, intentionally losing games like that?" the Airbender asked, her face solemn. She handed the cleaned up board and tiles over to Hana, who stored them inside Shijin's bag. "Who taught you to do that?"

"You could tell?" Hana looked away. "How long were you watching me?"

"Long enough," she replied. "I recognized those tiles. You're Shijin's student aren't you? If you are, then I can't imagine his pupil playing so poorly."

"You know Shijin?" Hana asked. "Where is he?"

"He's busy right now," she said. "If you go, you might not like wha-"

"I want to go see him," Hana said firmly. She wrapped the bag around her neck, and filled her other bag with the remaining coins left from the games. She strapped that bag to her waist, nodded at the Airbender in front of her, and repeated. "I want to go see him."

The Airbender nodded and took her on a road that led out of the city. The nice brick roads that made it easy for carts to roll through began to disappear, replaced by a dirt path that made a straight line towards the forest to the west of the city. Kupo, taking a liking to the dirt road, rolled around in it before Hana motioned for the badgermole to keep up. The Airbender asked a few questions on their way.

"How long have you been Shijin's student?" she would ask. "What do you think of his teaching? What do you think of him?"

"A little over three months," she would respond. "I think he's a good teacher. I think he's a good man. How do you know him?"

"Shijin and I go a while back," said the woman with an almost arrogant tone. "We were good friends a long time before his exile, and even afterwards I met up with him for a while before he disappeared after a few years. It was only recently, though, when I heard of him again."

"You have business with him?" Hana didn't look at the woman. Her eyes were only focused on the road ahead, where the sound of roaring winds came from the forest depths.

"Somewhat," the woman's voice quieted down. She tossed her head back and looked at the tips of the trees. "I don't understand how you can call Shijin a good man, when you know so little about him though. I've known him for years, and I don't even know enough to say that about him, especially after his exile."

"What's so important about that anyway," Hana frowned. "His exile, I mean. All I've seen is Shijin, someone who loves to play Pai Sho."

"He hasn't told you about why he was exiled?" the woman widened her eyes. "Well, I guess that would make sense after thinking about it for a bit longer. It's not a topic he would be particularly willing to tell anyone that he meets."

"Why was he exiled then?" Hana asked.

"That's something that he should tell you himself," said the woman. "I don't think I have the right to speak for him anymore."

The trees seemed to fold back for her, and before she knew it, Hana was blinded by the sun that hovered over a clear circle in the forest. From there, Hana saw Shijin standing in the middle of the circle, his hands scraped, water dripping from his nose and mouth. His legs looked like they were buckling under his frail upper body, and his eyes flickered open and close.

With a brief grunt, Shijin charged towards what appeared to be a young tree growing in the middle of the ring. Hana heard a loud bang and she covered her eyes as a heavy wave of air washed over her, along with leaves and dirt. Kupo grabbed onto Hana's feet, and his claws unintentionally scratched her big toe. When she looked back, the tree stood standing in place.

"What is he doing," Hana whispered, putting her hands to her mouth. "Has he been doing this since this morning?"

"This is the business I have with him," the woman patted Hana on the shoulder before turning and walking away. "I want to stop him, and this is his response. This is the real Shijin. Is this the good man that you envisioned him to be?"

As the mysterious nomad behind her walked off, Hana's only attention could be kept on Shijin, who collapsed right afterwards, his body too tired to continue. Hana called his name before rushing to his side. When she reached him, she dropped to her knees and picked up his head to feel for a pulse.

"What did you do to yourself," Hana placed his head on her knees, then lifted his hands and saw the strange cuts that had appeared on his hands. "And what have you been not telling me about our journey?"

"Hana, what are you doing here?" Shijin's eyes remained closed as he talked. "Didn't Huang read you my message? I wanted you to try to earn yourself some money today."

"Why, so you can just leave me when I'm done?" Hana almost shouted. "You're going to just leave me after I can make some money for myself right?"

"Are you stupid or something?" Shijin coughed, before bringing a hand and giving Hana's shoulders a sudden nudge. "There's an entry fee for some of the intermediate Pai Sho tournaments at Ba Sing Se. I wasn't planning on paying for you with my own money, because I wanted you to pay for your own pass."

"Then why are you here," Hana said. "You're all cut up and bruised, almost like you fought one of those mooselions we saw face to face. There was this woman that was with me, and she said you were here training to fight her. Why?"

"Oh, you met her?" Shijin frowned. "Well, I was hoping we would leave here without you ever having to see her. I guess that's out the window now."

"Shijin," Hana said slowly. "Are you stupid or something?"

Shijin opened his eyes, right as a drop of water fell onto his cheek. The sun illuminated Hana's watery face. Her hands were cradling his head, while she sniffed up fluids coming out of her nose. Her eyes were closed as she tried to snap back as many tears as she could, but that didn't stop the cries that came from her lips.

"When I was younger, I didn't have anyone I could depend on," Hana started all of a sudden. "I already know why you made sure to hide me from the Wu Jian as much as possible. It's because people look at my eyes and they know I'm different. They know that I'm half Fire Nation, and that's almost unheard of here."

"My mother and father left me early because of that, and even though they gave me to a 'friend' at a brothel, he never treated me as anything other than a worker and a slave," Hana tried wiping away at some of her tears. "I figured that if I hadn't left with you earlier this year I would've been a lot like the women I met there. Serving men privately in the rooms behind the shop."

"But then I met you," Hana shook Shijin's head a little bit, to shake some sense into him. "And for the first time there was someone I could depend on. To protect me. To save me if I ever get into trouble. To teach me about the world."

"I depend on you, Shijin," though she was crying, Hana looked back at Shijin with a glare. "And you should know that even if I'm not as strong or as smart as you, you can depend on me too. You don't have to do all of these things by yourself. I'm your student, so teach me how to help you."

Shijin blinked. His mouth was slightly open, partially trying to say something, but also partially in surprise. Then, to the shock of himself and Hana, Shijin chuckled.

"I guess I've been worrying you too much," Shijin finished his laugh, before using the hand on Hana's shoulder to pat her on the head. "Sorry."

Hana cried even louder, and somewhere in the forest, a watching Airbender bit her lip and stole off into the afternoon.

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« Reply #18 on: May 28, 2012 11:08 am »

"The Airbender you met was a student of my mother," Shijin explained later that evening. For someone who appeared to be on the verge of unconsciousness, a few cups of tea and few bits of apples had brought color back to Shijin's face. "She's now a council member at the Western Temple and came out here to stop me from going to the Northern Temple. It might sound like justice, but she has her own personal reasons for doing so."

After Shijin was strong enough to stand again, which wasn't until hours later when the sun was setting, the two of them walked back to the market, where they found a nice quiet tea shop where they could order tea and eat the basket of fruit that had been lying next to Shijin's prone form. Underneath the table, Hana snuck a few pears for Kupo to eat, though he seemed less satisfied then when he was offered fish.

"You're heading to the temple?" Hana asked. "Why? I thought you were exiled."

"That's probably something we'll have to discuss at a later time," Shijin replied. "But as an exile, yes, I'm forbidden to go to the temples, which is why she's adamant on stopping me from going. I have my reasons, though."

"So you're going to fight her," Hana concluded. "Is going to the Northern Air Temple that important?"

"I wouldn't be going there if it wasn't important," Shijin snapped. "There's business I never finished up there. If it makes you wonder less about it, it's a personal family affair, and it's something I want to deal with before I can move on."

"The woman also said that it had to do with your exile," Hana noted. "I know I asked it already, but why were you exiled?"

"If I lose tonight," Shijin gulped down another cup of tea before refilling it with the pot in the middle of the table. "You can ask me that question again."

After that, Shijin avoided questions about his past, and Hana was forced to give a report on how she had played that morning and afternoon. When Shijin saw that Hana had lost so many coins, he sighed and shook his head, before commenting on her hopeless Pai Sho skills. Hana kept quiet about her purposely losing games.

Their talk became much more casual at that point. They talked until the sun dropped below the horizon, flashing orange streaks over the sky, and the shops around either lit their lamps for nightly festivities, or closed up and locked their doors. It was at this time that Shijin stopped talking and motioned for Hana to follow.

"What about Huang?" Hana said, noticing that Shijin was taking her to the outskirts of the city. "Are we just going to leave her?"

"I've left a second note to her among the things that we left behind, along with a gift I bought with some of the money I won yesterday," Shijin replied. "What I failed to mention to her is that shortly after my mother sold the priceless Airbender plates to Huang's dad, he saved me from a bear that chased me around in the forest. It's the least I can do to pay back the man that saved my life."

The route they took led away from the forests and away from the main road. It went northeast, towards the river that separated Chin's lands from the rest of the nomads and towards the Northern Air Temple. They descended the slopes of the mountain, and Taku grew smaller and smaller behind them. Fields of flat grassland awaited them at the bottom of the bottom, and it was here that the two of them saw an Airbender standing on the other sides of the plains.

"Wait here," Shijin placed his staff against the nearest tree. "I won't be very long."

He stood face to face with the Air Nomad, who glared back at him with an almost desperate gaze. She stared silently at him, knowing that none of her words mattered at all now. Shijin had other ideas.

"Oh right," Shijin shook his head. "I never did get to play another game with you and beat that strategy of yours. It's quite a shame."

"Please don't say that," when the moon was revealed by the moving clouds, Shijin realized tears were falling from the woman's glaring eyes. "If you really wanted to play with me again, you could have always just asked."

It was a full month that night, the end of the first month in fall. There were many clouds drifting in the sky, and when they covered the moon, it was like a lighthouse flashing its lanterns on and off to signal ships that land was close. That light shined on two people facing one another on flat grassland.

The breeze picked up speed, and the smell of grass and weeds flung from their weak roots filled the air. The wind turned into gusts, and from the hill overlooking the plains, Hana could see the air take the shape of sharp blades. They crashed into one another, cut open flowers, and flung dirt into the air, but none of them touched the two silhouettes standing ever so silently.

Gusts turned to gales, and the entire field of grass looked like it would be flattened by the torrents of air swirling around. Hana held Kupo close to her, afraid that if she didn't, the howling winds would sweep the badgermole away from her. The tree branches above her shook violently, and Hana closed her eyes to prevent anything from falling into them.

Then, everything fell silent. The winds stopped their violent rampage, and the grass, dirt, and flowers that had been thrown recklessly into the air slowly drifted back to the earth. Hana opened her eyes, and stared at her teacher, who was standing across from the woman with Airbender tattoos traced over her body.

She had never seen such a grave expression on Shijin's face. Behind his close lips, Hana could tell that his teeth were clenched as tightly as they could. His closed eyes, while not bearing a semblance of anger, concealed the feelings of a man about to make a regrettable error. His forehead was creased, as if he desperately reached for a way out of his predicament.

"You brought this on yourself," said the woman with tattoos, her tears gone. She twirled her staff and then struck it into the ground. With a deep breath, she bent her knees and put her palms forward in a fighting stance. "Don't worry. In accordance with the customs of the Western Air Temple, justice shall be dealt swiftly."

Hana looked at Shijin, and then at the staff that was leaning on the tree behind her. Her hands shook, her heart pounded, so much so that Kupo began whining and struggled until he was out of her palms and lying next to her. But even Kupo, when touching the ground and feeling the presence of the woman standing face to face with Shijin, began to growl.

Shijin's eyes remained closed.

"I am the third council member of the Western Air Temple," the woman proclaimed, her eyes now aflame with fury. "Seigi Nohito."

"Here I come!"

The woman named Seigi jumped forward, and it was so fast that it appeared as if she had disappeared into thin air for a split second before reappearing in front of Shijin, her palms pulled back and ready. She slammed her right hand down, aiming directly for Shijin's chest.

The battle was over in the next second, and Hana could barely see what happened.

Shijin's eyes flashed open, and with a yell, he met Seigi's hand with his own. A massive boom, even louder than the one that Hana had heard that morning, resonated when the two palms clashed against each other. Seigi's reaction was one of instant pain and surprise, and her fingers twitched repeatedly when they came into contact with Shijin's. It was almost as if all the strength that she had poured into her attack had been instantly turned against her.

She was tossed away like a frail leaf, and though she managed to find balance and land on her feet, the expression on her face told Hana that she was in no condition to keep fighting. Shijin's opponent grabbed her stomach, shivering in the cold night. Her legs quivered as if they had been shot full of lightning.

"You fell into the same trap that I did," Shijin called out, resuming his normal calm pose, his hands now at rest. "Your Pai Sho strategy revolves around your opponent attacking first, and you turn what looks like a defense into an aggressive counter attack. All I had to do was wait for you to attack, and use the move that I was practicing all day. If you hadn't attacked at all, you'd be standing without a single scratch, just like that frail weak tree."

Shijin walked towards Seigi, who had succumbed to the pain and dropped to her knees. Hana ran towards them with Shijin's staff in hand.

"Seigi," Shijin bent down to meet her face to face. "It's okay if you can never forgive me for what happened to my mother, but as a council member, petty feelings like revenge shouldn't be clouding your judgment. I don't want someone as headstrong and good like you to fall to the level of someone like me."

"Why-" Seigi started.

"Shh," Shijin put a hand to her mouth as Hana came close. When Shijin moved his hand away, Seigi could only look away and nod. "The pain you're feeling right now is temporary, a shock from having all that stored up power sent right back to you in a fraction of a second. It should wear off in a few minutes, and by then we'll have already left. Feel free to follow, but by now you should know that you can't stop me. Goodbye."

Shijin grabbed the staff out of Hana's hand and began to walk away. Hana turned her attention to the fallen Airbender, but Seigi raised a hand in protest. She shook her head and smiled, though she was clearly still bitter about her loss.

"I'll be okay," Seigi said. "Frankly, I'm jealous of you, pupil. Today was the first time I saw a genuine laugh from that man in a long time. I think that's what I was searching for all this time."

Seigi stood up on her own, her legs still wobbling. Hana tried to help, but the Airbender once again put up a hand to stop her from doing so.

"I'm done chasing after Shijin like this," Seigi closed her eyes. "I see that he's found someone like you that can take care of him. Thank you."

Grabbing her staff out of the dirt, Seigi leaned on it and began limping away, never turning once to look back at Shijin. As she left, Hana turned back to Shijin, and raced after him, also never once looking back.

"I guess I won't be able to ask Shijin about it after all," was all Hana said that night.

To be continued…

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« Reply #19 on: Jun 22, 2012 01:55 pm »

Lesson Nine: Synchronous Movement, Part One

"Gao, yip yip!" she yelled.

With a loud groan, the sky bison jumped into the air. It was a rough takeoff as the bison dipped just a little bit after its initial leap. Shijin yelped for a moment, holding onto the leather seat in the back when he floated upwards. Then, Gao found his rhythm and recovered from his disorientation, flapping his tail up and down to propel himself higher.

"I knew those berries were the right ones," she rubbed the bison's head. "That's a good boy. Looks like the herbs did the trick finally. Shijin, are you okay back there?"

"Yeah," Shijin sat up, rubbing the spot on his bald head where he had bumped against the leather. Below, a young man who appeared quite skinny and without muscles waved back at him. Shijin waved back. "Where are we headed off to next?"

"Well," she turned to look at the snow covered mountains behind her. "Winter is on its way soon. Let's head to the Serpent's Lake. Gao, you know the way right? Take it easy and slow now."

She was at the reigns for a few minutes, taking the sky bison through a series of warm up turns and acrobatic exercises. Afterwards though, she gave Gao a kiss on the head before hopping into the backseat with Shijin. There were a few bags that were strapped tightly onto the edges of the seat. She grabbed one of them.

"So, where were we?" she said excitedly. She loosened the knot around the bag and pulled out a rolled up Pai Sho board.

"We were learning how lousy I am with the fire lily and white dragon tiles," Shijin put a hand on his cheek and puffed his cheeks. "Can I just not learn about those two tiles? It's not like your style uses them anyway."

"Since when was Pai Sho so self-centered?" she asked. "You can play proactive of course, but you also need to learn how to play Pai Sho reactively as well. Learn to deploy based on what your opponent uses, and there is no better example of this than how difficult it is to deploy against the lily and white dragon tiles."

"Look," Shijin rolled his eyes. "In the last ten villages we visited, there was only one person who used those two tiles, and he didn't even know how to play the game. Can't we just accept that I'll never be good at using them, and I'll just take the one loss every one hundred games?"

"If all you think about in Pai Sho is winning, then I haven't taught you anything," she scolded. "Shijin, there's more to life than just spending your time in exile winning money just to scrape by. You're sixteen now, and maybe it's time you started learning about the world and about life. Tell me one thing you've learned about the Earth Kingdom in the six years you've been in exile."

"Unlike the Air Temples, it sometimes gets hot in the kingdom," Shijin mumbled. "Look, I just don't want to learn about these tiles. I think they're pointless in competitive play and in casual play, anyone who uses them is a joke. I don't think there's a single standard opening with it, and it's used more for ceremonial purposes than anything."

"The lily doesn't have any special properties like the chrysanthemum and holds little importance unlike the white lotus," Shijin continued. "It's just there so that if you play it, you can play the white dragon the next turn. But even that's pretty lousy because the white dragon is forced to fly in a five step radius around the lily too, which means you waste two moves playing pieces that you can't use to attack."

"Shijin, you always talk about these pieces like they're mechanical and so methodical," she shook her head and sighed. "How about I demonstrate for you instead? Care for a few quick games to at least?"

"Fine," Shijin crawled over to help set up the board. "Whatever you say mom, but if you use those two pieces, I guarantee that even I can beat you."

A few minutes later, after at least three games had been played between them, Shijin flipped over another white lotus tile in concession. His cheeks were red, though he'd blame it on the air pressure. He looked away from his mother, who silently collected the tiles and returned them to the bag. When she was finished tying the bag back onto the leather seat, she sat next to Shijin and pulled his head onto her lap.

"Have you learned your lesson yet?" she said. "What's this about beating your mother when she plays two useless tiles in the first three moves?"

"Nobody used it the way you did," Shijin puffed his cheeks out even further. "I didn't expect you to just put all of your pieces in that little circle and attack at once. Who does that anyway?"

"That's how the style works," she replied. "Airbenders love evasive plays. Earthbenders enjoy defensive moves, and Waterbenders typically use clever maneuvers with a few pieces to turn the tide. The Fire Nation enjoys one big frontal attack to end a game quickly. They position their tiles very well and they play very aggressively because of it."

"So what should I have done to stop it?" Shijin asked. "You just kept taking all of my pieces until I had nothing left."

"You have to stop me from spinning out of control," she explained. "You either have to be aggressive early, and eliminate either my flower or dragon so I can't mobilize my pieces under the protection of the dragon. Or you have to set up your pieces in such a way that I can't keep taking pieces every move. The style that's used when one uses the white dragon is one that requires a mastery of foresight."

"In order to beat it, you must be the same way," she advised. "You must ready your defenses, and discard the rest. Hold your ground and stop the attack even as you lose pieces. If you can hold off the brutal onslaught for just one turn, the victory can very well be yours."

"Sounds confusing," the monk groaned.

"Such is the way of Pai Sho," she beamed. "One day you'll realize how important it is to know not just the mechanics of the game, but also the mental and cultural significance in it as well. And when that day comes, I think you'll see yourself as an entirely different man."

"And what will you think of me?" Shijin asked. "Aren't I a man now?"

"My thoughts of you will never change," she kissed him on the forehead, knowing very well that he thought he was too old for it.

"You will always be my son."

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« Reply #20 on: Jun 22, 2012 01:56 pm »

"Shijin?" Hana tapped the monk on the forehead, breaking him out of his blank stare. Shijin looked around to see that their boat had docked on the shore. They had gotten here faster than he had expected. "We're here."

After their encounter with Seigi in Taku, Shijin, Hana, and a growing Kupo boarded a ferry and crossed the river out of Chin's birthplace back into the regions of the northern Earth Kingdom. It didn't feel very different though, as most of the lands there also belonged to Chin anyway. Nonetheless, their stay in the homeland of the conqueror was short, and Hana had many questions when they left. Shijin could only answer some, however, a rarity from the Airbender.

"I didn't see many Wu Jian there," Hana said, relieved. "And I remember you saying that they manned a lot of the garrisons to protect Chin's lands from invasion."

"It was that way the last time my mother and I went there, but the Wu Jian have never been known to stay too closely to larger cities," Shijin shrugged. "I guess things have changed, though it might just be because they moved their garrisons further south as Chin expanded his lands. We did sneak in after all."

For the next few weeks, the three traveled east, walking along the northern shores of the Serpent's Lake. If the towns they stayed at offered good food and comfort, Shijin felt safe enough to stay in those towns for longer than their two day limit. Even though the wanted posters still occasionally flashed on brick walls next to obscure tea shops, Shijin was beginning to think that their encounters with the Wu Jian were scarce enough to warrant a stay in nicer places.

"Just make sure you don't do anything that draws attention to yourself," Shijin warned. "The Wu Jian might have lost our trail, but we're not in the clear yet."

By the time they reached one of the villages sitting on the river flowing north out of the Serpent's Lake, fall was starting to wane. The color in the leaves was fading, as if the mixture of orange and red were being drained from shrubberies by an undetermined illness. The trees along the river had few flowers left on their branches and they shivered whenever the wind passed by.

The river itself was wide and curved like a brush, giving form to a large fin shaped peninsula on the left side of the river. On the other side, a number of mountains that marked the beginning of a long journey north towards the Northern Air Temple sat dauntingly in front of them. The stream also ran through the middle of the town, and the town plaza was separated by a stone bridge that connected the two parts of the settlement together.

Little kids and old men could be seen standing on the bridge and on the grassy shore throwing their lines into the water to catch a few of the local fish, only to toss them back into the water. Further away from the square, there were fishing boats trying to catch a nice batch before the water started freezing over. The crops here all seemed to have been fully picked, as the working men no longer wore their bamboo hats and brought their ostrich horses out to work. Instead, they armed themselves with pickaxes, and the tips of their fingers were black.

"I've heard about this," Hana whispered to Shijin. "They get it from the tunnels they build in the mountain."

"For someone living in Omashu, I guess this is an everyday occurrence," Shijin nodded. "They say the vast depths below Omashu were made from hundreds of years of digging for a hidden stone. It's a little bit more practical here though."

"Coal," Hana inspected a cart full of the black stones as it rolled on by. "Packs of those are pretty cheap when I was told to go buy things back in Omashu. Now I can see why. This place is a landmine of them, and there must be plenty more in the mountains too. The fires they make can be a bit smelly at times, but they make for very warm and long lasting ones."

"It's also a pretty nice trading commodity," Shijin said. "The Fire Nation could especially make use of these since their real use is when they're on fire. They're also used to smith weapons, too."

"Seems dangerous though," Hana said, a man with his hands fully bandaged in white cloth limping towards his home. "Even if you were an earthbender, there must be a lot of accidents."

"Unless you're a badgermole, I'd say the chances of an accident in a lifetime of this profession are almost certain," Shijin replied. "The fact that this town is so close to the mountains is also disconcerting. It'd be even more dangerous in the winter, when the snow begins to gather a lot on the mountainside, but an accident in the mines could cause a rather devastating rockslide. I've seen it before."

"Where?" Hana asked.

"Do you remember Hong, the man who we met during the festival at summer's end?" Shijin asked. When Hana nodded, he continued. "His father was a farmer but also worked part time in the mines come winter time. They must have dug the mines in too deep because when the mine collapsed a good portion of the boulders resting on the mountain came crashing on them. My mother and I took good care of him and his mother every year after that."

"He never told me about that," Hana whispered, a little bit in shock.

"Everyone has secrets that they keep to themselves," Shijin closed his eyes and shrugged. "Even you have your secrets right? Your Fire Nation nationality. Your life with your mother and father. Even our badgermole friend probably has a few secrets up his fur too."

Kupo gave Shijin a blank stare. For an earthbending creature, seeing the badgermole earthbend was a rarity. He would most often be caught carving neat caves in large boulders to sleep during the night or flattening rocks on the road to make it easier to walk. Shijin had mentioned that it was time for the badgermole to start showing its true power, and Hana took that to mean trying to teach Kupo useful tricks.

"Training badgermoles to do anything is pretty tough," Shijin explained once. "They're a quiet and peaceful species, and they naturally keep to themselves. It's not often that any ever feel like walking across the earth, and especially if it's told to do things by someone else."

"It'd be cool if he could do some neat tricks though," Hana had replied, flipping three blank Pai Sho tiles around her fingers. "We could make some extra spare money if he did some."

"Don't insult him," Shijin had said, squinting at the badgermole, who was drinking from the river. "That growing body has more power than you know. I'm not sure if it'd be safe to keep him if he ever got angry with us. When he wants to show us his strength, he will."

That evening, after they had made arrangements at one of the local inns, the three headed over to the eastern side of the village, where tea shops and food stands were open and accepting customers. The stands were lined up one after another, smoking and steaming a variety of the river life. However, as good and inexpensive as it looked, fish had been their main diet for many weeks now, and Shijin decided it was time for a different cuisine. He shook his bag of silver and copper pieces, and, happy with the sound, he decided it was fine to try a special treat.

"The north is famous for its hot food, particularly during the fall and winter," Shijin said. "My mother took me here many times, and it is home to one of the famous food styles in the Earth Kingdom."

"And the other styles?" Hana asked. "I know Omashu gets a lot of travelers."

"That's because the southern region in general gets quite a bit of travelers," Shijin noted. "The south serves a nice mixture of Water Tribe food and vegetables, and also offers some of the rarest meats in the world. The west is well known for their steamed buns and spicy foods that come from the local wildlife. The only side of the Earth Kingdom that doesn't really have any famous dishes is the east, and that's because Ba Sing Se is just a cultural mixture of all three other places in the kingdom."

Shijin finally found a place at the end of the row of tea shops. Steam rose out of brick chimneys above, and a strong aroma of soup broths meshed together came from within. When they entered, the first thing that Hana noticed was that each table in the restaurant had its own stove, where a dark stone pot was placed and heated over a fire pit. Plates loaded with raw vegetables and freshly cut meats were stacked around the pots. Sets of condiments were neatly arranged on iron racks at the ends of tables.

"Here in this part of the kingdom," Shijin put up two fingers as a waitress approached them. "People cook their own food. It's called huo guo, or hot pot, and it's a staple meal during the colder seasons. Since the food cools off so quickly, people started to think, why not just cook it and eat it at the same time?"

After they were seated and Shijin ordered a bowl of steaming broth, the airbender taught her all there was to know about eating huo guo. Put the vegetables in first. Allow the mushrooms and onions to soak in with the soup and enhance the taste of the meat. If it's boar meat, keep the meat in longer. If it's beef, then you can keep the meat in for only a few seconds and eat it tender.

"Use that bowl to mix these sauces together," Shijin picked out a few bottles from the rack. "This is spicy bean paste, so if you're fine with something mildly spicy, this is good. This kind of creamy sauce here is made from peanut extract and goes well with the beef, but don't add too much of it. Of course, you always have your soy sauce and some garlic too, so that's always good to add in."

"You sound like you're having a lot of fun," Hana laughed. She took a piece of beef. The fresh taste of meat, so different from their usual fish and dipped in a sweet and spicy mix melted in her mouth. The hot food was so tender and easy to chew, not to mention that rather than the usual barbequed flavor, the boiled meat offered a new texture for her taste buds to enjoy. "Now I can see why. This is really good."

"When I first had this with my mother, it was so good that when we were out travelling, I would always ask her if we could have a treat like this for dinner," Shijin smiled. "That's when I first learned about money, and my mother always told me to never eat more than I needed. Of course, like the nice person she was, she'd spoil me later on. But she would always say special treats like this only come around for special occasions."

"What special day was she talking about?" Hana asked. "Your birthday?"

"Something like that," Shijin shrugged, dipping a ring of onions in the broth. "Though it's been a while since I've celebrated it. Why, when were you born?"

"Huh?" Hana jumped at the question, as this was one of the first times Shijin had ever asked her a question. She then answered without a second thought. "It passed already, when we were travelling from Hong's village to Taku."

"What? You should've told me," the monk folded his arms. "There are some really nice places to see around Taku, especially someone who hasn't travelled often."

"It's not that special," Hana chuckled awkwardly, pulling at strands of her hair. She took her chopsticks and twirled them around the plate, collecting the meat in one mass and soaking it in the sauce she had made. "My parents never had the money or the means to give or show me anything on my birthday anyway. We were too poor from-"

"That's enough," Shijin stopped Hana. "You don't have to tell me."

Hana nodded. It was always like this, with Shijin stopping her every time she attempted to open up to him about her past. Sometimes, Hana thought it was because Shijin felt that if she told him about herself, he would have to tell her the truth about his mother one day. Other times she would think that Shijin was uninterested as usual, only seeing her as a Pai Sho student and nothing more.

And then there were other times, when Hana would play Shijin a game of Pai Sho after such discussions. Those games were the ones where Shijin played the most conservative, scared to lose even a single piece, defending every little spot he controlled on the board. Hana wondered if Shijin was frightened then, but always dismissed the thought as figments of her imagination.

"Yeah," Hana quickly put the meat into her mouth and chewed. "I know."

They fell quiet after that, and Hana took the time to ask herself, like she always did, what would happen if she kept talking when Shijin told her to stop.

Someday, Hana said to herself. Someday I'll find the courage to say that I want him to know.

"Well, today is special too in a way I guess," Shijin said finally. "It marks the day where you'll be finally done with your basic Pai Sho training."

"I thought that was over already," Hana boasted.

"Not quite," Shijin looked up at the waitress and pointed at a plate of empty vegetables on the table. "You haven't finished until you've learned how to play all the pieces. I've kept these last two pieces away from your games because they're quite hard to implement in casual play, but I think you've gotten to the point where it'd be good to know how to use the fire lily and white dragon tiles. I'll teach you tonight."

"I'm looking forward to it," Hana clenched her fists, her enthusiasm returning. "You said you wanted me to compete in the tournaments in Ba Sing Se right? I'm going to practice really hard for that."

"Someone's getting into it," Shijin noted.

"Of course," Hana answered. "If you sign me up for a tournament, I want to win it."

Shijin merely nodded, then returned to his meal.

The rest of their meal went without another mention of Pai Sho or birthdays. Shijin left most of the remaining meat to Hana, who put a few pieces in a small bowl and slipped it to a hungry badgermole underneath her chair. When their plates were emptied, waitresses would come and replace the blank porcelain. It took a while before Hana gulped down a bowl of soup and sighed at how much she had eaten.

After they had paid the bill, which was cheaper than Shijin had expected, and stepped out on the streets, the sun had already set. In its place was a star filled sky. The new moon was nowhere to be seen, and the air was still without the presence of the winds. If it wasn't for the bustling night life of the town, it would have made for a very calming and eerie atmosphere.

"Perfect for flying," Shijin murmured. He reached into his robes and handed the inn keys to Hana. "You go ahead and head back to our room, though you might want to take some time to walk off the meal. I have some business to attend to first, though it shouldn't take very long. Don't wait for me if I take too long though. Get some rest."

Hana nodded, taking the keys in her hand and strolling the short distance back to the inn, all the while patting her stomach. Kupo lazily stepped alongside her, having eaten his fair share of food as well.

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« Reply #21 on: Jun 22, 2012 01:58 pm »

Shijin turned around and headed towards the mountains. The closer he got, the more miners there were. The joking looks on their faces and their proud posture betrayed the exhaustion that was evident in their shaking knees and blistered hands. Some of them were bringing wheelbarrows filled with coal to the warehouses, while others were receiving their pay from a small house near the base of the mountain.

The airbender approached the wooden house, where the last few miners waved their hands and bowed to a lady standing at the door. She wore a green kimono with snowflakes printed on the sleeves, and her fierce dark eyes contrasted with the bright smile she gave to the departing miners. When she saw him approach, she glanced around to see if any of the workers remained. There were none.

"You always come back this time of year, though this year you've brought along a few wanted posters," the lady took a deep breath. "The village talks about you and your mother all the time. You should really consider staying. You could have all the huo guo you want if you stay."

"If that's the case its taste would grow stale over time," Shijin said. "And I see you're still mining from the mountains. It's dangerous you know, especially without any earthbenders to help. You should really tell them to stop, since the winter is coming."

"We're mining as much as we can before the snow starts falling," she replied. "Everyone's using coal these days for the war. The soil won't bring harvest until winter is over, and until then we can only rely on selling coal and hope that we can catch some fish beneath the Serpent's Lake."

"As if the serpent will let you eat anything that's still unfrozen beneath the waters," Shijin sighed. "Liang, at least move your home closer to the village. Your husband didn't give his life to see both his wife and daughter linger on his resting place for the rest of his life."

"Perhaps," Liang nodded in agreement. "But I didn't do this because I wanted to. My daughter is just too attached to this mountain. She is much too like her father."

"How is Tsuyo?" Shijin looked past Liang and through the door.

"She trains every morning and every night with those sticks of hers," Liang shook her head. "She is probably over that hill there, sitting and watching the stars. She talks about your mother a lot, Shijin. She's never forgotten the life that she gave back to her."

The walk over the hill to the base of the mountain was short. The slope of the mountain wasn't very steep, but there were many large rocks that were rooted in the dirt. The boulders sat there unnaturally without a single tree in sight, and Shijin knew they were scars of a disaster long ago.

Sitting on top of one of the rocks at the foot of the slope was a young girl, perhaps the same age of Hana. Her legs hung over the rock, dangling at an awkward angle. A pair of wooden crutches was set next to her arms. She spotted Shijin, and her face lit up.

"Oy, Shijin!" she waved. "Here to enjoy the hot pot again this year? You should have come to me before you went. There's this new place that opened up. Very good. Almost as good as the one my dad ran when you first came here. How long are you staying this time?"

"Not very long this year," Shijin answered. "Sorry about that."

"Really? Must be nice travelling like you," she threw her back against the rock, pointing a single finger at the stars. "I think I'd be very good at it, if my legs worked like they're supposed to. I'd follow the trail of stars, all the way north. You said you come from the northern air temples, right? Maybe I could go there."

"Not the best place to go, I'll tell you that," said the monk, using a little gust of air to push himself onto the rock. "And just so you know, those stars are headed south."

"Oh. Guess I'm not ready to adventure out just yet then, huh?" the girl chuckled. When she stopped her burst of giggles, she closed her mouth and stared blankly at the trail of little dots. "Shijin, what's the world like?"

"You remind me of this girl I'm travelling with right now," Shijin muttered. "How many stories have both of you asked of me now? I would think you'd get a good idea of what it's like out there from that."

"You're traveling with someone else? That's new," Tsuyo lifted her head up to look at him, her eyes widened in surprise. "Well, in that case, what's the world like to her?"

"To her?" Shijin hadn't thought about it that way before. He gave a quick answer as usual. "She's seen a lot of good in the world, but she's also seen a lot of its cruel side. I'm not really sure what she thinks about it though. I'd say she just enjoys travelling and doesn't really give much thought to anything else."

But after thinking for a moment, Shijin wondered if that really was true. Perhaps the Hana he met when they first started travelling together would think of nothing else but asking questions about the world or complaining about Pai Sho. She didn't have any purpose, a helpless student who didn't have an idea what she wanted to do with herself.

If you sign me up for a tournament, I want to win it.

"She sounds really carefree," Tsuyo said, her head turning back to the sky. "You know your mother told me that-"

"Leaving on a journey is all about crossing the first mountain?" Shijin finished. "Yeah. You tell me this every year."

"Is that how it was with you?" Tsuyo asked. "After you were exiled and everything."

"No," Shijin said. "When I left, everyone wanted me gone, and I didn't want to have anything to do with the temples afterward. My mother thought it would be difficult for me to leave behind the temples, but the truth is there was never really much that I was leaving behind. I had one friend, I guess, but even she had mixed feelings about me afterwards."

"Well I've decided," the girl picked up the wooden crutches next to her and hopped down from the rock. The two supports hit the dirt hard, but the girl seemed perfectly used to it. "Tomorrow, I'm going to scale the mountain. If I can make it to the top, I think I'll head east for Ba Sing Se."

"It's dangerous," Shijin warned, jumping off the rock as well. The two of them headed back towards to the wooden house over the hill. "Your mother would probably object."

"You approve though," Tsuyo grinned at him. When Shijin gave her a confused stare, she said. "You never said no."

"When people have the motivation to do something they can't be stopped," Shijin shrugged. "I've learned the lesson many times from my mother. The two of you are very alike, and my companion too. I'm not surprised why someone like my mom always loved being in the Earth Kingdom more than the temples. The people here are very strong willed and stand their ground, just like her."

"And you like it here because of the food?" Tsuyo laughed, though there was a hint of disappointment in her voice.

"Of course," Shijin replied.

He escorted the girl back to her house. Her mother gave him a few looks of concern as he walked away, but Tsuyo began talking to her mother so quickly that Shijin was gone before Liang could say anything. It had gotten quite late, as even the nightly activities had ended in the town.

The lanterns were the only things lit at this time of night. They guided Shijin back over the bridge, through a set of winding streets, and back to the inn. The innkeeper's son greeted him when he entered, and that's when Shijin realized that Hana had probably already head to bed.

"I'll have to apologize for that later," Shijin winced at the thought of getting lectured by the girl the next morning for staying out for too long.

However, when he opened the doors quietly as to not wake her up, Shijin was surprised to see the girl sprawled over the floor, wide awake. His Pai Sho board was laid out over the floor, and Hana was playing against herself, moving pieces back and forth. The fire lily and white dragon tiles were among them. She looked up and frowned.

"Hey," Hana said slowly. "You said you wouldn't take very long. I was waiting all this time to finish my basic Pai Sho training tonight. Now come on. I've been trying to figure out how to use the lily and the white dragon tiles. They seem so useless."

Shijin, a bit taken aback, could only try to hide a smile that crawled on his face. Tsuyo was wrong to call Hana carefree.

"How similar indeed," Shijin murmured. He walked to the board, sat down, and drew the bag of Pai Sho tiles to his side. "Sorry about that. Now, about the lily and white dragon tiles..."

To be continued…

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« Reply #22 on: Jul 22, 2012 09:18 pm »

I read up till chapter 5 this time. It's very interesting. I love how you're developing the game of Pai Sho; if it was a real game, I'd be searching the web to learn the rules by now. Cheesy

It's a shame the game between the two airbenders got interrupted, I wanted to see Shijin show off his new strategy. The game between Hana and the governor was a little hard to follow though, since it's hard too visualize so many moves from just a description.

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« Reply #23 on: Jul 29, 2012 09:33 pm »

Lesson Ten: Lesson Nine: Synchronous Movement, Part Two

"I told you," she spoke. "That mining from these mountains was dangerous. I told you the risks, and you chose to ignore them. I don't scorn those who didn't listen, but I do hope you all now feel the responsibility of death on your shoulders. I've done all I can for the fortunate. I apologize for those who weren't so lucky."

The crowd gazed at her stoic expression with a mixture of gratitude and shame. They stood gathered around a mound of boulders that had fallen from the top of the mountain, crushing anything and anyone in its path. The miners had already given up searching for survivors.

Shijin's mother hopped off of the rock that she had stood on to speak to the entire village. Many backed away immediately, averting their eyes from her bloody right arm that had been crushed in the avalanche. Her sleeve looked like a towel that was wrung much too hard, her flesh from the elbow down scraped and exposed. Her shoulder looked like it had been twisted out of place and then brutally forced back into its socket. Still, she showed no sign that it was painful.

"Shijin," she whispered when she brushed past him. "Come, let's go. Let the villagers weep in peace. We've done all we can for them."

"Kawa!" his mother turned. A woman was calling to her. She was sitting next to her daughter. Her daughter's expression was very forlorn, looking at her legs with her head cocked sideways. "Can't you do something about this Kawa? There are healers out there right? I know! The Northern Water Tribe. Please if you just could…"

"I'm sorry," Shijin's mother shook her head. A rejection, not an apology. "But I will not be bringing someone else with me and my son."

"But her legs," the other mother cried, stroking her daughter's ankles as if doing so was a healing charm. "Look at them. You know what this means right, Kawa? Tsuyo will never walk again if we don't do anything about it."

"Be thankful your daughter still has her life," Kawa ignored the mother now, and turned to the daughter. She walked to the girl and lifted her face, which was a mixture of tears and gravel. "Listen, Tsuyo. I know you can hear me. Your life is going to be very tough from now on, and if you ever want to see those legs walk again, you're going to need to go far, far, away. Far from this place. And your mother. If you do, it must be something you do alone."

"Kawa!" the mother yelped, her mouth agape, a loud breath coming from it. "How could you say those things to my-"

"The road will be tough, and you will fall, many, many times," Kawa continued on despite the interruption. "But know that this isn't a journey that you need to take tomorrow, or next year, or even in five years. Pick the time that you think is right. Some of us are unlucky that it was chosen for us so soon."

Shijin shuffled his feet uncomfortably when Kawa turned to glance at him.

"Strength, Tsuyo," Kawa finally smiled, stroking off the dirt that painted the girl's cheeks. "Comes from finding the power within you to make even the most farfetched dreams a reality. If you want, I will come next year and help you find that strength."

Those were the last words that she ever said to Tsuyo.

Shijin awoke. Like always, he was seated in the corner of the room, his back pressed against bricks, his Air Nomad clothes draped over him as a blanket. Like always he woke before Hana, who was still sleeping with a slight snore uttered from her open mouth. Like always, Kupo slept in the space beneath Hana's bed, and was now peddling around the floor. And like always, Hana had kicked off some of her blankets during the night, so Shijin picked them up from the floor and covered her with them.

Rain clouds had formed during the night. Outside, Shijin could see that the morning food stands had set up canopies over their cooking ware and tables. Even with the road muddy, people were scurrying around the village. It appeared most of the ones running were miners heading towards the mountains with rice wrapped in leaves in their arms.

"Mmm," Hana groaned when he pulled the covers over her. "Shijin, is it time to wake up already?"

Leaving the girl to her usual lethargic wake up routine, Shijin headed downstairs, where the scent of freshly cooked dough and soup lured him to a stand that stood at the corner of the street, directly across the inn. The store owner there was a young woman with a baby strapped behind her. The baby was cuddling with a stone soldier toy. He bit it occasionally.

The food she was making was a bit different than most of the other store owners on the street. Most of the other shops only sold simple soups, some pork, green onions, and some salt for additional flavoring. She had put all of those ingredients and some spices into dumplings and added them into an entire different broth. Each hun tun was hand crafted separately, so each bowl of soup came slowly. She also sold you tiao, a long strip of dough deep fried until it achieved a golden color.

"Your food takes too long to make," Shijin noticed he was the only one standing in front of the shop. "You won't get many customers this way."

"But the customers I will have," the woman smiled, sealing another dumpling with her nimble fingers. She gently tossed it into the steaming soup. "Will enjoy this food more than any other food that is sold around here, for they will have the patience to wait, and their patience will reward them."

"Two bowls of soup and a package of you tiao then," Shijin grinned, reaching into his pocket and fetching his bag of coins. After last night's treat, they were running a little low, but they could still afford something like this. "I'll put your theory to the test."

When Shijin returned to their room, Hana had already washed her hair in the bath downstairs and had finished dressing, her clothes from the night before thrown into a separate bag they used for outfits that needed washing. She had already unfolded the makeshift Pai Sho board that had been left on the ground during the night and had separated the tiles into two stacks. Shijin placed their breakfast on the floor.

They squared off on opposite sides of the board, each taking a separate stack of Pai Sho tiles. Shijin stirred the dumplings in his soup. Hana quickly grabbed one and bit into it before opening her mouth wide as the heat from inside the dumpling spilled into her mouth and scorched her tongue.

Then they started.

Hana threw a chrysanthemum tile down on the board, directly in front of Shijin's right sky bison entrance. Shijin raised an eyebrow, but decided not to comment on the move. For now.

He laid a wheel tile on the board so that it stood on the back edge of the center square and just three spaces from Hana's chrysanthemum tile. Hana followed up with a badgermole tile directly below her chrysanthemum, protecting it from the threat of the wheel. Shijin tapped down another wheel right underneath his first one. Hana's two pieces were now in his wheels' direct line of sight.

Hana's eyes scanned the board, her right hand lying calm over her pieces. Her other hand was completely still, resting on her lap as she contemplated her next move. When she finally decided, Hana shuffled her tiles around and brought out a wheel from beneath her stack and set it two spaces below her badgermole so that all of her three pieces were deployed in a line.

It was a strange setup, but Shijin could see the reason why Hana had laid down her pieces. The chrysanthemum blocked Shijin's first sky bison, which he often liked to play with his right hand. The wheel two spaces below not only protected the flower and badgermole combination, but maintained a tight watch over the center of the board, and kept Shijin from playing a chrysanthemum of his own on the left side of Hana's board. It was definitely unorthodox, but it gave Hana plenty of freedom.

Which means her next move will be…

Shijin set down a sky bison tile on the opposite side of the board. He needed a piece that could gain ground quickly. As expected, Hana decided to plan a fire lily tile one space left of the center of the board. Guarded by both her wheel and the badgermole, which could move to any flower so long as it's in a direct line of sight, Hana had created the perfect opportunity to play her white dragon tile.

"Why did you let me have the white dragon," Hana asked, not looking up once from the board. Her tone was of someone puzzled at what could be labeled as a strategic blunder.

"I'll show you in the next few moves," Shijin moved one of his wheel tiles to his far left.

Hana set down the white dragon on the edge of the fire lily's radius, poised to take Shijin's other wheel that was caught in the dragon's ring. Shijin pulled that tile back to safety with his other tiles. Feeling safe from any aggressive attacks from Shijin now, Hana set her white lotus tile to the left of her fire lily, while Shijin placed his own white lotus to the right of his two adjacent wheel tiles.

This was an uncomfortable position. Hana's strange deployment had rewarded her with a two tile advantage in the early game. In most scenarios, Shijin would have advised her to instantly aggressively trading pieces to come out ahead, but Hana's positioning and choice of pieces inhibited her from doing so.

That gave Shijin the opportunity that he needed.

As Hana set a sky bison on her left most side, Shijin swerved one of his wheels down towards leftmost center of the board, a move aimed at hitting the fire lily piece. Recognizing the danger, Hana moved her badgermole down diagonally so that it was sitting right next to the fire lily. Shijin moved other wheel down, targeting the defending badgermole.

Hana moved her wheel up to protect her badgermole, and Shijin had the opening that he wanted.

He quickly jumped in to take out the badgermole with his second wheel tile. As expected, Hana immediately moved with her wheel to trade. Then, Shijin used his second wheel to take out the fire lily tile, which effective removed both the lily and the white dragon from play. His wheel was now sitting right next to Hana's white lotus tile, and if it wasn't for Hana's wheel above the lotus, Hana would have lost next turn.

"Ah, I messed up," Hana finally let out a big sigh. Her serious expression returned to her usual childish self and she rubbed her hair with a lopsided grin on her face. Shijin began to eat. "But what do you think of that, Shijin? Pretty good opening right? I worked it up last night trying to experiment with that fire lily and white dragon tile."

"It's decent," Shijin shrugged. "The reason why I gave you the white dragon is because I hadn't yet to put down my white lotus tile yet. People usually throw the white dragon tiles after they know where the white lotus is located. That way, they can better coordinate an offensive. You just ended up not having enough pieces to do anything about my aggressive two wheel opening."

"I feel like it would have been better," Hana pointed at her wheel tile. "If I had put this tile down first instead of the chrysanthemum. I think the strategy was fine, just the actual ordering."

"That definitely played a part in it," Shijin agreed. "The minute you played that chrysanthemum, I knew it was hopeless to even think of clearing out that spot for me to put a sky bison, so I just opted to put down two wheels instead. You basically wasted two turns trying to fortify a position I was never going to use in the first place. At least if you had placed the wheel first, I might have still placed my sky bison on the right out of personal preference."

"I see, I see," Hana growled to herself. "And I actually thought I was going to catch you in this one. I even had more pieces than you at one point."

"You have to be careful not to let that get to your head," Shijin warned, pointing at a few of the pieces on the board. "I might have had four pieces to your seven, but how many of your tiles were actually useful? Your chrysanthemum wasn't doing much, and your badgermole could only defend a few tiles and was placed in an awkward position. The only tile that could threaten my white lotus was your wheel, since I had placed my lotus outside of your dragon's range. Your sky bison wasn't even going to move out of its place for a while."

"That's true," Hana murmured to herself. She clucked her tongue a few times and then picked up her cooled off soup to eat.

"This is mostly because you're indecisive," Shijin pointed out. "You can't decide between a defensive strategy and an offensive one. If you want to do a strategy oriented around the white dragon, you can't be placing chrysanthemums and badgermoles, because you need as many attacking pieces as possible. If you want a strategy for defense, having one more badgermole on the board is a necessity."

"In Pai Sho," Shijin continued. "Or at least what my mother taught me, is that it's a translation of your soul on the board, which is why the Air Nomads are so dominant at this game. Mastery is the synchronous movement between your inner motivations and feelings and how they show up on your moving pieces. A decisive player will have a calm and clear thinking mind, and he'll be able to pull off any strategy he wants to. I guess Air Nomads are just very good at clearing their heads."

"Maybe I should have the monks adopt me then?" Hana hopped on the bed, a piece of golden oiled dough in her mouth. She chewed. "They could teach me a thing or two about that."

"I have a different idea," said Shijin, set down his bowl. "I want you to meet someone today before we leave."

I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
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Why are you so salty?

« Reply #24 on: Jul 29, 2012 09:34 pm »

They quickly cleaned up their meal and Shijin led Hana and a tailing Kupo to the shop across the street from their inn. He quickly thanked the woman for a well-cooked breakfast, before leading his student through the rain towards the mountains on the other side of the village. There was no umbrella, so Shijin wrapped his cloak around Hana to cover her from the rain.

The morning road was populated with workers that were already wheeling in carts of unrefined coal to warehouses and boats. Even with the water forming huge puddles, kids were dancing in the streets, their fathers in the mines and their mothers bringing wet towels to their men. The slopes up ahead were filled with miners, walking into tunnels and climbing farther up to find new holes for precious stones and minerals.

"She should be there," said Shijin when they reached the base of the mountain. He pointed over the rocks at the far side of the mountain. Next to Shijin and Hana, the home at the base of the mountains had turned into a break house, tables and chairs brought out and makeshift roofs made from curtains on wooden poles.

"Who is she?" Hana asked. She looked at Shijin, who was already walking towards the house. "And why aren't you coming with me?"

"She's an old friend. Someone my mom saved during a disaster that happened in this village five years ago," Shijin said. "And I'm not coming with you, because I think you two will bond nicely without me."

Before she could protest further, Shijin was already gone, lost among the dozens of diggers moving up and about the wooden home. With a quick sigh, Hana turned in the other direction and began walking, her badgermole waddling beside her. Without Shijin's robes to cover her, she took quick steps towards the other side of the mountain, over the sharp rocks that threatened to cut open her sandals and the grass that tickled the edges of her toes.

Then, Hana saw her. Standing on the far side of the mountain, out of the sight of the miners and the village, a young girl stood facing the steep slopes of the mountain. Her legs hovered over the ground, held there by two strongly built wooden crutches. Her eyes scanned up and down the mountain, taking in every awkward incline and dangerous paths towards the peak. Like Hana, her hair was quite short, but it was much more soaked and heavy. She had been standing out for a while it seemed.

It only took a moment for the girl to notice Hana.

"Ah," she opened her mouth slightly. Hana was barely close enough to her to hear it. "I haven't seen you before. That means you must be the girl that Shijin was talking about yesterday."

"And you're the person that Shijin wanted me to talk to," Hana said, slowly. The girl's tone came off as confrontational, a hint of bitterness. "I'm Hana, and I'm Shijin's Pai Sho student. What's your name?"

"Tsuyo," the girl answered. "You learn Pai Sho from Shijin, huh?"

The girl named Tsuyo began ascending the hill without giving another glance at Hana, using her arms together to swing her body forward. Hana followed closely behind her, not exactly sure what Shijin had meant when he had said that the two would "bond nicely". It was a quiet walk. The rain had gotten softer, and now it was just a drizzle patting their heads with thin sleek drops.

By the time they were halfway up the mountain, Kupo had run off on his own, inspecting the different rocks in a circle around them. He occasionally picked one up and clawed at the insects. When they scurried away, he looked for the next boulder and searched under there for more things to scratch and nibble on.

"Tell me something, Hana," Tsuyo spoke all of a sudden. "Who is Shijin to you?"

"To me?" Hana was taken aback. "Well, he's my Pai Sho teacher."

"How did you meet him?" Tsuyo asked. Her tone sounded threatening for some reason, almost with a sense of ownership and a personal stake in Hana's answer. She was a very strange girl, Hana concluded. "Shijin's never taken up a Pai Sho student before."

"Well, he kind of destroyed the place I worked at," Hana laughed loudly. "And after that, since I had nowhere to go, I just tagged along and asked him to teach me Pai Sho."

The girl in front of Hana nodded her head silently, and then continued the tricky path up. It was a hard road, filled with rocks that mingled together to form an uneven climb, and Hana was surprised that Tsuyo navigated it so well. Her crutches seemed to always find just the right spot between the pebbles to give her stable footing amongst the jagged landscape. Even the slippery rocks were no match for her unwavering balance. The wooden crutches were surprisingly sturdy given how they were being used.

"So Tsuyo," Hana asked, now wondering what Shijin had meant when he said bond. "How do you know Shijin?"

"His mother saved me when this mountain had a massive avalanche five years ago," Tsuyo answered quickly. "I lost my legs and my father, but Shijin came back every year after that to check up on how I was doing. He actually built these crutches for me, believe it or not. It's a gift from his mother, he says, though I never understood what he meant. They're the reason why I can still move."

"That's incredible," Hana gasped. "And I complain when we walk for too many hours during a hot summer day."

"And yet, he takes you along with him," Tsuyo mumbled. "When Shijin came around two years ago, I asked him if he could take me on his journeys, but he refused. If I had known that begging to learn Pai Sho from him would have been all I needed to say, I would've done that long ago."

"Hey," Hana frowned, folding her arms. "I had to do a lot more than beg to get Shijin to take me. I'd like to think that Shijin chose to take me along with him."

"Are you so sure of that," Tsuyo swiveled around. She wasn't much taller than Hana, but from where she was standing, she towered over her like a queen over her subjects. "If Shijin hadn't taken you in, what would have happened to you? Could you have survived on your own?"

"Yes," Hana started to reply, a little bit flustered by the question. "It would have been hard, but I would have managed. I'm confident even more now than ever, now that I can play Pai Sho."

"I see," Tsuyo sighed. "Well, it's not like I have any right to say anything. Most people would look at me and say that I wouldn't be able to live a day out of the village. Sorry about that."

"Are you perhaps," a thought came to Hana, and she said it aloud. "Jealous?"

"It's hard not to," Tsuyo grinned, but it was a bitter grin. "When I first heard it, that's when I knew. I want to go to the Northern Water Tribe and fix up these legs of mine. They say they have a spirit oasis there and the world's best healers. That might not even be enough to undo the damage, but I don't want to grow old not trying."

"If I can prove to myself," Tsuyo tapped her crutches with her arms. "That I can cross mountains the way I am now, then I'll leave this village and head for the nearest port towards the Water Tribes."

"Aren't there people that can take you?" Hana asked. "You don't have to do this alone."

"My mother doesn't have much money, so I can't ask of them to provide for me," Tsuyo shrugged. "And as for doing this alone, someone once told me that if I ever want to overcome my injury, it's going to have to be a journey I experience myself. I guess since you've come around, I have a feeling that she's right."

"And your mom won't stop you?" Hana asked.

"If I really wanted to go somewhere," Tsuyo replied. "My mother wouldn't really be able to stop me."

"Tsuyo," Hana smiled. "You really want to travel don't you?"

The girl didn't answer, but the noticeable extra effort that Tsuyo put into each step after that was her answer. Together, they walked up the mountain in the cold morning rain, now completely silent. Tsuyo's concentration was remarkable, and Hana could see the determination in every step, an effortless grace that masked how hard the girl must have worked to allow her to even move without her legs.

"I can only concentrate on one Pai Sho game," Hana murmured. "Tsuyo looks like she can keep this up all day."

Step after step, the peak grew closer by the minute as Hana pushed herself to keep up with the girl in front of her. Her feet were getting a little sore, scratched in places when she wasn't paying attention the rocks and their sharp edges. Even Kupo looked like he was getting exhausted from his climb, and used his earthbending to make his walk a lot more comfortable.

And then, they reached the top of the mountain.

It wasn't very high, at least compared to the mountain ranges spanning behind them, but it was at least taller than any of the mountains that Hana had seen when in Taku. Kupo must have been afraid of this height, because the minute he reached the peak, he took a few leaps back. The storm clouds brewing above them felt so close, as if flying just a mere mile towards the sky would allow the two of them to touch the grey puffs of mist.

For the first time, Hana saw the road that she and Shijin were about to take, a long journey through wild forests and rocky roads. There was no sign of any towns beyond this point as the mountains obscured everything to the north. As the fall was ending, the greeneries on those mountains had almost completely faded, replaced by dry shrubs and trees that left half of the grey mountains naked and the other half with patches of orange and brown.

The mountains were covered by the clouds that wrapped around their middle and covered the tips. Below, at the foot of each of those mountains, acres of wild forests, some of them winter trees that still retained their dark green leaves, covered the earth. There was no road, no more towns that marked inns to stay at for the night, and no more rivers that they had been using for navigation and food.

Under the rain, the path to the Northern Air Temple looked daunting, terrifying, and beautiful all at once. Hana had once heard that every Airbender braved a pilgrimage across barren landscapes just like this one. Now she had seen it, it was hard to imagine how anyone but an Airbender could traverse a place like this.

"So Shijin has walked across here before," Hana said to herself. "That's incredible."

They could also see the village below. Everyone looked tiny, dots that looked like pepper sprinkled all over the town. The two could see miners on this side of the mountain, walking up and down the slopes with their gloves and pickaxes, bringing out of the caves loads of coal. The line that they formed from the mountain back to the town warehouses looked like a scurrying ant trail.

"Ah," Tsuyo's voice broke Hana from her sightseeing. The rain had picked up again. Tsuyo tapped her right crutch against a rock, and the wood skidded off rather violently. The rocks were more slippery than before, and the dirt was turning to mud. "That's unfortunate."

"You didn't think of a way back down?" Hana widened her eyes.

"No," Tsuyo shrugged. "I guess I didn't. It might sound lame, but I never thought I was going to get here with the rain. I guess I was a bit too stubborn."

"Well," Hana walked in front of Tsuyo and bent down, the palms of her hands facing up. "Then maybe this is why Shijin sent me."

For the first time, Hana noticed a nervous look on Tsuyo's face. Her cheeks turned red, and her eyes scanned rapidly around the mountain to search for maybe an alternate path. She must have not found any, because she inched closer to Hana after a few seconds.

"Don't tell anyone about this okay?" Tsuyo finally said. Hana backed up a little bit to allow Tsuyo to fall softly on her. If it wasn't for the wooden crutches, Tsuyo would have been incredibly light.

"That's what you're worried about?" Hana chuckled. "Let's go back down then."

After taking off her sandals, Hana took a deep breath, shook her shoulders to balance the girl on her back, gripped Tsuyo's thighs tightly, and began the slow trip down the hill. Each step was taken with extra precaution, every rock checked, every mud path inspected for how deep and solid it was.

"You're quite good at this," Tsuyo noticed, as Hana rubbed her feet over a large rock before preferring a smaller one that had better rooted itself into the ground. When they passed, Tsuyo noticed that the larger rock was standing on a pile of sliding mud. "Close call."

"I spent most of my life," Hana grunted, nudging a few rocks with her toes. "Balancing food in my hands, while walking through crowds of people who were more than happy dropping their bottles of alcohol and plates on the floor for me to trip over. You know, so they could flip my robes when I did."

"Sounds rough," Hana couldn't see what Tsuyo's face looked like when she said it, but from her tone Hana knew she was a little surprised. "Shijin never told me about that part."

"He rarely wants to know much about what my life was like before we met," Hana wanted to shrug, but was afraid she'd lose her balance. "And to be honest, my story isn't all that fun to listen to. I'd much rather talk about how my life turned around when I met Shijin."

"It can't be all that bad," Tsuyo didn't sound so sure about it. "Right?"

"There are people who've had it worse," Hana agreed. "But for someone who's a little weak like I am, it probably was a little more than I wanted to handle when I was younger."

"You've got to be pretty strong to carry a girl and her crutches down a mountain side," Tsuyo buried her face in Hana's shoulder.

"This?" Hana boasted. "This is nothing compared to what I had to do to get Shijin to teach me."

"What did he have you do?" Tsuyo asked cautiously.

"Remember when I said that I had to do more than just beg to get Shijin to teach me?" Hana asked. Tsuyo nodded. "Well you're right to think that Shijin probably thought I was going to be some kind of burden back then. He sent me off to find a badgermole and tame one. Only then would he teach me."

"Is that the same badgermole that's been following us around?" Tsuyo eyed Kupo, who was crawling around in the mud, but was never a few feet away from Hana. "It seems to have gotten attached to you."

"Well, Shijin sent me on a wild turtleduck chase for him," Hana reminisced. "I spent all night, climbing up and down the mountain, trying to find Kupo there in the rain. It was during the summer too, so it was humid and the rain didn't really help but get my clothes get sticky on my skin."

"Did you really want to learn Pai Sho that bad?" the girl on Hana's back widened her eyes.

"In some ways yes," Hana nodded. "But I never imagined that I'd get so close to the game now. I can now kind of understand why Shijin was reluctant to teach me. It's because you can't appreciate this game the way I tried to. It's something you have to experience."

It was then, as Tsuyo was contemplating Hana's words, as Kupo leapt from one rock to another, and as Hana was stepping into a patch of mud, that a rumble shook the mountains. Voices of men cried out from the other side of the mountain. Loose rocks started falling around Hana and Tsuyo, and the badgermole near them stood frozen in place.

"It's collapsing!" Hana and Tsuyo could hear from the other side.

The two of them turned, and at the top of the mountain, a horde of man sized boulders began to tumble towards them.

I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
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