"So how many days do you need," Liang said when the house was all quiet. She had ushered all of the miners out once Shijin had stepped into the room. The two were alone now.
"Enough food and water for three days," Shijin explained. "After that, there are a few other towns where I can pull some favors from."
"That's not enough to get through the mountain range, you know that," Liang sighed. "Look, you don't have to worry about the Wu Jian getting uptight and dealing with people helping a known fugitive. We'll be fine here."
"And I'm saying," Shijin argued back. "That you don't need to worry about three days rations not being enough. The girl and I have enough leftovers and some spare coins if we run into any trouble. Plus, I'm an Airbender. It's not like I can't fight."
"I like the irony," Liang rolled her eyes. "Look, Kawa saved my daughter's life, so I'll be here if you ever need my help. If you're in real trouble, you can let me know. The folks around here who still remember you probably treat you as family. You can trust the town."
"Once we're in the mountain ranges," Shijin said. "The Wu Jian will mostly lose our trail. They'll never track an Airbender in there unless they really think they've caught him. I've thrown them off our trail for a while now, so it's alright. Besides, shouldn't you be happy I'm not asking for too much?"
"No, I'm worried out of my mind," Liang replied. "You know, Tsuyo cares about you. A lot. I don't think she'd ever forgive me if I didn't send you away with everything you need. Speaking of Tsuyo, though, where is she today?"
"I think she's…" Shijin started.
And that's when he heard it.
"Get out! The mine is collapsing! It's collapsing!"
In a burst of speed, Shijin was out the door and turned his head to face the mountain. The miners on the surface of the mountain were sprinting away as a rumble shook the caves that had been dug beneath the mountains. Seconds later, the mine collapsed, leaving whoever was still in there trapped. As it did, a combination of the massive shaking and the mud that had accumulated on the mountain caused the top to break loose and fall.
Hundreds of rocks that had been perched at the top began to roll down, powered by the mudslide that was rolling towards the base of the mountain. The rocks and mud slid in all directions, crushing all plant life and smothering any tree trunks that they came across.
"Hana," Shijin gasped, before opening his staff. He flung the staff and allowed the wings to open up as the artifact to curve around him in a circle. Liang burst from the door as well, looking at Shijin with a terrified expression.
"Is she," Liang mouthed, tears springing to her eyes.
"Don't worry," Shijin took a deep breath as the staff came back around towards him. "I'm my mother's son. Farewell."
The staff approached and Shijin jumped up and landed on it, using a gust of wind to propel him towards the mountain. As he approached, he swirled around, tiny droplets appearing on the edges of his staff as the rain intensified. To his left, the mountain was falling down on him, the mud piling on more mud, the rocks causing other loose boulders to dislodge.
In the thickening rain, it was hard to get a sight of anything on the mountain. So Shijin dived in closer, getting dangerously close to the falling mud and rock that occasionally bounced out at him. Using his feet to balance out his staff's angle and pressing down on the staff whenever he needed another burst of air, he swirled through a volley of rocks and reached the backside of the mountain.
And then he saw them. A badgermole standing frozen against the onslaught of the falling mountain and two girls trying desperately to reach the bottom of the mountain in time. The slide was halfway to them already and was encircling the three of them. Luckily, the abundance of trees and dense foliage on this side of the mountain kept the avalanche from completely overrunning them.
"Hana!" Shijin shouted at the top of his lungs. Over the roar of the landslide, she couldn't hear him until he was almost right over her. "Hana!"
"Shijin," his student cried out. "Here, take Tsuyo first!"
Hana calmly put Tsuyo on the ground before picking her back up in her arms. As Shijin approached, Hana held out the girl and Shijin gently used a pocket of air to pick up the girl and lift her into his arms. Tsuyo, looking quite disheveled by the airbending but comfortable in Shijin's arms, turned right back to Hana, who was still carrying Tsuyo's crutches in her arms.
"Hana!" she shouted.
"I'll be okay," Hana shouted, pointing at Kupo. "I have an earthbender with me. Shijin, just get Tsuyo to safety first before coming back to get me."
"You stay alive," was all Shijin could say, knowing there was no way he could carry three people on his staff at one time. He swerved around towards a batch of tall rocks at ground level.
"Okay, Kupo," Hana breathed heavily, patting the badgermole to start moving, but no matter how hard she petted him, Kupo would not move from his position on the rock. "Just one step at a time. Come on, don't be scared."
When he wants to show us his strength, he will.
Hana took another look at the frozen badgermole, remembering the words that Shijin had told her when she first had come to this town. The badgermole stood poised, staring straight back at the falling rocks and dirt. His legs were spread out farther than normal, his eyes squinted as if he was finally concentrating on something. Kupo, for the first time that Hana had caught him, looked serious about something.
With his small body, Kupo leaned back, growled, and then stomped the rock he was standing on with his front two feet.
Hana could feel a jolt.
Once again, Kupo raised his front feet into the air, and with another growl stomped his feet back onto the rock.
Underneath the badgermole, the earth split in two, creating a fissure that burst from beneath the rock and rocketed towards the incoming avalanche. When it reached the flood of boulders, the collision caused an explosion that hurled dust and debris into the air. For a moment, it rained pebbles, not water.
The ground beneath the mountain fell apart, causing the falling rocks and mud to sink into the crevice below. From the earth came a deafening roar as the ground shook violently at the splitting mountain. More and more of the mudslide fell into the hole, as if the mountain was bowing to the might of a badgermole.
But even as the tremor continued, the avalanche quickly filled up the hole that Kupo had created, and the remainder of it started rolling once again down the mountain, crashing down onto stumps and other rocks with full speed. The momentary feeling of triumph was over, and Hana, with eyes wide, quickly turned to her savior.
Well," Hana picked up the badgermole, who seemed to look quite pleased with himself and tired. "That's not good at all."
The landslide was almost on top of her now, like a pack of wild wolves closing in on its prey. Because of fissure that Kupo had created, a portion of the avalanche had swung around it and had now completely encircled Hana. It took only a moment for Hana to realize that there was nowhere else to run without getting hopelessly caught and crushed in the flood.
In her panic, she said the first thing that popped into her mind.
A burst of air brushed past her and stood in between Hana and the landslide. For a moment, Hana couldn't even discern Shijin through the tears that were welling up in her eyes.
"That's supposed to be my line," the Airbender yelled, his arms flexed, his staff clipped to his back.
With a deep breath, Shijin curled his arm back, and as the mudslide approached, he shot out both of his hands, sending a surge of air to block the incoming avalanche. The rocks and mud hit his barrier with tremendous force, and Shijin was almost knocked back in the process. The boulders and dirt washed over the shield in a dome like shape, but no matter how much of it washed over the top and sides of Shijin's air bubble, more and more kept coming.
Hana then noticed that Shijin was skidding back, almost losing his balance as the landslide threatened to topple all over him.
Without hesitation, Hana dropped the two crutches in her hand and braced herself against Shijin's back, using all of her strength to keep Shijin from falling backwards.
"This is something I want you to know," Hana shouted over the roar of the avalanche. "When I was little, if I was ever afraid, my mother would always be there to watch over for me. She's not here now, Shijin, so you're the only one that I have."
The two of them held that position for a full minute, the seeming endless torrent of flailing earth smashing against Shijin's thin air wall. Hana's diminishing strength and body was the only thing keeping Shijin from toppling over and getting trampled from the onslaught. And yet, despite all of that, Shijin stood firm for that entire minute, until every rock and slab of mud had washed over them.
When it all passed, Shijin let out a large breath and began gasping for air. Hana had been holding in her breath too and the two of them looked at each other with a bewildered expression, as if they were both thinking the same thing.
That the other one was nuts.
"What was that," Shijin laughed. "Supposed to be your last line or something?"
"No," Hana puffed out her cheeks like she always did. "I knew you'd pull through for me. Where's Tsuyo?"
"I landed her on one of the rocks that she was sitting on yesterday," Shijin pointed at one of the huge boulders below. From there, a person waved at them. "Where are her crutches?"
"Here," Hana picked up the fallen sticks. "Tsuyo said that these were gifts from your mother."
"Yeah," Shijin nodded. "These were probably as close to my mother as much as I was or our sky bison. It was as part of her as any of her arms and legs, and I thought it'd be appropriate to give it to someone that my mother put her life on to save."
Hana took a look at the crutches, noticing the intricate Air Nomad designs sketched on the surface and a hidden compartment for flaps that looked like it had been patched up by average craftsmanship.
"We'll have to rush back to the inn and grab our things. Afterwards, we're going to have to get going," Shijin said suddenly. "Every Wu Jian within a hundred miles will have seen what I just did. If we thought we had the Wu Jian foiled, we definitely blew our cover with this one. Keep Kupo warm. He's probably tired from that brilliant display. We probably only have time to give these back to Tsuyo. Then we have to leave."
Hana and Shijin walked briskly down the slope. At the bottom, Hana handed the two crutches to the girl sitting on the rock. Tsuyo hopped down with them and gave Hana a quick embrace.
"I was wrong about you," said Tsuyo. "I would thank Shijin for saving my life, but I think the credit goes to you this time."
"I think you proved yourself today," Hana replied. "I hope we'll meet again one day when your legs have healed."
"Come back again for huo guo," Tsuyo smiled. "And bring Shijin along too."
"Quickly," Shijin interrupted.
"Bye," Hana said.
That was the last thing Hana said to Tsuyo before she and Shijin stole off into the morning, a sleeping badgermole in Hana's arms.
In the distance, the neighing of ostrich horses could be heard, and Shijin knew that the chase that he had put off for so long had finally begun.
To be continued…
I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
Lesson Eleven: Splitting Up Your Pieces
When they left Tsuyo's town, the rain continued, harder than before. They continued onto a trail unmarked even on Shijin's maps. At first, Hana had been skeptical about the faint markings and the tree branches that looked like they could strangle a bear. The fact that the maps didn't show where the path led only caused more concern. In the end, Shijin had to use some spare ink in his pack to mark the route they were taking to show Hana that he knew where they were going.
The fall season had turned the northern pass into a collage of brown, orange, and yellow. Most of the trees had already shed their leaves, waiting for the winter to take hold. The bushes had turned a light golden color, while some of the leaves that had fallen on top of them still maintained a faint orange hue. Many of the leaves had already turned brown and had decayed with the end of fall, and it was not the loveliest of sites to see. The fact that it rained and that there were few trees that provided adequate cover for them only made it more unwelcoming.
"It's supposed to look that way," Shijin had said when he tried to allay her fears of walking through such a bleak and uninviting place. "Besides, the reason it's not on the map is because my mother never had a chance to mark this path. She died shortly after we crossed it for the first time."
"Real assuring Shijin," Hana muttered, keeping her head concentrated on the mud tucking in between her toes.
"Well, look at it this way," Shijin patted the girl on the shoulders, and then continued down a slight decline that followed along a small marsh. "It wasn't the trail that killed her."
According to Shijin, it was an old route that didn't involve scaling nigh impossible slopes to reach the Northern Air Temple sitting near the tip of the world. It involved trekking swamps and forests that snaked through the valleys between the mountains. Years of erosion had made the road at times unrecognizable, with portions of the paved path eroded away by the rainwater. There were times when the three of them would step off of the road to throw off their pursuers before reconnecting with it a few miles later.
With the rain falling heavy on them, Shijin used his recently bought Earth Kingdom attire as coats to protect both of them from getting soaked too heavily. He would often give Hana his large overalls as cover. He kept his maps and Pai Sho tiles inside his robes, but kept what was left of their money strapped in leather bags around his waist. He kept them as dry as possible with his airbending, blowing off their drenched clothes whenever they had a chance to rest.
Only a few bursts of air though, as the Wu Jian were always listening, and Shijin feared that the expert hunters were closing in all around the three of them. There were moments when even through the rain, the neighing of their steeds could be heard echoing through the mountains, and Hana and Shijin would pause before picking up the pace. At times the airbender would mistake the splashing of the rain for the footsteps of mercenaries encircling them in a death vice.
There was no more time for Pai Sho, no more fishing on the calm creeks of the Serpent's Lake, no more visiting old friends, and their light conversations came to a stop. There was just a long rigorous road ahead of them and men in hot pursuit behind. At night, Shijin found any trees with leaves in the area and chose those as their temporary camps. There was no fire to keep them warm or provide light, so the two just kept close to each other and ate with whatever light the moon could give them.
Their food consisted of bread that they had picked up back in the villages and the edible raw vegetables and fruit that grew in the surrounding area. They had some spare fish, but those they saved for their badgermole companion, who wasn't always fond of some of the more bitter leaves that Shijin picked on the way. The monk had started to want Kupo to walk beside him while they were treading through the landscape, for reasons Hana was unaware of.
One night at the end of their first week in the wilderness, there was a flash of lightning followed by the roar of thunder. Shijin was mildly surprised that Hana didn't flinch or jump at the sight of a streak of light hitting the earth just a few miles away from them. In the far distance, however, the horses of their trackers shouted out at the unexpected thunderstorm. That was when Hana huddled closer to Shijin.
"How are they still so close to us," Hana tucked herself tighter underneath the makeshift blanket made from Shijin's airbender robes and some of Hana's spare clothes. They were always dirty these days. There was no time to wash them.
"When you get trained as a hunter, even the most agile and stealthiest of animals don't escape you," Shijin said. "Leftover footprints not cleared by the mud, broken tree branches, not to mention we are travelling on a road, albeit one that isn't usually mapped out well. We're still quite far from our pursuers, and this road has many diverging points. They haven't caught up to us yet. If we can get ourselves to the deeper forests in this area, the Wu Jian might have to give up the search."
"Why?" Hana asked. "They've already followed us this far."
"It's something my mother and I did often to avoid capture," Shijin explained. "The deep forests in this area are very dense, which makes people hard to track especially during the night. Most Wu Jian have little experience in navigating the pathless forests like my mother and I. They might not give up the chase, but they would rather wait for us to leave the forest rather than getting caught in a wild and fruitless search."
"I kind of get the feeling what we're going through now is how you used to travel with your mom," Hana noted, clenching her fingers around the blanket. With Shijin around, she never had to worry about sleeping on too many damp surfaces. He would always dry them for her to protect the two of them from getting sick. "And you were younger than I am now?"
"A bit younger," Shijin recalled. He turned to Hana with a joking expression. "Well, it was a little bit different then. At least I was a trained airbender, who had the luxury of a master airbender and a sky bison to evade the Wu Jian."
"Why were they even after you?" Hana asked. "It doesn't seem like the nomads get in trouble with Earth Kingdom folk often."
"My mother had a soft spot for the people that were being terrorized by Chin the Conqueror," Shijin said. "That soft spot wasn't always there for the terrorizers. She got in trouble with the wrong people, and that set them after us. She didn't really mind. She was never afraid of them and would fight them off quite easily if they ever got close."
"She fought against them?" Hana's expression was surprised, a jaw agape and eyes wide. "I never knew airbenders were the fighting type."
"Well, my mother was a fighter, and she fought many of the Wu Jian," Shijin seemed a bit more relaxed telling this story. "Now, I on the other hand, probably wouldn't last very long against too many of them. I'm well trained, and by my mother no less, but I don't think I was ever fond of the combat type."
"Hence the Pai Sho," Hana nodded her head. She was finally starting to get sleepy. Her eyes drooped, her mouth opened in a yawn, and even the sound of thunder couldn't jolt her from the lure of sleep. Still, she had one more question before her eyelids closed. "Shijin, what happens if they catch up to us?"
Shijin didn't want to answer that question. Not yet at least. The frightening thought of having to fend off an entire search party of Wu Jian was a frightening prospect, one that Shijin had hoped he'd never get involved in. For a moment, the monk considered cursing his luck and wishing to be rid of the burdens that had led him here.
But then he saw Hana's sleepy face, her cheeks pressed against his shoulder, her hands clutched over the warm blankets, and the only heat that she received was from the heat emanating from Shijin's body. Shijin retracted his previous thoughts, and took a big sigh.
"We'll just have to worry about that when it happens," Shijin said. "For now, we'll have to do our best to make sure they never reach us."
Hana, seemingly satisfied with the answer, nodded and her breathing became rhythmic and soft. Another crack of thunder could be heard, but Hana was already asleep.
And so the first week of their chase passed without trouble.
I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
One day, in the middle of their second week in the valleys of the northern mountains, the rain stopped, and Shijin said that they were going to move faster than they did before. The water that had halted to a drizzle no longer washed away their deep footprints in the soggy mud, and the skies began to clear as the dark storm clouds began to depart for the south. The sun shined through the falling leaves, covering the forest in patches of light.
Hana remembered that day clearly. When the rain began to settle down, Shijin looked up at the sky, narrowed his eyes as if cursing at the scattering mist before turning a quick eye to the scattered bushes behind him. He grumbled something incoherent before waving at Hana to walk at a brisker pace. He bent down and tapped Kupo slightly on his backside as well, whispering for the badgermole to start moving.
That morning was frighteningly quiet, and the silence lasted until late into the evening. The air was still after a week of rain, and it had a very strong scent filled with the herbs and flowers that were washed all over the place during the storm. Some of the flowers Hana recognized as poisonous plants that were often mistaken for tea leaves. Every once in a while, a bird would fly out of its nest near the ground to inspect the weather, and the rustling of its feathers and the bushes around it would cause Shijin to grip his hands tightly over his glider.
They were heading down the side of a creek, the water flowing with bits of mud and red berries, next to the base of a mountain. There were many bushes around here with scarce trees lining up next to the creek like street lamps. The bank of the small river was covered in gleaming bits of sand and rock. The sky was perfectly clear from here, and for the first time in a week, Hana could feel the full warmth of the sun over her entire body, even though it was a sun falling over the horizon.
That was when Hana realized why Shijin had kept Kupo at the front of their group.
Kupo stopped completely and growled, and Shijin turned to his student behind him. The bushes to their left rustled, and the whirl of a spinning object came from within. Hana could feel herself getting pushed aside, and a gust of air knocked the gleaming weapon into a tree. It was an axe, and it buried itself into the tree's trunk with a thud that sounded like it could hack through a soldier's iron armor.
The owner of the weapon launched himself from his cover shortly after. He was a big man, and he carried with him a lance that was probably as tall as Hana was. He was wearing the outfits of the Wu Jian. Soggy bandages were wrapped around his wrists. His upper body was dressed in green cloth and vest. A darker jade cloak was tied around his neck. His irritated eyes were shadowed by his bamboo conical hat which shined like gold in the sun's rays.
"Get back," Shijin barked at Hana, pointing at the bank of the creek as he threw his belongings over there. Hana grabbed Kupo, who was still baring his teeth at their new visitor. She rushed behind some of the larger rocks next to the creek as the battle began.
The assassin dived in towards the monk, who hopped back as the lance spun over his head. Shijin's opponent withdrew his weapon and struck again from the side. The sharp spear clipped the side of Shijin's robes and tore off part of the fine fabric. The spear then twirled in the opposite direction as the mercenary rotated the weapon around to strike Shijin from the other direction.
Again, Shijin leapt back in defense, but he miscalculated. The butt of the lance appeared like nothing more than round well carved out wood, but as it spun, a hidden compartment inside the weapon opened as the spear rotated, causing a small knife to lock into place and extending the range of the lance. Shijin quickly drew a small pocket of air around his hands to push the weapon away, but before he could react, the weapon had already sliced a bit of the left side of his stomach open.
The pain came and subsided quickly as the adrenaline built up in the airbender's body. Shijin wasn't given time to take a single deep breath, because the Wu Jian soldier charged once again, this time bringing up the spear over his head and slamming it down, hoping to crush Shijin's skull. A single side step was enough to avoid this, and the speared thumped on the drying earth with the sound of a muffled drum.
Shijin used this opportunity to engage his opponent at a closer range. Using the air under his feet as accelerators, he covered the long distance between his assailant in a less than a second. But his opponent seemed to expect this and dropped the spear in his hand in favor of two kunai that were hidden in his vest. He twirled them in his hands and charged the airbender in front of him.
With a series of ducks and twirls, Shijin managed to escape a quick combination of slashes from the kunai and when the mercenary swung his kunai out wide, leaving his midsection exposed, Shijin responded with a powerful punch that launched the assassin into the air and slammed him into the nearby tree. Gripping his staff tightly, the monk held it front of him like a battering ram and rushed towards the tree. The Wu Jian agent, disoriented but still conscious, launched the two weapons in his hands to try to land a killing blow.
Shijin tucked his stomach in and blew a gust of air and propelled the kunai from his sight before using his full speed to ram the staff into the gut of his enemy. The agent's eyes flung wide open, as if his eyes were trying to escape their sockets, red foam started building at the corners of his mouth, and his big body slumped downwards as the air that built up at the tip of Shijin's staff was released into his abdomen at contact.
It was only then that the airbender took a massive breath. He gasped for air and knelt down besides his fallen foe. He instinctively reached his hand toward the wound in his left side, feeling the warm blood drip onto his fingers. He ripped off a portion of his torn robes and wrapped it around his waist, tying a strong knot to stem the flow of blood. His vision blurred a little as the excitement from battle faded away, leaving a strong sting in his side and a minor headache.
"Shijin!" Hana rushed to her teacher's side, with all of his things on her shoulders. She reached out to inspect the wound, but her hand hesitated as she saw Shijin's red fingers wiping against his makeshift bandage. Her eyes widened as she looked at Shijin's pained expression. "Oh no, this is serious."
"It's just a flesh wound," Shijin grunted. He looked at the man's prone form. The blood that poured through the cracks in the man's teeth had still not soaked into the uniform. There was still time. "But this man was just a scout, and judging from how he attacked us so openly, I'm thinking we don't have a lot of time before the Wu Jian close in around us."
Ignoring the stench of body odor, Shijin undressed the assassin, before dragging his body into a nearby brush and covering him with as many large leaves as possible. He folded the Wu Jian attire into a bundle and then stuffed the two kunai that he had blown away inside his robe pockets. He broke the lance and scattered the pieces.
"Let's get moving," Shijin ordered, pulling everything off of Hana but his mother's maps, coin purse, and Pai Sho tiles and throwing them aside. When Hana stared blankly at the wound, which was turning Shijin's torn orange robes a dark red, the airbender merely shook his head and shook Hana tightly. "This is not the time to think about that, Hana. I'll be fine. Keep Kupo close to you, and start remembering the things I taught you at the start of the season."
The neighing of ostrich horses, now clearer than ever before, set Hana's feet into action. They must have had heard the sound of airbending from the recent battle. There were now the loud voices of people booming behind them. Birds squawked and took flight.
Together, the three ran down the creek, their feet splashing against the bank and soaking their toes. It was cold and uncomfortable, but the waters were filled with smooth rocks rather than the sharp edged stones that would have slowed them down if they weren't too careful. Shijin kept Hana in front of him, always turning around to watch for any sight of the enemy and kept his ears open for the whistling of an arrow.
At the base of the creek, there was another slope that ascended yet another mountain in the northern pass. As the three of them climbed upwards into a small clearing, Shijin could see that this mountain was covered with a dark evergreen forest, different from the dying trees behind them, and exactly what they needed to evade the Wu Jian. On another day Shijin might have chosen not to travel through such a mysterious and dangerous looking place. But today it was the perfect hiding spot.
Before Shijin could speak however, the rough sound of hoofs came bursting through the bushes behind them and yet another member of the Wu Jian arrived, his knuckles clenched as he jumped off of his steed. Another ostrich horse joined the fray, and this Wu Jian soldier was carrying a long mace attached to a metal chain. They stared at the two fugitives above them on the slope, before looking at each other as if silently communicating how to best apprehend the airbender.
Farther out, more horses could be heard, followed by the orders of at least two more men. Shijin took a quick look at his surroundings to evaluate his chances. He at least had the high ground advantage, meaning that he would have to use less energy to fight while his enemies had to battle the natural landscape to reach him and Hana. He also still had his staff, and while he couldn't fly for fear of enemy archers and his wound, it was still a more potent weapon than any other fighting tool the Wu Jian had on them.
The only problem now, was the girl standing behind him, frozen at the daunting images of vicious killing machines. Hana was too vulnerable and exposed to any of these soldiers who were experts in both close and long ranged combat, and she definitely had no experience in fighting against trained killers. With this many Wu Jian, there was no guarantee that Shijin could guarantee her protection, even if she hid behind a few rocks like last time.
However, there was the forest behind them, and if Shijin could buy enough time for her, there would be no way the Wu Jian would be able to find her in the vast deep forests that stretched over the top and back portion of the mountain, especially if she had a badgermole that was growing more powerful by the day. With the maps that she still had on her shoulders, maps with routes and secret paths that even the Wu Jian didn't know about, Hana could make the hard but possible journey to Ba Sing Se, where she'd be safe behind a wall that even Chin the Conqueror was wary of marching on.
She knew some Pai Sho of course, and Shijin had told her of friends that she could call favors from. There was also enough spare money to last months if spent frugally.
It might not have been the best decision to make, but Shijin failed to see any alternatives given how quickly the situation was worsening.
"Who thought that someone like me," Shijin murmured, a bitter smile growing on his face. "Would end up doing something like this? A little out of character, don't you think mom?"
But then, Shijin turned to Hana, and he could see her shaking knees, her wide eyes, her hands curved awkwardly. She looked back at him, like a child to a parent, looking for protection and a solution to their predicament. It was in that moment, that the airbender cast aside all doubts. There was someone he wanted to protect, and right now she needed his help more than ever.
"Hana," Shijin whispered. He took a deep breath before continuing. "I need you to run deep into the forest. Run, take Kupo with you, and don't look back. Keep running."
The girl turned around to look at the daunting forest. She didn't shake her head when she turned back to face Shijin. She merely nodded, pushing her lips together as if to silence herself from saying anything rash. She must have realized what this meant for the two of them and their journey.
It was over.
"Don't worry," Shijin nodded towards the forest. "I'll be right behind you."
"No, you won't," Hana said. Her response was firm.
"No," Shijin smiled, affording to turn for a moment and patting the girl on the head. "I won't be. Now get going. Now is not the time for goodbyes. Remember everything that I taught you. You have everything you need to get to safety, and Kupo will protect you. Quickly."
"I still have all your Pai Sho tiles and money," Hana bit her lip and turned. She squeezed her eyes shut, holding back the tears. She couldn't have foggy eyes if she was to run for her life. She called out to Kupo, who ran up to her with his usual confused looking expression. "You better be at Ba Sing Se when I get there if you want to see them again."
"I won't be," Shijin replied curtly. "Now get going."
She didn't know what else to say, so Hana ran, putting all of her strength into her legs, kicking up and down furiously. Her badgermole friend followed, and the two of them swiftly began ascending the slope towards the deep and dark forest ahead of them. Her thighs and heels were burning from all the running she had already done today, but there was a soft wind behind her that was giving her power and resolve to pushing her body to its limits. It didn't feel like the evening breeze.
It felt like Shijin's goodbye.
The Wu Jian charged forward. The first one with the clenched knuckles smacked the earth, sending an attack underground aimed directly at stopping Hana. Kupo, however, sensing the seismic irregularities building underneath him, turned and slammed the ground, launching a counter attack in the same direction before swiveling on his feet to continue running. The ground erupted where the two forces collided, shooting dirt into the air like a newfound water geyser.
Before the two Wu Jian could strike again at his student, Shijin drew out his glider and set a slash of wind at the two of them, knocking their ostrich horses off their feet and sending the two agents ducking for cover. As the airbender did this, the wound in his side opened a little more, and the blood that had recently coagulated cracked as new blood leaked out into his already drenched bandages. Shijin crunched his teeth together to stave off the pain before sending another powerful storm of air at the two mercenaries.
A third ostrich horse neighed, and Shijin turned his neck as the rider leapt over a series of rocks behind Shijin and charged at Hana with a bow and arrow in his hands. It took only a second for Shijin to launch his staff like a javelin at this new foe. The wooden artifact plunged into the man's ribs, knocking him off his horse and left him sprawling on the ground clutching his broken sides.
Seeing the airbender relinquish his glider, his first two opponents charged once more, and the man with the mace came first, swinging his weapon from the safety of his long chains. Without his staff, Shijin could only use his hands to deflect the mace, pushing it away from him whenever it came close to his head. The other man with the clenched fists came in closer, and Shijin could see the bronze thorns on the man's knuckles.
The airbender clapped his hands together and a bubble of air burst from his silhouette, hurling his opponents a sizable distance away from him. With a little bit of breathing room, Shijin turned to see Hana had already reached the entrance to the forest. She seemed scared, as she should be, and she turned back to Shijin, as if begging him to pull out a miracle and change their circumstances. The airbender merely shook his head and mouthed one last word at her.
And then Hana went, disappearing into the shadows. Soon, the evening sun would set, and there would be no way for the Wu Jian to pursue her through a forest that dense and dark. Shijin forced himself to think that way.
"Now," Shijin took a deep breath. The pain of the wound was starting to overcome the adrenaline that was spiking within him. The three Wu Jian agents cautiously advanced and encircled the airbender, and a fourth man soon entered the scene, taking a stand at the back of the other agents, watching the monk carefully with a pair of swords dangling from his waist.
"What am I going to do now?"
I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
It wasn't until the sun had completely dropped that Hana had stopped running. She hadn't run like this since the first time she dragged Shijin all the way from Omashu. Before she was running away from a place she had lived all her life. Now she was running for her life, away from a new and exciting adventure that she didn't want to let go.
It seemed like the beginning of that summer was so long ago, and now here she was, all alone in a deep dark forest with no one but a growing badgermole to keep her company.
Shortly after running, she threw up the meals she had eaten during the day, her body unable to keep anything in her stomach anymore. Exhaustion caught up with her, and since not even the faintest sound of fighting could be heard from where she was standing, Hana wanted to stop and sleep.
By then, the tears she had shed had mixed in with her sweat, and she couldn't tell whether her eyes were puffy because of the salty water irritating her eyes or her leaking eyes that didn't stop until she forced herself to stop in fear of over dehydration. There was no water after all in such a dark place.
There was little moon tonight, a mere crescent in the sky that didn't even reach the depths of the forest, the tall trees blocking out the yellow glow of the moon. The animals in the area were alive with sound and activity, oblivious to the little girl kneeling down on all fours.
After gaining her breath, Hana went to pick up the bags that Shijin had left to her. She could hear the clacks of Shijin's Pai Sho tiles inside his bag, along with the clinking of his coins. Next to them were the maps that lay dried by Shijin's airbending, filled with information of all of Shijin's contacts and roads that he had mapped over a childhood of adventure.
Just like every time before they set out to a new town, Hana checked what was left of the bags. A loaf of bread in the bag with the maps, along with a few pieces of soggy fish wrapped in thin paper was all that was left of her rations. In the darkness, Hana wasn't too sure of picking out any of the vegetation and berries that Shijin had found so easily, so what was left of her food would have to do until much later.
She was also concerned about the Wu Jian and what would be waiting for her outside of the forest, beyond the protection of the evergreen trees looming over her like silent guardians. How long would they wait for her? Had Shijin drawn their attention off of her completely? How long could she stay here?
Not long, Hana reckoned, which was why leaving now, under the cover of darkness might be the best way to go. Hana faintly recalled Shijin talking about an old man named Lao Yu in a fishing village to the east of these mountains and decided that perhaps it was time to give him a visit.
"What do you say Kupo?" Hana wiped her mouth of what remained of the vomit. "What do you say we keep going for tonight?"
The badgermole yawned, but stood up surprisingly and stood at attention next to Hana. And then, he began to look around, as if looking for something that had up till now been in their lives. It didn't take long for Hana to know that Kupo was wondering where Shijin had gone.
"We won't be able to see him for a while," Hana knelt down and stroked the animal's fur. "We're on our own now, Kupo."
And so, after slinging her bags over her shoulder, Hana began the slow walk through the forest, munching on her last loaf of bread and holding tight a bag of Pai Sho tiles.
To be continued...
I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
This has been delayed for so long that I'm sure that people might've forgotten the rules that I've set up in this game for Pai Sho. If so, I'm so sorry. If not, then maybe my ideas have stuck.
I was considering writing a Pai Sho Manifesto, but I realized that the story is a learning process; you learn the game as the characters learn it, so I'll hold off on any appendix or manual on how to play this game until the very end.
Lesson Twelve: Following the Elusive Sky Bison
"Seigi. Are you going to fly or not?"
A little girl stood at the edge of a tall mountain surrounded by a morning mist. She looked frightened, her robes too thin for the high altitude cold. She called out to the boy who treating the air as if they were waves rolling over an ocean, skidding around with his feet on his glider.
"Shijin," the girl named Seigi yelled. "Can we just go back now? I can't do it."
The boy frowned, and then hopped back down to the ledge where she stood, her hands clinging to her own staff as the air rushed forward as he landed. He pouted, looked at her up and down, then back at the cliff, then back at her. With a pout still on his face, he ripped the staff from the girl's hands and pounded it on the floor, unveiling the wings of the glider, spreading out like an orange fan. It also had a very beautiful artistic design, dark red flowers painted on its surface.
"You said you wanted to be like my mom," said the boy. "How can you be like her when you're too scared of even flying? Now, come on, before the sun rises and the elders get mad at us again."
The girl whimpered.
"Don't even worry," the boy said. He gave the staff back to the girl, and helped her put her hands on the frame of the glider.
"Just jump," he said. "And if anything goes wrong, I'll save you."
Grasping the glider firm, and with the boy's hands holding her shoulders to keep her from shaking, the girl edged closer and closer to the cliff. The wind felt cooler and cooler as she approached. She looked back at the boy, who gave her a thumbs up and a cheeky grin, and then looked back down.
The girl bit down on her lip, closed her eyes, and prepared to jump.
"Hey, hey, hey," the boy interrupted. "Don't fly with your eyes closed. The most beautiful sights are when you make the first leap."
The girl took another deep breath, and slowly she opened her eyes again. There was a bright glow trying to burst through the fog covering the mountains. A sudden curiosity sparked in her, and as if it swiped away all of her hesitation, the girl kicked off, felt the wind push her high into the air, and greeted the morning sun in the clouds for the first time.
Seigi Nohito ran into the Wu Jian not long after she left the town of Taku.
It was in a small village to the south of the city, in a valley between the two mountain ranges bordering against peninsula. Seigi visited this town whenever she passed through, as unknown to many it had some of the lowest prices for high quality herbs and fresh spices for tea. The tea shop owner's name was Bo. He was an old Pai Sho enthusiast whose tea was only well known among the most exquisite of tea circles.
Here, the rain was still a drizzle, but there was a harsh icy current pushing east toward the Serpent's Lake, and bringing along with it a horde of dark clouds over the mountain pass. In the village, the winds died when they reached the bottom of the pass, and the cold sat still in the air. Around town, children cycled between playing around in the mud and taking cover near warm fires and stoves.
"It looks like winter will be as cold as ever," the old man Bo was dressed in a simple silk robe, with his head covered by a stuffed fur hood. He placed the pot of hot tea on the table, and then took a seat. "I'll have your usual spices ready in just a few moments. My assistant just needs to add the correct proportions of chrysanthemum to the last mix."
"Thanks," Seigi poured herself a small cup of Bo's tea and took a sip. Immediately, she could feel a rush of energy course down her throat. Bo's teas usually had that effect. She flashed a Pai Sho tile in front of her server. "Are you interested in a game before I leave? Same bet as always."
"No, thank you," Bo shook his hands rapidly. "I think I've paid enough of your tea visits to know that it's a bad idea."
"Surprising," Seigi slipped the tile back into her pocket. "Never thought you'd pass up on a game with me."
"Please," Bo waved her off. "What's more surprising is finding someone like you in this town to begin with. I thought your kind would steer clear of these parts of the Earth Kingdom until the war was over."
"I was on special business concerning the council," Seigi leaned back into her chair, taking another sip. "Otherwise, most of us, including myself, are taking the southern route bordering on Omashu."
"Well, to be fair," Bo poured himself a cup. "It's not like Chin's men are looking for Airbenders to skewer, and I hear the bandits down south are just as numerous as they are here. Why make the trouble turning south around the desert if you can reach Ba Sing Se directly across the lake?"
"It's not Chin we're worried about," Seigi replied. "It's the Wu Jian. They're held on a very loose leash, and they're all too often used at the slightest nuisance."
"So don't get on anyone's nerves," Bo shrugged. "Doesn't sound like it'd be hard for your people."
"You never know," she sighed. Behind Bo, she saw a little boy dressed in a dark apron walking towards the table with two leather bags. "Some of us just like to make trouble for others."
"Well anyways, it's always a pleasure seeing you again, Seigi," Bo handed the bags over, giving it a little shake as he did. "Feel free to come back any time you like. Maybe next time you can visit my grandchild."
"The pleasures all mine," Seigi grinned, dropping three gold pieces on the table. She stood and gave a long deep bow before grabbing her duffel bag. "Give the last one to your daughter for me. An early gift for her baby."
Her staff was leaning behind the open door next to a makeshift coat hanger, with a bamboo hat hanging over the tip of the glider. Seigi's hair was short, and the hat would cover almost all of it. A long time ago, Seigi could have boasted about her beautiful long flowing dark hair. Now, when outside the customs of the temples, her untied hair fell only to the tips of her earlobes, and her bangs dropped just barely above her crescent shaped eyebrows.
The rain was falling harder when Seigi left the shop. The children were running indoors towards their beckoning parents and even food vendors were putting out their warm fires and pots and covering them with canvas. The surrounding inns put up lanterns as the skies darkened, and the bars began opening early to accept workers who were returning from the forest. The cold air that had settled in the valley was being picked up by a strong breeze, blowing fallen leaves and twigs into the village.
The only people outside now were Seigi, and a band of men walking from the south side of the town. Their jade green robes mildly dampened, water dripping from their straw hats, and their numerous weapons clinking against one another. Their leader was riding on an ostrich horse, one that looked like it had the strength of a finely tuned and muscle bound eel hound. A pair of them casually began knocking on the doors of homes and restaurants, flashing a piece of paper in front of the local residents when they passed.
Seigi gave the Wu Jian a nonchalant glance and turned her back on them. She began walking briskly away from them, towards the town gate up ahead, where the road into the mountains was obscured by the dense forest. But just as she was halfway across the village, there was a shout behind her.
"Han, no that's not him!" came a stern and demanding a voice, which was followed by a blood curdling battle cry and the sound of heavy boots pounding against the mud. The sounds drew closer and closer to her, and Seigi swiveled around and twirled her glider in preparation.
A giant man loomed above her, his eyes wild with the thrill of battle, and a spear gripped in his two bare hands. He thrust it forward, and Seigi barely twirled her staff fast enough to deflect the weapon to the side. The mercenary used the momentum from the block to swing the lance around for a second attack, rolling it around his waist for another slice. Seigi hopped back lightly on her toes to avoid the butt of the spear, a hidden knife stuck on the end. She then leaned back as her opponent thrust the steel point again at her head when the spear had swung around his body twice.
As the spear pierced through the air just inches above Seigi's face, the Wu Jian agent flipped the spear so its sharp edge was pointed at the ground. In mid thrust, he lifted the spear up slightly and smashed it down with the intention of crushing Seigi's skull. Seigi used her wooden glider to block the blow, but its crushing strength sent her body crashing into the mud floor, where she gave an audible gasp. With the spear stuck firmly in the glider's frame, Seigi used her airbending and whirled the glider and the lance out of her opponent's hands.
Seigi kicked up with her leg, and her opponent attempted to block the blow by bringing his two forearms together like a shield. But what the man didn't expect was a powerful gust of air that accelerated the speed of the attack and left cuts all along his arms and hands. The agent was blasted backwards, and Seigi used the time to jump up and regain a fighting stance.
By instincts, Seigi wanted to turn and run, but with a broken glider, she wouldn't have the stamina to outrun anyone for very long, especially the man on his war horse. That split second of hesitation was enough for two of the Wu Jian who had been watching the fight to descend upon her, swords drawn. The man on the ostrich horse and a follower next to him also charged forth, and half of them covered Seigi's retreat while the other stopped next to Seigi's staggering opponent, the blood from his hands dripping onto the muddy pavement.
Seigi scanned her surroundings, counting her foes up to five, including the injured Han. She was confident that even if she was assaulted by each of these warriors at once, she could probably evade them long enough to grab her glider and escape. Most of them looked far too young and inexperienced, like young dogs snapping for a bite at surprisingly coy prey.
But then, she turned her eyes to the man on the ostrich horse, and she could feel her body tense up and freeze.
He was dressed in normal loose green robes, the usual bamboo hat, and a pair of leather pants that padded his thighs from the ostrich horse's rough back. Two swords hung from his waist. He had a very handsome face, with a gash on his left ear. His features were sharp and his beard neatly trimmed; his nose was broad, and his eyelashes so dark but his gaze so soft. But no matter how harmless he looked, Seigi's knees would not stop shaking wildly. There was something about his posture, the calm look in his eyes that told Seigi that if she blinked she would be cut down. She could just feel her chest pounding out, her fingers twitching, her mind screaming out at her.Get away from this man
, was all Seigi could think. It was an instinct taught by her late master, and Seigi trusted this instinct with her life.
"Do not be frightened," the man on his war horse said to Seigi. He reached into his drenched robes and pulled out a roll of white cloth. He dropped it on the ground in front of the man he had called Han. "Han, let this be a lesson to you to stop running in by yourself."
"I deeply apologize for my subordinate's uncalled for behavior," said the man with a smile and an unusually low bow that looked incredibly uncomfortable. Seigi didn't say a word. "He must have mistaken you for a man. Oh. I should apologize for that as well, miss."
"Have your men sheath their weapons," Seigi's struggled not stumbling over her words as she spoke. "And I'll consider accepting your apology."
"Very well," the leader waved his hand at the men around him, and each them reluctantly put their weapons aside. Seigi dared not let down her guard. "I am deeply sorry for the confusion again, master airbender. We were merely tracking one of your own that was said to have traveling in these parts. We lost his trail somewhere near the river, but we were just asking if someone had seen him. Have you by any chance coming across him?"
Once again, that sickening feeling entered Seigi as he gazed at her with a beautiful smile. Without any reason to suspect it, Seigi knew that this man could tell if she lied. That the second she tried to deceive him, he would torture her days even after she revealed the truth. Her body gripped with fear, she slowly, with half of her body struggling against her, raised her fingers and pointed at the mountains behind her.
"I saw him in Taku," the words came out of her tasting like poison being sucked from a wound. "That's all I know."
"Thank you," the man bowed again, and then turned to his men. "Let's get a move on. Han, you too. I don't care if you haven't finished bandaging those wounds yet."
The Wu Jian disappeared just as quickly as they came, with their leader charging ahead of them into the forest. The rest followed on foot, with Han casting Seigi a murderous glare as he sprinted past her. Moments later, Seigi dared to take a look back after the Wu Jian, and only saw the silhouettes of their backs as they vanished.
Only then did Seigi allow herself to drop to her knees and plant her hands in the earth. She wanted yell at herself, but all she could manage was a muffled gasp. There were no tears, as if her lingering fears had frozen her them solid behind her eyes. She breathed in staggered inhales and exhales. She felt as if she had stared straight at death, and by some divine intervention she had managed to survive.
No, on second thought, it wasn't intervention at all. It was a moment of weakness, and Seigi's inner fears had triumphed over her strength.
"What should I have done," Seigi shook her head, whispering to herself. "I'm still too weak."
Not too far from her was her damaged glider. Upon seeing it, Seigi finally stood up, walked up to it, and hefted the staff. The spear had already been torn from the glider when Han left to join his comrades. It had scraped off the tip of the staff, revealing the carefully crafted front wings that were now soaked in mud. Seigi moved her hand over the flexible canvas, rubbing the mud off.Are you going to fly or not?
The memories of her first flight were clear in her mind whenever she grasped her glider, but never before was it so vivid that she could almost feel the wind that had she breezed through that day. Under the rain, with her robes, tea bags, and hat all drenched, she clenched that staff so closely to her body like a dying best friend. She took a deep breath and looked towards the northern road.If anything goes wrong, I'll save you.
It took a very long time before her resolve overcame her fear.
« Last Edit: Feb 05, 2013 04:24 pm by guyw1tn0nam3 »
I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
Of all the things that Shijin left in Hana's possession, his map was the most invaluable. Hana tried to keep it safe and dry at all times in Shijin's bag. The satchel was damp and its single strap was tearing from old age, but it was the sturdiest one among the others that Hana left behind soon after leaving the forest. The brown chart was soft and thin, and it was worn out at the edges, pieces of paper chipping off like petals. It was pasted onto a thick canvas that served as a covering when it was rolled up. Hana set it at the bottom of her bag, below the Pai Sho tiles and thinning coin purse.
After escaping from the clutches of the Wu Jian, Hana and Kupo had descended the thick forest under the cover of darkness. Their footsteps were masked by brushes of ivy and roots of trees that smothered the dirt. They walked for a very long time in absolute silence, and Hana had a hard time keeping track of her badgermole as he jumped from rock to rock. When Kupo fell asleep in the middle of that night, utterly exhausted, Hana picked him up and kept walking. There were certain moments when Hana would turn her head slightly towards the mountains where she had left Shijin to his fate, but never once did she take a step back.
"Shijin wouldn't want me to," Hana told herself.
When the sun rose, Hana, without meaning to, collapsed under a growing willow tree at the edge of the forest next to a small pond. After waking up halfway into the morning to Kupo licking her face, Hana scrambled up in a panic, keeping her eyes constantly open the rest of the day to avoid sleep. By the afternoon, Hana finally saw a crowded road again, where she was able to blend in with the local farmers after purchasing a straw hat on the street to cover her face. She was lucky that of the two wanted posters, hers was the more inaccurate, but she wore the hat just in case. She walked the road until nightfall, where she looked for the cheapest inn available and, when still unsatisfied with all the prices, begged to sleep in a closet.
There was no time to think about anything, especially things that would get her down and depressed. Hana shoved everything about Shijin to the back of her mind, concentrating on staying wide awake on the road and watching out for any sign of the Wu Jian. Her next priority was finding the stashes of money that Shijin had told her about. After spending so much food in their last village, Shijin and Hana had been running a little low on pieces. While Hana felt confident that she could best a good number of the players she met on the road, she didn't feel safe staying in one place and drawing attention to herself.
However, searching for stowed away savings was harder than Shijin had made it sound. All the villages that Shijin and his mother had hidden money in appeared to be marked by a golden brush with characters that Hana didn't recognize. Without knowing the landmark that Shijin had used to hide the coins, Hana had no way of finding anything, and it'd be dangerous asking people to read her treasure map for her. There was only one village, a fishery at the mouth of a river, that Hana remembered Shijin talking about. The money was hidden in a cemetery, under the gravestone Fang Jin. However, upon finding the tombstone, Hana was dismayed to discover that the money she found underneath the grave was no more than five silver pieces.
"This doesn't look it'll last me a season," Hana grumbled as she stuffed the pieces into Shijin's coin bag. "How cheap were things when Shijin was ten?"
There was talk of snow among the farmers, many of them concerned for their crops. Hana was worried when she looked at her thin and torn outfits. Mornings were getting colder, her breath a puff of white smoke. The sun arose earlier, but its light felt weak and fading compared to the windy currents blowing against the bristling trees. The edge of the rivers had traces of ice floating towards the shore, while ferrymen carrying people across the lake called out "One gold piece per trip!"
It was a full two weeks after she had left Shijin when Hana arrived in the middle of a lonely village on the north eastern shore of the Serpent's Lake. This time, Shijin had marked the map with the drawing of a chrysanthemum, and Hana had looked around the small town until she found a door with that exact same marking sketched on it. The inn belonged to an old couple, who greeted Hana with surprised smiles, and asked her how she had managed to find their humble abode.
"We thought no one knew that we were an inn anymore," the two laughed when Hana showed them her last silver coin. "There are all these new fancier places in other villages now. They even have their own chefs and exquisite cuisines."
"My Pai Sho teacher directed me to this place," Hana bowed, careful not to blurt out Shijin's name too soon. "He has been here before, and recommended it here when we left and went our separate ways."
"Pai Sho teacher?" the husband was wide eyed, but he didn't pursue any further. "Well now that's something. Didn't know anyone remembered this place was a pub too. Anyway, come in, come in! Let me help you get settled in. My wife will help you with those dirty clothes. We have a nice bath, one of the few things we can still compete alongside those other new spas with. Let's get your badgermole washed up too."
That night, as Hana was preparing to sleep, there came a soft knock on her door. It was the innkeeper, and he had brought with him a bowl of steamed rice and vegetables. He also had a small plate of dried fish, which he set on the ground for a certain badgermole to come and nibble on.
"I hope the bath was enjoyable," the old innkeeper bowed, setting the rice on a small stand next to Hana's bed. "You looked hungry, so my wife cooked some food for you. It's not much, but the steamed rice from around here is very good by itself."
"Thank you," Hana folded her legs underneath her and gave the innkeeper a low bow, delicately placing her forehead and finger tips on the floor. When she looked up, she chuckled. "The bath was also very enjoyable. It feels nice to be out of those dirty clothes."
"I'm glad," the innkeeper smiled. "It must have been a rough journey for you. If you want, my wife and I don't have many problems if you want to stay a little longer. The harsh winters in the north are no place for a young girl to be traveling."
"Thank you," Hana repeated. "But I only plan on staying the night. I must leave tomorrow by noon."
"Forgive me for asking," the innkeeper said with his eyes narrowed in concern. "But why are you in such a hurry? Most travelers rarely try to brave the northern winter unless they have a party with them. If it snows when you're on the road, you'll be in a lot of trouble."
"I'm grateful for your concern," Hana replied. "But I don't want to be a burden on you more than I have to, and I want to reach the village at the end of this river and take a boat to Ba Sing Se."
"You're talking about Lao Yu's village then. He's the only one that does trips to Ba Sing Se these days," the innkeeper nodded his head. Hana was surprised he knew. "Well, I can certainly understand if you are busy, but by no means would you be a burden. My wife and I always loved it when travelers came to our inn. We heard a lot of good stories midst the warm hearths and Pai Sho games. This used to be a gathering place for really good Pai Sho players you know! Years ago that is. I'm sure your teacher must have played a few games here."
"I wonder about that," Hana looked up at the ceiling, her thoughts drifting to Shijin before shaking it out of her mind. "He was still very young a few years ago. About my age maybe."
"That doesn't stop someone who loves the game from playing," the old man winked, eyeing the wrapped up Pai Sho board and tiles sitting on a study desk at the far end of the room. "Why don't you and I play a game? If you left your teacher, that must mean he has some serious trust in your abilities."
"We didn't leave in the best of terms," Hana laughed nervously, scratching her head slowly. "We got into a little trouble and we got separated. I'm still a novice, I think. There would be nothing to gain from playing someone like me."
"Is that so?" the innkeeper's eyes grinned. "Well, why don't you pull that board over here. Let's see for ourselves."
It seemed like the old man wasn't leaving without playing a game, so Hana grabbed the board and tiles and set them up on the floor, like Shijin had always done it for them. She handed him his stack of tiles and motioned for him to take the first move. The old man obliged, and started with a wheel tile in the center of the board. Hana responded, as usual, with a Sky Bison on her left corner side.
"Your teacher was an airbender?" the old man deduced. Hana nodded. "That's what makes Pai Sho so fascinating isn't it? Cultures have their own distinct qualities and strategies, but at the end of the day, we're all connected when we play against one another."
"Couldn't someone just copy the strategy?" Hana asked. The old man placed a white lotus on his second turn, a surprisingly early deployment, on the baseline of his board. "I mean, it's not hard to just imitate what someone else is doing."
"True," the innkeeper nodded. Hana dropped a wheel tile on her baseline, halfway between the middle and the corner of the central square. "But people who can imitate deployments of up to ten moves, as well as understanding the nuances and alterations based on your opponent's deployment, are rare to find. Most people would prefer to stick with the original strategies and improvise from there as opposed to trying to imitate ones that they rarely get to see. Your teacher might be an airbender, but most people in the kingdom are rarely blessed with the opportunity to play with one."
The old man placed a badgermole next to his white lotus, and Hana set her white lotus to the left of her wheel. Her opponent proceeded to lay a sky bison diagonally across from hers, and she blocked it with a chrysanthemum. The innkeeper made a counter with an additional wheel tile on the other side of his white lotus tile, but Hana defended swiftly with a badgermole next to her flower.
"How long have you been playing this game?" the innkeeper asked right after Hana laid down the badgermole.
"Half a year," Hana answered. She looked at her setup. There didn't seem to be anything particularly weak about it. "Am I doing something wrong?"
"Only curious," the innkeeper waved a hand in her direction. His next move was the sky bison parallel with Hana's. Hana took her own bison now, and moved it out of her corner of the board and straight up five spaces. "You have…an interesting style. But if you've only been playing for a half a year, that's quite impressive. You play every day?"
"Used to," Hana said. "My teacher and I would have at least six games a day, three in the morning and three at night if we could afford it, and we talked about it all the time."
"Now that sounds like fun," the innkeeper chuckled. His hands hesitated over the pieces, as if a little stuck on what to do next. He finally resolved to settle with a chrysanthemum on the right empty corner of Hana's board. Hana was a little confused about the move, but didn't say anything. "You must miss him."
Hana bit down on her lip, half contemplating her next move. She slid her wheel tile all the way to her opponent's side of the board, where it stood adjacent to the old man's badgermole. Sensing the danger, the innkeeper moved his middle wheel piece to his right so that it covered the other wheel. Then, Hana moved her skybison tile diagonally so that it was right underneath her wheel tile, pinning down the innkeeper's two wheels, badgermole, and white lotus all at once.
"That's a bit troubling isn't it," the old man murmured. He tapped the white lotus tile and flipped it over. He looked back up at a surprised Hana and smiled. "I surrender. Good game."
"You were going easy on me," Hana pouted for the first time in weeks. She had almost forgotten the feeling of getting teased.
"Oh, spirits, no," the old man widened his eyes, showing the heavy wrinkles on his cheeks and forehead. "I've been running this inn for years, and all these years I've come and watched Pai Sho players come and go. I've played many times too, but I have never improved at this game. You can say that I'm a Pai Sho enthusiast. I know plenty of strategies, all their special names and everything, but when it comes down to strategics and winning, that's something I can't do."
"That doesn't seem possible," Hana mumbled in disbelief. "If you play long enough, you're bound to start getting better. Even I can get better at this."
"Some people just might not have that talent to improve, I'm just one of those people. And when you get old, you tend to improve even less," the old man stood up, stretching his back straight. "But I now see why Shijin took an interest in you, young lady. Unlike others you have a lot of talent for this game. You pick it up very quickly, and you take it as your own too."
"How did you know Shijin was my teacher?" Hana almost hopped back in fright at the name, and it was only the soft mattress behind her that kept her from falling on her head.
"Has anyone told you that when you play Pai Sho with a person, you can tell things about them just by playing with them?" the innkeeper asked. When Hana nodded, he continued. "I've played with a lot of people in my years, and I've come to understand their quirks and styles quite well. There are only a few people who I have difficulty recognizing, but they're so old and far from memory anyway."
"You played Pai Sho to figure that out?" Hana raised an eyebrow. "You could've just asked."
"Where's the fun in that?" the innkeeper laughed, his white beard bouncing up and down. "It's interesting though. Your strategy and play isn't like him precisely, but there's definitely his influence all over you. You rarely hesitate, and you favor having variety in your pieces rather than focusing on moving around just one or two key tiles."
"I'm sure there are a lot of people who can act and think the same way," Hana said.
"Quite right," the innkeeper nodded. "But how many of them are airbenders, who favor their sky bison? And among them, how many do I know would be traveling around the Earth Kingdom at this time enough to bother playing with Earth Kingdom folk like Shijin and his mother? And most importantly, how many airbenders would teach their students to play the badgermole tile, of all pieces?"
"What's so special about that?" Hana asked.
"Airbenders are not quite fond of them, both in nature and in the game," the innkeeper explained. "But to Shijin, someone who just took the Earth Kingdom as if he was born here himself. I recall when he was younger than you when I met him for the first time. He told me the badgermole was his favorite tile."
Kupo burped. Hana turned to her badgermole and stifled a sudden laugh. She reached for him and pulled him into her lap, stroking his soft fur. The beginning of their journey came into her mind, and Hana thought about how Shijin had told her to senselessly look for a badgermole in the mountains. It was the first time she had a chance to do something she wanted, and Shijin had given her that chance.
All of her emotions swept into her at that point. The emotions of leaving Shijin behind for a band of ruthless killers to rip him apart. The emotions of sleeping in a stuff confined room filled with cleaning tools, with no one to cover up her feet when she kicked off her blankets at night. The emotion of the nights spent around poorly fed camp fires, staring at a Pai Sho board with no opponent on the other side.
She brought her knees to her chest and planted her face between them. She sniffed repeatedly, but the tears came soon enough. The innkeeper's face was stoic and calm, and for the next few minutes, he let Hana cry until she looked up with dry red eyes. He gave a reassuring smile, the only thing an old man could do, and stood up to leave.
"If you want, you can stay here a little bit longer," the old man repeated. "I don't know what may have befallen Shijin, but if you still need time to recuperate, my wife and I will gladly help any friend of that man."
Hana looked up at the old man with gratitude. It was an appealing offer, one that came with food, proper bedding, and clean clothes. But the more Hana thought about it, the more she realized that lingering here too long would only make it harder for her to leave. At that rate, she might never reach Ba Sing Se, where Shijin had said a tournament would run in the spring.
If you sign me up for a tournament, I want to win it.
She wiped her eyes with her sleeve, and then bowed once more. When she looked up, the solemn look in her eyes had vanished. She would not give up now, not when Shijin had gave her another chance at life. She wouldn't allow herself to waver.
Shijin wouldn't want me to, Hana affirmed.
"Thank you," Hana smiled, shaking her head.
"But I must leave by tomorrow morning."
To be continued…
I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
Lesson Thirteen: The Water Tribe and Their Fake Tiles, Part One
The next morning, Hana bade the old couple farewell, but not before they handed her a few things. Her old clothes had been far too dirty for the old wife to accept as travel clothing, so the old woman fashioned a dusty old kimono she said had belonged to her granddaughter. It was light green with a few white and pink flowers on the sleeves. She also wanted to hand Hana a golden brown hairpin to push the hair out of her eyes, but Hana refused. Both of them nodded in understanding.
Near Omashu, animosity towards the Fire Nation was rare. As Shijin had always said, the Fire Nation was like a passive observer who kept up their trade with both the local merchants in the south and those in Chin's kingdoms. To many who saw the war as nothing that concerns their harvests, this did little nothing to affect them. If anything, most were happy with the many new iron tools that the flame islands brought to the coasts of the Earth Kingdom.
But as trails headed northward, and trade lessened as one crossed into the interior of the kingdom, there were many who felt that the Fire Nation was only assisting Chin, that it was only a matter of time before the Conqueror captured the remainder of the south and declared trade with the Fire Nation exclusively his own. Hana had been slightly aware of some of these facts. After all, many of her guests in Omashu loved to talk about goods that they were shipping to and from the Fire Nation. But never did she imagine she would have to hide her golden eyes to avoid trouble.
Especially now that Shijin wasn't here.
"You be careful on the road," the husband said, handing her a wrapped box. It held a few loaves of bread, some rice balls wrapped in seaweed straight from the river, and some local fish. According to the innkeeper, these fish had a heavier taste that made one full much faster, and so they lasted longer. "Up north, this river is patrolled by Chin's soldiers. Be sure not to stir up anything."
"Don't worry," Hana smiled. "I'll be okay now. Thank you for all that you have done for me."
Her goodbye was quick and succinct, making sure her tone didn't hint at her desire to linger. She gave them no opportunity to offer another night and turned on her heels to leave, Kupo waddling behind her. It was something she had seen and learned from Shijin, who could depart from his friends so easily with just a smile, wave, and "I'll see you when I see you."
The road to Lao Yu's village, like many, was a long journey, up the longest river stretching from the Serpent's Lake. The village was marked at the point where two small tributaries forked out of the river. Unlike other parts of the Serpent's Lake, however, the river was not too crowded with farmers. Fishermen were scarce, and a lot of the space off the road had been dedicated to some grazing land for animals. There were many rest stops on the road however, where travelers gathered and dug into hotly served meals around warm campfires.
And like the old innkeeper had said, there were many of Chin's soldiers who came walking from the north. Hana heard rumors that they were new recruits that Chin was streaming down south. They were strong looking men. Their muscles were showing through their long sleeves. Hana noticed that many were taller than the average man in Omashu too. Many of them wore leather chest pads, and their higher ranking officers wore iron armor around their bodies. They also wore different shaped hats too, some of them conical while others looked like an upside cup. The flag of Chin unified all of them, a simple green circle with a brown square imposed in the middle, could be seen waving for miles and miles around.
Hana would admit that she indeed seem out of place as one of the few travelers to be walking on the opposite lane of Chin's troops. The soldiers didn't seem to give her, or anyone else for that matter, too much attention. Nonetheless, their presence was at the very least intimidating. Hana tried to keep her anxiety out by reciting Pai Sho tiles over and over again.
The good news was the road ran parallel to a nice stream of fresh water, which meant she no longer needed to ration her water skin when she was travelling next to the salty Serpent's Lake. It'd be easier for her to collect water to wash herself and her clothes, not to mention the air wouldn't leave her nose feeling a little pinched. More often than not, she spent a good time walking along the river instead of the road, which at times was a good quarter mile apart.
On the other hand, she had a whole mess of other problems to deal with. First and foremost was the cold. Just a day into her journey, snowflakes drifted down from the sky, and the sun was blocked by a sheet of mist. They fell sporadically, and while Hana's eyes glistened at her first sight of snow, she knew that she had to find some good shelter or risk freezing her toes off.
And that's where the second problem came in. She had used her last coins at the last inn, and now two lonely copper coins jingled in her bag. Hardly enough to pay for an inn, let alone a bowl of steamed rice. For a while, Hana considered sleeping in storage closets again, but many of them were small storage compartments parked outside the inns, and she feared waking up one day completely blocked in by snow.
She also considered having Kupo build her a tent made of earth, something he had been doing for himself as the weather got colder. Shijin had told her that badgermoles were imitative creatures, ones that had to learn from sensing the things around them and copying from the forms of their parents. So Hana tried teaching the badgermole how to make a large tent for her, but when all she could do was scrape together a less than average sized mound that not even Kupo could fit in, she gave up.
Her temporary solution then was huddling at the rest stops with many of the other men and women that were traveling along with her. Some of them were husbands and wives seeking a new life somewhere up north. Some were just lone wolves who were headed for the mountains in search for an adventure. And there were many who were quiet for the most part, their faces enigmatic. Hana herself probably belonged in that group. After all, she kept to herself, and she seemed to be the only woman in the group traveling alone.
Occasionally, the travelers would play Pai Sho as a way of passing the time, and even the quiet ones would jump at the opportunity to chat and play. Hana would observe these games, comment on them in her head, but do nothing more. They played casually, with no bets involved, and according to what Hana saw, they weren't very good either. A lot of their moves reminded her of herself before she put more thought into the game. In just a few days with traveling behind them, Hana had memorized each of their styles, and was confident in beating all of them, except for one of the travelers who, like Hana, only watched the games.
He was one of the silent folk, an aged man with an austere look on his face, almost to the point where one might think he was holding back some kind of pain. His hair was graying, but he was often with the younger travelers helping them collect wood with a short ax that was strapped to his waist. At night, he would always eat small meals made up of a small ball of salted rice with a cup of hot tea. When he was finished, he would climb the nearest tree and watch the travelers with an unreadable expression for the rest of the night. Some of the travelers were wary of the man, and sometimes they would call him to come down and not stare at them. Hana didn't mind. If anything, she remembered how Shijin used to climb trees and watch over her at night, his keen eyes on the horizon for any sign of the Wu Jian.
One night, Hana saw that the traveler was drinking his usual cup of hot tea, but his usual ball of salted rice was nowhere to be seen. It occurred to Hana that maybe he had run out of the ones in his bag, or maybe he had no more money to spend. Hana checked over her own rations. She still seemed to have plenty of rice and bread left. She had saved all of her fish for Kupo, who luckily only ate a third of one a day. Traveling with Shijin had trained her in saving her food. Being satisfied with just half a bowl of rice. Spreading out a meal over the course of the day rather than gobbling it up all at once.
She approached him with half a ball of rice, and, as he peered up to look at her, offered it to him. Hana couldn't tell what kind of expression was on her face, but she tried to smile despite his stoic and intimidating gaze. After a moment, the man accepted the meal and slowly chewed on the seaweed wrapping the rice together. Hana sat down next to him, and ate the other half of the rice ball in silence. Once, the man offered her the tea he had been drinking, but despite her curiosity to find out what kind of brew had caused the man drink it every day, Hana respectfully declined.
"Thank you," he said finally. They were the first words Hana had heard, and from the way his voice scratched against his throat, they must have the first words he had said in a while. "This was one of the best rice balls I've ever had."
"Ahh, I didn't make these," Hana pointed at her meal and showed a wide grin, trying to keep her attention away from the few travelers who were shocked to see the two of them interacting. "A kind innkeeper made them for me when I left their home."
"Well, whoever made them," despite his grateful tone, the man's face remained expressionless. "Thank you for offering them to me. I was afraid I'd have to travel the rest of the way without another meal. With this last one, I can feel assured that I can make it without starving."
"If you need more, I have plenty more that I've still managed to save up," Hana noted, holding up her food bag as proof. "And besides, I'm almost at the village I'm headed to, so I have no problem giving you the remains of the food to help you on the rest of your journey."
"Actually," the man's eyes widened. Just a little bit. "I'm almost there too. I'm looking for passage to Ba Sing Se, and I heard there was a ferryman who could navigate the river and take me straight to the main road instead of walking around the whole length of the Serpent's Lake."
"You're searching for a ferryman to take you to Ba Sing Se?" Hana asked. "I am too. We might be looking for the same one. Maybe we can go together? It's better than sitting here all alone by ourselves, at least."
"Perhaps," he said. "But-"
"Great," Hana beamed. "My name is Hana, and your name is?"
"It's…Li," was his reply.
That night was the first time Li didn't go up a tree straight after dinner, and the following morning was the first time he didn't walk alone behind the rest of the travelers. Beside him was a young badgermole and Hana, who was all too happy to offer him some bread in the morning.
"You're my travel partner now," Hana exclaimed. "That means part of my food is also your food. Don't hesitate to ask for some. If we run out, well, I'll find some way to get some more."
"You are very nice to people that you've suddenly met," Li observed. There was some concern in his tone. "I'm not sure what to think of that, but I'd think that it'd be dangerous to suddenly decide you want to travel aside any complete stranger. Especially if you're a woman."
"Are you a dangerous person?" Hana took a bite out of her bread.
"I used to be a soldier," Li said. "I killed many people."
"But you've stopped doing that right?" Hana didn't act even minutely surprised, as if she had seen men much worse than he. When Li nodded, she said. "Then there's no problem with traveling with you, right?"
"You're very trusting of people that you've suddenly met," Li said. "Especially what they say. I could be lying."
"I've met some very nice people in this country," Hana shrugged. "Maybe I'm too easy to see the good things in people, but from what little experience I have, I think a fellow traveler who thanks another person for a small ball of rice and offers her a cup of tea in response is someone worth knowing."
Li nodded. He had forgotten about that. He made a mental note to himself that the girl was a rather perceptive one.
The band continued north, huddling closer and closer as the winds and snow grew in intensity. At one point, someone asked if there was a firebender around. Surprisingly, no one hit him for that remark, but that did cause someone to light a quick torch and pass it around to everyone, giving everyone his or her fair share of warmth.
People came and left their circle of travelers every day. Some of them found the villages that they wanted to take a longer stop at, while others joined them to start their own adventures. Hana didn't pay much attention to them unless they played Pai Sho, but their games soon disinterested her as she focused on mentally reconstructing past games in her head. It had been a skill that Shijin had often cited as one of the most helpful tools of self-learning, and Hana found that at the very least, just thinking about the game gave her a lot of food for thought.
A lot of her games with Shijin were fuzzy now, though, and after a while Hana realized that it had been three weeks since her last game with him. It had been a long time, so once Hana was done reflecting on all the games that she remembered, she started building up new strategies and ideas in her head. Most of them were very uninspiring though, but to Hana, that was the point. Better to figure out which strategies she thought up were weak before actually using them in a real game.
"So you do play Pai Sho," Li noted once when Hana was reciting a game out loud. It was nightfall, and the travelers had all decided to camp out a half day's walk away from Lao Yu's village. "I had wondered what kind of person would be watching their games with such intensity. You play a lot?"
"It's been a while since my last game, but yes," Hana nodded. "I'm planning on playing in some tournaments when I get to Ba Sing Se, though, so I need to get myself ready for them."
"Well," Li's voice gave away just a tiny hint of surprise. "That's not something you hear every day, a girl trying to get into competitive Pai Sho rings."
They reached the fisherman's village the next day at noon. There was a short bridge that led to the other side of the river where the village lied. It was actually quite a large village. There was a bustling town square with many merchants and fisherman. Many of them were dressed in blue garbs, and the food and goods that were being sold in the market place were ones that Hana hadn't seen before. She waved farewells to the group of travelers, though only a few recognized her and waved back. In no mood to wait, Hana asked the closest villager about Lao Yu.
"Lao Yu?" said one of the villagers. "He actually lives a little more northward, outside the village. He's a nice enough fellow. Brings in a nice haul for the children every winter when we can't find anything."
I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
The house the villager spoke of was a rather old wooden house that had seen a lot of patchwork. Hay and wooden planks of different shades of brown covered the roof. There was no front porch or garden, just a lot of dirt. There were two boats tied onto stakes on the shore of the river. There was a wooden gondola with a massive oar stored inside, and there was a sampan with a mast rolled up along the pole stretching from the middle of the vessel.
"Doesn't seem the most inviting of homes," Li noted.
"My Pai Sho teacher told me I could trust him," Hana said, walking towards the door. She knocked twice. "I'm sure he's a nice old man."
But the man who opened the door didn't look like an old man at all. At most, he looked like a man in his early to mid-forties. He was a tall and lean, like most Water Tribesman, but his arms looked very strong, most likely from years of rowing and fishing. His brown hair was messy, but he did have a cleanly shaved beard while leaving some of his sideburns intact. He had a very soft expression, a simple smile, gentle eyes, with just a few wrinkles around his cheekbones.
"Oh," he said. "Who do we have here? You two lost, or are you newcomers in the village sent to introduce yourselves to me?"
"Um," Hana replied, a little confused. "I'm looking for Lao Yu?"
"That's me," he grinned. He stared at Hana's gaping mouth and laughed. "What, did you think I was going to be an old man or something? Spewing off wisdom like a village elder? I'm telling you, no one can hear the stories about me in the village without thinking I'm some kind of ancient sage. And you two are?"
"I'm Hana," Hana replied and gestured to Li. "And this is Li."
"Pleased to meet you, Hana," Lao turned his attention to Li. His eyes narrowed for a moment in inspection, but he bowed shortly after. "And you. Li. What can I do for you two today?"
"We're looking for safe passage to Ba Sing Se," Hana said. "We heard that you're the only one that does it these days, and we'd really like to get to the city as quickly as possible."
"Well, I certainly wouldn't mind doing that," Lao frowned. "But considering I do have my obligations to the village, I can only do it provided you have the coin. It is five silver pieces per person, which I think is a reasonable price since most trips would cost you a gold one. I'm judging from the look on your face that you don't have that kind of money."
"No," Hana shook her head. "But a good friend of mine said that you can find your payment in the castle in your fish tank. I think that should be enough to afford a crossing."
"A good fri-," Lao's eyes widened. He nodded. His face suddenly grew solemn. "Ah, come in, come in."
Unlike the outside, Lao's home interior was tidy and organized. There was a fire at the end of the room, burning inside a warm hearth. There was a boiling pot on top of it, and his bed was parked in the corner just besides the fire. As usual, Kupo ran to this heat source and lied down next to it. He fell asleep, exhausted from the long day's walking. A round table was nailed down in the middle of the room, but there were only seats for two. There was a staircase that opposite of Lao's bed.
The fish tank that Shijin must have referring to was on top of a set of drawers with clothes loosely falling out. The tank was empty, and the little castle inside, which was just a replica of a small Earth Kingdom fortress, had gathered a lot of dust. After shutting the door for them, Lao returned to the tank, and lifted the replica out to inspect it.
"That sly bastard," Lao pursed his lips, glancing up at Hana and Li. He held something tightly in his hands, and Hana could only make out a few beads dangling from the edge of his fingers. "How do you know about Shijin? What has he told you about me?"
"Shijin is my Pai Sho teacher," Hana answered. "He advised that if we were to ever get separated, that I should come to you and ask you for help to get to Ba Sing Se. He said you were a good man."
"Oh, is that so?" Lao smirked. "So, how's our good old friend Shijin doing right now?"
"I don't know. We were separated," Hana shook her head. Lao's tone had turned suddenly cold, and he said Shijin's name with sneer that Hana was uncomfortable with. "But is everything okay? Is what he left behind enough?"
"Well it's certainly not payment, if that's what you're asking," Lao flashed what he had taken out of the fish tank. Dangling from a roll of beads were two Pai Sho tiles. One was a sky bison tile, while the other had a sketch of a boat on its surface. It was a tile Hana had never seen before. "There's one other way I accept payments to ferry people down the river, and that's beating me in a game of Pai Sho. Shijin must be feeling real pleased with himself pitting a little girl against me."
In the corner of her eyes, Hana could see Li raise an eyebrow, his look dubious as he stared at the beads. They didn't particularly look like a symbol of challenge.
"There must be a mistake," Hana said. "Shijin never told me about this. He merely said told me where you could find your payment. I would be more than happy to play you, but I'm still learning and I'm afraid I don't have much time. I want to get to Ba Sing Se before winter is over."
"Always in a rush he was," Lao murmured, stifling a short bitter laugh as he spoke. "Looks like you've taken after him in that regard. He never was patient like the rest of his people, always quick to leave and quick to make rash decisions, no matter who he would be affecting in the long run. And now you come asking for favors, not knowing what trouble he put us through."
"It seems you and Shijin have a misunderstanding. What happened?" Hana asked. Her irritation at Lao's allegations was rising fast. "I refuse to believe that Shijin would be one to treat his friends poorly."
"Friends?" Lao mocked. "Shijin and I are not friends. Little girl, I don't know what he may have told you, but that poor excuse for a man is nothing but a selfish, arrogant fool, who tosses away anybody remotely close to him when it's in his favor. Anyone who thinks of him as a friend is either irreversibly stupid or unaware of ho-"
Before Lao could finish, Hana had crossed the distance between him and her and slapped the man straight across the cheek. Lao's eyes went wide almost like a fish, and he instinctively raised his hand to rub the red mark on his left cheek. He snapped his attention back to Hana, who seemed surprised at herself for what she had done. Nevertheless, she glared at him with a furious intensity. There was anger, but there was no fury. In those few moments, Lao could not see the little girl that he had just been calling her.
"You will not insult my teacher again like that," Hana declared. "Shijin spoke very highly of you before we departed. You will give him the same respect that you have shown two strangers."
"Is this the type of student that Shijin raises?" Lao's voice was dripped with attempted sarcasm. "Beca-"
"Don't even think about it," Hana raised her hand again, but instead of dealing another swift blow, she reached her hand into her robes and revealed out a sack of wooden Pai Sho tiles. "If you're so intent on attacking Shijin when he isn't even here to defend himself, then at least prove you're better by beating his student."
"You really think Pai Sho will solve all your problems?" Lao cackled. "Hopelessly idealistic, like him. What's to say that I won't even ferry you for your shameful act just now."
"Do what you want," Hana replied. "But I will not have my teacher's good name tarnished by people who rattle off their mouths without proving themselves with their actions. Those are the type of people I can't stand the most."
"That necklace," Li finally spoke up. He was standing in the corner of the room, arms folded, and his gaze having never left the two Pai Sho tiles strung together. "That's quite a unique betrothal necklace."
"W-what are you talking about?" Lao said, a bit startled at the sudden comment.
"There's no point in lying to me," Li shrugged. "I'm a mercenary from the Northern Water Tribe, after all. Why did you lie about that necklace? It's clearly a valuable payment, if this Shijin person is giving it to you under the right circumstances."
"What's all this noise about?" came a voice from the top of the staircase.
An old man descended from the top of the stairs. He wore a straw hat that Hana had seen many of the fishermen wear during their outings. He had white hair, and he balanced himself on a short cane. He eyed the visitors with interest and then he turned to Lao Yu and breathed a deep sigh.
"Are you making trouble for the villagers again Shou?" the old man scolded.
"No," was the reply from the man Hana thought was named "Lao". His confident stature seemed to suddenly diminish a little in the presence of the old man. "These two are new. They're not from around here."
"Pleased to meet you two then," said the old man. He smiled as he came to Hana and reached out his hand. "My name is Lao Yu. And you two are?"
I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
Shijin had to admit, that compared to three well-built men surrounding him, he looked like a lanky young adult.
It was mere moments after Hana had escaped into the forests. It was a maze that, come nightfall, would be foolish for anyone to tread. Shijin allowed himself a momentary feeling of victory before turning back to the issue at hand. His left side was still burning, blood soaking up the bandages quickly and threatening to spill over the tightly wrapped cloth. His glider was far away from his reach, and it was now that Shijin wondered if it had been smart to stop paying attention to airbending basics after he had been exiled.
Shijin gauged his chances. There were three men surrounding him. One was a man with a pair of metal gloves, and he looked the oldest out of the bunch, including their leader in the back. The gloves didn't look like they'd be useful with earthbending, but just from the spikes attached to them, they would most definitely hurt. There was also a man with a mace. Another weapon that would hurt a lot and this warrior had a lot of scars to prove his experience with it. The third was the archer that Shijin had knocked over with his glider. His ribs were broken, but from the way he twirled a pair of knives in his hand, it didn't look like he was feeling it.
In short, Shijin wasn't feeling too lucky.
He was feeling a bit of irony though. He had always thought that when his time to die had finally come, that was when he'd look back on all the things he did during his short or, as he had hoped, long life. He would look back, smile on the few true friends he had made, but he would also have piles of regrets to deal with, most of them regrets that he still kept to himself without telling anyone.
So it was strange that in these final moments, Shijin was feeling little to none of these regrets come back to him. Instead, he allowed his mind to wander a little bit, and explore the possibility of him and Hana making it all the way to Ba Sing Se. They would ride the ferry with good old man Lao Yu, stop by a few nice places to eat, enter through the daunting walls, and take a train to the Middle Ring. He would provide for them through Pai Sho games, and once he had made enough, he would pay the entrance fee to get her into a tournament.
She would lose of course, but that wasn't really the point.
"After this entire time," Shijin said to himself. "The only noteworthy thing I've ever done is create a half-baked Pai Sho player."
If the Wu Jian hadn't charged in right as Shijin had said that, maybe that would have been the time that Shijin began thinking of his regrets. But there was no time now. The man with the bronze knuckles moved in first. He came in from Shijin's right and tried to slug Shijin with his forearm. The airbender managed to sidestep the attack, but not before the thorns on the gloves cut across his left sleeves and braze his upper arm. Feeling the pain in his side immediately spike, Shijin tried to place some distance now that he had dodged the initial blow.
But the Wu Jian gave him no such respite. The Wu Jian armed with knives threw them as Shijin tried to back off. Luckily, a quick flick of wrist and a surge of wind changed the course of the knives. The third Wu Jian with the mace charged in with a series of twirls and spins. Shijin ducked and weaved around the blows, but the speed of his opponent was too fast, and Shijin had to resort to using his arms to block the near bone crushing blows.
In just under a minute, Shijin's arms were red and sore from consecutive blows. There was an airbending skill that allowed one to bend air around their hands and arms to soften these kinds of blows, but Shijin was way out of practice, not to mention he didn't have the skill and finesse to bend air at such qualities.
If only I paid more attention to mother, Shijin thought.
The Wu Jian were biding their time, patient and in control. They seemed to have forgotten about Hana and now focused all their attention on Shijin. Shijin couldn't be disappointed with that, but that just meant this was going to be a slow hunt. All of the fighters looked eager for blood, but by some sense of self control managed to hold themselves back, careful not to overextend and allow the airbender to exploit a hole in their formation. They kept a constant circle around him, even as he tried to maneuver outside of it.
Each of them took their turns striking at Shijin. A cut cheek there. Another bruise there. Shijin had seen this pattern before and finally began to feel why countless victims felt demoralized as the Wu Jian methodically cut down their opponents until there was no strength left in them. Shijin, almost frantically now, began thinking of ways to escape while managing to dodge attacks without sustaining the heaviest of injuries. But he was tiring, and any attempts at escape were halted by the Wu Jian's superior and agility.
What a shame, to lose to non-Airbenders in a battle of speed, Shijin thought.
It was the archer's turn to take a swipe at Shijin. He had an extra pair of knives that he had been using to pick at Shijin's legs. He darted in. Shijin hopped back to avoid the first slash at his legs, but the archer threw the second knife unexpectedly and without time to react, that knife cut through the right side of his robes and opened a fresh deep cut there. Shijin instinctively reached for the wound, but had to force his arms back up as the archer hopped back and exchanged places with the man with the mace.
Then, a pocket of compressed air, more powerful than anything Shijin could ever possibly hope to create, blasted the warrior off his feet. A second gust threw him into a nearby tree and before Shijin could blink, a figure rushed past him and slammed into the shocked Wu Jian warrior with a force that almost ripped the tree in two. The two others quickly turned their head at the intruder. She was wearing a cracked staff on her back, her robes covered in mud stains, and her face expressionless at the dead soldier whose face was smashed beneath her palm.
"You will not lay another hand on him," she said. And without another word, she charged the remaining Wu Jian.
The archer with the knives was the next to go down. In the blink of an eye, Seigi had covered the short distance between the dead Wu Jian and her new target. The archer, with a battle crazed look on his face, threw up his knives to block the incoming blow, only to feel his arms break away like wooden planks as she thrust her right arm forward. Her hand struck his face, and, in a single motion, slammed the back of his head into the dirt.
The Wu Jian with the bronze gloves charged in the moment Seigi was finished with the archer. He thought that the airbender, who needed time to recover her stance after using such a flashy move, wouldn't be able to react to a swift punch. Before he could launch his arms forward, though, the airbender had already darted away and was charging back in for a second strike. The mercenary launched a series of boulders to slow down the airbender's movements. Undeterred, Seigi just smacked away each of them, swatting them away like flies.
Seigi's opponent, with a look that Shijin could only described as mildly concerned, pounded the floor to send a shockwave through the ground that rumbled and sent shards of spikes flying out haphazardly in front of him. But Seigi was too fast, and nothing came close to touching her. Within another few seconds, she was right next to him, and with her hands closed as fists, she delivered a barrage of blows from his waist to his neck before he could block them. The last punch knocked him high into the air, but by then, the man had already died from his chest caving in on his lungs.
When the body landed on the soft dirt, Seigi turned over to Shijin, who was barely standing.
"You're slow," Seigi admonishment differed from her softening features. She looked back to the leader of the band of Wu Jian, who was hopping off his horse. "But I'm glad you're alright."
"How did you find me?" Shijin asked.
"I followed them," Seigi's eyes were not leaving the leader. He slapped the ostrich horse calmly and ordered it to leave. He strolled slowly towards the two airbenders. "Shijin, we need to be prepared to run."
"I'm with you," Shijin nodded. "Let's get ready to-"
"I don't mean to interrupt your reunion," said the leader, his smile relaxed, despite all his comrades lying dead around him. He nudged his foot against the nearest one, the archer with a cracked skull. "But it appears I was right to think that I should have killed you back in that village."
"I'm so sorry that you missed your chance," Shijin couldn't see what Seigi looked like when she was replying, but there was a trace of fear in her voice. A slight stutter, a hesitant, almost reluctant, reply, as if she didn't even want to hear the man's voice.
"No need," the leader chuckled. He drew his two swords. They were both long and thin. "Because I'm going to kill both of you. Right now."
"Shijin," Seigi hissed, her voice low. "I'll hold him off. You make a break for it."
"You've never used the phrase 'hold him off' when describing someone you're about to fight," Shijin said. "What's up with this guy?"
"I don't know," Seigi replied. "But I don't think I can beat him."
"That was something I never thought I'd hear you say," Shijin said. "Then let's take him together."
"I'd rather not have to worry about defending two people at once," Seigi unfastened her staff from her back and tossed the useless additional weight aside. "I'll be right behind you. I just need you to be clear of him in case he tries anything. Besides, you have your student to take care of, yes?"
"I'm making a detour to the Northern Air Temple," Shijin said. "Whether you like it or not."
"Then you better get moving, then," Seigi said. "Don't even think of staying for me."
And, once again without another word, Seigi charged full speed towards the leader of the Wu Jian, who merely smiled and welcomed her with the tip of his blades.
To be continued...
I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
Lesson Fourteen: The Water Tribe and Their Fake Tiles, Part Two
There were two children in the corner of the room. The first was a young boy that was sitting down, knees touching his chest, his hands braced against his ears. He was shaking everywhere uncontrollably, murmuring something inaudibly as his eyes were fixed on something in front of him. The second was a girl standing in front of the boy, arms stretched out wide, with her staff in one hand.
In front of the two of them were five tall soldiers, dressed in dark green robes. There were dark grins on their faces as they slowly approached the two children, swords drawn. Each of their weapons was dripping with blood, and the red drops formed a trail from one end of the room to the next. There were three smaller silhouettes in the darkest corner of the room.
"Shijin, you need to get up," said the girl, her every word near tripping over the next. "Get up. Please."
"Hey, what are you saying, Miss Airbender?" one of the soldiers sneered. "Can't you see your friend wants to sit right where he is?"
That soldier took a step forward and the girl reacted instinctively. She twirled in a small circle and let loose a blast of air in his direction. The soldier bore the brunt of the attack head on and took another step forward once the breeze had washed over. The girl sidestepped a large swipe of his sword and leaned towards the soldier so that her hands were just below the soldier's gut. She used her forward momentum and slammed her open palms against the man's guts. She could feel the surge of air slamming into his abdomen and the sharp inhale afterwards.
But she had miscalculated the damage she could deal. Within half a second, the soldier had recovered from such a feeble strike. A fist came out of nowhere, and hit the girl square in the face. She went flying back into the wall just next to Shijin. The next moment, a hand slammed against her neck and pinned her against the cement, squeezing tighter and tighter. All the while, the boy named Shijin continued to tremble in the corner.
"Shijin, what are you doing," the girl croaked, swallowing the blood gathering at the back of her throat. The strength of the man's hand on her neck was growing. She was losing consciousness. "Just run for the door. Run. Run."
But Shijin would not run. He was paralyzed, his eyes shifting finally to the girl choking right in front of him. Her eyes were shutting open and close, her hands uselessly firing off spurts of air. A small trail of blood poured from the right corner of her mouth. Shijin couldn't stand the sight. He averted his eyes and started mumbling even louder.
"No, no, no, no, no," Shijin muttered, shaking his head while he spoke.
"Shijin," tears sprang to the girl's eyes. Every word was a struggle as the man in front of him grinned as he loosened and tightened unpredictably to let her fight for every gasp of breath. "You…coward. Liar. If. You. Are. Just. All. Talk. Then. At. Least. Save. Yourself."
At that very moment, the door that was standing behind the five soldiers was blown apart. Through her squinting eyes, the little girl could make out another Airbender standing at the doorway. The Airbender swung her right leg and the man holding onto the girl's neck was thrown aside like a tree branch. He crashed against another wall face first, and everyone in the room heard the crunching noise of his skull slamming against brick. The girl dropped to the floor, clawing at her neck as she gasped for breath. Even in that state she crawled toward the boy next to her.
The soldier who had been tossed aside could still miraculously lift his body off the ground, but his eyes were cold and unseeing. It was mere brutal training that was pushing his body up. The Airbender, with a wave of her arm, smashed him against the wall again. His spine cracked this time, and his body was still. The rest of the soldiers, their grins wiped from their faces, turned to meet the newcomer. However, before either of them made another move, she lifted both of her hands and sent two of the soldiers through the roof, ripping two human sized holes on the ceiling.
Light from outside flooded the room, illuminating the darkest corners. The boy named Shijin glanced up now as the light cast its glow on the three small bodies speared to the dirt ground on the other side of the room. They were all young, none older than Shijin, and every single one of them was wearing the clothes of a young monk.
Shijin fainted, and he forgot all that happened afterwards.
The whole situation seemed a little bit confusing, so Hana spent the next few moments clarifying the situation.
"Wait a second, wait a second," Hana exclaimed at the old man, pointing at the young alleged Lao Yu. "You're Lao Yu? But I thought this was Lao Yu."
"That's my son. His name is Shou," the old man nodded. "He often goes by Lao Yu as a nickname among those in the village, since he brings so many fish. The other villagers refer to me as Lao Ba, but my real name is Lao Yu. It's very confusing for outside travelers, you see."
"Why didn't you tell me that wasn't your real name?" Hana put a hand to her forehead. "And here I thought Shijin had made a poor choice in friends."
"How was I supposed to know you weren't somebody's relative who had visited from a nearby village?" the man named Shou sighed. The next moment, his expression hardened. "Wait. What was that you said about Shijin picking friends? Did you say poor choice?"
"I'm not going to repeat myself," Hana stuck out her tongue, and then put on the most polite face she could muster for the old man. "Lao Yu, my name is Hana. I'm a student of Shijin's and I've come to ask you of a favor. My master and I have been separated and I need passage to Ba Sing Se. I heard there is no faster route than ferry."
"You've heard right, especially in this winter weather," the old man chuckled, a deep sound resonating from his large belly. "Most fisherman give up as the lake almost freezes up entirely, but us Waterbenders can pave a way to Ba Sing Se just fine."
"So you'll take me?" Hana snuck a peak at Shou, who glared at her with annoyance.
"Unfortunately, no," Lao pointed at his back. "I'm a little too old to be rowing a ferry in the middle of cold winter, and my Waterbending is not what it used to be. It'd be troublesome if some of the deep lake critters pop up and think we're a large fish. Shou here, though, is quite the young master of the waters. He'll do, won't he?"
"He would," Hana's smile disappeared. "If he didn't outright refuse to take me and insulted my master at the same time."
"Now that won't do, Shou," said Lao Yu. "How many times have I told you to forget about what happened between you and them? It has been a very long time now. It's unfair for you to keep a grudge for this long, especially to someone who wasn't even involved."
"I don't care," Shou folded his arms, the necklace hanging from beneath his elbows. "You see this necklace? She was told to offer this to me. It's mockery, I tell you. He just wants me to do his bidding and keep my hopes alive or something."
"Kawa is gone, you know that already Shou. There are no hopes to keep alive for what might have been," Lao Yu sighed, shaking his head. "It is as the northern Water Tribesman said a moment ago. That necklace has value beyond what you intended to use it for. It means Shijin is willing to rely on you."
"When he's completely out of other options, you mean?" Shou spat.
Hana drew the connection almost immediately.
"Kawa?" Hana asked. "Is that Shijin's mother's name? And that's a betrothal necklace right? Then, Shou, you…"
Hana's eyes lightened up, and she instantly burst into wild laughter. She clutched her sides, unable to control herself, her cries reaching the ceiling upstairs. She wiped the tears of mirth with her dirty sleeve. It took almost a full minute for her to calm down, and by then Shou was looking at her with a mix of bewilderment and partial embarrassment.
"You don't look that old. Older than Shijin, but that doesn't say much," Hana finally stopped laughing and looked the man up and down. Shou flushed red. "How old was Shijin's mother at that age?"
"Young enough to still look gorgeous," Lao Yu pointed out. He seemed to type to jump at any opportunity to tell silly stories about his son. "Young Shou here took to her almost immediately, but it wasn't until the fifth time that she came that he offered her a betrothal necklace without having exchanged so much a single word. It was a tough time for Shou, as you might have guessed."
"Father!" Shou whined, feeling the control of the conversation slipping away from him with each passing moment. He wanted to push the man upstairs and away from sight. "Well, now you know. This is the necklace I made for her. When I offered this to her, and when I insisted no matter how much she denied me, she took it from me. She told me then, however, that she would place it somewhere in our place, and that when she really needed me, she would offer me the necklace and give me another chance to ask."
"And now," Shou continued. "Shijin has asked me for a favor with it, which means she told him where to hide it, and how to ask me for a favor, even after she was gone from this world. Do you think I should take a favor like that seriously, when it was intended only to be a favor out of love, of a promise of marriage? Do you think this is fair to me, Father, to ferry a girl and a man that I have never seen before, with a payment that only brings me shame?"
"I can make money as a side payment," Hana offered. "I'm a good enough Pai Sho player to make some at least. My master didn't leave me helpless."
"And have you blabber on about how the mean man at Lao Yu's house woudn't give you a ride even when you had offered a beautiful necklace as payment? No thank you," Shou scoffed. "And I don't trust your Pai Sho skills enough to let you loose on the streets for you to lose whatever is left of your moment, if you even have any at all."
"Why you," Hana stepped forward, as if to slap Shou again.
"Now, now, now," Lao Yu butted in. He faced Hana. "Now, miss. I understand where you are coming from. Shijin, his mother, and I go a long ways back, and I would be more than delighted to help you. However, I passed on my ferry business to my son many years ago. And while I may not be the most supporting of some of his decisions, it is up to him to run his business as he sees fit. And you, Shou, don't think you're not to blame. I would rather you help this nice young lady and her friend rather than wallow in your own self-pity all the time."
"If I can run this business, then I have the right to refuse service to anyone," Shou pouted.
"Like I said, poor choice," Hana smirked. "Fine. Are there any other ferrying services that run along the river?"
"Not during this season there aren't," it was Shou's turn to grin as he watched Hana's expression sour. "If you want to ride a ferry, the only path is through me, and frankly I'm not in the biggest mood to accept you, even if you have the pieces."
"So be it then," Hana held up her pouch of Pai Sho tiles. "Is your offer to play Pai Sho for a ride still available?"
"What?" Shou scoffed.
"You heard me," Hana shook the tiles in front of Shou. "If you're so unafraid of my Pai Sho skills, then you won't mind if I play you for a spot on your boat?"
"Twice," the ferryman said. When Hana didn't understand, he pointed at Li, who had been standing quietly still at the doorway. "You'll have to win twice if you want me to take both of you aboard."
"Deal," Hana said before Li could say a word. "Are there any other terms that you need to set unfairly before you're done?"
"Well, if you're asking for it," Shou held up his necklace and pointed at the tile that was drawn with a boat in the center. "We'll be playing the game, Water Tribe rules. Shijin never taught you those rules, right? I'll have you know that Kawa was well versed in every single style, and we frequently played. Shijin, on the other hand, wouldn't touch my style, and said it was so stupid that he would never learn it."
Li coughed in the background.
Hana fell silent, staring blankly at the boat tile for a moment. She had faintly heard of the Water Tribe style once from Shijin, but that was a long time ago, and she had never bothered bringing up the play style. Everyone in the Earth Kingdom, even people that she had met from other nations seemed to play by the same set of rules. What were Water Tribe rules, then?
"You have nothing else to say?" Shou chuckled. "Well, then, off you go. Since you seem so intent on playing me, why not just play a match against me tomorrow? Unless you don't think Shijin taught you well enough that you can't learn something as simple as Water Tribe rules in one night?"
"Let's go," Hana growled.
She stomped over to Kupo, which woke up the badgermole before she wrapped him up in her arms and carried him out the door. With Kupo in one hand, she tapped Li with her other. The Water Tribe mercenary broke out of his blank stare and followed her.
"Hope you find a place to stay!" came a sneer behind her.
I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
"Ah!" Hana groaned. She was standing in a busy kitchen, with cooks pacing left and right, piling up used dishes in her wooden tub. Her arms and hands were red from scrubbing for hours, but from her past work, one didn't feel the soreness in his or her arms until you had finished doing a full day's work without rest. She was groaning instead, at her own hastiness. "I'm sorry for getting you into this, Li."
"Not at all," said Li, happily scrubbing away in a larger tub next to her. "I'm sorry to say that I'm about as poor as you are. At least they were nice enough to let us have some food along with letting us stay in for the night. "
"No, not that," Hana said. "I'm talking about getting you to come along with me and get you involved in my own Pai Sho game. You can leave if you want. I'm sure at this rate it really might be easier to try to travel to Ba Sing Se by foot."
"And what am I going to eat on the way there if not those really nicely wrapped rice balls?" Li gave a sincere smile. "I might have been a mercenary, but I know how to be a gentleman too, and I can't leave a young girl like you alone if that means you're going to be stuck here. I'll see you to Ba Sing Se before we part."
"I'm very grateful," Hana turned back to her scrubbing.
The restaurant they were staying was a restaurant presumably known in town for very good soup dishes. Noodle soups. Fish soups. Wonton soups. The two hadn't tried the food yet but even the bare aroma had caused both their stomachs to growl loudly. It was getting later at night, but it seemed like the later it was, the more people streamed into the restaurant to eat. Hana suspected that much of the village was working later hours, trying to catch as many fish and gather as much firewood before the snow started falling in loads.
"But really," Hana growled. "What are the Water Tribe rules he keeps talking about? I've never seen that boat tile before, and Shijin told me that nobody takes Water Tribe Pai Sho games seriously."
"Your teacher would be right," Li said. "Nobody takes those rules seriously. The Water Tribe uses those rules for their youth. It's kind of like basic training for young people who haven't played the game. It just so happens that we get a bad reputation for it since no one gives any kind of basic beginning training the way we change the game to accommodate our young ones."
"Wait," Hana's hand almost slipped on a plate. "So you're saying Shou wants us to play a version of Pai Sho that's designed for little kids?"
"Yes, but that's a bit more difficult than you think it is," Li nodded. "The reason nobody takes those rules seriously outside the Water Tribe is because to anyone who understands the underpinnings of the game, all of the rules and pieces are ridiculously unbalanced, and every game boils down to one or two standard paths to the point where the game becomes boring."
"So why not just have your kids learn Pai Sho the right way?" Hana raised an eyebrow. "This seems like such a backwards way if you're going to have to unlearn the game eventually."
"That's what I was about to get to," Li said. "When I said youth before, what I really meant is that the Water Tribe only teaches this way of playing to girls. None of the boys learn this style usually, and even when girls play Pai Sho when they grow up, it's a standard to always use this watered down style with them. Many Water Tribesman see it as a form of courtesy."
"What?" Hana almost shrieked and once again lost control of a porcelain plate. "So you're saying that Shou is challenging me to a game that's designed only for girls, and it's a dumbed down version. What? Because girls can't handle the tough man's way of Pai Sho?"
"Frankly, yes, that's how they see it," Li said. "You must understand that the way we treat women in the Northern Water Tribe is very different than how noble ladies are treated in Ba Sing Se, or women in the Fire Nation. It's almost like how many women Air Nomads were treated. Different and segregated. It's a cultural barrier that some see as fitting and necessary to maintain tradition. Some, like myself, have left for those very reasons."
"So how does Shou know this style?" Hana scratched her head. "Shou's a man, yes?"
"I don't know," Li replied. "Some Water Tribesmen might have learned it for fun. Last time I checked, they did have small tournaments that occasionally used this style of play as a more cultural event. But that might have only supplemented the opinion that the Water Tribe isn't a nation that breeds top notch Pai Sho players. As for the man in question, I personally think he might just be bluffing. You don't proclaim to be a master of Water Tribe rules unless you're really just not a good player."
"Well, in any case," Hana mumbled. "Is this something I can learn overnight if I already know how to play Pai Sho?"
"It might disgust you learning it," Li stacked his last set of plates on a board next to him. "But yes, it is possible to learn it."
"Great," Hana patted her wet palm against her robes, where both Kupo and her bag of tiles were hidden. "Then would you mind teaching me how to play this style when we have some time later tonight? I'll trade you one of my rice balls."
"For one of those," Li grinned. "I would give anything."
And so, Hana found a new teacher. Later that night, after all of the guests and cooks had left the restaurant, and the head owner locked the two of them in the restaurant, Li and Hana moved one of the restaurant tables towards one of the few lights still glowing in the restaurant. Hana rolled her board onto the table and gave Li a set of Pai Sho pieces. Kupo was sleeping a few tables away, underneath a different lantern.
The wooden doors rattled a little bit as the winds outside picked up. There was no snow yet, but Hana could even then feel the coldness of the coming weather. She shivered a little bit, and Li brought the lamp, which was affixed to a short bendable piece of metal, closer to the table for some more warmth.
"I'll first have to warn you that I'm not the best Pai Sho player, so I'm not sure how good of a teacher I can be, but this style is straightforward enough that you don't have to worry too much hopefully," Li rubbed the wooden pieces in his palms. He thumbed the board next. "This is a nicely drawn board. The tiles are very expertly carved too. I wouldn't expect less from an Air Nomad."
"Alright," Hana said after laying four faceless tiles on the four corners of the canvas to keep the board down. "Where do we start?"
"Well," Li picked up the badgermole tiles from his pile and replaced the faceless tiles with the badgermole ones. "The first rule you learn in the Water Tribe style is that there are no badgermoles. After all, there aren't any in the poles. Instead, we have boat tiles, just like the one you saw on Shou's betrothal necklace. They are perhaps the most important piece in the game."
"There are no badgermoles?" Hana widened her eyes. "This is going to be tougher than I thought."
"Well, thank that there aren't any other tile differences, so for now, just pretend these faceless tiles are boat tiles," Li handed Hana two of the tiles. "Each player is allowed to place two boat tiles on the board. These boats have various strategic purposes, but the main thing you have to remember to get yourself into this mindset is that unlike badgermoles, boats can move tiles but only if they're placed on the ends of this square called the shore."
"What?" Hana almost laughed at the thought. "What do you mean move tiles?"
"Here, let me show you," Li held up a white lotus and a faceless tile. "Let's say that you placed this boat tile outside the center square. These four squares that are touching the edges of the center, we like to call the ocean. You may place boats anywhere in this ocean, but for purpose of strategy, there are few who would say that placing it anywhere but the shore is a good idea. Your boat may move seven steps up, down, left, or right along the shore. They may pass these narrow chokes where the sky bison are placed but they may not move on the central square."
"This makes it sound like the center of the board is almost completely irrelevant, if one of the most important pieces is centered on the edges," Hana frowned. This didn't seem like a fun version of Pai Sho.
"Now you're seeing why games can get really boring," Li nodded in agreement. "Now, watch this. If a tile is placed on the shore or adjacent to the shore, you may move that tile the same amount of spaces that your boat is moving, as if you were picking up the flower or piece as you move along."
"Can the boat tile capture other pieces then?" Hana asked. "What happens when it runs into another piece? Does it capture pieces or is it like the badgermole and just a purely defensive piece?"
"That's probably the only interesting part of this game," said Li. "If you crash a boat into another boat, both of the tiles are eliminated from the game. Other than that, the boat can capture flowers, wheels, but not sky bison tiles. They cannot move if there is a sky bison adjacent or in front of them."
"This seems like a useless tile," Hana mumbled. "What's stopping me from placing my white lotus tile in the middle? Your boats can never reach me."
"So what's stopping me then from adding an offensive piece the next turn and threatening then?" Li asked. "And then, if you try to threaten me with your own tile, I can just move a boat into position and push my tile away from yours every time you want to capture it."
"Sounds like a frustrating way to play," Hana sighed. "And without any badgermoles, you're right. I can't defend my white lotus as easily."
"That's right," Li nodded. "Remember. You can take flower pieces if you have a White Lotus on the field, and you can take non-flower pieces if both White Lotuses have been played. The issue becomes, however, if you deploy your white lotus second. If it's in the center, you can't expect your opponent to not take the initiative to strike since you won't have a badgermole to defend."
"This reminds me of a training period I had with Shijin a long time ago," Hana grinned. "He took away all of my badgermole tiles and forced me to play without them. It was hard."
"Your teacher sounds like a very capable one," Li nodded. "That is, indeed, a very important lesson to learn as a young Pai Sho student. Most people use tiles like the badgermole like a crutch, and they grow up with bad habits and have very awkward deployments because they overly on that one tile to defend everything."
"You sound like you have those same bad habits," Hana chuckled.
"I do," Li said, and Hana stopped laughing. "Don't worry. It's quite all right. I had to learn Pai Sho almost all by myself. No teacher really. Just observing games over and over again until I got the hang of the rules."
"That must have been tough," Hana murmured. "So that's why you were staring at all those Pai Sho games intently when we were traveling on the road?"
"I thought someone was staring at me, but I just couldn't tell from where," Li laughed, almost a little bit too loudly. He quieted down when Hana pointed at her badgermole pet just across at the other table. "But yes, that's what I was doing. Anyway, are you ready to play a few games and try it out for yourself?"
And so they played. Despite the fact that Li said he wasn't a very good player, Hana still had a lot of trouble with the new way of play. The boat tile changed everything. Her deployment, in what order she placed her tiles, where she placed them, and where she moved next. Even the number of pieces began to change. Slowly, after the first and the second games, Hana realized that a good strategy to employ would be to have two boats placed very early, so that she could move in opposite directions for maximize effect and range.
"That's a very common strategy," Li would note as the games went on. "But be careful of people putting some tiles behind your lines. Sometimes, in attempting to cover a lot of ground, you leave your back exposed to danger."
It was difficult at first for Hana. Not having her favorite piece kept her from playing her pieces as spread out as she used to. But she adapted. She learned. She remembered what Shijin had said in a time like this.
"Strategically speaking," Shijin said in her head as she tried experimenting with controlling the middle with a dragon tile in one of her next games. "This would be fine if you had badgermoles, but since you don't, you trying to control the middle would be pointless."
There were also a few more nuances about Water Tribe rules as she continued. For example, unlike before, she couldn't place any flowers like she had before in the spot labeled as the ocean. That meant that most of her tiles were forced to be either near or directly on the shore, which made her options a lot more limited than before. She experimented around with changing the placement of her flowers and the timing of those placements, but no matter what she did, she found that placing the flowers just adjacent to the shore made the most sense.
Hana lost a lot at first. There was a feeling of discouragement, that if she couldn't beat Li, there was no way that she would be able to beat someone who had been able to play with someone as great as Shijin's mom. She had no idea who she was even like, but Hana never doubted that she must have been amazing. Hana wishfully thought that perhaps Shijin's mother had played with Shou out of pity, but she quelled the thought quickly out of her mind.
However, slowly but surely, Hana began to understand bit by bit the trends and patterns in this new style. It was definitely not harder than the Pai Sho she had been playing until now, but it was a new perspective of playing. She began devising her own strategies as the night went on, substituting her boat deployment in favor of earlier sky bison and fire lilies. Controlling one portion of the board so that one's deployment of boats was limited to a certain scope. She came up with two pronged defenses that buried her white lotus between layers of defenses surrounded by boat and wheel tiles.
"Now that's a situation where keeping a boat tile away from the shore might be a good idea," said Li when Hana constructed a near perfect wall between Li's pieces and her white lotus. "Notice how if I move my boat in there, I can target your White Lotus right from behind? You might want to be careful of that."
Hana felt like an eternity went by as she learned a whole new set of rules. By the end of it, Hana was convinced that the Water Tribe way of playing Pai Sho was undoubtedly the worst way of training young children to play the game, especially if it's a game that was designed only for women to play. However, her prejudices aside, she used the opportunity to think about how she could incorporate some of these strategies into the real Pai Sho. At the end of the day, what mattered most wasn't the game; it was beating Shou and getting a two way trip to Ba Sing Se.
Hana slept late that night.
The next morning, Hana and Li appeared at Shou's door very early in the morning. There were dark rings beneath her eyelids. Shou seemed amused at the girl, whose eyes twitched occasionally from lack of sleeping.
"Are you sure you can play me in this condition?" Shou asked. "You look like you'd fall asleep in the middle of our first game."
"I'm not tired," Hana waved Shou away. "Let's just get this over with."
Shou led the two of them of inside his home and they settled down at a table next to the fireplace. There, Shou had placed his own personal board, a wooden circle painted with old and fading colors. The board looked like it hadn't been used till recently. Shou had a set of his own Pai Sho pieces, and he motioned for Hana to sit down.
"Is Shijin still lugging that canvas he calls a Pai Sho board around," Shou ran his fingers over the delicately carved wood. "This is a real Pai Sho board, carved from some of the finest Airbenders with their bare hands. You don't come by antiques like these quite often."
"You mean one Airbender carved this for you," Hana rubbed her eyes as she reached into her robe for her set of tiles. "You don't need to brag about what you got from Shijin's mom as gifts. You already disgust me enough as it is."
"Insult me all you want," Shou sat down, rummaging through his sack of tiles as well. "Just know that you'll be getting your due when I sail off for Ba Sing Se all by myself just to spite you."
"That's funny," Hana laughed. "I thought you were already spiting me when you said you'd play me Pai Sho, Water Tribe style. I didn't know the only style of Pai Sho you played was a style they teach to little girls like yourself."
"Why you," Shou growled. "It was Kawa who taught me this style."
"Oh," Hana raised an eyebrow. That was a curious subject, perhaps to pursue for another time. "That makes it even more amusing than."
"You're just all talk," Shou said.
He set down his first piece. It was the boat tile, placed at the very back of his board. Hana took one look at it, and despite a growing need to collapse and sleep, her lips curved upwards in a wide smile.
"Hey Shou," Hana said. She flipped three tiles between her nimble fingers, a trick she hadn't done in a very long time. "Why don't we make this match a best of five?"
"What?" Shou replied. "Why would you do that?"
"I can't stand that a Pai Sho player of your caliber can insult a player as good as my master, let alone brag that you were taught how to play Pai Sho by his even more famous mother," Hana said, and slapped a sky bison tile on the board. "I'm going to beat you down two times in a row in this fake game you like to call Pai Sho."
"And then, we're going to play real Pai Sho, and I'm going to beat you again."
To be continued...
I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
Lesson Fifteen: The Water Tribe and Their Fake Tiles, Part Three
"He's only ten years old!" Kawa stood before the five elders. "He does not need to be dealt the same punishment as me."
"He is responsible for why you are receiving this punishment," said the elder to the far left. Master Pang. "He is lucky to even be alive, had it not been for you. If there is one person we are truly sorry for handing our judgment, it would be you."
"Then let me bare all of it," Kawa held her hands against her chest. "I'm ready to sacrifice anything. Everything."
"We know you are," said the elder to the far right. Master Sa. "But everything your son has done was a violation of what few rules we have. No young Airbender should have left the premises unless followed by a guardian until he or she is ready to embark on his own. Yet, not only did he not follow that, he convinced young Mao, Seigi, To, and Lan to follow him. You heard Seigi. The other three…so young…"
There was a deep silence in the room. Outside, one or two eavesdroppers wept. Kawa was speechless. There was nothing she could say.
"He was also told not to go to the village. He and everyone else were told extensively about the Wu Jian who stayed there," said the elder to the right of Master Pang. It was Master Bun. "Yet, not only did he do that, he did the unthinkable of trying to approach them, and out of what? The girl says he saw them picking on someone and got mad, but look how he turned out."
"Do we exile him for having a heart?" Kawa regretted saying that the moment she said it. She knew it had nothing to do with who Shijin was. Shijin was a good boy, but rules were rules for a reason.
"No," Master Sa's gruff voice made him sound angrier than he really was. "We exile him because we have one."
"He will need time to heal, and this temple will not, and I fear cannot ever, give that healing," said the elder in the middle. It was Master Zin that spoke. He was the youngest of all the older masters and he looked at Kawa. His stoic expression forced. "Kawa, you know me better than anyone else. Shijin may not understand but this place will have too many memories now. If there was another way to keep my son, both here and in the mind, I would have made that choice already.
Kawa gripped her hands tightly. She knew that was the truth.
"They will misunderstand," Kawa bit her lip. "He will misunderstand, I know it. He's not a boy who easily gets things like this."
"People will misunderstand what they don't understand. Nothing we do will change that now," Master Pang shook his head. "And it is not our duty to attend to dispelling rumors, nor is it our duty to calm the hearts of the parents who no longer have their children."
"And I know my son," Master Zin said. "He will understand when he is older. For now, let him know that I was the one who made the decision. Let him know that I blamed you too. Let him know all of those things. If that will help him understand the gravity of his mistake, then I'll let him feel that way for the rest of his life."
"Zi-" Kawa almost burst out, but stopped at the last moment. She bowed deeply with composure. "Yes."
"Then it is settled," Master Zin looked to his left and to his right. He spoke with clarity, his eyes focused on Kawa, as if engraining her image into his mind forever. The two shared a moment together. The other elders looked at Master Zin as if they wanted to tell him to get going with the ceremony, but out of respect chose not to. That moment lasted almost too long.
"You and Shijin will be exiled from the temples. All of them. You will never be allowed to set foot up these mountains again. While your circumstances is one rarely even thought of, it is a great sadness that we must, under the guidance and lessons of Yangchen, banish one of her greatest disciples."
The hall once again bore a very long silence. Even after the decision had befallen, everyone within earshot seemed like they were still holding their breaths. It was the last member of the council who relaxed everyone.
"I would like to interrupt briefly, now the formalities are over," said the elder to the left of Master Sa. Master Yuu. "What about your disciple? Seigi? Are we to send her back to the Eastern Air Temple once you leave?"
"Yes," Kawa nodded. "I will take her myself, if I may. I have, of course, been with her almost all her life. But if it's the training that you believe she still requires, don't think so much of it."
"It will be difficult finding a teacher that will bond as much as you have with her," replied Master Yuu.
"You heard her side of what happened today," Kawa said. "While not prideful, and it was her loss, for however little time, it's clear that she held off five Wu Jian in the face of fear. When she is in her prime, Seigi will, as there is no shred of doubt in my mind, be at least twice the Airbender I was when I was first became master."
I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
Hana opened her eyes and saw a clear star filled night. There was the faint sound of two wooden oars paddling against the water. Her body swayed back and forth, and as she sat up she saw Shou staring at the distant shoreline and Li sleeping on the other side of the small fishing boat. On her stomach, Kupo was lying beneath some fur covers. He would occasionally whine softly in his sleep, as it was unusual for him to be so blind in the middle of a lake. At the edge of the boat was a small lantern that lit the dark waters around them.
"You're awake already?" Shou whispered. "You don't sleep much, do you?"
That's right. Hana remembered now. She had won every match against Shou in a decisive fashion, a clean five games to zero. There was a game where he didn't last ten turns, about as one-sided as Shijin's and Hana's matches. After the first match, Shou had laughed, nervously, but proudly proclaimed luck had been involved. The second game his response was stern, and Hana went on to win the next three games quickly and decisively without another word from Shou. The games where they played real Pai Sho were the most embarrassing. Once they were finished, Shou stood up and left the room without another word.
At first Hana had wondered if Shou would go back on their deal, but his father merely said that they needed to give the man time to deal with what had just transpired.
"Shou is very prideful," said Lao Yu. "But he is also very honorable. He will follow through on his promise. He is a good boy, I assure you. There are just parts of his past that bring up uncomfortable memories. I hope you understand."
That evening, Shou came from his room upstairs, fully dressed with an extra fur coat in his arms, and he guided Hana and Li to the dock nearby. His expression seemed a lot mellower now than his angry look just a few hours before. When they boarded, Hana instantly fell asleep, having not slept the night before in preparation to play against Shou.
"Thank you for taking us across the lake," Hana said. She had forgotten to thank him before they boarded. "Li and I are very grateful."
"Yeah, yeah," Shou grumbled. "Just don't gloat all the way to Ba Sing Se, you hear?"
"You still sore about that?" Hana rubbed her eyes. "I may not be very good, but even I know that you're not a player I would brag about defeating."
"You and Shijin both have that in common," Shou sighed. "That attitude I mean. It's the kind where you act humble and make your opponents feel awful at the same time. It's just one of the many reasons why I can't stand that man."
"Or maybe you're just jealous of all the time he spent with his mom," the boat rocked just a little bit. Hana smirked as she reached for her bag. She had stored some rations for the remainder of the trip. "Did I hit a soft spot?"
"It's not what you think," Shou stuttered and took a deep breath. He put down the oars and sat down. "Well, even if it was, it's been a long time now. I haven't seen Kawa in years since she passed away, and Shijin probably looks a lot different than what he last looked like when he came to cross this lake to Ba Sing Se."
"You two were probably good friends, right?" Hana asked, handing over a third of a rice ball she pulled from her bag. The badgermole sitting in her lap awoke to the smell of fresh food, and Hana fed the other third to him. "Despite all the bad things you say about him."
"I don't know," Shou looked across the surface of the water. Aside from the ripples made from their boat gliding over the middle of the lake, most of the water was very still. A few chunks of ice floated up on the surface, and one or two of those had fish encased inside. "He was always one of those people who wouldn't say much about himself, and I couldn't stand how he didn't care much about Pai Sho when his mother put so much attention into teaching it to him. She could've spent all that time teaching me instead."
"That must have been a long time ago," Hana said, her mouth half full.
"I'll take my defeat as proof of that," Shou said, popping the rice ball into his mouth and standing back up to row. "I guess I was wrong to challenge you in the first place. I overestimated my abilities greatly."
"What happened to the grumpy arrogant man I met back at the village?" Hana grinned, pulling out another rice ball. She ripped it in half, but Shou shook his head. "I'm starting to miss him."
"Believe me, I'll get more frustrated as the day grows longer. I might even start regretting I took you two and dump you overboard before we get there," said Shou. "That, and we also may have just started off on the wrong foot. Sorry about that."
Hana took the lantern from the edge of boat and carefully pulled up on one side of the boat. She reached into her bag again and brought out her Pai Sho board and tiles. She spread the board on the shaky deck and began her morning routine of playing herself. She first started with replaying all of the real Pai Sho games she had played with Shou yesterday, before starting to review the earliest games from her memory.
"Why are you replaying those games?" said Shou when he recognized that she was reciting the games they had played. "You won."
"Yes," Hana nodded. "But there are many more ways to win, and there are other things that I can learn from you. For instance, what not to do in a game."
"That's unnecessarily harsh," Shou frowned.
"Harsh, but necessary," said Hana. "Take for instance in the second to the last game. You deployed your sky bison first, and then proceeded to place two flower tiles in a row. While you play two useless tiles, I can play two tiles that can move, like another sky bison and a wheel or a badgermole."
"So all you learned was to not place too many flower tiles?" said Shou. "That doesn't sound like much of a lesson."
"By itself, no," said Hana. "But if there's one thing that Shijin taught me, it's that there's an infinite number of ways to play Pai Sho, and usually no one style is worse than another. So the question then is, under what circumstances is it beneficial to place two flower tiles in a row? Under what conditions would your strategy be considered valid?"
"And when would that be?" Shou asked?
"I don't know," Hana scratched her head. "Obviously, I don't know everything yet, so I could very well be wrong in almost every instance that adding two flowers consecutively is a bad idea, but it's still an interesting strategy to think about."
"And you do this every day?" Shou raised an eyebrow.
"I used to play a few games with Shijin every morning before we set off to travel," Hana said. "But ever since we've been separated, I just try to replay a lot of our games from my memory, or I try to play against myself. It's definitely not as hard when I know exactly what moves I'm going to make, but my master taught me well. With his words I learn new things every day still."
An hour into playing, Li woke up and Hana shared some of her rations with him. He offered to help Shou row the boat, but the ferryman rejected the offer, so he offered to be a practice partner for Hana that morning in Pai Sho. They played for another hour before the sun finally rose over the lake, turning the dark waters into a glistening mirror.
"I hear the tournaments in Ba Sing Se are really tough," said Li, as he stared at the board. He had lost almost all but one of his offensive pieces. "They're separated into beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels I hear and it's really competitive working your way to the top."
"Hey, you mean this girl is going to Ba Sing Se to play in the Pai Sho rings?" Shou scoffed. "Even Kawa had a difficult time in the advanced tiers, and from what Shijin said about the beginner and intermediate rings, those players weren't anything like pushovers."
"Isn't that exciting though?" Hana smiled, finishing off the game with Li with a double pronged attack with a pair of badgermoles and a wheel tile. "To play with some of the best players in the world. Not everyone gets to have that kind of experience."
"And why are you coming to Ba Sing Se?" Shou turned to Li. "I'm assuming it's not just to escort a girl to the city gates then leave?"
"I'm just a wanderer from the north who's settling down somewhere," Li shrugged. "I imagine Ba Sing Se is the right place to settle down for a worn out soldier like myself. Who knows, maybe I'll even be able to start a family, or finally get good at Pai Sho like Hana here."
At that moment, Hana started laughing. It started out as a short giggle, but after a second she broke into a fit of mirth and tears. The boat rocked even harder than before and Shou had a hard time putting the vessel back in balance. The two men in the boat looked at their third companion with strange glances. Did she really think Li was that ugly?
"Sorry, sorry," Hana sniffed when she was done. "It's just that this is kind of amazing, don't you think? I mean what are the chances that the three of us, completely different people from different parts of the world, happened to be here, right now, watching this beautiful sunrise, playing Pai Sho, and discussing what our future holds in store for us? When you think about that, it must be some kind of miracle that we've all come this far."
"That's when you know she's been trained by an Airbender," Shou said. "A profound and almost difficult to understand appreciation for all of life and its mysterious ways."
"Well, I have come a long way from home," Hana admitted. She looked down at Kupo with a strong sense of nostalgia. "We've come a long way, haven't we?"
That morning, Shou's boat landed at a dock just on the outskirts of the road that led to the main gate. Unlike the village where Shou laid residence, this place was quite crowded with travelers, refugees, and armed men patrolling the area. Merchants and traveling caravans went to and from the city as well. The sun was high in the sky, but it provided little warmth against the strong winds.
It was here that Li and Hana gave their farewells to Shou.
"Thank you once again for taking us all this way," Hana bowed deeply along with Li. "I will not forget this, and maybe I'll visit you again to play some more Pai Sho."
"Ah, don't waste that on a person like me," Shou waved her off. "Just come grab a good dinner next time. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take a nice nap before my return trip."
I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
The remaining ground to cover to Ba Sing Se was just a straight road that led to the towering and majestic walls. Even from miles away, the walls were clearly visible. It was the first time that Hana had seen them, and even Kupo seemed fixated on the massive work of Earthbending in front of them and constantly seemed to be bidding Hana to rush as fast as they could to the walls.
As expected, there was a long line of people waiting to get into the city. There were many merchants who received priority as they were escorted by armed mercenaries to the front of the line to be among the first to enter the cities. Farmers who lived within the first ring of the city, according to Li, were also given priority. Refugees and everyone else had to wait as they marched slowly towards the front. Yet with every step, the majestic walls of Ba Sing Se grew closer, and Hana could not help but wonder what kind of adventures awaited her within the walls.
Bao Qian, thought Hana. That's the person Shijin wanted me to meet.
Sometime in the early afternoon, Hana's stomach growled as she realized that Kupo had ate up the rest of her rations. He had, after all, not eaten very well during the duration when Shijin was separated from them. Her hunger was made worse by the fact that there were many food carts that lined the road to the front of Ba Sing Se, all of them selling a variety of meats, steamed vegetables, and soups. It all smelled so good, and Hana could recognize the cuisines too.
There were tables for anybody willing to eat in the hot stone pots that Shijin had brought Hana to in some of the northern villages. There were great noodles that she had eaten with Han at a festival dedicated to badgermoles. Unhealthy yet tasty breakfast treats like flour cooked in boiling oil. Pork and soup wrapped in thin but sturdy buns, placed on top of steamed lettuce, and packaged in bamboo boxes, much like the dumplings that she had eaten in Taku.
This is what it meant to be called the cultural center of the world, Hana realized. She reached for her coin pocket, before realizing that, much like her food, all of her money had already been spent. The growling in her stomach intensified, and she felt slightly embarrassed that so close to her destination she had to feel the effects of hunger when she had stayed strong for so long.
"Li, I'm going to go pick up some food, so I'll be back in a few hours," said Hana, holding on tight to her bag of Pai Sho tiles. She turned to the people in line behind her, a family of four.
"A few hours?" Li raised an eyebrow. "And I thought you were out of money? This food looks pretty expensive too. I'm sure all the merchants are overcharging all the food when it's clear that we don't have many other options if we want to eat."
"Don't worry about it," Hana grinned and walked off, her trusty badgermole following right behind her.
Hana found a spot between two food carts selling steamed vegetables and grilled chicken and pork. She unfolded her canvas Pai Sho board, set the four blank tiles on the four corners, and piled half of the tiles on the other side of the board. She crossed her legs, moved her own tiles close to her, and waited. She knew from experience, that someone would come soon enough.
"Four bronze pieces that it's a farmer," Hana chuckled to herself.
Sure enough, just ten minutes after setting up her tiles, a farmer returning from the fields with a bucket full of crops came passing by and noticed Hana's makeshift Pai Sho board. He came over and set the bucket down right next to the cart of steamed vegetables and took a moment to admire all of the well-crafted tiles.
"Would you like to play?" Hana smiled. "Just two bronze coins is all you need to bet."
"I usually don't play with bets," the farmer said. "And it doesn't look like you have any money on you either. What kind of play are you trying to pull, girl?"
"If you win, you can take my entire Pai Sho collection," Hana waved to the canvas board, the tiles, and even the nice bag that was used to fit all of those things together. "What do you have to lose?"
"Not much compared to you," the farmer let out a bark as he fished around for his coins. "Today must be my lucky day!"
Hana swiped the two bronze coins that the farmer presented and waved for her first opponent to make the first move. From her experience with Shijin making money off of farmers, she could have definitely requested a higher number of pieces since he had looked satisfied with his crops, but she still didn't want to risk making too high a bet and losing an easy victory in the process.
The farmer opened with a badgermole tile in the middle of board. Hana responded with a sky bison tile in her left corner. The farmer placed his white lotus right next to his badgermole tile. Hana placed her own white lotus directly across from her opponent's badgermole. Her opponent set a wheel tile in front of his badgermole while Hana countered with a badgermole right in front of her flower tile, which was just inside the range of her sky bison.
A chrysanthemum to the left side of Hana's board trapped her sky bison, so she placed another sky bison tile on the right side of the board. When the farmer placed another chrysanthemum, Hana couldn't help but remember her conversation with Shou that morning. She placed a wheel tile to the left of her badgermole tile, which not only protected the badgermole from harm, but now also threatened her opponent's white lotus tile. A bit concerned, the farmer placed realized that he was stuck and needed to play defensive. He added another badgermole into the mix, but that was his first and final mistake.
Hana threw down another wheel tile at the bottom of the board, in perfect alignment with both of the chrysanthemum tiles that were blocking her sky bison. With no badgermoles to defend, the farmer was forced to finally start adding offensive pieces to the board, but by then it was too late, Within two turns, Hana had freed both of her sky bison, and with the skies her domain, victory was clinched soon after.
"Now that was an impressive display of Pai Sho," the farmer nodded his head, a slightly sad look on his face as Hana clenched the two bronze coins she had just won. "Good day to you miss. I definitely have something have a story of a gambler that I can tell to my family when I get back home."
"The pleasure was all mine," said Hana as she bowed to her opponent. Graceful in victory and defeat, was what Shijin would have said if he were here now. "Have a safe journey home."
It was only then that Hana realized that she had drawn a small crowd. A few other farmers had lined up to see a young girl beating an older man at Pai Sho, and there were at least five more that were willing to throw down some coins to play as well. The first one lining up tossed in three bronze coins.
A hand tapped Hana's shoulder, and Hana looked to her right to see the grilled meat cart owner smiling down at her. He held some a stick of grilled chicken in his hand, which he handed to her.
"For giving me some business," he said to her, before turning back to the grill.
For the next two hours, Hana would play quick Pai Sho matches against anyone who was willing to put down some coins. It wasn't large winnings. Two bronze coins here, three there, and the occasional four. She didn't win all the time either. There were a few farmers who were above average, and Hana still made many errors in judgment that resulted in avoidable losses. But she held her own against even the opponents she lost against, requesting a rematch and defeating them in the second attempt.
They weren't difficult opponents, of course, but there was still satisfaction in winning and earning something out of it. Most of them were farmers, and the rest were a few older boys who proclaimed to also know how to play Pai Sho. Many of them didn't like the idea of losing to a girl, but when they were crushed convincingly, there was not much for them to say. However, as she kept winning, a good portion of the crowd began to walk away, as challengers began to realize that the gambler in front of them was more skilled than they were.
The last match of the day was perhaps the most interesting. A passerby merchant walked by and noticed the Pai Sho board and happily sat down for a game. At that time, Hana had earned just enough for a single silver coin, and the merchant placed exactly one silver piece on the board to bet with. At first, she considered ending the day with just her silver piece, but something compelled her to take this last match on.
"I want you to go first," said the merchant when Hana motioned for him to start first. "You've been telling everyone to move first, but I'm of the belief that this game is about the second mover's advantage. I'm guessing that's why you win so much."
"Fine," Hana nodded, and then placed her hand over the sky bison tile. It was the safest opening after all to start with the sky bison.
But as her hand hovered over the tile, she hesitated. For one, her opponent's hands were nimbly shifting between two chrysanthemums, which suggested he had been watching her for quite some time. And second, something felt right about the tile right underneath her sky bison. The white lotus tile. She had a gut feeling that playing the game's most important tile first, would be a gambit worth the risk.
She placed the tile down, to the surprise of the remaining viewers. Even the traveling merchant looked a little confused, but his austere face returned quickly. He opted for a wheel tile directly parallel with Hana's white lotus, but without a white lotus of his own, he wouldn't be able to attack yet. Hana once again hovered over the sky bison tile, prepared to deploy the first, but once again found herself conflicted by an even more attractive option. It seemed like her discussion with Shou kept coming back to her and it wouldn't stop nagging her unless she put her idea to the test.
Once again, without placing an offensive tile, Hana laid down the fire lily, which made it two flower tiles in a row, right in front of her white lotus. The rest of the crowd seemed to hold their breath in expectation. What was this young girl going to do with two powerless pieces?
The merchant felt in control at that point, and placed his white lotus tile directly behind his wheel tile, granting him the ability to strike at Hana's fire lily.
It was an amateur mistake, and it was going to cost this merchant his silver coin.
Hana threw a wheel to protect the fire lily. The merchant threw down yet another wheel in front of his first wheel to prepare for a full frontal assault on the front. Hana knew that was useless, but she wanted to prepare a few extra precautions in case of a counter play. She placed a badgermole tile next to the fire lily, granting it extra protection. The merchant visibly furrowed his brow as he realized his time wasting mistake, and moved a wheel tile to his left to attack the badgermole.
At that moment, Hana moved her wheel up and all the way to her opponent's side of the board, placed next to the merchant's white lotus. On the back foot, the merchant placed a badgermole below his recently moved wheel tile to protect his most important piece. By now, everyone was waiting for Hana to play the legendary white dragon that could only be played after the fire lily was deployed, but that was just a distraction. She placed yet another wheel, this time next to her badgermole for protection.
By now, the merchant saw what had happened. His white lotus, already threatened by the wheel tile to his right, was only defended by a badgermole to his left, which was now being threatened by Hana's other wheel tile that could easily move down to threaten it. His position was compromised. It didn't matter how aggressive he played, he would simply lose unless he put some other pieces on the field. Unfortunately, the only pieces available were the fire lily, which would take too long to deploy, and the sky bison, which were easily blocked.
The merchant scratched his head for a few more seconds, and then bowed his head.
"It's my loss," the merchant tossed the silver coin over to Hana's side. "Splendid play."
"It was a pleasure," said Hana, and that ended the last match of the day.
It was late afternoon by then, and Hana found Li near the front of the line, where had had convinced the people around him to allow his hard working companion back into the line. She had bought a good amount of food, as the two carts next to her were more than happy to give her some extra servings for her presence, and the two of them shared the late lunch as their position in the line grew closer and closer to the front.
Finally, as dusk approached, the two of them reached the front of the line. The great walls of Ba Sing Se were parted here. There were guards at the front asking a few simple questions. People's names. Their business in the city. If they had any dangerous things that they were bringing into the city, or if they had families.
Suddenly, Li turned to Hana as he became the next person to go in line. There was an expression on his face that Hana had seen before. The same expression that Shijin had given only a few weeks before.
It was another goodbye.
"This looks like it's it," said Li. "I think it's here where we are going to part ways. I assume we both have very different things to do from here on out. Though I guess since we're both in the city, perhaps we'll run into each other some time."
"Yeah, though it feels like it's almost too soon to say goodbye," Hana smiled half-heartedly and threw her arms around the old soldier. Perhaps all along she knew that when they had reached their destination they would part ways. She didn't think it would be this soon, though. "Thank you for traveling with me."
"I should be thanking you. I will never forget the taste of those first rice balls. Take care and good luck," Li returned the embrace, and then turned to meet the guard calling him up to the front. By the time Hana was called and they had finished asking her numerous questions, Li was already nowhere to be seen among the hundreds of other people walking in and out of the city.
A sudden loneliness and emptiness filled Hana's heart. For a moment, she wanted to think that Li could have at the very least stayed with her until the two of them had walked past this enormous opening in Ba Sing Se's wall. She then thought about how much she would have begged to stay with Li for a little bit longer to get used to the city, and realized that for the sake of not burdening the soldier more than he already was, it was probably for the best that they parted here.
There was an even deeper question that probed her, too. It was here that she realized that all journeys, no matter how long or short, came to an end somehow. Thinking on the half year that she had spent with Shijin and the game of Pai Sho, she began to wonder if the end of this journey would feel just as stale and empty as Li's departure.
At that thought, Hana shook her head quickly to forget about it. For now, she needed to focus on the things she still needed to know. She could live on her own. She had done it before, if only for a short amount of time.
"Let's go Kupo," Hana said.
So, together, the two of them walked through the gates and into the city of Ba Sing Se.
To be continued…
I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
Lesson Sixteen: The Nomads Path Reconstructed, Part One
Seigi stood in the middle of a grassy field. It was a bright sunny afternoon at the Eastern Air Temple and there was a gentle breeze that lightly pushed in from the east. Around Seigi were five stone pillars that formed a pentagon, and sitting at the top of each pillar was a master Airbender. They had all come to observe her today, for today was the day she demonstrated her technique that would determine if she was ready to become a master.
"The technique I'm going to show you all today is the extension of a breathing exercise," said Seigi Nohito, hands folded behind her back. "It's a defensive ability that if mastered may prove to be both your greatest weapon and your savior from a killing blow."
"Surely you don't think you can attain the title of master by showing us a way to hold our breaths," one of the monks behind Seigi smirked. Her name was Xiao Fang, a relatively young master known for her beauty and airbending talent in the Eastern Air Temple council. "Even if you are one of the late Master Kawa's favorite students, you are still young. Don't think we're just going to let you pass on a whi-"
"Will you be quiet and just let her finish," said the master in the middle, Master Boa. "Seigi, carry on."
"Thank you, master," Seigi bowed, ignoring the seething monk. "As I was saying, this is an ability based on controlled breathing, but this is no ordinary drill. It requires intense concentration, especially under fast paced environments. I can only sustain this technique in combat for no longer than fifteen seconds. Any longer and your body will suffer severe damage from lack of air."
"Fifteen seconds?" Master Xiao Fang barked, almost rising from her seat. "What a mockery is this. A Wu Jian would cu-"
"Quiet or I will personally remove you from this session," said Master Boa, her words cut into the atmosphere like a newly sharpened sword. Xiao Fang glowered at Master Boa but returned to her silence. "Seigi, I apologize for this. You may continue."
"As I'm sure you all know," Seigi continued. "Our most basic breathing exercises are designed for us to achieve emotional, spiritual, and most forgotten of them all, physical balance. To reach the pinnacle of spiritual and emotional enlightenment, one must be able to connect with their every surroundings, feel the material world as it is and be able to let it go. That, I have surmised, is the true intention of our breathing exercises."
"In that case," Seigi announced. "There must be a way for us to channel our airbending through meditation, as you will now observe."
"Seigi," said Master Boa. "I must remind you that nonviolence and pacifism are the core teachings of our people. You bring us today an ability that you cite is for self-defense, and while we all understood the need to protect ourselves, we do not actively push for imagining new techniques that may bring harm to others."
"I understand your view, but I disagree," Seigi shook her head. "Yangchen's disciples have, for generations now, improved airbending not just as art form, but as a method of self-defense. We travel around the world, and too often do we hear about untrained Airbenders being kidnapped, robbed, and slain by those who wish to do us harm. We teach ourselves how to escape situations and negotiate our way out of bad situations, but as the Wu Jian have shown, there are powerful people in this world that may not be willing to reason."
"As someone who held Kawa dear to her heart and as someone who has watched you for years since her exile," said Master Boa. "I know what you have been through, but your master and her exile represented what was the end to a long era of division in our history. Yangchen's teachings, while important, are no longer the centerpiece of our beliefs. We will use airbending where we must, but we will not allow for techniques developed for the sake of combat to serve as rites of passage for becoming a master."
"Air is the element of freedom," Seigi replied. "What good are these kinds of traditions if we do not allow those who wish to master their bending to master it in the way they wish? What if a child one day decides to use airbending as a toy? Or as a game? Should we not allow such an Airbender to become a master simply on the basis that their ability does not satisfy the criteria that designates airbending as a sacred art and not a tool for play?"
"You make a fair point, but such a point has been said throughout the centuries to no avail," another one of the masters to the right of Master Boa spoke up this time. She was the oldest among them. "We only allow those who can craft a technique fit for the generations to become master, and those techniques hold the true nature of our teachings to heart. Dedication to enlightenment, release from the physical needs of this world, and becoming one with our spiritual selves. We do not discourage those from seeking their own techniques, but we do hope that they abide by a standard should they be accepted as a master among us."
"Your point seems like you wish to only allow certain types of people to become master. In that case, I sincerely hope that your desire to not see this technique is not because of my heritage," Seigi said. "Yes, we have held such traditions for centuries, but times have changed. Who would have thought that an Air Nomad born from an exile and a cook in the Earth Kingdom could one day stand before you now as a student of one of this temple's most accomplished members?"
"You know we would never discriminate based on your upbringing," Master Boa started.
"But it was clear that only one person was willing to train me when I was brought here. I, who had no talent in airbending whatsoever," Seigi argued. "What part of our teachings tells us to neglect a child brought to the Air Temples, and then refuse to offer her even a chance at becoming master after she has shown promise?"
"What a load of rubbish," Xiao Fang stood up from her seat. "This is why I wanted to decline your request to this test to become master. Your head is filled with nothing but revenge and guilt for what happened to Kawa, her son, and the other kids at the Northern Air Temple. I see in you, only the desire to harm those who you believed have wronged you, and that is, and will never be the way of the Air Nomads."
"And I believe there is a way for our two worlds to coexist," Seigi said. "For Yangchen's disciples, who advocated for improving our physical connection to the world to better understand our spiritual side, to set a lasting and good impression on future generations. There is nothing wrong in fighting, in protecting those who are dear to us, in the face of those who are in the wrong. I will not deny that I am influenced by my past and my disapproval of the Northern Council's decision on my master, but judge me for what I have learned through my years, and then tell me if my ability is the personification of some misplaced vengeance."
"You may doubt my intentions all you want," Seigi continued. "But all of you know that I have spent more time meditating and reading through scrolls in the library than I have practiced airbending. I have engaged more in the fine arts of calligraphy, literature, and landscaping that many of your own disciples have most likely ignored. And I imagine that I am a far better Pai Sho player than any of you."
It was at this point, when Master Boa and the older master next to her started to chuckle. They turned to each other for a moment and nodded as if mutually agreeing on a plan of action. Xiao Fang cast the two of them a disapproving frown.
"As always, our conversations lead us in interesting directions," said Master Boa. "Very well. We will proceed through this test as normal despite our reservations. We will be judging your technique on its skill, its merits as a technique worthy of the next generation, and your character. You may begin when ready."
"Yes, Master Boa," Seigi bowed.
She had already prepared herself from the beginning of her explanation, so all Seigi needed to do was close her eyes. She first started by taking breaths, inhaling and exhaling at long intervals. Without her sight, Seigi listened to the sound of birds chirping outside, smelled the hot soup boiling in the kitchen nearby, and felt the almost unnoticeable traces of the wind's current moving around her body. She concentrated, her mind focusing on those currents, allowing her meditative state to become one with the physical world.
As she did, she beckoned to the wind around her body, slowly drawing longer and longer breaths. Intervals of five seconds turned to six to seven to eight to nine to ten. Small wisps of air began to settle around her hands, face, and legs. She steadied herself, feeling the currents around her, and then feeling what those currents were touching. The softest pieces of dust and sand in the air, the loose blade of grass, the fallen petals of a flower. Those currents became another part of her body.
After a full minute of concentrating on the touch and feel of the wind around her, she raised both of her hands and clapped her palms together. Her eyes flashed open and she exhaled a final strong breath. A blast of air, with Seigi at its epicenter, fanned out in a circle and shook the field, the rumble almost shaking Xiao Fang off her pillar. In that instant, the air condensed around Seigi into a rapid current that wrapped around every bit of exposed flesh and clothing.
"In this form," Seigi said, opening her eyes. "The air around your body will make you able to move faster, cut things with ease, and deflect even swords with just the wave of your hand. It is a technique where the wind will become part of you, an extension of your arm, your body, your mind, as a sword and shield is the extension of one's arms. It requires excellent breathing control, as the air around you will dissipate if you cannot maintain internal balance. That's why this may be more suited to a dance or impressive mastery of airbending than a fight where your body will need volumes of air to keep moving, but for those who can maintain their calm even in a life or death situation, this technique may be an invaluable asset."
Each of the five masters, even Xiao Fang, did not say anything as Seigi maintained her wind shield for a little while longer before allowing it to disappear. Finally, Master Boa spoke.
"How old are you, Seigi," said Master Boa. She did not look surprised by the ability, nor was there any hint that showed she was impressed. However, what was important was that Master Boa was smiling.
"I will turn seventeen soon," said Seigi.
"Not the youngest should you be deemed a master today," said Master Boa, nodding while she spoke. "But you are still young nonetheless Seigi."
"You have worked hard, Seigi."
I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
After years of training in the temples, learning the ways of the Air Nomads, understanding their games, culture, and ways of life, it was Seigi's hand to hand combat skills that she prized the most. It was her method of attack, the tool she would use to defend and protect the people she cared about. It was the first set of skills she had learned when training to be an Airbender, and it was that sort of pride that had caught her off guard back in Taku when Shijin had unveiled a technique that countered her powerful first strike.
But today she sensed that she was facing someone far stronger than she was, and if she wanted to win, she needed to relinquish any presence of pride. There could only be confidence, not arrogance. As she charged straight towards the Wu Jian agent in front of her, Seigi could hear the light footsteps of Shijin as he ran into the forest and disappeared. He was right to leave, and Seigi had commanded him to, but there was a faint feeling of sadness building up in her throat.
That feeling was extinguished quickly. Her opponents twin swords were aimed straight at her charging form, gleaming in the afternoon sun. They were Seigi's first targets.
As she stepped into the range of his blades, the mercenary instantly raised weapons and slashed downwards with the sword on his right. With a swipe of her hand, Seigi hit the hilt of the blade with a thin slice of air. The sudden force ripped the sword out of the Wu Jian's hand and when the mercenary thrust his second sword in a stabbing motion, Seigi used her right hand to send the same slice of air and sent that blade flying out of the man's hand as well.
With his midsection exposed, Seigi brought her right hand back to her center and took a deep breath as she readied a fatal attack.
But even as Seigi lined up her finishing palm strike, the Wu Jian had recovered even faster than Seigi could anticipate. With the two swords out of his hands, the mercenary turned his body, tucked in his right arm, and with his left hand holding onto his right fist, slammed his elbow into Seigi's midsection with a surprising burst of speed. Then, her opponent stomped one foot on the ground. A pillar shot out from the dirt and there was no dodging it. Seigi could hear a crack as the thin pillar smashed into her ribs.
The impact sent her flying through the air, but she righted herself midflight and landed on her two feet and skidding backwards. The pain where the pillar had cracked a rib was fresh in her mind, but she couldn't allow herself to show any weakness. She continued breathing as normal, even though her lungs were crying for more air, and stretched her two palms out in front of her, in preparation for the next engagement.
I overestimated my speed against his, Seigi thought. This is bad.
The Wu Jian walked over to one his fallen swords and picked it up.
But even so, he is still human, Seigi told herself. If I can land a single palm strike, that should be enough to end this fight.
The mercenary stomped his feet in the ground again, and this time dozens of small rock pellets popped out from the ground. With a swipe of his hand, the projectiles launched themselves at the wounded Airbender. Seigi sent a blast of air that destroyed each of the pebbles, but as she did, the destroyed rocks exploded into a giant mist of dust that obscured her vision of her opponent. Knowing the Wu Jian was bound to use the dust cloud to cover his next attack, Seigi spun her body around to create a whirlwind that blew away the cloud and carried her into the air.
When the dust cleared, Seigi could clearly see her opponent watching from below her. With the altitude advantage, she sent a barrage of attacks in quick succession. The mercenary leapt out of the way just as concentrated pockets of air blasted the earth wide open, digging deep craters where he had just been standing. He dug his heels deep into the earth and with the arm that wasn't occupied by the sword, smashed his fist into the earth. Four giant rocks shot out and converged on Seigi from all sides.
Seigi allowed herself to fall back down towards the ground, scattering the tornado in the process. Above her, the four rocks slammed together to form a larger whole, bits and pieces of leftover rock falling in every which direction. Her opponent then raised his fists and swung them in a downwards motion, causing the boulder to freefall above Seigi. Seigi dived out of the way just as the boulder collided with the ground. The impact rattled her body, which was screaming at her as the pain in her abdomen started overwhelming the adrenaline that had pushed it temporarily aside.
There was no time for the pain, however. The Wu Jian charged as soon as Seigi had cleared out of the way, and once again she was put on the defensive. His thrusts and stabs were quick and on point, but Seigi's wasn't a master in name only. Her speed allowed her to dodge the attacks, but she was careful to keep both of her hands around her stomach, deflecting the slashes and swipes that was aimed at her weakest point.
But even her speed wasn't enough to keep up with her opponent's almost randomized attack patterns. His sword style was quick and reckless, thrusting his sword in the most unpredictable of spots. Her eyes were unable to follow his pattern, and she sustained a few cuts on the cheek and arm for miscalculating the direction of his jabs. He would also follow up with a set of punches with his other hand, which had become encased in a rockbound glove. Every time Seigi attempted to land a strike, his earth glove would merely absorb the shock.
This fight couldn't go much longer like this, Seigi realized.
So, Seigi continued to keep her breathing paced at even intervals. Her breaths were quickening, and her lungs burned with the need for more air to pump through her body, but she refused to give them any more than what she knew was required. She needed her body to hold on for just a little bit longer. Even with her eyes focused on the fight, she devoted part of her precious concentration power to tapping into the natural energies around her, collecting the wind whenever she had the chance, using her paced breathing as a call for the air to protect her.
With part of her mind focused on something else, the Wu Jian pressed his advantage, landing more critical cuts whenever he got the chance. A slit near her abdomen and a gash in her right shoulder. Seigi started feeling faint, the fatigue near overwhelming her conscious, her mind screaming at her to give in to the pain. Her robes slowly darkened as blood seeped from her stomach and shoulder. Every block felt like the last one she could hold, and it took most of the rest of her energy to keep her numb feet moving nimbly to dance away from her opponent's sword range.
But the one thing that had kept constant throughout the fight was her breathing.
Finally, she clapped her hands together. A surge of air resonating from Seigi's body sent her opponent, who had been lunging for a final stroke, flying backwards in surprise. He was smashed against a tree behind him, and was then hit again by a powerful gust that kept him pinned there until he raised his hand and set up a wall to shield himself. When the attack had subsided, and the Wu Jian stepped around the wall to look at his opponent, he could instantly see that Seigi's entire body was covered by a blurry rapid current of air.
With my body in this state, I can probably hold the air armor for no longer than thirty seconds before my body breaks down, Seigi thought. That's going to have to do.
With her first ten seconds, Seigi covered the distance between herself and the Wu Jian. If the man was surprised at her speed, he only showed it as an amused smirk. Seigi rammed her right palm forward, and though the Wu Jian was fast enough to react to her attack with his earthbound hands, the strength of the attack shattered the rock glove in an instant. Seigi then clenched her left fist and punched her opponent straight in the abdomen. The man had a layer of hard armor on, but that didn't stop his body from being flung like a toy to the edges of the nearby cliff that overlooked the beginnings of a river that flowed into the Serpent's Lake.
With her next ten seconds, Seigi reengaged her target. This time, her opponent appeared more prepared. He sent dozens of small to large sized rocks her way, but all of them were easily swiped away or dodged. By this point, Seigi was starting to feel the real effects of her abilities. Moving at lightning pace came at a price, and her muscles already felt spent and on the verge of tearing from her forcing them with her airbending to move abnormally fast. The fact that she was losing blood from her wounds didn't help.
When she was close, the Wu Jian engaged first with his sword, but now that Seigi's hands were encased in air, she could deflect them easily by smashing the flat side of her palm against the blade's sharpest edges. Both of them ducked and weaved over the other's attacks, but it was clear now that the fight was on more even grounds than before. Seigi pushed her body to the limits now, using the air to force her body to move faster and faster. She needed a finishing blow, or something that could cripple the man long enough for her to escape. She was running out of time.
With her last ten seconds, she went in for a palm strike, and when it was blocked, went for another, and then another. Each time she pushed new speeds and she felt as if her muscles were being stretched and torn over and over again as she repeated the same motion. Severe dizziness began settling in, her temples feeling as if they were being squeezed by someone who wanted to flatten her face. She could taste blood in her mouth, and her vision was blurred and only enough to see her opponent's swords blocking her strikes.
Then, an opening showed itself when the Wu Jian moved his sword to predict Seigi's next blow. It was this prediction that she was hinging on. She ducked, lowered her body to a crouch, raised both of her arms, and swung them as hard as she could at the man's legs. The two hands were like hammers collapsing on the man's thighs and the crack of bones told her that her blow was successful, but that wasn't enough. In the next second, she raised her arms again and then smashed the mercenary's bones below the knee too.
There was no scream. Seigi rose and let loose a violent final kick in the man's chest that threw him backwards until he lied face up in the spot where they had begun their fight.
At that moment, Seigi dispelled her air armor as quick as she could. She crumbled through to the floor, gasping for every breath of air that was around her. There was no time to even scream at the pain of her wounds. One hand flew to her stomach where she clenched tightly the blood that was still seeping through the wound, while the other held her chest tightly as she took ragged heavy breaths. Her eyes were dimming, her mind exhausted, but she kept her eyes on her unmoving opponent. His eyes were still wide open and moving, and he turned his slowly to meet her stare.
"What a monster," he said. His fingers were shaking as he stretched them out. "But it looks like you've run out of tricks yourself."
With his hands still unbroken he used his remaining strength to raise a large boulder that was sitting next to him. Seigi tried to use her hands to just swipe the attack away, but her arms were being unresponsive. Whether it was her fatigued mind, her torn and number muscles, or both, she couldn't move them at all. She attempted to move her legs, but they too were stuck where they were.
"You put a great fight, Miss Airbender," he said looking at Seigi, who helplessly gazed at the rock. "But this is where it all ends, I'm afraid."
The boulder slowly floated towards Seigi, as the Wu Jian moved to position the boulder right over her head to smash the Airbender with whatever strength he had left.
But as the boulder was just about to move over Seigi's head, the boulder suddenly dropped just centimeters away from her body. When she turned to look at her opponent, she saw that his eyes had closed, and his mouth was parted in a strangely eerie slumber.
At that moment, Seigi also fell on her back, hands still tightly clutching her stomach and chest. Her breathing was slowing down, but the pain in her body still ached, and there was no more adrenaline to subdue the feeling of the gash in her stomach. Her eyes were dimming, and sleep was preparing to embrace her. She took one last look at her opponent.
She knew she couldn't fall asleep in the event that the Wu Jian awoke before she did, but she had just spent the last few moments pushing her body beyond her limits.
So this time, her body told her what to do, and forced her lids to close.
To be continued…
« Last Edit: Dec 11, 2013 09:16 am by guyw1tn0nam3 »
I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
glad this fanfic is still going! I do enjoy it so! air armour, most interesting, very cool! I also would love to see your rules for pai sho eventually, would be neat to recreate it.
Keeper of the shoe Long Feng lost to Appa at Lake Laogai and Meelo's fartbending (c'mon, admit it, you always wondered if airbenders could!) also Bumi's flute shenanigans
@AvatarStateYipYip I'm releasing an appendix after the story is finished. ^^
Lesson Seventeen: The Nomad's Path Reconstructed, Part Two
The sky was grey and snow was falling. The wind howled. The ground was hidden by layers of deep snow and the mountains above were obscured by a thick fog.
At the base of the mountain there were the remnants of a small village. It had been long abandoned. Most of the buildings in the area had collapsed, and the ones still standing seemed brittle in the cold winter air. There was a lone half torn flag at the top of the largest house in the center of the village. It flapped against the strong winds.
There were no roads that led up the mountain. At the end of the village, however, where the village met the base of the mountain, there was a lone figure staring up at the fog. He touched the mountain and then quickly drew his hand back. He looked around and then touched it again. A wave of nostalgia washed over him, and he remembered how long it must have been since he had touched this mountain.
He stared back at the village and remembered how long ago he had come down to this village to see the outside world. He remembered how he had brought many of his friends here, and, on that unfortunate day, lost almost all of them. He remembered, and he grieved, but he no longer regretted.
Shijin looked up, and he felt like he could see through the fog, see the walls of the Northern Air Temple, the Sky Bison flying freely through the air, the lemurs that tagged along with them, and his brethren sailing through the air without any worries in the world.
He touched the mountain again, and then he began to climb.
Hana was overwhelmed by how large Ba Sing Se was.
For the first few miles she walked a road that led her through endless fields of farmland. Wild crops that Hana noticed were grown only during the winter time flourished in the harsh cold. Farmers and their children hustled around the fields. Many of the livestock looked stronger and more muscular than those outside too. Occasionally Kupo would disappear into the crop fields, only to return with his mouth stuffed with some kind of vegetable.
Past the farmland was the Lower Ring. There were many homeless on the street, wrapped in rags and torn up blankets, holding their pots filled with spare change to those who passed. Some stood in shadowed alleys or walked nimbly through large crowds of people, daggers and agile fingers at the ready. There were many tea shops with broken windows, but not many restaurants. The restaurants that Hana saw were packed to the brim with people. Hana saw a lot of waitresses running from table to table and thought of Omashu. She was glad she was told that Bao Qian was in the Middle Ring.
She also saw a lot of the same small gambling rings in Omashu in many of the restaurants. Tall muscular, but not particularly bright looking, men sat triumphantly at the head of these tables, sabers and spears resting besides them as their followers watched with awe as they seemed to win every game. After learning more about the game, it became clear to Hana how these gambles worked and why these people always won.
For a long time, Hana had wondered how exactly gambling in Pai Sho could be done back in Omashu. After all, the game was about strategy and skill, not luck. But in these gambles, the game was a little different. Hana could see large stone pots filled with Pai Sho tiles that were obscured from view. Players would then draw a set of tiles, and would be forced to play with a "hand" of tiles that were laid standing upright. They would then pick a tile from the bottom of the pot, since the top tiles would inevitably be visible, whenever they placed a tile. It also looked like players needed to draw their tiles quickly to avoid being suspected of feeling the undersides of the tiles.
This would add an element of luck to the game, but it seemed intuitive to Hana that all someone needed to cheat in this game was to either mark their own tiles or remove certain tiles from the other player's pot. It wouldn't even be surprising if it was both.
There were a few more legitimate Pai Sho games being played in some of the nicer tea shops closer to the Middle Ring. These seemed like the shops where the guards near the wall of the Middle Ring would take their breaks during the afternoon. Older men and young people with backpacks filled with books and scrolls would sit at circular tables with fresh cups of tea. Hana watched for a few hours and looked for any styles that she had not seen before. It took a while before Hana realized that many people were watching her with bewildered expressions.
The most interesting thing that Hana did notice was that these Pai Sho games looked like they had taken much longer to finish. These games had not the usual two wheels or two badgermoles that seemed to be the case in Hana's games, but up to three or four. There were more flower tiles placed in very crucial defensive positions, and there were nearly no sky bison tiles in play. The white lotus tile, played very early in a lot in Hana's experience, came much later at times too, meaning the deployment phase of the game was especially important to these players.
It surprised Hana a little, and it took a little bit of time to realize that when she had played with Shijin, she had learned a style that Shijin had been using specifically to make quick money on the streets. There was simply not enough time for Shijin to teach her much else, and probably had intended to come to Ba Sing Se for that reason. Here, in the comforting and relaxed streets of Ba Sing Se, an old man could sit for hours over a single game and worry only about complex strategies.
It also showed her how conservative these players were. Their late placement of the white lotus suggested that neither player wanted to trade pieces yet. They'd build up their defenses in mutual understanding before bearing down on each other with a great number of pieces for greater flexibility. Hana couldn't understand this idea, and tried, mostly unsuccessfully though, to pinpoint when she would have placed her white lotus tile earlier. She had relied on only a few badgermoles to protect her pieces as opposed to this strength in numbers approach.
Hana desperately wanted to join in, but something told her it would be wise not to. There were no women watching the games. This wasn't new, but many of the players cast her very strange glances as they watched her move her eyes inquisitively over the board. It was a new, almost threatening, feel that Hana had not felt before. The men turned their broad backs to her, and it was hard for Hana to see the end of the games. She asked for people to move a few times, but the men didn't respond. Confused, but feeling that the day was getting late, Hana left the tea shops.
"Don't you think that's weird, Kupo?" Hana asked her badgermole. "I wonder what that was all about."
Moments later, she reached the wall that led into the Middle Ring of Ba Sing Se. There were several rows of tents lined up along the front of the wall, and there were quite a few wounded soldiers resting against nearby trees and makeshift beds. The gate into the Middle City was a large open archway. Upon reaching it, she was asked a series of questions by a guard standing at the front.
"Is this your first time in Ba Sing Se?" said one of the guards. He was sitting at a table with large stacks of paperwork strewn all over the surface . "What is the purpose of your visit?"
"Yes," said Hana. "I am looking for someone named Bao Qian. I have been told that he is in the Middle Ring of the city."
"The old retired Pai Sho master? Isn't that the person Sung talks about all the time?" said the guard, looking to the guard next to him with raised eyebrows. "Surely you couldn't mean him?"
"That should be him," Hana pulled out her bag of Pai Sho tiles. "I have been traveling with an Airbender teacher for a few months now. We were separated, but he directed me to Bao Qian, who will be helping me with the next stage of my training. These are my master's tiles, if you want proof that I'm a player."
"So these aren't stolen?" said the guard. He gave Hana the same look the other men in the tea shops gave her. He inspected the tiles and was quite satisfied with the craftsmanship. "Sorry, I don't mean to offend. You just look a little dirty for someone who has been traveling and playing a refined game like Pai Sho. Not to mention you're a woman."
"It's been a very rough journey," Hana said, slowly. That was a weird comment for the guard to make. In the outside world, it felt like a pleasant surprise to see a woman playing Pai Sho. Here it sounded unheard of, almost to the point of breaking the rules. Wasn't Shijin's mom a Pai Sho player? "And if you wish you can play me and judge me for how well I play."
"That, I can accept," nodded the guard. "I imagine if you were truly trained by an Airbender you must have some skill, despite the improbability of any of them finding you of any value. Sung! Come over here, I need you to play someone in Pai Sho."
A lanky man dressed in a guard uniform bounced out from a nearby tent. His eyes shined as he heard the words Pai Sho. He rushed over to the guards. When he saw Hana however, his smile vanished.
"This person wants to play Pai Sho?" said the man named Sung. "She's a woman."
"I'm a Pai Sho player," Hana corrected. "That should hardly make any difference."
"I'm not playing a woman in Pai Sho. That's utterly embarrassing. Go tell her to speak Haiku or write calligraphy," said Sung to the guards, ignoring Hana. "A woman playing Pai Sho. You guys should know better than to ask me to play."
"Wait Sung," said the guard.
Sung had already walked off. He went back into his tent and did not say another word. Hana said nothing in response, but she felt as she had been slapped. She felt anger, but there was something more saddening that overwhelmed her need to burst out with rage. It was not quite like when Shou had questioned her abilities when she was trained by Shijin. She couldn't explain it. Haiku? Calligraphy? What were those things, Hana wondered. She only knew the life of a whorehouse and a life of Pai Sho.
Before, old men, young merchants, and tired farmers had wide eyes but gentle smiles when seeing Hana playing Pai Sho. Even the Wu Jian governor had not done something so disdainful as to turn away an offer to play. To Hana, it seemed like a badge of honor to be a woman and to play Pai Sho. Were those surprised expressions actually saying the same thing as Sung, that it was a commonly held belief that women should not be playing Pai Sho?
"I'm sorry," said the guard, and then spoke as if he read her mind. "But, you must understand, a woman playing Pai Sho does not happen in Ba Sing Se. After all, none of them can hope to be good at the game. We do not care much, we are just trying to get people through this gate if they qualify, but unfortunately you will have to do something else if you want to get through. I am sorry, but it appears we cannot let you through unless you show a demonstration of your skill."
"Well, wouldn't it be easy if you had another Pai Sho player come?" Hana asked. "Or I can just ask another person in the Lower City."
"That is the thing," said the guard. "I would be quite surprised if you found anyone in this city who would bother playing Pai Sho with a woman. I was already doubtful with Sung."
"The farmers outside had no problems playing with me," Hana said.
"That is there, and this is here," said the guard. "Ba Sing Se is a land of culture, of customs, of tradition. I am afraid many here are not as unrefined as many farmers out there may be. I would like to help, you, I really would, but I am sorry. There is no further proof that you are actually to be taught by Bao Qian, since I do not know if you are actually a Pai Sho player. As a result, I do not acknowledge you have any business, nor do I imagine you have enough the gold piece to pay the toll. This is as far as you go for now."
"You won't play me?" Hana raised her eyebrow.
"It is a matter of pride," said the guard. "I had expected Sung's enthusiasm to overpower his cultural senses. Unfortunately, they did not."
"Can you perhaps send him a letter then?" said Hana. The guard's last statement was a stab to the heart. "I know what I must tell him."
"That is also possible," nodded the guard. "I have a brush and paper here, if you would like to write it here. I imagine the message must be short."
Hana reached for the brush and then stopped. Her cheeks flushed red as she remembered. Of all the times for her lack of knowledge in reading and writing to come bite her, it had to come now. Tears threatened to burst forth as she hesitantly pulled back her hand. She shook her head.
"To tell you the truth, I don't know how to write," Hana admitted. "Would it be okay if you wrote the message for me?"
"Miss. I have tried to be patient," said the guard, holding a hand to his forehead. "A woman who professes she plays Pai Sho, who says she is going to be taught by a famous retired Pai Sho player, happens to not know how to write and is asking me, a lowly guard, to write a letter for her? Are you mocking me? Trying to waste my time?"
"No!" Hana almost shouted. She wanted to bang her fist against the table, but knew that would only make things worse. "I only know the characters on the tiles. I really don't know anything else. I was only taught how to play Pai Sho."
"Get out of my sight," the guard sighed. "There are only so many frauds I can take in one day."
Hana clenched her fists and swiped the Pai Sho tiles away from the guard's hands. But she had done it too quickly, and many of the tiles fell to the floor. Quickly, Hana bent down and tried picking them up, while the rest of the guards snickered at her, murmuring things to each other within earshot.
"She says she's a Pai Sho player? What kind of joke is that? Who told her she was born a man?"
Hana tried to ignore them and tried to focus on the wiping off the dirt from Shijin's precious tiles. But her prostrate position, her hands reaching clumsily for the tiles while others stood over her, made her feel weak and a lesser person. She held in her tears. They would at least not get the pleasure of seeing her weep at their insults.
It was at that moment, at the height of Hana's embarrassment, when she was about to burst out with rage, that she heard loud shouts behind her and the beating of hooves. When she turned, Hana could see two men on their ostrich horses racing towards the gate. One of them was shouting while the other was holding up his hands. Hana could see there was a third pair of arms and legs behind the first rider.
"Let us through," said the rider as he approached. "We have a wounded Airbender with us. We need to get to the medical center."
"Where did you come from?" said the guard, turning his attention away from Hana.
"We came from the mountains a few days ago," said the rider. "There was a wounded Wu Jian there who we presume to have fought with the Airbender. He was awake and we fled the scene before he attacked us. They were both hurt badly."
Hana, suddenly alarmed at this mention of an Airbender, picked herself up and rushed over to the ostrich horse's side without a second thought. It was Seigi. She looked calm in her sleep, but her body told a different story. She was cut and bruised in many places. A lot of the blood appeared to have been washed off already but some of the bandages were no longer fresh.
"Seigi, it's me, it's me, Hana. What did the Wu Jian do to you," said Hana. She gently nudged the Airbender's cheeks. She seemed to stir a little. "It's Hana, remember? Shijin's student."
Seigi seemed to respond to that name.
"Hey what are you doing?" said the guard. "Get away from there."
The rider looked down at Hana and appeared tempted to kick her away if it wasn't for the weak person on his back.
"I know this woman," Hana said. "She and my master, Shijin, are good friends. She could tell you."
"First you embarrass me for wanting me to write a letter and now you're just making up stories and harassing the wounded?" the guard yelled. He motioned to the men behind him. "Arrest her!"
"No, please you have to listen!" Hana shouted as the guards circled around her. Kupo was growling, preparing to fight. "Please just listen to me. I really am a Pai Sho player. I can show it. I'm supposed to be entered in a tournament. Just let me in. You can even have a guard with me if you're so troubled by this."
It didn't help. None of the guards listened to her at all. The approached her slowly, wary of the badgermole at Hana's side. A few people had gathered to witness the commotion. Everyone seemed to give Hana that same penetrating gaze, asking her why she was here and what made her think she belonged in the world of Pai Sho.
A hand touched Hana's shoulders. The guards all gasped. Hana turned around to see Seigi weakly holding herself up. Her eyes were glaring at the guards around her.
"I don't know what's going on," Seigi croaked. "But this girl is with me, so she better be by my side when I wake up."
I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
When Seigi woke up, she was lying down on a firm mattress. For the first time in days of smelly futons and rough naps on the bumpy backs of ostrich horses, Seigi felt as if she had taken a long comfortable slumber much deserved. Her arms and legs felt much better. They were still sore, but she could move them now. She brushed the thought of the battle with the Wu Jian away from her mind. It only brought too many painful memories.
As she had asked, Hana was dozing next to her, sitting on a chair while her back was slumped over, head pressed against Seigi's thighs. Hana's clothes were cleaner, now. The badgermole that she always had around was in a corner, eating away at some cooked food in a large bowl. Seigi reached over and brushed her hand over Hana's hair. That seemed to be enough to wake her up.
"You're awake," Hana yawned. "You slept all of yesterday. The guards almost didn't let me out at all because they were scared you would wake up."
"What are you doing here?" Seigi asked. "Did Shijin not show you a road to the north before you two were separated?"
"No," Hana said. "He wanted me to come to Ba Sing Se if we ever became separated."
"That idiot," Seigi whispered. She sighed. "So that's the kind of choice he makes. Figures. It sounds exactly like him."
"You saw Shijin didn't you?" Hana said. She seemed more alert at the sound of his name. She clutched Seigi's hands. "Please tell me he's okay. Where is he?"
"I rescued him from the Wu Jian who were pursuing him," Seigi said. "I can't say any more than that because I honestly do not know. But I imagine he's gone north, away from you, for now at least."
"That's good. The rest doesn't matter," Hana said. Then she blushed. She let go of Seigi's hands. "I'm sorry, I'm probably being very rude. Are you feeling okay? Should I fetch you something to drink? There was a nurse who came by just a while ago asking if someone wanted any hot tea."
"I'm fine. There's no need for you to go that far for me. After all, we've barely spoke," Seigi smiled. "I'm more curious as to why Shijin sent you here. He must have had his reasons."
"He said there was a man named Bao Qian who would help me if we were ever separated," Hana said. "He lives in the Middle Ring, but I don't know where. I came here with the hopes of finding him, but the guards wouldn't let me pass for some reason. They even didn't want to play with me because I was a woman."
The bad memory clutched Hana's heart and wouldn't let go. She wiped a few tears from her eyes.
"This place is so strange," Hana said. "Everywhere I tried looking at Pai Sho games, everyone gave me the strangest of looks. It's like I didn't belong, like a woman shouldn't be playing Pai Sho at all. I never felt like this outside the city."
"Welcome to Ba Sing Se," Seigi murmured. "Shijin should have warned you, but there's a reason why Ba Sing Se is the cultural center of the world. It's the home of the elite. Class and wealth is very important, and Pai Sho is an intellectual's game, not the game of commoners or women who have never been educated before. By the way, this applies specifically to the Earth Kingdom woman, who is rarely taught Pai Sho, and often learns things deemed lesser and easier such as writing poetry.
"He said I could come here and play in a tournament," Hana said. "I was hoping I'd enter."
"I don't even know if they'd let you," Seigi shook her head. "And Shijin said he'd do all of this? And who is this Bao Qian person? I don't think I've ever heard of him."
"The guards were talking about him," Hana said. "They said he was some retired Pai Sho master. Shijin just said he would help me if I mentioned his name."
"Well, I imagine now that you're in the Middle Ring, you could maybe ask around," Seigi said, and then realized that Hana was looking down, her hands holding the bed sheets very tightly. "Is there something wrong?"
"I don't want to go back out there," Hana said. "I don't want to have to deal with those people looking at me like that again, and telling me I can't play because I'm a woman. It was humiliating. They were all laughing at me. All this time I've wondered about the fact that not a lot of girls played Pai Sho. Now I know why."
Hana started crying. It was a very soft, somber cry. Seigi stroked her hair and laid Hana's head on her lap, unsure of what else to do. After all the times she had gotten emotional over losing Shijin, over separating from Li, and traveling alone in the cold winter, Hana would have thought all her tears had been spent.
She was ashamed of herself. She knew it was petty, to be so upset at having been rejected in this manner. It was not her normal self. Maybe it was the stress that had built up, but she knew had Shijin been there, she would have yelled at the guard and forced people to play her in Pai Sho that day until she had gotten the gold piece necessary to pay the toll.
But Shijin was not here, and Hana, as independent as she thought she was, had been at a loss for words. Seigi read her thoughts almost instantly.
"Ba Sing Se is what it is, but that's no reason to give up your passions because of this place," Seigi said. "Is this really Shijin's student? Someone who just falls over and starts crying because she doesn't get what she wants? Since when did you become a master Pai Sho player and consider yourself worthy of other people's acceptance?"
"I never did," Hana shook her head.
"When I first met you," Seigi said. "You immediately told me to take you to Shijin. There was no fear in your voice. You never wavered, and you went straight for what you wanted, right? Where is that girl now? If someone doesn't want you to play, then why don't you force them to play? I bet you I could get those people who rejected you to play with me. And once I've beaten them so many times they've lost count of their tiles, they would respect me."
"That's different," Hana said. "You're a master Airbender, and you must be amazing at Pai Sho too. I'm still just a beginning. I have nothing to my name."
"That's how we all start," Seigi said. "As beginners, with no trophies to brag about."
"Maybe you could teach me, then?" Hana asked. "I think I'd be more comfortable learning from you than someone in the city."
"I could," Seigi nodded. Then, she chuckled. "But I think, now that I've seen your tears, that Shijin had you come here to search for this Bao Qian for a reason. That fool. It seems like he hasn't changed at all."
"Reason?" Hana said. "You mean to tell me that being treated like I did out there, like a fraud who should never be allowed to play the only thing she has ever learned how to do, was Shijin's reason for me to come to Ba Sing Se?"
"Perhaps," Seigi smiled. "Ask yourself. Truly, Hana. What is it that you want now, more than ever, after what those guards said to you?"
"I want to prove them wrong," Hana said without hesitation. "I want to play them in Pai Sho and beat them, a hundred times if I have to, to prove that an Earth Kingdom woman can play in Pai Sho. And win."
"That's what I thought you'd say. You see, Hana," Seigi said. "Shijin used to have a flare of justice about him. He would always try to fight against things that he thought was wrong. In some ways it got him into trouble. Sometimes, terrible, terrible trouble. I thought after certain things happened I'd never see that part of him again. But I think I see Shijin's sense of what is right inside you right now."
"What do you mean?" Hana asked.
"A long, long time ago," Seigi said. "When Shijin and his mom were very passionate about competitive Pai Sho, they would both talk about how to revolutionize the game. To become more dynamic, so to speak. Nobody cared about Earth Kingdom strategies, or Fire Nation tricks, and Water Tribe Pai Sho was a joke. Everyone only watched the Air Nomads because they would always win. Both Shijin and his mom thought that Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation strategies had a lot of merit. It was just that they were mostly uninspired and a lack of innovation in these strategies left a lot to be desired before being brought into competitive play."
"Shijin's mom had the idea of winning a big tournament playing only with Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom openings, and using that to show people that the Nomad's Path wasn't the only strategy that could be used," Seigi continued. "But she passed away a long time before she could do it, leaving Shijin with the responsibility of following in her footsteps. But after her death, Shijin lost almost all his passion for the game, and ended up using it as a way of earning money and traveling from town to town in his spare time. I think even to this day, Shijin would never pick up competitive Pai Sho again."
"I think Ba Sing Se is everything that Shijin hated about Pai Sho," Seigi said. "He had a profound anger at the cultural elite in the city, and after what you've seen, perhaps you can begin to understand why."
"So I'm just a way for Shijin to fulfill his mom's dream?" Hana asked.
"Perhaps," Seigi said. "But I don't think Shijin would have chosen someone unless he knew he would grow to love that someone very much. After all, he had all but given up on that dream a long time ago. I don't think he ever considered a pupil until he met you."
"So after all of that, you still think I should find this Bao Qian person," Hana said. Seigi nodded. "And you still think I should enter in Ba Sing Se's tournaments. Even if I get rejected, or they won't let me play, or they'll mock me, or call me a fraud, or think I'm not even smart enough to play this game."
To all of that, Seigi nodded.
"You want me to do all of these things, because it would be the right thing to do?" Hana asked.
"Do you think I can do it?" Hana said. "Be honest. Do you think I can do all of that and win?"
"No," Seigi shook her head. "Not as you are right now, no."
Seigi knew that was what she needed to say. Pride would do the rest.
"Okay then," said Hana after a long silence. "I'll do it."
"But first, I'll go fetch you some tea, and then you're going to help me."
To be continued…
I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of salt spilling all over the kitchen table.
I'm releasing an appendix after the story is finished. ^^
It better be plenty complicated, or I might be tempted to make a computer game out of it.
I have worked with the author of this story to put together the rules to Pai Sho as seen in Gambler and Vagabond. Check it out! https://skudpaisho.wordpress.com/vagabond-pai-sho/