After our late night yesterday we all decided to sleep in. I’ll admit I was a bit frightened at the prospect of attempting such a sound sleep after our prior kidnapping, but my exhaustion heavily outweighed my reason and I slept until lunchtime.
Despite my late awakening, I was the first of us four to awaken. I stumbled out into the common room to discover a note from Ma Trin attached to a small coin purse with our earnings. My companions sleepily walked into the room not much later, and were kind enough to let me have the meager sum as I had no coin left.
Our stomachs decided that it was time for lunch, so we agreed to go to the market to shop and get food, but at the door was a visitor. It was a man called Tinpo, an airbender in charge of the stealth division of the Black Rose Guild. He was clothed in all black, and stood with a calm air as he blocked the exit. He invited himself in, agreeing to cook us lunch so he could have time to speak his piece.
Tinpo conveniently is a master chef, and prepared a meal we could all enjoy, despite our heavily varied backgrounds. As we ate, he explained to us the reason he had sought us out in such a dangerous place to a Black Rose Guild member – the upper level of the city.
A package! Another package! Apparently the package that Pepper and Xu had tried to check had been a decoy the whole time. But I was less relieved now than I would have been if I had known during our work for the Omashu government. My position in the political embroilment we had found ourselves in had been faltering ever since the Black Rose Guild had made its case.
Of course, since the package had been a decoy, the Black Rose Guild wanted to try again. Tinpo did not give us specifics, but he told us that the contents of the package were a weapon to be used against the people, to quell any sort of uprising that might ensue from the choice of Omashu’s new king. This frightened me. While I had become more accustomed to violence through my more pugnacious friends, I was still a pacifist at heart, so my temper rose at the thought of the injury of innocents. Apparently Tinpo felt the same way, as he seemed quite troubled at the idea of the people being put into danger.
He told us that the Black Rose Guild had one more chance to stop the shipment from taking place. Tonight, at a different warehouse at the wall of Omashu, the leaders of the Black Rose Guild would storm in and steal the package, protecting the lives of the citizens with it. He implored us to join the cause, and save the people of Omashu.
We needed some time to think. Xu, Pepper, Zui and I went to another room. Keku jumped onto my shoulder and we discussed our options.
Zui was firmly for helping the Black Rose Guild. They knew where his brother was, and could help them. The rest of us were torn. I was leaning toward allegiance to the Black Rose Guild, as they had news on my brother, but the kindness that Ma Trin and Police Chief Kong had shown us was sincere. Xu had no love for either sect, both ruining the city in some way or another. And Pepper was having the hardest time deciding which of his two badges he preferred.
But then it hit me. I didn’t like either side. They both had strengths and weaknesses, they both lied and tricked. And they were both the reason I was stuck in this mess. So why not ruin both of their plans? They were too close to the problem, to close to Omashu, to decipher any kind of truth. But we outsiders (with the help of native Xu), could do something purely good, with no gain for ourselves.
We could steal the box.
I fell silent as the others tried to figure out where we stood on the matter. Finally, I formulated my plan.
Zui and I would pretend to side with the Black Rose Guild. Of the four of us, he and I had the most incentive to work for them. Xu and Pepper would claim that they were fed up with the situation and were leaving the city. Once a safe distance away, Xu would tip off a local slum child to warn the government that the heads of the Black Rose Guild would be present at the warehouse tonight. He would then prepare himself to ambush the package. Pepper on the other hand, would use the favor the Police Chief showed him to get hired to work on the police force dealing with the package delivery. Then, while the two sides are distracted by combat, we would rush in, grab the package, and then escape in a burst of smoke. We would attempt to communicate via Keku in case anything changed while we were apart.
Thus resolute in our approach, we adjourned to the kitchen to give Tinpo our decision. Xu, confident in his ability to bluff, subverted the truth, telling Tinpo that while Zui and I would be happy to take up the airbender’s offer, he and Pepper wanted to leave Omashu to take part of a fighting tournament. Tinpo accepted these terms, with one chilling warning – “If you aren’t with us, you are against us.” I began to have some doubt in the plan I had just thrown together in a huddle with my friends. Who were we to take on the long-standing government of Omashu and a powerful group of anarchists who had easily captured us? What kind of power did we wield that could combat the onslaught that we were most assuredly bringing upon ourselves. Who are we to judge the fate of this city?
“Powerful allies or terrible foes”
They are not the only ones who can fight. They are not the only ones who can win, and save the city.
However we are the only ones who can say that we have nothing to gain politically. We are Omashu’s greatest hope.
My confidence increased when Tinpo left. Xu wanted to take this opportunity to speak to the man who he had met while we were captives of the Black Rose Guild. In order to hide our identities, we borrowed a few masquerade masks from Ma Trin’s chambers, and thus disguised, moved stealthily to our neighbor’s abode. Xu silently dropped a wall, and Zui snuck in first, being as light footed as I but more confident. I played with the air, trying to bend it so I could push their dialogue to my ears, and caught snippets of conversation between Zui and the old man, Xia Lo.
Xia Lo was very perceptive, and instantly identified Zui for who he was. However, he expressed no animosity, nor did he give off any indication that he opposed what we did. He is an ex-agent of the Black Rose Guild, so his bonds of loyalty have frayed, though Tinpo is his son so he still puts stake in them. Zui questioned him, and Xia Lo confirmed that while no member of the Black Rose Guild is in the government, he still feels that the government is involved. This we suspected, given the Black Rose Guild’s positive view of our caretaker, Ma Trin.
Information gathered, we decided to head to the market as we had originally intended. It was one of the most enjoyable times I have spent with my companions in the few short days that I have had the honor of spending time with them. I bought materials for a decoy box that we would switch during the commotion, if only to dissuade the chaotic Xu from stealing them. My haggling skill proved to be quite handy in acquiring deals, as our meager means would have normally pushed us to common thievery, something we did not need to be taking part of so close to a dangerous mission.
My bargaining skills also came into good use when Xu found a particularly nice stealth suit that he desperately loved the moment he found it. Unfortunately, the price was steep, and the shopkeeper was attentive. I had brought the price down to a quarter of its original value, but Xu was still abhorred by the idea. So he did something despicable – he suggested that he copulate with the young woman peddling the goods for a further decrease in price. Suffice it to say that he got what was coming to him, and they were finished in under ten minutes. While I have no interest in such carnal pleasures, the blush red on Xu’s face did make me giggle.
Upon searching for further merchants who could lighten our purses, I found a small hole in the wall with a worn path, hardly visible. Inside were a few children, including young Johnny, who was not pleased at our intruding upon his personal life. However I was uninterested in talking to the boy fascinated by the plethora of knick-knacks that the grimy children had managed to attain. I noticed a small wooden flute on a dusty shelf, and I immediately knew I had to have it. Zui also drew my attention to a collection of bombs, an unusual item for a small child to be selling, but nonetheless something that would prove to be useful on our mission tonight.
It was not long before our stomachs protested again, so we headed over to the assortment of ethnic food stands I had found previously. Nearby was a general store, at which we bought oil that we gave to Keku, in case we were ever in a position that a wall of fire would be prudent.
Speaking in a blundering code, we attempted to discuss and refine our plans further, but us four were intercepted by a few members of the police force, who claimed that we were under arrest and would be tried in Omashu’s court. Xu panicked and tried to run, and I called out to him, fearing that he was dooming himself, and he was quickly overtaken by the well-trained Omashu guard. Of course, Zui was outraged by this betrayal, and demanded to know under what pretense. We were told in brief, but more fully our charges were detailed to us while we sat in the courtroom.
The room was brown and cool, with stone benches that were remarkably uncomfortable, even for stone. I shifted back and forth while a surly judge whose expression made clear his contempt for us eyed us from on high in his seat of justice.
We sat together, communicating in soft whispers I pushed between us. I had the letter with the pardoning seal tucked into my shawl, but we decided that after tonight, if tonight even happened, we could be in significantly more danger, so it would be best to save the letter until then.
We were all charged with different and multiple crimes, with Xu having a very nearly impressive list that ranged from thievery to prostitution. We were all charged with consorting with enemies of the state and near-treason however, linking us to the Black Rose Guild. Ma Trin sat in the jury, fuming, knowing the truth, how we had simply been stolen away by the Guild. However we were still guilty to some degree, even if it was beyond the police force’s understanding.
Despite evidence of our kidnapping, we were still sentenced. Xu had a lighter sentence, as he had escaped the Black Rose Guild kidnappers, so he was given an opportunity to bail himself out, however the amount was more than he carried. He attempted to steal from Pepper, who was sitting next to him, but the ridiculously clumsy attempt left Pepper angry rather than Xu richer. Eventually we all pitched in the bail money, so long as Xu promised to talk to Xia Lo about these new developments. The wise old man surely had some advice to give.
We passed our belongings to Xu so they would not be confiscated, and then were led to our cells. As we exited the court, I heard Kong’s angry outburst that we were heroes. I’m glad to see at least someone remembered our deeds. What poor treatment of people under the care of Ma Trin who helped the government in its time of need. My irritation with this whole political shambles grew, and I let my anger fuel me as I spent time in my cell practicing my combative bending.
Hardly a few hours of my year-long prison sentence had gone by before I heard the clank of a keyring in front of my cell. The guard who had dropped them whistled and gestured at the keys.
Confused, I blew them into my hand and unlocked my cell door. I turned down the corridor and met up with Zui, who had a similar thing occur. We went down the hall I had seen the guards take Pepper, and he explained to us that Xu had met with Kong and told him that we would help them in tonight’s mission. How perfectly this was all falling into place, despite our previous plan being overturned! Now both sides thought that Zui and I were working for them, and the government would allow Pepper to aid them. As a bonus, Xu could hide away in the mountain and observe the fight without being forced onto either side. Something was finally going our way!
We met up with Xu outside of the courthouse, and he did bring us some bad news to balance out the fortunate turn of events. Apparently the room in which the box was stored was encased in metal, and Xu had no way to sneak down into the warehouse and swap the boxes as we had planned. I suppose the Omashu government did learn from their previous mistake. Still, not all hope was lost, as plenty of the rest of the warehouse was still it’s old earthen structure, so he would be able to tunnel in and retrieve the box while the forces were distracted. Plans revised, we split up to do our respective duties.
Zui and I met with the leaders of the Black Rose Guild to accept our mission. They adorned us in their all-black outfits, so different from what I normally wore. The fabric clung to my body strangely; I was far more used to the loose and flowing robes that would ruffle in the wind. However I was pleased to note that despite the tightness of the garment I still had my full range of motion, so I stretched out and meditated briefly while Anlock and Senna donned their outfits. Tinpo wasn’t with us, but he was to join us when the battle began. For now, he would be keeping to the shadows, as was his specialty.
Yubi’s words were strong as she encouraged us. “Done with subtley!” she cried. They planned to use all of the resources they had available to complete this mission successfully. There were apparently going to be four notable members of the court, including the police chief, guarding the main entrance, and several others were posted on the roofs. Tinpo and I were to go on either side of the roof and keep the bowmen on the roof occupied, while the others would handle the important guards of the door. Seemed simple enough.
We arrived on the scene silently, taking Omashu’s finest by surprise. I leapt to the right side of the L-shaped building and knocked out the first guard I saw with a swift smack to the head with my staff. The four guarding the door threw up a protective earthen wall that Senna began to throw fireballs at in an attempt to break it. The battlefield was full of the noises of fighting, so I knew Xu must be making his way over here from his hiding place.
I glanced down to the ground to check on Zui. I saw him throw a fireball at the wall as Senna did, but my distraction left an opening for an earthbender guard to attack. As I was hit with rock, so was Tinpo, and we both fell back as one, although we were far apart.
I picked myself up, only to be hit again with a rock. But this time I moved with the rock, using its momentum to drive me into a swirling dodge, and two more rocks flew past me, missing completely. I saw Pepper advance toward me, seeming to not recognize me, and fearing his strong attacks, I whistled to Keku, who flew about, clearly identifying who I was. Regardless, he continued to move closer.
More guards aimed rocks at me, but even as I ducked and weaved to dodge them, my heart pounded with fear and excitement. I caught a glimpse of movement – Xu was scaling down the mountain. The guards advanced. I stepped back but faltered, feeling the edge of the roof beneath my heel. It was a jump I could have made easily in a non-stressful situation, but as the guards reached for the mountain and drew from its endless supply of earth, raising massive boulders to crush me where I stood, I panicked.
I pulled one of the small bombs from my belt and tossed it in the center of the crowd of four guards. It exploded, and when the smoke cleared, my spirit felt chains wrap tightly around me.
Four guards, four men with families and lives and children… now four corpses.
The chains choked me, forced the bile out of my body, cleansing myself of evil. I vomited over the roof of the building. Anlock must have seen it, because I felt the cool touch of healing run through my body, fixing my bodily wounds. But no amount of healing could cure this ailment. I had killed. I had slaughtered.
Paramount to the belief of Airbenders is that all life is sacred. I eat no meat, I fight no bender nor human, and I commune with the spirits. My bending is for ducking and weaving and incapacitating my opponents, if necessary, though it should never be necessary. I fell where I stood, scraping my knees as I landed. I rolled my head to the side to check on Zui – how disappointed he would be in me. We wanted so badly to do what was right for the good people of Omashu, people like Ma Trin, Cassa’andra, and Xu, and yet I murdered four of Omashu’s children.
Senna and Zui were working together to try to take down Kong. The man wore the earth as his armor, stood staunchly, as a mountain, angry as the nagging licks of flame slowly turned his armor to ash. With one monumental punch, Zui burnt away the police chief’s armor, and so Senna began a vicious attack.
I couldn’t pay attention. All this violence was fading into a dull blur of elements and blood. Maybe it was a beautiful fight, a dance macabre. All it looked to me was the seizure frenzy of two people who came into my life and turned me into this monster.
No. The blame was not theirs. There will always be a battle between the citizens and the state. It was happening before it came here, and it will continue when I leave. I have let this conflict have too much effect on my spirit, I have administered my own poison.
I shook myself out of my pity and anger, as I noticed the duel hitting a crescendo. Kong enforced his fist with earth and landed a solid punch on Senna. She staggered, her nose crooked and bleeding, her movements dazed. She shook herself back to focus, the split kicked a massive flame that scorched Kong. Pepper leapt from the roof, seeming to have not noticed my internal struggle, and fiercely attacked Senna, sending her fleeing to Anlock for healing.
Suddenly I heard a loud noise, an alarm. They’d rigged the box! A figure rushed out of the warehouse, Xu was running for his life. I gestured to Keku to drop the oil in a line cutting off the combatants from getting to Xu, and I leapt down to the ground and instructed Zui to create a wall of fire. He did so, and we began to run.
The plan was unraveling. Members of the Black Rose Guild were with us now, angry but confused, not seeming to realize how deeply we were involved. I worried deeply for Xu, pushing aside my actions for later when I would have time to meditate on them. Senna skidded to a halt and demanded to know if we had any idea why the alarm had sounded. As she did however, police forces began to swarm around us, appearing from the earth like golems.
Senna turned and sent out a plume of fire from her hands, lighting the nearest building on fire as a distraction. Through the flames, I saw a person in the building. How dare she torch an innocent! But when I squinted past the flames, I recognized the silhouette. The short stature. The flowing clothes. The fluffy hair. Was that…
I screamed my brother’s name, and the boy inside began flailing. Shouting in rage and terror, I began calling upon great storming winds to push the fires aside. Zui helped me clear a path, and I ran in, my clothes singed and my hair burning away. I coughed on the smoke, but pushed it out of my body so I could breathe. My brother! My darling brother was crouched, coughing on the ground, his beautiful curly hair burned away. I grabbed his body and ran out, tears blurring my vision. I tripped, but twirled so that his body wouldn’t hit the ground. The impact made me dizzy and I coughed as I tried to calm myself enough to speak.
He was badly injured. Parts of his skin were black where the fire had eaten him, and his iconic hair was completely gone. He had a bit of blood and splinters on his hands, and his eyes were half closed. He whispered my name, and the sound of his voice choking on the smoke brought fresh tears to my eyes. I kissed his forehead, tasting ash but not caring, finally I had him back after fearing the worst.
But the flaming building was not enough of a distraction to the police force of Omashu. Suddenly I was pulled away from my brother by strong, calloused hands. I screamed, horribly, hoarse from fear and ash, and punched my captor. I angled my foot back and managed a critical shot to a very sensitive region, then fell to my bleeding knees and crawled back to my brother, clutching him tightly. More men advance, but I pushed backwards and kicked waves of air at their knees, but it did little to stop the sturdy earthbenders. They raised a slope under me, and I tumbled into their waiting arms. They chained me even as I held my brother, and as I screamed and coughed and gasped, he only looked at me with half-open eyes. I held out my arm, hoping to grab onto him, thinking that somehow, impossibly, if I could just take his hand, we could run away just like children again. But he had no strength left to lift his arm, and as he fell unconscious I could only scream his name.