The Canals are Burning

"Love is of source unknown,(...) The living may die of it, and by its power the dead may live again."

-Tang Xianzu

"I have learned that ridiculous messes arise when there is more than one plotter and more than one plan."

-Eliezer Yudkowsky


It was late and the largest city in the world was asleep. Scattered oil-lanterns gleamed up like stars across the dark and jumbled expanse of tiled roofs. The night air was still but this ancient metropolis of stone and brick was never truly quiet. Even in these early hours, before the farmers outside the encircling city wall awoke to hitch up their beasts, the streets and alleys still echoed. Ten thousand subtle nighttime sounds merged together into the silent roar of life temporarily interrupted.

The man who glared out at this city from his high tower window did not appreciate these nightly noises. Of course, he was also the sort of man who disapproved of playful children and refused to trust sunny meadows, so his attitude was not exactly unusual. However, tonight at least he had good reason to stand here in his thick silk robe and glower at the night. His plan for this city had just been dealt a setback.

A second man stood behind him in a corner near where the lacquered wood staircase descended steeply to the tower's lower floors. This figure was less richly dressed than the man by the window and carried himself in a slightly hunched way that marked him as servant rather than master. The subordinate held a sheet of paper in his hand and he carefully stood away several paces away from the room's inner walls. Even long service hadn't accustomed him to the uneasy feeling brought on by the particular decorations hanging in this camber.

"I'm sorry," he said. "Tonight's attack on the secret society was quick and in the confusion it seems the assailant was able to escape with their target."

The man by the window was furious as he growled out into the dark air. "Those fools let it be taken? After all I gave them? Imbeciles. The will of heaven places the key to remaking the soul of this city into my hands, and that same night it is snatched from us. All they had to do was move the real one far enough away! I might almost think this city's guardian spirits had ironically roused themselves from their apathy-inflicted stupor just to spite me." He exhaled slowly to calm his breathing. "But it is still within the city?" Within the cuffs of his robe, hands clenched and unclenched in an anxious rhythm.

The subordinate paused delicately as he considered his next statement. "Yes, as far as I can tell. Forgive me, but though this is unfortunate, is it a disaster? The ambassador's death was the ignition, but I was under the impression that what will happen next is now merely a matter of time. The radius of effect is quite large, is it not?."

His master continued to stare out into the dark and declined to answer. Each of those gleaming lights below his window represented a prize in this coming clash of powers. He couldn't feel the spiritual change yet but that would come soon. "This city has been rotting for centuries. Its culture has become weak and its people even weaker. They have forgotten the spirits of this land. Now we have an opportunity to remake this entire country. The weapons have already been distributed and now that they are activated there are in all the population only a bare handful fit to even recognize this power, let alone to stop it. I doubt tonight's assailant was one of those but perhaps they are working for one of the spiritual experts." He gestured vaguely behind his back. "I have recorded all the possible names on that sheet."

The servant held the indicated paper forward in both hands as he bowed. "They will monitored and dealt with accordingly. I will relay it to the organization." He moved towards a small brazier that quietly glowed in the corner of the room. "Shall I destroy the list?"

A twitch jerked across the man by the window and he quickly walked over to snatch the list in his own hands. "No, no burning for now. Given the plan it hardly seems appropriate."

He glanced around the room as if suddenly aware of many watching eyes. This near the dim light of the brazier's coals, dark shadows sprang up over his face turning him to an eyeless echo of the rows of silent masks that hung across the walls of this room. The painted wooden faces were carved with horn and fang in endless colored variety. Then a coal split and in the changing light both the master and his masks bore flickering smiles.

"We have other means of destruction at our disposal."


Ayika stood balanced on a lip of a dusty tile roof, looking out across the tangled streets and canals in the dying shreds of night. In these grey beginnings before dawn, she stretched her arms up and placed one palm on the rough brick wall of a taller building that that pressed up against this one. Her fingers felt for purchase among the rounded dark tiles above. The chipped edges dug into her hand but she had enough calluses to protect her. Then she shifted her weight as a searching foot gained toehold in a bricked-up attic window and from there she lifted herself onto the gently sloping tiles of those highest eaves. Ayika quickly scrambled up this roof to lean against the stub of soot-blackened chimneys that capped its peak.

In the dimming dark Ayika could just make out the jagged landscape of roofs of the sprawling river harbor town around her. Bestriding a wide river between endless fields and rice paddies, this mini-metropolis harbor would in any other place be a large and important city. However, here it was a limpet clinging to the looming mountain-like wall of Ba Sing Se, the Impenetrable City, capital jewel of all the Earth Kingdoms. Somewhere out there in the distance beyond sight in each direction there were twenty other such towns clutching to other parts of that same immeasurable stone barrier. But Ayika hadn't come up here to look at the wall. No, her true goal would arrive in just a few minutes.

Even behind her, she could still feel the city wall looming. Her parents might have been from the far off Water Tribe but Ayika had been born here in the Kingdoms. She'd lived here for sixteen years; she knew that wall in her bones and at the same time could manage to ignore it in the way only a true native could. Stories said that a thousand earthbenders had labored for a thousand years to build that thing and yet if it were daylight yet Ayika could have turned in the opposite direction to look down the river to where in the distance another wall of equal size rose to cut across the horizon.

Together those man-built mountain ranges encircled Ayika's entire world. Between the outer wall and the city lay the vast sweeping plains and hills of the encircled lands where uncountable farms and orchards worked constantly to feed the untold millions mouths within this circle's center. Inside those walls, the outside world could not touch them. Inside these walls, the Earth King's power was absolute. That had once been true, but after three thousand years it was now just another story.

True citizens, living inside the city, still prayed to those walls. In their tales the long shadows were the divine mantle of the ancient Builder King and his court of spirit gods protecting them. Come dawn, Ayika would be able to see endless prayers chiseled high on the wall above the city gate, at least for a few minutes until the smoke of ten thousand cook-fires reformed the perpetual urban haze that drifted up over those walls like steam from a bowl of soup. Ayika smiled slightly as she leaned back against the chimney on this cold and dirty roof.

Ayika's Grandma Aka had never really liked prayer. She'd said that teaching people to respect the spirits was fine, but encouraging ordinary folk to go around calling out to them was just asking for trouble. She'd often growled, "The other world need us as much we need them and you can never let them forget it. Everything has a cost. And that's why there's specialists."

Sayings like that were why the town had called her Aka the River Witch, though never to her face. Aka had used a different word: shaman. To Aka, the spirit world was a powerful and unpredictable thing, most often valued in its distance despite her own familiarity with it. The local spirit gods of Blind Dog Lord, Golden Toad, and the Scissors Man all shared the same rank as the butcher and the tobacco seller in Aka's keen eyes.

Aka had been of a different, wilder place. The north was a land of storms, seas, and mountains where nothing was given that you did not take yourself. She hadn't understood this land of temples, bureaucrats, and walls. Ayika waited in the half-light and thought about the river and the sea. Far off wild places where you could see anything, even a single thing that was not shaped or changed or clouded by human industry. A place where a teenaged girl like her could stretch out and not hit carved and fitted stone on all sides. A place where she wouldn't have to get up before the sun and flee a tiny ramshackle apartment to find a single space that was not occupied by a mother cooking or a father stacking his work equipment or a little brother screeching like an injured gull.

The sky in the east was now blushing from purple to red and out of the corner of her eye Ayika caught sight of what she had come up here to watch. It was opposite the slowly birthing sun, on the other side of the River Reformed's dark ship-clogged banks. There, in that distant spot across the slums, the gloom of night suddenly blazed with an errant sunrise as the huge furnaces of fifty Fire Nation sponsored factories came to life. These days the Impenetrable City's name was just another story.

From Ayika's chosen rooftop she could see the factories' doors and windows belch forth an angry light: red, writhing, and alive. Dark and soot stained, those growling metal-roofed behemoths of buildings breathed in and out with fire. That entire burning quarter was reflected in the web of canals, setting them on fire with blazing light. It was like the West was forging a new god.

Ayika loved something about those factories. Despite all the anger and suspicion many people of the city directed towards the Fire Nation there was an intangible power there that she imagined she felt inside her chest; the force of new ideas. It was spiritual in its own way. In her imagination the foreigners were pulling light towards those mysterious furnaces, feeding a fire that promised to burst forth across the city, burning away all the chains of paper and stamp ink before it in the blinding creation of their fury. It would leave something new and bright. Then, slowly, as she watched, that distant blazing display quieted down to only the tame illumination of pacified fire.

One by one, the great smokestacks above the hunched factory buildings began to put forth black clouds of smoke. From her perch Ayika could just hear the low keen of the horns sound in the distance across the bridges and the canals that carried local workers to their places of work, performing jobs on those assembly lines that didn't require understanding of the foreign machines they tended. The time of secret firebending was now done. The show was over.

Ayika didn't know exactly why she loved watching this so much that she would trudge through the early morning and climb an apartment building once a month. Perhaps it felt like Gradma Aka's witchcraft. Maybe it was like being part of a story other than her own. The islands of the Fire Nation and their industrialism was the promise of danger, but it was also the promise of change. Into what, Ayika struggled to imagine but it had to be better than what she had.

The sun now promised to show itself above the low eastern hills of the encircled farmlands behind her. The sky was slowly turning blue-grey. Ayika stood up on the roof-tiles and stretched her arms behind her as she arched her back. On a nearby rooftop, her motions mirrored those of a small black catbird that sat languidly grooming its fur and wings on the end of a projecting wooden eve. The early light bounced off Ayika's long hair, front locks tied back behind her head. Those same first rays of sunlight played along the skin of her cheeks whose dark complexion marked her as an immigrant in this land. A Tribal, even though she'd been born a ten minute walk from here. Standing straight, she somehow managed to seem a somewhat taller than she actually was, gaining back a few precious centimeters by sheer force of personality.

For a moment, Ayika looked out wistfully at the panoramic vista of apartments, fields, slums, and factories. Then she took a final deep breath of cleansing morning air and her reward was a lungful of smoke from the chimney beside her. Someone below had started their breakfast cooking. Her violent hacking shattered the dawn calm and startled the poor fuzzy catbird below her near out of its skin. The little creature launched into the air in a hissing flurry of fur and feathers. Ayika couldn't help but laugh at the reproachful looks it gave her over its wing as it glided off. However, since Ayika was still standing in the lee of the chimney, laughing just filled her mouth with more soot.

A moment later, still coughing, she made her way down off the tiles through a maze of roof gardens, rain spouts, and balconies with the swift ease of an exceptionally sure-footed goat or of a city girl born and raised. With a thud, Ayika landed in an alley and took a moment to roll down her faded blue dress from above her hips. She'd bunched the poor simple thing up over her trousers in part for better movement, but also because she couldn't afford to risk it getting ripped any more than she could risk tripping on it while climbing. Then Ayika took a final moment to steel herself for returning to civilization.

With one last breath she stepped out onto the streets that were already filling with the daily chaos of the working quarter of the harbor town outside the south-eastern section of the capital city of the Kingdoms. These streets meandered in their courses and were paved with flat stones beside trickling recessed gutters. Above them, the buildings sat squished together into exaggerated shapes under pointed tile hats, waving their pennants of hanging laundry. Ayika ducked around mothers laying out low tables in the street, barrow-porters pushing passengers in front of them, and knife-grinders setting up their spinning stones. She made her way down the small island hill of her factory viewing post; around corners, over canals, through doorways and alleys. As she went along her pace became faster and faster, and as she began to breath heavier a smile came to her lips. Thought became sheer instinct: race over a bridge, slide sideways through a gap between wagons, and jump down a thin flight of steps, water splashing off her boots.

Smooth as flowing wine she spun around the curses of man carrying a stack of poultry cages, deflected herself past a cart and then stood at the top of short flight of stone steps under a dirty grey stone gateway. Before her was the muddy slope down to the tangled bedlam of the Bed where wooden houses leaned on each other for support, below where the rest of the city thought the ground's surface ended. She was panting slightly as she surveyed the rickety wooden stairs that led to that dingy teeming domain, and grinned. Grandma Aka may have had her forests and her wilds, but before Ayika was a jungle, and it was hers.


Ayika cast herself down those uneven steps into the warren-like slums of the Bed. In the depths of this old riverbed she ducked around the vaulted stone supports of aqueducts from more prosperous districts and across makeshift plank bridges that crossed over other water channels that ran now above her, now below. This was the chaos of the neighborhood called the Bed.

When Ba Sing Se had been founded between the Four Hills, the Kuang River had been an impressive figure on the landscape; a broad and mighty expanse that had carried the rainfalls of the northern mountains down to water the city's crops and carry its ships out to the bay. However, floods had threatened farmers on the banks so an ancient king had his magicians built canals and levees to tame its fury. Then the city was thirsty so one of the tributaries was rerouted through aqueducts to feed the fountains. A queen thought that water-roads would ease transportation in the growing metropolis so the river was lessened by the lifeblood that filled them. But the sewers were overburdened so another slice of the river was diverted to clean them. So it went for two thousand years until the city was renown for its canals and bridges, gloried for its fountains and pools, and not a single shred of the Kuang was left to be seen within its far-stretching walls.

Outside the city's wall, what was once the path of the great river was left a damp and muddy valley. This depression stretched from the edge of the city out to the harbor levy. This forgotten riverbed, between the city wall and the River Reformed, was so prone to flooding and disease that no sane human would call it home. So inevitably a community of thousands sprang up there, filling the depression with a mess of buildings as eccentric and unusual as their inhabitants. The poor, the unlucky, and the immigrants all made their home below the level of the waves while the rest of the city happily forgot their existence. So was born the Bed, and above it massive stone bridges stretched from bank to former bank carrying the life of the town and city that the humble workers beneath supported.

Ayika was below those bridges now. Familiar faces began to greet her in the narrow streets just as familiar smells assaulted up from the thick mud below these raised buildings and walkways. There were faces brown like hers, and hair colors differing from the uniform flat black of the kingdoms; a welcome breath of difference in this city. Down here no one had money, no one was a bender, and less than half could trace their ancestry to anywhere closer than five hundred kilometers away. Then Ayika's path opened up to the end of this human warren and there was the river-wall rising up into the sky before her.

From every direction elevated aqueducts, sewers, and drainage canals converged and merged and angled for this massive cliff of fitted stone, green with damp and stained with leaks. The river-wall lay straight across the Bed from bank to bank while beyond this protective bulk the River Reformed rushed and gurgled back into existence, reunited from its various imprisonments rather the worst for wear having passed through the artificial organs of the vast city. Past that turbulent liquid reconstruction was the harbor. Every morning the sailors and dockworkers of the Bed trudged their way up by the long slippery river-wall stairs to the Kuang. One of these men at this moment was Ayika's own father, Kadat son of Makon. He was able to cast a final look down from the top of the dam towards the last row of houses girding a murky pool of green water at the foot of the wall. He saw his teenage daughter now rushing back to the family door in the early morning light. Shaking his head at the general concept of teenagers, he scratched his beard and continued on his way to the harbor that provided his employment.

Ayika's boots clomped on the irregular wooden walkway that served these buildings for a street and skidded to a halt at the lopsided porthole of her family's little apartment.

Inside, Ayika met a conversation already in progress.

"...that they'd think I wouldn't notice just goes to show that there's so little respect for the basic sense of the matter!"

Ayika's mother Maekayae was standing with her back to the door. She stirred a little pot in front of her and gestured intensely with her free hand when it was not absently straightening and rearranging the hundred articles of the tiny kitchen space that occupied the largest corner of this small main room in the apartment. She had the same wide-hipped Water Tribe figure that Ayika had reluctantly inherited, but Maekayae wore it proudly. Beside her, Ayika's little brother Oakas was seated at the lone low table, head sleepily propped up by his hands, clearly not the recipient or subject of this lecture.

As Ayika slipped off her boots, a quick glance around the room confirmed that there was no one else at home. There was precious little space to hide in here. Any spot that wasn't occupied by the small chests filled with their possessions or by mother's stacks of leathers awaiting sewing was just floors and walls of dark ill-fitting timbers, the castoffs of the ship yards, sold cheaply or unknowingly to the residents of the Bed for constructing their houses. People said that one day the Kuang River would break free and return to its former home but they would be ready. The houses of the Bed remembered how to ride the waves.

Grandma Aka's chair still sat in the corner, draped in blankets and dust as Maekayae continued talking to her absent target.

"Oh and Kadat, do try and talk to Karonak today. His Anaka is just getting so stressed about the funeral and needs someone to take some of it off her. She's been wailing at me about what the spirits might do if things aren't all proper. Honestly, if your mother-"

"Mom," Ayika broke in before Maekayae could build up steam on a new topic. "Dad left already."

Her mother spun around and glanced around the room as her arms carried on with their own duties; lifting the pot off the fire, grabbing a ladle, and setting bowels on the table. "Oh," she said, showing no trace of embarrassment. "Well, at least he grabbed his lunch pack I set out for him." Now those eyes focused on Ayika who instantly regretted calling attention to herself.

"And you, missy," Maekayae continued while ladling rice-porridge into the boy's bowel who began automatically shoving it into his mouth. "What on earth makes you to head out who-knows-where all these mornings when you know I need help around the house and you've got to be heading out to work any minute? Is that mud on your dress? Here let me get that. You know you need to look nice for those fancy girls you work for."

Ayika dodged the offered hand. "Mom, it's fine. Look, it's just some dust." She brushed absently at the offending mark. "Anyway, it's not like they let me wear this at the school anyway. I'm into my uniform the instant I get through that door." She allowed herself to be guided down onto a stool at the table and took the bowel of porridge placed before her. It always frustrated her that her mother could drive Ayika to feel surly like this with only a few sentences but parents always have a strange ability to make their children instantly feel ten years younger.

"Oh, I wish they would let you take that home with you. You looked so pretty in that outfit," her mother said as Ayika half listened, chewing methodically. Ayika's eyes brightened momentarily. There was a bit of fish in this porridge today; a pleasant if slightly extravagant surprise for this household.

Maekayae continued, "But still, they really aren't paying you that much there. And the job's so far away you use up half your time riding the city tram back and forth. And there's not really any room for advancement there. Ha! They're hardly going to take you on as a teacher, now are they? See, I was talking to Mrs Anyakya's niece-in-law the other day and she said that Mrs Anyakya said that she'd be glad to take you on for a job. I'll get that set up for you."

Ayika hurriedly swallowed her mouthful to break back into this one-sided conversation, "I'm not going to go back to being a house-cleaner! You know how hard I worked to find this job at the school."

"Oh, it wouldn't be that," her mother carried on. "Mrs Anyakya always needs more pretty homeland girls to staff the counters at her laundries. And there you'd get to show them how smart you are. I'm sure you'd be helping run one of the places before too long. The money'd be better as well. A successful woman of the People will pay properly for sure. Which'd be good because these city-bred Tribe boys don't even come sniffing around if a girl hasn't gotten herself a salary."

This time Ayika almost choked. "Mom? I thought we were talking about jobs?"

Maekayae paid the outrage no mind. "Oh, you're sixteen, girl. Stop acting childish. Marriage bears thinking on, whatever these so-called modern girls say they're doing."

"Yeah, Ayika. Stop acting childish!" said Oakas, wide awake now that his favorite activity, criticizing Ayika, had began.

"Shut up," Ayika growled as she swiped across the table at her brother. He simply leaned back and stuck out his tongue. For her troubles Ayika received only a rap across the knuckles from a carefully wielded wooden spoon.

"Enough of that. Let your brother eat. He needs his energy before he goes to the teacher-man. Going to learn enough writing to sit an exam one day, our little boy. Maybe work in the Post Office, good government job." her mother said, beaming distractedly. The little terror just grinned while Ayika silently gulped down another spoonful of her breakfast.

"See, that's my point as well," Ayika said after a moment, attempting to regain her lost momentum in this parental argument. She elected to ignore the mention of marriage for now, her mother was too rooted in the North to accept that working class girls in the city were given much more time for that kind of stuff. "At the school I can listen in on the lessons and actually learn things. Just this week Professor Lizhen was going over this amazing story from the early days of the war from the Islanders' side and I heard nearly the whole thing. I can't go from that to just being a wash-girl or a maid!"

"Honey, you're a maid right now," her mother replied absently, busy with tying back Oakas' long hair as he continued eating.

Ayika grunted. Her mother was being infuriating, ignorant, and of course she was right. Ayika was just a maid, no matter what she liked to imagine. She stood up and went about tying her money sash under her shirt as firmly as possible to communicate that this debate was not over. Ayika just needed time to figure out how to articulate the vague sense of undirected yearning that she felt.

She turned back towards the table and saw Grandma Aka's chair over in the corner. Beside it, on a low shelf, sat the carved spirit idols of bone and wood and shark teeth that Aka had promised held enough ritual power to offer some protection for the house. Of course, Aka had winked when she said that so young Ayika had never been sure whether to actually believe it. But whether Aka had possessed any true power or not she certainly had made the spirits her business.

In Kuang Harbor, those who couldn't afford to have priests carve their prayers in the stones of the city wall came down to the immigrant slums and to Aka the River Witch. From across the twisted blocks and tangled alleys of the overgrown harbor town they made their way towards a small dark skinned woman in giant boots who knew the ways of the spirits. The petitioners came with problems of love, business, sickness, and fertility. All this was inevitably attributed to the spirits, even if Ayika could have sworn that Aka's fingers were sometimes crossed as she said so.

Aka had never seemed very happy in the city, and had often complained that the family should never have left their tribe in the west and followed the flood of migration that the end of the war had unleashed. She snapped and grumbled, stewing litanies against ignorance and helplessness to be unleashed at every supplicant even as she performed whatever spirit ritual she'd decided on. But still people came and they left satisfied, whether their problems were mystical or mundane. The little old lady had been a mobile fixture of the Bed, audible from around the street corner if anyone managed to miss the massive grey-blue smoke cloud which collected above her furiously tended pipe. That bone-work curve that was her one concession to City customs and one loudly self-predicted to be the cause of her death.

She'd probably been quite pleased when she finally did pass on after a respectable bout of coughing at an age no one could guess at, that even to her own son was "none you're damn business". She certainly would have liked the midnight procession to the docks, sneaking out ahead of the district functionary and his death exam fee, his stamp charge, his mandatory burial sites, and his burial site upkeep fee. So Grandma Aka had finally left the city by boat downriver as she wanted, though now wrapped in a blanket weighted with stones. People of the Water Tribe always returned to the sea sooner or later, if only for the final decent back into the embrace of the depths.

"The People have our hearts..." Grandma Aka would say from the dim puffing smoke cloud in the corner that likely contained her chair, every time Ayika's mother would fret about her husband heading out down the river with a storm in the air. "The People have our hearts," Aka said. "...but the water take our bones, soon or later. Or least that how it used to be."

Now Ayika was pulling on her boots at the door, lost in thought when she looked up to see her mother looking down with concern on her face.

Maekayae sighed, "Look honey, I know you like that school place and that's great. It's just the money and that you don't have time left over for meeting, uh, people, if you're trekking halfway 'cross the city and back every day." She waved away Ayika's response with a tired hand. "We can talk about it tonight. You just be gettin' going now. Oh!"

Ayika spun back from opening the door as she heard the exclamation. Her mother grabbed a small parcel off the kitchen counter and said, "Your father forgot to grab the Bao boys' lunch when he went! Ooh that...! Honey, do you think you've time to...?"

Ayika swiped the pack from her mother's hands. "Yeah, I can swing it. I'll slide by on my way no problem." And then because she didn't want her mother stewing all day over her girl 'giving her attitude' she smiled as she made for the doorway.

That seemed to comfort her mother who fell back into her normal bustling movements. Maekayae was already washing off bowels and clearing the kitchen as she started saying, "Hmm. You're already not exactly on time and the docks take you a ways out your way. It's just that I worry about those boys and-"

"It's fine mom. I got it. I'll see you tonight." With that the apartment door shut behind her. Scrambling up the long and damp river-wall stairs, Ayika smiled to herself. She could actually go for seeing Xinfei and Xiaobao today. The two brothers had basically grown up with her, playing in the same back alleys and being schooled on how to read by the same half blind penny-bronze teacher in a slightly larger alley. They'd spent bored afternoons together spitting into the canal that bordered the Islanders' district, and continued to be fast friends even after all three of them had gone on to jobs outside the Bed.

Ayika crested the river-wall embankment into the early morning light and from there set out down the stony confines of the channel that held the river undergoing its rebirth. Beneath this walkway, tunnels and pipes disgorged their contents into the ever widening expanse of dark water, draining the immense city into these confines that wavered with the thick stink of a city of millions. Then Ayika was out of the stone-lined canyon of putrid waterfalls and that waterway beside her joined with a dozen huge drainage canals, brown with sediment from the endless fields in every direction, to reform as the expansive Kuang River, resurrected from death. Now she walked along the bridges, canals, and quays in the bustling waterfront of the Impenetrable City's southern docks. Before her stretched an endless lines of ships and the uncountable population that catered to them.


(Author's note: I encourage any and all reviews. I will read and respond to each promptly, even after this story is done updating. I am always looking for suggestions and ways to improve.)