Hurrah! I've updated before the end of 2009! Double hurrah!
Always Be Polite
Beneath the grand halls of government and law of the mighty Colonial Establishment of Tsi Ko, far away from where any bright-eyed bureaucrat or unwitting official might think to wander, existed a group of rooms that only a handful people within the city knew of. One was the Governor of Tsi Ko, his title being bestowed by Sozin the great and passed down from generation to generation, and another was the Governor's Magistrate, his title being bestowed upon him by the Governor. The third and forth persons to know of these rooms and what occurred within them were the two guards that had escorted Kree from the custody of the men whom had arrested her, finally leading her to a single small and damp room lit only by a single flickering torch. The fifth person to know about the existence of these secret rooms, of course, was Kree.
Naturally she did not realize she possessed this knowledge—she couldn't tell where exactly she was, even if she was asked. She sat upon a roughly hewn wooden stool before an equally rough wooden table and empty chair, utterly oblivious to the secrets permeating the stones that surrounded her, deaf to the whispers and intrigue that the walls had witnessed—and completely fuming with indignity.
For not the first time in her life, Kree found herself tossed headfirst from her own element (which was always sketchy at best) into, somehow, the worst of all possible circumstances. What was unique about this particular instance, what had thrown her off usual willingness to accept and adapt to the flow of events, was that, for the very first time since—Kree wracked her brains—well, ever—
She was completely and totally without blame or blemish.
From the time when she was still quite small, Kree was used to getting in trouble. A high tolerance for reprimands and scoldings (and very often times, punishments much more severe) was the natural result of living life on the fringe of society, and disapproval and distrust came with the territory.
Because of this, Kree had developed early on an excellent knack for concealing whatever unsavory deed she deemed necessary, as well as a well-adjusted sense of how to cope whenever she was caught. While she no longer (or not as often) participated in the sort of activities she did as a child, Kree found that these skills had left her very well prepared her for the sort of unpredictable and very often troublesome life she had chosen for herself.
However, they left her grossly unprepared for situations in which she was entirely innocent. She was incensed, prickling at the injustice of it all.
By the time the Magistrate entered the room, she was ready to let loose the most scathing and bitter insults she could think of—but that small shred of bravado distancing herself from the gravity of her situation all but evaporated when she saw the Magistrate's face.
He was obviously a man used to being taken very seriously. His severely lined face betrayed no humor, or even any hint that he had even smiled before in his life. Though his form crooked slightly with age, his robes were stiff and impeccable, as though existed in such a state of order and precision there was never any possibility of a wrinkle or stain.
He swept to the desk before Kree and sat down in the chair behind the wooden table without looking at her once. Still ignoring her, he pulled a single long candle from the inside of his sleeve, and as Kree watched, fascinated in spite herself, twisted his fingers over the wick and lit it into a small, brilliant prick of light.
"So…it appears you are in a serious bit of trouble, young lady," the man finally said, placing the candle in the very center of the table. His voice was dry and slightly raspy, and it crawled over the stones in the walls like a lazy reptile.
"It…might appear that way, but I'm certain that it's not the case," Kree said, keeping her voice light and unassuming. "After all, this is just a big mistake."
The man looked up at that, almost in surprise. He studied her face with keen eyes (Kree could now see how sharp they were, in the candlelight), and Kree felt the muscles in the back of her neck tense up. "….Hm," the Magistrate finally said, in a tone that was neither affirmative nor encouraging.
He continued to look at her unblinkingly. "You were found at an extremely suspicious time of morning in an extremely suspicious part of town, with suspicious objects on your person, and you happened to be," he said, emphasizing the word 'suspicious' each time he said it, "in a very suspicious situation." Kree was determined not to flinch. "Do you know what this makes you?"
"…An unfortunate victim of circumstance?" Kree guessed hopefully.
The Magistrate looked at her flatly and blinked, his eyelids dripping with disdain.
If there ever were a time to lie out her case, it would be now, Kree decided. "It was a misunderstanding," Kree continued with more confidence in her voice. "I realize now that it was a very easy mistake to make, what with how it looked, but I can explain everything—"
The Magistrate closed his eyes and held up a wizened hand to stop her. "Young lady," he said, almost kindly, "there is no need for me to hear your explanation. It is of no consequence to me what happened or how you came to be there. Having heard what my officer reported, it is plain to piece together that you had nothing to do with that soldier in the alleyway."
"Oh," she sighed in a rush, instant relief spilling over her. Even though she knew she had done nothing wrong, the tension growing in the darkened room had been getting to be too much. "Thank you. You never know when you go to a strange place if anyone will…listen…."
The Magistrate was smiling. It looked odd on his face, as though he wasn't used to doing it often. "Don't thank me too quickly," he said. Kree felt a sudden drop in her stomach, as though something very unpleasant had just happened.
It was the smile, Kree realized. The Magistrate looked like he never smiled once in his life not because it was true, but because—the thought struck her suddenly—because he only ever smiled at things that made other people flinch.
"After all," the Magistrate continued, his smile twisting, seeming to take a life of it's own, "you'll be going to prison for the rest of your life regardless."
The Magistrate, for all of his information and influence, had made several hasty mistakes that morning. He had incorrectly assessed a very important matter, had forgotten something equally important, and had overlooked a very obvious possibility. The thing he had incorrectly assumed was that Kree was alone and wouldn't be missed—and if she did have allies, as his spy's report seemed to indicate, they consisted merely of a disgruntled burnout tavern owner and one drink-addled old man, and was therefore not a threat.
The thing he forgot was the fact that there was a sixth person who knew of the underground chambers, and what occurred there.
Perfect silence. "What are you talking about?" Kree finally asked, voice tense.
The Magistrate's smile was curling like a crazed worm, eyes glinting. "You realize by now, young lady, that I am a very important man. And Tsi Ko is, of course, the most prosperous of the Fire Nation's colonies."
"Gee, I dunno about that," Kree said, with a show of mock consideration. "I've heard about this one place where they make tiny starved children dig out coal with their fingers, while their parents work everyday to rebuild their houses, just so the soldiers can burn them down every night. It's hard to top misery like that."
The Magistrate stared.
"Oh, you said prosperous. I thought you said evil." Kree said cheerily as she shrugged, rolling her eyes at his stony expression. "My mistake. Where you're from, those two words mean the exact same thing."
The Magistrate glowered for a moment, and then his face turned bland. "You may think to surprise me with blatant displays of disrespect," he said, "but I know your type. Blustering and bold until the chains come down, which will be soon enough, I assure you."
Kree sighed, tired beyond belief. "Look, I don't care why you brought me here," she confessed. "Misunderstanding, you were feeling bored—just, whatever, I'll get over it. But I have one thing I came a long way to do. Tonight, and that's it. And then I'm gone. I'll never come back here again—I'll never go to any Fire Nation colony ever again, I can guarantee that."
The Magistrate raised one wispy eyebrow. "Very eloquent. But I'm afraid I can't. You see, the very reason why you have chosen to enter my…prosperous city is exactly why you have been detained."
Kree was suddenly very aware of the heavy stone walls and the thick wooden door. "You have no idea why I came here." The Magistrate, no doubt noticing the way Kree's eyes had flicked to the door, smiled even wider.
"Then perhaps I shall guess," he drawled. "By your manner and speech it was clear to see that you are an outsider here in Tsi Ko. It's just as easy to have you monitored and followed, until it was simple to deduce that you planed to attend a certain…Grand Ceremony." He made a point to look her in the eyes, mockingly. "Impressed?"
"Ah…." Kree squinted thoughtfully. "Not really, because you didn't actually guess, you were spying," Kree said, "which is, by the way sir, a very prosperous thing to do."
The Magistrate's already thin lips were pinched quite tight. "A man like myself has many resources at his disposal, you see. The eyes and ears I have placed within all of Tsi Ko are very…sensitive. They report to me, in greatest detail, everything they hear and see…in an alleyway…in a tavern…"
While saying this the withered man watched her closely, face composed and calm. Only his fingers, which jerked like dry twigs in the wind, betrayed any emotion. But when Kree looked him in the eye as she realized what he must have heard, she saw it for an instant: hatred as thick as bile shone from his rheumy eyes, and his mouth curled up as if he were ill. She disgusted him.
Kree recognized that look. No matter how far she went, it always caught up to her.
"So what do you want with me?" Kree remembered Pano's warning, her knuckles turning white as she gripped the edges of the stool.
"You see, there are certain standards that must be met every time something of such great importance occurs within my city. There are appearances to be kept up, safety measures to be followed. You are not unique in your predicament. You are not the only poor soul these walls have seen," he continued, gesturing to the walls encasing them.
"So far you've done a lot of pointless jabbering and not a lot of explaining," Kree said icily, finding a sliver of the old, bitter anger and clinging to it for dear life. If she could get angry enough, maybe she could forget how quickly she'd turned four years old again when he'd looked at her like that.
He raised his other wispy eyebrow. "You're hardly in a position to be—"
"You better tell me what this is all about or you'll pay for it, if I miss what I came here for," Kree all but snarled. It was noting but brazen bluffing on Kree's part, but the malice was real and sharp, and the Magistrate dropped his smug expression for a few seconds.
"Your more earthy pedigree reveals itself," he said finally, disgust pooling at the down turned corners of his grimacing mouth. Kree glared at him and sorely missed her ironwood staff.
"But, I take your point. What use is wasting words on one such as you? I shall make it clear: my superiors expect a certain amount of…tangibility. They desire proof that when the focus of the Fire Nation is on us, I am performing my duties in keeping order by detaining those that would threaten it. Namely, any Earth Kingdom riffraff ready to cause trouble at one of our Nation's most grand occasions…" He leaned forward over the candle, his face a waxy, ghoulish mask. "Do you take my meaning?"
Kree swallowed. When she spoke, her voice was held all the focused tension of a compressed metal spring. "You snatch people off the street and take their lives away from them. You do it for nothing but yourself, because you can, and because you like it."
The Magistrate sniffed. "Have they not schools in your parts? I just said it is a duty of mine as—"
"A load of steaming Buckox dung," Kree interrupted him, eyes blazing. Her hands were trembling with anger. "You're a disgusting sham."
The Magistrate's paper-white skin grew paler, then flushed an amazingly vigorous shade of red. "You dare—you dare—"
The wraith in his eyes was terrible, but Kree met it without flinching; her wraith was worse still. "If you're so powerful and mighty, why bother coming down here in person? I've met people like you. You like knowing you can end someone. You like to watch them crumple." She was practically spitting her words; they cut through his sputtering protests like steel into paper. "This isn't about what other people want, is it? You just like it."
The withered man stared at her for a long moment, with something akin to amazement on his face. Finally he chuckled. "For an Earth Kingdom mongrel, you display an unusual amount of insight," he said with relish. "But you're wrong. I have someone to handle these affairs for me. It is only in cases such as yours I feel the need to…crumple."
"Cases like mine?" Kree asked rigidly.
The Magistrate's face became hard and cold. "Tell me…did you come here entertaining the notion that a decorated, honorable soldier of unparalleled renown as a member our Nation's greatest warriors…could possibly even want to acknowledge the existence of an abomination like you?"
The words he taunted her with slid into her heart like an oiled knife. Those words hit far too close to home, and the buffer of righteous anger that shielded her before dissolved.
"Of course, it's all very touching," the Magistrate drawled. "In a base, unthinkable kind of way. But really, I'm doing you a service. This way you're spared the shame and--"
"It doesn't matter what he thinks of me," Kree had gone pale, but her eyes burned with a dangerous, foolhardy gleam. "Even if he denies my existence…I'll still find him." "You won't stop me."
The Magistrate was dumbstruck, and then began to laugh. If he was a man who seldom smiled, he laughed even less; he sounded like a punctured accordion straining for air. His face twisted up as the cruel sounds puffed from his thin mouth.
And it was then, as Kree looked down that she realized the Magistrate's third mistake—something he had overlooked. For the room in which she and the Magistrate were in had been designed to stop sound from escaping, and both guards were outside the door, which was very, very thick. And Kree had remembered that in the inside of her left boot, she carried small, but very sharp dagger.
Kree leaned forward on her stool only so slightly and brushed the handle of her knife. In the midst of his wheezing laughter the Magistrate did not even blink.
However, what Kree would have done with this dagger not even she knew—nor would she ever find out, for at that very moment, the door swung open to reveal the sixth and last person to know of the secret underground chambers of the colony of Tsi Ko.
His girth nearly filled the entire door, Kree thought absently. He was old, but far more healthy-looking than the Magistrate; there was a dim shine to the tuft of hair that hung from his chin, and his eyes were clear and sharp, a golden yellow. He wore fine robes that, unlike the ones the Magistrate wore, hung loosely and simply off of his large frame. He too wore a topknot, but on him it looked more like a casual afterthought than a symbol of affluence. Oddly enough, the man also wore a large, curved breastplate that seemed to mold around bulging stomach.
After a moment of surprise the Magistrate had risen from his chair on shaky feet. "General," he breathed. His dull eyes were wide with awe. "I—I had not expected—"
Kree had tensed. Was she...being only half Fire Nation really such an offensive thing as to warrant a Fire Nation General at her…what was this? A trial? A sentencing? An…execution? Very carefully keeping her arm movement from both the men's sight, Kree slowly pulled began to pull out her dagger.
But then the General deliberately ignored the Magistrate's babbling to turn and nod in her direction. She'd expected him to ignore her, or to see something akin to the Magistrate's disgust in his eyes—and was thrown when he smiled at her. It was a small smile, reassuring and amused, and completely sincere—or Kree couldn't read human expression. She thought for a moment, and then hesitating only slightly, released her grip on the knife.
"Please excuse my intrusion, Magistrate," the General said, bowing slightly (at this, the Magistrate flushed purple and bowed so spastically Kree thought he would throw out his back). "But when it came to my attention that a family member of one of my former soldiers was being detained—due to a simple misunderstanding anyone could make, I'm sure—I knew I had to come myself to see it corrected."
Kree quickly glanced at the Magistrate. He looked a great deal more confused than even Kree felt. It took him a long time to answer. "Ah…Very good, sir, but, ah…" He nervously wet his lips. "I—I am afraid you have been misled. This girl has no legitimate claim to…to anyone in the 33rd. She—she has no name, my sources tell me, just a wild story containing nothing but sentimental drivel, and a few scavenged trinkets. It's clearly a ploy on hr part to infiltrate our ceremony and attack from within."
Kree felt very much like telling the Magistrate just where he could put his sources, but the General spoke up first.
"But the young lady has no need to infiltrate the Ceremony, Magistrate. She has been invited to attend in the company of one Pano Guo Li, a decorated lieutenant of the 33rd who served under my command." His expression was puzzled, and his voice was politely confused, but there was slyness in his eyes that spoke otherwise. Kree must have caught his eye, for he noticed her watching him and gave a discreet wink. Kree found herself liking this man immensely. "It is an invitation which I too extend."
The Magistrate sputtered. "My Lord…my informants tell me that she—that this girl is a gifted liar. She manipulated Guo Li until he caved to her wheedling cajolement!"
"She certainly did," the General smiled cheerfully. "I witnessed it for myself as I sat next to them in the Singing Dragon earlier this morning."
The Magistrate's jaw dropped. "Does everybody spy on everybody in this place?" Kree muttered to herself, sounding impressed despite her annoyance. The General chuckled.
"You were there in…in a sty such as that?" The Magistrate looked like he might faint.
"True, it leaves much to be required in terms of a relaxing atmosphere, and I have had better tea," the General admitted. He glanced very pointedly at their stone surroundings. "But I do find the Singing Dragon far more preferable to the establishments you frequent, Magistrate."
The Magistrate blinked rapidly, and seemed to come back to himself. "Surely sir, you must have been tricked like Guo Li to sanction this—this farce—and I'm afraid that as Magistrate of Tsi Ko, I must insist that—"
"Magistrate…" the General interrupted somberly. "Are you suggesting that you surpass me not only in authority, but also in intellect…?"
The Magistrate's face seemed to fall in on itself.
"No," said the Magistrate, barely audible. "N-no sir, your Lordship, I never meant—"
The General held up a hand to stop the Magistrate's babbling. "We will be going now," he said simply. He nodded courteously to Kree, who rose from her seat, feeling equally elated, apprehensive, and a little astonished.
As she approached the General as he stood waiting by the door, she stopped and looked more closely at his face. It was weathered, but kind, and the General smiled again, as if he expected her curiosity. The smile made the myriad of tiny wrinkles circling his eyes—honest, warm eyes—raise and stretch. If her choice were between this man and the sour, stammering bundle of sticks shaking behind them, she'd take this one.
So she smiled slightly in return, and hardly believing it was happening, set her hand on the door handle to leave. And it was then that the Magistrate cried out desperately:
"But my Lord! The girl is a shame to our nation, a bastard child—!"
With a frightening speed, the General turned towards the Magistrate, a thick arm extended before him, two fingers from his hand pointing directly at the Magistrate's chest. The Magistrate beheld those two fingers with absolute terror.
Behind the General, Kree could not see what the Magistrate saw: the grim eyes, glinting and lethal. But she heard a soft power in his voice, like steel wrapped in silk. "The only thing here which makes me feel the shame you speak of so ardently, Magistrate," the General said quietly, "is how a worm like you can so easily thrive under the skin of the earth that I must walk upon."
And with that, the General calmly folded his arms, bid the Magistrate good day, and the both of them left the small dank room behind them, leaving the once commanding Magistrate alone as the candle sputtered out.
Getting out of the secret chamberways of Tsi Ko took much less time than entering them had, for it seemed that in no time at all Kree was out in the open again, blinking in the sun. They now stood in a small courtyard, filled with dusty willow trees that swayed sickly in the breeze.
Kree uncertainly turned towards the General, who was just behind her in exiting a small stone door partially hidden by the sway of the willow leaves. "I'd think I'd like to thank you," Kree said, "but I've fallen into this habitual rut where I think a tricky situation is resolved and then it turns out to get worse."
"I respect your caution, and your foresight," the General said, busy adjusting his robes with cheerful aplomb. "I have a nephew who I often think could benefit from both. But I give you a solemn vow: you are safe."
Kree gave the man a considering look. She really didn't remember him at the bar. "If everything you said in there was true, did Pano send you?"
"I'm afraid Pano would never ask me, let alone send me for anything," the General answered, sitting down on a nearby bench. "He is quite stubborn. But yes, I interfered for his sake, as well as yours."
The sun, bright but still muted by the overcast sky of clouds, suddenly shone through into the courtyard. The General closed his eyes and sighed deeply as another breezed rattled the brittle willow leaves, clearly quite content. Moments passed as he remained unchanged, leaving Kree standing in the center of the bright stone courtyard, wondering at the thoughts running through her head.
This man didn't look like a general at all. He looked… soft. Grandfatherly, maybe. The sleepy smile he now wore as he basked in the sunlight was only half of it, Kree realized. He'd made the Magistrate tremble with nothing but his presence, and had his way with nothing but two extended fingers.
Yet, Kree also felt a strong compulsion to like him. This man was sharp, and quick, and very powerful, but Kree could tell: he was also a lot of fun. And if what he'd said back there hadn't been a lot of bluff, then he was her ticket into the Grand Ceremony and she was that much closer to finding her father.
When it seemed like the General was never going to open his eyes, she softly cleared her throat.
The old man blinked, and smiled. "Forgive me," he said. "The sun shines so infrequently in this smoggy city. I forgot to mention that Pano should be here to meet us."
"Then…I think I'll thank you now." Kree found a matching stone bench directly opposite the bench the General now sat at, so they were now roughly eye level. "Thank you for pulling me out of the fire, sir."
The General gave a hearty chuckle. "It was my pleasure…may I call you Kree? I did overhear that that was your name."
Kree half grinned. "Sure. I haven't overheard your name yet, though."
The man chuckled louder. "Most would call me General Iroh," he said. "But I am retired now, and I think I would just prefer Iroh. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance," he said, bowing his head.
"Well, it was a pleasure seeing you scare that twit half witless, sir," Kree replied, copying his formal tone and bowing in the same manner.
"I can see why Pano took to you so quickly," Iroh said, eyes dancing. "Speaking of Pano, I must say I was very impressed with the way you convinced him to help you."
Kree paused as she felt the tiniest twinge of disappointment, followed immediately by the assertion she should have known better. "I guess I'm lucky I'm such a good manipulator."
"No! No, that wasn't what I meant at all," Iroh exclaimed hastily, sounding genuinely alarmed at the possibility of insulting her. "You understand people, otherwise you couldn't have appealed to Pano's sense of charity, malnourished as it is. It is a rare skill indeed."
Kree just looked at him. The old man kept her stare for a while, but finally closed his eyes as he gave a deep sigh. "You are truly skilled," he conceded, "for sensing the intent behind my compliment. No doubt you realize I am about to ask you for something."
"It's not like it's hard to guess. Everybody wants something," Kree said somberly, meeting his eyes as he looked across the courtyard. "But...favors are messy. And for trying to play it safe as I could, so far I've gotten myself into a staggering amount of trouble."
"I understand," Iroh said, nodding respectfully. He stood from his bench and bowed to her, much more slowly to indicate 'farewell'. Kree started; she'd been half-joking with him. If she was honest with herself (a trend she hoped wouldn't turn into a habit) she knew she really wasn't that concerned with staying out of trouble, and she owed him already, and certainly liked him. But someone as powerful as a Fire Nation general, actually giving her a choice and then respecting her refusal...?
"—Business transactions," Kree blurted out. Iroh stopped and regarded her curiously. "Business transactions, however, are much neater. So I suggest" (and here, despite herself, she couldn't help but smile at Iroh's amazed face) "that we wait for Pano a bit longer, find a place that serves breakfast, and I will listen," she concluded, smartly, "to your business proposal."
Kree would forever remember that moment as the first time she had ever took the Dragon of the West by surprise. His eyes lit up before his face gave way for a hearty, bellowing laugh, as sudden and full as Pano's. It was then that Pano found them, grinning like old friends. When Pano's expression changed from anxious to extremely irritated at the sight of their relaxed company, they only smiled harder.