A/N: This is the second version of the story and owes whatever quality it may possess to two incomporable editors, PetertheChameleon, author of The Pipa Player, and Sylvacoer of DeviantArt. I salute them and their work, you should go and look at it. Sylvacoer is also responsible for the magnificent cover art and I thank her for letting me use it here. After you've finished reading this, of course. After a long time, I've finally finished revising the chapters I've already written and am moving into new territory. I own nothing regarding The Last Airbender, though I wish I did, and this story is dedicated above all to my readers and editors, the people who make it all worthwhile. Reviews are my ambrosia and reviewers the cupbearers of the gods, so to speak. If you had the time to read through this, I'd very much appreciate hearing what you thought of it, it will help me greatly. Also, it makes it more likely I'll take requests for my other story, the Temple of the Spirit. But in any case, I hope you enjoy the show
Jomei brought his pick down, stone cracking under the blow. His bones vibrated under the impact, and there was a dull ache building in his powerful arms. He was used to that. What he was not used to were the chains on his wrists and ankles. The Fire Nation had not been kind to his village.
"Keep it moving, people! The major wants those new shafts sunk by the end of the week!" That would be their overseer, Kanetsu. The miner bared his teeth at the man's voice. Kanetsu wanted to see him dead, would have seen him dead if not for orders to the contrary, but settled for singling him out for punishment. And he handled a whip like no one else Jomei knew. The scars on the miner's back were proof of that. But one day, if he were very lucky, he would turn his pick against his oppressors.
For a brief moment, he considered the weapon in his hands. It wasn't really meant to be a pick at all. His heavily callused fists gripped the gnarled wooden handle of a warhammer. The massive head was made of blackened steel, and balanced with a great spike. It might not be the equal of those in the hands of the Earth Army, but it had been his great-grandfather's, his grandfather's and it was now his. As punishment for lifting it against the Fire Nation, now he dug ore with it. Since it wasn't suited to the task, the work was harder and longer, and eventually the mighty hammer would snap like a twig. Even now, after only one week since he'd been told to use it, the spike had long since gone dull.
"Hey!" The crack of Kanetsu's whip by his ear snapped him out of his reverie. "Enough daydreaming! Get back to work!"
Cursing inwardly, Jomei fought down the urge to turn and hurl his hammer at the man, and instead, brought it down on the rock once again, the spike barely scratching the tough stone. He worked on tirelessly. If things stayed the same, the rest of his life would be painful and short.
When the day's work was over, they made the long journey back to the world of light, what little there was of it. Twilight lay heavy over Teoro Village, and the surrounding mountains were black shadows against the darkening sky as a ragged line of miners made their way slowly down to the village. The autumn winds were cold and bitter, carrying the promise of snow, and the trees were nearly barren, their few remaining leaves brown and dead. Winter came early in the mountains. Jomei marched at the rear, under Kanetsu's watchful eyes.. He was drenched in sweat, coated in gritty rock dust, and very, very tired. But he still stood straight and tall, carrying his hammer over his shoulder as though he could still swing it, his long stride carrying him forward at a steady, confident pace. He certainly looked imposing enough.
Jomei stood just over six feet, with a stocky frame, packed with corded muscle. He had worked the mines since he was fifteen winters, and it had made him strong. He could lift a two hundred pound boulder over his head—without earthbending—and run around the village twenty times without stopping to catch his breath. Tangled black hair, shorn at the neck, and kept out of his eyes by a green headband framed a craggy, rough-hewn face that seemed best suited to scowling, with a heavy brow and square jaw. Lines deeply graven into his gaunt cheeks told of too many meals missed and there was a fire smoldering in his brown eyes. His clothes were rags, patched and worn, and he went barefoot in earthbender fashion. A peasant's conical straw hat rode low on his head, casting his face in shadow, while a green glowcrystal on the brim cast a dim light out ahead.
Who am I fooling? he wondered bitterly. I can barely lift this damn hammer, let alone swing it. Kanetsu's demands for greater production were not so large, but they added up, and after seven months, all the miners were dead tired at the end of the day. Another effective way of preventing rebellion. Get the people too tired to think straight. Of course, the usual punishments were nothing to sneeze at. He was still recovering from the beating he'd been given two days ago when he had 'accidentally' dropped his hammer on Kanetsu's feet. Unfortunately, no bones had broken, but the overseer couldn't walk without constant pain until his toenails grew back. Naturally, this put him in an even fouler mood than ever.
But Jomei had never given up. It was his will that drove him onward towards the day he would make his people's murderers pay for what they had done. It was the anger burning within him that gave his arms the strength to mine the ore that would aid his greatest enemy. And it was he who, with his own two hands would take the life of their leader, whose name was forever etched into his mind. Takano.
With a great effort, Jomei forced his weariness away, and stood still straighter. If they're waiting for me to break, they'll be waiting a long time. But he and Kanetsu both knew that the overseer had all the time in the world.
Their prison was a low-roofed iron building on the outskirts of the village. Following one of Takano's more creative ideas, they had built it themselves. Jomei and his people had driven home every last rivet in their own cells. He knew exactly how impossible it was to break out and wished he didn't. The knowledge was always present, another reminder of the hopelessness of rebellion.
As the miners approached their prison, he spotted a ring of Fire Nation soldiers surrounding what were unmistakably more prisoners. They, like the miners, were chained together, with bent backs and blank, despairing looks.
The officer in charge stepped forward and bowed to Kanetsu. "Lieutenant Azarin of the 33rd Division at your service. I'm here on behalf of General Shu, with the replacements for the worker casualties you reported. No earthbenders, as requested."
Kanetsu's gaze swept over the little group, and he thrust out a finger, indicating one of them in particular. "We have had five casualties so far, Lieutenant. I count four workers here and one girl."
Now that, Jomei thought, startled out of his disinterest, is something different. Taking a much closer look at those who were to join them in misery, he raised an eyebrow at the sight. One of them was, as Kanetsu had said, a girl, but not like any other that he had seen.
Loose brown hair, hacked short, as though she'd taken a knife to it, lifted on the breeze. Ragged, loose-fitting layers of brown clothes hung from her spare frame, fluttering with the slightest wind, her arms and legs swathed in cloth wrappings. Jomei's keen eyes noted dark stains-blood, old blood. Not hers, he'd bet. In spite of her shabby appearance, she reminded him of nothing so much as a blade. Thin, razor-edged, and dangerous. Deep green eyes looked out of a wind-worn and sun-darkened face with an intense and demanding glare. A blade had likely cut the deep notch in her ear and a thin red burn mark ran across one cheek. The last two fingers on her left hand were missing. Anyone who had survived such scars was either good or had unusually merciful opponents. Somehow, Jomei didn't think the latter was the case.
Azarin gave Kanetsu a sour look that suggested he had just eaten a mouthful of coal dust. "This girl killed three of my soldiers while dead drunk, and one of them a veteran firebender that I knew quite well and whose skill I can vouch for. I'm sure that she can handle a pick well enough to keep things running around here." Despite his words, he flinched under the scorching glare that Kanetsu turned on him.
"If women could be miners, I wouldn't have had to send for replacement workers, now would I? What she will do is slow us down, and I have quotas to fill. If she did indeed kill some of our soldiers, it only means that she'll be more trouble for me, and I have enough to do keeping this mine productive without having to take precautions against anything she might do. When the major hears of this, you will be lucky to-"
"When the major hears about what?"
Kanetsu spun around, snapping to attention, and Jomei tensed, his scowl deepening. He knew that voice. Knew it and hated it. Turning around, he saw the man who had ruined his life. Major Takano.
Takano looked every inch his rank. He had the traditional Fire Nation topknot, the gold eyes of a firebender, and clear-cut, commanding features. Unlike some firebenders, he knew how to use a weapon, and to use it well at that. The hilt of the sword at his hip was worn from much use. Takano was well respected by his men-at least when they were at war. He was an honorable, intelligent person, and made sure that the miners were treated well-as well as reason permitted, anyway.
But when it came down to it, when the stakes were high, he was just as ruthless and cruel as Kanetsu ever was…maybe even more so. Jomei hated him all the more for that, for cloaking his nation's bloodthirst under the high ideals he spoke of. Order. Civilization. The glorious rule of the Fire Lord. After a century of a war that had consumed everyone and everything he had ever loved, Jomei knew one thing: There was no excuse and no forgiveness for Takano or his people. Jomei was a citizen of the Earth Kingdom, and would never accept the rule of the Fire Nation. Nothing short of death would alter that fact.
"Major." Kanetsu did not bother to disguise the annoyance in his greeting, or to offer so much as a nod to his superior officer. It was no secret that the two were at each other's throats. Takano thought the miners could be won over with a combination of harsh punishments for failure and generous rewards for obedience. Kanetsu thought that idea was unbelievably stupid and Teoro should be governed according to martial law. Jomei himself preferred honest brutality. Since Kanetsu was a mere sergeant and Takano a major, it was Takano's methods that were employed, though, and Kanetsu took out his frustration on the miners' backs.
To add insult to injury, Takano refused to give Kanetsu a transfer until he thought he'd learned respect for and understanding of his charges. Takano wanted a cultured warrior, a warrior who could govern fairly and justly. He saw Kanetsu as another of his pet projects and Kanetsu treated that notion with the contempt it deserved. This vicious cycle resulted only in greater misery for Jomei and Teoro, seven long months of it.
Takano raised an eyebrow. "Well, Sergeant? When I hear about what?"
Growling low in his throat, Kanetsu declared, gesturing to the new arrivals, "We have received replacements for the worker casualties, but as you can see, there are not enough of them, and they are hardly suited to the task."
Takano ran a critical eye over the line, and replied, "We've lost five people, and I count five there. Am I to understand you cannot count correctly, Kanetsu?" He didn't bother to mention the girl, but his opinion on the matter was clear.
"No, sir," Kanetsu gritted out through clenched teeth. "Rather, one of them is incapable of making any real contribution."
Takano dismissed this argument.
"You are a fool if you think so. I see nothing to complain about, so you will cease making pointless accusations and get on with settling them in." To Azarin, he called, "You and your men are dismissed, Lieutenant; report to the mess if you're hungry and our quartermaster can find room for you in our barracks." Azarin bowed once again, and led his company off into the darkness.
Kanetsu bristled at hearing his little tirade so easily ignored, but kept his temper under control.
"Yes, sir," he muttered, shooting a hate-filled look at the girl. "I will ensure that they will live up to what is expected of them." Returning his gaze to Takano, he continued pointedly, "They will serve as an example of what it means to earn the Fire Nation's displeasure, and be properly motivated as necessary."
Takano's face darkened. "I decide what is expected of them, Master Sergeant. And what is expected of you. Do what you must, of course, but no unnecessary examples and no unneeded motivation. A happy worker will get you farther than a miserable one, don't forget."
"I would not think of it, sir," Kanetsu assured him. Jomei snorted derisively. No, you'll go straight to ignoring it and start flaying people for stumbling.
With that, Takano moved off, leaving them in Kanetsu's hands. Hands already drenched in blood and likely would be again before the morning. The slightest excuse would be enough to punish the prisoners. Kanetsu glared at the miners, looking for the least hint of defiance. None of them looked him in the eye. Except Jomei, who met his gaze without fear. Kanetsu smiled cruelly in anticipation.
"You!" he snapped, pointing at Jomei. "Do you have a problem?"
"No," Jomei replied flatly.
Leaning in close, Kanetsu asked, his voice low and dangerous, "No, what?"
Jomei knew what he wanted to hear. No, sir. But he refused to give any of the Fire Nation soldiers the satisfaction of acknowledging them as his superiors. He had some pride left, at least.
"No, I don't have a problem."
"You trying to be funny, or do you like being punished, Jomei?"
Jomei only smirked. "Neither. Speaking of which, how are the feet doing?"
Kanetsu matched Jomei's smile with one of his own, showing off a few missing teeth. "Better than you will be tomorrow." This time, at least, he refrained from punctuating his remark with anything, and turned to address the new prisoners, satisfied that he had made his point.
"I am Master Sergeant Kanetsu, overseer of this mine, and your master from now on. You are to address me at all times by either my rank or 'sir.' Am I understood?" A mumbled chorus of 'yes sir' drifted up from the group. The girl's voice was among those raised, to Jomei's disappointment.
Kanetsu continued, pacing back and forth, "I'll keep things simple. You'll all die sooner or later. My job is to ensure that you do it working. I take my job seriously. So, anyone who lives, works. Anyone who works, lives." He paused for effect. "Get used to the dark. It's where you'll be doing all of that."
By now, the last vestiges of twilight had vanished, and the night sky was lighting up with stars. A crescent moon was rising. Under other circumstances, Jomei would have called it beautiful. Now, it only reminded him of what he had lost.
One of the firebenders stepped forward. "Sir?"
"Show the prisoners to their cells." Stepping closer, Kanetsu added in a low voice, "And put the desert rat in with that fool Jomei. With any luck they'll kill each other and rid us of two problems at once." With that, the line began moving. Jomei and his fellows descended into the depths of their prison once again, their new companions falling in behind. Jomei knew how they felt. The first night was the hardest, watching your life slowly slip away…and then when you were shut in, and everything went quiet…it hit you. You were going to be there for a long, long time.
As his cell door clanged shut, Jomei wished mightily for his hammer, currently keeping their jailer company until morning. The weapon still held together, but it worried him...as did his new cellmate. She was little more than a black shape in the darkness of the little room, lit only by the faint light coming in through the narrow, barred window. Tossing his hat aside, he remarked to the girl,
"You're not like the others. Why'd you go and lick his boots like the rest of them?"
"I thought I saw a warrior," he clarified. "Was I wrong?"
She crossed her arms, and replied in a strange flowing accent, "If you believe that a warrior's duty is to get herself beaten to a bloody pulp, then yes, you are wrong."
The darkness gave their conversation a confidential, hushed quality, almost intimate in its confines, particularly since her face was mostly hidden.
Jomei frowned. She's got a mouth, huh? Well I can deal with that if it means getting out of here. At least she's honest about it. I can respect that.
He offered his left hand.
"I'm Jomei of Teoro Village."
After a moment's hesitation, she held out her right hand. He shrugged and accepted it. Her skin was cool to the touch, though she had quite a grip for her size. He smiled slightly.
"I am Reki of-" She cut herself off abruptly and amended, "Just Reki." Jomei didn't question her. Some things it wasn't right to ask about. On the other hand, he needed to know what she was planning...and if it contradicted his own plans.
"So, is it true?"
"About the soldiers, you mean?" She chuckled bitterly. "Yes, it's true, although for the life of me I can't remember it. The last thing I remember is telling the bartender I didn't want to see the bottom of my glass. Then I woke up in chains, with bloody clothes."
Jomei raised an eyebrow. I knew that was blood. "Why in such a hurry to drown yourself in jari?" Not like there isn't enough problems for you already.
"Does it matter?"
He shrugged. Not my business.
"I suppose not. Are you any good with a sword?"
She stepped forward into the shaft of light that spilled in through the window, letting him see her face. The silver glow highlighted the hard, angular lines there. Then she smiled, a chilling expression that did not reach her eyes, and raised her hands. "I was born to the blade. Don't let this half-hand of mine fool you, I'm just as good with the other one. Is there somebody you want dead?" She sounded utterly calm about the idea, and Jomei suppressed a shiver, feeling his blood run cold. He'd killed before, yes, but to get to a point where you didn't even care who or why you were killing…that scared him. He closed his eyes.
"Yes, but not right now." Leaning in close, he lowered his voice even further, to a quiet murmur. "I need to know if I can trust you."
Reki shook her head, laughing softly—a curious, brittle sound. "It's all too easy to betray someone's trust. There's nobody alive who knows that better than me. There's nothing I can say or do that will convince you." Here her tone turned sharp, and she eyed him with suspicion. "Besides, how do I know I can trust you?
Jomei turned his back and began loosening his sash. "This is how you'll know. After six months in here I went completely mad and made a break for it. They caught me. Every Fire Nation soldier wanted me dead. Except Takano. He wanted to teach me a lesson, make me be a good little miner." He pulled off his shirt. "And he thought his lesson would take better if he used fire."
Reki's eyes widened. Jomei's back was criss-crossed with old scars from the lash, though most of them had healed well, and were only ridged lines, faint traces of what he had endured. The bruises of two days ago were fading fast, and were only yellowish patches, barely discernible. But running from one shoulder down the left side of his back, there was outlined, in the deep red of burn scars, a line of simplified characters that read 'Jomei, prisoner of the Fire Nation'. The marks still ached sometimes with the memory of the agony that had created them.
Takano looked down on him sternly.
"I want you to know you've brought this on yourself. I have made every effort to make conditions here as comfortable as possible, and in return, you have betrayed my trust." Jomei, tied to the wooden frame where Kanetsu's punishments took place, glared up at him, eyes burning with pain and near-mindless fury. Behind Takano, the pathetic whimpers of the five villagers, his foster family, all bearing whip weals across their backs, tore at his very soul. Kanetsu could scar a komodo rhino's hide if he was of a mind to.
"You bastard!" the miner snarled. "You're dead, you hear me, you're dead! When I get free, I'm going to rip open your belly and stake you out beside a fire-ant colony!"
"You'll be free when the war is over and you can be safe under Fire Nation rule."
"Screw your damn nation! I'll smash that too! You miserable coward! Fight me like a man instead of talking all that junk!"
"You'll be better off than you were before." Indicating the Fire Nation soldiers standing around them, Takano argued, "You're better protected and looked after now than you ever were under the Earth Kingdom. You'll have all the benefits of Fire Nation technology and culture. Be reasonable, there must be a thousand villages like Teoro in these mountains, it's not as if we're personally out to harm you. Why do you care who takes your ore?"
"I care who burned down half my village and killed my friends! You have my family whipped instead of me! You make us slaves so you can use our iron to kill more people! What, you think I'm just going to forget all that because you say you want to be nice now? Screw that! I'm not afraid of you!" Takano sighed, and nodded to Kanetsu, who stood nearby, looking thoroughly disgusted with the whole affair.
Kanetsu called to the rest of the assembled prisoners, "All here will bear witness to these facts: The miner Jomei has made a rash and feeble attempt to turn traitor to the rulers of this village and run off. For this, he is sentenced to be forever marked as a prisoner of the Fire Nation. Let this be a reminder to all of you of the hopelessness of rebellion, and the price of betrayal." Takano's hand filled with fire, and slowly descended upon Jomei. The last thing he felt was pain.
Jomei pulled his shirt back on.
"That writing drove me sane again but it was a near thing." He shuddered at the memories. "A very near thing. Takano warned me if I tried anything, ever again, he'd have no choice but to let Kanetsu have his way and burn me alive. Just one slip, and it's over for 's how you know I can be trusted, and why I want to make good and sure you can be before I say anything."
Reki nodded slowly. "Perhaps I spoke too soon." The miner began to answer, but she cut him off, her voice laden with sarcasm and contempt. "You really are a damned fool, because only a fool would try to escape at all because the work is a little harder and ignore the fact that his family will be punished for his stupidity as well! If that's what you call your noble struggle, I'd say you deserve what you got."
Jomei, a rising fury coloring his face, began an indignant reply, but she would have none of it, and talked on over him. "If you wanted to escape, have you never heard of patience, planning, thinking ahead of trying to fight your way out through the whole garrison? You might as well have stone for brains if that's the best idea you can come up with. I've heard better plans from children."
"I just told you I wasn't in my right mind at the time!" Jomei retorted angrily. "And at least I tried! At least I have the courage not to just lie down and give up like the rest of the village! I know I screwed up! I don't need you to tell me that."
Reki's voice turned poisonously sweet. "Of course not. It only took you getting innocent people whipped and your backside used for calligraphy practice for you to figure that one out. Your powers of perception are frightening."
Jomei threw up his hands in frustration, almost shouting, "Yes, dammit, I was an idiot, is that what you want to hear? I'll say it as many times as you like. And by the spirits I wish people were half as honest as you! But I'm not that person anymore! You don't understand!"
"The feeling is mutual but what don't I understand?" Reki demanded.
"I'm the only one that can escape. Nobody else can."
"Why are you the only one? You don't consider anyone else worth anything?"
"No! I mean, yes! I mean-"
"Is this about your pride? You're not willing to admit you need help even when you know you do?"
"No, no, no!" Taking hold of Reki's shoulders, only a very short distance from completely losing his temper, he snarled, "Will you just shut up for one second and listen to me?" He felt her tense under his grip, and she said, speaking very slowly and precisely, with a complete lack of emotion, and a look colder than a midwinter storm, "You will take your hands off me or I will snap them off." Jomei immediately let go his grasp, and stepped back slowly, suddenly very much aware of how stupid he had just been, yet again. One of these days that temper is going to kill me. It's just…damn! The woman won't let me get a word in edgewise. I've got to be smart about this.
Taking a few deep breaths, he managed to calm down a little.
"Sorry about that. It's just…I have a bit of a temper, and…can you please let me finish?" She nodded. He explained, in a much more subdued voice, noting with relief that Reki seemed to have lost her desire to relieve him of his hands,
"If the other miners try anything, or are suspected of conspiring, Takano will punish their families, too." For once, Reki had nothing to say. Jomei understood. There was nothing to say. He continued,
"You might have noticed, Takano is a complete idiot, like I used to be. Only he's worse, because he doesn't have insanity as an excuse."
"Neither do you. You'd have to have a weak mind to lose it under this routine."
"Ever tried mining?"
"Ever tried war?"
"I plan to, very soon. But picture this: suppose you were in the middle of a battle and somebody supposedly on your side starts yelling at you about how you're doing things wrong, while stabbing you repeatedly but only enough to hurt like your blood is on fire. At the same time, your opponent chimes in with his opinion on what you should be doing, which directly conflicts with your supposed ally, he's aiming to kill you and his blows actually hurt enough that they might just do it if you don't step up. And here's the kicker: Neither of them are right. Now imagine this going on for six months, sunrise to sunset, no breaks. Then you'll have an idea of what it's been like here. If you think my mind is weak, well, maybe you're right, but I'd like to see you last as long."
Reki considered this a moment.
"Perhaps you are right," she conceded, her own anger vanished. "And yes, I have seen your major's ineptitude for myself. You do not seem stupid enough to attempt a mad dash at freedom at the moment."
Jomei smiled grimly.
"Thanks, but wait until you hear the whole story. You may change your mind. Anyway, like I said, Takano will punish the other villager's families if they try to escape or help me escape so they won't do anything. I don't blame them for not all wanting to escape, that's impossible. But if one person could get away and come back with help, to free the village, now that's something they should get behind. Of course they won't. So I'll do it without their help. It has to be me anyway, because if I'm caught, it's just me who gets turned into charcoal. Takano would have no choice but to turn me over to Kanetsu, he gave his word, and Kanetsu, though a bullying bastard, isn't the type to hurt people without a better reason than to screw with my spirit."
He didn't bother explaining that it was his foster family who had suffered because of him. He had loved them like the real thing. His blood relatives either fought with the Earth Army or had joined their ancestors. The only one who might be alive was his sister, who had been born sick. She'd been sent off to Omashu when she was little, in hopes that the healers there could help her, but there'd been no news for years. Jomei didn't expect any.
"Now do you see why I'm the only one that can escape? You see why I defy them in any way I can? Sure, part of it is a personal matter. A matter of pride, courage, honor. But it's also about standing up for those who can't anymore."
"And what do they think of your little crusade?"
"You'd get along fine with them. They think I'm an idiot and a heartless traitor and they might just be right. But if that's what I have to be to free Teoro, I can do it. For their sake, even though they'll never appreciate it, I'll do it." He fixed Reki with a keenly interested look. "The question is what do you think?" She shook her head, and answered, with the embittered air of someone who had long ago lost hope,
"What chance do you think you have? You can't win this fight. All you're doing is making things harder for yourself. You'd be better off just doing what they say. No matter what you think, or what you do, we're still just prisoners of the Fire Nation. That's all. I know it. Everybody else knows it. Why don't you?"
"It looks like I was mistaken too," Jomei snapped, his temper flaring up once again, "Kanetsu was right, you really are just a spineless desert rat!" Reki waved her hand dismissively, showing no concern over his words, which only enraged him further.
He continued, pacing back and forth, muttering, "No courage. No honor. You hide your heads in the sand and let the rest of the world burn. Haven't you ever lost somebody you cared about?"
Almost too quietly to hear, she whispered, "Yes. My brother."
"Well, I bet your own cursed brother would be ashamed of-" That was as far as he got before her fist connected with his jaw. More surprised than hurt, he still fell heavily to the cold iron floor. Before he could shake off the blow, she was upon him, her arm pressing down against his neck.
"I'll get you for that, you-" Jomei choked out before she pressed down harder yet, turning anything he might have said into a wordless gurgling as he struggled for breath. Her face was twisted with rage, teeth bared, and he could see a cold light in those green eyes.
"Listen and listen well, Jomei," she ground out, "I care nothing about what you think of my home, my people, or me, but you will never insult my brother again, or I swear by Shenshai's fiery eyes, I will kill you where you stand! Understand me?" Jomei took hold of her arm in both hands, and with a mighty heave, flung her off of him and scrambled to his feet, his breath rattling in his bruised windpipe. Reki was up again in an instant, but she made no move to attack. For a long moment, the two of them waited to see which one would give in. It was Jomei, who nodded slowly, mildly grateful that she couldn't see him blushing with shame. Should've expected that after how she talked about making family suffer. I ain't got the right to insult her family when they're not around. Not even a heartless traitor does that.
"Reki," he said softly, "I'm sorry. I really am. I didn't think. As usual." If she'd been a villager, he would have reached out and put a hand on her shoulder, but that might just get him in even worse trouble, so he kept his distance and endured the fire behind those green eyes.
For a moment, Reki still looked at him as though she might just decide to go for his throat again. Then, she relaxed, the fight draining out of her, and her air of gloom returned.
She asked idly, "Do you know where I can get something to drink?"
Jomei was uncertain what to make of that.
"If that's a joke, it's in poor taste. We're not allowed anything stronger than water, as if you couldn't guess."
He shrugged. "Whether it is or it isn't doesn't change the fact that you're not getting anything like that. But before we get into that, will you help me?"
The silence following the question was murder on his already shot nerves. The desert warrior took her time in answering. But when she did, it was something he'd been waiting to hear for a long time.
"I will consider it."
He let out a sigh of relief.
"Hey, that's all I'm asking and it means a lot to me. Just not being alone anymore is pretty good from where I'm standing. Like I said, I'm not insane anymore. I know when to be patient. We'll talk more later. For now, get some sleep. Believe me, you'll need every bit of it."
With that, he pulled the thin blanket off the bunk, put it on the cold iron floor, and laid down on top of it, not bothering to take off his clothes. Reki walked over to the narrow, barred window, and, leaning against the bars, stared up at the starlit sky. Long after Jomei turned in, she still stood there, lost in thought, and in the darkness of the autumn night.