Chi-fu looked like a well-fed hog-monkey as he sat on a woven rug and counted coins into a purse. His fat fingers moved quickly for their size, but Shiori had no fear of being cheated. The caravan owner was an honorable man.
"There," he said as a few copper pieces topped off her sack of wages. "And now…" He added an additional sum of coins, causing the fifteen year old to raise a brow at him. Finished, the middle-aged man sat back, clasping his hands about his ample belly. "I'm sorry, Shiori, but I'm going to have to let you go. My son's unit is returning home from its tour of duty next month. After all they've been through, rebuilding those little barbarian towns, the least I can do is offer him and some of his comrades a job… you understand."
The girl nodded. It was like this all over the Fire Nation. Soldiers and Colonials were returning in droves and jobs for someone with Shiori's limited set of skills were in short supply. Guarding the caravan had been a good match for her while it had lasted; she'd miss this job.
Chi-fu shook his head ruefully. "If I were to keep any of the guards, you'd be the one. The way you dropped that rampaging elephant-moose with just two arrows… But…" he spread his hands apologetically, "it would hardly be fair to the others, especially since you're so young. And besides, with all of these young men returning home, I'm sure your prospects for marriage…"
"Thank you, sir. It's been an honor serving you." The girl interrupted with a short bow. She took her wages and departed the tent. Although she was quiet more often than not, Shiori no longer had to abide by the rule of silence. She did not miss it much, although there were certain advantages to being still and listening to those around her.
Frowning slightly, the girl realized that she had been mildly insulted by the insinuation that marriage was a suitable substitute for employment. Not yet sixteen, she was still trying to find her path, the one that included the skills she had learned as a yu-yan without the need for her to quell her spirit and mindlessly follow orders. Guarding the caravan as it traveled the length and breadth of the Fire Nation's largest island had suited her, but with all the trained and experienced soldiers returning home it would be extremely difficult to find a similar position. With a sigh she headed for the rear of the caravan, to the pitched tent where her meager belongings were kept.
"Ah, Shiori," the one-eyed fire bender known as Khan greeted. "Did you get the ax too?"
The girl nodded, suddenly grateful that the caravan owner hadn't singled her out. She was at least a decade younger than the youngest of the other six guards; the ones nearby were all eyeing her with curiosity. Oddballs and outcasts, one or two of them were only a step above street thugs. She had earned her way into their fold with difficulty, but was now saddened that they would all go their separate ways.
Khan spat on the ground. "Jobless again, all thanks to Fire Lord Zuko. What was he thinking, ending the war like that? We can't all be carpenters and masons, building homes for the returning troops."
"Silence, you fool." Yenti, eldest of the guards, snapped. "Your stupidity is showing. The war was endless and foolish. It is time to move on."
"Just because you lost your son…"
Shiori ducked past the quarreling pair. The argument was as familiar and well worn as the patched cloth that made up the tent she entered. Every town the caravan had visited, the same argument. Different words were spoken, different reasons given to support each side, but the sentiments remained the same. After one hundred years of war, the population of the Fire Nation was uneasy about the concept of peace. The war had been such a large part of the national identity that people seemed lost without its familiar presence. Shiori wasn't the only one searching for her path; the nation as a whole appeared to be stumbling around while attempting to adapt to Fire Lord Zuko's new era of peace.
The girl sighed while gathering her sparse belongings. Her bow and quiver rarely left her side, but her supplies for making arrows needed to be packed. Her clothes were placed in a worn, but water-proof canvas backpack, her bedroll tucked on top. She divided her wages in half, storing some in her pack and securing the remaining purse of coins to her belt, next to a large knife that was used more for utilitarian purposes than as an actual weapon.
"Hey, kiddo," Natsu, the only other female guard, nodded as she entered the tent. "You get fired too?"
The young archer inclined her head in a show of deference as she spoke. "Yes."
"Too bad. I thought of all of us, you'd have the best chance of being kept on. The way you shoot that thing," the large, grizzled woman indicated Shiori's bow with a tilt of her head, "is something to see. Do you have any plans for after this?"
Shiori sat on her heels, considering for a moment. Natsu spoke before she could come up with anything. "If I were you, I'd hire myself out as a trophy hunter. I've heard that the nobles will pay big bucks for rare creatures to display in their homes and with your skills," the woman mock-fired an imaginary bow, "you could take them through the eye with no damage to the pelt at all."
"Thanks, Natsu. I'll keep it in mind."
The fifteen year old stood, slinging her pack over her left shoulder, checking to make sure it didn't interfere with her quiver. She bowed respectfully to the older woman; of all the guards, she'd miss the rough and tumble Natsu the most. The bulky woman was often crass and more likely than not to attempt to fix problems with her fists, but she had been good company.
"Goodbye, Natsu. May the Sun Spirit light your path."
"And yours as well," the older woman completed the ritual departure phrase.
Shiori smiled and turned to leave. Natsu's gruff voice chased after her. "Hey, don't go spending your wages all in one place. And stay out of bars, you're still too young."
"Avoid the docks. I hear a Fire Navy ship came to port last night. You don't want to be facing off against those horn-dogs."
Shiori giggled and gave her friend a final nod. Most of the other male guards had already gone their separate ways, all save Yenti and Khan, who were still arguing. The former yu-yan trainee slipped away without disturbing them, losing herself into the rush of city folk. Natsu's fears were completely unfounded; Shiori hated cities with their crowds and noise and conflicting smells. She had no intention of remaining here any longer than necessary.
One of the benefits of her years of training was that she was perfectly capable of fending for herself in the countryside. Hunting her own food and living out under the stars would help stretch her wages too. But before she could leave the city, she needed to purchase a few supplies and to check her messenger hawk box too. Shifting her pack on her shoulders, she headed out for the marketplace.
The supplies she required were easily found and haggled for; the messenger hawk station was her final stop. In exchange for her key and some coins, she received two scrolls. Resting her bottom on the wooden steps leading up to the station, she examined her mail.
The first was from her aunt and uncle. The missive was long and chatty, a quality Shiori hadn't recalled her aunt possessed until she had been forced to take shelter there for a few months after her failure of the final exam. It took several minutes of reading to get to the gist: word had been received from her mother and father. They were expected to return home the month after the Spring Equinox.
With a frown, the girl set the letter down. She didn't really remember her parents and what memories she did possess were of Keisuke's nearly constant diatribe against them. She wondered if he knew about their impending return. Her last contact with him had been the disastrous events on Misty Island, but she still kept track of where the active duty yu-yan were serving. Surprisingly enough, it was her former nemesis Shi-Yun who kept her in the know.
After the end of the war, Fire Lord Zuko had sent the group to assist in guarding a top secret military prison, where high ranking officers and nobles who actively worked against the Peace Treaty were kept. After a bit of thought, Shiori decided against writing Keisuke directly. Her aunt knew his messenger hawk box address; she could inform him. As for her parents… Shiori wasn't sure she wanted to see the fire benders who had abandoned her, especially not as a failure.
Her heart panged and she took a moment to gather herself. Over a year had passed since her refusal to carry out her final exam. She was old enough to know that she had made the right decision, but that didn't mean that regret didn't haunt her every now and again. Taking a deep breath, she took up the other, thinner, scroll. Its wax seal indicated it had come from the Capital; curious, as she did not know anyone there. With a shrug, she slipped her finger beneath the seal and gently opened the messege.
She read the brief missive, staring in disbelief at the signature at the end of it. And then she read it again.
She rolled the scroll back up and leaned back, staring at the sky, a slightly bemused smile playing over her face. While Natsu's idea of hunting trophies for the nobles did not appeal to her, it appeared that she was going to have to make a trip to the Capital after all.
Trapped in a room of nobles, how mortifying, the former trainee thought with a wry smile. She didn't make eye contact with the others. Shiori had never really needed to deal with the nobility before (with two notable exceptions) so she was handling the situation as she would have had she encountered a strange beast in the middle of nowhere. Predators often found direct eye contact to be a challenge, so she was observing the others surreptitiously.
As a commoner, Shiori stuck out like a sore thumb in the waiting room. No one spoke to her, but she could feel their eyes staring at her with curiosity from time to time. Her bow and quiver had been taken at the very first check point, leaving her feeling vulnerable. Her summons as well as her name had been checked against a list over and over; the guards were apparently as confused by her presence as she was. But despite the current Fire Lord's reputation as a peace-lover, no one was going to question his whims. If Fire Lord Zuko wished to see Shiori, the former yu-yan trainee, then so be it.
With a sigh, the girl settled back in her seat to wait. Unsurprisingly, she was the last to be called. Instead of the page who had summoned the others, however, she was escorted by a tall, dark-haired young woman dressed in the fine silks of the upper class.
"You're Shiori, right?" the older girl asked in a dull, bored tone. "Follow me."
Silently, Shiori obeyed. Suddenly she missed her bow. Although the other girl emitted a cool, impassive air, there was something about her that had Shiori's instincts on edge. It's just nerves, she tried to soothe herself. You're nervous about meeting with the Fire Lord. That's fine, anyone would be. You've done nothing wrong. Be at ease.
Unfortunately, she found the command impossible to follow. A part of her feared that Zuko had found out about his unwitting role in her final exam. Although she had been unable to carry out the deed, surely it was a crime to even consider plunging an arrow into the heart of a Prince. So distracted was she by her musings that Shiori had not realized that they had turned out of the main corridor, heading down a far less ornate passage. Her tall guide tapped on a door before pushing it open.
Inside, Fire Lord Zuko was in the process of having his ceremonial trappings removed. The young ruler directed a friendly smile towards the door. "Thank you, Mai."
"You owe me better than that. I'm not a page, you know." the girl replied tartly while crossing her arms over her chest. The servants, used to this sort of thing, continued with their work. Shiori, however, was shocked. Her wide eyes darted between the two until the girl softened her position with a smile, one Zuko returned with interest.
"I like her," Mai said, tilting her head in Shiori's direction. "She's quiet."
Suddenly thrust center stage, the fifteen year old stiffened. She made to bow before the ruler of her nation, halted by Zuko's abrupt "Don't." Jerking upright, she eyed the former Prince speculatively.
"Leave us," he ordered the servants. Instantly, they obeyed. He cracked his neck; apparently the crown and robes were heavier than they appeared. Drawing the taller girl to him, he gave her a kiss. "My undying gratitude for your service," he uttered, although he was unable to keep his tone completely sincere. With a roll of her eyes and a smile, Mai pushed him away.
Shiori, still standing at attention, cleared her throat. Rather than put her at ease, this display of familiarity made her feel even more out of place. The Fire Lord graced her with his attention. He looked taller than she remembered and less on edge. Perhaps it was the fact that he had stopped shaving his head, but his face seemed softer somehow too.
"Shiori, I'm glad to see you are well. Thank you for coming."
"It was my honor to be summoned, Fire Lord Zuko. How may I be of service?"
"Still not one for small talk, I see," the young ruler said with a smile. "Very well. I have a position that needs filled, one that I believe your particular skill set would fit. What I am about to tell you is top secret. Can I trust your discretion?"
The girl nodded solemnly, utterly intrigued. The Fire Lord brought forth a map.
"There is a secret tribe living in the hinterlands of the Fire Nation, right about here. They are called the Sun Warriors and they are guarding something… rather special. I'd like to establish a liaison with the tribe: someone who can travel unseen between here and there, someone who I can trust to keep secrets, someone whose skills will allow them to track and neutralize potential threats to the tribe and the secret they protect. This person will have to have superior hunting and tracking skills; the ability to keep their mouth shut and has to be able to survive on their own, without outside support for weeks on end. Plus they must be someone who can both follow orders and think for themselves.
Eventually, I'd like to negotiate with the tribe, to get them to agree to allow worthy fire benders access to what they guard. If that comes to pass, the liaison will have to guide the candidates there and back, making sure that they are not followed. Protecting the tribe's culture and secrets are of the utmost importance. The person I choose must have the highest caliber of integrity." The Fire Lord paused and looked up at his guest. "I'd like that someone to be you."
Shiori blinked, startled. Of all the things she could have been summoned to the Capital for, a job offering was one she had not considered. Still, the timing was fortuitous and the task seemed to fit not only her established abilities, but her desires as well. With a quick nod, she accepted.
"Good. You'll be reporting directly to me or to Mai. Now let me tell you a little more about the Sun Warriors. But first, tell what you know about dragons…"
A/N:Thanks to all that stopped by and read this to the end. I appreciate the hits and the reviews, especially considering the long hiatus this story went through in the middle and the fact that it centered around an O.C. Hopefully the ending was satisfactory and not too unbelievable. Cheers!