Guess who's back?
It was close…very close. He couldn't strike just yet though; oh no, he had to be patient. If he rushed things, attacked before the right moment, he would be foiled. That was one of the things that master Piandao had taught him. If he botched his attack this time, he would have to wait for the next opportunity and Spirits only knew when that would be. Yes, patience was the key.
'Buzz, buzz.' 'Buzzz, buzz.'
Oh yeah; there goes the little blood sucker, flittering around near his right ear, without a care in the world. The Water Tribe warrior almost smirked. Yeah, just keep on thinking that little monster bug; go on, nothing to be afraid of. His body tensed slightly as the sound of buzzing receded from his ear. Sokka's cold blue eyes caught sight and locked on to an erratic dark spot that frittered up and down, round and round, in front of his face. Slowly, deliberately, he lifted his hands from their place in his lap and held them, palms up, near his chest. The young warrior finally cracked a smile.
He had him right where he wanted him. Now, softly, softly…reel him in and…
The Water Tribe warrior pulled apart his clasped hands and looked down at the brownish-red smudge staining his palms in an odd mix of satisfaction and disgust.
"You were a worthy enemy, little blood-sucking monster bug, but you were never going to be a match for my lightning fast hands."
A rustling in the underbrush off to the side caused Sokka to unconsciously reach for his sword, lying on the ground by his side. Upon seeing the scarred, scowling face of his current traveling companion, the young tribesman relaxed- slightly. He still wasn't exactly comfortable with the idea that Zuko, Prince of the Fire Nation, was now his ally. It was all just too weird. However, Sokka's attitude brightened considerably when he saw that the former prince was carrying some kind of large, meaty bird over his shoulder.
The firebender tossed the felled pheasant onto the ground in the center of their camp.
"I take it the hunt went well," Sokka quipped while climbing to his feet. He already had his knife out, ready to pluck and gut the bird. Zuko just grunted and dusted some leaves and dirt off of his clothes.
"I took care of the hard part, you do the cooking. And while you're dressing that bird, you can tell me the rest of that story."
Now it was Sokka's turn to scowl and grunt non-committedly. He and Zuko had left that brothel over a week ago and the pair had been traveling light and fast in that time, trying to cover as much ground as possible. As long as they had been on the move, Zuko hadn't bothered him too much about telling the rest of his story of how he came to be separated from the Avatar's group. Now that they had come to the island of Dewaii- a place of relative safety in a province of little importance- the firebender was determined to make the tribesman spill his guts.
Going by the look on his face, Zuko could tell that Sokka was not too keen to continue his history.
"…Deal's a deal I guess," Sokka muttered as he yanked a handful of feathers out of the bird.
"So, where did I cut off last time?"
"You were in a weapons shop and the guy who owned the place suggested that you should go up to Master Piandao's estate in order to ask him to train you. And, I think you should know right now, I find the idea that a man of Piandao's stature taking you as student to be completely laughable."
"Well good thing for me that I don't really care what you think you greasy cocksucker; now, you mind if I tell my story or you just want to cut my legs out from under me?"
The firebender waved a hand nonchalantly, telling his counterpart to proceed.
"All right, so after we head out from the shop all of us head back to camp. After I collect my stuff, I head down the road out of the village up to Master Piandao's ridiculously huge estate and…
It had taken Sokka nearly half an hour to climb all the way up the steep path that led to the entrance of the Piandao estate. Standing before the large arched doors of the compound's outer wall, the young tribesman felt slipped his rucksack off of his back and reached up to adjust the collar of his tunic. Pulling a handkerchief from out of his robe, Sokka quickly wiped the sweat that was beginning to stream down his face. The sweat wasn't just from the blazing heat common at this time of year in the Fire Nation; much of it was from sheer nervousness.
The Water Tribe warrior tried to convince himself that his anxiousness was stupid. He had never even heard of this Piandao guy before a few hours ago; what reason should he have to feel nervous? Still, the blade master was supposed to be the greatest swordsman for several generations and in the Fire Nation. Looking at the opulent decorations lining the walls of the gate to the estate, Sokka could tell that Piandao was of the aristocratic class. In the face of such an ostentatious barrier, the tribesman- in his stolen, patched clothing and rough cotton shoes- couldn't help be feel incredibly shabby.
Frowning at his own hesitance, Sokka finished fussing with his clothes and plucked up his courage. Grasping one of the large door knockers in his hands he hefted the heavy iron weight and brought it back down against the lacquered wood on the door. After a few knocks, Sokka didn't have long to wait before he heard the lock on the other side of the gate shifting and the door lurched inwards to reveal the wrinkled features of an old man- presumably one of Piandao's servants.
"Hello, can I help you young man?"
Standing a bit straighter, the tribesman answered in what he imagined to be a formal and dignified tone.
"I have come to study at the feet of the master."
"Of course you have," the old man remarked in a dry tone. "Pick up your things and follow me kid."
Without further ceremony the servant turned and began walking away. Sokka quickly picked up his things and followed in the old man's wake, trailing him through the estate's large courtyard and into the main house. Once inside the building, the old servant led his young visitor down the long gallery until they reached a set of wooden doors decorated with highly detailed carvings, not of Komodo-Rhinos or other animals common to the Fire Nation, but of Furred Whales like the ones from his home in the South Pole.
"Doubt you've ever seen creatures like those before, huh kid," the old servant asked.
"Huh? What are you…"
"The carvings," the man replied, jabbing a finger at the figures impressed into the door. "I know its hard to believe, but creatures such as those really do exist in this world, though you've got to go a long way from the Fire Nation to see them."
Sokka fought down the knowing smirk forming in his lips and merely nodded in feigned awe. He'd seen those creatures, and many more besides them, up close and personal; or rather, Sokka of the Water Tribe had seen them, grown up with them, hunted them. And right now, in this place, he had to remember that he could not be a member of the Water Tribe.
The servant on the carved wood and the door, almost noiselessly, swung open revealing a richly furnished drawing room decorated with the deep red fixtures that were so common to the Fire Nation.
"You can wait in here while I inform Master Piandao of your request for an audience. You shouldn't have to wait for long," the old man said.
Sokka said his thanks to the servant before the latter made his exit, leaving the young tribesman to his own devices. Now that he was by himself again, he was annoyed to find that the butterflies were back to fluttering around in his stomach. Seriously, what was he even doing here? He was acting like he had all of the time in the world to go off and learn swordplay.
How does it take to become a master swordsman anyway? What with the invasion and all the preparations for that and the comet and finding of a firebending master for Aang, did he really have the time to be doing something like this? If he had any sense at all he would just walk out of this place right now, find the guys, pack up on Appa and…
"Eh," Sokka asked, unexpectedly dragged from his navel-gazing by the sound of the servant's voice.
"The master will see you now. Pray that you prove worthy."
"Oh?...Oh! Great! I will."
Reaching up to adjust his already perfectly adjusted collar, the tribesman was led through a door sitting at the back of the drawing room. Passing through the door, Sokka found himself in a spacious study, just as lavishly decorated as the rest of the house that he had seen thus far. Against one wall lay a bookcase, filled to capacity with various texts and scrolls. Every fixture in the room, from the baseboards to the door jambs seemed to be lined in gold or some other shining metal. An incredibly complex portrait of a sweeping mountainside landscape dominated the wall on the opposing side of the room. Arranged at different spaces around the room were racks of weapons of all types.
Kneeling at low table bathed in a beam of light streaming in from an open window, Sokka could spy a slender man moving an ink brush in broad, controlled, strokes over a piece of paper.
"Master, this is the young man that wishes to train under you."
The servant looked back at Sokka and grunted, "…well, introduce yourself."
"Oh, right," the tribesman said.
"My name is Sokka, it's…um…nice to meet you."
"Sokka," the sword master repeated, rolling the unfamiliar syllables around on his tongue. "That's an interesting name."
"Oh," the tribesman said, panicking a bit. "Really? Because it's a pretty common name for Fire Nation colonials…in the Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom. Where… y'know…I come from."
"Right," Piandao replied, not even bothering to look up from his writing.
Sokka wondered if he could possibly sound any dumber.
"So let me guess," Piando began.
"You've come hundreds of miles from your little village, where you're the best swordsman in town, and you think that you deserve to learn from the master."
Piandao's words were practically dripping with condescension. It was clear to Sokka that the sword master viewed his presence as little more than an annoyance. The tribesman was about to be offended when he stopped and thought to himself. This was the guy that was called the greatest sword master and sword maker the Fire Nation had ever seen. If Piandao really was even a fraction as good as everyone said he was then he would have random people hitting up to become his students all the time. And, given the sarcastic way in which he addressed him, Sokka guessed that many of the people who came seeking tutelage from the master were pompous brats. That had to get irritating.
So…maybe the key to getting in was to be the opposite of pompous?
"Well, actually, I've been all over the world," Sokka said.
"Yep, here we go…"
"And…I know one thing for sure…"
The Water Tribe warrior got down on his knees and kowtowed before the man sitting behind the desk.
"…I have a lot to learn."
Like nothing else, the younger man's open display of humility caught Piandao off guard. For the first time, the sword master took his attention off of his calligraphy and actually looked at the young man who had come to ask his for his tutelage.
"You know, you're not doing a very good job of selling yourself," the sword master remarked.
Though the words were far from encouraging, Sokka noticed the subtle change in the man's tone. Where before Piandao had sounded patronizing, he now sounded thoughtful; that had to be a good sign.
"I know. Your butler told me that I should pray for you to find me worthy, but the truth is…I don't know if I am worthy."
Piandao studied Sokka, appraising the newcomer with a stern glance. For what felt like an unbearably long length of time, Sokka kept his position on the floor, just waiting for the master to say or do something, anything. Piandao, however merely sat there, looking at him…no, not just looking at him. Studying him; appraising him as if his young body was a gem of rough cut and suspect quality.
The master rose.
"Get on your feet, Sokka."
"You say that you're not sure if you're worthy. Well, let's find out together how worthy you are."
With a few long strides, Piandao was past Sokka and nearly through the door by the time his newest student had scrambled to his feet.
"You can leave your pack in here, I'll have one of the servants come to collect it," the master called over his shoulder as he exited the room. "Now, let's get a move on; we haven't got all day."
"Sorry, sorry," the tribesman said.
Though he was able to catch up with the older man quickly enough, Sokka was surprised at how fast Piandao was able to move just by walking. When the young tribesman had said just a few minutes ago that he doubted his own worth, he hadn't been 100 percent sincere; Sokka was nothing if not confident in his ability to do anything he set his mind to. However, being next to Piandao- or rather, traveling in his wake- was forcing him to reassess himself. Sokka found himself almost having to jog to keep up with the walking pace of a man who was clearly more than twice his age. That was just insane!
The Water Tribe warrior shook his head, bemused by his own thoughts. Just what would gaining a master end up costing him?
Passing by several footmen and chambermaids as they rushed through the halls, Sokka followed Piandao all the way through a rear entrance that led out to a lush palatial garden. The sword master led his pupil along a winding path made out of pure white cobblestones until they came upon a hunchbacked old woman carefully pruning a shrub festooned with Ember Lilies.
"Itza," Piandao called, rousing the hunched woman from her work.
"Yes master," she replied.
"I let the apprentices loose on the grounds this morning for individual training. Alert Lee and the other gardeners and have them fetch those boys back here, if you would be so kind."
"At once, master."
After the old woman made an awkward half-bow and scurried off to her task, Piandao turned and leveled a stern gaze upon Sokka. The Water Tribe warrior suddenly felt very small, as if being in the sight of the great swordsman was causing him to literally shrink down to the size of a bug. Sokka began to wonder if he had done something in the last few minutes to offend Piandao, and he was about to voice his misgivings when his new master cut him off.
"I didn't ask you this properly before, Sokka, but why did you come to train under me?"
The young warrior got the sense that there was more to Piandao's question than the obvious, but answered truthfully.
"Because you're known as the greatest sword master the Fire Nation's ever had; who doesn't want to be trained by the best?"
"What you said explains why you would want to become my disciple," the sword master said. "But that doesn't explain why you're here."
"I don't follow," Sokka said slowly.
Though he kept his tone nice and even, the young warrior could feel the nervousness building in his gut.
"You say you're from the colonies, right?"
"Our colonies are thousands of miles away," Piandao stated bluntly.
"Do you know what I see when I look at you, Sokka?"
"No, but I've got a feeling you're about to tell me."
The young warrior was relieved when the swordsman smirked at his wit instead of becoming angry. One thing Sokka had learned in his travels; if they're laughing at you, then they're usually not going to try to kill you.
"I see rough, simple clothing. I see…shoes worn down to thin soles. I see the shifty way you look around, trying to take in every detail of everything that's around you. I see weathered and calloused hands and a skinny frame that tells me you didn't grow up eating hearty meals three times a day. Basically, what I'm saying is, I see a penniless vagrant used to life on the leg and for the life of me, I can't figure out how someone like this could have afforded to travel all the way from the Earth Kingdom to my doorstep. Logically, you should have been pressganged into the military before you were able to leave the shores of the Continent."
The sword master placed a thoughtful hand on his chin and calmly stroked his goatee.
"And yet, here you are."
I felt like a bomb had gone off inside of Sokka's chest; he felt sick. Worse…he felt at a loss for words. He had to say something; find out a way to talk himself out of this garden, out of this house, back to the guys. They'd cut out of here immediately and haul tail to someplace far away from here.
The young warrior struggled to find some words, any words, to tell Piandao but was halted in his metaphorical tracks by a single gesture from the sword master.
"Look kid, I don't much care if you're some kind of runaway or a deserter or whatever. Who you are and where you come from aren't important to me. As long as you can show me that you've got what it takes, I'll let you stay here."
Not for the first time in his life, Sokka was struck dumb by the power of his own luck. Sure Piandao now thought that he was some type of unsavory character, but at least the master thought he was an unsavory Fire Nation character. As long as he didn't screw up that illusion, Sokka figured that he should be fine.
"Thanks," the young warrior said. "I appreciate it."
"You should," Piandao replied. "I'm not known for giving many favors."
Savoring the feeling of having just dodged a massive boulder, Sokka walked over and took a seat on a nearby rock to wait for the return of Itza and the other disciples. Piandao, meanwhile, simply strolled around the clearing, admiring his Ember Lilies and Summer Roses; apparently content to wait out the return of his servants in silence.
Sokka made a conscious decision not to look at what the sword master was doing; Piandao had been able to read him so easily before and, to be frank, it was an unsettling as well as unwelcome experience. The young warrior was in no hurry for that to happen again. Instead, he decided to use this moment of peace to think up a more complete backstory for himself; he had been extremely lucky that Piandao hadn't bothered to press him for more details about where in the colonies he came from and he couldn't assume that somebody else- a servant or one of his fellow students- wouldn't be more interested.
Just as Sokka had finished piecing together a new false history for himself, the hunchbacked gardener reappeared, accompanied by two middle-aged men in dirt stained clothing and three younger men, armed with blades, who all looked to be around his own age.
"Thank you Lee, Itza, Kai," Piandao said, nodding to each of his servants in turn. "I'll take them from here."
As the gardeners excused themselves, the three young men lined themselves before the sword master. Sokka noted that not one of them spared him even the slightest glance; they certainly recognized that he was there- they'd have to have less depth perception than Toph not to- they just didn't see him as important enough to take note of. That condescension…it was so similar to somebody else he knew, but he couldn't place a name.
"Gentlemen," Piandao said curtly. "You'll be happy to know that I've added another student to our group."
"Excellent master," the one in the middle said. "When do we get to meet him?"
"Right now, as a matter of fact."
Piandao turned and bade Sokka to stand and introduce himself. Not bothering to rise from his rock, the Water Tribe warrior gave a friendly wave to his new classmates.
"How's it going?"
Sokka almost laughed at loud at the appalled looks he received. Piandao's three other students- all of them tall, all of them handsome, all of them clad in finely tailored clothing and armed with swords that were of the highest quality- appeared utterly flabbergasted that this scruffy…person was to be one of Piandao's disciples. The young warrior's eyes flicked towards the sword master. Piandao looked like he was trying to fight down an attack of the giggles. Sokka began to get a clearer idea of the reason why he had been accepted as a disciple so readily.
"Him," the one on the left asked, disbelief evident in his voice.
"Now, now gentlemen," Piandao said, his voice suddenly stern. "Well-bred men such as yourselves have better manners than this. Introductions please."
Sour looks on all of their faces, the three disciples of Piandao nevertheless did as they were told. The one on the left, a bulky young man with piercing amber eyes and a prominent nose went first.
"I am Iroh, son of General Fa-Tzu of the Northern Star army."
His speech was curt, blunt and without warmth. He was annoyed that he should have to extend such niceties to someone who was clearly beneath him. The one in the middle, a classically dashing young man with an exquisitely groomed mustache and clad in the unusual sartorial choice of elegant purple fabrics with gold trim around the collar and sleeves, went next.
"My name is Yanto," he said, the haughty sneer in his voice matching perfectly to the one he held on his face.
"I have the honor of being the son of Yanzai of Ix, the Executive Secretary of the Imperial Minister of Finance."
Yanto said the last sentence as if being the offspring of a glorified bean counter was some type of big accomplishment that Sokka should be in awe of. The young warrior already felt like punching him in the face. Punching him…in the face….
Hahn! That's who these guys reminded Sokka of! Whatever happened to that guy?
While Sokka was wondering about the fate of Princess Yue's betrothed, the third of the disciples, a round-cheeked young man who was sporting the beginnings of the side whiskers popular among men in the Fire Nation.
"My name is Yarai. I am the son of Colonel Yanzai of the Far Eastern Army and the nephew of the governor of the imperial city of New Ozai. How do you do?"
Though Yarai matched the aloof tone of the others, he at least had enough manners to bother with a bow for Sokka.
"It's nice to meet all of you," the Water Tribe warrior said, lying through his teeth.
"My name's Sokka. I come from the colonies. My dad's a fisherman and I have a little sister. That's pretty much it about me."
"Where's your sword," the one named Yanto questioned.
"Your sword," the nobleman repeated, annoyance evident in his voice.
"I, uh, don't actually have one just yet."
Sokka smiled cast his eyes towards the ground, feigning shame. In truth, though, he was a bit embarrassed about coming to study under a master swordsman without being the owner of a sword.
"You're a student of the art of fencing, yet you don't even have a blade of your own?"
Where Sokka failed to inspire pity, he succeeded in courting contempt. The trio of Fire Nation nobles all looked at him with various degrees of disgust and disbelief.
"Gentlemen, behave yourselves," Piandao chastised. "Now that we've all met each other, let's all head back up to the house. Today, I'm going to be overseeing your training personally."
The sword master turned on his heel and began walking briskly up the path back towards his mansion. His first three disciples followed behind him, leaving Sokka to bring up the rear. The trio of nobles seemed to approve of the Water Tribe warrior's position and never spared him another glance. As they walked, the young warrior avoided their gaze and maintained a posture of subservience, but he was actually busy assessing all three. Though he had just been introduced to them for the first time, Sokka already felt he had a handle on the personalities of Yarai, Yanto, and Iroh.
These were children of privilege; real aristocrats from a long line of bluebloods who liked to look down their noses at people from the lower classes. They were all clearly arrogant, clearly pompous, and clearly not keen on the idea that peasant like Sokka would be elevated to the same status as them, however temporarily. They'd see him as a nuisance; an outsider; a fool on holiday above his station in life. Basically, they wouldn't see him as a threat.
In fact, the only person who really concerned Sokka was Piandao himself. The young warrior was almost certain that the sword master had brought him in for the specific purpose of pissing off his other students. And pissed off they were; the three nobles were more than annoyed by the peasant in their midst, they were genuinely offended. What kind of teacher- what kind of person- does something like that?
'Two kinds,' Sokka thought to himself. 'The bored and the sadistic.'
But which kind was Piandao?