Chapter 1: Yamamachi
Earth. Water. Fire. Air.
Their symbols were carved in fine detail across a stone no bigger than a silver coin. The stone itself was obsidian, taken from the volcanoes of the Fire Nation and refined in fire. It was laced with the finest silk of the Earth Kingdom dyed a deep blue hue. Together the entire piece formed a necklace. But even without its fine make and craftsmanship it would be no ordinary piece of jewellery. It was a betrothal necklace and it was made by the Avatar.
Aang held the necklace in his hand. The sunlight caught the stone and it shone with unblemished beauty. It looked so small and delicate in his callused palm. He wondered, then, why it felt so heavy, why it felt…he couldn't describe how it felt. Whatever it was, it was stopping him from asking her a very important question.
"One day," he said holding the stone to the light. "When I'm brave enough." Or maybe, when it felt right.
Aang looked up, pushing his troubled musings out of his mind. There was work to be done.
"I see it, Appa, I see it." Aang tucked the necklace into his pocket and patted the Sky Bison's head. Aang believed that the view from a flying Sky Bison, no matter the location, was always impressive. The town of Yamamachi, however, was more than impressive. It was spectacular.
The moderately sized town sat at the base of the great mountain, Kawayama, perpetually swathed in wispy clouds. The mountain was dressed with dense forest that stretched down and into the township. Yamamachi was pattern of red tiled roofs and green foliage competing for the skyline. And beneath it all were the constant floodwaters that lapped against the wooden boardwalks.
As Aang steered Appa lowered to the town he could just make out the tunnel that cut through Kawayama. The passage provided the only access for kilometres to the towns on the other side. Despite the noon sun doing little to illuminate the tunnel's entrance it did extraordinary things to the town. As Appa dropped lower the hanging mist suddenly hit the right angle and it seemed the entire town lit up. Aang's eyes widened to see the myriad of rainbows that danced across the sky and along the water. Dew drops hanging from the eaves flashed brighter than diamonds.
Appa raced past the buildings, his speed causing the rain drops to spray out behind him. Aang looked down, catching his reflection running across the floodwater. A number of people traversed the boardwalks and they turned their heads up to watch in bewildered awe as the Sky Bison flew by. Aang, with the wind in his face and feeling the exhilaration of flight, speed – freedom – couldn't help but laugh. It had always seemed like the appropriate reaction to the simple joy of being alive.
Up ahead and approaching rapidly was Aang's destination, the Governor's offices. The red tiled manor had a large outer courtyard and Aang slowed Appa to land within it. He jumped off of the Sky Bison, landing lightly on his feet. With dismay he noticed that his flight through the water spray had soaked his clothes. He pulled the water out with bending but his clothes did not stay dry long. A blistering sun and air thick enough to eat soon had him sweating through his heavy monk robes.
Aang looked around just as Appa began to shake the water from his fur. His reflex was to wincebut the water was cool and refreshing, if only for a little while, from the sweltering humid heat.
"Thanks boy," Aang smiled and patted his animal friend. He looked over then and eyed the town.
Most of the buildings were on wooden stilts but a few of the more expensive establishments sat on raised stone foundations. A small number of people watched him, some whispering to young children; no doubt informing them who he was. Most townsfolk, however, went about their business, heads down, ducking them even lower if they happened to pass through a shower of rain. Aang noticed that the people wore a strange quasi hybrid of Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom fashions. He had seen the like in other Fire Nation colonies and knew that it stemmed from a desire to please the place of their birth and their new adopted home.
Aang had always felt a strange disturbance among Fire Nation colonists; a sense of not belonging. But Yamamachi felt different, it felt….wrong. It was enough to take the smile off his face. He could hear it now, or rather, not hear it. The hum of life that the Avatar could hear, feel, almost touch in every place in the world was subdued in Yamamachi to little more than a whisper. There was no hubbub of noise and talk in the town, just the sound of feet thudding on the wooden boardwalks and the lap and swirl of flood water. He shivered. Yamamachi felt like it was at death's door.
Aang turned and saw a thin man approaching from the manor. He was dressed in the same Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation cross but his clothes were statelier, refined. As he came closer Aang could see that the man's face appeared drained and was creased with lines of worry. Stopping in front of Aang he bowed, managing to pull his face into a weary smile.
"Welcome Avatar." The man intoned in a reedy voice. "I am Tonshi, acting governor of Yamamachi." Aang bowed in return.
"I trust you had a safe trip?" Tonshi asked. "Would you care for refreshments? I have the best rooms at your disposal."
"Appa will need food and rest," Aang responded. Tonshi nodded and motioned his hands for servants to take care of Appa. Aang continued, "But I would like to start my investigation immediately. If you would please, Governor Tonshi?"
Tonshi looked grave again but bowed once more and began to lead Aang towards the manor. The building sat imposingly on a large bedrock foundation. The courtyard had been paved with heavy, grey flagstones that were worn from years of shuffling feet and rains. A rain cloud passed over them and the steady down pour quickly soaked Aang to the bone. Tonshi hunched his shoulders but it seemed like an unconscious gesture. His eyes stared out at something distant and unseen.
The acting governor led Aang through the manor up to the top floor. The hallways carried the same odd quietness as they passed dull eyed servants who barely glanced up to see the Avatar. They seemed to go through the motions of their work, moving stiffly and barely speaking to one another. Even Tonshi seemed to have no desire to talk. Usually with colonists it was the opposite; they were always eager to show off the progress they were making. Aang began to feel like hunching his shoulders with the rest of them; the absence of Life was a pressing weight all around him.
Finally Tonshi stopped in front of a pair of heavy wooden doors. "This…was the Governor's study." Again Tonshi's eyes stared at something distant. He hesitated there in front of the door, lost in his dark thoughts. Aang though he might have to clear his throat when Tonshi's eyes suddenly snapped back into focus. He turned to Aang and his stare was so piercing, intense, almost pleading that Aang nearly took a step back.
"If you would please, Avatar?" Tonshi said as he unlocked the door. Still caught in the acting governor's gaze, Aang entered the room.
At first he wasn't sure what he meant to be looking at. The room itself was generously large for a study and richly furnished at that. The walls were lined with bookshelves, tapestries and fine art. A cold fireplace sat to one side. There was a large glass paned double door that led out to a balcony and an impressively decorated rug covering the stone floor.
And that was when Aang first noticed the problem with the room. The floor itself was not straight and level planed but seemed to slant upwards to the left. Aang turned his head following the slant. And then he saw it and wondered why he didn't notice it sooner. Even now, though, his eyes wanted to turn away from it. It was too familiar. The grey rock spire that burst out of the ground had shattered through what had been the Governor's desk. Aang's eyes continued up the spire to its jagged, bloody tip. The passing of time had done nothing to dampen the violent memory that flashed into Aang's head.
Jet stumbled forward a step, shaking his head. his hair was slick with sweat and his arms trembled at his sides, making his sword-catchers glint in the pale green light. Aang could hear Long Feng shout behind Jet, crying for the Avatar's blood. "Do your duty, Jet!" "He can't make you do this!" Aang shouted back at his friend. "You're a Freedom Fighter!" The words seemed to shake something in Jet. He stood stock still with his head down, his body quivering as if something passed through him. And then he looked up at Aang with unglazed eyes. He was the old Jet with all the fire and fury he had once possessed. Aang saw desperation, determination and resolution all cross over his friend's face. He knew he would never forget that look. With a snarl Jet turned and with all his might threw one of his sword-catchers at Long Feng. Unflinchingly, Long Feng pulled back and struck.
Aang could hear Long Feng shout behind Jet, crying for the Avatar's blood.
"Do your duty, Jet!"
"He can't make you do this!" Aang shouted back at his friend. "You're a Freedom Fighter!"
The words seemed to shake something in Jet. He stood stock still with his head down, his body quivering as if something passed through him. And then he looked up at Aang with unglazed eyes. He was the old Jet with all the fire and fury he had once possessed. Aang saw desperation, determination and resolution all cross over his friend's face. He knew he would never forget that look.
With a snarl Jet turned and with all his might threw one of his sword-catchers at Long Feng. Unflinchingly, Long Feng pulled back and struck.
"We heard the noise and rushed up here to see what it is was." Tonshi's voice was quiet and distant.
Aang blinked, trying the shake the memory of Jet's death out of his mind. It was diffucult. The rock spire in front of him was twisted and sharp and unrelenting, driving home with uncompromising ferocity the image of the Governor's – and Jet's – life being brutally put to an end.
"By the time we arrived," Tonshi finished, "It was too late."
The acting governor fell silent and Aang looked away from the desk to face him. The same intense stare he wore before haunted his eyes.
"Was anything stolen?" Aang asked.
"No, Avatar. As you can see, whoever did this did not care for the things in this room."
"And no message was left? No group has come forward to claim responsibility?"
Tonshi shook his head. "Again, no, Avatar. But I believe it would seem clear where should begin to look."
"Yes," Aang replied. The implications alone, however, could mean disaster. And yet, it was there. "Yes, Earthbenders."
After examining the study a little further Aang was taken to the rooms set out for him. They seemed far too luxuriant for his Air Nomad tastes. He didn't bother with his evening meal; he didn't think he could stomach it. As he lay in bed the very idea of what had happened began to sink in.
Murder was abhorrent to begin with. But the murder of a Fire Nation colonist was significant, let alone that he was the governor. It had been done, quite plainly, by Earth Kingdom hands. Exactly who in the Kingdom remained to be seen. The damage, however, had already been done. Six years of tense negotiations had resulted only in the colonies being able to remain where they were. Ownership of the colonies was still an open debate. If word got out that a political official among the colonies was assassinated things could very well erupt. It would certainly spell an end to negotiations. At the very worst….war. After that thought sleep could only come fitfully.