A/N: An exploration of Pai Sho, and an inner look at the lives of those who play it. Enjoy.
Lesson One: The White Lotus Gambit
As his silhouette disappeared as dawn approached, leaving her trembling over a board of scattered Pai Sho tiles, there came a period of reminiscence, a recounting of all that had happened in the last year.
After all they had gone through, when all was said and done, Hana still remembered their meeting.
It was a summer, an abnormally colder one. Some said Avatar Kyoshi's tensions with Chin the Conqueror had escalated to the point where the spirits had calmed the sun down in an effort to cool negotiations. Other self-proclaimed scientists believed the poles of the world were reversing, and that winter would be hotter than ever before. Many even considered the possibility that the infamous Wu Jian, a band of ruthless mercenaries hired by barbarian warlords, had sent Waterbenders across the Earth Kingdom to freeze settlements still loyal to terrorize the country side.
But to Hana, none of these concerns really meant anything to a poor young waitress in Omashu trying to make a living. Matters of political infighting and geographical disputes flew above her head, replaced by the sounds of lecherous men constantly shouting their orders in her ears. These mobsters had come to the shop more than just for the free tea and nightly alcohol. Hana's boss was a powerful man with great links to crime bosses living in Omashu, and he had turned the shop into a gambling ring for his customers and a brothel for himself.
It was one of the busiest parts of the day when the Airbender came. Left and right, drunk men were reaching out to grab a piece of Hana's elusive clothes. Laughs and the occasional brawl rung through the large room, metal clanged against metal as gamblers threw gold coins over Pai Sho tables.
He came in wearing the robes of the Airbender nomads, though they were considerably dirtier than the bright orange colors that other nomads passing through Omashu had been wearing. A long elongated staff was strapped to his back, intricate spiral designs sketched onto its wooden surface. He bore the look of a wanderer, a foreigner, an outsider. The men in the bar all cast him an intrigued gaze before returning to their drinks and games.
He sat at an empty table at the front of the shop. He ran a hand through his short hair, an oddity for the normally bald nomads, and motioned for Hana, who was the waitress closest to him, to come to the table and take an order.
"Get me a cup of ginseng tea," he said as she approached. His voice was soft and light. Hana had heard of Airbenders who had become so powerful that even their voices were loved by the wind. His voice flowed into her ears like a lullaby. Perhaps it was because all she got to hear all day were the drawls and drunk slobbers of mercenaries and villains, but whoever this man was gave her a breath of fresh air. "And if you have rice, get me a bowl too."
It was a strange order, and it was one that told her that this man had never been around to Omashu before. No one came to this shop only to drink tea, especially if they were expecting any good tea. The façade of a tea shop was only to fool any remaining police officials who got in the way of organized crime that couldn't be bought.
The Airbender ate the food quickly, wolfing down large balls of rice at once. Hana wasn't even done setting down the hot tea before the monk had already gobbled down every last grain with a hunger that Hana hadn't seen from her usual customers. Yet, despite this, the monk treated the tea in a much different fashion, taking his time to enjoy the fragrance of the ginseng before taking delicate sips of the drink.
"That will be a single silver coin," Hana calculated when the Airbender had finished, standing over the monk as he reached into his sleeves for the money.
He fished around in his left sleeve and then frowned. He thrust his other hand into his right sleeve, and he wrinkled his forehead. He pulled his hands into the inside of his robes and felt around the side pockets, and his lips tightened, his cheeks turning pale.
"That pickpocket," the nomad whispered just loudly enough for Hana to hear.
It was then that he eyed the table in the corner and a Pai Sho set resting on it. A few men were crowded around the table, where two middle aged men assembled in the last throes of a game. Aside from the board and the pieces spread across it, there also were four pots sitting on the table. Two of them were filled with additional tiles and the other two filled with gold coins, bets that the observers had thrown in. Hana recognized the two players as copartners in a local gang. These were dangerous men, and they were regulars here.
The nomad stood up and faced Hana. "I will have your payment shortly," he said, and walked to the table as the game finished. The smug winner folded his arms, his lips curved in a lopsided smile. Half of the crowd cheered and swept the earnings from the pots. Their hollers ended abruptly when the Air Nomad entered the circle and faced the winner.
"May I have this next game?" he said, his attention directed at the winner.
"Boy," was the response from the heavy bearded man sitting lazily at his seat. He leaned forward, placing his elbow on the table. "Do you know who you're dealing with? I'm Tau, master of the tiles in this city. Nobody has beaten me in the last month, and the last person to do so cheated his way to get it. Had to cleave his hands off to teach him a lesson."
"It doesn't matter," was the Airbender's response. For a moment, Hana's heart skipped a beat, scared that the strong bulky looking men around the table would take that statement the wrong way. Tau's face turned grim as he eyed the monk with caution. "Pai Sho is Pai Sho. I don't need to worry about who I'm playing."
"Do you even have money to bet with, boy?" Tau frowned. "No money means no play."
"You can have this if you win," he pulled his staff from his back and leaned it against the table. Immediately everyone eyed the nicely carved wood and exquisite designs. "Airbender weapons are priceless at antique shops are they not?"
Tau seemed enticed by the offer. He silently consented by throwing his just won earnings back into the pots. The crowd, excited by the newcomer, threw their money disproportionally into Tau's pot. Surely the master of the tiles in Omashu must have meant something against an unknown overconfident challenger.
The monk sat down and gave a quick bow to the man on the other side. Tau scoffed and laughed with the other observers. They cleared the board of pieces and placed them back into the pots. Hana stepped forward, trying to get a better look. She was usually never allowed near the Pai Sho tables. Her boss had done whatever he could to keep any of his women from the boards, but at the moment Hana noticed that he wasn't around.
"Hey you," Tau gave Hana a cold stare as she approached, a clear sign that he knew that she shouldn't be watching. "Don't you have some men to attend to? Or are you one of those waitresses that Pan is trying to 'ripen' up for us? Whatever it is, no women at the gambling tables. You should know that."
"He's my customer," Hana pointed at the nomad. "I need to ensure he pays, so I'm staying here."
"Let her stay," said the Airbender, a conclusive tone to his voice. Again, Hana's heart skipped a beat as the animosity amongst the confused crowd began to grow. There was a certain air of superiority in the Airbender's voice that must have annoyed half of the restaurant. "After I pick my earnings, I'll pay and leave immediately."
"So that's what this is about?" Tau grinned, flipping a few tiles in his palm. "I guess after this you'll be left without a staff and a debt to this restaurant. And you know what they do to people who have debts at this place don't you?"
The observers snickered again, the clinking of metal swords and daggers surrounded the two competitors.
"Guest gets first move," his opponent waved over the board. "As an Airbender, I assume you open with the Nomad's Path? Go ahead and try. I should warn you before you do though, I've beaten plenty of monks with my Pai Sho style."
The nomad was completely silent. All he did was place a tile in the middle of the board. Hana knew little of the game, and much less about any of the rules in place. Still, she did recognize the tile as a White Lotus piece. When he placed the tile down, a few members of the crowd laughed even more, Tau gave a quizzical look at his opponent, and the Airbender did nothing but await for his opponent's next move.
"My, my," said Tau, rubbing his chin as he scrutinized the board carefully. "An Airbender that doesn't follow the Nomad's Path and one who throws a White Lotus tile on the very first move. I think we have someone who seriously wants to lose here."
"Your move," said the monk, his eyes carefully scanning over the board, his mind thinking of all the possibilities in the next play. He drew a deep breath and exhaled, smiling as he took a look at his opponent. "I have no intention of losing on the second turn."
In response, Tau placed a tile inscribed with wooden wheel at his end of the board, directly lined up in front of the Airbender's White Lotus piece. Hana recognized this as the Wheel tile. The crowd seemed to nod in approval, as if victory was assured in the very next turn. Hana scratched her head, not understanding these moves at all. Then again, she was barely even aware of how the Wheel tile moved.
The Airbender then placed a Wheel tile of his own on the opposite side of the board, so that the two wheels would, had it not been for the White Lotus piece, be facing each other. Tau then frowned, and looked up at his silent opponent, who appeared deeply engrossed in the tiles and nothing else around him. Tau looked back at the board, his eyes glancing around curiously, as if he was slightly taken aback that he had not realized something.
"Aren't you a sly one?" Tau growled, before laying down another piece. This tile had an orange arrow inscribed in a white oval. The Sky Bison piece, Hana recognized. This piece was placed at one of the corners of the board, at the point where two red triangles intersected. For some reason, Hana had always seen the Sky Bison tile placed at these exact locations. "Let's see how you deal with this."
"Simple," the Airbender muttered and threw a tile in front of the Sky Bison. The tile's surface was a beautiful flower with an abundance of petals. A chrysanthemum.
Tau seemed to be growing frustrated as he placed another Wheel tile into play, only to have the Airbender place his own wheel time opposite Tau's. The crowd looked on at the match, whispering to themselves quietly as the restaurant seemed to hone in on the match. For Hana, all these whispers and frustrated remarks came off as strange and foreign. For all the courage it took to tell the men that she wanted to watch, it really didn't do her any good not knowing any of these rules.
Still, she was amazed, watching this Airbender play. His composure, his piercing eyes, his delicate fingers wrapping around the tiles like a mother to a mooselion cub. For the first time since she had started working here, Pai Sho seemed more than a ferocious gambling arena. It appeared more than just a board with pots of gold coins spilling from the table. It drew her curiosity for the first time.
She wanted to learn how to play.
After a few more moves, Tau's face grew angrier and angrier. His frustration seemed to steam from his pores, his subordinates taking small steps away from him in case he lashed out violently with the rapier parked at his waist. He took rapid looks up and down, staring unbelievably at the board and glaring angrily at the Airbender, who did nothing but respond to his moves seemingly without another thought.
Finally, after a little over two dozen moves, the Airbender placed a final tile upon the board. The White Dragon tile, its tile denoted by the White Dragon flower crafted into its wooden surface. Just from the gasps from the crowd, Hana could tell this tile was one of the most powerful tiles yet.
The monk then looked up from the board, his eyes staring straight at Tau, and opened his mouth to speak. "You have yet to place your White Lotus tile. As there is no appropriate place for you to now place that tile, I win by default. I believe I deserve whatever is in your po-"
"You cheated!" cried Tau loudly, pulling his rapier from its scabbard. He pointed it directly at the monk, his eyes burning with anger and fire. His subordinates and comrades slowly took their hands to the sword as well. "There's no way that I could have lost. The only explanation is that you pulled an illegal move! White Lotus first? Who wins that way? There must have been a trick. Take him and his staff too!"
It all happened so quickly that she barely remembered the exact details. The mob closed in around the Airbender, swords drawn, teeth clenched, shouts rang. Hana was too struck by shock to even look away. Her eyes were widened, locked at the scene developing in front of her.
He grabbed at his staff as the swords came uncomfortably close to his clothes. In the next second, mercenaries and gang members were blown away in a tremendous torrent of air. They fell back against tables, knocking around Pai Sho tiles, gold coins, and food all over the establishment. The few who stood firm against the first burst of air were next, and a second a round of wind sliced through the room, cracking doors, breaking down chairs, and smashing the pillars that held up the restaurant's ceiling into bits.
Hana herself found herself bracing against this furious current by holding onto a column holding up what was left of the roof. Bits of dust and wood flew past her face, and she closed her eyes in fear of being blinded by the occasional sharpened spike that thrust past her. When the attack had ended, Hana opened her eyes to a restaurant completely torn apart. Men from all corners of the room were moaning, few of them were still standing, and those who were stayed clear of the Airbender, who stood at the middle of the room.
His back was to her, and in the evening sun, his silhouette stood bright and almost angelic to Hana. She gazed onward, her mouth slightly open at this powerful man, standing eyes closed in the middle of a destroyed whorehouse. A powerful bender, a strong master of culture and the arts, a soft and calming personality. It was a powerful sense of awe that consumed her, followed by a realization.
He's the one, Hana thought. He has to be the one.
With what strength was left from her body, Hana sprinted towards the Airbender and gripped his arm firmly. The nomad turned to her as if ready to strike, but he paused the moment he realized it was the waitress that had served his food. Hana looked at the monk with strong determined eyes and, without a word, pulled him away from the rubble of the shop and raced into the streets.
She ignored the cries of "Hana is escaping! Hana is escaping!" She kept running, her bare feet crunching against the uneven rocky road. Strange eyes that she had never seen before glowered at her while she raced down the next block, recognizing her face at Pan's infamous whorehouse. There was no use in remembering those times. All she could do was hold onto the Airbender's arm and run.
"Where are you taking me?" the monk instantly demanded as shouts from Tau and the rest of his crew boomed through the city streets and grew louder and louder.
"Anywhere but here!" Hana pulled the Airbender along, her small hands tightly gripped around his strong forearm. "Forget about the bill. Forget about this place. Forget about everything that's happened. Just make sure you're taking me with you too!"
"I want to learn Pai Sho from you!"
Those fragile hands held onto that arm for a long time.
To be continued...