The house was painted bright red on the outside. Inside, it was as dark as the back of Pema's eyelids. She set her suitcase on the ground, and it airbended a large cloud of dust. Tarrlok waved the flecks away as he strode in behind her. He went around the little house, pulling up the shades and tying back the curtains to let in the light.
"She's been like this for over a week," he was saying. "I've been lenient with her because I understand that suddenly losing one's sight is bound to be devastating for anyone. People are starting to complain, however. She's Chief Sun's favorite. He's been rather annoyed that she's become so listless since her escape attempt."
Pema barely restrained herself from rolling her eyes. Poor Chief Sun. It must be so hard on him, his favorite girl always drunk or crying over her murdered loved ones and her stolen eyesight.
Tarrlok continued, "Your job, in addition to ensuring that she eats and bathes, is to restore her to as much of her previous self as possible. The last thing I need is a rebellion from the police force because she refuses to cooperate."
"If her spirit is broken, I doubt I'll be able to fix it," Pema said, feeling a surge of protectiveness for Asami. "Maybe you should hire a healer for her, or better yet, hire a completely new punching bag for Chief Sun and let the poor girl retire already."
Tarrlok's fingers curled around his chin. "I hadn't thought of that, but it does make more sense. Tell me, Pema, which one of your children do you think would be most suitable as her replacement?"
He might as well have slapped her. In fact, she would have preferred it if he had. For a dozen heartbeats, Pema couldn't breathe.
"Fine," she said at last. "You've made your point."
"I wasn't making a point," Tarrlok said. "I simply asked you a hypothetical question. If Asami is too psychologically damaged to please Chief Sun, or if she manages to escape for good, which one of your children would make the best replacement for her? I seem to recall that at least one of your daughters has a similarly... spirited personality. I think her name is Ikki. Do you think she'd be good at this sort of work, Pema?"
Pema swallowed. "No. She's much too young. They're all too young."
"But if they weren't," Tarrlok persisted. "Just pretend for a moment, please. It would be rude not to answer."
Pema felt like the floor was moving underneath her, like she was suddenly on the ferry to Air Temple Island. That was ludicrous, though. Her home was here now, in this tiny temple to slavery and lust and abuse, with its bars on the windows and its gaps between planks on the floor and its vinegarized-wine perfume. Which of her children could Pema condemn to spend their young life in this awful place with her?
She already knew, if she was being completely truthful. Jinora was the only one who would stand half a chance in one of Tarrlok's brothels, even if she wasn't the oldest. She had always lived more in her daydreams than in reality, which was the most useful skill any indentured working girl could have, and she had always had the toughest shell of the three children, even before this nightmare. But she was so young still- not quite twelve yet. Pema didn't even know if Jinora had started her period yet. She drew a wavering breath. She shouldn't even have to be thinking about this, deciding which of her children to hand over to him like this! But he tapped his foot, and she knew he wouldn't leave until she'd satisfied him with an answer. He had already taken all of her children from her; this was just his way of reminding her of that.
"Jinora," she finally choked out. "Jinora would be the best."
"That's a pity," Tarrlok said. "I was looking forward to marrying her, but a good leader puts the needs of his people above his own selfish desires. Who knows? Maybe you'll be able to fix the Sato girl after all, and I won't even need another whore. I'm sure that would make everyone involved the happiest, myself included. By the way, Pema, since we're talking about your children... have you had a chance to see them recently?"
"You know I haven't," she snapped. He was, after all, the one who had ensured that she had no access to them, even via letters.
"They're doing rather well at their respective schools," Tarrlok said. His tone was so polite that Pema wondered if he had accidentally gone into 'formal party mode' without realizing it. "Jinora is excelling in her classes, despite her lack of formal schooling up to this point. Ikki and Meelo have turned from savage little ruffians into something a little closer to model children; harsh discipline truly works miracles! I have pictures, if you'd like to-"
Pema grabbed for the photographs. He dangled them out of reach, as if he was taunting a homeless person with a hot loaf of bread.
"Ah, ah, ah," he chided. "You may look but not touch. If I'm satisfied with Asami's improvements in two weeks, they're yours to keep."
He held them in front of Pema's face. Her burning eyes darted between the two, struggling not to waste a precious second by blinking. On her left, Meelo was slumped forward with his thumb in his mouth and his other hand holding his ear. Pema hadn't seen him do that since he was two or three years old. On the right, Jinora stood tall in her school uniform. She was wearing a traditional water tribe betrothal necklace and a scowl, her left arm hugging a book to her stomach. Ikki clung to Jinora's side, arms wrapped tightly around her older sister's waist. She was also wearing a betrothal necklace, but she looked frightened and uncertain compared to Jinora's irritated expression towards the photographer. Tarrlok tucked the photographs away, and Pema pressed her lips together to keep from crying.
"I expect you to be seeing clients within three days, and for your new charge to be seeing them-well, taking care of them at least- within those two weeks," Tarrlok said. "Someone will come by every few days to bring you groceries and other necessities. As before, your salaries will go towards your necessities, bail payment, and fines owed to the state. If you need anything else, such as clothing or makeup, simply inform your delivery person. You may take up to four days off per month, but any days you don't use will be lost at the end of the month. Any questions?"
Pema shook her head.
"Two weeks," he warned, and then left. "Oh, and by the way, you'll also need to tidy the place up," he added before shutting the door behind him.
Pema's shaky legs dumped her on her hands and knees on the dusty wooden floor. It took her nearly ten minutes to calm down enough to stand again. When she could finally walk, she poured herself a glass of water and gulped it down. Taking a deep breath, she approached the bedroom door and knocked.
There was no answer. Pema pushed open the door and crept in. It was pitch black, and Pema nearly tripped over a half dozen empty bottles strewn across the floor. She could see a figure curled up in the bed, and she thought she recognized the long black tresses. Pema's nose could just pick up the dull scent of oily hair over the tangy bite of ammonia and unwashed skin.
"Asami?" Pema touched the girl's shoulder lightly.
Asami jerked away like Pema had electrocuted her. "Leeb me alone!" she yelped, flapping her arm in Pema's direction. "Dote touch me!"
Pema hastily pulled her hand back. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. It's me, Pema. It's Councilman Tenzin's wife- well, his widow. I'm here to take care of you."
Asami stopped fighting the air, but she edged backwards until her back was pressed against the wall. "Who else is here?"
"No one," Pema said. "It's just me. Chairman Tarrlok was here, but he left."
"You're sure it's just you?"
Asami let out a deep breath that reeked of alcohol, and her body relaxed a little. "Hi. So, uh, is Tarrlok forcing you to be my maid or... something?"
Pema laughed, a little bitterly, because oh, if only her life was that easy. "No, dear. I have the same job as you."
"You're a whore?" Asami rubbed her head. "Hey, me too. Oh... oh, I don't feel so good."
"Do you want me to help you to the toilet?" Pema asked.
"No, no, I can do it myself." Asami stumbled off the bed, knocking over her nightstand in the process. She was wearing underwear and a short cotton night dress, both of which clung wetly to her skin. Tarrlok hadn't been exaggerating about her current condition. She managed to crawl halfway to the bathroom before vomiting up a watery mixture of what smelled like plum wine and bile.
Pema felt a headache coming on, one perhaps strong enough to match the one Asami must be getting. She knelt down and stroked the very outside of Asami's hand with her pinkie. "Sweetie, when was the last time you ate something that didn't have alcohol in it?"
"I dunno," Asami slurred. "What day's it?"
"It's the third. You had your... accident nine days ago."
"Accident," Asami repeated. "Yeah, my 'accident.'" She laughed, and then she cried, and then she curled up on the floor and outright sobbed.
"Asami?" Pema hesitantly put her hand on Asami's upper arm. When it didn't get shaken off, she began rubbing it up and down over Asami's skin. "Asami, sweetie?"
"I want my mom," the teenager wept. "I want to die. I can't see anything, I can't even see lights and shadows. I don't even know where I am."
"You're on the floor of your new bedroom in our new house," Pema said. Darn, she was really out of her depth here. Even without such a ridiculous deadline, she was thoroughly overwhelmed by Asami's mental state. "Do you want to take a bath, sweetheart?"
"Don't call me that." Asami swiped at her wet face, trying to dry her eyes. "That's what they kept calling me when-" She heaved again, but nothing came up. "Oh, I want to go home so badly."
"This is home now," Pema said. "Do you want to take a bath?"
Asami nodded. Pema wrapped her hand around Asami's and helped her stand up. They eventually made it to the bathroom, where Pema ran warm water into the tub while Asami fought with her wet clothes. With a little steadying from Pema, Asami stepped into the tub and then dropped down with a splash.
"Do you need anything?" Pema asked.
"Yeah, I could use some more plum wine," Asami said. "My head is killing me."
"You don't need any more wine right now," Pema said firmly. "I'll make you some food and give you some medicine for your head."
Asami groaned. "I'm not hungry. I'm never hungry."
"Well, you should try anyways," Pema said. It almost surprised her how much her "mom" voice was slipping out. "You rest for a minute. I'll be right back."
There was nothing in the cupboard but green tea. Pema found half of a cooked chicken in the ice box, along with a bag rice that didn't appear to have been touched so far. She set the kettle on and dumped the chicken in with the rice and water to heat it all together.
She went back to the bathtub and found that Asami had slipped all the way under the water. Panic commandeered Pema's body. She dove halfway into the tub and dragged Asami up past the surface by her hair. Asami choked and coughed and tried to fight Pema off, but she was alive.
"You're okay," Pema said. "You're going to be just fine."
"No!" Asami screamed. "Just let me drown! I want to die! Let go of me! I'm an adult! Just let me die!"
She had meant to kill herself? Pema slapped the girl on her cheek, which startled the both of them. "How could you be so selfish?" Pema demanded. "How can you even think about such a thing?"
"Because everyone I love is dead." Asami touched the red mark on her cheek. "I'm all alone, and everything hurts so badly, and I'm trapped in this, this black box!" She waved her hands in front of her eyes. "I just need-" Her voice broke. "I need to be with Mako and my parents again. I feel so alone."
"You're not alone, and this is not just about you," Pema said, and she began to cry too. "I desperately need you, Asami. I need you to stay alive and be okay again. Please, if you can't do it for yourself, I'm begging you to do it for me and my children. I will do anything, anything if you'll promise to stay alive for me."
Asami took a deep breath. "Okay," she said finally. "I'll stay alive, at least for the rest of the night. It is night, isn't it?"
"It's four in the afternoon," Pema said.
"Okay, so until I fall asleep and wake back up again," Asami said. "But I make no promises about tomorrow."
"Then we'll handle tomorrow when tomorrow comes," Pema said. "Thank you so much, Asami." She hugged her, soaking the last dry spots on her blouse.
"I'm kind of hungry now," Asami said into her shoulder. "I wouldn't say no to food."
"Oh!" Pema said. "The rice! I hope it's not burning!"
"Go," Asami said. "I promise on my mother's grave that I won't kill myself tonight."
Pema ran back to the kitchen, where the kettle was screeching but the rice was only a little brown on the bottom. She made the makeshift meal as pretty as possible, only remembering Asami's blindness at the end. With a sigh, she grabbed a little sack of pills from her suitcase and returned to the bathroom with the tray.
"Let's get some starches inside of you," Pema said, sitting down next to the tub. "Can you hold a bowl and spoon?"
"Yeah, I'm fine."
Pema placed the little bowl in one hand and the spoon in the other. "It's just rice with some plain chicken," she said. "I made you some green tea, too. Tell me when you want to take a sip and I'll trade you."
"Thanks." Asami took nervous bites, but she kept everything down. "Okay, I'm thirsty," she said after a few minutes.
Pema handed her the cup of tea. "Oh, and I have some aspirin for your head. Can you take a tablet?"
Asami nodded. Pema took the rice bowl and replaced it with two pills, then handed Asami the tea to wash down the pills. Asami drank the entire cup and then traded again for the bowl.
"Am I getting rice in the water?" she asked.
"It doesn't matter," Pema said. "Just eat, and we'll worry about crumbs later."
Once Asami was finished, she leaned back in the water and stared in the general direction of the ceiling tiles.
"I'm sorry you have to clean up after me," she said after a long silence. "And feed me, and give me baths."
"I don't mind it," Pema said, and she was surprised by how much she meant it. "It's nice to be able to take care of someone."
She used her hands to spoon water over Asami the way she'd done when her children were babies. It wasn't so different after all, except that Asami knew how to talk and hold chopsticks.
"Where are the clients supposed to come, er, visit us?" Pema asked.
"In that room I was in, I guess."
"And we're supposed to sleep in our client rooms, too?"
"That doesn't work at all." Pema shuddered. "We have this whole huge house. Oh- I'm sorry, dear. I'm not sure if you had a chance to see it or not. There are two bedrooms, perhaps three- I'll know once I get a minute to look around. There's a nice kitchen and sitting area. If you don't mind sharing a room with me, I think we could have our own private space, where clients aren't allowed."
"That would be nice," Asami said. "Have you- I mean, I don't want to assume. Have you been with clients before, or is today your first day?"
Pema tucked a soggy piece of hair behind Asami's ear. "I've been seeing clients for almost a year now. I was made to start as soon as the doctor said my body had recovered from giving birth."
"Oh, okay." Asami set her bowl on the ledge of the bath and splashed warm water over her chest. "I've only been doing it for a few months. I kept telling Tarrlok he could shove his 'arrangement' up his ass until a little after the new year, when I realized I could work on an escape-and-rescue plan better if I was out of jail. But, oh yeah, I asked because I was going to say that it's awful trying to sleep in the same bed you've been entertaining customers in all day and night. Aside from the gross factor it's just... it's hard to sleep like that, and kind of degrading and... traumatizing, I guess."
"It really is, isn't it?" Pema smiled despite the dreadful circumstances. "I'm so incredibly excited to be living with you, Asami. I haven't had much chance to talk to anyone but clients since everything happened. You and I are going to get this whole house all to ourselves every day, or most of every day, at least. We can make it as beautiful and safe-feeling as we want. And we'll sit and drink tea and tell stories to each other in our free time."
Asami's lips curved into a small smile. "I'd like that," she said. "Pema, could you please wash my hair for me?"
"Of course," Pema said.
She sang for the both of them while she scooped water over Asami's hair. The only song she knew was about a little swallow, but Asami seemed to like it. She sang it three times.
When Asami was eventually ready to get out, Pema helped her towel off. She sang her song once more when she saw Asami's face clench with the panic of some terrible memory. And when Asami was dressed in a new, clean nightshirt, Pema crawled into bed with her and held her while she napped, pretending all the while that the warmth in her arms was one of her babies.
Pema spent the next two days caring for Asami and cleaning the house. She kept her errand boy busy fetching groceries, then cleaning supplies, then linens, then rugs, and then the other groceries she'd forgotten to ask for the first time. Asami slept often and at odd hours; Pema wondered if her brain was confused by the constant darkness. By the time Pema's three day deadline arrived, she'd transformed the drafty old house into a cozy home.
They still needed a system for Asami, however. Pema kept a list of ideas in her little notebook. When Asami walked (swearingly) into the back of the new sofa, Pema hung red streamers from the ceiling near each piece of furniture and tied little bells to the end of each one. When Asami complained that she couldn't even wash her own face, Pema bought bottles in distinctly different shapes so it would be easy to find the face soap by touch alone. Foods that required no cooking, like fruit and pre-boiled eggs, lived in the front left section of the icebox.
Asami spoke of killing herself at least twice a day. When Pema had the time and energy, she would stop whatever she was doing and sit and hold Asami's hands, and they would talk until Asami's pulse slowed down and the pain left her voice. When Pema couldn't do that, she would simply tuck Asami into bed with a bottle of plum wine and beg her to hold off for at least one day. Asami always promised, and by the fifth day, she was only mentioning it once a day. She didn't mention it at all on day ten.
On day eleven, Chief Sun telephoned to make an appoint for the next day, and Asami announced that she would sooner kill herself than see clients ever again.
"Please," Pema begged. "You don't understand. I'll do whatever you need me to, but killing yourself is not an option, and Tarrlok won't let you get away with not seeing clients."
"Is he going to do something horrible to you if I don't?" Asami asked.
Pema could only draw in a jerky breath in response. She was spending all her energy trying not to imagine Jinora in bed with one of the metalbending police officers.
"I don't want that at all, I just-" Asami gulped. "I don't think I can do it. Not with Chief Sun, for sure. He was there, Pema. He was on the scene when I went blind. I'm pretty sure he was one of the men who raped me right afterwards."
"You don't have to start with Chief Sun," Pema promised. "We'll start with a different client. Maybe we can convince a few of the nicer officers to let us do a two-woman show for them today. Men like that a lot. You can ease your way back into it. I'll stay with you the whole time. I'll stay with you tomorrow, if you need me to. Just... please, try. For me. I know it's a lot to ask."
Asami nodded, her brow furrowing. "I'll try," she promised. "I'll try as hard as I possibly can."
Pema's only client for the day was Officer Feng, who had been a young member of Korra's White Lotus squad. He had always been perfectly pleasant to Pema, but she despised looking at him, especially when he was naked underneath her. Seeing him always left homesick pangs in her gut. On that day, however, she was grateful for him. He accepted their offer for a free two-hour, two-woman appointment with all the eagerness Pema had expected from any hormonal teenage boy, particularly when he found out the purpose was to help Asami relax during sex again. And so Pema poured Asami a single glass of the precious plum wine, and the three of them retired to the customer bedroom.
Officer Feng leaned back in the chair and watched while Pema warmed Asami up with a massage.
"You're completely safe," Pema murmured. "Officer Feng and I will stop right away if you ask us to."
"I know," Asami said. She wiped her hands on the sheet underneath her.
Pema rubbed Asami down with jasmine-scented lotion, trying to ease the tension out of every muscle. "I'll be right here the whole time," she said.
"I just want you to feel safe." Pema massaged her hands over each other to rub the last bits of lotion in. She kissed Asami on the cheek. "I'm going to kiss you from head to toe now," she said, dragging two fingers down Asami's other cheek. "I want you to feel relaxed." She pressed her lips against Asami's jaw, then neck, then chest. By the time she began kissing underneath Asami's left breast, Feng had seated himself closer to the bed to watch. Pema kept kissing downwards, drawing little gasps from both Asami and Feng as she went.
When Asami was suitably wet, Pema lay down next to her. "Can Officer Feng get on the bed now?" she asked Asami.
Asami nodded. Feng climbed on top of her, stroking her hair. Asami's breathing grew faster and louder. Pema interlocked her fingers with Asami's and kissed her soft, red lips.
"You're so tough," Pema murmured. "You're like a platinum fortress, my Asami."
"I am?" Asami asked. Her hands were soaking Pema's, so slick with sweat that every squeak of the bed threatened to shake apart their grasp.
"Most definitely," Pema said. "A dozen metalbenders tried to bend you to their will, but you still refuse to submit. I admire you so much."
Asami's grip became a little stronger. "Uh, I don't know where you've been the past week and a half, Pema, but they definitely broke me."
"No." Pema kissed the little cleft just before Asami's ear. "If they'd defeated you, you'd be dead. You're scratched right now, dented maybe, but completely unbent. You're the only one with the power to break you, Asami. Not everyone is that lucky."
Asami nodded. She seemed to fall into a trance, although she remained aware enough to smile and nod or shake her head when Officer Feng's asked her questions. After he finished a few minutes later, Asami sat up and tucked her hair back into place while he dressed.
"You wouldn't happen to have a cigarette, would you?" she asked.
Officer Feng lit one for her, bowed, and then excused himself.
"That could have been worse," Asami said. "Right?"
"Absolutely." Pema placed the ashtray from the nightstand into Asami's other hand. "You did so much better than I expected. Just try not to set the bed on fire with that cigarette, dear."
Asami moved around all that night, or at least enough to wake Pema several times. Pema finally got tired of having her sleep interrupted, so she draped her arm and leg over Asami and pulled her close. She held her tight, Asami's face buried in Pema's bosom, until she felt Asami's vibrating muscles go still. The sound of Asami's deep, steady breathing lulled Pema back to sleep a few moments later.
Neither of them felt like eating breakfast the next morning. Chief Sun had said he'd be by during his lunch hour, which Asami thought would probably be a little after noon. Pema washed and styled Asami's hair, then spent a little extra time doing both of their makeup.
"No eye stuff today," Asami said. "I don't want it to be super obvious if I start crying. He's bad enough when I'm throwing back insults."
Pema kissed Asami's forehead and applied a red lip stain for her instead of mascara. "Do you want me to stay with you while he's here?"
"No." Asami rubbed her lips together. "Don't take it the wrong way; I just need to stay one-hundred percent focused on him."
Shortly before noon, Asami sat straight up in her chair and set her teacup on the side table. Chief Sun stepped in a few seconds later, and Asami rose without Pema saying a word. The two disappeared to the bedroom, and Pema couldn't quite stop herself from sitting outside the door with one ear pressed to the crack.
"Good to see you again," Chief Sun said.
"I wish I could say the same," Asami replied. "Actually, that's a lie. I'd rather stay blind than ever see your face again."
Chief Sun laughed. "You seem more like yourself."
"Unfortunately, I can say the same for you in that regard."
There was a loud creak from the bed, like one or both of them had just lain down on it.
"You know how this works," Chief Sun said. "Take off your clothes."
"Yeah? Make me. I don't feel like this right now."
There was a sound like fabric being rustled together.
"Much better," said Chief Sun. "Am I going to have to use the ropes on you this time? I think I should."
"Whatever. Just get it over with."
There were only grunts for a few moments. Pema picked at her nails, willing her heart to beat more slowly.
"It's too bad your father's not around to see this," Chief Sun said.
"It's too bad you don't even know who your father is," Asami shot back. "But if I ever service another guy with such a pathetically-sized dick, I'll give you a call. Maybe the two of you can have a family reunion."
"No need to be a brat, Asami. I'm just saying that you make a really good whore."
"Not as good as your mom," was the reply.
There was a smack. Asami made a hissing sound, but then she laughed.
"Oh, ouch, I hit a nerve, huh?" she said. "Poor baby. Was your mom really a whore like me? I can go back to making jokes about your tiny dick, if you'd prefer. You know, I bet if your mom was a whore, she did it because your father was as bad in bed as you are."
"And that's my cue to put your mouth to better use," Chief Sun said.
"Hey, get your hand the fuck out of my hair!"
"Open your mouth. I said, open-"
Pema rested her forehead on her knee. She didn't want to listen to the coughing and gagging sounds Asami was making, whether they were dramatized or not. The deep rumble of Chief Sun's voice a few minutes later made her press her ear to the door again.
"You know you enjoy it. You don't have to pretend."
"As if!" Asami said. "I've had street gruel that tasted better, you slimeball. I'd rather eat skunk-fish out of a dead body!"
"Careful, Asami. I could tell Tarrlok you've been disrespectful to me."
Asami laughed. "That's the whole reason you like me. But sure, please, go tell him I've been disrespectful. Maybe I'll get lucky and he'll fire me."
Chief Sun scoffed. "But you're so good at getting on your hands and knees and letting men fuck you. What else would you possibly do?"
"I may be good at it, but the pay sucks, I don't get enough vacation days, and I fucking hate interacting with people for a living. And why are you still here? You had your fun. Get out of my fucking brothel, you perverted asshole!"
He must have slapped her, based on the sound she made, but nonetheless his footsteps groaned towards the door. Pema scurried out of the way and made herself look busy in the kitchen. Chief Sun walked straight to the door, only acknowledging Pema with a wink. The second he was out of sight, Pema darted back to the bedroom.
Asami was still sitting on the bed. Her hair was tangled, her makeup was smudged, her lip was bleeding, and her hands were still tied behind her back, but she looked... determined.
"It's over." Her shoulders drooped. "I can't believe it's finally over. When I heard his boots outside, I didn't think I was going to make it."
"I told you, you're my platinum little swallow." Pema found the knife Asami always kept under the pillow and cut the ropes. "You're unbendable. I listened a little while he was in there with you. You were so amazing, Asami. I think you really kicked his bottom, verbally! I was so proud of you."
"Yeah, I was pretty great," Asami said. "A switch sort of flipped in my head, and it was easy for me to pretend to be who I was before- well. Before Tarrlok blinded me."
Pema sat down next to Asami and pulled her into a gentle hug. "I didn't schedule any other clients for today. I thought you might need some time to recover. What do you want to do?"
"I want to take a bath," Asami said. "No, first I want to have a cigarette. Then I want to take a bath and drink a glass of plum wine. And then I want to cook a delicious dinner with you, and then I want to eat the really delicious dinner with you, and then I want to get extremely, incredibly drunk while you rub my back and sing to me again."
Asami's tough front collapsed, and Pema squeezed tighter and rocked them both back and forth in the bed while Asami sobbed. "My sweet little Asami," she said. "We'll do whatever you want tonight. Cry it all out, and when you're done, I'll bring you that cigarette."
Tarrlok arrived three days later, a parchment envelope in hand. He invited himself in and sat down in one of the armchairs.
"Well? Aren't you going to offer me tea?" Tarrlok gave Pema an expectant look. "It's what any good hostess would do."
Pema turned and walked into the kitchen so he couldn't see the annoyance on her face. "My apologies, Chairman," she said. "Most people don't come here for tea."
"Yes, that's what I'm here to discuss with you," he said. "That was very resourceful of you, having Asami entertain clients with you. I overheard some officers at Narook's raving about their amazing experience with the two of you at once. I would never have come up with anything quite as clever."
That's because you can't think about anyone's well-being except your own, Pema thought as she put the kettle on. Aloud, she said, "Thank you."
"Please, come sit down while the water boils," Tarrlok said.
Pema did as she was told.
"I believe we had an arrangement," Tarrlok continued. "As I said, the officers have nothing but good things to say about you and Asami both, and Chief Sun personally came to my office to thank me for 'returning the fire' to his favorite whore. As promised, here are the pictures of your children. The bracelet is from your son." He handed her the envelope.
"Thank you." She held it close, but she didn't open it.
"Aren't you dying to see what's in there?" Tarrlok asked. He was watching her face carefully.
Pema forced a smile. "It would be rude to open mail in front of a guest, especially one as important as the chairman," she said. "Please, let me get the tea for you."
"No, thank you," he said, standing up. "I've actually changed my mind about the tea after all. Have a good day, Pema."
"You as well, Chairman Tarrlok."
It seemed to take him forever to reach the front door. As soon as he was gone, Pema ran into her real bedroom. She closed the door softly, careful not to wake Asami, and lit the lamp. At least Asami wouldn't be bothered by the light. Pema dumped the envelope on her dressing table.
She knew right away, in that instinctual way that mothers know things about their own children, that the red and yellow beads Meelo had strung together weren't meant to be a bracelet. Where Tarrlok had seen frivolous jewelry, Pema recognized prayer beads. There were 23 beads, which wasn't exactly the traditional number, but Meelo probably didn't even realize that the number of beads meant anything important. She didn't know whether this was his way of telling her he was safe and practicing his spiritual exercises, or if he just wanted to prove that he still remembered her, prayer beads and all. She didn't care. She clutched the beads tightly in her left hand and unfolded the letter.
How are you? We miss you so much. Ikki and I are doing okay. In case you didn't get all of my other letters, I will try to talk about everything. School is very different from what we're used to, but I caught onto things right away, and Ikki is getting better at it every day. We have plenty of food to eat, and we're both in the same dormitory. I love all of my classes, except for etiquette and embroidery. My favorite classes are poetry and history. I'm making top marks in all my classes, even the ones I dislike. This term, Ikki is making excellent marks in reading, art, and music. I have been working with her in reading, so that's why she has gotten so much better. She does okay in dance, but it's hard for her to do the romantic, grownup dancing instead of bouncing around and doing lots of airbending twirls. I've hardly had any nightmares all month, and Ikki is having fewer and fewer of those episodes I wrote you about last year, where she cries so hard she can't breathe and her skin goes numb. We are both doing quite well and hope to see you before very long.
There are no boys at our school, so Meelo is at a different one. We haven't seen him so far. Are we coming home for summer break? Ikki is convinced we are, but I told her we'll probably be signed up for summer classes so we can finish early and marry Chairman Tarrlok sooner. He says you aren't in jail anymore. I hope that's true. I told Ikki it is. I hope you got my other letters and just weren't allowed to write back in jail. Maybe if you're out, you can write back to us. I understand if you can't, though. We both understand.
Ikki says, "Tell Mom I love her and miss her and can't wait to see her again and I hope the baby is healthy. Oh, and tell her that I'm making her a painting in art class and I'm going to find a way to mail it to her." We think about you often, and we pray for you and Meelo and the baby when we meditate in bed at night. We know you do the same for us.
Love From Both of Us,
-Jinora and Ikki
They had each signed it, Jinora in elegant, flourishing calligraphy and Ikki in block figures drawn in pencil. Pema hugged the letter and then made wet spots on it with tears and kisses. She pinned the pictures and letter on her vanity mirror so she could see them every morning when she styled her hair and makeup for her clients. She tucked the prayer beads under her pillow, knowing she would draw as much comfort from having them there as Asami did from her knife.
From the kitchen, the kettle began to shriek. Pema took a deep breath, checked her reflection in the mirror, and went to make some tea.