Switch: A Force That Gives Us Meaning
‘… on my side of the room.’
Her body jerked to a standstill. Lightning, white fire, and the Fire Lord’s applause all winked out. She was in her bedroom, wearing half her school uniform and a pair of breeches, her feet bare on the floorboards. The cat lay on a sunbeamed mat, looking at her with a distinctly unimpressed expression.
‘Am not,’ she said. She wasn’t sure about what Sou was even saying, but he was her brother and there was only one possible response.
‘Sure you are,’ Sou said, and lowered his drawing pad so he could point at an invisible line running between the two beds. ‘That’s your half. This is my half.’ He made it sound as if he were talking about a border drawn up in barbwire and guarded by cannons.
‘It’s firebending,’ she said, and remained rooted to the same spot. ‘Not tinybending. I kinda need the space.’
Sou propped his pad up again and picked up his charcoal pencil. ‘You’re just freaking out because you think there’s going to be a test.’
‘There is going to be a test.’ She thought of Nuan, rushing into the school’s lunch room and taking her seat just seconds before the server walked by with a big pot of pepper noodles and began ladling them into their bowls. A few strands of hair had come loose from Nuan’s topknot and her face was glowing with heat from racing into the room, but when the server walked past, Nuan gave her one of her polished gold smiles and the frown on the woman’s face receded. ‘Where were you?’ Kara whispered after they’d all been served.
‘I dropped my bag, but that’s not the point.’ She leaned forward and her voice dwindled to a whisper. Everybody else drew closer in a conspiratorial huddle. ‘While I was picking up my stuff, I heard two teachers talking. They couldn’t see me, so I guess they thought they were alone. One of them was Ms Kang for sure, the other I think was that weird old guy who teaches history to the upper levels. You know, the one with…’ Kara felt herself grow stiff with impatience, the steam rising from her bowl teasing her nose. There was no point in trying to rush Nuan, though, and she knew it. When her friend was telling something, she would keep going until the little red-eyed pin she always wore in her hair was practically trembling with excitement. ‘They were talking about tomorrow’s test.’
‘What test?’ Rai said from the other side of the table. ‘Our exams aren’t until—’
‘It’s not a regular exam,’ Nuan had said with a pointed sigh. ‘It’s a special test. We’re obviously not supposed to know about it until it happens.’
‘Besides,’ Kara said, and flopped unceremoniously onto her brother’s bed, ignoring his protest, ‘if there is no test, how come you’re studying?’ She picked up the book lying open by Sou’s side and flipped through it. Schematics filled the pages, machine entrails dissected and labelled. When they’d been little, her brother had decided to pull apart all of their clockwork toys. More importantly, he’d then put them all back together, and almost all of them had still worked.
‘Please,’ he said, and turned his drawing towards her. ‘I am inventing.’
She looked at the drawing for a few moments. ‘Is it a… shark-squid?’
He hit her arm with the pad. ‘It’s a boat that goes underwater. I call it the… Underwater… Boat.’
‘Name still needs some work,’ she said. He stuck out her tongue at her.
Silence. Sou’s pencil hovered above the paper. The air around them cooled. Kara looked at her hands, where a few straggler drops of sweat still pearled the brown skin. ‘What if we don’t pass?’ she said, and raised her eyes back to her brother. ‘What if… what if we—if I mess things up and then I’m not allowed to enlist?’ She pictured herself standing at a recruiting post, her papers being returned to her with a bile-green stamp saying ‘denied’, mocking gazes heavy on her skin like lumps of fired-up coal. She pictured herself at the other end of the world, victory banners all around her, Fire Lord Ozai himself telling her to rise. She had seen his face hundreds of times, of course—there was even a picture above the shrine in the parlour’s alcove—but whenever she pictured him in person, his face was always a brilliant, blinding sunburst. ‘This is our moment of greatest triumph,’ the fire made flesh was telling her. ‘The world is finally united into the greatest, most prosperous empire in history. An endless era of peace and abundance is at hand. I wish to reward you for your part in bringing it about, citizen Kara.’ Then someone whispered, and the sun went dark with anger. ‘I’m afraid there has been a grave mistake. You are not supposed to be here, citizen.’ The word had an entirely different ring this time. She saw mother’s face, clouded with disappointment. ‘Oh dear,’ Kya said, and shook her head.
Fire flashed inside the room’s lanterns with a whoosh and a whiff of phosphorus. Sou hit her with the pad again. ‘Hey, knock it off,’ he said.
‘Sorry.’ Behind the glass, the flames dimmed to a sedate red.
‘Of course we’ll be allowed to enlist,’ Sou grumbled.
She looked back at her brother’s face, at the eyes that were the exact same shade of amber as hers. After a few seconds she looked away, to the spot on the red coverlet where the Mechanists’ Corps book lay open. ‘Yeah, you’re probably right,’ she said. ‘Well, you’re right as it comes to me, anyway.’
‘Oh please. The problem with you benders is that you have no imagination.’ He puffed up his chest, which looked distinctly hard to do while lying down on a bunch of cushions. ‘If I got denied, which I wouldn’t be, but if I did, I’d just… come up with a new identity and use that to enlist.’
She thought of the serials they both read. At the moment they were waiting for the next instalment of Pirates of the Southern Seas. ‘You mean like with a fake name and stuff?’
‘Sure. I could call myself, I don’t know, Wang… Fire,’ he added.
‘Wang Fire,’ she repeated in her flattest tone.
Sou bristled. ‘Well, not just a fake name. I’d obviously also wear a moustache and a beard and all that.’
Kara got up and padded across the floor to collect the stiff cardboard rectangles with pictures of firebending forms she’d propped up all over the room. ‘So if I get denied all I need is a felt moustache and a name change to Ms Fire. Sounds like a plan.’ She picked up the picture showing a green-eyed man in colonial dress doing the Red Lotus Hand Form and stepped over to the chest of drawers to pick up the last one.
‘Try Sapphire Fire instead,’ Sou said. ‘It’ll probably work better. No, wait—Ruby Fire.’
‘I’ll get right on that,’ she muttered, her focus wholly on the last picture. Out of all her firebending cards, this was her favourite. It wasn’t the form itself that she particularly cared for—it involved a side-step punch that was hard to master and looked impressive but was more flash than substance—but the way the woman looked so much like her. Same cheekbones, same dark skin gleaming under the flames like polished emberwood. They both had the blood of the First Flame, the Sun Warriors and the other peoples who had been the only inhabitants of the forest-covered archipelago that would one day be the Fire Nation until settlers had come from the East in their small, fragile ships. In a nod to her heritage, the woman wore a bracelet of elaborately carved gold. At school, they had been taught that the First Flame had had various elaborate currency systems involving things like rare shells and knotted bead strings. Gold, they had considered valueless; they had bedecked themselves with it, used it to decorate their buildings. Kara pictured a pyramid, built four thousand years before her birth, the sculpted stone tipped with gold. A tropical canopy surrounded it, and in the night sky, just like in the firebending card, the Mantabird constellation blazed.
She looked at her brother. ‘Do you really think—’ she began, but Grandmama’s voice rang out, calling them to come help with dinner.
She blinked, looked up from the braised fish with curried caulitato in her bowl to her mother’s expectant face. The scent of cumin, ginger, and chillies tickled her nose. ‘I’m sorry?’
Kya looked amused. ‘I was just asking you about the mechanical loom. What do you think of the new fabric?’
Kara thought back to the conversation she’d had with her parents as they had waited for the vegetables to finish boiling. All she could recall right now was scarlet cloth unfurling and billowing as mother shook it free. Absurdly, a half-remembered history lesson floated up, the teacher droning on about how when the eastern settlers had first set eyes on the islands, they had seen a thick forest with trunks so scarlet they had imagined the land to be on fire—in reality, it was only the tint of the wood, covered in the secretions of crimson beetles, where the first true scarlet dye had come from. A perfect red.
‘Don’t mind her, she’s too busy worrying about tomorrow’s test,’ Sou said as he got up to pile up more food on his bowl. As soon as he began to sit back down, he let out a yelp and shot back up; somehow, the wobbling tower of food didn’t spill all over the table. On the cushion, the cat—they had called him Mr Chao due to his resemblance to a bespectacled teacher, but the human version had never managed the same amount of malevolence—sheathed his claws again and settled back with a smug feline grin. All around the table, laughter was suppressed into coughs. ‘You just love getting in my personal space, don’t you?’ Sou said.
Mr Chao’s smugness increased. Kara drowned her laughter in a gulp of juice.
‘It’s not funny at all,’ Sou said, as he sat on a different cushion.
‘Opinions differ,’ Kara said, and exchanged a winking glance with her father.
‘So what’s this about a test?’ Grandmama said, and Kara felt herself cool.
‘Yes, I don’t recall hearing about a test,’ mother said. There was a tinkle of glazed pottery as she spooned some of the chilli paste onto her fish. Of course mother would be searching her memory for any mention of the test. Mother was a genius: she could calculate even the most complicated things in her head much faster than anyone could flick the beads of an abacus, and she remembered everything, down to the last scrap of fabric in the workshop. She kept track of Kara and Sou’s lessons and progress so accurately she knew when they needed more writing paper or more pots of ink even before they did.
Sou pulled a chunk of caulitato from his wobbling pile, as if it were one of those puzzle games in which you had to pull out the right piece without it all coming apart. ‘That’s because we weren’t told about it. One of Kara’s friends has her convinced there will be some kind of surprise test tomorrow.’
‘Sounds… odd,’ father said.
Sou finished chewing. ‘That’s what I keep telling her.’
‘You’ll both do fine,’ Grandmama said, and took a sip of her tea. Steam curling around her chin. ‘You always do.’
‘What if it’s a special test?’ Kara said, and poked at the food in her bowl with the tips of her chopsticks. She had eaten a few bites at the start of dinner, but right now they sat in her belly like a ball of lead. ‘What if…’
‘She thinks she won’t be allowed to enlist,’ Sou said, and dropped a piece of fish towards Mr Chao, who promptly swiped it into his mouth.
Mother and father exchanged a glance. ‘I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that until you’re sixteen,’ Hakou said.
‘Eleven months for me,’ Sou said, with an audible swell of pride. Once he turned sixteen his name would be added to the neighbourhood’s Lottery, but Kara was sure he wouldn’t wait for the next draw.
‘You’ll probably take so long training I’ll be able to catch up,’ Kara said.
Sou took an unhurried sip of his juice. ‘I’ll save you a spot at the front. Of course, by the time you get there it will all be over.’
Kara rammed his shin with her foot. He rammed hers back.
Father cleared his throat, and Kara looked up. Hakou had only really ever raised his voice when she had—mostly accidentally—set Sou’s bedclothes on fire when they were little kids. When he spoke, she listened. ‘Son, I had thought you’d want to join the Mechanists’ Corps.’
‘Sure, but I can’t just stay here and come up with stuff. If I come up with something to, I don’t know, bring down the walls of Ba Sing Se, I want to be there to use it.’
‘What kind of thing?’ Kara said.
Sou shrugged. ‘I don’t know, like a giant drill, or something. The point—’
‘How would that work?’
‘Steam power and centripetal force.’ His expression turned smug. ‘I’ll explain it later.’
She let out an exaggerated sigh. ‘I didn’t mean how it would work, I meant how it would work. How would you—’
‘Children, can we set the giant drills aside?’ mother said.
‘Depends on their size,’ Kara heard Sou mutter under his breath, but her attention was on her parents. The clinking of dinnerware had stopped. There was a fluttery sound from the mynah-parrot in the perch in the corner. The lead ball in Kara’s stomach bobbed up, then plunged down again. She was sure she could even hear the susurrus of the oil lamps.
‘We were hoping you would serve in the colonies,’ father said, his eyes on Kara, before he turned to Sou, ‘and you’d stay here with the War Ministry.’
Kara exchanged a look with her brother. ‘What about the front?’ Sou said.
‘It—’ Mother cleared her throat, took a sip of fire wine, resumed. ‘Once you’ve both served your three years, then you’ll have the right training, the right experience…’
Almost two years until she turned sixteen. Then another three years after that. It felt like an eternity, stretching barren ahead of her.
‘I don’t want to stay here,’ Sou said, then paused. ‘Wait, that came out wrong. I mean, I don’t want to stay at the Ministry just drawing things.’ His hand balled into a fist. ‘I want to be a warrior.’
A sudden image, startling in its vividness: her brother wearing a felt beard, waving a sword in front of a banner reading WANG FIRE, HERO OF THE FIRE NATION. She had to bite her tongue so hard her mouth filled with pain and the taste of rust, and her chest shuddered until her ribs ached. She managed to contain her laughter; she was sure that if any of it spilled out, she wouldn’t stop until she was on the floor and her stomach and chest hurt, any amusement long gone.
‘Of course, but don’t you want to use your talents?’ mother said. A smile twitched in her lips. ‘Remember that one time when we took you to the workshop and you were halfway through removing all the bolts in one of the looms before—’
‘It worked better when it was put back together,’ Sou began, but Kara elbowed him into silence. Insight trickled inside her, cold and slippery like wet season rain. Her eyes darted from her mother to her father.
‘We’ll be fine,’ she said. ‘In the front, I mean.’ Of course it was dangerous. It was a war. People died, hacked by blades or crushed by boulders. If there were no danger, then Sou would not have been able to annoy her when they were little by jumping at her from under a blanket or from behind a screen, making cat-owl noises and telling her the dirt-people were coming for her, to crush her, suffocate her, bury her under a landslide… Then mother would ask them if they really had to do this on a rest day, and tell Sou not to say “dirt-people”—they were supposed to be helping those people, after all—and father would end up taking them under each arm like a pair of squealing pig-chicks and carry them outside. She blinked the memory away; now she had more than a child’s understanding, after all.
‘Of course you’d be fine,’ Grandmama said. Throughout the whole exchange she had continued making her way through her bowl and sipping her tea at regular intervals. ‘You’re both smart, you have your skills, Kara has her firebending…’ She popped a sliver of tomato-carrot in her mouth, chewed it, carried on. ‘But if you go outside in harsh weather, you take a parasol with you.’
‘But—don’t you want us to go?’ Kara said. Her stomach cramped with—
—something that had nothing to do with the food. Her gaze moved from her grandmother to her father, then her mother. Their faces—beloved, familiar—were nonchalant, as if they were discussing nothing more important than the weather, but Kara could see a shadow twitch in the corner of her mother’s lips, and her father had the same expression of forced reassurance he’d worn when she’d broken her ankle after falling off the big cypress. Anger unfurled inside her, not the clean-edged thing that powered her strongest firebending, but something that was thick on her tongue and bubbled in her chest. ‘Don’t you want us to do our—duty?’
The last word spilled out in a fumble. It wasn’t duty, not really. It was being not even four and laughing and clapping while sparks flew around her hands like fireflies. It was being eleven and have her fire, which had been a pale orange until then, turn a dazzling white. It was living in a golden city with shops and the big market and libraries, and walking around, freely and alone, under protection of a great shield of laws. It was train engines and clockwork soldiers and wooden dragon-moose behind the gleaming glass of a shop window. It was the metal fingers of the mechanical looms in her parents’ workshop and fabric smooth like freshly-combed hair. It was fireworks blooming in the sky in the New Year festival and going to the play and having Grandmama shush them as she and Sou annoyed each other in their balcony seats and then stopping on the way home for chilli chocolate, the bittersweet steam turning the glass goblets white.
She owed it all that much.
‘That’s not even in question,’ father said. ‘But it’s also our duty to guide you.’
Sou protested. ‘But I’m almost old enough—’
‘Children.’ Mother lifted a finger for one instant. Her voice didn’t rise, but she was using the tone that ended all discussions. Kara had always heard that the Fire Lord was the father or mother of the Fire Nation; sometimes she understood it completely. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Sou open his mouth, close it. She elbowed him nonetheless. ‘We’ll talk about this some other time,’ mother said.
Kara lowered her head and poked at her curried vegetables, most of her appetite gone.
After the exam, all she’d been able to think about was how she’d scribbled so furiously her characters had almost started running into each other, like cats with twinned tails, and how many points she would be docked for poor calligraphy. Sou, who was a year ahead of her, had stretched, yawned, and said ‘Well, that was kinda hard, but I thought it was going to be way worse.’ She’d resented his grin all the way home.
A footfall sounded on the porch. Her gaze remained fastened on the low wall encircling the garden, the big trees—
murder tree is such a peculiar name
—and the rows of houses, the bulk of the bakery at the end of the street. If she drew a deep breath she was sure she would be able to smell the ocean under the warm magnolia air.
‘Hey, little platypus-bear.’
‘Hey, father platypus-bear.’
Her father chuckled. Kara wasn’t sure if she should, so she just took another bite of her apple-mango as Hakou sat down on the step beside her. When she was a kid she had kept asking for real apples, like the ones in the stories, until dad had finally caved in and bought her the expensive treat that had to be grown in special cold houses. It had tasted a bit mealy.
‘Are you still upset?’ he said.
‘I’m not upset, dad,’ she snapped, then fell silent; that hadn’t come out quite right. ‘OK, I see your point.’
He smiled at that, but she could tell it wasn’t at her expense. Above them the sky had deepened to indigo and in the streets the lamplighters had begun their rounds. Crickets droned.
‘It’s just that…’ she trailed off, looked down at the bitten flesh of the apple-mango.
‘No, I understand,’ father said. He turned to her, put his hand on her shoulder. The streetlamp nearest to them winked to life. Even with the foliage in the way, it cast a faint orange sheen on his face and hair. ‘We all have obligations. And I was fourteen once.’ He withdrew his hand. ‘I know it sounds hard to believe.’
She smiled, then felt it fade and looked down at the ground. Her toe nudged a pebble. ‘I know, dad, but—’ She threw her free hand up. ‘My firebending. I am so good.’ Her face grew hot, but still the words tumbled out. ‘I am the best in my class, really. Even Ms Kang says so, I heard her say I should be in a more advanced class. Two years ahead, at least. She even said I am ready to try making lightning. Lightning! I—’ Her mouth closed.
‘I know how good you are,’ he said.
Only he couldn’t know. How her palms would become slick with sweat as she waited her turn—why couldn’t she have a name that was at the start of the list?—to be tested on her forms and drills, how the knot inside her tightened, her joints turned rubbery. And then—then it would be her turn and everything would melt in a plume of white flame. She was a phoenix. She was lightning. When she was done her heart was always steady, and the sweat pearling her skin was a silvery sheen of triumph.
‘Then you know I have to volunteer to go out there. I can’t just stay in the Homeland Defence Force or in the colonies,’ she said. ‘I can’t let it go to waste!’
‘I know, I know.’ In the encroaching night her father’s eyes looked black. ‘And of course you will. But…’
He felt silent, the word hanging moth-like between them. Kara waited for him to speak again and when the silence stretched on she realised with a startle that he was afraid. She had seen him afraid before, of course—she’d seen him worried, she’d seen him sick. She wasn’t a little child, still convinced that her parents were all-powerful spirits. But there was something new here, something that made the wooden step underneath her and the night air on her skin feel suddenly uncomfortable. It was a bit like the time when she’d first realised that the monsters and dragons in plays weren’t real, just fabric and cardboard animated by stagehands.
‘I’ll be OK, dad,’ she said. She was looking at the ground again, but she edged just a fraction closer to him, until she could sense the cloud of heat coming from his body. If she focused, she’d feel the scent of sawdust and mineral oil that always clung to his clothes after a day at the workshop and always tugged at a flesh memory of being snuggled in his arms. ‘You won’t have to worry about us. You know I’ll be careful. We both will.’
‘I know you will,’ he said, and brushed her hair away from her shoulder. ‘It’s not that. Your grandfather—my father was in the front.’
He was no longer looking at her, and for a second she was sure she had misheard.
‘I… didn’t know that.’
‘He put his medals in a box in the attic,’ father went on. He kept staring straight ahead, and so after a moment Kara looked in the same direction. All she could see was the screen of branches and leaves at the end of the garden, the bulk of their neighbours’ house. In the far horizon the dead volcano reared into the sky, darker still than the night. Maybe he was looking at that. She would, sometimes.
It was where the Fire Lord lived, after all.
‘I think he wanted to forget about it. He came back… wrong.’
Kara had barely known that grandfather. He was black and white behind a rope of incense smoke, a picture in the family shrine. She tried searching for a childhood memory of an old man with a limp, or perhaps an arm that no longer worked.
‘Not in his body, not really,’ father said, and the would-be memory winked out. Hakou tapped his forehead with one finger. ‘Wrong up here.’
He didn’t seem to be waiting for a reply, so she said nothing.
‘He was another man when he returned. A different man. He would shout, you know, sometimes. But most of the time he’d be dead quiet. Real quiet, the kind you can’t break. And sleep all the time, during the day. Then one day—’ He turned to her and his tone changed, a lid snapped down on his memories. ‘It doesn’t matter. He was ill.’
What doesn’t matter? She swallowed, managed to push out a sentence. ‘I’m sorry.’ The words dropped down with all the graciousness of a brick. When her father had said grandfather’s mind was—wrong—she had thought he’d been mad, this man who was in her blood but whom she’d never met. But father had said nothing about him hearing things, or seeing things that weren’t there, or thinking he was some long-dead Fire Lord. She had heard of people being afraid of serving, and even deserting in their cowardice, but she had never heard of this kind of illness. Maybe her grandfather had caught some ancient, swamp-water sickness they had long since got rid of in the homeland.
‘It’s all right, little platypus-bear,’ he said, and put an arm around her, but the old term of endearment didn’t have the usual ring to it. For a moment there her—
—father had been something other than the eternal-flame-steady, carried-on-his-shoulders-reassuring presence he’d always been in her life. He had had something of her sweaty palms and shaky knees and she couldn’t help but find it a little disconcerting, even though of course she knew he was a regular person—
not like the Fire Lord
—and she was just being childish. A thought flared in her chest, surprising in its intensity: she wished Bai were back from his trip already.
‘I just want to make sure you’re ready. You have the chance not to rush into things.’
‘I’ll be ready, dad.’
‘And…’ He pulled back a little. ‘Don’t ever tell your brother I’ve asked you for this, but—look out for him, OK?’
‘Yeah, I can see why you wouldn’t want me to tell him that.’
Her father chuckled, as if the previous moment had never happened, and drew his arm away from her shoulders. ‘I know he can take care of himself. But you’re a bender and he’s not.’
‘So?’ She hadn’t realised she’d blurted out the word until the sound hung in the air between them.
‘So there are places in the Earth Kingdom so lawless that a lone non-bender is no more than an easy target. Even if he’s a soldier. Even if he’s not.’
She blinked, looked down at the half-eaten fruit in her hand, its yellow flesh tinged orange by lamplight. Stone-broken limbs and bodies buried under mud flashed in her mind. Lawless, she repeated to herself. It was like something out that remote antiquity she’d learned about in school, when—
how come there aren’t any more Sun Warriors around
—warlords had had absolute power over their serfs and people had believed you could ensure a good crop with blood sacrifices. But then, didn’t the men in the Water nations keep their women in bondage, doing nothing but cooking and bearing children in some ice house? A shudder turned into a flash of anger and she let it brighten and sharpen. When the war was won the world would be criss-crossed by the black cords of railways, the white foam of trade ships laden with everything from fire wine to bolts of fabric from her parents’ workshop. There would be laws, and schools, and lamplighters making their rounds, and streets so clean their paving stones would shine like glass.
‘Don’t worry about it, dad. I’ll keep an eye on him when he’s not looking,’ she said. The night had deepened so much the sky was dusted with stars and she could barely make out her father’s expression, but she was sure he was smiling. He patted her on the shoulder and this time it felt—
—like it always had.
‘I always worry about you two,’ Hakou said and got to his feet. ‘I’m your father, you can’t hold it against me. Are you coming back in? There’s starfruit cream. Or at least there was when I came here, I can’t really make any guarantees at this point.’
‘I’ll be right in,’ she said. Behind her she could hear her father’s footsteps, the creak of the lattice door. Light spilled on the porch, dimmed again. She stayed on the step, the warm night air turning her muscles to rubber. Maybe that talk with father had actually helped, somehow, she thought as she glanced at the fruit forgotten in her hand. The edges of its flesh had begun to brown, so she tossed it into the roots of a tree. The knot inside her had slackened a little, even if she was sure tomorrow’s test would, instead of firebending, be full of geography and grammar and she would spend all night having the most horrible dreams…
She looked up, ready to stand and walk back inside. A light on the neighbouring porch came on. She froze in place, one finger still on her lips, caught in the act of licking the juice droplets away. Even with the tree leaves and the porch’s columns in the way, she could see a woman holding a bit of lit kindling to a small pipe. Blue smoke coiled up.
Kara kept looking, as though her neighbour were doing something utterly fascinating, instead of just sitting down on her porch, taking a long drag. The smoke spiralled up, curdled around the lit lantern and a flying speck—an ant-moth, Kara supposed—brushed the glass. She’s being so stupid, she thought with a dash of irritation. She hoped that the woman was at least not a firebender, so that she wouldn’t ruin her talent with her smoking; why should you have a gift when you were going to carelessly squander it away?
Of course, she really didn’t know much about the woman—Wan or An or Ran or whatever her name was—or the rest of the people in that house. There was no one there her age, and most of the times the windows were shuttered like—
—sleeping eyes, the garden overgrown with weeds. When they showed up at neighbourhood meetings, mother said, they almost always would stand quietly off to one side.
The woman lowered the pipe and looked directly at her.
Kara ducked. Cold rippled through her skin, fire through her nerves. Her body had reacted before her mind, but right now, half-crouching behind one of the bushes, she was sure she did not want the woman to see her. Sure, even through the distance and the thorny leaves, that the woman’s stare was unblinking, the pupils two pinpricks of dark, the irises turned nearly colourless by the splash of light.
Stop it. But she didn’t stand up. On the porch, the woman shook away a half bowl of ashes and got to her feet. Still she stared in Kara’s direction, like a bird of prey, hunting.
Footsteps and the clip-clop of hooves sounded from the other end of the street. Kara edged forward, still in a crouch, a faint ache in her muscles. A closed carriage was coming, two silhouettes walking ahead of it. Black and scarlet flashed under the porch light, flame on sable cloth. Guards, she realised with a thump of her heart, but not the regular kind that would patrol the streets. For a second she was sure they had come down from the caldera, ready to knock on her door with a tsungi horn flourish. Citizen Kara, the Fire Lord has heard of your talent and wishes to summon you to his presence.
But they weren’t coming to her house. Instead, the carriage drew to a halt a few yards away from the woman’s porch and the two guards standing at the front moved towards her. They didn’t march with the regimented stiffness of the Homeland Defence Force, though. They strolled like two friends dropping by for a party.
A flash from last summer, soon after Wan (An, Ran) and the rest of her household had moved in. Strings of scarlet paper lanterns, falls of red paper streamers. Wan (Ran, An) and the others had brought plates of komodo chicken for roasting, but when they’d walked away at the end of the festival, Hakou had been frowning.
‘Can I help you?’ the woman said, and stepped forward, to where Kara couldn’t see her behind the curtain of leaves. Kara made a soft noise in the back of her throat and scrambled, still in a crouch, across the garden, until she was wedged between the trunk of a tree and the garden wall. Roots dug into her shins and the earth dampened her clothes, but she barely noticed. She was a spy, watching without being watched. A soldier crawling undetected across an enemy encampment.
‘We’d just like you to come with us for a friendly conversation,’ one of the guards said in a voice like polished obsidian. ‘I take it you have no objections.’
The sound of a door opening. ‘What’s all this about?’, a man said in a heavy-set voice.
‘Come, come,’ somebody else said. ‘You don’t want any more trouble, do you?’
‘There is no law against a gathering of citizens,’ Wan—Kara assumed—said. Her voice was high like a child’s, the words spiky.
’No, there isn’t,’ the first guard said, still nonchalant. The next sentence sounded almost like an afterthought. ‘Unless such gatherings are for seditious purposes, that is.’
Heat bloomed in Kara’s chest. She squirmed, the tree trunk digging into her back, until she was facing the stone wall, and, very, very slowly, she inched up until she was peering over it. Something scuttled over her slipper. She shook it away.
A third guard stood at the back of Wan’s house, also looking like she was an uninterested visitor. Wan and the man who’d spoken before stood by the front porch, bracketed by the other guards. For a moment Kara’s gaze fastened absurdly on the stain of ink on the man’s sleeve, the wrinkles in Wan’s tunic, visible even from across the stretch of paving stones separating the two houses. Behind the window shutters a lamp was lit, then another. The light glinted off the steel bars on the carriage.
‘We are not traitors,’ Wan said, arms crossed over her chest. Kara’s heart pushed into her throat. She was sure that any minute now the guards would look in her direction, spot her eyes wide and staring above the garden wall. That they would hear her swallow, the sound as loud as a branch cracking in two. Did you not notice that your very own neighbours were plotting against me? the sun asked her.
‘Hey, quit dawdling out there.’
She startled, bumped into the tree trunk with a painful crack, then cursed herself under her breath. It was only her brother, after all. She turned around in time to see Sou come down the porch steps. ‘Where are you?’
Kara sidled out from behind the tree, her finger to her lips, and waved to her brother. ‘Shh!’
Sou stilled. ‘What is it?’
‘Shut up and get down here,’ she hissed.
He might not know what she was talking about, but he leaned down and hurried to his side. A twig snapped under his feet; she cringed.
‘What’s going on?’ he said. Kara was sure he was being as loud as a komodo rhino.
‘Be quiet,’ she whispered, and cocked her head towards the garden wall. ‘Take a look.’
They huddled close, his elbow poking her side—she gave him a quick jab with her shoulder—and peered over the wall together. The carriage had disgorged more guards and a few clumped around Wan and the man. Others surrounded the house in silence. One put out the light on the back porch. A reed-slender woman walked out the front door, hair dishevelled. One of the guards ordered her aside. ‘Why are you doing this?’ Wan said.
‘Our neighbours are criminals,’ Kara said.
Even in the second-hand light she could see Sou’s eyes widen. ‘Are they thieves? Are they murderers?’ His voice dropped a fraction. ‘Do you think they have, like, a room full of—’
‘Shut up. They’re not that kind of criminals. They’re traitors.’
Sou’s lips parted. His head whipped back towards their neighbours’ house, where more lamps had been lit and one of the guards was carting out a wooden box. ‘What do you think that is?’ Sou said in a thread of voice.
‘—don’t you see that only proves our—’ the man was saying, a guard’s hand on his shoulder, but most of his words were muffled. Two other guards pulled a second man out of the house; his hands were bound, but still he kept talking. ‘You cannot get rid of us all.’
‘Kara! Sou! Are you two digging for treasure out there?’
Kara’s breath hitched in her throat. She looked over her shoulder, at her mother staring out of a window, then back at her neighbours being marched into the carriage. A stream of things was being carried out their house—books, boxes, a lumpy bag. It was as if it was all happening in two separate worlds, the garden wall the thick black line of a border in a map: one country with her mother silhouetted in golden light, starfruit cream, Sou’s books of mechanics, the—
medals in the attic
—scent of braised carp-sole. Another with people who plotted to make explosives, or poison, or to whisper lies in corners.
‘Time to come inside,’ Kya said.
Sou got out of their hiding place and grabbed Kara’s hand. ‘Come on,’ he said.
The last thing she saw as she glanced over her shoulder was Wan being hauled into the carriage, black cloth covering her eyes.
Then there was nothing.
I was just wondering if you had some flour. A story pooled on her tongue. She rehearsed it to herself as she stepped out of the porch and circled the house, stopping here and there to peer into a shuttered window. Just a cup would be enough, really. It’s just that we ran out and I was wondering if I could take a look at a criminal and see if they— A slimy hand fell on her shoulder and she spun around, a scream trapped in her throat, a burst of fire in her fingertips.
It was only a tree branch, full of dawn-damp leaves. It had poked her shoulder as she brushed past it; apparently doing illegal things came with poor pruning skills. She leaned back against the stone wall, her heart still beating a hurried tattoo against her chest. She really should—
A flash of white out of the corner of her eye. She straightened, looked down. There was something on the ground, half-wedged under a storm drain. A sheet of paper, she realised as she leaned down to pick it up. It still smelled a little of damp earth and there was a footprint’s impression on one corner. A chunk of the paper had been torn off.
Just burn it.
But her hands were already unfolding it, like the fool in the story who couldn’t help but lift the forbidden veil.
It was badly printed. That was the first thing she noticed, even before her mind registered the characters on the page. Half of them were blurred meaningless, anyway.
A Bloody Crop From Bloody Roots, read the column with the largest type, the words encased in a muddy red line. Another headline read The Death Toll— the rest of the characters were illegible. Judging from the text, even though much of it had been blurred by water and dirt into spidery black lines, it was about said death toll increasing. It went on and on about “your children coming back in urns” and “Earth Kingdom citizens dying— (a stain there) —the thousand”.
She stopped reading, so much heat flowing under her skin that every nerve felt like a red wire and for a second she was sure the paper was going to erupt in flames. How could anyone write such rubbish? Of course soldiers died—
he came back wrong
—in any war, that was why you could apply to exempt a relative from the Lottery if you volunteered for the front, but they certainly didn’t kill civilians. All the Earth Kingdom soldiers had to do was surrender. And what kind of people wouldn’t surrender?, she thought with a flash of anger. What kind of people wanted to fight for hunger, and—
—strife, and poverty, and barbarism, and the rule of warlords and bandits? What kind of people didn’t think that risking their lives—
a different man
—was a fair price to pay to end all that, to have a world united and at peace?
Cowards. No, worse than that. Traitors. Saboteurs. Spies.
She wanted to burn this trash, let the fire pour from her hands until they were wiped clean. She wanted to run back home and forget she’d even set foot in this place. But something kept her rooted to the ground, her hands fastened to the pamphlet. The tip of her tongue poked out from dry lips and her gaze darted to the windows, to the greenery hiding her house from sight. There was nothing beyond the empty stare of the shutters, a sprinkle of birds in the lightening sky. Her eyes went back to the paper.
Fellow citizens, you are being lied to, the second biggest headline said. You are told you fight for peace and stability, but the War kills for the sake of stolen land and power. Nonsense, of course—did they know nothing about the colonies? You are told the War started in self-defence, but it began in murder. A load of rubbish about the Air Nation followed; the pamphlet, of course, did not count the Avatar among their weapons.
She scanned the rest of the thing, Truth from— something that probably said “the front”. Half-erased stuff about —cost of the War. Her heart skipped a beat almost before her eyes registered a deceptively small line of text: It’s time for our country to turn to the right course. It’s time for the truth to stop being dangerous. It’s time for the Fire Lord to—
Her head whipped up. She glanced from side to side, sure that a guard was about to—
—walk out from behind the corner, ready to ask her what she was doing with this tissue of seditious lies. She was breathing shallowly, like an untrained firebender. Stop it. Go home. But her eyes moved of their own accord, taking in the lines near the bottom. It is time for— (something) —courage! What you can do:
This broke whatever chain held her in place. She crumpled the pamphlet in her hand and raced home, letting the gate bang behind her and stopping only when she was in the shadow of the front porch, one hand fastened over her galloping heart, the neighbours’ house hidden from sight. She lowered her hands, straightened, told herself to stop being silly.
A wave of nausea hit her and she was sure she was going to be sick right over the wooden railings. Instead she straightened again, this time for good. Her heart quietened. Her stomach settled. Yes, she’d been stupid to waste her time reading the whole thing. The ending gave it away: it had been written by people plotting against the Fire Lord, planning an usurpation and coming up with these lies to trick people into supporting their cause, spreading their pamphlets like some kind of disease. Some disgruntled noble, probably, longing for the days when their ancestors had had absolute rule over some hapless province.
No wonder her neighbours had been—
—taken away. They had probably fallen for it themselves, but this was a civilised place. They would be educated and given a second chance.
She looked down at the fist curled around the crumpled paper, and commanded her hand to open. She was sure the skin on her palm would be stained with ink, but it was clean. And she was just holding some paper. Just some stupid paper.
Burn it. Get rid of it.
But she didn’t burn it. She didn’t throw it away.
Instead she folded it and folded it until it was no bigger than the gold-painted flame in her topknot and slipped it into her deepest pocket, where it sat like a live coal.
That’s why you kept it.
She had mostly stayed quiet as she and Sou walked to school, even though her brother kept speculating about their felonious neighbours and their possible crimes. ‘Personally,’ Sou had said, his hand on his chest, ‘I always thought they were weird people.’ As they’d waited for the gong to ring, Nuan had leaned towards her with a conspiratorial whisper.
‘Did you study?’
‘Yeah, I guess,’ Kara said, and rubbed her eyes. In her dreams she had had to write all kinds of nonsense on a map, over and over, and when she had spilled some ink the teacher had yelled for a trio of guards to cart her away.
‘Yes,’ Nuan said, and for the first time Kara was sure there was some needle-tip of malice in the other girl’s voice. ‘You look like you spent all night cramming.’
But instead of a test there had been an interminable geometry lesson, and afterwards the class had spent at least an hour copying and analysing a classic poem. All the while the folded-up pamphlet had remained in her pocket. She’d brush her fingers against it once in a while, and withdraw them with a start in her chest, sure that someone was watching, that any moment now a teacher was going to tell her to hand in such an interesting note.
That any minute now it was going to burn a hole in her pocket, write scarlet words on her skin, about death and lies.
It didn’t, of course. And now, after a lunch of pickled fire squid she’d barely touched, she sat in class again, practicing her brush painting. She was no great artist, but the motions soothed her. They were controlled, like in firebending.
Like people use to do long ago.
She painted the line of a sparrowkeet’s unfolded wing. Yes, maybe that was why she’d kept that stupid pamphlet. Because—
a bloody crop
—if she got through today’s supposed test with that thing in her pocket holding her down, she’d pass with flying colours for sure. Like those amulets and figurines people used to make to ward against bad magic and curses and ghosts and all sorts of nonsense. It was one thing to light a red candle or sweep away unfulfilled promises, but she’d always thought those older, stranger habits were nothing more than cobwebs of superstition, the result of times when people had had to rely on luck instead of laws. Now she understood the reasoning a little.
Not that it had much to do with reason, she had to—
The classroom’s door slid open and Ms Kang stepped in. Kara straightened up as cold pooled in her lungs, at the bottom of her throat. Mr Shun waved at them to return to their work and stepped over to the other teacher. The two conferred for a few moments. Kara looked down at her painting. She’d accidentally let the tip of the brush rub against it and now a stain spread on the sparrowkeet’s chest.
‘Pupil Kara, can you come with me, please?’ Ms Kang said. ‘You can leave your things here.’
Whispers, stares. Kara’s fingers remained curled around the brush as if stiff with rust. Her whole body stood in place, still, immovable, a flesh statue. Ms Kang’s eyes narrowed a fraction. ‘Kara?’
‘Yes, Ms Kang.’ Her mouth had moved of its own accord. The rest of her body followed. She could only watch like a paper lantern tethered to the ceiling as she laid down her brush neatly, got up, and walked to the front of the room. Her heart wasn’t racing, her breath was steady. Here it came: a hole burned in her pocket, a spill of ash-ringed words. Her friends and the teachers would hurry forward to peck at them. What is the meaning of this, Kara? The Fire Lord looked down at her, radiant and terrible. Why are you in possession of these poisonous, treasonous lies?
But of course there was no burning hole in her pocket, no accusations. Instead she walked after Ms Kang, out of the room and down the corridor. She tried to speak, failed, cleared her throat and tried again. ‘Have I—have I done something wrong, Ms Kang?’
‘What? No, no,’ the teacher said with a dismissive gesture. ‘It’s just a test. Don’t worry, it doesn’t count for your marks. I think it mostly generates paperwork. At least it’s only one student from each class. Your friend Nuan did fine, by the way.’
So there is a test, she thought, with a flood of relief. Then it ebbed away, and she had space to notice Ms Kang was trying to be reassuring. It was disconcerting: one time Ms Kang had struck a boy’s foot with the staff she used to mark rhythm and correct postures during their firebending classes, and then she’d told him he wouldn’t have got hurt if he’d had his foot where it was supposed to be. Kara’s fingers brushed the pamphlet again, and for one terrifying moment she was sure it had fallen out of her pocket. But no, it was still there.
‘I see,’ she said, rather limply.
Ms Kang remained silent until they entered the larger of the two practice arenas. The sand had been swept smooth, the targets set up. Kara stepped forward like she had so many times before. Here it was, that familiar feeling, terror and anticipation, pushing everything else away, so much so that it took her a second to spot the white-haired woman nestled in one stone-paved corner, slumped on a padded chair like a bag of rice swaddled in red cloth. Kara hesitated, then bowed to her. The woman cast an unhurried glance in her general direction, then turned back to Ms Kang.
‘This is Kara from class number 3,’ Ms Kang said. She was being obsequious, Kara realised. It sounded eerie. ‘She’s an exceptional—’
The old woman waved a vein-ridged hand and turned a gimlet eye towards Kara. ‘Go on,’ she said, in a grumpy croak.
Kara bowed again, slipped off her shoes, and took off her jacket. The sand crunched under her feet as she walked back to the entrance to hang it up, then the garment kept slipping off the hook. She heard the old woman cough. Finally, Kara turned around. There were walls but only a narrow band of roof, and the white sun hurt her eyes. Her palms were damp, her throat drier than the sand. The pamphlet weighed down her pocket like a steel counterweight.
Come on. She dropped to one knee, sure that she was going to keel over. She remained steady. Ready. Heat flowed in her veins, wafted up from her skin. A drop of sweat fell into her eyelashes. This is what you were meant for. This is the gift you’ve been given. A country built from the mixed blood and will of all the peoples in the world, from the First Flame—
how come there aren’t any more Sun Warriors around
—to the children of people who’d braved storm-ridden seas and monsoon-drenched jungles to find a place of safety—
dragged away in the night
—and prosperity. Who else but the whole world’s heirs could be the ones fit to rescue it?
The old woman coughed again.
Maybe it was a wasted gift, the sun said. It turned its blinding face away from her, leaving her cold and alone in its scarlet wake. Maybe you care for me and your country and your destiny so little you would have turned a blind eye to those neighbours of yours. Maybe you wouldn’t have denounced them.
No, I would! She jumped up with a jet of white flame. Time stopped. Thought unravelled. She moved from form to form, smooth as silk, deadly as steel. The flame, the light, the phoenix. She was invincible, unstoppable. Armies fell at her blows in a shower of wooden splinters. A tub of water burst in a column of steam. She struck, spun, dodged, kicked, jabbed. White flame cloaked her. She barely felt the heat.
It was only a grumble, but the fire winked out. Kara wobbled, managed to stick the landing. Her skin gleamed with sweat, her muscles throbbed. If had felt like seconds, but it had been fifteen minutes at least. She looked at the corner. The old woman had pulled out a packet of dried hot peas and was methodically making her way through them. She finished chewing and spoke again, not bothering to look in Kara’s direction. ‘That’s enough from this one. Who’s next?’
The word rang out across the arena, bounced off the walls, the dragons coiling in the columns, the hot sand now pearled with glass. ‘No,’ Kara repeated. The old woman looked at Kara, but there was no displeasure in her face.
‘I am not—
he put his medals in a box in the attic
it began in murder
—finished.’ She faltered, but when she spoke again, her tone was even fiercer. ‘There is one other thing I would like to show you.’
Ms Kang’s brows furrowed and she opened her mouth, but the old woman stopped her with a wave of her hand, then put the packet of peas on the ground before she reached into the folds of her clothes again. Her motions were excruciatingly slow, and Kara was sure she was going to—
—scream. She managed to contain herself as the woman pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at her face, slow and thorough. Finally she folded the handkerchief again, laid it on her lap, and cleared her throat. ‘Well, then.’
It took Kara a second to realise that was a “yes”. She turned around, her face set, her muscles taut. Her arms moved in arcs. Energy rolled out from the small sun in her belly. A half step. Her chi rushed through her limbs, in and out and in, a crash of waves. Negative energy, positive energy, negative—
It burst out of her hand, brighter even than the sun, and buried itself in the ground with a roar.
Kara turned around, drained, almost tripping over her own feet. She looked at her hand. It wasn’t even singed.
‘Well,’ the old woman said. Her voice was a fraction brighter. Next to her, Ms Kang stood wide-eyed. ‘Lightning, eh?’
Whatever this thing was, Kara knew, with a steely and wordless instinct, that she had passed.
Her hand touched her pocket again.