"Bring the girl!"
P'Li was already on alert. She'd heard the call to arms and could feel the firebenders defending the fortress, their fires racing outwards only to be suddenly extinguished. She couldn't see much from her cell – for all they tried to make her small room comfortable, the door was locked and barred and that made it a cell – but the situation must be serious if they were calling for her.
"Girl! Put your helmet on!" The command came from the corridor outside her door, though no-one would dare stand in front of the barred window for fear of her bending.
She sighed and pulled on the rusty helmet. It wasn't heavy, but someone had crudely welded a metal plate to the front to cover the eyeholes and it squashed her nose uncomfortably. Shuffling blindly to the door, she showed her covered head at the bars and waited for the guard to let her out.
The heavy bar of the door clunked open and someone grabbed her elbow.
"I can't see," P'Li explained, yet again. "I can't go any faster." The stone doorways were too low for her to get through without ducking, and she wanted to avoid a cracked skull. A terrible wave of homesickness for the small, soft-roofed tents of home rushed through her, but she pushed it down into the pit of her stomach. She knew perfectly well that it was not her tribe fighting their way into the fortress. It was probably just some other warlord fighting for territory.
Usually her complaint produced a huffy sigh, but this time the guard dragged her along even faster. P'Li tried to concentrate on what she could hear and smell, since her sight was blocked, and she was pretty sure that she could smell blood and burnt hair on the man. Whatever was happening outside must be serious. At least the guard took the time to tug on her arm indicating that she should duck her head at each doorway, and she made it upstairs without injury.
The central tower of the fortress was full of people rushing around, and P'Li could hear people screaming nearby. Fires were burning and not just in the braziers where they should be. One of the warlord's personal guard, with the hard metal gauntlets, took her other arm and dragged her through the panicked into the upper chamber.
"About time!" Warlord Kung bellowed, and P'Li was pleased to hear fear in his voice. His hand reached underneath her helmet and grabbed her chin hard enough to bruise. "Enemies are destroying our stronghold! You must destroy them!" He released her and turned to someone else. "Take her to the roof!"
The gauntleted guard dragged her up another short flight of stairs and P'Li breathed in the smoky air. It was night, judging by the chill from the mountains, and she turned her head that way, towards home, though it wouldn't be visible from here even in daylight. She could hear fighting and the blasts of fire were close to her now, along with the harsh twang of arrow strings.
"Remove the helmet!" the guard bellowed, and P'Li dragged it off her head and dropped it on the ground. The night was brightly lit by the glowing braziers and the bolts of fire, all reflecting off great sheets of ice on the ground. P'Li shook her head. They were at far too low an altitude for ice to form naturally: there must be a waterbender trying to take the fortress, though why a waterbender would come all the way to these dry mountains in the Fire Nation, P'Li couldn't guess.
"There! Kill her!" The guard pointed out the waterbender, sliding gracefully in and out of huge blocks of ice that shielded her from the fortress's defenders. She was a skinny, dark-haired woman, but it was hard to determine much else about her as spinning loops of water surrounded her body.
"Let me focus," P'Li snapped, and took a deep breath, letting her qi flow upwards to her third eye.
The fortress lurched beneath her feet: the waterbender was making fluid gestures towards herself, dragging the fortress to pieces with the ice she had sent into the stones. Some fighters fell, but P'Li got her hands on the parapet and steadied herself in order to aim.
With a deep breath, she released a bolt of fire. Not at the waterbender, but at the already damaged outer wall, blasting it into pieces.
P'Li yanked the guard's hand off her arm and shoved him away from her. "No, I didn't." She built up a second blast, but before she was ready, the guard threw a fistful of fire at her.
Feeling the shape of the fire, P'Li gathered it to herself and bent it outwards, blasting the guard and the two men behind him to the ground. The tower lurched again, stones plummeting into the courtyard by the ruined wall, and P'Li staggered. It was too high to jump, so she turned and ran down the stairs instead. If she couldn't be free, at least she could kill the warlord before the building crushed her.
There was a huge gap in the wall of the fortress, and most people had fled the tottering building. The warlord was still there, screaming impotent orders from his golden throne, and at least three of his personal guards still remained. They were too spread out for P'Li to take in a single blast, so she edged closer. It was hard for someone of her height to go unseen, though, and the warlord spotted her.
"Girl! Defend me!"
Through the gap in the wall leapt the waterbender, riding the crest of a wave, and beside her was a stocky man with a shaven head. The guards shot fire in their direction, but the dark-haired woman turned the blasts aside with a brisk wave of her water-encased arm. The man vaulted over the top of the fire to launch himself directly at the warlord.
Two of the guards intercepted him, and P'Li tried to pull herself together so that she could help him – he didn't seem to be a bender like his companion. Faster than she could follow, the man kicked one of the guards to the ground and the waterbender impaled the other one on a spear of ice. The impact sent the man sliding along the floor towards the third guard, who had had the sense to take cover from the waterbender's attacks.
The warlord, left exposed, stood up, and with a quick gesture sent a huge fireball rolling at the waterbender, who had to pull away to defend herself.
"Kill the intruders!" he roared at P'Li.
Faster than she ever had before, she focused her third eye and opened it wide, fire ripping through her and out at the warlord.
"You will never command me again!" she shouted in the silence that followed the blast, but the warlord was already dead, his throne crumpled into a heap of gold-leafed steel.
The last guard was grovelling at the bald man's feet, and was subdued with a sharp strike to his neck.
"Did these guards mistreat you?" he asked P'Li. The other guard he had attacked was stirring slightly, though the one with an icicle through the chest was certainly dead.
"No…I was kept safely locked up. Lord Kung wouldn't have wanted his prized weapon damaged."
"And what do you want to do now?" There was something restrained in his voice, as if he was setting a test. "We've heard stories of Kung's deadly weapon all the way here. Do you want to be the new warlord of Xiang Mountain?"
P'Li shook her head. "I just want to go home."
The man nodded, and a smile spread across his face. "My name is Zaheer, and my associate is Ming-Hua. We would be pleased to help you find your way there."
"We'd better go," Ming-Hua said, her voice raspy. "This building isn't stable."
"My name is P'Li", she offered, and took Zaheer's hand for balance as Ming-Hua swept them both out of the building.
Ming-Hua's wave took them through the gap P'Li had blasted in the wall and out to the mountain path.
"Do you know which way we need to go?" Zaheer asked.
"Wait, don't you want to raid Kung's treasury?" It was delightful to use his name without an honorific. "He's got money and jewels and food that he's stolen from people for miles around."
Ming-Hua shook her head. "Food we have, and no use for money and jewels."
"P'Li does have a point," Zaheer commented, looking at the ruined fortress. "We don't want someone else to show up and use those treasures to become a new warlord."
Ming-Hua nodded. "P'Li, is the treasury in the same place as the food stores?"
"No – the treasury is directly under the fortress and the food stores are in those outbuildings near the east wall."
"Good." Ming-Hua ran forward, long streams of water twisting, then she abruptly pulled her water tentacles back. The fortress groaned and finally collapsed inwards with a deafening crash. The fires flared higher, consuming the timber of the inside floors, and Ming-Hua gestured again, pulling all the water out of the building. "That should take them a long time to dig out."
P'Li spotted a few guards trying to bend the fire out of the burning ruin, but it was a futile effort. Some of the women who had served the warlord were already raiding the food stores and directing their children to load the remaining ice into barrels, which P'Li considered a much more sensible goal. Tomorrow would be hot and dry indeed without shelter.
Ming-Hua and Zaheer were waiting for her direction, so she turned her back on the scramble for survival and started the hike upwards towards the old lava fields, sparking a flame on her open palm to light the path. "This way. Maybe three days." She blinked away her tears: a waterbender would surely know if she cried, and P'Li didn't want to let them know how very grateful she was to finally be going home.
Ming-Hua was from the Northern Water Tribe, it turned out, and had grown up in the unimaginable cold of the North Pole. P'Li was glad that they were travelling by night, because Ming-Hua started to flag not long after dawn as the rocks and sand started to heat up. The area they were walking through was dry and dusty, badly over-grazed by the warlord's captured herds of komodo rhinos and hippo cows, but past the lava fields would be mountain meadows of grass and flowers, fed by the river that led to her home.
"Don't worry," P'Li told her as they took shelter for the day in a smelly but cool cave. "My village is high up in the mountains. It won't be so hot once we get higher."
"Aren't there supposed to be lava fields around here somewhere?" she rasped.
"Oh, no, they haven't been lava for a hundred years or more. They're just rock now."
Ming-Hua smiled. "That's a relief. I like mountains, but it's been so hot and dry: terrible conditions for any waterbender, let alone one from the North Pole."
"We are in the Fire Nation," Zaheer reminded her.
"Barely," Ming-Hua growled. "I don't see Fire Lord Zuko out here taking care of his people."
"My mother said he made deals with the warlords to keep things quiet out here in the mountains." P'Li shrugged. "It's a big kingdom and he has other affairs."
"What kind of rule is that?" Zaheer sounded as angry as Ming-Hua. "You accept his dominion and he abandons you to a thousand petty tyrants! They're all the same: enriching themselves and beating down those that make them powerful."
P'Li had never thought much about the Fire Lord as a person before, more as a distant figure from history. "I don't really want the Fire Lord to be out here ruling us, then."
"That's why we're here, to help people govern themselves," Zaheer passed P'Li a piece of dried meat from his pack as Ming-Hua laid out blankets for them to sleep the day away. "Tyrants of all kinds must be destroyed."
"Another warlord will probably just take Kung's place," P'Li pointed out, chewing on the spiced meat. It tasted like koala sheep, something P'Li hadn't eaten in all the years of her captivity.
Zaheer smiled. "With no fortune and no fortress to hide in? He will at least be considerably weakened."
Unsure about this, P'Li glanced over to Ming-Hua, wondering what she thought of Zaheer's plans, only to see her bend the water that covered her arms into a large leather flask. Instead of the limbs that P'Li expected to see, there was nothing at all. The shoulders of her tunic were stitched closed.
"You don't have to stare," Ming-Hua snapped.
"I knew that it wasn't true! Everyone said that you can't bend if your body isn't right."
"Everyone's wrong, then."
"My brother, when he first manifested the Sacred Eye-" she gestured to her own forehead, "-he blew off both of his legs. It happens, sometimes. My grandmother pleaded for the healer to try to save him, but my father let him die rather than live crippled and helpless."
"Helpless!" Ming-Hua smirked, and P'Li couldn't help but grin at her. Ming-Hua was anything but helpless.
"My grandmother said that her brother had the Sacred Eye open unexpectedly, and almost the same thing happened: he destroyed a leg and an arm. The first time the Eye opens is supposed to be in the control of the elders, but every now and then it happens without Guru Chanda's rituals and there's an accident. We're all firebenders in my village, but very few of us have the Sacred Eye. But my grandmother's brother survived, and served Fire Lord Ozai in the Hundred Years War."
Ming-Hua raised a thin eyebrow. "How did that work out for him?"
"I think he died in the war?" P'Li's grandmother had never actually said, but she could surmise the answer.
Curling up on her blanket, Ming-Hua nodded. "That's usually how that story ends. When we reach your village I'd like to have a word with your father."
The implied threat made P'Li frown, even though there was nothing Ming-Hua could to do to P'Li's father. "You're out of luck, then. He died in the siege before Warlord Kung took me away to be his personal weapon."
"Go to sleep," Zaheer said, before Ming-Hua replied. "I'll keep watch for now and wake you when the sun is overhead."
P'Li closed her mouth and lay down on her blanket, shutting her eyes against the bright light outside the cave mouth. Maybe she shouldn't be taking Ming-Hua and Zaheer to her village: outsiders had caused them enough harm already. Then again, it was a long and dangerous walk across the lava fields, and P'Li desperately wanted to go home again.
Ming-Hua woke P'Li with a shake to the shoulder, leaving the blanket slightly damp. All the misgivings of the previous morning rushed into her mind and before she was awake enough to be cautious, she blurted out, "Why did you attack the warlord? Why are you helping me?"
Ducking down beside P'Li, Ming-Hua cracked a grin. Her water-arms swirled gently, in constant motion, and P'Li stared at their transparent and beautiful motion.
"Zaheer and I both grew up under the rule of tyrants – the Water Tribe aristocracy for me, the Earth Queen and an assortment of bandit lords for him – and we believe in self-determination above all else. Tyrants must be destroyed."
"Kung wasn't a very big tyrant. I mean, he was terrible, and killed my father and six others from my village alone, but why are you fighting him rather than the Fire Lord? Or the Earth Queen?"
Zaheer, over at the cave mouth, sighed. "We want to. But at the moment there's only a few of us scattered across the world, so we have to start small. Every person freed is a victory."
P'Li nodded emphatically. "I understand. And thank you. But I just want to go home."
"We aren't going to force you to work with us, P'Li." Ming-Hua was still smiling. "Your destiny has to be your own choice. Otherwise we'd be as bad as the tyrants we're trying to overthrow."
P'Li held out a hand and, with a nod from Ming-Hua, firmly gripped one of Ming-Hua's water tentacles and let it pull her to her feet. "It's warm!"
"It's part of my body; of course it is." Ming-Hua didn't seem angry, though, and she didn't immediately remove the end of the limb from P'Li's grasp.
The lava fields were still hot from the day, and while the radiant heat didn't bother P'Li or Zaheer, Ming-Hua had to cool herself by flicking beads of water over her face and head.
"How long do these fields go on?" she asked P'Li.
P'Li kept a flame burning steadily above her palm. "There used to be bandits all around here, trying to rob travellers. Since it's deserted now, we can probably take a shortcut through Sudden Death Pass."
"That doesn't sound good." Zaheer raised an eyebrow.
"Oh, no, the sudden death isn't from heat. There used to be an important trade route through these mountains, and both sides of the pass are lined with stone guard posts. Bandits took over and ambushed anyone on the path."
"We can handle bandits," Ming-Hua said. "And I need to reach the cool mountain air you told me about."
"The pass is very steep, but it will definitely get us there faster."
As they ascended further, the lava fields stayed warm, and even P'Li appreciated Ming-Hua sending a gentle mist over to cool her face. Zaheer's head was beaded with sweat and all of them were breathing hard and concentrating on the climb.
The first arrow caught Zaheer's sleeve – it would have gone through his chest if he hadn't turned at the last moment – and dragged him to the ground. Ming-Hua reacted quickly and shoved P'Li down with one arm while forming the other into an icy shield in front of them. She didn't have enough water in this parched landscape to make a very big shield, but with the three of them on the ground it was enough.
"I can take them!" P'Li told Ming-Hua. "Just make me a gap so I can see."
Ming-Hua nodded and pulled Zaheer closer. He was slightly winded from his fall, but appeared to be otherwise fine.
More arrows struck the ice shield and P'Li carefully noted their arc before kneeling up and focusing all the heat of her body upwards from her belly to the third eye.
A massive blast took out the archers, and Ming-Hua pushed the ice shield forward, all three of them crouched but moving along behind it. P'Li gathered herself for another attempt as more arrows rained on them from above and to the left, and, when Ming-Hua cleared a gap for her to see, took out those positions as well, shattered pieces of rock raining down.
"Surrender and we'll spare your lives!" Zaheer called out, his voice echoing impressively through the narrow canyon.
The answer was a blast of fire that P'Li easily turned away, though it partially melted the ice shield. As they reached the canyon wall, Zaheer ducked out to the side of the shield and sprinted in a zigzag towards the position of the firebender.
"Cover him!" Ming-Hua told P'Li, and P'Li, without time to focus, instead turned her lantern light into a series of small and distracting fireballs, launching them at the firebender's position. Zaheer scrambled nimbly up the rock wall and over the top of the aged, crumbling parapet, and then no more fire came.
"We surrender!" came another voice, and a teenage boy edged out of a guard post, his hands raised. Three other teenagers, two girls and a boy, followed him. They were dressed in ill-fitting armour dating to the Hundred Year War.
Zaheer vaulted down from the firebender's position, dragging an older woman with him. Her arms flopped paralysed at her sides.
"She begged me to spare your lives," Zaheer told the teenagers. "And I will, but attacking travellers is no way to live. Today you ran into travellers who could fight back, and we won't be the only ones."
"Only because you've got one of those freaks from up the mountain," the boy spat, but Zaheer remained calm.
"Warlord Kung fell yesterday, so you're going to be getting a lot more travellers through these mountains soon, now that no-one has to pay him tolls. I suggest that you use your excellent defensive position to extract tolls and offer protection yourselves, rather than springing to the attack."
"You defeated Kung?" the older woman asked.
"We did, and now we are returning this young woman to her village. Change is coming, and you need to be ready."
"Let us bury our dead in peace and you may pass unhindered." The woman nodded at a red, white-edged banner that hung from one of the arrow slits in the guard posts. "Take that, and no-one will harm you until you have passed out of our territory."
"A fair deal," Zaheer agreed, and let her slump to the ground. Ming-Hua stretched out a limb and pulled the banner down, and they walked on. P'Li expected an arrow in the back at any moment, but Zaheer's stride was calm and even, so she followed his lead.
"Don't worry," Ming-Hua whispered in her ear, "I'll sense anything they throw at us and get a shield up. We're confident, not stupid."
P'Li smiled at her, and kept climbing up the pass. "What did Zaheer do to that woman?"
"Blocked her qi points, so that she couldn't use her limbs. It's an ancient skill, and a very difficult one. He's explained it to me, and with concentration I can feel the qi as it flows through the body like water, but I can't strike so accurately as to paralyse. I'm far better off using water."
"Your waterbending is beautiful," P'Li said sincerely.
Ming-Hua laughed. "Thank you! And I've never seen anything like your firebending."
"You'll see when we get to my village. And look, it's getting cooler already."
It was indeed cooler at their new altitude, but not so cool as to allow easy travel in the daytime. They took shelter under a rocky overhang for the day, and Ming-Hua was delighted to discover a small spring trickling water down the rock.
"It's probably from the Xuexue River," P'Li told them. "In Spring the mountain snow melts into a big lake, and the river runs from the lake down to my village. That's how Kung's men attacked us and captured me – they knew we'd destroy them if we could so much as get a glimpse of them, so they dammed the river and weakened us with thirst. Every few years they had come to try to capture someone with the Sacred Eye. That year we'd stored water in advance so that we could hold out but the stone troughs got some kind of disease in them and people started dying."
"That sounds like Kung's kind of plan," Zaheer sounded bitter. "Weaken the enemy before bothering to pillage."
"Not many people have the Sacred Eye, and we were all too sick to fight. The men and women who weren't too sick to stand tried their best, but they didn't stand a chance and Kung's men killed all seven, including my father." P'Li glanced over at Ming-Hua, who bowed her head in respect for the deceased, despite her comment about P'Li's father the night before. "Then they took me and Elder Loi, but he died of the water sickness. I know there were at least two more of us with the Sacred Eye in the village, so perhaps they're still safe." She pressed her lips together to keep her emotions in check. It had been a long time since she had allowed herself to think about the raid, or her family, and she did not want to shame herself.
Ming-Hua's water arms slid around P'Li's body, embracing her. Despite Ming-Hua being much shorter than P'Li, her arms were not limited in size, and her firm embrace was like being at home, with people her own height. P'Li choked on a sob, then leaned into Ming-Hua's strength and cried, her tears mingling with Ming-Hua's limbs. A water hand stroked her hair, warm and comforting, and P'Li relaxed, letting out all the fear of the last three years in one great burst of tears.
P'Li had fallen asleep in Ming-Hua's embrace, and when she awoke, they were lying together on a blanket, another blanket pulled over them. Ming-Hua was asleep, curled with her back against P'Li's chest, the water that made up her limbs sitting nearby in the big leather flask. She looked very peaceful in the evening light that made its way this far under the ridge, her tan skin glowing golden. P'Li stroked her silky black hair, amazed to feel tenderness towards another person again, as if Ming-Hua had absorbed her anger and terror along with her tears.
"That's nice," Ming-Hua mumbled sleepily. P'Li lay down and kissed the back of Ming-Hua's head, her hand sliding down Ming-Hua's body, over her shoulder and down her side to rest on her hip. Tendrils of water emerged from the flask and bent towards P'Li like the fronds of a plant, caressing her face and running through her loose hair and over the bare skin of her shoulders. Ming-Hua obviously didn't need to see to use her ability, unlike P'Li.
"Where's Zaheer?" P'Li asked.
"He's polite – he's gone outside," Ming-Hua told her, sounding less sleepy now. With a twist of her hips she turned around in P'Li's arms and moved herself up to kiss P'Li's mouth. P'Li's whole body flushed hot at the contact, and the watery caresses along her spine made her shiver, but she pulled Ming-Hua closer, her hand sliding under Ming-Hua's loose blouse to feel her warm skin. P'Li's fingers spanned almost her entire back, and Ming-Hua leaned into her strong hand, taking her weight off her armless shoulder. With help from her water tendrils she pulled P'Li down on top of her.
P'Li laughed. It had been so long since she had touched another person, or someone had touched her, with anything other than violence. The cool sensation of the water tendrils, each distinct and strong, played over her skin, and she could feel her qi pulse languidly with them, pooling at the base of her spine. Ming-Hua guided P'Li's other hand down between her legs, and her water limbs flowed around and into P'Li, caressing her as they combined with her own wetness.
Gasping into Ming-Hua's hair, P'Li felt her qi flare through her body and Ming-Hua's with it. Her eyes were closed but it felt as if the two of them were glowing together like a star. The water held and soothed her, wrapping the two of them close as Ming-Hua pressed herself against P'Li's fingers until she too went limp, her sweat washed into the swirls of water.
P'Li could have stayed there all night, but Ming-Hua used her water limbs to separate the two of them and sit up.
"Zaheer isn't far away and we have to make it to your village yet. Come on."
She pulled P'Li to her feet and sluiced water over her, then spun it over herself before forming her usual arm-like tentacles to pick up their shed clothing.
P'Li was warm all the way through; she stretched out her arms and legs before starting to get dressed. She still had only the rough tunic and pants that she had worn as a soldier of the warlord. With a quick burst of flame, she scorched his insignia embroidered across the back so that it was just an ashy smear. Satisfied, she pulled on the garment.
Tiny fingers of water were braiding P'Li's long hair when Zaheer returned.
"Are you ready to go?" he asked, and said nothing more. P'Li still felt herself blushing, but pushed that heat down.
The landscape became steeper but more and more familiar as they climbed the narrow path through the night. P'Li saw shattered stones where she had practised using the Sacred Eye on boulders; a ridge behind which she and her friends had hidden to watch older children learn firebending; a meadow where she had picked spring flowers for her mother to dry and make into tea. There were few flowers this late in summer, but she saw a deep yellow sunblossom growing in a shady crevice and picked it for Ming-Hua, who laughed and put it in her hair.
Just before dawn, they climbed the narrow gorge approaching the twin statues of Guru Chanda, the first to discover the Sacred Eye. P'Li made sure she was in front of Ming-Hua and Zaheer, and that the flame she carried illuminated her face.
"Guards! It's me, P'Li, returned from captivity!"
Instead of the lethal attack that usually met outsiders, a guard emerged from behind one of the statues.
"P'Li? Is it really you?" He also had a flame in his palm, and P'Li recognised him: it was her young cousin Heki. He had a wispy beard now, and was as tall as P'Li.
"Heki! You've grown so tall!" She couldn't help grinning.
Heki approached cautiously, but a smile was breaking across his face, too. The second guard peered out from his post.
"Who are these strangers?" Heki asked, though he reached out and touched P'Li's arm as if to ascertain she was really there.
"Ming-Hua and Zaheer – they defeated Warlord Kung and brought me safely home." She lowered her voice so that only Heki could hear her. "They're no threat."
Heki looked uncertain, but nodded, and threw his arms around P'Li. "I didn't think we'd ever see you again!"
"Nor I you." P'Li returned the embrace, still surprised that Heki was so tall.
Heki ran ahead, the other guard staying at his post, and called out as he ran.
"Everyone! Wake up! P'Li is here! P'Li has returned! Wake up!"
"They're very happy to see you," Ming-Hua murmured, staying close to P'Li.
"I'm so grateful to be home!" P'Li bowed to Ming-Hua and Zaheer, a deep bow of utmost sincerity. "Thank you for all that you have done. Please, come and enjoy our hospitality."
As soon as P'Li had passed through the twin statues, she could see down into the valley where her village lay. Mongoats were being let out of their pens to graze the hills, smoke was starting to rise from the stone ovens behind each home, the few hippo cows were being led to the dairy for milking, and everything was so familiar that P'Li's throat hurt. It wasn't exactly the same: there were a few new buildings, and parts of the walls had obviously been rebuilt, the newer stones standing out from the more weathered ones. She glanced at where Elder Loi's home had been – the place from which she had been abducted – and it had been completely rebuilt, as if nothing had ever happened there.
P'Li was distracted from her thoughts by someone calling out her name. She started down the path before she realised it was her mother, calling out in a cracked voice, filled with tears. Her hair was completely grey, now, and a white band of mourning adorned her right arm.
"P'Li! My daughter, I thought you were dead!" She threw her arms around P'Li and pulled her close.
"No, Mother, I'm here!"
Her mother held P'Li by the arms for a moment, her face serious. "Did you see your father fall in the battle?"
"I did, I know he's gone. Are my sisters all right?"
"It's a small blessing that you weren't waiting all that time thinking your father would be here to greet you. Your sisters are both well – your older sister is engaged and your younger sister has the Sacred Eye just like you." She clung to P'Li again. "How did you escape, my darling girl?"
"My friends, Ming-Hua and Zaheer, fought Warlord Kung and rescued me – when I said I wanted to go home, they helped bring me here."
"You know better than to bring outsiders here," her mother scolded, but P'Li ignored the warning tone, instead hugging her even more tightly.
Her two sisters ran to them and joined the embrace, little Rai looking far more grown-up with the Sacred Eye tattoo on her forehead, and P'Li laughed with joy.
Another voice cut through her laughter. "You need to step back now." It was the Headman of the village, his beard longer and whiter than ever. Behind him stood the guards: five men and women with the Sacred Eye and another dozen without, all of them firebenders.
P'Li's mother and sisters let go of her, though P'Li managed to keep a grip on Rai's hand, and Rai didn't pull away.
"P'Li, you have brought outsiders to the village. This has been against our laws since the Hundred Year War."
"Yes, but these two saved me! They mean no harm. We should be thanking them for breaking Warlord Kung's grip on the mountains."
The Headman frowned. "It was such good intentions that led your great uncle to fight for the Fire Lord in the dying days of the war, and ever since we have had no peace. Every petty lord wants their own Sacred Eye. But none will devote themselves to Guru Chanda's teachings as we do here, so instead they must kidnap our children. It's the only way to save more children from your fate, P'Li."
P'Li let go of Rai and balled up her fists, infuriated. "No, you're wrong! Ming-Hua here is a waterbender: she could fix our water supply problems so that we can't be cut off again! And Zaheer is a skilled warrior who could teach us to defend the village far better than we do now."
"We brought P'Li home – we did not take her to use as our weapon," Zaheer added.
The Headman sighed. "For that we are grateful and will permit you to leave in peace, on the grounds that you speak to no-one of this place. You have learned enough of our secrets already."
"They could help!"
"It's all right," Ming-Hua rasped. "We'll go."
"No!" P'Li was remembering a lot of other things about her village now: the hatred of strangers, the inflexibility of the Elders, the expectation of immediate obedience, the constant warnings to stay close to home, the endless drudgery of producing food from steep and stony but defensible fields. "Zaheer was right – you're all petty tyrants, ruling over your tiny kingdoms. We are a strong people! We could change! But all you want to do is hide in this little world where you can imagine you are the great authority."
She turned to her mother and sisters. "I'm sorry, but I can't stay. I've been away too long and the world has changed. Or I have changed. I'm not sure."
"P'Li, no, I've just got you back!" her mother cried out, but didn't move towards her, and that was the final straw.
"You can't leave!" the Headman bellowed, but P'Li simply glared at him.
"You can't stop me. Rai, Heki – it's a big world. Come and find me, if you want."
She bowed to her mother, then held out a hand to Ming-Hua. Before anyone could react, Ming-Hua lifted all three of them on a great jet of water and hurled them clear over the gates and away from the village.
"Keep running!" P'Li yelled, not entirely sure if the Headman would have the troops after them, but Ming-Hua swept them all down the mountain faster than the guards would be able to run to the pass, if not faster than the Sacred Eye could see.
They landed, bedraggled and damp, in the field where P'Li had picked Ming-Hua a flower, out of the line-of-sight of the village.
"I'm sorry you didn't get what you wanted," Ming-Hua told her, with a gentle caress of one water tentacle to P'Li's cheek.
P'Li shook her head. "They haven't changed. It's me. I'm different."
"That's a hard thing to realise." Zaheer held out his pack for Ming-Hua to dry. "Come with us. Help others seek change, too."
P'Li nodded and put an arm around Ming-Hua. "After being in prison for so long? There's nothing I'd rather do."