“There he is! Ooh, Lan Yi was right—he is handsome.”
“Quiet out there! We lost some good men today bringing you this rice you’re eating.” The man, whose name Zuko thought might have been Shenzu, snapped beside him.
The women crowded in the doorway laughed and made faces at the man speaking. The one who called Zuko handsome just then spoke again. “And who makes the steel that pays for all that rice, hm? We’re pumping bellows all night while you sleep off all this food.”
Zuko twisted a little and gave the women a ghost of a smile. “Actually, I would like to see where you all work, if it’s not a problem.” A large tatara bloomery dominated one side of the village, and Zuko could see a continuous plume of smoke drifting up from it. He’d learned that the woman leading this town, Aunt Wu, was a firebender, and he was curious to see how she’d set up an operation to make steel blooms in a town with no other firebenders to keep the furnace fueled long enough.
Several of the women blushed even as they laughed, and a few began talking all at once.
“You can come right over, whenever you like!”
“Don’t be a stranger—we’ll be looking for you!”
“We’ll have to wear our best kimono tonight ladies!”
“Don’t forget us, now! And don’t listen too much to the moans and groans of these old men—we’ll be waiting!”
A bell rang from another side of town, and the women waved at him as they dispersed from the doorway, laughing and talking amongst themselves.
“Don’t pay them any mind,” Shenzu said, drawing Zuko’s attention back to the table and the group of men he sat with. “Aunt Wu spoils them, that’s why they’re like that.
Zuko shrugged and picked up a bowl of rice and his set of chopsticks. “Happy women make for a happy village.”
That sent a ripple of laughter through the men immediately gathered around him. “Yeah—these women sure are happy enough now!”
“What do you mean?”
“They were all brothel workers. Aunt Wu bought the contracts of every woman working in a brothel that she could get her hands on, and brought them all with her when she settled here,” Shenzu explained.
“Them and the others,” another man to Zuko’s right said.
Someone beside him cuffed the back of that man’s head. “Don’t talk about them like that. Aunt Wu’s given them a chance that no one else wanted to.”
Zuko rested his rice bowl against his thigh. “Gave a chance to who?”
Again, Shenzu spoke up, his voice even and subdued. “Warriors who got very badly burned. Every inch of them is wrapped up in bandages, the burns are so bad. A lot of people got caught up in some nasty battles, and Aunt Wu’s got a soft heart. She helped when everyone else turned their backs on them.”
The scar on Zuko’s face suddenly became a point which every man in the room avoided looking at directly.
“It’s from an angry spirit,” Zuko told them without anyone needing to ask about it. “It touched me before I drove it away. I’ve been following it to try and stop it once and for all.” His gaze dropped to the half-empty rice bowl in his hands. “Before anyone else can get cursed like me.”
A low murmur went through the room. One man came over to sit beside Zuko. “You should talk to Aunt Wu about it,” he said with a mouthful of rice. “She may have a soft heart for people, but spirits don’t shake her at all. You should have seen the way she dealt with Ozai!”
“Yeah—to think we were giving it gifts all these years! Who knew we just needed to shoot it?”
“Well, we couldn’t have done that even if we’d’ve known. Not before Aunt Wu showed up.”
“Who’s Ozai?” Zuko interrupted, feeling a sharp sliver of dread form in the pit of his chest.
“Who’s Ozai?” the man echoed, incredulous. “Only the spirit of the volcano! We used to go up to the rim every year and take offerings to it to keep it from blowing up and destroying our whole village. But then Aunt Wu showed up with her warriors and rifles.”
“Rifles?” The word tasted strange on Zuko’s tongue, acrid and sharp. It made him think of the smell of his face after the spirit had touched him. He didn’t like it.
“A weapon that lets us nonbenders fight back with iron and fire.” The man holding the rice bowl beside him gesticulated sharply with his chopsticks, sending a few grains flying. “Some of us are earthbenders, but we never stood a chance against spirits like that before. We’re real lucky Aunt Wu decided to come to town.”
The dread in his chest grew until it felt like there were shards of it pressing against his lungs. “Why did she come here?” Zuko distantly heard himself asking.
“She heard about the iron in the ground beneath this town, but we’d mined all that out years ago. She thought there was more further up the sides of the volcano, but fear of Ozai making the volcano erupt had always stopped us from clearing the forest and finding out,” Shenzu continued. His voice wavered and Zuko wondered what he’d seen.
The other man next to Zuko laughed, half-eaten rice sticking to the sides of his mouth. “Well, she was right. Soon as she got rid of that spirit we were able to get at a whole lot more iron.”
A warmth grew within the scar on his face, making the ruined skin feel tight and painful. Zuko clenched his teeth. His face began to burn as it had when the angry spirit—Ozai—had touched him, and he recalled exactly how large the swath of burned forest around his home was. Fury began boiling deep within him, like a fire in his belly that he did not ignite, and he had to take a few deep breaths to calm his flame before it erupted from his fingertips. Before he could stop himself, he lifted his hand and pressed fingers against the outer edge of the scar, willing it to stop throbbing.
“What’s the matter?” Zuko recognized Shenzu’s voice out of the angry red haze that had settled over his senses. “Does your… face still hurt?”
With a controlled release of breath, Zuko lowered his hand from his face and held it tightly against his lap. “I was just thinking how angry the spirit must have been, wounded and driven from its home. How full of hate for humans it must have become.”
Silence hung in the air after he spoke, thick and unsettling, like too much grease in the stomach from roast duck.
“Aunt Wu’s ready for you,” a young woman announced from the doorway, her voice cutting through the stillness. Everyone in the room knew who she was talking to—there was no need for her to name him. Zuko put his unfinished dinner down and stood, giving the men in the room a mild bow of thanks before following her out.
The woman, who introduced herself as Meng, led Zuko down a dirt path through the center of the village. “You’ve caused quite a stir here,” Meng told him as they walked, and Zuko could not tell if she was amused or irritated by him.
“I didn't mean to,” he said, looking around the village with interest. It was different from the one he grew up in, and the presence of the massive tatara made the architecture have unusual additions he’d never seen anywhere else, a strange combination of Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom. “I just followed the spirit’s trail. It led me here.”
Meng sent him an unwavering look, but said nothing more. Zuko contented himself with the silence, though he wondered how they saw his arrival. He hadn’t outed himself as a firebender yet, so he wasn’t sure how warm their reception would remain if that became known. As they neared the other end of the village, the growing sound of singing filled the air. A great slash of light and shifting shadows stretched out across the path not too far ahead of them. When they reached the light, Zuko stopped and stared at its source—the inside of the tatara bellows. A shift of women were steadily working them, their plain hippari short and allowing them to move without hindrance. They sang in a rhythm to help them all move in time—and, Zuko supposed, to pass the long shift they worked with some form of entertainment.
Standing in the wide doorway, Zuko watched the women move and sing. When Meng cleared her throat to get his attention, he didn’t move his gaze at first, then slowly turned and rejoined her.
She led him up a small incline to a wooden house with actual shōji, unlike the cloth-covered open frames most of the other buildings they’d passed along the way had. Aunt Wu was inside, scrawling notes on a scroll. When he entered, she set her brush aside and smiled at him.
“Good evening, stranger,” she said. Though it was a polite enough, innocuous greeting, there was something about it that struck him as sharply astute. It reminded him of his uncle in a way, wherever he was now.
Aunt Wu nodded to Meng, who took this as a signal and left them alone in the room, the fusuma clacking quietly as she closed it on her way out. Once she left, the older woman turned her gaze back to him. “Now. To what do I owe the pleasure of someone from the homeland coming here? Surely you’re not here to steal my rifle design—a firebender doesn’t need it when he has the real thing.”
His eyes widened. “You know I’m a firebender?”
Laughter filled the room, bright and thoroughly amused. Zuko kept his face as impassive as he could, though he could feel his traitorous eyebrow trying to inch its way up his forehead.
“Like knows like, my dear boy.” Aunt Wu rested one hand on the writing desk that held a lattice for scrolls and her writing brushes. “Don’t worry, I won’t give your secret away. The people here have come to accept me as one, but they’re still Earth Kingdom. They still fear the power of destruction we wield.” She watched him as he shifted a little uncomfortably under her gaze. “Now, tell me what brings you here.”
Zuko lifted a hand to the left side of his face, his fingertips touching the skin just below his scar. “This.”
With no immediate further explanation from him, Aunt Wu’s eyes narrowed just slightly. A slender line of silence stretched between them, and he made himself remain steady and unwavering beneath her gaze, his hand falling back to his side.
“You’ve been spirit-touched,” she said at last.
“Cursed,” he corrected, and the curt edge to his tone made her eyes focus on his again. “An angry spirit attacked my village, and burned the entire surrounding land in the process. I drove it away and then chased after it, hoping to stop it before it could curse anyone else like it did me.” As hard as he tried, as much as he hoped, Zuko knew he had not succeeded in that. He’d seen too many burns being tended in the villages he passed through on his way here, too many patches of scorched earth.
Aunt Wu’s eyebrows both went up, though her expression remained carefully neutral. “And so you came here.”
Abruptly, she stood, her long haori robes skimming the ground. She folded her hands inside her sleeves. “Will you walk with me, stranger? I have something to show you.”
Unsure but curious, Zuko nodded.
She led him through a few corridors of her home before walking out a doorway in the very back of it. A few wooden steps off the engawa took them down into a lush garden, full of all kinds of herbs, vegetables, and flowers. Zuko even recognized a small section of tall, awned wheat spikes that bobbed gently in the air.
“My private garden,” Aunt Wu said as she continued through, leaving him to trail a few steps behind. “I’ve tried to get fire lilies to grow here, but they just won’t last. Only a few have even made it past sprouting.”
“Must be the climate,” Zuko said, feeling awkward and off-put at so mediocre a conversation as gardening. He’d been waiting for her to make the connection that he knew she had set the spirit here on a rampage by driving it out, but instead she was taking him on a tour. He frowned.
Passing through the garden, she followed a dirt path that ended in a stream with a small, flat bridge overtop it. Just beyond that was a smaller house that butted up against a wooden wall within the outer wall that surrounded the entire village. Aunt Wu led him there.
It was a simple wooden house, about a third of the size of Aunt Wu’s machiya, with no engawa surrounding it. Unlike the rest of the village buildings, and even the machiya, it had a hinged door. Aunt Wu opened it and went inside first, clearly expecting him to continue following her. Zuko lagged behind for a moment, then stepped in.
Whatever he had been expecting, it wasn’t the sight that greeted him.
About a dozen people were in the house, some working at a low table on long pieces of wood and metal that formed an instrument Zuko didn’t recognize, some lying down on woven tatami mats. They were all wrapped nearly head to toe in bandages. Despite himself, Zuko’s eyes widened. These were the burned warriors that Shenzu talked about.
“Hello, Aunt Wu,” one of them said. She smiled at them and went over.
“How are you all doing this evening? Do you need anything?”
The concern in her words was genuine, Zuko noted. All at once he felt even more an interloper onto something private for which he shouldn’t be present.
“We’re all right,” a woman said, her head tilted up toward Aunt Wu. Zuko could see parts of her face beneath her bandages, and the shadows of burn scars there. “We’ve finished with the next prototype you asked for.”
“Excellent. I can show off your wonderful work to my guest.” Aunt Wu didn’t motion toward him, but all the eyes in the room turned his way. He felt exposed in a room where other burn victims were covered in bandages. Zuko wondered if theirs still burned hot as well.
“A guest, hm?” The bandaged woman who’d spoken before turned her head carefully to look at Zuko. Only one eye peered out at him, the other completely covered. “Not another addition to your special forces?”
A ripple of quiet laughter spread through the room, including Aunt Wu in its wake. “No,” she said. “He saved some of our people earlier, and brought them back to us alive.” She bent and picked up one of the wooden and metal instruments off the table and hefted it, testing its weight. “This is better, but I think it’s still a bit too heavy,” she told the bandaged woman, who laughed.
“I’m not sure we can make it any lighter. It won’t be able to fire as well if we do.”
Aunt Wu smiled, a bright motion. “I know that you can,” she reassured them. “And without losing and of the punch it needs. But, I need something that won’t be too heavy for the girls.”
Looking back to him from the nodding woman, Aunt Wu’s smile faded to a more schooled expression. “Follow me.”
She crossed the room through the seated people to a ladder that extended up through a hole in the roof. For holding something in one hand and being a woman of greater years, Aunt Wu climbed the ladder with familiar ease. Zuko wove his way through the room and followed her up. Once they stood on the roof, Zuko saw the cleared land beyond the wooden wall that surrounded the village, and the darkness of the forest beyond that. Beneath his feet, there were little soot marks dotting the roof itself, but they didn’t look as if they were from firebending.
“Look.” Aunt Wu broke his thoughts, and he did as she instructed, lifting his gaze from the soot marks. She now stood with the long wooden and metal instrument on one shoulder, its open end pointed out toward the forest.
When she didn’t explain further what he was supposed to be looking at, Zuko took the few steps forward to lean his hands on the wall. Something moved in the dark between the village and the trees.
“What is that?” he asked.
“Spirits,” Aunt Wu replied. “They come by night after night, trying to replant the forest.” With a sudden scowl, she snapped her fingers and lit a wick sticking out of the metal part of the instrument on her shoulder. It lit and burned quickly. Zuko watched with wide eyes as she pulled on a trigger and made a hammer-like object the wick was attached to snap down. An instant later, a blast of flame and smoke erupted forth from the open end of what Zuko now understood to be what Shenzu called a rifle. The sound loud and made his ears ring for a moment, and the firing itself made Aunt Wu jerk back from the force. A distant thud followed soon after the ringing faded from his hearing. He looked back to the cleared space of forest ringing the village to see the spirits there had scattered and were headed back toward the thick of the tree line.
Heat rose briefly in Zuko’s scar, but it faded as soon as someone spoke again, though it wasn’t to him. She leaned back to peer down the hatch they’d come up.
“How does it fire?” The bandaged woman’s voice drifted up from the house.
“Smooth as silk,” Aunt Wu called down. “But, still too heavy.”
She looked back up to Zuko, drumming her fingers along the wood of the rifle once. “Would you like to try, stranger?”
Zuko shook his head when she held out the rifle to him. “No,” he told her simply, then turned his gaze back out toward the forest. “You know they’re not going to stop until the forest comes back,” he said. “That’s all they want.”
He didn’t have to look at Aunt Wu to know she was scowling. He could hear it in her voice. “They can want it and try all they like, it’s not going to happen. I helped these people carve a better place for themselves in this land, and a couple of mindless spirits aren’t going to undo all that work.” There was a pause between them. “Why do you defend them? You’ve been cursed by one of them by your own words. Help me drive them away for good. Perhaps then your curse will be lifted.”
Part of him wanted to laugh at the suggestion, but his mouth tugged down into a frown instead. “No,” he repeated. “That wouldn’t solve anything. You have to find a way to live in harmony again with the spirits, or all this will just end badly.” He lifted a hand to skim fingers over the ruined flesh of his cheek. “I know that first hand.”
Instead of any kind of sympathy, Aunt Wu said sharply, “You sound a lot like that damn waterbender.”
Surprised, Zuko turned from the forest back to her, one hand still resting on the wooden wall. “Waterbender?”
“Yes.” Aunt Wu rested the butt of her rifle on the roof and didn’t meet his gaze. Now she was the one looking out toward the forest. “Runs with the spirits almost as if she’s one of them, and attacks her own kind—us—instead. She’s the reason those people you saved earlier were in danger in the first place.”
His frown deepened. Fighting on either side wouldn’t only instigate the other further, but he didn’t know how to stop it. He didn’t know if he could, or even if he was the right person to do so. He’d followed a single angry spirit to try and stop it, and came upon a far more complex situation than he’d anticipated. Zuko longed for the wisdom his uncle could have provided.
“Will you help me?” Aunt Wu cut through his thoughts. “Will you help the people here defend their home and their livelihoods?”
It tore at him. The villagers deserved a chance to make their lives better, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of the spirits of the world. They should all be in this together, not at each other’s throats. He had no answers.
“I will help wherever I can,” he said carefully.
That didn’t seem to wholly satisfy Aunt Wu, who fixed him with another piercing look. “I’ll hold you to that, stranger.”
He climbed back down the ladder, alone, but hadn’t made it halfway to the door out before a weak voice called out.
“Boy,” the voice said. It was difficult to tell through the rasp if the person was a man or woman. Zuko stopped in his tracks and turned toward the source, gaze finding a person in the back corner entirely covered in bandages, including their face. They were also missing an arm and a leg from the knee down.
“Stranger,” they said again. “Aunt Wu took us in when no one else would. They sent us to fight and then condemned us for coming back not whole. She cares for our burns and scars herself, makes sure we’re comfortable as can be.” The person was overtaken by a coughing fit, and a few others nearby shifted as if to try and help them. The coughs subsided.
“This village was like us, scarred and dying. It was under the whim of a reckless spirit that would never care about the people here. Then she came and helped it get on its feet again, helped the people throw off the shadow of the volcano. Now it’s thriving.”
Zuko swallowed, hearing threads of his own conflicted thoughts echoed back at him.
“I won’t let anything happen to the village,” he said, hearing his own voice crack. “But I can’t sit by and let other spirits be driven mad and do to others what one did to me.”
He couldn’t be here any longer, couldn’t stand to hear more. His heart would surely crack listening to how these people had been helped by the woman whose actions resulted in him being cursed. Zuko fled the little house and went back out through the garden. The way through the machiya proper was easy enough to remember, and no one barred his exit. Soon, he was back out on the streets of village, his heart pounding and trying to swallow down the ache in his chest.
It wasn’t until a wave of golden firelight bathed him in heat that Zuko realized his feet had brought him to the tatara forge. He stopped in the wide doorway and watched the women work the bellows, moving together in steady rhythm with one another. The distraction was welcome.
One of the women lounging on the worn tatami against one wall inside the forge recognized him from when he arrived earlier that day. She waved at him and he went over, recalling her name was Lan Yi. “Hey! Look who it is! How do you like Makapu so far?”
“It’s been very welcoming,” came his mild reply, his gaze drifting from her to the women working the bellows. Their attention was divided now between him and their work. “You all must work very hard here,” he said, marveling at all the kinds of strength these women had as well as feeling his heart break a little that it required such hard labor. But, this was the Earth Kingdom, and taking pride in the work they did was in their blood; he would not insult them by suggesting otherwise.
The women around him laughed heartily. “Yeah, it sure is. But we love it. It helps Aunt Wu and it helps the town, so it’s more than worth our effort,” Lan Yi said. Her grin widened into something almost sharp. “The men all think they have the hardest job, lugging all that raw iron and cutting down trees, but they wouldn’t last a single shift here.”
Zuko’s gaze followed the women working, not saying anything for a moment. Then, on a sudden whim, he asked, “May I join in for a little while?”
Lan Yi and the other women exchanged surprised looks, but in the end she just gave him a shrug. “Sure, if you think you’re up to it.”
He undid the ties of his hippari and shed the layer of clothing, stepping up to one of the women on the bellows and giving her a small smile. She glanced at him twice and blushed a bright red at his bared chest, tugging at the front of her own hippari in an attempt at propriety. Zuko barely noticed, being far more focused on stepping in at the right time and picking up the rhythm they had going.
A few of the women on the bellows with him whooped a bit, the hems of their hippari flapping. He was so focused on trying to make sure he wasn’t slacking among them that he’d picked up the pace and stepped deeper than any of them with his longer legs.
Lan Yi laughed somewhere behind his shoulder. He didn’t look back, but kept his concentration on the bellows.
“I’m impressed,” she said, not really sounding all that impressed. “But, you won’t be able to keep up that pace. Our shifts here are four days long.”
“It sure beats working a brothel in the city!” another woman chimed in from his other side. Several laughed.
“You got that right,” Lan Yi said. “We get good square meals here, and the men don’t bother us unless we want them to.”
That sent another wave of laughter through the women. Zuko didn’t join in, now completely set on the bellows. It was hard work, and he respected the women even more for their dedication to it. Sweat quickly formed and rolled down the trough of his spine, but the exertion felt good. Especially after the conversation with Aunt Wu and her rifle makers, which left his heart hurting and his gut twisted. This was honest, simple work, and he threw himself into it for as long as he could.
After some time—longer than Lan Yi had expected, she readily crowed when he surpassed all the bets the ladies had going on how long he’d last—Zuko finally threw a glance over his shoulder. The women there took immediate note of his signal and stepped in while he stepped off.
“Good job, stranger! I haven’t seen a man last that long at anything in my life,” Lan Yi said with a wide grin. She handed him a thick strip of cloth.
He accepted it gratefully and wiped the sweat off his face and neck. “It felt good,” he agreed. “In a really tiring way.”
“Well, you’re more than welcome to come back any time and do that again. We certainly enjoyed ourselves—and the break was nice too!”
Despite himself, Zuko chuckled. Both the bellows and the women who worked them were like a breath of fresh air after everything else earlier in the evening. “If I’m ever back this way again, I’ll be sure to take you up on that offer.”
“You’re leaving already? You just got into town today.” Lan Yi grew serious.
He shook his head. “Thanks, but there’s someone I’ve got to find in the forest.”
A shadow passed over Lan Yi’s expression, and she looked at the woman to her left momentarily. “You must mean that waterbender.”
Before Zuko could ask her what she might know about the waterbender in the forest, a clamor from outside interrupted their conversation. He tugged on his hippari and tied it shut, then jogged to the open doorway to see what the commotion was about.
“The waterbender,” Lan Yi said darkly behind him.
Zuko ran out into the streets.
“She’s coming again!” someone shouted from the eastern lookout tower. “Everyone get ready!”
There was a sudden flurry of activity throughout the dirt streets of the village. People grabbed whatever was handy—pitchforks, spears, hoes, anything—and ran toward the open square before Aunt Wu’s machiya household, all necks craned to watch the wall surrounding Makapu Village. Zuko’s scar filled with a brief warmth that had nothing to do with the furnace of the tatara forge behind him and his heart ricocheted in his chest. It wasn’t Ozai come back, was it? In the dense of the forest surrounding this area, he’d lost the trail of the spirit he’d been tracking. There were no paths of scorched earth or woods around here, and Zuko had found himself wondering if he’d come to the right place. That was before he learned what Aunt Wu had done to anger the volcano’s spirit, that had sent Ozai rampaging from here all the way to where he’d fought and been burned by the enraged spirit.
He jogged toward the square with everyone else, eyes scanning the wall. She, the villagers had shouted. Zuko sucked in a breath. It must be the waterbender Aunt Wu had talked about. The one working in league with the spirits of the forest to try and take the land back from the villagers. Unsure what he wanted to do—what he could do—Zuko ran faster, breath coming quicker as he tried to see where she was coming from.
A flash of movement caught the corner of his eye. It was someone dressed in blue, darting along the top of the wall. That had to be her. Surging into motion, Zuko sprinted through narrow alleys, heading in a straight shot toward the incoming waterbender.
From a distance, he watched a serpentine lash of water coil and whip out in response to her sharp hand motions. A surprised sound came from him as he watched wood and stone alike fall away as if they’d been paper, cut by a sharp blade. She dispatched a few sentries on the wall and vanished from sight. A sudden explosion of fire blew apart bits of the wall and Zuko saw a figure in blue leaping through the air. She landed nimbly on a rooftop and kept running without missing a single stride, headed toward the opposite end of the village.
It was difficult to keep track of her as she ran—she was so quick, with water trailing behind her like twin tails. Another explosion blew a hole in a thatched roof right after she landed on it, but didn’t even send her stumbling. She kept going. Zuko rounded a corner, following the sound of the blast and finally caught sight of her in truth. She was on the roof of a house just across from him, and he stopped in his tracks, heart pounding in his ears and his breath caught in his chest. She moved like a storm, intent on her path and uncaring for any of the beings beneath her wake. Just as she reached the edge of that roof to leap to the next, a third explosion sent thatch and wood and sparks flying, finally succeeding in knocking her from her feet and sending her tumbling through the air.
Zuko watched as the waterbender landed in an effortless crouch right in front of him. In that split second, he saw that half her face was covered by a dark cloth, leaving only her bright blue eyes, narrowed in determined fury, exposed. She glared at him for being a hindrance in her path, and brought a hand up swinging, water following her command and lashing out at him.
He jumped back, the water’s edge narrowly missing him and shaving off some threads from his tunic.
“Wait!” he exclaimed. “Stop! I’m not here to fight you!”
The blue of her eyes snapped to his face like the sudden swell of a wave, and he felt as if the breath was being crushed out of him by that look. She moved her arms back with a definitive twist of her elbows, sending a glinting stream of water straight at him. Without another thought, Zuko brought his hands up, trailing enough flame to disperse her attack. Her eyes widened in shock, but it didn’t slow her down for more than half a breath.
She leapt backwards, out of reach of both him and the villagers now catching up behind him. Zuko didn’t have time to start moving toward her before she ran to the nearest house and nimbly swung herself up to the roof again. The water he’d dispersed onto the ground shifted and answered her summons, rising swiftly to her hands—and then she was gone, darting along the rooftops again.
The group of people surged around him as he stared after her, but Zuko didn’t join them in their rush. All it took was a moment to make his choice; he used the side of one house to vault himself up onto the rooftop of the other she’d been on and ran after her. His dual dao blades knocked rhythmically against his back as he sprinted from one rooftop to another, trying to catch up with the waterbender. She was already far ahead of him, making her way up the tall, slanted roof of the tatara, the blue of her clothing the only giveaway that she was still there at all.
By the time he’d reached the tatara roof as well, the waterbender had vanished from sight. Beneath him, in the dirt square that stretched between the tatara forge and Aunt Wu’s machiya, it looked as if the entire village had gathered. Many of the people held a weapon of some sort, but they all stood back several feet from Aunt Wu herself in the middle. She stood defiantly out in the open, flanked by two other women. Their gazes were directed up to the very peak of the roof. Zuko paused on a rise of roof above a window opening and followed their line of sight, searching for that telltale flash of blue.
Between the curling plumes of smoke, the waterbender stood, twin streams of water encircling her form like deadly serpents waiting for the opportunity to strike. Her braid whipped forward in the wind, lashing angrily.
“Can you hear me, waterbender?” Aunt Wu called from the ground. Her voice rang out clear in the sudden hush that befell the crowd of townsfolk gathered. “You claim to fight for the spirits, but you don’t give a damn what they do to us—what they do to other humans, just like you!” She spread her hands to indicate the two women flanking her, a sharp and calculating spread to her mouth. “Come down and try to kill me if you like, but I’ve got two women here who’d like to face you even more.”
“Come down here, you little monster! My husband’s dead because of you and your spirit friends!” the women to Aunt Wu’s right spat. She shouldered a long piece of wood and iron that must have been what his hosts had called a rifle.
Movement prickled at the corner of his peripheral vision, and looking up revealed people taking up positions along the wall. Firelight glinted darkly off metal in their hands, and Zuko realized they were carrying rifles, too, and they were aiming at the path the waterbender would have to take to attack Aunt Wu.
“It’s a trap,” he breathed to himself. He watched at least half a dozen riflemen kneel in position, watched the two women with Aunt Wu stand with their rifles. He could feel the slow, slow burn of readied matchlocks like tiny flickers of flame dotted along the edge of his senses.
They were going to kill each other. The waterbender was fast, and he wouldn’t be surprised if most of the shots missed her, but someone would eventually get her. It probably wouldn’t be before she took down who knew how many of them, but there would be so much death. And, if Aunt Wu was right and this girl was so closely allied to the spirits of the forest surrounding this town, Zuko could only imagine how much more they would be enraged if she were killed. The scar on his face flared with heat.
“Stop!” He shouted, springing up from the ledge he was crouching on and taking a few steps forward. “Everybody stop! This is only going to make things worse between humans and spirits!”
No one heeded him. The waterbender surged forward like a typhoon; riflemen tracked her movements with their weapons. Zuko moved without thinking.
Rushing along a long bamboo beam, he sprinted as fast as he could to try and reach the waterbender in time. If he could intercept her, he could knock her out of the way of the shots and stop her attack at the same time. His legs burned from the sudden exertion, but he ignored the discomfort and pushed faster. The hiss of firing charges reached him distantly, but he was only a few arms’ lengths away. He could make it to her.
The same moment the rifles along the perimeter fired, that the waterbender was about to cross right in front of him, Zuko hurled himself forward through the air. The thatch roof below him exploded, sending pieces of splintered wood and sparks flying up into him, sprinkling his forearms and face with burning pinpricks. He squinted his eyes against the debris and reached out, one arm snagging the waterbender around the waist. The momentum from his leap crashed him solidly into her, sending them both rolling across and down the rooftop with his arms wrapped securely around her. They hit the edge and fell off; his back collided with the bamboo beam there with a grunt of pain forced from his chest, and he tucked himself around the girl in his arms so that his shoulder would take the brunt of the impact with the ground. She landed heavily on him, knocking the rest of his breath out with a sharp elbow digging just below his ribs. All the water that she’d held at her command rained down on top of them.
For a moment, everything was still. Zuko lay wheezing on the ground, and the waterbender lay on top of him, stunned. The stillness didn’t last beyond that.
“What are you doing?” The unfamiliar voice was right overtop of him, and Zuko opened his eyes to see the waterbender’s covered face glaring down at his own. She pushed forcibly off him, and got to her feet again.
Water came out through a window of a nearby house as she summoned someone’s bathwater and wreathed herself in it. Zuko pushed himself up off the ground as the waterbender faced down Aunt Wu and the two women again.
“Stay back,” Aunt Wu sharply ordered. The villagers who had begun to move forward stopped, and backed away. She leveled her gaze at the waterbender. “Come and kill me, if that’s what you want.”
With a snarled shout, the girl in blue ran forward again. Aunt Wu cocked her head to the left the slightest amount and the woman on that side took her cue and fired. Zuko’s mouth opened in a wordless shout, but he couldn’t force himself to move in time to get to the waterbender, and she was already too far out of his reach for him to snag any part of her clothing and drag her away. Quick as lightning, she brought up a crest of water and formed it into a thick shield of ice. She didn’t slow down. The iron shot contacted with her ice and shattered it into shards deadlier than any wood splinter had been. Though she’d saved her own life, the impact from the shot sent her back, collapsing on the ground in a heap. Fractured ice lay scattered around her in a glittering display.
Zuko scrambled over to her, crouching immediately and grasping her shoulders to shake her gently. “Wake up,” he breathed, desperate. He felt each heartbeat rattle in his chest. She didn’t move.
Just as the wild thought to try and revive her somehow crossed his mind, her eyes flew open. She swung up with one hand and sent a thin crescent of water directly at his face. Only his instincts helped him pull back in time, and even then he felt a sting and warmth trickle down his unmarred cheekbone. All at once, she was on her feet at him and attacking, and it was all he could do to evade backward and keep from being cut again.
He wasn’t her target, however, just an obstacle in her way. She managed to push him aside and dart around him, quicker than he’d anticipated her to be.
“Wait!” he called after her, reaching out and grasping at the air, far too late.
He could only watch as she ran toward an incoming cluster of villagers, armed and waiting for her. Meng stood at their head, a kodachi blade shining bright in her hands, and eyes trained on the waterbender rushing straight for her.
The girl in blue did not slow down for a single step—moving as fluidly as her element, she extended her arms and then drew them back in, pulling out more household water until she had enough to form a wave beneath her. She rode it up above everyone’s head and launched herself from the tip, leaving behind a frozen crest that engulfed half of Meng and the villagers closest to her.
Zuko couldn’t see past the press of people in the alleyway she’d vaulted down, but he could hear her enraged shout and people audibly gasping. There was a sudden flare of light, and his sense of fire echoed within him in response. Aunt Wu was fighting the waterbender.
They were going to fight until one of them was mortally wounded or outright killed, and the utter impotence of all his attempts to stop that from happening clawed at the bottom of Zuko’s lungs. Each breath stung, as if he were breathing in smoke. He got to his feet again, eyes intent on the crowd over which the waterbender had gone. An unwelcome heat churned his stomach, and it rose with every step that he took. He felt the air warm all around him, and ghostly cinders and ash began rising up off his form as if he were burning. His scar felt like there was fire bubbling beneath the surface of it, like there was a slow flow of movement within that burned and burned and burned, and it only made him angrier.
“Hey! Where do you think you’re going?” Meng demanded as he neared her, but half-frozen as she was, she couldn’t move. She used the hilt of her kodachi to smash apart the ice holding her enough to break free before he passed her by. Spinning the sword, she leveled the point of the blade at him. “You’re a traitor! A spy for the spirits!”
Zuko paused, looking at her through the ash rising up in the air around him. A tight scowl tugged his mouth down, and heat blazed behind his eyes. He reached out and grasped the bare blade, feeling the sting of it cutting into his flesh but not caring enough to let go. Beneath his fingers, the metal reddened and cinders flew from his arm to run along the length of the weapon, leaping up to singe Meng’s hands and arms. “Don’t get in my way.” His tone brooked no room for argument, and he let go of the blade as he walked past as if she was of no consequence to him.
Hissing in pain, Meng dropped the sword just as he stepped by her, and frantically bat at her sleeves to put out the little phantom fires that had caught there.
Zuko carved a path through the tightly gathered crowd with ease. As soon as he stepped near, people snapped aside in pain; the cinders flew from him to those that stood in his path. He saw two different worlds as he stepped toward the center of the impromptu ring of people around the fighting women—out of his right eye, the world looked as he always knew it, but the left showed him a world cast in the red of flames and the grey of smoke and ash. Nothing slowed his path as he pushed the last of the villagers out of his way, phantom flames leaping to their shoulders where he touched them.
Aunt Wu noticed him first, and hesitated for a hair’s breadth of time. That pause nearly cost her her life, and she only narrowly avoided a blade-like swipe of water. Zuko strode right up to the two fighting and placed himself between them, grabbing both their wrists and holding tight. All the water in the waterbender’s hand steamed away to nothing, and Aunt Wu’s own flames were consumed by the spectral ones his face and shoulders were now engulfed in.
“What are you doing, boy?” Aunt Wu hissed at him, trying to tug her hand away. On his other side, the waterbender snarled at him and dug her heels in, pulling. He held firmly onto them both, feeling a swell in his own power and strength as his anger rose.
“You’re both doing nothing but feeding anger and hate,” he snapped at them. “And it needs to stop.”
The smile Aunt Wu gave him was sharp and came with narrowed eyes instead of crow’s feet. “You think you can right all the wrongs done in the world, do you?”
Zuko glared at her, feeling heat and fury swell in him. “Just because you can’t change the past doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and do better in the future.”
A harsh laugh echoed from Aunt Wu, even as the waterbender tried in vain to wrest herself from his grip. “Listen to you. What an idealist.”
“Fear and hate only make things worse, you know that,” he said. His voice rose along with the cinders drifting around him. “Look at me—look at my face! This is what it looks like to be touched by anger and hate. It’s cursed me, and if it you all let it continue, you’ll only feed it and make it worse with your ignorance and fear. You all need to learn to live in balance with spirits again.”
Aunt Wu clicked her tongue against the back of her teeth. “The spirits are just stupid manifestations tied to a place with no real purpose anymore. Their time is over. We’re just helping move forward the natural order of things, Zuko.”
“They are not stupid! They have a purpose!” The waterbender’s voice cut through Zuko’s attention on Aunt Wu, and surprised them both.
“Ah—so you can speak, after all,” Aunt Wu said, a curl twisting her smile into something keenly edged and not at all humorous.
As if that were the cue for an unknown signal, both women moved against him at once. Aunt Wu stepped in with a quick jab toward his armpit with her free hand, and the waterbender tried to twist and duck beneath his other arm and bend it backward. Zuko felt them both tense just before they moved and, feeling his face burn with impossible heat, shifted more quickly than a normal human should have been able to. He knocked away Aunt Wu’s jab by pulling her abruptly forward and driving his fist solidly up into her fire chakra. At the same time, he moved his foot just slightly into the path of the waterbender’s momentum and made her stumble for half a beat. Taking that split moment’s advantage, Zuko made the same sharp jab into her solar plexus. Both women slumped over his arms and shoulders, stunned.
A gasp shook through the crowd. The confrontation diffused for the moment, Zuko felt the heat recede back within him, and the ash and cinders that encompassed his frame dissipated into the air as if they never existed.
“Someone take her,” he called, strained. Several women rushed forward, hands reaching for Aunt Wu. “She’ll be okay; she’s only stunned.”
Once relieved of the extra weight, Zuko knelt and hefted the unconscious waterbender across his shoulders.
“What do you think you’re doing with her?”
Zuko turned to look back over at the same woman who’d accused the waterbender of aiding in the death of her husband. She stood next to the women holding up Aunt Wu, and had one of the rifle weapons braced against her shoulder. It was aimed at his chest.
His eyes flicked from the mouth of the dark barrel up to her face. “I’m taking her back to the forest. No one’s going to die tonight.”
“Oh, no you don’t!” the woman snarled, squinting one eye and lifting the rifle a bit higher against her shoulder. “This little monster is the reason why my husband is dead. You’re not going to rob me of this.”
Zuko leveled his gaze at her for a long moment, his mouth drawn into a taut line. Her hands were shaking, he noticed, and tiny glints of light at the corners of her eyes gave away the tears welling there. For a moment, the only sounds he heard were the blood rushing in his ears and the steady breathing of the waterbender. The rifle was still aimed at his heart, but his gut told him the woman wasn’t going to fire. He turned his back to her, facing the southern exit of the village.
“Don’t move! I’ll fire if you move!” Her voice was clipped with the edges of desperation, but he didn’t hear any true conviction in her words.
A tenuous silence held the space between Zuko and the villagers. It was broken by the quiet scrape of his boots over the soft dirt road. No one moved, no one called out to stop him. He could feel every eye following him as he walked toward the gate, but he did not slow nor glance from side to side. His heart pounded in his chest; the waterbender breathed steadily near his ear.
Suddenly, a frantic voice shouted behind him: “Jie, what are you doing?”
Something that felt like a rock hit Zuko’s back on the left side, and for half a moment, he thought that the village’s earthbenders were attacking him. It was then that he heard an explosive bang behind him. A searing heat spread through his abdomen from where the rock had hit him, burning through him from the bottom of his ribs all the way to his hip. Zuko knew without a doubt it was not earth that had struck him, but refined iron, shaped into a ball.
He clenched his teeth together and continued walking.
The echo left behind from the rifle explosion faded into the night, leaving behind nothing but tension strung through the air. He drew the quiet tauter with every step he took, as if it were a rope and he the winch that tightened it across the whole village in his wake. He felt more warmth spread down his side, running down his thigh and making his tunic and pants stick to his skin. He didn’t need to look behind to know he was leaving a trail of blood.
Zuko didn’t stop.
He walked past the open tatara forge doorway, distantly hearing someone talk to him, but whatever the words were, they didn’t register. The gateway was in his sight, and everything else suddenly became muffled and unimportant. He was going through that gateway and into the forest. He had to. The waterbender across his shoulders grew heavier with every step, but he did not slow.
Another crowd of people waited for him just before the gateway, but as he approached, their eyes all widened, and many took involuntary steps back from his path. Meng and two other man stood in a small line between him and the gateway. By their stances, Zuko knew that the two beside the young woman and her kodachi were earthbenders. He came to a stop.
“Let me pass,” he said, his voice rough and unyielding.
“You’re not taking that girl anywhere,” Meng told him, though the grip on her blade’s hilt left her knuckles all white.
Zuko scowled resolutely. “I told you not to get in my way. I’m leaving with her.”
As if on cue, the earthbenders flanking her shifted and carved out rock from the ground before them, shaped into thick wedges Zuko suspected were meant to break several of his bones if necessary to stop him.
He took another step forward, and nearly faltered as pain lanced through his entire left side. Heat flared in his scar in response, and it felt like molten fingers reached through him to connect both sources of pain. His jaw hurt from clenching it so tightly, but he took another step. The wedges of rock sustained by the earthbenders responded to the shift in their wrists by hardening so much Zuko could hear cracks of pressure. He really didn’t want to have to fight them, but he widened his stance, and turned his body to lean more weight back onto his right foot. It was awkward not balancing more on his left leg, but he’d trained both sides equally with his dao, and as such it was only a mild unease. Keeping the waterbender secured with his left hand, he reached back to grasp the hilt of his dao blades with the right.
Wet warmth surged down his side, but his glare never left Meng and her earthbenders.
“Stop! You’ll kill yourself!” someone shouted behind him, and Zuko vaguely recognized the voice as one of the men he’d eaten dinner with earlier.
He drew his blade.
Intense heat engulfed his head and shoulders, flaring down along his left side as if he’d set fire to himself and it followed the slow flow of his blood. Without stopping to think, he swung his blade in a wide arc toward the earthbenders and Meng. A trail of liquid fire followed the sweep of his attack and spattered on the ground at their feet like lava, forcing them to scatter. The earth was blackened into a shallow gully beneath it, but his path now was clear.
Zuko kept his dao drawn and his eyes on Meng and the earthbender that had dove away with her as he resumed his walk to the gate. His entire body all the way down to his fingertips felt like it was on fire, like he could set the very air aflame if he but snapped his fingers.
Meng and the other villagers stared at him as he reached the gate, and no one else tried to stop him.
Strange noises and flashes of bright color flitted between the trees outside the village, and Zuko half-turned to address the empty space outside the gate.
“Your waterbender is fine, spirits! Stay where you are, and I will bring her out.”
Movement in his peripheral caught Zuko’s eye, and he looked to see several ostrich horses tied up and straining against their ropes to try and pull as far away from him as they could. Without waiting for an answer from outside the village, he sheathed his dao and grabbed the reigns of the nearest one. Normally, the strength in its neck would have allowed it to wrench free from his grasp, but he overpowered it with the same fiery strength he’d used against Aunt Wu and the waterbender. While he had control of its head, he shouldered the waterbender onto its saddle before swinging up behind her. Sitting her upright and leaning back against his chest, Zuko bent around her and tugged sharply at the knot keeping the ostrich horse tethered. The mount’s reigns snapped easily off the wooden hitching rail, and Zuko kicked his heels into the creature’s belly to send it into motion.
Only Zuko’s ironlike grip on its reigns kept it from bolting in outright panic. As it was, he had to wrap his free hand around the waterbender’s waist and hold her tightly to keep her from falling off. Locks of her hair worked themselves free of her braid and curled lengths back against his arms from their traveling speed. The ostrich horse ran swiftly out of the village gate and across the sloping stretch of cleared land between the village and the forest, following a dirt and stone path. Two spirits peeled away from the darkness and ran just behind the ostrich horse and Zuko. He chanced a glance over one shoulder at them, and saw them loping along on long, slender legs. Their eyes were bright slants set above dark, angled snouts with a thick bristle of mane that reached along their hackles. They reminded him of pantherwolves, but more unearthly and terrifying, as if they were made from the umbra itself.
The ostrich horse ran along the curving path up a hill that lead toward the dark of the forest, and it was then that Zuko felt the last of the heat recede back beneath the scar on his face. All that was left was the undiluted pain in his side—a strange searing cold where he was struck surrounded by warm, sticky blood. The edges of his vision began to darken, and he felt his grip slacken on both the waterbender and the reigns.
The next thing he was aware of was the hard, jolting crack of his shoulder against the rocky ground. A pained sound forced its way out of his lungs as he rolled several spans before one of the spirit pantherwolves caught up to him and took his head and half his shoulders in its maw. He felt strangely serrated teeth begin to sink through his clothing and skin, felt heat and his qi begin to leech out of him. His vision went entirely black.
The next time his eyes opened, he was lying face down in the dirt and grass, with stones pressing into his cheek and jaw. Every breath felt like he was drawing in shards of broken glass through his chest. A boot came into blurry view. He groaned softly.
“Why did you stop me from killing her?”
At first, it was all Zuko could do to keep breathing. His side kept getting colder, and his chest and shoulder throbbed. He closed his eyes.
“Tell me while you’re still alive!”
The waterbender’s voice forced away the encroaching blackness on his consciousness. He opened his eyes the barest amount and tried to focus on a single rock lying a hand’s span away from his nose.
“I didn’t want her to kill you,” he managed, his voice barely a rasp.
She still heard him anyway. “I’m not afraid to die!” she declared, indignant. “I’d do anything to keep these humans out of the forest.”
Zuko blinked slowly; though he knew it would be all to easy to close his eyes and never open them again and just sleep, he opened them anyway. “I knew that from the first moment I saw you.”
“That woman and the humans who follow her are evil, and they have to be stopped from destroying the forest any more than they have already done!” Anger wove through the waterbender’s voice, shaking with shards of hurt. “I’m not afraid of you—you’re a firebender, and just as bad as she is. I should kill you for that alone!”
All at once, she grabbed his throbbing shoulder and heaved him onto his back. Stuttered gasps escaped him as he was rolled over, and he squeezed his eyes shut against the pain. Small rocks and his dao blades pressed painfully into his spine, but he didn’t have the strength anymore to move. He heard a strange sound, like a fluttering of a sudden wind through tall grass all around him, though he felt no air against his skin. A chill formed at the hollow of his throat and crept along the lines of his neck.
“That’s not the answer,” he said hoarsely. His breathing was labored, and with the way he lay on his back, he felt the weight of all his bones pressing down on him. It felt like his ribs were going to pierce through the other side of his body.
“That’s enough—I’m not listening to you anymore! I’ll cut you, firebender! That’ll shut you up!” the waterbender snarled from somewhere above him.
Mustering the dredges of his will, Zuko forced himself to open his eyes. Dark hair framed the waterbender’s face and shoulders, having come entirely undone from her braid to cascade wildly around her. She’d lost her half mask at some point, and he could now see the rich depth of her skin, shadowed by the night like damp earth. Her mouth was turned down in a fierce scowl, and a flash of silvery blue glinted at her throat. She glared down at him with eyes bright with anger and bluer than any sky or lake he’d ever seen. He found himself wondering if that was what color the ocean was, or if even that would pale in comparison.
“You’re beautiful,” he breathed.
The anger in her eyes and face gave way to confusion crashing over her like a wave, and she stumbled back away from him. With the release of her will and her hands, water doused his face and chest from the long shard of ice she’d held at his throat. Now she just looked at him, wide-eyed, the startled breaths she took audible even to him on the ground. When she spoke, her voice was small and he had to strain to hear her.
“W-what did you just say?”
“You,” Zuko managed before the last of his strength left him and blackness overtook all his senses.