Children tend to play with anything, even when they’re only gifted with the essentials—or, more times than not, nothing.
If a child is imaginative enough, simple basics mutate into fascinating toys and props. Blankets transform into moats of swirling, rippling water, wrapped around cups that pierce through the sky like tall towers. Pillows morph into a variety of snow-capped mountains speckled with stacks of paper-crafted houses. And hands become workable people, complete with movable, finger-length legs (which always prompts giggles).
Aboard a Fire Nation ship, a little girl sat on a steel floor, playing with her own blanket, cup, pillow, paper, and fingers; she wasn’t very different from the rest of the impoverished children across the world. Yet, in more ways than one, she was.
This child dared to dream, dared to live outside the room where she was held captive. Dared to play—to imagine. And as she played—noiseless because her Master preferred her to be quiet—she fantasized about herself in another life, a life where a young prince took her away from her fire-breathing captor. A happy life, wrought with smiles and genuine laughs. With friendship and kindness. Love and acceptance. Encouragement.
Her small mouth opened and soundless words spread across her lips. Fingers flailed; one brandishing a scrap of fabric—a handkerchief flitting up and down—while the other paced, nervous but ready to face the beast hoarding his beloved.
"I'll come for you, Princess!"
More handkerchief flits, desperate for release. "Oh, my sweet Prince, please rescue me! Please save me from this fate!"
"Hold on, Princess! I must slay the beast guarding your tower!" A whoosh of a finger sword as a shadow loomed beyond the pillow-shaped mountains.
A snarl and puff of smoke. The dragon.
Frantic pleads and more flits, a warning. "Oh, please! Hurry!"
Her play was trivial and exaggerated, but it was one of her favorite scenarios to reenact. Excitement poured through her silent words as the battle began. A restless fight where the prince fought with honor and courage, cunning and skill. Where he parried and vaulted, pounced and charged, and narrowly avoided his fire-breathing foe as he swished his sword.
“RAAWWWWRRR!!!” And the dragon fell to its death, innards pouring out of the wound on its neck. (“Splat, splat, splat!”).
Fatigued from her excitement and finished with her scene, the little girl sat on her feet and sighed. Visions of crimson swirls danced in her imagination and she stuck out her tongue and swiped the imaginary blood out and away. Gone, gone, gone was the evidence of her play, into unkempt piles beyond her reach.
She hugged herself. One, two, three seconds until her mind cleared.
Her play didn’t used to be so violent, so covered in sticky red splotches (even if it wasn’t real). The dragon didn’t originally die. Long ago, it used to be knocked out or confused. Or it eventually gave up its prize, realizing how miserable the princess was in its care.
And that’s how she liked it—that’s how the story should have ended. But it hadn’t ended that way for a long while.
She sighed again, high-pitched yet filled with despair.
Her playtime used to be frilly and filled with mythical creatures. With snowflakes, and endless forests. With victories won through wit, not brawn. With foes who relented, who realized their wrongs and changed their ways. It used to be filled with her mother’s epic tales and her father’s fantastic adventures—stories they used to tell her when she fought them before bed, when she became fitful and suddenly restless. Ready for one of their legends and eager for the dreams they created.
But those times were gone. Especially after one day, when her Master gripped her forearm and side too hard and left behind enormous, blue-tinted bruises. When he crushed her fingers and made it difficult for her to move her finger-legged people.
And when her skin darkened into a rich purple, the foe of her play met a more gruesome demise. Slain, killed, overpowered. Insides spewing as the prince and princess ran beyond the confines of the Dragon’s Keep. From that day on, the prince always slayed the monster. Always swept the princess into his imaginary arms and took her back to his palace, where he kept her safe. Where he loved and cherished her, for forever and ever.
The girl paused and bit her lip, imagining the glorious ending of the make-believe prince and princess. Sadness overcame her and she sniffled. And then rubbed at her eyes until the errant tears wore away.
Would her prince ever come? Would she ever get her happy ending?
The door screeched open and her Master walked in, grumbling about his day. Telling her every little detail and expecting her to nod and acknowledge him. To feel remorse for him as he told her about Captain Lee, about how the man never appreciated his helpful suggestions. To feel angry when somebody supposedly inferior suggested the same thing, only to be met with a more positive response. To feel happy when he eventually received the credit that was due.
She piled up her makeshift toys and nodded her head at just the right times, softly muttering, “Oh my, Master,” and, “How cruel, Master,” and, “You should get a promotion, Master,” as he rambled.
He eventually quieted, smiled, and patted her head. And when he let go, his callous fingers crept under her chin, lifted her head high so he could stare into her eyes. Her gold and his hazel locked and he squeezed her cheeks, forced her teeth apart.
“Clean up your mess,” he spat, shoving her backward.
And she did.
And as she finished putting away her meager possessions (items otherwise not considered hers, for nothing in the room belonged to her; everything was his—herself included), she thought.
I’m not a princess. A frown, sad and knowing. Nobody knows where I am. Nobody’s coming. She pushed a chunk of black hair behind her ear. I’ll need to save myself…eventually.
Assuming he kept her alive long enough for that to be a possibility.
Thirteen Years Later
Trees, bushes, thickets of unidentifiable brush. Everything was a brown-green blur disappearing beyond her vision as she raced forward. Faster, faster, faster!
She pushed outward, flailing her black-covered legs forward and down. Stomp, stomp, stomp. Quieter, lest he find her. Crunch, crunch, crunch. A muscle cramp and a heave, but there was no time to stop. Unrelenting, her arms swiped out, pushed past rustling leaves filled with scampering yet intrigued and frightened critters; their pink, sniffling noses making the briefest of appearances before they crawled up and away.
Legs weakened, fingers bled from scratches. Gasping heaves filled the air with cloudy bursts.
She paused for a moment to catch her breath, wrapped her arms around the trunk of a tree for support.
Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.
A shrill whistle echoed through the forest. A shout, nearly unintelligible from so far away, but tone easy to distinguish. Angry, enraged, royally pissed. Barked orders and a group response, “Yes, sir!”
“Too long,” she whispered before releasing her tree. She’d been still for too long; he’d find her soon. So she broke into another sprint, tore through more and more branches, trailing a thin line of blood as thorns continued to puncture her fingers.
Tears prickled the corners of her eyes. Not from the pain in her fingers or the exhaustion in her legs, but from the thought of returning. Of being caught. Of being drug, kicking and screaming, back to that room. Back to his room.
If he caught her (like he had so many times before), he’d concoct a vile punishment—whip her, chain her to a wall, starve her—for however long he wanted until she relented (again), until she pleaded for him to stop (again), until she promised she would be a good girl, listen to whatever he wanted, do whatever he wanted. Again, again, again.
She ran and ran but eventually stopped and looked skyward. She needed the sun, needed to see it for its directional guidance, to tell her that she was going the right way. North. North to Omashu. North to Ba Sing Se. North to get away. From him. From the Fire Nation. From the future she couldn’t stand to think about.
A soldier had already caught up to her, his skull-faced mask filling a rare void between the trees. White, devoid of emotion or personality. Something to elicit terror from his enemies. From the Earth Kingdom. From her.
He crept forward, through the brambles. “Stay there!”
She fled. Stomp, stomp, stomp. Through another copse, past another ticket of curious animals, noses tilted toward her, sniffing her panic.
An uplifted root caught her foot, tripping her and making her tumble. Tuck and roll, tuck and roll, her mind screamed. But her body had a mind of its own. It fell and collapsed in on itself. Her face met the dirt and she breathed in the earth, breathed in the scent of must and moss, of scat and mold. She coughed. And started to rise.
A uniformed body fell on top of her, held her down as she flailed and kicked. As she sputtered and cried out. In pain, in anguish. In frustration.
“Let me go! Let me go! Let me go! Let me go!”
The soldier heaved her up, making sure to keep her arms locked behind her back. And even though she was panting, she smirked and kicked backward, unleashed a controlled flame in his direction with her feet.
Surprised, he let go. And then cursed when she broke through a thick wall of greenery.
Run, run, run, she said inside her head. Go, go, go. More trees flitted by, waving in the breeze. But she couldn’t wave back and couldn’t respond in any way other than push their swaying branches aside, huffing and puffing as she fled.
Adrenaline filled her veins and fueled her drive. Made her run faster and farther than she ever had before.
She looked up without breaking her stride and squinted through a blanket of leaves. No sun. Panicked, she forced herself to stop. She looked around—right, left, forward, backward (nobody, thank Agni)— and looked up. Squinted.
A panting, crippling sigh resounded. She’d have to climb a tree to see the sun. But climbing took time; took valuable, running-away time. Considering, she swayed back and forth and then took off again, guessing at the direction. North, she prayed, please be north.
She broke through a clearing, arms and legs weakened and quaking. To stop the jitters, she put her hands on her knees, took in a refreshing breath, and looked around.
The clearing was beautiful; filled with a variety of capped flowers swaying their hellos to passerby. It looked inviting and welcoming, all too peaceful in an era of unbridled turmoil, a century of pure hate. Pinks, oranges, greens, purples. Multi-colored blossoms filled her vision and she continued looking, breathless but enamored.
Tiger lilies, violets, tulips, and buttercups.
And then a splotch of red.
He was standing there. Arms behind his back, a smug smile on his face. Not tired, not looking like he ran a great distance to track her down. “There you are,” he said.
She turned half-way to the right, aiming to run again. But he tutted a harsh tongue-click at her. A warning. A silent don’t do that.
So she didn’t. Against her better judgement, she didn’t.
“That’s right,” he said, gloating, stepping closer. “That’s right.” He trekked half the distance between them and cocked his head. “So, Koori,” he said, glaring now, purring out her name like he wasn’t upset. Humming her name like they were completely alone in his room. “I’d like to know why you decided to run.”
She clamped her lips closed, didn’t answer. Let her breath come out as strangled heaves through her nose.
He took a step forward. She took a step backward.
“Was it because of me?” He took another step forward. She took another step backward. “I’m guessing so,” he said. Another smirk, menacing and evil. Filled with all of the punishments he was already planning. “And so you ran away.” He tutted again. “Not smart, Koori. Not smart.”
“I-I had to,” she whimpered, hugging herself with her trembling arms.
He snorted, and then continued. “And where were you going to go?” he asked. “You have nowhere. No family, no friends. No home.” He smiled. “Just me, your Master. The man who graciously takes care of you. Who feeds you when you’d otherwise go hungry. Who gives you a bed when you’d otherwise have a dirt floor. Who shields you with four walls and a ceiling when you’d otherwise have nothing.”
Koori whimpered. Stepped backward.
“So you ran.”
One more step backward. Into the line of trees surrounding the clearing.
“And here you are now. Caught. Trembling. Knowing just what I’ll do to you when we get back.”
She shook her head. Not going back, she told herself. Can’t go back. Can’t survive going back.
“Don’t you shake your head at me, girl.”
She didn’t stop. Couldn’t. She was lost in her head, lost in her Master’s words.
And while she was lost, his fists clenched—tight, so tight—and smoke filled the air. Fire came next, dousing the flowers and tall grasses.
“Look at what you made me do.”
She blinked at the vivid pinks, purples, and blues being overpowered by the red and orange flames. The smell and heat broke her stupor, made her look at the damage he was causing because of her. Always because of her. She wanted him to stop. Stop burning the flowers, stop looming closer. Leave her alone, let her flee.
Tears poured down her face and he stepped closer. Closer. She stood in a running stance, ready to go, ready to bolt once more. But her legs were frozen, caught in his gaze, muddling over his words. His threats. His fire.
“Aww,” he said, taking the last step. He reached out, cupped her face. Allowed his thumb to trace over the thin trails of her tears. “Don’t cry, sweetheart. It won’t be bad.” A cryptic smile spread across his lips. “I promise.”
Koori smacked his hand away and turned around, aiming to sprint. But quickly found herself tripped and taken to the ground, a booted foot pressed tight in the small of her back.
“You’re hurting me!” she cried as he lifted her off the grass, off her feet and over his shoulder.
“This pain is the least of your worries. Now quiet.”
She did. And went limp, became dead weight over his shoulder, unable to find the strength to move, to protest or shout. Caught. Defeated. And he carried her through the forest teeming with soldiers no longer looking for her, ordered them back to the command tower he controlled. They scoffed and departed, talking about the wily slave slung over their Captain’s shoulder. And when they finally made it back to the outskirt of the forest, he paused and shuffled her around, chucked her to the ground.
“Ooofph,” she breathed, landing on her backside.
“Up,” he ordered. “Get up before I get you up.”
Koori scrambled to her feet and brushed off her legs, rubbed them down a fair bit to get blood flowing back to her toes. “Your armor isn’t designed for shoulder travel.”
He cuffed her and she fell to the side, rubbed her now-throbbing cheek. And then stood back up when he glared. Quickly, lest he hit her again.
“We’ll get your mouth controlled eventually, now, won’t we?”
She bit her quivering bottom lip. Nodded. And tucked a lock of ebony hair behind her ear. “Yes, Master.”
“Good.” He nodded and grabbed her arm. Held her tight. “Now, you’re going to be a good girl as we walk home. No talking, no looking around.” He expected a response, but she gave none. So he squeezed her arm and she hissed. “Your head will be?”
“Down,” she murmured.
“Your eyes will be?”
“Watching the dirt.”
“Your pace will be?”
“Slightly behind yours.”
He let her go. And walked into his tower.
She followed, albeit slightly behind. A proper slave’s length away.
Where she belonged.
Koori sat in her Master’s room, chained to a wall. She held her head in her forearms, chin resting against her knees, wobbling back and forth like a nervous child.
He said he’d be back in a few hours. Said that they’d discus her punishment when she was calmer, when he had time to think through his options. So she could only imagine what her night would hold. More chains? A whip? A newly-purchased instrument of torture?
Maybe he’d just take her into his bed again. Take her screaming and kicking, wailing and scratching. Like he had so many times before.
She bit her lip, shook her head. Not that, she begged. Anything but that.
She thought. It had been chains last time. Bound and gagged for three days. No food. No water. Barely able to see the sun and feel its rejuvenating power.
Those kinds of punishments were harsh—downright cruel. The sun was a firebender’s ultimate source of power. And being taken away from it—unable to see it for days on end—severely exhausted her, made her woozy and delirious. Nearly crazy. It made her see and hear things; horrible things she only wanted to forget. Screams, blood, crying children set ablaze.
She couldn’t survive another bout without the sun. She’d beg for another punishment, tell him what she saw and heard, how she felt. Maybe he’d be sympathetic, forgiving. Maybe she’d experience a rare moment of mercy.
Slam! The door opened and closed and he walked in, muttering to himself, swiping a few errant hairs away from his forehead. He swiveled to her, leering, happy with the sight of her in chains.
There would be no mercy.
She gulped, painfully. And he smiled at her expression, knowing she was thirsty, knowing it had been a few hours since her last glass of water. So he turned and entered his bathroom. Ran the faucet and came out with a glass. He drank, deeply. And ahhhhed when he was finished. Smacked his lips to emphasize how refreshing it was. To be able to drink, to be unconfined and able-bodied.
He sat the empty glass on his desk and smirked. Looked at her, sitting on his floor, eyeing the beads of water swarming down the rim of his discarded glass. She licked her dry lips with an equally dry tongue, getting it caught halfway until it popped back in her mouth, unsuccessful.
He chuckled. “Koori, Koori, Koori.” Her attention didn’t leave the glass. “So,” he reached down and pulled her face around, forced her to look at him, “how’d you get out?”
Gold and hazel met. And then gold flinched away. “I firebended at your lieutenant when he came in for the laundry.”
“Did you, now?”
A nervous nod. “Yes, Master.”
“Leo’s always been a little weak. Maybe it’s time to replace him, hmm?”
“No, Master. I-it was my fault. I caught him off-guard, when his back was turned. Please—” She blinked and tears started forming—Leo had always been kind to her, always talked to her even though she never responded. Always made sure she was fed and had access to clean clothes. Always checked her over after he had finished with her the night before. “—he didn’t do anything wrong.”
“If he did nothing wrong, then how in blazes did you get out?” He grabbed her hair, tugged it tight between his fingers. “If he can’t deal with you properly, how can I rely on him to do simple tasks, hmm?”
One eye closed, Koori grimaced. Whimpered under his hold. “He t-trusts me, Master.”
“Maybe a little less now, hopefully.” He released her, let her head loll to the side. “He’s lucky I’m so forgiving.”
“Very lucky, Master.”
He smiled. And cupped her chin. Gently. Very unlike him. “You left before you could hear the good news, you know.” Koori blinked and scrunched her face together. Silent and questioning. “Do you want to hear it?”
“Ah, well, good.” He stood and walked to his desk, rummaged through it before pulling out a scroll. He unfurled it, read over the contents and smirked. Took it to her, let her peruse.
“You’ve been promoted.” She read the final line over and over again. Congratulations, Commander Zhao.
“It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?” he asked. “Commander Zhao.”
“Yes, Master. It sounds very nice.”
“It’s not just a title, you know. I’ve been given a small fleet of ships.” He folded up his scroll, tucked it into his sash for safekeeping. “It’s finally time for us to get off this god-forsaken piece of dirt. Aren’t you excited?”
She wanted to shrug, wanted to complain about the storms and rough waves; how they made her queasy, made her want to throw up whatever meal he allowed her to eat. But she couldn’t. She could do nothing but nod. “Very excited.” She paused, considered. “When are we leaving?”
“The fleet is fueling up now. We should be ready to depart in a few days.”
“So soon?” There wouldn’t be another opportunity to escape.
“Not soon enough. Now,” he licked his lips, wrung his hands together, “about your punishment…”