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steel in cold water

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Follow the river.

In the lowlands, the river was wide and sun-warmed, and there were boats to be commandeered, or heading upstream to empty their nets or trade reed-work for pottery, willing to take a slim woman's weight, for a fee. Upstream, the boats were smaller and nimbler, built for rapids, and then they turned back altogether as the mountains rose like the backs of lion turtles from a cloudbank main. When she told the last man of whom she begged a craft, "I am making a pilgrimage," he looked at her with clear, dark eyes and said, "Then you'll row yourself," and gave her his own boat, instructing her how to bank and conceal it, below the falls. "You'll know the falls," he said. "You might portage them, but it'd do you no good." She thanked him and tried to give her last coin, until she saw it would be insult. Then she rowed. She rested when her blisters broke, and soothed them in the water, which grew colder as the mountains loomed. When she reached the falls, she stowed the boat and climbed on foot. Broad serpent and roaring dragon changed to a thousand skeltering silver ribbons half a li wide, and she feared she would mistake the river's true path, and follow a tributary. But at the top, her way was clear enough. Up here, the torrent cut deep limestone glens, potholed and steep-walled, overhung with green. She climbed through the water. It disguised her scent. It focused her mind. It was penance. Sometimes she scrabbled up the walls to forage for beechnuts and gooseberries. One day she speared a fish with her knife, gutted and sliced it and ate it raw. It tasted clean. That night she felt like weeping, and she did not try to kill again. Some days she wanted to turn her back on the water, its treacherous moss, sharp stones, and deceptive, still pools, but she came back always, plunging in with bare feet and hands. She was afraid she would lose the sound of the river, and not find her way back. Follow the river.

Then one day she knew, quite suddenly, that she was close. She was very high up; she could smell it in the air, though she could not see for the mist. When she realized what else had caused her to know, she crawled to the bank and curled around herself on the yielding ferns and shook. The trees. They were younger.

They were younger by one hundred years.

In all her years of schooling, in all the lessons and tales of might and glory, she had never once given thought to just how the people of the Eastern Temple had been slain.

Green wood is hard to ignite, but when it does, it smokes.

She stared down at the river; she could see them in her mind. Black boots and ungainly armour, splashing and swearing their way over boulders and under fallen logs. The officers on mongoose dragons, springing from bank to bank, hissing at the line to keep moving, stay quiet, make no fire. The dragons would have scaled the last cliffs without trouble, accompanied by the master benders. The elders would have been surprised before they could so much as rise from their sleeping mats.

She wondered if the rest had been by accident or design. Perhaps the troops had made it to the walls, swarmed the dormitories and the prayer halls, found the stables of their great and gentle beasts. Perhaps the rest was all a single, errant spark.

She wondered how many of the Fire Nation's men had fallen back in time.

She shut her eyes. She had no right to be here. It was the last place Ozai's agents would ever think to look, this lonesome, shameful ruin in the heart of the mountains, but it was not her tragedy, nor, she thought, could she claim it as her sanctuary.

"I will crawl inside that cave," she told herself, listening to the soft crash of water, its slow bending of the stone, "and rest. After that, I will decide what to do."

But when she opened her eyes, the mouth of the cave was not empty.

"Hm. You are not an Airbender," said the figure standing there. He was thin and brown, white-bearded and empty-handed. She looked at him in astonishment. He peered back. "I've been looking for an Airbender, but perhaps I've mistimed things a bit. Well. You might be just as interesting, who knows?"

She cleared her throat, because she had not spoken aloud in many days, and called back, "There are no Airbenders here."

"Well, last month there was nobody here at all, and now look! There are two of us! Anything might happen next." He sprang down into the water. Sloshed across and looked at her shrewdly. "You seek sanctuary."

"I do."

He reached out slowly and touched her brow with two light fingers. "The temple is not so habitable at the moment. Perhaps with a friend the cleaning will go better."

"I...yes."

"I am Guru Pathik. Come, now." He turned and waded back to the cave, presenting his back to her as trustingly as a child.

She stood up. "You don't want to know who I am?"

His voice emerged from beyond the lip of the light, disembodied and oracular. "It all depends. Do you want to know who you are?"

The words hummed in her mind. Conspirator. Traitor. Fire Eater. Murderess. Mama. "I know," she told him.