Chapter 1: Tokoro to Hito
[Disclaimer: Nickelodeon (and all others) own Avatar: The Last Airbender. I own whatever I write/create. Dont steal and dont sue.]
There wasnt very much to Taonan. It was one of many port cities that dotted the coastline of the largest land mass in the Fire Nation, and a small one at that. A tally taker could even denounce it as a city, so few people lived there. Those who did, though, would always call themselves a city, no matter what label may have come to their home.
The only remarkable thing to Tanoans name was that it had been the first city to be taken in the Fire Nations name when the Hundred Years War began. After so long, with patrols and troops passing through day by day, year in and out, the people had all but ceased to remember they were occupied by and lived side by side with those who were called enemies. When the war finally ended, there was no thought given to what could happen to the city. Resistance to the Fire Nation was tiny, and died within weeks. Taonan, first occupied, became the first city to submit officially with barely any struggle.
Kailas Arav, when not answering letters sent from the Eastern and Western Capitals, often sat at the fountain in the center of the city. If she sat watching everything from the people to the sky, those who caught themselves in her gaze would pause and bow to her, and she would nod in return. If she sat with book in hand, eyes on the pages, no one said a word. While she never snapped at, say, a child who tugged at the hem of her pants and asked what she was reading, it was generally thought wiser not to bother the woman who had been established as the citys governor. It was considered the wisdom of a sage to know when to not bother the captain of Fire Lord Azulas Phoenix Battalion.
At a glance, Kailass rule of the city seemed a neglectful one. She spoke so rarely outside of meetings with the citys militia-turned-city-guards, and so quietly at all times, that most people jumped if she happened to address them in the street. Even when she first began officiating the citys changeover, alone and without guard or ally amongst the militia, she was quiet, and seemingly unmoved by any threat that came with the resistance. Beyond the duty she was assigned, she was unconnected to the city, and could have vanished from within its borders just as easily as she had arrivedwere it not for one thing.
In the weeks that first followed her arrival, with just enough rebellion in the streets to warrant constant patrols from the newly sanctioned guards, Kailas was wont to roaming about as much as the patrols. However, she took to the edges of the city, watching the waves along the shoreline or following footpaths in the forest to the east. She went alone, only carrying a staff as she wandered. For the most part, nothing happened, and no one spoke to her. It was only in the last, tense days of weeding out violent opposition that Kailas came across anything she considered, after a time, meaningful.
Noise was in the forest that day. An animals high, doleful howl was constantly in the background, interspersed with mens snarling and laughing, and a woman screaming. Kailas paused at the screams, looking at the trees. They were not bunched together, and she could see movement here and there: flashes of bared flesh, and streaks of blood. She frowned, just slightly, and strode away from the footpath. Her boots made no sound as she walked lightly over browning grass, and she came to find three men standing in a clearing, shoving a woman back and forth between them. The womanbarely more than a girltried to keep her arms over her chest. There was no shirt to cover her, and scrapes and scratches left blood smeared across her skin. She was sobbing, screaming things that were not words, and the men laughed as they shoved and tried to pull at the ragged pants on her hips or the long braid of her light brown hair.
And youre planning to do what, may I ask? Kailas said.
The men spun to face her, the woman tripping and falling to her knees. After a moment of staring, the men shared a glance and came together to stand in a broken circle around Kailas. She looked at them, and put the end of her staff down before her, holding it lightly with both hands.
Would you look at that? the man with the broadest shoulders said. Its the little Fire Nation bitch.
The shortest man stepped forward, laughing. You think you can just come here and get made queen, or something? Think you can tell us what to do?
Kailas let her eyes drop down to the woman, who remained on her knees, trembling. No. I do intend to tell you what you cant do, though. And this happens to be one of the things you cant do.
The third man, bland in feature and blank in expression, stared at her. Says who?
A great many courts, for one, Kailas said. Myself, for another. So Im going to tell you that you need to leave her alone and go before I decide how I want to serve a sentence.
Serve a sentence? The shortest man sniggered, snorting and spitting on Kailass boot. He grinned at the way she lifted one eyebrow. What are you, some weird cook?
No, Kailas said. And Ive decided. She took a tight hold of the staff, lifting it from the ground. The short man watched the end nearest the ground closely, his knees coming together as he squinted. He saw the tip he stared at disappear, but that was all. He didnt have time to notice Kailas sliding one foot back, or how she brought her other hand to the staff. He didnt even have time to blink at the vanishing act. The other end of the staff struck the side of his head, and the crack echoed off the trees.
Neither of the men remaining knew if the crack was from the wood striking their compatriot, or if it was the crack of his skull shattering. They watched him fall limply to the ground, a lumpy imprint along where his temple had been. Blood oozed from his nose, and his mouth hung open. His eyes were vacant, and the two remaining men stared.
Kailass eyes narrowed when the men finally looked up. Would you like the same sentence, or would you like to report to Lieutenant Tai-Yang and tell him what you were trying to do?
The men turned and ran, their feet slipping on the ground with the effort. They said nothing, and Kailas did not watch them as they scrambled away. She went to the girl and crouched down on one knee. The girl was weeping, clutching her shoulders with white-knuckled fingers, and jumped when Kailas knelt down. She stared as Kailas put the staff flat on the ground, and crossed her arms to rest her elbows on her knee.
Did they do anything to you? Kailas asked.
The girl said nothing, sniffing and hiccupping. She closed her eyes tightly and turned away, but she shook her head.
I see, Kailas said. She looked at the blood on the girls shoulders and arms, picking out scrapes amongst the smearing. Wetness pressed against her fingertips, and she looked down to see what should have been a fluffy raccoon-dog, but was a blood-matted, whimpering creature. It stared up at her, eyes going between her and the girl. And this is?
The girls voice broke, raw and brittle from her screams, as she said, Fai.
And your name?
Where do you live?
The raccoon-dog whined, putting a paw on Kailass hand. He turned his head toward a pile of wood lying broken under boulders, and Kailass small frown returned. Hova sniffled, her tears slowing and her sobs quieting. She jumped when she saw movement from the corner of her eye, and turned, ducking her head down. Kailas paused a moment, meeting Hovas green eyes, and waited until she lifted her head. She resumed in undoing the frog ties on her shirt, and shrugged it off her shoulders when it was open. Gently, fingertips barely brushing Hovas skin, she laid the long sleeved shirt over Hovas shoulders and drew it together at her front. Hova could not stop staring.
happened to you? she asked.
Kailas looked down at her torso. The clean white cloth of her breast bindings was hardly noteworthy, and she knew it wasnt what Hova meant. She looked at the faint remains of a burn scar on her left shoulder and the thin white lines that crisscrossed her sides and stomach. What drew Hovas eyes most, she knew, was the thick, pocked red scar that began at the top of her right collarbone, crossed down below the bindings and between her breasts, and came to an end on the top left side of her stomach. Kailas lifted her head, and Hova blinked and looked away from the marks when she saw the utterly hollow smirk on Kailass face.
These, Kailas said, waving her hand toward the marks on her belly and sides, are what happen when you conquer Ba Sing Se with Fire Lord Azula. This, she continued, tapping her burnt shoulder, is what happens when youre Fire Lord Azulas sparring partner. And this, she murmured, laying her fingers between her breasts, is what happens when you happen to be born on the same date as Fire Lord Azula.
Hova looked at Kailass gold eyes, tears finally gone but for the streaks on her face. Still trembling, she dropped her gaze back down to the scar on Kailass chest. For a moment, one hand came away from a shoulder, and she reached toward it. She flinched and jerked her hand back, staring at the ground and pulling the shirt closed even tighter.
Thank you, she whispered.
Kailas hummed, and held out her hand. Come with me.
Hova started, looking back up. What?
Im not about to leave a woman half-naked and bloody alone in the forest with nothing but an injured raccoon-dog with her, Kailas said. Much less one who doesnt have another shirt to her name. Come with me.
Do I have a choice? Hova asked, eyes narrowing as she looked at the ground.
Kailas reached out and put one finger on Hovas chin. She turned Hovas head gently, and her smirk warmed just enough that Hova blinked. I want to give you new clothes and a bath, at least. If you want to leave after that, its all right.
Hova sucked in a breath, and it escaped her in a wavering sigh. Why?
Because its what I need to do, Kailas said. She put her fingers on Hovas cheek. Come with me.
Hovas eyes dropped, her already pink cheeks flushing. Can Fai come too?
Ill carry him if itll make you feel better.
Hova nodded slowly. Fai, standing quietly, saw the nod and let out a bark. He stood on his back legs and pawed at Kailass arm until Hova let out a small laugh. Kailas scooped the bloody raccoon-dog up in her left arm and stood up, holding out her right hand. Hova reached, hesitated, and took Kailass hand. She was helped to her feet, and Kailas crouched down to pick up her staff.
It wasnt the biggest house Hova could imagine, but it was the biggest house she had ever set foot inside. Kailas stood and watched as the girl stepped lightly, jumping at the feel of polished wood beneath her bare feet. Her lips twitched at the way Hova completely stopped and stared all around, holding the shirt closed tight.
Is this all your house? Hova asked.
It is, Kailas said.
Who cleans all of it?
I do. Kailas sat for a moment, setting Fai down in the sunken square the doorway opened into, and pulled at her boots. They came off easily enough, and she let Fai sniff at them and the staff she leaned against the doorframe a moment before picking him up again. She stepped up onto the wood floor, and Hova spun about at the sound of Kailass footsteps.
Butits so big, she said. Her shoulders hunched, and she looked up at the ceiling and down at the floor. Dont people with houses like this have servants?
I dont, Kailas said. Its not too big for one person to clean. Come on. She walked past Hova, but knew the girl followed her by the faint sound of her footsteps. In her arms, Fai wiggled and whined, twisting his head to sniff at unfamiliar air. When Kailas looked over her shoulder, Hova was twisting and turning much in the same way, her eyes roaming about.
In the bright midday summer sun, there werent many shadows to have to squint into. The rafters and crossbeams were the same deep red-brown as the floorboards, save for where the sun seeped through paper-covered windows and turned red to orange and brown to gold. When Hova passed through the softened light, Kailas could see what had been in shadows in the forest. Hova was thin, the bones of her hands casting sharp-edged shadows where they held the shirt tight. She was pale, the dried blood the deepest color to her cheeks. Her pants were patched repeatedly, mismatched colors stitched over what might have been pale, soft yellow. When she saw Kailass eyes on her, Hova put her eyes on the floor, and her head ducked down.
They said nothing until Kailas guided Hova to the bath. She stood to one side as Hova stared at the deep, wide wooden tub, and the smaller basin to one side. Hova turned to look at her with the same wide eyes and fallen jaw, and Kailas could not help the small smile that came to her.
Is it that surprising? she asked.
Imy family never had a bath like this, Hova said. We just cleaned in the river, like everyone else did.
Kailass head tipped slightly, down and just to the right. I can leave if you like.
Youarent going to?
Kailas scratched Fais chin, his tongue draping over his teeth. I was going to get the blood out of his fur when you were done and in the bath. But I can leave and clean him outside.
The fingers on Hovas hands loosened their grip on the shirt, and she reached out slowly. Again, she hesitated a moment, and took Fais paw between two fingers. Can hecan you both stay?
If thats what you want, Kailas said. She set Fai down and went to the tub. Hova watched, blinking repeatedly, as Kailas put her hands into the water. When steam began to rise from the waters surface, she took her hands away and went to the basin. The heating was repeated, and Kailas went back to where Fai had settled lazily on the floor.
That must be nice to do, Hova said quietly.
Kailas slid the door shut and sat down, holding her hands up while Fai crawled over her legs. What would that be?
Being able to make the water hot like that, Hova said. She stared at Kailass back, waiting briefly before she took the shirt from her shoulders. She folded it, crouching down to set it aside. For a long while, she stared at the crimson cloth and the gold thread that made up the embroidered phoenix on the left side of the chest. She traced the thread with her fingers, and rubbed the high collar between thumb and forefinger when there was nothing left to trace. There was blood speckled on the gold thread, and along the frog ties where her hands had held on. Im sorry.
II got blood all over this. I ruined it. Hova glanced up at Kailass back, and nearly gasped. More scarsburned patches of skin and the thin lines of cutsspotted the skin of her back, shoulders, and arms.
Kailas, chin in hand and elbow on knee, shrugged slightly as she scratched behind Fais ears. Ive ruined more shirts than that. Itll be all right.
Hova stared, mouth hanging open, until she realized what she was doing. Without looking at Kailas, she stripped off her pants and laid them beside the folded shirt. Naked, she went to the basin and took up the soap and small wooden bucket next to it. In silence, save for Fais barking when water splashed, Hova cleaned herself, scrubbing off the blood and holding back hisses of pain when she came to the scrapes and cuts. Even when she had poured water to rinse away the soap, she held the little bar in her hand and rubbed her thumb over it. Looking over her shoulder just long enough to see Kailas had not moved, she pulled her braid over her shoulder and began to unwind it.
The soap was gently scented of something she had no chance of putting a name to, and she rubbed it carefully through her hair. It rinsed as easily as it had foamed, and she combed her hair with her fingers to feel at the softness left behind. Again glancing just long enough to see that Kailas was facing the door, Hova stepped into the tub and drew her knees up to her chest, closing her eyes at the waters heat.
Its warm enough?
Hova jumped, crossing her arms over her breasts and contorting so much that she only just peeked out over the top edge of the tub. Kailas looked at her, eyebrow raised, until she lifted her head. Itis. Thank you.
Kailass head tipped to one side before she picked Fai up from her lap. He whimpered, paws walking in the air, and whined loudly when she set him down on the floor. Both raccoon-dog and girl watched Kailas roll up the ends of her pants, baring her legs to the knees. She scooped water into the bucket and knelt down, patting her thigh until Fai trotted to her. When she dumped the water over him, he yelped. Nearly bouncing, he skittered around Kailas in a tight circle, shaking his head until the fur on his ears stuck out in three different directions. Kailas looked at Hova, and Hova looked back.
Is this normal? Kailas asked.
Hova shook her head slowly, watching Fai come to a stop in front of Kailas. He doesnt mind water that much. Maybe its the cuts hurting him.
Kailas smiled slightly, rolling her eyes. Well, that was just me forgetting what I was doing, then. She scratched under Fais chin with all her fingers. Im sorry. But youll be unhappy if I dont clean you off.
Fai sneezed, shaking his head about. Heaving a sigh, he dropped his rear to the floor and stayed there even when the next bucketful cascaded down his back. His tail beat against the floor when the water touched the cuts under his fur, but he did not snap at Kailass hands when she started to work out the bloody mats. Hova sat and watched, for lack of anything else to do. The shock of the scars had faded to dull beats instead of shudders that traveled the length of her spine. Now, she managed to look at Kailas properly for the first time that day.
Her hair was the same dark brown-black as the Fire Nation soldiers she had seen without their helmets. It was cut neatly short, parted to one side to hang above her right eye. The gold eyes were just as similar to the soldiers, but they remained almost perpetually half-closed. For all the time she watched Kailas clean the blood out of Fais fur, she never saw a change in Kailass expression. The smile had disappeared when Fai settled down, and her face was without smile or frown, and whatever might have been taken from her eyes was hidden by how they were nearly closed. Watching her for all those minutes without a twitch passing over her face, Hova rubbed at her shins and wondered if she should feel lucky for seeing Kailas smile.
Fai whined when Kailas rubbed the fur on his head the wrong way once before straightening it. He looked up at her, tail still beating the floor. When no more water came to his sopping, skinny body, his head tilted and he sniffed at her pink tinged hands.
Happy to be clean?
Hova did not jump when she realized Kailass gaze was on her, but felt the jolt in her shoulders regardless. Yeah. Umthank you.
Kailas stood up, dipping her hands in the basin to rinse what bloody water clung to her palms. Ill get towels for you both. And clothes, now that I think of it. She opened the door, looking over her shoulder a moment before leaving and sliding it shut behind her. Hova sat with her hands on the bottom of the tub and her chin on her knees. Fai shook himself mightily, flinging his tail in all directions, and padded through puddles to sit next to the tub. Hova, eyes still on the door, reached out of the water and rubbed her fingers against Fais cheek. She said nothing, holding down questions in favor of waiting. There was nothing the raccoon-dog could offer to assuage her confusion, and so she did not ask him.
Summer evenings were always a respite from the days. When the sun finally sank under the horizon, the heat faded enough that what remained was pleasant, and it was easy to stay awake. Hova, standing with her arms around herself, watched Kailas. Fai lay beside the woman, bandaged neatly and sound asleep. Kailas sat beneath a hanging lamp, back against the frame of the sliding doors that were open to the walkway that surrounded the house. One hand rested on Fais back, and the other held open a book. Long since dried, she wore black pants that hung down just past her knees, and a sleeveless red shirt that she left open.
Hova was in the too-large clothes she had borrowedpants of the same length and color, and a sleeveless white shirt she had closed completely. She stood watching because, for all the minutes she had been standing there, she could not think of anything to say. A few times, she had opened her mouth, but there were no sounds she could think of to justify even that. She stood as cricket-moths flew and landed and sung outside, and Kailas continued to read.
You know, Kailas said suddenly, that you can come here if you want. Im not trying to take Fai from you.
Hova opened her mouth, and again found nothing. For lack of anything else to do, she went to where Kailas sat and Fai lay, and sat against the doorframe opposite Kailas. She pulled her knees up to her chest and held them there, staring at the blank covers and spine of the book in Kailass hand. Kailas did not look up, only lifting her hand from Fais back to turn a page.
What are you reading? Hova asked.
Philosophy, Kailas murmured. It used to be my fathers book.
Hova nearly asked, but her eyes fell when she thought a moment. Oh. Im sorry.
You werent the soldier that killed him, Kailas said. You dont need to apologize. She slipped a string from the books spine between the pages, letting the book rest shut in her lap. I have others like it if youd like to read them.
Hova swallowed hard, rolling fabric between her fingers. Why do you keep doing that?
Youyou keep asking me what Id like, Hova said. If I wanted you to leave in the bath, if I wanted to have something to readyou cooked for me and Fai after you asked if I wanted something to eat.
Is that a bad thing? Kailas asked. I was taught that it was hospitable to offer a guest what I could.
Im not saying its bad, Hova said, looking away. I justI dont get why youre doing that.
Kailas was silent a moment. You dont understand why someone from the Fire Nation would do it?
Hova shook her head, even though it was hardly what she wanted to do. She bit the inside of her cheek.
You dont understand why I would do that.
Thatsthat isnt what I meant! Hova said, closing her eyes tight. I dont mean you, you, I meanI meant
I dont know. Im sorry. Her shoulders began to shake, her heart beating an irregular rhythm against her ribs. The silence seemed appropriate. Kailass quiet laughter, coming soon after, was odd enough that Hova looked up.
You meant that you dont understand why Captain Arav of the Phoenix Battalion would act like that, Kailas said. She smiled, wider than before and warm for the first time. Is that about it?
Why arent you angry?
Because you havent done anything to make me angry. Kailas rubbed her thumb over the books spine, the smile fading into a straight line. Its not in me to get angry very much.
Then what about thewhen we were in the forest?
I dont like women being hurt, Kailas said. I cant help getting angry when I see that. She sighed and lay the book aside. I knew helping you is something I hadhave to do.
Why? Hova asked.
Have you ever had a moment where you knew exactly what was happening and where you had to go to make things right?
I havent eitherbut its that kind of feeling. And I dont want to make you leave.
Because they destroyed my home?
That, and I just dont want to make you leave.
Kailas leaned forward, putting an elbow on one knee and her chin in her hand. She smiled, and Hova blushed. Because I know no one in this city beside Lieutenant Tai-Yang and the soldiers, because I like Fai, and because I would at least like to have a friend. If its not something you want to do, then Ill find you a place to live tomorrow and give you enough money to buy new clothes.
Hova stared, face blank. You want a friend.
Am I not allowed that? Kailas asked.
Hova shook her head, looking out at the ground with her eyes half-closed. Everyone should have a friend. A human one.
Kailas looked at Fai, still sound asleep, but said nothing.
what would I be doing? Hova asked. Ive never cleaned a house, and I dont know how to cook. Not like you can.
Im not asking you to be a maid, Kailas said, chuckling quietly for a moment. If you want some kind of job
would you like to be my assistant?
What does that mean?
You could get the letters that arrive for me at the port, and from the Eastern Capital. Read some of them to see if I actually need to do anything. Help me find what I need. Let me talk to you about what Im thinking about. Whatever youd like to help me with. That sort of thing.
Hova looked up at Kailass face. She continued to smile, faint but real, and Hova let out a low breath. Youre way too nice.
I do try, Kailas said. Hova laughed, just enough that Kailass smile grew that much wider. Would that be all right?
For a long while, Hova was quiet. She rolled the fabric of a pant leg between thumb and forefinger, looking down at her feet. Yeah. Thatd be okay.
Kailass smile did not waver. Good.
Kailas knew Hova wasnt sleeping. Not peacefully, in any case. Three weeks had brought the end of the citys changeover, both militarily and politically. For all intents and purposes, Taonans militia was part of Kailass battalion, and she ruled the city. No other incidents were reported, and all rebellion was ferreted out and eliminated. It was as quiet as one expected a tranquil seaside city to be.
That did not mean Hova took after the city during the night. Despite the fact that she always fell asleep before Kailas, drifting off with remarkable ease, she did not stay stillor even quietduring the dark hours of the world. She tossed, kicking at the light summer blanket she had pulled tight over her shoulders when she lay down. She whimpered, her crying audible even though Kailas lay on her side away from the girl. Fai fell into the habit of curling against Kailass back after being struck by an errant elbow.
Kailas, wakened each night when the fits began, lay with her eyes closed and listened. She heard the cloth rustling, and Hovas hair brushing all over her pillow. They slept on separate pads, with separate pillows and blanket, but always in the same room. Kailas had set up the room for them both the first night, and would not change it after that. She would not, because it took her rolling silently over and reaching out to massage Hovas back to calm the girl back into some semblance of real sleep.
Neither of them spoke about it. Hova said nothing of what made her cry so often, and Kailas said nothing of her remedy. Only faint dark marks appeared under Hovas eyes, and they vanished when Kailas reached out early enough that they both slept most of the night through. For the time being, it was all right. Hova started to read books and scrolls Kailas offered from an extensive collection. She accompanied Kailas out into the city, sitting with her and reading, or quietly talking when they did not take what they were reading. It was pleasant, and they did not want that to end. However, like everything, it had to end.
By the end of those three weeks, Kailas was so used to the sounds Hova made, she knew she could soothe Hova with her eyes closed the entire time. The faintest creak of a floorboard was not one of those sounds. It was too quiet, and she never heard another like it. Hova was silent and still. Kailas opened her eyes, flipping onto her back and thrusting out her hands, two fingers out on both. Just as her hands touched skin and cloth, fingertips pressed against her breast, over her heart.
Oh, calm down. Kailas could see moonlight in the gold eyes above her, and the shadow of a smirk on the pale cheek below them. You know who it is.
Not why youre here, though, princess, Kailas said.
Fire Lord Azula laughed, despite the fingertips aimed at her throat. You sent a message saying your city was coming along as you planned. We came to see if you were telling the truth.
Kailas stared at the girl crouched with her fingers held at her chest. We, royal, or we, we, princess?
Ty Lee is ready to block your bending if you dont put down your hands, Azula said, and I can see that Mai already has a knife in hand for the same reason. You know its us. Put your hands down, captain.
Once you tell me why youre aiming at her.
Azula looked at the arm Kailas had put two of her fingers against, and at the still girl beneath her hand. Oh, her. You can hardly blame me. What if she was a spy trying to assassinate you? Id be doing you a favor.
She wouldnt be there if she was anything other than my guest, Kailas said, voice quiet.
Azulas smirk grew broader. I see. Your guest, then. She withdrew her hands, standing straight and stepping away. You shouldnt insult my intelligence like this, Kailas.
Kailas sat up, looking over her shoulders to see the shaded shapes of a girl in muted pink in one corner and another in red and black in the other. I never did, princess.
Enough. Azula crossed her arms and frowned. I know for a fact that whatever woman thats sleeping in the same room as you isnt a guest.
No, shes not, Kailas said. Shes my assistant.
I didnt know you had an assistant, Ty Lee said. Kailas looked over her shoulder in time to see the finger Ty Lee put to her chin.
She doesnt, Mai said. Thats Azulas point.
Oh! Ty Lee said, giggling and putting her hands behind her back. I get it!
Who is she really, Kailas? Azula asked. Shes pretty, I admitin a
peasant sort of way. Certainly too skinny to be a soldier or a bodyguard. And besidesa good bodyguard wouldnt be asleep when three people slip into your bedroom.
Shes my assistant and my guest, Kailas said. I have no reason to lie about that. She met Azulas eyes and did not look away.
Azula sighed, rolling her eyes. Very well. Well set aside how you are with women for the moment. You actually took an assistant from the peasants here? You didnt even look among the militia youve been praising all these weeks?
I asked if she wanted the job, and she accepted, Kailas said.
Ty Lee performed a silent cartwheel across the length of the room, crouching down to look at Hovas face. She looks like shed be nice.
Thats not the point, Ty Lee, Azula said.
Why is it that you came here, princess? Kailas asked. It must have been a long trip for all of you.
Mais family solidified their rule of New Ozai well before the war even ended, Azula said, and Ty Lee and I have the Eastern Capital under control. I wanted to make sure nothing was happening here.
You wanted to make sure I wasnt wasting your time, Kailas said. You were the one who said I should have Taonan, after all.
Azula smirked again. Quick, as always. How is your takeover going?
Thereve been no major incidents, Kailas said. There was only one minor altercation I encountered, and it was rectified shortly after it began.
I remember you mentioning it in one of your reports, Azula said. That you had any incidents at all surprised me.
You came because of that?
Your report was so vague. I wanted to know what, exactly, this incident was, and how it was you
Kailas took an even breath, letting it out without sound. Three men were attacking a woman with intent to rape her. When I ordered the men to stop and to leave, they refused and questioned my authority. I killed one man, and the other two complied when I ordered them to turn themselves in to Lieutenant Tai-Yang.
That seems a little mean, Ty Lee said.
Effective, though, Mai said.
Azulas smirk grew broader. Very effective. And there have been no other incidents?
Good. Next time, make sure your reports are thorough. She looked at Ty Lee and Mai in turn. Lets go. They strode away, feet silent on the floor. Kailas watched them walk to the open sliding doors and step down into the space of moonlight that came just before the shadows of the forest. Azula stopped just between the line of light and dark, and turned back.
Dont make me question why I made you my captain again, she said.
Kailas said nothing, only bowing her head. Azula vanished in the dark. The cricket-moths chirped, and Kailas stood up. She went to the doors, leaving the glass doors where they were and pulling the paper-covered doors shut before locking them. With the moonlight blotted out, she brought up one hand and let fire gather in her palm.
Its all right, she said quietly. You can stop pretending to be asleep. In the bright, flickering light, she could see Hovas eyes open, and her shoulders begin to shake. Kailas flicked her wrist, sending tendrils of fire to light the lamps hanging from the ceiling. She walked to the pad Hova lay on, sitting at Hovas feet and crossing her legs.
Hova sat up, breathing in tiny gasps and staring out at the closed doors. Thatthat wasthe Fire Lord came here.
She likes to drop in unannounced, Kailas said. Youre all right. She looked at Hovas face, raising an eyebrow. You were never asleep.
Hova shook her head. Sheshe sounded really young.
Probably younger than you are, Kailas said. Shes only going to be fifteen on the last day of summer.
Hova looked at Kailas, mouth hanging open. Butyou said you conquered Ba Sing Se with her. How old was she? And youhow old were you whenjust, how old are you?
Kailas assumed her usual position, chin in hand and elbow on knee. We conquered it at the start of this spring. She was fourteen, and I was eighteen. Shell be fifteen and Ill be nineteen on the same day.
Youre only two years older than me?
I suppose I am.
Butwho were the two other girls? She said
Ty Lee and Mai? They dont sound any older than her. Did they help take Ba Sing Se, too?
Ty Lee is the same age as Azula, but Mai is fifteen. Sixteen, soon. And yes, they did. Theyre Azulas right hands.
Hova went quiet, putting her hands on her chest. She closed her eyes and let her head drop. That was the worst feeling Ive ever had. I wasnt that scared even when
you came to help me. Fai, sprawled on his back, snorted and kicked his legs in his sleep. Hova started at the sound, eyes opening quickly.
Kailas watched her, her lips tilting in a frown. Youre still upset by what happened.
What? NoIm okay. Its fine.
You havent been sleeping properly, Kailas said. Not since we met. Hova opened her mouth, but Kailas shook her head. I know youre having nightmares. I can hear you cryingand Fai hasnt been sleeping on you because you dont stay still. Is it bothering you that much?
Ive been crying in my sleep? Hovas voice was quiet, and cracked as she spoke. But I havent woken up.
You calm down after I rub your back for a while. But you still have nightmares every night. Tell me what I can do to help you stop them.
Youve been rubbing my back when Im asleep? She blinked, brows coming together. Why?
I dont like it when you cry.
Kailas? What did Azula mean when she said how you are with women?
Kailas lifted an eyebrow. May I ask what that has to do with things?
I want to know what she meant.
The gaze that Kailas found directed at her held mixture of worry and fear, and she let out a long sigh as she closed her eyes. What do you believe it means?
well, I dont know. What kind of ways can you be with women thats so different?
Keep thinking. Youre on the right path.
Whats that supposed to mean?
Ways one can be with women. Think about what that could mean.
Hova stared past her, blinking as she thought. Her lips moved, though she did not speak. It was many a minute before her eyes widened and she looked at Kailas. A blush, red as the flames in the lamps above, covered her face. Oh.
Is that why you asked me to stay here? Becausebecause you want the same thing from me as those men did?
Kailas opened her eyes. If your body was all I wanted, I would have had you the first night you were here. I wanted you as a friend first. She frowned, but her eyes were not on Hova. I dont conquer women.
Hova flinched. I didnt mean that.
I know you didnt, Kailas said. I apologize for scaring you.
You didnt scare
Yes, I did. I know that I frighten youand that I confuse you now. I know that youre frightened of other things, but I dont know what they are. She held out her hand, palm up, and smiled very slightly. What I know best, though, is that I want to help you because youre my friend. If thats all you want to be, then thats all itll be.
Hova looked away, face still red. Why are you this nice?
Because its who I am, Kailas said, smiling all the more. Will you let me help?
Slowly, Hova took Kailass hand in both of hers. She laced her fingers with Kailass, rubbing her thumbs in Kailass palm. Okay.
Then lets start by making sure you dont have any nightmares tonight. Kailas reached over to the space between their two mats with her free hand, pressing down on a board. It popped free, and she put her hand into the emptiness below the floor. She retrieved a box, the Fire Nations stylized flame carved on its lid, and set it down between them.
What is it? Hova asked. Do you have some kind of medicine?
Kailas shook her head and opened the box. A flute sat in the crimson-covered padding inside. Unless you call music medicine.
You can play? Hova asked.
Well enough. Here. Kailas took back her hand, putting her fingers in place. Try to go to sleep. She brought the flute to her lips, and started to play.
The sound was low, softable to reach deep to touch the weariest parts in Hovas mind. As if gentle hands had come to the places left torn open from three weeks past, she felt the tension that had stiffened her shoulders begin to unwind. When she managed to keep her eyes open and piece together the melody, she could tell it was a lullaby. It was nothing she had ever heard before, and she made a vague guess that it was something from the Fire Nation. She looked at Kailass face, trying to find something that she couldnt name.
Kailass face was completely smooth, her eyes closed. Her fingers moved along the flute without pause or fault. It barely seemed as if she breathed, the notes came so fluidly one after the other. Hova felt her head tip down, her eyes slipping shut. She put her hand on Kailass knee to steady herself, but she did not take her hand away when she had curled up on her side. Her breathing fell into rhythm with the song, and she followed the melody as long as she could. It was too easy to fall asleep, and she did without another thought. Kailas continued playing, half aware that Hova had already drifted off. The music, the breathing, and the calm stillness she could hear beyond let her chest empty itself of some of the weight and pressure it had carried for months. For that, and for the small hand on her knee, she kept playing.