As it turned out, Korra came up with a very practical solution to keep Izumi from getting too angry about the captured combustion-bender. She simply didn’t mention it.
“We should take turns standing guard over her,” Korra suggested. Though she was pretty sure the palace staff wouldn’t notice if one of their eighty-something guest rooms had an occupant for a day or two, she wasn’t willing to chance it. Not after all the extra effort they had taken sneaking their new captive in without alerting the guards.
Fuse stirred. It was quiet. Too quiet for the camp. And too clean-smelling. Had she been moved? She tried to remember, but her thoughts were fuzzy.
She heard footsteps in the back of her mind. Quiet as the wind whispering in the night. Master’s face floated before her, younger. She was younger, too. Ten and a day. Master’s son Eagon had surprised her the day before with a birthday present…
It was a book on dragons, her favorite. She had just barely managed to hide it before supper. Master had even ordered the kitchen orphans to let her have a second helping in honor of the day. Strange, it wasn’t as good as she expected. The stew tasted funny and made her so sleepy, a tier three had to carry her back to her bunk.<.i>
She hadn’t woken there.
Master was coming in now, young Eagon at his side. She tried to straighten to attention as expected, but found her hands were bound. Heavy chains suspended her from the ceiling in a small room with polished stone walls. A small hearth fire crackled at the far side, casting faint light over tables of glistening needles and other wicked-looking instruments. Master gathered one in particular that looked like a branding iron, along with seven long needles, and began placing them carefully in the fireplace’s crackling embers.
No fear. She remembered the words Master had taught her, but they were still just words. Inside, every part of her wanted to scream, to cry, to run. She didn’t care how many meals Master would deny her or how long she would have to work without sleep. She didn’t even care if Master brought out his whip. She’d risk the lash if it meant somehow getting out of this room. But when she tried to move, to scream, her body refused to obey.
She looked to Eagon, a single desperate glance, when Master’s back was turned. But he was hesitant to look at her.
Master stood from the fire and crossed back over.
“Now then, Eagon, let’s see how well you remember your lessons.” He edged the nine-year-old boy closer to her, finally forcing him to look at her directly. “Tell me, son. What are chakras?”
The boy swallowed. “Chakras are the pools of energy that flow in our bodies.”
“That’s right.” He lifted a pen from the nearest table. “There are seven chakras in every person and together they help control the flow of energy. We call this energy chi. Learning to harness and control chi is how benders get their powers.”
He took a step towards her, pen in hand. “Can you show me where the seven chakras are?
The boy nodded. He stepped around behind her. A moment later, she felt a little fingertip through the thin fabric of her tunic. Eagon pointed to a place on her back at the very base of her spine.
“The earth chakra,” said Eagon.
“Good.” Master walked around and made a mark with the pen in the place his son pointed.
Eagon walked back around, this time resting his tiny finger slightly below her navel. “The water chakra.” Again his father praised him, and again he made a mark on her skin where his son showed. The pattern continued. Eagon pointed to her stomach, the fire chakra, to her chest above her heart, the heart chakra, to her throat, the sound chakra, to her forehead between her eyes, the light chakra, and finally to the top of her head, the thought chakra.
Each time Master marked the points with his pen–even the top of her head, which had apparently been shaven bald sometime overnight.
“Very good, Son,” he said when the final mark was made. “Each of these points is vital to the flow of chi.” He set down his pen and took up a large stone bowl. He moved back to the fire, pulling out the branding iron. Heated molten orange from the fire, she could see the shape on the end was an eye. “Now what do you suppose will happen if one of these chakra points becomes blocked?”
Eagon started at the molten red iron, not answering until Master snapped his fingers impatiently.
“Um… the energy gets stuck.”
“Yes.” Master nodded. Then he bent again, pulling out the seven long needles from the fire one at a time and resting the glowing tips carefully in the bowl. “If the chi can’t flow properly, it builds up in the body like a mighty river trapped by a dam. That energy now has to find new pathways, otherwise…”
He trailed, waiting for an answer. Eagon was quicker this time. “Otherwise the dam will break.”
Master crossed back towards them, setting the heavy bowl gently on the nearest table. “A broken dam is very dangerous. There is no way to control how fast or how far the water will go. If left unchecked, it could even flood entire villages.” He picked up the smoldering iron. “But suppose we make another path for the water, a safe path leading away from the villages. We could even design that new river to carry our boats exactly where we want them, couldn’t we? We could use that power as a tool to help rebuild our nation.”
“Yes, Father.” A pause. “But what if the new river is too strong? Won’t people get hurt?”
“Some may, my son. Some may even die. But that’s a risk we have to take. Our nation is at war, Eagon, the war to survive. And sometimes in war, sacrifice is necessary.”
“But–” Eagon pressed. “She’s my friend. I don’t want her to die.”
Master’s mouth hardened. “The people of the Fire Nation aren’t our friends, Eagon. They’re wicked and greedy and want all the power in the world for themselves. Their army killed our ancestors, and if the Firelord ever found out some of us escaped and chose to fight back, she’d send firebenders to kill us, too.”
Eagon’s face tightened. When he looked at her again, there was sadness and betrayal where friendship had once been. There was even a flicker of fear.
Her thoughts raced. Her heart hammered in her chest. She tried to make her mouth work. To tell him that she’d never hurt him, even if she was a firebender. Tell him that she didn’t want to die. But her tongue was still thick and tired from last night’s stew, and her body wouldn’t listen.
Master set the iron into his son’s little hands, then lifted him so he could stand on the nearby table.
“Never trust anyone from the Fire Nation, son.” He gripped the back of her neck hard with one hand, forcing her to stay still. The other closed around the iron his son still clasped, guiding it directly over the chakra point marked on her forehead. “No matter how innocent they seem.”
Pain flared through her head, bringing her back to conscienceless with a gasp. She wasn’t in the tiny room. Or back in the bloodbenders’ camp. She was in a bed with silk sheets in a small, but lavishly decorated room.
The Fire Palace? She sat up, too quickly, bringing a wave of nausea and a sharp throb to her side.
No fear, she thought. No pain. She breathed. There was protocol for this. First, physical evaluation. She drew a breath and felt pain again.
Cracked ribs–two at least. And her head. She touched her forehead, half expecting to find the searing mark of a branding iron still raw. There was none. The wound was long healed and sealed with ink. She breathed again, shallower, trying to focus. The head pain registered again, a deep sharp pain in the back of her skull and a duller one that made her dizzy and sick to her stomach.
A concussion. Wonderful.
“Hey, you’re awake.”
It was the boy from before. Had he brought her here? What kind of fool brought a weapon straight into the royal palace?
She stood and assessed herself in a glance.
A very trusting and friendly fool, apparently. He hadn’t even bothered to remove her armor or to disarm her bending, not that she could use it in her current condition. He hadn’t even taken the dagger off her belt!
“Why am I here?”
“Oh, that was my idea. See, Korra and Mako wanted to leave you, seeing as how you kinda tried to blow us up, but I told them all about how that creep Jarven was manipulating you.”
“You… defended me?” To say she was astonished was putting it mildly.
“Because… I used to work for Kuvira.” He shifted his weight and shoved his hands in his pockets. “And I know what it’s like to be manipulated into doing bad things.”
It was a nice sentiment. Really, it was. But he was not a weapon like her. Whether an order was good or bad made no difference to a sword. To the wielder, perhaps yes, but not the blade. It was a common mistake people often made when dealing with her kind.
She started to speak, to correct him, but then she caught a glimpse of his eyes, and the words stalled in her throat.
Why did that happen? He was not unattractive for what little difference that made. No. Something about the way he looked at her just then. Like she was somehow… more.
He went on. “I got a second chance. I thought you deserved one, too.” Then he grinned. “Plus, Pabu likes you. Believe me, if anyone is a good judge of character, it’s Pabu.”
She wasn’t sure how to respond. No matter. It was time she stopped with the distractions, anyway. Her first priority, according to her training, was getting back to Jarven for further instruction.
Given her current location, however, that part could be tricky.
“Does the Firelord know about me?”
He scratched behind his head sheepishly. “Not exactly.”
Spoken too soon, of course.
Behind the door, muffled shouts sounded. And footsteps, a dozen at least. Heavily armed and armored. The guards.