Shyu was asleep as soon as he hit the pillow. Mica didn’t blame him. Though it did leave her in the awkward position of having no one to talk to. Worse yet, Zarah was stubbornly insisting that they stick around the entire weekend, which was just plain annoying. So what if there were mobs of angry townsfolk stalking Zarah’s place? A few good ka-booms would scare them off real quick. At least there was a PB and phone at Zarah’s house–not that Mica was in any particular hurry to call her folks. Actually, she was more dreading that call. What did she even say to them now? Hi, how’ve you been? Sorry, Mom, for your horrible childhood of torture and slavery? Oh, and about that, why didn’t you tell me, your own daughter? Mica wasn’t even sure if she could talk to Uncle Varrick without losing her temper. But if she called him, chances were Dino would answer, and him she did want to talk to. Desperately. Flames, she wanted to hear his voice, if only for a moment, to tell her everything would be okay and that he loved her.
We left so quickly. What if he’s been trying to call me?
The thought made her heart ache and her fingers twitch anxiously. Soon the restlessness overtook her.
“Bandit, you stay with Shyu,” she instructed, which prompted Bandit to uncurl from his sleeping place on her bed and move to an identical one on Shyu’s.
“I’m going for a walk,” Mica announced to Zarah halfway out the door. Chief Pandalilly had set them up in a nice little batch of rooms in her palace of a home, so Mica had to traverse quite a few halls and peek in lots of other rooms in her quest to find the exit.
One thing she could say about the sun warriors besides them not being quite as extinct as she thought–ugh, she owed Mrs. Batty an apology for that one–their décor was fascinating. Despite her nervous energy, Mica couldn’t help but pause at each new tapestry or carving to admire the details. There was even a room full of statues and a small brazier burning beneath sculptures of two dragons. A shrine, maybe?
She circled the room slowly, studying each stature.
There’s a pattern here, she realized. And the poses looked an awful lot like bending stances. I wonder.
She searched the walls, and her suspicion was confirmed by a carved sign. This was a technique called “the dancing dragon.”
A technique not even Mom knows, Mica thought with delight. And her mom knew just about every bending technique there was from fire to water to metal. She had made sure Mica knew them, too. Not for bending, obviously, but as a guide to better predict her opponents’ moves no matter what their abilities. Mica mimicked the first statue’s pose then slid easily into the second, all the way around the half circle. Then again, to memorize it.
It didn’t feel much like a dance to her. The movements were sluggish and stiff–not wild and elegant like the dragon they had seen at the pyramid. Mica did the dance again, this time keeping herself moving like she was dodging paintballs on her parents’ assault course. By the fourth time, she had it perfected. She dodged and flipped and tumbled, as exhilarated with her new routine as she had been the day she invented her first successful earth-exploding stance.
Somewhere behind her, applause echoed. Mica sprang out of her final stance like a startled squirrel-toad and nearly fell flat on her face. Chief Pandalilly stood in the doorway, her old face creased with laughter.
“For the love of Ozai! Don’t sneak up on me like–” Mica blurted, then quickly covered her mouth. “Oppsie. I beg your pardon, Chief, ma’am.”
The chief only laughed harder. “Think nothing of it. I was young once too, you know.”
She smiled a toothless smile, her eyes brimming with mischief. It was no wonder she and Zarah got along so well. Lilly swayed a little, reaching to the nearest statue for balance. “Ack! But not anymore, I’m afraid. Would you be a dear and give an old lady a strong arm to lean on to the kitchen? I’m sure the young prince would appreciate a nice cup of tea when he wakes.”
“Um…sure, I suppose.” Weren’t they in a house full of guards and servants for this sort of thing? Oh, well. It wasn’t like she had anything better to do. And Mica would admit, she liked the sassy old lady.
Arm in arm, they made their slow, shuffling way downstairs to the kitchen. The servants that had been conveniently absent twenty minutes ago emerged from their nooks and crannies to set out a tray of tea and snacks for them at the kitchen table…almost like it was planned.
Mica watched warily as Lilly bossed the servants around, insisting they pour Mica’s tea, then add honey, then stir and blow on it for her.
“It’s so nice to have company,” Lilly said, reaching over to squeeze Mica’s hand. “It isn’t every day we get visits from a real live mover star.”
“Oh…” Mica lowered her eyes. “You must be thinking about my mom, Tenna. I’m not– I mean, I haven’t gotten a chance to…establish myself yet.” She put on a good act, disguising her bitterness, but somehow Lilly’s old eyes still saw right through her.
“Ah,” she said. “Well, I’m sure your time will come.”
“Right,” she replied, unable to stop the venom that tinged her tongue. As soon as people forget what I did at Iroh’s coronation. Or stop being afraid I’m going to blow them up. Mica took a gulp of tea, which was still too hot, if only for an excuse to stop talking.
Lilly patted her hand. “I have an idea. Once you’re finished eating, I’ll have one of the Tribe’s senior instructors teach you the ways of the flame.”
Mica gave her a rueful smile. “Only one problem. I’m not a firebender.”
“True. On the surface you may be as hard and stubborn as stone, but there is fire raging inside you, waiting for you to master it.”
“Fire inside…you mean my combustion?” Mica took a guess, assuming that Lilly was talking about her actual bending abilities and not just some metaphorical fire.”I’ve already got that under control.”
“So you say. And yet you resist unlocking your true potential.”
“No, I don’t,” argued Mica. “I’ve practiced every day since I was five. I invented my own bending techniques–”
“Then why do you twist that bending back on yourself. Even though you know it harms you.”
Okay, how could she even know about that? Lilly had never seen her fight. Was this some mystical sun warrior mind-reading power or something? Maybe Lilly was just very observant, like her mom. Or maybe she had read the information somewhere–in a newspaper or a tabloid. She knew about Mica’s mom being a mover star. Clearly the tribe had an outside source for information somewhere.
“I don’t–” Mica yanked her hand away rubbing away Lilly’s touch. “I don’t know. That’s just how it’s always been.”
“No. It’s because you will not let yourself see the safer path,” said Lilly softly. “Because you feel the need to punish yourself.”
Nothing this woman said made sense. Punish herself…for what? For living her life? And what was this talk about her not mastering her bending? Earth-combustion was her power and no one else’s…and Lilly actually had the nerve accuse Mica of doing it wrong!
“That’s not true!” Mica snapped. “If there was a way for me to combustbend and not feel faint after, I’d use it. I’m not an idiot!” She didn’t remember getting up from the table but there she was, standing, an armada of stone cookware and clay herb-pots hovering, ready to be thrown with the twitch of a muscle. Lilly didn’t budge.
“No. No, you are not,” she confirmed gently. “You’re hurt and angry.”
She reached for Mica’s hands again, massaging them out of their fists. The army of hovering objects fell, scattering food and soil all over the kitchen. “You’ve held it in for to long, child. If you keep going as you are, that anger will kill you.”
Mica turned her head aside. “Why do you care?”
“Because…” The old woman’s eyes softened.”…you’re family.”
That confirmed it. Chief Pandalilly was totally off her rocker. Mica let herself sit back down. Let her breathing calm. Servants flooded back in to tend to the mess she had made. She actually felt bad about that now. Why had she lost her temper over some old lady’s insane ramblings?
“Ohhh, okay,” said Mica. “Well in that case, thank you for all your advice.”
Lilly’s face scrunched with anger, which was sort of adorable and funny to see now. She gestured aside to a servant and whispered in her ear. The woman nodded and hurried off. Mica helped herself to some of the snacks and was admittedly impressed by the chocolate and crushed pepper cookies.
A few moments later, the servant returned carrying an elaborately carved box–something that could be used for jewelry or other keepsakes.
“Look here,” said Lilly, retrieving a photo from the box and shuffling to Mica’s side. “Look!” She poked a bony finger into Mica’s arm. “That’s me with your grandmother, there. And that little one is–”
“Mom!” Mica nearly choked on her cookie. She coughed hard, gasping as she yanked the photo from Lilly’s hands. Her mother stared back, a toddler in Grandma Sien’s arms as she sat beside the great stone-carved head of a dragon. A younger Pandalilly sat beside her and behind them stood Great-grandmother Ren, a small hint of pride on her scarred face.
“Ah, Sien was such a sweet girl. Bit of a temper though, just like her mother. Dear Ren,” Lilly mused. “Came here looking to study dragons when she was your age and ended up stealing my brother Stormrider’s heart.”
“Your brother…was my great-grandfather?”
“Aye, that he was.”
Mica’s head was swimming. Lilly pulled out more photos: her mother in Grandma Sien’s arms the day she was born, Grandma Sien’s and Grandpa Laythan’s wedding photo, and back further, until Grandma Sien was just a child herself. There was even an inking of Mica’s great-grandfather, Rider, that Ren herself had sketched when she came to the tribe. All the while Lilly talked about Mica’s family history, a history she had never known. Lilly explained how Great-grandfather Rider had sacrificed himself to save Ren’s life after their affair was discovered by the tribe. How Ren had fought the Masters Ran and Shaw and they had, in turn, deemed Ren worthy of their gift of fire. Great-grandma Ren had even helped Firelord Zuko himself befriend his dragon, Druk. In return, Zuko granted Ren the title Dragon Keeper and gave her land to build the sanctuary that had helped bring dragons back into the world.
“It took him years, but it was Firelord Zuko who finally convinced Ren to contact me,” Lilly said. “And I’m so grateful she did. Meeting my niece Sien and her family, sharing what they had learned about dragons and the world, inspired me to make some changes around this place. To value knowledge and change as much as tradition.”
Mica lifted a sunstone pendent from Lilly’s keepsake box and fingered the gem in her hands. “My mom never knew any of this…she was so young when they–” Pain reared up, choking off her last words.
“I know,” said Lilly softly. “The elder dragons grieved for years afterwards. Ren had raised many of them from the egg. That’s why the dragon today let you pass, child. He knew you were of Ren’s kin, and of the tribe.”
Lilly drew the necklace from Mica’s hand and made a gesture to place it around her neck. Mica jerked away.
“I…need some time to think about this.”
Lilly nodded, replacing the necklace and photos carefully back in the box. “I understand.” Lilly snapped her fingers, calling over the same servant as before.
“Please show young Mica back to her room. I’m afraid she’s a touch overwhelmed.”
“Yes, of course,” said the servant. Then she dipped her head to Mica. “Right this way, cousin.”
Back at their rooms, Mica flopped face first down onto the twin bed adjacent to Shyu’s. She was so dizzy from all that she’d learned that she didn’t even notice he was no longer asleep. She startled when he spoke.
“You okay?” he asked weakly. “You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.” Mica rolled on her side so they were facing each other from across the gap between the beds.
“I might as well have.”