It had taken them a while before they found Kurami’s trail, since most of it was over water, but eventually Kai and the twins found themselves a small trading village, a few miles west of the hideout. The place looked like it had just celebrated a festival, with lanterns in the process of being taken down and various debris strewn all over the ground. They split up and began to look for any clues.
Miyu paused at a stall selling musical instruments, sharp eyes scanning every object. A wooden flute carved with ocean waves caught her eye and she picked it up, turning it over in her hands.
She spotted the symbol almost immediately–the word for “truce.”
It was messily carved, as if the person who put it there was using the wrong hand, but it was familiar to her.
“Excuse me,” she inquired. “This may seem strange, but did anyone else look at this recently?”
“Sure was,” replied the owner. “Young girl, bit shorter than you, I s’pose, was with this Fire Nation guy yesterday. She was really pretty, too.”
Miyu thanked the owner and bought it before hurrying back to the others.
“Well, at least we know it’s her,” said Ren, after Miyu had shown the flute to him and Kai.
“So now what do we do?” asked his sister.
“Since she’s apparently made a deal with the Fire Prince, there’s not much we can do,” Ren replied. “We can’t go back to Jian, that’s for sure.” His twin nodded in agreement.
Kai sighed, deep in thought. When she was much younger, the earthbender had met the Dragon of the West on a mission. Before the war had gotten out of hand, they had become allies, friends.
An idea suddenly sparked inside her mind. Even if she couldn’t see Kurami in person, Kai could keep an eye on her in a different way.
After all, what were old friends for?
“Oh, come on! You call that hand-to-hand combat? I could have taken you down four times already if I wanted to, and I still have two broken fingers!”
“Well, what else do you want me to do?”
“Loosen up! I’m still surprised you managed to take me down, even though you cheated.”
“How was I cheating?”
“Um, I believe chi blocking constitutes as cheating.”
Iroh sipped his tea contentedly, watching Zuko and Kurami spar without their bending. The Black Spirit did surprisingly well without her dominant hand, though she might have had been trained to be ambidextrous enough that she had no problems.
It was one of the many things about her that worried Iroh.
It was obvious that Kurami barely had a childhood, if she had any at all. She was only fourteen, for Spirits’ sake, but she had told him about her kills (ten; at least it wasn’t more than that) without a trace of regret.
She sounded a bit like Azula, if Iroh thought about it.
If he was surprised about the change in demeanor between the two teenagers, he didn’t comment on it. They had not become friends overnight–Agni knows how long that would take–but they were more civil towards each other. Kurami had even started talking more often to both him and Zuko. He just wondered how long their truce would hold.
The twins were setting up camp deeper within the forest, while Kai stayed in town to deliver her message. It only had three words, written in a code only two people in the entire world knew.
She walked inside the bar, the hood of her cloak hiding her face from view. She carefully made her way to the back of the room. No one else was there, save for an elderly man sitting at a Pai Sho table.
“May I have this game?” she asked, removing her hood.
The elderly man gestured to the seat opposite him. “Of course. The guest has the first move.”
Kai sat and moved her piece.
“Welcome, Kai of the Black Spirits.”
“That’s it, I can’t do this anymore!” Kurami exclaimed as she dodged another punch.
She promised herself that she wouldn’t make the same mistake as last time, so she had taken note of the Fire Prince’s fighting style within the few weeks they had known each other.
She hadn’t anticipated how bad he actually was. The chi blocking was a nice trick, not to mention his strength, but without his bending, he was terrible at hand-to-hand. There was no fluidity or control in any of his movements; just firebending positions without the actual fire.
“How are you supposed to fight without your bending when you can’t even throw a decent punch?” she admonished. “If I were anyone else, you would be dead already!”
“Well, why don’t you show me how it’s done,” he retorted. “Seeing as you’re so great at it.”
The sarcasm stung, but Kurami had heard worse.
She dropped into her stance.
“Now, the thing about hand-to-hand combat is that you don’t use brute force. Go on, hit me.”
Zuko gave her a skeptical look before striking at her side with his leg.
Kurami blocked it with her right arm and ducked under it, pushing him off balance.
“The way I learned was to avoid first, aim for the weak spots last,” she continued as she helped the prince up. “That way, your opponent will be too worn out to defend themselves.”
“Sounds like you learned from a waterbender.”
Kurami pushed her hair out of her face. “Earthbender, actually, but they taught me a few other tricks.”
The way she said they implied she didn’t want him to know any more than was necessary. To Zuko, the fact that she had even told him about her teacher was enough; he was starting to gain her trust, albeit very slowly.
“So, ready to try again?” she asked.
“The Grand Lotus informed me that you would come,” said the old man. “What may I do for you?”
“He owes me a favor,” Kai replied, sliding the paper over.
“I’ll see this gets to him as soon as possible,” he said, tucking the note into his shirt.
“Now, would you like to play?”