Chapter Five The Jasmine Dragon
The wind combed dark, sightless fingers through her hair, whispered in its cool voice, belled the skirt and sleeves of hanbok and pressed damp kisses of lake-spray to her cheeks and forehead. Overhead the gibbous moon rode high and bright. Song closed her eyes and basked.
Footsteps upon the boards of the ferry deck. Only a little familiar
She opened her eyes and glanced over her shoulder, one elbow lifting from the railing with the movement.
Jet smiled as he settled beside her, that ridiculous grass straw twirling between his teeth before he gazed up at the blanket of stars overhead. The smile was contagious, and she felt one grow on her own lips before she too looked upward.
So, he murmured. Whats a pretty girl like you doing with an old man and a guy like Lee?
She gave him a sidelong look. Surviving, mostly. Theyre the reason Im still alive.
Song nodded, and quietly told him the tale. How the boy and his uncle had arrived at the village clinic, the dinner at her house
even how initially, Lee had taken their ostrich horse.
Jet was indignant. He stole from you?
She gazed out over the dark water, eyes quiet and thoughtful. Yes, but he came back. Her next words shook a little. When the raiders came.
Jets face darkened. His teeth savagely ground the end of the straw. Raiders, he muttered. I know about raiders
They would have killed me
but Lee and Mushi rescued me from my burning house. Lee even went back and got my treasure chest for me. He braved the flames, just so I would still have my legal papers and keepsakes.
Jet nodded, himself looking thoughtful. He
he sounds like a pretty honourable kind of guy.
If only you knew
He is. But he hasnt had an easy time of it.
None of us have. Its why were here. This is our
second chance, I guess. She saw him turn his gaze back to the sheltered areas of the lower deck. Zuko was there, talking quietly with Iroh.
I know, she murmured. Weve lost almost everything. But my father always said that the greatest people in the world are often the ones who have risen from nothing.
She smiled, sloe-eyed and enigmatic. Jet realized just exactly how beautiful she could be.
One day, she continued. Hell be one of those great ones.
Looking back, she really should have seen the signs.
All of them.
And yet, there she was, completely taken by surprise
Song emerged from her room into the small corridor that divided the living room and kitchen from the three bedrooms and bathroom of their new apartment. Her hair was still damp and she felt warmed by both the clinging steam of her hot bath and the morning sunlight that shafted in from the corridors single window.
Beyond, she could hear Iroh humming as he cooked. The smell of porridge reached her, filtering under the sliding door; jook, hed called it last night, measuring out the ingredients ready for that morning. She could pick out the warm, mealy smell of oats; the richness of almonds, a ripe sweetness that meant raisins and the floral shades of liquid honey.
She lingered in the sunshine, her hair loose and drying quickly over her shoulders. Combing her fingers through it, she stood meditatively listening to the birdsong outside, looking up only when she heard Zukos bedroom door slide back and the boy himself emerge on carefully steady feet. His clothes were clean; the uniform the wait staff would be wearing for Irohs big opening at the Jasmine Dragon. He looked good in it, though he would have to do something about the bedhead
Looking up he caught her eye and gave her a rueful, lopsided smile. Her heart melted a little (honestly, when didnt it?) and she straightened, pushed her hair back and returning the smile. Feeling better?
And then he was standing in front of her, barely a foot of space between them. The smile curled further. Much.
For some reason, perhaps his proximity, or the fact that she could feel his eyes making a careful study of her features, Song found herself flushing.
I wanted to tell you
I wanted to say
He floundered for a moment. I want to say, that
that Im sorry. She looked up at him then, eyes wide, and it was his turn to look away with the tops of his cheeks turning steadily red. I didnt mean what I said, the other day, when you heard me talking to Uncle
about the Avatar.
That same frustration rose up, showing in the lines of his face, in his eyes and jaw. Yet as the same time there was an earnestness that reminded her strongly of Jet. I mean, I didnt mean it the way it must have sounded. You know wed never leave you behind, right? Uncle and I...whatever happens
He was standing very, very close to her now; she could almost feel his breath on her face.
whatever happens, well always bring you with us. Well Ill always look out you. He crushed his eyes closed for a moment. When they opened, Everything Ive done
Song felt soft warmth steal over her. She gazed at him, eyes melting brown, drinking him in as he was in this moment muted, stirring fire; anxious, earnest, heartfelt, hopeful, and with that hope shining out of him like a light. It lit up the gold of his eyes, and she imagined young dragons must have had eyes very like his.
I know, Zuko, she murmured.
He smiled again, quietly, full of some new emotion that caught her breath and
And then he was kissing her.
Once again, sunlight held them.
Far away, the birds sang.
He smelt like sage and warmth and cotton.
She was floating and
Aneko stood before the Jasmine Dragons open doors.
Beyond she could see the screen set she had picked out with Iroh, the new tables, the new chairs, and sitting in rows upon the back counter, the new kettles and pots and teacups
She twisted the sleeves of her new uniform and wondered for the thirtieth time if her hairpins were going to hold.
It was just
it was so big. So much bigger than Paos pokey little tea shop, where she and Uri had been the big fish in their wee pond. Now, she was a senior member of a still rather select team
but it didnt feel the same, or stop her from worrying.
What if the other staff werent how they had presented themselves in the interviews? What if they were cruel? What if they were cruel to Zuko? What if Uri found out? What if she incinerated someone by accident, in a fit of temper? What if she incinerated the kitchen by accident, in a fit of temper? What if Iroh got stage fright and fouled the tea? What if she got stage fright and dropped the tea? And what if ?
BOO! went Uri.
HURK! went Aneko.
Uri collapsed on the Dragons steps howling with laughter. Aneko rounded on her.
You! she snarled, Im going to kill you!
They were still squealing and grappling with one another when the others arrived.
So, big day
Zuko smiled at Song. Song smiled at Zuko. She blushed, and so did he, but it didnt stop him from taking her hand and asking,
Shan wont mind if youre a little late for work? And youll be back ?
Yes, Ill be back for lunch, and no, he wont mind.
Not if he knows whats good for him, she thought (Song, under influence of the collective tartness of Uri and Jin was growing a spine, or at least the beginnings of one.)
He saw her to the door as the first customers began to trickle in, his fingers still curled around hers. Shed never seen him smile so much
They paused upon the steps. A little confused, she watched him glance furtively about, mouth coiling slyly and there, again, a kiss, this one quick and secret and half-laughing. She left him grinning in the sunlight and tripped off into the crowd, some part of her turning silently, spinning first warm, then hot with something she had not felt in months.
Part of her was home.
Below the window of what was once the Dan Family Pai Sho House a Dai Li agent knelt out of sight. In his low voice he murmured the following,
She is here in the City, with her two lieutenants. The governors daughter is impatient to spring the trap. The acrobat seems complacent, content to wait for her word.
Within the empty shell of the houses central room sunlight shafted in great dusty bars. Dust motes, caught like tiny gold flies in diaphanous amber, drifted in the hot, airless space. In the sharp-cast shadows between these bars of light, stood the Fox, mouthless face glowing out from the knife edged dark. Slowly, it lifted.
They are baiting you, they stated. She wants the Dai Li, and so she let her cohorts be overheard. Shell do a deal with Long Feng, and draw the carpet from beneath his feet. Watch.
There was a pause as the agent processed this. His mouth tightened, as did the scar down his cheek. Theres more. The Avatar is still absent. If the princess springs her trap, if she takes the City
Then we have one chance. And one person who perhaps
The Foxs blank face tilted to the east. To the middle ring.
perhaps will save us.
To the agent they murmured, Go. I have work to do.
Part of him was home
Gad Zooks, Aneko said coming over and leaning one elbow on his shoulder. You gonna wipe that silly smile off your mug and help me run some tea?
He could only smile at her, and she could only do the same.
Lets get to work.
And so the day slipped away in a happy blur; Zuko and Aneko dove into the rhythms of greeting customers, taking orders and serving tea. They darted between tables and throngs of customers, quick on their feet, avoiding near head-on collisions by a hairsbreadth and snickering breathlessly at each other as they side-stepped. When he passed her, Zuko heard Aneko singing softly under her breath as she worked:
Ive got the world on a string, sittin on a rainbow, got that string around my finger
trailing off into low laughter.
Meanwhile, Uri, despite her lack of height and age compared to the other three bakers Quon had installed in the Dragons kitchen, was making her presence felt, commanding her co-workers the way her mother must be even now commanding the firebenders of the Southern Fleet. Every so often he would discern her barked commands as he passed by the door to the kitchen.
No, you ninnies, minced chicken, not chopped! Look, like this. and Wei! Is that custard I smell burning? or Where are those pork buns oh, thanks Qua-Mei.
And all the while, Iroh brewed tea, smiling brighter than the sun itself. He was in his element, hands flying across his benches, pouring piping water, measuring out weights of tea, timing brewing pots, singing out in his warm, rasping baritone for Nephew, two ginger and a blue rose blend for table six! The smile barely left his face.
The morning passed, slipping seamlessly into the lull between midday and the first hour of the afternoon.
The staff of the Jasmine Dragon paused.
Uri began a restock of the kitchen. Iroh began a restock of his teas. The wait staff cleared tables and reset them. Zuko and Aneko were putting out the four small terrace tables when a familiar figure came around the corner.
Lee asked how her day had been.
Lee pushed her chair in for her.
Lee asked her if she would like tea.
Lee bustled off with a smile to get her a pot of the house specialty blend jasmine.
Jin stared at Aneko and Uri with great shock and bewilderment.
What the heck? Seriously! What happened? Where was I?
Uri threw her little hands up. We dont know! He came out of his fever last night, and he was just She flapped her hands towards the interior of the Jasmine Dragon. Like this! she finished.
Aneko nodded. Song mentioned hed been
perky, all morning. She stuck out her lower lip and blew her bangs out of her eyes. He hasnt been cranky once. Even when we were busy.
Its kinda freaky, Uri added.
Aneko gave her a flat look. Uri shrugged. Jin continued to be bewildered.
so weird. Hes always been the broody guy
Heres the tea.
Broody guy was back, and hed brought lotus seed buns.
The light lunch that followed was pleasant, but strange to say the least. The four of them sat around the small table, their respective aprons slung over the backs of their chairs. Jin watched as the boy smiled, the way he threw back his head as he laughed at Uris quips, or Anekos dry asides. This was not the awkward boy she had had a single disastrous date with
And there was the girl he should have gone on his date with.
Song slid into her chair, feeling drunk on sunlight, and summer, and
were there even words for this? This feeling? She luxuriated selfishly for a few moments. For now there was could be no war, and for now her mother was not dead, her father was safe at home, and the Fire Nation was not battling even now against her country. For this moment
for this moment they were only Lee and Song and their friends. She sipped passionflower and peach tea and gazed at her friends, her sisters and her
The girls head came up quickly, tensing, green eyes tightening
and yet a moment later she gave Song a small smile. Whats up?
The young healer looked uncertain. You seem
quiet today. Everything okay?
Jin smiled again and gave one of those casual one-shouldered shrugs which gave nothing away at all. Its fine. Im fine. Its just been
She paused, looking a little distant again. Its just been a busy day, you know? Ive had a lot to do, a lot to think about doing.
Zuko, who had been listening with half an ear, now interjected, You wont get in trouble, being away for so long?
His genuine concern made her pause before she ruefully smiled and shook her head. Mom knows how important today is. To everyone.
To their collective delight, she stood and raised her teacup. To the Jasmine Dragon, she toasted.
To Uncle, Zuko added softly, and Song found herself taking his free hand. As their eyes met, the other girls cheered loudly, To Uncle!
Inside, Iroh smiled and sipped his tea.
Aneko looked up from clearing one of the terrace tables and met one of the bluest sets of eyes shed ever seen.
The girl must have been about fourteen. She was obviously Water Tribe; the characteristic cerulean eyes seen in many of that clan combined with the rich hair, warmly toned skin and classic sea foam patterned tunic were a dead give away.
The lemur was different though. It blinked its wide eyes at her from the girls shoulder, the light showing faintly though the membranes of its winged forelimbs.
Do you have a table for two free? the girl continued, smiling.
Aneko smiled easily back. Sure, follow me. Theres a really nice one by our western windows.
As she led the girl plus lemur inside, the noise of the tea house engulfed them. Over it, she could hear Zuko, and when she looked she saw him calling an order cheerfully over his shoulder to Iroh.
Uncle, I need two jasmine, one green and one lychee!
As Iroh called back that he was brewing as fast as he could, Aneko turned back to the girl
only to see her blue clad back and dark braid bobbing as she ran pell-mell back down the plaza, the lemur shrieking and wheeling after her.
Aneko blinked in abject surprise. Then she scowled, tray clamped militantly to her side.
How rude, she said, drawing herself up with indignation and glowering as the Water Tribe girl disappeared around the corner.
Zuko had evidently noticed her expression. He sidled over with his now laden tray balanced expertly on one splayed palm and nudged her with the opposite elbow. Why the face? Whats the matter?
Aneko gave an irritated snort. You just missed her, she said, gesturing to the plaza with her own tray, but there was this girl. Ducked out and ran before Id even got her to her table. Not even a sorry, gotta fly, just bolted.
Zuko looked quizzical. Weird.
Thats what I thought.
It was only much later that she realized shed forgotten to tell him about the flying lemur.
The kitchen already cleaned down and packed away, Uri spent the last half hour of closing helping the front of house staff wipe down the Dragons many tables and carefully stack the elegant chairs against the walls. She and Aneko were bringing in the terrace tables when the Imperial messenger showed up.
Is Mister Mushy here? The famous tea maker?
Its Mu-shi, Aneko and Uri chorused, the former with great longsuffering, the latter with instant irritation.
The messenger blinked at them then said tentatively, Aah, of course, Mushi
is he here?
Mushi was retrieved and an official Imperial scroll put in his (faintly trembling) hands. Uri, wide-eyed between the protective bookends of Aneko and Zuko, noted the tension in her friends faces, the wariness that filled the stance and gaze of the man she secretly called Grandfather.
Then the seal was broken, wax fragments falling upon the newly swept floor, and Irohs face was alight with new and beautiful joy. I
I cant believe it, he breathed.
What is it? Zuko demanded, some of that familiar temper coming back. Uncle?
The Dragon of the West grinned at them. We have been invited to serve tea to the Earth King.
Uri burst, scaring the living daylights out of Aneko and Zuko by leaping a foot in the air and whooping at the top of her not insubstantial lungs.
At the end of the plaza, Jin and Song watched, nonplussed as Uri began dancing in circles with Iroh while Zuko and Aneko clung to each others arms and laughed at the afternoon sky.
He had forgotten how quietly they could move.
Prayers finished, incense burnt, Shan opened his eyes and climbed awkwardly to his feet. Some of the fragrant ash remained in the air, laden with the scent of sea salt and lavender. Then the breeze came up, and he heard the telltale sound of a cloak snapping in the wind. He turned, as quick as he was able and drew his breath sharply.
A Dai Li agent stood at the edge of the rotunda.
There was a knife scar across his right cheek and a quick, anxious look in his eyes. Slowly, he held out a scroll, sealed with a knot of thick, white wax. It was delicately sculpted, and without looking closely, Shan knew it would be in the likeness of a lotus blossom.
There was a small note glued to the scrolls outer: She has sprung her trap. It is up to him now. All we can do is prepare. It was signed simply, Fox.
Shan regained his voice. My orders?
He took the scroll and went to break the seal.
Wait until youre alone. Memorize them then destroy them. Leave no traces. Be ready by tonight.
He nodded, looked up
And was faced with empty air.