I may never do it again.
We awoke the sound of the alarm gong, loud and clear.
You know those certain sounds that make your skin crawl, your stomach jump, and something at the back of your mind just flinch? The warning gong is one of those sounds. It means one of three things:
1. The Palace is under attack.
2. Someone inside the Palace has been arrested.
3. The Fire Lord wants to see everyone front and center.
There are different patterns for different emergencies. After flying awake in a mild panic, my first response was deadly quiet, listening for the gong sequence...
The Fire Lord was summoning all Palace slaves.
If you don't know this already, when the Fire Lord calls you to do something, you do it before he's even finished his command. Of course, this command was a bit harder to fulfill on the part of us kachinas; we not only have to react quickly with the rest of the slaves, we're expected to look good while we do.
I've never dressed and combed my hair that quickly. I opted to omit the makeup, which still takes us five minutes at least, even with years of practice. (For all you who are interested in what our daily makeup looks like, click HERE and HERE. Of course, it's more elaborate for special occasions: HERE and HERE.)
After throwing on some clothes, we ran down the hall and into the dining hall. Most of the other slaves were already there. So was the Fire Lord. He so rarely comes into the slave areas; everyone's eyes were green (except the spies', of course).
I won't bore you with the details; in short, the Fire Lord forbade anyone from leaving their quarters until further notice. No one dared to ask how we were to eat, though I'm sure we were all wondering. The Fire Lord didn't even make an exception for spies. That surprised everyone, especially the spies. Their usually unreadable faces held hints of irritations and suspicion.
The Fire Lord dismissed us, and we all hurried back to our rooms.
"Do you think this has anything to do with the strangers?" Sparkle asked, the moment we were back in the kachina keep.
"Of course it does!" I cried impatiently, sitting on the bed. I glanced at myself in the mirror and made a face. I hate how I look without makeup. I've worn it everyday for so long I feel naked without it. I got up and began applying eyeliners and paint.
Firefly rolled her eyes. "Ember, we aren't going to see anyone for goodness-knows-how-long. Your pretty face will be quite wasted."
"Yes, we won't be seeing Coal," Flare said, her voice taunting. I snarled at her and went back to tracing my eyes.
"How are we supposed to get food?" Sparkle grumbled. "I'm already hungry."
"You don't suppose there's any danger, do you?" Flicker asked nervously.
"I expect there's some," Firefly answered, eying my makeup with a frown. "Ember, really, you're using up valuable paint."
I ignored her. I suddenly realized why I was putting on makeup.
I was going out, of course.
I did not intend to follow the Fire Lord's command for once in my life. I was curious, too curious to bear, and I was not going to miss whatever excitement was out there.
"I bet the strangers are..." Sparkle murmured. She didn't really have an answer, we all knew that. She thinks out loud a good deal. We've all learned to ignore her. If she wants us to acknowledge her, she has no problem screaming so in our ears.
"Long-lost relatives," Flare suggested, a gleam in her eye. "The Fire Lord has family!"
We all stared at her with incredulous expressions.
"Really, Flare, everyone knows what happened to the Fire Lord's family," I said with disgust. Flare frowned and shrugged.
"I was only speculating," she insisted. "Where's your sense of fun?"
I smiled inwardly. Oh, I planned to have some fun.
Before long, I finished applying my daily makeup and eyed the window causally. Our room is on the ground floor. The Palace is only one floor except the dungeons below and a tower on either end of the building. The curtains fluttered in the light breeze. (We have shutters, but we only use them in the rain.)
"I have to...um...you know what I mean," I said awkwardly, looking at the window pointedly. Firefly saw through that right away.
"What are you talking about, Ember? We've been here all of a quarter shadowmark," she said. I shrugged.
"My body doesn't tell time," I retorted simply, walking over to the window. "I'll only be a minute."
"Ember!" cried Flare, her eyes gleaming. "What if someone sees you?" She giggled. "What if Coal sees you?"
For a moment, my eyes actually flashed to green.
Oh, really, Ember, I scolded myself. You know very well you aren't really planning to "relieve yourself". I shrugged. "I'll have to risk it."
I leaped easily over the sill (it comes to about my waist) and dropped the yard or so to the ground.
"What if you get caught?" I heard Flicker hiss. Without replying, I took off at a dead run. I didn't know where I was going exactly, but I ended up under the spies' window.
I'm not sure how long I expected that to last. Definitely not as long as it did...
Asher: "I don't know why the Fire Lord's restricted us as well. We already know everything that's happening anyway."
Blaze: *snort* "Keep your mouth shut, Asher. You only know what we want you to."
Coal: (sharply) "Hi! Are we all spies together or aren't we? Leave him be, Blaze, we're all disappointed."
Blaze: (bitter) "You leave me be."
Asher: "Do you suppose this has got anything to do with--"
Coal: "Asher, you've got to start connecting the dots for yourself."
Asher: "Well, do you??"
Blaze and Coal: (sharp) "YES."
Blaze: "Stop fidgeting, Asher, by the Fire Lord, you've got to learn to hide your feelings. In a real situation you'd be discovered faster than a kachina in a barnyard!"
Coal: "Can you really blame him? Waiting on the outside is awfully difficult."
Blaze: "I don't mean to speak unchecked, but I believe this may have something to do with..."
Coal: "The Pale One."
The Pale One??
Blaze: "You know?"
Coal: "I presume."
Coal: "What isn't?"
Blaze: "So those sparkers and man must be...after all this time..."
Coal: "...they found what they were looking for."
Blaze: "So I presume."
Coal: "Are we to stay here?"
Blaze: "Is that question in honest?"
Asher: "What are you talking about??"
Coal: *snickers* "I say--"
He stopped. My blood ran cold.
I heard the sound of a small spark popping. I swallowed. The spies sometimes use some sort of spark-code to communicate when words will not do.
A few spark-pops answered. I pressed myself against the outside wall. I would have run, but living around Coal had taught me one thing: when in doubt, stay still.
My heart pounded. My eyes pulsed bright green. My palms chilled.
Suddenly I was aware of the shadow moving across my head. Swallowing hard, I could take the suspense no longer. I looked up into Coal's face, staring at me from the window. Anger would have been easier to take; the perfect stoniness was worse. He disappeared for a moment and then jumped the windowsill, landing lightly right in front of me. Blaze was right behind him. I tried to stare back at them with the same coldness they mastered, but I knew my eyes were still green.
Coal spoke, "What. The devil. Are. You. Doing here."
Just like that, I felt foolish.
"There are too many questions and not enough answers of late. I wanted to fix that."
"By directly defying the Fire Lord," Coal finished. I shuddered. Yes, that was obvious. And now Coal would turn me in. Of course he would. It was his duty.
"Well, what were you plotting to do?" I snapped. Coal's face was unreadable.
"I don't know what you mean."
My lip curled. "Of course you don't. The injustice of this entire situation. You will report me to the Fire Lord for doing precisely what you were intending to do. Of course, if I were to attempt to turn you in, the Fire Lord wouldn't believe me."
A hint of humor crept into Coal's eyes. "Yes. Now forget everything you heard about our sweethearts and go back to your room. I'll tell the Fire Lord about your little misdemeanor when all this is over."
"Sweethearts!" I scoffed. "Unless one of your sparktressfriends' name is 'the Pale One' I--"
Me and my big mouth. Coal's eyebrow shot up as he heard exactly what he was fishing for. He nodded slowly.
"So that's where you came in." Even with all his spy training, a hint of anger tinted his tone. "We'll be sure to mention that to our Lord as well. I'm sure he'll have some way of making certain you don't forget your place next time. Go."
I swallowed my pride as much as I could and ran.
What a truly horrible day this has been. I had to tell the other kachinas what happened, but I kept the information about "the Pale One" to myself. I'm not completely suicidal, you know.
I do not even want to think about what will happen when Coal tells the Fire Lord about all this. Coal is wonderful, but unfailingly loyal to the Fire Lord in every way. When he is in spy mode, there is little I fear more.