In Nickelodeon’s animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, protagonist Aang, a young Avatar facing his world’s greatest crisis, is frequently struck with a vision of a long chain of past Avatars who rose to power before him. While the show’s creators have been planning a sequel movie about Aang and his friends as adults, F.C. Yee’s Chronicles of the Avatar novels have been filling in of the backstory of a few of those past Avatars, starting with Kyoshi, the founder of the Kyoshi Warriors.
The latest book in the series, The Dawn of Yangchen, begins a new arc with a new Avatar — and a waterbender who opens the book with a daring heist. Here’s Abrams Books’ summary of the action:
Yangchen’s inexperience may prove to be her greatest asset… Plagued by the voices of Avatars before her for as long as she can remember, Yangchen has not yet earned the respect felt for Avatar Szeto, her predecessor. In an era where loyalty is bought rather than earned, she has little reason to trust her counsel. When Yangchen travels to Bin-Er in the Earth Kingdom on political business, a chance encounter with an informant named Kavik leads to a wary partnership. Bin-Er is a city ruled by corrupt shang merchants who have become resentful of the mercurial Earth King and his whims. To extract themselves from his influence, the shangs have one solution in mind: a mysterious weapon of mass destruction that would place power squarely in their hands. As Yangchen and Kavik seek to thwart the shangs’ plan, their unlikely friendship deepens. But for Yangchen to chart her course as a singularly powerful Avatar, she must learn to rely on her own wisdom above all else.
Read a full chapter of The Dawn of Yangchen below, as Kavik tests his waterbending abilities, and Yangchen interferes.
VOICES OF THE PRESENT
Middlers often had difficulty understanding how quickly one place’s fortunes could rise at the expense of another’s. In the continuing wake of the Platinum Affair, many of the new arrivals to Bin-Er seemed caught off guard by the city’s explosive growth even though they were part of it themselves, swept along by change.
Kavik, on the other hand, knew vital locations could shift great distances without warning. Herds moved like water. Schools of fish moved like water. People did too, when their livelihoods depended on it.
And the flow wasn’t always peaceful. Currents of human beings could rush too fast into a single pool without an escape, smashing chunks of ice and flotsam to bits. If your boat ever got caught in such a vortex, the key to survival was figuring out how long you had until you suffered the same fate.
Kavik wasn’t sure how much time Bin-Er had left as a whole. But as for himself, right now, he was thinking there were maybe ten, twenty minutes before things got ugly. Out-of-control ugly. He’d been trying to cross the square in the international district when a large crowd, buzzing with hostility, blocked his way. The heavy winter clothing everyone wore to survive along the northern edge of the Earth Kingdom continent made it difficult to squeeze through the cracks.
Usually Kavik was on top of these kinds of disruptions. “What’s going on?” he asked the people nearby.
“We finally pinned Shang Teiin down,” a large man said while peering over the top of the crowd. “He had to leave the walls of his estate at some point. Either he listens to us here and now, or he gets to spend the night holed up in Gidu Shrine.”
Kavik swallowed his alarm. “And… how did you do that exactly? Teiin’s normally hard to find, isn’t he?”
“We pooled our money together and paid for an errand runner to copy the shrine’s schedule of private reservations,” the man said, grinning with satisfaction. “Gotta use the enemy’s methods against him. And wouldn’t you know it? Tonight is the anniversary of Teiin’s grandfather’s death.”
This wasn’t going to end well. Teiin was no talk, all stick. The idea that the powerful shang would interrupt his ancestral rituals, appear on the steps of the Gidu Shrine, and benevolently acknowledge his employees’ grievances was misguided at best and dangerous at worst.
He needed to get out of here. “Give that old goat-dog the business,” Kavik said. He turned to leave. A heavy hand landed on his shoulder and spun him back around. “Stay with us, brother,” said the man, staring at him intently. “If the shangs don’t get an earful now and then, they’ll pretend we don’t exist. Every voice counts.”
Newcomers just had to be difficult, didn’t they? He was asking Kavik to take a firmer stance. And a boy asking questions could have been in the pocket of Teiin or another shang, a spy sent to monitor the crowd. He gave Kavik a jostle, equal parts fraternal and threatening.
“Sorry, but I have to place an order at the apothecary’s,” Kavik said. He had his own tasks ahead of him and didn’t want to make any new friends.
“At this time of day?” The grip on him tightened.
“I know it’s late,” Kavik said quickly. “But Uncle Ping takes his time closing and always lets me get a request in before he goes home.”
He watched the story work its way through the man’s head. Perhaps he’d overdone it with the details. But the delay alone was enough. “There he is! There’s Teiin!” came a shout. When the man turned to look, Kavik slipped out of his grasp and into the crowd.
He fought his way through the moving mass, swimming parallel to the riptide, and spared a glance at the shrine. The stone steps of Gidu rose fifteen feet into the air and culminated in a double-roofed hall where the wealthy could pay their respects to their ancestors and leave offerings for the spirits.
Shang Teiin, a slight but hale man of sixty, had emerged atop the sacred little island and sneered with distaste down at the people boxing him in.
“Pay us what you owe us!”
The angry cries seemed to bother Teiin about as much as falling leaves. He took a deep breath through his nose, and Kavik’s heart began racing. That wasn’t the face of a man ambushed. That was the expression of a man going on the attack.
The shang signaled with his fingers and a squad of men poured out of the shrine behind him. Hired toughs, headkickers, lying in wait. Whether through bribes, betrayals, or hiring spies of his own, Teiin had caught wind of the demonstration and prepared his countermoves in advance.
The paid muscle descended the steps and slammed into the front ranks of the crowd. The screaming started, and Kavik pulled his hood down as low as it could go. He ducked under elbows and spun on the balls of his feet and shoved people from behind when he had to, until he reached the edge of the square.
He tried to avoid looking back. The fighting would only get so bad. Yes, there would be fists thrown, and he assumed Teiin’s goons probably had saps and coshes hidden up their sleeves, but that would be the extent of it. Any bending would be just for bruises. No one in Bin-Er, shang or otherwise, wanted to bring Earth Kingdom law into the city by committing a capital offense.
The whole incident had nothing to do with him. Never mind that Kavik was the errand runner who’d broken into Gidu Shrine a week ago to copy the reservation list in the first place. If he hadn’t taken the job, it would have gone to someone else.
It’ll be all right, he told himself over the chorus of violence behind him.
Only two blocks away from the square, there was peace. No disturbances, no signs of fighting. Just the muffled quiet of the day winding down. In Bin-Er, a short walk could land you in another realm entirely.
Kavik passed men and women filing out of shipping offices into the street. They looked neither to the right nor the left at the empty stands that served only midday meals, the closed shops providing paper and brushes sold by the bale, the auction houses where the prices of cloth and porcelain across the Four Nations were decided. Only straight ahead, to their beds.
They’d learn about the scuffle in the square, and then they’d simply go around it. The same way you’d take a different route to avoid an overturned wagon. An inconvenient ruckus, to be certain. One that happened more frequently these days in Bin-Er, but that was the cost of doing business, no?
Kavik turned off the main street into an alleyway. He hadn’t known who the buyer of the shrine information was going to be. That was the whole point of using a broker like Qiu, to keep both sides of a deal anonymous. Kavik had assumed it was simply another shang who wanted an edge over their rival, the way most of the business for errand runners in Bin-Er was generated.
He reached the house he was going to break into.
The Blue Manse sat at the very edge of shang territory. Beyond it was nothing but a vast open field, bisected by the border of the Earth Kingdom proper. He could see the lantern glow of the guard stations in the distance.
The agents of the Earth King were supposedly on high alert across the continent after His Majesty’s most recent rampage in Ba Sing Se. Qiu claimed the walls of the Upper Ring were painted with all the highborn traitors and spies purged from court in this latest round. Not with their blood, but the people themselves. They managed to throw enough conspirators up on the walls to get nice, even coverage.
For a broker who needed to deal in quality information, Qiu believed the dumbest stories. But still, Kavik knew it was bad for your health to get embroiled in a national fray. His work lay completely on the shang side, and for that he was grateful.
He took cover behind a landscaping shed that was probably used for one month out of the entire year. When it was clear, he sprinted across the open ground and pressed himself against the correct wall. It gave off a chill he could feel on his exposed face. Unlike its brick-and-board neighbors, the Blue Manse was made entirely of ice.
Kavik wriggled his nose, trying to brush off the itch of many different annoyances at once. The Blue Manse was someone’s idea of a grand polar residence, but it failed to mimic Agna Qel’a’s architectural traditions. The fancy guest house was too square, too chunky, built without consideration of the natural movements of melt and snowpack. He knew it required the regular employ of Waterbenders to reshape and refreeze the walls.
Sorry, friends, Kavik thought. At least I’m giving you more work.
He shed his parka, folded it neatly, and placed it in a shadow so it would stay dry. Braced by cold and regret, he made a gesture that resembled a swimmer’s plunge, melting an alcove into the corner of the building. Kavik stepped inside.
A coffin of ice glittered around him. He was a strange bird squeezed inside a strange eggshell. He couldn’t afford to make the chamber any larger or else he’d hatch prematurely into the hallways.
Now came the hard part. With small bending motions, he transformed the ice above his head to water and carefully—carefully—coaxed it to run down the surface in front of him. Before the drip soaked his feet, he pressed himself upward using the walls to the left and right. Once his legs were in an elevated straddle, he froze the pool underneath him into a solid floor again.
Six inches. The complex series of steps that had taken him weeks of practice had elevated him by about six inches. Now he had to do it over and over again until he reached the third floor.
An observer might have wondered why he didn’t go faster at the expense of getting wet. An observer could shut their trap and go back to the middle of the world, where it was soft and warm. As it stood, if Kavik remained perfectly dry, he had about thirty minutes before death from the cold set in. If freezing water got on him, he might be incapacitated in less than five.
He painstakingly lifted himself higher through the corner of the building, closing the tunnel behind him. Maybe a better Waterbender, Kalyaan the Great for example, could have flowed through solid ice unimpeded. Kavik the Lesser had to squiggle his way through and was going to need healing for frostbitten hands once he was done.
The walls of the Blue Manse were intentionally opaque for privacy. But they weren’t perfect cover. While the corners offered the thickest ice for hiding in, someone passing close by might notice his presence. He could hear voices congregated toward the center of the ground floor, some kind of large gathering Qiu said would serve as a distraction.
It worked well enough. No one wandered over to his corner, and Kavik ascended through the first story without any problems. He paused for breath, crouching in the thick layer of ice that made up the first ceiling and the second floor, and thinned a portion of the ice to peek at the next stage.
There were people in the outer hallways this time. With the darkness of night behind him, and the light of oil lamps inside, he had a slight vision advantage. He could see about four or five blurs standing completely still, not talking. Were they waiting in line for something?
Suddenly a pair split off, tromping in sync down the hall, neither outpacing the other. Kavik would have banged his head against his tiny chamber had he not been afraid of breaking
through it. Those weren’t idle guests. Those were patrols.
Qiu, you bleeding hog-monkey. Kavik had been told the job was a light grab from a visiting bureaucrat, and there wouldn’t be any formal security. Now he was stuck between sky and earth, freezing his tailbone off, inches away from real soldiers and not goons for pay like Teiin’s. He had to wait until they were gone before he could move.
And he had to pick a direction. Up, and take the biggest risk he ever had as a runner. Down, and lose the lead he’d been working on for months.
Kavik was forced to burn more of his body’s time limit just sitting there, counting off the guard rotations for a window to move. His teeth began to chatter. Hard. When the next pair leaves. Not this pair. The next one.
As soon as their backs turned, he resumed his climb. By his best guess, he now had to move twice as fast as he was prepared to.
Cold trickles ran down the back of his neck. Sweat would have been bad enough, but this was runoff from the ice above. The freezing water made him want to scream. He had no choice but to endure it. The guards would be on their return leg now, and he was only a third of the way up.
He hurried and got wetter for his troubles. To make things worse, the glow of a hand lamp rounded the bend, someone he hadn’t accounted for. A servant fetching a drink or a snack.
The thought of being nabbed for such a stupid reason was too much to bear. Kavik scrabbled upward, throwing caution to the wind in the exact manner he promised himself he wouldn’t. By the time the lamp holder passed beneath him, he was tucked away inside the ice between the second and third floor, his knees pressed to his chin, drenched.
He might as well have plunged head-first into a turtle-seal’s breathing hole. There wasn’t enough space to dry himself with full-armed waterbending. In less than a minute, his muscles would stop moving, and then any sort of death would be free to take him. Proper freezing, suffocation. The floor under him could give out and he’d fall three stories.
He needed to get warm and dry immediately, and the nearest place he could was the room he was trying to break into. There was no other choice. If the occupants were still inside, he’d throw himself upon their mercy because the cold didn’t give a lick.
With a burst of desperation, Kavik brought his hands up and melted a small portal. He squirmed through and flopped onto the third floor like a landed fish, gasping for breath.
The first thing he did was whip the water off himself like it was a cloud of mosquito-leeches. He spotted a large oil lamp across the room and pushed himself over to it with his heels, hoping he could get close enough before he blacked out. Kavik had no other concern but the heat. At this point, if he got caught, he got caught.
But in the first bit of luck he’d had all night, no one interrupted his crawl for survival. The room was empty. Fate allowed the giant soapstone lamp to do its work, and blood slowly returned to Kavik’s extremities. Once he had the strength to raise his head, he looked around.
He was in the poshest quarters of the Blue Manse, that much was obvious. Rich wooden furniture harvested and shaped from continental trees. Walls insulated with foreign wool rugs.
Decorative plants that surely would have perished the instant they left the sanctuary of this floor. No furs though, strangely enough. Not a single scrap, when desirable hides and skins were one of the staple commodities of Bin-Er.
A desk topped with a giant slab of polished obsidian drew his eye. It held a messy pile of books and scrolls, stacks of correspondence. That was what Qiu had sent him for. Information. More valuable than gold in Bin-Er, if it came from the right people, and the magnificence of the room indicated the occupant was definitely the right sort of people.
Kavik got up and wobbled over to the desk, planting a hand on it for support. His orders were to make his way into this room and memorize anything that looked important, but his brain was barely working, and there was so much potential treasure here. The right document could be worth a hundred times its neighbors.
Might as well start with the ones being used. A large scroll had been spread out, its corners weighed down by books. A building plan of some sort. He couldn’t read the notes so he carefully removed the weights, noting how they lay so he could replace them, and held the paper up to the light.
The door opened. He lowered the scroll. A girl, about sixteen or seventeen like him, walked in with her eyes closed.
She wore several layers of orange and yellow robes and a damp towel hung around her shoulders. She flapped her hand at her face and the motion caused her long black hair to stream behind her, blown by an unseen wind. There was a small cut along her forehead, higher than her hairline would have normally been. The redness stood out on the wide blue arrow tattooed onto her scalp.
Nicked herself shaving, Kavik thought. An Air Nomad. Why would an Air Nomad be staying in the Blue Manse, which was normally reserved for—
The girl opened her eyes. They widened a little when she saw Kavik, but not by much. She stopped drying her hair and looked at the scroll in his hands. “Please don’t take that,” she said. “I haven’t finished studying it.”
Kavik swallowed. If he could open his mouth to speak, he might pray to the Moon and Ocean that this wasn’t actually happening, and he was imagining it all in his head. But the one human being who could intercede on his behalf with the spirits was the very person he’d burgled. She could swat down his pleas, leaving him a luckless forsaken husk.
He handed the scroll back. He could do nothing else.
“Thank you,” Avatar Yangchen said as she took the paper from him.
Adapted excerpt from the book Avatar, The Last Airbender: The Dawn of Yangchen (Chronicles of the Avatar Book 3) by F.C. Yee, published by Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams; ©2022.