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|A Good Impression|
October 6, 2014
Ba Sing Se provided the Avatar Hopefuls with a royal escort. A column of six badger moles flanked by Ba Sing Se infantry and ostrich-horse cavalry march down the Temple Road on their way to the city looming in the distance. Ba Sing Se's massive walls, the color of earth, stretch for miles beyond the distant horizon.
Atop the lead badger mole, the brothers are questioned by their carriage's other occupants.
"So what's the North like? All anybody hears is tales of outlaws and wild beasts." A girl across from Jaro asks wide-eyed and ready for an answer. Everyone in the carriage leans in to hear what Jaro and Kharum have to say. To them, the North is a mysterious and dangerous place. The lands surrounding the North succumbed to raids from the bandit haven the North used to be prior to the Marshals. Though raids continue to happen, they are far less frequent.
The two brothers look at each other before Kharum answers first. "Um...it's cold...and it-it snows...a lot." Kharum can feel the gaze of everyone in the carriage and slowly shrinks within himself.
Jaro jumps in to save his brother. "Yeah it's cold...so cold that no living thing can survive the night without taking shelter. Along the mountain roads, the bodies of unfortunate travelers are frozen in time." Jaro stands up in the carriage and pretends he's frozen in mid-step. Boff laughs while the others are a bit more gullible and soak it all in.
Kharum shakes his head. "That's not true - don't believe what he's saying."
Jaro unabashedly continues. "What are you talking about? Of course it's true," he says to his brother. Turning back to his audience, he adds to his narrative, "It's how our uncle died delivering supplies to the next village."
The carriage gasps. Boff continues to giggle. He doesn't know what's funnier: Jaro's inflated description or the gullibility of the other Hopefuls and their escorts.
Kharum drops his forehead into his hand in embarrassment. "We don't have an uncle."
Jaro whips his finger through the air. "Exactly!"
Kharum mumbles under his breath, "You're an idiot." Boff can't help but continue to laugh.
The badger mole rocks the carriage violently causing Jaro to fall back into his seat. Jaro is really enjoying himself. He has spent the past five days traveling with his brother, escorted by Marshals, attacked by thugs at an inn, and sleeping on hard ground. During that whole time he felt overshadowed by either his brother or better men. Finally, he gets the limelight back, because Kharum hates it, and he owns it.
"Well enough about me. Where you all from?"
After a few moments of silence, the girl across from Jaro speaks from beneath her conical hat. "Um...My name's Jun, and I'm from a port city just west of Omashu............." The girl looks up and smiles innocently not knowing what else to say, and who could after Jaro's fascinating tale.
The long, awkward pause eats at Jaro, and he breaks the silence. "Cool story." Everyone in the carriage chuckles.
Boff decides to speak up. "Well, I'm Boff and I'm from the city of Gaoling. I come from a long line of warrior earth benders. My father is currently serving in the Gaoling army fighting in the war."
An older gentleman, escorting his son and wearing the garments of an upper class citizen, chuckles and interrupts Boff. "He isn't protecting much then is he."
Boff is insulted and doesn't know what to say.
The Ba Sing Se man breaks out into a laugh, and the boy sitting next to him lowers his head into his chest. "All I can say is that the Avatar better not be some peasant from Gaoling or some outlaw from The North. I can at least respect Omashu, but the world would be a whole lot better if the Avatar were from Ba Sing Se." The man pats his son on the back, but the boy refuses to not look at his feet.
Jaro not knowing what else to say blurts out "Yeah...well...you're stupid."
"Hahaha...Listen kid, you're 'Severnyy' is nothing but an ant compared to the might of Ba Sing Se. The North has caused nothing but trouble for the rest of the Earth Kingdom for thousands of years. When Ba Sing Se reunites the Earth Kingdom, I hope we wipe the stain of the North from the history books."
The Ba Sing Se man's words have been eating at Kharum. The total disrespect for his home has infuriated Kharum and his breathing becomes heavier. His hands start to shake as all the air around him is drawn to him. The Ba Sing Se man and the rest of the carriage start coughing, struggling for breath.
Jaro looks to his brother whose unwavering eyes are in total focus. Jaro reaches down and grabs Kharum's hand. A pain surges in Jaro's hand unlike any pain he's ever felt. He can feel the muscles and bones in his hand fight the crushing weight of the gathering atmosphere around Kharum, but, as quickly as it began, it was over. Kharum snaps out of it and air returns to the other occupants.
"What was – cough – that? Cough." The Ba Sing Se man looks around the carriage seeking an answer, but everyone else is just as perplexed.
Jaro lets go of his brother's hand. He examines his now numb hand as the blood returns to the tips of his fingers. Looking to his silent brother, he can only imagine the amount of pain that Kharum has to endure to perform their grandfather's air bending.
The lands of Ba Sing Se, from the base of its mighty wall to as far as the eye can see, are some of the richest and most fertile found in the world. Farms, as numerous as the stars, have begun planting their crops to feed the massive city of millions. The city's wall, towering high in the air, not only safeguards the city but is a visible symbol of Ba Sing Se's strength. Built millennia ago to defend against the Bandit Army of the North, it continues its duty in the current war against Omashu, Taku, and Gaoling.
As the badger moles pass through the outer gates of Ba Sing Se, the Hopefuls are greeted by an entire city in celebration. An army of soldiers line the streets keeping the crowds of the lower ring away from the Hopefuls as the badger moles parade down the main highway to the palace. Left and right, people cheer; they cheer even louder for the Hopefuls who are from Ba Sing Se.
The hour long procession takes the Hopefuls down the main city road and up through each of the city's levels: the lower ring, the middle ring, and the upper ring. As they near the Palace, the Hopefuls can see Royal Guards at their posts on the Palace walls and at the gate. Upon entering the Palace Courtyard, the badger moles line up in a row with the exits of the carriages all facing toward the massive flight of stairs leading up to the Palace doors.
The Hopefuls and their company exit the carriages and wait at the base of the staircase where the Emissary stands over them. "Before the feast can begin, the King wishes that each of you is taken care of. The bath house is open to you as well as the city's finest tailors. This is to be a feast to remember and so..." The Emissary eyes Boff's raggedy clothing. "You must dress the part."
The Emissary claps his hand and gestures everyone up the stairs. Awaiting the Hopefuls at the top, stand a large number of servants ready to pamper the Hopefuls before the feast.
Hours later, a clean Kharum and Jaro stand outside the bath house in uncomfortable green, gold, and black robes. Kharum continually runs his hands through his gelled down hair trying his best to mess it up but to no avail. "Why did I decide to come with you again?"
Jaro, his hair pulled up in an attempted top knot, is enjoying himself wearing the fancy clothes. "Because you're a good person...Hehe check it out." Jaro folds his hands together while covering them with his sleeves. He then bows to Kharum as if he were bowing to a dignitary. "Good evening, my lord hehe."
Kharum shakes his head and leans against the wall behind him. "You really don't stop, do you?"
Jaro grins. "Nope. Not when I'm awake."
Down the hall from the brothers, the slide doors to the bath house open and a group of Hopefuls and their company exit all dressed up. A boy wearing similar robes to Jaro heads in the direction of the brothers. The boy waves at the two and greets them.
"Hey, what's up?"
Jaro puzzled why this kid is approaching him, greets him anyway. "Nothing much....Can we help you?"
The boy's face exhibits confusion. "Guys it's me." Jaro and Kharum look at each other with raised eyebrows then turn back at the boy. "It's me...Boff."
The brothers look at each other again. Jaro and Kharum burst out laughing not believing what they are seeing. Boff is no longer the dirt-covered, rag-wearing kid that the brothers remember. In front of them now stands a cleaned up, handsome young man that no one would guess is amongst the poorest in Gaoling.
Boff can't help but smile with the brothers' laughter. "What?"
Jaro wipes a tear from his eye before answering. "Man, you clean up good. You look nothing like you did an hour ago."
"Yeah, I know. I've had places cleaned that I don't think I've ever cleaned before. I'd hate to be rich if I was supposed to clean up and dress like this all the time." Boff tugs at his sleeves. "I feel like I'm wearing a board."
"Hahahaha Karma will probably get ya now and make you the richest man in the world," chuckles Jaro.
"Are you kidding me? The day that I sit on a toilet made of solid gold is the day pigs fly."
The three laugh when in the distance a gong is rung. Kharum gets up from leaning against the wall. "I guess it's time for dinner."
Kharum, Jaro, and Boff join the other Hopefuls and their guests gathered outside the throne room. Two massive doors decorated in green and gold stand shut before everyone. Two guards, dressed in the green studded-leather armor of Ba Sing Se, stand with spear in hand in front of each door. Everyone has been well-taken care of by their Ba Sing Se hosts. The men and boys are all dressed in similar green robes to the brothers with slight variances according to their homeland. The women and girls wear extravagant green dresses decorated heavily in golden flowers. It is obvious to everyone that the King is trying to make a good first impression.
Jaro, eyeing one of the female Hopefuls, leans over to his brother, "Look at her, ain't she pretty."
Kharum shifts his gaze over at the cute-faced Omashu girl wearing her dark hair in a loose bun. "Don't even try. She's out of your league."
Jaro, not liking his brother's response, slides closer to Boff and leans over. "Check her out."
Boff, who has been looking at the ceiling, curiously eyes at the girl Jaro pointed out. "You don't have a chance, bro."
"What? Why not?"
"Because I'm going to take it." And just like that, Boff slips away in a flash.
Jaro is in complete disbelief that his friend just did that. He watches from afar as Boff moves ever closer to the cute Hopeful girl. Before Jaro knows it, Boff has begun the small talk. Jaro's jealousy grows as he sees her giggle and laugh.
Kharum startles his outraged brother as he too watches Boff. "Who would have thought that kid would have game?"
Jaro slowly turns to his brother. "Don't even..."
Kharum laughs and, as if on cue, the girl's mother appears behind Boff and runs him off. The bear of a woman then spots Jaro and Kharum, and, giving them the stare of death, drags her forefinger across her throat. The two brothers quickly look away.
Boff returns to the brothers saying, "Well that was scary." The three laugh.
The hall is then silenced as one of the guards slams the butt of his spear into the ground. The giant doors begin to creak open to the throne room to reveal a massive hall lined with tables full of food, bustling with servants, and blaring with music from a string quartet. The Emissary of Ba Sing Se, who has been waiting behind the doors, bows to the Hopefuls and beckons everyone inside. "Welcome to the feast in your honor."
The group of well dressed Hopefuls and their escorts flood into the room hungry with anticipation and starvation. On the left side of the room sits a stage where Geisha dancers perform traditional Ba Sing Se dances to the music of the stringed quartet playing behind them. At the far end of the hall, on an elevated platform, is the throne of the King. Currently it sits empty but two royal guards still stand watch at the base of the stairs leading up to the King's seat.
Jaro's first moves in to the hall lead him straight for the tables chock-full of food. Pausing for a moment at the head of the table, he eyes down the length of the table at the glorious dishes that await him. Roast duck, roast pork, roast beef, endless bowls of noodles, steaming hot vegetables, gigantic bouquets of fruit, pastries, pies...Grrrrroooooowwwwllll. Jaro's stomach rumbles, pleading to be filled.
"Hungry?" Kharum asks as he fills a plate full of food.
Jaro wipes the drool from the corner of his mouth. "Have you ever seen anything more glorious? I don't know where to begin."
"Um...how about this?" Kharum hands his younger brother a bowl full of the steamed vegetables. Kharum notices the repulsive look on his brother's face. "What? Mom always said to eat your vegetables."
Jaro ungraciously takes the bowl from Kharum, and takes a bite. "Hey, where's your vegetables?"
Kharum raises an eyebrow as he finishes slurping down some noodles. "I'm a hunter, not a gatherer." Smiling at his brother, Kharum takes another bite of noodles and walks away.
Dissatisfied with his bowl of vegetables, Jaro begrudgingly eats the dish. Every mouthful is a battle to swallow. He gives up on his vegetables and hides the bowl behind an Earth Kingdom banner. Whistling to himself, he backs away as if leaving a crime scene. Wandering through the crowd, Jaro searches for his brother. Where are y—
"Oh, excuse me." Jaro apologizes accidentally bumping into a red-dressed man.
"The comet is coming soon. What is he waiting –" A burly, man dressed in red and gold turns to the shrinking sixteen-year old Hopeful. The man's shaven head tattooed in red and adorned with gold earrings and nose rings puts fear straight into Jaro's heart. His counterpart is equally as terrifying wearing a golden headdress adorned with black feathers to match his red and black robes.
The two men growl at Jaro to back off, and he happily obliges. To his relief, a gong is rung and echoes throughout the hall calling for everyone's attention. Immediately, Jaro bolts away. Working his way through the crowded hall, he finally finds his brother looking in the direction of the throne.
"Kharum, why'd you -"
"Shhh-" Jaro's brother nods in the direction of the throne where the emissary stands next to the King's seat.
The entire hall is silent awaiting the King's announcement into the chamber. With a booming voice that echoes throughout the chamber, the Emissary announces, "Qin, King of Ba Sing Se and brother to the people of the Earth Kingdom."
With that announcement, from the giant doors at the entrance to the hall, the King enters the room flanked by four royal guards. Kharum notices a sixth man, hooded and cloaked, enter the room after the King and standing just inside the doorway. A quick shimmer of light glints from underneath the hood as the man disappears from Kharum's view through the crowd.
The King working his way down the middle of the hall, politely greets everyone along the way. Jaro moves closer to the King so he too can be greeted. King Qin is a middle-aged man, wearing long, simple green robes with the earth bending symbol plastered on his chest. Around his neck, he wears a golden trinket passed down from king to king. Jaro stands upright when the King nears him. Upon reaching Jaro, the man bows his head to Jaro, at which point Jaro bows lower in respect, and the King smiles at him. "It is good to see our northern brothers here."
Jaro beams, feeling proud of his heritage as the King has acknowledged it. As the King moves on, Jaro recalls the Marshal Captain's warning: Do not trust the man. Jaro can't help but to think, what's so bad about this guy? Heading back to Kharum, Jaro looks over to see the King making his way up the stairs to his throne.
"That guy seems pretty cool."
Kharum, arms crossed, raises an eyebrow. "You already forgettin' the Marshal's warning."
"No...I'm just not being too quick to judge."
"A word of advice...don't trust anyone 'til they've earned your trust." Kharum's warning from the Captain is the only thing on his mind.
Jaro and Kharum refocus their attention on the King as he stands at the throne facing the crowd in the hall. King Qin stands tall, hands behind his back, as he analyzes the crowd from his heightened position. His gentle face smiles as he begins his speech. "I wish to welcome you all to Ba Sing Se where we are all brothers and sisters sharing in the struggles of life's great journey...The next couple days will be momentous for we will finally have a new Avatar to bring peace to the world...I too wish to see an end to the bloodshed that ravages our Earth Kingdom pitting brothers to fight brothers."
Kharum can't help but hear the well-rehearsed tone behind the words. Every sentence spoken as an actor would speak it in a play rather than a man who truly believed what he was saying. Looking around, Kharum also notices the cringed faces of some of the Omashu, Gaoling, and Taku Hopefuls' older escorts as they try in vain to take Qin's words at face value. This man declared war on them not the other way around.
Jaro, however, hears inspiring words that he too can agree with. Why would anyone disagree with this guy?
"Being King for the past two decades, I have learned many things and regret a great many others. That is why, upon the announcement of the Avatar, I offer my aid to the Avatar to end the conflict. All of Ba Sing Se will support the Avatar in any and every way possible. Let us end the inhumanity together and bring the world into a new age."
Everyone in the hall of Ba Sing Se and those more lenient to Ba Sing Se applaud the King's words with enthusiasm. Jaro, too, even claps. All of those from Omashu, along with Kharum and a few others from Gaoling and Taku, stand in silent protest.
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