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July 1, 2013
It was a quiet room. In the darkness of the night, the only source of illumination that crept through the windows was the reflected light of the moon. With no neighbors awake or aware, this desolate smoking room was the perfect enclosure for a private consultation. Patiently, the man near the window crossed his hands and relaxed his elbows on his sturdy wooden desk. Diverting his attention away from the disorganized pile of scrolls and scribbled paper notes, he now focused on the door opposite the window, staring and waiting.
A rasping knock echoed from the other side. "Enter," the man in the room instructed.
Slowly, the door was swung open and a tall, dark-skinned man in brown strode before his host. "I heard you had a job that needed to be done."
"Yes," confirmed the sitting man. "Ratana from the Terra Team is going on a mission to the Fire Nation, and I need to make sure that she doesn't return."
"I see," acknowledged his tall, rigid visitor. "How much are you willing to pay to ensure this?"
"I have set aside four hundred gold pieces for my contract."
"If this is Ratana of Gaipan you're speaking of, it'll cost at least five hundred to get the job done," the humble visitor in brown added carefully to the obscured man behind the desk.
"Fine," his host admitted. "Five hundred to set this job up."
The visitor in brown gritted his teeth uneasily, satisfied with his progress and wondering if he could push just a little farther. "Finding the right person to make arrangements with takes time and effort," he stated blandly. "And the person I do find to carry it out will not be someone you'd want to be associated with yourself, so it is a service I perform in and of itself. I should get just as much."
"Very well," the host agreed coolly as he six hundred gold pieces into a leather-woven pouch for his visitor. "Take a hundred for yourself, but not a bronze piece extra."
The visitor was satisfied by a fifth of his own asking cost. "You won't be disappointed."
"See that I'm not," the host added. "Or you'll be sorry."
The steamed passenger vessel was gradually ferrying its way across the wide channel that separated the western coast of the Earth Kingdom from the eastern coast of the Fire Nation. Ratana, still in disguise, looked on as adolescent boys stretched their necks over the railing, yearning to catch but a single glimpse of whatever magnificent sea creatures lurked the waters below. Not too far off was a fatter gentleman slobbering over his fired noodle dish, which was dripping stains onto his over shirt since he had not the sensibility to use a napkin. On the farther side of the deck, men, women and children of all ages mingled while the Terra Team member amongst them remained on her own and aloof.
Ratana admitted to herself that the passengers seemed peaceful enough at first glance, but she would not drop her guard even for a moment. After all, these were the same people who took her mother from her long ago. Equally as imprinted into her mind was what happened the day after it happened - the day that her life changed forever. Ratana remembered it well...
Lady Rang Xue of Munn met her untimely passing in the woods off the coastline near where the kingdom was based. With no one else present to guard her, she had been assaulted and murdered by hostile firebenders. News of the tragic event traveled fast, though the wave of condolence letters to her family that followed offered no support or comfort, save the thought behind them. This added a trace of dark irony to the air, as Rang Xue had always been one to say the thought behind gifts and greetings was what truly mattered, but it mattered little now to those she left behind in the physical world.
Indeed, neither Ratana nor Roshune were the least bit interested in reading any of the mail they received, which lay in a neglected and untouched pile by the entranceway to the family home. Ratana had just folded her arms and rested her head atop them when footsteps stirred her back from her own thoughts to the present.
"Anything more to report?" Roshune inquired stiffly as he descended the steps to the upper level and approached where his daughter sat.
"Nothing of note," Ratana responded dully. "Some of Mom's friends and acquaintances at court were wondering why she was alone out there."
"I suggested that one of the servants go with her," Roshune recalled, raising his voice. "Your mother preferred to go alone. There was no perceivable threat in the solidly Earth Kingdom-controlled area, so we saw no reason to consider there might be danger."
Ratana crossed her arms together and narrowed her eyes. "Why didn't you go with her?"
"As you well know, I had important business to attend to in Ba Sing Se!" Roshune bellowed fiercely. "It was the new Earth King's coronation."
The dissatisfied teenager before Roshune rolled her eyes at him. "Oh, please! It was a mere child being crowned the official figurehead of our nation. That's not a true change of power to be there for. The same advisors that were there before will now run the show behind the scenes."
Roshune waved a finger at her. "Don't be so rash, Ratana. Some of the newer officials have been harboring some pretentious ideas. For instance, the new cultural minister is a piece of work. He has grand plans for the capital; grander, perhaps, than we need."
"Was it worth it?" came the dry voice of the nobleman's daughter. "Was not missing the ceremony worth not being with Mother in the forest?"
Roshune's nostrils flared as he rounded on his insubordinate offspring. "Don't blame me for this. I grieve just as much as you do. You have no right to speak to your father in this way!"
Ratana was unmoved by this - in her mind, feeble - attempt at intimidation. "Please, Dad, who do you think you are to demand such respect of me? I've never been as close to you as I was with Mom! I also know that you would've preferred sons." After she had finished her sentence, it occurred to Ratana that this was the longest one-on-one conversation they had spoken in all her memory. Though she had once craved so much attention from Roshune, her feelings stiffened over the years and now it almost slipped her mind.
Simmering down, Roshune chose his next words carefully. "I won't argue with that because you're right on both counts," he told his daughter with harsh honesty. "But you and I are all each other have now. We may wish it were otherwise, but we both have to accept that and make the best of it."
"Wow," Ratana uttered with gawking disbelief as she broke eye contact from the estranged man she shared a household with. "How inspiring..."
"The thing is," Roshune went on, ignoring Ratana's comment. "I need you now."
"What do you mean?" Ratana inquired aggressively. Although she had no idea what he was referring to, she already knew she would not like what she heard.
"I must take you under my wing," Roshune let out with a deep sigh. "Ratana, I am going to train you to become a Dorunian Warrior."
Ratana raised both her dark eyebrows in disgust. "What? You can't be serious. Why don't you train any lad in the village? I'm sure that any of them would love to learn from you."
"You know as well as I do that I can't just train anyone to be a Dorunian Warrior. I can train anyone to be a great fighter, but I cannot teach just anyone the Dorunian tradition and induct them into our order. Only those of the bloodline are allowed. I was trained by my father, who was trained by his father, who was trained by his father, all the way back to-"
"Avatar Doru Kun," Ratana finished for him with the name of their distant ancestor. "Legendary master of the sword in addition to being master of all four elements."
"Exactly!" exclaimed Roshune. "It may not be ideal, but I suppose you'll have to do for this."
"I'm afraid not," Ratana shot back. "As I talked with Mom about, I plan to go to a proper earthbending academy now that I'm of age. My path lies elsewhere."
"You don't have a choice!" snapped Roshune, his hair shaking out of place. "I am your father and I am ordering you to submit yourself to my teachings! If you don't, our line will die out."
"Then your line will die out, Roshune," Ratana informed him. "You can't command me to do anything anymore." Just having celebrated her sixteenth birthday, Ratana was now officially an adult.
"If you will not do this for me, then I have no more use for you," countered the loathing Roshune.
"Nor I for you," said Ratana, unmoving and unflinching.
Marching over to the front of the entranceway, Roshune swung open the door to his manor to the unkind night air, dampening the front of his floor with countless wet rain droplets. "Begone."
- The new cultural minister in Ba Sing Se that Roshune refers to is Long Feng, with the child Earth King obviously referring to Kuei.
- Some of the lines and dialogue in this chapter were inspired by pieces in the Star Wars Expanded Universe.
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